Yes, the gov’mint men with the blue uniforms and the shiny brass buttons had descended from the North on Athens—descended in spite of the double-barrelled cannon that the little master and the little master’s men had tried on them. The blue clad invaders had come in despite of the quick breast-works, and the new-fangled cannon, and Bob Toombs boast that he “could beat the damn Yankees with corn-stalks before breakfast”. (If only they had fought that way—if only they had [HW: not] needed grape-shot had enough to invent cannon mouths that spoke at the same time and were meant to mow down men with a long chain—if only they had not been able to fight long after Bull Run, and after breakfast!)
Yes, the Yankees had come over the classic hills of Athens (Athens that had so many hills that she would have been named Rome except for her first land-grant college,) had left, and had come again to stay, and to bring freedom to John Cole and his kind.
This was six months after Lee and his palandins had laid down the sword—the gallant, the unstained (but, alas, claimed Meade’s batteries) the unconstitutional sword. Six months had gone and freedom had come.
But John Cole, slave of Henry Hull, the banker, found that his freedom was the freedom of “the big oak”—Athens famed tree-that-owns-itself. He was free, but he had no way to go anywhere. He was rooted in the soil and would stay fast rooted. He worked on with his master for 20 years, without pay.
Did he believe, back in slavery time in “signs” and in “sayings”—that the itching foot meant the journey to new lands—that the hound’s midnight threnody meant murder?
No, when he was a young buck and had managed the bad horses, he had had no such beliefs. No, he was not superstitious. If the foot itched something ought to be put on it (or taken off it)—and as to the hounds yelping, nobody ever knew what dark-time foolishness a hound-dog might be up to.
But he was old, now. Death always comes in the afternoon. He does believe in things that have been proved. He does believe that a squinch-owl’s screeching ("V-o-o-o-d-o-o! W-h-o-o-o? Y-ou-u!”) is a sure sign of death. Lowing of a cow in afternoon Georgia meadows means death mighty close. If death come down to a house, better stop clock and put white cloth on mirrors. No loud talking permitted. Better for any nigger to bow low down to death....
To what factors did he attribute his long life, queried the gov’mint man.
Long living came from leaving off smoking and drinking.
Would he have a nickle cigar?
Yes, he was feeling quite tol’able, thank you. But he believed now in the owl and the cow and the clock.
In the morning-time one lives, but death always come
in the afternoon.
Better for any nigger, anywhere, to bow low down to death.