It never occurred to any person to wonder what would befall Gilma now that “le vieux Gamiche” was dead. After the burial people went their several ways, some to talk over the old man and his eccentricities, others to forget him before nightfall, and others to wonder what would become of his very nice property, the hundred-acre farm on which he had lived for thirty years, and on which he had just died at the age of seventy.
If Gilma had been a child, more than one motherly heart would have gone out to him. This one and that one would have bethought them of carrying him home with them; to concern themselves with his present comfort, if not his future welfare. But Gilma was not a child. He was a strapping fellow of nineteen, measuring six feet in his stockings, and as strong as any healthy youth need be. For ten years he had lived there on the plantation with Monsieur Gamiche; and he seemed now to have been the only one with tears to shed at the old man’s funeral.
Gamiche’s relatives had come down from Caddo in a wagon the day after his death, and had settled themselves in his house. There was Septime, his nephew, a cripple, so horribly afflicted that it was distressing to look at him. And there was Septime’s widowed sister, Ma’me Brozé, with her two little girls. They had remained at the house during the burial, and Gilma found them still there upon his return.
The young man went at once to his room to seek a moment’s repose. He had lost much sleep during Monsieur Gamiche’s illness; yet, he was in fact more worn by the mental than the bodily strain of the past week.
But when he entered his room, there was something so changed in its aspect that it seemed no longer to belong to him. In place of his own apparel which he had left hanging on the row of pegs, there were a few shabby little garments and two battered straw hats, the property of the Brozé children. The bureau drawers were empty, there was not a vestige of anything belonging to him remaining in the room. His first impression was that Ma’me Brozé had been changing things around and had assigned him to some other room.
But Gilma understood the situation better when he discovered every scrap of his personal effects piled up on a bench outside the door, on the back or “false” gallery. His boots and shoes were under the bench, while coats, trousers and underwear were heaped in an indiscriminate mass together.
The blood mounted to his swarthy face and made him look for the moment like an Indian. He had never thought of this. He did not know what he had been thinking of; but he felt that he ought to have been prepared for anything; and it was his own fault if he was not. But it hurt. This spot was “home” to him against the rest of the world. Every tree, every shrub was a friend; he knew every patch in the fences; and the little old house, gray and weather-beaten, that had been the shelter of his youth, he loved as only few can love inanimate things. A great enmity arose in him against Ma’me Brozé. She was walking about the yard, with her nose in the air, and a shabby black dress trailing behind her. She held the little girls by the hand.
Gilma could think of nothing better to do than to mount his horse and ride away – anywhere. The horse was a spirited animal of great value. Monsieur Gamiche had named him “Jupiter” on account of his proud bearing, and Gilma had nicknamed him “Jupe,” which seemed to him more endearing and expressive of his great attachment to the fine creature. With the bitter resentment of youth, he felt that “Jupe” was the only friend remaining to him on earth.
He had thrust a few pieces of clothing in his saddlebags and had requested Ma’me Brozé, with assumed indifference, to put his remaining effects in a place of safety until he should be able to send for them.
As he rode around by the front of the house, Septime, who sat on the gallery all doubled up in his uncle Gamiche’s big chair, called out:
“He, Gilma! w’ere you boun’ fo’?”
“I’m goin’ away,” replied Gilma, curtly, reining his horse.
“That’s all right; but I reckon you might jus’ as well leave that hoss behine you.”
“The hoss is mine,” returned Gilma, as quickly as he would have returned a blow.
“We’ll see ’bout that li’le later, my frien’. I reckon you jus’ well turn ‘im loose.”
Gilma had no more intention of giving up his horse than he had of parting with his own right hand. But Monsieur Gamiche had taught him prudence and respect for the law. He did not wish to invite disagreeable complications. So, controlling his temper by a supreme effort, Gilma dismounted, unsaddled the horse then and there, and led it back to the stable. But as he started to leave the place on foot, he stopped to say to Septime:
“You know, Mr. Septime, that hoss is mine; I can collec’ a hundred aff’davits to prove it. I’ll bring them yere in a few days with a statement f’om a lawyer; an’ I’ll expec’ the hoss an’ saddle to be turned over to me in good condition.”
“That’s all right. We’ll see ’bout that. Won’t you stay fo’ dinna?”
“No, I thank you, sah; Ma’me Brozé already ask’ me.” And Gilma strode away, down the beaten footpath that led across the sloping grassplot toward the outer road.
A definite destination and a settled purpose ahead of him seemed to have revived his flagging energies of an hour before. It was with no trace of fatigue that he stepped out bravely along the wagon-road that skirted the bayou.
It was early spring, and the cotton had already a good stand. In some places the negroes were hoeing. Gilma stopped alongside the rail fence and called to an old negress who was plying her hoe at no great distance.
“Hello, Aunt Hal’fax! see yere.”
She turned, and immediately quitted her work to go and join him,, bringing her hoe with her across her shoulder. She was large- boned and very black. She was dressed in the deshabille of the field.
“I wish you’d come up to yo’ cabin with me a minute, Aunt Hally,” he said; “I want to get an aff’davit f’om you.”
She understood, after a fashion, what an affidavit was; but she couldn’t see the good of it.
“I ain’t got no aff’davis, boy; you g’long an’ don’ pesta me.”
” ‘Twon’t take you any time, Aunt Hal’fax. I jus’ want you to put yo’ mark to a statement I’m goin’ to write to the effec’ that my hoss, Jupe, is my own prop’ty; that you know it, an’ willin’ to swear to it.”
“Who say Jupe don’ b’long to you?” she questioned cautiously, leaning on her hoe.
He motioned toward the house.
“Who? Mista Septime and them?”
“Well, I reckon!” she exclaimed, sympathetically.
“That’s it,” Gilma went on; “an’ nex’ thing they’ll be sayin’ yo’ ole mule, Policy, don’t b’long to you.”
She started violently.
“Who say so?”
“Nobody. But I say, nex’ thing, that’ w’at they’ll be sayin’.”
She began to move along the inside of the fence, and he turned to keep pace with her, walking on the grassy edge of the road.
“I’ll jus’ write the aff’davit, Aunt Hally, an’ all you got to do” –
“You know des well as me dat mule mine. I done paid ole Mista Gamiche fo’ ‘im in good cotton; dat year you falled outen de puckhorn tree; an’ he write it down hisse’f in his ‘count book.”
Gilma did not linger a moment after obtaining the desired statement from Aunt Halifax. With the first of those “hundred affidavits” that he hoped to secure, safe in his pocket, he struck out across the country, seeking the shortest way to town.
Aunt Halifax stayed in the cabin door.
“‘Relius,” she shouted to a little black boy out in the road, “does you see Pol’cy anywhar? G’long, see ef he ‘roun’ de ben’. Wouldn’ s’prise me ef he broke de fence an’ got in yo’ pa’s corn ag’in.” And, shading her eyes to scan the surrounding country, she muttered, uneasily: “Whar dat mule?”
The following morning Gilma entered town and proceeded at once to Lawyer Paxton’s office. He had had no difficulty in obtaining the testimony of blacks and whites regarding his ownership of the horse; but he wanted to make his claim as secure as possible by consulting the lawyer and returning to the plantation armed with unassailable evidence.
The lawyer’s office was a plain little room opening upon the street. Nobody was there, but the door was open; and Gilma entered and took a seat at the bare round table and waited. It was not long before the lawyer came in; he had been in conversation with some one across the street.
“Good-morning, Mr. Pax’on,” said Gilma, rising.
The lawyer knew his face well enough, but could not place him, and only returned: “Good-morning, sir – good-morning.”
“I come to see you,” began Gilma plunging at once into business, and drawing his handful of nondescript affidavits from his pocket, “about a matter of prope’ty, about regaining possession of my hoss that Mr. Septime, ole Mr. Gamiche’s nephew, is holdin’ f’om me yonder.”
The lawyer took the papers and, adjusting his eye-glasses, began to look them through.
“Yes, yes,” he said; “I see.”
“Since Mr. Gamiche died on Tuesday” – began Gilma.
“Gamiche died!” repeated Lawyer Paxton, with astonishment. “Why, you don’t mean to tell me that vieux Gamiche is dead? Well, well. I hadn’t heard of it; I just returned from Shreveport this morning. So le vieux Gamiche is dead, is he? And you say you want to get possession of a horse. What did you say your name was?” drawing a pencil from his pocket.
“Gilma Germain is my name, suh.”
“Gilma Germain,” repeated the lawyer, a little meditatively, scanning his visitor closely. “Yes, I recall your face now. You are the young fellow whom le vieux Gamiche took to live with him some ten or twelve years ago.”
“Ten years ago las’ November, suh.”
Lawyer Paxton arose and went to his safe, from which, after unlocking it, he took a legal-looking document that he proceeded to read carefully through to himself.
“Well, Mr. Germain, I reckon there won’t be any trouble about regaining possession of the horse,” laughed Lawyer Paxton. “I’m pleased to inform you, my dear sir, that our old friend, Gamiche, has made you sole heir to his property; that is, his plantation, including live stock, farming implements, machinery, household effects, etc. Quite a pretty piece of property,” he proclaimed leisurely, seating himself comfortably for a long talk. “And I may add, a pretty piece of luck, Mr. Germain, for a young fellow just starting out in life; nothing but to step into a dead man’s shoes! A great chance – great chance. Do you know, sir, the moment you mentioned your name, it came back to me like a flash, how le vieux Gamiche came in here one day, about three years ago, and wanted to make his will” – And the loquacious lawyer went on with his reminiscences and interesting bits of information, of which Gilma heard scarcely a word.
He was stunned, drunk, with the sudden joy of possession; the thought of what seemed to him great wealth, all his own – his own! It seemed as if a hundred different sensations were holding him at once, and as if a thousand intentions crowded upon him. He felt like another being who would have to readjust himself to the new conditions, presenting themselves so unexpectedly. The narrow confines of the office were stifling, and it seemed as if the lawyer’s flow of talk would never stop. Gilma arose abruptly, and with a half-uttered apology, plunged from the room into the outer air.
Two days later Gilma stopped again before Aunt Halifax’s cabin, on his way back to the plantation. He was walking as before, having declined to avail himself of any one of the several offers of a mount that had been tendered him in town and on the way. A rumor of Gilma’s great good fortune had preceded him, and Aunt Halifax greeted him with an almost triumphal shout as he approached.
“God knows you deserve it, Mista Gilma! De Lord knows you does, suh! Come in an’ res’ yo’se’f, suh. You, ‘Relius! git out dis heah cabin; crowdin’ up dat away!” She wiped off the best chair available and offered it to Gilma.
He was glad to rest himself and glad to accept Aunt Halifax’s proffer of a cup of coffee, which she was in the act of dripping before a small fire. He sat as far as he could from the fire, for the day was warm; he mopped his face, and fanned himself with his broad-rimmed hat.
“I des’ can’t he’p laughin’ w’en I thinks ’bout it,” said the old woman, fairly shaking, as she leaned over the hearth. “I wakes up in de night, even, an’ has to laugh.”
“How’s that, Aunt Hal’fax,” asked Gilma, almost tempted to laugh himself at he knew not what.
“G’long, Mista Gilma! like you don’ know! It’s w’en I thinks ’bout Septime an’ them like I gwine see ’em in dat wagon to-mor’ mo’nin’, on’ dey way back to Caddo. Oh, lawsy!”
“That isn’ so ver’ funny, Aunt Hal’fax,” returned Gilma, feeling himself ill at ease as he accepted the cup of coffee which she presented to him with much ceremony on a platter. “I feel pretty sorry for Septime, myse’f.”
“I reckon he know now who Jupe b’long to,” she went on, ignoring his expression of sympathy; “no need to tell him who Pol’cy b’long to, nuther. An’ I tell you, Mista Gilma,” she went on, leaning upon the table without seating herself, “dey gwine back to hard times in Caddo. I heah tell dey nuva gits ‘nough to eat, yonda. Septime, he can’t do nuttin’ ‘cep’ set still all twis’ up like a sarpint. An’ Ma’me Brozé, she do some kine sewin’; but don’t look like she got sense ‘nough to do dat halfway. An’ dem li’le gals, dey ‘bleege to run bar’foot mos’ all las’ winta’, twell dat li’les’ gal, she got her heel plum fros’ bit, so dey tells me. Oh, lawsy! How dey gwine look to-mor’, all trapsin’ back to Caddo!”
Gilma had never found Aunt Halifax’s company so intensely disagreeable as at that moment. He thanked her for the coffee, and went away so suddenly as to startle her. But her good humor never flagged. She called out to him from the doorway:
“Oh, Mista Gilma! You reckon dey knows who Pol’cy b’longs to now?”
He somehow did not feel quite prepared to face Septime; and he lingered along the road. He even stopped a while to rest, apparently, under the shade of a huge cottonwood tree that overhung the bayou. From the very first, a subtle uneasiness, a self-dissatisfaction had mingled with his elation, and he was trying to discover what it meant.
To begin with, the straightforwardness of his own nature had inwardly resented the sudden change in the bearing of most people toward himself. He was trying to recall, too, something which the lawyer had said; a little phrase, out of that multitude of words, that had fallen in his consciousness. It had stayed there, generating a little festering sore place that was beginning to make itself irritatingly felt. What was it, that little phrase? Something about – in his excitement he had only half heard it – something about dead men’s shoes.
The exuberant health and strength of his big body; the courage, virility, endurance of his whole nature revolted against the expression in itself, and the meaning which it conveyed to him. Dead men’s shoes! Were they not for such afflicted beings as Septime? as that helpless, dependent woman up there? as those two little ones, with their poorly fed, poorly clad bodies and sweet, appealing eyes? Yet he could not determine how he would act and what he would say to them.
But there was no room left in his heart for hesitancy when he came to face the group. Septime was still crouched in his uncle’s chair; he seemed never to have left it since the day of the funeral. Ma’me Brozé had been crying, and so had the children – out of sympathy, perhaps.
“Mr. Septime,” said Gilma, approaching, “I brought those aff’davits about the hoss. I hope you about made up yo’ mind to turn it over without further trouble.”
Septime was trembling, bewildered, almost speechless.
“W’at you mean?” he faltered, looking up with a shifting, sideward glance. “The whole place b’longs to you. You tryin’ to make a fool out o’ me?”
“Fo’ me,” returned Gilma, “the place can stay with Mr. Gamiche’s own flesh an’ blood. I’ll see Mr. Pax’on again an’ make that according to the law. But I want my hoss.”
Gilma took something besides his horse – a picture of le vieux Gamiche, which had stood on his mantelpiece. He thrust it into his pocket. He also took his old benefactor’s walking-stick and a gun.
As he rode out of the gate, mounted upon his well-beloved “Jupe,” the faithful dog following, Gilma felt as if he had awakened from an intoxicating but depressing dream.