Jeremiah Anderson was free. He had been free for ten years, and he was proud of it. He had been proud of it from the beginning, and that was the reason that he was one of the first to cast off the bonds of his old relations, and move from the plantation and take up land for himself. He was anxious to cut himself off from all that bound him to his former life. So strong was this feeling in him that he would not consent to stay on and work for his one-time owner even for a full wage.
To the proposition of the planter and the gibes of some of his more dependent fellows he answered, “No, suh, I’s free, an’ I sholy is able to tek keer o’ myse’f. I done been fattenin’ frogs fu’ othah people’s snakes too long now.”
“But, Jerry,” said Samuel Brabant, “I don’t mean you any harm. The thing’s done. You don’t belong to me any more, but naturally, I take an interest in you, and want to do what I can to give you a start. It’s more than the Northern government has done for you, although such wise men ought to know that you have had no training in caring for yourselves.”
There was a slight sneer in the Southerner’s voice. Jerry perceived it and thought it directed against him. Instantly his pride rose and his neck stiffened.
“Nemmine me,” he answered, “nemmine me. I’s free, an’ w’en a man’s free, he’s free.”
“All right, go your own way. You may have to come back to me some time. If you have to come, come. I don’t blame you now. It must be a great thing to you, this dream–this nightmare.” Jerry looked at him. “Oh, it isn’t a nightmare now, but some day, maybe, it will be, then come to me.”
The master turned away from the newly made freeman, and Jerry went forth into the world which was henceforth to be his. He took with him his few belongings; these largely represented by his wife and four lusty-eating children. Besides, he owned a little money, which he had got working for others when his master’s task was done. Thus, bur’dened and equipped, he set out to tempt Fortune.
He might do one of two things–farm land upon shares for one of his short-handed neighbours, or buy a farm, mortgage it, and pay for it as he could. As was natural for Jerry, and not uncommendable, he chose at once the latter course, bargained for his twenty acres–for land was cheap then, bought his mule, built his cabin, and set up his household goods.
Now, slavery may give a man the habit of work, but it cannot imbue him with the natural thrift that long years of self-dependence brings. There were times when Jerry’s freedom tugged too strongly at his easy inclination, drawing him away to idle when he should have toiled. What was the use of freedom, asked an inward voice, if one might not rest when one would? If he might not stop midway the furrow to listen and laugh at a droll story or tell one? If he might not go a-fishing when all the forces of nature invited and the jay-bird called from the tree and gave forth saucy banter like the fiery, blue shrew that she was?
There were times when his compunction held Jerry to his task, but more often he turned an end furrow and laid his misgivings snugly under it and was away to the woods or the creek. There was joy and a loaf for the present. What more could he ask?
The first year Fortune laughed at him, and her laugh is very different from her smile. She sent the swift rains to wash up the new planted seed, and the hungry birds to devour them. She sent the fierce sun to scorch the young crops, and the clinging weeds to hug the fresh greenness of his hope to death. She sent–cruellest jest of all–another baby to be fed, and so weakened Cindy Ann that for many days she could not work beside her husband in the fields.