The "cook-house" stood at some little distance from the "big house," and every evening after supper it was full of light and noise and laughter. The light came from the fire on the huge hearth, above which hung the crane and the great iron pots which Eliza, the cook, declared were indispensable in the practice of her art. To be sure, there was a cook-stove, but 'Liza was wedded to old ways and maintained there was nothing "stove cooked" that could hope to rival the rich and nutty flavor of ash cake, or greens "b'iled slow an' long over de ha'th, wid a piece er bacon in de pot."
The noise and laughter came from a circle of dusky and admiring friends, for Aunt 'Liza was a great favorite with everybody on the plantation, and though hunchbacked and homely, had, nevertheless, had her pick, as she was fond of boasting, of the likeliest looking men on the place; and though she had been twice wedded and twice widowed, aspirants were not wanting for the position now vacant for a third time. Indeed, not long before, a member of the family, on going to the cook-house to see why dinner was so late, had discovered one Sam, the burly young ox-cart driver, on his knees, pleading very earnestly with the elderly and humpbacked little cook, while dinner simmered on and on, unnoticed and forgotten. When remonstrated with she said that she was "'bleeged ter have co'tin' times ez well ez de res' er folks," and intimated that in affairs of the heart these things were apt to happen at any time or place, and that if a gentleman chose an inopportune moment "'twan't her fault," and no one could, with any show of reason, expect her not to pay attention to him. She ruled everybody, her white folks included, though just how she did it no one could say, unless she was one of those commanding spirits and born leaders who sometimes appear even in the humblest walks of life. It is possible that her uncommonly strong will compelled the affections of her male admirers, but it is also possible that she condescended to flatter, and it is certain that she fed them well.
One night, between supper and bedtime, the children heard the sound of a banjo proceeding from the cook-house. They had never ventured into Aunt 'Liza's domain before, but the plinketty-plunk of the banjo, the sound of patting and the thud of feet keeping time to the music drew them irresistibly. Aunt Nancy was there, in the circle about the embers, as was also her old-time foe, Aunt 'Phrony, and the banjo was in the hands of Tim, a plow-boy, celebrated as being the best picker for miles around. Lastly, there were Aunt 'Liza and her latest conquest, Sam, whose hopes she could not have entirely quenched or he would not have beamed so complacently on the assembled company.
There was a hush as the three little heads appeared in the doorway, but the children begged them to go on, and so Tim picked away for dear life and Sam did a wonderful double-shuffle with the pigeon-wing thrown in. Then Tim sang a plantation song about "Cindy Ann" that ran something like this:
At the reference to a "widdy" he winked at the others and looked significantly at Sam and Aunt 'Liza. Then he declared it was the turn of the ladies to amuse the gentlemen. Aunt Nancy and Aunt 'Phrony cried, "Hysh! Go 'way, man! W'at ken we-all do? Done too ol' fer foolishness; leave dat ter de gals!" But 'Liza was not inclined to leave the entertainment of gentlemen to "gals," whom she declared to be, for the most part, "wu'fless trunnel-baid trash."
"Come, come, Sis' 'Phrony, an' you, too, Sis' Nancy," said she, "you knows dar ain' nu'rr pusson on de place kin beat you bofe in der marter uv tellin' tales. I ain' nuver have de knack myse'f, but I knows a good tale w'en I years hit, an' I bin gittin' myse'f fixed fer one uver sence you comed in."
The children added their petitions, seconded by Tim and Sam. Aunt Nancy looked as if she were feeling around in the dusk of half-forgotten things for a dimly remembered story, perceiving which the nimbler-witted Aunt 'Phrony made haste to say that she believed she knew a story which might please the company if they were not too hard to suit. They politely protested that such was far from being the case, whereupon she began the story of how the Terrapin lost his beard.
"Um-umph!" snorted Aunt Nancy, "who uver year tell uv a tarr'pin wid a by'ud!"
"Look-a-yer, ooman," said 'Phrony, "who tellin' dis, me er you? You s'pose I'se talkin' 'bout de li'l ol' no-kyount tarr'pins dey has dese days? Naw, suh! I'se tellin' 'bout de ol' time Tarr'pin whar wuz a gre't chieft an' a big fighter, an' w'ensomuver tu'rr creeturs come roun' an' try ter pay him back, he jes' drord his haid in his shell an' dar he wuz. Dish yer ain' no ol' nigger tale, neener, dish yer a Injun tale whar my daddy done tol' me w'en I wan't no bigger'n Miss Janey. He say dat sidesen de by'ud, Tarr'pin had big wattles hangin' down beneaf his chin, jes' lak de tukkey-gobblers has dese days. Him an' Mistah Wi'yum Wil'-tukkey wuz mighty good fren's dem times, an' Tukkey he thought Tarr'pin wuz a monst'ous good-lookin' man. He useter mek gre't 'miration an' say, 'Mistah Tarry-long Tarr'pin, you sut'n'y is a harnsum man. Dar ain' nu'rr creetur in dese parts got such a by'ud an' wattles ez w'at you is.'
"Den Tarr'pin he'd stroke down de by'ud an' swell out de wattles an' say, 'Sho! sho! Mistah Tukkey, you done praise dese yer heap mo'n w'at dey is wuf,' but all de same he wuz might'ly please', fer dar's nuttin' lak a li'l bit er flatt'ry fer ilin' up de j'ints an' mekin' folks limbersome in der feelin's.
"Tukkey git ter thinkin' so much 'bout de by'ud an' de wattles dat seem ter him ez ef he kain't git long no-hows lessen he have some fer hisse'f, 'kase in dem days de gobblers ain' have none. He study an' he study, but he kain't see whar he kin git 'em, an' de mo' he study de mo' he hone atter 'em. Las' he git so sharp set atter 'em dat he ain' kyare how he git 'em, jes' so he git 'em, an' den he mek up his min' he gwine tek 'em 'way f'um Tarr'pin. So one day w'en he met up wid him in de road he stop him an' bob his haid an' mek his manners mighty p'litely, an' he say, sezee, 'Mawnin', Mistah Tarry-long, mawnin'. How you come on dis day? I ain' hatter ax you, dough, 'kase you done look so sprucy wid yo' by'ud all comb' out an' yo' wattles puff' up. I wish, suh, you lemme putt 'em on fer a minnit, so's't I kin see ef I becomes 'em ez good ez w'at you does.'
"Ol' man Tarr'pin mighty easy-goin' an' commodatin', so he say, 'W'y, sut'n'y, Mistah Tukkey, you kin tek 'em an' welcome fer a w'iles.' So Tukkey he putts 'em on an' moseys down ter de branch ter look at hisse'f in de water. 'Whoo-ee!' sezee ter hisse'f, 'ain' I de caution in dese yer fixin's! I'se saw'y fer de gals now, I sut'n'y is, 'kase w'at wid my shape an' dish yer by'ud an' wattles, dar gwine be some sho'-'nuff heart-smashin' roun' dese diggin's, you year me sesso!'
"Den he go struttin' back, shakin' de by'ud an' swellin' put de wattles an' jes' mo'n steppin' high an' prancin' w'ile he sing:
"Den he say, sezee, 'Mistah Tarr'pin, please, suh, ter lemme keep dese yer? I b'lieve I becomes 'em mo'n w'at you does, 'kase my neck so long an' thin seem lak I needs 'em ter set hit off mo'n w'at you does wid dat shawt li'l neck er yo'n whar you keeps tuck 'way in yo' shell half de time, anyways. Sidesen dat, you is sech a runt dat you g'long draggin' de by'ud on de groun', an' fus' news you know hits 'bleeged ter be wo' out. You bes' lemme have hit, 'kase I kin tek good kyare uv hit.'
"Den Tarr'pin say, sezee, 'I lak ter 'commodate you, Mistah Tukkey, but I ain' see how I kin. I done got so use ter runnin' my fingers thu de by'ud an' spittin' over hit w'en I'se settin' roun' thinkin' er talkin' dat I dunno how I kin do widout hit, an' I kain't git long, no-how, widout swellin' up de wattles w'en I git tetched in my feelin's. Sidesen dat, I kin tek kyare er de by'ud, ef I is a runt; I bin doin' it a good w'ile, an' she ain' wo' out yit. So please, suh, ter han' me over my fixin's.'
"'Not w'iles I got any wind lef' in me fer runnin',' sez de Tukkey, sezee, an' wid dat he went a-scootin', ol' man Tarr'pin atter him, hot-foot. Dey went scrabblin' up de mountains an' down de mountains, an' 'twuz pull Dick, pull devil, fer a w'ile. Dey kain't neener one uv 'em climb up ve'y fas', but w'en dey git ter de top, Tukkey he fly down an' Tarr'pin he jes' natchully turn over an' roll down. But Tukkey git de start an' keep hit. W'en Tarr'pin roll to de bottom uv a mountain den he'd see Tukkey at de top er de nex' one. Dey kep' hit up dis-a-way 'cross fo' ridges, an' las' Tarr'pin he plumb wo' out an' he see he wan't gwine ketch up at dat rate, so he gin up fer dat day. Den he go an' hunt up de cunjerers an' ax 'em fer ter he'p him. He say, 'Y'all know dat by'ud an' wattles er mine? Well, I done loan 'em to Mistah Wi'yum Wil'-tukkey, 'kase he wuz my fren' an' he done ax me to. An' now he turn out ter be no-kyount trash, an' w'at I gwine do? You bin knowin' I is a slow man, an' if I kain't git some he'p, I hatter say good-by by'ud an' wattles.'"
"What are 'cunjerers,' Aunt 'Phrony?" said Ned.
"Well now, honey," said she, "I dunno ez I kin jes' rightly tell you, but deys w'at de Injuns calls 'medincin'-men,' an' dey doctors de sick folks an' he'ps de hunters ter git game an' de gals ter git beaux, an' putts spells on folks an' mek 'em do jes' 'bout w'at dey want 'em to. An' so dese yer cunjerers dey goes off by derse'fs an' has a confab an' den dey come back an' tell Mistah Tarr'pin dat dey reckon dey done fix Mistah Tukkey dis time.
"'W'at you done wid him?' sezee.
"'We ain' ketch 'im,' dey ses, 'we lef' dat fer you, dat ain' ow' bizness, but we done fix him up so't you kin do de ketchin' yo'se'f.'
"'W'at has you done to him, den?' sezee.
"'Son', dey ses, 'we done putt a lot er li'l bones in his laigs, an' dat gwine slow him up might'ly, an' we 'pends on you ter do de res', 'kase we knows dat you is a gre't chieft.'
"Den Tarr'pin amble long 'bout his bizness an' neener stop ner res' ontwel he met up wid Tukkey onct mo'. He ax fer his by'ud an' wattles ag'in, but Tukkey jes' turnt an' stept out f'um dat, Tarr'pin atter him. But seem lak de cunjerers thought Mistah Tarr'pin wuz faster'n w'at he wuz, er dat Mistah Tukkey 'z slower'n w'at he wuz, 'kase Tarr'pin ain' nuver ketch up wid him yit, an' w'ats mo', de tarr'pins is still doin' widout by'uds an' wattles an' de gobblers is still wearin' 'em an' swellin' roun' showin' off ter de gals, steppin' ez high ez ef dem li'l bones w'at de cunjerers putt dar wan't still in der laigs, an' struttin' lak dey wuz sayin' ter ev'y pusson dey meets: