The little drama of religion over, the "job" reverted to the business of amusing itself. Everybody making it to the jook hurriedly or slowly as the spirit moved.
Big Sweet came by and we went over together. I didn't go with Cliffert because it would mean that I'd be considered his property more or less and the other men would keep away from me, and being let alone is no way to collect folk-lore.
The jook was in full play when we walked in. The piano was throbbing like a stringed drum and the couples slow-dragging about the floor were urging the player on to new lows. "Jook, Johnnie, Ah know you kin spank dat ole peanner." "Jook it Johnnie!"' "Throw it in de alley!
Big Sweet raked in the money and passed it to me. She about to place another bet when we heard a lot of nol outside. Everybody looked at the door at one time.
"Dat must be de Mulberry crowd. Nobody else would' keep dat much noise. Ella Wall strowin' it."
"She's plenty propaganda, all right.
Ella Wall flung a loud laugh back over her shoulder as she flourished in. Everybody looked at her, then they looked at Big Sweet. Big Sweet looked at Ella, but she seemed not to mind. The air was as tight as a fiddle string.
Ella wrung her hips to the Florida-flip game. Big Sweet stayed on at the skin game but didn't play. Joe Willard, knowing the imminence of forthright action, suddenly got deep into the crap game.
Lucy came in the door with a bright gloat in her eyes and went straight to Ella. So far as speaking was concerned she didn't see Big Sweet, but she did flirt past the skin game once, overcome with merriment.
"Dat li'l narrer contracted piece uh meatskin gointer make me stomp her right now!" Big Sweet exploded. "De twofaced heifer! Been hangin' 'round me so she kin tote news to Ella. If she don't look out she'll have on her last clean dress befo' de crack of day."
"Ah'm surprised at Lucy," I agreed. "Ah thought you all were de best of friends."
"She mad 'cause Ah dared her to jump you. She don't lak Slim always playing John Henry for you. She would have done cut you to death if Ah hadn't of took and told her."
"Ah can see she'doesn't like it, but?"
"Neb' mind 'bout ole Lucy. She know Ah backs yo' fallin'. She know if she scratch yo' skin Ah'll kill her so dead till she can't fall. They'll have to push her over. Ella Wall look lak she tryin' to make me kill her too, flourishin' dat ole knife 'round. But she oughter know de man dat made one, made two. She better not vary, do Ah'll be all over her jus' lak gravy over rice."
Lucy and Ella were alternately shoo-shooing to each other and guffawing. Then Ella would say something to the whole table and laugh. '
Over at the Florida-flip game somebody began to sing that jook tribute to Ella Wall which has been sung in every jook and on every "job" in South Florida:
"I'm raggedy, but right; patchey but tight; stringy, but I .hang on."
"Look at her puttin' out her brags." Big Sweet nudged me. "Loud talkin' de place. But countin' from yo' little finger to the thumb; if she start anything Ah got her some."
I knew that Big Sweet didn't mind fighting; didn't mind killing and didn't too much mind dying. I began to worry a bit. Ella kept on hurling slurs. So I said, "Come on, Big Sweet we got to go to home."
"Nope, Ah ain't got to do nothin' but die and stay black, Ah stays right here till de jook close if anybody else stay. You look and see how much in dat pocket book."
I looked. "Forty-one dollars and sixty-three cents."
"Just you hold on to it. Ah don't want a thing in mah han but dis knife."
Big Sweet turned to scoop a card in the rough. Just at that moment Ella chose to yell over, "Hey, bigger-than-me" at Big Sweet. She whirled around angrily and asked me, "Did dat storm-buzzard throw a slam at me?"
"Naw, she was hollerin' at somebody else," I lied to keep the peace.
Nothing happening, Ella shouted, " 'Tain't nothin' to her. She ain't hit me yet."
Big Sweet heard that and threw in her cards and faced about. "If anything start, Little-Bit, you run out de door like a streak uh lightning and get in yo' car. They gointer try to hurt you too."
I thought of all I had to live for and turned cold at the thought of dying in a violent manner in a sordid saw-mill camp. But for my very life I knew I couldn't leave Big Sweet even if the fight came. She had been too faithful to me. So I assured her that I wasn't going unless she did. My only weapons were my teeth and toe-nails.
Ella crowded her luck. She yelled out, "Lucy, go tell Mr. Lots-of-Papa Joe Willard Ah say come here. Jus' tell 'im his weakness want 'im. He know who dat is."
Lucy started across. Ella stood up akimbo, but everybody knew she was prepared to back her brag with cold steel in some form, or she wouldn't have been there talking like she was.
A click beside me and I knew that the spring blade knife that Big Sweet carried was open.
"Stop right where you is, Lucy," Big Sweet ordered, "lessen you want to see yo' Jesus."
"Gwan Lucy," Ella Wall called out, " 'tain't nothin'stoppin' 'yuh. See nothin', say nothin'. "
Big Sweet turned to Ella. "Maybe Ah ain't nothin'. But Ah say Lucy ain't gointer tell Joe Willard nothin'. What you sendin' her for? Why don't you go yo'self? Dere he is."
"Well, Ah kin go, now," Ella countered.
Big Sweet took a step forward that would put her right in .Ella's path in case she tried to cross the room. "Ah can't hear what you say for yo' damn teeth rattlin'. Come on!"
Then the only thing that could have stopped the killing happened. The Quarters Boss stepped in the door with a .45 in his hand and another on his hip. Expect he had been eavesdropping as usual.
The Quarters Boss looked all around and pointed at Ella "What tha hell you doin' in here wid weapons? You don 't belong on this job nohow. Git the hell out here and that quick. This place is for people hat works on this job. Git! Somebody'll be in Barton jail in twenty minutes. "
"You don't need tuh run her off, Cap'n," Big Sweet said "Ah can git her tuh go. jus' you stand back and gimme lief. She done stepped on mah starter and Ahm rearin' tuh go. If God'll send me uh pistol Ah'll send 'im uh man!'
"You ain't gonna kill nobody right under mah nose," tt Quarters Boss snorted. "Gimme that knife you got dere, Big Sweet."
"Naw suh! Nobody grits mab knife. Ah bought it for d' storm-buzzard over dere and Ah means tuh use it on her too. As long as uh mule go bareheaded she better not part her lips tuh me. Do Ah'll kill her, law or no law. Don't you touch me, white folks!"
"Aw she ain't so bad!" Ella sneered as she wrung her hi towards the door. "She didn't kill Jesse James."
"Git on 'way from here!" the Boss yelled behind her "Lessen yuh wanna make time in Barton jail. Git off the premises and that quick, Gimme that knife' " He took the knife and gave Ella a shove. She moved sullenly behind the crowd away from the door, mumbling threats. He followed and stayed outside until the car pulled off. Then he stuck his head back inside and said, "Now you behave yo'self, Sweet. Ah don't wanna hafta jail yuh."
Soon as he was gone the mob got around Big Sweet wuz noble! Joe Willard told her, "You wuz uh whole woman and half uh man. You made dat cracker stand off a you.
"Who wouldn't?" said Presley. "She got loaded muscles!You notice he don't tackle Big Sweet lak he do de rest round here. Dats cause she ain't got uh bit better sense then tuh make him kill her."
"Dats right," Big Sweet admitted, "and de nex' time Joe tell his Mulberry woman tuh come here bulldozin' me, Ahm gointer beat 'im to death grabbin' at 'im. "
Joe Willard affected supreme innocence. "Will you lissen at dis 'oman? Ah ain't sent fuh nobody. Y'all see Ah didn't never go where she wuz, didn't yuh? Come on Big Sweet, less go home. How 'bout uh li'l keerless love? Ah'm all ravalled out from de strain."
Joe and Big Sweet went home together and that was that.
When the quarters boss had gone, I saw Box-Car Daddy creeping back in the door. I didn't see him leave the place so I asked him where he had been.
"Had to step off a li'l piece," he told me with an effort at nonchalance.
"He always steps off whenever he see dat Quarters Boss, and he doing right, too," someohe said.
"How come?" I asked. "Nobody else don't run."
Everybody laughed but nobody told me a thing. But after a while Box-Car began to sing a new song and I liked the swing of it.
"What's dat you singing, Box-Car?" I asked.
"'Ah'm Gointer Loose dis Right-hand Shackle from 'Round my Leg. 'Dat's a chain-gang song. Thought everybody knowed dat."
"Nope, never heard it. Ain't never been to de gang. How did you learn it?"
"Working on de gang."
"Whut you doin' on de gang, Box-Car? You look like a good boy, but a poor boy."
"Oh, dey put me under arrest one day for vacancy in Bartow. When de judge found out Ah had a job of work. He took and searched me and when he found out Ah had a deck of cards on me, he charged me wid totin' concealed cards, and attempt to gamble, and gimme three months. Then dey made out another charge 'ginst me. 'Cused me of highway shufflin and attempt to gamble. You know dese white folks sho hates tuh turn a nigger loose, if ever dey git dey hands on 'im. An dis very quarters boss was Cap'n on de gang where Ah wuz. Me and him ain't never gointer set hawses . "
So he went on singing:
I learned several other songs. Thanks to James Presley and Slim; and Gene Oliver and his sister brought me many additional tales.
But the very next pay-night when I went to a dance at the Pine Mill, Lucy tried to steal me. That is the local term for attack by stealth. Big Sweet saved me and urged me to stay assuring me that she could always defend me, but I shivered at the thought of dying with a knife in my back, or having my face mutilated. At any rate, I had made a very fine and full collection on the Saw-Mill Camp, so I felt no regrets at shoving off.
The last night at Loughman was very merry. We had a party at Mrs. Allen's. James Presley and Slim with their boxes; Joe Willard calling figures in his best mood. Because it was special occasion and because I was urged, I actually took a sip of low-wine and found out how very low it was. The band stopped and I was hilariously toted off to bed and the party moved to my bedroom. We had had a rain flood early in the afternoon and a medium size rattlesnake had come in out of the wet. I had thrown away a pile of worn out stockings and he was asleep upon them there in the corner by the washstand. The boys wanted to kill it, but I begged them not to hurt my lowly brother. He rattled away for a while, but when everybody got around the bed on the far end of the room and got quiet, he moved in the manner of an hour-hand to a crack where the floor and wall had separated, and popped out of sight.
Cliffert told me the last Loughman story around midnight. "Zora, did yuh ever hear 'boutJack and de Devil buckin' aginst one 'nother to see which one was de strongest?"
"Naw. Ah done heard a lot about de Devil and dat Jack, but not dat tale you know. Tell it."