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The Slave Market

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 03, 2012

From the Children’s Friend, August 1931 –

The Slave Market

By Ida Stewart Peay

Otto was absorbed in his lessons one night when a conversation going on in the living room caught his attention.

“They couldn’t make a slave of me,” Ralph was saying with great emphasis. Ralph was sixteen years old; naturally his words had a great deal of weight with Otto who was barely twelve. What could his brother mean?

Upon listening intently Otto discovered that his father had been reading in the newspaper about a slave market. It seemed that even in this enlightened age the traffic in slaves was still going on. In a remote corner of the earth certain tribes of people were capturing lonely wayfarers from other tribes, and selling them. Selling them over the block at such much ahead like cattle.

“No, sir,” said Ralph with fiery spirit; “they couldn’t make a slave of me.”

“How would you prevent them?” Mary wondered; she was only about half grown and asked for information.

“I’d put up a fight,” Ralph declared; “if I got killed it would save me from something worse.”

With his nose in a book, Otto had been sprawled in a carefree manner upon the floor. He stood up. Although his fists were tight and there was a flash of light in his blue eyes, he said nothing, made no brag. He was not the talking kind; the square cut of his jaw, and the firm set of his mouth spoke for him.

“Here’s Otto,” said Ralph, a glimpse of his smaller brother’s attitude whetting his appetite for teasing, “he’d kill his captors to a man, if he is too tight lipped to say so.” Ralph swaggered boastfully but kept his mouth closed in a firm line in exaggerated and comic an imitation of his brother.

Everybody laughed, taking the antic lightly, except Otto; he was angry. That it was Ralph’s favorite pleasure to make fun of him, Otto very well knew, yet he could not help being teased. His face grew red; he tried to think of some way to get even with the older boy.

Ralph continued. “Old Spartan would knock the whole bunch of them for a row; he’s as independent and fiery as Patrick Henry, if he does act meek.” The truth was that Ralph was annoyed because he always bragged unthinkingly the first moment a subject came up while Otto kept his mouth shut, though of the two, Otto was the more likely to act heroically.

“Wouldn’t it be awful to be a slave,” said Mary, ignoring Ralph’s raillery. “Just think of being worked and driven from morning until night, never doing as you please, or having what you want!”

“If those people had any spirit,” Ralph said forgetting himself again, “they’d organize for war and free themselves from those slave traffickers.”

“Oh, well, we don’t need to worry,” said Mary dismissing the subject, “we live in the land of the free; no one can make slaves of us.”

Ralph echoed her sentiment and, also, forgot the brief discussion forthwith.

Otto did not forget. Of course, he did not believe anyone could make a slave of an American citizen, but there was no use saying so, stranger things than that had happened. The idea kept going through his mind. He pictured himself and Ralph being chased by the slave traffickers. They were quickly caught; in imagination Otto saw himself fighting with a long dagger-knife to free himself and his brother. He went to bed with the thought of slaves on his mind.

It was not surprising that he awoke the next morning from a terrible dream. A dream in which he had been captured and put in chains. Or, was it a dream? He distinctly heard the clank of metal. An instant later Otto knew the sound he heard was the clatter of knives and forks; he had overslept, the family was at breakfast.

He made short work of dressing and washing himself, and, also, of combing his hair, for the odor of frying ham was enticing. He was always hungry. the men folks were leaving the house for the corral when he managed to get to the table. Before he had eaten the biscuit and honey which followed the ham and eggs, he heard his name called from outside.

“Hurry, Otto,” his brother Ralph yelled, “I’ve turned the cows out and they’re nearly a block away.”

Otto left the table at once; he did not wish his cows to trespass upon any forbidden ground. To save himself from starvation he took a biscuit covered with honey in each hand. Where was his hat? In a flurry he searched for it, found it, took the lunch Mary had prepared for him, and ran out of the house. He forgot, in his haste, on every important thing. He forgot to go to the corral; every morning before leaving for work he always went there on a little secret errand. As he scampered after his cows, he had no premonition of the strange adventure he was going to have because of his forgetfulness. Neither did he dream how his haste this morning was going to affect his future life; nor how it was going to afford him an opportunity to get even with his teasing brother.

Otto’s job this time of year was to herd cows on an unfenced strip of salt grass that stretched beside the planted fields. It was no child’s play to keep twenty hungry cows from such delicacies as lucern and wheat. It required swift feet, an alert mind, and conscientious devotion to duty, all of which qualities Otto possessed with many others of worth.

He was not given a horsetorideonhisjob;neitherdidhehaveanyshoesthathecouldaffordtospoilin the sharp, gritty salt grass.heherdedbarefoot;andwithfeetthatwere,inconsequence,alwayschapped,andmoreorlesssore.Ordinarily he did not make any tripsacrossthesaltgrass;thebladeswerestiffenoughandsharpenoughto penetrate shoes; it is easy to see what they would do to bare feet. Thus Otto had learned to manage his cows mostly with his dog, and also, with whistling, and shouting, and throwing rocks.

He usually took his stand about mid-way of the herding grounds and from there keep his cows back. During his leisure moments Otto was sometimes visited by other herd boys who played games with him and otherwise helped him pass the time. Six months previous to this particular day, one of the herd boys introduced to Otto a new form of amusement. Otto was a little dubious about taking up with it at first; but, finding that his brother Ralph had done so, he finally tried it, also. Very soon the new amusement became extremely popular with him, as it did with nearly all the boys who worked and played in that vicinity.

Today Otto discovered that he was the only boy around the salt grass strip. The other herders had taken their cows to another section of the countryside. If Otto had gone to the corral before leaving home, he would not have missed his companions, probably; at least, not so much. As it was, he began to get lonesome almost at once. Not only that, he was restless, immediately, with a feeling he had not experienced before in his life. It was an exceedingly uncomfortable feeling; a persistent, urging, gnawing, aggravating feeling. He wanted something, though he did not know exactly what it was. Or, he had lost something, though what in the world it was he could not imagine.

With that peculiar sensation driving him to look for something, he walked the full length of the salt grass strip and back again. The sharp, tough grass cut his feet terribly, old chaps opened, the salt began to sting. Still he could not sit down; he must look further. He started across the pasture in another direction. Strangely, he did not remember that he had failed to go to the corral on his usual errand that morning. If he had recalled the fact it might have opened his eyes to his difficulty.

He was not old enough, nor wise enough to analyze his state of nervousness; he just vaguely felt that he must keep on searching. Therefore, he continued to chase himself up and down the salt grass strip without rest.

By noon his feet were bleeding a stream; the sharp brads had picked them to holes, and the salt on the raw flesh burned and stung like fire. Mary was a good sport, Otto thought; it was her task to prepare his lunch and she often had a surprise in it to make his eyes sparkle. Today, it was not a good lunch; nothing tempted him. Also, no matter how much water he drank his mouth felt dry; he could hardly eat. He wanted something else; he did not know what.

During the afternoon he grew more miserable, and accordingly, more restless. Despite the agony in his feet, he felt compelled to cross and re-cross the salt grass strip to see if he could not find that something for which he longed. That something that seemed so important and necessary and yet so vague and mysterious.

But he hunted in vain; at sunset he limped home still puzzling, still longing; wondering what was the matter with him, and why he was so unhappy and wretched. The sting in his feet kept hot tears pressing against his eyeballs; he was woefully tired; he was somehow disgusted with life. Never had he experienced such a day!

When he had the cows in the corral and was starting for the house to bathe and bind up his stinging, bleeding feet, he came upon his father and a stranger. They were talking at the corner of the hay shed. This particular spot sort of stirred Otto’s memory, but only stirred it and he dismissed the suggestion. Upon passing the strange man Otto noticed that he was a tramp, unwashed, unshaved, and ragged. He was asking for something with pleading, watery eyes, the corners of his mouth sagged down weakly with a begging, abasing quiver. He was a pathetic object.

“I can give you a meal, and welcome,” Otto’s father was saying, “but I have no money, to-day, and no tobacco; I don’t use tobacco.”

Otto gave a half stifled gasp; his eyes sought a little shelf made by the joist of the shed roof. There reposed, hidden from all eyes except those knowing its location, an innocent looking, little, dirty-white sack – with a drawstring in the top of it.

“Gee!” Otto became faintly audible in his enlightenment, his amazement, and his anger. Then his firm lips set together firmer, his square jaw slid forward, his blue eyes flashed with a new determination. Under his breath he began to rave, addressing the innocent looking little dirty-white sack, and its contents: “So you’re the one who has been chasing me over the stiff, sharp salt grass all day? You’re the one that’s responsible for my dry mouth, and my restless longing, and for my bleeding feet? Gee! you’re a mean, old boss! If my father had chased me all over that prickly pasture all day as you have done I’d never have forgiven him. You’re an old slave driver1 You’d make a slave of a freeborn American citizen, would you? Well, I say you won’t!”

Otto turned to his father and the begging tramp. “Father,” he said, “I have a sack of tobacco that I’ll give to the man; he seems to be in pretty bad shape.” Otto believed him to be a slave beyond rescue, and he pitied him. Swiftly he climbed to the projecting joist and brought down the innocent looking little dirty-white sack and put it into the eager, trembling, soiled hands of the old tobacco slave.

“But, Otto,” his father exclaimed astonished, “I didn’t know you were using this stuff! What money did you use to buy it? You need so many things.”

“I do,”said Otto, “and now that I’m to be free from that master I’ll buy what I want and what I need.”

“But I thought I han—”

At that moment Ralph came up, not noticing that anything special was going on he whispered to Otto. “Lend me some from your sack; mine was all gone this morning and I haven’t had a bit today.”

“Did you miss it?” Otto whispered back.

“Gee, I can’t get along without it,” Ralph declared in an undertone.

Because of this slight interruption Otto did not hear all of his father’s words but he knew the purport of them.

“Yes, Father,” he said, “But some herd boys persuaded me to try the stuff and I did. But don’t worry, I’m through with it!”

“I’ll not give it another thought,” his father said, smiling confidently; “I’m well enough acquainted with you to know that you never make an idle boast. “He walked away without another word.

Otto experienced a natural thrill of pride in his father’s words as he turned to meet Ralph’s questioning eyes. “I’ve quit that stuff, and given mine away,” he said, pointing to the tramp who was slouching off clutching the precious (to him) dirty-white sack. “It can’t boss me.”

“I won’t give it up,” Ralph sulked.

“Ha,” guyed Otto, coming back at his teasing brother, “I thought no one could make a slave of you?”

It was Ralph’s turn to be embarrassed. He was; and his face flushed dark red. He pondered a while thinking particularly of his father’s trust in Otto’s declaration. He had bragged before the whole family, and though his decision cost him a struggle, he made it quickly. “They can’t,” he said, and he meant it for once.



4 Comments »

  1. Interesting story, for the Children’s Friend, and quite heavy-handed, but mercifully short and to the point. Listening to my brother-in-law that grew up in Central Utah, this story was sorely needed there.

    Comment by kevinf — December 3, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

  2. Ah, de agony of de feet.

    (But I’m curious how chewing (or smoking) tobacco would have protected his feet from the pain that day.)

    Comment by Mark B. — December 3, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

  3. This was an interesting read. I wasn’t expecting that ending, but it was a good point.

    I think there are a surprising number of people who don’t know that the slave trade is thriving in other parts of the world. This year I read Disposable People and Half the Sky and they both really opened my eyes to the ways slavery manifests itself these days.

    Comment by Marcelaine — December 3, 2012 @ 1:30 pm

  4. Maybe with today’s age restrictions it would be in The New Era, but still a timely message.

    After helping several friends quit over the years I don’t think the tobacco helped his feet, I think not having it made him fidgety and led to his pacing all day.

    Comment by Julia — December 5, 2012 @ 1:17 am

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