Skip to main content

A Tight Boot




Some years before the war Squire Mirabeau Mackinnon kept the Jefferson House at Macedonia, the county seat of one of the up-country counties of North Carolina. The hotel was a big two-story frame house fronting on the Court House square, with broad piazzas running along both stories, front and rear. A row of big elms along the sidewalk made a pleasant shade for loiterers on the front piazza, and sheltered from the summer heat the horses that were fastened to the dozen or more hitching posts. Beyond the sidewalk a well and a watering-trough furnished additional facilities for the accommodation of the public. Back of the house, and separated from it by the clean swept yard, stood the big red kitchen. The yard was perfectly innocent of grass or herbage of any kind—unless the elms and china-trees might be included under that head—and by constant trampling was as hard and white as an ancient threshing floor.

During the greater part of the year the Jefferson House did not do a very large business. The farmers on their way down to the larger towns on the navigable rivers or near the coast, with wagon loads of cotton and tobacco, would stop at the Jefferson over night, settling their bills when they came back with plenty of money and supplies of sugar, coffee, calico and other luxuries which were not produced on their plantations. A few town-folks came up to Macedonia to spend a few weeks of the hot season, and occasionally a "speculator" or dealer in human flesh would come along through the country, picking up choice wares for the remote southern market. Of course, everybody stopped at the "Jeff'son."

Court week was the busy season at the Jefferson House. Court was in session for a week or ten days several times in a year, and on these occasions the hotel was filled to overflowing; and in summer hammocks were swung on the piazzas, and in winter pallets made on the floor for those whom there were not beds to accommodate. The judges, the lawyers and the county dignitaries who came in from their plantations to attend court, all put up at the Jefferson House, and kept Squire and Mrs. MacKinnon and their corps of servants very busy.

The duty of blacking the boots for the guests devolved upon a colored man by the name of "Bob." Under ordinary circumstances Bob enjoyed a sinecure, and was only consoled for his hard lot during court week by the numerous dimes and quarters which he extorted from the good-natured gentlemen whose boots were the objects of his gentle ministrations.

One evening during the summer term Bob went around about 10 o'clock to the rooms of such guests as had retired and collected the boots for cleaning. He took them to the kitchen, and in order to lessen his work in the morning blacked about half the lot. He wanted to attend a colored dance at a cabin a mile from the hotel; and while his orders were to stay at home, he thought he might slip away an hour or two without his absence being noticed.

While he was revelling in the anticipation of the fine time he would have, and keeping time with the blacking brush to the strains of an imaginary banjo, he took up a remarkably neat boot. It was a big boot, but made of fine leather, and quite new. It struck Bob that that boot was just about his size; and it looked so neat he thought he would try it on. It went on without difficulty, though it was a little tight about the hollow of the foot and the heel. Then it occurred to Bob that those boots would look nice on him at the ball. He drew on the other, and jumping over the back fence made his way to the house where the ball was in progress.

The laws forbade any assemblage of the slaves, and when they had their balls, prayer meetings, etc., it was customary to station sentinels along the roads and paths which led to the meeting place, to watch for the patrol, or "patterole," as the natives called it—a sort of mounted police, whose special duty it was to keep the slaves under surveillance at night. Bob avoided the patrol by going through the woods, passed the sentinels, and was soon swinging the girls around, and displaying the new boots, to the inspiring tune of "Camptown Races" and "Old Dan Tucker," as rendered by the combined exertions of a banjo, a fiddle and a pair of bones.

The fun was at its height, when some one dashed up to the door, and yelled: "Patterole!" Instantly the candles were blown out, a bucket of water was thrown on the fire, and the crowd rapidly dispersed through the various openings of the cabin, one frightened fellow going out through the big mud chimney. It was a false alarm, given by some ill-natured darkey who had not been invited to the ball; but Bob did not know this, so he dodged into the bushes, and by cutting across the plantations, kept clear of the patrol and reached the hotel about 2 o'clock in the morning.

He tried to pull the boots off; but either the peculiar conformation of his heel prevented it, or his feet were so swollen by his recent exertions that the boot did not come off. As Bob was very tired and sleepy, he spread a quilt on the kitchen floor, and went to sleep, confident that in the morning the boot would come off without difficulty.

The cook, Aunt Lyddy, went in the kitchen early in the morning and found Bob fast asleep on the floor. She called him, but got only a grunt in response. Finally a gourd of water thrown in his face brought about the desired result, and Bob got up, rolled up his pallet and put it away, grumbling at Aunt Lyddy's cruelty.

"Better ge long an' black dem boots," said Aunt Lyddy, who was a woman of few words.

"Wait till I git dis boot off, Aun' Lyddy," replied Bob; he had pulled off one boot, and as he began an account of the ball the night before he took hold of the other with the confident expectation that it would slip off easily. His confidence was somewhat shaken when the boot showed no sign of yielding. He had no better success with a boot-jack, and Bob began to get just a little anxious. Breakfast time was drawing near and the gentlemen would want their boots. One of them came to the top of the stairs and called:


Squire Mackinnon, who was not yet dressed himself, heard the call and came to his bedroom door.

"Well, what is it, colonel,?" he asked.

"Tell that boy to bring my boots, if you please, squire."

Squire Mackinnon went to the back door and called across the yard in his sharp way:

"Bob, you Bob!"

"S-s-s-s-ah!" replied Bob, who labored under a slight impediment in his speech, which came out strong when he was excited.

"Colonel Tyson wants his boots."

"Y-a-a-a-s, s-s-s-ah!" replied Bob, tugging away desperately. The sweat had collected in great beads on his forehead, and rolled down his cheeks.

"Fur de Lawd's sake, Aun' Lyddy, he'p me git dis boot off," he said imploringly.

"I can't take my han's out'n de dough," said Aunt Lyddy, who was filling a big pan with biscuits. But she called in another servant from the yard—Isham—and he added his efforts to those of Bob; but all in vain. The boot stuck closer than a porous plaster—closer than poor relations—closer than Sinbad's old man of the sea—as closely as though it were glued to his foot.

The colonel was growing impatient. He came to the door again and called:

"Boy, I want them boots right off!"—the colonel was more anxious about his boots than his grammar.

Squire Mackinnon, in shirt and trousers, came to the back door again.

"Bob, Bob, you Bob!"

"Y-a-a-s-s, Marse!" came from the kitchen in anxious tones.

"Bring Colonel Tyson's boots right away!"

Bob was now in despair. He knew his master's disposition and trembled for the probable consequences if he did not get that boot off very soon. His shirt was wet with prespiration, and his eyes stood out like a couple of dinner-plates. Aunt Lyddy, who had finished the biscuits—Phyllis, Chloe, Isham and another boy who had come in from the stable—all united in the fruitless attempt to get that boot off. Isham had hold of the boot in front, and Aunt Lyddy had Bob by the waist, the others were ranged behind her and Isham respectively, all pulling hard, but with no success. The stubborn boot would not come off.

The colonel came out on the upper floor of the piazza and thundered out.

"I want them boots blacked or not blacked, and I want 'em quick."

"Wha-a-at!" said the squire, as he heard the colonel's loud tones, and ran out, still half-dressed, upon the lower floor of the piazza, "ain't that infernal scoundrel fetched them boots yet?"

The other gentlemen had begun to call for their boots, and Squire Mackinnon, fearful of offending his guests, walked quickly across the yard to the kitchen to see what was the matter. Bob and his friends were still pulling away in sheer desperation. The sweat had accumulated in little puddles on the floor, and the boot had begun to rip a little at the heel. Squire Mackinnon was puzzled for a moment, and then the full meaning of the situation dawned upon him.

"What the d—l does this mean?" demanded he.

"I j-j-j-i-s' put de boot on to black it better, marse', and it won't come off no mo'," replied the trembling Bob.

The squire pushed the others aside, caught the boot by the heel, and, jerking the unfortunate Bob from the chair, dragged him around the kitchen. As he went around, Bob caught at whatever came in his way; he overturned several chairs, he caught the leg of the table, and the dishes came down with a crash; and as the squire, in his mad career, whirled him around again, and he caught Aunt Lyddy by the ankle, causing that amiable woman and accomplished cook to lose her balance and sit down in the big pot of hot water on the hearth. It is needless to say that she lost no time in getting up again.

As the angry squire made more circuit of the kitchen Bob caught by the door frame and held on like grim death. The squire gave one "last, long, lingering" pull, and off came the boot.

The said boot continued to play an important part in the scene that followed for a few minutes, and Bob had ample time, while recovering from his bruises, to reflect on the sin of vanity of the evil consequences of which his experience had certainly qualified him to think intelligently. He stayed at the Jefferson House until near the end of the war, when he drifted off in the wake of Sherman's army. Up to that time, however, he was not known to indulge again the luxury wearing of other me n's boots.