The Man Who Worked for Collister

Perhaps the loneliest spot in all the pine woods was the big Collister farm. Its buildings were not huddled in the centre of it, where they could keep one another in countenance, but each stood by itself, facing the desolate stretches of grey sand and pine stumps in its own way. Near each a few uncut pine trees kept guard, presumably for shade, but really sending their straggling shadows far beyond the mark. Many a Northern heart had ached from watching them, they were so tall and isolate; for, having been forest-bred, they had a sad and detached expression when they stood alone or in groups, just like the Northern faces when they met the still distances of the South.

In Collister’s day he and the man who worked for him were the only strangers who had need to wathc the pines. A land-improvement company had opened up the farm, but after sinking all its money in the insatiable depths of sandy soil, where the Lord, who knew best, had planted pine trees, the great bustling company made an assignment of its stumpy fields, and somewhat later the farm passed into the hands of Collister. Who Collister was, and where he came from, were variously related far and wide through the piney woods; for he was one of those people whose lives are an odd blending of reclusion and notoriety. He kept up the little store on the farm: and, though it was usually his man who came up from the fields when any one stood at the closed store and shouted, its trade was largely augmented by the hope of seeing Collister.

The sunken money of the land company must have enriched the soil, for the farm prospered as well as the store, yielding unprecedentedly in such patches as the two men chose to cultivate. In mid-summer the schooner-captains, in their loose red shirts, came panting up two sunburned miles from the bayou to chaffer with Collister or his man over the price of water-melons; and when their schooners were loaded, the land breeze which carried the cool green freight through bayou and bay out to the long reaches of the sound, where the sea wind took the burden on, sent abroad not only schooner and cargo and men, but countless strange reports of the ways and doings of Collister. At least one of these bulletins never changed. Year after year, when fall came, and he had added the season’s proceeds to his accumulating wealth—when even the peanuts had been dug, and the scent of their roasting spread through the piney woods on the fresh air of the winter evenings, making an appetising advertisement for the store—it was whispered through the country, and far out on the gulf, that Collister said he would marry any girl who could make good bread—light bread. That settled at least one question: Coillster came from the North. The man who worked for him was thought to have come from the same place; but though he did the cooking, his skill must have left something to be desired, and after current gossip had risked all its surmises on the likelihood of Collister’s finding a wife under the condition imposed, it usually added that if Collister married, the man who worked for him would take it as a slight, and leave.

An old country road led through the big farm, and along it the country people passed in surprising numbers and frequency for so sparsely settled a region. They took their way leisurely; and if they could not afford a five-cent purchase at the store gave plenty of time to staring right and left behind the stumps, in a cheerful determination to see something worth remembrance. One day, when the store chanced to be standing open, one of these passers walked up to the threshold and stood for a while looking in. The room was small and dingy, lighted only by the opening of the door, and crammed with boxes, leaky barrels, farm produce, and side-meat. One corner had been arranged with calicoes and ribbons and threads; but though the inspector was a young and pretty girl in the most dingy of cotton gowns, she had scarcely a thought for that corner; she was staring at a man who was so hard at work rearranging the boxes and barrels that he did not notice her shadow at his elbow. Finally he glanced up of his own accord.

“Hello!” he said, coming forward; “do you want to buy something? Why didn’t you sing out?”

For a little while longer the girl stared at him steadily as if he had not moved. Most of the people who live in the pine woods come to have a ragged look, but he was the raggedest person she had ever seen. He was as ragged as a bunch of pine needles; yet he had the same clean and wholesome look, and his face was pleasant.

“Are you the man that works for Collister?” she asked.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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