Papa Daws

Three long ringing signals from I the driver’s horn, and the hunt was over. I quit my stand and met Dad on the road back of our line. We had both seen a doe that had kept us on our toes for a while, but otherwise, the drive had been uneventful.

We fell quiet and listened. Then Dad asked if I had noticed how it was still possible to see the plowed rows of an old cultivated field where there now were large trees. He often pointed out such bits of local history, and I always enjoyed learning about them. We listened to a hound bothering a cold trail for the second time.

The hound responded to another call from the horn, and Dad broke the silence again.

“During slavery times, most of this swamp was cultivated and there was little thought for timber. The Englishes, Ancrums, Canteys, and Langs were neighbors in these parts. That was when Papa Daws was here.”

He saw that my interest was aroused, and he continued. “Dawson was a sailor on a slave ship that regularly came to Charleston in the eighteen forties or fifties. He was a colored man, probably about an Octoroon, but he was considered a Negro. Being well educated, he knew what he was about, and everyone respected him. He told about his experiences at sea with a heavy British accent.

“Another ship made Dawson a better offer, and he made a change. The owner of the ship then fell into hard times, and when they arrived at Charleston the next time, Dawson was in irons and in line with the slaves. He would bring a price, of course.

“Old man Thomas Lang and one of the Canteys were in Charleston to buy a few slaves, and they saw Dawson in the line and asked, ‘Dawson, what happened?’ He replied, ‘When we approached the harbor, they threw me into irons and intend selling me with the rest! My dear sirs, I hope that you can get me out of this predicament!’ So Mr. Lang and Mr. Cantey went to find a lawyer.

“Things were slow in those days, and they didn’t really have any proof of his origin and former position. The sale was set for the next day, and the lawyer that they had hired couldn’t help them, so they went back to Dawson with the grim report and asked what he wanted them to do. ‘Buy me!’ he quickly answered.
“It took all of the money that Mr, Lang and Mr. Cantey had intended using for buying several slaves, but they made the purchase and immediately freed Dawson. In gratitude, he agreed to work for them, alternating each year.

“He became an overseer for each of them; he was respected by all of their slaves. The young folk especially liked him and called him ‘Papa Daws’! His wages were nominal but adequate for his position. The difficulty was that he was trained to be a sailor, not a farmer, and he never lost the salty ways of the sea.

“One year, when Dawson was working for Mr. Lang, he decided to clean up an old barnyard that had become overgrown with weeds. He stumbled upon an abandoned well on the grounds, and before he could regain his footing, he fell into the hole. There was no physical harm, only his dignity was shaken, but the slaves working with him were greatly alarmed. In no time, their call spread the word that, ‘Papa Daws fell in the well!’ Across the fields and to the big house spread the word, ‘Papa Daws is in the well!’ ”

“Mr. Lang came straight-‘way on his horse and called down into the dark hole, ‘You Dawson?’

” ‘Aye, Sir,’ was the reply

” ‘How in the world are we going to get you out?’

” ‘That’s for ye landsmen to say!’ replied Dawson.

“The emergency was soon over when an old slave brought a stout rope to solve the problem.

“Another year, Dawson was working for Mr. Cantey. During those days, Mr. Lang had taken a fancy to greyhounds, and Mr. Cantey had a flock of sheep. Something started killing the sheep at night, and Dawson sat up to catch the killer. The greyhounds came to do their dirty work, and Dawson tried to catch one of them, without success, but he got a good look at them.

“The next day, he went to Mr. Lang and announced, ‘Your dogs are killing my master, Mr. Cantey’s sheep!’

” ‘Why, Dawson,’ said Mr. Lang, ‘my dogs don’t kill sheep. How do you know they’re my dogs?’

” ‘Well sir, because you are the only man in this county that owns those rat-tailed, shad-bellied, snip-nosed sons of bitches!’

I asked more about Dawson, and Dad said, “He was about 51 when he came here, I was told, and he never married, and when he died, he was buried in honorable style somewhere on this side of the river.”

Suddenly there was a racket from down the swamp, and we both stopped to listen. Dad said, “Run down the road and watch that crossing, and I’ll do the best I can with this briar bed!” I made tracks, and by the time I got to the crossing, I heard a shot behind me, and then another, so I beat it back up the road again to see the results.

Dad was into the briar bed, neck deep, and looking. He said, “I saw a buck jump about here and gave him one barrel, then I saw either the same one or another buck jump right over there and gave him the other barrel!”

Then he said with satisfaction, “Well, here’s one!” I bounded into the briars, where he had snapped off his second shot. “And here’s the other one!”

Dad had made a double with that old English gun, and it warms my heart just to think of it. But it’s the story of Papa Daws that will ring for¬ever in my mind, which Dad kept polishing all those times we asked him to repeat it, so that it got better and better!

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