A ROMANCE OF THE REAL LINCOLN
"Have you never realized it, my friends, that Lincoln, though grafted on the West, is essentially, in personnel and character, a Southern contribution?"—WALT WHITMAN.
ILLUSTRATED BY J. N. MARCHAND
NEW YORK AND LONDON D. APPLETON AND COMPANY 1913
COPYRIGHT, 1913, BY THOMAS DIXON
All rights reserved, including that of translation into all foreign languages, including the Scandinavian
Printed in the United States of America
* * * * * DEDICATED TO
OUR FIRST SOUTHERN-BORN PRESIDENT SINCE LINCOLN, MY FRIEND AND COLLEGEMATE WOODROW WILSON
* * * * * THE SOUTHERNER
BOOKS BY MR. DIXON
The Southerner The Sins of the Father The Leopard's Spots The Clansman The Traitor
The One Woman Comrades The Root of Evil
The Life Worth Living
TO THE READER
Lest my readers should feel that certain incidents of this story are startling and improbable, I wish to say that every word in it relating to the issues of our national life has been drawn from authentic records in my possession. Nor have I at any point taken a liberty with an essential detail in historical scenes.
I. THE MAN OF THE HOUR II. JANGLING VOICES III. IN BETTY'S GARDEN IV. A PAIR OF YOUNG EYES V. THE FIRST SHOT VI. THE PARTING OF THE WAYS VII. LOVE AND DUTY VIII. THE TRIAL BY FIRE IX. VICTORY IN DEFEAT X. THE AWAKENING XI. THE MAN ON HORSEBACK XII. LOVE AND PRIDE XIII. THE SPIRES OF RICHMOND XIV. THE RETREAT XV. TANGLED THREADS XVI. THE CHALLENGE XVII. THE DAY'S WORK XVIII. DIPLOMACY XIX. THE REBEL XX. THE INSULT XXI. THE BLOODIEST DAY XXII. BENEATH THE SKIN XXIII. THE USURPER XXIV. THE CONSPIRACY XXV. THE TUG OF WAR XXVI. THE REST HOUR XXVII. DEEPENING SHADOWS XXVIII. THE MOONLIT RIVER XXIX. THE PANIC XXX. SUNSHINE AND STORM XXXI. BETWEEN THE LINES XXXII. THE WHIRLWIND XXXIII. THE BROTHERS MEET XXXIV. LOVE'S PLEDGE XXXV. THE DARKEST HOUR XXXVI. THE ASSASSIN XXXVII. MR. DAVIS SPEAKS XXXVIII. THE STOLEN MARCH XXXIX. VICTORY XL. WITH MALICE TOWARD NONE
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"From a thousand throats rose the cry: 'Lee to the rear!'" Frontispiece.
"'Be a man among men, for your mother's sake—'"
"'Good-bye—Ned!' she breathed softly." "Betty glanced at the stolid, set face and firm lips."
"'You're a brave man, Ned Vaughan.'"
"Waving his plumed hat ... he put himself at the head of his troops and charged."
LEADING CHARACTERS OF THE STORY
Scene: A Cabin in the Woods
TOM, A Man of the Forest and Stream. NANCY, The Woman Who Saw a Vision. THE BOY, Her Son. DENNIS, His Cousin. BONEY, A Fighting Coon Dog.
Scene: The White House
SENATOR GILBERT WINTER, The Radical Leader. BETTY, His Daughter. JOHN VAUGHAN, A Union Soldier. NED VAUGHAN, His Brother, a Rebel. ABRAHAM LINCOLN, The President. MRS. LINCOLN, His Wife. PHOEBE, Her Maid. JULIUS CAESAR THORNTON, Who Was Volunteered. COLONEL NICOLAY, The President's Secretary. MAJOR JOHN HAY, Assistant Secretary. WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN, Who Stole a March. GEORGE B. MCCLELLAN, The Man on Horseback. ROBERT E. LEE, The Southern Commander.
Tom seated himself at the table and looked into his wife's face with a smile:
"Nancy, it's a meal fit for a king!"
The supper over, he smoked his pipe before the cabin fire of blazing logs, while she cleared the wooden dishes. He watched her get the paper, goose-quill pen and ink as a prisoner sees the scaffold building for his execution.
"Now we're all ready," she said cheerfully.
The man laid his pipe down with a helpless look. A brief respite flashed through his mind. Maybe he could sidestep the lessons before she pinned him down.
"Lord, Nancy, I forgot my gun. I must grease her right away," he cried.
He rose with a quick decisive movement and took his rifle from the rack. She knew it was useless to protest and let him have his way.
Over every inch of its heavy barrel and polished walnut stock he rubbed a piece of greased linen with loving care, drew back the flint-lock and greased carefully every nook and turn of its mechanism, lifted the gun finally to his shoulder and drew an imaginary bead on the head of a turkey gobbler two hundred yards away. A glowing coal of hickory wood in the fire served for his game.
He lowered the gun and held it before him with pride:
"Nancy, she's the dandiest piece o' iron that wuz ever twisted inter the shape of a weepon. Old 'Speakeasy's her name! She's got the softest voice that ever whispered death to a varmint or an Injun—hit ain't much louder'n the crack of a whip, but, man alive, when she talks she says somethin'. 'Kerpeow!' she whispers soft an' low! She's got a voice like yourn, Nancy—kinder sighs when she speaks——"
"Well," the wife broke in with a shake of her dark head, "has mother's little boy played long enough with his toy?"
"I reckon so," Tom laughed.
"Then it's time for school." She gently took the rifle from his hands, placed it on the buck horns and took her seat at the table.
The man looked ruefully at the stool, suddenly straightened his massive frame, lifted his hand above his head and cocked his eye inquiringly:
"May I git er drink er water fust?"
The teacher laughed in spite of herself:
"Yes, you big lubber, and hurry up."
Tom seized the water bucket and started for the door.
"Where are you going?" she cried in dismay.
"I'll jest run down to the spring fer a fresh bucket——"
"O Tom!" she exclaimed.
"I'll be right back in a minute, Honey," he protested softly. "Hit's goin' ter be powerful hot—I'll need a whole bucket time I'm through."
Before she could answer he was gone.
He managed to stay nearly a half hour. She put the baby to sleep and sat waiting with her pensive young eyes gazing at the leaping flames. She heard him stop and answer the call of an owl from the woods. A whip-poor-will was softly singing from the bushes nearby. He stopped to call him also, and then found an excuse to linger ten minutes more fooling with his dogs.
The laggard came at last and dropped on his stool by her side. He sat for five minutes staring helplessly at the copy she had set. Big beads of perspiration stood on his forehead when he took the pen. He held it awkwardly and timidly as if it were a live reptile. She took his clumsy hand in hers and showed him how to hold it.
"My, but yo' hand's soft an' sweet, Nancy,—jest lemme hold that a while——"
She rapped his knuckles.
"All right, teacher, I'll be good," he protested, and bent his huge shoulders low over his task. He bore so hard on the frail quill pen the ink ran in a big blot.
"Not so hard, Tom!" she cried.
"But I got so much strenk in my right arm I jist can't hold it back."
"You must try again."
He tried again and made a heavy tremulous line. His arm moved at a snail's gait and wobbled frightfully.
"Make the line quicker," she urged encouragingly. "Begin at the top and come down——"
"Here, you show me how!"
She took his rough hand quietly in hers, and guided it swiftly from right to left in straight smooth lines until a dozen were made, when he suddenly drew her close, kissed her lips, and held the slender fingers in a grip of iron. She lay still in his embrace for a moment, released herself and turned from him with a sigh. He drew her quickly to the light of the fire and saw the unshed tears in her eyes.
"What's the use ter worry, Nancy gal?" he said. "Give it up ez a bad job. I wouldn't fool with no sech scholar ef I wuz you. Ye can't teach an old dog new tricks——"
"I won't give up!" she cried with sudden energy. "I can teach you and I will. I won't give up and be nobody. O Tom, you promised me before we were married to let me teach you—didn't you promise?"
"Yes, Honey, I did——" he paused and his fine teeth gleamed through the black beard—"but ye know a feller'll promise any thing ter git his gal——"
"Didn't you mean to keep your word?" She broke in sharply.
"Of course I did, Nancy, I never wuz more earnest in my life—'ceptin when I got religion. But I had no idee larnin' come so hard. I'd ruther fight Injuns an' wil' cats or rob a bee tree any day than ter tackle them pot hooks you're sickin' after me——"
"Well, I won't give up," she interrupted impatiently, "and you'd just as well make up your mind to stick to it. You can do what other men have done. You're good, honest and true, you're kindhearted and popular. They've already made you the road supervisor of this township. Learn to read and write and you can make a good speech and go to the Legislature."
"Ah, Nancy, what do ye want me ter do that fur, anyhow, gal? I'd be the happiest man in the world right here in this cabin by the woods ef you'd jest be happy with me. Can't ye quit hankerin' after them things, Honey?"
She shook her dark head firmly.
"You know, Nancy, we wuz neighbors to Dan'l Boone. We thought he wuz about the biggest man that ever lived. Somehow the love o' the woods an' fields is always singin' in my heart. Them still shinin' stars up in the sky out thar to-night keep a callin' me. I could hear the music o' my hounds in my soul ez I stood by the spring a while ago. Ye know what scares me most ter death sometimes, gal?" He paused and looked into her eyes intently.
"No, what?" she asked.
"That you'll make a carpenter outen me yit ef I don't mind."
Again a smile broke through the cloud in her eyes: "I don't think there's much danger of that, Tom——"
"Yes ther is, too," he laughed. "Ye see, I love you so and try ter make ye happy, an' ef there wuz ter come er time that there wuz plenty o' work an' real money in it, I'd stick to it jist ter please you, an' be a lost an' ruined soul! Yessir, they'd carve on my headstone jest one line:
"BORN A MAN—AND DIED A JACKLEG CARPENTER.
"Wouldn't that be awful?"
The momentary smile on the woman's sensitive face faded into a look of pain. She tried to make a good-natured reply, but her lips refused to move.
The man pressed on eagerly:
"O Nancy, why can't ye be happy here? We've a snug little cabin nest, we've enough to eat and enough to wear. The baby's laughin' at yer heels all day and snugglin' in her little bed at night. The birds make music fur ye in the trees. The creek down thar's laughin' an' singing' winter an' summer. The world's too purty an' life's too short ter throw hit away fightin' an' scramblin' fur nothin'."
"For something—Tom—something big——"
"Don't keer how big 'tis—what of it? All turns ter ashes in yer hands bye an' bye an' yer life's gone. We can't live these young days over again, can we? Ye know the preacher says: 'What shall hit profit a man ef he gain the whole world an' lose his life?' Let me off'n these lessons, Honey? I'm too old; ye can't larn me new tricks now. Let me off fer good an' all, won't ye?"
"No," was the firm answer. "It means too much. I won't give up and let the man I love sign his name forever with a cross mark."
"I ain't goin' ter sign no more papers nohow!" Tom broke in.
"I signed our marriage bond with a mark, Tom," she went on evenly, "just because you couldn't write your name. You've got to learn, I won't give up!"
"Well, it's too late to-night fur any more lessons, now ain't it?"
"Yes, we'll make up for it next time."
The tired hunter was soon sound asleep dreaming of the life that was the breath of his nostrils.
Through the still winter's night the young wife lay with wide staring eyes. Over and over again she weighed her chances in the grim struggle begun for the mastery of his mind. The longer she asked herself the question of success or failure the more doubtful seemed the outcome. How still the world!
The new life within her strong young body suddenly stirred, and a feeling of awe thrilled her heart. God had suddenly signalled from the shores of Eternity.
When her husband waked at dawn he stared at her smiling face in surprise.
"What ye laughin' about, Nancy?" he cried.
She turned toward him with a startled look:
"I had a vision, Tom!"
"A dream, I reckon."
"God had answered the prayer of my heart," she went on breathlessly, "and sent me a son. I saw him a strong, brave, patient, wise, gentle man. Thousands hung on his words and great men came to do him homage. With bowed head he led me into a beautiful home that had shining white pillars. He bowed low and whispered in my ear: 'This is yours, my angel mother. I bought it for you with my life. All that I am I owe to you.'"
She paused a moment and whispered:
"O Tom, man, a new song is singing in my soul!"
The woman rose quietly and went the rounds of her daily work. She made her bed to-day in trance-like silence. It was no gilded couch, but it had been built by the hand of her lover and was sacred. It filled the space in one corner of the cabin farthest from the fire. A single post of straight cedar securely fixed in the ground held the poles in place which formed the side and foot rail. The walls of the cabin formed the other side and head. Across from the pole were fixed the slender hickory sticks that formed the springy hammock on which the first mattress of moss and grass rested. On this was placed a feather bed made from the wild fowl Tom had killed during the past two years. The pillows were of the finest feathers from the breasts of ducks. A single quilt of ample size covered all, and over this was thrown a huge counterpane of bear skins. Two enormous bear rugs almost completely covered the dirt floor, and a carpet of oak leaves filled out the spaces.
The feather bed beaten smooth, the fur covering drawn in place and the pillows set upright against the cabin wall, she turned to the two bunks in the opposite corner and carefully re-arranged them. They might be used soon. This was the corner of her home set aside for guests. Tom had skillfully built two berths boat fashion, one above the other, in this corner, and a curtain drawn over a smooth wooden rod cut this space off from the rest of the room when occupied at night by visitors.
The master of this cabin never allowed a stranger to pass without urging him to stop and in a way that took no denial.
A savory dish of stewed squirrel and corn dumplings served for lunch. The baby's face was one glorious smear of joy and grease at its finish.
The mother took the bucket from its shelf and walked leisurely to the spring, whose limpid waters gushed from a rock at the foot of the hill. The child toddled after her, the little moccasined feet stepping gingerly over the sharp gravel of the rough places.
Before filling the bucket she listened again for the crack of Tom's rifle, and could hear nothing. A death-like stillness brooded over the woods and fields. He was probably watching for muskrat under the bluff of the creek. He had promised to stay within call to-day.
The afternoon dragged wearily. She tried to read the one book she possessed, the Bible. The pages seemed to fade and the eyes refused to see.
"O Man, Man, why don't you come home!" she cried at last.
She rose, walked to the door, looked and listened—only the distant rattle of a woodpecker's beak on a dead tree in the woods. The snow began to fall in little fitful dabs. It was two miles to the nearest cabin, and her soul rose in fierce rebellion at her loneliness. It was easy for a man who loved the woods, the fields and running waters, this life, but for the woman who must wait and long and eat her heart out alone—she vowed anew that she would not endure it. By the sheer pull of her will she would lift this man from his drifting life and make him take his place in the real battle of the world. If her new baby were only a boy, he could help her and she would win. Again she stood dreaming of the vision she had seen at dawn.
The dark young face suddenly went white and her hand gripped the facing of the door.
She waited half doubting, half amused at her fears. It was only the twinge of a muscle perhaps. She smiled at her sudden panic. The thought had scarcely formed before she blanched the second time and the firm lips came together with sudden energy as she glanced at the child playing on the rug at her feet.
She seized the horn that hung beside the door and blew the pioneer's long call of danger. Its shrill note rang through the woods against the hills in cadences that seemed half muffled by the falling snow.
Again her anxious eyes looked from the doorway. Would he never come! The trembling slender hand once more lifted the horn, a single wild note rang out and broke suddenly into silence. The horn fell from her limp grasp and she lifted her eyes to the darkening sky in prayer, as Tom's voice from the edge of the woods came strong and full:
"Yes, Honey, I'm comin'!"
There was no question of doctor or nurse. The young pioneer mother only asked for her mate.
For two fearful hours she gripped his rough hands until at last her nails brought the blood, but the man didn't know or care. Every smothered cry that came from her lips began to tear the heart out of his body at last. He could hold the long pent agony no longer without words.
"My God, Nancy, what can I do for ye, Honey?"
Her breath came in gasps and her eyes were shining with a strange intensity.
"Nothing, Tom, nothing now—I'm looking Death in the face and I'm not afraid——"
"Please lemme give ye some whiskey," he pleaded, pressing the glass to her lips.
"No—no, take it away—I hate it. My baby shall be clean and strong or I want to die."
The decision seemed to brace her spirit for the last test when the trembling feet entered the shadows of the dim valley that lies between Life and Death.
The dark, slender figure lay still and white at last. A sharp cry from lusty lungs, and the grey eyes slowly opened, with a timid wondering look.
"Tom!" she cried with quick eager tones.
"Yes, Nancy, yes!"
"Of course—and a buster he is, too."
"Give him to me—quick!"
The stalwart figure bent over the bed and laid the little red bundle in her arms. She pressed him tenderly to her heart, felt his breath on her breast and the joyous tears slowly poured down her cheeks.
Before the first year of the boy's life had passed the task of teaching his good-natured, stubborn father became impossible. The best the wife could do was to make him trace his name in sprawling letters that resembled writing and painfully spell his way through the simplest passages in the Bible.
The day she gave up was one of dumb despair. She resolved at last to live in her boy. All she had hoped and dreamed of life should be his and he would be hers. Her hands could make him good or bad, brave or cowardly, noble or ignoble.
He was a remarkable child physically, and grew out of his clothes faster than she could make them. It was easy to see from his second year that he would be a man of extraordinary stature. Both mother and father were above the average height, but he would overtop them both. When he tumbled over the bear rugs on the cabin floor his father would roar with laughter:
"For the Lord's sake, Nancy, look at them legs! They're windin' blades. Ef he ever gits grown, he won't have ter ax fer a blessin', he kin jest reach up an' hand it down hisself!"
He was four years old when he got the first vision of his mother that time should never blot out. His father was away on a carpenter job of four days. Sleeping in the lower bunk in the corner, he waked with a start to hear the chickens cackling loudly. His mother was quietly dressing. He leaped to his feet shivering in the dark and whispered:
"What is it, Ma?"
"Something's after the chickens."
"Not a hawk?"
"No, nor an owl, or fox, or weasel—or they'd squall—they're cackling."
The rooster cackled louder than ever and the Boy recognized the voice of his speckled hen accompanying him. How weird it sounded in the darkness of the still spring night! The cold chills ran down his back and he caught his mother's dress as she reached for the rifle that stood beside her bed.
"You're not goin' out there, Ma?" the Boy protested.
"Yes. It's a dirty thief after our horse."
Her voice was low and steady and her hand was without tremor as she grasped his.
"Get back in bed. I won't be gone a minute."
She left the cabin and noiselessly walked toward the low shed in which the horse was stabled.
The Boy was at her heels. She knew and rejoiced in the love that made him brave for her sake.
She paused a moment, listened, and then lifted her tall, slim form and advanced steadily. Her bare feet made no noise. The waning moon was shining with soft radiance. The Boy's heart was in his throat as he watched her slender neck and head outlined against the sky. Never had he seen anything so calm and utterly brave.
There was a slight noise at the stable. The chickens cackled with louder call. Five minutes passed and they were silent. A shadowy figure appeared at the corner of the stable. She raised the rifle and flashed a dagger-like flame into the darkness.
A smothered cry, the shadow leaped the fence and the beat of swift feet could be heard in the distance.
The Boy clung close to her side and his voice was husky as he spoke:
"Ain't you afraid, Ma?"
The calm answer rang forever through his memory:
"I don't know what fear means, my Boy. It's not the first time I've caught these prowling scoundrels."
Next morning he saw the dark blood marks on the trail over which the thief had fled, and looked into his mother's wistful grey eyes with a new reverence and awe.
The Boy was quick to know and love the birds of hedge and field and woods. The martins that built in his gourds on the tall pole had opened his eyes. The red and bluebirds, the thrush, the wren, the robin, the catbird, and song sparrows were his daily companions.
A mocking-bird came at last to build her nest in a bush beside the garden, and her mate began to make the sky ring with his song. The puzzle of the feathered tribe whose habits he couldn't fathom was the whip-poor-will. His mother seemed to dislike his ominous sound. But the soft mournful notes appealed to the Boy's fancy. Often at night he sat in the doorway of the cabin watching the gathering shadows and the flicker of the fire when supper was cooking, listening to the tireless song within a few feet of the house.
"Why don't you like 'em, Ma?" he asked, while one was singing with unusually deep and haunting voice so near the cabin that its echo seemed to come from the chimney jamb.
It was some time before she replied:
"They say it's a sign of death for them to come so close to the house."
The Boy laughed:
"You don't believe it?"
"I don't know."
"Well, I like 'em," he stoutly declared. "I like to feel the cold shivers when they sing right under my feet. You're not afraid of a little whip-poor-will?"
He looked up into her sombre face with a smile.
"No," was the gentle answer, "but I want to live to see my Boy a fine strong man," she paused, stooped, and drew him into her arms.
There was something in her tones that brought a lump into his throat. The moon was shining in the full white glory of the Southern spring. A night of marvellous beauty enfolded the little cabin. He looked into her eyes and they were shining with tears.
"What's the matter?" he asked tenderly.
"Nothing, Boy, I'm just dreaming of you!"
* * * * *
The first day of the fall in his sixth year he asked his mother to let him go to the next corn-shucking.
"You're too little a boy."
"I can shuck corn," he stoutly argued.
"You'll be good, if I let you go?" she asked.
"What's to hurt me there?"
"Nothing, unless you let it. The men drink whiskey, the girls dance. Sometimes there's a quarrel or fight."
"It won't hurt me ef I 'tend to my own business, will it?"
"Nothing will ever hurt you, if you'll just do that, Boy," the father broke in.
"May I go?"
"Yes, we're invited next week to a quilting and corn-shucking. I'll go with you."
The Boy shouted for joy and counted the days until the wonderful event. They left home at two o'clock in the wagon. The quilting began at three, the corn-shucking at sundown.
The house was a marvellous structure to the Boy's excited imagination. It was the first home he had ever seen not built of logs.
"Why, Ma," he cried in open-eyed wonder, "there ain't no logs in the house! How did they ever put it together?"
"With bricks and mortar."
The Boy couldn't keep his eyes off this building. It was a simple, one-story square structure of four rooms and an attic, with little dormer windows peeping from the four sides of the pointed roof. McDonald, the thrifty Scotch-Irishman, from the old world, had built it of bricks he had ground and burnt on his own place.
The dormer windows peeping from the roof caught the Boy's fancy.
"Do you reckon his boys sleep up there and peep out of them holes?"
The mother smiled.
"Why don't we build a house like that?" he asked at last. "Don't you want it?"
The mother squeezed his little hand:
"When you're a man will you build your mother one?"
He looked into her eyes a moment, caught the pensive longing and answered:
"Yes. I will."
She stooped and kissed the firm mouth and was about to lead him into the large work-room where the women were gathering around the quilts stretched on their frames, when a negro slave suddenly appeared to take her horse to the stable. He was fat, jolly and coal black. His yellow teeth gleamed in their blue gums with a jovial welcome.
The Boy stood rooted to the spot and watched until the negro disappeared. It was the first black man he had ever seen. He had heard of negroes and that they were slaves. But he had no idea that one human being could be so different from another.
In breathless awe he asked:
"Is he folks?"
"Of course, Boy," his mother answered, smiling.
"What made him so black?"
"The sun in Africa."
"What made his nose so flat and his lips so thick?"
"He was born that way."
"What made him come here?"
"He didn't. The slave traders put him in chains and brought him across the sea and sold him into slavery."
The little body suddenly stiffened:
"Why didn't he kill 'em?"
"He didn't know how to defend himself."
"Why don't he run away?"
"He hasn't sense enough, I reckon. He's got a home, plenty to eat and plenty to wear, and he's afraid he'll be caught and whipped."
The mother had to pull the Boy with her into the quilting room. His eyes followed the negro to the stable with a strange fascination. The thing that puzzled him beyond all comprehension was why a big strong man like that, if he were a man, would submit. Why didn't he fight and die? A curious feeling of contempt filled his mind. This black thing that looked like a man, walked like a man and talked like a man couldn't be one! No real man would grin and laugh and be a slave. The black fool seemed to be happy. He had not only grinned and laughed, but he went away whistling and singing.
In three hours the quilts were finished and the men had gathered for the corn-shucking.
Before eight o'clock the last ear was shucked, and a long white pile of clean husked corn lay glistening in the moonlight where the dark pyramid had stood at sunset.
With a shout the men rose, stretched their legs and washed their hands in the troughs filled with water, provided for the occasion. They sat down to supper at four long tables placed in the kitchen and work room, where the quilts had been stretched.
Never had the Boy seen such a feast—barbecued shoat, turkeys, ducks, chickens, venison, bear meat, sweet potatoes, wild honey, corn dodgers, wheat biscuit, stickies and pound cake—pound cake until you couldn't eat another mouthful and still they brought more!
After the supper the young folks sang and danced before the big fires until ten o'clock, and then the crowd began to thin, and by eleven the last man was gone and the harvest festival was over.
It was nearly twelve before the Boy knelt at his mother's knee to say his prayers.
When the last words were spoken he still knelt, his eyes gazing into the flickering fire.
The mother bent low:
"What are you thinking about, Boy? The house you're going to build for me?"
"That nigger—wasn't he funny? You don't want me to get you any niggers with the house do you?"
"I didn't think you would," he went on thoughtfully, "because you said General Washington set his slaves free and wanted everybody else to do it too."
He paused and shook his head thoughtfully. "But he was funny—he was laughin' and whistlin' and singin'!"
The air of the Southern autumn was like wine. The Boy's heart beat with new life. The scarlet and purple glory of the woods fired his imagination. He found himself whistling and singing at his tasks. He proudly showed a bee tree to his mother, the honey was gathered and safely stored. A barrel of walnuts, a barrel of hickory-nuts and two bushels of chestnuts were piled near his bed in the loft.
But the day his martins left, he came near breaking down. He saw them circle high in graceful sweeping curves over the gourds, chattering and laughing with a strange new note in their cries.
He watched them wistfully. His mother found him looking with shining eyes far up into the still autumn sky. His voice was weak and unsteady when he spoke:
"I—can—hardly—hear—'em—now; they're so high!"
A slender hand touched his tangled hair:
"Don't worry, Boy, they'll come again."
"You're sure, Ma?" he asked, pathetically.
"Will they know when it's time?"
"Some one always tells them."
"God. That's what the Bible means when it says, 'the stork knoweth her appointed time.' I read that to you the other night, don't you remember?"
"But maybe God'll be so busy he'll forget my birds?"
"He never forgets, he counts the beat of a sparrow's wing."
The mother's faith was contagious. The drooping spirit caught the flash of light from her eyes and smiled.
"We'll watch for 'em next spring, won't we? And I'll put up new gourds long before they come!"
Comforted at last, he went to the woods to gather chinquapins. The squirrels were scampering in all directions and he asked his father that night to let him go hunting with him next day.
"All right, Boy!" was the hearty answer. "We'll have some fun this winter."
He paused as he saw the mother's lips suddenly close and a shadow pass over her dark, sensitive face.
"Hit's no use ter worry, Nancy," he went on good-naturedly. "I promised you not ter take him 'less he wanted ter go. But hit's in the blood, and hit's got ter come out."
Tom picked the Boy up and placed him on his knee and stroked his dark head. Sarah crouched at his feet and smiled. He was going to tell about the Indians again. She could tell by the look in his eye as he watched the flames leap over the logs.
"Did ye know, Boy," he began slowly, "that we come out to Kaintuck with Daniel Boone?"
"Yes sirree, with old Dan'l hisself. It wuz thirty years ago. I wuz a little shaver no bigger'n you, but I remember jest as well ez ef it wuz yistiddy. Lordy, Boy, thar wuz er man that wuz er man! Ye couldn't a made no jackleg carpenter outen him——" He paused and cast a sly wink at Nancy as she bent over her knitting.
"Tell me about him?" the Boy cried.
"Yessir, Dan'l Boone wuz a man an' no mistake. The Indians would ketch 'im an' keep er ketchin' 'im an' he'd slip through their fingers slicker'n a eel. The very fust trip he tuck out here he wuz captured by the Redskins. Dan'l wuz with his friend John Stuart.
"They left their camp one day an' set out on a big hunt, and all of a sudden they wuz grabbed by the Injuns."
"Why didn't they shoot 'em?" the Boy asked.
"They wuz too many of 'em an' they wuz too quick for Dan'l. He didn't have no show at all. The Injuns robbed 'em of everything they had an' kept 'em prisoners.
"But ole Dan'l wuz a slick un. He'd been studyin' Injuns all his life an' he knowed 'em frum a ter izard. They didn't have nothin' but bows an' arrers then an' he had a rifle thes like mine. He never got flustered or riled by the way they wuz treatin' him, but let on like he wuz happy ez er June bug. Dan'l would raise his rifle, put a bullet twixt a buffalo's eyes an' he'd drap in his tracks. The Injuns wuz tickled ter death an' thought him the greatest man that ever lived—an' he wuz, too. So they got ter likin' him an' treatin' 'im better. For seven days an' nights him an' Stuart helped 'em hunt an' showed 'em how ter work er rifle. The Injuns was plum fooled by Dan'l's friendly ways an' didn't watch 'im so close.
"So one night Dan'l helped 'em ter eat a bigger supper than ever. They wuz all full enough ter bust, an' went ter sleep an' slept like logs. Hit wuz a dark night an' the fire burned low, an' long 'bout midnight Dan'l made up his mind ter give 'em the slip.
"Hit wuz er dangerous job. Ef he failed hit wuz death shore-nuff, for nothin' makes a Injun so pizen mad ez fer anybody ter be treated nice by 'em an' then try ter get away. The Redskins wuz all sleepin' round the fire. They wuz used ter jumpin' in the middle o' the night or any minute. Mebbe they wuz all ersleep, an' mebbe they wasn't.
"Old Dan'l he pertended ter be sleepin' the sleep er the dead, an' I tell ye he riz mighty keerful, shuck Stuart easy, waked him up an' motioned him ter foller. Talk about sneakin' up on a wild duck er a turkey—ole Dan'l done some slick business gettin' away frum that fire! Man, ef they'd rustled a leaf er broke a twig, them savages would a all been up an' on 'em in a minute. Holdin' tight to their guns—you kin bet they didn't leave them—and a steppin' light ez feathers they crept away from the fire an' out into the deep dark o' the woods. They stopped an' stood as still ez death an' watched till they see the Injuns hadn't waked——"
The pioneer paused and his white teeth shone through his black beard as he cocked his shaggy head to one side and looked into the Boy's wide eyes.
"And then what do you reckon Dan'l Boone done, sir?"
"Waal, ye seed the way them bees made fer their trees, didn't ye, when they got a load er honey?"
"Yes, that's the way I found their home."
"But you had the daylight, mind ye! And Dan'l was in pitch black night, but, sir, he made a bee-line through them dark woods straight for his camp he'd left seven days afore. And, man, yer kin bet they made tracks when they got clear o' the Redskins! Hit wuz six hours till day an' when the Injuns waked they didn't know which way ter look——"
Tom paused and the Boy cried eagerly:
"Did they get there?"
"Git whar?" the father asked dreamily.
"Get back to their own camp?"
"Straight ez a bee-line I tell ye. But the camp had been busted and robbed and the other men wuz gone."
Tom shook his shaggy head.
"Nobody never knowed ter this day—reckon the Injuns scalped 'em——"
He paused again and a dreamy look overspread his rugged face.
"Like they scalped your own grandpa that day."
"Did they scalp my grandpa?" the Boy asked in an awed whisper.
"That they did. Your Uncle Mordecai an' me was workin' with him in the new ground, cleanin' it fur corn when all of a sudden the Injuns riz right up outen the ground. Your grandpa drapped dead the fust shot, an' Mordecai flew ter the cabin fer the rifle. A big Redskin jumped over a log an' scalped my own daddy before my eyes! He grabbed me an' started pullin' me ter the woods, an' then, Sonny, somethin' happened——"
Tom looked at the long rifle in its buck's horn rest and smiled:
"Old 'Speakeasy' up thar stretched her long neck through a chink in the logs an' said somethin' ter Mr. Redskin. She didn't raise her voice much louder'n a whisper. She jist kinder sighed:
"I kin hear hit echoin' through them woods yit. That Injun drapped my hands before I heerd the gun, an' she hadn't more'n sung out afore he wuz lyin' in a heap at my feet. The ball had gone clean through him——"
Tom paused again and looked for a long time in silence into the glowing coals. The little cabin was very still. The Boy lifted his face to his mother's curiously:
"Ma, you said God counted the beat of a sparrow's wing?"
"Well, what was He doin' when that Indian scalped my grandpa?"
The mother threw a startled look at the bold little questioner and answered reverently:
"Keeping watch in Heaven, my Boy. The hairs of your head are numbered and not one falls without his knowledge. We had to pay the price of blood for this beautiful country. Nothing is ever worth having that doesn't cost precious lives."
Again the cabin was still. An owl's deep cry boomed from the woods and a solitary wolf answered in the distance. The Boy's brow was wrinkled for a moment and then he suddenly looked up to his father's rugged face:
"And what became of Dan'l Boone?"
"Oh, he lit on his feet all right. He always did. He moved on with Stuart, built him another camp in the deepest woods he could find and hunted there all winter—jest think, Boy, all winter—every day—thar wuz a man that wuz a man shore nuff!"
"Yes, sirree!" the listener agreed.
The mother lifted her head and thoughtfully watched the sparkling eyes.
"And do you want to know why Daniel Boone was great, my son?" she quietly asked.
"Yes, why?" was the quick response.
"Because he used his mind and his hands, while the other men around him just used their hands. He learned to read and write when he was a little boy. He mixed brains with his powder and shot."
"Did he, Pa?" the questioner cried.
The father smiled. He could afford to be generous. The Boy looked to him as the authority on Daniel Boone.
"Yes, I reckon he did. He wuz smart. I didn't have no chance when I wuz little."
"Then I'm going to learn, too. Ma can teach me." He leaped from his father's lap and climbed into hers. "You will, won't you, Ma?"
The mother smiled us she slowly answered:
"Yes, Honey, I'll begin to-morrow night when you get back from hunting."
Slowly but surely the indomitable will within the Boy's breast conquered the cries of aching muscles, and he went about his daily farm tasks with the dogged persistence of habit. He had learned to whistle at his work and his eager mind began to look for new worlds to conquer.
At the right moment the tempter appeared. It rained on Saturday and Austin, his neighbor, came over to see him. They cracked walnuts and hickory-nuts in the loft while the rain pattered noisily on the board roof. Austin had a definite suggestion for Sunday that would break the monotony of life.
"Let's me an' you not go ter meetin' ter-morrow?" the neighbor ventured for a starter.
"All right!" the Boy agreed. "Preachin' makes me tired anyhow."
"Me, too, an' I tell ye what I'll do. I'll get my Ma ter let me come ter your house to stay all day, an' when your folks go off ter meetin', me an' you'll have some fun!"
"We'll stay all day on the creek banks, find duck nests, turkey and quail nests, an',——" Austin paused and dropped his voice, "go in swimmin' if we take a notion——"
The Boy slowly shook his head.
"No, less don't do that."
"'Cause Ma don't 'low me to go in the creek till June—says I might ketch my death o' cold."
"Shucks! I've been in twice already!"
"And ye didn't get sick?"
"Do I look sick?"
"Not a bit."
"All right—we'll go."
The spirit of freedom born of the fields and woods had grown into something more than an attitude of mind. He was ready for the deed—the positive act of adventure. He didn't like to disobey his mother. But he couldn't afford to let Austin think that he was a molly-coddle, a mere babe hanging to her skirts. He was doing a man's work. It was time he took a few of man's privileges.
He revelled in the situation of adventure that night and saw himself the hero of stirring scenes.
Next morning on Austin's arrival he asked his mother to let him stay at home and play.
"Don't you want to go to meeting and hear the new preacher?" she asked persuasively.
"No, I'm tired."
The mother smiled indulgently. He was young—far too young yet to know the meaning of true religion. She was a Baptist, and the first principle of her religion was personal faith and direct relations of the individual soul with God. She remembered her own hours of torture in childhood.
"All right, Boy," she said graciously. "Be good now, while we're gone."
His big toe was digging in the dirt while he murmured:
The wagon had no sooner disappeared than he and Austin were flying with swift bare feet along the path that led to the creek. It was the hottest day of the spring—a close air and broiling sun to be remembered longer than the hottest day of August.
They ran for a mile without a pause, rolled in the sand on the banks of the creek and shouted their joy in perfect freedom. They explored the deep cane brakes and stalked imaginary buffaloes and bears without number, encountering nothing bigger than a grey fox and a couple of muskrats.
"Let's cross over!" Austin cried. "I saw a bear track on that side one day. We can trail him to his den and show him to your Pap when he comes home. Here's a log!"
The Boy looked dubiously, measured it with his eye, and shook his head.
"Nope—it's too little and too high in the air—it'll wobble," he declared.
"But we can coon it over!" Austin urged. "We can grab hold of a limb over there and slide down—it's easy—come on!"
Before he could make further objection, the young adventurer quickly straddled the swaying pole, and, with the agility of a cat, hopped across, grasped one of the limbs and slipped to the sand.
"Come on!" he shouted. "See how easy it is!"
The Boy looked doubtfully at the swaying sapling and wished he had gone to hear that preacher after all. It would never do to say he was afraid. The other fellow had done it so quickly. And it was no use to argue with Austin that his legs were shorter, his body more compact and so much easier to hold his balance. The idea of cowardice was something too vile for thought. The Boy felt that he was doomed to fall before he moved but he waved a brave little hand in answer:
"All right, I'm comin'!"
Half way across the pole began to tear its roots from the bluff. He felt it sinking, stopped and held his breath as it suddenly broke with a crash and fell.
"Look out! Hold tight!" Austin yelled.
He did his best, but lost his balance and toppled head downward into the deep still water.
His mouth flew open at the first touch of the chill stream; he gasped for breath and drew into his lungs a strangling flood. The blood rushed to his brain in a wild explosion of terror. He struck out madly with his long arms and legs, fighting with desperation for breath and drinking in only the agony and fear of death. His mother's voice came low and faint and far away in some other world, saying softly:
"Be good now, while we're gone!"
Again he struck out blindly, fiercely, madly into the darkness that was slowly swallowing him body and soul.
His hand touched something as he sank, he grasped it with instinctive terror and knew no more until he waked in the infernal regions with the Devil sitting on his stomach glaring into his eyes and holding him by the throat trying to choke him to death. His head was down a steep hill.
With a mighty effort he threw the Devil off, loosed his hold and sucked in a tiny breath of air, and then another and another, coughing and spluttering and wheezing foam and water from his mouth and ears and nose and eyes.
At last a voice gasped:
"You bet it's me! I got ye a breathin' all right now—who'd ye think it wuz?"
The Boy coughed again and squeezed his lungs clear of water.
"Why—I was afraid I was dead and you was the Old Scratch and had me."
"Well, I thought you was a goner shore nuff till yer hand grabbed the pole I stuck after ye. Man alive, but you did hold onto it! I lakened ter never got yer hand loose so's I could pull ye up on the bank and turn ye upside down and squeeze the water outen ye."
"Did you sit on my stomach and choke me?" the Boy asked.
"I set on yer and mashed the water out, but I didn't choke you."
"I thought the Old Scratch had me!"
For an hour they talked in awed whispers of Sin and Death and Trouble and then the blood of youth shook off the nightmare.
They were alive and unhurt. They were all right and it was a good joke. They swore eternal secrecy. The day was yet young and it was a glorious one. Their clothes were wet and they had to be dried before night. That settled it. They would strip, hang their clothes in the hot sun and wallow in the sand and play in the shallow water until sundown.
"And besides," Austin urged, "this here's a warnin' straight from the Lord—me and you must learn ter swim."
"That's so, ain't it?" the Boy agreed.
"It's what I calls a sign from on high—and it pints right into the creek!"
They agreed that the thing to do was to heed at once this divine revelation and devote the whole Sabbath day to the solemn work—in the creek.
They found a beautifully sunny spot with an immense sand bar and wide shallow safe waters. They carefully placed their clothes to dry and basked in the bright sun. They practiced swimming in water waist deep and Austin learned to make three strokes and reach the length of his body before sinking.
They rolled in the sun again and ate their lunch. They ran naked through the woods to a branch that flowed into the creek, followed it to the source and drank at a beautiful spring.
Through the long afternoon they lived in a fairy world of freedom, of dreams and make-believe. They talked of great hunters and discussed the best methods of attacking all manner of wild beasts.
The sun was sinking toward the western hills when they hastily picked up their clothes and found a safe ford across which they could wade, holding their things above their heads.
The Boy reached the house just as the wagon drove up to the door. He hurried to help his father with the horse. A sense of elation filled his mind that he was shrewd enough to keep his own secrets. Of course, his mother needn't know what had happened. He was none the worse for it.
In answer to her question of how he had spent the day he vaguely answered:
"In the woods. They're awfully pretty now with the dogwood all in bloom."
He talked incessantly at supper, teasing Sarah about her jolly time at the meeting. Toward the end of the meal he grew silent. A curious sensation began on his back and shoulders and arms. He paid no attention to it at first, but it rapidly grew worse. The more he tried to shake off the feeling the more distinct and sharp it grew. At last every inch of his body seemed to be on fire.
He rose slowly from the table and walked to his stool in the corner wondering—wondering and fearing. He sat in dead silence for half an hour. The perspiration began to stand out on his forehead. It was no use longer to try to fool himself, there was something the matter—something big—something terrible! A fierce and scorching fever was burning him to death. He dared not move. Every muscle quivered with agony when he tried.
The mother's keen eye saw the tears he couldn't keep back.
"What's the matter, Boy?" she tenderly asked while his father was at the stable putting the wagon under the shed.
"I don't know 'm," he choked. "I'm all on fire—I'm burnin' up——"
She touched his forehead and slipped her arm around his shoulders.
He screamed with pain.
The mother looked into his face with a sudden start.
"Why, what on earth, child? What have you been doing to-day?"
He hesitated and tried to be brave, but it was no use. He felt that he would drop dead the next moment unless relief came. He buried his face in her lap and sobbed his bitter confession.
"Do you think I'm going to die?" he asked.
"No, my Boy, you're only sunburned. How long were you naked in the sun?"
"From 'bout ten o'clock till nearly sundown——"
He moved again and screamed with agony.
The mother tenderly undressed the little, red, swollen body. The rough clothes had stuck to the blistered skin in one place and the pain was so frightful he nearly fainted before they were finally removed.
For two days and nights she never left his side, holding his hand to give him courage when he was compelled to move. Almost his entire body, inch by inch, was blistered. She covered it with cream and allowed only two greased linen cloths to touch him.
On the second day as he lay panting for breath and holding her hand with feverish grasp he looked into her pensive grey eyes through his own bleared and bloodshot with pain and said softly:
"I'm sorry, Ma."
She pressed his hand:
"It's all right, my Boy; your mother loves you."
"I'm not sorry for the pain," he gasped. "What hurts me worse is that you're so sweet to me!"
The dark face bent and kissed his trembling lips:
"It's all for the best. You couldn't have understood the preacher Sunday when he took the text: 'The stars in their courses fought against Sisera.' You learned it for yourself the only way we really learn anything. God's in the wind and rain, the sun, the storm. All nature works with him. You can easily fool your mother. It's not what you seem to others; it's what you are that counts. God sees and knows. You see and know in your little heart. I want you to be a great man—only a good man can ever be great."
And so for an hour she poured into his heart her faith in God and His glory until He became the one power fixed forever in the child's imagination.
The Boy lost his skin but grew another and incidentally absorbed some ideas he never forgot.
On the day he was able to put on his clothes, it poured down rain and work in the fields was impossible. A sense of delicious joy filled him. He worked because he had to, not because he liked it. He was too proud to shirk, too brave to cry when every nerve and muscle of his little body ached with mortal weariness, but he hated it.
The sun rose bright and warm and shone clear in the Southern sky next morning before he was called. He climbed down the ladder from his loft wondering what marvellous thing had happened that he should be sleeping with the sun already high in the heavens.
"What's the matter, Ma?" he asked anxiously. "Why didn't you call me?"
"It's too wet to plow. Your father's going to chop wood in the clearing. He wanted you to pile brush after him, but I asked him to let you off to go fishing for me."
He ate breakfast with his heart beating a tattoo, rushed into the garden, dug a gourd full of worms, drew his long cane rod from the eaves of the cabin, and with old Boney trotting at his heels was soon on his way to a deep pool in the bend of the creek.
Fishing for her! His mother understood. He wondered why he had ever been fool enough to disobey her that Sunday. He could die for her without a moment's hesitation.
It was glorious to have this marvellous day of spring all his own. The birds were singing on every field and hedge. The trees flashed their polished new leaves. The sweet languor of the South was in the air and he drew it in with deep breaths that sent the joy of life tingling through every vein.
Four joyous hours flew on tireless wings. He had caught five catfish and a big eel—more than enough for a good meal for the whole family.
He held them up proudly. How his mother's eyes would sparkle! He could see Sarah's admiring gaze and hear his father's good-natured approval.
He had just struck the path for home when the forlorn figure of a rough bearded man came limping to meet him.
He stepped aside in the grass to let him pass. But the man stopped and gazed at the fish.
"My, my, Sonny, but you've got a fine string there!" he exclaimed.
"Pretty good for one day," the Boy proudly answered.
"An' just ter think I ain't had nothin' ter eat in 'most two days."
"Don't you live nowhere?" the youngster asked in surprise.
"I used ter have a home afore the war, but my folks thought I wuz dead an' moved away. I'm tryin' ter find 'em. Hit's a hard job with a Britisher's bullet still a-pinchin' me in the leg."
"Did you fight with General Washington?"
"Lordy, no, I ain't that old, ef I do look like a scarecrow. No, I fit under Old Hickory at New Orleans. I tell ye, Sonny, them Britishers burnt out Washington fur us but we give 'em a taste o' fire at New Orleans they ain't goin' ter fergit."
"Did we lick 'em good?"
"Boy, ye ain't never heard tell er sich a scrimmage—we thrashed 'em till they warn't no fight in 'em, an' they scrambled back aboard them ships an' skeddaddled home. Britishers can't fight nohow. We've licked 'em twice an' we kin lick 'em agin. But the old soldier that does the fightin'—everybody fergits him!"
The Boy looked longingly at his string of fish for a moment with the pride of his heart, and then held up his treasure.
"You can have my fish if ye want 'em; they'll make you a nice supper."
The old soldier stroked the tangled hair and took his string of fish.
"You're a fine boy! I won't fergit you, Sonny!"
The words comforted him until he neared the house. And then a sense of bitter loss welled up in spite of all.
"Did I do right, Ma?" he asked wistfully.
She placed her hand on his forehead:
"Yes—I'm proud of you. I know what that gift cost a boy's heart. It was big because it was all you had and the pride of your soul was in it."
The sense of loss was gone and he was rich and happy again.
When the supper was over and they sat before the flickering firelight he asked her a question over which his mind had puzzled since he left the old soldier.
"Why is it," he said thoughtfully, "British soldiers can't fight?"
The mother smiled:
"Who said they couldn't fight?"
"The old soldier I gave my fish to. He said we just made hash out o' them. We've licked 'em twice and we can do it again!"
The last sentence he didn't quote. He gave it as a personal opinion based on established facts.
"We didn't win because the British couldn't fight," the mother gravely responded.
"Then why?" he persisted.
"The Lord was good to us."
The question came with an accent of indignation. Sometimes he couldn't help getting cross with his mother when she began to give the Lord credit for everything. If the Lord did it all why should he give his string of fish to an old soldier!
The grey eyes looked into his with wistful tenderness. She had been shocked once before by the fear that there was something in this child's eternal why that would keep him out of the church. The one deep desire of her heart was that he should be good.
"Would you like to hear," she began softly, "something about the Revolution which my old school teacher told me in Virginia?"
"Yes, tell me!" he answered eagerly.
"He said that we could never have won our independence but for God. We didn't win because British soldiers couldn't fight. We held out for ten years because we outran them. We ran quicker, covered more ground, got further into the woods and stayed there longer than any fighters the British had ever met before. That's why we got the best of them. Our men who fought and ran away lived to fight another day. General Washington was always great in retreat. He never fought unless he was ready and could choose his own field. He waited until his enemies were in snug quarters drinking and gambling, and then on a dark night, so dark and cold that some of his own men would freeze to death, he pushed across a river, fell on them, cut them to pieces and retreated.
"The number of men he commanded was so small he could not face his foes in the open if he could avoid it. His men were poorly armed, poorly drilled, half-clothed and half-starved at times. The British troops were the best drilled and finest fighting men of the world in their day, armed with good guns, well fed, well clothed, and well paid."
She paused and smiled at the memory of her teacher's narrative.
"What do you suppose happened on one of our battlefields?"
"When the Red-coats charged, our boys ran at the first crack of a gun. They ran so well that they all got away except one little fellow who had a game leg. He stumbled and fell in a hole. A big British soldier raised a musket to brain him. The little fellow looked up and cried: 'All right. Kill away, ding ye—ye won't get much!'
"The Britisher laughed, picked him up, brushed his clothes and told him to go home."
The Boy laughed again and again.
"He was a spunky one anyhow, wasn't he?"
"Yes," the mother nodded, "that's why the Red-coat let him go. And we never could have endured if God hadn't inspired one man to hold fast when other hearts had failed."
"And who was he?" the Boy broke in.
"General Washington. At Valley Forge our cause was lost but for him. Our men were not paid. They could get no clothes, they were freezing and starving. They quit and went home in hundreds and gave up in despair. And then, Boy——"
Her voice dropped to a tense whisper:
"General Washington fell on his knees and prayed until he saw the shining face of God and got his answer. Next day he called his ragged, hungry men together and said:
"'Soldiers, though all my armies desert, the war shall go on. If I must, I'll gather my faithful followers in Virginia, retreat to the mountains and fight until our country is free!'
"His words cheered the despairing men and they stood by him. We were saved at last because help came in time. Lord Cornwallis had laid the South in ashes, and camped at Yorktown, his army of veterans laden with spoils. He was only waiting for the transports from New York to take his victorious men North, join the army there and end the war, and then——"
She drew a deep breath and her eyes sparkled:
"And then, Boy, it happened—the miracle! Into the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, three big ships dropped anchor at the mouth of the York River. Our people on the shore thought they were the transports and that the end had come. But the ships were too far away to make out their flags, and so they sent swift couriers across the Peninsula, to see if there were any signs in the roadstead at Hampton. There—Glory to God! lay a great fleet flying the flag of France. The French had loaned us twenty millions of dollars, and sent their navy and their army to help us. Had the Lord sent down a host from the sky we couldn't have been more surprised. They landed, joined with General Washington's ragged men, and closed in on Cornwallis. Surprised and trapped he surrendered and we won.
"But there never was a year before that, my Boy, that we were strong enough to resist the British army had the mother country sent a real general here to command her troops."
"Why didn't she?" the Boy interrupted.
Again the mother's voice dropped low:
"Because God wouldn't let her—that's the only reason. If Lord Clive had ever landed on our shores, Washington might now be sleeping in a traitor's grave."
The voice again became soft and dreamy—almost inaudible.
"And he didn't come?" the Boy whispered.
"No. On the day he was to sail he put the papers in his pocket, went into his room, locked the door and blew his own brains out. This is God's country, my son. He gave us freedom. He has great plans for us."
The fire flickered low and the Boy's eyes glowed with a strange intensity.
A barbecue, with political speaking, was held at the village ten miles away. The family started at sunrise. The day was an event in the lives of every man, woman and child within a radius of twenty miles. Many came as far as thirty miles and walked the whole distance. Before nine o'clock a crowd of two thousand had gathered.
The dark, lithe young mother who led her boy by the hand down the crowded aisle of the improvised brush arbor that day performed a deed which was destined to change the history of the world.
The speaker who held the crowd spellbound for two hours was Henry Clay. The Boy not only heard an eloquent orator. His spirit entered for all time into fellowship with a great human soul.
In words that throbbed with passion, he pictured the coming glory of a mighty nation whose shores would be washed by two oceans, whose wealth and manhood would be the hope and inspiration of the world. Never before had words been given such wings. The ringing tones found the Boy's soul and set his brain on fire. A big idea was born within his breast. This was his country. His feet pressed its soil. Its hills and plains, its rivers and seas were his. His hands would help to build this vision of a great spirit into the living thing. He breathed softly and his eyes sparkled. When the crowd cheered, he leaped to his feet, swung his little cap into the air and shouted with all his might. When the last glowing picture of the peroration faded into a silence that could be felt, and the tumult had died away, he saw men and women crowding around the orator to shake his hand.
"Take me, Ma!" he whispered. "I want to see him close!"
The mother lifted him in her arms above the crowd, pressed forward, and the Boy's shining eyes caught those of the brilliant statesman. Over the heads of the men by his side the orator extended his hand and grasped the trembling outstretched fingers.
He smiled and nodded, that was all. The Boy understood. From that moment he had an ideal leader whose words were inspired.
The mother's dark face was lit for a moment with tender pride. She made no effort to reach the orator's side. It was enough that she had seen the flash from her Boy's eyes. She was content. The day was filled with a great joy.
The summer camp meetings began the following week. The grounds were located a mile from the straggling little village which was the center of the county's activities. All religious denominations used the spacious auditorium for their services. The Methodists camped there an entire month. The Baptists stayed but two weeks. The Baptist temperament frowned on the social frivolities which were inseparable from these long intimate associations at close quarters. The more volatile temperament of the Methodists revelled in them, and Methodism grew with astounding rapidity under the system.
The auditorium was simply a huge quadrangular shed with board roof uphold by cedar posts. At one end of the shed stood the platform on which was built the pulpit, a square box-like structure about four feet high. The seats were made of rough-hewn half logs set on pegs driven in augur holes. There were no backs to them. A single wide aisle led from the end facing the pulpit, and two narrow ones intersected the main aisle at the centre.
In front of the pulpit were placed the mourner's benches facing the three sides of the space left for the free movement of the mourners under the stress of religious emotion.
The Boy's mother and father were devout members of the Baptist Church, but they were not demonstrative. They modestly and reverently took their seats in an inconspicuous position about midway the building, entering from one of the small aisles on the side. The Boy had often been to a regular church service before, but this was his first camp meeting.
Four preachers sat in grim silence behind the pulpit's solid box front. The Boy could just see the tops of their heads over the board that held the big gilt-edged Bible.
The entire first two days and nights were given to a series of terrific sermons on Death, Hell, and the Judgment, with a brief glimpse of the pearly gates of Heaven and a few strains from the golden harps inside for the damned to hear by way of contrast. The first purpose of the preachers was to arouse a deep under-current of religious emotional excitement that at the proper moment would explode and sweep the crowd with resistless fire. Usually the fuse was timed to explode on the morning of the third day. Sometimes, when sermons of extraordinary power had followed each other in rapid succession, the fire broke out by a sort of spontaneous combustion on the night of the second day.
It did so this time. The mother had no trouble in keeping the Boy by her side through these first two days. He felt instinctively the growing emotional tension about him, and knew in his bones that something would break loose soon. He was keyed to a high pitch of interest to see just what it would be like.
The storm broke in the middle of the second sermon on the second night. The preacher had worked himself into a frenzy of emotional excitement. His arms were waving over his head, his eyes blazing, his feet stamping, his voice screaming in anguish as he described the agony of a soul lost forever in the seething cauldron of eternal hell fire!
A tremulous startled moan, half-wail, half-scream came from a girl just in front of the Boy, as she dropped her head in her hands.
"What's the matter with her?" he whispered. "Has she got a pain?"
His mother pressed his hand:
And then the storm broke. From every direction came the startled cries of long pent terror and anguish. The girl staggered to her feet and started stumbling down the aisle to the mourners' bench without invitation, and from every row of seats they tumbled, crowding on her heels, sobbing, wailing, screaming, groaning.
The preacher ceased to talk and, in a high tremulous voice, that rang through the excited crowd as the peal of the Archangel's trumpet, began to sing:
"Come humble sinners in whose breasts A thousand thoughts revolve!"
The crowd rose instinctively and all who were not mourning, joined in the half-savage, terror-stricken wail of the song. The sinners that hadn't given up at the first break of the storm could not resist the thrill of this wild music. One by one they pushed their way through the crowd, found the aisle and staggered blindly to the front.
The Boy noticed curiously that it seemed to be the rule for them to completely cover their streaming eyes with a handkerchief or with the bare hands and go it blindly for the mourners' benches. If they missed the way and butted into anything, a church member kindly took them by the arm and guided them to a vacant place where they dropped on their knees.
The Boy had leaped on the bench and stood beside his mother to get a better view of the turmoil. He couldn't keep his eyes off a tall, red-headed, thick-bearded man just across the aisle three rows behind who kept twitching his face, looking toward the door and struggling against the impulse to follow the mourners. Presently he broke down with a loud cry:
"Lord, have mercy!"
He placed his hands over his face and started on a run to the front.
The Boy giggled, and his mother pinched him.
"Did ye see that red-headed feller, Ma," he whispered. "He didn't do fair. He peeked through his fingers—I saw his eyes!"
The preachers had come down from the pulpit now and stood over the wailing prostrated mourners and exhorted them to repent and believe before it was forever and eternally too late. Three of them were talking at the same time to different groups of mourners. The louder they exhorted the louder the sinners cried. The fourth preacher walked down the aisle searching for those who were yet hardening their hearts and stiffening their necks. He paused beside a prim little old maid who had lately arrived from Tidewater Virginia. Her bright eyes were dry.
"Dear lady, are you a child of God?" the preacher cried.
The prim figured stiffened indignantly:
"No, sir! I'm an Episcopalian!"
The preacher groaned and passed on and the Boy stuffed his fist in his mouth.
For half an hour the roar of the conflict was incessant, and its violence indescribable. It was broken now and then by a kindly soul among the elderly women raising a sweet old-fashioned hymn.
Suddenly an exhorter threw his hands above his head and, in a voice that soared above the roar of mourners and their attendants, cried:
"Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world!"
Quick as a flash came an answering shout from the red-headed man who leaped to his feet and with wide staring eyes looked up at the roof.
"I see him! I see Jesus up a tree!"
A fat woman lifted her head and shouted:
"Hold him till I get there!"
And she started for the red-headed man. There was a single moment of strange silence and the Boy laughed aloud.
His mother caught and shook him violently. He crammed his little fist again into his mouth, but the stopper wouldn't hold.
He dropped to his seat to keep the people from seeing him, buried his face in his hands and laughed in smothered giggles in spite of all his mother could do.
At last he whispered:
"Take me out quick! I'm goin' to bust—I'll bust wide open I tell ye!"
She rose sternly, seized his arm and led him a half mile into the woods. He kept looking back and laughing softly.
She gazed at him sorrowfully:
"I'm ashamed of you, Boy! How could you do such a thing!"
"I just couldn't help it!"
He sat down on a stone and laughed again.
"What makes the fools holler so?" he asked through his tears.
"They are praying God to forgive their sins."
"But why holler so loud? He ain't deaf—is He? You said that God's in the sun and wind and dew and rain—in the breath we breathe. Ain't He everywhere then? Why do they holler at Him?"
The mother turned away to hide a smile she couldn't keep back, and a cloud overspread her dark face. Surely this was an evil sign—this spirit of irreverent levity in the mind of a child so young. What could it mean? She had forgotten that she had been teaching him to think, and didn't know, perhaps, that he who thinks must laugh or die.
After that she let him spend long hours at the spring playing with boys and girls of his age. He didn't go into the meetings again. But he enjoyed the season. The watermelons, muskmelons, and ginger cakes were the best he had ever eaten.
During the Christmas holidays the father got ready for a coon hunt in which the Boy should see his first battle royal in the world of sport.
Dennis came over and brought four extra dogs, two of his own and two which he had borrowed for the holidays.
A sudden change came over the spirit of old Boney—short for Napoleon Bonaparte. He understood the talk about coons as clearly as if he could speak the English language. He was in a quiver of eager excitement. He knew from the Boy's talk that he was going, too. He wagged his tail, pushed his warm nose under his little friend's arm, whining and trembling while he tried to explain what it meant to strike a coon's trail in the deep night, chase him over miles of woods and swamps and field, tree him and fight it out, a battle to the death between dog and beast!
At two o'clock, before day, his father's voice called and in a jiffy he was down the ladder, his eyes shining. He had gone to sleep with his clothes on and lost no time in dressing.
Without delay the start was made. Down the dim pathway to the creek and then along its banks for two miles, its laughing waters rippling soft music amid the shadows, or gleaming white and mirror-like in the starlit open spaces.
In half an hour the stars were obscured by a thin veil of fleecy clouds, and, striking no trail in the bottoms, they turned to the big tract of woods on the hills and plunged straight into their depths for two miles.
Tom suddenly stopped:
Far off to the right came the bark of a dog on the run.
"Ain't that old Boney's voice?" the father asked.
"I don't think so," the Boy answered.
The note of wild savage music was one he had never heard before.
"Yes it was, too," was the emphatic decision. He squared his broad shoulders and gave the hunter's shout of answer-joy to the dog's call.
Never had the Boy heard such a shout from human lips. It sent shivers down his spine.
The dog heard and louder came the answering note, a deep tremulous boom through the woods that meant to the older man's trained ear that he was on the run.
"That's old Boney shore's yer born!" the father cried, "an' he ain't got no doubts 'bout hit nother. He's got his head in the air. The trail's so hot he don't have ter nose the ground. You'll hear somethin' in a minute when the younger pups git to him."
Two hounds suddenly opened with long quivering wails.
"Thar's my dogs—they've hit it now!" Dennis cried excitedly.
Another hound joined the procession, then another and another, and in two minutes the whole pack of eight were in full cry.
Again the hunter's deep voice rang his wild cheer through the woods and every dog raised his answering cry a note higher.
"Ain't that music!" Tom cried in ecstacy.
They stood and listened. The dogs were still in the woods and with each yelp were coming nearer. Evidently the trail led toward them, but in the rear and almost toward the exact spot at which they had entered the forest.
"Just listen at old Boney!" the Boy cried. "I can tell him now. He can beat 'em all!"
Loud and clear above the chorus of the others rang the long savage boom of Boney's voice, quivering with passion, defiant, daring, sure of victory! It came at regular intervals as if to measure the miles that separated him from the battle he smelled afar. He was far in the lead. He was past-master of this sport. The others were not in his class.
The Boy's heart swelled with pride.
"Old Boney's showin' 'em all the way!" he exclaimed triumphantly.
"Yer can bet he always does that, Sonny!" the father answered. "That's a hot trail. Nigh ez I can figger we're goin' ter have some fun. There's more'n one coon travelin' over that ground."
"How can you tell?" Dennis asked incredulously.
"Hit's too easy fer the other pups—they'd lose the scent now an' then ef they weren't but one. They ain't lost it a minute since they struck it—Lord, jest listen!"
He paused and held his breath.
"Did ye ever hear anything like hit on this yearth!" Dennis cried.
Every dog was opening now at the top of his voice at regular intervals, the swing and leap of their bodies over the brush and around the trees registering in each stirring note.
Again Tom gave a shout of approval.
The sound of the leader's voice suddenly flattened and faded.
"By Gum!" the old hunter cried, "they've left the woods, struck that field an' makin' for the creek! Ye won't need that axe ter-night, Dennis."
"Wait an' see!" was the short answer.
They hurried from the woods and had scarcely reached the edge of the field when suddenly old Boney's cry stopped short and in a moment the others were silent.
"Good Lord, they've lost it!" Dennis groaned.
And then came the quick, sharp, fierce bark of the leader announcing that the quarry had been located.
Tom gave a yell of triumph and started on a run for the spot.
"Up one o' them big sycamores in the edge o' that water I'll bet!" Dennis wailed.
"You'll need no axe," was the older man's short comment.
They pushed their way rapidly through the cane to the banks of the creek and found the dogs scratching with might and main straight down into the sand about ten feet from the water's edge.
"Well, I'll be doggoned," Dennis cried, "if I ever seed anything like that afore! They've gone plum crazy. They ain't no hole here. A coon can't jist drap inter the ground without a hole."
The old hunter laughed:
"No, but a coon mought learn somethin' from a beaver now an' then an' locate the door to his house under the water line an' climb up here ter find a safe place, couldn't he?"
"I don't believe it!" Dennis sneered.
"You'll have ter go to the house an' git a spade," Tom said finally. "It'll take one ter dig a hole big enough ter ever persuade one er these dogs ter put his nose in that den. Hit ain't more'n a mile ter the house—hurry back."
Dennis started on a run.
"Don't yer let 'em out an' start that fight afore I git here!" he called.
"You'll see it all," Tom reassured him.
He made the dogs stop scratching and lie down to rest.
"Jest save yer strenk, boys," Tom cried. "Yer'll need it presently."
They sat down, the father lit his pipe and told the Boy the story of a great fight he had witnessed on such a creek bank once before in his life.
Day was dawning and the eastern sky reddening.
The Boy stamped on the solid ground and couldn't believe it possible that any dog could smell game through six feet of earth.
He lifted Boney's long nose and looked at it curiously. His wonderful nostrils were widely distended and though he lay quite still in the sand on the edge of the hole his muscles were quivering with excitement and his wistful hound eyes had in them now the red glare of coming battle.
It was quick work when Dennis arrived to throw the sand and soft earth away and open a hole five feet in depth and of sufficient width to allow all the dogs to get foothold inside.
Suddenly the spade crashed through an opening below and the rasp of sharp desperate teeth and claws rang against its polished surface.
"Did you hear that?" Tom laughed.
Another spadeful out and they could be plainly seen. How many it was impossible to tell, but three pairs of glowing bloodshot eyes in the shadows showed plainly.
Tom straightened his massive figure and gave a shout to the dogs. They all danced around the upper rim of the hole and barked with fierce boastful yelps, but not one would venture his nose within two feet of those grim shining eyes.
"Well, Dennis," Tom sighed, "I reckon I'll have ter shove you down thar an' hold ye by the heels while yer pull one of 'em out!"
"I'll be doggoned ef yer do!" he remarked with emphasis.
Tom laughed. "You wuz afeared ye wouldn't git here in time ye know."
"Oh, I'm in time all right!"
The hunter put his hands in his pockets and gazed at the warriors below.
"Waal, we'll try ter git a dog ter yank one of 'em out an' then they'll all come. But I have my doubts. I don't believe that Godamighty ever yet built a dog that'll stick his nose in that hole. Hit takes three dogs ter kill one coon in a fair fight. Old Boney's the only pup I ever seed do it by hisself. But it's askin' too much o' him ter stick his nose in a place like that with three of 'em lookin' right at him ready ter tear his eyes out. But they ain't nothin' like tryin'——"
He paused and looked at the old warrior of a hundred bloody fields, pointed at the bottom of the hole and in stern command shouted:
"Fetch 'em out, Bone!"
With a deep growl the faithful old soldier sprang to the front. With teeth shining in white gleaming rows he scrambled within a foot of the opening of the den, circled it twice, his eyes fixed on the flashing lights below. They followed his every move. He tried the stratagem of right and left flank movements, but the space was too narrow. He dashed straight toward the opening once with a loud angry cry, hoping to get the flash of a coward's back. He met three double rows of white needle-like teeth daring him to come on.
He squatted flat on his belly and growled with desperate fury, but he wouldn't go closer. The hunter urged in vain.
"Hit's no use!" he cried at last. "Jest ez well axe er dog ter walk into a den er lions. I don't blame him."
The Boy's pride was hurt.
"I can make him bring one out," he said.
Tom shook his head:
"Not much. Less see ye?"
The Boy stepped down to the dog's side.
"Look out, ye fool, don't let yer foot slip in thar!" his father warned.
The Boy knelt beside the dog, patted his back and began to talk to him in low tense tones:
"Fetch 'im out, Bone! Go after 'm! Sick 'em, boy, sick 'em!"
Closer and closer the brave old fighter edged his way, only a low mad growl answering to the Boy's urging. His eyes were blazing now in the red rays of the rising sun like two balls of fire. With a sudden savage plunge he hurled himself into the den and quick as a flash of lightning his short hairy neck gave a flirt, and a coon as large as one of the hounds whizzed ten feet into the air, and, with his white teeth shining, struck the ground, lighting squarely on his feet. A hound dashed for him and one slap from the long sharp claws sent him howling and bleeding into the canes.
But old Boney had watched him in the air, and, circling the pack that faced the coon, with a quick leap had downed him. Then every dog was with him and the battle was on. Eight dogs to one coon and yet so sharp were his claws, so keen the steel-like points of his teeth, he sometimes had four dogs rolling in agony beside the growling mass of fur and teeth and nails.
The fight had scarcely begun when one of the remaining coons leaped out of the den. Tom's watchful eye had seen him. He pulled three dogs from the first battle group and hurled them on the new fighter. He had scarcely started this struggle when the third sprang to the top of the earthen breastwork, surveyed the field and with sullen deliberation, trotted to the water's edge, jumped in and, placing two paws on a swaying limb, dared any dog to come.
Here was work for the veteran! Boney was the only dog in the pack who would dare accept that challenge. Tom choked him off the first coon, pulled him to the bank and showed him his enemy in the water. He looked just a moment at the snarling, daring mouth and made the plunge.
The boy had followed the dog and watched with bated breath. He circled the coon twice, swimming in swift graceful curves. But his enemy was too shrewd. A flank movement was impossible. The coon's fierce mouth was squarely facing him at every turn and the dog plunged straight on his foe.
To his horror the Boy saw the fangs sink into his friend's head, four sets of sharp claws circle his neck, a tense grey ball of fur hanging its dead weight below. The water ran red for a moment as both slowly sank to the bottom.
Eyes wide with anguish he heard his father cry:
"By the Lord, he'll kill that dog shore—he's a goner!"
"No, he won't neither!" the Boy shouted, leaping into the water where he saw them go down.
Before his father could warn him of the danger his head disappeared in the deep still eddy.
"Look out for us, Dennis, with a pole I'm goin' ter dive fer 'em!"
In a moment they came to the surface, the man holding the Boy, the Boy grasping his dog, the coon fastened to the dog's head.
"Well, don't that beat the devil!" Tom laughed, as he carried them to a little rocky island in the middle of the creek.
The Boy intent on saving his dog had held his breath and was not even strangled. The dog had buried his nose in the coon's throat and was chewing and choking with savage determination.
Tom stood over them now on the little island with its smooth stone-paved battle arena ringed with the music of laughing waters. He threw both hands above his shaggy head and yelled himself hoarse—the wild cry of the hunter's soul in delirious joy.
A moment's pause, and then the low snarl and growl and clash of tooth and claw! Again the hunter's gnarled hands flew over his head.
"Yaaaiih! Yaaaaiiih! Yaaiih! Yaaaaiiiihhh!!"
On the shore Dennis stood first over one group of swirling, rolling, snarling brutes, and then over the other, yelling and cheering.
The coon on the island suddenly broke his assailant's death-like grip, and, with a quick leap, reached the water. Boney was on him in a moment and down they went beneath the surface again.
The Boy sprang to the rescue.
His father brushed him roughly aside:
"Keep out! I'll git 'em!"
Three times the coon made the dash for deep water and three times Tom carried both dog and coon back to the little island yelling his battle cry anew.
The smooth stones began to show red. Fur and dog hair flew in little tufts and struck the ground, sometimes with the flat splash of red flesh.
The Boy frowned and his lips quivered. At last he could hold in no longer. Through chattering teeth he moaned:
"He'll kill Boney, Pa!"
"Let him alone!" was the sharp command. "I never see sich a dog in my life. He'll kill that coon by hisself, I tell ye!"
Again his enemy broke Boney's grim hold on his throat, sprang back four feet and, to the dog's surprise, made no effort to reach the water. Instead he stood straight and quivering on his hind legs and faced his enemy, his white needle-like fangs gleaming in two rows and his savage fore-claws opening and closing with deadly threat.
The old warrior, taken completely by surprise by this new stratagem of his foe, circled in a vain effort to reach the flank or rear. Each turn only brought them again face to face, and at last he plunged straight on the centre line of attack. With a quick side leap the coon struck the dog's head a blow with his claw that split his ear for three inches as cleanly and evenly as if a surgeon's knife had been used.
With a low growl of rage and pain, Boney wheeled and repeated his assault with the same results for the other ear. He turned in silence and deliberately crept toward his foe. There would be no chance for a side blow. He wouldn't plunge or spring. He might get another bloody gash, but he wouldn't miss again.
This time he found the body, they closed and rolled over and over in close blood-stained grip. For the first time Tom's face showed doubts, and he called to Dennis:
"Choke off two dogs from that fust coon an' throw 'em in here!"
They came in a moment and clinched with Boney's enemy. The charge of two new troopers drove the coon to desperation. The sharp claws flew like lightning. The new dogs ran back into the water with howls of pain and scrambled up the bank to their old job.
Boney paid no attention either to the unexpected assault of his friends or their ignoble desertion. Every ounce of his dog-manhood was up now. It was a battle to the death and he had no wish to live if he couldn't whip any coon that ever made a track in his path.
The Boy's pride was roused now and the fighting instinct that slumbers in every human soul flashed through his excited eyes. He drew near and watched with increasing excitement and joined with his father at last in shouts and cheers.
"Did ye ever see such a dog!" he cried through his tears.
"He beats creation!" was the admiring answer.
The Boy bent low over the squirming pair and his voice was in perfect tune with his dog's low growl:
"Eat him up, Bone! Eat him alive!"
"Don't touch 'em!" Tom warned. "Let 'im have a fair fight—ef he don't kill that coon I'll eat 'im raw, hide an' hair!"
Boney had succeeded at last in fastening his teeth in a firm grip on the coon's throat. He held it without a cry of pain while the claws ripped his ears and gashed his head. Deeper and deeper sank his teeth until at last the razor claws that were cutting relaxed slowly and the long lean body with its beautiful fur lay full length on the red-marked stones.
The dog loosed his hold instantly. His work was done. He scorned to strike a fallen foe. He started to the water's edge to quench his thirst and staggered in a circle. The blood had blinded him.
The Boy sprang to his side, lifted him tenderly in his arms, carried him to the water and bathed his eyes and head.
"He's cut all to pieces!" he sobbed at last. "He'll die—I just know it!"
"Na!" his father answered scornfully. "Be all right in two or three days."
The Boy went back and looked at the slim body of the dead coon with wonder.
"Why did this one fight so much harder than the ones on the bank?" he asked thoughtfully.
"'Cause she's their mother," Tom said casually, "an' them's her two children."
Something hurt deep down in the Boy's soul as he looked at the graceful nose and the red-stained fur at her throat. He saw his mother's straight neck and head outlined again against the starlit sky the night she stood before him rifle in hand and shot at that midnight prowler.
His mouth closed firmly and he spoke with bitter decision:
"I don't like coon hunting. I'm not coming any more."
"Good Lord, Boy, we got ter have skins h'ain't we?" was the hearty answer.
"I reckon so," he sorrowfully admitted. But all the way home he walked in brooding silence.
The following winter brought the event for which the mother had planned and about which she had dreamed since her boy was born—a school!
The men gathered on the appointed day, cut the logs and split the boards for the house. Another day and it was raised and the roof in place.
Tom volunteered to make the teacher's table and chair and benches for the scholars. He had the best set of tools in the county and he wished to do it because he knew it would please his wife. There was no money in it but his life was swiftly passing in that sort of work. He was too big-hearted and generous to complain. Besides the world in which he lived—the world of field and wood, of dog and gun, of game and the open road was too beautiful and interesting to complain about it. He was glad to be alive and tried to make his neighbors think as he did about it.
When the great day dawned the young mother eagerly prepared breakfast for her children. She wouldn't allow Sarah to help this morning. It must be a perfect day in her life. She washed the Boy's face and hands with scrupulous care when the breakfast things were cleared away, and her grey eyes were shining with a joy he had never seen before. He caught her excitement and the spirit of it took possession of his imagination.
"What'll school be like, Ma?" he asked in a tense whisper.
"Oh, this one won't be very exciting; maybe in a little room built of logs. But it's the beginning, Boy, of greater things. Just spelling, reading, writing and arithmetic now—but you're starting on the way that leads out of these silent, lonely woods into the big world where great men fight and make history. Your father has never known this way. He's good and kind and gentle and generous, but he's just a child, because he doesn't know. You're going to be a man among men for your mother's sake, aren't you?"
She seized his arms and gripped them in her eagerness until he felt the pain.
"Won't you, Boy?" she repeated tensely.
He looked up steadily and then slowly said:
"Yes, I will."
She clasped him impulsively in her arms and hurried from the cabin leading the children by the hand. The Boy could feel her slender fingers trembling.
When they drew near the cross roads where the little log house had been built, she stopped, nervously fixed their clothes, took off the Boy's cap and brushed his thick black hair.
They were the first to arrive, but in a few minutes others came, and by nine o'clock more than thirty scholars were in their seats. The mother's heart sank within her when she met the teacher and heard him talk. It was only too evident that he was poorly equipped for his work. He could barely read and could neither write nor teach arithmetic. The one qualification about which there was absolute certainty, was that he could lick the biggest boy in school whenever the occasion demanded it. He conveyed this interesting bit of information to the assemblage in no uncertain language.
The mother could scarcely keep back her tears. By the end of the week it was plain that her children knew as much as their teacher.
"What's the use?" Tom asked in disgust. "Hit's a waste o' time an' money. Let 'em quit!"
"No, I can't take them out!" was the firm reply. "They may not learn much, but if the school keeps going, don't you see, a better man will come bye and bye, and then it will be worth while."
Tom shook his head, but let her have her own way.
"Besides," she went on, "he'll learn something being with the other children."
"Learn to fight, mebbe," the husband laughed.
He did, too, and the way it came about was as big a surprise to the Boy as it was to the youngster he fought.
The small bully of the school lived in the same direction as the Boy and Sarah. They frequently walked together for a mile going or coming and grew to know one another well. The Boy disliked this tow-head urchin from the moment they met. But he was quiet, unobtrusive and modest and generally allowed the loud-mouthed one to have his way. The tow-head took the Boy's quiet ways for submission and insisted on patronizing his friend. The Boy good-naturedly submitted when it cost him nothing of self-respect.
At the close of school, the tow-head whispered:
"Come by the spring with me, I want to show you somethin'!"
"No, I don't want to," he replied.
"Let Sarah go on an' we'll catch her—I got a funny trick ter show you. You'll kill yourself a-laughin'."
The Boy's curiosity was aroused and he consented.
They hastened to the spring where the embers of a fire at which the scholars were accustomed to warm their lunch, were still smouldering. The tow-headed one drew from the corner of the fence a turtle which he had captured and tied, scooped a red-hot coal from the fire with a piece of board and placed it on the turtle's back.
The poor creature, tortured by the burning coal, started in a scramble trying to run from the fire. The tow-head roared with laughter.
The Boy flushed with sudden rage, sprang forward and knocked the coal off.
The two faced each other.
"You do that again an' I'll knock you down!" shouted the bully.
"You do it again and I'll knock you down," was the sturdy answer.
"You will, will you?" the tow-head cried with scorn. "Well, I'll show you."
With a bound he replaced the coal.
The Boy knocked it off and pounced on him.
The fight was brief. They had scarcely touched the ground before the Boy was on top pounding with both his little, clinched fists.
"Stop it—you're killin' me!" the under one screamed.
"Will you let him alone?" the Boy hissed.
"You're killin' me, I tell ye!" the tow-head yelled in terror. "Stop it I say—would you kill a feller just for a doggoned old cooter?"
"Will you let him alone?"
"Yes, if ye won't kill me."
The Boy slowly rose. The tow-head leaped to his feet and with a look of terror started on a run.
"You needn't run, I won't hit ye again!" the Boy cried.
But the legs only moved faster. Never since he was born did the Boy see a pair of legs get over the ground like that. He sat down and laughed and then hurried on to join Sarah.
He didn't tell his sister what had happened. His mother mustn't know that he had been in a fight. But when he felt the touch of her hand on his forehead that night as he rose from her knee he couldn't bear the thought of deceiving her again and so he confessed.
"It wasn't wrong, was it, to fight for a thing like that?" he asked wistfully.
"No," came the answer. "He needed a thrashing—the little scoundrel, and I'm glad you did it."
The school flickered out in five weeks and the following summer another lasted for six weeks.
And then they moved to the land Tom had staked off in the heart of the great forest fifteen miles from the northern banks of the Ohio. He would still be in sight of the soil of Kentucky.
The Boy's heart beat with new wonder as they slowly floated across the broad surface of the river. He could conceive of no greater one.
"There is a bigger one!" his father said. "The Mississippi is the daddy of 'em all—the Ohio's lost when it rolls into her banks—stretchin' for a thousand miles an' more from the mountains in the north way down to the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans."
"And it's all ours?" he asked in wonder.
"Yes, and plenty more big ones that pour into hit from the West."
The Boy saw again the impassioned face of the orator telling the glories of his country, and his heart swelled with pride.
They left the river and plunged into the trackless forest. No roads had yet scarred its virgin soil. Only the blazed trail for the first ten miles—the trail Tom had marked with his own hatchet—and then the magnificent woods without a mark. Five miles further they penetrated, cutting down the brush and trees to make way for the wagon.
They stopped at last on a beautiful densely wooded hill near a stream of limpid water. A rough camp was quickly built Indian fashion and covered with bear skins.
The next day the father put into the Boy's hand the new axe he had bought for him.
"You're not quite eight years old, Boy," he said, encouragingly, "but you're big as a twelve-year-old an' you're spunky. Do you think you can swing an axe that's a man's size?"
"Yes," was the sturdy answer.
And from that day he did it with a song on his lips no matter how heavy the heart that beat in his little breast.
At first they cut the small poles and built a half-faced camp, and made it strong enough to stand the storms of winter in case a cabin could not be finished before spring. This half-faced camp was made of small logs built on three sides, with the fourth open to the south. In front of this opening the log fire was built and its flame never died day or night.