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MOTHERING ON PERILOUS
(KENTUCKY MOUNTAIN SKETCHES)
BY LUCY FURMAN
Author of "Stories of a Sanctified Town"
UCKY, otherwise Enoch, Marrs was one of the ten boys who ran away from the Settlement School on Perilous the first week in August, on account of homesickness. Two days after Miss Loring came over to the small boys' cottage to live, he was returned by his father; but before the latter was out of sight, he calmly announced that he did n't aim to stay, and that neither his paw nor anybody else was able to make him. Miss Loring believed this, one glance at his vivid face and combative eyes convinced her. "Very well," she said, "if you find you cannot be satisfied, of course you must go. But it will hurt my feelings a good deal; however, don't think of them.'
'What difference is it to you?" he demanded, with a piercing look.
"Only this, I have come over here to the cottage to be happy with you boys I am lonely and need you-and if you can't like me well enough to stay, life will seem a failure."
Nucky pondered a long time, with large gray eyes fixed on Miss Loring's face. "I don't know as I'll go right off," he said, after a while.
"Oh, thank you," she replied, gratefully. Nucky was eleven, and his home was on Trigger Branch of Powderhorn, eighteen miles distant from the school, in Boyne County. Mr. Marrs had said before leaving that Nucky was a master scholar when he could leave off fighting long enough to learn his books. This, and like remarks dropped by other parents, led Miss Loring to anticipate a strenuous life at the cottage. But, to her surprise, the
remaining days of that, week passed off smoothly, confirming her theory that the wild and martial traits are likely to be atrophied in an atmosphere of love and gentleness.
True, there were a few straws, especially in Nucky's case, to show which way the wind might blow if it listed. On Thursday at breakfast, when Geordie Yonts undertook to instruct the new boys in table manners, and informed Nucky that it was not proper to eat with his knife, he was silenced by a jab of the knife in his direction, and a threat to cut out his liver; at dinner the same day, when Philip Floyd snatched a sweet-potato from Nucky's plate, he received a spoonful of sop (gravy) full in the face; the next morning when Miss Loring had the boys back in the barn shelling corn for mill, and Taulbee Bolling made a disparaging remark about Trigger Branch and "Bloody Boyne," the pitchfork sailed over his head, grazing it slightly but painfully. Saturday being combined wash- and cleaningday at the school, and a breathless time for everybody (Hen Salyer had to be punished that night for calling it a day), there was little chance to get into trouble.
Sunday morning, however, there was in the cottage air a noticeable restlessness, which worked itself off to some extent in excitement over new Sunday clothes, and in a good deal of squirming and shuffling in church. The Heads had requested that the boys be kept as quiet as possible all day; and Miss Loring, realizing that the afternoon, with its large leisure, might
prove difficult, planned to thrill her flock and speed the flight of time by reading Robinson Crusoe, never having heard of a boy who was not fascinated by it. She began in the thick of the story, where Crusoe is actually in sight of his island, and read with judicious skippings. What was her chagrin to see one pair after another of bright, roving eyes dull and close, one head after another roll over on the grass (they were out in the cottage yard), Nucky holding out longest, and murmuring wearily, as his head settled back against a tree, "Did n't he never get into no fights, or kill nobody?"
Miss Loring sat for a long time in deep discouragement, gazing at the twelve sleepers, and wondering what would be the proper literary milk for her babes. When they awoke, she gave them permission to play to play mumble-peg, very, very quietly; and they made a tremendous effort, but it was the last straw. After supper, when they were gathered around the sitting-room table, for ten minutes of Sunday-school lesson, the storm broke. Nucky kicked Keats on the shin; Keats called him a smotch-eyed polecat; the two grappled. Hen flew to his big brother's assistance, and Iry and Joab Atkins to Nucky's; Philip rushed in on the Salyer side, followed by Taulbee; Geordie and Absalom joined the Marrs faction, Killis and Hosea the Salyer; while little Jason Wyatt, eight, and just arrived that day, flew joyously into the fray, impartially attacking both sides. It all happened in a flash, and before Miss Loring could catch her breath, the table was overturned, chairs were flying, and Bedlam had broken loose. In vain she implored, commanded, threatened, — she might as well have called to the raging sea.
Dreadful moments followed, during which she could only dodge chairs, and wring her hands wildly. Worse was to come, however, for in another instant- she saw Keats grab the tongs, Killis the shovel, Geordie the poker, Nucky a hatchet, while Philip calmly wrested off a table-leg, and the others either smashed chairs to pieces for weapons, or seized remaining tablelegs. Then indeed she felt that death was imminent for all concerned, and running to the door, shrieked loudly for Granville Dudley and the other big boys who roomed over the workshop. Returning, she plucked
the broom from Iry's hands, and rushed with it, straw-end foremost, into the thick of the fight. She was hit on the head by a shovel, on the shoulder by a table-leg, on the elbow by something, but her broom received the worst of the blows. It is not safe to say what might have been the outcome had not Granville opportunely arrived, snatched the broom from Miss Loring and turned the handle-end on the boys, beating and whacking them mercilessly until they finally surrendered their weapons, and retired, bloody but happy, from the encounter.
That night Miss Loring lay long awake, nursing bruises and reconstructing theories. She sadly admitted that love and gentleness needed to be backed up by good muscle, and that, to be a success in her undertaking as cottage mother, she required, not the weak bodily presence which, like Paul, she actually possessed, but the strength of an Amazon. Next morning, while she was making a visit to the loom-house, inspiration came. She asked and received from the Heads permission for Cleo Royce, the head-weavinggirl, a splendid, large, handsome young woman, to come over and live with her at the cottage.
Of course the boys were punished for that fight, losing several days' playtime. Miss Loring also talked to them most earnestly on the subject. "Why, it's just an accident you did n't kill one another or me," she said, "and then how would you have felt?"
"I'd hate right smart to have kilt a woman," replied Nucky, "but gee, I would n't mind layin' out a few boys! I got to begin somewheres-a man hain't nobody till he 's kilt a few-and I can tell them boys right now they aim to die when they name me names, or make me mad. Same as Blant and Ezry,-all Trigger knows it can't fool with them."
The following Sunday afternoon, as soon as dinner was over, Miss Loring promptly started with her boys for the open, taking them several miles up Perilous, to a beautiful, retired glen where they could shout, play, fight (without weapons), and make all the noise they pleased; a safety-valve that then and afterward proved of much value.
That second Sunday night, also, she happened upon acceptable literary food.
She was asking Killis if he knew for whom he was named, and telling him she thought it must be for Achilles, a man who lived several thousand years ago, and was the greatest fighter of his time. There were unanimous demands to hear all about him, and she began telling the story of the Trojan War, this time to be followed with intense, almost breathless interest, and roars of refusal when she tried to leave off. As she related one fearful combat after another, she realized, with a shock, that what her babes wanted was not milk at all, but blood.
The next morning, while the boys were busy in the cottage before breakfast, Keats sauntered in, saying he had finished his job of cleaning the chicken-yard. Miss Loring went back to inspect it, found it anything but clean, and called up to Hen, who was sweeping the back walk, "Tell Keats to come back here and clean this yard better!" He had just passed the word along, "Hi, son, she says for you to come back and lick your calf over!" when a commotion arose in the cottage, and Nucky appeared in the back door, waving frantically for Miss Loring to come. Not knowing what battle, murder, or sudden death might be impending, she flew up the walk. The boys were all hanging out of the front door. Nucky seized her and shot her through them like a catapult. "Take a look at that 'ere man!" he said, breathlessly. "It's Asher Hardwick, from over on Powderhorn. He 's kilt forty men in war, and eleven in peace, and I'll bet he could whoop-out Achilles!" A gaunt, gray-haired, respectable-looking man was passing, on a well-fed nag. "Surely you must be mistaken," said Miss Loring; "why, he does n't look as if he would harm a fly!" "Would n't, less'n he was driv to it," replied Nucky; "but he 's been compelled to wipe out the whole tribe of Mohuns, over yander in Boyne, and a lot of others, too, that got theirselves mixed up in the war. More 'n twenty year' that war 's been a-going on. Asher he 's about the only Hardwick left now."
"But how could he kill eleven in peace?" she inquired.
"Kilt them just accidental,-they was witless folks that never knowed enough to keep out of the way when he was out after the Mohuns. Asher he 'd feel terrible bad about killing such as that."
The Saturday night following, when Miss Loring began again on the Trojan War, it was to be interrupted frequently by Nucky, with, "I can beat that with Asher Hardwick!" "Asher would n't have took no such sass from Agamemnon or nobody!" "Asher would have got the drop on Hector too long ago to talk about!" and then would follow exploits which did indeed sometimes beat Greeks and Trojans. And at the end of the evening, Nucky remarked, "If Achilles and Ajax and them had a-lived nowadays, they 'd a-got song-ballads made up about 'em, same as Asher Hardwick. There's four or five about him. Basil Beaumont, over on Trigger, he made up one, "The Doom of the Mohuns,'-Blant and Ezry sings it."
I know another," chimed in Absalom, taking down Geordie's little home-made banjo from the "fireboard," and starting up a long-drawn, indescribably doleful and bloody song, "Asher's Revengement," that fairly made the chills run up and down Miss Loring's spine.
Then, all of a sudden, she almost jumped out of her chair as the meaning of it all flashed upon her, and she realized the astonishing fact that she was set down in the very midst of a heroic age, a balladmaking age, an age rivaling in romance and daring the far-famed epoch of which she had been telling. "Why," she said, after her amazement had subsided a little, "Achilles and the others did have songballads made up about them, -the very stories I am relating to you now; and a blind poet, named Homer, gathered these together, and made them into one glorious song, which he went about singing from palace to palace, charming the souls of men."
"Same as Basil Beaumont," replied Nucky. "He follows making song-ballads, and never does nary lick of work,- don't have to, folks gives him his bed and victuals just to set in the chimley-corner and pick on his dulcimer and sing songballads. Gee, I aim to be a hero like Asher and Achilles, and kill as many as them, and git song-ballads made up about me!"
In pursuance of this noble ambition, Nucky was almost never out of a fight during his moments of leisure for weeks after school began. All the boys were
combative enough; but Nucky was the most indefatigable. It seemed a necessity. It seemed a necessity of his nature to measure and prove himself against all comers, whether among the cottage boys, or the hundred and more dayschool boys; and he never appeared really happy except when in a fight.
One thing weighed on his mind heavily for some time, and that was the acceptance by the other boys of the prowess of Killis Blair, on the mere strength of his having "fit the marshal that kilt his paw." This did not satisfy Nucky. He was impelled to doubt all things he himself had not proved. (The fact that Killis was a year older and a good deal larger than himself, was a trifle light as air to him.) So one Sunday morning in September, coming over from breakfast at the Big House, he suddenly slapped Killis in the mouth. With a bellow of surprised rage at the insult, Killis fell upon him, and an awful combat followed. Miss Loring was standing in the back cottage door, drinking in the beauty of the morning, and the Sabbath peace of the hills, when savage yells smote her ears. Following the sound she knew only too well, she hastened to the school yard. When she arrived, Nucky had just buried his teeth in Killis's arm, from which the blood was spurting, and Killis, blind with pain, was striking out wildly with his knife. Around the combatants the other boys formed a delighted, cheering circle, within which Philip danced madly around, shouting,
"Fight, dogs, you hain't no kin;
'F you kill one another, tain't no sin!"
The next instant, Nucky abandoned the hold with his teeth, and was flashing his own knife around Killis's throat. With a shinny-stick, Miss Loring knocked up one knife after the other, and kept death at bay until four of the grown-up boys arrived, and with difficulty separated the heroes and escorted them over to the trained nurse to have their wounds stanched and dressed.
Later, when the two (now bosom friends, and probably already plotting the joint attacks which later so greatly humiliated the day-scholars) were losing a whole week's playtime for fighting with weapons, and were solemnly talked to on the subject by Miss Loring, Killis pleaded
that a man had to revenge himself when insulted, while Nucky gave as his excuse that his great-great-grandpaw had fit the British, his grandpaw had fit the "Rebels," and his paw and Blant and Ezry had been fighting the Cheevers ever since he could recollect, and he himself was just bound to fight everything in sight,—that he'd rather die than think there was a better man anywhere than himself.
He had no idea who the British or the "Rebels" were; but the reference gave Miss Loring an opening which she seized eagerly. She explained the difference between fighting just to be fighting, and fighting to save one's country, and gave them an extended talk on the subject of patriotism. And although their country, to them, meant their mountains, and they were astonished to hear that the great "level country" beyond was also theirs to love and fight for, their affections were hospitable, and they demanded that an enemy of the nation be produced at once.
Miss Loring also thought it as well to bring the Trojan War to an abrupt end (oh, the tears and lamentations over the death of Horse-Taming Hector!) and to read the boys stories of other heroes who won immortal glory by fighting, not one another, but dragons, giants, minotaurs, gorgons, and monsters of various kinds, the devourers and scourges of their countrymen.
These, too, were not without ill effects, chiefly in conjunction with the poetic imagination of Jason Wyatt. When Miss Loring went out one morning and found three poor barn cats writhing in their death struggles, while Jason galloped off on a stick horse brandishing a bat, she was not mollified by his explanation that he was Bellerophon and the cats the three heads of the Chimera; and when, two weeks later, hearing a great noise in the chicken-yard, she found eight chickens. laid out dead, and Jason climbing down from the fence with his shirt-front still half full of "rocks," the statement that he was Thor slaying the Jotuns did not save him a good whipping.
Fortunately, it was the plebeian chickens, bought at ten cents apiece and kept only until killing time, that suffered; though there were signs in the smaller yard occupied by the Rhode Island Reds (two pullets and a young rooster sent up
by a friend from the Blue Grass, and spoken.
To save them particularly, and to discourage cruelty in general, Miss Loring made a rule that day that any boy who threw a rock at any animal thereafter should receive a hard whipping at her hands, and if Jason did so again, he should have three. She anticipated no trouble with the older boys in this regard, well knowing that nothing on earth could be so antipathetic to their minds as the thought of "taking a whipping off a woman."
Hopefully as all the boys, and especially Nucky, searched for giants, dragons, and minotaurs in caves, coal-banks, rock-dens, and hollow logs during the Sunday walks thereafter, they found nothing worse than rattlesnakes, which were but a tame substitute, and an old story; but the value of drawing their minds to foes in the abstract was apparent in the gradual diminution of fighting, and in a rapid growth of the desire to defend and glorify their country rather than themselves. This change Miss Loring observed with joy. She believed. that her boys, and other mountain boys like them, had great gifts to bring to their nation. Fearless, proud, honest, and truthful as they were, strengthened by a handto-hand struggle with nature from their very infancy, beginning at four or five years of age to shoulder such family responsibilities as hoeing corn on the steep mountainsides, clearing new-ground, grubbing, logging, hunting, and gathering the crop, they would be able to bring to the service of their country primal energy of body and spirit, indestructible valor, and minds untainted by the lust of wealth. Oftentimes she spoke to them of these things, and praised them for the fine traits she saw in them, and above all for their truthfulness, telling them this was the foremost virtue of the hero. Jason she was compelled to except from praise in this respect; but she did so in hope.
When the abatement in fighting gave Miss Loring some opportunity to become. really acquainted with her boys, she discovered that Nucky had other strains in him beside the martial one. Of all the bright minds in her flock, his was the swiftest, the most lightning-like. He derstood a thing almost before it was
As he expressed it, "Learning comes handy to me." At study hour in the evenings, the others would go to him for help in their arithmetic and geography and language; and it was astonishing to hear his lucid explanations to boys a foot taller than himself. Also, there were in him certain delicate and deep reticences. He was in the school two months before he ever spoke of his mother, though Miss Loring had heard from others of her death more than a year before. One day when all the boys were bragging about their mothers, alive or dead, Nucky suddenly left the room. Hen reported later, "I tracked him to the hay-loft, and heared him a-layin' up there cryin' fit to kill for his maw."
Afterward, when he found that Miss Loring, too, was homesick for dear ones she would never see again in this world, he was able to talk of his mother to her; and the tie between them became very close and dear. His mind had from the first been a joy to her; and now a wild, shy, intense quality of his affectional nature captivated her more and more. was he who always sat at her right hand in the crowded semicircle before the fire when stories were told or read, having won the place in fair fight.
But if he brought her happiness, his daring spirit also caused her suffering in even greater measure. To look up from the garden and see him balancing on the ridge-pole of the Big House, with the steep, slippery roof slanting off dangerously beneath him; to watch him shin up to the tip of the tallest tree, and then, on his descent, jump from a limb thirty feet above the ground; to behold him hanging by his hands out over space, from the top ledge of the Raven Rocks, the highest point for miles around, were things not calculated to soothe her nerves. At all times he seemed under some inward compulsion of proving his valor, realizing his intention of being a hero. When the big "tide" came in Perilous in early November, sweeping away all the stable-lot fence and much of the rock embankment, what was Miss Loring's terror, on hearing loud calls and cheers from the stable, to see Nucky out in the middle of the yellow, boiling flood, standing calmly on a swift log, which even as she glanced, shot around a curve and out of sight. Ten minutes of