I LEAVE HOME
Economising.--Zedekiah Blake.--Wood-chopping.--Rabbit- hunting.--The trapper.--A touch of earthquake.--A creek accident.--Ague.--A touch of scurvy.--Scarcity of nutton.--A whisky accident.--Maloy.--Council Grove.--How to make dogs hardy.--A camp-meeting
THIS winter, owing to our losses by the prairie fire, was rather a rough one for our family party. We had none too much produce left, and as regards cash-well, that always is a scarce article in the West, where our clothing and groceries are mostly obtained by trading corn, etc., in town. We therefore dispensed with a good many luxuries, such as coffee, sugar, etc. For the first, we roasted rye to mix with coffee, but eventually adopted it altogether, and it made a very decent drink. To sweeten it we used molasses-home-made treacle, of which we had about sixty gallons. This article is very much used. It is on the
table at every meal, the Americans often pouring it over their pork and beans. It is the produce of the sorghum-cane, a plant closely allied to the regular sugar-cane, but the syrup is rather more fruity than the regular treacle. Sugar can be made by boiling it down sufficiently, but it is seldom done. The cane is cut about the middle of September, the leaves and tops cut off, and then hauled to the mill. This is turned by horse-power, and when the cane is passed between rollers all the juice is squeezed out and caught in a trough. From here it is removed to a great boiler and boiled down to syrup, being skimmed from time to time. The canes, after being squeezed, are of no use save for burning or covering the roofs of sheds, etc., and are not eaten by cattle, although the leaves and seeds may be.
Broom-corn is a plant of very similar growth, but grows rather higher, twelve or fourteen feet, as a rule; and it always seemed to me that there was a dreadful waste of force somewhere, for the only part that is of any use is just the top, where the seeds grow. The tops are cut off about a foot long, and the seeds pulled off, leaving the stalks upon which they grow, which
are used to make our regular carpet-brooms and brushes of. All the rest of the stalk is burned.
We dispensed with oil during this winter, so that we could have no light at night; therefore, before it was dark we had our supper, and perhaps sat round the fire a little while, and then went to bed. I escaped a lot of this, for, owing to the cattle being away, and there being little to do for four persons, I went down to spend the winter with an acquaintance on Monkre's Creek, some twenty miles south of our home.
Old Zedekiah Blake was a little shrivelled-up man with a big wife and an only child, a daughter of five-and-twenty. The old people were originally from England,-many years ago, in fact, before the daughter was born,- and had travelled pretty well all over the States.
They lived in a little old log-house, with but one room, with a small lean-to for a kitchen. The room served for all purposes save cooking. The meals were taken in it, and there were three beds in the corners (one being for any visitors or travellers that might happen to come that way). My roosting-place was on the floor
in the attic, which was reached by a ladder through a trap-door in the ceiling of the room. It was fearfully cold up there, with the wind and snow whistling through the chinks between the logs, and under the home-made split-oak shingles which formed the roof. I would often wake up to find my bed covered with snow, and drifts all over the floor.
My father came with me to Blake's, and after spending a day or two returned to the prairie, leaving me to help the old man through the winter. My wages were board, clothes, and lodging, which is about all one can reckon upon in winter, especially a boy. The old man was wintering a lot of cattle fresh from Texas for a man in town, so that there was plenty of work feeding and watering, and otherwise looking after their welfare.
Being winter time the herd law was not enforced, and, in fact, it is a dead letter down there, where all the farms are on the creek, where timber for fences is plentiful, and prairie settlers are scarce, as the high land is too poor. We were bothered a good deal by strange cattle, which seemed to wish to become acquainted with ours, especially about feeding-time.
All through this winter I worked mighty hard, cutting timber with the old man, and hauling it to town for sale. We used between us to cut two cords or mote a day. A cord is a pile of wood six feet long by three feet high, and three feet wide, and is a good load for two horses over a rough country road. This quantity is a good day's work; for a man,and as I guess that I cut as much as old Zedekiah, I think that I quite earned my pay. It was pretty heavy work, swinging an axe all day, or Using a heavy beetle and wedges to split up the trunks of the trees after being felled. Still it was an agreeable change after the herding, and the home was more comfortable, and living better than up at the prairie, and there were some womenkind about.
On Sundays, too, I cleaned up a bit, and rode to meeting occasionally at the school-house, a thing quite unknown before. Some Sundays we would all go to spend the day with some friends of the Blakes. The old people would drive over in the buggy, while Miss Blake and I rode on horseback. Of course during my herding I had had considerable practice in riding, and one of my first jobs was to
break in a three-year-old colt to ride. She was rather vicious, but I managed all right, and did not get thrown at all. In fact, I do not remember ever having been absolutely thrown. I came a cropper a few times, owing to the horse falling under me, as when crossing the stream with the milk pail; and on another occasion I was riding a pony at a stone fence, when he caught his foot in the top and fell over. I went right over his head; turned a somersault, and came down on my back, and the pony stumbled over me, giving me a tread on the ribs as he passed on.
I was treated quite as one of the family, as is usual with farm "helps" over there. Miss Blake and I belonged to a singing-class conducted by Dick Utt, a neighbouring farmer, and we used to have a fine time riding about to spend the evening at the various houses where they met for practice. We used also to have spelling-bees and other entertainments at the school-house.
Occasionally, when the snow was deep on the ground, and we could not work well in the woods, I would take a couple of dogs and go rabbit-hunting. I often caught a good many,
as the dogs would run them into hollow trees, from which I could easily dislodge them by cutting a gap to insert a forked stick. This I twisted into their fur, and drew them out, and then settled them with a blow of the hand across the back of the neck.
I used to do a good deal of trapping also, catching quails, etc., besides martens and weasels, by the creek side in steel traps. Sometimes rabbits got into the quail traps, but after eating the bait they usually got out again, either by scratching away the earth, or by biting through the boards of which the trap was made, much to my disgust.
When out on my excursions I used sometimes to meet a man who lived in a cave in the woods-a trapper. He was a nice-looking fellow, with long black hair, and was clad in buckskin. He was living entirely upon the produce of his traps and rifle, and went about the creeks from place to place as game became scarce in the district he was working. He was a morose sort of man, and although I saw him several times in the woods he never spoke.
As the spring grew on I heard nothing
about returning to the prairie, and so I just continued on at work for the old man on the same terms. I guess he had a good bargain, for I did a man's work without a man's pay. Still I had not much cause to complain, for had I been up on the prairie, I should not have been any better off in that respect, and a good deal worse as regards comfort in living and clothing, for, of course, I had no cooking, or washing and mending, to do at Blake's, as was the case at home.
Miss Blake made me quite a fancy "boiled" shirt for Sundays, etc. It was a blue check calico or something, with three rows of white frills all down the front, and which, owing to the absence of a waistcoat, showed off to fine advantage. The old lady made me some "bluejeans" pants, so that with a pair of knee boots with red tops I guess I rather took the shine out of my friends at home.
After ploughing the land and getting the crops planted, we had to overhaul the fences, which was no slight job. There was a ring fence enclosing about one hundred and twenty acres, and this had to be put in repair for the summer, and kept proof against the hogs and cattle that roamed about. It was a zigzag or snake fence, as is usually built where wood is plentiful. Twelve-feet rails are laid on the ground in a series of wide V shapes, and piled one on another until about eight deep, then stakes are driven in the ground, crossing at the top rail, and then a heavy log or "rider" is thrown into the V formed by the two stakes, which binds it all together. The rider is usually heavy enough to prevent cattle from lifting it off. This forms a good fence, but is dreadfully extravagant with wood. With all this, when the crops grew up we were often bothered by cattle, and more particularly by mules, breaking in, when it was my job to mount a pony, take a big whip, and chase them out with the dogs. Two of the dogs were very useful; they would rush after the mules as they galloped away and bite their fetlocks, and then crouch so low that the mules kicked clean over them; or they would take a cow by the tail or ear, and hang on like grim Death.
After the crops were all planted, there was little for me to do for a couple of months, and so I was sent to school, which was two
miles away. I guess I did not learn much, for I believe that I could have taught the "school-marm" more than she taught me, though I improved myself a bit in spelling, arithmetic, and United States geography.
By this time the Indian corn was pretty high, and had to be "cultivated."
One day, when at work in the fields driving a brush harrow, we had a smart shock of earthquake. It did no damage, however, only making everything tremble a bit, and rattling down some of the crockery in the house. Slight shocks are not infrequent, but I have not heard of any at all severe.
Thunderstorms and high winds are rather prevalent, sometimes accompanied with heavy rains, which cause the creeks to rise many feet above their normal height in a very short time. At all the fords to the creeks are marks cut on the trees, showing the depth of the water, and when it is dangerous to cross. It often happens that a farmer will go to town in the morning crossing a creek perhaps threefeet deep, and by evening the water may be twelve or fifteen feet, and he must wait a day or two to get home.
One of our neighbours lost three children at one time in the creek. Four little ones had gone to school in the morning, crossing the stream by stepping-stones, but a heavy rain having fallen, the water rose so much that one of the boys was sent from home to carry them across in the waggon. He passed the creek safely going to them, but on returning the water had risen still further, and the current was so strong that the waggon was overturned, and three of the five children were drowned as well as the two horses. The other two children were washed against some trees, to which they clung until rescued.
As we were near the main road, sometimes we had to entertain travellers who were delayed by the water for a few days, if the rain continued; but the creeks not being very long, they go down as quickly as they rise.
Occasionally the people camped out in the woods, and came to the house for hay, etc. Now and then they stuck in the mud in crossing, and we were awakened in the night to go and lend them a hand with ropes and poles to get them out.
Ague was rather prevalent in the summer
on the creeks, but I never had a fit of the "shakes" myself. It is confined pretty much to the creeks, though occasionally there was a case up on the prairie. I remember once that a neighbour's son was with us when we boys went swimming, and would not go in the water, as his father had told him he would get the ague. This did not deter us; we swam, and did not get the "shakes," while he stopped out and did get them. None of our party ever had them at all; in fact, we were never ill. Occasionally we got a little out of order inside through errors in eating, but were never laid up for a day, and never saw a doctor.
I must except one occasion though, and that was when I was staying down at Blake's. I was troubled by my gums leaving my teeth during the winter. This the doctor told Miss Blake (who was affected in the same way) was caused by so much salt meat and so few. vegetables, and was in reality a slight attack of scurvy. With the spring, however, it soon passed away, though it left some of my teeth rather loose.
Pork was our usual food, fresh or frozen in
winter, and smoked or salted in summer, though varied occasionally by our poultry or wild fowl. Beef we did not often have,-we only killed once a year,-and as for mutton- well, in six years I only tasted it twice, and that was off the same sheep, a pet one killed by a neighbour of old Blake's. Sheep are now, however, being raised in Kansas. In hot weather several neighbours sometimes agreed together to take part of a pig killed by one of them, so that there should be no danger of it not keeping.
We kept a bottle of "Pain-killer" in the house, and we also had a demijohn of whisky for medicinal purposes. This was really got as a cure for snake bites, but we never had occasion to use it for that purpose. I knew a man who had been bitten twice by deadly snakes, one a rattlesnake, and the other a copperhead. One he put his hand upon while quarrying rock, and the other he sat upon. He drank lots of whisky and recovered, but it does not always act. My father was once up at Salina, a town some thirty-five miles west of us, and saw a man attempt for a wager to carry a rattlesnake across the street and
back in his bare hand. He succeeded in taking it across, but upon returning it to the box the snake bit him. Whisky was at once procured to any extent, but all in vain. The poison was too strong for him, and in an hour he was a dead man.
As we were never called upon to tap our demijohn for this purpose, we broached it one Christmas Day, and invited our neighbours to help drink it. On one occasion I was a little queer, and my father gave me about half a cupful, neat. It proved rather too strong for me, for shortly afterwards I lay down on my back on a bench, kicked up my heels, and laughed both loud and long, at nothing. I eventually fell asleep, and was put to bed in my clothes. I awoke next morning knowing nothing about it, but I had a splitting headache.
But I must return to Blake's.
There was a man living close to us named Maloy, a "squatter,"-that is, a man who had no land of his own, but had built a shanty on Government land. He was an emigrant from Tennessee, a "poor white," a man that the niggers looked down upon, almost too proud to work, but too poor to do without. He
suffered a great deal from the "shakes," after a fit of which, in a sort of nigger dialect, he would describe himself as feeling "powerful weak." His speech was certainly peculiar; little things were "mighty tiny" or "tremendous small." He lived by working about among the farmers.
On the 4th July we all went to celebrate Independence Day at Council Grove, where a grand picnic was held in the woods. There were the usual oratorical flights, bands of music, parades through the town, and a general display of enthusiasm and Sunday clothes.
Council Grove is situated on the River Neosho, and is said to take its name from a patch of timber, where, before the land was settled, five men stopped on their travels, and held a council as to the advisability of going further west. Three decided to keep on through the Indian country, and were killed, while the other two returned in safety to the settlements. It is also said that the Indians held their councils in the same grove. It is now a large thriving town, with flour and saw mills, schools, newspapers, and churches.
I used often to go fishing in the creek, which was well stocked with sun-fish, black bass, suckers, cat-fish, etc. There were also plenty of turtles, and some big gar-fish, a great ugly fish something like a pike, but not good for eating.
As all the creek land had been settled for several years, "varmint" was not so common as up on the prairie, but sometimes we came across snakes, etc. One day I was ploughing, and tool; the top off a hole where lay a big bull snake. I saw him just in time, and swung on the plough handles to lift my feet clear, and was dragged by. Then I stopped the horses, and went back and killed the vile thing.
Another day Miss Blake and I were out in the woods gathering wild gooseberries, when she had a narrow escape of being bitten. A black snake was coiled up in a bush, and she only just saw it in time to jump back as it sprang. She called out to me, and I then rushed up and killed it.
We used to get a good deal of wild fruit here of various kinds, living near the woods, Blackberries and wild grapes abounded, in particular.
Old Blake had some queer notions in his head, and one of these was, that to bring up dogs to be of any use, they must be severely treated and very sparingly fed to make them hardy. We had a couple of nice young pups, and the old man determined to put his theory into practice, so no one was allowed to feed them but himself. They grew up by degrees very lean and thin, and at last got so ferocious that they began to kill and eat the chickens. The old man would not believe it when told, until at last one day, when he was chopping wood, he saw them run down a fowl and tear it to pieces, and this, despite all his cries to them to stop.
This so enraged him, that he rushed after them and caught first one and then the other, and took them to the wood pile and cut off both their heads with his axe.
During my stay here we had a "camp-meeting" and religious revival up the creek. It was held in the woods beside the stream, and lasted for a week. All the people in the neighbourhood who were members of the Church flocked to the meeting, during which there were open-air sermons, baptisms, prayer
meetings, and psalm-singing, and a general reclamation of backsliders. The crusade was headed by the Methodists, and it is of periodical occurrence. At the different meetings there was a row of seats in front for "mourners,"- that is, those mourning for their sins and wishing to join the Church; and here a number of people got very excited, and there was a lot of weeping and shouting when a mourner "found glory."
Once or twice during each day, according to the number of converts, they waded into the creek, and amid shouts of "glory" were baptized. Lots of people went to the meetings who were not members of any Church, and the whole thing partook very much of the nature of a week's picnic. There was plenty to eat and drink, and considerable amusement was to be found by the not too serious part of the community.
It seems rather a peculiar notion for parsons and elders of the Church to spend their time travelling about the country in waggons and camping out in the woods for weeks together, but it is frequent]y done over here.
When the revivalists had departed and the excitement had abated a bit, the new members slacked down to their former level, and but little effect remained in a short time of the enthusiastic revival.