A Knight of the Cumberland

Author: John Fox

IV Close Quarters

Two hours up the river we struck Buck. Buck was sitting on the fence by the roadside, barefooted and hatless.

"How-dye-do?" I said.

"Purty well," said Buck.

"Any fish in this river?"

"Several," said Buck. Now in mountain speech, "several" means simply "a good many."

"Any minnows in these branches?"

"I seed several in the branch back o’ our house."

"How far away do you live?"

"Oh, ’bout one whoop an’ a holler." If he had spoken Greek the Blight could not have been more puzzled. He meant he lived as far as a man’s voice would carry with one yell and a holla.

"Will you help me catch some?" Buck nodded.

"All right," I said, turning my horse up to the fence. "Get on behind." The horse shied his hind quarters away, and I pulled him back.

"Now, you can get on, if you’ll be quick." Buck sat still.

"Yes," he said imperturbably; "but I ain’t quick." The two girls laughed aloud, and Buck looked surprised.

Around a curving cornfield we went, and through a meadow which Buck said was a "nigh cut." From the limb of a tree that we passed hung a piece of wire with an iron ring swinging at its upturned end. A little farther was another tree and another ring, and farther on another and another.

"For heaven’s sake, Buck, what are these things?"

"Mart’s a-gittin’ ready fer a tourneyment."

"A what?"

"That’s whut Mart calls hit. He was over to the Gap last Fourth o’ July, an’ he says fellers over thar fix up like Kuklux and go a-chargin’ on hosses and takin’ off them rings with a ash-stick—`spear,’ Mart calls hit. He come back an’ he says he’s a-goin’ to win that ar tourneyment next Fourth o’ July. He’s got the best hoss up this river, and on Sundays him an’ Dave Branham goes a-chargin’ along here a-picking off these rings jus’ a-flyin’; an’ Mart can do hit, I’m tellin’ ye. Dave’s mighty good hisself, but he ain’t nowhar ’longside o’ Mart."

This was strange. I had told the Blight about our Fourth of July, and how on the Virginia side the ancient custom of the tournament still survived. It was on the last Fourth of July that she had meant to come to the Gap. Truly civilization was spreading throughout the hills.

"Who’s Mart?"

"Mart’s my brother," said little Buck.

"He was over to the Gap not long ago, an’ he come back mad as hops—" He stopped suddenly, and in such a way that I turned my head, knowing that caution had caught Buck.

"What about?"

"Oh, nothin’," said Buck carelessly; "only he’s been quar ever since. My sisters says he’s got a gal over thar, an’ he’s a-pickin’ off these rings more’n ever now. He’s going to win or bust a bellyband."

"Well, who’s Dave Branham?"

Buck grinned. "You jes axe my sister Mollie. Thar she is."

Before us was a white-framed house of logs in the porch of which stood two stalwart, good-looking girls. Could we stay all night? We could—there was no hesitation—and straight in we rode.

"Where’s your father?" Both girls giggled, and one said, with frank unembarrassment:

"Pap’s tight!" That did not look promising, but we had to stay just the same. Buck helped me to unhitch the mules, helped me also to catch minnows, and in half an hour we started down the river to try fishing before dark came. Buck trotted along.

"Have you got a wagon, Buck?"

"What fer?"

"To bring the fish back." Buck was not to be caught napping.

"We got that sled thar, but hit won’t be big enough," he said gravely. "An’ our two-hoss wagon’s out in the cornfield. We’ll have to string the fish, leave ’em in the river and go fer ’em in the mornin’."

"All right, Buck." The Blight was greatly amused at Buck.

Two hundred yards down the road stood his sisters over the figure of a man outstretched in the road. Unashamed, they smiled at us. The man in the road was "pap"—tight—and they were trying to get him home.

We cast into a dark pool farther down and fished most patiently; not a bite—not a nibble.

"Are there any fish in here, Buck?"

"Dunno—used ter be." The shadows deepened; we must go back to the house.

"Is there a dam below here, Buck?"

"Yes, thar’s a dam about a half-mile down the river."

I was disgusted. No wonder there were no bass in that pool.

"Why didn’t you tell me that before?"

"You never axed me," said Buck placidly.

I began winding in my line.

"Ain’t no bottom to that pool," said Buck.

Now I never saw any rural community where there was not a bottomless pool, and I suddenly determined to shake one tradition in at least one community. So I took an extra fish-line, tied a stone to it, and climbed into a canoe, Buck watching me, but not asking a word.

"Get in, Buck."

Silently he got in and I pushed off—to the centre.

"This the deepest part, Buck?"

"I reckon so."

I dropped in the stone and the line reeled out some fifty feet and began to coil on the surface of the water.

"I guess that’s on the bottom, isn’t it, Buck?"

Buck looked genuinely distressed; but presently he brightened.

"Yes," he said, " ef hit ain’t on a turtle’s back."

Literally I threw up both hands and back we trailed—fishless.

"Reckon you won’t need that two-hoss wagon," said Buck. "No, Buck, I think not." Buck looked at the Blight and gave himself the pleasure of his first chuckle. A big crackling, cheerful fire awaited us. Through the door I could see, outstretched on a bed in the next room, the limp figure of "pap" in alcoholic sleep. The old mother, big, kindfaced, explained—and there was a heaven of kindness and charity in her drawling voice.

"Dad didn’ often git that a-way," she said; "but he’d been out a-huntin’ hawgs that mornin’ and had met up with some teamsters and gone to a political speakin’ and had tuk a dram or two of their mean whiskey, and not havin’ nothin’ on his stummick, hit had all gone to his head. No, `pap’ didn’t git that a-way often, and he’d be all right jes’ as soon as he slept it off a while." The old woman moved about with a cane and the sympathetic Blight merely looked a question at her.

"Yes, she’d fell down a year ago—and had sort o’ hurt herself—didn’t do nothin’, though, ’cept break one hip," she added, in her kind, patient old voice. Did many people stop there? Oh, yes, sometimes fifteen at a time—they "never turned nobody away." And she had a big family, little Cindy and the two big girls and Buck and Mart—who was out somewhere—and the hired man, and yes—"Thar was another boy, but he was fitified," said one of the big sisters.

"I beg your pardon," said the wondering Blight, but she knew that phrase wouldn’t do, so she added politely:

"What did you say?"

"Fitified—Tom has fits. He’s in a asylum in the settlements."

"Tom come back once an’ he was all right," said the old mother; "but he worried so much over them gals workin’ so hard that it plum’ throwed him off ag’in, and we had to send him back."

"Do you work pretty hard?" I asked presently. Then a story came that was full of unconscious pathos, because there was no hint of complaint—simply a plain statement of daily life. They got up before the men, in order to get breakfast ready; then they went with the men into the fields —those two girls—and worked like men. At dark they got supper ready, and after the men went to bed they worked on— washing dishes and clearing up the kitchen. They took it turn about getting supper, and sometimes, one said, she was "so plumb tuckered out that she’d drap on the bed and go to sleep ruther than eat her own supper." No wonder poor Tom had to go back to the asylum. All the while the two girls stood by the fire looking, politely but minutely, at the two strange girls and their curious clothes and their boots, and the way they dressed their hair. Their hard life seemed to have hurt them none—for both were the pictures of health—whatever that phrase means.

After supper "pap" came in, perfectly sober, with a big ruddy face, giant frame, and twinkling gray eyes. He was the man who had risen to speak his faith in the Hon. Samuel Budd that day on the size of the Hon. Samuel’s ears. He, too, was unashamed and, as he explained his plight again, he did it with little apology.

"I seed ye at the speakin’ to-day. That man Budd is a good man. He done somethin’ fer a boy o’ mine over at the Gap." Like little Buck, he, too, stopped short. "He’s a good man an’ I’m a-goin’ to help him."

Yes, he repeated, quite irrelevantly, it was hunting hogs all day with nothing to eat and only mean whiskey to drink. Mart had not come in yet—he was "workin’ out" now.

"He’s the best worker in these mountains," said the old woman; "Mart works too hard."

The hired man appeared and joined us at the fire. Bedtime came, and I whispered jokingly to the Blight:

"I believe I’ll ask that good-looking one to `set up’ with me." "Settin’ up" is what courting is called in the hills. The couple sit up in front of the fire after everybody else has gone to bed. The man puts his arm around the girl’s neck and whispers; then she puts her arm around his neck and whispers—so that the rest may not hear. This I had related to the Blight, and now she withered me.

"You just do, now!"

I turned to the girl in question, whose name was Mollie. "Buck told me to ask you who Dave Branham was." Mollie wheeled, blushing and angry, but Buck had darted cackling out the door. "Oh," I said, and I changed the subject. "What time do you get up?"

"Oh, ’bout crack o’ day." I was tired, and that was discouraging.

"Do you get up that early every morning?"

"No," was the quick answer; "a mornin’ later."

A morning later, Mollie got up, each morning. The Blight laughed.

Pretty soon the two girls were taken into the next room, which was a long one, with one bed in one dark corner, one in the other, and a third bed in the middle. The feminine members of the family all followed them out on the porch and watched them brush their teeth, for they had never seen tooth-brushes before. They watched them prepare for bed—and I could hear much giggling and comment and many questions, all of which culminated, by and by, in a chorus of shrieking laughter. That climax, as I learned next morning, was over the Blight’s hot-water bag. Never had their eyes rested on an article of more wonder and humor than that water bag.

By and by, the feminine members came back and we sat around the fire. Still Mart did not appear, though somebody stepped into the kitchen, and from the warning glance that Mollie gave Buck when she left the room I guessed that the newcomer was her lover Dave. Pretty soon the old man yawned.

"Well, mammy, I reckon this stranger’s about ready to lay down, if you’ve got a place fer him."

"Git a light, Buck," said the old woman. Buck got a light—a chimneyless, smoking oil-lamp—and led me into the same room where the Blight and my little sister were. Their heads were covered up, but the bed in the gloom of one corner was shaking with their smothered laughter. Buck pointed to the middle bed.

"I can get along without that light, Buck," I said, and I must have been rather haughty and abrupt, for a stifled shriek came from under the bedclothes in the corner and Buck disappeared swiftly. Preparations for bed are simple in the mountains—they were primitively simple for me that night. Being in knickerbockers, I merely took off my coat and shoes. Presently somebody else stepped into the room and the bed in the other corner creaked. Silence for a while. Then the door opened, and the head of the old woman was thrust in.

"Mart!" she said coaxingly; "git up thar now an’ climb over inter bed with that ar stranger."

That was Mart at last, over in the corner. Mart turned, grumbled, and, to my great pleasure, swore that he wouldn’t. The old woman waited a moment.

"Mart," she said again with gentle imperiousness, " git up thar now, I tell ye —you’ve got to sleep with that thar stranger."

She closed the door and with a snort Mart piled into bed with me. I gave him plenty of room and did not introduce myself. A little more dark silence—the shaking of the bed under the hilarity of those astonished, bethrilled, but thoroughly unfrightened young women in the dark corner on my left ceased, and again the door opened. This time it was the hired man, and I saw that the trouble was either that neither Mart nor Buck wanted to sleep with the hired man or that neither wanted to sleep with me. A long silence and then the boy Buck slipped in. The hired man delivered himself with the intonation somewhat of a circuit rider.

"I’ve been a-watchin’ that star thar, through the winder. Sometimes hit moves, then hit stands plum’ still, an’ ag’in hit gits to pitchin’." The hired man must have been touching up mean whiskey himself. Meanwhile, Mart seemed to be having spells of troubled slumber. He would snore gently, accentuate said snore with a sudden quiver of his body and then wake up with a climacteric snort and start that would shake the bed. This was repeated several times, and I began to think of the unfortunate Tom who was "fitified." Mart seemed on the verge of a fit himself, and I waited apprehensively for each snorting climax to see if fits were a family failing. They were not. Peace overcame Mart and he slept deeply, but not I. The hired man began to show symptoms. He would roll and groan, dreaming of feuds, , it seemed, and of religious conversion, in which he feared he was not so great. Twice he said aloud:

"An’ I tell you thar wouldn’t a one of ’em have said a word if I’d been killed stone-dead." Twice he said it almost weepingly, and now and then he would groan appealingly:

"O Lawd, have mercy on my pore soul!"

Fortunately those two tired girls slept— I could hear their breathing—but sleep there was little for me. Once the troubled soul with the hoe got up and stumbled out to the water-bucket on the porch to soothe the fever or whatever it was that was burning him, and after that he was quiet. I awoke before day. The dim light at the window showed an empty bed—Buck and the hired man were gone. Mart was slipping out of the side of my bed, but the girls still slept on. I watched Mart, for I guessed I might now see what, perhaps, is the distinguishing trait of American civilization down to its bed-rock, as you find it through the West and in the Southern hills—a chivalrous respect for women. Mart thought I was asleep. Over in the corner were two creatures the like of which I supposed he had never seen and would not see, since he came in too late the night before, and was going away too early now —and two angels straight from heaven could not have stirred my curiosity any more than they already must have stirred his. But not once did Mart turn his eyes, much less his face, toward the corner where they were—not once, for I watched him closely. And when he went out he sent his little sister back for his shoes, which the night-walking hired man had accidentally kicked toward the foot of the strangers’ bed. In a minute I was out after him, but he was gone. Behind me the two girls opened their eyes on a room that was empty save for them. Then the Blight spoke (this I was told later).

"Dear," she said, "have our roommates gone?"

Breakfast at dawn. The mountain girls were ready to go to work. All looked sorry to have us leave. They asked us to come back again, and they meant it. We said we would like to come back—and we meant it—to see them—the kind old mother, the pioneer-like old man, sturdy little Buck, shy little Cindy, the elusive, hard-working, unconsciously shivery Mart, and the two big sisters. As we started back up the river the sisters started for the fields, and I thought of their stricken brother in the settlements, who must have been much like Mart.

Back up the Big Black Mountain we toiled, and late in the afternoon we were on the State line that runs the crest of the Big Black. Right on top and bisected by that State line sat a dingy little shack, and there, with one leg thrown over the pommel of his saddle, sat Marston, drinking water from a gourd.

"I was coming over to meet you," he said, smiling at the Blight, who, greatly pleased, smiled back at him. The shack was a "blind Tiger" where whiskey could be sold to Kentuckians on the Virginia side and to Virginians on the Kentucky side. Hanging around were the slouching figures of several moonshiners and the villainous fellow who ran it.

"They are real ones all right," said Marston. "One of them killed a revenue officer at that front door last week, and was killed by the posse as he was trying to escape out of the back window. That house will be in ashes soon," he added. And it was.

As we rode down the mountain we told him about our trip and the people with whom we had spent the night—and all the time he was smiling curiously.

"Buck," he said. "Oh, yes, I know that little chap. Mart had him posted down there on the river to toll you to his house—to toll YOU," he added to the Blight. He pulled in his horse suddenly, turned and looked up toward the top of the mountain.

"Ah, I thought so." We all looked back. On the edge of the cliff, far upward, on which the "blind Tiger" sat was a gray horse, and on it was a man who, motionless, was looking down at us.

"He’s been following you all the way," said the engineer.

"Who’s been following us?" I asked.

"That’s Mart up there—my friend and yours," said Marston to the Blight. "I’m rather glad I didn’t meet you on the other side of the mountain—that’s `the Wild Dog.’ " The Blight looked incredulous, but Marston knew the man and knew the horse.

So Mart—hard-working Mart—was the Wild Dog, and he was content to do the Blight all service without thanks, merely for the privilege of secretly seeing her face now and then; and yet he would not look upon that face when she was a guest under his roof and asleep.

Still, when we dropped behind the two girls I gave Marston the Hon. Sam’s warning, and for a moment he looked rather grave.

"Well," he said, smiling, "if I’m found in the road some day, you’ll know who did it."

I shook my head. "Oh, no; he isn’t that bad."

"I don’t know," said Marston.

The smoke of the young engineer’s coke ovens lay far below us and the Blight had never seen a coke-plant before. It looked like Hades even in the early dusk—the snake-like coil of fiery ovens stretching up the long, deep ravine, and the smokestreaked clouds of fire, trailing like a yellow mist over them, with a fierce white blast shooting up here and there when the lid of an oven was raised, as though to add fresh temperature to some particular malefactor in some particular chamber of torment. Humanity about was joyous, however. Laughter and banter and song came from the cabins that lined the big ravine and the little ravines opening into it. A banjo tinkled at the entrance of "Possum Trot," sacred to the darkies. We moved toward it. On the stoop sat an ecstatic picker and in the dust shuffled three pickaninnies—one boy and two girls—the youngest not five years old. The crowd that was gathered about them gave way respectfully as we drew near; the little darkies showed their white teeth in jolly grins, and their feet shook the dust in happy competition. I showered a few coins for the Blight and on we went—into the mouth of the many-peaked Gap. The night train was coming in and everybody had a smile of welcome for the Blight— post-office assistant, drug clerk, soda-water boy, telegraph operator, hostler, who came for the mules—and when tired, but happy, she slipped from her saddle to the ground, she then and there gave me what she usually reserves for Christmas morning, and that, too, while Marston was looking on. Over her shoulder I smiled at him.

That night Marston and the Blight sat under the vines on the porch until the late moon rose over Wallens Ridge, and, when bedtime came, the Blight said impatiently that she did not want to go home. She had to go, however, next day, but on the next Fourth of July she would surely come again; and, as the young engineer mounted his horse and set his face toward Black Mountain, I knew that until that day, for him, a blight would still be in the hills.


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Chicago: John Fox, "IV Close Quarters," A Knight of the Cumberland, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in A Knight of the Cumberland (New York: George E. Wood, 1912), Original Sources, accessed March 21, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DCUWNKSE6DN2TEG.

MLA: Fox, John. "IV Close Quarters." A Knight of the Cumberland, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in A Knight of the Cumberland, Vol. 22, New York, George E. Wood, 1912, Original Sources. 21 Mar. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DCUWNKSE6DN2TEG.

Harvard: Fox, J, 'IV Close Quarters' in A Knight of the Cumberland, ed. . cited in 1912, A Knight of the Cumberland, George E. Wood, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 21 March 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=DCUWNKSE6DN2TEG.