A JOURNEY BY RIVER TO THE BLUE-GRASS COUNTRY
My life went on in the even tenor of its way for the next two or three years, when circumstances changed everything in our lives. My father had gone security in a large amount for a relative who was supposed to be wealthy, and who traded to New Orleans, taking down mules principally, and bringing back sugar, molasses and other products of the South. This relative suddenly failed and then died, leaving my father with a load of debt on his shoulders. Without a murmur he sold our large farm and everything on it, and from the proceeds paid the last dollar of indebtedness he had assumed. He had reserved an eighty-acre tract, being nearly a mile from our home and running down to the South River.
There was on this piece of land some fifteen acres of cleared land, and no buildings of any kind. We had possession of the old home for six months, and in this time we had built a new house, not quite so good as our former home, but sufficient for our comfort, and with sufficient income for our needs, by using the strictest economy.
To add to our trouble, we had hardly settled before my father was taken sick with throat and lung troubles, which incapacitated him for active work, and for three years, from about 1849, I became the head of the working force on the little farm. I was now large enough to reach the handles of the plow and could make a hand in most all kinds of farm work.
I had only a few months of schooling each year, but, being a hard student, I kept up with my classes. From the age of thirteen to sixteen I developed a great love for reading, which has lasted me all my life, and has been the source of the greatest pleasure, as well as of benefit to me in many ways.
All my spare hours were devoted to reading such books as I could borrow, and it was a strange mixture I got. Books were very scarce then, but in one family I ran across a case of old books that had been printed in England and brought West by their owner from Virginia. I suppose they must have been a hundred years old. They were printed in old English type. The letter "S" was almost identical with "f," with the cross left off.
Among the works I read were those of Flavius Josephus, the great historian of the Jews, in five or six volumes. This book I have found in very few libraries since. It contains a very concise history of the Jewish nation and a comprehensive account of the events leading up to the fall of Jerusalem and its capture by the Romans. Among other books I remember Fox's book of Martyrs, in a number of volumes, Bunyan's Pilgrims Progress, and Holy War, Nieburgh's history of Rome, one of the most comprehensive histories that has ever been written, and one of the driest.
I do not know how a boy of fourteen ever waded through and mastered it. No doubt a great inclination to acquire knowledge and the fact that I had never seen or heard of any lighter literature helped me very much. A little later on a friend let me have the five volumes of Macaulay's History of England, which had just been published in this country. I was so taken with the beautiful language and the grand roll of its sentences that I could hardly take time to eat or sleep. I was just recovering from a fever and lay in bed and, as I was very weak, I remember the doctor ordered my books taken from me, and only given back so many hours a day.
My time was not, however, all taken up with work and reading. Saturday afternoons, unless very busy, were given over to hunting, fishing or swimming when it was warm enough. I had an old revolutionary flint-lock musket that would shoot about as hard backward as forward. But, as I have before said, I never became a great hunter. I loved better to sit in the shade on the river bank with my line in the stream, and oblivious of all around me dream the dreams of boyhood. I think I was rather disappointed than otherwise when a nibble would recall me to this every-day world. I don't remember, however, of its ever going beyond a nibble.
A few times, however, I enjoyed a hunt. Once I remember I had been plowing in a small rented field a mile from home, and had worked until dusk, when I unhitched and, mounting one of the horses, started for home along a road through the woods. I had only gone about half way when I heard a loud flapping of wings on my right and, looking up toward an immense oak on the summit of a hill, I beheld silhouetted against the sky the largest wild turkey I had ever seen, standing erect on a large branch that overtopped the other trees. I took a careful survey of the surroundings and when I arrived home, had unharnessed and fed the horses, I found my supper ready. As soon as I had satisfied my wants, my father with his Kentucky rifle and I with the old flint-lock musket started back. The moon was just rising as we neared the place, and in silence I piloted the way to a place in the vicinity of the tree and from where we could see in the dim light Mr. Gobbler quietly resting. My father fired with his rifle and missed. The old bird straightened up on his perch and my father, dropping his rifle, grabbed the musket from my hands and fired again. The turkey came tumbling down and had no sooner reached the ground than I was on him. It was lucky that I had hurried for but one of the shots had struck him and he was only stunned.
I grabbed him by the neck and tried to hold him down, but in a moment he was from under me and was drawing the blood from my hands with his sharp claws. I thought surely he would beat me out, but I kept on twisting his neck until finally I shut off his wind. He certainly was the largest turkey, wild or tame, I have ever seen.
Speaking of the old musket recalls a story. We were greatly annoyed by an immense half wild hog that would break our fences and destroy the growing corn. One evening about dusk the baying of the dogs told us that the hog was again at his mischief. My father in his wrath seized the old flint-lock and, ramming home a dozen buck shot on top of the bird shot, crossed over to the field. He saw the old porker standing at bay, surrounded by the dogs, and, slipping up to the fence, took aim and fired. The musket went off and so did the hog, the gun flying out of my father's hands and over the fence into the weeds and undergrowth, and in passing cut a severe gash in his cheek. I remember his returning to the house with the blood running down his face. He had not stopped to look for the gun and it was forgotten. The next day a neighbor came bringing it in. He said that in passing along the fence he saw a great commotion in the weeds and, climbing over to investigate, he saw the old gun among the brush, still kicking for all it was worth, and he had to use all his strength and skill to subdue it. As this is intended to be a veracious chronicle, I do not vouch for this story, but give it to you just as it was told. It is a matter of absolute knowledge to me that the old gun could kick some.
With the cool weather in October and November we were always out at daylight and down to the pasture in a race with the hogs for the hickory nuts, which had fallen during the night. We used to gather barrels of them and of the old black walnuts, and lay them by for the long winter evenings.
I had continued my studies whenever possible, and by the time I had reached my sixteenth year I had mastered arithmetic, geography and English grammar, as far as was taught in our schools.
One day in March, 1852, my father came out to the field where I was plowing for the corn planting and said that I had worked so faithfully for so many years and that my brothers were now large enough to take my place, that I had gone as far in school as the teachers could take me, and that my grand-father in Kentucky wanted me to come and stay a year with him and attend the academy there.
This seemed as though some of my dreams were to come true. It was so much beyond my fondest anticipations that I could not express my gratitude.
The next week was a busy one of preparation. Some friends were going within a few miles of my destination, and I was placed in their care. As the time drew near for my departure the thought of leaving father and mother, brothers and sisters became such a nightmare to me that I would have gone back to the plow if I had dared, and my pride would have permitted me.
At that time a journey of five hundred miles was like going out of the world. On the appointed day, with a heavy heart I bade farewell to all the family but my father, who went with me to Hannibal. The fine steamboat "Fashion" lay at the wharf. Leaving the land for the first time in my life, I went on board and in a few minutes the ropes were cast off and we launched out on the bosom of the great "Father of Waters."
One cannot describe the awe and the heavy heart that a diffident, awkward, backwoods boy can feel when for the first time he is thrown among strangers and in surroundings before unknown.
The boat was crowded and there was room at the tables for not more than one-third of the passengers. I could not crowd, and consequently always found myself at the third table, and what was left by that time was not enough to hurt, nor was it fit for anyone to eat. There were no sleeping berths for even the women, and the men were given a pair of blankets and the liberty to choose their own sleeping apartment. I found the best place under the tables in the main cabin, for there you were not in danger of being walked over every few minutes. The only trouble was that the tables were not cleared until very late, and were re-set about daylight.
I do not remember that those inconveniences annoyed me very much. I was so taken up with the strange scenes, the changing shores, and a thousand other things new to me that it seemed immaterial whether I ate or slept.
Thus we went down the river, stopping at various towns until we reached St. Louis. Here we were transferred to a smaller and less crowded boat, bound for Louisville, Kentucky. As this boat started at once I had no opportunity to see the city of St. Louis.
From a short distance below St. Louis to the mouth of the Ohio the banks of the Mississippi on the Missouri side are very precipitous. At St. Genevieve and other places were shot towers built on an overhanging cliff, the shot falling to the level of the river.
I do not think I slept much on this journey. I was up on the "hurricane deck" early of a morning and until late at night, watching the changing scenes on either bank.
We landed at every little town to take on or put off passengers and freight. It was wonderful to watch the deck hands work. While the boat was running they lay around on the lower deck, playing cards, singing to the accompaniment of a banjo or sleeping in the sun. But when a landing was made and the mate appeared, every man-jack of them was galvanized into new life, and things moved faster than I ever saw them before or after. It was necessary for a mate to know how to rule men, and to be a past master of the language of the river. The mighty oaths he swore were enough to burn holes in the floor or to turn the air blue.
The deck hands had to be on call at all hours of the day or night. Sometimes I have sat on the upper deck at almost midnight, looking out on what seemed a virgin forest, down to the river's edge.
Suddenly the steamer would give a peculiar whistle, lights would appear on the bank of the river, the boat would round to and tie up to a stump and all hands would leap ashore where the wood was piled. It was surprising how quickly fifty or sixty cords could be carried aboard and piled up conveniently for the firemen to feed into the furnace.
At Cairo we turned into the Ohio, and, instead of going with the current, we had to breast the waters, so our advance became much slower.
On the sixth day we reached Louisville, where we left the boat and boarded the first railroad train I had ever seen, for Lexington. The route was through Frankfort, the Capital of the State, arriving at Lexington at noon. From here we traveled by stage to Paris, some ten miles.
At Paris I parted from my traveling companions and, hiring a saddle horse, arrived at Cynthiana after dark, where I inquired the road to my grandfather's place, whose home was two miles beyond the town. The clerk at the hotel advised me to remain over night. He said the road was very hard to find, the night being dark, and I could never find the way. With my usual pertinacity I declined to stay, as I had made up my mind to sleep that night in my grandfather's house. The hotel clerk gave me very elaborate directions, which I followed for half a mile, then became helplessly lost. I wandered on for several miles, and then retraced my steps, intending to go to the hotel. Just as I reached the outskirts of the town I met half a dozen negroes, who had been in town on a lark. I stopped them and when I finally persuaded them to talk I found that one of the young fellows belonged to a near neighbor of my grandfather, so they feared I might inform on them. When I promised to keep "mum," the young darkey mounted behind me and in an hour I arrived at my destination.
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