Some of Us: A Southwestern Sketch
“WHAR'S the cunnle? ” This query, delivered directly into the mistress’s ear as she sat sewing in the door-way, made her fairly jump. “ Skeered ye, did I? Well, I reckon I come toler’ble quiet. Shoes is all but wore out; don’t make no n’ise. I just want to see the cunnle, that ’s all! ”
The speaker was a tall woman, in an old but clean pink calico dress and a huge brown sun - bonnet, from beneath which peered a pair of perfectly round, bright black eyes.
“ Sit down,” said the mistress, drawing up a camp-chair which stood near her, — “sit down, and rest a while. The colonel has gone out, but I expect him back very soon. What is your name? ”
“ Spriggle, — Mis’ Spriggle. Reckon you never heered o' me afore. Just come last March. Come from way up Coal River. Your place is mighty pretty,” looking all around her, and taking in with one bird-like glance pictures, furniture, and the mistress in her soft white dress.
“ Yes, it is a pretty place, but lonely,” the mistress replied. “ And do you live here in the village? ”
“ Law, no. I’m a-livin’ way up the Dry Branch. Reckon ye never been thar. Me an’ Mis’ Mitchell was a-sayin’ (Mis Mitchell, she lives down on the creek; a mighty good neighbor she is), — me an’ her was a sayin’ we reckoned the missis never could git up thar nohow. It’s a mighty rough holler, that, — mighty rough! ”
Here Mrs. Spriggle stopped to take breath, and the mistress profited by the slight pause to inquire what she wished to see the colonel for.
“ Well, I’ll tell ye,” and she leaned forward, eagerly. “ I’m in a mighty bad fix. Have n’t got a bite in the house; I haven’t so! When I moved here last March I hed to sell my cow; an’ thar’s my gal awful sickly, an’ me bein’ kinder short-handed with my oldest boy, Bud, bein’ married. Not but what he’s got a mighty nice wife (she’s a Pike, — Preacher Pike’s gal); but ye know that ain’t like havin’ him to hum. An’ ye see it ain’t time fur green things yet; an’ the fact is I’m clean dagged out, — that’s what ’t is. Ain’t got ne’er a bite nor a sup in the house; so I just ’lowed I ’d come to them as has it.”
Mrs. Spriggle stopped to push back her bonnet and cross her arms on her knees. Suddenly she held out both hands toward the mistress: —
“ See my hands. Horny, ain’t they ? ” and she gave a short laugh. Sure enough, they were hard and horny and ill-used hands. “That’s makin’ rail fences.”
“What!” cried her auditor, “you make rail fences ? ”
“ Sure enough I do. Me an’ my second boy, Thornton, we split rails, an’ made a most a noble good fence right round my place. Why, ’t was nothin’ but bresh when we come thar! Mighty lazy folks them Smitherses was. They just let that thar cabin go to rack an' ruin. Oh, I does a heap o’ work fur other folks. That’s why I’m in sech a master hurry now. I ’low to put in a hunderd sweet-potato sprouts fur Mis’ Mitchell this evenin’.”
“ But that is very hard work for a woman. Why don’t your husband do it? ” asked the mistress.
“ Law, don’t ye know? I’m a poor lone widder, an’ I has to do fur myself. But I wonder when the cunnle is a-comin’.”
“ What is it you want the colonel to do?” the mistress inquired.
“ Well, ye see,” and Mrs. Spriggle edged her chair nearer, while she lowered her tones into quite a confidential whisper, " I want him to lend me three dollars. Just till the crap’s ripe; then I ’ll pay off every cent. Ye see three dollars ’ll buy corn-meal an’ a little coffee. Can’t live without coffee, I gets so master tired o’ nights. Now, p’r’aps you’ll let me have it; it’ll be all the same, I reckon.”
The mistress was, however, disinclined to do anything of the sort, with no knowledge at all of the woman before her.
“No, I cannot do that; but if you are in such a hurry, perhaps there is something else you wish to attend to in the village, and you can come back here again. The colonel will be at home before long, now.”
“ That’s so! I just want to go up to Mis’ Paddiford’s, an’ git a dress pattern fur my gal. You likely knows whar Mis’ Paddiford lives; up the road a piece. I ’ll be back right soon. Goodmornin’, ma’am.”
Off she went, her quick, firm step showing no trace of the five-mile walk she had already taken that morning. Soon afterward the colonel appeared, and half an hour later Mrs. Spriggle returned, accompanied by a tall, gawky lad of fourteen, — her boy Thornton. ”
“ I brung him to pack the corn-meal,” she explained. “He’s a mighty good boy, an’ works a heap.”
Thornton stood gazing in at the hall door, his hands in his pockets, and his face shaded by a huge flapping straw hat. The deer’s head over the opposite door seemed to fix his attention, and he stared at it open-mouthed and spellbound. Meanwhile, Mrs. Spriggle was using all her little arts to inveigle the colonel into lending her the three dollars.
“Now, I’ll pledge my crap on it, cunnle, — I will that.”
“No, no,” interrupted the colonel, “ I don’t want your crop. What would I do with it? I will let you have three dollars, though, and you can bring down berries or chickens to pay it off.”
“ Thank ’ee, I will so. I ’ll bring ye some nice fat chickens right soon. How big, —fryin’ size, now? ”
“ Yes, frying size,” replied the mistress. “I want some very much; and fresh eggs, if you have any.”
Mrs. Spriggle shook her head, doubtfully. “ No, I reckon I can’t git eggs,— only got one hen, ye see. But,” brightening, “ I ’ll bring ye some fry in’ size, sure. Come up, now, cunnle, an' see whar I live, some time. It’s a mighty pretty place.” So saying, Mrs. Spriggle and her hopeful son walked off, very joyful, no doubt, over the large sum of money they were now possessed of. It would keep them, as she had said, till the “ craps ” came in.
About a month later, the colonel one day announced his intention of going on the morrow to examine a piece of land up the Dry Branch.
“ Don’t you want to go with me, Bettie? ” he asked of his niece, who had just come to pay a few days’ visit at Briarley. “ It will be a pretty drive part way, and we can easily walk the rest.”
“ Why, Dry Branch is where Mrs. Spriggle lives,” said the mistress. “ You can stop and see if she is ever going to bring me those chickens.”
So Bettie and her uncle set off to drive three miles up the creek, and then, turning from the main road, they followed a track by the side of a long since driedup brook.
Presently the track, such as it was, descended abruptly into the bed of the stream. Over the stones they bounced and jumped for several yards, emerging again, much shaken in body, though not in spirit, to pursue their adventurous course.
The next obstacle was a large beechtree, blown by a recent gale directly across their path. Bettie got down to reconnoitre, and discovered a way of avoiding it; so the colonel followed cautiously, while she, picking up a good long stick in case of meeting snakes, walked on ahead.
And now the road wound through a lovely bit of woods, where a number of the small mountain cows were browsing among the underbrush. They started, shook their bells, and gazed wonderingly at the strangers. Never in all their lives had they seen so curious a thing as a buggy before.
Presently there appeared a little water in the brook, where it ran along under the beeches. The birds sang merrily overhead, and now and then a gray squirrel scampered up a tree to peep out at the visitors from some safe hidingplace above.
The steep, densely wooded hills rose on either side of the narrow hollow through which they were driving. “ How lovely it all is! ” cried Bettie, when suddenly, at a turn in the road, they came right up against a rail fence. “ What does this mean? ”
They got out to investigate. Some indifferent squatter had actually fenced in the path, and they could see nothing but waving corn on the other side. Here was a pretty state of things, indeed! There was nothing to be done but to descend again into the bed of the brook; and this was far rougher work than before. Every moment some huge rock planted itself directly in the way; and which showed the greater amount of patience I don’t know, — poor old Robin, who toiled to drag the little low buggy over the stones, or the colonel, whose seat was now high in the air, and again nearly in the water.
As for Miss Bettie, she preferred not to risk her neck among such perils, but made the best of her way through the tall weeds and bushes along the bank.
To make a long story short, they lived to gain the road again, and had proceeded calmly on their journey for half a mile or so when — here was another fence, and this time there seemed no possible way of driving around it. Robin was therefore tied fast to a tree, and the uncle and niece prepared to continue on foot.
The fence which had stopped them surrounded a small clearing, well planted with corn, tobacco, and watermelons. In the midst stood a tiny log cabin, quite new and clean looking. The door was shut, and the only living creature about the little place was a black kitten asleep under the low portico.
The pedestrians crossed this small patch and ultimately found the road again on the other side, but now grown so narrow as to be hardly more than a bridlepath. A little further on, a larger logcabin came in sight; and as they neared it the barking of Several dogs warned its inmates of their approach.
A shaggy, barefooted man and a couple of unkempt women looked out at the door, and when the man caught sight of the colonel he called out, “ Good mornin’, cunnle! Reckon ye found the road consid’able blocked up below thar! ”
“ I did,indeed.”
“Well, it’s that Jake Pike. He’s a most onthinkin’ critter, —never keers whar the road goes, so long as his corn patch is a growin’.”
A few more rods brought them to another corn-field, surrounded by another low rail fence. Bettie and the colonel climbed this, and made their way between the tall corn in the direction of the voices they heard. Going round a spacious log pig-pen they found themselves before a little, a very little, and old log-cabin. A huge, long-snouted black hog lay outstretched in front of the door under the narrow portico, while two small children tumbled over one another and across his back.
“ Is Mrs. Spriggle here? ” asked the colonel.
Thereupon ensued a great commotion, and Mrs. Spriggle issued, smiling, from the doorway. “ Why, it ’s you, cunnle, sure enough! I ’m right down glad to see ye. Come right in an' rest.”
“ This is my niece, Mrs. Spriggle,” said the colonel, “Miss Bettie Byrne.”
“ Ye don’t say! Come right in, now, out of the sun, an’ cool off.”
They stooped to enter the low, narrow door-way, and found themselves in a tiny room, perhaps eight feet wide by twelve long. The only two chairs, little, old, hollow-seated things, were tendered the visitors. Mrs. Spriggle herself and a pretty young woman who had evidently been at work upon a blue calico dress, now thrown on the bed, seated themselves on a narrow bench. A girl of thirteen or so, with a sweet, pale face and large, soft brown eyes, sat on the bed. The children sidled in at the doorway, smiling in a friendly manner at Bettie, who, however, tried in vain to coax them nearer. “ Are these little ones yours, Mrs. Spriggle?” she asked.
“ One is, — the boy thar. The least one is this woman’s. She ’s Minty, my son Bud’s wife.”
Minty smiled, while she picked up her own baby, who, though not over-clean, was a fat, healthy little creature.
“ My gal thar has been mighty sick,” Mrs. Spriggle said. “ This is the fust day she’s been up.”
Upon Bettie’s inquiring what had been the matter, the mother said, “ Well, the doctor, he ’lowed it was cold. He’s conditioned her well all over, an’ he likely knows; but it ’pears to me more like rheumatiz. She was that swelled up,— I declar ’t was awful. Me an' Minty hed to be up nights with her; an’ I tell ye we’ve hed a mighty bad time, — we have so! Then last week my boy Thornton stepped on to a piece o’ glass an’ run it way up into his foot. Why, ye never did see sech a foot nowhar! It was powerful bad.”
“Is it better now?” asked the colonel.
“ Oh, yes, a heap better. I put on a buckeye poultice, an’ that drawed out the inflammation.”
“But the glass,—did it draw that out too? ”
Mrs. Spriggle spread out her brown hands, and regarded them thoughtfully, as though to find the answer somehow written upon them. Then she looked up, and shook her head quickly.
“Well, I don’t reckon it did,” she said; “but him an’ Bud has gone to do a job o’ ditchin’ to-day. Thornton can get along right well with a stick.”
During the foregoing conversation Bettie had been using her eyes, and had discovered that the two bedsteads were actually made of fence rails nailed roughly together.
The beds must have been filled with something very lumpy, for the ancient patchwork quilts which covered them were quite unable to lie flat. They rose into hummocks and fell into valleys, according to the will of the substance beneath.
The pillows were out airing on the roof of the pig-pen; and each of the four pillow-cases was ornamented with a deep frill of cotton edging around the hem.
In one corner of the cabin stood a little table, and this too had fence-rail legs. What the top might be Bettie could not discover, as all the worldly goods of the Spriggle family covered it.
Four large, blue-edged plates, two or three cracked cups, a battered coffeepot black with age, and a skillet comprised the list of cooking utensils and dishes.
Over the table was the one window the cabin possessed, — in size eighteen inches by ten, probably; and of course there was no attempt at glass. A sort of wall-pocket made of calico and a patchwork pin-cushion hung just beneath the window.
It was really quite touching, Bettie thought, to see these poor attempts at household art, and she asked the girl on the bed if she had made them.
The shy, pale face broke into a pleased smile, and her mother looked around at her with a very satisfied nod.
“ Yes,” she said, “ sis made both them thar. She ’s reel handy at her needle. You wouldn’t think it, now. would you? ”
“ Why, yes, I should,” Bettie replied. “ She has hands just right for nice sewing.”
Mrs. Spriggle looked down at her own.
“ She ’s never done no rough work, like I have,” she said. “ Sis ain’t rugged like me. Now I never could a-bear sewin’. I ’d a heap ruther hoe corn. I would that! ”
Bettie’s eyes had begun to wander around the little room again, and had now rested on the open and smoke-begrimed fire-place. It held no grate, nor any arrangement for cooking. No doubt that was done out-of-doors; as if divining her visitor’s thoughts Mrs. Spriggle said, “The climbly smokes awful bad. Just see! ”
Sure enough, the wall and the rafters over their heads — for there was nothing between them and the roof — were black with soot.
“ I’ll have to pull that thar chimbly down, and build another afore winter,” she continued. I can’t think how them Smitherses ever did live here, nohow!”
“ Do you live here, too ? ” Bettie asked, turning to Minty, whose pleasant face attracted her very much.
“ Oh, no. I live down in the second house from here, —that little new cabin.”
“ Oh, yes, I remember. That is a pretty place, and you seem to have a good garden.”
“ Yes, Minty has a right clean, new little place,” put in her mother-in-law. “ Now, I ’ll tell ye what, cunnle, I ’d ’a’ been down afore with them blackberries, but my gal’s been so sick I could n’t leave her. Last Sunday ” (and Bettie wondered how they knew when Sunday came) “ me an’ Minty went all over them mountains,” and Mrs. Spriggle leaned toward the door-way, pointing to the hills that rose, steep and wild, almost from her very threshold. “ We just climbed and climbed, and got all wore out huntin’ huckleberries. An’ I ’ll tell ye what it is, there ain’t one on the bushes, there just ain’t. Ye can take my word for it! Minty an’ me ’s a-goin’, soon as ever sis gets better, up to Long Bottom for blackberries. I ’lowed to take one bucket to your aunt,” turning to Bettie, “ an’ one to the doctor for the medicine I’ve had.”
“ But,” said the colonel, “ Long Bottom is at least five miles off.”
“Yes, it’s a right smart piece; but there ain’t none no nigher. We’ll pick ’em one day, an’ tote ’em down to youuns the next day.”
“ But they will not keep, this hot weather,” Bettie objected.
“ Oh, yes,” Minty interrupted eagerly; “ he spreads ’em out at night out-o’doors, an’ they keeps right well. It ’s different to their bein’ left all night in a bucket, you know.”
“ I’m a-goin’ to pay off that three dollars, cunnle, — I am so,” Mrs. Spriggle continued. “ I 've got forty-five cents of chickens for the missis, but I ’lowed to keep ’em just a leeile longer. They ain’t just big enough yet; and I ’ll bring ye a dozen roastin’ ears ’fore long. I reckon the missis likes roastin’ ears! ”
Bettie, remembering the sweet corn now so plentiful at Briarley, thought that Mrs. Spriggle’s roasting ears would be rather superfluous; but the poor woman seemed so anxious to pay off her debts, and to have so very little to pay with, that she would not discourage her.
“ Yes,” she said, “ my aunt is very fond of roasting ears, I know, and your corn looks tall and fine.”
“ Don’t it, now ? Do ye see any down on the river as tall as that? ”
“ No, I don’t believe I do.”
“Well, I reckoned not.” And Mrs. Spriggle settled herself on her seat, as she spoke, with very pardonable pride.
The colonel rose now to go, but first asked if there were a spring near by. Bettie too had been getting very thirsty, but had been considering within herself that, if there were any water on the premises, it was probably frequented quite as often by the great hog in the doorway, and by the little red pig asleep under the table, as by their owners. So she had repressed her desires, and hoped to get a good drink from the brook by and by. She need not have been afraid however. A spring to every house would have been a most unheardof thing in these parts, and Mrs. Spriggle replied, —
“ No, we pack our water from Bob Buster’s spring. It ’s quite a piece, but it’s a most a noble good spring.”
“Don’t you ever get lonely here ? ” Bettie said, as she turned to wish the sick girl good-by.
She had so far said nothing, and even now only shook her head, and smiled contentedly at the question.
“ Lonely! ” cried her mother. “ We ’ve all the neighbors we wants. Why, there ’s five families at ween here an’ the creek, countin’ us. That’s a plenty, I’m sure. Bob Buster’s folks wanted us to go up Wet Branch with them; but law sakes, there ain’t nobody up thar! It ’s that lonesome an’ wild ye would n’t believe it.”
Bettie could not easily imagine anything much wilder or more solitary than this place; but fortunately for the Spriggle family, it was evidently quite to their taste. Why, indeed, should they be discontented when they knew of nothing better?
“ Now, come right soon again, do,” chorused Mrs. Spriggle and Minty,coming out of the door after them. “ Come again soon and spend the day. Goodby, good-by.”
All the little family assembled in the low doorway to see their guests depart. So, accompanied by grunts and barks, and shouted farewells, Bettie and her uncle wended their circuitous way back through the tall corn, and climbed once more Mrs. Spriggle’s “ most a noble rail-fence.”
The summer drew to a close. The autumn came and went without any signs of Mrs. Spriggle. One raw, dark afternoon in early December, word was brought to the mistress, as she was busy over her plants in the dining-room, that Mrs. Spriggle wished to see her.
“ Bring her in here, Biddy,” she said to the little servant maid who stood waiting for orders.
So presently Mrs. Spriggle herself was ushered in. This time she was attired in a dingy black calico, made with a deep flounce which trailed on the floor behind her. The sunbonnet, too, was of the same hue.
“ Good evenin’ missis! I reckon ye thought I was dead, or clared out, mebbe!”
“ Why, yes,” assented the mistress; “ we have been wondering for a long time how you were getting along.”
“ Only tol’able; just tol’able,” said Mrs. Spriggle, shaking her head mournfully, as she sank into a chair by the fire. “ My gal’s mighty sick. I reckon she’s got the reel true consumption this time, sure.”
“ Oh, dear, not so bad as that, I hope. Tell me all about it.”
“ Well, she can’t eat, an’ she does cough awful,—she does so. Me an’ Thornton has to be up an’ down with her nights, an’ the wust on it is, Bud an’ Minty ’ moved way off to the Upper Creek. He ’s a-diggin’ coal up thar. The folks up Dry Branch is mighty kind neighbors, but we ’re in a tol’able bad fix; we are so.” She drew a deep sigh, and lapsed into silence, gazing meanwhile dejectedly into the fire. “ ’Pears like I never should get that thar three dollars paid off no how,” she said at last.
“ Oh, you need n’t worry over that,” said the mistress. “ You have all you can attend to now with your sick daughter. The colonel won’t ask you for that. We will let it go.”
“ Well, you’re right down kind, ye an’ the cunnle. I allus did say the cunnle was the kindest man hereabouts.” Mrs. Spriggle brightened up for the moment, and then relapsed again into gloom and silence.
“ I think you had better go into the kitchen now, and have some dinner,” the mistress said, presently, “ After that I will put up some things for your daughter.”
The dinner disposed of, a big basket of provisions was prepared, and while it was being packed, Mrs. Spriggle, whose melancholy mood was by this time somewhat averted, said, “ Sis was a-wishin' she was rich this mornin’. ‘ What fur, sis,’ says I. ‘ Oh, maw,’ says she, ‘if I was rich, I 'd buy yards an’ yards o' caliker to make patchwork with.’ She ’s that fond o’ piecin’ patchwork; it ’s all she keers fur now,” and the mother took up the end of her shawl to wipe a tear away.
“ Well, if that is all she wants to make her happy, it will be easy to gratify the child,” exclaimed the mistress.
“ Wait a little, and I will find her some pieces.” When she returned again, carrying a big roll of bright bits of calico, she noticed the unseemly length of her visitor’s skirt, which dragged in front, as well as behind. “ You should make your dress shorter, Mrs. Spriggle,” she said. “ How can you walk in such a long skirt? ” Mrs. Spriggle turned her head over her shoulder, and regarded herself attentively from that point of view, but said nothing. “ All the ladies are wearing very short skirts this winter,” continued the mistress. “ See mine! It does not touch anywhere.”
Mrs. Spriggle put her hands on her knees, and bent down to peer at it from under her cavernous sun-bonnet. Then she straightened herself up, and walked very deliberately all around the mistress. “ Well, now, that’s what I call pretty. I do so,” she ejaculated, when her tour had come to an end. “ So short skirts is the fashion, is they ? Well, I allus did say ye dressed just the prettiest I ever see. But law sakes, I must be a-goin’! My gal ’ll be mighty took with them pieces,” and shouldering the basket, she departed for her long walk, in better spirits, it is to be hoped, than when she came.
During the following spring and summer Mrs. Spriggle paid occasional visits to Briarley, but since the middle of August nothing had been seen or heard of her, when one October day the colonel came in with the astounding news that Mrs. Spriggle’s “ gal ” was married.
“ Married! ” cried his wife. “ It can’t be true! She’s a mere child.”
“ I think it is true. John Mitchell, who lives near them, was down this morning, so I asked him about the Spriggle family. He says she has married one of those good-for-nothing Gibsons from up SugarCamp Branch. There’s no telling what extraordinary thing these people will do next.”
Not a week later Mrs. Spriggle presented herself again at Briarley. The black dress had suffered visibly from contact with muddy roads on the way. The black sun-bonnet was limper and rustier than ever. Their wearer dropped into a chair, and crossed her hands dejectedly on her knees.
“ Reckon ye done heered 'bout my gal bein’ married,” she said, without raising her eyes from the floor.
“ Yes. I was much surprised to hear it,” the mistress replied. “ She must be very young. ”
“ Yes, she is tol’able young, is sis, — goin’ on fifteen. But law, I was married at thirteen, — I was so! ”
She looked up quickly, but catching an expression of disapproval on the mistress’s face she cast her eyes again upon the floor.
“ The wust on it is,” continued she, “ he ain’t got a cent, nor he can’t make one, nuther.”
“ Why did you let your daughter take him, then ? ”
“ Well, he come a-dawdlin’ round sis, an’ he’d allus a powder-horn a hangin’ on to him; so I just ’lowed he ’d a gun, and could keep sis in coons an’ possums. She’s a master-hand at fresh meat, is my gal ! He scraped up two dollars somewhat to get the license with an’ to pay the preacher; but I don’t reckon he ’ll ever arn any more.”
‘‘Not earn any more!” cried the mistress incredulously. “ What is the matter that he can’t work and support your daughter properly ? ”
Mrs. Spriggle pushed back her bonnet and crossed her knees before she answered. Then she shook her head mournfully.
“ I never found out,” she said, “ till they was done married, as how he’d nary gun at all, — nothin’ but a powder-horn. And,” with a gesture of disgust, “ he’s the powerfullest no-account critter ye ever did see.”
“ You must feel badly to let your daughter go away with such a man.”
“ Oh, law, she ain’t gone! Did ye think he had ary house to put her in? Why, don’t ye know? They ’s a-livin’ to home with me.”
This amazing piece of intelligence nearly took away the mistress’s breath. Before she could reply, Mrs. Spriggle continued, —
“ What’s did ’s did! ’Tain’t no use fussin’, I reckon.”
“ But how could you let her marry him without knowing more about him. than you did ? ”
“ Well, it’s flyin’ in the face o’ Providence not to take up with a husband when becomes along.” She glanced up appealingly as she spoke. “ Gals can’t get a good husband every day,—they can’t so ! ”
“ But,” said the mistress, “it seems he is not a good husband.”
Mrs. Spriggle’s face, which had brightened slightly, took on a gloomier hue, and she pulled the black bonnet down over it.
“ That’s so,” she assented, tearfully. “ He’s wuss than nary husband. That’s so, I do say. But,” as she rose to go, " mebbe he can ketch rabbits, if he knowed how to make a trap, now! I must be gettin’ along. Mr. Mitchell, he’s a-goin’ to give me a job o’ fencin’ this evenin’. Come up, now, do. I ’ll be right down glad to see ye. But it’s a powerful rough holler, is Dry Branch, an’ I don’t reckon ye could ever get up thar, no how. Good mornin, ma’am.”