The Quare Women. Vi: Moonshine




THE night of the women’s return from the funeral occasion, there was again some shooting down in the village, as there had been the night previous; and the women feared that Billy Lee was one of the culprits, as Lethie came up in his place to milk their cow next morning.

They were much troubled, and as Uncle Ephraim Kent, on account of rheumatism, was unable to come to his reading lesson Monday morning, Amy and Virginia, accompanied by Isabel, went across Troublesome after dinner, to consult with him on the subject. The Kent lands extended for a mile or two along the far side of the creek, and Uncle Ephraim’s home was in a hollow opposite the village. They crossed on a long footlog, which was chained to a great water-elm on Uncle Ephraim’s bank, so that it should not be entirely carried away by ‘tides.’

The old man was sitting just inside the doorway of his ancient log house, trousers rolled up, and his legs from the knee down bound in red flannel. His wife placed chairs. It was Isabel’s first visit to his home, and her eyes flew at once to the long old musket and the strange musical instrument that hung over his ‘fireboard’; and as soon as possible she asked him about them.

The musket, it appeared, had been the one used by his ‘grandsir,’ the old Cap’n, when he ‘fit under Washington’; the dulcimer he himself had made when a young man courting his first wife (the present one was his second).

‘Dulcimores,’ he said, ‘used to be the onliest music in this country — the knowledge how to make ’em and pick on ’em was fotched in by our forbears. But banjos and fiddles has nigh run ’em out now.’

At Isabel’s urging, he picked a tune on the old dulcimer, laying it across his knees and using two quills, one to ‘note’ with, and one to pick with. The music was like the droning of a million mosquitoes.

He said that the old musket was still in use in his young days — that he had killed many a deer with it. ‘Allus in them days I follered wearing red, because hit makes the deer stand at gaze. And ’ — pointing to the crimson linsey hunting-jacket that hung on a peg by the door — ‘I’m still a-wearing hit, though there hain’t been a deer seed in these parts for allus. In them early days I never bothered with no shoes, or even moccasins — the soles of my feet was so thick I could easy crush chestnut-burrs with ’em. And many’s the time I have laid out all night in the pouring rain and never kotched ary cold. Present-day young folks hain’t no account — they have tendered theirselves too much.’

He also had his wife get out from a chest his greatest treasure — his grandsir’s old yellow, crumbling Bible, ‘fotched out in his saddlebags when he come acrost from Old Virginny. And which now,’ he said triumphantly, ‘I can read myself, nigh as good as him.’ So saying, he opened the faded pages at the Twenty-third Psalm, and, with some prompting from Amy at the hard words, read it through proudly.

The women then broached the subject of their visit — the shooting in the village the past two nights.

‘I heard hit all,’ said the old man. ‘Hit hain’t Fult and his crowd, or Darcy and his’n, thank God! but just some of the sprouting-age boys that has got hold of liquor some way, and tuck too much.’

‘But where do they get the liquor?’

Uncle Ephraim shook his head. ‘No deeficulty about that,’ he said. ‘Stilling most gen’ally starts up pretty prompt atter the crap is laid by. You see, the folks in this country mostly feels they have got a fair right to do what pleases ’em with their corn they have raised, law or no law, and that the Gover’ment hain’t got no business meddling. And I don’t know but what they got right and jestice on their side, so fur as right and jestice goes. But what I look at is, the devilish harm the liquor does. Casting an eye back over a long lifetime, and the awful wickedness of men, and the general meanness of their manœuvres, I can’t hardly ricollect a wrong that did n’t have whiskey behind hit or mixed up in hit. The infamious stuff!’ he cried, leaning forward in his chair with clenched hands, ‘hit ought to be buried face downward, unfathomed deep, and writ over the grave, “No reesurrection”!’

Settling back in his chair after a moment, he continued in a different voice, ‘Folks is allus a-counseling me, “Take a leetle corn-liquor for your rheumatiz’, hit’s the holpingest medicine ever was made.” And so hit may be. But I’d sooner stand the pain as to pour that devil’s potion down my neck. Now don’t you get tore up in your minds over them boys, women — I ’ll ax around and try to get on the track of where they’re getting that liquor.’

In the evening, just before the ‘sing,’ the women spoke to Fult.

‘Them boys need to have their necks broke for drinking too much and disturbing your peace that way,’ he said; ‘they ought to know when to stop. If I’d a-been in town, I’d a learnt ’em. Hit won’t happen no more; I’ll put fear in ’em before I leave.’

Sure enough, it did not happen again that week, and the women’s fears were laid to rest.

So, also, were Isabel’s. Fult’s behavior toward her during the weeks was perfect. When he and his crowd rode in from the farm for the late afternoon play-parties, he was friendly and pleasant, chose Lethie and herself impartially for his partners, made no effort whatever to see her alone, either then or after the evening ‘sings,’ and did not permit himself so much as a glance that would trouble her. Occasionally he and his friends would be absent at one or the other time; but usually they were on hand, as were also Darcy and his crowd, and the women congratulated themselves that the young men, the dangerous element, were keeping entirely out of trouble.

Every afternoon the heads of the work, Virginia and Amy, continued their walks, visiting the homes up all the creeks and branches within a radius of five or six miles, often not returning until nearly dark. On account of helping with the play-parties in the afternoon and conducting the sings in the evening, Isabel could not join these expeditions, much as she longed to. But when she learned that they proposed going up Noah’s Run Saturday afternoon, she declared she would for once desert duty and go along. The previous Saturday a woman from the head of that branch had visited the hill, with a tiny, withered baby in a black-calico dress with white polka dots; and the appearance of the poor little creature had so wrought upon Isabel that she decided to follow it up.

Saturday morning she hastily made a little dress and cap from one of her own pretty petticoats, bought the remainder of a very primitive baby outfit down in the village, and was ready to start with the others after dinner.


They followed Troublesome for a couple of miles, then turned up the winding branch that bore the name Noah’s Run. Less than a mile from its mouth was a small store, with nags tied to limbs outside, and men sitting on the puncheon benches in front. The storekeeper’s home, a neat, weatherboarded house, was the first visited. The wife welcomed the women as old friends, having visited them on the hill, and her nine children also having attended the classes pretty regularly. They asked her, among other things, if typhoid had as yet appeared up her branch; there were already two or three cases of it in the village, where it seemed to be expected as confidently as the coming of summer. She said it had not yet begun on Noah’s Run, though everybody was looking for it.

‘Everybody on the branch is a-trying to stave hit off by dosting up on corn-liquor. A dram alt around is what me and my man and all our young-uns takes of a morning and of a night.’

To their suggestions that drinkingwater be boiled and flies be kept away from food, she was impervious. ‘Cornliquor’s the shorest way,’ she said.

Hers was the last and only house on the branch which had a window, the others being ail windowless log cabins.

At the first of these, the mother, fat, flabby, and dirty, claimed to have been unable to visit the hill because of poor health. ‘I got the breast complaint — some calls hit the galloping consumpt’,’ she informed them, proudly. She sat complacently on the small, rotting porch, fanning herself with a turkey-wing, while a dozen tow-headed children (boys wearing a single garment, — a cotton shirt, — girls in ragged cotton dresses) gathered around to stare with steady, unblinking eyes at the strangers, and numerous chickens and ducks, and a large litter of pigs, wandered through porch and house.

‘I have heared a sight about you quare women, and have longed to lay eyes on you,’ the invalid said. ‘The qua rest thing I heared was that not nary one of you had a man.’

They admitted the truth of this rumor, and she gave them another searching inspection, remarking afterward, —

‘Don’t none of you appear to be pining, though — I allow you have got past hit. I’ve heared old maids has a mighty happy time when they git through strugglin’.’

What did she do for her ‘breast complaint’? Well, a nip of corn-liquor was the ‘clearingest’ thing known for breast and neck. Was it hard to get? Oh, not now, since the crap was laid by.

Were her children in school? No, indeed; there was n’t any school to go to on Noah’s Run — never had been. She would like to see her boys get larning — hit holped a man along; but as for gals, she herself had gotten on without any, and she allowed women were in general better off without it. ‘Not meaning no disrespect to you that have got hit,’ she hastened to add. ‘But you see yourself how hit is — a woman that sets out to ketch larning is mighty apt not to ketch her a man.’

On the porch of the next cabin stood a great loom and two spinning wheels. The woman of the house was out in the middle of the branch, washing wool by treading it in a loose basket. She let down her skirts, dried her hands on her apron, and hurried toward the guests, taking them through a clean-swept yard into a clean-swept cabin. Everything was clean — the floor, the chairs, the three fat beds in the room, the broad hearth, her own gnarled hands and striped homespun dress and apron, the shirts of her boys, the faded dresses of her girls. She said she had only seven children at home now, her ‘main oldest’ boy having died a few years back, and her three oldest girls having married. She said this oldest boy had been a ‘pure scholar’; that although he had never ‘sot in a schoolhouse’ a day in his life, he had in some way got hold of a speller, and taught himself his letters, and before he got through could spell every word in the book, backwards or forwards, and knew all the reading the same way. If he had lived, it was ‘ontelling’ what heights he would have climbed to.

‘Davy there, my thirteen-year-old, he has the like ambition,’ she said, pointing at a boy whose fine, intelligent face flushed under their gaze. ‘He’ll larn, someway or nother, though I don’t know how; for, though there’s a big mess of young-uns on this branch, there hain’t a sign of a school, nor likely to be, ’pears like.’

One of the younger boys lay across the foot of one of the beds, with his throat tied up. ‘He follers having the quinzy,’ said his mother. To the question, What do you do for him? she replied, ‘We make him set and rest frequent at corn-hoeing time, and I give him a little corn-liquor to kindly holp him up when hit’s handy. He’s a smart-turned child, too — all my young-uns is, if they could jest get a chanst.’

The next cabin was that of a young pair only three years married, but in this time they had done their utmost in the way of replenishing the earth, as three ‘least ones’ attested. The home following was that of a pair of grandparents, who, having raised one large family, had now started again with eight orphan grandchildren. They, and the mother of thirteen in the next cabin, expressed fervent wishes that their young should have a chance at ‘larning’; and in reply to the question as to what they were doing to prevent typhoid, responded, as others had done, that a little grain of corn-liquor was the best preventive known.

So far, the women had counted fifty-two children in the branch. In the next house there were eleven; and the home of the black-calico baby, at the head of the branch, four miles from its mouth, remained to be visited.

Arriving there, they saw the mother beside the branch, ‘battling’ the clothes she had just washed and boiled in a big iron kettle. She would lift them out of the kettle, lay them on a smooth stump, and then beat, or ‘battle,’ them with a flat stick. Evidently washboards were an unknown luxury up Noah’s Run.

She came forward with joy when she saw the visitors. The wizened baby, still in the black-calico dress and a very dirty cap, lay on a pallet beneath a big apple tree, with a swarm of flies hovering over it, which an old, old woman who sat by, smoking a pipe, dispersed every now and then with a leafy switch. She took the pipe from her mouth to gaze at the strangers.

‘Is them the quare women, Phronie?’ she asked.

‘Hit is,’ replied Phronie.

‘That hain’t got ary man amongst ’em?’

‘The same,’ replied Phronie; then, to the visitors, ‘This here is my maw’s old granny that lives with me; she’s terrible old — I allow nigh a hunderd. She don’t, like to live with none of her grands but me.’

‘Stop talking and set cheers for ’em, Phronie,’ commanded the old lady, sharply.

Whereupon Phronie went into the house and fetched out two chairs, which, with the one the grandmother sat upon, appeared to be the entire stock. When the other two visitors were seated, Isabel, picking up the poor little baby, from whose eyes the experience and suffering of ages looked out, took her seat on a convenient treeroot, whither the other children, who had scattered like rabbits on the appearance of the women, slowly gathered — nine besides the baby.

Here the old lady, with the remark, ‘I was about to forgit my manners,’ made a sudden dive into her pocket and brought forth a cob pipe similar to the one she was smoking, and a twist of tobacco, handing them to Virginia, with the invitation, ‘Take a smoke.’

‘Thank you,’ said Virginia, ‘but I don’t smoke.’

‘Don’t you now? Well, that’s quare — I’d larn hit if I was you. My ole granny used to look so pretty a-smoking. I kotched hit from her, same as I ketched my trade.’

‘She follers doctoring women when their time comes,’ explained Phronie.

‘ Me and my ole granny together has brung very nigh all the babes that come to this country for a hunderd year,’ boasted the old woman. ‘But, women, if you don’t smoke, take a chaw.’

‘No, thanks, I believe not.’

The old soul looked crestfallen. ‘I allow you foller chawing manufact’, and this here hain’t nothing but homemade,’ she apologized.

‘No, I should prefer this to manufactured if I took it at all,’ Virginia assured her, and to Phronie she said, ‘Tell us more about your baby. How old is it?’

‘Well, women,’ said Phronie, in a surprised tone, ‘I don’t rightly know. Hit were borned quite a spell before corn-crapping time — about three or four week’, were n’t hit, Granny?’

‘Nigher five,’ Granny replied. ‘I ricollect hit by the dark of the moon.’

‘Then it’s around four months old?’

‘I reckon. But hit hain’t growed none sence the day hit come.’

‘Has it been sick?’

‘No, hit don’t appear to be — never hollers or cries none; I never seed a civiler baby. Hit jest lays and pines and pindles.’

‘Do you nurse it yourself?’

‘Give hit suck, you mean? Yes, I allus have a plenty for two young-uns. And hit’ll mostly take the teat all right, but will jest kindly mouth hit, and not suck hearty like t’ other young-uns.’

‘What do you do for it?’

‘Nary thing on earth but give hit good corn-liquor reg’lar. I seed from the start hit was puny-like, and commenced right off dosting hit generous, four or five times a day, to holp up its stren’th and wake up hit’s appetite.’

‘To holp up hit’s stren’th and wake up hit’s appetite,’ echoed the old granny, in her high, cracked voice; ‘hain’t nothing like good corn-liquor, for young or old.’

‘And hit was hard to get, too, at corn-crapping time,’ complained Phronie; ‘but,’ virtuously, ‘I allus managed.’

‘If I were you, I would not give it any more,’ said Amy. ‘Doctors nowadays say it is very bad for babies, and stunts their growth and poisons them badly. Suppose you try for a couple of weeks not giving it any.’

Phronie and Granny looked at her in open-mouthed amazement.

‘Phronie,’ said the old lady at last, ‘these here quare women has got a sight of book-larning, and if they was to spend their opinions on books, I’d listen at ’em. But what does a passel of old maids, that hain’t got a baby to their names, know about babies?’

Phronie’s objection was on a different ground. ‘Hit would look too mean,’ she said, ‘for me to drink hit myself and not give none to my child.’

‘Try leaving it off yourself, and see if your milk won’t agree better with the baby,’ suggested Virginia.

But the old lady spoke authoritatively: ‘Hain’t nothing like liquor for nursing mothers.’

The women were silenced. But Isabel opened her bundle and exhibited the things she had brought for the baby, and asked if she might give it a warm bath and dress it up.

Phronie immediately set things going. Two of the boys were ordered to chop wood and make up again the fire under the big kettle, another to draw water from the well, one of the little girls ran for the family towel, another for the soft soap, another for the dishpan. And there, under the apple tree, in the dish-pan, Isabel gave the poor little skeleton baby the first comfortable bath it had ever had in its life, drying it afterward, not with the soiled, stiff family towel, but with one of the soft rags she had brought. She bathed it — all but its head; for on this point Granny and Phronie were adamant. To wash a babe’s head, or leave off its cap, under a year, was certain death. ‘And I love my child too good to run ary risk,’ said Phronie. The best Isabel could do was to put the clean cap on the dirty little head.

The small creature looked up at her out of its age-old eyes, and rewarded her by going to sleep in her arms.

Phronie insisted that the women should stay to supper, the afternoon being about gone. They had brought sandwiches with them in case of a late return, but accepted her invitation.

Four or five of the children then ran down a chicken, which Phronie killed and fried. She also warmed up a pot of string beans, and made biscuit and coffee, and the visitors sat down to a plentiful supper, occupying the three chairs, while Ben, Phronie’s husband, sat on the churn, and the nine children, not greedy and grabbing as most would have been, but always quiet and ‘civil,’ stood and ate. The women felt it to be a shame that such well-behaved, and apparently bright children, should be six miles away from a schoolhouse, and entirely cut off from opportunity.


When the guests were ready to start home, Phronie said there was a ‘nigher’ way for them to return by than the one they had taken coming — that the walk might be shortened two miles by going along the ridge-tops. This idea appealed — they knew it could not get very dark, because the full moon would be rising too soon. So Ben took them up the mountain in the rear, and a short way along the ridge, leaving them with the directions, ‘All you got to do is to keep to the main ridge, whichever way hit winds, and not turn off on no spur; and hit’ll fetch you right out over them cloth houses of your’n. And there hain’t no varmints to bother you, less’n hit is a few rattlesnakes, which, if you don’t step on ’em, won’t do you no harm.’

The sun had long since set, but they went along in the clear evening light with an exhilarating view of other ridges stretching off on every side. Along the ridge-top was a narrow, hard-rock formation, which had resisted the wear and tear of ages, and which made a good, clear path, and lifted them pretty well above the timber save where a great yellow poplar thrust its giant head up here and there. In the narrow valleys below, mist was already gathering. Pale stars came out and steadily brightened; but the women walked on in the dusk unafraid.

At last, after they had gone on for an hour, Virginia exclaimed, ‘I think I know where we are now. To the right is the valley of Troublesome, and the land below us must be Fallon’s, where Fult and his friends are getting out timber. And oh, there’s the flush in the east where the moon is rising.’

An instant later Isabel exclaimed, ‘Is n’t that a light down in the timber just ahead of us?’

‘Yes, it certainly is; probably Fult and the boys are having a ’possum hunt.’

‘It seems to be a steady glow, not a moving lantern.’

‘Well, a ’possum supper, then.’

They went on in silence, keeping an eye on the light, which was now just below them, apparently at the base of the rock, or cliff, they were on. Then they heard the murmur of voices. A thick curtain of grapevine here hung in and between the trees, so that in the daytime vision could never have penetrated to what was beneath. But now, through the interstices, they could plainly see, about thirty feet below them, the steady glow of a large fire, which appeared to be under a sort of furnace of rock; a number of planks and barrels; several rifles leaning against a tree; and some of Fult’s crowd of young men. Four were engaged in a game of cards, by the light of the furnace; another was watching the game and feeding the furnace with an occasional chunk of wood; still another was working at the barrels; while the last — Charlie Lee — was sampling the tiny stream that trickled from a pipe in the barrel nearest the furnace and fell into a bucket. Fult himself was nowhere to be seen.

‘These boys are not having any ’possum supper,’ said Virginia, in a shocked voice; ‘they are running a still.’

‘Oh, they could n’t,’ exclaimed Amy, ‘after all Fult’s promises to us.’

‘I’ve been wild to see a still all my life,’ said Isabel.

The three stood rooted, gazing with all their eyes. As they looked, Fult himself, rifle on arm (evidently he had been on guard below), stepped into the circle of light.

‘Mend up the fire, boys,’ he ordered; ‘we want to finish this last run-off. Hit ought to be nigh done now. Charlie, quit tasting them strong shots — you hain’t able to stand hit.’

Stooping over, he tasted a ‘ shot ’ himself, to tell about the stage of the liquor. At the same moment Isabel, in her consuming desire to see the fuller workings of the still, stepped nearer to the cliff-edge, and with her foot struck a small rock, scarcely more than a pebble, which bounded off the cliff. It could not have made much noise in falling; but instantly the furnace light was completely muffled, every voice was stilled. Then, before any of the women could stir, a bullet whizzed just over Isabel’s head, and a sharp command of ‘Halt!’ rang out. There was a sound as of someone scrambling up through trees and vines, and in another instant Fult, rifle in hand, stepped on the cliff before them, into the moonlight.

He looked, and stood as if turned to stone.

For a long moment nobody spoke. Then Amy found her voice.

‘We were spending the afternoon on Noah’s Run,’ she said, ‘and the people kept us to supper and sent us back the near way, over the ridges. We saw the light, and wondered what it could be, and stopped to see.’

‘I allow you found out,’ laughed Fult, unpleasantly.

‘We did; but with no intention of spying. We did not dream you would do such a thing as run a still.’

‘I never drempt either hit could be you women, or I would n’t have shot when I heard the rock fall, and seed a head again’ the sky-line.’

‘I suppose you have forgotten all your promises to us,’ said Virginia sadly.

‘I hain’t broke a single promise to you,’ replied Fult, indignantly. ‘I don’t break my word. Nary one of my crowd hain’t done a bit of drinking or shooting or broke the peace in any way.’

‘But the liquor you are making?’

‘Hit ain’t for this country. I aim to take hit to the Virginny line and sell hit there at the mines, where I can get a good price.’

‘But you did let some of the younger boys get hold of some, did n’t you?’

‘I give a jug unthoughted to Bob Ainslee for going an arrand, never thinking of him and t’ other young boys getting drunk on hit.’

‘Oh, why do you do these things which distress us so, and which are directly against the law?’ implored Amy.

‘ Laws hain’t nothing to me if they’re onjust,’ he declared, defiantly; ‘I don’t think hit’s wrong to use the corn I have raised in stilling liquor, or I would n’t do hit. But,’ in a changed and troubled voice, ‘I would n’t have had you women see this still for a thousand dollars.’


‘Oh, because you look at things different from me. You have got strange notions. You don’t understand our ways up here.’

He cast a desperate, searching glance into Isabel’s face, as if in the wild hope of finding some understanding and sympathy there. But her eyes were dropped.

There seemed nothing more to be said on either side. The women turned away and began their homeward walk.

‘Won’t — won’t you let me — or Charlie — see you safe home?’ Fult asked, in a choked voice.

‘No, we feel safer alone, thank you,’ replied Virginia.

And they walked on, leaving Fult standing like a statue.

Three hours later, the six women on the hill were awakened from slumber by the most frightful sounds — rapid shooting, hard galloping, blood-curdling whoops and yells — down in the village street, and knew only too well that Fult and his crowd had drunk deeply and ridden in to ‘shoot up’ the town. Compared with this, the scattering shots of the previous Saturday and Sunday nights had been but feeble child’s play. For an hour, death and destruction seemed to be let loose. The women lay trembling in their tents, hoping against hope that no one would be killed, feeling that their summer’s work had been utterly in vain; while down in the village mothers crawled under beds with their children and lay flattened against the floor, to dodge the flying bullets.

Every person in the village sought safety but one — that one was Lethie. Directly over the street where the frenzied boys dashed back and forth, she knelt by her window, following Fult’s figure in wild apprehension and terror, and sending up incoherent prayers for his safety. It was nights such as this which had saddened and aged the child beyond her years.