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In My Youth by  James Baldwin
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THE DEPARTURE OF THE CARAVAN

[160]

"S
AY, Towhead, how would thee like to go to the 'Hio next week?" It was David that was speaking, and his lips were screwed up in a way which meant that he was vastly pleased about something.

I was busy reading the story of Richard the Lion-hearted for the fourth time, and being half angry that he should bother me with such a question, I answered gruffly, "Who's goin' to the 'Hio?"

"I am," he answered; "but thee  hain't. Father said that I might go."

This aroused my curiosity, and closing the book, I proceeded to get more of the information which I knew David was burning to give.

"Father and all the rest has made it up to go to Larnceburg ag'in," he said, "and I'm goin' along to help with the wagon. They say that wheat's ten cents a bushel higher down there than 'tis at Nopplis, and we can get salt a whole lot cheaper. So they're all goin' to try it ag'in, and I'm goin' along."

"When, David?"

"We're goin' to start a week from to-morrer, at sunup. Don't thee wish thee was goin', too?"

"Yes; but I know I can't. So what's the use of talking about it?"

Now, of all the regions of myth and mystery which [161] I had heard of, but never read about, there was none that stirred my imagination more strongly than that of the 'Hio. I thought of it as a dim distant country, lying close under the southern horizon and productive of many things, useful and beautiful, that were neither made nor grown in our New Settlement. The people who lived in that favored region were always ready to trade. They had many things to "sell—in fact, everything that you could think about—and" they were always accommodatingly ready to buy any commodity that might be offered to them. There was a great river there which gave name to the whole country; and boats sailed on it to a far-away mysterious place called Orleans, where they sold slaves and made mollasses. All my life, I had heard a great deal of talk about Larnceburg and the 'Hio and Sin Snatty, which was not much farther away; but in spite of the knowledge I had gained from my "reading—especially in the Parley Book—all" my notions of location and distance were indistinct, confused, misleading. I had never seen a stream larger than our "crick," or a village larger than Dry Forks with its three buildings; and so, how could my imagination conceive of mighty rivers and busy cities?

Until the completion of the first railroad to Nopplis, three or four years previous, there were no markets for produce nearer to us than the Ohio River. For more than ten years after the founding of our New Settlement, it had been the custom of our people to make an annual journey, for purposes of trade, to Larnceburg, at that time the rival of Sin Snatty, and the most convenient of the river ports. They usually went in a single company of ten to twenty men and boys, with as many as a dozen wagons of all sizes and descriptions; and the time chosen [162] for this pilgrimage was in the fall, after the harvest had been gathered, and while the roads were passable.

During the first few years there had not been much for any one of the settlers to haul to "Larnceburg—no wheat, no corn, nor other grain—but" perhaps the hide of a dead cow, a few pounds of maple-sugar, a little ginseng, and some skins of coons or muskrats. Nevertheless, as the clearings increased and the fields were made larger, a time of plenty arrived. Each year that passed saw more grain and more wool produced and finally a single farmer was sometimes known to take to the market as much as ten bushels of wheat and the fleeces of half a dozen sheep, besides the usual number of other things. Such farmers were on the highroad to wealth.

Great expectations had been aroused by the building of the first railroad in the Injanner "Country—that" from Madison to Nopplis, as we always persisted in calling the state capital. It was a death-blow to Larnceburg and a disappointment to Sin Snatty, but it held out golden promises to the two terminal cities. Madison at once became a business mart of the first importance; and father expressed his opinion that Nopplis would very soon develop into a great center of trade, thus bringing the markets of the world to our very doors. What a change that would mean for our settlement! For the state capital was so near to it that one might go thither and return in two "days—only think of it!—whereas" the journey to Larnceburg and back had never been accomplished in less than seven.

But, alas! the hopes engendered by the railroad were not yet realized. True, it was always possible to sell farm produce in Nopplis, but not for anything approach- [163] ing the prices that were paid on the 'Hio. And when it came to buying such necessary things as salt and pins and dove-colored ribbons, the cost was proportionately higher. The dealers claimed that the expense of freightage between Nopplis and the 'Hio was so great that all this was unavoidable; but their explanation was of no value to the settlers. After trying the "markets at our very doors" for a year or two, father declared that the railroad was a cheat, and that we were no better off than before. Finally, the neighbors had put their heads together and resolved to try one more pilgrimage to their old accustomed market on the 'Hio.

"Yes," said David, slapping his thigh, "We're goin' to the 'Hio with everything we've got to trade; and maybe when them there Nopplis fellers finds out that they're losin' business, they'll knock under a bit. Father says that me and Jonathan may have half of all the money he gits for the wool; and so if thee'll be a good boy, maybe I'll buy thee a nice marvel or two."

I knew that there was something behind all this kindness and condescension on his part; and so I answered, "Yes, I'll be a good boy. What is it thee wants me to do?"

"Why, it's jist this way," said he: "Father says that there's too much for Jonathan to tend to, all by hisself, and him threatened with the fever'n'agur every other day. So he says that I ought to stay home and help him and not think of goin' to the 'Hio. But I says, 'There's Robert, he's gittin' quite big, and maybe he'll help Jonathan and take care of my filly while I'm gone!' and father, he says, 'Well, if Robert is willing to take thy place and do thy work, then thee may go along and help take care of the wagon.' So now, Towhead, [164] what does thee say? Will thee lick in and help Jonathan if I'll bring thee a couple of striped marvels?"

It required but a minute for us to reach an agreement, and then David proudly announced to father that I had agreed to take his place during his absence on the trip to the 'Hio. And so the matter was settled.

Very early on the morning that had been set for the departure, I was roused from sleep by hearing an unusual bustle and commotion in the cabin. I tumbled out of my trundle-bed and dressed "myself—which" was quickly done, since I had only to slip into my tow-cloth breeches and pull the galluses up over my shoulders. There was a bright blaze in the fireplace, and Cousin Mandy Jane was very busy putting the breakfast things on the table. Mother was filling a wooden pail with cold "victuals— bread," pickled meat, fried chicken, dried apple pie and the like.

"They'll be hungry more'n once while they're on the road," I heard her remark.

I opened the door and went out. Save for a feeble light low down on the eastern horizon, it was still quite dark. The air was pungent with the odor of smoke, and the heavy dew that lay on the grass was like ice-water to my feet. I hastened to the spring to scrub my face and dampen my hair, as I was always required to do before breakfast. In the orchard a whippoorwill was calling, and among the sycamores in the "bottom" a great horned owl was hooting. Looking over toward the deadening', I saw the fires glowing in a score of log-heaps, and I knew that Jonathan must have been there, even before this early hour, doing his customary morning's task of "righting them up." Then I heard father and David moving about the barn, and by the light of [165] the little old tin lantern which one of them carried, I could see that they had already hitched the horses to the wagon and that everything was in readiness for the start.

"Breakfast's ready!" shouted the shrill voice of Cousin Mandy Jane.

And soon we were all seated around the table, partaking of the ample supply of hot corn dodgers, fried pork and pumpkin pie, with foaming new milk for the younger people and roasted-wheat coffee for the older. It was a breakfast fit for a king, as David expressed it, and far too good for most kings, as I fervently believed. It still lacked a full half-hour till daybreak, and since every preparation for the journey had been completed, there was no need for haste. So father and the boys sat leisurely and long at the table, and their talk was naturally of markets and roads and railroads.

"Well, I wish I was goin' along with you, and I'll tell you why," said Jonathan, who had just come in from the deadenin'. "I'd like to see that there tarnal railroad. Of course you'll be a-crossin' it somewhere down toward the 'Hio, won't you?"

"I reckon hardly," responded David in rather pompous tones. "We ain't likely to see it nowhere; and so thee ain't missin' much. A railroad ain't no sight nohow. I seen it when I was down to Nopplis, and I wouldn't give a pin to see it again. It hain't nothin' but two rows of long beams with two narrer strips of flat iron nailed along the top of 'em."

"I don't keer so much about seein' jist the railroad," explained Jonathan; "But I'm mighty cur'ous to see them there cars, as they call 'em, a-runnin' along on them there strips of iron."

[166] "Oh, I seen a dozen cars when I was at Nopplis," said David; "and any one of 'em was as big as twenty of our wagons. But the eenjine, that's  what thee ought to see! Thee ought to see it, a-puffin' and roarin' along, and pullin' four or five of them there big cars ahind it. It's a sight, I tell thee."

"I've heerd say that some of 'em can run mighty fast," said Jonathan.

"Yes, some of 'em run as fast as a horse can gallop," said David. "Them's the kind they call passenger cars. People rides in 'em."

"Laws' sakes! but they must jolt turble," ejaculated Cousin Mandy Jane.

"It's a very rapid way of traveling," said father. "When Barnabas C. Hobbs was here, he told me it is now a common thing for a train of cars to run all the way from Nopplis to Madison in a day. Only think of "it!—eighty" miles between sunup and sundown! Five years ago, people didn't believe it possible. It's my opinion that David Wallace would have been our governor to-day if he hadn't tried to make folks believe such things."

"How was that, father?" inquired Jonathan.

"Well, at the last election for governor, David Wallace thought he would be one of the candidates. People liked him and he was doing right well till he made two or three speeches that spoiled all his chances. In them speeches he declared that the railroad would be the making of Nopplis and of the whole country. He said that there were young men then in the hearing of his voice who would live to see the time when they could eat their breakfast in Nopplis and their supper the same day on the 'Hio. A good many [167] people hooted at the idea, and they said that if William had no more sense than to tell 'em such stuff as that, he wasn't fit to be governor; and so they turned him down. The fact is that there are so many wonders, nowadays, we never know what to expect next. But the Madison railroad has now been built for some years, and it don't seem to be doing much good. I don't understand why those Nopplis men should want more railroads build to their place."

"Are they wantin' to do that?" asked Jonathan.

"Some of 'em are very anxious about it," answered father. "When I was down there last spring, I had a talk with Calvin Fletcher, and he told me that plans are now on foot to build railroads in every "direction—east to Wayne, north to Lay Fate, and west to Terry Hut—and" he declared his belief that Nopplis will soon become the greatest railroad center in the world."

"And what good would that do?" asked Jonathan.

"I'm sure I don't know," was the answer. "Some say it would bring the markets right to our doors; but it ain't likely. We've heard that kind of talk 'most too often."

"I do believe it's gittin' daylight," said Cousin Mandy Jane, peeping out at the window. "If you set there at the table much longer, you surely won't git to the Four Corners at sunup."

"Yes, boys, come!" said father. "It's getting light in the east. We'll start now, as soon as possible."

Then came the bustle of departure. I ran out to the wagon and climbed up over the tail-board to see the various marketable things that had been put into it. The wagon itself was not unlike the farm wagons still in use throughout the West and perhaps "everywhere—of" me- [168] dium size, firmly build and strong. Above the wagon-bed, and attached to its sides, were a series of semicircular wagon bows upon which was stretched a heavy rain-proof "wagon sheet," covering and enclosing the whole like the top of a coach. It was very comfortable inside, underneath this cover. There I counted five large bags of wheat; and beside them, on some clean straw, were two huge bundles of wool, and a bag of white beans. Besides these, there were two bundles of coonskins and another of muskrat hides, which Jonathan was sending with the hope of getting a good price for them.

Under the driver's seat there was a large green willow basket packed with the mercantile ventures of the rest of the household: a roll of blue jeans, some eggs, and six small cheeses from mother; a jar of pickles, and some glasses of jelly from Cousin Mandy Jane; five pairs of warm stockings from Aunt Rachel; and lastly, a bundle of ginseng roots which I myself had gathered in the woods.

As I was making a mental inventory of this valuable cargo, David came out, all ready for the journey. He looked very dapper and neat, attired in his new jeans trousers and striped vest, with the collar of his homespun shirt standing up stiff on both sides of his chin. He threw his coat and boots into the wagon, declaring that he didn't want to be bothered with such truck on the road, but that maybe when he got to the "Hio he would feel like fixin' up a bit.

"Git out of the way, thee tarnal little Towhead!" he cried. "Thee needn't think that anything in that there wagon belongs to "thee—'cause" it don't."

There was a funny twinkle in his eye, and I knew that he was not only happy but that his feelings toward me [169] were very tender and kind and he was ashamed to let anyone know it.

"Thee won't forget the marbles, will thee?" I ventured to say.

"Who said anything about marvels?" he growled. "If thee ain't good while we're gone, thee'll get a "cowhidin'—that's what thee'll git, and I won't forgit to give it to thee."

While he was scolding me and untying the horses, father appeared at the door. The eyes of the whole family were directed toward him. Although he was about to start upon a journey of great importance, and would be absent for at least a week, perhaps much longer, yet he spoke no farewells to any "one—bade" no one good-by. It was not the custom in our household to waste time and breath in needless formalities of this sort. He was dressed in his best suit of clothes; his big beaver hat was on his head; his boots had just received a fresh dressing of tallow; he stood erect and tall, and moved with a dignity befitting a king. He walked briskly out to the barnyard, and climbed into the waiting wagon.

"All the "Hio folks will know that he's somebody, jist from the looks of him," whispered Cousin Mandy Jane, unable to conceal her admiration; and my own pride swelled high as I observed his dignified bearing, his strong handsome face and his general air of true manliness.

He seated himself in the driver's place, with David by his side. He took the long lines in his hands, and then, as if being suddenly reminded of something, he turned and spoke to me.

"Robert, thee must be a good boy while I'm gone." [170] That was his way of saying good-by. "What does thee want me to buy with thy ginseng?"

He gave me no time to reply but chirruped to the horses.

"Git ep!" shouted David.

And they were off.

Just as they turned into the lane, however, father looked back and called to me: "Robert, if thee has a mind to walk over to the Four Corners to see all the wagons get started, I have no objection, provided Mandy Jane will come along with thee."

Oh, what happiness was mine! Of course, Cousin Mandy Jane would come along; and so, side by "side—she with her blue sunbonnet hiding her face, and I without hat, coat or shoes—we" trudged joyously behind the slowly moving wagon; and Aurora with her yellow tresses rose in the east, heralding the approach of the god of day. I felt as if I had been suddenly boosted into the seventh heaven, so perfect was the hour, so satisfied were all my desires.

"Don't go to hangin' on ahind!" shouted David, swinging his whip around over the wheels. "You'll stall the horses, right off, in this rough road."

But the road was not bad. The ground was dry and firm, and the wagon wheels bowled along easily in the well-packed ruts. The poor beasts might have trotted briskly all the way to the Four Corners if their driver had so willed it. But, no! their strength must be held in reserve for the miles and miles of hard travel to be performed before reaching the 'Hio; and so they were encouraged to jog along at their favorite slow-poke walk.

Presently, where the road made a sharp turn to the south, and the wheels began to ascend a long but gentle [171] slope, David vaulted suddenly out of the wagon and stood waiting by the roadside until Cousin Mandy Jane and I came up.

"I kinder thought I'd walk a spell," he explained. " 'Tain't much fun to set scrunched up in the wagon 'mongst all them bags and things, and I guess I'll git enough of it afore we get to the 'Hio."

And so we three trudged onward together.

By and by, David said to me, "Towhead, does thee know how fur it is from our house to the Four Corners?"

"Two miles," I answered.

"And does thee know how fur it is back, from the Four Corners to our house?"

"Why, two miles, of course."

"Well, that's a purty long walk fur a little codger like thee;" and he tried to speak gruffly. "Thee'll be right smart tired when thee gits home. So, come along, and let me boost thee over the tail-board into the wagon. Thee mustn't let father see thee."

With one hand he gripped me by the collar, and with the other he seized the ample seat of my "breeches—and" next moment I was sprawling inside the wagon, among the wool and the coonskins and the bags of wheat.

"Don't tell father!" he shouted.

Father looked back at me and smiled. Then he bade me come and sit beside him. "Robert, thee may drive the team a little while, if thee would like," he said; and he placed the lines in my hands.

"Oh, father! may I?" I cried, my heart overflowing with gratitude.

"Yes, all the way to the Four Corners, if thee so desires."

[172] If I had been in the seventh heaven before, I was now surely ascending into the empyrean. I wished very much to shout aloud, but the presence of father restrained me.

It seemed but a very little while until we hove in sight of the Four Corners, the appointed place of rendezvous for all the settlers who were that day starting on the pilgrimage to the "io; and just as we rounded the summit of a little hill overlooking the spot, the sun rose above the eastern horizon, red as blood in the smoky sky.

"I verily believe that we are the last ones on the ground," said father, anxiously peering forward as our wagon rattled down the hill. And then we saw, drawn up in line by the side of the road, nine white-topped wagons very much like our own; and a little nearer to us, at the junction of the two highways which formed the "four corners," a dozen men were standing as though eagerly awaiting our arrival.

"Well, there's Old Enick and Joel Sparker," said David hurrying up alongside of us. "I think, maybe, we might have managed to git along without ary one of them."

Who can describe my pride as I urged our old plow horses to an unwilling trot and guided them steadily to the spot where our neighbors were standing? And then there were greetings all around, and kind inquiries, and awkward homely jests which for the moment made me forget both my vanity and my shyness.

"How's thee Levi T? How's thee to-day?" said father, addressing a middle-aged Friend whom I "knew—for" it was he who always sat next to us in meetin'.

[173] And then Old Enoch, with that indescribable smile of his, came forward and offered his hand.

"Howdy, Robert! Is thee well to-day?"

I looked and saw his dingy gray wagon close by, on my left, with Old Bull chained to the hind axle and Little Enick sitting on the tail-board and making faces at me.

"Oh, I'm pretty well. How's thee and thine?" I answered mechanically.

And then Old Joel Sparker came solemnly forward and offered the customary greetings. He was thin and small, both physically and mentally, with a hatchet face, a hooked nose and small eyes which always reminded me of auger-holes. He was dressed in a brown jeans suit of the plainest imaginable cut, and on his head he wore a broad-brimmed hat of the genuine George Fox pattern.

After speaking to father he looked at me rather disdainfully, sniffed the air through his nostrils two or three times, and then inquired, "Is this thy little son, Stephen? And does thee propose to take him with thee to the 'Hio?"

"Yes, this is Robert," said father, "but he will not go to the 'Hio this time. I allowed him to come to the Four Corners to see the wagons "start—that's" all."

Then David spoke up, rashly, foolishly: "Yes, little Towhead's goin' to take my place at home while I'm away. He's goin' to take keer of my filly, and I've promised to fetch him a couple of striped marvels."

"Marvels! marvels!" cried Friend Sparker, lifting his hands in holy horror. "Does thee propose to corrupt the mind and soul of that young boy by putting mar- [174] vels into his hands? And, Stephen Dudley, I'm surprised that thee will permit such a "thing— and" thee a leader and a light in Our Society!"

"Is thee sure, Joel, that it's wrong for boys to play a quiet game with marbles?" asked father.

"Wrong! wrong!" answered the preacher. "Why, it's against the Scripters! It's forbidden in holy writ. Open thy Bible, Stephen. Turn to first John, three-thirteen, and read it for thyself: 'Marvel not, brethren!'  What is plainer than that?"

"But there is a difference between 'marvel' and 'marble,' " said father, scarcely repressing a smile. And Levi T. Jay, who was always quick to appreciate the ludicrous, laughed outright.

"Joel, if thee would read thy dictionary along with thy Bible," said he, "thee might be somewhat better informed."

This reply, together with the laughter, exasperated the saintly minister, and he addressed himself sharply to his critic. "Does thee dare to stand there and laugh at the word of God?" he asked. "If this was thy last day on earth, would thee indulge in so much hilarity? Does thee think thee will laugh when thee stands before the bar of judgment?"

"I've not thought anything about that," answered Levi T.; "but the Bible says, 'Fill thy mouth with laughing and thy lips with rejoicing'; and I think it's a purty good thing to laugh once in a while."

"Th' ain't no such thing in the Bible," interposed Old Enoch. "Thee cain't name the chapter and verse. The Bible, it's set square ag'inst all sich worldly diversions."

"That's so," said the saint; "and George Fox, he was set square ag'inst it, too. He never laughed but oncet, [175] and then he was sorry for it." Then, turning to the rest of the company, he called out in shrill grating tones: "Friends, we are about to start on a long and dangerous journey, and it behooves us to have our lamps trimmed and burning. For who knows when the great and terrible day shall come? Verily, it is written, 'the elements shall melt with fervent heat'; and if you will but lift your eyes, you may behold, even now, the smoke of the Lord ascending from the earth."

"Oh, no," said Levi T., "that's nothing but the smoke of the deadening' ascending from the log heaps."

At this there was another hearty laugh, and the good man, burning with ill-concealed anger, returned to his own wagon.

"Too much levity! too much levity!" muttered Old Enoch.

"But not too much Levi T.," remarked father in his quiet decisive way.

In the meanwhile, I had leaped out of our wagon and rejoined Cousin Mandy Jane who was standing by the roadside. David, after testing the wagon wheels and looking at the harness, had climbed back to his place on the driver's seat, and was idly flicking with his whip the tops of some mullein stalks that stood near by. Some of the other men were readjusting their wagon covers, giving their horses water from the near-by branch and putting things to rights generally, before resuming the long and arduous journey.

"Friends," cried Joel Sparker, turning his team halfway round in the road, "if it is your mind to go forward on this journey in a laughing and reckless spirit, I will not be one of you. I will wash my hands of the whole business and will return to my own home."

[176] "Oh, come! come!" said Levi T. in the tones of a commander. "Let's have no more foolishness, but acquit ourselves like men. Drive forward to the front, Stephen Dudley. We always expect thee to lead. Be ready to fall into your places, every one of you!"

A gentle touch of the whip from David's judicious hands, and our sturdy old horses were again on the move. As the wagon rolled on, past the place where I was standing, father leaned over the dashboard and repeated the injunction, "Be a good boy while I'm gone, Robert!"

"Yes, Towhead!" said David. "Take good keer of the filly, and I'll fetch them there marvels to thee, sure."

One by one, the wagons fell into line, each taking the place assigned to it by Levi T., who appeared to be the captain of the company. Then, as he brought his own team into the road and closed up the rear, he shouted, "Forward, every one!" And the long procession began its slow but steady progress toward the distant mysterious 'Hio. What a source of pride it was to see our own brave wagon in the lead, setting the pace as it were for all the rest!

The first half-mile of the road was over a level "cross-way" built through the middle of a treeless swamp or wet prairie. From the vantage-ground where I was standing with Cousin Mandy Jane, we could see from one end of the straight rough way to the other; and we silently watched the line of white-topped wagons until the last one had climbed the hill at the farther side of the swamp and was lost to sight among the trees.

"It looked like that picture of a caravan in the Parley Book," I said; "But there are wagons in this cara- [177] van, and not any camels. Did thee ever see a camel, Cousin Mandy Jane?"

"Not as I know of," she answered, turning to go home.

"Well, they're like big horses with humps on their backs. They are called the ships of the desert," I said, greedy to display my superior knowledge.

"What's a desert?"

"Oh, it's a big sandy place like that around the old swimmin' hole in the crick; but it's a hundred times bigger."

"Shucks! What do I keer for that? Come on! It's time to go home."

And so we began our weary return along the lonely road which we had lately traversed in much better spirits. Something seemed suddenly to have dropped out of our lives, leaving an emptiness which I could neither describe nor understand.


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