Part 1 out of 7
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[Illustration: "I must think!" I said. "Let me be!"]
BY HERBERT QUICK
I A Flat Dutch Turnip Begins Its Career.
II I Learn and Do Some Teaching.
III I See the World, and Suffer a Great Loss.
IV I Become a Sailor, and Find a Clue.
V The End of a Long Quest.
VI I Become Cow Vandemark.
VII Adventure on the Old Ridge Road.
VIII My Load Receives an Embarrassing Addition.
IX The Grove of Destiny.
X The Grove of Destiny Does Its Work.
XI In Defense of the Proprieties.
XII Hell Slew, Alias Vandemark's Folly.
XIII The Plow Weds the Sod.
XIV I Become a Bandit and a Terror.
XV I Save a Treasure, and Start a Feud.
XVI The Fewkeses in Clover at Blue-grass Manor.
XVII I Receive a Proposal--and Accept.
XVIII Rowena's Way Out--The Prairie Fire.
XIX Gowdy Acknowledges His Son.
XX Just as Grandma Thorndyke Expected.
The work of writing the history of this township--I mean Vandemark
Township, Monterey County, State of Iowa--has been turned over to me. I
have been asked to do this I guess because I was the first settler in
the township; it was named after me; I live on my own farm--the oldest
farm operated by the original settler in this part of the country; I
know the history of these thirty-six square miles of land and also of
the wonderful swarming of peoples which made the prairies over; and the
agent of the Excelsior County History Company of Chicago, having heard
of me as an authority on local history, has asked me to write this part
of their new History of Monterey County for which they are now
canvassing for subscribers. I can never write this as it ought to be
written, and for an old farmer with no learning to try to do it may seem
impudent, but some time a great genius may come up who will put on paper
the strange and splendid story of Iowa, of Monterey County, and of
Vandemark Township; and when he does write this, the greatest history
ever written, he may find such adventures as mine of some use to him.
Those who lived this history are already few in number, are fast passing
away and will soon be gone. I lived it, and so did my neighbors and old
companions and friends. So here I begin.
The above was my first introduction to this history; and just here,
after I had written a nice fat pile of manuscript, this work came mighty
close to coming to an end.
I suppose every person is more or less of a fool, but at my age any man
ought to be able to keep himself from being gulled by the traveling
swindlers who go traipsing about the country selling lightning rods,
books, and trying by every means in their power to get the name of
honest and propertied men on the dotted line. Just now I began tearing
up the opening pages of my History of Vandemark Township, and should
have thrown them in the base-burner if it had not been for my
The agent of the Excelsior County History Company called and asked me
how I was getting along with the history, and when I showed him what I
have written, he changed the subject and began urging me to subscribe
for a lot of copies when it is printed, and especially, to make a
contract for having my picture in it. He tried to charge me two hundred
seventy-five dollars for a steel engraving, and said I could keep the
plate and have others made from it. Then I saw through him. He never
wanted my history of the township. He just wanted to swindle me into
buying a lot of copies to give away, and he wanted most to bamboozle me
into having a picture made, not half so good as I can get for a few
dollars a dozen at any good photographer's, and pay him the price of a
good team of horses for it. He thought he could gull old Jake Vandemark!
If I would pay for it, I could get printed in the book a few of my
remarks on the history of the township, and my
two-hundred-and-seventy-five-dollar picture. Others would write about
something else, and get their pictures in. In that way this smooth
scoundrel would make thousands of dollars out of people's vanity--and he
expected me to be one of them! If I can put him in jail I'll do it--or
I would if it were not for posting myself as a fool.
"Look here," I said, after he had told me what a splendid thing it would
be to have my picture in the book so future generations could see what a
big man I was. "Do you want what I know about the history of Vandemark
Township in your book, or are you just out after my money?"
"Well," he said, "if, after you've written twenty or thirty pages, and
haven't got any nearer Vandemark Township than a canal-boat, somewhere
east of Syracuse, New York, in 1850, I'll need some money if I print the
whole story--judging of its length by that. Of course, the publication
of the book must be financed."
"There's the door!" I said, and pointed to it.
He went out like a shot, and Gertrude, who was on the front porch, came
flying in to see what he was running from. I was just opening the stove
door. In fact I had put some scraps of paper in; but there was no fire.
"Why, grandpa," she cried, "what's the matter? What's this manuscript
you're destroying? Tell me about it!"
"Give it to me!" I shouted; but she sat down with it and began reading.
I rushed out, and was gone an hour. When I came back, she had pasted the
pages together, and was still reading them. She came to me and put her
arms about my neck and kissed me; and finally coaxed me into telling her
all about the disgraceful affair.
Well, the result of it all was that she has convinced me of the fact
that I had better go on with the history. She says that these
county-history promoters are all slippery people, but that if I can
finish the history as I have begun, it may be well worth while.
"There are publishers," she said, "who do actually print such things.
Maybe a real publisher will want this. I know a publisher who may be
glad to get it. And, anyhow, it is a shame for all your experiences to
be lost to the world. It's very interesting as far as you've got. Go on
with it; and if no publisher wants to print it now, we'll give the
manuscript to the Public Library in Monterey Centre, and maybe, long
after both of us are dead and gone, some historian will find it and have
it printed. Some time it will be found precious. Write it, grandpa, for
my sake! We can make a wonderful story of it."
"We?" I said.
"You, I mean, of course," she replied; "but, if you really want me to do
it, I will type it for you, and maybe do a little editing. Maybe you'll
let me do a little footnote once in a while, so my name will go into it
with yours. I'd be awfully proud, grandpa."
"It'll take a lot of time," I said.
"And you can spare the time as well as not," she answered.
"You all think because I don't go into the field with a team any more,"
I objected, "that I don't amount to anything on the farm; but I tell you
that what I do in the way of chores and planning, practically amounts to
a man's work."
"Of course it does," she admitted, though between you and me it wasn't
so. "But any man can do the chores, and the planning you can do
still--and nobody can write the History of Vandemark Township but
Jacobus Teunis Vandemark. You owe it to the West, and to the world."
So, here I begin the second time. I have been bothered up to now by
feeling that I have not been making much progress; but now there will
be no need for me to skip anything. I begin, just as that canvassing
rascal said, a long way from Vandemark Township, and many years ago in
point of time; but I am afloat with my prow toward the setting sun on
that wonderful ribbon of water which led to the West. I was caught in
the current. Nobody could live along the Erie Canal in those days
without feeling the suck of the forests, and catching a breath now and
then of the prairie winds. So all this really belongs in the history.
A FLAT DUTCH TURNIP BEGINS ITS CAREER
My name is Jacobus Teunis Vandemark. I usually sign J.T. Vandemark; and
up to a few years ago I thought as much as could be that my first name
was Jacob; but my granddaughter Gertrude, who is strong on family
histories, looked up my baptismal record in an old Dutch Reformed church
in Ulster County, New York, came home and began teasing me to change to
Jacobus. At first I would not give up to what I thought just her silly
taste for a name she thought more stylish than plain old Jacob; but she
sent back to New York and got a certified copy of the record. So I had
to knuckle under. Jacobus is in law my name just as much as Teunis, and
both of them, I understand, used to be pretty common names among the
Vandemarks, Brosses, Kuyckendalls, Westfalls and other Dutch families
for generations. It makes very little difference after all, for most of
the neighbors call me Old Jake Vandemark, and some of the very oldest
settlers still call me Cow Vandemark, because I came into the county
driving three or four yoke of cows--which make just as good draught
cattle as oxen, being smarter but not so powerful. This nickname is
gall and wormwood to Gertrude, but I can't quite hold with her whims on
the subject of names. She spells the old surname van der Marck--a little
_v_ and a little _d_ with an _r_ run in, the first two syllables written
like separate words, and then the big _M_ for Mark with a _c_ before the
_k_. But she will know better when she gets older and has more judgment.
Just now she is all worked up over the family history on which she began
laboring when she went east to Vassar and joined the Daughters of the
American Revolution. She has tried to coax me to adopt "van der Marck"
as my signature, but it would not jibe with the name of the township if
I did; and anyhow it would seem like straining a little after style to
change a name that has been a household word hereabouts since there were
any households. The neighbors would never understand it, anyhow; and
would think I felt above them. Nothing loses a man his standing among us
farmers like putting on style.
I was born of Dutch parents in Ulster County, New York, on July 27,
1838. It is the only anniversary I can keep track of, and the only
reason why I remember it is because on that day, except when it came on
a Sunday, I have sown my turnips ever since 1855. Everybody knows the
"On the twenty-seventh of July
Sow your turnips, wet or dry."
And wet or dry, my parents in Ulster County, long, long ago, sowed their
little red turnip on that date.
I often wonder what sort of dwelling it was, and whether the July heat
was not pretty hard on my poor mother. I think of this every birthday.
I guess a habit of mind has grown up which I shall never break off; the
moment I begin sowing turnips I think of my mother bringing forth her
only child in the heat of dog-days, and of the sweat of suffering on her
forehead as she listened to my first cry. She is more familiar to me,
and really dearer in this imaginary scene than in almost any real memory
I have of her.
I do not remember Ulster County at all. My first memory of my mother is
of a time when we lived in a little town the name and location of which
I forget; but it was by a great river which must have been the Hudson I
guess. She had made me a little cap with a visor and I was very proud of
it and of myself. I picked up a lump of earth in the road and threw it
over a stone fence, covered with vines that were red with autumn
leaves--woodbine or poison-ivy I suppose. I felt very big, and ran on
ahead of my mother until she called to me to stop for fear of my falling
into the water. We had come down to the big river. I could hardly see
the other side of it. The whole scene now grows misty and dim; but I
remember a boat coming to the shore, and out of it stepped John Rucker.
Whether he was then kind or cross to me or to my mother I can not
remember. Probably my mind was too young to notice any difference less
than that between love and cruelty. I know I was happy; and it seems to
me that the chief reason of my joy was the new cap and the fact that my
heart swelled and I was proud of myself. I do not believe that I was
more than three years old. All this may be partly a dream; but I
John Rucker was no dream. He was my mother's second husband; and by the
time I was five years old, and had begun to go to one little school
after another as we moved about, John Rucker had become the dark cloud
in my life. He paid little attention to me, but I recollect that by the
time we had settled ourselves at Tempe I was afraid of him. Two or three
times he whipped me, but no more severely than was the custom among
parents. Other little boys were whipped just as hard, and still were not
afraid of their fathers. I think now that I was afraid of him because my
mother was. I can not tell how he looked then, except that he was a tall
stooped man with a yellowish beard all over his face and talked in a
sort of whine to others, and in a sharp domineering way to my mother. To
me he scarcely ever spoke at all. At Tempe he had some sort of a shop in
which he put up a dark-colored liquid--a patent medicine--which he sold
by traveling about the country. I remember that he used to complain of
lack of money and of the expense of keeping me; and that my mother made
clothes for people in the village.
Tempe was a little village near the Erie Canal somewhere between Rome
and Syracuse. There was a dam and water-power in Tempe or near there,
which, I think, was the overflow from a reservoir built as a
water-supply for the Erie Canal--but I am not sure. I can not find Tempe
on the map; but many names have been changed since those days. I think
it was farther west than Canastota, but I am not sure--it was a
long time ago.
Once, for some reason of his own, and when he had got some money in an
unexpected way, Rucker took my mother and me to Oneida for an outing.
My mother and I camped by the roadside while Rucker went somewhere to a
place where a lot of strangers were starting a colony of Free Lovers.
After he returned he told my mother that we had been invited to join the
colony, and argued that it would be a good thing for us all; but my
mother got very mad at him, and started to walk home leading me by the
hand. She sobbed and cried as we walked along, especially after it grew
late in the afternoon and Rucker had not overtaken us with the horse and
democrat wagon. She seemed insulted, and broken-hearted; and was angry
for the only time I remember. When we at last heard the wagon clattering
along behind us in the woods, we sat down on a big rock by the side of
the road, and Rucker meanly pretended not to see us until he had driven
on almost out of sight. My mother would not let me call out to him; and
I stood shaking my fist at the wagon as it went on past us, and feeling
for the first time that I should like to kill John Rucker. Finally he
stopped and made us follow on until we overtook him, my mother crying
and Rucker sneering at both of us. This must have been when I was nine
or ten years old. The books say that the Oneida Community was
established there in 1847, when I was nine.
Long before this I had been put out by John Rucker to work in a factory
in Tempe. It was a cotton mill run, I think, by the water-power I have
mentioned. We lived in a log house on a side-hill across the road and
above the cotton mill. We had no laws in those days against child labor
or long hours. In the winter I worked by candle-light for two hours
before breakfast. We went to work at five--I did this when I was six
years old--and worked until seven, when we had half an hour for
breakfast. As I lived farther from the mill than most of the children
who were enslaved there, my breakfast-time was very short. At half past
seven we began again and worked until noon, when we had an hour for
dinner. At one o'clock we took up work once more and quit at half past
five for supper. At six we began our last trick and worked until
eight--thirteen hours of actual labor.
I began this so young and did so much of it that I feel sure my growth
was stunted by it--I never grew above five feet seven, though my mother
was a good-sized woman, and she told me that my father was six feet
tall--and my children are all tall. Maybe I should never have been tall
anyhow, as the Dutch are usually broad rather than long. Of course this
life was hard. I was very little when I began watching machines and
tending spindles, and used to cry sometimes because I was so tired. I
almost forgot what it was to play; and when I got home at night I
staggered with sleepiness.
My mother used to undress me and put me to bed, when she was not pressed
with her own work; and even then she used to come and kiss me and see
that I had not kicked the quilt off before she lay down for her short
sleep. I remember once or twice waking up and feeling her tears on my
face, while she whispered "My poor baby!" or other loving and motherly
words over me. When John Rucker went off on his peddling trips she would
take me out of the factory for a few days and send me to school. The
teachers understood the case, and did all they could to help me in spite
of my irregular attendance; so that I learned to read after a fashion,
and as for arithmetic, I seemed to understand that naturally. I was a
poor writer, though; and until I was grown I never could actually write
much more than my name. I could always make a stagger at a letter when I
had to by printing with a pen or pencil, and when I did not see my
mother all day on account of her work and mine, I used to print out a
letter sometimes and leave it in a hollow apple-tree which stood before
the house. We called this our post-office. I am not complaining, though,
of my lack of education. I have had a right good chance in life, and
have no reason to complain--except that I wish I could have had a little
more time to play and to be with my mother. It was she, though, that had
the hard time.
By this time I had begun to understand why John Rucker was always so
cross and cruel to my mother. He was disappointed because he had
supposed when he married her that she had property. My father had died
while a lawsuit for the purpose of settling his father's estate was
pending, and Rucker had thought, and so had my mother, that this lawsuit
would soon be ended, and that she would have the property, his share of
which had been left to her by my father's will. I have never known why
the law stood in my mother's way, or why it was at last that Rucker gave
up all hope and vented his spite on my mother and on me. I do not blame
him for feeling put out, for property is property after all, but to
abuse me and my mother shows what a bad man he was. Sometimes he used to
call me a damned little beggar. The first time he did that my mother
looked at him with a kind of lost look as if all the happiness in life
were gone. After that, even when a letter came from the lawyers who were
looking after the case, holding out hope, and always asking for money,
and Rucker for a day or so was quite chipper and affectionate to my
mother in a sickening sort of sneaking way, her spirits never rose so
far as I could see. I suppose she was what might be called a
This went on until I was thirteen years old. I was little and not very
strong, and had a cough, caused, perhaps, by the hard steady work, and
the lint in the air of the factory. There were a good many cases every
year of the working people there going into declines and dying of
consumption; so my mother had taken me out of the factory every time
Rucker went away, and tried to make me play. It was so in all the
factories in those days, I guess. I did not feel like playing, and had
no playmates; but I used to go down by the canal and watch the boats go
back and forth. Sometimes the captains of the boats would ask me if I
didn't want a job driving; but I scarcely knew what they meant. I must
have been a very backward child, and I surely was a scared and conquered
one. I used to sit on a stump by the tow-path, and so close to it that
the boys driving the mules or horses drawing the boats could almost
strike me with their whips, which they often tried to do as they went
by. Then I would scuttle back into the brush and hide. There was a lock
just below, but I seldom went to it because all the drivers were egged
on to fight each other during the delay at the locks, and the canallers
would have been sure to set them on me for the fun of seeing a fight.
On the most eventful evening of my life, perhaps. I sat on this stump,
watching a boat which, after passing me, was slowing down and stopping.
I heard the captain swearing at some one, and saw him come ashore and
start back along the tow-path toward me as if looking for something. He
was a tall man whom I had seen pass at other times, and I was wondering
whether he would speak to me or not, when I felt somebody's hand snatch
at my collar, and a whip came down over my thin shirt with a cut which
as I write I seem to feel yet. It was John Rucker, coming home when we
were not expecting him, and mad at finding me out of the factory.
"I'll learn yeh to steal my time!" he was saying. "I'll learn your
mother to lie to me about your workin'. A great lubber like you
traipsin' around idle, and my woman bringin' a doctor's bill on me by
workin' night an' day to make up your wages to me--and lyin' to her
husband! I'll track you by the blood! Take that--and that--and that!"
I had never resisted him: and even now I only tried to wiggle away from
him. He held me with one hand, though; and at every pause in his
scolding he cut me with the whip. Weeks after the welts on my back and
shoulders turned dark along the line of the whip, and greenish at the
edges. I did not cry. I felt numbed with fright and rage. Suddenly,
however, the tall canal-boat captain, coming back along the tow-path,
put in his oar by striking the whip out of John Rucker's hand; and
snatched me away from him.
"I'll have the law on you!" snarled Rucker.
"The devil you will!" said the captain.
"I'll put you through!" screamed Rucker.
The captain eased himself forward by advancing his left foot, and with
his right fist he smashed Rucker somewhere about the face. Rucker went
down, and the captain picked up the whip, and carefully laying Rucker
on his face stripped up his shirt and revenged me, lash for lash; and
counting each cut stopped when he reached ten.
"I guess that's the number," said he, taking a look at my bloody back;
"but for fear of fallin' short, here's another!" And he drew the whip
back, and brought it down with a quick, sharp, terrible whistle that
proved its force. "Now," said he, "you've got somethin' to put me
Then he started back toward the boat, after picking up a clevis which it
seems the driver-boy had dropped. I looked at Rucker a moment wondering
what to do. He was slowly getting on his feet, groaning, bloody of face
and back, miserable and pitiable. But when he saw me his look of hatred
drove out of my mind my first impulse to help him. I turned and ran
after the captain. That worthy never looked at me; but when he reached
the boat he said to some one on board: "Bill, I call you to bear witness
that I refused Bubby here a chance to run away."
"Ay, ay, sir," responded a voice from the boat.
The captain took me gently by the hand and helped me over the gunwale.
"Get out o' here," he shouted, "an' go back to your lovin' father!"
I sought to obey, but he winked at me and motioned me into the little
"An' now, my buck," said he, "that you've stowed yourself away and got
so far from home that to put you ashore would be to maroon you in the
wilderness, do you want to take a job as driver? That boy I've got lives
in Salina, and we'll take you on if you feel like a life on the ocean
wave. Can you drive?"
"I do' know!" said I.
"Have you ever worked?" he asked.
"I've worked ever since I was six," I answered.
"Would you like to work for me?" said he.
I looked him in the face for a moment, and answered confidently, "Yes."
"It's a whack," said he. "Maybe we'd better doctor that back o' your'n a
little, and git yeh heartened up for duty."
And so, before I knew it, I was whisked off into a new life.
I LEARN AND DO SOME TEACHING
I lay in a bunk in one of the two little forward cabins next the stable,
shivering and sobbing, a pitiful picture of misery, I suppose, as any
one ever saw. I began bawling as soon as the captain commenced putting
arnica on my back--partly because it smarted so, and partly because he
was so very gentle about it; although all the time he was swearing at
John Rucker and wishing he had skinned him alive, as he pretty nearly
did. To feel a gentle hand on my shredded back, and to be babied a
little bit--these things seemed to break my heart almost, though while
Rucker was flogging me I bore it without a cry or a tear. The captain
dressed my back, and said, "There, there, Bubby!" and went away,
leaving me alone.
I could hear the ripple of the water against the side of the boat, and
once in a while a gentle lift as we passed another boat; but there was
nothing much in these things to cheer me up. I was leaving John Rucker
behind, it was true, but I was also getting farther and farther from my
mother every minute. What would she do without me? What should I do
without her? I should be free of the slavery of the factory; but I did
not think of that. I should have been glad to the bottom of my heart if
I could have blotted out of my life all this new tragedy and gone back
to the looms and spindles. The factory seemed an awful place now that I
was free, but it was familiar; and being free was awful, too; but I
never once thought of going back. I knew I could learn to drive the
horses, and I knew I should stay with the captain who had flogged John
Rucker. I who had never thought of running away was just as much
committed to the new life as if I had planned for it for years. Inside
my spirit I suppose I had been running away every time I had gone down
and watched the boats float by; and something stronger than my conscious
will floated me along, also. I fought myself to keep from crying; but I
never thought of running up on deck, jumping ashore and going home, as I
could easily have done at any time within an hour of boarding the boat.
I buried my face in the dirty pillow with no pillow-case on it, and
filled my mouth with the patchwork quilt. It seemed as though I should
die of weeping. My breath came in long spasmodic draughts, as much
deeper and bitterer than sighs as sighs are sadder and more pitiful than
laughter. My whipped back pained and smarted me, but that was not what
made me cry so dreadfully; I was in the depths of despair; I was
humiliated; I was suffering from injustice; I had lost my mother--and at
this thought my breath almost refused to come at all. Presently I opened
my eyes and found the captain throwing water in my face. He never
mentioned it afterward; but I suppose I had fainted away. Then I went to
sleep, and when I awoke it was dark and I did not know where I was, and
screamed. The captain himself quieted me for a few minutes, and I
dropped off to sleep again. He had moved me without my knowing it, from
the drivers' cabin forward to his own. But I must not spend our time on
The captain's name was Eben Sproule. He had been a farmer and sawmill
man, and still had a farm between Herkimer and Little Falls on the
Mohawk River. He owned his boat, and seemed to be doing very well with
her. The other driver was a boy named Asa--I forget his other name. We
called him Ace. He lived at Salina, or Salt Point, which is now a part
of Syracuse; and was always, in his talk to me, daring the captain to
discharge him, and threatening to get a job in the salt Works at Salina
if ever he quit the canal. He seemed to think this would spite Captain
Sproule very much. I expected him to leave the boat when we reached
Syracuse; but he never did, and I think he kept on driving after I quit.
Our wages cost the boat twenty dollars a month--ten dollars each--and
the two hands we carried must have brought the pay-roll up to about
seventy a month besides our board. We always had four horses, two in the
stable forward, and two pulling the boat. We plied through to Buffalo,
and back to Albany, carrying farm products, hides, wool, wheat, other
grain, and such things as potash, pearlash, staves, shingles, and salt
from Syracuse, and sometimes a good deal of meat; and what the railway
people call "way-freight" between all the places along the route. Our
boat was much slower than the packets and the passenger boats which had
relays of horses at stations and went pretty fast, and had good cabins
for the passengers, too, and cooks and stewards, serving fine meals;
while all our cooking was done by the captain or one of our hands,
though sometimes we carried a cook.
Bill, the man who answered "Ay, ay, sir!" when the captain asked him to
witness that he had refused me passage on the boat, was a salt-water
sailor who had signed on with the boat while drunk at Albany and now
said he was going to Buffalo to try sailing on the Lakes. The other man
was a green Irishman called Paddy, though I suppose that was not his
name. He was good only as a human derrick or crane. We used to look upon
all Irishmen as jokes in those days, and I suppose they realized it.
Paddy used to sing Irish comeallyes on the deck as we moved along
through the country; and usually got knocked down by a low bridge at
least once a day as he sang, or sat dreaming in silence. Bill despised
Paddy because he was a landsman, and used to drown Paddy's Irish songs
with his sailor's chanties roared out at the top of his voice. And
mingled with us on the boat would be country people traveling to or from
town, pedlers, parties going to the stopping-places of the passenger
boats, people loading and unloading freight, drovers with live stock for
the market, and all sorts of queer characters and odd fish who haunted
the canal as waterside characters infest the water-front of ports. If I
could live that strange life over again I might learn more about it; but
I saw very little meaning in it then. That is always the way, I guess.
We must get away from a type of life or we can't see it plainly. That
has been the way as to our old prairie life in Iowa. It is only within
the past few years that I have begun to see a little more of what it
meant. It was not long though until even I began to feel the West
calling to me with a thousand voices which echoed back and forth along
the Erie Canal, and swelled to a chorus at the western gateway, Buffalo.
Captain Sproule had carried me aft from the drivers' cabin to his own
while I was in a half-unconscious condition, and out of pure pity, I
suppose; but that was the last soft treatment I ever got from him. He
came into the cabin just as I was thinking of getting up, and sternly
ordered me forward to my own cabin. I had nothing to carry, and it was
very little trouble to move. We were moored to the bank just then taking
on or discharging freight, and Ace was in the cabin to receive me.
"That upper bunk's your'n," he said. "No greenhorn gits my bunk away
I stood mute. Ace glared at me defiantly.
"Can you fight?" he asked.
"I do' know," I was obliged to answer.
"Then you can't," said Ace, with bitter contempt. "I can lick you with
one hand tied behind me!"
He drew back his fist as if to strike me, and I wonder that I did not
run from the cabin and jump ashore, but I stood my ground, more from
stupor and what we Dutch call dumbness than anything else. Ace let his
fist fall and looked me over with more respect. He was a slender boy,
hard as a whip-lash, wiry and dark. He was no taller than I, and not so
heavy; but he had come to have brass and confidence from the life he
lived. As a matter of fact, he was not so old as I, but had grown
faster; and was nothing like as strong after I had got my muscles
hardened, as was proved many a time.
"You'll make a great out of it on the canal," he said.
"What?" said I.
"A boy that can't fight," said he, "don't last long drivin'. I've had
sixteen fights this month!"
A bell sounded on deck, and we heard the voice of Bill calling us to
breakfast. Ace yelled to me to come on, and all hands including the
captain gathered on deck forward, where we had coffee, good home-made
bread bought from a farmer's wife, fried cakes, boiled potatoes, and
plenty of salt pork, finishing with pie. All the cook had to do was to
boil potatoes, cook eggs when we had them and make coffee; for the most
of our victuals we bought as we passed through the country. The captain
had a basket of potatoes or apples on the deck which he used as cash
carriers. He would put a piece of money in a potato and throw it to
whoever on shore had anything to sell, and the goods, if they could be
safely thrown, would come whirling over to be caught by some of us on
deck. We got many a nice chicken or loaf of bread or other good victuals
in that way; and we lived on the fat of the land. All sorts of berries
and fruit, milk, butter, eggs, cakes, pies and the like came to the
canal without any care on our part; everything was cheap, and every meal
was a feast. This first breakfast was a trial, but I made a noble meal
of it. The sailor, Bill, pretended to believe that I had killed a man on
shore and had gone to sea to escape the gallows. Ace and Paddy to
frighten me, I suppose, talked about the dangers and difficulties of the
driver's life; while the captain gave all of us stern looks over his
meal and looked fiercely at me as if to deny that he had ever been kind.
When the meal was over he ordered Ace to the tow-path, and told him to
take me along and show me how to drive.
"Here," he snapped at me, "is where we make a spoon or spoil a horn. Go
'long with you!"
Ace climbed on the back of one of the horses. I looked up wondering what
I was to do.
"You'll walk," said Ace; "an' keep your eyes skinned."
So we started off. Each horse leaned into the collar, and slowly the
hundred tons or so of dead weight started through the water. The team
knew that it was of no use to surge against the load to get it started,
as horses do with a wagon; but they pulled steadily and slowly,
gradually getting the boat under way, and soon it was moving along with
the team at a brisk walk, and with less labor than a hundredth part of
the weight would have called for on land. I have always believed in
inland waterways for carrying the heavy freight of this nation; because
the easiest and cheapest way to transport anything is to put it in the
water and float it. This lesson I learned when Ace whipped up Dolly and
Jack and took our craft off toward Syracuse.
It was a hard day for me. We were passing boats all the time, and we had
to make speed to keep craft which had no right to pass us from getting
by, especially just before reaching a lock. To allow another boat to
steal our lockage from us was a disgrace; and many of the fights between
the driver boys grew out of the rights oL passing by and the struggle to
avoid delays at the locks. Sometimes such affairs were not settled by
the boys on the tow-path--they fought off the skirmishes; the real
battles were between the captains or members of the crews.
If there were rules I don't know now what they were, and nobody paid
much attention to them. Of course we let the passenger boats pass
whenever they overtook us, unless we could beat them into a lock. We
delayed them then by laying our boat out into the middle of the canal
and quarreling until we reached the lock; under cover maybe of some
pretended mistake. Our laying the boat out to shut off a passing rival
was dangerous to the slow boat, for the reason that a collision meant
that the strongly-built stem-end of the boat coming up from behind could
crush the weaker stern of the obstructing craft. Such are some of the
things I had to learn.
The passing of us by a packet brought me my first grief. She came up
behind us with her horses at the full trot. Their boat was down the
canal a hundred yards or so at the end of the tow-line; and just before
the boat itself drew even with ours she was laid over by her steersman
to the opposite side of the ditch, her horses were checked so as to let
her line so slacken as to drop down under our boat, her horses were
whipped up by a sneering boy on a tall bay steed, her team went outside
ours on the tow-path, and the passage was made. They made, as was always
the case, a moving loop of their line, one end hauled by the packet, and
the other by the team. I was keeping my eye skinned to see how the thing
was done, when the tow-line of the packet came by, tripped me up and
threw me into the canal, from which I was fished out by Bill as our boat
came along. There was actual danger in this unless the steersman
happened to be really steering, and laid the boat off so as to miss me.
Captain Sproule gazed at me in disgust. Ace laughed loudly away out
ahead on the horse. Bill said that if it had been in the middle of the
ocean I never would have been shamed by being hauled up on deck. He was
sorry for my sake, as I never would live this thing down.
"Go change your clothes," said the captain, "and try not to be such a
lummox next time."
I had no change of clothes, and therefore, I took the first opportunity
to get out on the tow-path, wet as I was, and begin again to learn my
first trade. It was a lively occupation. There were some four thousand
boats on the Erie Canal at that time, or an average of ten boats to the
mile. I suppose there were from six to eight thousand boys driving then
on the "Grand Canal" alone, as it was called. More than half of these
boys were orphans, and it was not a good place for any boy, no matter
how many parents or guardians he might have. Five hundred or more
convicts in the New York State Penitentiary were men who, as I learned
from a missionary who came aboard to pray with us, sing hymns and exhort
us to a better life, had been canal-boat drivers. The boys were at the
mercy of their captains, and were often cheated out of their wages.
There were stories of young boys sick with cholera, when that disease
was raging, or with other diseases, being thrown off the boats and
allowed to live or die as luck might determine. There were hardship,
danger and oppression in the driver's life; and every sort of vice was
like an open book before him as soon as he came to understand it--which,
at first, I did not. If my mother knew, as I suppose she did, what sort
of occupation I had entered upon, I do not see how she could have been
anything but miserable as she thought of me--though she realized keenly
from what I had escaped.
Back on the tow-path, I was earning the contempt of Ace by dodging every
issue, like a candidate for office. I learned quickly to snub the boat
by means of a rope and the numerous snubbing-posts along the canal. This
was necessary in stopping, in entering locks, and in rounding some
curves; and my first glimmer of courage came from the fact that I seemed
to know at once how this was to be done--the line to be passed twice
about the post, and so managed as to slip around it with a great deal of
friction so as to bring her to.
I was afraid of the other drivers, however, and I was afraid of Ace. He
drove me like a Simon Legree. He ordered me to fight other drivers, and
when I refused, he took the fights off my hands or avoided them as the
case might require. He flicked at my bare feet with his whip. When we
were delayed by taking on or discharging freight, he would try to corner
me and throw me into the canal. He made me do all the work of taking
care of our bunks, and cuffed my ears whenever he got a chance. He made
me do his share as well as my own of the labor of cleaning the stables,
and feeding and caring for the horses, sitting by and giving orders with
a comical exaggeration of the manner of Captain Sproule. In short, he
was hazing me unmercifully--as every one on the boat knew, though some
of the things he did to me I do not think the captain would have
permitted if he had known about them.
I was more miserable with the cruelty and tyranny of Ace than I had been
at home; for this was a constant misery, night and day, and got worse
every minute. He ruled even what I ate and drank. When I took anything
at meal-times, I would first glance at him, and if he looked forbidding
or shook his head, I did not eat the forbidden thing. I knew on that
voyage from Syracuse to Buffalo exactly what servitude means. No slave
was ever more systematically cruelized, no convict ever more
brutishly abused--unless his oppressor may have been more ingenious than
Ace. He took my coverlets at night. He starved me by making me afraid to
eat. He worked, me as hard as the amount of labor permitted. He
committed abominable crimes against my privacy and the delicacy of my
feelings--and all the time I could not rebel. I could only think of
running away from the boat, and was nearly at the point of doing so,
when he crowded me too far one day, and pushed me to the point of one of
those frenzied revolts for which the Dutch are famous.
 The author insists that "cruelized" is the exact word to express his
meaning, and will consent to no change.--G.v.d.M.
A little girl peeking at me from an orchard beside the tow-path tossed
me an apple--a nice, red juicy apple. I caught it, and put it in my
pocket. That evening we tied up at a landing and were delayed for an
hour or so taking on freight. I slipped into the stable to eat my apple,
knowing that Ace would pound me if he learned that I had kept anything
from him, whether he really wanted it or not. Suddenly I grew sick with
terror, as I saw him coming in at the door. He saw what I was doing, and
glared at me vengefully. He actually turned white with rage at this
breach of his authority, and came at me with set teeth and doubled
fists. "Give me that apple, damn yeh!" he cried. "You sneakin' skunk,
you, I'll larn ye to eat my apples!"
He snatched at the apple, and was too successful; for before he reached
it I opened my hand in obedience to his onslaught; and the apple rolled
in the manure and litter of the stable, and was soiled and befouled.
"Throwin' my apple in the manure, will yeh!" he yelled. "I'll larn ye!
Pick that apple up!"
I reached for it with trembling hand, and held it out to him.
"It ain't fit for anything but the hogs!" he yelled. "Eat it, hog!"
I looked at the filthy thing, and raised my hand to my mouth; but before
I touched it with my lips a great change came over me. I trembled still
more, now; but it was not with fear. I suddenly felt that if I could
kill Ace, I would be willing to die. I was willing to die trying to kill
him. I could not get away from him because he was between me and the
door, but now suddenly I did not want to get away. I wanted to get at
him. I threw the apple down.
"Pick that apple up and eat it," he said in a low tone, looking me
straight in the eye, "or I'll pound you till you can't walk."
"I won't," said I.
Ace rushed at me, and as he rushed, he struck me in the face. I went
down, and he piled on me, hitting me as he could. I liked the feel of
his blows; it was good to realize that they did not hurt me half so much
as his abuse had done. I did not know how to fight, but I grappled with
him fiercely. I reached for his hair, and he tried to bite my thumb,
actually getting it in his mouth, but I jerked it aside and caught his
cheek in my grip, my thumb inside the cheek-pouch, and my fingers
outside. I felt a hot thrill of joy as my nails sank into his cheek
inside and out, and he cringed. I held him at arm's length, helpless,
and with his head drawn all askew; and still keeping my unfair hold, I
rolled him over, and coming on top of him, thrust the other thumb in the
other side of his mouth, frenziedly trying to rip his cheeks, and
pounding his head on the deck. We rolled back into the corner, where he
jerked my thumbs from his mouth, now bleeding at the corners, and
desperately tried to roll me. My hand came into touch with a horseshoe
on the stable floor, which I picked up, and filled with joy at the
consciousness that I was stronger than he, I began beating him over the
face and head with it, with no thought of anything but killing him. He
turned over on his face and began trying to shield his head with his
arms, at which I tore like a crazy boy, beating at arms, head, hands and
neck with the dull horseshoe, and screaming, "I'll kill you! I'll kill
you! I'll kill you!"
In the meantime, it gradually dawned on Ace that he was licked, and he
began yelling, "Enough! Enough!" which according to the rules of the
game entitled him to be let alone; but I knew nothing about the rules of
the game. I saw the blood spurting from one or two cuts in his scalp. I
felt it warm and slimy on my hands, and I rained my blows on him, madly
and blindly, but with cruel effect after all. I did not see the captain
when he came in. I only felt his grip on my right arm, as he seized it
and snatched the horseshoe from me. I did not hear what he said, though
I heard him saying something. When he caught both my hands, I threw
myself down on the cowering Ace and tried to bite him. When he lifted
me up I kicked the prostrate Ace in the face as a parting remembrance.
When he stood me up in the corner of the stable and asked me what in
hell I was doing, I broke away from him and threw myself on the
staggering Ace with all the fury of a bulldog. And when Bill came and
helped the captain hold me, I was crying like a baby, and deaf to all
commands. I struggled to get at Ace until they took him away; and then I
collapsed and had a miserable time of it while my anger was cooling.
"I thought Ace would crowd the mourners too hard," said the captain.
"Now, Jake," said he, "will you behave?"
There was no need to ask me. A baby could have held me then.
"Don't you know," said the captain, "that you ortn't to pound a feller
with a horseshoe? Do you always act like this when you fight?"
"I never had a fight before," I sobbed.
"Well, you won't have another with Ace," said the captain. "You damned
near killed him. And next time fight fair!"
That night I drove alone, which I had been doing now for some time,
taking my regular trick; and when we tied up at some place west of
Lockport, I went to my bunk expecting to find Ace ready to renew his
tyrannies, and determined to resist to the death. He was lying in the
lower bunk asleep, and his bandaged head looked rather pitiful. For all
that my anger flamed up again as I looked at him. I shook him roughly by
the shoulder. He awakened with a moan.
"Get out of that bunk!" I commanded.
"Let me alone," he whimpered, but he got out as I told him to do.
"Climb into that upper bunk," I said.
He looked at me a moment, and climbed up. I turned in, in the lower
bunk, but I could not sleep. I was boss! It was Ace now who would be the
underling. It was not a cold night; but pretty soon I thought of the
quilts in the upper berth, and imitating Ace's cruelty, I called up to
him fiercely, awakening him again. "Throw down that quilt," I said,
"I want it."
"You let me alone," whimpered Ace, but the quilt was thrown down on the
deck, where I let it lie. Ace lay there, breathing occasionally with a
long quivering sigh--the most pitiful thing a child ever does--and we
were both children, remember, put in a most unchildlike position. I
dropped asleep, but soon awakened. It had grown cold, and I reached for
the quilt; but something prompted me to reach up and see whether Ace was
still there. He lay there asleep, and, as I could feel, cold. I picked
up the quilt, threw it over him, tucked him in as my mother used to tuck
me in,--thinking of her as I did it--and went back to my bunk. I was
sorry I had cut Ace's head, and had already begun to forget how cruelly
he had used me. I seemed to feel his blood on my hands, and got up and
washed them. The thought of Ace's bandages, and the vision of wounds
under them filled me with remorse--but I was boss! Finally I dropped
asleep, and awoke to find that Ace had got up ahead of me. I was
embarrassed by my new authority; and sorry for what I had been obliged
to do to get it; but I was a new boy from that day.
It never pays to be a slave. It never benefits a man or a people to
submit to tyranny. A slave is a man forgotten of God. That fight against
slavery was a beautiful, a joyful thing to me, with all its penalties of
compassion and guilty feeling afterward. I think the best thing a man or
boy can do is to find out how far and to whom he is a slave, and fight
that servitude tooth and nail as I fought Ace. It would make this a
I SEE THE WORLD, AND SUFFER A GREAT LOSS
The strange thing to me about my fight with Ace was that nobody thought
of such a thing as punishing me for it. I was free to fight or not as I
pleased. I needed to be free more than anything else, and I wanted
plenty of good food and fresh air. All these I got, for Captain Sproule,
while stern and strict with us, enforced only those rules which were for
the good of the boat, and these seemed like perfect liberty to me--after
I whipped Ace. As for my old tyrant, he recovered his spirits very soon,
and took the place of an underling quite contentedly. I suppose he had
been used to it. I ruled in a manner much milder than his. I had never
learned to swear--or to use harder words than gosh, and blast, and dang
where the others swore the most fearful oaths as a matter of ordinary
talk. I made a rule that Ace must quit swearing; and slapped him up to a
peak a few times for not obeying--which was really a hard thing for him
to do while driving; and when he was in a quarrel I always overlooked
his cursing, because he could not fight successfully unless he had the
right to work himself up into a passion by calling names and swearing.
As for myself I walked and rode erect and felt my limbs as light as
feathers, as compared with their leaden weight when I lived at Tempe and
worked in the factory. Soon I took on my share of the fighting as a
matter of course. I did it as a rule without anger and found that beyond
a bloody nose or a scratched face, these fights did not amount to much.
I was small for my age, and like most runts I was stronger than I
looked, and gave many a driver boy a bad surprise. I never was whipped,
though I was pummeled severely at times. When the fight grew warm enough
I began to see red, and to cry like a baby, boring in and clinching in a
mad sort of way; and these young roughs knew that a boy who fought and
cried at the same time had to be killed before he would say enough. So I
never said enough; and in my second year I found I had quite a
reputation as a fighter--but I never got any joy out of it.
If I could have forgotten my wish to see my mother it would have been in
many ways a pleasant life to me. I was never tired of the new and
strange things I saw--new regions, new countries. I was amazed at the
Montezuma Marsh, with its queer trade of selling flags, for chair seats
and the like--and I was almost eaten alive by the mosquitoes while
passing through it. Our boat floated along through the flags, the horses
on a tow-path just wide enough to enable the teams to pass, with bog on
one side and canal on the other, water birds whistling and calling,
frogs croaking, and water-lilies dotting every open pool. My spirits
soared as I passed spots where the view was not shut off by the reeds,
and I could look out over the great expanse of flags, just as my heart
rose when I first looked upon the Iowa prairies. The Fairport level gave
me another thrill--an embankment a hundred feet high with the canal on
the top of it, a part of a seventeen-mile level, like a river on
We were a happy crew, here. Ace was quite recovered from our temporary
difference of opinion--for I was treating him better than he expected.
He used to sing merrily a song which was a real canal-chantey, one of
the several I heard, the words of which ran like this:
"Come, sailors, landsmen, one and all,
And I'll sing you the dangers of the raging canawl;
For I've been at the mercy of the winds and the waves,
And I'm one of the merry fellows what expects a
"We left Albiany about the break of day;
As near as I can remember, 'twas the second day of May;
We depended on our driver, though he was very small,
Although we knew the dangers of the raging canawl."
The rest of it I forget; but I remember that after Bill had sung one of
his chanties, like "Messmates hear a brother sailor sing the dangers of
the seas," or, "We sailed from the Downs and fair Plymouth town,"
"To our surprise,
The storms did arise,
Attended by winds and loud thunder;
Our mainmast being tall
Overboard she did fall,
And five of our best men fell under,"
Ace would pipe up about the dangers of the raging canal; and finally
this encouraged Paddy to fill in with some song like this:
"In Dublin City, where I was born,
On Stephen's Green, where I die forlorn;
'Twas there I learned the baking trade,
And 'twas there they called me the Roving Blade."
All the rest of the story was of a hanging. No wonder it was hard
sometimes for an Irishman to reverence the law. They sang of hanging and
things leading up to it from their childhood. I remember, too, how the
boys of Iowa used to sing a song celebrating the deeds of the James boys
of Missouri--and about the same time we had troubles with horse-thieves.
There is a good deal of power in songs and verses, whether there's much
truth in poetry or not.
I am spending too much time on this part of my life, if it were my life
only which were concerned; but the Erie Canal, and the gaps through the
Alleghany Mountains, are a part of the history of Vandemark Township.
The west was on the road, then, floating down the Ohio, wagoning or
riding on horseback through mountain passes, boating it up the
Mississippi and Missouri, sailing up the Lakes, swarming along the Erie
Canal. Not only was Iowa on the road, spending a year, two years, a
generation, two generations on the way and getting a sort of wandering
and gipsy strain in her blood, but all the West, and even a part of
Canada was moving. We once had on board from Lockport west, a party of
emigrants from England to Ontario. They had come by ship from England to
New York, by steamboat to Albany and canal to Lockport; and for some
reason had to take a deck trip from Lockport to Buffalo, paying Captain
Sproule a good price for passage. Their English dialect was so broad
that I could not understand it; and I abandoned to Ace the company of
their little girl who was one of a family of five--father, mother, and
two boys, besides the daughter. I suppose that their descendants are in
Ontario yet, or scattered out on the prairies of Western Canada. Just so
the people of the canals and roads are in Iowa, and in
Buffalo was a marvel to me. It was the biggest town I had ever seen, and
was full of sailors, emigrants, ships, waterside characters and trade;
and I could see, feel, taste, smell, and hear the West everywhere. I was
by this time on the canal almost at my ease as a driver; but here I
flocked by myself like Cunningham's bull, instead of mingling with the
crowds of boys whom I found here passing a day or so in idleness, while
the captains and hands amused themselves as sailors do in port, and the
boats made contracts for east-bound freight, and took it on. Whenever I
could I attached myself to Captain Sproule like a lost dog, not thinking
that perhaps he would not care to be tagged around by a child like me;
and thus I saw things that should not have been seen by a boy, or by any
one else--things that I never forgot, and that afterward had an
influence on me at a critical time in my life. There were days spent in
grog-shops, there were quarrels and brawls, and some fights, drunken men
calling themselves and one another horrible names and bragging of their
vices, women and men living in a terrible imitation of pleasure. I have
often wondered as I have seen my boys brought up cleanly and taught
steady and industrious lives in a settled community, how they would look
upon the things I saw and lived through, and how well they could have
stood the things that were ready to drag me down to the worst vices and
crimes. I moved through all this in a sort of daze, as if it did not
concern me, not even thinking much less of Captain Sproule for his
doings, some of which I did not even understand: for remember I was a
very backward boy for my age. This was probably a good thing for me--a
very good thing. There are things in the Bible which children read
without knowing their meaning, and are not harmed by them. I was harmed
by what I saw in the book of life now opened to me, but not so much as
one might think.
One evening, in a water-front saloon, Captain Sproule and another man--a
fellow who was a shipper of freight, as I remember--spent an hour or so
with two women whose bad language and painted faces would have told
their story to any older person; but to me they were just acquaintances
of the captain, and that was all. After a while the four left the saloon
together, and I followed, as I followed the captain everywhere.
"That young one had better be sent to bed," said the captain's friend,
pointing to me.
"Better go back to the boat, Jake," said the captain, laughing in a
tipsy sort of way.
"I don't know where it is," said I; "it's been towed off somewhere."
"That's so," said the captain, "I've got to hunt it up myself--or stay
all night in a tavern. Wal, come along. I'll be going home early."
The other man gave a sort of sarcastic laugh. "Bring up your boys as you
like, Cap'n," said he. "He'll come to it anyhow in a year or so by
himself, I guess."
"I'm going home early," said the captain.
"Course you be," said the woman, seizing the captain's arm. "Come on,
There were more drinks where we went, and other women like those in our
party. I could not understand why they behaved in so wild and immodest a
manner, but thought dimly that it was the liquor. In the meantime I grew
very sleepy, being worn out by a day of excitement and wonder; and
sitting down in a corner of the room, I lopped over on the soft carpet
and went to sleep. The last I heard was the sound of an accordion played
by a negro who had been invited in, and the scuff of feet as they
danced, with loud and broken speech, much of which was quite blind to
me. Anyhow, I lost myself for a long time, as I felt, when some one
shook me gently by the shoulder and woke me up. I thought I was at home,
in my attic bed, and that it was my mother awakening me to go to work in
"Ma," I said. "Is that you, ma!"
A woman was bending over me, her breasts almost falling from the low-cut
red dress she wore. She was painted and powdered like the rest, and her
face looked drawn and pale over her scarlet gown. As I pronounced the
name I always called my mother, I seem to remember that her expression
changed from the wild and reckless look I was becoming used to, to
something like what I had always seen in my mother's eyes.
"Who you driving for, Johnny?" she asked.
"Captain Sproule," said I. "Where is he?" For on looking about I saw
that there was no one there but this woman and myself.
"He'll be back after a while," said she. "Poor young one! Come with me
and get a good sleep."
I was numb with sleep, and staggered when I stood up; and she put her
arm around me as we moved toward the door, where we were met by two
men, canallers or sailors, by their looks, who stopped her with drunken
"Ketchin' em young, Sally," said one of them. "Wot will the world come
to, Jack, when younkers like this get a-goin'? Drop the baby, Sally, and
come along o' me!"
The woman looked at him a moment steadily.
"Let me go," said she; "I don't want anything to do with you."
"Don't, eh?" said he. "Git away, Bub, an' let your betters have way."
I clung closer to her side, and looked at him rather defiantly. He drew
back his flat hand to slap me over; but the woman pulled me behind her,
and faced him, with a drawn knife in her hand. He made as if to take it
from her; but his companion held him back.
"Do you want six inches o' cold steel in your liver?" he asked. "Let her
be. There's plenty o' others."
"My money is jest as good's any one else's," said the first. "Jest as
good's any one else's;" and began wrangling with his friend.
The woman pushed me before her and we went up-stairs to a bedroom, the
door of which she closed and locked. She said nothing about what had
taken place below, and I at once made up my mind that it had been some
sort of joke.
"You oughtn't to sleep on that floor," said she, "You'll take your death
o' cold. Lay down here, and have a good comfortable nap. I'll see that
Captain Sproule finds you."
I started to lie down in my clothes. "Take off them clothes," said she,
as if astonished. "Do you think I want my bed all dirtied up with 'em?"
And she began undressing me as if I had been a baby. She was so tender
and motherly about it that I permitted her to strip me to my shirt, and
then turned in. The bed was soft, and sleep began to come back to me. I
saw my new friend preparing for bed, and presently I awoke to find her
lying by me, and holding me in her arms: I heard her sitheing, and I
was sure she was crying. This woke me up, and I lay wondering if there
was anything I could do for her, but I said nothing. Pretty soon there
came a loud rap at the door, and a woman asked to be let in.
 The writer insists that "sitheing" is quite a different thing from
sighing, being a long-drawn, quivering sigh. In this I think he is
"What do you want?" asked my friend, getting out of bed as if scared,
and beginning to put on her clothes, I hustled out and began dressing--a
very short job with me. In the meantime the woman at the door grew
louder and more commanding in her demand, so much so, that before she
was fully dressed, my strange friend opened the door, and there stood a
great fleshy woman, wearing a lot of jewelry; red-faced, and very angry.
I can't remember much that was said; but I remember that the fat woman
kept saying, "What do you mean? What do you mean? I want you to
understand that my guests have their rights. One man's money is as good
as another's," and the like. "Whose brat is this?" she finally asked,
pointing at me.
"He's driving for a man with money," said my friend sarcastically.
"Who you driving for, Johnny?" she asked; and I told her.
"Captain Sproule is down-stairs," said she. "He's looking for you. Go
on down! And as for you, Madam, you get out of my house, and don't come
back until you can please my visitors--you knife-drawin' hussy!"
I went down to the room where the captain had left me; and just as he
had begun making some sly blind jokes at my expense, the woman who had
befriended me came down, followed by the fat virago, cursing her and
ordering her out.
"Don't let 'em hurt her!" said I. "She's a good woman. She put me to
bed, and was good to me. Don't let 'em hurt her!"
We all went out together, the captain asking me what I meant; and then
went on walking beside the woman, whom he called Sally, and trying to
understand the case. I heard her say, "Mine would be about that size if
he had lived. I s'pose every woman must be a darned fool once in a
while!" The rest of the case I did not understand very well; but I knew
that she went to a tavern where we all spent the night, and that the
captain seemed very thoughtful when we went to bed at last--the second
time for me. When we finally pulled out of Buffalo for the East, Sally
was on the boat--not a very uncommon thing in those days; but the
captain was very good and respectful to her until we reached a little
village two or three days' journey eastward, when Sally got off the boat
after kissing me good-by and telling me to be good, and try to grow up
and be a good man; and went off on a country road as if she knew where
she was going.
"Where did Sally go?" I asked of Captain Sproule.
"Home," said he; "and may God have mercy on her soul!"
I looked forward more longingly than ever to the time when I should be
able to drop off the boat at Tempe, and run up to see my mother; and I
fixed it up with Captain Sproule so that when we made our return trip I
was to be allowed to stop over a day with her, and taking a fast boat
catch up with our own craft farther east. I was proud of the fact that I
had two good suits of clothes, a good hat and boots, and money in my
pocket. I expected to turn my money out on the table and leave it with
her. I thought a good deal of my meeting with John Rucker, and hoped
fervently that I should find him absent on one of his peddling trips, in
which case I meant to stay over night with my mother; and I seriously
pondered the matter as to whether or not I should fight Rucker if he
attacked me, as I expected he might; and Ace and I had many talks as to
the best way for me to fight him, if I should decide on such a course.
Ace was quite sure I could best Rucker; but I did not share this
confidence. A fight with a boy was quite a different thing from a battle
with a man, even though he might be a coward as I was sure Rucker was.
This proposed visit became the greatest thing in my life, a great
adventure, as we glided back from Buffalo, past the locks at Lockport,
where there was much fighting; past lock after lock, where the
lock-tenders tried to sell magic oils, balsams and liniments for man and
beast and once in a while did so; and to whom Ace became a customer for
hair-oil; after using which he sought the attention of girls by the
canal side, and also those who might be passengers on our boat, or
members of the emigrant families which crowded the boats going west;
past the hill at Palmyra, from which Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet,
claimed to have dug the gold plates of the Book of Mormon; past the
Fairport level and embankment; for three days floating so untroubled
along the Rochester level without a single lock; through the Montezuma
Marsh again; and then in a short time would come Tempe, and maybe my
great meeting with Rucker, my longed-for visit to my mother. And then
Captain Sproule got a contract for a cargo of salt to Buffalo, and we
turned westward again! It would be late in the fall before we returned;
but I should have more money then, and should be stronger and a
Canal-boating was fast becoming a routine thing with me; and I must
leave out all my adventures on that voyage to Buffalo, and back to
Tempe. I do not remember them very clearly anyhow.
One thing happened which I must describe, because it is important. We
were somewhere west of Jordan, when we met a packet boat going west. It
was filled with passengers, and drew near to us with the sound of
singing and musical instruments. It was crowded with emigrants always
hopeful and merry, bound westward. Evidently the hold had not been able
to take in all the household goods of the passengers, for there was a
deck-load of these things, covered with tarpaulins.
I was sitting on the deck of our boat, wondering when I should join the
western movement. When I got old enough, and had money enough, I was
determined to go west and seek my fortune; for I always felt that
canalling was, somehow, beneath what I wanted to do and become. The
packet swept past us, giving me a good deal the same glimpse into a
different sort of life that a deckhand on a freighter has when he gazes
at a liner ablaze with lights and echoing with music.
On the deck of the packet sat a group of people who were listening to a
tall stooped man, who seemed to be addressing them on some matter of
interest. There was something familiar in his appearance; and I kept my
eye on him as we went by.
As the boat passed swiftly astern, I saw that it was John Rucker.
He was better dressed than I had ever seen him; his beard was trimmed,
and he was the center of his group. He was talking to a hunchback--a
strange-looking person with a black beard. I wondered what had made such
a change in Rucker; but I was overjoyed at the thought that he was off
on a peddling trip, and that I should not meet him at home.
We floated along toward Tempe in a brighter world than I had known since
the time when I felt my bosom swell at the wearing of the new cap my
mother had made for me, the day when I, too young to be sad, had thrown
the clod over the stone fence as we went down to the great river to meet
We tied up for the night some seven miles west of Tempe, but I could not
sleep. I felt that I must see my mother that night, and so I trudged
along the tow-path in the light of a young moon, which as I plodded on
threw my shadow along the road before me. I walked treading on my own
shadow, a very different boy from the one who had come over this same
route sobbing himself almost into convulsions not many months before.
I was ready to swap canal repartee with any of the canallers. It had
become my world. I felt myself a good deal of a man. I could see my
mother's astonished look as she opened the door, and heard me in the
gruffest voice I could command asking her if she could tell me where
Mrs. Rucker lived--and yet, I felt anxious. Somehow a fear that all was
not right grew in me; and when I reached the path leading up to the
house I turned pale, I feel sure, to see that there was no light.
I tapped at the door; but there was no response. I felt for the key in
the place where we used to leave it, but no key was there.
There were no curtains, and as I looked into a room with windows at the
opposite side, I saw no furniture. The house was vacant. I went to the
little leanto which was used as a summer kitchen, and tried a window
which I knew how to open. It yielded to my old trick, and I crawled in.
As I had guessed, the place was empty. I called to my mother, and was
scared, I can't tell how much, at the echo of my voice in the deserted
cabin. I ventured up the stairs, though I was mortally afraid, and found
nothing save the litter of removal. I felt about the closet in my
mother's bedroom, to find out if any of her clothes were there, half
expecting that she would be where I wanted to find her even in the
vacant house. Down in a corner I felt some small article, which I soon
found was a worn-out shoe. With this, the only thing left to remember
her by, I crawled out of the window, shut it carefully behind me--for I
had been brought up to leave things as I found them--and stood alone,
the most forlorn and deserted boy in America, as I truly believe.
The moon had gone down, and it was dark. There was frost on the dead
grass, and I went out under the old apple-tree and sat down. What should
I do? Where was my mother? She was the only one in the world whom I
cared for or who loved me. She was gone, it was night, I was alone and
hungry and cold and lost. Perhaps some of the neighbors might know where
John Rucker had taken my mother--this thought came to me only after I
had sat there until every house was dark. The people had all gone to
bed. I tried to think of some neighbor to whom my mother might have told
her destination when she moved; but I could recall none of that sort.
She had been too unhappy, here in Tempe, to make friends. So I sat there
shivering until morning, unwilling to go away, altogether bewildered,
quite at my wits' end, steeped in despair. The world seemed too hard and
tough for me.
In the morning I asked at every house if the people knew Mrs. Rucker,
and where she had gone, but got no help. One woman knew her, and had
employed her as a seamstress; but had found the house vacant the last
time she had sent her work.
"Is she a relative of yours?" she asked.
"She is my--" I remember I stopped here and looked away a long time
before I could finish the reply, "She is my mother."
"And where were you, my poor boy," said she, "when she moved?"
"I was away at work," I replied.
"Well," said she, "she left word for you somewhere, you may be sure of
that. Where did you stay last night?"
"I sat under a tree," said I, "in the yard--up where we used to live."
"And where did you get breakfast?" she asked.
"I wasn't hungry," I answered. "I've been hunting for my mother since
"You poor child!" said she. "Come right into the kitchen and I'll get
you some breakfast. Come in, and we'll find out how you can find
While she got me the breakfast which I needed as badly as any meal I
ever ate, she questioned me as to relatives, friends, habits, and
everything which a good detective would want to know in forming a theory
as to how a clue might be obtained. She suggested that I find every man
in the village who had a team and did hauling, and ask each one if he
had moved Mr. Rucker's family.
"Why didn't she write to you?" she finally queried.
"She didn't know where I was," I replied.
"Did she ever leave word for you anywhere," asked the woman, "before you
"We had a place we called our post-office," I answered. "An old hollow
apple-tree. We used to leave letters for each other in that. It is the
tree I sat under all night."
"Look there," said the woman. "You'll find her! She wouldn't have gone
without leaving a trace."
Without stopping to thank her for her breakfast and her sympathy, I ran
at the top of my speed for the old apple-tree. I felt in the hollow--it
seemed to be filled with nothing but leaves. Just as I was giving up, I
touched something stiffer than an autumn leaf, and pulling it out found
a letter, all discolored by wet and mold, but addressed to me in my
mother's handwriting. I tore it open and read:
"My poor, wandering boy: We are going away--I don't know where. This
only I know, we are going west to settle somewhere up the Lakes. The
lawsuit is ended, and we got the money your father left me, and are
going west to get a new and better start in the world. If you will write
me at the post-office in Buffalo, I will inquire there for mail. I
wonder if you will ever get this! I wonder if I shall ever see you
again! I shall find some way to send word to you. Mr. Rucker says he
knows the captain of the boat you work on, and can get his address for
me in Syracuse--then I will write you. I am going very far away, and if
you ever see this, and never see me again, keep it always, and whenever
you see it remember that I would always have died willingly for you, and
that I am going to build up for you a fortune which will give you a
better life than I have lived. Be a good boy always. Oh, I don't want to
go, but I have to!"
It was not signed. I read it slowly, because I was not very good at
reading, and turned my eyes west--where my mother had gone. I had lost
her! How could any one be found who had disappeared into that region
which swallowed up thousands every month? I had no clue. I did not
believe that Rucker would try to help her find me. She had been kidnaped
away from me. I threw myself down on the dead grass, and found the
worn-out shoe I had picked up in the closet. It had every curve of her
foot--that foot which had taken so many weary steps for me. I put my
forehead down upon it, and lay there a long time--so long that when I
roused myself and went down to the canal, I had not sat on my old stump
a minute when I saw Captain Sproule's boat approaching from the west.
With a heavy heart I stepped aboard, carrying the worn-out shoe and the
letter, which I have yet. The boat was the only home left me. It had
become my world.
I BECOME A SAILOR, AND FIND A CLUE
I was just past thirteen when I had my great wrestle with loneliness and
desertion that night under the old apple-tree at Tempe; and the next
three and a half years are not of much concern to the reader who is
interested only in the history of Vandemark Township. I was just a
growing boy, tussling, more alone than I should have been, and with no
guidance or direction, with that problem of keeping soul and body
together, which, after all, is the thing with which all of us are
naturally obliged to cope all through our lives. I lived here and there,
most of the time looking to Eben Sproule as a prop and support, as a boy
must look to some one, or fall into bad and dangerous ways--and even
then, maybe he will.
I was a backward boy, and this saved me from some deadfalls, I guess;
and I had the Dutch hard mouth and a tendency to feel my ground and see
how the land lay, which made me take so long to balk at any new vice or
virtue that the impulse or temptation was sometimes past before I could
get ready to embrace it. I guess there are some who may read this who
have let chances for sinful joys go by while an inward debate went on in
their own souls; and if they will only own up to it, found themselves
afterward guiltily sorry for not falling from grace. "As a man thinketh
in his heart, so is he," is Scripture, and must be true if rightly
understood; but I wonder if it is as bad for one of us tardy people to
regret not having sinned, as it would have been if he had been quicker
and done so. I hardly think it can be as bad; for many a saint must have
had such experiences--which really is thinking both right and wrong, and
doing right, even if he did think wrong afterward.
That first winter, I lived on Captain Sproule's farm, and had my board,
washing and mending. His sister kept house for him, and his younger
brother, Finley, managed the place summers, with such help in handling
it as the captain had time to give when he passed the farm on his
voyages. It was quite a stock farm, and here I learned something about
the handling of cattle,--and in those days this meant breaking and
working them. It was a hard winter, and there was so much work on the
farm that I got only one month's schooling.
The teacher was a man named Lockwood. He kept telling us that we ought
to read about farming, and study the business by which we expected to
live; and this made a deep impression on me. Lockwood was a real
teacher, and like all such worked without realizing it on stuff more
lasting than steel or stone,--young, soft human beings. I did not see
that there was much to study about as to driving on the canal; and when
I told him that he said that the business of taking care of the horses
and feeding them was something that ought to be closely studied if I
expected to be a farmer. This looked reasonable to me; and I soon got to
be one of those driver boys who were noted for the sleekness and fatness
of their teams, and began getting the habit of studying any task I had
to do. But I was more interested in cattle than anything else, and was
sorry when spring came and we unmoored the old boat and pulled down to
Albany for a cargo west. This summer was like the last, except that I
was now a skilled driver, larger, stronger, and more confident
I used to ask leave to go on ahead on some fast boat when we drew near
to the Sproule farm, so I could spend a day or two at farm work, see the
family, and better than this, I am afraid--for they were pretty good to
me--look the cattle over, pet and feed the calves, colts and lambs,
count the little pigs and generally enjoy myself. On these packet boats,
too, I could talk with travelers, and try to strike the trail of
I had one never-failing subject of conversation with the Sproules and
all my other acquaintances--how to find my mother. We went over the
whole matter a thousand times. I had no post-office address, and my
mother had depended on Rucker's getting Captain Sproule's address at
Syracuse--which of course he had never meant to do--and had not asked me
to inquire at any place for mail. I wrote letters to her at Buffalo as
she had asked me to do in her letter, but they were returned unclaimed.
It was plain that Rucker meant to give me the slip, and had done so. He
could be relied upon to balk every effort my mother might make to find
me. I inquired for letters at the post-offices in Buffalo, Syracuse,
Albany and Tempe at every chance, but finally gave up in despair.
I had only one hope, and that was to find the hump-backed man with the
black beard--the man Rucker was talking to on the boat we had passed on
our voyage eastward before I found my home deserted. This was a very
slim chance, but it was all there was left. Captain Sproule had noticed
him, and said he had seen him a great many times before. He was a land
agent, who made it a business to get emigrants to go west, away up the
"If your stepfather had any money," said the captain, "you can bet that
hunchback tried to bamboozle him into some land deal, and probably did.
And if he did, he'll remember him and his name, and where he left the
canal or the Lakes, and maybe where he located."
"I must watch for him," I said.
"We'll all watch for him," said the captain.
Paddy was not with us the next summer; but Bill was, and so was Ace,
with whom I was now on the best of terms. We all agreed to keep our eyes
peeled for a hunchback with a black beard. Bill said he'd spear him with
a boathook as soon as he hove in sight for fear he'd get away. Ace was
sure the hunchback was a witch who had spirited off my folks; and
looked upon the situation without much hope. He would agree to sing out
if he saw this monster; but that was as far as he would promise to
 "Witch" in American dialect is of the common gender. "Wizard" has no
place in the vocabulary.--G.v.d.M.
The summer went by with no news and no hunchback; and that winter I
stayed with an aunt of Captain Sproule's, taking care of her stock. I
got five dollars a month, and my keep, but no schooling. She wanted me
to stay the summer with her, and offered me what was almost a man's
wages; which shows how strong I was getting, and how much of a farmer I
was. I did stay and helped through the spring's work; but on Captain
Sproule's second passing of Mrs. Fogg's farm, I joined him, not as a
driver, but as a full hand. I kept thinking all the time of my mother,
and felt that if I kept to the canal I surely should find some trace of
her. In this I was doing what any detective would have done; for
everything sooner or later passed through the Erie Canal--news, goods
and passengers. But I had little hope when I thought of the flood which
surged back and forth through this river of news, and of the little bit
of a net with which I fished it for information.
All this time the stream of emigration and trade swelled, and swelled
until it became a torrent. I thought at times that all the people in the
world had gone crazy to move west. We took families, even neighborhoods,
household goods, live stock, and all the time more and more people. They
were talking about Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, and
once in a while the word Iowa was heard; and one family astonished us by
saying that they were going to Texas.
The Mormons had already made their great migration to Utah, and the
Northwestern Trail across the plains to Oregon and to California took
its quota of gold-seekers every year. John C. Fremont had crossed the
continent to California, and caused me to read my first book, _The Life
of Kit Carson_.
Bill, who never could speak in hard enough terms about sailing on the
mud-puddle Lakes, which he had never done as yet, once went to
Pittsburgh, meaning to go from there down the Ohio and up the Missouri.
He had heard of the Missouri River fur-trade, and big wages on the
steamboats carrying emigrants from St. Louis up-stream to Nebraska, Iowa
and Dakota Territory, and bringing back furs and hides. But at
Pittsburgh he was turned back by news of the outbreak of cholera at New
Orleans, a disease which had struck us with terror along the canal two
or three years before. That summer there were medicine pedlers working
on all the boats, selling a kind of stuff they called "thieves' vinegar"
which was claimed to be a medicine that was used in the old country
somewhere by thieves who robbed the infected houses in safety, protected
by this wonderful "vinegar"; and only told how it was made to save their
lives when they were about to be hanged. A man offered me a bottle of
this at Rochester, for five dollars, and finally came down to fifty
cents. This made me think it was of no use, and I did not buy, though
just before I had been wondering whether I had not better borrow the
money of Captain Sproule; so I saved my money, which was getting to be a
habit of mine.
California, the Rockies, the fur-trade, the Ohio Valley, the new cities
up the Lakes and the new farms in the woods back of them, and some few
tales of the prairies--all these voices of the West kept calling us more
loudly and plainly every year, and every year I grew stronger and more
confident of myself.
The third year I had made up my mind that I would get work on a
passenger boat so as to be able to see and talk with more people who
were going up and down the Lakes and the canal. I went from one to
another as I met folks who were coming back from the West, and asked
every one if he had known a man out west named John Rucker; but, though
I found traces of two or three Ruckers in the course of the three years,
it did not take long in each case to find out that it was not the man I
hated so, and so much wanted to find. People used to point me out as the
boy who was trying to find a man named Rucker; and two or three came to
me and told me of men they had met who might be my man. I became known
to many who traveled the canal as being engaged in some mysterious
quest. I suppose I had an anxious and rather strange expression as I
made my inquiries.
It took me two years to make up my mind to change to a passenger boat,
so slow was I to alter my way of doing things. I have always been that
way. My wife read _Knickerbocker's History of New York_ after the
children were grown up and she had more time for reading, and always
told the children that she was positive their father must be descended
from that ancient Dutchman who took thirteen months to look the
ground over before he began to put up that well-known church in
Rotterdam of which he was the builder. After smoking over it to the tune
of three hundred pounds of Virginia tobacco, after knocking his head--to
jar his ideas loose, maybe--and breaking his pipe against every church
in Holland and parts of France and Germany; after looking at the site of
his church from every point of view--from land, from water, and from the
air which he went up into by climbing other towers; this good old Dutch
contractor and builder pulled off his coat and five pairs of breeches,
and laid the corner-stone of the church. I think that this delay was a
credit to him. Better be slow than sorry. The church was, according to
my wife, a very good one; and if the man had jumped into the job on the
first day of his contract it might have been a very bad one. So, when I
used to take a good deal of time to turn myself before beginning any
job, and my wife would say to one of the boys: "Just wait! He'll start
to build that church after a while!" I always took it as a compliment.
Finally I always did the thing, if after long study it seemed the right
thing to do, or if some one else had not done it in the meantime; just
as I finally told Captain Sproule that I expected to work on a passenger
boat the next summer, and was told by him that he had sold his boat to a
company, and was to be a passenger-boat captain himself the next summer;
and would sign me on if I wanted to stay with him--which I did.
 Irving's impersonation of Homer must have nodded when he named this
safe, sane and staunch worthy Hermanus Van Clattercop.--G.v.d.M.
I was getting pretty stocky now, and no longer feared anything I was
likely to meet. I was well-known to the general run of canallers, and
had very little fighting to do; once in a while a fellow would pick a
fight with me because of some spite, frequently because I refused to
drink with him, or because he was egged on to do it; and this year I was
licked by three toughs in Batavia. They left me senseless because I
would not say "enough." I was getting a good deal of reputation as a
wrestler. I liked wrestling better than fighting; and though a smallish
man always, like my fellow Iowan Farmer Burns, I have seldom found my
master at this game. It is much more a matter of sleight than strength.
A man must be cautious, wary, cool, his muscles always ready, as quick
as a flash to meet any strain; but the main source of my success seemed
to be my ability to use all the strength in every muscle of my body at
any given instant, so as to overpower a much stronger opponent by
pouring out on him so much power in a single burst of force that he was
carried away and crushed. I have thrown over my head and to a distance
of ten feet men seventy-five pounds heavier than I was. This is the only
thing I ever did so well that I never met any one who could beat me.
I was of a fair complexion, with blue eyes, and my upper lip and chin
were covered with a reddish fuzz over a very ruddy skin--a little like
David's of old, I guess. On the passenger boats I met a great many
people, and was joked a good deal about the girls, some of whom seemed
to take quite a shine to me, just as they do to any fair-haired,
reasonably clean-looking boy; especially if he has a little reputation;
but though I sometimes found myself looking at one of them with
considerable interest there was not enough time for as slow a boy as I
to begin, let alone to finish any courting operations on even as long a
voyage as that from Albany to Buffalo. I was really afraid of them all,
and they seemed to know it, and made a good deal of fun of me.
We did not carry our horses on this boat; but stopped at relay stations
for fresh teams, and after we had pulled out from one of these stations,
we went flying along at from six to eight miles an hour, with a cook
getting up nine meals; and we often had a "sing" as we called it when in
the evening the musical passengers got together and tuned up. Many of
them carried dulcimers, accordions, fiddles, flutes and various kinds of
brass horns, and in those days a great many people could sing the good
old hymns in the _Carmina Sacra_, and the glees and part-songs in the
old _Jubilee_, with the soprano, tenor, bass and alto, and the high
tenor and counter which made better music than any gathering of people
are likely to make nowadays. All they needed was a leader with a
tuning-fork, and off they would start, making the great canal a pretty
musical place on fine summer evenings. We traveled night and day, and at
night the boat, lighted up as well as we could do it then, with lanterns
and lamps burning whale-oil, and with candles in the cabin, looked like
a traveling banquet-hall or opera-house or tavern.
We were always crowded with immigrants when we went west; and on our
eastern voyages even, our passenger traffic was mostly related to the
West, its trade, and its people. Many of the men had been out west
"hunting country," and sat on the decks or in the cabins until late at
night, telling their fellow-travelers what they had found, exchanging
news, and sometimes altering their plans to take advantage of what
somebody else had found. Some had been looking for places where they
could establish stores or set up in some other business. Some had gone
to sell goods. Some were travelers for the purpose of preying on others.
I saw a good deal of the world, that summer, some of which I understood,
but not much. I understand it far better now as I look back upon it.
I noticed for the first time now that class of men with whom we became
so well acquainted later, the land speculators. These, and the bankers,
many of whom seemed to have a good deal of business in the West, formed
a class by themselves, and looked down from a far height on the working
people, the farmers, and the masses generally, who voyaged on the same
boats with them. They talked of development, and the growth of the
country, and the establishments of boats and the building of railways;
while the rest of us thought about homes and places to make our livings.
The young doctors and lawyers, and some old ones, too, who were going
out to try life on the frontiers, occupied places in between these
exalted folk and the rest of us. There were preachers among our
passengers, but most of them were going west. On almost every voyage
there would be a minister or missionary who would ask to have the
privilege of holding prayer on the boat; and Captain Sproule always
permitted it. The ministers, too, were among those who hunted up the
singers in the crowds and organized the song services from the
I was getting used to the life and liked it, and gradually I found my
resolve to go west getting less and less strong; when late in the summer
of 1854 something happened which restored it to me with tenfold
strength. We had reached Buffalo, had discharged our passengers and
cargo, and were about starting on our eastward voyage when I met Bill,
the sailor, as he was coming out of a water-front saloon. I ran to him
and called him by name; but at first he did not know me.
"This ain't little Jake, is it?" he said. "By mighty, I b'lieve it is!
W'y, you little runt, how you've growed. Come in an' have a drink with
your ol' friend Bill as nussed you when you was a baby!"
I asked to be excused; for I hadn't learned to drink more than a thin
glass of rum and water, and that only when I got chilled. I turned the
subject by asking him what he was doing; and at that he slapped his
thigh and said he had great news for me.
"I've found that hump-backed bloke," he said. "He came down on the boat
with us from Milwaukee. I knowed him as soon as I seen him, but I
couldn't think all the v'yage what in time I wanted to find him fer. You
jest put it in my mind!"
"Where is he?" I shouted. "You hain't lost him, have you?"
Bill stood for quite a while chewing tobacco, and scratching his head.
"Where is he?" I yelled.
"Belay bellering," said Bill. "I'm jest tryin' to think whuther he went
on a boat east, or a railroad car, or a stage-coach, or went to a
tavern. He went to a tavern, that's what he done. A drayman I know took
"Come on," I cried, "and help me find the drayman!"
"I'll have to study on this," said Bill. "My mind hain't as active as
usual. I need somethin' to brighten me up!"
"What do you need?" I inquired. "Can't you think where he stays?"
"A little rum," he answered, "is great for the memory. I b'lieve most
any doctor'd advise a jorum of rum for a man in my fix, to restore the
I took him back into the grog-shop and bought him rum, taking a very
little myself, with a great deal of blackstrap and water. Bill's
symptoms were such as to drive me to despair. He sat looking at me like
an old owl, and finally took my glass and sipped a little from it.
"Hain't you never goin' to grow up?" he asked; and poured out a big
glass of the pure quill for me, and fiercely ordered me to drink it. By
this time I was desperate; so I smashed his glass and mine; and taking
him by the throat I shook him and told him that if he did not take me to
the hump-backed man or to the drayman, and that right off, I'd shut off
his wind for good. When he clinched with me I lifted him from the floor,
turned him upside down, and lowered him head-first into an empty barrel.
By this time the saloon-keeper was on the spot making all sorts of
threats about having us both arrested, and quite a crowd had gathered. I
lifted Bill out of the barrel and seated him in a chair, and paid for
the glasses; all the time watching Bill for fear he might renew the
tussle, and take me in flank; but he sat as if dazed until I had quieted
matters down, when he rose and addressed the crowd.
"My little son," said he, patting me on the shoulder. "Stoutest man of
his inches in the world. We'll be round here's evenin'--give a show.
"Wot I said about growin' up," said he, as we went along the street, "is
all took back, Jake!"
We had not gone more than a quarter of a mile when we came to a place
where there was a stand for express wagons and drays; and Bill picked
out from the crowd, with a good deal of difficulty, I thought, a
hard-looking citizen to whom he introduced me as the stoutest man on the
Erie Canal. The drayman seemed to know me. He said he had seen me
wrestle. When I asked him about the hunchback he said he knew right
where he was; but there was no hurry, and tried to get up a wrestling
match between me and a man twice my size who made a specialty of hauling
salt, and bragged that he could take a barrel of it by the chimes, and
lift it into his dray. I told him that I was in a great hurry and begged
to be let off; but while I was talking they had made up a purse of
twenty-one shillings to be wrestled for by us two. I finally persuaded
the drayman to show me the hunchback's tavern, and promised to come back
and wrestle after I had found him; to which the stake-holder agreed, but
all the rest refused to consent, and the money was given back to the
subscribers. The drayman, Bill and I went off together to find the
tavern--which we finally did.
It was a better tavern than we were used to, and I was a little bashful
when I inquired if a man with a black beard was stopping there, and was
told that there were several.
"What's his name?" asked the clerk.
"'E's a hunchback," said Bill--I had been too diffident to describe him
"Mr. Wisner, of Southport, Wisconsin," said the clerk, "has a back that
ain't quite like the common run of backs. Want to see him?"
He was in a nice room, with a fire burning and was writing at a desk
which opened and shut, and was carried with him when he traveled. He
wore a broadcloth, swallow-tailed coat, a collar that came out at the
sides of his neck and stood high under his ears; and his neck was
covered with a black satin stock. On the bed was a tall, black beaver,
stove-pipe hat. There were a great many papers on the table and the bed,
and the room looked as if it had been used by crowds of people--the
floor was muddy about the fireplace, and there were tracks from the door
to the cheap wooden chairs which seemed to have been brought in to
accommodate more visitors than could sit on the horsehair chairs and
sofa that appeared to belong in the room. Mr. Wisner looked at us
sharply as we came in, and shook hands first with Bill and then with me.
"Glad to see you again," said he heartily. "Glad to see you again! I
want to tell you some more about Wisconsin. I haven't told you the half
of its advantages."
I saw that he thought we had been there before, and was about to correct
his mistake, when Bill told him that that's what we had come for.
"What you said about Wisconsin," said Bill, winking at me, "has sort of
got us all worked up."
"Is it a good country for a boy to locate in?" I asked.
"A paradise for a boy!" he said, in a kind of bubbly way. "And for a
poor man, it's heaven! Plenty of work. Good wages. If you want a home,
it's the only God's country. What kind of land have you been farming in
Bill said that he had spent his life plowing the seas, but that all the
fault I had was being a landsman. I admitted that I had farmed some
"And," sneered Mr. Wisner crushingly, "how long does it take a man to
clear and grub out and subdue enough land in Herkimer County to make a
living on? Ten years! Twenty years! Thirty years! Why, in Herkimer
County a young man doesn't buy anything when he takes up land: he sells
something! He sells himself to slavery for life to the stumps and
sprouts and stones! But in Wisconsin you can locate on prairie land
ready for the plow; or you can have timber land, or both kinds, or
opening's that are not quite woods nor quite prairie--there's every kind
of land there except poor land! It's a paradise, and land's cheap. I can
sell you land right back of Southport, with fine market for whatever you
raise, on terms that will pay themselves--pay themselves. Just go aboard
the first boat, and I'll give you a letter to my partner in
Southport--and your fortunes will be made in ten years!"
"The trouble is," said Bill, "that we'll be so damned lonesome out where
we don't know any one. If we could locate along o' some of our ol'
mates, somebody like old John Tucker,--it would be a--a paradise,
"The freest-hearted people in the world," said Mr. Wisner. "They'll
travel ten miles to take a spare-rib or a piece of fresh beef to a new
neighbor. Invite the stranger in to stay all night as he drives along
the road. You'll never miss your old friends; and probably you'll find
old neighbors most anywhere. Why, this country has moved out to
Wisconsin. It won't be long till you'll have to go there to find
'em--ha, ha, ha!"
"If we could find a man out there named Tucker--"
"An old--sort of--of relative of mine," I put in, seeing that Bill was
spoiling it all, "John Rucker."
"I know him!" cried Wisner. "Kind of a tall man with a sandy beard? Good
talker? Kind of plausible talker? Used to live down east of Syracuse?
Pretty well fixed? Went out west three years ago? Calls himself
"I guess that's the man," said I; "do you know where he is now?"
"Had a wife and no children?" asked Wisner. "And was his wife a quiet,
kind of sad-looking woman that never said much?"
"Yes! Yes!" said I. "If you know where they are, I'll go there by the
"Hum," said Wisner. "Whether I can tell you the exact township and
section is one thing; but I can say that they went to Southport on the
same boat with me, and at last accounts were there or thereabouts--there
"Come on, Bill," said I, "I want to take passage on the next boat!"
Mr. Wisner kept us a long time, giving me letters to his partner; trying
to find out how much money I would have when I got to Southport; warning
me not to leave that neighborhood even if I found it hard to find the
Rucker family; and assuring me that if it weren't for the fact that he
had several families along the canal ready to move in a week or two, he
would go back with me and place himself at my service.
"And it won't be long," said he, "until I can be with you. My boy, I
feel like a father to the young men locating among us, and I beg of you
don't make any permanent arrangements until I get back. I can save you
money, and start you on the way to a life of wealth and happiness. God
bless you, and give you a safe voyage!"
"Bill," said I, as we went down the stairs, "this is the best news I
ever had. I'm going to find my mother! I had given up ever finding her,
Bill; and I've been so lonesome--you don't know how lonesome I've been!"
"I used to have a mother," said Bill, "in London. Next time I'm there
I'll stay sober for a day and have a look about for her. You never have
but about one mother, do you, Jake? A mother is a great thing--when she
ain't in drink."
"I wish I could have Mr. Wisner with me when I get to Southport," I
said. "He'd help me. He is such a Christian man!"
"Wal," said Bill, "I ain't as sure about him as I am about mothers. He
minds me of a skipper I served under once; and he starved us, and let
the second officer haze us till we deserted and lost our wages. He's
about twice too slick. I'd give him the go-by, Jake."
"And now for a boat," I said.
"Wal," said Bill, "I'm sailin' to-morrow mornin' on the schooner _Mahala
Peters_, an' we're short-handed. Go aboard an' ship as an A. B."
I protested that I wasn't a sailor; but Bill insisted that beyond being
hazed by the mate there was no reason why I shouldn't work my passage.
"If there's a crime," said he, "it's a feller like you payin' his
passage. Let's get a drink or two an' go aboard."
I explained to the captain, in order that I might be honest with him,
that I was no sailor, but had worked on canal boats for years, and would
do my best. He swore at his luck in having to ship land-lubbers, but
took me on; and before we reached Southport--now Kenosha--I was good
enough so that he wanted me to ship back with him. It was on this trip
that I let the cook tattoo this anchor on my forearm, and thus got the
reputation among the people of the prairies of having been a sailor,
and therefore a pretty rough character. As a matter of fact the sailors
on the Lakes were no rougher than the canallers--and I guess not
I was sorry, many a time, on the voyage, that I had not taken passage on
a steamer, as I saw boats going by us in clouds of smoke that left
Buffalo after we did; but we had a good voyage, and after seeing
Detroit, Mackinaw and Milwaukee, we anchored in Southport harbor so late
that the captain hurried on to Chicago to tie up for the winter. I had
nearly three hundred dollars in a belt strapped around my waist, and
some in my pocket; and went ashore after bidding Bill good-by--I never
saw the good fellow again--and began my search for John Rucker. I did
not need to inquire at Mr. Wisner's office, and I now think I probably
saved money by not going there; for I found out from the proprietor of
the hotel that Rucker, whom he called Doc Rucker, had moved to Milwaukee
early in the summer.
"Friend of yours?" he asked.
"No," I said with a good deal of emphasis; "but I want to find
"If you find him," said he, "and can git anything out of him, let me
know and I'll make it an object to you. An' if you have any dealings
with him, watch him. Nice man, and all that, and a good talker, but
"Did you ever see his wife?" I inquired.
"They stopped here a day or two before they left," said the
hotel-keeper. "She looked bad. Needed a doctor, I guess--a
There was a cold northeaster blowing, and it was spitting snow as I went
back to the docks to see if I could get a boat for Milwaukee. A steamer
in the offing was getting ready to go, and I hired a man with a skiff
to put me and my carpet-bag aboard. We went into Milwaukee in a howling
blizzard, and I was glad to find a warm bar in the tavern nearest the
dock; and a room in which to house up while I carried on my search. I
now had found out that the stage lines and real-estate offices were the
best places to go for traces of immigrants; and I haunted these places
for a month before I got a single clue to Rucker's movements. It almost