November 1990

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A New Home: Who'll Follow

Life in the Clearings


Caroline M. Kirkland

First published in 1839
Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.

Chapter 36

A Tour In The Forest

A journey through the wilds, if performed by steam or post chaise, is just like a journey anywhere else, except a lack of some of the more refined accommodations for travelling. To find a spice of novelty,—to reap an advantage from position which shall in some degree counterbalance the deficiency necessarily observable in public conveyance so far from the great thoroughfares, we have devised a new mode of travel, or rather, we have adopted one which is new to us, although highly popular in these tramontane regions.

This resembles in no small degree that of the tinker in the story-book, whose equipage was a gigantic tea-kettle, the spout of which served for a chimney and the tout ensemble both for professional sign and family domicile; while the owner jogged along cosily, hammering as he went, chatting with the good wife within, and occasionally encouraging by a cherup the praiseworthy donkey that drew the entire establishment.

A pedlar of genius—a Yankee of course—has added yet one improvement to this ingenious plan. His cow serves a double purpose as a beast of draught, for she goes well in the harness, and he has only to stop and milk her when he is thirsty.

The nearest approach we have yet made to this compression of comforts took place recently, when after a most justifying course of agues we set out in the great waggon for a rambling tour of discovery, with everything we should be likely to want—including a large basket of provisions—embraced within its ample verge. Umbrellas good store—books and blankets—trunks and sacs de nuit,—besides some oats for the dear old ponies, and a pail wherefrom to give them drink, in case they should be athirst where water is more plenty than buckets,—all these made some ingenuity requisite in bestowing ourselves and our conveniences within the compass of even a regular backwoods waggon—the most capacious of vehicles;—and it took from early breakfast time until fully ten o'clock to "load up."

It may be that my dear reader being as I well surmise a dweller in cities, shall suppose this same farm waggon, which is so often referred to as a regular family vehicle, to be a sort of exaggerated britska—an able-bodied barouche, capable of containing, on crowded occasions, six ladies in bishop's sleeves; and that when we take a fantaisie for a week's ramble, it is only to send John to drive round at the appointed hour. Illusions all! The waggon consists of an oblong box of rough boards, mounted on the clumsiest of all possible wheels, and for springs we have two long slender tamarack poles placed within iron hooks appended to the sides. On these springs are board seats, with cushions or not, as the case may be, but always with buffalo skins by way of drapery. In the harness, all that is not leather is iron chain, except that there are generally weak points which are to be frequently fortified with twine or, alas! with the strings from your husband's vest if you forget to carry twine. Then your John, if you are so lucky as to have one, requires goodly notice of your errant intentions. Shoes are to be reset— harness to go to the shoe-maker's for repairs—white paint to be bottled for Quicksilver's shoulder, galled in ploughing. To secure a happy issue for your expedition requires only less deliberate preparation than Napoleon ought to have made for his jaunt to Moscow. It is awkward to discover important omissions when you are miles from efficient aid.

But everybody is waiting while I discuss these particulars. It was a cloudy day in July; a cloudy day after heavy showers,—showers which we felt confident had exhausted the watery reservoirs for the present, so that we congratulated ourselves upon the tempering clouds, and thought of leaving the umbrellas at home. However, it was not long before the sun shone in such force as to call forth the parapluies as parasols, and we were almost fainting under that particularly oppressive heat which belongs to such dropping weather in the midst of our summers. After we reached the boundaries of "the clearing" and plunged into the "timbered land," this heat was exchanged for a grotto-like coolness, and the horses trod leisurely as if to enjoy the damp, mossy soil and the grateful shade.

It was not long after noon when we began to think favorably of dinner, and we had not far to seek for a pleasant spot of green turf whereon to spread our couches of buffalo-skins and blankets. In the midst of a circle thus formed was the table-cloth with its accompaniments; and there in a 'café à mille colonnes' which required no multiplying aid of mirrors, we took our first rustic repast,—all highly delighted with the novelty, but especially the young fry, who were allowed to go as often as they liked to a clear spring that welled from the hill-side, and dabble in the water which widened into a small, glassy pond below. They fed Prince with bread, which he took from their fingers with a care and delicacy worthy of his gentle blood, while poor Quicksilver showed his awkward rusticity by hanging his head or turning it sedulously aside when the same civility was offered him. But what they found most delightful of all was to see Leo's enthusiastic plunges in pursuit of the crackers which they sent skimming along the water as far as they could, trying his patience occasionally by the substitution of a flat stone by which he obligingly allowed himself to be deceived as often as they thought proper.

This said Leo is a particular friend of the family, not on account of his beauty, for he is an enormous creature with a ferocious bull-dog aspect—nor on the score of his services, for a more useless and chicken-hearted monster never ate goslings—but just—because. This is the only assignable ground of Leo's popularity, and it is sufficient to secure his impunity in spite of many a misdemeanor, as well as to make him an inamissible member of the party whenever we go from home en famille. And indeed I have seen people admitted to society on slighter pretensions…

Where was I? as the causers impitoyables always say. Oh! telling of our dinner in the woods.

When all was done, the cold beef and its attendant pickles,—the pies and the cake and the huge loaf were returned "each to the niche it was ordained to fill" in the champagne basket that served to hold our treasures. The little tin pail of butter which had been carefully placed in the water, was now re-wrapped in its shroud of fresh leaves, and we set forth again, but under a threatening aspect of the heavens. We had been so amused watching Leo's gambols in the still transparent water, that we had not noticed the gathering clouds, which now grew apace thicker and heavier than we could have desired. Nevertheless on we went, and at a good pace, for our steeds had been as well refreshed as ourselves, and seemed to understand beside that there might be a reasonable ground for haste. Not a house was to be descried, for in the back route we had chosen, settlers are few and scattered, and much of the road lay through tracts of untouched timber, where one was obliged sometimes to take good heed of the great H hacked on trees by the surveyor's axe, to be sure that we were on the Highway.

And now the rain came down in earnest. No pattering drops,—no warning sprinkle,—but a sudden deluge, which wet everything through in half a minute. Onward, good Prince!—en avant, Quicksilver! (for thou are of French extraction;) shining and smoking as ye are, with torrents streaming down your innocent noses, adopt David Crockett's motto, so often quoted and acted upon by our compatriots,—"Go ahead!" If bonnets and veils,—if gingham and broadcloth or their wearers find any favor in your eyes, let not water extinguish your fire! Think of our soaking bread! Think of your own swimming oats, and as ye love not "spoon-vittles," hasten.

The rain spatters up from the rail-fences so as to create a small fog on every rail. The puddles in the road look as if they were boiling, and the sky seems to grow more ponderous as it discharges its burden. We have emerged upon a clearing, and there is a liquid sheet between us and the distant woods.

But there is a roof! I see a stick chimney! and there is a drenched cow crowding in beneath a strawy barrack, and some forlorn fowls huddled under an old cart. We approach the habitations of men, and we may not doubt a good fire and a kind welcome,—so forward, good steeds!

The log-house proved a small one, and though its neat corn-crib and chicken-coop of slender poles bespoke a careful gudeman, we found no gate in front, but in its stead great awkward bars which were to be taken down or climbed over; and either of these is no pleasant process in a pouring rain. But by the aid of a little patience we made our way into the house, which had only a back door, as is very usual among the early settlers.

Within, marks of uncomfortable though strictly neat and decent poverty were but too evident. No well-stored dresser,—no snug curtains—no shining tins—no gorgeous piece-work bed-quilts, exhibiting stars of all magnitudes and moons in all quarters. Not even the usual display of Sunday habiliments graced the bare log walls. The good woman was of shadowy thinness, and her husband, with a green shade over his eyes, wore a downcast and desponding air. One little girl with her yellow hair done up in many a papillote sat in a corner playing with a kitten. The mother put down her knitting as we entered, but the father seemed to have been sitting in listless idleness.

We were received with that free and hospitable welcome so general among the pioneers of the West. Our wet garments were carefully disposed for drying, and even the buffalo-robes and blankets found place on those slender poles which are usually observable above the ample fireplace of a regular log-hut; placed there for the purpose of drying—sometimes the week's wash, when the weather proves rainy,—sometimes whole rows of slender circlets of pumpkins for next spring's pies,—sometimes (when we can get them) festoons of sliced apples. The rain gave no sign of truce; the eaves poured incessantly, and we heard the rumbling of distant thunder. There was every prospect that we should be constrained to become unwilling intruders on the kindness of Mr. Gaston and his family, for the night at least.

When this was mentioned, the good woman, after expressing her willingness to do the very best she could for us, could not forbear telling us there had been a time when she could have entertained us decently under such circumstances. "But those days are gone by," she said with a sigh; "trouble has followed us so long that I don't look for anything else now. We left a good home in York state because my old man couldn't feel contented when he saw the neighbors selling out and coming to the West to get rich. And we bought so much land that we hadn't enough left to stock it, and improve it; but after a while we had got a few acres under improvement, and begun to have enough for our own consumption, although nothing to sell, and we had to part with some of our land to pay taxes on the rest—and then we took our pay in wild-cat money, that turned to waste paper before we got it off our hands. And my husband took on dreadful hard upon that,—and we all had the ague,—and then his eyes took sore,—and he is almost blind—too blind to see to work more than half the time. So we've been getting down, down, down! But I needn't cry," said the poor creature wiping her eyes; "for I'm sure if tears could have bettered our condition, we'd have been well off long ago."

Here was an apology for poverty, indeed! How many complain of poverty, sitting in silks and laces, at tables covered with abundance! What groans over "hard times" have we not heard from jewelled bosoms within these two or three years! What rebuffs are always ready for those who take upon themselves the pleasant office of soliciting of the superfluity of the rich for the necessities of the poor. "Hard times!" say the unthinking children of luxury, as they sip their ice-cream, or hold up to the light the rosy wine!

This log-cabin with its civil and respectable inhabitants would furnish a lesson for such economists, if indeed they were willing to learn of the poor to appreciate the over-abounding comforts of their lot.

Our hostess was a very active and tidy person, and she busied herself in all those little offices which evince a desire to make guests feel themselves welcome. She had small change of garments to offer, but she was unwearied in turning and drying before the fire such as we could dispense with for the time; for we hoped the storm would be but shortlived, and did not wish to open our trunks until we stopped for the night. The rain however slackened not, but on the contrary frequent flashes of lightning, and a muttering thunder which seemed momently to draw nearer, threatened still longer detention. The eaves poured merrily, and it was amusing to see our little hostess, with an old cloak over her head, fly out to place tubs, pails, jars, basins and milk-pans so as to intercept as much as possible of the falling treasure, intimating that as soap was pretty scarce she must try to catch rain-water, anyhow. A trough scooped from the portly trunk of a large whitewood-tree was so placed as to save all that fell from one side of the roof, but on the other almost all the utensils of the house were arranged by the careful dame, who made frequent trips for the purpose of exchanging the full for the empty—apologizing for not calling upon "th' old man" to assist her, because getting wet might increase the inflammation of his eyes.

Mrs. Gaston had carried out her last milk-pail and was returning to the door when the sound of wheels was heard above the rattling of the storm; and in another moment a loud "Hilloa!" told that other travellers beside ourselves were about to seek shelter.

"I'll tell 'em to drive on to Jericho," said Mrs. Gaston, "for we can't make them anyways comfortable here." "What two mile further in this rain!" rejoined her husband; "no, no. that'll never do. The shower won't last long; let 'em come in." And he would take his great straw hat and go out to invite in this new windfall..

Click here for an index to the chapters of A New Home.
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