No. 5 … Frontier Neighbors Page 1

 

‘All the fragrant air
Was tremulous with the sweet joy of life.
The thrilling of blrd-muslc and the hum
Of honey-bees among the dewy flowers
Was woven through the sunny atmosphere.
Like the rich warp and woof of some fine web."

 

Rusha Punderson never read a line of poetry in her life, except what she read in her little camp-meeting hymn-book, but she felt the spirit of this as she stood that May morning leaning upon the bars, her sleeves rolled up above her elbows, and her hair pushed back from her sunburnt forehead. Adam, her husband, was coming down the path and she was waiting for him.

 

When he drew near she said, "Well?" in a questioning, waiting way, and he, knowing what she meant answered: "Yes, sure 'nough, there is a family over on sixteen, come from ole Virginny, man an' wife and two young 'uns, an' I reckon they're 'bout as poor as the law "lows. Better go over an' see 'em soon 's you can; maybe they might be a wantin' somethin'; anyhow we must show fellar feelin' for human critters livin' in the woods. We know how it went two year ago," and the man, Adam, stooped down and tucked the rag into the toe of his dilapidated old shoe.

"Cur'ns that this 'fernal rag will come creepin' out in thai pesky eole every time I set my foot in motion like j might jus" as well go clean barefoot an' done with, only fur the thorns, an' snags, and peaky snakes 'festin' the path."

 

"Well, I 'low I could go to-morrow 'f you can spare Jack fur me to ride," said she, drawing her brows in a thoughtful way, as though she were making calculations.

 

The next morning early, Jack stood at the bars with a little, old, woman's saddle on, fastened with a strip of home-made linen girth, and a bridle that had seen palmier days. It was a little matter whether he had on a saddle or not, for this free, strong, brave, natural woman of fifty-five years ago could ride as well without a saddle as with one. Jack had not time to stand and gnaw the post or try to touch his white nose to the green sprouts that marked the places of last year's growing saplings, for Rusha had made a pot of mush and placed it in a warm corner for dinner, and the tin cups and clumsy pewter spoons stood in a row on the shelf against the wall, and the children had received their orders about good behavior, and this bustling, active woman was ready to start.

 

She wore a new linen gown of her own spinning and weaving, and thread stockings of her own making, and though she was plainly and coarsely clad, hers was a face that one would look upon, and turn and look at again and again. Her eyes were bright and dark, and her hair black and abundant, and her face, though tanned from outdoor exposure, was rosy and indicative of good health. Her little ones stood and watched her as she started on her first visit to the new family.

 

The dear woman! How cleverly she mounted the waiting horse I She threw the bridle over his neck, and sprang on his back from the ground like a nimble boy. Her children thought the spring was graceful, and the two little boys looked on admiringly, and something like a touch of electricity tingled in their veins, and made them shout with joy as the steed galloped along the path that terminated in the old Postage road, the only laid-out and made road in the country.

 

It was about four miles the nearest way across the wilderness to the new home of the new neighbors from "ole Virginny."

 

Rusha's eyes were very bright during that wildwood ride, for the trees were blazed not more than half the way, and the other half she had to be guided by, perhaps, instinct.

 

A blazed tree meant a tree from which a patch of the bark, say the size of a man's hand, or larger, had been cut off by a glancing blow or two of an axe.

 

Sometimes she had to stop and think, or, as she said, "calkilate," so as to be sure of the right points of the compass. But her intimate years in the trackless woods had taught her many things. It was not long until she heard the ringing strokes of an axe, and then she emerged into a small clearing, in the centre of which stood a rude cabin, from whose wide-mouthed mud chimney the blue smoke curled gracefully. She rode up to the open door and sprang off the horse, and threw the bridle over his neck. Then stepping inside the doorway, she dropped a civil courtesy, at the same time waving both widely-spread hands with a motion that was intended to be very graceful.

 

A small, sad-faced woman sat on a low bench nursing her baby. She covered her bosom, and looked up in a startled, scared way.

 

"I'm Mis Punderson," said Rusha, dropping another courtesy; come over to see you, an' bid you welcome to this part of the country. What might your name be?”

 

The little newcomer gathered the big baby up into a heap, an extended her hand with a cordial grasp, and (text undeciferable) said, “We come from ole Virginny; an' I's beginning to get homesick to see a woman's face; an' I thank the Lord thet you've come to see me, Mis— Mis—"' and here she hesitated, blushing rosy red.

 

"Punderson," suggested Rusha, with another waving of outspread hands.

 

"O Sister Punderson, I'm so glad to see a woman's face!" said the homesick little wife, and she clutched Rusha round the neck and kissed her with fervor.

 

Then Rusha took the handkerchief off her head and smoothed back her wavy black hair, and in the kindness of her heart said: "I'm not used to being empty-handed; let me take the child and rest your little arms.

 

"What's your first name, Mis Morgan?" said Rusha, trotting the baby in a jolly way on her knees.

 

"Becky," was the reply. "An' as we're to be nigh neighbors like, I'd rather you'd call me Becky."

 

"An' you call me Rusha," was the answer.

 

And henceforth those two women called each other by their first names. In less than half an hour they knew each other's ages, how long they had been married, how many children they had, and their names, and ages, and all about their husbands, and their prospects, and how much linen they had made, and how much sugar the Pundersons had made since they came to the new country, how much wild honey they had gathered, how they tracked the bees to their hidden stores, and how many Methodists there were in the new country, and all those things that women of now-a-days would hardly tell to their sisters.

 

It was not long until Mr. Morgan came to the cabin, and his wife introduced him as "my Moses."

 

Moses sat a little while, and then said he would put Mis Punderson's critter in the stable The stable was a large stump, to which he hitched Jack. His own horse was hitched on the other side. Poles laid into forks that were driven into the ground made stalls.

 

Afterwhile they had dinner. The table was a rude, split-out piece of puncheon, fastened on heavy pins that wore driven into the log-wall. They had real tea to drink — the women had — "store tea," they called it, that came all the way from ole Virginny; and they had little "board-cake," a corn-cake mixed up with warm water and salt, and spread on a clean shingle, and baked before the fire until it was brown; then a knife was slipped under it and it was slid off the shingle and turned over and baked on the other side. When baked quickly, this is a delicious corn-cake. Then they had stewed plums, and maple sugar melted into syrup, and butter, and pickles, and dried venison, and stewed wild cherries.

 

Rusha did not quite like the new neighbor, Moses; he had "read right smart," he informed her, and he behaved as though he thought he was superior to the common folks in the new country. Rusha may have been mistaken, but this was her first impression of the new neighbor from ole Virginny. After dinner, Rusha made Becky sit down and rest, and let her wash the dishes. Then she slyly slipped a little parcel out of her pocket and tossed it into the lap of her new-found friend, saying: "Don't amount to much, but it shows good will an' good fellowship."

 

It was a yard of home-spun linen, small check, copperas and white, and meant to make an apron.

 

Before Rusha started home in the afternoon, she had told Becky how to find the way to their cabin — because the visit was to be returned in less than a week — told her what direction to go; what thicket to avoid; where she would cross Goudy's Run; which way to turn to leave the great windfall to the left; where she would strike the route marked by the blazed trees; where she would go 'long side of the Indian trail, and when to hallo, so that she could answer her and come out to meet her.

 

Moses wrinkled up his nose, and said he'd bet a wolf's scalp that she'd get bewildered, and go round and round, and not know her own head from a ramrod; but the women looked at each other, as much as to say: "Only a man talking!"

 

Jack was led up to a stump, and Rusha mounted and started homeward through the woods.

And now I want to tell a pretty sight that Rusha saw on that wild wood ride. She told me of it herself, fifty-eight years after it happened.

 

She said: "I'll never forgit the fust time I saw yer Uncle John an' yer Aunt Betsey. I was on my way home from my fust visit to Becky Morgan's, an' I stopt ole Jack while I'd watch a singularly beautiful bird that had 'lighted on a low sarviceberry limb. It flirted this way an' that, an' it glittered till it e'enamost hurt my eyes. It was the brightest o' green, an' black, an' red; all glossy, an' sparklin', an' shinin'. Well, while I's bendin' so's to keteh a good view o' the glowin' bird, I heard the sweetest kind o' singin'. At first I was terrified, an' thought it was the angels o' Heaven away in that solum place; but it cum nigher an' nigher, an' I begun to hear a russlin' an' a husslin' o' the de'd leaves, and the singin' closter and closter, an' I kep' Jack still in behint some tangled shrubbery, an' purty soon they cum in sight. There must 'a' been fifteen or twenty of 'em — the Methodys oomin' home from a camp meetin' that had jus' broke up that day. The path was narrer, and they hed to go it single file, two on one horse. Yer Uncle John an' Aunt Betsey rode before; they were young then, had been married about a year or so, an' they were both so handsome. She rode behind him, an' was in her bare head; her hair was a light bright brown, and was in curls. Oh, but she was pretty! Indeed, they all looked so beautiful, an' they were all singing in reg'lar Methody style, at the top of their voices, but yer aunt was leadin'. I remember the stirrin' old hymn well:

 

"' What is this that casts you down?
What Is this that grieves you 7
speak an' let the wust be known;
Speakln' may relieve you.'

 

"Raly, I felt mean, an' little, an' wicked, asneakin' down there quietly on Jack's neck like a pore dispondin' sinner, an' they all looked so happy and purty an' as if their faces were ann'inted with the ile o' gladness an' forgiveness. Oh, I felt as If I'd give anything to have the religion that they had; but, thank the Lord, me an' Adam had not long to wait — the hlessin' was stored away jus’ waitin" our 'ceptance. I mind when yer aunt led out with the line, Speakin' may relieve you,' I could have cried out as though I had twenty voices; My heart was full to bustin'."

 

Moses agreed to stay in the house and take care of the children the day his wife made her first visit to Rusha. She started early in the morning, and the last words her husband said were : "Now, if you get lost and bewildered and come back home, 1 won't let you try it the second time; and if you get so lost that you never find your way home, who shall I marry?"

 

She laughingly replied: "Don't marry too soon; but, Moses, if I should get lost, what will I do?"

 

He took the horse by the bridle and turned its head as though he intended leading it back to the impromptu stable, but she climbed on a stump and signified her readiness to go.

 

It was a beautiful morning, and it was the first time she had been out in the woods alone and unincumbered, and, as Moses predicted, she did become bewildered, and rode on, and on, but came not to the thicket, nor the run, nor the trail, but to a cabin, standing in a small clearing. She rode up to it to inquire where the Punderson's lived. She hailed, and a man came out; his countenance seemed familiar, but she could not tell where she had ever seen his face before. When she inquired where the Punderson's lived, he stared at her and broke into a loud laugh. She was at her own home, and the man with the strangely-familiar face was her own husband, Moses Morgan!

 

"Why, come in," he said; "dismount, you'll never find the way there; you are a great booby and not fit to go outside the house!"

 

That touched her; she struck the horse a stinging cut across the neck, and was soon out of the sight of the man who had called her a booby. She remembered the route as Rusha had told her, she kept saying it over to herself and watching the points in the-course of the four miles' journey.

 

Astonishing! she rode, and rode, and came in sight of a cabin and a clearing, and again it was her own home. She hurried away lest her husband should see her and make her give up the attempt altogether. "He called me a booby," she said, and she shut her teeth, and her eyes sparkled, and she galloped down the path that led across the trail.

 

Oh, the beauty of the dense wildwood in those early days! But Becky Morgan had no time to note the tall oaks, the monster grape vines, the beds of plushy moss, the thickets a-quiver with bird-songs or the green aisles that seemed to reach away off and terminate in vast chambers overarched with giant branches, outreaching and magnificent. Her quick eye was looking for the brook, and the thicket, and the blazed trees. At length she came to a straggling little path, and she saw blazed treesto the right and the left, but she knew not what: direction to turn. She halted, and stared around and sighed. "He called me a booby.” She said bitterly, and then she remembered that Rusha had told her to hallo, and she would reply.

 

And the ringing voice went out upon the wide forest in a long, loud "Rusha! Rusha!" She listened. Only the echoes came back to her in a mournfully prolonged "R-u-s-h-a." "He called me a booby," she thought, and again she called the name of her new neighbor. She listened, and an answer came back to her from, oh, so far away, that it seemed to come from over the sea 1 It took its rise in a wonderful pair of lungs, that long, loud " hoo-hoo!" did, and it stopped not with one answering call, it was repeated again and again, and all she had to do was to ride in the direction of the stentorian voice that rang like a bugle. Rusha and her children met her on the way. They were as glad to see her as though they were old friends. The children called her Aunt Becky, and she dismounted and let the little boys and their sister ride the rest of the way.

 

How the women did visit! How fast they talked and how fast they became acquainted.

 

The Pundersons had no clock, but Rusha could tell by the sunshine on the puncheon floor the hour of the day. If the day were cloudy then they had no time. She knew when to begin to get the dinner ready; when the sun shone in at the door and reached the fourth crack in the floor.

 

 

50 YEARS AGO OR, THE CABINS OF THE WEST

 

A series of articles that appeared

in 1875 in Arthur’s Home Magazine

© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                                     Contact at marwelmer@aol.com