50 YEARS AGO OR, THE CABINS OF THE WEST

 

A series of articles that appeared

in 1875 in Arthur’s Home Magazine

No. 8… A Sing’lar Girl

 

We reached the top of the hill and paused to take breath, Aunt Cook and I. Indeed, I always did stop there, whether I wanted to rest or not, for the view from that point was one of the finest in the State. How often I have stood there, and, with fluttering heart and panting breath, said, in my childhood, and girlhood, and womanhood: "Thank God for the beauty of this earth."

 

"I never stand here without thinking of poor Esther Caldwell," said Aunt Cook, " and that takes away a good deal of the pleasure. She used to say that whenever she was tired, or discouraged, or perplexed, she dropped everything and came right up here and laid down her burdens and went back to her loom a free woman. There, down in the ravine where you see that old gnarled apple tree, half out of the ground, that was her cabin home. You can see a hollow yet where the rude little cellar was, and that hummock, with the smooth, green sod spread over it so compact, that is where the old chimney was and the hearthstones."

 

There was no need of Aunt Cook telling me this, I knew it all, and more, too, but I listened to her out of respect. I had only "gone a piece" with her, to help carry the basket, and had intended going no further; so when she rose and shook the wrinkles out of her dress and said, "Well, this will never buy the child a frock," I knew it was time for me to start, too, on my return home.

But after the old lady had gone down the hill, out of sight, I said to myself: "Oh, I must run down there a minute and see where poor, dear Esther lived and died!"

 

Old Mortality loved to visit neglected graveyards, and scratch the mosses and lichens from dilapidated tombstones and with his chisel renew the dim, old inscriptions, so faded and blurred that often he trusted more to the sense of feeling than seeing, but he loved his self-appointed calling with no more enthusiasm than do I to visit the sites of the cabins of the old pioneers.

Perhaps the passion grew upon me when I was a morbid, sentimental, dreaming little girl, sitting upon old hearth-stones, and sniffing among smoky log walls, and peering under the mouldering sleepers on which had laid puncheon floors, picking up bits of dishes and coaxing elderly people to tell stories of old times.

 

Among all the old uncles and aunties, there wasn't one who ever said: "Oh, go 'long, child;" or, "I'm no hand to tell stories." Old folks like to talk about " the good old days," and they were pleased to relate reminiscences to "Aleck's gal," and to carry her away back into the lives of those who had gone before, and to see her little face shine with laughter or sadden with sympathy.

Hadn't Aunt Polly, and Aunt Patty, and Aunt Prissy, and Ruth Cunningham told me the life story of Esther Caldwell over and over, each in her own language, differing, perhaps, as much as the four Gospels differ? And hadn't I sat close up to the wheel when Aby Mitchell was spinning flax and coaxed her to tell the tale in her way? There was no occasion for Aunt Cook to put her hands on her sides and stick her arms up a-kimbo and say: "Esther seemed born for trouble, the seal was upon her."

 

Esther Leonard was the third daughter of a poor couple who entered land and built a cabin in the unbroken wilderness, the same cabin whose site I stood upon that day. It was built down at the foot of the hills for the sake of the spring that bubbled up among some jagged rocks. The father was a shoemaker, and the mother wove, and they eked out a tolerable living. The two girls older than Esther were stout little romps with red hair and red cheeks while Esther was fair, and fine, and delicate, with soft, dreamy, blue eyes and flaxen hair. While the older girls were climbing saplings and bonding them down for horses, making dams across the brook with sticks and stones and sod, and helping father burn brush, the little Esther was sitting off alone listening to the song of the dove, mocking the robin, watching the squirrels among the tree-tops, or the kingfisher in the gravelly bank of the creek, or exulting over the plumage of the beautiful birds of the forest. She knew where the beds of moss were the greenest and plushiest, how the hanging-birds made their nests, and why they swung them like hammocks from the swaying branches of the elm or the willow; and she could find places in the wild-wood where her voice came back to her in jubilant echo when she laughed, while the little minnows in the brook, scarcely larger than tiny scales of silver, would come to the bank and stop suddenly, as if listening, when she called and fed them.

 

"Sing'lar child, that," said the class-leader, when he called to leave an appointment for an itinerant preacher, and overheard Esther in the loft singing the little songs-that she made up out of her own vivid imagination.

 

"Cur'us how children will contrive things," he added, "now there's my Sacharissa, she will make babies out of squashes, and if they don't behave, they ketch it. I've knowed her to chop up a half dozen at a time an' kick 'em all over the floor," and here the weak father laughed at what should have shocked and shamed him and set him to work trying to overcome such a frightful evidence, of ill nature and destructiveness in a child.

 

The little one grew up to the age of seventeen, her nature not comprehended nor understood by any one except her mother. She found no companions among the girls with whom she associated, she saw nothing as they saw it, what was pleasure to them was intolerable to her, she shrank from them and preferred rather to be alone with her books or with the rocks and woods and the beautiful and silent works of nature. There she found sweet companionship, she never grew weary of the solitude that to many others would have been utter loneliness.

 

But afterwhile the strange, shy girl, Esther, loved and was beloved in return. The favored suitor was a lad she had known from her childhood, a poor bound boy, who lived with Farmer Hawkins. He was a quiet, pious, gentle-hearted boy, one who loved to read books, and commit poems, and transplant flowers. He was the only man Esther could possibly have loved. He was poor, but he was brave, and honest, and willing to work.

 

As soon as he was of age, and the Hawkins had given him his freedom suit, and a horse and saddle and bridle, they were to be married, and live on a bit of land on the other side of the creek. Old Mrs. Hawkins was spinning and weaving the cloth for the freedom suit; the coat was to be all wool, and dyed brown with butternut bark, while the pantaloons and vest were to be dark yellow. There were no woollen-factories or fulling-mills in those days, and people fulled the cloth themselves by wetting it with strong soapsuds, and then kicking and tramping it until the cloth thickened up and was firm, and woolly, and warm.

They were married at the home of the justice, ten miles away. They both dressed up in their best, and mounted one horse, and rode there and back the same day.*

 

How that young couple did manage and contrive to make a living! The young husband, George, grubbed, and dug, and cleared a patch for corn and potatoes, while his evenings were spent in making ax-handles, and splint-brooms, and rude baskets. His spare moments he worked about the cabin making a porch, a spring-house, a shelter for the cow, rude lattice for the morning glory vines, a hill-side cave, a corn-crib, and a safe little box of a house for the chickens. Ho also made traps to catch foxes, and pens in which to ensnare the wandering turkeys that roamed through the free, wild wood.

 

And Esther? In a cozy little lean-to stood a loom and a wheel, and all the necessary equipments of a woman who took in weaving. They had a straw bed, and a buckeye clock, and a pot, and spider, and a few dishes. The furniture was all of their own making. A bank of blue clay below the cabin furnished a very economical wash of a bluish tint for the inside walls of the one room. Flags and wild lilies, and blue, white and yellow violets, were carefully transferred into the yard, while a thrifty sweet-brier was planted at one side of the house, and a tingled wild rose at the other. Willows were removed, and found a pretty situation along the brook that curveted down the hillside, and then spread itself into a picturesque little lake under the shadows of the trees and grape-vines.

 

They had no good spring; that was all the fault the new home had; but when his work was not pressing, by the assistance of a neighbor George dug a well at the corner of the cabin, and attached a sweep to the porch, or " stoop" as they called it, and then the last convenience was added.

 

Only one terror was there to rise up in the path before the sturdy pioneer. Every year he had to pay the sum of nineteen dollars and twenty cents interest on the purchase-money. They had been married a year, and had lived comfortably, without the need of money; but now this sum must be forthcoming, or his land would be endangered. At last he thought of a way: "I can burn a coalpit, and sell the charcoal to the blacksmiths; that will help."

 

I wish I could " talk like a man," and tell you how a coal-kiln is made of split wood four feet long, set on end, tier above tier, with all the crevices filled in with loam, stamped down, rounded over, closely covered with a thick layer of earth, a hole left in the centre for a chimney, and a place to fire the compact heap; but father says: "Oh, don't try it! Women don't know about such things."

 

Then I say: "But, papa, the girls won't understand, and I want them to know just how it is."

 

"Never fear," is his reply, "there are enough old men left to tell them; they can ask their grandfathers or their Uncle Johns; don't you try it, or the old fellows will laugh at your attempt."

 

Well, the coal-kiln was made and fired, and the sanguine pair saw the interest-money in the distance, a sure thing. The kiln was made in the dense woods on a beautiful level spot, and Esther often went out to it with George, and while he added new loam on places over it, walked round and surveyed his work, calculated how many bushels there would be, and how much it would bring him, Esther sat on a mossy log near by with her sewing or knitting.

One evening they were out in the twilight: the work was progressing finely, they were both cheerful and full of hope for the future.

 

"It must be lonely when you are here so much of the night," she said; "the owls hoot mournfully, and cry of the loon is so sad, and the barking of a fox always makes mo shudder, while the cry of the wild eat is really frightful."

 

"Oh, I like the noises of the night," he said. "Sometimes birds will come whirring over my head, and I am startled, but not afraid. I don't quite like the looks of that," he added, jumping up; "it don't burn to suit me; maybe I can tramp it down;" and he walked up upon the smoking heap and stamped his feet down firmly to press the covering of earth closer, when, with a shriek of agonizing despair, he went down into the grave of fire, and disappeared forever! A column of flame shot up instantly and marked his burial place.

 

Just at that instant Esther's father came out of the woods in time to save his frantic child from a funeral pyre. It was his intention to watch the kiln that night. The roaring fire-fiend never glared into faces more frightfully pallid.

 

The kiln was never finished; it was suffered to remain there, a spot as sacred as a tomb.

 

Esther was taken home again. For months she wandered about aimlessly, tearlessly, sitting in the woods or out in the clearing, with silent voice and folded hands. When her little baby was born she rallied, and seemed herself, and talked and laughed; but a shadow was over her life. Alas for the child! There was no light in its dead blue eyes, its little rosy mouth never opened with laughter, it would lie all day gazing into vacancy. Its face was deathly white, and it would slowly shake its head, moving it from one side to the other, in the hopeless way that a mourner does.

 

All this was very sad. The neighbors said, "What a comfort poor Esther might have had in a sound baby," and then they said, "but the poor thing was born for trouble."

 

Afterwhile, Esther grew to be like herself again, and the neighbors proposed that she would teach school, gather their little ones into her own house and organize a district school. She did so, and gave satisfaction, and for two years she taught two terms each year.

 

The little baby, now past three years of age, could walk, and it frequently went in the little path from one house to the other. It would wander along aimlessly, often sitting down with folded hands, or stopping to gather sticks, or flowers, or leaves. It could not talk, but it called the names of the family in its own little way, and they understood it. Though a  blight was upon its life, it was a comfort and a joy.

 

One evening, when Esther went home, she did not see the child as usual in his little chair, but she supposed he was with some of the members of the family. When the sister came in from the spring-house, the babe was not with her, and when her father came from his work he came alone. Then there was consternation. They called his name, they looked everywhere, supposing he had fallen asleep under some shelter or in some secret place, but the sight of the little golden head did not meet their gaze from any nook or corner.

 

The father hurried down to Esther's house, and called the sweet pet name, but he called in vain. He looked about wherever he thought a child could hide, and then, just as he had made up his mind that he had looked in every possible place, he bethought him of the well at the corner of the house. The old well had not been used since the death of Esther's husband; George had drawn the last bucket of water, his hand had swung the creaking sweep the last time. Breathlessly did he hurry to the well; one of the two boards that covered it was gone; the drops of sweat stood on his forehead as he knelt beside the remains of a curb, and with a stifled groan bent over and looked down into its gloomy darkness.

 

Staring, stony eyes, wide open, and an upturned face with the golden hair floating on the water, and two dear, little, snow-white hands upreached pleadingly, that was what the may stone walls framed in.

 

Two years later, and again is the shadow lifted, and Esther, bearing her burden, looks up and smijes into the face of a dark-eyed man whose white brow is half shaded with curls. Six months before and she had never heard his name. He was a stranger in the neighborhood, but he produced letters of introduction and recommendation, and his genial manners had won for him friends among the best families. He was a distant connection of the family for whom Esther was sewing, and it was through their influence that the betrothal was consummated.

 

Esther's family disapproved of the proposed marriage, and were angry and forbade her coming home, unless she broke off the acquaintance and retracted her plighted troth with Reed Harrington.

 

But the woman with the bruised heart and the blighted life softened under the sweet words and the loving promises of the kingly appearing man before her, and with tears she said: "Wherever thou goest I will go."

 

Her father said that the man's countenance was full of evil and his heart black and bitter with wrongs, and he believed the deeds of his past life could not bear the light of day or the scrutiny of justice.

 

They were married, and, despite of the displeasure and utter disapproval of her parents, Esther was happy once more. She did not go home. Her husband had business in many of the large towns and was absent a great deal, and Esther stayed with his relatives and sewed and did light work.

 

When her husband returned, he frequently brought gifts to her such as her eyes had never looked upon. Sheeny silks and lustrous fabrics, and jewelry, that to the timid country girl, reared in the woods, sparkled with a splendor such as she had read of in poetry or dreamed in her most vivid imaginings.

 

Reed Harrington talked of a home in the city, and, as he slid his shapely hand over her fair, flossy hair, he told how easy her life should be, how servants should come at her bidding, and that an elegant carriage should await her pleasure, and how proud he would be of his beautiful wife, who would so well compare with the cultivated ladies with whom she would associate. He said he would take delight in surrounding her with all the pleasures and comforts of life.

 

One night, at the silent hour of midnight, when her husband lay asleep by her side, from some cause she was sleepless, and lying there with eyes closed trying to woo the sweet forgetfulness of slumber, she thought she heard a noise of low voices down-stairs, voices not belonging to any member of the family.

 

She listened. Her sense of hearing was quickened. One voice, hoarser than the rest, seemed to speak peremptorily, seemed to command, to give orders. There was a rustling, a soft fall of feet, here and there, both indoor and out, the stairway creaked, the stealthy feet drew near, and, in a hollow voice, she distinctly heard the proprietor of the house say: "He's in there."

 

Instantly four men, in black masks, entered the bed-room, and, glancing around, two of them sprang to the bedside and caught her sleeping husband. He awoke, and a frantic struggle ensued, but one man, with a muttered oath, seized him by the throat while the others pinioned him. Amid curses, and groans, and cries, and wicked threats, he was put in irons and borne down-stairs, where the men were met by twenty others similarly disguised.

 

"Hang him to the nearest tree!" "Shoot him!" "Let him be a feast for the buzzards!" were the sounds that reached the agonizing wife, and then she fainted and heard no more.

 

Reed Harrington! He was Jack Gardiner, the outlaw, a burglar, and thief, and counterfeiter! He was the leader in a gang who made and circulated counterfeit money; was the leader among horse thieves, and in the gang who broke into and robbed stores; he was the chief one to plan, and manage, and carry out the most intricate system of robbery and plunder. He had married, and four wives bore the name he had given them. He had been in prison thrice, and had escaped; but this time not the clutches of the law held him — society, outraged, and insulted, and indignant, wreaked her vengeance upon him. He was taken about five miles away, allowed ten minutes to make his peace with God, and then, with howls of rage and vile imprecations, mingled with pleadings that were pitiful beyond expression, he was drawn up by the neck ten feet into the air, and left alone, a frightful curse dangling from the outreaching limb of a tree in the green heart of the unbroken Western forest.

 

Esther never recovered from the shock. Her nervous system was broken, and she was left a shattered wreck. The farm that George Caldwell had entered was forfeited five years afterward, and then Esther's loom was moved home to her father's, and she busied herself in a feeble way, that was better than doing nothing.

 

A rosy, roguish girl looks over my shoulder occasionally, and she says: "Don't forget to tell what became of her beautiful silks and jewelry. I hope she had them made up in a becoming way; I'm sure I would have done so."

 

My own heart is heavy with sorrow while I am following poor Esther Caldwell's life from her ill-starred childhood up through her womanhood with the ban upon it, and I am hurt with the levity of gay, thoughtless girlhood, as I reply: "What to her, the broken-hearted, blighted woman, were silks and jewelry?"

 

Everything that Reed Harrington had stolen or secreted was gathered up and restored to its rightful owner. Years afterward another member of the gang of outlaws was captured in the West, and he was stripped, and his body bound flat upon the back in a canoe, and it was set adrift in the middle of the Mississippi River.

 

Esther lived with her mother until the kind old lady died, then she lived alone. She rarely smiled, she lived as if in a dream, and she would sit for hours on the hill-top above the old vine-covered cabin, and look away to the blue hills in the distance, and she would grow peaceful, and calm, and content. Perhaps she thought It was like unto the better land, and the beauty inspired and entranced her, and made her saddened spirit full of patience and hope.

 

When death came, it found her ready and waiting, and she smiled, and folded her transparent little hands, and closed her blue eyes, and the watchers knew not the moment the spirit took its upward flight.

 

I never passed the old well in which the dear little baby was drowned without pausing. It was filled up quite level with the ground, and an elm tree grew out of it, and its swaying branches trembled like an aspen. Last spring the tree toppled and fell, and the woodman's ax removed it, and now no trace is left. A green meadow covers all, so tenderly does Mother Nature heal all wounds.

 

And this is the life-record of one dear woman, poor Esther Caldwell.

© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                                     Contact at marwelmer@aol.com