Gateway to the Classics: Lincoln by Lucy Foster Madison
Lincoln by  Lucy Foster Madison


Life in the Cabin

T HROUGH the long summer days that followed Abraham waited patiently for his father to take him to see the place where he had been born. He was destined, however, never to see it. All that he ever knew of it was what he heard his father and mother tell.

Thomas Lincoln was kept busy that summer. In addition to his farm work he did occasional odd jobs of carpenter work for the other settlers, and he had recently been appointed a county road surveyor. He fished and hunted for the family's meat supply; the skins of the animals that he brought down with his gun finding a ready market in the towns. Those that were not sold added materially to the clothing of the family. After they were tanned, they were made into shirts, breeches, and moccasins. Caps were usually made from coonskins, though sometimes of opossum. Besides all this, he was much at court.

Kentucky was a State of conflicting land titles. The old Virginia surveys did not always join; they often overlapped, and later surveys found their measurements wrong. Taking advantage of this state of things large real estate operators, from other States, bought great tracts of land which frequently included the holdings of settlers who had bought under the old surveys. As a consequence, disputes over the title and ownership of farms were of common occurrence. This was the nature of a suit which had recently been brought against Thomas. There were other claimants to the Knob Creek Farm who sought to evict him from a place which he had bought and on which he paid taxes. So what with one thing and another Thomas was kept very busy that summer. It was no wonder that his promise to his small son to take him to the farm on Nolin's Creek should slip from his mind.

And Abraham, child though he was, was busy too. In a pioneer household, children were put to doing easy chores as soon as they were strong enough to perform them, no pair of hands being too small to help. So the six-year-old boy kept the wood box filled, gathered plenty of chips for the washing, soap making and trying out of fats; brought in the water, helped in weeding the garden, and in their season, picked the wild fruits and berries which grew abundantly on the surrounding bluffs—blackberries, raspberries, huckleberries, wild plums, wild grapes, persimmons, and crab apples which Nancy Lincoln dried and preserved in various ways for winter use. Later in the fall, there would be hickory-nuts, walnuts, butter-nuts, and hazel-nuts to be garnered and stored; for the settlers took advantage of these products of the land which were an essential part of the foodstuffs. Then, too, there were edible roots to be dug, and certain barks to be stripped from the tree and dried. All these were tasks for the children. Abraham frequently had Sarah to help him in the performance of them; but more often he was alone while his sister was helping his mother. In the solitude of the woods, however, he found companionship among the birds and small animals that pattered across his path, developed self-reliance, and laid the foundation of an exceptional fund of wood lore.

Sometimes his father would take him with him fishing; often he went alone. One summer afternoon, on one of these latter occasions, he fished a deep, quiet pool of the creek for a long time before his efforts were rewarded. He had caught several small fish under the supervision of his father, and this afternoon he was delighted when he pulled in a catfish of fair size. It was the first fish he had ever caught alone, and the boy could not wait to catch any more, but started on a run for the house to show it.

"There'll be enough for each one of us to have a taste," he thought gleefully. "Only I want ma to have the biggest piece. Cricky; she'll be tickled to know that I caught it all by myself."

But coming down the road he ran into a man who limped, and who wore a soldier's uniform. Abe stopped abruptly.

"I'm sorry that I bumped into you, mister," he said apologetically.

"That's all right, bub," responded the man with a smile. "I s'pect I was taking more'n my share of the road anyway."

"Where air you from?" queried the boy. He always questioned strangers, much to his father's annoyance, being curious for information concerning the places they had come from and those to which they were going.

"I come from Noo Orleens," the soldier replied. "I have been down there with Old Hickory helping to lick the British."

"And did you lick 'em?" asked the lad eagerly.

"That we did. Licked 'em to a frazzle. I reckon England's found out that when Ameriky cries 'Free Trade and Sailors' Rights,' it means something."

"What does it mean?" asked Abe.

"Why, bub, it means that this here United States of ourn can send our merchant vessels to whatever port we please, and that our ships can't be searched and our men carried off to serve on British ships. Now it's all over, and Old Hickory just p'intedly showed 'em what fighting was. 'Twas one of their crack gin'rals too that we beat; Old Gin'ral Pack'n'hum was."

"And is Old Hickory a crack gin'ral too?"

"You better believe he is. Why say; he didn't have nuthing but raw militia and them Creoles down there at Noo Orleens, and in three weeks he had 'em drilled so that they could meet them British rig'lars. Them and some Tennessee sharp shooters was all he had. Yes, sir; Andy Jackson is a crack gin'ral and no mistake."

"What makes you call him Old Hickory if his name's Andy Jackson?"

"Well, when it comes to standing anything he's always right in with the men. Puts up with everything they put up with, and beats 'em all a standing hardships. They call him Old Hickory because he's just natchully tough. And say; there can't nobody beat him at handling a rifle, or breaking in and riding a wild hoss."

"I'd like to see a man like that," mused Abe with all a boy's admiration for daring and vigor.

"Well, maybe you will some day. You're young, and Gin'ral Jackson'll be sure to be by here sometime. But I must be gittin' along. The war's over, and I want to git home. I can make several miles before sundown if I hurry, and this leg of mine holds out. Say; that's a nice fish you've got there. Tell me where you got it. Maybe I can catch one for my supper."

"I caught it in a pool down the crick a ways," answered Abe slowly for he was eyeing his fish thoughtfully. His father and mother had talked a great deal about the soldiers, and had said that they must always be good to them. P'raps, p'raps he ought to give this one his fish. But this was his first fish, and he had wanted to show it to the family. But, too, this soldier had fought and had been wounded. And if he could catch one fish he could catch others. Quickly he took the fish from the pole and handed it to the soldier.

"You can have this fish for your supper," he said. "Any way you mightn't be able to catch one. They ain't biting a bit well." Without waiting for the thanks of the man he hurried on to the cabin.

"Ma," he cried, bursting in upon Nancy as she sat at her spinning wheel. Nancy had the reputation of being the best spinner in that part of the country, and the thread she spun, and the cloth she wove were in great demand. "Ma, did you know the war was over?"

"Yes, Abe; your pa heard about it in Elizabethtown some time ago. Who you been seeing?"

"Why, I was fishing, and I caught a fish, and I was running home with it when I ran right into a soldier on the road. He told me all about it. He fought with Old Hickory at Noo Orleens and they licked the British to a frazzle."

"And what did you do with the fish, son?"

"Why, why, I gave it to him for his supper," stammered the boy. "You 'member you told us to be good to the soldiers? Did I do right?" half fearfully for his mother was regarding him with a queer expression on her face.

Nancy Lincoln smiled at him tenderly. Well she knew what it cost a small boy to give up his first fish. The one deep desire of her heart was that he should grow into a good man.

"Yes, quite right," she told him. "I am glad that you gave it to the soldier. I want you always to be kind and generous, not only to soldiers but to every one about you."

Abe drew a deep breath. If his mother approved he knew that what he had done was right. She was always right about everything. He watched her lovingly as she took up her spinning again. How good she was to him always. And how cheerful she was, though she was always working. Often she sang about her work; sometimes quaint ballads, at others, hymns. Frequently she quoted passages of Scripture, or recited one of the Psalms. Half unconsciously he would repeat the words after her. To the day of his death Abe could recite the Psalms and quote long extracts from the Bible learned thus from his mother. The summer passed, a busy one for every member of the family.

With the opening of winter Nancy insisted that the children should go to school. Tom demurred. He himself had gotten along without schooling, and he didn't see any sense in it. In fact, all the schooling he had ever had was what his wife had given him. Nancy had taught him to read so that he could spell his way through the simplest sentences of the Bible, and to write his name bunglingly. To Tom's notion it was all a waste of time. He belonged to the pioneers who had little need of books. They learned from the great book of Nature. Hardy, sturdy men were they who cleared the way for civilization, fighting with such odds as few men have met and conquered. So now Tom spoke according to his light:

"All them children need, Nancy, is to know how to work. Abe in pertic'ler don't want any larnin'. What he wants to know is how to use an axe and a plow; to larn how to hunt and to fish. Then when he gits older I'll make a carpenter outen him."

"But I want him to have some learning, Tom," protested his wife. "I want him to know something more than hard work. I want him to go ahead of us. Be something more than we have been."

"Lawsy, Nancy, you had some larnin' yourself, and what has it brung you? You have to work just as hard as the women who don't know a pot hook from a turkey track. An' you didn't marry any better than they did."

"Now, Tom, you know I wouldn't want any different man from you. You air a good husband, loving and tender; I wouldn't want any other man. But I do want that our boy, and girl too, should have something more than hard work."

"Have it your own way, Nancy," responded Tom much mollified. "But it's plumb downright foolishness and a waste of money to my way of thinkin'."

So Nancy had her desire and the boy and girl went to school. There were no free schools in Kentucky at this time. Such schools as there were, the A, B, C schools, were conducted on a subscription basis. If there were few pupils there was little to make it profitable for the teacher, and not much gain to the pupils. Men who were learned did not care to undertake teaching for the little there was in it. As a consequence, the school sessions were infrequent and not of long duration. There had been one held the winter before, by Mr. Zachariah Riney, which Abe and Sarah attended. It had lasted but a few weeks. The present one was to be conducted by Mr. Caleb Hazel.

The children started off the first day without demur. They were accustomed to yielding obedience without question; but Abe voiced a secret reluctance to his sister as they walked two miles up the road to the schoolhouse.

"I won't mind going to school a bit, Sally," he said, "if the new teacher don't teach with a birch in his hand, like old Zach Riney did. Bless'd if he didn't go round a tappin' us with that switch all the time."

"All you've got to do, Abe, is to study as loud as you can," replied his sister. "How can teacher know whether you air studying or not if he can't hear you? And you shouldn't say 'Old Zach Riney.' You should say Mister Riney."

"All the boys say it," answered Abe. "An' I'll study as loud as if I was helpin' pa call the hogs, if it will save a lickin'."

The schoolhouse was a little log room about fifteen feet square, with a fireplace on one side. The floor was of dirt, pounded down. There were no windows, and but one door. The children were required to study out loud, for only in this way could the teacher know that they were getting their lessons. It was a method by which the children were at least kept busy. To small Abe's consternation Mr. Hazel was provided with a hickory stick with which he moved about among the pupils administering frequent punishment to those pupils who did not study loud enough for him to know that they were studious. "Lickin' and larnin'" were synonymous in the minds of the teachers of the day. The habits of studying aloud acquired by Abe in these "Blab schools," as they were called, remained with him all his life. He read aloud and couldn't read otherwise. The books were very few; Dillworth's Speller being the principal one in use. In spite of this fact, both Abe and Sarah learned to read, to write their names, and to make numbers.

There were few settlers, and not all the children of the neighborhood attended school. Consequently it lasted but a short time. But among her other duties Nancy Lincoln found time to hear their lessons so that they should not forget what they had learned; using her one book—the Bible—as a textbook. And Nancy had many duties. She carded, spun and wove the wool from the sheep, when Thomas Lincoln had any; dressed the skins of the animals brought down by his rifle; made his clothing, her own, and the children's; cooked, washed, ironed, and milked the cows. But always when the day's work was done she gathered the family around her and read from the Bible: stories of Abraham, Moses, and David and the Christ Child.

Often travellers stopped for the night, for the Louisville and Nashville Pike had much travel, and there would follow an evening of talk and stories. Abe liked such evenings. Crouched down in the "flue," or leaning against his father's knee, he would listen attentively, often asking questions. There would be the discussion of public affairs, for frequently there were politicians passing. A wide range of topics was discussed before the wide-awake boy who pondered and puzzled over what he heard. Some part of it all took root in his subconsciousness, and lay smouldering.

Meantime, Abe passed his seventh birthday. In the following spring his father took him with him into the fields to help with the planting. He learned the art of corn-dropping, and was instructed to remember to drop two pumpkin seeds into every other hill of corn. The main crop was corn, but Thomas planted also some beans, a few potatoes, and some onions.

But amid all the planting and work Tom Lincoln was uneasy. Despite the fact that his claim to the farm had been sustained by the Court, he was not sure what the final outcome would be. The settlers were many of them uncertain as to their titles, and there was much talk concerning the state of things. Even Daniel Boone, who had led the vanguard of civilization into the Kentucky wilderness, had been bereft of his lands, and had not one acre left to his name. What had happened to him was happening to other settlers also. There was no guarantee that it might not happen to Tom as well. So he was silent and distraught, brooding over the matter.

The climax came one Sunday morning in the spring. As has been said, the farm consisted of three fields, the largest of which contained seven acres. On Saturday afternoon Thomas had finished planting the corn in the big field while Abe dropped the pumpkin seed, two seeds every other hill and every other row.

"Thar now, Abe," Thomas remarked with satisfaction, "I reckon we can enjoy our Sunday's rest with a clear conscience. Thar's only the two small fields left to plant, and then our work will be over for a spell."

"Yes, sir," answered Abe. His muscles ached, and his body was full of mortal weariness; but he was seven years old, and therefore too big to complain.

Both father and son went to bed with a sense of work well done. In the morning they woke to find that a big rain was falling in the hills. It did not rain a drop in the valley, but the water came down in torrents through the gorges, and spread over the farm, washing ground, corn, pumpkin seed and all off the field.

Thomas watched the flood in its work of ruin in silence. Nancy came, and laid her hand tenderly on his shoulder.

"Never mind, Tom," she said. "There will be some way provided to make up the loss. And the other fields are left."

"The way is provided," exclaimed Thomas, bringing his right fist down into the palm of his left hand emphatically. "This here settles the matter! I'm goin' to move to Indianny."

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