A Narrow Escape
"Yes, Nancy." Thomas Lincoln took his pipe out of his mouth, and straightening up from the big persimmon tree against which he had been lounging, turned toward the woman who stood in the cabin door. "Was you a‑wantin' anything?"
"I'm oneasy about them boys, Tom," replied Nancy Hanks Lincoln, shading her eyes with her hands and gazing across the valley to the forest beyond, anxiety plainly stamped upon her dark, sad features.
She was a sweet-faced, brown-haired woman, a little above middle height. There were shadows around her hazel eyes, and though she was but thirty-three years of age veins of silver were already shining in her brown hair. Her appearance was that of a woman who had known tragedy, but whom tragedy had only made sweeter. Her voice had the soft burr of her native Virginia, and there was a natural grace about her movements.
"They have been gone since dinner," she went on, "and it's nigh five o'clock now. Both Mrs. Gollaher and me air that oneasy we don't know what to do. Besides, Mrs. Gollaher says it's high time she and Austin was starting for home."
"Shucks! the sun's high yit. There's plenty of time for her to git home, and she'd better make up her mind to stay for supper. Them boys air all right."
And Thomas settled back lazily against the tree. He was a tall man, broad-shouldered, powerfully built, and somewhat rough looking; but he was good, honest, true, and kind; full of the love of fields and woods. A man of peaceable and inoffensive temper, but who, when roused, would turn on the offender with dire consequences. Now, as Nancy continued to voice her uneasiness, he rose, and grumbling at the fancies of women, strolled off into the forest in search of the belated boys.
The cabin stood under some spreading trees on a knoll, in a beautiful green valley which ran back between high limestone bluffs, heavily wooded. It was a wide valley, in the middle of which was a stream of clear water running over stones to the Salt River, and thence on to the great river beyond—the Ohio.
The house was built of logs, cut from the timbers near by, and chinked with mud. A rough chimney was reared outside, and the fireplace was as long as Thomas Lincoln was tall. The farm was situated in the forks at Knob Creek, as the stream was called, and only three fields were cultivated. Thomas Lincoln made no attempt to till the hillslopes, the three fields affording him sufficient labor. But when the woods abound in game, and a man can largely support himself and family by his gun he is not apt to be much of a husbandman. He and his kind are the advance guard of civilization, not tillers of the soil nor lovers of close communities.
The highway from Louisville to Nashville ran in front of the door—the "most important turnpike in that part of the world, and one freely travelled." In spite of this fact, the cabin and its surroundings were primitive and in the backwoods; but then the whole State of Kentucky, in this June of 1815, was primitive and in the backwoods. It was just beginning to work into the long toilsome path towards civilization.
Meantime, there had been good cause for the uneasiness of the women concerning their sons. It was a pioneer custom among the settlers on Knob Creek to visit each other on Sunday when there was no church. So, in neighborly fashion, Mrs. Gollaher and her son had come over to spend the day at the Lincoln cabin. The two lads—Austin Gollaher and Abraham Lincoln, Thomas and Nancy Lincoln's son—were close friends, and had gone off by themselves directly after the midday meal; the dinner of fried wild turkey poults, poke greens, and corn pone putting them in condition for any boyish prank.
"Where'll we go, Abe?" asked Austin who was the older, when they had scampered out of sight of the house.
"Up the crick, Austin," replied Abraham Lincoln. "There's more fun up there; and we haven't been near it today."
At once they struck off up the valley by the side of the stream, and into the forest. There was a great contrast in the appearance of the two boys. They were respectively eight and six years of age; but Austin, the older one, was smaller and more compactly built than Abraham who, though two years his junior, might easily have been taken for three years older. He was shy, overgrown, consciously awkward, homely and ill-clad. He grew so rapidly that his mother complained that it was impossible to make his clothes fit. The growth that had come to him so fast was indicated not only by his size, but by the queer thoughtful expression of his strongly marked features. His sunburned face was full of good humor and fun, yet it was tinged with melancholy strange in one so young. An odd-looking lad, he would have been called, but there was something about him that caught and held the attention.
The boys ran on for a time without stopping, rolled over and over in the grass, and shouted their joy as loudly as they wished, for there was none to forbid. They dug out woodchucks, explored the deep cane brakes and chased muskrats. It was June, and it was glorious to have the afternoon to themselves. The birds sang in every tree, and bush, and field. There sounded the song of the cheery blackbird, the whistle of the thrush, and the passionate notes of the wood doves. There were neither sights nor sounds save Nature's own. Suddenly the whir of a partridge as she left her brood brought the urchins to an abrupt standstill. Abraham turned to his companion, and pointing to the east side of the creek, said:
"Right up there we saw a covey of partridges yesterday. Let's cross over, and see if they are there still."
"All right," assented the other. "But how'll we git across? The crick's too high to jump over it."
There had been a heavy rain the night before, and the waters of Knob Creek were swollen and turbulent. There was no place to cross in that vicinity so the boys followed the eddying current for a time until at length they came to a spot where the stream narrowed and a footlog stretched from bank to bank. Abraham eyed it critically.
"We can coon over that," he announced. "I'll go first, Austin."
"No, let me," protested Austin. "I'm older, you know."
There was some parleying about who should cross first, but eventually Abraham yielded to the claims of his guest, and without more ado Austin grasped hold of the log, and "cooned" over. It was slippery and narrow, and there was grave danger of falling, if one lost one's head. But when did such facts ever deter a lad from following his natural bent for daring? Austin having reached the other side in safety, Abraham, as a matter of course, straddled the pole, and essayed to follow him. But he had not reckoned on his weight and length. Half way across the log began to wobble. He was heavier than Austin, and his long legs could not grasp the sides of the log easily. In fact, he could not manage them at all. He knew that he was on the point of falling, and began to tremble. Austin saw him pause, realized that he was scared, and shouted:
"Don't look up, nor down, nor sideways, Abe. Look right at me, and hold on tight."
Abe tried to obey but his head was dizzy from the turmoil of the stream beneath him; so, despite the fact that he did his best, his glance wandered to the banks overhung with sycamores and elms, and along the slopes where heavy fringes of willow dipped into the current. Suddenly he lost his balance, and toppled head first into the water. It was about seven or eight feet deep at this place, but it seemed to the frightened boy that he was sinking into a bottomless abyss.
As is the case with all tyros an unreasoning panic seized him as he sank. He gasped for breath, and his lungs filled with water. Terror-stricken he struggled, striking out desperately with his long arms and legs. Grabbing wildly with both hands as he rose, he touched something; something firm, solid, reassuring. He clutched it; clung to it with convulsive strength, and felt himself being pulled through the water.
The next he knew Austin was rolling him on the ground, shaking and pummeling him vigorously. Abe endured it until he could stand no more of it. By a mighty effort he flung him off, and demanded:
"Say, what air ye trying to do to me?"
"I'm a tryin' to git the water outen ye," Austin explained with a last emphatic punch. "Air ye all right, Abe? You'd better lay still fer a spell."
"Did I drown, Austin?" asked Abe, sinking back weakly on the ground.
"Well, I reckon not. You don't look it," his friend reassured him. "Though you did come mighty nigh to it. I thought you was a goner sure though when I stuck the pole out to you. Golly! but you did cling to it. Air ye sure you air all right. Abe?"
"Yes; I'm all right." Abe demonstrated his rightness by sitting up. "But I'm wondering what my mother'll say. You know she told me to be keerful about the crick." He gazed at the stream with a troubled look.
"I know she did," answered Austin dolefully. "I reckon, Abe, we'd best not say anything about this here. Mothers air funny. They both of 'em, yourn and mine, will love us to death 'cause we air all right and didn't git drownded; then they'll give us a whale of a lickin' for lettin' you fall in."
"Do you reckon?" queried young Lincoln fearfully.
"I know it," replied Austin with the conviction born of experience.
"Then what'll we do? Our clothes air all wet."
"Pooh! that's easy," answered the older lad. "We'll strip and hang our clothes up to dry. Air you sure you air all right?"
"Fit as a fiddle, Austin."
So promising each other never to tell anybody anything about the matter the two youngsters rapidly undressed, and spread their wet clothes about on the grass in the June sunshine. After they had played about a little Austin turned to Abraham.
"Say, Abe, I've hearn tell that 'twus an easy death to drown. How did it feel when you was goin' down?"
"I reckon it'd be all right oncet a feller was full of water," answered Abraham reflectively. "It didn't seem easy to me though. I never was so scared in my life. Cricky! I'm glad that I wasn't drowned right here where I was born!"
"You wasn't born here," contradicted Austin hastily. "I don't know where you was born, but it wasn't here. Why, I remember when you folks moved here and it wasn't more'n two or three years ago. Don't you remember ever livin' at any other place than this?"
"No; I don't remember ever having lived anywhere but on this farm. But I'll ask my mother about it."
"Oh, well, you're only six," said Austin with the
superiority that his eight years gave him.
The sun was purpling towards the west when at length the boys dressed, and started for the cabin. They had passed the fields where over against the dark green of the forest the bright green of the Indian corn rippled in the wind when they met Nancy Lincoln coming to look for them.
"Where have you been all this time?" she cried. "I have been oneasy for fear something had happened. You should not have stayed so long, Abe. Your pa is hunting for you now."
Her tones were chiding, but there was a smile in her eyes as they rested on her son. He had always been closer to her than the little daughter who was his elder. Without waiting for an answer she added: "Austin's mother is 'most ready to go."
"Oh, Mis. Lincoln, she ain't a goin' before supper, is she?" exclaimed Austin in such lugubrious tones that Nancy laughed.
"No, Austin. And there's a big Indian pudding with maple sugar for supper too. It's just waiting to be eaten. There comes Tom now. They're here, Tom," she called as Thomas Lincoln came from the woods towards them.
"It's high time you was a showin' up, you young scalawags," exclaimed Thomas in mock anger pointing an imaginary gun at them. "What do you mean by makin' a man chase all over the woods fer ye on his day of rest? I told you they'd turn up all right, Nancy," he added, turning towards his wife. "They air used to the woods, and ain't apt to come to harm. But come in, and let's have supper. Get in, you rascals!" And squealing with delight the lads scampered into the cabin.
It consisted of but one room, the floor of which was not laid, but was of dirt, pounded down. There was no glass in the window, the opening was covered with greased paper instead; and there was but one door. The furniture was home-made, save for a loom and a spinning wheel. Thomas Lincoln was a carpenter by trade, though he was a better hunter than either farmer or carpenter. This was evidenced by the skins which were everywhere about the room. They were on the walls, on the bed for covering, and on the two shakedowns where the children slept. There was a crane in the huge fireplace, and a bake kettle; and over it great buckhorns held Tom's rifle when it was not in use. On other horns hung gourds for drinking cups, bags of seed, and clothing. Along one side of the room was a table made from a huge hewn log standing on four legs. Sarah, Abraham's sister, was setting crockery and pewter upon it as Nancy, Tom, and the two lads entered.
"Me and Mis. Gollaher was a goin' to eat up all the supper if you hadn't come soon; wasn't we, Mis. Gollaher?" she cried teasingly, shaking her finger at the boys. She was two years older than Abraham, and looked very much like him with the difference that whereas Abraham had no claim to good looks the sister was with justice termed a pretty girl.
"That we were," agreed Austin's mother.
"Well now that we air all here s'posin' we set up?" suggested Thomas. "I for one am right down hungry."
The meal was disposed of at length, Austin and his mother had gone home, the supper work was out of the way, and the family sat down outside the door to talk over the events of the day.
"Ma," spoke Abraham abruptly, "Austin says that I wasn't born here. Was I?"
"Austin's right," spoke Thomas Lincoln before his wife could reply; "though it beats me how the boy know'd. You was born on the South Fork of Nolin's Creek, two mile and a half south of Hodgen's Mills. It air twelve mile across Muldraugh's Hill from here."
"Was it like this place, pa?"
"The house was about the same as this one; no better, no wuss; but there was a fine spring of water comin' outen a cleft in a rock with trees all around it. It was a sort of purty like. 'Twas called Rock Spring Farm on account of the spring. Thar, on a Sunday, the twelfth day of February, 1809, you was born."
"I should like to see it," remarked the boy wistfully.
"Well you shall, sometime, sonny. Some day when I go to Hodgen's Mills I'll take you along, and we'll ride out to the old place."
"Thank you, pa," said Abraham gratefully. "What made us move from there?"
"Well, it was a mighty discouragin' piece of land to farm, Abe; this here farm's a better improvement than that was. Then too there was trouble over the title. This here title business is a causin' a lot of movin' among us settlers," he concluded moodily. He was even then in difficulties over the title to the Knob Creek place.
"And you were a big baby too, Abe," broke in Nancy's soft voice. She spoke briskly in order to take her husband's mind off his troubles. "You was so large for your age that people all around came to see you. Remember what the old stage driver said when he was a month old, Tom?"
"He said," chuckled Tom,
"I shall not be hung," announced the small boy with decision.
"I hope not, my son." Nancy laid her hand caressingly on his head, then uttered an exclamation. "What makes your hair so damp, Abe? Why! it's just as though it had been wet."
The lad hung his head. He had not thought of his hair which was thick and heavy. There had not been time for it to dry thoroughly.
"Most likely they was in the crick," observed Tom dryly. "Was you, Abe?"
But Nancy had him in a close embrace. "Oh," she breathed, "if you had been drowned!"
"Now, now, Nancy," remonstrated her husband. "The boy's not hurt. Don't take on so. He's none the wuss for the experience. Maybe it'll teach him not to go nigh the crick when it's high. Tell us about it, sonny."
Abraham related the happening in full, even to the part where the two boys had made up their minds not to tell of the matter. Nancy held him tightly in her arms as he told the story.
"As though I would whip you for that," she said when he had finished the tale.
"Come here, sonny, an' I'll tell you about how nigh I come to bein' killed when I was your age," said his father. "Let's see, you're six; ain't you?"
"Yes, sir." Abraham went to Thomas who picked him up, set him on his knee, and began to stroke his dark head. Sarah left her seat on the doorlog, and crouched at his feet, slipping her hand into her brother's as she did so.
"Well it happened nigh to Bear Grass Fort not far from whar Louisville now stands. Father had come from Rockingham County, Virginny, with mother and us five children—three boys and two gals—long back in 1782, to settle thar. You see Dan'l Boone had gone into Kaintuck, and had come back with sech tales of how rich the land was, an' that the woods was as full of game as an egg is of meat, an' that thar was so much timber that it couldn't be cut down in a hundred years. Sech tales, that people all over the State of Virginny was a packin' up, and goin' thar. As I said father was one of 'em, an' we went along with a party that ole Dan'l hisself was a leadin' down the Wilderness Road, through the Cumberland Gap, and so on into Kaintuck. Father took up land on the Lickin' River, nigh Bear Grass Fort; about two thousand acres.
"We had been settled thar goin' onto four years when, one day, father and us boys went into the fields to do some work. Thar was three of us boys; Mordecai who was ten year old; Josiah who was eight; and me—Thomas—who was six. It was nigh thirty year ago, but I remember it as well as if it was yisterday."
Thomas paused and drew hard on his pipe. The little group about him was listening intently. The long summer twilight deepened into dusk. The stars came out. Now and again the quiet was broken by the sharp whiz of insects darting here and there through the gloaming. A soft breeze rustled the tree tops. Crickets chirped under the logs and through the grass. The frogs sang in the marshes of the creek. From the forest came the mournful hoot of an owl.
"Well, as I was sayin'," Thomas went on presently, "your grandpa was clearin' the field an' I was with him a helpin' him all I could. Mordecai and Josiah was workin' nigh the edge of the forest, not far off. I remember lookin' up at father as he worked, an' thinkin' what a big fine man he was. You was named for him, Abe, an' I hope that you'll be as good a man as he was.
"All of a suddent, there come a shot from somewhere, and father drapped dead right thar before my very eyes. I was that dazed that I couldn't do anything but stand thar a lookin' at him, even though the Injuns had riz up all around us. But Mordecai had his wits about him. Shoutin' to Josiah to go to the stockade for help, he hisself run to the cabin, and got father's rifle. You see mother an' the gals was thar alone. A big Injun come, and stoopin' over me lifted me up, an' was either about to kill me, or take me off into the forest, when thar come a shot from the house, an' he fell in a heap. Mord had fired through a chink in the walls, and the ball had gone clean through the Red.
"He had took a big risk of shootin' me 'sted of the Injun in doin' it, but he aimed at an ornament on the Injun's breast, and chanct it. An' the shot went straight to the mark."
Tom paused again, and was silent so long and became so wrapped in thought that his pipe went out unheeded. Abe began to fidget on his knee.
"And what happened then, pa?" he asked when the silence grew unbearable. He was to hear the story many times afterwards, but the suspense of a protracted wait was too much to ask a small boy to endure in the first telling.
"Then?" Tom came to himself with a start. "Oh, then mother come out a callin' me to come to her. She stood outside the cabin door a holdin' out her arms to me, never thinkin' that the Redskins might shoot her too; an' Mordecai kept pepperin' them through the chinks in the walls. Then here come Josiah on the run from the fort with a lot of settlers who soon scattered the Injuns. But Mord was wild about 'em afterwards. Would hunt and kill every savage he could."
Darkness had settled over the valley. With the deepening shadow the fluttering of wings and chirping ceased, and a vague stillness spread over the cabin and everything around it. In the hush it seemed as if anything might happen. The Indians had long since been driven back, and there was no longer danger from them. But the story, the darkness, brought the fear that somewhere they might lurk in the depths of the forest, and swoop down upon them. Involuntarily the children drew closer to their father. A whip-poor-will uttered its plaintive notes suddenly from a near by tree, and so startled Sarah that she screamed. Nancy rose quickly.
"See how scared we air from that story, Tom," she said. "Come in, all of you. We will seek comfort from God's word."
Going into the cabin she lighted the tallow dips, and taking the Bible from its shelf read from its promises; for this pioneer woman could both read and write, and stood on a higher intellectual plane than those around her. Then Thomas—they were both devout Baptists—led in prayer, after which the family sought its repose.