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James Baldwin

Borrowing Fire

O NE afternoon in haying time, a dreadful thing happened at our house. The fire went out.

It had been our custom to depend upon Aunt Rachel for the conservation of that useful article of household economy. She it was who covered the fire at night. She it was who always saw that there were glowing embers somewhere in the ashes, ready to be fanned quickly into flames. To her an occasional red-hot coal to drop into her pipe was a necessity scarcely second to the satisfying weed itself. So long, therefore, as she was sitting daily in her favorite corner we knew that the fire was being properly cared for. But now she had gone to Wayne on a summer's visit among relatives, and the guardianship of the hearth had devolved upon Cousin Mandy Jane.

"Be sure that thee don't let the fire go out," was Aunt Rachel's parting injunction.

But Cousin Mandy Jane did let it go out.

It happened, as I have said, one day in haying time. Mother was busy in the weavin'-room, finishing a piece of linsey-woolsey upon which she had been engaged, at odd times, now many weeks. All the rest of us were in the meadow, raking and pitching the newly-mown hay, and getting it ready for the stacking that must be done on the morrow. At the dinner table all the talk had been about the heaviness of the grass, the difficulty of cutting it and the admirable manner in which it had been cured without a drop of rain falling on it. Then the boys began to tell of Cousin Mandy Jane's great skill in pitching and raking.

"I tell thee what," said David, waxing warm in his praises, "she can do 'most half as much as a man when it comes to puttin' up windrows. And that's purty good for a gal."

"Well, it's my 'pinion," said Jonathan, "that if she didn't have to be clogged with that there long dress of her'n, a-floppin' about her knees, she could e'en-a-most git ahead of thee—and thee thinks thee can do all  of a man's work, don't thee?"

"Thee'd better keep thy 'pinions to thyself," responded David half angrily. "Mandy Jane can do right smart when she tries, but I can put up two windrows to her one, every time."

"I'd like to see thee do it," said Jonathan.

Cousin Mandy Jane smiled in that queer little, thin-lipped way of hers which always indicated that her mind was made up. And when the boys had finished their meal and left the house, she whispered to me: "Jist thee watch. I'll show that there lazy David what a gal can raally do when she buckles herself to it. Thee'll see a right smart lot of fun, I reckon."

She hurriedly washed the dishes, tidied the room, put on her blue sunbonnet, and rake in hand followed the boys down to the meadow. In her great haste and preoccupation of mind, the fire, which was burning low on the hearth, was forgotten.

"Now, David, I guess thee'll have to hump thyself," said father, his face glowing with anticipation.

And truly it was a "humping" time that followed. While father mowed around the stumps and I followed him, to spread the newly-cut grass, the big boys competed with Cousin Mandy Jane in the making of windrows of the cured hay. The pitchforks and rakes moved with astonishing celerity, the windrows grew rapidly, and ere the sun had sunk to the level of the western tree-tops, the whole meadow was striped with long piles of hay extending from the northern fence to the southern. But never once had either David or Jonathan been able to "git ahead" of Cousin Mandy Jane; her windrow was not only always the biggest, but it was invariably the first one finished.

At length the race was ended, for there was no more hay to be raked, and all sat down in the shade of some willows to rest.

"I reckon thee thinks thee's quite some," muttered David, as he wiped his steaming face upon his shirtsleeve; "but thee ain't nothin' but a gal, anyway."

"Well, I'd rather be a gal every day in the year than a big hunk of a clodhopper like thee," retorted Cousin Mandy Jane, fanning herself with her sunbonnet.

"And where's thy two windrows to her'n one?" queried Jonathan who had greatly enjoyed the sport.

"Thee needn't to say nothin'," answered David, waxing angry. "While thee was a-lickin' to it with all thy might, I wasn't more'n half tryin'."

"Well't seems to me thee was strainin' right smart, not to be a-tryin'," said Mandy Jane. "I s'pose thee was afeard to let thyself out for fear thee'd bust somethin'."

Nobody knows what further words of homely compliment and suggestion might have been uttered had not father quietly put an end to the discussion.

"I am afraid, boys, that we may have rain before morning," he said. "So, after you've rested a little while, we three will set to work and pile up these windrows into haycocks that will turn the water. It's always best to be on the safe side, when it comes to saving hay; and it still lacks two good hours to sundown."

"And what shall I do?" queried Cousin Mandy Jane.

"I think thee had better go home, now, and get the supper ready, and do the milking. And Robert, he can go along with thee, to help with the cows and carry in the wood. For it will be quite late when we finish here."

And so, to my inward joy, we two wended our way homeward.

"Didn't I make them two boys hump it?" queried she; but I was too busy thinking of other things to venture any reply.

We reached the head of the lane and entered the yard, passing under the cherry trees which were now laden with crimson fruit. We heard something—thump! thump! thump! It was the old loom, pounding away as usual in the weavin'-room. Mother was busy at her task. She had not left the weaver's bench a moment during the whole of that summer afternoon. The sound seemed suddenly to remind Cousin Mandy Jane of something in the cabin. She ran quickly to the door, looked in and then uttered a screech which brought mother out of the weavin'-room in a high state of alarm.

"What in the world is the matter?" she cried. "Does thee want to skeer me to death?"

"Lands' sake!" answered Cousin Mandy Jane. "I jist believe the fire's gone out. I was in sich a hurry when I went to the medder that I clean forgot to kivver it."

"Look in the ashes," said mother rather soothingly; "maybe thee'll find a little live coal or two that hain't gone with the rest, and thee can fan it to a blaze."

Mandy Jane took the fire shovel and tossed the ashes this way, that way, every way, but no glowing cinder could she find. The hearth itself was cold.

"There ain't a drap of fire in the whole fireplace," she cried. "Every spark and splither of it's clean gone out."

"Well, I must say that thee was rather careless not to tend to it before goin' to the medder," said mother in tones of mild reproof. Then she took the shovel in her own hands and made diligent search among the ashes, but all to no purpose.

"Maybe thee might find a little fire in one of the old log heaps down in the deadenin'," she suggested.

"Oh, no!" answered Mandy Jane. "The boys hain't had no fire in the deadenin' not since the big rains put 'em out jist after corn-plantin'."

"Well, then, thee'll jist have to wait till father comes, and he'll kindle a new fire with his steel and tinder; and that will make supper purty late," said mother.

"Yes; and the boys, they'll have it back at me, too;" and Cousin Mandy Jane began to cry. "I beat 'em at the rakin'; but they'll crow when they hear about the fire. And David, he'll be throwin' up to me about bein' a gal, wussun ever."

"Oh, well, I wouldn't mind that," said mother soothingly. "It's a purty good thing to be a gal sometimes; specially when it ain't convenient to be a boy."

"I wish we had some of them things they use down in the 'Hio Country to make a fire," sobbed Cousin Mandy Jane. "They are little wooden splinters with a drap of brimstun on one end; and when the brimstun is rubbed hard acrosst a stone or somethin', it blazes right up and makes a fire. Mahaly Bray, she was tellin' me of 'em; and I wish I could remember what the folks down there calls 'em—some kind of a Lucy thing or other."

"They call 'em Lucifer matches," said mother. "Sich things is good enough for quality folks, but they're too expensive for pore people to use. Now, I've jist thought of a plan that I think will set things right, and the boys needn't never know a word about the fire goin' out. The sun's two hours high, and there'll be plenty of time; and thee can have supper ready when the men-folks come up from the medder."

"But how can I cook the supper without any fire?" asked Mandy Jane.

"Thee cain't," said mother; "but we'll get some fire. There's Robert at the door. He can run over to Enoch's and borrow some. It won't take him more'n an hour, and then thee'll have plenty of time. Thee can get everything ready while he's gone—slice the meat and put it in the skillet, scrape the taters, skim the milk, mix the dough for the dodgers, and set the table. And if I was thee, I would have the wood and the kindlin's all ready jist to drap the live coals in among 'em. Then thee can go right ahead and do the cookin' before the men folks know anything about it."

"It's a good plan, if Robert will only go for the fire," said Cousin Mandy Jane, much pleased; and she looked at me with an expression like that of a candidate on the day before election.

"Oh, he'll go," said mother, with a smile which I thoroughly understood. "Here, Robert, take this little iron kittle and run over to Enoch's as fast as thee can, and ask 'em to lend us a little fire, and we'll pay it back when their'n goes out. Come, now, hurry!"

If she had asked me to walk into a nest of bumblebees, I would have been much better pleased. Enoch Fox was our nearest neighbor; but he was a very old and very hard man of whom I had always felt great fear. Moreover, there were six grown-up young women at his house, and a scapegrace son, called Little Enick, the mere thought of whom was wont to make my heart sink within me. Nevertheless I dared not refuse to obey my mother; I had not even the courage to tell her of the feelings of undefined dread which almost overpowered me. I took the little iron kettle in my hand, turned quickly away to hide the tears that were starting in my eyes and ran out of the yard.

"That's a good boy," mother called after me. "No don't let the grass grow under thy feet."

The distance to Enoch Fox's house was not much more than half a mile; but the way thither was through the densest of dense woods, and the only road was a narrow winding foot-path so seldom traveled that in places one had to look closely in order to follow it. In no courageous mood, I ran across our sheep pasture, climbed the dividing fence and the next minute was threading my way along the tortuous path. As soon as I was well hidden from sight among the trees and underbrush, I slackened my speed, and Inviz came out of the bushes and walked by my side.

"I wouldn't hurry, if I was thee," he said.

"No, I don't think I shall," I replied. "There's plenty of time, and Cousin Mandy Jane can wait for her fire."

"It was all her fault, anyhow," said Inviz. "If she had covered the coals with ashes before going to the meadow, this wouldn't have happened."

Presently we heard a squirrel chirping among the trees at some distance from the path, and we made a long detour in order to see him. We satisfied ourselves that he was a fox squirrel and not a gray squirrel, and then with some difficulty regained our bearings and returned to the path. Everything was so pleasant, there in the woods; the air was cool and fresh, and there were robins and jay birds and woodpeckers in great numbers among the trees. We stopped often to examine some unusual object or to listen to some strange sound; and I was never once afraid, for Inviz had his arm around me, and I could feel his sweet breath on my cheek.

"Everything is very, very beautiful," he said. And for the moment I forgot all about my errand and the dreadful Enoch, and gave myself up to the intensest enjoyment of the scene and the occasion.

"See those pretty things over there, close by the papaw bushes," I said.

"Oh, yes, I think they are moccasin flowers," answered Inviz; and we raced thither to see and admire the somewhat rare and beautiful although gaudy flowers of the wild. I was about to pick one of them from its stalk, it was so enticing, but Inviz held my arm.

"Let it alone," he said. "It is happy here, where God has put it, and if thee breaks its stalk it will grow sick and die."

So I contented myself with looking at the flowers, and counting them, and noting the variations in color and form—and by and by I reluctantly bade them all farewell and strolled slowly onward toward Old Enoch's.

And now the path skirted the edge of a small buttonwood swamp, where frogs were croaking, and strange shadows were moving among the tangled bushes, and everything seemed to speak of loneliness and terror. There was a splashing in the dark water near an old rotten log, and the shivers ran down my back as I thought what a good place this was for the Old Feller to lie in wait for bad boys.

"It was only some turtles sliding off the log," said Inviz; and I distinctly saw one of them floundering along through the black ooze.

"Yes, but I'm afraid," I said. "Let's hurry."

"I shouldn't like to be here after night," said Inviz. And then we ran as fast as we could away from the dreadful place.

The woods became rapidly thinner, and then a small clearing appeared, and a high rail fence, and beyond it Old Enoch's orchard. I was quite out of breath with running, and as I climbed over the fence I noticed with dismay that the sun was almost down. There must be no more loitering for me; I must boldly beard the lion in his den and then hasten home.

The orchard was not a large one, and on the farther side of it, at the end of a lane, stood the house, a long, low log cabin with two doors. Everything was very quiet, and but for the smoke that was curling from the chimney I would have thought that nobody was at home. I crossed the lane and crouched trembling beside the gate. I heard the rattle of pots and tin pans inside the house, and soon saw some one walking about the hearth.

"It's Becky Fox," said Inviz. "It's Old Enoch's wife, and she's getting the supper ready. She's all alone."

"Good! good!" I answered. "How lucky! I'm not afraid of her."

I straightened myself up, tightened my grasp on the bail of the little kettle, and reached up to lift the latch of the gate—and then, oh, horrors! I heard a rushing of feet and a strange clattering, and the next moment saw Old Enoch coming up the lane behind me with a pitchfork and two rakes on his shoulder. He was walking very fast, as was his habit; and behind him in goosemarch line followed the six young women, some carrying scythes, some rakes, and the last one an earthen jug. As he came striding toward me, I shrank into the shadow of the gate-post, and wished—oh, how I wished—that I could be like Inviz, unseen, unrecognized, my presence unsuspected.

But there was no escaping the sharp eyes of Enoch Fox. In spite of all my shrinking, which must have been considerable, he saw me and quickened his steps. I stood speechless, helpless, feeling that my doom had come. He threw the rakes over the fence, and with the pitchfork in his left hand, came forward to greet me with his right.

"Howdy, Robert! howdy!" he said, extending his great rough palm.

I tried to make some sort of reply, but my tongue stood still. The old man's words were gentle, he looked at me kindly, he surely meant me no harm.

"How's thee and thy folks?" he asked.

My tongue was loosened. "Oh, we're purty well," I said. "How's thee and thine?" This was the formula which I had heard thousands of times from others, and which I believed to be the correct thing on such occasions as this.

"I'm toll'ble," answered Enoch in a peculiar, long-drawn-out, saintly tone; "and all the rest is toll'ble."

He lifted the latch and opened the gate, saying, "Come into the house a spell."

He led the way to the cabin door, and I followed him, somewhat reassured, but wondering what would happen next.

Just as I put my foot upon the door-step there was a sudden rushing behind me and a fearful barking and snarling that sent my heart clear up into my throat. I leaped forward with a scream and landed on my hands and knees in the middle of the room. There was a great sound of laughter just outside the door, and more snarling and savage barking; and a kind motherly woman who I knew was Becky Fox, lifted me gently to my feet and bade me not to be afraid. I looked and saw Little Enick standing by the door and holding a huge yellow dog by the collar. He was laughing uproariously, and encouraging the dog by saying, "Sick 'im, Bull! sick 'im, Bull! Ketch the little Towhead."

"Don't thee be afeard," said Old Enoch, quietly lighting his pipe. "Old Bull, he won't hurt nobody; and Little Enick, he's jist in for havin' some fun. Take a cheer, and set down."

I seated myself on a stool as far from the dog as possible, holding the precious little kettle between my knees. Notwithstanding Old Enoch's words of assurance, I expected to be devoured at any moment, and I mentally wondered how many mouthfuls I would make.

"How's thee, Towhead!" shouted Little Enick from the door. "How does it feel to git skeered?"

Then the kind mother interposed and closed the door, leaving the rude fellow and his dog on the outside.

"I hope thee won't mind Little Enick," she said. "He's jist so full of mischief that he don't never think of nothing else, and he likes to see folks git skeered."

Then, for politeness' sake, I ventured upon a falsehood. "Oh, I ain't skeered at all," I said.

The flames were leaping high in the big fireplace, and the hearth was glowing with heaps of red-hot coals. The table was set. Becky Fox was frying fat pork for supper; and with a sinking heart I thought of our own deferred evening meal at home. But I sat silent in my place, and was afraid to mention my errand.

"So they call thee Towhead, do they?" said Old Enoch, puffing clouds of smoke from his pipe.

"Yes, some of 'em do," I answered.

"I hear 'em say that thee can read right smart," he remarked. "Is that so?"

I nodded my head in the affirmative, and Becky smiled assuringly.

"Well, it seems to me thee is a leetle bit young to be fussin' with books, as I hear 'em say thee does," Old Enoch continued, now half hidden in smoke. "I don't much believe in larnin', noway. The Bible says that it's a weariness to the flesh, and I'm one that always goes 'cordin' to the Bible. Don't thee think that's right?"

Not knowing what else to do, I nodded again.

"Now, thy father," said he, "he's all the time talkin' about schools and larnin', and all them things, but me and him don't agree. He says that everybody ought to be eddicated, but I say that all the larnin' anybody needs is to know how to read in the Bible; and all other books, 'cept maybe the spellin'-book, is a trap that's been set by the Old Feller. Don't thee think I'm right?"

What could I do but nod my head for the third time?

And the old man continued: "Now, there's my Little Enick. He's an uncommonly bright boy, and he's goin' on sixteen the first of next Tenth month—well, he hain't got through his spellin'-book yit. But he's powerful brisk and smart—don't thee think so?"

At that moment there was a scraping noise at the door, and so sure was I that this brisk and smart young man was about to enter with Old Bull at his heels that I sprang quickly to my feet. In my alarm, the little iron kettle slipped from my grasp and rolled rattling upon the hearth.

"Look there, Becky," cried Old Enoch, as though seeing the kettle for the first time. "The leetle feller has fetched a bucket with him. Maybe his folks is out of meal, or m'lasses, or sumpin or 'nother. Thee'd better see."

Then, with a mighty effort, I summoned all my courage and said: "Mother wanted to know if thee would lend us a little fire, and we'll pay it back when thine goes out."

"Oh, your fire's went out, has it?" said Becky very kindly. "Well, that comes of Aunt Rachel bein' away, I'm sure. And did thee fetch that little kettle for me to put the coals in?"

I nodded my head, and she took the vessel from my hands. First, she put a thin layer of cold ashes in the bottom of it, and on this she sprinkled some hot ashes. Then she selected some large glowing coals which she placed on top of the ashes; and on these she laid three dry hickory chips, "to keep 'em from burnin' out," as she said. Finally, she covered the whole with cold ashes, firmly packing them down.

"There!" she said, as she handed the filled kettle to me. "Be keerful and don't spill the ashes, and them coals will keep alive for a week."

I took the bail in my left hand, and offering my right to the good woman, said, "Well, I guess I must go now. Farewell!"

She smiled, and kindly answered, "Farewell, Robert. I hope thee'll git home safe."

Then I walked to the other side of the hearth where the old man was smoking. "Farewell, Enoch," I said, trembling.

"Farewell, leetle Towhead," he returned, shaking my hand. "But thee must stay and eat supper with us—mush and milk and fried side-meat." Then, turning to his wife, he said, "Becky, put on an extry spoon for Robert. He can dip in the same bowl with M'rier and M'lindy."

I stood irresolute, trying to mutter an excuse; and then suddenly a new source of alarm appeared. The door opened, and the six young women of the household came in, some with armloads of wood, some with bundles of wool for carding, and the last with a heavy bag of unshelled corn. I knew them all by name. The first four were M'rier, M'lindy, Betsy and Beulah—tall, strongly-built, raw-boned, with dull patient faces like the faces of oxen. The fifth was a niece, Ruth Hazel, whom Old Enoch had undertaken to bring up in consideration of the work she could do. She was a slender fair-haired maiden, as much out of place amid her surroundings as a solitary white lily lifting its head in a rank patch of jimson weeds. And then, following a little after the others, came Esther Lamb, the grand-daughter of Becky Fox, a robust, cardiacal young woman, with snappy brown eyes and a countenance like that of the moon. Everybody said that she was our Jonathan's favorite, and when I saw her and heard her speak, I greatly admired his wisdom.

The older girls sadly deposited their burdens—the wood in the chimney corner, the wool on the floor beside the two big spinning-wheels. They gazed at me curiously, and said not a word. But buxom Esther, having thrown her bag of corn under the table, came toward me with outstretched hand and welcoming voice.

"Howdy, Robert," she said. "How's thee?"

"I'm pretty well," I answered in quavers. "How's thee and thine?"

I fancied that somebody was giggling, and I wondered what I had said that was amiss.

"Come, gals!" commanded Old Enoch, in the tones of a master; and immediately the giggling ceased and they began to take their places around the long bare table. "Come, Robert," he said, pushing me with his hand. "Set down, set down! Thee may set between M'rier and M'lindy and dip into their bowl."

I trembled and hesitated. There was nothing on the table save a big wooden trencher filled with hot mush, five large bowls of milk, and ten iron tablespoons—one of these last for each member of the family, and one for me. With a desperate effort, I stammered, "I don't believe I want any supper to-night."

"Come, and set down!" commanded Old Enoch.

And then that blessed woman interposed again to save me. "I think, Enick, that we had better let him go home," she said. "They can't get supper at Stephen's till he comes with the fire, and thee knows it's gittin' late."

"Well, then, I s'pose thee must go, Robert," he said in softening tones. "I will tell thee farewell," and he shook my hand a second time. "Tell thy father that if his sheep ever gits over into my clearin' ag'in, I'll set Old Bull on 'em. Farewell!"

Like a bird set free, I made my way quickly toward the door; but suddenly remembering that good manners should never be neglected, I paused to shake hands with Becky and again bid her farewell. "We'll pay thee back when thy fire goes out," I said.

Then up spoke Esther pleadingly, "Mother, don't thee think I'd better go as far as the dividin' line with him? It'll be gittin' dark in the woods, and the path ain't very plain."

But before the good mother could reply, Old Enoch blurted out, "Hush thy slather, and tend to thy supper. Thee needn't think thee can play another trick on me. If that Jonathan's a-waitin' for thee at the dividin' line, he'll have to wait a right smart spell, I'm thinkin', afore he gits a sight of thee to-night."

I stood in the doorway and looked out. The sun was down. The way was clear. With a bound, I was out and running to the gate. I lifted the latch very softly, lest it should click and by the sound betray me to my enemies. I dodged quickly through into the lane, but not too quickly, slamming the gate behind me. At the same moment, out rushed Old Bull, barking, snarling, snapping as though he would devour me; and out rushed Little Enick, from his hiding-place in the bushes, laughing, clapping his hands, and shouting to the dog. "Sick 'im, Bull! Sick 'im! Eat 'im up! Sick 'im!"

With a fleetness born of great fear, I fled down the lane, casting not a single glance behind me.