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The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 14971

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

THE friend and companion of my boyhood was Jo Erring, my mother's only brother, who had been in the family since before I was born. He was five years my senior, and a stout and ambitious fellow I greatly admired; but as he was regularly flogged when I was, this circumstance gave rise to his first ambition to become a man and whip my father, whom he regarded with little favor.

There was a kind of tradition that when he became of age he was to have a horse and ten dollars in money, but whether this was really the price of his work I never knew. More likely he came to our house with my mother, as he was not wanted at home, and had lived there until other disposition could be made of him. He usually had a horse picked out as the one he desired, and gave it particular attention, but as each of these in turn was disposed of at convenient opportunity, he became more than ever convinced that he was related by marriage to a very unscrupulous man.

I remember him at this period as an overgrown boy always wearing cast-off clothing either too large or too small for him, and the hero and friend of every boy on Fairview prairie. Although he was the stoutest boy in the neighborhood, and we often wondered that he did not sometimes whip all the others simply because he could, he never quarrelled, but was in every dispute a mediator, announcing his decisions in a voice good-natured and hoarse; and as he was honest and just, and very stout, there were no appeals from his decisions. In our rough amusements, which were few enough, he used his strength to secure to the smaller ones their share, and gave way himself with the same readiness that he exacted from the others; therefore he was very popular among the younger portion of the population, and there was great joy at school when it was announced-which pleasure I usually had-that Jo Erring had finished his winter's work, and was coming the next day, for all forms of oppression must cease from that date. Sometimes he came by the school on a winter evening with a rude sled, to which he had young horses attached to break them, and if the larger boys climbed on to ride home, or as far as he went, he made them all get off, and loading up with those too small to look after their own interests in the struggle, drove gaily away with me by his side.

There were few men more trusty than Jo, and he always made a round in the plough-field after my father had turned out, as if to convince him that he was mistaken in the opinion that boys were good for nothing. When there was corn to gather, he took the slowest team and the lazy hired man, and brought in more loads than my father and I, and if I found any way to aid him in this I always did it. They seemed to hate each other in secret, for the master disliked a boy who was able to equal him in anything, as if his extra years had availed him nothing; and I confess that my sympathies were always with Jo, for the grown people picked at him because of his ambition to become a man, in all other respects than age, a few years sooner than was usual. While nobody disputed that he was a capable fellow, he was always attempting something he could not carry out, and thus became a subject of ridicule in spite of his worth and ability; if he was sent to the timber for wood, he would volunteer to be back at an impossible time, and although he returned sooner than most men would have done, they laughed at him, and regarded him as a great failure.

It was said of him that he exaggerated, but I think that he was only anxious that it be known what he could do if he had an opportunity; and as every one thought less of him than he deserved, he kept on talking of himself to correct a wrong impression, and steadily made matters worse. His activity kept him down, for another thing, for thereby he raised an opposition which would not have existed had he been content to walk leisurely along in the tracks made by his elders. He accepted none of the opinions of the Fairview men, and it was said of him that he was a skeptic for no other reason than that everybody else was religious, and I am not certain but that there was some truth in this.

If the truth of a certain principle was asserted, he denied it, not by rude controversy, but by his actions; and by his ingenuity he often made a poorer one seem better, if the one proposed happened to be right, as was sometimes the case-for the Fairview people had but two ways to guess, and occasionally adopted a right method instead of a wrong one, by accident.

I believe there was nothing he could not do. He shingled hair in a superb manner for any one who applied, and charged nothing for the service. And I helped him learn the art, for he practised on me so much that I was nearly always bald. He made everything he took a fancy for, and seemed to possess himself of the contents of a book by looking through it; for though I seldom found him reading, he was about as well-informed as the books themselves. When the folks were away at camp-meeting, he added my mother's work to his own, and got along very well with it. I never heard of anything a Fairview boy could do better than Jo Erring, and he did a great many things in which he had no competition; therefore I have often wondered that the only young man there who really amounted to anything was for some reason rather unpopular. Jo was unfortunate in the particular that he seemed to have inherited all the poorer qualities of both his father and mother instead of the good qualities of either one of them, or a commendable trait from one, and an undesirable one from the other. I have heard of men who resembled the less worthy of their parents-I believe this is the rule-but never before have I known a boy to resemble both his parents in everything they tried to hide. His tendency to exaggeration he got honestly from his mother, who was a fluent talker, but Jo was not like her in that. In this Jo was like his father, who would not say a half dozen words without becoming hopelessly entangled, and making long pauses in painful effort to extricate his meaning.

Jo was often sent to a water-mill in the woods with a grist, and while waiting for his wheat or corn to be ground, he regarded the machinery with the closest attention, and at length became impressed with the idea that after he had become a man, and whipped my father, he would like to follow milling for a business. The miller, an odd but kindly man of whom but little was known in our part of the country, admired Jo's manly way, and made friends with him by good-naturedly answering his questions, and occasionally inviting him to his house for dinner; and Jo talked so much of his ambition and his friend, that he came to be called "The Miller," and spent his spare time in making models, and trying them in the rivulets which ran through the fields after a rain.

His father's farm was skirted by Big Creek, and here he picked out a site for his mill when he should be able to build it, at a place called Erring's Ford (the location really did credit to his judgment), and having hauled a load of stones there one Saturday afternoon for a dam, the circumstance gave rise to the only pleasantry ever known in Fairview. When any one spoke of an event not likely to happen, he said it would probably come about when the sky rained pitchforks on the roof of Jo Erring's mill; but Jo paid little attention to this banter, and hauled more stones for the dam whenever he had

opportunity, in which work I assisted, in preference to idleness without him. He hoped to become apprenticed to his friend the miller to learn the business, and to complete his own enterprise by slow degrees from his small savings. And he never lost sight of this purpose, pursuing it so steadily that a few of those who at first laughed at him spoke at length encouraging words, and said they believed he would finally succeed, although it would be a long time in coming about.

I was secretly very fond of the mill enterprise, and admired Jo more than ever, that he was bold enough to attempt carrying it out. Our plan to run away was altered by this new interest, and we agreed that it would be better to wait patiently until the mill was complete, and buy our liberty from its profits; for Jo had generously agreed to ransom me as well as himself as soon as he was able.

Jo's mother, a very large woman who was the acknowledged head of the House of Erring, and doctor for half that country, lived four miles from Fairview church, on Big Creek, in a house of hewn logs, the inside of which was a marvel for neatness. Of her husband the people knew nothing except that he was a shingle-maker, and that he was probably a very wicked man, for he was about the only one in the settlement who did not profess religion, and attend the gatherings at the church. The calling of shingle-making he followed winter and summer and he never seemed to raise anything on his farm except a glassy kind of corn with a great many black grains in every ear, which he planted and cultivated with a hoe. After it was gathered, he tied most of it in bunches, and hung it up to dry on the kitchen rafters, where it was understood to be for sale as seed; although I never heard that it was good for anything except to parch, and the only use he ever made of it, that I knew anything about, was to give it to Jo and me with the air of a man conferring a great favor.

My father liked nothing about Dad Erring except his one virtue of attending to his own business, such as it was; and said of him that he selected his piece of land because it was near a spring, whereas the exercise of a little energy would have dug a well affording an equally good supply of water on vastly superior land.

Indeed, no one seemed to like him, and the dislike was mutual, for if he was familiar with any one except Jo, my mother, and myself, I never knew of it. He seldom spoke even to my grandmother when I was about, and I think only very rarely at any other time, for they seemed never to have recovered from some old trouble. There was this much charity for him, however-the people said no more than that he was an exceedingly odd sort of a man (a verdict true of his appearance as well as disposition, for he was very large, very raw-boned, and clean shaven), and let him alone, which of all things he probably most desired.

The people frequently met him walking along the road swinging a stout stick, and taking tremendous strides (he never owned a horse, but took long journeys on foot, refusing a ride if offered him by a wagon going in the same direction), but he did not speak to them unless compelled and apparently had no other desire than to be let alone.

He never went anywhere except to the timber to make shingles, and off on excursions afoot nobody knew whither, from which he always returned in a few days in exactly the same mood as that in which he had started. I have heard that he had relatives living in a settlement south of us, but whether he went to visit them on his journeys, or spent the money he earned in shingle-making in walking about for his health, paying for his entertainment where-ever night overtook him, I did not know then, nor do I know now.

Once in a long while he came to our house, always when my father was away; and, after watching my mother awhile as she went about her work, went away again, sometimes without saying a word, although she always talked kindly to him, and was glad to see him. Occasionally he would accept her invitation to refresh himself with food, but not often; and when he did he would be offended unless she took a present of money to buy something to remember him by. If she was dangerously ill-which was often the case, for she was never strong-he was never sent for. Nobody thought of him as of any use or as caring much about it; but when she had recovered, he would come over, and, after looking at her curiously, return home satisfied. I think that had she died, he would not have been invited to the funeral, but I am certain that after it was all over, he would often have visited her grave, and looked at it in quiet astonishment.

On returning from her visits to the sick, my grandmother usually stopped at our house, and sometimes I was lifted up behind to go home with her to take care of the horse she rode, for my grandfather disliked horses.

Arriving at the house of hewn logs in the edge of the woods, she dismounted and went in, and I went on to the stables. Returning after I had finished my work, I found my grandfather on one side of the fire-place, and my grandmother on the other, looking into the fire, or, if it was summer, into the cavernous recess where the backlog would have been blazing in winter. If it was evening, which was usually the case, I was soon sent out to make the fire for the evening meal, but after this was eaten, we resumed our places at the hearth. Sometimes I told them what I knew was going on in the neighborhood, and caused them to ask questions, and replied to them, and tried to lure them into a conversation, but I never succeeded. If my grandmother told me that one of her patients had died, the information was really intended for her husband; and if he did not fully understand it, he directed his questions to me, and she replied in the same way. In this way they also discussed household affairs of which it was necessary for each to know, storing them up until I came, but never speaking directly to each other.

After I had sat between them for an hour or more, it would suddenly occur to my grandmother that I had been up too long already, and after divesting me of clothing, I was thrown into the centre of a great feather-bed, three of which stood in a row at the back end of the room. I was put into the middle one, as if to keep my grand-parents as far apart as possible again, for I was certain that my grandmother slept in one, and my grandfather in the other. The one which I occupied was also the company bed, for my grandmother evidently desired me to know that my mother, excellent woman though she was, could not hope to learn perfectly the art of making up a feather-bed for many years yet. If I raised my head quietly, and looked out, I found the strange couple sitting by the fire as I had left them, and, in wondering whether they would remain there all night, I fell asleep.

When I awoke in the morning they were up before me, waiting for daylight, as people were early risers in those days; and I never knew certainly that they went to bed at all, but always wondered whether they did not sit beside the fire throughout the long night.

After a while my grandmother came to the bed, pulled me out and into my clothes, and sent me to the spring to wash my face for breakfast, which was soon thereafter ready. When this was over I was started for home, usually carrying a present of butter or eggs for my mother, and a box on the ears for myself.

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