October 1844 would mark the end of a youthful journey and the beginning of a lifelong quest. We’d been at sea for three long months. It was an hour or two before dawn and not a soul was stirring. Have you ever had that feeling that you’re being watched? Right at that moment, I had that feeling in a powerful way. I turned my head cautiously and glanced down the starboard side of the ship. All at once something aft caught my attention. I turned suddenly and had to squint and shield my eyes. There, low on the eastern horizon, just below the sail, was the biggest, most extravagant moon I’d ever seen. It was the same moon that had lit the skies over the Rhine valley during my youth, but it had always seemed distant and detached. Now, thousands of miles from the only home I’d ever known, it was suddenly a comfort to see something so familiar. It was the first time that a cold, lonely night had forced me to seek comfort and companionship in that ol’ moon. It wouldn’t be the last.
My name is Obadiah Jeremiah Hezekiah Camp. I know that’s a mighty big mouthful, but my folks were bound and determined to name me after all four of my great granddads. You can call me Obie. I was nine years old when my family and I left our ancestral home in Germany to sail for America. I didn’t realize it then, but the innocent, carefree days of my youth were rapidly drawing to a close. Ahead lay inconceivable obstacles, incredible exploits, high adventure on the western frontier, and eventually contentment and an inner peace that many never find.
As I lay there on that hard wooden deck, staring into that starry stillness, the only sound was the groaning and squeaking of that old ships rigging, and the flapping of her canvas sails in response to an intermittent breeze. I pulled the tarp up around my shoulders as a sudden gust of wind garnished the deck with a blanket of fog that stung my chapped face and glistened on the coil of rope that served as my pillow. My brother Christoph lay on the deck at my side. Christoph was thirteen. He had serious doubts about this pilgrimage to America. His apprenticeship to the Count’s brewmeister had been lucrative, and he’d been very hesitant to accompany his family on this risky and unnerving excursion. He missed his home and friends, and had joined us reluctantly at the insistence of our father and the heartfelt pleadings of our mother.
There would be no more sleep for me this night. As the velvet black skies lightened to lavender in the east, a thin layer of scarlet became barely visible in the west. It was land. It was America. Soon the melancholy stillness was replaced with hustle, bustle, and the excitement of preparation. The crewmen were busily pursuing their assigned tasks, and the passengers were crowding the decks in a frenzy of anticipation. Yesterday, freedom, opportunity, and America had been only a well-worn, but very illusive dream. This morning that impossible dream was palpable. It lay on the horizon ahead of us, visible to the naked eye. It was no longer just an incredible dream. America was real.
OBIE, Chapter 1. Jarrin’ Bones & Rattlin’ Teeth
As the sun climbed gradually into the brilliant autumn sky, a purple horizon rose from a dreamlike mist and took on recognizable forms. First the forests in their breathtaking fall foliage, then the houses and buildings, and eventually the dock and crowds of people became distinguishable on the shore. Our hearts pounded and filled with myriad emotions: joy, excitement, uncertainty, and apprehension. Those people on the dock were Americans. Soon we would be Americans too!
To our west was the eastern boundary of the Common Wealth of Pennsylvania, and as the vast forests of oak and hickory gave way to farmland and fields of ripening grain, the port city of Philadelphia came into view. The port itself was clearly distinguishable by a forest of towering masts. Countless tall ships were at anchor along the expansive docks, now crowded with swarming masses of people of all nationalities. Beyond laid the historic city itself; basking in the brilliant rays of a gorgeous fall day I’d not soon forget.
Our long boats were lowered and manned, our decks filled with cheering pilgrims, and our gallant ship, in full canvas and flags flying, sailed proudly into the harbor. From the docks the crowd waved and cheered, a group of kilt clad gentleman promenaded across the wharf with bagpipes blaring, and all at once our normally reserved crew, in cadence with their rowing and in a wide variety of colorful accents, burst into a rousing chorus of “Blow the Man Down”. My pulse raced, my spirit soared, and my heart, fit to bust, pounded like never before. Well, there was the time that I discovered the Counts teenage daughter skinny-dippin’ in the castle cistern, but that was different!
Many of our fellow passengers were encumbered by steamer trunks, crates of family heirlooms, and paraphernalia of every conceivable shape, size, and description. Several families had brought along farm implements, and one couple had shipped a huge cast iron cooking range, complete with water reservoir, eight lids and a dandy warming oven. Their disembarkation would require time and arrangements, not to mention intestinal fortitude and huge quantities of elbow grease.
My family was traveling light. As per pre-arrangement, we gathered on the port side of the ship and lined up near the gangway. Christoph and I each carried one end of an old camelback trunk in one hand and an additional piece of luggage in the other. My shoulder satchel contained the journal, which I’d begun onboard the ship. Mother carried a small leather satchel containing family papers, the manumission granting us the Count’s permission to sail from Germany, and assorted valuables. Father, still weak from his illness but in high spirits, led the way.
It’s difficult to describe my feelings as we left the ship and first set foot in an unfamiliar new country. Germany had been my family’s homeland for generations. Throughout our long and often miserable voyage, I’d harbored deep within myself a dull ache and an ever-present anxiety. I’d often awakened during the long nights at sea to a dry mouth and a churning stomach. Even on the good days there’d been a discomforting sense of leaving something irretrievable behind.
This morning, as we faced the challenges of a new day filled with opportunity, all those feelings of loss and disenfranchisement were replaced by an overwhelming sense of excitement and adventure. This was a new start in a new world, and everything about it seemed fresh and inviting. I realized that a chapter in my life was ending, and intuition told me that life, as I knew it was changing forever. Right now though, my family and I were sharing the adventure of a lifetime, together.
Barring complications and miscommunications, Father’s elder brother Gus was to meet us at the port. Uncle Gus had arrived in America seven years previously and had kept in touch as well as possible considering the lamentable state of overseas mail service at the time. His crossing had been plagued by misfortune, and his wife Margaret had succumbed to disease and been buried at sea long before reaching America. His life here in Pennsylvania had been marvelously blessed. Both of his sons had married well, and their unions had produced nine Grandchildren. He’d arrived in this country as an apprentice cobbler and now owned his own thriving shoe shop. In seven years he had established himself well in this country and was now a prosperous and respected member of his community.
I wouldn’t know Uncle Gus from Adam. I was only two when my uncle and his family received the Counts permission to sail for Philadelphia. Nevertheless, I joined my family in searching every person in the crowd for a familiar face. I’d occasionally had the pleasure and privilege of meeting people of different nationalities as a child, but I’d never experienced anything like this. Created in 1682 as ol’ Bill Penn’s “holy experiment” Philadelphia was a major port and received ships from throughout the world. Subsequently it was peopled with travelers from the four corners of the earth, each one contributing the customs, dress, tastes, and traditions, of their mother country. This port city was a melting pot, and the result was a unique blend of the best and the worst.
The dock with its open-air shops and adjacent market, along with the inns, eating establishments, and taverns, all reflected this amazing diversity. The cool fall air was brisk and invigorating, and saturated with the violently competitive fragrances of hickory smoke, tobacco, wet poultry and boiling seafood. Down toward the northern end of the pier, the open-air shops endeavored to cater to every conceivable appetite, and what little they couldn’t provide was usually available in vast quantities, infinite variety, and discrete anonymity at the inns and taverns just across the street.
By the time a twenty-minute search had proven fruitless, that ol’ trunk weighed a ton and Christoph and I were exhausted! We dropped our cargo and collapsed, sitting on the luggage and staring at the ground in despair. After a moment, I realized that I was looking at the feet of either a small mountain or a very portly gentleman. I craned my neck and gazed up into the kind and beaming countenance of an elderly gentleman with a huge white beard and a belly to match. He grinned at me, eyes twinkling for a moment, and then in a markedly German accent announced, “You must be Obadiah.”
Mother spun around instantly with a big smile. Father, who’d been anxiously scanning faces in the opposite direction, paused momentarily, and then, turning slowly, gazed into his brother’s face with rapidly moistening eyes. Father had been a little teary eyed as we bid farewell to my grandparents in Germany, but I’d never seen him actually break down and cry. Father took Uncle Gus by the hand, and gazed straight into his soul, his eyes reflecting a range and depth of emotions incapable of conveyance in mere words. Then, as they wrapped their arms around each other, Father drew a long faltering breath, and convulsing with emotions, sobbed quietly right out loud. I held my mother’s hand while fighting back the lump in my own throat, and my mother searched desperately for her handkerchief. After a moment, Christoph, unable to deal with all this unbridled emotion, cleared his throat and began collecting our luggage. Uncle Gus embraced Dad for a moment longer, kissed my mother ever so gently on the cheek, and then grabbed that camelback trunk by one handle and hoisted it up on his shoulder. “Shake a leg,” he encouraged, “or we’ll all miss dinner!”
It took several minutes to maneuver through the crowds and reach my uncle’s wagon. By then the emotions of the reunion were beginning to subside and tongues began to loosen. Mother had begun to fill my uncle in on the events of our long voyage. The luggage loaded, my brother and I climbed into the back of the buckboard and found a seat next to our trunk on a blanket that our uncle had provided. The three adults squeezed into the drivers bench, Uncle Gus spoke to the team of mules, and Christoph and I got our very first taste of riding a springless buckboard down a cobblestone street. As we proceeded, Gus pointed out Independence Hall and related what I’m certain was a wealth of interesting local history, but I missed it all. Other than the sounds of the buckboard, all I heard were jarrin’ bones and rattlin’ teeth!
OBIE, Chapter 2. DIG IN!
Within about fifteen minutes we’d left old town with its unique regular grid pattern and quaint cobblestone streets. The northern outskirts of Philadelphia were comprised of a quilt work of ethnic communities, most notably, German town to the east, and an Irish settlement running along a ridge top to the west. Within thirty minutes we were making good time on a well-traveled dirt road. Despite the clouds of dust and numerous ruts, the relative comfort of this rural route was a welcome relief after the tormenting clatter of the inner city’s cobblestones.
After about an hour, Uncle Gus pointed out the massive hickory tree that marks the southwestern corner of his two hundred fifty acre estate. Soon we descended a steep easterly slope and emerged from a dense forest of pine and spruce. Before us lay a large, gently rolling pasture, partly wooded with occasional groves of deciduous trees. The autumn sky was a brilliant blue, and a cool intermittent breeze occasionally sent a scattering of falling leaves across the road ahead. Several times large coveys of pheasant and grouse were disturbed from the road side to sail across the lush green pastures and settle again into the dense foliage. Stately red oaks and golden hickories reigned over the pastures, and the ravines were ablaze with the vibrant fall foliage of dogwood, sassafras, and mountain laurel.
As we approached the Camp home, the rest of Uncle Gus’s family, each waving enthusiastically, assembled in the yard. Both of my uncle’s sons were married with children, and this spacious dwelling was home to all. As we stiffly unloaded our road-weary posteriors from the buckboard, the family descended on us from all directions, and we were once more caught up in a frenzy of hugging, kissing, and camaraderie. Christoph managed to slip away and began unloading the wagon, Uncle Gus began introductions, and I, still stupefied by the house itself, was now further overwhelmed by the enthusiastic attentions of Uncle Gus’s two sons, their wives, and nine remarkably affectionate children. I thanked the Lord silently to myself, dusted off my pants, gave an enormous sigh of relief, and a tremendous wave of satisfaction swept over me. The long, trying journey was over. We were home!
Uncle Gus’s nine grandchildren ranged in age from the oldest who was almost six, down to the two toddlers and a newborn. Six of ‘em were on me like ducks on a June bug! As I staggered and struggled to stay on my feet, Uncle Gus’s eldest son Klouse grabbed me by the hand and began shaking the fire out of me. Cousin Klouse is in his late twenties, and his wife Maggie is Mr. Macgregor’s granddaughter. Klouse and Maggie have three sons and two daughters. Klouse, besides helping out with the farm, is an experienced cobbler and works at my uncles shoe shop.
Klouse’s brother Irving is twenty-six and I’d guess his wife Kathleen to be in her late teens or early twenties. Kathleen emigrated from Ireland, arriving with her family shortly after Irving. Irving and Kathleen have four children. Irving assists Uncle Gus with the farm, raising donkeys and horses, which they interbreed in order to produce mules. Mules are a product of crossbreeding and are evidently a hardy animal prized by area farmers.
Following introductions, Kathleen and Maggie announced that dinner was ready and waiting. Uncle Gus suggested that we eat now and deal with the luggage later, and everyone wholeheartedly agreed. The mouthwatering aromas of hot seasoned seafood back at the wharf had been a terrible temptation, and the hour-long trip to Camp House had been almost more than our beleaguered bellies could bear. Irving was left to unharness the mules, and the rest of us were ushered into the house, through the entry hall, and into an enormous dining room in the east end of the ornate stone structure. I know that Mother would have preferred a brief time of toiletry prior to dining, but she congenially acquiesced and went along.
As we entered the hall, the mouthwatering aromas that wafted out of the dining room were almost sufficient to buckle my knees! The dining room itself was fabulous. Philadelphia had been one of the colonies busiest ports for two hundred years. During that time it had become the final resting place for many a gallant old vessel. Much of the building material for Camp House had been salvaged from these exquisite old schooners. The wood floors, enormous hardwood beams, intricately carved wainscoting, and all the trimmings, had been rescued from these old ships and exuded the rich color and patina characteristic of wood that has achieved an advanced age. The furnishings were of a similar vintage and had come from around the world.
At the east end of the dining room was a wall of windows designed to take advantage of the spectacular view of the Delaware River below. In front of the window stood a six-legged, hand carved, solid oak table from Germany. Fully extended, with additional leaves in place, it measured sixteen feet in length. On the table, with place settings for twelve, were pewter plates and numerous bowls and platters of steaming hot foods in a variety and quantity that I’d not seen in three long, hard, hungry months at sea.
The youngest of the children lined up at the drop leaf tables and Maggie Mae escorted the rest of us to our assigned seats. My father stood at the far end of the table and my uncle took his customary place at the head. We all stood there drooling and watching Uncle Gus attentively. Uncle Gus smoothed his white beard, flashed that big grin around the table, bowed his head and requested, “Let us pray. Our heavenly Father, we ask your blessing on this special occasion, and we thank you for reuniting our family here in this land of liberty. Bless our family and friend’s dear Lord, and our loved ones far, far away. Bless this food and the precious hands that prepared it. Thank you for your son dear Lord and for his tender touch. Thank you that you love us each so much. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen, and pass the biscuits please!”
Irving had heard this routine before and had anticipated that request. He let sail with a hot buttermilk biscuit before Uncle Gus could even look up. The biscuit careened across the table grazing the top of Uncle Gus’s head and leaving a tassel of gray hair sticking straight up as though he’d just seen a ghost! Everyone was caught off guard by these antics and stood speechless, staring in disbelief. The old gentleman peered at Irving over the top of his spectacles, feigning aggravation for a moment while everyone held their breath, and then that big grin broke out again, and we all laughed hysterically from relief. Finally we each took our seat, and Uncle Gus grabbed his fork and said, “Dig in!”
OBIE, Chapter 3. A RUDE AWAKENING
It took several hours to do justice to that fabulous meal. By the time we’d finished eating, everyone agreed that a good nap was in order. My folks, being exhausted, were shown to the last available bedroom in the house. It was a nice spacious room upstairs with an eastern exposure providing plenty of sun and a spectacular view of the river.
Christoph and I excused ourselves and cousin Klouse escorted us to our new quarters. About forty paces south of the stone structure stood the carriage house. In the north end of the carriage house was a twelve by fifteen foot area, which had been a tack room. It was a cozy nook with an open beam ceiling and two small windows. This would meet our needs nicely. In one end was a small Franklin fireplace that Uncle Gus had just installed, and snugly arranged in the remaining space were two oak dressers, a washstand with mirror, a massive cherry chifforobe, and a set of bunk beds freshly outfitted with down pillows and flannel comforters. Most of the harness and tack had been removed, but several ancient saddles and accessories still hung from the rafters.
Klouse left us to settle in, and Christoph made a mad dash for the top bunk. I stood there for a moment, scratching dried strudel from the corner of my mouth, and eventually decided I was too tired and too full to put up a respectable fight. The bottom bunk would do nicely. Within minutes, Christoph was snoring away. I slipped my shoes and trousers off and hung my shirt and jacket in the chifforobe. My jacket contained a buttermilk biscuit which I had pocketed prior to leaving the dinner table; force of habit after three months at sea. I set the biscuit on my dresser, sank into that luxurious goose down pillow, and added my snore to the chorus.
That evening the rest of the family had a nice nap and then enjoyed leftovers and a leisurely visit. I missed it! I slept right through until first light of the following morning, when I was awakened by the faint sound of gnawing and crunching. The sun was not yet up, but its approach had filled the eastern horizon with a milky translucence which was spilling through our window and casting its dim light across our cold hardwood floor. It was a cool fall morning and as my vision cleared, I could see my breath in the stillness and hear Christoph’s slow rhythmic breathing in the overhead bunk. All at once, the buttermilk biscuit on my dresser went into convulsions and spasms of violent shaking. I rubbed my eyes and stared in disbelief. It trembled spasmodically for a moment, and then with a terrible shudder it quivered and split into four pieces.
I’d never seen a buttermilk biscuit in such profound distress! Three of the pieces trembled violently for a moment, and then darted across the dresser and shot into the air like pastry possessed, disappearing into a leather saddlebag that hung from a beam over my head. The fourth piece of pastry hesitated for a moment, and then flung itself off the dresser and dashed across the floor and under my bunk; clearly drunken behavior for a biscuit which only yesterday had been stone cold sober.
I was dumbfounded! I sprang to my feet and knocked myself senseless on the edge of Christoph’s bunk. Falling back on my own bunk, I sat there for several moments, fingering my knot and contemplating this remarkable biscuit and its uncharacteristic behavior. The gnawing sounds resumed and built to a fever pitch. Suddenly the saddlebag over my head rustled violently, the flap raised ever so slightly, and several pair of beady black eyes returned my stare. My unsuspecting biscuit had fallen prey to a pack of marauding fairydiddle. These rampaging rodents were about the size of a small rat, but they were outfitted with a flat stubby tail and a flap of skin between each hind leg and forearm which allowed them to glide through the air like a leaf on a blustery day. These little vandals had evidently nested in the rafters, and they’d seen our arrival as an opportunity for a raid. In the future I’ll be considerably more wary of leaving poor, defenseless biscuits unattended, and the next time I jump to a conclusion like that, you can rest assured it won’t be under a bunk bed!
OBIE, Chapter 4. THE OFFERING
The incident with the rascally rodents had stirred me past the point of sleep, and it was way too cold to loiter long without starting a fire in the stove. I dressed quickly and peered out the window to the east. The sun had just begun to rise on another beautiful fall day, the first full day in my newly adopted homeland. The rising sun was just a sliver on the eastern horizon. The carriage house sits within a stone’s throw of the edge of the bluff, but the river valley that was there yesterday was nowhere to be seen. The valley, from the edge of the house to the top of the eastern ridge half a mile away, was full to level with a swirling sea of gradually receding fog. The shaded areas in the yard were sparkling with a light coat of frost, and the areas where the first rays of sun shone, were steaming with their newfound warmth. As the fog dissipated and the vapors rose from the turbulent sea of mist, they caught the sunlight and burst into dazzling displays of shimmering rainbows.
By pressing my face against the window frame, I could just see the edge of Uncle Gus’ cabin at the northeast end of Camp House. A coal oil lamp burned cheerfully in the window, and billowy wisps of smoke boiled from the stovepipe and rose undisturbed through the crisp morning air. Christoph was still sound asleep. I closed the door quietly behind me and found a well-used trail that meandered through the wild azaleas that grew along the bluff. A group of cedar waxwings passed fall berries along the dogwood limbs, and nuthatches chattered noisily as they scrambled up and down the tree trunks in search of breakfast.
As I reached the porch of the cabin, I wiped my feet and peeked in through the lightly frosted windowpane. Uncle Gus was sitting in his rocker by the wood range, and a more elderly gentleman was warming his backside by the crackling fire. Both smiled as I approached, and Uncle Gus motioned for me to enter. My uncle introduced me to Argyle Macgregor, who greeted me with a warm handshake and a thick Scottish accent, which despite my best efforts caused me to breakout in a big, foolish grin.
Following introductions, Uncle Gus and Mr. Macgregor returned to their discussion, and it was soon apparent that their topic of conversation was an unfortunate event. Evidently there had been an accident at a mine up north several days earlier, and a local man by the name of Kinney or Kenny had been killed. The man leaves behind a wife and twelve children who live in the Irish community, which we’d passed the previous day. The family is left with little means of support and winter fast approaching. Uncle Gus and Argyle are planning to provide the family with provisions, which they intend to deliver immediately following breakfast. My uncle invited me to go along and I readily accepted his invitation.
A knock at the door connecting the log cabin to the main house, proved to be cousin Klouse, who rises early every morning in order to accommodate the long drive to town and have the shoe shop open for business by eight o’clock. After hearing our plans, he promptly disappeared, returning momentarily with a splendid navy-blue pea jacket. “This was mine,” he said, handing the heavy wool affair to me and patting his belly. “I think it shrank! If you’re gonna venture out with these two characters, you’d better dress the part.” I broke out in another silly grin as Klouse helped me into the bulky, woolen garment. “That’s better!” exclaimed Klouse. “Now you look like a rip-roarin’, sea-goin’, sun-of-a-sea cook, for sure!” The pea coat was a little big for me, but it was warm, and his kind gesture caught me a little off guard. I wasn’t sure what to say, but I was sincerely delighted with the generous gift, and I grabbed his huge, callused hand and gave it a big squeeze. “Easy there mate!” he said, feigning a grimace, and then went to grinnin’ like a cat in a cream can!
Cousin Irving was up also and had already gone to the field to begin a long day of farm work. Within half an hour no one else had stirred, and Uncle Gus said he was inclined to just let ‘em sleep in. The four of us enjoyed toast, coffee, and soft-boiled eggs, which Uncle Gus prepared in the cabin, and we were soon underway. Cousin Klouse mounted the dappled gray Belgian, bid us adieu, and headed off for the shoe shop.
Mr. Macgregor was driving a small buckboard and had provided an enormous tom turkey, which lay hobbled in the back. We loaded two sacks of whole-wheat flour and a bushel basket of fresh picked sweet corn, Uncle Gus and Mr. Mac Gregor climbed into the driver’s seat, and I was drafted into active duty and assigned the formidable task of squatting cross-legged in the back of the jolting buggy and supervising the bird. The thirty-pound gobbler proved to be amicable enough as long as the ride was smooth, but every time we hit a rut, the turkey would gobble frantically and flog the fire out of me with his powerful wings. The ride to town was long and memorable, but nothing I’d choose to repeat. I spat dust and feathers the entire trip, and the poor disheveled turkey was livid!
After what seemed an eternity, we arrived at Patty Creek. This particular Irish community was home to about fifteen poverty stricken families. The majority of the homes were small, poorly built, wood frame structures, which offered little protection from the elements under even the best conditions. The families were mostly recent immigrants from Ireland, and those members of the community who’d arrived earlier and now considered themselves natives, had received these hungry newcomers with what we’ll charitably call a dubious enthusiasm. It’s the nature of humans and mangy dogs to grab their bone and growl when approached by strangers. These pilgrims from the Emerald Isle were, for the most part, fine, upstanding, Christian folk, but they’d arrived in this country with little or nothing, and most of that was gone.
The men who were able, eked out a meager living in the coalmines up north, and the women struggled to survive by taking in laundry and seamstress work, along with the arduous daily responsibilities inherent in tending to the needs of large numbers of children. Health care was all but nonexistent, and the grim reaper was a visitor they knew all too well.
The Kinney home was a rustic affair, terraced into a steep, rocky bank. There was a small, well-tended plot of ground where the family evidently attempted to produce vegetables, but the reward for their efforts almost certainly made their homelands rapidly worsening potato famine look like a cornucopia. A veritable web of clotheslines surrounded the weathered house, each one waving a generous variety of well-worn linens and badly frayed overalls. In the yard a Yorkshire sow spread herself contentedly in the luxurious sun, as a gaggle of diaper clad toddlers mingled with the ol’ sows’ litter and played king of the mountain on an overturned washtub. The porch was home to a threadbare sofa, and half a dozen bantam chickens sunned and preened themselves along the railing.
As we climbed the rickety stairs, a twelve-year-old boy came to the door and introduced himself as Lidge Timothy Kinney the third. His mother had taken to her bed, but he’d fetch his aunt. Mrs. O’Meara was probably about forty, but the years had not been kind. She forced her worry-worn face into a weary but pleasant smile and asked what she could do for us. Mr. Mac Gregor took her by the work-withered hand and explained why we’d come. Her tired eyes welled up with tears, and she quivered with a restrained sob. “Please wait here.” She said. In a moment she returned assisting Mrs. Kinney. The old woman took Uncle Gus’s hand in both of hers and stared appreciatively into his sympathetic face. Tears streamed down her furrowed cheeks as she bit her trembling lip and sighed. “God bless you,” she said, and was overcome with grief.
Mr. Macgregor and I excused ourselves and began unloading the provisions. Earlier in the day the provisions had seemed to me a more than ample gift. Now somehow, they seemed very small indeed. Lidge locked the turkey in the chicken house, and we carried the rest of our offering through the meager kitchen into a small, almost empty pantry. Mrs. Kinneys’ eldest daughter Laura was doing dishes, and ten year old Mariah stood clutching her apron and wiping her lustrous brown eyes. As I sat a sack of flour down by the dry sink, Mariah’s eyes momentarily fixed on mine. Both of us blushed and glanced immediately away, but somewhere in the cosmos the connection was already made. As I arose, I involuntarily offered my hand. Mariah seized it eagerly, drew me tenderly to her side, and the two of us joined unexpectedly in embrace. She sobbed quietly for a moment, her fragile form quivering against my chest, and then those huge brown eyes gazed once again into mine. “We can’t thank you enough.” She said, in a tiny, trembling voice, “Papa’s gone, and Mama’s heart is broke.”
I squeezed her hand and tried to force a smile, but she’d touched me too deeply. The smile wouldn’t come. I bent down, kissing her gently on the forehead, and Uncle Gus laid his hand on my shoulder and said compassionately, “Come along Obadiah, Let’s go home.”
OBIE, Chapter 5 MORE LIKE A SAILOR
The month of October sailed swiftly by as we worked diligently to become assimilated into our new home. Becoming a functioning member of a new household is a tremendous blessing and a formidable task! Early on, my brother and I were versed in a few ground rules. First and foremost, we were cautioned to steer a wide birth around my uncles’ leather-bound Testament. Among Uncle Gus’ many treasures was one of the first collections of scripture printed in the Colonies. Back in 1724, Christopher Sower, the Kasebier family, and a number of other pilgrims from the Church of The Brethren, arrived in Philadelphia from back home in Germany. They’d barely gotten their land-legs when the little band of believers found themselves at odds with the local parishioners, because of the Brethren’s infuriating adherence to Christ’s principles of nonviolence, and their exasperating advocacy for the country’s longsuffering Native Americans. Mercy and tolerance may be fine for Christ, but they chafe polite society.
Around 1738, Brother Christopher gets this care package from Germany, and in this shipment is a dandy printing outfit. Well, Mr. Sower goes to printing flyers and biblical scripture in German, and ticks off the local printer. Ol’ Ben Franklin, a pretty competent printer himself, was not amused by the sudden competition, particularly from what he considered the alarmingly virulent German portion of Pennsylvania’s populace, but he was way too busy entertaining the ladies, and drafting Declarations, and flying’ kites and such, to pursue his objections with his usual gusto, so Mr. Sower’s print shop flourished.
Uncle Gus’ prized volume occupied a place of reverence on top of his roll top desk, for use during our times of study and devotion, and we kids were under strict orders not to molest the hoary old manuscript, on pain of death and dismemberment! If a lightning bolt didn’t dispatch us, Uncle Gus would!
Despite this terrible temptation, we gradually settled into a routine and found ways of becoming productive members of our new extended family. Christoph bonded quickly with Klouse and was invited to accompany him to the shop and observe the art of shoe making. Christoph has always been good with his hands, and in a short time he’d developed into a remarkably talented cobbler.
Mother assisted the women of the house with myriad household duties and applied herself liberally toward assisting Irving’s wife, Kathleen with the tutelage of the children. Father soon settled into his usual routine of rising each morning at four o’clock. Most mornings he and Uncle Gus were on their second pot of coffee before the rest of us had begun to stir. Gus was acting ramrod of the operation, and Father settled in handily as his assistant. The two of them would discuss the day’s activities and then assign each of us our tailboard as we arrived for breakfast.
I began each day by rolling out at six o’clock and assisting with morning chores. Breakfast was at seven, followed by four hours of home schooling. Lunch break was at twelve sharp, and I finished up my workday with four or five hours of what Irving liked to call, the duties of a muleskinners apprentice. The bulk of those duties consisted of cleaning stalls. If you’re not familiar with cleaning mule stalls, count your blessings! I’ll spare ya the details, but suffice it to say, it’s a thankless and never-ending task that deals mainly with the removal of animal excrement!
Most of my daily work routine centered on the subject of mules, and I was knee-deep in the subject the majority of the time! Muleskinner is the term used to describe the driver, trainer, or handler, who provides direction to the mules. This task is greatly exacerbated by the mules’ natural tendency to provide their own direction.
The ranch maintained a remuda of twenty to twenty-five mares or female horses and a cantankerous band of half a dozen male donkeys, or jacks. Crossbreeding the female horses with the male donkeys produced mules. On a good year the mares produce fifteen to twenty mules that are then trained and marketed the following year. Well-trained mules are always in high demand, and they bring high dollar when properly marketed. Between fence mending, pasture improvements, birthing, grooming, training, marketing, and my all time favorite, stall cleaning, caring for the mules is a never-ending chore.
November seventeenth marked the tenth anniversary of my birth. The day was much like any other until we’d completed our workday and finished dinner. After dinner we were all summoned to the huge fireplace at the south end of the dining room. The grownups quickly commandeered the few chairs and we kids joined excitedly in an unappreciated skirmish as we all competed rowdily for the throw pillows. Eventually Klouse casually applied his knuckle to the top of several craniums, and we formed ranks peacefully on the floor. Calm being established, Uncle Gus hoisted a cast-iron Dutch oven from the coals, removed the black, coal-covered lid, and began serving up steaming hot apple dumplings. Irving made a mad dash for the springhouse, tying his old record-breaking time of two and a half minutes and returning with a pewter pitcher of thick cream that had been skimmed from the morning’s milk. Apple dumplings with thick cream, in front of a crackling fire, life doesn’t get better than that.
Within a few minutes, Klouse had scarfed down his dumplings and dashed from the room. He returned moments later, grinning like a possum and toting a canvas sack. I was evidently the only one not in on this surprise, and the entire family beamed with excitement. They all sang a German birthday ditty as Klouse handed me the mystery sack. I held the sack closed for a moment, embarrassed by being suddenly the center of attention, and then I dumped its contents out on the floor and gazed excitedly at a brand new pair of black, polished leather, cowboy boots. “Try ‘em on!” Klouse prompted enthusiastically, “Those don’t look like a muleskinners boots to me.”
Father smiled and handed me a pair of wool stockings that Mother had darned for the occasion, and I sprawled on the floor and fought feverishly to remove a knot from the sinew laces of the old shoes that had served as my only footwear since leaving Germany. I slipped into my new socks amidst howls of laughter, while the other kids held their noses and rolled on the floor, feigning agony and laughing hysterically.
I tugged at each boot until it slipped snugly into place, tucked in my trouser legs, and headed out boldly with the expectation of sauntering rakishly across the room. Needless to say the response was immediate and unrestrained when my first step rendered me spraddle legged in a big heap on the floor. Struggling quickly to my feet and feigning indifference to the deafening jocularity, I fought for balance and headed out again. The high tops were initially bothersome and it was some time before I grew accustomed to the dizzying altitude afforded by the two inch under slung heels, but persistence paid off, and eventually I was able to negotiate the room with a jaunty gait reminiscent of a hatchling colt. “Well gees Louise!” exclaimed Irving, shaking his head and feigning annoyance, “Those are supposed to be farm hand boots, and you walk more like a sailor than ever!”
Barn Dance & Moonlit Coral
OBIE, Chapter 6 AN EXCITING PROSPECT
The last Saturday of the month was to feature a harvest festival in town. There was to be a clambake that Uncle Gus was looking forward to, horse-shoe-pitching contests, and a big barn dance. The whole family joined in and made a day of it. By the time the dance began late that evening, the old folks had just about had their fill of food, frolic, and foolishness. They’d had all the fun they could stand! They were full of clams and fritters and longed for home and hearth. Irving and Kathleen decided to stay for the square dancing, and the rest of the family was headed home. I was pretty tired myself, but I was desperate to try out my new boots on the dance floor, and as I turned hesitantly to follow my folks, I locked eyes with the prettiest little red-haired girl that I had ever seen! She and several other young ladies were eyeing me coyly from across the dance floor, and their combined effect was more than sufficient to impair the best judgment of any naive ten-year-old, new boots and all. After several minutes of protest, Mother succumbed to my pleadings and agreed to let me stay for the dance and come home later with Irving and Kathleen.
The rest of the family headed home, and I bought a mug of cider and an ear of corn on the cob and sat down on the edge of the loft, dangling my legs and grinning ear to ear! Enthusiastic doesn’t begin to describe my state. I was exhilarated to the point of apoplexy! After finishing my refreshments, I licked my fingers, descended from the loft, and took my place alongside the other expectant onlookers, in hopes of an opportunity to join in the fun. I didn’t have long to wait. After a few minutes, the four young ladies whom I’d observed earlier began working their way around the floor, sizing up and critiquing the crowd of would-be dance partners. One by one they’d scrutinize the embarrassed observers and point out their shortcomings, much as though they were comparing plucked poultry on market day. “What about this one?” One would ask, and the others would offer criticisms, “too short, too thin, and too eager!”
The most vocal, and unquestioned leader of the pack was, of course, the little red-haired girl! She had the reddest hair, the thickest freckles, and the most luxurious get-along that I had ever seen, and as she approached, I held my breath and felt for all the world, like the black sheep in a lamb-judging contest.
With the rest of the pack following closely and grinning with anticipation, the little red-haired girl stepped up boldly, looked me over briefly, and then stared intently into my face. I stared at my feet for a moment, bracing for rejection and humiliation, and then I swallowed hard and returned her gaze. “Dance?” she asked enthusiastically, and then offered a soft, thin, freckled hand. My head was swimming, my heart pounded, and I was dangerously light-headed from holding my breath! I grabbed her hand, we took our place in a newly formed square, bowed to our partner, and the fiddle began to play.
That little red-headed temptress whizzed tirelessly and elegantly around the room, frock flying and pigtails trailing, and I galloped happily at her side like a gangly pup, thoroughly enraptured, in a state of perfect bliss! We alabamed right and alabamed left and dosiedoed around that barn for the better part of an hour, and all at once I became aware that my poor feet were throbbing madly in those new boots, and several of my toes were clearly in tremendous distress! Just then the little red-haired girl turned hard a starboard, and we promenaded through the back door of that ol’ barn and out into the dark emptiness of the dimly moonlit corral beyond. A thousand breathtaking possibilities flooded my mind and weakened both my knees. And then, as I wrapped my arms around that warm, moist, gingham-clad form, and her sweet, cider-scented breath filled my nostrils, a milking stool came down on my head and the darkness took me in and swallowed me up!
Moments later the cool, wet, evening air rushed back into my lungs, the fowl taste of barnyard dirt filled my mouth, and a vaguely familiar voice inquired “Is that you Mr. Camp?” It was Lidge Timothy Kinney the third. “Well, I’m not certain of anything right at the moment,” I said. “I believe it’s me.” “Are you all right?” “Well, the back of my head is leakin’ some, but I don’t think nothin’s busted.” “I don’t know about that,” said Lidge with a grimace. “This milkin’ stool is ruint!”
Lidge helped me to my feet and picked a piece of straw out of my hair. Do you remember me?” he enquired. “You bet! You’re Lidge Timothy Kinney the III.” He flashed a big grin and stared at the ground in embarrassment. “You can call me Lidge.” He said. “Sure enough!” I responded. “Call me Obie.”
“Well Lidge, did you happen to see what happened ‘fore the lights went out?” “Yes sir. I was over yonder seein’ a man about a horse when you and Maggie Mae come waltzin’ out, so I just sat there quiet like to see what ‘ud happen next. Next thing ya know, Maggie’s brother Teddy sneaks out of the shadows with that milkin’ stool and raises this big ol’ knot on your noggin. Then the two of ‘em starts rummaging through your pockets. Did they get your billfold? ” He asked. “ I don’t have pockets or a billfold.” I answered. “Did they take anything?” “I don’t think so. I spent my last nickel on a roastin’ ear and a cup o’ cider. ‘Cept for the skull fracture, I’m just as they found me.” “Well then,” says Lidge. “We’ll just consider this whole affair an unfortunate imposition.”
We cleaned me up and brushed me off, and Lidge put his hand on my shoulder. “How about another apple cider to wash down that mouthful of dirt?” enquired Lidge. “Sounds good to me.” I said. “This whole affair has left a bad taste in my mouth. Do you know those two?” “Yeah.” said Lidge disgustedly. “I know ‘em. That was Maggie Mae O’Meara and her pesky brother Ted. They live just down the hill from us. They’re always into something! She is pretty though!” said Lidge, grinning and eyeing me expectantly. “Pretty ornery!” I replied.
We finished our cider and reported back to Irving and Kathleen who were getting ready to leave. “Are you here by yourself?” I asked Lidge. “Yep! I walked here with some other kids from the neighborhood, but I figure they’re long gone.” Lidge readily accepted my offer of a ride home, and the four of us headed for the buckboard. Once in the buckboard, Irving hollered “Giddy-up!” and the mule headed out at a leisurely pace. Lidge and I sat dangling our legs off the tailgate and laughing till our sides ached about my short-lived love affair with little Maggie Mae.
As we approached the turnoff to the Irish settlement, Lidge pointed to a dilapidated old frame building with one window broken out and a badly leaning steeple, “Ya see that dandy cathedral over yonder? That’s our church. Have you got plans for tomorrow?” “Just church.” I said. “Why don’t you come to church with my family and me?” asked Lidge, “and then spend the afternoon.”
His sudden invitation caught me a little unprepared. I’d attended Catholic churches all my life, and although I held no animosity toward the Protestant faith, I’d never actually entertained any thoughts of attending Sunday worship with a good Baptist. As I pondered the possibilities, my first inclination was to politely decline. My mothers’ response would be considerably less than pleasant, and Dad would almost certainly have a stroke!
Then I remembered Lidge’s sisters. I’d thought about Mariah often since our brief encounter in the Kinney’s kitchen. I’d gone over the events of our meeting in my head till her memory was a part of my heart. When I close my eyes at night I see Mariah’s.
As the buckboard pulled up at the Kinney place, Lidge slid to the ground, looked at me inquiringly, and asked, “See ya tomorrow?” “I’ll see ya in church.” I said waving broadly at my new friend, and the mule broke into a dogtrot as we headed out for home.
A single candle flickered in the window as we pulled up at Camp house, but I breathed a huge sigh of relief as we entered the room and found everyone sound asleep. There would surely be consequences for returning so late from the festival, and a family discussion of tomorrow’s church plans was better left till I was rested and rehearsed.
As I entered my room a fairydiddle eyed me cautiously for a moment and then returned to licking his tiny pink paws and smoothing his prodigious whiskers. Christoph was snoring peacefully in his bunk, and the last remaining embers from the evening’s fire cast a hospitable glow across the room. I eased slowly into the oak rocker by the stove, hoping to avoid waking my brother with the chairs characteristic squeak, and then gazed out the window at a familiar harvest moon. My first month on this strange new shore had been memorable and productive. I’d already been blessed with a comfortable new home and a remarkable new family, and today’s adventures had secured one new friend and offered exciting prospects for another. My heart was light, my hopes high, and my spirits fairly soared!
OBIE, Chapter 7. THE PATTY CREEK BAPTIST CHURCH
I overslept a little the following morning. When I did wake up, I lay under the covers for several minutes, recalling the events of the previous day and contemplating ways of nonchalantly approaching my folks in regard to my plans for church. I was cautiously optimistic that their permission could be had, but it wouldn’t be cheap nor easy!
When I eventually stuck my head out from under the covers, Christoph who was normally the late riser was already dressed and gone. I slipped on my socks before stepping onto the cold hardwood floor, and then sprinted for the chifforobe to collect my trousers and a flannel shirt. I could see my breath as I pulled on my work boots. The Franklin stove was stone cold. No use to loiter there! I completed the chores quickly and set my sights on the kitchen and a nice warm cook stove. With a little luck, I could thaw out my backside and sneak a piece of bacon too! As I passed the mudroom by the pantry, I met Christoph shivering in his drawers. Christoph had commandeered a kettle of hot water from the kitchen and was midway through the thirty second dousing, which in his mind passed for a sponge bath. With the exception of the semi-monthly occasion of an actual hot bath in the galvanized tub on the back porch, bathing was an unpleasant ritual that was performed only by necessity and under duress. Mother was a stickler for good hygiene, and even though there had been occasions when we were able to outrun Mother, Mother knew where we lived!
As soon as Christoph had met his obligation, I stripped down, grabbed a fresh warshcloth, and followed suit. That ordeal over with, I ran back to my room, donned my Sunday shirt and new boots, and headed back for the kitchen. As I passed the pantry, several of the younger children were paying their dues with what was left of the kettle of hot water. Being deep in thought, I lacked the attentiveness that the situation demanded. Suddenly a barrage of ringing wet warshcloths interrupted my meditation, lambasting me alongside the head and rendering me momentarily senseless. Despite the fact that this unprovoked assault momentarily fouled my normally sweet disposition, there was little I could do in retaliation. The precedent had long been established, and I should have been more alert. I was, nonetheless, seriously considering retribution when my attention was diverted suddenly by the smell of breakfast.
The women folk were hard at work as I entered the kitchen. Sunday breakfast was a big event and required plenty of time and preparation. Kathleen and Maggie rose at the crack of dawn in order to have the old cast-iron range fired up and the oven heated to a temperature sufficient to produce golden brown biscuits. Mother was mixing hot cake batter in a large blue bowl and Maggie was slicing bacon. Father and Uncle Gus were sitting near the fire sipping their coffee. “How was the square dance?” Father asked as I entered the room. Mother eyed me curiously and Father emphasized his inquiry with a look reminiscent of his parting glare as he left me at the festival the previous evening. “Pretty good.” I responded cautiously. “What time did you get home?”was his next query? “Pretty late.” I replied. “Pretty late I guess!” exclaimed Mother, and assaulted her batter with an increased vigor!
“Less than an hour until we need to leave for church.” Father observed suggestively. “Are you ready?” “About church.” I said hesitantly. Father and Mother both eyed me suspiciously. “I’ve been invited to attend church with the Kinney’s.” This comment was followed by a long, disquieting silence. Uncle Gus studied me curiously for a moment, and then smiled quietly into his cup while we both waited for the other shoe to drop. Mother stirred her batter slowly and deliberately and asked, “Do the Kinney’s attend the little Catholic church west of town?” “No Mother,” I replied casually. “The Kinney’s attend the little Baptist church down by Patty Creek.”
Well, it got unholy quiet now. My folks were both stupefied and speechless, and I just starred at the floor and strained my ears to hear if I was still breathing. Eventually Uncle Gus broke the silence, “The Kinney’s are good Christian folks, and I know the pastor down at Patty Creek. That’s where Argyle attends services. I think it would be a good experience for the boy. Obadiah needs some new friends. He’d have fun with the Kinney kids, and it’ll be healthy for them to have a good influence like Obadiah.”
I wanted to hug Uncle Gus awful bad right then, but I just kept still and tried to sneak a peek at Dad. Dad took a big drink of coffee, smoothed his mustache, and then looked thoughtfully at Uncle Gus for a moment. “Well Mother!” He said. “We brought Obadiah thousands of miles to begin a new life. I guess it’s probably time we let him live it.” Mother wasn’t happy, but she just held her tongue and whipped that helpless batter to a froth! That morning we had the lightest, fluffiest hot cakes you’ve ever seen. Everyone mentioned it. Little else was said.
Lidge was waiting for me out front when we pulled up at Patty Creek. It takes three or four stout rigs to haul all the Camps to Sunday meeting. By the time ya get all eighteen of us decked out, dolled up, and seated, we’re a sight to behold. It’s downright inspirational! When Lidge saw the whole bunch of us pull up at the church, his eyes got big as saucers. He sprang to attention like he’d just seen ol’ George Warshington hisself! There are about fifty saintly souls in the Patty creek congregation, give or take a few backslid pretenders, and every soul had his nose against the window. The whole place steamed up somethin’ fierce! They were all fired up and ready to share the Good News. You know those were some mighty disappointed Christians when I sashayed up all by my lonesome, and the rest of the regiment waved and headed out.
Lidge met me at the door all lit up like a lamp peddler and shook my hand like he meant it, not one of those dainty finger squeezing jobs like ya get from city folk. Lidge took a holt, got a good grip, and bore down! I knew right off that Lidge and I was pards. When we stepped into the church, I got the same treatment from the whole outfit. By the time I found a seat, I’d met the preacher and the entire congregation. I guess they don’t get to entertain many Catholics down at Patty Creek. I pretty well cornered the market.
As if that wasn’t blessing enough, there were just two seats left in the pew with the Kinney’s. Lidge took his place at the end of the row, and I, after considerable squirming, managed to squeeze in right between Lidge and Mariah. Mariah smiled coyly and patted me gingerly on the knee. It was early yet to know for sure and certain, but I was beginning to believe that becoming a Baptist might not be half bad!
They didn’t hold much stock in lots of pomp and circumstance like they do at a good Catholic shindig, but those Baptists sure do sing some rousing songs! The preacher knew the whole book by heart, and he preached Jesus crucified and risen, just like he’d seen the whole thing hisself. The festivities got louder and happier as time went on, till folks were shouting halleluiah, and the whole church was howling like a blustery March wind! The spirit filled that building till I couldn’t keep my seat; my throat swelled and I couldn’t get my breath. Then Mariah took my hand in hers, the tears streamed down my face, and hand in hand we headed for the front. Those Baptists shouted, “Glory!” We kneeled before the Lord; the spirit moved, and two young souls were saved! Well I don’t know how it happened, and my folk’s will have a cow! But I’m a member and a deacon at the Patty Creek General Baptist Church of God!
OBIE, Chapter 8. THE ABYSSAfter the morning service at Patty Creek, we hiked up the hill to the Kinney’s. Lidge assisted Mrs. Kinney, Mariah and I followed, Laura carried the baby, and the youngsters rode drag on the herd of toddlers. Laura had prepared a pot of son-of-a-gun-stew prior to leaving for church, and as we entered the Kinney home, the whole atmosphere was permeated with the delightful aroma of stewed bacon and simmering potatoes. Mrs. Kinney brought a large pan of flaky, whole-wheat biscuits out of the oven, and Lidge asked the blessing on our meal. The scene was reminiscent of the biblical account of the loaves and the fishes. I couldn’t see how one pot of stew could feed so many people. Somehow it did.
Lidge, Mariah, and I filled our bowls, grabbed a biscuit, and adjourned to the porch to visit. Lidge and I chattered excitedly about the church service, and I became gradually aware that Mariah seemed strangely subdued. I remained silent until I had Lidge’s attention, and then nodded in Mariah’s’ direction to indicate my concern for her silence. Lidge nodded understandingly, “She’s just nervous about being baptized next Sunday.” He said. “She’s scared o’ the water.”
Mariah looked up shyly and nodded in affirmation of her brothers’ observation. I was amazed at his insight, and I had to admire his sagacity. “Well that’s nothing to worry about Mariah.” I said. “It only lasts a minute.” “This won’t be no Catholic sprinkling!” Lidge piped up. “This is a Baptist service. They’re gonna give her a real good dunking in the swimming hole, head and all!”
“Have you been Baptized Obadiah?” Mariah enquired expectantly. “I’ve been sprinkled.” I answered. “But I’ve not been dunked!” Mariah looked at me imploringly with those huge brown eyes and asked, “Would you be baptized with me on Sunday?” I tried to back water, but I was already in too deep! “Well sure.” I said. I forced a smile on the outside but inside I’m thinking, how in the world will I ever face Mom and Dad? By the time my folks are finished with me, I won’t need Baptizing at all. I’ll just need an epitaph. Here lies Obie, cold and dead. He should have gone to mass instead!
After lunch, we took our bowls back in the house. The younger children had already gone out back to play and Mrs. Kinney asked Laura to run and see what they were in to. The three of us decided to tag along. The Kinney home is terraced into the side of a deep ravine, and at the bottom of the ravine is an immense blackberry patch. The tangled thicket achieves six to eight feet in height and sprawls for sixty feet across the gully and as far as the eye can see up and down the ravine. A wet weather stream meanders through the middle, and here and there Spruce trees pierce the dense canopy of briars, competing for the sunshine and littering the ravine floor with a luxurious carpet of dry needles. Several of the evergreens sport tree-forts assembled from lumber the children have salvaged from the wreckage of an abandoned barn. A network of paths and tunnels connect the forts with each other and the outer banks.
The balmy fall afternoon was almost summer-like, and between the sounds of children at play, frogs sang from the creek bank and a pair of Mourning doves cooed a melancholy refrain in the distance. A well-traveled trail formed several switchbacks during its’ decent down the steep bank and ended abruptly at a small clearing just inside the thicket.
From this point on, the four of us would have to crawl on our hands and knees. Earlier in the season, our efforts might have been rewarded with a bounty of juicy blackberries. The berries were long gone, but the sharp thorns remained, camouflaged by the thick purple foliage of an extended Indian summer. Despite our best efforts, the thorns snatched at our clothes, and periodically resulted in a “youch!” and a grimace, as a determined thorn found it’s mark and pierced somebody’s hide.
As we approached one of the spruce trees, a half-dozen of the Kinney kids paused and observed our approach with, first suspicion, and then delight. At the ripe ol’ age of thirteen, Laura is too old and much too busy to devote much time to child’s play. The youngsters considered this intrusion of adolescents a real treat and several little ones latched onto Laura’s skirt as we entered their hideout. “Tell us a story Laura. Please! Please!” “Tell us about the ghosts.” “Not now!” Said Laura feigning annoyance but obviously pleased by the attention. The kids continued their clamor, eventually weakening their elder sibling’s resolve. “Alright! Alright!” Laura acquiesced, collapsing into a bed of needles at the base of a towering Spruce.
“Once upon a time there was a spooky ol’ ghost dressed all in black.” That’s as far as she got! The littlest Kinney had a question. “If ghosts are just spirit,” She asked musingly, “why do they need clothes at all?” “Good question.” admitted Laura contemplatively. This line of thought peaked the children’s curiosity, resulting in several additional questions. “If ghosts wear clothes,” asked another, “do they have to warsh ‘em? Do ghosts get ring around the collar?” This resulted in an outburst of exuberant laughter, exacerbated by youthful enthusiasm. Lidge perked up and his face shone with recognition of his opportunity to participate. “I wonder,” he said, grinning with anticipation, “If ghosts get lint in their belly-buttons.” “Ghosts don’t have bellybuttons silly!” chimed the twins in unison, and the entire hollow rang with squeals of laughter.
In the middle of this jocularity, the briars rustled and in stepped two more youngsters. Mick and Sid O’Meara had overheard the ruckus from across the hollow and come to investigate the cause of all the merriment. Mick seemed to sense the jovial mood of the assembly almost immediately. He sprawled on the ground, rested his chin on his hands, and offered a yarn of his own. “You should have seen what happened at our house! There’s a big ol’ alligator turtle in our pond. The McCauley’s cow was standing belly deep, cooling off the other day, when that ol’ snapper swum up and bit the end right out of one o’ her spickets!” The kids all groaned and grabbed their chests. The response was spontaneous and only served to encourage the storyteller. “‘Fore we could get a tourniquet on her,” he continued, “that ol’ cow leaked out three buckets o’ buttermilk!”
“Oh, go on!” said Laura. “That’s nothin’!” announced Lidge. “We had a big ol’ wolf trap set at our pond, tryin’ to catch a darned ol’ coon. One o’ them big snappers got caught by the neck. ‘Fore we could drag him out and give ‘im what fore, that rascal chewed his head off and got clean away! A couple o’ days later he come draggin’ up the hill, fit as a fiddle and carryin’ his head in his mouth!”
At that moment a distant “Helluuu” echoed from the hill in the direction of the O’Meara place. “Skedaddle!” whispered Sid. “That’s Ted.” Mick and Sid vanished into the thicket as muffled voices became audible at the edge of the hollow. Laura and the little Kinney’s made tracks for higher ground too! Evidently Ted runs with a gang of area roughnecks, and the whole bunch run roughshod over the entire neighborhood. “That’s Ted and those other ruffians,” said Lidge. “We don’t want ‘em to see us either.” “Come on.” Whispered Mariah, and she headed up the trail toward home.
As we reached the edge of the briar patch, Ted and his friends were closing fast. I figured this was all in good fun, but I still had a knot on my head from my first encounter with Ted and his red-haired sister. I got the impression that there was an element of real risk in these games. Both Lidge and Mariah seemed serious about getting out of sight.
We were still a hundred yards from the Kinney place at the top of the hill, when we rounded a bend and the trail forked. “This way.” panted Lidge as he took the right fork. Seconds later the three of us stood humped over and gasping for breath at the door of a ramshackle ol’ outhouse. At the sound of hurried footsteps close behind, we crowded into the tiny refuge and Lidge bolted the door. It was pitch black inside, the atmosphere was close and stifling, and the odor was exceedingly unpleasant! I desperately wanted to hold my breath but we were all breathing too heavily for that. I stepped up onto the business seat to help ease the crowding, and Lidge braced himself and leaned against the door.
As I stood up on the bench my head hit a rafter, the heat was oppressive, I was all but smothered in a veil of cobwebs, and an indignant wasp began buzzing threateningly around my ears. I started to speak to Mariah, but she laid her finger against my lips and said “shhhh!” Her finger was only against my lips for an instant, but somehow her touch left me warm all over!
As I stood straddling that outhouse seat and crouching to avoid that pesky wasp, my face was just inches from the top of Mariah’s head. I could feel the warmth from her body and smell her long lustrous hair. I pretended to lose my balance as an excuse to lay my hand on her shoulder. She glanced up at me very briefly and then ever so gently she laid her hand on mine. I held my breath, my pulse quickened, and Ted and the band of ruffians arrived outside the door. There were muffled voices and stifled chuckling, and then in unison they counted “one, two, three,” and leaned heavily into the side of that board and batten john. Our fragile refuge listed dangerously to starboard, that ornery wasp planted his rapier-like stinger deep into the lobe of my ear, and both my feet, new boots and all, slipped into that big black hole!
Seconds later Lidge threw open the outhouse door, Ted and the ruffians let out with war whoops as they disappeared down the path, and the blinding light of day rushed in on a sad and sorry spectacle. That dreadful abyss had engulfed me right up to the armpits, my ribcage was stuck tight as a cork in its’ terrible jaws, and a powerful aroma brought evidence, I was stuck knee-deep in that holes’ contents. Abandon hope all ye who enter here! The bowels of the beast made a hideous sucking sound as Lidge and Mariah laboriously extricated me from my predicament. My clenched toes clung desperately to my left boot, and that Godless pit claimed the other!