The Able McLaughlins

Margaret Wilson

Preview: Issue 1 of 22


The prairie lay that afternoon as it had lain for centuries of September afternoons, vast as an ocean; motionless as an ocean coaxed into very little ripples by languid breezes; silent as an ocean where only very little waves slip back into their element. One might have walked for hours without hearing anything louder than high white clouds casting shadows over the distances, or the tall slough grass bending lazily into waves. One might have gone on startled only by the falling of scarlet swamp-lily seeds, by sudden goldfinches, or the scratching of young prairie chickens in the shorter grasses. For years now not even a baby buffalo had called to its mother in those stretches, or an old squaw broken ripening wild grapes from the creek thicket. Fifteen years ago one might have gone west for months without hearing a human voice. Even that day a traveler might easily have missed the house where little David and the fatter little Sarah sat playing, for it was less in the vastnesses about it than one short bubble in a wave's crest. Ten years ago the children's father had halted his ox team there, finishing his journey from Ayrshire, and his eight boys and girls alighting upon the summer's crop of wild strawberries, had harvested it with shrieks of delight which broke forever the immediate part of the centuries' silence. A solitary man would have left the last source of human noise sixty miles behind him, where the railroad ended. But this farsighted pioneer had brought with him a strong defense against the hush that maddens. He had a real house now. The log cabin in which he and his nine, his brother and his ten, his two sisters and their sixteen had all lived that first summer, was now but a mere woodshed adjoining the kitchen. The house was a fine affair, built from lumber hauled but forty miles—so steadily the railroad crept westward—and finished, the one half in wild cherry cut from the creek, and the other half in walnut from the same one source of wood. Since the day of the first McLaughlin alighting there had arrived, altogether, to settle more or less near him, on land bought from the government, his three brothers and four sisters, his wife's two brothers and one sister, bringing with them the promising sum of sixty-nine children, all valiant enemies of quietness and the fleeing rattlesnakes. Some of the little homes they had built for themselves could be seen that afternoon, like distant specks on the ocean. But Sarah and David had no eyes just then for distant specks.

They had grown tired of watching the red calf sleep, and Davie was trying to make it get up. Finally in self-defense, it rose, and having found itself refreshed, began gamboling about, trying its length of rope, its tail satisfactorily erect. The two had to retreat suddenly to the doorstep where Hughie sat, so impetuous it grew. Hughie was not, like the others, at home because he was too small to go to school. Indeed, no! Hughie was ten, and at home today because he had been chilling, the day before, with the fever that rose from the newly-broken prairie. The three of them sat quiet only a moment.

"Why does he frisk his tail so?" Davie asked.

"He's praising the Lord," replied Hughie, wise and wan.

"Is he now!" exclaimed Davie, impressed. "Does God like it?"

"Fine," said Hughie. That was an easy one. "It's in the Psalm. Creeping things and all ye cattle."

Davie sat for some time sharing his Maker's pleasure in the antics of happy calves. Then bored—perhaps like his Maker—he turned to other things. He rose, and went down the path towards the road, and stood looking down it, in the direction from which the older children must come, surely soon now, from school. Only here and there along that path where they would appear was the grass not higher than the children's heads; in some places it was higher than a man on horseback. There seemed no children in sight.

But wasn't that someone coming down there on the other road?

"I see somebody coming on the road, Hughie!" he called.

"You do not!" answered Hughie. It wasn't at all likely anybody was coming. Yet in case anything so unusual was happening, he would just have a look. Sarah waddled after him.

Ship ahoy!

Was that really something moving down there in the further slough? The three stood still, peering across the prairie, hands sheltering eyes, barefooted, the boys in the most primitive of homemade overalls, Sarah in an apron unadorned, the golden autumn sunshine blowing around them. They stood looking. ...

Then the homecoming children emerged from the tall grass into which the younger ones were strongly forbidden to go, because children sometimes got fatally lost in it, and at this signal the three ran to meet them, crying out the news. Gaining the little rise of ground again, upon which the house stood, they all paused together to look at whatever it was that drew near, Mary, the oldest of them, the teacher, Jessie and Flora, James and Peter.

Yes! There was no doubt about it now!

" 'Tis a team!" cried Peter.

" 'Tis a pair of grays!" he added in a moment. They were all perfectly motionless from curiosity now. Who had grays in that neighborhood?

"There's two men in it," Mary affirms.

Then Peter yells,

"One is wearing blue!" They can scarcely breathe now.

Blue! Can it be blue! This is too much for Mary.

"Run, Peter!" she cries. "Tell mother! Get father! It has the looks of a soldier!" It is three weeks now since the last battle, since word has come from Wully. The little girls are jumping about in excitement.

The children's shouts had not at all disturbed the mother in the kitchen, where she sat sewing, until—could she believe her ears?—they were shouting, " 'Tis Wully, mother! 'Tis Wully!" She ran out of the house, down the path.

"It never is!" she says, unsteadily. But she can see someone in blue, someone standing up, waving a cap now. She can see his white face. The children bolt down the road. She can see him, her black-bearded firstborn. The driver is whipping up the horses. Home from battles, pale to the lips, he is in her arms. But she is paler.

"Run for your father!" she cries, to whoever will heed her. The children are pulling at him boisterously. The strange driver is patting his horses, his back to the family reunited. Hugged, and kissed, and patted and loved, the bearded Wully turns to the stranger.

"This is Mr. Knight, of Tyler, mother. He brought me all the way."

" 'Tis a kind thing you have done!" she exclaims, shaking his hand devoutly.

"Oh, he was a soldier. And he didn't look able to walk so far."

"You're not sick!" she cries to Wully, scanning his face. Certainly he was not sick, now. He could have walked it, but he was glad he didn't have to, he adds, smiling engagingly at the stranger. They stand together awkwardly, joy-smitten, looking at one another, excited beyond words. Then the mother leads the way to the unpainted house, the children hanging to Wully, dancing about.

The fifteen-year-old Andrew was working in the farther part of the field just below the house that afternoon, when he saw, from a distance, his father, called by Peter, suddenly leave his plow, and run towards the house surely faster than an old man ever runs. His own team was fly-bitten and restless, and he left it just long enough to see that in front of the house there was a team and a light wagon. He unhitched his half-broken young steers, urged them impatiently to the nearest tying place, and hurried to the house.

What he saw there made so great an impression on him, that fifty-seven years later, when that stranger's grandson was one of the disheartened veterans of the World War who came to his office looking for work, the whole scene rose before him in such poignancy that he had to turn his head away abruptly, remembering. ...

There in the kitchen, in his mother's chair sat the stranger in the fine clothes, with a drink of whisky in his hand which his father had just poured out. There on the bed sat his great gaunt brother in blue, one trouser leg rolled up to his hairy knee. There on a strip of carpet in front of the bed knelt his mother with a strange white face, soaking bloody rags away from evil-looking sores on that precious foot. There by the cupboard stood Mary, tearing something white into bandages, with the children huddled around her, awed by the sight of their mother.

Andy saw all that the moment that Wully, taking up one of the children's old jokes, cried out to him, in a voice that belied his foot, a greeting that the young ones had loved deriding.

"Lang may your lum reek, Andy!" There wasn't really anything wrong with Wully, it seemed. That wasn't a wound, he affirmed. It was only a scratch. He really couldn't say just how it had happened. It wasn't anything! It might not be anything to a soldier, but to his mother it was the mark of imminent death for her dearest son. She began rubbing it gently with lambs' fat. Wully, bethinking himself, pulled from a pocket a paper-wrapped bundle of sweeties for the children, who saw such things but seldom. They were intent upon the contents of that, and the stranger was talking to his father, when Andy, still standing awkwardly in the door, saw a thing happen which was a landmark in his understanding. He saw his mother, who had made fast the last bandage, and was carefully pulling down the trouser leg, suddenly bend over and kiss that leg! Such passion he saw in that gesture that he realized vaguely then some great fierce hidden thing in life, escaping secrecy only at times, a terrible thing called love ... which breaks forth upon occasions ... even in old women like his mother. He turned his face away suddenly as from some forbidden nakedness, and fixed his eyes upon Wully.

That hero, quite unabashed, was pulling his mother, who had risen, down to a seat beside him on the bed. She sat there, unconscious of the roomful, just looking at him, looking ... as if she could never see his face enough. She watched him devouringly when presently, with the attention of them all, he began lightheartedly telling about his escape. Half of his regiment had been made prisoners, including his major. They had been marched away towards a train, to be sent south, and he had marched among them until he dropped. He told his captors that they could shoot him if they would, but he couldn't go a step further. They had left him lying helpless there by the roadside, a guard standing over him. And before the wagon came along, which was to pick them up, the guard had slept, and Wully, stronger to run to freedom than to march to prison, had made his escape. Starved and hiding, he had crept night by night towards the Mississippi, and there he had seen a boat which was bringing Northern wounded men home, tie up at the river bank to bury its dead. Its captain had taken pity on him, chilling and nauseated, and had brought him to Davenport. Then when he had got by train to the nearest Iowa town, this stranger had shown him this kindness. ... Oh, his mother needn't worry about his being shot for a deserter. They knew him too well in his company, if there was any of them left. And hadn't his chum, Harvey Stow, been home four times to visit, without permission from anyone, and had he ever been punished for it? As soon as he had something to eat, and he could find where to report, he would be going back—yes, certainly—going back, however much his mother caught her breath at the mention of it.

It was so interesting to hear him talk that the men could scarcely leave for their duties. But there were the horses to feed, and the cows to milk, and the kind strange team to reward. Mr. Knight followed the boys to the barn and watched with amusement how reverently they rubbed down and bedded and fed the guests of the stable. And when they came in again, there sat the scrubbed soldier, in a fresh hickory shirt and clean jeans, in his mother's chair, his swathed foot on a stool—the stool was Hughie's thought—and the New York Tribune in his hand—the paper was Flora's contribution. He was talking grinningly to his mother. A white cloth was spread on the table, and the mother, shining, uplifted with joy, was wiping pink-banded cups which Wully remembered to have seen taken from the sacred shelf only when her Scot cousin, who had come to this country to enlighten the darkness of the Yankees by taking the presidency of one of their colleges, had come west to visit this family. Not since then had the Scottish sheets been out of the chest, and now they were airing on the line. 'Twas an occasion magnificent to consider! When they sat down at the table for supper—and they had not long to wait, for the mother was that woman of whom tradition says she could make a pair of jean pants in twenty minutes—they had fried prairie chicken, and potatoes and scones and egg-butter, and stewed wild plums, sweetened with sugar at forty cents a pound. The father instituted the feast by a long prayer. "Of course!" thought the stranger. "They're Scotch!" He counted the children. There were ten.

"You've a fine family," he commented.

"Not so bad when they're all here," returned the mother complacently. "There's a boy and a girl away at school." She paused abruptly.

"Our boy younger than Wully was killed at Fort Donaldson," explained the father.

"Ah! My son was wounded there. Lost a hand." There was a moment's silence. Then Wully said, wanting the subject changed,

"It's over now, mother. Grant'll get them now."

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