Read CHAPTER II - RESCUING A LOST RACE of The Boy With the U.S. Census, free online book, by Francis Rolt-Wheeler, on ReadCentral.com.

That same evening, as it chanced, one of the younger Wilsh boys came up to the house on an errand from a neighbor, and Hamilton, remembering that the messenger’s father had been a go-between in the feud story he had been hearing, noted the lad with interest. Indeed, his appearance was striking enough in itself, with his drooping form, his extreme paleness, and his look of exhaustion.

“How far is it from the Burtons, Uncle Eli?” asked Hamilton.

“Eight miles,” was the reply.

Hamilton stared at the mountain boy. Judging from his looks he was not strong enough to walk a hundred yards, yet he had just come eight miles, and evidently was intending to walk back home that evening. Then Hamilton remembered that this lad was one of the “poor whites” of whom he had read so much, and he strolled toward the messenger who was sitting listlessly on one of the steps.

“Howdy!” said the newcomer in a tired voice.

Hamilton answered his greeting, and, after a few disjointed sentences, said:

“You look tired. It must be a long walk from the Burtons.”

“Jes’ tol’able,” the boy answered. “I’m not so tired. You f’m the city?” he queried a few minutes later, evidently noting the difference between Hamilton’s appearance and that of the boys in the neighborhood.

“Yes, New York,” answered Hamilton.

But the stranger did not show any further curiosity and Hamilton was puzzled to account for his general listlessness. He thought perhaps it might be that the boy was unusually dull and so he asked:

“Are you still going to school?”

A negative shake of the head was the only reply.

“Why not? Isn’t there a school near where you live?”

“Close handy, ’bout five miles,” was the reply.

“Then why don’t you go there?” questioned Hamilton further.

“Teacheh’s gone.”

“Funny time for holidays,” the city boy remarked.

“Not gone fo’ holidays.”

“Oh, I see,” said Hamilton, “you mean he’s gone for good. But aren’t you going to have another one?”

“Dunno if he’s gone for good,” the mountain boy answered.

Hamilton stared in bewilderment.

“Cunjer got him,” the other continued.

But this did not explain things any better.

“Cunjer?” repeated Hamilton. “You mean magic?”

The mountain boy nodded.

“Yes, cunjer,” he affirmed.

“You’re fooling, aren’t you?” said Hamilton questioningly, “you can’t mean it. I never heard of ‘cunjer’ as a real thing. There’s lots about it in books, of course, but those are fairy tales and things of that sort.”

“An’ yo’ never saw a cunjer?”

“Of course not.”

“Reckon they don’ know as much in cities as they think they do,” the youngster retorted.

“Just what do you mean by ’cunjer’?” asked Hamilton, knowing that it would be useless to argue the conditions of a modern city with a boy who had never seen one.

“Bein’ able to put a cunjer on, so’s the one yo’ cunjer has got to do anythin’ yo’ want.”

“Sort of hypnotism business,” commented the older boy.

“Dunno’ what yo’ call it in the city. Up hyeh in the mount’ns we call it cunjer, an’ thar’s some slick ones hyeh, too.”

“But how did the teacher get mixed up in it?” queried Hamilton. “It doesn’t sound like the sort of thing you’d expect to find a schoolmaster doing.”

“He wasn’t doin’ it, it was again’ him,” the mountain boy explained. “The folks hyeh suspicioned as he was tippin’ o’ the revenoo men.”

“Who did? Moonshiners?”

“Easy on that word, Hamilton,” suddenly broke in the old Kentuckian, who had overheard part of the conversation, “thar’s plenty up hyeh that don’ like it.”

“All right, Uncle Eli, I’ll remember,” the boy answered; then, turning to his companion, he continued “You were saying that some of the people in the mountains thought the schoolmaster was giving information to the revenue men.”

“Some said he was. I don’ believe it myself, an’ most of us boys didn’ believe it, but then the teacheh was allers mighty good to us.”

“Did the revenue officers come up here!”

The mountain lad nodded his head.

“Often,” he said, “an’ when they come to the stills they seemed to know ev’rythin’ an’ ev’rybody. An’ then some one tol’ that it could be proved on the teacheh. It never was, but thar was a plenty o’ people who believed the story. I didn’t, but then the teacheh was allers good to me.”

“But what did the revenue men have to do with the ’cunjering’?” asked Hamilton, desiring to keep his informant to the point.

“They didn’t, it was the men on the Ridge.”

“Do you know how it happened?”

“I know all about it,” the lad answered, with a slightly less listless air, “for I was in school that mornin’. For a week or more we boys had seen ol’ Blacky Baldwin sort o’ snoopin’ aroun’ near the school, but as we allers crossed our fingers an’ said nothin’ so long as he was in hearin’, we weren’t afraid.”

“What did you do that for?”

The younger boy looked at the city-bred lad with an evident pity for his ignorance.

“So’s he couldn’t cunjer us, O’ course,” he said. “Don’ yo’ even know that? Öl’ Blacky Baldwin is a first-class cunjer, an’ any one o’ them can cunjer you with the words he hears yo’ sayin’.”

“But if this ‘cunjer-fellow’ was hanging around the school,” suggested Hamilton, “why didn’t you tell the master?”

“An’ get Blacky down on us? You-all can bet we kep’ quiet an’ didn’ even talk about Blacky to each other. Wa’al, that went on for a week or two. Then, one mornin’, while we was all in school, a big storm come up, thunder an’ lightnin’ an’ all. Suddenly, jes’ after a clap o’ thunder that sounded almos’ as if it had hit the schoolhouse Öl’ Blacky Baldwin walked through the door an’ up to the teacheh’s table. He was carryin a twisted thing in his hand, like a ram’s horn, an’ I knew it was his cunjerin’ horn, although I hadn’t even seen it befo’.”

“What did the master say when he came in?”

“Nary a word. It was awful dark an’ the thunder was rumbling aroun’ among the hills. I took one look at Öl’ Blacky Baldwin’s face, an’ then hid my eyes. I reckon the others did the same.”

“Why?”

“His face was all shiny with a queer green light, sendin’ up smoke, like ol’ dead wood does sometimes after a rain.”

“Phosphorus evidently,” muttered Hamilton to himself, but he did not want to interrupt the lad now that he had started, and therefore did not discuss the point.

“He walked right up to the teacheh’s table,” continued the younger boy, “an’ he pointed the horn at him, accordin’ to one o’ the boys who says he was peepin’ through his fingers. I wasn’t lookin’, I wasn’t takin’ any chances. And then we all heard him say to the teacheh:

“‘You air goin’ to have a fall an’ be killed. You air goin’ to have a fear o’ fallin’ all your days, an’ you air goin’ to be drove to places where you’re like to fall. By night you air goin’ to dream o’ fallin’, an’, wakin’ an’ sleepin’, the fear is laid upon you.’”

“And that was all?”

“That was all,” the mountain boy replied. “After a bit, I looked up and Öl’ Blacky Baldwin was gone; the teacheh looked peaked an’ seemed kind o’ skeered, but he didn’t say anythin’.”

“Well, it was a little scary,” said Hamilton. “I don’t wonder it shook him up.”

“That was only the beginnin’,” the storyteller went on. “About half an hour after that, one o’ the boys dropped his slate pencil on the floor an’ it broke, so he asked the teacheh for a new one. The slates ‘n’ pencils was kep’ on a shelf over the teacheh’s chair, an’ he got on the chair to reach one down. We was all watchin’ him, when suddintly he give a groan an’ his eyes rolled back so’s we couldn’t see nothin’ but the whites; his face got all pale, an’ his lips sort o’ blue; he reeled an’ was jes’ goin’ to fall when he sort o’ made a grab at the shelf an’ hung on as though he was fallin’ off a cliff.

“Two of the bigger boys, thinkin’ he had a stroke or somethin’, went up an’ spoke, but he didn’t answer, jes’ hung on to that shelf. Standin’ on the chair as he was, of course the boys couldn’ make him let go, an’ they couldn’ make him hear or understan’ a mite. So they pulled up a bench and one of ’em climbed up an’ forced his hand open. Jes’ like a flash Teacheh grabbed him so hard that he yelled.”

“Just with one hand?” Hamilton queried.

“One hand. Wa’al, they pretty soon made Teacheh let go the other hand, an’ helped him down fr’m the chair an’ sat him down in it. As soon as his feet touched the floor, he let go the feller’s shoulder an’ sort o’ lay back in his chair. He sat there for a bit an’ then he leaned forward, put his hands on the desk, an’ stared right in front of him, jes’ as if we wa’n’t there at all.

“‘I thought I was fallin’,’ he said gruffly.

“We waited a while for him to begin agin, but he jes’ sit there, lookin’ straight in front of him, an’ repeatin’ ev’ry minute or two: ’I thought I was fallin’! I thought I was fallin’!’”

Hamilton shivered a little, for the mountain boy told the story as though he were living through the scene again.

“I don’t wonder you got scared,” he said. “Did he come to?”

“Not right then,” the boy answered. “We waited a while an’ then some of the fellers got up an’ went out sof’ly. I went, too, an’ the teacheh never even seemed to see us go.”

“Didn’t you think he had gone crazy?”

“We all knew it was cunjerin’,” the lad rejoined “an’ when we got outside the door thar was Öl’ Blacky Baldwin waitin’, lookin’ jes’ the same as usual. As I come by, he said, jes’ as smooth, ’School’s out early to-day, boys.’ But I don’t think any of us answered him. I know I didn’t. I jes’ took and run as hard as I knew how. An’ when I got to the top o’ the hill an’ looked back, an’ saw Blacky goin’ into the schoolhouse again, I couldn’ get home fast enough.”

“Was that what broke up the school?”

“Not right away,” the other replied. “Thar was some that never come nigh the place agin, but befo’ two weeks most of us was back. Teacheh allers seemed diff’rent; ev’ry once in a while, one of us would see him walkin’ on the edge of a cliff, or fin’ him dizzily hangin’ on to somethin’ for fear o’ fallin’.”

“How long did that go on?” queried Hamilton.

“‘Bout a month, I reckon. An’ Teacheh was in trouble more’n more all the time, because folks wouldn’ have him boardin’ ‘roun’, same’s he’d allers done.”

“Why not?”

“Wa’al, he’d wake up in the night screamin’, ‘I’m fallin’, I’m fallin’,’ and no one wanted to have a ha’nted teacher in the house. An’ Blacky Baldwin, he jes’ hung aroun’ the school, and we-all would see him every day, mutterin’ an’ laughin’ to himself. Then, suddintly, Teacheh disappeared, an’ though we hunted fo’ him everywhar, he wasn’ found. We-all reckoned he had fallen somewhars, but I’ve thought sence that p’r’aps he jes’ went away, goin’ back to the city, and leavin’ no tracks so’s to make Öl’ Blacky Baldwin believe he’d be’n killed.”

“That sounds likely enough,” Hamilton said. “But even if he did get away, I don’t believe that he’d want to come back.”

“I reckon not,” the mountain boy agreed. “Anyway, the school’s shut up now.”

“How about the revenue men?” asked Hamilton.

“They haven’t be’n here sence Teacheh went away,” was the reply. “An’ I reckon they’re not wanted.”

The boy stopped short as the old mountaineer came over to where he was squatting and gave him a long answer to the message he had brought. The old man read it to him from a sheet of paper on which he had penciled it roughly. Bill Wilsh listened in a dreamy way, and Hamilton wondered at his seeming carelessness. The old man read it twice, then, rising to his feet, the boy repeated it word for word and without so much as a nod to Hamilton, slouched off in a long, lazy stride that looked like loafing, but which, as Hamilton afterwards found out, covered the ground rapidly.

“Do you suppose he’ll remember all that, Uncle Eli?” asked Hamilton in surprise.

“He? Oh, yes,” the mountaineer replied, “word for word, syllable for syllable that is, fo’ to-day.”

“He must have a good memory,” the boy exclaimed “I’m sure I couldn’t.”

“But he’ll forget every word by to-morrow,” the other continued, “almost forget that he was hyeh to-day at all. That’s why they’re so hard to teach, those po’ whites, what they learn doesn’t stick. I heard him tellin’ yo’ about the disappearance o’ the last teacheh.”

“Yes, he was putting it down to ‘cunjering.’ Is there much of that sort of idea in the mountains?”

“None among the mount’neers proper,” replied the old man. “Some o’ the po’ whites down in the gullies talk about it, but thar’s mo’ difference between the folks in the gullies an’ on the Ridge th’n there is between the mount’ns an’ the Blue Grass. They are different, an’ they look different, too.”

“Bill Wilsh certainly does,” agreed Hamilton, “but I thought at first it was because he was tired out with a long walk after a day’s work.”

The Kentuckian shook his head.

“They’re all that way,” he said. “They jes’ look all beaten out as if they hadn’t any life left in them at all. I reckon the most o’ them have hookworm, too, an’ they just look fit to drop.”

“Hookworm, Uncle Eli? What is that?” asked the boy.

“It’s a queer kind o’ disease,” the old man answered, “that comes from goin’ barefoot. There’s a kind o’ grub in the soil, and it works its way in. It’s only jes’ recently that it’s be’n found out that the po’ whites are peaked and backward because they’re sick, and now they know a cure fo’ it, why hookworm is being driven right out o’ the South.”

“Was there so much of it?”

“Puttin’ an end to it will make useful American citizens out o’ thousands o’ poor critters that never knew what ailed them.”

“But where did the ‘poor whites’ come from, Uncle Eli? What made them that way?”

“Whar they come from I jes’ don’ rightly know. I reckon I saw more o’ them when I was down in Georgia, but the Florida ‘crackers’ are still worse off. Thar’s not so many in the mount’ns an’ those that are here live ’way up in the gullies. The sure ‘nough po’ whites, or ‘Crackers’ as they call them, belong to the pine belt, between the mount’ns an’ the swamps o’ the coast.”

“Why are they called ’Crackers’?”

“I don’ know, unless because they live on cracked corn and razor-back hog. It an’t so easy to say how they begun. Thar’s a lot o’ French names, an’ thar’s a tradition that two shiploads o’ Huguenots were wrecked off Georgia in the early days an’ foun’ their way inland, settlin’ down without anythin’ to start with, an’ not knowin’ for a generation or two whar any settlements could be foun’. An’ thar’s a lot o’ folks that have just drifted down, down, livin’ jes’ like the ‘Crackers’ an’ often taken to be the same. An’ the slavery system made it worse because thar was no middle white class either rich or po’, thar was nothin’ between, that is, down in that part o’ the country. But yo’ mus’ remember that thar has been a great change in the last twenty years, an’ that the children o’ ‘Cracker’ families are doin’ jes’ as well as anybody in the South.”

“How is that, Uncle Eli?”

“Wa’al, in the days befo’ the war, the po’ whites were jes’ trash. The planters wouldn’ have ’em, because the slaves did all the work; they wouldn’ work themselves, an’ they didn’ own slaves. So they were worse off than the negroes an’ even the black race looked down on ’em. But the war waked them up.”

“They all fought for the South, didn’t they?”

“Mos’ly all. They were food fo’ powder, but I always reckoned they hindered more’n they helped. For the ‘Cracker,’ however, the war meant everythin’. It placed him side by side with the Southern gentleman, it strengthened the color line, an’ jes’ enough o’ them made good to show the others thar was a chance fo’ them, too.”

“Then they started in to improve right after the war, did they?”

The Kentuckian shook his head negatively.

“No,” he said, “at first they were far worse off than befo’ because the Freedman’s Bureau an’ the carpet-baggers made trouble right an’ lef’. The No’th had a fine chance, but the carpet-baggers were jes’ blind to everythin’ excep’ the negro, an’ the po’ white was jes’ as shabbily treated by the No’th as he had be’n by the South. Now that everybody is seein’ that yo’ can’t make a negro jes’ the same as a white man by givin’ him a vote, thar’s a chance fo’ the po’ white. I reckon the ‘Cracker’ as a ‘Cracker’ is goin’ to be extinct pretty soon, an’ the South is goin’ to be proud o’ the stock it once despised. Atlanta is the fastes’ growin’ city in the South, an’ Atlanta is jes’ full o’ men whose folks weren’t much more’n ‘Crackers.’ The po’ white, in a few years, is goin’ to be only a memory like the backwoodsman o’ the time o’ Dan’l Boone.”

“That promises well for the South,” said Hamilton.

“The boom o’ the South is jes’ beginnin’,” the old man said, “an’ if you’re goin’ to do census work this next year, yo’ jes’ watch the figures an’ see whar the old South comes in. It’s a pity you’re goin’ back to Wash’n’ton to-morrow, as I think yo’ ought to see more o’ this country befo’ yo’ go.”

“I’d like to, ever so much, Uncle Eli,” the boy answered, as he got up from the step and started for the big loft where he slept with the mountaineer’s two sons, “but, even if I don’t get a chance, I’ve learned a lot from you about the folk on the mountains and about the South generally.”

The mountaineer nodded a good-night as the boy disappeared.

“Now thar,” he said to his wife, who had been knitting stockings during the latter part of the conversation, and occasionally interjecting a word, “thar is a boy that is really achin’ to know things. I wish Rube and Eph were more like him.”

“Nothin’ but hounds an’ vittles worries them,” the woman replied sharply, “but they an’t none like city boys, an’ I’d ruther have ’em the way they air than to come pesterin’ with questions like Hamilton does you. I don’t set any sort o’ stock in it, an’ I don’t encourage him in sech nonsense.”

The big Kentuckian smiled, and filled his corn-cob leisurely as he turned the talk to other things.

Early the next morning, Hamilton and the oldest of the two boys started on their fourteen-mile ride to the station, where the lad was to take an afternoon train for Washington. They had gone about three miles, when they came upon Bill Wilsh sitting on the stump of a tree by the roadside.

“I reckoned you-all would come along this way,” he said, “an’ I’ve be’n thinkin’ more’n more ‘bout Teacheh havin’ likely gone to the city, an’ not bein’ dead after all. Yo’ goin’ to the city now?”

“I’m going to Washington, Bill,” Hamilton answered.

“Is that the city?”

“It’s one of them.”

“Do yo’ s’pose that’d be the city Teacheh went to?”

“I couldn’t say, Bill,” the lad replied, “there’s no way of knowing, but it’s likely enough.”

“I was thinkin’ ” the mountain boy began then he broke off suddenly. “I’m mighty partial to whittlin’,” he continued irrelevantly.

“The best ever,” interjected Hamilton’s companion. “Yo’ ought to have shown him some of your work, Bill.”

“I was allers hopin’ Teacheh would come back,” said the boy in his listless, passionless way, “an’ he seemed so fond o’ the school that I whittled a piece to give him when he showed up agin. But now I reckon he an’t a-goin’ to come back. Does you-all reckon he’ll come back from the city?”

Hamilton looked down at the lad, and wanted to cheer him up, but he could not see what would be likely to bring the schoolmaster back, and so he answered:

“I’m afraid not, Bill. But he might, you know.”

“I reckon not. But I’d like him to know he a’nt fo’gotten in the mount’ns. I want yo’ to tell him that thar a’nt be’n a week sence he went away that I an’t be’n down to the school an’ swep’ the floor an’ seen that his books was in the place he liked to have ’em be. I wouldn’ want him to come back from his wanderin’, if he still is wanderin’, an’ think he was fo’gotten. It an’t much, I know, to sweep a floor,” he added, looking up to Hamilton, “but yo’ tell him an’ he’ll understan’. It’s about all that I kin do. He’ll understan’ if yo’ tell him.”

Neither of the other boys spoke, and after a moment the mountain lad went on:

“An’ when yo’ see him, give him this, an’ tell him it comes from Bill, his ‘tryin’ scholar.’ He used to call me that because, although I wasn’t learnin’ much, I was always tryin’. An’ yo’ can tell him I’m tryin’ still.”

Reaching his hand into the bosom of his ragged shirt the boy pulled out a slab of wood four inches square. It was carved as a bas-relief, showing the schoolhouse in the foreground in high relief, with the wooded hills beyond.

“That’s great!” exclaimed Hamilton. “I don’t believe I ever saw better carving than that anywhere.”

A momentary gleam of pleasure flashed into the boy’s dull eyes, but he went on again in the same lifeless voice.

“Thar’s the schoolhouse jes’ as it was when he was here last, but it’s never looked the same to me sence. I want yo’ to give this to him an’ show him, if yo’ will, that I whittled it with the door open, jes’ to show him we’re lookin’ for him back.”

“But supposing I shouldn’t meet him in the city?” queried Hamilton gently. “Washington is a large place and there are many other cities.”

“I reckon you-all have mo’ chance o’ findin’ him thar than I have hyeh. I reckon he an’t goin’ to come back hyeh, an’ then he’d never know that we an’t fo’gotten him, an’ he’d think we was ungrateful. But yo’ll try an’ find him?”

Hamilton was conscious of a lump in his throat at the simple faithfulness of the mountain boy, and he said gently:

“Very well, Bill, if you feel that way about it, of course I’ll try. But you haven’t told me his name as yet.”

“I was thinkin’ o’ that,” the boy answered. Then he took from his pocket a home-made gum-wood case, and opening it, took out a small piece of paper and handed it to Hamilton.

“Be keerful of it,” he said, “that paper tears mighty easy.”

Hamilton smoothed the paper out on the palm of his hand, and looked at it carefully. It was a “copy,” merely of pothooks, done in lead pencil, the strokes wavering and of differing slopes, and the whole so smudged as scarcely to be recognizable But, down in the corner, written in ink, in a firm, bold hand, were the words, “Very Good, Gregory Sinclair.”

Hamilton copied the name into his notebook and, refolding the paper as carefully as possible in the same folds, he handed it to the barefooted boy standing on the road beside his horse’s head.

“Did you-all read it?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Hamilton.

“Did you-all see that he said ’Very Good’?”

“‘Very Good’ was what was written,” agreed Hamilton, thinking of the wavering and smudged pothooks.

“I c’n do better now,” the boy said quietly, “an’ I’ve been tryin’ jes’ as hard as though Teacheh was in yonder schoolhouse. But thar’s no one to write ‘Very Good’ on ’em any mo’, an’ I reckon thar an’t goin’ to be. But I’m trustin’ that you’ll fin’ him an’ you’ll tell him that he an’t fo’gotten.”

Without a word of farewell, the boy struck into the woods and was lost to sight. The two lads started on their way, but they had not ridden a hundred yards when they heard a hail; looking back, they saw the mountain boy standing on a point of the ridge; and echoing down to them came the lonely cry:

“Fin’ him, an’ tell him he an’t fo’gotten.”