Read CHAPTER XXV of Twenty Years of Hus'ling , free online book, by J. P. Johnston, on


I kept up my plan of engaging with merchants to sell out their accumulated hard stocks, and never lost an opportunity to put in my spare time selling polish. I was determined that old Jack Frost should not catch me again with my summer clothes on and no coal in the bin; and when winter came, my family and myself were well provided for. We had plenty of coal and wood, a cellar well filled with all kinds of winter vegetables, a half barrel of corned beef, a barrel of flour, a tub of butter, and I was still “hus’ling.” Snow storms could not be severe enough to keep me from peddling; and although I called on many ladies who plainly showed their disgust at me for tracking the snow over their carpets, I knew I was working for a good cause, and that they had only to see to be convinced.

I was obliged to spend considerable money for additional furniture for housekeeping and the general comforts of life; and when spring came again I was a little short financially, but determined, now that my family were comfortably situated, to make an earnest effort to procure a stock of auction goods for myself.

One day while canvassing with the polish, a young man wanted to trade for the recipe so he could travel with it. I soon struck a deal with him and received seventeen dollars in cash and an old shot-gun. I laid the money away carefully, thinking I would try and sell the gun and have that much towards a stock of goods. I did not succeed, however, in making this sale, and so took it home with me.

One day as I was walking down town I met two men leading a poor, old, bony horse out of town and carrying a gun.

I learned from their conversation that they were going to kill the old nag. I asked the reason and they said he was so old he couldn’t eat and was starving to death. I examined his mouth and found his front teeth were so very long that when the mouth was closed there was a considerable space between the back teeth, which of course, would prevent him from grinding the feed.

I inquired of the owner if he also owned a wagon or harness. He said he did. I next asked what he would take for the whole rig, horse, harness and wagon.

He wanted twenty-five dollars. I told him about my shot-gun and offered to trade with him. He accompanied me to my house and I very quickly closed a trade, receiving the whole outfit for the gun.

I was not long in filing the old horse’s front teeth down, by which he was enabled to eat, much to his satisfaction and to my gain.

I then ordered seventeen dollars’ worth of notions, bought an old second hand trunk, had a couple of tin lamps made to use for street illumination, and started on my first trip as proprietor and auctioneer.

The old horse I think meant all right enough, that is if he meant any thing at all, but he wasn’t much good. He couldn’t have been built right in the first place, for though he could eat more than three ordinary horses and seemed willing enough to make a good showing, yet I was always obliged to get out and push whenever we came to the least incline; and at the slightest noise sounding like the word “whoa” he would stop instantly. But with him, stopping was one thing and starting another.

I made a practice of commencing early in the morning and selling polish among the farmers during the day-time, and driving into some country town just at night-fall and making an auction sale on the street by torch light.

I had small packages of notions sent on ahead C.O.D. from the wholesale house with which I was dealing. In this way I was able to carry on quite a business.

I bantered every one I met to trade horses, but no one seemed to take a particular fancy to my animal.

I kept up this system of auctioneering and selling polish till into the summer, and had succeeded in getting a trunk full of goods, and began to feel that I was in a fair way to make money rapidly.

One day I received a letter from Mr. Keefer saying he must have help from some source. His note was coming due at the bank besides other obligations which he must meet, and if it were possible for me to assist him in any way he wished I would do so.

This was the first time he had ever asked me for assistance, and not once could I remember that he had ever refused me aid when I asked it of him.

It was not necessary for him to make any explanations to convince me that he really needed help, for the many times he had so generously handed out to me was sufficient proof that he would more willingly give to, than take from me. Consequently I was not long in deciding to close out my goods at once and send him the proceeds.

The next morning after making my evening sale I sent him what money I had, with a promise of more as soon as I could sell out. I made two more sales before I was able to close out the last of my stock, and sent him the money.

The next town I stopped at was Bodkins; and the landlord of the hotel, Mr. Lehman, informed me that his father, living in another town, owned a large stock of general merchandise, and wanted to sell it out; and asked what I thought about selling it at auction. I explained it would be the proper caper. He telegraphed for his father, who came up, and they wanted to hire me by the day or week.

I told them it was against my principles to work on salary, but I would take ten per cent. and all my expenses. This they agreed on. After turning the old horse out to pasture, we started for the old gentleman’s home, and began making arrangements for an auction sale there, preparatory to starting out on the road.

We advertised extensively; and as the stock consisted of almost everything, including a lot of ready-made clothing, we drew an immense crowd, and made a sale of over twelve hundred dollars on Saturday afternoon and evening.

I remember when Sunday morning came I was unable to above a whisper; but I had one hundred and twenty dollars in cash as my commission, ready to send to Mr. Keefer on Monday morning.

We moved the balance of the stock to another town, where our sales ran from one to three hundred dollars per day. I had a settlement every night, as soon as the receipts were counted, and on the following morning sent the money to Mr. Keefer, reserving only enough to pay my family expenses, which I practiced sending home every Friday.

We succeeded in closing out the bulk of this large stock of goods, when one day, at St. Mary’s, Ohio, after I had sent my last dollar to Mr. Keefer, the proprietor made a trade with a real-estate agent, receiving a farm for the remainder of the stock. I was notified that my services were no longer required. My board was paid up to the following day, but I hadn’t a dollar to my name.

Of course, the first thing that entered my mind was the “Incomprehensible” and the only thing needed was a dollar or two with which to invest in a few bottles.

That day at noon, when I came out of the dining-room from dinner, my light-colored Derby hat was missing; and as another one was there which resembled mine very closely, and fitted me exactly, I put it on, keeping a look-out for the wearer of my own. As it had a large grease-spot on one side, from the dripping of oil from my street lamps I knew I could tell it easily.

Directly in came a drummer for a grocery house, and began telling how much his sales had been in that town: To one grocer a car-load each of rice, nutmegs, cinnamon and pepper, besides several hundred barrels of flour and as many chests of tea. I told him I didn’t doubt his word, but would thank him to give me back my hat. He discovered his mistake, and was about to trade back, when I happened to think of what a splendid chance I had for making a little raise. As he handed me my hat I said:

“Thunderation! Do you suppose I am going to let you give me back my hat with that big grease-spot on it? Not much, sir. Have you been down in some grocer’s cellar with my hat on? Now, sir, you can either give me five dollars to buy a new hat, or give me one dollar and we’ll trade hats.”

He willingly handed over the dollar, and after apologizing, offered to treat in order to quiet me down.

I then made a bee-line for the nearest drugstore, where I ordered a half gallon of the “Incomprehensible” to be prepared for the next day.

The old valise I had was a large-sized one, in which I carried my clothing; but I made room for the polish, and started out the next day on foot, arriving at a small town late that night, with four dollars in cash, and some stock on hand.

The following morning I started back to where I had left the old horse and wagon. Arriving there, I hitched up and started through the country, selling polish to the farmers. It took about all I could rake and scrape to keep my family, myself and the old horse eating.

While on this trip as I was passing through Wapakanetta, Ohio, a familiar voice came from a crowd of lookers-on saying:

“Halloo, Johnston, where you going?”

And an old acquaintance of mine came running to the wagon and hastily explained that he had the agency of a valuable patent which he was then trying to sell County and State rights in and wanted me to join him. I told him that I had promised my mother never to sell another Patent right, and then asked what success he had met with. He said not any yet, but

“But,” I interrupted, “I suppose you have succeeded in spending what money you had, and are now broke.”

“Yes, that’s it exactly.”

“Well, Frank, misery likes company. Get in here and we’ll travel together.”

He did so and we had quite a siege of it. We bought another valise and I immediately began educating him in selling polish. He made a very fair salesman and as I was to furnish him with the polish at a stipulated sum, I felt that I could very soon be deriving an income from his services. My idea was to keep him with me till he could get acquainted with the business and then arrange with some drug house to ship him what he wanted and pay me my profits.

Our third day out we drove into a small hamlet, and after hitching the old nag to a post began operations. I called at a house where there was considerable excitement and learned that an old lady had fallen down stairs and either broken or badly sprained her ankle. The principal cause for excitement was the fact that no Doctor could be found. As I passed from the house I saw Frank crossing the street a block or two away and called to him. He came right up and I explained to him the critical condition of the old lady and suggested that he should go in and play surgeon as they were unable to find a doctor at home. He consented and we went in together. Frank looked wise, and I did the talking. Finally one of the women in attendance beckoned us to the bedside. Frank made a hasty examination, and with my assistance helped her to a chair and began pulling the victim around the room by her crippled leg. She yelled and kept yelling, we pulled and kept pulling, her son swore and kept swearing, while the dog barked and kept barking. Everything was in a hubbub and every one excited. The neighboring women soon left in disgust. The more we pulled the more excited we all became and the more assurance Frank seemed to have that pulling was the only remedy. We were very soon rewarded with success, for a moment later the joint went back into place, snapping like a pistol, which gave the old lady immediate relief. Then Frank did look wise and I dubbed him Doctor Frank at once.

They inquired where he was practicing, and he told them he was a traveling Doctor. I suddenly spoke up and said:

“Why, ladies, this gentleman graduated at Whiting, Indiana. You’ve all heard of that place?”

“O, yes, we’ve all read of it,” they answered in chorus.

When asked what his charges would be he glanced at me as if undecided what to make it. I raised both hands intimating ten dollars as the proper figure. He said:

“Well, the usual charge for a case of this kind is twenty dollars, but I’ll charge you only ten.”

They hesitated, and grudgingly paid the price, but were well satisfied with the operation. We had many a hearty laugh over the ridiculous manner in which the ten dollars was obtained.

We continued to peddle around over the country, taking in small inland towns.

The old horse was an elephant on my hands, but he was all I possessed in the world; and being unable to find a buyer, I could do no better than to stick by him unless I chose to give him away, which I hardly considered business-like. But I would have made money and saved trouble had I done so, for he was the means of getting me into two or three little fights. One in particular I will relate.

Doctor Frank and myself were driving into New Baltimore one Saturday evening, and as the old horse went heaving and crippling along we seemed to be the attraction for every one on the street. Suddenly a young man who was sitting out in front of a store on the cross-railing between two hitching posts cried out at the very top of his voice:


The old nag, as usual, came to a sudden halt, and every one of a large crowd of men standing near by began to laugh.

I realized that if their risibilities were so easily aroused at seeing him stop, it would be a regular circus for them to see me get him in motion again; so I coolly handed the lines to Doctor Frank, and said:

“Here, hold these, and I’ll make believe I have business in that store; and after this crowd has dispersed, I’ll come out and we’ll try and make another start.”

I climbed out and walked toward the store. As I got even with the young chap who had stopped us, and noticed him still sitting there, with his feet swinging backward and forward and a look of triumph on his face, I suddenly changed my course, and stepping up to him, quickly dealt him a right-hander straight from the shoulder. He received the blow directly under the chin, and it set him spinning around the rail like a trapeze performer on a horizontal bar. I then returned to the wagon, climbed in, picked up my club and made preparations for another move.

Before making the start we had the pleasure of witnessing several revolutions by the young gentleman, after which he was helped to the ground by some friends; and as we were moving away, under the strong pressure of my club and the hard pushing of the lines by Doctor Frank, our smart youth looked more silly and terror-stricken than he did gay and frisky a few moments before, when the laugh was all on his side.

As we passed along down street everything was as quiet as a funeral; and although every man may have wanted to laugh, they all looked sober and sanctimonious, and as we imagined, took extra precautions to look sorrowful and sympathetic, as we rode along, looking savagely at them, apparently ready to spring from the wagon and pounce upon them at a second’s warning.

We then drove to the hotel, where we took quarters.

The next day, Sunday, while we were standing out in front, a man came up and began interrupting us in our conversation, and became rather abusive when we asked him to go away and not interfere with our affairs. He then said he was a lawyer and a gentleman, if he had been drinking a little, and he could whip half-a-dozen such men as we were; and so saying he shook his fist under Doctor Frank’s nose. He soon discovered his mistake, for no sooner had he done so than he received a straight left-hander from Frank, right on his big red nose. I shall never forget his looks, as he began backing up, in a dazed condition, and kept backing round and round in a circle, with the blood spurting and his nose flattened all over his face, and finally, not being able to keep on his feet any longer, landed squarely, in a sitting posture, right in the middle of a puddle of water that had been made by a severe rain-storm that morning.

He had no sooner landed in the water, than not less than two dozen men came running from a saloon across the street; and the leader of the mob, a man about as large again as either of us, and who, we afterwards learned, was the pugilist of the town, came rushing up to us and said:

“Any man that will strike a drunken man is a coward.”

From this we inferred that the whole thing was a put-up job, and our only way out was to assert our rights and fight our way through.

He was coolly informed that we were not looking for fights, but we never been placed on the list of cowards yet. He said:

“Well, I am here to clean both you fellows out.”

“Very well, I guess you can commence on me,” said Doctor Frank; and they opened up. The crowd gathered closely around, and I became a little excited, and fearful lest some one should assist the stranger by kicking or hitting Frank. While they were scuffling on the ground I stuck close by them, and realizing that my little escapade of the day before would have a tendency to give me considerable prestige, I continued to cry out, at the top of my voice:

“Gentlemen, stand back, stand back; the first man who interferes here to-day will get knocked out in less than a second, and I’m the boy that can do it.”

Every one was yelling for the pugilist but myself; and I continued talking encouragingly to Frank at the very top of my voice:

“Stay by him, Doctor, old boy, stay by him, stay by him, never give up, stay by him, make him lay still. I can whip any man that dares to interfere.”

For a few moments when the pugilist was on top of the Doctor it looked rather dubious, but I knew the sort of stuff Frank was made of and kept yelling:

“Never quit, Frank, die on the spot. Stay by him.”

A second later the pugilist had not only been turned, but the fight had also turned, for Frank was on top and it was not long till the pugilist screamed:

“Take him off, take him off.”

I said to Frank: “Let the poor devil up now, he has enough.”

Frank raised up, looking a little the worse for the battle, but victory was plainly written in his countenance. When he went into the hotel office to wash, the landlord informed him that he had whipped the bully of the town. About this time I felt considerably like having a little brush myself, with some one, and stepping outside I asked in a loud tone of voice if there was any one there who was not quite satisfied, and if there was I would like to try any one of them a round or two just to accommodate them. No one responded.

During my several years’ experience I had learned to avoid any such scenes as this one, and fully realized how easy it was to become involved in trouble through a fracas. But at this particular time I was really anxious to show fight and willing to take a whipping if I couldn’t hold my own. We were not molested in that town again.

I remember that Sunday night the office of the hotel was filled with men who came in and expressed themselves as in sympathy with us; and I well remember, too, the number of Wild West stories we related of our experience on the frontier with wild Indians and Polar bears, and when we finished relating them, how surprised many seemed to be that they had all escaped with their lives during the late combat.

I remember one very exciting story I told about an encounter I had with seven Indians and how I killed five of them and took the other two prisoners after receiving thirteen wounds, and as evidence of my assertion took off my coat and vest, and was about to remove my shirt, to show the scars when Frank and the landlord stopped me and said:

“Never mind, Johnston, you showed us those scars last night, and remember this is Sunday night and people are passing by going to church and will see you; wait till to-morrow night and then show them.”

Of course I took their advice and put my coat and vest on again, and was amused to hear three or four old I-told-you-so-fellows say: “I knew it, I knew you fellows were good ones, I knew no common ordinary fellows had any business with you men.”

Doctor Frank and I were sworn friends from this time on and continued with the polish for some time.

One day I received a letter from my wife demanding an extra amount of money from what I had been accustomed to sending her, and I borrowed all Frank had, and with it sent all I had, leaving us without a cent, but with plenty of polish. As we had from three o’clock in the afternoon till sundown to operate, we hadn’t the slightest doubt of being able to make at least enough sales to procure money sufficient to pay expenses over night; but in spite of every effort we were unable to even sell a single bottle, and when darkness came we made arrangements with a farmer for supper, lodging and breakfast.

In the morning of course the only thing we could do was to trade him polish and I began negotiations with him, but in vain. I had polished up two or three pieces of furniture, but neither himself nor his wife seemed to care for it at all, and as we could plainly see were bent on receiving a little pin-money from us. I then polished up another piece of furniture and kept talking it up, perspiring freely, and noticed great drops of perspiration standing out on Frank’s forehead. Then I polished more furniture and gave a more elaborate explanation of the merits of the polish, Doctor Frank of course putting in a word now and then. But we had struck a Tartar in fact, two Tartars. They were as firm as adamant.

We were at last cornered and looked at each other as though we had an idea that a private consultation would be the thing to hold about that time.

I felt that I would rather forfeit the old horse and wagon than acknowledge that we had no money. I then said:

“Mr. , is the gentleman living in the second house south of here a responsible and enterprising man?”

He answered that he was, and asked why.

“Well I have been thinking of making him a General Agent in this County for my polish.”

The lady of the house then said:

“John, why don’t you take the agency? you have always wanted to travel.”

He asked what kind of a show I’d give him.

I told him we charged ten dollars for the General Agency for each county and we would supply him with the polish, or he could have the recipe for making it by paying twenty-five dollars. He said he had no money and there was no use talking.

I asked how much our bill would be for staying over night.

“Two dollars,” was his reply.

“Very well, then, we can fix the money part. Which do you prefer, the General Agency or the recipe?”

He said he wanted the recipe.

“You can just give us credit then, for the two dollars and pay us fifty cents in cash and you will owe us twenty-two and one-half dollars which you can pay after you have made it.”

His wife said that was fair. He said he hadn’t the fifty cents, but they would give us a chicken for the difference.

As we had been accustomed to trading anything and everything we explained that the fowl was right in our line, and immediately closed the deal and left with it. The reader may be assured that we congratulated ourselves on our narrow escape. The man still owes the balance, in fact I forgot to leave him my address, so he could send it.

We had consumed nearly a half day wrestling with our farmer friend to effect a deal, and immediately started out with renewed vigor and the chicken with its legs securely tied and under the wagon seat.