South American Fights and Fighters - Cyrus T. Brady

Being a Boy Out West

I am in some doubt as to whether to call this particular reminiscence "Pants That I Have Worn" or "Trousers Like Those Mother Used to Make." For either name seems admirably suitable to the situation.

I was the oldest son in a numerous family, and therefore had the heritage of my father's clothes. He was an exceedingly neat and careful man, and never—to my sorrow be it said—did he ever wear out anything, unless it were an apple switch on me or my brothers. I had to wear out all his old clothes, it seemed to me. It was not a matter of choice but of necessity with me. My younger brother always escaped. By the time I had finished anything, there was no more of it. It went perforce to the ragman, if he would condescend to accept it.

There was a certain sad, plum-colored, shad-bellied coat that flashes athwart my memory in hideous recollection, which wrapped itself portentiously about my slim figure, to the great delectation of my young friends and companions, and to my corresponding misery. I can recall their satirical criticisms vividly even now. They enjoyed it hugely, especially the little girls. Think of a small—say "skinny"—little boy, about nine or ten years old, in a purple shad-bellied coat which had been made to fit (?) him by cutting off the sleeves, also the voluminous tails just below the back buttons!

I could never understand the peculiar taste my father manifested in his younger days, for when I recall the age which permitted me to wear cut-down clothing (and that age arrived at an extraordinary early period in my existence, it appeared to me), such a fearful and wonderful assortment of miscellaneous garments of all colors, shapes and sizes as were resurrected from the old chests in the garret, whereS they had reposed in peaceful neglect for half a generation, the uninitiated can scarcely believe.

The shad-bellied coat was bad enough—you could take that off, though—but there was something worse that stayed on. Fortunately there is one season in the year when coats in the small Western village, in which I lived, were at a discount, especially on small boys, and that was summer. But on the warmest of summer days the most recklessly audacious youngster has to wear trousers even in the most sequestered village.

One pair rises before me among the images of many and will not down. The fabric of which this particular garment was made was colored a light cream, not to say yellow. There was a black stripe, a piece of round black braid down each leg, too, and the garment was as heavy as broadcloth and as stiff as a board. Nothing could have been more unsuitable for a boy to wear than that was. I rebelled and protested with all the strength of my infantile nature, but it was needs must—I had either to wear them or to remain in bed indefinitely. Swallowing my pride, in spite of my mortification, I put them on and sallied forth, but little consoled by the approving words and glances of my mother, who took what I childishly believed to be an utterly unwarranted pride in her—shall I say—adaptation or reduction? Those trousers had a sentimental value for her, too, as I was to learn later. As for me, I fairly loathed them.

Many times since then, I have been the possessor of a "best and only pair," but never a pair of such color, quality and shape. They were originally of the wide-seated, peg-top variety, quite like the fashion of to-day, by the way—or is it yesterday, in these times of sudden changes?—and when they were cut off square at the knee and shirred or gathered or reefed in at the waist, they looked singularly like the typical "Dutchman's breeches." I might have worn them as one of Hendrik Hudson's crew in "Rip Van Winkle"—which was, even in those days, the most popular play in which Joseph Jefferson appeared. You can see how long ago it was from that.

Well, I put them on in bitterness of heart. How the other boys greeted me until they got used to them—which it seemed to me they never would! Unfortunately for them, anyway, they had only one day, one brief day, in which to make game of me; for the first time I wore them something happened.

There was a pond on a farm near our house called, from its owner, "Duffy's Pond." The water drained into a shallow low depression in a large meadow, and made a mudhole, a cattle wallow. Little boys have a fondness for water, when it is exposed to the air—that is, when it is muddy, when it is dirty—which is in adverse ratio to their zest for nice, clean water in a nice clean tub. To bathe and be clean does not seem instinctive with boys. And how careful we were not to wet the backs of our hands and our wrists except when in swimming! And how hard did our parents strive to teach us to distribute our ablutions more generally!

Well, Mr. Duffy did not allow boys to swim in his pond, which made it all the more inviting. It was a hot August day when I first put on those cream-colored pants. Naturally, we went in swimming. Having divested ourselves of our clothing—and with what joy I cast off the hideous garment!—we had to wade through twenty or thirty yards of mud growing deeper and more liquid with every step, until we reached the water. We were having a great time playing in the ooze when Mr. Duffy appeared in sight. He was an irascible old man, and did not love his neighbors' children! He had no sympathy at all with us in our sports; he actually begrudged us the few apples we stole when they were unripe and scarce, and as for watermelons—ah, but he was an unfeeling farmer!

Fortunately, he had no dog with him that morning, nothing but a gun—an old shotgun with the barrels sawed off at half their length, loaded with beans or bacon, or pepper or sand, I don't remember which—they were all bad enough if they hit you. The alarm was given instantly, and we made a wild rush for the tall grass through that mud. You can fancy how dirty we became, splashing, stumbling, wallowing in it. Mr. Duffy, firing beans at us from the rear, accelerated our pace to a frightful degree. Fortunately again, like Hamlet, he was "fat and scant o' breath," and we could run like deer, which we did. En route I grabbed my shirt with one hand and those cream-colored pants with the other.

The mud of that pond was the thick, black, sticky kind. It stained hideously anything light that it touched, as irrevocably as sin. Those trousers had been clasped against my boyish muddy breast or flapped against my muddy, skinny legs, and they were a sight to behold! There was no water available for miles where we stopped. We rubbed ourselves off with the burnt grass of August and dusty leaves as well as we could, dressed ourselves and repaired home.

I was a melancholy picture. The leopard could have changed his spots as easily as I. Yet I well remember the mixture of fierce joy and terrified apprehension that pervaded me. I arrived home about dinner-time. Father was there. "Wh—what!" he cried in astonishment. "Where have you been, sir?"

"Those," sobbed my mother in anguished tones, "were your father's wedding trousers! I gave them to you with reluctance and as a great favor, you wretched boy, and—and—you have ruined them."

I was taken upstairs, thoroughly washed, scrubbed—in the tub, which was bad enough—and when sufficiently clean to be handed to my father, he and I had an important interview in the wood-shed—our penal institution—over which it were well to draw the curtain. There was a happy result to the adventure, however: I never wore the cream-colored pants again, and hence my joy. The relief was almost worth the licking.

Some of the material, however, was worked up into a patchwork quilt, and of the rest my mother made a jacket for my sister. My mother could not look upon those things without tears; neither could I! Why is it that grown people will be so inconsiderate about a little boy's clothes?

It was the fashion of many years before I was born for people—that is, men and boys—to wear shawls. There was a dearth in the family exchequer on one occasion—on many occasions, I may say, but this was a particular one. I had no overcoat, at least not one suitable for Sunday, and really it would have been preposterous to have attempted to cut down one of father's for me. That feat was beyond even my mother's facile scissors, and she could effect marvels with them, I knew to my cost. It was a bitter cold winter day, I remember, and my mother, in the kindness of her heart, brought to light one of those long, narrow, fringed, brilliantly colored plaided shawls, so that I should not miss Sunday school. I was perfectly willing to miss it, then or any other time, for any excuse was a good one for that. But no, I was wrapped up in it in spite of my frantic protests and despatched with my little sister—she who wore the cream-colored trousers-jacket—to the church. Strange to say, she did not mind at all.

We separated outside the house door, and I ran on alone. I had evolved a deep, dark purpose. I went much more rapidly than she, and as soon as I turned the corner, and was safely out of sight, I tore off that hateful shawl and when I arrived at the meeting-house I ignominiously thrust it into the coal heap in the dilapidated shed in the corner of the lot. I was almost frozen by the time I arrived, but any condition was better than that shawl.

The Sunday school exercises proceeded as usual, but in the middle of them, the janitor who had gone into the coal house for the wherewithal to replenish the fires, came back with the shawl. I had rammed it rather viciously under the coal, and it was a filthy object. The superintendent held it up by finger and thumb and asked to whom it belonged.

"Why, that's our Johnny's" piped up my little sister amid a very disheartening roar of laughter from the school. There was no use in my denying the statement. Her reputation for veracity was much higher than mine, and I recognized the futility of trying to convince any one that she was mistaken. At the close of the session I had to wrap myself in that coal-stained garment and go forth. I was attended by a large delegation of the scholars when the school was over. They did not at all object to going far out of their way to escort me home, and they left me at my own gate.

It was Sunday, and it was against my father's religious principles to lick us on Sunday—that was one of the compensations, youthful compensations of that holy day—but Monday wasn't far off, and father's memory was remarkably acute. Ah, those sad times, but there was fun in them, too, after all.

There was a little boy who lived near us named Henry Smith. He and I were inseparable. He had a brother three years older than himself whose name was Charles. Charles was of course much taller and stronger than Henry and myself, and he could attend to one of us easily. But both of us together made a pretty good match for him. Consequently we hunted in couples, as it were. Charles was unduly sensitive about his Christian name. I think he called it his unchristian name. Not the "Charles" part of it, that was all right, but his parents had inconsiderately saddled him with the hopeless additional name of Peter Van Buskirk Smith! All we had to do to bring about a fight was to approach him and address him as "Peter Van Buskirk." He bitterly resented it, which was most unreasonable of him. I recall times when the three of us struggled in the haymow for hours at a time, Peter Van Buskirk, furiously angry, striving to force an apology or retraction, and Henry and I having a glorious time refusing him.

We were safe enough while we were together, but when he caught us alone—O my! I can remember it yet. He was always Charles, at that time, but it was of no use. Yet notwithstanding the absolute certainty of a severe thrashing when he caught us singly, we never could refrain from calling him "Peter Van Buskirk" when we were together.

Why is it that parents are so thoughtless about the naming of their children? I knew a boy once named Elijah Draco and there was another lad of my acquaintance who struggled under the name of Lord Byron. That wasn't so bad, because we shortened it to "By," but "Elijah Draco" was hopeless, so we called him "Tommy," as a rebuke to his unfeeling parents.

Charles Peter Van Buskirk was a funny boy. He was as brave as a lion. You could pick him up by the ears, which were long—and shall I say handy?—and he never would howl. We knew that was the way to tell a good dog. "Pick him up by the ears; an' if he howls, he'll be no fighter!" And we thought what was a good test for a dog could not be amiss for a boy.

He had a dog once, sold to him for a quarter when it was a pup by a specious individual of the tramp variety, as one of the finest "King-Newf'un'lan'—Bull Breed." His appetite and his vices were in proportion to his descriptions, but he had no virtues that we could discover. With a boy's lack of inventiveness we called him "Tiger" although anything less ferocious than he would be hard to find. He was more like a sheep in spirit than anything else. But Charles thought he saw signs of promise in that pup, and in spite of our disparaging remarks he clung to him. Charles knew a lot about dogs, or thought he did, which was the same thing.

I remember we were trying to teach Tige to "lead" one day. He had no more natural aptitude for leading than an unbroken calf. The perverse dog at last flattened himself down on his stomach, spread-eagled himself on the ground, and stretched his four legs out as stiff as he could. We dragged him over the yard until he raised a pile of dirt and leaves in front of him like a plow in an untilled field. He would not "lead," although we nearly choked him to death trying to teach him. Then we tried picking him up by the ears, applying that test for courage and blood, you know! You might have heard that dog yelp for miles. He had no spirit at all. Charles Peter Van Buskirk was disgusted with him.

We got out a can of wagon-grease and spotted him artistically to make him look like a coach-dog, which was legitimate, as coach-dogs are notoriously remarkable for lack of courage. They are only for ornament. That was a pretty-looking animal when it rained. We changed his name, too, and called him "Kitty," regardless of his sex. It was the last insult to a dog, we thought, but he never seemed to mind it. I feel sorry for that dog as I look back at him now, and it rather provoked Charles when we subsequently asked his opinion of any other dog. This we did as often as there were enough of us together to make it safe.

When we felt very reckless, we used to go in swimming in the river, which was a very dangerous proceeding indeed, for the Missouri is a treacherous, wicked stream, full of "suck-holes" and whirlpools and with a tremendous current, especially during the June "rise." The practice was strictly forbidden by all right-minded parents, including our own. Frequently, however, in compliance with that mysterious sign, the first two fingers of the right hand up-lifted and held wide apart, which all boys over a thousand miles of country knew meant "Will you go swimming?" we would make up a party after school and try the flood.

Father usually inspected us with a rather sharper eye, when we came sneaking in the back way after such exercises. For a busy man, father had a habit, that was positively maddening, of happening upon a boy at the wrong time. We used to think we had no privacy at all.

"Hum!" he was wont to say, looking suspiciously at our wet, sleek heads and general clean appearance—clean for us, that is, for the Missouri River, sandy though it was, was vastly cleaner than Duffy's Pond or puddles of that ilk—"been in swimming again, have you? In the river, I'll be bound."

Two little boys, my brother and I would choke out some sort of a mumbling evasion in lieu of a reply.

"How did you get your hair wet?" the old man would continue, rising and feeling two guilty little heads.

"Per-perspiration, sir," we would gasp out faintly.

"And that vile odor about you? Hey? Is that perspiration, too?" sniffing the air with a grim resolution that made our hearts sink.

We had been smoking drift-wood, the vilest stuff that anybody can put in his mouth. This was enough to betray us.

"It's no use, boys; you needn't say another word," father would add in the face of our desperate and awful attempts at an adequate explanation. "You know what I told you. Go to the wood-shed!"

Oh, that wood-shed! "Abandon ye all hope who enter here" should have been written over its door. Often mother would interfere—bless her tender heart!—but not always. Father was a small man of sedentary habits, not given to athletic exercises. A board across two barrels afforded a convenient resting-place for the arms and breast of the one appointed to receive the corporal punishment, and a barrel stave was an excellent instrument with which to administer it. I said father was a small, weak man. When he got through with us we used to think he would have made a splendid blacksmith. Our muscles were pretty strong, and our skin callous—"the hand of little use hath the daintier touch!"—but they were as nothing to his. We always tired of that game before he did, although we played it often.

Two of us, I recall, have carried large tubs up the steep bank from the river to the train at 4 A. M. on a summer morning, when the circus came to town. We were proud to be privileged to water the elephants, but it killed us to split wood for a day's burning in the kitchen stove. We never were good for anything except assisting the circus people, on circus day. School was torture, and it was generally dismissed.

Our father was mayor of the town, and the mayor's children usually got in free. On one occasion we yielded to the solicitations of our most intimate friends and assembled thirty of them in a body. This group of children of all ages and sizes—and there was even one lone "nigger" in it—we were to pass through the gate by declaring that we were the mayor's children.

"Great heavens!" cried the ticket man, appalled at the sight, "How many blame children has the mayor of the town got? Is he a Mormon, anyway, or what? An' how about that one?" pointing to the darky.

Father was standing near. We had not seen him. He turned and surveyed the multitude, including the black boy, that we had foisted upon him. It was a humorous situation, but father didn't see it that way. He sent all of us home with a few scathing words. My younger brother and I wanted to go to that circus more than we ever wanted to go to any circus before. We slept in a half-story room with windows opening on the porch roof. That night we climbed out on the roof and slid down the porch to the ground at the risk of breaking our necks.

Henry and Charles met us by appointment. We none of us had any money and we resolved to sneak in, our services at watering the elephants not being considered worthy of a ticket. My brother and I got in safely under the canvas in one place. Henry succeeded in effecting an entrance in another, but Charles Peter Van Buskirk got caught. A flat board in the hands of a watchman made a close connection with his anatomy. Charles was hauled back, well paddled and sent home. Circuses were a tabooed subject where he was concerned for some time thereafter.

William, my brother, and I clambered through the legs of the crowd on the seats after we got into the canvas tent. As luck would have it, we ran right into the arms of our father. I was paralyzed, but William burst out with a boldness that savored of an inspiration, "Why father, you here? I thought you were going to prayer-meeting."

Everybody laughed, father said nothing; some one made room for us, and we watched the performance with mingled feelings of delight and apprehension. The wood-shed loomed up awfully black as we passed it that night. We held our breath. However, father never said anything to us but, "Good night, boys. I hope you had a good time."

We certainly had. And we escaped the usual licking, deserved though it was. And it wasn't Sunday, either.

But where was I? O, yes! Charles Peter Van Buskirk one Saturday morning announced his intention of going on an expedition across the river. Over the river from where we lived was "Slab Town," dilapidated little settlement of no social or moral consideration. The old captain, the pilot of the wheezy ferry-boat Edgar, was our sworn friend, and allowed us to ride free as often as we could get away. Charles intended crossing the river to get pawpaws. A pawpaw is an easily mashed fruit, three or four inches long, with a tough skin inclosing a very liquid pulp full of seeds, and about as solid as a cream puff, when it is dead ripe. It grows on a low, stunted bush-like tree.

We were mighty fond of pawpaws, but little fellows as we were didn't dare to cross the river and venture into "Slab Town" or its vicinity, for such an excursion within its territory usually provoked a fight with the young ruffians of that hamlet, who hated the village boys as aristocrats.

"You'd better not go over there, Charles," we advised him timorously. "Those Slab Town boys will take your pawpaws away from you."

I can see now the chesty movement with which Charles stuck out his breast, threw back his shoulders, curved inward and swung his arms, and went away basket in hand, remarking in a lordly manner; "Aw, who's goin' to take my pawpaws?"

It was evening when the rash youth returned. He came slinking up the back alley in a vain endeavor to elude observation, but we had a number of his and our friends on the watch for him—to see that he returned safely, of course—and we gave him a royal greeting. We had been true prophets, though without honor in Charles's sight. The Slab Town boys had taken his pawpaws in a spirit of aggressive appropriation, which was bad enough, but with rare and unusual generosity they had afterward returned them to Charles. They had not put them back in his basket, however, but had heaped them indiscriminately upon his person. It appears that he must have run for miles pursued by a howling mob of all the ruffians over there, engaged in the happy pastime of throwing soft, mushy pawpaws at him. Charles could hardly see; in fact he could hardly walk. He was plastered with pawpaws from his head to his feet.

Thereafter when we wanted to provoke a fight, all that was necessary when the unappreciated portion of his name was flung at him and was not sufficient to awaken his ire, was to throw out our chests, hold back our shoulders, curve our arms and say in a throaty voice, "Who's going to take my pawpaws?"

I feel tempted to use the old phrase in certain modern circumstances to-day when it seems to fit some bold and reckless endeavor. I have never forgotten Charles's "who's-goin'-to-take-my-pawpaws" air!

We were sometimes able to get a little money together by doing odd jobs—not for our parents, however, but for the neighbors. We had plenty of odd jobs to do at home, but such work was a matter of obligation and not remunerative, nor was it interesting. With this money Henry and I each bought a game-chicken, which we kept cooped up separately in the back lot behind the stable. Neither father nor mother knew anything about it, of course.

We would let these two game-cocks out half a dozen times a day. They would rush at each other fiercely, but before the battle was fairly on, we would summarily part them, and put them back in their coops, which were placed opposite each other, when they would indulge in chicken-swearing and personalities as much as they desired. Their appetites for fighting were whetted indeed. In fact, there was so much animosity engendered between these two birds that they would rush together like two express trains trying to pass each other on the same track whenever they were turned loose. There was no time sparring for time or position. It was fight from the moment they saw each other, although we never let them strike more than one blow or two. A half-minute round was enough for us. I think it really scared us.

Charles, in spirit of revenge, let them out one day during our absence. When we got back from school we had only one chicken between us. It was a wonderful chicken, for it had beaten the other, although the conquered bird had fought until it had been killed. We burned him on a funeral pyre as a dead gladiator, with much ceremony and boyish speaking. We wanted to sacrifice to his manes a hen as his wife, but finally concluded to abandon that part of the ceremony; mother kept count of the hens, you see.

Of course, Julius Caesar (as we named him) had the run of the yard thereafter, there being no one to oppose him. He led a very peaceful life until our next door neighbor bought a large Shanghai rooster. I forgot now what particular breed our rooster was, but he was small, not much larger than a bantam. The Shanghai rooster, which was a huge monster, had the most provoking crow, large, loud and aggressive. An alley intervened between the yard where he held forth and our yard. One day we came home from school and looked for our chicken. He was gone!

We hunted everywhere for him, but could not find him. We missed the crowing of the Shanghai rooster, which had been frequent and exasperating, I have no doubt. The yard was very silent. We pursued our investigations with zeal and finally reached the alley. It had been raining heavily for almost a week, and the alley was a mass of black, sticky mud. Gazing anxiously over the fence, we heard a feeble chirp from a large gob of mud in the alley. It was our rooster!

The Shanghai had rashly ventured into supposed neutral ground in that alley and had crowed once too often. The little game cock had squeezed through the fence and come over to investigate the situation. They had fought there in the mud. The mud was too deep for the Shanghai to run and the bantam killed him. During the battle the victor had become so covered with mud that he could neither move nor crow nor see. He was in a worse state than Charles with the pawpaws, and indifferent to honors.

We took him and washed him. He seemed none the worse for his adventure, but that battle must have been a royal one. It was the second one we had not seen! We felt like the Roman public deprived of its "Circenses." We really never did see that chicken fight, for he got the pip or something, a few days after, perhaps from the microbes in the alley, and in spite of our careful nursing, or possibly because of it, he died. He died just in time, too, for after we had put him away with more ceremony than we had used before, father who had got some inkling of the affair, suddenly broke out at supper: "Boys, are you keeping game-cocks in the back lot? Fighting-chickens, eh?"

"No, sir," we both answered meekly, with a clear conscience and a steady eye.

We had lots of pets in those days; some time they may serve for another story.