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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Mary Noailles Murfree (Charles Egbert Craddock) (1850–1922)

Borrowing a Hammer

From “The Young Mountaineers”

ON a certain bold crag that juts far over a steep wooded mountain-slope a red light was seen one moonless night in June. Sometimes it glowed intensely among the gray mists which hovered above the deep and somber valley; sometimes it faded. Its life was the breath of the bellows, for a blacksmith’s shop stands close beside the road that rambles along the brink of the mountain. Generally after sunset the forge is dark and silent. So when three small boys, approaching the log hut through the gloomy woods, heard the clink! clank! clink! clank! of the hammers, and the metallic echo among the cliffs, they stopped short in astonishment.

“Thar, now!” exclaimed Abner Ryder desperately; “dad’s at it fer true!”

“Mebbe he’ll go away arter a while, Ab,” suggested Jim Gryce, another of the small boys. “Then that’ll gin us our chance.”

“Waal, I reckon we kin stiffen up our hearts ter wait,” said Ab resignedly.

All three sat down on a log a short distance from the shop, and presently they became so engrossed in their talk that they did not notice when the blacksmith, in the pauses of his work, came to the door for a breath of air. They failed to discreetly lower their voices, and thus they had a listener on whose attention they had not counted.

“Ye see,” observed Ab in a high, shrill pipe, “dad sets a heap o’ store by his tools. But dad, ye know, air a mighty slack-twisted man. He gits his tools lost” (reprehensively), “he wastes his nails, an’ then he ’lows ez how it war me ez done it.”

He paused impressively in virtuous indignation. A murmur of surprise and sympathy rose from his companions. Then he recommenced:

“Dad air the crankiest man on this hyar mounting! He won’t lend me none o’ his tools nowadays—not even that thar leetle hammer o’ his’n. An’ I’m obleeged ter hev that thar leetle hammer an’ some nails ter fix a box fer them young squir’ls what we cotched. So we’ll jes’ hev ter go ter his shop of a night when he is away, an’—an’—an’ borry it!”

The blacksmith, a tall, powerfully built man, of an aspect far from jocular, leaned slightly out of the door, peering in the direction where the three tow-headed urchins waited. Then he glanced within at a leather strap, as if he appreciated the appropriateness of an intimate relation between these objects. But there was no time for pleasure now. He was back in his shop in a moment.

His next respite was thus entertained:

“What makes him work so of a night?” asked Jim Gryce.

“Waal,” explained Ab in his usual high key, “he rid ter the settlemint this mornin’; he hev been a-foolin’ round thar all day, an’ the crap air jes’ a-sufferin’ fer work! So him an’ Uncle Tobe air layin’ thar plows in the shop now, kase they air goin’ ter run around the corn ter-morrer. Workin’, though, goes powerful hard with dad enny time. I tole old Bob Peachin that, when I war ter the mill this evenin’. Him an’ the t’other men thar laffed mightily at dad. An’ I laffed too!”

There was an angry gleam in Stephen Ryder’s stern black eyes as he turned within, seized the tongs, and thrust a piece of iron among the coals, while Tobe, who had been asleep in the window at the back of the shop, rose reluctantly and plied the bellows. The heavy panting broke forth simultaneously with the red flare that quivered out into the dark night. Presently it faded; the hot iron was whisked upon the anvil, fiery sparks showered about as the rapid blows fell, and the echoing crags kept time with rhythmic beats to the clanking of the sledge and the clinking of the hand-hammer. The stars, high above the far-stretching mountains, seemed to throb in unison, until suddenly the blacksmith dealt a sharp blow on the face of the anvil as a signal to his striker to cease, and the forge was silent.

As he leaned against the jamb of the door, mechanically adjusting his leather apron, he heard Ab’s voice again:

“Old Bob say he ain’t no ’count sca’cely. He ’lowed ez he had knowed him many a year, an’ f’und him a sneakin’, deceivin’ critter.”

The blacksmith was erect in a moment, every fiber tense.

“That ain’t the wust,” Ab gabbled on. “Old Bob say, though ’tain’t known ginerally, ez he air gin ter thievin’. Old Bob ’lowed ter them men, hangin’ round the mill, ez he air the biggest thief on the mounting!”

The strong man trembled. His blood rushed tumultuously to his head, then seemed to ebb swiftly away. That this should be said of him to the loafers at the mill! These constituted his little world. And he valued his character as only an honest man can. He was amazed at the boldness of the lie. It had been openly spoken in the presence of his son. One might have thought the boy would come directly to him. But there he sat, glibly retailing it to his small comrades! It seemed all so strange that Stephen Ryder fancied there was surely some mistake. In the next moment, however, he was convinced that they had been talking of him, and of no one else.

“I tole old Bob ez how I thought they oughtn’t ter be so hard on him, ez he warn’t thar to speak for hisself.”

All three boys giggled weakly, as if this were witty.

“But old Bob ’lowed ez ennybody mought know him by his name. An’ then he told me that old sayin’:

  • “‘Stephen, Stephen, so deceivin’,
  • That old Satan can’t believe him!’”
  • Here Ben Gryce broke in, begging the others to go home, and come to “borry” the hammer next night. Ab agreed to the latter proposition, but still sat on the log and talked. “Old Bob say,” he remarked cheerfully, “that when he do git ’em, he shakes ’em—shakes the life out’n ’em!”

    This was inexplicable. Stephen Ryder pondered vainly on it for an instant. But the oft-reiterated formula, “Old Bob say,” caught his ears, and he was absorbed anew in Ab’s discourse.

    “Old Bob say ez my mother air one of the best women in this world. But she air so gi’n ter humoring every critter a-nigh her, an’ tends ter ’em so much, an’ feeds ’em so high an’ hearty, ez they jes’ gits good fer nothin’ in this world. That’s how kem she air eat out’n house an’ home now. Old Bob say ez how he air the hongriest critter! Say he jes’ despise ter see him comin’ round of meal-times. Old Bob say ef he hev got enny good lef in him, my mother will kill it out yit with kindness.”

    The blacksmith felt, as he turned back into the shop and roused the sleepy-headed striker, that within the hour all the world had changed for him. These coarse taunts were enough to show in what estimation he was held. And he had fancied himself, in countrified phrase, “respected by all,” and had been proud of his standing.

    So the bellows began to sigh and pant once more, and kept the red light flaring athwart the darkness. The people down in the valley looked up at it, glowing like a star that had slipped out of the sky and lodged somehow on the mountain, and wondered what Stephen Ryder could be about so late at night. When he left the shop there was no sign of the boys who had ornamented the log earlier in the evening. He walked up the road to his house, and found his wife sitting alone in the rickety little porch.

    “Hev that thar boy gone ter bed?” he asked.

    “Waal,” she slowly drawled, in a soft, placid voice, “he kem hyar ’bout haff an hour ago so nigh crazed ter go ter stay all night with Jim an’ Benny Gryce, ez I hed ter let him. Old man Gryce rid by hyar in his wagon on his way home from the settlemint. So Ab went off with the Gryce boys an’ thar gran’dad.”

    Thus the blacksmith concluded his tools were not liable to be “borrowed” that night. He had a scheme to insure their safety for the future, but in order to avoid his wife’s remonstrances on Ab’s behalf he told her nothing of it, nor of what he had overheard.

    Early the next morning he set out for the mill, intending to confront “old Bob” and demand retraction. The road down the deep, wild ravine was rugged, and he jogged along slowly until at last he came within sight of the crazy, weather-beaten old building tottering precariously on the brink of the impetuous torrent which gashed the mountain-side. Crags towered above it; vines and mosses clung to its walls; it was a dank, cool, shady place, but noisy enough with the turmoil of its primitive machinery, and the loud, hoarse voices of the loungers striving to make themselves heard above the uproar. There were several of these idle mountaineers aimlessly strolling among the bags of corn and wheat that were piled about. Long dusty cobwebs hung from the rafters. Sometimes a rat, powdered white with flour and rendered reckless by high living, raced boldly across the floor. The golden grain poured ceaselessly through the hopper, and leaning against it was the miller, a tall, stoop-shouldered man about forty years of age, with a floury smile lurking in his beard and a twinkle in his good-humored eyes overhung by heavy, mealy eyebrows.

    “Waal, Steve,” yelled the miller, shambling forward as the blacksmith appeared in the doorway. “Come ’long in. Whar’s yer grist?”

    “I hev got no grist!” thundered Steve sternly.

    “Waal—ye’re jes’ ez welcome,” said the miller, not noticing the rigid lines of the blacksmith’s face, accented here and there by cinders, nor the fierceness of the intent dark eyes.

    “I reckon I’m powerful welcome!” sneered Stephen Ryder.

    The tone attracted “old Bob’s” attention. “What ails ye, Steve?” he asked, surprised.

    “I’m a deceivin’, sneakin’ critter—hey,” shouted the visitor, shaking his big fist. He had intended to be calm, but his long-repressed fury had found vent at last.

    The miller drew back hastily, astonishment and fear mingled in a pallid paste, as it were, with the flour on his face.

    The six startled onlookers stood as if petrified.

    “Ye say I’m a thief!—a thief!—a thief!”

    With the odious word Ryder made a frantic lunge at the miller, who dodged his strong right arm at the moment when his foot struck against a bag of corn lying on the floor and he stumbled. He recovered his equilibrium instantly. But the six bystanders had seized him.

    “Hold him hard, folkses!” cried honest Bob Peachin. “Hold hard! I’ll tell ye what ails him—though ye mustn’t let on ter him. He air teched in the head!”

    He winked at them with a confidential intention as he roared this out, forgetting in his excitement that mental infirmity does not impair the sense of hearing. This folly on his part was a salutary thing for Stephen Ryder. It calmed him instantly. He felt that he had need for caution. A fearful vista of possibilities opened before him. He remembered having seen in his childhood a man reputed to be suddenly bereft of reason, but who he believed was entirely sane, bound hand and foot, and every word, every groan, every effort to free himself, accounted the demonstration of a maniac. This fate was imminent for him. They were seven to one. He trembled as he felt their hands pressing upon the swelling muscles of his arms. With an abrupt realization of his great strength, he waited for a momentary relaxation of their clutch, then with a mighty wrench he burst loose from them, flung himself upon his mare, and dashed off at full speed.

    He did no work that afternoon, although the corn was “suffering.” He sat after dinner smoking his pipe on the porch of his log cabin, while he moodily watched the big shadow of the mountain creeping silently over the wooded valley as the sun got on the down grade. Deep glooms began to lurk among the ravines of the great ridge opposite. The shimmering blue summits in the distance were purpling. A redbird, alert, crested, and with a brilliant eye, perched idly on the vines about the porch, having relinquished for the day the job of teaching a small, stubby imitation of himself to fly. The shocks of wheat in the bare field close by had turned a rich red gold in the lengthening rays before Stephen Ryder realized that night was close at hand.

    All at once he heard a discordant noise which he knew that Ab Ryder called “singing,” and presently the boy appeared in the distance, his mouth stretched, his tattered hat stuck on the back of his tow head, his bare feet dusty, his homespun cotton trousers rolled up airily about his knees, his single suspender supporting the structure. His father laughed a little at sight of him, rather sardonically it must be confessed, and saying to his wife that he intended to go to the shop for a while, he rose and strolled off down the road.

    When supper was over, however, Ab was immensely relieved to see that his father had no idea of continuing his work. Consequently the usual routine was to be expected. Generally, when summoned to the evening meal, the blacksmith hastily plunged his head in the barrel of water used to temper steel, thrust off his leather apron, and went up to the house without more ado. He smoked afterward, and lounged about, enjoying the relaxation after his heavy work. He did not go down to lock the shop until bedtime, when he was shutting up the house, the barn, and the corn-crib for the night. In the interval the shop stood deserted and open, and this fact was the basis of Ab’s opportunity. To-night there seemed to be no deviation from this custom. He ascertained that his father was smoking his pipe on the porch. Then he went down the road and sat on the log near the shop to wait for the other boys who were to share the risks and profits of borrowing the hammer.

    All was still—so still! He fancied that he could hear the tumult of the torrent far away as it dashed over the rocks. A dog suddenly began to bark in the black, black valley—then ceased. He was vaguely overawed with the “big mountings” for company, and the distant stars. He listened eagerly for the first cracking of brush which told him that the other boys were near at hand. Then all three crept along cautiously among the huge boles of the trees, feeling very mysterious and important. When they reached the rude window, Ab sat for a moment on the sill, peering into the intense blackness within.

    “It air dark thar, fer true, Ab,” said Jim Gryce, growing faint-hearted. “Let’s go back.”

    “Naw, sir! Naw, sir!” protested Ab resolutely. “I’m on the borry!”

    “How kin we find that thar leetle hammer in sech a dark place?” urged Jim.

    “Waal,” explained Ab, in his high key, “dad air mightily welded ter his cranky notions. An’ he always leaves every tool in the same place edzactly every night. Bound fer me!” he continued in shrill exultation as he slapped his lean leg, “I know whar that thar leetle hammer air sot ter roost!”

    He jumped down from the window inside the shop, and cut a wiry caper.

    “I’m a man o’ bone and muscle!” he bragged. “Kin do ennything.”

    The other boys followed more quietly. But they had only groped a little distance when Jim Gryce set up a sharp yelp of pain.

    “Shet yer mouth, ye pop-eyed catamount!” Ab admonished him. “Dad will hear, an’—ah-h-h!” His own words ended in a shriek. “Oh, my!” vociferated the “man of bone and muscle,” who was certainly, too, a man of extraordinary lung power. “Oh, my! The ground is hot—hot ez iron! They always tole me that Satan would ketch me—an’ oh, my! now he hev done it!”

    He joined the “pop-eyed catamount” in a lively dance with their bare feet on the hot iron bars which were scattered about the ground in every direction. These were heated artistically, so that they might not really scorch the flesh, but would touch the feelings, and perhaps the conscience. As the third boy’s scream rent the air, and told that he, too, had encountered a torrid experience, Ab Ryder became suddenly aware that there was some one besides themselves in the shop. He could see nothing; he was only vaguely conscious of an unexpected presence, and he fancied that it was in the corner by the barrel of water.

    All at once a gruff voice broke forth. “I’m on the borry!” it remarked with fierce facetiousness. “I want ter borry a boy—no! a man o’ bone an’ muscle—fer ’bout a minit and a quarter!” A strong arm seized Ab by his collar. He felt himself swept through the air, soused head foremost into the barrel of water, then thrust into a corner, where he was thankful to find there was no more hot iron.

    “I want to borry another boy!” said the gruff voice. And the “pop-eyed catamount” was duly ducked.

    “’Twould pleasure me some ter borry another!” the voice declared with grim humor. But Ben was the youngest and smallest, and only led into mischief by the others. They never knew that the blacksmith relented when his turn came, and that he got a mere sprinkle in comparison with their total immersion.

    Then Stephen Ryder set out for home, followed by a dripping procession. “I’ll l’arn ye ter ‘borry’ my tools ’thout leave!” he vociferated as he went along.

    When they had reached the house, he faced round sternly on Ab. “Whyn’t ye kem an’ tell me ez how the miller say I war a sneakin’, deceivin’ critter, an’—an’—an’ a thief!”

    His wife dropped the dish she was washing, and it broke unheeded upon the hearth. Ab stretched his eyes and mouth in amazement.

    “Old Bob Peachin never tole me no sech word sence I been born!” he declared flatly.

    “Then what ailed ye ter go an’ tell sech a lie ter Gryce’s boys las’ night jes’ down thar outside o’ the shop?” Stephen Ryder demanded.

    Ab stared at him, evidently bewildered.

    “Ye tole ’em,” continued the blacksmith, striving to refresh his memory, “ez Bob Peachin say ez how ye mought know I war deceivin’ by my bein’ named Stephen—an’ that I war the hongriest critter—an’——”

    “’Twar the t-a-a-a-rrier!” shouted Ab, “the little rat tarrier ez we war a-talkin’ ’bout. He hev been named Steve these six year, old Bob say. He gimme the dog, yestiddy, ’kase I ’lowed ez the rats war eatin’ us out’n house an’ home, an’ my mother hed fed up that old cat o’ our’n till he won’t look at a mice. Old Bob warned me, though, ez Steve, the tarrier, air a mighty thief an’ deceivin’ ginerally. Old Bob say he reckons my mother will spile the dog with feedin’ him, an’ kill out what little good he hev got lef’ in him with kindness. But I tuk him, an’ brung him home ennyhow. An’ las’ night arter we hed got through talkin’ ’bout borryin’”—he looked embarrassed—“the leetle hammer, we tuk to talkin’ ’bout the tarrier. An’ yander he is now, asleep on the chil’ren’s bed!”

    A long pause ensued.

    “M’ria,” said the blacksmith meekly to his wife, “hev ye tuk notice how the gyarden truck air a-thrivin’? ’Pears like ter me ez the peas air a-fullin’ up consider’ble.”

    And so the subject changed.

    He had it on his conscience, however, to explain the matter to the miller. For the second time old Bob Peachin, and the men at the mill “laffed mightily at dad.” And when Ab had recovered sufficiently from the exhaustion attendant upon borrowing a hammer, he “laffed too.”