Several times a year, Father packed his carpet-bag with legal documents and journeyed to adjacent hamlets to attend court. He had attained an excellent reputation in the region both as to character and legal ability and he enjoyed and gave all he that he had to the practise of his profession. When the weather was bland and there were only a few cases on the docket, he sometimes took Mary and me along for company. We loved these judicial outings, for Father liked to drive and the livery stable owners, knowing he was critical, allowed him to select his own team. Once we struck into country roads he kept up a gentle barrage of commands to the horses as we jogged up and down the timbered hills that ended in curling arabesques as they wound through thick hazel woods. Mary and I liked the excitement; travel was adventure and the country scene new to our eyes.
Father always chose a single buggy and Mary sat beside him, while I occupied a hassock set close to the dashboard. It wasn’t a very comfortable seat but I was far from critical. Watching the road under the horse’s feet and seeing the dry places grow wet gave me an inordinate fear of water. Of course we had to ford streams. The first time I looked down and saw the wheel half-covered with water, I was terrified and from then on whenever we crossed the tiniest creek, Father covered me with the buggyrobe and I crouched in fear till we reached the opposite shore and the wheels no longer ground on the gravel of the stream. Father would have reassured his horse if it were frightened and taken pains to help him face the object of his fear, but such a procedure he never even considered with me. He protected me instead.
The roads through the Ozarks stretched out like narrow ribbons dyed the rich red of the Grand Canyon. When the weather was dry they faded to a dark maroon but after a rain they were startlingly colorful and sticky as candy. Even the stones that scraped against the wheel-rims reflected the clay in varying tones of red and brown. Squirrels skipped across the way, and chipmunks, and Father frequently called attention to a scampering object fleeing at our approach. I loved the rustling of the trees and the creaking of the buggy. The awesomeness of space made me sit closer to Father and sometimes he asked me the pitch of an eerie note.
Driving through the bracing mountain air gave us good appetites and Mother always packed a basket with food we especially liked. Even Father found the customary fare of the homesteaders difficult to eat but exerted himself studiously to excuse any finicky notions we children displayed. The people were very hospitable and it required finesse and tact to avoid offending them. When we arrived at our destination, he would locate the most desirable farmhouse available, and leave Mary and me there while he pursued his profession. We were never taken to court.
Most of the houses were one-room affairs with partitions made by curtaining off various sections, mostly for sleeping purposes. The cookstove usually doubled as a heating unit to supplement the fireplace that was ornamented with a high mantel. We almost never stayed overnight at these places for Father and Mother and their friends preferred driving all night to sharing beds with pioneers.
On one of these trips Mr. Frank Shepard, a friend of our parents, had found it necessary to remain overnight at a farmhouse and his hostess had assigned him a place in the main room at one side. Curtains on a wire were drawn at the time of retiring and Mr. Shepard, accustomed to greater privacy, had slept fitfully. Before daylight, he was awakened by the sounds and odor of frying fat and thinking he had better bestir himself, he peeped from behind the Pullman drapery and took a comprehensive look. What he saw was a buxom woman standing over the stove frying pancakes by the light of a kerosene lamp. Mr. Shepard was hungry and a prospect of hot cakes for breakfast was toothsome. (Practically every Missouri farmer had his own batch of sugar cane and the thick rich sorghum made from it combines not unpleasantly with pancakes and salt pork.) Beside the stove, standing on the floor in a convenient position, was a huge yellow bowl of batter. As Mr. Shepard’s gaze lingered, a scrawny kitten sprang on to the rim of the bowl, slipped and fell into the batter. Fascinated, and wondering what would happen next, Mr. Shepard watched the annoyed cook remove the cat, hold it steady with her left hand and with her right, squeeze the batter from its coat into the bowl. Then flinging the kitten on the floor she snapped; “That’s the third time ye’ve did that. Now, scat!”
Then she wiped her hands on her apron, held open the door, and the slinking kitten, taking surreptitious swipes at the slimy coat with a pink tongue, passed out of the picture. The housewife gave a few plops at the mixture with her spoon, greased the skillet and fried more pancakes.
This pictorial demonstration of thrift had not been incorporated in Mary’s and my lexicon of Ozarkiana but we had made collections of data on our own and we waited critically while Father made inquiries concerning a proper parking place for us. On one journey we found a real farmhouse with a parlor equipped with a genuine mail-order cottage organ and Father and Mary had pumped the bellows while I pulled out all the stops and had a grand time listening to the diapason tones that emanated from the box-like cabinet, but the homestead Father had driven us to that day was not up to the social level past experience had led us to expect. Chickens and peacocks strutted about over moth-eaten grass. Off to the right a young sapling supported a rope swing and from an unpainted corn-crib on stilts, a cat leaped lightly to the ground and ambled toward the house. Two tow-haired little girls about six and eight meandered into view and stared vacantly at Father as he helped Mary and me out of the rig. A scrubby fence made from tree stumps fronted the property and at one corner of the dooryard a home-contrived set of bars did duty for a gate. Father tied his team to a tree, removed the bars, and Mary and I followed him across the yard.
“Look’s like those are your playmates, girls,” he said under his breath and looked critically but amusedly at us. We made no comment. Turning to the children he inquired in a pleasant voice, “Is your mama home?”
Neither gave a reply and the younger continued to stare blankly while the older disappeared around the corner of the house. Almost immediately the front door of the shabby house opened with a screeching sound and a woman in a faded calico dress, her hair twisted into a doughnut, said,
“Howdy,” as she wiped her hands on her plain apron. Father uncovered his bald pate. (Father always ‘Madamed’ or ‘Good womaned’ his ladies.)
“Good-day, Madam, can you tell me if this is Mr. Jed Holloway’s place?” he inquired.
“Yes, that’s the name, the woman replied, “Come in.”
She opened the screen-door and we stepped inside.
“Howell is my name,” Father averred as we were assigned seats.
“I am here to attend court and I’d like to see Mr. Holloway before I leave. Is he at home?”
“He’s to home all right, but he’s out in the field and hit’s a right smart piece down the road. He’s pulling stumps. If ye can wait he’ll be comin’ in fer dinner at twelve.”
Father looked at his watch and snapped it with a click.
“It lacks seven minutes to eleven now,” he said and looked up, slowly formulating his plans. Mary and I needed to be disposed of and there was no time to find another place. Father glanced about the room. It was untidy and above all he disliked the stale odors that assailed him. Father was a stickler for fresh air.
“That will leave me about an hour,” he said to the woman.
“I had hoped we might have more time but that can’t be helped. Would my little girls be in your way if I left them here? I’d prefer not to take them to court if you have no objections.”
“No, they kin stay,” the woman acquiesced.
“They’s nothin’ much in the way of playthings, but Pergala can show’em the ducks,” she added in a colorless tone.
“That would be fine,” Father said and, turning to the tow-headed pair that had followed us indoors, he leaned over and said with forced gayety, “Would you like to have my little girls play with you for a while?”
Not a flicker of expression stirred the pasty faces of the uncombed pair. Father cleared his throat and looked slightly chagrinned and went at once to the buggy and brought back the lunch basket Mother had packed for us.
The parlor was a dark, dingy room with the usual high mantel at one end. On the center of it stood an old-fashioned clock and Father proceeded to place the basket at one end, as he thought, far beyond the ravaging reach of the unwashed. Then he kissed us goodbye.
“I’ll be back in an hour,” he said. “Be good little girls,” he added with rubberstamp correctness and was off.
Mrs. Holloway had already returned to the dual business of washing and preparing dinner which our arrival had interrupted. The two children leaned against the door-jamb and stared dumbly at us. Mary and I returned their inspection, but we were interested in the peacock that strutted on the grass outside.
“When does your peacock spread its tail?” Mary inquired of the older girl . No answer greeted her question so we went out to the swing and tried it. Swings were part of our experience.
Mary and I were typically urban children and the untidiness of the buildings and yard, instead of carrying with them a sense of space and freedom, stirred a pang of homesickness. We wandered about for a while hoping the peacock would unfold his glories and wondering where the ducks Pergala was to exhibit hid themselves. Then not knowing what else to do we went indoors. As we entered the room a chilling sight confronted us. The two youngsters were standing on a chair beside the mantel. One had a piece of pie from our basket in her hand and her face was smeared with berries. The other had her hand inside a napkin rummaging among goodies for something to strike her fancy.
They were scared as we hove in sight unexpectedly, and the one caught with the goods on her said, with her mouth full, “This pie’s too sweet!”
Then relieved that we were not going to do anything to them, they climbed down and went outside, shutting the door after them.
Mary and I were disgusted. We were also unequal to the situation and knew it, so we merely climbed up and looked at the ruins of what was to have been a delicious repast. Neither of us would have touched the food with a ten-foot pole after it had been handled by dirty youngsters.
When Father arrived to interview Mr. Holloway, we whispered all the unappetizing details to him. He tucked us in the buggy, and at the general store gathered enough provender to hold us through the day. Our relief when he packed us in the buggy and started for Springfield, is indescribable. I remember admiring anew his courtesy as he said goodbye, “My Good Woman, etc.”
I wondered how he could apply such epithets to so slovenly a creature and smile as if it were a pleasure to look at her. He even advised us to do the same and we repeated an automatic ‘goodbye,’ and apathetically waved a hand in farewell. I had a new respect for Father from that moment, but the connotation of ‘farm’ became abhorrent to me.