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A Mother Of Five








From: Selected Stories

She was a mother--and a rather exemplary one--of five children, although
her own age was barely nine. Two of these children were twins, and she
generally alluded to them as "Mr. Amplach's children," referring to an
exceedingly respectable gentleman in the next settlement who, I have
reason to believe, had never set eyes on her or them. The twins were
quite naturally alike--having been in a previous state of existence two
ninepins--and were still somewhat vague and inchoate below their low
shoulders in their long clothes, but were also firm and globular about
the head, and there were not wanting those who professed to see in this
an unmistakable resemblance to their reputed father. The other children
were dolls of different ages, sex, and condition, but the twins may
be said to have been distinctly her own conception. Yet such was her
admirable and impartial maternity that she never made any difference
between them. "The Amplach's children" was a description rather than a
distinction.

She was herself the motherless child of Robert Foulkes, a hardworking
but somewhat improvident teamster on the Express Route between Big Bend
and Reno. His daily avocation, when she was not actually with him in the
wagon, led to an occasional dispersion of herself and her progeny along
the road and at wayside stations between those places. But the family
was generally collected together by rough but kindly hands already
familiar with the handling of her children. I have a very vivid
recollection of Jim Carter trampling into a saloon, after a five-mile
walk through a snowdrift, with an Amplach twin in his pocket. "Suthin'
ought to be done," he growled, "to make Meary a little more careful o'
them Amplach children; I picked up one outer the snow a mile beyond Big
Bend." "God bless my soul!" said a casual passenger, looking up hastily;
"I didn't know Mr. Amplach was married." Jim winked diabolically at us
over his glass. "No more did I," he responded gloomily, "but you can't
tell anything about the ways o' them respectable, psalm-singing jay
birds." Having thus disposed of Amplach's character, later on, when
he was alone with Mary, or "Meary," as she chose to pronounce it, the
rascal worked upon her feelings with an account of the infant Amplach's
sufferings in the snowdrift and its agonized whisperings for "Meary!
Meary!" until real tears stood in Mary's blue eyes. "Let this be a
lesson to you," he concluded, drawing the ninepin dexterously from his
pocket, "for it took nigh a quart of the best forty-rod whisky to bring
that child to." Not only did Mary firmly believe him, but for weeks
afterwards "Julian Amplach"--this unhappy twin--was kept in a somnolent
attitude in the cart, and was believed to have contracted dissipated
habits from the effects of his heroic treatment.

Her numerous family was achieved in only two years, and succeeded her
first child, which was brought from Sacramento at considerable expense
by a Mr. William Dodd, also a teamster, on her seventh birthday. This,
by one of those rare inventions known only to a child's vocabulary,
she at once called "Misery"--probably a combination of "Missy," as she
herself was formerly termed by strangers, and "Missouri," her native
State. It was an excessively large doll at first--Mr. Dodd wishing to
get the worth of his money--but time, and perhaps an excess of maternal
care, remedied the defect, and it lost flesh and certain unemployed
parts of its limbs very rapidly. It was further reduced in bulk by
falling under the wagon and having the whole train pass over it,
but singularly enough its greatest attenuation was in the head and
shoulders--the complexion peeling off as a solid layer, followed by the
disappearance of distinct strata of its extraordinary composition. This
continued until the head and shoulders were much too small for even
its reduced frame, and all the devices of childish millinery--a shawl
secured with tacks and well hammered in, and a hat which tilted backward
and forward and never appeared at the same angle--failed to restore
symmetry. Until one dreadful morning, after an imprudent bath, the whole
upper structure disappeared, leaving two hideous iron prongs standing
erect from the spinal column. Even an imaginative child like Mary could
not accept this sort of thing as a head. Later in the day Jack Roper,
the blacksmith at the "Crossing," was concerned at the plaintive
appearance before his forge of a little girl clad in a bright-blue
pinafore of the same color as her eyes, carrying her monstrous offspring
in her arms. Jack recognized her and instantly divined the situation.
"You haven't," he suggested kindly, "got another head at home--suthin'
left over," Mary shook her head sadly; even her prolific maternity was
not equal to the creation of children in detail. "Nor anythin' like
a head?" he persisted sympathetically. Mary's loving eyes filled with
tears. "No, nuffen!" "You couldn't," he continued thoughtfully, "use her
the other side up?--we might get a fine pair o' legs outer them irons,"
he added, touching the two prongs with artistic suggestion. "Now look
here"--he was about to tilt the doll over when a small cry of feminine
distress and a swift movement of a matronly little arm arrested the
evident indiscretion. "I see," he said gravely. "Well, you come here
tomorrow, and we'll fix up suthin' to work her." Jack was thoughtful the
rest of the day, more than usually impatient with certain stubborn mules
to be shod, and even knocked off work an hour earlier to walk to Big
Bend and a rival shop. But the next morning when the trustful and
anxious mother appeared at the forge she uttered a scream of delight.
Jack had neatly joined a hollow iron globe, taken from the newel post of
some old iron staircase railing, to the two prongs, and covered it
with a coat of red fireproof paint. It was true that its complexion was
rather high, that it was inclined to be top-heavy, and that in the long
run the other dolls suffered considerably by enforced association with
this unyielding and implacable head and shoulders, but this did not
diminish Mary's joy over her restored first-born. Even its utter absence
of features was no defect in a family where features were as evanescent
as in hers, and the most ordinary student of evolution could see
that the "Amplach" ninepins were in legitimate succession to the
globular-headed "Misery." For a time I think that Mary even preferred
her to the others. Howbeit it was a pretty sight to see her on a summer
afternoon sitting upon a wayside stump, her other children dutifully
ranged around her, and the hard, unfeeling head of Misery pressed deep
down into her loving little heart as she swayed from side to side,
crooning her plaintive lullaby. Small wonder that the bees took up the
song and droned a slumberous accompaniment, or that high above her head
the enormous pines, stirred through their depths by the soft Sierran
air--or Heaven knows what--let slip flickering lights and shadows to
play over that cast-iron face, until the child, looking down upon it
with the quick, transforming power of love, thought that it smiled.

The two remaining members of the family were less distinctive.
"Gloriana"--pronounced as two words: "Glory Anna"--being the work of
her father, who also named it, was simply a cylindrical roll of canvas
wagon-covering, girt so as to define a neck and waist, with a rudely
inked face--altogether a weak, pitiable, manlike invention; and "Johnny
Dear," alleged to be the representative of John Doremus, a young
storekeeper who occasionally supplied Mary with gratuitous sweets. Mary
never admitted this, and as we were all gentlemen along that road,
we were blind to the suggestion. "Johnny Dear" was originally a small
plaster phrenological cast of a head and bust, begged from some shop
window in the county town, with a body clearly constructed by Mary
herself. It was an ominous fact that it was always dressed as a BOY,
and was distinctly the most HUMAN-looking of all her progeny. Indeed,
in spite of the faculties that were legibly printed all over its smooth,
white, hairless head, it was appallingly lifelike. Left sometimes by
Mary astride of the branch of a wayside tree, horsemen had been known to
dismount hurriedly and examine it, returning with a mystified smile, and
it was on record that Yuba Bill had once pulled up the Pioneer Coach
at the request of curious and imploring passengers, and then grimly
installed "Johnny Dear" beside him on the box seat, publicly delivering
him to Mary at Big Bend, to her wide-eyed confusion and the first blush
we had ever seen on her round, chubby, sunburnt cheeks. It may seem
strange that with her great popularity and her well-known maternal
instincts, she had not been kept fully supplied with proper and more
conventional dolls; but it was soon recognized that she did not care
for them--left their waxen faces, rolling eyes, and abundant hair in
ditches, or stripped them to help clothe the more extravagant creatures
of her fancy. So it came that "Johnny Dear's" strictly classical profile
looked out from under a girl's fashionable straw sailor hat, to the
utter obliteration of his prominent intellectual faculties; the Amplach
twins wore bonnets on their ninepins heads, and even an attempt was
made to fit a flaxen scalp on the iron-headed Misery. But her dolls were
always a creation of her own--her affection for them increasing with the
demand upon her imagination. This may seem somewhat inconsistent
with her habit of occasionally abandoning them in the woods or in the
ditches. But she had an unbounded confidence in the kindly maternity of
Nature, and trusted her children to the breast of the Great Mother as
freely as she did herself in her own motherlessness. And this confidence
was rarely betrayed. Rats, mice, snails, wildcats, panther, and bear
never touched her lost waifs. Even the elements were kindly; an Amplach
twin buried under a snowdrift in high altitudes reappeared smilingly
in the spring in all its wooden and painted integrity. We were all
Pantheists then--and believed this implicitly. It was only when exposed
to the milder forces of civilization that Mary had anything to fear.
Yet even then, when Patsy O'Connor's domestic goat had once tried to
"sample" the lost Misery, he had retreated with the loss of three
front teeth, and Thompson's mule came out of an encounter with that
iron-headed prodigy with a sprained hind leg and a cut and swollen
pastern.

But these were the simple Arcadian days of the road between Big Bend and
Reno, and progress and prosperity, alas! brought changes in their wake.
It was already whispered that Mary ought to be going to school, and
Mr. Amplach--still happily oblivious of the liberties taken with his
name--as trustee of the public school at Duckville, had intimated that
Mary's bohemian wanderings were a scandal to the county. She was growing
up in ignorance, a dreadful ignorance of everything but the chivalry,
the deep tenderness, the delicacy and unselfishness of the rude men
around her, and obliviousness of faith in anything but the immeasurable
bounty of Nature toward her and her children. Of course there was a
fierce discussion between "the boys" of the road and the few married
families of the settlement on this point, but, of course, progress and
"snivelization"--as the boys chose to call it--triumphed. The projection
of a railroad settled it; Robert Foulkes, promoted to a foremanship of
a division of the line, was made to understand that his daughter must be
educated. But the terrible question of Mary's family remained. No school
would open its doors to that heterogeneous collection, and Mary's little
heart would have broken over the rude dispersal or heroic burning of her
children. The ingenuity of Jack Roper suggested a compromise. She
was allowed to select one to take to school with her; the others were
ADOPTED by certain of her friends, and she was to be permitted to visit
them every Saturday afternoon. The selection was a cruel trial, so cruel
that, knowing her undoubted preference for her firstborn, Misery, we
would not have interfered for worlds, but in her unexpected choice
of "Johnny Dear" the most unworldly of us knew that it was the first
glimmering of feminine tact--her first submission to the world of
propriety that she was now entering. "Johnny Dear" was undoubtedly the
most presentable; even more, there was an educational suggestion in its
prominent, mapped-out phrenological organs. The adopted fathers were
loyal to their trust. Indeed, for years afterward the blacksmith kept
the iron-headed Misery on a rude shelf, like a shrine, near his bunk;
nobody but himself and Mary ever knew the secret, stolen, and thrilling
interviews that took place during the first days of their separation.
Certain facts, however, transpired concerning Mary's equal faithfulness
to another of her children. It is said that one Saturday afternoon, when
the road manager of the new line was seated in his office at Reno in
private business discussion with two directors, a gentle tap was heard
at the door. It was opened to an eager little face, a pair of blue eyes,
and a blue pinafore. To the astonishment of the directors, a change came
over the face of the manager. Taking the child gently by the hand, he
walked to his desk, on which the papers of the new line were
scattered, and drew open a drawer from which he took a large ninepin
extraordinarily dressed as a doll. The astonishment of the two gentlemen
was increased at the following quaint colloquy between the manager and
the child.

"She's doing remarkably well in spite of the trying weather, but I have
had to keep her very quiet," said the manager, regarding the ninepin
critically.

"Ess," said Mary quickly, "It's just the same with Johnny Dear; his
cough is f'ightful at nights. But Misery's all right. I've just been to
see her."

"There's a good deal of scarlet fever around," continued the manager
with quiet concern, "and we can't be too careful. But I shall take her
for a little run down the line tomorrow."

The eyes of Mary sparkled and overflowed like blue water. Then there was
a kiss, a little laugh, a shy glance at the two curious strangers, the

blue pinafore fluttered away, and the colloquy ended. She was equally
attentive in her care of the others, but the rag baby "Gloriana," who
had found a home in Jim Carter's cabin at the Ridge, living too far for
daily visits, was brought down regularly on Saturday afternoon to Mary's
house by Jim, tucked in asleep in his saddle bags or riding gallantly
before him on the horn of his saddle. On Sunday there was a dress
parade of all the dolls, which kept Mary in heart for the next week's
desolation.

But there came one Saturday and Sunday when Mary did not appear, and it
was known along the road that she had been called to San Francisco to
meet an aunt who had just arrived from "the States." It was a vacant
Sunday to "the boys," a very hollow, unsanctified Sunday, somehow,
without that little figure. But the next, Sunday, and the next, were
still worse, and then it was known that the dreadful aunt was making
much of Mary, and was sending her to a grand school--a convent at Santa
Clara--where it was rumored girls were turned out so accomplished that
their own parents did not know them. But WE knew that was impossible to
our Mary; and a letter which came from her at the end of the month, and
before the convent had closed upon the blue pinafore, satisfied us, and
was balm to our anxious hearts. It was characteristic of Mary; it was
addressed to nobody in particular, and would--but for the prudence of
the aunt--have been entrusted to the post office open and undirected. It
was a single sheet, handed to us without a word by her father; but as
we passed it from hand to hand, we understood it as if we had heard our
lost playfellow's voice.

"Ther's more houses in 'Frisco than you kin shake a stick at and
wimmens till you kant rest, but mules and jakasses ain't got no sho, nor
blacksmiffs shops, wich is not to be seen no wear. Rapits and Skwirls
also bares and panfers is on-noun and unforgotten on account of the
streets and Sunday skoles. Jim Roper you orter be very good to Mizzery
on a kount of my not bein' here, and not harten your hart to her bekos
she is top heavy--which is ontroo and simply an imptient lie--like
you allus make. I have a kinary bird wot sings deliteful--but isn't a
yellerhamer sutch as I know, as you'd think. Dear Mister Montgommery,
don't keep Gulan Amplak to mutch shet up in office drors; it isn't good
for his lungs and chest. And don't you ink his head--nother! youre as
bad as the rest. Johnny Dear, you must be very kind to your attopted
father, and you, Glory Anna, must lov your kind Jimmy Carter verry
mutch for taking you hossback so offen. I has been buggy ridin' with
an orficer who has killed injuns real! I am comin' back soon with grate
affeckshun, so luke out and mind."

But it was three years before she returned, and this was her last
and only letter. The "adopted fathers" of her children were faithful,
however, and when the new line was opened, and it was understood that
she was to be present with her father at the ceremony, they came, with
a common understanding, to the station to meet their old playmate. They
were ranged along the platform--poor Jack Roper a little overweighted
with a bundle he was carrying on his left arm. And then a young girl
in the freshness of her teens and the spotless purity of a muslin frock
that although brief in skirt was perfect in fit, faultlessly booted and
gloved, tripped from the train, and offered a delicate hand in turn to
each of her old friends. Nothing could be prettier than the smile on the
cheeks that were no longer sunburnt; nothing could be clearer than the
blue eyes lifted frankly to theirs. And yet, as she gracefully turned
away with her father, the faces of the four adopted parents were found
to be as red and embarrassed as her own on the day that Yuba Bill drove
up publicly with "Johnny Dear" on the box seat.

"You weren't such a fool," said Jack Montgomery to Roper, "as to bring
Misery here with you?"

"I was," said Roper with a constrained laugh--"and you?" He had just
caught sight of the head of a ninepin peeping from the manager's pocket.
The man laughed, and then the four turned silently away.

"Mary" had indeed come back to them; but not "The Mother of Five!"





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Previous: A Yellow Dog



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