Kirby's Coals of Fire by Louise Stockton

Considering it simply as an excursion, George Scott thought, leaning over the side of the canal-boat and looking at the shadow of the hills in the water, his plan for spending his summer vacation might be a success, but he was not so sure about his opportunities for studying human nature under the worst conditions. It was true that the conditions were bad enough, but so were the results, and George was not in search of logical sequences. He had been in the habit of saying that nothing interested him as much as the study of his fellows; and that he was in earnest was proved by the fact that even his college experiences had not yet disheartened him, although they had cost him not a few neckties and coats, and sometimes too many of his dollars. But George had higher aspirations, and was not disposed to be satisfied with the opportunities presented by crude collegians or even learned professors, and so meant to go out among men. When he was younger,—a year or two before,—he had dreamed of a mission among the Indians, fancying that he would reach original principles among them; but the Modocs and Captain Jack had lowered his faith, while the Rev. Dr. Buck’s story of how the younger savages had been taught to make beds and clean knives, until they preferred these civilized occupations to their old habit of scampering through the woods, had dispelled more of the glitter, and he had resolved to confine his labors to his white brethren. He did not mean to seek his opportunities among the rich, nor among the monotonously dreary poor of the city, but in a fresher field. Like most theological students, he was well read in current literature, and he had learned how often the noblest virtues are found among the roughest classes. It was true, they were sometimes so latent that like the jewel in a toad’s head they had the added grace of unexpectedness, but that did not interfere with the fact of their existence. He had read of California gamblers who had rushed from tables where they had sat with bowie-knives between their teeth, to warn a coming train of broken rails, and, when picked up maimed and dying, had simply asked if the children were saved, and then, content, had turned aside and died. He knew the story of the Mississippi engineer who, going home with a long-sought fortune to claim his waiting bride, had saved his boat from wreck by supplying the want of fuel by hat, coat, boots, wedding-clothes, gloves, favors, and finally his bag of greenbacks and Northern Pacific bonds, then returning to his duty, sans money, sans wife, but plus honor and a rewarding conscience. When men are capable of such heroism, George would say, arguing from these and similar stories, they are open to true reformation, all that is necessary being some exercise of an influence that shall make such impulses constant instead of spasmodic.

About noon he had not been quite so sanguine regarding his mission, and had almost resolved that when they reached Springfield he would return East and join some of his class who were going to the Kaatskills. The sun was then pouring down directly on the boat, the cabin was stifling, the horses crept sluggishly along, the men were rude and brutal, and around him was an atmosphere of frying fish and boiling cabbage. The cabbage was perhaps the crowning evil; for while he found it possible to force his ear and eye to be deaf and blind to the disagreeable, he had no amount of will that could conquer the sense of smell. There seemed to be little, he thought, with some contempt for his expectations, to reward his quest or maintain his theory that every one had at least one story to tell. It was not necessarily one’s own story, he had said, but lives the most barren in incident come into contact with those more vehement, and have the chance of looking into tragedies, into moral victories and fierce conflicts, through other men’s eyes. He had hinted something of this to Joe Lakin early in the morning, when the mist was rising off the hills, when the air was fresh and keen, and the sun was making the long lines of oil upon the river glitter like so many brilliant snakes. Joe was the laziest and roughest of the men on the boat, but he sometimes had such a genial and even superior manner, that George had felt sure that he would comprehend his meaning. Thus when noon came, hot, close, and heavy with prophecy of dinner, George had sickened of human nature and of psychological studies; but now the sun had set, and a golden glory lit the sky; the fields on one side of the river rolled away green in clover and wavy in corn, the hills heavily wooded rose high and picturesquely on the other side, and the little island in the bend of the river seemed the home of quiet and of peace. The horses plodded patiently through the water, going out on the shallows and avoiding the deeper currents near the shore, and the boys, forgetting to shout and swear, rode along softly whistling. Over by the hills stood a cottage, and in the terraced garden a group of girls with bright ribbons in their hair were playing quoits with horseshoes. A rowboat was carrying passengers over the river to meet the evening train, and under the sweetness of the twilight George’s spirits arose lightly to their level, his old faith returned to him, and he looked up with a new sense of fellowship to Joe, who was filling a pipe with his favorite “towhead.”

“It’s a pity you don’t smoke,” said Joe, carefully striking a match and holding his cap before it, “for it seems a gift thrown away; and this tobacco is uncommon good, though you might fancy it a notion too strong. I’ve noticed that most preachers smoke, although they don’t take kindly to drinking. I suppose they think it wouldn’t seem the proper thing, and perhaps it wouldn’t; but there’s Parson Robinson,—I should think that a good, solid drink would be a real comfort to him sometimes. He’s got a hard pull of it with a half share of victuals and a double share of children, so the two ends hardly ever see each other, much less think of meeting.”

George hesitated for reply. He thought Joe was unnecessarily rough at times, and alluded to the ministry much too frequently. He had fancied when he left home that his blue flannel and gray tweed, with rather a jovial manner, would divest him of all resemblance to a theological student, and enable him to meet his companions on the ground of a common humanity, especially as he had at present no missionary intentions excepting those that might flow indirectly from his personal influence. Still, while he wanted Joe to recognize his broad liberality, he owed it to himself not to be loose in his expression of opinion.

“Well, yes,” he said, slowly, “I suppose it would help a man to forget his troubles for a time, but the getting over the spree and coming back to the same old bothers, not a bit better for the forgetting, would hardly be much comfort, even if the thing were right.”

“Maybe not,” replied Joe; “I s’pose it wouldn’t be comfortable if those were your feelin’s, but I reckon you don’t know much about it unless from hearsay. But I tell you one thing, whiskey’s a friend to be trusted”—adding, slowly, with a glance at George’s face—“to get you into trouble if you let it get the upper hand of you. It’s like a woman in that! It begins with the same letter too, and that’s another likeness!”

George made no answer to this joke, over which Joe chuckled enough for both, and then returned to the charge:

“I’ve seen a good deal of life, one way and another,” Joe said, “but I don’t know much of parsons. Somehow they haven’t been in my line; but if I had to choose between being a parson or a doctor, I’d take the doctor by long odds. You see the world’s pretty much of a hospital as far as he’s concerned, and when he can’t tinker a man up, he lets him slide off and nobody minds; but the parson’s different. When a man takes sick he looks kind of friendly on the doctor, because, you see, he expects him to cure him; but when the parson comes, he tells him what a miserable sinner he is and what he’s coming to at last. Now, it ain’t in nature to like that, and I don’t blame the fellows who say they can stand a parson when they are well, but that he’s worse than a break-bone fever and no water handy when they’re sick. And I shouldn’t think any man would like to go about making himself unpleasant to others! Leastways, I wouldn’t. Kicking Kirby used to say that he’d rather be a woman than a parson, and the force of language couldn’t go further than that! He knew what he was talking about, for some of his folks were preachers; and there was good in Kirby, too! People may say what they please, but I’ll allers hold to that!”

“Who was he?” asked George, happy to change the subject, being a little uneasy in his hold upon it, and hopeful of a story at last.

Joe looked over the hills.

“Well, he was a friend of mine when I was prospecting for oil, once. I allers liked Kicking Kirby.”

George sat patiently waiting, while Jim refilled his pipe and then began:

“There ain’t so much to tell, but men do curious things sometimes, and Kirby, I guess, was a man few folks would have expected very much of. There was hard things said of him, but he could allers strike a blow for a friend, or hold his own with the next man, let him be who he might. You see, there were a good many of us in camp, and we had fair enough luck; for the men over at Digger’s Run had struck a good vein, so money was plenty and changed hands fast enough. We’d all hung together in our camp until Clint Bowers got into trouble. None of the rest of us wanted to get mixed up in the fuss, but somehow we did, and the other camp fought shy of us and played mostly among themselves; and I’ve allers held that it is poor fun to take out of one pocket to put into the other. Our boys had different opinions about it, and some of them held that it wasn’t Clint’s awkward work that they’d got mad at, but that they meant to shut down on Kirby. You see, Kirby was a very lucky player, and although pretty rough things were said about it, nobody ever got a clear handle against him, and he wasn’t the kind of fellow that was pleasant to affront. Kirby used to say it was all along of Clint; that he ought to have been kept from the cards, or sent down the river; that we’d have had a good run of luck all winter if it hadn’t been for him. I don’t know the rights properly, but I allers thought it was about six of one and a half dozen of the other. Anyhow, there was bad blood about it, and that don’t run up hill, you know, and so there was trouble soon enough. The boys got into words one night, and Kirby threw a mug at Clint, who out with his knife and was at Kirby like a flash. Lucky for him Clint’s eyes weren’t in good seeing order, and the liquor hadn’t made his arm any the more steady, so Kirby only got a scratch on his arm. It showed what Clint would like to do, though, and some of the boys made pretty heavy bets on the end of it. I stuck up for Kirby, for you see I knew him pretty well, and there was true grit in him; and then, too, he was oncommon pleasant about it, and even stopped saying much about Clint’s blocking up our luck over at the Run.

“Well, just about then Jack White came over from Cambria and told Clint that he’d heard that his uncle was asking around where he was. You see, Clint’s uncle had a store down there, and had made a tidy pile of money, and as he hadn’t any children, he said he wouldn’t mind leaving it to him if he was living respectable. Clint had lived with him when he was a boy, but they hadn’t got along very well, so Clint ran off. The old man didn’t mind this, though, and now he wanted to find him. Jack said he was sure that if Clint was to go over and play his cards right he’d get the money. You may be sure this was a stroke of luck for Clint just then, and he didn’t like to lose it; but you see he didn’t look very genteel, and he knew his uncle was sharp enough to find it out. He was fat enough, for whiskey never made a living skeleton of him, but it was plain that it wasn’t good health that had made his nose so red, nor fine manners that had given him the cut across his cheek and bruised up his eye. The boys all allowed that he was the hardest-looking chap in the camp, and if his uncle left him his money, it wouldn’t be on the strength of his good countenance! But you know he had to do something right off, and so he wrote as pretty a letter to the old man as ever I want to see; but when the answer came it said his uncle was very sick, and as he had something particular to say to him, wouldn’t Clint come over at once, and inclosed he’d find the money for his fare. I tell you this stumped Clint, for he’d had another fight, and was a picture to behold.

“But here’s where the surprise to us all came in. Clint was pretty well puzzled what to do, and while all the boys were advising him, Kirby spoke up. I’d noticed he was pretty quiet, but nobody could have guessed what he was thinking about. He looked some like Clint, and once had been pitched into by a new Digger Run boy for Clint. The fellow never made the second mistake about them. It wasn’t as though they were twins, but they both had brown hair and long beards, blue eyes, and were about the same build, so you couldn’t have made a descriptive list of the one that wouldn’t have done for the other. What Kirby said was that Clint’s uncle hadn’t seen him since he was a boy, and he’d expect to find him changed; and although he—that’s Kirby, you know—had had hard feelin’s to Clint, he wasn’t a man to hold a grudge, and he’d let bygones be bygones. So if Clint thought well of it, he’d go over to Cambria, and if he found the land lay right he’d pass off for him, and make things sure.

“This struck us all of a heap, for we knew Kirby could do it if he choose and if nobody interfered with him, and that he really could cajole the old man better than Clint could; for when that fellow got wound up to talk he was allers going you five better. Some of the boys thought it rather risky, and they wanted Clint to write and say he had the typhoid fever, and so stave it off until he looked fit to go; but he knew that if he crossed his uncle now he’d likely enough lose everything, and so he thought it best to make sure and let Kirby go and see, anyhow. One thing that helped Kirby along was that his first wife had come from Cambria, and he’d heard her talk so much about the people that he knew nearly as much of them as Clint did. To make the matter sure, Clint stuffed him with all he remembered, and one night we got up a-practising; and we made out that we were the folks, and Kirby pow-wowed to the minister, and old Miss Cranby—that was me!—and the doctor, until he knew his lesson and we’d nearly split our sides laughing.

“Of course, seeing the interest we all took in it, we weren’t going to do the thing half, so we clubbed together and got Kirby a suit of store-clothes and a shiny valise, and he went off as proper as a parson,—begging your pardon!—and we settled down again. He wrote pretty prompt, and said everything was going on as smooth as oil. The old man had called out that it was Clint as soon as he saw him, before he’d said a word, and Kirby wrote it would have been kind of cruel to have told him better. So he didn’t. He wrote several more letters, and once Jack White had a letter from his sister saying that Clint Bowers had come home, and it was said that the old man was tickled to death with his manners, and meant to leave him all he had. This clinched it sure enough, and Clint became tip-top among the boys, and his credit was good for all the drinks he chose to order, and I must say he was liberal enough, and nobody contradicted him. He wrote to Kirby,—he was all the time writing to him,—but this time he told how handsome he thought it was in him to do all this, considering everything. When the answer came, Kirby said he didn’t profess much religion, and he thought that generally speakin’ heaping coals of fire on any one’s head was against the grain, but Clint was more than welcome to his services.”

“He was a good fellow,” exclaimed George. “I don’t wonder you liked him!”

“Yes, I allers stood up for Kirby when the boys were hardest on him. But to finish up, for I’m telling an oncommon long yarn, at last a letter came saying that the old man was dead and the money fixed. How much it was Kirby couldn’t say yet, but he meant to hurry matters up, he said. Of course he didn’t put all he meant into plain words, for it wouldn’t do to trust it, and he was allers more careful than Clint, who never knew when to hush. But now Kirby said he’d have everything straight inside of two weeks, and we weren’t to look for another letter from him.

“Well, it was surprisin’ how many birds Clint broiled for Kirby the next few weeks! You see, Kirby allers was a gentleman in his tastes, and had a particular liking for birds on toast, and of course Clint wanted to give him a proper welcome home. We knew just when the boats were likely to come, and Clint was allers ready for a surprise.”

“And he came just when he was least expected,” said George, with a bright smile; “that is the way things always happen in this world. I am sure of that!”

“Why, no, bless your heart, he never came back! I allers knew he wouldn’t! He bought a share in a circus with the money, and went down South. They said he married the girl who did the flying trapeze, but I’m not sure about that. Anyway, it appears he’s done a good business, and I’m sure he’s kept Clint’s letters to him. There was true grit in Kirby, I’ve allers stuck to that! Does the pipe seem too strong for you? The wind does blow it your way, that’s a fact.”