When a boy, I was as full of fun and mischief as an egg is of meat, and I have never got rid of it. With a younger brother and a neighbor boy of my own age, equally mischievous with myself, there was hardly a thing in the way of fun and frolic that we were not continually into. Hunting rabbits was our chief sport, and, when we got larger, coons, 'possums and the like at night. There was not a tree of any peculiarity, or a hole in the ground, for miles around, that we did not know all about. We knew, also, every fruit tree, from the apple to the black-haw or persimmon in the same territory, and the time they were ready for company; and we never failed to pay our respects to them all in due time. I would not mention many of the bad things of my early life; but that is the way the Bible does with its heroes, and the Bible is always a safe guide to follow.
About all the money we made in our boyhood days was from the sale of nuts and the flesh and skins of the animals we caught during the fall and winter. This was my way of getting books, maps, etc., to help me in my studies. I was the recognized leader in all the mischief we did, and many prophecies were made that I should one day be hanged, and in this anticipation my father fully shared. My younger brother and I were constantly playing practical jokes on each other, and often upon others. We never became offended, though the pranks were sometimes exceedingly rough; but we were always watching an opportunity to "get even." I will relate a few as samples, while others are too bad to tell.
On one occasion some cousins and their children visited us from Shelby county. They were considered quite wealthy for that time. Their little boy was dressed in very fine clothes, at least, in our estimation, and we concluded he was putting on airs. We thought we would do him a valuable service by taking him down a little, so we asked him if he had ever seen a singular kind of gnat, which we described. He had not. We proposed to show him a fine lot -- a big nest of them. We affirmed that they were nice, harmless things to play with. So we went forth to see the gnats. We got him to the nest and stirred them up, and in a few minutes the innocent, unsuspecting boy was covered with yellow jackets. Of course, he ran to the house screaming, and they had a time in getting them off of him. He was badly stung, but we made it appear that we had gone down there to fight them, which was a favorite pastime with us, and that he got too near the nest. Thus we escaped a well-merited whipping.
About the same time in life my younger brother and I caught a rabbit and dressed it for breakfast. It was Saturday afternoon, and father and mother had gone to her father's, some six miles away, to stay till the next evening. That night the aurora borealis was unusually bright, and as the excitement of Millerism had not died away, there was much talk of the world's coming to an end. My oldest sister, Mary, was getting supper ready and was greatly alarmed. She would go out and watch the sky, and then go back to see about the supper. Finally I said, "Mary, do you really think the world will come to an end before morning?" "I do believe it will," said she. "Then," said I, "we must have the rabbit for supper." I had no notion of losing my rabbit by such a trifling circumstance as that.
Later in life, when old enough to work in the harvest field, we had a neighbor who was very "close," and we never had any fancy for him. He was always boasting of his ability to work with bees. One year he had a large harvest, and many hands employed, and we were helping him. One day we told him we had found a fine bee tree which could be cut down in a few minutes, and that if he would go and take the honey he might have it all except what we could eat. He was delighted with the proposal, so after supper a number of us started for the bee tree, a mile and a half from his house, in a dense forest. He had several buckets prepared to secure a large amount of honey. When we began to chop, the bees began to roar, and our friend was frantic with delight. Soon the tree fell, and he "waded in" with his axe and buckets to get the luscious spoil. As he went in we went out, and soon he discovered himself in a big bumble-bees' nest alone with all his buckets, etc., a mile and a half from home! We saw no more of him that night, and did not care to meet him next day.
This reminds me of another bee scrape, in which my father figured largely. He prided himself on being able to handle bees as so many flies. On a cool, drizzly day we cut a bee tree on the farm. I was wearing a brown jeans sack coat. This I laid aside while chopping. When the tree fell the bees swarmed forth in great numbers, and my father stalked in with his axe, chipping and cutting the limbs, preparatory to chopping for the honey, and was as indifferent as if surrounded only by gnats. We stood at a safe distance. Soon he came out with a trifle less indifference than he went in with, picking the bees out of his hair with both hands. They had literally settled on his head and were stinging him furiously. He came running to us to fight them off. I grabbed up my coat, and with both hands struck him over the head. A large jack knife, very heavy, was in one of the pockets, and this struck him on the opposite side of the head and came near felling him to the ground. We fought the bees off the best we could, but he was terribly stung. This was the last of his working with bees as with flies.
My father was a firm believer in the doctrine of justification by faith alone. All those passages of Scripture that connect justification or salvation with faith, without mentioning anything else as a condition, he had at his tongue's end. His argument was, whatever may be mentioned elsewhere, here salvation is promised on the condition of faith, and nothing else is in the text. With all this I had become perfectly familiar, and always had a suspicion that there was a fallacy in it some where, though I could not exactly expose it. We were clearing a piece of new ground in April, about the time the spring fever sets in, and my younger brother and I always "had it bad." It was a Monday morning, and father was going to La Grange to attend court. At breakfast he gave us very particular instructions about our work -- what to do and how to do it -- and a feature emphasized was that we were to keep at it. It was getting quite dry, and when he had started to town he hallooed back and said, "Boys, I want you to watch the fire to-day and not let it get out." "All right," we responded. His two directions, perhaps not an hour apart, reminded me of his theology, and I resolved at once to test its validity when weighed in his own scales. So we went out to the clearing, lay down under the shade of a tree, and "watched the fire" all day! Having returned, he asked us how we had got along. We replied, "Finely," that we had done what he told us; but when he came to "view the landscape o'er," we had to give an account for the deeds done in the body, or, rather, not done. I told him that his specific instruction was to watch the fire. "But," said he, "I told you before that, that you were to do the work." "Yes," I replied, "but the last time you said anything about it you did not allude to the work; but only to watch the fire. There was no work in the text." However, he was by no means disposed to look upon that as favorably as upon justification by faith only, which rests on the same principle. Still it opened his eyes to a fallacy in his argument that he had not seen before.
I generally lived in peace and good will with all the boys in the neighborhood, but a few times in my life feeling imposed on, or that some one else was, I got into fights, and always with those older and stronger than myself. I had learned something of the secret of success in that line from what I had heard said of my father. This often gave me a victory quite unlooked for. I would fight the best friend I had in the world if he imposed on one unable to cope with him. I had a companion much stronger than I, and inclined to be overbearing. On one occasion, at a corn husking, he tried to force a fight on a boy smaller than himself. When I saw he was quite determined about it, while the other boy was trying to avoid it, I said, "Jim, you and I are good friends. I have nothing against you in the world. I like you, but you can't fight that boy. If you fight any body you will have to fight me. I don't want any quarrel with you, nor do I want to hurt you, but if nothing but a fight will do you, that's just the way it has to be done." When he saw I was in earnest, the matter was dropped, and our friendship continued.
I was severely tried on one occasion. My older brother had a falling out with a neighbor, and we three were alone in the woods. I had a dislike for the man, as much as my brother had. He was boastful, bigoted and disagreeable. But in this particular case I saw clearly that my brother was in the wrong, I felt compelled, therefore, to take sides with the other man. At this my brother was deeply offended, and it took him a long time to get over it. He did not see his wrong, and thought my conduct very strange and unnatural, especially as I did not like the man. I deplored this, but could not yield the principle of holding justice superior to persons.
One of my difficulties was so peculiar that I will recount it. It was in the winter, and the ground was frozen deep. The day was bright, and on the south hillsides the ground had thawed to the depth of two or three inches. Several boys were together, and one of them several years older than I. He was a son of one of our tenants, and entirely too proud for one in his condition. He was imposing on my younger brother, and I gave him to understand he must not do that. With this he turned upon me. We were upon a south hillside, under a large beech tree, and the ground was thawed on top and frozen beneath. About the first pass I slipped on a root concealed in the mud, and fell on my back, with my shoulders wedged between two projecting roots and my head against the tree. I was utterly powerless. After pommeling me a while, he proposed to let me up if I would say "enough." This I declined to do. Then he would renew the operation, and then the proposition. The sun was three hours high, no one interfered, and I insisted that they should not. Sometimes he would lie upon me and talk for half an hour or more; he would argue the case, remind me of my helplessness, and that it would be death to lie there on the frozen ground till night. Then when his advice all failed, he would renew hostilities. Thus it continued till sundown. As the sun got low he changed his proposal. He would now let me up if I would promise to make friends, and not fight him. This I also declined. Finally, when he saw that nothing would avail, he gave me a few parting salutes, and, springing to his feet, ran away. Before I could get up he had such a start that I could not overtake him. For some time I watched for a chance to pay him back, but he kept out of my sight; and soon after his folks moved away, and thus the matter ended.
From my infancy it has been my disposition to stick to my convictions till I saw I was in the wrong. I can not say that I am obstinate, though it may have that appearance to others. I never could yield a point for policy's sake, though my adherence to my convictions has cost me a good deal. This led me early in life to be careful in coming to a conclusion, and I have always admired Davy Crockett's motto, "Be sure you're right, and then go ahead." I commend this homemade philosophy to all who may read this chapter.