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A Dreadful State of Excitement by Jonathan F. Kelley


A retrospective view of some ten or fifteen years, brings up a wonderful “heap of notions,” which at their birth made quite a different sensation from that which their “bare remembrance” would seem to sanction now. The statement made in a “morning paper” before us, of a fine horse being actually scared stone and instantaneously dead, by a roaring and hissing locomotive, brings to mind “a circumstance,” which though it did not exactly do our knitting, it came precious near the climax!

Some years ago, upon what was then considered the “frontier” of Missouri, we chanced to be laid up with a “game leg,” in consequence of a performance of a bullet-headed mule that we were endeavoring to coerce at the end of a corn stalk, for his “intervention” in a fodder stack to which he could lay no legitimate claim. About two miles from our “lodgings” was a store, a “grocery,” shotecary pop, boots, hats, gridirons, whiskey, powder and shot, &c., &c., and the post office. About three times a week, we used to hobble down to this modern ark, to read the news, see what was going on down in the world, and—pass a few hours with the proprietor of the store, who chanced to be a man with whom we had had a former acquaintance “in other climes.” Well, one day, we dropped down to the store, and found pretty much all the men folks—and they were not numerous around there, the houses or cabins being rather scattering—getting ready to go down the river (Missouri) some ten miles, to see a notorious desperado “stretch hemp.” My friend Captain V——, the storekeeper, was about to go along too, and proposed that we should mount and accompany him, or—stay and tend store. We accepted the latter proposition, as we were in no travelling kelter, and had no taste for performances on the tight rope. Having officiated for Captain V——on several former occasions, we had the run of his “grocery” and postal arrangements quite fluent enough to take charge of all the trade likely to turn up that day; so the captain and his friends started, promising a return before sunset.

One individual, living some seven miles up the road, called for his newspaper, and got his jug filled, spent a couple of hours with us—put out, and was succeeded by two squalid Indians, with some skins to trade for corn juice and tobacco; they cleared out, and about two or three P. M., some movers came along; we had a little dicker with them, and that closed up the business accounts of the day.

Having discussed all the availables, from the contents of the post office—seven newspapers and four letters per quarter!—to the crackers and cheese, and business being essentially stagnated, we ups and lies down upon the top of the counter, to take a nap. Captain V——'s store was a log building, about 15 by 30, and stood near the edge of the woods, and at least half a mile from any habitation, except the schoolhouse and blacksmith's shop, two small huts, and at that time—“in coventry.” Captain V——was a bachelor; he boarded—that is, he took his meals at the nearest house—half a mile back from the wood, and slept in his store. We soon fell into the soft soothing arms of Morpheus, and—slept. It was fine mild weather—September, and, of course, the door was wide open. How long we slept we were not at all conscious, but were aroused by a heavy hand that gave us a hearty shake by the shoulder, and in a rather sepulchral voice says—

“How are you?”

Gods! we were up quick, for our sleep had been visited by dreams of southwest tragedies, hanging scrapes, and other nightmare affairs, and as we opened our eyes and caught a glimpse of the double-fisted, cadaverous fellow standing over us, a strong inclination to go off into a cold sweat seized us! Lo! it was after sunset! Almost dark in the store, the stars had already began to twinkle in the sky.

Captain V——did a considerable trade at his store, and at times had considerable sums of money laying around. Upon leaving in the morning, he notified us, in case we should require change, to look into the desk, where he kept a shot bag of silver coin, and—his pistols.

“How are you?” the words and manner and looks of the man gave us a cold chill.

“How do you do?” we managed to respond, at the same time sliding down behind the counter. The stranger had a heavy walking stick in his hand, and a knapsack looking bundle swung to his shoulder. He looked like the rough remnants of an ill-spent life; had evidently travelled somewhere where barbers, washer-women and such like civilian delicacies, were more matters of tradition than fact.

“Been asleep, eh?” he carelessly continued.

“It appears so,” said we, feeling no better or more satisfactory in our mind, and no reason to, for night was now closing in, and we were going through our performances by the slight illumination of the stars, without any positive certainty as to where the Captain kept his tinder box and candle, that we might furnish some sort of light upon the lugubrious state of affairs.

“Do you keep this store?”

“No, we do not,” we answered, watching the man as he put his bundle down upon the counter.

“Who does?” was the next question.

“The gentleman who keeps it,” we replied, “is away to-day.”

“Ah, gone to see a poor human being put out of the world, eh?”

We said “yes,” or something of the kind, and thought to ourself, no doubt you know all that's going on of that sort of business like a book, and a host of other ideas flashed across our mind, while all the evil deeds of note transacted in that region for the past ten years, seemed awakened in our mind's eye, working up our nervous system, until the coon skin cap upon our excited head stood upon about fifteen hairs, with the strange and overwhelming impression that our time had come! We would have given the State of Missouri—if it were in our possession, to have heard Captain V——'s voice, or even have had a fair chance to dash out at the door, and give the fellow before us a specimen of tall walking—lame as we were!

“Ain't you got a light? I'd think you'd be a little timid (a little timid!) about laying around here, alone, in the dark, too?” said the fellow, sticking one hand into his coat pocket, and gazing sharply around the store. Mock heroically says we—

“Afraid? Afraid of what?” our valor, like Bob Acres', oozing out at our fingers.

“These outlaws you've got around here,” said he. “They say the man they hanged to-day was a decent fellow to what some are, who prowl around in this country!”

We very modestly said, “that such fellows never bothered us.”

“Do you sleep in this store—live here?”

“No, sir, we don't,” was our answer.

“Where do you lodge and get your eating?”

“First house up the road.”

“How far is it?” says he.

“Half a mile or less.”

“Well, close up your shop, and come along with me!” says the fellow.

Now we were coming to the tableaux! He wanted us to step outside in order that the business could be done for us, with more haste and certainty, and we really felt as good as assassinated and hid in the bushes! It was quite astonishing how our visual organs intensified! We could see every wrinkle and line in the fellow's face, could almost count the stitches in his coat, and the more we looked, and the keener and more searching became our observation, the more atrocious and subtle became the fellow and his purpose. With a firmness that astonished ourself, we said—

No, Sir; if you have business there or elsewhere, you had better go!” and with this determined speech, we walked up to the desk, and with the air of a “man of business” or the nonchalance of a hero, says we—

“What are you after—have you any business with us?”

“You're kind of crusty, Mister,” says he. “I'm canvassing this State,—wouldn't you like to subscribe for a first-rate map of Missouri, OR A NEW EDITION OF JOSEPHUS?”

We felt too mean all over to “subscribe,” but we found a light, and soon found in the stranger one of the best sort of fellows, a man of information and morality, and, though he had looked dangerous, he turned out harmless as a lamb, and we got intimate as brothers before Captain V——returned that night.


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