Nothing is known about John J. Marshall.
Dime Fiction. Nos. 2, 4, 9
Starr's American Novels. Nos. 206, 220
New and Old Friends. No. 2 (n.s.)
Boy's Books of Romance and Adventure. Nos. 2, 20
Half-Dime Library. Nos. 40, 97
Boy's Library (quarto). No. 69
Boy's Library (octavo). Nos. 13, 127
Pocket Library. No. 229
SPECIMEN OF JOHN H. MARSHALL'S STYLE
"The Outlaw Brothers; or, The Captives of the Harpes. A Tale of Early Kentucky." Half-Dime Library No. 97, pp. 3-4.
About four months previous to the night with which our story opens, a young man who had been riding all day through the boundless forest, stopped, a little after sunset, before a log-house which stood near the narrow bridle-path. It was a pleasant, pure evening, and the place, though solitary, had no particularly bad look about it. The traveler threw a sharp glance in at the open door, which betrayed a group of women and children. In those days it was only the most ordinary prudence for people to go well armed when abroad from home; and to look twice before they confided themselves to the hospitality of strangers; though the warm-hearted friendship of the better class of settlers was given to all who asked it. Yet Kentucky, like every other border State, was overrun with another and worse class, who, fleeing from eastern justice, or too lazy to make an honest living, sought refuge in the woods, whose coverts hid them from pursuit, and whose plentiful game furnished them a living without much exertion.
One glance would have told that the traveler was from the New England States; his air of intelligence, as well as his dress, which was not of the Kentucky style, together with a certain †shrewd brightness of the eye, proclaimed the fact. Looking forward along the darkening path, which promised no end, and again into the cabin, swarming with the inmates, who now began to cluster about the door, he finally called out:
"Hallo the house! Will you tell me, ma'am, how far it is to the next tavern?"
"Don't know of none in these parts," was the answer of one of the three women who blockaded the entrance —a wretched specimen of her sex, with a savage expression of face, and garments neither neat or becoming.
"I reckon you'll ride till you get tired, if it's taverns you're after," added the second, with a smirk, as if she took pleasure in the ability to disconcert the stranger.
"Then I shall have to ask you for food and shelter to-night," said he pleasantly. "I've been going all day, with nothing to eat but what I brought in my knap-sack, and myself and horse are both tired. Will you accommodate me?"
The three women exchanged a glance. A peculiar smile crept over their faces; after a moment's hesitation, the first one spoke again:
"We sometimes takes people who can pay their way." "Oh, as to that," said the young man, laughing, as he leaped from his horse, "I shall feel it a favor to be allowed to pay well for everything. If you'll get me some supper, I'll water my horse at the spring there, and then bring him around to the back of the house, and let him graze awhile before I tie him up. Haven't you any men-folks about?" he continued, with some curiosity.
"My husband's off on a hunt, and won't be back for a week or more," said the woman first mentioned. "These ere's husbands is gone, too, and they and they're young'uns is stayin' with me, 'cos we feel more safe under one roof. It's a lonesome country for women-folks to live in when the men's gone."
"What do you fear? Wild beasts or Indians?"
"Well, we reckon the Injuns the most troublesome, kase we can keep the b'ars out, but the Injuns can burn us up in our beds."
Half a dozen children, like their mother, dirty-looking and wild, crowded around the traveler as he took his horse to the spring. To get rid of them, for they were not clean enough to make close companionship desirable, he threw them a handful of pennies.
It was some time before he was ready to enter the house. First, he cared for his animal, then he bathed his face and hands in water from the spring, and wiped them on a towel which he took from his knapsack, rightly guessing that wash-bowls and towels were luxuries foreign to the cabin. Having combed out his long, light hair to his satisfaction, he took up his baggage and entered the general room, which, a little to his surprise, had an addition of a kitchen in the rear—two rooms being a fuller supply than settlers usually possessed. An inviting odor of fried ham and eggs and coffee already came from this rear apartment, in which the women were to be heard moving about. There were no signs of poverty about the place; he had found quite a serviceable log-stable behind the house, with two really fine horses in it; and now, as he took a seat on the door-sill, and glanced about the room, he saw two or three excellent saddles, a handsome harness, and all kinds of hunting gear depending from pegs in the wall. There were a couple of beds, on home-made bedsteads; and a very large blue chest, which stood between them, at the end of the apartment. Under the beds was a confused heap of boxes, harnesses, boots, and household "trash," put there to be "out of the way." One little circumstance struck the traveler as queer. Being a Yankee, he had a head for numbers; and, although he was tired, and thinking of supper, it floated dreamily through his brain that there was an unusual and unreasonable number of portmanteaux, saddle-bags, and knapsacks among the stowed-away rubbish. He gave it no particular thought at the time, but afterward he recalled it very vividly. Two of the largest boys were tossing up the pennies he had given them, beginning a life of prospective gambling by playing "heads and tails." The other children had stampeded to the kitchen, attracted thither by the strong smell, which almost caused the traveler to forget how very dirty were the women who prepared the viands. Presently one of these appeared, and bid her guest "come into the other room and sit by."
The table was set for four; it was too small to accommodate the younger members of the family, who were sent out into the yard to await their turn. The young man found the food not only more various in kind, but more neatly served up than he had dared to expect. Ham, fried chicken, milk, coffee and wild-honey graced the board. But for the first moment or two, he noticed nothing of this; his attention was completely absorbed by another inmate of the cabin, whom he had not previously seen. Even now she did not look at him, but stood by the baking-kettle on the hearth, with folded hands and downcast eyes. She was a young girl, no better dressed than the others, except that her linsey-woolsey gown was clean and fitted her figure; but she appeared so totally distinct from the others in features and expression, that she seemed to have dropped into this abode from some better sphere. About sixteen years of age, with a clear skin, smooth, plentiful hair neatly braided, and the form of a Hebe, it scarcely needed her modest, grave expression to make the traveler think her very pretty. He was twice asked by the hostess if he took 'lasses in his coffee, before he withdrew his eyes to answer that he did not. His interest was at first unmarked by the woman, who, as she passed him the cracked cup, spoke sharply to the girl:
"What be you standin' thar like a fool fur, Peggy? Hand up the cakes, if thur brown enough."
"Who is it?" the traveler was impelled to ask, curiosity or surprise overcoming prudence. "Your daughter, ma'am?"
"Yes, my darter; and an idle, good-for-nothin' girl she is."
As the woman said this, the girl flashed a swift glance at the guest; and her cheeks, already flushed with the heat of the fire on that June evening, grew red as roses; she stooped, and busied herself removing the corn-cakes from the bottom of the kettle.
"Of course it will do for her mother to say that," answered the young man, striving to do away with the effect of this rude remark, "but I wouldn't like to see any one else venture to say so in your presence."
"La, I'm not so partik'ler. Howsomever, Peg's well enough when she's a mind to work; but she's powerful shiftless."
The young man's eyes meeting the young girl's at that moment, as she was placing the cakes on the table, both smiled. The vixen who presided over the coffee-pot did not observe this; but it established a magnetic telegraph between the two, which placed them in silent correspondence. While the others ate, Peggy baked cakes for them; but she did it with a regal air, like a princess serving under protest.
"What a magnificent woman she would make, under favorable circumstances," speculated the traveler, as he varied his corn-cakes and honey with glances at the fair attendant. "I feel like stealing her from these harsh people, and giving her to some one who can appreciate her. It's a shame, really, the way that woman drives her around."
Although angry with the hostess for her harshness to the girl, he knew better than to show it, and continued to make himself as entertaining as possible in payment for the trouble he was giving. He told several amusing anecdotes of his travels, and gave the latest news from the East, with such spirit and good-humor, that the three shrews laughed and listened with many admiring glances at "the peart young feller." His efforts to amuse were not so entirely tor their pleasure as they imagined; he saw the kindling color, and the long, fixed look of another listener.
Darkness crept over them before they abandoned the table. Peggy lighted a thin yellow dip, and stuck it it a wooden holder. As the others left the meal, she called the eager children and sat down with them.
The traveler resumed his seat in the door; but it was the back door, not the front one. Presently he pulled the pieces of a flute from his pocket, and putting it to gether, began to play. At first he made the woods resound with merry dancing-tunes, until the three women declared themselves ready to dance a jig; but, gradually, the character of the music changed to soft and melancholy airs, which are so indescribably touching upon the flute, with twilight and the whispering forest about one. Even the children huddled about, sitting on their knees till they fell asleep and tumbled over; their mothers sat wrapped in pleased wonder, and Peggy, who knew not that the tallow dip revealed her face, was weeping fast and silently.
There was a softer expression on the face of the girl's mother than he had thought her capable of; but when he ceased to play, it went away again, and she bustled about as coarsely as ever, hustling the children off to bed, and scolding Peg for not having her dishes washed.
Our New Englander was a keen observer, and it began to impress itself upon him, that this isolated cabin in the backwoods had an uncanny air, as if it really were not the home of an innocent family of settlers wives and children. He began to feel as if the husbands of such wives must be bad men, and to be glad they were away from home during his visit. He would have liked to talk alone with the girl Peggy, to find if she really was as superior as she looked; and to let her know he liked her, and pitied her; but the women were like Cerberus, and effectually guarded the golden fruit. At every attempt he made to get near her, or on the same side of the room, one of these would foil his wish. He was certain, at last, that the girl had something she wished to say to him; and he would have given a five-dollar gold piece to know what it was. He was obliged to give up the hope when his hostess hinted to him that it was time to retire. For the last fifteen minutes Peggy had been absorbed with an old ragged book, which looked like a speller, and paid no attention to him.
"She can read, then," he thought; and as he was requested to "turn in," in no ceremonious manner, he said, "Good-night, Peggy," and moved out into the front room, where he took his carpet-bag and began to ascend the ladder, to which he was pointed, as leading to his place of rest.
"I'd really like a light a few moments," he said, insinuatingly, to the woman. "I always write a few words in my diary before I go to bed."
"Peg, bring that candle!" shouted her mother, and Peg brought it meekly. As she gave it to the guest, she pressed something else into his hand. Instantly comprehending that she wished the act to pass unnoticed, he covered the little wad of paper with the end of the cadle, thanked her, and went up the ladder.
"Yer bag's right heavy—shan't I tote it for ye? Reckon lhar's shiners in it," had been the unpleasant remark of one of the group, as she handed up his baggage.
"Nothing but stones" he said, quickly. "I'm a geologist, and I always have my pockets and bag full of specimens."
"Tell that to the wolves," she answered, with a sly laugh.
His curiosity was intense to learn what had been mysteriously given him. Placing his wooden candlestick on the floor, he knelt before it in such a position that should any prying eyes be lifted above the ladder, they could not discern the nature of his occupation. He then examined his new possession. It was a leaf torn out of the old spelling-book, and over it were written, in rude letters, with a piece of coal, a communication which it took him some time to decipher. It had evidently been composed with an effort. A cold shiver crept over him as he began to make it out. It ran thus:
"Do you know whar you are? This howse is the Harpes. They ur gone away; but wil be bak late to nite. It you ur here they wil kil you. Clere out if you kin, and dont forgit Peggy who wil be kiled mebby for tdlin'. If I'm not kiled try and come bak with help and tak me away. I'm not thare dauter. I was stole when I was ate years old. I could rite som then but I'v most forgot how. I've run away three times, but they got me agin. You look kind—so I tel you this. Dont come unles you ar shure you kin get me oph."
The bravest of the brave might have been excused for feeling a chill of horror creep over him, at finding himself thus shut up in the very den of the terrible Harpes. No reader of the history of Kentucky but is familiar with their reputation. They were, or represented themselves to be, brothers, who appeared in Kentucky about the year 1793, spreading death and terror wherever they went. They had with them three women, who were treated as their wives, and several children, with whom they traversed the mountainous and thinly-settled parts of Virginia into Kentucky, marking their course with blood. Their history is wonderful, as well from the number and variety as the incredible atrocity of their adventures.
Passing rapidly through the better-settled parts of Kentucky, they proceeded to the country south of Green river, which, at that time, was just beginning to be inhabited. Here they soon acquired a dreadful celebrity. Neither avarice, want, nor any of the usual inducements to crime, seemed to govern their actions. A savage thirst for blood—a deep-rooted malignity against human nature, could alone be discovered in their conduct. They murdered every defenseless being who fell in their way, without distinction of age, sex, or color. In the night, they stole secretly to the honest settler's cabin, slaughtered its inhabitants and burned their dwellings; while the farmer who left his home by day, returned to witness the dying agonies of his wife and children and the conflagration of his possessions. Plunder was not their object; travelers they robbed and murdered, but from the inhabitants they took only what would have been freely given them; they destroyed without having suffered injury, and without the prospect of gain. Females, children and servants no longer dared to stir abroad; unarmed men feared to encounter a Harpe; and the solitary hunter, as he trod the forest, looked around him with a watchful eye, and when he saw a stranger, picked his flint and stood upon the defensive. The spoils of their dreadful warfare furnished them with the means of violence and of escape. Mounted on fine horses, they plunged into the forest, eluded pursuit by frequently changing their course, and appeared unexpectedly, to perpetrate new enormities, at points distant from those where they were supposed to lurk. On these occasions they often left their wives and children behind them. So says the careful historian of characters so black that otherwise we should not dare paint them. It is not strange that the young traveler, albeit brave, self-possessed, and armed with a pair of pistols and knife, should shudder at knowing himself in the house of the Harpes. He glanced about him nervously, and again read over the charcoal scrawl.
Although a traveler, and from the East, he was not unfamiliar with the State he was traversing; having been out once before, and spent the better part of two years in land-surveying. It was to look after the interests of the vast quantity of land he had earned as a surveyor— land which promised to make him immensely wealthy within a few years—that he was now journeying through this wild, half-settled district. Everywhere, since he entered the West, he had learned of the terrible brothers; they were the talk over tavern-fires and by farmers' hearths; and he, although full of courage, had given more than one look behind him that very day, thinking he heard the distant sound of horses' feet.
Thoughts were pressed so rapidly upon his brain that they almost made him dizzy. This explained that strange omnium gatherum of stirrups, bridles, saddles, portmanteaux, etc., under the beds, down-stairs—the rifled property of victims, trapped, some of them, like himself. No wonder the faces of those fearful women looked cruel and brutal, debased as they were by such associations. He understood, now, something strange and startled in the expression of the young girl—a wild look, which had sometimes passed over her otherwise sweet countenance.
No doubt she had no sympathy with the people about her, but was obliged to live in the midst of scenes which she loathed. The fact that she had several times attempted to escape from them, proved that, as she grew older, and comprehended more of what she saw and heard, her pure soul shrunk from contact with it. Poor girl! What would her ultimate fate be? He could not think of it without distress; neither could he make up his mind to abandon her, perhaps to be punished for warning him to leave.
† Correction made as per Volume 3.