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Sara Robbins: A Pioneer Love Story From My Family
I was born in Harlan, Kentucky in the fall of the year 1890. I have no birth certificate. A midwife delivered me. I never went to school. Ma taught me how to make biscuits and corn bread, pluck chickens, make gravy, find wild greens, berries and mushrooms, churn buttermilk, make butter, care for a home, children, and a husband. Pa often said to Ma, “Rebecca, teach your girls all those good things you do for me. One day when they have homes, they’ll be grateful.” “All those girls need,” he said, “is discipline to put them on the right road and enough knowledge to keep them from starving to death.”
Pa wasn’t 100% right all the time, but what he said usually was true. “Abe,” Rebecca used to say to Pa at night. I could hear them whispering. “Abe, don’t ever forget to put love, and understanding in our girls too. One day they’ll be women and they’ll look to you as an example of the kind of man they should marry.”
“Farkin” was my maiden name, Charlotte. Your Grandparents, Abe Farkin and Rebecca, died of pneumonia before you were a glimmering gallop in my eye. That’s when Jake and I took my sisters to raise.”
Pa hunted deer with the cleverness of an Indian. His rifle wasn’t of much account, but he made his rifle sing. When he got low on buckshot, he made some more. With a little plow and one horse to pull it, he made the straightest furrows for us to plant our seed in. A plow doesn’t drag along easy for a man to pull by hand.
One time Pa fell off mending the roof and ended up on the ground, but he was plucky. He never hurt himself. No, he just got back up there on the roof and finished it. When Pa put in the first well, he must have carried a sizable portion of this earth out to get to water. Pa and Ma did whatever needed doing and we kids helped them. Together we kept the farm going through all our sorrows and all our good times.
Wash days were especially difficult in those two old wooden tubs Ma had. Ma drew well water from outside our home for many years. Dad planned on putting a well in our home, but the more he thought about it, the more he decided it was impossible. “It’s OK, Abe,” Ma said. “I don’t need such a convenience anyway.” Then for no reason one day Pa decided to put the well in, and we became the first family in the town to draw our water from under the house, but Pa had to mend a sizable hole in the floor to do it. Ma never said one word, but when it was over she was happier than a honeybee in a clover patch.
After dinner, Ma and Pa amused themselves by smoking corncob pipes, sitting on the porch in the evening watching the clouds turn from pink to gun metal gray. Rebecca would say, “Abe, Sara is 13 now, She’s old enough to date. In a few years she’ll be married.” Abraham would remind his wife, “Rebecca, no daughter of mine is going to date at 13.” Then he’d spit his chaw of tobacco and say: “She’s not old enough to raise a family just yet. I don’t want her dating ’til she is.” Then Ma would rock in her rocker a while longer, and Pa would put out his pipe and go to sleep. Then blame us for letting him sleep through the sunset. Sometimes he’d pet the dogs, Warrior and Midnight, before he went to sleep, and the cats when they insisted. We had so many cats they were nameless, except for Snowball who was white all over his body. Before it got dark, the chores were done, the milking finished, and every animal fed and watered. I’d collect the eggs for tomorrow’s breakfast. Chores came early each morning with the old rooster’s first crowing.
In the winter my four sisters and I would settle down and curl up around the hearth, watching the fire burn to ashes. In the red and yellow flames we imagined Aunt Dolly and Robert Keelson’s ghosts visiting us, as the fire burned. My sister Eva would beg Pa, “Tell us the story about Aunt Dolly.” That was a troubled story but he retold it many times, perhaps to ease his conscience, or to pass away the time. Pa believed his sister’s ghost still remained, haunting and prowling the Harlan woods on full moonlit nights. She came searching for her dead husband, Robert Keelson, who Pa killed by accident one winter when they were out on a fox hunt.
Remember, Charlotte, anytime foxfire is on a tree, glowing in the darkness, Aunt Dolly’s hand has moved across, and touched it. She moans through the wind on winter nights, and rattles her boney fingers along each frozen windowpane. Pa never forgot Aunt Dolly’s expression. When he brought in Robert’s dead body to her home, Uncle Robert’s bright red hair was caked with blood. Pa placed him gentle on their feather bed. “His red hair looked like a fox coming out of a hollow log,” Pa sobbed. “I didn’t know he had crawled into the log, looking for a fox. I don’t know why the kids made Pa tell and retell that story so often, but they did, especially in wintertime when they marked their images on the frosty windowpanes with their fingers. We were fascinated by Pa’s ghost stories, especially the ones about those family ghosts. Aunt Dolly committed suicide shortly thereafter.
Charlotte, your Grandpa, Abe Farkin, died shortly after I married your Pa. Doc Smiley said he thought from the description it was pneumonia. Grandpa was stubborn, worked himself up over too many things that didn’t matter. He usually got his way with Ma, but I wasn’t about to give in to him, concerning Jake. Jake tried to give Grandpa his herbal remedy, but Grandpa Abe spit it out on the floor. He still held a grudge for the night Jake and I eloped. Jake rode on horseback twenty-five miles to get Doc Smiley, thinking he might take that medicine, but when Doc Smiley saw it was Jake Robbins doing the asking, he wouldn’t come. “Use your own Indian medicine everyone thinks so good,” Doc Smiley said. By the time Jake returned to Grandpa’s farm, Grandpa was dead. Ma and my four sisters came to live with Jake and me, shortly thereafter.
Nobody can tell you what choices to make with your life. Jake was well respected in the community by everyone except your Grandpa, and Doc Smiley, although Grandpa would call on Jake when he needed him to doctor his animals. There was no denying Jake had a way with animals. Once he stayed up all night to deliver a cow breech. He was good with wild horses and forest critters too. He tamed his horses by placing his hands on them, talkng softly to them, and blowing into their nostrils so they could get his smell. He got wild horses well- acquainted with him before he ever tried to ride one. That’s the Indian way. He had gentleness in this hands. He was athletic and fearless when it came to living life. He could jump flat-footed over a tethered horse without every losing his balance.
You ask, Charlotte, how I met your Pa, and how come I married a man with a crippled leg. I saw he was crippled, but I came to understand Jake, the quality of the man. He could work as a lumberjack rolling logs downstream to the mill with more strength than any man with two good legs. He held himself up on his left side with a crutch. Some men can’t hold themselves up when they’re whole. His shoe size on the left was 4. His other shoe on the right was 12. His left leg was half as long as the other one. He was six foot, and could do anything he had a mind to do. Without Jake’s insistence on marrying me, my Pa would have kept me home, making him blackberry cobblers and biscuits forever.
Pa wanted to keep all his fillies in his own pasture. He said, “Life is too hard. Don’t get married until you can have a good start.” It did not matter what was fair, reasonable, or right. No man ever would have been good enough for his daughters. Pa judged everyone who had an interest in me by measuring them against himself. He had a false pride in who he was and minimized who they were. “No, I don’t want Jake to marry you,” he’d say. “Jake can’t support you.” “He’s crippled,” he emphased, as if his opinion really mattered. After all, it was me who would have to live with Jake, not my Pa. Contrary to what Pa said, Jake never had a difficult time finding work. He was versatile. He learned from the Indians how to treat and cure diseased animals. People from all over town started coming to him rather than to Doc Smiley because “taking Jake’s herbs and doing what he said gave them a better chance to recover.”
The first time Jake kissed me we were at the November Corn Shucking Festival. Everyone was there, including Minister Bob Howard who was having a good time too. Minister Bob was single, and he really piled his plate full. Jake raced him to the pie table. Minister Bob chose every pie on the table, but Jake only ate my pumpkin pie.
“Bob, I encourage you to participate in the corn shucking,” Jake said. “You’re like me, single and looking. If the right girl comes along, don’t be afraid to participate. Just find a red ear of Indian corn in your sack, and kiss the girl of your choice. If a girl finds a red ear of Indian corn in her sack, that’s a bonus. Then you’ll know for sure who has her eye on you.”
Bob winked at Jake. The two friends filled their big plates again with food and headed back to the shucking festival. Jake visited my pumpkin pie several times, but I had no idea that I was on his mind.
Pa was enjoying the party while still keeping an eye on me. My sisters were not old enough to stay up that late so he didn’t worry about them as much. Widow Bridget was watching over the younger children in a separate room, telling stories until they went to sleep, feeding them, and changing their diapers. She was a young woman who had been married briefly, but her husband died two years ago of an unknown cause. Everyone there respected her. They used her to baby sit, giving her as payment things she needed for her farm.
Pastor Bob looked toward the room where Widow Bridget was, with a longing, hoping he could surprise her, lift her off her feet, and plant several kisses on her lips. If only he could find one red ear of Indian corn, but what would everyone think?
Suddenly Jake pulled out from his bag a red ear of Indian corn. He waved it around the room so that Minister Bob could see it. Bob smiled, and yelled out, “You lucky guy.” He then looked back toward Widow Bridget’s door, dreaming of what he would do if he could be that fortunate.
Jake playfully walked around the room admiring all the young darlings, but his mischievous eyes stopped in front of mine. He pulled me close to him, and kissed me more than once on the lips in front of everyone. “That was well done, Jake.” Everybody joined in and chuckled. Minister Bob laughed too, and raising his eyes with a twinkle he pulled out his own red ear of Indian corn he brought from home just in case he wasn’t lucky enough to find one.
“Now I too have a red ear of Indian corn,” Bob said. Jake took my hand and we followed Minister Bob over to where Bridget was. What was he going to do? He brought Widow Bridget out of the children’s room for a moment, and with laughter all around Minister Bob placed several kisses on Bridget’s lips while Jake kissed mine again and again until it was quite obvious that Bridget and I had been spoken for. My Pa didn’t like it. That’s when he took to disliking Jake. Pa had words with me when we got out of the public gathering, but I was too deep in my own thoughts to listen.
“Now, Abe,” said Ma. “They were only doing what they’re supposed to do at the November Corn Shucking Festival.” Ma could not convince Pa of that. “Remember, Abe, we were once young too.”
Jake started visiting my home frequently. Pa didn’t encourage him. I made Jake a homemade quilt, and I gave it to him. That was Ma’s and my secret. Pa wasn’t at home at the time.
One day we met by accident when I was alone, picking wild greens for dinner. He had killed a deer, and was bringing it as a gift to my family. My father loved venison. He didn’t change his attitude toward Jake though. Father was a good man, but he was over-protective of his five daughters. I was the oldest. We started meeting in secret, not doing anything wrong, just talking. Jake read me poetry sometimes by Longfellow. I was not afraid of being with him. He was a kind person who could hold a little bird in the palm of his hand. They’d come to him. Our dogs and cats sought out Jake too. When he came around, he’d scratch them behind the ears, and all around. They loved him. My four younger sisters would come from wherever they were and from whatever they were doing to hear his stories. He had lived with Indian medicine man, Black Owl, as a boy. He told me how Black Owl healed. When Black Owl, who was from the Kiowa tribe, knew he couldn’t save someone, he made them believe he could. Sometimes that worked. Sometimes health is based, not on illness, but faith in your healer.
Black Owl was also an herbalist. He showed Jake that somewhere in the forest there’s a cure for every sickness and every disease. Jake and Black Owl watched bears digging up plants to eat, watched what each animal did when they were sick. Watching how animals dealt with their illnesses, Jake learned from them how to treat people.
I knew Jake loved me. He looked me in the eye with a different look than he gave anyone else. More than anything I wanted to be with him. He wanted to be with me too. Jake didn’t have a family. Everyone in his family had died during the smallpox epidemic. Black Owl of the Kiowa tribe found Jake when he was 3 years old, sick and alone. He brought Jake back to his camp, took care of him, and raised Jake as his son, teaching Jake everything he knew about medicine.
No one can tell you who or when to marry, Charlotte. No one can tell you what’s right for your life. Jake thought my Pa would change his mind, but he didn’t. Pa’s never change their minds, regarding their daughters, unless they’re forced to. It got to be springtime. The earth warmed up. The sound of birds filled the forest. I had gone blackberry picking. I was mooning about Jake when suddenly I heard him galloping across the meadow toward me.
I put my blackberry pail down. When he got off his horse, he took me in his arms, kissed me, and swinging me off my feet he circled us around and around, leaving me breathless. He was laughing. Then he settled down. He asked: “Would you marry me?” Marry him. My eyes smiled. My heart was like a butterfly taking wing. I said breathlessly, “Yes… ” I whispered softly, “Yes.” He kissed me and I kissed him back. Then he looked at me serious. “We’ll have to elope.” We would have to run away without my father’s blessing. I told him: “I would desert my family for you.” “Are you willing to do that?” He was serious now. I looked him in the eye, “I am willing to do that.” I recognized I would be an outcast to my father.
All I had was some clothes folded up in a cotton scarf that night. Waiting was the hardest thing. I watched the moonlight floating like a worm on the top of our fishinghole, heard the crickets picking random tunes, saw the dogs and cats bedding down for the night. Even the chickens were asleep. Everyone was asleep, except me. As the moments ticked away, I thought my mind would burst.
When the old grandfather clock counted off 12:00 o’clock, Jake came. The dogs didn’t bark. They knew him. He tossed three pebbles against my bedroom attic window. My heart beat louder. Should I go? Should I stay? I moved down the narrow staircase, almost knocking over a rocking chair in the front room. I never looked back. We held hands. He kissed me with understanding as I moved away from what had been my childhood home. He had two horses and one pack horse waiting for us. I wondered if we would be able to make it to that sacred Indian cave he told me about. Father would have a search party out looking for us. I was 14 then and Jake was 19.
We rode toward Cumberland Mountain. The trail became narrow. The trees became menacing shadows. The sun had not come up yet. The horses moved slowly, and carefully. I was not afraid. When we got to the cave, Minister Bob was waiting. Jake got off his horse, helped me down, lit a lantern, and moved the brush aside from the entrance. Inside Jake put the old lantern on a rocky ledge, warming the walls of the cave. Its light could not be seen from outside.
After Jake and Minister Bob brought in our supplies, we settled in, hobbling the horses in the back of the cave. The Kiowa tribe provided enough food for our horses as a wedding present. The secret cave was sacred because it contained an underground river that traveled through endless caverns of limestone, leading out to a hidden valley. The Kiowa escaped from their enemies there and hunted bear, deer, otter and buffalo.
Minister Howard proceeded to marry us. “Under the sheltering arms of God, do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband, to love and honor for the rest of your life in sickness and health, forsaking all others as long as you both shall live?” I said: “I do.” Jake said the same. Minister Howard pronounced us man and wife. We kissed with passion.
Minister Howard left quickly, going back another way, to Bridget’s home. He would have an alibi.
We closed off the cave door with brush. Crickets and night sounds didn’t bother us. You may think I took a chance, Charlotte. You may believe I should have waited until I was of age. No one can tell the season of the heart. I bedded down with Jake there on a buffalo robe. Our first night in the cave, coyotes howled at the moon, but we were safe and warm. We knew Pa would be searching for us, would search for a week, but be unable to find us. This night Jake was not a cripple. He held me close to him. I was the small bird in his hand.
Janet Marie Bingham
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