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"The Hanging-On of 'By Jocks'" from Century Magazine

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Century Magazine
The Hanging-On of 'By Jocks'
by Ellis Parker Butler

Mrs. Klepper closed the oven door with a bang. It was baking day, and her hands and arms were white with flour, while her cheeks were fiery red. The small summer kitchen was stifling, for it was a peculiarity of the "wash-stove," as the old range that did duty in the summer kitchen was called, that it must he red-hot before the oven became comfortably warm. It was harvesting-time, and Mr. Klepper had three hearty men to help him in the fields, and baking for three extra hands is no small job. Mrs. Klepper baked her bread in a dishpan, great round loaves; and on baking-day the wash-stove was kept red-hot all the afternoon.

'The Hanging On Of By Jocks' by Ellis Parker Butler

Four or five hours over a red-hot stove is apt to warm the best of tempers a little, especially when the sponge has not "riz" as it should; and this, added to the fact that measles were in the neighborhood, and that Willie was developing suspicious red spots on his countenance, had put Mrs. Klepper a little out of humor.

As she banged the oven door and turned to wipe her hot face on the kitchen towel, the door leading into the house opened, and Mrs. Klepper paused and glanced over her shoulder. Her father stood in the doorway. He had driven to town to do an errand for her, and he still wore his hat.

"Well?" his daughter asked with some irritation.

The old man shook his head sadly.

"Mary Ann," he said, "I'm purty nigh seventy-one year old, an' --"

Mrs. Klepper dropped into the yellow kitchen chair and folded her hands in her lap. A hopeless expression settled on her face, and she looked at the old man with mingled helplessness and reproach.

"Father," she exclaimed, "oh, father! You ain't goin' ter hev another dyin'-spell, are you? Ef you are, I guess I might as well give up, with harvestin' on, an' Willie gettin' the measles, an' no hired girl. You ain't, are you?"

The old man waited until she had ceased, turning his hat slowly in his hands.

"Mary Ann," he said again. "I'm purty nigh seventy-one year old, an' the Bible says the length of a man's life ain't but threescore year an' ten, an', by jocks! I'm past it, an' I'm liable ter drap off any minute. I feel I ain't got long ter live, Mary Ann."

Mrs. Klepper glanced at her disordered kitchen and then at the clock on the shelf over the table, and heaved a sigh of resignation.

"Oh, well," she said dejectedly, "I s'pose ef you're goin' ter hev a dyin'-spell you'll hev ter hev et, so go ahead an' git inter bed. I ain't got no time ter lazy with you jist now. I've got a pan o' bread in the stove. I think it's right down mean o' you ter go ter dyin' right when I'm head over heels in harvestin', father, but I guess I can't help et. It does seem ez ef you allus git dyin'-spells jist the wust times you kin pick out; but go on up, an' I'll come up soon's I kin. The medicine's on the table, side o' the bed where et allus is."

Her father looked at her reproachfully.

"I'm past medicine now, Mary Ann," he said slowly. "You better come up jist ez soon ez you kin. Ef you don't," he added, "you're liable not ter see me livin'."

He turned away, and Mrs. Klepper pulled the oven door open angrily, looked at the browning loaf, and slammed the door again.

"I'd jist like ter git my hands on whoever 't was put pa up ter dyin' ag'in," she said. "Some o' them lazy good-fer-nawthin's down ter the store, I'll warrant. They ain't been nobody died thet I know on, but it's jist like him ter git a spell right in the busiest time. I might 'a' knowed I couldn't git through harvest-time 'thout him takin' a notion ter die, jist like he did preserve-time an' when the presidin' elder come fer a week last June."

Old "By Jocks" climbed to his room and went to bed. For a year he had had dying-spells, times when he believed his end was near, although to a careful observer his fears seemed groundless, and after a few days in bed he generally became restless and got up again. Dr. Weaver swore he was as sound as an oak post, and days when he did not have a "spell" By Jocks himself boasted that he could cut more wood or pitch more hay than his son-in-law. At the store he was a great favorite, and whether tossing horseshoes on the side road or telling stories among the older men, he always held his own, and he was the jolliest one of the lot.

There is a time in every man's life when he realizes that he is growing old, and the realization did not come to By Jocks gently. It came one Sabbath morning in Orono church, in a sermon full of stirring exhortation, in which the preacher dwelt on the necessity of losing no time in preparing for the future. For the elder men he dwelt on the allotted span of life, the threescore years and ten, and By Jocks took it to heart, drove home and went to bed, and stayed there until he grew restless. Then he got up and split a cord of white-oak kitchen wood, and forgot his age until something brought it vividly before him again. Since then his dying-spells had occurred frequently, and they worried his daughter, for her kind heart could not know her father was in bed alone with his gloomy thoughts and refuse to render him the comforts due a sick man, although she knew he was in the best of health and good for twenty years of life and happiness.

When Mr. Klepper and the three extra hands came from the fields Mary Ann met her husband with a doleful face.

"Well, well, ma," he cried, "what 'a gone wrong? Bread ain't sour, is et?"

"Mebby et is," she said; "I ain't hed the heart ter taste of et."

"Psho, now!" her husband said good-naturedly, "guess you must 'ave got out o' the wrong side o' the bed this mornin'." And then he asked with some concern. "Willie ain't sick, is he?"

"Yes, I guess he's got the measles," replied his wife. "But thet don't worry me any; et's time he hed 'em, anyhow."

Mr. Klepper raised his dripping face from the tin washbasin where he was "rubbin' hisself up."

You don't mean ter tell me father's got a dyin'-spell?

"You don't mean ter tell me father's got a dyin'-spell?" he asked with great vexation.

Mrs. Klepper put down her basting-spoon noisily.

"Yes, I do," she said; "he jist has thet very thing! Ain't et jist too bad! We're so busy, all on us, an' Willie all broke out! I wisht he hed waited till we got rid o' the hands. What you ever s'pose put him up ter et this time?"

Mr. Klepper wiped his sun-browned face and rubbed his well-soaked hair.

"Why, Marty Gray died yestiddy," he said; "I s'pose father hearn et at the store."

"That's et!" said his wife. "I wondered ef them fellers ter the store'd say anything ter start him dyin', 'cause last time I was in I told 'em ter be awful careful what they said about funerals an' sich. They know how easy 't is ter set father off."

When Mr. Klepper had finished his supper he pushed back his chair. His wife was arranging a tray of dainties to take up to By Jocks.

"Don't you carry thet up, Mary Ann," he said; "I'm a-goin' up an' see father, an' ef he feels like eatin' I'll come down an' git et. Ain't no use you climbin' up them stairs fer nawthin', when he likely won't eat." He lighted his pipe and climbed the stairs, which creaked under his weight.

The old man lay back among the pillows, muttering softly to himself.

"Well, by jocks!" he exclaimed when he saw his son-in-law, "I 'lowed you was all goin' ter let me die here like a sick calf. I'm purty low this lime, Henry, an' no mistake. Jist about gone. I'm purty nigh seventy-one year old, an' the Bible says --"

Then he got up and split a cord of white-oak kitchen wood

"Oh, come now, father," said Henry, cheerfully; "you ain't dead yit by a long sight. Bet you could throw me in a rassle right now. You'll be all right by mornin'."

"No, Henry," the old man said weakly; "your intentions is good, but they don't help me none. All us old fellers is passin' away. Marty Gray 'a gone. We all got ter go. I doubt I won't live till mornin'. I feel et in my bones."

Henry seated himself on the bed.

"Where you feel the wust, father?" he asked kindly.

"Thet's jist what scairt me," said the old man. "I ain't got no pain, by jocks! an' thet's a sure sign a man's dyin', Henry. I ain't never knowed et ter fail. When yer gits ter the aidge o' the grave, pains cease. Et's a dead sure sign. I'm dyin' this time. Marty Gray passed away jist this way, Henry, an' I'm purty nigh seventy-one year --"

"Father," said Henry, quickly, "I hope you've mistook the symptoms. I do surely hope you ain't goin' ter die right now. You allus said you wanted a decent buryin', an' ef you drap off now you know yourself they ain't no time folks kin take off fer a funeral in harvest-time but Sunday, an' next Sunday's Marty Gray's funeral, an' we couldn't noways expec' a big follerin', 'cause Marty he's goin' ter be buried over in Orono township, an' half the folks'd foller him. 'Course ef y''er goin' ter die they ain't no help fer et, but et's a shame fer a man ter live so long an' then not hev no sort o' a funeral."

The old man listened thoughtfully, and when Henry paused he slowly raised himself.

"Henry," he said, "by jocks, ef I didn't fergit all erbout thet! I'm low, Henry, an' I don't keer fer myself, but et would be awful mean ter them as had ter foller one o' us an' couldn't foller th' other."

He slid his feet to the floor and began to draw on his garments.

"Wonder ef Mary Ann's got any supper left?" he asked, and then suddenly clasped his knee. "By jocks!" he ejaculated, "this here rheumatiz does strike me bad, Henry. Seems like et's wuss ter-night'n et's been fer a long time. I feel mighty sick, Henry. Guess I'll hev ter drive down ter Franklin ter-morrer an' see Doc Weaver. 'Fraid I ain't got long amongst ye; but I'm goin' ter try ter put off leavin' ye till next week."

He chuckled.

"By jocks! 'fraid I ain't never goin' ter git a chanst ter die. Seems like somethin' allus comes up jist when I git good an' ready. Marty Gray didn't hev no cause ter die jist now, noway; he wa'n't so old ez me by twelve months, Henry, but he allus was gittin' in folkses' way."

Henry aided him into his trousers and handed him a comb.

The old man laughed.

"Talk erbout funerals, by jocks! When I was in Chicagy I see a funeral, an' the hull thing was on the run, everybody hurryin' like tramps hed set their hay-ricks afire. S'pose I'd be hurried jist the same ef I died thar. Anyhow, ez St. Paul says, 'when you're in Rome, do like the Romans does.'"

Mary Ann met the old man at the foot of the stairs.

"Well, father," she said cheerfully, "feelin' some better? "

"No, by jocks!" he said shortly, "I ain't feelin' anywise better'n I did, Mary Ann. I'm goin' in ter see Doc Weaver ter-morrer, but I reckon I'm past help. Ev'ry dog hez his day. I'm purty nigh seventy-one year old --"

"Yes, I know, father," she interrupted quickly; "but granddad lived to be a hundred an' six you know."

"Thet's so! Thet's so! he admitted as he took his seat at the supper-table, on which the dishes were still standing. "We're a long-lived fambly, Mary Ann. Your granny was ninety-two 'fore she needed specs, an' I ain't never heard o' one o' us died under threescore an' ten, nary one. But, by jocks! we all got ter die some day, an' I'm purty nigh seventy-one year old, an' the Bible says -- "

"Who you want ter hev drive you down ter town ter-morrer?" asked Henry, hastily.

"Who? Drive me over?" asked the old man, with great indignation. "Guess I kin drive's well ez any o' you boys, by jocks! an' better, too. I don't need no driver yit, by a long ways. You young fellers think thet soon's a pusson gits a bit o' gray in his hair he hez ter hev a nuss!"

Nor would he drive any horse but the bay colt, and he was up before Henry the next morning, and had the colt harnessed before Mary Ann rang the breakfast-bell.

He found Doc Weaver in his office, deep in an argument with "Jedge" McComber on the single-tax question, and while the doctor was delivering his "finally" and driving it home with his extended forefinger, By Jocks examined the backs of the half-dozen medical volumes on the bookshelves. By the time the judge had assured the doctor that his arguments were false from top to bottom, By Jocks was feeling the weight of his years.

"Doc," he said, "guess I'm gone fer good this time. I ain't got no appetite fer my victuals. I'm plumb give out, doc, but I can't holler 'bout it; I'm purty nigh seventy-one year old, an' the Bible says the length o' a man's life ain't but threescore year an' ten --"

"No appetite, hey?" asked the doctor. "Tongue coated -- um!" He slapped the old man on the back and laughed. "Pshaw!" he said, "there's nothing the matter with you. You're good for years yet. All you want is some salts and you'll be as young as the best of us. You stop at the drug-store and get a pound or so of salts, and I'll warrant you'll be helping Henry harvest in a couple of days."

"I'm purty nigh seventy-one year --"

"You don't say so!" exclaimed the doctor. "Shouldn't have thought you were sixty."

When Mary Ann entered the kitchen after carrying the midday lunch to the field, she found her father seated at the table, with a huge yellow bowl before him. He was eating the contents with a large spoon.

"Well, father." she said gaily, "eatin' a little bread an' milk?"

The old man looked up with tears in his eyes and swallowed another spoonful with a wry face.

"No," he said shortly, "'t ain't no bread an' milk, neether."

"'T ain't?" she asked, peering into the bowl with great curiosity. "What hev yer got?"

By Jocks took another spoonful and made another grimace.

"Pound o' salts," he said shortly.

Mary Ann dropped her empty lunch-basket and gasped.

"Law sakes, father!" she cried, "yer ain't eatin' a hull pound o' salts, be ye?"

"Yes, by jocks!" he said; "an' it's the wust stuff I ever swallered. Jist erbout gags me, by jocks! But doc told me ter, an' I guess doc knows his business."

Mary Ann seized the spoon as the old man was raising it to his lips.

"Mercy me!" she exclaimed, "ye'll kill yerself."

Her father held to the spoon firmly.

"Let go, Mary Ann," he said crossly; "I'm goin' ter take this stuff, by jocks! kill me er not kill me. Doc said ter, an' I don't see any use goin' ter a doctor ef yer don't do like he says. I got faith in doc, an' I'm goin' ter do jist ez doc said. Ef I don't, I'll like ez not he dead by mornin', anyhow. I'm purty nigh seventy-one year old, Mary Ann, an' the Bible says a man's only got threescore year an' ten --"

Mary Ann dropped the spoon and grasped the yellow bowl. The old man reached for it, but she was on her feet, and she hurried to the door and emptied the contents on the grass.

By Jocks moped about the farm disconsolately for several days, but as Sunday approached he brightened, and Sunday evening he regained his spirits. Old Marty Gray was buried, and By Jocks could go ahead with his dying. Willie was still in bed with the measles, but the old man felt that be could not delay for small things, and at sundown he went to his room and went to bed.

"I'm jist erbout dead, Mary Ann," he said. "No pain left, an' I'm beginnin' ter remember things thet happened when I was a boy. Thet's a sure sign. Purty soon I'll begin ter fergit things thet's happened lately. Ef et comes ter thet by mornin' guess ye'd better see the preacher an' fix up fer him ter come nex' Sunday. Ye know 'bout the 'rangements. Same ez when I was so low last time, Mary Ann. Reckon Henry'll git through harvest 'g'in' then?"

"He got through last night," his daughter answered sadly; "the men went off yestiddy, ye know."

"By jocks!" he exclaimed gleefully, "so they did. Didn't I tell ye I was purty nigh gone? I'm beginnin' ter fergit things thet's happenin' right now, an' I kin remember them thet happened years ago.' Ye ain't got no faith in how low I am, Mary Ann; but, I tell ye, I'm purty nigh --"

His daughter fled to the door.

"Willie is cryin'," she said, and she passed into the next room.

That night her father slept peacefully, lulled by the patter of rain on the roof overhead, nor did the rain cease the next day. On the contrary, it fell in torrents, and the old man lay and watched it impatiently. Tuesday it also rained, and By Jocks sat up in bed and scowled at the window, down which the drops ran continuously. Rainy weather is always had tor the attendance at a country funeral, and the old man would have lost heart had not the dog howled all one night, and had he not heard the death-tick in the woodwork the next.

Wednesday morning the rain ceased, and Henry came and sat beside him.

"How come ye ain't haulin' oats?" the old man asked peevishly.

"Wisht I could,"said Henry; "but the roads 'twixt here an' town's so I'd git stuck 'fore I got half a mile. I ain't ever seen 'em so soft this time o' year."

By Jocks squirmed.

"I s'pose ye ain't been tor see the preacher, then?" he asked anxiously.

"Yes, I've been," replied Henry; "I ast him about Sunday, but he can't come. He's goin' off on his vacation terday."

By Jocks sat up in bed.

"Did ye see the pall-bearers?" he asked.

"Yes, I went ter see 'em, but I only seen one. The other three on 'em's gone ter the World's Fair in Chicagy."

The old man's face lengthened.

I reckon I kin hang on a lettle longer

"Henry," he asked fearfully, "they ain't nobody died in Orono township, hez they?"

"Yes, they hez," replied Henry, slowly; "ol' Miss Burpee died this mornin'. They're goin' ter bury her Sunday."

His father-in-law hit his pillow a sounding whack with his fist.

"Drat her!" he exclaimed; "ain't I never goin' ter git a fair show at dyin'? I almost wisht I was one o' them old martyrs; they hed half a chanst ter die, anyhow."

He sat awhile in moody silence, and then lay back and turned on his face. He lay very still, and Henry gazed at him silently. He heard Mary Ann moving about in the room below, heard her leave the room and after several minutes return, and still the old man lay on his face. Willie cried peevishly in the next room, and Henry stole away softly and quieted him. When he returned, the old man still lay as he had left him, one wrinkled hand outside the coverlet. Henry leaned over him and placed one hand gently on the old man's shoulder.

"Father," he said softly, "father!"

By Jocks turned over suddenly, and ran his fingers briskly through his hair.

"Henry," he said, "hand me them clothes o' mine. They ain't no use my tryin' ter die in this township when they keep a-dyin' in Orono. Tell Mary Ann t' pack some things in my satchel."

"Father," cried Henry, "yer don't mean ye're goin' ter go somewheres else t' die!"

The old man chuckled.

"Die!" he said. "By jocks! I'm goin' ter the World's Fair in Chicagy. Ef them ol' critters I picked out t' tote my coffin kin go. I guess I kin. I'm only a leetle over seventy year old, Henry. I reckon I kin hang on a leetle longer."

And By Jocks is still hanging on.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:19:11am USA Central
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