« PreviousContinue »
Upon the arrival of Offut's goods, the boatman became clerk and salesman. It was a country store, and the articles for sale were such as a newly-settled agricultural community on the frontier would especially need. Women wanted pins, needles, thread; they asked if the calico which they examined would "wash;" they "chinked" the crockery to discover a possible crack. Their presence, in comparison with the men whom he met on flat-boats, made the air sweet and pure. He greeted them with a pleasant smile, and was so truthful in what he said about the goods, and gave such just weight, that they soon had implicit confidence in him. In keeping accounts he was careful to reckon the half and quarter cents. We are to remember that the mint at Philadelphia for coining money had been in operation but little more than thirty years; not many dimes and twenty-five cent pieces were in circulation, but fourpence, sixpence, ninepence, and shilling pieces of English coinage, together with many Spanish coins, were in use. A silver fourpence coin was valued at six and one-fourth cents. A ninepence coin was worth twelve and one-half cents. If Abraham Lincoln made a mistake in reckoning or weighing he was quick to rectify it the moment he discovered the error. He was closing the store one evening when a woman came for a half-pound of tea. In the morning he saw from the weight in the scale that he had given her only one-quarter of a pound. Leaving everything else he weighed out the other ounces and carried them to her. Another customer paid him six and one-quarter cents more than was his due, and when the store was closed at night he hastened to correct the mistake, although she lived two miles away. (")
Denton Offut's store was the social exchange for a wide extent of country along the Sangamon-the place where people could hear from his clerk what was going on in the world. After the arrival of the mail (which brought his newspaper, the "Louisville Journal"), he could tell them what Congress was doing, and what was occurring throughout the country and on the other side of the Atlantic. They discovered that he could talk intelligently upon a great many questions. Some of the fellows who made the store a lounging-place while their corn was grinding at Rutledge's mill used profane language. One of them had so little sense of what was decent that he used vile words when women were present.
"Don't use such language here," said Lincoln.
"Who are you? I'll swear when and where I please. I can lick you," said the fellow.
"When the ladies are gone I'll let you have a chance to do so."
The women departed, and the bully dared Lincoln to touch him. Little did the ruffian comprehend the strength and resolution of the man whom he had incensed. Suddenly he found himself lying on the ground and blows falling upon him like the strokes of a hammer. He begged for mercy, and Lincoln bathed the fellow's face with water to relieve the pain. (")
"He can lift more than any other man in Sangamon County; and when it comes to wrestling, he can throw the whole crowd," said Offut.
The "Clary Grove boys," as they were called, heard of it. They were a wild and lawless set of fellows, who lived seven or eight miles from New Salem. Jack Armstrong was their champion wrestler and leader. They found pleasure in picking upon a stranger, and having fun with any one weaker than themselves. It was delightful sport to put a man into a cask and set it rolling down a hill. They rode through the settlements at night whooping, swearing, frightening women and children. They cared nothing for law or order, and were a terror to the country.
"Jack Armstrong will put Offut's clerk on his back in a twinkling," said one of the gang.
"I'll bet that Lincoln will use him to wipe his feet on," said Offut. "I'll bet $10 that Jack is the better man," responded Bill Clary. "I'll take that bet, and as much more as you and your gang will put up."
"I do not want to wrestle," said Lincoln, when Offut asked him to engage in a contest with Jack Armstrong. He was no longer a boatman ; he was drifting away from former things. There was something in life better than wrestling. He looked every day into the faces of noble women and pure-hearted girls as they examined the goods which he placed before them. What would they think of him if he found his greatest pleasure in wrestling with Jack?
"I want you to teach those fellows a lesson," said Offut. "They are a set of bullies, and I want you to take them down."
Quite likely Abraham Lincoln was not averse to teaching them a lesson, and there would be some satisfaction in putting their champion upon the ground. The match was arranged, and the day fixed. All the Clary Grove fellows, and others up and down the Sangamon, heard of it, and laid their plans to be present, some staking their money on Armstrong, others on Offut's clerk. The day arrives; New Salem is astir. The spectators tie their horses beneath the trees and take a drink of whiskey. The ring is formed. There is a friendly hand-shaking as
THE LINCOLN HOME, FARMINGTON, ILL.
[From a photograph taken in 1890. Abraham Lincoln assisted his father in building this home after his return from the second trip to New Orleans, and here saw his father for the last time.]
the contestants enter it; then comes the grappling, turning, the straining of muscles. If Jack Armstrong imagined it would be an easy victory, he found himself mistaken. He tries his peculiar tricks, which have given him victory over other wrestlers; but somehow this clerk of Offut's, who spends so much time in reading, does not go down. He seems to be playing with Jack, and biding his time. Jack's friends do not like the looks of things; if he is vanquished they will lose their bets, and it will be humiliating. One of the gang attempts to interfere in behalf of Armstrong.
"Fair play!" "Stand back!" "Let them alone!" were the cries from the excited crowd. Lincoln sees that the Clary Grove fellows intend to help Jack gain an advantage; like another Samson he puts forth his strength, and the hitherto champion of Sangamon goes to the ground.
Armstrong's friends are amazed and angry. But there is good stuff in Jack. He knows that he has been fairly thrown, and exhibits his manhood by rising and shaking hands with Lincoln. From that moment through life he will be a steadfast friend. The Clary Grove boys have lost their bets, but forget their anger in their admiration for the man who does not crow over what he has done. (1)
Abraham Lincoln was champion; but instead of wrestling, he wanted to study grammar. Mentor Graham thought that Mr. Vaner might possibly have a text-book. Although it was several miles, he walked to Vaner's house, and returned with a copy of "Kirkham's Grammar." Customers who came to trade the next day found him lying on the counter with the book in hand, his head pillowed on a pile of cotton goods. He knew that his language was not grammatical. He wanted to express himself clearly and correctly. It was a pleasure to read the editorial articles in the "Louisville Journal," because they were so well written. He would like to be able to write so that people would understand just what he intended to say. With that object in view, he determined to know the parts of speech and the rules which govern the construction of language. He had no one to teach him, but went on as best he could. (")
While the clerk was waiting upon customers, keeping exact accounts, and getting on with his grammar, Offut was buying produce, trading horses, and speculating generally; giving his notes, which were not paid when due. He transacted business in such a lucky-go-easy way that the day came when the sheriff took possession of the store.
Abraham Lincoln was adrift once more. Good news came. tain Bogue, of Springfield, had gone to Cincinnati to obtain a steamboat