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A Mother Of Five
by [?]

She was a mother–and a rather exemplary one–of five children, although her own age was barely nine. Two of these children were twins, and she generally alluded to them as “Mr. Amplach’s children,” referring to an exceedingly respectable gentleman in the next settlement who, I have reason to believe, had never set eyes on her or them. The twins were quite naturally alike–having been in a previous state of existence two ninepins–and were still somewhat vague and inchoate below their low shoulders in their long clothes, but were also firm and globular about the head, and there were not wanting those who professed to see in this an unmistakable resemblance to their reputed father. The other children were dolls of different ages, sex, and condition, but the twins may be said to have been distinctly her own conception. Yet such was her admirable and impartial maternity that she never made any difference between them. “The Amplach’s children” was a description rather than a distinction.

She was herself the motherless child of Robert Foulkes, a hardworking but somewhat improvident teamster on the Express Route between Big Bend and Reno. His daily avocation, when she was not actually with him in the wagon, led to an occasional dispersion of herself and her progeny along the road and at wayside stations between those places. But the family was generally collected together by rough but kindly hands already familiar with the handling of her children. I have a very vivid recollection of Jim Carter trampling into a saloon, after a five-mile walk through a snowdrift, with an Amplach twin in his pocket. “Suthin’ ought to be done,” he growled, “to make Meary a little more careful o’ them Amplach children; I picked up one outer the snow a mile beyond Big Bend.” “God bless my soul!” said a casual passenger, looking up hastily; “I didn’t know Mr. Amplach was married.” Jim winked diabolically at us over his glass. “No more did I,” he responded gloomily, “but you can’t tell anything about the ways o’ them respectable, psalm-singing jay birds.” Having thus disposed of Amplach’s character, later on, when he was alone with Mary, or “Meary,” as she chose to pronounce it, the rascal worked upon her feelings with an account of the infant Amplach’s sufferings in the snowdrift and its agonized whisperings for “Meary! Meary!” until real tears stood in Mary’s blue eyes. “Let this be a lesson to you,” he concluded, drawing the ninepin dexterously from his pocket, “for it took nigh a quart of the best forty-rod whisky to bring that child to.” Not only did Mary firmly believe him, but for weeks afterwards “Julian Amplach”–this unhappy twin–was kept in a somnolent attitude in the cart, and was believed to have contracted dissipated habits from the effects of his heroic treatment.

Her numerous family was achieved in only two years, and succeeded her first child, which was brought from Sacramento at considerable expense by a Mr. William Dodd, also a teamster, on her seventh birthday. This, by one of those rare inventions known only to a child’s vocabulary, she at once called “Misery”–probably a combination of “Missy,” as she herself was formerly termed by strangers, and “Missouri,” her native State. It was an excessively large doll at first–Mr. Dodd wishing to get the worth of his money–but time, and perhaps an excess of maternal care, remedied the defect, and it lost flesh and certain unemployed parts of its limbs very rapidly. It was further reduced in bulk by falling under the wagon and having the whole train pass over it, but singularly enough its greatest attenuation was in the head and shoulders–the complexion peeling off as a solid layer, followed by the disappearance of distinct strata of its extraordinary composition. This continued until the head and shoulders were much too small for even its reduced frame, and all the devices of childish millinery–a shawl secured with tacks and well hammered in, and a hat which tilted backward and forward and never appeared at the same angle–failed to restore symmetry. Until one dreadful morning, after an imprudent bath, the whole upper structure disappeared, leaving two hideous iron prongs standing erect from the spinal column. Even an imaginative child like Mary could not accept this sort of thing as a head. Later in the day Jack Roper, the blacksmith at the “Crossing,” was concerned at the plaintive appearance before his forge of a little girl clad in a bright-blue pinafore of the same color as her eyes, carrying her monstrous offspring in her arms. Jack recognized her and instantly divined the situation. “You haven’t,” he suggested kindly, “got another head at home–suthin’ left over,” Mary shook her head sadly; even her prolific maternity was not equal to the creation of children in detail. “Nor anythin’ like a head?” he persisted sympathetically. Mary’s loving eyes filled with tears. “No, nuffen!” “You couldn’t,” he continued thoughtfully, “use her the other side up?– we might get a fine pair o’ legs outer them irons,” he added, touching the two prongs with artistic suggestion. “Now look here”– he was about to tilt the doll over when a small cry of feminine distress and a swift movement of a matronly little arm arrested the evident indiscretion. “I see,” he said gravely. “Well, you come here tomorrow, and we’ll fix up suthin’ to work her.” Jack was thoughtful the rest of the day, more than usually impatient with certain stubborn mules to be shod, and even knocked off work an hour earlier to walk to Big Bend and a rival shop. But the next morning when the trustful and anxious mother appeared at the forge she uttered a scream of delight. Jack had neatly joined a hollow iron globe, taken from the newel post of some old iron staircase railing, to the two prongs, and covered it with a coat of red fireproof paint. It was true that its complexion was rather high, that it was inclined to be top-heavy, and that in the long run the other dolls suffered considerably by enforced association with this unyielding and implacable head and shoulders, but this did not diminish Mary’s joy over her restored first-born. Even its utter absence of features was no defect in a family where features were as evanescent as in hers, and the most ordinary student of evolution could see that the “Amplach” ninepins were in legitimate succession to the globular-headed “Misery.” For a time I think that Mary even preferred her to the others. Howbeit it was a pretty sight to see her on a summer afternoon sitting upon a wayside stump, her other children dutifully ranged around her, and the hard, unfeeling head of Misery pressed deep down into her loving little heart as she swayed from side to side, crooning her plaintive lullaby. Small wonder that the bees took up the song and droned a slumberous accompaniment, or that high above her head the enormous pines, stirred through their depths by the soft Sierran air–or Heaven knows what–let slip flickering lights and shadows to play over that cast-iron face, until the child, looking down upon it with the quick, transforming power of love, thought that it smiled.