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Miss Peggy’s Proteges
by [?]

“You’ll do,” said Sam, in fearful admiration. “Mebbe you’ll make suthin’ out o’ the Colonel too. But I never took stock in that there owl. He was too durned self-righteous for a decent bird. Now, run along afore anythin’ else fetches loose ag’in. So long!”

He patted the top of her sunbonnet, gave a little pull to the short brown braid that hung behind her temptingly,–which no miner was ever known to resist,–and watched her flutter off with her spoils. He had done so many times before, for the great, foolish heart of the Blue Cement Ridge had gone out to Peggy Baker, the little daughter of the blacksmith, quite early. There were others of the family, notably two elder sisters, invincible at picnics and dances, but Peggy was as necessary to these men as the blue jay that swung before them in the dim woods, the squirrel that whisked across their morning path, or the woodpecker who beat his tattoo at their midday meal from the hollow pine above them. She was part of the nature that kept them young. Her truancies and vagrancies concerned them not: she was a law to herself, like the birds and squirrels. There were bearded lips to hail her wherever she went, and a blue or red-shirted arm always stretched out in any perilous pass or dangerous crossing.

Her peculiar tastes were an outcome of her nature, assisted by her surroundings. Left a good deal to herself in her infancy, she made playfellows of animated nature around her, without much reference to selection or fitness, but always with a fearlessness that was the result of her own observation, and unhampered by tradition or other children’s timidity. She had no superstition regarding the venom of toads, the poison of spiders, or the ear-penetrating capacity of earwigs. She had experiences and revelations of her own,–which she kept sacredly to herself, as children do,–and one was in regard to a rattlesnake, partly induced, however, by the indiscreet warning of her elders. She was cautioned NOT to take her bread and milk into the woods, and was told the affecting story of the little girl who was once regularly visited by a snake that partook of HER bread and milk, and who was ultimately found rapping the head of the snake for gorging more than his share, and not “taking a ‘poon as me do.” It is needless to say that this incautious caution fired Peggy’s adventurous spirit. SHE took a bowlful of milk to the haunt of a “rattler” near her home, but, without making the pretense of sharing it, generously left the whole to the reptile. After repeating this hospitality for three or four days, she was amazed one morning on returning to the house to find the snake–an elderly one with a dozen rattles–devotedly following her. Alarmed, not for her own safety nor that of her family, but for the existence of her grateful friend in danger of the blacksmith’s hammer, she took a circuitous route leading it away. Then recalling a bit of woodland lore once communicated to her by a charcoal-burner, she broke a spray of the white ash, and laid it before her in the track of the rattlesnake. He stopped instantly, and remained motionless without crossing the slight barrier. She repeated this experiment on later occasions, until the reptile understood her. She kept the experience to herself, but one day it was witnessed by a tunnelman. On that day Peggy’s reputation was made!

From this time henceforth the major part of Blue Cement Ridge became serious collectors for what was known as “Peggy’s menagerie,” and two of the tunnelmen constructed a stockaded inclosure–not half a mile from the blacksmith’s cabin, but unknown to him–for the reception of specimens. For a long time its existence was kept a secret between Peggy and her loyal friends. Her parents, aware of her eccentric tastes only through the introduction of such smaller creatures as lizards, toads, and tarantulas into their house,–which usually escaped from their tin cans and boxes and sought refuge in the family slippers,–had frowned upon her zoological studies. Her mother found that her woodland rambles entailed an extraordinary wear and tear of her clothing. A pinafore reduced to ribbons by a young fox, and a straw hat half swallowed by a mountain kid, did not seem to be a natural incident to an ordinary walk to the schoolhouse. Her sisters thought her tastes “low,” and her familiar association with the miners inconsistent with their own dignity. But Peggy went regularly to school, was a fair scholar in elementary studies (what she knew of natural history, in fact, quite startled her teachers), and being also a teachable child, was allowed some latitude. As for Peggy herself, she kept her own faith unshaken; her little creed, whose shibboleth was not “to be afraid” of God’s creatures, but to “love ’em,” sustained her through reprimand, torn clothing, and, it is to be feared, occasional bites and scratches from the loved ones themselves.