John Barleycorn HTML version

Chapter 4
My next bout with John Barleycorn occurred when I was seven. This time my
imagination was at fault, and I was frightened into the encounter. Still farming, my
family had moved to a ranch on the bleak sad coast of San Mateo County, south of San
Francisco. It was a wild, primitive countryside in those days; and often I heard my
mother pride herself that we were old American stock and not immigrant Irish and
Italians like our neighbours. In all our section there was only one other old American
One Sunday morning found me, how or why I cannot now remember, at the Morrisey
ranch. A number of young people had gathered there from the nearer ranches. Besides,
the oldsters had been there, drinking since early dawn, and, some of them, since the night
before. The Morriseys were a huge breed, and there were many strapping great sons and
uncles, heavy-booted, big-fisted, rough- voiced.
Suddenly there were screams from the girls and cries of "Fight!" There was a rush. Men
hurled themselves out of the kitchen. Two giants, flush-faced, with greying hair, were
locked in each other's arms. One was Black Matt, who, everybody said, had killed two
men in his time. The women screamed softly, crossed themselves, or prayed brokenly,
hiding their eyes and peeping through their fingers. But not I. It is a fair presumption that
I was the most interested spectator. Maybe I would see that wonderful thing, a man
killed. Anyway, I would see a man-fight. Great was my disappointment. Black Matt and
Tom Morrisey merely held on to each other and lifted their clumsy-booted feet in what
seemed a grotesque, elephantine dance. They were too drunk to fight. Then the
peacemakers got hold of them and led them back to cement the new friendship in the
Soon they were all talking at once, rumbling and roaring as big- chested open-air men
will, when whisky has whipped their taciturnity. And I, a little shaver of seven, my heart
in my mouth, my trembling body strung tense as a deer's on the verge of flight, peered
wonderingly in at the open door and learned more of the strangeness of men. And I
marvelled at Black Matt and Tom Morrisey, sprawled over the table, arms about each
other's necks, weeping lovingly.
The kitchen-drinking continued, and the girls outside grew timorous. They knew the
drink game, and all were certain that something terrible was going to happen. They
protested that they did not wish to be there when it happened, and some one suggested
going to a big Italian rancho four miles away, where they could get up a dance.
Immediately they paired off, lad and lassie, and started down the sandy road. And each
lad walked with his sweetheart--trust a child of seven to listen and to know the love-
affairs of his countryside. And behold, I, too, was a lad with a lassie. A little Irish girl of
my own age had been paired off with me. We were the only children in this spontaneous
affair. Perhaps the oldest couple might have been twenty. There were chits of girls, quite
grown up, of fourteen and sixteen, walking with their fellows. But we were uniquely