Well, as far back as I can remember, and before that, too, my mother was a widow, and she had a great many children to take care of. The reason she had so many children was because she was poor. I have noticed all my life that when people are very poor they happen to have more children than they know what to do with. This was the way with my mother. She had a houseful of children, and she found it a hard matter to get along.
One day she went down to the creek to wash the clothes, such as she and the children had, and when she got there she found an old man sitting on the bank. He said, "Howdy," and she said, "Good-morning," and then he asked her if she would be so good as to wash his coat and his waistcoat. She said she would be glad to do so, and the old man said he would be very much obliged. So my mother washed the coat and waistcoat. Then he asked her if she would comb his hair for him, and she did so.
The old man thanked her kindly, and took from his pocket a string of red beads and made her a present of them. Then he told her to go out behind the house when she got home, and there she'd find a pumpkin-tree growing. He said that she must bury the string of beads at the foot of the tree.
"That's a pity," exclaimed my mother; "they are so beautiful."
But the old man declared that she must do as he said, and after that she was to go to the pumpkin-tree every day and ask for as many pumpkins as she wanted.
My mother went home and found the pumpkin-tree where never a tree had been growing before, and at its roots she buried the string of beads.
Next morning, bright and early, she went to the pumpkin-tree and called for one pumpkin. Down it dropped from the tree.
For a long time my mother and her children were happy and growing fat. Every day a big pumpkin would be cooked, and as my mother had to leave us so as to attend to her work, enough pumpkin would be left in the pot to last us all day.
I remember that time very well, for I was getting fat and growing to be almost as large as the rest of the children. But one day, as my mother was going out to work she found a ham per basket on the gate-post, and in that basket was a baby. So she carried the baby in the house, gave it something to eat, and then put it on the floor to play with the rest.
But as soon as she got out of the yard the baby crawled to the pot where the cooked pumpkin was, and ate and ate until there was no pumpkin left. Of course, the rest of the children had to go hungry.
And when my mother came home she had to go hungry, too. She was very much surprised. She found all the pumpkin gone and the children crying for something to eat, and the stray baby was crying louder than any. She said we were the greediest children she had ever seen.
The next day she cooked two pumpkins, but the same thing happened. The baby went to the pot and ate both.
The children told her how it happened, but she wouldn't believe them. She said she couldn't be made to believe that one puny little baby could eat two whole pumpkins - and it is very queer, when you come to think about it.
The next day she cooked three pumpkins, but the same thing happened. Then four, then five, then six. But it was always the same. No matter how many pumpkins were cooked, the stray baby would eat them all, and the rest of the children would have to go hungry. You see how small I am; well, the reason of it is that I was starved out by that pumpkin-eating baby. My brothers and sisters and myself were just as large and as healthy as any other children until that baby was found on the gate-post, and from that day we began to dwindle and shrink away.
Well, we starved and starved until at last my mother could very plainly see that something was the matter. So she set a trap for the baby and baited it with pumpkins.
She hadn't got out of hearing before the baby put his head in the pot and got caught in the trap. It stayed there all day, and when mother came home at night she found it there. She was very much surprised, but she saw she must get rid of the baby. She said that any creature that could manage to eat like that was able to take care of itself, and so she carried it off down the road and left it there.
Now this Pumpkin-Eater was a witch baby, and as soon as it thought my mother was out of sight and hearing it changed itself into a tall, heavy man.
My mother was watching it, and she followed to see where it would go. It went down to the bank of the river. There it found the old man who had given my mother the string of beads, and asked him for something to eat.
"Comb my hair for me," said the old man.
But it refused, and then the old man told it to go to the pumpkin-tree and ask for twenty pumpkins. The greedy thing was glad to do this. It went to the tree and called for twenty pumpkins, and down they fell on its head. It was smashed! Knocked flatter than a pancake! Broke into giblets! They pounded him into jelly and killed him!