"Yet we rather like the novelty Of livin' in this way, Though the bill of fare is often rather tame; An' we're happy as a clam On the land of Uncle Sam In our little old tarred shanty on the claim."
The train drew up at length, to the immense relief of Rob, whose stoical resiguation was beginning to weaken.
"Don't y' wish y' had sand?" he yelled to the crowd as he plunged into the car, thinking he was rid of them.
But no; their last stroke was to follow him into the car, nodding, pointing to their heads, and whispering, managing in the half-minute the train stood at the platform to set every person in the car staring at the crazy man. Rob groaned and pulled his hat down over his eyes-an action which confirmed his tormentors' words and made several ladies click their tongues in sympathy-"Tick! tick! poor fellow!"
"All abo-o-o-a-rd!' said the conductor, grinning his appreciation at the crowd, and the train was off.
"Oh, won't we make him groan when he gets back!" said Barney, the young lawyer who sang the shouting tenor.
"We'll meet him with the timbrel and the harp. Anybody want to wager? I've got two to one on a short brunette," said Wilson.
"Follow it far enough and it may pass the bend in the river where the water laughs eternally over its shallows."
A CORNFIELD in July is a hot place. The soil is hot and dry; the wind comes across the lazily murmuring leaves laden with a warm sickening smell drawn from the rapidly growing, broad-flung banners of the corn. The sun, nearly vertical, drops a flood of dazzing light and heat upon the field over which the cool shadows run, only to make the heat seem the more intense.
Julia Peterson, faint with fatigue, was tolling back and forth between the corn rows, holding the handles of the double-shovel corn plow while her little brother Otto rode the steaming horse. Her heart was full of bitterness, and her face flushed with heat, and her muscles aching with fatigue. The heat grew terrible. The corn came to her shoulders, and not a breath seemed to reach her, while the sun, nearing the noon mark, lay pitilessly upon her shoulders, protected only by a calico dress. The dust rose under her feet, and as she was wet with perspiration it soiled her till, with a woman's instinctive cleanliness, she shuddered. Her head throbbed dangerously. what matter to her that the king bird pitched jovially from the maples to catch a wandering bluebottle fly, that the robin was feeding its young, that the bobolink was singing? All these things, if she saw them, only threw her bondage to labor into greater relief.
Across the field, in another patch of corn, she could see her father-a big, gruff-voiced, wide-bearded Norwegian-at work also with a plow. The corn must be plowed, and so she toiled on, the tears dropping from the shadow of the ugly sunbonnet she wore. Her shoes, coarse and square-toed, chafed her feet; her hands, large and strong, were browned, or more properly burned, on the backs by the sun. The horse's harness "creak-cracked" as he swung steadily and patientiy forward, the moisture pouring from his sides, his nostrils distended.
The field ran down to a road, and on the other side of the road ran a river-a broad, clear, shallow expanse at that point, and the eyes of the boy gazed longingly at the pond and the cool shadow each time that he turned at the fence.
"Say, Jule, I'm goin' in! Come, can't I? Come-say!" he pleaded as they stopped at the fence to let the horse breathe.
"I've let you go wade twice."
"But that don't do any good. My legs is all smarty, 'cause ol' Jack sweats so." The boy turned around on the horse's back and slid back to his rump. "I can't stand it!" he burst out, sliding off and darting under the fence. "Father can't see."
The girl put her elbows on the fence and watched her little brother as be sped away to the pool, throwing off his clothes as he ran, whooping with uncontrollable delight. Soon she could hear him splashing about in the water a short distance up the stream, and caught glimpses of his little shiny body and happy face. How cool that water looked! And the shadows there by the big basswood! How that water would cool her blistered feet! An impulse seized her, and she squeezed between the rails of the fence and stood in the road looking up and down to see that the way was clear. It was not a main-travelled road; no one was likely to come; why not?
She hurriedly took off her shoes and stockings-how delicious the cool, soft velvet of the grass!-and sitting down on the bank under the great basswood, whose roots formed an abrupt bank, she slid her poor blistered, chafed feet into the water, her bare head leaned against the huge tree trunk.
And now as she rested, the beauty of the scene came to her. Over her the wind moved the leaves. A jay screamed far off, as if answering the cries of the boy. A kingfisher crossed and recrossed the stream with dipping sweep of his wings. The river sang with its lips to the pebbles. The vast clouds went by majestically, far above the treetops, and the snap and buzzing and ringing whir of July insects made a ceaseless, slumberous undertone of song solvent of all else. The tired girl forgot her work. She began to dream. This would not last always. Some one would come to release her from such drudgery. This was her constant, tenderest, and most secret dream. He would be a Yankee, not a Norwegian; the Yankees didn't ask their wives to work in the field. He would have a home. Perhaps he'd live in town-perhaps a merchant! And then she thought of the drug clerk in Rock River who had looked at her- A voice broke in on her dream, a fresh, manly voice.
"Well, by jinks! if it ain't Julia! Just the one I wanted to see!"
The girl turned, saw a pleasant-faced young fellow in a derby hat and a fifteen-dollar suit of diagonals.
"Rod Rodemaker! How come-"
She remembered her situation, and flushed, looked down at the water, and remained perfectly still.
"Ain't ye goin' to shake hands? Y' don't seem very glad t' see me."
She began to grow angry. "If you had any eyes you'd see!"
Rob looked over the edge of the bank, whistled, turned away. "Oh, I see! Excuse me! Don't blame yeh a bit, though. Good weather f'r corn," he went on' looking up at the trees. 'Corn seems to be pretty well for-ward," he continued in a louder voice as he walked away, still gazing into the air. "Crops is looking first-class in Boomtown. Hello! This Otto? H'yare y' little scamp! Get onto that horse agin. Quick, 'r I'll take y'r skin off an, hang it on the fence. what y' been doing?"
"Ben in swimmm'. Jimminy, ain't it fun! when 'd y' get back?" said the boy, grinning.
"Never you mind," replied Rob, leaping the fence by laying his left hand on the top rail. "Get onto that horse." He tossed the boy up on the horse, hung his coat on the fence. "I s'pose the ol' man makes her plow same as usual?"
"Yup," said Otto.
"Dod ding a man that'll do that! I don't mind if it's necessary, but it ain't necessary m his case." He continued to mutter in this way as he went across to the other side of the field. As they turned to come back, Rob went up and looked at the horse's mouth. "Gettin' purty near of age. Say, who's sparkin' Julia now-anybody?"
"Nobody 'cept some ol' Norwegians. She won't have them. Por wants her to, but she won't."
"Good f'r her. Nobody comes t' see her Sunday nights, eh?"
"Nope, only 'Tias Anderson an' Ole Hoover; but she goes off an' leaves 'em."
"Chk!" said Rob, starting old Jack across the field.
It was almost noon, and Jack moved reluctantly. He knew the time of day as well as the boy. He made this round after distinct protest.
In the meantime Julia, putting on her shoes and stockings, went to the fence and watched the man's shining white shirt as he moved across the cornfield. There had never been any special tenderness between them, but she had always liked him. They had been at school together. She wondered why he had come back at this time of the year, and wondered how long he would stay. How long had he stood looking at her? She flushed again at the thought of it. But he wasn't to blame; it was a public road. She might have known better.
She stood under a little popple tree, whose leaves shook musically at every zephyr, and her eyes through half-shut lids roved over the sea of deep-green glossy leaves, dappled here and there by cloud-shadows, stirred here and there like water by the wind, and out of it all a longing to be free from such toil rose like a breath, filling her throat, and quickening the motion of her heart. Must this go on forever, this life of heat and dust and labor? what did it all mean?
The girl laid her chin on her strong red wrists, and looked up into the blue spaces between the vast clouds -aerial mountains dissolving in a shoreless azure sea. How cool and sweet and restful they looked! li she might only lie out on the billowy, snow-white, sunlit edge! The voices of the driver and the plowman recalled her, and she fixed her eyes again upon the slowly nodding head of the patient horse, on the boy turned half about on the horse, talking to the white-sleeved man, whose derby hat bobbed up and down quite curiously, like the horse's head. Would she ask him to dinner? what would her people say?
"Phew! it's hot!" was the greeting the young fellow gave as he came up. He smiled in a frank, boyish way as he hung his hat on the top of a stake and looked up at her. "D' y' know, I kind o' enjoy getting at it again. Fact. It ain't no work for a girl, though," he added.
"When 'd you get back?" she asked, the flush not yet out of her face. Rob was looking at her thick, fine hair and full Scandinavian face, rich as a rose in color, and did not reply for a few seconds. She stood with her hideous sun bonnet pushed back on her shoulders. A kingbird was chattering overhead.
"Oh' a few days ago."
"How long y' goin' t' stay?"
"Oh, I d' know. A week, mebbe."
A far-off halloo came pulsing across the shimmering air. The boy screamed "Dinner!" and waved his hat with an answering whoop, then flopped off the horse like a turtle off a stone into water. He had the horse unhooked in an instant, and had flung his toes up over the horse's back, in act to climb on, when Rob said:
"H'yare, young feller! wa!t a minute. Tired?" he asked the girl with a tone that was more than kindly; it was almost tender.
"Yes," she replied in a low voice. "My shoes hurt me."
"Well, here y' go," he replied, taking his stand by the horse and holding out his hand like a step. She colored and smiled a little as she lifted her foot into his huge, hard, sunburned hand.
"Oop-a-daisy!" he called. She gave a spring and sat the horse like one at home there.
Rob had a deliciously unconscious, abstracted, businesslike air. He really left her nothing to do but enjoy his company, while he went ahead and did precisely as he pleased.
"We don't raise much corn out there, an' so I kind o' like to see it once more."
"I wish I didn't have to see another hill of corn as long as I live!" replied the girl bitterly.
"Don't know as I blame yeh a bit. But, all the same, I'm glad you was working in it today," he thought to hiniseif as he walked beside her horse toward the house.
"Will you stop to dinner?" she inquired bluntly, almost surmy. It was evident that there were reasons why she didn't mean to press. hirn to'. do so.
"You bet I will," he replied; "that is, if you want I should."
"You know how we live," she replied evasively. "I' you c'n stand it, why-" She broke off abruptly.
Yes, he remembered how they lived in that big, square, dirty, white frame house. It had been- three or four years since he had been ill it, but the smell of the cabbage and onions, the penetrating, peculiar mixture of odors, assailed his memory as something unforgettable.
"I guess I'll stop," he said as she hesitated. She said no more, but tried to act as if she were not in any way responsible for what came afterward.
"I guess I c'n stand fr one meal what you stand all the while," he added.
As she left them at the well and went to the house, he saw her limp painfully, and the memory of her face so close to his 1ips as he helped her down from the horse gave him pleasure, at the same time that he was touched by its tired and gloomy look. Mrs. Peterson came to the door of the kitchen, looking just the same as ever. Broadfaced, unwieldly, flabby, apparently wearing the same dress he remembered to have seen her in years before a dirty drab-colored thing-she looked as shapeless as a sack of wool. Her English was limited to "How de do, Rob?"
He washed at the pump, while the girl, in the attempt to be hospitable, held the clean towel for him.
"You're purty well used up, eh?" he said to her.
"Yes; it's awful hot out there."
"Can't you lay off this afternoon? It ain't right"
"No. He won't listen to that."
"Well, let me take your place."
"No; there ain't any use o' that."
Peterson, a brawny wide-bearded Norwegian, came up at this moment and spoke to Rob in a sullen, gruff way
"He ain't very glad to see me," said Rob, winking at Julia. "He ain't b'ilin' over with enthusiasm; but I c'n stand it, for your sake," he added with amazing assurance; but the girl had turned away, and it was wasted.
At the table he ate heartily of the "bean swaagen," which filled a large wooden bowl in the center of the table, and which was ladled into smaller wooden bowls at each plate. Julia had tried hard to convert her mother to Yankee ways, and had at last given it up in despair. Rob kept on safe subjects, mainly asking questions about the it comes t' workin' outdoors in the dirt an' hot sun, gettin' all sunburned and chapped up, it's another thing. An' then it seems as if he gets stingier 'n' stingier every year. I ain't had a new dress in-I d'-know-how-long. He says it's all nonsense, an' Mother's just about as bad. She don't want a new dress, an' so she thinks I don't." The girl was feeling the influence of a sympathetic listener and was making up for her long silence. "I've tried t' go out t' work, but they won't let me. They'd have t' pay a hand twenty dollars a month f'r the work I do, an' they like cheap help; but I'm not goin' t' stand it much longer, I can tell you that."
Rob thought she was yery handsome as she sat there with her eyes fixed on the horizon, while these rebellious thoughts found utterance in her quivering, passionate voice.
"Yulie! Kom heat!" roared the old man from the well. A frown of anger and pain came into her face. She looked at Rob. "That means more work."
"Say! let me go out in your place. Come, now; what's the use-"
"No; it wouldn't do no good. It ain't t'day s' much; it's every day, and-"
"Yulie!" called Peterson again with a string of impatient Norwegian.
"Well, all right, only I'd like to"
"Well, goodbye," she said, with a little touch of feeling. "When d'ye go back?"
"I don't know. I'll see y' again before I go. Goodbye." He stood watching her slow, painful pace till she reached the well, where Otto was standing with the horse. He stood watching them as they moved out into the road and turned down toward the field. He felt that she had sent him away; but still there was a look in her eyes which was not altogether-
He gave it up in despair at last. He was not good at analyses of this nature; he was used to plain, blunt expressions. There was a woman's subtlety here quite beyond his reach.
He sauntered slowly off up the road after his talk with Julia. His head was low on his breast; he was thinking as one who is about to take a decided and important step.
He stopped at length, and turning, watched the girl moving along in the deeps of the corn. Hardly a leaf was stirring; the untempered sunlight fell in a burning flood upon the field; the grasshoppers rose, snapped, buzzed, and fell; the locust uttered its dry, heat-intensifving cry. The man lifted his head.
"It's a d-n shame!" he said, beginning rapidly to retrace his steps. He stood leaning on the fence, awaiting the girl's coming very much as she had waited his on the round he had made before dinner. He grew impatient at the slow gait of the horse and drummed on their rail while he whistled. Then he took off his hat and dusted it nervously. As the horse got a little nearer he wiped his face carefully, pushed his hat back on his head, and climbed over the fence, where he stood with elbows on the middle rail as the girl and boy and horse came to the end of the furrow.
"Hot, ain't it?" he said as she looked up.
"Jimminy Peters, it's awful!" puffed the boy. The girl did not reply trn she swung the plow about after the horse, and set it upright into the next row. Her powerful body had a superb swaying motion at the waist as she did this-a motion which affected Rob vaguely but massively.
"I thought you'd gone," she said gravely, pushing hack her bonnet trn he could see her face dewed with sweat and pink as a rose. She had the high cheekbones of her race, but she had also their exquisite fairess of color.
"Say, Otto," asked Rob alluringiy, "wan' to go swimming?"
"You bet!" replied Otto.
"Well, I'll go a round if-"
The boy dropped off the horse, not waiting to hear any more. Rob grinned; but the girl dropped her eyes, then looked away.
"Got rid o' him mighty quick. Say, Julyie, I hate like thunder t' see you out here; it ain't right. I wish you'd -I wish-"
She could not look at him now, and her bosom rose and fell with a motion that was not due to fatigue. Her moist hair matted around her forehead gave her a boyish look.
Rob nervously tried again, tearing splinters from the fence. "Say, now, I'll tell yeh what I came back here fer -t' git married; and if you're willin', I'll do it tonight. Come, now, whaddy y' say?"
"What 've I got t' do 'bout it?" she finally asked, the color flooding her face and a faint smile coming to her lips. "Go ahead. I ain't got anything-"
Rob put a splinter in his mouth and faced her. "Oh, looky here, now, Julyie! you know what I mean. I've got a good claim out near Boomtown-a rattlin' good claim; a shanty on it fourteen by sixteen-no tarred paper about it; and a suller to keep butter in; and a hundred acres wheat just about ready to turn now. I need a wife."
Here he straightened up, threw away the splinter, and took off his hat. He was a very pleasant figure as the girl stole a look at him. His black laughing eyes were especially earnest just now. His voice had a touch of pleading. The popple tree over their heads murmured applause at his eloquence, then hushed to listen. A cloud dropped a silent shadow down upon them, and it sent a little thrill of fear through Rob, as if it were an omen of failure. As the girl remained silent, looking away, he began, man-fashion, to desire her more and more as he feared to lose her. He put his hat on the post again and took out his jackknife. Her calico dress draped her supple and powerful figure simply but naturally. The stoop in her shoulders, given by labor, disappeared as she partly leaned upon the fence. The curves of her muscular arms showed through her sleeve.
"It's all-fired lonesome fr me out there on that claim, and it ain't no picnic f'r you here. Now, if you'll come out there with me, you needn't do anything but cook f'r me, and after harvest we can git a good layout o' furniture, an' I'll lath and plaster the house, an' put a little hell [ell] in the rear." He smiled, and so did she. He felt encouraged to say: "An' there we be, as snug as y' please. We're close t' Boomtown, an' we can go down there to church sociables an' things, and they're a jolly lot there."
The girl was still silent, but the man's simple enthusiasm came to her charged with passion and a sort of romance such as her hard life had known little of. There was something enticing about this trip to the West.
"What 'li my folks say?" she said at last.
A virtual surrender, but Rob was not acute enough to see it. He pressed on eagerly:
"I don't care. Do you? They'll jest keep y' plowin' corn and milkin' cows till the day of judgment. Come, Julyie, I ain't got no time to fool away. I've got t' get back t' that grain. It's a whoopin' old crop, sure's y'r born, an' that means som'pin' purty scrumptious in furniture this fall. Come, now." He approached her and laid his hand on her shoulder very much as he would have touched Albert Seagraves or any other comrade. "Whady y' say?"
She neither started, nor shrunk, nor looked at him. She simply moved a step away. "They'd never let me ge," she replied bitterly. "I'm too cheap a hand. I do a man's work an' get no pay at all."
"You'll have half o' all I c'n make," he put in.
"How long c'n you wait?" she asked, looking down at her dress.
"Just two minutes," he said, pulling out his watch. "It ain't no use t' wait. The old man 'li be jest as mad a week from now as he is today. why not go now?"
"I'm of age day after tomorrow," she mused, wavering, calculating.
"You c'n be of age tonight if you'll jest call on old Square Hatfield with me."
"All right, Rob," the girl said, turning and holding out her hand.
"That's the talk!" he exclaimed, seizing it. "An' now a kiss, to bind the bargain, as the fellah says."
"I guess we c'n get along without that."
"No, we can't. It won't seem like an engagement without it."
"It ain't goin' to seem much like one anyway," she answered with a sudden realization of how far from her dreams of courtship this reality was.
"Say, now, Julyie, that ain't fair; it ain't treatin' me right. You don't seem to understand that I like you, but I do."
Rob was carried quite out of himself by the time, the place, and the girl. He had said a very moving thing.
The tears sprang involuntarily to the girl's eyes. "Do you mean it? If y' do, you may."
She was trembling with emotion for the first time. The sincerity of the man's voice had gone deep.
He put his arm around her almost timidly and kissed her on the cheek, a great love for her springing up in his heart. "That setties it," he said. "Don't cry, Jalyie. You'll never be sorry for it. Don't cry. It kind o' hurts me to see it."
He didn't understand her feelings. He was only aware that she was crying, and tried in a bungling way to soothe her. But now that she had given way, she sat down in the grass and wept bitterly.
"Yulyie!" yelled the old Norwegian, like a distant fog-horn.
The girl sprang up; the habit of obedience was strong.
"No; you set right there, and I'll go round," he said. "Otto!"
The boy came scrambling out of the wood half dressed. Rob tossed him upon the horse, snatched Julia's sun-bonnet, put his own hat on her head, and moved off down the corn rows, leaving the girl smiling throgh her tears as he whistled and chirped to the horse. Farmer Peterson, seeing the familiar sunbonnet above the corn rows, went back to his work, with a sentence of Norwegian trailing after him like the tail of a kite-something about lazy girls who didn't earn the crust of their bread, etc.
Rob was wild with delight. "Git up there Jack! Hay, you old corncrib! Say, Otto, can you keep your mouth shet if it puts money in your pocket?"
"Jest try me 'n' see," said the keen-eyed little scamp. "Well, you keep quiet about my being here this alter-noon, and I'll put a dollar on y'r tongue-hay?-what? -understand?"
"Show me y'r dollar," said the boy, turning about and showing his tongue.
"All right. Begin to practice now by not talkin' to me."
Rob went over the whole situation on his way back, and when he got in sight of the girl his plan was made. She stood waiting for him with a new look on her face. Her sullenness had given way to a peculiar eagerness and anxiety to believe in him. She was already living that free life in a far-off wonderful country. No more would her stern father and sullen mother force her to tasks which she hated. She'd be a member of a new firm. She'd work, of course, but it would be because she wanted to, and not because she was forced to. The independence and the love promised grew more and more attractive. She laughed back with a softer light in her eyes when she saw the smiling face of Rob looking at her from her sun-bonnet
"Now you mustn't do any more o' this," he said. "You go back to the house an' tell y'r mother you're too lame to plow any more today, and it's too late, anyhow. To-night!" he whispered quickiy. "Eleven! Here!"
The girl's heart leaped with fear. "I'm afraid."
"Not of me, are yeh?"
"No, I'm not afraid of you, Rob."
"I'm glad o' that. I-I want you to-to like me, Julyie; won't you?"
"I'll try," she answered with a smile.
"Tonight, then," he said as she moved away.
He stood and watched her till her tall figure was lost among the drooping corn leaves. There was a singular choking feeling in his throat. The girl's voice and face had brought up so many memories of parties and picnics and excursions on far-off holidays, and at the same time such suggestions of the future. He already felt that it was going to be an unconscionably long time before eleven o'clock.
He saw her go to the house, and then he turned and walked slowly up the dusty road. Out of the May weed the grasshoppers sprang, buzzing and snapping their dull red wings. Butterflies, yellow and white, fluttered around moist places in the ditch, and slender striped water snakes glided across the stagnant pools at sound o~ footsteps.
But the mind of the man was far away on his claim, building a new house, with a woman's advice and presence.
* * * * * *
It was a windless night. The katydids and an occasional cricket were the only sounds Rob could hear as he stood beside his team and strained his ear to listen. At long intervals a little breeze ran through the corn like a swift serpent, bringing to the nostrils the sappy smell of the growing corn. The horses stamped uneasily as the mosquitoes settled on their shining limbs. The sky was full of stars, but there was no moon.
"What if she don't come?" he thought. "Or can't come? I can't stand that. I'll go to the old man an' say, 'Looky here-' Sh!"
He listened again. There was a rustling in the corn. It was not like the fitful movement of the wind; it was steady, slower, and approaching. It ceased. He whistled the wailing, sweet cry of the prairie chicken. Then a figure came out into the road-a woman- Julia!
He took her in his arms as she came panting up to him.
* * * * * *
A few words, the dull tread of swift horses, the rising of a silent train of dust, and then the wind wandered in the growing corn. The dust fell, a dog barked down the road and the katydids sang to the liquid contralto of the river in its shallows.
THE RETURN OF A PRIVATE
On the road leading "back to God's country" and wile and babies.
The nearer the train drew toward La Crosse, the soberer the little group of "vets" became. On the long way from New Orleans they had beguiled tedium with jokes and friendly chaff; or with planning with elaborate detail what they were going to do now, after the war. A long journey, slowly, irregularly, yet persistently pushing northward. when they entered on Wisconsin Territory they gave a cheer, and another when they reached Madison, but after that they sank into a dumb expectancy. Comrades dropped off at one or two points beyond, until there were only four or five left who were bound for La Crosse County
Three of them were gaunt and brown, the fourth was gaunt and pale, with signs of fever and ague upon him. One had a great scar down his temple; one limped; and they all had unnaturally large bright eyes, showing emaciation. There were no bands greeting them at the stations, no banks of gaily dressed ladies waving hand-kerchiefs and shouting "Bravo!" as they came in on the caboose of a freight tram into the towns that had cheered and blared at them on their way to war. As they looked out or stepped upon the platform for a moment, as the train stood at the station, the loafers looked at them indifferenfly. Their blue coats, dusty and grimy, were too familiar now to excite notice, much less a friendly word. They were the last of the army to return, and the loafers were surfeited with such sights.
The train jogged forward so slowly that it seemed likely to be midnight before they should reach La Crosse. The little squad of "vets" grumbled and swore, but it was no use, the train would not hurry; and as a matter of fact, rt was nearly two o'clock when the engine whistled "down brakes."
Most of the group were farmers, living in districts several miles out of the town, and all were poor.
"Now, boys," said Private Smith, he of the fever and ague, "we are landed in La Crosse in the night. We've got to stay somewhere till mornin'. Now, I ain't got no two dollars to waste on a hotel. I've got a wife and children, so I'm goin' to roost on a bench and take the cost of a bed out of my hide."
"Same here," put in one of the other men. "Hide'll grow on again, dollars come hard. It's goin' to be mighty hot skirmishin' to find a dollar these days."
"Don't think they'll be a deputation of citizens waitin' to 'scort us to a hotel, eh?" said another. His sarcasm was too obvious to require an answer.
Smith went on: "Then at daybreak we'll start f'r home; at least I will."
"Well, I'll be dummed if I'll take two dollars out o' my hide," one of the younger men said. "I'm goin' to a hotel, ef I don't never lay up a cent."
"That'll do f'r you," said Smith; "but if you had a wife an' three young 'uns dependin' on yeh-"
"Which I ain't, thank the Lord! and don't intend havin' while the court knows itself."
The station was deserted, chill, and dark, as they came into it at exactly a quarter to two in the morning. Lit by the oil lamps that flared a dull red light over the dingy benches, the waiting room was not an inviting place. The younger man went off to look up a hotel, while the rest remained and prepared to camp down on the floor and benches. Smith was attended to tenderly by the other men, who spread their blankets on the bench for him, and by robbing themselves made quite a comfortable bed, though the narrowness of the bench made his sleeping precarious.
It was chill, though August, and the two men sitting with bowed heads grew stiff with cold and weariness, and were forced to rise now and again, and walk about to warm their stiffened limbs It didn't occur to them, probably, to contrast their coming home with their going forth, or with the coming home of the generals, colonels, or even captains-but to Private Smith, at any rate, there came a sickness at heart almost deadly, as he lay there on his hard bed and went over his situation.
In the deep of the night, lying on a board in the town where he had enlisted three years ago, all elation and enthusiasm gone out of him, he faced the fact that with the joy of homecoming was mingled the bitter juice of care. He saw himself sick, worn out, taking up the work on his half-cleared farm, the inevitable mortgage standing ready with open jaw to swallow half his earnings. He had given three years of his life for a mere pittance of pay, and now-
Morning dawned at last, slowly, with a pale yellow dome of light rising silently above the bluffs which stand like some huge battlemented castle, just east of the city. Out to the left the great river swept on its massive yet silent way to the south. Jays called across the river from hillside to hillside, through the clear, beautiful air, and hawks began to skim the tops of the hills. The two vets were astir early, but Private Smith had fallen at last into a sleep, and they went out without waking him. He lay on his knapsack, his gaunt face turned toward the ceiling, his hands clasped on his breast, with a curious pathetic effect of weakness and appeal.
An engine switching near woke him at last, and he slowly sat up and stared about. He looked out of the window and saw that the sun was lightening the hills across the river. He rose and brushed his hair as well as he could, folded his blankets up, and went out to find his companions. They stood gazing silently at the river and at the hills.
"Looks nat'cherl, don't it?" they said as he came out.
"That's what it does," he replied. "An' it looks good. D'yeh see that peak?" He pointed at a beautiful symmetrical peak, rising like a slightly truncated cone, so high that it seemed the very highest of them all. It was lighted by the morning sun till it glowed like a beacon, and a light scarf of gray morning fog was rolling up its shadowed side.
"My farm's just beyond that. Now, ef I can only ketch a ride, we'll be home by dinnertime."
"I'm talkin' about breakfast," said one of the others.
"I guess it's one more meal o' hardtack f'r me," said Smith.
They foraged around, and finally found a restaurant with a sleepy old German behind the counter, and procured some coffee, which they drank to wash down their hardtack.
"Time'll come," said Smith, holding up a piece by the corner, "when this'll be a curiosity."
"I hope to God it will! I bet I've chawed hardtack enough to shingle every house in the coulee. I've chawed it when my lampers was down, and when they wasn't. I've took it dry, soaked, and mashed. I've had it wormy, musty, sour, and blue-moldy. I've had it in little bits and big bits; 'fore coffee an' after coffee. I'm ready f'r a change. I'd like t' git hol't jest about now o' some of the hot biscuits my wife c'n make when she lays herself out f'r company."
"Well, if you set there gablin', you'll never see yer wife."
"Come on," said Private Smith. "Wait a moment, boys; less take suthin'. It's on me." He led them to the rusty tin dipper which hung on a nail beside the wooden water pail, and they grinned and drank. (Things were primitive in La Crosse then.) Then, shouldering their blankets and muskets, which they were "taking home to the boys," they struck out on their last march.
"They called that coffee 'Jayvy," grumbled one of them, "but it never went by the road where government Jayvy resides. I reckon I know coffee from peas."
They kept together on the road along the turnpike, and up the winding road by the river, which they followed for some miles. The river was very lovely, curving down along its sandy beds, pausing now and then under broad basswood trees, or running in dark, swift, silent currents under tangles of wild grapevines, and drooping alders, and haw trees. At one of these lovely spots the three vets sat down on the thick green sward to rest, "on Smith's account." The leaves of the trees were as fresh and green as in June, the jays called cheery greetings to them, and kingflshers darted to and fro, with swooping, noiseless flight.
"I tell yeh, boys, this knocks the swamps of Loueesiana into kingdom come."
"You bet. All they c'n raise down there is snakes, niggers, and p'rticler hell."
"An' fightin' men," put in the older man.
"An' fightin' men. If I had a good hook an' line I'd sneak a pick'rel out o' that pond. Say, remember that time I shot that alligator-"
"I guess we'd better be crawlin' along," interrupted Smith, rising and shouldering his knapsack, with considerable effort, which he tried to hide.
"Say, Smith, lemme give you a lift on that."
"I guess I c'n manage," said Smith grimly.
"'Course. But, yeh see, I may not have a chance right off to pay yeh back for the times ye've carried my gun and hull caboodie. Say, now, girne that gun, any-way."
"All right, if yeh feel like it, Jim," Smith replied, and they trudged along doggedly in the sun, which was getting higher and hotter each half mile.
"Ain't it queer there ain't no teams cornin' along."
"Well, no, seem's it's Sunday."
"By jinks, that's a fact! It is Sunday. I'll git home in time fr dinner, sure. She don't hev dinner usually till-about one on Sundays." And he fell into a muse, in which he smiled.
"Well, I'll git home jest about six o'clock, jest about when the boys are milkin' the cows," said old Jim Cranby. "I'll step into the barn an' then I'll say, 'Heah! why ain't this milkin' done before this time o' day? An' then won't they yell!" he added, slapping his thigh in great glee.
Smith went on. "I'll jest go up the path. Old Rover'll come down the road to meet me. He won't bark; he'll know me, an' he'll come down waggin' his tail an' shonin' his teeth. That's his way of laughin'. An' so I'll walk up to the kitchen door, an' I'll say 'Dinner f'r a hungry man!' An' then she'll jump up, an'-"
He couldn't go on. His voice choked at the thought of it. Saunders, the third man, hardly uttered a word. He walked silently behind the others. He had lost his wife the first year he was in the army. She died of pneumonia caught in the autumn rains, while working in the fields in his place.
They plodded along till at last they came to a parting of the ways. To the right the road continued up the main valley; to the left it went over the ridge.
"Well, boys," began Smith as they grounded their muskets and looked away up the valley, "here's where we shake hands. We've marched together a good many miles, an' now I s'pose we're done."
"Yes, I don't think we'll do any more of it f'r a while. I don't want to, I know."
"I hope I'll see yeh once in a while, boys, to taik over old times."
"Of course," said Saunders, whose voice trembled a little, too. "It ain't exactly like dyin'."
"But we'd ought'r go home with you," said the younger man. "You never'll climb that ridge with all them things on yer back."
"Oh, I'm all right! Don't worry about me. Every step takes me nearer home, yeh see. Well, goodbye, boys."
They shook hands. "Goodbye. Good luck!"
"Same to you. Lemme know how you find things at home."
He turned once before they passed out of sight and waved his cap, and they did the same, and all yelled. Then all marched away with their long, steady, loping, veteran step. The solitary climber in blue walked on for a time, with his mind filled with the kindness of his comrades, and musing upon the many jolly days they had had together in camp and field.
He thought of his chum, Billy Tripp. Poor Billy! A "mime" ball fell into his breast one day, fell wailing like a cat, and tore a great ragged hole in his heart. He looked forward to a sad scene with Billy's mother and sweet-heart. They would want to know all about it. He tried to recall all that Billy had said, and the particulars of it, but there was little to remember, just that wild wailing sound high in the air, a dull slap, a short, quick, expulsive groan, and the boy lay with his face in the dirt in the plowed field they were marching across.
That was all. But all the scenes he had since been through had not dimmed the horror, the terror of that moment, when his boy comrade fell, with only a breath between a laugh and a death groan. Poor handsome Billy! Worth millions of dollars was his young wife.
These somber recollections gave way at length to more cheerful feelings as he began to approach his home coulee. The fields and houses grew familiar, and in one or two he was greeted by people seated in the doorway. But he was in no mood to talk, and pushed on steadily, though he stopped and accepted a drink of milk once at the well-side of a neighbor.
The sun was getting hot on that slope, and his step grew slower, in spite of his iron resolution. He sat down several times to rest. Slowly he crawled up the rough, reddish-brown road, which wound along the hillside, under great trees, through dense groves of jack oaks, with treetops' far below him on his left hand, and the hills far above him on his right. He crawled along like some minute wingless variety of fly.
He ate some hardtack, sauced with wild berries, when he reached the summit of the ridge, and sat there for some time, looking down into his home coulee.
Somber, pathetic figure! His wide, round, gray eyes gazing down into the beautiful valley, seeing and not seeing, the splendid cloud-shadows sweeping over the western hills and across the green and yellow wheat far below. His head drooped forward on his palm, his shoulders took on a tired stoop, his cheekbones showed painfully. An observer might have said, "He is looking down upon his own grave."
Sunday comes in a Western wheat harvest with such sweet and sudden relaxation to man and beast that it would be holy for that reason, if for no other. And Sundays are usually fair in harvest time. As one goes out into the field in the hot morning sunshine, with no sound abroad save the crickets and the indescribably pleasant, silken rustling of the ripened grain, the reaper and the very sheaves in the stubble seem to be resting, dreaming.
Around the house, in the shade of the trees, the men sit, smoking, dozing, or reading the papers, while the women, never resting, move about at the housework. The men eat on Sundays about the same as on other days; and breakfast is no sooner over and out of the way than dinner begins.
But at the Smith farm there were no men dozing or reading. Mrs. Smith was alone with her three children, Mary, nine, Tommy, six, and littie Ted, just past four. Her farm, rented to a neighbor, lay at the head of a coulee or narrow galley, made at some far-off postglacial period by the vast and angry floods of water which gullied these trememdous furrows in the level prairie-furrows so deep that undisturbed portions of the original level rose like hills on either sid~rose to quite considerable mountains.
The chickens wakened her as usual that Sabbath morning from dreams of her absent husband, from whom she had not heard for weeks. The shadows drifted over the hills, down the slopes, across the wheat, and up the opposite wall in leisurely way, as if, being Sunday, they could "take it easy," also. The fowls clustered about the housewife as she went out into the yard. Fuzzy little chickens swarmed out from the coops where their clucking and perpetually disgruntled mothers tramped about, petulantly thrusting their heads through the spaces between the slats.
A cow called in a deep, musical bass, and a call answered from a little pen nearby, and a pig scurried guiltily out of the cabbages. Seeing all this, seeing the pig in the cabbages, the tangle of grass in the garden, the broken fence which she had mended again and again -the little woman, hardly more than a girl, sat down and cried. The bright Sabbath morning was only a mockery without him!
A few years ago they had bought this farm, paying part, mortgaging the rest in the usual way. Edward Smith was a man of terrible energy. He worked "nights and Sundays," as the saying goes, to clear the farm of its brush and of its insatiate mortgage. In the midst of his Herculean struggle came the call for volunteers, and with the grirn and unselfish devotion to his country which made the Eagle Brigade able to "whip its weight in wildcats," he threw down his scythe and his grub ax, turned his cattle loose, and became a blue-coated cog in a vast machine for killing men, and not thistles. While the millionnaire sent his money to England for safekeeping, this man, with his girl-wife and three babies, left them on a mortgaged farm and went away to fight for an idea. It was foolish, but it was sublime for all that.
That was three years before, and the young wife, sitting on the well curb on this bright Sabbath harvest morning, was righteously rebellious. It seemed to her that she had borne her share of the country's sorrow. Two brothers had been killed, the renter in whose hands her husband had left the farm had proved a villain, one year the farm was without crops, and now the overripe grain was waiting the tardy hand of the neighbor who had rented it, and who was cutting his own grain first.
About six weeks before, she had received a letter saying, "We'll be discharged in a little while." But no other word had come from him. She had seen by the papers that his army was being discharged, and from day to day other soldiers slowly percolated in blue streams back into the state and county, but still her private did not return.
Each week she had told the children that he was coming' and she had watched the road so long that it had become unconscious, and as she stood at the well, or by the kitchen door, her eyes were fixed unthinkingly on the road that wound down the coulee. Nothing wears on the human soul like waiting. If the stranded mariner, 'searching the sun-bright seas, could once give up hope of a ship, that horrible grinding on his brain would cease. It was this waiting, hoping, on the edge of despair, that gave Emma Smith no rest.
Neighbors said, with kind intentions, "He's sick, maybe, an' can't start North just yet. He'll come along one o' these days."
"Why don't he write?" was her question, which silenced them all. This Sunday morning it seemed to her as if she couldn't stand it any longer. The house seemed intolerably lonely. So she dressed the little ones in their best calico dresses and homemade jackets, and closing up the house, set off down the coulee to old Mother Gray's.
"Old Widder Gray" lived at the "mouth of the coulee." She was a widow woman with a large family of stalwart boys and laughing girls. She was the visible incarnation of hospitality and optimistic poverty. With Western open-heartedness she fed every mouth that asked food of her, and worked herself to death as cheerfully as her girls danced in the neighborhood harvest dances.
She waddled down the path to meet Mrs. Smith with a smile on her face that would have made the countenance of a convict expand.
"Oh, you little dears! Come right to yer granny. Gimme a kiss! Come right in, Mis' Smith. How are yeh, anyway? Nice mornin', ain't it? Come in an' set down. Every-thing's in a clutter, but that won't scare you any."
She led the way into the "best room," a sunny, square room, carpeted with a faded and patched rag carpet, and papered with a horrible white-and-green-striped wallpaper, where a few ghastly effigies of dead members of the family hung in variously sized oval walnut frames. The house resounded with singing, laughter, whistling, tramping of boots, and scufflings. Half-grown boys came to the door and crooked their fingers at the children, who ran out, and were soon heard in the midst of the fun.
"Don't s'pose you've heard from Ed?" Mrs. Smith shook her head. "He'll turn up some day, when you ain't look-in' for 'm." The good old soul had said that so many times that poor Mrs. Smith derived no comfort from it any longer.
"Liz heard from Al the other day. He's comin' some, day this week. Anyhow, they expect him."
"Did he say anything of-"
"No, he didn't," Mrs. Gray admitted. "But then it was only a short letter, anyhow. Al ain't much for ritin', anyhow. But come out and see my new cheese. I tell yeh, I don't believe I ever had hetter luck in my life. If Ed should come, I want you should take him up a piece of this cheese."
It was beyond human nature to resist the influence of that noisy, hearty, loving household, and in the midst of the singing and laughing the wife forgot her anxiety, for the time at least, and laughed and sang with the rest.
About eleven o'clock a wagonload more drove up to the door, and Bill Gray, the widow's oldest son, and his whole family from Sand Lake Coulee piled out amid a good-natured uproar, as characteristic as it was ludicrous. Everyone talked. at once, except Bill, who sat in the wagon with his wrists on his knees, a straw in his mouth, and an amused twinkle in his blue eyes.
"Ain't heard nothin' o' Ed, I s'pose?" he asked in a kind of bellow. Mrs. Smith shook her head. Bill, with a delicacy very striking in such a great giant, rolled his quid in his mouth and said:
"Didn't know but you had. I hear two or three of the Sand Lake boys are comm'. Left New Orleenes some time this week. Didn't write nothin' about Ed, but no news is good news in such cases, Mother always says."
"Well, go put out yer team," said Mrs. Gray, "an' go'n bring me in some taters, an', Sim, you go see if you c'n find some corn. Sadie, you put on the water to b'ile. Come now, hustle yer boots., all o' yeh. If I feed this yer crowd, we've got to have some raw materials. If y' think.I'm goin' to feed yeh on pie-"
The children went off into the fields, the girls put dinner on to "b'ile," and then went to change their dresses and fix their hair. "Somebody might come," they said.
"Land sakes, l hope not! I don't know where in time I'd set 'em, 'less they'd eat at the secont table," Mrs. Gray laughed in pretended dismay.
The two older boys, who had served their time in the army, lay out on the grass before the house, and whittied and talked desultorily about the war and the crops, and planned buying a threshing machine. The older girls and Mrs. Smith helped enlarge the table and put on the dishes, talking all the time in that cheery, incoherent, and meaningful way a group of such women have-a conversation to be taken for its spirit rather than for its letter, though Mrs. Gray at last got the ear of them all and dissertated at length on girls.
"Girls in love ain't no use in the whole blessed week," she said. "Sundays they're a-lookin' down the road, expectin' he'll come. Sunday afternoons they can't think o' nothin' else, 'cause he's here. Monday mornin's they're sleepy and kind o' dreamy and slimpsy, and good fr nothin' on Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday they git absent-minded, an' begin to look off toward Sunday agin, an' mope aroun' and let the dishwater git cold, rtght under their noses. Friday they break dishes, and go off in the best room an' snivel, an' look out o' the winder. Saturdays they have queer spurts o' workin' like all p'ssessed, an spurts o' frizzin' their hair. An' Sunday they begin it all over agin."
The girls giggled and blushed all through this tirade from their mother, their broad faces and powerful frames anything but suggestive of lackadaisical sentiment. But Mrs. Smith said:
"Now, Mrs. Gray, I hadn't ought to stay to dianer. You've got-"
"Now you set right down! If any of them girls' beaus comes, they'll have to take what's left, that's all. They ain't s'posed to have much appetite, nohow. No, you're goin' to stay if they starve, an' they ain't no danger o' that."
At one o'clock the long table was piled with boiled potatoes, cords of boiled corn on the cob, squash and pumpkin pies, hot biscuit, sweet pickles, bread and butter, and honey. Then one of the girls took down a conch shell from a nail and, going to the door, blew a long, fine, free blast, that showed there was no weakness of lungs in her ample chest.
Then the children came out of the forest of corn, out of the crick, out of the loft of the barn, and out of the garden. The men shut up their jackknives, and surrounded the horse trough to souse their faces in the cold, hard water, and in a few moments the table was filled with a merry crowd, and a row of wistful-eyed youngsters circled the kitchen wail, where they stood first on one leg and then on the other, in impatient hunger.
"They come to their feed f'r all the world jest like the pigs when y' hoilder 'poo-ee!' See 'em scoot!" laughed Mrs. Gray, every wrinkle on her face shining with delight. "Now pitch in, Mrs. Smith," she said, presiding over the table. "You know these men critters. They'll eat every grain of it, if yeh give 'em a chance. I swan, they're made o' Indian rubber, their stomachs is, I know it."
"Haft to eat to work," said Bill, gnawing a cob with a swift, circular motion that rivaled a corn sheller in results.
"More like workin' to eat," put in one of the girls with a giggle. "More eat 'n' work with you."
"You needn't say anything, Net. Anyone that'll eat seven ears-"
"I didn't, no such thing. You piled your cobs on my plate."
"That'll do to tell Ed Varney. It won't go down here, where we know yeh."
"Good land! Eat all yeh want! They's plenty more in the fiel's, but I can't afford to give you young 'uns tea. The tea is for us womenfolks, and 'specially fr Mis' Smith an' Bill's wife. We're agoin' to tell fortunes by it."
One by one the men filled up and shoved back, and one by one the children slipped into their places, and by two o'clock the women alone remained around the debris-covered table, sipping their tea and telling fortunes.
As they got well down to the grounds in the cup, they shook them with a circular motion in the hand, and then turned them bottom-side-up quickly in the saucer, then twirled them three or four times one way, and three or four times the other, during a breathless pause. Then Mrs. Gray lifted the cup and, gazing into it with profound gravity, pronounced the impending fate.
It must be admitted that, to a critical observer, she had abundant preparation for hitting close to the mark; as when she told the girls that "somebody was coming." "It is a man," she went on gravely. "He is cross-eyed-"
"Oh, you hush!"
"He has red hair, and is death on b'iled corn and hot biscuit."
The others shrieked with delight.
"But he's goin' to get the mitten, that redheaded feller is, for I see a feller comin' up behind him."
"Oh, lemme see, lemme see!" cried Nettle.
"Keep off," said the priestess with a lofty gesture. "His hair is black. He don't eat so much, and he works more."
The girls exploded in a shriek of laughter and pounded their sister on the back.
At last came Mrs. Smith's turn, and she was trembling with excitement as Mrs. Gray again composed her jolly face to what she considered a proper solemnity of expression.
"Somebody is comin' to you," she said after a long pause. "He's got a musket on his back. He's a soldier. He's almost here. See?"
She pointed at two little tea stems, which formed a faint suggestion of a man with a musket on his back. He had climbed nearly to the edge of the cup. Mrs. Smith grew pale with excitement. She trembled so she could hardly hold the cup in her hand as she gazed into it.
"It's Ed," cried the old woman. "He's on the way home. Heavens an' earth! There he is now!" She turned and waved her hand out toward the road. They rushed to the door and looked where she pointed.
A man in a blue coat, with a musket on his back, was toiling slowly up the hill, on the sun-bright, dusty road, toiling slowly, with bent head half-hidden by a heavy knapsack. So tired it seemed that walking was indeed a process of falling. So eager to get home he would not stop, would not look aside, but plodded on, amid the cries of the locusts, the welcome of the crickets, and the rustle of the yellow wheat. Getting back to God's country, and his wife and babies!
Laughing, crying, trying to call him and the children at the same time, the little wife, almost hysterical, snatched her hat and ran out into the yard. But the soldier had disappeared over the hill into the hollowy beyond, and, by the time she had found the children, he was too far away for her voice to reach him. And besides, she was not sure it was her husband, for he had not turned his head at their shouts. This seemed so strange. Why didn't he stop to rest at his old neighbor's house? Tortured by hope and doubt, she hurried up the coulee as fast as she could push the baby wagon, the blue coated figure just ahead pushing steadily, silently forward up the coulee.
When the excited, panting little group came in sight of the gate, they saw the blue-coated figure standing, leaning upon the rough rail fence, his chin on his palms, gazing at the empty house. His knapsack, canteen, blankets, and musket lay upon the dusty grass at his feet.
He was like a man lost in a dream. His wide, hungry eyes devoured the scene. The rough lawn, the little unpainted house, the field of clear yellow wheat behind it, down across which streamed the sun, now almost ready to touch the high hill to the west, the crickets crying merrily, a cat on the fence nearby, dreaming, unmmdful of the stranger in blue.
How peaceful it all was. O God! How far removed from all camps, hospitals, battlelines. A little cabin in a Wisconsin coulee, but it was majestic in its peace. How did he ever leave it for those years of tramping, thirsting, killing?
Trembling, weak with emotion, her eyes on the silent figure, Mrs. Smith hurried up to the fence. Her feet made no noise in the dust and grass, and they were close upon him before he knew of them. The oldest boy ran a little ahead. He will never forget that figure, that face. It will always remain as something epic, that return of the private. He fixed his eyes on the pale face, covered with a ragged beard.
"Who are you, sir?" asked the wife, or, rather, started to ask, for he turned, stood a moment, and then cried:
The children stood in a curious row to see their mother kiss this bearded, strange man, the elder girl sobbing sympathetically with her mother. Illness had left the soldier partly deaf, and this added to the strangeness of his manner.
But the boy of six years stood away, even after the girl had recognized her father and kissed him. The man turned then to the baby and said in a curiously unpaternal tone:
"Come here, my little man; don't you know me?" But the baby backed away under the fence and stood peering at him critically.
"My little man!" What meaning in those words! This baby seemed like some other woman's child, and not the infant he had left in his wife's arms. The war had come between him and his baby-he was only "a strange man, with big eyes, dressed in blue, with Mother hanging to his arm, and talking in a loud voice.
"And this is Tom," he said, drawing the oldest boy to him. "He'll come and see me. He knows his poor old pap when he comes home from the war."
The mother heard the pain and reproach in his voice and hastened to apologize.
"You've changed so, Ed. He can't know yeh. This is Papa, Teddy; come and kiss him-Tom and Mary do, Come, won't you?" But Teddy still peered through the fence with solemn eyes, well out of reach. He resembled a half-wild kitten that hesitates, studying the tones of one's voice.
"I'll fix him," said the soldier, and sat down to undo his knapsack, out of which he drew three enormous and very red apples. After giving one to each of the older children, he said:
"Now I guess he'll come. Eh, my little man? Now come see your pap."
Teddy crept slowly under the fence, assisted by the overzealous Tommy, and a moment later was kick-ing and squalling in his father's arms. Then they entered the house, into the sitting room, poor, bare, art-forsaken little room, too, with its rag carpet, its square clock, and its two or three chromos and pictures from Harper's Weekly pinned about.
"Emma, I'm all tired out," said Private Smith as he flung himself down on the carpet as he used to do, while his wife brought a pillow to put under his head, and the children stood about, munching their apples.
"Tommy, you run and get me a pan of chips; and Mary, you get the teakettle on, and I'll go and make some biscuit."
And the soldier talked. Question after question he poured forth about the crops, the cattle, the renter, the neighbors. He slipped his heavy government brogan shoes off his poor, tired, blistered feet, and lay out with utter, sweet relaxation. He was a free man again, no longer a soldier under command. At supper he stopped once, listened, and smiled. "That's old Spot. I know her voice. I s'pose that's her calf out there in the pen. I can't milk her tonight, though, I'm too tired; but I tell you, I'd like a drink o' her milk. What's become of old Rove?"
"He died last winter. Poisoned, I guess." There was a moment of sadness for them all. It was some time before the husband spoke again, in a voice that trembled a little.
"Poor old feller! He'd a known me a half a mile away. I expected him to come down the hill to meet me. It 'ud 'a' been more like comin' home if I could 'a' seen him comm' down the road an' waggin' his tail, an' laugh-in' that way he has. I tell yeh, it kin' o' took hold o' me to see the blinds down an' the house shut up."
"But, yeh see, we-we expected you'd write again 'fore you started. And then we thought we'd see you if you did come," she hastened to explain.
"Well, I ain't worth a cent on writin'. Besides, it's just as well yeh didn't know when I was comm'. I tell yeh, it sounds good to hear them chickens out there, an' turkeys, an' the crickets. Do you know they don't have just the same kind o' crickets down South. Who's Sam hired t' help cut yer grain?"
"The Ramsey boys."
"Looks like a good crop; but I'm afraid I won't do much gettin' it cut. This cussed fever an' ague has got me down pretty low. I don't know when I'll get red of it. I'll bet I've took twenty-five pounds of quinine, if I've taken a bit. Gimme another biscuit. I tell yeh, they taste good, Emma. I ain't had anything like it- Say, if you'd a heard me braggin' to th' boys about your butter 'n' biscuits, I'll bet your ears 'ud 'a' burnt."
The private's wife colored with pleasure. "Oh, you're always a-braggin' about your things. Everybody makes good butter."
"Yes; old lady Snyder, for instance."
"Oh, well, she ain't to be mentioned. She's Dutch."
"Or old Mis' Snively. One more cup o' tea, Mary. That's my girl! I'm feeling better already. I just b'lieve the matter with me is, I'm starved."
This was a delicious hour, one long to be remembered. They were like lovers again. But their tenderness, like that of a typical American, found utterance in tones, rather than in words. He was praising her when praising her biscuit, and she knew it. They grew soberer when he showed where he had been struck, one ball burning the back of his hand, one cutting away a lock of hair from his temple, and one passing through the calf of his leg. The wife shuddered to think how near she had come to being a soldier's widow. Her waiting no longer seemed hard. This sweet, glorious hour effaced it all.
Then they rose and all went out into the garden and down to the barn. He stood beside her while she milked old Spot. They began to plan fields and crops for next year. Here was the epic figure which Whitman has in mind, and which he calls the "common American soldier." With the livery of war on his limbs, this man was facing his future, his thoughts holding no scent of battle. Clean, clear-headed, in spite of physical weakness, Edward Smith, private, turned future-ward with a sublime courage.
His farm was mortgaged, a rascally renter had run away with his machinery, "departing between two days," his children needed clothing, the years were coming upon him, he was sick and emaciated, but his heroic soul did not quail. With the same courage with which he faced his southern march, be entered upon a still more hazardous future.
Oh, that mystic hour! The pale man with big eyes standing there by the well, with his young wife by his side. The vast moon swinging above the eastern peaks; the cattle winding down the pasture slopes with jangling bells; the crickets singing; the stars blooming out sweet and far and serene; the katydids rhythmically calling; the little turkeys crying querulously as they settled to roost in the poplar tree near the open gate. The voices at the well drop lower, the little ones nestle in their father's arms at last, and Teddy falls asleep there.
The common soldier of the American volunteer army had returned. His war with the South was over, and his fight, his daily running fight, with nature and against the injustice of his fellow men was begun again. In tlie dusk of that far-off valley his figure looms vast, his personal peculiarities fade away, he rises into a magnificent type.
He is a gray-haired man of sixty now, and on the brown hair of his wife the white is also showing. They are fighting a hopeless battle, and must fight till God gives them furlough.
UNDER THE LION'S PAW
"Along the main-travelled road trailed an endless line of prairie schooners. Coming into sight at the east, and passing out of sight over the swell to the west. We children used to wonder where they were going and why they went."
IT was the last of autumn and first day of winter coming together. All day long the ploughmen on their prairie farms had moved to and fro in their wide level fields through the falling snow, which melted as it fell, wetting them to the skin all day, notwithstanding the frequent squalls of snow, the dripping, desolate clouds, and the muck of the furrows, black and tenacious as tar.
Under their dripping harness the horses swung to and fro silently with that marvellous uncomplaining patience which marks the horse. All day the wild geese, honking wildly, as they sprawled sidewise down the wind, seemed to be fleeing from an enemy behind, and with neck outthrust and wings extended, sailed down the wind, soon lost to sight.
Yet the ploughman behind his plough, though the snow lay on his ragged great-coat, and the cold clinging mud rose on his heavy boots, fettering him like gyves, whistled in the very beard of the gale. As day passed, the snow, ceasing to melt, lay along the ploughed land, and lodged in the depth of the stubble, till on each slow round the last furrow stood out black and shining as jet between the ploughed land and the gray stubble.
When night began to fall, and the geese, flying low, began to alight invisibly in the near corn-field, Stephen Council was still at work "finishing a land." He rode on his sulky plough when going with the wind, but walked when facing it. Sitting bent and cold but cheery under his slouch hat, he talked encouragingly to his four-in-hand.
"Come round there, boys! Round agin! We got t' finish this land. Come in there, Dan! Stiddy, Kate, stiddy! None o' y'r tantrums, Kittie. It's purty tuff, but got a be did. Tchk! tchk! Step along, Pete! Don't let Kate git y'r single-tree on the wheel. Once more!" They seemed to know what he meant, and that this was the last round, for they worked with greater vigor than before. "Once more, boys, an' then, sez I, oats an' a nice warm stall, an' sleep f'r all."
By the time the last furrow was turned on the land it was too dark to see the house, and the snow was changing to rain again. The tired and hungry man could see the light from the kitchen shining through the leafless hedge, and he lifted a great shout, "Supper f'r a half a dozen!"
It was nearly eight o'clock by the time he had finished his chores and started for supper. He was picking his way carefully through the mud, when the tall form of a man loomed up before him with a premonitory cough.
"Waddy ye want ?" was the rather startled question of the farmer.
"Well, ye see," began the stranger, in a deprecating tone, "we'd like t' git in f'r the night. We've tried every house f'r the last two miles, but they hadn't any room f'r us. My wife's jest about sick, 'n' the children are cold and hungry— " "Oh, y' want 'o stay all night, eh, ?"
"Yes, sir; it 'ud be a great accom— "
"Waal, I don't make it a practice t' turn anybuddy way hungry, not on sech nights as this. Drive right in. We ain't got much, but sech as it is—"
But the stranger had disappeared. And soon his steaming, weary team, with drooping heads and swinging single-trees, moved past the well to the block beside the path. Council stood at the side of the "schooner" and helped the children out two little half- sleeping children and then a small woman with a babe in her arms.
"There ye go!" he shouted jovially, to the children. "Now we're all right! Run right along to the house there, an' tell Mam' Council you wants sumpthin' t' eat. Right this way, Mis' keep right off t' the right there. I'll go an' git a lantern. Come," he said to the dazed and silent group at his side.
"Mother'" he shouted, as he neared the fragrant and warmly lighted kitchen, "here are some wayfarers an' folks who need sumpthin' t' eat an' a place t' snoot." He ended by pushing them all in.
Mrs. Council, a large, jolly, rather coarse-looking woman, too the children in her arms. "Come right in, you little rabbits. 'Mos asleep, hey? Now here's a drink o' milk f'r each o' ye. I'll have sam tea in a minute. Take off y'r things and set up t' the fire."
While she set the children to drinking milk, Council got out his lantern and went out to the barn to help the stranger about his team, where his loud, hearty voice could be heard as it came and went between the haymow and the stalls.
The woman came to light as a small, timid, and discouraged looking woman, but still pretty, in a thin and sorrowful way.
"Land sakes! An' you've travelled all the way from Clear Lake' t'-day in this mud! Waal! Waal! No wonder you're all tired out Don't wait f'r the men, Mis'— " She hesitated, waiting for the name.
"Mis' Haskins, set right up to the table an' take a good swig o tea whilst I make y' s'm toast. It's green tea, an' it's good. I tell Council as I git older I don't seem to enjoy Young Hyson n'r Gunpowder. I want the reel green tea, jest as it comes off'n the vines. Seems t' have more heart in it, some way. Don't s'pose it has. Council says it's all in m' eye."
Going on in this easy way, she soon had the children filled with bread and milk and the woman thoroughly at home, eating some toast and sweet-melon pickles, and sipping the tea.
"See the little rats!" she laughed at the children. "They're full as they can stick now, and they want to go to bed. Now, don't git up, Mis' Haskins; set right where you are an' let me look after 'em. I know all about young ones, though I'm all alone now. Jane went an' married last fall. But, as I tell Council, it's lucky we keep our health. Set right there, Mis' Haskins; I won't have you stir a finger."
It was an unmeasured pleasure to sit there in the warm, homely kitchen. the jovial chatter of the housewife driving out and holding at bay the growl of the impotent, cheated wind.
The little woman's eyes filled with tears which fell down upon the sleeping baby in her arms. The world was not so desolate and cold and hopeless, after all.
"Now I hope. Council won't stop out there and talk politics all night. He's the greatest man to talk politics an' read the Tribune
—How old is it?"
She broke off and peered down at the face of the babe.
"Two months 'n' five days," said the mother, with a mother's exactness.
"Ye don't say! I want 'o know! The dear little pudzy-wudzy!" she went on, stirring it up in the neighborhood of the ribs with her fat forefinger.
"Pooty tough on 'oo to go gallivant'n' 'cross lots this way—"
"Yes, that's so; a man can't lift a mountain," said Council, entering the door. "Mother, this is Mr. Haskins, from Kansas. He's been eat up 'n' drove out by grasshoppers."
"Glad t' see yeh! Pa, empty that wash-basin 'n' give him a chance t' wash." Haskins was a tall man, with a thin, gloomy face. His hair was a reddish brown, like his coat, and seemed equally faded by the wind and sun, and his sallow face, though hard and set, was pathetic somehow. You would have felt that he had suffered much by the line of his mouth showing under his thin, yellow mustache.
"Hadn't Ike got home yet, Sairy?"
"Hadn't seen 'im."
"W-a-a-l, set right up, Mr. Haskins; wade right into what we've got; 'taint much, but we manage to live on it she gits fat on it," laughed Council, pointing his thumb at his wife.
After supper, while the women put the children to bed, Haskins and Council talked on, seated near the huge cooking-stove, the steam rising from their wet clothing. In the Western fashion Council told as much of his own life as he drew from his guest. He asked but few questions, but by and by the story of Haskins' struggles and defeat came out. The story was a terrible one, but he told it quietly, seated with his elbows on his knees, gazing most of the time at the hearth.
"I didn't like the looks of the country, anyhow," Haskins said, partly rising and glancing at his wife. "I was ust t' northern Ingyannie, where we have lots o' timber 'n' lots o' rain, 'n' I didn't like the looks o' that dry prairie. What galled me the worst was goin' s' far away acrosst so much fine land layin' all through here vacant.
"And the 'hoppers eat ye four years, hand runnin', did they?" "Eat! They wiped us out. They chawed everything that was green. They jest set around waitin' f'r us to die t' eat us, too. My God! I ust t' dream of 'em sittin' 'round on the bedpost, six feet long, workin' their jaws. They eet the fork-handles. They got worse 'n' worse till they jest rolled on one another, piled up like snow in winter Well, it ain't no use. If I was t' talk all winter I couldn't tell nawthin'. But all the while I couldn't help thinkin' of all that land back here that nobuddy was usin' that I ought 'o had 'stead o' bein' out there in that cussed country."
"Waal, why didn't ye stop an' settle here ?" asked Ike, who had come in and was eating his supper.
"Fer the simple reason that you fellers wantid ten 'r fifteen dollars an acre fer the bare land, and I hadn't no money fer that kind o' thing."
"Yes, I do my own work," Mrs. Council was heard to say in the pause which followed. "I'm a gettin' purty heavy t' be on m'laigs all day, but we can't afford t' hire, so I keep rackin' around somehow, like a foundered horse. S' lame I tell Council he can t tell how lame I am, f'r I'm jest as lame in one laig as t' other." And the good soul laughed at the joke on herself as she took a handful of flour and dusted the biscuit-board to keep the dough from sticking.
"Well, I hadn't never been very strong," said Mrs. Haskins. "Our folks was Canadians an' small-boned, and then since my last child I hadn't got up again fairly. I don't like t' complain. Tim has about all he can bear now but they was days this week when I jest wanted to lay right down an' die."
"Waal, now, I'll tell ye," said Council, from his side of the stove silencing everybody with his good-natured roar, "I'd go down and see Butler, anyway, if I was you. I guess he'd let you have his place purty cheap; the farm's all run down. He's teen anxious t' let t' somebuddy next year. It 'ud be a good chance fer you. Anyhow, you go to bed and sleep like a babe. I've got some ploughing t' do, anyhow, an' we'll see if somethin' can't be done about your case. Ike, you go out an' see if the horses is all right, an' I'll show the folks t' bed."
When the tired husband and wife were lying under the generous quilts of the spare bed, Haskins listened a moment to the wind in the eaves, and then said, with a slow and solemn tone,
"There are people in this world who are good enough t' be angels, an' only haff t' die to be angels."
Jim Butler was one of those men called in the West "land poor. " Early in the history of Rock River he had come into the town and started in the grocery business in a small way, occupying a small building in a mean part of the town. At this period of his life he earned all he got, and was up early and late sorting beans, working over butter, and carting his goods to and from the station. But a change came over him at the end of the second year, when he sold a lot of land for four times what he paid for it. From that time forward he believed in land speculation as the surest way of getting rich. Every cent he could save or spare from his trade he put into land at forced sale, or mortgages on land, which were "just as good as the wheat," he was accustomed to say.
Farm after farm fell into his hands, until he was recognized as one of the leading landowners of the county. His mortgages were scattered all over Cedar County, and as they slowly but surely fell in he sought usually to retain the former owner as tenant.
He was not ready to foreclose; indeed, he had the name of being one of the "easiest" men in the town. He let the debtor off again and again, extending the time whenever possible.
"I don't want y'r land," he said. "All I'm after is the int'rest on my money that's all. Now, if y' want 'o stay on the farm, why, I'll give y' a good chance. I can't have the land layin' vacant. " And in many cases the owner remained as tenant.
In the meantime he had sold his store; he couldn't spend time in it - he was mainly occupied now with sitting around town on rainy days smoking and "gassin' with the boys," or in riding to and from his farms. In fishing-time he fished a good deal. Doc Grimes, Ben Ashley, and Cal Cheatham were his cronies on these fishing excursions or hunting trips in the time of chickens or partridges. In winter they went to Northern Wisconsin to shoot deer.
In spite of all these signs of easy life Butler persisted in saying he "hadn't enough money to pay taxes on his land," and was careful to convey the impression that he was poor in spite of his twenty farms. At one time he was said to be worth fifty thousand dollars, but land had been a little slow of sale of late, so that he was not worth so much.
A fine farm, known as the Higley place, had fallen into his hands in the usual way the previous year, and he had not been able to find a tenant for it. Poor Higley, after working himself nearly to death on it in the attempt to lift the mortgage, had gone off to Dakota, leaving the farm and his curse to Butler.
This was the farm which Council advised Haskins to apply for; and the next day Council hitched up his team and drove down to see Butler.
"You jest let me do the talkin'," he said. "We'll find him wearin' out his pants on some salt barrel somew'ers; and if he thought you wanted a place he'd sock it to you hot and heavy. You jest keep quiet, I'll fix 'im."
Butler was seated in Ben Ashley's store telling fish yarns when Council sauntered in casually.
"Hello, But; lyin' agin, hey?"
"Hello, Steve! How goes it?"
"Oh, so-so. Too clang much rain these days. I thought it was goin' t freeze up f'r good last night. Tight squeak if I get m' ploughin' done. How's farmin' with you these days?"
"Bad. Ploughin' ain't half done."
"It 'ud be a religious idee f'r you t' go out an' take a hand y'rself."
"I don't haff to," said Butler, with a wink.
"Got anybody on the Higley place?"
"No. Know of anybody?"
"Waal, no; not eggsackly. I've got a relation back t' Michigan who's ben hot an' cold on the idea o' comin' West f'r some time. Might come if he could get a good lay-out. What do you talk on the farm?"
"Well, I d' know. I'll rent it on shares or I'll rent it money rent."
"Waal, how much money, say?"
"Well, say ten per cent, on the price two-fifty."
"Wall, that ain't bad. Wait on 'im till 'e thrashes?"
Haskins listened eagerly to this important question, but Council was coolly eating a dried apple which he had speared out of a barrel with his knife. Butler studied him carefully.
"Well, knocks me out of twenty-five dollars interest."
"My relation'll need all he's got t' git his crops in," said Council, in the same, indifferent way.
"Well, all right; say wait," concluded Butler.
"All right; this is the man. Haskins, this is Mr. Butler no relation to Ben the hardest-working man in Cedar County."
On the way home Haskins said: "I ain't much better off. I'd like that farm; it's a good farm, but it's all run down, an' so 'm I. I could make a good farm of it if I had half a show. But I can't stock it n'r seed it."
"Waal, now, don't you worry," roared Council in his ear. "We'll pull y' through somehow till next harvest. He's agreed t' hire it ploughed, an' you can earn a hundred dollars ploughin' an' y' c'n git the seed o' me, an' pay me back when y' can."
Haskins was silent with emotion, but at last he said, "I ain't got nothin' t' live on."
"Now, don't you worry 'bout that. You jest make your headquarters at ol' Steve Council's. Mother'll take a pile o' comfort in havin' y'r wife an' children 'round.
Y' see, Jane's married off lately, an' Ike's away a good 'eal, so we'll be darn glad t' have y' stop with us this winter. Nex' spring we'll see if y' can't git a start agin." And he chirruped to the team, which sprang forward with the rumbling, clattering wagon. "Say, looky here, Council, you can't do this. I never saw " shouted Haskins in his neighbor's ear.
Council moved about uneasily in his seat and stopped his stammering gratitude by saying: "Hold on, now; don't make such a fuss over a little thing. When I see a man down, an' things all on top of 'm, I jest like t' kick 'em off an' help 'm up. That's the kind of religion I got, an' it's about the only kind."
They rode the rest of the way home in silence. And when the red light of the lamp shone out into the darkness of the cold and windy night, and he thought of this refuge for his children and wife, Haskins could have put his arm around the neck of his burly companion and squeezed him like a lover. But he contented himself with saying, "Steve Council, you'll git y'r pay f'r this some day."
"Don't want any pay. My religion ain't run on such business principles."
The wind was growing colder, and the ground was covered with a white frost, as they turned into the gate of the Council farm, and the children came rushing out, shouting, "Papa's come!" They hardly looked like the same children who had sat at the table the night before. Their torpidity, under the influence of sunshine and Mother Council, had given way to a sort of spasmodic cheerfulness, as insects in winter revive when laid on the hearth.
Haskins worked like a fiend, and his wife, like the heroic woman that she was, bore also uncomplainingly the most terrible burdens. They rose early and toiled without intermission till the darkness fell on the plain, then tumbled into bed, every bone and muscle aching with fatigue, to rise with the sun next morning to the same round of the same ferocity of labor.
The eldest boy drove a team all through the spring, ploughing and seeding, milked the cows, and did chores innumerable, in most ways taking the place of a man.
An infinitely pathetic but common figure this boy on the American farm, where there is no law against child labor. To see him in his coarse clothing, his huge boots, and his ragged cap, as he staggered with a pail of water from the well, or trudged in the cold and cheerless dawn out into the frosty field behind his team, gave the city-bred visitor a sharp pang of sympathetic pain. Yet Haskins loved his boy, and would have saved him from this if he could, but he could not.
By June the first year the result of such Herculean toil began to show on the farm. The yard was cleaned up and sown to grass, the garden ploughed and planted, and the house mended.
Council had given them four of his cows.
"Take 'em an' run 'em on shares. I don't want 'o milk s' many. Ike's away s' much now, Sat'd'ys an' Sund'ys, I can't stand the bother anyhow."
Other men, seeing the confidence of Council in the newcomer, had sold him tools on time; and as he was really an able farmer, he soon had round him many evidences of his care and thrift. At the advice of Council he had taken the farm for three years, with the privilege of re-renting or buying at the end of the term.
"It's a good bargain, an' y' want 'o nail it," said Council. "If you have any kind ov a crop, you c'n pay y'r debts, an' keep seed an' bread."
The new hope which now sprang up in the heart of Haskins and his wife grew almost as a pain by the time the wide field of wheat began to wave and rustle and swirl in the winds of July. Day after day he would snatch a few moments after supper to go and look at it.
"'Have ye seen the wheat t'-day, Nettie?" he asked one night as he rose from supper.
"No, Tim, I ain't had time."
"Well, take time now. Le's go look at it."
She threw an old hat on her head Tommy's hat and looking almost pretty in her thin, sad way, went out with her husband to the hedge.
"Ain't it grand, Nettie ? Just look at it."
It was grand. Level, russet here and there, heavy-headed, wide as a lake, and full of multitudinous whispers and gleams of wealth, it stretched away before the gazers like the fabled field of the cloth of gold.
"Oh, I think I hope we'll have a good crop, Tim; and oh, how good the people have been to us!"
"Yes; I don't know where we'd be t'-day if it hadn't teen f'r Council and his wife."
"They're the best people in the world," said the little woman, with a great sob of gratitude.
"We'll be in the field on Monday sure," said Haskins, gripping the rail on the fences as if already at the work of the harvest.
The harvest came, bounteous, glorious, but the winds came and blew it into tangles, and the rain matted it here and there close to the ground, increasing the work of gathering it threefold.
Oh, how they toiled in those glorious days! Clothing dripping with sweat, arms aching, filled with briers, fingers raw and bleeding, backs broken with the weight of heavy bundles, Haskins and his man toiled on. Tummy drove the harvester, while his father and a hired man bound on the machine. In this way they cut ten acres every day, and almost every night after supper, when the hand went to bed, Haskins returned to the field shocking the bound grain in the light of the moon. Many a night he worked till his anxious wife came out at ten o'clock to call him in to rest and lunch. At the same time she cooked for the men, took care of the children, washed and ironed, milked the cows at night, made the butter, and sometimes fed the horses and watered them while her husband kept at the shocking.
No slave in the Roman galleys could have toiled so frightfully and lived, for this man thought himself a free man, and that he was working for his wife and babes.
When he sank into his bed with a deep groan of relief, too tired to change his grimy, dripping clothing, he felt that he was getting nearer and nearer to a home of his own, and pushing the wolf of want a little farther from his door.
There is no despair so deep as the despair of a homeless man or woman. To roam the roads of the country or the streets of the city, to feel there is no rood of ground on which the feet can rest, to halt weary and hungry outside lighted windows and hear laughter and song within, these are the hungers and rebellions that drive men to crime and women to shame.
It was the memory of this homelessness, and the fear of its coming again, that spurred Timothy Haskins and Nettie, his wife, to such ferocious labor during that first year. "'M, yes; 'm, yes; first-rate," said Butler, as his eye took in the neat garden, the pig-pen, and the well-filled barnyard. "You're gitt'n' quite a stock around yeh. Done well, eh?" Haskins was showing Butler around the place. He had not seen it for a year, having spent the year in Washington and Boston with Ashley, his brother-in-law, who had been elected to Congress.
"Yes, I've laid out a good deal of money durin' the last three years. I've paid out three hundred dollars f'r fencin'."
"Um h'm! I see, I see," said Butler, while Haskins went on:
"The kitchen there cost two hundred; the barn ain't cost much in money, but I've put a lot o' time on it. I've dug a new well, and I— "
"Yes, yes, I see. You've done well. Stock worth a thousand dollars, " said Butler, picking his teeth with a straw.
"About that," said Haskins, modestly. "We begin to feel's if we was gitt'n' a home f'r ourselves; but we've worked hard. I tell you we begin to feel it, Mr. Butler, and we're goin' t' begin to ease up purty soon. We've been kind o' plannin' a trip back t' her folks after the fall ploughin's done."
"Eggs-actly!" said Butler, who was evidently thinking of something else. "I suppose you've kind o' calc'lated on stayin' here three years more?"
"Well, yes. Fact is, I think I c'n buy the farm this fall, if you'll give me a reasonable show."
"Um m! What do you call a reasonable show?"
"Well, say a quarter down and three years' time."
Butler looked at the huge stacks of wheat, which filled the yard, over which the chickens were fluttering and crawling, catching grasshoppers, and out of which the crickets were singing innumerably. He smiled in a peculiar way as he said, "Oh, I won't be hard on yeh. But what did you expect to pay f'r the place?"
"Why, about what you offered it for before, two thousand five hundred, or possibly three thousand dollars," he added quickly, as he saw the owner shake his head.
"This farm is worth five thousand and five hundred dollars," said Butler, in a careless and decided voice.
"What!" almost shrieked the astounded Haskins. "What's that? Five thousand ? Why, that's double what you offered it for three years ago."
"Of course, and it's worth it. It was all run down then - now it's in good shape. You've laid out fifteen hundred dollars in improvements, according to your own story."
"But you had nothin' t' do about that. It's my work an' my money. "
"You bet it was; but it's my land."
"But what's to pay me for all my— "
"Ain't you had the use of 'em?" replied Butler, smiling calmly into his face.
Haskins was like a man struck on the head with a sandbag; he couldn't think; he stammered as he tried to say: "But I never'd git the use You'd rob me! More'n that: you agreed you promised that I could buy or rent at the end of three years at— "
"That's all right. But I didn't say I'd let you carry off the improvements, nor that I'd go on renting the farm at two-fifty. The land is doubled in value, it don't matter how; it don't enter into the question; an' now you can pay me five hundred dollars a year rent, or take it on your own terms at fifty-five hundred, or git out."
He was turning away when Haskins, the sweat pouring from his face, fronted him, saying again:
"But you've done nothing to make it so. You hadn't added a cent. I put it all there myself, expectin' to buy. I worked an' sweat to improve it. I was workin' for myself an' babes— "
"Well, why didn't you buy when I offered to sell? What y' kickin' about?"
"I'm kickin' about payin' you twice f'r my own things, my own fences, my own kitchen, my own garden."
Butler laughed. "You're too green t' eat, young feller. Your improvements! The law will sing another tune."
"But I trusted your word."
"Never trust anybody, my friend. Besides, I didn't promise not to do this thing. Why, man, don't look at me like that. Don't take me for a thief. It's the law. The reg'lar thing. Everybody does it."
"I don't care if they do. It's stealin' jest the same. You take three thousand dollars of my money the work o' my hands and my wife's." He broke down at this point. He was not a strong man mentally. He could face hardship, ceaseless toil, but he could not face the cold and sneering face of Butler.
"But I don't take it," said Butler, coolly "All you've got to do is to go on jest as you've been a-coin', or give me a thousand dollars down, and a mortgage at ten per cent on the rest."
Haskins sat down blindly on a bundle of oats near by, and with staring eyes and drooping head went over the situation. He was under the lion's paw. He felt a horrible numbness in his heart and limbs. He was hid in a mist, and there was no path out.
Butler walked about, looking at the huge stacks of grain, and pulling now and again a few handfuls out, shelling the heads in his hands and blowing the chaff away. He hummed a little tune as he did so. He had an accommodating air of waiting.
Haskins was in the midst of the terrible toil of the last year. He was walking again in the rain and the mud behind his plough - he felt the dust and dirt of the threshing. The ferocious husking- time, with its cutting wind and biting, clinging snows, lay hard upon him. Then he thought of his wife, how she had cheerfully cooked and baked, without holiday and without rest.
"Well, what do you think of it?" inquired the cool, mocking, insinuating voice of Butler.
"I think you're a thief and a liar!" shouted Haskins, leaping up. "A black-hearted houn'!" Butler's smile maddened him; with a sudden leap he caught a fork in his hands, and whirled it in the air. "You'll never rob another man, damn ye!" he grated through his teeth, a look of pitiless ferocity in his accusing eyes.
Butler shrank and quivered, expecting the blow; stood, held hypnotized by the eyes of the man he had a moment before despised a man transformed into an avenging demon. But in the deadly hush between the lift of the weapon and its fall there came a gush of faint, childish laughter and then across the range of his vision, far away and dim, he saw the sun-bright head of his baby girl, as, with the pretty, tottering run of a two-year-old, she moved across the grass of the dooryard. His hands relaxed: the fork fell to the ground; his head lowered.