A BREATH OF PRAIRIE
AND OTHER STORIES
By WILL LILLIBRIDGE
THE DOMINANT DOLLAR. Illustrated in color by Lester Ralph. Crown 8vo . . . $1.50
BEN BLAIR, PLAINSMAN. Frontispiece in color by Maynard Dixon. Seventieth thousand. Crown 8vo . . . $1.50
QUERCUS ALBA: The Veteran of the Ozarks. With frontispiece. 16mo. Net . . . $.50
A. C. MCCLURG & CO., Publishers
A BREATH OF PRAIRIE
AND OTHER STORIES
BY WILL LILLIBRIDGE
AUTHOR OF "BEN BLAIR," "THE DOMINANT DOLLAR," ETC.
WITH FIVE ILLUSTRATIONS IN COLOR
BY J. N. MARCHAND
A. C. McCLURG & CO.
A. C. McCLURG & CO.
Published April, 1911
W. J. Hall Printing Company
It is an accepted truth, I believe, that every novelist embodies in the personalities of his heroes some of his own traits of character. Those who were intimately acquainted with William Otis Lillibridge could not fail to recognize this in a marked degree. To a casual reader, the heroes of his five novels might perhaps suggest five totally different personalities, but one who knows them well will inevitably recognize beneath the various disguises the same dominant characteristics in them all. Whether it be Ben Blair the sturdy plainsman, Bob McLeod the cripple, Dr. Watson, Darley Roberts, or even How Landor the Indian, one finds the same foundation stones of character,—repression, virility, firmness of purpose, an abhorrence of artificiality or affectation,—love of Nature and of Nature's works rather than things man-made. And these were unquestionably the pronounced traits of Will Lillibridge's personality. Markedly reserved, silent, forceful, he was seldom found in the places where men congregate, but loved rather the company of books and of the great out-doors. Living practically his entire life on the prairies it is undoubtedly true that he was greatly influenced by his environment. And certain it is that he could never have so successfully painted the various phases of prairie-life without a sympathetic, personal knowledge.
The story of his life is characteristically told in this brief autobiographical sketch, written at the request of an interested magazine.
"I was born on a farm in Union County, Iowa, near the boundary of the then Dakota Territory. Like most boys bred and raised in an atmosphere of eighteen hours of work out of twenty-four, I matured early. At twelve I was a useful citizen, at fifteen I was to all practical purposes a man,—did a man's work whatever the need. In this capacity I was alternately farmer, rancher, cattleman. Something prompted me to explore a university and I went to Iowa, where for six years I vibrated between the collegiate, dental, and medical departments. After graduating from the dental in 1898 I drifted to Sioux Falls and began to practise my profession. As the years passed the roots sank deeper and I am still here.
"Work? My writing is done entirely at night. The waiting-room,—the plum-tree,—requires vigorous shaking in the daytime. After dinner,—I have a den, telephone-proof, piano-proof, friend-proof. What transpires therein no one knows because no one has ever seen.
"Recreation? I have a mania, by no means always gratified,—to be out of doors. Once each summer 'the Lady' and I go somewhere for a time,—and forget it absolutely. In this way we've been able to travel a bit. We,—again 'the Lady' and I,—steal an hour when we can, and drive a gasoline car, keeping within the speed laws when necessary. Once each Fall, when the first frost shrivels the corn-stalk and when, if you chance to be out of doors after dark you hear, away up overhead, invisible, the accelerating, throbbing, diminishing purr of wings that drives the sportsman mad,—the town knows me no more."
Every novel may have a happy close, but a real life's story has but one inevitable ending,—Death.
And to "the Lady" has been left the sorrowful task of writing "Finis" across the final page.
January 29, 1909, he died at his home in Sioux Falls after a brief illness. But thirty-one years of age, he had won a place in literature so gratifying that one might well rest content with a recital of his accomplishments. But his youth suggests a tale that is only partly told and the conjecture naturally arises,—"What success might he not have won?" Five novels, "Ben Blair," "Where the Trail Divides," "The Dissolving Circle," "The Quest Eternal," and "The Dominant Dollar," besides magazine articles, and a number of short stories (many of them appearing in this volume) were all written in the space of eight years' time, and, as he said, were entirely produced after nightfall.
While interested naturally in the many phases of his life,—as a professional man, as an author, as the chief factor in the domestic drama,—yet most of all it pleases me to remember him as he appeared when under the spell of the prairies he loved so well. Tramping the fields in search of prairie-chicken or quail, a patient watcher in the rushes of a duck-pond, or merely lying flat on his back in the sunshine,—he was a being transformed. For he had in him much of the primitive man and his whole nature responded to the "call of the wild." But you who know his prairie-tales must have read between the lines,—for who, unless he loved the "honk" of the wild geese, could write, "to those who have heard it year by year it is the sweetest, most insistent of music. It is the spirit of the wild, of magnificent distances, of freedom impersonate"?
To the late Mrs. Wilbur Teeters I am indebted for the following tribute, which appeared in the "Iowa Alumnus."
"Dr. Lillibridge's field of romance was his own. Others have told of the Western mountains and pictured the great desert of the Southwest, but none has painted with so masterful a hand the great prairies of the Northwest, shown the lavish hand with which Nature pours out her gifts upon the pioneer, and again the calm cruelty with which she effaces him. In the midst of these scenes his actors played their parts and there he played his own part, clean in life and thought, a man to the last, slipping away upon the wings of the great storm which had just swept over his much-loved land, wrapped in the snowy mantle of his own prairies."
I A BREATH OF PRAIRIE 13 II THE DOMINANT IMPULSE 61 III THE STUFF OF HEROES 87 IV ARCADIA IN AVERNUS 109 Chapter I Prelude Chapter II The Leap Chapter III The Wonder of Prairie Chapter IV A Revelation Chapter V The Dominance of the Evolved Chapter VI By a Candle's Flame Chapter VII The Price of the Leap V JOURNEY'S END 239 VI A PRAIRIE IDYL 265 VII THE MADNESS OF WHISTLING WINGS 279 Chapter I Sandford the Exemplary Chapter II The Presage of the Wings Chapter III The Other Man Chapter IV Capitulation Chapter V Anticipation Chapter VI "Mark the Right, Sandford!" Chapter VII The Bacon What Am! Chapter VIII Feathered Bullets Chapter IX Oblivion Chapter X Upon "Wiping the Eye" Chapter XI The Cold Gray Dawn VIII A FRONTIER ROMANCE: A TALE OF JUMEL MANSION 309 IX THE CUP THAT O'ERFLOWED: AN OUTLINE 339 X UNJUDGED 347 XI THE TOUCH HUMAN 367 XII A DARK HORSE 373 XIII THE WORTH OF THE PRICE 393
She wheeled swiftly round, confronting him. Frontispiece They saw the hands which had gone to hips flash up and forward like pistons, and two puffs of smoke like escaping steam. 74 "You'll apologize." 190 The two men went East together. 326 He heard a voice ... and glanced back. 388
A BREATH OF PRAIRIE
AND OTHER STORIES
A BREATH OF PRAIRIE
Dense darkness of early morning wrapped all things within and without a square, story-and-a-half prairie farm-house. Silence, all-pervading, dense as the darkness, its companion, needed but a human ear to become painfully noticeable.
Up-stairs in the half-story attic was Life. From one corner of the room deep, regular breathing marked the unvarying time of healthy physical life asleep. Nearby a clock beat loud automatic time, with a brassy resonance—healthy mechanical life awake. Man and machine, side by side, punctuated the passage of time.
Alone in the darkness the mechanical mind of the clock conceived a bit of fiendish pleasantry. With violent, shocking clamor, its deafening alarm suddenly shattered the stillness.
The two victims of the outrage sat up in bed and blinked sleepily at the dark. The younger, in a voice of wrath, relieved his feelings with a vigorously expressed opinion of the applied uses of things in general, and of alarm-clocks and milk pans in particular. He thereupon yawned prodigiously, and promptly began snoring away again, as though nothing had interrupted.
The other man made one final effort, and came down hard upon the middle of the floor. Rough it was, uncarpeted, cold with the damp chill of early morning. He groped for a match, and dressed rapidly in the dim light, his teeth chattering a diminishing accompaniment until the last piece was on.
Deep, regular breathing still came from the bed. The man listened a moment, irresolutely; then with a smile on his face he drew a feather from a pillow, and, rolling back the bed-clothes, he applied the feather's tip to the sleeper's bare soles, where experience had demonstrated it to be the most effective. Dodging the ensuing kick, he remarked simply, "I'll leave the light, Jim. Better hurry—this is going to be a busy day."
Outside, a reddish light in the sky marked east, but over all else there lay only starlight, as, lantern in hand, he swung down the frozen path. With the opening barn door there came a puff of warm animal breath. As the first rays of light entered, the stock stood up with many a sleepy groan, and bright eyes shining in the half-light swayed back and forth in the narrow stalls, while their owners waited patiently for the feed they knew was coming.
Jim, still sleepy, appeared presently; together the two went through the routine of chores, as they had done hundreds of times before. They worked mechanically, being still stiff and sore from the previous day's work, but swiftly, in the way mechanical work is sometimes done.
Side by side, with singing milk pails between their knees, Jim stopped long enough to ask, "Made up your mind yet what you'll do, Guy?"
The older brother answered without a break in the swish of milk through foam:
"No, I haven't, Jim. If it wasn't for you and father and mother and—" he diverted with a redoubled clatter of milk on tin.
"Be honest, Guy," was the reproachful caution.
"—and Faith," added the older brother simply.
The reddish glow in the east had spread and lit up the earth; so they put out the lantern, and, bending under the weight of steaming milk pails, walked single file toward the house and breakfast. Far in the distance a thin jet of steam spreading broadly in the frosty air marked the location of a threshing crew. The whistle,—thin, brassy,—spoke the one word "Come!" over miles of level prairie, to the scattered neighbors.
Four people, rough, homely, sat down to a breakfast of coarse, plain cookery, and talked of common, homely things.
"I see you didn't get so much milk as usual this morning, Jim," said the mother.
"No, the line-backed heifer kicked over a half-pailful."
"Goin' to finish shuckin' that west field this week, Guy?" asked the father.
"Yes. We'll cross over before night."
Nothing more was said. They were all hungry, and in the following silence the jangle of iron on coarse queensware, and the aspiration of beverages steaming still though undergoing the cooling medium of saucers, filled in all lulls that might otherwise have seemed to require conversation.
Not until the boys got up to go to work did the family bond draw tight enough to show. Then the mother, tenderly as a surgeon, dressed the chafed spots on her boys' hands, saying low in words that spoke volumes, "I'll be so glad when the corn's all husked"; and the father followed them out onto the little porch to add, "Better quit early so's to hear the speakin' to-night, Guy."
"How are you feeling to-day, father?" asked the young man, in a tone he attempted to make honestly interested, but which an infinite number of repetitions had made almost automatic.
The father hesitated, and a look of sadness crept over his weathered face.
"No better, Guy." He laid his hand on the young man's shoulder, looking down into the frank blue eyes with a tenderness that made his rough features almost beautiful.
"It all depends upon you now, Guy, my boy." Unconsciously his voice took on the incomparable pathos of age displaced. "I'm out of the race," he finished simply.
The heavy, weather-painted lumber wagon turned at the farm-yard, and rumbled down a country road, bound hard as asphalt in the fall frosts. The air cut sharply at the ears of the man in the box, as he held the lines in either hand alternately, swinging its mate with vigor. The sun was just peeping from the broad lap of the prairie, casting the beauty of color and of sparkle over all things. Ahead of the wagon coveys of quail broke and ran swiftly in the track until tired, when, with a side movement the tall grass by the border absorbed them. Flocks of prairie-chickens, frightened by the clatter, sprang winging from the roadside, and together sailed away on spread wings. The man in the wagon looked about him and forgetting all else in the quick-flowing blood of morning, smiled gladly.
He stopped at the edge of the field, tying the reins loosely and building up the sideboards, gradually shorter, each above the other, pyramid-like, until they reached higher than his own head as he stood in the wagon-box. Stiff from the jolting and inactivity of the drive, he jumped out upon the uneven surface of the corn-field.
Slowly at first, as sore fingers rebelled against the roughness of husks, he began work, touching the frosty ears gingerly; then as he warmed to the task, stopping at nothing. The frost, dense, all-covering, shook from the stalks as he moved, coloring the rusty blue of his overalls white, and melting ice-cold, wet him through to the skin on arms and shoulders and knees. Swiftly, two motions to the ear, he kept up a tapping like the regular blows of a hammer, as the ears struck the sideboard. Fifteen taps to the minute, you would have counted; a goodly man's record.
This morning, though, Landers' mind was not upon his work. The vague, uncertain restlessness that marked the birth of a desire for broader things than he had known heretofore, was taking form in his brain. He himself could not have told what he wanted, what he planned; he simply felt a distaste for the things of Now; an unrest that prevented his sitting quiet; that took him up very early at morning; that made him husk more bushels of corn, and toss more bundles of grain into the self-feed of a threshing machine than any other man he knew; that kept him awake thinking at night until the discordant snores of the family sent him to bed, with the covers over his ears in self-defence.
A vague wonder that such thoughts were in his mind at all was upon him. He was the son of his parents; his life so far had been their life: why should he not be as content as they?
He could not answer, yet the distaste grew. Irresistibly he had acquired a habit of seeing unpleasant things: the meanness and the smallness of his surroundings; the uncouth furnishings of his home; the lack of grace in his parents and acquaintances; the trifling incidents that required so many hours of discussion; and in all things the absence of that sense of humor and appreciation of the lighter side of life which, from reading, he had learned to recognize.
Try as he might, he could not recollect even the faint flash of a poor pun coming originally from his parents. Was he to be as they? A feeling of intense repugnance swept over him at the thought—a repugnance unaccountable, and of which he felt much ashamed.
Self-suspicion followed. Was it well for him to read the books and think the thoughts of the past year? He could not escape except by brutally tearing himself by the roots from his parents' lives. It was all so hopelessly selfish on his part!
"True," answered the hot spirit of resentment, "but is it not right that you should think first of Self? Is not individual advancement the first law of Nature? If there is something better, why should you not secure it?"
The innate spirit of independence, the intense passion of pride and equality inborn with the true country-bred, surged warmly through his body until he fairly tingled.
Why should others have things, think thoughts, enjoy pleasures of which he was to remain in ignorance? The mood of rebellion was upon him and he swore he would be as they. Of the best the world contained, he, Guy Landers, would partake.
With the decision came an exultant consciousness of the graceful play of his own muscles in rapid action. The self-confidence of the splendid animal was his. He would work and advance himself. The world must move, and he would help. He would do things, great things, of which he and the world would be proud.
Unconsciously he worked faster and faster as thought travelled. The other wagons dropped behind, the tapping of corn ears on their sideboards making faint music in the clear air.
The sun rose swiftly, warming and drying the earth. Instead of frost the dust of weathered husks fell thickly over him. Overflowing with life and physical power, he worked through the long rows to the end, then mounted the wagon and looked around. Silently he noted the gain over the other workers, and a smile lit up the sturdy lines of his face.
Evening was approaching. The rough lumber wagon, heavily loaded from the afternoon's work, groaned loudly over the uneven ground. Instead of the east, the west was now red, glorious. High up in the sky, surrounding the glow, a part of it as well, narrow luminous sun-dogs presaged uncertain weather to follow.
Guy Landers mounted the wagon wearily, and looked ahead. The end of the two loaded corn-rows which he was robbing was in sight, and he returned doggedly to his task. The ardor of the morning had succumbed to the steady grind of physical toil, and he worked with the impassive perseverance of a machine.
Night and the stillness thereof settled fast. The world darkened so swiftly that the change could almost be distinguished. The rows ahead grew shadowy, and in their midst, by contrast, the corn-ears stood out white and distinct. The whole world seemed to draw more closely together. The low vibrant hum that marked the location of the distant threshing crew, sounded now almost as near as the voice of a friend. A flock of prairie-chickens flew low overhead, their flatly spread wings cutting the air with a sound like whips. They settled nearby, and out of the twilight came anon the confused murmur of their voices.
Landers stopped the impatient horses at the end of the field, and shook level the irregular, golden heap in the wagon-box. Slowly he drew on coat and top-coat, and mounted the full load, sitting sideways with legs hanging over the bulging wagon-box. It was dark now, but he was not alone. Other wagons were groaning homeward as well. Suddenly, thin and brassy, out of the distance came the sound of a steam whistle; and when it was again silent the hum of the thresher had ceased. From a field by the roadside, a solitary prairie-rooster gave once, twice, its lone, restless call.
The man stretched back full length on the corn bed and looked up where the stars sparkled clear and bright. It all appealed to him, and a moisture formed in his eyes. A new side to the problem of the morning came to him. These sounds—he realized now how he loved them. Verily they were a part of his life. Mid them he had been bred; of them as of food he had grown. That whistle, thin and unmusical; that elusive, indescribable call of prairie male; all these homely sounds that meant so much to him—could he leave them?
The moisture in his eyes deepened and a tightness gripped his throat. Slowly two great tears fought their way down through the dust on his face, and dropped lingeringly, one after the other amid the corn-ears.
The little, low, weather-white school-house stood glaring solitarily in the bright starlight, from out its setting of brown, hard-trodden prairie. Within, the assembled farmers were packed tight and regular in the seats and aisles, like kernels on an ear of corn. In the front of the room a little space had been shelled bare for the speaker, and the displaced human kernels thereto incident were scattered crouching in the narrow hall and anteroom. From without, groups of men denied admittance, thrust hairy faces in at the open windows. A row of dusty, grease-covered lamps flanked by composition metal reflectors, concentrated light upon the shelled spot, leaving the remainder of the room in variant shadow. The low murmur of suppressed conversation, accompanied by the unconscious shuffling of restless feet, sounded through the place. Becoming constantly more noticeable, an unpleasant, penetrating odor, of the unclean human animal filled the room.
Guy Landers sat on a crowded back seat, where, leaning one elbow on his knee, he shaded his eyes with his hand. On his right a big, sweaty farmer was smoking a stale pipe. The smell of the cheap, vile tobacco, bad as it was, became a welcome substitute for the odor of the man himself.
At his left were two boys of his own age, splendid, both of them, with the overflowing vitality that makes all young animals splendid. They were talking—of women. They spoke low, watching sheepishly whether any one was listening, and snickering suppressedly together.
The young man's head dropped in his hands. It all depressed him like a weight. From the depths of his soul he despised them for their vulgarity, and hated himself for so doing, for he was of their life and work akin. He shut his eyes, suffering blindly.
Consciousness returned at the sound of a strangely soft voice, and he looked up a little bewildered. A swarm of night-bugs encircled each of the greasy lamps, blindly beating out their lives against the hot chimney; but save this and the soft voice there was no other sound. The man at the right held his pipe in his hand; to the left the boys had ceased whispering; one and all were listening to the speaker with the stolid, expressionless gaze of interested animals.
Guy Landers could not have told why he had come that night. Perhaps it was in response to that gregarious instinct which prompts us all at times to mingle with a crowd; certainly he had not expected to be interested. Thus it was with almost a feeling of rebellious curiosity that he caught himself listening intently.
The speech was political, the speaker a college man. What he said was immaterial—not a listener but had heard the same arguments a dozen times before; it was the man himself that held them.
What the farmers in that dingy little room saw was a smooth-faced young man, with blue eyes set far apart and light hair that exposed the temples far back; they heard a soft voice which made them forget for a time that they were very tired—forget all else but that he was speaking.
Landers saw further: not a single man, but a type; the concrete illustration of a vague ideal he had long known. He realized as the others did not, that the speaker was merely practising on them—training, as the man himself would have said. When Landers was critically conscious, he was not deceived; yet, with this knowledge, at times he forgot and moved along with the speaker, unconsciously.
It was all deliriously intoxicating to the farmer—this first understanding glimpse of things he had before merely dreamed of—and he waited exultantly for those brief moments when he felt, sympathetically with the speaker, the keen joy of mastery in perfect art; that joy beside which no other of earth can compare, the compelling magnetism which carries another's mind irresistibly along with one's own.
The speaker finished and sat down wearily, and almost simultaneously the hairy faces left the windows. The shuffling of feet and the murmur of rough voices once more sounded through the room; again the odor of vile tobacco filled the air. Several of the older men gathered around the speaker, in turn holding his hand in a relentless grip while they struggled bravely for words to express the broadest of compliments. Young boys stood wide-eyed under their fathers' arms and looked at the college man steadily, like young calves.
The reaction was on the slender young speaker, and though the experience was new, he shook hands wearily. In spite of himself a shade of disgust crept into his face. He was not bidding for these farmers' votes, and the big sweaty men were foully odorous. He worked his way steadily out into the open air.
Landers, in response to a motive he made no attempt to explain even to himself, walked over and touched the chairman on the shoulder.
"'Evening, Ross," he greeted perfunctorily. "Pretty good talk, wasn't it?" Without waiting for a reply he went on, "Suppose you're not hankering for a drive back to town to-night? I'll see that"—a swift nod toward the departing group—"he gets back home, if you wish."
Ross looked up in pleased surprise. He was tired and sleepy and only too glad to accept the suggestion.
"Thank you, Guy," he answered gratefully. "I'll do as much for you some time."
Landers waited silently until the last eulogist had lingeringly departed, leaving the bewildered speaker gazing about for the chairman.
"I'm to take you to town," said Landers, simply, as he led the way toward his wagon. He then added, as an afterthought: "If you're tired and prefer, you may stay with me to-night."
The collegian, looking up to decline, met the countryman's eye, and for the first time the two studied each other steadily.
"I will stay with you, if you please," he said in sudden change of mind.
They drove out, slowly, into the frosty night, the sound of the other wagons rattling over frozen roads coming pleasantly to their ears. Overhead countless stars lit up the earth and sky, almost as brightly as moonlight.
"I suppose you are husking corn these days," initiated the collegian, perfunctorily.
"Yes," was the short answer.
They rode on again in silence, the other wagons rumbling slowly away into the distance until their sound came only as a low humming from the frozen earth.
"Prices pretty good this season?" questioned the college man, tentatively.
Landers flashed around on him almost fiercely.
"In Heaven's name, man," he protested, "give me credit for a thought outside my work—" He paused, and his voice became natural: "—a thought such as other people have," he finished, sadly.
The two men looked steadily at each other, a multitude of conflicting emotions on the face of the collegian. He could not have been more surprised had a clothing dummy raised its voice and spoken. Landers turned away and looked out over the frosty prairie.
"I beg your pardon,"—wearily. "You're not to blame for thinking—as everybody else thinks." His companion started to interrupt but Landers raised his hand in silencing motion. "Let us be honest—with ourselves, at least," he anticipated.
"I know we of the farm are dull, and crude, and vulgar, and our thoughts are of common things. You of the other world patronize us; you practise on us as you did to-night, thinking we do not know. But some of us do, and it hurts."
The other man impulsively held out his hand; a swift apology came to his lips, but as he looked into the face before him, he felt it would be better left unsaid. Instead, he voiced the question that came uppermost to his mind.
"Why don't you leave—this—and go to school?" he asked abruptly. "You have an equal chance with the rest. We're each what we make ourselves."
Landers broke in on him quickly.
"We all like to talk of equality, but in reality we know there is none. You say 'leave' without the slightest knowledge of what in my case it means." He gave the collegian a quick look.
"I'm talking as though I'd known you all my life." A question was in his voice.
"I'm listening," said the man, simply.
"I'll tell you what it means, then. It means that I divorce myself from everything of Now; that I unlive my past life; that I leave my companionship with dumb things—horses and cattle and birds—and I love them, for they are natural. This seems childish to you; but live with them for years, more than with human beings, and you will understand.
"More than all else it means that I must become as a stranger to my family; and they depend upon me. My friends of now would not be my friends when I returned; they would be as I am to you now—a thing to be patronized."
He hesitated, and then went recklessly on:
"I've told you so much, I may as well tell you everything. On the next farm to ours there's a little, brown-eyed girl—Faith's her name—and—and—" His new-found flow of words failed, and he ended in unconscious apostrophe:
"To think of growing out of her life, and strange to my father and mother—it's all so selfish, so hideously selfish!"
"I think I understand," said the soft voice at his side.
They drove on without a word, the frost-bound road ringing under the horses' feet, the stars above smiling sympathetic indulgence at this last repetition of the old, old tale of man.
The gentle voice of the collegian broke the silence.
"You say it would be selfish to leave. Is it not right, though, and of necessity, that we think first of self?" He paused, then boldly sounded the keynote of the universe.
"Is not selfishness the first law of nature?" he asked.
Landers opened his lips to answer, but closed them without a word.
Brown, magnetic Fall, with her overflow of animal activity, shaded gradually into the white of lethic Winter; then in slow dissolution relinquished supremacy to the tans and mottled greens of Springtime. Unsatisfied as man, the mighty cycle of the seasons' evolution moved on until the ripe yellow of harvest and of corn-field wrote "Autumn" on the broad page of the prairies.
Of an evening in early September, Guy Landers turned out from the uncut grass of the farm-yard into the yellow, beaten dust of the country road. He walked slowly, for it was his last night on the farm, and it would be long ere he passed that way again. This was the road that led to the district school-house, and with him every inch had been familiar from childhood. As a boy he had run barefoot in its yellow dust, and paddled joyously in the soft mud of its summer showers. The rows of tall cottonwoods that bordered it on either side he had helped plant, watching them grow year by year, as he himself had grown, until now the whispering of prairie night winds in their loosely hung leaves spoke a language as familiar as his native tongue.
He walked down the road for a half-mile, and turned in between still other tall cottonwoods at another weather-stained, square farm-house, scarcely distinguishable from his own.
"'Evening, Mr. Baker." He nodded to the round-shouldered man who sat smoking on the doorstep.
The farmer moved to one side, making generous room beside him.
"'Evening, Guy," he echoed. "Won't y' set down?"
"Not to-night, Mr. Baker. I came over to see Faith." He hesitated, then added as an afterthought: "I go away to-morrow."
The man on the steps smoked silently for a minute, the glow from the corn-cob bowl emphasizing the gathering twilight. Slowly he took the pipe from his mouth, and, standing up, seized the young man's hand in the grip of a vise.
"I heerd y' were goin', Guy." He looked down through the steadiest of mild blue eyes. "Good-bye, my boy." An uncertain catch came into his voice, and he shook the hand harder than before. "We'll all miss ye."
He dropped his arm, and sat down on the step, impassively resuming his pipe. Without raising his eyes, he nodded toward the back yard.
"Faith's back there with her posies," he said.
The young man hesitated, swallowing fiercely at the lump in his throat.
"Good-bye, Mr. Baker," he faltered at length.
He walked slowly around the corner of the house, stopping a moment to pat the friendly collie that wagged his tail, welcomingly, in the path. A large mixed orchard-garden, surrounded by a row of sturdy soft maples, opened up before him; and, coming up its side path, with the most cautious of gingerly treads, was the big hired man, bearing a huge striped watermelon. He nodded in passing, and grinned with a meaning hospitality on the visitor.
At one corner of the garden an oblong mound of earth, bordered with bright stones and river-clam shells, marked the "posy" bed. Within its boundaries a collection of overgrown house plants, belated pinks, and seeding sweet-peas, fought for life with the early fall frosts. Landers looked steadily down at the sorry little garden. Like everything else he had seen that night, it told its pathetic tale of things that had been but would be no more.
As he looked, a multitude of homely blossoms that he had plucked in the past flowered anew in his memory. The mild faces of violets and pansies, the gaudy blotches of phlox, stood out like nature. He could almost smell the heavy odor of mignonette. A mist gathered over his eyes, and again, as at the good-bye of a moment ago, the lump rose chokingly in his throat.
He turned away from the tiny, damaged bed to send a searching look around the garden.
"Faith!" he called gently.
A soft little sound caught his ear from the grass-plot at the border. He started swiftly toward it, but stopped half-way, for the sound was repeated, and this time came distinctly—a bitter, half-choked sob. With a motion of weariness and of pain the man passed his hand over his eyes, then walked on firmly, his footsteps muffled in the short grass.
A dainty little figure in the plainest of calico, lay curled up on the sod beneath the big maple. Her face was buried in both arms; her whole body trembled, as she struggled hard against the great sobs.
"Faith—" interrupted the man softly, "Faith—"
The sobs became more violent.
"Go away, Guy," pleaded a tearful, muffled voice between the breaks. "Please go away, please—"
The man knelt swiftly down on the grass; irresistibly his arm spread over the dainty, trembling, little woman. Then as suddenly he drew back with a face white as moonlight, and a sound in his throat that was almost a groan.
He knelt a moment so, then touched her shoulder gently—as he would have touched earth's most sacred thing.
"Faith—" he repeated uncertainly.
The girl buried her head more deeply.
"I won't, I tell you," she cried chokingly, "I won't—" she could say no more. There were no words in her meagre vocabulary to voice her bitterness of heart.
The man got to his feet almost roughly, face and hands set like a lock. He stood a second looking passionately down at her.
"Good-bye, Faith," he said, and his trembling voice was the gentlest of caresses. He started swiftly away down the path.
The girl listened a moment to the retreating steps, then raised a tear-stained face above her arms.
"Guy!" she called chokingly, "Guy!"
The man quickened his steps at the sound, but did not turn.
The girl sprang to her feet.
"Oh, Guy! Guy!" pleadingly, desperately. "Guy!"
The man had reached the open. With a motion that was almost insane, he clapped his hands over his ears, and ran blindly down the dusty path until he was tired, then dropped hopelessly by the roadside.
Overhead the big cottonwoods whispered softly in the starlight, and a solitary catbird sang its lonely night song.
The man flung his arms around the big, friendly tree, and sobbed wildly—as the girl had sobbed.
"Oh, Faith!" he groaned.
A month had passed by, bringing to Guy Landers a new Heaven and a new earth. Already the prosy old university town had begun to assume an atmosphere of home. The well-clipped campus, with its huge oaks and its limestone walks, had taken on the familiar possessive plural "our campus," and the solitary red squirrel which sported fearlessly in its midst had likewise become "our squirrel." The imposing, dignified college buildings had ceased to elicit open-mouthed observance, and among the student-body surnames had yielded precedence to Christian names—oftener, though, to some outlandish sobriquet which satirized an idiosyncrasy of temperament or outward aspect.
Meantime the farmer had learned many things. Prominent among these was a conception of the preponderant amount he had yet to learn. Another matter of illumination involved the relation of clothes to man. He had been reared in the delusion that the person who gave thought to that which he wore, must necessarily think of nothing else. Very confusing, therefore, was the experience of having representatives of this same class immeasurably outdistance him in the quiz room.
Again, on the athletic field he saw men of much lighter weight excel him in a way that made his face burn with a redness not of physical exertion. It was a wholesome lesson that he was learning—that there are everywhere scores of others, equally or better fitted by Nature for the struggle of life than oneself, and who can only be surpassed by the indomitable application and determination that wins all things.
Landers' nature though was that of the born combatant. The class that laughed openly at his first tremblingly bashful, and ludicrously inapt answer at quiz, was indelibly photographed upon his memory.
"Before this session is complete—" he challenged softly to himself, and glared at those members nearest him in a way that made them suddenly forget the humor of the situation.
But youth is ever tractable, and even this short time had accomplished much. Already the warm, contagious, college comradeship possessed him. Violent attacks of homesickness that made gray the brightest fall days, like the callous spots on his palms, were becoming more rare. The old existence was already a dream, as yet a little sad, but none the less a thing without a substance. The new life was a warm, magnetic reality; the future glowed bright with limitless promise.
"The first day of the second month," remarked Landers, meeting a fellow-classman on the way to college hall one morning.
"Yes, an auspicious time to quit—this," completed the student with a suggestive shuffle of his feet. "We've furnished our share of amusement."
Landers looked up questioningly.
"Is that from the class president?" he asked.
"Yes," answered the other, "hadn't you heard? No more dancing, 'his nibs' says."
They had reached the entrance to the big college building, and at that moment a great roar of voices sounded from out the second-floor windows. Simultaneously the two freshmen quickened their pace.
"The fun's on," commented Landers' informant excitedly, as together they broke for the lecture-room, two stairs at the jump.
The large department amphitheatre opened up like a fan—the handle in the centre of the building on the entrance floor, the spread edge, nearly a complete half-circle, marked by the boundary walls of the building, a full story higher. The intervening space, at an inclination of thirty odd degrees, was a field of seats, cut into three equal parts by two aisles that ran from the entrance, divergently upward. The small space at the entrance—popularly dubbed "the pit"—was professordom's own particular region. From this point, by an unwritten law, the classes ranged themselves according to the length of their university life; the seniors at the extreme apex of the angle, the other classes respectively above, leaving the freshmen far beyond in space.
As guardians of the two narrow aisles, the seniors dealt lightly with juniors and "sophs," but demanded insatiable toll of every freshman before he was allowed to ascend.
That a first-year man must dance was irrevocable. It had the authority of precedent in uncounted graduate classes. To be sure, it was neither required nor expected that all applicants be masters of the art; but, agitate his feet in some manner, every able-bodied male member must, or remain forever a freshman.
When Landers and his companion arrived at the top of the stairs they found the hall packed close with fellow-classmates. The lower rows of seats were already filled with triumphant seniors, waiting for the throng that crowded pit and lobby to come within their reach. With regular tapping of feet and clapping of hands in unison, the class as one man beat the steady time of one who marches.
"Dance, freshies!" they repeated monotonously. "Dance!"
"Clear the pit for a rush," yelled the president of the besieging freshmen, elbowing his way back into the mass.
A lull fell upon the room, as both sides gathered themselves together.
"Now—all at once!" yelled the president, and pandemonium broke loose.
"Rush 'em! Shove, behind there!" shrieked the struggling freshmen at the front.
"Dance, freshies! Dance!" challenged the seniors, as they locked arms across the narrow aisle.
"Hold 'em, fellows! Hold 'em!" encouraged the men of the upper seats, bracing themselves against the broad backs below.
The classes met like water against a wall. To go up was impossible; advantage of gravity and of position was all with the seniors. For an instant, at the centre, there were frantic yelling and pulling of loose wearing apparel; then, packed like cotton in a bale, they could only scream for mercy.
"Loosen up, back there! Back!" they panted, squirming impotently as they gasped for breath.
Slowly the reaction came amid the triumphant, "Dance, freshies!" of the conquering hosts.
The jam loosened; the seniors' opportunity came. Like a big machine, the occupants of the front row leaned forward, and seized upon a circle of unsuspecting, retreating freshmen, among the number the class president.
"Pass 'em up! Pass 'em up!" insisted the men above, reaching out eager hands to aid; and with an irresistibility that seemed miraculous, the squirming, kicking, struggling freshmen found themselves rolling upward—head foremost, feet foremost, position unclassified—over the heads of the upper classmen; bumping against seats, and scattering the contents of their pockets loosely along the way.
"Up with them," repeated the denizens of the front row as they reached forward for a fresh supply.
But there was no more material available; the besieging party had retreated. On the top row the dishevelled president was confusedly pulling himself together, and grinning sheepishly. The rebellion was over.
"Dance, freshies," resumed the seniors mockingly; and once more the regular tap of feet and clapping of hands beat slow march-time.
One by one the freshmen came forward, and, shuffling a few steps to the encouraging "well done" of the seniors, mounted the steps between the rows of laughing upper classmen.
It happened that Landers came last. He wore heavy shoes and walked with an undeniable clump.
"He's Dutch, make him clog," called a man from an upper row.
The class caught the cry. "Clog! Clog!" they commanded.
A big fellow next the aisle made an addition. "Clog there, hayseed," he grumbled.
Landers stopped as though the words were a blow. That one word "hayseed" with all that it meant to him—to be thrown at him now, tauntingly, before the whole class! His face grew white beneath the remaining coat of tan, and he stepped up to the big senior with a swiftness of which no one would have suspected him capable.
"Take that back!" he blazed into the man's face.
The senior hesitated; the room grew breathlessly quiet.
"Take it back, I say!"
The big fellow tried to laugh, but his voice only grated.
"Damned if I will—hayseed," he retorted with a meaning pause and accent.
Before the words were out of his mouth Landers had the man by the collar, and they were fighting like cats.
For a time things in that pit were very confused and very noisy. Both students were big and both were furiously angry. By rule they would have been very evenly matched, but in a rough-and-tumble scrimmage there was no comparison. The classes made silent and neutral spectators, as Landers swung the man around in the narrow pit like a whirlwind, and finally pushed him back into his seat.
"Now will you take it back!" he roared breathlessly, vigorously shaking his victim.
The hot lust of battle was upon the farmer, and he forgot that several hundred students were watching his every motion.
"Take it back," he repeated, "or I'll—" and he lifted the man half out of the seat.
The senior seized both arms of the chair, and looked up in a dazed sort of way.
"I—" he began weakly.
"Louder—" interrupted Landers.
"I—beg your pardon," said the reluctant, trembling voice.
That instant the amphitheatre went wild. "Bravo!" yelled a hundred voices over the clamor of cheering hands.
"Three cheers for the freshman!" shrilled a voice over the tumult; and the "rah, rah, rah" that followed made the skylight rattle.
Landers stepped back and looked up bewildered; then a realization of the thing came to him and his face burned as no sun could make it burn, and his knees grew weak. He gladly would have given all his present earthly belongings, and all in prospect for the immediate future for a kindly earth to open suddenly and swallow him. Perspiration stood out on his face as he went slowly up the stairs, at every step a row of friendly hands grasping him in congratulation.
Slowly the room became quiet. The whole confusion had not taken up even the time of grace at the beginning of the hour; and a great burst of applause greeted the mild old dean as he came absently in, as was his wont, at the tap of the ten-minute bell. He looked up innocently at the unusual greeting, and the cheer was repeated with interest. As first in authority he was supposed to report all such inter-class offences; but in effect he invariably happened to be conveniently absent at such times—the times of the freshman rebellion. He began lecturing now without a word of comment, and on the instant the peaceful scratching of fountain pens on notebooks replaced the clamors of war.
The lecture was about half over when there was a tap on the entrance door; and the white-haired dean, answering, stepped out into the hall. In a second he returned carrying a thin, yellow envelope.
"A message for—," he studied the writing with near-sighted eyes, "—for Guy Landers," he announced slowly.
The message went up the incline, hand over hand toward the top row, and the boy who waited felt the room growing gradually close and dark. To him a telegram could mean but one thing.
The class sat watching silently until they saw him take the paper from his neighbor; then in kindness they turned away at the look on his face. In the pit below the mild old dean began talking absently.
Landers tried to open the envelope, but his nervous hands rebelled. He laid the broad side firmly against his knee and tore open the end raggedly, drawing out the inclosed sheet with a trembling rustle that could be heard all over the room.
The open page was before him; but the letters only danced before his eyes. He spread the paper as before, flat upon his knee, ere he could read.
The one short line, the line of which every word was as he expected, stood clear before him. He felt now a vague sort of wonder that the brief, picked sentences should have affected him as they had. He had already known what they told for so long—ever since his name was spoken at the door—ages ago. He looked hesitatingly around the room. Several students were scrutinizing him curiously, as though expecting something. Oh, yes—that recalled him. He must go—home. He hated to interrupt the lecture, but he must. He got up unsteadily, and started down the stair, groping his way uncertainly, as a man walks in the dark.
The kind old dean waited in silence until Landers had passed hesitatingly through the door; then followed him out into the hall. A moment, and he returned, standing abstractedly by the lecture table. He picked up his scattered notes absently, shaking the ends even with a painstaking hand; then as carefully scattered them as before. He looked up at the silent, waiting class, and those who were near saw the tears sparkling in the mild old eyes.
"Landers' father is dead," came the simple, hushed announcement.
The bright afternoon sun of late October shone slantingly on the train of weathered wagons that stretched out like an uncoiling spring from the group collected in front of the little farm-house. From near and afar the neighbors had gathered; and now, falling slowly into line, they formed a chain a full quarter-mile in length.
Guy Landers was glad that at last it was over and they were out in the sunshine once more. He turned into the carefully reserved place at the head of the procession with almost a sense of relief. He was tired, fiercely tired, of the well-meant but insistent pity which dogged him with a tenacity that drove him desperate. They would not even allow him to think.
He rode alone on the front seat of the open wagon. Behind him, his mother and Jim sat stiffly, hand in hand. They gazed dully at the black thing ahead, and sobbed softly, now singly, now together. Both—himself as well—were dressed in complete black; old musty black, gotten out of the dark, hurriedly, and with the close smell of the closet still upon it. Even the horses conformed to the sober shade. They had been supplied by a neighbor on account of their sombre color.
A heavy black tassel swung back and forth with the motion of the uneven road just ahead of the horses' heads, and Landers sat watching it idly. He even caught himself counting the vibrations, as though it were a pendulum, dividing the beats into minutes. Very slow time it was; but somehow it did not surprise him. It all conformed so perfectly with the brown, quiet prairie, and the sun shining, slanting and sleepy.
The swinging tassel grew indistinct, and the patter, patter, patter of the teams behind came as from a distance. He closed his eyes, and the events of the past two days drifted through his mind. Already they seemed indistinct, as a dream. He wondered dully that they could be true and yet seem so foreign to his life, now. He even began to doubt their verity, and opened his eyes slowly, half expecting to see the cool, green campus, and the big college buildings. The slanting sunlight met him full in the face, and the black pendant swung monotonously, from side to side, as before. He wearily closed his eyes again.
Only two days since he had heard the taunting "Dance, freshy!" of the seniors, and felt the mighty rush of the freshman hosts; since the "rah, rah, rah, Landers!" had shook the old amphitheatre and the dozens of welcoming hands had greeted him; and then—the darkness—the hesitating leave-taking of the building, and the lingering walk across the deserted campus toward his room—the walk he knew so well he would take no more. A brief time of waiting—a blank—and then the bitter, thumping ride across two States toward his home, when he could only think, and think, and try to adjust himself—and fail; and at last the end. And again, at the little station, when he felt the touch of his mother's hand, and heard her choking "Guy, my boy—" that spoke so much of love and of trust; when he heard his own voice answering cheerily, with a firmness which surprised him even then, speaking that which all through the long ride he had known he must speak—but could not: "It's all right, mother; don't worry; I'll not leave you again!"—it all came back to him now, and he lived it over again and again.
The big, black tassel danced tantalizingly in front of him. Yes, he had said that he would never leave again. He dully repeated the words now to himself: "never again." It was so fitting; quite in accordance with the rest of the black pageant. His dream of life, his new-felt ambitions—all were dead, dead, like his father before him, where the black plume nodded.
They passed up through the little town and the shop-keepers came out to look. Some were in their shirt sleeves; the butcher had his white apron tucked up around his belt. They gathered together in twos and groups, nodding toward the procession, their lips moving as in pantomime. One man walked out to the crossing, counting aloud as the teams went by. "One, two, three, four, five, six—" he intoned. To him it was all a thing to amuse, like a circus parade,—interesting in proportion to its length.
Landers looked almost curiously at the stolid shopmen. It required no flush of inspiration to tell him that but a few years of this life were necessary to make him as impassive as they. He who had sworn to make the world move would be contentedly sitting on an empty goods box, diligently numbering a passing procession!
The biting humor of the thought appealed to him. He smiled grimly to himself.
Once more on an early evening, a man turned out from a weather-stained prairie farm-house, through the frosted grass, arriving presently at the dusty public road. As before, he walked slowly along between the tall cottonwoods; but not, as on a memorable former occasion, because it would be for the last time. He was tired, tired with that absolute abandon of youth that sees no hope in the future, and has no philosophy to support it. Only thirty odd days since he went that way before! That many years would not add more to his life in the future.
Unconsciously he searched along the way for the landmarks he had watched with so much interest the past summer. He found the nest where the quail had reared their brood, empty now, and covered thick with the scattered dust of passing teams. Forgetful that he was weary he climbed well up the bole of a shaggy old friend, to peep in at the opening of a deserted woodpecker's home. He came to the big tree at whose roots, on that other night he remembered so well, he had thrown himself hopelessly. With a stolid sort of curiosity he looked down at the spot. Yes, there was the place. A few fallen leaves were scattered upon the earth where his body had pressed tightly against the tree-trunk, and there were the hollows where his clenched hands had found hold. A dull rebellion crept over him as he looked. It had been needless to torture him so!
He came in sight of the familiar little farm-house and turned in slowly at the break between the trees. It was growing dark now, but the odor of tobacco was on the air, and looking closely, he could catch the gleam from a glowing pipe-bowl in the doorway. He passed his hand across his brow, almost doubting—it was all so like—before—
A light step came tapping quickly down the pathway toward him. "Guy!" a voice called softly. "Guy, is that you?"
The voice was quite near him now, and he stopped short, a big maple above him.
She came up close, peering into the shadow.
"Guy—" she repeated, "Guy, where are you?"
He reached out and clasped her hand; then again, and took both hands. Her breath came quickly. Slowly his arm slipped about her waist, she struggling a little against her own will; then her head fell forward on his breast, and he could feel her whole body tremble.
The man looked out through the rifts in the half-naked trees; into the sky, clear and sparkling beyond; on his face an expression of sadness, of joy, of abandon—all blended indescribably.
Two soft arms crept gently about his neck, and a mass of fluffy hair caressed his face.
"Oh! Guy! Guy!" sobbed the girl, "it's wicked, I know, but I'm so glad—so glad—"
THE DOMINANT IMPULSE
Calmar Bye was a writer. That is to say, writing was his vocation and his recreation as well.
As yet, unfortunately, he had been unable to find publishers; but for that deficiency no reasonable person could hold him responsible. He had tried them all—and repeatedly. A certain expressman now smiled when he saw the long, slim figure approaching with a package under his arm, which from frequent reappearances had become easily recognizable; but as a person becomes accustomed to a physical deformity, Calmar Bye had ceased to notice banter.
Of but one thing in his life he was positively certain; and that was if Nature had fashioned him for any purpose in particular, it was to do the very thing he was doing now. The reason for this certainty was that he could do nothing else with even moderate satisfaction. He had tried, frequently, to break away, and had even succeeded for a month at a time in an endeavor to avoid writing a word; but inevitably there came a relapse and a more desperate debauch in literature. Try as he might he could not avoid the temptation. An incident, a trifle out of the ordinary in his commonplace life, a sudden thrill at the reading of another man's story, a night of insomnia, and resolution was in tatters, and shortly thereafter Calmar Bye's pencil would be coursing with redoubled vigor over a sheet of virgin paper.
To be sure, Calmar did other things besides write. Being a normal man with a normal appetite, he could not successfully evade the demands of animal existence, and when his finances became unbearably low, he would proceed to their improvement by whatever means came first to hand. Book-keeping, clerical work, stenography—anything was grist for his mill at such times, and for a period he would work without rest. No better assistant could be found anywhere—until he had satisfied his few creditors and established a small surplus of his own. Then, presto, change!—and on the surface reappeared Bye, the long, slender, blue-eyed, dreaming, dawdling, irresponsible writer.
Being what he was, the tenor of Calmar's life was markedly uneven. At times the lust to write, the spirit of inspiration, as he would have explained to himself in the privacy of his own study, would come upon him strong, and for hours or days life would be a joyous thing, his fellow-men dear brothers of a happy family, the obvious unhappiness and injustice about him not reality, but mere comedy being enacted for his particular delectation.
Then at last, his work finished, would come inevitable reaction. The product of his hand and brain, completed, seemed inadequate and commonplace. He would smile grimly as with dogged persistence he started this latest child of his fancy out along the trail so thickly bestrewn with the skeletons of elder offspring. In measure, as badinage had previously passed him harmlessly by, it now cut deeply. No one in the entire town thought him a more complete failure than he considered himself. Skies, from being sunny, grew suddenly sodden; not a tenement or alley but thrust obtrusively forward its tale of misery.
"Think of me," he confided to his friend Bob Wilson one evening as during his transit through a particularly dismal slough of despond they in company were busily engaged in blazing the trail with empty bottles; "One such as I, a man of thirty and of good health, without a dollar or the prospect of a dollar, an income or the prospect of an income, a home or the prospect of a home, following a cold scent like the one I am now on!" He snapped his finger against the rim of his thin drinking glass until it rang merrily.
"The idea, again, of a man such as I, untravelled, penniless, self-educated, thinking to compete with others who journey the world over to secure material, and who have spent a fortune in preparation for this particular work." He excitedly drained the contents of the glass.
"It's preposterous, childlike!"—he brought the frail trifle down to the table with an emphasis which was all but its destruction—"imbecile! I tell you I'm going to quit.
"Quit for good," he repeated at the expression on the other's face.
Bob Wilson scrutinized his companion with a critical eye.
"Waiter," he said, speaking over his shoulder, "waiter, kindly tax our credit further to the extent of a couple of Havanas."
"Yes, sah," acknowledged the waiter.
Silence fell; but Bob's observation of his friend continued.
"So you are going to quit the fight?" he commented at last.
Wilson lit his cigar.
"You have completed that latest—production on which you were engaged, I suppose?"
The writer scratched a match.
"And sent it on?"
A nod. "Yes, on to the furnace room."
A smile which approached a grin formed over Bob's big face.
"You have hope of its acceptance, I trust?"
Calmar Bye blew a cloud of smoke far toward the ceiling, and the smile, a shade grim, was reflected.
"More than hope," laconically. "I have certainty at last."
Another pause followed and slowly the smile vanished from the faces of both.
"Bob," and the long Calmar straightened in his chair, "I've been an ass. It's all apparent, too apparent, now. I've tried to compete with the entire world, and I'm too small. It's enough for me to work against local competition." He meditatively flicked the ash from his cigar with his little finger.
"I realize that a lot of my friends—women friends particularly—will say they always knew I had no determination, wouldn't stay in the game until I won. They're all alike in this one particular, Bob; all sticklers for the big lower jaw.
"But I don't care. I've been shooting into a covey of publishers for twelve years and never have touched a feather. Perseverance is a good quality, but there is such a thing as insanity." He stared unconsciously at the portieres of the booth.
"Once and for all, I tell you I'm through," he repeated.
"What are you going at?" queried Bob, sympathetically, a shade quizzically.
The long Calmar reached into his pocket with deliberation.
"Read that." He tossed a letter across the tiny table.
Bob poised the epistle in his hand gingerly.
"South Dakota," he commented, as he observed the postmark. "Humph, I can't make out the town."
"It's not a town at all, only a postoffice. Immaterial anyway," explained Calmar, irritably.
The round-faced man unfolded the letter slowly and read aloud:—
"MY DEAR SIR:—
"Your request, coming from a stranger, is rather unusual; but if you really mean business, I will say this: Provided you're willing to take hold and stay right with me, I'll take you in and at the end of a half-year pay $75.00 per month. You can then put into the common fund whatever part of your savings you wish and have a proportionate interest in the herd. Permit me to observe, however, that you will find your surroundings somewhat different from those amid which you are living at present, and I should advise you to consider carefully before you make the change.
"Very truly yours, "E. J. DOUGLASS."
Bob slowly folded the sheet, and tossed it back.
"In what particular portion of that desert, if I may ask, does your new employer reside?" There was uncertainty in the speaker's voice, as of one who spoke of India or the islands of the Pacific. "Likewise—pardon my ignorance—is that herd he mentions—buffalo?"
Calmar imperturbably returned the letter to his pocket.
"I'm serious, Robert. Douglass is a cattle man west of the river."
"The river!" apostrophized Bob. "The man juggles with mysteries. What river, pray?"
"The Missouri, of course. Didn't you ever study geography?"
"I beg your pardon," in humble apology. "Is that," vaguely, "what they call the Bad Lands?"
Bye looked across at his friend, of a mind to be indignant; then his good-nature triumphed.
"No, it's not so bad as that," with a feeble attempt at a pun. He paused to light a cigar, and absent-minded as usual, continued in digression.
"I've dangled long enough, old man; too long. I'm going to do something now. I start to-morrow."
Bob Wilson the skeptic, looked at his friend again critically. Resolutions of reconstruction he had heard before—and later watched their downfall; but this time somehow there was a new element introduced. Perhaps, after all—
"Waiter," he called, "we'll trifle with another quart of extra-dry, if you please."
"To your success," he added to his companion across the table, when the waiter had returned from his mission.
A year passed around, as years have a way of doing, and found Calmar Bye, the city man, metamorphosed indeed. Bronzed, bearded, corduroy-clothed, cigarette-smoking,—for cigars fifty miles from a railroad are a curiosity,—as the seasons are dissimilar, so was he unlike his former inconsequent self. In his every action now was a directness and a purpose of which he had not even a conception in his former existence.
Very, very thin upon us all is the veneer of civilization; very, very swift is the reversion to the primitive when opportunity presents. Only twelve short months and this man, end product of civilization, doer of nothing practical, dreamer of dreams and recorder of fancies, had become a positive force, a contributor to the world's food supply, a producer of meat. What a satire, in a period of time of which the shifting seasons could be counted upon one hand, to have vibrated from manuscript to beef, and for the change to be seemingly unalterable!
To be sure there had been a struggle; a period of travail while readjustment was being established; a desperate sense of homesickness at first view of the undulating, grass-covered, horizon-bounded prairies; an insatiable need of the shops, the theatres, the telephones, the cafes, the newspapers, all of which previously had constituted everything that made life worth living. But these emotions had passed away. What evolvement of civilization could equal the beauty of a dew-scented, sun-sparkling prairie morning, or the grandeur of a soundless, star-dotted prairie night, wherein the very limitlessness of things, their immensity, was a never ending source of wonder? Verily, all changes and conditions of life have their compensations.
Calmar Bye, the one time listless, had learned many things in this unheard-of world.
First of all, most insistent of all, he was impressed with the overwhelming predominance of the physical over the mental. Later, in practical knowledge, he grew inured to the "feel" of a native bucking broncho and the sound of mocking, human laughter after a stunning fall; in direct evolution, the method of throwing a steer and the odor of burnt hair and hide which followed the puff of smoke where the branding iron touched ceased to be cruel.
Last of all, highest evolvement of all, came the absorption of revolver-lore under the instruction of experts who made but pastime of picking a jack-rabbit in its flight, or bringing a kite, soaring high in air, tumbling precipitate to earth. A wild life it was and a rough, but fascinating nevertheless in its demonstration of the overwhelming superiority of man, the animal, in nerve and endurance over every other live thing on earth.
At the end of the year, with the hand of winter again pressed firmly upon the land, it seemed time could do no more; that the adaptation of the exotic to his new surroundings was complete. Already the past life seemed a thing interesting but aloof from reality, like the fantastic exploits of a hero of fiction, and the present, the insistently active, vital present, the sole consideration of importance.
In the appreciation of the stoic indifference of the then West it was a slight incident which overthrew. One cowboy, "Slim" Rawley, had a particularly vicious broncho, which none but he had ever been able to control, and which in consequence, he prized as the apple of his eye. During his temporary absence from the ranch one day a confrere, "Stiff" Warwick, had, in a spirit of bravado, roped the "devil" and instituted a contest of wills. The pony was stubborn, the man likewise, and a battle royal followed. As a buzzard scents carrion, other cowboys anticipated sport, and a group soon gathered. Ere minutes had passed the blood of the belligerents was up, and they were battling as for life, with a dogged determination which would have lasted upon the part of either, the man or the beast, until death. Rough scenes and inhuman, Bye had witnessed until blase; but nothing before like this. The man used quirt, rowel, and profanity like a fiend. The pony, panting, quivering, bucking, struggling, covered with foam and streaming with blood, shrilled with the impotent anger of a demon. Even the impassive cowboy spectators from chaffing lapsed into silence.
Of a sudden, loping easily over the frost-bound prairie and following the winding trail of a cowpath, appeared the approaching figure of a horse and rider. It came on steadily, clear to the gathered group, and stopped. An instant and the newcomer understood the scene and a curse sprang to his lips. Another instant and his own mustang was spurred in close by the strugglers. His right hand raised in air and bearing a heavy quirt, descended; not upon the broncho, but far across the cursing, devilish face of the man, its rider. Then swift as thought and simultaneously as twin machines, the hands of the intruder and of the struggling "buster" went to their hips.
The spectators held their breaths; not one stirred. Before them they saw the hands which had gone to hips flash up and forward like pistons from companion cylinders, and they saw two puffs of smoke like escaping steam.
Smoothly, as a scene in a rehearsed play, the reports mingled, the riders, scarcely ten feet apart, tottered in their saddles, and slowly, unconsciously resistant even in death, the two bodies slipped to earth.
But there the unison ended. The mustang which "Slim" Rawley rode stood still in its tracks; but before the spectators could rush in, the "devil" broncho, relieved of the hand upon the curb, sprang away, and with the "buster's" foot caught fast in the stirrup ran squealing, kicking, crazy mad out over the prairie, dragging by its side the limp figure of its unseated enemy.
Calmar Bye watched the whole spectacle as in a dream. So swift had been the action, so fantastic the denouement, that he could not at first reconcile it all with reality. He went slowly over to the prostrate "Slim" Rawley, whom the others had laid out decently upon the ground, half expecting him to leap up and laugh in their faces; but the already stiffening figure with the fiendish scowl upon its face, was convincing.
Besides,—gods, the indifference of these men to death! The party of onlookers were already separating—one division, mounted, starting in pursuit of the escaping broncho, along the narrow trail made by the dragged man; the others impassively reconnoitring for spades and shovels, were stolidly awaiting the breaking of the lock of frost-bound earth at the hands of a big, red-shirted cowboy with a pick!
"Here, Bye," suggested one toiler, "you're an eddicated man; say a prayer er something, can't ye, before we plant old 'Slim.' He wa'nt sech a bad sort."
The tenderfoot complied, and said something—he never knew just what—as the dry clods thumped dully upon the huddled figure in the old gunny sack. What he said must have been good, for those present resisted with difficulty a disposition to applaud.
This labor complete, the cowboys scattered, miles apart, each to his division of the herd, which for better range had been distributed over a wide territory. Bye was in charge of the home bunch, and sat long after the others had left, upon the new-formed mound in the ranch dooryard.
Far over the broad, rolling prairies, as yet bare and frost-bound, the sun shone brightly. A half-mile away he could see his own herd scattered and grazing. The stillness after the sudden excitement was almost unbelievable. Minutes passed by which dragged into an hour. Over the face of the sun a faint haze began to form and, unnoticeable to one not prairie-trained, the air took on a sympathetic feel, almost of dampness. A native would have sensed a warning; but Calmar Bye, one time writer, paid no heed. An instinct of his life, one he had thought suppressed, a necessity imperative as hunger, was gathering upon him strongly—the overwhelming instinct to portray the unusual.
Under its guidance, as in a maze, he made his way into the rough, unplastered shanty. Automatically he found a pencil and collected some scraps of coarse wrapping paper. Already the opening words of the tale he had to tell were in his mind, and sitting down by the greasy pine-board table, he began to write.
Hours passed. Over the sun the haze thickened. The whole sky grew sodden, the earth a corresponding grayish hue. Now and anon puffs of wind, like sudden breaths, stirred the dull air, and the short buffalo grass trembled in anticipation. The puffs increased until their direction became definite, and at last here and there big, irregular feathers of snow drifted languidly to earth.
Within the shanty the man wrote unceasingly. Many fragments he covered and deposited, an irregular heap, at his right hand. At his left an adolescent mound of cigarette stumps grew steadily larger. A cloud of tobacco smoke over his head, driven here and there by vagrant currents of air, gathered denser and denser.
As the light failed, the writer unconsciously moved the rough table nearer and nearer the window until, blocked, it could go no farther. To one less preoccupied the grating over the uneven floor would have been startling. Once just outside the door the waiting pony neighed warningly—and again. Upon the ledge beneath the window-pane a tiny mound of snowflakes began to take form; around the shanty the rising wind mourned dismally.
The light failed by degrees, until the paper was scarcely visible, and, brought to consciousness, the man rose to light a lamp. One look about and he passed his hand over his forehead, absently. Striding to the door, he flung it wide open.
"Hell!" he muttered in complex apostrophe.
To put on hat and top-coat was the act of a moment. To release the tethered pony the work of another; then swift as a great brown shadow, out across the whitening prairie to the spot he remembered last to have seen the herd, the delinquent urged the willing broncho—only to find emptiness; not even the suggestion of a trail.
Back and forth, through miles and miles of country, in semi-circles ever widening, through a storm ever increasing and with daylight steadily diminishing, Calmar Bye searched doggedly for the departed herd; searched until at last even he, ignorant of the supreme terrors of a South Dakota blizzard, dared not remain out longer.
That he found his way back to the ranch yard was almost a miracle. As it was, groping at last in utter darkness, blinded by a sleet which cut like dull knives, and buffeted by a wind like a hurricane, more dead than alive he stumbled upon the home shanty and opening the door drew the weary broncho in after him. Man and beast were brothers on such a night.
Of the hours which followed, of moaning wind and drifting sleet, nature kindly gave him oblivion. Dead tired, he slept. And morning, crisp, smiling, cloudless, was about him when he awoke.
Rising, and scarcely stopping for a lunch, the man again sallied forth upon his search, wading through drifts blown almost firm enough to bear the pony's weight and alternate spots wind-swept bare as a floor; while all about, gorgeous as multiple rainbows, flashed mocking bright the shifting sparkle from innumerable frost crystals.
All the morning he searched, farther and farther away, until the country grew rougher and he was full ten miles from home. At last, stopping upon a small hill to reconnoitre, the searcher heard far in the distance a sound he recognized and which sent his cheek pale—the faint dying wail of a wounded steer. It came from a deep draw between two low hills, one cut into a steep ravine by converged floods and hidden by the tall surrounding weeds. Bye knew the place well and the significance of the sound he heard. In a cattle country, after a sudden blizzard, it could have but one meaning, and that the terror of all time to animals wild or domestic—the end of a stampede.
Only too soon thereafter the searcher found his herd. Upon the brow of a hill overlooking the ravine he stopped. Below him, bellowing, groaning, struggling, wounded, dying, and dead—a great mass of heavy bodies, mixed indiscriminately—bruised, broken, segmented, blood-covered, horrible, lay the observer's trust, the wealth of his employer, his own hope of regeneration, worse now than worthless carrion. And the cause of it all, the sole excuse for this delinquency, lay back there upon a greasy table in the shanty—a short scrawling tale scribbled upon a handful of scrap paper!
"Yes, I'm back, Bob."
The tall, thin Calmar Bye leaned back in his chair and looked listlessly about the familiar cafe, without a suggestion of emotion. It seemed to him hardly credible that he had been away from it all for a year and more. Nothing was changed. Across the room the same mirrors repeated the reflections he had observed so many times before. Nearby were the same booths and from within them came the same laughter and chatter and suppressed song. Opposite the tiny table the same man with the broad, good-natured face was making critical, smiling observation, as of yore. As ever, the look recalled the visionary to the present.
"Back for good, Bob," he repeated slowly.
The speaker's attitude was far from being that of a conquering hero returned; the sympathies of the easy-going Robert, ever responsive, were roused.
"What's the matter, old man?" he queried tentatively. "Weren't you a success as a broncho-buster?"
"A success!" Calmar Bye stroked a long, thin face with a long, thin hand. "A success!" he repeated. "I couldn't have been a worse failure, Bob." He paused a moment, smoothing the table-cloth absently with his finger tips.
"Success!" once more, bitterly. "I'm not even a mediocre at anything unless it is at what I'm doing now, dangling and helping spend the money some one else has worked all day to earn." He looked his astonished friend fair in the eyes.
"You don't know what an idiot, a worse than idiot, I've made of myself," and he began the story of the past year.
Monotonously, unemotionally he told the tale, omitting nothing, adding nothing; while about him the sounds of the restaurant, the tinkling of glassware, the ring of silver, the familiar muffled pop of extracted corks, played a soft accompaniment. Occasionally Bob would make a comment or ask explanation of something to him entirely new; but that was all until near the end,—where the delinquent herder, coming swiftly to the brow of the hill, looked down upon the scene in the ravine below. Then Bob, the care-free, the pleasure-seeking, raised a hand in swift protest.
"Don't describe it, please, old man," he requested. "I'd rather not hear."
The speaker's voice ceased; over his thin features fell the light of a queer little half-smile which, instead of declaring itself, only provoked Bob Wilson's curiosity. In the silence Bye, with a hand unaccustomed to the exercise, made the familiar gesture that brought one of the busy attendants to his side.
"And the story you wrote—?" suggested Wilson while they waited.
For answer Calmar Bye drew an envelope from his pocket and tossed it across the table to his friend. Wilson first noted that it bore the return address of one of the country's foremost magazines; he then unfolded the letter and read aloud:
"DEAR MR. BYE:—
"The receipt of your two stories, 'Storm and Stampede' and 'The Lonely Grave,' has settled a troublesome question for us, namely: What has become of Mr. Calmar Bye?
"No doubt you will recall that our criticisms of the material which you have submitted from time to time in the past, were directed chiefly against faults arising out of your unfamiliarity with your subjects. The present manuscripts bear the best testimony that you have been gathering your material at first hand. We have the feeling, as we read, that every sentence flows straight from the heart.
"Now we want just such vivid, gripping, red-blooded cross-sections of life as these, your two latest accomplishments; in fact, we can't get enough of them. Therefore, instead of making you a cash offer for these two stories, we suggest that you first call at our office at your earliest convenience. If agreeable, we should like to arrange for a series of Western stories and articles, the evolving of which should keep you engaged for some time to come.
The hands of the two friends clasped across the table. No word disturbed the silence until the forgotten waiter broke in impatiently:
"Yo' o'der, sahs?"
"Champagne"—this time it was Calmar Bye who gave it—"a quart. And be lively about it, too."
"Well, well!" Bob Wilson's admiration burst forth. "It is worth a whole herd of steers."
THE STUFF OF HEROES
Springtime on the prairies of South Dakota. It is early morning, the sun is not yet up, but all is light and even and soft and all-surrounding, so that there are no shadows. In every direction the gently rolling country is dotted brown and white from the incomplete melting of winter's snows. In the low places tiny streams of snow-water, melted yesterday, sing low under the lattice-work blanket the frost has built in the night. Nearby and in the distance prairie-chickens are calling, lonely, uncertain. Wild ducks in confused masses, mere specks in the distance, follow low over the winding curves of the river. High overhead, flocks of geese in regular black wedges, and brant, are flying northward, and the breezy sound of flapping wings and of voices calling, mingle in the sweetest of all music to those who know the prairies—Nature's morning song of springtime.
"What a country! Look there!" The big man in the front seat of the rough, low wagon pointed east where the sun rose slowly from the lap of the prairie. The other men cleared their throats as if to speak, but said nothing.
"And I've lived sixty years without knowing," continued the first voice, musingly.
"I've never been West before, either," admitted De Young, simply.
They drove on, the trickling of snow-water sounding around the wagon wheels.
The third man, Clark, pointed back in the direction they had come.
"Did any one back there inquire what we were doing?" he asked.
"A fellow 'lowed,' with a rising inflection, that we were hunting ducks," said De Young. "I temporized; made him forget that I hadn't answered. You know what will happen once the curiosity of the natives is aroused."
"I wasn't approached," Morris joined in, without turning. The corners of the big man's mouth twitched, as the suggested picture formed swiftly in his mind.
After a pause, De Young spoke again.
"I gave the postmaster a specially good tip to see that we got our mail out promptly."
"So did I," Clark admitted.
The face of the serious man lighted; and, their eyes meeting, the three friends smiled all together.
The sun rose higher, without a breath of wind from over the prairies, and one after another the men removed their top-coats. The horses' hoofs splashed at each step in slush and running water, sending drops against the dashboard with a sound like rain.
The trail which they were following could now scarcely be seen, except at intervals on higher ground, where hoof-prints and the tracks of wheels were scored in the soft mud, and with each mile these marks grew deeper and broader as the partly frozen earth softened.
The air of solemnity which had hung about the men for days, and which lifted from time to time only temporarily, now silenced them again. Indeed, had there been anybody present to observe, he doubtless would have been impressed most of all with the unwonted soberness of the wagon's occupants, a gravity strangely at variance with the rampant, fecund season.
And the object of their journeying into this unknown world was in all truth a matter for silence rather than speech; its influence was toward deep and earnest meditation, to which the joyous, awakening world could do no more than chant in a minor key a melancholy accompaniment. Never did a soldier advancing upon a breach in the enemy's breastworks more certainly confront the grinning face of Death, than did this trio in their progress across the singing prairie; but where the plaudits of the world spelled glory for the one, the three in the wagon knew that for them Death meant oblivion, extinction, a blotting out that must needs be utter and inevitable.
The thoughts of each dwelt upon some aspect of two scenes which had happened only a brief fortnight previously. There had been a notable convention of physicians in a city many miles to the east. One delegate, a man young, slender, firm of jaw, his face shining with zeal and the spirit which courts self-immolation, had addressed the body. His speech had made a profound impression—after its first effect of sensation had subsided—upon the hundreds gathered there, who hearkened amazedly; but of those hundreds only two had been moved to lay aside the tools of their calling and follow him.
And whither was he leading them? Into the Outer Darkness, each firmly believed. For them the future was spelled nihil; for the world, salvation—perhaps.
The inspired voice still rang in memory.
"Gentlemen, I repeat, it is a challenge.... The flag of the enemy is hung up boldly, flauntingly, in every public place.... Are we to permit this? Are we to sit idle and acknowledge ourselves beaten in the great struggle against Death? No, no, no! The Nation—yea, the whole civilized world—shrinks and shudders in terror before the sound of one dread word—tuberculosis!
"Our professional honor—our personal honor as well, gentlemen—is at stake. A solemn charge is laid upon us.... We must die if need be; but we must conquer this monstrous scourge, which is the single cause of more than one death in every ten."
And then, the deep silence which had marked the closing words:
"Gentlemen, I can cure consumption," came the simple declaration. "If there are those among you who value Science more than gain; who are willing to dare with me, willing to pay the extreme price, if necessary—if there are any such among you, and I believe there are, meet with me in my rooms this evening."
To the eight who accepted that invitation, Dr. De Young disclosed the details of his Great Experiment. It included, among many other things which no one but a physician can appreciate, the lending of their bodies to the Experiment's exemplification. Of the eight, two had agreed to follow him to the end. Each of the three had placed his house in order, and here they were, nearing that end, whatever it was to be.
An hour passed, and now ahead in the distance a rough shanty came into view. It was the only house in sight, and the three men knew it was to be theirs. In silence they drew up where the men were unpacking their goods.
"Good morning for ducks—saw a big flock of mallards back here in a pond," observed the man who took their team.
The three doctors alighted without answering, and watching them, the man stroked a stubby red whisker in meditation.
"Lord, they're a frost!" he commented.
* * * * *
Night had come, and the stars shone early from a sky yet light and warm. In the low places the waters sang louder than before, with the increase of a day's thawing. Looking away, the white spots were smaller and the brown patches larger; otherwise, all was the same, the prairie of yesterday, of to-day, and to-morrow.
Tired with a day of settling, the three men stood in the doorway and for the first time viewed the country at night. They were not talkers at best, and now the immensity of the broad prairies held them silent. The daily struggle of life, the activity and rivalry and ambition which before to-night had seemed so great to these city-bred men, here alone with Nature and Nature's God, where none other might see, assumed their true worth. The tangled web of life loosened and many foreign things caught and held therein, fell out. Man, introspecting, saw himself at his real worth, and was not proud.
The absolute quiet, so unusual, made them wakeful, and though tired, they sat long in the doorway, smoking, thinking. Small talk seemed to them profanation, and of that which was uppermost in each man's mind, none cared first to speak. A subtle understanding, called telepathy, was making of their several minds a thing united.
"No, not to-night, it's too beautiful," said De Young at length, and the protesting voice sounded to his own ears as that of a stranger.
The men started at the sound, and the glowing tips of three cigars described partial arcs in the half light as they turned each to each. No one answered. They were face to face with fundamentals at last.
Minutes, an hour, passed. The cigars burned out, and as the pleasant odor of tobacco died away, there came the chill night air of the prairie. The two older men rose stiffly, and with a low good-night, stumbled into the darkness of the shanty.
De Young sat alone in the doorway. He realized that it was the supreme hour of his life. In his mind, memory of past and hope of future met on the battlefield of the present, and meeting, mingled in chaos. Thoughts came crowding upon each other thick—the thoughts which come to few more than once in life, to multitudes, never; the thoughts which writers in every language, during all time, have sought words to express, and in vain.
Everywhere the snow-streams sang lower and lower. A fog, dense, penetrating, born of early morning, wrapped all things about, uniting and at the same time setting apart. Shivering, he shut the door on the night and the damp, and as by instinct crept into bed. Listening in the darkness, the sound of the sleepers soothed him. Happier thoughts came, thoughts which made his heart beat more swiftly and his eyes grow tender; for he was yet young, and love untold ever dwelleth near heaven. Thus he fell asleep with a smile.
"Choose, please. We'll take our turns in the order of length," said De Young, holding up the ends of three paper strips. Each man drew, and in the silence that followed, without a word Morris turned away, preparing swiftly for the operation.
"Give me chloroform," he said, stretching himself horizontally,—adding as the others bent over him, "Inoculate deep, please. Let's not waste time."
Swiftly, with the precision of absolute knowledge, the two physicians did their work. A mist was over their eyes, so that all the room looked dim, as to old men; and hands which had not known a tremor for years, shook as they emptied the contents of the little syringe, teeming with tiny, unseen, living rods. Clark's forehead was damp with a perspiration that physical pain could not have brought, and on De Young's face, time marked those minutes as months.
It was all done with the habit of years. The two doctors carefully sterilized their instruments and replaced them in cases, then, silently, drawn nearer together than ever before, the two friends watched the return of consciousness. And Morris awakening, things real and of dreamland still confused to his senses, heard the soft voice which a legion of patients had thus heard and blessed, saying cheerily, "Wake up! wake up, my friend!"
Thus the day passed. In turn, the men, hours apart, with active brains, and eyes wide open, sent their challenges to Death—each man his own messenger.
The months slipped by. Suns became torrid hot, and cooled until it seemed there was light but not heat on earth. Days grew longer, and in unison, earth waxed greener; then in descending scale, both together waned. Migratory wings fluttering at night, and passing voices calling in the darkness—most lonely sounds of earth—gave place to singers of the day. The robin, the meadow-lark, the ubiquitous catbird, all born of prairie and of summer, came and went. Blackbirds in countless flocks followed. Again the calling of prairie-chickens was heard at eve and morning, and anon frost glistened in the air.