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INTO THE DUST-BIN

WITH the loss of her boy, time ceased to exist for Rose. The days came and went, lengthening into years, full of duties, leaving her as they found her, outwardly little changed and habitually calm and kind, but inwardly sunk in apathy. She moved as if in a dream, seeming to live in a strange world that would never again seem real--this world without Billy. Occasionally, she would forget and think he was out in the field or down in the mine; more rarely still, she would slip even further backward and wonder what he was about in his play. During these moments she would feel normal, but some object catching her eye would jerk her back to the present and the cruel truth. She and Martin had less than ever to say to each other, though in his own grim way he was more thoughtful, giving her to understand that there were no longer any restrictions laid upon her purchasing, and even suggesting that they remodel the house; as if, she thought impassively, at this late day, it could matter what she bought or in what she lived. His one interest in making money, just as if they had some one to leave it to, puzzled her. Always investing, then reinvesting the interest, and spending comparatively little of his income, his fortune had now reached the point where it was growing rapidly of its own momentum and, as there was nothing to which he looked forward, nothing he particularly wanted to do, he set himself the task of making it cross the half million mark, much as a man plays solitaire, to occupy his mind, betting against himself, to give point to his efforts.

Yet, it gave him a most disconcerting, uncanny start, when one bright winter day, he faced the fact that he, too, was about to be shovelled into the great dust-bin. Death was actually at his side, his long, bony finger on his shoulder and whispering impersonally, "You're next." "Very much," thought Martin, "like a barber on a busy Saturday." How odd that here was something that had never entered into his schemes, his carefully worked out plans! It seemed so unfair--why, he had been feeling so well, his business had been going on so profitably, there was something so substantial to the jog of his life, there seemed to be something of the eternal about it. He had taken ten-year mortgages but a few days ago, and had bought two thousand dollars' worth of twenty-year Oklahoma municipals when he could have taken an earlier issue which he had rejected as maturing too soon. He had forgotten that there was a stranger who comes but once, and now that he was here, Martin felt that a mean trick had been played on him. He cogitated on the journey he was to take, and it made him not afraid, but angry. It was a shabby deal--that's what it was--when he was so healthy and contented, only sixty-one and ready to go on for decades--two or three at least--forced, instead, to prepare to lay himself in a padded box and be hurriedly packed away. It had always seemed so vague, this business of dying, and now it was so personal--he, Martin Wade, himself, not somebody else, would suffer a little while longer and then grow still forever.

He would never know how sure a breeder was his new bull--the son of that fine creature he had imported; two cows he had spotted as not paying their board could go on for months eating good alfalfa and bran before a new herdsman might become convinced of their unreadiness to turn the expensive feed into white gold; he had not written down the dates when the sows were to farrow, and they might have litters somewhere around the strawstack and crush half the little pigs. His one hundred and seventy-five acres of wheat had had north and south dead furrows, but he had learned that this was a mistake in probably half the acreage, where they should be east and west. It would make a great difference in the drainage, but a new plowman might think this finickiness and just go ahead and plow all of it north and south, or all of it east and west and this would result in a lower yield--some parts of the field would get soggy and the wheat might get a rust, and other parts drain too readily, letting the ground become parched and break into cakes, all of which might be prevented. And there was all that manure, maker of big crops. He knew only too well how other farmers let it pile up in the barnyard to be robbed by the sun of probably twenty per cent of its strength. He figured quickly how it would hurt the crops that he had made traditional on Wade land. He considered these things, and they worried him, made him realize what a serious thing was death, far more serious than the average person let himself believe.

Martin had gone to the barn a week before to help a cow which was aborting. It had enraged him when he thought what an alarming thing this was--abortion among HIS cows--in Martin Wade's beautiful herd! "God Almighty!" he had exclaimed, deciding as he took the calf from the mother to begin doctoring her at once. He would fight this disease before it could establish a hold. Locking the cow's head in an iron stanchion, he had shed his coat, rolled up his right sleeve almost to the shoulder, washed his hand and arm in a solution of carbolic and hot water, carefully examining them to make sure there was no abrasion of any kind. But despite his caution, a tiny cut so small that it had escaped his searching, had come in contact with the infected mucous membrane and blood poisoning had set in. And here he was, lying in bed, given up by Doctor Bradley and the younger men the older physician had called into consultation and who had tried in vain to stem the spread of poison through his system. Martin was going to die, and no power could save him. The irony of it! This farm to which he had devoted his life was taking it from him by a member of its herd.

Martin made a wry little grimace of amusement as he realized suddenly that even at the very gate of death it was still on life, his life, that his thoughts dwelt. In these last moments, it was the tedious, but stimulating, battle of existence that really occupied his full attention. He would cling to it until the last snap of the thin string. This cavern of oblivion that was awaiting him, that he must enter--it was black and now more than ever his deep, simple irreligion refused to let fairy tales pacify him with the belief that beyond it was everlasting daylight. Scepticism was not only in his conscious thought but in the very tissues of his mind.

He remembered how his own father had died on this farm--he had had no possessions to think about; only his loved ones, his wife and his children; but he had brought them here that they might amass property out of Martin's sweat and the dust of the prairie. Now he, the son, dying, had in his mind no thought of people, but of this land and of stock and of things. And how strangely his mind was reacting to it. His concern was not who should own them all, but what would actually be the fate of each individual property child of his. Why, he had not even written a will. It would all go to his wife, of course, and how little he cared to whom she left it. He would have liked, perhaps, to have given Rose Mall twenty-five thousand or so--so she could always be independent of that young husband of hers--snap her fingers at him if he got to driving her too hard, and crushing out the flower-like quality of her--but his wife wouldn't have understood, and he had hurt her enough, in all conscience. The one thing he might have enjoyed doing, he couldn't. Outside of that he didn't care who got it. She could leave it to whomever she liked when her turn came. Not to whom it went, but what would happen to it--that was what concerned him.

By his side, Rose, sitting so motionless that he was scarcely conscious of her presence, was dying with him. With that peculiar gift of profoundly sympathetic natures she was thinking and feeling much of what he was experiencing. It seemed to her heart-breaking that Martin must be forced to abandon the only things for which he cared. He had even sacrificed his lovely Rose of Sharon for them--she had never been in any doubt as to the reason for that sudden emotional retreat of his seven years before. And she knew his one thought now must be for their successful administration.

He had worked so hard always and yet had had so little happiness, so little real brightness out of life. She felt, generously, with a clutching ache, that with all the disappointments she had suffered through him--from his first broken promises about the house to his lack of understanding of their boy which had resulted in Billy's death--with even that, she had salvaged so much more out of living than he. A great compassion swelled within her; all the black moments, all the long, gray hours of their years together, seemed suddenly insignificant. She saw him again as he had been the day he had proposed marriage to her and for the first time she was sure that she could interpret the puzzling look that had come into his eyes when she had asked him why he thought she could make him happy. What had he understood about happiness? With a noiseless sob, she remembered that he had answered her in terms of the only thing he had understood--work. And she saw him again, too, as he had been the night he had so bluntly told her of his passion for Rose. It seemed to her now, free of all rancor, unutterably tragic that the only person Martin had loved should have come into his life too late.

He was not to be blamed because he had never been able to care for herself. He should never have asked her to marry him--and yet, they had not been such bad partners. It would have been so easy for her to love him. She had loved him until he had killed her boy; since then, all her old affection had withered. But if it really had done so why was she so racked now? She felt, desperately, that she could not let him go until he had had some real joy. To think that she used to plan, cold-bloodedly, when Billy was little, all she would do if only Martin should happen to die! The memory of it smote her as with a blow. She looked down at the powerful hand lying so passively, almost, she would have said, contentedly, in her own. How she had yearned for the comfort of it when her children were born. She wondered if Martin realized her touch, if it helped a little. If it had annoyed him, he would have said so. It came to her oddly that in all the twenty-seven years she and her husband had been married this was the very first time he had let her be tender to him. Oh, his life had been bleak. Bleak! And she with such tenderness in her heart. It hadn't been right. From the depths of her rebellion and forgiveness, slow tears rose. Feeling too intensely, too mentally, to be conscious of them she sat unmoving as they rolled one by one down her cheeks and dropped unheeded.

"Rose," he called with a soft hoarseness, "I want to talk to you."

"Yes, Martin," and she gave his fingers a slight squeeze as though to convince him that she was there at his side. He felt relieved. It was good to feel her hand and be sure that if his body were to give its final sign that life had slipped away someone would be there to know the very second it had happened. It was a satisfactory way to die; it took a little of the loneliness away from the experience.

"Rose," he repeated. It sounded so new, the yearning tone in which he said it--"Rose!" It hurt. "Isn't it funny, Rose, to go like this--not sick, no accident--just dying without any real reason except that I absorbed the poison through a cut so small my eyes couldn't see it."

"It's a mystery, dear," the little word limped out awkwardly, "but God's ways are not ours."

"Not a mystery," he corrected, "just a heap of tricks; funny ones, sad ones, sensible ones, and crazy ones--and of all the crazy ones this is the worst. But, what's the use? If there's a God, as you believe, it doesn't do any good to argue with Him, and if it's as I think and there's no God, there's no one to argue with. But never mind about that now--it's no matter. You'll listen carefully, won't you, Rose?"

"Yes, Martin."

"This abortion in the herd. You know what a terrible thing it is."

"I certainly do; it's the cause of your leaving me."

"Rose, I know you'll be busy during the next few days--me dying, the things that have to be arranged, the funeral and all that. But when it's all over, you'll let that be the first thing, won't you?"

"Yes, the very first thing, if you wish it."

"I do. Get Dr. Hurton on the job at once, and have him fight it. He knows his business. Let him come twice a day until he's sure it's out of the herd. Keep that new bull out of the pasture. And if Hurton can't clean it up, you'd better get rid of the herd before it gets known around the country. You know how news of that kind travels. Don't try to handle the sale yourself. If you do, it'll be a mistake. The prices will be low if you get only a county crowd."

"Neighbors usually bid low," she agreed.

"Run up to Topeka and see Baker--he's the sales manager of the Holstein Breeders' Association. Let him take charge of it all--he's a straight fellow. He'll charge you enough--fifteen per cent of the gross receipts, but then he'll see to it that the people who want good stuff will be there. He knows how and where to advertise. He's got a big list of names, and can send out letters to the people that count. He'll bring buyers from Iowa down to Texas. Remember his name--Baker."

"Yes, Martin--Baker."

"I think you ought to sell the herd anyway," he went on. "I know you, Rose; you'll be careless about the papers--no woman ever realizes how important it is to have the facts for the certificates of registry and transfer just right. I'm afraid you'll fall down there and get the records mixed. You won't get the dates exact and the name and number of each dam and sire. Women are all alike there--they never seem to realize that a purebred without papers is just a good grade."

Rose made no comment, while Martin changed his position slowly and lost himself in thought.

"Yes, I guess it's the only thing to do--to get rid of the purebred stuff. God Almighty! It's taken me long enough to build up that herd, but a few weeks from now they'll be scattered to the four winds. Well, it can't be helped. Try to sell them to men who understand something of their value. And that reminds me, Rose. You always speak of them as thoroughbreds. It always did get on my nerves. That's right for horses, but try to remember that cows are purebreds. You'll make that mistake before men who know. Those little things are important. Remember it, won't you?"

"Thoroughbred for a horse, and purebred for a cow," Rose repeated willingly.

"When you get your money for the stock put it into mortgages--first mortgages, not seconds. Let that be a principle with you. Many a holder of a second mortgage has been left to hold the sack. You must remember that the first mortgage comes in for the first claim after taxes, and if the foreclosure doesn't bring enough to satisfy more than that, the second mortgage is sleeping on its rights."

"First mortgages, not seconds," said Rose.

"And while I'm on that, let me warn you about Alex Tracy, four miles north and a half mile east, on the west side of the road. He's a slippery cuss and you'll have to watch him."

"Alex Tracy, four miles north--"

"You'll find my mortgage for thirty-seven hundred in my box at the bank. He's two coupons behind in his interest. I made him give me a chattel on his growing corn. Watch him--he's treacherous. He may think he can sneak around because you're a woman and stall you. He's just likely to turn his hogs into that corn. Your chattel is for growing corn, not for corn in a hog's belly. If he tries any dirty business get the sheriff after him."

"It's on the GROWING corn," said Rose.

"And here's another important point--taxes. Don't pay any taxes on mortgages. What's the use of giving the politicians more money to waste? Hold on to your bank stock and arrange to have all mortgages in the name of the bank, not in your own. They pay taxes on their capital and surplus, not on their loans. But be sure to get a written acknowledgment on each mortgage from Osborne. He's square, but you can't ever tell what changes might take place and then there might be some question about mortgages in the bank's name."

"Keep them in the bank's name," said Rose.

"And a written acknowledgment," Martin stressed.

"A written acknowledgment," she echoed.

For probably fifteen minutes he lay without further talk; then, a little more weariness in his voice than she had ever known before, he began to speak again.

"I've been thinking a great deal, Rose." There was still that new tenderness in the manner in which he pronounced her name, that new tone she had never heard before and which caused her to feel a little nervous. "I've been thinking, Rose, about the years we've lived together here on a Kansas prairie farm--"

"It lacks just a few months of being twenty-eight years," she added.

"Yes, it sounds like a long time when you put it that way, but it doesn't seem any longer than a short sigh to me lying here. I've been thinking, Rose, how you've always got it over to me that you loved me or could love me--"

"I've always loved you, Martin--deeply."

"Yes, that's what's always made me so hard with you. It would have been far better for you if you hadn't cared for me at all. I've never loved anybody, not even my own mother, nor Bill, nor myself for that matter." Their eyes shifted away from each other quickly as both thought of one other whom he did not mention. "I wasn't made that way, Rose. Now you could love anything--lots of women are like that, and men, too. But I wasn't. Life to me has always been a strange world that I never got over thinking about and trying to understand, and at the same time hustling to get through with every day of it as fast as I could by keeping at the only thing I knew which would make it all more bearable. There's a lot of pain in work, but it's only of the muscles and my pain has always been in the things I've thought about. The awful waste and futility of it all! Take this farm--I came here when this was hardly more than a desert. You ought to have seen how thick the dust was the first day we got down here. And I've built up this place. You've helped me. Bill didn't care for it--even if he had lived, he'd never have stayed here. But you do, in spite of all that's happened."

"Yes, Martin, I do," she returned fervently. "It's a wonderful monument to leave behind you--this farm is."

His eyes grew somber. "That's what I've always thought it would be," he answered, very low. "I've felt as if I was building something that would last. Even the barns--they're ready to stand for generations. But this minute, when the end is sitting at the foot of this bed, I seem to see it all crumbling before me. You won't stay here. Why should you --even if you do for a few years you'll have to leave it sometime, and there's nothing that goes to rack and ruin as quickly as a farm--even one like this."

"Oh, Martin, don't think such thoughts," she begged. "Your fever is coming up; I can see it."

"What has it all been about, that's what I want to know," he went on with quiet cynicism. "What have I been sweating about--nothing. What is anyone's life? No more than mine. We're all like a lot of hens in a backyard, scratching so many hours a day. Some scratch a little deeper than those who aren't so skilled or so strong. And when I stand off a little, it's all alike. The end is as blind and senseless as the beginning on this farm--drought and dust."

Martin closed his eyes wearily and gave a deep sigh. To his wife's quickened ears, it was charged with lingering regret for frustrated plans and palpitant with his consciousness of life's evanescence and of the futility of his own success.

She waited patiently for him to continue his instructions, but the opiates had begun to take effect and Martin lapsed into sleep. Although he lived until the next morning, he never again regained full consciousness.

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