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IX 


MARTIN'S SON SHAKES OFF THE DUST

THE very next day, Mrs. Wade rented a room for Bill in the same home in which Rose boarded, and for the rest of the winter she and Martin went on as before--working as hard as ever and making money even faster, while peace settled over their household, a peace so profound that, in her more intuitive moments, Bill's mother felt in it an ominous quality.

The storm broke with the summer vacation and the boy's point-blank refusal to return to farm work. His father laid down an ultimatum: until he came home he should not have a cent even from his mother, and home he should not come, at all, until he was willing to carry his share of the farm work willingly, and without further argument. "You see," he pointed out to his wife, "that's the thanks I get for managing along without him this winter. The ungrateful young rascal! If he doesn't come to his senses shortly--"

"Oh, Martin, don't do anything rash," implored Mrs. Wade. "Nearly all boys go through this period. Just be patient with him."

But even she was shaken when his Aunt Nellie, over ostensibly for an afternoon of sociable carpet-rag sewing, began abruptly: "Do you know what Bill is doing, Rose?"

"Working in the mines," returned his mother easily. "Isn't it strange, Nellie, that he should be digging coal right under this farm, the very coal that gave Martin his start?"

"Well, I'm not going to beat about the bush," continued her sister-in-law abruptly. "He's working in the mines all right, but he isn't digging coal at all, though that would be bad enough. I wouldn't say a word about it, but I think you ought to know the truth and put a stop to such a risky business--he's firing shots."

Rose's heart jumped, but she continued to wind up her large ball with the same uninterrupted motion.

"Are you sure?"

"I made Frank find out for certain. It's an extra dangerous mine because gas forms in it unusually often, and he gets fifteen dollars a day for the one hour he works. There's a contract, but he's told them he's twenty-one, and when you prove he's under age they'll make him stop."

Rose still wound and wound, her clear eyes, looking over her glasses, fixed on Nellie.

"It's bad enough, I'll say," rapped out the spare, angular woman, "to have everybody talking about the way Martin has ditched his son, without having the boy scattered to bits, or burned to a cinder. Already he's been blown twenty feet by one windy shot, and more than once he's had to lie flat while those horrible gases burned themselves out right over his head. His 'buddie,' the Italian who fires in the other part of the mine at the same time, told Harry Brown, the nightman, and he told Frank, himself. Why, they say if he'd have moved the least bit it would have fanned the fire downward and he'd have been in a fine mess. Sooner or later all shot-firers meet a tragic end. You want to put your foot down, Rose, and put it down hard--for once in your life --if you can," she added, half under her breath.

"It isn't altogether Martin's fault," began Rose, but Nellie cut her off with a short: "Now, don't you tell me a word about that precious brother of mine! It's as plain to me as the nose on your face that between his bull-headed hardness and your wishy-washy softness you're fixing to ruin one of the best boys God ever put on this earth."

"I'll talk to Billy," Rose promised.

It was the first time she ever had found herself definitely in opposition to her boy, but she felt serene in the confidence of her own power to dissuade him from anything so perilous. She understood the general routine of mining, and had been daily picturing him going down in the cage to the bottom, travelling through a long entry until he was under his home farm and located in one of the low, three-foot rooms where a Kansas miner must stoop all day. Oh, how it had hurt--that thought of those fine young shoulders bending, bending! She had visualized him filling his car, and mentally had followed his coal as it was carried up to the surface to be dumped into the hopper, weighed and dropped down the chute into the flat cars. Of course, there was always the danger of a loosened rock falling on him, but wasn't there always the possibility of accidents on a farm, too? Didn't the company's man always go down, first, into the mine to test the air and make certain it was all right? Rose had convinced herself that the risk was not so great, after all, though she could not help sharing a little of her husband's wonder that the boy could prefer to work underground instead of in the sweet, fresh sunshine. But she had thought it was because in the desperation of his complete revolt from Martin's domination anything else seemed to him preferable. Now, in a lightning flash, she understood. This reaction from a life whose duties had begun before sun-up and ended long after sundown, made danger seem as nothing in comparison with the marvellous chance to earn a comfortable living with only one hour's work a day.

Her conversation with Bill proved that she had been only too right. The boy was intoxicated with his own liberty. "I know I ought to have told you, mother," he confessed. "I wanted to. Honest, I did, but I was afraid you'd worry, though you needn't. The man who taught me how to fire has been doing it over twenty years. A lot of it's up to a fellow, himself. You can pretty near tell if the air is all right by the way it blows--the less the better it is. And if you're right careful to see that the tool-boxes the boys leave are all locked--so's no powder can catch, you know--and always start lighting against the air, so that if there's gas and it catches the fire'll blow away from you instead of following you up--and if you examine the fuses to see they're long enough and the powder is tamped in just right--each miner does that before he leaves and lots of firers just give 'em a hasty once-over instead of a real look--and then shake your heels good and fast after you do fire--"

"Billy!" Rose was white. "I can't bear it--to hear you go on so lightly, when it's your life, your LIFE, you're playing with. For my sake, son, give it up."

With an odd sinking of the heart, she observed the expression in his face which she had seen so often in his father's--the one that said as plainly as words that nothing could shake his determination. "A fellow's got a right to some good times in this world," he said very low, "and I'm getting mine now. I'm not going to grind away and grind away all my life like father and you've done. If anything did happen I'd have had a chance to dream and think and read instead of getting to be old without ever having any fun out of it all. Maybe you won't believe it, but some days for hours I just lie in the sun like a darky boy, not even thinking. Gee! it feels great! And sometimes I read all day until I have to go to the mine. There's one thing I'm going to tell you square," he went on, a firm ring in his voice, boyish for all its deep, bass note, "I'm never going back to the farm, never! Mother," he cried, suddenly, coming over to take her hand in both his. "Will you leave father? We could rent a little house and you'd have hardly anything to do. I'm making more than lots of men with families. And I'd give you my envelope without opening it every pay-day." "Oh, Billy, you don't know what you're saying! I couldn't leave your father. I couldn't think of it."

"What I don't see is how you can stand it to stay with him. He's always been a brute to you. He's never cared a red cent for either of us."

Rose was abashed before the harsh logic of youth. "Oh, son," she murmured brokenly, "there are things one can't explain. I suppose it may seem strange to you--but his life has been so empty. He has missed so much! Everything, Billy."

"Then it's his own fault," judged the boy. "If ever anybody's always had his own way and done just as he darn pleased it's father. I wish he'd die, that's what I wish."

"Bill!" His mother's tone was stern.

"There you are!" he marvelled. "You must have wished it lots of times yourself. I know you have. Yet you always talk as if you loved him."

In Rose's eyes, the habitual look of patience and understanding deepened. How could Bill, as yet scarcely tried by life, comprehend the purging flames through which she had passed or realize time's power to reveal unsuspected truths.

"When you've been married to a man nearly twenty-two years and have built up a place together, there's bound to be a bond between you," she eluded. "He just lives for this farm. It's almost as dear to him as you are to me, son, and it's a wonderful heritage, Bill, a magnificent heritage. Just think! Two generations have labored to build it out of the dust. Your father's whole life is in it. Your father's and mine. And your grandmother's. If only you could ever come to care for it!"

Bill fidgeted uneasily. "You mean you want me to go on with it?" he demanded. "You want me to come back to it, settle down to be a farmer--like father?"

The tone in which he asked this question made Rose choose her words carefully.

"What are your plans, son? What do you want to be--not just now, but finally?"

"I can't see what difference it makes what a fellow is--except that in one business a man makes more than in another. And I can't see either that it does a person a bit of good to have money. I'm having more fun right now than father or you ever had--more fun than anybody I know. Mother," and his face was solemn as if with a great discovery, "I've figured it out that it's silly to do as most people--just live to work. I'm going to work just enough to live comfortably. Not one scrap more, either. You can't think how I hate the very thought of it."

Rose sighed. Couldn't she, indeed! She understood only too well how deeply this rebellion was rooted. The hours when he had been dragged up from the far shores of a dreamful slumber to shiver forth in the chill darkness to milk and chore, still rankled. Those tangy frosty afternoons, when he had been forced to clean barns and plow while the other boys went rabbit and possum hunting or nutting, were afternoons whose loss he still mourned. Nothing had yet atoned for the evenings when he had been torn from his reading and sent sternly to bed because he must get up so early. Always work had stolen from him these treasures--dreams, recreation and knowledge. He had been obliged to fight the farm and his father for even a modicum of them--the things that made life worth living. And the irony of it--that eventually it would be this farm and Martin's driving methods which, if he became reconciled to his father, would make it possible for him to drink all the fullness of leisure.

It was too tragic that the very thing which should have stood for opportunity to the boy had been used to embitter him and drive him into danger. But he must not lose his birthright. An almost passionate desire welled in Rose's heart to hold on to it for him. True, she too had been a slave to the farm. Yet not so much a slave to it, she distinguished, as to Martin's absorption in its development. And of late years there had been for her, running through all the humdrum days, a satisfaction in perfecting it. In her mind now floated clearly the ideal toward which her husband was striving. She had not guessed how much it had become her own until she felt herself being drawn relentlessly by Bill's quiet, but implacable determination to have her leave it all behind. If only he would try again, she felt sure all would be so different! His father had learned a lesson, of that she was positive, and though he would not promise it, would not be so hard on the boy. And with this new independence of Bill's to strengthen her, they could resist Martin more successfully as different issues came up. She could manage to help her boy get what he wanted out of life without his having to pay such a terrible price as, the mine on one hand, and his father's displeasure on the other, might exact, for she knew that if he persisted too long, the break with Martin could never be bridged and that in the end his father would evoke the full powers of the law to disinherit him and tie her own hands as completely as possible in that direction.

But she was far too wise to press such arguments in her son's present mood. They would have to drift for a while, she saw that clearly, until she could gradually impress upon him how different farming would be if he were his own master. In time, he might even come to understand how much Martin needed her.

"Say you will," Bill, pleading, insistent, broke in on her train of reflections, "I've always dreamed of this day, when we'd go away, and now it's come. I can take care of you."

As he stood there, a glorious figure in his youthful self-confidence, a turn of his head reminded her a second time of Martin, recalling sharply the way her husband had looked the night he told her of his love for the other Rose. He had been bothered by no fine qualms about abandoning herself. She thought of his final surrender of love to wisdom. It was only youth that dared pursue happiness--to purchase delicious idleness by gambling with death. Billy was her boy. His dreams and hopes should be hers; her way of life, the one that gave him the most joy. She would follow him, if need be, to the end of the earth.

"Very well, son," she said simply, her voice breaking over the few words. "If a year from now you still feel like this, I'll do as you wish."

"You don't know how I hate him," muttered the boy. "It's only when I'm tramping in the woods, or in the middle of some book I like that I can forgive him for living. No, mother, I don't mean all that," he laughed, giving her a bear-like hug.

It was in this more reasonable side, this ability to change his point of view quickly when he became convinced he was wrong, that Mrs. Wade now put her faith. She would give him plenty of rope, she decided, not try to drive him. It would all come right, if she only waited, and she prayed, nightly, with an increasing tranquillity, that he might be kept safe from harm, taking deep comfort in the new light of contentment that was gradually stealing into his face. After all, each one had to work out his destiny in his own way, she supposed.

It was less than a month later that her telephone rang, and Rose, calmly laying aside her sewing and getting up rather stiffly because of her rheumatism, answered, thinking it probably a call from Martin, who had left earlier in the evening, to wind up a little matter of a chattel on some growing wheat. It had just begun to rain and she feared he might be stuck in the road somewhere, calling to tell her to come for him. But it was not Martin's voice that answered.

"Mrs. Wade?"

"Yes."

"Why"--there was a forbidding break that made her shudder. A second later she convinced herself that it seemed a natural halt--people do such things without any apparent cause; but she could not help shaking a little.

"Is it about Mr. Wade?" and as she asked this question she wondered why she had spoken her husband's name when it was Bill's that really had rushed through her mind.

"No, ma'am, it ain't about Martin Wade I'm callin' you up, it ain't him at all--"

"I see." She said this calmly and quietly, as though to impress her informant and reassure him. "What is it?" It was almost unnecessary to ask, for she knew already what had happened, knew that the boy had flung his dice and lost.

"It's your son, Mrs. Wade; it's him I'm a-callin' about. We're about to bring him home to you--an'--and I thought it'd be better to call you up first so's you might expect us an' not take on with the suddenness of it all. This is Brown--Harry Brown--the nightman at the mine down here. We've got the ambulance here and we're about ready to start." There was an evenness about the strange voice that she understood better than its words. If Bill had been hurt the man would have been quick and jerky in his speaking as though he were feeling the boy's pain with him; but he was so even about it all--as even as Death.

"Then I'll phone for Dr. Bradley so he'll be here by the time you come," said Rose, wondering how she could think of so practical a thing. Her mind had wrapped itself in a protecting armor, forbidding the shock of it all to strike with a single blow. She couldn't understand why she was not screaming.

"You can--if you want to, but Bill don't need him, Mrs. Wade,--he's dead."

Slowly she hung up the receiver, the wall still around her brain, holding it tight and keeping her nerves taut, afraid to release them for fear they might snap. She stood there looking at the receiver as her hands came together.

As though she were talking to a person instead of the telephone before her, she gasped: "So--so THIS is what it has all been for--this. Into the world, into Martin's world--and this way out of it. Burned to death--Billy."

The rain had lessened a little and now the wind began to shake the house, rattle the windows and scream as it tore its way over the plains. The sky flared white and the world lighted up suddenly, as though the sun had been turned on from an electric switch. At the same instant she saw a bolt of lightning strike a young tree by the roadside, heard the sharp click as it hit and then watched the flash dance about, now on the road, now along the barbed wire fencing. Then the world went black again. And a rumble quickly grew to an earth-shaking blast of thunder. It was as though that tree were Billy --struck by a gush of flying fire. The next bolt broke above the house, and the light it threw showed her the stripling split and lying on the ground. In the impenetrable darkness she realized that the house fuse of their Delco system must have been blown out, and she groped blindly for a match. She could hear the rain coming down again, now in rivers. There was unchained wrath in the downpour, viciousness. It was a madman rushing in to rend and tear. It frothed, and writhed, and spat hatred. Rose shook as though gripped by a strong hand. She was afraid--of the rain, the lightning, the thunder, the darkness; alone there, waiting for them to bring her Billy. She was too terrified to add her weeping to the wail of the wind--it would have been too ghastly. Would she never find a match! As she lit the lamp, like the stab of a needle in the midst of agony, came the thought of how long it had been after Martin had put in his electrical system and connected up his barns before she had been permitted to have this convenience in the house. What would he think now? She wished he were home. Anyone would be better than this awful waiting alone. She could only stand there, away from the window, looking out at the sheets of water running down the panes and shivering with the frightfulness and savageness of it all.

Her ears caught a rumble, fainter than thunder, and the splash of horses' hoofs--"it's too muddy for the motor ambulance," she thought, mechanically. "They're using the old one," and her heart contracting, twisting, a queer dryness in her throat, she opened the door as they stopped, her hand shading the lamp against the sudden inrush of wind and rain. "In there, through the parlor," she said dully, indicating the new room and thinking, bitterly, as she followed them, that now, when it could mean nothing to Billy, Martin would offer no objections to its being given over to him.

The scuffling of feet, the low, matter-of-fact orders of a directing voice: "Easy now, boys--all together, lift. Watch out; pull that sheet back up over him," and a brawny, work-stooped man saying to her awkwardly: "I wouldn't look at him if I was you, Mrs. Wade, till the undertaker fixes him up," and she was once more alone.

As if transfixed, she continued to stand, looking beyond the lamp, beyond the bed on which her son's large figure was outlined by the sheet, beyond the front door which faced her, beyond--into the night, looking for Martin, waiting for him to come home to his boy. She asked herself again and again how she had been so restrained when her Billy had been carried in. After what seemed interminable ages, she heard heavy steps on the back porch and knew that her husband had returned at last. He brought in with him a gust of wind that caused the lamp to smoke. She held it with both hands, afraid that she might drop it, and carrying it to the dining-room table set it down slowly, looking at him. He seemed huger than ever with his hulk sinking into the gray darkness behind him. There was something elephantine about him as he stood there, soaked to the skin, bending forward a little, breathing slowly and deeply, his fine nostrils distending with perfect regularity, his face in the dim light, yellow, with the large lines almost black. He was hatless and his tawny-gray hair was flat with wetness, coming down almost to his eyes, so clear and far-seeing.

"What's the matter with the lights? Fuse blown out?" he asked, spitting imaginary rain out of his mouth.

Rose did not answer.

"Awful night for visiting," Martin announced roughly, as he took off his coat. "But it was lucky I went, or all would have been pretty bad for me. Do you know, that rascal was delivering the wheat to the elevator--wheat on which I held a chattel--and I got to Tom Mayer just as he was figuring up the weights. You should have seen Johnson's face when I came in. He knew I had him cornered. 'Here,' I said, 'what's up?' And that lying rascal turned as white as death and said something about getting ready to bring me a check. I told him I was much obliged, but I would take it along with me --and I did. Here it is--fourteen hundred dollars, plus interest. And I got it by the skin of my teeth. I didn't stop to argue with him for I saw the storm coming on. I went racing, but a half mile north I skidded into the ditch. I really feel like leaving the car there all night, but it would do a lot of damage. I'll have to get a team and drag it in. I call it a good day's work. What do you say?" He looked at her closely, for the first time noticing her drawn face and far-away look.

"What's the matter? You look goopy--"

Rose settled herself heavily in the rocker close to the table.

"You're not sick, are you?"

She shook her head a few times and answered: "He's in there--"

"Who?" Martin straightened up ready for anything.

"Billy--"

"Oh!" A light flashed into Martin's face. "So he has come back, has he? Back home? What made him change toward this place? Is he here to stay?"

"No, Martin--"

"Then if he hasn't come to his senses, what is he doing here--here in my house, the home he hates--"

"He doesn't hate it now," Rose replied, struggling for words that she might express herself and end this cruel conversation, but all she could do was to point nervously toward the spare room.

"What is he doing in there? It's the one spot that Rose can call her own, poor child."

"He's on the bed, Martin--"

"What's the matter with the davenport he's always slept on? Is he sick? What in heaven's name is going on in this house?"

As Martin started toward the bedroom, his wife opened her lips to tell him the truth but the words refused to come; at the same instant it struck her that not to speak was brutal, yet just. She would let Martin go to this bed with words of anger on his lips, with feelings of unkindness in his heart. She would do this. Savage? Yes, but why not? There seemed to be something fair about it. Then her heart-strings pulled more strongly than ever. No; it was too hard. She must stop him, tell him, prepare him. But before the words came, he was out of the room and when she spoke he did not hear her because of the rain.

He saw the vague lines of the boy's body, hidden by the sheet, and thought quickly, "Bill's old ostrich-like trick," and while at the same instant something told him that a terrible thing had happened, the idea did not register completely until he had his hand on the linen. Then, with a short yank, he pulled away the cover and saw the boy's head. Dark as it was, it was enough to show him the truth. With a quick move he covered him again. There was a smeary wetness on his fingers, which he wiped away on the side of his trousers. They were drenched with rain, but he distinguished the sticky feel of blood leaving his hand as he rubbed it nervously.

His first emotion was one of anger with Rose. He was sure she had played this sinister jest deliberately to torture him and he had fallen into the trap. He wanted to rush back into the other room and strike her down. He would show her! But he dismissed this impulse, for he did not want her to see him like this, no hold on himself and his mind without direction. Sitting there, she would have the advantage. Without so much as a sound except for the slight noise he made in walking, Martin went through the parlor towards the front door and out to the steps, where he leaned for a moment against the weather-boarding, letting the rain fall on him as he stared dully down at the ground. It felt good to stand there. No eyes were on him, and the rain was refreshing. This had been too much for him. Never had he known himself to be so near to bewilderment. How fortunate that he had escaped by this simple trick of leaving the house. Then he thought of the car--a half-mile north--and the horses in the stable. He must do something. He would bring the car into the garage. It was relieving to hurry across the dripping grass toward the barn. How wonderful it was to keep the body doing something when the breath in him was short, his heart battering like an engine with burned-out bearings, his brain in insane chaos. As he applied a match to the lantern he thought of his wife again, and his face regained its scowl.

Only when he had his great heavy team in the yard, his lantern hanging from his arm, the reins in his hands, and was pulling back with all his strength as he followed the horses--only then did he permit himself to think about the tragedy that had befallen.

"He's dead--killed," he groaned. "It had to come. Shot-firers don't last long. Whoa, there, Lottie; not so fast, Jet, whoa!" His protesting team in control again, he trudged heavily behind. "It's terrible to die that way--not a chance in a thousand. And a kid of sixteen didn't have the judgment --couldn't have. But Bill knew what he was facing every evening. He didn't go in blindly. They'll blame me, as though it was my fault. I didn't want him to go there. I wanted him to take a hand here, to run the place by himself in good time. It was his mother who sent him away first." He went on like that, justifying himself more positively as excuse after excuse suggested itself.

Not until he had convinced himself that he was in no way responsible, did he allow his heart to beat a little for this boy of his. "Poor Bill," he thought on, "it has been a tough game for him. Lost in the shuffle. Born into something he didn't like and trying to escape, only to get caught. What did he expect out of life, anyway? Why didn't he learn that it's only a lot of senseless pain? Every moment of it pain--from coming into the world to going out. Oh, Bill, why didn't you learn what I know? You had brains, boy, but it would have been better if you had never used them. I've brains, too, but I've always managed to keep them tied down--buckled to the farm, to investments, and work--thinking about things that make us forget life. It's all dust and dust, with rain once in a while, only the rain steams off and it's dust again."

Martin began to review the course of his own past, and smiled bitterly. Others were able to live the same kind of an existence, but, unlike himself, took it as a preparation for another day, another existence which, it seemed to him, was measured and cut to order by professionals who understood how to fix up the meaning of life so that it would soothe and satisfy. He thought how much better it was to be a dumb, unquestioning beast, or a human being conscious of his soul, than to be as he was--alone, a materialist, who saw the meaninglessness of matter and whose mind, in some manner which he did not understand, had developed a slant that made him doubt what others accepted so easily as facts. Martin knew he was bound to things of substance but he followed the lure of property and accumulation as he might have followed some other game had he learned it, knowing all along that it was a delusion and at the same time acknowledging that for him there was nothing else as sufficing.

How simple, if Bill's future could be a settled thing in his mind as it was to the boy's mother. Or his own future! If only he could believe--then how different it would be for him. He could go on placidly and die with a smile. But he could not believe. His atheism was both mental and instinctive. It was something he could not understand, and which he knew he could never change, try as he might. Take this very evening. Here was death in his home. And he was escaping a lot of anguish, not by praying for Bill's soul or his own forgiveness, but by the simple process of harnessing a team and dragging a car through the mud. It was a great game, work was--the one weapon with which to meet life. This was not a cut and dried philosophy with him, but a glimmer that, though always suggesting itself but dimly, never failed when put to the test. Martin felt better. He began to probe a little farther, albeit with an aimlessness about his questions that almost frightened him. He asked himself whether he loved Bill, now that he was dead, and he had to admit that he did not. The boy had always been something other than he had expected --a disappointment. Did he love anyone? No. Not a person; not even any longer that lovely Rose of Sharon who had flowered in his dust for a brief hour. His wife? God Almighty, no. Then who? Himself? No, his very selfishness had other springs than that. He was one of those men, not so uncommon either, he surmised, who loved no one on the whole wide earth.

When he re-entered the house, he found his wife still seated in the rocker, softly weeping, the tears flowing down her cheeks and dropping unheeded into her lap. He pitied her.

"I feel as though he didn't die tonight," she mourned, looking at Martin through full eyes. "He died when he was born, like the first one."

"I know how you feel," said Martin, sympathy in his voice.

"I made him so many promises before he came, but I wasn't able to keep a single one of them."

"I'm sorry; I wish I could help you in some way."

"Oh, Martin, I know you're not a praying man--but if you could only learn."

Martin looked at her respectfully but with profound curiosity.

"There must be an answer to all this," Rose went on brokenly. "There must! Billy is lying in the arms of Jesus now--no pain, only sweet rest. I believe that."

"I'm glad you have the faith that can put such meaning into it all."

"Martin, I want to pray for strength to bear it."

"Yes, Rose."

"You'll pray with me, won't you?"

"You just said I wasn't a praying man."

"Yes, but I can't pray alone, with him in there alone, too, and you here with me, scoffing."

"I can't be other than I am, Rose; but you pray, and as you pray I'll bow my head."

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