Western Short Story
Weary did not go back. When the hurry of shipping was over he went to Shorty and asked for his time, much to the foreman's astonishment and disgust. The Happy Family was incensed and wasted profanity and argument trying to make him give up the crazy notion of quitting.
It seemed to Weary that he warded off their curiosity and answered their arguments very adroitly. He was sick of punching cows, he said, and he wasn't hankering for a chance to shovel hay another winter to an ungrateful bunch of bawling calves. He was going to drift, for a change—but he didn't know where. It didn't much matter, so long as he got a change uh scenery. He just merely wanted to knock around and get the alkali dust out of his lungs and see something grow besides calves and cactus. His eyes plumb ached for sight of an apple tree with real, live apples on it—that weren't wrapped up in a paper napkin.
When was he coming back? Well, now, that was a question; he hadn't got started yet, man. What he was figuring on wasn't the coming back part, but the getting started.
The schoolma'am? Oh, he guessed she could get along without him, all right. Seeing they mentioned her, would some of them tell her hello for him—and so long?
This last was at the station, where they had ridden in a body to see him off. Weary waved his hat as long as the town was in sight, and the Happy Family ran their horses to keep pace with the train when it pulled out, emptied their six-shooters into the air and yelled parting words till the Pullman windows were filled with shocked, Eastern faces, eager to see a real, wild cowboy on his native soil.
Then Weary went into the smoker, sought a place where he could stretch the long legs of him over two seats, made him a cigarette and forgot to smoke it while he watched the gray plains slide away behind him; till something went wrong with his eyes. It was just four o'clock, and school was out. The schoolma'am was looking down the trail, maybe— At any rate she was a good many miles away from him now—so many that even if he got off and had Glory right there and ran him every foot of the way, he could not possibly get to her—and the way the train was galloping over the rails, she was every minute getting farther off, and— What a damn fool a man can make of himself, rushing off like that when, maybe—
After that, a fellow who traveled for a San Francisco wine house spoke to him pleasantly and Weary thrust vain longings from him and was himself again.
For two months he wandered aimlessly and, then, not quite at the point of going back and not being rich or an idler by nature, he started out, one gloomy morning in late November, looking for work. He was in Portland and the city was strange to him, for he had dropped off a north-bound train the night before.
People hurried past without a glance in his direction, and even after two months this made him lonesome, coming as he did from a place where every man hailed him jovially by his adopted name.
There was little that he could do—or would do. He tried digging ditches for the city, along with a motley collection of the sons of all nations but his, seemingly.
The first day be blistered both hands and got a "crick" in his back.
The second day, he quit.
On the third day, he brought up at the door of a livery stable. A man with a slate-colored, silk waistcoat was standing aggressively in the doorway, one hand deep in his pocket and the other energetically punctuating the remarks he was making to a droop-shouldered hostler. Some of the remarks were interesting in the extreme and Weary, listening, drew a deep sigh of thankfulness that they were not directed at himself, because his back was still lame and his hands sore, and in Portland law-abiding citizens are not supposed to "pack" a gun.
The droop-shouldered man waited humbly for the climax—which reached so high a tension that the speaker rose upon his toes to deliver it, and drew his right hand from his pocket to aid in the punctuation—when he pulled his hat down on his head and slunk away.
It was while the orator was gazing contemptuously after him that he heard Weary cheerfully asking for work. For Weary was a straight guesser; he knew when he stood in the presence of the Great and Only. The man wheeled and measured Weary slowly with his eyes—and there being a good deal of Weary if you measured lengthwise, he consumed several seconds doing it.
"Humph!" when the survey was over. "What do you know about horses?" His tone was colored still by the oration he had just delivered, and it was not encouraging.
Weary looked down upon him and smiled indulgence of the tone. "If you aren't busy right now, I'll start in and tell yuh. Yuh better sit down on that bucket whilst I'm doing it—if I'm thorough it'll take time."
"Humph!" said the man again and carefully pared the end of a fat, black cigar. "You seem to think you know it all. What's your trade?"
"Punching cows—in Northern Montana," answered Weary, mildly.
The man took the trouble to look at him again, this time more critically—and more favorably, perhaps. "Bronco-buster?" he demanded, briefly.
"Some," grinned Weary, his thoughts whirling back to the dust and uproar in the Flying U corrals—and to Glory.
The man seemed to read what was in his eyes. "You ought to know better than to founder a three-hundred-dollar trotter, then," he remarked, with some of the growl smoothed out of his voice.
"I sure had," agreed Weary, sympathetically.
"That's why I fired that four-or-five-kinds-of idiot just now," confided the other, rising to the sympathy in Weary's tone. "I need men that know a little something about horses—the foreman can't always be at a man's elbow. You can start right in—pay's good. Go tell the foreman I've hired you; that's him back there in the office."
Then came the rain. Week after week of drab clouds and drizzle, and no sun to hearten a man for his work. Week after week of bobbing umbrellas, muddy crossings, sloppy pavements and dripping eaves—and a cold that chilled the marrow in his bones.
Weary, after a week of poking along in the rain of an evening when his work was done, threw up his hands, figuratively, and bought him an umbrella, hoping devoutly they would never get to hear of it in Dry Lake. He stood for two minutes in the deep doorway of the store before he found nerve to open the awkward thing, and when he did so he glanced sheepishly around him as if it were a weak thing to do and a disgraceful.
Fog and rain and mud and mist, day after day through long months. Feeding hungry horses their breakfast at five o'clock in the morning; brushing, currying, combing till they shone satin-smooth. Harnessing, unharnessing; washing mud from rigs that would be splashed and plastered again before night. Driving to houses that were known by the number over the door, giving the reins over to somebody and walking back in the rain. Piling mangers with hay, strewing the stalls deep with straw. Patting this horse as he passed, commanding the next to move over, stopping to whisper caressing words into the ear of a favorite. Sitting listlessly in the balcony of some theatre in the evening while a mimic world lived its joys and sorrows below and an orchestra played soft accompaniment to his vagrant thoughts. All this was Weary's life in Portland.
Not exactly hilarious, that life. Not a homelike one to a man fresh from eating, sleeping, working, reveling with fellows who would cheerfully give him the coat upon their straight backs if he needed it; fight for him, laugh at him, or laugh with him, tease him, bully him, love him like a brother—in short, fresh from Jim Whitmore's Happy Family.
No one hailed him as Weary; his fellow hostlers called him simply Bill. No one knew the life he knew or loved the things he loved. His stories of wild rides and hard drives must be explained as he went along and fell even then upon barren soil; so he gave up telling them. Even his speech, colored as it was with the West which lies East of the Cascades, sounded strange in their ears and set him apart. They referred to him as "the cowboy".
Sometimes, when the skies were leaden and the dead atmosphere pressed his very soul to the dank earth, Weary would hoist his umbrella and walk and walk and walk, till the streets grew empty around him and his footsteps sounded hollow on the pavements. One Sunday when it was not actually raining he hired a horse and rode into the country—and he came back draggled and unhappy from plodding through the mud, and he never repeated the experiment.
Sometimes he would sit all the evening in his damp-walled room and smoke cigarettes and wonder what the boys were doing, down in the bunk-house at home. He wondered if they kept Glory up—or if he was rustling on the range, his sorrel back humped to the storms and the deviltry gone out of him with the grim battle for mere life.
Perhaps there was a dance somewhere; it was a cinch they would all be there—and Happy Jack would wear the same red necktie and the same painful smile of embarrassment, and there would be a squabble over the piece of bar mirror to shave by. And the schoolma'am— But here Weary's thoughts would shy and stop abruptly, and if it were not too late he would put on his hat and go to a show; one of those ten-cent continuous-performance places, where the Swede and the Dutchman flourish and the Boneless Man ties himself in knots.
A man will grow accustomed to anything, give him time enough. When four months had passed in this fashion, Weary began insensibly to turn more to the present and less often, to the past. His work was not hard, the pay was good and he learned the ways of the town and got more in touch with his acquaintances. They came to fill his life, so that he thought less often of Chip and Cal and Happy Jack and Slim. Others were gradually taking their places.
No one had as yet come to lift Miss Satterly's brown eyes from the deep places of his heart, because he again shied at women; but he was able to draw a veil before them so that they did not haunt him so much. He began to whistle once more, as he went about his work; but he never whistled "Good Old Summertime." There were other foolish songs become popular; he rather fancied "Navajo" these days.
It was past April Fool's day, and Weary was singing "Nava, Nava, my Navajo," melodiously while he spread the straw bedding with his fork. It was a beastly day, even for that climate, but he was glad of it. He had only to fill a dozen mangers and his morning's work was done, with the prospect of an idle forenoon; for no one would want to drive, today, unless it was absolutely necessary.
have a love for-r you that will grow-ow;
If you'll have a coon for a beau—"
trilled Weary, and snapped the wires off a bale of hay and tore it open, in a hurry to finish.
A familiar, pungent odor smote his nostrils and he straightened. For a minute he stood perfectly still; then his fingers groped tremblingly in the hay, closed upon something, and every nerve in him quivered. He held it fast in his shaking hands and sat down weakly upon the torn bale.
It was a branch off a sage bush—dry, shapeless, bruised in the press, but it carried its message bravely. Holding it close to his face, drinking in the smell of it greedily, he closed his eyes involuntarily.
Great, gray plains closed in upon him—dear, familial plains, scarred and broken with sharp-nosed hills and deep, water-worn coulees gleaming barren and yellow in the sun. The blue, blue sky was bending down to meet the hills, with feathery, white clouds trailing lazily across. His cheeks felt the cool winds which flapped his hat-brim and tingled his blood. His knees pressed the throb and life, the splendid, working muscles of a galloping horse.
Weary's head went down upon his hands, with the bit of sage pressed hard against his cheek.
Now he was racing over the springy sod which sent a sweet, grassy smell up to meet him. Wild range cattle lumbered out of his way, ran a few paces and stopped to gaze after him with big, curious eyes. Before him stood the white-tented camp of the round-up, and the rope corral was filled with circling horses half hidden by the veil of dust thrown upward by their restless, trampling hoofs. Now he was in the midst of them, a coil of rope in his left hand; his right swung the loop circling over his head. And the choking dust was in his eyes and throat, and in his nostrils the rank odor of many horses. Men were shouting to one another above the confusion. Oaths were hurled after a horse which warily dodged the rope. Saddles strewed the ground, bits clanked, spurs jingled, care-free laughs brightened the clamor.
The scene shifted. He was sitting, helpless, in the saddle while Glory carried him wantonly over the hills, shaking his head to make the broken bridle rattle. Now he was stopping in front of a vine-covered porch, where a girl lay sleeping in a hammock—a girl with soft, dark hair falling down to the floor in a heavy braid. Again, he was sitting on the school-house steps, holding a smoking gun in his hand, and the schoolma'am was standing, flushed and reproving, before him. The wind came and fluttered her skirts—
"What's the matter, Bill? Yuh sick?"
Weary raised a white, haggard face. The plains, the blue sky, the sunshine, the wind, the girl—were gone. He was sitting upon a torn bale of hay in a livery stable in Portland. Through the wide, open door he could see the muddy street. Gray water-needles darted incessantly up from the pavement where the straight lines of rain struck. On the roof the rain was drumming a monotone. In his fingers was a crumpled bit of gray sage-brush.
"Sick, Bill?" repeated the foreman, sympathetically.
"Oh, go to hell!" said Weary, ungratefully. He felt tired, and weak and old. He wanted to be left alone. He wanted—God, how he wanted the dream to come back to him, and to come back to him true! To close about him and wrap him in its sunny folds; to steep his senses in the light and the life, the sound and the smell of the plains; to hear the wind rushing over the treeless hills; to see the wild range cattle nosing the crisp, prairie grass.
He got unsteadily upon his legs and went slowly to his room; dropped wearily upon the bed, and buried his face in the pillow like a hurt child. In his fingers he clutched a pungent, gray weed.