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ERNEST HAYCOX

THE SILVER SADDLE

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First published in Collier's, 9 Mar 1940
Original manuscript title "Quarter Section on Dullknife Creek"

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2019
Version Date: 2019-08-15
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Illustration

Colliers, 9 March 1940, with "The Silver Saddle"



THEY dropped from the high hills to the top of a lower ridge, Tom Baker and his son Elzie, and left the horses and stopped by a big pine. Elzie leaned against the pine, holding the Krag. For a boy of twelve it was a bulky gun but the weight didn't seem to bother him; nothing bothered him now because he was all tied up in the hope of getting his first deer. The sun was almost down and the light had changed, filling the ravine below them with dusty pearl-gray shadows; down there was a runway that mule deer used in coming and going from the hills.

"In fact," said Tom Baker in a voice very soft for so big a man, "there's a buck movin' out of the brush now. You see him, Elzie?"

Elzie lifted the Krag along the pine bark and steadied it. His heels squirmed slowly in the dust; he was bracing himself against the Krag's recoil, for he had practised on this gun long enough to know the wallop it had. "But I believe I'd wait," said Tom Baker in the same gentle murmuring, "till he got lower in the canyon. He ain't seen us and he can't smell us and he'll drift down and come to a stop, to look things over. That's the way they travel. Stop and look and go—and stop again. Same way when they reach water—a drink and a look, and a drink and a look. Aim right behind the forequarter. Don't want to gutshoot him."

He watched Elzie, not the buck. Elzie's cheek lay flat against the gunstock and his whole face was solemnly thin, which would be a youngster's excitement freezing everything inside him. A man had to remember the way a boy felt when he was twelve, shooting his first deer or doing anything for the first time. A man needed to remember about being young, because it was so easy to forget. Elzie's sighting eye ceased to wink and the crook of his finger grew steadily smaller against the trigger. The report of the gun was a dry burst which fled through the hills in loosening waves and died out as fragments in far corridors. The buck jumped and dropped, not moving again. Elzie worked the Krag's bolt but he held the gun half lowered, staring at the brown patch of the deer below; his face was starved and thoughtful, his eyes black as coal.

"Wait up," said Tom Baker, so gently, and walked to his horses for a rope. It was a mighty big feeling for a youngster, that first kill; it just went right down to the roots. You wouldn't ever think it from looking at Elzie's small and pointed face just now, but that was being young, to hold the big feelings out of sight. The little feelings always showed but not the big ones. He came back with the rope and they went down the slope together, Elzie circling the buck.

"Not at the head, son. Don't get in front of those horns till we know." When he tested the deer with his boot he knew it was stone dead; and cut its throat at once. He waited to see if Elzie remembered how he had been taught and when the boy turned over the safety on the Krag and laid it down, he was pleased. Training took a lot of time, but when you saw the results work out, you got a kind of grateful feeling. He said: "A mighty square shot. You did well. And there's our winter's venison as good as in the jar right now."

Praise always affected Elzie. He looked down and said in a half-smothered way: "Did just like you said. Didn't waste a shot, did I?"

"No sir, you sure didn't," said Tom Baker. He opened the deer, cleaning it. He broke a branch from the nearest pine and trimmed out a couple of short poles, cutting them to a point at each end and jamming them in the buck's tendons. He threw one end of the rope over a taller limb of the pine, fastened the other end to one of the poles, and hauled the buck well off the ground, tying the free end of the rope to another pine. "High enough to keep the coyotes off. It will cool tonight. Some men," he added, "hang their meat other end down. I like this way best; seems as though it drains better."

He explained these things in a deliberate, patient way, so that they would sink in. For he had a humble man's deep respect for the usefulness and the power of knowledge. He had no book learning he could give his son; all he knew were the practical things, the lessons he had learned by the usage of his hands, and these he meant Elzie to have; because they were all he could give, and because the giving of them might save Elzie some of his own toil.

The sun dropped and twilight moved in swiftly, a bodiless gray water filling the canyon brimful. Tom Baker wasted another few moments to roll a smoke, so that Elzie might have the last spell of pleasure from looking at his deer. Then they climbed the canyon's side, got to their horses and descended the long grade toward the floor of the sage desert.

Now that it was over, Elzie thawed and became talkative. He said: "It was a good one, wasn't it? What'll it weigh?"

"Dress close to two-fifty."

"You got sharp eyes, dad. I wouldn't of seen it until you spoke. Then I just remembered what to do. I just remembered what you'd said. Seems like I had to remember everything at once, and then I did. About the trigger and keeping my eyes open and takin' time, and sighting behind the forequarter. I used to wonder how I'd be able to see that spot. Now I know how it goes. Next year I'll know how to dress it, too."

"Sure," said Baker. "It's the knowin' that counts, Elzie. You read a thing and then you see it. But you've got to do it. Then you really know."

The sage desert opened below and beyond them, with twilight's dark-opal haze shimmering on it, with here and there a faint light glittering from wide-spaced homestead houses, and the black hulk of the Rim rising as a solid shadow thirty miles west. Dropping from the bench of the hills, they forded Dullknife Creek, crossed the road and came to the yard and the house. Lissie and Little Bill were making a clatter inside but Mrs. Baker was in the doorway, saying: "Any luck?"

Baker saw the struggle on Elzie's face—to shout it out at once or to hold himself in. Elzie held himself in, saying in as deep and brief a voice as he could manage, "We got one."

"Elzie's deer," softly added Tom Baker. "Nice one."

"Now, Elzie," applauded Mrs. Baker's voice, but Elzie was gone, kicking his horse toward the corral. Tom Baker grinned at his wife, and put away the horses. Elzie drove in the cow and mixed up the mash for the hogs while Baker milked, his big hands squeezing the jets in tinny rhythm against the sides of the pail. He strained the milk in the pantry shed and poured it into the shallow skim pans, whereupon would come by morning the thick rise of yellow cream; and washed at the back porch basin, blowing the water through his hands as he scrubbed his face. Elzie was inside speaking to seven-year-old Lissie and to Little Bill who couldn't catch on, being only two: "Well, it came down the canyon and dad saw it and I shot it. Just one shot." He put out his hand, cocking thumb and forefinger and said: "Bang."

Little Bill said: "Bang."

"Ah," said Elzie, "you're just a kid."

Tom Baker chuckled behind his towel. He went into the yellow light of the kitchen, into its warm smell of supper; and sat up to the table. He said, "Your turn, Elzie," and bowed his head a little, winking at Lissie while Elzie said grace.

Mrs. Baker said: "Tomorrow will be a good day to work on that meat. Bring it down early, Tom."

When they had finished, Tom Baker brought in a boiler of water and set it on the stove; and dragged the galvanized washtub to the center of the floor. He settled longlegged in a chair and lighted up a pipe, a man cast upon the shores of indolent content. He had a little plowing to do, a load of wood to bring out of the hills, and a few beeves to sell; but then the work of the year was about done and he could look either backward or forward and feel no worry. There was food and shelter, and no debts, and everybody was in good health. Mighty strange how these plain things counted to a man. These above everything else. The smoke of his pipe drifted over the room in sleazy layers and a haze of steam began to rise from the boiler. Little Bill crawled into his lap, reaching for his pipe stem. Lissie stood on a chair to wipe dishes, and Elzie was outside in the glow of moonlight; he would be dreaming over the day, living every minute of it again, just growing big with it. You had to remember how youngsters felt.

He put Little Bill in the chair, dumped part of the hot water into the tub, and refilled the boiler; he rolled back his sleeves, and undressed Little Bill and knelt down, the pipe angled at a corner of his mouth. Little Bill was round-bellied, full of the devil and as slippery as the bar of soap; when he had finished his chore, buttoning on Little Bill's nightgown, Tom Baker was wet to the armpits. Afterwards, dumping the tub and adding fresh water, he gave Lissie her bath; and called Elzie in.

Elzie took his own bath, making work out of it. He was pretty close to twelve, flat-sided and skinny-muscled as boys get to be at that age, the skin on his stomach white in contrast to the turned tan of his arms and legs and neck. Lissie sat, half sleepy, in Baker's lap and Little Bill, holding the edges of his nightshirt from the damp floor, slowly circled Elzie in the tub; he pointed his finger at Elzie and said: "Bang—bang."

Elzie said: "You ought to send these kids to bed. I'm gettin' pretty old to be stared at."

Baker's glance lifted over Elzie's head, to his wife watching in the background. "For a fact, I guess you are."

It took time to get all this done and sometimes it dragged when you were tired. But, herding the youngsters up the stairs, with Little Bill riding his back, he figured it was something you had to stop and think about. They wouldn't be young long; soon enough they'd be out of his reach for good. So the time to make them remember, to see they learned the right things and saw the proper examples, was now—in this short space you had with them. He listened to their prayers and opened the attic windows and left the lamp low-burning on account of Little Bill, its faint light making all the shadows of the attic darkly mysterious. He kissed Little Bill and Lissie, smelling the soap on them and the rank, sweet odors below the soap fragrance, which was the smell of childhood; and scrubbed Elzie's black hair with his hand. He hadn't kissed Elzie for a couple of years now, knowing the boy was a little old for it. "Well, maybe if we need a little fresh meat we'll go after another one late this month." He walked downstairs, dumped the tub and refilled the boiler, and went out to sit on the porch, nursing his pipe. In a little while his wife joined him.

The hard heat of the year was gone; this was Indian summer, with haze closing over the land and the smell of smoke abroad and the kind of a quietness that comes when the earth slows down and steadies itself for winter. He felt an edge in the small wind—the edge of coming rain. Crickets were singing and the frogs had begun to make their pleasant sawed-off racket down in the quiet willows where Dullknife Creek made its slackwater pool. The moon was a quarter full and this light silvered the thick dust of the Prairie City road and lay on the rising benchlands like a depthless mist. In this night the land gave up its thick scents, or sage and stubble field and stacked hay and barnyard and dust and wild rose and the sweet Williams growing by the gate. He had lived with them so long he could catch each smell distinct and clear from the others. A night like this took all the trouble out of a man's bones; the last murmuring of the children was pleasant to hear in the stillness.

He laid the flat of his heavy hand on his wife's knee, turning slowly to see her. There wasn't anything easy about a woman's life on a sagebrush quarter section; but she still stayed young, she still had her quick humor—and a sort of swing and sparkle to her. Her hair was very black and after twelve years of marriage she held her strong, soft-rounded shape, so that even now it stirred him when he thought about it, as it had before marriage. He liked her steadiness, he liked her fun; he liked the way she still could flirt with him, holding him off and then, when it got exasperating, coming to him and making everything all right. It never got calm and settled, never dull; there was still that hunger underneath.

He tapped his pipe on the toe of his boot and went in to pour his bath water, and to refill the boiler for her. The tub was always a problem for a man his size. He sat jackknifed in it, his toes jammed against the sides, his back creased into the rim, feeling pretty awkward and wryly grinning back at her open laughter at the sight he made; she knelt and scrubbed his back and dripped water perversely on his face and left him. When he was through he emptied the tub and refilled it for her; and went around the house, trying the windows and doors, and took the clock and wound it, and went to bed.

Lying there, thinking back over the year, he saw nothing to be disturbed by. For a man who had come off the open range, salty and a little wild twelve years before, he had done well. When she came to bed, warm and close and her hair damp and sweetsmelling, he said:

"Next week we'll just load up the wagon and go up into the hills for a vacation."

Her laughter, quick and like a summons, turned him. "For an old woman," he said, "you're pretty fresh."

"Next week's next week."

"Sure," he said, "and this is now."


HE went into the hills at first daylight and brought out the buck; and strung it up in the woodshed and skinned it, with Elzie watching. Baker said: "Keep a heavy pull on the hide. Stretches the tallow from the skin and gives you a clean cut." He halved the carcass and butchered it on the chopping block, taking off the quarters, slicing the steak meat, and trimming the ribs. His wife already had jars boiling and the frying pan on the stove. The steaks would be fried, they'd go in gallon jars, sealed in their own gravy; the chuck meat she'd make into meat balls, using the tallow to cover them; and she had a way of putting part of it up in brine, so that nothing was wasted. The last thing he did was to cut long strips of flank meat to be put in the smokehouse and jerked. He got the smokehouse fire started, left Elzie in charge and, with a remaining quarter wrapped in a clean muslin sack, he lined out for town.

He left the quarter at Mrs. Tyson's, four miles down the road, and reached Prairie a little beyond noon. He saw Pete Luz about selling his four cows, bought a few things his wife had asked him to get and got a bag of candy apiece for the children. Roundup time was a week away and somebody had put a couple of banners across the street, giving this raw, wooden town an overdressed air. There was a Sunday crowd in the saloon, homesteaders and riders from the cattle outfits. He knew most of them, saluted them cheerfully and had a drink or two, passing the time of the day and catching up on the gossip. In the middle of the afternoon he thought about eating and started over to the Shorthorn. Somebody said, "Hello, Tom," and he stopped to talk to Ned Puryear and then saw the banker's boy, Jimmy Ryan, come riding down the street on a good horse and a new saddle.

Jimmy Ryan was around twelve, same as Elzie, and he was a smart young fellow, taking some pleasure in showing off the horse and the saddle. Puryear said: "Where'd you get the saddle, Jimmy?"

"Birthday," said Jimmy and held a tight bit on the horse, making it fiddle-foot in the dust.

The saddle, Tom Baker saw, was straight out of the shop, and expensive, with acorns stamped in and round skirts and decorated stirrup leathers and fenders. Jimmy Ryan went down the street, the horse dancing sidewise in the dust, and on that instant a feeling, quick and cold and disheartening, shook its way through Tom Baker. He forgot about the Shorthorn, about being hungry. He stood there, staring at the boy until the boy was gone; and swung on his heels to get his packages from the saloon, returning to his horse. This was the way he looked in the saddle, a heavy- thewed, limber man with his skin smooth and sunbrown, and a long pair of lips settled across heavy teeth, and a loose-brimmed hat raked over his hair, which was black as dye. He sat there, staring at the candy he had bought and change went through him completely. The liquor had loosened him, but when he came to think of Jimmy Ryan, and the saddle, and the three bags of candy in his hand, he wasn't loose any more. He rode slowly home.

The youngsters were happy about the candy but that didn't help him. His wife had a side-table full of canned venison and he said in the soft voice which never left him, "That's sure nice," but emptiness rattled inside Tom Baker and his wife saw it and took time to come to the door and watch him when he crossed the yard. He relieved Elzie at the smokehouse, building up the fire; he stood at the fence and looked across the quarter section; he rolled a cigarette and just stood there, with the points of his shoulders dropped, as though the heart had gone out of him.

The sun went down and supper time came. He sat at the table, a changed man who said nothing while he looked at Elzie and the younger ones; and afterwards he built a smoke in his pipe and went to the porch. He didn't lean back in ease. He humped forward, his long arms rested on his legs, hands down, staring out at the land through the tobacco smoke. It was funny what a day did to a man. Now this had looked pretty nice last night, this quarter section by moonlight. It didn't look that way now. It wasn't exactly the saddle; Elzie had a good enough saddle even though it was old and plain. Well, it was what the saddle meant. Ryan had something to give his son, Ryan would send the boy away to school and Jimmy would keep up with things, the way Ryan had. It was a matter of learning; you weren't anything in the world without learning; not the way the world went now. He listened to the children as they climbed the stairs, not following them as he usually did. His wife finished the dishes and came out to sit beside him, waiting through his silence; she was, he realized gratefully, an understanding woman. She knew he was in trouble and waited until he spoke it.

When a man felt satisfied he never saw much; it took trouble to open his eyes. Right now he was remembering his boyhood and the two-room log house in Montana which had somehow held his parents and five children, and a grandfather, who slept in the barn. They had a small outfit and they got along; but when they grew up it was his oldest brother Pete who took the ranch. It wasn't big enough to support anybody else and so the rest of the young ones just drifted away; some of them he had never heard from since, nor had he ever written back. That's the way it was.

And that's the way it would be here. This quarter section on Dullknife Creek wasn't much to pass on; looking through the moonglow, he saw it pretty straight—just a sagebrush outfit, with his kids growing up to nothing, and drifting, and not knowing enough to be anything better than he had been or his father had been. And never writing back.

He sat there, miserably seeing it; and spoke. "Well, it was just a saddle Ryan gave his boy, Jimmy. Never mind the saddle. It's Ryan standing behind Jimmy, able to give him something and send him out to school. You could see that on Jimmy when he was sittin' in the saddle—a sort of top man look. He knows he's on the right track, goin' somewhere. It shows up. What've I got to give Elzie, or Little Bill? What's ahead for Lissie? No, I got to find a way. I got to get some money. No use sittin' around here all winter." And presently he added in the slow way of a man who had made up his mind: "In the mornin' I'll pack a blanket roll and go over to that railroad construction outfit. Man can always get on there."


HE was gone by daylight, hiking the thirty miles, and was on the construction company's payroll that same afternoon, handling a shovel at three dollars a day. They were cutting a grade down the face of the Rim—one long slash to let the new railroad off the high desert to the Prairie City level. He paid six bits a day for board and bunked in a shanty that had a tin stove and double decked bunks and a card table and a couple chairs; you could smell the staleness of tobacco and whisky and unwashed clothes and blankets. In this particular shanty were three Irishmen, a Lithuanian, a Mexican and a dangerous kid that called himself Calumet Red.

Three hundred men worked on the grade; they were coming and going all the time. On the second day the strawboss came by. "You're a rancher—you handle horses?"

"Sure."

"All right, you drive team. You're on the hook at five-and-a- half a day."

The teamsters worked up and down the raw powder-gray dust of the grade, hauling water and supplies. The work wasn't any harder but it brought in two-and-a-half more a day. That was what knowledge did for a man. If you knew how to do something, you got out of the crowd; you climbed up. He could handle horses. It wasn't so much—but it just showed what knowledge did. He'd have to tell Elzie about this, so Elzie would understand what it meant to know something. Now and then, driving the grade, he watched the superintendent, Mr. Cochran, hurry along the cut; a solid little man, quick as a terrier, with his eyes moving around, sharp and observant. That's the thing he must tell Elzie. Even a humble man with a little knowledge got his rewards; but then you learned more, like Mr. Cochran, and you rose up over three hundred men, or a thousand, or more. It just depended on how much you knew.

But it was hard to stick out that first week. He missed his wife and he missed the children; and he worried a little at not being around to talk to Elzie—just to slip in a word now and then, so that Elzie might catch something he wouldn't otherwise get. About growing up, about what was the right thing and the seemly thing, about what was straight and what was not. This mighty short time in childhood was all you had to set them out with their feet in the right direction. It was hard to be here and feel this time slip away. He sat in a bunkhouse chair by night, or lay on his bunk and smoked his pipe, all his muscles heavy with weariness, listening to the men in the shanty; and watching Calumet Red. The kid had a swagger and he was insolent. Blond hair grew down like a woolly mat in the back of his neck and he had thick shoulder muscles and there was a stain of red in the corner of his eyeballs, and he had the men bluffed, even the Lithuanian who was a giant. Calumet Red was maybe twenty and once or twice Tom Baker saw the kid turn his pale, redshot eyes on him; as though sizing him up to see if he could bluff him, or lick him.

Saturday noon at the end of work he lined out for home, walking fast. It was dark when he came down the last turn of the road and the light from the house made him feel odd; he had never been away from his family this long before and now that light seemed to shine against him, as though he were outside of it. It came quickly, and quickly went away. The door was open and his wife stood in it, waiting and smiling, with her head tipped aside. When he came to her he felt awkward, like a stranger, and he stood there and at last said: "Well, don't look like anything burned down." But she laughed at him, or with him, and put her hand on his shoulder and kissed him.

"I've saved up some supper. I knew you'd be here." The kids were in bed. Baker got a towel and a bar of soap and went down to the creek and took his bath in the pool. The day had been warm and the water was warm, and he went back to the house and ate his supper, with his wife seated opposite, chin in her hands, watching.

"Elzie's done all the milking."

"He'll do," said Baker. It was good to be here; it was a feeling in his bones, like rest. He built a smoke in the pipe and wiped dishes while she washed, and walked around the yard in the moonlight, looking at the horses in the corral, scratching the back of the sow in the pen. The smell of sage came off the desert rank and satisfying and the benchland rolled upward in the silver yellow glow toward the pines. He returned to the house and went up to the children; he opened the attic window wider and looked down at them, at Little Bill who lay on his back with his arms flung out and every muscle loose, at Lissie's yellow hair tumbled around her head, at Elzie whose face showed a patch of dirt on one side of his freckled cheek. They were asleep, they were dreaming. In bed, he lay awake beside the warmth and the softness of his wife, with her head lying on his shoulder, and silence came down wonderfully—the silence of a house filled with a family all together.

In the morning he worked at the little chores and chopped wood. There was still the smell of rain in the air. "One good soakin' and I'll take a day off to plow," he said. They had chicken and gravy and mashed potatoes and biscuits and pumpkin pie for noon meal; and then it was time to go. But he loitered around the house, just walking in and out of it until it was three o'clock. "Well," he said, "I'll be back next week," and left his wife at the door. The youngsters walked down the road with him a mile or more, and then he went on alone. At the big dip in the road he turned to see them standing far behind. They were three in a tapering row, all holding hands, Elzie and Lissie and Little Bill; he raised his hand at them and set out to cover the distance. It was a long thirty miles.

First fall rain set in that week, coming up out of the south west in long slantwise ropes glittering like ragged splinters of glass against the leaden day. The powdery gray alkali mud deepened on the grade and water stood in the ruts until the wagon hubs touched it; and this mud and this wetness was on everything. That following Saturday it was too stormy to go home; and he sat through Sunday in the bunkhouse, idle and irritable, smelling the damp steam rising out of clothes and the smell of unwashed bodies and listening to the broken stories of the men around him. He sat there, far away from all of them, while he thought of his family, and a jumpiness got into him. Calumet Red, coming to the stove, pushed him accidentally, perhaps, back in the chair, and stared at him with his red-stained eyes. "Why in hell you got to take up all this space?" And the kid seemed to wait, with his lips puckered back from his bad teeth. Baker let that pass, though he knew he should have called the kid at once; there was always that slow way of judging in him. Then it was Thursday with all the world drowned out in gray rain mists and the bunkhouse was like a steam bath, close and rank and dismal, and everybody was on edge. There was a bunch of Russians in the next shanty, all good men, but they had gotten some whisky and now were singing in a wild low way that clawed at the man's nerves. Tom Baker came in from the rain, and was in the doorway when Calumet Red started out of the bunkhouse. He met Baker right there and his face was straight and bad and his nostrils swelled and without a word he dropped his head and hit Baker twice in the stomach and knocked Baker out of the door, down into the gray liquid mud of the grade.

The wind came back to him when he stood up, the mud slid in loose fragments all along his clothes; he walked in against the kid waiting at the doorway. The kid hit at him and missed, and Baker just walked in solid and slow and drove the kid backward, through the narrow aisle between the bunks, back into the rear space by the stove. The bunkhouse was full of men; they stood up to get out of the way, they rolled into the bunks to get out of the way. Calumet Red crouched and jumped at Baker, strong as a young ox and hurt Baker badly with his fists; but Baker moved on against him. He caught the kid's arms and tied them up and drove the kid against the shanty wall. He battered the kid's head against the wall and let go with his fists, smashing the kid's face, side to side; he caught him again and got his big arms around the kid's throat and shook him like a sack of straw, and hit him once more and dropped him. He felt mean enough at the moment to kill the boy and was ashamed of the feeling.

The only sound in the bunkhouse was the draw of the kid's breathing and his own. The kid was down in a corner; he looked up at Baker with his face bleeding and a dead, confused, hating color in his eyes.

Baker said: "Get up and sit in that chair, son."

The kid just sat there until Baker added, in the soft voice that never left him, "Do as I say, boy, or I'll break your neck." Calumet Red came off his haunches; he sat in the chair, his thick shoulders bunched over, his feet touching a stove poker lying on the floor. His glance reached the stove poker and rose swiftly, livened by a thought.

"Where you come from?" said Baker.

"Duluth," said the kid. "What of it?"

"Where's your dad?"

"In the pen, if he's alive," said the kid. "I dunno. I pulled out long time ago."

"Got a mother?"

"How the hell do I know?"

The kid's glance dropped to the poker and Tom Baker knew what was in his mind at once. Before the kid moved he brought his tough hand around like the sweep of an ax, palm open, and hit the kid on the side of the face. It was like the sound of an exploding bottle; the kid fell off the chair—he was thrown off—and struck the floor in a round heap. The kid was dirty all the way through, which was the way he had been taught by his kind of life. But maybe there was something below that was worth looking at; and then Baker knew there wasn't. For the kid brought up his hand to shield his face, and on his face was nothing but the cringing look of a whipped pup. No hatred, no life, no anger.

"I'm sorry for that, son," said Baker. "I shouldn't of done it."

Next morning the kid was gone. He had rolled his blankets and pulled out. But, driving team through the bottomless mud, with the rain slashing against him, Baker remembered what the kid had said about his people. His people had not been good and the kid had grown up without help. This was what happened when you left a boy alone in that mighty short space of childhood; when you didn't stand by to steady him and speak to him, and show him the proper road. This was what happened. When he thought of it—and he thought of it all that day—something faltered in him and fear got in him for the time he had been away from home. This was Friday. Saturday morning, driving past the line of shacks he saw Mr. Cochran come from the cookshack, wheel slowly and fall into the mud.

Baker wrapped the reins around the brake handle and got down and lifted Mr. Cochran out of the mud. Mr. Cochran was drunk; his legs would not hold him and Baker had to support him and push him back into the cookshack. He settled Mr. Cochran down on a bench. Mr. Cochran hooked his elbows against the long table and stared at Baker.

"You're all right—you're all right," he said. "You're all right."

Baker said in his slow, quiet way, "What's the need of getting drunk, Mr. Cochran? For a hunky, maybe. Not for you."

"Not for me?" mimicked Mr. Cochran. He was laughing. It was a giggling rush in his throat. He almost cried when he laughed. "Well, you're all right. Not for me, uh?" And then he quit laughing and it hurt Tom Baker to see what he saw. Mr. Cochran's face was pale and it was empty. You looked at it and you saw maybe misery, or foolishness, or maybe something behind that really was like the beginning of a black hole. But you didn't see any happiness or anything solid, such as a man with knowledge, like Mr. Cochran's knowledge, ought to have. All Mr. Cochran's knowledge wasn't enough; not enough to satisfy him or hold him together. So he walked out of a door, dead drunk, and fell in the mud.

It occurred to Tom Baker that it wasn't seemly for him to stand here spying on another man like that. So he said, "Mighty sorry, Mr. Cochran," and went back to his wagon. He drove down the grade, delivered his load and took the team to the barn; he didn't bother about noon meal, but rolled his blankets and got his time from the timekeeper, and headed home.

The day was over with early, drowned out by the rain fog. Passing Prairie, he supposed it would save a trip if he went into town and cashed his time slip, but haste was on him, as though he had wasted too much time away from home now. This mist kept rolling up against him until it got through his clothes and into his shoes; until he was solidly adrip. Deep in the darkness he heard Delzell's dog barking a quarter mile back from the road. At the top of the dip he caught the shining of his own houselight—a little splinter of warmth that came out and touched him and quickened his heavy legs. It was ten o'clock. When he came up to the porch, his boots making a racket, the door opened and his wife stood there and the warmth of the room eddied against him.

She said, so calmly: "Better leave the blanket roll out there, Tom. Probably it's lousy."

He threw down the blanket roll, stepping into the room. Water began to collect at his feet, the pool gathering mud. He bent down to unlace his shoes, but the slight pressure of her arm drew him upright and she looked straight at him, at his eyes, and then she was smiling. "A long time, wasn't it, Tom?"

"Mighty long time."

"You're a funny man. You don't take to worry often. But when you do you worry hard. There never was anything to worry about. The children are all right. They'll always be all right—because of the kind of children they are. And because, maybe, of us."

"Well," he said, in slow, complete conviction, "I know that now." He moved out and got the boiler and filled it and hoisted it to the stove; and brought in the tub. He stood by the stove, shelling off his outer clothes, and watched his wife move around, making up a supper. His woolen underwear began to steam and to itch, and then he went up the stairs, and closed the attic window against the inbeating rain. Little Bill slept with his arms flung out and all his muscles loose. Lissie turned in her bed and smiled in sleep and brought up a hand, laying it against her face. Her body was a round ball beneath the quilts. When he came to Elzie's bed and saw the boy's tanned sober face he had a moment's tremendous regret for the three weeks spent away. Elzie's dark hair stuck up like straw sticks; he was getting long and thin from growth and there was a boy's smell on him. Baker stood there a little while, everything pretty clear in his mind. It took a good deal to make a man, and learning was only one of the things. The thing was, you had to stay by your children and show them how it all went, insofar as you knew. Maybe a word now and then, just a word; and a good deal of example, by the way you did a thing or didn't do it; but mostly by just living with them, so that everything sank in. So that when they grew up—if they had good blood and saw things straight they were all right. So that when they went away, they could look back and remember; and never go far wrong, because of what they remembered.

He went down and poured his water and had his bath, his wife laughing at the figure he made, and sat up to the table full of hunger. Afterwards he built a smoke in his pipe and sat by the stove, listening to the rain beat over his house, catching the raw freshness of the little currents of air drifting in. The sky would be washed clean and when the sun came again the land would be like new. Presently it was time for bed. He walked around the house, trying the windows, and wound the clock. Lying in bed, beside the warmth and the closeness of his wife, he had a tremendous feeling of happiness; everything went off his mind and he laughed silently at himself.

He said: "When the sun comes out again I think we'll just pack up the wagon and tent and go up in the hills. Maybe next week. Should be fine fishing in the lake. And I can show Little Bill the beavers. He ain't seen a beaver yet. We'll have a vacation. Next week."

Her voice was alive, amused; there was something in it to hit a man pretty hard. "That's next week, Tom."

"Sure. I know. And this is now."


THE END


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