THEY spent Monday morning moving the hay press down to the Cooley place and setting it up against the stack nearest the house. It was a good thing to have an easy Monday morning because everyone except Bill Turner went to town on Saturday night and got drunk. Sam Wiley, the boss, drove to Stockton on Sunday evening and at the cheaper beer saloons picked up his crew. Some of them had to be loaded in like sacks of wheat; the others sat up and finished their drunk with whisky on the way home; and the whole gang went about with sick faces and compressed lips on Monday morning.
But the evening before, Wiley had failed to pick up the most important of his men. That was Big George, the best bale-roller in central California, and his absence was a serious loss.
After lunch, they lay around under the fig trees near the Cooley house and smoked cigarettes and talked about what they might do when one o'clock came. But Bill Turner did not smoke; neither did he join in the discussion. He was only eighteen, and his long, skinny body oppressed him continually with a sense of youth. His position was that of roustabout, at twelve dollars a week, and, since his bed was a shock of hay and his food came from the cookhouse, the money was clear profit. He would need it in the autumn when he returned to school to work again toward that higher destiny which was his pride; but all summer that sense of superiority had to be stifled when he was the least member of a hay-press crew.
"We might get Cooley to roll the bales for one afternoon," suggested Lacey, the power-driver.
Bill Turner moved his head so that he could see the sleek, repulsively self-conscious face of Lacey. The forelock of his long, pale hair was always plastered down with water whenever he washed for a meal. According to his anecdotes, Lacey was an irresistible beau. He had carried his conquests as far as San Francisco and could name the mysterious and expensive places of the Tenderloin.
"Cooley!" said Portuguese Pete, one of the feeders.
"Yeah, Cooley's no good," said Jumbo, the other feeder.
Bill Turner got himself to one elbow and looked toward the pock-marked face of Jumbo. Except for smallpox he would have been an eminently fine-looking fellow, but that disease had ruined his face as a ten-year sentence had ruined his life.
"Why's Cooley no good?" asked Bill.
Jumbo turned his head slowly, after a manner of his own, and looked at the speaker with his pale eyes.
"Don't you know why Cooley's no good?" asked Jumbo.
Bill thought it over. Cooley had 1,100 acres in wheat and wild-oats hay which ran ten tons to the acre, this year, and it was said that he was going to get $12 a ton. That might mean $20,000 profit, though it was hard to believe that such a flood of money would pour into the pockets of a single farmer. In person, Cooley was sleek and down-headed, and his jowls quivered a little when he talked or chewed tobacco.
"Maybe he's kind of funny," said Bill thoughtfully, "but I don't see why Cooley's no good."
"You've been going to school, ain't you?" asked Jumbo.
"Yes," said Bill.
"Well, keep right on going," said Jumbo.
Great, bawling laughter came from the entire crew, with the piping voice of Sam Wiley, the boss, sounding through the rest like a flute through the roar of a band.
Bill Turner gripped his hands hard and slowly rolled over on his back again. His face was hot. Perhaps he ought to spring up and throw an insult at Jumbo; but he knew that he dared not face the terrible pale eye of the feeder. It was not so much the fear of Jumbo that unnerved him as it was a renewed realization that he was not a man. Others—yes, far younger lads than he—could take an intimate and understanding part in the conversation of grown-ups, but in some necessary mystery he was not an initiate.
As he lay on his back, he felt his shoulder and hip bones pressing painfully against the hard ground and he told himself that one day, by dint of tremendous training, he would be robed in great muscles; he would be shaggy with strength.
The thin half-face of Sam Wiley came between him and his upward thoughts.
"Listen, kid. You roll bales for this afternoon. Big George, he's showed you how to tie and everything."
"My jimmy!" said Bill, laughing weakly. "I'm not strong enough. Why, I only weigh about a hundred and sixty. I couldn't last it out. Those wheat-hay bales will run up to two hundred and forty."
Sam Wiley drew back.
There was a silence, and someone cursed softly. Then Jumbo said, "Yeah, he's big enough. He just ain't got it."
The implied insult was too great to be stomached. Bill sat up suddenly and cried, "What haven't I got?" He heard his voice shrilling, and he was ashamed of it.
Portuguese Pete chuckled. "He wants to know what he ain't got!"
"Ah, hell," said Jumbo, and wearily started rolling another cigarette.
Sam Wiley's face, narrow from chin to brow like the head of a Russian wolfhound, turned again to Bill. He was sun-blackened, except about the eyes, where the wrinkles fanned out in lines of gray. The only thing that was loose was his mouth, which seemed too big for the skull behind it, and that showed all its extra sizes when Wiley spoke.
"You can do it, and I'm gonna give you a shot at rolling bales."
The outfit could average around 40 tons a day; at 18 cents a ton, that made $7.20 a day for the bale-roller—against the $2 which Bill made as roustabout! Then you subtracted a cent a ton for wear on gloves.
Wiley said, "I'll pay you your regular two bucks and another dollar thrown in—"
"What!" cried Bill, outraged.
"But if you don't stop the power-driver too much, you get the full rate, kid," finished Wiley. "Better go out to the dog-house and look things over. You been in there before."
Being active and willing, Bill had been favored with a turn at all the important jobs, now and then. He had flogged the power horses around their dusty circle; he had handled the big fork on the stacks or out of the shocks which were run up on bucks; he had stood on the table and built feeds under the instruction of Portuguese Pete or Jumbo; and he had even been in the dog-house of the bale-roller, taught by Big George how to knot the wire in a figure eight with one cunning grasp of the left hand. He looked down at that left hand, now, and wondered if it would betray him in his time of need.
"You get away with it, and I'll keep you on the job," said Wiley. "You're a pretty good kid, and Big George is too much on the booze."
Bill left the shade of the trees. The sun fell on him with a hot weight; his shadow walked before him with short legs. As he crossed the corral, he saw the pigs wallowing in the muddy overflow from the watering troughs. They were growling and complaining; some of them had lain still so long that the sun had caked the mud to white on their half-naked hides. They luxuriated half in heat and half in muddy coolness.
Beyond the barns, Bill crossed the summer-whitened field toward the nearest stack against which the press had been set. The stack burned with a pale, golden flame. Other great mounds rose among the acres of Cooley, some of them filmed over by the blue of distance. Every stack was heavy wheat and oats and when you lift a 240-pound bale three-high you've done something.
The shadow under the feed table promised coolness in the dog-house, but that was all illusion; it was merely dark instead of flaming heat. The wide shoulders of the stack shut away the wind. The big hay hooks of George lay on the scales, to the top of which was tied the box of redwood tags for the recording of weights. The iron rod for knocking over the locking bar leaned against the door. These were the tools for the labor. Bill was weak with fear. He had no shoulders. His arms hung from his skinny neck. He remembered the gorilla chest and arms of Big George, but even Big George had to groan in the hot middle of the afternoon. And this would be a scorcher. In the cool beneath the trees around the house the thermometer stood now at a hundred; it was better not to guess at the temperature in the dog-house or to imagine the middle afternoon.
Sam Wiley in person appeared, leading the power horses. The boss as roustabout made Bill smile a little. The other men came out. Jumbo and Portuguese Pete paused beside the ladder that climbed the stack.
"When you get the bale out, slam that door and lock it fast, because I'm gunna have the first feed pouring into the box," said Jumbo.
"Aw, the kid'll do all right," said Portuguese Pete. "Look at him. He's all white."
Pete opened his mouth for laughter but made no sound. He looked like a pig gaping in the heat; he had the same fat smile.
Old Buck could be heard off to the left cursing the black derrick-horse, Cap. The power team was being hitched.
"Five minutes to one!" called Wiley.
"Whatcha want, Pete? The stack or the table?"
"I'll start on the stack. But leave the kid alone, Jumbo."
"Yeah. Maybe," said Jumbo.
They disappeared upward. The boards of the feeding table sagged above the head of Bill. Jumbo let down the apron of the press with a slam. Hay rustled as he built the first feed. So Bill got on his gloves. He left one hook on the scales. The other he slipped over the bent nail which projected from a beam at his right. Sam Wiley was marking an angle with his heel, kicking into the short stubble.
"Put your first bale here, kid!" he called. "Build her twenty long."
It was a terrible distance, Bill thought. If he had to build the stack as big as that, it would mean taking the bales out on the trot and then coming back on the run.
He licked his lips and found salt on them.
"All right!" called Jumbo.
Lacey called to his power team. There was a jangling of chains. One of the horses grunted as it hit the collar. The press trembled as the beater rose. It reached the top, the apron above rose with the familiar squeak. The derrick pulleys were groaning in three keys. From far above there was a sound of downward rushing, and the first load from the great fork crunched on the table. It was a big load; a bit of it spilled over the edge and dropped to the ground by the dog-house.
Bill kicked the hay aside because it made slippery footing. He felt sicker than ever.
The beater came down, crushing the first feed to the bottom of the box and pressing thin exhalations of dust through invisible cracks.
Jumbo was yelling, "What you mean tryin' to bury me, you damn' Portugee Dago?"
The apron slammed down on the feed table again.
Bill looked at his left hand. It would have to be his brains. As for the weighing, the tagging, the rolling, the piling, he would somehow find strength in his back and belly for these things; but if he could not tie fast enough, everything else was in vain. The left hand must be the master of that art.
A word struck into his brain: "Bale!" How long ago had it sounded in his dreaming ears? Were they already cursing his slowness?
He leaped at the heavy iron, snatched it up, fitted it in, knocked the locking bar loose. As he cast the iron down, the door swung slowly open. He pushed it wide with a sweep of his left arm. Already Tom had the first wire through. Now the second one slithered through the notch on the long needle that gleamed like a thrusting sword.
A good bale-roller ought to tie so fast that he waits for the last strand and insults the wire-puncher by shouting, "Wire! Wire!" Bill grasped the lower and upper ends of the first one. He jerked it tight, shot the lower tip through the eye, jerked again, caught the protruding tip with his left thumb, pushed it over, cunningly snagged it with the fingers of his left hand, and as they gripped it with his right thumb gave the last twist to the wire. The knot was tied in that single complicated gesture.
The three middle wires were bigger, stiffer. But they were tied in the same quick frenzy—and now he saw with incredulous delight that the fifth wire was not yet through.
"Wire!" he screamed.
It darted through the notch at the same instant and he snatched it off the forked needle.
"Tied!" he yelled, and caught the hook from its nail. He sank it into the top of the bale at the center, and leaned back with his left foot braced against the lower edge of the box. The beater trembled, rose with a sighing sound, slid rapidly upward.
His strong pull jerked the bale out. He broke it across his right knee, swerving it straight toward the scales. With his left hand he caught the edge of the door, thrust the heavy, unbalanced weight of it home, at the same time disengaging the hook from the bale and with it pulling the locking bar in place. He had had a glimpse, as he shut the door, of the down-showering of the first feed, and knew that Jumbo was giving no mercy but was rushing his work even as he would have done if Big George were in the doghouse.
Bill turned the bale end-up on the scales, slid the balance, found 195. The fingers of his right hand, witless behind the thick of the glove, refused to pick up a redwood tag from the box. At last he had it. The pencil scraped on the wood in a clumsy stagger. Who could read this writing, this imbecile scrawl? His teeth gritted as he shoved the tag under the central wire.
Then he rolled the bale out. He had to go faster. He had to make it trot the way Big George made a bale step out on legs of its own, so to speak. He put on extra pressure. The bale swerved. It staggered like a wheel that is losing momentum, wavering before it drops. Then, in spite of him, it flopped flat on its side, jerking him over with the fall.
Somewhere in the air was laughter.
He leaped that bale to its side again, hurrying it toward the angle which Wiley had marked on the ground.
"Bale!" shouted Lacey.
Well, that was the finish. He was simply too slow. With his first attempt he was disgraced, ruined, made a laughingstock. And all of those hardy fellows, relaxed in the profound consciousness of a sufficient manhood, were half smiling, half sneering.
He put the bale on the mark and raced back. All was at a standstill. The power horses were hanging their heads and taking breath. Old Buck leaned against the hip of Cap. Jumbo was a statue on the feed table; Portuguese Pete stood on top of the stack, folding his arms in the blue middle of the sky.
The yell of Jumbo rang down at him: "If you can't use your head, try to use your feet! We wanta bale some hay!"
But the voice of Jumbo and the words meant less than the sneering smile of Tom, the wire-puncher. He was one of the fastest wire-punchers in the world. Once he had been a bale-roller himself, but now his body was rotten with disease and he walked with a limp.
Bill had the second bale beside the first and was on his way back, running as hard as he could sprint, before that terrible cry of "Bale!" crashed into his mind again.
"Don't go to sleep at the damned scales," shouted Jumbo. "Get them tags in and walk them bales! Here's a whole crew waiting on a thick-headed kid. Are we ever gunna bale any hay?"
In the dog-house there was a continual cloud of dust, partly trampled down from the feeding table, partly drifted from the circling of the power team as its hoofs cut through the light hay-stubble and worked into the dobe. Hay dust is a pungency that works deep through the bronchial tubes and lungs; the dobe dust is sheer strangulation.
Life is a hell but real men can live through it. He remembered that. His own concern was to labor through that stifling fog and get the bales out of the way of the feeders. He was doing that now. Sometimes he was clear back to the press and waiting with the iron rod, prepared to spring the locking bar the instant he heard the word "Bale!" The sun was leaning into the west, slanting its fire through the dog-house. He had laid the whole back row of the bale-stack; now he was bucking them up two-high, remembering to keep his legs well spread so that the knees would make a lower fulcrum, always avoiding a sheer lift but making his body roll with the weight.
He laid the row of two-high; the three-high followed. For each of these he had to allow himself a full extra second of lifting time. Big George, when in haste, could toss them up with a gesture, but Bill knew that one such effort was apt to snap his back or knock his brain into a dizziness as though he had rammed his head against a wall. The thing was to rock the bale up over his well-bent knees until the edge of it lodged against his body, then to straighten, lifting hard on the baling hooks, bucking up with the belly muscles and hips and freeing the hooks while the incubus was in full motion. He gave it the final slide into place with his forearms and elbows.
Every one of those three-high bales was a bitter cost. They weighed 200, 220, 240, as the big, fork bit into the undried heart of the stack. Bill, himself, a loose stringing-together of 160 pounds. He had not the strength; he had to borrow it from someplace under his ribs—the stomach, say.
Sometimes when he whirled from the stack the world whirled with him. Once he saw two power teams circling, one on the ground and one in the air just above, both knocking out clouds of dust.
When the teams were changed, he caught the big five-gallon water canteen up in his arms, drank, let a quart of the delicious coldness gush out across his throat and breast.
They were baling well over three tons to the hour. That meant a bale a minute tied, taken from the press, weighed, tagged, rolled, piled, and then the run back to the doghouse with the dreadful expectation of "Bale!" hanging over his head.
It was three hours and a half to four-thirty. He piled three and a half full tiers in that time and then found himself in the dog-house with the great iron bar in place, waiting, waiting—and no signal came.
Tom, the wire-puncher, called the others with gestures. They stood for a moment in a cluster and grinned at Bill.
"You poor fool!" said Jumbo. "Don't you know it's lunchtime?"
The mouth of Bill dropped open in something between a smile and a laugh. No sound came. Of course, at four-thirty there was a lunch of stewed fruit, hot black coffee, bread, and twenty great, endless minutes for the eating. The men went out and sat in the shadow of the stack of bales—his stack. He followed them. As he came closer to the dark of the shadow, he bent forward, his arms hanging loosely, and spilled himself on the ground.
Half a dozen men were putting shakes on the top of the barn, somewhere, he thought; then he realized that the rapid hammering was in his body, in his brain, as his heart went wild. Out here the air stirred, faintly; it was hot on the eyes and yet it cooled the skin; and every moment breathing became a little easier.
A heavy shoe bumped against his ribs. He looked up and saw Jumbo.
"Why don't you sit up and try to eat your snack, like a man?" asked Jumbo.
"Yeah—sure," said Bill.
He got the heels of his hands on the ground and pushed himself up against the bale. The rest of the crew were at a distance; their voices came from a distance, also; and the only thing that was near and clear was Mrs. Peterson, their cook, carrying a steaming bucket of coffee.
"Are you all right, Billy?" she asked.
"Yeah," he said. "Why, sure. Thanks a lot. I was just taking it easy."
"Leave the kid alone!" called the harsh voice of Jumbo. She shrank away. "Women are always horning in!" he added loudly.
Bill was still sipping the coffee when Sam Wiley sang out like a rooster, "Come on, boys. There's a lot of hay waiting."
Bill swallowed the rest of the coffee and got up to one knee, gripped the edge of a bale, pushed himself to his feet. The dizziness, he was surprised to find, had ended. He was all right, except that his feet burned and his legs seemed too long.
And then in a moment, with what seemed a frantic hurrying to make up for lost time, the press had started. He finished the fourth tier, built the fifth, and at the end of it found himself teetering a heavy bale on his knees, unable to make the three-high lift. The terrible voice of Jumbo yelled from the stack, "Hurry it up! Are we gunna bale any hay?"
A rage came up in him; he swung the weight lightly into place as Lacey sang out, "Bale!"
The sun was declining in the west and he remembered suddenly that the day would end, after all. He was not thinking of seven dollars; he was thinking only of the sacred face of night when at last he could stretch out and really breathe.
But the sun stuck there. It would not move. Somewhere in the Bible the fellow had prayed and the sun stood still—Joshua, wasn't it?—while the Jews slew their enemies. Now the sun stood still again so that Bill Turner might be slain.
He still could tie the wires and take the last of the five off the needle. He could get the bale out and roll it. But even the two-high lift was an agony that threw a tremor of darkness across his brain. That place from which the extra strength came, that something under the ribs, was draining dry.
Then, as he came sprinting to the cry of "Bale!" he heard Jumbo say, "He could do it, Pete, but the kid's yellow. There ain't any man in him!"
Bill Turner forgot himself and the work he was doing with his hands. He forgot the watery weakness of his knees, also, remembering that somehow he had to kill Jumbo. He would devise a way in fair fight.
And suddenly the sun was bulging its red-gold cheeks at the edge of the sky.
"That's all, boys!" Sam Wiley sang out.
And here were the feeders coming down from the stack; and yonder was the familiar cookhouse streaming smoke on the slant of the evening breeze. Someone strode toward him from the stack of bales.
"Look out, kid," said Tom. "There comes Big George, drunk and huntin' trouble. That means you. Better run."
He could not run. He saw Big George coming, black against the west, but he could not run because his legs were composed of cork and water. He got to the scales and leaned a hand on them, waiting. Lacey, wiping black dust from his face, said, "You poor fool, he'll murder you."
Big George came straight up and took Bill by the loose of his shirt; he held him out there at the stiffness of arm's length, breathing whisky fumes. It was not the size of George that killed the heart of Bill; it was the horrible contraction of his face and the crazy rolling of his eyes.
"It's you, eh?" said Big George. "You're the dirty scab that tries to get my place?"
"He ain't got your place, George!" shouted Sam Wiley, running up. "He only filled in while—"
"I'll fix you later on," said Big George. "I'm gunna finish this job first or—"
"You can't finish a job," said the voice of Jumbo.
"I can't do what?" shouted Big George.
"Take off your hat when you talk to me," said Jumbo.
Big George loosed his grasp on Bill.
"Hey, what's the matter?" he demanded. The magnificence and the fury had gone out from him as he confronted the pale eye of Jumbo. "Hey, Jumbo, there's never been no trouble between you and me—"
"Back up and keep on backing," said Jumbo. "Get your blankets and move. The kid wouldn't run from you, but you'll run from me or I'll—"
It was quite a soft voice, with a snarling that pulsed in and out with the breathing, and Big George winced from it. He shrank, turned, and in a sudden panic began to run, shouting, with his head turned over his shoulder to see if the tiger followed at his heels.
"The kid didn't stop the press today, and he won't stop it tomorrow, Wiley," said Jumbo. "If he ain't good enough to roll your bales, I ain't good enough to work on your stacks."
"Why, sure, Jumbo," said Sam Wiley. "Why, sure. Why not give the kid a chance? Come on, boys. I got a heap of fine steaks over there in the cookhouse for you."
They were all starting on when Bill touched the big arm of Jumbo.
"Look, Jumbo," he said. "All afternoon I didn't understand. Thanks!"
The eye of Jumbo, too pale, too steady, dwelt on him.
"Aw, try to grow up," said Jumbo.
Supper went with a strange ease for Bill. No one seemed to notice the shuddering of his hands even when it caused him to spill coffee on the oilcloth; eyes courteously refused to see this, and the heart of Bill commenced to swell with a strength which, he felt, would never leave him in all the days of his life.
Toward the end Lacey said, "About three o'clock I said you were finished, Bill. I waited for you to flop. Well, you didn't flop."
"No," said Portuguese Pete, "you didn't flop, Bill." He grinned at the boy.
"Ah, you'd think nobody ever did a half-day's work before!" said Jumbo.
That stopped the talk but Bill had to struggle to keep from smiling. He was so weak that the happiness glanced through him like light through water.
Afterward he got a bucket of cold water and a chunk of yellow soap. He was the only one of the crew that bothered about bathing at night. Now, as he scrubbed the ingrained dirt and salt and distilled grease from his body, Sam Wiley went past to feed the horses, and the rays from his lantern struck the nakedness of Bill.
"And look at him," said the voice of Lacey out of nothingness. "Skinny as a plucked crow, ain't he?"
Bill got to the place where he had built his bed of hay, under an oak tree away from the circle of the other beds, because the snoring of Portuguese Pete had a whistle in it that always kept him awake. Half in the blankets, he sat up for a time with his back to the tree and watched the moon rise in the east beneath a pyramid of fire. He made a cigarette with tobacco and a wheat-straw paper. The sweetness of the smoke commenced to breathe in his nostrils.
Now the blanched hay stubble was silvered with moonlight as though with dew and, as the moon rode higher, turning white, a big yellow star climbed upward beneath it. That must be Jupiter, he thought. When he turned to the west, the horizon was clean, but in the east the Sierra Nevadas rolled in soft clouds. This great sweep of the heavens made him feel it was easy to understand why some people loved the flats of central California. It had its beauty, and the breath of it was the strange fragrance of the tarweed which later on would darken the fields with a false verdure.
He had never been so calm. He had never felt such peace. All the ache of his muscles assured him that at last he was a man, almost.
Then a horrible brazen trumpeting rolled on his ears, seeming to pour in on him from every point of the horizon; but he knew that it was the jackass braying in the corral. Before the sound ended, he put out his smoke and slid down into his bed, inert, sick at heart again. Somehow it seemed that even the beasts of the field had power to mock him.
Through his lashes, he saw the lumbering form of Portuguese Pete approaching with a bottle in his hand. Pete was stopped by another figure that stepped from behind a tree.
"What you gunna do with that?" asked the hushed voice of Jumbo.
"It's good stuff," said Pete, "and I'm gunna give the kid a shot."
"No, you ain't," said Jumbo.
"Yeah, but I mean the skinny runt lifting those bales—this'll do him good."
"Leave him sleep," said Jumbo. "Whisky ain't any short cut for him. Come along with me and I'll finish that bottle with you. Tomorrow we'll see if the kid can take it, really."
"You kind of taken a fancy to the kid, ain't you?" asked Pete as they moved away.
"Me? Why, I just been kind of remembering, is all," said Jumbo.