The Country Boy/Chapter 3
Although Silverton was situated in a great hunting country and had lots of good shots, I never took much to hunting, perhaps because
I was a poor wing shot and deer were too pretty to kill; but I had heard of the great flocks of geese and ducks out on the coast of Nestucca, so I went over to have a great hunt, and the first day I was there I actually found a band of geese big enough so that when I shot into the entire bunch one on the outskirts fell. When this small goose hit the sand, he raised to his feet and ran, me after him, and after quite a run I overtook him and found only one wing broken. I always had wanted to own live wild birds and things, so I saw my chance. I carried him to the cabin carefully and cut up a cigar box lid into splints and set his wing and I was overjoyed to see an expression in his cute little black eyes that he sort o’ knew I was trying to cure him instead o’ kill him. He got rapidly better and I started for Silverton with him and there astonished our family by the kindly way this Hutchins goose let me doctor his wing. Father helped me doctor him some and finally when we took the splints off his wing, his affection showed more than ever, and to tell the truth he and I grew to be the nearest and dearest friends possible, not being of the same species. He used to follow me all over the place, and once when I was sitting down by him in the barnyard he brought me some straws, evidently wanting me to build a nest. He was a great talker and an alarmist; he would come to me after I had been away downtown and try his best to tell me what had been going on in the barnyard while I had been away.
In fact, he was my real chum. When I came into the barnyard mornings when the frost was on the ground, he would greet me all smiles, as much as a goose could smile, then he would step up on one of my boots, which was quite an effort, and hold his other foot up in his feathers to warm it, and if I started to move he would chatter and cackle that peculiar note of the Hutchins geese, as much as to say, “Hold on, don’t move, I’ll tell you another story.” Meanwhile he would warm his other foot.
When I went for a walk in the back pasture, he would walk with me at my side, just as a dog would do. There he spied a slight knoll and he went and stood on it erect, as much as to say, “I’ll watch out for hunters while you eat grass in peace and comfort.” When I had finished my pretext at eating grass I went and stood on the knoll, and as long as I stood there he fed with perfect confidence that I was watching out for his welfare, but when I
walked away he ran to me chattering something good naturedly, perhaps telling me that he had not finished. We really had great times together, but finally spring was approaching and I had noticed how he could fly around the barnyard. Father came to me one day and warned me that if I wanted to keep that goose I had better clip his wings, but he said, “I hope you won’t. You say that you love animals; now show it by letting this goose alone, then when his kind come by in a few weeks going north for the breeding season, he will join them and be happier than he is here.”
I replied that “of course an outsider might think he would leave, but in reality he would not. The goose and I have talked it over and he don’t care for anything better than I am, so he ain’t goin’ away.”
“Well,” said father, “when I see you two together I think as much, but when you go downtown loitering around with people that aren’t half as smart as this goose, it’s then that he misses you, and it’s on that account that I wish you would leave his wings the way they are now. But because after he is gone you will feel bad and mope around for a few days, I thought I would tell you now that when spring comes he will leave you, notwithstanding the bond of friendship, so if you want him kept here (which I hope you don’t) you had better cut the feathers on one wing.”
I didn’t want to mutilate his feathers so I left them on. A few weeks later coming from one of those important trips downtown, they told me at the house that my pet had gone. I said, “I guess not.” I didn’t want to let on that I was alarmed, but when they were not looking I made some big strides for the barnyard, and it was actually as still as death. I whistled but no sound, save an echo, came in return.
I noticed the leaves hung silent on our trees, though the neighbors’ trees were in action. I went back of the barn and called, but the call was wasted on a few old hens that “didn’t belong.” I tried to ginger up some life into the landscape by throwing a few old potatoes at things, but the brakes were set in general on everything and I went into the house and found all the family sitting: in front of an empty fireplace with long faces. No one spoke and the only noise was the clock, which ticked louder than ever. It was about dark when father arose and said it was for the best, that “here in Silverton there were no opportunities for him, in fact no pond for him to swim in even, and when you were away downtown, no one that he apparently loved, and if you will think of it a moment, it would have been cruel for you, a lover of animals, to have kept him here all of his life.” But there were no answers, just long breaths now and then, until it was time to light a candle. Then the world took on a brighter aspect.
In a few days I recovered with the rest and the long, beautiful spring came. No rain to speak of, and it was fine. I never saw so many picnics and never went with so many pretty girls, and ball games ran all through the summer and the jolliest threshing crews you ever heard of. Fall came and I was hauling wood into the barnyard one day when I heard wild geese; lots of them had been passing over for a week past, on their way south for the winter, but presently, just over the cone of the barn, came some large bird. I thought at first it was a condor; he lit in the barnyard and I was astonished that it was a wild goose. Our rooster hit him and he rose and circled and again lit twenty feet from me. I yelled for the neighbor who kept guns and one ran over, resting his gun on the fence and shot him, while I held fast to the team. It was great to think of killing game right in your own barnyard. I ran to pick him up, when father who was in the orchard yelled at me not to touch him. I said, “We have killed a goose in the barnyard, a wild goose.” “No,” said he, “don’t handle him; I want to feel of your head first to see if you have any bump of memory.” Father said, “Do you see that band of geese flying in a circle next to the hill? You used to tell me you could understand this little goose’s language and could talk some of it. If you remember any of it now, go out there as near as they will let you approach them and tell them they need not wait for their friend; he is never coming back.”
By this time I had realized all. I could recognize his every feature, even to the little black, glossy, soft eyes, which were now half open. Father asked if I saw what had happened, and said, “I’ll tell you, as I believe you are too dumb to comprehend. Your friend that used to be has brought that band of geese five hundred or a thousand miles out of their beaten course that he might bring them here to show them where a lover of birds and things treated him so well. They likely objected, but he persuaded and finally they have obeyed, and he left them there at a safe distance and came to see you, and so perhaps renew his love, and there he lies; and if you never commit another murder I hope this one will punish you to your grave. Some murders can he explained to the dead one’s relatives, but you can never explain this one and I want to show you his right wing. I think it was that one that we used to treat.”
I didn’t want to see his wing, but father was determined, and as he lifted the feathers at the middle joint, we saw a scar, a knot in the bone where it had healed.
Everybody is a criminal more or less, and some of the crimes are done by stupid people. Thus I console myself in a way over the death of the Hutchins goose, that perhaps I am a murderer through stupidity and not by premeditation.
John Wolfard, who kept and still keeps the big store in Silverton, had an old hairless terrier dog. I can’t remember when he wasn’t “Old Bob.” He wasn’t like other dogs much, perhaps on account of being hairless. The rest of the dogs hardly recognized him as even a distant relative, but he was. No telling what breed he was and I never remember hearing where he came from, but that doesn’t matter; he was a terror after cats, and some time during his life he evidently overtook one that left his or her mark on one of his eyeballs; though it must have been when Bob was young, as in later life he only waddled after them and never got near enough to make a cat more than spit; but the cat evidence on his eyeball was plain to be seen. That was perhaps why he was always trying to wipe out the old grudge. As he got very old, he got to be a painful sight to everybody but himself. He had curvature of the spine, so that his hindquarters got to a place about the same time as his forefeet did, and that impediment, with the full scratched eye that wouldn’t close, made Bob an unpleasant sight, and even the Wolfard family that was large cut him socially, as did most all others. He was short tailed and so fat that it made him pant with his tongue out to wag his tail, but somehow or other he always wagged at me, notwithstanding the effort.
It was winter and raining hard one night about eight-thirty, when I was in Wolfard’s store. John Wolfard was huddling around the store dreading to make the dash for home. We were talking about the opportunities of Silverton in general, when he said, “The trouble ain’t with Silverton; it’s with you boys. There ain’t any of you got any enterprise. For instance, there is old Bob. I don’t want to kill him and still he ought to be put out of his misery, and I have offered any of you boys time and again all the crackers and sardines you can eat if Bob disappears. All I want to know is that he is gone and gone for good, and I don’t want to hear the particulars.”
I looked down by my chair, and there he sat oily and fat, as sleek as a seal. I looked over behind the counter where they kept the sardines and they looked pretty good. I got up and sorter stretched, when John Wolfard, lighting a new cigar, said, “It’s enterprise that you boys lack, the town’s all right.”
I went into the back part of the store where they kept the bacon and a certain portion of the eggs that are brought to a general store, and the cooking butter. Old Bob was peeking around the chair leg when I said “Rats,” and in a second he came grunting through the door, trying as best he could, for a dog that had to walk sideways, to be spry. I went to lift up a big empty coffee sack and old Bob dove into it hunting some rats that weren’t there. I thought at the time it was his last rat hunt, but it wasn’t. I pulled up my sack and Bob grunted louder as he rolled to the bottom of it. I turned up my coat collar and outside I found a brick they used to block the warehouse door open with. I put that in with him gently and tied the sack and walked across the wet sidewalks to the big bridge. Silver Creek was about as high as it ever got; saw logs were running thick and few animals besides ducks or beavers could have swam it. I felt uneasy, still I felt that it was enterprise, and that while Bob didn’t know it, I was doing him and the town a favor. So I stood on the first approach of the bridge and swung the heavy sack over the perpendicular bank, next which the main current of the stream ran. I thought I heard above the roar of the mountain torrent a grunt, then a sickening kind of a splash, and it was just after the splash that I felt dreadful and blamed John Wolfard. The dark night then frightened me and I ran into the warm store, and as I approached the stove I said to the proprietor who was there alone, “Open some sardines and dig out some crackers and put in a few sweet ones for such a job as this.”
“Now, remember,” said Wolfard, “I don’t want to know what’s happened.” He opened some old sardines. I never have seen the same pictures on cans since, and he brought cheese as well as crackers, and while I ate we listened to the pattering rain. A stranger or two from the streets came and all commented on the high way I was living. John was smoking extra heavy and the whole back part of the store was so thick with smoke that you had to shove it away to get room to breathe. I had been eating about fifteen minutes when I heard a licking sound on the floor by my chair. Looking down I saw old Bob there licking himself dry. We all saw it at the same time, and the first thought that struck me was to quicken the pace of eating so fast that when John wanted an explanation I was choked on a big square sweet cracker. There was but one solution and that was that he hit the bottom of the creek so hard that he busted the sack and that by some miracle he was washed on the bank at a point where he could get out, and all this done before he strangled, as old Bob couldn’t have swam out of Silver Creek during the low water of summer, let alone the high water of winter. I didn’t have money to pay for what I had eaten and the friendly way Bob stuck so close to me I did not want to show any more enterprise, so I had to work the next day in J. Wolfard Co.’s shingle shed piling shingles to pay for a meal that wasn’t on the regular bill of fare. Old Bob strangely spent the whole day with me, spryer than he had been for years, and after that night he seemed to pin his faith to me and whenever I was downtown he was always with me when I sat down. He always got right in front of me when he wasn’t in my lap and looked intently into my face as much as to say: “When all others fail me, I can always count on you.” Mile after mile he followed me over the poor board sidewalk until one day he just died of old age. But as John Wolfard said, “Homer, as you wasn’t around, he died leaning towards a cat.”
Silverton was a queer place socially; while the townspeople were all of one set and there was little of any class hatred, the rich seldom ever lined up against the poor. Still if a very beautiful girl came to town all of us boys sort of took it for granted that she would turn us down if we did attempt to take her any place, so no one ever gave her the opportunity. We admired her and talked of her at the swimming holes and in fact everywhere we met, but no one ever had the nerve to approach her with a proposal of a “Let’s go to the dance, or the party or the entertainment.” We started to several times, but every time we got close enough to smell the beautiful odor of perfumery our nerve always went back on us, and as a result she wasn’t kept out nights much. For a long time the girls in town had been about the same in looks varying according to who had the colds.
One day a beauty came to town to live with some relatives of hers and she pined some time before she was taken out. I had been out with a threshing crew and we moved on Saturday to a field near Silverton. The grain wasn’t quite ripe enough, so we laid off until Monday,—an awful thing to do in that country, giving us all a chance to go into town and get shaved up and a clean shirt. When I got to town there was a lot of talk on the streets of a dance to be given that night at Egan’s Hop House out in the Waldo Hills. After my shave and hair cut it seemed a shame to waste it; that I’d better go to the dance. My financial condition wasn’t what you’d call very steady. It rose and fell so that I couldn’t hardly count on one girl regularly. But I started in where the most affection lay and met a rather sad refusal. She said she would rather have gone with me, but I hadn’t asked her since early spring, so she was engaged to go with Harvey Allen, the leader of the Trombone Band. I went down the line and got eleven “mittens,” as we called them. Then I even asked one young girl that had never been to a dance alone, and her mother refused, although the girl was willing, so I called it off and went up home and helped around the barn. I waved my hat to the girls I had asked as they drove by in livery rigs with other fellows, and after they had all gotten out of town I went down to the post-office to get the Silverton Appeal, when who should I meet but the belle of the village, as we all called her among ourselves. She smiled and I smiled, and she asked why I wasn’t at the dance. “What dance?” said I. “At Egan’s Hop House,” she replied. “Everybody in town has gone but us.” When she said the word “us” I saw a new world. The old post-office seemed like the Congressional Library, the plain glass jars full of striped stick candy began to look like Tiffany’s window; the tobacco smoke from the post-office had the odor of beautiful roses, and I started to speak but my jaws set. She said several things that I didn’t comprehend, and when I came to I heard her say, “Somehow no one asks me to go to places and I should like to go so well.” I steadied myself by taking hold of the fence, as we had started to walk up the street, and I said that I was afraid there was no more livery rigs, and she said, with the sweetest voice you ever heard, a voice that is still ringing, “Can’t you get your father’s old horse and buggy?” “Oh,” I said, “yes, but that ain’t good enough.” “Good enough,” she said, “I thought it was too good and that’s why you never asked me to go in it.” It was now dark and we were nearly opposite our house. Old Don, the horse, was in the calf pasture and the old-fashioned high buggy stood under the wagon shed where it was sometimes for months without being used. So we agreed to slip out to the dance and surprise them. I told her I didn’t care much for such things owing to the crowd that went, but that now I could see a dance as I never had before. So I helped Nettie into the buggy just where it stood and she sat there thinking, perhaps, while I went to get the horse. And you bet I wasn’t gone long, and the way we saluted each other when I returned with the horse showed that we had already begun to get chummy, and how much better it sounded than to be distant. I backed the horse into the shafts and harnessed and hitched him right where he stood, but I got half of his harness backwards. I couldn’t think of anything pertaining to harness, so when I got into the buggy I drove out through the barnyard as quiet as possible and feeling about as good as a young man ever feels. I was afraid to breathe for fear my arm would touch hers. I wanted to get to the dance as quickly as possible before anybody left so that the advertisement I would get from being seen with this beautiful girl would be as big as possible. I didn’t have time to get any candy hearts, or in fact anything, and the perfume she had on seemed a fit emblem to celebrate the occasion. We talked about the weather first, and then how backward Silverton was, and by that time we were out of town and I let the horse trot. Presently we ran over some rough spot and the old sorrel horse
snorted and tried to run away. It was new actions for him, so I got out and tried to find what was the matter. The harness was all right but his eyes were blazing with lire that I could even see in the night. We wondered why he snorted and I got back into the vehicle and we again started on a trot. Finally as we struck another rock, the horse bolted and between his snorts we thought we heard a fluttering. I finally got him stopped and I put my arm around Nettie before I thought to see if her cloak was in the wheel, but it wasn’t. Again I went over the harness and felt to see if the crooper was all right. We couldn’t account for it; the only evidence we had was that the horse never started until we ran over a rock or some rough object. So we started again and a few yards when we struck a chuck hole away went the horse and I hung onto the lines; then we discovered what we had done and it was amusing, as chickens always had queered me. Father had compelled me some weeks before to clip my game chickens’ wings so they couldn’t roost on the back of the buggy seat. In my joy at leaving the barn I had forgotten that my chickens did roost on the hind axle of the buggy, and as we drove out we took the hen roost also, so that naturally when we went over a rock or rough place with the hind wheel, we dislodged all or most of the chickens and they would catch by their necks and flutter back on the axle; thus they frightened the horse that never even shied before at anything; so when I said to the handsomest girl in Silverton, “It’s chickens roosting on the hind axle,” she exclaimed, “No wonder; I never saw you before to-night without a chicken, and there they are really here with us now.” I thought we had lost some, as there were some missing. I didn’t know what to do as the dance would soon be over. We couldn’t leave them beside the road for fear of skunks or minks. She thought we ought to leave the chickens, but I didn’t, as one of our best old hens was in the party and it seemed a crime to expose them to next to certain death. If it had been daylight and I could have seen the beautiful girl perhaps I would have done differently, but we turned around and started back home slowly, as the tired hens breathed heavily on the back axle. We were still sitting as far apart as the buggy seat would let us; had no outward signs of getting closer, in fact we were getting farther apart. She thought young men shouldn’t think so much of chickens, while I thought they were next to human. We planned another ride without chickens, but it was the passing of my short reign and I didn’t know it until it was too late. That opportunity that the late John J. Ingalls wrote of was there, but not to wait; and when it went it came no more. We got home, but I had hurt her feelings for chickens, and we parted without much friction. I stayed up until the other folks got home from the dance. They were all more or less happy, especially those on the back seats. I told them I had been riding around all night with the belle of Silverton, but all they did was to laugh and especially the girls that had given me the mitten.