The Heroism of Landers
THE HEROISM OF LANDERS
By Arthur Stanwood Pier
HOW you feelin', son?"
The answer came without a particle of expression in a weary little voice.
"But doc says ye mustn't drink often, son," answered the man, gently. "I dastn't let ye drink yet. Now shet your eyes an' see if ye can't ketch a little nap."
The man who was bending over the bed laid his hand gently on the sick child's forehead. The child did not move or reply. Its face was worn and shrunken to its little bones; its great blue eyes protruded in a way that made one feel that sleep never visited them, and that, nevertheless, they saw nothing.
"Well, Jim," had said a friend, cheeringly, who had come up to see how Landers's child was getting along, and whose attention was at once fixed by those eyes, "I guess 'tain't so bad. They ain't a tear 'ithin five feet of him."
"No, nur a smile either," Landers had answered, hopelessly.
And now Landers sat down and gazed on the apathetic face, as he had been wont to do of late, with mournful fascination.
"Yes, it's bad, bad," he murmured. "He's goin' the same way his pore ma did, the very same way."
To be sure, the doctor had not given up hope, which was kind of him, as he never expected to be paid for his services. Not that there was a more honest man in the town than Landers. But the mill had been closed now for two months on account of hard times, and there was no present prospect of its being reopened. Most of Landers's savings had gone to meet the expenses caused by his wife's illness. She, too, had had typhoid fever; she had died two weeks before, and had been buried with little ostentation. Landers was an undemonstrative, earnest sort of a man, and, moreover, had the serious condition of his only child to think about. He was obliged, perhaps, to neglect the dead for the living.
For the last week he and the child had been subsisting on credit, which, Landers could not help feeling, was only another name for charity. The child had been failing under the régime of economy which Landers tried to introduce. And the doctor now said that it could pull through only if it had good nursing and the proper things to eat. The proper things to eat! Landers inquired what they were, and his heart sank as the delicacies were named over. Once more he went through that unproductive, harsh reasoning to which he had hardened himself. All the money came from the mill; now that the mill was closed people must soon begin to buy altogether on credit, but the stores could not go on indefinitely selling on credit. The end was near.
With this ruthless fact confronting him, he had gone out, day after day, in search of work, while, in the meantime, a neighbor, Mrs. Lennan, watched over the child. Each day his search had been equally vain; he knew beforehand that it would be. Men were standing idle on the corners and growing riotous through lack of food and work. Yet on this afternoon, when Mrs. Lennan came up to sit with the child, he went out as usual.
He made his ordinary unsuccessful round. As he was passing a group of idlers, who were sitting in front of the grocery, one of the men, who had a newspaper, called out to him.
"I'd like to git into somethin' like this, wouldn't you, Landers?" said the man. Landers took the newspaper and read, in a half-hearted way, how somebody somewhere with a little trouble, though without risk, had saved a railroad train from being wrecked, and had received on the spot a purse of over a hundred dollars.
"No train ever come near bein' wrecked roun' here," said the man, complainingly. "Queer how some fellers git all the luck."
"Luck ain't fur me," said Landers, quietly. "The only way I could ever git anything was by work. I can't git nothin' there now."
He walked away when the men began to discuss the advantages of socialism. He knew that they meant nothing practical, and that they were merely amusing themselves. He could not amuse himself; his whole mind was constantly with his child. As he walked home, looking idly down at the puffs of dust that shot out from beneath his feet, he felt utterly discouraged.
"I guess we both of us might's well jus' lay on our backs till our noses is covered," he said, despairingly.
Then, suddenly, when he reached the foot of the stairway that led up between two walls to the sick-room, he smote his thigh, and exclaimed:
"I won't give up. I'm a-goin' up to argue this thing out with God."
And argue it out with God he did. He waited till those weary, doleful, blue eyes had for a few moments forgotten themselves and fallen asleep. Then he rose from his seat by the bed and tiptoed to the window to collect and arrange his thoughts. Down below was Mrs. Lennan's garden, filled with rich purple larkspurs and sweet-williams and verbenas. A small pear-tree stood beside the garden and threw its shadow across half of it. And then in front of the pear-tree and the garden ran a clean yellow picket fence, which Landers had helped Lennan to build several years before. These small familiar sights Landers took in unconsciously as he stood at the window. Somehow, he found his mind running away from the argument back to the day when he had helped build the fence. It had been a pleasant, cool, summer evening, he remembered, and his wife had come out to sit on the front "stoop" with the baby and look on. Then Mrs. Lennan had gone oyer to sit with her, and there they both had sat while the hammers rang merrily on the nail-heads. And after the fence had been built, they had all gone down to the river for a row, and Landers stopped remembering. He turned from the window, and walking solemnly to the centre of the room, looked up and said, in a business-like voice:
"God, what am I to do? You know, God, that if they was any work, the humbles' or meanes' or mos' dang'rous, at any wages, I'd be willin' an' glad to do it. But, God, I'ye been through this whole town day in an' day out fur a week, an' there ain't any work; there won't be any till the mill starts. People ain't able to giye a body work; they're all in the same fix as me, only mebbe not so bad. An' you know, God, I can't leave the chil' to go an' hunt a job in some other town. If you'ye made up your mind, God, that it's right an' ness'ry the chil' should die—w'y, I know we've all got to die, an' lonely as I'll be, I'll try to comfort myself thinkin' his ma couldn't git 'long 'ithout her little son. Only don't you think, God, you'd ought to give him a fair show? It don't seem fair to me to starve him to death. It don't seem to me his ma, no matter how much she longed fur him, 'd want that. Now, God, I know you kin tell, I know you kin inspire it in my heart, an' I ask you, jus' as if I was a little brother askin' his big brother, or a son askin' his father, 'God, what am I to do?’"
"You're not hurt, are you?" asked the conductor, excitedly.
He was kneeling beside a man who lay prostrate in the ditch below the track. A group of passengers had collected round him; others were descending from the steps of the train, and others were running up along the ditch. Brakemen with their lanterns were hurrying this way and that. The man lying in the ditch moved.
"No," he said, faintly, "I guess I ain't hurt. The log kind o' fell on me, but there ain't no bones broke, I guess."
The conductor and two others half lifted him to his feet. He leaned against the embankment for a moment; then he suddenly started up.
"Did you ketch them?" he cried, anxiously.
"Who?" asked the conductor.
"The robbers—wreckers. They were down in them bushes."
He pointed. The brakemen made an enthusiastic and energetic dash for the bushes, swinging their lanterns violently, but they soon returned, bringing only their lanterns.
"How do you know they were there?" asked somebody.
"They fired on me," answered Landers, for it was he. "When I begun tryin' to pull that log off the track, bang, bang, went a couple of guns from them bushes. It kin' o' made me jump an' hesitate. Then I heard the train a-rushin' behin' that curve, an' thinks I, 'My God, I can't stan' here an' see this,' so I ups with the log again, an' again off went them guns. I seemed to feel bullets whistlin' through my hair an' on both sides o' me. But I hung on an' heaved away at the log. It was that heavy, seemed 's if I could git it jus' so high an' no more, an' that train come rushin' nearer an' nearer. An' once again bang went the guns. I guess they wasn't much on shootin', though I did think I felt my hat kind o' givin' way."
"You weren't mistaken," said one of the bystanders, taking off Landers's hat. "Two bullet-holes." He held up the hat and pointed at the crown.
"Well, I gave one more heave, an' I tell ye I never till that moment knowed the stren'th 'at was in me. I got the end o' the log up on my shoulder that time, an' jus' then the head-light o' the engine come flashin' roun' the curve. I took one long breath, an' then with all my might I took one step an' threw that log from me. An' then I jumped to follow it, but I caught my foot an' went tumblin' an' rollin' down the bank. Then I heard the train go hissin' an whistlin' an' clangin' bells an' lettin' off steam up above. That's all there is to it, I guess."
The people could see that Landers's voice was striving hard to be modest. They mentioned it to each other afterward when they got on the train. The men struggled round him to shake hands. The engineer lifted up his voice.
"I seen him fall. Caught his foot in the rail an' went head over heels. He got that log out o' the way just in the nick o' time. A little more an' we'd all be grindin' to mince-meat in the bottom of the culvert just ahead. The skunks chose their groun', they did."
A little stout man, who had been bobbing impatiently on the outskirts of the crowd during Landers's story and the engineer's epilogue, now shouted,
"Boys, a man who risks his life to save ours that way deserves something, I say. I'm going to start the hat with a ten-dollar bill. Pass her round."
"I take the liberty of thinking I'm more valuable," said the man who took the hat, with an attempt at jocularity. He was a florid gentleman, naturally, but he was still pale, and his hands still trembled as he dropped in fifteen dollars.
Landers tried to protest.
"I did nothin'," he said; "nothin' anybody else wouldn't ha' done."
But they would not listen to him. The hat went round. When each person outside had testified his gratitude, somebody carried the hat into one of the cars and went through the train with it. Meanwhile, Landers was besieged with questions as to his name, home, age, business, and so on.
Finally the man who had been passing the hat returned and delivered it to the owner. Being in this way made the spokesman, the stout gentleman advanced to Landers.
"Hold your hat, Mr. Landers," he said, "and stop up the bullet-holes with your fingers, so that the dimes, if there are any, won't roll out. There oughtn't to be any dimes. I don't know how much there is here, but whatever it is, it isn't enough. God bless you, my friend."
He poured the money into the hat that Landers held sheepishly.
"If you ever get into trouble and want help, come to me," said the stout gentleman, handing him his card.
"And me," said several others, producing their cards.
"Thank ye," said Landers, and made as if to go on, but his voice choked, and he turned his head away.
"And now, boys," cried the stout gentleman, with enthusiasm, "three times three for Landers! One, two, three!"
The cheers were given with a will, and the stout gentleman was left panting and searching for his handkerchief. When he found it, he wiped his eyes. Then he pressed Landers's hand.
"Good-by," he said. "God sends such men as you."
They all mounted into their cars. The whistle blew, the bell clanged, and the train moved away. Landers was left alone in the darkness with the money.
It was a cold afternoon late in November. The court-room at Alinda was a boon to the idle and the talkative on such days, for at the back end of it was a great stove, round which people could congregate and gossip, undisturbed. Furthermore, one did not feel obliged to leave one's seat to seek the spittoon in a far corner of the room when the tobacco-juice in one's mouth attained a degree of superfluity incongruous with comfortable or cleanly chewing; the floor of the Alinda court-room having been consecrated from time immemorial to the divine right of the American citizen—the right of spitting what, where, and when he pleases. The floor of the court-room was now a mottled brown, and people said that if it lasted long enough it would look as if it had been painted.
On this afternoon a case was being tried in the court-room, but that made no difference to the company round the stove, and the company round the stove did not interfere with, the case. It was a very stupid, tedious, and unimportant case, and even the judge was bored. Now and then, when the conversation round the stove became too loud, or when somebody laughed forgetfully and boisterously, the judge would frown and cry, in a loud voice, "Order, order!" Then the conversation would subside again, and the judge would settle back into his seat, and try to become interested in the will of Hiram Jones. The two lawyers pecked at the witnesses and wrangled with each other, and got excited and gesticulated as country as country attorneys of small and infrequent practice will do on the most trivial occasions. But nobody in the jolly group round the stove minded them.
Toward the end of the afternoon the door opened, and a man in an old slouch hat, ragged brown overcoat, and muddy knee-boots entered, leading a little boy by the hand. The little boy was pale and sickly looking; round his neck were wound several folds of red woollen comforter; his shoes seemed much too large, especially round the tops, and looked as if they wobbled on his feet. Thee man wore an uneasy look as he removed his hat and cast his eyes hesitatingly down the room. The group by the stove ceased their hum for a moment and watched him. He was a stranger to all of them, and was, therefore, a stranger in the town. Strangers are always of interest to country loafers, and the preoccupied, troubled air with which this one, leading the little child, walked down the aisle till he came to a vacant seat, fascinated the students of character by the stove. The man sat quietly, however, and most people soon forgot about him. A few wondered from time to time what he had come for, as he apparently took no interest in the case or in anything but the little child.
"Free heat, I reckon," suggested one sagacious person, and the suggestion was accepted.
Now and then the man drew the child closer and laid his sandy mustache and beard against its cheek. The rest of the time he sat, looking downward, holding one of the child's hands in one of his, and stroking it occasionally.
Suddenly papers began to rustle and crackle round the judge's desk, and there was a slight bustle. Then the judge cried, in a loud voice,
"Court is adjourned. Officer, clear the court-room!"
The stranger sprang to his feet, still holding the child by the hand.
"Jedge," he cried, in a loud, clear voice, "Jus' wait one minute, please!"
The judge, having been sufficiently bored that afternoon, was ready for anything that promised excitement. He motioned for everybody to be still and nodded to the man.
"I don't know," began the man slowly, "whether any o' you folks heard about the savin' of a train near Belwood, this county, some four months ago—July twenty-sixth it was. The account was in all the newspapers an' there was a good many pomes writ about it. It was all how a feller named Jim Landers saved a train from bein' wrecked at the resk of his life, him movin' a log train-robbers had put on the track, while they was shootin' at him. He got the log off jus' barely in time.
"‘An' he fell, an' the log fell with him, an' they rolled in the ditch below,"
was the way one o' the pomes put it. An' they took up a collection fur this man Landers on the train, an' gave it to him—about two hundred dollars. Now what I come here to-day to say,"—the man paused a moment and clasped the child's hand tightly and looked gravely at one particular stain on the floor—"what I come here to-day to say is that I'm Jim Landers, that I put that log on the track, that I fired them bullet-holes in my hat, that I took that log off an' told them damnable lies—all fur the sake of gittin' a reward."
He paused, still looking at the stain. There was a dead silence. Then the child, understanding only that its father had done something wrong, and frightened lest something might happen to him, burst into tears. Landers stooped over, and lifting the boy in his arms held him against his breast. Then he drew out his big red handkerchief and wiped the child's eyes gently.
"There, there, son, don't cry," he said, soothingly. "They won't hurt you, son. There, there, daddy's got him; don't cry."
The child convulsively hushed his sobs. The crowd meanwhile were silent, feeling instinctively that there was more to come.
"That's the story," said Landers, looking up bravely. Somehow the weight of his boy in his arms seemed to give him strength. "If you don't mind list'ning, Jedge, I'll tell you how it happened. At that time my little boy was sick with the typhoid—ye kin see how light the little tyke is yet. His ma had died o' the typhoid jus' before, an' I seemed to see him, my only little chil', goin' the same way. I was out o' work—mills shet down—an' the money was all gone, an' the doctor said all that 'd pull him through 'd be the dainties' kin' o' food, an' the carefulles' nursin'. But try as I would, Jedge, I couldn't git work, an' day after day I saw the boy jus' peakin' away 'fore my eyes. An' when I was jus' desp'rate, I read how somebody 'd got a big reward by savin' a train. I didn't think of it at the time, but I went home that day, jus' ready to give in, an' I ast God to put it in my mind what I was to do. An' as I stood there askin', firs' that story come back into my mind, an' then followin' it, an' ye might say crowdin' it, it come so clost, the way I was to use it. I didn't stop to think, Jedge, whether it was God or the devil that put that notion there. I jus' sat down to plan an' reason it all out, jus' as if 'twas the mos' righteous thing I could do. I saw I'd have to git in some resk to myself or people mightn't think I'd done anything to be rewarded. An' I didn't jus' feel like reskin' to wait movin' the log till the last minute, which would be too oncertain's well as dang'rous. An' so, gradual like, the plan o' havin' robbers fire on me worked itself out. Jedge, I don't b'lieve I ever was so happy in my life as I was when I'd got that plan all fixed up nice. I can't understand it now, Jedge, but, honest, the right an' the wrong of it never wunst entered my head, an' I jus' kep' sayin' to myself, 'Ain't that cute!' an' then lookin' over to my little boy an' kind o' murmurin', 'You'll be all right now, son.' An' then I made out the story jus' as I'd tell it to the train folks, an' learned it pat, an' then at night I went an' did the thing It wasn't till I begun tellin' them the lie an' they begun praisin' me up, that I felt I'd done a mean, an' a low, an' wicked thing. Then I almos' broke down, but I remembered the boy. I got the money, an' the child lived. But I'd ruther I'd died! I saw my name published in the newspapers as a hero, an' I read pomes in the papers about me, an' I was serenaded by the neighbors when the boy got well enough, I was always pointed out to any stranger that happened along as a hero. But the worst of all was about two weeks after the thing when I got a gold medal from the man that started takin' up the collection fur me. It was all engraved about my heroic deed an' so on. There was times when I wonder I didn't shoot myself. An' there was other times when I ackully fur the moment felt as if I'd done all everybody thought I'd done. An' at last I made up my mind that I couldn't stand it no longer. I wrote to the people that had given me money that night an' had left me their addresses, returnin' what they'd given as near as I could remember, an' tellin' 'em I was goin' to confess, an' if they wanted to prosecute me to be here this day. I don't care what you do to Jedge; nothin' ye kin do'll be as as what I've gone through. Only, Jedge, whatever ye do, please see that the boy's looked after. His life was saved anyhow."
Landers, still holding his boy in his arms, looked straight at the judge. A murmur rose in the audience, a murmur of applause. It swelled into cheering, clapping, and stamping, and it was long before the judge could quell it. Landers stood through it all immovable, waiting for his sentence. But when everything was still, the judge, with a queer twinkle in his eyes, and a huskiness in his voice, said,
"I think it was through lack of opportunity that you weren't really a hero, Mr. Landers."
Then the crowd, which had been waiting in impatient dread, burst into another mighty shout of applause. Landers, white and quivering, sank back into his seat. But again the judge stilled the tumult, and spoke, and this time his voice was official:
"Does anyone appear against this man?"
There was no response. The moments seemed like hours.
"The case is dismissed."