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Before He Grew Up








From: The Man From The Bitter Roots

The little white "digger," galloping with the stiff, short-legged jumps
of the broken-down cow pony, stopped short as the boy riding him pulled
sharply on the reins, and after looking hard at something which lay in a
bare spot in the grass, slid from its fat back.

He picked up the rock which had attracted his eye, and turned it over
and over in his hand. His pockets bulged with colored pebbles and
odd-looking stones he had found in washouts and ravines. There was no
great variety on the Iowa prairie, and he thought he knew them all, but
he had never seen a rock like this.

He crossed his bare, tanned legs, and sat down to examine it more
closely, while the lazy cow pony immediately went to sleep. The stone
was heavy and black, with a pitted surface as polished as though some
one had laboriously rubbed it smooth. Where did it come from? How did it
get there? Involuntarily he looked up at the sky. Perhaps God had thrown
it down to surprise him--to make him wonder. He smiled a little. God was
a very real person to Bruce Burt. He had a notion that He kept close
watch upon his movements through a large crack somewhere in the sky.

Yes, God must have tossed it down, for how else could a rock so
different from every other rock be lying there as though it had just
dropped? He wished he had not so long to wait before he could show it to
his mother. He was tempted to say he saw it fall, but she might ask him
"Honest Injun?" and he decided not. However, if God made crawfish go
into their holes backward just to make boys laugh, and grasshoppers chew
tobacco, why wouldn't He----

The sound of prairie grass swishing about the legs of a galloping horse
made him jump, startled, to his feet and thrust the strange rock into
the front of his shirt. His father reined in, and demanded angrily:

"What you here for? Why didn't you do as I told you?"

"I--I forgot. I got off to look at a funny rock. See, papa!" His black
eye sparkled as he took it from his shirt front and held it up eagerly.

His father did not look at it.

"Get on your horse!" he said harshly. "I can't trust you to do anything.
We're late as it is, and women don't like people coming in on 'em at
meal-time without warning." He kicked his horse in the ribs, and
galloped off.

The abashed look in the boy's face changed to sullenness. He jumped on
his pony and followed his father, but shortly he lowered his black
lashes, and the tears slipped down his cheeks.

Why had he shown that rock, anyhow? he asked himself in chagrin. He
might have known that his father wouldn't look at it, that he didn't
look at anything or care about anything but horses and cattle. Certainly
his father did not care about him. He could not remember when the
stern man had given him a pat on the head, or a good-night kiss. The
thought of his father kissing anybody startled him. It seemed to him
that his father seldom spoke to him except to reprimand or ridicule him,
and the latter was by far the worse.

His eyes were still red when he sat down at the table, but the discovery
that there was chicken helped assuage his injured feelings, and when the
farmer's wife deliberately speared the gizzard from the platter and laid
it on his plate the world looked almost bright. How did she know that he
liked gizzard, he wondered? The look of gratitude he shyly flashed her
brought a smile to her tired face. There were mashed potatoes, too, and
gravy, pickled peaches, and he thought he smelled a lemon pie. He
wondered if they had these things all the time. If it wasn't for his
mother he believed he'd like to live with Mrs. Mosher, and golly! wasn't
he hungry! He hoped they wouldn't stop to talk, so he'd dare begin.

He tried to regard his mother's frequent admonitions concerning
"manners"--that one about stirring up your potatoes as though you were
mixing mortar, and biting into one big slab of bread. He did his best,
but his cheek protruded with half a pickled peach when he heard his
father say:

"I sent Bruce on ahead to tell you that we'd be here, but he didn't mind
me. I found him out there on the prairie, looking at a rock."

All eyes turned smilingly upon the boy, and he reddened to the roots of
his hair, while the half peach in his cheek felt suddenly like a whole
one.

"It was a funny kind of rock," he mumbled in self-defence when he could
speak.

"The rock doesn't have to be very funny to make you forget what you're
told to do," his father said curtly, and added to the others: "His
mother can't keep pockets in his clothes for the rocks he packs around
in them, and they're piled all over the house. He wants her to send away
and get him a book about rocks."

"Perhaps he'll be one of these rock-sharps when he gets big," suggested
Mr. Mosher humorously. "Wouldn't it be kinda nice to have a perfesser in
the family--with long hair and goggles? I come acrost one once that
hunted bugs. He called a chinch bug a Rhyparochromus, but he saddled his
horse without a blanket and put bakin' powder in the sour-dough."

In the same way that the farmer's wife knew that boys liked gizzards,
she knew that Bruce was writhing under the attention and the ridicule.

"He'll be a cattleman like his dad," and she smiled upon him.

His father shook his head.

"No, he doesn't take hold right. Why, even when I was his age I could
tell a stray in the bunch as far as I could see it, and he don't know
the milk cow when she gets outside of the barn. I tell his mother I'm
goin' to work him over again with a trace strap----"

The sensitive boy could bear no more. He gave one regretful glance at
his heaping plate, a shamed look at Mrs. Mosher, then sprang to his feet
and faced his father.

"I won't learn cattle, and you can't make me!" he cried, with blazing
eyes. "And you won't work me over with a trace strap! You've licked me
all I'll stand. I'll go away! I'll run away, and I won't come home
till I'm white as a darned sheep!"

"Bruce!" His father reached for his collar, but the boy was gone. His
chair tipped over, and his precious rock dropped from his shirt front
and bounced on the floor. It was a precious rock, too, a fragment of
meteorite, one which fell perhaps in the shower of meteoric stones in
Iowa in '79.

"He's the touchiest child I ever saw," said Burt apologetically, "and
stubborn as a mule; but you'd better set his plate away. I guess the
gentleman will return, since he's twenty-five miles from home."

The farmer's wife called after the boy from the doorway, but he did not
stop. Hatless, with his head thrown back and his fists clenched tight
against his sides, he ran with all his might, his bare feet kicking up
the soft, deep dust. There was something pathetic to her in the lonely
little figure vanishing down the long, straight road. She wished it had
not happened.

"It isn't right to tease a child," she said, going back to her seat.

"Well, there's no sense in his acting like that," Burt answered. "I've
tried to thrash some of that stubbornness out of him, but his will is
hard to break."

"I don't believe in so much whipping," the woman defended. "Traits that
children are punished for sometimes are the makin' of them when they're
grown. I think that's why grandparents are usually easier with their
grandchildren than they were with their own--because they've lived long
enough to see the faults they whipped their children for grow into
virtues. Bruce's stubbornness may be perseverance when he's a man, and
to my way of thinking too much pride is far better than too little."

"Pride or no pride, he'll do as I say," Burt answered, with an
obstinacy of tone which made the farmer's wife comment mentally that it
was not difficult to see from whom the boy had inherited that trait.

But it was the only one, since, save in coloring and features, they were
totally dissimilar, and Burt seemed to have no understanding of his
passionate, warm-hearted, imaginative son. Perhaps, unknown to himself,
he harbored a secret resentment that Bruce had not been the little girl
whose picture had been as fixed and clear in his mind before Bruce came
as though she were already an actuality. She was to have had flaxen
hair, with blue ribbons in it, and teeth like tiny, sharp pearls. She
was to have come dancing to meet him on her toes, and to have snuggled
contentedly on his lap when he returned from long rides on the range.
Boys were all right, but he had a vague notion that they belonged to
their mothers. Bruce was distinctly "his mother's boy," and this was
tacitly understood. It was to her he went with his hurts for caresses,
and with his confidences for sympathy and understanding.

Now there was nothing in Bruce's mind but to get to his mother. While
his breath lasted and he burned with outraged pride and humiliation, the
boy ran, his thought a confused jumble of mortification that Mrs. Mosher
should know that he got "lickings," of regret for the gizzard and mashed
potatoes and lemon pie, of wonder as to what his mother would say when
he came home in the middle of the night and told her that he had walked
all the way alone.

He dropped to a trot, and then to a walk, for it was hot, and even a
hurt and angry boy cannot run forever. The tears dried to grimy streaks
on his cheeks, and the sun blistered his face and neck, while he
discovered that stretches of stony road were mighty hard on the soles of
the feet. But he walked on purposefully, with no thought of going back,
thinking of the comforting arms and shoulder that awaited him at the
other end. After all, nobody took any interest in rocks, except mother;
nobody cared about the things he really liked, except mother.

Toward the end of the afternoon his footsteps lagged, and sunset found
him resting by the roadside. He was so hungry! He felt so little, so
alone, and the coming darkness brought disturbing thoughts of coyotes
and prairie wolves, of robbers and ghosts that the hired man said he had
seen when he had stayed out too late o' nights.

Ravines, with their still, eloquent darkness, are fearsome places for
imaginative boys to pass alone. Hobgoblins--the very name sent chills up
and down Bruce's spine--would be most apt to lurk in some such place,
waiting, waiting to jump on his back! He broke and ran.

The stars came out, and a late moon found him trudging still. He limped
and his sturdy shoulders sagged. He was tired, and, oh, so sleepy, but
the prolonged howl of a wolf, coming from somewhere a long way off, kept
him from dropping to the ground. Who would have believed that
twenty-five miles was such a distance? He stopped short, and how hard
his heart pumped blood! Stock-still and listening, he heard the clatter
of hoofs coming down the road ahead of him. Who would be out this time
of night but robbers? He looked about him; there was no place on the
flat prairie to hide except a particularly dark ravine some little way
back which had taken all his courage to go through without running.

Between robbers and hobgoblins there seemed small choice, but he chose
robbers. With his fists clenched and the cold sweat on his forehead, he
waited by the roadside for the dark rider, who was coming like the wind.

"Hello!" The puffing horse was pulled sharply to a standstill.

"Oh, Wess!" His determination to die without a sound ended in a broken
cry of gladness, and he wrapped an arm around the hired man's leg to
hold him.

"Bruce! What you doin' here?"

"They plagued me. I'm going home."

"You keep on goin', boy. I'm after you and your father." There was
something queer in the hired man's voice--something that frightened him.
"Your mother's taken awful sick. Don't waste no time; it's four miles
yet; you hustle!" The big horse jumped into the air and was gone.

It was not so much what the hired man said that scared him so, but the
way he said it. Bruce had never known him not to laugh and joke, or seen
him run his horse like that.

"Oh, mamma, mamma!" he panted as he stumbled on, wishing that he could
fly.

When he dragged himself into the room, she was lying on her bed, raised
high among the pillows. Her eyes were closed, and the face which was so
beautiful to him looked heavy with the strange stupor in which she lay.

"Mamma, I'm here! Mamma, I've come!" He flung himself upon the soft,
warm shoulder, but it was still, and the comforting arms lay limp upon
the counterpane.

"Mamma, what's the matter? Say something! Look at me!" he cried. But the
gray eyes that always beamed upon him with such glad welcome did not
open, and the parted lips were unresponsive to his own. There was no
movement of her chest to tell him that she even breathed.

A fearful chill struck to his heart. What if she was dying--dead! Other
boys' mothers sometimes died, he knew, but his mother--his mother! He
tugged gently at one long, silken braid of hair that lay in his grimy
hand like a golden rope, calling her in a voice that shook with fright.

The cry penetrated her dulled senses. It brought her back from the
borderland of that far country into which she had almost slipped.
Slowly, painfully, with the last faint remnant of her will power, she
tried to speak--to answer that beloved, boyish voice.

"My--little boy----" The words came thickly, and her lips did not seem
to move.

But it was her voice; she had spoken; she was not dead! He hugged her
hard in wild ecstasy and relief.

"I'm glad--you came. I--can't stay--long. I've had--such hopes--for
you--little boy. I've dreamed--such dreams--for you--I wanted to
see--them all come true. If I can--I'll help you--from--the other side.
There's so much--more I want to say--if only--I had known---- Oh,
Bruce--my--li--ttle boy----" Her voice ended in a breath, and stopped.





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