A Branch Road





I



"Keep the main-travelled road till you come to a branch leading

off-keep to the right."



IN the windless September dawn a voice went singing, a man's

voice, singing a cheap and common air. Yet something in the elan

of it all told he was young, jubilant, and a happy lover.



Above the level belt of timber to the east a vast dome of pale

undazzling gold was rising, silently and swiftly. Jays called in the

thickets where the maples flamed amid the green oaks, with

irregular splashes of red and orange. The grass was crisp with frost

under the feet, the road smooth and gray-white in color, the air was

indescribably sweet, resonant, and stimulating. No wonder the man

sang.



He came Into view around the curve in the lane. He had a fork on

his shoulder, a graceful and polished tool. His straw hat was tilted

on the back of his head, his rough, faded coat was buttoned close

to the chin, and he wore thin buckskin gloves on his hands. He

looked muscular and intelligent, and was evidently about

twenty-two or -three years of age.



As he walked on, and the sunrise came nearer to him, he stopped

his song. The broadening heavens had a majesty and sweetness

that made him forget the physical joy of happy youth. He grew

almost sad with the great vague thoughts and emotions which

rolled in his brain as the wonder of the morning grew.



He walked more slowly, mechanically following the road, his eyes

on the ever-shifting streaming banners of rose and pale green,

which made the east too glorious for any words to tell. The air was

so still it seemed to await expectantly the coming of the sun.



Then his mind flew back to Agnes. Would she see it? She was at

work, getting breakfast, but he hoped she had time to see it. He

was in that mood so common to him now, when he could not fully

enjoy any sight or sound unless he could share it with her. Far

down the road he heard the sharp clatter of a wagon. The roosters

were calling near and far, in many keys and tunes. The dogs were

barking, cattle bells jangling in the wooded pastures, and as the

youth passed farmhouses, lights in the kitchen windows showed

that the women were astir about breakfast, and the sound of voices

and curry-combs at the barn told that the men were at their daily

chores.



And the east bloomed broader. The dome of gold grew brighter,

the faint clouds here and there flamed with a flush of red. The frost

began to glisten with a reflected color. The youth dreamed as he

walked; his broad face and deep earnest eyes caught and reflected

some of the beauty and majesty of the sky.



But as he passed a farm gate and a young man of about his own

age joined him, his brow darkened. The other man was equipped

for work like himself.



"Hello, Will!"



"Hello, Ed!"



"Going down to help Dingman thrash?"



"Yes," replied Will shortly. It was easy to see he didn't welcome

company.



"So'm I. Who's goin' to do your thrashin-Dave McTurg?"



"Yes., I guess so. Haven't spoken to anybody yet."



They walked on side by side. Will didn't feel like being rudely

broken in on in this way. The two men were rivals, but Will, being

the victor, would have been magnanimous, only he wanted to be

alone with his lover's dream.



"When do you go back to the sem'?" Ed asked after a little.



"Term begins next week. I'll make a break about second week."



"Le's see: you graduate next year, don't yeh?"



"I expect to, if I don't slip up on it."



They walked on side by side, both handsome fellows; Ed a little

more showy in his face, which had a certain clean-cut precision of

line and a peculiar clear pallor that never browned under the sun.

He chewed vigorously on a quid of tobacco, one of his most

noticeable bad habits.



Teams could be heard clattering along on several roads now, and

jovial voices singing. One team coming along behind the two men,

the driver sung out in good-natured warning, "Get out o' the way,

there." And with a laugh and a chirp spurred his horses to pass

them.



Ed, with a swift understanding of the driver's trick, flung out his

left hand and caught the end-gate, threw his fork in, and leaped

after it. Will walked on, disdaining attempt to catch the wagon. On

all sides now the wagons of the plowmen or threshers were getting

out into the fields, with a pounding, rumbling sound.



The pale red sun was shooting light through the leaves, and

warming the boles of the great oaks that stood in the yard, and

melting the frost off the great gaudy threshing machine that stood

between the stacks. The interest, picturesqueness of it all got hold

of Will Hannan, accustomed to it as he was. The homes stood

about in a circle, hitched to the ends of the six sweeps, all shining

with frost.



The driver was oiling the great tarry cogwheels underneath.

Laughing fellows were wrestling about the yard. Ed Kinney had

scaled the highest stack, and stood ready to throw the first sheaf.

The sun, lighting him where he stood, made his fork handle gleam

like dull gold. Cheery words, jests, and snatches of song

everywhere. Dingman bustled about giving his orders and placing

his men, and the voice of big Dave McTurg was heard calling to

the men as they raised the long stacker into place:



"Heave-ho, there! Up she rises!"



And, best of all, Will caught a glirnpse of a smiling girl face at the

kitchen window that made the blood beat m his throat.



"Hello, Will!" was the general greeting, given with some constraint

by most of the young fellows, for Will had been going to Rock

River to school for some years, and there was a little feeling of

jealousy on the part of those who pretended to sneer at the

"seminary chaps like Will Hannan and Milton Jennings."



Dingrnan came up. "Will, I guess you'd better go on the stack with

Ed."



"All ready. Hurrah, there!" said David in his soft but resonant bass

voice that always had a laugh in it. "Come, come, every sucker of

yeh git hold o' something. All ready!" He waved his hand at the

driver, who climbed upon his platform. Everybody scrambled into

place.



"Chk, chk! All ready, boys! Stiddy there, Dan! Chk, chkl All ready,

boys! Stiddy there, boys! All ready now!" The horses began to

strain at the sweeps. The cylinder began to hum.



"Grab a root there! Where's my band cutter? Here, you, climb on

here!" And David reached down and pulled Shep Watson up by the

shoulder with his gigantic hand.



Boo-oo-oom, Boo-woo-woo-oom-oom-ow-owm, yarryarr! The

whirling cylinder boomed, roared, and snarled as it rose in speed.

At last, when its tone became a rattling yell, David nodded to the

pitchers, rasped his hands together, the sheaves began to fall from

the stack, the band cutter, knife in hand, slashed the bands in

twain, and the feeder with easy majestic motion gathered them

under his arm, rolled them out into an even belt of entering wheat,

on which the cylinder tore with its frightful, ferocious snarl.



Will was very happy in Its quiet way. He enjoyed the smooth roll

of his great muscles, the sense of power he felt in his hands as he

lifted, turned, and swung the heavy sheaves two by two down upon

the table, where the band cutter madly slashed away. His frame,

sturdy rather than tall, was nevertheless lithe, and he made a fine

figure to look at, so Agnes thought, as she came out a moment and

bowed and smiled to both the young men.



This scene, one of the jolliest and most sociable of the western

farm, had a charm quite aside from human companionship. The

beautiful yellow straw entering the cylinder; the clear

yellow-brown wheat pulsing out at the side; the broken straw,

chaff, and dust puffing out on the great stacker; the cheery

whistling and calling of the driver; the keen, crisp air, and the

bright sun somehow weirdly suggestive of the passage of time.



Will and Agnes had arrived at a tacit understanding of mutual love

only the night before, and Will was power-fully moved to glance

often toward the house, but feared somehow the jokes of his

companions. He worked on, therefore, methodically, eagerly; but

his thoughts were on the future-the rustle of the oak tree nearby,

the noise of whose sere leaves he could distinguish beneath the

booming snarl of the machine; on the sky, where great fleets of

clouds were sailing on the rising wind, like merchantmen bound to

some land of love and plenty.



When the Dingmans first came in, only a couple of years before,

Agnes had been at once surrounded by a swarm of suitors. Her

pleasant face and her abounding good nature made her an instant

favorite with all. Will, however, had disdained to become one of

the crowd, and held himself aloof, as he could easily do, being

away at school most of the time.



The second winter, however, Agnes also attended the seminary,

and Will saw her daily and grew to love her. He had been just a bit

jealous of Ed Kinney all the time, for Ed had a certain rakish grace

in dancing and a dashing skill in handling a team which made him

a dangerous rival.



But, as Will worked beside him all this Monday, he felt so secure

in his knowledge of the caress Agnes had given him at parting the

night before that he was perfectly happy-so happy that he didn't

care to talk, only to work on and dream as he worked.



Shrewd David McTurg had his joke when the machine stopped for

a few minutes. "Well, you fellers do better'n I expected yeh to,

after bein' out so late last night. The first feller I find gappin' has

got to treat to the apples."



"Keep your eye on me," said Shep.



"You?" laughed one of the others. "Anybody knows if a girl so

much as looked crossways at you, you'd fall in a fit."



"Another thing," said David. "I can't have you fellers carryin' grain,

going to the house too often for fried cakes or cookies."



"Now you git out," said Bill Young from the straw pile. "You ain't

goin' to have all the fun to yerself."



Will's blood began to grow hot in his face. If Bill had said much

more, or mentioned her name, he would have silenced him. To

have this rough joking come so close upon the holiest and most

exquisite evening of his life was horrible. It was not the words they

said, but the tones they used, that vulgarized it all. He breathed a

sigh of relief when the sound of the machine began again.



This jesting made him more wary, and when the call for dinner

sounded and he knew he was going in to see her, he shrank from it.

He took no part in the race of the dust-blackened, half-famished

men to get at the washing place first. He took no part in the scurry

to get seats at the first table.



Threshing time was always a season of great trial to

- the housewife. To have a dozen men with the appetites of

dragons to cook for was no small task for a couple of women, in

addition to their other everyday duties. Preparations usually began

the night before with a raid on a hen roost, for "biled chickun"

formed the piece de resistance of the dinner. The table, enlarged

by boards, filled the sitting room. Extra seats were made out of

planks placed on chairs, and dishes were borrowed of neighbors

who came for such aid, in their turn.



Sometimes the neighboring women came in to help; but Agnes and

her mother were determined to manage the job alone this year, and

so the girl, with a neat dark dress, her eyes shining, her cheeks

flushed with the work, received the men as they came in dusty,

coatless, with grime - behind their ears, but a jolly good smile on

every face.



Most of them were farmers of the neighborhood and schoolmates.

The only one she shrank from was Young, with his hard, glittering

eyes and red, sordid face. She received their jokes, their noise,

with a silent smile which showed her even teeth and dimpled her

round cheek.- "She was good for sore eyes," as one of the fellows

said to Shep. She seemed deliciously sweet and dainty to these

roughly dressed fellows.



They ranged along the table with a great deal of noise, boots

thumping, squeaking, knives and forks rattling, voices bellowing

out.



"Now hold on, Steve! Can't have yeh so near that chickun!"



"Move along, Shep! I want to be next to the kitchen door! I won't

get nothin' with you on that side o' me."



"Oh, that's too thin! I see what you're-"



"No, I won't need any sugar, if you just smile into it." This from

gallant David, greeted with roars of laughter.



"Now, Dave, s'pose your wife 'ud hear o' that?"



"She'd snatch 'im bald-headed, that's what she'd do."



"Say, somebody drive that ceow down this way," said Bill.



"Don't get off that drive! It's too old," criticised Shep, passing the

milk jug.



Potatoes were seized, cut in halves, sopped in gravy, and taken

one, two! Corn cakes went into great jaws like coal into a steam

engine. Knives in the right hand cut and scooped gravy up. Great,

muscular, grimy, but wholesome fellows they were, feeding like

ancient Norse, and capable of working like demons. They were

deep in the process; half-hidden by steam from the potatoes and

stew, in less than sixty seconds from their entrance.



With a shrinking from the comments of the others upon his regard

for Agnes, Will assumed a reserved and almost haughty air toward

his fellow workmen, and a curious coldness toward her. As he

went in, she came forward smiling brightly.



"There's one more place, Will." A tender, involuntary droop in her

voice betrayed her, and Will felt a wave of hot blood surge over

him as the rest roared.



"Ha, ha! Oh, there'd be a place for him!"



"Don't worry, Will! Always room for you here!"



Will took his seat with a sudden angry flame. "Why can't she keep

it from these fools?" was his thought. He didn't even thank her for

showing him the chair.



She flushed vividly, but smiled back. She was so proud and happy,

she didn't care very much if they did know it. But as Will looked at

her with that quick angry glance, and took his seat with scowling

brow, she was hurt and puzzled. She redoubled her exertions to

please him, and by so doing added to the amusement of the crowd

that gnawed chicken bones, rattled cups, knives and forks, and

joked as they ate with small grace and no material loss of time.



Will remained silent through it all, eating in marked contrast to the

others, using his fork instead of his knife in eating his potato,'and

drinking his tea from his cup rather than from his saucer-

"finickies" which did not escape the notice of the girl nor the.

sharp eyes of the other workmen.



"See that? That's the way we do down to the sem! See? Fork for

pie in yer right hand! Hey? I can't do it. Watch me."



When Agnes leaned over to say, "Won't you have some more tea,

Will?" they nudged each other and grinned. "Aha! What did I tell

you?"



Agnes saw at last that for some reason Will didn't want her to

show her regard for him, that be was ashamed of it in some way,

and she was wounded. To cover it up, she resorted to the feminine

device of smiling and chatting with the others. She asked Ed if he

wouldn't have another piece of pie.



"I will-with a fork, please."



"This is 'bout the only place you can use a fork," said Bill Young,

anticipating a laugh by his own broad grin.



"Oh, that's too old," said Shep Watson. "Don't drag that out agin. A

man that'll eat seven taters-"



"Shows who docs the work."



"Yes, with his jaws," put in Jim Wheelock, the driver. "If you'd put

in a little more work with soap 'n' water before comin' in to dinner,

it 'ud be a religious idee," said David.



"It ain't healthy to wash."



"Well, you'll live forever, then."



"He ain't washed his face sence I knew 'im."



"Oh, that's a little too tought! He washes once a week," said Ed

Kinney.



"Back of his ears?" inquired David, who was munching a

doughnut, his black eyes twinkling with fun.



"What's the cause of it?"



"Dade says she won't kiss 'im if he don't." Everybody roared.



"Good fer Dade! I wouldn't if I was in her place."



Wheelock gripped a chicken leg imperturbably, and left it bare as a

toothpick with one or two bites at it. His face shone in two clean

sections around his nose and mouth. Behind his ears the dirt lay

undisturbed. The grease on his hands could not be washed off.



Will began to suffer now because Agnes treated the other fellows

too well. With a lover's exacting jealousy, he wanted her in some

way to hide their tenderness from the rest, but to show her

indifference to men like Young and Kinney. He didn't stop to

inquire of himself the justice of such a demand, nor just how it

was to be done. He only insisted she ought to do it.



He rose and left the table at the end of his dinner, without having

spoken to her, without even a tender, significant glance, and he

knew, too, that she was troubled and hurt. But he was suffering. It

seemed as if he had lost something sweet, lost it irrecoverably.



He noticed Ed Kinney and Bill Young were the last to come out,

just before the machine started up again after dinner, and he saw

them pause outside the threshold and laugh back at Agnes standing

in the doorway. Why couldn't she keep those fellows at a distance,

not go out of her way to bandy jokes with them?



Some way the elation of the morning was gone. He worked on

doggedly now, without looking up, without listening to the leaves,

without seeing the sunlighted clouds. Of course he didn't think that

she meant anything by it, but it irritated him and made him

unhappy. She gave herself too freely.



Toward the middle of the afternoon the machine stopped for a

time for some repairing; and while Will lay on his stack in the

bright yellow sunshine, shelling wheat in his hands and listening to

the wind in the oaks, he heard his name and her name mentioned

on the other side of the machine, where the measuring box stood.

He listened.



"She's pretty sweet on him, ain't she? Did yeh notus how she stood

around over him?"



"Yes; an' did yeh see him when she passed the cup o' tea down

over his shoulder?"



Will got up, white with wrath as they laughed.



"Some way he didn't seem to enjoy it as I would. I wish she'd reach

her arm over my neck that way."



Will walked around the machine, and came on the group lying on

the chaff near the straw pile.



"Say, I want you fellers to understand that I won't have any more of

this talk. I won't have it."



There was a dead silence. Then Bill Young rose up.



"What yeh goen' to do about Ut?" be sneered.



"I'm going to stop it."



The wolf rose in Young. He moved forward, his ferocious soul

flaming from his eyes.



"W'y, you damned seminary dude, I can break you in two!"



An answering glare came into Will's eyes. He grasped and slightly

shook his fork, which he had brought with him unconsciously.



"If you make one motion at me, I'll smash your head like an

eggshell!" His voice was low but terrific. There was a tone m it

that made his own blood stop in his veins. "If you think I'm going

to roll around on this ground with a hyena like you, you've

mistaken your man. I'll kill you, but I won't fight with such men as

you are."



Bill quailed and slunk away, muttering some epithet like "coward."



"I don't care what you call me, but just remember what I say: you

keep your tongue off that girl's affairs."



"That's the talk!" said David. "Stand up for your girl always, but

don't use a fork. You can handle him without that:'



"I don't propose to try," said Will, as he turned away. As be did so,

he caught a glimpse of Ed Kinney at the well, pumping a pail of

water for Agnes, who stood beside him, the sun on her beautiful

yellow hair. She was laughing at something Ed was saying as he

slowly moved the handle up and down.



Instantly, like a foaming, turbid flood, his rage swept out toward

her. "It's all her fault," he thought, grinding his teeth. "She's a fool.

If she'd hold herself in like other girls! But no; she must smile and

smile at everybody." It was a beautiful picture, but it sent a shiver

through him.



He worked on with teeth set, white with rage. He had an impulse

that would ?have made him assault her with words as with a knife.

He was possessed with a terrible passion which was hitherto latent

in him, and which he now felt to be his worst self. But he was

powerless to exorcise it. His set teeth ached with the stress of his

muscular tension, and his eyes smarted with the strain.



He had always prided himself on being cool, calm, above these

absurd quarrels that his companions had so often indulged in. He

didn't suppose he could be so moved. As he worked on, his rage

settled down into a sort of stubborn bitterness-stubborn bitterness

of conflict between this evil nature and his usual self. It was the

instinct of possession, the organic feeling of proprietor-ship of a

woman, which rose to the surface and mastered him. He was not a

self-analyst, of course, being young, though he was more

introspective than the ordinary farmer.



He had a great deal of time to think it over as he worked on there,

pitching the heavy bundles, but still he did not get rid of the

miserable desire to punish Agnes; and when she came out, looking

very pretty in her straw hat, and came around near his stack, he

knew she came to see him, to have an explanation, a smile; and yet

he worked away with his hat pulled over his eyes, hardly noticing

her.



Ed went over to the edge of the stack and chatted with her; and

she-poor girl!-feeling Will's neglect, could only put a good face on

the matter, and show that she didn't mind it, by laughing back at

Ed.



All this Will saw, though he didn't appear to be looking. And when

Jim Wheelock-Dirty Jim-with his whip in his hand, came up and

playfully pretended to pour oil on her hair, and she laughingly

struck at him with a handful of straw, Will wouldn't have looked at

her if she had called him by name.



She looked so bright and charming in her snowy apron and her

boy's straw hat tipped jauntily over one pink ear that David and

Steve and Bill, and even Shep, found a way to get a word with her,

and the poor fellows in the high straw pile looked their

disappoimment and shook their forks in mock rage at the lucky

dogs on the ground. But Will worked on like a fiend, while the

dapples of light and shade fell on the bright face of the merry girl.



To save his soul from hell flames he couldn't have gone over there

and smiled at her. It was impossible. A wall of bronze seemed to

have arisen between them. Yesterday, last night, seemed a dream.

The clasp of her hands at his neck, the touch of her lips, were like

the caresses of an ideal in some dim reverie.



As night drew on, the men worked with a steadier, more

mechanical action. No one spoke now. Each man was intent on his

work. No one had any strength or breath to waste. The driver on

his power changed his weight on weary feet, and whistled and sang

at the tired horses. The feeder, his face gray with dust, rolled the

grain into the cylinder so even, so steady, so swift that it ran on

with a sullen, booming roar. Far up on the straw pile the stackers

worked with the steady, rhythmic action of men rowing a boat,

their figures looming vague and dim in the flying dust and chaff,

outlined against the glorious yellow and orange-tinted clouds.



"Phe-e-eew-ee," whistled the driver with the sweet, cheery, rising

notes of a bird. "Chk, chk, chk! Phe-e-eewee. Go on there, boys!

Chk, chk, chk! Step up, there Dan, step up! (Snap!) Phe-e-eew-ee!

G'-wan-g'-wan, g'-wan! Chk, clik, chk! Wheest, wheest, wheest!

Clik, chk!"



In the house the women were setting the table for supper. The sun

had gone down behind the oaks, flinging glorious rose color and

orange shadows along the edges of the slate-blue clouds. Agnes

stopped her work at the kitchen window to look up at the sky and

cry silently. "What was the matter with Will?" She felt a sort of

distrust of him now. She thought she knew him so well, but now

he was so strange.



"Come, Aggie," said Mrs. Dingman, "they're gettin' most down to

the bottom of the stack. They'll be pilin' in here soon."



"Phe-e-eew-ee! G'-wan, Doll! G'-wan, boys! Chk, chk, chk!

Phe-e-eew-ee!" called the driver out in the dusk, cheerily swinging

the whip over the horses' backs. Boomoo-oo-oom! roared the

machine, with a muffled, monotonous, solemn tone. "G'-wan,

boys! G'-wan, g'-wan!"



Will had worked unceasingly all day. His muscles ached with

fatigue. His hands trembled. He clenched his teeth, however, and

worked on, determined not to yield. He wanted them to understand

that he could do as much pitching as any of them and read Caesar's

Commentaries besides. It seemed as if each bundle were the last

he could raise. The sinews of his wrist pained him so, they seemed

swollen to twice their natural size. But still he worked on grimly,

while the dusk fell and the air grew chill.



At last the bottom bundle was pitched up, and he got down on his

knees to help scrape the loose wheat into baskets. What a sweet

relief it was to kneel down, to release the fork and let the worn and

cramping muscles settle into rest! A new note came into the

driver's voice, a soothing tone, full of kindness and admiration for

the work his team had done.



"Wo-o-o, lads! Stiddy-y-y, boys! Wo-o-o, there, Dan. Stiddy,

stiddy, old man! Ho, there!" The cylinder took on a lower key, with

short rising yells, as it ran empty for a moment. The horses had

been going so long that they came to a stop reluctantly. At last

David called, "Turn out!" The men seized the ends of the sweep,

David uncoupled the tumbling rods, and Shep threw a sheaf of

grain into the cylinder, choking it into silence.



The stillness and the dusk were very impressive. So long had the

bell-metal cogwheel sung its deafening song into Will's ear that, as

he walked away into the dusk, he had a weird feeling of being

suddenly deaf, and his legs were so numb that he could hardly feel

the earth. He stumbled away like a man paralyzed.



He took out his handkerchief, wiped the dust from his face as best

he could, shook his coat, dusted his shoulders with a grain sack,

and was starting away, when Mr. Dingman, a rather feeble elderly

man, came up.



"Come, Will, supper's all ready. Go in and eat."



"I guess I'll go home to supper."



"Oh, no, that won't do. The women'll be expecting yeh to stay."



The men were laughing at the well, the warm yellow light shone

from the kitchen, the chill air making it seem very inviting, and

she was there, waiting! But the demon rose in him. He knew Agnes

would expect him, that she would cry that night with

disappointment, but his face hardened. "I guess I'll go home," he

said, and his tone was relentless. He turned and walked away,

hungry, tired

-so tired he stumbled, and so unhappy he could have wept.



II



ON Thursday the county fair was to be held. The fair is one of the

gala days of the year in the country districts of the West, and one

of the times when the country lover rises above expense to the

extravagance of hiring a top buggy in which to take his sweetheart

to the neighboring town.



It was customary to prepare for this long beforehand, for the

demand for top buggies was so great the livery-men grew

dictatorial and took no chances. Slowly but surely the country

beaux began to compete with the clerks, and in many cases

actually outbid them, as they furnished their own horses and could

bid higher, in consequence, on the carriages.



Will had secured his brother's "rig," and early on Thursday

morning he was at work, busily washing the mud from the

carriage, dusting the cushions, and polishing up the buckles and

rosettes on his horses' harnesses. It was a beautiful, crisp, clear

dawn-the ideal day for a ride; and Will was singing as he worked.

He had regained his real sell, and, having passed through a bitter

period of shame, was now joyous with anticipation of forgiveness.

He looked forward to the day with its chances of doing a thousand

little things to show his regret and his love.



He had not seen Agnes since Monday, because Tuesday he did not

go back to help thresh, and Wednesday he had been obliged to go

to town to see about board for the coming term; but he felt sure of

her. It had all been arranged the Sunday before; she'd expect him,

and he was to call at eight o'clock.



He polished up the colts with merry tick-tack of the brush and

comb, and after the last stroke on their shining limbs, threw his

tools in the box and went to the house.



"Pretty sharp last night," said his brother John, who was scrubbing

his face at the cistern.



"Should say so by that rim of ice," Will replied, dipping his hands

into the icy water.



"I ought'o stay home today an' dig tates," continued the older man

thoughtfully as they went into the wood-shed and wiped

consecutively on the long roller towel. "Some o' them Early Rose

lay right on top o' the ground. They'll get nipped sure."



"Oh, I guess not. You'd better go, Jack; you don't get away very

often. And then it would disappoint Nettie and the children so.

Their little hearts are overflowing," he ended as the door opened

and two sturdy little boys rushed out.



"B'ekfuss, Poppa; all yeady!"



The kitchen table was set near the stove; the room was full of sun,

and the smell of sizzling sausages and the aroma of coffee filled

the room. The kettle was doing its duty cheerily, and the wife with

flushed face and smiling eyes was hurrying to and fro, her heart

full of anticipation of the day's outing.



There was a hilarity almost like some strange intoxication on the

part of the two children. They danced, and chattered, and clapped

their chubby brown hands, and ran to the windows ceaselessly.



"Is yuncle Will goin' yide flour buggy?"



"Yus; the buggy and the colts."



"Is he goin' to take his girl?"



Will blushed a little, and John roared.



"Yes, I'm goin'-"



"Is Aggie your girl?"



"H'yer! h'yer! young man," called John, "you're gettin' personal."



"Well, set up," said Nettie, and with a good deal of clatter they

drew around the cheerful table.



Will had already begun to see the pathos, the pitiful significance of

this great joy over a day's outing, and he took himself a little to

task at his own selfish freedom. He resolved to stay at home some

time and let Nettie go in his place. A few hours in the middle of

the day on Sunday, three or four holidays in summer; the rest for

this cheerful little wife and her patient husband was work-work

that some way accomplished so little and left no trace on their

souls that was beautiful.



While they were eating breakfast, teams began to clatter by, huge

lumber wagons with three seats across, and a boy or two jouncing

up and down with the dinner baskets near the end-gate. The

children rushed to the window each time to announce who it was,

and how many there were in.



But as Johnny said "firteen" each time, and Ned wavered between

"seven" and "sixteen," it was doubtful if they could be relied upon.

They had very little appetite, so keen was their anticipation of the

ride and the wonderful sights before them. Their little hearts

shuddered with joy at every fresh token of preparation-a joy that

made Will say, "Poor little men!"



They vibrated between the house and the barn while the chores

were being finished, and their happy cries started the young

roosters into a renewed season of crowing. And when at last the

wagon was brought out and the horses hitched to it, they danced

like mad sprites.



After they had driven away, Will brought out the colts, hitched

them in, and drove them to the hitching post. Then he leisurely

dressed himself in his best suit, blacked his boots with

considerable exertion, and at about 7:3o o'clock climbed into his

carriage and gathered up the reins.



He was quite happy again. The crisp, bracing air, the strong pull of

the spirited young team put all thought of sorrow behind him. He

had planned it all out. He would first put his arm around her and

kiss her-there would not need to be any words to tell her how sorry

and ashamed he was. She would know!



Now, when he was alone and going toward her on a beautiful

morning, the anger and bitterness of Monday fled away, became

unreal, and the sweet dream of the Sunday parting grew the reality.

She was waiting for him now. She had on her pretty blue dress and

the wide hat that always made her look so arch. He had said about

eight o'clock.



The swift team was carrying him along the crossroad, which was

little travelled, and he was alone with his thoughts. He fell again

upon his plans. Another year at school for them both, and then he'd

go into a law office. Judge Brown had told him he'd give

him-"Whoa! Ho!"



There was a swift lurch that sent him flying over the dasher. A

confused vision of a roadside ditch full of weeds and bushes, and

then he felt the reins in his hands and heard the snorting horses

trample on the hard road.



He rose dizzy, bruised, and covered with dust. The team he held

securely and soon quieted. He saw the cause of it all: the right

forewheel had come off, letting the front of the buggy drop. He

unhitched the excited team from the carriage, drove them to the

fence and tied them securely, then went back to find the wheel and

the "nut" whose failure to hold its place had done all the mischief.

He soon had the wheel on, but to find the burr was a harder task.

Back and forth he ranged, looking, scraping in the dust, searching

the weeds.



He knew that sometimes a wheel will run without the burr for

many rods before corning off, and so each time he extended his

search. He traversed the entire half-mile several times, each time

his rage and disappointment getting more bitter. He ground his

teeth in a fever of vexation and dismay.



He had a vision of Agnes waiting, wondering why he did not

come. It was this vision that kept him from seeing the burr in the

wheel-track, partly covered by a clod.



Once he passed it looking wildly at his watch, which was showing

nine o'clock. Another time he passed it with eyes dimmed with a

mist that was almost tears of anger.



There is no contrivance that will replace an axle burr, and

farmyards have no unused axle burrs, and so Will searched. Each

moment he said: "I'll give it up, get onto one of the horses, and go

down and tell her." But searching for a lost axle burr is like

fishing: the searcher expects each moment to find it. And so he

groped, and ran breathlessly, furiously, back and forth, and at last

kicked away the clod that covered it, and hurried, hot and dusty,

cursing his stupidity, back to the team.



It was ten o'clock as he climbed again into the buggy and started

his team on a swift trot down the road. What would she think? He

saw her now with tearful eyes and pouting lips. She was sitting at

the window, with hat and gloves on; the rest had gone, and she was

waiting for him.



But she'd know something had happened, because he had promised

to be there at eight. He had told her what team he'd have. (He had

forgotten at this moment the doubt and distrust he had given her on

Monday.) She'd know he'd surely come.



But there was no smiling or tearful face watching at the window as

he came down the lane at a tearing pace and turned into the yard.

The house was silent and the curtains down. The silence sent a

chill to his heart. Something rose up in his throat to choke him.



"Agnes!" he called. "Hello! I'm here at last!"



There was no reply. As he sat there, the part he had played on

Monday came back to him. She may be sick! he thought with a

cold thrill of fear.



An old man came around the corner of the house with a potato

fork in his hands, his teeth displayed in a grin.



"She ain't here. She's gone."



"Gone!"



"Yes-more'n an hour ago."



"Who'd she go with?"



"Ed Kinney," said the old fellow with a malicious grin. "I guess

your goose is cooked."



Will lashed the horses into a run and swung round the yard and out

of the gate. His face was white as a dead man's, and his teeth were

set like a vise. He glared straight ahead. The team ran wildly,

steadily homeward, while their driver guided them unconsciously.

He did not see them. His mind was filled with a tempest of rages,

despairs, and shames.



That ride he will never forget. In it he threw away all his plans.

He gave up his year's schooling. He gave up his law aspirations. He

deserted his brother and his friends. In the dizzying whirl of

passions he had only one clear idea-to get away, to go West, to get

away from the sneers and laughter of his neighbors, and to make

her suffer by it all.



He drove into the yard, did not stop to unharness the team, but

rushed into the house and began packing his trunk. His plan was

formed, which was to drive to Cedarville and hire someone to

bring the team back. He had no thought of anything but the shame,

the insult she had put upon him. Her action on Monday took on the

same levity it wore then, and excited him in the same way. He saw

her laughing with Ed over his dismay. He sat down and wrote a

letter to her at last-a letter that came from the ferocity of the

medieval savage in him:



"It you want to go to hell with Ed Kinney, you can. I won't say a

word. That's where he'll take you. You won't see me again."



This he signed and sealed, and then he bowed his head and wept

like a girl. But his tears did not soften the effect of the letter. It

went as straight to its mark as he meant it should. It tore a seared

and ragged path to an innocent, happy heart, and be took a savage

pleasure in the thought of it as he rode away on the cars toward

the South.



III



The seven years lying between 188o and 1887 made a great

change in Rock River and in The adjacent farming land. Signs

changed and firms went out of business with characteristic

Western ease of shift. The trees grew rapidly, dwarfing The houses

beneath them, and contrasts of

newness and decay thickened.



Will found The country changed, as he walked along The dusty

road from Rock River toward "The Comers." The landscape was at

its fairest and liberalest, with its seas of corn deep green and

moving with a mournful rustle, in sharp contrast to its flashing

blades; its gleaming fields of barley, and its wheat already mottled

with soft gold in The midst of its pea-green.



The changes were in The hedges, grown higher, In The greater

predominance of cornfields and cattle pastures, but especially in

The destruction of homes. As he passed on Will saw The grass

growing and cattle feeding on a dozen places where homes had

once stood. They had given place to The large farm and The stock

raiser. Still The whole scene was bountiful and very beautiful to

The

eye.





It was especially grateful to Will, for he had spent nearly all his

years of absence among The rocks, treeless swells, and bleak cliffs

of The Southwest. The crickets rising before his dusty feet

appeared

to him something sweet and suggestive and The cattle feeding in

The clover moved him to deep thought-they were so peaceful and

slow-motioned.



As he reached a little popple tree by The roadside, he stopped,

removed his broad-brimmed hat, put his elbows on The fence, and

looked hungrily upon The scene. The sky was deeply blue, with

only here and there a huge, heavy, slow-moving, massive, sharply

outlined cloud sailing like a berg of ice in a shoreless sea of azure.



In the fields the men were harvesting the ripened oats and barley,

and The sound of their machines clattering, now low, now loud,

came to his ears. Flies buzzed near him, and a king bird clattered

overhead. He noticed again, as he had many a time when a boy,

that The softened sound of The far-off reaper was at times exactly

like The hum of a bluebottle fly buzzing heedlessly about his ears.



A slender and very handsome young man was shocking grain near

The fence, working so desperately he did not see Will until greeted

by him. He looked up, replied to The greeting, but kept on till he

had finished his last stook, then he came to the shade of the tree

and took off his hat



"Nice day to sit under a tree and fish."



Will smiled. "I ought to know you, I suppose; I used to live here

years ago."



"Guess not; we came in three years ago."



The young man was quick-spoken and very pleasant to look at.

Will felt freer with him.



"Are The Kinneys still living over there?" He nodded at a group of

large buildings.



"Tom lives there. Old man lives with Ed. Tom ousted The old man

some way, nobody seems to know how, and so he lives with Ed."



Will wanted to ask after Agnes, but hardly felt able. "I s'pose John

Hannan is on his old farm?"



"Yes. Got a good crop this year."



Will looked again at The fields of rustling wheat over which The

clouds rippled, and said with an air of conviction: "This lays over

Arizona, dead sure."



"You're from Arizona, then?"



"Yes-a good ways from it"' Will replied in a way that stopped

further question. "Good luck!" he added as he walked on down The

road toward The creek, musing. "And the spring-I wonder if that's

there yet. I'd like a drink." The sun seemed hotter than at noon, and

he walked slowly. At the bridge that spanned the meadow brook,

just where it widened over a sandy ford, he paused again. He hung

over the rail and looked at the minnows swimming there.



"I wonder if they're The same identical chaps that used to boil and

glitter there when I was a boy-looks so. Men change from one

generation to another, but The fish remain The same. The same

eternal procession of types. I suppose Darwin 'ud say their

environment remains The same."



He hung for a long time over The railing, thinking of a vast

number of things, mostly vague, flitting things, looking into the

clear depths of the brook, and listening to the delicious liquid note

of a blackbird swinging on the willow. Red lilies starred the grass

with fire, and goldenrod and chicory grew everywhere; purple and

orange and yellow-green the prevailing tints.



Suddenly a water snake wriggled across the dark pool above the

ford, and the minnows disappeared under the shadow of the

bridge. Then Will sighed, lifted his head, and walked on. There

seemed to be something prophetic in it, and he drew a long breath.

That's the way his plans broke and faded away.



Human life does not move with the regularity of a clock. In living

there are gaps and silences when the soul stands still in its flight

through abysses-and then there come times of trial and times of

struggle when we grow old without knowing it. Body and soul

change appallingly.



Seven years of hard, busy life had made changes in Will.



His face had grown bold, resolute, and rugged, some of its delicacy

and all of its boyish quality gone. His figure was stouter, erect as

of old, but less graceful. He bore himself like a man accustomed to

look out for himself in all kinds of places. It was only at times that

there came into his deep eyes a preoccupied, almost sad look that

showed kinship with his old self.



This look was on his face as he walked toward the clump of trees

on the right of the road.



He reached the grove of popple trees and made his way at once to

the spring. When he saw it, it gave him a shock. They had let it fill

up with leaves and dirt.



Overcome by the memories of the past, he flung him-sell down on

the cool and shadowy bank, and gave him-sell up to the bittersweet

reveries of a man returning to his boyhood's home. He was filled

somehow with a strange and powerful feeling of the passage of

time; with a vague feeling of the mystery and elusiveness of

human life. The leaves whispered it overhead, the birds sang it in

chorus with the insects, and far above, in the measureless spaces of

sky, the hawk told it in the silence and majesty of his flight from

cloud to cloud.



It was a feeling hardly to be expressed in word~ one of those

emotions whose springs lie far back in the brain. He lay so still, the

chipmunks came curiously up to



A Branch Road



35



his very feet, only to scurry away when he stirred like a sleeper in

pain.



He had cut himself off entirely from the life at The Corners. He

had sent money home to John, but had concealed his own address

carefully. The enormity of this folly now came back to him,

racking him till he groaned.



He heard the patter of feet and the half-mumbled monologue of a

running child. He roused up and faced a small boy, who started

back in terror like a wild fawn. He was deeply surprised to find a

man there where only boys and squirrels now came. He stuck his

fist in his eye, and was backing away when Will spoke.



"Hold on, sonny! Nobody's hit you. Come, I ain't goin' to eat yeh."

He took a bit of money from his pocket. "Come here and tell me

your name. I want to talk with you."



The boy crept upon the dime.



Will smiled. "You ought to be a Kinney. What is your name?"



"Tomath Dickinthon Kinney. I'm thix and a half. I've got a colt,"

lisped the youngster breathlessly as he crept toward the money.



"Oh, you are, eh? Well, now, are you Tom's boy or Ed's?"



"Tomth's boy. Uncle Ed hith gal-"



"Ed got a boy?"



"Yeth, thir- lii baby. Aunt Agg letth me hold 'im"



"Agg! Is that her name?"



"That's what Uncle Ed callth her."



The man's head fell, and it was a long time before he asked his

next question.



"How is she, anyhow?"



"Purty well," piped the boy with a prolongation of the last words

into a kind of chirp. "She'th been thick, though," he added.



"Been sick? How long?"



"Oh, a long time. But she ain't thick abed; she'th awuul poor,

though. Gran'pa thayth she'th poor ath a rake."



"Oh, he does, eh?"



"Yeth, thir. Uncle Ed he jawth her, then she crieth."



Will's anger and remorse broke out in a groaning curse. "O my

God! I see it all. That great lunkin' houn' has made life a hell fer

her." Then that letter came back to his mind; he had never been

able to put it out of his mind-he never would till he saw her and

asked her pardon.



"Here, my boy, I want you to tell me some more. Where does your

Aunt Agnes live?"



"At gran'pa'th. You know where my gran'pa livth?"



"Well, you do. Now I want you to take this letter to her. Give it to

her." He wrote a little note and folded it. "Now dust out o' here."



The boy slipped away through the trees like a rabbit; his little



brown feet hardly rustled. He was like some little wood animal.

Left alone, the man went back into a reverie that lasted till the

shadows fell on the thick little grove around the spring. He rose ~

last and, taking his stick in hand, walked out to the wood again and

stood there, gazing at the sky. He seemed loath to go farther. The

sky was full of flame-colored clouds floating in a yellow-green

sea, where bars of faint pink streamed broadly away.



As he stood there, feeling the wind lift his hair, listening to the

crickets' ever-present crying, and facing the majesty of space, a

strange sadness and despair came into his eyes.



Drawing a quick breath, he leaped the fence and was about going

on up the road, when he heard, at a little distance, the sound of a

drove of cattle approaching, and he stood aside to allow them to

pass. They snuffed and shied at the silent figure by the fence, and

hurried by with snappug heels-a peculiar sound that made the man

smile with pleasure.



An old man was driving the cows, crying out:



"St, boy, there! Go on, there. Whay, boss!"



Will knew that hard-featured, wiry old man, now entering his

second childhood and beginning to limp painfully. He had his

hands full of hard clods which he threw impatiently at the

lumbering animals.



"Good evening, uncle!"



"I ain't y'r uncle, young man."



His dim eyes did not recognize the boy he had chased out of his

plum patch years before.



"I don't know yeh, neither."



"Oh, you will, later on. I'm from the East. I'm a sort of a relative to

John Hannan."



"I wanto know if y' be!" the old man exclaimed, peering closer.



"Yes. I'm just up from Rock River. John's harvesting, I s'pose?"



"Where's the youngest one-Will?"



"William? Oh! he's a bad aig-he lit out fr the West somewhere. He

was a hard boy. He stole a hatful o' my plums once. He left home

kind o' sudden. He! he! I s'pose he was purty well cut up jest about

them days."



"How's that?"



The old man chuckled.



"Well, y' see, they was both courtin' Agnes then, an' my son cut

William out. Then William he lit out f'r the West, Arizony 'r

California 'r somewhere out West. Never been back sence."



"Ain't, heh?"



"No. But they say he's makin' a terrible lot o' money," the old man

said in a hushed voice. "But the way he makes it is awful scaly. I

tell my wife if I had a son like that an' he'd send me home a bushel

basket o' money, earnt like that, I wouldn't touch finger to it-no,

sir!"



"You wouldn't? Why?"



"'Cause it ain't right. It ain't made right no way, you-"



"But how is it made? What's the feller's trade?"



"He's a gambler-that's his trade! He plays cards, and every cent is

bloody. I wouldn't touch such money no how you could fix it~"



"Wouldn't, hay?" The young man straightened up. "Well,

look-a-here, old man: did you ever hear of a man foreclosing a

mortgage on a widow and two boys, getting a farm f'r one quarter

what it was really worth? You damned old hypocrite! I know all

about you and your whole tribe-you old bloodsucker!"



The old man's jaw fell; he began to back away.



"Your neighbors tell some good stories about you. Now skip along

after those cows or I'll tickle your old legs for you!"



The old man, appalled and dazed at this sudden change of manner,

backed away, and at last turned and racked off up the road, looking

back with a wild face at which the young man laughed

remorselessly.



"The doggoned old skeesucks!" Will soliloquized as he walked up

the road. "So that's the kind of a character he's been givin' me!"



"Hullo! A whippoorwrn. Takes a man back into childhood-No,

don't 'whip poor Will'; he's got all he can bear now."



He came at last to the little farm Dingman had owned, and he

stopped in sorrowful surprise. The barn had been moved away, the

garden plowed up, and the house, turned into a granary, stood with

boards nailed across its dusty cobwebbed windows. The tears

started into the man's eyes; he stood staring at it silently.



In the face of this house the seven years that he had last lived

stretched away into a wild waste of time. It stood as a symbol of

his wasted, ruined life. It was personal, intimately personal, this

decay of her home.



All that last scene came back to him: the booming roar of the

threshing machine, the cheery whistle of the driver, the loud,

merry shouts of the men. He remembered how warmly the

lamplight streamed out of that door as he turned away tired,

hungry, sullen with rage and jealousy. Oh, if he had only had the

courage of a man!



Then he thought of the boy's words. She was sick. Ed abused her.

She had met her punishment. A hundred times he had been over

the whole scene. A thousand times he had seen her at the pump

smiling at Ed Kinney, the sun lighting her bare head; and he never

thought of it without hardening.



At this very gate he had driven up that last forenoon, to find that

she had gone with Ed. He had lived that sickening, depressing

moment over many times, but not times enough to keep down the

bitter passion he had felt then, and felt now as he went over it in

detail.



He was so happy and confident that morning, so perfectly certain

that all would be made right by a kiss and a cheery jest. And now!

Here he stood sick with despair and doubt of all the world. He

turned away from the desolate homestead and walked on.



"But I'll see her-just once more. And then-" And again the mighty

significance, responsibility of life fell upon him. He felt as young

people seldom do the irrevocableness of living, the determinate,

unalterable character of living. He determined to begin to live in

some new way-just how he could not say.



IV



OLD man Kinney and his wife were getting their Sunday school

lessons with much bickering, when Will drove up the next day to

the dilapidated gate and hitched his team to a leaning post under

the oaks. Will saw the old man's head at the open window, but no

one else, though he

looked eagerly for Agnes as he walked up the familiar path. There

stood the great oak under whose shade he had grown to be a man.

How close the great tree seemed to stand to his heart, some way!

As the wind stirred in the leaves, it was like a rustle of greeting.



In that low old house they had all lived, and his mother had toiled

for thirty years. A sort of prison after all. There they were all born,

and there his father and his little sister had died. And then it had

passed into old Kinney's hands.



Walking along up the path he felt a serious weakness in his limbs,

and he made a pretense of stopping to look at a flowerbed

containing nothing but weeds. After seven years of separation he

was about to face once more the woman whose life came so near

being a part of his- Agnes, now a wife and a mother.



How would she look? Would her face have that oldtime peachy

bloom, her mouth that peculiar beautiful curve? She was large and

fair, he recalled, hair yellow and shining, eyes blue-He roused

himself. This was nonsense! He was trembling. He composed

himself by looking around again.



"The old scoundrel has let the weeds choke out the flowers and

surround the beehives. Old man Kinney neverbelieved in anything

but a petty utility."



Will set his teeth, and marched up to the door and struck it like a

man delivering a challenge. Kinney opened the door, and started

back in fear when he saw who it was.



"How de do? How de do?" said Will, walking in' his eyes fixed on

a woman seated beyond, a child in her lap.



Agnes rose, without a word; a fawnlike, startled widening of the

eyes, her breath coming quick, and her face flushing. They couldn't

speak; they only looked at each other an instant, then Will

shivered, passed his hand over his eyes, and sat down.



There was no one there but the old people, who were looking at

him in bewilderment. They did not notice any confusion in Agnes's

face. She recovered first.



"I'm glad to see you back, Will," she said, rising and putting the

sleeping child down in a neighboring room. As she gave him her

hand, he said:



"I'm glad to get back, Agnes. I hadn't ought to have gone." Then he

turned to the old people: "I'm Will Hannan. You needn't be scared,

daddy; I was jokin' last night."



"Dew tell! I wanto know!" exclaimed granny. "Wal I never! An,

you're my little Willy boy who ust 'o he in my class. Well! well!

W'y, Pa, ain't he growed tall! Growed handsome tew. I ust 'o think

he was a drelful humly boy; but my sakes, that mustache-"



"Wal, he give me a tumble scare last night. My land! scared me out

of a year's growth," cackled the old man.



This gave them all a chance to laugh and the air was cleared. It

gave Agnes time to recover herself and to be able to meet Will's

eyes. Will himself was powerfully moved; his throat swelled and

tears came to his eyes everytime he looked at her.



$he was worn and wasted incredibly. The blue of her eyes seemed

dimmed and faded by weeping, and the oldtime scariet of her lips

had been washed away. The sinews of her neck showed painfully

when she turned her head, and her trembling hands were worn,

discolored, and lumpy at the joints.



Poor girl! She felt that she was under scrutiny, and her eyes felt hot

and restless. She wished to run away and cry, but she dared not.

She stayed, while Will began to tell her of his life and to ask

questions about old friends.



The old people took it up and relieved her of any share in it; and

Will, seeing that she was suffering, told some funny stories which

made the old people cackle in spite of themselves.



But it was forced merriment on Will's part. Once in a while Agnes

smiled with just a little flash of the old-time sunny temper. But

there was no dimple in the cheek now, and the smile had more

suggestion of an invalid~r even a skeleton. He was almost ready to

take her in his arms and weep, her face appealed so pitifully to

him.



"It's most time f'r Ed to be gittin' back, ain't it' Pa?"



"Sh'd say 'twas! He jist went over to Hobkirk's to trade horses. It's

dretful tryin' to me to have him go off tradin' horses on Sunday.

Seems if he might wait till a rainy day, 'r do it evenin's. I never did

believe in horse tradin' anyhow."



"Have y' come back to stay, Willie?" asked the old lady.



"Well-it's hard-tellin'," answered Will, looking at Agnes.



"Well, Agnes, ain't you goin' to get no dinner? I'm 'bout ready fr

dinner. We must git to church eariy today. Elder Wheat is goin' to

preach an' they'll be a crowd. He's goin' to hold communion."



"You'll stay to dinner, Will?" asked Agnes.



"Yes-if you wish it."



"I do wish it."



"Thank you; I want to have a good visit with you. I don't know

when I'll see you again."



As she moved about, getting dinner on the table, Will sat with

gloomy face, listening to the "clack" of the old man. The room was

a poor little sitting room, with furniture worn and shapeless; hardly

a touch of pleasant color, save here and there a little bit of Agnes's

handiwork. The lounge, covered with calico, was rickety; the

rocking chair matched it, and the carpet of rags was patched and

darned with twine in twenty places. Everywhere was the influence

of the Kinneys. The furniture looked like them, in fact.



Agnes was outwardly calm, but her real distraction did not escape

Mrs. Kinney's hawklike eyes.



"Well, I declare if you hain't put the butter on in one o' my blue

chainy saucers! Now you know I don't allow that saucer to be took

down by nobody. I don't see what's got into yeh. Anybody'd s'pose

you never see any comp'ny b'fore-wouldn't they, Pa?"



"Sh'd say th' would," said Pa, stopping short in a long story about

Ed. "Seems if we couldn't keep anything in this' house sep'rit from

the rest. Ed he uses my currycomb-"



He launched out a long list of grievances, which Will shut his ears

to as completely as possible, and was thinking how to stop him,

when there was a sudden crash. Agnes had dropped a plate.



"Good land o' Goshen!" screamed Granny. "If you ain't the worst I

ever see. I'll bet that's my grapevine plate. If it is-well, of all the

mercies, it ain't! But it naight 'a' ben. I never see your beat-never!

That's the third plate since I came to live here."



"Oh, look-a-here, Granny," said Will desperately. "Don't make so

much fuss about the plate. What's it worth, anyway? Here's a

dollar."



Agnes cried quickly:



"Oh, don't do that, Will! It ain't her pate. It's my plate, and I can

break every plate in the house if I want'o," she cried defiantly.



"'Course you can," Will agreed.



"Well, she can't! Not while I'm around," put in Daddy. "I've helped

to pay f'r them plates, if she does call 'em hern-"



"What the devul is all this row about? Agg, can't you get along

without stirring up the old folks everytime I'm out o' the house?"



The speaker was Ed, now a tail and slouchily dressed man of

thirty-two or -three; his face still handsome in a certain dark,

cleanly cut style, but he wore a surly loo'k and lounged along in a

sort of hangdog style, in greasy overalls and vest unbuttoned.



"Hello, Will! I heard you'd got home. John told me as I came

along."



They shook bands, and Ed slouched down on the lounge. Will

could have kicked him for laying the blame of the dispute upon

Agnes; it showed him in a flash just how he treated her. He

disdained to quarrel; he simply silenced and dominated her.



Will asked a few questions about crops, with such grace as he

could show, and Ed, with keen eyes in his face, talked easily and

stridently.



"Dinner ready?" he asked of Agnes. "Where's Pete?"



"He's asleep."



"All right. Let 'im sleep. Well, let's go out an' set 'up. Come, Dad,

sling away that Bible and come to grub. Mother, what the devul

are you sniffling at? Say, now, look here. If I hear any more about

this row, I'll simply let you walk down to meeting. Come, Will, set

up."



He led the way out into the little kitchen where the dinner was set.



"What was the row about? Hain't been breakin' some dish, Agg?"



"Yes, she has."



"One o' the blue ones?" winked Ed.



"No, thank goodness, it was a white one."



"Well, now, I'll git into that dod-gasted cubberd some day an' break

the whole eternal outfit. I ain't goin' to have this damned jawin'

goin' on," he ended, brutally unconscious of his own "jawin'."



After this the dinner proceeded in comparative silence, Agnes

sobbing under breath. The room was small and very hot; the table

was warped so badly that the dishes had a tendency to slide to the

center; the walls were bare plaster grayed with time; the food was

poor and scant, and the flies absolutely swarmed upon everything,

like bees. Otherwise the room was clean and orderly.



"They say you've made a pile o' money out West, Bill. I'm glad of

it. We fellers back here don't make anything. It's a dam tight

squeeze. Agg, it seems to me the flies are devilish thick today.

Can't you drive 'em out?"



Agnes felt that she must vindicate herself a little. "I do drive 'em

out, but they come right in again. The screen door is broken, and

they come right in."



"I told Dad to fix that door."



"But he won't do it for me."



Ed rested his elbows on the table and fixed his bright black eyes on

his father.



"Say, what d'you mean by actin' like a mule? I swear I'll trade you

off f'r a yaller dog. What do I keep you round here. for anyway-to

look purty?"



"I guess I've as good a right here as you have, Ed Kinney."



"Oh, go soak y'r head, old man. If you don't tend out here a little

better, down goes your meat house! I won't drive you down to

meetin' till you promise to fix that door. Hear me!"



Daddy began to snivel. Agnes could not look up for shame. Will

felt sick. Ed laughed.



"I kin bring the old man to terms that way; he can't walk very well

late years, an' he can't drive my colt. You know what a cuss I used

to be about fast nags? Well, I'm just the same. Hobkirk's got a colt

I want. Say, that re-minds me: your team's out there by the fence. I

forgot. I'll go and put 'em up."



"No, never mind; I can't stay but a few minutes."



"Goin' to be round the country long?"



"A week-maybe."



Agnes looked up a moment and then let her eyes fall.



"Goin' back West, I s'pose?"



"No. May go East, to Europe mebbe."



"The devul y' say! You must 'a' made a ten-strike out West."



"They say it didn't come lawful," piped Daddy over his

blackberries and milk.



"Oh, you shet up. Who wants your put-in? Don't work in any o'

your Bible on us."



Daddy rose to go into the other room.



"Hold on, old man. You goin' to fix that door?"



"'Course I be," quavered he.



"Well see't y' do, that's all. Now git on y'r duds, an'



I'll go an' hitch up." He rose from the table. "Don't keep me

waiting."



He went out unceremoniously, and Agnes was alone with Will.



"Do you go to church? "he asked. She shook her head. "No, I don't

go anywhere now. I have too much to do; I haven't strength left.

And I'm not fit anyway."



"Agnes, I want to say something to you; not now-after they're

gone."



He went into the other room, leaving her to wash the dinner things.

She worked on in a curious, almost dazed way, a dream of

something sweet and irrevocable in her eyes. He represented so

much to her. His voice brought up times and places that thrilled

her like song. He was associated with all that was sweetest and

most carefree and most girlish in her life.



Ever since the boy had handed her that note she had been reliving

those days. In the midst of her drudgery she stopped to dream-to

let some picture come back into her mind. She was a student again

at the seminary, and stood in the recitation room with suffocating

beat of the heart. Will was waiting outside-waiting in a tremor like

her own, to walk home with her under the maples.



Then she remembered the painfully sweet mixture of pride and

fear with which she walked up the aisle of the little church behind

him. Her pretty new gown rustled, the dim light of the church had

something like romance in it, and he was so strong and handsome.

Her heart went out in a great silent cry to God-"Oh, let me be a girl

again!"



She did not look forward to happiness. She hadn't power to look

forward at all.



As she worked, she heard the high, shrill voices of the old people

as they bustled about and nagged at each other.



"Ma, where's my specticles?"



"I ain't seen y'r specticles."



"You have, too."



"I ain't neither."



"You had 'em this forenoon."



"D





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