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Windy McPherson's Son By Sherwood Anderson Characters: 28393

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Windy McPherson, the father of the Caxton newsboy, Sam McPherson, had been war touched. The civilian clothes that he wore caused an itching of the skin. He could not forget that he had once been a sergeant in a regiment of infantry and had commanded a company through a battle fought in ditches along a Virginia country road. He chafed under the fact of his present obscure position in life. Had he been able to replace his regimentals with the robes of a judge, the felt hat of a statesman, or even with the night stick of a village marshal life might have retained something of its sweetness, but to have ended by becoming an obscure housepainter in a village that lived by raising corn and by feeding that corn to red steers-ugh!-the thought made him shudder. He looked with envy at the blue coat and the brass buttons of the railroad agent; he tried vainly to get into the Caxton Cornet Band; he got drunk to forget his humiliation and in the end he fell to loud boasting and to the nursing of a belief within himself that in truth not Lincoln nor Grant but he himself had thrown the winning die in the great struggle. In his cups he said as much and the Caxton corn grower, punching his neighbour in the ribs, shook with delight over the statement.

When Sam was a twelve year old, barefooted boy upon the streets a kind of backwash of the wave of glory that had swept over Windy McPherson in the days of '61 lapped upon the shores of the Iowa village. That strange manifestation called the A. P. A. movement brought the old soldier to a position of prominence in the community. He founded a local branch of the organisation; he marched at the head of a procession through the streets; he stood on a corner and pointing a trembling forefinger to where the flag on the schoolhouse waved beside the cross of Rome, shouted hoarsely, "See, the cross rears itself above the flag! We shall end by being murdered in our beds!"

But although some of the hard-headed, money-making men of Caxton joined the movement started by the boasting old soldier and although for the moment they vied with him in stealthy creepings through the streets to secret meetings and in mysterious mutterings behind hands the movement subsided as suddenly as it had begun and only left its leader more desolate.

In the little house at the end of the street by the shores of Squirrel Creek, Sam and his sister Kate regarded their father's warlike pretensions with scorn. "The butter is low, father's army leg will ache to-night," they whispered to each other across the kitchen table.

Following her mother's example, Kate, a tall slender girl of sixteen and already a bread winner with a clerkship in Winney's drygoods store, remained silent under Windy's boasting, but Sam, striving to emulate them, did not always succeed. There was now and then a rebellious muttering that should have warned Windy. It had once burst into an open quarrel in which the victor of a hundred battles withdrew defeated from the field. Windy, half-drunk, had taken an old account book from a shelf in the kitchen, a relic of his days as a prosperous merchant when he had first come to Caxton, and had begun reading to the little family a list of names of men who, he claimed, had been the cause of his ruin.

"There is Tom Newman, now," he exclaimed excitedly. "Owns a hundred acres of good corn-growing land and won't pay for the harness on the backs of his horses or for the ploughs in his barn. The receipt he has from me is forged. I could put him in prison if I chose. To beat an old soldier!-to beat one of the boys of '61!-it is shameful!"

"I have heard of what you owed and what men owed you; you had none the worst of it," Sam protested coldly, while Kate held her breath and Jane McPherson, at work over the ironing board in the corner, half turned and looked silently at the man and the boy, the slightly increased pallor of her long face the only sign that she had heard.

Windy had not pressed the quarrel. Standing for a moment in the middle of the kitchen, holding the book in his hand, he looked from the pale silent mother by the ironing board to the son now standing and staring at him, and, throwing the book upon the table with a bang, fled the house. "You don't understand," he had cried, "you don't understand the heart of a soldier."

In a way the man was right. The two children did not understand the blustering, pretending, inefficient old man. Having moved shoulder to shoulder with grim, silent men to the consummation of great deeds Windy could not get the flavour of those days out of his outlook upon life. Walking half drunk in the darkness along the sidewalks of Caxton on the evening of the quarrel the man became inspired. He threw back his shoulders and walked with martial tread; he drew an imaginary sword from its scabbard and waved it aloft; stopping, he aimed carefully at a body of imaginary men who advanced yelling toward him across a wheatfield; he felt that life in making him a housepainter in a farming village in Iowa and in giving him an unappreciative son had been cruelly unfair; he wept at the injustice of it.

The American Civil War was a thing so passionate, so inflaming, so vast, so absorbing, it so touched to the quick the men and women of those pregnant days that but a faint echo of it has been able to penetrate down to our days and to our minds; no real sense of it has as yet crept into the pages of a printed book; it yet wants its Thomas Carlyle; and in the end we are put to the need of listening to old fellows boasting on our village streets to get upon our cheeks the living breath of it. For four years the men of American cities, villages and farms walked across the smoking embers of a burning land, advancing and receding as the flame of that universal, passionate, death-spitting thing swept down upon them or receded toward the smoking sky-line. Is it so strange that they could not come home and begin again peacefully painting houses or mending broken shoes? A something in them cried out. It sent them to bluster and boast upon the street corners. When people passing continued to think only of their brick laying and of their shovelling of corn into cars, when the sons of these war gods walking home at evening and hearing the vain boastings of the fathers began to doubt even the facts of the great struggle, a something snapped in their brains and they fell to chattering and shouting their vain boastings to all as they looked hungrily about for believing eyes.

When our own Thomas Carlyle comes to write of our Civil War he will make much of our Windy McPhersons. He will see something big and pathetic in their hungry search for auditors and in their endless war talk. He will go filled with eager curiosity into little G. A. R. halls in the villages and think of the men who coming there night after night, year after year, told and re-told endlessly, monotonously, their story of battle.

Let us hope that in his fervour for the old fellows he will not fail to treat tenderly the families of those veteran talkers; the families that with their breakfasts and their dinners, by the fire at evening, through fast day and feast day, at weddings and at funerals got again and again endlessly, everlastingly this flow of war words. Let him reflect that peaceful men in corn-growing counties do not by choice sleep among the dogs of war nor wash their linen in the blood of their country's foe. Let him, in his sympathy with the talkers, remember with kindness the heroism of the listeners.

* * *

On a summer day Sam McPherson sat on a box before Wildman's grocery lost in thought. In his hand he held the little yellow account book and in this he buried himself, striving to wipe from his consciousness a scene being enacted before his eyes upon the street.

The realisation of the fact that his father was a confirmed liar and braggart had for years cast a shadow over his days and the shadow had been made blacker by the fact that in a land where the least fortunate can laugh in the face of want he had more than once stood face to face with poverty. He believed that the logical answer to the situation was money in the bank and with all the ardour of his boy's heart he strove to realise that answer. He wanted to be a money-maker and the totals at the foot of the pages in the soiled yellow bankbook were the milestones that marked the progress he had already made. They told him that the daily struggles with Fatty, the long tramps through Caxton's streets on bleak winter evenings, and the never-ending Saturday nights when crowds filled the stores, the sidewalks, and the drinking places, and he worked among them tirelessly and persistently were not without fruit.

Suddenly, above the murmur of men's voices on the street, his father's voice rose loud and insistent. A block further down the street, leaning against the door of Hunter's jewelry store, Windy talked at the top of his lungs, pumping his arms up and down with the air of a man making a stump speech.

"He is making a fool of himself," thought Sam, and returned to his bankbook, striving in the contemplation of the totals at the foot of the pages to shake off the dull anger that had begun to burn in his brain. Glancing up again, he saw that Joe Wildman, son of the grocer and a boy of his own age, had joined the group of men laughing and jeering at Windy. The shadow on Sam's face grew heavier.

Sam had been at Joe Wildman's house; he knew the air of plenty and of comfort that hung over it; the table piled high with meat and potatoes; the group of children laughing and eating to the edge of gluttony; the quiet, gentle father who amid the clamour and the noise did not raise his voice, and the well-dressed, bustling, rosy-cheeked mother. As a contrast to this scene he began to call up in his mind a picture of life in his own home, getting a kind of perverted pleasure out of his dissatisfaction with it. He saw the boasting, incompetent father telling his endless tales of the Civil War and complaining of his wounds; the tall, stoop-shouldered, silent mother with the deep lines in her long face, everlastingly at work over her washtub among the soiled clothes; the silent, hurriedly-eaten meals snatched from the kitchen table; and the long winter days when ice formed upon his mother's skirts and Windy idled about town while the little family subsisted upon bowls of cornmeal mush everlastingly repeated.

Now, even from where he sat, he could see that his father was half gone in drink, and knew that he was boasting of his part in the Civil War. "He is either doing that or telling of his aristocratic family or lying about his birthplace," he thought resentfully, and unable any longer to endure the sight of what seemed to him his own degradation, he got up and went into the grocery where a group of Caxton citizens stood talking to Wildman of a meeting to be held that morning at the town hall.

Caxton was to have a Fourth of July celebration. The idea, born in the heads of the few, had been taken up by the many. Rumours of it had run through the streets late in May. It had been talked of in Geiger's drug store, at the back of Wildman's grocery, and in the street before the New Leland House. John Telfer, the town's one man of leisure, had for weeks been going from place to place discussing the details with prominent men. Now a mass meeting was to be held in the hall over Geiger's drug store and to a man the citizens of Caxton had turned out for the meeting. The housepainter had come down off his ladder, the clerks were locking the doors of the stores, men went along the streets in groups bound for the hall. As they went they shouted to each other. "The old town has woke up," they called.

On a corner by Hunter's jewelry store Windy McPherson leaned against a building and harangued the passing crowd.

"Let the old flag wave," he shouted excitedly, "let the men of Caxton show the true blue and rally to the old standards."

"That's right, Windy, expostulate with them," shouted a wit, and a roar of laughter drowned Windy's reply.

Sam McPherson also went to the meeting in the hall. He came out of the grocery store with Wildman and went along the street looking at the sidewalk and trying not to see the drunken man talking in front of the jewelry store. At the hall other boys stood in the stairway or ran up and down the sidewalk talking excitedly, but Sam was a figure in the town's life and his right to push in among the men was not questioned. He squirmed through the mass of legs and secured a seat in a window ledge where he could watch the men come in and find seats.

As Caxton's one newsboy Sam had got from his newspaper selling both a living and a kind of standing in the town's life. To be a newsboy or a bootblack in a small novel-reading American town is to make a figure in the world. Do not all of the poor newsboys in the books become great men and is not this boy who goes among us so industriously day after day likely to become such a figure? Is it not a duty we of the town owe to future greatness that we push him forward? So reasoned the men of Caxton and paid a kind of court to the boy who sat on the window ledge of the hall while the other boys of the town waited on the sidewalk below.

John Telfer was chairman of the mass meeting. He was always chairman of public meetings in Caxton. The industrious silent men of position in the town envied his easy, bantering style of public address, while pretending to treat it with scorn. "He talks too much," they said, making a virtue of their own inability with apt and clever words.

Telfer did not wait to be appointed chairman of the meeting, but went forward, climbed the little raised platform at the end of the hall, and usurped the chairmanship. He walked up and down on the platform bantering with the crowd, answering gibes, calling to well-known men, getting and giving keen satisfaction with his talent. When the hall was filled with men he called the meeting to order, appointed committees and launched into a harangue. He told of plans made to advertise the big day in other towns and to get low ra

ilroad rates arranged for excursion parties. The programme, he said, included a musical carnival with brass bands from other towns, a sham battle by the military company at the fairgrounds, horse races, speeches from the steps of the town hall, and fireworks in the evening. "We'll show them a live town here," he declared, walking up and down the platform and swinging his cane, while the crowd applauded and shouted its approval.

When a call came for voluntary subscriptions to pay for the fun, the audience quieted down. One or two men got up and started to go out, grumbling that it was a waste of money. The fate of the celebration was on the knees of the gods.

Telfer arose to the occasion. He called out the names of the departing, and made jests at their expense so that they dropped back into their chairs unable to face the roaring laughter of the crowd, and shouted to a man at the back of the hall to close and bolt the door. Men began getting up in various parts of the hall and calling out sums, Telfer repeating the name and the amount in a loud voice to young Tom Jedrow, clerk in the bank, who wrote them down in a book. When the amount subscribed did not meet with his approval, he protested and the crowd backing him up forced the increase he demanded. When a man did not rise, he shouted at him and the man answered back an amount.

Suddenly in the hall a diversion arose. Windy McPherson emerged from the crowd at the back of the hall and walked down the centre aisle to the platform. He walked unsteadily straightening his shoulders and thrusting out his chin. When he got to the front of the hall he took a roll of bills from his pocket and threw it on the platform at the chairman's feet. "From one of the boys of '61," he announced in a loud voice.

The crowd shouted and clapped its hands with delight as Telfer picked up the bills and ran his finger over them. "Seventeen dollars from our hero, the mighty McPherson," he shouted while the bank clerk wrote the name and the amount in the book and the crowd continued to make merry over the title given the drunken soldier by the chairman.

The boy on the window ledge slipped to the floor and stood with burning cheeks behind the mass of men. He knew that at home his mother was doing a family washing for Lesley, the shoe merchant, who had given five dollars to the Fourth-of-July fund, and the resentment he had felt on seeing his father talking to the crowd before the jewelry store blazed up anew.

After the taking of subscriptions, men in various parts of the hall began making suggestions for added features for the great day. To some of the speakers the crowd listened respectfully, at others they hooted. An old man with a grey beard told a long rambling story of a Fourth-of-July celebration of his boyhood. When voices interrupted he protested and shook his fist in the air, pale with indignation.

"Oh, sit down, old daddy," shouted Freedom Smith and a murmur of applause greeted this sensible suggestion.

Another man got up and began to talk. He had an idea. "We will have," he said, "a bugler mounted on a white horse who will ride through the town at dawn blowing the reveille. At midnight he will stand on the steps of the town hall and blow taps to end the day."

The crowd applauded. The idea had caught their fancy and had instantly taken a place in their minds as one of the real events of the day.

Again Windy McPherson emerged from the crowd at the back of the hall. Raising his hand for silence he told the crowd that he was a bugler, that he had been a regimental bugler for two years during the Civil War. He said that he would gladly volunteer for the place.

The crowd shouted and John Telfer waved his hand. "The white horse for you, McPherson," he said.

Sam McPherson wriggled along the wall and out at the now unbolted door. He was filled with astonishment at his father's folly, and was still more astonished at the folly of these other men in accepting his statement and handing over the important place for the big day. He knew that his father must have had some part in the war as he was a member of the G. A. R., but he had no faith at all in the stories he had heard him relate of his experiences in the war. Sometimes he caught himself wondering if there ever had been such a war and thought that it must be a lie like everything else in the life of Windy McPherson. For years he had wondered why some sensible solid person like Valmore or Wildman did not rise, and in a matter-of-fact way tell the world that no such thing as the Civil War had ever been fought, that it was merely a figment in the minds of pompous old men demanding unearned glory of their fellows. Now hurrying along the street with burning cheeks, he decided that after all there must have been such a war. He had had the same feeling about birthplaces and there could be no doubt that people were born. He had heard his father claim as his birthplace Kentucky, Texas, North Carolina, Louisiana and Scotland. The thing had left a kind of defect in his mind. To the end of his life when he heard a man tell the place of his birth he looked up suspiciously, and a shadow of doubt crossed his mind.

From the mass meeting Sam went home to his mother and presented the case bluntly. "The thing will have to be stopped," he declared, standing with blazing eyes before her washtub. "It is too public. He can't blow a bugle; I know he can't. The whole town will have another laugh at our expense."

Jane McPherson listened in silence to the boy's outburst, then, turning, went back to rubbing clothes, avoiding his eyes.

With his hands thrust into his trousers pocket Sam stared sullenly at the ground. A sense of justice told him not to press the matter, but as he walked away from the washtub and out at the kitchen door, he hoped there would be plain talk of the matter at supper time. "The old fool!" he protested, addressing the empty street. "He is going to make a show of himself again."

When Windy McPherson came home that evening, something in the eyes of the silent wife, and the sullen face of the boy, startled him. He passed over lightly his wife's silence but looked closely at his son. He felt that he faced a crisis. In the emergency he was magnificent. With a flourish, he told of the mass meeting, and declared that the citizens of Caxton had arisen as one man to demand that he take the responsible place as official bugler. Then, turning, he glared across the table at his son.

Sam, openly defiant, announced that he did not believe his father capable of blowing a bugle.

Windy roared with amazement. He rose from the table declaring in a loud voice that the boy had wronged him; he swore that he had been for two years bugler on the staff of a colonel, and launched into a long story of a surprise by the enemy while his regiment lay asleep in their tents, and of his standing in the face of a storm of bullets and blowing his comrades to action. Putting one hand on his forehead he rocked back and forth as though about to fall, declaring that he was striving to keep back the tears wrenched from him by the injustice of his son's insinuation and, shouting so that his voice carried far down the street, he declared with an oath that the town of Caxton should ring and echo with his bugling as the sleeping camp had echoed with it that night in the Virginia wood. Then dropping again into his chair, and resting his head upon his hand, he assumed a look of patient resignation.

Windy McPherson was victorious. In the little house a great stir and bustle of preparation arose. Putting on his white overalls and forgetting for the time his honourable wounds the father went day after day to his work as a housepainter. He dreamed of a new blue uniform for the great day and in the end achieved the realisation of his dreams, not however without material assistance from what was known in the house as "Mother's Wash Money." And the boy, convinced by the story of the midnight attack in the woods of Virginia, began against his judgment to build once more an old dream of his father's reformation. Boylike, the scepticism was thrown to the winds and he entered with zeal into the plans for the great day. As he went through the quiet residence streets delivering the late evening papers, he threw back his head and revelled in the thought of a tall blue-clad figure on a great white horse passing like a knight before the gaping people. In a fervent moment he even drew money from his carefully built-up bank account and sent it to a firm in Chicago to pay for a shining new bugle that would complete the picture he had in his mind. And when the evening papers were distributed he hurried home to sit on the porch before the house discussing with his sister Kate the honours that had alighted upon their family.

* * *

With the coming of dawn on the great day the three McPhersons hurried hand in hand toward Main Street. In the street, on all sides of them, they saw people coming out of houses rubbing their eyes and buttoning their coats as they went along the sidewalk. All of Caxton seemed abroad.

In Main Street the people were packed on the sidewalk, and massed on the curb and in the doorways of the stores. Heads appeared at windows, flags waved from roofs or hung from ropes stretched across the street, and a great murmur of voices broke the silence of the dawn.

Sam's heart beat so that he was hard put to it to keep back the tears from his eyes. He thought with a gasp of the days of anxiety that had passed when the new bugle had not come from the Chicago company, and in retrospect he suffered again the horror of the days of waiting. It had been all important. He could not blame his father for raving and shouting about the house, he himself had felt like raving, and had put another dollar of his savings into telegrams before the treasure was finally in his hands. Now, the thought that it might not have come sickened him, and a little prayer of thankfulness rose from his lips. To be sure one might have been secured from a nearby town, but not a new shining one to go with his father's new blue uniform.

A cheer broke from the crowd massed along the street. Into the street rode a tall figure seated upon a white horse. The horse was from Culvert's livery and the boys there had woven ribbons into its mane and tail. Windy McPherson, sitting very straight in the saddle and looking wonderfully striking in the new blue uniform and the broad-brimmed campaign hat, had the air of a conqueror come to receive the homage of the town. He wore a gold band across his chest and against his hip rested the shining bugle. With stern eyes he looked down upon the people.

The lump in the throat of the boy hurt more and more. A great wave of pride ran over him, submerging him. In a moment he forgot all the past humiliations the father had brought upon his family, and understood why his mother remained silent when he, in his blindness, had wanted to protest against her seeming indifference. Glancing furtively up he saw a tear lying upon her cheek and felt that he too would like to sob aloud his pride and happiness.

Slowly and with stately stride the horse walked up the street between the rows of silent waiting people. In front of the town hall the tall military figure, rising in the saddle, took one haughty look at the multitude, and then, putting the bugle to his lips, blew.

Out of the bugle came only a thin piercing shriek followed by a squawk. Again Windy put the bugle to his lips and again the same dismal squawk was his only reward. On his face was a look of helpless boyish astonishment.

And in a moment the people knew. It was only another of Windy McPherson's pretensions. He couldn't blow a bugle at all.

A great shout of laughter rolled down the street. Men and women sat on the curbstones and laughed until they were tired. Then, looking at the figure upon the motionless horse, they laughed again.

Windy looked about him with troubled eyes. It is doubtful if he had ever had a bugle to his lips until that moment, but he was filled with wonder and astonishment that the reveille did not roll forth. He had heard the thing a thousand times and had it clearly in his mind; with all his heart he wanted it to roll forth, and could picture the street ringing with it and the applause of the people; the thing, he felt, was in him, and it was only a fatal blunder in nature that it did not come out at the flaring end of the bugle. He was amazed at this dismal end of his great moment-he was always amazed and helpless before facts.

The crowd began gathering about the motionless, astonished figure, laughter continuing to send them off into something near convulsions. Grasping the bridle of the horse, John Telfer began leading it off up the street. Boys whooped and shouted at the rider, "Blow! Blow!"

The three McPhersons stood in a doorway leading into a shoe store. The boy and the mother, white and speechless with humiliation, dared not look at each other. In the flood of shame sweeping over them they stared straight before them with hard, stony eyes.

The procession led by John Telfer at the bridle of the white horse marched down the street. Looking up, the eyes of the laughing, shouting man met those of the boy and a look of pain shot across his face. Dropping the bridle he hurried away through the crowd. The procession moved on, and watching their chance the mother and the two children crept home along side streets, Kate weeping bitterly. Leaving them at the door Sam went straight on down a sandy road toward a small wood. "I've got my lesson. I've got my lesson," he muttered over and over as he went.

At the edge of the wood he stopped and leaning on a rail fence watched until he saw his mother come out to the pump in the back yard. She had begun to draw water for the day's washing. For her also the holiday was at an end. A flood of tears ran down the boy's cheeks, and he shook his fist in the direction of the town. "You may laugh at that fool Windy, but you shall never laugh at Sam McPherson," he cried, his voice shaking with excitement.

* * *

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