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   Chapter 17 No.17

Windy McPherson's Son By Sherwood Anderson Characters: 17565

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


For weeks and months Sam led a wandering vagabond life, and surely a stranger or more restless vagabond never went upon the road. In his pocket he had at almost any time from one to five thousand dollars, his bag went on from place to place ahead of him, and now and then he caught up with it, unpacked it, and wore a suit of his former Chicago clothes upon the streets of some town. For the most part, however, he wore the rough clothes bought from Ed, and, when these were gone, others like them, with a warm canvas outer jacket, and for rough weather a pair of heavy boots lacing half way up the legs. Among the people, he passed for a rather well-set-up workman with money in his pocket going his own way.

During all those months of wandering, and even when he had returned to something nearer his former way of life, his mind was unsettled and his outlook on life disturbed. Sometimes it seemed to him that he, among all men, was a unique, an innovation. Day after day his mind ground away upon his problem and he was determined to seek and to keep on seeking until he found for himself a way of peace. In the towns and in the country through which he passed he saw the clerks in the stores, the merchants with worried faces hurrying into banks, the farmers, brutalised by toil, dragging their weary bodies homeward at the coming of night, and told himself that all life was abortive, that on all sides of him it wore itself out in little futile efforts or ran away in side currents, that nowhere did it move steadily, continuously forward giving point to the tremendous sacrifice involved in just living and working in the world. He thought of Christ going about seeing the world and talking to men, and thought that he too would go and talk to them, not as a teacher, but as one seeking eagerly to be taught. At times he was filled with longing and inexpressible hopes and, like the boy of Caxton, would get out of bed, not now to stand in Miller's pasture watching the rain on the surface of the water, but to walk endless miles through the darkness getting the blessed relief of fatigue into his body and often paying for and occupying two beds in one night.

Sam wanted to go back to Sue; he wanted peace and something like happiness, but most of all he wanted work, real work, work that would demand of him day after day the best and finest in him so that he would be held to the need of renewing constantly the better impulses of his mind. He was at the top of his life, and the few weeks of hard physical exertion as a driver of nails and a bearer of timbers had begun to restore his body to shapeliness and strength, so that he was filled anew with all of his native restlessness and energy; but he was determined that he would not again pour himself out in work that would react upon him as had his money making, his dream of beautiful children, and this last half-formed dream of a kind of financial fatherhood to the Illinois town.

The incident with Ed and the red-haired man had been his first serious effort at anything like social service achieved through controlling or attempting to influence the public mind, for his was the type of mind that runs to the concrete, the actual. As he sat in the ravine talking to Jake, and, later, coming home in the boat under the multitude of stars, he had looked up from among the drunken workmen and his mind had seen a city built for a people, a city independent, beautiful, strong, and free, but a glimpse of a red head through a barroom door and a socialist trembling before a name had dispelled the vision. After his return from hearing the socialist, who in his turn was hedged about by complicated influences, and in those November days when he walked south through Illinois, seeing the late glory of the trees and breathing the fine air, he laughed at himself for having had the vision. It was not that the red-haired man had sold him out, it was not the beating given him by Ed's sullen-faced son or the blows across the face at the hands of his vigorous wife-it was just that at bottom he did not believe the people wanted reform; they wanted a ten per cent raise in wages. The public mind was a thing too big, too complicated and inert for a vision or an ideal to get at and move deeply.

And then, walking on the road and struggling to find truth even within himself, Sam had to come to something else. At bottom he was no leader, no reformer. He had not wanted the free city for a free people, but as a work to be done by his own hand. He was McPherson, the money maker, the man who loved himself. The fact, not the sight of Jake hobnobbing with Bill or the timidity of the socialist, had blocked his way to work as a political reformer and builder.

Tramping south between the rows of shocked corn he laughed at himself. "The experience with Ed and Jake has done something for me," he thought. "They bullied me. I have been a kind of bully myself and what has happened has been good medicine for me."

Sam walked the roads of Illinois, Ohio, New York, and other states, through hill country and flat country, in the snow drifts of winter and through the storms of spring, talking to people, asking their way of life and the end toward which they worked. At night he dreamed of Sue, of his boyhood struggles in Caxton, of Janet Eberly sitting in her chair and talking of writers of books, or, visualising the stock exchange or some garish drinking place, he saw again the faces of Crofts, Webster, Morrison, and Prince intent and eager as he laid before them some scheme of money making. Sometimes at night he awoke, seized with horror, seeing Colonel Tom with the revolver pressed against his head; and sitting in his bed, and all through the next day he talked aloud to himself.

"The damned old coward," he shouted into the darkness of his room or into the wide peaceful prospect of the countryside.

The idea of Colonel Tom as a suicide seemed unreal, grotesque, horrible. It was as though some round-cheeked, curly-headed boy had done the thing to himself. The man had been so boyishly, so blusteringly incompetent, so completely and absolutely without bigness and purpose.

"And yet," thought Sam, "he has found strength to whip me, the man of ability. He has taken revenge, absolute and unanswerable, for the slight I put upon the little play world in which he had been king."

In fancy Sam could see the great paunch and the little white pointed beard sticking up from the floor in the room where the colonel lay dead, and into his mind came a saying, a sentence, the distorted remembrance of a thought he had got from a book of Janet's or from some talk he had heard, perhaps at his own dinner table.

"It is horrible to see a fat man with purple veins in his face lying dead."

At such times he hurried along the road like one pursued. People driving past in buggies and seeing him and hearing the stream of talk that issued from his lips, turned and watched him out of sight. And Sam, hurrying and seeking relief from the thoughts in his mind, called to the old commonsense instincts within himself as a captain marshals his forces to withstand an attack.

"I will find work. I will find work. I will seek Truth," he said.

Sam avoided the larger towns or went hurriedly through them, sleeping night after night at village hotels or at some hospitable farmhouse, and daily he increased the length of his walks, getting real satisfaction from the aching of his legs and from the bruising of his unaccustomed feet on the hard road. Like St. Jerome, he had a wish to beat upon his body and subdue the flesh. In turn he was blown upon by the wind, chilled by the winter frost, wet by the rains, and warmed by the sun. In the spring he swam in rivers, lay on sheltered hillsides watching the cattle grazing in the fields and the white clouds floating across the sky, and constantly his legs became harder and his body more flat and sinewy. Once he slept for a night in a straw stack at the edge of a woods and in the morning was awakened by a farmer's dog licking his face.

Several times he came up to vagabonds, umbrella menders and other roadsters, and walked with them, but he found in their society no incentive to join in their flights across country on freight trains or on the fronts of passenger trains. Those whom he met and with whom he talked and walked did not interest him greatly. They had no end in life, sought no ideal of usefulness. Walking and talking with them, the romance went out of their wandering life. They were utterly dull and stupid, they were, almost without exception, strikingly unclean, they wanted passionately to get drunk, and they seemed to be forever avoiding life with its problems and responsibilities. They always talked of the big

cities, of "Chi" and "Cinci" and "Frisco," and were bent upon getting to one of these places. They condemned the rich and begged and stole from the poor, talked swaggeringly of their personal courage and ran whimpering and begging before country constables. One of them, a tall, leering youth in a grey cap, who came up to Sam one evening at the edge of a village in Indiana, tried to rob him. Full of his new strength and with the thought of Ed's wife and the sullen-faced son in his mind, Sam sprang upon him and had revenge for the beating received in the office of Ed's hotel by beating this fellow in his turn. When the tall youth had partially recovered from the beating and had staggered to his feet, he ran off into the darkness, stopping when well out of reach to hurl a stone that splashed in the mud of the road at Sam's feet.

Everywhere Sam sought people who would talk to him of themselves. He had a kind of faith that a message would come to him out of the mouth of some simple, homely dweller of the villages or the farms. A woman, with whom he talked in the railroad station at Fort Wayne, Indiana, interested him so that he went into a train with her and travelled all night in the day coach, listening to her talk of her three sons, one of whom had weak lungs and had, with two younger brothers, taken up government land in the west. The woman had been with them for some months, helping them to get a start.

"I was raised on a farm and knew things they could not know," she told Sam, raising her voice above the rumble of the train and the snoring of fellow passengers.

She had worked with her sons in the field, ploughing and planting, had driven a team across country, carrying boards for the building of a house, and had grown brown and strong at the work.

"And Walter is getting well. His arms are as brown as my own and he has gained eleven pounds," she said, rolling up her sleeves and showing her heavy, muscular forearms.

She planned to take her husband, a machinist working in a bicycle factory in Buffalo, and her two grown daughters, clerks in a drygoods store, with her and return to the new country, and having a sense of her hearer's interest in her story, she talked of the bigness of the west and the loneliness of the vast, silent plains, saying that they sometimes made her heart ache. Sam thought she had in some way achieved success, although he did not see how her experience could serve as a guide to him.

"You have got somewhere. You have got hold of a truth," he said, taking her hand when he got off the train at Cleveland, at dawn.

At another time, in the late spring, when he was tramping through southern Ohio, a man drove up beside him, and pulling in his horse, asked, "Where are you going?" adding genially, "I may be able to give you a lift."

Sam looked at him and smiled. Something in the man's manner or in his dress suggesting the man of God, he assumed a bantering air.

"I am on my way to the New Jerusalem," he said seriously. "I am one who seeks God."

The young minister picked up his reins with a look of alarm, but when he saw a smile playing about the corners of Sam's mouth, he turned the wheels of his buggy.

"Get in and come along with me and we will talk of the New Jerusalem," he said.

On the impulse Sam got into the buggy, and driving along the dusty road, told the essential parts of his story and of his quest for an end toward which he might work.

"It would be simple enough if I were without money and driven by hard necessity, but I am not. I want work, not because it is work and will bring me bread and butter, but because I need to be doing something that will satisfy me when I am done. I do not want so much to serve men as to serve myself. I want to get at happiness and usefulness as for years I got at money making. There is a right way of life for such a man as me, and I want to find that way."

The young minister, who was a graduate of a Lutheran seminary at Springfield, Ohio, and had come out of college with a very serious outlook on life, took Sam to his house and together they sat talking half the night. He had a wife, a country girl with a babe lying at her breast, who got supper for them, and who, after supper, sat in the shadows in a corner of the living-room listening to their talk.

The two men sat together. Sam smoked his pipe and the minister poked at a coal fire that burned in a stove. They talked of God and of what the thought of God meant to men; but the young minister did not try to give Sam an answer to his problem; on the contrary, Sam found him strikingly dissatisfied and unhappy in his way of life.

"There is no spirit of God here," he said, poking viciously at the coals in the stove. "The people here do not want me to talk to them of God. They have no curiosity about what He wants of them nor of why He has put them here. They want me to tell them of a city in the sky, a kind of glorified Dayton, Ohio, to which they can go when they have finished this life of work and of putting money in the savings bank."

For several days Sam stayed with the clergyman, driving about the country with him and talking of God. In the evening they sat in the house, continuing their talks, and on Sunday Sam went to hear the man preach in his church.

The sermon was a disappointment to Sam. Although his host had talked vigorously and well in private, his public address was stilted and unnatural.

"The man," thought Sam, "has no feeling for public address and is not treating his people well in not giving them, without reservation, the ideas he has expounded to me in his house." He decided there was something to be said for the people who sat patiently listening week after week and who gave the man the means of a living for so lame an effort.

One evening when Sam had been with them for a week the young wife came to him as he stood on the little porch before the house.

"I wish you would go away," she said, standing with her babe in her arms and looking at the porch floor. "You stir him up and make him dissatisfied."

Sam stepped off the porch and hurried off up the road into the darkness. There had been tears in the wife's eyes.

In June he went with a threshing crew, working among labourers and eating with them in the fields or about the crowded tables of farmhouses where they stopped to thresh. Each day Sam and the men with him worked in a new place and had as helpers the farmer for whom they threshed and several of his neighbours. The farmers worked at a killing pace and the men of the threshing crew were expected to keep abreast of each new lot of them day after day. At night the threshermen, too weary for talk, crept into the loft of a barn, slept until daylight and then began another day of heartbreaking toil. On Sunday morning they went for a swim in some creek and in the afternoon sat in a barn or under the trees of an orchard sleeping or indulging in detached, fragmentary bits of talk, talk that never rose above a low, wearisome level. For hours they would try to settle a dispute as to whether a horse they had seen at some farm during the week had three, or four, white feet, and one man in the crew never talked at all, sitting on his heels through the long Sunday afternoons and whittling at a stick with his pocket knife.

The threshing outfit with which Sam worked was owned by a man named Joe, who was in debt for it to the maker and who, after working with the men all day, drove about the country half the night making deals with farmers for other days of threshing. Sam thought that he looked constantly on the point of collapse through overwork and worry, and one of the men, who had been with Joe through several seasons, told Sam that at the end of the season their employer did not have enough money left from his season of work to pay the interest on the debt for his machines and that he continually took jobs for less than the cost of doing them.

"One has to keep going," said Joe, when one day Sam began talking to him on the matter.

When told to keep Sam's wage until the end of the season he looked relieved and at the end of the season came to Sam, looking more worried and said that he had no money.

"I will give you a note bearing good interest if you can let me have a little time," he said.

Sam took the note and looked at the pale, drawn face peering out of him from the shadows at the back of the barn.

"Why do you not drop the whole thing and begin working for some one else?" he asked.

Joe looked indignant.

"A man wants independence," he said.

When Sam got again upon the road he stopped at a little bridge over a stream, and tearing up Joe's note watched the torn pieces of it float away upon the brown water.

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