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   Chapter 3 No.3

Other Main-Travelled Roads By Hamlin Garland Characters: 10075

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Old man Bacon was pinching forked barbs on a wire fence one rainy day in July, when his neighbor Jennings came along the road on his way to town. Jennings never went to town except when it rained too hard to work outdoors, his neighbors said; and of old man Bacon it was said he never rested nights nor Sundays.

Jennings pulled up. "Good morning, neighbor Bacon."

"Mornin'," rumbled the old man without looking up.

"Taking it easy, as usual, I see. Think it's going to clear up?"

"May, an' may not. Don't make much differunce t' me," growled Bacon, discouragingly.

"Heard about the plan for a church?"

"Naw."

"Well, we're goin' to hire Elder Pill from Douglass to come over and preach every Sunday afternoon at the schoolhouse, an' we want help t' pay him-the laborer is worthy of his hire."

"Sometimes he is an' then agin he ain't. Y' needn't look t' me f'r a dollar. I ain't got no intrust in y'r church."

"Oh, yes, you have-besides, y'r sister-"

"She ain't got no more time 'n I have t' go t' church. We're obleeged to do 'bout all we c'n stand t' pay our debts, let alone tryun' to support a preacher." And the old man shut the pinchers up on a barb with a vicious grip.

Easy-going Mr. Jennings laughed in his silent way. "I guess you'll help when the time comes," he said, and, clucking to his team, drove off.

"I guess I won't," muttered the grizzled old giant as he went on with his work. Bacon was what is called land poor in the West, that is, he had more land than money; still he was able to give if he felt disposed. It remains to say that he was not disposed, being a sceptic and a scoffer. It angered him to have Jennings predict so confidently that he would help.

The sun was striking redly through a rift in the clouds, about three o'clock in the afternoon, when he saw a man coming up the lane, walking: on the grass at the side of the road, and whistling merrily. The old man looked at him from under his huge eyebrows with some curiosity. As he drew near, the pedestrian ceased to whistle, and, just as the farmer expected him to pass, he stopped and said, in a free and easy style:-

"How de do? Give me a chaw t'baccer. I'm Pill, the new minister. I take fine-cut when I can get it," he said, as Bacon put his hand into his pocket. "Much obliged. How goes it?"

"Tollable, tollable," said the astounded farmer, looking hard at Pill as he flung a handful of tobacco into his mouth.

"Yes, I'm the new minister sent around here to keep you fellows in the traces and out of hell-fire. Have y' fled from the wrath?" he asked, in a perfunctory way.

"You are, eh?" said Bacon, referring back to his profession.

"I am, just! How do you like that style of barb fence? Ain't the twisted wire better?"

"I s'pose they be, but they cost more."

"Yes, costs more to go to heaven than to hell. You'll think so after I board with you a week. Narrow the road that leads to light, and broad the way that leads-how's your soul anyway, brother?"

"Soul's all right. I find more trouble to keep m' body go'n."

"Give us your hand; so do I. All the same we must prepare for the next world. We're gettin' old; lay not up your treasures where moth and rust corrupt and thieves break through and steal."

Bacon was thoroughly interested in the preacher, and was studying him carefully. He was tall, straight, and superbly proportioned; broad-shouldered, wide-lunged, and thewed like a Chippewa. His rather small steel-blue eyes twinkled, and his shrewd face and small head, set well back, completed a remarkable figure. He wore his reddish beard in the usual way of Western clergymen, with mustache chopped close.

Bacon spoke slowly:-

"You look like a good, husky man to pitch in the barn-yard; you've too much muscle f'r preachun'."

"Come and hear me next Sunday, and if you say so then, I'll quit," replied Mr. Pill, quietly. "I give ye my word for it. I believe in preachers havin' a little of the flesh and the devil; they can sympathize better with the rest of ye." The sarcasm was lost on Bacon, who continued to look at him. Suddenly he said, as if with an involuntary determination:-

"Where ye go'n' to stay t'night?"

"I don't know; do you?" was the quick reply.

"I reckon ye can hang out with me, 'f ye feel like ut. We ain't very purty, at our house, but we eat. You go along down the road and tell 'em I sent yeh. Ye'll find an' ol' dusty Bible round some'rs-I s'pose ye spend y'r spare time read'n' about Joshua an' Dan'l-"

"I spend more time reading men. Well, I'm off! I'm hungrier 'n a gray wolf in a bear-trap." And off he went as he came. But he did not whistle; he chewed.

Bacon felt as if he had made too much of a concession, and had a strong inclination to shout after him, and retract his invitation; but he did not, only worked on, with an occasional bear-like grin. There was something captivating in this fellow's free and easy way.

When he came up to the house an hour or two later, in singular good humor for him, he found th

e Elder in the creamery, with his niece Eldora, who was not more won by him than was his sister Jane Buttles, he was so genial and put on so few religious frills.

Mrs. Buttles never put on frills of any kind. She was a most frightful toiler, only excelled (if excelled at all) by her brother. Unlovely at her best, when about her work in her faded calico gown and flat shoes, hair wisped into a slovenly knot, she was depressing. But she was a good woman, of sterling integrity, and ambitious for her girl. She was very glad of the chance to take charge of her brother's household after Marietta married.

Eldora was as attractive as her mother was depressing. She was very young at this time and had the physical perfection-at least as regards body-that her parents must have had in youth. She was above the average height of woman, with strong swell of bosom and glorious, erect carriage of head. Her features were coarse, but regular and pleasing, and her manner boyish.

Elder Pill was on the best terms with them as he watched the milk being skimmed out of the "submerged cans" ready for the "caaves and hawgs," as Mrs. Buttles called them.

"Uncle told you t' come here 'nd stay t' supper, did he? What's come over him?" said the girl, with a sort of audacious humor.

"Bill has an awful grutch agin preachers," said Mrs. Buttles, as she wiped her hands on her apron. "I declare, I don't see how-"

"Some preachers, not all preachers," laughed Pill, in his mellow nasal. "There are preachers, and then again preachers. I'm one o' the t'other kind."

"I sh'd think y' was," laughed the girl.

"Now, Eldory, you run right t' the pig-pen with that milk, whilst I go in an' set the tea on."

Mr. Pill seized the can of milk, saying, with a twang: "Show me the way that I may walk therein," and, accompanied by the laughing girl, made rapid way to the pig-pen just as the old man set up a ferocious shout to call the hired hand out of the corn-field.

"How'd y' come to send him here?" asked Mrs. Buttles, nodding toward Pill.

"Damfino! I kind o' liked him-no nonsense about him," answered Bacon, going into temporary eclipse behind his hands as he washed his face at the cistern.

At the supper table Pill was "easy as an old shoe"; ate with his knife, talked about fatting hogs, suggested a few points on raising clover, told of pioneer experiences in Michigan, and soon won them-hired man and all-to a most favorable opinion of himself. But he did not trench on religious matters at all.

The hired man in his shirt-sleeves, and smelling frightfully of tobacco and sweat (as did Bacon), sat with open mouth, at times forgetting to eat, in his absorbing interest in the minister's yarns.

"Yes, I've got a family, too much of a family, in fact-that is, I think so sometimes when I'm pinched. Our Western people are so indigent-in plain terms, poor-they can't do any better than they do. But we pull through-we pull through! John, you look like a stout fellow, but I'll bet a hat I can down you three out of five."

"I bet you can't," grinned the hired man. It was the climax of all, that bet.

"I'll take y' in hand an' flop y' both," roared Bacon from his lion-like throat, his eyes glistening with rare good-nature from the shadow of his gray brows. But he admired the minister's broad shoulders at the same time. If this fellow panned out as he promised, he was a rare specimen.

After supper the Elder played a masterly game of croquet with Eldora, beating her with ease; then he wandered out to the barn and talked horses with the hired man, and finished by stripping off his coat and putting on one of Mrs. Buttles's aprons to help milk the cows.

But at breakfast the next morning, when the family were about pitching into their food as usual without ceremony, the visitor spoke in an imperious tone and with lifted hand. "Wait! Let us look to the Lord for His blessing."

They waited till the grace was said, but it threw a depressing atmosphere over the group; evidently they considered the trouble begun. At the end of the meal the minister asked:-

"Have you a Bible in the house?"

"I reckon there's one around somewhere. Elly, go 'n see 'f y' can't raise one," said Mrs. Buttles, indifferently.

"Have you any objection to family devotion?" asked Pill, as the book was placed in his hands by the girl.

"No; have all you want," said Bacon, as he rose from the table and passed out the door.

"I guess I'll see the thing through," said the hand.

"It ain't just square to leave the women folks to bear the brunt of it."

It was shortly after breakfast that the Elder concluded he'd walk up to Brother Jennings's and see about church matters.

"I shall expect you, Brother Bacon, to be at the service at 2.30."

"All right, go ahead expectun'," responded Bacon, with an inscrutable sidewise glance.

"You promised, you remember?"

"The-devil-I did!" the old man snarled.

The Elder looked back with a smile, and went off whistling in the warm, bright morning.

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