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   Chapter 4 No.4

Other Main-Travelled Roads By Hamlin Garland Characters: 8682

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The schoolhouse down on the creek was known as "Hell's Corners" all through the county, because of the frequent rows that took place therein at "corkuses" and the like, and also because of the number of teachers that had been "ousted" by the boys. In fact, it was one of those places still to be found occasionally in the West, far from railroads and schools, where the primitive ignorance and ferocity of men still prowl, like the panthers which are also found sometimes in the deeps of the Iowa timber lands.

The most of this ignorance and ferocity, however, was centred in the family of Dixons, a dark-skinned, unsavory group of Missourians. It consisted of old man Dixon and wife, and six sons, all man-grown, great, gaunt, sinewy fellows, with no education, but superstitious as savages. If anything went wrong in "Hell's Corners" everybody knew that the Dixons were "on the rampage again." The school-teachers were warned against the Dixons, and the preachers were besought to convert the Dixons.

In fact, John Jennings, as he drove Pill to the schoolhouse next day, said:-

"If you can convert the Dixon boys, Elder, I'll give you the best horse in my barn."

"I work not for such hire," said Mr. Pill, with a look of deep solemnity on his face, belied, indeed, by a twinkle in his small, keen eye-a twinkle which made Milton Jennings laugh candidly.

There was considerable curiosity, expressed by a murmur of lips and voices, as the minister's tall figure entered the door and stood for a moment in a study of the scene before him. It was a characteristically Western scene. The women sat on one side of the schoolroom, the men on the other; the front seats were occupied by squirming boys and girls in their Sunday splendor.

On the back, to the right, were the young men, in their best vests, with paper collars and butterfly neckties, with their coats unbuttoned, their hair plastered down in a fascinating wave on their brown foreheads. Not a few were in their shirt-sleeves. The older men sat immediately between the youths and boys, talking in hoarse whispers across the aisles about the state of the crops and the county ticket, while the women in much the same way conversed about the children and raising onions and strawberries. It was their main recreation, this Sunday meeting.

"Brethren!" rang out the imperious voice of the minister, "let us pray."

The audience thoroughly enjoyed the Elder's prayer. He was certainly gifted in that direction, and his petition grew genuinely eloquent as his desires embraced the "ends of the earth and the utterm'st parts of the seas thereof." But in the midst of it a clatter was heard, and five or six strapping fellows filed in with loud thumpings of their brogans.

Shortly after they had settled themselves with elaborate impudence on the back seat, the singing began. Just as they were singing the last verse, every individual voice wavered and all but died out in astonishment to see William Bacon come in-an unheard-of thing! And with a clean shirt, too! Bacon, to tell the truth, was feeling as much out of place as a cat in a bath-tub, and looked uncomfortable, even shamefaced, as he sidled in, his shapeless hat gripped nervously in both hands; coatless and collarless, his shirt open at his massive throat. The girls tittered, of course, and the boys hammered each other's ribs, moved by the unusual sight. Milton Jennings, sitting beside Bettie Moss, said:-

"Well! may I jump straight up and never come down!"

And Shep Watson said: "May I never see the back o' my neck!" Which pleased Bettie so much that she grew quite purple with efforts to conceal her laughter; she always enjoyed a joke on her father.

But all things have an end, and at last the room became quiet as Mr. Pill began to read the Scripture, wondering a little at the commotion. He suspected that those dark-skinned, grinning fellows on the back seat were the Dixon boys, and knew they were bent on fun. The physique of the minister being carefully studied, the boys began whispering among themselves, and at last, just as the sermon opened, they began to push the line of young men on the long seat over toward the girls' side, squeezing Milton against Bettie. This pleasantry encouraged one of them to whack his neighbor over the head with his soft hat, causing great la

ughter and disturbance. The preacher stopped. His cool, penetrating voice sounded strangely unclerical as he said:-

"There are some fellows here to-day to have fun with me. If they don't keep quiet, they'll have more fun than they can hold." (At this point a green crab-apple bounded up the aisle.) "I'm not to be bulldozed."

He pulled off his coat and laid it on the table before him, and, amid a wondering silence, took off his cuffs and collar, saying:-

"I can preach the word of the Lord just as well without my coat, and I can throw rowdies out the door a little better in my shirt-sleeves."

Had the Dixon boys been a little shrewder as readers of human character, or if they had known why old William Bacon was there, they would have kept quiet; but it was not long before they began to push again, and at last one of them gave a squeak, and a tussle took place. The preacher was in the midst of a sentence:-

"An evil deed, brethren, is like unto a grain of mustard seed. It is small, but it grows steadily, absorbing its like from the earth and air, sending out roots and branches, till at last-"

There was a scuffle and a snicker. Mr. Pill paused, and gazed intently at Tom Dixon, who was the most impudent and strongest of the gang; then he moved slowly down on the astonished young savage. As he came his eyes seemed to expand like those of an eagle in battle, steady, remorseless, unwavering, at the same time that his brows shut down over them-a glance that hushed every breath. The awed and astonished ruffians sat as if paralyzed by the unuttered yet terribly ferocious determination of the preacher's eyes. His right hand was raised, the other was clenched at his waist. There was a sort of solemnity in his approach, like a tiger creeping upon a foe.

At last, after what seemed minutes to the silent, motionless congregation, his raised hand came down on the shoulder of the leader with the exact, resistless precision of the tiger's paw, and the ruffian was snatched from his seat to the floor sprawling. Before he could rise, the steel-like grip of the roused preacher sent him halfway to the door, and then out into the dirt of the road.

Turning, Pill strode down the aisle once more. The half-risen congregation made way for him, curiously. When he came within reach of Dick, the fellow struck savagely out at the preacher, only to have his blow avoided by a lithe, lightning-swift movement of the body above the hips (a trained boxer's trick), and to find himself lying bruised and dazed on the floor.

By this time the other brothers had recovered from their stupor, and, with wild curses, leaped over the benches toward the fearless preacher.

But now a new voice was heard in the sudden uproar-a new but familiar voice. It was the mighty voice of William Bacon, known far and wide as a terrible antagonist, a man who had never been whipped. He was like a wild beast excited to primitive savagery by the smell of blood.

"Stand back, you hell-hounds!" he said, leaping between them and the preacher. "You know me. Lay another hand on that man an', by the livun' God, you answer t' me. Back thear!"

Some of the men cheered, most stood irresolute. The women crowded together, the children began to scream with terror, while through it all Pill dragged his last assailant toward the door.

Bacon made his way down to where the Dixons had halted, undecided what to do. If the preacher had the air and action of the tiger, Bacon looked the grisly bear-his eyebrows working up and down, his hands clenched into frightful bludgeons, his breath rushing through his hairy nostrils.

"Git out o' hyare," he growled. "You've run things here jest about long enough. Git out!"

His hands were now on the necks of two of the boys and he was hustling them toward the door.

"If you want 'o whip the preacher, meet him in the public road-one at a time; he'll take care o' himself. Out with ye," he ended, kicking them out. "Show your faces here agin, an' I'll break ye in two."

The non-combative farmers now began to see the humor of the whole transaction, and began to laugh; but they were cut short by the calm voice of the preacher at his desk:-

"But a good deed, brethren, is like unto a grain of wheat planted in good earth, that bringeth forth fruit in due season an hundred fold."

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