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- Main-Travelled Roads - 3/56 -
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.
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