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- Main-Travelled Roads - 4/56 -


He worked on with teeth set, white with rage. He had an impulse that would ?have made him assault her with words as with a knife. He was possessed with a terrible passion which was hitherto latent in him, and which he now felt to be his worst self. But he was powerless to exorcise it. His set teeth ached with the stress of his muscular tension, and his eyes smarted with the strain.

He had always prided himself on being cool, calm, above these absurd quarrels that his companions had so often indulged in. He didn't suppose he could be so moved. As he worked on, his rage settled down into a sort of stubborn bitterness-stubborn bitterness of conflict between this evil nature and his usual self. It was the instinct of possession, the organic feeling of proprietor-ship of a woman, which rose to the surface and mastered him. He was not a self-analyst, of course, being young, though he was more introspective than the ordinary farmer.

He had a great deal of time to think it over as he worked on there, pitching the heavy bundles, but still he did not get rid of the miserable desire to punish Agnes; and when she came out, looking very pretty in her straw hat, and came around near his stack, he knew she came to see him, to have an explanation, a smile; and yet he worked away with his hat pulled over his eyes, hardly noticing her.

Ed went over to the edge of the stack and chatted with her; and she-poor girl!-feeling Will's neglect, could only put a good face on the matter, and show that she didn't mind it, by laughing back at Ed.

All this Will saw, though he didn't appear to be looking. And when Jim Wheelock-Dirty Jim-with his whip in his hand, came up and playfully pretended to pour oil on her hair, and she laughingly struck at him with a handful of straw, Will wouldn't have looked at her if she had called him by name.

She looked so bright and charming in her snowy apron and her boy's straw hat tipped jauntily over one pink ear that David and Steve and Bill, and even Shep, found a way to get a word with her, and the poor fellows in the high straw pile looked their disappoimment and shook their forks in mock rage at the lucky dogs on the ground. But Will worked on like a fiend, while the dapples of light and shade fell on the bright face of the merry girl.

To save his soul from hell flames he couldn't have gone over there and smiled at her. It was impossible. A wall of bronze seemed to have arisen between them. Yesterday, last night, seemed a dream. The clasp of her hands at his neck, the touch of her lips, were like the caresses of an ideal in some dim reverie.

As night drew on, the men worked with a steadier, more mechanical action. No one spoke now. Each man was intent on his work. No one had any strength or breath to waste. The driver on his power changed his weight on weary feet, and whistled and sang at the tired horses. The feeder, his face gray with dust, rolled the grain into the cylinder so even, so steady, so swift that it ran on with a sullen, booming roar. Far up on the straw pile the stackers worked with the steady, rhythmic action of men rowing a boat, their figures looming vague and dim in the flying dust and chaff, outlined against the glorious yellow and orange-tinted clouds.

"Phe-e-eew-ee," whistled the driver with the sweet, cheery, rising notes of a bird. "Chk, chk, chk! Phe-e-eewee. Go on there, boys! Chk, chk, chk! Step up, there Dan, step up! (Snap!) Phe-e-eew-ee! G'-wan-g'-wan, g'-wan! Chk, clik, chk! Wheest, wheest, wheest! Clik, chk!"

In the house the women were setting the table for supper. The sun had gone down behind the oaks, flinging glorious rose color and orange shadows along the edges of the slate-blue clouds. Agnes stopped her work at the kitchen window to look up at the sky and cry silently. "What was the matter with Will?" She felt a sort of distrust of him now. She thought she knew him so well, but now he was so strange.

"Come, Aggie," said Mrs. Dingman, "they're gettin' most down to the bottom of the stack. They'll be pilin' in here soon."

"Phe-e-eew-ee! G'-wan, Doll! G'-wan, boys! Chk, chk, chk! Phe-e-eew-ee!" called the driver out in the dusk, cheerily swinging the whip over the horses' backs. Boomoo-oo-oom! roared the machine, with a muffled, monotonous, solemn tone. "G'-wan, boys! G'-wan, g'-wan!"

Will had worked unceasingly all day. His muscles ached with fatigue. His hands trembled. He clenched his teeth, however, and worked on, determined not to yield. He wanted them to understand that he could do as much pitching as any of them and read Caesar's Commentaries besides. It seemed as if each bundle were the last he could raise. The sinews of his wrist pained him so, they seemed swollen to twice their natural size. But still he worked on grimly, while the dusk fell and the air grew chill.

At last the bottom bundle was pitched up, and he got down on his knees to help scrape the loose wheat into baskets. What a sweet relief it was to kneel down, to release the fork and let the worn and cramping muscles settle into rest! A new note came into the driver's voice, a soothing tone, full of kindness and admiration for the work his team had done.

"Wo-o-o, lads! Stiddy-y-y, boys! Wo-o-o, there, Dan. Stiddy, stiddy, old man! Ho, there!" The cylinder took on a lower key, with short rising yells, as it ran empty for a moment. The horses had been going so long that they came to a stop reluctantly. At last David called, "Turn out!" The men seized the ends of the sweep, David uncoupled the tumbling rods, and Shep threw a sheaf of grain into the cylinder, choking it into silence.

The stillness and the dusk were very impressive. So long had the bell-metal cogwheel sung its deafening song into Will's ear that, as he walked away into the dusk, he had a weird feeling of being suddenly deaf, and his legs were so numb that he could hardly feel the earth. He stumbled away like a man paralyzed.

He took out his handkerchief, wiped the dust from his face as best he could, shook his coat, dusted his shoulders with a grain sack, and was starting away, when Mr. Dingman, a rather feeble elderly man, came up.

"Come, Will, supper's all ready. Go in and eat."

"I guess I'll go home to supper."

"Oh, no, that won't do. The women'll be expecting yeh to stay."

The men were laughing at the well, the warm yellow light shone from the kitchen, the chill air making it seem very inviting, and she was there, waiting! But the demon rose in him. He knew Agnes would expect him, that she would cry that night with disappointment, but his face hardened. "I guess I'll go home," he said, and his tone was relentless. He turned and walked away, hungry, tired -so tired he stumbled, and so unhappy he could have wept.

II

ON Thursday the county fair was to be held. The fair is one of the gala days of the year in the country districts of the West, and one of the times when the country lover rises above expense to the extravagance of hiring a top buggy in which to take his sweetheart to the neighboring town.

It was customary to prepare for this long beforehand, for the demand for top buggies was so great the livery-men grew dictatorial and took no chances. Slowly but surely the country beaux began to compete with the clerks, and in many cases actually outbid them, as they furnished their own horses and could bid higher, in consequence, on the carriages.

Will had secured his brother's "rig," and early on Thursday morning he was at work, busily washing the mud from the carriage, dusting the cushions, and polishing up the buckles and rosettes on his horses' harnesses. It was a beautiful, crisp, clear dawn-the ideal day for a ride; and Will was singing as he worked. He had regained his real sell, and, having passed through a bitter period of shame, was now joyous with anticipation of forgiveness. He looked forward to the day with its chances of doing a thousand little things to show his regret and his love.

He had not seen Agnes since Monday, because Tuesday he did not go back to help thresh, and Wednesday he had been obliged to go to town to see about board for the coming term; but he felt sure of her. It had all been arranged the Sunday before; she'd expect him, and he was to call at eight o'clock.

He polished up the colts with merry tick-tack of the brush and comb, and after the last stroke on their shining limbs, threw his tools in the box and went to the house.

"Pretty sharp last night," said his brother John, who was scrubbing his face at the cistern.

"Should say so by that rim of ice," Will replied, dipping his hands into the icy water.

"I ought'o stay home today an' dig tates," continued the older man thoughtfully as they went into the wood-shed and wiped consecutively on the long roller towel. "Some o' them Early Rose lay right on top o' the ground. They'll get nipped sure."

"Oh, I guess not. You'd better go, Jack; you don't get away very often. And then it would disappoint Nettie and the children so. Their little hearts are overflowing," he ended as the door opened and two sturdy little boys rushed out.

"B'ekfuss, Poppa; all yeady!"

The kitchen table was set near the stove; the room was full of sun, and the smell of sizzling sausages and the aroma of coffee filled the room. The kettle was doing its duty cheerily, and the wife with flushed face and smiling eyes was hurrying to and fro, her heart full of anticipation of the day's outing.

There was a hilarity almost like some strange intoxication on the part of the two children. They danced, and chattered, and clapped their chubby brown hands, and ran to the windows ceaselessly.

"Is yuncle Will goin' yide flour buggy?"

"Yus; the buggy and the colts."


Main-Travelled Roads - 4/56

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