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- Main-Travelled Roads - 5/56 -
"Is he goin' to take his girl?"
Will blushed a little, and John roared.
"Yes, I'm goin'-"
"Is Aggie your girl?"
"H'yer! h'yer! young man," called John, "you're gettin' personal."
"Well, set up," said Nettie, and with a good deal of clatter they drew around the cheerful table.
Will had already begun to see the pathos, the pitiful significance of this great joy over a day's outing, and he took himself a little to task at his own selfish freedom. He resolved to stay at home some time and let Nettie go in his place. A few hours in the middle of the day on Sunday, three or four holidays in summer; the rest for this cheerful little wife and her patient husband was work-work that some way accomplished so little and left no trace on their souls that was beautiful.
While they were eating breakfast, teams began to clatter by, huge lumber wagons with three seats across, and a boy or two jouncing up and down with the dinner baskets near the end-gate. The children rushed to the window each time to announce who it was, and how many there were in.
But as Johnny said "firteen" each time, and Ned wavered between "seven" and "sixteen," it was doubtful if they could be relied upon. They had very little appetite, so keen was their anticipation of the ride and the wonderful sights before them. Their little hearts shuddered with joy at every fresh token of preparation-a joy that made Will say, "Poor little men!"
They vibrated between the house and the barn while the chores were being finished, and their happy cries started the young roosters into a renewed season of crowing. And when at last the wagon was brought out and the horses hitched to it, they danced like mad sprites.
After they had driven away, Will brought out the colts, hitched them in, and drove them to the hitching post. Then he leisurely dressed himself in his best suit, blacked his boots with considerable exertion, and at about 7:3o o'clock climbed into his carriage and gathered up the reins.
He was quite happy again. The crisp, bracing air, the strong pull of the spirited young team put all thought of sorrow behind him. He had planned it all out. He would first put his arm around her and kiss her-there would not need to be any words to tell her how sorry and ashamed he was. She would know!
Now, when he was alone and going toward her on a beautiful morning, the anger and bitterness of Monday fled away, became unreal, and the sweet dream of the Sunday parting grew the reality. She was waiting for him now. She had on her pretty blue dress and the wide hat that always made her look so arch. He had said about eight o'clock.
The swift team was carrying him along the crossroad, which was little travelled, and he was alone with his thoughts. He fell again upon his plans. Another year at school for them both, and then he'd go into a law office. Judge Brown had told him he'd give him-"Whoa! Ho!"
There was a swift lurch that sent him flying over the dasher. A confused vision of a roadside ditch full of weeds and bushes, and then he felt the reins in his hands and heard the snorting horses trample on the hard road.
He rose dizzy, bruised, and covered with dust. The team he held securely and soon quieted. He saw the cause of it all: the right forewheel had come off, letting the front of the buggy drop. He unhitched the excited team from the carriage, drove them to the fence and tied them securely, then went back to find the wheel and the "nut" whose failure to hold its place had done all the mischief. He soon had the wheel on, but to find the burr was a harder task. Back and forth he ranged, looking, scraping in the dust, searching the weeds.
He knew that sometimes a wheel will run without the burr for many rods before corning off, and so each time he extended his search. He traversed the entire half-mile several times, each time his rage and disappointment getting more bitter. He ground his teeth in a fever of vexation and dismay.
He had a vision of Agnes waiting, wondering why he did not come. It was this vision that kept him from seeing the burr in the wheel-track, partly covered by a clod.
Once he passed it looking wildly at his watch, which was showing nine o'clock. Another time he passed it with eyes dimmed with a mist that was almost tears of anger.
There is no contrivance that will replace an axle burr, and farmyards have no unused axle burrs, and so Will searched. Each moment he said: "I'll give it up, get onto one of the horses, and go down and tell her." But searching for a lost axle burr is like fishing: the searcher expects each moment to find it. And so he groped, and ran breathlessly, furiously, back and forth, and at last kicked away the clod that covered it, and hurried, hot and dusty, cursing his stupidity, back to the team.
It was ten o'clock as he climbed again into the buggy and started his team on a swift trot down the road. What would she think? He saw her now with tearful eyes and pouting lips. She was sitting at the window, with hat and gloves on; the rest had gone, and she was waiting for him.
But she'd know something had happened, because he had promised to be there at eight. He had told her what team he'd have. (He had forgotten at this moment the doubt and distrust he had given her on Monday.) She'd know he'd surely come.
But there was no smiling or tearful face watching at the window as he came down the lane at a tearing pace and turned into the yard. The house was silent and the curtains down. The silence sent a chill to his heart. Something rose up in his throat to choke him.
"Agnes!" he called. "Hello! I'm here at last!"
There was no reply. As he sat there, the part he had played on Monday came back to him. She may be sick! he thought with a cold thrill of fear.
An old man came around the corner of the house with a potato fork in his hands, his teeth displayed in a grin.
"She ain't here. She's gone."
"Yes-more'n an hour ago."
"Who'd she go with?"
"Ed Kinney," said the old fellow with a malicious grin. "I guess your goose is cooked."
Will lashed the horses into a run and swung round the yard and out of the gate. His face was white as a dead man's, and his teeth were set like a vise. He glared straight ahead. The team ran wildly, steadily homeward, while their driver guided them unconsciously. He did not see them. His mind was filled with a tempest of rages, despairs, and shames.
That ride he will never forget. In it he threw away all his plans. He gave up his year's schooling. He gave up his law aspirations. He deserted his brother and his friends. In the dizzying whirl of passions he had only one clear idea-to get away, to go West, to get away from the sneers and laughter of his neighbors, and to make her suffer by it all.
He drove into the yard, did not stop to unharness the team, but rushed into the house and began packing his trunk. His plan was formed, which was to drive to Cedarville and hire someone to bring the team back. He had no thought of anything but the shame, the insult she had put upon him. Her action on Monday took on the same levity it wore then, and excited him in the same way. He saw her laughing with Ed over his dismay. He sat down and wrote a letter to her at last-a letter that came from the ferocity of the medieval savage in him:
"It you want to go to hell with Ed Kinney, you can. I won't say a word. That's where he'll take you. You won't see me again."
This he signed and sealed, and then he bowed his head and wept like a girl. But his tears did not soften the effect of the letter. It went as straight to its mark as he meant it should. It tore a seared and ragged path to an innocent, happy heart, and be took a savage pleasure in the thought of it as he rode away on the cars toward the South.
The seven years lying between 188o and 1887 made a great change in Rock River and in The adjacent farming land. Signs changed and firms went out of business with characteristic Western ease of shift. The trees grew rapidly, dwarfing The houses beneath them, and contrasts of newness and decay thickened.
Will found The country changed, as he walked along The dusty road from Rock River toward "The Comers." The landscape was at its fairest and liberalest, with its seas of corn deep green and moving with a mournful rustle, in sharp contrast to its flashing blades; its gleaming fields of barley, and its wheat already mottled with soft gold in The midst of its pea-green.
The changes were in The hedges, grown higher, In The greater predominance of cornfields and cattle pastures, but especially in The destruction of homes. As he passed on Will saw The grass growing and cattle feeding on a dozen places where homes had once stood. They had given place to The large farm and The stock raiser. Still The whole scene was bountiful and very beautiful to The eye.
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