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- That Printer of Udell's - 1/49 -
[Frontispice illustration: "Come on, Smoke, we've gotter go now."]
THAT PRINTER OF UDELL'S
A STORY OF THE MIDDLE WEST
BY HAROLD BELL WRIGHT
TO THAT FRIEND WHOSE LIFE HAS TAUGHT ME MANY BEAUTIFUL TRUTHS; WHOSE WORDS HAVE STRENGTHENED AND ENCOURAGED ME TO LIVE MORE TRUE TO MY GOD, MY FELLOWS AND MYSELF; WHO HOPED FOR ME WHEN OTHERS LOST HOPE; WHO BELIEVED IN ME WHEN OTHERS COULD NOT; WHO SAW GOOD WHEN OTHERS LOOKED FOR EVIL; TO THAT FRIEND, WHOEVER HE IS, WHEREVER HE MAY BE, I AFFECTIONATELY DEDICATE THIS STORY.
H. B. W.
"And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me."
"O God, take ker' o' Dick!--He'll sure have a tough time when I'm gone,--an' I'm er' goin'--mighty fast I reckon.--I know I aint done much ter brag on,--Lord,--but I aint had nary show.--I allus 'low'd ter do ye better,--but hit's jes' kept me scratchin'--ter do fer me an' Dick,--an' somehow I aint had time--ter sarve--ye like I ought.--An' my man he's most ways--no 'count an' triflin',--Lord,--'cepten when he likers up,--an' then,--you know how he uses me an' Dick.--But Dick, he aint no ways ter blame--fer what his dad an' mammy is,--an' I ax ye--fair,--o Lord,--take ker o' him--fer--Jesus' sake--Amen."
"Dick!--O Dick,--whar are ye honey?"
A hollow-cheeked wisp of a boy arose from the dark corner where he had been crouching like a frightened animal, and with cautious steps drew near the bed. Timidly he touched the wasted hand that lay upon the dirty coverlid.
"What ye want, maw?"
The woman hushed her moaning and turned her face, upon which the shadow was already fallen, toward the boy. "I'm er goin'--mighty fast,--Dicky," she said, in a voice that was scarcely audible. "Whar's yer paw?"
Bending closer to the face upon the pillow, the lad pointed with trembling finger toward the other end of the cabin and whispered, while his eyes grew big with fear, "Sh--, he's full ergin. Bin down ter th' stillhouse all evenin'--Don't stir him, maw, er we'll git licked some more. Tell me what ye want."
But his only answer was that broken prayer as the sufferer turned to the wail again. "O Lord, take ker o'--"
A stick of wood in the fire-place burned in two and fell with a soft thud on the ashes; a lean hound crept stealthily to the boy's side and thrust a cold muzzle against his ragged jacket; in the cupboard a mouse rustled over the rude dishes and among the scanty handful of provisions.
Then, cursing foully in his sleep, the drunkard stirred uneasily and the dog slunk beneath the bed, while the boy stood shaking with fear until all was still again. Reaching out, he touched once more that clammy hand upon the dirty coverlid. No movement answered to his touch. Reaching farther, he cautiously laid his fingers upon the ashy-colored temple, awkwardly brushing back a thin lock of the tangled hair. The face, like the hand, was cold. With a look of awe and horror in his eyes, the child caught his parent by the shoulder and shook the lifeless form while he tried again and again to make her hear his whispered words.
"Maw! Maw! Wake up; hit'l be day purty soon an' we can go and git some greens; an' I'll take the gig an' kill some fish fer you; the's a big channel cat in the hole jes' above the riffles; I seed 'im ter day when I crost in the john boat. Say Maw, I done set a dead fall yester'd', d' reckon I'll ketch anythin'? Wish't it 'ud be a coon, don't you?--Maw! O Maw, the meal's most gone. I only made a little pone las' night; thar's some left fer you. Shant I fix ye some 'fore dad wakes up?"
But there was no answer to his pleading, and, ceasing his efforts, the lad sank on his knees by the rude bed, not daring even to give open expression to his grief lest he arouse the drunken sleeper by the fireplace. For a long time he knelt there, clasping the cold hand of his lifeless mother, until the lean hound crept again to his side, and thrusting that cold muzzle against his cheek, licked the salt tears, that fell so hot.
At last, just as the first flush of day stained the eastern sky, and the light tipped the old pine tree on the hill with glory, the boy rose to his feet. Placing his hand on the head of his only comforter, he whispered, "Come on, Smoke, we've gotter go now." And together boy and dog crept softly across the room and stole out of the cabin door--out of the cabin door, into the beautiful light of the new day. And the drunken brute still slept on the floor by the open fire-place, but the fire was dead upon the hearth.
"He can't hurt maw any more, Smoke," said the lad, when the two were at a safe distance. "No, he sure can't lick her agin, an' me an' you kin rustle fer ourselves, I reckon."
* * * * *
Sixteen years later, in the early gray of another morning, a young man crawled from beneath a stack of straw on the outskirts of Boyd City, a busy, bustling mining town of some fifteen thousand people, in one of the middle western states, many miles from the rude cabin that stood beneath the hill.
The night before, he had approached the town from the east, along the road that leads past Mount Olive, and hungry, cold and weary, had sought shelter of the friendly stack, much preferring a bed of straw and the companionship of cattle to any lodging place he might find in the city, less clean and among a ruder company.
It was early March and the smoke from a nearby block of smelters was lost in a chilling mist, while a raw wind made the young man shiver as he stood picking the bits of straw from his clothing. When he had brushed his garments as best he could and had stretched his numb and stiffened limbs, he looked long and thoughtfully at the city lying half hidden in its shroud of gray.
"I wonder"--he began, talking to himself and thinking grimly of the fifteen cents in his right-hand pants pocket--"I wonder if--"
"Mornin' pard," said a voice at his elbow. "Ruther late when ye got in las' night, warn't it?"
The young man jumped, and turning faced a genuine specimen of the genus hobo. "Did you sleep in this straw-stack last night?" he ejaculated, after carefully taking the ragged fellow's measure with a practiced eye.
"Sure; this here's the hotel whar I put up--slept in the room jes' acrost the hall from your'n.--Whar ye goin' ter eat?"--with a hungry look.
"Don't know. Did you have any supper last night?"
"Nope, supper was done et when I got in."
"I didn't have nothin' fer dinner neither," continued the tramp, "an' I'm er gettin' powerful weak."
The other thought of his fifteen cents. "Where are you going?" he said shortly.
The ragged one jerked his thumb toward the city. "Hear'd as how thar's a right smart o' work yonder and I'm on the hunt fer a job."
"What do you do?"
"Tendin' mason's my strong-holt. I've done most ever'thing though; used ter work on a farm, and puttered round a saw-mill some in the Arkansaw pineries. Aim ter strike a job at somethin' and go back thar where I know folks. Nobody won't give a feller nuthin' in this yer God-fer-saken country; haint asked me ter set down fer a month. Back home they're allus glad ter have a man eat with 'em. I'll sure be all right thar."
The fellow's voice dropped to the pitiful, pleading, insinuating whine of the professional tramp.
The young man stood looking at him. Good-for-nothing was written in every line of the shiftless, shambling figure, and pictured in every rag of the fluttering raiment, and yet--the fellow really was hungry,--and again came the thought of that fifteen cents. The young man was hungry himself; had been hungry many a time in the past, and downright, gnawing, helpless hunger is a great leveler of mankind; in fact, it is just about the only real bond of fellowship between men. "Come on," he said at last, "I've got fifteen cents; I reckon we can find something to eat." And the two set out toward the city together.
Passing a deserted mining shaft and crossing the railroad, they entered
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