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- That Printer of Udell's - 2/49 -
the southern portion of the town, and continued west until they reached the main street, where they stopped at a little grocery store on the corner. The one with the fifteen cents invested two-thirds of his capital in crackers and cheese, his companion reminding the grocer meanwhile that he might throw in a little extra, "seein' as how they were the first customers that mornin'." The merchant, good-naturedly did so, and then turned to answer the other's question about work.
"What can you do?"
"I'm a printer by trade, but will do anything."
"How does it happen you are out of work?"
"I was thrown out by the Kansas City strike and have been unable to find a place since."
"Is he looking for work too?" with a glance that made his customer's face flush, and a nod toward the fellow from Arkansas, who sat on a box near the stove rapidly making away with more than his half of the breakfast.
The other shrugged his shoulders, "We woke up in the same straw-stack this morning and he was hungry, that's all."
"Well," returned the store-keeper, as he dropped the lid of the cracker box with a bang, "You'll not be bothered with him long if you are really hunting a job."
"You put me on the track of a job and I'll show you whether I mean business or not," was the quick reply. To which the grocer made answer as he turned to his task of dusting the shelves: "There's lots of work in Boyd City and lots of men to do it."
The stranger had walked but a little way down the street when a voice close behind him said, "I'm erbliged ter ye for the feed, pard; reckon I'll shove erlong now."
He stopped and the other continued: "Don't much like the looks of this yer' place no how, an' a feller w'at jes' come by, he said as how thar war heaps o' work in Jonesville, forty miles below. Reckon I'll shove erlong. Aint got the price of er drink hev' ye? Can't ye set 'em up jest fer old times' sake ye know?" and a cunning gleam crept into the bloodshot eyes of the vagabond.
The other started as he looked keenly at the bloated features of the creature before him, and there was a note of mingled fear and defiance in his voice as he said, "What do you mean? What do you know about old times?"
The tramp shuffled uneasily, but replied with a knowing leer, "Aint ye Dicky Falkner what used ter live cross the river from Jimpson's still-house?"
"Well, what of it?" The note of defiance was stronger.
"Oh nuthin, only I'm Jake Tompkins, that used ter work fer Jimpson at the still. Me 'n yer daddy war pards; I used ter set 'em up ter him heap o' times."
"Yes," replied Dick bitterly, "I know you now. You gave my father whiskey and then laughed when he went home drunk and drove my mother from the cabin to spend the night in the brush. You know it killed her."
"Yer maw allus was weakly-like," faltered the other; "she'd no call ter hitch up with Bill Falkner no how; she ort ter took a man with book larnin' like her daddy, ole Jedge White. It allus made yer paw mad 'cause she knowed more'n him. But Bill lowed he'd tame her an' he shor' tried hit on. Too bad she went an' died, but she ort ter knowed a man o' Bill's spirit would a took his licker when he wanted hit. I recollect ye used ter take a right smart lot yerself fer a kid."
The defiance in the young man's voice gave way to a note of hopeless despair. "Yes," he said, "you and dad made me drink the stuff before I was old enough to know what it would do for me." Then, with a bitter oath, he continued, half to himself, "What difference does it make anyway. Every time I try to break loose something reaches out and pulls me down again. I thought I was free this time sure and here comes this thing. I might as well go to the devil and done with it. Why shouldn't I drink if I want to; whose business is it but my own?" He looked around for the familiar sign of a saloon.
"That's the talk," exclaimed the other with a swagger. "That's how yer paw used ter put it. Your maw warn't much good no how, with her finicky notions 'bout eddicati'n an' sech. A little pone and baken with plenty good ol' red eye's good 'nough fer us. Yer maw she--"
But he never finished, for Dick caught him by the throat with his left hand, the other clenched ready to strike. The tramp shrank back in a frightened, cowering heap.
"You beast," cried the young man with another oath. "If you dare to take my mother's name in your foul mouth again I'll kill you with my bare hands."
"I didn't go fer to do hit. 'Fore God I didn't go ter. Lemme go Dicky; me'n yer daddy war pards. Lemme go. Yer paw an' me won't bother ye no more Dicky; he can't; he's dead."
"Dead!" Dick released his grasp and the other sprang to a safe distance.--"Dead!" He gazed at the quaking wretch before him in amazement.
The tramp nodded sullenly, feeling at his throat. "Yep, dead," he said hoarsely. "Me an' him war bummin' a freight out o' St. Louie, an' he slipped. I know he war killed 'cause I saw 'em pick him up; six cars went over him an' they kept me in hock fer two months."
Dick sat down on the curbing and buried his face in his hands. "Dead--Dead"--he softly repeated to himself. "Dad is dead--killed by the cars in St. Louis.--Dead--Dead--"
Then all the past life came back to him with a rush: the cabin home across the river from the distillery; the still-house itself, with the rough men who gathered there; the neighboring shanties with their sickly, sad-faced women, and dirty, quarreling children; the store and blacksmith shop at the crossroads in the pinery seven miles away. He saw the river flowing sluggishly at times between banks of drooping willows and tall marsh grass, as though smitten with the fatal spirit of the place, then breaking into hurried movement over pebbly shoals as though trying to escape to some healthier climate; the hill where stood the old pine tree; the cave beneath the great rock by the spring; and the persimmon grove in the bottoms. Then once more he suffered with his mother, from his drunken father's rage and every detail of that awful night in the brush, with the long days and nights of sickness that followed before her death, came back so vividly that he wept again with his face in his hands as he had cried by the rude bedside in the cabin sixteen years ago. Then came the years when he had wandered from his early home and had learned to know life in the great cities. What a life he had found it. He shuddered as it all came back to him now. The many times when inspired by the memory of his mother, he had tried to break away from the evil, degrading things that were in and about him, and the many times he had been dragged back by the training and memory of his father; the gambling, the fighting, the drinking, the periods of hard work, the struggle to master his trade, and the reckless wasting of wages in times of wild despair again. And now his father was dead--dead--he shuddered. There was nothing to bind him to the past now; he was free.
"Can't ye give me that drink, Dicky? Jest one little horn. It'll do us both good, an' then I'll shove erlong; jes fer old times' sake, ye know."
The voice of the tramp broke in upon his thoughts. For a moment longer he sat there; then started to his feet, a new light in his eye; a new ring in his voice.
"No, Jake," he said slowly; "I wouldn't if I could now. I'm done with the old times forever." He threw up his head and stood proudly erect while the tramp gazed in awe at something in his face he had never seen before.
"I have only five cents in the world," continued Dick. "Here, take it. You'll be hungry again soon and--and--Good bye, Jake--Good bye--" He turned and walked swiftly away while the other stood staring in astonishment and wonder, first at the coin in his hand, then at the retreating figure. Then with an exclamation, the ragged fellow wheeled and started in the opposite direction toward the railroad yards, to catch a south-bound freight.
Dick had walked scarcely a block when a lean hound came trotting across the street. "Dear old Smoke," he said to himself, his mind going back to the companion of his early struggle--"Dear old Smoke." Then as the half-starved creature came timidly to his side and looked up at him with pleading eyes, he remembered his share of the breakfast, still untouched, in his pocket. "You look like an old friend of mine," he continued, as he stooped to pat the bony head, "a friend who is never hungry now--, but you're hungry aren't you?" A low whine answered him. "Yes, you're hungry all right." And the next moment a wagging tail was eloquently giving thanks for the rest of the crackers and cheese.
The factories and mills of the city gave forth their early greeting, while the sun tried in vain to drive away the chilly mist. Men with dinner buckets on their arms went hurrying along at call of the whistles, shop-keepers were sweeping, dusting and arranging their goods, a street-car full of miners passed, with clanging gong; and the fire department horses, out for their morning exercise, clattered down the street. Amid the busy scene walked Dick, without work, without money, without friends, but with a new purpose in his heart that was more than meat or drink. A new feeling of freedom and power made him lift his head and move with a firm and steady step.
All that morning he sought for employment, inquiring at the stores and shops, but receiving little or no encouragement. Toward noon, while waiting for an opportunity to interview the proprietor of a store, he picked up a daily paper that was lying on the counter, and turning to the "want" column, read an advertisement for a man to do general work about the barn and yard. When he had received the usual answer to his request for work, he went at once to the address given in the paper.
"Is Mr. Goodrich in?" he asked of the young man who came forward with a look of inquiry on his face.
"What do you want?" was the curt reply.
"I want to see Mr. Goodrich," came the answer in tones even sharper, and the young man conducted him to the door of the office.
"Well," said a portly middle-aged gentleman, when he had finished
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