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The Tale of a Strange Bed
The man who hustles for a livin' finds himself in many peculiar situations an' memorable sleepin' places.
I believe I've slept on every kind of bed imaginable, from the bare earth to a hair mattress. I've slept in spare beds an' contracted rheumatism; in straw beds, which left their mark on me for days; in feather beds, that gave me the asthma, and in beds so hard that I'd bruise myself every time I'd turn over.
But the wildest night I ever passed was in the bunk of a farmer's cabin, one hot moonlight night in August, when I was on a collectin' trip for the firm.
There was a country store that failed, owin' us a lot of money. In the distribution of assets, a small farm fell to our share, and the old man said to me one day: —
"George," he said, "I want you to take a run out in the country an' look up that farm, for I don't know whether it's worth the taxes or not."
I found the neighborhood all right, but I'm hanged if I could find the farm. Nobody seemed to know anything about it, and the section was so thinly settled that there wasn't many people to ask.
Well, I drove around all day, inquirin' here an' there, wherever I found a cabin, but, as I said, without success. Sunset found me far from the nearest village an' in a mighty poor humor; but I was used to hard luck an' mean jobs in them days, and was accustomed to make the best of bad bargains.
I'd travelled for fully half an hour without sightin' a human bein', so when I come out of a pine grove full on a log shanty, I swear the cabin looked handsome to me.
I pulled up before the door an' halloed. A man stepped to the entrance, wipin' his face with a towel.
"Hello!" says I.
"Hello!" says he.
"Can you tell me where I am?" says I.
"You're on the Gore road, six miles from Aiken an' p'inted due east," says he.
"Thank you," says I. "I didn't know but the bad place was somewhere's here around, and I'd a notion of puttin' up there for the night."
"It's hot enough 'most anywhere else to-night," says he. "But if you ain't too particular you might come in an' have supper with us — we was just settin' down — for they tell me the 'Old Boy' ain't a particular good provider," and the man grinned. He'd certain a vein of humor in him.
"Did you ever hear of the Willoughby farm?" says I.
"I have," says he.
My spirits rose at once.
"You're the man I've been lookin' for all day," says I. "They told me there was just one man in the county that knew that the world was round, and I thank God I've found him."
The man still stood in the door, moppin' his face an' grinnin'.
"Where is this farm?" says I.
"That's a long story," says he, "for it's what I call a lost farm, and will take a land surveyor to find it, bein' situated on the Gore between the seventh an' eighth concessions."
"Could you point it out?" says I.
"I could show you a part of it," says he.
"Then," says I, jumpin' from the buggy, "you're my man; and if you can put me up for the night, we could look up the farm in the mornin'."
The man helped me unhitch, and we soon had the horse put up. Then we went into the house. It was a log cabin of only one room, and about as primitive an affair as you'd find in a year's travel.
The man's wife was inside gettin' supper. I remember the meal was rhubarb sauce an' bread an' butter, chiefly — a mighty poor meal; and I wondered that such a clever-talkin' man would be content with such poverty.
After supper me an' him went outside and seated ourselves on a bench to have a smoke, while the woman washed up the things.
"How in the world," says I to him, "do you come to be back here in this Godforsaken place?"
The man took his pipe from between his teeth an' looked cautiously toward the cabin door. Seein' that his wife was busily engaged, he turned to me an' said:—
"I don't wonder that you ask me, but the reason I'm here is very simple. She an' me is happier here than in any other place in the world."
"What's the story?" says I.
He looked at me keenly. "You're a total stranger in these parts, be you?" says he.
"Never was here before an' never will be again," says I.
"Then I don't mind tellin' you," says he, "for God knows it does my heart good to talk with a townsman once again."
"You're a city man born, then?" says I.
"Aye," says he. "I was born in the biggest city this side 'o London."
"New York?" says I.
"Yes," says he, "in New York. I was born an' raised in New York. Damn it forever an' ever, amen!"
He said this reverently, raisin' his eyes to the sky, which was sparklin' bright with stars.
"You ain't stuck on the city, I would judge?" says I.
"I don't want to ever see a city again," says he.
He sat for some minutes meditatin', and I see there was a mighty interestin' story at the tip of his tongue, but I thought best not to urge him.
"You see that full moon comin' up over the trees?" he says after a bit, — "rollin' up, rollin' up, — big as a house a-fire? She's careenin' up just like that out of the sea an' crawlin' over the tall buildin's in New York this very minute. What does she see here? Fields of stumps an' stones, a big forest, and right here a little log cabin. What kind of people does she see? A man as loves his wife better'n his immortal soul, and a woman who'd go to hell for her husband any day. I ain't speakin' of you, of course. She sees us here, earnin' our livin' by the hardest kind of hard work, but honest an' happy.
"What does she see in New York? the part where I was born an' bred? Misery an' woe; vice that you dasn't mention; human sewage; beer guzzlin'; foul-talkin' men, women an' children.
"I was born in a room over a rum-shop. In a city of schools I never had a day's schoolin'. I was taught to steal an' to lie. My father I never knew. My mother give me to a Jew woman an' run away — God knows where. I sold papers; I blacked boots; I stole on sight. I was four times on the Island before I was eighteen.
"She," — noddin' toward the cabin "come up with me, side by side. She was also a nameless kid. We fed together as children on doorsteps an' slept together in odds an' ends of corners. She sold papers, too, and scrubbed out saloons at odd times. Whenever I come from the Island she was sure to be on the wharf to meet me; and we loved each other as no two kids ever loved before outside the story books. At least I think so. Well, the last time I come out — I was always sent up for swipin' somethin' or other, — she met me as usual an' says to me: — 'Jimmy,' she says, 'we're goin' away.' 'Where? ' says I. 'To the place where there ain't nobody at all,' says she. 'Come along,' says she.
"An' we went. Due north we went, as ragged a pair of tramps as ever you see. We both spent the winter in jail as vagrants, but in the spring we started again, and kept due north till we crossed the St. Lawrence an' come into Canada. We thought sure there would be nobody in Canada, but there was. So we kept pushin' back till we come to this identical spot, on a Gore road, between townships, and right at the edge of this pine grove we settled down.
"We didn't know who owned the land, and ain't positive now, but we guessed it must be county land taken for taxes. We had seventeen dollars that we'd begged an' hung on to, and with this we got together enough to make a start. Then we built this cabin, log by log, and when it was done we spruced up the best we could an' went over to the village an' got married, for before we'd always lived like brother an' sister. I give the min'ster a dollar, but he handed it back to me. He was a decent kind of feller.
"No, I s'pose you never heard of a poorer couple than we be. We've been years here, and we've worked like beavers, but you see, the land's so terrible poor an' thin that the yield is small. But we've enough to eat an' drink, and the clothes we need is of the commonest kind, for we never go beyond the limits of this clearin' 'cept now an' then to the store. We're just as happy, however, as the day is long, and no money would tempt me to leave this spot.
"If I was worth a million to-day, I'd build me a better house an' get some farmin' tools which I actually need, and then I'd found a home for orphans. Me an' Maggie often talk it over; we've had our fill of the city. We're quite religious, too. Maggie can read real well, and Sundays she reads to me from the Bible, and between us we've fixed up a religion to suit our case. It's founded on one verse, 'Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.' "
Now wasn't that a funny story to hear away back there in the woods! It's a caution what odd people there are in the world.
When it come bed-time I begun to wonder where they was goin' to put me up, for there seemed to be only one room. But this difficulty was overcome by the woman, who fixed up a screen of grain bags before her bunk. My bed was made up on the floor.
The man an' I stayed outside till she got to bed; then we turned in for the night. The strange story he'd told me kept me awake thinkin' it over, and the moonlight shone in through the winder directly on my face; so it was pretty hard to drop off to sleep. I did drop into a doze after a bit, however, but I was awakened by a desire to scratch. I seemed literally covered with fleas. Now, one flea is enough to make an ordinary man wild, but when it comes to seventy-five hundred million pesky fleas dancin' over your helpless body, and every now an' then stoppin' to take a nip — well, no words can describe it.
I sat up an' looked about. Sweet slumber held the waifs of New York, as their harmonious snorin' denoted. The moonlight filled the room. Outside I could hear the soft summer wind purring through the pines.
"There's the place for me," I says to myself, and tiptoed noiselessly to the door. My gosh! how the fleas bit! Once outside the house I tore off my shirt, and turnin' it inside out, slapped it against the corner of the cabin, in hopes of dislodgin' a few of my tormenters. Just then I heard a gruesome "whoop! whoop!" and turnin', saw two long-eared deer hounds puttin' for me from the direction of the barn.
Say! it didn't take me long to get round the corner of that shanty. But the hounds was on my trail. I hoped to reach the door before them, but the pace was too hot for me when I got 'round front, for had I paused a moment, they'd have been upon me. So I grabbed my shirt tight an' dug in my toes as I reached a corner.
"Whoop! whoop!" the hounds come on. I could turn quicker'n they, and I gained slightly. The woodyard was just at the rear of the cabin, and as I sailed round this side, my poor feet suffered from the sharp chips. The hounds seemed in fine fettle an' come on bravely, every second breath lettin' out a whoop! whoop! that 'ud lift the hair of a stuffed cat.
My breath was givin' out an' I felt that "dog meat" was to be my fate. The hounds grew cunnin', and twisted themselves 'round the corners like a band-saw. Say! I must have been goin' a mile a minute 'bout that time. I never'll have any great respect for the speed of deer hounds again. But they can holler. Law me! it's the most terrible sound you ever heard, and think of two of 'em right at your heels an' you naked as the day you was born! Gosh! it gives me the shivers even now!
Well, as I flew 'round that shanty for the hundred an' fortieth time, I caught a glimpse of two white-robed people standin' in the door an' heard 'em holler at the hounds as I passed. The door was open behind 'em. When I come 'round again I swung out slightly so's to make a good turn, and dashed into the cabin with the yell of a wild Injun.
I had the sheet off the bed and around me before the woman had picked herself up, for I'd keeled her over as I entered. I don't believe that couple ever had as good a laugh in their lives as they had then, and them two dum hounds stood waggin' their tails in the doorway.
But it was no laughin' matter for me. My feet was all cut up an' bled like everything. Seein' my condition, they stopped laughin' for a minute or so an' bathed my feet. But even as they was bindin' up my sores I could hear 'em sniggle to 'emselves.
There was no more sleep that night, and strangest of all — no more fleas — nary a flea. I must have scart 'em out of the cabin. We sat there in the moonlight an' talked religion till the sun come up. You never heard such talk as that man and woman put up. Hang it! I sometimes think they had it about right, for what they did believe in was the Simon pure article.
Now, where do you think I found the Willoughby farm to be when I looked the next day? Why, right under my feet! The couple had squatted on it.
"Be you goin' to put us off?" says they to me with big eyes, when I told 'em the facts.
"It's a lost farm," says I in reply, takin' up the reins, "and you've found it. In Canada," says I, "findin' is keepin', and the farm's yours forever an' ever."
Then I drove off, after givin' the woman a dollar.
I told the old man all about it when I got back to town.
"You did right, George," he says, "quite right. But see that the farm is deeded to them properly, so that I won't have to pay the taxes."
He'd a queer mixture of good an' bad in him, had the old man. He'd dicker up to the very edge of the pit, but you'd find him at church Sunday mornin'.