The modest purpose of this contribution
is to present in translation four short stories and a summary
of a fifth — whose length precludes its inclusion — which set
forth in fictional form some of the experiences of Knut Hamsun
in America. First, however, it is best to place this well-known
author in the larger context of Norwegian-American literary
relations from about 1880 to the present.
by Sverre Arestad (Volume 24: Page 148)
The nature and variety of this literary relationship can
be suggested without exhausting the subject. Hjalmar Hjorth
Boyesen (1848-1895), novelist, poet, critic, and professor
of Germanic literature at Cornell and Columbia universities,
enjoys the distinction of being the first Norwegian-born writer
to win recognition in America. Before the end of the century,
he had made his contribution as a realistic novelist with
the American rather than the immigrant scene as his province.
Distinction of another kind came to O. E. Rølvaag (1879-1931),
also Norwegian-born, who has long been identified as the American
novelist who had the Norwegian immigrant as his subject. Knut
Hamsun (1859-1952) also has some small claim to recognition
in this context, because he was the only major Norwegian writer
who produced fictional works about American as distinguished
from Norwegian-American life. These include five short stories
whose locale is Chicago, the Dakotas, and Minnesota, and parts
of such novels as  Landstrykere (The Vagabonds), published
in 1927, and his last book, På gjengrodde stier (On
Overgrown Paths), which appeared in 1949.
Several other well-known Norwegian writers established relationships
with America during the half century following 1880, notably
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Sigbjørn Obstfelder,
and Herman Wildenvey. Kristofer Janson, an author of lesser
merit, had settled in Minneapolis in 1881 as a Unitarian minister,
and Hamsun had lived at his home during a part of the time
he stayed in that city. Later, Johan Bojer and Sigrid Undset
were to remain for varying lengths of time in this country.
Bjørnson spent parts of 1880 and 1881 in New England,
principally in Boston, and in the Middle West. Hamsun arrived
in 1882, returned to Norway in 1885, and made a second visit
from 1886 to 1888. Obstfelder came in the summer of 1890 and
returned home in August, 1891. Wildenvey’s first visit was
from 1903 to 1905, his second in 1935, and his third in 1950.
Bojer made a single trip to the United States in 1923, specifically
to the Middle West and Alaska. I suspect that Sigrid Undset
should be termed a refugee from the Nazis during a part of
World War II.
With the exception of Janson and Undset, a variety of reasons
brought these writers to America. The American-born Sara Thorp,
Ole Bull’s second wife, had been widowed in 1880. In his funeral
oration for the famous Norwegian violinist, Bjørnson
made reference to Miss Thorp, obviously with the purpose of
ameliorating the feeling against her that was shared by Ole
Bull’s children and members of their mother’s family. Exceedingly
grateful for the gesture made in her behalf by the most popular
literary figure in Norway, she invited Bjørnson to
visit Cambridge, where under her aegis and management he would
meet the literary élite of New England. Bjørnson
came, but after a short period of conformity with the wishes
of his hostess, he fled to the Middle West. He made his headquarters
in Madison, Wisconsin, and from there set out on a lecture
tour — during one of the worst  winters on record — to
address his former countrymen throughout the Midwest. He returned
to Norway with $10,000, which he sorely needed to apply against
his huge personal debt.
Knut Hamsun, who had already dedicated himself to a literary
career, came, at the exhortation and advice of Bjørnson,
whom he had visited at Aulestad after the latter’s trip to
America. At the time Hamsun hoped to become the poet of the
Norwegians in the United States. This advice may well be the
poorest ever offered an untested author by a seasoned one.
Obstfelder, on the other hand, did not exactly know why he
came to the New World, and to this day about all that can
be said is that he sought here some significance for an existence
which seemed to have no meaningful future in Norway. Wildenvey
was really an immigrant; he attended school and traveled widely
throughout the States. But, inspired by Hamsun’s Det vilde
kor (The Wild Chorus) , which appeared in Christiania in 1904,
he returned to Norway to devote himself to what eventually
became an eminently successful career in poetry in this century.
Bojer arrived in America, mellowed in years and enjoying an
international reputation as a novelist. He wished specifically
to acquire knowledge about the Norwegian immigrants in the
Middle West, for he had decided to write a novel concerning
them; he intended this work as a suitable commemoration for
the centenary of Norwegian settlement in the United States.
These men — in diverse ways and in works of varying quality
— all recorded their impressions of America. Bjørnson’s
speeches, personal correspondence, letters to the press, and
other articles reveal his reactions. Hamsun expressed his
ideas about America directly in his Det moderne Amerikas aandsliv
(The Cultural Life of Modern America) , published in Copenhagen
in 1889, and also in his letters to the press. Indirectly,
his attitudes crept into the fictional works mentioned above.
Wildenvey’s observations on life in America are found in Vingehesten
og verden (Pegasus and the World), which  appeared in
Oslo in 1937.. As indicated above, Bojer’s solid impressions
are set forth in his novel Vår egen stamme (The Emigrants)
of 1925. This is the same year that Rølvaag’s i de
dage and Riket grundlægges were published in Oslo. (It
appeared as one volume under the title Giants in the Earth
in New York in 1927.) Obstfelder’s commentary on his life
in America, principally in Chicago, is included in a number
of letters to his brother.
How much influence did the American experience have on the
Norwegian authors who visited this country and later returned
to Norway to continue their literary careers? One would expect
only minimal impact on the older writers. Bjørnson,
for example, had been before the public for almost a quarter
of a century when he visited the New World, and his subsequent
works reveal no change thereafter in his literary output.
The same can be said of Bojer, who had been for an even longer
time a successful man of letters when he arrived in America.
But what of the younger writers? Obstfelder is in no sense
a product of the American milieu, and Wildenvey’s lyric poetry,
especially his earliest work, is so genuinely Norwegian in
tone and spirit that one hardly suspects that he had ever
been outside of his native Drammen. But surely Hamsun, with
his predilection for the rootless hero in his early fiction,
must have been affected by the vagabond existence he led in
America. The truth is that he was a vagabond in good standing
before he ever came to America. Hamsun’s seemingly aimless
existence during his twenties, including his two visits to
America, can most properly be attributed to the fact that
he, like Ibsen, reached mastery of his art comparatively late
in life. He was thirty-one when he published Sult (Hunger)
in 1890 in Copenhagen. Bjørnson, Bojer, and Hamsun
wrote about American subjects, but their experiences in the
United States had little if any effect upon the nature of
their literary product, particularly that dealing with non-American
themes after their return to Norway. 
Hamsun’s Cultural Life of Modern America has relevance to
the stories that are included here. In many ways this work
is an ill-advised, subjective attack on American values, despite
its many striking observations on "cultural pretensions."
But it isn’t so much what Hamsun says as how he says it that
intrigues the discerning reader. Though there are many purple
passages, the style is uniformly engaging, and the whole presentation
is enhanced by a tongue-in-cheek, mildly ironic attitude.
Hamsun may have been right when he called The Cultural Life
an aberration of his youth, but it is a little difficult to
square this judgment with the fact that at about the same
time he published his book on America he was completing Hunger,
one of his best novels — a work of distinction and one that
bears the mark of the truly mature artist.
However this may be, about a decade and a half after he had
published The Cultural Life, Hamsun wrote I eventyr-land (In
Fairy-Tale Land) and Under halvmånen (Under the Crescent
Moon). The former is a delightful travelogue about Russia
and the latter a similar work, not quite so successful, about
the Near East. In comparing these three travel volumes, I
have often speculated on what a marvelous account Hamsun might
have written about America had he been as unprejudiced in
his approach as he was when writing about Russia and the Near
East. But Hamsun’s feelings about American materialism ran
deep. About the time he published the two travelogues, he
repudiated — for his Scandinavian readers — The Cultural Life.
It was not until 1928, however — in an article in the St.
Louis Post-Dispatch — that he publicly renounced his early
attack for American readers. This may well have been a gesture
to an audience that was avidly reading his novels. Why not
placate Moloch? I come to this conclusion because I find very
little real evidence that Hamsun’s strictures against America
were noticeably softened before his last work, On Overgrown
Hamsun’s short stories on American themes leave an 
entirely different impression on the reader from that presented
in The Cultural Life. They were published at about the same
time as the accounts of Russia and the Near East, but this
fact hardly explains the difference in tone and spirit. The
difference is surely rooted in the fact that, in the one instance,
Hamsun is a "critic," and that, in the other, he
is a creative writer.
The impression one gets from Hamsun’s treatment of his short
stories, when he finally published them, is that he did not
there intentionally emphasize his American experiences; rather,
he considered his activities in the New World a part of his
general experience of life. Of the five stories included in
this study — "Vagabonds dager," "Kvindeseir,"
"Rædsel," "Paa prærien," and
"Zachæus" — the last three were included in
his Kratskog, published in 1903. In this collection "Zachæus"
has a separate entry, but the other two stories are included
under a subtitle, "Oplevede småting." In the
same section there appears an episode from Paris of the summer
of 1894, another from his early Nordland period, and a delightful
account of his trip to Drammen in the late summer of 1886
to give a literary lecture.
Hamsun might well have placed the three American stories
under a section, thereby calling special attention to them,
but he chose not to do so. Far more significant is the fact
that he published them fifteen years after his last trip to
America. Hamsun’s productivity in the early years of the present
century was voluminous enough, so he was not just publishing
things he had at hand. His production at this time was also
quite varied, including his two travel books mentioned earlier,
the poetic drama Munleen Vendt (The Monk Vendt), his volume
of poetry, Det vilde kor, Kratskog, and such works as En vandrer
spiller med sordin. (A Wanderer Plays on Muted Strings), and
Under høststjernen (Under the Autumn Star) . These
works can be distinguished from his major production of the
1890’s. They constitute a reassessment of earlier experiences
and have an air of nostalgia about them.  It was therefore
perfectly logical and appropriate for Hamsun to include the
American stories in Kratskog without calling particular notice
to them. That he did publish them, at the very time he was
repudiating The Cultural Life, indicates that he considered
them to have literary value. They present a new look at America.
The stories largely speak for themselves.
"Vagabond Days," "Feminine Victory,"
"Fear," "On the Prairie," and "Zachæus"
provide a fairly representative cross section of Hamsun’s
experiences in America. "Fear" is from the period
of his employment by Henry M. Johnston in Madelia, Minnesota,
"Feminine Victory" from the time when he was a streetcar
conductor in Chicago, and the other three from his wheat-harvesting
days in Dakota. Although the subjective and often unfounded
charges against American values of The Cultural Life are absent
from the stories, Hamsun in them has not forgotten the crudity,
the hardness, and the harshness of his days as a farm hand.
Nor does he discount the effrontery he suffered as a streetcar
conductor. But these callous elements of existence merely
form a backdrop for the men and women whom he now sees in
perspective. The strain of the worker’s toil, the trigger-happy
temperament, the disdain for human life, the lack of refinement
among groups of men separated from women, the grime and the
filth of their environment, the exploitation of workers by
employers are all present. It is not about these matters,
however, that Hamsun is writing, but rather about the men
who are caught up in this milieu.
Hamsun understood rootless, restless, wandering men — avsporede
eksistenser (derailed existences), as he calls them in "Vagabond
Days." He also knew how rootlessness breeds lack of responsibility,
disregard for law and order, and a seeming disdain for the
dignity of man. And yet, while it appears that the law of
the jungle rules life, there nevertheless emerges in his writings
a kind of moral condemnation of evil. A man may be brought
to an untimely end by brute  force or even by cunning
— strength and wit have always been fair means of combat —
but even the most degraded among the men Hamsun depicts rebels
against treachery. The lengths these men may go to in their
hard-bitten struggle against one another must stop short of
dishonorable conduct, for then the force of moral opinion
operates against them.
In reading these stories, with the possible exception of
"Fear," one is struck by the impressionistic treatment
of the physical environment in which they take place. And
yet, even in "Fear" the only identifiable physical
objects in the house are the solidly constructed door and
the heavy curtains. The tables, the bed, the lamp, the revolver
are not described. This is true of the description in "Feminine
Victory," the Chicago story. In this tale we are aware
of a streetcar, which is important only because it has people
in it, and likewise we are told of a drugstore on Monroe Street
which is vital to the plot of the story. In the wheat-harvesting
narratives, we never learn how much wheat was produced, how
the horses and mules were quartered and fed, what kind of
food the crew was served, and whether or not there was a chance
to take a bath on the place. Nevertheless, the reader gets
a sense of familiarity with the surroundings, and in spite
of the lack of realistic description, there is about the stories
an air of verisimilitude.
Hamsun’s concern is, of course, with the people — people
who are brought vividly and fascinatingly to mind. The stories
also tell us a good deal about Hamsun himself, as he views
a panorama of life with a tolerant and mildly ironic attitude.
The following pages present translations of four of Hamsun’s
short stories dealing with American life and a commentary
on a fifth. I begin with the latter.
"Vagabond Days" is much longer than the other four,
and therefore it has not been translated here. The story deals
 with experiences in the Dakota wheat country. The difference
between it and the others is that "Vagabond Days"
involves several women characters and introduces a melodramatic
love story. It is true that "Feminine Victory" also
includes a woman, but merely in an episode in the O. Henry
"Vagabond Days" opens with a reference to working
conditions on Orange Flat, a large wheat farm, about three
days’ march west of a town called Eliot. Huntley, an Irishman,
Jess, a tramp, and the narrator decided to desert the farm
in midseason, in spite of the loss of four weeks’ pay, because
they were being worked beyond endurance. They set out for
the railroad tracks and headed west. They met a tramp, Fred,
of German descent, born in Fargo, North Dakota, who talked
them into turning east. When they came to a small town, probably
Eliot, Huntley left, much to the delight of the others. On
their second day in town, Jess and the narrator encountered
George, a drunk, the town rake, and son of a wealthy mill
owner. He had been left in charge of the local bank while
the owner, George’s brother-in-law, and his wife made a trip
to Chicago. While George was boozing in the local saloon,
Jess robbed the bank, with the narrator acting as lookout,
and then absconded with the loot.
Fred and the narrator then took jobs on a local farm, both
fell in love with Esther, the farmer’s daughter, dissension
followed, and the parents became apprehensive lest their second
daughter should elope with a "tramp," as their older
daughter had done. Esther and Fred did run off immediately
after the wheat crop was harvested. The narrator, who had
saved the life of the distressed parents’ young grandson,
consoled them in their initial grief over their daughter’s
elopement. The old folks, who had discovered the narrator’s
value as a worker and as a human being, urged him to remain,
but he left for the vineyards of California.
What I have given here is, of course, as anyone who is familiar
with Hamsun’s writing knows, a bare outline of what actually
took place, and only representative episodes have  been
included. What has been excluded — observations concerning
the feelings, the thoughts, the plans, the suffering, the
hopes and disappointments of the people in the story (Huntley,
Jess, Fred, Esther, her parents, the older daughter, and the
narrator himself) — is abundant and reflects Hamsun’s clear
insight into the weaknesses and strengths of his fellow beings.
In addition to the theme of the vagabond that is developed
around the character of Jess, the tramp, we get an understanding
of the position of the foreign-born in relation to the native-born.
The latter may be an inferior person — Fred as opposed to
the narrator — but birth counts. The reader really gives little
weight to the attempt on the part of the narrator to restore
his self-esteem after a resounding defeat in love. Also apparent
are the numerous instances of Hamsun’s insight into the psychology
of farm folk, who are rooted to the earth. For example, the
parents refuse to consent to the marriage of their daughter,
Esther, to a man who "just happens by," although
he stays several months and proves himself a good worker.
When the elopement does occur, however, the parents accept
it in a philosophical manner, and the mother minimizes the
loss and hopes now for a prosperous future, basing her sanguine
approach on the analogy of the elopement of the older daughter
whose marriage had turned out well.
The farm people of "Vagabond Days" show a fierce
tenacity for existence, and life remains tolerable to them.
They can turn their backs on unbearable circumstances and
seek outlet for their energies in something which, to them
at least, is positive, although it may be a mere substitute
for what has been lost.
"Vagabond Days" has in common with the other stories
an irony which lends to it a tone that a mere relation of
the action cannot convey. The observations regarding widely
held personal ambitions — however puerile and absurd they
may seem to others — illustrate an ever-present aspect of
Hamsun’s art. It is helpful to close this commentary on "Vagabond
Days" with two other instances of Hamsun’s use of irony
in the story.
When Jess returns from robbing the bank, he announces to
the narrator that there was no money, and a short time later
he leaves on the train with the loot, letting the partner
to the holdup sit empty-handed in the railway station. The
narrator becomes apprehensive of Jess’s long delay, confirms
his growing suspicion that his friend has skipped out, wishes
him well on the way to hell, and begins to reflect over the
situation. He is relieved that he will not have the burden
of stolen money on his conscience and observes: "I started
up toward the lodginghouse whose sign I had seen today, and
wanted to get a bed. On the way up I became more and more
satisfied that I had not soiled my hands with the stolen money.
‘It was a joy to live pure and uncontaminated in this world!’
I thought, and hugged myself in contentment. ‘Ho ho, it was
a joy. Let me rather be poor and toil for others to my last
drop of blood."
The irony of this sour-grapes episode is quite in contrast
to that of the opening scene of the story, where the narrator
doesn’t want to let the side down. The foreman had been getting
the men up earlier and earlier in order that Orange Flat should
beat an adjoining crew to harvest a certain amount of wheat:
"And we work like people possessed. We know very well
that we will be praised and our work acknowledged if we can
beat by just one day the neighboring section, which also is
putting forth its utmost effort. Each one has his ambition
in this world, and we had ours."
I was a streetcar conductor in Chicago. At first I was employed
on the Halsted line; it had a horse-drawn streetcar that went
from the center of town clear down to the stockyards. We who
worked the night shift were not especially safe on account
of all the riffraff who rode on this line. We  were not
permitted to shoot and kill people, because then the streetcar
company might have to pay compensation; I, for my part, had
no revolver either, so I had to trust to luck. Besides, one
is seldom completely disarmed: I did have the brake lever,
which could be removed in a jiffy and be of great help. However,
I did not have use for it more than once.
In 1886 I rode my streetcar every night during the Christmas
season without anything happening. But one night a big crowd
of Irishmen came out of the stockyards and completely filled
my car; they were drunk and had bottles along; they sang loudly
and were not inclined to pay, although we had already begun
to move. For a whole year they had paid the company five cents
morning and evening, they said; it was Christmas now and they
didn’t want to pay. There was nothing unreasonable in that
view, but I did not dare to let them ride free for fear of
the company "spies" who watched over the conductor’s
honesty. A policeman got on. He stood in the car a few minutes,
said a few words about Christmas and about the weather, and
then jumped off again because we were so loaded. I knew very
well that with a couple of words to the policeman all the
passengers would have had to pay their nickels, but I was
silent. "Why didn’t you inform on us?" one man asked.
"I regarded it as unnecessary," I answered, "I
am dealing with gentlemen."
Some of them then began to give me the horse laugh, but a
couple of them were on my side, and they made arrangements
to pay for all.
Next Christmas I was on the Cottage line. It was a marvelous
change. I now had a train of two, sometimes three, cars, driven
by a cable under the ground. The people in this part of the
city were refined, and I had to collect my nickels with gloves
on. On the other hand there was no excitement here, and I
soon became bored with looking at and listening to these residential
However, I had quite an experience during the Christmas season
In the forenoon the day before Christmas I took my train
into town; I was on the day shift at the time. A man got on
and began to talk to me; when I had to go through the cars,
he waited till I returned to the rear platform, where my station
was, and he talked to me again. He was about thirty years
old, pale, with a moustache, very fine clothes, but without
an overcoat in spite of the fact that it was quite cold.
"I rushed off as I was from home," he said. "I
wanted to beat my wife to it."
"The Christmas present," I remarked.
"Right!" he answered and smiled.
But it was a strange smile, a wry twist of the mouth, a grimace.
"How much do you earn?" he asked.
This is not an unusual question in Yankeeland, and I stated
what I earned.
"Do you want to earn an extra ten dollars?" he
I said yes.
He took out his billfold and unceremoniously handed me the
bill. He observed that he had confidence in me.
"What am I supposed to do?" I asked.
He requested to see my schedule and said: "You work
eight hours today?"
"On one of your trips I want you to do me a favor. Here
on the corner of Monroe Street we pass over a pit which leads
down to the underground cable. There is a cover over the pit;
I will remove this cover and step down into the pit."
"You want to kill yourself?"
"Not quite. But I want to pretend that I do."
"You are to stop your train and get me up out of the
hole although I offer resistance."
"That shall be done." 
"Thanks. By the way, I am not insane, which you probably
think. I am doing all this for my wife’s sake; she’ll see
that I want to die."
"Your wife will be on my train at that time then?"
"Yes, she will be sitting on the ‘Grip.’"
I was puzzled. The "Grip" was in the motorman’s
car from where he operated the train. As it was open, it was
cold on the "Grip" on a winter’s day and few rode
"She will be riding on the ‘Grip," the man repeated.
"She has promised in a letter to her lover to ride there
today and signal to him that she is coming. I have read the
"Good. But I must remind you to be quick and get the
cover off the pit and step down into the hole. Otherwise the
train behind will be upon us. We run at three-minute intervals."
"I know all that," the man answered. "The
cover will be unbolted when I arrive. It is lying loose at
this very moment."
"One thing more: How do you know which train your wife
will be on?"
"I’ll get a telephone call about that. I have people
following her. And my wife will be wearing a brown fur coat.
You can easily recognize her; she is very beautiful. If she
should faint, see that she is taken into the drugstore on
the corner of Monroe Street."
"Have you talked to my motorman too?" I asked.
"Yes," said the man. "And I have paid the
motorman the same as I paid you. But I don’t want you to joke
about the matter. You are not to mention it to one another."
"You are to go in and stand on the ‘Grip’ when you approach
Monroe Street and keep a sharp lookout. When you see my head
above the pit, you will give the stop signal, and the train
will come to a halt. The motorman will help you to overpower
me and pull me up out of the pit, although I will insist that
I want to die." 
I thought it over and said: "It occurs to me that you
could have saved your money and not let anyone in on your
scheme. You could just have stepped into the hole."
"But, my God," the man burst out, "suppose
that the motorman would not notice me. That you would not
notice me. No one!"
We continued to talk about one thing and another. The man
rode clear to the end of the line, and when my train turned
back he came along.
At the corner of Monroe Street he said: "There is the
drugstore you are to take my wife to if she faints."
Then he jumped off.
I was ten dollars richer; thank God, life had its lucky days.
All winter I had worn a layer of newspapers on my chest and
back on account of the biting wind. I creaked embarrassingly
at every movement, and my comrades made great sport of me.
Now, among other things, I would be able to afford a leather
vest which would keep out the cold. When my comrades now came
and nudged me to hear me creak, I would not stand for it.
I made two, three trips to town; nothing happened. When I
was going to leave Cottage station for the fourth time, a
young lady got on and sat down on the "Grip." She
wore a brown fur coat. When I went up to her and collected
her fare, she looked at me with wide open eyes. She was very
young and very beautiful; her blue eyes looked absolutely
innocent. Poor thing, you will no doubt get a horrible fright
today, I thought; but I suppose you have done some trifling
wrong thing, and now you are to be punished. At any rate,
it will be a pleasure for me to carry you carefully into the
We rolled in toward town.
From my platform I observed that the motorman suddenly began
to talk to the lady. What did he have to say to her? 
Besides, he did not have permission to talk to the passengers
while on duty. To my great astonishment, I saw that the lady
moved one seat closer to the motorman; he stood at his motor
listening intently to what she was saying.
We rolled farther in toward town, stopped and took on passengers,
stopped and let people off. Everything went as usual. We were
approaching Monroe Street. I thought: The eccentric young
man has chosen his spot wisely; the Monroe corner is a quiet
corner where he will hardly be disturbed in stepping into
the pit. And it occurred to me, too, that now and then I had
seen the streetcar company’s workers standing in the pits
repairing whatever may have gone wrong down there. But if
a man should hit upon the idea of standing in the hole when
the train ran over it, he would simply become several inches
shorter; the claw from the "Grip" that went down
to the cable would tear his head off.
As Monroe was the next street, I went forward onto the "Grip."
Neither the motorman nor the lady talked any more. The last
thing I noticed was that the motorman nodded as though he
were in agreement about something; thereupon he stared straight
ahead and drove on at full speed. And it was none other than
big Pat, the Irishman, who was my motor-man.
"Slack here a bit!" I said in the usual jargon
to the motor-man. That means: drive a little slower. For I
saw a dark spot in the middle of the tracks. It could be a
human head that rose up from the ground.
I also looked at the lady. She had her eyes fastened to the
same spot and gripped her seat. Already uneasy about a possible
misfortune, I thought. What will she do when she sees that
it’s her own husband who wants to die!
But big Pat did not reduce his speed. I shouted to him that
there was someone in the pit; no change. Now we distinctly
saw the head; it was that young madman standing in the hole,
his face turned toward us. Then I put my whistle to 
my lips and blew a sharp stop signal. Pat drove on at the
same speed and in a brief moment a misfortune would occur.
I struck the bell and ran forward and got hold of the brake.
But it was too late; the train passed screeching over the
pit before it stopped.
I jumped off. I was confused and remembered only that I was
to seize a man who wanted to offer resistance. But I immediately
stepped up onto the "Grip" again and on the whole
acted pretty scatterbrained. The motorman appeared confused
too, and he asked the nonsensical question if there had been
anyone in the pit and how it had happened that he had not
stopped. The young lady shouted, "Terrible! Terrible!"
Her face was ashen and she gripped her seat convulsively.
But she did not faint, and in a little while she stepped down
from the "Grip" and went off.
Many people gathered. We found the victim’s head under the
rear car; his body remained in the pit. The claw from the
machine had caught him under the chin and taken his head along.
We got the dead man out of the tracks, and a policeman came
along to take him away. The policeman also wrote down many
names, and on my behalf all the passengers could testify that
I had rung the bell and blown my whistle and finally seized
the brake. We streetcar people had to make individual reports
to our office.
Big Pat asked me for my knife. I misunderstood him and said
that now we had had enough misfortune. Then big Pat smiled
and showed me his revolver, saying that it was for no stupid
purpose that he wanted to use the knife, but on the contrary
for something quite different. When he got my knife, he said
farewell, that now he couldn’t remain in service longer. He
was sorry, but I would have to run my train down to the terminal
station myself, then I would get another motorman. And he
explained what I should do. I would have to let him have the
knife, he said. He wanted to go into a doorway that was safe
and cut the buttons off his uniform.
Then he left. 
There was nothing else to do: I would have to make the run
to the station myself; now there were several trains behind
me that had caught up and were waiting for me to get under
way. Since I had had a little experience with the motor before,
everything went well.
One evening between Christmas and New Year’s, being off duty,
I was sauntering about town. When I came to the railway station,
I stepped inside for a moment to look at the feverish activity.
I got out on one of the platforms and looked at a train that
was about to leave. Suddenly I heard my name. A smiling man
was standing on one of the car steps calling to me. It was
big Pat. It took me a while to recognize him; he was well
dressed and had shaved off his beard.
I uttered a little cry.
"Hush, not so loud! How did that matter really turn
out?" asked Pat.
"We have had a hearing," I said. "They are
looking for you?"
Pat said: "I am going West. What is the good of staying
here? Seven, eight dollars a week, but four of that goes for
board and room. I am going to take up land; I am going to
become a farmer. Of course, I have the money. If you want
to go along, we will locate some fruit land out by ‘Frisco."
"I can’t go," I answered.
"While I remember it, here is your knife. Thanks for
loaning it to me. Well, you see, there is no future in streetcar
work. I have worked for three years and have not had the opportunity
to break away before now."
The train whistled.
"Well, so long," said Pat. "Say, how much
did you get from the man we ran over?"
"That’s what I got too. He really paid pretty well,
didn’t he! But his wife paid better."
"His wife?" 
"Yes, the young woman. I made a little deal with her.
A thousand or two didn’t make any difference to her, because
she wanted to get rid of her husband. It is on her money that
I now can begin an easier life."
I had never really known what fear was until one time during
my first stay in America. Not that I am so brave, but that
my bravery had never before been put to a real test. It was
in the year 1884.
There is a little town out on the prairie called Madelia
[Minnesota], a most comfortless and ugly place with its hideous
houses, its sidewalks, and ends of planks — and its uncongenial
people. It was here, by the way, that Jesse James, America’s
most bloodthirsty and most powder-blackened bandit finally
was captured and killed. Here he had come and here he had
gone into hiding — a suitable place for this monster, who
for many years had made the Republic unsafe with his sudden
attacks, his plunderings, and his murders.
Here I too had come — but with the more peaceful object of
simply helping an acquaintance of mine out of a jam.
An American by the name of Johnston was a high-school teacher
in a town in Wisconsin where I learned to know him and his
wife. Some time later this man left school teaching and went
into business. He moved to the prairie town Madelia and founded
a lumber firm. After he had been engaged in this activity
a couple of years, I got a letter from him in which he requested
me, if possible, to come to Madelia and manage his business
while he and his wife made a trip down East. I was just then
free and went.
I arrived at Madelia station one dark winter evening, met
Johnston, accompanied him home, and was shown my room. His
house was situated quite a ways out from the town proper.
We spent a good deal of the night getting me  acquainted
with the fine points of the lumber business, which were so
foreign to me. The next morning Johnston jokingly handed me
his revolver, and a couple of hours later he and his wife
were on the train.
Since I now was alone in the house, I moved from my room
into the living room, where I could be more comfortable and
where I could keep a better eye on the house. I also took
over the master bedroom.
A few days passed. I sold lumber, and each evening I took
the day’s cash to the bank, where a receipt was entered in
my deposit book.
As I’ve said, there were no other people in the house; I
was alone. I cooked my own food, milked and took care of Johnston’s
two cows, baked bread. My first baking, by the way, didn’t
turn out very well: I used too much flour, the bread was not
baked through, it was water-streaked, and the next day it
was hard as a rock. I also had bad luck the first time I tried
to cook grit gruel. I had found half a bushel of excellent
barley in the storehouse, and this seemed to me to be admirably
suited for gruel. I poured milk into a huge kettle, added
the barley, and began to stir. I soon saw, however, that the
gruel was getting too thick and I poured more milk into it.
I continued to stir. But the grains of barley bubbled and
cooked and swelled and got as large as peas. I saw there was
too little milk again; besides the mass of gruel was growing
so rapidly that the kettle was on the point of cooking over.
Then I began to ladle gruel into bowls and vessels. But nevertheless
the kettle still cooked over. I found more receptacles, and
all were filled; but the kettle still cooked over. And it
continually lacked milk; the gruel remained as thick as porridge.
Finally I could do nothing but empty the contents of the kettle
onto a table, yes, a table. And the porridge spread out like
a glorious lava, lay down peacefully, rested good and thick
on the table, and hardened.
Now I had, so to speak, materia prima, and whenever I wanted
grit gruel after that I just cut a piece of porridge 
from the table, mixed milk into it and cooked it again. I
ate grit gruel like a hero, every day, at all meals in order
to get rid of it. Honestly, it was hard work; but I knew absolutely
no one in town whom I could invite to help me with the grit
And I did finally manage it alone.
It was quite desolate in this big house for a single person
of twenty and some years. The nights were pitch-black, and
there were no neighbors anywhere before one got down town.
I was not afraid, however; it didn’t occur to me to be afraid.
And when two evenings in a row I thought I heard a suspicious
rustling at the lock of the kitchen door, I got up, took the
lamp and investigated the kitchen door both inside and outside.
But I found nothing wrong with the lock. And I didn’t have
the revolver in my hand either.
There was to be a night, however, when I became seized by
a hair-raising fear the like of which I neither before nor
since have experienced. And for a long time afterward I bore
the mark of my experience that night.
One day I was busier than usual: I concluded several larger
deals and stuck to my work until late in the evening. It got
to be so late before I finally was finished that it was absolutely
dark and the bank was closed. Since I could not dispose of
the day’s cash, I took the money home to the living room and
counted it: there were 700-800 dollars.
As usual I sat down to write something this evening too;
it got later and later, and I sat there writing; midnight
came, two o’clock arrived. Then I suddenly heard that mysterious
rustling at my kitchen door again.
What was it?
There were two entrance doors to the house; one led into
the kitchen and the other — the front door — led into a hallway
in front of the living room. For safety’s sake, I had reinforced
the front door with a bar on the inside. The curtains in the
living room were so heavy that from the outside one could
see absolutely no glow from the lamp. 
And now there was this rustling at the kitchen door.
I took the lamp in my hand and went over to it. I stood by
the door listening. There were people outside, whispering
and slipping back and forth in the snow before the door. I
listened a good while; the whispering ceased, and at the same
time it seemed that the stealthy steps were disappearing.
Then all became quiet.
I went in again and resumed writing.
A half hour passed.
Then I suddenly reared into the air: the front door was forced
in. Not the lock alone, but the bar inside the door was broken
too, and I heard steps in the hall right outside of my door.
The entry could have succeeded only by a strong rush and by
the combined efforts of more than one; for the bar was strong.
My heart didn’t beat — it trembled. I did not cry out, made
no sound; but I felt the agitation of my heart clear up in
my throat, preventing me from breathing properly. In the first
seconds, I was so terror-stricken that I hardly knew where
I was. Then it occurred to me that I must save the money,
and I went into the bedroom, took my pocketbook out of my
pocket, and stuck it under the bed clothes. Then I returned
to the living room. This surely didn’t take a minute.
There was subdued conversation outside of my door and someone
was twisting the lock. I took Johnston’s revolver out and
examined it; it was functioning. My hands shook violently
and my legs could hardly hold me up.
My eyes fell on the door. It was uncommonly solid, a plank
door with huge cross pieces; it was, so to speak, not made
but constructed. The massive door encouraged me and I began
to think, which until now I certainly had not done. The door
opened out, consequently it was an impossibility to force
it in. The hall out there, moreover, was too short to provide
a sufficient space for a rush. This occurred to me and I suddenly
became as courageous as an ant; I called out that  anyone
who forced his way in I would lay out cold on the spot. I
had recovered sufficiently so that I heard and understood
what I said, and since I had talked Norwegian I saw the stupidity
of that and repeated my threat in a loud voice in English.
No answer. To accustom my eyes to the dark in case the windows
should be broken in and the lamp go out, I immediately blew
out the lamp. I now stood in the dark with my eyes directed
toward the windows and with the revolver in my hand. A long
time passed. I became bolder and bolder; I didn’t hesitate
to reveal myself as a real daredevil and I shouted:
"Well, what have you decided? Are you coming or going?
For I want to sleep."
Then shortly a rasping bass voice answered:
"We’re going, you son of a bitch."
And I heard someone leave the hall and creak off into the
The expression "son of a bitch" is America’s —
and also England’s — national term of abuse, and since I couldn’t
let this word be shouted at me without an answer, I wanted
to open the door and fire upon the scoundrels. I held back,
however, for it occurred to me at the last moment that probably
just one man had left the hall, while the other one was perhaps
still standing there waiting for me to open the door so he
could attack me. I therefore stepped over to one of the windows,
shot the blind up and peeked out. I thought I saw a dark spot
against the snow. I tore open the window, sighted as well
as I could against the dark spot, and fired. Click. I fired
again. Click. I angrily fired the whole cylinder without sighting;
finally a single miserable shot went off. But the crack was
sharp in the frosty air and I heard a shout over in the road:
Then suddenly another man ran out of the hall, out into the
snow, along the road, and disappeared in the dark. I had guessed
right: there was one left. I couldn’t even say a cordial 
goodnight to this fellow, for there had been but one wretched
bullet in the revolver, and I had used that one.
I lit the lamp again, got the money, and put it in my pocket.
Afterward, when everything was over, I had become so pitiably
cowardly that I did not dare to sleep in the master bed that
night. I just waited about half an hour until it began to
get light, and then put on my overcoat and left the house.
I closed the broken door as well as I could, stole into town,
and rang the doorbell at the hotel.
Who the scoundrels were, I don’t know. They were hardly professionals,
for in that case they wouldn’t have given up on account of
a door when there were two windows to enter by. But even these
blackguards were not without a certain cool and brazen violence,
for they broke both the lock and the bar off my door.
But I have never been so afraid for my life as that night
in the prairie town Madelia, Jesse James’s place of refuge.
It has happened to me a couple of times since when I have
become frightened that my heart has beat right up in my throat
and prevented my breathing. This remains from that night.
I had never before known a fear that could manifest itself
in this extraordinary manner.
ON THE PRAIRIE
The whole summer of 1887 I worked on a section of Dalrymple’s
immense farm in the Red River Valley in America. Besides me
there were two other Norwegians, a Swede, ten, twelve Irishmen,
and some Americans. We were about twenty men, all in all,
on our little section — only a fraction of the huge farm’s
hundreds of hands.
The prairie lay greenish yellow and endless like a sea. We
saw no houses with the exception of our own stables and the
shacks where we slept, in the middle of the prairie; no tree,
no bush grew there, just wheat and grass as far as the eye
could see. There were no flowers either. Only occasionally
 would there appear in the wheat the yellow tuft of the
wild mustard, the prairie’s only flower. This weed was forbidden
by law; we pulled it up by its roots, hauled it home, dried
it, and burned it.
And no birds flew. No life was seen but the billowing of
the wheat in the wind, and the only sound we heard was the
eternal chirping of the millions of grasshoppers, the prairie’s
We languished for shade. When the chuck wagon came at noon,
we lay down on our stomachs under it and under the horses
in order to get a little shade while we gulped our food. The
sun was often severe. We wore hat, shirt, trousers and shoes,
that was all, and it could not be less, for then we would
burn up. If a hole was torn in a shirt while we were working,
the sun burned through and left a sore on the skin.
During the wheat harvest we worked up to sixteen hours a
day. Ten binders drove behind one another in the same field
day after day. When one section was cut, we drove into another
section and cut that too. And thus onward, ever onward, while
ten men followed the binders and shocked the wheat. And in
the saddle, with a revolver in his pocket and an eye on every
finger, sat the foreman observing us. He wore out two horses
every day. If anything went wrong, if, for example, a machine
broke down, the foreman was there immediately and repaired
the damage or ordered the machine taken home. He might be
quite a way off when he noticed something was wrong, and since
there were no roads anywhere he had to ride about in the heavy
wheat all day so his horses foamed with sweat.
In September and October it was still frightfully hot during
the day, but the nights were cold. We often froze excessively.
And we didn’t get nearly enough sleep; we might be called
out at three in the morning while it was still dark. After
we had fed the horses, eaten breakfast, and driven the long
distance out to our place of work, day finally had broken
forth and we could see what we were supposed to do. 
Then we set fire to a shock of wheat to thin out the oil in
the cans which we used for oiling the machines, and we warmed
ourselves a little at the same time. But not many minutes
passed before we again had to mount the machines.
We never observed the Sabbath, Sunday was like Monday. But
in rainy weather we could do nothing. Then we stayed inside.
We played "casino" and talked and slept.
There was an Irishman in the crew who in the beginning puzzled
me a great deal, and only the Lord knows what he originally
had been. In rainy weather he always lay reading novels which
he had brought along. He was a large handsome fellow, about
thirty-six years old, and he spoke a choice English. He also
This man came to the farm in a silk shirt and continued to
work in a silk shirt the whole time. When one was worn out,
he would put on a new one. He was not a good worker; he wasn’t
very skillful with his hands, but he was a curious man.
His name was Evans.
The two Norwegians were of no account. One of them, a Hallanding,
up and left because he couldn’t stand the work; the other
one stuck it out — but then he was from Valdres.
During the threshing we all tried to get a job as far away
from the steam engine as possible; dust, chaff, and sand literally
shot like a driving snow out of all the openings and scoops
of the machine. I was right in the midst of it for several
days, then I requested the foreman to transfer me to something
else and my request was granted. The foreman gave me an excellent
job out in the fields where I was to help pitch bundles. He
never forgot that I had shown him a kindness in the very beginning.
It happened like this. I had a uniform coat with shiny buttons,
which I had worn when I was a streetcar conductor in Chicago.
The foreman liked that coat and those shiny buttons very much;
he was a simple child as far as finery was  concerned,
and there was of course no finery out here on the prairie.
So I told him one day that I would gladly give him the coat.
He wanted to pay me for it, I should just say what I wanted;
but when I gave it to him, he declared that he was very much
obliged to me. When the harvest was over, he gave me a good
coat in place of it when he saw I had none to travel in.
From the days I worked as bundle pitcher I remember an episode.
The Swede came for a load. He had big leather boots with his
trousers tucked into the tops. We started loading. He worked
like a trooper, and I had all I could do to keep him supplied
with bundles. He worked faster and faster, and when this finally
began to annoy me a little, I too began to put on the pressure.
Each wheat shock consisted of eight bundles and we usually
pitched one bundle onto the rack at a time; now I took four.
I swamped the Swede with bundles, buried him with bundles.
Now it so happened that a snake was included in one of the
huge loads I delivered the Swede. It slid down into one of
his boot tops. Suddenly, I heard a cry of terror, and I saw
the Swede hurl himself down from the load with the snake dangling
from one of his boot tops. It didn’t strike, however, and
as he fell to the ground it scurried out of his boot and disappeared
like greased lightning over the field. We both took after
it with our pitchforks, but couldn’t find it. The two mules
that were hitched to the load trembled in their tracks.
I can still hear the Swede’s shout and see him in the air
as he hurled himself down from the load.
Now we agreed that he should work at a more reasonable speed,
and I would pitch only one wheat bundle at a time.
Well, we had plowed and seeded, mowed and put up the hay,
cut and threshed the wheat — so we were through and were going
to be paid off. With light hearts and money in our pockets
we, twenty men strong, wandered off to the nearest prairie
town to get a train which could take us east again. 
The foreman accompanied us; he wanted to drink a farewell
with us, and he wore the coat with the shining buttons.
Anyone who has not participated in a farewell with a crew
of prairie workers can not easily imagine what a violent drunk
it turns out to be. Immediately, as a matter of course, each
man buys a round — that makes twenty glasses per man. But
if anyone thinks this ends it, he is mistaken, for there are
some who demand five rounds right off. And God have mercy
on the saloon keeper who tries to object to such unreasonableness;
he would immediately be thrown out from behind his own bar.
A gang of seasonal workers like that obliterates every obstruction
that comes into its path. At the fifth glass they elevate
themselves to lord and master of the town, and their rule
prevails from that moment on without contradiction. The local
police are powerless; they join the gang, drink with it. And
there is drinking, and card playing, and fighting, and howling
for at least two days and nights.
We workers were mutually very amiable. Our feelings toward
one another during the summer had often been just so-so, but
now at parting all animosities were forgotten. As we drank,
our hearts expanded by degrees, we treated one another until
we almost keeled over, and our feelings threw us into one
another’s arms. The cook, who was an old, hunchbacked mannikin
with a feminine voice and without a beard, confided to me
hiccoughingly in Norwegian that he too was a Norwegian like
me, and the reason he had not disclosed his identity earlier
was the Yankees’ general contempt for Norwegians. He had often
heard the man from Valdres and me talk about him at mealtime,
and he had understood every word; but now everything should
be forgiven and forgotten, for we were fine fellows. Oh yes,
he "was born of old Norway’s gallant sons, was born in
Iowa the 22 Julai (July) 1845." And therefore we should
be good friends and "partners" as long as the Norwegian
tongue flowed on our lips. The cook and I embraced; our friendship
should never perish.  All the workers embraced one another,
we put our hardened arms around one another and danced about
We would say to one another: "What will you have now?
There is nothing good enough for you here!" — and then
we stepped behind the bar ourselves to get the best. We took
down strange bottles from the top shelves, bottles with magnificent
vignettes that stood there essentially for decoration, but
whose contents we good friends poured for one another and
drank and paid for at ridiculously high prices.
Evans certainly was the most persistent in demanding rounds.
His last silk shirt looked rather sad now; its variegated
colors had been destroyed by sun and rain and the sleeves
were badly frayed. But Evans himself stood big and proud and
demanded rounds of drinks with authority. He owned the saloon,
he owned the world. The rest of us usually paid about three
dollars for a round; but Evans simply requested rounds at
six dollars. Because there wasn’t anything in this whole miserable
shack which was good enough for such gentlemen as he had with
him here, he said. It was then we had to resort to the bottles
on the top shelves so it would be expensive enough.
In his excessive amiability Evans took me aside and tried
to talk me into accompanying him into the forests of Wisconsin
for the winter, to cut cordwood. When he had equipped himself
with some new shirts, a pair of trousers and some new novels,
then he was going to the woods again, he said, and stay there
till spring. And when spring came he would return to the prairie
somewhere. This was his life. For twelve years he had divided
his time between the prairie and the woods, and he had become
so accustomed to it that now it followed of its own accord.
When I asked him what initially drove him onto this course,
he didn’t answer — as drunk people often do — with a long,
sad tale of how the whole thing had come about, but only with
the single word "Circumstances."
"How?" I asked. 
"Circumstances!" he repeated, and he wouldn’t disclose
Later in the evening I saw him in an anteroom of the saloon
where they were shooting craps. Evans had lost. He was pretty
drunk and didn’t care about his money. When I came in, he
showed me a few bills he had left and said:
"I still have money. Look here."
Someone advised him to quit playing; one of his countrymen,
an Irishman called O’Brien, hinted that he should use his
money for a railroad ticket. Evans was offended at this.
"You’ll have to lend me railroad fare," he said.
O’Brien refused sullenly and left the room.
Now Evans was irritated. He staked all of his money on one
throw and lost. He took it calmly. He lit a cigar and said
smiling to me:
"Will you lend me train fare?" I had almost been
knocked out by the last rot-gut wine which was in the bottles
on the shelves; I unbuttoned my coat and handed Evans my billfold
with all its contents. I did it to show him how willing I
was to loan him train fare, and left it to him to take what
he needed. He looked at me and at the billfold. A strange
emotion passed through him; he opened the billfold and saw
that it contained all my money. When he again turned his head
toward me, I just nodded.
He misunderstood that nod. He thought I was turning the whole
thing over to him.
"I thank you!" he said.
And to my great horror, he resumed play and bet with my money.
I wanted to stop him at first, but caught myself. Let him
use his train fare as he wishes, I thought. But when a reasonable
sum has been lost, I will take the rest back.
But Evans didn’t lose any more. As if by one stroke, he had
become sober again and played decisively and rapidly. The
confidence that had been shown him in the presence of so many
comrades had transformed him. He sat high and silent on the
whisky keg which served him as a chair and bet  and took
home the winnings. If he lost, he doubled his bet the next
time; he lost three times in a row and doubled each time;
at last he raked in everything. Then he bet a whole five dollars
and said that if he won now he would quit.
And he continued to play.
After an hour’s time he handed me back my pocketbook with
the money in it; he had kept careful count during the course
of the play. He himself had a thick roll of bills left. He
played on. Then suddenly he bet everything he had. A murmur
went through the crowd.
Evans said: "Whether I win or lose, I am going to quit
Evans got up.
"Please settle up," he said.
"Tomorrow," answered the banker. "I haven’t
got it tonight. I’ll raise the money tomorrow."
Evans said: "Good, tomorrow then!"
As we were going to leave, some men came tramping heavily
into the room. They were carrying a mutilated corpse. It was
the Irishman O’Brien, the same fellow who had refused to lend
Evans train fare. He had just been run over by a wheat train;
both his legs were cut off, one clear up on the thigh. He
was already dead. He had left our room and in the dark had
stumbled right under the wheels of the train. The corpse was
laid on the floor and covered.
Then we found a bed where best we could; some lay down on
the floor of the saloon. The man from Valdres and I found
a hayloft out in the town.
In the morning Evans came down the street.
"Did you get your money from the banker?" asked
the man from Valdres.
"Not yet," Evans answered. "I have been out
in the field and dug a hole for our comrade."
We buried O’Brien a little ways from town in a box which
 we took outside of a house. Since the corpse was amputated
so short, the box fortunately was long enough. We neither
sang nor offered a prayer; but all of us had come and we stood
a moment with our hats in our hands.
Then that ceremony was over. . . .
But when Evans was going to collect the money he had won,
we found that the wily banker had disappeared. This, too,
Evans took as calmly as everything else; it seemed to be a
matter of complete indifference to him. However, he still
had a lot of money; he could easily purchase a ticket and
buy his shirts, his trousers, and his novels. And with that
Evans would be outfitted for the winter.
We remained in town until the evening of the following day.
We carried on in the same manner and drank the saloon empty.
Several of the workers were flat broke when they left the
place, and since they couldn’t buy railroad tickets, they
smuggled themselves aboard the freight cars and buried themselves
in the wheat. But this trick turned out badly for the old
hunchbacked cook, the Norwegian from Iowa. He had fortunately
got into the wheat without being seen, but in there he couldn’t
remain quiet; he began in his drunken state to sing naughty
songs in his feminine voice. So he was found and thrown out.
And when the mannikin was searched, he had so much money that
he easily could have purchased tickets for all of us, the
We spread to the four winds. The man from Valdres bought
a little shooting gallery in a town in Minnesota, and the
cook went west to the Pacific coast. But Evans is undoubtedly
still going about in his silk shirts handing out money with
a generous hand. Every summer he is on the prairie harvesting
wheat, and every winter he is in the forests of Wisconsin
cutting cordwood. Well, that is his life.
A life perhaps just as good as any other. 
The prairie rests in the deepest peace. For miles there are
no trees and no houses to see, just wheat and green grass
as far as the eye can reach. Far, far away, as small as flies,
horses and people can be seen at work; it is the haying hands
sitting on their machines mowing. The only audible sound is
the chirp of the grasshoppers, and when there is a current
of air toward us once in a great while, another sound comes
to our ears, the staccato buzz of the mowing machines down
on the horizon. At times this noise sounds strangely near.
The place is the Billybony Farm. It lies absolutely alone
in the wide West, without neighbors, without any connection
with the world, and the nearest little prairie town is several
days’ march away. At a distance the buildings on the farm
look like a couple of tiny skerries in the endless sea of
wheat. No one lives on the farm in winter; but from spring
until late in October seventy-odd men are at work with the
wheat. There are three men in the kitchen, the cook and his
two helpers, and there are twenty mules in the stable in addition
to the many horses, but no women, not a single woman on Billybony
The sun bakes at 102 degrees Fahrenheit, the sky and the
earth vibrate in this heat, and no breeze cools the air. The
sun looks like a morass of fire.
Everything is quiet at home by the buildings, but from the
large, shingled shed that is used for a kitchen and dining
room one hears the voices and the steps of the cook and his
helpers who are rushing about in bustling activity. They burn
grass in the huge stoves, and the smoke that wells up out
of the chimney is mixed with sparks and flames. When the food
is ready, it is carried out in zinc tubs and loaded on wagons.
Then the mules are hitched up, and the three men haul the
food out on the prairie.
The cook is a huge Irishman, forty years old, gray-haired,
with a military appearance. He is half naked, his shirt is
 open, and his chest is like a millstone. Everyone calls
him "Polly" because his face resembles that of a
Polly has been a soldier, stationed at one of the forts in
the South; he is literary and can read. Therefore he has a
song book along at the farm and besides that an old copy of
a newspaper. He permits none of the people to touch these
treasures; he has them lying on a shelf in the kitchen in
order to have them at hand in free moments. And he makes diligent
use of them.
But Zachæus, his miserable countryman, who is almost
blind and uses glasses, once took the newspaper to read it.
It did no good to offer Zachæus an ordinary book whose
small letters rose in a fog before his eyes; on the other
hand it was a real pleasure to hold the cook’s newspaper in
his hands and loiter over the big letters of the advertisements.
But the cook immediately missed his treasure, sought Zachæus
in his bed and tore the newspaper out of his hands. Then a
violent, droll wrangling arose between these two men.
The cook called Zachæus a black-hearted bandit and
a son of a bitch. He snapped his fingers under his nose and
asked him if he had ever been a soldier and if he knew how
a fort is outfitted. No, well! Then he had better look out,
look out, by God. Shut up! How much did he earn a month? Did
he own property in Washington and did his cow calve yesterday?
Zachæus made no answer to that, but he accused the
cook of not cooking the food until done and of serving bread
pudding with flies in it. "Go to hell and take your newspaper
with you!" He — Zachæus — was an honest man; he
would have put the newspaper back when he had studied it.
"Don’t stand there and spit on the floor, you dirty dog!"
And Zachæus’ blind eyes stood like two hard steel balls
in his raging face.
But from that day on there was eternal enmity between those
The wagons with the food spread out over the prairie, and
 each feeds twenty-five men. The people come running
from all directions, grab some food, and throw themselves
under the wagons and the mules to get some shade during meal
time. In ten minutes the food is eaten. The foreman is already
in the saddle, ordering the people back to work again, and
the chuck wagons drive back to the farm.
But while the cook’s helpers wash the dishes and pots and
pans from the noonday meal, Polly himself sits in the shade
behind the house reading for the thousandth time his songs
and soldiers’ ballads in his precious book, which he had brought
along from the fort in the South. Then Polly is a soldier
In the evening, when twilight already has fallen, seven hay
wagons roll slowly homeward with the hired men. Most of them
wash their hands out in the yard before they go in to supper,
some also comb their hair. There are people of all nations
and several races, there are younger people and older ones,
immigrants from Europe and native-born American vagabonds,
all of them more or less infamous wretches and "derailed
The more prosperous of the gang carry revolvers in their
hip pockets. The food is usually eaten in all haste, without
anyone saying much of anything. These people have respect
for the foreman who eats with them and keeps an eye on things.
When the meal is over, the men immediately go to rest.
But now Zachæus was going to wash his shirt. It had
got so hard from sweat that it chafed him during the day when
the sun roasted his back.
It was a dark evening; everyone had gone to bed. A subdued
conversation could still be heard from the big bunkhouse before
Zachæus went over to the kitchen wall where several
containers of rain water stood. It was the cook’s water; he
 collected it carefully on rainy days because the water
on Billy-bony Farm was too hard and alkaline to wash with.
Zachæus took possession of one of the containers, removed
his shirt and began to rub it. The evening was quiet and cold;
be froze terribly, but his shirt had to be washed, and he
even whistled a bit to stiffen himself up.
Then the cook suddenly opened the kitchen door. He held a
lamp in his hand and a broad beam of light fell on Zachæus.
"Aha!" said the cook and stepped out.
He set the lamp down on the kitchen steps, went right up
to Zaehæus and asked: "Who has given you that water?"
"I took it," answered Zachæus.
"It’s my water!" shouted Polly. "You’ve taken
it, you slave, you liar, thief, and son of a bitch."
Zachæus gave no particular answer to this, he just
began to repeat the accusation about the flies in the pudding.
The commotion from the two fellows brought the men from the
bunkhouse. They stood there in groups freezing, listening
with the greatest attention to the exchange of words.
"Isn’t this great of the little swine? My own water!"
Polly shouted at them.
"Take your water!" said Zachæus and emptied
the container. "I’m through with it."
"Do you see that?" asked the cook as he thrust
his fist under his nose.
"Yes," answered Zachæus.
"I’ll give you a taste of it."
"If you dare."
Then suddenly the sound of rapid blows being exchanged was
heard. The onlookers emitted howl after howl as an expression
of their applause and good spirits.
But Zachæus did not last long. The blind, stocky Irishman
was as desperate as a Lapland marmot, but his arms were far
too short to be at all effective against the cook. Finally
he reeled sideways three, four steps over the yard and fell
"Well, there he lies. Let him lie, a soldier has felled
him," the cook said as he turned toward the crowd.
"I think he is dead," said a voice.
The cook shrugged his shoulders.
"Very well!" he answered overweeningly. And he
felt like a great, conquering victor before the people. He
threw back his head and waited to underscore his respect;
he became literary.
"To the devil with him," he said, "let him
lie. Is he the American Daniel Webster? Here he comes and
wants to teach me how to bake pudding, I who have cooked for
generals! Is he the Colonel of the Prairie, I ask you?"
And everyone admired Polly’s speech.
Then Zachæus got up from the ground and said just as
inveterately, just as defiantly: "Come on, you coward!"
The men bellowed ecstatically; but the cook smiled pityingly
and answered: "Nonsense! I might just as well fight with
Thereupon he took the lamp and stalked slowly in.
Darkness fell on the yard, and the men returned to the bunkhouse.
Zachæus picked up his shirt, wrung it out carefully
and put it on. Then he too sauntered after the others to find
his bunk and go to bed.
The next day Zachæus knelt in the grass out on the
prairie oiling his machine. The sun was just as severe today,
and his eyes ran full of sweat behind his glasses. Suddenly
the horses jerked forward a couple of steps; either they had
been frightened by something or insects had stung them. Zachæus
emitted a shriek and jumped high off the ground. Shortly after
he began to swing his hand in the air and pace back and forth
with hurried steps.
A man who was raking a distance away stopped his horses and
asked: "What’s the matter?"
"Come over here a minute and help me."
When the man came up to him, Zachæus showed him a 
bloody hand and said: "One of my fingers has been cut
off; it just happened. Hunt for the finger, I can’t see."
The man hunted for the finger and found it in the grass.
There were two joints. They were already beginning to wither
and looked like a little corpse.
Zachæus took the finger in his hand, recognized it
and remarked: "Yes, that’s it. Wait a moment, hold it
He pulled out his shirt tail and tore two strips off it;
with the one he bandaged his hand, in the other he wrapped
his amputated finger and put it in his pocket. Then he thanked
his comrade for his help and got up on his machine again.
He held out almost until suppertime. When the foreman heard
of his misfortune, he bawled him out and sent him home to
the farm at once.
The first thing Zachæus did was to hide his amputated
finger. He had no alcohol, so he poured machine oil into a
bottle, dropped the finger in it and corked it. He put the
bottle under the straw mattress in his bunk.
He stayed home a whole week. He got violent pains in his
hand and had to lie absolutely still night and day. It affected
his head, and he also got fever in his body, and he suffered
and complained excessively. He had never before experienced
an inactivity of this nature, not even the time some years
ago when a mine blast went off and injured his eyes.
To make his miserable condition still worse, Polly the cook
himself brought the food every day to his bed and used the
opportunity to provoke the wounded man. The two enemies had
many a nasty quarrel during this time, and it happened more
than once that Zachæus had to turn to the wall and clench
his teeth in silence because he was powerless before the giant.
However, the painful days and nights continued to go and
come, to go and come again with unendurable slowness. As soon
as possible, Zachæus began to sit up in his bunk a little,
and during the heat of the day he had the door open to the
prairie and the sky. Often he sat with open mouth listening
 for the sound of the mowing machines far, far away,
and then he spoke aloud to his horses as though he had them
But the malicious, wily Polly would not leave him in peace.
He came and closed the door on the pretense that there was
a draft, that there was a terrible draft, and he must not
expose himself to a draft. Beside himself, Zachæus tumbled
out of his bunk and sent a shoe or a stool after the cook,
vowing to cripple him for life. But Zachæus had no luck;
he saw too poorly to be able to aim, and he never hit his
The seventh day he announced that he wanted to eat dinner
in the kitchen. The cook told him that he simply didn’t want
him to come. That settled it, Zachæus had to eat his
food in his bunk that day too. He sat there completely forlorn,
in agonized boredom. Now he knew that the kitchen was empty.
The cook and his helpers were out on the prairie with the
noonday meal. He heard them depart, laughing and shouting,
exulting over the shut-in.
Zachæus got out of his bunk and staggered over to the
kitchen. He looked about. The book and the newspaper were
lying in their place. He seized the newspaper and stumbled
back to the bunkhouse. Then he wiped his glasses and began
to read the pleasingly large letters of the advertisements.
An hour passed, two hours — the hours passed so rapidly now.
Zachæus finally heard the chuck wagons returning and
he heard the cook’s voice as usual ordering the helpers to
wash the dishes and the pots and pans.
Zachæus knew that the newspaper would be missed, because,
as was his custom, the cook would go to his library now. He
thought a moment and stuck the newspaper under the straw mattress
in his bunk. After a bit, he quickly removed the newspaper
and put it inside his shirt. He would never give it up again!
A minute passed.
Then heavy steps approached the bunkhouse where Zachæus
lay staring at the ceiling.
Polly entered. 
"How about it? You got my newspaper?" he asked
and stopped in the middle of the floor.
"No," answered Zachæus.
"You’ve got it," hissed the cook and stepped nearer
Zachæus got up.
"I don’t have your newspaper. Go to hell!" he said,
At that the cook threw the sick man onto the floor and began
to hunt in the bunk. He turned the straw mattress over and
searched the miserable quilt several times without finding
what he sought.
"You’ve got it," he continued. Then he left, but
when he had come clear out in the yard he turned and repeated:
"You have taken it. But you just wait!"
Then Zachæus laughed delightedly and mischievously
and said: "All right, I’ve taken it. I had use for it,
you dirty swine."
The cook’s parrot face turned blood red, and an ill-boding
expression came into his villainous eyes. He looked back at
Zachæus and mumbled: "Just wait!"
There was stormy weather the next day, rain, violent streams
of water that struck against the houses like hail showers
and soon filled the cook’s containers early in the morning.
The whole crew was inside, some were patching wheat sacks
for fall, others were repairing tools and sharpening sickles.
When the call for the noonday meal sounded, Zachæus
rose from his bunk to follow the others into the dining room.
He was met outside the door by Polly, however, who was bringing
him his food. Zachæus objected that he had decided to
eat with the others from now on, his hand was better, and
he did not have any more fever. The cook answered that if
he didn’t want the food that was brought to him, he wouldn’t
get any. He threw the tin dish into Zachæus’ bunk and
asked: "Perhaps that isn’t good enough for you?"
Zachæus, resigned, returned to his bunk. It was best
to take the food he got.
"What kind of pig feed is this that you have cooked
again today?" he grumbled and busied himself with the
"Spring chicken," answered the cook. And a strange
glint came into his eye as he turned and went out.
"Spring chicken?" Zachæus mumbled to himself
and searched the food thoroughly with his blind eyes. "The
devil it is, you liar! But it is meat and gravy."
And he ate of the meat.
All at once he got a piece in his mouth that he couldn’t
identify. He couldn’t cut it, it was a bone with tough meat
on it, and when he had gnawed one side of it, he took it out
of his mouth and looked at it. "That dog can keep his
bone himself," he mumbled and walked over to the door
to examine it still more carefully. He turned and twisted
it about several times. Suddenly he hurried back to his bunk
and looked for the bottle with the amputated finger. The bottle
was there, but the finger was gone.
Zachæus walked over to the dining room. He stopped
inside the door, pale as death, his face distorted and as
he held something up, he asked the cook so everyone heard
it: "Hey, Polly, isn’t this my finger?"
The cook didn’t answer, but began to titter over at his table.
Zachæus held something else up and asked: "And,
Polly, isn’t this the nail that was on my finger? Don’t you
think I recognize it?"
Now all the men became aware of Zachæus’ strange questions
and looked at him in amazement.
"What’s wrong with you?" someone asked.
"I found my finger, my amputated finger, in my food,"
explained Zachæus. "He cooked it and served it
to me in my food. Here is the fingernail, too."
Then suddenly a roar of laughter burst from all the tables
and everyone shouted at once. "Did he cook your own finger
 and serve it to you? And I see you’ve bit into it, you’ve
gnawed off the meat on one side."
"I don’t see well," answered Zachæus, "I
didn’t know. . . ." I didn’t think. . . ."
Then all at once he was silent, turned and walked out of
the door again.
The foreman had to restore order in the dining room. He got
up, turned to the cook and asked: "Did you cook the finger
with the other meat, Polly?"
"No," answered Polly. "Good God, no. What
do you take me for? I cooked it separately, in an entirely
The story of the cooked finger became a source of inexhaustible
pleasure for the gang the whole afternoon. People discussed
it and laughed over it like lunatics, and the cook had won
a triumph as never before in his life. But Zachæus had
Zachæus had gone out on the prairie. The storm continued,
and there wasn’t a shelter anywhere; but Zachæus wandered
farther and farther out over the prairie. His sore hand was
bandaged and he protected it as well as he could from the
rain; otherwise he was soaked through from head to foot.
He continued to walk. When twilight began to fall he stopped,
looked at his watch by the glare of a flash of lightning,
then returned the same way he had come. He walked with heavy,
deliberate step through the wheat as though he had calculated
the time and his speed carefully. Around eight o’clock he
was home at the farm again.
It is now absolutely dark. He hears that the men are eating
supper in the dining room, and as he peeks in through the
window he thinks he sees the cook there and that he is in
He walks away from the house, over to the stable where he
gets under cover and stares into the darkness. The grasshoppers
are silent, everything is quiet, but the rain is still falling
and now and then a sulphur-colored flash of lightning splits
the sky and strikes down far out on the prairie. 
Finally he hears that the men are coming from supper and
setting out for the bunkhouse, swearing, and running so as
not to get wet. Zachæus still waits an hour or so, patiently
and doggedly, then he proceeds toward the kitchen.
It is still light in there; he sees a man by the stove and
he walks calmly in.
‘Good evening," he greets.
The cook looks surprised at him and finally says: "You
can’t have any food tonight."
Zachæus answers: "Good, but give me a little soap,
Polly. I didn’t get my shirt clean last night, I have to wash
"Not in my water," says the cook.
"Yes, exactly. I have it around the corner."
"I advise you not to do it."
"Do I get the soap?" asks Zachæus.
"I’ll give you soap," answers the cook. "Get
out!" and Zachæus goes out.
He takes one of the containers, carries it over to the corner
right under the kitchen window and begins to splash vigorously
in the water. The cook hears it and goes out.
Today he feels superior as never before and he goes right
toward Zachæus with rolled up sleeves, determined and
"What are you doing?" he asks.
"Nothing," Zachæus answers. "Just washing
"In my water?"
The cook comes closer, leans over the water container to
identify it and feels in the water for the shirt.
Then Zachæus draws his revolver out of the bandage
on his sore hand, thrusts it right in the cook’s ear and pulls
A dull report sounds in the wet night.
When Zachæus late at night came into the bunkhouse
to  go to bed, a couple of fellows woke up. They asked
what he had been doing out so long.
"Nothing," answered Zachæus. "By the
way, I have shot Polly."
The fellows got up on their elbows in order to hear better.
"Have you shot him?"
"The devil you say! Where did you hit him?"
"In the head. I shot him through the ear, upward."
"I’ll be damned! Where did you bury him?"
"Out west on the prairie. I laid the newspaper between
Then the fellows lie down to sleep again.
A while later one of them asks: "Did he die right away?"
"Yes," answered Zachæus, "almost immediately.
The bullet went right through his brain."
"Yes, that’s the best shot," the fellow agrees.
"If the bullet goes through the brain, it is death."
Then it becomes quiet in the bunkhouse and everyone sleeps.
The next day the foreman had to appoint a new cook, one of
the old helpers who now rose to chef and was exceedingly happy
about the murder.
Everything went its wonted way until fall. Not much was said
about Polly’s departure, the poor devil was dead, he lay buried
in the wheatland some place where the wheat was torn up. There
was nothing more to do about that.
When October came, Billybony’s workers proceeded to the nearest
town to drink a farewell with one another and separate. All
were at this moment better friends than ever, and they embraced
one another and set them up for one another in good spirit.
"Where are you going, Zachæus?"
"A little farther west," answered Zachæus.
"To Wyoming  perhaps. But when winter comes, I’ll
head for the lumber camps again."
"Then we’ll meet there. So-long for now, Zachæus.
Have a good trip."
And the fellows take off in all directions out into the immense
Yankeeland. Zachæus is going to Wyoming.
And the prairie remains behind as an endless sea over which
the October sun shines with long beams that look like awls.