NAHA Header

NAHA Logo

Hamsun and America
    by Sverre Arestad (Volume 24: Page 148)

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.

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 [149] 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 [150] 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 [151] 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. [152]

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 Paths.

Hamsun’s short stories on American themes leave an [153] 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. [154] 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 [155] 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

"Vagabond Days" is much longer than the other four, and therefore it has not been translated here. The story deals [156] 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 style.

"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 [157] 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 [158]

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."

FEMININE VICTORY

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 [159] 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 folk. [160]

However, I had quite an experience during the Christmas season of 1887.

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 asked.

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?"

"Yes."

"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."

"Oh."

"You are to stop your train and get me up out of the hole although I offer resistance."

"That shall be done." [161]

"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 there.

"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 letter."

"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." [162]

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!"

"You’re right."

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 drugstore.

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? [163] 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 [164] 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. [165]

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?"

"Ten dollars."

"That’s what I got too. He really paid pretty well, didn’t he! But his wife paid better."

"His wife?" [166]

"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."

FEAR

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 [167] 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 [168] 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 gruel.

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. [169]

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 [170] 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 snow.

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: "Run! Run!"

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 [171] 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 [172] 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 only song.

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. [173] 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 knew German.

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 [174] 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. [175] 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. [176] All the workers embraced one another, we put our hardened arms around one another and danced about excitedly.

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. [177]

"Circumstances!" he repeated, and he wouldn’t disclose more.

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 [178] 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.

He lost.

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 now."

He won.

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 [179] 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 scoundrel!

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. [180]

ZACHÆUS

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 Farm.

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 [181] open, and his chest is like a millstone. Everyone calls him "Polly" because his face resembles that of a parrot.

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 two countrymen.

The wagons with the food spread out over the prairie, and [182] 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 again.

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 existences."

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 night came.

Zachæus went over to the kitchen wall where several containers of rain water stood. It was the cook’s water; he [183] 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 down. [184]

"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 this lamp."

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 [185] 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 a second."

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 [186] for the sound of the mowing machines far, far away, and then he spoke aloud to his horses as though he had them at hand.

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 mark.

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. [187]

"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 to him.

Zachæus got up.

"I don’t have your newspaper. Go to hell!" he said, infuriated.

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?" [188]

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 dish.

"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 [189] 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 different pot."

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 disappeared.

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 good humor.

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. [190]

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 it again."

"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 angry.

"What are you doing?" he asks.

"Nothing," Zachæus answers. "Just washing my shirt."

"In my water?"

"Of course."

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 the trigger.

A dull report sounds in the wet night.

When Zachæus late at night came into the bunkhouse to [191] 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?"

"Yes."

"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 his hands."

"You did?"

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 [192] 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.

<<   Previous Page   |   Next Page   >>


 
To the Home Page