HE stepped off the train, weighing his bags at the end of long arms. His eyes rested on the driver of a rusty flivver. He swung the bags into the taxi. His voice came harshly.
‘Where’s a good hotel, bub?'
The boy frowned down bare legs locked over the wheel and blew a bubble between his front teeth. ‘There ain’t but one.’ The bubble disappeared and a grin took its place. ‘The NonPareil. Hop in.'
The stranger climbed in after the bags, and the flivver lurched down the dirt street in the direction of the Square. The boy kept, one leg cocked over the wheel, which he aided with his elbow at difficult moments. The bare foot of the other leg fiddled tentatively with the clutch, and another bubble — a larger one this time — began to grow between the lad’s teeth, dancing with the movement of the car.
The passenger sat stiffly erect against the shiny upholstery. His grave face was a dull red color, crossed by deep wrinkles. A jutting nose divided eyes bulging palely from their sockets. His hair showed sparse and gray beneath his soiled panama.
‘Huh?’ remarked the driver above the chattering of the machine.
The man leaned forward in his seat.
‘What’s doing in town? I said, what’s doing in town for a stranger?'
The boy grinned. ‘ Tighter ’n a drum,’ he shouted above the din. He eased a front wheel out of a rut with a knee. ‘What would it be, now? Likker?’ He roared the last word lustily, and half turned to look at his fare.
The driver grunted and waved to an acquaintance passing on the sidewalk. ‘There’s a place other side of the railroad track. You give two raps on the door, like, and —’
The boy twisted his neck and regarded his passenger for a moment, then turned his eyes again on the road. With a jerk the ear stopped its motion and his toe twiddled off the switch.
‘Here you be. The Non-Pareil.’
The man got stiffly out. The boy watched him lift his heavy bags.
‘Flat rate,’he said. ‘Anyw’ere’n town, fifty cents.’ He caught the silver deftly and watched his fare making his way up the high wooden steps. He blew a thoughtful bubble as the motor came to life.
The dank, memorial air within gave no relief from the oppressive early summer’s heat outside. Behind a mahogany-stained pine desk stood a clerk in shirt sleeves, nibbling at a callus on his palm. As the red-faced man approached and set down his bags, the clerk cast a quizzical glance over his knuckles, expertly swinging round the register. With the easy air of a race which does most of its reading upside down he watched the stranger write his name.
‘Clarence Stimson,’he read. ‘Newark, N. J. . . . Business?’
The guest of the Non-Pareil kicked one of his bags.
‘Slum. Slum jewelry for the hired girls and their beaus. Want to see some?’
The clerk looked annoyed. ‘Not me. Doing well?’
Stimson did not answer the question. Instead, he leaned closer over the desk, summoning to his wrinkled face a jovial air.
‘I’m a stranger in town. What’s doing?’
A gleam of interest appeared in the eye of the clerk, and he bent nearer with an air at once confidential and worldly.
‘Not much. Been a clean-up last week in this town. Things are kind of tight. In a week, yes. But just now . . . Was you wanting a drink?’
Stimson shook his head.
‘We can’t sell it, of course, but I can maybe lay hands on somebody that will. Good stuff, and cheap, considering.’
Stimson shook his head again, taking off his panama to wipe his forehead with a muddy silk handkerchief.
‘No,’ he said.
The clerk stared, then chuckled knowingly. ‘Oh. Well, it might be arranged. Let me see.’ He tapped his teeth with a penholder. ‘To-night’s choir practice. But you just have your supper, and go up to your room, and about eight o’clock . . .’
Stimson wiped the sweatband of his hat with his handkerchief. ‘No, nor girls neither.'
The clerk tapped the penholder in a slower rhythm, and finally laid it down. ‘Guess I can’t help you, mister.’
The man before the desk hesitated, and a queer shy look came into his face. His pale eyes gleamed, but his mouth held a straight line.
‘Listen,’ he said. ‘Listen.’ He gripped the edge of the desk. ‘ Liquor ain’t my line, and I can’t get up no interest in girls.’
The clerk stared. After a long pause, he straightened his back and raised his voice to a normal tone.
‘Can’t do anything for you, mister,’he said. A face or two looked up from the lobby chairs. ‘Town’s closed up tight. There’s been a clean-up in town. Whatever you want, it ain’t to be had.’
The stranger half-dropped the lids over his bulging eyes. His mouth twisted cunningly. ‘You say so.’ He stood proudly before the desk. ‘Liquor don’t interest me,’ he repeated, ‘nor women neither.’ Then his eyes searched the faces of the loungers. They stared at him coldly, without expression.
‘Mister,’ put in the clerk, ‘you better do like I said first. Monk, you take this gentleman’s cases.’ Without a word, the guest of the Non-Pareil followed the boy upstairs.
Stimson did not linger after supper in the stuffy little dining room. As soon as might be he left the cups and saucers and sauntered outside, perhaps to get a breath of air.
The street lamps shuddered one by one ablaze, lighting up the under branches of the dusty maples. Beneath each one a pool of light lay evenly in the dust, held darkly as if in a cup. In these pools boys crawled upon their knees, searching for June beetles, loosing pent screams when bit by their sharp nippers. A street lamp blinked evilly and hummed a small tune. Stimson left the Square, turning off into a wide, deserted street.
The air pressed close upon the tired grass. Overhead, without warning, a locust suddenly began its buzzing lament. Stimson heard other voices take up the wailing rattle as the locust strained its stretched string tighter, tighter, with a sound like that forced by a boy from a button on a cord. At last all the voices, tautened to full stretch, cracked together on their highest note, slid half an octave, ran down, and were still. The man felt the sweat running between his shoulder blades. He fanned himself with his panama hat, warm streams coursing down his flank from under his lifted arm. The air pressed closer.
Down another street, less wide, he went, and up another. A hooded light blinked on behind a pane level with the walk. Stimson stopped and looked in.
In and out of the glare of a shaded bulb hands came and went. They paused for a moment in its circle, hesitated, moved with downward palms, disappeared. Suddenly a large hairy hand strode into the illumined circle like a furred creature; hesitated; made a gesture. Its mate followed, pushing into the circle a tall column, gleaming dully between its fingers. Directly opposite a long thin hand dipped into the light, flinging down five white squares. Stimson leaned closer. Under the lamp shade lay a pile of chips and a row of cards.
Stimson caught his breath between his teeth. Beside the window he saw a basement door. He walked down four concrete steps, lifted the iron latch, and pushed in.
The lamp went out. There was utter silence. It clicked on again, and tilted up sharply at Stimson. A voice growled.
‘What’s your business here?’
Stimson looked straight into the glowing light bulb. ‘Boys,’ he began.
‘Name your business!’
‘I — I saw a little game going on. Through the window. I — maybe you might be letting me set in.’
The swinging lamp fell back into its normal position, swaying gravely once, twice. A little circle of light swept over the small table. Someone in the gloom swore softly.
A bulky shadow detached itself from the other shadows and stood in the light. It became a short, long-armed man, his face and hands covered with red fur. He chewed meditatively a moment, then spoke.
‘ Git! ’
Stimson hesitated. The short man lazily reached out a hand and caught the intruder’s elbow in one great palm. The nerves in Stimson’s arm buzzed, and his wrist and fingers went dead.
‘We ain’t partial to setters-in. Git!’
Stimson stood outside, rubbing his elbow. For a minute he watched the basement window. Finally he returned down the narrow street, up the wider one, and so back into the Square.
Once around the four sides of the Square he paced, past the memorial statue, past the cast-iron drinking fountain. The restaurant keeper, closing his shop, nodded briefly as Stimson went by. Crossing the stale outlet of an alley, Stimson saw a glow of light from a bakeshop behind. The large gray courthouse in the middle of the Square turned slowly one imperturbable side after the other to him as he gradually caught up to his own footsteps, again passing the cast-iron fountain. This time there was a dog lapping busily at its base. The dog looked up at the man, slapped a whiplike tongue against his muzzle, panted a moment, and recommenced drinking.
As for the third time he made his way around the Square, pausing occasionally to mop his forehead or to fan the sweat out of his eyebrows with his hat, Stimson’s feet and brain lagged. His soaked shirt clung like a second and more tightly fitting skin, and his forehead prickled where the hatband had rested. The nostrils of his jutting nose opened and shut like valves, and his head turned slowly, searchingly, as he walked.
At last, almost without surprise, he noted at a window in the third story of a building, over a store, a thin split of light. He stopped to look more carefully. The window blind drew up to the top of the window instead of to the bottom as a normal window blind should. At its very top a narrow crack revealed a yellow edge of light.
Stimson turned into a hallway. A steep wooden stair led upward. As he started to climb, he felt his toes stub against tin signs nailed against the riser of every step. At the landing, halfway up the first flight, a yellow bulb burned under a coating of dirt.
There was no light on the landing at the head of the first flight. Stimson climbed eagerly, his shadow stretching like rubber before him at every step. He paused to listen. From above came a faint, indefinable noise.
Stimson climbed halfway up the second flight and listened again. The slight noise became clearer. ‘Chinkchink!’ it said. Chink-chink! Chinkchink-chink! Stimson hurried up the remainder of the flight, and stumbled on the top step. He cursed under his breath as the tiny noise stopped.
On the top step he stood and waited. Outside he could hear, no less plainly, the wail of the locusts in the dusty trees. The air from the street made its way slowly up the stairs after him, pausing at each step like an asthmatic charwoman. When it reached him there was no elasticity in its breath. Stimson stood and waited, as if by stilling the beating of his heart he could force the little sound to take courage and creep out into the hallway again.
Chink! It began hesitantly. Chinkchink! Stimson gasped, as if the climb up the stairs had suddenly caught him under the ribs. The noise steadied, stopped a moment, then went on as merrily as before. Chink-chink-chinkity-ity-ity-chink! Chink!
The man reached out and touched with either hand the walls of the hall, swiftly making his way between them to a door. Under its lower crack lay a rule of light. He knocked on the door.
Soundlessly the light under the door went out. There was a long silence. Stimson knocked again, and as if at a signal the light poured on. The door opened suddenly. Stimson faced the company in the room.
On a table covered with green felt lay piled stacks of silver dollars, ranged in neat towers before each of the five men sitting before it. In the table’s centre more dollars were flung in a great shining heap, melded together under the hard light. As Stimson stood undecided, the man at the head of the table turned to his neighbor.
‘New to me,’ he said.
The one spoken to turned to his next. ‘A stranger to town,’ he remarked gravely.
The third man turned and studied Stimson. ‘What does he want?’ he asked impersonally of the two next him, two men dressed alike in corduroy trousers, shirt sleeves, and galluses, wearing scanty sandy beards. The two turned and gazed at each other, a vague interest at the back of their eyes, then turned their heads as on one swivel back to the man at the head of the table.
‘Might ask,’one of the twins suggested mildly.
The company turned unanimously to a thickset, short-necked man astraddle a chair in a dark corner, a little removed from the table. There was a metal shield fastened to his shirt, and the bone handle of a revolver peered from his hip pocket. He surveyed Stimson slowly.
‘Shut the door!’ he commanded.
Stimson shut the door. The players returned to their game, and the silver dollars chinked steadily once more. The thickset man curled a toe around each of the legs of his chair, hitched it around to face the newcomer, chewed thoughtfully a moment, and spoke.
‘ Stimson s the name. What’s yours?’
The other moved his jaws vaguely, as if striving to remember. ‘Business?'
‘Cheap jewelry. Can I sell you some?'
The man reddened, stopped chewing, then suddenly smiled. ‘Guess you don’t know who I am.’ Stimson said nothing; only looked at him. ‘I’m the marshal.’ He teetered the chair under him cheerfully, pushing the butt of his revolver farther into his pocket, his eyes always on the intruder.
One of the two men in corduroys got up awkwardly from the table. ‘Stimson’s the name,’ he said, addressing the company. A slow grin came over his face. He turned to the intruder with a mock-formal air.
’This here,’ he said portentously, making a gesture toward Stimson, ‘is Mel Thacher.”The man at the head of the table scowled, wiping his hand on his trousers. ‘Mel, meet Mr. Stimson. He handles jewelry.’
The man in corduroys grinned wider. He seemed to take no notice of the fact that Mel did not offer to shake hands.
‘And the feller next Mel, he’s John Hanspur. He does trucking in this town. Vegetables, not trunks.’ A swarthy figure next Mel growled and looked at the floor. ‘John, meet Mr. Stimson. He peddles jewelry — glass and brass.’
A bald-headed man let off a laugh like a train of squibs that fizzled and died into silence as it was echoed by nobody else. The man in corduroys turned in his direction.
‘And that gent there, he’s Marthy Slocum’s husband. Slocum, meet Mr. Stimson.’ He turned to Stimson in mock query. ‘What did you say your line was, mister? I kind of fergit.’ He pretended to listen to Stimson, whose red face grew redder as he stared straight before him at the table and its series of little silver towers. ’Oh, yes. He sells jewelry — the cheap kind.’
The tall man turned to his twin in corduroys. ‘And that there is my uncle, only we’re aged alike. People mostly takes us for brothers. His name is Langer, and mine is Slescher. Henry Slescher, Mr. Stimson. I ’m real pleased to meet you.’ He grinned widely looking around for applause.
Stimson stood very straight, his thumbs rubbing lightly over the forefingers of his closed fists. The town marshal jerked up from his chair, shouldering Slescher carelessly out of the way.
‘What’re you looking for?’ asked the marshal. There was no laughter in his voice. ‘ Whatever it is, you won’t find it here.’
Stimson would not take his eyes from the table. ‘No offense,5 he said slowly. ‘Slum’s my line, and I’m not ashamed of it. I get my living honest.’ He spoke more carefully, his gaze still on the little round towers rising sharply from the green plain of the table. ‘I’d like to set in. If you gents don’t mind, I ’d like to gambolier a little.’
The marshal pondered, teetering thoughtfully from toe to heel. He looked over his shoulder at the rest. There was no expression on any of their faces. He turned back to Stimson.
‘Set in,’ he said. ‘But I ’ll be setting in, too. Across the room.’ He paused.
‘Might’s well set in,’ he muttered, and turned away, the bone handle in his pocket working up and down as he walked.
Stimson studied the impassive faces before him. He made his way to the table. A place opened for him, and he sat down.
From the head of the table Mel Thacher studied him. ‘Buy in,’ he suggested curtly.
Stimson produced a twenty-dollar bill. Mel took it, examined it carefully, his mouth screwed up, then reached in the sagging pocket of his coat. Surveying Stimson all the while, he pulled out his fist and flung its contents on the table before the stranger. Stimson counted the pile. There were exactly twenty silver dollars in the handful. Stimson began carefully to lay the coins one atop the other.
‘Cut!’ commanded the man next him, reluctantly laying down a deck of cards. Stimson separated it into two unequal halves, and the dealer picked up the packets warily. On the table before Stimson one card after another drifted down.
Somebody at the table fingered his stack of silver. The sound rang gently in the closed room, seemingly more subdued than its gentle chink-chink had sounded from without. Stimson found himself aware of little noises filtering in gently and persistently from the street. A boy’s shout sang faintly, like the rim of a glass touched with a wet finger. A wagon rattled by, the pad of the horses’ hoof-falls quieted in the thick dust. A cat cried spitefully with a human wail. Over and above all rang the interminable metallic voices of the locusts in the maple trees. Stimson glanced toward the shaded window, his ears vaguely alert to their cry.
His eyes came back to the players. They leaned forward eagerly, their faces vacant with studied blankness, their shoulders and hands eloquent, His neighbor had passed; the rest stayed in. Stimson stood pat, and after a brief tussle swept in a small pot. The game began now in earnest; the rest were taking his measure. Stimson played carefully, betting on his hands for no more than they were worth until he should have tested his opponents’ mettle. He waited patiently for a good deal, then with a lucky draw, after a glance around the table, he began skillfully and judiciously to build up the pot. At this moment he was aware of Slocum’s bald head opposite, tilted back, staring over his shoulder. The others had paused in their game, and were steadfastly regarding something behind Stimson.
The marshal spoke. ‘Well, Harry?’
Slescher uncrossed his legs, the corduroy whisking in the sudden silence like an indrawn breath. Stimson felt a breath come heavily on his neck, and rose suddenly, hooking a toe under his chair as he did so. The chair toppled and fell backward with a splintering crash. Stimson turned his back to the table, and stood facing a bulky, squat, long-armed man, who had jumped aside out of the way of the chair. One of the man’s hands was raised halfway toward his face. It was a rough hand, covered with fur like a strange insect. Stimson recognized its owner for the fellow who had ordered him so abruptly away from the other game in the little room on the back street.
The intruder ignored the marshal, but addressed Stimson. ‘Seems to me you kind of like to bung in where you ain’t wanted,’ he said. ‘We ain’t partial to setters-in. Not in this town. Not in this town at this time.’
Stimson said nothing, but half turned to his companions at the table. Nobody stirred.
‘A feller was here last week,’ went on the bulky man. ‘A feller like yourself, mister. He was anxious for a game. So we let him set in.’
As if a portent lay beneath the words, somebody at the table drew a long breath,
‘Maybe we found out something about, that man,’ went on the voice. ‘Maybe somebody said something. Or maybe we just guessed. Anyway,’ — a long pause, waited upon by stillness,— ‘anyway, we rid him out of town. He ain’t come back.’
Stimson stared around the table. Not a face held anything but a sullen emptiness. Slescher sat leaning forward, his chin in the heels of his palms, his fingers caught over his high cheek bones. The gesture pulled down the rims of his eyes, until their whites stared blankly out of two red wounds.
The bulky man caught Stimson by an elbow, and again the gambolier felt a pain shoot up into his shoulder socket. ‘Nothing you can say won’t do you no good. But say it, if you’ve a mind to.’
Stimson tried to speak. He shook his head helplessly.
His captor turned to the men at the table. As one they rose, their chairs scraping on the floor. With Stimson’s elbow still caught in his fingers, the long-armed man made for the door. The rest followed.
From his corner the town marshal, astraddle his chair, cleared his throat apologetically. ‘I kind of guess,’ he suggested mildly, ‘you forgot who I am, Harry.’
The long-armed man stopped in bis tracks. The marshal came forward in leisurely fashion, the butt of his revolver sliding up and down like an Adam’s apple. He ambled to the table before the piles of silver at Stimson’s place. Sweeping them into his hand, he jangled them a moment reflectively, then tossed them into the coat pocket of the gambolier. He turned to the rest.
‘Boys,’ he remarked, ‘I ain’t got no grocery store to lock up at six o’clock and go home from. I ain’t got no truck garden that can’t be weeded but by daylight. I’m town marshal, and that goes even when other folks is asleep. Or even when I be myself. So you see, boys, you kind of got to do like I say.'
He faced the captor of Stimson. ‘Harry, you better go home. I ’ll take care of this.’ Harry east a surly look at the gambolier, dropped his elbow, and went out. His heavy step could be heard descending the stairs. Once he stumbled, and a curse floated up the stairway through the open door. The steps died away.
The town marshal looked around at the rest of the company. He turned his eyes mildly in the direction of the table. Sheepishly they returned to their places.
‘Langer and Slescher, you come with me.’ The men in corduroys hesitated, swept their dollars into their pockets, tossed their cards into the centre of the table, and followed the marshal and Stimson down the stairs.
The heavy night air fell over their shoulders in swathings as they emerged from the doorway at the bottom. The two men in corduroys plodded along silently behind the marshal and Stimson. No one said a word until they rounded the Square and brought up before the front entrance of the NonPareil.
‘Git your bags,’suggested the marshal.
Stimson entered the hotel, secured his luggage, paid his reckoning to the astonished clerk. He came slowly down the steep steps.
The marshal spoke. ‘Mister, you give your bags to the boys here. No call for you to carry them. We got a good piece to walk.’
The two men in corduroys came forward like shadows, one on each side. Each took a bag and fell back. The marshal dropped into step with Stimson.
‘There’s a train stops to take on water a little ways out of town. You can board her there.’
‘Don’t ask me no questions, went on the marshal. His voice seemed somehow a little tired. ‘Maybe I would n’t know how to answer them if you was to ask. All I know is, some of the boys feels a little on edge. And this is one of the times where it’s better to walk than be rid.’
They had reached the outskirts of the city, where one enormous maple guarded the street’s end. Here they stopped for a moment. At this point everyone leaving that town or entering it paused, as if to remark afresh on the accident of a town with shaded streets set down in the midst of the rolling, almost treeless farm land. There seemed to be no moon, but somewhere light was, for the shadow of the great tree lay softly in the white dust.
One of the bearers of Stimson’s baggage lit a cigarette. The tired voice of a cricket gave up its ghost in the long, dust-powdered grass. A locust’s reel ran down before it had fully wound up. The footsteps of the little company came down in a succession of plodding puffs, the dust spurting out in tiny clouds under their heels. On each side of the road the cement fence posts whitely marched abreast, behind which lay, right and left, the fields of oats and wheat. The flame of the match, on the open prairie, burned upright and still.
They came to the railway where it intersected the road, the rails glinting sharply. Here the road bent to follow the rails, and the little group in turn followed the road. As they swung to the right, they bunched for a moment. So close were they that each was made aware of the body of his neighbor in the dark by its heat alone.
The oats to one side of the road gave way to corn. It had been shortly laid by, and was now as high as a tall man’s hips. The wheat on the other side too made way for its silent march. On both sides of the walking men stood the growing corn.
The marshal stopped and pointed. Ahead and to the right a squat steel tank stood on spidery legs. Near it burned a signal. The two men in corduroys lowered the heavy cases into the dust.
But Stimson, instead of looking at the tank, gazed wonderingly right and left. The blades of the com were in motion. They swayed gently against each other, rasping audibly.
‘Look,’ said Stimson. It was the first time he had spoken since the interruption of the game. ‘There’s a breeze come up!’
Slescher shifted a cud of tobacco and shook his head. His spittle flopped in the dust like a toad leaping. ‘No wind, that ain’t. It’s just the corn. Growing.'
Langer corroborated his statement. ‘Corn ain’t never still,’ he added. ‘It grows so fast in weather like this, it can’t keep quiet. An inch a night, sometimes. It rustles, sure, But not from wind.’
The corn was growing. The noise it made was the noise of its growth.
The marshal spoke in the darkness. ‘I remember when I was a boy, we had just such nights as this. And I used to lay abed, near crying with the pain in my legs. The muscles in ’em hurt just like they was being stretched on a curtain stretcher.’ He chuckled. ‘And my folks used to ask me what made me thrash so. Was I hot? they said. And when I said I just about had to grit my teeth to keep from yelling at the stretch in my legs, they only laughed. Growing pains, they told me. Every boy has ’em, they told me. Just growing pains.’ The marshal’s voice slid a note deeper as he forgot his listeners. ‘ I recollect I was stared when I found out I had to hurt in order to grow. I felt plumb terrified to think I was alive.’
From the distance came the long screech of a train. Stimson turned. His bags lay in the dust. In a momentary panic he whirled about. The marshal stood, a comforting shadow, at his elbow.
‘Plenty of time. She’ll take several minutes to fill up her boiler.'
The gambolier stooped and picked up his bags. Without them he had walked a little bent, a little warily. At the familiar feel of their leather handles he straightened his back. He passed beyond the double aisles of growing corn, marching up to the water tank without a glance to either side. He flung his bags into the vestibule of the train, and climbed carefully after.
The marshal yawned as he watched the train gather speed.
‘What did you make of him, boys?’ he asked. ‘Spotter, or just a sport?’
One of the men in corduroys dug at his ear with a finger. The other shook his head.
‘We heard him say he was a gambolier.’