In the Bunkhouse

BEYOND seven smudged windows the October sun shone. It shone gloriously from a nearly cloudless sky — as if throughout these latter days it must expend a doubled warmth and brilliance where winter would soon claim. In its full light the very hills were burnished — those orderly, treeless hills, flat on top like tables, their slopes sweeping earthward in swift, formal contours, for all the world like the generous overhang from a golden tablecloth. And in saddle and draw the bright brush — hawthorn, chokecherry, wild rose — and each flaming tree — box elder, aspen, and cottonwood — contested that glory. The willow alone was green still — and, tempered with gray, the unchanging, ubiquitous sage. A million magpies flashed their white breasts, their rich blue-black tails, in raucous flights, and now and again a pheasant stole from his cool cover to strut and preen. Only the mountains stood aloof — for along their crests these days were no more. There winter had blustered in, and for them the prospect was weary.

As I walked into the bunkhouse, it seemed dingy and the air was bad — thick with man-smell. Jim was sitting on the side of his bed, a bulky suitcase across his knees, writing a letter. On the next bed perched Rip, his cheap glasses sliding down his nose, reading. And across from them Alvin lay dozing. A moment later Windy was to follow me in — Windy the dairyman, from Oklahoma, and the wag of the outfit — to change into his milking clothes. The others — save for Curly, the chore boy, who was up at the big house guying the maids — were off for the day: Chuck in Sheridan, whither he had gone the night before in Whoopee, his decrepit ‘Chivvie’; Hawk in Dayton spending the day with his wife and brats.

As bunkhouses go, this one was a palace. At any rate, it had a shower bath — which is more than most bunkhouses can boast. For the rest, it was a fairly large rectangle of a room, not too tidy, with three painted steel bedsteads ranged along either long wall and facing one another across the room, a seventh placed lengthwise against the short east wall opposite the door. The usual bedroll, covered by a grayish ‘tarp,’ was strapped over each. Just inside the door and on both sides of it ran rows of tall, narrow lockers, and a bit beyond them, its stout pipe descending from the ceiling in a series of weird convolutions, stood the Round Oak Heater, ringed about by coal buckets, cigarette stubs, and drying spittle. An unpainted hot-water boiler seemed to cling precariously to one side of it, a little as if the fat stove were balancing it on its palm. ‘With ’er, ye say?’ Rip came back at him, giving me a wink. ‘That’s a powerful polite way o’ puttin’ it!’ Windy pulled on his gray work shirt and grinned. ‘Well sir, Rip, ye’re plum right there!’ ‘Well, Rip,’ he bawled, ‘gonna help me git the cows, too?’ He slammed out and Rip, unheeding, removed his glasses, putting them carefully in their battered case. His faded, crippled eyes had again that look of seeing something far away and quietly, infinitely sad.

Between this and the sagging pool table, which occupied the enviable position of being under the best light in the place, an unshaded, many-watt bulb, there was a considerable amount of floor space, in which two or three dilapidated rocking chairs languished. The washbasin — in reality it was a laundry tub of the built-in variety — was sandwiched into a snug enclosure formed by the shower bath, lockers, and — for ultimate luxury — one of the seven large four-paned windows. On tables between the beds, from innumerable and casually placed hooks above them, over the beds themselves, were hung, flung, and littered the variegated paraphernalia of ranch hand and wrangler — overalls, chaps, a ten-gallon hat, soiled underwear, a rusty rifle, comic supplements of the Denver Post, an empty bottle, a novel by Zane Grey. A pair of dirty but undaunted kittens raced and tumbled and jumped from bed to bed, under them and across the floor, then from bed to pool table. It was not an unfriendly scene.

When I came in, Rip looked up over his glasses and Jim stopped his writing to say hello. Even Alvin stirred a little, as if he would come awake if we’d give him time. I offered my ‘tailor-mades’ all round, and then, lighting one myself, perched on the edge of the pool table.

‘What’re you reading, Rip?’ I began.

He held up a battered copy of Western Stories.

‘I know t’ start with they’s all lies, an’ so I kin read ’em an’ enjoy ’em!’

I laughed.

‘Read much, Rip?’

He nodded. He was a slight man and looked older than he was. His hair — red still, although faded — stood out from his head in a wild way, and there was a cast in one of his eyes that made him look sad and a little bewildered, and as if he were looking not at you but at something beyond you.

‘Magazines mostly?’

lie nodded again. ‘’Cept fer Zane Grey — I read all o’ his books, some of ’em more ’n once — an’ Will James. But mos’ly it’s magazines.’

It was then that Windy came in.

‘Well, Rip, gonna help me milk?’ he bawled in his lusty, twanging voice.

Windy, as I have said, was an Oklahoman, and his high, rhythmed speech betrayed the fact. Not yet fifty, he was completely bald — when milking, he wore a skullcap — and in stature not unlike Rip, with a swagger.

The latter neither troubled to reply nor even glanced in Windy’s direction at the question. He had told Windy at dinnertime he’d help — that ought to be enough.

But Windy, knowing that most of his questions were treated as rhetorical, whether meant thus or not, began with cheerful unconcern to peel off his shirt, under which he wore a flame-pink suit of rayon underwear.

‘Well sir,’ he crowed, unaware that he was interrupting anything, ‘I’d sure rather be downtown with that woman o’ Chuck’s than milkin’ them danged cows to-day!’

He stepped into his overalls and, bunching his shirt tails first in front and then behind, drew the trousers deftly up about his middle. Holding them so, he spat with casual accuracy into one of the coal buckets.

‘Well sir,’ shifting his cud, ‘them’s my only vices — an’ chewin’, I s’pose. I don’ smoke an’ I don’ drink—’

‘Sence when?’ came softly from Jim’s direction.

Jim and Alvin were South Dakotans — from around Buffalo Gap on the edge of the Black Hills — who had been taken on for the threshing only three weeks before. Shy, quiet men, both had until lately been ranchers in their own right, burned out now by the long drought.

Windy slid his arms under shoulder straps and grinned again.

‘Well sir, sence ’bout las’ week — that’s when!' he brought out with a progressive mixture of mischief, sheepishness, and defiance.

Jim chuckled. ‘I’d sure hate t’ be a pint o’ whiskey layin’ round an’ have you find me!’

We all laughed at that — even Alvin, who, although still drowsy, had by now come awake enough to rise up on one elbow, propping his head on his hand.

‘Well sir, Jim,’ Windy defended himself, ‘now ’f ye’re an hones’ man, yuh kin tell ’em that’s so. ’Member th’ other night when you ’n’ me ’n’ Chuck’s in t’ the Mint an’ Chuck’s settin’ up the drinks —’

‘By God!’ Rip exploded. ‘Any time Chuck’s settin’ up a drink, I’d drink it an’ if ’t was slop!

Windy, fully dressed now, ambled over to the pool table and began practising with a cue. Rip turned his attention back to me, who had moved from the edge of the pool table on to an old and unused cot near by.

‘Did ye ever read any o’ I hem Scattergood stories by Clar’nce Buddington Keeland?’ he resumed, as if Windy had n’t been. ‘They’s sure good.’

I nodded. ‘So you like short stories, do you?’

‘Sure — that what you write?’

‘Sometimes.’

His face crinkled into an expression of shy and mischievous amusement.

‘That so? Well, I s’pose one o’ these days ye’ll be writin’ one ’bout us!’

I grinned. ‘Would you mind?’

‘Hell, no!’ whooped Windy, sinking a long shot. ‘That is, if yuh kin find a story ’n a bunch o’ bums like us!’

‘Oh — I don’t know,’ said I.

‘Sure now,’ agreed Rip, ‘take me here. I got a story. Me ’n’ my brother, we’s orphans when we’s little, on’y a rich ol’ woman, she took him an’ now — well, an’ now we’s diff’r’nt. That’s all,’ he finished helplessly.

‘But who took you?’

‘Well, I’s older ’n him an’ I’s kinda farmed out t’ work. Oh, I ben a undertaker’s assistant an’ a chore boy an’ a miner, an’ ’fore I come here I’s with a sheep outfit up ’n Montana. Say,’ — he broke off suddenly, as if the subject of himself no longer interested him, — ‘what’s yer fav’rite story?’

I considered for a moment. ‘Well, you would n’t guess it maybe, but it’s the story of Joseph and his brethren in the Book of Genesis in the Bible.’

‘That so?’

Contrary to my expectations, he showed neither surprise nor that unspoken scorn with which the ignorant and the lowly more often than not greet the unaccustomed. He seemed interested only, and then to grow pensive.

‘That so?’ he repeated with a falling inflection on the words and more to himself than to me.

But this had all been too much for Windy. Not attempting to conceal his ennui, he flung down his cue and donned his leather skullcap.

‘Well sir,’ he said finally, holding to his vision still even as he glanced at me, ‘yuh know, there’s a story in the Bible I like, too.’

‘What’s that, Rip?’ I asked as he hesitated and reached for his hat.

Then, after a slow pause — ‘Well sir, yuh know that part where Christ, He said t’ the rich man, “Love thy neighbor as thyself”?’

‘Yes, Rip,’ I said, letting the slight inaccuracy pass. What difference that according to Saint Luke it was ‘a certain lawyer,’ and that he himself, at Christ’s behest, had spoken the words?

‘Go on, Rip.’

‘Well sir,’ — he was standing up now, his bent back momently erect, as if the vision had come closer, — ‘ an’ the rich man, he said t’ Christ, “An’ who is my neighbor?” An’ then Christ, He said, “A certain man went down from Jerusalem t’ Jericho, an’ fell among thieves, w’ich stripped ’im of his raiment an’ wounded ’im, an’ departed, leavin’ ’im fer dead.’”

And suddenly the rare old words were new upon his mouth; for he spoke them as if he were their author, and in his soft, homely way of speech they had come alive as neither preacher nor pedagogue nor actor in all perfection of skill could

have revived and adorned them. And the far look in his eyes was in Alvin’s now, and in Jim’s, too — those brave men who likewise had lost their substance, to the thieving drought. And a sadness akin to his own, but more immediate, resided in their lined, aging faces — they were seeing, I knew, their wasted Dakota acres under the mystic shadow of the Black Hills. And his words were wrapped in a precious silence.

‘An’ by chance there came down a certain priest that way; an’ when he saw ’im, he passed by on th’ other side. An’ likewise a Levite, when he’s at the place, came an’ looked on ’im, an’ passed by on th’ other side. But a certain Samaritan, ’s he journeyed, came where he was; an’ when he saw ’im, he had compassion on ’im. An’ went to ’im, an’ bound up his wounds, pourin’ in oil an’ wine, an’ set ’im on his own beast, an’ brought ’im to an inn, an’ took care of ’im.

‘Well sir,’ he said after a moment, looking slowly round, finding us once more familiars, ‘that’s ’bout all a man needs t’ know, ain’t it — an’ we’d all of us be all right then.’

Slowly, a little wearily, he put on his shabby hat and walked to the door. No one spoke. Then, turning: —

‘“How often would I have gathered thy children together, even ’s a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, an’ ye would not!”’ He paused. ‘“An’ ye would not!” Christ, He said that, too. An’ He did n’ make no exceptions neither — no sir, not even o’ His disciples!’