Marching Men

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book I: Chapter III

The town of Coal Creek was hideous. People from prosperous towns and cities of the middle west, from Ohio, Illinois, and Iowa, going east to New York or Philadelphia, looked out of the car windows and seeing the poor little houses scattered along the hillside thought of books they had read of life in hovels in the old world. In chair-cars men and women leaned back and closed their eyes. They yawned and wished the journey would come to an end. If they thought of the town at all they regretted it mildly and passed it off as a necessity of modern life.

The houses on the hillside and the stores along Main Street belonged to the mining company. In its turn the mining company belonged to the officials of the railroad. The manager of the mine had a brother who was division superintendent. It was the mine manager who had stood by the door of the mine when Cracked McGregor went to his death. He lived in a city some thirty miles away, and went there in the evening on the train. With him went the clerks and even the stenographers from the offices of the mine. After five o'clock in the afternoon no white collars were to be seen upon the streets of Coal Creek.

In the town men lived like brutes. Dumb with toil they drank greedily in the saloon on Main Street and went home to beat their wives. Among them a constant low muttering went on. They felt the injustice of their lot but could not voice it logically and when they thought of the men who owned the mine they swore dumbly, using vile oaths even in their thoughts. Occasionally a strike broke out and Barney Butterlips, a thin little man with a cork leg, stood on a box and made speeches regarding the coming brotherhood of man. Once a troop of cavalry was unloaded from the cars and with a battery paraded the main street. The battery was made up of several men in brown uniforms. They set up a Gatling gun at the end of the street and the strike subsided.

An Italian who lived in a house on the hillside cultivated a garden. His place was the one beauty spot in the valley. With a wheelbarrow he brought earth from the woods at the top of the hill and on Sunday he could be seen going back and forth and whistling merrily. In the winter he sat in his house making a drawing on a bit of paper. In the spring he took the drawing, and by it planted his garden, utilising every inch of his ground. When a strike came on he was told by the mine manager to go on back to work or move out of his house. He thought of the garden and the work he had done and went back to his routine of work in the mine. While he worked the miners marched up the hill and destroyed the garden. The next day the Italian also joined the striking miners.

In a little one-room shack on the hill lived an old woman. She lived alone and was vilely dirty. In her house she had old broken chairs and tables picked up about town and piled in such profusion that she could scarcely move about. On warm days she sat in the sun before the shack chewing on a stick that had been dipped in tobacco. Miners coming up the hill dumped bits of bread and meat-ends out of their dinner-pails into a box nailed to a tree by the road. These the old woman collected and ate. When the soldiers came to town she walked along the street jeering at them. "Pretty boys! Scabs! Dudes! Dry-goods clerks!" she called after them as she walked by the tails of their horses. A young man with glasses on his nose, who was mounted on a grey horse turned and called to his comrades, "Let her alone--it's old Mother Misery herself."

When the tall red-haired boy looked at the workers and at the old woman who followed the soldiers he did not sympathise with them. He hated them. In a way he sympathised with the soldiers. His blood was stirred by the sight of them marching shoulder to shoulder. He thought there was order and decency in the rank of uniformed men moving silently and quickly along and he half wished they would destroy the town. When the strikers made a wreck of the garden of the Italian he was deeply touched and walked up and down in the room before his mother, proclaiming himself. "I would have killed them had it been my garden," he said. "I would not have left one of them alive." In his heart he like Cracked McGregor nursed his hatred of the miners and of the town. "The place is one to get out of," he said. "If a man doesn't like it here let him get up and leave." He remembered his father working and saving for the farm in the valley. "They thought him cracked but he knew more than they. They would not have dared touch a garden he had planted."

In the heart of the miner's son strange half-formed thoughts began to find lodgings. Remembering in his dreams at night the moving columns of men in their uniforms he read new meaning into the scraps of history picked up in the school and the movements of men in old history began to have significance for him. On a summer afternoon as he loitered before the town's hotel, beneath which was the saloon and billiard room where the black-haired boy worked, he overheard two men talking of the significance of men.

One of the men was an itinerant oculist who came to the mining town once a month to fit and sell spectacles. When the oculist had sold several pairs of spectacles he got drunk, sometimes staying drunk for a week. When he was drunk he spoke French and Italian and sometimes stood in the barroom before the miners, quoting the poems of Dante. His clothes were greasy from long wear and he had a huge nose streaked with red and purple veins. Because of his learning in the languages and his quoting of poems the miners thought the oculist infinitely wise. To them it seemed that one with such a mind must have almost unearthly knowledge concerning the eyes and the fitting of glasses and they wore with pride the cheap ill-fitting things he thrust upon them.

Occasionally, as though making a concession to his patrons, the oculist spent an evening among them. Once after reciting one of the sonnets of Shakespeare he put a hand on the bar and rocking gently back and forth sang in a drink-broken voice a ballad beginning "The harp that once through Tara's halls the soul of music shed." After the song he put his head down upon the bar and wept while the miners looked on touched with sympathy.

On the summer afternoon when Beaut McGregor listened, the oculist was engaged in a violent quarrel with another man, drunk like himself. The second man was a slender dandified fellow of middle age who sold shoes for a Philadelphia jobbing-house. He sat in a chair tilted against the hotel and tried to read aloud from a book. When he was fairly launched in a long paragraph the oculist interrupted. Staggering up and down the narrow board walk before the hotel the old drunkard raved and swore. He seemed beside himself with wrath.

"I am sick of such slobbering philosophy," he declared. "Even the reading of it makes you drool at the mouth. You do not say the words sharply, and they can't be said sharply. I'm a strong man myself."

Spreading his legs wide apart and blowing up his cheeks, the oculist beat upon his breast. With a wave of his hand he dismissed the man in the chair.

"You but slobber and make a foul noise," he declared. "I know your kind. I spit upon you. The Congress at Washington is full of such fellows as is also the House of Commons in England. In France they were once in charge. They ran things in France until the coming of a man such as myself. They were lost in the shadow of the great Napoleon."

The oculist as though dismissing the dandified man from his mind turned to address Beaut. He talked in French and the man in the chair fell into a troubled sleep. "I am like Napoleon," the drunkard declared, breaking again into English. Tears began to show in his eyes. "I take the money of these miners and I give them nothing. The spectacles I sell to their wives for five dollars cost me but fifteen cents. I ride over these brutes as Napoleon rode over Europe. There would be order and purpose in me were I not a fool. I am like Napoleon in that I have utter contempt for men."

       *       *       *       *       *

Again and again the words of the drunkard came back into the mind of the McGregor boy influencing his thoughts. Grasping nothing of the philosophy back of the man's words his imagination was yet touched by the drunkard's tale of the great Frenchman, babbled into his ears, and it in some way seemed to give point to his hatred of the disorganised ineffectiveness of the life about him.

       *       *       *       *       *

After Nance McGregor opened the bakery another strike came to disturb the prosperity of the business. Again the miners walked idly through the streets. Into the bakery they came to get bread and told Nance to write the debt down against them. Beaut McGregor was disturbed. He saw his father's money being spent for flour which when baked into loaves went out of the shop under the arms of the miners who shuffled as they walked. One night a man whose name appeared on their books followed by a long record of charged loaves came reeling past the bakery. McGregor went to his mother and protested. "They have money to get drunk," he said, "let them pay for their loaves."

Nance McGregor went on trusting the miners. She thought of the women and children in the houses on the hill and when she heard of the plans of the mining company to evict the miners from their houses she shuddered. "I was the wife of a miner and I will stick to them," she thought.

One day the mine manager came into the bakery. He leaned over the showcase and talked to Nance. The son went and stood by his mother's side to listen. "It has got to be stopped," the manager was saying. "I will not see you ruin yourself for these cattle. I want you to close this place till the strike is over. If you won't close it I will. The building belongs to us. They did not appreciate what your husband did and why should you ruin yourself for them?"

The woman looked at him and answered in a low tone full of resolution. "They thought he was crazy and he was," she said; "but what made him so--the rotten timbers in the mine that broke and crushed him. You and not they are responsible for my man and what he was."

Beaut McGregor interrupted. "Well I think he is right," he declared, leaning over the counter beside his mother and looking into her face. "The miners don't want better things for their families, they want more money to get drunk. We will close the doors here. We will put no more money into bread to go into their gullets. They hated father and he hated them and now I hate them also."

Beaut walked around the end of the counter and went with the mine manager to the door. He locked it and put the key into his pocket. Then he walked to the rear of the bake shop where his mother sat on a box weeping. "It is time a man took charge here," he said.

Nance McGregor and her son sat in the bakery and looked at each other. Miners came along the street, tried the door and went away grumbling. Word ran from lip to lip up the hillside. "The mine manager has closed Nance McGregor's shop," said the women leaning over back fences. Children sprawling on the floors of the houses put up their heads and howled. Their lives were a succession of new terrors. When a day passed that a new terror did not shake them they went to bed happy. When the miner and his woman stood by the door talking in low tones they cried, expecting to be put to bed hungry. When guarded talk did not go on by the door the miner came home drunk and beat the mother and the children lay in beds along the wall trembling with fright.

Late that night a party of miners came to the door of the bakery and beat upon it with their fists. "Open up here!" they shouted. Beaut came out of the rooms above the bakery and stood in the empty shop. His mother sat in a chair in her room and trembled. He went to the door and unlocking it stepped out. The miners stood in groups on the wooden sidewalk and in the mud of the road. Among them stood the old crone who had walked beside the horses and shouted at the soldiers. A miner with a black beard came and stood before the boy. Waving his hand at the crowd he said, "We have come to open the bakery. Some of us have no ovens in our stoves. You give us the key and we will open the place. We will break in the door if you don't want to do that. The company can't blame you if we do it by force. You can keep account of what we take. Then when the strike is settled we will pay you."

A flame shot into the eyes of the boy. He walked down the steps and stood among the miners. Thrusting his hands into his pockets he peered into their faces. When he spoke his voice resounded through the street, "You jeered at my father, Cracked McGregor, when he went into the mine for you. You laughed at him because he saved his money and did not spend it buying you drinks. Now you come here to get bread his money bought and you do not pay. Then you get drunk and go reeling past this very door. Now let me tell you something." He thrust his hands into the air and shouted. "The mine manager did not close this place. I closed it. You jeered at Cracked McGregor, a better man than any of you. You have had fun with me--laughing at me. Now I jeer at you." He ran up the steps and unlocking the door stood in the doorway. "Pay the money you owe this bakery and there will be bread for sale here," he called, and went in and locked the door.

The miners walked off up the street. The boy stood within the bakery, his hands trembling. "I've told them something," he thought, "I've shown them they can't make a fool of me." He went up the stairway to the rooms above. By the window his mother sat, her head in her hands, looking down into the street. He sat in a chair and thought of the situation. "They will be back here and smash the place like they tore up that garden," he said.

The next evening Beaut sat in the darkness on the steps before the bakery. In his hands he held a hammer. A dull hatred of the town and of the miners burned in his brain. "I will make it hot for some of them if they come here," he thought. He hoped they would come. As he looked at the hammer in his hand a phrase from the lips of the drunken old oculist babbling of Napoleon came into his mind. He began to think that he also must be like the figure of which the drunkard had talked. He remembered a story the oculist had told of a fight in the streets of a European city and muttered and waved the hammer about. Upstairs his mother sat by the window with her head in her hands. From the saloon down the street a light gleamed out on the wet sidewalk. The tall pale woman who had gone with him to the eminence overlooking the valley came down the stairway from above the undertaker's shop. She ran along the sidewalk. On her head she wore a shawl and as she ran she clutched it with her hand. The other hand she held against her side.

When the women reached the boy who sat in silence before the bakery she put her hands on his shoulders and plead with him. "Come away," she said. "Get your mother and come to our place. They're going to smash you up here. You'll get hurt."

Beaut arose and pushed her away. Her coming had given him new courage. His heart jumped at the thought of her interest in him and he wished that the miners might come so that he could fight them before her. "I wish I could live among people as decent as she," he thought.

A train stopped at the station down the street. There came the sound of tramping of men and quick sharp commands. A stream of men poured out of the saloon onto the sidewalk. Down the street came a file of soldiers with guns swung across their shoulders. Again Beaut was thrilled by the sight of trained orderly men moving along shoulder to shoulder. In the presence of these men the disorganized miners seemed pitifully weak and insignificant. The girl pulled the shawl about her head and ran up the street to disappear into the stairway. The boy unlocked the door and went upstairs and to bed.

After the strike Nance McGregor who owned nothing but unpaid accounts was unable to open the bakery. A small man with a white moustache, who chewed tobacco, came from the mill and took the unused flour and shipped it away. The boy and his mother continued living above the bakery store room. Again she went in the morning to wash the windows and scrub the floors in the offices of the mine and her red-haired son stood upon the street or sat in the pool room and talked to the black- haired boy. "Next week I'll be going to the city and will begin making something of myself," he said. When the time came to go he waited and idled in the streets. Once when a miner jeered at him for his idleness he knocked him into the gutter. The miners who hated him for his speech on the steps, admired him for his strength and brute courage.

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.