Marching Men

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book I: Chapter IV

In a cellar-like house driven like a stake into the hillside above Coal Creek lived Kate Hartnet with her son Mike. Her man had died with the others during the fire in the mine. Her son like Beaut McGregor did not work in the mine. He hurried through Main Street or went half running among the trees on the hills. Miners seeing him hurrying along with white intense face shook their heads. "He's cracked," they said. "He'll hurt some one yet."

Beaut saw Mike hurrying about the streets. Once encountering him in the pine woods above the town he walked with him and tried to get him to talk. In his pockets Mike carried books and pamphlets. He set traps in the woods and brought home rabbits and squirrels. He got together collections of birds' eggs which he sold to women in the trains that stopped at Coal Creek and when he caught birds he stuffed them, put beads in their eyesockets and sold them also. He proclaimed himself an anarchist and like Cracked McGregor muttered to himself as he hurried along.

One day Beaut came upon Mike Hartnet reading a book as he sat on a log overlooking the town. A shock ran through McGregor when he looked over the shoulder of the man and saw what book he read. "It is strange," he thought, "that this fellow should stick to the same book that fat old Weeks makes his living by."

Beaut sat on the log beside Hartnet and watched him. The reading man looked up and nodded nervously then slid along the log to the farther end. Beaut laughed. He looked down at the town and then at the frightened nervous book-reading man on the log. An inspiration came to him.

"If you had the power, Mike, what would you do to Coal Creek?" he asked.

The nervous man jumped and tears came into his eyes. He stood before the log and spread out his hands. "I would go among men like Christ," he cried, pitching his voice forward like one addressing an audience. "Poor and humble, I would go teaching them of love." Spreading out his hands like one pronouncing a benediction he shouted, "Oh men of Coal Creek, I would teach you love and the destruction of evil."

Beaut jumped up from the log and strode before the trembling figure. He was strangely moved. Grasping the man he thrust him back upon the log. His own voice rolled down the hillside in a great roaring laugh. "Men of Coal Creek," he shouted, mimicking the earnestness of Hartnet, "listen to the voice of McGregor. I hate you. I hate you because you jeered at my father and at me and because you cheated my mother, Nance McGregor. I hate you because you are weak and disorganised like cattle. I would like to come among you teaching the power of force. I would like to slay you one by one, not with weapons but with my naked fists. If they have made you work like rats buried in a hole they are right. It is man's right to do what he can. Get up and fight. Fight and I'll get on the other side and you can fight me. I'll help drive you back into your holes."

Beaut ceased speaking and jumping over the logs ran down the road. Among the first of the miner's houses he stopped and laughed awkwardly. "I am cracked also," he thought, "shouting at emptiness on a hillside." He went on in a reflective mood, wondering what power had taken hold of him. "I would like a fight--a fight against odds," he thought. "I will stir things up when I am a lawyer in the city."

Mike Hartnet came running down the road at the heels of McGregor. "Don't tell," he plead trembling. "Don't tell about me in the town. They will laugh and call names after me. I want to be let alone."

Beaut shook himself loose from the detaining hand and went on down the hill. When he had passed out of sight of Hartnet he sat down on the ground. For an hour he looked at the town in the valley and thought of himself. He was half proud, half ashamed of the thing that had happened.

       *       *       *       *       *

In the blue eyes of McGregor anger flashed quick and sudden. Upon the streets of Coal Creek he walked, swinging along, his great body inspiring fear. His mother grown grave and silent worked in the offices of the mines. Again she had a habit of silence in her own home and looked at her son, half fearing him. All day she worked in the mine offices and in the evening sat silently in a chair on the porch before her house and looked down into Main Street.

Beaut McGregor did nothing. He sat in the dingy little pool room and talked with the black-haired boy or walked over the hills swinging a stick in his hand and thinking of the city to which he would presently go to start his career. As he walked in the streets women stopped to look at him, thinking of the beauty and strength of his maturing body. The miners passed him in silence hating him and dreading his wrath. Walking among the hills he thought much of himself. "I am capable of anything," he thought, lifting his head and looking at the towering hills, "I wonder why I stay on here."

When he was eighteen Beaut's mother fell ill. All day she lay on her back in bed in the room above the empty bakery. Beaut shook himself out of his waking stupor and went about seeking work. He had not felt that he was indolent. He had been waiting. Now he bestirred himself. "I'll not go into the mines," he said, "nothing shall get me down there."

He got work in a livery stable cleaning and feeding the horses. His mother got out of bed and began going again to the mine offices. Having started to work Beaut stayed on, thinking it but a way station to the position he would one day achieve in the city.

In the stable worked two young boys, sons of coal miners. They drove travelling men from the trains to farming towns in valleys back among the hills and in the evening with Beaut McGregor they sat on a bench before the barn and shouted at people going past the stable up the hill.

The livery stable in Coal Creek was owned by a hunchback named Weller who lived in the city and went home at night. During the day he sat about the stable talking to red-haired McGregor. "You're a big beast," he said laughing. "You talk about going away to the city and making something of yourself and still you stay on here doing nothing. You want to quit this talking about being a lawyer and become a prize fighter. Law is a place for brains not muscles." He walked through the stables leaning his head to one side and looking up at the big fellow who brushed the horses. McGregor watched him and grinned. "I'll show you," he said.

The hunchback was pleased when he strutted before McGregor. He had heard men talk of the strength and the evil temper of his stableman and it pleased him to have so fierce a fellow cleaning the horses. At night in the city he sat under the lamp with his wife and boasted. "I make him step about," he said.

In the stable the hunchback kept at the heels of McGregor. "And there's something else," he said, putting his hand in his pockets and raising himself on his toes. "You look out for that undertaker's daughter. She wants you. If she gets you there will be no law study but a place in the mines for you. You let her alone and begin taking care of your mother."

Beaut went on cleaning the horses and thinking of what the hunchback had said. He thought there was sense to it. He also was afraid of the tall pale girl. Sometimes when he looked at her a pain shot through him and a combination of fear and desire gripped him. He walked away from it and went free as he went free from the life in the darkness down in the mine. "He has a kind of genius for keeping away from the things he don't like," said the liveryman, talking to Uncle Charlie Wheeler in the sun before the door of the post office.

One afternoon the two boys who worked in the livery stable with McGregor got him drunk. The affair was a rude joke, elaborately planned. The hunchback had stayed in the city for the day and no travelling men got off the trains to be driven over the hills. In the afternoon hay brought over the hill from the fruitful valley was being put into the loft of the barn and between loads McGregor and the two boys sat on the bench by the stable door. The two boys went to the saloon and brought back beer, paying for it from a fund kept for that purpose. The fund was the result of a system worked out by the two drivers. When a passenger gave one of them a coin at the end of a day of driving he put it into the common fund. When the fund had grown to some size the two went to the saloon and stood before the bar drinking until it was spent and then came back to sleep off their stupor on the hay in the barn. After a prosperous week the hunchback occasionally gave them a dollar for the fund.

Of the beer McGregor drank but one foaming glass. For all his idling about Coal Creek he had never before tasted beer and it was strong and bitter in his mouth. He threw up his head and gulped it then turned and walked toward the rear of the stable to conceal the tears that the taste of the stuff had forced into his eyes.

The two drivers sat on the bench and laughed. The drink they had given Beaut was a horrible mess concocted by the laughing bartender at their suggestion. "We will get the big fellow drunk and hear him roar," the bartender had said.

As he walked toward the back of the stable a convulsive nausea seized Beaut. He stumbled and pitched forward, cutting his face on the floor. Then he rolled over on his back and groaned and a little stream of blood ran down his cheek.

The two boys jumped up from the bench and ran toward him. They stood looking at his pale lips. Fear seized them. They tried to lift him but he fell from their arms and lay again on the stable floor, white and motionless. Filled with fright they ran from the stable and through Main Street. "We must get a doctor," they said as they hurried along, "He is mighty sick--that fellow."

In the doorway leading to the rooms over the undertaker's shop stood the tall pale girl. One of the running boys stopped and addressed her, "Your red-head," he shouted, "is blind drunk lying on the stable floor. He has cut his head and is bleeding."

The tall girl ran down the street to the offices of the mine. With Nance McGregor she hurried to the stable. The store keepers along Main Street looked out of their doors and saw the two women pale and with set faces half-carrying the huge form of Beaut McGregor along the street and in at the door of the bakery.

       *       *       *       *       *

At eight o'clock that evening Beaut McGregor, his legs still unsteady, his face white, climbed aboard a passenger train and passed out of the life of Coal Creek. On the seat beside him a bag contained all his clothes. In his pocket lay a ticket to Chicago and eighty-five dollars, the last of Cracked McGregor's savings. He looked out of the car window at the little woman thin and worn standing alone on the station platform and a great wave of anger passed through him. "I'll show them," he muttered. The woman looked at him and forced a smile to her lips. The train began to move into the west. Beaut looked at his mother and at the deserted streets of Coal Creek and put his head down upon his hands and in the crowded car before the gaping people wept with joy that he had seen the last of youth. He looked back at Coal Creek, full of hate. Like Nero he might have wished that all of the people of the town had but one head so that he might have cut it off with a sweep of a sword or knocked it into the gutter with one swinging blow.

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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.