Marching Men

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book III: Chapter I

When McGregor had secured the place in the apple-warehouse and went home to the house in Wycliff Place with his first week's pay, twelve dollars, in his pocket he thought of his mother, Nance McGregor, working in the mine offices in the Pennsylvania town and folding a five dollar bill sent it to her in a letter. "I will begin to take care of her now," he thought and with the rough sense of equity in such matters, common to labouring people, had no intention of giving himself airs. "She has fed me and now I will begin to feed her," he told himself.

The five dollars came back. "Keep it. I don't want your money," the mother wrote. "If you have money left after your expenses are paid begin to fix yourself up. Better get a new pair of shoes or a hat. Don't try to take care of me. I won't have it. I want you to look out for yourself. Dress well and hold up your head, that's all I ask. In the city clothes mean a good deal. In the long run it will mean more to me to see you be a real man than to be a good son."

Sitting in her rooms over the vacant bake-shop in Coal Creek Nance began to get new satisfaction out of the contemplation of herself as a woman with a son in the city. In the evening she thought of him moving along the crowded thoroughfares among men and women and her bent little old figure straightened with pride. When a letter came telling of his work in the night school her heart jumped and she wrote a long letter filled with talk of Garfield and Grant and of Lincoln lying by the burning pine knot reading his books. It seemed to her unbelievably romantic that her son should some day be a lawyer and stand up in a crowded court room speaking thoughts out of his brain to other men. She thought that if this great red-haired boy, who at home had been so unmanageable and so quick with his fists, was to end by being a man of books and of brains then she and her man, Cracked McGregor, had not lived in vain. A sweet new sense of peace came to her. She forgot her own years of toil and gradually her mind went back to the silent boy sitting on the steps with her before her house in the year after her husband's death while she talked to him of the world, and thus she thought of him, a quiet eager boy, going about bravely there in the distant city.

Death caught Nance McGregor off her guard. After one of her long days of toil in the mine office she awoke to find him sitting grim and expectant beside her bed. For years she in common with most of the women of the coal town had been afflicted with what is called "trouble with the heart." Now and then she had "bad spells." On this spring evening she got into bed and sitting propped among the pillows fought out her fight alone like a worn-out animal that has crept into a hole in the woods.

In the middle of the night the conviction came to her that she would die. Death seemed moving about in the room and waiting for her. In the street two drunken men stood talking, their voices concerned with their own human affairs coming in through the window and making life seem very near and dear to the dying woman. "I've been everywhere," said one of the men. "I've been in towns and cities I don't even remember the names of. You ask Alex Fielder who keeps a saloon in Denver. Ask him if Gus Lamont has been there."

The other man laughed. "You've been in Jake's drinking too much beer," he jeered.

Nance heard the two men stumble off down the street, the traveller protesting against the unbelief of his friend. It seemed to her that life with all of its colour sound and meaning was running away from her presence. The exhaust of the engine over at the mine rang in her ears. She thought of the mine as a great monster lying asleep below the ground, its huge nose stuck into the air, its mouth open to eat men. In the darkness of the room her coat, flung over the back of a chair, took the shape and outline of a face, huge and grotesque, staring silently past her into the sky.

Nance McGregor gasped and struggled for breath. She clutched the bedclothes with her hands and fought grimly and silently. She did not think of the place to which she might go after death. She was trying hard not to go there. It had been her habit of life to fight not to dream dreams.

Nance thought of her father, drunk and throwing his money about in the old days before her marriage, of the walks she as a young girl had taken with her lover on Sunday afternoons and of the times when they had gone together to sit on the hillside overlooking the farming country. As in a vision the dying woman saw the broad fertile land spread out before her and blamed herself that she had not done more toward helping her man in the fulfilment of the plans she and he had made to go there and live. Then she thought of the night when her boy came and of how, when they went to bring her man from the mine, they found him apparently dead under the fallen timbers so that she thought life and death had visited her hand in hand in one night.

Nance sat stiffly up in bed. She thought she heard the sound of heavy feet on the stairs. "That will be Beaut coming up from the shop," she muttered and fell back upon the pillow dead.


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