Windy McPherson's Son

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book I - Chapter 3

One evening, when he had grown so that he outtopped Windy, Sam McPhersonreturned from his paper route to find his mother arrayed in her black,church-going dress. An evangelist was at work in Caxton and she haddecided to hear him. Sam shuddered. In the house it was an understoodthing that when Jane McPherson went to church her son went with her. Therewas nothing said. Jane McPherson did all things without words, alwaysthere was nothing said. Now she stood waiting in her black dress when herson came in at the door and he hurriedly put on his best clothes and wentwith her to the brick church.

Valmore, John Telfer, and Freedom Smith, who had taken upon themselves akind of common guardianship of the boy and with whom he spent eveningafter evening at the back of Wildman's grocery, did not go to church. Theytalked of religion and seemed singularly curious and interested in whatother men thought on the subject but they did not allow themselves to becoaxed into a house of worship. To the boy, who had become a fourth memberof the evening gatherings at the back of the grocery store, they would nottalk of God, answering the direct questions he sometimes asked by changingthe subject. Once Telfer, the reader of poetry, answered the boy. "Sellpapers and fill your pockets with money but let your soul sleep," he saidsharply.

In the absence of the others Wildman talked more freely. He was aspiritualist and tried to make Sam see the beauties of that faith. On longsummer afternoons the grocer and the boy spent hours driving through thestreets in a rattling old delivery wagon, the man striving earnestly tomake clear to the boy the shadowy ideas of God that were in his mind.

Although Windy McPherson had been the leader of a Bible class in hisyouth, and had been a moving spirit at revival meetings during his earlydays in Caxton, he no longer went to church and his wife did not ask himto go. On Sunday mornings he lay abed. If there was work to be done aboutthe house or yard he complained of his wounds. He complained of his woundswhen the rent fell due, and when there was a shortage of food in thehouse. Later in his life and after the death of Jane McPherson the oldsoldier married the widow of a farmer by whom he had four children andwith whom he went to church twice on Sunday. Kate wrote Sam one of herinfrequent letters about it. "He has met his match," she said, and wastremendously pleased.

In church on Sunday mornings Sam went regularly to sleep, putting his headon his mother's arm and sleeping throughout the service. Jane McPhersonloved to have the boy there beside her. It was the one thing in life theydid together and she did not mind his sleeping the time away. Knowing howlate he had been upon the streets at the paper selling on Saturdayevenings, she looked at him with eyes filled with tenderness and sympathy.Once the minister, a man with brown beard and hard, tightly-closed mouth,spoke to her. "Can't you keep him awake?" he asked impatiently. "He needsthe sleep," she said and hurried past the minister and out of the church,looking ahead of her and frowning.

The evening of the evangelist meeting was a summer evening fallen on awinter month. All day the warm winds had come up from the southwest. Mudlay soft and deep in the streets and among the little pools of water onthe sidewalks were dry spots from which steam arose. Nature had forgottenherself. A day that should have sent old fellows to their nests behindstoves in stores sent them forth to loaf in the sun. The night fell warmand cloudy. A thunder storm threatened in the month of February.

Sam walked along the sidewalk with his mother bound for the brick church,wearing a new grey overcoat. The night did not demand the overcoat but Samwore it out of an excess of pride in its possession. The overcoat had anair. It had been made by Gunther the tailor after a design sketched on theback of a piece of wrapping paper by John Telfer and had been paid for outof the newsboy's savings. The little German tailor, after a talk withValmore and Telfer, had made it at a marvellously low price. Sam swaggeredas he walked.

He did not sleep in church that evening; indeed he found the quiet churchfilled with a medley of strange noises. Folding carefully the new coat andlaying it beside him on the seat he looked with interest at the people,feeling within him something of the nervous excitement with which the airwas charged. The evangelist, a short, athletic-looking man in a greybusiness suit, seemed to the boy out of place in the church. He had theassured business-like air of the travelling men who come to the New LelandHouse, and Sam thought he looked like a man who had goods to be sold. Hedid not stand quietly back of the pulpit giving out the text as did thebrown-bearded minister, nor did he sit with closed eyes and clasped handswaiting for the choir to finish singing. While the choir sang he ran upand down the platform waving his arms and shouting excitedly to the peopleon the church benches, "Sing! Sing! Sing! For the glory of God, sing!"

When the song was finished, he began talking, quietly at first, of life inthe town. As he talked he grew more and more excited. "The town is acesspool of vice!" he shouted. "It reeks with evil! The devil counts it asuburb of hell!"

His voice rose, and sweat ran off his face. A sort of frenzy seized him.He pulled off his coat and throwing it over a chair ran up and down theplatform and into the aisles among the people, shouting, threatening,pleading. People began to stir uneasily in their seats. Jane McPhersonstared stonily at the back of the woman in front of her. Sam was horriblyfrightened.

The newsboy of Caxton was not without a hunger for religion. Like all boyshe thought much and often of death. In the night he sometimes awakenedcold with fear, thinking that death must be just without the door of hisroom waiting for him. When in the winter he had a cold and coughed, hetrembled at the thought of tuberculosis. Once, when he was taken with afever, he fell asleep and dreamed that he had died and was walking on thetrunk of a fallen tree over a ravine filled with lost souls that shriekedwith terror. When he awoke he prayed. Had some one come into his room andheard his prayer he would have been ashamed.

On winter evenings as he walked through the dark streets with the papersunder his arm he thought of his soul. As he thought a tenderness came overhim; a lump came into his throat and he pitied himself; he felt that therewas something missing in his life, something he wanted very badly.

Under John Telfer's influence, the boy, who had quit school to devotehimself to money making, read Walt Whitman and had a season of admiringhis own body with its straight white legs, and the head that was poised sojauntily on the body. Sometimes he would awaken on summer nights and be sofilled with strange longing that he would creep out of bed and, pushingopen the window, sit upon the floor, his bare legs sticking out beyond hiswhite nightgown, and, thus sitting, yearn eagerly toward some fineimpulse, some call, some sense of bigness and of leadership that wasabsent from the necessities of the life he led. He looked at the stars andlistened to the night noises, so filled with longing that the tears sprangto his eyes.

Once, after the affair of the bugle, Jane McPherson had been ill--and thefirst touch of the finger of death reaching out to her--had sat with herson in the warm darkness in the little grass plot at the front of thehouse. It was a clear, warm, starlit evening without a moon, and as thetwo sat closely together a sense of the coming of death crept over themother.

At the evening meal Windy McPherson had talked voluminously, ranting andshouting about the house. He said that a housepainter who had a real senseof colour had no business trying to work in a hole like Caxton. He hadbeen in trouble with a housewife about a colour he had mixed for paintinga porch floor and at his own table he raved about the woman and what hedeclared her lack of even a primitive sense of colour. "I am sick of itall," he shouted, going out of the house and up the street with uncertainsteps. His wife had been unmoved by his outburst, but in the presence ofthe quiet boy whose chair touched her own she trembled with a strange newfear and began to talk of the life after death, making effort after effortto get at what she wanted to say, and only succeeding in findingexpression for her thoughts in little sentences broken by long painfulpauses. She told the boy she had no doubt at all that there was some kindof future life and that she believed she should see and live with himagain after they had finished with this world.

One day the minister who had been annoyed because he had slept in hischurch, stopped Sam on the street to talk to him of his soul. He said thatthe boy should be thinking of making himself one of the brothers in Christby joining the church. Sam listened silently to the talk of the man, whomhe instinctively disliked, but in his silence felt there was somethinginsincere. With all his heart he wanted to repeat a sentence he had heardfrom the lips of grey-haired, big-fisted Valmore--"How can they believeand not lead a life of simple, fervent devotion to their belief?" Hethought himself superior to the thin-lipped man who talked with him andhad he been able to express what was in his heart he might have said,"Look here, man! I am made of different stuff from all the people there atthe church. I am new clay to be moulded into a new man. Not even my motheris like me. I do not accept your ideas of life just because you say theyare good any more than I accept Windy McPherson just because he happens tobe my father."

During one winter Sam spent evening after evening reading the Bible in hisroom. It was after Kate's marriage--she had got into an affair with ayoung farmer that had kept her name upon the tongues of whisperers formonths but was now a housewife on a farm at the edge of a village somemiles from Caxton, and the mother was again at her endless task among thesoiled clothes in the kitchen and Windy McPherson off drinking andboasting about town. Sam read the book in secret. He had a lamp on alittle stand beside his bed and a novel, lent him by John Telfer, besideit. When his mother came up the stairway he slipped the Bible under thecover of the bed and became absorbed in the novel. He thought it somethingnot quite in keeping with his aims as a business man and a money getter tobe concerned about his soul. He wanted to conceal his concern but with allhis heart wanted to get hold of the message of the strange book, aboutwhich men wrangled hour after hour on winter evenings in the store.

He did not get it; and after a time he stopped reading the book. Left tohimself he might have sensed its meaning, but on all sides of him were thevoices of the men--the men at Wildman's who owned to no faith and yet werefilled with dogmatisms as they talked behind the stove in the grocery; thebrown-bearded, thin-lipped minister in the brick church; the shouting,pleading evangelists who came to visit the town in the winter; the gentleold grocer who talked vaguely of the spirit world,--all these voices wereat the mind of the boy pleading, insisting, demanding, not that Christ'ssimple message that men love one another to the end, that they worktogether for the common good, be accepted, but that their own complexinterpretation of his word be taken to the end that souls be saved.

In the end the boy of Caxton got to the place where he had a dread of theword soul. It seemed to him that the mention of the word in conversationwas something shameful and to think of the word or the shadowy somethingfor which the word stood an act of cowardice. In his mind the soul becamea thing to be hidden away, covered up, not thought of. One might beallowed to speak of the matter at the moment of death, but for the healthyman or boy to have the thought of his soul in his mind or word of it onhis lips--one might better become blatantly profane and go to the devilwith a swagger. With delight he imagined himself as dying and with hislast breath tossing a round oath into the air of his death chamber.

In the meantime Sam continued to have inexplicable longings and hopes. Hekept surprising himself by the changing aspect of his own viewpoint oflife. He found himself indulging in the most petty meannesses, andfollowing these with flashes of a kind of loftiness of mind. Looking at agirl passing in the street, he had unbelievably mean thoughts; and thenext day, passing the same girl, a line caught from the babbling of JohnTelfer came to his lips and he went his way muttering, "June's twice Junesince she breathed it with me."

And then into the complex nature of this boy came the sex motive. Alreadyhe dreamed of having women in his arms. He looked shyly at the ankles ofwomen crossing the street, and listened eagerly when the crowd about thestove in Wildman's fell to telling smutty stories. He sank to unbelievabledepths of triviality in sordidness, looking shyly into dictionaries forwords that appealed to the animal lust in his queerly perverted mind and,when he came across it, lost entirely the beauty of the old Bible tale ofRuth in the suggestion of intimacy between man and woman that it broughtto him. And yet Sam McPherson was no evil-minded boy. He had, as a matterof fact, a quality of intellectual honesty that appealed strongly to theclean-minded, simple-hearted old blacksmith Valmore; he had awakenedsomething like love in the hearts of the women school teachers in theCaxton schools, at least one of whom continued to interest herself in him,taking him with her on walks along country roads, and talking to himconstantly of the development of his mind; and he was the friend and booncompanion of Telfer, the dandy, the reader of poems, the keen lover oflife. The boy was struggling to find himself. One night when the sex callkept him awake he got up and dressed, and went and stood in the rain bythe creek in Miller's pasture. The wind swept the rain across the face ofthe water and a sentence flashed through his mind: "The little feet of therain run on the water." There was a quality of almost lyrical beauty inthe Iowa boy.

And this boy, who couldn't get hold of his impulse toward God, whose seximpulses made him at times mean, at times full of beauty, and who haddecided that the impulse toward bargaining and money getting was theimpulse in him most worth cherishing, now sat beside his mother in churchand watched with wide-open eyes the man who took off his coat, who sweatedprofusely, and who called the town in which he lived a cesspool of viceand its citizens wards of the devil.

The evangelist from talking of the town began talking instead of heavenand hell and his earnestness caught the attention of the listening boy whobegan seeing pictures.

Into his mind there came a picture of a burning pit of fire in which greatflames leaped about the heads of the people who writhed in the pit. "ArtSherman would be there," thought Sam, materialising the picture he saw;"nothing can save him; he keeps a saloon."

Filled with pity for the man he saw in the picture of the burning pit, hismind centered on the person of Art Sherman. He liked Art Sherman. Morethan once he had felt the touch of human kindness in the man. The roaring,blustering saloonkeeper had helped the boy sell and collect fornewspapers. "Pay the kid or get out of the place," the red-faced manroared at drunken men leaning on the bar.

And then, looking into the burning pit, Sam thought of Mike McCarthy, forwhom he had at that moment a kind of passion akin to a young girl's blinddevotion to her lover. With a shudder he realised that Mike also would gointo the pit, for he had heard Mike laughing at churches and declaringthere was no God.

The evangelist ran upon the platform and called to the people demandingthat they stand upon their feet. "Stand up for Jesus," he shouted; "standup and be counted among the host of the Lord God."

In the church people began getting to their feet. Jane McPherson stoodwith the others. Sam did not stand. He crept behind his mother's dress,hoping to pass through the storm unnoticed. The call to the faithful tostand was a thing to be complied with or resisted as the people mightwish; it was something entirely outside of himself. It did not occur tohim to count himself among either the lost or the saved.

Again the choir began singing and a businesslike movement began among thepeople. Men and women went up and down the aisles clasping the hands ofpeople in the pews, talking and praying aloud. "Welcome among us," theysaid to certain ones who stood upon their feet. "It gladdens our hearts tosee you among us. We are happy at seeing you in the fold among the saved.It is good to confess Jesus."

Suddenly a voice from the bench back of him struck terror to Sam's heart.Jim Williams, who worked in Sawyer's barber shop, was upon his knees andin a loud voice was praying for the soul of Sam McPherson. "Lord, helpthis erring boy who goes up and down in the company of sinners andpublicans," he shouted.

In a moment the terror of death and the fiery pit that had possessed himpassed, and Sam was filled instead with blind, dumb rage. He rememberedthat this same Jim Williams had treated lightly the honour of his sisterat the time of her disappearance, and he wanted to get upon his feet andpour out his wrath on the head of the man, who, he felt, had betrayed him."They would not have seen me," he thought; "this is a fine trick JimWilliams has played me. I shall be even with him for this."

He got to his feet and stood beside his mother. He had no qualms aboutpassing himself off as one of the lambs safely within the fold. His mindwas bent upon quieting Jim Williams' prayers and avoiding the attention ofthe people.

The minister began calling on the standing people to testify of theirsalvation. From various parts of the church the people spoke out, someloudly and boldly and with a ring of confidence in their voices, sometremblingly and hesitatingly. One woman wept loudly shouting between theparoxysms of sobbing that seized her, "The weight of my sins is heavy onmy soul." Girls and young men when called on by the minister respondedwith shamed, hesitating voices asking that a verse of some hymn be sung,or quoting a line of scripture.

At the back of the church the evangelist with one of the deacons and twoor three women had gathered about a small, black-haired woman, the wife ofa baker to whom Sam delivered papers. They were urging her to rise and getwithin the fold, and Sam turned and watched her curiously, his sympathygoing out to her. With all his heart he hoped that she would continuedoggedly shaking her head.

Suddenly the irrepressible Jim Williams broke forth again. A quiver ranover Sam's body and the blood rose to his cheeks. "Here is another sinnersaved," shouted Jim, pointing to the standing boy. "Count this boy, SamMcPherson, in the fold among the lambs."

On the platform the brown-bearded minister stood upon a chair and lookedover the heads of the people. An ingratiating smile played about his lips."Let us hear from the young man, Sam McPherson," he said, raising his handfor silence, and, then, encouragingly, "Sam, what have you to say for theLord?"

Become the centre for the attention of the people in the church Sam wasterror-stricken. The rage against Jim Williams was forgotten in the spasmof fear that seized him. He looked over his shoulder to the door at theback of the church and thought longingly of the quiet street outside. Hehesitated, stammered, grew more red and uncertain, and finally burst out:"The Lord," he said, and then looked about hopelessly, "the Lord maketh meto lie out in green pastures."

In the seats behind him a titter arose. A young woman sitting among thesingers in the choir put her handkerchief to her face and throwing backher head rocked back and forth. A man near the door guffawed loudly andwent hurriedly out. All over the church people began laughing.

Sam turned his eyes upon his mother. She was staring straight ahead ofher, and her face was red. "I'm going out of this place and I'm nevercoming back again," he whispered, and, stepping into the aisle, walkedboldly toward the door. He had made up his mind that if the evangelisttried to stop him he would fight. At his back he felt the rows of peoplelooking at him and smiling. The laughter continued.

In the street he hurried along consumed with indignation. "I'll never gointo any church again," he swore, shaking his fist in the air. The publicavowals he had heard in the church seemed to him cheap and unworthy. Hewondered why his mother stayed in there. With a sweep of his arm hedismissed all the people in the church. "It is a place to make publicasses of the people," he thought.

Sam McPherson wandered through Main Street, dreading to meet Valmore andJohn Telfer. Finding the chairs back of the stove in Wildman's grocerydeserted, he hurried past the grocer and hid in a corner. Tears of wrathstood in his eyes. He had been made a fool of. He imagined the scene thatwould go on when he came upon the street with the papers the next morning.Freedom Smith would be there sitting in the old worn buggy and roaring sothat all the street would listen and laugh. "Going to lie out in any greenpastures to-night, Sam?" he would shout. "Ain't you afraid you'll takecold?" By Geiger's drug store would stand Valmore and Telfer, eager tojoin in the fun at his expense. Telfer would pound on the side of thebuilding with his cane and roar with laughter. Valmore would make atrumpet of his hands and shout after the fleeing boy. "Do you sleep outalone in them green pastures?" Freedom Smith would roar again.

Sam got up and went out of the grocery. As he hurried along, blind withwrath, he felt he would like a stand-up fight with some one. And, then,hurrying and avoiding the people, he merged with the crowd on the streetand became a witness to the strange thing that happened that night inCaxton.

* * * * *

In Main Street hushed people stood about in groups talking. The air washeavy with excitement. Solitary figures went from group to groupwhispering hoarsely. Mike McCarthy, the man who had denied God and who hadwon a place for himself in the affection of the newsboy, had assaulted aman with a pocket knife and had left him bleeding and wounded beside acountry road. Something big and sensational had happened in the life ofthe town.

Mike McCarthy and Sam were friends. For years the man had idled upon thestreets of the town, loitering about, boasting and talking. He had sat forhours in a chair under a tree before the New Leland House, reading books,doing tricks with cards, engaging in long discussions with John Telfer orany who would stand up to him.

Mike McCarthy got into trouble in a fight over a woman. A young farmerliving at the edge of Caxton had come home from the fields to find hiswife in the bold Irishman's arms and the two men had gone out of the housetogether to fight in the road. The woman, weeping in the house, followedto ask forgiveness of her husband. Running in the gathering darkness alongthe road she had found him cut and bleeding terribly, lying in a ditchunder a hedge. On down the road she ran and appeared at the door of aneighbour, screaming and calling for help.

The story of the fight in the road got to Caxton just as Sam came out ofthe corner, back of the stove in Wildman's and appeared on the street. Menran from store to store and from group to group along the street sayingthat the young farmer had died and that murder had been done. On a streetcorner Windy McPherson harangued the crowd declaring that the men ofCaxton should arise in the defence of their homes and string the murdererto a lamp post. Hop Higgins, driving a horse from Culvert's livery,appeared on Main Street. "He will be at the McCarthy farm," he shouted.When several men, coming out of Geiger's drug store, stopped the marshal'shorse, saying, "You will have trouble out there; you had better takehelp," the little red-faced marshal with the crippled leg laughed. "Whattrouble?" he asked--"To get Mike McCarthy? I shall ask him to come and hewill come. The rest of that lot won't cut any figure. Mike can wrap theentire McCarthy family around his finger."

There were six of the McCarthy men, all, except Mike, silent, sullen menwho only talked when they were in liquor. Mike furnished the town's socialtouch with the family. It was a strange family to live there in that fat,corn-growing country, a family with something savage and primitive aboutit, one that belonged among western mining camps or among the half savagedwellers in deep alleys in cities, and the fact that it lived on a cornfarm in Iowa was, in the words of John Telfer, "something monstrous inNature."

The McCarthy farm, lying some four miles east of Caxton, had oncecontained a thousand acres of good corn-growing land. Lem McCarthy, thefather of the family, had inherited it from a brother, a gold miner, aforty-niner, a sport owning fast horses, who planned to breed race horseson the Iowa land. Lem had come out of the back streets of an eastern city,bringing his brood of tall, silent, savage boys to live upon the land and,like the forty-niner, to be a sport. Thinking the wealth that had come tohim vast beyond spending, he had plunged into horse racing and gambling.When, within two years, five hundred acres of the farm had to be sold topay gambling debts, and the wide acres lay covered with weeds, Lem becamealarmed, and settled down to hard work, the boys working all day in thefield and at long intervals coming into town at night to get into trouble.Having no mother or sister, and knowing that no Caxton woman could behired to go upon the place, they did their own housework; and on rainydays sat about the old farmhouse playing cards and fighting. On other daysthey would stand around the bar in Art Sherman's saloon in Piety Hollowdrinking until they had lost their savage silence and had become loud andquarrelsome, going from there upon the streets to seek trouble. Once,going into Hayner's restaurant, they took stacks of plates from shelvesback of the counter and, standing in the doorway, threw them at peoplepassing in the street, the crash of the breaking crockery accompanyingtheir roaring laughter. When they had driven the people to cover they gotupon their horses and with wild shouts raced up and down Main Streetbetween the rows of tied horses until Hop Higgins, the town marshal,appeared, when they rode off into the country awakening the farmers alongthe darkened road as they fled, shouting and singing, toward home.

When the McCarthy boys got into trouble in Caxton, old Lem McCarthy droveinto town and got them out of it, paying for the damage done and goingabout declaring the boys meant no harm. When told to keep them out of townhe shook his head and said he would try.

Mike McCarthy did not ride swearing and singing with the five brothersalong the dark road. He did not work all day in the hot corn fields. Hewas the family gentleman, and, wearing good clothes, strolled instead uponthe street or loitered in the shade before the New Leland House. Mike hadbeen educated. For some years he had attended a college in Indiana fromwhich he was expelled for an affair with a woman. After his return fromcollege he stayed in Caxton, living at the hotel and making a pretence ofstudying law in the office of old Judge Reynolds. He paid slight attentionto the study of law, but with infinite patience had so trained his handsthat he became wonderfully dexterous with coins and cards, plucking themout of the air and making them appear in the shoes, the hats, and even inthe mouths, of bystanders. During the day he walked the streets looking atthe girl clerks in the stores, or stood upon the station platform wavinghis hand to women passengers on passing trains. He told John Telfer thatthe flattery of women was a lost art that he intended to restore. MikeMcCarthy carried in his pockets books which he read sitting in a chairbefore the hotel or on the stones before store windows. When on Saturdaysthe streets were filled with people, he stood on the corners givinggratuitous performances of his magical art with cards and coins, andeyeing country girls in the crowd. Once, a woman, the town stationer'swife, shouted at him, calling him a lazy lout, whereupon he threw a coinin the air, and when it did not come down rushed toward her shouting, "Shehas it in her stocking." When the stationer's wife ran into her shop andbanged the door the crowd laughed and shouted with delight.

Telfer had a liking for the tall, grey-eyed, loitering McCarthy andsometimes sat with him discussing a novel or a poem; Sam in the backgroundlistened eagerly. Valmore did not care for the man, shaking his head anddeclaring that such a fellow could come to no good end.

The rest of the town agreed with Valmore, and McCarthy, knowing this,sunned himself in the town's displeasure. For the sake of the public furorit brought down upon his head he proclaimed himself a socialist, ananarchist, an atheist, a pagan. Among all the McCarthy boys he alone caredgreatly about women, and he made public and open declarations of hispassion for them. Before the men gathered about the stove in Wildman'sgrocery store he would stand whipping them into a frenzy by declaring forfree love, and vowing that he would have the best of any woman who gavehim the chance.

For this man the frugal, hard working newsboy had conceived a regardamounting to a passion. As he listened to McCarthy he got continuousdelightful little thrills. "There is nothing he would not dare," thoughtthe boy. "He is the freest, the boldest, the bravest man in town." Whenthe young Irishman, seeing the admiration in his eyes, flung him a silverdollar saying, "That is for your fine brown eyes, my boy; it I had them Iwould have half the women in town after me," Sam kept the dollar in hispocket and counted it a kind of treasure like the rose given a lover byhis sweetheart.

* * * * *

It was past eleven o'clock when Hop Higgins returned to town withMcCarthy, driving quietly along the street and through an alley at theback of the town hall. The crowd upon the street had broken up. Sam hadgone from one to another of the muttering groups, his heart quaking withfear. Now he stood at the back of the mass of men gathered at the jaildoor. An oil lamp, burning at the top of the post above the door, threwdancing, flickering lights on the faces of the men before him. The thunderstorm that had threatened had not come, but the unnatural warm windcontinued and the sky overhead was inky black.

Through the alley, to the jail door, drove the town marshal, the youngMcCarthy sitting in the buggy beside him. A man rushed forward to hold thehorse. McCarthy's face was chalky white. He laughed and shouted, raisinghis hand toward the sky.

"I am Michael, son of God. I have cut a man with a knife so that his redblood ran upon the ground. I am the son of God and this filthy jail shallbe my sanctuary. In there I shall talk aloud with my Father," he roaredhoarsely, shaking his fist at the crowd. "Sons of this cesspool ofrespectability, stay and hear! Send for your females and let them stand inthe presence of a man!"

Taking the white, wild-eyed man by the arm Marshal Higgins led him intothe jail, the clank of locks, the low murmur of the voice of Higgins andthe wild laughter of McCarthy floating out to the group of silent menstanding in the mud of the alley.

Sam McPherson ran past the group of men to the side of the jail andfinding John Telfer and Valmore leaning silently against the wall of TomFolger's wagon shop slipped between them. Telfer put out his arm and laidit upon the boy's shoulder. Hop Higgins, coming out of the jail, addressedthe crowd. "Don't answer if he talks," he said; "he is as crazy as aloon."

Sam moved closer to Telfer. The voice of the imprisoned man, loud, andfilled with a startling boldness, rolled out of the jail. He beganpraying.

"Hear me, Father Almighty, who has permitted this town of Caxton to existand has let me, Thy son, grow to manhood. I am Michael, Thy son. They haveput me in this jail where rats run across the floor and they stand in themud outside as I talk with Thee. Are you there, old Truepenny?"

A breath of cold air blew up the alley followed by a flaw of rain. Thegroup under the flickering lamp by the jail entrance drew back against thewalls of the building. Sam could see them dimly, pressing closely againstthe wall. The man in the jail laughed loudly.

"I have had a philosophy of life, O Father," he shouted. "I have seen menand women here living year after year without children. I have seen themhoarding pennies and denying Thee new life on which to work Thy will. Tothese women I have gone secretly talking of carnal love. With them I havebeen gentle and kind; them I have flattered."

A roaring laugh broke from the lips of the imprisoned man. "Are you there,oh dwellers in the cesspool of respectability?" he shouted. "Do you standin the mud with cold feet listening? I have been with your wives. ElevenCaxton wives without babes have I been with and it has been fruitless. Thetwelfth woman I have just left, leaving her man in the road a bleedingsacrifice to thee. I shall call out the names of the eleven. I shall haverevenge also upon the husbands of the women, some of whom wait with theothers in the mud outside."

He began calling off the names of Caxton wives. A shudder ran through thebody of the boy, sensitised by the new chill in the air and by theexcitement of the night. Among the men standing along the wall of the jaila murmur arose. Again they grouped themselves under the flickering lightby the jail door, disregarding the rain. Valmore, stumbling out of thedarkness beside Sam, stood before Telfer. "The boy should be going home,"he said; "this isn't fit for him to hear."

Telfer laughed and drew Sam closer to him. "He has heard enough lies inthis town," he said. "Truth won't hurt him. I would not go myself, norwould you, and the boy shall not go. This McCarthy has a brain. Althoughhe is half insane now he is trying to work something out. The boy and Iwill stay to hear."

The voice from the jail continued calling out the names of Caxton wives.Voices in the group before the jail door began shouting: "This should bestopped. Let us tear down the jail."

McCarthy laughed aloud. "They squirm, oh Father, they squirm; I have themin the pit and I torture them," he cried.

An ugly feeling of satisfaction came over Sam. He had a sense of the factthat the names shouted from the jail would be repeated over and overthrough the town. One of the women whose names had been called out hadstood with the evangelist at the back of the church trying to induce thewife of the baker to rise and be counted in the fold with the lambs.

The rain, falling on the shoulders of the men by the jail door, changed tohail, the air grew colder and the hailstones rattled on the roofs ofbuildings. Some of the men joined Telfer and Valmore, talking in low,excited voices. "And Mary McKane, too, the hypocrite," Sam heard one ofthem say.

The voice inside the jail changed. Still praying, Mike McCarthy seemedalso to be talking to the group in the darkness outside.

"I am sick of my life. I have sought leadership and have not found it. OhFather! Send down to men a new Christ, one to get hold of us, a modernChrist with a pipe in his mouth who will swear and knock us about so thatwe vermin who pretend to be made in Thy image will understand. Let him gointo churches and into courthouses, into cities, and into towns like this,shouting, 'Be ashamed! Be ashamed of your cowardly concern over yoursnivelling souls!' Let him tell us that never will our lives, so miserablylived, be repeated after our bodies lie rotting in the grave."

A sob broke from his lips and a lump came into Sam's throat.

"Oh Father! help us men of Caxton to understand that we have only this,our lives, this life so warm and hopeful and laughing in the sun, thislife with its awkward boys full of strange possibilities, and its girlswith their long legs and freckles on their noses, that are meant to carrylife within themselves, new life, kicking and stirring, and waking them atnight."

The voice of the prayer broke. Wild sobs took the place of speech."Father!" shouted the broken voice, "I have taken a life, a man that movedand talked and whistled in the sunshine on winter mornings; I havekilled."

* * * * *

The voice inside the jail became inaudible. Silence, broken by low sobsfrom the jail, fell on the little dark alley and the listening men begangoing silently away. The lump in Sam's throat grew larger. Tears stood inhis eyes. He went with Telfer and Valmore out of the alley and into thestreet, the two men walking in silence. The rain had ceased and a coldwind blew.

The boy felt that he had been shriven. His mind, his heart, even his tiredbody seemed strangely cleansed. He felt a new affection for Telfer andValmore. When Telfer began talking he listened eagerly, thinking that atlast he understood him and knew why men like Valmore, Wildman, FreedomSmith, and Telfer loved each other and went on being friends year afteryear in the face of difficulties and misunderstandings. He thought that hehad got hold of the idea of brotherhood that John Telfer talked of sooften and so eloquently. "Mike McCarthy is only a brother who has gone thedark road," he thought and felt a glow of pride in the thought and in theapt expression of it in his mind.

John Telfer, forgetting the boy, talked soberly to Valmore, the two menstumbling along in the darkness intent upon their own thoughts.

"It is an odd thought," said Telfer and his voice seemed far away andunnatural like the voice from the jail; "it is an odd thought that but fora quirk in the brain this Mike McCarthy might himself have been a kind ofChrist with a pipe in his mouth."

Valmore stumbled and half fell in the darkness at a street crossing.Telfer went on talking.

"The world will some day grope its way into some kind of an understandingof its extraordinary men. Now they suffer terribly. In success or in suchfailures as has come to this imaginative, strangely perverted Irishmantheir lot is pitiful. It is only the common, the plain, unthinking man whoslides peacefully through this troubled world."

At the house Jane McPherson sat waiting for her boy. She was thinking ofthe scene in the church and a hard light was in her eyes. Sam went pastthe sleeping room of his parents, where Windy McPherson snored peacefully,and up the stairway to his own room. He undressed and, putting out thelight, knelt upon the floor. From the wild ravings of the man in the jailhe had got hold of something. In the midst of the blasphemy of MikeMcCarthy he had sensed a deep and abiding love of life. Where the churchhad failed the bold sensualist succeeded. Sam felt that he could haveprayed in the presence of the entire town.

"Oh, Father!" he cried, sending up his voice in the silence of the littleroom, "make me stick to the thought that the right living of this, mylife, is my duty to you."

By the door below, while Valmore waited on the sidewalk, Telfer talked toJane McPherson.

"I wanted Sam to hear," he explained. "He needs a religion. All young menneed a religion. I wanted him to hear how even a man like Mike McCarthykeeps instinctively trying to justify himself before God."

Return to the Windy McPherson's Son Summary Return to the Sherwood Anderson Library

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