Windy McPherson's Son

by Sherwood Anderson

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Book III - Chapter 2

For weeks and months Sam led a wandering vagabond life, and surely astranger or more restless vagabond never went upon the road. In his pockethe had at almost any time from one to five thousand dollars, his bag wenton from place to place ahead of him, and now and then he caught up withit, unpacked it, and wore a suit of his former Chicago clothes upon thestreets of some town. For the most part, however, he wore the roughclothes bought from Ed, and, when these were gone, others like them, witha warm canvas outer jacket, and for rough weather a pair of heavy bootslacing half way up the legs. Among the people, he passed for a ratherwell-set-up workman with money in his pocket going his own way.

During all those months of wandering, and even when he had returned tosomething nearer his former way of life, his mind was unsettled and hisoutlook on life disturbed. Sometimes it seemed to him that he, among allmen, was a unique, an innovation. Day after day his mind ground away uponhis problem and he was determined to seek and to keep on seeking until hefound for himself a way of peace. In the towns and in the country throughwhich he passed he saw the clerks in the stores, the merchants withworried faces hurrying into banks, the farmers, brutalised by toil,dragging their weary bodies homeward at the coming of night, and toldhimself that all life was abortive, that on all sides of him it woreitself out in little futile efforts or ran away in side currents, thatnowhere did it move steadily, continuously forward giving point to thetremendous sacrifice involved in just living and working in the world. Hethought of Christ going about seeing the world and talking to men, andthought that he too would go and talk to them, not as a teacher, but asone seeking eagerly to be taught. At times he was filled with longing andinexpressible hopes and, like the boy of Caxton, would get out of bed, notnow to stand in Miller's pasture watching the rain on the surface of thewater, but to walk endless miles through the darkness getting the blessedrelief of fatigue into his body and often paying for and occupying twobeds in one night.

Sam wanted to go back to Sue; he wanted peace and something likehappiness, but most of all he wanted work, real work, work that woulddemand of him day after day the best and finest in him so that he would beheld to the need of renewing constantly the better impulses of his mind.He was at the top of his life, and the few weeks of hard physical exertionas a driver of nails and a bearer of timbers had begun to restore his bodyto shapeliness and strength, so that he was filled anew with all of hisnative restlessness and energy; but he was determined that he would notagain pour himself out in work that would react upon him as had his moneymaking, his dream of beautiful children, and this last half-formed dreamof a kind of financial fatherhood to the Illinois town.

The incident with Ed and the red-haired man had been his first seriouseffort at anything like social service achieved through controlling orattempting to influence the public mind, for his was the type of mind thatruns to the concrete, the actual. As he sat in the ravine talking to Jake,and, later, coming home in the boat under the multitude of stars, he hadlooked up from among the drunken workmen and his mind had seen a citybuilt for a people, a city independent, beautiful, strong, and free, but aglimpse of a red head through a barroom door and a socialist tremblingbefore a name had dispelled the vision. After his return from hearing thesocialist, who in his turn was hedged about by complicated influences, andin those November days when he walked south through Illinois, seeing thelate glory of the trees and breathing the fine air, he laughed at himselffor having had the vision. It was not that the red-haired man had sold himout, it was not the beating given him by Ed's sullen-faced son or theblows across the face at the hands of his vigorous wife--it was just thatat bottom he did not believe the people wanted reform; they wanted a tenper cent raise in wages. The public mind was a thing too big, toocomplicated and inert for a vision or an ideal to get at and move deeply.

And then, walking on the road and struggling to find truth even withinhimself, Sam had to come to something else. At bottom he was no leader, noreformer. He had not wanted the free city for a free people, but as a workto be done by his own hand. He was McPherson, the money maker, the man wholoved himself. The fact, not the sight of Jake hobnobbing with Bill or thetimidity of the socialist, had blocked his way to work as a politicalreformer and builder.

Tramping south between the rows of shocked corn he laughed at himself."The experience with Ed and Jake has done something for me," he thought."They bullied me. I have been a kind of bully myself and what has happenedhas been good medicine for me."

Sam walked the roads of Illinois, Ohio, New York, and other states,through hill country and flat country, in the snow drifts of winter andthrough the storms of spring, talking to people, asking their way of lifeand the end toward which they worked. At night he dreamed of Sue, of hisboyhood struggles in Caxton, of Janet Eberly sitting in her chair andtalking of writers of books, or, visualising the stock exchange or somegarish drinking place, he saw again the faces of Crofts, Webster,Morrison, and Prince intent and eager as he laid before them some schemeof money making. Sometimes at night he awoke, seized with horror, seeingColonel Tom with the revolver pressed against his head; and sitting in hisbed, and all through the next day he talked aloud to himself.

"The damned old coward," he shouted into the darkness of his room or intothe wide peaceful prospect of the countryside.

The idea of Colonel Tom as a suicide seemed unreal, grotesque, horrible.It was as though some round-cheeked, curly-headed boy had done the thingto himself. The man had been so boyishly, so blusteringly incompetent, socompletely and absolutely without bigness and purpose.

"And yet," thought Sam, "he has found strength to whip me, the man ofability. He has taken revenge, absolute and unanswerable, for the slight Iput upon the little play world in which he had been king."

In fancy Sam could see the great paunch and the little white pointed beardsticking up from the floor in the room where the colonel lay dead, andinto his mind came a saying, a sentence, the distorted remembrance of athought he had got from a book of Janet's or from some talk he had heard,perhaps at his own dinner table.

"It is horrible to see a fat man with purple veins in his face lyingdead."

At such times he hurried along the road like one pursued. People drivingpast in buggies and seeing him and hearing the stream of talk that issuedfrom his lips, turned and watched him out of sight. And Sam, hurrying andseeking relief from the thoughts in his mind, called to the oldcommonsense instincts within himself as a captain marshals his forces towithstand an attack.

"I will find work. I will find work. I will seek Truth," he said.

Sam avoided the larger towns or went hurriedly through them, sleepingnight after night at village hotels or at some hospitable farmhouse, anddaily he increased the length of his walks, getting real satisfaction fromthe aching of his legs and from the bruising of his unaccustomed feet onthe hard road. Like St. Jerome, he had a wish to beat upon his body andsubdue the flesh. In turn he was blown upon by the wind, chilled by thewinter frost, wet by the rains, and warmed by the sun. In the spring heswam in rivers, lay on sheltered hillsides watching the cattle grazing inthe fields and the white clouds floating across the sky, and constantlyhis legs became harder and his body more flat and sinewy. Once he sleptfor a night in a straw stack at the edge of a woods and in the morning wasawakened by a farmer's dog licking his face.

Several times he came up to vagabonds, umbrella menders and otherroadsters, and walked with them, but he found in their society noincentive to join in their flights across country on freight trains or onthe fronts of passenger trains. Those whom he met and with whom he talkedand walked did not interest him greatly. They had no end in life, soughtno ideal of usefulness. Walking and talking with them, the romance wentout of their wandering life. They were utterly dull and stupid, they were,almost without exception, strikingly unclean, they wanted passionately toget drunk, and they seemed to be forever avoiding life with its problemsand responsibilities. They always talked of the big cities, of "Chi" and"Cinci" and "Frisco," and were bent upon getting to one of these places.They condemned the rich and begged and stole from the poor, talkedswaggeringly of their personal courage and ran whimpering and beggingbefore country constables. One of them, a tall, leering youth in a greycap, who came up to Sam one evening at the edge of a village in Indiana,tried to rob him. Full of his new strength and with the thought of Ed'swife and the sullen-faced son in his mind, Sam sprang upon him and hadrevenge for the beating received in the office of Ed's hotel by beatingthis fellow in his turn. When the tall youth had partially recovered fromthe beating and had staggered to his feet, he ran off into the darkness,stopping when well out of reach to hurl a stone that splashed in the mudof the road at Sam's feet.

Everywhere Sam sought people who would talk to him of themselves. He had akind of faith that a message would come to him out of the mouth of somesimple, homely dweller of the villages or the farms. A woman, with whom hetalked in the railroad station at Fort Wayne, Indiana, interested him sothat he went into a train with her and travelled all night in the daycoach, listening to her talk of her three sons, one of whom had weak lungsand had, with two younger brothers, taken up government land in the west.The woman had been with them for some months, helping them to get a start.

"I was raised on a farm and knew things they could not know," she toldSam, raising her voice above the rumble of the train and the snoring offellow passengers.

She had worked with her sons in the field, ploughing and planting, haddriven a team across country, carrying boards for the building of a house,and had grown brown and strong at the work.

"And Walter is getting well. His arms are as brown as my own and he hasgained eleven pounds," she said, rolling up her sleeves and showing herheavy, muscular forearms.

She planned to take her husband, a machinist working in a bicycle factoryin Buffalo, and her two grown daughters, clerks in a drygoods store, withher and return to the new country, and having a sense of her hearer'sinterest in her story, she talked of the bigness of the west and theloneliness of the vast, silent plains, saying that they sometimes made herheart ache. Sam thought she had in some way achieved success, although hedid not see how her experience could serve as a guide to him.

"You have got somewhere. You have got hold of a truth," he said, takingher hand when he got off the train at Cleveland, at dawn.

At another time, in the late spring, when he was tramping through southernOhio, a man drove up beside him, and pulling in his horse, asked, "Whereare you going?" adding genially, "I may be able to give you a lift."

Sam looked at him and smiled. Something in the man's manner or in hisdress suggesting the man of God, he assumed a bantering air.

"I am on my way to the New Jerusalem," he said seriously. "I am one whoseeks God."

The young minister picked up his reins with a look of alarm, but when hesaw a smile playing about the corners of Sam's mouth, he turned the wheelsof his buggy.

"Get in and come along with me and we will talk of the New Jerusalem," hesaid.

On the impulse Sam got into the buggy, and driving along the dusty road,told the essential parts of his story and of his quest for an end towardwhich he might work.

"It would be simple enough if I were without money and driven by hardnecessity, but I am not. I want work, not because it is work and willbring me bread and butter, but because I need to be doing something thatwill satisfy me when I am done. I do not want so much to serve men as toserve myself. I want to get at happiness and usefulness as for years I gotat money making. There is a right way of life for such a man as me, and Iwant to find that way."

The young minister, who was a graduate of a Lutheran seminary atSpringfield, Ohio, and had come out of college with a very serious outlookon life, took Sam to his house and together they sat talking half thenight. He had a wife, a country girl with a babe lying at her breast, whogot supper for them, and who, after supper, sat in the shadows in a cornerof the living-room listening to their talk.

The two men sat together. Sam smoked his pipe and the minister poked at acoal fire that burned in a stove. They talked of God and of what thethought of God meant to men; but the young minister did not try to giveSam an answer to his problem; on the contrary, Sam found him strikinglydissatisfied and unhappy in his way of life.

"There is no spirit of God here," he said, poking viciously at the coalsin the stove. "The people here do not want me to talk to them of God. Theyhave no curiosity about what He wants of them nor of why He has put themhere. They want me to tell them of a city in the sky, a kind of glorifiedDayton, Ohio, to which they can go when they have finished this life ofwork and of putting money in the savings bank."

For several days Sam stayed with the clergyman, driving about the countrywith him and talking of God. In the evening they sat in the house,continuing their talks, and on Sunday Sam went to hear the man preach inhis church.

The sermon was a disappointment to Sam. Although his host had talkedvigorously and well in private, his public address was stilted andunnatural.

"The man," thought Sam, "has no feeling for public address and is nottreating his people well in not giving them, without reservation, theideas he has expounded to me in his house." He decided there was somethingto be said for the people who sat patiently listening week after week andwho gave the man the means of a living for so lame an effort.

One evening when Sam had been with them for a week the young wife came tohim as he stood on the little porch before the house.

"I wish you would go away," she said, standing with her babe in her armsand looking at the porch floor. "You stir him up and make himdissatisfied."

Sam stepped off the porch and hurried off up the road into the darkness.There had been tears in the wife's eyes.

In June he went with a threshing crew, working among labourers and eatingwith them in the fields or about the crowded tables of farmhouses wherethey stopped to thresh. Each day Sam and the men with him worked in a newplace and had as helpers the farmer for whom they threshed and several ofhis neighbours. The farmers worked at a killing pace and the men of thethreshing crew were expected to keep abreast of each new lot of them dayafter day. At night the threshermen, too weary for talk, crept into theloft of a barn, slept until daylight and then began another day ofheartbreaking toil. On Sunday morning they went for a swim in some creekand in the afternoon sat in a barn or under the trees of an orchardsleeping or indulging in detached, fragmentary bits of talk, talk thatnever rose above a low, wearisome level. For hours they would try tosettle a dispute as to whether a horse they had seen at some farm duringthe week had three, or four, white feet, and one man in the crew nevertalked at all, sitting on his heels through the long Sunday afternoons andwhittling at a stick with his pocket knife.

The threshing outfit with which Sam worked was owned by a man named Joe,who was in debt for it to the maker and who, after working with the menall day, drove about the country half the night making deals with farmersfor other days of threshing. Sam thought that he looked constantly on thepoint of collapse through overwork and worry, and one of the men, who hadbeen with Joe through several seasons, told Sam that at the end of theseason their employer did not have enough money left from his season ofwork to pay the interest on the debt for his machines and that hecontinually took jobs for less than the cost of doing them.

"One has to keep going," said Joe, when one day Sam began talking to himon the matter.

When told to keep Sam's wage until the end of the season he lookedrelieved and at the end of the season came to Sam, looking more worriedand said that he had no money.

"I will give you a note bearing good interest if you can let me have alittle time," he said.

Sam took the note and looked at the pale, drawn face peering out of himfrom the shadows at the back of the barn.

"Why do you not drop the whole thing and begin working for some one else?"he asked.

Joe looked indignant.

"A man wants independence," he said.

When Sam got again upon the road he stopped at a little bridge over astream, and tearing up Joe's note watched the torn pieces of it float awayupon the brown water.

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