On the first day of July Claude Wheeler found himself in the fast train from Omaha, going home for a week's leave. The uniform was still an unfamiliar sight in July, 1917. The first draft was not yet called, and the boys who had rushed off and enlisted were in training camps far away. Therefore a redheaded young man with long straight legs in puttees, and broad, energetic, responsible-looking shoulders in close-fitting khaki, made a conspicuous figure among the passengers. Little boys and young girls peered at him over the tops of seats, men stopped in the aisle to talk to him, old ladies put on their glasses and studied his clothes, his bulky canvas hold-all, and even the book he kept opening and forgetting to read.
The country that rushed by him on each side of the track was more interesting to his trained eye than the pages of any book. He was glad to be going through it at harvest,--the season when it is most itself. He noted that there was more corn than usual,--much of the winter wheat had been weather killed, and the fields were ploughed up in the spring and replanted in maize. The pastures were already burned brown, the alfalfa was coming green again after its first cutting. Binders and harvesters were abroad in the wheat and oats, gathering the soft-breathing billows of grain into wide, subduing arms. When the train slowed down for a trestle in a wheat field, harvesters in blue shirts and overalls and wide straw hats stopped working to wave at the passengers. Claude turned to the old man in the opposite seat. "When I see those fellows, I feel as if I'd wakened up in the wrong clothes."
His neighbour looked pleased and smiled. "That the kind of uniform you're accustomed to?"
"I surely never wore anything else in the month of July," Claude admitted. "When I find myself riding along in a train, in the middle of harvest, trying to learn French verbs, then I know the world is turned upside down, for a fact!"
The old man pressed a cigar upon him and began to question him. Like the hero of the Odyssey upon his homeward journey, Claude had often to tell what his country was, and who were the parents that begot him. He was constantly interrupted in his perusal of a French phrase-book (made up of sentences chosen for their usefulness to soldiers,--such as; "Non, jamais je ne regarde les femmes") by the questions of curious strangers. Presently he gathered up his luggage, shook hands with his neighbour, and put on his hat-the same old Stetson, with a gold cord and two hard tassels added to its conical severity. "I get off at this station and wait for the freight that goes down to Frankfort; the cotton-tail, we call it."
The old man wished him a pleasant visit home, and the best of luck in days to come. Every one in the car smiled at him as he stepped down to the platform with his suitcase in one hand and his canvas bag in the other. His old friend, Mrs. Voigt, the German woman, stood out in front of her restaurant, ringing her bell to announce that dinner was ready for travellers. A crowd of young boys stood about her on the sidewalk, laughing and shouting in disagreeable, jeering tones. As Claude approached, one of them snatched the bell from her hand, ran off across the tracks with it, and plunged into a cornfield. The other boys followed, and one of them shouted, "Don't go in there to eat, soldier. She's a German spy, and she'll put ground glass in your dinner!"
Claude swept into the lunch room and threw his bags on the floor. "What's the matter, Mrs. Voigt? Can I do anything for you?"
She was sitting on one of her own stools, crying piteously, her false frizzes awry. Looking up, she gave a little screech of recognition. "Oh, I tank Gott it was you, and no more trouble coming! You know I ain't no spy nor nodding, like what dem boys say. Dem young fellers is dreadful rough mit me. I sell dem candy since dey was babies, an' now dey turn on me like dis. Hindenburg, dey calls me, and Kaiser Bill!" She began to cry again, twisting her stumpy little fingers as if she would tear them off.
"Give me some dinner, ma'am, and then I'll go and settle with that gang. I've been away for a long time, and it seemed like getting home when I got off the train and saw your squaw vines running over the porch like they used to."
"Ya? You remember dat?" she wiped her eyes. "I got a pot-pie today, and green peas, chust a few, out of my own garden."
"Bring them along, please. We don't get anything but canned stuff in camp."
Some railroad men came in for lunch. Mrs. Voigt beckoned Claude off to the end of the counter, where, after she had served her customers, she sat down and talked to him, in whispers.
"My, you look good in dem clothes," she said patting his sleeve. "I can remember some wars, too; when we got back dem provinces what Napoleon took away from us, Alsace and Lorraine. Dem boys is passed de word to come and put tar on me some night, and I am skeered to go in my bet. I chust wrap in a quilt and sit in my old chair."
"Don't pay any attention to them. You don't have trouble with the business people here, do you?"
"No-o, not troubles, exactly." She hesitated, then leaned impulsively across the counter and spoke in his ear. "But it ain't all so bad in de Old Country like what dey say. De poor people ain't slaves, and dey ain't ground down like what dey say here. Always de forester let de poor folks come into de wood and carry off de limbs dat fall, and de dead trees. Und if de rich farmer have maybe a liddle more manure dan he need, he let de poor man come and take some for his land. De poor folks don't git such wages like here, but dey lives chust as comfortable. Und dem wooden shoes, what dey makes such fun of, is cleaner dan what leather is, to go round in de mud and manure. Dey don't git so wet and dey don't stink so."
Claude could see that her heart was bursting with homesickness, full of tender memories of the far-away time and land of her youth. She had never talked to him of these things before, but now she poured out a flood of confidences about the big dairy farm on which she had worked as a girl; how she took care of nine cows, and how the cows, though small, were very strong,--drew a plough all day and yet gave as much milk at night as if they had been browsing in a pasture! The country people never had to spend money for doctors, but cured all diseases with roots and herbs, and when the old folks had the rheumatism they took "one of dem liddle jenny-pigs" to bed with them, and the guinea-pig drew out all the pain.
Claude would have liked to listen longer, but he wanted to find the old woman's tormentors before his train came in. Leaving his bags with her, he crossed the railroad tracks, guided by an occasional teasing tinkle of the bell in the cornfield. Presently he came upon the gang, a dozen or more, lying in a shallow draw that ran from the edge of the field out into an open pasture. He stood on the edge of the bank and looked down at them, while he slowly cut off the end of a cigar and lit it. The boys grinned at him, trying to appear indifferent and at ease.
"Looking for any one, soldier?" asked the one with the bell.
"Yes, I am. I'm looking for that bell. You'll have to take it back where it belongs. You every one of you know there's no harm in that old woman."
"She's a German, and we're fighting the Germans, ain't we?"
"I don't think you'll ever fight any. You'd last about ten minutes in the American army. You're not our kind. There's only one army in the world that wants men who'll bully old women. You might get a job with them."
The boys giggled. Claude beckoned impatiently. "Come along with that bell, kid."
The boy rose slowly and climbed the bank out of the gully. As they tramped back through the cornfield, Claude turned to him abruptly. "See here, aren't you ashamed of yourself?"
"Oh, I don't know about that!" the boy replied airily, tossing the bell up like a ball and catching it.
"Well, you ought to be. I didn't expect to see anything of this kind until I got to the front. I'll be back here in a week, and I'll make it hot for anybody that's been bothering her." Claude's train was pulling in, and he ran for his baggage. Once seated in the "cotton-tail," he began going down into his own country, where he knew every farm he passed,--knew the land even when he did not know the owner, what sort of crops it yielded, and about how much it was worth. He did not recognize these farms with the pleasure he had anticipated, because he was so angry about the indignities Mrs. Voigt had suffered. He was still burning with the first ardour of the enlisted man. He believed that he was going abroad with an expeditionary force that would make war without rage, with uncompromising generosity and chivalry.
Most of his friends at camp shared his Quixotic ideas. They had come together from farms and shops and mills and mines, boys from college and boys from tough joints in big cities; sheepherders, street car drivers, plumbers' assistants, billiard markers. Claude had seen hundreds of them when they first came in; "show men" in cheap, loud sport suits, ranch boys in knitted waistcoats, machinists with the grease still on their fingers, farm-hands like Dan, in their one Sunday coat. Some of them carried paper suitcases tied up with rope, some brought all they had in a blue handkerchief. But they all came to give and not to ask, and what they offered was just themselves; their big red hands, their strong backs, the steady, honest, modest look in their eyes. Sometimes, when he had helped the medical examiner, Claude had noticed the anxious expression in the faces of the long lines of waiting men. They seemed to say, "If I'm good enough, take me. I'll stay by." He found them like that to work with; serviceable, good-natured, and eager to learn. If they talked about the war, or the enemy they were getting ready to fight, it was usually in a facetious tone; they were going to "can the Kaiser," or to make the Crown Prince work for a living. Claude, loved the men he trained with,--wouldn't choose to live in any better company.
The freight train swung into the river valley that meant home,--the place the mind always came back to, after its farthest quest. Rapidly the farms passed; the haystacks, the cornfields, the familiar red barns--then the long coal sheds and the water tank, and the train stopped.
On the platform he saw Ralph and Mr. Royce, waiting to welcome him. Over there, in the automobile, were his father and mother, Mr. Wheeler in the driver's seat. A line of motors stood along the siding. He was the first soldier who had come home, and some of the townspeople had driven down to see him arrive in his uniform. From one car Susie Dawson waved to him, and from another Gladys Farmer. While he stopped and spoke to them, Ralph took his bags.
"Come along, boys," Mr. Wheeler called, tooting his horn, and he hurried the soldier away, leaving only a cloud of dust behind.
Mr. Royce went over to old man Dawson's car and said rather childishly, "It can't be that Claude's grown taller? I suppose it's the way they learn to carry themselves. He always was a manly looking boy."
"I expect his mother's a proud woman," said Susie, very much excited. "It's too bad Enid can't be here to see him. She would never have gone away if she'd known all that was to happen."
Susie did not mean this as a thrust, but it took effect. Mr. Royce turned away and lit a cigar with some difficulty. His hands had grown very unsteady this last year, though he insisted that his general health was as good as ever. As he grew older, he was more depressed by the conviction that his women-folk had added little to the warmth and comfort of the world. Women ought to do that, whatever else they did. He felt apologetic toward the Wheelers and toward his old friends. It seemed as if his daughters had no heart.