Darrel of the Blessed Isles by Irving Bacheller
IX. Drove and Drovers
A little after daybreak they went on with the cows. For half a mile or more until the little house had sunk below the hill crest Trove was looking backward. Now and ever after he was to think and tarry also in the road of life and look behind him for the golden towers of memory. The drovers saw a change in Trove and flung at him with their stock of rusty, ancestral witticisms. But Thurst Tilly had a way of saying and doing quite his own,
"Never see any one knocked so flat as you was," said he. "Ye didn't know enough t' keep ahead o' the cattle. I declare I thought they'd trample ye 'fore ye could git yer eye unsot."
Trove made no answer.
"That air gal had a mighty power in her eye," Thurst went on. "When I see her totin' you off las' night I says t' the boys, says I, 'Sid is goin' t' git stepped on. He ain't never goin' t' be the same boy ag'in.'"
The boy held his peace, and for days neither ridicule nor excitement--save only for the time they lasted--were able to bring him out of his dream.
That night they came to wild country, where men and cattle lay down to rest by the roadway--a thing Trove enjoyed. In the wagon were bread and butter and boiled eggs and tea and doughnuts and cake and dried herring. The men built fires and made tea and ate their suppers, and sang, as the night fell, those olden ballads of the frontier--"Barbara Allen," "Bonaparte's Dream," or the "Drover's Daughter."
For days they were driving in the wild country. At bedtime each wound himself in a blanket and lay down to rest, beneath a rude lean-to if it were raining, but mostly under the stars. On this journey Trove got his habit of sleeping, out-of-doors in fair weather. After it, save in midwinter, walls seemed to weary and roofs to smother him. The drove began to low at daybreak, and soon they were all cropping the grass or browsing in the briers. Then the milking, and breakfast over a camp fire, and soon after sunrise they were all tramping in the road again.
It was a pleasant journey--the waysides glowing with the blue of violets, the green of tender grass, the thick-sown, starry gold of dandelions. Wild fowl crossed the sky in wedge and battalion, their videttes out, their lines now firm, now wheeling in a long curve to take the path of the wind. Every thicket was a fount of song that fell to silence when darkness came and the low chant of the marshes.
When they came into settled country below the big woods they began selling. At length the drove was reduced to one section; Trove following with the helper named Thurston Tilly, familiarly known as "Thurst."
He was a tall, heavy, good-natured man, distinguished for fat, happiness, and singular aptitudes. He had lifted a barrel of salt by the chimes and put it on a wagon; once he had eaten two mince pies at a meal; again he had put his heel six inches above his head on a barn door, and, any time, he could wiggle one ear or both or whistle on his thumb. At every lodging place he had left a feeling of dread and relief as well as a perennial topic of conversation. At every inn he added something to his stock of fat and happiness. Then, often, he seemed to be overloaded with the latter and would sit and shake his head and roar with laughter, now and then giving out a wild yell. He had a story of which no one had ever heard the finish. He began it often, but, somehow, never got to the end. He always clung to the lapel of his hearer's coat as if in fear of losing him, and never tried his tale but once on the same pair of ears. Having got his inspiration he went in quest of his hearer, and having hitched him, as it were, by laying hold of his elbow or coat collar, began the tale. It was like pouring molasses on a level place--it moved slowly and spread and got nowhere in particular. At first his manner was slow, dignified, and confidential, changing to fit his emotion. He whispered, he shouted, he laughed, he looked sorrowful, he nudged the stranger in his abdomen, he glared upon him, eye close to eye, he shook him by the shoulder, and slowly wore him out. Some endured long and were patient, but soon or late all began to back and dodge, and finally broke away, and seeing the hand of the narrator reach for them, dodged quickly and, being pursued, ran. Often this odd chase took them around trees and stumps and buildings, the stranger escaping, frequently, through some friendly door which he could lock or hold fast. Then Thurst, knocking loudly, gave out a wild yell or two, peered in at the nearest window, and came at last to his chair, sorrowful and much out of breath, his tale unfinished. There was in the man a saving element of good nature, and no one ever got angry with him. At each new attempt be showed a grimmer determination to finish, but even there, in a land of strong and patient men, not one, they used to say, had ever the endurance to hear the end of that unfinished tale.
It was not easy to dispose of cattle in the southern counties that year, but they found a better market as they bore west, and were across the border of Ohio when the last of the drove were sold. That done, Trove and Thurst Tilly took the main road to Cleveland, whence they were to return home by steamboat.
It led them into woods and by stumpy fields and pine-odoured hamlets. The first day of their walk was rainy, and they went up a toteway into thick timber and built a fire and kept dry and warm until the rain ceased. That evening they fell in with emigrants on their way to the far west.
The latter were camped on the edge of a wood, near the roadway, and cooking supper as the two came along. Being far from a town, Trove and Tilly were glad to accept the hospitality of the travellers.
They had come to the great highway of travel from east to west. Every day it was cut by wagons of the mover overloaded with Lares and Penates, with old and young, enduring hardships and the loss of home and old acquaintance for hope of better fortune.
A man and wife and three boys were the party, travelling with two wagons. They were bound for Iowa and, being heavy loaded, were having a hard time. All sat on a heap of boughs in the firelight after supper.
"It's a long, long road to Iowa, father," said the woman.
"It'll soon be over," said he, with a tone of encouragement.
"I've been thinking all day of the lilacs and the old house," said she.
They looked in silence at the fire a moment.
"We're a bit homesick," said the man, turning to Trove, "an' no wonder. It's been hard travelling, an' we've broke down every few miles. But we'll have better luck the rest o' the journey."
Evidently his cheerful courage had been all that kept them going.
"Lost all we had in the great fire of '35," said he, thoughtfully. "I went to bed a rich man, but when I rose in the morning I had not enough to pay a week's board. Everything had been swept away."
"A merchant?" Trove inquired.
"A partner in the great Star Mill on East River," said the man. "I could have got a fortune for my share--at least a hundred thousand dollars--and I had worked hard for it."
"And were you not able to succeed again?"
"No," said the traveller, sadly, shaking his head. "If some time you have to lose all you possess. God grant you still have youth and a strong arm. I tried--that is all--I tried."
The boy looked up at him, his heart touched. The man was near sixty years of age; his face had deep lines in it; his voice the dull ring of loss, and failure, and small hope. The woman covered her face and began to sob.
"There, mother," said the man, touching her head; "we'd better forget. I'll never speak of that again--never. We're going to seek our fortune. Away in the great west we'll seek our fortune."
His effort to be cheerful was perhaps the richest colour of that odd scene there in the still woods and the firelight.
"We're going to take a farm in the most beautiful country in the world. It's easy to make money there."
"If you've no objection I'd like to go with you," said Thurst Tilly. "I'm a good farmer."
"Can you drive a team?" said the man.
"Drove horses all my life," said Thurst; whereupon they made a bargain.
Trove and Tilly went away to the brook for water while the travellers went to bed in their big, covered wagon. Trove lay down with his blanket on the boughs, reading over the indelible record of that day. And he said, often, as he thought of it, years after, that the saddest thing in all the world is a man of broken courage.