Chapter V. Sandy Retires from Business
 

"This here is too blame slow fer me," said Ricks, one chilly night in late September, as he and Sandy huddled against a haystack and settled up their weekly accounts.

"Fifty-five cents! Now ain't that a' o'nery dab? Here's a quarter fer you and thirty cents fer me; that's as even as you kin split it."

"It's the microscopes that'll be sellin'," said Sandy, hopefully, as he pulled his coat collar about his ears and shivered. "The man as sold 'em to me said they was a great bargain entirely. He thought there was money in 'em."

"For him," said Ricks, contemptuously. "It's like the man what gulled us on the penknives. I lay to git even with him, all right."

"But he give us the night's lodgin' and some breakfast," said Sandy.

Ricks took a long drink from a short bottle, then holding it before him, he said impressively: "A feller could do me ninety-nine good turns, and if he done me one bad one it would wipe 'em all out. I got to git even with anybody what does me dirty, if it takes me all my life."

"But don't you forget to remember?"

"Not me. I ain't that kind."

Sandy leaned wearily against the haystack and tried to shelter himself from the wind. A continued diet of bread and water had made him sensitive to the changes in the weather.

"This here grub is kinder hard on yer head-rails," said Ricks, trying to bite through a piece of stale bread. A baker had let them have three loaves for a dime because they were old and hard.

Sandy cast a longing look at Ricks's short bottle. It seemed to remedy so many ills, heat or cold, thirst or hunger. But the strict principles applied during his tender years made him hesitate.

"I wish we hadn't lost the kitten," he said, feeling the need of a more cheerful companion.

"I'm a-goin' to git another dawg," announced Ricks. "I'm sick of this here doin's."

"Ain't we goin' to be turfmen?" asked Sandy, who had listened by the hour to thrilling accounts of life on the track, and had accepted Ricks's ambition as his own.

"Not on twenty cents per week," growled Ricks.

Sandy's heart sank; he knew what a new dog meant. He burrowed in the hay and tried to sleep, but there was a queer pain that seemed to catch hold of his breath whenever he breathed down deep.

It rained the next day, and they tramped disconsolately through village after village.

They had oil-cloth covers for their baskets, but their own backs were soaked to the skin.

Toward evening they came to the top of a hill, from which they could look directly down upon a large town lying comfortably in the crook of a river's elbow. The rain had stopped, and the belated sun, struggling through the clouds, made up for lost time by reflecting itself in every curve of the winding stream, in every puddle along the road, and in every pane of glass that faced the west.

"That's a nobby hoss," said Ricks, pointing down the hill. "What's the matter with the feller?"

A slight, delicate-looking young man was lying in the road, between the horse and the fence. As the boys came up he stirred and tried to rise.

"He's off his nut," said Ricks, starting to pass on; but Sandy stopped.

"Get a fall?" he asked.

The strange boy shook his head. "I guess I fainted. I must have ridden too hard. I'll be all right in a minute." He leaned his head against a tree and closed his eyes.

Sandy eyed him curiously, taking in all the details of his riding-costume down to the short whip with the silver mounting.

"I say, Ricks," he called to his companion, who was inspecting the horse, "can't we do somethin' for him?"

Ricks reluctantly produced the short bottle.

"I'm all right," insisted the boy, "if you'll just give me a lift to the saddle." But his eager eyes followed the bottle, and before Ricks had returned it to his pocket he held out his hand. "I believe I will take a drink if you don't mind." He drained the contents and then handed a coin to Ricks.

"Now, if you'll help me," continued the stranger. "There! Thank you very much."

"Say, what town is this, anyway?" asked Ricks.

"Clayton," said the boy, trying to keep his horse from backing.

"Looks like somethin' was doin'," said Ricks.

"Circus, I believe."

"Then I don't blame your nag for wantin' to go back!" cried Sandy. "Come on, Ricks; let's take in the show!"

Half-way down the hill he turned. "Haven't we seen that fellow before, Ricks?"

"Not as I knows of. He looked kinder pale and shaky, but you bet yer life he knowed how to hit the bottle."

"He was sick," urged Sandy.

"An' thirsty," added Ricks, with a smile of superior wisdom.

The circus seemed such a timely opportunity to do business that they decided to rent a stand that night and sell their wares on the street corner. Ricks went on into town to arrange matters, while Sandy stopped in a grocery to buy their supper. His interest in the show had been of short duration. He felt listless and tired, something seemed to be buzzing continually in his head, and he shivered in his damp clothes. In the grocery he sat on a barrel and leaned his head against the wall.

"What you shivering about?" asked the fat woman behind the counter, as she tied up his small package.

"I feel like me skeleton was doin' a jig inside of me," said Sandy through chattering teeth.

"Looks to me like you got a chill," said the fat woman. "You wait here, and I'll go git you some hot coffee."

She disappeared in the rear of the store, and soon returned with a small coffee-pot and a cup and saucer. Sandy drank two cups and a half, then he asked the price.

"Price?" repeated the woman, indignantly. "I reckon you don't know which side of the Ohio River you're on!"

Sandy made up in gratitude what she declined in cash, and started on his way. At the corner of Main street and the bridge he found Ricks, who had rented a stand and was already arranging his wares. Sandy knelt on the sidewalk and unpacked his basket.

"Only three bars of soap and seventy-five microscopes!" he exclaimed ruefully. "Let's be layin' fine stress on the microscopes, Ricks."

"You do the jawin', Sandy. I ain't much on givin' 'em the talk," said Ricks. "Chuck a jolly at 'em and keep 'em hangin' round."

As dark came on, trade began. The three bars of soap were sold, and a purple necktie. Sandy saw that public taste must be guided in the proper direction. He stepped up on a box and began eloquently to enumerate the diverse uses of microscopes.

At each end of the stand a flaring torch lighted up the scene. The light fell on the careless, laughing faces in front, on Ricks Wilson, black-browed and suspicious, in the rear, and it fell full on Sandy, who stood on high and harangued the crowd. It fell on his broad, straight shoulders and on his shining tumbled hair; but it was not the light of the torch that gave the brightness to his eyes and the flush to his cheek. His head was throbbing, but he felt a curious sense of elation. He felt that he could stand there and talk the rest of his life. He made the crowd listen, he made it laugh, he made it buy. He told stories and sang songs, he coaxed and persuaded, until only a few microscopes were left and the old cigar-box was heavy with silver.

"Step right up and take a look at a fly's leg! Every one ought to have a microscope in his home. When you get hard up it will make a dime look like a dollar, and a dollar like a five-dollar gold piece. Step right up! I ain't kiddin' you. Five cents for two looks, and fifteen for the microscope."

Suddenly he faltered. At the edge of the crowd he had recognized two faces. They were sensitive slender faces, strangely alike in feature and unlike in expression. The young horseman of the afternoon was impatiently pushing his way through the crowd, while close behind him was a dainty girl with brown eyes slightly lifted at the outer corners, who held back in laughing wonder to watch the scene.

"Ricks," said Sandy, lowering his voice unsteadily, "is this Kentucky?"

"Yep; we crossed the line to-day."

"I can't talk no more," said Sandy. "You'll have to be doin' it. I'm sick."

It was not only the fever that was burning in his veins, and making him bury his hot head in his hands and wish he had never been born. It was shame and humiliation, and all because of the look on the face of the girl at the edge of the crowd. He sat in the shadow of the big box and fought his fight. The coffee and the excitement no longer kept him up; he was faint, and his breath came short. Above him he heard Ricks's rasping voice still talking to the few customers who were left. He knew, without glancing up, just how Ricks looked when he said the words; he knew how his teeth pushed his lips back, and how his restless little eyes watched everything at once. A sudden fierce repulsion swept over him for peddling, for Ricks, for himself.

"And to think," he whispered, with a sob in his throat, "that I can't ever speak to a girl like that!"

Ricks, jubilant over the success of the evening, decided to follow the circus, which was to be in the next town on the following day.

"It ain't fur," he said. "We kin push on to-night and be ready to open early in the morning."

Sandy, miserable in body and spirit, mechanically obeyed instructions. His head was getting queerer all the time, and he could not remember whether it was day or night. About a mile from Clayton he sank down by the road.

"Say, Ricks," he said abruptly; "I'm after quittin' peddlin'."

"What you goin' to do?"

"I'm goin' to school."

If Sandy had announced his intention of putting on baby clothes and being wheeled in a perambulator, Ricks could not have been more astonished.

"What?" he asked in genuine doubt.

"'Cause I want to be the right sort," burst out Sandy, passionately. "This ain't the way you get to be the right sort."

Ricks surveyed him contemptuously. "Look-a here, are you comin' along of me or not?"

"I can't," said Sandy, weakly.

Ricks shifted his pack, and with never a parting word or a backward look he left his business partner of three months lying by the roadside, and tramped away in the darkness.

Sandy started up to follow him; he tried to call, but he had no strength. He lay with his face on the road and talked. He knew there was nobody to listen, but still he kept on, softly talking about microscopes and pink soap, crying out again and again that he couldn't ever speak to a girl like that.

After a long while somebody came. At first he thought he must have gone back to the land behind the peat-flames, for it was a great black witch who bent over him, and he instinctively felt about in the grass for the tender, soft hand which he used to press against his cheek. He found instead the hand of the witch herself, and he drew back in terror.

"Fer de Lawd sake, honey, what's de matter wif you?" asked a kindly voice. Sandy opened his eyes. A tall old negro woman bent over him, her head tied up in a turban, and a shawl about her shoulders.

"Did you git runned over?" she asked, peering down at him anxiously.

Sandy tried to explain, but it was all the old mixture of soap and microscopes and never being able to speak to her. He knew he was talking at random, but he could not say the things he thought.

"Where'd you come from, boy?"

"Curragh Chase, Limerick," murmured Sandy.

"'Fore de Lawd, he's done been cunjered!" cried the old woman, aghast. "I'll git it outen of you, chile. You jus' come home wif yer Aunt Melvy; she'll take keer of you. Put yer arm on my shoulder; dat's right. Don't you mind where you gwine at. I got yer bundle. It ain't fur. Hit's dat little house a-hangin' on de side of de hill. Dey calls it 'Who'd 'a' Thought It,' 'ca'se you nebber would 'a' thought of puttin' a house dere. Dat's right; lean on yer mammy. I'll git dem old cunjers outen you."

Thus encouraged and supported, Sandy stumbled on through the dark, up a hillside that seemed never to end, across a bridge, then into a tiny log cabin, where he dropped exhausted.

Off and on during the night he knew that there was a fire in the room, and that strange things were happening to him. But it was all so queer and unnatural that he did not know where the dreams left off and the real began. He was vaguely conscious of his left foot being tied to the right bedpost, of a lock of his hair being cut off and burned on the hearth, and of a low monotonous chant that seemed to rise and fall with the flicker of the flames. And when he cried out with the pain in his sleep, a kindly black face bent over him, and the chant changed into a soothing murmur:

"Nebber you min', sonny; Aunt Melvy gwine git dem cunjers out. She gwine stay by you. You hol' on to her han', an' go to sleep; she'll git dem old cunjers out."