Marching Men by Sherwood Anderson
One Sunday afternoon three boys sat on a log on the side of the hill that looked down into Coal Creek. From where they sat they could see the workers of the night shift idling in the sun on Main Street. From the coke ovens a thin line of smoke rose into the sky. A freight train heavily loaded crept round the hill at the end of the valley. It was spring and over even that hive of black industry hung a faint promise of beauty. The boys talked of the life of people in their town and as they talked thought each of himself.
Although he had not been out of the valley and had grown strong and big there, Beaut McGregor knew something of the outside world. It isn't a time when men are shut off from their fellows. Newspapers and magazines have done their work too well. They reached even into the miner's cabin and the merchants along Main Street of Coal Creek stood before their stores in the afternoon and talked of the doings of the world. Beaut McGregor knew that life in his town was exceptional, that not everywhere did men toil all day black and grimy underground, that not all women were pale bloodless and bent. As he went about delivering bread he whistled a song. "Take me back to Broadway," he sang after the soubrette in a show that had once come to Coal Creek.
Now as he sat on the hillside he talked earnestly while he gesticulated with his hands. "I hate this town," he said. "The men here think they are confoundedly funny. They don't care for anything but making foolish jokes and getting drunk. I want to go away." His voice rose and hatred flamed up in him. "You wait," he boasted. "I'll make men stop being fools. I'll make children of them. I'll----" Pausing he looked at his two companions.
Beaut poked the ground with a stick. The boy sitting beside him laughed. He was a short well--dressed black--haired boy with rings on his fingers who worked in the town poolroom, racking the pool balls. "I'd like to go where there are women with blood in them," he said.
Three women came up the hill toward them, a tall pale brown-haired woman of twenty-seven and two fairer young girls. The black-haired boy straightened his tie and began thinking of a conversation he would start when the women reached him. Beaut and the other boy, a fat fellow, the son of a grocer, looked down the hill to the town over the heads of the newcomers and continued in their minds the thoughts that had made the conversation.
"Hello girls, come and sit here," shouted the black-haired boy, laughing and looking boldly into the eyes of the tall pale woman. They stopped and the tall woman began stepping over the fallen logs, coming to them. The two young girls followed, laughing. They sat down on the log beside the boys, the tall pale woman at the end beside red-haired McGregor. An embarrassed silence fell over the party. Both Beaut and the fat boy were disconcerted by this turn to their afternoon's outing and wondered how it would turn out.
The pale woman began to talk in a low tone. "I want to get away from here," she said, "I wish I could hear birds sing and see green things grow."
Beaut McGregor had an idea. "You come with me," he said. He got up and climbed over the logs and the pale woman followed. The fat boy shouted at them, relieving his own embarrassment by trying to embarrass them. "Where're you going--you two?" he shouted.
Beaut said nothing. He stepped over the logs to the road and began climbing the hill. The tall woman walked beside him and held her skirts out of the deep dust of the road. Even on this her Sunday gown there was a faint black mark along the seams--the mark of Coal Creek.
As McGregor walked his embarrassment left him. He thought it fine that he should be thus alone with a woman. When she had tired from the climb he sat with her on a log beside the road and talked of the black-haired boy. "He has your ring on his finger," he said, looking at her and laughing.
She held her hand pressed tightly against her side and closed her eyes. "The climbing hurts me," she said.
Tenderness took hold of Beaut. When they went on again he walked behind her, his hand upon her back pushing her up the hill. The desire to tease her about the black-haired boy had passed and he wished he had said nothing about the ring. He remembered the story the black- haired boy had told him of his conquest of the woman. "More than likely a mess of lies," he thought.
Over the crest of the hill they stopped and rested, leaning against a worn rail fence by the woods. Below them in a wagon a party of men went down the hill. The men sat upon boards laid across the box of a wagon and sang a song. One of them stood in the seat beside the driver and waved a bottle. He seemed to be making a speech. The others shouted and clapped their hands. The sounds came faint and sharp up the hill.
In the woods beside the fence rank grass grew. Hawks floated in the sky over the valley below. A squirrel running along the fence stopped and chattered at them. McGregor thought he had never had so delightful a companion. He got a feeling of complete, good fellowship and friendliness with this woman. Without knowing how the thing had been done he felt a certain pride in it. "Don't mind what I said about the ring," he urged, "I was only trying to tease you."
The woman beside McGregor was the daughter of an undertaker who lived upstairs over his shop near the bakery. He had seen her in the evening standing in the stairway by the shop door. After the story told him by the black-haired boy he had been embarrassed about her. When he passed her standing in the stairway he went hurriedly along and looked into the gutter.
They went down the hill and sat on the log upon the hillside. A clump of elders had grown about the log since his visits there with Cracked McGregor so that the place was closed and shaded like a room. The woman took off her hat and laid it beside her on the log. A faint colour mounted to her pale cheeks and a flash of anger gleamed in her eyes. "He probably lied to you about me," she said, "I didn't give him that ring to wear. I don't know why I gave it to him. He wanted it. He asked me for it time and again. He said he wanted to show it to his mother. And now he has shown it to you and I suppose told lies about me."
Beaut was annoyed and wished he had not mentioned the ring. He felt that an unnecessary fuss was being made about it. He did not believe that the black-haired boy had lied but he did not think it mattered.
He began talking of his father, boasting of him. His hatred of the town blazed up. "They thought they knew him down there," he said, "they laughed at him and called him 'Cracked.' They thought his running into the mine just a crazy notion like a horse that runs into a burning stable. He was the best man in town. He was braver than any of them. He went in there and died when he had almost enough money saved to buy a farm over here." He pointed down the valley.
Beaut began to tell her of the visits to the hillside with his father and described the effect of the scene on himself when he was a child. "I thought it was paradise," he said.
She put her hand on his arm and seemed to be soothing him like a careful groom quieting an excitable horse. "Don't mind them," she said, "you will go away after a time and make a place for yourself out in the world."
He wondered how she knew. A profound respect for her came over him. "She is keen to guess that," he thought.
He began to talk of himself, boasting and throwing out his chest. "I'd like to have the chance to show what I can do," he declared. A thought that had been in his mind on the winter day when Uncle Charlie Wheeler put the name of Beaut upon him came back and he walked up and down before the woman making grotesque motions with his hands as Cracked McGregor had walked up and down before him.
"I'll tell you what," he began and his voice was harsh. He had forgotten the presence of the woman and half forgotten what had been in his mind. He sputtered and glared over his shoulder up the hillside as he struggled for words. "Oh to Hell with men!" he burst forth. "They are cattle, stupid cattle." A fire blazed up in his eyes and a confident ring came into his voice. "I'd like to get them together, all of them," he said, "I'd like to make them----" Words failed him and again he sat down on the log beside the woman. "Well I'd like to lead them to an old mine shaft and push them in," he concluded resentfully.
* * * * *
On the eminence Beaut and the tall woman sat and looked down into the valley. "I wonder why we don't go there, mother and I," he said. "When I see it I'm filled with the notion. I think I want to be a farmer and work in the fields. Instead of that mother and I sit and plan of the city. I'm going to be a lawyer. That's all we talk about. Then I come up here and it seems as though this is the place for me."
The tall woman laughed. "I can see you coming home at night from the fields," she said. "It might be to that white house there with the windmill, You would be a big man and would have dust in your red hair and perhaps a red beard growing on your chin. And a woman with a baby in her arms would come out of the kitchen door to stand leaning on the fence waiting for you. When you came up she would put her arm around your neck and kiss you on the lips. The beard would tickle her cheek. You should have a beard when you grow older. Your mouth is so big."
A strange new feeling shot through Beaut. He wondered why she had said that and wanted to take hold of her hand and kiss her then and there. He got up and looked at the sun going down behind the hill far away at the other end of the valley. "We'd better be getting along back," he said.
The woman remained seated on the log. "Sit down," she said, "I'll tell you something--something it's good for you to hear. You're so big and red you tempt a girl to bother you. First though you tell me why you go along the street looking into the gutter when I stand in the stairway in the evening."
Beaut sat down again upon the log, and thought of what the black- haired boy had told him of her. "Then it was true--what he said about you?" he asked.
"No! No!" she cried, jumping up in her turn and beginning to pin on her hat. "Let's be going."
Beaut sat stolidly on the log. "What's the use bothering each other," he said. "Let's sit here until the sun goes down. We can get home before dark."
They sat down and she began talking, boasting of herself as he had boasted of his father.
"I'm too old for that boy," she said; "I'm older than you by a good many years. I know what boys talk about and what they say about women. I do pretty well. I don't have any one to talk to except father and he sits all evening reading a paper and going to sleep in his chair. If I let boys come and sit with me in the evening or stand talking with me in the stairway it is because I'm lonesome. There isn't a man in town I'd marry--not one."
The speech sounded discordant and harsh to Beaut. He wished his father were there rubbing his hands together and muttering rather than this pale woman who stirred him up and then talked harshly like the women at the back doors in Coal Creek. He thought again as he had thought before that he preferred the black-faced miners drunk and silent to their pale talking wives. On an impulse he told her that, saying it crudely so that it hurt.
Their companionship was spoiled. They got up and began to climb the hill, going toward home. Again she put her hand to her side and again he wished to put his hand at her back and push her up the hill. Instead he walked beside her in silence, again hating the town.
Halfway down the hill the tall woman stopped by the road-side. Darkness was coming on and the glow of the coke ovens lighted the sky. "One living up here and never going down there might think it rather grand and big," he said. Again the hatred came. "They might think the men who live down there knew something instead of being just a lot of cattle."
A smile came into the face of the tall woman and a gentler look stole into her eyes. "We get at one another," she said, "we can't let one another alone. I wish we hadn't quarrelled. We might be friends if we tried. You have got something in you. You attract women. I've heard others say that. Your father was that way. Most of the women here would rather have been the wife of Cracked McGregor ugly as he was than to have stayed with their own husbands. I heard my mother say that to father when they lay quarrelling in bed at night and I lay listening."
The boy was overcome with the thought of a woman talking to him so frankly. He looked at her and said what was in his mind. "I don't like the women," he said, "but I liked you, seeing you standing in the stairway and thinking you had been doing as you pleased. I thought maybe you amounted to something. I don't know why you should be bothered by what I think. I don't know why any woman should be bothered by what any man thinks. I should think you would go right on doing what you want to do like mother and me about my being a lawyer."
He sat on a log beside the road near where he had met her and watched her go down the hill. "I'm quite a fellow to have talked to her all afternoon like that," he thought and pride in his growing manhood crept over him.