THE DRIFTER_ THE TRAIL OF THE TRAMP_ CHAPTER FOUR_
And Spring came back to the Northland. The trees and bushes commenced to bud. As if by magic the brown winter tints of the water and frost bogged prairie were transformed into a daintily colored green carpet by the sprouts that the slumbering grasses sent forth into the balmy air, while here and there a venturesome flower spread its multi-colored petals towards the warming rays of the sun, and lastly the song birds, the infallible sign of nature's complete resurrection, came home from the Southland and rebuilt their storm-torn nests amid the warbling of gladsome notes, their jubilee song of happiness and satisfaction.
With these signs of the re-awakening of Nature there came to me the strange "Call of the Road". Heretofore it had never come as strongly as it came at this time, when after a long and monotonous winter's toil the rattling trains as they shot over our section, the darting birds as they foraged their subsistence, and even the thumping of the wheels under our hand car seamed to beckon me to follow their example and move away. Although I tried with might and main to resist its call, gradually the bunk house became a dungeon, the endless prairie a prison, and the Dakotas themselves became entirely too small to hold me, and when the pay car stopped to hand me my month's wages, I could no longer withstand the temptation to follow the "Call of the Road" and be up and gone. It was a hard matter for me to bid Foreman McDonald and his family farewell, and the last promise I made before I left was, that should circumstances permit I would find my way back in the fall to again take my place with the section crew, that until then would be held open for my return.
I drifted to Saint Paul and then down to hustling St. Louis, and from there to beautiful San Antonio, and when the binders cut wide swaths into the ripening, top-heavy, golden grain on the banks of the Rio Grande, I found myself back in my chosen element, toiling long hours during the day in the harvest field, and then until way into the night dancing the fantastic fandango with dark eyed Mexican Senoritas, to the accompaniment of twanging guitars and squeaking mouth organs, and staking my come-easy, go-easy earnings against the "Monte" layouts dealt by swift-handed Mexican Senores, who had crossed the river from the Mexican side for the double purpose of helping to harvest the wheat and trimming, by means of "sure thing" games, the American harvesters.
Then came the harvest dance, the festival which indicated that upon the ranch the harvest had been finished, and that I was no longer wanted. So I drifted northward, following the ripening wheat, ever toiling, ever squandering, and always attending the harvest dance which celebrated my exit.
When the inclement weather set in, for want of something better to do, I drifted back towards the lone prairie section reservation to take my place in the ranks of those who tamp the ties and tighten the "fish-plates," which hold the rails together.
I had hoboed a freight train as far as the water tank, that stood a scant six miles east of the section reservation, and now I walked leisurely through familiar scenery towards my former winter home, hoping every minute to surprise Foreman McDonald and his crew at work on the track. That day, however, they happened to be repairing on the other end of the section, so I managed to slip unobserved up to the front door of the "big" house, where intending to surprise Mrs. McDonald by my unexpected return, I knocked on the front door. To our mutual delight Mrs. McDonald opened the door, and after giving me a glad welcome, asked me into the house. She soon had one of her best meals steaming in front of me, having correctly surmised that a man riding freight trains and walking six miles, needed a hearty repast. Although I was more than anxious to inquire about many items of interest, especially if my long journey had not been made in vain, as my place might have been filled by some other fellow in search of employment, she seemed to completely ignore my presence, for she was only in the dining room during the brief moments when she placed the filled plates upon the table.
I finished my dinner, and then, uninvited by Mrs. McDonald, but just as she had taught me a year ago, when I helped her to do the chores about the house while convalescing from my freezing experience, I carried the soiled dishes into the kitchen. Noticing that she was still in full mourning, I made careful inquiries as to whether any trace had been found of the missing child during my absence, to which she sadly replied that nothing had ever become of the land-wide search that had been made. Her apparent reticence caused my curiosity to mount high, and I followed up my question by pleasantly inquiring as to Foreman McDonald's present state of health. She looked at me with an expression of terror in her eyes, as if my words had stabbed her to her heart, but did not answer, and a moment later she could not answer had she wanted to, for heart-broken sobs choked her voice, but she beckoned to me to follow her to the front porch and there she pointed her trembling finger in the direction where they had buried my pal, Peoria Red, and there I could plainly see three small, white crosses. Steeled by the many other woes that she had during a long and dreary year borne with fortitude, she temporarily overcame her weakness, and with a clear voice she counted: "One, two, three," and then the poor woman paused, it seemed the strain had almost been too much for her, and then in a faltering, almost inaudible voice she continued: "Peoria Red, Helen McDonald, Henry McDonald," and then collapsed.
I carried her limp, unconscious form into the parlor, and after some efforts managed to bring her out of the faint, and when she had fully recovered so as to withstand the ordeal, she slowly repeated to me the story of her summer's experience, how Foreman McDonald, unable to be without his Helen, had wasted to a shadow of his former self; and in August had died of a broken heart, and how only the thoughts that upon her own frail self had now devolved the duty to provide for their three small sons had given her the strength to resolve not to succumb to a like fate. Her voice brightened when she told me that in all her misery there had come one tiny streak of good fortune to her, a poor, helpless widow cast upon the mercy of the world with three children. The new section foreman, whom the company had sent to fill the vacancy caused by Mr. McDonald's death, proved to be a crusty, old bachelor of perhaps sixty-five who no doubt appreciating a few extra comforts at his age, gladly consented to have Mrs. McDonald remain and continue taking charge of the section house, and the boarding crew, in return for a small stipend and a shelter for herself and her fatherless children.
When in the evening the new foreman and the crew came home from their work, Mrs. McDonald spoke a word in my favor, and although there was no need of an additional laborer, the new foreman, after he had heard my story, engaged my services.
Until the thawing of the snow I faithfully worked upon the section, but when Spring again set in with full force, there came another attack of the strange fever that drove me onward every year, and, following the "Call of the Wanderlust", I left for the South, having again promised that with the approach of winter I would be on hand to fill my place with the section crew.
I drifted along with the harvest, but after the wintry storms that swept over the endless expanse of the plains had twisted off the last leaves which the autumn had burnished to a fiery red, and the nights became too chilly to make out-of-door camping a pleasure, I found my way back to my North Dakota section reservation, which I now considered my regular winter quarters.
I arrived at the section house almost at the time when the hand car was due to return for supper, and intending to surprise Mrs. McDonald, knowing that in all the world it would be the poor widow who would give me, a homeless harvester, a glad welcome, I slipped almost noiselessly up to the porch and knocked on the door, but no answer came to my repeated knocks. Then I tried to open the door, which during Foreman McDonald's time had never been known to be locked, and to my surprise I found it bolted. Thinking that perhaps the widow had gone to purchase provisions, I walked around to the rear of the building and tried every door, but found that all of them were locked. A miserably starved black cat, that made a ten foot leap when she first espied me, was the only sign of life on the place, while the many rag-stuffed broken window panes plainly indicated that great changes had been made at the "big" house since my last departure. There was something uncanny in the silence about the place, and a strange gloom seemed to have settled over everything that foreboded to me only evil happenings.
For want of something better I resolved to await the return of the section crew from their day's work, and walked back to the front of the house and took a seat upon the steps. I casually glanced across the tracks to where my pal, Peoria Red, was sleeping his eternal sleep, and I was almost stunned by surprise when instead of the three crosses which I had left behind when in the Spring I drifted to the Southland, I counted five of those ill-omened messengers of death. In vain I tried to solve the riddle of these added graves, and was about to cross over to the grave plot beyond the tracks, hoping to find some inscriptions upon the new crosses that would give me a key to the new tragedies that I knew must have caused their presence, when the hand car with the returning crew came into view, and forgetting all other matters, I walked down to the tool house to meet it and was soon cordially welcomed by my old comrades who had "held down" their jobs through the hot summer months.
The same foreman, who had taken Foreman McDonald's place was still in charge of the section reservation, and he good naturedly ordered the crew to take proper care of me at the bunk house, where quickly a hot supper, which the laborers cooked and served themselves, was made ready, a welcome meal for a man who had not tasted a mouthful since the early morning.
After supper had been cleared away and everything had been made snug about the house, my chance came to inquire why I had found everything about the reservation topsy-turvy, as compared with former days, and I especially inquired as to the well-being and whereabouts of Mrs. McDonald and her three youngsters, and the following is the information one of the laborers gave me:
Mrs. McDonald, with the assistance of her three sons, who had grown into strong lads, had given to the crew of the section house the same motherly care that characterized those days when yet her husband's presence and praises spurred her on to make her best efforts. Every school day she saw her boys ride off to the school house in the early morning upon ponies she had purchased for them, as the school was five miles south from the railroad.
Amid the work of the household and the enjoyment that her three sturdy sons gave her, as they fairly adored their mother and did everything to cause her to forget the sorrowful past, gradually the deathly pallor of Mrs. McDonald's face and the lusterless eyes with their heavy black rings beneath them, gave way to red cheeks and the same brilliancy that were hers when she was yet the proud mother of baby Helen. Some days, especially when the darkness had hidden those ominous crosses from her vision, she would sing the songs she used to sing in the days of her happiness, which showed to us rough laborers the fight this weak woman was waging with herself trying to forget, for the sake of her sons, those many sad days which had been hers, so that her mourning for things that had been, would not embitter their future.
Almost unawares the Summer followed the Spring, and soon came the glad days for the school children—the annual vacation of the schools—and the three sons of Mrs. McDonald came home to rest from their studies. Gradually unrest, especially in Joe and Jim, the twins, could be noted, as they found time hanging heavily upon their hands. They begged the foreman to permit them to work with the section crew during the months of their vacation, but as they had not sufficient strength to do the strenuous work required of a section laborer, the foreman had to refuse their request. Then they tried to find employment amongst the scattered ranches which here and there commenced to break the monotony of the prairie, but as the planting had been finished long ago, and the harvest would not commence until after school had re-opened, their appeals were in vain. Then they discovered that we had stacked a lot of useless, decayed railroad ties in the backyard of the section house, and they reduced these into stove lengths. After this task had been finished, despair seemed to have taken hold of the boys as there was nothing for them to do to occupy their time.
Idleness breeds mischief. One morning when their good mother wondered why Joe and Jim did not show up at the breakfast table, she sent Donald, her eldest boy, upstairs to arouse them. He returned and reported that they were not in their room. Her hasty investigation proved that they had not only not occupied their beds, and their savings bank had been emptied of its contents, but the broken-hearted mother was nearly frantic when she found that her thoughtless sons had disappeared without leaving even a short note apprising her of their intentions, or at least bidding her a brief farewell.
This was the last and most cruel blow an unkind fate had inflicted upon poor, suffering Mrs. McDonald, and it was days before they were sure that she would not succumb. In the meantime the foreman and every other friend of the sorrow-stricken widow put every bit of legal and police nachinery they could command into motion, trying to find at least a trace of the twins, and although for weeks they searched far and wide, not a single clue as to their whereabouts was found, nor was a single line or letter received from them by their mother, who prayed for weeks for this favor of Heaven, while at the same time her very appearance, her returned pallor and her lusterless eyes told far better than any words how this last calamity was slowly but none the less certainly eating out her heart.
It was almost a month after their disappearance that the bereaved, helpless and hopeless mother received her first clue as to her sons whereabouts. A freight train had been held up on the siding on account of a bad washout, and the crew, finding itself short of provisions had come up to the section house and had requested Mrs. McDonald to prepare for them a meal. While they were dining, one of the brakemen caused Mrs. McDonald to fall into a dead faint when he in a rough but jocular way remarked to her: "I bet you, Mrs. McDonald, that your Joe and Jim are having the time of their lives down in Minneapolis, as I haven't seen them around the reservation since the night I found them hoboing my train into Grand Forks, although our train has passed through here many times since that day. They told me then that they were bound for the "Twin Cities" to pick up a fortune. Have you heard from them lately, Mrs. McDonald? Are they prospering?"
The police authorities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis were notified, and although correspondence was exchanged, nothing was accomplished. For two more months Mrs. McDonald waited in vain, hoping against hope that at least they would send a letter to appease her piteous fears as to their fates, while in the meantime she faded away to a mere shadow of her former self, and then suddenly decided to quit the reservation forever. It seemed as if she wished to tear herself away from the place which had brought to her such merciless misfortune. She decided to move into Canada, in those days a newly discovered Eldorado, to which all those turned who were willing to work and to hustle while tempting fickle fortune.
On the evening preceding the day Mrs. McDonald and Donald were to depart, after we had finished our suppers, we presented her with a purse of fifty dollars, that we had made up among ourselves, as a token of the high esteem in which we held the unfortunate woman, and too, to assist and cheer her on the journey into an unknown land. Then we filed back to our bunk house, and while we sat about its single room, the gloom that seemed to hold us, spoiled all desire to open a conversation, as the widow's departure meant the loss of one who had been almost a mother to us rough and homeless laborers. Just as we made ready to retire someone knocked on the bunk house door, and thinking that perhaps some wandering tramp had the nerve to bother us at this late hour in the night, we roughly ordered the intruder to be gone. Instead of going, the knocks continued, and angry at the persistence of the person, we pulled the door open, and to our complete surprise found that it was Mrs. McDonald who had knocked for admission. Realizing the great honor she was conferring upon us, we politely bade her to enter and asked her to be seated. She was attired in the dress in which she intended to make the journey on the following day, and its sombre black of deepest mourning, aided by the yellow light of our lamp, transformed the pallor of her haggard face into an almost ghastly white. We patiently waited for her to open the conversation, of course expecting that she had come to thank us once more for having presented her with the purse. It was some time before she could find her voice and then in the saddest tone that weaver heard, she begged of us strong men, as the last favor she would ever ask of us, to make for her two more white crosses, the same as stood above the other graves, and to deliver them to her in the early morning, and then, as if this last humble request had completely shattered her nerves, she tottered, an almost lifeless wreck, out into the moonlit night.
None of us uttered a single word, it seemed we had been stunned by the solemnity of the poor widow's request, but we opened the bunk house door to see that no harm befell her upon her trip back to the "big" house. To our surprise, instead of going to the section house she tottered over to where Foreman McDonald lay buried, and we saw her pray long and earnestly by the little mound that held his remains; then she arose and wearily dragged herself to the place by the railroad track where little Helen's garments had been found, and here once more she sank upon her knees in prayer, and then staggered back towards the "big" house, where, just before she entered the gate of the fence surrounding the yard, she knelt a third time to utter a prayer. While we silently stood and watched and pitied the poor broken-hearted woman, she heavily keeled over. We rushed to her side to give her assistance, and found she had fainted away, but in her unconsciousness she muttered the words "Joe" and "Jim", and we readily understood for whom her last farewell prayer had been offered.
We carried her into the section house where we revived her, and then we returned to the bunk house and until late into the night sawed, hammered and whittled those two crude crosses into shape, supposing Mrs. McDonald intended to take them with her into Canada, to keep as a memento of her sad experiences.
In the morning after we had been served with breakfast, we handed her the crosses which we had carefully wrapped in paper so that upon her journey their ominous outlines would not recall unpleasant memories and cause her needless anguish. Then we went back to the bunk house to await the arrival of the train and assist in loading aboard the bagggage that Mrs. McDonald was to take with her into Canada. Only a few minutes had elapsed, when to our surprise, the foreman called us to the door and commanded us to follow him, Mrs. McDonald and Donald, who carried the two crosses we had made for his mother.
We followed them to the little graveyard upon the right-of-way, and while we stood by bareheaded, frail Mrs. McDonald planted the two new crosses at equal distances from the other three, and we saw that upon one of them was written "James" and upon the other "Joseph." After she had scattered prairie flowers over all the graves, we offered up silent prayers, and then with not a single dry eye in our sad procession, we returned to the reservation.
In the afternoon we flagged the westbound passenger train, and after wishing her God speed, we tenderly placed the sobbing widow and Donald aboard, bound for the then little known and undeveloped western section of Canada, and when the tail end of the train passed us, a sportily dressed fellow, who, with other passengers, was sitting upon the observation platform of the last Pullman, upon perceiving those plain, white crosses, which glared so conspicuously above the green sward of the prairie to the right of the train, while he pointed his finger derisively in their direction, made some remarks to the other passengers, and laughed. He did not know the story of the tragic events which caused their presence nor that under four of the little crosses the hopes and happiness of poor Mrs. McDonald lay buried.