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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesA Spoil Of Office: A Story Of The Modern West - Chapter 30. The Great Round Up
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A Spoil Of Office: A Story Of The Modern West - Chapter 30. The Great Round Up Post by :Jeff_Carter Category :Long Stories Author :Hamlin Garland Date :May 2012 Read :1963

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A Spoil Of Office: A Story Of The Modern West - Chapter 30. The Great Round Up

CHAPTER XXX. THE GREAT ROUND UP

During his stay in St. Louis Bradley found the papers filled with the Alliance movement in Kansas, and looked for Ida's name each morning. She was in the western part of the State, but moving eastward; and when a few days later he saw her announced in the Kansas City morning papers to speak at the great "round up" at Chiquita, he packed his valise on the sudden impulse, and started on the next train, determined to hear her speak once more at least.

It was just noon when he alighted from the train at Chiquita. The day was dry, hazy, resplendent October. The wind was strong but amiable, and was full of the smell of corn and of that warm, pungent, smoky odor which forms the Indian summer atmosphere of the West. The wind rushed up the broad street past him, carrying the dust and leaves in its powerful clutches, and laying strong hands upon his broad back. The sky was absolutely without speck, but a pale mist seemed to dim the radiance of the sun, and lent a milky white tone to the blue of the sky.

As he moved slowly off up the street, he studied the town and the people from the standpoint his life in the East had given him. Everywhere was an air of security. Men moved slower. Their faces were less anxious and more placid; they had leisure to talk as they met at the shop door. The _boss seemed farther away. But all this security did not conceal the poverty which he now saw everywhere. The houses were mainly low, unpainted buildings, containing only three or four cramped rooms. They were a little smarter in appearance than the country type, but not much more commodious.

"I wonder if you are one of the speakers here to-day," said a voice behind him.

Bradley turned, and saw a small man with a stubby mustache, under whose derby hat-rim a pair of round black eyes shone with a keen glitter.

"No, sir, I'm not."

"Beg pardon, no harm done. Saw you get off with your valise; knew you weren't a native by the cut o' y'r jib. Excuse me, I hope?"

"Certainly; I'm just on to see some friends here."

"_Pre_cisely; I'm up from Kansas City to see the big 'round up,' as they call it. Here's my card. I represent what our Alliance friends call the 'plutocratic press.'" His card stated that his name was Mr. Davis, and that he represented the _Chronicle_. "I'm afraid the parade must be over by this time, but I missed my train. Perhaps we had better step along a little."

They had reached the main street, a broad avenue which ran north and south across a gentle swell in the prairie. There were a great many people on the sidewalks, and teams were moving in various directions slowly and in apparent confusion.

"Let's go over here to the Commercial House; that's the headquarters of all the brethren," said Davis.

They went across the street to the Commercial House, which they found full of men in groups, talking very earnestly, but quietly. Most of them were farmer-like looking figures, big and brown, and dressed in worn, faded clothing, but here and there a young man stood, wearing a broad white hat, and with a gay handkerchief knotted loosely about his neck. On all sides could be heard the slightly-drawling speech of the Kansan.

They went up to a little balcony which projected over the walk. Four or five other young fellows were already seated there. Some of them were magnificent-looking fellows, keen, wholesome, and picturesque in their dress.

"Excuse me now, gentlemen," said Davis, whipping out his note-book. "I'm a reporter, and here they come!"

Up the broad street, under that soaring sky, from their homes upon a magnificently fertile soil, came the long procession of revolting farmers. There were no bands to lead them; no fluttering of gay flags; no cheers from the bystanders. They rode in grim silence for the most part, as if at a funeral of their dead hopes--as if their mere presence were a protest.

Everywhere the same color predominated--a russet brown. Their faces were bronzed and thin. Their beards were long and faded, and tangled like autumn corn silk. Their gaunt, gnarled, and knotted hands held the reins over their equally sad and sober teams. The women looked worn and thin, and sat bent forward over the children in their laps. The dust had settled upon their ill-fitting dresses. There were no smart carriages, no touch of gay paint, no glittering new harnesses; the whole procession was keyed down among the most desolate and sorrowful grays, browns, and drabs.

Slowly they moved past. In some of the wagons, banners, rudely painted on cotton cloth, uttered the farmers' protest in words.

"Good God!" said Davis, as he dashed away at his writing. "Did you ever see such a funeral in your life? See that banner!"


DOWN WITH MONOPOLIES.

"All right, down with them; you're the doctor," muttered Davis as he wrote.

FREE TRADE, FREE LAND,
MONEY AT COST,
TRANSPORTATION AT COST.

"Now you _are shouting, brother."

EQUAL RIGHTS TO ALL IS AS DEAR TO
THE HEART OF THE FARMER AS IT WAS IN
THE DAYS OF OUR FOREFATHERS.


"Well, now, sure you mean that--that's all. Stop talking, and act."

Bradley remained perfectly silent through it all. As these farmers passed before his eyes, there came into his mind vast conceptions which thrilled him till he shuddered--a realization that here was an army of veterans, men grown old in the ferocious struggle against injustice and the apparent niggardliness of nature,--a grim and terrible battle-line. It was made up, throughout its entire length, of old or middle-aged men and women with stooping shoulders, and eyes dim with toil and suffering. There was nothing of lovely girlhood or elastic, smiling boyhood; not a touch of color or grace in the long line of march. It was sombre, silent, ominous, and resolute.

It appeared to him the most pathetic, tragic, and desperate revolt against oppression and wrong ever made by the American farmer. It was the Grange movement broadened, deepened, and made more desperate and wide-reaching by changing conditions.

At Davis' suggestion they went off down the street, joining the crowd on the sidewalk, which was streaming away towards the fair grounds. A roasted ox was to be served there, and speeches were to follow. The road kept on to the south, down over the gentle slope, and turned aside under the jack-oaks, and led through a wooden gate into an enclosure which was used for the county fair. Down under the great shed by the side of the race-track the people swarmed in thousands.

They were all standing about the rude tables, behind which helpers were busily hewing off great lumps of beef and mutton, and slicing fat slabs of bread, which were snatched and carried away in little paper plates by the hungry men. Here and there beside their wagons, families were eating a dinner of their own.

The same sober color predominated. There was a little more life and gayety in their speech here. Their grim, harsh faces relaxed a little, and now and then broke into unwonted smiles as they stood about devouring their food and discussing the meeting, which they counted a success. Everywhere were hearty handshakings and fraternal greetings.

All about the grounds stood feeble women in ill-fitting clothes, with tired children in their aching arms, a painful sag in their weakened loins. Bradley marvelled to think why such festivals had ever seemed mirthful and happy to him. He wondered if there used to be so many tired faces at the Grange picnics in Iowa. Were the farmers really less comfortable and happy, or had he simply grown clear-sighted?

Kansas as it stood there was Democratic. Poverty has few distinctions among its victims. The negro stood close beside his white brother in adversity, and there was a certain relation and resemblance in their stiffened walk, poor clothing, and dumb, imploring, empty hands. There lay in the whole scene something tremendous, something far-reaching. The movement it represented had the majesty, if not the volcanic energy, of the rise of the peasants of the Vendee.

After the dinner was eaten, the people gradually took their seats on the grand stand, facing a platform upon which the speakers were already assembled. Bradley looked about for Ida, but she had not come. The choir amused the people with a few Alliance songs, whose character may be indicated by their titles: "Join the Alliance Step," "Get off the Fence, Brother," "We're Marching Along," etc.

The people were watching eagerly for Ida's appearance; and when she came in view, escorted by the chairman, the people on the platform swarmed about to greet her, and hid her from Bradley's eager eyes. He was tremulous with emotion as the chairman introduced her. It carried him back to the day when he first saw her.

As she rose to speak now, it was in a broad, garish light. No dapple of shadows was there, no rustle of leaves, no green, mossy trunks of trees. She stood on a bare platform facing five thousand faces under a shed-like roof.

She was changed too. She was now a mature woman. There was nothing girlish about her talk or her manner. There was decision in the tones of her voice, and a sense of power in the poise of her head and in the lofty gesture of her hand. She no longer made a set oration. She talked straight at her audiences.

"I wish the whole world could see this meeting," she said, "and understand it for what it is. It is an _expression of a movement, not the movement itself. It is a demand; but the revolt that lies back of the demand is greater than the expression of it. The demand, the expression, may change, the form of our whole movement may pass away; but the spirit that makes it great, that carries it forward, is invincible and imperishable. All the ages have contributed to this movement. It is an outgrowth of the past.

"The heart and centre of this movement is a demand for justice, not for ourselves alone, but for the toiling poor wherever found. If this movement is higher and deeper and broader than the Grange was, it is because its sympathies are broader. With me, it is no longer a question of legislating for the farmer; it is a question of the abolition of industrial slavery."

The tremendous cheer which broke forth at this point showed that the conception of the movement had widened in the minds of the people themselves; it was no longer a class movement. It stirred Bradley as if some swift electric wind had blown upon him.

"Wherever a man is robbed, wherever a man toils and the fruits of his toil are taken from him; wherever the frosty lash of winter stings or the tear of poverty scalds, there the principle of our order reaches."

As she continued, the people turned to each other with shining faces. She was thrilling them by her passionate, simple utterance of their innermost thoughts.

While she spoke Bradley had eyes for nothing else; but when she sat down amid wild applause, and the choir rose to sing, he turned to look back over the audience, banked there in rows on the hard, wooden seats, and felt again its majesty and its desolation. There was the same absence of beauty, youth, color, and grace that he had noticed in the procession. Everywhere worn and weary women in sombre dresses, a wistful light in their faces, as if they felt dimly the difference between the lithe and beautiful figure of the girl and their own stiffened joints and emaciated forms.

The great throng sat silent, listening intently, their eyes fixed upon the speaker. They were there for a purpose; they were there to find out why it was that their toil, their sobriety, their self-deprivation, left them at middle life with distorted and stiffened limbs, gray hair, and empty hands. They were terribly in earnest, and Bradley felt his kinship with them. They were his kind.

The music, which set them wild with enthusiasm, was of the simplest and most stirring sort. That it pleased them so much, showed all too clearly how barren their lives were of songs and color and light.

* * * * *

The people pressed forward to speak a word to Ida; and Bradley, yielding to the pressure of the crowd, was carried forward with it. It stirred him very deeply to see the love and admiration they all felt for her. On all sides he heard words of affection which came straight from the heart. Their utter sincerity could not be doubted. He knew he ought to turn and go away before she saw him, but he could not.

Something in his face attracted a grizzled old farmer, who was moving along beside him, and he turned with a beaming look.

"How's that for a speech, eh? Did y' ever hear the like of it?"

"No, I never did."

"Ain't she a wonder, now? D' you s'pose there's another woman like her in the world?"

Bradley shook his head. He was sure of that!

A gaunt old woman, who wore a dark green-check sunbonnet hanging at the back of her head, put in a word.

"Shows what a woman can do if you give 'er a chance."

"Hello, Sister Slocum, you're always on hand."

"Like a sore thumb, Brother Tobey, an' I don't know of any one got a bigger interest in downin' the plutes than the farmers' wives--do you?"

It was pathetic, it was unforgettable, to see these people as they stood beside the rounded, supple, splendid figure of the speaker and took her strong, smooth hand in their work-scarred, leathery palms--these women of many children and never-ending work, bent by toil above the wash-tub and the churn, shut out from all things that humanize and make living something more than a brute struggle against hunger and cold.

Ida greeted them smilingly, but her face was quivering with a sadness which she could hardly conceal. Bradley pushed on desperately toward her. At length, as the crowd began to thin out, he moved up and thrust his long arm in over the shoulders of the women.

"Won't you shake hands with me, too?" he said, and his voice trembled.

She turned quickly, and her face flashed into a smile--a smile different, somehow, from that with which she had greeted the others, and they saw it. It warmed his melancholy soul like a sudden ray of June sunlight.

Her hand met his, strong and firm in its grasp. "Ah! Mr. Talcott, I'm glad to see you."

The farmers' wives began to leave, saying good-by over and over again. They clung to the girl's hand, gazing at her with wistful eyes. It seemed as if they could not bear to let her go out of their lives again.

"We may never see you again, dearie," one old woman said, "but we never'll forgit you. You've helped us. I reckon life won't seem quite so hard now. We kind o' see a glimmer of a way out."

The tears were on her face, and Ida put her arms about the old lady's neck and kissed her, and then turned away, unable to speak. The chairman, followed by Bradley and Ida, made his way down the steps and out on the grounds, where the streams of people were setting back toward the city. The chairman placed Miss Wilbur in a carriage, and said, "I'll see you at the hotel."

"Won't you ride?" she asked.

"No, thank you," he replied, with a jovial gleam in his eyes, and Ida said no more in protest. Bradley, in great trepidation, took a seat beside her.

"Well, Brother Talcott, what do you think of such a meeting as that?" she asked, after the carriage started, turning upon him with sudden intensity.

"It was like that first meeting of the Grange, when I heard you speak first, only this is more earnest--more desperate, I should say."

"Yes, these people _are desperate. It is impossible for the world to realize the earnestness of these farmers. Just see the interest the women-folks take in it! No other movement in history--not even the anti-slavery cause--appealed to the women like this movement here in Kansas. Why, sometimes I go home and walk the floor like a crazy woman--I get so wrought up over it. While our great politicians split hairs on the tariff, people starve. The time has come for rebellion."

Bradley was silent. He sympathized with her feeling, but he could not see very much hope in a revolt.

Her eyes glowed with the fire of prophecy. Bradley gazed at her with apprehensive eyes. She seemed unwholesomely excited. But she broke into a hearty laugh, and said: "You stare. Well, I won't lecture you any more. What did you do in Washington?"

"Nothing," he replied; and there was something silencing in his voice.

She glanced at his face sharply. She hesitated an instant, then asked:

"Do you go back?"

"No, my political career is ended. I was knifed in the convention."

"You are young."

"I'm not young enough to outgrow such a defeat as that. I'm done."

This mood seemed singularly unlike him, as she had known him before. She seized upon the situation.

"Come with us. 'There is more wool and flax in the fields,'" she quoted.

"I can't. I don't see things as you do--I mean I don't see any cure."

She laid her hand on his arm. "I'm going to convert you. Will you attend one more meeting with me?"

"I'll go wherever you say," he answered, with an attempt at gallantry.

"I want to take you with me to show you what the people are doing, and what my work is. You're to ask no questions, but just make yourself ready to go."

Bradley's mind was in a whirl. Ida seemed so different--not at all like that last letter she had written to him. He felt rather than perceived the change in her. She left him at the hotel door and her parting hand-clasp quickened his breath. An indefinite and unreasonable exultation filled his eyes with light. In the privacy of his room he croaked a few notes before he realized that he could not sing. His gloomy sky had let fall a sudden ray of dazzling sunshine.

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