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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMarching Men - BOOK I - Chapter II
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Marching Men - BOOK I - Chapter II Post by :janislynn Category :Long Stories Author :Sherwood Anderson Date :February 2011 Read :1983

Click below to download : Marching Men - BOOK I - Chapter II (Format : PDF)

Marching Men - BOOK I - Chapter II

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.

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The town of Coal Creek was hideous. People from prosperous towns andcities of the middle west, from Ohio, Illinois, and Iowa, going eastto New York or Philadelphia, looked out of the car windows and seeingthe poor little houses scattered along the hillside thought of booksthey had read of life in hovels in the old world. In chair-cars menand women leaned back and closed their eyes. They yawned and wishedthe journey would come to an end. If they thought of the town at allthey regretted it mildly and passed it off as a necessity of modernlife.The houses on the hillside and the
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Uncle Charlie Wheeler stamped on the steps before Nance McGregor'sbake-shop on the Main Street of the town of Coal Creek Pennsylvaniaand then went quickly inside. Something pleased him and as he stoodbefore the counter in the shop he laughed and whistled softly. With awink at the Reverend Minot Weeks who stood by the door leading to thestreet, he tapped with his knuckles on the showcase."It has," he said, waving attention to the boy, who was making a messof the effort to arrange Uncle Charlie's loaf into a neat package, "apretty name. They call it Norman--Norman McGregor." Uncle Charlielaughed heartily and again
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