The Country Boy/Chapter 4

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The Country Boy  (1910)  by Homer Davenport
Chapter 4


I was in Portland some time later—was there for quite a while, watching the sights of a growing town. One day a fellow with overalls and a bucket of paste asked me if I wanted to work for a ticket. I said, “Yes,” quick. He said, “All right, carry this bucket while I bill the town for Clara Morris and I will give you two tickets for the show.” I asked him what it was and he said “Camille.” It would be two weeks before the show got there, so I took the tickets after a hard, sticky day’s work and went back to Silverton. I exhibited the tickets in the post-office showcase. They were the first Portland theatre tickets ever seen there. I asked a few people what “Camille” was like, but nobody seemed to know. Finally one of my sisters that was going on the other ticket said she knew it was a comic opera and we want to see Clara Morris in “Camille” without a handkerchief and as a result we both had bad colds into the next month. Country people never use handkerchiefs for but one purpose and that is a cold, and as we were free from colds at that time we didn’t think of taking any. Oh, I have seen some people use them to dust their hats after the hippodrome races after a circus, but it is seldom they are carried unless they are really needed. So sister and I went without any. We had good seats, the third row in the balcony. We said to each other when we got there—it was a matinee—that we bet it was a good show for every seat was taken. It started of kinder quiet for an opera and without music, which we thought was strange, but about the middle of the first act the main lady fell head over heels in love with a fine, big, strapping fellow and it was fine to watch. Presently some old man showed up, the father of the young man, and it appears that Clara Morris had been in love before somewhere and that seemed to spoil the game. About this time we got to snuffling some and finally Adda broke down and cried aloud, and as she came by me I broke down too. I know it must have been bad for other people near us, for some of them got out and left, but we wept right on just the same, and it is awkward crying in the theatre without a handkerchief. I tried to check it between the first and second acts while the orchestra was playing and I told sister that I thought the old man with white hair would finally let them marry; but she sobbed and said in a loud voice she didn’t believe he would, as he looked determined. It was awful; our tears were all over us, in fact our feet were getting damp from them. We broke heavier in each act, till the father of the fine looking man she wanted to marry asked her, if she really loved his son, to prove it by promising never to see him again, and at that Adda collapsed completely and neither of us could make a sound. I turned one of my coat pockets wrong side out and tried to use it, when Clara Morris died just as the curtain went down, but we had caught colds from our feet wet from our own tears. Adda’s waist, which was green surah silk of the country pattern, looked like isinglass in a new stove. After we left the theatre we met a friend a few blocks away who asked what had happened to us and Adda broke down and began to sob. The friend thought at first that I had beaten her, till I told him we had been to see Clara Morris play “Camille.” We got home the next day, looking and feeling bad. The folks asked us how it was and we told them it was fine, but it wasn’t a comic opera.

The Narrow Gauge Railroad finally came to Silverton and then the town took a boom toward the depot. I got a job as engine wiper and owing to father’s prominence got promoted to fireman on the oldest engine on the road. The other engine was new and shiny and could run faster, and on that engine my father’s pioneer friend’s son was the engineer and his fireman was a halfbreed Indian. I worked hard for some months and dreamed nights of this halfbreed’s bringing me orders telling me to take his fine engine with John Palmer, but month after month it only proved to be a dream. As it was I had given up hope of ever getting away from this rusty old freight engine. But one day at East-Side Junction, a small passing station, one of the happiest days of my life overtook me. Our old train was the first in and we were on the siding. I was watching this fine new Baldwin engine as she came rolling along through Howell’s Prairie. She glistened in the sun like a new plug hat. When she stopped I noticed Frank, the halfbreed, shake hands with John Palmer, the engineer, and before I could make out what was the matter Frank was walking over to our engine with some clothes under his arm and a piece of yellow tissue paper in his other hand. He was sullen and looked as though he were more than half Indian. He handed me the slip of paper and said gruffly, “Well, you wanted that engine for a long time, go and take it.” I read the paper which was brief, but right to the point; it simply said, “Davenport, fire for Palmer on No. 8.” I went over and as I got close to the fine new locomotive it looked even finer than it had in my dreams. Mr. Palmer didn’t let on that he was glad until we got out of sight of the Indian, then we had a great reunion. This new engine only burned about half as much wood as the other old freight engine, so there wasn’t much to do but sit up in the seat and ring the bell at road crossings and look at streaks of the finest country in the whole world and watch the grouse and china pheasants fly off of the track. We got along fine and I kept No. 8 looking as good as the Indian had her. Our only trouble was that so many boys knew me in Silverton, that every time we went up the mill switch after a box car of flour, as this was a mixed train, these chums of mine used to climb into the cab. Now there is a certain dignity that engineers and even firemen have that is spoiled if everybody comes piling into the cab, especially if women come with small brats, which they sometimes did. This worried Mr. Palmer a lot and made me fairly ashamed. The worst one to climb in was a friend of mine named Jap Libby. We were about the same age, only he had the most nerve, and the mill switch was so rough we couldn’t run fast enough on it to keep the farmers from stepping on. Jap Libby not only got on, but then complained about the way we ran the engine. He asked Mr. Palmer why he didn’t pull her wide open and let her tear down through the town, at which Mr. Palmer would frown. We always hated to see Jap come worse than anyone else, as he knew the rules were to keep out of the cab. Still he didn’t mind them; so Mr. Palmer and I had smiles for one whole trip when we heard one day that Jap Libby had left town for good to go over to Tacoma to work with some Chinamen on a tunnel. A few days later we heard they had an accident and many Chinamen were killed and Jap Libby was hurt. This accident was plainly the fault of the company and they were anxious to settle. Jap was foxy and when they came to the hospital he told them he had no desire to break the company, that he was a railroad fireman and if they gave him a good job when he got well he would call it square; so they signed papers to that effect. He was out in about a week and was firing on an extra freight run. The engineer told him to drop the damper soon after he reported the first morning, and Jap looked up about the steam gauge until the engineer showed him where and after a brief discussion between the two, Jap confessed that he had never fired before. But the engineer liked his nerve so he kept him. He fired about six weeks and was given an extra engine to run. So heavy was the wheat crop in the upper country that within a year Jap was running a yard engine in a Tacoma yard; a most important position. They had a yard speed limit in Tacoma when Jap hit town, but none afterward. He switched cars at forty miles an hour and nerer broke a draw head, though he did break a few links. There was nothing for the other four engines to do, so they laid them off and the news went all over the country. The officials of the road came and saw from the high bluffs the work of this phenomenon below. The yard master complained and the officials said he hadn’t hurt anything. “Keep out of the way and let him run. He is doing the work of four engines and crews.” It was true he used up a car load of sand each day on the track as he approached cars, but cars were never kicked as he was kicking them. Combination-fly switches had never been invented in other yards that he was using. The oldest and toughest freight brakeman jumped out of his cab every day though he never cracked a bumper. In fact, children could have coupled them for him. He made combination switches that curled some people’s hair, but his stayed straight. Papers wrote editorials about him and cheap actors made puns on him at the vaudeville shows. When Mr. Palmer heard of Jap’s popularity he said, “Just wait and give him time.” When my vacation came I went to Tacoma just to see his work and though he didn’t know where the steam got into the cylinders or where it got out, he certainly put up the hottest game in the railroad way anyone ever saw. His duty in the morning was to follow the overland up, through the long yard to the upper depot and if the traffic was not heavy there he would hitch on to the rear coach and haul her back, but the last time Jap hitched on there wasn’t anything to come back. One foggy morning he thought the passenger had time to get up so he was just clipping along about “forty-five per,” laughing with his brakeman and his fireman, watching the thick fog part and go on either side of his engine, when all at once he saw the rear of a Pullman. The train had stopped for something and the flagman hadn’t gone back. It didn’t give Jap as long as he would like to have had to make up his mind. He shut off, reversed and pulled her wide open and then jumped out the window. They were on a high trestle at the time. The engine went through two cars before it thought of starting back, then it pulled out sticking to the track. It fairly howled as it tore down through the Tacoma yards with its broken whistle and smokestack. They had changed some switches behind them and one was on a track that had a fine line of observation coaches that were waiting for the summer trade. It didn’t do much to them; there wasn’t enough left of them to tell whether they were made at Dover, N. J., or Pullman, Ill. From there she went across the turn table into the roundhouse and out through the brick walls into the Puget Sound where she cooled down, and they are still figuring on the cost of the trip. As for Jap himself, on the fall he got mixed badly and lost an arm and a leg by compound fractures. His men escaped with less injury but it didn’t stop him; he got a tricycle that he lives on, and in Tacoma you will see the sign—it’s popular with the railroad men—it reads, “Jap Libby, Railroad Cigar Store.”

A long spell passed and we didn’t do much in Silverton outside of enjoying each other and discussing neighbors. The town got to making improvements after months of public speaking and debates. We finally got a city water works, and it seemed we used to use the hose nearly all the time. I washed the streets from morning till it was too dark to see the stream. We caused a few runaways, but that had to be expected; we couldn’t stay old-fashioned just to suit the farmers with shy teams. Silverton had most everything from a Good Templar’s lodge to a bank. The bankers in Silverton were rather unusual as they didn’t look like the bankers at Salem. And the fact of Jake McClaine in that banking firm made the name of Coolidge & McClaine, Bankers, the greatest banking institution in the world by a big wide margin; that is, if you count all the deeds that bankers do, both in and out of the bank. They were poor young men when they stopped their covered wagons on the banks of a stream called Silver Creek, and began to look around for better country. They made a few short rides around the valley and mountains, but they came back and finally settled and called the settlement Silverton, and finally people stopped there and took corner lots without crowding. These men were great workers and knew the art of saving. They bought the first crop of calves in their neighborhood and kept them until they grew up, and then sold them for big prices. They got hold of a set of burrs and started a grist mill. They opened a store, they looked at business opportunities from the same focus and in a few years they had actually loaned money. There were many strange parts of their partnership but the strangest part was that the men were so different, yet they got on so well. They were as different, as night and day. Ai Coolidge was the elder and likely the greater money-maker of the two, but he didn’t get as much out of life as his partner though he had lived many years longer. Ai Coolidge never made any bad bargains, never took much counterfeit money or never took many chances. Never even gave himself many vacations, other than now and then a camping trip or a horseback ride into the mountains to salt the cattle. On those trips he whittled at a piece of jerked venison and enjoyed life as much as it was ever intended he should. His perfect wife was happiness enough for a man to enjoy and likely in her company he found full value, but his sympathies were never played on like those of Jake McClaine. The two partners must have ridden horseback half of their lives, though it wasn’t a range country. They figured interest on horseback, though they never kept a book of the firm’s business, which was rather unique; but they soon began to acquire farms, as they loaned money from ten per cent. up and they enjoyed giving the closest attention to those farms. I used to ride with them on a pony and sometimes behind one or the other on the same horse, and I have seen them ride for hours without saying a word to each other. They each had a dog and each found fault with the other’s dog. Jake McClaine had a keen sense of humor and he continually exercised it on his more thoughtful partner. One day when we were at the Spooner place, Jake kept yelling at Ai’s dog. Every moment or two Jake would yell in a clear voice, that echoed in Drift Creek Canon, “Here, come back!” then turning to his partner, he’d say, “Ai, why don’t you make that dog come back?” Ai rode along, never paying the slightest attention. Strangely enough, each dog would obey his master, but wouldn’t pay any attention to the orders of the other. Finally Ai’s dog chased a steer for ten minutes and Jake cursed and called, but the dog kept on. Finally McClaine turned to Ai, demanded that he make his dog mind; whereupon, with a twinkle in his eye, Coolidge said, “I’ll give him to you, you make him mind.” Coolidge’s dog had been caught in a steel trap when he was a small pup and had one toe missing on a forefoot. The dog would travel all day on three legs and did, all the balance of his life, except when he saw a squirrel, then he seemed to forget all about his once sore foot and ran like any other dog, and this was an opportunity for Jake McClaine, as he would argue with his silent partner for fifteen minutes at a time why Coolidge didn’t make his dog walk on four legs, instead of three, whether there were any squirrels in sight or not. But I think Coolidge rather enjoyed Uncle Jake as a clown, as he rode miles without ever making a reply to any of his talk. Jake McClaine had a bay mare and she and his shepherd dog Prince were steady companions during that middle portion of life and early latter portion that is so important to all mankind. Jake McClaine made the best chief marshal at the Fourth of July parade of anybody around; in fact, you put a red or blue sash around him and he looked like a Greek god. His beard hung in ringlets like ancient Homer’s; his clothes were worn with the most artistic careless swing imaginable, but there was something more to Jake McClaine than artistically hung clothes, something more than any other banker in the world. True, he would take advantage of you in money matters the same as other bankers; he would squeeze money till it got slick and shiny and to avoid argument I can say that he had perhaps all the small business ways of great financiers; but there was another side to him, another Jake McClaine, who lived in the same house with the banker, and with that Jake McClaine there were no partners, and nobody ever asked to be his partner. Few, if any, were capable. I never saw a funeral pass through Silverton that Jake McClaine didn’t ride his bay mare at the head of the procession, and I heard of one passing through town where he rode at the head that I was unfortunate enough not to see. They were the only times he ever grew very serious; no one ever died in the vicinity but what Jake McClaine was there when they needed help. If they were poor or rich or just well to do, he took complete charge; made the arrangements for the funeral and rode ahead and let down the gaps in the rail fences and whether the funeral was over a fellow pioneer or someone’s hired man, with bare head, with his white curly hair and beard, he looked as fine a type of just plain man as you ever saw. I never saw him look worried only once at the graveyard, and that was the first year the band tried to play at Decoration Day exercises. The graveyard hadn’t been running long and there was only one soldier buried there, but the G. A. R. wanted to remember him, so the band and Uncle Jake went there with the big parade just as if the graveyard was full of soldiers. Jake rode the bay mare ahead of the procession as usual. Part of the band lived in the country and didn’t get into town to practice as much as they should. We had just got some new music and among it was a funeral dirge, the first ever brought out there. It was No. 21 in the new book. The country members were late getting in and the big rush and the few stiff beards at the barber shop put them still later getting to the band hall, where the procession was to form and march to the church. They came finally, out of breath, and we were half an hour late, so we went to the church on double quick march, backed up to the church solemnly and started for the graveyard down below town. No. 21 in the old book happened to be our favorite quickstep, so when the leader yelled No. 21, the town members turned to the dirge and the countries turned to the quickstep. We had been playing about half a mile when I noticed there was something wrong; we didn’t just seem to swing right. It was hard for some of the old soldiers to keep step. At the graveyard there was a big crowd waiting and me playing the snare drum, which was muffled in black. I could look around, and I saw by the expression of Jake McClaine’s face that there was something wrong. We were game, though, and played right up until we surrounded the grave, and stopped. There were two bass players, one from town and one from the hills, and they made a peculiar contrast. Nobody mentioned it, but the joke was out and an old soldier with a wooden leg said to Jake, “No wonder I couldn’t keep step, when I used to in the army without any trouble.” Jake MeClaine said to him in a low voice, “Keep step! I nearly fell off my mare.”

The average winter weather of Oregon is very rainy, while as a rule the cold is not the most severe by any means. But the worst night I ever saw, I saw in Silverton. Father and I were sitting by the fire listening to a tearing and howling storm one night about nine o’clock. We were feeling comfortable as we knew all of our stock, which wasn’t large, were in under comfortable sheds. We were getting ready for bed, and wondering whether the storm would tear the chimney off the house or not, when I heard a slam of our barn door. I knew if father heard it he would make me go out and fasten it, notwithstanding the storm, which had me completely cowed, but father wasn’t afraid of the dark howling nights and I knew it, so about every time I thought the door would slam, and I had it pretty well timed, I would clear up my throat and was stalling it off in fine shape, till father engaged me in a conversation by asking me what was the matter with my throat anyway, and when I went to tell him the door slammed, and sure enough he heard it. His eyes sparkled as he straightened up in his chair alert. “There, Homer, that’s the barn door, and as awful as this storm is, we must get out to the barn and tie it shut, or this wind will tear it off its hinges in less than an hour. And what’s more, such a storm as this might tear the roof off the barn, if it gets under it. It’s the worst storm I have ever seen in Oregon.” There was nothing to do but put on all the rubber clothes we could find, tie them, and take a lantern and start for the barn, some fifty yards from the house.

We held on to each other for protection, the light going out with almost the first awful crash of the storm. We hung on to each other for dear life, and bunted against a turkey and some chickens. They had been blown out of the trees where they were roosting, and were groping about on the ground. We reached the barn, got inside and stood for a moment almost exhausted, and drenched to the skin.

We noticed that there wasn’t a light streak anywhere in the sky. We relit the lantern, for it was as black as pitch, and the roar of the storm as it tore past was something awful to hear. It had that effect that night air and rain sometimes have of making the brave fear. It was just the night that would cause the bravest of men to shudder and quiver like a leaf. We got hold of the slamming upstairs barn door, and held it fast as it slammed shut with the noise of a cannon. After tying it safely, we delayed before starting back to the house. We wished our bed and dry clothes were there in the barn so that we could stay all night. We looked at the cows and horses, all showing fear, as they listened to the storm. We were so cold we had to start.

We couldn’t make a mad dash, because in the fury of the storm and the absolute blackness of the night, we couldn’t keep our bearings and were liable to hit a tree. Father suggested that we go back through the barnyard to the street, then hold to the fence along the sidewalk to the house, which we did. Through some miracle the lantern stayed lit. We had just reached the sidewalk and were feeling our way toward the house, when a dog came into the dim glow of the lantern and shook himself. It was old Prince, Jake McClaine’s dog. “That’s strange,” said father, “as he is never away from Jake.”

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Just at that moment through a lull of the noise of the dreadful night, Jake McClaine yelled at us. We couldn’t see him although he was as near as he could ride the bay mare, owing to the four-foot walk. We yelled, “Where have you been?” He said in return he had been to Salem to see Bush (the banker there). “Drove out,” said he; “got back at dark, was wet through anyway and my hired man said that over town they believed the Hults up near Cedar Camp were all down with diphtheria. And I got to thinking maybe they needed help, so I had the mare saddled and I am going up.”

“Jake,” my father called, “are you crazy? Have you lost your wits entirely? Don’t you know that when you get into the live timber in the mountains you will be struck every twenty feet by flying limbs?”

“Well,” he said, “I have thought of that, but there is no way to get around that belt of live timber, and I thought as I couldn’t see at all, I might take a chance and dodge the best I can, so I’ll be off.”

“Jake, hold on.” But no answer came from the black night but the howling storm. We even waited a moment till the sheets of water seemed to shift till we could call again, but no answer, and we got into the house. Father held me by the wet hand, and looked me in the eyes with the expression of a wild man for fully a minute. We didn’t speak; then he said, “Homer, I wonder if you realize what a night this is, and what a man such a man is.” We got off our wet rubbers and coats and bundles and sat at the warm oak fire till nearly two o’clock, talking of Jake McClaine. We thought of him in this way: he with Ai Coolidge, have the best houses in all Silverton, the finest, softest beds, with the biggest and best pillows; he has the best things to eat; the warmest fireplace: he doesn’t need to work, yet he would leave all that to go twenty miles into the mountains through an eighth-mile strip of big timber, off into the dead timber, to investigate into the health of just a family of poor mountain people that didn’t know enough to move to the valley, just because the man wanted to live like the trapper and hunter that he was. It was a trip that all the money in the world couldn’t have hired me to make.

But this wasn’t all that gave us food for talk; as father says: “It was this same Jake McClaine, this man with unkempt hair and beard, with one pant leg in his boot and the other out, that came when my family was down to death’s level with smallpox, when we lived in the hills; when neighbors, yes, even relatives, had fled and left me alone; when no one came near to help me, then this man that we yelled to in the storm, came unsolicited and came every day and stood to the windward side of the house and asked after my needs. But,” said father again, “I would have done that for him, although smallpox in those days was looked upon as death itself. But I wouldn’t go with Jake to-night if he gave me all of his money. Common sense wouldn’t permit me to go into those mountains to-night. It’s only a few hours till morning, then I’d go, but not to-night, no siree! I owe too much to my own family.”

We really hated to go to bed, it was such a pleasure to have such a strong character so forcibly impressed upon our minds. Morning came, the poor landscape looked bewildered; it had been through an awful night. The trees were resting, they hadn’t had much sleep and they looked tired and worn out. The streams were out of their banks, and we heard of some bridges that were gone, down on the prairie.

We were afraid we would hear that Jake’s body had been found. We went over to see his wife to see if his horse had come home, and his family were naturally as much worried as we, though no news had come from him. That afternoon Jake came from the mountains; he had reached there just at daybreak, he said. No one was stirring around the log cabin; said he called but no one came. He finally went in and found them all sick and in bed. Hult asked him to see about the children over a few beds away from his. He said, “I ain’t got them to answer since yesterday some time. And they ain’t none of them taken their medicine lately.”

Jake was looking them over when he slowly took his hat off. He found that out of the large family, four of the children were dead, so he came to town after coffins and medicine, and was soon on the way back with the doctor. Then next day he came as a funeral all by himself; he had hitched his mare in with Hult’s mule, and as he passed through town with four small coffins in the vehicle on his way to the graveyard, most everybody joined him and went with him. Those were the times when Jake McClaine didn’t have a partner, no matter how many firms he was in.