The Country Boy/Chapter 5

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The Country Boy  (1910)  by Homer Davenport
Chapter 5


Some time after I quit railroading, I was working in a field, through which the railroad track ran on father’s farm just below Silverton. I was plowing this piece for the first time. Father came down and looked on while I plowed a couple of rounds; he said to see me plow put him in mind of an old sow that they used to own in Ohio. I asked him why I reminded him of a pig, especially at plowing; he said the similarity was this, that a sow could root up a field as well as I could plow it.

Each day when the train came through, my friend Palmer, the engineer, would throw me the daily Oregonian, which he had finished reading.

After receiving this paper, the work would be lighter during the balance of the day and it eventually prolonged the plowing until spring came, and about the only crop we had was old papers. While reading through one of the papers I noticed a paragraph saying that a car would leave Portland, Oregon, on Wednesday night of the following week—this was Friday—for New Orleans, with a select aggregation of sporting men from Portland to the Dempsey–Fitzsimmons championship fight. I read the statement many times, and felt more enthusiastic after each reading; so I went to the barn with the team, told father it was too dry to plow, and took the next train for Portland.

When I got to Portland, I went to the publisher of the Sunday Mercury, as it was the only sporting paper there; told him I was an artist and wanted to go to the big fight at New Orleans and do him a series of pictures. He asked me how much I would charge him, and I told him all I wanted was my transportation for the round trip. Ben Walton was an enterprising man, and strange as it may seem, agreed without ever asking to see any of my art work, and that fact alone made it possible for me to go. When I found I was really going, I wrote to my relatives and friends at Silverton of the great trip I was going to take, and in a couple of days my grandmother sent me by express a basket of roast chickens, a half-dozen pies and cakes, some hard-boiled eggs, and an assortment of pickles, as a light lunch to eat on the train.

I was not certain just where New Orleans was and as the day approached when I should leave, I became very nervous, owing to the fact that I didn’t have a dollar to start on the trip with. I hinted so strongly though, the day I left, that the publisher of the Mercury, determined to make the experiment a success, gave me ten dollars. He had had a banner painted that I was to present to Dempsey as he came from the ring victorious. In getting the transportation, he was unable to get it further than Fort Worth, Texas, and return; but the railroad official, who was T. W. Lee, afterward general passenger agent of the Lackawanna Railroad, told me the railroad company would have the balance of the transportation for me when I reached Fort Worth, Texas, which they didn’t. Wednesday night the train started over the Union Pacific Railroad, and the carload of sports advertised in advance, had dwindled down to one, myself, and such a tame looking sport that the company decided they hadn’t better send a special car, so I sat up in the smoker and tried to look wise.

At Denver we had coupled on our train a carload of real live sports, most of them being from San Francisco. I remember finishing the lunch the day we left Denver, and when we got into New Mexico we struck a blizzard, and the block system stopped us for three days, two days of which we had no food. And I might say at this point that real sports are not good humored when a train is up to its sides in snow, especially when the buffet is empty. My memory was that I had hurried over the lunch I had brought from Oregon, so I looked through the train and found it in the smoking car under the seat. I invited the man with the biggest diamonds to have a bite with me, and as we struck the carcasses of the chickens and got them warmed up again, we went over them and over them with much care and comfort.

Finally a snow plow came to us and we proceeded slowly, arriving at Fort Worth, Texas, Tuesday evening, and the fight was set for the next night, and as the regular train would not get there in time, the car of sports paid out $22 each, making up $500 for a special. Mr. Frank Maskey, the candy man of San Francisco, he of the large diamond, who had appreciated my invitation to lunch after a fast of two days, paid for me, and we sped on at the rate of a mile a minute and reached New Orleans in time.

I put up with the rest of them at the St. Charles Hotel, and at night went to the fight with a letter for admission from the editor of the Mercury.

I can describe the fight briefly by saying that owing to Fitzsimmon’s roughness and general coarse bringing up, I never had an occasion to even unwrap the banner that cost $150. So the next day I traded it off to a colored boy for an alligator, thinking at the time I would exhibit the alligator at the small towns on the road the following season. ’Twas the first one I had ever seen and I thought they were worth a great deal of money until next day the chambermaid in the St. Charles Hotel told me they cost thirty cents.

The next evening in the hotel lobby, Billy Vice of San Francisco came up to me and said, “Here is your $22; I got the railroad company to refund the money, as we paid them for the special and it was their fault the blizzard struck us;” and besides it wouldn’t be fair, as he says he told them most of us were newspaper men. It was like another blizzard striking me, as I was in the act of asking Vice for a quarter to get something to eat, but $22 put me on Canal Street right, mingling with the sports from every town in the Union. I hadn’t gone far when I heard the cluck of a chicken. I turned quickly and saw a nigger with two sacks, one in each hand. I overtook him and asked him if they were game chickens; he said they were. I then made known to him that I was the greatest game chicken fancier that ever set a hen, and it was my intention to purchase a choice lot before returning to Oregon, which was to be in two or three days. He took me to his home, where I examined several. I asked him his price and it appears he saw me counting my money, as he told me that being I was a visitor to New Orleans, I could have the two roosters for $22. After a sigh, I accepted. I took one under each arm and proceeded to the St. Charles.

I had no place to put them, just had to stand and hold them. As it was late at night and I had my key in my pocket, I managed to get to my room without being detected. Once in my room, I was compelled to remain in the dark, as to strike a light meant a cock tight that would arouse everybody. So I set one rooster on the back of a chair and the other on the rack made to hold the towel, which stood by the washbowl and pitcher, and with as little noise as possible I went to bed. Before I fell asleep I thought of the next morning, which was fast approaching; I was afraid they might crow. I had apparently just closed my eyes when I was startled by a loud clapping of wings, and a shrill crow which seemed to echo in every room in the hotel. At the same instant the one that had been roosting on the chair back, flew full tilt to the one that had challenged, and before I could spring from the bed they were fighting on top of the washstand.

It was just getting gray in the morning and the room was barely light, but once together the feathers flew, and before I could reach them they had knocked down the water pitcher. I finally grabbed and held one rooster, while the other one treed me on the bed. I was in the most awful position a fellow could be placed in in a strange hotel, with a Spanish gamecock in my arm treed on top of the bed, with the other rooster strutting around over the broken pitcher, just dying to get a bill hold of my bare shins. I pressed the button and soon the bellboy came, but he couldn’t get in as I had left the key in the door on the inside. I tried to explain my position over the transom. After shivering about for an hour, I thought of the only scheme of letting them fight until I dressed. Then I took them to a back street and there proceeded to hold them until the afternoon, when hunger drove me back to the hotel. The colored chambermaid found a bucket and a tub and I put one under each and never felt such relief in my life.

I was getting pretty hungry and I was completely broke save for twenty cents which I invested where it would mean the most in oyster soup. All at once it dawned upon me that I was five hundred miles from where my railroad transportation was available, and that I had a hotel bill yet to pay, and like a fool had paid out my last dollar for two of the spunkiest gamecocks I ever saw. One of them would keep a man busy, while two kept me up night and day, and threatened me with insanity, or something worse. I happened to recall that my friend the publisher, as the train pulled out of Portland, had yelled to me something like this: “If you get broke down there, draw on me.” So I went to a bank and told the cashier I wanted to draw on Ben Watson of Portland, Oregon, for $50. “Well,” said the cashier, “where is your identification?” “Who?” I said. “Where are your letters of credit; who identifies you?” “Oh, no one; I don’t know anyone in New Orleans but Jack Dempsey, and he is confined to his room.” All of my friends, the sports, had left for home while I was walking the back streets with a rooster under each arm.

“Well,” said the cashier, “why don’t you draw on him for $500? It will be just as easy as drawing on him for $50, if you don’t know anyone here, and have no letters of credit, not even a letter of introduction; I’d draw on him for $5,000, if I could find a cashier that was right. The best thing you can do is to step out of line and go outside and draw a big full breath.” I said, “What can I do, I am broke.” “Who are you and what do you do? You are evidently not a banker.” “No,” I said, “I am an artist sent here from Oregon. Came to illustrate the Dempsey–Fitzsimmons fight, and I want to get back home with my pictures. The man in Portland told me if I got broke to draw on him, so that is why I have come to the bank.”

I then remembered I had a letter of recommendation from Sylvester Pennoyer, at that time governor of the State of Oregon, and known to the world at large as Grover Cleveland’s particular friend. I let the cashier look at the letter, which said that my father was an honest man and a good and loyal citizen, and that he hoped I would turn out as well. The cashier said that if my father were there he could get money on the letter, but he seemed to take an interest in me and somehow guessed that I hadn’t traveled much. I told him this was the first trip and the last I would ever take. He put on his hat and took me next door to the managing editor of one of the leading local papers, who, he said, was a great believer in Governor Pennoyer, and that was my only chance for getting any money. I showed the editor Governor Pennoyer’s letter and told him I was almost starving in a great city like New Orleans. The editor looked thoughtfully for a moment, more thoughtful than editors generally look, then he handed me a blank draft and asked me if I would fill it out.

I took the pen, asked him the day of the month and I think the year; he told me and then there was a long pause. I had to tell him that I couldn’t fill it out. He laughed and said, “Young man, you just saved your bacon. If you had filled in that, I wouldn’t have paid a cent. But,” he said, “I’ll take a chance for fifty.” So the editor filled it out and I signed it and he endorsed it, and the bank cashier paid me $50.

I felt so thankful that I offered to give the editor one of the roosters that I had at the St. Charles, but he declined with thanks. I bade him an affectionate good-bye and in five hours was aboard the train for Portland, Oregon, with an alligator, two gamecocks and sketches of a championship fight, and in five days was in Portland with the sketches and game chickens, but no alligator. The alligator, when we got to Denver, where it was twenty below zero, refused to move even a toe, so thinking him frozen stiff and dead, I tried to bend him and he broke in two like a brittle stick, and I threw the pieces out the window. The truth is that had I put him in warm water, in five minutes he would have been swimming, but I wasn’t as much on alligators as I was on roosters.

I got home to Silverton and told my father of the great things I had seen, the glorious time I had had, but father seemed to be worried about something that didn’t please him; his face bore an expression of disappointment. I asked him what was the matter. He said he was disappointed to see me come home with only two roosters!

The roller-skate craze hit Silverton just as the spring-bottom pants fad was leaving town. It’s funny how fashions vary. I remember one spell in Silverton that we were having our trousers cut with so much spring on the bottom that only the end of our toes were exposed and six months after that high tide of spring-bottom pants we wore trousers legs so tight that it was difficult for some of us to get our feet through them, and it was at the beginning of the tight-pants craze that a fellow with a curled moustache and a pocket knife with a girl’s picture in it and fifty pairs of roller skates came to Silverton.

He started a skating rink in one of the big vacant halls on Main Street, and the first week there was standing room only. The second week about half the skates were in the shops for repairs and several of the town’s best citizens had hard work to straighten up. The proprietor of the skating rink made a big hit socially. He wore a new brand of perfumery and refused to give the receipt, so there was no competing with him along that line. The bottoms of his trousers were not any bigger than the tops of his shoes, so he had those of us who wanted to follow fashion killed at that junction; but a few of us got busy with the local tailor and we run him pretty close on tight pants. Some of us had to grease our insteps and heels to get into them; but the brand of perfume he wore, aside of the bottle he had, was evidently distinct and extinct, and owing to that fact he was the envy of the town.

This skating rink had a queer effect on the town in a general way; it acted as a sort of a leveler, an equalizer of station and fashion. The well-to-do skated with the poor, the handsome with the homely, and the freckled with the fair. It was one general mix-up in which there were no favorites. The funniest part of it was to stand across the street and listen on Saturday afternoon. Above the noise of the town was this general local roar of the skates, and as if periods or punctuations, the building shook with dull thuds. Sometimes they fell in clusters, others, one at a time; but you didn’t have to wait long to hear two or three dull sounding whacks that made the windows rattle on the upper story of the building.

I took two or three short dashes at it morning and evenings before I went to work, but they proved unsatisfactory. So I decided to wait until the next Saturday afternoon, when there were going to be some prizes given. I went early that afternoon, fairly groomed for the occasion; I felt fit like a trained athlete. I rented a pair of No. 10½s and went to work; had been going about an hour, when the world seemed pretty serious; in fact, I had fallen so often that it had ceased to be a joke. My hair was slightly mussed on the back of my head and I had seen about half a dozen quick flashes of fire, when I thought there must be some easier method. I took a leave of absence for half an hour and went over to Tuggle’s place (he was the biggest bellied man in town) and borrowed a pair of his overalls. My stepmother had sort of an economic pillow, just one pillow that went clear across the bed, so in that way you saved one pillow slip. With that pillow and Mr. Tuggle’s breeches, I remember turning in the rink door with a broad grin. I could see before I put on the skates that I had the game beaten, and it was going to be fun, too, as the biggest crowd was there that had ever been in attendance, and they were getting pretty reckless.

I lowered the pillow into the seat of the overalls after I had put them on, and then got a boy to hold the pillow up against my back while I put my vest over it, and I dove out into the thick of them. To my astonishment and a little to my disgust, I didn’t fall. I leaned back and tried to fall once to see how it would be, and I really couldn’t. I’d been skating fifteen minutes when I did fall, but fell forward and slammed my hands on the floor. In a few minutes I fell again forward and slammed my hands again. By this time that too had ceased to be a joke, as the ends of my fingers were throbbing as if they had hearts in them, and they were getting heavy to lug around, when an elderly lady, who had had some troubles of her own that afternoon, skated up to me and told me she thought perhaps we went at it too fast; so we were leaning against the wall talking over the scientific points of it, when I gave the audience a rare treat.

While leaning there talking, all at once my feet, that were close together, started and rolled out toward the middle of the room. I don’t think I bent a finger, but I fell exactly like a tree, and, lo and behold! the pillow burst. It must have been five minutes before they got through laughing all over the house and the better skaters were having great fun swinging through this “goose hair.” In a few minutes the feathers were so thick you could hardly see, and they followed in a boiling streak after every skater. Finally the largest girl on the floor, Lizzie Mescher, inhaled a feather, and she began to cough so that the people living in the outskirts of the city lifted up the windows and listened. We all thought it was a joke at first, until we saw she was black in the face. The strongest men in the crowd were beating her on the back and rather luckily for her, though unluckily for me, she finally coughed up the feather, which hit and broke one of the biggest window panes in town, so great was the velocity with which she let go of it. She didn’t skate that afternoon any more; she was big and stout when she got hold of the feather, but after she had wrestled with it for five seconds, it took a blacksmith on each side of her to steady her while they got her out of the building. It was a good thing, in a way, as it acted as a warning, so that those who still skated kept one hand over their noses and mouths; but the proprietor of the rink was afraid they might break more window panes, so he declared a recess of ten minutes while they swept out the hall, and at this point came another big laugh, as after three men had been sweeping twenty minutes they hadn’t got over three feathers out into the street, while a wagon load remained in the hall. Some fellow who had been used to sweeping out stores yelled to sprinkle them, so they did; but they only quelled the big feathers, which amounted to about half of them, while the dangerous kind were all up in the air and wouldn’t come down to be sprinkled, so they had to close the rink for the afternoon—what had started as the busiest afternoon of the season.

The proprietor of the rink tried to collect damages from father, and I think there was a compromise made. But the skating rink had one moral effect upon the people of Silverton that it might never have had, as the town was full of philosophers, mathematicians and smart men, and none of them would have believed if they hadn’t seen it, that just a little wet feather could break a pane of glass.

The next Fourth of July Silverton was down on the bulletin boards for a celebration, and as in all small country towns on such occasions, the village was keyed up to its highest pitch. Long before noon our barnyard had commenced to fill with wagons and hacks belonging to friends and relatives and a few people we owed, and among the wagons I recognized that of father’s brother, Uncle Ben, who lived up in the Waldo Hills. When Uncle Ben came to town, he always put his team in our barn and came into the house to joke and talk business, and though he was full brother to my father, Uncle never ate with us for the simple reason that my father ate plain food, while Uncle Ben didn’t care to waste any time with anything but fancy cooking. His wife, Aunt Lou, was about the best cook in all that part of the country, and I suppose Uncle Ben had gotten used to eating her cooking and couldn’t stand for anybody else’s; in fact, it was Uncle Ben’s pride and pleasure on state occasions to invite any dignitaries of the day to eat of Aunt Lou’s lunch, and if they knew Uncle Ben’s family at all well, they always accepted, as the meal was one you would seldom forget.

On this occasion Uncle Ben drove into the barnyard, and from the wagon in the heat of the sun he removed the gorgeous lunch that his wife had been two weeks preparing and carried it into our wagon shed. There it lay quietly hid under the seat of our old buggy, which stood there year after year, seldom being used other than that the chickens roosted on the back axle. I had been downtown early and had hunted up my friend Bob Patton, the undisputed champion sprinter of the county. We searched in vain for a foot race, but every sprinter was shy, and I, as his manager, saw that the day was going and we would get no race, so I suggested that we take his saddle horse and hitch to our old buggy and drive to Marquam, a village of about forty inhabitants, not counting the town cows, some eight miles below town, where they were also having a celebration. “All right,” said Bob; so we proceeded.

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We left Silverton about eleven o’clock and neglected to get anything to eat as our minds were too much on business and on the way to Marquam, I, as trainer and manager, suggested that we should have had something to eat but that now we had better postpone it until after we had run the race, if we got any. We arrived at Marquam, hitched our horse among the trees, and circulated among the farmers rather shyly, suggesting now and then in mild tones, a foot race. All of the athletic young men seemed to have heard of Patton and were not willing to run. Finally we found an old farmer who said he had never been beaten, and he would not allow any city chap to bluff him, so after half an hour’s effort on my part as manager, we made the match: one hundred yards, judges on the start and finish, start at the drop of the hat.

We placed all our money, after great difficulty and then began preparations for the race. The farmer was first to show at the start; he had tied his suspenders around his waist tightly, so that they gave him the appearance of being gaunt. He had dampened his long beard, that it might not catch too much wind. He had removed his boots, and was going to run in his sock feet; his pants legs having been wound around his legs and the socks pulled up over them, giving him a very athletic appearance. Patton came a minute later with his regulation suit on, spiked shoes and even corks to hold in his hands. We could have collected the money then and we blamed ourselves afterward for not doing it, as the farmer that was going to run and his backers all had stage fright, and they delayed going to the post, trying to get up some excuse to quit; but we preferred to run it out in true sportsmanlike manner.

After a couple of attempts, the hat fell and they were off, and in half a minute I was actually blushing. The old man had beaten Bob fifteen feet, the judges at the finish said, and when judges from the start came up, they said the city chap had five feet the better in the start. I thought they would knock my head and shoulders off, so great was their excitement. Bob used as an excuse that a dog had got in front of him, but that only added to the humiliation, as the dog out-ran him further than the farmer. We gave up the stakes and made a bee-line for the buggy, crestfallen and broke.