Fiction

HIGH SIERRAS

There’s just no satisfying some folks. Take old Joe Belcher, hankerin’ for the High Sierras when he could have had nice, restful Winnimuck with sand hills all around

EDWARD A. McCOURT September 1 1948
Fiction

HIGH SIERRAS

There’s just no satisfying some folks. Take old Joe Belcher, hankerin’ for the High Sierras when he could have had nice, restful Winnimuck with sand hills all around

EDWARD A. McCOURT September 1 1948

HIGH SIERRAS

EDWARD A. McCOURT

There’s just no satisfying some folks. Take old Joe Belcher, hankerin’ for the High Sierras when he could have had nice, restful Winnimuck with sand hills all around

LIKE you say, the cars are gettin’ back on the road fast. But things still ain’t what they were before the war. Many and many’s the time in the old days I’ve seen six mebbe eight, different license plates lined up across the street, there and I’d have more strangers in here for snacks in a day than I would regular clients. Not that I miss them, no sir. I like to cater to the home folks. You drop in here any night after the movie’s out or on Sunday after church and you’ll find the place filled right, up with mebhe some customers waitin’ for seats. Young folks mostly, but grownups too. Why, some of my most regular clients are good substantial businessmen like Orv Price and Gus Haskins and that crowd.

But like I was a’sayin’, before the war the old highway was hummin’ from early mornin’ to late at night, ’specially in July and August when most folks get off on their holidays. I could never see much sense in it., though. Me, I’m satisfied to stick right here in Barnesville where I was born and brought up. ’Course I’ve traveled some in the way of business, like when I went clear into Winnipeg to see about furnishin’s the time I was doin’ the place over and addin’ those booths down the sides, but like I always say to the missus, what does it get you? You got to come back sometime and all you got to show for it is a lean bank account,. Besides, we got just about everything right here in Barnesville that a person could want.. We got a movie house that brings us the best in first-run pictures—changes three times a weekand Wednesdays and Saturdays there’s dancin’ in the Oddfellows’ Hall with sometimes a real big shindig sponsored by the Elks or Rotarians that, everybody gets behind and puts over in a big way. Yes, mister, I belong to the Chamber of Commerce. Secretary. How’d you know?

Some folks, though, ain’t content to stay put. Like old Joe Belcher. Old Joe was a character. He’s dead now, died the summer before the war. But Barnesville ain’t goin’ to forget him in a hurry. You just ask Orv Price or Art Hodgins

or any of the womenfolk in town. They’ll tell you.

Joe was certainly a character. After his ma died—she was over eighty at the time and Joe was near sixty—he sort of lost what little interest, he had in gettin’ on and did less and less work and drunk more and more rotgut, until at last everybody figgered he’d have to apply for relief. But he never did. I figger he must have had some money hid away in a sock somewhere. No, mister, you ain’t keepin’ me from my work. The afternoons is always pretty slack and there won’t be much doin’ till long about five. You just set right, where you are. I like to have folks drop in and talk. Besides, Jud won’t, have your tire fixed for a while yet.

Well, old Joe was quite a character. You could find him in here most any mornin’ of the week long about eleven, sittin’ up on mebbe the stool you’re on right now, drinkin’ java. He always had a nickel for java and believe me, mister, after some of the nights he had he sure needed it. He’d come in here lookin’ like he’d been drug through a wringer and then slept in a haystack and he’d plunk down a quarter and he’d say, “Eddie, five cups of java,” or four cups if it was only twenty cents. So I’d give him the java a cup at a time and about the third cup his hand wouldn’t be

shakin’ quite so bad and he’d look around to see who was there and he’d start to talk.

“Listen, Eddie,” he’d say, “I’m gettin’ out tonight, d’ye hear?” And then I’d wink at the boys—there was always two or three of them come in just about the same time Joe did just to hear him talk—and I’d say, “Sure, Joe, where you goin’ this time? I suppose you wired for a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria? All the boys tell me it’s a good cheap place to stay.” And then Orv Price would say, “Naw, Joe ain’t goin’ to New York. Too tame. You’re goin’ to Honolulu or mebee Tayhiti, ain’t you, Joe? Boy, just think of all the hootchy-cootchy gals that’s waitin’ for you under the palm trees.”

But old Joe wouldn’t let on he heard. “Me, I’m goin’ where there’s hills,” he’d say over and over again. “Mountains, that’s what I want, mountains that r’ar right up and stick their tops through the stars. These plains is too doggone flat. They give me the willies.” And then, after a while, he’d go out mumblin’ to himself and beat it to the postoffice for the mornin’ delivery, doe always got lots of mail. Circulars from travel agencies likt* Cooks and places like that. You ought to have seen his old shack. 1 was in there the day after he died and it was a sight. All the walls was papered from top to bottom with pictures he got out of old magazines like the National Geographic. They were pretty near all mountains with lots of snow on them. Of course, we knew old Joe was crazy as a bat, but we didn’t know how crazy until we saw the shack.

JC’AN remember just, as clear as anything the night he went to Mexico. Must have BE«MI all of fifteen year ago. He come in here about nine o’clock in the evenin’, all slicked up, new shirt, shoes shined, carry in’ an old straw grip that, was tied up with string and bustin’ out all over. And for once IK* was pretty near dead sober. Well, sir, he hopped on a stool and plunked down a nickel on the counter. “Eddie,” he says, “a cup of java. Black.” I give him the java. “How’s tricks, Joe?” I says. “Great,” he says. “Couldn’t, be better.” “You leavin’ us?” I says. “You’re doggone right 1 am,” he says. “I’m leavin for Mexico at midnight... And I’m going to climb every doggone mountain I can find between here anil there and I’m goin’ to set on t he top in a snowdrift and watch the stars come out and mebbe grab a handful and bring them back home with me for souvenirs.”

He meant, it too. “Ridin’ the rods,” I says. “You better be careful, Joe. You got to be pretty spry to get away with it.” And then Orv Price who’d come in with a couple of the boys in time to hear part of what we were sayin’ spoke up. “How about, a little drink to celebrate, Joe?” he says. “It’s an awful dry ride to Mexico.”

Well, to make a long story short, by the time Joe went down to the station to catch the midnight freight he was tighter than

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High Sierras

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a tick. The freight rolled through at about two miles an hour on account of stopping at the water tower just the other side of town and an old lady in a wheel chair could have hitched on easy. But not Joe. First thing we know he’d lost his holt on the ladder and slipped off and the corner of the next boxcar caught him on the hip as he was failin’. He was in a plaster cast for six weeks and his leg wasn’t never right afterwards. Always walked with a limp and his foot drug.

Well, mister, you can imagine the ribbin’ he got from the boys. Orv Price nicknamed him the mountain goat and Fatty Randall was always askin’ him was it cold on the top of Mount Everest and did he get his leg broke goin’ up or cornin’ down? Old Joe didn’t take it very good. Fact is he got sort of ugly, so after a while I had to tell him that 1 wasn’t solicitin’ his patronage any more because he didn’t make a very refined atmosphere. Besides, he was harder up than ever and he couldn’t afford no more than one cup of java at a time and sometimes he’d just come in and set.

So that’s how things stood up to the night of the fire. We’d had an awful dry summer—summer before the war that was—with a lot of wind, but funny thing was the fire bust out on a night there was no wind to speak of. ’Most everybody in town was over to Burnt Lake to the ball tournament. We had a swell team that year with big Jeff Nevers pitchin’—he got his at Dieppe—and the Haskins twins at second and short, about as smooth an infield combination as you like to see. We won 3-2 in the eleventh when Hank McKinnon— he’s dead now too, plane crashed in trainin’—smacked a two-bagger into left with Loopy Haskins on first. That was a real game. You ask any of the boys that seen it. They’ll tell you.

But about the fire. It started in an old shack where the Harrises lived. The Harrises were no-good riffraff, livin’ on odd jobs and relief. Old Joe lived right acrost the tracks from their shack and he must have seen the smoke right soon after the fire started. I guess he got uptown faster than he’d done in thirty years and started ringin’ the fire bell. We got a fine fire bell right on top of the fire hall. We got a mighty slick volunteer fire brigade, too. But the night of the big fire all the boys were over to Burnt Lake, some of them playin’ and on the ball team, and the folks that did hear the fire bell they figgered it was someone startin’ to celebrate because the final score has just been phoned in.

Well, you certainly got to hand it to old Joe. He kept his head like you never would have thought he would, rounded up some of the Harrises that started the fire and got an axe and smashed in the door of the fire hall. '1 hen they pushed the fire engine out onto the street and turned her on. By that time the flames had spread some, but people had at last woke up to what was really goin’ on and Joe was able to get a couple of bucket brigades workin’ as well as the engine. Anyways, they got the fire under control pretty quick and no damage done exceptin’ two shacks burned down and the corner of the poolroom scorched up some. The door of the fire hall was pretty badly busted but you couldn’t hardly blame Joe for that. No one got hurt exceptin’ old tnan Mainfieet— wheel of the fire engine run over his foot and cracked a couple of bones. Joe got burned a bit about the hands and got some

pretty bad cuts from broken glass. Seems when he saw the smoke cornin' out the Harris’ shack he bust a window and helped the kids out. They were trapped in a back room.

WELL, about a week after the fire Art Hodgins—he was mayor then — got up in Rotary and give a little talk about what a debt we all owed to old Joe and how we ought to take up a collection and give him a testimonial. And Orv Price got right up and seconded what Art Hodgins said and two or three other big businessmen said they were right behind the idea and would be glad to start the ball rollin’. Right away a committee was appointed to look into the matter with Art Hodgins, chairman, and me and Orv Price and representatives of the various societies in town, includin’ ladies, makin’ up the rest of the committee.

We had a meetin’ next night after supper and right away we run into a snag. We couldn’t figger out what to give Joe by way of testimonial. There was three women on the committee, Arvida Elmsley and Lulu Randall and old Mis’ Bates, and they were all plumb full of ideas that weren’t any good, like doin’ his shack over or buyin’ him a big hamper of groceries when the only thing along that line that he’d have thanked you for was a case of gin. Finally Art Hodgins suggested that we should ask Joe himself what he’d like, since he was bound to know about the collection bein’ made so we couldn’t keep it a surprise. Well, that seemed like good sense, so a committee consistin’ of me and Art Hodgins and Lulu Randall was appointed to ask Joe what he’d like and report back.

We corraled Joe down on a bench in front of the station and Art, without heatin’ round the bush told him right out that the town was presentin’ him with a testimonial and since we wanted to put the money to the best possible use would he please tell us what it was he’d like most. Well, sir, he seemed plumb knocked out for a minute or two. He just sat there with his eyes closed like he didn’t rightly believe what Art said, and then all of a sudden he opened them and sat up straight. “That’s mighty kind of you, mighty kind,” hesays. “And I’m real glad you asked me what 1 wanted. Because there’s somethin’ I want awful bad and I don’t see no way of gettin’ it myself.”

“Well, Joe,” says Art, “we’ll be delighted to help you—within reason of course. Now tell us, what is it that you want so bad?”

Well, sir, the old boy’s hands begun to shake like he’d been on a three-day toot, and his voice was a-quiver with excitement so you could hardly get what he was sayin’. “Listen,” he says, “I got an awful hankerin’ to see the High Sierras.”

“The High Sierras?” says Lulu. “What’s them?”

“The High Sierras,” says Joe, “is mountains.”

“But Joe,” says Art, “the High Sierras is a long way off. I n the States. Why do you want to go there?”

“1 dunno,” says Joe. “1 dunno. I guess mebbe it’s the name. High Sierras. Don’t it make you feel funny? And listen, just get me a one-way ticket . I figger that when 1 see t lie mountains 1 won’t ever be cornin’ back.”

Well, we talked it over in committee and right away we saw that a trip like that was goin’ to run into real money, even if we got Joe an excursion ticket and, besides, it seemed a shame to throw away the donations with nothin’ to show, so Art throwed the meetin’ open for practical suggestions. And

right away Arvida Elmsley came across with a good one. “Listen everybody,” she says, “us girls have been talkin’ this thing over and we got a real good idea. Joe wants to get away, he wants a little holiday just like the rest of us, and there’s no reason why he shouldn’t have it. Why don’t we send him to 'Fumble Inn for a little while, all expenses paid? And we can buy him a secondhand suit down to Jim Turner’s so’s he’ll look respectable.”

Of course, everybody saw right away what a swell idea it was and it passed unanimous. 'Fumble Inn is a lodge up at Lake Winnimuck, about fifty miles north. Flo Henpenny who runs the place is Arvida’s aunt and me and some of the boys figgered that Arvida got her cut on whatever business she could put in Flo’s way, but just the same it was a good idea. Winnimuck is nice and restful and there’s some sand hills around. We figgered Joe would be happier if he had somethin’ to climb.

We arranged for the presentation to be made at the chicken dinner that the Ladies’ Aid always puts on in the town hall just before harvest.

We figgered on makin’ it durin’ the intermission that come halfway through the program followin' dinner, and for a while we were real worried because the presentation was to be a pretty big thing and Joe didn’t show up for the dinner at all, though he’d been invited special and given a free ticket. But right after the tables were cleared and carried out and the seats put up, he come hobblin’ in the door lookin’ cleaner than he’d looked since the night he nearly went to Mexico and just bustin’ with excitement. There was some clappin’ when he showed up and then the program got started and everybody forgot about Joe for a while.

But when the intermission come round everybody got to clappin’ and cheerin’ again, and when us members of the committee went up front in a body and took our seats on the platform the applause became deafenin’. Then Art Hodgins made a real nice speech about how pleased we all were to have this opportunity of showin’ our esteem and affection for a fellow citizen who had been one of us for many years, and who had been the means of rendering service to the good folk of Barnesville. And then he called Joe Belcher to please come up to the platform.

OLD JOE got up off of the bench he was sittin’ on down near the door and come down the centre aisle with everybody cheerin’ and whistlin’ and shoutin’ “Good old Joe, atta boy Joe, you show ’em Joe,” and things like that, just like he was a prize fighter climbin’ into the ring. He had some trouble gettin’ up the steps on account of his bad leg, but he made it all right and stood there lookin’ awful scairt but. awful pleased as well.

Well, sir, Art shook Joe by the hand like he was proud of the privilege, and everybody settled down and he said, “Joe Belcher, as Mayor of Barnesville I am pleased and proud to have the honor of shakin’ the hand of a brave man and good citizen.” And then he let go of Joe’s hand and took a big envelope out of his inside pocket. “Joe,” he says, “a few days ago we asked you what you would like most by way of a token of our esteem and appreciation and you expressed a I desire to see the High Sierras.” He stopped there to clear his throat and I I saw old Joe’s face go white as chalk.

“And so,” says Art, “we talked it. over I in full committee and right away the I ladies said there was hardly any eligible unattached men in town right I now and they was goin’ to hang onto what they got.”

Well, everybody bust out laughin’ at that and there was a lot more whistlin’ and cheerin’ and then Art says, “Well, you know, Joe, you can’t argue with the ladies, and so we’re not goin’ to send you to the High Sierras. We’re goin’ to do a lot better.” Then

he held out the envelope. “Joe,” he says, “here is a token of esteem and appreciation from the good citizens of Barnesville to their fellow townsman, Joe Belcher—a full ten-day holiday at Tumble Inn, all expenses paid, anda purse of spendin’ money in addition. Happy holiday, Joe.” And he shook Joe’s hand with one of his and give him the envelope with the other.

Old Joe just stood there like he couldn’t believe his ears while everybody hollered and stomped and whistled some more. Then Orv Price stood up and hollered “Speech,speech,” and everybody joined in, until Art held up his hand and in a minute you could have heard a pin drop while everybody waited for Joe to say a few words.

But he just stood there starin’ at the envelope without openin’ his mouth. His face was so white it plumh scairt me. I guess everybody figgered he wasn’t goin’ to say a few words, but he said them all right. All of a sudden his face wasn’t white any longer, it was red like he was all on fire, and he turned to the three women that were sittin’ in a row along one side of the platform “You old crows,” he says, just like that. Then he tore the envelope in two with the vouchers and receipts and everythin’ inside, dropped the pieces on the floor along with the purse of spendin’ money and hobbled back down the aisle and outside before anyone could say a word.

It sure was a tough spot for Art Hodgins to be in, but he didn’t lose his head. Right away he announced that there would be a five-minute breather before the second half of the program begun and then he signalled me and

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Orv Price and we pulled the curtain? acrost quick. But you can imagine, mister, the racket that went on dowr front, everybody talkin’ at onct. Matter of fact nobody paid much attention to the rest of the program. It was sure a tough night for the secondhalf performers.

I guess it just goes to show you that the more you do for some people the less thanks you get. No, Joe never did say nothin’ more about it. You see, he died next day. Art Hodgins went down to his shack just before noon to tell him what we all thought of the way he acted and how terrible the women on the committee felt, and he found old Joe stretched out stiffer than a board. Seemed like a stroke. I guess he must have figgered he was goin’ to see the High Sierras all right an never comin back, because he’d cleaned out just about everythin’ in his shack—sold all his household goods to Jim Turner vve heard afterward. And the old stra* grip packed with the rest of his junk was standin’ right beside the door.

No, sir, there wasn’t hardly even a scrap of paper left in the shack. Just a few travel circulars layin’ on the beC with a lot of mountains on them. ★