The Sins of Simon
ENTERTAINING SHORT STORIES
Ellis Parker Butler in Cosmopolitan
THE Mississippi was “up”—which means that the river was having the usual spring “rise” and that where once a dreary width of parched mud extended for a hundred yards beyond the fringe of sapling willows that lined the railroad embankment there was now a swirl of deep water—and in consequence the row of ten or twelve shanty-boats had moved in and were tied close up to the bank so that only a short plank was needed to form a landing-stage. The shanty-boats congregated a mile or two above town because there the shiftless boatmen were not obliged to pay wharfage, and to paying for anything but whiskey they had an undying aversion because the acquisition of money meant work, and work was contrary to their philosophy of life.
The shanty boatmen fished a little, both for food and for profit, and at times they added a little to their income by catching a stray log that had broken away from some raft and which they sold to the sawmill at the town below, but altogether they lived a dirty and indolent life and were looked upon with more or less, suspicion by the near-by farmers and by the citizens of the town. Much of the suspicion was unjust and undeserved, for few of the shanty boatmen were vicious. The worst that could be said of them was that they were lazy and improvident and lived without asserting the inalienable right of every American to pay taxes. But such as their faults, were they were permanent. The river had cast its spell over them, and once a river-rat, always a river-rat. They were mostly long, lean, and with bronze faces deeply lined by the weathering of many years. The women were slouchy and unkempt and weary-looking, acquainted with ague. The children were many. Everyone went barefoot all summer. It was a community of
equal poverty for all and of special privileges for none.
It was June, and hot. Inside the low cabins of the shanty-boats it was stifling, and the women had, as a rule, taken their potatoes to the decks at the shady ends of the boats and sat lolling over the paring of them, preparing dinner.’ The men were off fishing or up in the cool woods sleeping under the trees, and the children were playing wherever they choose.
As a rule all the doors and windows were open, but one boat had both doors closed, and on the narrower shoreward deck a girl sat with her arms around her knees and her chin buried in them. She was rocking to and fro and looking up at the hill beyond the railroad track. This was Sal Bang, only daughter of Sime Bang, whose wife had, as he said, “died on him” when Sal was six. She was fourteen now, and had been cook and mismanager of the shanty-boat for eight years. Sime was inside on his cot bed, groaning and, as far as indications went, dying a hard death. Sal was waiting to see whether he was really dying or was only drunk, but his groans increased and he called for water. When he called for water Sal felt that he must in fact be dying. She had not believed him when he told her, but the request for water was a symptom she had never met before, and it made her feel that he was actually near death. She went in and gave him a drink and then stood and watched him for a while, not knowing what else to do. Then she went out and shut the door and waited another while. The groans increased, and she stepped quickly out of the shade and crossed the sun-hot plank and hurried down the burning track bed to the next shanty-boat.
Mrs. Rufus Wallers looked up from her pan of potatoes as the girl stopped before her. “What’s up, Sal?” she asked. “What ye want to borry?”
The girl seated herself on the edge of the deck and let her brown feet dabble in the water. “I guess pa’s dyin’,” she said calmly. “I can’t make anything else out of it, he is carryin’ on so. Just a-groanin’ all the time, and he is sure as sick as a dog. I guess maybe you had better go over; I can’t seem to ease him none.”
“He ain’t just drunk, is he?” asked Mrs. Rufe doubtfully. “I’m mortal busy, and if it is just another of his drunks I ain’t got time to bother. I been over to help your pa die, and then found it was nothin’ but liquor about once more than I have got time to spare for. Don’t you be foolin’ me, Sal, for if he’s just drunk and I go over it will be the last time I’ll go.” Sally hesitated. “Well,” she said, “I ain’t even seen no one die, but pa says he is sure dyin’ this time. I won’t cross my heart on it, but that’s what he says. Maybe it’s liquor. I won’t say but he’s had some. He took some fish up to Schultz’s yesterday and come back with a jug of white wine
“Then don’t tell me your pa is dyin’ !” said Mrs. Rufe. “I know that white wine that old Schultz makes out of his own vineyard. I had some of it and my old man he had some, once, and I know how pizen it is. I guess me and the old man had all the symptoms of dyin’ too, when we had drunk a couple of glasses of that white wine of Schultz’s, but we didn’t know. When a pusson’s got two glasses of that in him he don’t know anything at all. I guess you had better go home and wait a bit, Sally, and see how your pa sizes up in an hour or two.” The girl got up and started home slowly. “All right,” she said indolently. “Bein’ as we was neighbors I thought you’d like to see him die, if he was goin’ to, but if he ain’t it don’t matter. I guess maybe it was the white wine, if it works that way, ’cause he hid down a lot of it. He drunk up the whole jugful.”
Mrs. Rufe dropped her knife and stood upright with greater energy then she had given way to in years. “What’s that?” she cried. “Your pa drunk a whole jugful of Schultz’s
home-made white wine? Why didn’t you say so long ago, instead of settin’ there like a ninny? It’s a blessin’ if he ain’t dead a’ready. That’s sure death, that is, to drink that much of Schultz’s white wine. I’d sooner be took with smallpox and carbolic acid and chollery and raw pizen than drink half that much of Schultz’s white wine, I would ! You skip home as fast as you can, and I’ll be along ’fore you git there !”
The girl did as she was told. She ran lightly along the railroad ties and crossed the short plank, but at the door of the shanty she paused. Her father was not dead yet, in any event. He was too noisy for any dead man, even one containing too much of Schultz’s home-made white wine, and his groans were mingled with words that threatened Sally with a good lashing when he got hold of her. She thought it best to wait for Mrs. Rufe Wallers to appear.
Mrs. Wallers was not so light of foot as Sally and as she crossed the plank Sime Bang heard her, and he unconsciously dropped into pure and simple groaning. I suppose we all do the same sort of thing at times. If there is any sympathy due us there is no use driving it away by unnecessary words. A groan is a good enough advertisement of our pain and is a non-commital sort of symptom. If we are really sick it expresses the pain very well, and if we are not as sick as we might be a groan is still a good thing to have handy. A person who bears a lot of pain without groaning is piling on a lot of useless style and, as like as not, does not get the reputation of being a stoic after all, no matter how much he wants that reputation. A little fresh sympathy goes farther than a great deal of indifference in easing a sufferer, and a good hearty groan is the best sympathy puller. I knew one stoic who went to a dentist. He just wasn’t going to be a baby about it, no matter how much the dentist hurt him, because he was one of the silent sufferers. So the dentist got out his tools and began to operate his tortures, and the first thing he did was to jab a
raw nerve. The stoic took a harder grip on the arm of the chair and said nothing. Then the dentist gave the raw nerve a harder jab, and the stoic nearly died with pain but would not show it. The dentist looked surprised, and reached for a more deadly tool, and gave the raw nerve a poke that made the stoic’s blood run cold and his hair curl, although it was naturally straight hair, but still the stoic would not utter a sound. Then the dentist did things to that raw nerve that would have made a whole race of stoics turn pale, and he kept on doing them, and at last the • man in
the chair uttered one faint little grunt, and at that the dentist stopped prodding and said, “Well, I thought I never would find that nerve.” He had expected the stoic to speak up like any other man, you see, and not lie about it by keeping silent. All he wanted to do was to locate the nerve; after that he did not hurt the man at all.
Sime Bang never made that mistake. He let his pain speak up plainly. This was not exaggeration, because in the shanty-boat village everybody did the same, and it was customary to allow a certain percentage for overstatement. You had to add it
because you knew it would be deducted from anything you said before your statement would be accepted. And you had to deduct it from anything any one said to you because
you knew it was added. If a man said he had caught a tenpound fish you knew he had caught an eight-pound one, and not a ten-pound one, because if he had caught a ten-pound fish he would have said he had caught a thirteenpounder, and if he said he had caught an eight-pounder you knew it was really but a six-pound fish. Once die system was understood it was easy
to follow. If Sime Bang, for instance, said he had had a falling out with Rufe Wallers and had “killed the long-legged cuss,” you figured off the discount and knew that the two men had had a quarrel and that Sime had hit Rufe over the head with a fish pole, or that, at least, he had shaken his fist at him.
Mrs. Rufe entered the house-boat and decided that Mr. Bang was a very sick man. He groaned like one, and he looked like one, and, in fact, he was a very uncomfortable man. He was really in great pain, and he thought he was dying. He told Mrs. Rufe that he was already dead and
buried and had a monument on him. He said he felt that way; that it was a big granite monument with “Rest in Peace” on it, and the whole thing set upon his stomach, but upside down, with the pedestal on top and the sharp point of the monument sticking into him. That was apt to be the effect of drinking Schultz’s home-made white wine. Mrs. Rufe sent Sally to call the nearest doctor—who happened to be a horse-doctor that lived just at the turn of the road where lied had a pasture or two in which he could let sick horses run while he was doctoring them—and herself set about doing what she could to make Sime’s last moments easy. The first of these kindly acts was to go through the shanty-boat's secret places to see if there was anything worth carrying off with her when she went home again. There was not much, but she took what there was and was satisfied, for she had not expected to find much. Then she sat herself down and told Sime it served him right to be in such a fix, for anybody with good sense would know enough to let Schultz’s white wine alone. This would have eased Sime considerably, no doubt, if he had been able to hear it, but he was too sick to make out the words if he could have heard them, and he was too busy groaning to hear them.
The doctor came and diagnosed the case correctly, after he had heard the story of the jug of wine. He said Sime had the worst case of colic he had ever seen. He had treated a colt once that had a case nearly as bad, but not quite. It would have become as bad as Sime’s case if the colt had lived, but he gave the colt some medicine and the colt died before it got as badly off as Sime. He said he was going into town the next day, and he would get Sime some of the same * medicine. Maybe it might help him some. You never can tell, he said. It might not do him any good, but it would not hurt him any because as like as not he would be dead before next day, anyway.
All that day Sime tossed and rolled and groaned, but at sundown he be-
came a little quieter, which Mrs. Rufe said was a bad sign. As she went home she told Sally that Sime would likely die at three in the morning, or maybe at a quarter after three, and that she would like to stay and see the end, but she felt her ague coming on and had to get home and to bed. She would send Rufe over to sit up with Sime.
Sally ate a bite or two—Mrs. Rufe had made a dab at getting dinner— and then sat down to wait. She had been up all the previous night while her father had been drinking for there was no sleep when he was drinking, and she was sleepy. Presently her head dropped forward and she fell fast asleep, and that was how Rufe Wallers found her when he came in.
“Help me gracious !” he exclaimed, “if the poor kid ain’t plumb wore out ! Plumb wore out watchin’ her old dad kick the bucket! Now, that’s what I call dog-gone touchin’, I do! With him a-dyin’ and my old lady a-jawin’ I don’t wonder the kid is played out, and what in tarnation she will do when he is dead, I don’t know. Hire out, likely.”
He picked her up and carried her to her cot bed and laid her on it, and then lighted his pipe and prepared to spend the night. Sime did not need much attention. Rufe bent over him a few minutes and studied him. He seemed to be asleep, but he groaned continually, and it was hard to tell whether he was asleep or in a stupor. At any rate there was nothing to be done, and Rufe lay down on the floor.
He filled all he space that the two cot beds and the stove did not occupy. He was a little different from the average shanty boatman in that he was more cheerful. His optimism was unfailing, and his cheerfulness ever present. He was just as lank and brown and ill dressed as all the rest, but he was ever happy, while the other men were chronically discontented and complaining. His thin face was shriveled into a thousand leathery wrinkles and his hair was sunburned to a musty tan color, but his eyes were still vividly and childishly blue, and
seemed to be looking always at a wonder-world. He saw a world that was going to yield him great thing next year—always next year. The things he set his heart on were always to materialize next year, and as next year is always a year from now he was never disappointed in his hopes. To realize his plans—that never worried him a moment. What is realization, anyway, but the ending of the sweets of anticipation, and anticipation is sweeter than realization. Rufe did not even descend to anticipation. He had the still sweeter morsel—planning great plans without actual anticipation of their eventuating in anything tangible. He lived a romance of great imaginings, and so rich was he that he would plan forty great plans in an hour, and forget them as fast as he planned them.
Rufe was no mere dreamer. He did not dream, for example, of falling heir to some unexpected fortune. That sort of thing gave him no pleasure. He was too practical for that. He planned things. Laid out all the details, just as he would work them out, and the whole thing was to depend on his own exertion or on his own wit— and then he forgot all about that plan the next minute in thinking up some new and grander plan.
He lay on the floor of Sime’s boat and planned. He began by planning Sime’s funeral, and forgot that in planning his own, and forgot that in planning his wife’s, and forgot ihat in planning how to get her a new dress, and forgot that in planning how to get shoes for the children to wear when they went to school next winter, and forgot that in planning their weddings, and forgot that in planning something else, and so on until suddenly Sime sat up in bed.
In a moment Rufe was at his side. All he had to do was to stand up, and there he was ! Sime looked at him a minute or two before he recognized him.
“Rufe,” he said, “I’m dyin’.”
“Well, I guess that’s so,” said Rufe, “but there ain’t no use worryin’ about it, Sime. I don’t see no way to help it, and f guess you won’t be no worse
off. Nor Sally won’t be. We’ll look out for Sally, so don’t worry about her none. You just go ahead and die as calm as you please, and don’t harrow up your mind none.”
Sime scowled. “That’s all right for you to say, Rufe,” he said quickly. “I could say the same if it was you that was dyin’ instead of me. But it ain’t you. It’s me that’s dyin’, and I’m dyin’ hard. And I ain’t fittin to go. No I ain’t. If I was I wouldn’t kick about goin’, but I ain’t.”
“You lay down and shut up,” said Rufe, gently. “You don’t know what you’re sayin’. If you did you wouldn’t say it. You’re delirious, that’s what you are, Sime, and you’re talkin’ crazy. And I’ll prove it to you, too. Because if you was in your right senses you wouldn’t say but what you was as good as the best man on earth. You know you wouldn’t. ’Tain’t like you. You lay down or I’ll push you down.”
Sime wept weakly, but he lay down as he was bid. “Can’t a man die like he wants to?” he asked peevishly. “Can’t I die settin’ up just as well as lyin’ down, I’d like to know? You ain’t got no right to boss my dyin’, Rufe.”
“Yes I have, too,” Rufe assured him. “You ain’t got anything to say about it. You are out of your head, and you ain’t competent to take charge. That’s what I’m here for.”
“I ain’t no more out of my head than you are,” moaned Sime. “My head’s as clear as a bell, and I know it. I’m weak, and I’m sick—dog sick —and I’m dyin’, but I ain’t out of my head, and when I say I ain’t fittin to die I mean it.”
“Well, maybe you ain’t,” said Rufe. “Of course I don’t want to say you are if you ain’t, Sime, and maybe I ain’t so well competent to say as you are, but you look all right to me. As near as I can figure, you are as fittin to die as any man I know, and if I was you I would just go ahead and die and not worry any. We ain’t none of us perfect. I ain’t, and you ain’t, but you’ll do all right, I guess.”
Sime groaned and shook his head. “No I won’t,” he mourned. “I won’t
stand no chance at all. I can’t go the way I am. I’ve got a heap of sins a-layin’ on my conscience that I ought to get rid of. You can’t guess how many, Rufe, because you ain’t had no experience that way. I wisht I had somebody handy that I could sort of confess them sins to. I hear tell that helps a man to die easy. I wisht I could try it. I ain’t fittin to die the way I am.”
“I don’t see how we are goin’ to get no preacher out here this time of night, help me gracious if I do !” said Rufe regretfully. “I’d do it if I could to see you die saddisfied. A man can’t die but once, and he’d ought to have the right to die right. That’s what I say. You don’t reckon it would ease you any to confess what’s the matter with you to me, do you, Sime ?”
“Rufe,” Sime groaned, “I’m a-dyin’ fast, I am, and my conscience it hurts me ’most as bad as my stomach does. I’ve got to relieve my mind to somebody.”
He lay back and the tears ran down his face. Rufe bent over him and smoothed his brow, and after a momen’t hesitation, took his hand.
“Go on, Sime,” he urged. “Spit it out. Tell me what’s on your mind. I ain’t what a preacher would be, but I’m the best that’s handy.”
The sick man lay silent for a minute or two, and then he spoke. “I ain’t got no chance !” he said weakly. “I’ve been a bad one all my life, and it will count agin me. But I do feel that it will ease me to speak out, Rufe, I-I-I’ve always been a hard cusser—”
“Now, that ain’t goin’ to be held up agin you, Sime,” Rufe assured him. “I don’t know anybody that don’t cuss a bit off and on. I do, myself. I guess when it comes to cussin’ I cuss twice to your once. Don’t let that worry you, poor sufferer.”
“And I ain’t always told the truth-” began Sime, but Rufe in-
“Who ever did?” he asked. “And when it comes to lyin’ you ain’t to be compared with me. Just you make your mind easy about that lyin’ busi-
ness, Sime. Don’t let that disturb your peace of mind. If you had ever learned to lie like I do then you might talk, but beside me you ain’t no more than a baby at it.”
Sime groaned. “There’s worse than that,” he said. “I ain’t been honest. I’ve stole. I stole a chicken not no more than a week ago-”
“Now, hold up !” exclaimed Rufe. “That’s nothin’ ! Everybody slips up that way now and agin. We all do. A chicken ! Why, I stole two of them just last night. And ducks—I can’t tell you how many ducks and geese I have stole ! Hardly a day goes by that I don’t steal some. I’m always on the steal, appears to me. That ain’t no sin worth talkin’ about. Ain’t you ever done no worse than that?”
“Yes, I have!” declared Sime, shaking his head woefully. “I run off with a man’s wife, and my own lawful wife a-livin’. That’s what I done once, Rufe.”
“Once !” said Ritfe cheerfully. “Once ! And you talk about bein’ wicked! I just wisht I could say that once was all I ever run off with a man’e wife, and that one was all the wife I had livin’ at the time! Why, Sime, there was never in the world a feller like me for the ladies ! Dozens don’t cover the number of times I’ve run off with poor trustin’ wives. Hundreds of times would come nearer to it. I had that sort of a way with me that they couldn’t withstand, and that’s a fact. I never could see a wife that I didn’t run off with her, and there was never a wife see me that she didn’t want to run off with me. I was a Don Jew-ann, all right. So don’t you worry about one little run-off. That’s nothin’, and if that’s all-”
The sick man moved uneasily on his cot bed. “You do think you’re a lot, don’t you?” he growled. “Well, I stabbed a man once. Stabbed him, that’s what I did, and I meant to kill him, too-”
“Meant to!” said Rufe scornfully. “And didn’t you? But maybe he run away. I remember that one of the men I tried to kill run away so fast that I couldn’t catch him, though I
must say it didn’t do him any good, for I had him shot so full of lead that when he come to the river and tried to swim it he sunk like a couplin’-pin, and was drowned. But I don’t count that one of my murders. I never did count him. But it wasn’t really necessary to count him, I had so many others. Forty-seven, that’s the number in my private buryin’ grounds—forty-seven. And you talk about meanin’ to kill one ! Sime, I’m ashamed of you !
Sime raised himself up in bed. “Lookee here, Rufe,” he said angrily, “I let you hang around here to hear
me confess my sins, and not to brag about what you’ve done ! I ain’t goin’ to stand it ! I don’t say" but you’ve a good enough right to do all them things you say, and I don’t say but what you’ve done them, but it ain’t you that’s a-dyin’—it’s me, , and
it’s my time to talk and not yours. You shut up and don’t be makin’ little of me. I guess I can tell some things that would make all the things you say look like nothin’. You don’t think I’d go and confess all I’ve done, do you? Not to you. I would to a preacher, but not to you. I’d tell a preacher all about the eighty or ninety men I’ve killed in cold blood, and I’d
make your little forty-seven look so sick-”
“I said forty-seven, did I?” asked Rufe. “Well, maybe I did. I don’t recollect what I said. I spoke offhand, not wantin’ to make the one poor little assault you mentioned look too pitiful, lest it might rile you, but since you want the truth, Sime, I’ll own up that murder has been my leadin’ occupation and amusement ever since I was old enough to walk. Forty-seven, did I say? That hgger sort of come out natural because it was the number of men I killed one afternoon that was in my mind. That was my top re-
cord for one afternoon, Sime. I might have made it bigger, but I didn’t start in killin’ until two o’clock-”
The sick man reached over and seized Rufe by the hair. It seemed as if the two would soon be in the midst of a bloody battle, but Sime merely gave the hair one twist and then released it, and Rufe got up and rubbed his head slowly.
“Well,” he said, “I guess the old woman will be lookin’ for me about now. I guess if there ain’t nothin’ else I can do for you, Sime, I’ll move along home.”