A Harvest Lancelot
The story of a mating in the Wheat Lands where the race is to the strong of heart
WILL E. INGERSOLL
THEY were threshing beyond the stable, on the yellow slope of the hill. Up along the chickweed path and over the chip-pile the wind and hum came tardily, now with a soft hiss like the stir of ashes, now with a zooning like the suspiration of airs behind a grate.
The room was mellow with soft sounds and effluences, main among them the thrifty drone of needle and bobbin where Lily sat among plain fabrics, her foot on a treadle and her fingers guiding a seam.
Out in the living-room and kitchen of the Arkwright farmhouse, hot steamy work went forward; but Lily was till tea-time emancipated from the skillet and the colander, the rattling delft plate and the jangling spoon. “No use in a rush,” Mother Arkwright, who directed the boiling of beef and the browning of cranberry pie, had explained of Lily to the plainer and sturdier girls who hustled about to her nod of head and jerk of thumb. So the one dainty daughter of the Arkwrights, whom her mother aimed to keep “nice,” had been sent out of the kitchen and had been put to sew.
She would need to come out again into the brisker work-realm and help wait on table when the men trooped in for tea. This, however, Lily did not dread, but looked forward to with a pain in her throat. For Lanyon, the heroic, with his tumbled chaffy mane and strong lines of living, would come in with the men; and though he might not smile at her once, or even look her way, she could stand and serve him, and the fabric of her sleeve might brush his great shoulder as she passed this dish and that.
Down below the hill-crest, beyond the bulging hiproofed barn, islanded in a yellow field, another kind of machine was veritably spinning straw and time into gold on the pioneer Arkwright farm. The drone of the grain separator was that of Lily’s bobbin magnified a thousand times. The grain separator was a man’s machine and a Man was at it.
The operation of passing sheaves into the cylinder, that roaring maw of a threshing-machine—an operation called, aptly, “feeding” it—was being done by strong Bruce Lanyon, mechanical expert, separator man, and knight of harvest time in Wheatland, the Lanyon who was being sewn into the seams in Lily Arkwright’s dreaming-room.
To right and left of Lanyon stood the bandcutters, the two men who cut the twine bands of the sheaves as they were thrown on the sheaf tables by the pitchfork men. One of the bandcutters was a quiet, old graybearded man, who cut the bands with sober, steady strokes and shoved the sheaves to Lanyon carefully; but the other bandcutter was tough young Sam Flecknoe.
/CONCENTRATE now: firstly, upon Bruce Lanyon, whose biceps leap beneath his sleeves as, with a skilful spread and toss, he gathers the sheaves from the bandcutters and passes them down the feed-board into the cylinder; secondly, upon Sam Flecknoe, who long ago chose his former schoolmate, Lily Arkwright, as “my girl” and now has an inkling that she is “struck on” Lanyon.
Thirdly, concentrate upon the Cylinder, whose spinning wrought-iron teeth make lines of light in its aperture—the voice of whose might rises from a drone to a kind of yell, as the oily-smocked man down at the engine gradually opens his throttle.
Bronze and black were the colors wrought into the capital of the splendid flesh-and-blood statue of Bruce Lanyon. His mane of black-curled hair, touched with iron-gray at the ears, pushed sidewise with its rumpled abundance his old felt “wideawake.” The cock of the hat had a jaunty seeming, but there was no jauntiness in Lanyon’s eyes. Life had made him a stone of a man. Life had made him bleak as granite.
It is a terrible thing—terrible in its way as was that whirling iron cylinder with its shriek and menace— to feel beauty losing its pique, and to feel enthusiasm die, and to have nothing left of hope or emulation but strips and shards. The years that measure out wisdom and experience, they also steal away the kick of life, leave a man high and dry. . . .
That wideawake on Lanyon’s head—that modern helmet of adventure—was the token of the old impulse toward “wildness” which had claimed Lanyon when he was young, and which survived in him now only as a dying fire—the spirit of errantry which had dandled him through life, bringing many bruises but no achievement beyond that of being able to say, in secure artifice of physical conquest, in exhalation of thorough-captained muscular might, “Stand back.”
He had gone through life as that kind of figure women warm to, but it had brought him personally no joy, no thrill, not even when he was young. The only woman he had loved—this was years ago—had been one who was “above” him; a cold, white, big-eyed woman who had set more store by the brain than the heart of man—• who had called his way of winning brawling, and had ultimately married a little fellow with a soft way.
From crown to toe, Lanyon was pitted and whitestreaked with old wounds of weapon and nail and knuckle and tooth. There was no mean trick of the bad loser in a “stand-off” or a “rough-and-tumble” that Lanyon did not know. His experiences in the lumber woods, the threshing-caboose, the construction shanty and the freighters’ camp, had seasoned and perfected him as a knight of the bare-knuckle and the “under-hold.”
Time was when he had glowed to feel that the sum of his forces, with brain and instinct sharing quick command, was greater than the sum of forces of the other man. But this was all past. To break by sheer iron strength from the agony of a torturing hold—to feel a “tough customer,” some Neanderthal brute of abnormal muscle and endurance, wilt in a tussle that would have been to the death, had he, Lanyon, the calm, been loser instead of winner—disgust and satiation were now positively all there was in this sort of thing for Bruce Lanyon.
It had been long since anyone had challenged him; for he was known by reputation in every district of this rude world into which destiny had projected him. Men were learning to let him alone, to modulate their voices to a kind of respectful falsetto, oddly like the company falsetto of the countryside, when Lanyon approached; to be different and diffident with him; to set him apart, as any Napoleon is set apart; to separate themselves, albeit respectfully, from his company; to study him from an admiring angle as a model and to ape his ways. For instance, because Lanyon was known as “The-Man-Who-Says-Nothin’,” it was becoming the fashion of his legion of local understudies to jerk out their words in monosyllables in imitation of Lanyon’s wholly natural economy of speech.
But there is always, somewhere, someone who glowers unsmiling at the reigning humorist and curls an unimpressed lip at the current Horatius. In Lanyon’s case, the man who sneered was right beside him today, elbow to elbow with him, on the bandcutter’s stand at his left.
Sam Flecknoe was as white as Lanyon was swarthy. Lanyon’s face and tree-like neck were burned to bronze, almost to copper, by the sun. But Flecknoe’s long pale face never answered in bronze or red to any beam of even mid-July. His face was perennially, year in and year out, a sheer colorless white. Lanyon’s hair was thick and of the lustre of anthracite coal, with here and there a gray thread showing vividly amid the black. Flecknoe’s hair was pale-red, shading off at the edges to the dry white of foxtail grass, and Nature had plastered it on his head thinly and straight like mock hair glued on the head of a doll.
Flecknoe was a prairie product. He might have grown out of the prairie, like a sprig of wormwood. He had the aspect of age, but he was young. He was well and tough—tough as lace leather, as rubber belting, as binder twine. He had the aspect of anaemia, but he could feel passion.
And Sam Flecknoe wanted Lily —Lily, up at the big house, dreaming apart over her treadle and bobbin, sheltered from the roughening reddening work and stress of the farm kitchen because she was the baby and beauty of the family and her mother aimed to keep her “nice.”
Sam had gone to school with Lily when she was little, and had walked beside her carrying her book-bag, and had quit at her behest—at least when he was with her—his papoose pastimes of catapulting stringsnared gophers off bent-down willow saplings and twisting the necks of young unfeathered graybirds and pulling the legs off live frogs.
But he had left school early and had commenced to knock around the country. He had won a tongueblistering reputation as a “mean cuss;” but as he had also won a reputation for getting square, most people swallowed their dislike of him and even tended to be ingratiating.
Y\/ITH a sound like the snarl VV 0f a feeding lion, the cylinder before Lanyon whipped the wheat sheaves from his hand. Into the iron-toothed maw they fled continuously. Avidly, insatiably, the cylinder-orifice shrieked, demanding more.
Flecknoe’s implement for cutting the bands of the sheaves that were tabled on Lanyon’s left was a section of a binder-knife—a triangular bit of steel, razor-keen, rivetted into a hardwood handle thonged to Flecknoe’s wrist. The duties of the bandcutters—Flecknoe, and the graybearded man on the other side of Lanyon—were, firstly, to cut the bands of the sheaves, and secondly, to shove them within Lanyon’s reach.
Bandcutters use the knife with the right hand and shove the sheaf to the separator man with the left. Thus, the man on Lanyon’s right, in the natural course of movement, cut his band before he pushed the sheaf over. Too, he wielded his dangerous blade on the side away from Lanyon. But with the man on the left, the case was different. He brought the sheaf over with his left hand and had then to cut it quickly, his blade-hand perilously close, just before Lanyon reached.
“Pigskin” threshing gauntlets are tough, but are no protection against the drawing-stroke of a razor-sharp triangular binder-knife section. Separator men have sometimes lost a finger or been gashed in the web of the thumb—a favorite entry-place of the lockjaw germ — by a careless or awkward left-side bandcutter.
But Sam Flecknoe, the bandcutter on Lanyon’s left, was neither awkward nor naturally careless. He was deft and quick and lean-powerful. It was, in fact, marvellous how close he sometimes came to the crotch of Lanyon’s hand and missed it.
Lanyon’s great arms reached out, alternately, to the graybeard and to Flecknoe. He gathered in thus the loosened bundles and, with a skilful, spreading, tossing motion, fed them into the machine. The shriek of the cylinder at such times changed to a whine. With a queer, panicky, helpless flirt of butts the sheaves vanished. From the place where they had gone, there came a merciless thump of the apparatus called the beater, a hiss of grain on sieves, the great purr of a belt-driven fan. The chaff of the sheaves’ agony came out through the pores of the machine and made a dullgold mist around.
TANYON today looked lonely. The old continual hack, hack, of memory dwelling on the Might-have-been had awakened him early. His lines of living and battling were knitted deep.
Why was he, alone of all his old high-school mates, making obscurely the round of the world? Carson, a bank president, Leiter in law, Hillis high up in the railroad world, and Dwyer—even slow Dwyer with his bonehead ways and his hole-and-corner mania for figures, not for their value in calculation but as pure raw arithmetic—even Dwyer had fumbled into his right place in life in the Census and Statistics office where he lived with figures all day long and was happy.
What had he, Lanyon—“Curly” Lanyon, who in the beginning had had equal chances with any of them — what had he for personal assessment and appraisal?
What of experience’s fruit? What to sell? He could manage a threshing separator; he could draw foreman’s pay in a lumber camp; he could run a grading gang on a railway construction line.
In other words, he had his masterful, physical self to hire out by the day. But he had minted nothing mentally. He had put away books, he had loved adventure, he had lived by his hands.
And now, at thirty-eight, he was getting into the age when adventure ceases to be a main passion with a man, when he ceases to seek for stress, when he thinks of a hearth and a home. Repinement with Lanyon was getting to be the worm that dieth not.
Work was his current anodyne. About him today was the regular stubbly “ss-flump!” of sheaf on bandcutter’s table, and windy drone of the fan in the strawblower, the grim shriek and snarl of the cylinder as it seized on the sheaves. Reaching out greedily for what balm was in this rude blend of strong sounds, this raw din that was the piping to his ridiculous ill-paid dance of labor, Lanyon’s great shoulders rocked in an angry rhythm. He was feeding his great and vague hearthunger with boluses of work.
He signalled to the pitchfork men for speed, more speed, yet more speed. Faster and faster the sheaves thumped down from the stack-butts. More and more vigorously, the bandcutters plied their sharp dangerous knives, newly whetted that morning for the day’s work.
There was something splendid about Lanyon’s strength in action—something inspiring, something infectious. Exhalations of his vigor went out to the gang around him. They picked up, speeded up. At their present pace, they were doing two days’ threshing in one. In the wake of Lanyon’s energy, they wrought like mad. He was in their eyes a harvest Lancelot, a chief knight of the winnowing-time.
Flecknoe excepted. Points of light shone in Flecknoe’s pale-blue eyes like sparks through smoke. But it was not light of emulation.
Flecknoe wanted Lily Arkwright, and Lily was sweet on Lanyon— “struck on” Lanyon, as they put it in Wheatland. He had not noticed it for himself, but Flossie, Lily’s magpie sister, had introduced the new development to his attention at breakfast.
“Great Snakes, Sam ! Go easy!” came the awed caution of the pitchfork man tabling the sheaves to Flecknoe from the grain stack; “if you ever catch his hand under that band-knife, you’ll cut it clean off.” For Flecknoe, as, with his knifearm elbow to elbow with Lanyon’s, he cut the twine-bands of the sheaves on Lanyon’s left, delivered his drawing stroke with a force that would have cut a band of metal.
But Flecknoe never even flickered one of his light eyelashes as the pitchfork man spoke. He cut on. Two or three times in the next few minutes his knife slashed down so close to Lanyon’s strong-sweeping hand that the pitchfork man gulped.
A tremendous weedy sheaf, handbound with a thick straw-band, thumped down on the band table. Flecknoe was apparently still hacking at the band when Lanyon swept his arm over to get the sheaf.
The band-knife seemed to slip. Though Lanyon, automatically on guard, jerked his hand away with incredible quickness, the blade had taken him in the finger end.
He stopped, stripped off his glove, glanced at tjje gash, replaced the glove again—the whole occupying less than ten seconds—and resumed work.
“Look out!” was all he said. Flecknoe’s eyes snapped. Each time, in the seconds that followed, that Lanyon’s hand swept over for a sheaf, the bandcutter watched the glove-finger. He saw it slowly redden. The gash had been deep. The blood was commencing to soak through the leather.
Lanyon, however, worked on regardless —his wideawake pushed back on his head, his great body oscillating with an even work-hurl between the bandcutting table of Flecknoe and the bandcutting table of the man on his right—the “old codger” whose careful respect for the big feeder aroused Flecknoe’s disgust . . .
A sheaf with immensely long straw, tangled with tough wild-buckwheat vines, thumped hissingly down on the band table. The sheaf was turned slightly sidewise. Flecknoe wasted a purposeful unnecessary second straightening it. Then, tightening his grip on the razorkeen band-knife, he cut again, just as Lanyon’s hand came under—cut vengefully and quick.
Then happened the unexpected and terrible. Flecknoe found himself anchored to the great sheaf—anchored to it by the band-knife whose blade-end was buried and tangled in the straw and buckwheatvines and whose handle was thonged to Flecknoe’s wrist with lace-leather. And the sheaf was going into the cylinder.
A MIGHTY, insensate, cyclonic strength jerked him, fetched him, sidewise and helpless, down over the sloping polished feedboard smelling of machineoil and stinkweed. A ravening roar of machinery filled his ears. The wind of a tremendous mechanical energy—the energy of the iron-toothed cylinder— blew right upon his shoulders.
Terror flooded Flecknoe. He fought with a burst of tough wiry maniacal strength. For a moment even the mighty pressure applied to him was balked. For perhaps a quarter-second the cylinder, with its snarl as of a feeding lion, chewed upon the great wheat-sheaf without continuing to swallow it. Then on went Flecknoe—on and in. The cylinder’s roar and the steely breeze were close to his shoulders . . .
A great body hurled down beside him shoulder to shoulder right at the maw of the cylinder. Hands like vise jaws clamped him, shoved him back, fought even the cylinder itself to a momentary standstill.
Then help came from outside. There was a flap, a roar, a jar, a grind, the smell of rubber friction-annealed . . . then silence . . . then a surge of men’s feet in the stubble and a convocation of crowding voices babbling their relief.
The engineer had run and, with his firefork braced, had thrown the drive-belt off the flywheel of the traction engine that ran the separator. He had acted promptly, for his time had been short. Not more than twenty-five seconds had elapsed since the trapping of Flecknoe by the cvlinder.
“Look!” said the engineer, pointing to Lanyon.
His cadence drew all eyes to where the big feeder, getting his breath back, leaned on the edge of the feedboard with his back to the staring gang. His shirt was ripped diagonally, and through the rent showed a row of gashes as though a huge sharp-toothed comb had been raked hard across his back.
“Gosh!” said the man who had been pitching sheaves on Flecknoe’s side. “Gosh, boys! Yon’s as close as I’d want to come to goin’ into the cylinder!”
Flecknoe stood on his bandcutter’s table, unhurt. His fear was past and his malevolence had returned tenfold. He was ready and primed to cut at Lanyon’s hand a third time—and that third time he would not miss. He blamed Lanyon for what had almost befallen him, and felt no gratitude for Lanyon’s exertion to aid.
But there was to be no more work that day. The voice of Nathan Arkwright, proprietor of the farm and the threshing outfit, broke in now with a practical note:
“You throwed that belt off when she was goin’ full speed, didn’t you, engineer? What would have been wrong with throttlin’ her down a little first?”
“No time, Nat. I had to move like greased lightnin’, or they’d both been in the cylinder.”
“Well,” Nathan Arkwright, smothering his vexation, beckoned, “just come here and see this mess. The cylinder-shaft’s twisted like a ram’s horn, and the belt’s chawed all to blazes. I guess it’s a case of all hands quittin’ for today, and maybe there won’t be no work tomorrow neither. It’ll be a day’s job to fix this. We’ll have to send the whole cylinder, shaft and all, to the blacksmith in town to get her trued up. Rustle along here, Bruce and Sam, and help get her loose. Then you can go and sun yourselves till she comes back from town fixed.”
Half an hour later the unbolted cylinder, with its terrifically twisted shaft and chipped leather-bound pulley, lay free, ready to be loaded on the wagon for town. Then Nathan Arkwright said to Lanyon:
“You better go up to the house and let the womenfolk see to them cuts on your back. And what’s the matter with your hand, man? Your glove’s all blood.”
Lanyon said nothing. Without any thought as to Arkwright’s suggestion of household surgery, he walked away in the general direction of the farm buildings. The caboose in which the gang slept stood in the farmyard. He intended to stretch out in his bunk and sleep, or try to sleep —if his covey of latter-day worries did not flock in and roost upon his bunk edge like ravens.
Reaching the caboose, he sat down on the hardwood tongue that projected from the front caboose trucks, and essayed to draw off the glove from the hand that had been wounded by Flecknoe. The wound had commenced to throb and twinge a little.
Flecknoe’s knife had laid the finger open in a slanting, ugly way, between the first and second joint, the cut going to the bone. New blood from the gash, reopened by Lanyon’s pull, flowed out redly over the dark-dried blood on finger and palm.
Lanyon studied the stained hand casually. What had made Sam Flecknoe so clumsy on this particular afternoon? He had always been a first-class bandcutter. Must have got hold of a couple of drinks somewhere. Would have to be jacked up if this thing happened again.
Lanyon had never noticed Lily Arkwright particularly. He had smiled at her in an offhand way once or twice. Of Flecknoe or Flecknoe’s affairs he knew nothing. Flecknoe to him was the man hired to cut bands on his left; simply that, and nothing more.
He stripped off the other glove and, with an impulse of cooling his arms, turned back his sleeves to the shoulders.
Smooth they were and free of hair, those great battling arms. The great flow and bulge of the triceps; the meeting swell of the biceps, seventeen inches flexed by recent casual tapeline measure of a bunk-mate; the discus-thrower sinews that strapped forearm and wrist: all
were worth a stare, even from the strong sons of the back-country, when the ManWho-Says-Nothin’ stripped an arm.
Quiet, except for the liquid mutter of pigeons on a roof, prevailed about the big farm barn and its precincts. The gang had gone to town in the wagon to carouse away their afternoon off. The threshing outfit, apart in the field, stood now idle and deserted; steam down in the engine and drive-belt rolled up for the day and carefully covered with straw against the advent of rain.
T ANYON lifted his head. Standing across from him was the girl Lily, scattering grain by handfuls from a tin dish under her arm.
The fowls, little and large, stood about her. The mutter and squatter of bills blunt and bills sharp were like ripple-lap and grass-stir of water at a windy lake’s edge.
Lily was bloused and skirted slimly in home-ironed white. The sun behind her stretched a faint opacity of girlish lines within the clean, translucent fabrics that ended above white stockings and highheeled, newly-pipeclayed shoes. The revealing sunlight showed a trace of the ubiquitous feminine powder, applied daintily but somewhat unhandily to cheeks, chin and nose-tip.
Now that she stood close, just across from him, she held her eyes away and down; but the glances she had given him while coming down the path, together with many a previous look unknown to Lanyon, had gulped him whole. Lily had got Lanyon’s image so vividly in her mind that now she did not need to look to see his brown deep-stamped face with its distant eyes, his black, rumpled hair with its threads of gray, the muscular strongshouldered figure in its bibbed russet overall-suit dusted with chaff.
She heard of the affair at the separator. It had been described to her as an accident. But she knew Flecknoe, and she knew that when he had gashed Lanyon’s hand it was no accident.
She had, moreover, let Flecknoe know that she knew, when a few moments ago the bandcutter had come up to the house and had manifested an intention of spending his afternoon “hanging around.” She had sent him packing; and Flecknoe had slunk off with another deep notch in the stick of his grudge against Lanyon.
Bruce Lanyon regarded the girl in the casual, half-playful way he had with women. It was with a merely perfunctory gallantry that, a moment later, he stepped forward to retrieve for Lily the half-filled grain dish that had slipped from under her arm to the ground, and had been instantly overflooded by a whirlpool of beaks, backs and wings.
As he swept the scuffling fowls away with an easy scythelike movement of his arm and lifted the pan for her, Lily, her lowered eyes flashing over arm and hand, found the finger with its ugly diagonal gash.
“Oh-h!” she exclaimed, dropping the pan again, while the red in her cheeks went out.
Lanyon, a second time, picked up the grain dish.
“Better hang on to it,” he recommended, dryly.
“No, no.” Lily, shyness swept away by the passion to minister, motioned the proffered pan away. “Oh, you must have your hand fixed, right away. T-ch, t-ch, t-ch,” making the little compassionate sounds with tongue against teeth, she took the red hand in hers with woman’s inimitable gesture of tenderness.
“Come on to the house . . . ” she began; then, after a pause, “No, wait here. Go back and sit down where you were, and I’ll get some things. Oh, what a dreadful —oh, t-t-ch, t-ch ...” Off she hurried across the farmyard, a white silhouette fleck against the big blond day.
Lily had remembered that if she took Lanyon up to the farmhouse, her mother would want to take summarily from her the task of binding up the hand of “one of those threshers.”
Lanyon, returning to the caboosetongue, whimsically sat down.
In a moment or two, the girl returned with salve, lint, bandages, and a pitcher. Picking up the grain dish, which the fowls had emptied and abandoned, she rinsed it with a little of the water from the pitcher, poured in clean, set pan and paraphernalia down, and plumped herself down by Lanyon on the caboose-tongue.
Oh, magic of the ministration of women ! Lanyon wondered at himself as he warmed to her while softly she bathed, salved and bound. He cared nothing for the hurt. It would have healed, as the cuts and abrasions upon his healthy and strong body always had healed, quickly and without inflammation, after no more than a rude cursory wash or two under the pump.
But the luxury of this, the sheer luxury, and the fingers of the ministrant, tidy and sweet !
Lanyon felt no thrill of love, but he felt a great thrill of comfort not untinged with tenderness, as his big shoulder leaned above where she bent assiduous and flushed. He watched the color deepen in her cheeks. He was no youth, callow and inexperienced, foolishly humble and blind. He knew coolly what virginal maidenhood was saying to him in these attentions, and of course it gratified him now, as it had gratified him many times before.
At first, he disposed himself to accept it as he usually accepted it; that is to say, as a matter of course—just another fool girl of the countryside gone sweet.
But there was something luxurious about this Lily. Her hands were petalcool, her face—it was the first time the girl’s face had been under Lanyon’s deliberate scrutiny, close and quiet before his eyes—her face was fine-textured, pale, white; her eyes large and slow.
Deep down in Lanyon’s heart there came a stirring, a quickening. His glance focused upon the girl with a blazing intentness which she felt at once. Her shoulders began to tremble, her hands to flutter and falter.
But the Man-Who-Says-Nothin’ was not looking at Lily—not yet. He was in that moment looking through her, into memory.
Memory of a cold, white, big-eyed woman who had set more store by the brain than the heart of man; who had called his way of winning, brawling, and had ultimately married a little fellow with a soft way . . .
“I’m a little curious to know . . the sudden volume of his voice, close to her ear, made the girl start violently and look at him full, with a widening of her large eyes that smote him like pain— “if you’d doctor me so kindly if somebody’d marked me in a fight, instead of by accident?”
“Accident?” Lily Arkwright’s sudden indignation swept and steadied her. “Accident? Do you think that man cut you by accident? Why, it—it was meanness. He did it deliberately.”
“Deliberately?” Lanyon’s glance turned meditatively, in a sort of recapitulation, toward the deserted threshing outfit in the field: “I don’t think it. He wouldn’t be likely to pick on me. But that’s not the point. I was asking you” —his tone dropped again to earnestness and Lily’s pulses beat—“if you’d be disgusted if I’d had to lick a man. Would you fix up a black eye, or would you say, T can’t sanction brawling?’ Eh?”
Lily looked up, her eyes alight.
“There are some men—one especially —who need whipping. I don’t like to see anyone hurt, but I—I like to see a man strong—strong and fine.”
She lowered her look a moment, searching for a stanza, a stanza from her country-maiden days of reading and dreaming. For a few seconds, the stanza bobbed teasingly, just beyond the verges of recollection. Then it came. She quoted:
“O for a knight like Bayard Without reproach or fear;
My light glove on his casque of steel, My love knot on his spear.”
SAM FLECKNOE, after his rebuff by Lily, had tramped the farm for an hour, killing gophers with stones—the sharp bits of limestone, granite or flint that might be fumbled out of the fallow anywhere on the Arkwright place. Killing the gophers that destroy the wheat is a legitimate occupation anywhere among the farmlands. But Flecknoe was not— with the swift, unerring stone that in his hands did the work of a bullet from a rifle—killing gophers because he desired in any manner to benefit Nathan Arkwright.
The hour or so since Lily had rebuffed him had been an hour of massacre among the gopher and graybird population of the vicinity. Sam Flecknoe had the habit of spite.
He preferred to fight guerilla-style, to hit from cover and by stealth; but when drawn to fight directly, he was deadly. In addition to being wire-strong and leather-tough, he was armed to the teeth with tricks, a sort of jiu-jitsu—tricks that ripped ligaments, ruptured tendons, dislocated joints, often crippled permanently, and were in their sum, Flecknoe had found, short-cuts to sure victory.
Every man has his gift. One can raise prize grain; another can find water with a witch-hazel prong; another can foretell weather; another can horse-trade and inevitably win. Flecknoe’s special gift was that he was a sure shot with a pebble.
He had made his hour’s tramp of the Arkwright farm in a rude circle, which had brought him back to a grove of red willow some thirty yards from the barn. It was when he was about to wind up his afternoon of cruel pebble practice by knocking a blackbird off a high bough, that Flecknoe caught sight of Lanyon and Lily, side by side on the caboose tongue.
A rosebush hid them from mid-torso down; but enough of the grouping was visible to make it look to Flecknoe as though Lily, her head bent forward as she sewed at the bandage, were leaning upon Lanyon’s shoulder.
The blackbird at which Flecknoe had been about to throw, flew away unregarded. Flecknoe dropped the pebble in his pocket, ducked down, and started to creep, lithe and wary as a stalking Indian, through the willow thicket to the point where the bushes, yet thickly leaved, came closest to the caboose and its occupied tongue.
Here, in a covert not more than twenty paces from the pair, Sam Flecknoe stood up and drew the pebble out of his pocket. It had a sharp cutting edge, broadening back in wedge-shape to the fingerhold.
Flecknoe reached out and, with his left arm, made an opening in the foliage, bending the twigs back cautiously. The natural rustle of the breeze in the leaves covered what sound was made.
Then, without change of countenance, except that his eyes became weaselbright, Flecknoe extended his arm straight before him and, with the sharp-edged three-ounce flint pebble clipped between forefinger and thumb, drew a bead on Lanyon’s leaning head.
His aim secured, he fetched his arm back catapult-like . . .
Lily, sitting on the higher part of the sloping caboose tongue, quivered with a rare rapture as she leaned down and stitched at the bandage on Lanyon’s hand.
Lanyon’s head, the old felt wideawake pushed back on his rumpled black-curled hair, leaned above her down-bent, busy shoulders. His pose was bleak, his outward aspect aloof as ever. But into the soul of the Man-Who-Says-Nothin’ had crept a new tenderness, vague as yet, but possessing him luxuriously, like hearthside warmth to one who has wandered in out of the cold.
Near the last stitch, Lily’s thread broke. With a little exclamation of annoyance, she sat up abruptly, her shoulder brushing Lanyon’s hair — and immediately and irrepressibly screamed aloud!
Lanyon’s glance leaped in interrogation.
“Aaagh!” the girl shrilled, frantic with pain. Her suddenly-lifted shoulder had received the stone meant for Lanyon’s head.
Her eyes fled toward the willow thicket. She paled, cut off the screaming, pointed.
“I see him,” she cried; “there—there he goes—running—see!”
Lanyon saw. He fetched to his feet with a bound. He was away, down the hillside. The old felt wideawake flew off. His mane of hair was blown wide by the wind. His clothes ballooned out, magnifying his bigness. The strips of his torn shirt streamed pennant-like.
Flecknoe fled across the stubble field toward the threshing-machine.
In the lee of the big separator Lanyon found him waiting—waiting with a palegreen smile.
“You lay off me!” Flecknoe flung out savagely. He fetched into view a weapon —a wicked, whetted blade in a handle stained with machine-oil. He had armed himself with the sharp-bladed knife kept in the separator tool box for slicing the lace-leather used in mending the belting. Many whettings had worn the blade to a tapering dagger-point.
Lanyon did not speak or halt. He came in with a run and jump—the old rough-and-tumble rush.
Flecknoe’s long arm swept up and back, the sun gleaming on the knife-point in an arc of flame . . .
TT MAY have been a quarter-hour later *■ when something emerged from behind the separator—something that Lily on the caboose tongue, nursing her wound and containing the now numbed pain because she shrank from yet bringing the other womenfolk swarming in upon this matter, looked at first so unhuman and incongruous that she caught a shriek in her cupped hand. But as the thing tottered into plain view and nearer perspective, she saw it was not one man but two, and that the one was carrying the other!
Lily forgot the anguish of her bruise, forgot her aversion for one man, forgot momentarily even her love for the other, in pale and voiceless wonder as she watched tough Flecknoe labor up the hillside with Lanyon on his back.
Flecknoe looked chastened and furtive. Not of his own accord, however, had he turned Sir Bedivere to Lanyon’s Arthur. Between the shoulders where Lanyon perched, his face carved in transverse gashes, a red-soaked neckerchief pressed against a wound in his side, his overalls crimson to his harvest boots, a sharp blade now in Lanyon’s own custody and use pricked down remindingly.
“Put me down easy, Flecknoe,” Lily heard Lanyon say, his voice commanding but queerly sleepy and slow.
Flecknoe lowered his burden and without a look was gone.
Lily went white, and her own pain passed from her consciousness as she saw her harvest knight sway where he stood, blood-drained, and slip like water to her feet.
"DUT strength—the strength of strong U men—returned into his veins before the leaves were gone that autumn. And when the wind of the following spring breathed along the haughs of Wheatland, there was a new house being shiplapped on a rented quarter section beyond the Arkwright farm; and to Lily, moving marriage-ringed and aproned among the piney smells in her own parlor, came the tirra-lirra of her Lancelot, the shield of his errantry shaped into a share, the seal of his armed silence broken, singing as he walked behind his wood-beamed brakingplow.