Fiction

MIRROR IMAGE

Anderson was a long time learning that you can’t show a man his shortcomings by playing the fool yourself

NORMA BIXLER October 15 1947
Fiction

MIRROR IMAGE

Anderson was a long time learning that you can’t show a man his shortcomings by playing the fool yourself

NORMA BIXLER October 15 1947

MIRROR IMAGE

Anderson was a long time learning that you can’t show a man his shortcomings by playing the fool yourself

NORMA BIXLER

THE Ballinger lane was long, for the house and outbuildings sat. far back from the main highway, almost down to the Anderson land on the lower slope. John Anderson turned the small truck through the open gate into the Ballinger farmyard. He could see King, his great Irish setter, sleeping on the platform outside the barn doors at the top of the long sloping drive. He whistled, but the dog didn’t come. He laughed to himself as he pulled his long frame out from under the wheel. The old tramp had worn himself out with his wanderings. That must have been why Clem Ballinger had phoned Mrs. Fothergill to send him over with the truck for the dog.

When he was at the base of the drive, Ballinger came out from the shadows of the barn—Ballinger, a full head shorter than his tall blond neighbor, but a powerful man with his old felt hat pulled down over his eyes. Ten, 15 years from now John would call Ballinger by his first name and they would he nearer of an age, for Ballinger was not an old man; but now his 38 to John’s 24 was a wide gap.

John whistled again at the base of the drive, but the whistle dribbled. The dog hadn’t moved and Clem Ballinger didn’t either. The muscles of John’s stomach cramped. Then Ballinger’s shaggy shepherd came out of the barn behind his master, and nuzzled his nose against King’s body, whimpering.

“I’m sorry about this, John. Found him in the field with a dead lamb,” Ballinger announced; “Had to shoot him.”

John stood on the slope, his big brown hands opening and closing. The nausea in his stomach came up higher in his throat. Ballinger shifted his feet and chewed on a blade of grass but his craggy, furrowed face stayed up. The younger man moved up the slope at last and dropped down by the dog. Up here King didn’t look asleep. His eyes were open and a thin smear of blood from the bullet wound matted the reddish-gold hair on his head.

The shepherd pushed in and at the movement of John’s big hand, Ballinger called him away sharply. “He never killed a sheep.”

Ballinger shrugged and his deep-set black eyes under the hat were watchful. “You can’t take risks about some things, John. He was in the field and the lamb was dead.”

“He never killed a sheep. See, there’s no wool on his teeth.” He rolled back the lower lip and showed the older man.

But Ballinger only shrugged again.

John sat back on his heels and looked up at him, speaking carefully.“Any farmer knows that like as not a guilty dog clears out and an innocent dog sticks around tcjjtsee what’s going on. You had no call to shoot him.”

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Mirror Image

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a pitch angrily. “Farmers have been killing dogs they found in fields with dead sheep for more years than you’ve lived, John Anderson. You got to protect your flock first.. Can’t go up and look for wool on their teeth first. 1 had a right to shoot him. He had no business in my field.”

“Sure you had a right to shoot him, but you had no call to. You got to use your own head, Ballinger, not take the opinion of some old-timer. You’re an unreasonable man.” The words were decent but as the young man said them, t hey sounded like a curse.

He carried the dog to the truck, laid him carefully in the back and drove away.

Between the dog and John Anderson there was a peculiar bond. The dog had been a pup when John was a junior in high school, which made them friends of eight years’ standing. But what John remembered now was not those earlier puppy years.

This peculiar closeness came from the morning a year ago when John got off the t rain in Centerville and found King on the platform to meet him. John hadn’t expected King. He hadn’t expected anybody. The Red Cross had found him on one of those little bloody islands in the Pacific with the word that his mother and father had been killed when their car overturned.

After that, Jason Gavit, the county agent, wrote that he had found a hired man to run the farm and that he, Gavit, would keep an eye on things, and that Mrs. Fothergill would go out as housekeeper.

So John hadn’t expected anybody on the platform. Gavit and Mrs. Fothergill were there, too. But John saw only King, the great dog rising soberly from his haunches where he had ignored the cinders and steam from the train’s arrival. The dog hadn’t leaped and

cavorted about but had come across the platform with restraint and only the fierce pressure of his muzzle against John’s hand had given him away.

'Phis year it was as if King had been an Anderson, known the Anderson turn of speech, learned from John’s father and mother as John’s own speech had been learned. When John talked to King in the fields, in the barn, on the porch after supper, that fine red head lifted to him and there was knowledge in the deep brown eyes, knowledge of a past and a conclusion. Kirg’s death broke the continuity and John’s bereavement was beyond mere grieving.

Later Jane Fothergill was waiting for him on the porch when he came up from the orchard, the spade caked with earth. She stood there, bony and spare, her apron rolled up around the arms she crossed in front of her, her lips a thin, straight line. She knew, of course. Everybody on the line knew. Susan Ballinger talked too much. But all she said was “Supper’s ready.”

She had thought it would be a good sign if he ate, and she watched him anxiously as he sat down. He ate what she served him, but it was like a man stoking a stove that needed coal. The big frame needed fuel and he stoked it. Mrs. Fothergill couldn’t eat.

“Ballinger is an unreasonable man,” he said once and Mrs. Fothergill sighed. These Andersons and their reasonableness. He got it from his father. Old John Anderson always said that if you just used your head and thought things out, you’d come through all right. He didn’t care whether anybody else ever did things a particular way, if it was reasonable it would probably work. That’s why Gavit and Anderson had been so close. Anderson would always try what Gavit could prove to him was reasonable, like the shelter belt or contour plowing. And the farm was evidence of his faith. A healthier, more solid farm you couldn’t find in the county. Nowhere was John, just like his dad. From another man it would

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sound soft to hear Ballinger called unreasonable because he’d shot his dog. Coming from John it made Mrs. Fothergill uneasy.

After supper he sat restlessly on the porch. When he got up Mrs. Fothergill thought he was going to help wit h the milking, but lie got out the car again and tlrove away.

The sun was setting and purple shadows were filling in the space between pump house and barn when John turned into the Ballinger yard again. Ballinger was coming out of the house, a milk pail in each hand; and Susan Ballinger, a small dumpy woman, stood on the kitchen steps behind him. John got out of the car and waited. Ballinger put down the pails and came toward him. He stopped a few feet away from him.

The two men stood there briefly, the stocky figure rooted to the ground, feet apart, the taller one supple as a sapling. Then John hit him, not awkwardly as you might expect from a reasonable man, but swiftly and well. Ballinger fell but got to his feet, bellowing, and his wife screamed and screamed on the back step. Ballinger’s fists came in hard but John bent and weaved away from him and then closed in swiftly.

It was over in a minute. John’s breed were not fighters, but he had been taught in a deadly school. Ballinger lay on the ground, spent, his arms flung out and his nose and one eye bleeding. Susan Ballinger knelt beside him still screaming, and John drove away.

Afterward when they fined him $300 for assault and battery, he paid it without a word, Jason Gavit standing nervously at his side. But outside before he got in the car, he turned to Gavit and said, “It was worth every cent of it.”

When Gavit drove out to the Anderson farm the next day Mrs. Fothergill told him not to worry. “Best thing that could have happened,” she assured him. “He had to get it out of his system some way. You’ll see.”

But Mrs. Fothergill wasn’t so sure as the next weeks passed. John was too quiet, she said, and Jason Gavit agreed. John had never been a gay one, but he liked people, liked to talk with them in his slow reasonable way, and people always listened to him just as they had to his dad. Nowhedidn’ttalk much, even to Gavit and Mrs. Fothergill —just kept on working and working from dawn to dusk. Of course it was spring and a farmer could find plenty to do, but this wasn’t natural.

THAT’S why Mrs. Fothergill wasn’t sorry about the gander. John came into the house just before dinner and got his rifle. As he jammed in the shells and closed the breech, Mrs. Fothergill asked, “Something after the chickens?” That struck him funny and he chuckled a little but he didn’t say anything, just went out and down along the orchard at the left of the house. He walked through the pasture and the w'ood lot, where his land began to abut the Ballinger farm and came out at last to the cornfield in the lower forty. He leaned on the fence for a while watching.

Ballinger’s gander and three of his geese were in the cornfield where the tiny shoots rose a couple of inches in the air, barely marking the rows. Systematically each of the four worked down a row giving the soft green shoots a jerk and then gobbling greedily at the half-spent kernel of corn which the jerk uprooted. There was a wide patch where the thin green lines had disappeared.

They heard John as he climbed the fence. The gander faced John, his wings out and down, hissing angrily, the

geese copying him in a phalanx behind him. John walked casually down the field unt il he came nearer to the angry gander, then lie raised his gun and shot the bird. The geese scuttled through the fence into the Ballinger land, squealing and hissing, and John picked up the gander and dropped him over the fence. The big bird was heavy and warm in his hand.

John bore no particular malice toward the gander. For as many years as he could remember, they had always lost some of the new corn to Ballinger’s geese when they planted corn in that field. His father got so that he’d go over to see Ballinger before he planted and say half jokingly, “Time for corn again on the lower slope, Clem. Better watch those geese.”

He didn’t even have any particular feeling about Ballinger and the wasted corn. It wasn’t that Ballinger was highhanded or mean. The farmer always meant to keep the geese out, always tried, calling them out whenever he caught them at the corn. But farmers didn’t fence geese in like chickens because they had to have room to roam and they always came home at feeding time. He fretted about the corn now and then, but the geese were too stupid to learn. You couldn’t train them like you could a dog.

A dog. John was back now at King, back in the long lane of his own loneliness. He was a little ashamed of grieving so over a dog. He couldn’t explain even to Jason Gavit. Yet it wasn’t because Clem Ballinger had killed King that he had shot the gander. At least he didn’t think it was.

This was the way it seemed to him. When the unreasoning of a man like Ballinger brought him to such a climax that he could shoot King, then Ballinger had to be shown someway that his unreasonableness was wrong. The plan had come to him whole as he watched the geese in the field on his way home. Ballinger behaved like the geese. By glory, he’d act that way, too—hold up a mirror for Ballinger.

So he dropped the gander over the fence and even seemed a little gay at dinner when he went home. To have a plan gave things some sense again.

An eye for an eye was not outside the boundaries of Mrs. Fothergill’s law. But a gander for King was outlandish. Still, a man had to work out his own salvation. She even beamed a little when John praised her cooking. First time in days he’d seemed to know what he was eating.

Susan Ballinger kept quiet about the gander. They just went over to the other side of the village and bought a new gander and Clem Ballinger put, chicken wire all along the lower part of his side of the cornfield. “He should of done it years ago,” snorted Mrs. Fothergill when John told her.

Clem Ballinger came down to lean on the fence when John was picking the cherries, a cautious, puzzled look on his brown, weathered face. The two trees were a part of the old orchard, big for cherry trees and twisted and old. Ballinger, 10 years before, had planted the new orchard up nearer his house, but the fruit on these two trees was still plentiful and he sprayed them when he sprayed the new trees. The rest of the orchard was a tangled, spent jungle. The branches of the two old trees hung well over the Anderson fence and it was in these that John was picking.

John’s head was up in the branches as he stood on the ladder and the other farmer couldn’t see his face. Clem Ballinger tried to keep quiet, like a man not knowing what trap speech might spring on him. But shock uncorked him. “Figurin’ on a cherry pie, John?”

John stuck his head down from the

tree. The sun patterned the leaves of the cherry tree across his face, a smiling, guileless face. “Guess there’ll be more than one cherry pie out of this batch, Ballinger,” he said cheerily. “Never saw the trees more loaded.” He gestured with one hand full of the red ripe cherries. “Try ’em over there on your side of the fence.”

Clem Ballinger looked as if he thought cherries tasted like persimmons. “How are your own trees doing?” he asked pointedly.

“Fine, just fine. Good year for cherries. With the trees up by the house and these, I figure we’ll have more than enough. Did me a good turn, whoever planted these trees so near our fence.”

“You could have had all you wanted for the asking.” Ballinger’s voice sounded sorrowful.

“Wouldn’t think of it,” said John earnestly. “Won’t need a one that doesn’t belong to us.”

Ballinger sighed deeply and went off toward his house.

“We don’t need them,” said Mrs. Fothergill flatly when John brought the cherries home.

“Then you cangive them to somebody that does,” said John just as flatly, and he went out to the barn. Mrs. Fothergill sighed much as Clem Ballinger had, and stared after the straight stiff back.

But the fence was something else again. John spent one whole grey afternoon prowling around in what they called the wood lot. It wasn’t, by the usual meaning, a wood lot at all but the first shelter belt in the country that old Anderson had planted with Gavit’s and the government’s aid 10 years before. Catalpa trees in the shelter belt had provided all and more of the fence posts the farm needed for four years, the red cedars had grown into noble trees, the Chinese elm and the hackberry were tall and solid, a long wall that ran from the road, between the Ballinger and Anderson farm and as far down as the old orchard.

When he came up to the house, he went to the phone and rang Ballinger. “That shelter belt fence is broken down pretty badly,” he began abruptly. “First rainy day we’d better get down there and walk the fence, Ballinger.” He listened a minute. “Don’t want to wait till fall. Cattle in those trees could do a lot of damage. Olson and Deaton have got the wire in now. Better get it while we have the chance.”

Ballinger must have been protesting because John drummed nervously on the kitchen wa 1 while he waited. “Sure I know you were all short-handed during the war and you told Dad you wouldn’t pasture along the shelter belt. But that’s pretty valuable property now and cows have a habit of getting out every once in a while. Good fences make good neighbors, Ballinger.” He pronounced the platitude with satisfaction.

After supper he drove into town and came back with the wire. Before he went to bed he watched the clouds pile up in the east with something that was almost like glee, Mrs. Fothergill thought.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if it had just rained, a nice easy spring rain, but it was a drenching downpour that kept up most of the day. Ballinger called after breakfast to put it off but John laughed. “A little rain won’t hurt us,” he insisted.

All morning they worked. Ballinger started out in glum silence but John hummed along cheerfully. John’s side of the fence, all stretching along the shelter belt, gave fair footing, but Ballinger slipped along in the mud of the plowed fields. The wirepullers were

wet and slid out of his hand, nicking his thumb.

“Nothing else to do on a day like this, anyway,” John assured his companion along about noon.

“Had harness to mend and the tractor plugs to clean,” grunted Ballinger. “Need them faster than we need this fence. I told you I’d keep the cows out.”

But John only wagged his head wisely. “Good fences make good neighbors. Every farmer knows that.”

They finished in the middle of the afternoon. Ballinger gathered up his tools in silence and turned on John. “Always thought you Andersons were as good neighbors as a man ever had. But by gosh, John,” his voice rose in rage, “you’re turning into the most unreasonable darn fool I ever saw, dog or no dog!”

He strode stubbornly away through the rain and never looked around when John threw back his head and laughed.

THE NEXT day was Saturday, a clean, sunny day with a slight edge of coolness. After dinner John and Mrs. Fothergill made ready to drive into the village for shopping. John was in fine fettle, talking along at a great rate, full of sly humor and an infectious chuckle. He made Mrs. Fothergill nervous. If he’d been four instead of 24, she would have felt his forehead to see if he had a fever. When he parked and helped her out, she hesitated about leaving him, watched him walk up the street toward the barber shop. Then she saw Jason Gavit come out of the drugstore toward John and she turned in toward the grocery store, relieved.

Susan and Clem Ballinger were coming out as she entered, the man ahead of the dumpy little woman, a big bag of groceries in his arms. She gave him a curt nod and pressed her lips together when Susan spoke to her.

Jason Gavit stood waiting for John, relieved at the sight of him smiling.

“Good news today, boy,” he said. “We’re going to start up on the shelter belt planting again. I wish your dad I was here to help me. He put a lot of stock in those shelter belts. It hurt I him as much as it did me to see the Í war put a stop to them.”

John grinned at him affectionately, i He could remember all the evenings I on the porch when his father and Gavit j had planned out a county safe from the I winds, safe from the dust. It made him feel good to hear Gavit still riding their j hobby.

“I’ve got old man Asher to come ! around. That windstorm last spring ! ruined his alfalfa and finally converted S him. We’re going to have a meeting j Wednesday night to talk it over. Tell ! you what, you come along and talk to ’em. After all, you’ve got the finest I shelter belt in the county. Tell ’em what your dad said about it.”

“Sure, I’ll come.”

“Mrs. Bass brought Cliff Bass around. Said she saw a row of those Russian olive trees in a shelter belt out in Oklahoma last summer and they were the prettiest trees she ever saw. Said if she had to have a whole shelter belt to get them, then Cliff would just have to plant her a shelter belt.

Gavit laughed delightedly but John j didn’t respond.

“Cameron’s Russian olives froze out j and so did Jacobson’s. We oughtn’t j to let the Basses go planting them,” ; he said.

Gavit looked surprised.

“Lord, John, people plant what they want, within limits. You can’t go telling them what to do, or there won’t be any shelter belts at all. Say you get two or three winters that aren’t too cold. Those trees’ll be okay.”

John shook his head stubbornly. “You ought to figure it all out carefully, so we get the biggest possible benefit, not just let people meander off doing what they please.”

“Come, John, it hasn’t been that bad. There are some rules to it. Guess you can’t remember back to when we started and we tried just what you’re saying. Wouldn’t have been hardly any shelter belts if we hadn’t changed.”

But John put a foot up on the drugstore step, prepared for argument. “But it doesn’t make sense, Mr. Gavit. Stands to reason—”

“Reason!” exploded the county agent. “Why, John, that’s just what it is—reasonable—to let a man decide for himself and want to do it. That way, he’ll really do a job. What’s got into you that you can’t see that?” “Nope,” said John. “I’ll tell them Wednesday night. They’ve got to find the best program and stick to it whether they all like it or not.”

“Then I’ll thank you to stay home,” said the man crossly. “Why do you think I spend my days travelling around this county, talking, explaining, getting folks to co-operate? To have them all scared off by a stubborn young fool? Reason?”

His voice rose. Clem Ballinger, coming along behind John, stopped to listen interestedly. He still carried the bag of groceries.

“Reason? You don’t act as if you knew what reason was. Mrs. Fothergill must he right. You’re turning into an unreasonable young fool. What the heck’s got into you? Don’t know what your dad would say.” His words had grown louder and louder as a man’s will when a cherished scheme is threatened. “An Anderson acting like an unreasonable young puppy!”

The words hung in the air between them while John stared, his face shocked and frozen. In the silence, Ballinger guffawed nervously. John turned to look at him as if he didn’t see him, then focused sharply on him. Ballinger began juggling the bag of groceries looking for a place to put them.

“Gavit, you’re a witness,” Ballinger shouted, shaking the bag around until oranges rattled down on the sidewalk. “You’re a witness I never touched him, I never said a word to him.”

John might have hit him. He was close enough. His big fists were opening and closing. He might have hit him in spite of Ballinger’s yelling and Gavit’s low, “John, boy” that was like spoken sadness. But in a brief second of clarity he saw Ballinger, big but silly looking, jumping around, spilling oranges and squawking. Seeing him, for a dangling sliver of time, he saw himself, picking cherries he didn’t want, killing a gander he didn’t want, making a fool of himself. The big fists began to relax. Because he could just perceive that Ballinger was seeing no image of himself in a mirror. A reasonable man gone haywire was frightening, dangerous, like clouds raining fishes, an unnatural phenomenon. He couldn’t convert Ballinger by scaring the life out of him. But by glory, he’d done a darned fine job on himself, twisting himself out of shape. No Ballinger could do that to him; a man could only do it to himself.

He drew a long deep breath of freedom and turned on his heel away from Ballinger, kicking an orange on the sidewalk. He saw it roll, bent and picked it up and dropped it in Ballinger’s bag, grinning. “Narrow escape, wasn’t it?” he said.

Then he took Gavit’s arm. “Now this shelter belt business. Tell me again how you figure it. If it’s reasonable, it’ll probably work out.” They walked away down the street. ^