The Leaser by Hamlin Garland

Story type: Literature

–the tenderfoot hay-roller from the
prairies–still tries his luck in some
abandoned tunnel–sternly toiling for
his sweetheart far away.

The only passenger in the car who really interested me was a burly young fellow who sat just ahead of me, and who seemed to be something more than a tourist, for the conductor greeted him pleasantly and the brakeman shook his hand. We were climbing to Cripple Creek by way of the Short Line, but as “the sceneries” were all familiar to me, I was able to study my fellow-passengers.

The man before me was very attractive, although he was by no interpretation a gentle type. On the contrary, he looked to be the rough and ready American, rough in phrase and ready to fight. His corduroy coat hunched about his muscular shoulders in awkward lines, and his broad face, inclining to fat, was stern and harsh. He appeared to be about thirty-five years of age.

The more I studied him the more I hankered to know his history. The conductor, coming through, hailed him with:

“Well, gettin’ back, eh? Had a good trip?”

Once or twice the miner–he was evidently a miner–leaned from the window and waved his hat to some one on the crossing, shouted a cheery, “How goes it?” and the brakeman asked:

“How did you find the East?”

From all this I deduced that the miner had been away on a visit to New York, or Boston, or Washington.

As we rose the air became so cool, so clear, so crisp, that we seemed to be entering a land of eternal dew and roses, and as our car filled with the delicious scent of pine branches and green grasses, the miner, with a solemn look on his face, took off his hat and, turning to me, said, with deep intonation:

“This is what I call air. This is good for what ails me.”

“You’ve been away,” I stated rather than asked.

“I’ve been back East–back to see the old folks–first time in eleven years.”

“What do you call East?” I pursued.

“Anything back of the Missouri River,” he replied, smiling a little. “In this case it was Michigan–near Jackson.”

“Citizen of the camp?” I nodded up the canyon.

“Yes, I’m workin’ a lease on Bull Hill.”

“How’s the old camp looking?”

“All shot to pieces. Half the houses empty, and business gone to pot. It’s a purty yellow proposition now.”

“You don’t say! It was pretty slow when I was there last, but I didn’t suppose it had gone broke. What’s the matter of it?”

“Too many monopolists. All the good properties have gone into one or two hands. Then these labor wars have scared operators away. However, I’m not complainin’. I’ve made good on this lease of mine.” He grinned boyishly. “I’ve been back to flash my roll in the old man’s face. You see, I left the farm rather sudden one Sunday morning eleven years ago, and I’d never been back.” His face changed to a graver, sweeter expression. “My sister wrote that mother was not very well and kind o’ grievin’ about me, so, as I was making good money, I thought I could afford to surprise the old man by slapping him on the back. You see, when I left, I told him I’d never darken his door again–you know the line of talk a boy hands out to his dad when he’s mad–and for over ten years I never so much as wrote a line to any of the family.”

As he mused darkly over this period, I insinuated another question. “What was the trouble?”

“That’s just it! Nothing to warrant anything more than a cuss-word, and yet it cut me loose. I was goin’ around now and then with a girl the old man didn’t like–or rather, my old man and her old man didn’t hitch–and, besides, her old man was a kind of shiftless cuss, one o’ these men that raised sparrows in his beard, and so one Sunday morning, as I was polishin’ up the buggy to go after Nance, who but dad should come out and growl:

“‘Where ye goin’ with that buggy?’

“‘None o’ your dam’ business,’ I snaps back, hot as hell in a secunt, ‘but just to touch you up, I’ll tell you. I’m goin’ over to see Nance McRae.’

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“Well, sir, that set him off. ‘Not with my horses,’ says he, and, grabbin’ the buggy by the thills, he sent it back into the shed. Then he turned on me:

“‘If you want to see that girl, you walk! I won’t have you usin’ my tired animals to cart such trash–‘

“I stopped him right there. He was a big, raw-boned citizen, but I was a husky chunk of a lad myself and ready to fight.

“‘Don’t you speak a word against Nance,’ I says, ‘for if you do I’ll waller ye right here and now; and as for your horse and buggy, you may keep ’em till the cows come home. Here’s where I get off. You’ll never see me again.’

“Gee! I was hot! I went in, packed up my grip, and hit the first train for the West.”

“Just as thousands of other angry boys have done,” I said, realizing to the minutest detail this scene. “They never think of going East.”

“No, the West is the only place for a man in trouble–at least, so it seems to me.”

“Where did you go? What did you do?”

He mused again as if recalling his struggles. “I dropped off in Kansas and got a job on a farm and fussed around there for the fall and winter. Then I got the minin’ fever and came to Victor. Of course, there wasn’t anything for a grass-cutter like me to do in the hills but swing a pick. I didn’t like underground work, and so I went on a ranch again. Well, I kept tryin’ the minin’ game off and on, prospectin’ here and there, and finally I got into this leasin’ business, and two years ago I secured a lease on the ‘Red Cent’ and struck it good and plenty. Oh, I don’t intend to say it’s any Portland–but it pays me and I’ve been stackin’ up some few dollars down at the Commercial Bank, and feelin’ easy.”

The man’s essential sturdiness of character came out as he talked, and his face lost the heavy and rather savage look it had worn at first. I had taken a seat beside him by this time and my sincere interest in his affairs seemed to please him. He was eager to talk, as one who had been silent for a long time.

I led him back to the point of most interest to me. “And so at last you relented and went home? I hope you found the old folks both alive? Did they know where you were?”

“Yes. My sister saw my name in a paper–when I made my stake–and wrote, and mother used to send word–used to mention dad occasionally.” He laughed silently. “It sure is great fun, this goin’ back to the home pasture with a fat wad in your pants pocket–Lord! I owned the whole town.”

“Tell me about it!” I pleaded.

He was ready to comply. “Our house stood near the railway, about four miles this side of Jackson, and you bet I had my head out of the winder to see if it was all there. It was. It looked just the same, only the old man had painted it yellow–and seemed like I could see mother settin’ on the porch. I’d had it all planned to hire the best automobile in town and go up there in shape to heal sore eyes–but changed my plan.

“‘I’ll give ’em more of a shock if I walk out and pretend to be poor and kind o’ meek,’ I says to myself.

“So I cached my valise at the station and I wallered out there through the dust–it was June and a dry spell and hot. Judas priest! I thought I’d sweat my wad into pulp before I got there–me just down from the high country! On the way I got to wonderin’ about Nancy. ‘Is she alive, I wonder?’

“Do you mean to say you left her without a word of good-by?”

He looked down at his knee and scratched a patch of grease there. “That’s what! I was so blame mad I cut loose of the whole outfit. Once or twice sis had mentioned Nance in a casual kind of way, but as I didn’t bite–she had quit fishin’, and so I was all in the dark about her. She might ‘ave been dead or married or crazy, for all I knew. However, now that I was on my way back with nineteen thousand dollars in the bank and a good show for more, I kind o’ got to wonderin’ what she was sufferin’ at.”

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“I hope she was married to a banker in town and the owner of an electric brougham. ‘Twould have served you right.”

He smiled again and resumed his story. “By the time I reached the old gate I was dusty as a stage-coach, and this old corduroy suit made me look as much like a tramp as anybody. As I came onto the old man he was waterin’ a span o’ horses at the well. Everything looked about the same, only a little older–he was pretty gray and some thinner–and I calls out kind o’ meek-like:

“‘Can I get a job here, mister?’

“He looked me over a spell, then says, ‘No, for I’m purty well supplied with hands.’

“‘What you need is a boss,’ I says, grinnin’.

“Then he knew me, but he didn’t do no fancy start–he just growled out kind o’ surly:

“‘I’m competent to do all the bossin’ on this place,’ he says.

“‘You may think so,’ I joshed him, ‘but if I couldn’t keep a place lookin’ a little slicker ‘n this, I’d sell out and give some better man a chance.’

“Did that faze him? Not on your life. He checked up both horses before he opened his mouth again.

“‘You don’t look none too slick yourself. How comes it you’re trampin’ this hot weather?’

“I see what he was driving at and so I fed him the dope he wanted.

“‘Well, I’ve had hard luck,’ I says. ‘I’ve been sick.’

“‘You don’t look sick,’ he snapped out, quick as a flash. ‘You look tolerable husky. You ‘pear like one o’ these chaps that eat up all they earn–eat and drink and gamble,’ he went on, pilin’ it up. ‘I don’t pity tramps a bit; they’re all topers.’

“I took it meek as Moses.

“‘Well,’ I says, ‘I’m just out of the hospital, and whilst I may seem husky, I need a good quiet place and a nice easy job for a while. Moreover, I’m terrible hungry.’

“‘You go ‘long up to the house,’ he says, ‘and tell the girl in the kitchen to hand you out a plate of cold meat. I’ll be along in a minute.’

“And off he went to the barn, leavin’ me shakin’ with his jolt. He was game all right! He figured me out as the prodigal son, and wa’n’t goin’ to knuckle. He intended for me to do all the knee exercise. I drifted along up the path toward the kitchen.

“Judas! but it did seem nice and familiar. It was all so green and flowery after camp. There ain’t a tree or a patch of green grass left in Cripple; but there, in our old yard, were lylock-trees, and rose-bushes climbin’ the porch, and pinks and hollyhocks–and beehives, just as they used to set–and clover. Say, it nearly had me snifflin’. It sure did.”

The memory of it rather pinched his voice as he described it, but he went on.

“Of course I couldn’t live down there now–it’s too low, after a man has breathed such air as this.”

He looked out at the big clouds soaring round Pike’s Peak.

“But the flowers and the grass they did kind o’ get me. I edged round on the front side of the house, and, sure enough, there sat mother, just as she used to–in the same old chair.

“Cap, I want to tell you, I didn’t play no circus tricks on her. Her head had grown white as snow and she looked kind o’ sad and feeble. I began to understand a little of the worry I’d been to her. I said good evening, and she turned and looked at me. Then she opened her arms and called out my name.”

His voice choked unmistakably this time, and it was a minute or two before he resumed.

“No jokes, no lies doin’ there! I opened right up to her. I told her I’d done well, but that I didn’t want father to know it just yet, and we sit there holdin’ hands when the old man hove round the corner.

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“‘Stephen,’ says mother, kind o’ solemn, ‘here’s our son Edward.’

“Did the old man wilt, or climb the line fence and offer to shake hands? Nitsky! He just shoved one hip onto the edge of the porch and remarked:

“‘Does this dry spell reach as fur as where you’ve been?’”

He broke into silent laughter again, and I joined him. This was all so deeply characteristic of the life I had known in my youth that I writhed with delight. I understood the duel of wits and wills. I could see it proceed as my companion chuckled.

“Well, sir, we played that game all the evening. I told of all the bad leases I’d tackled–and how I’d been thrown from a horse and laid up for six months. I brought out every set-back and bruise I’d ever had–all to see if the old man would weaken and feel sorry for me.”

“Did he?”

“Not for a minute! And sometimes, as I looked at him, I was sorry I’d come home; but when I was with mother I was glad. She ‘phoned to sis, who lived in Jackson, and sis came on the lope, and we had a nice family party. Sis touched on Nancy McRae.

“‘You remember her?’ she asked.

“‘I seem to,’ I says, kind of slow, as if I was dredgin’ my mind to find something.

“‘Well, she’s on the farm, just the same as ever–takin’ care of the old man. Her mother’s dead.’

“I didn’t push that matter any farther, but just planned to ride over the next morning and see how she looked.

“All that evening sis and I deviled the old man. Mother had told sis about my mine–and so she’d bring out every little while how uncertain the gold-seekin’ business was and how if I’d stayed on the farm I could ‘a’ been well off–and she’d push me hard when I started in on one of my hard-luck stories. I had to own up that I had walked out to save money, and that I was travelin’ on an excursion ticket ’cause it was cheap–and so on.

“The old man’s mouth got straighter and straighter and his eyes colder–but I told mother not to say anything till next day, and she didn’t, although he tossed and turned and grunted half the night. He really took it hard; but he finally agreed to harbor me and give me a chance–so mother told me next morning–which was Sunday. I had planned to get home Saturday night.

“Next morning after breakfast–and it was a breakfast–I strolled out to the barn and, the carriage-shed door being open, I pulled the old buggy out–‘peared like it was the very same one, and I was a-dustin’ the cushions and fussin’ around when the old man came up.

“‘What you doin’ with that buggy?’ he asks.

“‘I jest thought I’d ride over and see Nance McRae,’ I says, just as I did eleven years before.

“‘I reckon you better think again,’ he says, and rolls the buggy back into the shed, just the way he did before. ‘If you want to see Nance McRae you can walk,’ he says, and I could see he meant it.

“‘All right,’ I says, and out I stepped without so much as saying good-by, intendin’ to go for good this time.

“I went across the road to Martin’s and got a chance to ‘phone into Jackson, and in about twenty minutes I was whirlin’ over the road in a red-cushioned automobile that ran smooth as oil, and inside of half an hour I was rollin’ through McRae’s gate.

“Now, up to this time, I hadn’t any notion of a program as to Nancy; I was all took up with gettin’ ahead of dad. But when I found myself in front of old McRae, more down at the heel and raggeder in the seat than ever, I was a whole lot set back. What was I to say to him and to her? I didn’t know. He was gappin’ at me with the eyes of an owl, and so I opened up.

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“‘I see you have no lightnin’-rods?’ I says. ‘In this day and age of the world you can’t afford to go without lightnin’-rods.’

“He wa’n’t no fool, if he did wear rats in his hair, and he says:

“‘I thought you was a cream-separator man. Are lightnin’-rods comin’ into style again?’

“‘My kind is,’ I says.

“‘Well, the trade must be lookin’ up,’ he says, walkin’ round and round my machine and eyin’ it. ‘I’m thinkin’ of havin’ one of them wagons for haulin’ milk to town. Won’t you light out?’

“‘Don’t care if I do,’ I says, and out I rolled, feelin’ a little shaky.

“I was mighty anxious to see Nance by this time, but felt shy of askin’ about her.

“‘What is the latest kink in rods?’ asked the old cuss.

“‘These kind I sell,’ I says, ‘are the kind that catch and store the electricity in a tank down cellar. Durin’ a thunder-storm you can save up enough to rock the baby and run the churn for a week or two.’

“‘I want ‘o know,’ he says. ‘Well, we ‘ain’t got a baby and no churn–but mebbe it would run a cream-separator?’

“‘Sure it would.’

“All the time we was a-joshin’ this way he was a-studyin’ me–and finally he said:

“‘You can’t fool me, Ed. How are ye?’

“And we shook hands. I always liked the old cuss. He was a great reader–always talkin’ about Napoleon–he’d been a great man if he’d ever got off the farm and into something that required just his kind o’ brain-work.

“‘Come in,’ he says. ‘Nance will want to see you.’

“The minute he said that I had a queer feelin’ at the pit o’ my stummick–I did, sure thing. ‘It’s a little early for a call,’ I says, ‘and I ain’t in Sunday clothes.’

“‘That don’t matter,’ he says; ‘she’ll be glad to see you any time.’

“You’d ‘a’ thought I’d been gone eleven weeks instead of eleven years.

“Nance wasn’t a bit like her dad. She always looked shipshape, no matter what she was a-doin’. She was in the kitchen, busy as a gasoline-motor, when we busted through the door.

“‘Nance!’ the old man called out, ‘here’s Ed Hatch.’

“She didn’t do any fancy stunts. She just straightened up and looked at me kind o’ steady for a minute, and then came over to shake hands.

“‘I’m glad to see you back, Ed,’ she says.”

The stress of this meeting was still over him, as I could see and hear, and I waited for him to go on.

“She hadn’t changed as much as mother. She was older and sadder and kind o’ subdued, and her hand felt calloused, but I’d ‘a’ known her anywhere. She was dressed in a blue calico dress, but she was sure handsome still, and I said to her:

“‘You need a change of climate,’ I says, ‘and a different kind of boss. Colorado’s where you ought to be,’ I went on.

“For half an hour I kept banterin’ her like that, and though she got pink now and then, she didn’t seem to understand–or if she did she didn’t let on. She stuck to her work whilst the old man and me watched her. Seein’ her going about that kitchen that way got me locoed. I always liked to watch mother in the kitchen–and Nance was a genuine housekeeper, I always knew that.

“Finally I says:

“‘I hain’t got any buggy, Nance–the old man wouldn’t let me have one last Sunday–I mean eleven years ago–that’s what threw me off the track–but I’ve got a forty-horse-power car out here. Suppose you put on your best apron and take a ride with me.’

“She made some words as women will, but she got ready, and she did look handsomer than ever as she came out. She was excited, I could see that, but she was all there! No jugglin’ or fussin’.

“‘Climb in the front seat, dad,’ I says. ‘It’s me and Nance to the private box. Turn on the juice,’ I says to the driver.

“Well, sir, we burned up all the grease in the box lookin’ up the old neighbors and the places we used to visit with horse and buggy–and every time I spoke to the old man I called him ‘Dad’–and finally we fetched up at the biggest hotel in the town and had dinner together.

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“Then I says: ‘Dad, you better lay down and snooze. Nance and me are goin’ out for a walk.’

“The town had swelled up some, but one or two of the old stores was there, and as we walked past the windows I says: ‘Remember the time we stood here and wished we could buy things?’

“She kind o’ laughed. ‘I don’t believe I do.’

“‘Yes, you do,’ I says. ‘Well, we can look now to some account, for I’ve got nineteen thousand dollars in the bank and a payin’ lease on a mine.’”

Up to this minute he had been fairly free to express his real feelings–hypnotized by my absorbed gaze–but now, like most Anglo-Saxons, he began to shy. He began to tell of a fourteen-dollar suit of clothes (bought at this store) which turned green in the hot sun.

“Oh, come now!” I insisted, “I want to know about Nancy. All this interests me deeply. Did she agree to come back with you?”

He looked a little bit embarrassed. “I asked her to–right there in front of that window. I said, ‘I want you to let me buy you that white dress.’

“‘Judas priest! I can’t let you do that,’ she says.

“‘Why not?’ I said. ‘We’re goin’ to be married, anyhow.’

“‘Is that so?’ she asked. ‘I hadn’t heard of it.’

“Oh, she was no babe, I tell you. We went back to the hotel and woke up the old man, and I ordered up the best machine in the shop–a big seven-seated, shiny one, half as long as a Pullman parlor-car, with a top and brass housin’s and extra tires strapped on, and a place for a trunk–an outfit that made me look like a street-railway magnate. It set me back a whole lot, but I wanted to stagger dad–and I did. As we rolled up to the door he came out with eyes you could hang your hat on.

“‘What’s all this?’ he asked.

“I hopped out.

“‘Miss McRae,’ I says, ‘this is my father. Dad, this is Mister McRae. I think you’ve met before.’”

He chuckled again, that silent interior laugh, and I was certainly grinning in sympathy as he went on.

“‘Just help me with this trunk,’ I says. ‘The horses bein’ tired, I just thought I’d have a dray to bring up my duds.’

“Well, sir, I had him flat down. He couldn’t raise a grunt. He stood like a post while I laid off my trunk; but mother and sis came out and were both very nice to Nance. Mother asked her to get out, and she did, and I took ’em all for a ride later–all but dad. Couldn’t get him inside the machine. Nance stayed for supper, and just as we were goin’ in dad said to me:

“‘How much does that red machine cost you an hour?’

“‘About two dollars.’

“‘I reckon you better send it back to the shop,’ he says. ‘You can take Nance home in my buggy.’

“It was his surrender; but I didn’t turn a hair.

“‘I guess you’re right,’ I says. ‘It is a little expensive to spark in–and a little too public, too.’”

The whistle of the engine announcing the station helped him out.

“Here’s Victor, and my mine is up there on the north-west side. You can just see the chimney. I’ve got another year on it, and I’m goin’ to raise dirt to beat hell durin’ all the time there is left, and then I’m goin’ to Denver.”

“And Nance?”

“Oh, she’s comin’ out next week,” he said, as he rose to take down his valise. “I’ve bought a place at the Springs.”

“Good luck to you both,” said I, as he swung from the train.

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