Story type: Literature
You could not be so very tough in Chippewa, Wisconsin. But Buzz Werner managed magnificently with the limited means at hand. Before he was nineteen mothers were warning their sons against him, and brothers their sisters. Buzz Werner not only was tough–he looked tough. When he spoke–which was often–his speech slid sinisterly out of the extreme left corner of his mouth. He had a trick of hitching himself up from the belt–one palm on the stomach and a sort of heaving jerk from the waist, as a prize fighter does it–that would have made a Van Bibber look rough.
His name was not really Buzz, but quotes are dispensed with because no one but his mother remembered what it originally had been. His mother called him Ernie and she alone, in all Chippewa, Wisconsin, was unaware that her son was the town tough guy. But even she sometimes mildly remonstrated with him for being what she called kind of wild. Buzz had yellow hair with a glint in it, and it curled up into a bang at the front. No amount of wetting or greasing could subdue that irrepressible forelock. A boy with hair like that never grows up in his mother’s eyes.
If Buzz’s real name was lost in the dim mists of boyhood, the origin and fitness of his nickname were apparent after two minutes’ conversation with him. Buzz Werner was called Buzz not only because he talked too much, but because he was a braggart. His conversation bristled with the perpendicular pronoun, and his pet phrase was, “I says to him–“
By the time Buzz was fourteen he was stealing brass from the yards of the big paper mills down in the Flats and selling it to the junk man. How he escaped the reform school is a mystery. Perhaps it was the blond forelock. At nineteen he was running with the Kearney girl.
Twenty-five years hence Chippewa will have learned to treat the Kearney-girl type as a disease, and a public menace. Which she was. The Kearney girl ran wild in Chippewa, and Chippewa will be paying taxes on the fruit of her liberty for a hundred years to come. The Kearney girl was a beautiful idiot, with a lovely oval face, and limpid, rather wistful blue eyes, and fair, fine hair, and a long slim neck. She looked very much like those famous wantons of history, from Lucrezia Borgia to Nell Gwyn, that you see pictured in the galleries of Europe–all very mild and girlish, with moist red mouths, like a puppy’s, so that you wonder if they have not been basely defamed through all the centuries.
The Kearney girl’s father ran a saloon out on Second Avenue, and every few days the Chippewa paper would come out with a story of a brawl, a knifing, or a free-for-all fight following a Saturday night in Kearney’s. The Kearney girl herself was forever running up and down Grand Avenue, which was the main business street. She would trail up and down from the old Armory to the post-office and back again. When she turned off into the homeward stretch on Outagamie Street there always slunk after her some stoop-shouldered, furtive, loping youth. But he never was seen with her on Grand Avenue. She had often been up before old Judge Colt for some nasty business or other. At such times the shabby office of the Justice of the Peace would be full of shawled mothers and heavy-booted, work-worn fathers, and an aunt or two, and some cousins, and always a slinking youth fumbling with the hat in his hands, his glance darting hither and thither, from group to group, but never resting for a moment within any one else’s gaze. Of all these present, the Kearney girl herself was always the calmest. Old Judge Colt meted out justice according to his lights. Unfortunately, the wearing of a yellow badge on the breast was a custom that had gone out some years before.
This nymph it was who had taken a fancy to Buzz Werner. It looked very black for his future.
The strange part of it was that the girl possessed little attraction for Buzz. It was she who made all the advances. Buzz had sprung from very decent stock, as you shall see. And something about the sultry unwholesomeness of this girl repelled him, though he was hardly aware that this was so. Buzz and his gang would meet down town of a Saturday night, very moist as to hair and clean as to soft shirt. They would lounge on the corner of Grand and Outagamie, in front of Schroeder’s brightly lighted drug store, watching the girls go by. They were, for the most part, a pimply-faced lot. They would shuffle their feet in a slow jig, hands in pockets. When a late comer joined them it was considered au fait to welcome him by assuming a fistic attitude, after the style of the pugilists pictured in the barber-shop magazines, and spar a good-natured and make-believe round with him, with much agile dancing about in a circle, head held stiffly, body crouching, while working a rapid and facetious right.
This corner, or Donovan’s pool-shack, was their club, their forum. Here they recounted their exploits, bragged of their triumphs, boasted of their girls, flexed their muscles to show their strength. And all through their talk there occurred again and again a certain term whose use is common to their kind. Their remarks were prefaced and interlarded and concluded with it, so that it was no longer an oath or a blasphemy.
“Je’s, I was sore at ‘m. I told him where to get off at. Nobody can talk to me like that. Je’s, I should say not.”
So accustomed had it grown that it was not even thought of as profanity.
If Buzz’s family could have heard him in his talk with his street-corner companions they would not have credited their ears. A mouthy braggart in company is often silent in his own home, and Buzz was no exception to this rule. Fortunately, Buzz’s braggadocio carried with it a certain conviction. He never kept a job more than a month, and his own account of his leave-taking was always as vainglorious as it was dramatic.
“‘G’wan!’ I says to him, ‘Who you talkin’ to? I don’t have to take nothin’ from you nor nobody like you,’ I says. ‘I’m as good as you are any day, and better. You can have your dirty job,’ I says. And with that I give him my time and walked out on ‘m. Je’s, he was sore!”
They would listen to him, appreciatively, but with certain mental reservations; reservations inevitable when a speaker’s name is Buzz. One by one they would melt away as their particular girl, after flaunting by with a giggle and a sidelong glance for the dozenth time, would switch her skirts around the corner of Outagamie Street past the Brill House, homeward bound.
“Well, s’long,” they would say. And lounging after her, would overtake her in the shadow of the row of trees in front of the Agassiz School.
If the Werner family had been city folk they would, perforce, have burrowed in one of those rabbit-warren tenements that line block after block of city streets. But your small-town labouring man is likely to own his two-story frame house with a garden patch in the back and a cement walk leading up to the front porch, and pork roast on Sundays. The Werners had all this, no thanks to Pa Werner; no thanks to Buzz, surely; and little to Minnie Werner who clerked in the Sugar Bowl Candy Store and tried to dress like Angie Hatton whose father owned the biggest Pulp and Paper mill in the Fox River Valley. No, the house and the garden, the porch and the cement sidewalk, and the pork roast all had their origin in Ma Werner’s tireless energy, in Ma Werner’s thrift; in her patience and unremitting toil, her nimble fingers and bent back, her shapeless figure and unbounded and unexpressed (verbally, that is) love for her children. Pa Werner–sullen, lazy, brooding, tyrannical–she soothed and mollified for the children’s sake, or shouted down with a shrewish outburst, as the occasion required. An expert stone-mason by trade, Pa Werner could be depended on only when he was not drinking, or when he was not on strike, or when he had not quarrelled with the foreman. An anarchist, Pa–dissatisfied with things as they were, but with no plan for improving them. His evil-smelling pipe between his lips, he would sit, stocking-footed, in silence, smoking and thinking vague, formless, surly thoughts. This sullen unrest and rebellion it was that, transmitted to his son, had made Buzz the unruly braggart that he was, and which, twenty or thirty years hence, would find him just such a one as his father–useless, evil-tempered, half brutal, defiant of order.
It was in May, a fine warm sunny day, that Ma Werner, looking up from the garden patch where she was spading, a man’s old battered felt hat perched grotesquely atop her white head, saw Buzz lounging homeward, cutting across lots from Bates Street, his dinner pail glinting in the sun. It was four o’clock in the afternoon. Ma Werner straightened painfully and her over-flushed face took on a purplish tinge. She wiped her moist chin with an apron-corner.
As Buzz espied her his gait became a swagger. At sight of that swagger Ma knew. She dropped her spade and plodded heavily through the freshly turned earth to the back porch as Buzz turned in at the walk. She shifted her weight ponderously as she wiped first one earth-crusted shoe and then the other.
“What’s the matter, Ernie? You ain’t sick, are you?”
“What you home so early for?”
“Because I feel like it, that’s why.”
He took the back steps at a bound and slammed the kitchen door behind him. Ma Werner followed heavily after. Buzz was hanging his hat up behind the kitchen door. He turned with a scowl as his mother entered. She looked even more ludicrous in the house than she had outside, with her skirts tucked up to make spading the easier, so that there was displayed an unseemly length of thick ankle rising solidly above the old pair of men’s side-boots that encased her feet. The battered hat perched rakishly atop her knob of gray-white hair gave her a jaunty, sporting look, as of a ponderous, burlesque Watteau.
She abandoned pretense. “Ernie, your pa’ll be awful mad. You know the way he carried on the last time.”
“Let him. He aint worked five days himself this month.” Then, at a sudden sound from the front of the house, “He ain’t home, is he?”
“That’s the shade flapping.”
Buzz turned toward the inside wooden stairway that led to the half-story above. But his mother followed, with surprising agility for so heavy a woman. She put a hand on his arm. “Such a good-payin’ job, Ernie. An’ you said only yesterday you liked it. Somethin’ must’ve happened.”
There broke a grim little laugh from Buzz. “Believe me something happened good an’ plenty.” A little frightened look came into his eyes. “I just had a run-in with young Hatton.”
The red faded from her face and a grey-white mask seemed to slip down over it. “You don’t mean Hatton! Not Hatton’s son. Ernie, you ain’t done–“
A dash of his street-corner bravado came back to him. “Aw, keep your hair on, Ma. I didn’t know it was young Hatton when I hit’m. An’ anyway nobody his age is gonna tell me where to get off at. Say, w’en a guy who ain’t twenty-three, hardly, and that never done a lick in his life except go to college, the sissy, tries t’–“
But the first sentence only had penetrated her brain. She grappled with it, dizzily. “Hit him! Ernie, you don’t mean you hit him! Not Hatton’s son! Ernie!”
“Sure I did. You oughta seen his face.” But there was very little triumph or satisfaction in Buzz Werner’s face or voice as he said it. “Course, I didn’t know it was him when I done it. I dunno would it have made any difference if I had.”
She seemed so old and so shrunken, in spite of her bulk, as she looked up at him. The look in her eyes was so strained. The way her hand brought her apron-corner up to her mouth, as though to stifle the fear that shook her, was so groping, somehow, so uncertain, that, paradoxically, the pitifulness of it reacted to make him savage.
When she quavered her next question, “What was he doin’ in the mill?” he turned toward the stairway again, flinging his answer over his shoulder.
“Learnin’ the business, that’s what. From the ground up, see?” He turned at the first stair and leaned forward and down, one hand on the door-jamb. “Well, believe me he don’t use me as no ground-dirt. An’ when I’m takin’ the screen off the big roll–see?–he comes up to me an’ says I’m handlin’ it rough an’ it’s a delicate piece of mechanism. ‘Who’re you?’ I says. ‘Never mind who I am’ he says, ‘I’m working’ on this job,’ he says, ‘an’ this is a paper mill you’re workin’ in,’ he says, ‘not a boiler factory. Treat the machinery accordin’, like a real workman,’ he says. The simp! I just stepped down off the platform of the big press, and I says, ‘Well, you look like a kinda delicate piece of mechanism yourself,’ I says, ‘an’ need careful handlin’, so take that for a starter,’ I says. An’ with that I handed him one in the nose.” Buzz laughed, but there was little mirth in it. “I bet he seen enough wheels an’ delicate machinery that minute to set up a whole new plant.”
There was nothing of mirth in the woman’s drawn face. “Oh, Ernie, f’r God’s sake! What they goin’ to do to you!”
He was half way up the narrow stairway, she at the foot of it, peering up at him. “They won’t do anything. I guess old Hatton ain’t so stuck on havin’ his swell golf club crowd know his little boy was beat up by one of the workmen.”
He was clumping about upstairs now. So she turned toward the kitchen, dazedly. She glanced at the clock. Going on toward five. Still in the absurd hat she got out a panful of potatoes and began to peel them skilfuly, automatically. The seamed and hardened fingers had come honestly by their deftness. They had twirled and peeled pecks–bushels–tons of these brown balls in their time.
At five-thirty Pa came in. At six, Minnie. She had to go back to the Sugar Bowl until nine. Five minutes later the supper was steaming on the table.
“Ernie,” called Ma, toward the ceiling. “Er-nie! Supper’s on.” The three sat down at the table without waiting. Pa had slipped off his shoes, and was in his stockinged feet. They ate in silence. It was a good meal. A European family of the same class would have considered it a banquet. There were meat and vegetables, butter and home-made bread, preserve and cake, true to the standards of the extravagant American labouring-class household. In the summer the garden supplied them with lettuce, beans, peas, onions, radishes, beets, potatoes, corn, thanks to Ma’s aching back and blistered hands. They stored enough vegetables in the cellar to last through the winter.
Buzz usually cleaned up after supper. But to-night, when he came down, he was already clean-shaven, clean-shirted, and his hair was wet from the comb. He took his place in silence. His acid-stained work shoes had been replaced by his good tan ones. Evidently he was going down town after supper. Buzz never took any exercise for the sake of his body’s good. Sometimes he and the Lembke boys across the way played a game of ball in the middle of the road, or in the vacant lot, but they did it out of the game instinct, and with no thought of their muscles’ gain.
But to-night, evidently, there was to be no ball. Buzz ate little. His mother, forever between the stove and the table, ate less. But that was nothing unusual in her. She waited on the others, but mostly she hovered about the boy.
“Ernie, you ain’t eaten your potatoes. Look how nice an’ mealy they are.”
“Don’t want none.”
“Ernie, would you rather have a baked apple than the raspberry preserve? I fixed a pan this morning.”
“Naw. Lemme alone. I ain’t hungry.”
He slouched from the table. Minnie, teacup in hand, regarded him over its rim with wide, malicious eyes. “I saw that Kearney girl go by here before supper, and she rubbered in like everything.”
“You’re a liar,” said Buzz, unemotionally.
“I did so! She went by and then she came back again. I saw her both times. Say, I guess I ought to know her. Anybody in town’d know Kearney.”
Buzz had been headed toward the front porch. He hesitated and turned, now, and picked up the newspaper from the sitting-room sofa. Pa Werner, in trousers, shirt and suspenders, was padding about the kitchen with his pipe and tobacco. He came into the sitting room now and stood a moment, his lips twisted about the pipe-stem. The pipe’s putt-putting gave warning that he was about to break into unaccustomed speech. He regarded Buzz with beady, narrowed eyes.
“You let me see you around with that Kearney girl and I’ll break every bone in your body, and hers too. The hussy!”
“Oh, you will, will you?”
Ma, who had been making countless trips from the kitchen to the back garden with water pail and sprinkling can sagging from either arm, put in a word to stay the threatening storm. “Now, Pa! Now, Ernie!” The two men subsided into bristling silence.
Suddenly, “There she is again!” shrilled Minnie, from her bedroom. Buzz shrank back in his chair. Old man Werner, with a muttered oath, went to the open doorway and stood there, puffing savage little spurts of smoke streetward. The Kearney girl stared brazenly at him as she strolled slowly by, a slim and sinister figure. Old man Werner watched her until she passed out of sight.
“You go gettin’ mixed up with dirt like that,” threatened he, “and I’ll learn you. She’ll be hangin’ around the mill yet, the brass-faced thing. If I hear of it I’ll get the foreman to put her off the place. You’ll stay home to-night. Carry a pail of water for your ma once.”
“Carry it yourself.”
Buzz, with a wary eye up the street, slouched out to the front porch, into the twilight of the warm May evening. Charley Lembke, from his porch across the street, called to him: “Goin’ down town?”
“Yeh, I guess so.”
“Ain’t you afraid of bein’ pinched?” Buzz turned his head quickly toward the room just behind him. He turned to go in. Charley’s voice came again, clear and far-reaching. “I hear you had a run-in with Hatton’s son, and knocked him down. Some class t’ you, Buzz, even if it does cost you your job.”
From within the sound of a newspaper hurled to the floor. Pa Werner was at the door. “What’s that! What’s that he’s sayin’?”
Buzz, cornered, jutted a threatening jaw at his father and brazened it out. “Can’t you hear good?”
“Come on in here.”
Buzz hesitated a moment. Then he turned, slowly, and walked into the little sitting room with an attempt at a swagger that failed to convince even himself. He leaned against the side of the door, hands in pockets. Pa Werner faced him, black-browed. “Is that right, what he said? Lembke? Huh?”
“Sure it’s right. I had a run-in with Hatton, an’ licked him, and give’m my time. What you goin’ to do about it?”
Ma Werner was in the room, now. Minnie, passing through on her way to work again, caught the electric current of the storm about to break and escaped it with a parting:
“Oh, for the land’s sakes! You two. Always a-fighting.”
The two men faced each other. The one a sturdy man-boy nearing twenty, with a great pair of shoulders and a clear eye, a long, quick arm and a deft hand–these last his assets as a workman. The other, gnarled, prematurely wrinkled, almost gnome-like. This one took his pipe from between his lips and began to speak. The drink he had had at Wenzel’s on the way home sparked his speech.
He began with a string of epithets. They flowed from his lips, an acid stream. Pick and choose as I will, there is none that can be repeated here. Old Man Werner had, perhaps, been something of a tough guy himself, in his youth. As he reviled his son now you saw that son, at fifty, just such another stocking-footed, bitter old man, smoking a glum pipe on the back porch, summer evenings, and spitting into the fresh young grass.
I don’t say that this thought came to Buzz as his father flayed him with his abuse. But there was something unusual, surely, in the non-resistance with which he allowed the storm to beat about his head. Something in his steady, unruffled gaze caused the other man to falter a little in his tirade, and finally to stop, almost apprehensively. He had paid no heed to Ma Werner’s attempts at pacification. “Now, Pa!” she had said, over and over, her hand on his arm, though he shook it off again and again. “Now, Pa!–” But he stopped now, fist raised in a last profane period. Buzz stood regarding him with his unblinking stare.
Finally: “You through?” said Buzz.
“Ya-as,” snarled Pa, “I’m through. Get to hell out of here. You’ll be hung yet, you loafer. A good-for-nothing bum, that’s what. Get out o’ here!”
“I’m gettin’,” said Buzz. He took his hat off the hook and wiped it carefully with the lower side of his sleeve, round and round. He placed it on his head, jauntily. He stepped to the kitchen, took a tooth-pick from the little red-and-white glass holder on the table, and–with this emblem of insouciance, at an angle of ninety, between his teeth–strolled indolently, nonchalantly down the front steps, along the cement walk to the street and so toward town. The two old people, left alone in the sudden silence of the house, stared after the swaggering figure until the dim twilight blotted it out. And a sinister something seemed to close its icy grip about the heart of one of them. A vague premonition that she could only feel, not express, made her next words seem futile.
“Pa, you oughtn’t to talked to him like that. He’s just a little wild. He looked so kind of funny when he went out. I don’no, he looked so kind of–“
“He looked like the bum he is, that’s what. No respect for nothing. For his pa, or ma, or nothing. Down on the corner with the rest of ’em, that’s where he’s goin’. Hatton ain’t goin’ to let this go by. You see.”
But she, on her way to the kitchen, repeated, “I don’no, he looked so kind of funny. He looked so kind of–“
Considering all things–the happenings of the past few hours, at least–Buzz, as he strolled on down toward Grand Avenue with his sauntering, care-free gait, did undoubtedly look kind of funny. The red-hot rage of the afternoon and the white-hot rage of the evening had choked the furnace of brain and soul with clinkers so that he was thinking unevenly and disconnectedly. On the surface he was cool and unruffled. He stopped for a moment at the railroad tracks to talk with Stumpy Gans, the one-legged gateman. The little bell above Stumpy’s shanty was ringing its warning, so he strolled leisurely over to the depot platform to see the 7:15 come in from Chicago. When the train pulled out Buzz went on down the street. His mind was darting here and there, planning this revenge, discarding it; seizing on another, abandoning that. He’d show’m. He’d show’m. Sick of the whole damn bunch, anyway…. Wonder was Hatton going to raise a shindy…. Let’m. Who cares?… The old man was a drunk, that’s what…. Ma had looked kinda sick….
He put that uncomfortable thought out of his mind and slammed the door on it. Anyway, he’d show’m.
Out of the shadows of the great trees in front of the Agassiz School stepped the Kearney girl, like a lean and hungry cat. One hand clutched his arm.
Buzz jumped and said something under his breath. Then he laughed, shortly. “Might as well kill a guy as scare him to death!”
She thrust one hand through his arm and linked it with the other. “I’ve been waiting for you, Buzz.”
“Yeh. Well, let me tell you something. You quit traipsing up and down in front of my house, see?”
“I wanted to see you. An’ I didn’t know whether you was coming down town to-night or not.”
“Well, I am. So now you know.” He pulled away from her, but she twined her arm the tighter about his.
“Ain’t sore at me, are yuh, Buzz?”
“No. Leggo my arm.”
“If you’re sore because I been foolin’ round with that little wart of a Donahue–” She turned wise eyes up to him, trying to make them limpid in the darkness.
“What do I care who you run with?”
“Don’t you care, Buzz?” The words were soft but there was a steel edge to her utterance.
“Oh, Buzz, I’m batty about you. I can’t help it, can I? H’m? Look here, you go on to Grand, and hang around for an hour, maybe, and I’ll meet you here an’ we’ll walk a ways. Will you? I got something to tell you.”
“Naw, I can’t to-night. I’m busy.”
And then the steel edge cut. “Buzz, if you turn me down I’ll have you up.”
“Before old Colt. I can fix up charges. He’ll believe it. Say, he knows me, Judge Colt does. I can name you an’–“
“Me!” Sheer amazement rang in his voice. “Me? You must be crazy. I ain’t had anything to do with you. You make me sick.”
“That don’t make any difference. You can’t prove it. I told you I was crazy about you. I told you–“
He jerked loose from her then and was off. He ran one block. Then, after a backward glance, fell into a quick walk that brought him past the Brill House and to Schroeder’s drug store corner. There was his crowd–Spider, and Red, and Bing, and Casey. They took him literally unto their breasts. They thumped him on the back. They bestowed on him the low epithets with which they expressed admiration. Red worked at one of the bleaching vats in the Hatton paper mill. The story of Buzz’s fistic triumph had spread through the big plant like a flame.
“Go on, Buzz, tell ’em about it,” Red urged, now. “Je’s, I like to died laughing when I heard it. He must of looked a sight, the poor boob. Go on, Buzz, tell ’em how you says to him he must be a kind of delicate piece of–you know; go on, tell ’em.”
Buzz hitched himself up with a characteristic gesture, and plunged into his story. His audience listened entranced, interrupting him with an occasional “Je’s!” of awed admiration. But the thing seemed to lack a certain something. Perhaps Casey put his finger on that something when, at the recital’s finish he asked:
“Didn’t he see you was goin’ to hit him?”
“No. He never see a thing.”
Casey ruminated a moment. “You could of give him a chanst to put up his dukes,” he said at last. A little silence fell upon the group. Honour among thieves.
Buzz shifted uncomfortably. “He’s a bigger guy than I am. I bet he’s over six foot. The papers was always telling how he played football at that college he went to.”
Casey spoke up again. “They say he didn’t wait for this here draft. He’s goin’ to Fort Sheridan, around Chicago somewhere, to be made a officer.”
“Yeh, them rich guys, they got it all their own way,” Spider spoke up, gloomily. “They–“
From down the street came a dull, muffled thud-thud-thud-thud. Already Chippewa, Wisconsin, had learned to recognise it. Grand Avenue, none too crowded on this mid-week night, pressed to the curb to see. Down the street they stared toward the moving mass that came steadily nearer. The listless group on the corner stiffened into something like interest.
“Company G,” said Red. “I hear they’re leavin’ in a couple of days.”
And down the street they came, thud-thud-thud, Company G, headed for the new red-brick Armory for the building of which they had engineered everything from subscription dances and exhibition drills to turkey raffles. Chippewa had never taken Company G very seriously until now. How could it, when Company G was made up of Willie Kemp, who clerked in Hassell’s shoe store; Fred Garvey, the reporter on the Chippewa Eagle; Hermie Knapp, the real-estate man, and Earl Hanson who came around in the morning for your grocery order.
Thud-thud-thud-thud. And to Chippewa, standing at the curb, quite suddenly these every-day men and boys were transformed into something remote and almost terrible. Something grim. Something sacrificial. Something sacred.
Thud-thud-thud-thud. Looking straight ahead.
“The poor boobs,” said Spider, and spat, and laughed.
The company passed on down the street–vanished. Grand Avenue went its way.
A little silence fell upon the street-corner group. Bing was the first to speak.
“They won’t git me in this draft. I got a mother an’ two kid sisters to support.”
“Yeh, a swell lot of supportin’ you do!”
“Who says I don’t! I can prove it.”
“They’ll get me all right,” said Casey. “I ain’t kickin’.”
“I’m under age,” from Red.
Spider said nothing. His furtive eyes darted here and there. Spider was of age. And Spider had no family to support. But Spider had reason to know that no examining board would pass him into the army of his country. And it was a reason of which one did not speak. “You’re only twenty, ain’t you, Buzz?” he asked, to cover the gap in the conversation.
“Yeh.” Silence fell again. Then, “But I wouldn’t mind goin’. Anything for a change. This place makes me sick.”
Spider laughed. “You better be a hero and go and enlist.”
Buzz’s head came up with a jerk. “Je’s, I never thought of that!”
Red struck an attitude, one hand on his breast. “Now’s your chanct, Buzz, to save your country an’ your flag. Enlistment office’s right over the Golden Eagle clothing store. Step up. Don’t crowd gents! This way!”
Buzz was staring at him, open-mouthed. His gaze was fixed, tense. Suddenly he seemed to gather all his muscles together as for a spring. But he only threw his cigarette into the gutter, yawned elaborately, and moved away. “S’long,” he said; and lounged off. The others looked after him a moment, puzzled, speculative. Buzz was not usually so laconic. But evidently he was leaving with no further speech.
“I guess maybe he ain’t so dead sure that Hatton bunch won’t git him for this, anyway,” Casey said. Then, raising his voice: “Goin’ home, Buzz?”
But he did not. If they had watched him they would have seen him change his lounging gait when he reached the corner. They would have seen him stand a moment, sending a quick glance this way and that, then turn, retrace his steps almost at a run, and dart into the doorway that led to the flight of wooden stairs at the side of the Golden Eagle clothing store.
A dingy room. A man at a bare table. Another seated at the window, his chair tipped back, his feet on the sill, a pipe between his teeth. Buzz, shambling, suddenly awkward, stood in the door.
“This the place where you enlist?”
The man at the table stood up. The chair in front of the open window came down on all-fours.
“Sure,” said the first man. “What’s your name?”
Buzz told him.
“Meet Sergeant Keith. He’s a Canadian. Been through the whole game.”
Five minutes later Buzz’s fine white torso rose above his trousers like a great pillar. Unconsciously his sagging shoulders had straightened. His stomach was held in. His chest jutted, shelf-like. His ribs showed through the pink-white flesh.
“Get some of that pork off of him,” observed Sergeant Keith, “and he’ll do in a couple of Fritzes before he’s through.”
“Me!” blurted Buzz, struggling now with his shirt. “A couple! Say, you don’t know me. Whaddyou mean, a couple? I can lick a whole regiment of them beerheads with one hand tied behind me an’ my feet in a sack.” He emerged from the struggle with his shirt, his face very red, his hair rumpled.
Sergeant Keith smiled a grim little smile. “Keep your shirt on, kid,” he said, “and remember, this isn’t a fist fight you’re going into. It’s war.”
Buzz, fumbling with his hat, put his question. “When–when do I go?” For he had signed his name in his round, boyish, sixth-grade scrawl.
“To-morrow. Now listen to these instructions.”
“T-to-morrow?” gasped Buzz.
He was still gasping as he reached the street and struck out toward home. To-morrow! When the Kearney girl again stepped out of the tree-shadows he stared at her as at something remote and trivial.
“I thought you tried to give me the slip, Buzz. Where you been?”
“Never mind where I’ve been.”
She fell into step beside him, but had difficulty in matching his great strides. She caught at his arm. At that Buzz turned and stopped. It was too dark to see his face, but something in his voice–something new, and hard, and resolute–reached even the choked and slimy cells of this creature’s consciousness.
“Now looka here. You beat it. I got somethin’ on my mind to-night and I can’t be bothered with no fool girl, see? Don’t get me sore. I mean it.”
Her hand dropped away from his arm. “I didn’t mean what I said about havin’ you up, Buzz; honest t’ Gawd I didn’t.”
“I don’t care what you meant.”
‘Will you meet me to-morrow night? Will you, Buzz?”
“If I’m in this town to-morrow night I’ll meet you. Is that good enough?”
He turned and strode away. But she was after him. “Where you goin’ to-morrow?”
“I’m goin’ to war, that’s where.”
“Yes you are!” scoffed Miss Kearney. Then, at his silence: “You didn’t go and do a fool thing like that?”
“I sure did.”
“When you goin’?”
“Well, of all the big boobs,” sneered Miss Kearney; “what did you go and do that for?”
“Search me,” said Buzz, dully. “Search me.”
Then he turned and went on toward home, alone. The Kearney girl’s silly, empty laugh came back to him through the darkness. It might have been called a scornful laugh if the Kearney girl had been capable of any emotion so dignified as scorn.
The family was still up. The door was open to the warm May night. The Werners, in their moments of relaxation, were as unbuttoned and highly negligee as one of those group pictures you see of the Robert Louis Stevenson family. Pa, shirt-sleeved, stocking-footed, asleep in his chair. Ma’s dress open at the front. Minnie, in an untidy kimono, sewing.
On this flaccid group Buzz burst, bomb-like. He hung his hat on the hook, wordlessly. The noise he made woke his father, as he had meant that it should. There came a muttered growl from the old man. Buzz leaned against the stairway door, negligently. The eyes of the three were on him.
“Well,” he said, “I guess you won’t be bothered with me much longer.” Ma Werner’s head came up sharply at that.
“What you done, Ernie?”
“For the war; what do you suppose?”
Ma Werner rose at that, heavily. “Ernie! You never!”
Pa Werner was wide awake now. Out of his memory of the old country, and soldier service there, he put his next question. “Did you sign to it?”
“When you goin’?”
Even Pa Werner gasped at that.
In families like the Werners emotion is rarely expressed. But now, because of something in the stricken face and starting eyes of the woman, and the open-mouthed dumbfoundedness of the old man, and the sudden tender fearfulness in the face of the girl; and because, in that moment, all these seemed very safe, and accustomed, and, somehow, dear, Buzz curled his mouth into the sneer of the tough guy and spoke out of the corner of that contorted feature.
“What did you think I was goin’ to do? Huh? Stick around here and take dirt from the bunch of you! Nix! I’m through!”
There was nothing dramatic about Buzz’s going. He seemed to be whisked away. One moment he was eating his breakfast at an unaccustomed hour, in his best shirt and trousers, his mother, only half understanding even now, standing over him with the coffee pot; the next he was standing with his cheap shiny suitcase in his hand. Then he was waiting on the depot platform, and Hefty Burke, the baggage man, was saying, “Where you goin’, Buzz?”
“Goin’ to fight the Germans.”
Hefty had hooted hoarsely: “Ya-a-as you are, you big bluff!”
“Who you callin’ a bluff, you baggage-smasher, you! I’m goin’ to war, I’m tellin’ you.”
Hefty, still scoffing, turned away to his work. “Well, then, I guess it’s as good as over. Give old Willie a swipe for me, will you?”
“You bet I will. Watch me!”
I think he more than half meant it.
And thus Buzz Werner went to war. He was vague about its locality. Somewhere in Europe. He was pretty sure it was France. A line from his Fourth Grade geography came back to him. “The French,” it had said, “are a gay people, fond of dancing and light wines.”
Well, that sounded all right.
The things that happened to Buzz Werner in the next twelve months cannot be detailed here. They would require the space of what the publishers call a 12-mo volume. Buzz himself could never have told you. Things happened too swiftly, too concentratedly.
Chicago first. Buzz had never seen Chicago. Now that he saw it, he hardly believed it. His first glimpse of it left him cowering, terrified. The noise, the rush, the glitter, the grimness, the vastness, were like blows upon his defenceless head. They beat the braggadocio and the self-confidence temporarily out of him. But only temporarily.
Then came a camp. A rough, temporary camp compared to which the present cantonments are luxurious. The United States Government took Buzz Werner by the slack of the trousers and the slack of the mind, and, holding him thus, shook him into shape–and into submission. And eventually–though it required months–into an understanding of why that submission was manly, courageous, and fine. But before he learned that he learned many other things. He learned there was little good in saying, “Aw, g’wan!” to a dapper young lieutenant if they clapped you into the guard-house for saying it. There was little point to throwing down your shovel and refusing to shovel coal if they clapped you into the guard house for doing it; and made you shovel harder than ever when you came out. He learned what it was to rise at dawn and go thud-thud-thudding down a dirt road for endless weary miles. He became an olive-drab unit in an olive-drab village. He learned what it was to wake up in the morning so sore and lame that he felt as if he had been pulled apart, limb from limb, during the night, and never put together again. He stood out with a raw squad in the dirt of No Man’s Land between barracks and went through exercises that took hold of his great slack muscles and welded them into whip-cords. And in front of him, facing him, stood a slim, six-foot whipper-snapper of a lieutenant, hatless, coatless, tireless, merciless–a creature whom Buzz at first thought he could snap between thumb and finger–like that!–who made life a hell for Buzz Werner. Until his muscles became used to it.
“One–two!–three! One–two–three! One–two–three!” yelled this person. And, “Inhale! Exhale! Inhale! Exhale!” till Buzz’s lungs were bursting, his eyes were starting from his head, his chest carried a sledge hammer inside it, his thigh-muscles screamed, and his legs, arms, neck, were no longer parts of him, but horrid useless burdens, detached, yet clinging. He learned what this person meant when he shouted (always with the rising inflection), “Comp’ny! Right! Whup!” Buzz whupped with the best of ’em. The whipper-snapper seemed tireless. Long after Buzz felt that another moment of it would kill him the lithe young lieutenant would be leaping about like a faun, and pride kept Buzz going though he wanted to drop with fatigue, and his shirt and hair and face were wet with sweat.
So much for his body. It soon became accustomed to the routine, then hardened. His mind was less pliable. But that, too, was undergoing a change. He found that the topics of conversation that used to interest his little crowd on the street corner in Chippewa were not of much interest, here. There were boys from every part of the great country. And they talked of the places whence they had come and speculated about the places to which they were going. And Buzz listened and learned. There was strangely little talk about girls. There usually is when muscles and mind are being driven to the utmost. But he heard men–men as big as he–speak openly of things that he had always sneered at as soft. After one of these conversations he wrote an awkward, but significant scrawl home to his mother.
“Well Ma,” he wrote, “I guess maybe you would like to hear a few words from me. Well I like it in the army it is the life for me you bet. I am feeling great how are you all–“
Ma Werner wasted an entire morning showing it around the neighbourhood, and she read and reread it until it was almost pulp.
Six months of this. Buzz Werner was an intelligent machine composed of steel, cord, and iron. I think he had forgotten that the Kearney girl had ever existed. One day, after three months of camp life, the man in the next cot had thrown him a volume of Kipling. Buzz fingered it, disinterestedly. Until that moment Kipling had not existed for Buzz Werner. After that moment he dominated his leisure hours. The Y.M.C.A. hut had many battered volumes of this writer. Buzz read them all.
The week before Thanksgiving Buzz found himself on his way to New York. For some reason unexplained to him he was separated from his company in one of the great shake-ups performed for the good of the army. He never saw them again. He was sent straight to a New York camp. When he beheld his new lieutenant his limbs became fluid, and his heart leaped into his throat, and his mouth stood open, and his eyes bulged. It was young Hatton–Harry Hatton–whose aristocratic nose he had punched six months before, in the Hatton Pulp and Paper Mill.
And even as he stared young Hatton fixed him with his eye, and then came over to him and said, “It’s all right, Werner.”
Buzz Werner could only salute with awkward respect, while with one great gulp his heart slid back into normal place. He had not thought that Hatton was so tall, or so broad-shouldered, or so–
He no more thought of telling the other men that he had once knocked this man down than he thought of knocking him down again. He would almost as soon have thought of taking a punch at the President.
The day before Thanksgiving Buzz was told he might have a holiday. Also he was given an address and a telephone number in New York City and told that if he so desired he might call at that address and receive a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner. They were expecting him there. That the telephone exchange was Murray Hill, and the street Madison Avenue meant nothing to Buzz. He made the short trip to New York, floundered about the city, found every one willing and eager to help him find the address on the slip, and brought up, finally, in front of the house on Madison Avenue. It was a large, five-story stone place, and Buzz supposed it was a flat, of course. He stood off and surveyed it. Then he ascended the steps and rang the bell. They must have been waiting for him. The door was opened by a large amiable-looking, middle-aged man who said, “Well, well! Come in, come in, my boy!” a great deal as the folks in Chippewa, Wisconsin, might have said it. The stout old party also said he was glad to see him and Buzz believed it. They went upstairs, much to Buzz’s surprise. In Buzz’s experience upstairs always meant bedrooms. But in this case it meant a great bright sitting room, with books in it, and a fireplace, very cheerful. There were not a lot of people in the room. Just a middle-aged woman in a soft kind of dress, who came to him without any fuss and the first thing he knew he felt acquainted. Within the next fifteen minutes or so some other members of the family seemed to ooze in, unnoticeably. First thing you knew, there they were. They didn’t pay such an awful lot of attention to you. Just took you for granted. A couple of young kids, a girl of fourteen, and a boy of sixteen who asked you easy questions about the army till you found yourself patronising him. And a tall black-haired girl who made you think of the vamps in the movies, only her eyes were different. And then, with a little rush, a girl about his own age, or maybe younger–he couldn’t tell–who came right up to him, and put out her hand, and gave him a grip with her hard little fist, just like a boy, and said, “I’m Joyce Ladd.”
“Pleased to meetcha,” mumbled Buzz. And then he found himself talking to her quite easily. She knew a surprising lot about the army.
“I’ve two brothers over there,” she said. “And all my friends, of course.” He found out later, quite by accident, that this boyish, but strangely appealing person belonged to some sort of Motor Service League, and drove an automobile, every day, from eight to six, up and down and round and about New York, working like a man in the service of the country. He never would have believed that the world held that kind of girl.
Then four other men in uniform came in, and it turned out that three of them were privates like himself, and the other a sergeant. Their awkward entrance made him feel more than ever at ease, and ten minutes later they were all talking like mad, and laughing and joking as if they had known these people for years. They all went in to dinner. Buzz got panicky when he thought of the knives and forks, but that turned out all right, too, because they brought these as you needed them. And besides, the things they gave you to eat weren’t much different from the things you had for Sunday or Thanksgiving dinner at home, and it was cooked the way his mother would have cooked it–even better, perhaps. And lots of it. And paper snappers and caps and things, and much laughter and talk. And Buzz Werner, who had never been shown any respect or deference in his life, was asked, politely, his opinion of the war, and the army, and when he thought it all would end; and he told them, politely, too.
After dinner Mrs. Ladd said, “What would you boys like to do? Would you like to drive around the city and see New York? Or would you like to go to a matinee, or a picture show? Or do you want to stay here? Some of Joyce’s girl friends are coming in a little later.”
And Buzz found himself saying, stumblingly, “I–I’d kind of rather stay and talk with the girls.” Buzz, the tough guy, blushing like a shy schoolboy.
They did not even laugh at that. They just looked as if they understood that you missed girls at camp. Mrs. Ladd came over to him and put her hand on his arm and said, “That’s splendid. We’ll all go up to the ballroom and dance.” And they did. And Buzz, who had learned to dance at places like Kearney’s saloon, and at the mill shindigs, glided expertly about with Joyce Ladd of Madison Avenue, and found himself seated in a great cushioned window-seat, talking with her about Kipling. It was like talking to another fellow, almost, only it had a thrill in it. She said such comic things. And when she laughed she threw back her head and your eyes were dazzled by her slender white throat. They all stayed for supper. And when they left Mrs. Ladd and Joyce handed them packages that, later, turned out to be cigarettes, and chocolate, and books, and soap, and knitted things and a wallet. And when Buzz opened the wallet and found, with relief, that there was no money in it he knew that he had met and mingled with American royalty as its equal.
Three days later he sailed for France.
Buzz Werner, the Chippewa tough guy, in Paris! Buzz Werner at Napoleon’s tomb, that glorious white marble poem. Buzz Werner in the Place de la Concorde. Eating at funny little Paris restaurants.
Then a new life. Life in a drab, rain-soaked, mud-choked little French village, sleeping in barns, or stables, or hen coops. If the French were “a gay people, fond of dancing and light wines,” he’d like to know where it came in! Nothing but drill and mud, mud and drill, and rain, rain, rain! And old women with tragic faces, and young women with old eyes. And unbelievable stories of courage and sacrifice. And more rain, and more mud, and more drill. And then–into it!
Into it with both feet. Living in the trenches. Back home, in camp, they had refused to take the trenches seriously. They had played in them as children play bear under the piano or table, and had refused to keep their heads down. But Buzz learned to keep his down now, quickly enough. A first terrifying stretch of this, then back to the rear again. More mud and drill. Marches so long and arduous that walking was no longer walking but a dreadful mechanical motion. He learned what thirst was, did Buzz. He learned what it was to be obliged to keep your mind off the thought of pails of water–pails that slopped and brimmed over, so that you could put your head into them and lip around like a horse.
Then back into the trenches. And finally, over the top! Very little memory of what happened after that. A rush. Trampling over soft heaps that writhed. Some one yelling like an Indian with a voice somehow like his own. The German trench reached. At them with his bayonet! He remembered, automatically, how his manual had taught him to jerk out the steel, after you had driven it home. He did it. Into the very trench itself. A great six-foot German struggling with a slim figure that Buzz somehow recognised as his lieutenant, Hatton. A leap at him, like an enraged dog:
“G’wan! who you shovin’, you big slob you” yelled Buzz (I regret to say). And he thrust at him, and through him. The man released his grappling hold of Hatton’s throat, and grunted, and sat down. And Buzz laughed. And the two went on, Buzz behind his lieutenant, and then something smote his thigh, and he too sat down. The dying German had thrown his last bomb, and it had struck home.
Buzz Werner would never again do a double shuffle on Schroeder’s drug-store corner.
Hospital days. Hospital nights. A wheel chair. Crutches. Home.
It was May once more when Buzz Werner’s train came into the little red-brick depot at Chippewa, Wisconsin. Buzz, spick and span in his uniform, looked down rather nervously, and yet with a certain pride at his left leg. When he sat down you couldn’t tell which was the real one. As the train pulled in at the Chippewa Junction, just before reaching the town proper, there was old Bart Ochsner ringing the bell for dinner at the Junction eating house. Well, for the love of Mike! Wouldn’t that make you laugh. Ringing that bell, just like always, as if nothing had happened in the last year! Buzz leaned against the window, to see. There was some commotion in the train and some one spoke his name. Buzz turned, and there stood Old Man Hatton, and a lot of others, and he seemed to be making a speech, and kind of crying, though that couldn’t be possible. And his father was there, very clean and shaved and queer. Buzz caught words about bravery, and Chippewa’s pride, and he was fussed to death, and glad when the train pulled in at the Chippewa station. But there the commotion was worse than ever. There was a band, playing away like mad. Buzz’s great hands grown very white, were fidgeting at his uniform buttons, and at the stripe on his sleeve, and the medal on his breast. They wouldn’t let him carry a thing, and when he came out on the car platform to descend there went up a great sound that was half roar and half scream. Buzz Werner was the first of Chippewa’s men to come back.
After that it was rather hazy. There was his mother. His sister Minnie, too. He even saw the Kearney girl, with her loose red mouth, and her silly eyes, and she was as a strange woman to him. He was in Hatton’s glittering automobile, being driven down Grand Avenue. There were speeches, and a dinner, and, later, when he was allowed to go home, rather white, a steady stream of people pouring in and out of the house all day. That night, when he limped up the stairs to his hot little room under the roof he was dazed, spent, and not so very happy.
Next morning, though, he felt more himself, and inclined to joke. And then there was a talk with old Man Hatton; a talk that left Buzz somewhat numb, and the family breathless.
Visitors again, all that afternoon.
After supper he carried water for the garden, against his mother’s outraged protests.
“What’ll folks think!” she said, “you carryin’ water for me?”
Afterward he took his smart visored cap off the hook and limped down town, his boots and leggings and uniform very spick and span from Ma Werner’s expert brushing and rubbing. She refused to let Buzz touch them, although he tried to tell her that he had done that job for a year.
At the corner of Grand and Outagamie, in front of Schroeder’s drug store, stood what was left of the gang, and some new members who had come during the year that had passed. Buzz knew them all.
They greeted him at first with a mixture of shyness and resentment. They eyed his leg, and his uniform, and the metal and ribbon thing that hung at his breast. Bing and Red and Spider were there. Casey was gone.
Finally Spider spat and said, “G’wan, Buzz, give us your spiel about how you saved young Hatton–the simp!”
“Who says he’s a simp?” inquired Buzz, very quietly. But there was a look about his jaw.
“Well–anyway–the papers was full of how you was a hero. Say, is that right that old Hatton’s goin’ to send you to college? Huh? Je’s!”
“Yeh,” chorused the others, “go on, Buzz. Tell us.”
Red put his question. “Tell us about the fightin’, Buzz. Is it like they say?”
It was Buzz Werner’s great moment. He had pictured it a thousand times in his mind as he lay in the wet trenches, as he plodded the muddy French roads, as he reclined in his wheel chair in the hospital garden. He had them in the hollow of his hand. His eyes brightened. He looked at the faces so eagerly fixed on his utterance.
“G’wan, Buzz,” they urged.
Buzz opened his lips and the words he used were the words he might have used a year before, as to choice. “There’s nothin’ to tell. A guy didn’t have no time to be scairt. Everything kind of come at once, and you got yours, or either you didn’t. That’s all there was to it. Je’s, it was fierce!”
They waited. Nothing more. “Yeh, but tell us–“
And suddenly Buzz turned away. The little group about him fell back, respectfully. Something in his face, perhaps. A quietness, a new dignity.
“S’long, boys,” he said. And limped off, toward home.
And in that moment Buzz, the bully and braggart, vanished forever. And in his place–head high, chest up, eyes clear–limped Ernest Werner, the man.