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An Evening At The Corner Grocery

by Hamlin Garland

Colonel Peavy had just begun the rubber with Judge Gordon of Cerro-Gordo County. They were seated in Robie's grocery, behind the rusty old cannon stove, the checker-board spread out on their knees. The Colonel was grinning in great glee, wringing his bony yellow hands in nervous excitement, in strong contrast to the stolid calm of the fat Judge.

The Colonel had won the last game by a large margin, and was sure he had his opponent's "dodges" well in hand. It was early in the evening, and the grocery was comparatively empty. Robie was figuring at a desk, and old Judge Brown stood in legal gravity warming his legs at the red-hot stove, and swaying gently back and forth in speechless content. It was a tough night outside, one of the toughest for years. The frost had completely shut the window panes as with thick blankets of snow. The streets were silent.

"I don't know," said the Judge, reflectively, to Robie, breaking the silence in his rasping, judicial bass, "I don't know as there has been such a night as this since the night of February 2d, '59, that was the night James Kirk went under—Honorable Kirk, you remember,—knew him well. Brilliant fellow, ornament to western bar. But whiskey downed him. It'll beat the oldest man—I wonder where the boys all are to-night? Don't seem to be anyone stirring on the street. Aint frightened out by the cold?"

"Shouldn't wonder." Robie was busy at his desk, and not in humor for conversation on reminiscent lines. The two old war-dogs at the board had settled down to one of those long, silent struggles, which ensue when two "champions" meet. In the silence which followed, the Judge was looking attentively at the back of the Colonel, and thinking that the old thief was getting about down to skin and bone. He turned with a yawn to Robie, saying:—

"This cold weather must take hold of the old Colonel terribly, he's so damnably thin and bald, you know,—bald as a babe. The fact is, the old Colonel aint long for this world, anyway; think so, Hank?" Robie making no reply, the Judge relapsed into silence for a while, watching the cat (perilously walking along the edge of the upper shelf) and listening to the occasional hurrying footsteps outside. "I don't know when I've seen the windows closed up so, Hank; go down to thirty below to-night; devilish strong wind blowing, too; tough night on the prairies, Hank."

"You bet," replied Hank, briefly. The Colonel was plainly getting excited. His razor-like back curved sharper than ever as he peered into the intricacies of the board to spy the trap which the fat Judge had set for him. At this point the squeal of boots on the icy walk outside paused, and a moment later Amos Ridings entered, with whiskers covered with ice, and looking like a huge bear in his buffalo coat.

"By Josephus! it's cold," he roared, as he took off his gloves and began to warm his face and hands at the fire.

"Is it?" asked the Judge, comfortably, rising on his tiptoes, only to fall back into his usual attitude, legal legs well spread, shoulders thrown back.

"You bet it is!" replied Amos. "I'd'know when I've felt the cold more'n I have t'-day. It's jest snifty; doubles me up like a jack-knife, Judge. How d' you stand it?"

"Tollerble, tollerble, Amos. But we're agein', we aint what we were once. Cold takes hold of us."

"That's a fact," answered Amos to the retrospective musings of the Judge. "Time was you an' me would go t' singing-school or sleigh-riding with the girls on a night like this and never notice it."

"Yes, sir; yes, sir!" said the Judge with a sigh. It was a little uncertain in Robie's mind whether the Judge was regretting the lost ability to stand the cold, or the lost pleasure of riding with the girls.

"Great days, those, gentlemen! Lived in Vermont then. Hot-blooded—lungs like an ox. I remember, Sallie Dearborn and I used to go a-foot to singing school down the valley four miles. But now, wouldn't go riding to-night with the handsomest woman in America, and the best cutter in Rock River."

"Oh! you've got both feet in the grave up t' the ankles, anyway," said Robie from his desk, but the Judge immovably gazed at the upper shelf on the other side of the room where the boilers, and pans, and washboards were stored.

"The Judge is a little on the sentimental order to-night," said Amos.

"Hold on, Colonel! hold on. You've got 'o jump. He! he!" roared Gordon from the checker-board. "That's right, that's right!" he ended, as the Colonel complied reluctantly.

"Sock it to the old cuss," commented Amos. "What I was going to say," he resumed, rolling down the collar of his coat, "was, that when my wife helped me bundle up t' night, she said I was gitt'n' t' be an old granny. We are agein', Judge, the's no denyin' it. We're both gray as Norway rats now. An' speaking of us ageing reminds me,—have y' noticed how bald the old Kyernel's gitt'n'?"

"I have, Amos," answered the Judge, mournfully. "The old man's head is showing age, showing age! Getting thin up there, aint it?" The old Colonel bent to his work without reply, and even when Amos said, judicially, after long scrutiny, "Yes, he'll soon be as bald as a plate," he only lifted one yellow, freckled, bony hand, and brushed his carroty growth of hair across the spot under discussion. Gordon shook his fat paunch in silent laughter, nearly displacing the board.

"I was just telling Robie," pursued Brown, still retaining his reminiscent intonation, "that this storm takes the cake over anything—"

At this point Steve Roach and another fellow entered. Steve was Ridings' hired hand, a herculean fellow, with a drawl, and a liability for taking offence quite as remarkable.

"Say! gents, I'm no spring rooster, but this jest gits away with anything in line of cold I ever see."

While this communication was being received in ruminative silence, Steve was holding his ears in his hand and gazing at the intent champions at the board. There they sat; the old Judge panting and wheezing in his excitement, for he was planning a great "snap" on the Colonel, whose red and freckled nose almost touched the board. It was a solemn battle hour. The wind howled mournfully outside, the timbers of the stove creaked in the cold, and the huge cannon stove roared in steady bass.

"Speaking about ears," said Steve, after a silence, "dumned if I'd like t' be quite s' bare 'round the ears as Kernel there. I wonder if any o' you fellers has noticed how the ol' feller's lost hair this last summer. He's gittin' bald, they's no coverin' it up—gittin' bald as a plate."

"You're right, Stephen," said the Judge, as he gravely took his stand behind his brother advocate, and studied, with the eye of an adept, the field of battle. "We were noticing it when you came in. It's a sad thing, but it must be admitted."

"It's the Kyernel's brains wearin' up through his hair, I take it," commented Amos, as he helped himself to a handful of peanuts out of a bag behind the counter. "Say, Steve, did y' stuff up that hole in front of ol' Barney?"

A shout was heard outside, and then a rush against the door, and immediately two young fellows burst in, followed by a fierce gust of snow. One was Professor Knapp, the other Editor Foster, of the Morning Call.

"Well, gents, how's this for high?" said Foster in a peculiar tone of voice, at which all began to smile. He was a slender fellow with close-clipped, assertive red hair. "In this company we now have the majesty of the law, the power of the press, and the underpinning of the American civilization all represented. Hello! There are a couple of old roosters with their heads together. Gordon, my old enemy, how are you?"

Gordon waved him off with a smile and a wheeze. "Don't bother me now. I've got 'im. I'm laying f'r the old dog. Whist!"

"Got nothing!" snarled the Colonel. "You try that on if you want to. Just swing that man in there if you think it's healthy for him. Just as like as not, you'll slip up on that little trick."

"Ha! Say you so, old True Penny? The Kunnel has met a foeman worthy of his steel," said Foster in great glee, as he bent above the Colonel. "I know. How do I know?" quotha. "By the curve on the Kunnel's back. The size of the parabola described by that backbone accurately gauges his adversary's skill. But, by the way, gentlemen, have you—but that's a nice point, and I refer all nice points to Professor Knapp. Professor, is it in good taste to make remarks concerning the dress or features of another?"

"Certainly not," answered Knapp, a handsome young fellow with a yellow mustache.

"Not when the person is an esteemed public character, like the Colonel here? What I was about to remark, if it had been proper, was that the old fellow is getting wofully bald. He'll soon be bald as an egg."

"Say!" asked the Colonel, "I want to know how long you're going to keep this thing up. Somebody's dumned sure t' get hurt soon."

"There, there! Colonel," said Brown soothingly, "don't get excited, you'll lose the rubber. Don't mind 'em. Keep cool."

"Yes, keep cool, Kunnel, it's only our solicitude for your welfare," chipped in Foster. Then addressing the crowd in a general sort of way he speculated, "Curious how a man, a plain American citizen like Colonel Peavy, wins a place in the innermost affections of a whole people."

"That's so!" murmured the rest. "He can't grow bald without deep sympathy from his fellow-citizens." The old Colonel glared in speechless wrath.

"Say! gents," pleaded Gordon, "let up on the old man for the present. He's going to need all of himself if he gets out o' the trap he's in now." He waved his fat hand over the Colonel's head, and smiled blandly at the crowd hugging the stove.

"My head may be bald," grated the old man with a death's-head grin, indescribably ferocious, "but it's got brains enough in it to 'skunk' any man in this crowd three games out o' five."

"The ol' man rather gits the laugh on y' there, gents," called Robie from the back side of the counter. "I haint seen the old skeesix play better'n he did last night in years."

"Not since his return from Canada, after the war, I reckon," said Amos from the kerosene barrel.

"Hold on, Amos," put in the Judge warningly, "that's out-lawed. Talking about being bald and the war reminds me of the night Walters and I— By the way, where is Walters to-night?"

"Sick," put in the Colonel, straightening up exultantly. "I waxed him three straight games last night. You won't see him again till spring. Skunked him once, and beat him twice."

"Oh git out."

"Hear the old seed twitter!"

"Did you ever notice, gentlemen, how lying and baldness go together?" queried Foster reflectively.

"No! Do they?"

"Invariably. I've known many colossal liars, and they were all as bald as apples."

The Colonel was getting nervous, and was so slow that even Gordon (who could sit and stare at the board a full half hour without moving) began to be impatient.

"Come! Colonel, marshal your forces a little more promptly. If you're going at me echelon, sound y'r bugle; I'm ready."

"Don't worry," answered the Colonel, in his calmest nasal, "I'll accommodate you with all the fight you want."

"Did it ever occur to you," began the Judge again, addressing the crowd generally, as he moved back to the stove and lit another cigar, "did it ever occur to you that it is a little singular a man should get bald on the top of his head first? Curious fact. So accustomed to it we no longer wonder at it. Now see the Colonel there. Quite a growth of hair on his clap-boarding, as it were, but devilish thin on his roof."

Here the Colonel looked up and tried to say something, but the Judge went on imperturbably.

"Now I take it that it's strictly providential that a man gets bald on top of his head first, because if he must get bald it is best to get bald where it can be covered up."

"By jinks, that's a fact!" said the rest in high admiration of the Judge's ratiocination. Steve was specially pleased, and drawing a neck-yoke from a barrel standing near, pounded the floor vigorously.

"Talking about being bald," put in Foster, "reminds me of a scheme of mine, which is to send no one out to fight Indians but bald men. Think how powerless they'd—"

The talk now drifted off to Indians, politics, and religion, edged round to the war when the grave Judge was telling Ridings and Robie just how "Kilpatrick charged along the Granny White Turnpike," and on a sheet of wrapping paper was showing where Major John Dilrigg fell. "I was on his left about thirty yards, when I saw him throw up his hand—"

Foster in a low voice was telling something to the Professor, and two or three others, which made them whoop with uncontrollable merriment, when the roaring voice of big Sam Walters was heard outside, and a moment later he rolled into the room, filling it with his noise. Lottridge, the watchmaker, and Erlberg, the German baker, came in with him.

"Hello, hello, hello! All here, are yeh?"

"All here waiting for you—and the turnkey," said Foster.

"Well, here I am. Always on hand like a sore thumb in huskin' season. What's goin' on here? A game, hey? Hello, Gordon, it's you, is it? Colonel, I owe you several for last night. But what the devil yo' got your cap on fur, Colonel? Aint it warm enough here for yeh?"

The desperate Colonel who had snatched up his cap when he heard Walters coming, grinned painfully, pulling his straggly red and white beard nervously. The strain was beginning to tell on his iron nerves. He removed the cap, and with a few muttered words went back to the game, but there was a dangerous gleam in his fishy blue eyes, and the grizzled tufts of red hair above his eyes lowered threateningly. A man who is getting swamped in a game of checkers is not in a mood to bear pleasantly any remarks on his bald head.

"Oh! don't take it off, Colonel," went on his tormentor hospitably. "When a man gets as old as you are, he's privileged to wear his cap. I wonder if any of you fellers have noticed how the Colonel is shedding his hair."

The old man leaped up, scattering the men on the checker-board which flew up and struck Judge Gordon in the face, knocking him off his stool. The old Colonel was ashy pale, and his eyes glared out from under his huge brow like sapphires lit by flame. His spare form clothed in a seedy Prince Albert frock towered with a singular dignity. His features worked convulsively a moment, and then he burst forth like the explosion of a safety valve:—

"Shuttup, dumyeh!"

And then the crowd whooped, roared, and rolled on the counters and barrels, and roared and whooped again. They stamped and yelled, and ran around like fiends, kicking the boxes and banging the coal-scuttle in a perfect pandemonium of mirth, leaving the old man standing there helpless in his wrath, mad enough to shoot. Steve was just preparing to seize the old man from behind, when Judge Gordon, struggling to his feet among the spittoons, cried out, in the voice of a Colonel of Fourth of July militia:—

"H-o-l-d!"

Silence was restored, and all stood around in expectant attitudes to hear the Judge's explanation. He squared his elbows, shoved up his sleeves, puffed out his fat cheeks, moistened his lips, and began pompously:—

"Gentlemen—"

"You've hit it; that's us," said some of the crowd in applause.

"Gentlemen of Rock River, when in the course of human events, rumor had blow'd to my ears the history of the checker-playing of Rock River, and when I had waxed Cerro-Gordo, and Claiborne, and Mower, then, when I say to my ears was borne the clash of resounding arms in Rock River, the emporium of Rock County, then did I yearn for more worlds to conquer, and behold, I buckled on my armor and I am here."

"Behold, he is here," said Foster, in confirmation of the statement. "Good for you, Judge, git breath and go for us some more."

"Hurrah for the Judge," etc.

"I came seekin' whom I might devour like a raging lion. I sought foemen worthy of my steel. I leaped into the arena and blew my challenge to the four quarters of Rock—"

"Good f'r you, settemupagin! Go it, you old balloon," they all applauded.

"Knowing my prowess I sought a fair fout and no favors. I met the enemy and he was mine. Champion after champion went down before me like—went down like—Ahem! went down before me like grass before the mighty cyclone of the Andes."

"Listen to the old blow-hard," said Steve.

"Put him out," said the speaker, imperturbably. "Gentlemen, have I the floor?"

"You have," replied Brown, "but come to the point. The Colonel is anxious to begin shooting." The Colonel, who began to suspect himself victimized, stood wondering what under heaven they were going to do next!

"I'm a gitt'n' there," said the orator with a broad and sunny condescension.

"I found your champions an' laid 'em low. I waxed Walters, and then I tackled the Colonel. I tried the echelon, the 'general advanced,' then the 'give away' and 'flank' movements. But the Colonel was there. Till this last game it was a fair field and no favor. And now, gentlemen of Rock, I desire t' state to my deeply respected opponent, that he is still champion of Rock, and I'm not sure but of Northern Iowa."

"Three cheers for the Kunnel!"

And while they were being given the Colonel's brows relaxed, and the champion of Cerro-Gordo continued earnestly:—

"And now I wish to state to Colonel the solemn fact that I had nothing to do with the job put up on him to-night. I scorn to use such means in a battle. Colonel, you may be as bald as an apple, or an egg, yes, or a plate, but you can play more checkers than any man I ever met, more checkers than any other man on God's green footstool.—With one-single, lone exception—myself."

At this moment, somebody hit the dead-beat from Cerro-Gordo with a decayed apple, and as the crowd shouted and groaned Robie turned down the lights on the tumult. The old Colonel seized the opportunity for putting a handful of salt down Walters' neck, and slipped out of the door like a ghost. As the crowd swarmed out on the icy walk, Editor Foster yelled:—

"Gents! let me give you a pointer. Keep your eye peeled for the next edition of the Rock River Morning Call." And the bitter wind swept away the answering shouts of the gang.