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Chapter XXXII On the Tramp

SO I became a tramp. I was not fit for anything else.

Not caring where I went, I beat my way on car-trucks, and landed in a railroad construction camp west of San Antonio.

The superintendent gave me a job as a nightguard. Thieves had been running off the mules, and my instruction was to shoot the first night-prowler in sight.

A night-prowler appeared.

I shot.

My victim proved to be a gang boss who had been visiting a nearby Mexican ranch. He had gone against orders and was trying to sneak in unobserved. The bullet struck him in the shoulder. The wound, though painful, was not dangerous.

Shortly after this, the superintendent got drunk one night, and came reeling into camp in his night-shirt. He wandered around among the mules and ran afoul of the guard.

I was the guard.

He began cursing me. When he called me a vile name I promptly knocked him backward with the butt of my Winchester.

He fell into a bunch of cactus.

His yells woke up the camp and the men took him to his tent.

The next morning he ate his breakfast standing.

It takes time to extract cactus thorns.

I lost my job.

I went back to San Antonio.

Near there I got a job picking cotton. I liked the work, so before dawn next morning I was in the field. It wasn’t light enough to see. Even the snowy bolls of cotton didn’t show up against the darkness. But I wanted to make use of the first streak of light.

When the breakfast bell rang, I had my bag filled so full it was too heavy to drag with ease.*

I ate hurriedly.

I was drenched with dew, but I lost no time in getting back to the field.

Again I worked alone. I couldn’t understand why the other pickers didn’t come.

The sun had walked well up in the sky when they did come.

The whole crowd—blacks and whites—had been having a good time somewhere. Their minds stayed full of it, for frequently they broke out in chuckling and laughing.

Weighing time came.

My cotton was thrown out. It was too heavy!

Dew-drenched it had to be spread in the sun and dried.

Truly, the pickers had had a good time somewhere!

A fortnight finished my labours in the cotton field. I went back to town.

I wandered into “Hart’s Gold Room/’ and soon became engaged in losing my lately earned money at a game of monte.

Somebody started something. Shooting began and the lights went out.

When the merriment was over and the lamps relit, the monte-dealer’s neck was bleeding from a bullet wound, and my shirt was open at the throat. My collar-button had been shot away.

I hit the ties again, my back to the west.

Soon I met with a wrecking gang of negroes at work. I needed a job. In order to get it I told the boss I was a negro. I got it.

The fellow was insolent and blasphemous. When I couldn’t stand for any more of his foul talk, I threw down the shovel. I had worked but part of a day.

The railroad owes me for that work yet.

Again I headed eastward.

One day I started through a large pasture toward a big ranch-house where I hoped to get something to eat.

As I strolled along I saw in the trail a lariat which some cowboy had lost. I coiled the rope into my left hand and with the other unconsciously began, through force of the old habit, to swing the noose around my head. This startled a bunch of horses and they went galloping away.

A cowboy came tearing through the brush, six-shooter in hand.

I earnestly explained how I came by the rope, and how I happened to be swinging it around my head.

The cowboy wasn’t to be taken in by any such tale. No, indeed! He made me carry the rope ahead of him to the house.

After he had talked with the other men of the ranch, they all cursed me for a horse-thief and locked me in a smokehouse. They intended taking me to jail the next day.

But there was a small window in the little building near the roof, and through this, during the night, I squeezed myself to liberty.

Innocent though I was, there was evidence enough to send me to prison for a long term. I counted myself lucky when I found myself aboard a flatcar on the way to Houston.

When I arrived in Houston the church-bells were tolling out the sad news of President Garfield’s death.

In the market-place I was attracted to a stall of eatables in charge of a fat negro woman. At the sight of a large “Washington pie” my mouth began to water. But, alas! I hadn’t the wherewithal to make it mine.

After pondering the situation, a brilliant idea occurred to me.

I had seen railroad men present pieces of paper with writing on them and get in return goods and money. I looked carefully along the street until I discovered a piece of paper which appeared to resemble what I had in mind. I got it and took it to the negress.

“Auntie,” I said, “I want some of that Washington pie. I haven’t got any money, but I’ve got this. I’ll take four bits worth of pie and the rest in money.”

She took the paper, scrutinised it and handed it back. But her face was one broad grin.

“Lawd bress yo,’ honey!” she chuckled, “I cain’t spah de money, but yo’ all c’n have all dat Wash’ton pie yo’ wants to eat. En’ when yo’ all gits de money yo’ c’n come back en’ pay me fo’ it.”

The old black woman never got the money. But many and many a time have I wished I could have paid the trustful soul.

I had a good time in Houston, even though my sentence hung over me like a black storm-cloud. I was always afraid of the policemen I met on the street, for I had heard soldiers say they had a mysterious way of detecting men who had broken the law.

My fear was less at night, and I usually slept well. My bedroom was a hogshead partly filled with shavings. It was located near a warehouse where I felt comfortably secure.

One night I awoke with the feeling that the world was coming to an end. My bedroom was rolling and tumbling downhill over the rough pavement. It finally landed with a tremendous shock against a building.

As I crawled out, I heard a maudlin song in the distance. I gathered that a company of young rowdies had given the hogshead a kick and started it rolling.

After that a cowstable was my sleeping-place and I “boarded around.”

In my aimless wanderings came now and then a chance to do work that I liked. In passing a big pasture one day, I stopped to watch some men trying to ride a wild unbroken horse. The men were not good riders and the horse was a first-class bucker. He had little trouble in freeing himself of everyone that managed to mount him. They gave it up and were leaving the animal to the enjoyment of his victory.

I offered to ride him, and did so, to a standstill. For this the owner gave me five dollars.

It didn’t go for board. I lost in a game of chucka-luck.

Every morning, after I had cadged my breakfast, I strolled along by the shops and stores as they were being opened and swept. I pitied the men who were content to do that kind of work morning after morning. They possibly pitied me. But, I was free—free to go out into the woods; to stay and watch the birds and animal people and listen to their voices.

At such times I was carried back to the wild, untrammelled life of the plains and I lived over again its experiences. Memories of my lost Nacoomee then led me to upbraid myself for leaving my son. Followed always the resolve to go back and train him to be a great warrior.

With this consoling vision I usually fell asleep, only to awaken as a lone scrub oak in a clearing, after the wood-choppers have done their work.

When I began to notice the apparent happiness of the gay young people of the town, I felt more lonely. I was apart from them. A great gulf lay between their world and mine. I could not cross it and they would not.

The white man’s country was a place in which I didn’t seem to fit anywhere.

I watched the children playing in the schoolyards. Their games puzzled me. I wondered how, when they were grown up, they would make a living at such things as “blind-man’s buff” and “drop the handkerchief.” The hunting-game and the war-game, and such like, of my savage boyhood days were the very things that we played in earnest when we became men.

One night I wandered up a fashionable street. I was stopped in front of a large house by the most wonderful music that I had ever heard. A woman was' singing, accompanied by a piano. I stood rooted to the ground fascinated, enthralled.

On many a night afterward I sat on the curb before that house, my feet in the gutter, my soul revelling in the glory of that exquisite voice.

As it floated out to me through the open window, it soothed my bitter, turbulent spirit, charmed me into better thoughts and left lasting impressions. The sweet singer never knew of her holy ministry to the heartsick, lonely outcast of the street.

I used to sit there when the music ceased, and think of the voice that had been hushed by the treacherous sands of the river, and of my child, and blame myself for acting like a coward in saving myself and leaving him. Then I would make a new vow to go back to him.

It was the memory of Nacoomee, my wife, that kept me many times from doing wrong. To me the influence of a good woman is a wonderful thing. I have always believed and still believe that men will be as improper in their conduct as women allow them to be, whether they are savage or civilised, and as good as women compel them to be.

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