Sitting alone looking at the red eyes of the parlor heater, Chet thought how fast things happened. One day the flu hit. Two days after that his father left for Montana to get a load of whisky to sell for medicine. The next night he got back in the midst of a blizzard with his hands and feet frozen, bringing a sick homesteader he had picked up on the road; and now this morning all of them, the homesteader, his father, his mother, his brother Bruce, were loaded in a sled and hauled to the schoolhouse-hospital. It was scary how fast they all got it, even his father, who seldom got anything and was tougher than boiled owl. Everybody, he thought with some pride, but him. His mother’s words as she left were a solemn burden on his mind. “You’ll have to hold the fort, Chet. You’ll have to be the man of the house.” And his father, sweat on his face even in the cold, his frozen hands held tenderly in his lap, saying, “Better let the whisky alone. Put it away somewhere till we get back.”
So he was holding the fort. He accepted the duty soberly. In the two hours since his family had left he had swept the floors, milked old Red and thrown down hay for her, brought in scuttles of lignite. And sitting now in the parlor he knew he was scared. He heard the walls tick and the floors creak. Every thirty seconds he looked up from his book, and finally he yawned, stretched, laid the book down, and took a stroll through the whole house, cellar to upstairs, as if for exercise. But his eyes were sharp, and he stepped back a little as he threw open the doors of bedrooms and closets. He whistled a little between his teeth and looked at the calendar in the hall to see what day it was. November 4, 1918.
A knock on the back door sent him running. It was the young man named Vickers who had taken his family away. He was after beds and blankets for the schoolhouse. Chet helped him knock the beds down and load them on the sled. He would sleep on the couch in the parlor; it was warmer there, anyway; no cold floors to worry about.
In the kitchen, making a list of things he had taken, Vickers saw the keg, the sacked cases of bottles, the pile of whisky-soaked straw sheaths from the bottles that had been broken on the trip. “Your dad doesn’t want to sell any of that, does he?” he said.
Chet thought briefly of his father’s injunction to put the stuff away. But gee, the old man had frozen his hands and feet and caught the flu getting it, and now when people came around asking. . . . “Sure,” he said. “That’s what he bought it for, flu medicine.”
“What’ve you got?”
“Rye and bourbon,” Chet said. “There’s some Irish, but I think he brought that special for somebody.” He rummaged among the sacks. “Four dollars a bottle, I think it is,” he said, and looked at Vickers to see if that was too much. Vickers didn’t blink. “Or is it four-fifty?” Chet said.
Vickers’s face was expressionless. “Sure it isn’t five? I wouldn’t want to cheat you.” He took out his wallet, and under his eyes Chet retreated. “I’ll go look,” he said. “I think there’s a list.”
He stood in the front hall for a minute or two before he came back. “Four-fifty,” he said casually. “I thought probably it was.”
Vickers counted out twenty-seven dollars. “Give me six rye,” he said. With the sack in his hand he stood in the back door and looked at Chet and laughed. “What are you going to do with that extra three dollars?”
Chet felt his heart stop while he might have counted ten. His face began to burn. “What three dollars ?”
“Never mind,” Vickers said. “I was just ragging you. Got all you need to eat here?”
“I got crocks of milk,” Chet said. He grinned at Vickers in relief, and Vickers grinned back. “There’s bread Ma baked the other day, and spuds. If I need any meat I can go shoot a rabbit.”
“Oh.” Vickers’s eyebrows went up. “You’re a hunter, eh?”
“I shot rabbits all last fall for Mrs. Rieger,” Chet said. “She’s ‘nemic and has to eat rabbits and prairie chickens and stuff. She lent me the shotgun and bought the shells.”
“Mmm,” Vickers said. “I guess you can take care of yourself. How old are you?”
“That’s old enough,” said Vickers. “That’s pretty old, in fact. Well, Mervin, if you need anything you call the school and I’ll see that you get it.”
“My name isn’t Mervin,” Chet said. “It’s Chet.”
“Okay,” Vickers said. “Don’t get careless with the fires.”
“What do you think I am?” Chet said in scorn. He raised his hand stiffly as Vickers went out. A little tongue of triumph licked up in him. That three bucks would look all right, all right. Next time he’d know better than to change the price, too. He took the bills out of his pocket and counted them. Twenty-seven dollars was a lot of dough. He’d show Ma and Pa whether he could hold the fort or not.
But holding the fort was tiresome. By two o’clock he was bored stiff, and the floors were creaking again in the silence. Then he remembered suddenly that he was the boss of the place. He could go or come as he pleased, as long as the cow was milked and the house kept warm. He thought of the two traps he had set in muskrat holes under the river bank. The blizzard and the flu had made him forget to see to them. And he might take Pa’s gun and do a little hunting.
“Well,” he said in the middle of the parlor rug, “I guess I will.”
For an hour and a half he prowled the river brush. Over on the path toward Heathcliff’s he shot a snowshoe rabbit, and the second of his traps yielded a stiffly frozen muskrat. The weight of his game was a solid satisfaction as he came up the dugway swinging the rabbit by its feet, the muskrat by its plated tail.
Coming up past the barn, he looked over towards Van Dam’s, then the other way, toward Chapman’s, half hoping that someone might be out, and see him. He whistled loudly, sang a little into the cold afternoon air, but the desertion of the whole street, the unbroken fields of snow where ordinarily there would have been dozens of sled tracks and fox- and-goose paths, let a chill in upon his pride. He came up the back steps soberly and opened the door.
The muskrat’s slippery tail slid out of his mitten and the frozen body thumped on the floor. Chet opened his mouth, shut it again, speechless with surprise and shock. Two men were in the kitchen. His eyes jumped from the one by the whisky keg to the other, sitting at the table drinking whisky from a cup. The one drinking he didn’t know. The other was Louis Treat, a halfbreed who hung out down at the stable and sometimes worked a little for the Half-Diamond Bar. All Chet knew about him was that he could braid horsehair ropes and sing a lot of dirty songs.
“Aha!” said Louis Treat. He smiled at Chet and made a rubbing motion with his hands. “We ‘ave stop to get warm. You ‘ave been hunting?”
“Yuh,” Chet said automatically. He stood where he was, his eyes swinging between the two men. The man at the table raised his eyebrows at Louis Treat.
“Ees nice rabbit there,” Louis said. His bright black button eyes went over the boy. Chet lifted the rabbit and looked at the frozen beads of blood on the white fur. “Yuh,” he said. He was thinking about what his father always said. You could trust an Indian, if he was your friend, and you could trust a white man sometimes, if money wasn’t involved, and you could trust a Chink more than either, but you couldn’t trust a halfbreed.
Louis’ voice went on, caressingly. “You ‘ave mushrat too, eh? You lak me to ‘elp you peel thees mushrat?” His hand, dipping under the sheepskin and into his pants pocket, produced a long-bladed knife that jumped open with the pressure of his thumb on a button.
Chet dropped the rabbit and took off his mitts. “No thanks,” he said. “I can peel him.”
Shrugging, Louis put the knife away. He turned to thump the bung hard into the keg, and nodded at the other man, who rose. “Ees tam we go,” Louis said. “We ‘ave been told to breeng thees wisky to the ‘ospital.”
“Who told you?” Chet’s insides grew tight, and his mind was setting like plaster of Paris. If Pa was here he’d scatter these thieves all the way to Chapman’s. But Pa wasn’t here. He watched Louis Treat. You could never trust a halfbreed.
“The doctor, O’Malley,” Louis said. Keeping his eye on Chet, he jerked his head at the other man. “ ‘Ere, you tak’ the other end.”
His companion, pulling up his sheepskin collar, stooped and took hold of the keg. Chet, with no blood in his face and no breath in his lungs, hesitated a split second and then jumped. Around the table, in the dining room door, he was out of their reach, and the shotgun was pointed straight at their chests. With his thumb he cocked both barrels, click, click.
Louis Treat swore. “Put down that gun!”
“No, sir!” Chet said. “I won’t put it down till you drop that keg and get out of here!” The two men looked at each other. Louis set his end gently back on the chair, and the other did the same. “We ‘ave been sent,” Louis said. “You do not understan’ w’at I mean.”
“I understand all right,” Chet said. “If Doctor O’Malley had wanted that, he’d’ve sent Mr. Vickers for it this morning.”
The second man ran his tongue over his teeth and spat on the floor. “Think he knows how to shoot that thing?”
Chet’s chest expanded. The gun trembled so that he braced it against the frame of the door. “I shot that rabbit, didn’t I?” he said.
The halfbreed’s teeth were bared in a bitter grin. “You are a fool,” he said.
“And you’re a thief !” Chet said. He covered the two carefully as they backed out, and when they were down the steps he slammed and bolted the door. Then he raced for the front hall, made sure that door was locked, and peeked out the front window. The two were walking side by side up the irrigation ditch toward town, pulling an empty box sled. Louis was talking furiously with his hands.
Slowly and carefully Chet uncocked the gun. Ordinarily he would have unloaded, but not now, not with thieves like those around. He put the gun above the mantel, looked in the door of the stove, threw in a half-scuttle of lignite, went to the window again to see if he could still see the two men. Then he looked at his hands. They were shaking. So were his knees. He sat down suddenly on the couch, unable to stand.
* * * *
For days the only people he saw were those who came to buy whisky. They generally sat a while in the kitchen and talked about the flu and the war, but they weren’t much company. Once Miss Landis, his school teacher, came apologetically and furtively with a two-quart fruit jar under her coat, and he charged her four dollars a quart for bulk rye out of the keg. His secret hoard of money mounted to eighty-five dollars, to a hundred and eight.
When there was none of that business (he had even forgotten by now that his father had told him not to meddle with it), he moped around the house, milked the cow, telephoned to the hospital to see how his folks were. One day his dad was pretty sick. Two days later he was better, but his mother had had a relapse because they were so short of beds they had had to put Brucie in with her. The milk crocks piled up in the cellarway, staying miraculously sweet, until he told the schoolhouse nurse over the phone about all the milk he had, and then Dr. O’Malley sent down old Gundar Moe to pick it up for the sick people.
Sometimes he stood on the porch on sunny, cold mornings and watched Lars Poulsen’s sled go out along the road on the way to the graveyard, and the thought that maybe Mom or Bruce or Pa might die and be buried out there on the knoll by the sandhills made him swallow and go back inside where he couldn’t see how deserted the street looked, and where he couldn’t see the sled and the steaming gray horses move out toward the south bend of the river. He resolved to be a son his parents could be proud of, and sat down at the piano determined to learn a piece letter-perfect. But the dry silence of the house weighed on him; before long he would be lying with his forehead on the keyboard, his finger picking on one monotonous note. That way he could concentrate on how different it sounded with his head down, and forget to be afraid.
And at night, when he lay on the couch and stared into the sleepy red eyes of the heater, he heard noises that walked the house, and there were crosses in the lamp chimneys when he lighted them, and he knew that someone would die.
On the fifth day he sat down at the dining room table determined to write a book. In an old atlas he hunted up a promising locale. He found a tributary of the Amazon called the Tapajos, and firmly, his lips together in concentration, he wrote his title across the top of a school tablet: “The Curse of the Tapajos.” All that afternoon he wrote enthusiastically. He created a tall, handsome young explorer and a halfbreed guide obscurely like Louis Treat. He plowed through steaming jungles, he wrestled pythons and other giant serpents which he spelled boy constructors. All this time he was looking for the Lost City of Gold. And when the snakes got too thick even for his taste, and when he was beginning to wonder himself why the explorer didn’t shoot the guide, who was constantly trying to poison the flour or stab his employer in his tent at midnight, he let the party come out on a broad pampa and see in the distance, crowning a golden hill, the lost city for which they searched. And then suddenly the explorer reeled and fell, mysteriously stricken, and the halfbreed guide, smiling with sinister satisfaction, disappeared quietly into the jungle. The curse of the Tapajos, which struck everyone who found that lost city, had struck again. But the young hero was not dead. . . .
Chet gnawed his pencil and stared across the room. It was going to be hard to figure out how his hero escaped. Maybe he was just stunned, not killed. Maybe a girl could find him there, and nurse him back to health. . . .
He rose, thinking, and wandered over to the window. A sled came across the irrigation ditch and pulled on over to Chance’s house. Out of it got Mr. Chance and Mrs. Chance and Ed and Harvey Chance. They were well, then. People were starting to come home cured. He rushed to the telephone and called the hospital. No, the nurse said, his family weren’t well yet; they wouldn’t be home for three or four days at least. But they were all better. How was he doing? Did he need anything?
No, Chet said, he didn’t need anything.
But at least he wasn’t the only person on the street any more. That night after milking he took a syrup pail of milk to the Chances. They were all weak, all smiling. Mrs. Chance cried every time she spoke, and they were awfully grateful for the milk. He promised them, over their protests, that he would bring them some every day, and chop wood and haul water for them until they got really strong. Mr. Chance, who had the nickname of Dictionary because he strung off such jaw-breaking words, told him he was a benefactor and a Samaritan, and called upon his own sons to witness this neighborly kindness and be edified and enlarged. Chet went home in the dark, wondering if it might not be a good idea, later in his book somewhere, to have his explorer find a bunch of people, or maybe just a beautiful and ragged girl, kept in durance vile by some tribe of pigmies or spider men or something, and have him rescue them and confound their captors.
* * * *
On the afternoon of the eighth day Chet sat in the kitchen at Chance’s. His own house had got heavier and heavier to bear, and there wasn’t much to eat there but milk and potatoes, and both stores were closed because of the flu. So he went a good deal to Chance’s, doing their chores and talking about the hospital, and listening to Mr. Chance tell about the Death Ward where they put people who weren’t going to get well. The Death Ward was the eighth grade room, his own room, and he and Ed Chance speculated on what it would be like to go back to that room where so many people had died—Mrs. Rieger, and old Gypsy Davy from Poverty Flat, and John Chapman, and a lot of people. Mrs. Chance sat by the stove and when anyone looked at her or spoke to her she shook her head and smiled and the tears ran down. She didn’t seem unhappy about anything; she just couldn’t help crying.
Mr. Chance said over and over that there were certainly going to be a multitude of familiar faces missing after this thing was over. The town would never be the same. He wouldn’t be surprised if the destitute and friendless were found in every home in town, adopted and cared for by friends. They might have to build an institution to house the derelict and the bereaved.
He pulled his sagging cheeks and said to Chet, “Mark my words, son, you are one of the fortunate. In that hospital I said to myself a dozen times, ‘Those poor Mason boys are going to lose their father.’ I lay there—myself in pain, mind you—and the first thing I’d hear some old and valued friend would be moved into the Death Ward. I thought your father was a goner when they moved him in.”
Chefs throat was suddenly dry as dust. “Pa isn’t in there!”
“Ira,” said Mrs. Chance, and shook her head and smiled and wiped the tears away. “Now you’ve got the child all worked up.”
“He isn’t in there now,” said Mr. Chance. “By the grace of the Almighty—” he bent his head and his lips moved— “he came out again. He’s a hard man to kill. Hands and feet frozen, double pneumonia, and still he came out.”
“Is he all right now?” Chet said.
“Convalescing,” Mr. Chance said. “Convalescing beautifully.” He raised a finger under Chet’s nose. “Some people are just hard to kill. But on the other hand, you take a person like that George Valet. I hesitate to say before the young what went on in that ward. Shameful, even though the man was sick.” His tongue ticked against his teeth, and his eyebrows raised at Chet. “They cleaned his bed six times a day,” he said, and pressed his lips together. “It makes a man wonder about God’s wisdom,” he said. “A man like that, his morals are as loose as his bowels.”
“Ira!” Mrs. Chance said.
“I would offer you a wager,” Mr. Chance said. “I wager that a man as loose and discombobulated as that doesn’t live through this epidemic.”
“I wouldn’t bet on a person’s life that way,” she said.
“Ma,” Harvey called from the next room, where he was lying down. “What’s all the noise about?”
They stopped talking and listened. The church bell was ringing madly. In a minute the bell in the firehouse joined it. The heavy bellow of a shotgun, both barrels, rolled over the snowflats between their street and the main part of town. A six shooter went off, bang-bang-bang-bang-bang-bang, and there was the sound of distant yelling.
“Fire?” Mr. Chance said, stooping to the window.
“Here comes somebody,” Ed said. The figure of a boy was streaking across the flat. Mr. Chance opened the door and shouted at him. The boy ran closer, yelling something unintelligible. It was Spot Orullian.
“What?” Mr. Chance yelled.
Spot cupped his hands to his mouth, standing in the road in front of Chefs as if unwilling to waste a moment’s time. “War’s over!” he shouted, and wheeled and was gone up the street toward VanDam’s.
Mr. Chance closed the door slowly. Mrs. Chance looked at him, and her lips jutted and trembled, her weak eyes ran over with tears, and she fell into his arms. The three boys, not quite sure how one acted when a war ended, but knowing it called for celebration, stood around uneasily. They shot furtive grins at one another, looked with furrowed brows at Mrs. Chance’s shaking back.
“Now Uncle Joe can come home,” Ed said. “That’s what she’s bawling about.”
Chet bolted out the door, raced over to his own house, pulled the loaded shotgun from the mantel, and burst out into the yard again. He blew the lid off the silence in their end of town, and followed the shooting with a wild yell. Ed and Harvey, leaning out their windows, answered him, and the heavy boom-boom of a shotgun came from the downtown district.
Carrying the gun, Chet went back to Chance’s. He felt grown up, a householder. The end of the war had to be celebrated; neighbors had to get together and raise cain. He watched Mrs. Chance, still incoherent, rush to the calendar and put a circle around the date, November 11. “I don’t ever want to forget what day it happened on,” she said.
“Everyone in the world will remember this day,” said Mr, Chance, solemnly, like a preacher. Chet looked at him, his mind clicking.
“Mr. Chance,” he said, “would you like a drink, to celebrate?”
Mr. Chance looked startled. “What?” “Pa’s got some whisky. He’d throw a big party if he was home.”
“I don’t think we should,” said Mrs. Chance dubiously. “Your father might . . .”
“Oh, Mama,” Mr. Chance said, and laid his arm across her back like a log. “One bumper to honor the day. One leetle stirrup-cup to those boys of the Allies. Chester here is carrying on his father’s tradition like a man.” He bowed and shook Chefs hand formally. “We’d be delighted, Sir,” he said, and they all laughed.
* * * *
Somehow, nobody knew just how, the party achieved proportions. Mr. Chance suggested, after one drink, that it would be pleasant to have a neighbor or two, snatched from the terrors of the plague, come and join in the thanksgiving; and Chet, full of hospitality, said sure, that would be a keen idea. So Mr. Chance called Jewel King, and when Jewel came he brought Chubby Klein with him, and a few minutes later three more came, knocked, looked in to see the gathering with cups in their hands, and came in with alacrity when Chet held the door wide. Within an hour there were eight men, three women, and the two Chance boys, besides Chet. Mr. Chance wouldn’t let the boys have any whisky, but Chet, playing bartender, sneaked a cup into the dining room and all sipped it and smacked their lips.
“Hey, look, I’m drunk,” Harvey said. He staggered, hiccoughed, caught himself, bowed low and apologized, staggered again. “Hic,” he said. “I had a drop too much.” The three laughed together secretly while loud voices went up in the kitchen.
“Gentlemen,” Mr. Chance was saying, “I give you those heroic laddies in khaki who looked undaunted into the eyes of death and saved this galorious empire from the rapacious Huns.”
“Yay!” the others said, banging cups on the table. “Give her the other barrel, Dictionary.”
“I crave your indulgence for a moment,” Mr. Chance said. “For one leetle moment, while I imbibe a few swallows of this delectable amber fluid.”
The noise went up and up. Chet went among them stiff with pride at having done all this, at being accepted here as host, at having men pat him on the back and shake his hand and tell him, “You’re all right, kid, you’re a chip off the old block. What’s the word from the folks?” He guggled liquor out of the sloshing cask into a milk crock, and the men dipped largely and frequently. About four o’clock, two more families arrived and were welcomed with roars. People bulged the big kitchen; their laughter rattled the window frames. Occasionally Dictionary Chance rose to propose a toast to “those gems of purest ray serene, those unfailing companions on life’s bitter pilgrimage, the ladies, God bless ‘em!” Every so often he suggested that it might be an idea worth serious consideration that some liquid refreshments be decanted from the aperture in the receptacle.
The more liquid refreshments Chet decanted from the aperture in the receptacle, the louder and more eloquent Mr. Chance became. He dominated the kitchen like an evangelist. He swung and swayed and stamped, he led a rendition of “God Save the King,” he thundered denunciations on the Beast of Berlin, he thrust a large fist into the lapels of new arrivals and demanded detailed news of the war’s end. Nobody knew more than that it was over.
But Dictionary didn’t forget to be grateful, either. At least five times during the afternoon he caught Chet up in a long arm and publicly blessed him. Once he rose and cleared his throat for silence. Chubby Klein and Jewel King booed and hissed, but he bore their insults with dignity. “Siddown!” they said. “Speech!” said others. Mr. Chance waved his hands abroad, begging for quiet. Finally they gave it to him, snickering.
“Ladies and gen’lemen,” he said, “we have come together on this auspicious occasion . . .”
“What’s suspicious about it?” Jewel King said.
”. . . on this auspicious occasion, to do honor to our boys in Flanders’ fields, to celebrate the passing of the dread incubus of Spanish Influenza . . .”
“Siddown!” said Chubby Klein.
”. . . and last, but not least, we are gathered here to honor our friendship with the owners of this good and hospitable house, Bo Mason and Sis, may their lives be long and strewn with flowers, and this noble scion of a noble stock, this tender youth who kept the home fires burning through shock and shell and who opened his house and his keg to us as his father would have done. Ladies and gen’lemen, the Right Honorable Chester Mason, may he live to bung many a barrel.”
Embarrassed and squirming and unsure of what to do with so many faces laughing at him, so many mouths cheering him, Chet crowded into the dining room door and tried to act casual, tried to pretend he didn’t feel proud and excited and a man among men. And while he stood there with the noise beating at him in raucous approbation, the back door opened and the utterly flabbergasted face of his father looked in.
There was a moment of complete silence. Voices dropped away to nothing, cups hung at lips. Then in a concerted rush they were helping Bo Mason in. He limped heavily on bandaged and slippered feet, his hands wrapped in gauze, his face drawn and hollow-eyed and noticeably thinner than it had been ten days ago. After him came Chet’s mother, half-carrying Bruce, and staggering under his weight. Hands took Bruce away from her, sat him on the open oven door, and led her to a chair. All three of them, hospital-pale, rested and looked around the room. And Chet’s father did not look pleased.
“What the devil is this?” he said.
From his station in the doorway Chet squeaked, “The war’s over!”
“I know the war’s over, but what’s this?” He jerked a bandaged hand at the uncomfortable ring of people. Chet swallowed and looked at Dictionary Chance.
Dictionary’s suspended talents came back to him. He strode to lay a friendly hand on his host’s back; he swung and shook his hostess’ hand; he twinkled at the white-faced, big-eyed Bruce on the oven door.
“This, Sir,” he boomed, “is a welcoming committee of your friends and neighbors, met here to rejoice over your escape from the dread sickness which has swept to untimely death so many of our good friends, God rest their souls I On the invitation of your manly young son here we have been celebrating not only that emancipation, but the emancipation of the entire world from the dread plague of war.” With the cup in his hand he bent and twinkled at Bo Mason. “How’s it feel to get back, old hoss?”
Bo grunted. He looked across at his wife and laughed a short, choppy laugh. The way his eyes came around and rested on Chet made Chet stop breathing. But his father’s voice was hearty enough when it came. “You got a snootful,” he said. “Looks like you’ve all got a snootful.”
“Sir,” said Dictionary Chance, “I haven’t had such a delightful snootful since the misguided government of this province suspended the God-given right of its free people to purchase and imbibe and ingest intoxicating beverages.”
He drained his cup and set it on the table. “And now,” he said, “it is clear that our hosts are not completely recovered in their strength. I suggest that we do whatever small jobs our ingenuity and gratitude can suggest, and silently steal away.”
“Yeah,” the others said. “Sure. Sure thing.” They brought in the one bed from the sled and set it up, swooped together blankets and mattresses and turned them over to the women. Before the beds were made people began to leave. Dictionary Chance, voluble to the last, stopped to praise the excellent medicinal waters he had imbibed, and to say a word for Chet, before Mrs. Chance, with a quick pleading smile, led him away. The door had not even closed before Chet felt his father’s cold eye on him.
“All right,” his father said. “Will you please tell me why in the name of Christ you invited that God damned windbag and all the rest of those sponges over here to drink up my whisky?”
Chet stood sullenly in the door, boiling with sulky resentment. He had held the fort, milked the cow, kept the house, sold all that whisky for all it was worth, run Louis Treat and the other man out with a gun. Everybody else praised him, but you could depend on Pa to think more of that whisky the neighbors had drunk than of anything else. He wasn’t going to explain or defend himself. If the old man was going to be that stingy, he could take a flying leap in the river.
“The war was over,” he said. “I asked them over to celebrate.”
His father’s head wagged. He looked incredulous and at his wits’ end. “You asked them over!” he said. “You said, ‘Come right on over and drink up all the whisky my dad almost killed himself bringing in.’” He stuck his bandaged hands out. “Do you think I got these and damned near died in that hospital just to let a bunch of blotters . . . Why, God damn you,” he said. “Leave the house for ten days, tell you exactly what to do, and by Jesus everything goes wrong. How long have they been here?”
“Since about two.”
“How much did they drink?”
“I don’t know. Three crocks full, I guess.”
His father’s head weaved back and forth, he looked at his wife and then at the ceiling. “Three crocks. At least a gallon, twelve dollars’ worth. Oh Jesus Christ, if you had the sense of a pissant . . .”
Laboriously, swearing with the pain, he hobbled to the keg. When he put his hand down to shake it, his whole body stiffened.
“It’s half empty!” he said. He swung on Chet, and Chet met his furious look. Now! his mind said. Now let him say I didn’t hold the fort.
“I sold some,” he said, and held his father’s eyes for a minute before he marched out stiff-backed into the living room, dug the wad of bills from the vase on the mantel, and came back. He laid the money in his father’s hand. “I sold a hundred and twenty-four dollars’ worth,” he said.
The muscles in his father’s jaw moved. He glanced at Chet’s mother, let the breath out hard through his nose. “So you’ve been selling whisky,” he said. “I thought I told you to leave that alone?”
“People wanted it for medicine,” Chet said. “Should I’ve let them die with the flu? They came here wanting to buy it and I sold it. I thought that was what it was for.”
The triumph that had been growing in him ever since he went for the money was hot in his blood now. He saw the uncertainty in his father’s face, and he almost beat down his father’s eyes.
“I suppose,” his father said finally, “you sold it for a dollar a bottle, or something.”
“I sold it for plenty,” Chet said. “Four-fifty for bottles and four for quarts out of the keg. That’s more than you were going to get, because I heard you tell Ma.”
His father sat down on the chair and fingered the bills, looking at him. “You didn’t have any business selling anything,” he said. “And then you overcharge people.”
“Yeah!” Chet said, defying him now. “If it hadn’t been for me there wouldn’t’ve been any to sell. Louis Treat and another man came and tried to steal that whole keg, and I run ‘em out with a shotgun.”
“What?” his mother said.
“I did!” Chet said. “I made ‘em put it down and get out.”
Standing in the doorway still facing his father, he felt the tears hot in his eyes and was furious at himself for crying. He hoped his father would try thrashing him. He just hoped he would. Pie wouldn’t make a sound; he’d grit his teeth and show him whether he was man enough to stand it. . . . He looked at his father’s gray expressionless face and shouted, “I wish I’d let them take it! I just wish I had!”
And suddenly his father was laughing. lie reared back in the chair and threw back his head and roared, his bandaged hands held tenderly before him like helpless paws. He stopped, caught his breath, looked at Chet again, and shook with a deep internal rumbling. “Okay,” he said. “Okay, kid. You’re a man. I wouldn’t take it away from you.”
“Well, there’s no need to laugh,” Chet said. “I don’t see anything to laugh about.”
He watched his father twist in the chair and look at his mother. “Look at him,” his father said. “By God, he’d eat me if I made a pass at him.”
“Well, don’t laugh!” Chet said. He turned and went into the living room, where he sat on the couch and looked at his hands the way he had when Louis Treat and the other man were walking up the ditch. His hands were trembling, the same way. Rut there was no need to laugh, any more than there was need to get sore over a little whisky given to the neighbors.
His mother came in and sat down beside him, laid a hand on his head. “Don’t be mad at Pa,” she said. “lie didn’t understand. He’s proud of you. We all are.”
“Yeah?” said Chet. “Why doesn’t he come and tell me that?”
His mother’s smile was gentle and a little amused, “Because he’s ashamed of himself for losing his temper, I suppose,” she said. “He never did know how to admit he was wrong.”
Chet set his jaw and looked at the shotgun above the mantel. He guessed he had looked pretty tough himself when he had the drop on Louis Treat and his thieving friend. He stiffened his shoulders under his mother’s arm. “Just let him start anything,” he said. “Just let him try to get hard.”
His mother’s smile broadened, but he glowered at her. “And there’s no need to laugh!” he said.