Authors: Erskine Caldwell
The Stories of Erskine Caldwell
standing in the middle of the chamber, trembling like I was coming down with the flu, and still not knowing what God-awful something had happened. In all my days in the Back Kingdom, I never heard such noises so early in the forenoon.
It was about half an hour after sunrise, and a gun went off like a cofferdam breaking up under ice at twenty below, and I’d swear it sounded like it wasn’t any farther away than my feet are from my head. That gun shot off, pitching me six-seven inches off the bed, and, before I could come down out of the air, there was another roar like somebody coughing through a megaphone, with a two-weeks cold, right in my ear. God-helping, I hope I never get waked up like that again until I can get myself home to the Back Kingdom where I rightfully belong to stay.
I must have stood there ten-fifteen minutes shivering in my nightshirt, my heart pounding inside of me like a ramrod working on a plugged-up bore, and listening for that gun again, if it was going to shoot some more. A man never knows what’s going to happen next in the State of Maine; that’s why I wish sometimes I’d never left the Back Kingdom to begin with. I was making sixty a month, with the best of bed and board, back there in the intervale; but like a God-damn fool I had to jerk loose and came down here near the Bay. I’m going back where I came from, God-helping; I’ve never had a purely calm and peaceful day since I got here three-four years ago. This is the damnedest country for the unexpected raising of all kinds of unlooked-for hell a man is apt to run across in a lifetime of traveling. If a man’s born and raised in the Back Kingdom, he ought to stay there where he belongs; that’s what I’d done if I’d had the sense to stay out of this down-country near the Bay, where you don’t ever know, God-helping, what’s going to happen next, where, or when.
But there I was, standing in the middle of the upstairs chamber, shaking like a ragweed in an August windstorm, and not knowing what minute, maybe right at me, that gun was going to shoot off again, for all I knew. Just then, though, I heard Jim and Mrs. Frost trip-trapping around downstairs in their bare feet. Even if I didn’t know what God-awful something had happened, I knew things around the place weren’t calm and peaceful, like they generally were of a Sunday morning in May, because it took a stiff mixture of heaven and hell to get Jim and Mrs. Frost up and out of a warm bed before six of a forenoon, any of the days of the week.
I ran to the window and stuck my head out as far as I could get it, to hear what the trouble was. Everything out there was as quiet and peaceful as midnight on a back road in middlemost winter. But I knew something was up, because Jim and Mrs. Frost didn’t make a practice of getting up and out of a warm bed that time of forenoon in the chillish Maytime.
There wasn’t any sense in me standing there in the cold air shivering in my nightshirt, so I put on my clothes, whistling all the time through my teeth to drive away the chill, and trying to figure out what God-damn fool was around so early shooting off a gun of a Sunday morning. Just then I heard the downstairs door open, and up the steps, two at a time, came Jim in his breeches and his shirttail flying out behind him.
He wasn’t long in coming up the stairs, for a man sixty-seven, but before he reached the door to my room, that gun went off again: BOOM! Just like that; and the echo came rolling back through the open window from the hills:
Like fireworks going off with your eyes shut. Jim had busted through the door already, but when he heard that
sound he sort of spun around, like a cockeyed weathervane, five-six times, and ran out of the door again like he had been shot in the hind parts with a moose gun. That
so early in the forenoon was enough to scare the daylights out of any man, and Jim wasn’t any different from me or anybody else in the town of East Joloppi. He just turned around and jumped through the door to the first tread on the stairway like his mind was made up to go somewhere else in a hurry, and no fooling around at the start.
I’d been hired to Jim and Mrs. Frost for all of three-four years, and I was near about as much of a Frost, excepting name, as Jim himself was. Jim and me got along first-rate together, doing chores and haying and farm work in general, because neither one of us was ever trying to make the other do more of the work. We were hitched to make a fine team, and I never had a kick coming, and Jim said he didn’t either. Jim had the name of Frost, to be sure, but I wouldn’t ever hold that against a man.
The echo of that gunshot was still rolling around in the hills and coming in through the window, when all at once that God-awful coughlike whoop through a megaphone sounded again right there in the room and everywhere else, like it might have been, in the whole town of East Joloppi. The man or beast or whatever animal he was who hollered like that ought to be locked up to keep him from scaring all the women and children to death, and it wasn’t any stomach-comforting sound for a grown man who’s used to the peaceful calm of the Back Kingdom all his life to hear so early of a Sunday forenoon, either.
I jumped to the door where Jim, just a minute before, leaped through. He didn’t stop till he got clear to the bottom of the stairs. He stood there, looking up at me like a wild-eyed cow moose surprised in the sheriff’s corn field.
“Who fired that God-awful shot, Jim?” I yelled at him, leaping down the stairs quicker than a man of my years ought to let himself do.
“Good God!” Jim said, his voice hoarse, and falling all to pieces like a stump of punkwood. “The Swedes! The Swedes are shooting, Stan!”
“What Swedes, Jim — those Swedes who own the farm and buildings across the road over there?” I said, trying to find the buttonholes in my shirt. “Have they come back here to live on that farm?”
“Good God, yes!” he said, his voice croaking deep down in his throat, like he had swallowed too much water. “The Swedes are all over the place. They’re everywhere you can see, there’s that many of them.”
“What’s their name, Jim?” I asked him. “You and Mrs. Frost never told me what their name is.”
“Good God, I don’t know. I never heard them called anything but Swedes, and that’s what it is, I guess. It ought to be that, if it ain’t.”
I ran across the hall to look out a window, but it was on the wrong side of the house, and I couldn’t see a thing. Mrs. Frost was stepping around in the downstairs chamber, locking things up in the drawers and closet and forgetting where she was hiding the keys. I could see her through the open door, and she was more scared-looking than Jim was. She was so scared of the Swedes she didn’t know what she was doing, none of the time.
“What made those Swedes come back for, Jim?” I said to him. “I thought you said they were gone for good, this time.”
“Good God, Stan,” he said, “I don’t know what they came back for. I guess hard times are bringing everybody back to the land, and the Swedes are always in the front rush of everything. I don’t know what brought them back, but they’re all over the place, shooting and yelling and raising hell. There are thirty-forty of them, looks like to me, counting everything with heads.”
“What are they doing now, Jim, except yelling and shooting?”
“Good God,” Jim said, looking behind him to see what Mrs. Frost was doing with his things in the downstairs chamber. “I don’t know what they’re not doing. But I can hear them, Stan! You hurry out right now and lock up all the tools in the barn and bring in the cows and tie them up in the stalls. I’ve got to hurry out now and bring in all of those new cedar fence posts across the front of the yard before they start pulling them up and carrying them off. Good God, Stan, the Swedes are everywhere you look outdoors! We’ve got to make haste, Stan!”
Jim ran to the side door and out the back of the house, but I took my time about going. I wasn’t scared of the Swedes, like Jim and Mrs. Frost were, and I didn’t aim to have Jim putting me to doing tasks and chores, or anything else, before breakfast and the proper time. I wasn’t any more scared of the Swedes than I was of the Finns and Portuguese, anyway. It’s a God-awful shame for Americans to let Swedes and Finns and the Portuguese scare the daylights out of them. God-helping, they are no different than us, and you never see a Finn or a Swede scared of an American. But people like Jim and Mrs. Frost are scared to death of Swedes and other people from the old countries; Jim and Mrs. Frost and people like that never stop to think that all of us Americans came over from the old countries, one time or another, to begin with.
But there wasn’t any sense in trying to argue with Jim and Mrs. Frost right then, when the Swedes, like a fired nest of yellow-headed bumblebees, were swarming all over the place as far as the eye could see, and when Mrs. Frost was scared to death that they were coming into the house and carry out all of her and Jim’s furniture and household goods. So while Mrs. Frost was tying her and Jim’s shoes in pillowcases and putting them out of sight in closets and behind beds, I went to the kitchen window and looked out to see what was going on around that tall yellow house across the road.