Jeff Peters must be reminded. Whenever he is called upon, pointedly, for a story, he will maintain that his life has been as devoid of incident as the longest of Trollope’s novels. But lured, he will divulge. Therefore I cast many and divers flies upon the current of his thoughts before I feel a nibble.
“I notice,” said I, “that the Western farmers, in spite of their prosperity, are running after their old populistic idols again.”
“It’s the running season,” said Jeff, “for farmers, shad, maple trees and the Connemaugh river. I know something about farmers. I thought I struck one once that had got out of the rut; but Andy Tucker proved to me I was mistaken. ‘Once a farmer, always a sucker,’ said Andy. ‘He’s the man that’s shoved into the front row among bullets, ballots and the ballet. He’s the funny-bone and gristle of the country,’ said Andy, ‘and I don’t know who we would do without him.’
“One morning me and Andy wakes up with sixty-eight cents between us in a yellow pine hotel on the edge of the pre-digested hoe-cake belt of Southern Indiana. How we got off the train there the night before I can’t tell you; for she went through the village so fast that what looked like a saloon to us through the car window turned out to be a composite view of a drug store and a water tank two blocks apart. Why we got off at the first station we could, belongs to a little oroide gold watch and Alaska diamond deal we failed to pull off the day before, over the Kentucky line.
“When I woke up I heard roosters crowing, and smelt something like the fumes of nitro-muriatic acid, and heard something heavy fall on the floor below us, and a man swearing.
“‘Cheer up, Andy,’ says I. ‘We’re in a rural community. Somebody has just tested a gold brick downstairs. We’ll go out and get what’s coming to us from a farmer; and then yoicks! and away.’
“Farmers was always a kind of reserve fund to me. Whenever I was in hard luck I’d go to the crossroads, hook a finger in a farmer’s suspender, recite the prospectus of my swindle in a mechanical kind of a way, look over what he had, give him back his keys, whetstone and papers that was of no value except to owner, and stroll away without asking any questions. Farmers are not fair game to me as high up in our business as me and Andy was; but there was times when we found ’em useful, just as Wall Street does the Secretary of the Treasury now and then.
“When we went down stairs we saw we was in the midst of the finest farming section we ever see. About two miles away on a hill was a big white house in a grove surrounded by a wide-spread agricultural agglomeration of fields and barns and pastures and out-houses.
“‘Whose house is that?’ we asked the landlord.
“‘That,’ says he, ‘is the domicile and the arboreal, terrestrial and horticultural accessories of Farmer Ezra Plunkett, one of our country’s most progressive citizens.’
“After breakfast me and Andy, with eight cents capital left, casts the horoscope of the rural potentate.
“‘Let me go alone,’ says I. ‘Two of us against one farmer would look as one-sided as Roosevelt using both hands to kill a grizzly.’
“‘All right,’ says Andy. ‘I like to be a true sport even when I’m only collecting rebates from the rutabag raisers. What bait are you going to use for this Ezra thing?’ Andy asks me.
“‘Oh,’ I says, ‘the first thing that come to hand in the suit case. I reckon I’ll take along some of the new income tax receipts, and the recipe for making clover honey out of clabber and apple peelings; and the order blanks for the McGuffey’s readers, which afterwards turn out to be McCormick’s reapers; and the pearl necklace found on the train; and a pocket-size goldbrick; and a–‘
“‘That’ll be enough,’ says Andy. ‘Any one of the lot ought to land on Ezra. And say, Jeff, make that succotash fancier give you nice, clean, new bills. It’s a disgrace to our Department of Agriculture, Civil Service and Pure Food Law the kind of stuff some of these farmers hand out to use. I’ve had to take rolls from ’em that looked like bundles of microbe cultures captured out of a Red Cross ambulance.’
“So, I goes to a livery stable and hires a buggy on my looks. I drove out to the Plunkett farm and hitched. There was a man sitting on the front steps of the house. He had on a white flannel suit, a diamond ring, golf cap and a pink ascot tie. ‘Summer boarder,’ says I to myself.
“‘I’d like to see Farmer Ezra Plunkett,’ says I to him.
“‘You see him,’ says he. ‘What seems to be on your mind?’
“I never answered a word. I stood still, repeating to myself the rollicking lines of that merry jingle, ‘The Man with the Hoe.’ When I looked at this farmer, the little devices I had in my pocket for buncoing the pushed-back brows seemed as hopeless as trying to shake down the Beef Trust with a mittimus and a parlor rifle.
“‘Well,’ says he, looking at me close, ‘speak up. I see the left pocket of your coat sags a good deal. Out with the goldbrick first. I’m rather more interested in the bricks than I am in the trick sixty- day notes and the lost silver mine story.’
“I had a kind of cerebral sensation of foolishness in my ideas of ratiocination; but I pulled out the little brick and unwrapped my handkerchief off it.
“‘One dollar and eighty cents,’ says the farmer hefting it in his hand. ‘Is it a trade?’
“‘The lead in it is worth more than that,’ says I, dignified. I put it back in my pocket.
“‘All right,’ says he. ‘But I sort of wanted it for the collection I’m starting. I got a $5,000 one last week for $2.10.’
“Just then a telephone bell rings in the house.
“‘Come in, Bunk,’ says the farmer, ‘and look at my place. It’s kind of lonesome here sometimes. I think that’s New York calling.’
“We went inside. The room looked like a Broadway stockbroker’s–light oak desks, two ‘phones, Spanish leather upholstered chairs and couches, oil paintings in gilt frames a foot deep and a ticker hitting off the news in one corner.
“‘Hello, hello!’ says this funny farmer. ‘Is that the Regent Theatre? Yes; this is Plunkett, of Woodbine Centre. Reserve four orchestra seats for Friday evening–my usual ones. Yes; Friday–good-bye.’
“‘I run over to New York every two weeks to see a show,’ says the farmer, hanging up the receiver. ‘I catch the eighteen-hour flyer at Indianapolis, spend ten hours in the heyday of night on the Yappian Way, and get home in time to see the chickens go to roost forty-eight hours later. Oh, the pristine Hubbard squasherino of the cave-dwelling period is getting geared up some for the annual meeting of the Don’t- Blow-Out-the-Gas Association, don’t you think, Mr. Bunk?’
“‘I seem to perceive,’ says I, ‘a kind of hiatus in the agrarian traditions in which heretofore, I have reposed confidence.’
“‘Sure, Bunk,’ says he. ‘The yellow primrose on the river’s brim is getting to look to us Reubs like a holiday edition de luxe of the Language of Flowers with deckle edges and frontispiece.’
“Just then the telephone calls him again.
“‘Hello, hello!’ says he. ‘Oh, that’s Perkins, at Milldale. I told you $800 was too much for that horse. Have you got him there? Good. Let me see him. Get away from the transmitter. Now make him trot in a circle. Faster. Yes, I can hear him. Keep on–faster yet. . . . That’ll do. Now lead him up to the phone. Closer. Get his nose nearer. There. Now wait. No; I don’t want that horse. What? No; not at any price. He interferes; and he’s windbroken. Goodbye.’
“‘Now, Bunk,’ says the farmer, ‘do you begin to realize that agriculture has had a hair cut? You belong in a bygone era. Why, Tom Lawson himself knows better than to try to catch an up-to-date agriculturalist napping. It’s Saturday, the Fourteenth, on the farm, you bet. Now, look here, and see how we keep up with the day’s doings.’
“He shows me a machine on a table with two things for your ears like the penny-in-the-slot affairs. I puts it on and listens. A female voice starts up reading headlines of murders, accidents and other political casualities.
“‘What you hear,’ says the farmer, ‘is a synopsis of to-day’s news in the New York, Chicago, St. Louis and San Francisco papers. It is wired in to our Rural News Bureau and served hot to subscribers. On this table you see the principal dailies and weeklies of the country. Also a special service of advance sheets of the monthly magazines.’
“I picks up one sheet and sees that it’s headed: ‘Special Advance Proofs. In July, 1909, the /Century/ will say’–and so forth.
“The farmer rings up somebody–his manager, I reckon–and tells him to let that herd of 15 Jerseys go at $600 a head; and to sow the 900-acre field in wheat; and to have 200 extra cans ready at the station for the milk trolley car. Then he passes the Henry Clays and sets out a bottle of green chartreuse, and goes over and looks at the ticker tape.
“‘Consolidated Gas up two points,’ says he. ‘Oh, very well.’
“‘Ever monkey with copper?’ I asks.
“‘Stand back!’ says he, raising his hand, ‘or I’ll call the dog. I told you not to waste your time.’
“After a while he says: ‘Bunk, if you don’t mind my telling you, your company begins to cloy slightly. I’ve got to write an article on the Chimera of Communism for a magazine, and attend a meeting of the Race Track Association this afternoon. Of course you understand by now that you can’t get my proxy for your Remedy, whatever it may be.’
“Well, sir, all I could think of to do was to go out and get in the buggy. The horse turned round and took me back to the hotel. I hitched him and went in to see Andy. In his room I told him about this farmer, word for word; and I sat picking at the table cover like one bereft of sagaciousness.
“‘I don’t understand it,’ says I, humming a sad and foolish little song to cover my humiliation.
“Andy walks up and down the room for a long time, biting the left end of his mustache as he does when in the act of thinking.
“‘Jeff,’ says he, finally, ‘I believe your story of this expurgated rustic; but I am not convinced. It looks incredulous to me that he could have inoculated himself against all the preordained systems of bucolic bunco. Now, you never regarded me as a man of special religious proclivities, did you, Jeff?’ says Andy.
“‘Well,’ says I, ‘No. But,’ says I, not to wound his feelings, ‘I have also observed many church members whose said proclivities were not so outwardly developed that they would show on a white handkerchief if you rubbed ’em with it.’
“‘I have always been a deep student of nature from creation down,’ says Andy, ‘and I believe in an ultimatum design of Providence. Farmers was made for a purpose; and that was to furnish a livelihood to men like me and you. Else why was we given brains? It is my belief that the manna that the Israelites lived on for forty years in the wilderness was only a figurative word for farmers; and they kept up the practice to this day. And now,’ says Andy, ‘I am going to test my theory “Once a farmer, always a come-on,” in spite of the veneering and the orifices that a spurious civilization has brought to him.’
“‘You’ll fail, same as I did,’ says I. ‘This one’s shook off the shackles of the sheep-fold. He’s entrenched behind the advantages of electricity, education, literature and intelligence.’
“‘I’ll try,’ said Andy. ‘There are certain Laws of Nature that Free Rural Delivery can’t overcome.’
“Andy fumbles around awhile in the closet and comes out dressed in a suit with brown and yellow checks as big as your hand. His vest is red with blue dots, and he wears a high silk hat. I noticed he’d soaked his sandy mustache in a kind of blue ink.
“‘Great Barnums?’ says I. ‘You’re a ringer for a circus thimblerig man.’
“‘Right,’ says Andy. ‘Is the buggy outside? Wait here till I come back. I won’t be long.’
“Two hours afterwards Andy steps into the room and lays a wad of money on the table.
“‘Eight hundred and sixty dollars,’ said he. ‘Let me tell you. He was in. He looked me over and began to guy me. I didn’t say a word, but got out the walnut shells and began to roll the little ball on the table. I whistled a tune or two, and then I started up the old formula.
“‘Step up lively, gentlemen,’ says I, ‘and watch the little ball. It costs you nothing to look. There you see it, and there you don’t. Guess where the little joker is. The quickness of the hand deceives the eye.
“‘I steals a look at the farmer man. I see the sweat coming out on his forehead. He goes over and closes the front door and watches me some more. Directly he says: “I’ll bet you twenty I can pick the shell the ball’s under now.”
“‘After that,’ goes on Andy, ‘there is nothing new to relate. He only had $860 cash in the house. When I left he followed me to the gate. There was tears in his eyes when he shook hands.
“‘”Bunk,” says he, “thank you for the only real pleasure I’ve had in years. It brings up happy old days when I was only a farmer and not an agriculturalist. God bless you.”‘”
Here Jeff Peters ceased, and I inferred that his story was done.
“Then you think”–I began.
“Yes,” said Jeff. “Something like that. You let the farmers go ahead and amuse themselves with politics. Farming’s a lonesome life; and they’ve been against the shell game before.”