Romance of an Ox-Team.
THE oxen, lean
and rough-haired, one of them carroty red, the other brindle
and white, were slouching inertly along the narrow backwoods
road. From habit they sagged heavily on the yoke, and
groaned huge windy sighs, although the vehicle they were
hauling held no load. This structure, the mere skeleton
of a cart, consisted of two pairs of clumsy, broad-tired
wheels, united by a long tongue of ash, whose tip was
tied with rope to the middle of the forward axle. The
road looked innocent of even the least of the country-road-master’s
well meaning attempts at repair,— a circumstance
[Page 158], indeed, which should perhaps
be set to its credit. It was made up of four deep, parallel
ruts, the two outermost eroded by years of journeying
cart-wheels, the inner ones worn by the companioning hoofs
of many a yoke of oxen. Down the centre ran a high and
grassy ridge, intolerable to the country parson and the
country doctor, compelled to traverse this highway in
their one-horse wagons. From ruts and ridges alike protruded
the imperishable granite boulder, which wheels and feet
might polish but never efface. On either side of the roadway
was traced an erratic furrow, professing to do duty for
a drain, and at intervals emptying a playful current across
the track to wander down the ruts.
Along beside the slouching team
slouched a tall, lank, stoop-shouldered youth, the white
down just beginning to stiffen into bristles on his long
upper lip. His pale eyes [Page 159] and
pale hair looked yet paler by contrast with his thin,
red, wind-roughened face. In his hand he carried a long-handled
ox-whip, with a short goad in the butt of it.
“Gee, Buck!” he drawled,
prodding the near ox lightly in the ribs. And the team
lurched to the right to avoid a markedly obtrusive boulder.
“Haw, Bright!” he ejaculated a minute later,
flicking with his whip the off shoulder of the farther
ox. And with sprawling legs and swaying of hind-quarters
the team swerved obediently to the left, shunning a mire-hole
that would have taken in the wheel to the hub. Presently,
coming to a swampy spot that stretched all the way across
the road, the youth seated himself sidewise on the narrow
tongue connecting the fore and hind axles, and drove his
It was a slow and creaking progress;
but there seemed to be no hurry, and the youth dreamed
gloomily [Page 160] on his jolting perch.
His eyes took no note of the dark-mossed, scrubby hillocks,
the rough clearings blackened with fire, the confused
and ragged woods, as they crept past in sombre procession.
But suddenly, as the cart rounded a turn in the road,
there came into view the figure of a girl travelling in
the same direction. The young man slipped from his perch
and prodded up the oxen to a brisk walk.
As the noise of the team approached
her, the girl looked around. She was good to see, with
her straight vigorous young figure in its blue-gray homespun
gown. Her hair, in color not far from that of the red
ox, was rich and abundant, and lay in a coil so gracious
that not even the tawdry millinery of her cheap “store”
hat could make her head look quite commonplace. Her face
was freckled, but wholesome and comely. A shade of displeasure
[Page 161] passed over it as she saw
who was behind her, and she hastened her steps perceptibly.
But presently she remembered that she had a good five
miles to go ere she would reach her destination; and she
realized that she could not hope to escape by flight.
With a pout of vexation she resigned herself to the inevitable,
and dropped back into her former pace. Immediately the
ox-team overtook her.
As the oxen slowed up she stepped
to the right to let them pass, and then walked on, thus
placing the cart between herself and her undesired companion.
The youth looked disconcerted by these tactics, and for
a few moments could find nothing to say. Then, dropping
his long white lashes sheepishly, he murmured, “Good-day,
Jim-Ed!” replied the girl, coolly.
“Won’t ye set on an’
let me give [Page 162] ye a lift home?”
he asked, with entreaty in his voice.
“No,” she said, with
finality: “I’d ruther walk.”
Not knowing how to answer this
rebuff, he tried to cover his embarrassment by exclaiming
authoritatively, “Haw, Bright!” whereupon
the team slewed to the left and crowded him into the ditch.
Soon he began again.
“Ye might set on,
Liz,” he pleaded.
“Yes, I might,”
said she, with what she considered rather withering smartness;
“but I ain’t a-goin’ to.”
“Ye’ll be tired afore
ye git home,” he persisted, encouraged by finding
that she would talk back at him.
she declared, with emphasis, “if ye think I’m
a-goin’ to be beholden to you fer a lift
home, ye’re mistaken, that’s all.”
this there was silence for some time, broken only by the
rattling [Page 163] and bumping of the
cart, and once by the whir of a woodcock that volleyed
across the road. Young Atkinson chewed the cud of gloomy
bewilderment. At length he roused himself to another effort.
said he, plaintively, “y’ ain’t been
like ye used to, sence ye come back from the States.”
I?” she remarked, indifferently.
“No, Liz, ye ain’t,”
he repeated, with a sort of pathetic emphasis, as if eager
to persuade himself that she had condescended to rebut
his accusation. “Y’ ain’t been like
ye used to at all. Appears like as if ye thought us folks
in the Settlement wasn’t good enough fer ye now.”
At this the girl tossed her head
“It appears like as if ye
wanted to be back in the States ag’in,” he
continued, in a voice of anxious interrogation [Page
“My lands,” exclaimed
the girl, “but ye’re green!”
To the young man this seemed such
an irrelevant remark that he was silent for some time,
striving to fathom its significance. As his head sank
lower and lower, and he seemed to lose himself completely
in joyless revery, the girl shot occasional glances at
him out of the corners of her eyes. She had spent the
preceding winter in a factory in a crude but stirring
little New England town, and had come back to Nova Scotia
ill content with the monotony of life in the backwoods
seclusion of Wyer’s Settlement. Before she went
away she had been, to use the vernacular of the Settlement,
“keepin’ company with Jim-Ed A’ki’son;”
and now, to her, the young man seemed to unite and concentrate
in his person all that she had been wont to persuade herself
she had outgrown. To be sure, she not seldom caught herself
[Page 165] dropping back comfortably
into the old conditions. But these symptoms stirred in
her heart an uneasy resentment, akin to that which she
felt whenever—as would happen at times—she
could not help recognizing that Jim-Ed and his affairs
were not without a passing interest in her eyes.
Now she began to grow particularly
angry at him because, as she thought, “he hadn’t
nothing to say fer himself.” Sadly to his disadvantage,
she compared his simplicity and honest diffidence with
the bold self-assertion and easy familiarity of the young
fellows with whom she had come in contact during the winter.
Their impertinences had offended her grievously at the
time, but, woman-like, she permitted herself to forget
that now, in order to accentuate the deficiencies of the
man whom she was unwilling to think well of [Page
lands!” she reiterated to herself, with accumulated
scorn, “but ain’t he green? He—why,
he wouldn’t know a ’lectric car from a waterin’-cart.
An’ soft, too, takin’ all my sass
’thout givin’ me no lip back, no more’n
if I was his mother!”
the young man presently broke in upon these unflattering
reflections. With a sigh he said slowly, as if half to
“Lands, but I used to set
a powerful store by ye, Liz!”
He paused; and at that “used
to” the girl opened her eyes with angry apprehension.
But he went on,—
I set still more store by ye now, Liz, someways. Seems
like I jest couldn’t live without ye. I always did
feel as how ye was too good, a sight too good, fer me,
an’ you so smart; an’ now I feel it more’n
ever, bein’ ’s ye’ve seen so [Page
167] much of the world like. But, Liz, I don’t
allow as it’s right an’ proper fer even you
to look down the way ye do on the place ye was born in
an’ the folks ye was brung up with.”
thought the girl to herself, “he’s got some
spunk, after all, to git off such a speech as that, an’
to rake me over the coals, too!”
But aloud she retorted, “Who’s
a-lookin’ down on anybody, Jim-Ed A’ki’son?
An’, anyways, you ain’t the whole
of Wyer’s Settlement, be ye?”
The justice of this retort seemed
to strike the young man with great force.
so,” he acknowledged, gloomily. “’Course
I ain’t. An’ I s’pose I hadn’t
oughter said what I did.”
Then he relapsed into silence.
For half a mile he slouched on without a syllable, save
an occasional word of command addressed to the [Page
168] team. Coming to another boggy bit of road,
he seated himself dejectedly on the cart, and apparently
would not presume to again press unwelcome assistance
upon his fellow way-farer. Quite uncertain whether to
interpret this action as excess of humility or as a severe
rebuke, the girl picked her way as best she could, flushed
with a sense of injury.
the mud was passed, the young man absent-mindedly kept
his seat. Beginning to boil with indignation, the girl
speedily lost her confident superiority, and felt humiliated.
She did not know exactly what to do. She could not continue
to walk humbly beside the cart. The situation was profoundly
altered by the mere fact that the young man was riding.
She tried to drop behind; but the team had an infinite
capacity for loitering. At last, with head high in the
air, she [Page 169] darted ahead of the
team, and walked as fast as she could. Although she heard
no orders given by their driver, she knew at once that
the oxen had quickened their pace, and that she was not
leaving them behind.
Presently she found herself overtaken;
whereupon, with swelling heart and face averted, she dropped
again to the rear. She was drawing perilously near the
verge of that feminine cataclysm, tears, when Fate stepped
in to save her from such a mortification.
goes about in many merry disguises. At this juncture she
presented herself under the aspect of two half-tipsy commercial
travelers driving a single horse in a light open trap.
They were driving in from the Settlement, in haste to
reach the hotel at Bolton Corners before nightfall. The
youth hawed his team vigorously till the nigh wheels were
on the other side of the ditch, leaving [Page
170] a liberal share of the road for them to
the drummers were not satisfied with this. After a glance
at the bashful face and dejected attitude of the young
man on the ox-cart, they decided that they wanted the
whole road. When their horse’s head almost touched
the horns of the off ox, they stopped.
out of the way there!” cried the man who held the
At any other time Jim-Ed would
have resented the town man’s tone and words; just
now he was thinking about the way Liz had changed.
“I’ve gi’n ye
the best half o’ the road, mister,” he said,
deprecatingly, “’n’ I can’t do
no better fer ye than that.”
“Yes, you can, too,”
shouted the driver of the trap; “you can give us
the whole road. It won’t hurt your old cart to go
out in the [Page 171] stumps, but we
ain’t going to drive in the ditch, not by a jugful.
Get over, I tell you, and be quick about it.”
To this the youth made no immediate
reply; but he began to forget about the girl, and to feel
himself growing hot. As for the girl, she had stepped
to the front, resolved to “show off” and to
make very manifest to the city men her scorn for her companion.
Her cheeks and eyes were flaming, and the drummers were
not slow to respond to the challenge which she flashed
at them from under her drooped lids.
“Ah, there, my beauty!”
said the driver, his attention for a moment diverted from
the question of right of way. His companion, a smallish
man in striped trousers and fawn-colored overcoat, sprang
lightly out of the trap, with the double purpose of clearing
the road and amusing [Page 172] himself
with Liz. The saucy smile with which she met him turned
into a frown, however, as he began brutally kicking the
knees of the oxen to make them stand over.
The patient brutes crowded into
there! Gee, Buck! gee, Bright!” ordered the youth,
and the team lurched back into the road. At the same time
he stepped over the cart-beam and came forward on the
off side of the team.
better quit that, mister!” he exclaimed, with a
threatening note in his voice.
the lout a slap in the mouth, and make him get out of
the way,” cried the man in the trap.
But the man in the fawn-colored
overcoat was busy. Liz was much to his taste.
“Jump in and take a ride
with us, my pretty,” said he [Page 173].
But Liz shrank away, regretting
her provocative glances now that she saw the kind of men
she had to do with.
come,” coaxed the man, “don’t be shy,
my blooming daisy. We’ll drive you right in to the
Corners and set up a good time for you.” And, grasping
her hand, he slipped an arm about her waist and tried
to kiss her lips. As she tore herself fiercely away, she
heard the man in the trap laugh loud approval. She struck
at her insulter with clenched hand; but she did not touch
him, for just then something happened to him. The long
arm of the youth went out like a cannon-ball, and the
drummer sprawled in the ditch. He nimbly picked himself
up and darted upon his assailant, while the man in the
trap shouted to him encouragingly,—
it to him pretty, Mike.”
the young countryman caught [Page 174] him
by the neck with long, vise-like fingers, inexorable,
and, holding him thus helpless at arm’s length,
struck him again heavily in the ribs, and hurled him over
the ditch into a blueberry thicket, where he remained
in dazed discretion.
Though of a lamb-like gentleness
on ordinary occasions, the young countryman was renowned
throughout the Settlement for the astonishing strength
that lurked in his lean frame. At this moment he was well
aroused, and Liz found herself watching him with a consuming
admiration. He no longer slouched, and his pale eyes,
like polished steel, shot a menacing gleam. He stepped
forward and took the horse by the bridle.
said he to the driver, “I’ve gi’n ye
half the road, an’ if ye can’t drive by in
that I’m a-going to lead ye by, ’thout no
more nonsense [Page 175].”
go that bridle!” yelled the driver, standing up
and lashing at him with the whip.
One stroke caught the young man
down the side of the face, and stung. It was a rash stroke.
“Hold the horse’s
head, Liz,” he cried; and, leaping forward, he reached
into the trap for his adversary. Heeding not at all the
butt end of the whip which was brought down furiously
upon his head, he wrenched the driver ignominiously from
his seat, spun him around, shook him as if he had been
a rag baby, and hurled him violently against a rotten
stump on the other side of the ditch. The stump gave way,
and the drummer splashed into a bog hole.
cows a man more quickly than a shaking combined with a
ducking. Without a word the drummer hauled himself out
of the slop and walked sullenly forward [Page
176]. His companion joined him; and Liz, leading
the horse and trap carefully past the cart, delivered
them up to their owners with a sarcastic smile on her
lips. Then she resumed her place beside the cart, the
young man flicked the oxen gently, and the team once more
got slowly under way.
the discomfited drummers climbed into their trap, the
girl, in the ardor of her suddenly adopted hero-worship,
could not refrain from turning around again to triumph
over them. When the men were fairly seated, and the reins
gathered up for prompt departure, the smaller man turned
suddenly and threw a large stone, with vindictive energy
and deadly aim.
“Look out!” shrieked
the girl; and the young countryman turned aside just in
time to escape the full force of the missile. It grazed
the side of his head, however, with such [Page
177] violence as to bring him to his knees, and
the blood spread throbbing out of the long cut like a
scarlet veil. The drummers whipped their horse to a gallop,
girl first stopped the team, with a true country-side
instinct; and she was at the young man’s side, sobbing
with anxious fear, just as he staggered blindly to his
feet. Seating him on the cart, she proceeded to stanch
the bleeding with the edge of her gown. Observing this,
he protested, and declared that the cut was nothing. But
she would not be gainsaid, and he yielded, apparently
well content under her hands. Then, tearing a strip from
her colored cotton petticoat, she gently bound up the
wound, not artistically, perhaps, but in every way to
ye hadn’t gi’n me warnin’, Liz, that
there stun’d about fixed me,” he remarked
girl smiled happily, but said nothing.
After a long pause he spoke again.
“Seems to me ye’re
like what ye used to, Liz,” said he, “only
nicer, a sight nicer; an’ y’ used to be powerful
nice. I allow there couldn’t be another
girl so nice as you, Liz. An’ what ever’s
made ye quit lookin’ down on me, so sudden like?”
“Jim-Ed,” she replied,
in a caressing tone, “ef y’ ain’t
got no paper collar on, ner no glas’ di’mon’
pin, I allow ye’re a man. An maybe—maybe
ye’re the kind of man I like,
even such genuine modesty as Jim-Ed’s this was comprehensible.
Shyly and happily he reached out his hand for hers. They
were both seated very comfortably on the cartbeam, so
he did not consider it necessary to move. Side by side,
and [Page 179] hand in hand, they journeyed
homeward in a glorified silence. The oxen appeared to
guide themselves very fairly. The sunset flushed strangely
the roadside hillocks. The nighthawks swooped in the pale
zenith with the twang of smitten chords. And from a thick
maple on the edge of a clearing a hermit-thrush fluted
slowly over and over his cloistral ecstasy [Page