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"The Crisis" from Ladies' Home Journal

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Ladies' Home Journal
The Crisis
by Ellis Parker Butler

Old Sam Wilkins was having one of his tantrums, and this time he was in earnest and was building himself a raft. "By hecky, when I get this here raft builded!" he scolded to himself as he worked on it, for he was sick of things. There was too much talk and too much bossing. "By hecky, when I get this here raft builded!" he threatened, with none but the ducks to hear him. He knelt on the raft, nailing a crumpled sheet of tin roofing to the floor of the raft in front of the crude shack he had built on the raft. The piece of tin roofing was to build a fire on when he needed one. It was the finishing touch; when he had the tin in place the raft would be complete. Old man Wilkins drove a nail into the sheet of tin and felt around for another nail and could find none, so he swore a little with irritation and waded ashore through the mud and walked across the drier land to the decayed buggy where he had left his can of nails.

The raft was crude and the shack on it was even cruder, for old Wilkins had never been any hand at carpentry; he had always been a farmer. The shack on the raft was built of four uprights chosen at random from the pile of waste lumber. They were braced by strips of wood nailed from their tops to the floor of the raft; the top and sides were of tarpaper.

Already old Wilkins had a good pile of split pinewood aboard for cooking purposes, and a frying pan and some salt and such dishes The Crisis by Ellis Parker Butler and utensils as he thought he might need, and his bamboo fish pole. He also had an old quilt and quite a pile of cornhusks to make his bed. He had also four stout stakes and a long pole. The stakes were to anchor the raft at its four corners, and the pole was to propel the raft.

Old Wilkins picked up his can of nails and started toward the raft again, but he remembered his shoes and socks which he had left in the box of the old buggy and he turned back and got them, for there was no use making another trip. The raft would be ready when he had nailed that tin down. As old Wilkins waded back to the raft, his face bore the same sour and vindictive look it had worn for some weeks. He groaned a little as he bent his old knees in getting down to finish his nailing. He had to use his left hand to steady himself as he used the hammer, and he put his hand on the small of his back as he straightened up, and groaned again. Not so young any more! He had to stand a moment to let the kinks get out of his muscles, but he wasted no more time than that. He picked up the long pole and set its end against the mushy shore and pushed. The end of the pole went deep into the mud and the mud grasped it and clung to it. Old Wilkins drew back and jerked at the pole like a robin pulling at an unyielding worm.

"Blame take ye!" he scolded and jerked still harder. The whole raft shook.

There was no current to help old Wilkins, for this body of water was a pond. It was a pond covering two acres or more, fed by a mere trickle of stream. The bottom of the pond was mud, and the banks were mud. The pond was called Wilkins' Pond because it was on his farm and he had made it and he owned it. It lay in what was little more than low waves of land, with weeds and sedges in it and on its edges. There were carp in the pond, because old Wilkins had planted them there, and they could be caught with worms or with dough balls jiggled up and down, but the pond was as unattractive as any body of water could be.

Old Wilkins had made the pond many years before, building a five-foot dirt dam where two hillocks came close together, driving a few planks at the sluice at the middle of the dam so that, if necessary, the pond could be drained. The planks were now overgrown with moss and hidden in tall weeds.

Where the raft lay stuck in the mud the ground was bare, for it was here the cows waded in and the ducks and geese waddled down for their swims. The muddy shore ran back to the two big barns, beyond which were the other farm buildings and the house, all but one window of the house hidden from the raft. Cornstalk fodder was trampled into the mud, and against the barns was the accumulation of farm trash -- old sleighs, waste lumber and decaying boxes.

Old Wilkins, talking hard words to the mud that grasped his pushing pole, was pulling jerkily but ineffectively at the pole, trying to get it out of the mud, when a second old man came around the end of the barn nearest the raft, looked at Wilkins a moment and then walked toward him.

"Hi, Sam! Hi, wait a minute!" he called, waving his staff. "Hold on there a minute! Want to see you!"

For answer old Wilkins jerked at the pole more violently. He jerked half a dozen times and the pole came out of the mud suddenly and old Wilkins sat down as suddenly, the end of the pole striking the tarpaper roof of his shack and going right on through.

"Blame blast ye!" he shouted. "Now look what you gone and made me do, hollerin' at me like I was deef and blind! You ain't got no sense, and you never did have no sense. Get away from me and let me alone. Go home; I don't want nothin' to do with you."

"Why, Sam!" the other old man expostulated. "What I done? I didn't do nothin'."

"You get away from me," Wilkins cried. "Snoopin' around where you ain't no business to be. You get away." Nicholas Wilhelm looked at his neighbor with amazement. He was a chunky old man, square built, with a big round face and innocent blue eyes. He wore a reddish beard that began at his ears, leaving his face clean, but fluffing out under his jaws and chin. It gave him a curious appearance of having poked his face through a piece of buffalo robe, thus giving him a doubly playful and harmless look. He had known Sam Wilkins ever since they had been schoolboys together, and he had seen him peevish often enough to be callous to such exhibitions of temper. Now he came as close to the raft as the mud permitted and stared at Sam.

"You got a raft," he said pleasantly.

"None of your business what I got," said Sam bitterly. "You mind your business and I'll mind mine."

"Goin' to fish from it?" Nick inquired pleasantly.

For answer Sam pushed the pole into the mud again. He leaned his whole weight on it this time, and it went deeper into the mud than before and clung there tighter. Then he pulled at it.

"Sort of stuck in the mud, ain't it?" asked Nicholas.

"You mind your business!" said Sam.

Wife said she thought you was down here somewheres," said Nick as if he was imparting the gladdest of tidings in which Sam should be much interested if not delighted.

"I ain't got no wife," said Sam.

"Hey?" inquired Nick Wilhelm.

I'm done with folks. From now on I ain't got no wife, and I ain't got no relations, and I don't want to have nothing to do with nobody!

"You hear what I say? I ain't got no wife! I'm done with folks. From now on I ain't got no wife, and I ain't got no relations, and I don't want to have nothing to do with nobody! That's what I built this here raft for, if you want to know. I'm goin' to get rid of the whole kit and boilin' of them."

"Goin' fishin'?" asked Nick.

"No, I ain't goin' fishin'!" Sam answered, mocking him. "I ain't goin' nowheres. I'm goin' to stay right here on this raft. I'm blame blasted sick of this world and of all the folks in it, and I'm goin' to get rid of it."

"Well, now, how you goin' to do that, Samuel?" asked Nick with much interest.

"I'm goin' to maroon it -- that's how I'm goin' to do it, blame blast it!" declared Samuel, resting a moment against his pole. "It don't need to think I care a hang for it. It can go and dry up and bust for all I care. I'm goin' to be quit of it. Soon's I can get this pole loose again I'm goin' to put it against the whole blame earth yonder and push it away from me."

"You mean you're goin' to push yourself out yonder into the middle of the pond, Sam?" asked Nick.

"No, I don't mean nothin' of the kind," snapped Sam. "I wouldn't give a blame blasted world like the one you're standin' on the satisfaction of thinkin' I cared enough for it to pole away from it. I'm goin' to push it away from me, and let it rot if it wants to, that's what I'm goin' to do. Goin' to maroon it, blame blast it!"

This, at the moment, seemed considerable of a brag, seeing that the old man's pushing pole was still held in the mud as if iron jaws had gripped it.

"Well, I shouldn't wonder if you'd have a real good time," said Nick cheerfully. "How long you goin' to maroon us?"

"Forever, blame blast it!" said Sam. "I ain't never goin' to rescue you. You can all go to Sam Hill for all I care. I'm done with the lot of you."

"Ain't you liable to starve to death?" asked Nick with some concern.

"If I do, I won't be nothin' but dead," said Sam angrily.

"Of course you can fish some," Nick suggested. "They ought to be plenty of carp in the pond. Trash food, I call 'em, but some likes 'em. Sort of taste muddy to me. You take along in the summer, when a carp softens up and gets its belly full of mud, and I wouldn't eat one for a dollar. No, sir --"

"They don't lie and cheat and cuss and swear, that's one thing," declared Sam, glaring at his old friend. "They don't come around where they ain't wanted and then jaw a man's ears off. They don't marry you and then raise hail if you happen to come into the kitchen once in forty years with your boots on. They don't take to runnin' your farm for you and then go hintin' at you that you're a played-out old back-number that ain't no good now and never was no good, blame blast 'em!"

"Does your wife know you're goin' to maroon her and all this way, Sam?" Nicholas asked.

"No, she don't," said Sam briefly.

"Don't suppose you've told your sons or Emmy, either, have you?"

"No, I ain't," said Sam with extreme sourness.

"Because I don't 'magine they'd let you if they did know," said Nicholas.

"Let?" cried Sam. "They can let or they cannot let. I'm a man of full age, and I'll do what I'm a mind to."

Nicholas Wilhelm, looking past his old friend and over the placid surface of the pond, felt a great regret that Sam Wilkins had decided to maroon the world and all its people in this way. For seventy years, more or less, Sam Wilkins had been his neighbor and friend -- enemy at times -- and he hated to lose him now that life had so few years left for them.

Nick Wilhelm did not have much imagination, but even the little he had was sufficient to let him picture Sam sitting out there on his raft in the middle of the pond fishing for carp. He could see the raft, staked at its four corners, and Sam pulling in a carp, scaling it, gutting it, cooking it on the tin and eating it mud and all, and then catching another carp and another carp, and getting fuller and fuller of mud himself, and madder, and more bilious, and more cantankerous. And by that time the Board of Supervisors would send out the health doctor, and by the time he had seen Sam eat a couple of hundred fried carp and had heard him ramp and rave and carry on, they would declare Sam to be plumb crazy and take him away and lock him up. And he would hate to lose Sam. Sam had been a rough talker for pretty near three-quarters of a century, but he had been like pepper and mustard and vinegar to Nick. Nicholas looked toward the barns wistfully. Fortune favored him, for he saw Jabe Wilkins, Sam's younger son, open the rear door of one of the barns and push a long-legged calf into the open. Nicholas waved to him to come. Sam had wrapped his arms around his pushing pole and was jouncing on it with all his weight.

"What you got against the world and all, Sam?" Nicholas asked to hide his betrayal.

"There ain't nothin' to it," said Sam sourly. "It don't come to nothin' worth a shuck. You take folks --"

"Goats, did you say?" asked Nicholas.

"No, blame blast you! I said folks!" Sam shouted. "A man can eat goats if he's got to. Folks, I said. What good are they? They started off with Adam and Eve, and what did it amount to? They was folks, and by and by they give birth to more, and they give birth to more, and by the time the blame blasted thing went on awhiles Adam and Eve was dead -- and what did it amount to? Dyin' off at one end as fast as they was born on at the other! And what does it all come to?"

"Well, now, Samuel," said Nicholas slowly, because he couldn't see what it did come to exactly.

"And these here religions," said Sam sourly. "Been havin' 'em since the sun was a pup, and soon's one is born t'other dies off -- world without end, amen -- and a scoundrel would just as soon steal a chicken now as he ever would. The's been religions thirty billion years, and a man's old woman will howl his head off if he comes into the kitchen with his boots on just the same as in the beginnin'. Huh!"

There was something wrong with this. Nicholas knew, but before he could think what it was, Sam was at it again.

"This here politics," he said scornfully. "One rascal out and another rascal in, and all any of 'em can think of is to rig up some sort of taxes, blame blast 'em, and that's the way it's been since Adam, and that's the way it'll be till sun freezes over. A man eats today, and he gets hungry again right away. Get over one spell o' sickness and get into another, and in the end of it he dies and nothin' can stop him. Fellers invent automobyles to get around quick in and whang into trees and don't git nowhere. Since the world started there ain't been nothin' but trouble and sin and meanness --"

The pole came out of the mud again, and when Sam looked up he saw his son Jabe and his little grandson Sammy coming toward the raft from the barns.

"Blame blast it!" he exclaimed. "Now Jabe'll have to shoot his mouth off!"

"What you tryin' to do, pa?" Jabe asked, sure enough, when he neared the raft.

"Wat cha try'n' do, dampa?" little Sammy asked.

"None your business, none o' you!" said old Sam. "You get away from here and leave me alone."

"He's soured on us," explained Nick Wilhelm. "He's built this raft here, and he's goin' to maroon himself out yonder in the lake, like a -- like a hermit, and never come to shore no more."

Jabe lifted one edge of his felt hat and wrinkled his forehead and scratched his head thoughtfully.

"Livin' on carp," explained Nick. "He'll be dead in a week, the old skeezer."

Jabe looked troubled. He was the gentle member of the family, and he had never had much control over his father.

"Sammy, you run up to the house and tell grandma that grandpa is on a raft and goin' out to the middle of the pond to stay there," he said to the boy, and Sammy ran off as fast as his short legs could carry him. "Now, pa, there ain't any sense for you to act this way," he added.

"There ain't no sense in nothin'," said old Sam Wilkins. "I'm done with it. Man works all his life to lay up a couple of dollars, and all that happens to it is it gets spent. If one don't spend it, another one does. Folks been workin' their fool heads off since Adam to pile up money, and what's come of it? All spent!"

"Yours ain't spent," said Jabe.

"'Twill be," said old Sam. "Hundred years from now, th' won't be a blame blasted cent of it left nowheres."

Jabe looked toward the barns. He felt inadequate to contest the proposition that all money eventually went the way of all flesh and all grass, and he longed for his mother to come. She could handle the old man -- usually. But instead of Ma Wilkins he saw Emmy coming, with her ten-year-old daughter Susie, and Martha, Jabe's wife. Behind them came Mona, who was Henry's wife, and Alura, the hired help. Behind them came Oscar, the hired man, and young Sammy.

"Ma won't come," Emmy said. "What's pa up to now?"

"He's gone and built him this raft," Jabe said, "and he's goin' to shove off to the middle of the pond and stay there, near as I can make out."

"He's goin' to do no such thing!" said Emmy promptly. "Pa, you come off that raft this minute! You hear me?"

"What's he doin'?" asked Martha.

"Land knows!" Emmy said. "Goin' to build him a house in the middle of the pond, near as I can make out."

"What's grandpa doing, Aunt Martha?" asked Susie.

"Building him a house in the middle of the pond," said Martha. "He might as well be a muskrat and be done with it!"

"What's the matter?" asked Mona, arriving too late to hear the explanation.

"Why, grandpa thinks he's a muskrat, and he's built himself a house in the middle of the pond, and he's going to live in it," Susie explained.

"Under water?" asked Mona.

"Yes, I guess so. I should think he'd get drowned, wouldn't you?"

"I never heard of such a crazy idea!" declared Mona.

"What's he doin'?" asked Alura, the hired help.

"He found a muskrat house out in the middle of the pond, and he's goin' out to drownd himself in it," Mona explained.

"What's happenin'?" inquired Oscar, his eyes big.

"It's Mr. Wilkins," Alura told him.

"He tried to drownd himself in a muskrat house out in the pond. I guess he's goin' to try it again. Ain't it awful?"

"What'd he build the raft for?" Oscar asked.

"To drownd himself from, I guess," Alura thought.

"He ain't goin' to drownd himself," Nicholas Wilhelm said. "He's goin' to starve to death. Eatin' carp. He's goin' to eat them mud-bellied carp and catch typhoid fever, that's what he's goin' to do."

"What'd Mr. Wilhelm say?" asked Mona.

"He says grandpa's got typhoid fever," Susie explained.

"What's that?" asked Jabe, catching the name of the dread disease.

"He's got typhoid fever and it's gone to his head," said Mona.

"He ought to be in bed," said Alura. "Can't nobody do nothin' to stop him?"

Oscar placed little Sammy's hand in Alura's. It was time somebody did something, for old Sam had found a solid purchase for his pushing pole -- some root or board -- and he had moved the raft an inch or, if his thought is preferred, he had pushed the world an inch away from the raft.

"C'mon, Jabe," Oscar called. "You tackle him from that side and I'll tackle him from this. Look careful; these typhoids are dangerous when they're out of their heads. Wait till I say 'go,' and then rush in on him."

But old Sam was not to be rushed. He grasped his pushing pole and swung it in a half circle, a dangerous weapon.

"You get away and let me be," he commanded. "I'll bash your blame blasted heads in."

"We ought to get the old lady," said Oscar, backing away a step. "She's the only one he'd pay any attention to. You go, Susie, and tell her to come right down here. Tell her the boss has got typhoid fever and has built him a raft and thinks he's a muskrat and is goin' out to the middle of the pond and drownd himself. Hurry up, now; he's liable to go and do it any minute."

They stood in a group beyond the reach of the pushing pole and watched him laboring to push the unattractive world away while Susie ran toward the house. The raft moved another inch.

"You ain't goin' to enjoy them carps, Sam; I tell you that now," warned Nicholas Wilhelm. "They're goin' to pall on you mighty quick."

"Let 'em pall," said old Sam, pushing hard. "You always did think too much of your food; and if I ever did I'm past it. What's it all amount to? Lot o' fool women cookin' up stuff to keep a man alive so he can work himself to death for them, and when he's et a lot he goes and dies anyway. No more sense to it than a carp eatin' mud. I'm done with food."

Emmy, who was tenderhearted, began to cry, and she was wiping her eyes on her apron when Susie returned, running as before.

"Now, grandma says," she panted, "she ain't got time for, now, foolishness."

"But --" Jabe began, and then, as the raft moved another inch under the violent urging of old Sam, he started for the house on the run. At the corner of the barn he met Henry, and they saw him telling Henry, gesturing toward the raft and the pond, giving him the whole story. They returned together, Henry walking in his usual slow and steady way, and Mona ran to meet them, and she, too, told the story of the disaffection of old Sam.

"Yes," Henry said calmly, "Jabe told me that."

"But you got to do something," Mona urged. "He's getting the raft away, and he'll drownd himself like a muskrat. Hurry up, Henry. He's got the worst kind of typhoid fever, and he don't know what he's doing."

"He ain't got typhoid fever no more than nothin'," said Nicholas Wilhelm. "He's goin' to stake down the raft out yonder and starve to death on mud-bellied carp."

"And Mona says he's been out once and tried to drownd himself --"

"I didn't say so," said Mona. "Susie told me he built himself a house under water like a muskrat, and he's going out to live in it --"

"Why, I never said anything of the kind, Aunt Mona!" Susie cried. "All I said was that he had built himself a house in the middle of the pond like a muskrat's house, like Aunt Martha told me --"

"I didn't tell you that, Susie," Martha said. "Emmy told me he was building him a house in the middle of the pond --"

"Why, Martha!" exclaimed Emmy. "I only said Jabe told me pa might be going to build him a house in the middle of the pond, and --"

"I did not!" declared Jabe. "I said he had built him a raft and was going out to the middle of the pond to stay --"

Henry pushed to the front. "Pa," he said pleasantly, "you come off that raft and behave like a human bein'. If you'd clean your boots before you go into the kitchen, ma wouldn't jaw you. Quit this here nonsense now and come up to the house and eat your dinner. Will you?"

"I won't!" said old Sam, and he placed his pushing pole against the solid foundation he had found and bore against it. The raft moved a full two inches.

Without emotion and at his usual sturdy pace, Henry walked away from the group. He walked around the edge of the pond until he came to the dam and, bracing himself well, he pulled down first one and then another of the decayed planks that held back the water of the pond. With a rush the imprisoned water poured through the gap, and Henry walked slowly back. Inch by inch the heavy raft settled into the slime of the pond bottom.

But old Sam did not notice this immediately. The gentle breeze, bearing past the end of the farther barn, had crossed the intervening space and reached his nose, and he raised his nose in the air and whiffed the odor of hot yellow corn bread; crisply browned on top and around the edges. He opined soft yellow butter and sorghum molasses, and he second-sighted his wife drawing the pan of corn bread out of the oven. His tongue came out of his mouth and ran along the edge of one lip and then along the edge of the other. He looked behind him and saw the far edge of his raft settling into the ooze of the rapidly sinking pond, and he put down his pole and picked up his shoes and stockings.

"You better stay to dinner, Nicholas," he said; "ma's cooked corn bread."

"I guess maybe I will, then, Sam," said Nick Wilhelm; "she's good at it."

There is one good thing about carp: they can live comfortably in the mud.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:18:27am USA Central
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