"Like the Main-Travelled Road of Life, it is traversed by many
classes of people."
Uncle Ethan had a theory that a man's character could be told by the way
he sat in a wagon seat.
"A mean man sets right plumb in the middle o' the seat, as much as to
say, 'Walk, gol darn yeh, who cares?' But a man that sets in one corner
o' the seat, much as to say, 'Jump in—cheaper t' ride 'n to walk,' you
can jest tie to."
Uncle Ripley was prejudiced in favor of the stranger, therefore, before
he came opposite the potato patch, where the old man was "bugging his
vines." The stranger drove a jaded-looking pair of calico ponies,
hitched to a clattering democrat wagon, and he sat on the extreme end of
the seat, with the lines in his right hand, while his left rested on his
thigh, with his little finger gracefully crooked and his elbows akimbo.
He wore a blue shirt, with gay-colored armlets just above the elbows,
and his vest hung unbuttoned down his lank ribs. It was plain he was
well pleased with himself.
As he pulled up and threw one leg over the end of the seat, Uncle Ethan
observed that the left spring was much more worn than the other, which
proved that it was not accidental, but that it was the driver's habit to
sit on that end of the seat.
"Good afternoon," said the stranger, pleasantly.
"Good afternoon, sir."
"Bugs purty plenty?"
"Plenty enough, I gol! I don't see where they all come fum."
"Early Rose?" inquired the man, as if referring to the bugs.
"No; Peachblows an' Carter Reds. My Early Rose is over near the house.
The old woman wants 'em near. See the darned things!" he pursued,
rapping savagely on the edge of the pan to rattle the bugs back.
"How do yeh kill 'em—scald 'em?"
"Mostly. Sometimes I"——
"Good piece of oats," yawned the stranger, listlessly.
"So 'tis. Didn't notice."
Uncle Ethan was wondering what the man was. He had some pots of black
paint in the wagon, and two or three square boxes.
"What do yeh think o' Cleveland's chances for a second term?" continued
the man, as if they had been talking politics all the while.
Uncle Ripley scratched his head. "Waal—I dunno—bein' a Republican—I
"That's so—it's a purty scaly outlook. I don't believe in second terms
myself," the man hastened to say.
"Is that your new barn acrost there?" pointing with his whip.
"Yes, sir, it is," replied the old man, proudly. After years of planning
and hard work he had managed to erect a little wooden barn, costing
possibly three hundred dollars. It was plain to be seen he took a
childish pride in the fact of its newness.
The stranger mused. "A lovely place for a sign," he said, as his eyes
wandered across its shining yellow broadside.
Uncle Ethan stared, unmindful of the bugs crawling over the edge of his
pan. His interest in the pots of paint deepened.
"Couldn't think o' lettin' me paint a sign on that barn?" the stranger
continued, putting his locked hands around one knee, and gazing away
across the pig-pen at the building.
"What kind of a sign? Gol darn your skins!" Uncle Ethan pounded the pan
with his paddle and scraped two or three crawling abominations off his
It was a beautiful day, and the man in the wagon seemed unusually loath
to attend to business. The tired ponies slept in the shade of the
lombardies. The plain was draped in a warm mist, and shadowed by vast,
vaguely defined masses of clouds—a lazy June day.
"Dodd's Family Bitters," said the man, waking out of his abstraction
with a start, and resuming his working manner. "The best bitter in the
market." He alluded to it in the singular. "Like to look at it? No
trouble to show goods, as the fellah says," he went on hastily, seeing
Uncle Ethan's hesitation.
He produced a large bottle of triangular shape, like a bottle for
pickled onions. It had a red seal on top, and a strenuous caution in red
letters on the neck, "None genuine unless 'Dodd's Family Bitters' is
blown in the bottom."
"Here's what it cures," pursued the agent, pointing at the side, where,
in an inverted pyramid, the names of several hundred diseases were
arranged, running from "gout" to "pulmonary complaints," etc.
"I gol! she cuts a wide swath, don't she?" exclaimed Uncle Ethan,
profoundly impressed with the list.
"They ain't no better bitter in the world," said the agent, with a
"What's its speshy-ality? Most of 'em have some speshy-ality."
"Well—summer complaints—an'—an'—spring an' fall troubles—tones ye
up, sort of."
Uncle Ethan's forgotten pan was empty of his gathered bugs. He was
deeply interested in this man. There was something he liked about him.
"What does it sell fur?" he asked, after a pause.
"Same price as them cheap medicines—dollar a bottle—big bottles, too.
"Wal, mother ain't to home, an' I don't know as she'd like this kind. We
ain't been sick f'r years. Still, they's no tellin'," he added, seeing
the answer to his objection in the agent's eyes. "Times is purty close,
too, with us, y' see; we've jest built that stable "——
"Say, I'll tell yeh what I'll do," said the stranger, waking up and
speaking in a warmly generous tone. "I'll give you ten bottles of the
bitter if you'll let me paint a sign on that barn. It won't hurt the
barn a bit, and if you want 'o, you can paint it out a year from date.
Come, what d' ye say?"
"I guess I hadn't better."
The agent thought that Uncle Ethan was after more pay, but in reality he
was thinking of what his little old wife would say.
"It simply puts a family bitter in your home that may save you fifty
dollars this comin' fall. You can't tell."
Just what the man said after that Uncle Ethan didn't follow. His voice
had a confidential purring sound as he stretched across the wagon-seat
and talked on, eyes half shut. He straightened up at last, and concluded
in the tone of one who has carried his point:
"So! If you didn't want to use the whole twenty-five bottles y'rself,
why! sell it to your neighbors. You can get twenty dollars out of it
easy, and still have five bottles of the best family bitter that ever
went into a bottle."
It was the thought of this opportunity to get a buffalo-skin coat that
consoled Uncle Ethan as he saw the hideous black letters appearing under
the agent's lazy brush.
It was the hot side of the barn, and painting was no light work. The
agent was forced to mop his forehead with his sleeve.
"Say, hain't got a cooky or anything, and a cup o' milk handy?" he said
at the end of the first enormous word, which ran the whole length of the
Uncle Ethan got him the milk and cooky, which he ate with an
exaggeratedly dainty action of his fingers, seated meanwhile on the
staging which Uncle Ripley had helped him to build. This lunch infused
new energy into him, and in a short time "Dodd's Family Bitters, Best in the Market," disfigured the sweet-smelling pine boards.
Ethan was eating his self-obtained supper of bread and milk when his
wife came home.
"Who's been a-paintin' on that barn?" she demanded, her bead-like eyes
flashing, her withered little face set in an ominous frown. "Ethan
Ripley, what you been doin'?"
"Nawthin'," he replied, feebly.
"Who painted that sign on there?"
"A man come along an' he wanted to paint that on there, and I let 'im;
and it's my barn, anyway. I guess I can do what I'm a min' to with it,"
he ended, defiantly; but his eyes wavered.
Mrs. Ripley ignored the defiance. "What under the sun p'sessed you to do
such a thing as that, Ethan Ripley? I declare I don't see! You git
fooler an' fooler ev'ry day you live, I do believe."
Uncle Ethan attempted a defense.
"Well, he paid me twenty-five dollars f'r it, anyway."
"Did 'e?" She was visibly affected by this news.
"Well, anyhow, it amounts to that; he give me twenty-five bottles"——
Mrs. Ripley sank back in her chair. "Well, I swan to Bungay! Ethan
Ripley—wal, you beat all I ever see!" she added in despair of
expression. "I thought you had some sense left, but you hain't, not
one blessed scimpton. Where is the stuff?"
"Down cellar, an' you needn't take on no airs, ol' woman. I've known you
to buy things you didn't need time an' time 'n' agin, tins and things,
an' I guess you wish you had back that ten dollars you paid for that
"Go 'long an' bring that stuff up here. I never see such a man in my
life. It's a wonder he didn't do it f'r two bottles." She glared out at
the sign, which faced directly upon the kitchen window.
Uncle Ethan tugged the two cases up and set them down on the floor of
the kitchen. Mrs. Ripley opened a bottle and smelled of it like a
"Ugh! Merciful sakes, what stuff! It ain't fit f'r a hog to take. What'd
you think you was goin'to do with it?" she asked in poignant disgust.
"I expected to take it—if I was sick. Whaddy ye s'pose?" He defiantly
stood his ground, towering above her like a leaning tower.
"The hull cartload of it?"
"No. I'm goin' to sell part of it an' git me an overcoat"——
"Sell it!" she shouted. "Nobuddy'll buy that sick'nin' stuff but an old
numbskull like you. Take that slop out o' the house this minute! Take it right down to the sink-hole an' smash every bottle on the stones."
Uncle Ethan and the cases of medicine disappeared, and the old woman
addressed her concluding remarks to little Tewksbury, her grandson, who
stood timidly on one leg in the doorway, like an intruding pullet.
"Everything around this place 'ud go to rack an' ruin if I didn't keep a
watch on that soft-pated old dummy. I thought that lightenin'-rod man
had give him a lesson he'd remember, but no, he must go an' make a
She subsided in a tumult of banging pans, which helped her out in the
matter of expression and reduced her to a grim sort of quiet. Uncle
Ethan went about the house like a convict on shipboard. Once she caught
him looking out of the window.
"I should think you'd feel proud o' that."
Uncle Ethan had never been sick a day in his life. He was bent and
bruised with never-ending toil, but he had nothing especial the matter
He did not smash the medicine, as Mrs. Ripley commanded, because he had
determined to sell it. The next Sunday morning, after his chores were
done, he put on his best coat of faded diagonal, and was brushing his
hair into a ridge across the center of his high, narrow head, when Mrs.
Ripley came in from feeding the calves.
"Where you goin' now?"
"None o' your business," he replied. "It's darn funny if I can't stir
without you wantin' to know all about it. Where's Tewky?"
"Feedin' the chickens. You ain't goin' to take him off this mornin' now!
I don't care where you go."
"Who's a-goin' to take him off? I ain't said nothin' about takin' him
"Wall, take y'rself off, an' if y' ain't here f'r dinner, I ain't goin'
to get no supper."
Ripley took a water-pail and put four bottles of "the bitter" into it,
and trudged away up the road with it in a pleasant glow of hope. All
nature seemed to declare the day a time of rest, and invited men to
disassociate ideas of toil from the rustling green wheat, shining grass,
and tossing blooms. Something of the sweetness and buoyancy of all
nature permeated the old man's work-calloused body, and he whistled
little snatches of the dance tunes he played on his fiddle.
But he found neighbor Johnson to be supplied with another variety of
bitter, which was all he needed for the present. He qualified his
refusal to buy with a cordial invitation to go out and see his shotes,
in which he took infinite pride. But Uncle Ripley said: "I guess I'll
haf t' be goin'; I want 'o git up to Jennings' before dinner."
He couldn't help feeling a little depressed when he found Jennings away.
The next house along the pleasant lane was inhabited by a "new-comer."
He was sitting on the horse-trough, holding a horse's halter, while his
hired man dashed cold water upon the galled spot on the animal's
After some preliminary talk Ripley presented his medicine.
"Hell, no! What do I want of such stuff? When they's anything the matter
with me, I take a lunkin' ol' swig of popple-bark and bourbon. That
Uncle Ethan moved off up the lane. He hardly felt like whistling now. At
the next house he set his pail down in the weeds beside the fence, and
went in without it. Doudney came to the door in his bare feet, buttoning
his suspenders over a clean boiled shirt. He was dressing to go out.
"Hello, Ripley. I was just goin' down your way. Jest wait a minute an'
I'll be out."
When he came out fully dressed, Uncle Ethan grappled him. "Say, what d'
you think o' paytent med"——
"Some of 'em are boss. But y' want 'o know what y're gitt'n'."
"What d' ye think o' Dodd's"——
"Best in the market."
Uncle Ethan straightened up and his face lighted. Doudney went on:
"Yes, sir; best bitter that ever went into a bottle. I know, I've tried
it. I don't go much on patent medicines, but when I get a good"——
"Don't want 'o buy a bottle?"
Doudney turned and faced him.
"Buy! No. I've got nineteen bottles I want 'o sell." Ripley glanced up
at Doudney's new granary and there read "Dodd's Family Bitters." He was
stricken dumb. Doudney saw it all and roared.
"Wal, that's a good one! We two tryin' to sell each other bitters.
Ho—ho—ho—har, whoop! wal, this is rich! How many bottles did you
"None o' your business," said Uncle Ethan, as he turned and made off,
while Doudney screamed with merriment.
On his way home Uncle Ethan grew ashamed of his burden. Doudney had
canvassed the whole neighborhood, and he practically gave up the
struggle. Everybody he met seemed determined to find out what he had
been doing, and at last he began lying about it.
"Hello, Uncle Ripley, what y' got there in that pail?"
"Goose eggs f'r settin'."
He disposed of one bottle to old Gus Peterson. Gus never paid his debts,
and he would only promise fifty cents "on tick" for the bottle, and yet
so desperate was Ripley that this quasi sale cheered him up not a
As he came down the road, tired, dusty and hungry, he climbed over the
fence in order to avoid seeing that sign on the barn, and slunk into the
house without looking back.
He couldn't have felt meaner about it if he had allowed a Democratic
poster to be pasted there.
The evening passed in grim silence, and in sleep he saw that sign
wriggling across the side of the barn like boa-constrictors hung on
rails. He tried to paint them out, but every time he tried it the man
seemed to come back with a sheriff, and savagely warned him to let it
stay till the year was up. In some mysterious way the agent seemed to
know every time he brought out the paint-pot, and he was no longer the
pleasant-voiced individual who drove the calico ponies.
As he stepped out into the yard next morning, that abominable,
sickening, scrawling advertisement was the first thing that claimed his
glance—it blotted out the beauty of the morning.
Mrs. Ripley came to the window, buttoning her dress at the throat, a
whisp of her hair sticking assertively from the little knob at the back
of her head.
"Lovely, ain't it! An' I've got to see it all day long. I can't look
out the winder but that thing's right in my face." It seemed to make her
savage. She hadn't been in such a temper since her visit to New York. "I
hope you feel satisfied with it."
Ripley walked off to the barn. His pride in its clean, sweet newness was
gone. 'He slyly tried the paint to see if it couldn't be scraped off,
but it was dried in thoroughly. Whereas before he had taken delight in
having his neighbors turn and look at the building, now he kept out of
sight whenever he saw a team coming. He hoed corn away in the back of
the field, when he should have been bugging potatoes by the roadside.
Mrs. Ripley was in a frightful mood about it, but she held herself in
check for several days. At last she burst forth:
"Ethan Ripley, I can't stand that thing any longer, and I ain't goin'
to, that's all! You've got to go and paint that thing out, or I will.
I'm just about crazy with it."
"But, mother, I promised "——
"I don't care what you promised, it's got to be painted out. I've got
the nightmare now, seem' it. I'm goin' to send f'r a pail o' red paint,
and I'm goin' to paint that out if it takes the last breath I've got to
"I'll tend to it, mother, if you won't hurry me"——
"I can't stand it another day. It makes me boil every time I look out
Uncle Ethan hitched up his team and drove gloomily off to town, where he
tried to find the agent. He lived in some other part of the county,
however, and so the old man gave up and bought a pot of red paint, not
daring to go back to his desperate wife without it.
"Goin' to paint y'r new barn?" inquired the merchant, with friendly
Uncle Ethan turned with guilty sharpness; but the merchant's face was
grave and kindly.
"Yes, I thought I'd touch it up a little—don't cost much."
"It pays—always," the merchant said emphatically.
"Will it—stick jest as well put on evenings?" inquired Uncle Ethan,
"Yes—won't make any difference. Why? Ain't goin' to have"——
"Waal,—I kind o' thought I'd do it odd times night an' mornin.'—kind
o' odd times"——
He seemed oddly confused about it, and the merchant looked after him
anxiously as he drove away.
After supper that night he went out to the barn, and Mrs. Ripley heard
him sawing and hammering. Then the noise ceased, and he came in and sat
down in his usual place.
"What y' ben makin'?" she inquired. Tewksbury had gone to bed. She sat
darning a stocking.
"I jest thought I'd git the stagin' ready f'r paintin'," he said,
"Waal! I'll be glad when it's covered up." When she got ready for bed,
he was still seated in his chair, and after she had dozed off two or
three times she began to wonder why he didn't come. When the clock
struck ten, and she realized that he had not stirred, she began to get
impatient. "Come, are y' goin' to sit there all night?" There was no
reply. She rose up in bed and looked about the room. The broad moon
flooded it with light, so that she could see he was not asleep in his
chair, as she had supposed. There was something ominous in his
"Ethan! Ethan Ripley, where are yeh?" There was no reply to her sharp
call. She rose and distractedly looked about among the furniture, as if
he might somehow be a cat and be hiding in a corner somewhere. Then she
went upstairs where the boy slept, her hard little heels making a
curious tunking noise on the bare boards. The moon fell across the
sleeping boy like a robe of silver. He was alone.
She began to be alarmed. Her eyes widened in fear. All sorts of vague
horrors sprang unbidden into her brain. She still had the mist of sleep
in her brain.
She hurried down the stairs and out into the fragrant night. The
katydids were singing in infinite peace under the solemn splendor of the
moon. The cattle sniffed and sighed, jangling their bells now and then,
and the chickens in the coops stirred uneasily as if overheated. The old
woman stood there in her bare feet and long nightgown, horror-stricken.
The ghastly story of a man who had hung himself in his barn because his
wife deserted him came into her mind and stayed there with frightful
persistency. Her throat filled chokingly.
She felt a wild rush of loneliness. She had a sudden realization of how
dear that gaunt old figure was, with its grizzled face and ready smile.
Her breath came quick and quicker, and she was at the point of bursting
into a wild cry to Tewksbury, when she heard a strange noise. It came
from the barn, a creaking noise. She looked that way, and saw in the
shadowed side a deeper shadow moving to and fro. A revulsion to
astonishment and anger took place in her.
"Land o' Bungay! If he ain't paintin' that barn, like a perfect old
idiot, in the night."
Uncle Ethan, working desperately, did not hear her feet pattering down
the path, and was startled by her shrill voice.
”Well, Ethan Ripley, whaddy y' think you're doin' now?”
He made two or three slapping passes with the brush, and then snapped,
"I'm a-paintin' this barn—whaddy ye s'pose? If ye had eyes y' wouldn't
"Well, you come right straight to bed. What d'you mean by actin' so?"
"You go back into the house an' let me be. I know what I'm a-doin'.
You've pestered me about this sign jest about enough." He dabbed his
brush to and fro as he spoke. His gaunt figure towered above her in
shadow. His slapping brush had a vicious sound.
Neither spoke for some time. At length she said more gently, "Ain't you
"No—not till I get a-ready. You go 'long an' tend to y'r own business.
Don't stan' there an' ketch cold."
She moved off slowly toward the house. His voice subdued her. Working
alone out there had rendered him savage; he was not to be pushed any
farther. She knew by the tone of his voice that he must not be
assaulted. She slipped on her shoes and a shawl, and came back where he
was working, and took a seat on a saw-horse.
"I'm a-goin' to set right here till you come in, Ethan Ripley," she
said, in a firm voice, but gentler than usual.
"Waal, you'll set a good while," was his ungracious reply. But each felt
a furtive tenderness for the other. He worked on in silence. The boards
creaked heavily as he walked to and fro, and the slapping sound of the
paint-brush sounded loud in the sweet harmony of the night. The majestic
moon swung slowly round the corner of the barn, and fell upon the old
man's grizzled head and bent shoulders. The horses inside could be heard
stamping the mosquitoes away, and chewing their hay in pleasant chorus.
The little figure seated on the saw-horse drew the shawl closer about
her thin shoulders. Her eyes were in shadow, and her hands were wrapped
in her shawl. At last she spoke in a curious tone.
"Well, I don't know as you was so very much to blame. I didn't want
that Bible myself—I held out I did, but I didn't."
Ethan worked on until the full meaning of this unprecedented surrender
penetrated his head, and then he threw down his brush.
"Waal, I guess I'll let 'er go at that. I've covered up the most of it,
anyhow. Guess we'd better go in."