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Kilo, a novel by Ellis Parker Butler

Chapter 4. Kilo

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The next evening Jim Wilkins, landlord of the Kilo House and proprietor of the Kilo Livery, Feed and Sale Stable, was sitting in front of his hotel, with his chair tipped back against the wall, trading bits of indolent gossip with Pap Briggs, when Eliph' Hewlitt drove his horse Irontail down Main Street, and pulled up before the hotel. Pap Briggs had not swallowed his store teeth; he had not even worn them to bed, and Miss Sally found them on top of the pump in the back yard, where Pap had doubtless put them when he went to pump himself a drink. He often lost them, as he wore them more for ornament than for use, and commonly removed them when he wished to talk, eat, or laugh. It was Sally who made him buy them, and he wore them more for her sake than for any other reason, and he was always uncomfortable with them, for they were a plain, unmistakable misfit, and felt, as he said, "like I got my mouth full o' tenpenny nails." When out of Sally's sight he avoided this feeling by carrying them in his hand, hidden in his red bandana handkerchief. About town he used to show them with a great deal of pride, and openly boasted of their cost and beauty. On Sunday he wore them all day.

Whenever Eliph' Hewlitt drove into a town he looked about with a seeing eye, for he had learned to judge the capacity of a place for Jarby's Encyclopedia by the appearance of the town, but as he drove into Kilo he was more than usually interested. If this was the home of Miss Sally Briggs, it followed that when he had completed his courtship, and had won her affections and held them, it would be his home, also, and he was curious to see whether it was a town he would like or not like. He liked it. It was a real American town, and it looked like a good business town, because there could be no possible reason for people building a town on that particular situation unless it was for business.

The town was built on a flat space, and the country was flat on all sides of it. It was on no river, brook, or creek. It was as unbeautiful in location as it was in architecture. It was just a homely, common, busy little Iowa village, and even so late in the evening it was as hot as Sahara; but Eliph' Hewlitt knew it at once for a good town, for the street was knee deep in dust, which meant much trade, and the four buildings at the corners of Main and Cross Streets were of brick, which meant profitable business. There were a couple of other brick buildings on Main Street, and one or two with "tin" fronts, and of the other business places only one or two were so ramshackle that they looked as if their firmer neighbors were holding them up, letting the weaker structures lean against them as a strong man might support an invalid.

Eliph' Hewlitt liked the town; it was just his idea of what a town should be, not much as to style, but business-like. There were two full blocks of Main Street devoted to business, and nearly half a block of Cross Street was given over to the same purpose, and the dwellings were well scattered over the surrounding level tract. Three or four of the dwellings "out Main Street" had conspicuous lawns that had felt the blades of a lawn mower, but most of the yards were merely grass, with flower beds filled with the more hardy kinds of flowers, such as would grow tall and show over the top of the surrounding grass. The plank walks, which on Main and Cross Streets were made of boards laid crossways, tapered down into narrow walks with the boards--two of them--laid lengthways very soon after the stores were passed, and a little farther out became dirt paths along the fences, and beyond that pedestrians were supposed to walk on the road. But most of the houses were painted, either freshly, or at least not anciently.

The corner of Main and Cross Streets, the business center of Kilo, was like the business centers of other small country towns. A long hitching rail extended at the side of the street before the buildings on each corner, and the dirt beneath was worn away by the scraping of the feet of the many horses that had been tied to the rails. Just below the corner, on Cross Street, were other holes worn by tossing horseshoes at pegs, which, if America was composed of small towns only, would be our national game.

It was a good little town, and Eliph' Hewlitt was pleased.

On one of the corners of Main Street stood the Kilo Hotel, and before it Eliph' checked the slow gait of Irontail.

Jim Wilkins, the landlord, tipped his chair forward, and got out of it with a grunt of laziness.

"Hotel running?" asked Eliph' Hewlitt briskly.

"You might call it runnin' if you wasn't dictionary--particular what you called it," said the landlord. "If you had to keep it you'd more likely say it was tryin' to learn to walk. But it's open for business. Want your rig put up?"

"Yes," admitted Eliph'. "I've had my supper."

"That's all right," said the landlord cheerfully. "I'm sort of glad of it; save the old lady gittin' up a meal. I was just tellin' Pap Briggs here that I figgered Kilo had the hottest mean summer temperature, and the meanest hot summer temperature on earth, and it's hotter over a kitchen stove than anywheres else. We generally have cold suppers in this here hotel, unless some guest happens in. Hey, S. Potts! Come here and git this feller's horse!"

The livery stable was convenient, just around the corner on Cross Street, and S. Potts came lankly and lazily around the corner. He stood and looked at Irontail a minute critically, and then felt the horse's hocks and shook his head at the result of his investigation. Then he opened Irontail's mouth and looked at his teeth.

"Well, I'll be hanged!" he said, and he called around the corner, "Hey, Daniel!" and from the livery stable came a very old man.

"Look at this," said S. Potts, opening Irontail's mouth again, and Daniel looked and shook his head, as S. Potts had done.

"And feel this," said S. Potts, putting his hand on Irontail's hock again. Daniel felt as he was told, and again shook his head.

"Now, what do you make of that?" asked S. Potts triumphantly.

"I dunno what to make of it, S. Potts," said the old man, shaking his head. "What do you make of it?"

The landlord broke in upon the conversation with sudden energy.

"Look here," he said, "you git that horse around to the stable, and shut up," and S. Potts and Daniel hastily clambered into the buggy and drove around the corner.

"I wonder if anything's the mater with my horse?" said Eliph'.

"Matter?" laughed Jim Wilkins. "That's just S. Potts tryin' to show off before strangers, like he always does. He don't mean no harm, but he can't be satisfied to just come around and git a horse and lead it to the stable. He's got to draw attention to hisself or he ain't happy. He's harmless, but he's just naturally one of the know-it-all-kind, and he's got to show off."

There is no man in a small town who can give such a satisfying and official welcome to a stranger as that given by the liveryman, and when the landlord of the hotel and the owner of the livery stable are combined in one man he is better than a reception committee composed of the mayor and the leading citizens. He is glad to see the stranger, and he lets him know it. He has a gruff, hearty, and not too servile manner, and a way of speaking of the men of the town and the farmers of the surrounding country as if he owned them. Having bought horses of many of them, he knows their bad traits, and he has an air of knowing much more than he would willingly tell regarding them. He is not inquisitive about the stranger's business, and is willing to give him information. Probably it is his trade of buying and selling and renting horses that gives him such a flavor of his own, for he knows that the horses he lets out on livery are often as intelligent as the men who hire them. He comes as near the chivalric model of the old Southern planter as a Northern business man can, but his slaves are horses, and his overseer the hostler. He is a man in authority, even though is authority is over horses.

Modern civilization has few finer sights and sounds than the liveryman when he is asked if he has a horse he can let out for a ten-mile drive into the country. He looks at the supplicant doubtfully; "Well, I dunno," he says, "where was it you wanted to drive to?" He receives the answer with a non-committal air. "That's nearer fourteen mile than ten," he says and then turns to the hostler. "Say, Potts, Billy's out, ain't he?" Potts growls out the answer, "Doc Weaver's got him out. Won't be back till seven." The liveryman pulls slowly at his cigar, and runs his hand over his hair. "How's the bay mare's hoof today?" he asks. Potts shakes his head. "That's right," says the liveryman, "it don't do to take no chances with a hoof like that. And we haven't got a thing else in the barn except that black horse, have we, Potts?" "Everything else out," says Potts. The liveryman walks away a few steps, and then turns suddenly. "Hitch up the black, Potts," he says, with an air of sudden recklessness. "Put him in that light, side-bar buggy of Doc Weaver's. Want a hitching strap? Put in a hitching strap, Potts. AND that new whip."

The result is that you get the horse and buggy the liveryman intended you to have from the minute he saw you coming toward him down the street, but you get it with a fine touch of style that is worth much in this dollar and cent world. Potts drives the rig around to where you are standing, and the liveryman sends Potts back to get a clean laprobe instead of the one that is in the buggy. He pats the horse on the neck as you climb in, and as you pick up the reins he says, as if conferring a parting favor that money could not repay, "Keep a fair tight rein on him; it's the first time he has been out of the stable to-day."

Eliph' Hewlitt, in his travels, had learned the value of the liveryman. He used him as friend and directory. None else could tell him so well where the prosperous farmers lived, nor who was most likely to fall a victim to Jarby's Encyclopedia in the town itself. From the liveryman he could learn which minister, if there were more than one, would be the best to have head his list of subscribers, which lady was head of the Society, and what society she was head of. He took one of the chairs that were ranged along the side of the hotel, and laid his sample across his knees. He chose the chair that was next to Pap Briggs, for he was ready to become acquainted with the man he intended soon to have for a father-in-law.

"Nice town you got here," he said.

"She's purty good," agreed Pap, "except for taxes. Taxes is eternal high, and it's all us propputy owners can do to keep 'em from goin' clean out o' sight. City council don't seem to care a dumb how high they git. I wish't I'd stayed on my farm."

"Taxes ain't so high here as what they are in Jefferson, Pap," suggested the landlord. "If you lived down there they'd make you holler, all right."

"Well, Jim," said Pap, "they ain't much choice. If these here young fellers git their way taxes will go right up. What do they want to decorate this here town all up for, anyhow? What you think young Toole was sayin' to me to-day? He was sayin' it was a disgrace to Kilo to have the public square rented out an' a crop o' buckwheat growin' in it. He says we ought to plant it in grass an' stick a fountain in the middle. But that's the way she goes; anything to raise up the taxes. All I says to him was, 'All right, who'll pump water to make the fountain squirt? Suppose the taxpayers 'll take turns, hey?'"

"Well," said the landlord, "I ain't in favor of a fountain, myself. I reckon a nice piece of statuary would look better, so long as we ain't got water works to make the fountain fount out water. But it don't look right to have a public square rented out to grow buckwheat in. It ain't city-like."

"It brings in seven dollars a year to the town," said Pap, "an' that's better than payin' out good money for statuary. I'm agin high taxes every time. It costs too much to live, anyhow, especially when you've got a daughter to support, and no money comin' in, to speak of. And just when some does come in, along comes a pesky book agent or somethin' and fools the women out of the money. They ought to be a law agin book agent. City council ought to put a license on 'em, and keep 'em out of town."

"Some towns," he said softly, "do have licenses against book agents. One of the relics of the dark ages, but abolished wherever the light o' culture is loved and esteemed. What so helpful as the book? What so comforting? What so uplifting? And who but the book agent carries help and comfort and uplift, and leaves it scattered around, one dollar down and one dollar a month until paid; who but the humble but useful book agent? To mention but one book, Jarby's Encyclopedia of Knowledge and Compendium of Literature, Science and Art has carried wisdom into a million homes, making each better and brighter. It is a book that makes the toil of the day easy, by giving one thousand and one hints and helps, and that sweetens rest after toil, by quotations from all the world's great authors. In this one book----"

Pap Briggs had put his hands on the arm of his chair, preparing to run away, but the landlord leaned forward and looked in Eliph' Hewlitt's face.

"Say," he said, "is your name Mills?"

"Hewlitt," said the book agent, "Eliph' Hewlitt."

He turned to the landlord and looked him fairly in the face, and as he looked the air of suspicion that had suddenly shone in his eyes vanished.

"Jim Wilkins!" he exclaimed. "Isn't it Jim Wilkins?"

"Ain't it!" cried the landlord. "Well, I should say it is! And to think, you little, sawed-off propagator of human knowledge didn't recognize your old side pardner in the field of sellin' improvin' and intellectooal works of genius! Don't say you don't remember the 'Wage of Sin,' Sammy! Don't say you don't remember Kitty!"

"Kitty?" asked Eliph' doubtfully.

"Well, if the little red-head ain't forgot Kitty!" exclaimed Wilkins. "Why, I MARRIED Kitty, Sammy. For an actual, truthful fact I did. And to think I should run across Sammy Mills after all these years."

"Hewlitt," said Eliph'. "Eliph' Hewlitt is that name I'm known by."

"And to think you stuck by that name all these years!" said Wilkins. "And still sellin' works of literatoor, are you? Pap, this is my old boyhood's chum come meanderin' backwards out of the past. And still sellin' books! Well, I don't want to discourage your ambitiousness, but I guess you've struck Kilo about the worst time in the century. Ever hear of a literary writer called Sir Walter Scott? Well, sir, Kilo is chuck full of Sir Walter; full as a goat. She ain't begun to near git through with Sir Walter yet, and I don't figger she'll take in no more libraries just now. Sir Walter hit her pretty hard."

"Ten volumes, fifteen dollars cloth, twenty dollars half morocco?" inquired Eliph' Hewlitt.

"The identical same," said the landlord. "I purchased a group of Sir Walters in red leather myself. So did everybody in Kilo; at least I ain't found anybody that's been missed yet. Paper here got some."

"My daughter Sally----" began the old man.

"Same thing," said Wilkins; "you pay just the same if you bought the books. Why, Sammy, there's enough Sir Walter right here in Kilo now to start up a book business. Kilo's light on literatoor generally, but when she goes in, she goes in heavy. There ain't many towns where you'll find every livin' soul ready to swaller down fifteen dollars worth of Sir Walter Scott, two dollars down and one dollar a month until paid; but I calculate them ten volumes will last Kilo quite a spell, and if worst comes to worst she won't buy no more literatoor till she gits paid up on Sir Walter. I figger from my own sense of feelin's that about the worst time to sell a feller books is when he is still payin' once a month on the old lot. About the second time the collector drops in to collect on a set of works of literatoor, a man feels like he had been foolish, but he grins cheerful, and pays up, but if another man drops in about then to sell another set of the world's great masterpieces it is pretty near an insult to human intelligence."

Eliph' Hewlitt drew his hand across his whiskers and coughed gently.

"They told me in Jefferson," he said softly, "that Kilo was the most intellectual town in central Iowa."

"Everybody says the same," said Wilkins with a touch of pride. "The Sir Walter Scott man said it, and I guess it's so. But there's other things besides books. Kilo may be strong and willin' on books, but she's strong other ways, too, and just now she is lookin' at another kind of horse, and that's why I say you've miscalculated your comin'. If I was you I'd go elsewhere and come back later. Kilo has got more books now than she can handle without straining something, and just now her mind's off on another tack. We struck a big missionary revival here last week, and you can bet a wager that every dollar that goes out of Kilo these days, except what goes for dues on Sir Walter, is goin' for the brethren. The women folks is havin' a sale this very evenin' to raise cash to help the heathen."

Eliph' Hewlitt arose from his chair and tucked the oilcloth-covered parcel that had been lying on his knees under his left arm. He was a small man, and his movements were apt to be short and jerky.

"Missionary sale?" he said briskly. "I guess I'll go around and look in on it. Strangers welcome, I suppose? I'm rather fond of missionary sales, and I think the world and all of the heathen. Think the ladies would like to see a stranger?"

Wilkins grinned.

"Pap," he said, "what you think? Think they'll fall on his neck if he has any money? From what I have experienced of them sales I figger to calculate that anybody that is anxious to buy gingham aprons an' sofa pillows is sure to be took by the hand and given a front seat. I'd go around with you, but I've got my taxes to pay, like Pap here, and I don't actually need any pink tidies. It ain't far; just up to Doc Weaver's; two blocks up, and you can't miss the house. It's the yeller mansion, this side the road, an' the gate's off the hinges and laid up alongside the fence. But I guess if them's your samples in that there package, you might as well leave them here."

But Eliph' Hewlitt did not leave them there; he tucked them under his arm, and hurried away with brisk little steps. _

Read next: Chapter 5. Sammy Mills

Read previous: Chapter 3. "How To Win The Affections"

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