Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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 Chapter 22

Clarence Claxton

Since there was the best part of an hour before the class began, they repaired to the faculty lounge for coffee. On the way across the quadrangle, Claxton stopped, gestured to the gate, and said,

"You know, the damndest thing happened Saturday. I was coming past here and suddenly there was a feller running along full tilt in his underwear. And he had on a necktie, a necktie dammit! I wondered what the hell was going on. I still wonder."

Amanda replied,

"We happen to know that man, he's a lawyer over in Bollinger ... "

Claxton broke in,

"I've hired a lot of lawyers. Never trusted em. But I never had one take off his clothes in public."

"He didn't. He happened to remark that the Orrville football team couldn't beat a good high school team."

"Fact. But you don't have to take off your pants just to make a point."

"Some of our players happened to overhear him, and they took his clothes."

"Well, goddamn. Shows the value of tact, don't it? But, still, I'd call that extreme. Too damned extreme. Specially when what the man said was true."

"I think it also illustrates a point I was making earlier, Mr. Claxton. We have to be careful who we bring here as a football player. It looks as if we ought to be more selective rather than less so."

"Well, there's no point in hiring rowdies who aren't even good players. If our team's going to get slaughtered anyway, we might as well fill it with sweet-assed young gentlemen."

The faculty lounge was fairly well populated with people drifting in and out. Amanda was immediately recognized by the history instructor, Glenn Morrow, whose class they were to visit. After she had made the introductions, she said,

"I hope our presence won't be intrusive and distract the students."

Morrow had an amused look, as if he thought that nothing could distract the students any more than they already were, but he replied,

"Not at all. It's a pretty informal class, almost a seminar, and it'll be nice to have some visitors."

Morrow was about forty, balding, and had wire-rimmed glasses. Despite a general look of intelligence, there was a hint of roughness about him. He looked as if he had once done construction work, and might still do it summers. Given what the Orrville faculty was paid, such activity might be highly desirable, if not nearly necessary. There was also a mischievous look about him that made Chuck uneasy. He might be the man to tease or needle Clarence Claxton.

It soon developed that Morrow knew about Claxton, not only as a college benefactor, but as a railway innovator and capitalist. Claxton, in turn, was moved to tell a story. Addressing Morrow, he proceeded,

"This would be before your time here, young feller, a good many years ago. I came down on one of my little visits and there was a fist fight right in the middle of the quad out there. Two professors were whaling away with a circle of students around them. I stepped through. I coulda banged their heads together and dragged them off, but I always let people fight if they want to. It turned out one of em taught history and the other philosophy. The boys were yelling and cheering, and the girls were kinda shocked. Philosophy landed a right and history was down and crawling around trying to find his glasses. Philosophy was edging around to kick him, but I collared him before he could. I had to laugh, though. He was so goddamned mad, the maddest man I've ever seen."

Morrow replied,

"I've often heard about that incident. A legend grew up around it, but you're the first person I've met who actually saw it. The historian was Ralph Garvin."

"Do you know what he did to make that other man so mad?"

"I understand it was a quarrel over which courses should be required. But, really, Garvin was an extremely irritating man. I overlapped with him a few years, and I used to try to sneak in and out of my office without his hearing. He had keen ears, though."

"What was so bad about him?"

As Morrow explained in detail, it seemed to Chuck that Claxton had an unusual degree of curiosity. He remembered the incident and its participants perfectly, and had evidently wondered, all these years, exactly how the fight had begun. It was odd that a man with such wealth, and even a modest place in history, would be concerned with such tiny things. Chuck wondered idly whether that sort of obsession had had anything to do with Claxton's success.

The class contained about a dozen students, and Morrow began by introducing the visitors. He then began a discussion of the social aspects of the founding of the transcontinental railways with special reference to the Great Northern and its controversial president, J. J. Hill. The class looked a little surprised, and Chuck surmised that they had been covering something entirely different. He could also see, from the perspective of his own knowledge, that Morrow was giving things an unusual slant.

The western railway and industrial barons at the turn of the century were generally regarded as unprincipled villains who had used their great power to victimize the farmers, reduce them to poverty, and sometimes even turn them off their land. One of the barons had fired all his employees in the state of Montana at the beginning of winter, taking them back only when the state legislature, called into special session, passed a law he demanded. The personal hatred these men had aroused was still alive and well in the Dakotas, Montana, and many other states. Morrow, not surprisingly in view of his audience, was being much kinder to them.

It wasn't long before a girl who looked Jewish, indeed the only student who looked at all intellectual, objected. She had apparently read some of the standard material, and asked about certain actions of J. J. Hill. Clarence Claxton was obviously bursting at the seams, and Morrow motioned to him. The old man fixed the girl with a suspicious eye and said,

"I worked for J. J. Hill. He wasn't nearly as hard on the farmers as the others."

The mere fact of having someone step live out of the history books made an immediate impression on everyone present. Chuck, in addition, was afraid that his worst fears might be realized. It looked as if Claxton was setting up to defend his old boss, and Chuck suspected strongly that the girl had up her sleeve a whole list of human rights abrogations on the part of J. J. Hill. For the moment, she was stunned into silence. It was Claxton who continued,

"J. J. was foolishly sentimental. I told him so many times."

The girl began to speak, describing some action which, Chuck was sure, would seem sentimental only to someone with the outlook of Caligula or Attila the Hun. But a boy interrupted her,

"What was so wrong with the farmers?"

Claxton adopted a somewhat different manner, authoritative, but with an element of sweet reasonableness. It was probably the one he had used to deal with dissident shareholders at annual meetings.

"You kids are used to the kinds of farmers that there are around here. Most of em probably pretty decent people, drive cars, go to church, don't even wear straw hats any more. But things were very different in the old northwest. The only people that went out there were ones who didn't fit into decent society."

There then emerged a rather fascinating glimpse into the past, told in a way which was at once intensely personal and coldly cynical. It was also rather touching. Claxton had begun as a farm boy in North Dakota. He was expected to work beyond any reasonable expectation. He was beaten regularly, taunted by both his parents, and once sent out to the fields when he had pneumonia.

"Children were cheap labor, nothing more. Whole families of ten or more lived in one room shacks. Farmers beat and raped their wives and daughters while the rest watched. You couldn't do anything but wait and hope you got big enough to kick the shit out of your father and brothers."

In Claxton's case, the Great Northern intervened. His father had been forced to borrow money, indirectly from the railway. He had been unable to pay it back. The men had come to take possession of the farm. The elder Claxton and his sons, not including Clarence, had resisted. They were quickly defeated and lined up against their house. They were there beaten with ax handles. The house was then burned. Claxton, with hardly any show of emotion, concluded,

"I liked those men from the Great Northern. They were doing what I thought needed to be done. I joined em on the spot and took a stick to the brother I hated most. I was thirteen. It wasn't long before I was J. J. Hill's office boy."

The scene was vivid in Chuck's imagination. There was a house burning on the prairie with a broken and hopeless family trying to rescue their pathetic possessions. The thugs were laughing and calling out insults as they departed. And there was a boy tagging along after them, accepted with amused contempt by the leader of the thugs.

By this time the girl was effectively silenced. Whatever misdeeds of J. J. HIll she might have had in mind, they paled in comparison with those related by Claxton. Moreover, the latter thought his late boss soft-hearted! Looking over in her direction, Chuck saw that she was, not only silent, but speechless. It was a boy who asked Claxton how he had made his first fortune. It was the sort of admiring question that's often put to rich men who love to answer exactly that question. But there was also another element in it. Everyone knew by this time that Claxton dealt in strong stuff, and the boy obviously expected to hear something hair raising. Claxton answered equably, and with obvious pride,

"I stole it."

There were smiles and a few titters and giggles. Amanda's smile, Chuck knew, was forced. She, too, was looking at the Jewish girl, who now showed signs of exasperation. Claxton, in his easy style, launched into the story.

As a very young man, he had made himself president of a little railroad which, in theory, branched off the Great Northern main line to terminate in a fair-sized town which wasn't served by a railway. There was, in fact, a large bonus for the first railroad to reach them. Claxton had gotten together a quantity of rusted rail, old ties, and laborers whom he promised to pay later. He kept them going with salt beef and whiskey.

They laid track with only the most rudimentary roadbed, without cuts and fills, simply following the terrain. Creeks were crossed by felling large trees across them, and laying the ties and rail on them. The whole affair wouldn't have supported any reasonable train, much less regular service. But Claxton had bought cheaply an old light engine and a few coaches from the Great Northern. With crowbars and jacks they inched them over the makeshift bridges until they reached the final mile of track, which was more carefully laid. Claxton arrived in town with whistle blowing and bell ringing.

In circumstances such as these, people bought local railway stock, not so much because they thought it a good investment, but because they wanted to put their town on the railway. That meant a great deal to them economically, and, for the greater good, anyone who was anything would subscribe generously. Claxton, of course, was on the rear platform of the observation car selling stock certificates of the most dubious value for what he thought the traffic would bear. He then threw a great party and got everyone drunk. Just before dawn, he left town in a fast horse-drawn buggy that he had engaged earlier in the evening. The workers were never paid, and the train was abandoned. Claxton was never seen there again. The money then went into a much better railway many hundreds of miles distant. Claxton summed up.

"The stock I sold eventually turned out to be worth something. I sold the right of way to the Great Northern, and, years later, they built the branch. There were so many hare-brained schemes in those days that it was impossible to tell what was fraud and what was merely crazy."

The class, particularly the male component, was now solidly behind Claxton. They cared little whether laborers were paid, and still less about fraud. Glenn Morrow observed that "this was what capitalism was all about," and Amanda smiled sweetly. The class ended on a triumphant note. Chuck used his deep rumbling voice to good effect to drown out a sharp feminine voice engaged in bitter argument with a boy who looked like the president of a fraternity.

Walking back, it seemed to Chuck that Claxton hadn't simply been telling stories his family had heard a hundred times. He was the sort of man who, in ordinary circumstances, didn't tell stories about himself. It took a stimulus of the sort that Amanda and Morrow had provided to draw him out. It also seemed that he might be a bit of a manic-depressive. If so, they had best pry some money loose from him before he reverted to the grumbles.

It was just then that Amanda's boss, Fred Myers, rushed up. A good looking man in his thirties, perhaps a little too smooth, he was rumored to be next in line for the vice presidency of the college. Claxton was obviously glad to see him, but greeted him with a measure of rough ribaldry that would have disconcerted many men. Myers, not easily outfaced, responded,

"Well, Clarence, I see you've come down to cause trouble again. If it'd been left to me, I would never have let you near our innocent young students."

Amanda started to say something, but Claxton drew her off to the side, apparently to assure himself that she would be there the next time he came, or, possibly, to arrange a tryst the next day. Myers whispered to Chuck,

"Tell Amanda that she has my undying gratitude. Clarence never tells me when he's coming, and then, if he prowls around alone, he finds all kinds of things to object to."

Chuck acknowledged his thanks and then remarked,

"You might also say something to Glenn Morrow. He handled things extremely well."

"I can see that he must have. I never thought of taking a benefactor to a class before. If I have the nerve, I might try it myself some time."

Claxton now had his large hand on Amanda's shoulder. Myers whispered,

"I'll see if I can get Amanda away from Clarence and give her back to you. Many thanks, Chuck."

They were almost back to their car before Chuck remembered the cloud hanging over him. He said to Amanda,

"Let's have lunch here in Orrville to celebrate a very good first day on the job."

"Fine. I know a good place just on the other side of the campus."

Bill Todd -- BOLLINGER: A Novel of the Prairie
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