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The Sky Line of Spruce   By: (1894-1967)

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[Illustration: He was leaning forward, aware of nothing in the world but the forthcoming crisis. FRONTISPIECE.]




"The Voice of the Pack," "The Strength of the Pines," "The Snowshoe Trail," "Shepherds of the Wild," etc.









The convict gang had a pleasant place to work to day. Their road building had taken them some miles from the scattered outskirts of Walla Walla, among fields green with growing barley. The air was fresh and sweet; the Western meadow larks, newly come, seemed in imminent danger of splitting their own throats through the exuberance of their song. Even the steel rails of the Northern Pacific, running parallel to the stretch of new road, gleamed pleasantly in the spring sun.

The convicts themselves were in a genial mood, easily moved to wide grins; and with a single exception they looked much like any other road gang at work anywhere in the land. An expert might have recognized purely criminal types among them: to a layman they suggested merely the lower grades of unskilled labor. Some of the faces were distinctly brutal; there was the sullen visage of a powerful negro who, with different environment, might have been a Congo prince; but the face of "Plug" Spanos, a notorious gunman who was by far the worst character in the gang, might have been that of an artless plow boy in a distant land under a warm sun. There remained, however, the "exception." Curiously enough, whenever the warden's thought dwelt upon the inmates of his prison, classifying them into various groups, there was always one wind tanned, vivid face, one brawny, towering form that seemed to demand individual consideration. The man who was listed on the records as Ben Kinney was distinctly an individual. He some way failed to classify among the groups of his fellows. Because he had been sent out to day with the road gang the two armed guards had an interesting subject of conversation.

In the first place he habitually did two men's work. He did not do it with any idea of trying to ingratiate himself with his keepers: no inmate of the institution at Walla Walla made any such mistake as that. He did it purely because he could not tone down his mighty strength and energy to stay even with his fellows. To day Sprigley, the guard in first command of the gang, had placed him opposite Judy, the burly negro, but the latter was being driven straight toward absolute exhaustion. Yet Kinney at least knew how to subdue and direct the pouring fountain of his vitality and energy, for the robust blows of his pick fell with the regularity of a tireless machine. It was as if a wild stallion, off the plains, had been trained to draw the plow. His great muscles moved with marvelous precision; but for all the monotony and rhythm of his motions he conveyed no image of stolidity and dullness.

He was a great, dark man, his skin darkly brown from exposure; his straight hair showed almost coal black in spite of the fact that it had but recently been clipped close; his eyebrows were similarly black; and black hairs spread down his hands almost to the finger nails and cropped up from his chest at his open throat. It was a mighty, deep, full chest, the chest of a runner and a fighter, sustained by a strong, flat abdomen and by powerful, sturdy legs. Yet physical might and development were not all of Ben Kinney. The image conveyed was never one of sheer brutality. For all their black hair, the large, brawny hands were well shaped and sensitive; he had a healthy, good humored mouth that could evidently, on occasion, be the seat of a most pleasant, boyish smile. He had a straight, good nose, rather high cheek bones, and a broad, brown forehead, straight rather than sloping swiftly like that of the negro opposite... Continue reading book >>

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