Brute's Little Game
By T. Morris Longstreth
How real, how similar to life, that, after extolling the pleasures
that our mode of wayfaring hatched out, after disclaiming all
conveyance in favor of leggin' it, how perversely natural that Brute
and I should climb into an automobile!
Yet there were three excuses: we were tempted, Brute's heel had been
chafed, and spring, which had been dammed up by winter until the
northwind barriers could no longer hold, burst through and overflowed
the country. It was my second spring within a month. This time the
tides were even stronger, the flood of sunlight more compelling, the
roads more bibulous.
To the north of us lay the Windham country, and to the west also
untoured provinces that, from Hunter Mountain, bad looked worth
while. We stood on the swift highway -- swift because the current of
slush-water was at the lowest three miles an hour-ready to toss the
coin. If it came down E Pluribus Unum we would be off to
Windham, but if In God We Trust we should go west. Destiny,
I'd have you remember, is inseparate from character. Our characters
were to be awarded more than a ten-cent destiny. At the very moment
when we were to commit our futures to God or the Union, an
automobile, mire-covered, but with a back seat empty, slowed down,
the driver motioned to us to get in, and without comment in we got.
This was at 9.10 A. M., the beginning of as superior a round of
absurdity as I have ever gratuitously indulged in. The only
extenuation I seek is that the growth of the Game -- the name we used
to cover our later foolishness -- was gradual and not premeditated
art. Otherwise our face would blush.
It was an excellent country for a hydroplane. Slush ran down every
declivity and collected at the bottom. Each hour the sun added an
inch of water, I should judge, to the general level. Our driver was
greatly pressed for time, we thought, for with us safely in he soon
attained a mud-splattering impetus that prevented conversation. Only
once he turned and said:
"Where you going?"
"Can't say," we replied; "where are you?"
Never having heard of Jewett, we could not very well object to going
there, and settled back to enjoy the unusual voyage. It reminded me
of those Channel crossings when the newspaper warnings would announce
winds "fresh to stormy." But our automobile was a gallant
side-wheeler. Along the level we threw an even sheet of water on
either side. Then we would come to a down plunge into the obscure
gulf at the bottom. Owing to the extreme importance of our captain's
getting to Jewett, there was no slowing up. Fortunately, we rode the
waves well. Again and again a breaker would curl over the radiator
and dash in angry spray against the wind-shield. In our back seat we
braced ourselves against the ground-swell and listened to the hiss
and swirl with considerable enjoyment. There is this one thing about
a devastating pace produced by some one else's throttle: you won't
abate the danger by taking thought. If you have confidence, stay in;
if you haven't, get out. But, in either event, indulge in a little enjoyment.
The day we were to have gave us foundations for comparison of towns.
The character and appearance of Catskill towns, which are really only
villages in their teens, vary enough to make a sermon on. Nearly all
of them began in the tanning business. To-day the pleasure that they
give to the eye and the nose differs with a difference that reaches
to the very roots.
There are Catskill communities that express all the civic virtues.
Roxbury, to mention one, gladdens the eye and the intelligence. It
must spend fortunes in white paint. But the result is prosperity,
comfort, progress, and self-respect. The splendid trees along its
street are kept in order. The library is full and immaculate. The
stores are clean, the bank doubtless overflowing. There is a church
for the pious, and a park for the rest -- in fact, several churches
and an endless park; for the hills come down to the Delaware as
gracefully as deer to water, and woods invite one from a town that
one is loath to leave.
How differently other Catskill towns make one feel: as if immediate
flight were the one grateful prerogative left to their inhabitants.
One needs to travel to the raw frontier to find dingier or more
calamitous-looking villages than some of the conglomerations Brute
and I passed through. There is some excuse for the frontier towns,
but none for these. The stark and paintless parade on the prairie,
the wooden shanties in the desert, are but for overnight. One knows
that the next tornado will get them, anyway. But in the Catskills
they should build for old age. There may be poverty, but no poverty
such as one finds in older countries. In Italy, in Cornwall, along
the Zuyder Zee there is poverty, but at least it is clean and often picturesque.
The truth is that half the boarding-house towns in America are still
rectilinear dumps. I wonder how long we shall have to wait for a Town
Board of Art, with powers to prescribe the minimum of ugliness
allowable. Even the Boards of Health might be given such powers.
Vines are more sanitary than tin cans, shining creeks than open
sewers. Trees are less expensive than awnings. Paint is cheaper than
microbes. I should tremble for some of the mud-colored crimes of the
architects if Elisha should pass by. He would call down the fires
Early in our wanderings Brute and I hit upon a way of deciding upon
the house wherein we should put up. If there were several to choose
from, we invariably took the one painted to a semblance of
prosperity. If there were several such, we took the one with
geraniums in the window. People who take care of flowers take care of
food. And since, doubtless, all travelers are swayed by appearance as
much as we, the future of the spotless towns in the Catskills -- and
there are several -- is much easier to predict than of those dingy
dens one occasionally meets.
Our barge was heading down the Schoharie Valley, and, despite the
heavy sea, we had thimblefuls of view. All along the south ran a
continuing range, gaping infrequently, and carrying one's vision up
until you felt a little thrill as at the apex of a swing. Perhaps
this was our motion, but I think not. The south side of the valley is
very fine. The static view to be had from Onteora Park, giving the
bulk of Plateau Mountain, the yawn of Stony Clove, and the broad
dignity of Hunter and his clan, is repayment for the climb. But our
first impression, our running view, caught between lurch and tumble
in the bright freshet of sunlight and snow water, will never be overplaced.
Despite the flourish of our progress, we ran over neither urchins nor
poultry in the towns. The road continued toward Lexington and
Prattsville, but a few miles past Hunter our Jehu swung to the right
and we began to mount into as fine a stretch of country as any one
has had the effrontery to describe. On one hand the dark swiftness of
the little Eastkill fled from hemlock shadow into glitter of sun,
then like a trout sparkled back again into its cover. It was utterly
charming, utterly ingenuous. I have never seen anything like the
Catskill streams for gripping one's memory so lightly yet with so
firm a hand. Mental pictures of them do not subsist on the condition
of time. Once in the mind, they are there forever. Decades from now
they will show as bright in my inward eye as did Wordsworth's
octogenarian daffodils. Repeatedly, during that month of flowing
April, I found those eager, spiritual little streams covering the
blank of consciousness with the hieroglyphics of their glamour. There
come back pictures of the blue ranges, the lower hillsides quilted
with wood-lot and pasture, the curving roads, and the tins shining on
the maple-trunks they drained; but clearest of all are the swift streams.
The uplands around Jewett are a great sugar country. The mottled bark
of maples, the glint of cans, were on every hand. To the south,
valleys dropped toward the Schoharie, and rolling highlands carried
the horizon. In the distance the hardwood forest seemed to close in
and decorations of conifer darkened its breast. Truly it was a lovely
country to ride through, and as the progressive depth of mud caused a
slackening of our pace, I had time to wish that we were going to put
up at the attractive farms which we passed at considerable intervals.
If there was anything which I should feel confident of recommending
without having tried, I might safely warrant that there would be good
fare, sweet beds, and sufficient variety of amusement in the country
around the Eastkill.
And now the gentleman our carrier, having rebounded to his home
whence doubtless he had earlier sprung that morning, set us down.
Spoiled by such swift society, we were unloaded upon the road
willy-nilly. The sun had not only returned to its season, but
promised to overshoot it in the direction of summer. In a trice we
had been carried from the half-wild region of the Stony Clove to a
well cultivated demesne. Suddenly we became averse to wading. All
that waddle are not geese, perhaps, but they feel like 'em, and as we
started off on the five-mile hike to the state road for Windham the
germ of the Game was already depositing a shameful idea in each one
of our brain-cells, as the cow-bird does her egg, leaving it to be
hatched by circumstance.
If one can call the sun a circumstance, then one might have said that
the hatching would soon take place. It beat upon us as we slopped
along our canal. Brute had just been reminded of his sore heel, when
the noise of a motor brought us to a halt. This time it was a truck.
By merely looking intelligently wistful, the invitation was secured.
For the second time that morning, the boy and I climbed aboard for
some strange port of call. Nothing mattered since we were out of the mud.
Cruising on a truck had certain advantages. The additional time
available gave one an opportunity to digest the scenery for which
swifter flight had created the appetite. Also it made the captain,
quite weary of navigation, eager to converse. For a while Brute
seemed strangely immersed in reverie. But the range of the driver's
gossip became so wide and his ability to eke out a commonplace
narrative with personals so vivid that he soon joined me as a
listener. We lost the white spire of Jewett's church, careened down
the hill, well called Prospect, into East Ashland, rode into Windham
and beyond, still listening. Only when he threw her again upon the
starboard tack that would bring us into Hunter did I request to be
"Well, what for? " inquired Brute, peering after the
vanishing truck. "Everybody has said we must see Windham
heights. We're nearest now."
"Do you mean to walk?"
"It isn't deep enough to swim."
"Why not keep on riding till it dries up."
"How ingenious!" I said. But sarcasm ricochets from Brute.
He was standing, intent upon the distance, looking altogether
unsubduable by any element, be it mud or water. Evidently his brain-cells
had hatched and the germs of the Game were already active, for they
soon gave tongue.
"We can keep on riding till the roads dry up and blow away,"
was his comment on my doubt, "if you only follow the rules of
"First, wait for an automobile. Second, have it stop for you."
"A very wise rule," I could not help saying. "The third?"
"Look here," he replied, somewhat nettled. "Nothing in
particular if you don't want to. I thought it'd be a good way to get
a lay of the country."
Despite the maturity of his brain and brawn, Brute was very much a
boy at heart, and his face so fell at the thought of giving up his
new scheme of transportation that a laugh escaped me.
"I'm game," I insisted, "for a couple of rounds,
anyway. It sounds only a little more brazen than holding a man up at
the point of a pistol. The third rule is?"
"The third rule is to take the first car that comes along and
not to care shucks where it 's going."
"That suits me perfectly -- for instance, this."
A big Buick swept by in a lavish spectacle of mud, some of which I
could still probably find on my clothes if I brushed hard.
"Now," continued Brute in a matter-of-fact manner,
"that car scores five points for the opponents. If a Ford
outwits us it counts ten points, because it is harder for a Ford to
escape. Each ride nets us five points. Are you on?"
I was. The Buick's mud bath had left me callous to any of the
slighter modesties. It was going to be a contest between us two and
the world on wheels, and although I did not anticipate much
edification geographically, I had to own to a curiosity in the
practical problem that Brute had laid open for solution. So long as I
should taste the mixture of shale and slush so liberally showered
upon me by the Buick, I would be "on." With the dramatic
art that provides the effect while obscuring the means, Brute bade me
mount into a new Cadillac that had just tendered its services. The
Game had begun with a score of five to five.
I have no intention of detailing the experiences of that day. If you
wish to call us names, I pray you temper them with the knowledge that
our opponents won; though the margin was slight and due entirely to
the politeness of our brigandage. We began to develop a technique of
hold-up, which never, however, overstepped the boundary of
For instance, a car approaches. We are walking away from Hunter. We
deprecatorily detain it for information. "Sir, how far is it to
Hunter?" If the driver be mortal he will exclaim, "But,
gentlemen, you are going the wrong way!" We are silent. If he,
too, is a gentleman, he offers us a seat thither. For this, according
to the chivalry of the Game, he gets a cigar from each. Thus the Game
develops ethics. Indeed, if our chauffeur brings us to the hour of
ref reshment, he is invited to the meal. The Game is expensive.
That night we slept within four miles of the place wherefrom we began
the Game. We had traveled, we calculated, about two hundred miles. It
had taken eleven vehicles to accomplish this. We had been as far to
the northwest as Stamford, to the south as Arkville. Three times had
we driven up the Stony Clove, and twice around the Ashokan Reservoir.
One gentleman had had dinner at our expense in Kingston and some may
still be smoking our cigars. We had obtained a very clear notion of
the conventional Catskill routes.
That night we slept, but only after the Comic Muse had got tired and
let us alone. Viewed from the cool pinnacles of the usual, it had
been a day of progressive imbecility. Talked over as between two of
the principals getting ready for bed, it had been a harvest of hilarity.