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Table of Contents


Title Page





















Copyright Page


The Last Fair Deal Going Down

Easter House


To Nelson and Steve


The Rock Island Line story would never have emerged without the patience, advice, and bedrock human kindness extended to me by many, many people. Although their names do not appear, their voices and spirits run like wolves through the narrative. Mention should be made, however, of my agent Lois Wallace who took the original draft to Harper & Row, where editor Frances Lindley found something worth encouraging and guiding forward. For the republication of the current edition I’m grateful to Philip Christman for his indefatigable enthusiasm, to Milkweed editor Ben Barnhart, and the rest of the Milkweed staff. They heard the wolves and understood the need to preserve the story entirely in its youthful form without the niggling intrusion of a more mature perspective. My thanks to all.


The old people remember Della and Wilson Montgomery as clearly as if just last Sunday after the church pot-luck dinner they had climbed into their gray Chevrolet and driven back out to their country home, Della waving from the window and Wilson leaning over the wheel, steering with both hands. They can remember as if just yesterday they had driven by the Montgomerys’ brownstone house and seen them sitting on their porch swing, Wilson rocking it slowly and conscientiously back and forth, Della smiling, her small feet only touching the floor on the back swing, both of them looking like careful, quiet children.

Della’s hands were so small they could be put into small-mouth jars. For many years she was their only schoolteacher, and, except for the younger ones, they all had her, and wanted desperately to do well with spelling and numbers to please her. Without fail, screaming children would hush and hum in her arms. It was thought, among the women, that it was not necessary to seek help or comfort in times of need, because Della would sense it in the air and come. The old people don’t talk of her now but what a shadow is cast over their faces and they seem to be talking about parts of themselves—not just that Della belonged to the old days, but that when she and Wilson were gone it was unnatural that anything else from back then should go on without them.

Wilson owned and managed a small grocery store in the middle of Sharon Center, where now old Highway 1 intersects with the blacktop to Hills at a three-way stop sign. (It has fallen in upon itself in neglect, bought finally by Eldon Sehr, an old German who would neither sell it, rent it nor use it, and who lived like a ghost in the house across the street.) The store front at that time extended by one oblong room out to theroad. The Montgomerys lived in the house part in back for twenty-three years.

Della was in the store sometimes, but mostly it was just Wilson listening to his radio behind the counter. After several years he had noticed that on Saturday evening it was increasingly difficult to close the store, for the great number of people who came then to buy cereal and coffee, milk and such, and who all knew one another and were not the least hurried in leaving. They came in families. Taking note of this, Wilson hung up a new sign declaring that the store would be closed at three o’clock Saturday afternoon and reopened at seven, after dinner. At first no one would come at the later time, but Wilson had bought nearly a dozen chairs at an auction and scattered them here and there around the room and porch, and slowly those who would come found they could sit down and stay quite comfortably talking to their neighbors without feeling the least obligation to leave or buy anything they didn’t need. And besides, Della was there too and there was always something the women would want to talk to her about, and it was so easy to lure her away from straightening the things on the shelves. Wilson too was easy to draw aside and a quick exchange with him could bring you up to date on the current events of Sharon Center and vicinity, and a lengthy discussion was maybe more than you needed to know. But mostly he was behind the counter with his radio as the talking went on farther out in the room. And it was for that reason that it worked so well, because it wasn’t going visiting—imposing—it was going to the store. Yet even in winter, when only those within walking distance could really justify coming, it was just as full.

Della and Wilson had come to Sharon five years earlier in search of two of their relations—Nelson Hodge and David Montgomery, both by that time departed. It was assumed by George Barns, when he first saw them in his tiny store beside the doctor’s house, that they were hoping to acquire money by inheritance, and he treated them to his usually hostile personality. He explained that NelsonHodge and David Montgomery, two confirmed and dedicated bachelors who had lived together for as long as anyone could remember, were dead, and that their small farm, along with whatever livestock and implements, had been sold for debt at a state auction. And if he were ever to meet them in the hereafter he might present them with an unpaid balance of $4.78 from his own meager business.

But the truth was that Della and Wilson were not after an inheritance. They were young and looking for a place to settle, and it was in their minds that their relatives might provide them a wedge for getting nestled in

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