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Hugh McVey was born in a little hole of a town stuck on a mud bank on the
western shore of the Mississippi River in the State of Missouri. It was a miserable
place in which to be born. With the exception of a narrow strip of black mud along
the river, the land for ten miles back from the town--called in derision by river
men "Mudcat Landing"--was almost entirely worthless and unproductive. The
soil, yellow, shallow and stony, was tilled, in Hugh's time, by a race of long gaunt
men who seemed as exhausted and no-account as the land on which they lived.
They were chronically discouraged, and the merchants and artisans of the town
were in the same state. The merchants, who ran their stores--poor tumble-down
ramshackle affairs--on the credit system, could not get pay for the goods they
handed out over their counters and the artisans, the shoemakers, carpenters and
harnessmakers, could not get pay for the work they did. Only the town's two
saloons prospered. The saloon keepers sold their wares for cash and, as the
men of the town and the farmers who drove into town felt that without drink life
was unbearable, cash always could be found for the purpose of getting drunk.
Hugh McVey's father, John McVey, had been a farm hand in his youth but before
Hugh was born had moved into town to find employment in a tannery. The
tannery ran for a year or two and then failed, but John McVey stayed in town. He
also became a drunkard. It was the easy obvious thing for him to do. During the
time of his employment in the tannery he had been married and his son had been
born. Then his wife died and the idle workman took his child and went to live in a
tiny fishing shack by the river. How the boy lived through the next few years no
one ever knew. John McVey loitered in the streets and on the river bank and only
awakened out of his habitual stupor when, driven by hunger or the craving for
drink, he went for a day's work in some farmer's field at harvest time or joined a
number of other idlers for an adventurous trip down river on a lumber raft. The
baby was left shut up in the shack by the river or carried about wrapped in a
soiled blanket. Soon after he was old enough to walk he was compelled to find
work in order that he might eat. The boy of ten went listlessly about town at the
heels of his father. The two found work, which the boy did while the man lay
sleeping in the sun. They cleaned cisterns, swept out stores and saloons and at
night went with a wheelbarrow and a box to remove and dump in the river the
contents of out-houses. At fourteen Hugh was as tall as his father and almost
without education. He could read a little and could write his own name, had
picked up these accomplishments from other boys who came to fish with him in
the river, but he had never been to school. For days sometimes he did nothing
but lie half asleep in the shade of a bush on the river bank. The fish he caught on
his more industrious days he sold for a few cents to some housewife, and thus
got money to buy food for his big growing indolent body. Like an animal that has
come to its maturity he turned away from his father, not because of resentment
for his hard youth, but because he thought it time to begin to go his own way.
In his fourteenth year and when the boy was on the point of sinking into the sort
of animal-like stupor in which his father had lived, something happened to him. A
railroad pushed its way down along the river to his town and he got a job as man