Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 992
The price of wheat is the thread holding together this episodic short story. As Sam Lewiston hitches up the buckboard, he and his wife, Emma, anxiously wonder if wheat is still selling for sixty-six cents a bushel. Like so many Kansas farmers, they face economic disaster if the price does...
(The entire section contains 992 words.)
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The price of wheat is the thread holding together this episodic short story. As Sam Lewiston hitches up the buckboard, he and his wife, Emma, anxiously wonder if wheat is still selling for sixty-six cents a bushel. Like so many Kansas farmers, they face economic disaster if the price does not rise. Regardless of the market, Sam must sell his wheat today, and if the bears still rule in Chicago, he and Emma will lose the land they love. Both sense that their worst fears are about to be realized. Looking out across the prairie and into an uncertain future, Emma reminds Sam of his brother Joe’s offer of work in Chicago. Sam resists the idea of giving up, but as he kisses Emma good-bye and rides off to town, the reader knows that hope is all but gone.
On entering the office of Bridges & Co., Grain Dealers, Sam gets the bad news from Bridges himself. Wheat is at sixty-two cents. “It’s Truslow and the bear clique that stick the knife into us,” laments Bridges, who is powerless to help his farmer friends. Sam Lewiston is ruined, and so are many of his neighbors. It costs them a dollar a bushel to raise the wheat, and few, certainly not Sam, can afford to store it any longer. Dazed by this sad turn of events, Sam goes home to Emma. “We’ll go to Chicago,” he tells her. “We’re cleaned out!”
The second episode takes place some months later when Mr. Hornung and the bulls have driven wheat up to $1.10 per bushel. The bears, led by the once dominant Truslow, are on the run. Indeed, the scene opens with Hornung agreeing to sell a hundred thousand bushels of wheat to Truslow, working out the deal with Mr. Gates, one of the great bear’s minions. Hornung wonders if he has done the right thing. Truslow has paid dearly for the wheat, which he apparently had to have in order to cover overseas commitments, but Hornung’s broker warns that the bulls should have taken full advantage of the great bear’s distress to destroy him. Only then would the bull market be safe.
The third episode shifts ahead several days to the frenetic pit of the Chicago Board of Trade. The bulls still hold the corner in wheat, with Hornung setting the price at $1.50. Suddenly, one of the bears, a new man named Kennedy, begins selling wheat in thousand-bushel lots, and the bulls cannot figure where Kennedy is getting it. Had Hornung not held firm and kept buying at $1.50, the market might have broken, and that would have given the bears their chance to drive the price down. Who was behind the raid? Truslow is the prime suspect, but for weeks he had made no move, and rumor had it that he was in Wisconsin, bass fishing at Lake Geneva.
The fourth episode solves the mystery. Cyrus Ryder, a detective, tells Hornung and his broker that he dressed as a hobo and rode the Belt Line around Chicago looking for the source of Kennedy’s wheat. Truslow, who owns the Belt Line, was shipping the very grain he had bought from Hornung out of Chicago and back to his elevator as though it were new wheat fresh from Kansas. Truslow had been trying to break the bull market by selling back to Hornung at considerable profit the very wheat he had purchased from the latter and pledged to ship abroad. The broker is incensed at Truslow’s chicanery, but Hornung laughs it off as a brilliant ploy and plans to recoup his losses and outmaneuver Truslow by raising the price of wheat to two dollars.
The fifth episode begins in a breadline behind a South Side bakery. It is cold and drizzling and almost 1:00 a.m. Dozens of hungry men have been there for hours waiting for the usual handout of day-old bread. One of them is Sam Lewiston. He has left Emma in Topeka and gone ahead to work for brother Joe. The reader learns that Joe’s hat factory has failed, in part because of the repeal of tariff duties on cheap imports, and Sam has found little work since. The breadline is a godsend to him and others like him who are out of work and have nowhere else to go and nothing else to eat. Sam looks into the bewildered faces of the men standing with him and is consoled by the knowledge that the bread will keep them from starving. He likes to think of the breadline as a small platform that for now keeps those on it safely above the dark and threatening waters of complete despair swirling below. Suddenly, the bakery door opens and someone tacks up a sign. Groans are heard, and Sam and others push forward to read that because wheat is two dollars a bushel, the bakery will not be distributing free bread. The platform is gone, the price of wheat has ravaged him once again, and Sam walks away stunned by the loss, a hapless victim of a capricious fate.
However, even as he wanders aimlessly, Sam’s fortunes are changing. The reader is told that Sam finds a job the next day cleaning the streets. He works hard, sends for Emma, and gets promoted first to shift-boss, then to deputy inspector, and finally to inspector. Sam sees things more clearly after that night. Learning from the papers of Truslow’s scheme against Hornung, he recognizes that he and countless others are powerless victims in the battle between the Bear and the Bull. The speculators carelessly ruin both farmers and workingmen and gamble with the nourishment of nations. Only they—the powerful bears and bulls—remain prosperous and unassailable. It is a chilling insight but one based on painful experience, and the reader is left with the impression that understanding this harsh reality somehow helps Sam Lewiston survive.