The shaggy-haired boy sat on a hard wooden chair outside the bedroom, kicking his heels in the dust.
He did not much care for being kept inside the house, and would rather have been running barefoot in the dirt or pitching a baseball for his playmates or lying on the roof in the sun and munching on a stolen apple. But his mother had insisted that he wait here, and because he was the sort of boy who listened to his mother (most of the time), he waited.
There was something of a commotion in the bedroom for a while. Presently the door opened and the doctor put his head out. "Boy! Come here," he ordered. "Your mother wants to see you."
Being a generally easygoing sort, the shaggy-haired boy did as the doctor said. He found his mother in bed looking quite red-faced and out of breath, and in her arms was a bundle of something even redder, wrapped in a checkered cloth. "Come and see, darling," she said with a smile. "This is your new baby brother."
The shaggy-haired boy looked more closely at the bundle. Sure enough, it was a fat human baby, bald and red all over with a scrunched-up face and a squint. The boy thought it was quite the ugliest thing he had ever seen.
"Isn't he beautiful?" said his mother, in a dreamy sort of voice.
You must understand, dear reader, that the shaggy-haired boy had never told a lie in his life. But he also wanted very much to be pleasing, and for people to love him.
So he said, "Awfully beautiful, Mother." And although he felt rather bad as he said it, the smile on his mother's face afterward made him feel not so bad at all.
To understand what the shaggy-haired boy's life was like, you must know that some years before he and his mother and father arrived in the otherwise dusty state of Colorado, there was a man who discovered gold in the hills.
Gold is recognized as a very pretty metal in almost all lands, and as a very useful metal in many of them, especially those where clockwork is common and magic is rare. In fairy countries it is most popular for decorations and jewelry. In countries like America, however, it is popular for its own sake, and may be hoarded without making any use of it at all. People in many of these countries were excited to hear about the gold in Colorado, and came from far and away for a chance to get some of their own.
Of course, with so many people looking for it, the gold that was lying free on the ground was soon all gone. So the Americans, as well as the Cornish, Welsh, French, Germans, and Chinese, began digging mines and inventing ways to get gold out of solid rock. They also began to look with suspicion at each other, for many of them had expected easy riches, and found it more easy to blame their fellows than to consider that they might have been fooled.
The shaggy-haired boy's family was not one of those lucky enough to get rich quickly, and the birth of his brother meant one more mouth to feed, which in turn meant less money to spend on other things. So instead of buying new clothes when his old ones grew torn and dirty, the boy's mother washed them and sewed up the largest of the rips, and gave them back to him again in a state that was more and more frayed, until they were almost as shaggy as his hair.
If ever the boy had wanted to complain about his lot, he had only to look at his father, who worked all day in the mines, and his mother, who was quite occupied with the baby, and see that he had a quite relaxing life after all. Besides, he believed himself to be quite handsome enough to make up for any clothing. Indeed he grew to be rather proud of his shagginess, and wore it as something of a badge of honor.
There were many other boys that the shaggy boy played with, as well as a few of those girls who see some purpose in getting soiled during play. (I say "during play" because of course all girls are willing to face a mess when there is honest work to be done, except for the sort who cannot abide honest work in the first place, and those little terrors are found among boys as well.)
Like their parents, they came from many different countries, and from their parents they learned to be suspicious, though none of them were quite certain why. Besides, you needed nine people for a baseball team, and the pressure to come up with two working teams on any given day was reason enough to put aside most quarrels. But when there was no game in progress, a disagreement over any little thing might become a great brawl very easily.
On this particular day, a boy who was quite small for his age was telling a story under the trees when a white-haired boy interrupted with questions. The short boy was from a country called China, and the white-haired boy from one called Norway, both of which are like America but separated from it by great oceans. Because of this they have developed quite different languages and customs. The children had learned enough of a common language to get on, though neither of these two could pronounce the shaggy boy's name, nor the shaggy boy theirs.
"I don't believe your granny did see a dragon," declared the white-haired boy at last. "I believe you're making it all up!"
"She did so!" cried the small boy. He believed everything his dear grandmother said, as did everyone else in his family, and it was quite a shock and a distress to have this other boy deny it so easily. "It was blue, and as big as a house! What else could be as big as a house?"
"Maybe it was a house!" jeered the white-haired boy. "Maybe her eyes are so bad she couldn't tell! When my own Mormor doesn't have her spectacles on, she can't hardly tell the difference between me and the dog!" ("Mormor" is what children in Norway call their mother's mother.)
The shaggy boy, who had been sitting on a nearby rock munching on an apple and listening, went over to the other two boys. "I saw a dragon once," he remarked, casual as you please. "And my eyes are good as anything. If you want me to prove it, I'll throw a ball at any target you like."
The small boy, who had been on the verge of tears, found new strength in this support. "You see?" he exclaimed, triumphant. "Shaggy knows dragons are real! Was it the same dragon, Shaggy? Was it blue with silver scales?"
"No, it was red, with a flame like a candle on its tail," said the shaggy boy. Of course it was all a lie, but when he said it as easily as if describing a new bit of sluicing equipment, it sounded much like the truth. "It was on one of the embankments late at night. For dinner, I should think."
"For dinner," echoed the white-haired boy with a laugh. "What animals have gone missing that are big enough to feed a dragon? Has anyone lost a horse, or a donkey, or a couple of sheep?"
"Oh! they don't eat animals," said the shaggy boy, as if this were obvious. "They eat coal."
"Of course! How else would it keep the fire on its tail going?"
This was a fine piece of logic, and now it was the white-haired boy who was shaken. "I don't believe you," he said, with less confidence than he had had before. "Dragons are fairy stories. Like Mormor's trolls, and wights, and gnomes...."
"Nomes?" asked the shaggy boy. He had never seen the word written down, and so did not know how the white-haired boy's grandmother would spell it. "Those are short fellows with long beards, who live underground and work with gold and jewels, correct? My father had a fight with two of those just last week. They wanted to take back the rock full of gold he had just mined, but he threw some smaller rocks at them and drove them off, and just barely managed to escape unscathed."
The white-haired boy's face turned rather white itself. It was an easy thing to tease a smaller boy, especially when he was from a country like China, which of the foreign countries represented in Colorado seemed the queerest of all to the Americans and so was trusted the least. But it was another thing entirely to call the shaggy boy a liar and question his strong and respected father, both of whom were American by birth and would be given more trust than a boy from Norway. He stammered his excuses and fled.
"That was really wonderful, Shaggy!" exclaimed the small boy. "I have never heard of these Nomes before. Tell me, what are they like?"
"Cross and unpleasant," said the shaggy boy, "and the less said of them, the better. Let us talk about something happier. Have you ever heard about Ryls and Knooks?"
When the shaggy boy had grown into a shaggy youth, his father was killed in an accident in the mine.
Of course there were many accidents, for the men who owned the mines were more inclined to line their own pockets than to pay for the supports and safety equipment their workers might need. This accident was an explosion, caused by taking a lantern into a kind of invisible gas that looked and smelled just like ordinary air, but went up in flames when ignited. Nobody, not even the small youth's grandmother, told many stories about dragons after that.
The shaggy youth might have gone into the mines himself then, to support his mother and his young brother, who were left otherwise alone in the world. But he had no wish to die as easily as he had seen other men do over the years, nor was his mother eager to lose him.
He took to doing odd jobs, sometimes venturing far from his home to do so, sometimes picking apples from an orchard or berries from a bush on his way back. This he considered scavenging, not stealing. Although he had not yet heard of the land of Oz, he felt that its idea of providing food for all who are hungry was quite a sensible one.
Times were not easy for his small friend either. Many miners were talking of organizing to ask their employers for safer work and better pay, but others found this a difficult and unsatisfying process, and instead turned their frustration to closer targets. American miners who wanted higher wages tried to get rid of the competition by making it against the law for miners from other countries to work. As usual, the easiest target for this was China. The small youth's father had been a miner, and was now forced to seek another job, with no more luck than the shaggy youth had.
One spring night after they had both walked many hours and found no work, the two young men met by the train tracks. It was a clear night with a lot of stars, and no trains scheduled to come by for several hours, so it was pleasant and quiet.
"I think my mother is thinking of remarrying," said the shaggy youth presently. "A friend of hers. She seems to like him greatly. And he is a man of business, so he would be able to provide for her and my brother, and not be likely to die unexpectedly."
"If only a woman could go into business!" sighed his small friend. "My mother has the head for it. But all she is allowed to do is teach the children, which earns little enough to feed my sisters while my father, who is, you will pardon me, not so bright, must look for the work no one will give him."
He opened his dinner-pail and took out the only thing in it, a kind of apple dumpling his grandmother had taught him to make. The shaggy youth preferred plain apples, and took one of these out of his shaggy pocket. His boots, which had been bought new with his own money only a year ago, were now as shaggy as the rest of him where they rested on the rocky slope.
"It might be easier, perhaps," said the small youth, "if I were to go out into the world and seek my fortune. There are few enough jobs in this town for people from my country. Perhaps I could find a place to make money and send it back to my family, instead of having to take it from them in order to eat."
"The world is a big place," remarked the shaggy youth. "There are bound to be better jobs in it somewhere. Or at least, spare apples." He considered the question further. "Do you think my mother's friend might be more inclined to marry her if I were off seeking my fortune as well?"
"He might," the small youth replied. "The customs of your people are so queer, I often cannot guess what they will do."
This gave the shaggy youth something to think about, for he had never considered that he might seem as queer to another person as they did to him. But it also made him think that traveling might be pleasant, and traveling with a friend, no matter how queer they appeared to one another, even more so.
"I don't suppose," he said to his friend, "you might have a favorite direction?"
The two youths did not leap on a train that night, of course. They went to the dusty local library and spread out maps; they walked to the train station and studied the schedules; the small youth wrote letters to people that he and his family knew. The shaggy youth felt he would have been quite content to go in any direction, but his friend was more cautious, and wanted a sort of plan.
At last the small youth found him one day, full of excitement, and with a sheet of paper in hand. "My grandfather's cousin's daughter says we must come to her town!" he exclaimed. "She says she will certainly find us work, for...why, see for yourself!"
But of course the letter was in one of the languages of China, and the young shaggy man could not read it. "You must tell me," he said, "for I am quite uneducated in these sorts of letters."
"Of course," said the small young man, who had quite forgotten in his enthusiasm. He lowered his voice, for though they appeared to be alone on the street he had no wish for any unseen person to hear. "She has inherited possession of a talisman from my homeland, a wonderful object with magical powers. The tale is that it was forged by a dragon."
"Ah! that would explain the powers, then," said the young shaggy man knowingly. "Nothing forged by a dragon could be ordinary, I suppose." And he imagined the power to create gold from air, or transform rocks into great feasts, for he had grown so accustomed to pretending to believe his friend's tales that he had nearly forgotten that he did not.
He did not say goodbye to his mother in person, for he feared it would upset her, and then he would be obliged to stay. Instead he left her a note in his own shaggy handwriting, then filled his pockets with apples and a few of his own hard-earned coins, as well as one new item: a handkerchief, quite clean, though it would without a doubt be respectably shaggy in good time.
Thus attired, he met with his friend in the rail yard under a half moon, and together they snuck aboard a freight train bound for Butterfield.