Fiction

The Redeemer of Waste Lands

A Romantic Story of the Canadian West

Arthur Stringer October 1 1917
Fiction

The Redeemer of Waste Lands

A Romantic Story of the Canadian West

Arthur Stringer October 1 1917

The Redeemer of Waste Lands

Fiction

A Romantic Story of the Canadian West

Arthur Stringer

Author of “The Prairie Wife,” “The Anatomy of Love.”

"HOW’S your land, Loony?” the bearded man in the sombrero asked the gaunt-limbed figure at the card-table. His tone was friendly yet faintly derisive.

Loony did not look up at the other man. He was watching a thin-cheeked girl take the faded cover from a piano in the corner of the room. It was the only piano ifi Buckhorn Gap. The girl was the only girl in the room. \

“Not so bad, Dutch,” was his gently abstracted reply. His voice was startingly small and mild for a frame so big. About the solemn eyes, wrinkled with their prairie-squint, was a vague air of pathos, an apparently instinctive dread of solitude. Yet about the entire figure of the man huddled down in the chair, for which he seemed too huge, dwelt a note of undefinable loneliness, an air of mental isolation.

"And how’s the ditch goin’?’’ asked the man called Dutch, as he stood looking indulgently down at the other, after the manner of an adult looking down at a child. The sneer was veiled, for no one laughed openly at Loony. There was a rumor that he had been a gun-man somewhere down in the southwest, that he had come up over the Line to escape the law, and that once, in Calgary, this gentleeyed giant had tossed an over-offensive rancher through a window-sash.

No one openly ridiculed Loony. But behind its hand all northern Alberta was broadly smiling at him. For a land-sharp had unloaded three thousand acres of muskeg on Loony, and Loony had both achieved and justified his name by solemnly taking it over and proclaiming he had got it cheap. He had taken over a swampbottom at a dollar an acre, when by going twenty miles "out” he could have got the finest open range-land all ready for the settler and his oil-tractor and seeder.

Loony had taken over his domain of unbroken morass and solemnly glorified in it "Land like that ought t’ be sold by the quart!” Syd Reemer, the keeper of the roadhouse had once declared. And now Dutch could afford to smile pityingly down at Loony as he repeated the question: “And how’s the big ditch goin’?” Loony’s face remained both wistful and patient as he watched the girl seat herself at the piano. ^ ^

“It’s goin’ pretty good, Dutch,”~Tie absently replied. But his eyes were still on the girl.

The man called Dutch could see that the other man did not care to talk about the enterprise of the big ditch. Nobody believed in that big ditch. It was a waste of time and lçbor. They could maybe make a hit with that sort of thing in Holland. But it would never go in a new country, like the Northwest. It wasn’t needed. The country w’as too big. There was no call for reclaiming, with all outdoors to go and squat on.

Loony was a good name for a “sucker” like that. Nothing but a nut would have seen anything in a three-thousand acre

stretch of sour black swamp, a pestilential hole of mosquitoes and frogs and black ooze bubbling with marsh-gas, “a farm you’d have to go out and look for with a thirty-foot pole!” as Syd had once put it.

BUT Loony, at the present moment, was not thinking of either ditches or swamps. He was busy watching the girl who sat at the piano tinkling out syncopated time and repeating three-year-old music-hall “rag hits” for the delectation of that lonely little roadhouse ánd its saloonful of men. It was Buckhorn Gap’s one place of revelry. The Gap itself boasted of five houses and a bop-joint. There would be six thousand when the steel got through. But the steel was slow in coming. So the Gap lived on hope and strong liquor, and things out of tin cans. It was also helped along by the.-music which the hollow-cheeked girl pounded out of the tinkly old piano.

Loony liked to sit and watch the play of the lamp-light on that hollow-cheeked girl’s yellow hair. He liked to see the white of her neck. He liked to watch her bare forearms as they moved up and down along the keyboard. He liked to watch the line of her back, through thé smokehaze. He liked the sound of her clothes when she walked. He knew the way she always threw her skirt to one side and sat down. Once he had stared in abashment at her ankles in their thin black stockings. Once, too, she had taken a powderchamois from the top of one of those stockings; but Loony, tingling, had looked discreetly away. She was about the only woman he had seen for two long years. He had never once spoken to her, and yet he felt that he knew her as well as any man ever knew a woman.

All winter long, in fact, he had been coming down to Buckhorn Gap for the particulae purpose of sitting and studying her. Nearly every night he hit the trail and covered his lonely fourteen miles, just to order his drink and chew his Montreal cheroot, and sit in silent contemplation, apparently of the pyramid of glasses, surmounted by a lemon, which glistened in front of the bar-mirror.

lift it was not these drinking-glasses that interested him. But from his seat at the card-table, in that mirror, he could study the smoky coal-oil lamps above the piano on the little dais in the corner. He could study the worn sheets of music, and the piano-stool, and the pornographic wall-calendar above it But most of all he could study the girl as she sat in front of the keyboard. He could sit and watch every hand-turn4 every arm movement. He could sit and watch her without being afraid of a row—for he knew it would be a row if any one of those uncouth frontier spirits attempted to guy him about the girl.

NOT that anything had ever passed between them. That girl always minded her own business, Loony could see

that. She had nothing to do with any of the men who sat around listening to her music. She had scarcely looked at Loony. He imagined she didn’t even know he sat there every night And hie didn’t expect it; he didn’t ask for it. | It was good enough to hang around inlide the same four walls with a girl, with k white girl. And she was white, too white. Even her hair was paler than it ought to have been, but it was coming in darkLagain, about the same shade as her eye-brows. Her skin was so white that Loony kept telling himself she looked sick, and wondered how true it was, that rumor about her being a “lunger.” He could sU that she rouged her cheeks a little, over the hollows. But that only made the soft column of her neck look whiter. |t only accentuated the pallor of her forehead and throat in the strong side-light from the wall-lamp. And he had come téknow every line and shadow in her face, pe got to know her moods, her different wiiys of doing her hair, her tricks of movement, her habit of staring abstractedly through the smoke-haze without seeing anything before hçr. He knew when she coughed more than usual. He could even tell when she was tired. He could tell when, now and then, she wrote a letter between pieces. Those letters used to trouble Loony a lot He would sit and wtonder where they went, and what they sail, and why they should be written. He evtn resented them. I

But he soon forgot them, once she started playing again. For Loony lloved music. He had brought an old Mejriean guitar up into Canada with him, nut it ^had gone bad. He had cured elkgul and * trijpd to make new strings for it These new* strings, however, Jiad no tone to them, and the heavy frosts had affectea the wood. And Loony had always lined a piano. J

It maybe wasn't the best of music; he admitted that But it sounded mighty good to him. It was worth twenty-fight miles of trail-pounding tó hear. He anew it wasn’t the drinking or the smoking crowds, or the companionable press of fellow’-beings after a day of loneliness, that brought him night by night tej the Gap. It was just the music, he pept telling himself. Something seemed tjo go out, every time that girl stopped playing. He could see éhe wasn’t putting much heart into it But it hit him somenow, and hit him hard. He really hatedjthe place, when once that girl had left the piano and slipped off to her room fon the night. It seemed to get noisy and stuffy and commonplace. It was just everyday earth again. Loony would remember it was after midnight and time to hit] the trail for home. But all the way hdme, along coulee and slough, and over plain and hog-back, he kept thinking of the jgirl and her music. [

Then came the momentous night Mien she had first spoken to him. An Ejnglish remittance-man, new to the cqun-

try. had dropped in at the Gap to drown the sorrows of the unschooled exile in “red-eye.” He was ignorant of the traditions of that road-house. He made his inebriate way up to the piano where the girl was tinkling out her rag hits, .tinkling them out as impersonally as a hurdygurdy with its obsolescent street-tunesHe eveti leaned over the. piano and addressed her in the offhand way of the music-hall habitue. The girl ignored him and went on with her music. He crowded closer and tried to take possession of the thin hand nearest him.

“Please go -way!” Loony heard her say as she turned her sheet of music and tried to go on. But the remittance-man interposed his swaying body between her and the keyboard.

It was as she looked around, a little helplessly and a little frightened, that Loony rose to his feet. He felt a tingle creep up to his backbone, like a fuse, and explode somethingin the very centre of his brain. He had no memory of getting to his feet or crossing the room. But his great hand reached out and caught the Norfolk jacket of the inebriate one. caught it just at the back ofthe neck, and twisted the loose cloth until it tightened on the fat throat and plainly made breathing a thing of much effort. Then Loony’s great arm lifted the jacketclad figure off the dais, shaking it as a terrier shakes a rag.

“What (Lyou want me t’ do with him?” he solemnly asked the girl, who was staring at him with wide and startled eyes.

She hesitated, hardly knowing what to say. Then she stood up, steadying herself with one hand on a corner of the. piano. “Don’t hurt him!” she finally stammered out. “ Please don't hurt him!”

Loony renewed his grip on the coatcollar. “I won’t hurt him.” he said, quite soberly, as he wheeled about and dragged the struggling figure across the crowded floor after him. as casually as a child drags a doll at its side. Out through the opened door he swung this gasping and struggling figure, as though it was something of no moment, something not human.

Then he made his way to the piano. “If that thing ever talks t* you again, you tell me!” he said to the white-faced girl.

She stood for a moment without speaking. Then she murmured a vague “Thank you,” and turned back to her soiled music sheets, as though to hide her face from the sight of the staring room.

FROM that night forward Loony knew that she was not ignorant of his presence there. And from that night, too. for some reason, he thought less of the music and more of the woman who made it. He noticed, as the winter dragged on and her face grew thinner, that her cough was worse than it had been. He knew the smoke was bad for it. He felt sorry for her. He could see that she ought to be out in the fresh air. He dramatized exigencies which might give him the right to take her away from the noise and smoke and dust of that unsavory roadhouse. When Spring came he gathered the first willow-catkins he could find in the coulee-bottoms and shyly shoved a handful of them in under the faded old piano-cover, where she could not fail to find them.

She did not look at him. that night, as she took them up in her hand. But her cheeks turned a shell-pink as she niffed hungrily at the subtle fragrance of the blossoms. She did not speak to him. as he had half hoped she mightBut when she left the piano and the smoke-tilled room that night she carried the willowcatkins with her.

IT was one morning almost two weeks later that Loor.y. galloping through the Gap with a new cayuse in tow. met her face to face in the open. It was the first time he had ever seen her in the daylight. Something about her face disturbed him as he swung about and pulled up short in front of her.

“You ride?” he said, out of a clear sky. He saw he had always made a mistake in thinking of her as a girl.She was a woman, a grown woman, a . woman no longer young.

“Yes.” she faltered.

“Ten miles a day ‘d do you good!” He marveled at his own unexpected audacity.

“I know.” she acknowledged, without looking at him.

He slid down from his saddle, dexterously lengthened the left stirrup-strap and threw it across the horse, and as quickly shortened the right.

“Try my hoss.” he said. “IT! take this pinto.”

She hesitated. Hesitation was still in her eyes, in fact, as he reached out and lifted her bodily into the saddle. He adjusted her shoe-toes to the stirrups. “Come on!” he commanded as he swung himself easily up to the pinto’s back.

They rode across the prairie in utter silence. He could see her drinking in great lungfuls of the keen air. It was not until she swung about and headed back for the Gap that Loony ventured to speak. “What’s your name?” he asked.

“Alice.” she answered, after a pause. “That’s a purty name.” he said, almost as though he were speaking to himself. He crowded in a little closer to her. “You don’t look well.”

“The smoke keeps my cough bad.” she confessed. He vowed never to smoke in that Gap road-house again.

“Could—could I bring a real hoss down, some day. fr a real ride?" he suddenlyasked her.

She looked almost frightened. The galloping had taken her breath away. “You’d better not.” she said, in little gasps.

They swept into the Gap. and he helped her dismount.

“Tucker you out'" he asked, as she let her slow gaze for the first time meet his. He was oblivious of the fact that the Gap. all eyes, was watching them.

She shook her head in negation. She stopped to shake out her crumpled skirts. Then she suddenly stood upright. The look in her eyes was almost one of belligerency.

“I don’t want to have any doings with any man.” she announced, as though his brusqueness had awakened a corresponding brusqueness in her. “So don’t bring down that horse!”

Loony was adjusting his stirrups. “I’ll bring that hoss down, all right." he solemnly repeated.

“I won’t take kindness from no man!” she suddenly cried out.

“Why?” asked Loony.

“I guess I’ve had too much of that, in my day!”

The note of bitterness in her voice as-

tonished Loony. He turned and looked at her. “I guess you ain’t had enough!” he calmly retorted. “And I'll be down with that hoss!" He rode away before -ne had time to answer him.

HE came back to the Gap early that night, bul he did not bring the extra horse, for he knew she would be tired In the alrhost empty bar-room he found himself under the studious eye of But k Anstett. the gambler. Buck put down hi's whisky-glass and dropped an unsteady eye-lid. "You’re makin’ the mistake o’ your life. Loony.” he said with conviction. “Am I?" said Loony.

“You’re goin’ soft on that woman." Loony stepped nearer. “Am I?” he repeated.

“You know you are,” maintained Buck. "Well?”

Buck emitted his breath suddenly, through his nostrils. “Ah. hell, that woman’s not worth it!” He did not see Loony’s face as he spoke. *

“I’ll make you eat that.” said the gauntframed giant. He spoke very quietly. “Eat nothin’! - Go and ask her!”

“Ill make you eat that!" repeated Loony, louder than before.

Buck turned to speak, but no word came from his lips. For Loony’s great hand went out and enclosed the other man’s flaccid features. The giant paw shut on them as though the man’s face were a sponge. It carried the head backward and downward until the back of the skull smote the wooden bar-top. Then Loony forgot himself. He smote that head from side to side, with quick and agile frenzy, very much as a cat strikes at a spinrting spool in its play.

“You slur that woman,” he said between breaths, “an’ I’ll sure kill you! You. or any other geezer ’round this Gap! I’ll sure do things that’ll make this section sit up! I’ll sure initiate you all into what a Bad Man means!”

But no further word of the girl was said in Loony’s presence. He could feel a pregnancy in the nightly silence that reigned at his adventHe could decipher a new and inarticulate opposition in those about him. But it only strengthened him in his resolution.

IT was three days later that he rame to the Gap with a white-dappled pinto and a time-stained side-saddle. Spring had

crept over the land, almost in a night, reluctant, northern Spring. Spring that seemed an abandonment of passion after icy repression, ardent warmth after a too gray era of indifference.

It was a beautiful morning as Loony cantered down to the Gap. The air was crisp and clear, a dome of crystal azure arching over a circling skyline of opal. Loony supposed there had never been such a Spring day in all the world before. The breeze rippled the soft green of the prairie-grass. A strange peace filled the vast wash of air that stretched from tne horizon. The world seemed made over ‘ Spring don’t mean nothin’ to folks, down South.’ ruminated Loony as he viewed the cobalt skies and the virginal glory of the world.

But Spring must have meant something to the woman called “Alice” as she rode out into the silence of the plains with .Lpony at her side. She seldom spoke. She seemed content with the vernal silence that surrounded her. There was something rapt about the expression of her parted lips. In her eyes, wide with

a childlike wonder, lurked a look that was neither perplexity nor anguish,' but a'mingling of both.

Loony, on the other hand, seemed able to talk as he had never talked before. He told her he guessed that prairie air was going to his head; but she only smiled back her vague and enigmatic smile.

“I want to take you out an’ show you that swamp o’ mine,” he said as they cantered along the trail. “I’ve got ten Swedes and six teams workin’ there, on the big ditch!”

They rode on in silence for a minute or two.

“They think I’m nutty about that swamp. They think that ditch is a pipe-dream. They keep yappin’ that I should Ve gone t’ high land. They say it’s waste, that swamp. And they don’t understand. They don’t seem t’ see that waste land’s been gettin’ richer year after year, that allThe good stuff’s been drainin’ down into it, and pilin’ up and waitin’ there, centuty after century!”

He paused, as though he expected her to agree with him. But she rode on at his side in silence.

“And now all it needs is ditchin’,” he went on. “Ditchin’ ’ll make that swamp into three thou-

san’ acres o’ the best land in Alberta. I'll have my eut finished in five weeks’ time, Then you’ll see them pools dry an’ that water seep away, an drain that stinkin’ insect life an’ the pond-bottom start check an’ crack in the sun Th ?n wéll underbrush an’ burn he off. Then we’ll get the ploughs in on that black loam, an’ put 1 he drills t’ work, an’ next year y iuli the straw ’s high ’s you head, an* potatoes as big ’s t 11 tat pinto’s nose, an* thick as eindt rs in hell!”

He chuckled audibl r and joyously as he rode akmg.pt her siée. “That’s why they call i ne Loony!” he went on. “An’ I s’ ose it does look queer, when you &t;j m’ ’t understand.” Tie turned to her. “ Don’t you think so?” “I guess I understan« she said at last. “Queer, how we can straighten out things, if we only tfet down t’ the good that’s in them He rode on for a minute with the prairiesquint wrinklinghieepet about his eye-corners. “Syd'sayj you ain’t doin’ very well down at the Gap.” “I didn’t expect to,” si e answered. They were side by side on the trail by this time, ar d walking their horses.

“TOT ica t UK IS táce*"

“Xoc aten-"

“Ever aiirri**

“Xa."

“Free w*T “Tea.* -

Locuy yx^ed x? bis burse. “Way cOTrint xa two stseá*"

5he trj»*t te sar: ier scrsé; tat Lccay released ¿a ¿çaesonsi “I mojtt. t ’* was aer resort.

“Woy-

“TOT'Í jet ttreá v me!"

“Tired «’ JOT? Way. I'd wait te you. oasd au' feet!"

“Y-sc a week—je»! Moas sea te!" “Try se!*

“I v*jifií'í—I isal/taV" was her Ierre repey ;

Yhey rode &t;m agaio. “Way csu^tn'i^ yuu aarry aseT* se «¿ri. OTS of tse «Êàeæe.

“Kirr? JOTT“ säe cried. Looking aacat ^HK is woader.

“Sire! Way cnróia'ï you* I aeed you aere'a a aau «ver seeded a woman !" “TOT don't know anything aUvat ne." “I knew what JOT are! You’re jar a woman ! Woman—jar' rich. deep, tangied39 woman ! As’ you a$s*t bees Med right asy store's teas rwanrp 0’ 'aise'i bees aæd ngst!

“TOT áea’t seed to ted se anything about jOTroeif^-titoiriat ase! See what TT« bees ! I ain’t fit t* wipe tke trail-dust rif your shoes!"

“Oh God. JOT casvt understand!" ¿e cried is ar gx.sc

“ Yes. I do,* he said, reaching oat and catching her pista*« hit. They were landing tide by side again os the trail “We ain't bees Kris’ f*r anything, yea an’ me. Were ;s*r like that map c* mine, that waste 'and. We had to wait tü2 somebody «hewed mi what we were jood fir. what we had in «!*

“TOT couldn’t change me. now!" she declared. -

“I ain’t goes’ to change 70a! You’ve jot to change me. You’Te got to marry me as’ make Life mean something!"

She shook her head.

“You’ve got ’® marry me!" he repeated mfeninly.

“I’d he afraid!" she said.

“You'd be afraid to. the same aa men 're bees afraid to pot a ditch through that swamp ’ An’ now that swamp's gocn' to stand up an’ thank me to my dying day. for Jos’ shovin’ how rich it was

“But my life ain’t that way!* she cried back at him. “It ain’t rich! It could ve

been. o&ee. but I didn’t x*e ;t right! I didn’t know any better! I've done things you can’t drain off. the way you talk about draining rif that swamp 0’ yours!"

He laughed a little with his fullthroated and Jove-like .laughter. “Then them’s the things I thank God f r," he devoutly avowed. “Them’s the-things that saved you f r me. or a thousand better men 'n me would ’ve bees ightin' an' hagglin' f r you the same as they’de been ftghtin' an’ hagglin' Tr this open range. >jng b’fore I got here!"

“No ! No!" was her bitter cry. “Nothing was saved!"

“Ain't you sittin’ here beside me?" he demanded“Ain’t rt you. yo-w. I can reach out an! touch, an’ take care of. an’ get Gcd a’mighty's sun to sweeten up an’ show you’re richer ’n some thin-loamed hogback that couldn't grow weeds? Ain't that enough? Ain’t I gettm' enough when I get you?"

She did not answer him. Instead she reached out and touched him on the arm, almost wonderingly. “God. but you’re

big'"

The tears in her eyes translated that cry of hers into something far from the blasphemous.

He slipped from the saddle.and came to her side. He lifted his great arms and linked the huge hands about her hips, in a hungry movement of appropriation. There was something almost animal-like in the ¿nartieulated want that deepened in his eyes.

“You’re goin’ to marry me!” he repeated still again as he let his head sink down until it rested against her knee. He clung to her in that child-like and foolish position until her hand, hovering for its moment of uncertainty, touched his thick hair.

“All right," she said a little thickly, for her tears were falling. “I’ll marry you!"