SO! My dream of sheep is over. The Bank has won the bet. They held the stakes, so there was nothing to do but make my way through the green velvet hangings which obscure the approach to the Manager’s office, sit in the swing chair, and sign my name in the place provided, on the back of my War Bonds, receive my note signed so gaily ten months ago, and come away sorrowful. They said I could not make money out of sheep—on shares—I said I could. They were right. So I have apologized—and paid!
To-day, I have put away all their little things—the dog muzzle—the sheep-bells—the numerous beautifully illustrated booklets which the Livestock Department so lavishly bestowed on me—the catalogue of sheep supplies—the card which tells the world that I am a member in good standing of the Provincial Wool-Growers’ Association.
My sheep are gone—so is my money! All is over. Ashes to ashes! Dust to dust! Bonds to Bank!
If sheep would rhyme with grief—if ewe would rhyme with woe, it might be some relief to let my sorrow flow—in heavy black-edged words of deepest indigo. But I know I never could write polite poetry about rams and lambs, feeling the way I do to-day!
I Shall Avow All
BUT I am going to tell about it. My heart is too soggy with sorrow to keep it all to myself. I will have spiritual pneumonia unless I get this load of grief off my chest.
The trouble began many years ago, unnoticed and unsuspected at the time. Who would have thought that there was anything sinister and menacing in sheep pictures? Woolly-faced Shropshires, with their black noses; or white-faced Leicesters with their wool so correctly parted down the middle of the back; or the dainty black and white Hampshires, with their symmetrical markings. From earliest infancy I was exposed to the contagion of these, and one of the first pictures my young eyes rested on when they opened on this troubled world, was a beautiful flock of sheep stepping gaily down a dusty road, with the glowing tints of the Autumn sunset falling athwart their woolly sides. Behind them rose the purple heather hills, and before them strode the shepherd and his dog. No wonder my young heart was bound to them!
Looking around me now, as I sit here with ashes on my head, I can see six sheep pictures which have poured their sinister influence into my heart, and have helped to work my destruction. I have received it in many ways—an open magazine on my desk shows glaring headlines:
“Sheep, the Farmer’s Best Property!”
The morning paper gives in full a speech made by the Live Stock Commissioner of this Province, setting forth the profit that can be made from sheep—of which I, fresh from the loss of my war-bonds, read one paragraph—and choked!
The Demise of Philip
MY first move in the direction of sheep owning was to buy a collie-dog—named “Philip”—now of hallowed memory. In the city we lived in, there were stringent laws regarding dogs, and any dog that appeared on the street unchaperoned, might be taken to the pound. Philip was taken quite regularly, for he was very friendly and easily caught. Each time I went from home, Philip was taken by the dog catcher, and it took two dollars to get him out. Overhead expenses were thereby so much increased, that I put the matter before the city authorities and asked them if, in view of the steadiness of my trade, they would not give me a flat rate on Philip, or at least take him ten times for fifteen dollars. They agreed that there should be some consideration shown to the old subscriber, and after that my pound bills were greatly reduced.
Philip was promised a flock of sheep to mind, some day, and lived on hopefully, keeping his muscles firm by thrashing every dog in the neighborhood, when the mood was on him and the dog was not too big.
There was one sable collie who lived near us whom Philip chastised regularly, and with deacon-like dignity. The painful scene usually occurred on the road, and after it was over, Philip always walked majestically homeward, and from the top step of the verandah would sit, spitting yellow hairs for the remainder of the day, tired, but very pleased. We never knew what offence the sable collie had committed, or how Philip knew that his time had come to be thrashed, but no one could doubt that it was a deep sense of duty which impelled Philip to action.
One day, when the sable collie was receiving his correction, a Ford car came gaily around the corner and ran into the two dogs. The sable one escaped, but Philip was badly hit. He reached his own verandah though, without a moan, and there lay down—to rise no more.
It was a severe blow to the sheep industry—to lose my entire plant in this way!
I Receive Ample Warning
BUT the cosmic urge came again. I met the contagion everywhere, it seemed. But I will not spare myself, I will set it down here in cold typewriting, that I was warned!
I have a brother, a sane and sober stockman, who, seeing the way my thoughts were leading, said earnestly to me:
I tried to argue, but he waved my reasoning aside. “Partnerships—in stock—are no good. If you want to buy land, and put on a pair of overalls and a sun-bonnet and go out there and mind your own sheep, I’ll say you can do it, and make money. But you can’t sit at a flat-topped desk, in a green house on One Hundred and Twenty-third Street, writing books, and expect to make money on sheep by Long Distance. I’m some older than you, and somewhat more skilled in the ways of the world, and I couldn’t do it.... I put out a bunch of cows one time with a farmer I knew well, who agreed to give me half the increase. He asked me quite casually if I would take the steer calves for mine, and leave him the heifers. I agreed to this readily, for when I was on the farm, trying to work into a herd of cows, I remember well most of the increase was of the sterner sex.
"The next Spring I went down to see them.... and I have had a constant wonderment in my mind ever since as to how he did it. Talk of prophecy, and second sight and birth control—that partner of mine had them all! Seventy-five per cent of the increase were heifers, all doing well. A few cows were without calves, mooing and fretting over their loss—their calves had died in infancy—and had been males. The infant mortality rate had been high among the males of the flock, but the gentler sex were robust and healthy. There was no explanation—no redress. My calves simply were not. The female of the specie had been not only more hardy but more prevailing than the male—It was fate.”
“But,” I said, “why did you consent to this arrangement? You would have been all right on a straight division.”
My brother sighed wearily. “Nellie,” he said patiently, “it wouldn’t have made any difference. It would have been something else. Jacob queered the partnership business in stock when he put up the game on his father-in-law. He set in force, then, pre-natal influences which to this day work against the absent partner. It is Fate, woman! Would you fight against Fate?”
So spoke William, my sage and seasoned brother, out of the depths of his experience.
Even that did not dampen my enthusiasm.
Making Money—on Paper
I SENT my name and address to any place that a name and an address would bring a sheep book. They poured in upon me, and I read them all.
Soon I began to cast up small sums in arithmetic—one hundred ewes would give me an increase of one hundred and twenty-five lambs each year. I got these figures from an old English sheep man, who lives near us, engaged in real estate. He has the reputation of being the best sheep man in this Province, but—I see the grim significance of it now—he owns no sheep!
I figured that in two years I would have one hundred and sixty-five breeding ewes, sixty-five a year old, with one hundred and thirty wethers for sale, which would bring me thirteen hundred dollars in cash—and then, of course, there would be the wool. One hundred original fleeces, averaging six pounds, at fifty cents per pound; two hundred and twenty-five fleeces the next year, and three hundred and fifty the next, etc.
It was a very delightful exercise. I seemed to haves forgotten all about shrinkage, and seepage, and stealage, and tickage and coyotage, or the unreasonable, inexplicable passion that sheep have for dying. No gloomy thoughts assailed my optimistic heart.
The more I figured on it, the better I liked it. It seemed to me that sheep could not fail. “Two crops a year" and "Quick Returns" were the phrases that haunted my dreams, and I read the books again with fervor.
It was not long until I began to call up the stock yards and talk familiarly with unknown, but pleasant-voiced gentlemen, of breeding ewes, lambs, wethers, free freight and (Dominion) Government rams; also the probabilities of the wool market. Every one of these spoke encouragingly of the venture.
The Tale of an Old Sheep Man
ALL but one. There was one old stock man who counselled caution. I met him on the street car one day, and he shook his head and looked at me with great kindliness in his eyes when he told me he had heard that I was going to buy sheep. There was a troubled look in his face, mixed with great kindness, such as I have seen at funerals, and sometimes in the faces of old people at weddings. It was a paternal, worried look, mixed with a certain helplessness. I understand it better now than I did then.
He came to see me one day after that, good soul that he was—and is—and he told me that he, too, like me, had dreamed dreams of sheep, and saw visions of wealth. And only last summer had bought five hundred, and got free range on a whole section from the Dominion Government. He had hired shepherds, bought dogs, put up buildings, and started out with high hopes....
“It was one continued tale of grief,” he said sadly. “The men fought, got drunk, left. People stole everything that was loose. They did not take the well—but that was about all they left. A prairie fire burned my hay—the lake dried up. It was fierce. In the Fall, I sold out—and fortunately came out about even. But never again. That’s why I came to see you—Don’t. The only way to make a success of any kind of farming is to be on the spot.”
I hate to have to write it now, but I must tell the whole blighting truth—even this did not hold me back.... I often wondered what the Psalmist meant by that prayer—“Keep back Thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me!”—I know now.
The Villain Appears
IT was inevitable that I should meet sheep-dealers, for it was now noised abroad that I was “going into sheep.” One sought me out. He was black-whiskered, bright-eyed, thin and sinewy. He wore leather leggings and a sheepskin coat, and he called me “Lady.” I was disappointed in his appearance. I thought that sheep men had a docile, lamb-like look. Stories of the sheep country certainly paint them so. This man had none of it. His eyes were gimlet-like and keen, his voice rasping and hurried, he was impatient of delays.
Did I want the sheep, or did I not? Yes or No! There were more people wanting sheep now than could be supplied, and in spite of all he could do, he could not get enough sheep to go round. But he had heard of me, and he had a bunch that he thought would suit me. I would have to decide quickly though, for there were two “parties” after them. He had just stolen away to give me first chance, because he liked to oblige a lady.
There was a pathetic significance about this flock of sheep, which he explained to me. They had been owned by a man in the southern part of the Province, who had just got them in good shape, having turned off the old ones, and he was prepared to go right in for sheep and make a big thing of it, when he took the “flu” and died. His widow could not carry on, and she had sent word for this man’s partner to come, and they went, and took the whole bunch off her hands and brought them into the stockyards.
Now he would like to do as well with them as he could, for her sake. He had been awful sorry for the widow, she was so attached to them, and knew them all by name. They would run when she called them. Gee, she hated to see them go! His partner did not think he had ever seen a woman cry as hard as she did when she saw those sheep go away. The sobs out of her, he never would forget!
I could see the sheep at the stockyards now, he said, but I would have to go out soon, there were people after them every day.
The impression I got was that I needed to make haste, or they would be snapped up. The sheep business was no place for loiterers.
He spoke eloquently of the shortage of wool, and declared it was every person’s duty to try to bring down the high price of living as it affects the poor working man. He said that was the only thing that kept him in the sheep business, and it was about that time that I saw my duty plain. Someone had to buy sheep, find range and water, provide shelter and care for them, if the world was to have clothing, and I determined to go at once and inspect that carefully nurtured flock which had been so cruelly bereft of their master.
Perhaps They Saw Me Coming
IT was a dull day in January, the day I went to the stockyards. There were splinters of ice falling through the air, and banks of leaden clouds obscured the sun. A dull, cold day, something like the weather that Napoleon experienced in his disastrous retreat from Moscow. That, according to history, had been a cold day for Napoleon.
This one was mine!
When I reached the stockyards, it seemed to me, though I may have been mistaken, that everyone was expecting me.
The man at the gate, in the first two minutes that I was speaking to him, deplored the fact that he did not have money to buy sheep, for they “sure are the money-getters.” I was glad to have my judgment sustained by one so close in.
The man who had been attending to the sheep, a red-faced fellow with cotton batting in his ears, told me, in strictest confidence, that they were the best sheep that had been in the pens for years.
“There aint a poor one in the bunch,” he said; “you can see for yourself that there aint one above four years old.”
I asked him how he knew the age of a sheep, they all looked alike to me.
He threw up his hands in a gesture of despair—“Instink, lady, instink,” he cried. “In fact, it’s a gift. Some can do it, and some can’t. I always was handy with stock, from a child. My father was just the same. Some people have to look into a sheep’s mouth to know how old she is, but I never do, I tell it by her eyes. If they are bright and sparkling, she’s young. There aint any old ones in this bunch, so you cannot see what a dead-eyed one is like, but you’ll see for yourself when you have handled as many as I have.”
The greatest unanimity seemed to prevail among the stockmen as to the excellence of these sheep. They were inspected and commented on by fully a dozen, and it was decided by all, that they were a great bargain at fifteen dollars each.
Once I said that I thought I should have them examined by a competent man, who would look at them one by one, for I had read in the sheep bulletins that it was very disastrous for a beginner to buy old sheep. I spoke rather apologetically, for I felt it was hardly courteous to mention such a thing in view of the unanimity of opinion that prevailed regarding their youthfulness.
I Had to Buy in a Hurry
JUST then, a new man came into the yard, and in a loud whisper told the man who was showing me the sheep, not to be too keen about selling this bunch of sheep, for there was a “party” outside wanting to get them very badly.
The sheep dealer with the sheepskin coat ordered them to be let out and file past me, and as they went by, he told me various things, rather intimate and somewhat embarrassing, of their past history. But there was no embarrassment in their glass-alley eyes as they blinked at me over each others’ backs. There was an air of conscious innocence on their faces, which made me distinctly uncomfortable as they sidled past and gave me a sort of “Mona Lisa” smirk as they went. They were so smug, so prim, so sure, of something. They had such an insufferable “Time will tell” look, that I felt sure they were pulling off a joke on someone. I did not know, of course, whom the joke was on.
But I found out in due time.
Their air of innocence was abundantly justified by the events of the next few months, but perhaps it would be better if I said lack of events. The future held nothing to prove that they had lived, except in a few cases, anything but blameless lives.
It was one hundred and seventy-four ewes that I bought, each guaranteed by many earnest protestations to be sound, young and healthy, and the sheep dealer who was selling them to me, assured me that a great many of these ewes had had twins last year. They gathered this interesting bit of personal history—I took it—from the weeping widow, between sobs. I got twenty-five from another man, who was going out of sheep, and among these there were several pedigreed ewes, and a fine-looking Shropshire ram.
They Have Good Appetites
THE sheep were taken down to a farm on the Battle River on January 22nd. The man who was going to winter them for me had a long rick of green feed, containing, I forget how many tons, but it seemed to be enough to fortify them against hunger and want. The sheep bulletins had told the amount which sheep will eat, and theoretically, we had plenty.
In February I went to see them, and found them going strong. The “Mona Lisa” look had deepened in their cairngorm eyes, and the grin on their faces when they blinked at me had grown in intensity. But I forgot it when I saw them feeding on the sunshiny slope, picking the stubble through the snow. They were so capable, so industrious and self-supporting. The weather was glorious that day, with deep blue sky, over which thin white rags of clouds drifted aimlessly.
The sheep were fat and happy, with no premonition of the vicissitudes that followed. They had made a gash in the side of the green feed stack which was out of proportion to the number of days that they had been employed in doing it, and this seemed to fill the farmer with apprehension.
“There are two or three of them,” he said to me, “that are bottomless pits. They act as if they had tapeworms. I’ve shut them in by themselves now, and am measuring the feed out to them, for there’s no satisfying them.”
I got some splendid photographs of them feeding on the hillside, and decided which one I would use for my letter heads when I sent out the intimation that I had fat lambs for sale.
When I came home, I joined the Wool Growers’ Association and attended their Convention. I tried to approach the aristocratic wool barons on something like terms of equality, and in some cases got away with it.
Then I began to read sheep books in the library. I read about oil cakes and corn silage; about ticks till I felt crawly. I read about Dorsets and Cotswolds; Merinos and Hampshires; Romney Marshes and Rambouillets. I read so much about sheep, I began to taste wool all the time. When I closed my eyes at night, I could see sheep, acres and acres of them, feeding happily on the banks of the Battle River, and about this time I began to figure increases again.
Reports Are Not Too Favorable
THE reports of the lamb crop were not so optimistic as I had hoped. Lambs were not arriving in the large numbers I had been led to expect. Several ewes had died, and I feverishly read the books to find out the cause.
The books were plethoric in their information on all points except one, and that is, Why do sheep die? Mine seemed to just take a distaste to life, what the Scotch people call a “scunner,” and droop and fail and cease to be. By the first of April, twenty of them had made the unimpeded journey to the grave.
I tried to tell myself that there were bound to be losses the first year, every enterprise had them, the books hinted at as much, but I did wish that sheep would show cause for their passing away. Just a word, a sign, a hint. This voiceless, wordless, soundless passing was discouraging in the extreme. One day a sheep would mingle with her compatriots, eating, drinking, pushing her way up to the feeding pen, with every appearance of health and determination to see the thing through; the next day, cold and stiff and unresponsive, she would lie on the hillside, turned over on her back like an upset table, with her neat little Chippendale legs in the air.
After a dozen or so of them had gone, I began to think of insurance for the flock, and then it was that I found out that the Insurance Companies know all about the feeble link between sheep and the grave, and they asked a three hundred and ninety dollar premium to cover three thousand dollars’ worth of sheep.
I declined, explaining to them that I had already given my sheep on shares and did not feel like taking in another partner. Even at that, they did not seem worried.
Spring Comes at Last
BUT Spring came at last, overdue, but repentant, and a flush of green came over the hills. A new energy and hopefulness came over the sheep, and I felt happy days were before us. About seventy wobbly lambs, with wondering eyes and elongated legs, had come to fill the gap left by their departed aunties, and in April, the whole flock was sent down to the river flat for their summer pasture.
The man who had taken the sheep on shares had assured me that there was an abundance of free range in the valley of the Battle River. Desolate and barren enough it surely was to keep out intending settlers, but we should have known that there is no land so poor, so rocky, so gravelly, but someone will buy it. There is no such thing as immunity from settlers.
Early in May, one quarter of the Canadian Pacific Railway section was sold, and the price was eighteen dollars an acre. We did not know who had bought the land. That he had never seen it, would be the only extenuating circumstance we could think of. We all had our own opinion of the poor simp whoever he was. Any man who would buy a gravelly hillside, up which he would have to take his machinery with a derrick, was surely lacking in judgment. I believe I said something like this, or perhaps worse.
This was in the Spring; now, in these closing days of October, when I have settled up my accounts, squared up with the Bank, and sit here reviewing the devious path I myself have journeyed, I apologize to this unknown man who bought a collection of gravel stones at eighteen dollars an acre. Who am I, that I should sit in judgment on him? Forgive me, brother, for brother of mine you surely are, and if we meet hereafter at the Old Folks Home, I will grasp your hand in community of spirit.
After the sheep had been taken down to the river, it was necessary to find a herder. When I bought the sheep first, I had some notion of doing this myself, and had often thought of how glorious it would be to sit on the hillside, a handsome collie dog by my side, and watch the flock as they fed on the luscious green grass of the valley; Sabbath stillness all around me, broken only by the birds mating in the woods above me, giving to my thoughts sweet words—sunshine, peace and adoration singing through my heart all day, as I sat and watched the lambkins on the velvet sward at play; lovely picture, full of rapture, but it did not come that way!
The first herder lasted three days, and then left anonymously. The next one quit at the end of the first day.
I Get a Friend on the Job
I HAD a friend at the Coast, whose powers of endurance I knew well, and in this emergency I sent for her. She came at once. We put up a tent for her, and fitted it up with stove, bed, pots, pans, etc., and there she took up her residence for the summer, with revolver, rifle, pony and saddle.
Soon I got a letter from her. “You have been cheated,” the letter said, “if you bought these sheep for breeding stock. Only a few of them have any domestic tendencies. The rest of them are spinsters or wethers; but as racing stock they are hard to beat. Don’t worry about the man who owned them having died of the flu, for he would have died of heart strain any way. Did you say the widow was sorry to part with them? Don’t you believe it; if she shed any tears, I bet they were tears of joy. Some of the dealers told you these sheep would run when she called them. They did not mention the direction, though. Send me a dog, the pony is getting tired!”
Then began a dog hunt. There seemed to be a great dearth of well-trained sheep dogs, but by perseverance we found a beautiful sable collie who had taken three prizes at the Edmonton dog show. His name was “Prince,” and his beautiful appearance proclaimed his aristocratic breeding; but from the very first he refused to work with sheep. He was a cattle dog, and had the cattle man’s point of view on the sheep question.
But Prince wanted to do something to earn his money, and about the second day found some congenial occupation. There were some cattle feeding undisturbed in the valley, and the owners, like all cattle men, were rather resentful of the coming of the sheep. There had been no warfare, however, and everything would have gone well, only for Prince, who, without authority, and entirely on his own initiative, chased every horned beast into the next township!
It was a delicate matter to explain to the cattle owners.
Prince was recalled, and there arose a cry for another dog. After some searching, we found "Nellie,” a slate-colored English sheep dog, short nosed and business-like. There was an unconfirmed rumor that she had a pedigree somewhere, and had very aristocratic forbears. Nellie was not caring. Under beetling brows she looked at life with strong distaste. She had no illusions and trusted no one. I think she must have owned sheep herself once, she was so utterly pessimistic. She would do her duty, nothing more, and she did it always with scornful aloofness that forbade companionship.
Raised on the Bottle
IN June, I went to see the sheep again, and stayed over night in the tent with Pauline. We took more pictures. Perhaps the reader will think that I attach too much importance to these pictures. Well, perhaps if you paid as much for pictures as I did for these, you would regard them with respect too.
On this visit, I made the acquaintance of Bessie and Tommie, two of the lambs. Bessie’s mother had died in the Spring, leaving her, a bright-eyed little wobbler, to be raised on the bottle. Tommie was an unwelcome child, disowned from the first by his mother. She refused to have her free soul bound by family cares, and when tied up for Tommy’s convenience, kicked and struggled to break her neck if not released. “Give me liberty or give me death,” was written in her flashing eyes. We gave her liberty, seeing that she was decent enough to give us a choice in the matter. So Tommy joined the bottle brigade, and he and Bessie were brought up together with Pauline as nurse.
The night was very still, after the sheep had quieted down, so still that I could well believe there was no living thing in the valley. Not a dog barked, not a cow bawled. Nothing but isolation and silence. All my dreams of the peaceful seclusion I would wrap around my soul, came back to me as I lay staring into darkness, but they came back mockingly. Here now, you city dweller, tired of the noise and grind of the city, and weary of its eternal striving, come and bathe your brow in the cooling waters of silence. Reach out and help yourself, there is lots of it here. This is the pastoral life for which you have been crying out. There is nothing between you now and the stars but a very poor piece of canvas. You are far away from the haunts of men, with their tangled problems which have vexed your soul. Be calm and happy now, and indulge yourself in meditation.
But I could not be happy. It was too quiet, too remote, too far away, and when the coyotes on the hills above us opened up for the night, it seemed like a horrible place.
Pauline slept on. Coyotes were an old story to her. The only interest she had in them was to shoot them. I was not exactly afraid. Pauline and her six-shooter were a good protection, if any were needed, and Nellie slept inside the door. The coyotes only put on a short spasm that night, and then ceased, leaving the silence heavier than before.
But all night long, I lay in a strange sort of dread of something. I felt that some terrible noise would come. It must come, everything was so still. It was the nightmare of childhood that had come back, and held me fast in its power. I could only wait helplessly for it to burst.
Suddenly power. it came; loud, horrible and discordant. It broke beside my ear, and I sprang up with a scream. Two woolly faces, with bright eyes and open mouths, confronted me, and the noise ripped through me like a buzz saw.
Then I saw what it was—Tommy and Bessie were simply asking if breakfast was ready!
Pauline, like the good scout she is, was prepared, and two vinegar bottles filled with milk were handed to the lambs. She did this without getting out of bed, holding one in each hand. Never did I see milk disappear faster from a bottle, and when it was gone, she filled up the bottles with water from the zinc pail, and the two lambs took it and went away satisfied.
“They get this every morning,” she said; “I forgot to tell you. I hope they did not frighten you. Now you can go to sleep again.”
When we awakened again, the valley was brimming with sunshine, and the glint of the river, as it wound its way slowly through its bushy course, had a real, neighborly friendliness which warmed my heart.
The sheep were let out of the corral, and quickly made their way to the best feeding places, where they scattered and spread until they were merely like gray specks on the grass. “Grass lice,” Pauline said.
Then she made a fire of sticks in the stove, and the tent soon became so hot that I was glad to make my escape and sit on the shady side of it. It was not long until she brought out her home-made table, spread with a white flour sack, and on it a good breakfast of bacon, fried eggs, toast and coffee.
Then the world, and the sheep industry, looked very good indeed.
Then Came the Drought
TOWARD the end of June came the drought. June—that month of abundant rain in Northern Alberta, so recorded in all our literature and in the memory of the old settlers, suddenly refused to live up to its traditions. Every day the sun, bigger, brighter, hotter than ever, rolled up over the rim of the earth, and began its glittering journey through the blue sky, never glancing at the drooping leaves below. Every day the earth grew hotter and drier and harder, and the leaves more limp and lifeless, but the sun made its daily journey, apparently rubbing its hands in an excess of good fellowship, and went down at evening-time round and yellow and content, as if it had left the world better instead of worse. There was a particularly malicious twinkle in its eye at high noon, when its rays beat down on a row of cabbage plants which had hitherto held up their little heads, sustained by trifling contributions from a watering can, put on after sundown by a tired but hopeful woman, who could not believe her efforts had all been in vain.
The streams grew small, and sand-bars began to show in the Battle River, and the grass on the hillside had a tawny look. But the sheep, born for adversity as they are, seemed to work all the harder, as if determined to eat all they could before the grass was entirely scorched.
There was one field of wheat belonging to the farmer who had wintered them, on which they had been allowed to run after the grain had come up a few inches in the Spring, and in spite of the withering heat and dryness it held up better than any crop in the neighborhood. Its stalks remained green and full of life in spite of all the hardship it endured, and it was the opinion of all who saw it, that the little feet of the sheep had packed the soil and conserved the moisture for the roots—perhaps the time will come when every farmer will realize the value of sheep in the production of crops, especially in the districts likely to be hit by summer drought.
One day, early in July, the weather took a change, if anything more malicious than before, for great banks of clouds, which seemed to promise rain, rolled up from the southwest, and the sun went into hiding. The people watched the sky in an agony of hope. But they were not long left in doubt, for the clouds soon parted and the sun poured down again, just a little more brilliant, a little more defiant and uncaring than before. Then the hot winds began to blow with what seemed like unnecessary violence, for there was nothing left to resist them, yet they seemed under orders to tear each drooping plant out of the ground and scatter it abroad.
Banks of black soil, ribbed and fluted in fantastic shapes like drifts of black snow, edged the fields, as if the wind, in sportive, mood, had made an elaborate mourning for the crops which were no more.
I talked to the woman who had watered the cabbage plants at nightfall. She had grown older since I saw her in the Spring.
“There’s something so hard and heartless about the look of the sun, that it makes me bitter,” she said; “it has a grin on its face when it goes down at night, a regular, threatening leer, as much as to say, ‘I will be back to-morrow to roast you some more’.... Isn’t it right for us to plant seed and expect them to grow. Isn’t it a legitimate undertaking? Or are we presumptuous in thinking we can grow a crop—tell me? Are we getting rapped across the knuckles because we have dared to plant and expect a crop?—tell me, because I can’t think any more?.... It seems hard to believe that God is unfriendly. It does not seem fair, when people are doing their level best.... There are so many other unfriendly things, we rather expect God to stand with us....”
I told her that good times would come again. There had been bad seasons before—every country had them some time. But she interrupted me.
“It will never rain,” she said, moistening her dry lips; “there’s no rain in the clouds—there’s nothing up there but more heat, and this terrible, consuming dryness.... My heart is as dry as my cabbage plants, before the wind blew them away.... I lost something more than the garden this year, or the crop, or any material thing. It isn’t the loss that gets me—I’ve lost things before. My house burned once, with everything we had. Last year our crop froze—and was a total loss. These things happened, but it didn’t get in on me. The house and the crop went suddenly, and we knew the worst. There was no agony of suspense.... But this thing of hoping, fearing, hoping again, every day looking for clouds and finding none—or finding clouds that mean nothing—It gets me.... I can’t stand it.... I won’t stand it.... This is not rebellion.... it is exhaustion.”
There was a grimness in her young face, a settled despair that drove me to the defensive.
I told her that God was still friendly to us, but no doubt He was trying to teach us something—some lesson we had failed to learn, when put before us in pleasanter form. Prosperity had not done much for this neighborhood, for she herself had told me of the troubles and quarrels that had embittered their lives. There had been no good fellowship or kindliness in the days of good crops, but only quarrels and bickerings and meanness. There had been wires cut, and gates thrown into the river, and dogs set on cattle and calves stolen. The people of the neighborhood had not been kind to each other, or mindful of God, in the prosperous days. And now—when prosperity had failed to bring any good spiritual result, was not God justified in trying other means? For He is not willing that any should perish, and tries every way he can think of to save men’s souls. God does not hesitate to mortify the flesh in order that the soul may be saved. Why should He? He did not spare His own Son, in trying to save men’s souls. That is just how important He considers a soul to be.
Not having a very good grip of these things myself, I tried my best to explain them to her, for I know that is a good way to get a fresh grip on the truth, when it seems about to slip away.
And as I looked over the parched gray land, with its burned-out grass—its windswept and sun-baked fields—its gaunt and eager-eyed cattle—its discouraged people, I felt the poisoned breath of unbelief coming up to attack me, and what could I do but send out a barrage of brave words?
To be continued