THE SMOKING FLAX
An Epic of the Canadian prairies by Canada’s outstanding novelist and poet of the West—the story of the heart-hunger of a boy—and the romance of Cal and Minnie: in five instalments.
ROBERT J. C. STEAD
LONG vistas of undulating prairies checkered in black, moist fields. Here and there a grove of green poplars; here and there a farm house, white and peaceful in their shadows. Grass, green and moist, with a purple carpeting of anemones. Water shining from many tiny lakes. Coveys of white clouds like ruffled swans afloat in an infinite sky.
A long road, running straight on forever. Up and down the sweeping vistas of prairie-land; by the checkered black fields breathing deep the still sunshine of early May; through an interminable lane bordered with barbed wire fences. A gopher by the roadside bolt upright and whistling. Fresh damp earth from a badger hole mounded on the trail. The hum of telephone wires. Water gurgling through a culvert. A crow silent upon a neighboring post.
Over the ridge to the eastward an atom suddenly appears where the road leaps out of the sky. It grows rapidly, flashing a heliograph in the sunlight as it approaches. Presently it defines itself as that most familiar of all objects on the prairie trail, ouster of horse and saddle and buekboard and prairie schooner—a Ford automobile. Another hundred yards and it proclaims itself an old Ford automobile, sagging and rumbling and flapping its fenders like a spaniel’s ears.
A man and a boy occupy the front seat, the man at the steering wheel. The boy is of not more than eight or nine years, and his keen little face, upturned to his companion, is ilushed with interest and childish enthusiasm. The two are deep in discussion, and, as we are to travel with them through the pages of this narrative, let us stop them here and climb aboard.
Bump! The dog’s ear fenders flapped against the wheels.
“Whoa, Ante! Watch your step! Mustn’t hit a culvert like that!”
The child’s voice was raised in sturdy protest. “You promised, yesterday, Daddy X;—don’t you remember?” “W hat did I promise, Reed? It slips me.”
“Don’t you remember? When we were stuck in the mud you took the wheel in both hands and you said, Ante, get us out of this and I will be more respectful to you, and I won’t ask you to wade in the mud, and I’ll call you by your full name, always—‘Ante-lope,’ like that.”
“Dear me, so I did! But then, she didn’t get us out of the mud, did she? W e had to have a farmer haul us with his team, at the price of our last dollar—”
“It was a promise, and we got out,” said the boy, solidly.
They were bowling along and had just crested the next hill. Suddenly the shining surface of the lake broke upon their vision.
“W hoa, Ante lope!" and the driver brought his car to a stop.
For a full minute the two companions gazed in silence at the scene outspread before them. The prairie levels broke abruptly into a deep valley, blazoned on its higher slopes with vivid patches of light green poplarâ and balm-o -gileads; on its lower reaches with the darker hues of stately elms. Between the broad banks, and filling all the bed of the valley, lay the lake, its surface shining like a mirror of quick-silver.
“This must be the lake shown on our map,” said Calvin Beach. “See, there at the western end, is the deep green of the marshes. Beyond those marshes, according to the map, the road swings across the valley, and there is a bridge over the river that feeds the lake.”
“And we are to camp there to-night, aren’t we, Daddy X?”
“That is the intention, if Ant e-lope only continues faithful to the end.”
ALONG the crest of the northern shore of the lake they skirted, the boy silent in wonder at the great cloud reflections floating far below, the driver busy with his and with thoughts, which, even in this peaceful setting, mui have had in them something of cloud and
shadow, too. The shades of evening trailed farther and farther behind; the sunlight blazed more squarely in their faces; the road unwound itself like an endless belt beneath their flying wheels.
Presently they reached the valley levels. Cal released the brakes and the car floated forward with its pent-up momentum. Here they turned to the south, and a tall shadow-car, with funny oval wheels and a very top-heavy body, glided silently on their left until they plunged into a grove of ancient elms.
“Oh, Daddy X!” the boy cried, clapping his hands. “We’ve won! See, it was racing Ante—Ant e-lope, and
watching us instead of the road, and it ran right into the elms!”
“A driver always should watch the road,” said Cal. “Yes,” the boy agreed. “There might be a culvert.” The young man made a feint of having received a blow in a vital part of his anatomy. “That’s one to you, Reed,” he admitted. “But watch out—”
Suddenly the winding road, as though by a wiggle of its great back-bone, straightened out before them. It led along a well graded turnpike to the yawning arches of a steel bridge, but off to the side, almost buried in a growth of grass and infant poplars, a side trail led down to an old ford where the settlers had braved the river for a score of years before the building of the bridge.
“This should be a good place to camp; what say you, Ant e-lope?”
They climbed out and stretched their limbs. “To the big stump and back!” Reed suddenly challenged, and was off like the wind, while his companion dallied for a moment to make a race of it at the finish. Panting, they came up together, but it was the boy’s hand that touched the dog-eared fender first.
Reed brought the “grub box” out of the car as Cal started a fire with a few twigs on the gravel. Presently sausages were sizzling in the frying-pan and the smell of steaming tea went up like sweet incense from their little altar. A hot sausage, split and laid between two stout slabs of bread, and supper was served.
When they had put away the remnants of their meal and scoured their utensils in the sand the boy stood down by the water and skipped stones across the stream. He amused himself at this until the yellow bars of light faded out between the trees and the reflection of the steel bridge died in the darkness. Once or twice the sharp whistle of a wild duck’s flight broke upon his ear, and his quick eye located the speedy traveler just as he faded into the grey of heaven; once a muskrat ventured forth from the opposite bank and dived, silent and graceful, at the challenge of Reed’s stone; once a team and wagon rumbled over the bridge; otherwise all was silence save the low murmur of the water and the skip and chuckle of the stones which he threw upon it.
“All right, Reed,” said a voice behind him. “Time to turn in . . . Now say your verse and go to bed,” said Cal, after they had watched the fire smoulder for a while.
The lad clasped his hands, and, raising his face to the bright stars, repeated solemnly the words, “A bruised reed he shall not break, and the smoking flax he shall not quench.”
“That was what my mother said, last, wasn’t it, Daddy X?” said the boy.
“And that is why you called me Reed, because my mother was a bruised reed, isn’t it, Daddy X?”
“Yes, lad. But you cannot understand. Some day, perhaps, you will understand.” But under his breath he renewed the promise given to the boy’s dead mother: “He never shall; he never shall!”
DEED slipped silently from the knee-pants and shirt ^ which were his principal attire; his shoes and stockings had been discarded early in the evening, when he went to throw stones in the water. For a moment the glint of his trim young body shone ruddy in the light of the fire; then, with a contortion, it disappeared within the folds of his nightgown,
“Porter, am deh berfs made’up?” he demanded.
“Massa, deh berfs am made up,” Cal answered, with great gravity.
tree, for his bed-time smoke. These bed-time smokes were his thinking hour. During the day his time and thought were given to Reed and Antelope, but at night, after the boy was in bed, he would sit by the camp-fire and marshal past, present, and future in review.
“What a kid he is!” he exclaimed, to himself. “Eightnine in September. Twenty-six, eh, Cal? With a family, but without a wife. How time flies—and how it drags! Both. The days seem endless, but how the weeks slip by!
“Eight years—nine in September. Twenty-six. I used to think a man was old at twenty-six. And so he is. I am old at twenty-six.”
He leaned back, his square shoulders resting against the tree, while his mind, from contemplating the childhood of Reed, skipped down the years to his own first recollections. There stretched the leafy street in the little university city of Kingston ; there basked the big garden in which he and Celesta romped as children. There were the apple tree and the swing, and the flower beds that must not be touched, except by permission. There was the solid limestone house, with vines clambering over the porch and shutters.
Inside, his father sat in the big chair in front room upstairs, with the fireplace and walls lined with books. It seemed to Cal that front room had always been filled with books and shadows, with his father, master shadow of them all, in the big chair before the fire. As Cal remembered him his father was very tall, with a stoop, and a face which receded wherever the bones would let it, and a way of being busy just now. Cal had always thought of his father as old. There were times, rare times, when his father wasn’t busy just now; times when the lad clambered up the long, thin legs and explored the strange cavities in their owner’s face. Those were moments not to be forgotten, but they came only at great intervals. Professor Loach’s devotion to his university had to be bought with a price, so it seemed. And it was Cal who paid.
CAL and Celesta. Celesta, two years older than Cal, was able to recall, partly by memory, more by imagination, the brave days before Mama went away. These were the days when Daddy wasn’t always busy just now; days of walks and picnics and great times before the study fire. Those were the days, so Celesta said, although Cal never quite credited this, before the strange hollows had come in Daddy’s face. Then the angels came-for Mama—that was how Celesta told it— and sent men to carry her away in a black box. And Aunt Bertha had come to live in her place.
Cal had learned why the hollows had dug their deep trenches in his father’s face. The day he was fourteen he was summoned into the study. “Sit down, Calvin, my boy,” said a voice out of the shadows. “I think you are fourteen to-day. Quite a man now, Cal, eh?”
“Yes, Daddy,” said the boy, wondering for what offence he had been summoned.
“I am just three times your age, Calvin; just forty-two. Not very old, eh, Calvin?”
Cal thought forty-two was very old, but he did not say so. He had learned that the professorial mind is not to be disputed.
“Forty-two is not very old, Calvin,” his father repeated, “but I suppose it must be old enough. One can grow very weary in even forty-two years. But fourteen is very young to be left alone.”
“Why, Daddy, are you going away?” said Cal, catching only half his father’s meaning.
“When? May I go? And Celesta?”
“Not now. Later. I am going to your mother, Calvin. Sometime this year.”
It seemed to Cal that his father had purposely chosen to sit in the shadow where his face could not be seen clearly. The boy felt as though a great band were tightening about his ribs.
“You had to know, Calvin,” his father continued, after a silence, “and it is as well that you should know now. I have seen this coming, ever since your mother went, and before. That is why I took the extra classes at the university, so that there might be something saved for you and Celesta ... It isn’t much. If I had been a farmer, or a bricklayer, or a machinist—but a university professor! Doctor of languages; seven languages as my mother tongue— But there, I must not be bitter. When the bills are paid it will keep you and Celesta perhaps two years. Then you will have to make your way, my boy.”
CAL had meant to answer bravely, but on the last words came a catch in his father’s voice, and the next he knew he was up and infolded in the long, thin arms. Tears were mingled, and Cal went out with a blessing and a memory.
After the death of his father Cal learned that the house in which he had always known as home was in some way connected with the university, and they must vacate it. Aunt Bertha saw them settled in rooms in a cheaper part of the town and left them with her blessing and the explanation that their little capital would support two longer than three. Celesta was quite old enough to keep house.
In preparation for their expedition Cal Beach, with a plumber’s kit and help from a friendly blacksmith, had performed a surgical operation of some delicacy upon the ancient Ford which had just then come into his possession. The back of the front seat was amputated at the flanks and so arranged that it folded down, bridging, as it were, the space between the front and back cushions. In this position, with all the cushions in place and furnished with a camp mattress, blank ets, and pillows, a very passable bed was provided. Reed slept on the driver’s side to save Cal the danger of barking his long shins on the steering post, and, with this precaution, they were as comfortable as in any Pullman.
Cal had arranged the back and the cushions, spread the mattress, turned back the blankets, placed the pillows. Reed clung for a moment about his neck, then vaulted over the rattly sidedoor, flickering an affectionate hand toward his companion as he went.
“Good night, Daddy X,” he called.
‘‘Good night, Reedie-boy.”
Reed turned to a study of the stars which peered down, very thick and friendly, from the Milky Way overhead, and Cal retraced his steps to the fire, musing as he went over the amazing wonderlands of childhood. He stirred the fire to new life with ■ some fresh branches and settled down, his back against a friendly
A lawyer who had been named their guardian paid the rent of their little flat and gave them a weekly living allowance. Celesta proved a good manager, and when they had recovered from the first shock of their father’s death life for the brother and sister moved very pleasantly indeed. Cal finished his high school course at sixteen and declared himself ready to carry out his aunt’s decree about going to work, but Celesta would have none of it. “When you have gone through university, Cal,” she said; “then I will let you work for me. Until then I am going to work for you.”
Cal protested, but Celesta's mind was made up, and Cal being the younger, had come to know how inexorable was his sister’s mind when it was made up. “The house work is nothing,” she had said; “I can do it morning and evening, like winking. I can get work in an office, and it will be fun to have my big brother in college. You will work through the summer. I am sure we can manage.”
So Cal was persuaded; Celesta went to an office, and he to college. He had not troubled to decide for what particular purpose he would go to college; that could come later. All went well for a year or two, but the time came when Celesta’s devotion to her office and her housekeeping seemed suddenly to be interrupted. There were many nights when she had “a date”; there were evenings when she did not come home to dinner. Cal, philosophical always, accepted the situation, mildly wondering.
Finally came the day when Celesta announced that she was going to Montreal; she had been offered a much better position; she could make more money; it would be to Cal’s advantage more than hers. He could stay at a boarding house; it would be more companionable than their lonely rooms. The idea appealed to Cal but little, but he accepted it without much argument.
After Celesta had gone she sent him money two or three times, generously, but at irregular intervals; then the remittances ceased altogether. Fortunately Cal had found summer work in a printing office, so he was not penniless, but an uneasiness concerning Celesta grew upon him. He had just turned eighteen, and those eighteen years had flowed, in the main, along the sheltered paths of life. He was neither suspicious nor sophisticated. He had an undefined but abounding confidence in the goodness of humanity. He was an optimist.
' I 'HEN, one evening, just as he came home to his -*■ boarding house from the printing shop, a telegram was placed in his hand. He looked at it curiously, signed for it, and carried it to his room. It was a new and somewhat important experience; never before had he received a telegram. Un his way upstairs he began to associate it with Celesta. Perhaps she was coming home; perhaps he was to meet her at the train! He took the last three steps at a bound.
In his room he tore open the envelope. The upper part of the sheet was a series of unintelligible characters, but the central sentence leapt out at him.
“Your sister very sick in private hospital here wrants you.
It was a moment before Cal grasped its significance. When he read it again he saw it was signed by a Doctor Anson, and an address was given.
The boy walked to the window and looked out on the quiet street, filled with the glory of September. But he saw nothing of the glory now, for a tremendous fear was clutching at his heart. “Celesta! Celesta!” The name came dry from his lips. Could there be a world—could there be life without Celesta?
There was time to catch the evening train, and he fortunately had a few dollars in his pocket. He packed the battered club bag handed down by Dr. Beach, told the landlady he would be gone for a day or two, and hurried away.
It was midnight when he reached the city. At the hospital a nurse led him into the room. Un the bed a woman was lying, her face pale, worn; her eyes closed; her dark hair braided and falling about her cheeks. She stirred w ith a sense of their presence.
“Is she your sister?” the nurse asked, gently.
But the boy was beside the bed, leaning over, peering into her face. “Celesta!” he cried. “Celesta!”
Slowly she opened her eyes, strangely big against her pale, thin face, and looked into his. “Cal,” she breathed. “Cal, my brother. I have been expecting you.”
She drew a thin hand from under the coverlet and reached for his. “Cal, my brother!”
“I came at once first train after the telegram. Why didn’t you let me know? What is the matter?”
Celesta’s eyes swept the little room. The nurse had gone. Then the lids fell and, as he watched, Cal saw little pools of water gather through her lashes.
“Celesta, dear,” he whispered. “Tell me.”
“It isn’t easy telling,” she said, at length, in a voice so low he hardly could hear it. “I wonder what you will think. Look.”
Gently she turned down the coverlet and Cal got a vision of a little pink head, with eyes prodigiously puckered against the light, and a little pink fist clutched
Again she closed her eyes. “I am not married, Cal,” she murmured.
The boy staggered to a chair, dazed by the terrific, unexpected blow1. When he did not speak she continued in a voice that was all pleading and yet had in it a note of challenge, almost of defiance— the voice of the selfwilled Celesta: “Try not to think too bitterly of me, Cal. I won’t be here long. The doctor says—something wrong —I will not get better.”
He was at her side again. “I do not think bitterly of you, Celesta. But . . . ” His voice failed. Then, his cheek against hers; “Tell me, Celesta.”
“It’s not much to tell. I loved him. I thought he was a god. I neglected you for him. I gave up everything, for him. Then—he persuaded me to leave you, that our secret might be kept. He made me great promises; he promised me everything. Then, at last, he—he went away ... I know I am to blame, Cal; I accept my punishment, but—I loved him. He was half god, halfhalf devil.”
“And now you hate him, as I hate him,” said Cal, through his teeth.
Again she turned her eyes to him. “No, Cal. I love him.”
He leaned back perplexed, confused, struggling in currents too deep for his years. “What can I do?” he demanded, after a silence.
“Will you do one thing for me? Bring up the boy as your own, and promise he shall never know. Promise me that, Cal.” And, folding her within his arms, he promised.
“Uh, it is true, Cal—it is true!” she cried, when he had released her. “See—the promise.” She pointed to a motto, the only decoration that hung on the bare walls. “A bruised reed shall he not break and the smoking flax shall he not quench.”
“That has been my ray of light, Cal. I have yearned to it, hung on it, all these days. His kindness which would not break the bruised reed—would it reach out to me? It has—it does, in you!” The boy took her in his arms again, and for lack of something better to say whispered in her ear. “My bruised reed—my bruised reed!”
Finally she sent him to get a room, and a sleep. He did not see her again, alive.
Cal was fortunate enough to find a Mrs. Barnes, who had raised six boys and sent them out into the world, and whose mother heart was still unsatisfied. When Mrs. Barnes looked into the great blue eyes of Celesta’s baby it was not hard to make a bargain.
“What is his name? she asked.
“Reed—Reed Beach,” said Cal.
MRS. BARNES took Cal as a boarder, as well as the baby, and Cal immediately found work in a printing office. He had made up his mind that under no circumstances would he go back to his old home. The secret of Celesta was well hid. The hospital had known her as a Mrs. Raymond. He had given his pledge for the boy’s sake, and for the boy’s sake, and Celesta’s, and his own, that pledge he would keep though the heavens fell.
The few belongings he had left at the boarding house would satisfy his small debts.
It was when Reed was almost three, and giving promise of being another “tremendous” boy, as Aunt Bertha would have said, that Cal conceived the conceit of teaching the lad to call him “Daddy X.” Daddy he was already called; X the he added in its algebraic sense, as signifying the unknown quantity.
About this time a quickening interest in sociology excited within him a determination to resume his university studies. He re-entered college, this time with a definite purpose in view. At nights he continued his reportorial rounds to make a living for himself and the boy.
Cal recalled the proud day, now only a few months ago, when, his course completed, he had faced the world on what he considered his mission of life. His immediate plan was to do a series of sociological studies for one of the more serious minded magazines, and at the same time gather material for a book for popular circulation, which he hoped would not only advance his cause but provide money with which he could continue his work. But he had barely begun on this program when Dr. Anson, in whom he had found a personal friend, vetoed it.
“It’s the open air for you, my boy,” he had said, after the examination; “the open air, and no more of this day and night grind. A year or two in the open, say on the prairies, and you may be all right. No more of this
“But, Doctor, my work —”
“But, Cal, your life—and your boy.”
The boy. Uh, yes, there was the boy. Of course, the
Reed was eight now; going to school; healthy, happy; more “tremendous” than even Cal had been; whimsical; romantic; serious only in those bed-time moments when Cal reminded him of his mother, Celesta, and they repeated his verse together, and he told him whence his name had come. Yes, there was the boy.
Cal had gathered his little capital about him, bought a second-hand Ford and some camping utensils, and said
good-bye to the heartbroken Mrs. Barnes. And here they were.
The fire had died until only a few coals glowed before him; a chill of night air came up from the lake; the stars shone stolidly overhead. The river, swollen with the spring overflows of the prairie sloughs, muttered gurglingly at his feet. Into its black tide he looked as though it could give, perhaps, some answer to the mystery of life.
Then he yawned, tapped the ashes from his pipe, put ¡t away, and went to bed.
CHAPTER III. ’
REED awakened with the sun pouring in upon him.
His arm, reaching under the blankets beside him, found the place empty, and he sprang up from his pillow. Un the gravel near by he saw Cal bending over a fire.
“Hello, Daddy X!” he cried. “Why didn’t you call me? What luck for breakfast?”
With a sudden contortion of his arms the boy emerged from his night dress. There was a gleam of sunlight on his lithe little body as he plunged into the stream. He came up sputtering and shaking.
“O-o-w-h!” he shouted. The boy was jumping about on the gravel “O-ow-h! —Where’s the towel?”
“Try a sun rub, Reed. It’s better for you and saves laundry.”
The boy raced up and down the bank, rubbing his body with his hands as he went. In a minute or two the morning sun and air had whipped him clean and dry.
Gn the way up the long hill out of the valley Reed slipped from his happy world of make-belief. “What are we going to do for gasoline, Daddy X?” he ventured. “You gave our last money to the man who pulled us out of the mud.”
“Yes. We are in a bad way. We have neither money nor gasoline. What do we do when we have neither money nor gasoline?”
“Write a story.”
But Cal shook his head. The youngster was thinking of the recourse Cal had had to newspapers in the cities they had come through; he was generally able to sell some kind of “story” to buy gasoline and food.
“No newspaper market here,” he had to say.
“Isn’t there a paper in Plain ville?”
“A country paper. But country papers don’t buy stories, usually. The editor writes his own, or acquires them by means of a long pair of shears and a paste pot. No, we must go to work.”
“Where? Una farm?”
“Un a farm. Gn the first farm we come to. Certainly on a farm within five miles.”
They were up on the rolling prairie again, bowling through a country tufted with groves of small poplars and willows. Presently a trail led off to the left through a gate in a wire fence and lost itself amidst the poplars. Cal turned the wheels to the left and the rickety car contorted itself strangely but successfully down into the ditch and up again. The gate was open and they rumbled along a trail threading its way among the poplars. Suddenly it broadened into an open space and they found themselves in the midst of a village of farm buildings. There was a scurrying of poultry out of their way, and much chatter from a flock of geese more than half disposed to hostility. Cal brought his car to an abrupt stop wedged between an obstreperous steer and the corner of a log building.
Around the corner of the building, from the eastward, came the shadow of a man, grotesque and squatty on the hard packed earth of the barnyard. In immediate pursuit of the shadow came the substance; six feet and sixty years of substance; broad-chested substance under a blue cotton shirt and blue duck overalls held in precarious position by a pair of red leather suspenders with two ruptured eyelets; the whole surmounted by a large, ruddy, and not ill-natured face, fringed about the ears with a pleasant tangle of grey hairs and topped with a submissive lump of straw hat.
“Whoa, Eliza!” he exclaimed. “Jumpin’ jack rabbits, who have we here?”
“Two hired men,” said Cal. ‘You weren’t expecting us.” “Not as you’d notice it. Whose hired men?”
HP HE farmer removed the twisted accumulation from his head and harrowed his scalp with his thick fingers. “Well, I’ll be danged,” he confided at last. “I admit bein’ in Plain ville last night an’ havin’ a bit more formalin than was good for me, but I don’t have no recollection of hirin’ a man an’ a boy an’ a tin Lizzie. What is the deal?”
The farmer’s partial confession opened an unexpected channel for Cal’s quick wits. “Forty dollars a month for me, during the season,” he said; “the boy gets his board and goes to school, and Lizzie makes herself useful about the farm if you furnish the gasoline.”
The thick fingers gently continued their harrowing, while a twinkle of amusement lit up the broad, red face.
“Not so bad,” he confided. “I was afraid I might have sold you the farm, or got you engaged to Minnie, or traded off the wife’s spaniel, or something serious like
that. Well, Jackson Stake is a man that stands by his bargain. But one thing,” he added, with an apparent twinge of apprehension; “nothin o’ this to the wife. She’s a suspeecious creature, is the wife. I think she doubts all was well at Plain ville last night. Not a word o’ it to her. I’ll tell her I met you just now on the road and hired you, an’ that’s all there’s to it. I can use another man all right, an’ the boy can go to school, but you’ll have to sleep in a granary. As for Lizzie, you can pasture her out. I drive a Dodge.”
“Good. Lead us to the granary, and let us get to work.”
“Give ’er the juice,” said Jackson Stake, and as Cal drew the car by him the farmer hopped on to the runningboard with the agility of a boy of twenty. “To the right, around the pig pen. Gee! Gee! Don’t you know gee from haw? To the right. Look out for the sow! Look out for the hay rack! Look out for the wagon tongue! There, the frame caboose, straight ahead.”
Cal steamed straight ahead toward the “caboose,” speeding up as he went, and brought the ear to a sudden stop a yard from the door. The old man lurched forward with a jerk but did not lose his grip. “Jumpin’ jack rabbits! If you’re as quick a starter as you are a stopper, we’ll get along fine . . . This is it.”
They got out and inspected “it.” It was a frame building, twelve by fourteen feet; one thickness of drop siding nailed to two-by-four studs; floored with shiplap; roofed with shingles; a door in one end, a window, which could be removed, in the other. A heap of old sacks with a musty smell; a heap of old harness with a leathery smell; an old fanning-mill without any smell.
“Well, this is it,” the farmer repeated. “You can dump this stuff in the hay shed, an’ the wife’ll give you a broom an’ a mop, if you’re fastid’ous. Got your own blankets?”
“Good! Now I’ll go up to the house an’ sort of break it gently. You know what it is to cook for two more mouths. Dang it, I don’ blame ’er. If there’s any •doggonder job than a farmer's it’s a farmer’s wife’s.
In about ten minutes she’ll he prepared for the worst, an’ you can bump in then to borrow the broom. Mind, now, give me ten minutes!”
And the old farmer was off houseward, pursued by a scouting detachment from the poultry yard.
Cal and Reed exchanged looks which began seriously,
■and ended simultaneously in an outbreak of laughter.
“But he didn't hire us last night, Daddy X,” the boy protested, when his sides were settled.
“And I didn’t say he did, if you noticed,” Cal returned. “Just a bit of good luck, and when Fate hands you a bit of good luck don’t question her too closely.
Now, let’s wrestle this stuff out of here. Let me see— that’s the hay shed over there beyond the pig pen.”
CAL took an observation of the position. It was evident that in the laying out of this ramble of structures on Jackson Stake’s homestead no town planner had been employed. The place gave promise of enormous interest.
The granary which was to be their home was built on two logs or skids, roughly pointed, so that it could be hauled beside the “set” at threshing time and filled direct from the separator. It seemed to have been left just at the spot where the loitering of the horses had over balanced the persistence of their driver. It pointed nowhere in particular. Near by, and similarly pointed, was another granary, its exact double. It gave signs of habitation, as over the door, scrawled with brown paint on the side of an apple box, was the legend, “Dinty Moore.”
Cal absorbed these general facts as he loaded the sacks and harness into the Ford for transportation to the hay shed. When this was done they went up to the house, assuming that Jackson Stake would now have completed his preliminary overtures.
The door was open, and their shadows, falling inwards, announced their presence. Jackson Stake was seated in a big chair, prodding his pipe with a straw from the kitchen broom, while Mrs. Stake wrestled an ample armful of dough on the wooden table. “This is the missus,” said the farmer, without rising. “She’ll be glad to see you.”
“I’d be a heap gladder to see a woman,” said Mrs. Stake, severely, without looking up from her dough. “You men are all alike; seem to think there’s no limit to the mouths a woman can fill. Jackson can always get another man or two, whether he needs him or not, but I can’t get a woman, not for the soul o’ me. Come in!”
She was tall and square, big boned and not over fleshed. As she kneaded the dough the muscles of her arms rose and fell like those of a man. With a knife she severed a section, moulded it skilfully into shape, and tucked it into a pan with a twin brother. With all her brusqueness there was a touch of something akin to tenderness as she patted it into place. She crossed the floor with quick, straight strides and set it to rise on a board bridging two
chairs beside the oven. Then as she looked up, “Hello? Where’d the boy come from?”
“Yours? Did you hire him, too, Jackson?” Apparently Jackson’s courage had failed him before he got this far in his revelation. “Yours, did you say?” again to Cal. “Yours and whose?”
BY MIDDAY the granary wore a very - different appearance. The floor had come through the ordeal of soap and water with mixed emotions, but now, convinced that no harm was intended, and that this was only the strange way of these strange people, it smiled back pleasantly upon Cal and Reed as they sorted their few belongings into position. The cushions from the Ford would continue to be their bed; set on the corner of the floor, and equipped with mattress, blankets, and pillows, they looked tempting enough for a noonday nap, not to speak of nights after heavy labor in the fields.
“Mine—adopted. My sister’s,” Cal explained.
Mrs. Stake looked at Reed and Reed looked at Mrs. Stake, and as they looked all the woman’s sternness melted into an expression very human and motherly. “Come on in, son,” she said. “I know you’re hungry. Boys o’ eight or nine are always hungry. I’ve raised three, an’ I know.”
She broke a bun from a fine fresh brown panful just out of the oven and placed it in the boy’s hand. Then she turned to her kneading. “It’s not that I mind work,” she confided in the dough; “what I mind is everlastin' work, mornin’, noon an’ night; never done. The men can get help, even when they don’t partic’lar need it, but the women just have to plug along. There’s Minnie, now; if she’d stuck to the farm—• But she bolted. I dunno as I blame her. Some days I’m blame near boltin’ myself. Well, what d’ye want?” to Cal, who still stood framed in the doorway.
“A broom and a mop, if you please,” Cal answered.
“To brush up the granary a bit.”
Mrs. Stake regarded Cal with some curiosity. “Partic’lar, ain’t ye? Well, I dunno but it’s a good idea.” She rubbed the dough from her hands and filled a pail with hot water. From behind the door she produced a broom and a mop, and severely handed the lot to!Cal, who thanked her and started for the granary. At the corner by the leaky water barrel he was arrested by her sharp voice calling him.
“You’ll be sendin’ the boy to school,” she called, “an’ I’ll wager his clo’es is more holy than righteous. Bring ’im in to-night an’ I’ll darn ’im up.”
It was noon before they knew it, filled with that peculiar lightness of heart which has to do with the making of a place in which to live. The jingle of trace chains and the heavy stamping of work horses were their first reminder that the morning was gone. The farmyard shook itself awake, discarded its air of sunny indolence, and suddenly became a scene of bustling activity. Twelve great horses, arranged in three teams of four,eschharnessed a-breast, sweeping in from the fields, now crowded aggressively about the long wooden water trough in the centre of the yard—(if an area so undefined as Jackson Stake’s farm-yard can be said to have a centre. Just where the yard began or ended no one knew or cared.) A lanky young man with a gait apparently ac quired in the supporting of his overalls moved a lever and presently from overhead came the rush of air in the blades of the windmill and the slow “clank . . clank” of the connecting-rod as it operated the pump.
“Grit, old Jim is checked up,” said the young man, with the gait to a head suddenly thrust through a space in the shouldering mass of horse-flesh. The head was crowned with a straw hat which, either through age or
misadventure, had lost the greater part of its brim; underneath the remnant a pair of deep eyes twinkled slowly as though lit by unseen fires of humor far within, and an expanse of cheek and chin gave root-hold to a stubby whisker well laden with dust and sand.
"Got to check ’im, Gander,” said the head. “He won’t do nothin’ but flirt with this Mollie-mare if he ain’t checked up short. Fact. When I think o’ him, an’ then o’ you, I says to myself, ‘Old bay, you’re almost human.’ ”
"Come, Dinty, I ain’t no flirt,” said the man addressed as Gander. “You know that.
Ain’t in my line.” But his voice suggested that the charge was not distasteful
“Can I help':” said Cal, who had approached unheard above the clamor of the horses. “I am the new hired man. My name is Cal Beach!”
The two others turned toward hin, and regarded him for a moment in silence. Whi'e they were thus engaged a third figure, a youth of eighteen or thereabout -’merged from the mass All three regarded him.
“Well, welcome to our city,” said the man who answered alternately to the names Grit and Dinty. “You’re the new hired man. I’m the old hired man. It's the business of the old hired man to boss the new hired man, eh, Gander?”
Gander was non-committal.
"Didn’t know Dad was figurin’ on hirin' any more help." he remarked. "However, he's the doctor. What can you do?”
"Not so very much, I am afraid. I can drive a Ford—”
" ‘An’ it takes a good man to do that.’ ” Grit chanted from a popular song.
"— and horses a little, and I’m middling strong, and—I’ve been through university.”
The words were not out before he realized how inapt they were.
“Hang it!” he thought, “that isn’t what I meant. I meant to let them know that I wasn’t a dub, that I had sense, that I could pick up things if they gave me a chance.”
“Sounds all right, all but the last,” said Gander. “Don’ know as what they learn you in the university ’ll help much. A man on a farm don’ need no D.D.’s, or whatever it is, after his name.
What he wants is horse power an’ savvy. Well, we’ll see. Go down to the barn an’ throw some hay in the mangers.”
“Savvy,” thought Cal. “That was the word. Means the same thing—or should—But does it?”
pAL arid Reed had barely time to fill the mangers from the hay shed when the horses were down upon them. As each came in, nodding his head and clanking his harness prodigiously, he walked straight to his stall and made an immediate inspection of the oat box nailed to the corner of the manger. Finding it empty his nostrils went up in annoyance, but a moment later, evidently on the theory that half a loaf is better than no bread, he plunged into the fragrant hay.
“Hello, who’s the kid?” said Gander, encountering the boy in the doorway. "Another hired man?”
“What’s your name?”
Gander stroked the back of his long neck meditatively.
You don ’ mean he’s your daddy,” he said, indicating Cal with a jerk of his head.
“He’s my Daddy X.”
Gander seemed to mouth a remark, but swallowed it. Then :
“An’ have you been through university, too?” Cal, from bis work between two horses, heard the words, and they struck home nastily. But his heart bounced at the boy’s prompt rejoinder:
“Not yet, but I’m going to. Have you?”
"Y by, no; can’t say as I have,” said Gander, and his hand dropped from his long neck and gave Reed’s hair a
not unfriendly tousle. “All the horses got oats?” he demanded, in a voice intended to reach Grit Wilson. “Well, c’mon an’ eat. C’mon, Cal.”
The youth of eighteen or so had preceded them to the house. Humped over a bench beside the water barrel he was engaged in splashy and noisy ablutions.
“That’ll do, Ham,” said Wilson, crowding him away from the bench very much as the horses had crowded each
other at the water trough. “You ain’t titivatin’ to go over to Double F’s at this time o’ day.”
Wilson inspected the granite-ware basin, half full of dirty water, as though debating whether the fluid would serve one more turn. Evidently he decided against it. With a sweep of his arm he sprayed the water over the yard.
“You don’ need washin’,” said Gander to Cal and Reed, who were standing waiting their turn. “Go on in.” “Oh, we’d rather wash, if we may,” said Cal.
“Sure, you may. No law agin it,” Gander agreed. “Go ahead.”
A side of biscuit tin nailed to the wall made a passable mirror, and a wire comb chained nearby completed the toilet equipment.
“C’mon,” said Gander again. “Don’ keep the ol’ lady waitin’. She’s a bit skittish.”
Inside, a long table, covered with oilcloth that had once been white but through which black smudges of wear were now showing at the creases and corners, stood in the middle of the floor.
Cal and Reed hung back. “Sit down, anywhere,” said Jackson Stake. “No formal’ties. Now dig in.”
They “dug in” —into boiled potatoes and mashed turnips and fried pork and hot, strong tea and bread t hick and white and flakey and butter smooth and yellow
and delicious. Mrs. Stake had a large family to feed, and she fed them, as her husband said, without formalities, but she fed them well.
“We’re a bit rough an’ ready,” she apologized to Cal as she loaded his plate. “ ’Specially since Minnie left I don’t get time to wash any more dishes than I jus’ can’t help. You’re a city man an’ I reckon you’ve been places where they give you a heap , more tablecloth an’ a heap less to eat. More puddin’, son?” to Reed. “Fill up. It’s a long time till supper.”
' I 'HE men consumed amazA ingly big meals in an amazingly short time, and as each cleared his plate he got up and went out. Presently Cal noted that only he and Reed remained. Mrs. Stake swept the soiled dishes from a corner of the tab’e and sat, down with her wellladen plate.
“Ever worked on a farm?” she demanded, presently.
“No. This will be my first attempt. I expect to find it a great life.”
“Don’ over-expect yourself. It’s a great life, all right, if you don’ have to live it. That’s why everybody’s leavin’ the farm for the city.”
“But they’re not,” Cal ventured to correct her. “For example, I’ve just left the city for the farm.”
“That’s so,” she said, looking at him curiously, as though she were examining some kind of specimen. Then, after a pause, “That’s so. Perhaps I don’ see it quite straight, thinkin’ so much o’ Minnie. You don’ know her, of course. Well, she’s my daughter — my only daughter, twenty-one in June, an’ I set a heap by her. But would she stay on the farm? Not for the soul or sake o’ her. She’s thumpin’ one o’ them writin’ machines in a lawyer’s office in Plainville— though wha’ they have to write about so much in Plainville beats me—an’ I’m still scrapin’ the pots an’ pans.”
Something suspiciously like moisture gathered in the old woman’s eyes and sent her reaching for the corner of her apron. “Land’s sakes, you’re long eaters!” she suddenly exclaimed. “The men’ll be wantin’ your help with the teams, though if you’re just from the city I reckon they won’ be missin’ much. But you may as well jump in at once, as they say, an’ get your feet wet. Away wi’ye!” She waved them out of the house.
“It’s not that she wanted to hurry us off to work,” Cal summed it up to himself. “She had shown a little more of her heart than she intended—to a stranger. And not a bad heart at that, or I’m mistaken ... I wonder about this Minnie.”
Gander’s four horses were lined up like company on parade, and Gander was busy snapping the reins to the bits and affectionately cuffing the muzzles curled up at him as he went by.
“Will you show me how to do that?” Cal asked. “Let me get the system of it in my head. I’ll savvy if you give me a chance.”
/ZANDER turned a not unfriendly look upon him.
“Now you’re shoutin’,” he said. “It’s easy; see—”
Gander chirped to his team and they were on their way, the idle traces, flung over the horses’ broad backs, jingling pleasantly as they went.
“She’s been handin’ us a line o’ good weather. I’ll say,” Gander remarked, by way of conversation. “That’s one thing about a farmer; he can’t make his conditions. I le’s got to take the weather God sends him, an’ make the best of it. We’re ploughin’ now for oats; Grit and Ham ploughin’, an’ me followin’ wi’ the seeder. Sixty acres yet to plough for oats; then forty more for barley. Double F was saying—that’s him lives over on the next farm to the west —as he has a hunderd acres in oats now, but I bet he ain’t. Double F always has more acres at seedtime than when the bushels are counted from the thresher. Giddap, Jim! What you trippin’ over?”
The great bay on the right answered with a shuffle of his body as much as to say, “Sorry; excuse me this time,” and switched his tail at an imaginary fly.
“Why do you call him Double F?” Cal inquired. “You seem to have some funny names.”
“Oh, I dunno. His name’s Fraser Fyfe, so we cut it down to Double F. School teacher here, Annie Frolic— you’ll be goin’ to her, Reed, once you get settled—says it means very loud, but I don’t see no connection. Ham’s a bit soft on Double F’s daughter Elsie; that’s what Grit was kiddin’ him about at noon, you remember, when he was washin’. Nice girl, though. Her an’ Minnie useta be back an’ forth a lot. Ham’s name is Hamilton, of course, but he jus’ gets Ham, excep’ from Mother. ‘Hamburger Stake,’ we call him sometimes, for fun. An’ Grit; I guess that’s his real name; dunno; sometimes I call ’im Dinty Moore. Looks a bit like ’im, I’ll say.”
Cal felt a delicacy about asking an explanation of Gander’s own appellation, and Gander offered none, evidently quite overlooking the need of it. It was not entirely associated with his lean, flexible neck. When he was a boy of fourteen or fifteen years, his voice, in going through those contortions peculiar to the voices of boys about that age, had shown a tendency to break out in a goose-like honk. To Gander’s great embarrassment these honks would come at the most inopportune moments and wholly without notice, so that the most casual statement, begun in a tame and respectable note, ended in something suggestive of a wild goose piping to its mate. Some one called him Gander, and Gander stuck; it had stuck so long and so well that he had almost forgotten he had a christened name, William, perfectly good and only slightly used.
They had passed out of the lane in+o an unfenced field. Directly before them, with its tongue deep in the damp soil, was a two-wheeled implement which Cal supposed to be the seeder.
Gander carried the reins around behind the implement and started his team with a word, and Cal and Reed followed, watching the operations with great interest.
“Nothin’to it,” Gander remarked; “nothin’to it. Old Jim there knows the job as well as I do. All you got to do is watch that you’re always touching your last row, Watch your main wheel there; it should run right in the track we made cornin’ down, an’ keep an eye now an’ again that the grain is workin’ through all the tubes; sometimes they get plugged up. Go to it!”
AND SO the day ■ went on. By four in the afternoon Reed tired of following the seeder up and down as, like a mighty shuttle, it wove a web a mile wide from fringe to fringe, and went back to the farmyard, where he interested himself in a long and critical inspection of the old fanning mill. About the same time Gander pronounced his commendation upon Cal. “You’re doin’ O.K.,” he said.
“Take a round by yourself an’ lend me some tobacco.”
Cal handed over his pouch, and pressed on in high spirits. It was plain that his adaptability had made an impression upon Gander.
“Funny world,” he mused to himself, as he thought of Gander.
“Not a bad scout, though, and that D.D. talk of his is just fun.
Still, it’s plain he thinks himself the better man of the two. And, damn it, he is— that’s the joke of it. Well, he won’t be for long. I’ll pick this up in no time. Oh boy, feel that air! I know I’m going to have lungs like a bellows before fall.”
Tired, hungry, happy, Cal turned with his team to the farmyard at the close of the day. Mrs. Stake could not pile his plate too high at supper, and when the chores were done, he and Reed were ready for bed. -And Reed, climbing on his knee for a good-night caress, said, “Gee, but it’s great to be a farmer. When I grow up I’m going
to be a farmer, with q lot of big horses, and a granary, and a fanning mill, and everything.”
Presently, up from the cushions of the Ford came the measured breathing of two tired farmers sleeping the sleep of labor and contentment, while the last red rays of sunset faded out of the west and the still hush of night settled over the fields and prairies.
BREAKFAST was another hurried meal. All meals in the farmhouse, it seemed, were hurried; ample, and hurried. There had been the same splashing in the wash basin by the rain barrel; the same single filing into the table; the same “digging in.” This time it was into porridge and milk, fried potatoes and eggs, white bread and corn syrup. If Mrs. Stake had had a good night’s rest, or no night’s rest, she gave no sign; her pace was exactly what it had been the day before, and the day before that, and would be to-morrow, and the day after that. The same white table in the centre of the floor; the same succession of hungry mouths; yesterday, to-day, and forever.
Mrs. Stake had poured a second helping of syrup into Reed’s plate and was silently watching him gather it up on thick fragments of bread. Glancing up suddenly Cal startled within her eyes a strange look of hunger.
“I reckon that’ his best suit,” she said, trying to cover her confusion with speech. “It won’ last long at school. I useta say to my boys that school suits should be made o’ leather. Jackson, in partic’lar, was awful hard on clo’es. How old did you say he was?”
“Eight—nine in September.”
Mrs. Stake cleared a corner of the table and her throat simultaneously. It seemed she had a pesky tickle in her throat.
“Spring weather, I blame it on. Always like that in May . . . You mus’ be a good boy for Annie Frolic. Do as she bids you, an’ work hard at your lessons. It’s the wind, the May wind— Was your sister married long; I mean—”
She stopped, realizing the indelicacy of her question, and in the momentary pause Cal recovered his balance. “Not long; Reed was the only child,” he equivocated.
“Well, we mus’ get him off,” shd exclaimed, as, seeking safety in action, she drew Reed on to the floor before her. Her fingers were trifling with his tie; her old knees seemed pressing hungrily against his; her hands were smoothing his riotous hair into some semblance of order . . .
Cal walked with Reed to school. They went out on the
winding trail among the groves of poplar and willow, still sparkling and fragrant with dew, and turned south on the main road. Across a black ploughed field, now faintly tinged with green, lay a cluster of white-washed farm buildings, probably the homestead of Fraser Fyfe. To the left they could see Gander’s four-horse team and seeder, with Gander himself hitching along behind, as he drove his slow shuttle back and forth. Further afield faint spirals of dust against a sky as clear as spring water marked the progress of Grit Wilson and Hamilton Stake.
They swung along cheerily, Reed with his noon day lunch wrapped in the current issue of the Plainville Progress; Cal with his thoughts busy over the favorable turn their prospects had taken. There was occasion for cheerfulness. He had literally motored into a job, and not only a job, but a home for himself and Reed. Over what the old farmer would say when he discovered that the bargain supposed to have been made in Plainville was the creature of Cal’s imagination— provided the old farmer was under any delusion—Cal allowed himself no uneasiness. Sufficient to the day. It was enough that in twentyfour hours he and Reed had become members of the family. It was enough that Reed had captured the heart of the stern and over-worked Mrs. Jackson Stake. The fiddling with his neck-tie—Cal was not blind. It was enough that Big Jim had muzzled his shoulder playfully that morning while he curried his mane. It was enough that the sun shone and the birds twittered as they hopped along the barbed wire fences that bordered the road and that the yellow buttercups glimpsed up shyly out of the green grass, and that little dribbles and shreds of a whistled tune fell from Reed’s pursed lips as he jogged along by the side of his “Daddy X.” It was enough.
As they crested a low ridge they caught sight of the school, a rectangular wooden building studded with windows on its northern side, and standing back a short distance from the road. It seemed to have been painted once upon a time, but wind and weather had taken their toll. The door stood open, and when Cal and Reed looked in they could at first distinguish nothing in the comparative gloom. A cool dampness greeted their nostrils. Rows of wooden seats emerged from the darkness, and presently they discerned a young woman at the end of the room, her back to them, her arm raised in the
act of writing on the blackboard. If she was aware of their presence she gave no sign, until _ at length Cal, in his deepest bass, addressed her.
“Good morning, Teacher. How about a new pupil this morning?”
She turned with a start, dropping the chalk to the floor.
“Oh, good morning, Mr. Beach. You will think me very rude. I thought it was some of my children. And is this Reed, whom I have been hearing about?”
“ ‘Mr. Beach?’ thought Cal to himself. “ ‘Reed, whom I have been hearing about?’ Our fame precedes us.”
SHE took Reed’s hand first, and then Cal’s, and it struck Cal that their welcome seemed to be somewhat in the ratio of their ages. He had a glimpse of blue eyes, with thin, tell-tale puckers about them; fluffy hair; clean, sharp features, somewhat older than they would care to confess; a spare, light figure, rectangular like the school house and the school grounds and the quarter section which accommodated them. There was chalk dust on her hair and it may have been chalk dust on her face.
“I have always heard that country school teachers are very wonderful,” said Cal, when she seemed waiting for him to speak. “It is all true. How did you know my name, and his?”
There was a light dancing in her eye that was not bad to see. “Oh, that’s easy. You know, we have rural telephones. They are a great invention.”
Continued on page 38
Continued from page 19
“Then Mrs. Stake telephoned you?”
“No, she didn’t. I see you’re curious. I thought only girls were curious?”
Cal summed her up as a little witch. Very well.
“I offer no apology for being curious— about you,” he said.
There was a light dancing in her eye that was rather good to see. “How nice!” she chattered. “Then I’ll tell you. Last night, between eight and nine, Hamilton Stake called up Elsie Fyfe for their usual bed-time confab. About the same time I tried to call Elsie, and found the line busy, so I listened in. Oh, don’t be shocked. We all do it, although we don’t all admit it. I wasn’t the only one; I could tell that by the quiet lifting of receivers. You get to know it, with practice. Shall I tell you what the community know this morning about you and Reed?”
“I am mildly interested,” he admitted, noting that there was really a curve to her throat, in defiance of her general rectangular plan. A rather pleasant curve , it was. And her eyes were full of fun, or something.
“The community knows that you are Cal Beach, that you come from the East, that you’re green as grass, that you’ve been through university, and that Jackson Stake is trying you out and will perhaps keep you on for the season if you attend to your knitting and don’t get an idea that because you’ve been to college you know more than anybody else, meaning in particular Hamilton Stake, Gander Stake, and Grit Wilson, in the order named.”
“All very interesting—and very accurate,” Cal admitted. “What else?”
“The community knows that Reed is eight years old, and your sister’s son, and that he has a funny name, and that Mother Stake had taken quite a shine to him.”
“Our young friend is observant, Miss Frolic. By the way, speaking of funny names—?”
Her eyes narrowed a little under his gaze, but the light in them danced eagerly. “My name is Frawdic, F-r-a-w-d-i-c-,” she explained. “An odd name, and it’s easier to listen to their mispronouncing of it than to correct them. And ‘Frolic’ is a rather pleasing appellation, don’t you think?”
“An appropriate one, perhaps,” he bantered.
“Who knows?” she said, and momentarily dropped her eyes.
The children were beginning to gather for school. They came barefooted, and some of them without coats, and swinging over their shoulders bags with their school books and lunches. The visitor was an object of their curiosity, and one or two of the bolder boys edged up close enough to hear the conversation. But Miss Frawdic proved to be something of a diplomatist.
“Here, Harold,” she called to the boy who had come closest. “This is a new pupil. His name is Reed. Take him away and get him started playing with the other boys. Start a ball game. You have twenty minutes yet until school time.”
HAROLD looked Reed up and down for a moment. “C’mon,” he said. Reed followed, somewhat shyly, but in a few minutes his voice was coming from the ball ground as loud as any.
The teacher was in no hurry to resume her work at the blackboard, and Cal had a feeling that as Gander had managed without him successfully for some twentythree years he would probably get along for another morning. He waited.
“Oh, I forgot to ask Reed’s other name,” said Miss Frawdic, as though groping for a subject.
“Beach,” said Cal.
“Beach? That’s your name, isn’t it? And he’s your sister’s son?”
I he eyes with the shallow furrows about them were now looking into his, quizzically. Cal resented them just a little. He had no intention of being cross-questioned by Annie Frawdic, nor yet of lying to evade her curiosity. “His name is Beach,” he said.
She lapsed into an appropriate silence. But it was for a moment only. The shadow in her eyes was as temporary as that of a flying cloud upon the prairies.
“We art; so glad to have you,” she rattled. “You know -a university man. We are all such dubs.”
“Oh, not all, I~am sure,” said Cal,
“Yes, all. Yrou soon get that way. ‘Like as iron sharpeneth iron,’ you know. I know I have grown very dull for lack of
“A whetstone,” Cal suggested.
“Exactly—a whetstone. Take care I don’t call you Mr. Whetstone.”
They were progressing.
With a slim toe she described a circle in the dust on the floor. She was waiting for him to speak, so he spoke a platitude:
“It must be wonderful to teach these bright-eyed children; to see them growing up under your guidance, your counsel.”
“It isn’t. It’s a bore, to them and to me. They come to school because they can’t help themselves. I teach them for the same reason.”
Her frankness was engaging. If she had said, “I am teaching school because I have failed to land a husband,” he could not have understood her better. He wondered how far she would go.
“Never give up,” he said.
Her eyes narrowed a trifle, but there was no anger in them. She described another circle with her toe on the floor. As it happened the circles interlinked each other.
“You have been in Plainville?” she queried, presently.
“Then you have not seen Minnie?”
“You mean Miss Stake?”
“I hope not,” she said, punning on the name. “Still, it’s a mis-stake that might be excused.”
Cal did not answer. He remembered the uncanny way in which gossip swept through the community, and he had a mental picture of receivers being silently lifted and greedy ears strained forward to catch what Jackson Stake’s new man had said about Minnie . . .
“Nine o’clock!” Miss Frawdic exclaimed. “I must call the children.” She extended her hand and took his in a friendly grip. The bones of her thin hand were sharp and firm against his palm.
“I will do the best I can for Reed,” she said.
Cal turned from the door to take Reed in his arms. “Make good, old Indian; make good!” he whispered in his ear, and gave him an affectionate shake. He waved a friendly arm to the children now trooping into the school, and turned up the road to Jackson Stake’s. As he walked he tiied to turn the conversation over in his mind. And it always came back to this:
“What was it she said about Minnie? Something about a mistake that might be excused. Funny girl. Strange girl. I mean Annie Frolic. Good name. Well, we shall
see.” . . .
THE week went on tremendously. Up at five every morning; filling mangers and oat-boxes while the horses nodded and jerked in great gestures of approval; cleaning stables hot with the animal vapors of the night; currying and brushing manes and flanks and fetlocks; cuffing Big Jim as he curled his great upper lip in mock savagery; buckling the harness to place; running a hand affectionately under the collar to make sure it sat comfortably against the great and willing shoulder, while the sunlight poured through the open door and touched with gold a million dust-planets floating in its yellow wedge—such was the ritual of consecrating a new day to the service of Man. Then the splash at the corner of the house; the grateful solace of cold rain water; the caress of prairie breezes where the shirt neck, turned down for washing, exposed a skirt of white skin under the jacket of tan; the lungs bulging, the muscles vibrant, the appetite on edge!
Breakfast; the tired woman moving mechanically back and forth as inexorably as the inexorable machine in which she had been caught; the horses again in Company on Parade, jingling their bits and stamping their big, flat feet; the procession to the fields, and the seeder shuttle up and down, up and down, up and down. After the first day Cal had found himself intrusted with the seeder; Gander had no jealousies when a distribution of the farm labor was being made, and
nothing pleased Cal better than to take a little more than his share. Gander had christened him “D.D.” in acknowledgment of his university training, and the sobriquet threatened to stick, but if there had been any contempt in it at first it was quickly giving place to more friendly sentiments. Gander had complimented him generously, driving the compliment home with the declaration that he “never would have reckoned a D.D. could catch on so quick.” He “reckoned” further that perhaps no one was quite hopeless, provided he was fortunate enough to fall into good hands at the start.
Every hour of the day had its own peculiar witchery, but it was to five o’clock in the afternoon that Cal learned to look forward with greatest anticipation. By five o’clock Reed would be home from school and come skipping across the fields with tell-tale traces of Mother Stake’s great bread-and-jam sandwiches hanging tenaciously to his cheeks. It seemed to Cal that never before had he measured the grip the boy had taken about his heart. Their constant association during six weeks of gipsying with “Antelope” had built up a chumship the strength of which he had not realized until these daily periods of separation. Always the boy had been to him the living representation of Celesta, and had been loved, perhaps, on her account, but now he was laying strange claims upon his guardian’s heart in right and title of his own.
But into Reed’s life had suddenly come a new object of affection. It happened on the second day on the farm that as the boy returned from school he encountered on the road where it wound among the poplar groves a very brown and very curly and very bright-eyed spaniel. Only for a moment did they regard each other with misgivings, and then_ the dog, pouncing upon Reed, licked him a lavish welcome. Reed, to protect his face, wrapped his arms about the shaggy shoulders, and the two went down in a wrestle together, rolling and tumbling about on the grass. They formed friendship in that moment, and raced off to the house to proclaim their discoveries.
“Trix is a bad dog," said Mrs. Stake, reprovingly. “A bad, harum-scarum dog. The way she goes galavantin’ over the country—I declare, it’s not respectable.” In those first days all the horse power of Cal’s engines was needed to drive the physical machine; nothing was left for romantic adventues. But soon he hardened to his work; soon the work became mainly automatic, leaving his mental reserves almost untouched, and after three days of coma he again began to think. It was then he became somewhat startled by the ease with which one can get out of the way of thinking. Gander, and Grit, for example; it was quite apparent they didn’t think. Their minds trudged around in a deep-grooved circle, like a captive bear around a post; rarely climbing to the top of the post for an observation; never excursioning into the vast unknown that lay just beyond the circle. To them there was no unknown; the world lay complete within their deep-grooved circle; complete and fully comprehended. Everything was simple, and, for the most part, satisfactory, and to be contemplated with amiable acquiescence. No sleepy bear amid his bones was more content than they; no scientist, searching heaven and earth for truth, was half so wise.
“Would you object to a small camp fire in the yard, beside the granary, these nights?” Cal asked his employer, on his first Saturday at ithe farm.
“Camp fire? What for? You ain’t cold are ye? There’s an old stove—”
“No—no. Not cold. It’s just a sort of notion. When we were traveling together Reed and I used to build a camp fire every night, and we thought it would be nice to have one here, if you don’t mind. I’d go out and cut extra wood for it—”
“If the kid wants a fire he can have it,” said Jackson Stake, decisively. “Dangdest thing, the way that boy twists Susie ‘round his finger! Only be sure to put it out—clean out.”
“Thanks,” said Cal.
THE sun was almost down when Cal had finished with his work, but the news of a camp fire and a story sent Reed and Trix scampering with delight. They built it on a bare spot a short distance from the granary, and carried out the Ford cushions so that they could sit about it in comfort. Although there was fuel Continued on page 40
Continued from page 38 for the taking at the woodpile, they preferred to gather dry branches among the poplars; it made the fire more realistic, and when the flames were crackling and the ruddy glow flickering on the granary wall they were again gentlemen adventurers unafraid.
Reed gathered up his feet, with his arms about his ankles, and the red firelight painting his face. “All right, Daddy X,” he said. "Let’er go.”
They sat in silence when the story was finished. Darkness had settled down; the little fire glowed gipsy-like before them; whiffs of its fragrant smoke fondled about their faces and tickled their nostrils with its feathery pungency. They had been so interested that the approach of an automobile to the house had been unheard, and Cal was not prepared for a girlish voice almost at his elbow.
“Interesting—if true,” the voice remarked, and Cal sprang to his feet.
She was standing a step or two away from them, somewhat in the shadow of the granary", and the dull glow from the fire limmed her figure only in the vague and suggestive way which is the gift of art. Indeed, as it afterwards seemed to Cal, all he saw was her face and head, and imagination filled in the figure as it does in those clever illustrations for advertisements ¡ which have been much in vogue. But it ! was her face he saw, pink and ruddy and ! well made, with lips half parted in a banter smile . . . No, it was her eyes he saw, deep and brown and glowing. No, it was her hair, bronze hair surely, trapping and teasing the ruddy light—
“I’m Minnie,” she said simply, and ' held out her hand. “May I join your party? I’m really not so bad mannered as ¡ *1 seem.”
It was a hard remark to answer. Cal mumbled something about being sure of that, which, of course, was not the right I thing to say at all, and the girl sat down on the cushion beside Reed. “I know all about you, little man,” she said, slipping
her arm around him. “Shall we be 1
“Yes,” said the child, soberly, “but you’ll have to be friends with Daddy X, ;
"That’s my nickname,” Cal hastened to say, anxious to avoid any lengthy explanations.
"Then it’s a bargain,” she answered. She was facing the boy, but Cal had a l feeling the words were intended for him. There was something unaccountably pleasant in that presumption.
“I really didn’t intend to ‘listen in,’ ” she continued, turning toward him. “Gander brought me home in the car, and when I came out to get some groceries which I had left in it I saw the fire by the granary, so I rambled down. Then I found there was serious business on hand, so I didn’t interrupt. Of course Gander told me about you. He said you were a D.D.”
“I’m not, really,” Cal answered. “The initials after my name—if I cared to use them—would stand for something quite different from Doctor of Divinity. What else had our friend Gander to report?”
She had crossed her ankles and was pointing her shapely toes to the fire. Cal noted the low shoes, the silk stockings, the fashionably cut skirt. She rubbed a small heel in the earth, but she did not answer.
In the glow from the fire the profile of her face was cut as clean as a cameo between Cal and the darkness. “What else did Gander report?” he repeated.
“It was quite favorable,” she said, after a silence. “Shall I tell you? He said he reckoned if you stuck around for awhile it wouldn’t be so hard to keep Sister Minnie on the farm.”
Her confession brought her face toward him with a laugh, and suddenly Cal knew it was her eyes that he had seen in that first glimpse through the darkness.
“Let us hope Gander is a good prophet,” he said, and they laughed together.
To be. Continued