Editor’s Note: Names of persons and places used in this story are fictitious but the facts are drawn from life.
JOHN BATES, the banker, was reading the afternoon mail. He was decidedly annoyed about something. An open letter from his head office lay on the desk in front of him.
“J. Birtle—Loan $250.
As the chattel mortgage held by us in the above connection has not been checked for over a year, we must instruct you to proceed with this duty without further delay. It is only by this means that the bank can keep tab on the value of its security, which, as you know, is of a more or less perishable nature. Kindly advise us when this has been done.—J. T. Robinson, Supervisor.
“Blast the fussy old fossil and his chattel mortgages, anyway!” Bates muttered under his breath. "Who wants to taxi all over the country on a day like this?”
He searched petulantly through a tin box of securities at his elbow. In a few moments he held up a long, officiallooking document, and stuck it in a satchel near by.
“Back in a couple of hours,” he told the accountant, and slammed the front door after him. A neat-looking sedan was at the curb. He jumped in and drove to Brierley’s law office on Main Street.
“Want a trip in the country, Ned?” he asked from the doorway.
“Don’t know. Depends on where you’re going.”
“South. Jim Birtle’s place. Got to check a chattel mortgage.”
“Suits me fine. Want to see him myself about signing a crop lease. May as well be now. Gee ! but that wind’s
A CLOUD of gritty dust blew in through the office door. -**• The transom above crashed open with shattering force. Both men ducked as a shower of glass rained down on the
The lawyer said: “That’s the third window in two weeks. When is it going to stop?”
“Ask me another. It's driving me crazy.”
“Well, somebody’s minus a patch of summer fallow anyway.”
Brierley phoned the hardware store for a man and a new pane of glass. The two friends got in the car and drove off.
Not till they were out of town did they realize the full force of the wind. There, free from the break of tree and building, it whistled and roared round the car like a thousand fiends let loose at once. Bates, at the wheel, held on grimly as the sedan, with windows up, swayed perilously from side to side. Blinding clouds of dust swirled about them, penetrating window crevices with stifling, choking effect inside. In a few minutes the hands and faces of both occupants were covered with a distressing coating of dirty, brown grit. Talk was impossible under such conditions. The car chugged on, with a queer rhythmic hum, as it cut through the headwind. For eight miles, the road was well graded and wind swept, enabling the car to travel at reasonable speed. Deep though they were, the ditches on either side were nearly filled with fine, powdered earth—a realistic reminder of the preceding weeks of dust storm. Bitter, recriminatory thoughts went through the banker’s mind as he drove.
This was his first trip this spring. For two full years no rain had fallen. For three, fierce maddening winds had raged over the prairie wheat lands—chilly and biting in the spring, blowing out the seed time and time again; hot and blistering in the summer, burning up the straggling grain plants that survived, with relentless fury. It wouldn’t have been so bad had it rained. But the clouds of moisture refused
to gather, and what had once been a fertile wheat belt was now nothing but a dry, yellow wilderness.
Hundreds of families were practically destitute, so people said. Government relief was being given wholesale, along with thousands of bushels of feed and seed. As things turned out, it would have been better had this grain been used for other purposes. Then, it was reported half the livestock hadn’t survived the winter. Of course reports were always exaggerated. But there must be some ground for them.
How much longer could the weary people last out under such conditions? Would there never be redress for all this suffering and want? It didn’t look like it. Many of the Bidstone townspeople, of course, railed against granting relief. Eight farmers out of ten abused such foolish altruism, some said. Things were not as bad as painted. Why hadn’t people conserved their resources in the good years? It was shiftlessness and extravaance that made relief necessary. Now, the few thrifty souls were being penalized for the shortcomings of the many!
‘ I 'HE TURN west to Birtle’s loomed up suddenly in the haze, putting an end to the banker’s
meditations. He clapped on the brakes and slued around in the dust. Once off the main road, the situation became worse. The wind struck them sideways with increased velocity. Huge mounds of driven sand were piled up on the north side of the road—if the straggling, drifted dirt trail could be called a road. Whirling eddies of top soil almost obliterated the driver’s line of vision. He turned on the headlights to penetrate the gloom. The car quivered noisily in the heavy going. Bates shifted into intermediate, Brierley looking on helplessly.
“Do you think we should go on?” the lawyer shouted in his friend’s ear.
“Only another two miles. It can’t be much worse,” was the answering yell.
The car labored and slowed down. Bates went into low. With a roaring of gears they ploughed on through the sand.
“What a country !” Brierley bawled out, with a wry face.
Bates nodded, afraid to move for fear of running off his course. He tightened his hold on the wheel, pursing his lips grimly. Pictures of the comparative peace of Bidstone flashed through his mind. What did townspeople or headoffice executives know about wind storms? Their troubles were nothing compared to this raging inferno! What did they mean saying conditions were exaggerated? Smug, selfsatisfied hypocrites!
The car trembled, spluttered and stalled in the sand.
Bates pressed the starter. The engine raced, but the car wouldn’t budge. Brierley opened his door and grabbed a shovel from the back seat.
“Back up when I signal,” he shouted, then slammed the door.
For a long time he shovelled vigorously, but the wind nullified his efforts. It whipped the dust into his eyes, too. Cursing savagely, he fought to keep ahead of the shifting sand near the wheels. It was backbreaking work, but he succeeded eventually. Bates pushed down the gas pedal in response to his friend’s signal. With a roar, the car backed out slowly. Brierley jumped aboard, glad to be out of the storm. They ground through the drift to smoother terrain beyond.
“There’s Birtle’s gate ahead,” Bates shouted. “The blasted thing’s shut ! Sorry, Brierley, old man.”
The lawyer got out again. The wind drove him with sudden force against the post. He threw his arms round it. His hat left his head, disappearing in a cloud of swirling dust. "Confound you!” he yelled at the elements. He cut his hands and tore his clothes on the barbed wire, but opened the gate and jumped in the car as it drove through.
Jim Birtle was dragging a dead horse in the lee of the bam when they entered the yard.
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“This makes the seventh since Christmas,’’ he announced laconically.
“Too bad, Jim,” Bates greeted, sympathetic in view of the task ahead.
“What’s bitin’ you now?” the farmer shot back with a good-natured grin.
“Oh, the usual thing. Checking up on the livestock.”
“Well, you picked a good day fer the job, I’ll say. But, reckon we may as well get it over, now you’re here. The horses are in the bam—what’s left uv them, that is. An’ the old cow’s in the shed. The other six is dead. ”
Bates glanced at Brierley, who shook his head sadly. They followed the farmer toward the bam. Before they got to the door, a gust blew the chattel mortgage out of the banker’s hand, straight for a manure pile. He dived for it and caught it in mid-air. His hat went soaring heavenward instead.
“Curse this wind ! That hat cost me eight dollars.” He shook his fist in rage.
But his feelings subsided when he saw the horses. Seven scraggy, mangy scarecrows confronted him, some standing dejectedly, others lying on their bellies, too emaciated to get up. Two years before, the same animals had been the pride of the countryside. Pure-bred Clydes. He remembered valuing them at $100 apiece when he took the mortgage. Now, they were past all human aid ! He folded the document and put it back in his pocket.
“What’s the use?” He shook his head despairingly.
“What are you going to do, Jim?” Brierley interposed to break the painful silence that followed.
“Reckon there ain’t nothin’ can be done. But it sure gets a man, seein’ them dumb animals day after day, jest wastin’ away fer want uv feed. Sometimes I feel like shootin’ them to put ’em outa misery. But then agin, there’s always the hope uv rain, an’ nice juicy green pasture.”
“Can't you get feed from the Government?” Bates asked.
“I got some oats about a month ago, arter drivin’ to and from the elevator four times, but they ain’t enough fer one good horse, let alone seven plugs like them.” Jim Birtle spoke in monotonous, matter-of-fact tones, but his hearers sensed the undercurrent of bitterness.
“But how are you going to work your land, man?” Brierley enquired.
“Oh, I gotta tractor fer that, an’ a barrel uv gas frum the Government to go on with. I ’ll sow jest as soon as this pesky wind dies down.”
The visitors glanced outside. The house couldn’t be seen for dust clouds. What an outlook ! How could a man fight on under such conditions? Yet here was a farmer hopefully looking forward to a crop denied him for three successive years. And people in town were saying relief was abused, possibly by this selfsame man. Relief! The travesty of it all. With seven horses and six cattle dead—and the remainder dying on their feet !
“—pray to God I never put in sich a winter agin. No hay, no oats, nuthin’ but the dry straw—and sand to bloat the bellies of the pore animals as eats it,” the farmer was saying. “Then, every onct in a while, the rope to haul out another dead one—same as you seen me doin’ when you come in jest now. Gosh! It’s enough to give a guy the
Brierley turned aside to hide his feelings. More from a desire to change the subject than ulterior motives, he walked up to Jim Birtle.
“Jim, I hate to trouble you right now, but it'll save you a trip later,” he said. “The loan company’s been pestering me to get a crop lease for this year. I have it with me if you care to sign it.”
The farmer laughed. “That’s a good one,” he exclaimed. “How in heck do they know there’ll be a crop?”
The lawyer looked uncomfortable, not knowing how to take this reply. What would he himself do under the circumstances? Laugh in the face of dire adversity? Would he sign a crop lease with such a dreary outlook? It wasn’t fair to expect Jim Birtle to do it. The farmer set his doubts at rest presently.
“Oh, well, reckon it may as well be signed now as last,” he said good-naturedly. “Come on up to the house, an’ I’ll fix it up.”
The three men braved the wind once more. Bates, the smallest, was blown into Jim’s arms. The latter put a supporting arm round the banker’s shoulders till they reached the porch.
“Guess you ain’t used to it like me,” he shouted with a kindly grin.
THE DOOR was opened by a tired-looking, fair-complexioned woman. Her chest was hollow. The cheekbones stood out prominently. Three youngsters, all under five, clung nervously to her skirts, viewing the strangers with wide, frightened blue eyes, eyes large and deep set in thin, pale
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“Here’s visitors for you, Maggie,” the farmer announced. “Mr. Bates frum the bank, and Mr. Brierley, the lawyer man.”
The woman extended a skinny hand which was shaken in turn by the two newcomers.
“An’ these,” Jim Birtle continued, pointing to the children, “are the three youngest. The others ain’t got back frum school yet.”
The introductions were too much for the tots. They scampered into the kitchen, squealing shrilly, and took refuge behind a curtained alcove.
“Well, mother, Mr. Brierley an’ me got some bizness to attend to fer a few minits. Maybe a cuppa tea wouldn’t go so bad arter, eh?”
The woman’s face crimsoned. “Sorry, but there ain’t—er—I mean—er—maybe the gentlemen wouldn’t mind if—” the poor soul stammered embarrassedly.
Bates sensed her difficulty. “Don’t trouble yourself, Mrs. Birtle. As a matter of fact we had tea just before we left town.”
“Make yourself at home in the kitchen, Mr. Bates,” the farmer called out as he and Brierley went in the tiny sitting room. The banker followed Mrs. Birtle to a seat near the stove.
By and by, the alcove curtain was pulled back and a tiny face peeked round it. Bates beckoned in friendly fashion. The face disappeared. Then three children tiptoed shyly in their mother’s direction and hid behind her chair. But not before the banker glimpsed their frailness as the tiny spindly legs sped across the kitchen floor. Under normal conditions farm children are well fleshed and healthy. What Bates saw made him shudder. The skinny bodies were undernourished and clad in pitifully tattered garments. The faces were pinched and drawn like those of old people. He thought of the cattle which had perished in the winter; of the milk and cream which had perished with them. He recalled the mother’s embarrassment at the mention of tea a few moments before. He felt a queer, sickly feeling at the pit of his stomach, and put his hands before his eyes as though to shut out a revolting picture. Quietly, he turned toward the woman.
“Mrs. Birtle, I would like to ask a few questions,” he said gently, “and I don’t want you to think me rude or curious. Treat me as your friend, instead. May I go ahead?”
“Sure, it’s okay with me, Mr. Bates.”
“How long have you been getting help from the Relief Commission?”
THAT ALL depends on what you call help. It’s three years since we had a crop to speak of. First, there was the frost in August, when we thought we might get somethin’. What with the poor yield and low grade, we only got enough fer our living durin’ the winter. Jim had some seed from the year before, though, and a trifle in the bank. Then you helped us out in the early summer, so we got along somehow. But the crop was dried out, as you know. That’s when Jim give you that mortgage on the stock. The Commission give us enough seed the following spring. You know better’n me what happened last year. Everything burnt up by the wind and sun; no feed, no flour, with horses and cattle dying off like flies. ’Twas then we had to apply fer food and fuel, even though it hurt us bad to do it. We did our best to do without help till then. We got pride, same as anybody else.” She spoke monotonously, with a dreary dropping of her voice at the end.
“And what did they give you?” the banker questioned in a kindly tone.
“Not a terrible lot, Mr. Bates. Durin’ the winter we got four tons uv coal an’ twelve dollars a month fer clothes and groceries, but that don’t go far with a family uv eight. Now we’re cut down to eight dollars, becos’ we’re supposed to have our own milk an’ eggs. The cow that’s left ain’t fresh this year. No feed. And the hens is pretty near all dead. But I guess there’s lots uv people worse off than us around here, so we gotta be thankful.” The voice trailed off brokenly. She wiped her eyes with her apron. One
little childish arm patted her shoulder gently.
Bates watched and listened with sad foreboding in his heart. The woman looked straight ahead, with a dull, hopeless gleam in her eyes. The wind howled continuously outside. The banker was beyond further speech. What idle, trivial things words were under such circumstances ! He gave himself up to his thoughts.
During the winter, in his comfortable Bidstone home, he had heard vague rumors of poverty and want on the farms. Government relief had been a long time forthcoming. “Red tape” had to be negotiated first. Because he was out of touch with actual conditions, he—like hundreds of other thoughtless people—had scarcely believed what he heard. Then the help had come through. A few busybodies in town had told him some farmers would be better off than ever before. Then, too, individual requirements were overlooked in the light of the huge sums spent on relief.
But now he was faced with the reality. Stark poverty ; existence on the bare necessities of life, and little enough of these; children ragged and half-starved; a fertile area laid bare by the relentless fury of wind and sun. Would it never end !
He visualized a scene in the previous year. A family on wheels, moving north from a district more destitute than his own. Emaciated horses and cattle nibbling the dry, yellow prairie grass. Hens being fed by the roadside. Flour cakes frying in the open. Hollow-eyed, hungry children clustered round the frying-pan. He had asked the father his destination. “Can’t tell ! Anywhere, jest so long as we get out uv this blasted wind !” had been the reply. Bates remembered deploring the aimlessness of this man. Now he understood !
Yet how could he, a solitary creature viewing want and suffering at close quarters for the first time, help? His limited resources could perhaps bring relief to one family. But there were three hundred such families in his district alone. It was awful !
HIS REVERIE was interrupted by the arrival of Jim and Brierley from the other room. The lawyer was folding the newly-signed lease before stowing it in his pocket. That meant the farmer had pledged one third of his future crop to meet mortgage arrears the next fall. Heavens, but the man was an optimist !
Brierley warmed himself at the stove. The sitting room had been cold. Too many unrepaired cracks and crevices for comfort. Even now, draughts of chilly, dust-laden air were covering everything in the kitchen. Bates suddenly wanted to run away from it all. To rush out and yell blasphemous imprecations into the teeth of the gale. With set teeth and clenched fists he fought down his feelings. Brierley came to his rescue unconsciously.
“Guess it’s about time we were on our way, isn’t it, Bates?” he said.
The banker found his voice at last.
"So long, Jim,” he mumbled. “You don’t know how sorry I feel about all this.” He waved his arm toward the raging wind outside.
“It’s good uv you to say so, Mr. Bates,” the farmer assured him warmly. “Guess everybody has his troubles these times. As fer us, things could be a heap worse. This danged wind gotta die down some time. Folks across the water gotta have wheat, too; that’s why we must keep on sowin’ the crops.”
The men from town turned their eyes away shamefacedly, and prepared to shuffle out. Bates patted a curly head behind the curtains. Furtively, he thrust a bill into the
tiny fingers raised in farewell. "So long, Mrs. Birtle. Keep on hoping,” he called out as he reached the door.
Brierley nodded his adieus as the farmer accompanied them to the car.
“Sorry about the stock. If I can possibly make it, you’ll get your money this fall,” he yelled as he slammed the door shut.
Once more the two travellers braved the dust. But the wind had veered round and was at their backs now. It helped through the heavy sand till the main road was reached. Bates muttered to himself as he kept his eyes glued to the trail.
“What’s wrong, old man?” Brierley asked during a lull.
“Guess I was thinking aloud,” Bates answered with a guilty look.
“Well, you could at least think loud enough for me to hear.”
“Oh, it’s nothing much. I just can’t get that farmer out of my mind, that’s all. Ned ! Did you ever stop to think of the courage it takes to fight this blasted wind and drought? Wonderful deeds of bravery were done during the war, but there was a certain amount of glamor and glory to the situation then, even if it was a dirty, bloody business. This is different. It takes real guts to sit and watch the things you spent a lifetime in building up, destroyed before your eyes, by immutable natural forces, year in and year out, and still keep on sowing in hope. I wonder if the people in other countries who use our wheat ever stop to think of that?” “Guess not,” the lawyer put in succinctly. “Seeing is believing, and they don’t see it.” “Well, all I’ve got to say is—maybe Jim’s a fool to keep on trying, but he’s a hero nevertheless. People will never know just what he’s gone through these past three years, because he’ll never tell them. And I suppose he’ll keep on plugging till he drops. Ned, I hope to heaven there’s a crop this year. Not because I want to collect a bad loan, but on account of the kick he’ll get out of paying up. You heard what he said, didn’t you?”
“Yes. And I heartily echo your sentiments, Bates, old man.”
AT 11 p.m. that night the banker finished -^A-his report on the Birtle chattel mortgage. This is what he wrote :
“J. Birtle—Loan $250.
We visited this man’s farm today and regret to report our security has been seriously impaired. Out of fourteen horses and seven cattle, only seven horses and one cow remain, the rest having died during the winter owing to shortage of feed. Our loan must be regarded, therefore, as doubtful. Crop prospects are poor at the present time, but Mr. Birtle assured us of his intention to pay up promptly this fall, if conditions improved. — John Bates, Manager.
“Guess it’s time to hit the hay,” the banker said as he signed the letter. “Wonder what the smug old supervisor, in his leather upholstered armchair, will think about the Birtle loan now? Probably chalk it up against me—poor banking judgment and so on—and raise heck because I didn’t keep closer tab on the livestock.”
He closed his desk with a bang, donned a light overcoat and walked to the front door. It was pitch black outside. He opened the door with a resigned, tired gesture and looked out. The wind had died down to a gentle whisper, as if to show peaceful contrition for its former stormy rage. The air was fresh and wholesome.
It was raining—raining steadily!
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