A Big Day’s Earnings
Editor’s Note.—From the pen of one of Western Canada’s leading writers we have here a delightful love story of the plains. A homesteader by accident becomes a hero, and fiûds it the door to happiness.
For very nearly an hour there had not been a sound or a movement in John Wyburn’s homestead shack, except, of course, what the clock by the window had made. Ruff, the dog, was sleeping off behind the stove after the high exertions of his morning’s chase; and Wyburn himself had sat, awake but moody, with his head on his arm, and his arm on the table. There was nothing else in the room that could have spoken, or even moved, and night itself would not have been more still. Then the clock struck noon, with a quick, snappy sharpness that seemed almost rude. Wyburn and the dog both heard it, and bestirred themselves: the one because it was time to get dinner, and the other, no doubt, because his sleep was out.
A few minutes later, when Wyburn was setting out the dishes—three for himself, and one for Ruff—Reddy Kilmer rode up to the shack, making such a noise about it that the dog was up and off in a flash. There was no more quiet then : it was never quiet where Keddy Kilmer was. Wyburn gave a hurried turn to the ham that sizzled and sputtered on the stove, and went to the door; but Reddy had, as usual, the first word.
“Hello, Sober John ! Cheer up, if you can, and say you’re glad to see me.”
“I am that, but-”
“Oh, I know you’ll want full information—you’re such an inquiring fellow, John. So I may as well tell you that I’m on my way to town, and I’ve
stopped here for two reasons: first, for a bite of dinner, if you’ll ask me to have it; and, second, to give you a message from Tom Murtón. He has some hay and oats to sell, and he would like you to go over and'see what kind of an offer you can make for the lot. You understood me about the dinner, did you?”
“When did you see Tom?” asked Wyburn ignoring the hint.
“This morning. I called in to see if he wanted anything in town. And as he did, I shall have to stop again on my way back to-morrow.”
“One day in Red Deer enough for you now, Reddy?” Wyburn asked again, with a partial smile.
“John Wyburn, you sober old fellow, that’s the nearest to a joke I ever knew you to say, do, or think. You mean to imply, I suppose, that that doesn’t give me much time to visit the future Mrs. Reddy Kilmer? Well, it’s got to do this trip. But wait a minute, John, and I’ll tell you some modern history.”
Reddy, who had till now been sitting in his saddle, dismounted, and turned the horse free to make its own way to the stable. Then he led Wyburn t the corner of the shack, as far as might be from the door, and, bending low, whispered mysteriously to him.
“Friend of my youth, I now confide in you that I have reason to believe my wedding day will be pretty near set within the next twenty-four hours. I don’t mind telling you, either, that that’s what I’m going for.”
“That being so, I wish you well, Reddy,” said Wyburn.
“Sober John, I thank you. But give me some dinner, or I’ll never make the grade. I’m thinking that ham in there will be done to a finish.”
The table talk was of people and things ^ roundabout, and of the approaching seeding-time, which in a homesteaders’ country always makes good talking.
“And now,” said Reddy, after they had eaten, “tell me how your own heart trouble is getting on. Have you still that silly notion about not being of any use in the country?”
Wyburn flushed a bit, and answered quietly :
“I was thinking about that just before you rode up.”
“And thinking mighty blue and solemn about it, I’ll wager. Can’t you make up your mind that you’re as good a citizen as the rest of us, and let it go at that?”
“But I’m not. Every homesteader in the section, that I know of, has earned a right to his neighbors’ respect by some good act or favor. I’ve never done a thing to help any of them.” “That is just because the chance to do it hasn’t' happened to come your way,” Reddy remonstrated. “You would be as willing to do a good turn as anyone if you found need for it.” “And doesn’t that show that I’m not fit,” argued Wyburn, “when even the fates won’t give me a chance?”
“John, what you need is a wife. Any prospects?”
“I’ll venture it’s your own fault, then. Won’t May Gunton have you?” “I have not asked her.”
“And why haven’t you?”
Wyburns color deepened, and there was pain in his face and voice.
“I’m not worthy, Kilmer.”
“Worthy chopsticks!” said Reddy impatiently. “What’s wrong with you? Are you awfully bad?”
“I’m not worthy—that’s all.”
“Look here, you silly old freak, [ was talking with May Gunton just this morning—she’s been at Tom Murton’s for a day or two—going home to-night,
I think she said—and I believe she would be willing and glad to be your wife if you had sense enough to ask her. Surely a chap like you, with a crop of sixty bushels to the acre, ought to be able to marry, if anyone is.”
“I had a good crop—yes,” answered Wyburn slowly. “But I’m not worthy of even that.”
“John Wyburn, you’re a fool! Not worthy of a good crop—what d’ye mean?”
Wyburn rose from the table, and stood facing his guest. He was much in earnest now, and his words came heavily.
“I mean just that—I am not worthy. What am I that I should be enriched by land that others had as good a right to as I had? People call it my land, by it’s mine only because I got it first, and the crop it grew last year was the land’s earning, not' mine. Why should I be favored more than Tom Murtón, who had only a twenty-bushel crop, and half of it frozen at that? Who am I, to take advantage of kindness I’m not deserving of? I’ve got to earn it—at any rate, I’ve got to do something that will make me feel inside myself that I’m fit to use the riches a generous Creator puts in my way. I haven’t done any such thing yet. I don’t feel fit, Kilmer. That big wheat crop last fall hurt me. Every bushel that came out of the thresher seemed to mock me and called me a sponger. And at New Year’s I went to see May Gunton. I thought, as you said, that I was now in a position to marry, and that she could make a better use of the crop than I could. But when I stood before her, I felt condemned again. And again I asked myself : what right had I to seek more riches and more favors? If I wai not worthy of land, I could not be worthy of love; if I wasn’t fit to use a crop, I couldn’t be trusted with a heart. And so I came away.”
Reddy looked at his friend for a moment in puzzled silence. Then he shook his head, and answered him, more kindly than before:
“I can’t see it, old man : your philosophy is beyond me. Perhaps I ought
to feel the same way, but I don’t. My advice to you is to get over it.” There was no more said about it till, a little later, Reddy had mounted his pony and was about to leave. Wyburn walked at his side.
“Good by, Kilmer. I’ll be wishing you good luck.”
And I say, John, youTe a fitter sort than you think.
Try to forget that notion of yours.”
Wyburn watched his merry friend out of sight down the trail, and presently went back to the shack. Quite otherwise than had been intended, Reddy’s visit had added fresh fuel to the fires within him, and they burned anew as again he sat and brooded.
So it was that Tom Murton’s message was forgotten. He recalled it, somewhat guiltily, to face a new difficulty: would he go to-day, while May Gunton was there, or tomorrow, after she had gone?
The clock decided it, for it counted off so many hours, while Wyburn wait-
ed, that the day wore on, leaving him no choice but the morrow. He was both glad and sorry, then, that he should not see May Gunton.
An hour after the next morning’s daylight, he was on the trail. He was
eager now to be moving, though he knew not why, and wondered at it. The way was pleasant enough, had he cared for that. From his shack to the main road was a winding half-mile through the bush, and five miles east along the public highway brought him to a side-trail that went to the Red Deer River, past Murtons. The river trail led into a thicker growth of bush than he had come through before, and the marks of winter still lingered in it, showing patches of snow between the trees and muddy pools that the April suns had hardly more than touched. Further on, where the land was more open, the melting snows had run from the hillsides into a woodsy brook, already swollen and running fast. Close to this brook, just before it reached the river, was the Murtón dwelling.
Tom Murton was locally known as the Unlucky Man of the Red Deer Road. For three years the crops on his rented farm had been poor; one of his barns had burned down; he had lost half a winter, the year before, with a broken leg; and now his wife was in the hospital. That, very likely, was why May Gunton had been there, helping Tom’s twelve-year-old Betty to keep the house in order while the mother was away. It would be like her: and Tom was the kind that people liked to help—with all his ill-luck, a cheery fellow still.
Wyburn came out of the bush into Murton’s clearing, and at its edge, where he got his first view of the farmstead, stopped the horse in sudden wonder. It was the same familiar view that he had seen many times before, except for one thing: there was no house ! The other buildings were grouped, as they had been always, some distance back, but where the dwelling had been was now a blank. He rubbed his eyes, half doubting what they told him, but every time the picture came back with the empty place in it. Had Murtons hard luck again pursued him, this time with a fire in the night? Yet there was no smoke—only a blank.
Wyburn rode at a gallop down the clearing. The closer view was even more strange ; for there he saw, not that
a fire had burned, but that the earth had sunken, taking the house with it. A newly made hole opened like the mouth of a great well, forty feet across, its sides showing deep and black.
It was very still. A cow-bell tinkled in the barn, and a bird or two chirped bravely in the neighboring bush: after that' it was still again. And in that black hole was perhaps an even greater stillness. For Tom Murtón and Betty must be buried in the landslide that had swallowed up their home.
He tied his horse a little way back, and walked cautiously to the edge of the hole. Loose earth had fallen from the top, and even now, he saw, was breaking off and rolling down the sides, a straight drop of nearly thirty feet Toms little house, if not wrecked in the fall, was at least buried deep, for not a timber of it showed above the bottom of the pit.
The fatal meaning of the thing came to Wyburn with the conviction that he must search it out. He must do it at once, and alone: there was no one else within two miles. Yet how? He turned away from the hole to feel, with careful steps, the surface-levels around him, half expecting the ground to give beneath him as he went. The yard of Murton’s house was close to the brow of the hill. Just beyond and below was the river, and part way down the thinly wooded slope of the shore was the abandoned dump of the old Pioneer coal mine.
And then it all came to him, in a sudden, soul-striving light. The Pioneer mine had cave in! Its tunnels, which had not been worked for several years, ran from the river bank in a network of branches, and some of these were known to have reached far into the hill before the veins had given out. Wyburn had once gone through the mine, and he remembered that he had come out of the main tunnel ^ into a large central chamber, in which the bulk of the coal had been mined. Its sides ran high, till they must have gone, he had then thought, unusually close to the surface. Murton’s dwelling, it now seemed, must have been Built directly over this underground hollow,
and when, for some unknown reason, the roof of the mine gave way, the building dropped with it.
If this were so, the tunnels which had entombed the Murtons might also have saved them. Wyburn’s mind was now working quickly, and the clearing of the mystery showed him the need of instant action.
Back at the barn he found a heavy shovel, and with this he hastened down the river-bank to the mouth of the tunnel. His hope was that the walls of the house might have shielded the prisoners from the mass of earth and coal that had come down after them, and that the timbering of the tunnel might have fallen in such a way as still to have left them an air channel. The tunnel made, at least, the best means of reaching them.
The mouth was half-filled with fallen earth, through which Wyburn cleared his way, and went on into the open space beyond. The litter of a disused mine lay all about, and the faint light that had filtered in from the mouth gradually gave way to complete darkness, in which he groped uncertainly. Somewhere water was running, and it occurred to him that the snow-fed brook back of the house might have had something to do, by way of an underground leakage, with the unsettling of the mine. He stumbled on through the dark, not knowing into what hidden mystery he might be going. Fifty feet further, the way was blocked.
For two hard hours he worked against an unseen obstacle of earth and rock, keeping close to the timbered wall. The sounds of his shovel, as he lifted its scanty pickings, fell strangely in the narrow darkness and seemed to mock him. Before and above him was a mass of fallen waste that threatened to engulf him at any moment, as b had engulfed the Murtons. The air grew heavy, and at spells he crept back for breath. Two flours of effort brought no result. The task seemed impossible. Why should he longer continue it? Very likely it was already too late to save Tom and his little girl, and he
was in instant peril of his own life. It was too hard a risk !
There came, from what seemed to be the inmost depths of the earth, a slow and threatful creaking. He turned to go. Then he paused, and for several moments thought it out. This thing that he had set out to do—if it might be done, he would like to do it: he would try again/ And he went back to his task.
With a few more strokes the shovel broke through, and Wyburn felt a welcome rush of new air. The loosened stone and earth rolled to his feet, leaving an opening of a mans size, and through this he crept on hands and knees into a small passage that appeared to run along the side and bottom of the main tunnel. If this but went far enough he might yet reach the Murtons. But it was still densely dark, and he could not' see, or even guess, how far the open space extended. It seemed, however, that he had come a long way from the mouth of the mine: surely as far as the site of the fated house. He called, and his voice echoed weirdly.
There was no answer. He had hardly dared hope there would be. But again he called.
And then, from perhaps thirty feet away, came a faint, thin cry, the voice of a man far-spent. The Murtons were j ust beyond him !
How he found them, pinned down beneath the timbers of the house ; how, with desperate struggle, he freed' them ; and how he then got them out of the tunnel, Wyburn has never been able at all clearly, to tell. There were three—Tom, and his little girl, and one other—and they were limp and lifeless in his arms as he carried them away.
Three times out through the tunnel, by the same groping way he had come, Wyburn now went with his helpless burdens, and twice back again. It had been a work of many hours, and at the last his strength failed him. One clear sense—that he must go on—remained, and under its impulse he brought the three out from the tunnel into the open air and carried them, one by one, up the bank. He hardly noticed that he was still moving in the dark, nor real-
ized that while he had been working in the tunnel the day had gone. At the brow of the hill, to which he climbed with pain, he laid down the three still unmoving forms, and then dropped beside them, exhausted.
When he came to himself, someone was bending over him, and fearfully he asked:
“Where are they?”
It was Reddy Kilmer’s voice that answered. “Ned Carter has taken them away. He’s coming back for you presently. They must have been pretty far gone, John, but they came to after a bit, and seem to be alright now. Ned and I got here just in time. What about yourself?”
“I’m tired, very tired,” said Wyburn
slowly. “But I wonder, Reddy, if I’ve earned the right now—:—”
“Earned? I say, John, this is the biggest day’s earning you ever did in your life. You need never again be troubled about not being fit or worthy, for now you’ve proved it. And you’ve earned something else, too. She as much as told me so, just now.”
“She told you?” said Wyburn wonderingly. “Who do you mean?”
“Why—I say, you stupid hero, don’t you know who it was you took out of that death-trap?”
“Tom and Betty, I suppose. There was another, too, but I couldn’t see who it was.”
“It was May Gun ton !”
Someone asked Dr. Beecher, when an old man, how he was getting along. “Oh, I am doing a thousand times better than I used to, because I have made up my mind to let God manage his own universe,” he replied.
If there is a pathetic sight in the universe it is that of a narrow, ignorant, vulgar man presiding over a great pile of money which he has scraped together without any grand life-purpose or ulterior aim but that of animal enjoyment.
A man may build a palace, but he can never make it a home alone. The spirituality and love of a woman alone can accomplish this.
If money is so slippery that you can hardly keep hold of it wThen you are watching it all the time, how can you expect to get some enormous return for money which you invest in some faraway scheme, which you will probably never see and which is absolutely beyond your control?
DR. O. S. MARDEN.