The New Serial by the author of "Smoking Flax."
Perhaps the term hero, with its suggestion of high enterprise, sits inappropriately upon the chief character of this tale; there was in Gander Stake little of that quality which is associated with the clash of righteous steel or the impact of noble purpose. Yet that he was without heroic fibre I will not admit, and you who read these pages shall judge whether or not the word is wholly UNWARRANTED.-THE AUTHOR
THE eleventh of April, 1896,is not generally known to be a date of special significance, yet it was on that day, or, to be more exact, that night, that Gander Stake made his entry into a not overhospitable world.
There is no means of knowing at exactly what date young Gander began making appraisals of his new environment. His immediate interests were few and he concentrated upon them with imperious determination. His disappointments he expressed in wails of incredible volume, and his approvals he gurgled with equal if less lusty enthusiasm. He had not asked for admission into the world; he had not at all been consulted about a matter in which he, plainly, was most concerned, but, now that he was in the world, he proposed that it should serve him.
Gander was utterly selfish. If he thought of his older brother at all it probably was with contempt and hostility, feelings which were reciprocated by Jackson, junior, a thin, dark-eyed, silent boy of eight. If he thought of his father—Jackson senior—at all, he, no doubt, regarded him as an enormous, shaggy, but not dangerous animal, given at times to grotesque antics apparently intended to be humorous, and an unseemly curiosity concerning his—Gander’s—toes, hair, and absence of teeth. His mother he took for granted. She supplied him with all the needs of his little life—food, warmth, and attention, and, upon occasion, he would reward her with an amiable gurgle, quite without value on any market in the world, and yet unpurchasable by anything those markets have to offer.
If he took note of his surroundings, beyond the wooden cradle in which he lay, the arms in which he was lifted, he must have marvelled at the habitation which Fate had selected for his home. To him, at first, it would seem very big, although his mother found it inconveniently small, and filled with equipment of amazing variety and interest.
A huge bed occupied one corner of the room, and, next to his cradle, was the most important article of furniture. Here his father and mother slept. The bed could be screened off by means of a curtain, with gaudy figures on it, which could be stretched along a wire. This Gander held to be a wholly esthetic device for the display of the gaudy figures already mentioned, which at a later age he took to represent angels, and, still later, goblins.
The roof overhead was of boards—elm boards, as Gander learned when he was older—supported on rafters of peeled poplar poles. Over these was a layer of tarpaper, and, over that, poplar shingles nailed to the elm boards. Long before Gander’s time, the shingles had cupped with the weather, curling up at their discolored edges, and releasing small round knots which left small round holes in the space they once had occupied. Through the apertures thus provided, Gander observed many a starry heaven, winter and summer..
The walls were of logs—round, poplar logo, the spaces between them chinked and plastered. The logs, like the boards of the roof, had undergone a drying and shrinking Drocess, which left the chinks and plaster hanging loosely between, like idle brake-shoes on a wheel. The floor, too, was of poplar boards, with the inevitable cracks between them. The Stake family residence, it seemed, consisted largely of cracks.
The boards of the floor had knots, like the shingles of the roof, but not so many of them fell out. Susie Stake’s regular scrubbings kept the floor from drying up, and the knots held their ground.
It was when he was three years old that an incident occurred which annoyed him somewhat, and which needs to be told. A man, with a black coat and a funny collar, buttoned behind, arrived that day at the Stake homestead, in time for dinner. When the meal was finished the visitor read from a book, and even sang, an exercise in which the boy joined lustily. Suddenly he found himself quite the centre of interest. His father and mother were standing, with Gander between them, and the stranger in front. They were answering a number of questions, somewhat hesitatingly, Gander thought, and in a low voice, as though in fear of being overheard. Then, quite without warning, the stranger splashed a few drop of water on his head.
Gander’s first impulse was belligerent, but the stranger spoke to him so pleasantly that it was impossible to impute hostile intent, so he let the incident pass with a dignified rebuke.
“I ain’t dirty,” he said. “I-got washed before dinner, dang it all!”
The “dang it all” was his own mature and triumphant climax, borrowed from his father’s vocabulary, and absolutely unused until that very moment. Gander prided himself upon having carried it off rather well. In the hubbub which followed his remark he failed to catch the fact that he had been christened William Harden.
And not one of them knew that his name was to be Gander!
By all the rules upon which insurance companies base what they call the expectation of life, Gander should have been dead long before he reached his tenth anniversary. In that brief decade he had piloted his little ship, quite without medical interference, through the seas of those infantile diseasés ; measles, whooping cough, and scarlet fever. He twice had fallen into the lake; once in summer, from a log upon which he had improvised a raft, and once in winter, when he skated into a fishing hole. In each case he managed to get out again, and in the former instance, did not bother to go home to report the occurrence.
His winter plunge was more serious. By much coaxing, Gander had persuaded his father to exchange the price of four bushels of wheat for a pair of skates. He was swinging up and down the lake in great exhilaration of spirit, the ice ringing under his steel blades, when plop! into the hole he went. He splashed over his head, but bobbed up again in an instant; flung out his arms, and managed to find hand-hold on some of the rough chopped ice about the hole.
“O-o-h!” said Gander, “it’s cold!” his teeth already chattering. His first impulse was to shout for help, but it was a mile and a half to his father’s house, and there was not a chance in a thousand of any one being within reach of his voice. No one—but Queenie! The dog had come down to the lake with him, and was off in the bush, hunting rabbits.
“Oh, Queenie, Queenie!” he called, and then, because he was essentially religious, he began to pray. “Oh, God, make Queenie hear me,” he cried, “and I won’t—” But before he had made any indiscreet commitments the dog appeared, racing toward him. “All right, God,” he said, his assurance returning. “I guess Queenie an’ me can make it.”
The dog came close to the black hole in the ice, now slopping water over its edge, and Gander, after one or two unsuccessful attempts, during which he was almost at the point of praying again, managed to slip one hand through her leather collar. “Now, Queenie, pull!” he threatened. “You pull me out or I’ll pull you in.”
The dog pulled. Gander threw his body into a horizontal position, as in swimming. A thrust, a lurch, a scramble, and he was up in safety again. He whipped his skates from his boots and started on a run for home.
“Well for the soul or sake o’ me!” his mother exclaimed as Gander plunged through the door, panting with exhaustion, Queenie at his heels. “What you been up to?
. . . My land, did you fall in the lake?” She was on her knees beside him then, her heart suddenly choked with concern.
In a few minutes she had him in bed with a hot stovelid at his feet and a glass of hot chokecherry wine in his stomach. Gander experienced a sense of delicious comfort, and presently fell asleep. When he awoke it was morning, and he was as fit as ever.
By the time Gander was eight, he was shooting gophers with a muzzle-loading shotgun, that had been in the family for at least a generation. He met with only one mishap in all his shooting experiences. That was the summer he was ten. He had been hunting plover, and Was walking homeward with his empty gun swung across his shoulder, when, cresting a ridge that commanded a Bmall pond, he was astonished to see a dozen or more grey geese resting at the water’s edge.
Gander never had shot a goose; this was his chance of sudden glory. What happened next Gander never knew. When he awoke the sun was just setting—-and it was midafternoon when he fired! He arose on his left arm, but a stab of pain flattened him again on the grass. His right arm seemed paralyzed. There was something clammy and sticky about his face. He rubbed his cheek and found a cut now choked with a plaster of dried blood.
He arose slowly. He got up on his knees, he stood on his legs. To his surprise and joy they did not collapse under him. Then he experimented with his right arm. It was stiff and sore, but he could hold it out. He even could swing it a little.
,“I gpess it ain’t broke, or I couldn’t do that,” he consoled himself. And suddenly his heart was very light as he realized that he was not about to die, after all.
He picked up his gun and examined it. It appeared to be none the worse; it was docile in his hands. He stroked the long, lean barrel; it gave no hint of its recent treachery.
“Just a kick,” he soliloquized, a little sheepish now over his scare. “But gee—didn’t it spill me! Wonder what made it kick like that? I held it good an’ tight.” Then, his mind suddenly connecting up with recent events —“wonder if I got a goose!”
He raced down to the water’s edge, all his injuries forgotten, to almost fall over a stout body in a clump of grass. He seized it. A grey goose—-a great big grey goose! When he lifted it by the head, it seemed almost as long as himself. With a whoop he gathered up his gun and started on a run for home.
“Pretty late out shootin’, ain’t yuh?” his father challenged, as he stood in the door. “Got your mother scared to death. Holy jumpin’ jack rabbits, what’s that? A goose!” His father was beside him with a great stride. “A dandy, ain’t he? Good boy, Bill! But you’re all over blood—should be more careful carryin’ it. Good boy!”
It was the proudest moment in Gander’s life. What were a cut face and a bruised arm to glory like this?
“Gun kicked a bit,” he explained. “Nothin’ much. Cut my face a bit.”
“You might ha’ been killed,” his mother commented. “I’m scared to death some day you’ll come home dead. Well, there’s another goose to pluck an’ clean an’ stuff an’ cook—■”
“Gee, we ain’t had a goose for a dog’s age,” Gander protested. He resented his mother’s lack of enthusiasm. Hadn’t he shot a goose, and he was only ten? He was beginning to feel that mothers didn’t understand.
His father examined the gun and hung it on its two nails over the door before he spoke. “Guess you rammed both charges into one barrel, Bill,” he said, solemnly.
‘It’s a God’s mercy you ain’t killed, my son.”
Two days later Jackson Stake brought a new breech-loading shotgun home from Plainville.
“Take that, Bill,” he said, “an’ throw that ol’ gopher-duster in the bone-yard.”
Gander’s eyes jumped, and he committed one of those rare indiscretions in the Stake household ■—he gave evidence of affection. He actually put his arms around his father. And Jackson Stake absent-mindedly rested his hand in the boy’s tousled hair for a fraction of a moment.
“Well of all things!” said Susie Stake. “I bet that weepon cost the price of a load o’ wheat.”
“May be cheaper ’n a funeral at that,” was her husband’s dry rejoinder.
GANDER had started to school the April he was five years old. Jackie was then thirteen, and too big to be spared from the work of the farm but he walked the mile and a half with Gander to the prairie schoolhouse and presented him to the teacher, Miss Evelyn Fry.
“This is my brother, Bill,” he said. “Mother sent ’im to school.”
“You will sit with Tommy Burge,” Miss Fry told him. “Tommy, this is William Stake. Show him your desk and help him to feel at home.”
The Burges lived south of the school, on the road to Plainville, and three miles from the Stake homestead. Gander had seen Tommy once or twice, and knew him by sight, but no acquaintance had been developed. He was as slim as Gander, with long legs, and a fair face, peppered with freckles in large flakes like oatmeal, a circumstance which had gained for him the cognomen of Porridge.
Jackie had left for home without further formality. He was a man now, helping his father to clean wheat, and he had been a little humiliated by having to go to the school at all, even to accompany his brother. Of course, Jackie attended school during the winter months along with the other big boys of the neighborhood, but that was different.
Tommy Burge took Gander in charge. “This is our seat,” he explained. “If you got any books you can stick ’em in there,” indicating a shelf under the desk.
“Ain’t got any,” said Gander. Thereupon the two boys for an instant looked into each other’s eyes, blushed under the searching gaze of childhood, giggled, and Gander knew they would be friends.
At first recess Gander was initiated into a game known as Pom, Pom, Pull-away, which consisted of choosing sides and placing two bases, on each of which a “prisoner” was located. To rescue the prisoner one had to run across the enemy’s flank, and, if captured by them, became an additional prisoner on the base. The game was conducted to the accompaniment of a chant:
“Pom, Pom, Pull-away,
If you don’t come, I’ll pull you away”
For some time Gander remained in the safety of his home camp, as was becoming in a raw recruit, but as the game proceeded his courage rose. He saw other boys distinguishing themselves and the call to glory fell not unheeded on his ears. A little girl about his own age— Josephine Burge, sister of his seat-mate Tommy—in a pink calico dress, which Gander thought very beautiful, was languishing in jail. Percy Marsh had rushed to her rescue, and, being one of the bigger boys, had drawn all the enemy’s fire. They were pursuing him over the school yard, and, in the midst of this deployment, Gander went “over the top.” Silently and unnoticed he dashed to the aid of the prisoner, whose hand was outstretched toward him as far as her lithe little body would reach, because it was a rule of the game that the moment she was touched by one of her side she was free. Their hands met, clasped, and home they ran in triumph together.
“Hurrah for Billie Stake! Good boy, young Stake!” cried his comrades. Glory was his, and a new joy of life was upon him.
That was the first time he ever held Jo Burge’s hand. At noon the boys ate their lunches squatted against the sunny side of the school building; the girls, always more fastidious, ate theirs from their desks inside. They gulped their meal quickly, but interlarded it with conversation.
Gander’s attention had been drawn to a portion of Peter Loudy’s unfinished lunch; dark, soggy bread, incredibly uninviting. Gander was by no means fastidious but he always had been accustomed to wholesome food. This dark mass fascinated him and seemed to set some mechanism in his stomach in reverse gear. His intent observation did not escape Peter’s notice.
“Well, what’s a-matter with it?” Pete demanded.
“It’s rotten,” Gander observed, with great frankness. This, of course, was too much. Pete pounced upon the little boy, punching at his head and face.
It was Gander’s first engagement of any consequence and his tactics were simple and spontaneous. He wrapped his arms about his face and shrieked at the top of his
Gander’s screams brought the girls running out of the school. Suddenly from among them, dashed a little figure in pink calico, cheeks blazing with indignation redder than her dress. It was Jo.
“Itth th’ little Thtake boy!” she cried, and buried her fingers in Pete Loudy’s hair. Her hands were small but her grip was astonishingly strong, and she had no squeamishness about her method of attack. Pete’s shriek rose higher than the best of Gander’s. He turned on his new assailant, but Tommy Burge, encouraged, or shamed, as the case may be, by his sister’s onset, seized him by the waist and down they went together.
Meanwhile Gander had disentangled himself, and, somewhat to his surprise, found he was not seriously injured. A little miss, of whose acquaintance at that time he had not the honor, stuck a taunting finger in his face. “I know who your girl is,” she said. “It’s Jo Burge!”
At four o’clock Gander started for home, swinging his empty school-bag about his head and talking to himself after the manner of children who spend much of their time alone.
Susie Stake watched from the south window for the coming of her boy from school. Minnie, two and a half years old, hung about her knees, and Hamilton, a babe of three months, occupied the cradle that once had been Gander’s. More than once during the day, in the midst of her work, his mother had thought of him ; when she saw his place vacant at the noon table it took her with a goneness, under the waist, which she would have been ashamed to confess, and by four o'clock she was beginning to send her glances down the road to the school. It was Gander’s first little step into life.
It was after five o’clock when Gander came loitering along. Whatever sentiment or concern his mother had felt for him during his absence she now suppressed; it was a way with the Stakes to show no weaknesses toward each other.
“Well for the soul or sake o’ me, I thought you was goin’ to stay all night! Get off them good pants and go hunt the eggs.”
GANDER attended school with more or less regularity until he was ten years old. He was dull; learning came to him with difficulty; books were bothersome, and he was not disposed to be bothered. For Gander was a farmer born and bred; he had an eye for horses and a knack with machinery ; the mysteries of the self-binder he had solved before he was nine, but the mysteries of cube root he had not solved when he left school.
He made chums of Tommy Burge, Dick Claus, and Freddie Gordon (of the school teacher’s boarding-house) but particularly of Tommy Burge. And he developed a strange kindliness of regard toward Josephine Burge; a regard which, for all his blundering shyness, he, in some way, managed to disclose to the one individual who had most right to know.
The summer he was ten years old Gander began to take a man’s place on the farm. Jackson Stake had added to the original homestead until he now had four hundred and eighty acres of land rich, mellow, fertile prairie and scrub sod, with over two hundred acres under cultivation. His cattle and horse stables, his granaries and sheds, sprawled aimlessly about the log hut which was still his home, its numerous lean-tos, marking, with some degree of precision, the periodical increases in his family; the new frame house, with lath-and-plaster finish, of which Susie Stake had dreamed for a decade and a half had not yet come into being, although every spring her husband had prophesied that if the crop “came off” the new house would surely be built the following season.
“What do you think about buildin’ our new house this year?” she would say each May, when the prairie was a garden of flowers and a man’s heart might be expected lightly to turn to rash commitments.
“Not this year, I’m afraid, Susie; got to buy a new binder. Maybe next year, if the crop comes off.”
Mrs. Stake was a bad but effective loser. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” she would close the discussion.
Meanwhile Jackson enlarged his stables and barns; abandoned the twenty-acre field idea which he had transplanted from his early Eastern environment for the broad measures of the West, and now farmed his land by quarter sections; abandoned the two-horse team for teams of four and six; abandoned the fourteen-inch single furrow walking plough for two-and three-furrow sulky gangs; abandoned the broadcast seeder for the disc drill, and the six-foot binder for the eight; abandoned the grain sack for the bulk system of handling wheat; abandoned the old horse-power threshers, whose metallic crescendo sang through the frosty autumn mornings of the 1880’s, for the steam and gasoline of the twentieth century.
That summer Gander drove a two-horse team on the mower, and, later, a four-horse team on the binder. He was now a tall, thin boy, hump-shouldered from sitting huddled on his machines, grimy with oil and blear-eyed with dust; knowing nothing about cube root, but able to harness and handle four horses abreast, and filled with the joy of a man’s accomplishment. He was still too small to be of much service stooking sheaves or forking hay, and his natural aptitude for horses and machinery led to his being made teamster of the binder and mower. His brother. Jackie, now eighteen, and his father, followed him in the fields, working the long harvest days until after sunset, to save the thirty dollars a month which a hired man would have cost. True, Gander did not get the thirty dollars a month—nor did he expect it. He was working for his father and with his father, and that was enough.
Not so Jackie. Jackie discussed it with his father.
“Dad, I’m doing a man’s work and I think I ought to get a man’s pay,” he said one day in harvest, as they sat in the shade of a stook for a few minutes, after eating the four-o’clock lunch which Minnie brought from the house. “I ain’t a kicker, but I could get thirty dollars workin’ cn
any other farm ’round here, and not work any harder, either.” His father chewed medita* tively on a straw. There had been something in Jackie’s mood in recent times which rather had prepared him for this conversation.
“An’ how much would you get in winter?” he asked.
“Perhaps somethin’, perhaps nothin’,” Jackie returned, doggedly. “Or I could go into Winnipeg and hit somethin’ for the winter.”
“Hit a soup kitchen, mos' likely. I guess there ain’t no jobs chasin’ young fellows like you up and down the streets o’ Winnipeg in January. Some fellows don’ know a good home when they got it.”
“I suppose you’re alludin’ to that log shack we eat and sleep in,” Jackie retorted. “Yes, it’s a pretty classy residence. You’ve been goin’ to build a frame house as long’s I can remember, with lath and plaster inside—”
Jackson senior paused in the mastication of his straw. His big red face hardened. When he spoke it was with the finality of an ultimatum. “I built that place with my own saw an’ axe, an’ you didn’t help me, nothin’ partic’lar. It was good enough for me then, an’ it’s good enough for me yet, an’ any day it ain’t good enough for you, perhaps you’d better buzz round a bit an’ find somethin’ more to your likin.”
There was a silence in which both men gazed blankly at the shimmering heat away through the avenues of stocka.
“I don’ mean that remark to be took too literal,” the older man conceded at length. “You’ve been a good help on the farm—I’ll say that for you —an’ I’m not handin’ you any grand bounce. What I can’t understand is why you wan’ tQ leave it,”
“Í âin’t sayin’ I want to leave, but I think I’m worth as muck as other men that’s gettin’ paid.”
“Well, we’re not quarrelin’ on that, either, but there’s more ways of payin’ than writin’ a check. You get everythin’ you feed. You charge it up at Sempter’s store, an’ I settle for it. Besides, I been payin’ instalments on you ever since you was born, Jackie, an’ before. Seems like the new generation nowadays don’ take that into consideration. They think the old man should be like a stove-pipe—everythin’ goin’ out an’ nothin’ comin’ in. I figger on bein’ fair, Jackie, but it don’ seem to me as you have any kick cornin’.”
“I know all that, Dad, but every time I want a dollar I got to go bowin’ an’ scrapin’ to you, just like Mother does.”
Jackson glanced at the shadow of the stook, creeping around to the eastward. His legs were stiff with toil and he rose with a groan, but once upon his feet he strode quickly through the crisp stubble. Gander drove up at the moment, the binder clattering as it came. The young teamster saw his father through the corner of his eye, and his chest swelled with manly pride. Not for an inotant did he deflect his attention from the job in hand. He cracked his long whip over the backs of his four bays and they went by on the half-run, the binder snapping out its great sheaves of golden wheat and its drive-chains singing.
There was a glow of pride in Jackson Stake’s eye as this young farmer drove past. He followed him for a moment with his glance, then turned to his stooking.
The Jacksons, senior and junior, plied their work without another word. To the father, no further discussion seemed necessary. Jackie was restless, and a bit ungrateful; when he was older he would realize the advantages of having a home he could call his own, in foul weather as well as fair.
“I’m ready to do what’s right with Jackie,” the elder Stake assured himself. Over the gap of years the advent of his first-born came back to him, poignant and overwhelming, and a mist which was not from the red rust of the wheat sent the sea of stooks swimming before his eyes. “Dang it all, I’ll make it fifty, if the crop comes off, so help me!” he promised himself.
But he didn’t make it fifty dollars, or twenty dollars, or any other sum, when the crop “came off.” For on Friday of that week Jackie drove to town with cash for two hundred pounds of twine, and a boy from the livery stable brought the team home, saying Jackie had taken the morning train to Winnipeg.
AFTER Jackie left the farm, such work as Gander - could do was even more in demand than it had been before. He finished cutting the crop, with an occasional “spell off” from his father, who was now obliged to hire a man in place of Jackie, and found him much less efficient.
Threshing was a great event, as always it is on those farms where grain growing is the major occupation. Several times had Jackson Stake been on the verge of buying a threshing machine of his own, but always he had been deterred by the vigorous opposition of his wife, who insisted that a new house must take precedence over any such investment. And when Susie really insisted, Jackson, who was not without stubbornness on his own account, had the wisdom to temporize, with the result that the machine was not bought, nor was the house built.
“I’d think you have enough machin’ry debts as it is,” his wife would say to him. “An’ a threshin’ machine, of all things! What you know about a steam engine? Mos’ likely blow it up, an’ then where’d you be?”
“Guess I’m kind of accustomed to a blowin’ up,” Jackson would say, in his droll good humor. “An’ look at the threshin’ bills I got to pay! Enough to build a new house every two or three years.” He flattered himself that this was a diplomatic touch.
“Well, I don’t see that those that’s got machines are buildin’ many houses on what they save. There’s Bill Powers; been runnin’ a thresher ever since we came to the country, an’ what’s he got? Nothin’ on his place but a mortgage. Better hire Bill again an’ save your money.”
It was late at night, near the end of September, when Powers’ outfit moved on to the Stake farm from Gordon’s, a mile or two to the south. Mr. Stake and his hired man were helping their neighbor with his threshing, and Gander was at home filling mangers and, in his small way, getting ready for “the gang.” His mother, also, was getting ready, but in no small way.
The afternoon had been a busy one for Mrs. Stake. She was fortunate in flagging a messenger to town, as he went by on the main road, and sending in an order for supplies, which would be delivered late that night. In the meantime she attacked her baking, and the preparation of her vegetables. When Gander came in to supper he found a plate of potatoes, with two fried eggs on top, thrust at him. He ate it off a corner of the wood box, the table being fully occupied with his mother’s activities.
Gander had just cleaned his plate when a tap came at the door; not a man’s knock, but a hesitating, gentle little tap.
“Well for the soul or sake o’ me!” Mrs. Stake exclaimed, for the fiftieth time that day.
“Ain’t I got enough without visitors?”
Then, her sense of courtesy righting itself, she began scraping her doughy hands on the back of a knife. “Open the door, William,” she commanded. “What you sittin’ there gawkin’ about?”
Gander opened the door and beheld a mite about his own size, or smaller, in the wedge of light from the table lamp. It was Josephine Burge.
“Hello, Jo!” said Gander. “Come in.”
Mrs. Stake peered at her caller. “Why, if it ain’t little Joey Burge!
My, but it’s late for you to be out! Are you all alone?”
“Yes’m,” said Jo, wriggling under Mrs.
Stake’s gaze, and slipping her arm about Minnie, who had left her potato-peeling and edged up beside her.
“If you please, Mother sent me to say she’d come over in the mornin’ and help you, if you like.”
“Well, now, I declare, that’s right good o’ your ma. That’s what I call neighborly. These consuffered threshers come plunkin’ in on me without a moment’s notice—”
“That’s what Mother said, when she heard,” the little girl agreed. “And she sent me over—•”
“All by you’self? Ain’t it pretty dark?”
“Yes’m. Tommy couldn’t get away, ’cause my father’s helpin’ at the threshin’, and he ain’t home yet. So I came. I know the road well, and it’ll be moonlight goin’ back.”
“Well that’s a right smart girl. You won’t have had your supper?”
Josephine hesitated. “Well—some,” she admitted.
“Guess you could get a couple o’ these buns inside o’ you, without bustin’,” Mrs. Stake suggested, “’specially if they was greased with a dish o’ corn syrup.” She broke two fresh brown buns from a great panful, poured some golden syrup in a saucer, and drew the little girl up to a corner which she cleared on the table. Any supper in which Josephine already had indulged had no difficulty in making way for the new arrivals.
“Threshin’s a powerful hard time on women,” her hostess commented, as she resumed the kneading of a panful of dough. “The men hire lots o’ help for threshin’, but the women just’ got to hitch up an’ go to it. I’m waitin’ till Minnie grows up—if she don’ light out about the time she’s some use, like most o’ them do. Well, it’s a God’s goodness o’ your ma to come over to-morrow. Thank her kindly for me, an’ tell her I’ll save some odds an’ ends for her to do, or, maybe she better bring her fancy work. Maybe we’ll both do a little fancy work between meals, eh, Joey?”
The little girl smiled suitably at this sarcastic humor, and finished her second bun. Mrs. Stake was too occupied with her work to notice that the second bun had been finished, and presently Josephine wriggled to her feet.
“Well, I guess I better be goin’,” she said.
“Yes; your ma’ll be uneasy if you’re late. William’ll run home with you for comp’ny. Get your hat, William, an’ run home with Joey, an’ don’ stay.”
“Can I go?” piped Minnie. “Can I go, Ma? Can I?”
“You’re too small; you couldn’t keep up,” said Gander. He liked his sister Minnie well enough, but he had a mature instinct that this was no occasion to encourage her presence.
“Yes, you’re too small,” their mother dismissed the subject. “ ’Sides, I need you here. Skip along, now, William, an’ hurry back. An’ tell your ma I’m ever so much obliged.” It was understood that the closing sentence was intended for Josephine.
The two children were at once on their way, running lightly through the groves of poplar and willow that shut the farm buildings from the highroad, picking their steps deftly in the darkness. It was not until they emerged on the road allowance that they drew up to a walk. Gander had a feeling that this was a time for speech, but he had no idea what to say. He was not a romantic boy in the sense of being a worshipper of heroes and heroines. The few books which the Stake household afforded were without interest to him; his little sister, only seven years old, was already a better reader than he. Gander hated school, and he hated books, but he loved horses, and machines, and he suspected that he loved Josephine Burge. But he had no words in which to express his sentiment—he had no models to copy. And, after all, what need of words? He reached out and took Jo’s hand in his, and again they ran on together.
When they stopped for breath a full moon was shoving a blood-red segment over the crest of the world. They paused to look at it, and then turned their eyes to the glow from burning straw piles on all quarters of the horizon, for in this way, for lack of a better market, do the farmers lavish their humus and nitrogen into the air. “They look like moons, don’t they?” said Josephine. “Yep, a little,” said Gander, and again they ran on together.
Presently the long, sharp note of a thresher’s whistle
cut across the night.
They stopped to listen.
“They’re through at Gordon’s,” Gander remarked. “They’ll be movin’ now.”
“They’ll be cornin’ up this road, won’t they?” Josephine asked.
“Yep; I guess.”
“They’ll see us, won’t they?”
A pause. “I guess.”
“Do you care?”
“Neither do I.”
Then they walked, and Gander felt his tongue unloosed. “Guess I won’t be goin’ to school no more,” he remarked.
“No more? Any more.” Josephine was not quite a hater of books. “Why?”
“Jackie’s lit out, an’ I got to work.”
“I heard about that. Will he come back?”
“Dunno. He can stay, for all I care.”
They could now hear the panting of the steam engine and the voices of men carried curiously distinct through darkness now thinning in the ruddy light of the rising moon. As they crested a hill they saw the black caterpillar of the “outfit” stretched before them, Bill Powers walking ahead with a lantern, on the look-out for stones and badger holes, and the engine following solemnly a few yards behind. The highroad was little more than a prairie trail, with ruts too close for the wide-geared trucks of the engine, so that one side ran on the road and the other on the virgin prairie sod. The light from Powers’ lantern glinted on the front wheels of the engine as they wobbled drunkenly but irresistibly along their uneven course. A sharper exhaust snorted out as they struck the grade of the hill, and Gander and Josephine drew over, as far as the field that bordered the road, to let the outfit pass by. Here they could watch unobserved. Their boast about indifference to public opinion had been mere bravado.
The straw - wagon drew up beside the engine and Gander could dimly observe the fireman shoving straw into the fire-box. It was his ambition, some day, to fire an engine, and even his devotion to Josephine could hardly hold him from running up and climbing on board. But while he wrestled with temptation the opportunity moved on.
Behind the engine came the separator, and behind it, the caboose. Behind that again was the watertank, and one or two supply wagons; quite a train, as it moved solemnly along that lonely road, here and there a point of metal catching the moonlight and being picked out in brilliance against its somber background. The steady pant of the exhaust, the rumble of the wheels, the voice of Bill Powers, raised occasionally in caution or direction to his engineer— these were the accompaniments of that mechanical procession which, on the morrow, would thresh in a dozen hours the wheat to feed a hundred families for a year. Only two or three men were about; the others still were having supper at Gordon’s, and the absence of human attendants heightened the dramatic ghostliness of the scene. Although Gander was a boy not touched by the romance of books here was something that stirred him deeply-^the romance of machinery, of steam, which, at the pull of a lever, turned loose the power of giants! He watched until it had gone over the hill.
“I’m goin’ to run one o’ those, some day; you see if I don’t,” he whispered to Josephine, and his words were the confession of as great a secret yearning, as that of a young artist who gives his dearest friend a glimpse of his ambitions.
“Course you are, when you’re a man,” said Josephine. So that was settled.
At the Burge gate, Gander stopped. “Guess I won’t go no further,” he said.
“Won’t you come in?” Josephine invited him, feeling that that was the proper thing to do.
“Nope. Guess I’ll skip home. Maybe I’ll catch up on the outfit.”
They hesitated. “Wish I could go over to-morrow, with Mother,” she confessed.
“Wish so, too. P’raps you can . . . Night, Jo.”
She moved toward the house, and he watched her little figure silhouetted across the square of light from the kitchen window. Then he turned and ran to overtake his other love.
GANDER’S prediction that his school days were at an end proved to be accurate. As soon as the ploughs in Jackson Stake’s fields of brown stubble were stopped by the freeze-up the hired man was paid off and turned at large.
When wheat hauling was finished Jackson Stake had little occasion to be away from home, and a lull developed in the farm operations. There really was no reason why Gander should not then have gone back to school, had he been so disosed—but he was not. He even could ave gone without any sacrifice of his dignity, as it was the practice of the big boys of the community to go in winter, and Gander now counted himself a big boy, although he would not turn eleven until the spring. But he had cut a season’s crop, he had taken a man’s place, and one who has done that is no longer a child. On one pretext and another, he managed to stay at home, and his father, never strict in matters of this kind, was glad enough to accept his help with the firewood and the stock.
By this time the Stake farmhouse had been enlarged by two additions, built at the rear and sloping up to the eave of the original roof. As the original eave had been none too high, and a slope must be provided for the roof of the addition, the back wall was not more than five feet from the floor, so that when Mrs. Stake, who was tall for a woman, worked in these little rooms she had to move about in a very stooped position. But there was space for a bed under the sloping roof, for a window in the gable end, and a wooden box or two for belongings. The only heat in winter was through the door which communicated with the main part of the house, and was left open at night in the somewhat optimistic anticipation that the heat from the kitchen stove would force its way outward in the téeth of the cold which poured in through the thin roof and about the frosted window.
Jackie and Gander had slept in one of these little lean-to rooms, and their father and mother and Minnie and Hamilton in the other. When Jackie left, Minnie was promoted to his room, but with the concession to Gander’s advancing years of a separate bed, home-built of a two-by-four scantling and pieces of an old packing box, placed in the opposite corner from Gander’s.
One night, near the approach of Christmas, Gander, who usually dropped to sleep as soon as his head was on the pillow, lay planning a rabbit snare which he proposed to set in a run-way down by the lake. His mother sat by the table in the livingroom, darning socks, and his father smoked beside the fire, with his chair so arranged as to promote convenient expectoration into the open ash-pan of the stove They had been sitting in silence for some time, and Gander had just reached the point where his snare was about to tighten upon its first victim, when his mother spoke.
“I’ve been wonderin’ about our boy, Jackson,” she said, and the tone of her voice brought Gander back from his jungles. His mother was a practical woman, who seldom dallied with sentiment, but there certainly was something in her voice now, as though she had been thinking of a little baby. Once in a while she used to speak to Gander that way, before the work of the farm and the care of the other children became so pressing. Gander lay still, his ears alert.
“I’ve been wonderin’ about our boy,” his mother said. “He’s been gone since August, an’ not a word.”
There was silence for a minute. Gander could hear his father drawing on his pipe and the tick of the clock on the wall:
“I reckon he has our address. He knows where we live.”
“Maybe he hasn’t got any money to come home with.”
“Maybe not, but a husky chap like him should be able to raise the price of a stamp, anyway. He was goin’ away where there’s lots o’ money. Maybe he’s got so much now he’s forgot all about us.”
There was another period of silence. At length Gander’s mother spoke again:
“It don’ seem right to let him go like that. It’s cold weather now, an’ not many jobs, I’m thinkin’.”
“He can come home when he likes,” her husband returned. “Only I ain’t doin’ no coaxin’.”
“Jackie won’t come home beggin’. He’d starve first. You done not too bad this year, Jackson, an ’ I was thinkin’ you might go down to the city for a day or two an’ look aroun’.”
There was a long silence. Then:
“It wouldn’t be the first cold trip I took for Jackie, Mother. Do you remember?”
“I do.” Gander started in his bed; his mother’s voice sounded so nearly like a sob.
“An’ this is all we get for it. As soon’ they’re able to git out, they git. It don’ seem worth while.”
“I’d give him another chance, if it was me.”
“So I will—any time he asks for it.”
There was another silence so long that Gander fell asleep, but the next day he thought of it. Jackie had slid readily from his mind. He never had liked his brother, mainly because, with all a child’s intensity, he resented Jackie’s attempts to “boss” him. It waS born in Gander’s blood to take orders from none—-a quality in his nature which was to determine his course in more important matters than anything that related to his brother. The obeying of orders clashed with his sense of independence. He loved to work in the fields with his father, for there they worked as man and man; Jackson Stake was much too wise a driver to let this colt feel the rein. Perhaps he had learned something from his experience with his firstborn. Or perhaps it was that Gander appealed to him differently.
Gander reacted toward his father perfectly. They were friends and chums together. That was one reason he feared the intrusion of Jackie’s return. Again, Jackie’s desertion of the farm seemed to hang as something of a quarrel between his father and mother, and Gander was his father’s partisan. His mother had been losing her grip on him, ever since the night when she had failed to enthuse over his shooting of the wild goose—when the plucking and dressing of the goose had loomed bigger in her imagination than Gander’s triumph in shooting it. Besides, his mother was disposed to give orders.
So another season came and went. Gander, although without a man’s strength, was able to take a man’s place in the driving of a team and the manage ment of most of the farm machinery. He drove a seeder in the spring, up and down the moist, black fields; up and down, up and down. He drove a plough in the summer-fallow; a mower in the long prairie grass about the sloughs in haying time. It was a man’s life; a life that thrilled him with the joy of accomplishment. If he was being robbed of his childhood he was content to be robbed, for in its place he was being given manhood before its time. When he saw other boys of his own age going to school, he regarded them with pity and contempt. A poor business, that, for one who could drive a four-horse team!
The summer Gander was twelve, his father hired a man for the season. He was introduced as Bill, and perhaps that was one of the reasons for the friendship which sprang up between himself and young William Stake. It was one of Gander’s secret ambitions to be called Bill. William he despised, as being sissy and stuck-up. The boys and girls of the neighborhood called him Bill, but his father and mother called him William, and he irked under it as if it were an offensive epithet. Once in a great while his father called him Bill, and then he knew that they were man to man together, but such high experiences occurred only at rare intervals.
Bill, the hired man, was slight and wiry of stature, with heavy creases showing through the ruddy stubble on his face, brows that hung well over his pale eyes, and hair thinning to a poor stand on top. Jackson picked him up one June day in Plainville, and for a year and a half he was a fixture on the Stake farm. He carried his worldly belongings in a grain sack, and dropped into the life of the place with ready adaptability.
But there was an angle of his life of which Jackson Stake and his wife knew nothing. It was an angle disclosed only in his confidences with young William; and the boy, with the instinctive curiosity of his years, kept his secrets well. Life on a mixed farm, where stock raising is combined with grain growing, is lived close to the fundamentals. Gander, from his own observations, and from the conversation bandied about among the farmers’ boys at school, had long since outgrown that uninformed condition sometimes described as innocence.
His speculations were given point and piquancy by the confidences of the elder Bill. The man was old enough to be Gander’s father, but was, apparently, unmarried. He explained this to Gander by pointing out that no married man was wanted on the farm, and, so far as he could see, no children were wanted anywhere, so what was a man to do? If a man was well off, and had a home of his own, of course he could get married; but if he was just a hired man, what was he to do?
He answered that question to his own satisfaction, while Gander’s little soul went surging within him. There had been no great show of religious teaching among the Stakes; yet religion, and with it a code of strict moral ethics, was the unwritten background of their existence. Just as they hid their sentiment from each other, and held it a weakness to show any sign of family affection, so also they concealed their religious life, still and deep, behind a mask of matter-of-fact-ness. Yet they knew good from evil, and no Stake had ever called evil good. Gander knew this, too; but here was a man who opened to him a life which, although it shocked his principles, had the appeal of fascinating adventure. Bill’s exploits lost nothing in the telling, and Gander was stirred between horror at his revelations and admiration of a courage which placed all the conventions at defiance.
The crop “came off” as usual, but the new house was not built. With the approach of cold weather a third lean-to was added, to which Minnie and little Hamilton were assigned. Bill shared the other room with Gander. There they slept together in a temperature which condensed their breath on the thick quilts that covered them.
Meanwhile his education went on apace.
During the next year or two Gander stretched up into a lanky youth, lean and sinewy, stooped with his early labor. Under a thin face, his Adam’s apple became the feature of his long neck; itjumped and gulped and hopped about with prodigious activity. When Gander swallowed, the mechanics of the operation were almost as visible as if his dark skin had been transparent.
“Sometimes,” said his little sister Minnie, “it looks as though Gander was going to swallow that lump in his neck.’ But, for all its rumblings, it never failed to return to its place.
It was also about this time that Gander acquired the nickname with which he was henceforth identified. Church services were held in Willow Green schoolhouse every second Sunday at three in the afternoon, and it was the custom of the little congregation to assemble about half past two and fill the period until the preacher’s arrival with the gossip of the neighborhood.
At these services everybody sang. Not all in the same key, to be sure; occasionally not all to the same time, and sometimes not all to the same tune; but all in the same spirit.
In this exercise William H. Stake’s song rose as high as any; higher, sometimes, for he was just at the stage where his voice, unruly as any prairie broncho, plunged and bucked into unexpected and involuntary jumps and turns.
It was Dick Claus who christened him. “Did you hear young Bill Stake?” he said, as the boys gathered for an aftermeeting behind the school at the close of the service. “Honking like a gander.”
“Hello, Gander!” they greeted him, as he joined their group. William’s Adam’s apple fled for cover, and his long neck twisted in boyish confusion. The name stuck. By the time he was eighteen, only the older generation remembered that Gander Stake ever had been called William.
The church services and occasional social events in the community brought Gander into intermittent contact with Josephine Burge. He had not yet reached the age when he might boldly set out to Josephine’s house to call upon her; the fires of a boy's he*rc, at fourteen or fifteen, seldom smo.:e so openly. But he found excuse once in a while to call on Porridge Burge, if only to borrow a wrench or a clevis, the return of which, by the good fortune of fate, gave occasion for another visit the following day.
He began to be conscious of a yearning to be alone with Jo Burge. To meet her at church, or at one of the summer picnics, or to talk with her in the tool-shed under the chaperonage of Tommy, was only tantalization. He had no clear idea of why he wanted to be alone with her, and less of how it was to be accomplished, as he was not of an inventive mind, except in his experiments with machinery. But he knew that the mere presence of Josephine —alone— was something very much to be desired. Working about the farm, harnessing his horses, shuttling up and down the black fields on his sulky plough, the figure of Josephine Burge fluttered before him, beckoning, beckoning. He remember the wisdom that Bill had poured into his young ears, and wondered what Jo must think of him.
It was Bill’s theory that women are born to be mastered: that they recognize the master and obey him, but for those who are afraid they have only contempt.
Fortunately for Gander he was unable to consult Bill in his dilemma. After a year and a half of steady work the hired man had suddenly announced that the white lights were calling him and he must be on his way.
The opportunity of companionship with Jo came in an unexpected way.
Gander had overheard another discussion between his father and mother concerning the missing boy, Jackson. Not much had come to his ears, but he had known from his mother’s voice that there were tears in it—a thing almost unprecedented—and his father had spoken with unusual harshness. Gander had lain awake for some minutes that night, worrying about this domestic problem. In the morning he noticed that strained relations appeared to exist between his father and mother; they spoke with unnecessary civility across the breakfast table, and, as Gander slowly thought this matter over, his anger at his erring brother mounted higher and higher. For nearly two hours Josephine Burge was spared the attention of his imaginings.
A day or two later Jackson Stake suddenly announced that he and his wife were going to the Brandon fair.
“Yes, sir, Bill,” he said to Gander; one of the rare occasions on which he called him Bill, and the boy’s heart bounded— “Your mother an’ me are goin’ to take in the big show. We’ve held this old homestead down pretty steady, an’ we’re goin’ out to see the white lights, as Bill used to call ’em, for ourselves. We’ll be away a couple o’ days, an’ we’ll take Ham with us, because he can’t very well be left, an’ you an’ Minnie ’ll have to run the farm. Think you can do that, Bill?”
“You bet we can. The summer-fallow’s just finished, an’ Minnie an’ me ’ll make it go all right.”
“Yes, the summer-fallow’s finished,” his father continued, “but this long spell o’ dry weather has left the pasture as bare as a barn wall. I reckon if there’s nothin’ else doin’ you might let the stock out on to the school section an’ herd them there while we’re away. It’ll give them a chance to fill their ribs again. Minnie can stay over at Fraser Fyfe’s durin’ the day, an’ you an’ her ’ll be at home together nights an’ mornins.”
For some strange reason it seemed to please Jackson Stake to spend the fifty dollars involved in the trip to Brandon. The farmer was usually close in money matters; he was on record as saying of himself that he was so close he would “bust a rib if he swallowed a flax-seed.” But when he spent he spent freely, and this was to be one of the occasions. He whistled an old tune of the lumber woods —what was left of it—as he harnessed a team to drive to Plainville, where he and his wife would take the train. Suzie Stake went grimly, as though she was making a concession but was prepared to see it through. Gander was important with the responsibility of the farm, and Minnie danced gleefully over the prospect of long days spent with little Elsie Fyfe.
To Gander and Minnie the house seemed very silent that first night, and they behaved as seriously as any little old couple. Minnie washed up all the dishes, and put them in their place; she was now a girl of eleven or twelve, with hair a little darker than red, and a complexion that would be one of her hazards by-and-by. Gander went twice down the mangers, to see that the horses were tied, and even after he was half ready for bed went out again to make sure the granary door was hooked and that there was no danger of the mosquito smudge blazing up if the wind should rise during the night. In the morning Minnie cooked porridge as well as her mother couldjhave done, fried a couple of eggs, and made toast in front of the kitchen fire.
“Wish you’d put me up a bite o’ lunch, Minn,” Gander told her. “Dad said to run the stock over on the school section for a day or two, the pasture’s got so dry, an’ I’ll have to herd ’em there, account o’ the neighbor’s crops. Guess I won’t bother cornin’ in at noon, an’ you can stay over at Elsie’s until it’s time to get supper.”
“All right.” She made four more slices of toast, boiled two eggs hard, mixed a spoonful of pepper and salt in an empty pill box, cut off a healthy slab of cheese, wrapped the lot together and put it in the lunch bag she used when going to school. It was midsummer holidays now, and the bag was out of use.
“I’m not sending any water, Gander; it would get too hot, and tea would get too cold.” She laughed gently over this paradox, as though something funny about it had touched her imagination. “You’ll be riding one of the horses, I suppose, and you can gallop over to Burge’s, or some of the other neighbors, for fresh water when you want it.”
Yes, Gander had thought of that. But he hadn’t said anything about it.
Gander saddled one of the work horses, his father having taken the drivers to town, and set out in the clear, bright morning to round up the stock toward the vacant school section.
Gander edged his stock to the corner of the field and finally crowded them through the gate. Then, as it suddenly dawned on their slow comprehensions that they were being led —or, rather, driven —into green pastures, their tactics were as suddenly reversed. With necks outstretched, and nostrils dilated, and their long tongues like little scythes whipping the green tufts of grass into their jaws, they sampled the verdure of the school section, and, liking it well, broke into a run. Over a ridge to the southward they stampeded, and, by the time Gander had again rounded them up, they were half way across the section. Here they fell into a riot of feasting, and the boy knew that, for the present, they would need little more attention. The nearest cultivated crop was half a mile away, and, the cattle now having been quietened, were likely to gorge themselves for an hour or two, after which they would lie down and re-chew the morning’s takings with placid deliberation.
It was now that Gander began to put into effect the plan which had been slowly forming in his mind. Half a mile south lay the homestead of Martin Burge, and, somewhere about the house, or in the fields, was Josephine, his daughter. Gander proposed to take a chance on the behavior of the herd for an hour or two, and seek her out. When he found her he would boldly invite her to come over to the school section and help him watch the cows. The prairie was carpeted with flowers, and under the clumps of willows it was cool and drowsy. True, Tommy might be in the way; he so often was in the way but this time he must stand aside. Gander would tell him so, in as many words, if it came to that.
The school section lay in gentle swells culminating in low ridges. Gander turned his horse’s head to the southward and rode over the next ridge. As the slope on the other side came into view it revealed a herd of cattle dotted along its grassy sward. Evidently some other settler was taking advantage of the free range. And, a quarter of a mile away, was another herdboy on horseback.
Gander’s pulses were thumping and a slow rage was gathering in his heart. Was he not to have even the school section to himself? He resented this other presence; it interfered with his plans. Everything seemed to interfere with his plans, even his most careful plans. Virtue was being thrust upon him; intolerably thrust upon him.
From somewhere it came into Gander’s mind that forces which he did not understand persisted in over-riding him. His independence was being challenged, his right to manhood denied. He seemed to be under orders. He knew that his friend Bill would have scoffed at any such idea. Yet it held him—and exasperated him.
He was for going back over the ridge and making a long detour, when he saw that the other boy had noticed him, and was riding in his direction. Retreat would now be too obvious, so he rode slowly on to the southward.
The other boy’s horse broke into a gallop, and in a minute or two they came up together. Then they looked into each other’s face, and Gander saw—-Josephine Burge!
Joe was dressed in a blouse and knickers, with a broad straw hat drawn over her head. She was riding astride and wearing knickers. Gander’s eyes fell from her face to the curve of her leg about her pony’s ribs, to the boot in her stirrup, and he felt the color gathering under his own sunburned cheeks. She was wearing a pair of brown stockings; there was a hole in one, through which her white skin shone like a silver dollar.
“ ’Lo, Bill,” she said.
“ ’Lo, Jo.”
“So am I.”
Then they looked at each other again, and Gander marvelled how Jo had grown since he last had seen her. True, she sat low on her horse; she was only a little body, at that; but there was a look of maturity about her that Gander never had seen before. Perhaps it was the loose blouse, the knickers—•
“They’re Tommy’s,” she said, as though in answer to his thoughts. “Too small for him now, of course, but handy for me, when I’m on horseback. Of course, I didn’t expect to meet anyone, but when I saw it was you I didn’t mind—very much. Do you?”
Gander could see that there was a color in Jo’s face, too, for which the burn of the prairie sun could not altogether account.
“ ’Course not,” he said.
“Besides, they're safer,” she went on to justify her costume. “And more modest than skirts, when you’re riding astride, anyway. In a ladies’ magazine I take, it says they’re quite the thing, but, of course, the people around Plainville don’t know that, yet.”
How grown-up she was! A ladies’ magazine she was reading! Gander read nothing. Presently it dawned on him that this girl might not be clay in his hands. More likely she would make clay of him!
She stepped her horse up closer. “Where are your cows?” she asked.
“Just over the ridge.”
“And where were you going?”
“Oh, just ridin’ around.” Gander’s bold purposes had seeped from him like water from a sieve.
“Let’s go and look at them,” she suggested.
They rode up over the ridge, and Jo’s pony, being lighter on his feet than Gander’s sturdy horse, pranced into the lead. With Jo a few feet ahead Gander studied the little figure from another angle. Her hair was gathered up under the crown of her straw hat; her neck was straight and supple; her body swung free at the waist with every motion of her mount. Here was the great day of his imaginings, when he and Jo should be alone, just their two selves together. And he could think of nothing but commonplaces.
“Dad and Mother have gone to Brandon fair,” he explained, “and I thought I’d run the stock on the school section for a day or two. The pasture’s as bare as a barn wall.”
“Yep. If we don’t get rain soon it’s all day with the crops.”
How matter-of-fact she was!
They had reached the crest of the ridge. “See, we can watch both herds from here,” she said. “Let’s get off and sit in the shade of the willows.”
Just what Gander would have suggested, if he had had the courage. Old Bill was right . . .
She threw herself lightly from her pony, and dropped the reins at his feet. “He’ll stand,” she said. “Will yours?”
“ ’Course. Too lazy to run away,” Gander answered, with a nervous laugh.
She looked slimmer, but taller, when he saw her on her feet. Yet, when he stood beside her, her head came little above his shoulder.
They sat in the shade of a clump of willows, while the prairie breezes fanned their faces, and the cattle drowsed in the pastures below, and patches of sun and shade, like a great quilt of the Creator, drew slowly across the waving grass and the dimpled wheat-fields in the distance. For a while they talked of their school days, and the crop prospects, and then they fell silent.
When the sun seemed directly over head, Jo arose and stretched herself.
"Come to ourplace for dinner," she invited.
“Got my dinner with me,” Gander explained, indicating his lunch bag. “Guess we could make it do for two,” he added, and wondered if she noticed the catch in his voice.
“I’d like^to,” she said, “but they’ll be looking for_ me at the house. Won’t you come?”
Then it burst from him. “Because Tommy’ll be there, and when he knows I’m here, he’ll want to herd this afternoon, and I don’t want him. I want you.”
The speech was not finished before Gander was trembling with the temerity of it. She must know, now.
“Tommy’s ploughing,” she answered, as though nothing epochal had been said. “I can’t plough, but I can herd, so I’m sure to be here this afternoon. Won’t you come?”
But Gander was irritated that she should pretend not to see the significance of his words. “No. Guess I’ll just eat my grub here. But I’ll keep an eye on your cows, and you can bring me a bottle of water when you come back, if you like.” The breeze had died down and the summer afternoon lay blisteringly hot when Jo returned. She dropped from her horse and handed Gander a bottle. “Fresh from the well,” she said.
“And you see I came back, after all.”
So she had understood!
“Cattle giving any trouble?”
“Nope. Too hot and drowsy.”
“It is hot, isn’t it?”
Gander noted that she had changed her stockings. The silver dollar was no longer in evidence. And she had drawn her blouse lightly about her throat with a ribbon of red braid. Gander appraised her as beautiful—and she had made these changes for him! He rather wished that he had worn something better than his farm overalls.
He drank eagerly from the water bottle, for he was thirsty from his lunch and with the heat, and then they sat in the shade of the willows, edging around to the east as the afternoon wore away. The crystal sky of the morning deadened to an opaque blue in which thunder-clouds slowly began to shape themselves.
“Might have rain to-night,” Gander remarked.
“Um-Um! hope so,” she agreed.
“You talk like you were ’most asleep,” he told her, somewhat curtly, annoyed that she had no conversation for him, and equally annoyed that he had none for her. “I am—pretty near,” she said.
The cattle began to stir about, and Gander drew himself to his feet. She rose on one knee, as though to join him.
“Never mind, Jo,” he said, with something like kindness in his voice. “I’ll move ’em around to the other side o’ the ridge, an’ perhaps they’ll settle down again. You have a sleep, if you want to.” She took him at his word. When he came back he found her stretched in the lengthening shade. She had thrown her hat aside and taken his lunch bag, stuffed with grass and leaves, to make a pillow.
He slipped up quietly, uncertain whether she was asleep, and sat down beside her. Her hair, released by the removal of her hat, hung loose around her head, a strand or two curled about her neck. Little beads of moisture had gathered on her forehead, for the day was very hot. Gander studied her hair face more intently than ever he had done before. There were tiny points of freckles about her cheek and nose; not the big flakes which had gained her brother the sobriquet of Porridge, but little points which seemed to shine through the clear skin, as though they were under it, not on it. She was fast asleep; her chest rose and fell in steady rhythm, and her lips, slightly parted, trembled gently with the current of her breath.
For a long time Gander sat beside her wondering if she really was asleep, or if this were a subtle feminine play to test him. Leaning low over her face he stooped until almost he had touched her lips. Yet he did not touch them; something seemed to hold him back. He rose impatiently to his feet, and walked aimlessly about among the willows; coming upon his saddle, where he had thrown it upon the grass, he fussed with its straps and girth without knowing he did so, buckling and unbuckling, lacing and unlacing. When he returned to the girl she was sitting up.
“Guess I fell asleep, Gander, eh?” she said, as she drew her hair into some kind of order, for she had not yet put on her hat. “You’re a good boy to look after me so well.”
“Oh, that’s nothin’.” He could think of nothing else to say.
The clouds were thickening in the west, and the sun was tempered by a screen which now reached well overhead. The stock were straggling over the next ridge.
“They want water,” she said. “We’ll have to drive them to water or they’ll make for the grain fields.”
“Yes,” he agreed, slowly, knowing that, after watering, it would be time for each to work homeward.
They saddled their horses, and the girl was astride as soon as her companion. Then, the broodings of the day for the moment crowded out of mind by the operations in hand, Gander again became the dominant and efficient man of the farm.
“We’ll work ’em over to the south-east, Jo: there’s a slough there, if it ain’t all dried up. Then you can cut your herd out, an’ they’ll be close to home.”
“Good!” She dug her heels into her pony and was off at a gallop down one side of the ridge. Gander took the other, and in a few minutes they had the herd moving stolidly to the south-east. When they smelt water, they broke into a run, but the slough proved to be almost dry; inside the circle of rank grass and rushes was a broad belt of soft mud, etched with the light foot-prints of snipe and plover and the heavier trafficking of a family of muskrats. The little sheet of water in the centre lay scummy and green with stagnancy, but the herd bolted knee-deep into mud, from which they drew their hooves with a suction that popped in the still air like corks. Gander’s horse was impatient for the water, too, but his rider held him back.
“If you get in there you’ll never get out,” he said. “You’d bog to the flanks. Besides, ’tain’t fit for a horse to drink. You’ll be home soon, an’ fill up at the pump.”
The cattle took their time, and the horses edged toward each other, until the boy and girl again sat close together. Gander was conscious of the seconds, the minutes, of opportunity slipping by, and he powerless to arrest them.
Suddenly a drop of water struck his cheek.
“Rain!” they cried, looking quickly in each other’s face, and the joy in their voices was wholesome and clean. “It’s coming!”
The sun was now completely obscured, and clouds were scudding overhead, with patches of serene blue shining tranquilly through their turmoil. On the prairie not a leaf moved. Every living thing stood silent for the gestation of the storm.
Then down came the wind. Gander first saw it raising clouds of dust from the summer-fallow, a mile away; then spirals of leaves from the clumps of willows on the ridges. Yet where he sat it was as still as death.
“Jo,” he said, “are you my girl?”
She drew her hat from her head, perhaps in anticipation of the wind, and her fair hair flung loose about her neck.
‘Bill,” she answered him, simply, “I’ve always been your girl.”
He stepped his horse toward her, but the next minute the blast hit them. Her hair was all about her face, and what he said she did not hear.
The cattle swung out before the storm and the two riders in a moment had work on their hands. They were off at a gallop, rounding up the milling herd and crowding them back against the wind. A few great drops splattered on Gander’s shirt; his shouts were whipped from his mouth unheard. Yet for the moment he was happy, and Jo was not uppermost in his thoughts. Here was rain, rain! Rain, the first love of every farmer; the bride of every dry, thirsty field; the mother of every crop that grows! Gander was a farmer. All his instincts were rooted deep in the soil.
With some difficulty they got the herd in motion, and then the girl, with expert horsemanship, cut her own cattle from the moving mass. They came up over a ridge again, and faced the sun, blazing in their eyes. The wind had died as quickly as it had come; the clouds were blown into a thunder-bank, vivid with pink and mauve, floating like a mighty iceberg in the eastern sky; the blaze of intense lightning flashes lit it with'¡sharper color from time to time, but the promised rain had vanished in thin air.
The girl and boy drew up again together, and Gander’s jaw was grim and set. There was something fearful and majestic about him as he gazed defiantly at the empty sky; defiantly, perhaps, a God.
The girl watched him for a moment as he sat launching his soul against the inevitable. She, too, was rooted in the soil, and knew something of the mocking tragedy of rain that threatens but does not come. It was as though the heavens flirted with the earth, arousing her hope and passion, only to draw away in cold and beautiful disdain.
“I know—I know,” she murmured to herself. Then her sympathy suddenly mothered him. Riding close she threw her arms about him and kissed him on the cheek. The next moment she was galloping her cattle toward their own gate.
Gander rode slowly homeward, a medley of mixed emotions. The sun seemed to come out hotter than ever, but he was afraid his cheeks burned not entirely of the sun. He was too young to be long caught in despair over the fleeting rain; his protest had been a sort of reflex of his father, rather than a cry from his own heart. His thoughts again hung about the girl, and he was ashamed of his own timidity. She had even dared more than he! He was a coward, and she would think of him always as a coward. No, not always! To-morrow! To-morrow she should see!
He was unusually silent as he ate the supper that Minnie set before him. He was wondering if Jo had been asleep; if she really had been asleep. “I don’t believe she was asleep,” he told himself. “I don’t believe it. She was—-she was—■” He could not disentangle the meshes of his own confusion, but he felt that he had been| mocked. Not exactly that he had been mocked; that he had mocked himself.
As he did his evening chores he noticed that the sun sank behind a solid wall of indigo, bordering it for a minute with a ribbon of gold which reddened into brass and copper to the north and south. Overhead a tattered banner of high cloud glowed in slowly changing colors long after the prairie lay under a greying mist of twilight.
Gander went to his room, and Minnie to hers. For a long while he lay, belitting himself, straining at the leash, unseen and not understood, which the inherited virtue of generations had flung about him. “To-morrow,” he promised. “To-morroW. I’ve been a coward, a coward, but— to-morrow!”