In the first instalment of Grain we were introduced to Gander Stake, the youngest son of a hard-working, hardheaded pioneer Western farmer. We followed his career at school, watched him grow in the ways of the soil. Now the shadow of the war creeps over the waving wheat fields, to rouse vague wonderings in the mind of this son of the prairie.
GANDER awoke suddenly with the crash of thunder in his ears. Sitting up in bed, he looked through his little window into a world of utter blackness, but black only for a moment; it was suddenly split with light that shone far out on the prairies, and even revealed the wheat-fields rolling in the rising wind.
Then came the rain; not a scattered drop or two, but a blast of rain, lashing the window, trampling the roof, battering the tin chimney, flogging the walls and eaves—a very flail of rain. With a great sigh Gander sank back in his bed. Rain! Rain!
Then it lulled a little, and he could hear the sibilant drip of water from the roof—a drip and patter that seemed to accentuate the silence. It was for a moment only; the walls of his little room again leapt at him out of the darkness; broken fragments of lightning fled through the sky; the crash of thunder shook his window as though it would tear it from the sash. Then down came the rain more terrific than before. And so it went on, and on. After each lull, a crash; after each crash, a flood of rain, gradually lulling for another crash. Gander lay and thought of the fields, drinking, drinking, under that downpour; already the water would be gathering in the pasture, running in little rivulets, winding about the roots of the willows, dripping into gopher holes, filling the cracks of the drouth, healing the hurt prairie. And, some way, it seemed to heal more than the hurt prairie, because Gander was at peace.
Quietly, from under the muffled roar of the rain, came a voice almost in Gander’s ear. “Gander, Gander, are you asleep?”
He was wide awake again in an instant. “No, Minn; what is it?”
“I’m afraid, Gander. It’s an awful storm. I wish Daddy was here.”
She was standing beside his bed; a flash of lightning revealed her little figure, her nightdress, her hair hanging in braids about her shoulders, her brown eyes big with alarm.
"It’s all right, Minn;” he said, reassuringly; “it’s a big storm, but it’s just what we want.
I bet the fields are runnin’ in water.”
“But the lightning is—very close. I counted the seconds. It's—it’s very close.” Then, mustering her courage for her big request,
“Gander, can I—may I—get in with you?”
“I—I guess so. Of course. Come along.”
He made room for her, and she slipped under the blanket beside him. Her arms went up around his shoulders; he could feel the beat of her frightened heart. “I’m all right, now,” she said presently.
Then she lay still, her little frame trembling against his, but in the frequent flashes he could see that her eyes were wide. And, just as he thought she was falling asleep, she suddenly sprang up in bed. “Gander!” she shrieked. “There’s a man at the window! I saw a man at the window!”
Gander felt a strange creeping up his spine and into the hair at the back of his neck. “Nonsense!” he said, in as steady a voice as he could. “You’re scared, Minnie. You’re seein’ things.”
“I saw a man!” she said. “I saw'a man!
Gander, I saw him right there at the window!”
Whatever Gander would have said was cut short by a knocking at the door; a boisterous, insistent knocking. Gander drew his sister down and crawled out over her. She was trembling and he feared that, perhaps, she felt him tremble, too. But he was the man of the house, and the duty was his.
“Lie still, Minnie,” he said, “an’ I’ll see.”
Gander had years ago outgrown the effeminacy of a night-gown. Without stopping for any dressing he strode into the larger room, found the lamp on the table, and lit it, while the knocking kept up thunderously on the door. Then, suddenly conscious of his bare legs, he ran back and drew on his overalls. The knocking had stopped with the lighting of the lamp, but as Gander again walked across the floor he could hear his heart thumping above the drumming of the rain. He threw the door open. The figure of a man in a dripping oilskin coat and felt hat, pulled close down on his head, was limned in the wedge of light that thrust its way into a darkness slantingly streaking with rain.
“Well, William,” said the man, “I hope I didn’t scare you. Are you all right?”
“Oh, it’s you, Mr. Fyfe! Come in! Yep, o’ course, I’m all right.”
“Qf course,” said Fraser Fyfe, shaking the watsr from his coat as he stood inside the door. “I figgered you’d be all right, but the wife got a bit uneasy when the storm broke. Rainin’ cat an’ dogs, eh, Gander?”
Gander always liked his neighbors better when they called him Gander. It didn’t sound so juvenile as William.
“Yep. But it’s just what we want. I hope it’s rainin’ at Brandon. It’ll kind o’ cheer Dad up a bit.”
“You bet it will. Cheer us all up a bit. Well—you’re all right, eh?”
“Right as rain,” said Gander, without noticing the appropriateness of his figure of speech.
“Yep! She’s all right.” Gander would not have liked to confess that she was in his bed, but his heart was beating steadily again.
“I looked in at the window, but I didn’t see any light, so I figured you were all asleep,” Mr. Fyfe remarked. “Well—guess I’ll be going again.”
Gander’s duties as host came upon him. “Won’t you sit down? Won’t you stay till the rain is over?” he urged.
“Guess not. I’m a bit too wet in spots for sitting down. And I hope the rain won’t be over till morning.”
“Hope so, too. It was awful good o’ you to come over, Mr. Fyfe.”
“Oh, that’s nothing. I knew you were all right, but the wife got uneasy. ‘Fraser,’ she says, ‘I’m worried about those children over at Stake’s.’ ‘Children!’ says I. ‘Gander’s as good as a man, and scared o’ nothing.’ But she’d got it into her head, and you know what women are—or do you, Gander?” Mr. Fyfe’s eyes twinkled under his dripping hat.
“I guess I do—some.”
Mr. Fyfe hesitated, his hand on the door.
“Well, guess I better be going,” he reminded himself, after a pause. “The wife’ll be worried about me, next. Women are great worriers.”
“I can lend you an umbrella,” Gander suggested. “Nope. They catch the lightning. I’ll be all right. Needed a bath, anyway. So long, Gander.”
The farmer drew the door open and slipped out into the storm. Gander watched from the window until a flash of lightning revealed his neighbor ploughing his way through the half mile of mud and water that lay between the two homesteads. Then he went silently back to bed.
Minnie again drew him down beside her, her soft cheek against his. “Gandèr,” she whispered, “I’m so proud of you. You’re so brave.”
“Huh! Guess I’m not very brave. It was Double F. that was brave.”
“You are, too. He said so. I heard him, right there in the kitchen. He said you were scared of nothing.”
She lay silent for a few moments, then, trapping her arms about him again, “it’s fine to have a big brother, that’s scared of nothing,” she said. And in his arms she fell asleep.
But Gander lay awake, thinking.
The storm had spent itself when they arose in the morning. The sky was as clear as silver, and the air washed clean and sweet with the rain. Gander fed his horses and then stood for a long time unconsciously watching the play of light on the wet leaves.
“Guess I won’t need to turn the stock out to-day,” he told his sister at breakfast. “The rain’ll freshen up the grass in the pasture, an' I want to do some work on the mower. The knives are to sharpen an’ there’s a new pitmanrod bearin’ to fit. We’ll want to jump into the hayin’ as soon as Dad gets back.”
“Can I help?” Minnie demanded, bright with the prospect of her brother’s company for the whole day.
“Well, I might let you turn the grindstone,” he conceded.
THE next turning point in Gander’s life was in 1914. He was then eighteen years old; six feet tall when he straightened up, which was seldom; with a fuzz about his cheeks and lips that called for occasional removal, and an Adam’s apple protruding from his thin neck like the knuckle of a bent fore-finger. The hitch which he had acquired in supporting his overalls had been permanently incorporated into his gait, and, although his voice no longer showed any tendency to break forth on honking episodes, the name Gander was as much his as though it had been branded on him with an iron. The community had forgotten that ever he had been called William.
The new house had been built. The very year after his visit to the Brandon Fair, Jackson Stake announced that, crop or no crop, he was going to have a new house for his old woman. He was beginning to call her “the old woman” now, a term which, on his lips, carried no suggestion of disrespect, but was rather an appellation of endearment, a safe sort of sentimentalism carefully camouflaged with a coat of transparent harshness. And Mrs. Stake was getting along. She was nearing forty-five when the house was built, and farmers’ wives are sometimes old at forty-five.
“You’ve got this ol’ hen-house pretty near tramped into the cellar,” Jackson had remarked one night as he watched his wife shuffling steadily back and forth between the stove and the kitchen table. The knots in the board floor were coming up higher with the years. “Dang it all, we’ll build a new house this summer, whether school keeps or not!”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said Susie Stake, who had ceased to be an optimist.
But her husband, while slow to make up his mind, was resolute in carrying out a decision finally taken. The which had tamed his section of wild scrub and prairie land into one of the most fruitful farms of the Plainville neighborhood had in it a dogged perseverance akin to stubbornness. For years he had been on the verge of building a new house, and it was his wife’s scepticism of his good intentions, much more than any appeal she ever had made, that finally shoved him over the edge. The next day he ordered the lumber, and the following week the carpenters were at work. Before the season’s wheat was ripe it stood complete, a frame box with four corners and a roof, a little to the north of the cabin which had sheltered Jackson Stake and his wife during all these years, and the numerous lean-tos which had marked their domestic husbandry. The lean-tos were dragged to various corners of the yard for use as chicken houses and hog pens. The farmer had intended using the central part as a granary but the sills were found to have rotted away, so the idea had to be abandoned. It is one thing to live in a house with rotten sills, but quite another to risk the year’s harvest in it. The logs which had been hewn and built into place, back in those days when life lay all ahead, were torn from their plastered chinks and cut into fire-wood. By and by the old cellar itself filled up, and another landmark of the pioneer had vanished forever.
For a few months Susie Stake revelled in the freedom of her new house. There were two goodsized rooms on the ground floor, divided by a stairway which led to the second storey. The southern room was used as a kitchen and general living quarters, but the northern one was reserved as a family parlor, to be entered only on special occasions. Upstairs were four bed-rooms; square, boxy apartments, each equipped with four walls, a roof, a floor, a door and a window. In these commodious quarters Susie Stake, for the first time in her married life, felt that she had breathing space. Her foot took on a somewhat lighter tread, and once in a while Jackson would surprise her singing, as she trained her flowers, set in tomato cans in the southern window. On such occasions the farmer would harrow his thinning hair with his great fingers and bask for a moment in a pleasant glow of virtuous accomplishment.
But the new house created new needs. For example, there was the furnishing of the parlor— always called simply “the room.” Mrs. Stake never had been given to much entertainment; her companionship had been with the members of her family, and with her cows, her chickens, geese, ducks and pigs. But the new house forced social obligations upon her. Neighbors who for years had been content to inquire for her health at Willow Green schoolhouse on Sundays, now found their friendship quickened to the point of paying visits. A new and comparatively pretentious house in a prairie district is a social factor of as great importance as a new bride in any feminine circle. It is to be investigated, scrutinized, commended or criticized as the occasion seems to warrant. Susie Stake’s house was not her house alone; it belonged to the community.
It was this that made the new needs. The log cabin never had seemed bare, but “the room,” even when decorated with two enlarged crayon portraits of ancestral Hardens and a calendar from the Plainville garage, seemed unaccountably empty. The friendliest of conversations sounded hollow against its plastered walls. It was cold and uninviting, and it could be cured only by further -expenditures.
One by one these were wormed out of Jackson Stake. First a carpet, which cost him eleven dollars and seemed an outrageous extravagance when linoleum, which cleans up better after muddy boots, could have been bought for eight; then a parlor suite— pronounced “soot” until Minnie, at sixteen, discovered the mistake, and with much mortification set the household right on so delicate a matter—a parlor suite with birch mahogany arms and brightly patterned upholstery and crimson furbelows that hung close to the carpet, and a rocking chair with springs that squeaked until Gander said he guessed it wanted a shot of grease in the differential; then a polished oak centre table on legs as spindly as those of a young calf, on which to set photographs and Minnie’s copy of "“Songs of a Sourdough’.’ and a china creation spelled v-a-s-e, the pronunciation of which, in 1914, had not been definitely settled in the Stake household.
“It’s not the first cost—it’s the up-keep,” Jackson one -day confided to his chief friend and chief rival, Fraser Fyfe, in the shade of the horse-stable. “Jumpin’ jackrabbits! I’ye paid out more money—It’s like one o’ them new-fangled automo-billy-goats that costs two cents a mile for gasoline an’ the rest o’ your bank roll for incidentals. I figgered when I built a house I would be at the end of it. So I was, but not the end I figgered. An’ now Minnie’s raisin’ a war-cry for a piano. Huh! You’d think farmin’ was an industry, instead of a pursoot.”
“Pursoot is right,” Double F agreed, amiably. “I been pursooin’ it for twenty years. That is, sometimes I’m pursooin’ it, and sometimes it’s pursooin’ me. And just when I figgered I’d got the crittur by the tail, what gets into you but you must build a house, and now ain’t I hearin’ mornin’, noon, and night, ‘Well, if Stakes can build a new house I don’ see why we can’t. Ain’t you as well off as Jackson Stake? Don’ you figger you’re as good a farmer as Jackson Stake?’ It got so bad with us I had to promise to put in a telephone, when the gang came along here diggin’ holes, so that now the women can tell their troubles to each other, an’ give us men folks a chance to do a bit o’ work between times.” Double F blew a whiff of tobacco smoke from his pipe and contemplated the harshness of his lot with some complacency.
SO THE seasons had worn away, each bringing its new need, and each new-need, when supplied, creating other needs in its wake, as is the way with a civilization which grows more complex with accomplishment. And at eighteen Gander, lanky and competent, found himself again faced with a problem of high importance.
It was a hot day about the first of August that Fraser Fyfe came strolling across the fields for a word with his neighbor. The wheat was already taking on the copper and gold of harvest, and the prairies lay bathed in the ripening sunshine. The lazy clank of Jackson Stake’s windmill came down from the tower above the water trough as the blades stirred irresolutely in the noon-day breeze.
“I wonder you wouldn’t put in a ’phone of your own, an’ save me these long walks, an’ me a busy man,” Double F announced himself. “But I suppose you’re still savin’ up for the piano—”
“It’s not that, Neighbor. I wouldn’t be so unkind as to deprive you o’ your one excuse for seekin’ a little up-liftin’comp’ny. What’s the news to-day? Mrs. Gordon burn her biscuits again? The young lad was tellin’ Gander that since they got the ’phone his mother burns most every batch o’ biscuits; when she gets listenin’ in on aikjuicy conversation she knows nothin’ more until the kitchen’s full o’ smoke.”
“Well, it’s more than biscuits burnin’ this time, I’m thinkin’. The news from Plainville is that there’s a war on.”
“Who with? The Germans? I seen somethin’ about that in the paper.”
“Yep. They’re goin’ to go to it. They were for bustin’ into Belgium an’ England said ‘Stay out,’ an’ they didn’t, an’ so there you are!”
The two men lit their pipes the better to digest this momentous news.
“ ’Twon’t last long,” Jackson Stake prophesied, when his pipe was going freely.
“I give ’em three months,” Mr. Fyfe allowed.
“Yep. Now-a-days, with our inventions, an’ everythin’, you can kill ’em too quick to keep it up long.” “Three months I give ’em,” said Mr. Fyfe, with finality.
It was typical of their British outlook that it did not occur to either of them to so much as wonder what the outcome would be. They took that for granted.
“They’re goin’ to send men from Canada,” Mr. Fyfe continued.
“Well, it’ll be a good trip, but it’ll be all over before they get there.”
“That so,” said Mr. Fyfe, “I give ’em three months.” Then, looking his neighbor in the face, “Jackson, what do you reckon this is goin’ to do to the price o’ wheat?”
Jackson Stake’s mouth slowly opened as the really significant part of the news began to dawn upon him. “Jumpin’ jack rabbits! Yes! I remember my father tellin’ about the price o’ wheat the time o’ the American civil war. Two dollars a bushel, I think it was . . . But this won’t last that long. It’ll be over in three months.”
But for all his mercenary outlook, something deeper than the price of wheat was stirring in the farmer’s veins. He was opening and closing his great fists until the veins stood out like whip lashe^ on the backs of his hands.
“Yep. I give ’em three months But that’s the wheat season. You can’t tell what’s goin’ to happen in three months.” The two farmers discussed their crop prospects in the light of possible record prices for wheat, and, when Mr. Fyfe at last had gone home, Jackson carried the news into the house.
“Double F tells me there’s a war on,” he announced. “Just got the word from Plainville.”
His wife made no answer. She was busy kneading dough with her strong, lean
“I said there was a war on,” her husband repeated, somewhat annoyed that his important news had produced so little
“I heard you,” she answered. “I suppose it’s among the Board o’ Directors over Mrs. Burge gettin’ first prize for butter at the Plainville Fair. I heard talk there was goin’ to be doin’s about that, an’ her husband on the Board.” “No, Mother, this is no butter scrap, but a real war. With Germany.”
Mrs. Stake continued her kneading. “Germany,” she remarked, between punches. “I’ve heard about them. There was a German family lived near us when I was a little girl. Nice folks, too, but he drank too much beer, although I’m not sayin’ only Germans do that.” She paused, and Jackson had a feeling that hostilities were threatening much nearer home than Europe. “Well, it’s a pity they couldn’t settle their troubles some other way,” she concluded.
Jackson opened his mouth to suggest the possible effect on the price of wheat; then closed it again. He had promised Minnie that if the crop sold for a dollar a bushel he would buy a piano, but that was when there seemed no possibility of such a price. Perhaps the less said about it the better.
“Well, think I’ll run into town an’ get the mail,” he said, after a silence. “There ain’t much doin’, an’ I’m kind o’ interested in the news.”
“Well—don’ get anythin’ else,” his wife cautioned him. In the yard he met Gander. “Hear the news, Gander? There’s a war on, with Germany.”
Gander swallowed a couple of times and hitched his overalls into a more dependable position. “What about?” he asked.
“Dunno. Somethin’ about Belgium. Double F was tellin’ me.”
“England in it?”
“Yep. Double F says it’ll be over in three months.” “Less’n that, I guess,” said Gander. “Don’ suppose we’ll hear much about it, this far away.”
“Oh, the papers ’ll have it all. I was just’ goin’ into town to get the mail. Come along?”
“I was goin’ to do some rivetin’ on the binder canvases, Tout I guess they’ll keep. The crop’s cornin’ in pretty fast.
I can’t go like this! Give me time to clean up a bit?” “Sure.” The farmer surveyed his lanky son with amusement. There was a fuss of down on his dark cheeks, and his hair, long overdue a visit to the barber, clustered thick about his ears. “Sure. Make yourself pretty. I had it, too—at your age.”
The boy shaved at a broken mirror hanging over the wash bench in front of the house, put on a clean shirt, which he drew together at the neck with a gaudy tie, dressed himself in his Sunday suit, blacked his boots. These preparations took time, and before they were finished his father became impatient.
“Come on, Gander, come on!” he said. “The war’ll be over before we get to Plainville.”
"Be a good thing if you had some o’ his trouble,” Mrs. Stake remarked. “You look like the day after an auction sale ”
Jackson laughed, good-naturedly. He had long since outgrown the nonsense of changing his clothes, except for Sunday services or on special occasions, like Fair Day.
THEY hitched the drivers—two light-footed four-year old bays—to the buggy and went spinning into town as the afternoon sun swung well over the wheat-fields. The smell of the ripening grain was in the air; its rich green ranks, already coloring into copper at the middle of the stalk, swayed gently in the breeze, while other ranks, far from this peaceful scene, rushed to their red harvest overseas. On the way they talked of the war, as something distant and impersonal; something to be settled in Europe. But it had its practical application, too.
“It’ll likely boost the price o’ wheat,” Jackson confided in his son It wa3 impossible for him to keep this important prospect entirely to himself. “I mind my father tellin’ about the price o’ wheat the time o’ the American civil war. Two dollars a bushel, I think it went to.”
“Gee! If it would do that again!” said Gander, and for the moment lost himself in the contemplation of such possibilities.
As they neared Plainville they became aware that the traffic on the roads was unusually heavy. Every converging trail had its string of buggies flying their pennants of grey dust. Two or three times they had been overtaken by automobiles, which were now crowding into the prairie districts, although as yet they had by no means become the universal means of locomotion. That was another war-development which neither Jackson Stake nor his son, nor many a wiser man, foresaw.
Cresting a ridge, the cupolas of the wheat elevators at Plainville came into view, and down the long road between stretched a procession of buggies and automobiles. The whole country-side was crowding into Plainville. Jackson Stake drew his reins tighter; held his whip with a sharper grasp . . .
They found the streets of the little prairie town lined with buggies and motor cars; the livery stables full; every hitching post occupied. They tied their team to an abandoned land-roller in a vacant lot and pressed through the crowds that had gathered around the telegraph office and the telephone exchange. All sorts of rumors were afloat. There had been a naval engagement; the German navy had been sunk; the German hosts were held on the borders of Belgium. Farm women and men, youths and girls, mingled on the street, but for once they were talking about something other than the weather and the crops. There was an air of excitement, of high spirits, of bantering, and of unconscious boastfulness. It was infectious, it swept through the crowd; it caught Jackson Stake and Gander, and set them cheering boisterously when a number of youths paraded an effigy of the Kaiser down the street mounted on the most decrepit nag the community could produce, and with a disused copper kettle on its head for a helmet. They trailed the figure into the Rose land Emporium and demanded a sauerkraut cocktail— a flight of humor that was wafted from lip to lip through the appreciative throng.
As Jackson and Gander worked down the street they came upon another group gathered about a barrel from which some one was making a speech. “Believe me, men,” he was saying, “this is as much our fight as it is England’s. The Germans have got to be stopped somewhere. You all agree to that. Now I say, stop them in Belgium. Better fight them in Belgium than in Plainville. Eh? Yes” —in answer to an inquiry which Jackson did not hear—“I’m taking names. I’ve authority here,”—he held the yellow sheet of a telegram aloft—“and I’m enlisting the First Plainville Company. What’s that? Over in three months? Yes—it will be over here in three months, if every one stays at home. That’s right—sign your name there—official forms later.” Some young men were writing their names on a sheet. There was something grim about the set of their months; they didn’t seem to be thinking of a three months’ holiday.
Gander’s eyes met his father’s. “Who is he?” the older man asked.
“Why, that’s Lee, the tailor. Presses suits, and that kind o’ thing.” Gander’s Adam’s apple was leaping at its leash.
The man on the barrel paused in his harangue, and his eye met Gander’s. “Hello, Gander,” he said. “Want to sign up?”
“Haven’t thought about it, yet,” Gander parried.
“Well, think about it. It’s something to think about.”
Gander slipped out of the group as soon as he could. At the edge of the crowd he came “upon Tommy Burge,
“ ’Lo, Porridge.”
“ ’Lo, Gander.
Then the conversation lagged. With so much to talk about, they had nothing to say. Both were beginning to think.
At Sempter & Burton’s store he met Jo Burge. She was a young woman now, supple and close-knit, with fair skin and eyes and wisps of light brown hair showing under her summer hat. She greeted Gander cordially.
“This is exciting news, Gander. They’re enlisting men already. Don’t you think that’s wonderful?”
“It’ll be all over in three months,” said Gander.
“Yes, I suppose so. But just the same, it’s fine to see men answering the call. It makes us feel that we’re in it, and doing our share.”
For some reason his meeting with Jo gave Gander less pleasure than he had hoped. He was pleased with the care he had taken in shaving and dressing, but there was a hollowness about it all somewhere. Jo was good to look on now, and Gander never had lost the attachment which had been formed back in those days at Willow Green school. He suspected that Jo had not lost it either, yet to-day for some reason she seemed to place him at a disadvantage. There was a light in her eyes which he could not fathom or understand.
In the dusk father and son silently drove home together.
'“pHE months that followed were difficult months for *Gander. They were a period of self-searching and indecision. For the first time in his life he began to read the newspapers, but found in them only a jumble of conflicting reports; of overwhelming losses inflicted upon the Germans, who, nevertheless, continued their advance; of heroism among all the Allied forces, and unspeakable brutality on the part of the enemy. The First Plainville Company had been raised and away, with Lieutenant Andy Lee at its head; a second company was now recruiting. Discussions before the church services at the schoolhouse on Sundays had switched from crops and cattle to the theatre of war.
It was at those services that Gander felt the eyes of Josephine Burge heavy upon him. As circumstantial reports of the atrocities in Belgium increased, so did these pale eyes seem to bore deeper within him. Jo met hiip cordially, as before, but there was a new deep gravity in her manner, and Gander knew that she was expecting great things of him. Perhaps she was not deeply in love with him, if at all; but she cared enough to hope he would play the hero, as other young men of the district were doing. The realities of‘war had not yet been brought near enough home to put the fear of death in the hearts of young women. But it was already lurking in the hearts of mothers, and, perhaps, of some fathers.
Gander had become conscious of that, too. He had surprised his mother watching him with an unwonted wistfulness, and one day, after a silence at the table, and quite apropos of nothing, she said, “I’ve lost one son already.” Gander’s father had looked across the table but had not answered. Minnie regarded Gander with eyes eager to light up with hero-worship.
The companionship between father and son deepened in those days. They spent much time together, but little conversation. As, one by one, young men of the neighborhood responded to the call, the strain upon them tightened. The three months which Fraser Fyfe had stipulated with so much finality failed to see the war at a close, and the spirit of advenj|lllllllllllll
ture which had animated some of the earlier jj
recruits was slowly giving way to deeper emo¡| tions. Jackson Stake no longer read the headg¡ lines of the paper to the assembled household § after supper, but pored over them by himself = in the secrecy of the horse-stable or the granary. ¡
And often, when the day’s work was done, he jj would sit down by Gander’s side and the two = men would smoke in silence while the dusk jj gathered about them. At length Jackson, ¡¡ rising slowly to hi* feet, would draw his hand || across his son’s shoulder with the faintest jj gesture of caress before he knocked the shes from his pipe and went to bed. j
For shelter Gander fled to his work. The g sudden call for men had created a shortage of |j harvest labor, and Gander attacked the ripg ened fields with more than his usual vigor. He jj had fed and brushed and nursed his eight big g horses into prime condition before the heavy g load of the binder fell upon them; he had g tightened every nut, oiled every bearing, beg fore the call of the red grain swept them into g
the harvest. The summer had not been a g favorable one for wheat, and the crop was g light, so Gander and his father undertook to jj harvest it without hiring any help. Gander |nlllllllllllll was still the teamster and the binder driver, as his knack lay along those lines, and his father stooked after him. As Gander would approach the part of the field in which his father was working he would note how the big frame stalked among the sheaves; bending, grasping, straightening to a half-erect position, planting the sheaves in place; then on to the next, and the next, and the next. The sun blazed down upon them; the smell of oily dust came up hot from the binder bearings; the white line of sweat crept over the flanks of the big horses. If he dismounted for a minute or two to straighten out a tangle in the twine or remove a troublesome straw from the bill-hook of the knotter, the iron seat was almost unbearably hot when he returned to it. Yet he found occasion, more often than in any previous harvest, to stop as he drew up beside his father and exchange a word with him.
“Well, Gander, how's she goin’?” Jackson Stake would say, resting his hands on his kidneys and twisting his back for relief.
“Not so bad, Dad, not so bad, but she's thin as black bristles on a Tamworth hog. Not more’n eight bushels to the acre; maybe ten, in spots. Like to drive a round or two?”
“No—you go ahead. Spoils my voice, shoutin’ at the horses. Besides, it’s too hot up there. I like it better down here, where it’s cool.”
Sometimes he would persuade his father to spell off with him.
“Dad, I’m not a kid any more, an’ you keep shovin’ me over on the easy job. Rest your back for a round or two an’ I’ll take the crick out o’ mine sagaxiatin’ a few o’ these sheaves into position.” Then Jackson would take the lines and, cracking the long whip over the horses’ backs, drive off in a great clatter, while Gander threw himself impetuously into the stooking. But by the time his father had gone the second round he would stop his horses and climb down from the seat.
“Guess you’ll have to take it, Gander,” he would say. “Never was any good drivin’ a binder. Either I’ve got my nigh horse in the standin’ wheat, or my off one is trampin’ through the stooks. They know me, an’ they run on me. I bet that off horse has et a peck o’ wheat out o’ the stooks in the las’ two roun’s. Can’t afford to lose so much wheat as that, Gander.”
Then Gander’s Adam’s apple would crawl up into his throat and choke the words of affection he would have liked to say, and his father would draw his arm across his shoulder in that way he sometimes did. And that was all. But both of them understood.
In the middle of the afternoon Minnie would bring sandwiches and tea in a basket. She would watch from the house until Gander turned the far corner of the field; then when she saw his reel glittering in the sun on the homeward stretch she would leave in time to intercept him at the nearest corner. Gander would set the basket on the top of the machine and tell Minnie to hop on to the frame behind, where she would steady herself by clinging to the arm which supported the wind-break. It was a neverfailing fascination to her to watch the bright knives shuttling in the wheat, and the ruddy stems falling on the canvas and being swept up the elevator to the deck . . . When they reached their father they would stop, and, throwing up an extra high stook for shade, sit down on the warm earth and eat and drink together.
“I was just thinking,” said Minnie one day, as she chatted to the accompaniment of the busy eating of her father and brother, ‘ ‘I was j ust thinking as I rode up on the back of the binder that the wheat was Germans and the knives were the Allies. It was great fun watching them topple over, in whole regiments. And where a big green weed would stick up out of the wheat I would say, ‘That’s a German officer, a captain, maybe, or maybe a colonel, but just you wait! Your time’s coming.’ And then the knives would snip him off, and he’d fall with a flop on the canvas, and get swept up out of sight, and when I’d look back after a little there he’d be lying, tied up in a sheaf, full length on the ground. And once I saw a great big weed, higher than all the others, and I said, ‘Here’s the Kaiser,’ but we just missed him—he was outside the swath. Can I go ’round with you again, Gander? We’ll get him next time.”
“Sure—I guess you can, if you want to. But it’s pretty hot.”
“Yes,” said Minnie, thoughtfully, “but not as hot as it must be in France, with all those heavy uniforms and everything to carry. I suppose I’m too big a girl now for make-belief, Gander, don’t you think? But I like to feel that—that—some of us—is—is cutting ’em down.”
Gander was struggling with his tea, while his father stared into the blue haze of the harvest sky. So even Minnie felt it!
Then Jackson Stake expressed a hope that had been forming in his heart; a hope behind which he could shelter his self respect—and Gander.
“Perhaps one of us is,” he said, “or will be, soon as he can get over. I wouldn’t wonder that’s what Jackie’s doin’.”
Minnie drew her clasped hands up before her young breast. “Wouldn’t that be fine!” she said. “Wouldn’t that be fine!”
THE harvest season drew by, and threshing was upon them. One day early in September Bill Powers, seated in his lop-sided buggy, drew up in the Stake farmyard. It was the noon hour, and Gander and his father were sunning themselves on the edge of the water trough beside the windmill, for the summer’s heat was over and the day was only pleasantly warm. Powers had driven from a farm some miles south, where his outfit was at work. There was chaff on his faded felt hat and engine grease on his overalls.
Powers’ horse edged to the water trough and Gander slippeff his check rein to let him drink.
“Well, how’s the Powers?” Jackson greeted him. “You won’t be one o’ those wild European Powers we hear so much about these days?”
The red line of a grin sliced across the rusty stubble of Powers’ face. “No, but I’m about as wild as if I was,” he said. He extracted a pair of long legs from the diminutive box of the buggy, and, thrusting them over the side, alighted by the simple process of straightening them.
“Come in an’ eat,” Jackson invited. “Gander an’ me has pretty well cleared the boards, but I reckon the missus can drag out a bit o’ somethin’.”
“Nope—thank ’ee the same. Got to get back.” Powers stood for a moment without further speaking, as though he had a weighty matter on his mind but he did not quite know how to present it.
“How’s the crop runnin’?” said Jackson.
“Poor. Threshin’ out poor. No money threshin’ this year, an’ wages goin’ up, an’ men not to be had. I tell you, Mr. Stake, this war’s got to be more’n a joke. My best men’s gone, an’ I lost another last night. Y ou know Dick Claus? Has been firin’ for me for two seasons, an’ I always used him well, an’ stood likely to raise his pay. By another year I might ha’ let him run the engine himself. Well, he’s been actin’ kind o’ absent-minded lately, an’ yesterday I had to say a word or two to him, decent, though, as I always do. 'You can’t have a fellow firin’ an engine an’ his mind not on the job—you know that, Mr. Stake. Dick was over to Burge’s on Sunday— he’s been chasin’ that Burge girl a bit, an’ he hasn’t been the same since.”
Gander felt a strange sensation creeping up his back, and his heart quickened its beat, but he hoped his face gave no sign.
“Well, he jumped ic las’ night,” Power continued. “Shoved in the last forkful o’ straw before quittin’, an’ theD handed me the fork. ‘You take it,’ he said. ‘I’m done. From this on you poke your old garbage-burner yourself. I’m done. The next pokin’ I do ’ll be at a German—with a bay’net.’ An this momin’ he beat it for Plainville, to sign up. Course, I gave him my blessin’, even if he did miscall my engine— as good a steamer as ever lugged a separator up a prairie trail; you know that, Mr. Stake— we got to win the war, an’ I gave him my blessin’, but I thought he might ha’ stuck till after threshin’. The Germans ’ll keep, but this weather may blow up wet any time. Garbageburner! ’ Mr. Powers twisted his mouth into a protest of disgust
“Well, I guess they got to have men,” Jackson Stake agreed, with a gesture of resignation, “but it s a bit hard on us farmers, with our crops out, an’ everythin’. Gander an’ me took ours off ourselves this year, an’ saved a wage bill that’ll come handy. You can’t tell what’s goin’ to happen.’
“That’s what I came to speak about,” said Mr. Powers. “Gander’s got a handy way with him, an’ now your crop’s in stook I thought maybe I could get him to fire fo the rest o’ the season. What you say, Gander? I’ll give you the same’s I was givin’ Dick, an’ him with two year’s ’sperience.”
Gander’s heart thumped again, but with an altogether different emotion. If the thought of Jo Burge could make that heart quicken its beat, so, too, could the prospect of firing a steam engine. Short of actually driving an engine, and perhaps, some day, having one of his own, to fire one was his greatest ambition. Yet even in that epochal moment he had thought for his father:
“It’ll depend on Dad,” he said. “If he thinks he can get along—”
Jackson Stake was harrowing his hair with his thick fingers—an unfailing sign of cerebral activity. “I guess I could manage,” he said, “if only we were threshed. But if I don’ get threshed, Gander an’ me were thinkin’ o’ stackin’ a field or two so we could get along with the ploughin’. You see, Bill, that’s how it is. Now if you was to pull in here to-morrow Gander could start with you at once.”
So Jackson Stake drove his bargain with Bill Powers that his threshing should be done the following week. With the possibility of the “outfits” working shorthanded, Gander was a good pawn to play, and his father played him to the best advantage.
Firing Bill Powers’ straw-burner opened a new world for Gander, a world of great activity and accomplishment, in which the throbbing of the steam exhaust for a time beat down that inner throbbing which could be quietened, but could not quite be killed. It was a hard life, to one who weighed his work, but Gander did not count it hard, because he loved his engine and delighted in its company. Powers, who seemed to sleep only upon odd occasions, wakened the boy at four each morning. Even at that hour the lantern was already burning in the caboose. Gander would stretch his stiff muscles, then thrust his legs out of the bunk and follow them into the narrow aisle, cluttered with the garments of the other sleepers. Finding his own clothes, he would climb into them quickly and silently; quickly, because the atmosphere of the caboose, although stale with insufficient ventilation was sharp with the nip of the autumn night; and silently because noise had a way of bringing upon his head the frank and personal expletives of those fortunate members of the gang who were permitted to sleep until the lazy hour of five o’clock. Then, out into the tingling night air, with the stars blazing a million points of fire upon the sleeping earth, and away through the crisp stubble to “the set.” Generally he found it by his prairie sense of direction, or, if the moon still hung in the west, by the temporary trail made by the grain wagons. There it lay, a blacker hulk against the darkness, inexpressibly silent and weird in its repose. Gander’s first act always was to place his hand on the boiler, as one might reassure a nervous horse. By the same half-caressing touch he gauged the coldness of the night and the temperature of the water. Then, having lighted his lantern, he cleared the fire-box and ashpan.
“Well, how’s the old girl the mornin’?” Gander would say, as he raked the ashpan clean. “Ready for another day’s run? I bet we are. Water pretty low, eh?” as, holding the lantern close to the glass, he distinguished the dim line of the liquid inside. “She’ll go up again when she gets hot. Ready for a bit o’ fire?”
Selecting a small armful of straw from the dump beside the engine he would set a match to it and thrust it into the firebox; then, as it burned up, add more, being careful not to choke his fire before it had found a draft. Those first moments, when the flues were cold and the smoke oozed back as from a stubborn kitchen stove, were sometimes the most trying of the day. But if the fire was properly nursed the heat would soon create its own draft, and away it would go. It was fine to see the smoke beginning to roll and billow out of the short stack overhead.
THEN came long minutes of gentle stoking, coaxing the fire to its maximum heat, and, between times, studying the stars or the waning moon. Sometimes Gander wondered what those same stars, looking down in Europe, saw, but he was not imaginative, and he had a man’s job on his hands, and was content. After awhile a welcome, sizzling sound, as from a mighty tea-kettle, would proclaim that the fire had found its teeth. Then another long wait, and, just as the first flush of dawn crept up the eastern sky, the steam-gauge would begin to register pressure.
From that on it was easy. As soon as he had steam pressure Gander would turn on the blower, which creates draft by making a vacuum in the smoke-stack. Under this impetus the fire would spring to new life, licking up greedily the straw which Gander pressed, almost continuously, into the fire-box, while the hand on the steam-gauge crept slowly around the dial. By the time dawn was throwing the shadows of the stooks across the stubble Gander would send forth a shriek from his whistle, choking at first with the cold in its larnyx, but rising quickly to a clear, high note which pierced the morning silence for miles around. It was his word to the world that he was ready for another day’s business.
It was Gander’s pride to be first to sound his whistle in the morning. Other firemen, firing other engines off somewhere through the grey dawn, heard that challenging whistle, and said to themselves, “Gee, Old Bill Powers is cuttin’ er out early these mornin’s,” while Gander grinned in satisfaction and warmed his back against the boiler.
Powers would be the second man at the set. He usually arrived about the time Gander was ready to whistle, and with a word such as “Nippy the rir.»rnin’, Gander,” or, “How’s the old gal takin’ er milk the smornin’, Gander?” he would reach for the battered tea-pot filled with machine oil which was warming against the smoke-stack, and stride off with it to the separator, where he filled the oil cups, adjusted the belts, raked* out accumulations of chaff and seeds, and generally put the mill in order for the day’s run. Meanwhile Gander urged his pressure up to a hundred and thirty pounds, which was the limit allowed by the exacting Government inspector on a boiler not as youthful as it once had been; injected as much water as could be carried without danger of foaming, filled his cups with oil and tallow, and sent another shrill blast into the morning air through which the sunlight was now sifting from great fanshaped streamers overhead. The men by this time had had their breakfast, and their horses came jingling out from the barns to take their places on the bundle wagons, the grain wagons, and the tank wagon in which water was hauled from the nearest pond. The fields awoke; “the outfit” shook off its slumber like a giant aroused from sleep.
After the first few days, Powers, finding Gander competent and eager, left him practically in charge of the engine and gave his own attention mainly to the separator. It was a great hour when Bill said to his young fireman, “All right, Gander, you start ’er the smornin’.” The drive belt had not yet been put on, but Gander had watched the careful Powers run his engine idle a few minutes every morning to warm the bearings before applying the load and to clear the cylinder and valve-chest of the night’s condensation. With infinite pride and responsibility he climbed to the driver’s position, and, throttle in hand, gently eased the first gush of steam into the cylinder. There was a wet hiss from the rear cylinder-cock; then, almost imperceptibly, the driving-arm began to lunge forward, the eccentric heaved on the shaft, the governors began to rotate, the idle fly-wheel stirred into motion. Then a pause at the end of the stroke, and Gander’s Adam’s apple jumped in panic lest he had misgauged the exact amount of power needed, and had suffered the humiliation of being stranded on deadcentre. But the fly-wheel furnished the necessary momentum; the crank swung slowly by the point at the end of the stroke; the steam entered the forward end of the cylinder; the wrist-pin bearings clicked almost imperceptibly with the reversal of the pressure, and the driving-arm lunged backward with a sharper and accelerating hiss. She was away! Gander let her ramble gently for a few revolutions, while the exhaust beat its pleasant tattoo inside the stack; then slowly gave her more steam while he watched the quickening fly-wheel and knew the thrill that comes only to those who hold great power in the hollow of their hands. Jo Burge? This—this power —this mighty thing that sprang at his touch—this was life!
Two men ran out from the separator, reeling the great belt between them, as firemen lay a hose along a city street. Gander stopped his engine, mounted the fly-wheel, wrapped a grain sack around the belt and the rim of the wheel, and, throwing all his weight on it, while men strung along the belt toward the separator like knots on the tail of a kite added their strength to his, drew the great rubber ribbon around the wheel.
Powers was standing by the engine, making no interference, but ready for instant emergency.
“All right, Gander; let ’er go. Remember, you’ve a load on now, an’ don’ rip out my separator bearings.”
Gander blew a short blast on his whistle as a signal for the men to take their positions; then gently opened the throttle. The steam roared from the cylinder-cock, but there was no answering lunge of the driving-arm.
“You got a load, Gander; you got a load!” shouted Powers. “Give ’er juice!”
Gander opened the throttle further. The driving-arm thrust forward; the great belt drew taut on its lower side, while the other flapped prodigiously, almost to the stubble. The arm took its stroke—and stopped.
“Dead-centre, lad, dead-centre,” said Powers, sympathetically. “Never mind, I sometimes do it myself. Here, you fellows!” he shouted to some of the crew who were looking on, enjoying Gander’s discomfiture, “take a pull on the belt!”
“Maybe if you’d just call Gander off we could run the whole thing with the belt,” one of the wags suggested. “We got as much horse power as that ol’ soap-kettle, anyway.”
“Have you?” said Powers. “We’ll see, before night. I bet Gander’ll give you a wet shirt, when he gets ’er goin’!”
The men pulled on the belt until they swung the crank off dead-centre, and Gander, nettled by their taunts, took no chances this time. He opened the throttle, and the crank came back with a bound.
¿‘Easy, Gander, easy; you’ll throw your belt!” Powers shouted to him. But the belt held; the engine was in motion; the separator wasin motion; the knives of the feeder began to whittle the sunlight now glancing across them; a puff of chaff went rocketing out of the blower; chuck-chuckchuck sang the exhaust in the smokestack, and Gander again was captain of his soul.
The engine steadily quickened its stroke and a roar came up in a mighty crescendo from the separator at the other end of the belt. Presently it struck its gait, and Gander knew that it was the governor-valve, and not the throttle, that now controlled the speed.
Meanwhile the spike-pitchers had mounted their wagon-loads of sheaves drawn up on either side of the feeder. Between them was the feeding-table, along which traveled slats with projecting spikes (hence the term “spike pitcher”) designed to drag the sheaves under the revolving knives which cut the bands. When the hum of the separator showed that she had “hit her gait” Powers gave his men a signal, and the spike-pitchers dropped their first sheaves on the table. Up the incline they went, like miniature logs into a sawmill ; under the knives which sna pped their bands of binder twine; into the teasing arms which tousled the straw out of its lumpy mass so that it might feed steadily into the cylinder; then into the cylinder itself, where rows of whirling teeth racing through rows of stationery teeth stripped the wheat and chaff from the stalk and sent all back into the body of the mill, the straw and chaff to be eventually blown out through the stacker, the wheat to be elevated to the weighing device, weighed, and dropped into the big, tight wagon-box standing beside the mill to receive it.
It was not until the first sheaves struck the cylinder that the real load came on the engine. The belt flapped; the rhythmic chuck-chuck-chuck of the exhaust suddenly deepened to a roar which sent ashes and soot hurtling from the smoke-stack overhead. But the sensitive governorvalve responded to the strain, feeding more steam to the piston, so that in a moment the engine had automatically adjusted itself to the load and the mill ran on smoothly with only a hoarser hum as the separator swallowed its first great gulp of chaff and straw. Working quickly, with an easy, systematic swing and a dexterity with the pitchfork which comes only with practice, the spikepitchers dropped their sheaves on the feeding-table in two steady streams, heads forward, each head touching the butts of the sheaf in front, so that the load might be continuous and even. Out from the great iron funnel at the back of the mac hine roared a cyclone of straw : up from t he internals of its digestive apparatus arose a cloud of dust. Chaff and straw and dust—they poured into the still morning air, catching the glint of fresh sunlight, trailing their mottled shadows across the brown stubble.
AND some grain. It rattled down the iron tube; it plunged in half-bushel gusts into the waiting wagon-box, bright and clean and resonant, singing as it danced on the hard boards . . . Chaff and straw and dirt—and some grain!
In a few minutes the first pair of bundlewagons were emptied; the drivers shouted to their horses and pulled out to the fields to re-load, while the next pair of wagons, which had been awaiting their turn, drew into position and the procedure was repeated. Bill Powers’ “outfit” was well away on its day’s run.
Gander was down again, stoking straw into his fire-box, when Powers lolled around the side of the boiler.
“Good enough, Gander,” he said. “You got ’er hummin’, anyhow. Don’ forget your breakfas’. I’ll stoke while you eat.”
Gander had quite forgotten the pail with his morning meal which one of the crew had set beside the engine. Why not? This was Gander’s day of romance. Not that he knew it for that—but who knows Romance when he meets her in the daily round?
JOSEPHINE BURGE learned oi Gander’s appointment to the position of fireman on Powers’ outfit with somewhat mingled emotions. The part she had played in the resignation of Dick Claus from that position was never clearly understood by the community, and Jo offered no enlightenment. All that was known was that Dick had developed a habit of spending his Sunday afternoons and evenings on the Burge homestead, and that after one such visit he suddenly threw down his stoking-fork and enlisted. The community was disposed to credit this increase of the Allied forces to Josephine Burge rather than to any special patriotic impulse operating in the bosom of Richard Claus.
But whatever had been Jo’s part in bringing about Dick’s enlistment it was an unexpected development that Gander should so promptly step into the shoes vacated by his rival. Not that Gander had ever recognized in Dick a rival for Jo’s affections, but Gander’s attitude toward Jo was too ill-defined to admit of very clear thinking. At school they had played together, preferring each other by some law of natural selection which neither understood nor tried to explain. When Gander left school and threw himself into the work of the farm, the girl had occupied only a small part of his thoughts until the hired man Bill had kindled his imagination along new and dangerous lines. That spark had been quenched, or, at least, subdued, by his curious reaction to the trust and heroworship of his sister Minnie, during the storm that night when they were alone in the house together. Gander was not a deep psychologist, but he had been unable to escape the conclusion that Jo was Tommy’s sister, just as Minnie was his sister.
This new point of view kept him away from the girl during the following years, except when they met for a few minutes at church, or on the more rare occasions of a country picnic or other social event. He was shy in her presence; at times she even suspected that he avoided her; yet he seemed pleased when they met and his eyes were bright even though his tongue was dumb. Back in his memory he carried that word of hers, “Bill, I’ve always been your girl.” Some day, he supposed, he would ask her to make that promise good, for his simple mind accepted it as a promise for the future as well as a declaration of the past. In the meantime he was tremendously busy with other things— and Jo could wait.
She waited. When Gander did not return to the school section that day after the storm, Jo, with the intuition of her sex, guessed that it was not because he didn’t care, but because he cared too much. Well—she, too. perhaps, had cared too much. She tried to school herself to an attitude of indifference, an attitude which she sustained rather well in Gander’s presence, but from which she slid ignominously in the privacy of the I rairies when she wandered them after the cattle, or when she took long walks by herself, for she was a girl with a taste for solitude. One thing gave her assurance: If Gander paid small attention to her, he paid less to any one else. He was wrapped up in the affairs of the farm.
She was accustomed to hearing her father sound his praises.
“That’s a great boy, that Gander Stake, as they call him,” Martin Burge would say at the supper table, over his plate of pancakes and syrup. “ ’Specially since young Jackie lit out, Gander’s cornin’ up strong. Drives a seeder or a binder like a man, he does, an’ no nonsense about runnin’ to town two or three times a week.”
“That’s one to me,” said Tommy, who was not without the gift of frankness. “Well, I guess Mr. Stake knows how to get a man’s work without payin’ a man’s wages.”
“Thomas!” his mother reproved him. “You mustn’t speak ill of Mr. Stake.”
“Oh, I didn’t. I think he’s very clever.”
“Wish I had some of his cleverness,” said Mr. Burge.
“Well, none of your family has run away yet, anyhow,” said the irrepressible Tommy.
Mr. Burge found this a poser. It was hard to defend the management which had cost his neighbor a good farm-hand, and that right in the midst of harvest. Mr. Burge cut a lusty pancake in four, cleverly doubled the corners of one quarter in upon themselves with his fork, drenched the mass with syrup, and downed it while he gave his thoughts an interval in which to collect themselves.
“Jus’ the same, Gander’ll make a good farmer—a darn good farmer, Tommy.”
“Well, I’m glad of thatfor Jo’s sake,” said Tommy.
“Mind your business,” his sister suggested to him. But the color rushed to her face, so she rose to replenish the pancakes from the stove. “That’s an awful hot fire, Mother,” she said, when she returned with the smoking cakes.
WITH the outbreak of the war Jo wondered whether Gander would enlist. Nothing was further from her hopes than that anything should happen to Gander, but in these early stages the risk of casualty was considered small. The whole neighborhood shared Double F’s opinion that the war would be over in three months; but to wear a uniform and march away with bands playing was an heroic gesture . . . It was yet too early in the struggle to see anything heroic in raising wheat. Jo was proud of Gander, but she was not blind to his defects. He was awkward; he was shy; the boundary of his world was little farther than his father’s farm. Enlistment would change all that. Like any honest girl, she was not satisfied that she alone should be proud of Gander; she wanted other people to be proud of him. She wanted to see the stoop taken out of his back, the hitch out of his gait, the drag out of his legs. Then, when the papers began to glare with reports of atrocities in Belgium she wanted the heroic in Gander to well up and send him rushing to arms, to the defence of womankind, to the defence of Josephine Burge! Gander’s heroism did nothing so spectacular. He went on working fourteen hours a day in the harvest field, associating with his father a little more closely than before, and trying to keep the war out of his mind.
In all this it is not to be granted that Gander was essentially less patriotic than other young men who responded to the call. Any analysis of patriotism may lead to dangerous ground, and nothing more will be said than that Gander was happy in his home, that he saw no occasion to break away from it, that he was attached to his father, his sister Minnie, his younger brother Hamilton, and, in a lesser degree, his mother; that he loved the farm horses and machinery, and that, after all, the war was away in Belgium, or some such place, which was in Europe, or Asia, or some such place; Gander was not very sure of his geography, but of this much he was sure, that the Atlantic ocean lay between, and the British navy ruled the Atlantic ocean, so what was there to worry about? With Gander, as with most others, it was a matter of perspective. He was not lacking in courage, or in a spirit of readiness to defend his home; if an enemy battalion had appeared on the road allowance that skirted his father’s farm Gander would have faced them single handed with his breech-loadshot-gun. He might even have marched into Plainville to resist their landing in his market town. But Belgium? Gander was unable to visualize a danger so remote.
In the meantime, his activities were so centralized upon the firing and driving of Bill Powers’ engine that the war gave him no great concern. Its chief visible effect was the number of boys, his own age or younger, working on the outfit. Already there had been a thinning out of the classes from twenty-five to thirty-five years old, and youngsters not long out of school were stepping up to take their places. Some of these openly looked forward to the day when they might enlist, and hoped that the war would not end too soon; but most of them, and particularly those who were already eighteen, or nearly so, showed a reticence about discussing the matter at all. Something inside was troubling vaguely, and they found an opiate in work.
Gander fired for Bill Powers for the remainder of the season, with only one incident that seems worth recording. That occurred when they were threshing at Martin Burge’s. Gander, although hired as fireman and drawing fireman’s wages, was practically engineer; old Bill gave little thought to the power end of his plant except when moving from set to set cr along the country roads from farm to farm. Then Gander fired and Bill handled the engine. To make a “Y” turn, couple on to a separator, and pull out across the fields without a foot of wasted motion is riot learned in a day. Gander never failed to thrill with pride in his boss when, the moment the belt was thrown, he manoeuvered the engine through that sharp turn in the shape of a “Y”, backed up to the separator, calculating his distance and momentum to a nicety at the risk of his life—more than one engineer has been crushed to death between separator and engine as the price of a moment’s misjudgment—coupled on, and was away almost before the pulleys had quit revolving or the last gust of straw had been blown from the stacker. Powers was greasy, and bent, and masked such real features as he must have possessed behind a dust-filled black stubble of beard, but he was the only man aside from Jackson Stake in whom Gander ever had caught a glimpse of the heroic.
IT WAS about ten in the morning when they pulled in to Burge’s. Martin Burge had cut his pasture fence in two places to save a detour around by the farm buildings and the consequent loss of valuable time, and Powers navigated his craft over the bare pasture, down the side of a shallow gulley, across its hard gravel bottom, up the other bank, through the temporary gate in the barbed-wire fence, and into the hundred-acre wheatfield of Martin Burge to which it gave admittance. The bundle teams, having taken a short-cut by means of a culvert which could not be trusted to support the engine, were already in the field loading up ; their reddish-green masses rose against a background of transparent sky like bronze tents silently heaving in the morning breeze. Now and again the voice of a driver to his team came across the field clear above the patter of the exhaust and the sluff of the wheels in the soft earth.
Martin Burge walked ahead, indicating the route to a favorable location for the set; Bill Powers stood at the throttle, the steering wheel in his hand, the front truck of his engine jerking from side to side like a mighty caterpillar, yet following a course that was almost direct; Gander stoking with straw from a wagon drawn along side and with one eye on the watergauge and the other on the steam; behind them the great hulk of the separator dragging heavily in the soft soil of the cultivated field; behind that again, the caboose with two or three men riding, enjoying a brief respite from their morning labors or turning the moments to account by drawing together rents in their overalls with darning needles and wrapping cord. At a suitable spot Powers stopped; the caboose was uncoupled and left standing in the field; then engine and separator moved on again to the place indicated by Mr. Burge. Here Powers again slacked back while the separator was uncoupled; then, reversing his “Y” manoeuver, swung his engine out, around, and quickly into place. Meanwhile two men ran but from the separator with the belt, measuring the distance to the spot where the engine should stand, but Powers, from long practice, had judged it almost as well with his eyes. Without a wasted motion he brought his engine to the stop, swung the belt on to the fly-wheel with the last impulse of its dying momentum, and shouted to his fireman, “All set, Gander. Let ’er go!”
Gander touched the whistle cord and gently opened the throttle; the first two bundle wagons, already loaded, drew up beside the feeder; the blades began to revolve, the spiked slats to slide up the incline, and a moment later the high whine of the threshing cylinder deepened to a roar as the first sheaves were gulped into its iron jaws. Gander, observing that his engine had taken its gait, dropped down from the throttle, replenished his fire, and walked around to the front of the boiler in a mood of casual inspection. It was then he noticed that the pitcher on the left hand bundle wagon was young Walter Peters, who had brought a team over from his father’s farm that morning to reinforce Powers’ somewhat depleted staff. Walter had been one of the little boys going to school when Gander left it; he was not yet more than fifteen or sixteen, slim and straight and willing, but without either the weight or the skill for a spike-pitcher. His parents were ambitious to make a doctor of him, because, so they thought, medicine gives a much easier living than farming, and he had been attending high school in Plainville until called home to help with the threshing. Gander watched him for a moment, noting that, while not altogether unskilful with his fork, he was flustered with the responsibility of his position, sometimes getting two sheaves at once, and occasionally missing his thrust altogether.
“Must speak to Powers about him,” Gander suggested to himself. “Not heavy enough for that job. Put him drivin’ a grain team, or somethin’.” But at that moment the boy, having thrust the head of his fork under the band of a sheaf, so that it became caught in the cord, threw fork and all on to the feeding-table. Realizing the damage that would be done to the machinery, and the shame which would engulf him for such a blunder, he lurched forward frantically for the fork, now floating up the carriers just beyond his reach; lost his balance, and himself fell on the moving sheaf! There was a chance that the carriers would stick with this extra weight, but the lad was light, and they swept him up toward the knives like straw for the threshing.
Gander’s decision was instantly taken. It was impossible to stop the engine in time; before he could so much as reach the throttle the boy would be chopped to pieces. But the great belt was rushing by within a yard of Gander’s arm. To hurl himself upon it, with his whole force striving to run it off the fly-wheel, was the work of an instant. It whirled him from his feet, carried him for a moment like a leaf on some dark and rapid stream, then suddenly leapt from the wheel and fell like a serpent writhing in the stubble. At the same instant the spike pitcher on the opposite wagon, who had seen the accident and had his wits about him, threw a sheaf cross-wise straight into the blades. Choked with this sudden load, and with its power cut off, the separator stopped like a ship upon a rock. Some one reached a hand to Walter and he climbed sheepishly back on to his load.
“Mustn’t take a chance like that,” said one of the older men, severely. “You’ll make a sausage machine of old Bill’s straw-hasher.”
Meanwhile Powers, who had observed the latter part of the accident, came rushing as fast as his crooked legs would carry him to where Gander lay entangled in the belt. “For God’s sake, Gander, are you killed?” he cried.
Gander dragged himself clear of the belt and staggered to his feet. “Nope, I guess not,” he announced, when he had rubbed some of his more prominent protrusions. “Guess I’m all right; just kind o’ lost my wind for a minute. How’s little Watt? Did he get hurt, at all?”
Peters, described as “little Watt” as a hang-over from schoolday recollections, but now as tall as Gander, came up beside him.
“Thanks, Gander,” he said, extending his hand. “That was awful decent. I hope you didn’t get hurt.”
Gander, now feeling the more sheepish of the two, grasped the proferred hand. “Oh, that’s nothin’—I’m all right,” he said. Then, as an outlet for his embarrassment, “Come on, fellows! Give a heave with this belt! We’ve lost about twenty bushels’ time already!”
AT NOON Gander found himself the hero of the hour. He had not quite forgotten that they were threshing at Jo Burge’s home, and he drew on a less soiled smock and raked the chaff out of his hair before going in to dinner. Mrs. Burge and Jo were at work in the big kitchen; Mrs. Burge poring over the stove and a side table on which great stacks of food were piled; Jo waiting on the men. She looked neat and trim in her plain house dress, with her fair hair drawn in a mass at the back of her head, and the little points of freckles peering through her white skin. She smiled at Gander as he slouched to a placa at the table, but did not speak; she was too engaged in serving hot tea into the great cups that sat by the thresher-men’s plates.
“Well, we got a hero among us,” said one of the gang. “Gander, get up and be presented with the Victoria Cross, or whatever it is a man gets for being a fool an’ livin’ through it.”
Gander humped himself over a full plate of beef and potatoes, while his Adam’s apple jumped from his shirt band to a sheltered position between his jaws.
“ ’T wasn’t nothin’,” he said. “Anybody ’ud o’ done it.”
“That’s what I read in the papers,” said another. “These great men in the war—all modest as school-ma’ams.”
Gander, and some of the others, wished they would keep off the war for a bit.
Bill Powers waited until the banter had subsided, so that his pronouncement might have a proper hearing. Then: “Well, all I got to say is, in thirty years’ threshin’, it’s the quickest thinkin’—an’ doin’—I ever seen.” And, having spoken, Powers slashed into his meat with knife and fork, as though to indicate that the last word had been said.
But it hadn’t. “Shucks!” remarked another member of the gang, “I’ve run that belt off, myself, as often as there’s hair on Hector.”
This brought Bill to arms. “You have, eh? From where? That’s what I’m askin’. From half way down to the sep’rator! Anybody can do that, when you’ve got room to run, an’ lots o’ purchase on it. Huh! I’ve seen the wind blow it off, if you give it sweep enough. But ten feet from the fly-wheel—that’s diff’rent! If he’d gone under that wheel he’d been jus’ like a fly under your foot—”
“Or in the soup,” suggested another.
“I guess it’s young Watt here would have been in the soup, an’ cut good an’ fine at that,” said the first speaker, “if that headpiece of Gander’s had been as empty as it looks. I’m for the Victoria Cross! The presentation’ll take place tonight, an’ Miss Burge’ll pin it on our hero’s gallant breast—won’t you, Jo?”
The rapid development from “Miss Burge” to “Jo” in a single sentence was typical of the threshers’ conventions. During a visit of the threshers a farm girl is, ex-officio, a member of the gang.
Then Jo spoke. “Maybe he’ll wear a real V.C. there, some day, for all you know.” And for some reason that brought the banter to a close.
But after dinner she found occasion for one word with Gander. “That was a brave thing, Gander,” she said. “I’m very proud of you.”
And what was the Victoria Cross to that?
Meanwhile the Germans were forcing their way across the Yser.