Now that the oppressive drag of the war has been removed, the countryside about Plainville breathes freely once more, and Gander Stake, who has doggedly insisted on plodding the furrow throughout the conflict, feels life take on new and disturbing qualities as a result of the appearance of city-bred sophistication in the person of Jerry Charnsley.
PEACE had returned. The oppressive drag of the war was suddenly cut loose. It was like a horse breaking from his whiffle-tree.
For a few days the horse ran wild, to the damage of himself and all adjacent property; then reason—or habit —bridled him again, and he fell back into his furrow.
For Gander the furrow was that unending routine which encircled his father’s farm. It was a routine from which he had no desire to be disturbed. Several times the war had threatened to shoulder him out of his furrow, and he made the war his enemy on that account. Minnie and Jo had tried to prod him out of it, and had succeeded in prodding themselves out, instead. He stuck to his furrow. His life was on the farm, where he left other people alone, and asked only that they do the same to him.
It was the easier to stick to his furrow when he traveled in double harness with Grit Wilson. Grit laughed at the world, and laughter gives a pleasant sense of superiority.
Gander could not have worked out any theories of philosophy about it, but he knew that it was a very comforting thing to laugh at the world.
It placed the world at such a disadvantage.
True, there were times—times when he met Jo Claus at church at Willow Green, or shopping in Plainville, or at some country picnic in the district, when Gander was not so sure of his mirth. Since her marriage Jo had unaccountably affected to forget that there had been any unhappiness between herself and Gander; she greeted him again as a friend of her school days, without any suggestion that he ever had been more, or less.
If Dick knew anything he gave no sign.
“Lucky dog, Gander, old boy,” said Dick, when the two met at Willow Green. “When the next war comes I’m going to raise wheat, or make munitions.”
There was no apparent bitternes in Dick’s remark, and Gander found it hard to answer. Dick was tall, and straight, with a fineness about his features that no one seemed to remember from the old days. But it was pitiable to hear him cough.
“Must come over and see us sometime,” Dick continued. “Jo is often speaking about you.”
Gander thanked him, but did not accept the invitation. It might not be so easy to laugh at the world from Jo’s doorstep.
That evening, as Gander sauntered in the dusk along the trail which ran through the poplar groves, thinking a little of Dick and Jo, a ripple of laughter caught his ear. It arrested him; he could not place the voice.
There was music in it—music even to Gander, whose scales all were written in the solid earth, whose gamut was the range of experience on his father’s farm. He shuffled quietly away from the road and obscured himself in a group of poplars.
Three people were walking along the trail; he just could outline them in the dying light. There were Hamilton and Elsie Fyfe, but the second girl—who was she? She was chatting gaily, and Gander heard that rippling laughter again, now within a few feet of his
place of concealment. They passed by, and he waited until they were well out of sight before moving onward again toward the house.
It was not in Gander’s nature to be casually disturbed about women. Jo had been his one love; all others moved on the stage of his life almost unobserved. Not that that stage had been overcrowded; there were not more than
a dozen eligible girls in the Willow Green district, but some of these would have regarded Gander’s attentions without marked annoyance. Gander had not thought of any of them seriously. Jo had been his, but she had slipped away; that had been the price of his four years of
safety. Well, some others had paid another price. Walter Peters, Tommy Burge, for example. Gander had accepted his fate as final; it had not even occurred to him to suppose that he could transfer his affections. He had taken it for granted that he would just go on—and on.
But something in that laughter had dug into strange, unused cells in his being. It was happy, spontaneous laughter—laughter without any ring of bitterness. When Gander laughed it always was in self-defence, as a mask behind which he could take shelter, or at the discomfiture of some person or thing. Laughter was not much heard on the Stake homestead, and it nearly always was at people—not with them. This laughter was different, and it stirred Gander more than he knew or understood. He must question Hamilton.
Not, of course, too obviously. He allowed the breakfast opportunities to pass without comment. If Hamilton had anything on his mind he carried it easily, plunging into his porridge and its following course of pork and potatoes with his usual gusto and effectiveness. During the forenoon Hamilton and Grit plied their plough-shuttles up and down the fields while Gander busied himself with grinding the valves of the big car, which, as a result of war-time prosperity, had displaced the more humble flivver. When the teams came in from the field at noon Gander set the windmill running; its pleasant clank . . . clank came down from above as its bright blades slashed the sunlight under the impulse of the prairie breeze-. The horses crowded to the trough and as each drank his fill he made his way straight to the stable and to his own stall to investigate the contents of his oat box. Finding it empty, he thrust his nostrils into the air in protest; then, enticed by the fragrant hay, he plunged into his manger, drawing great wisps between his facile lips and champing with satisfaction.
At the door of the stable Gander met Hamilton and Grit coming out together, and stepped aside to give them room. “Two is comp’ny; three ain’t,” he observed. But Hamilton made no answer. Gander’s first decoy had not drawn fire.
A few minutes later Gander followed, past numerous obstacles in the yard, to the front of the house, where Hamilton and Grit were crowding over a wash bench, much as their horses had crowded at the trough.
“You don’ need washin’, Ham,” his brother told him. “You was slicked up last night enough for a week.”
A basin of graniteware sat on the bench, and a leaky barrel, half full of rain water, stood at the corner of the house. Grit had left the basin partly filled with the proceeds of his ablutions. With a swing of his arm Hamilton sent the dirty water spraying over the yard with a scientific exactness that included Gander in the circle.
“Sorry, Gander,” said Ham, with mock apologies. “You should either come in or stay out.”
Gander found no ready answer; Hamilton’s allusions
had been too indefinite. He washed in silent ill-humor. Once inside, all hands attacked the meal vigorously and without formalities. With the passage of years and the increasing pressure of farm activities Jackson Stake’s grace before meat had become more and more hurried and confidential, until now it was employed only upon those rare occasions when they had visitors. The men slumped into their chairs and helped themselves from well-laden platters. They rushed on with their meal, as though it were something to be disposed of with the least possible delay, and at the first sign of a pause Mrs. Stake dumped great helpings of rice-and-raisin pudding into plates just cleared of meat and potatoes.
They were in the final stages of the pudding course when Jackson Stake himself touched the fuse that was to work havoc with Gander’s furrow.
“That’s a lively lookin’ piece, that niece of Double F’s,” he remarked to the company in general. “Elsie had better be watchin’ out.”
He ended with a benevolent smile at Hamilton, and the boy’s color flowed up his fair face into the roots of his hair. “Oh,
I guess she’s all right,” he answered, noncommittally.
Gander tried to bury his interest in his plate.
“What’s her name, Ham?” Grit demanded. “Make us all acquainted.”
“I’ll introduce you—-when she asks me to,” Hamilton retorted, with a dignity that, in all the family, was peculiar to himself, and Minnie.
Gander turned over in his mind, that afternoon, this meagre information as he worked on the car. He was surprised that he should be interested in this strange girl, and his surprise was mingled with a certain boldness—a certain sense of adventure. A hundred times he recalled the outline he had seen of her in the dusk among the poplar groves, and each time that outline seemed to become more enticing.
Mingled with it was the outline of Jo Burge; mingled with his happiness was a sadness inseparable from Jo Burge. Without knowing or understanding it Gander was still, at heart, faithful to his first love, and this new experience had in it all the allurements of the illicit. He had felt that, in a sense,
Jo must be his, always. It was an ownership which he never would be able to assert, and yet it was a pleasant thing to tuck away in his heart. He knew —don’t ask him how—he knew that although Jo had married Dick she had wanted him. He had nursed that thought, found comfort in it, when no one but himself knew he harbored it at all. It was a delicious secret.
And now that another affection came knocking at his heart he was caught between two fires. Could he give up that secret love? Would it be quite honest to Jo? Gander felt these questions pressing vaguely in his mind, but he did not stop to answer them. He only knew that he wanted to meet that girl with the rippling laughter—then he would see.
“Huh!” he told himself. “Like as not—” But he couldn’t finish the sentence.
He completed his work on the car and took it out for a trial spin. Its renewed life seemed to feed life back to him through the steering-wheel, the switch, the gear-shift through every contact. The hiss of the air in the carburetor, the almost noiseless rhythm of the motor, were music in his ears. Before he knew it he was speeding’down the highway that divided his father’s farm from that of Fraser Fyfe.
* I AHE school section, redolent with memories of A Josephine Burge, lay to the south-east; he could see the bluffs of willow and poplar green upon its higher ridges. Under one of those bluffs he and Jo had rested that hot day—that day when he wondered, and he still wondered, whether she had been asleep. Down one of those slopes he had chased her in a madness he never had understood. Somewhere behind those fields he had carried her in his arms . . . And mingled in his memories of her, everywhere, was a new joyousness, and something which had to do with laughter.
He drove by the school. Even at the distance of the road he could see one or two wistful faces turned toward the windows, envying him his liberty. He remembered how he has rescued Jo, that first day at school and how she had fought for him, burying her little hands in Pete Loudy’s hair . . .
He circled the country to the south. The high tide of spring, merging into early summer, was in the air; pennants and spirals of dust marked the slow drag of husbandry on^the distant fields. The snow water still lay,
bright as quick-silver, in the prairie ponds; about its edges the grass grew a more luscious green; wild ducks were nesting under its emerald canopy. The sky faded into infinite blue distances, bearing on its bosom white puffs of lazy cloud.
Eventually Gander’s circle brought him back to the school. Between the school and the Stake homestead the
road crests a ridge; Gander thrilled to the power of his car as it raced up the incline. As he swung over the top his brakes brought him up with a jerk. A few yards ahead a girl was bending over the grassy ridge in the centre of the trail, in the act of picking some prairie flower which had braved the hazard of many horses’ feet. The nose of the car was almost touching her when it stopped.
“Well, I pretty near scored off you,” he said, annoyed that she made no move to get out of the way.
She was standing erect now, facing him, with a bunch of flowers in her hand. She wore no hat, and her dark hair, massed about her head, made her face appear very small and winsome.
“Didn’t you see me?” she asked. “I was here first.” And then sunshine seemed to break from her parted lips, and her voice trilled off into a ripple of laughter. It smote Gander like a blow; his Adam’s apple jumped into his throat. This was she, undoubtedly—Double F’s niece! And he didn’t even known her name!
Still, she had given him a fright. “I might have killed you,” he blurted.
She laughed again. “Oh, you are much too good a driver to do anything like that. Aren’t they beautiful?” She was holding her flowers toward him
“Lots of ’em on the prairie,” said Gander. Flowers were nothing to him. Then, with sudden boldness: “Better get in and I’ll drive you home, or wherever you want to go.”
She came around to the side of the car, and, as she did so, he saw that she was small, as small as Jo, and lighter on her feet. There was more spring to her step. She might have reminded him of Minnie, but Minnie was fair, with bronze hair and brown eyes; this girl was dark, with black hair and black eyes and a round, smooth face of olive-brown skin. She wore a light dress of some pinkish material, white stockings, and little black shoes— much too little, thought Gander, for the country roads.
She had raised one foot to the running-board when she paused. One hand rested on the car door, the other held her treasured flowers. Gander thought he never had seen hands so small and fine. “Not much use for farmin’,” he had told himself afterwards, and pondered that point rather deeply.
“You see, we have not been introduced,” she explained her hesitation. “I don’t know the country very much,
but in the city we—nice girls expect an introduction.’’
“Oh, that’s all right,” Gander assured her. “Everybody knows me. They all call me Gander; Gander Stake.”
“Oh, then, I know you, too!” There was something about her eyes most enticing to look upon. “You are Hamilton’s brother. He’s a nice boy. Will you open the door, please?”
Gander knew of no reason why she should not open the door herself, but he did not make an issue of it. For a moment she stood up in the car, and the prairie wind swept her light skirt across his knees. He was conscious of his greasy overalls.
“I’m all grease—been fixin’ the car,” he warned her. “Don’ sit too close.”
“Oh, I won’t,” she answered.
Her manner piqued him. “I didn’ mean that,” he explained.
“Neither did I.”
She was much too smart. She was too quick with her answers. For the first time his slow mind began to catch a glimpse of how slow it was. He was afraid to speak lest her reply would place him at a disadvantage. He felt like a mouse under the eye of an agile but tolerant cat; safe while he remained quite still, but sure to be pounced upon the moment he moved.
Gander gave her a sidelong glance from time to time. She was engaged mainly in burying her little nose in the prairie flowers. Unconsciously Gander increased his speed. The speedometer hand crept up to thirtyfive.
When it became apparent that he was going to drive on in silence she opened conversation.
“The country is beautiful, isn’t it?” “Oh, I dunno. What?”
“Why, the grass, the trees, the flowers, the fields, but most of all, the sky. In the city we don’t seem to see the sky.”
“Lots of it out here,” Gander remarked. She laughed, and to Gander it seemed that he had jumped across a great chasm, and landed safely on the other side. They were getting along.
“I suppose you have lived here all your life?” she tried again.
A bit of burlesque humor flashed up in Gander’s memory. “Not yet,” he answered.
Again she laughed, and Gander felt as though a short-circuit were charging him through the steering-wheel. No; it was coming from beside him; he knew it was coming from the passenger at his side. How dainty she was! How small, and how clean! He was tremendously conscious of his greasy overalls, and a bit uneasy about the cushion on which she was sitting. That pink skirt—he wondered if he should mention his misgivings. But, while he wondered, they arrived at Fraser Fyfe’s gate.
“It doesn’ take long, with a car,” he remarked, with a supreme effort to make conversation.
“Not when you drive so fast. But I suppose you are in a great hurry. Farmers are very busy people, aren’t
Her words tantalized Gander. She seemed to be poking verbal fingers at him.
“But I’m not in a hurry,” he protested. “I’ve all afternoon. Let’s go for a drive—somewhere else?”
“That would be nice, but—not to-day. Elsie will be looking for me. I said I would be only a little while.” For a moment she sat, waiting for him to open the door. When he made no move she opened it herself, and got out. With her disengaged hand she brushed particles of dust from her dress, giving him an opportunity to speak.
Gander’s heart was thumping, but now was the time. He summoned all his courage to his aid.
“If I call you up some day, will you?” he asked, almost choking on the words.
She flashed a look at him from her dark eyes, dancing under long black lashes. Her lips parted; her teeth were smooth and regular and strangely white against the olive brown of her skin. Gander thought he never had seen any one so beautiful.
“Thank you for the ride—and the company,” she said. “I think the prairie is very beautiful, don’t you?”
As he drove home alone Gander wondered whether or not she had answered his question.
Z'-'1ANDER mechanically backed his car into its ^ garage. Then he sat for a long while, the steeringwheel held in a tight grip, thinking.
With Gander, any thinking that broke new ground was laborious effort, and his thoughts to-day were breaking new ground. They were at first much too confused to have any definite trend, but gradually certain points
began to emerge. For example, he had not learned the girl’s name.
It took half an hour for that fact to crystallize, but when the thought had finally taken shape it landed on him with the impact of a prize-fighter’s fist. She had got the information she wanted, without evasion or delay, but she had not so much as told him her name! He felt a sort of helpless resentment, and he condemned his slow wits for refusing to function when he stood most in need of them.
“I’m a dub,” he said to himself. It was an important conclusion.
Gander’s standards of comparison were such that he had not often suffered by them. When the girls in the restaurant had giggled for the obvious edification of the two men in uniform—that had been one instance, and his hurt pride had sent him to the barber’s shop for treatment. But usually he felt that he could invite comparison. With Jackie gone, he was the elder son; he was practically manager of the farm. He could run a steam engine. He could take a car to pieces and put it together again. He could drive a team of four, six or eight horses. He knew every oil-hole in a binder, mower, or seeder. He was strong. He could take his turn on a pitchfork with the best of them. He could shoot and ride as well as the average. With all these things in his favor never before had it occurred seriously to Gander that he might make a poor showing in any company.
Yet this strange girl had left him with just that impression. It was unpalatable, and he choked on it a bit, but it had to be swallowed. He had made a poor showing with her. He couldn't analyze it, he couldn’t go over their conversation item by item and check up the scoring pro and con, but instinctively he knew that she had had the better of it. She was too quick for him.
He had an indefinite sense that he had been acted upon, rather than acting; that she was the superior force. Absurd although it appeared, he gathered the idea that in some way she was stronger than he. He almost wished that he had had an opportunity to show his physical strength. If the car had turned over, for example. Suppose it had pinned her under! How he would have swung it up, his muscles knotted like iron! He would have raised her in his arms, he would have run with her to the nearest house! She would be but a feather’s weight to him. And he would set her down, and when she opened her eyes—
It was Gander’s greatest stretch of imagination. It stirred him so that he got out of his seat, out of the car, walked two or three times about the garage. That would show her his strength! He felt his pulses throbbing within him. The walls of his furrow were beginning to crumble.
In the garden to the west of the house he saw his mother working, her form doubled over in a gingham dress faded drab with age. He felt a sudden surging of
his heart toward his mother. He shuffled over to her, down between rows of currant bushes greening with their spring foliage. She did not hear his footsteps in the soft earth; she was bent over, setting out cabbages.
“Couldn’ I do that?” he interrupted her. She looked up quickly, her sharp eyes piercing him, as though she suspected some kind of treachery. She could not recall that Gander ever before had offered her a service. He was playing a joke on her. But he held his ground, steadily.
“I thought you was busy with the car?” she parried.
“Through with it. Could help you a little, if you like.”
“Why—why—Willie!” Her old face began to twist. It recalled the day he gave her the twenty-dollar bill.
“That’s all right, Mother,” he said, with strange gentleness. “I’m goin’ to give you a hand. I’m goin’ to help you, once in a-while.”
Still with misgivings, she showed him how to set out the tender plants. Gander crouched on his knees, setting each little stem in place, pressing the soft moist earth about the root with his hands, while his mother watched in a silence and wonder through which happiness was beginning to break like sunshine through a cloud.
Presently, out of this new experience, she felt a disposition to talk.
“You was out with the car?”
“Yep. Tryin’ her out.”
“Where’d you go?”
He briefly sketched his course.
Gander hesitated. He was shy about mentioning the girl, and yet he felt an impelling desire to talk of her.
“Yep. Double F’s niece. Out pickin’ flowers. Gave her a ride home.”
The cabbage plant trembled in Gander’s hand; he felt the color tingling in his ears.
“You better not be takin’ up with the likes o’ her.” his mother cautioned him.
“What’s wrong with her?” he demanded sharply. He had an impulse to let her plant her own cabbages.
“Oh nothin’ as I know. A very nice girl, no doubt. But these city girls—they ain’t cut out to be a farmer’s wife. Did you see her hands?”
“I did,” said Gander, defiantly. “An’ they looked good to me.”
“For plantin’ cabbages? Willie, don’ be silly! There’s good girls aroun’ Willow Green, if you’re thinkin’ that way. There was Joey Burge—”
Gander sat back on his heels. “Jo’s married,” he said.
His mother nodded. “Yes. You could ha’ had her, but you was too slow. Let her slip away on you. An’ if you couldn’t catch Joey, you’ll never get in sight o’ that young minx at Double F’s.”
In his heart Gander believed his mother probably was right, but he was not prepared to admit his deficiencies.
“Don’ be too sure,” he said, and went on planting cabbages. But that evening, in the after-glow of sunset, he found himself wandering over the fields, dividing his thoughts between Jo Claus and the little olive-Bkinned city girl he had picked up on the trail. He watched the light climbing up the sky, touching tatters of cloud into golden flame. She had said the sky was beautiful. For the first time Gander watched it—and wondered.
BUT other events were soon to demand a share of hia thought. The following day he took his turn in the fields, and when he brought in his team at noon a young man, a little older than himself, was waiting at the water trough. Something in his look suggested Dick Claus; he had that same fineness of appearance, and with it a self-confidence in meeting strangers which is not often acquired in the furrow.
He came forward pleasantly, and his evident desire to be agreeable put Gander on his guard. That was the way with life insurance agents and other people who had something to sell.
“I’m Cal Beach,” he announced. “The new hired man.” Gander surveyed him doubtfully, but Grit, whose head at that moment emerged from among the heaving shoulders of the horses, flashed him a look of good-humored interest.
“Welcome to our city,” he hailed the new arrival. “We need an extra man—to do the work.”
Gander hesitated. “Didn’ know Dad was figgerin’ on hirin’ any more help. However, he’s the main gazabo. What can you do?”
“Not so very much, I’m afraid. I can drive a Ford—” “ ’An it takes a good man to do that,’ ” Grit chanted from a popular song.
“—and horses a little, and I’m middling strong, and— I’ve been through university.”
Gander had noticed, drawn up by one of the portable granaries, an old Ford, dog-eared and weather-beaten, which he now associated with the visitor. Still, Gander was prepared to admit that many a good man, at some time in his career, had driven a Ford. This new-comer was guilty of a more serious offence. He had gone to a university. Worse than that, he boasted of it!
“An eddicated smart-Aleck,” said Gander to himself. “He’ll last on this farm about long enough to crank that old road-turtle o’ his.” Then aloud: “Sounds all right, all but the last. Don’ know as what they learn you in the university’ll help much. A man on a farm don’ need no D.D.’s, or whatever it is, after his name. What he wants is horse power an’ savvy. Well, we’ll see. Go down to the barn an’ throw some hay in the mangers.”
Something in Gander’s tone recalled to him that episode on the vacant lots adjoining Plainville—the ordering of the men about by the drill sergeant. Gander
had taken the same attitude. He was “breaking” his man. But, to Gander’s surprise, Beach showed no resentment; on the contrary, he swung off smartly to the stables to carry out his instructions.
“Huh!” said Gander. “Not much spirit there. About two days on the farm’ll fix him.”
At the door'of the stable Gander came upon a little boy of eight or nine years, sunburned and tousled, with threads of hay hanging about his hair and shoulders.
“Hello, who’s the kid?” said Gander. “Another hired man?”
“Yes, sir,” the boy answered, respectfully.
“What’s your name?”
It was the first time Gander ever had been called sir, and his Adam’s apple plunged violently with the shock. It was a wholly unprecedented experience. Gander’s heart warmed somewhat to the child.
“Reed what?” he questioned, more pleasantly.
Gander stroked the back of his long neck meditatively. “You don’t mean he’s your daddy?” he said, indicating Cal with a jerk of his head.
“He’s my Daddy X.”
Gander turned this singular reply over in his mind, as though to discover what lay beneath it. Then: “An’ have you been through university, too?”
“Not yet, but I’m going to. Have you?”
“Not so slow,” thought Gander. “He’s some kid.” He ran his fingers through the boy’s hair with a friendly scuffle.
“D’ye ever get hungry?”
“Yes, sir, a little.”
What a bright kid he was! And how pleasant that sir sounded!
“Well, let’s go an’ eat. C’mon, Cal.”
"IV/Í RS. STAKE did not join the men at their meal, but waited on the table. She seemed to-day even more straight and stern than usual; the prospect of two extra mouths to feed was an additional grievance which she bore with heavy tread from the table to the stove, and back again.
Notwithstanding the exigencies of eating, Gander managed to give some quiet attention to Cal and Reed during this tbeir first meal in the Stake household. He noticed that both of them apparently were under the impression that knives must be used only for cutting—a limitation that surely would place them at a disadvantage in the tri-daily scramble at meal time. They ate with apparent relish, but Cal, at least, controlled his haste. Gander laid this to design on Cal’s part; he probably would drag out his meal hours as long as possible. Well, he knew a cure for that.
Gander and Grit consumed amazingly big meals in an amazingly short time, and as each cleared his plate he got up and went out. They met in the shade of the blacksmith shop, where they were accustomed to smoke an after-dinner pipe.
“I don’ reckon the kid is his,” Grit declared, after some minutes of silence. “He’s too young to have a kid like that.”
Gander took his pipe from his mouth and shook his head sagely. “You can never tell,” he said. “An eddication is a great thing.”
The two cronies snickered at this suggestion, but Gander went on more seriously.
“No, I don’ think he’s his, that way. Fact, I asked him —the kid—right there in the door of the stable. I says, ‘Is he your daddy?’ an’ he says, ‘He’s my Daddy X.’ Now what do you make o’ that?”
“I tell you what it is,” said Grit, thumping his pipe into his palm, “It’s a mystery, that’s what it is. You mark my words, it’s a mystery.” His slumbering eyes were alight.
“Well, he’s a nice kid,” Gander conceded, the soothing effect of Reed’s deference being still upon him.
It was presently time to hitch up for the afternoon work. Gander got his four horses out like Company on Parade, while he snapped the reins to their bits and affectionately cuffed the muzzles curled up at him as he went by.
The new hired man came over from the windmill, where he had been talking with Jackson Stake. “Will you show me how to do that?” he asked. “Let me get the system of it into my head. I’ll savvy if you give me a chance.”
It was the word savvy that won Gander. This was language he understood, and which brought the two men, so to speak, face to face. Besides, it showed that Cal recognized his inferiority. Gander, for all his democracy —or, perhaps, because of it—responded instantly to obeisance. He purred like a cat when his fur was stroked the right way.
“Now you’re shoutin’,” he said. “See, it’s easy—” He
led Cal through the labyrinth of lines, showing him the order in what looked like a chaos of leather. Then he chirped to his horses, and they were on their way.
Their road lay along a narrow lane between two sagging wire fences, with moist, ploughed fields on either side. As the two men walked together behind the team, with the little chap holding Cal’s hand, Gander initiated them into some of the mysteries of the farm and of the neighborhood. He mentioned Minnie, and even as he did so the thought struck him that Minnie would find a peculiar interest in this new hired man. They were
likely to have much in common. Well, he would see.
Gander hitched his team to the seeder, making every movement with quiet, rapid efficiency, and inwardly amused at Cal’s abortive attempts to be of service. The field was a mile long, and when the end was reached Gander thrust the reins into Cal’s hand. With a few instructions the new man picked up the work readily, and after a round or two Gander was content to let him go by himself while he enjoyed a quiet smoke in the shade of a willow bush at the end of the field and wondered about a number of things, including Cal, and the boy, and Minnie and Jo Claus, and another girl whose name, even, he had not learned.
That evening Gander found excuse to visit the home of Fraser Fyfe. He went to borrow a clevis, notwithstanding the fact that three unused clevises were hanging in his father’s blacksmith shop. As he came up the path he saw two girlish figures in the garden, and Gander, who scarcely knew a rose from a tulip, developed a sudden interest in flowers.
"Why, here’s Gander!” cried Elsie Fyfe. "Hello, Gander; you don’t often come to visit us.”
“Not as often as some,” said Gander, significantly.
Elsie blushed winsomely through a new crop of freckles. “Perhaps you’ll do better,” she hinted, slyly. “Have you met my cousin?”
The dark girl had paid no attention to Gander’s presence; she was diligently setting out geraniums, using a great kitchen spoon for a shovel. But [at Elsie’s words she turned toward him.
“I think we have met—at least, we have traveled together,” and her voice trilled off into a little ripple of laughter. Then, as though repentant, she stuck her spoon in the ground and moved toward Gander, flicking specks of earth from her fingers daintily as she came.
“My cousin, Geraldine Chansley,” Elsie announced. “Commonly called Jerry, for short.”
The girl’s little hand sank softly in Gander’s sunburned fist, but it sent a tingle through his fingers that ran up his arm and agitated the prominent feature of his lean neck.
“Sounds tomboyish, doesn’t it? Elsie should not give away my failings—to strangers.”
Gander thought she looked very small and pretty before him. He could have lifted her with that outstretched hand, and yet he was caught in some dumb kind of fright. He choked for words. He was filled with a surging for which he had no expression.
She was ready to help him out. “Are you fond of gardening?” she asked.
The question loosened his tongue a little. “Well, not partic’lar. My garden—you couldn’ plant it with a spoon. Wheat. Two—three hundred acres.”
“It must be wonderful to run a big farm like that.” There was real admiration in her voice.
But Gander’s panic was again upon him. “Yep,” he admitted, “but it keeps you awful busy. Jus’ come over to borrow a clevis. Is your father about, Elsie?”
And without waiting for an answer he lurched off through the rows of currant bushes to Fraser Fyfe’s réd painted barn.
’ i 'HE two newcomers on the Stake farm had been allotted one of the portable granaries in which to sleep, and their first act had been to scrub it thoroughly. That, in itself, stamped them as unusual people.
Gander paid the place a surreptitious visit while Cal was in the fields and Reed at school, and denounced it as being effeminately clean. That sort of thing was all right in a house, where there was a woman to keep the dust on the jump, but a he-man never troubled about such matters. Look at their threshing caboose —Bill Powers’ threshing caboose! Gander smiled at the droll thought of Cal squirming in one of Bill’s over-occupied bunks.
“An’ they’re he-men, every one o’ them,” said Gander to himself. “Not like this fellow Cal—”
He stopped at that. It didn’t ring true, and Gander, whatever his faults, was a believer in the truth. Generations of Calvinist ancestry had woven a fibre into his character that still held taut on most of the fundamentals. And he was fair enough to admit that Cal, in spite of his eccentricities, was measuring up to his standards of a he-man. Cal had followed the team continuously since his first initiation in the oat-field; was on the job in the mornings without being called, and in the evenings, when Gander and Grit thought it no shame to be tired, Cal still had the energy and spirit for a game of ball with Ham and Reed.
Gander stepped into the granary, for a closer study of the habits of this mysterious man. What he found was simplicity and order. The bed on the corner of the floor was as neatly made up as if his mother had done it; the clothing, not in use, was hung on nails about the walls; even the spare tire from Cal’s old Ford occupied a place especially prepared for it. Cal had built a little shelf, on which were two or three books. Gander lifted one, and, with difficulty, spelled out the name.
“M. A-n-t-o-n-i-n-u-s,” he made it. “Some Dutchman, I guess. Well, he won’t learn much about hitchin’ a team in that.”
TT WAS on Cal’s first Saturday night on the Stake farm ■*that Gander had a further glimpse of the man’s peculiarities. Gander had gone to town in his car with the excuse of bringing Minnie home, but in reality in response to that prairie mood which sends every young man into town on Saturday evenings. There, the more vigorous play football or baseball until darkness falls; then they line the sidewalks, jostling each other playfully; commenting on the young women who, of necessity or a desire to be observed, thread their ways among them; occasionally breaking into innocuous rowdyism, and, once in a great while, into a fight. Main Street, Plainville, was Gander’s Broadway, and the Broadway of all the other youths of the district. Although cruder, it was no more sinister than its great prototype, and it contained as much humanity per individual as any street in the world.
During the years of the war Gander had resisted that prairie longing to spend his Saturday evenings in Plainville. No doubt the psycho-analyst would find in that suppressed desire the explanation of his sullenness, his aloofness, his occasional unbalance, such as had ostracized him from the company of Joey Burge. But now that the war was over, and the recruiting posters had been taken down, or were flapping in tattered remnants from neglected walls and fences, Gander again felt atyease to move about among his kind. v
He found Minnie completing some household purchases at Sempter & Burton’s general store, and they drove home through the closing twilight at a speed that rolled up the Plainville road like the belt of Bill Powers’ threshing machine. When Gander was driving a car, especially in the gloaming, the' road suggested a belt which he was winding up beneath him. Sometimes he thought of that incident when he had saved the life of young Walter Peters, and Jo Burge had hotly predicted that some day he—Gander—might wear a real V.C. For a year and a half Walter had been sleeping somewhere in France.
“If it comes to that,” Gander argued to himself, ‘T suppose I could claim some credit for him. I gave his life to his country, in a way.”
As he thought of these matters he unconsciously speeded up his car, until Minnie brought him to earth.
“What’s the rush?” she shouted in his ear.
“It’s all on your account,” he told her. "Thought Continued on page 50
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you’d be anxious to see the new hired man.”
“So I am,” she said, with a touch of that coquetry in which Minnie was something of an artist.
“You’ve heard about him, then?”
“A little, over the ’phone. A man and a boy, I think?”
“Yep. Cal Beach, D.D., an’ a little gaffer that calls him Daddy X.”
“D.D.? No? Not a preacher?”
Gander slowed up to enjoy his sister’s curiosity. “Sure,” he said. “A kind o’ preacher. Oh, you’ll like him, Minn. An’ such a swell housekeeper! He’ll be puttin’ lace curtains on the grainery, next. Him an’ the boy sleeps in the other grainery.” “Perhaps he’ll set a good example to Grit and you. Your room, until Mother clears it up, looks like the swath of a cyclone. But tell me about the boy. I want to hear about the boy.”
Gander, not subtle enough to detect his sister’s move to cover her real interest, plunged into a discussion of Reed.
“Well, he’s a nice little shaver,” he admitted. “About eight or nine, with a bright face and good manners. Mother’s all set on him already. She’s got him goin’ to school, an’ to-day he’s off playin’ with Trixie (the immediate successor of Gyp) over the prairie, huntin’ flowers an’ gophers.”
“But what is he? Cal’s—Mr. Beach’s —son, or what?”
“That’s the mystery, Minn.; that’s the mystery. That’s what’s got us all beat.” “But what does he say?”
“He don’ say. I asked him if Cal was his daddy, an’ he says, ‘He’s my Daddy X.’ Now what do you make o’ that? What relation is a Daddy X? I tell you it’s a mystery.”
By this time they had reached the trail which leads in from the highroad to the Stake farm. The windows of Fraser Fyfe’s house were yellow with light. Somewhere behind those windows, or perhaps in the garden—Gander wondered if his sister had not heard of Elsie Fyfe’s cousin. He was eager to talk about her, but too shy and self-conscious to introduce the subject. Gander was not in the habit of taking much notice of girls; if he mentioned Jerry Chansley to Minnie his quick-witted sister would understand, and undoubtedly subject him to her nimble ridicule. And yet, to have a confidant— Minnie, to whom he could talk—seemed almost worth the risk. Twice his lips were shaped for a mention of Jerry Chansley, and twice his courage failed him. Now his undivided attention was required to guide his car around the sharp curves between the poplar groves which sheltered the farmstead from the western wind. As he stopped near the house he was surprised to see a glow of fire at the door of Cal’s granary. He ran a pace or two in that direction; then, seeing the forms of Cal and Reed sitting unconcerned in the circle of light, he turned back, wondering.
“What’s the smudge for, Dad?” Gander demanded, as he entered the door with an armful of parcels.
Jackson Stake was enjoying his bedtime smoke beside the kitchen range. For his greater comfort he had discarded his boots and was resting bis feet, on which his heavy woollen socks sagged in rolls and creases, on the cover of the ash-pan, drawn partly open to permit of convenient expectoration. He answered Gander’s question without missing a puff.
“No smudge,” he said. “Bonfire.” “Bonfire? What’s the celebration?” “No celebration.” Puff. “Just a notion.” Puff. “Cal an’ the kid.”
“My Land,” Mrs. Stake exclaimed, sharply, “can’t you let the boy have a fire, if he wants it?” .
The readiness with which Gander’s mother came to Reed’s defence nettled and surprised him. Mrs. Stake was a lonely old woman, although Gander knew her only as his mother, which is often a very partial acquaintanceship. The boy was winding strings about her heart.
“Sure! Let ’em have a good time,” Gander retorted. “If they set fire to the grainery or the horse-stable we can all go out an’ cheer.”
“They won’t set fire to nothin’,” said Jackson Stake. “Cal ’ll watch to that.” As Gander went out to put the car away he reflected on the fact that this strange man and boy already had won for
themselves champions in the Stake household. His mother bristled at any question of Reed’s privileges, and even his easygoing father limbered up in defence of Cal. They were strange people.
“Minnie’ll fall for that guy like a boot on a bed-room floor,” Gander concluded, as he thought the matter over.
Later in the evening he saw his sister down by the fire, sitting with Cal on one of the cushions of the old Ford. Gander did not mean to be an eavesdropper, but he happened to wander into their vicinity, in the shadow of the granary. All he could gather was not very conclusive. It seemed that Cal had been telling Reed a story, and Minnie had made herself one of the party.
Gander studied his sister, as she sat there in the glow of the fire, with the unillusioned eye of a brother, and even so he had to admit that Minnie was more than ordinarily attractive. She had thrust her slim ankles out toward the smoldering coals, and Cal would be more, or less, than human if he failed to take note of their neatness and their coquetry. Gander had many times suspected that Minnie was beautiful ; now he knew it. The curve of her arm, the color of her cheek, the sparkle of firelight entrapped in her hair —in all these Gander saw Josephine Burge. When Gander really was stirred he thought of Josephine Burge. Or, more recently, of Jerry Chansley.
They were chatting happily, in the subtle thrust and parry of young people trying out each other’s armor. Gander listened for some minutes; even caught his own name in the conversation; then, with a strange tingling in his cheeks, slipped away to his bedroom.
“I didn’t mean to spy on ’em,” he defended himself, “but I have to think o’ Minn. He’s got a halter-shank of her already.” But a little later, “No, by gum! It’s Minn that’ll be leadin’ him ’round on a rope, before he knows it.”
IN SO FAR as the duties of the farm would permit, Sunday was observed by the Stakes as a day of rest. It was not until eight o’clock next morning that Gander and Grit, hungry with their long fast, filed in to the table in the livingroom. The familiar whine of the cream separator filled the air, and when Gander glanced toward the corner in which the machine stood, his eye was arrested by the unprecedented sight of Calvin Beach turning the handle, while Minnie, with an apron pinned about her, superintended the operation.
“She’s got a snaffle hitch on him already,” said Gander to himself. He grinned at Grit, who returned the grimace, the elliptic parenthesis about his mouth almost meeting in a genial Gírele of amusement.
After breakfast they discussed the incident together as they lounged at the sunny side of the horse-stable.
“I mind once a place where I worked where they useta run the churn with a mastiff,” said Grit, “but this is the first time I ever seen a cream separator hitched to a D.D.”
“He’ll soon get fed up on that,” Gander prophesied. “It’s no job for a man.” A touch of annoyance had crept into his voice with a realization of the possible effects of Cal’s misdemeanor. The new man had, at least by inference, suggested that turning the cream separator was a masculine occupation. After many arguments Gander had thought that point definitely settled, but now his mother undoubtedly would seize this precedent to re-open the subject. He fancied he could hear her saying, “Well, when Cal’s here, he turns it—”
“Not while that pretty sister o’ yours is around, I guess not,” Grit broke in on him. “Did you see their heads, almost touchin’ each other, when she was emp’yin’ the milk?”
“Shut up, Dinty!” said Gander, sharply. He had little relish for Grit’s unexpected perspicacity.
“You can’t be too kerful with them mystery men,” Grit continued, quite unabashed. “We’ve got two mysteries here now. Three times—and out!”
At that moment Cal, clean shaven and dressed in his Sunday clothes, came around the corner of the building. His presence gave a new twist to the conversation.
“We was jus’ saying’,” said Grit, “that you ought to rig up the Ford to run that milk buzzer. That shouldn’t be hard for a man with a eddication.”
“A D.D.,” Gander added, more specifi eally.
The new hired man insisted upon retaining his good humor, and after some conversation, in which he seemed to argue that the women on the farm had too much to do, or some such heresy, went off by himself for a ramble in the fields.
“Queer duck,” Gander commented, when Cal was well out of hearing'and Grit tapped his head with his finger, significantly.
After the service Gander, on the pretence that one of Fraser Fyfe’s tires was going slack, found occasion to approach the enchanted circle. Mrs. Fyfe, ample and warm, although it was only May, occupied the greater part of the front seat; her husband crowded himself into the remaining space by the simple process of closing the door. It was one of Mrs. Fyfe’s whims always to ride in the front, so that she could be of immediate assistance to her husband in case of emergency. Elsie and Geraldine were seated behind, looking very cool and fresh in their spring hats and dresses.
“Think your off front tire is down a bit, don’t you, Mr. Fyfe?” Gander ventured. “Looks a bit flat.”
Double F studied the tire for a moment with much absorption.
“Does look a little flat at the bottom,” he observed at length, “but the rest of it is all right. Guess it'll do till we get home. Want a lift, Gander? Jump in!”
Gander glanced at his own car, where he saw his father had taken the place of honor at the wheel.
“Well, might do that, too,” he agreed, “if you ain't crowded.”
“Crowded nothin’! Sit over, girls, an’ make room for Gander. By the way, you know my niece, Miss —”
“Yes, thank you, Unde; we've met.” It was Jerry who spoke. And she smiled at Gander, and sat over, not too far, making room for him beside her.
GANDER never knew just how that afternoon was passed, except that it was the most eventful day of hi3 life. He stayed at Double F’s for tea, and in the evening, when Elsie’s attentions were monopolized by Hamilton, he went walking with Jerry. They took the road to the lake, and, when they reached it, stood for a long while skipping stones on the water, or watching the deepening hues of the mirrored sunset. Jerry had' an eye for color. The prairie sunsets charmed her, she admitted. And Gander had an eye for Jerry. She charmed him, but his courage failed him short of confession. She seemed so far beyond him that he hardly dared let himself dream—It had been quite different with Jo. He never had thought of Jo as being beyond him. This girl, with her fine face, her small hands, her careful speech, was a revelation. For all his own self-esteem Gander could hardly think it possible that she might care for him. For the first time in his life he began to regret that he had not gone to school more regularly; that he had not read books; that he had nothing to talk about!
Darkness was deep about them as they walked homeward, and she took his arm, drawing him gently out of his shyness. Then, when she had loosened his tongue a little, she asked him if he never had thought of going to the city. “At least for a winter,” she said. “It would do you good.”
“But I thought you liked the country?” he answered.
“So I do; it’s beauty, its quiet, its peace. They make it very lovely. I wouldn’t ask you to leave the country altogether. But for a few months—it would do you good.” “How?” Gander was interested. He wanted to know. But she had not the heart to tell him. She wanted him to know that he was clumsy and ill-kempt and uninformed, and she couldn’t tell him those things. But he had intelligence, too; he had some sterling quality that appealed to her more than she cared to admit.
She could say only, “It would do you good. My brother has a garage business, and you are handy with machines. Some day, if you decide to come, I will speak to him about giving you a job. Then you can spend your nights at a technical school, and brush up—all those things you have neglected so much, Gander.”
So that was it. He had known it in his heart all along. He wasn’t good enough for her. He should go to school again, like a child. It was all right for him to dumbly realize this for himself; it was another Continued on page 52
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Continued, from page 50 think to be told it by her pretty, tantalizing lips; to hear his defects suggested by that voice which seemed always on the verge of laughter. Only, to-night it had been serious enough. Gander was too inexperienced to appraise that seriousness at its real value. All he saw was her attitude of superiority. It was like the sergeant, drilling his raw recruits. “Form fours!”
They were at Fraser Fyfe’s gate, and Gander was holding his indignation well in hand. He listened quietly in the darkness while she sketched to him the advantages of contact with many people. “That is what you lack here, Gander,” she said. “You don’t see enough people. New people give you new ideas, and make life more worth living. Don’t you see? They draw you out. I know you have given me new ideas, and perhaps I—” “Yes,” he interrupted. “You’ve gave me new ideas, too. You make it quite clear I ain’t good enough for you. Well, let me make one thing clear, too; I ain’t asked you yec!”
“Yes, Gander! You think because you’re from the city, an’ have been to school more ’n I have, an’ wear fine clo’es, an’ have pretty little clean fingere, I ain’t good enough for you. Perhaps I ain’t. But I ain’t asked you. An’ when I want you I won’t ask you—I’ll take you, see?” Something of the mood in which he had terrified Jo Burge on the school section was upon him; even the figure of Jo herself was floating before him, confusedly floating in and out between himself and Jerry. He had thrust his face close to hers. “When I want you I’ll take you,” he repeated. “Like this!”
He had thrown an arm about her; he d’-ew her slim body to his. He crushed her weak efforts, holding her fast, until his lips found hers. For a long minute he held her. Life seemed to seep from her, her little frame went limp in his arms.
With a sudden fear he let her sink in the grass and, turning, almost ran through the poplar groves to his own home.
The next evening he learned from Hamilton that Elsie’s cousin had gone back to the city.
To be Continued.