Bringing Home the Sheaves
Percy regarded stooking as a mere and Naomi sort of business’, but that was before he met Betty and became a stooker
A. RAYMOND MULLENS
“ ’AVE one?”
The questioned twitched a handkerchief from his cuff, shifted the crook of a walkin stick from one arm to the other; coughed. “Frightfully good of you. Yes, a beer! I think I ought to tell you though, that I can’t return it this morning. You see—”
“Orlright. I can stand a few, old dear. Just in from the bush. Drink ’earty! We’re all broke art here some time or the other.”
“Oh, quite! Thanks awfully.”
The two men were sitting in a Montreal saloon. It fronted the Windsor station and, consequently, was a first port of call for the returned exile of bibulous propensities.
They didn’t look at all alike. Only one common trait had brought them together. They were, alas, both bibbers. The affluent one was, in appearance the perfect
He was short, he was swart, his teeth were a confession of dental neglect. He wore a suit of serge the color shades of which, in their subtle blending of tone values, would have delighted any artist. Blue, green, delicate mauves and grays, all were there. He wore a checked cap. Its raucous pattern, together with the leering angle at which it was worn, gave him a jovially villainous appearance.
His companion’s investiture might, perhaps, be described as wistfully and pathetically correct. Bond Street hat, ribbon badly soiled; burberry coat, spats; all the correct and usual things. The trousers of his suit were pressed—overpressed. On them ap-
peared a number of lines, running at slightly divergent angles, giving them the appearance of a sketch which an artist has rubbed out frequently in an agonized attempt to achieve the exact posture of a line.
The Londoner was Freddy Postlethwaite, recently cookee of an Abitibi camp. The faded but forlorn one, was Percy Rempellier.
In justice to Percy it must be said that he did not particularly enjoy drinking in the
company of cookees. Perhaps that statement is a little strong. Percy did enjoy drinking in the company of anyone at all. Not this kind of person, for preference perhaps, but there was the question of the beastly nickel they charged you, and all that.
The two products of a mighty island drank long and deeply. Whatever of stiffness, due to disparity in social background, might have existed at their meeting, disappeared as five cents worth after five cents worth of malt potency descended the two fevered throats.
tIIiua . Soon they felt greatly drawn towards one another. The stories of their respective for tunes and misfortunes, especially the latter, were told. The little cockney became deeply affected. As Percy finished telling him how cruel Canada had been, into his glass there fell a crystal tear.
They left the saloon together. Percy was almost sober and superintended the somewhat impressionistic promenade of little Freddy with beautiful gravity and tenderness. Freddy was taking him home to a room, the rent of which had been paid in advance. It solved a pressing problem for Percy.
Thus started a curious alliance between the two utterly different anglicans. Percy, of course, was a Damon by design; he was broke and Freddy, temporarily, was not. As for Freddy it was a case of love at first sight. He had a weakness for soddening himself with men whose educational advantages had been greater than his own. And he didn’t mind paying for this weakness pretty handsomely.
ONE morning, about ten days after Percy and Freddy I had formed their partnership, Freddy reached down beside the bed in which they were both lying andbrought up a bottle of ale. He dug his aristocratic companion in the ribs to apprise him that his attention was invoked.
“ ’And me the opener, captain. Got a glawss, there, Orlright! ’ere goes. Success to crime, captain!”
Gratefully, they drank. Freddy, eyes blissfully half closed, glass in hand, talked soothingly on.
Percy affected to listen: his face wore a smile of polite interest. This rapidly gave way to an expression of consternation as the purport of his companion’s babble dawned upon him.
“An’ so,” Freddy droned, “I see there wasn’t nothink to be done. No blinkin’ good a’blowin’ the lawst few dollars we ’ad. So I buys a couple of harvesters tickets. And it’s us for Winnipeg, captain, and the simple life. We’re goin’ to bring ’ome the bally sheaves, captain. Not ’arf we ain’t.”
When Percy learned exactly what this harvesting trip implied, he was deeply grieved.
“Freddy,” he said, turning with earnest countenance to his bedfellow, “Freddy, have I ever told you the story of my life?”
But Postlethwaite continued his alarming narrative: “An’ you won’t know yerself. Soon as the old beer gets out of your system—you’ll sweat it out that farst, fair runnin’ down your old neck it’ll be—you won’t know yerself, captain. I tell yer—”
Percy stopped him. “Freddy, my dear soul, I really can’t let you ramble on like this any longer. I haven’t liked to tell you before, but beer does something curious to you. When you’ve been drinking on an empty stomach —I’ve noticed it before, laddie—you dream. I quite understand how you feel, but really, when I hear you rambling on in that romantic way about wmrking out West—at bally things like stooking—you make me really uncomfortable.”
Freddy sat up straight in bed; turned around and looked at his companion with uncomprehending surprise frozen on his face. “What’s that, captain?” he asked incredulously, “do yer ’fink we ain’t goin’ ”
Percy’s answering laugh had an almost maternal tolerance, “Come along, Freddy old lad, a little walk, a cup of coffee or something, and you’ll be as right as rain.” He got out of bed and picked up one of the bottles. “Beastly strong stuff this ale is, Freddy,” he told the astonished cockney gravely. “Better not drink any more of it.”
Freddy, in turn, got out of bed, walked across the room to the mantelpiece and took up his little bag of shaving kit. With it in his hand, he faced Percy for a moment. “I’m going, captain,” he said slowly, “there ain’t no more money to loaf on, captain; we’ve got to work right away. There’s two tickets for us, and the train leaves Bonaventure stytion tomorrer. Talk to yer when I finished shavin'!”
Percy stood watching the little figure as it disappeared down the dingy hall leading to the bath room. When the sound of running water told him that his companion had reached his destination, he walked slowly over to a rickety table, picked up a package of cheap cigarettes, and, with the fixed stare of the somnambulist on his face, lighted one. He crossed over to the dressing-table and addressed the dazed reflection of himself in the mirror:
“He means to go—to go and stook. And I—I am to stook with him.”
AT SIX o’clock of a particularly dreary and disagreeable ^'-morning, Percy and Freddy found themselves on the platform of the station at Winnipeg and prepared to mount the slave block for inspection by the stalwartagriculturists of Manitoba and all points west.
Their suitcases had no sooner thumped on the platform than Freddy’s roving cockney eye picked out the highlights of the scene.
“Talk abaht leadin’ an ’orse to the blinkin’ water,” he chuckled, “look at ’em! I'm blowed if every farmer in the ’ole blinkin’ West ain’t at the stytion.’
Percy corroborated his companion’s impression with a jaundiced glance. Indeed, it seemed hardly possible, that with so great an assemblage of labor-seeking agrarians, some delightful twist of fate could rescue him from employment with them. In rather less than one minute his fears were justified.
A tall, well set-up figure strode determinedly toward them as they stood looking about irresolutely. “What can you two men do?” they were asked. The tone was abrupt, but not unfriendly.
Freddy was the spokesman for the twin. His tone was jubilantly respectful. “Me, mister, I can do any blinkin’
fing. Perfesionally, 0’ course, I ’am a cookee. But—” The prospective employer approved him by a gesture. “And you?” he inquired, turning to Percy.
Percy gazed at him for a moment with languid disapproval. “I stook,” he offered.
The agriculturist eyed him doubtfully. Freddy noted his air of indecision, and hastened to breach the gap.
“The captain, ’ere,” he explained, “ain’t never done no ’arvesting before. ’E ’asn’t ’ad to. But ’e’s ’ad many a tougher job in the blinkin’ awmy, and, mister, ’e’s worth ’is weight in gold.”
“All right,” agreed their inquisitor, “five a day. Live with us, four real meals a day. I’ll get tickets to Marquis right away. There’s a train pulling out in about twenty minutes.”
Percy, who had listened to the brief parley with growing uneasiness, felt that this was the right place to interject a word.
“Don’t mind, old chap, if I whisper a moment in my friend’s ear?”
“Help yourself, but make it snappy. I’ve got to get those tickets if you’re coming with me.”
Freddy and Percy withdrew themselves a few feet. Percy’s voice was subdued, but tensely anxious. “Do you really, do you really think, Freddy, old lad, that we ought to go with this very abrupt person. Oughtn’t we to ask for references, or something? The blighter seems in such a dashed hurry, doesn’t he? Are you quite sure he’s a sound egg, and all that sort of thing?”
Freddy patted the captain’s arm reassuringly. “One of the best, this cove is. I see he meant to take us on the minute he caught sight of you. These ’ere blinkin’ farmers love a gentleman. We’re in luck, captain.”
Swiftly, all too swiftly, Percy thought, the train drew them towards Marquis. Their companion was communicative. He told them of the acreage of his employer’s farm. It comprised, he informed them, three quarter sections—some 480 acres. This information roused Percy to instant attention.
“And all of this bally land has to be stooked?” he queried anxiously.
Their informant—he had told them that his name was McSporran—assured Percy that his assumption was correct.
Percy thought heavily for a while. Then an idea struck him.
“And how many blighters stook over this this—er— quarter-portion? I’m frightfully good at overseeing. Perhaps I could be of infinitely more use to you as a sort of liaison officer, time-keeper sort of fellow, than as a
mere stooking unit. I am not,” he confided candidly “a stooker of wide and varied experience.”
“No?” said McSporran tranquilly.
Nothing daunted Percy went on: “But, seriously
though, don’t you think that adequate supervision, the eye of a trusted one, ever alert to his employer’s interests, measuring, as it were, the extent of the hirelings’ labors by the tally of their sweat, is most—”
McSporran turned an eye full on him. ‘Stooking, captain, is stooking and you signed on to stook.”
There was that in his tone which dampened the urge for research which had arisen temporarily in Percy. For the remainder of the journey he sat mute in his seat, his eye fixed gloomily ahead in an envisioning of what promised but cold comfort.
The team of horses harnessed to the vehicle which awaited them outside the tiny Marquis station brought an exclamation of surprised approval to his lips: “Jolly fine pair of horses.” he told Freddy. McSporran overheard him. “Know anything about horses, young fellow?” he asked.
“Fond of them, as a matter of fact,” Percy answered him. “Always had a nag of my own, ever since I was a little nipper.”
“Think you could drive six of ’em?” McSporran eyed him with a shrewd appraising gaze.
Percy froze. He would discourage this fellow’s jesting. “I am not,” he told the Scot severely, “a circus performer.”
Freddy Postlethwaite was amused. “ ’E asn’t never seen no driving yet, mister, ’as ’e?”
McSporran dug a brotherly arm into the little cockney’s side.
“Not yet,” he chuckled genially, “not yet, but soon.”
Arrived at the farmhouse, necessary introduction were made.
“This is the boss,” said McSporran, indicating a big raw-boned gentleman of obviously Gaelic ancestry, who had been one of a group to greet them on the farmhouse porch. “Mr. McCullough, these are the two men I hired. The little runt is Postlethwaite. He’s a worker, or I miss my guess. The lanky one,” he indicated Percy with a sketchy bow, “is Captain Rempellier, his understudy.”
Laughing, to show that he construed his foreman’s introduction as raillery intended to set them at their ease, McCullough shook hands with the newly conscripted.
“Glad to have you with us, boys,” he boomed, heartily. “Don’t want to get rid of you, but Donald,” he waved a
hand toward McSporran, “will show you where you bunk. Supper’ll be ready in less’n five minutes.”
McSporran leading, they ascended two flights of stairs to a room which occupied all the floor-space of the third storey. The Scotchman waved towards the door with a lordly gesture. “There you are boys. Stow away your dunnage and make yourselves at home. The best shakedown in Western Canada.”
There were three beds in the room. In the farther corner sat a busy figure. He was on his knees beside a bed, throwing out a perfect avalanche of shirts, socks, ties and similar articles of wearing apparel, to add to a mound which was heaped on the blanket-covering his couch. As he heard the footsteps of Percy and Freddy he got to his feet and inspected the newcomers as they entered. His scrutiny was brief. He caught sight of Freddy, as he brought up the rear, and leaped toward him with a cry of delight.
“Freddy Postlethwaite, you old bum! Why didn’t ye write to me when you left Uchitimi? What’ye doing out ’ere, and who’s yer friend?”
Freddy shook hands with the questioner and faced Percy triumphantly.
“What I tell yer, captain? Didn’t I say this was a soft shop? And blimme, if here ain’t old Percy ’Obbs,’isself. Oh, you’re in luck, you are. Old Percy, ’ere, ’e’ll tell yer more wyes to get aht of work than any man in Canada. Won’t yer Percy? Seein’ that yer both Percy’s, too.”
Mr. Hobbs was a more stalwart edition of Freddy. “Come over ’ere,” he urged them cautiously. No one was in sight and there seemed to be no spies treacherously lurking in the offing. “Come over ’ere and I’ll tell yer all abaht everyfink. I was ’ere last year. Mind what I sye, this ’ere man McSporran is a bad one. Don’t mean that ’e ain’t square, but don’t get into no mischief wiv’ ’im. Understand?”
“Give over,” scoffed Freddy, “that there Scotty’s all right. What ’d’ye fink, captain?”
Percy deposited his suit-case beside the most personable bed. “From the first moment, I never liked the fellow,” he commented acidly.
And then supper! When Percy saw solid food, serried ranks of most indubitable food, he thrust the horrid future before him and sat down with but one idea: to despoil those who had forced the tyranny of toil upon him.
He was wooing a luscious dill-pickle with an amorous fork, his mouth was stuffed with the briny delicacy, when she appeared.
Continued on page 52
Bringing Home the Sheaves
Continued from page 15
Actuated by a common impulse, Freddy and Percy sprang to their feet. The doorway framed a picture which awoke in both of them a sharp sense of homesickness.
They saw a tall, a finely upstanding girl. Her head was crowned by an aureole of hair, neither red nor gold, but a copper which all of us look for in the pictures of women artists paint for us, and regretfully find lacking. She walked into the room with that proud disregard of its male occupants which princesses of the blood are said to exhibit.
A man of inches attracts women. Instinctively she turned first to Percy. “I’m Betty McCullough,” she introduced herself, in a musical contralto.'
Percy was immediately conscious of two urgent impulses. A fear of suffocation impelled him to rescue half an inch of pickle from a stopping place far down his throat, while there arose in him, at the same time, a strong desire to speak to the maiden fair. He started a Louis Quinze bow which was promptly cut in two by a wild rush from the dining room. Once outside, his saline foe found instant sanctuary. He made an embarrassed way back to the presence of the fair one.
Freddy, with his never failing aplomb, was covering his retreat with chat.
“An’, of course, miss,” he was saying, “the captain and me thort we’d come aht ’ere. Fash’nable the West’s getting, wot wiv his H.R.H., Prince Heric of Denmark and other Lord-knows-oos, a buyin’ rawnches. So we says to ourselves, we says, ‘better be dead than aht of the fashion’, and sets our faces direckly towards just such a comfortable little place as this ’ere. Thinkin’, miss, as it would serve as a kind of kindergarten for the captain ’ere.”
The girl answered Freddy, but her eyes were on the painfully embarrassed figure which bad just entered. “And so your master and yourself have sold the old place overseas and come over here to invest your pitiful quarter-of-a-million pounds in our western land.”
The fine fire of the born liar flared for an instant in Freddy’s eyes. A glance at Percy sobered him, however. “To tell yer the sober truf, missis,” he explained hurriedly, “we’re just a little short of tin. But the captain’s expectin’ a cable any minnit. Ain’t yer, captain?”
Percy addressed the mocking Betty in tones precise and explicit:
“We are here to work.” He coughed, “When I say work I might mention that I merely touched on the point with your McSporran. I suggested to him that in the capacity of overseer, I might—”
Her lowered lashes might have told a story to one less embarrassed than Percy. “If you lived in the country as we do, Mr. Captain,” she told him, “you would find Biblical texts occurring to you. There’s one about not muzzling the ox that treads out the corn. I supervise the cooking, do half of it, in fact—but I like my oxen to tread out their measure of corn.” She held out slim hands to both of them: “Good-night and the best of luck to both of you.”
As they made their way to their attic room Percy turned on the cockney savagely: “Why did you lie to her so abominably? Cable! I wish to heaven there was one coming our way. We’d be a thousand miles away from that girl, twenty-four hours after it arrived.”
There was a world of wisdom in Freddy’s eyes as he replied to his companion. “Never mind, captain. As I’ve often ’eard yer say, ‘it was a neat little touch’. She’ll ’arf believe as ’ow you’re the kind of gent as get cables, after all.”
IT SEEMED to Percy that he had just found a particularly comfortable spot in his bed when the clumping about the room of Mr. Hobbs brought him painfully awake. He groaned and tried once more to woo slumber. In vain. Freddy’s snores were, if anything, more destructive of repose than Mr. Hobb’s peregrinations.
The last named worthy, noticing that he had stirred, whistled cheerily, and strode over to Freddy’s bed. “Get up, Freddy old sprout, I’ve got to get down and look after the blinkin’ ’osses. You and yer mate ’ud better shake a leg. Breakfast’ll be on the table in abaht fifteen minutes.”
After a few discontented tossings and moanings, Freddy stuck a foot out of bed. “Well, ’ere we go, captain,” he said, yawning, ‘the morning of the first day’ as the Sunday-school lesson used to say. An’ captain, seein’ as ’ow it’s going to be a pretty tough first day for us, we’d better get a good inside linin’. Wot?”
At a farmhouse breakfast, Percy found, there was no dainty toying with the viands; no moments of gay raillery; no luxurious enjoyment of the leisurely process of digestion. Food was dispatched with grim earnestness, with, what seemed to Percy, a violent and obscene haste.
Midway through his meal he had a sense that McSporran would interject something unpleasant into this already unpleasant picture of solemn gluttony. Nor was he disappointed.
The foreman pushed his chair back from the table and briskly delivered himself of a pronunciamento: “Now then, everyone on deck. Let’s get to work.”
At these words, food lost its savor for Percy. He bowed his head to the yoke and followed his fellow banqueters to the place of penance.
The wide field, in the light of the newly risen sun, looked pleasant and smiling to him as he came upon it. The horses, splendid animals he noticed, were well fed and artistically curried. The whole scene looked pleasantly pastoral. Nor did the instructions McSporran gave him hold a hint of anything formidable. He was, as he gathered, to follow, merely an indicated machine which threw out sheaves behind it in its progress. Nice, convenient bundles they looked, too. He was to follow this machine, and, when some twelve of the neat little packages were thrown out, he was to stack them together. Percy laughed to himself scornfully. “So they called this work, this Ruth and Naomi sort of occupation. And they paid five dollars a day for it. Why it was a task for little lads and lassies. Let him then be up and doing. A little sunburn was, of course, to be expected, but—”
HE HAD been chasing the infernal, insatiable contrivance for the best part of a lifetime of torment. The demon threw out it’s spawn with a rapidity and regularity which was incredible. When he stopped for the time necessary to bunch its progeny together, it seemed to have gone on its way with seven-league boots. Ever throwing out! Ever throwing out!
Years later, it seemed, Freddy came to him. “ ’Ere’s where we knock off fer a little while, captain. Refresh the inner man a little, wot? Feeling a little tired. Well you done fine, I’ll say that for yer.” As one blinded and grown instant old, Percy suffered himself to be led in the direction of the farmhouse. He was hungry. In some dim uncertain way he knew that, but it seemed a hunger which belonged to someone else. He would have to lift food all the way from his plate to his mouth. It was intolerable!
Meat and drink were ready to his hand. He ate languidly. The thousand aches of his body made the stuff tasteless to him. They were talking. What the deuce about? Dancing! So these fiends could think of dancing, of unnecessary, unpaid effort in the midst of this saturnalia of toil. Somebody addressed a remark to him. He nodded, dully. He cursed deep within himself. Cursed bitterly and
long. Again Moloch called—again he was offered up to the sacrifice.
Even the day of infinite torment came to its end. Back at the farmhouse he made for bed instantly, threw his sweatstained shirt, his gritty and burning boots in a heap on the floor, and sank to the coverlet. He dozed, uneasily, for a few moments. Freddy’s voice awoke him.
“Come along, captain. ’Ere’s a charnce to make a ’it. I ve told ’em all abaht yer. They’re just waiting for yer to come down stairs to start. ’Aving a nice little ’op they are. All work an’ no play, captain— Come along!”
His interruption awoke a demon in Percy’s heart. “Get out, you little cockney swine. You, to bring me out here to this living hell. To see me forced to this hideous punishment without word of protest. To allow me, me to be reduced to this shocking state, and then-—to bid me dance. Go Go, before I forget myself and stretch you a bloody corpse on the floor of this poisonous room.”
Freddy was not dismayed. “Oh, come along, captain. Do you good, it will. Take the stiffness out 0’ yer bones. ’Sides, if you make yerself strong to-night, there’s no tellin’ what kind of a cushy job you mightn’t glom on to. Come along. Listen to Freddy, he knows what’s best.”
One outburst was all that Percy could manage. “Sorry, Freddy, old thing,’ he said, sorrowfully, wagging his head, “probably you’re right. I’ll come with you. Let them gloat over their handiwork. Oh, if we had only just the smallest spot!”
When he dragged himself into the parlor even his dulled eye took in the unusual nature of the occasion. The big dining table had been taken away, chairs had been ranged around the room in a neat circle, and, occupying the place of honor, was a weather-beaten square piano with music of a mellowed appearance standing on it’s desk. Around this venerable instrument were gathered Betty Me Cullough, McSporran and several young people whom Percy had not yet met. They were passing the sheets of music from one to the other and it was evident that they were only waiting for something, or someone, to commence the dance.
McSporran caught sight of him and called out triumphantly to the others: “Here he is, here’s the best piano-player in Canada. Just over from dear old Blighty, and making positively his first appearance in Marquis. Come on, hustle over here, Rempellier, and tickle the ivories. We’ll start with a fox-trot.”
In bewildered surprise, Percy stood where he was without saying a word Then he gulped out, “Oh, I say. What do you mean play the piano. Who’s been telling you—”
Freddy Postlethwaite made for him. “Now, now, captain,” he said cheerily, “don’t wait to be coaxed. I been tellin’ ’em what a knockout swell you are at the art racket. I told ’em you knew all the old piano-thumper’s names backwards and forwards, and that once, when you and me was at a little smoker in Montreal you didn’t ’arf make ome narsty remarks about the piano-player’s exercushion. Very ’ard on ’im, I told ’em you was. Come and show ’em what real music is.”
Percy looked around helplessly. “What a dreadful position the poisonous little blighter’s got me into,” he thought aghast. The bright smiles on the faces of the guests were anticipations of pleasure to come. He attempted a tone of icy dignity.
“I am not,’ he announced, “a dance pianist. Indeed, in the sense which you understand the word, I can hardly be called a pianist at all. One may have a true and fine appreciation of a lovely art without being in any sense of the word a practitioner of it.” He felt this was a fairly adequate silencer, McSporran, evidently, thought otherwise.
“Can you read music? That's the main thing. If you can, pitch in and give us a little chuñe to hop to. We ain’t got no true and fine appreciation of a lovely art.
Hammer out any old thing, if you can.” Percy did the only thing. With a cool, “Thanks, no!” he walked out of the room.
Although he left with all the haste dignity allowed, he was not quick enough to miss McSporran’s emphatic comment: “He’s a dirty four-flusher, that’s all he is.”
Somebody was coming through the door that led to the porch on which he was standing; whistling. Whistling ‘Sea Fever’ of John Ireland. Who the deuce knew that thing outhereinthis scabrous wilderness?
“Do you recognize that tune?” a soft voice asked.
He turned around and saw that it was Betty. “Please don’t,” he begged. “I don’t feel that I could hear anything that I’ve liked before I came here. You know, Miss McCullough, I do really love music and know just a very little about it. I didn’t tell that little fool Postlethwaite that I could play anything at all. God knows, I didn’t mean to spoil your party. I’d willingly have played a Jew’s harp if I had known how. But how could I explain? I felt so utterly helpless—and I do ache so very dreadfully.”
Betty moved quite close to the unhappy Percy. “It’s been rather hard for you, this first day, hasn’t it?” she asked sympathetically. “Don’t be too discouraged, though, Mr. Rempellier. We learn by suffering what we teach in song, you know. No, I didn’t mean to laugh at you. I’m awfully sorry for you, truly I am, and—I want you to try the West for just a little while, anyhow.”
As Percy laid himself down on his couch of suffering for the second time her words occurred to him. They were soothing, that’s what they were.
THE next morning Hobbs, who was driving a team into the little town, took a cable from Percy addressed to a stately home in Berkshire,England.
Several days went by, days which were to Percy, waking or sleeping, the old ordeal of treading the red hot ploughshares re-enacted. Athwart his furious stormings and railings came, every once in a while, the soothing voice of Betty McCullough bidding him give the West a trial. It made him set his teeth, it brought memories of the heartening cheering of his schoolmates at his school, when Barchester House played a rival. He began to see that this business of conquering the implacable earth could be a game, to the full as splendid, as a fierce tussle at rugger ever was.
And then, miraculously, all the torment of outraged sinew and muscle left him. In its place came a sense of extraordinary fitness. He was, in sooth, a giant refreshed by wine. And the wine was the honest brew of daily sweating, straining manual labor.
Just as he was exulting in the feeling that, given time, he could stook the whole of discovered Canada and do a neat job of pioneering all the land which had not been taken up, McSporran intervened, to give him a far more serious test.
When Percy had taken himself from the dining-room, the night of the dance, and had been joined by Betty, McSporran had lost no time in following them. The stalwart Scot was deeply in love with his employer’s daughter. No rival had appeared in all the time he had worked for McCullough and, with the arrogance of a man stronger, physically, than his fellows, he had felt quite able to deal with one if he had. He distrusted this la-de-da Rempellier instinctively. Uneasily he suspected that the Englishman was a great deal more the kind of man that Betty was used to associating with, than he was himself.
So he had been alert to notice any signs of growing friendliness between them. On the day of Percy’s arrival, he had found Betty in a softened mood. He’d have to show this languid dandy that he was not wanted on the McCullough farm. Scare him out of his wits—that was the thing to do!
When Percy appeared for breakfast, a few mornings later, tanned, healthy and rejoicing in his new found sense of perfect fitness, McSporran called to him across the table. There was a palpable sneer in his voice.
“Hey, there, Rempellier, I been thinking about you. Didn’t you say that you’d been brought up with horses, the day the team met us at the stàtion?”
The mere mention of horses caught Percy’s attention at once. “By Jove, yes!” he responded enthusiastically.
The sneer became more evident in McSporran’s studied drawl: “Said you
wasn’t a circus performer, when I ask you if you could drive six beasts, didn’t you?” “Oh, I was only joking, of course,” explained Percy amiably.
“All right, let that ride. I’ll ask you another question this time. Could you drive two, do you think? Drive ’em, I mean; not think you could drive ’em the way Freddy claimed you could play the piano the other night.”
The quiet insult in the words nettled Percy. “I can drive a pair of horses better than you, or any other clod-hopper like you can begin to,” he snapped out.
“Hear him, boys!” said McSporran, still drawling, “He talks big, don’t he? Let’s see what he makes of the big bay the boss bought the other day, eh? No time like the present, either.”
Percy got out of his chair. He seemed quite cool and confident. “All right, McSporran, let’s see the bay.”
McSporran resumed his attack upon a plate of bacon and eggs before he answered. “You just go down to the barn, curry the bay stallion and the gelding you’ll find there. That’ll do for a start. I’ll be along by the time you’ve finished.” Where horses were concerned, Percy was nobody’s fool.
He knew that harnessing a team of horses western fashion was not a job to be undertaken in a calm and casual spirit, even with horses of the most benevolent and sedentary disposition. He had, though, kept his eyes open for the last few days and felt that the business was not wholly an esoteric mystery to him.
Also, he knew quite well that something was the matter with the bay McSporran had mentioned. He found a curry-comb and, as a matter of precaution, took a hoe along with him. It was the handiest weapon he could find, and he rather thought that he might have need of one.
In the stall nearest the door stood the bay. He was a magnificent animal, fully sixteen hands high, and a picture of steelgirt muscle, covered by a glistening coat. Percy stepped into the stall, taking care to keep close up to the beast to prevent it’s striking him. Very gently and soothingly he commenced the task of currying. He hadn’t time to get in more than a couple of strokes before the bay reached round it’s magnificent head and bit savagely at him.
“Ah-ha,” said Percy to himself, “you are vicious, are you?”
A sharp flick with the hoe-handle discouraged the horse’s biting, momentarily. Percy looked him over carefully. He whistled. “Hasn’t been worked at all. They’re afraid of him. Well, thank God, I'm not!”
Then a pretty little fight started. The bay tried a little more biting sarcasm. Seeing that it brought only a sharper blow than before, he abandoned it and tried crowding, Percy expected this manoeuvre and talked very quietly to his adversary, punctuating his speech with determined strokes of his impromptu crop.
“So you want a fight, do you, laddie. ,. All right, you're going to have one very, very soon. But first we'll finish your morning toilet and devote a few minutes to your partner in the next stall. Then we’ll see who is the be$t man.”
The gelding was as docile as the bay had been vicious. Currying him took no time at all. Without any great difficulty he harnessed both horses, and than sat down
outside the barn door, smoking a cigarette while he awaited McSporran's arrival.
The big foreman came in a few minutes. He brought with him some half-dozen of the men as an audience. “Haven’t quit before you started, have you?” he queried.
“Oh, no,” Percy replied airily, “just having a little drag until you came along.” His unconcerned tone and manner struck McSporran oddly. “Well, did you harness up the team as I told you?” he asked sharply.
Percy yawned elaborately. “They’re just round the corner if you want them.” McSporran was plainly taken aback. “Did you have any trouble with ’em?” Percy looked up at him with guileless surprise. “Trouble, McSporran? Why, of course not. Did you expect me to have any?”
The Scot and his followers walked around the corner of the barn to where the horses stood, harnessed to a wagon. The bay stood quietly, as if resting himself for a conflict he knew was inevitable. McSporran looked him over for a moment. Then he turned to Percy.
“We’re going to load up this wagon and then you can drive it down to the elevator at Marquis. There’s a mean hill a little piece from here, and the bay don’t know the road real well, yet. Guess I’d better come with you. You might have a little mishap if you went alone.”
Percy stepped up to the taunting foreman. He spoke very evenly. “That bay, McSporran,” he said quietly, “is a horse bully. He’s rough and strong and, just now he glories in it. He wants to let others know he’s cock of the walk, and I’m going to let him have his chance. Mind you, my methods are my own. Don’t whine if your master’s horse is roughly handled. I know of one way, only, to bring a bully to his senses.”
The foreman laughed shortly. “There’s a collar for another horse if—you know what I mean?” Percy nodded. “And there’s a coffin for a fresh limey if the bully wins.”
Percy looked him straight in the eye. “But the bully won’t win, McSporran,” he said quietly. “Your real bully knows when he meets his master.’.’
FOR the half-mile before the hill was reached, the bay behaved remarkably well. He even’ puzzled Percy, somewhat. He put his neck well into the collar, and more than pulled his weight. But his unexpected amiability did not altogether deceive; he had promised battle, and fierce battle, an hour before, and it was unthinkable that he had, so soon, abandoned his purpose.
They had not descended twenty feet of the steep hill before the gage was thrown down. Just when the gelding was moderating his pace to the needs of the swiftly following wagon, the bay, without warning, calmly slid to his haunches.
Percy whipped up the gelding and the bay tobogganed for a few feet, to the detriment of his hide. Percy got off the wagon. “Take the lines, McSporran,” he called out, “this is where your bully and I have it out.”
He entered a thicket by the roadside and, with a jack-knife he had borrowed from Hobbs the night before, cut himself a formidable club. Then he walked over to the recumbent horse’s head. “Pull him up!” he ordered the foreman. McSporran, nothing loth, gave the lines a furious tug that nearly broke the bay’s jaw. To supplement this, Percy gave him a crack between the ears which was anything but a love tap.
With a furious snort the horse came to his feet and reared straight up, his forefeet striking madly at Percy. His nostrils were distended and bloody red, and his eye was wild and murderous.
Percy’s mouth was set in the grim, hard line of a man who is determined on doing something against which his very soul revolts. He swung the club over his head and brought it down between the furious beast’s ears. It dropped like a pole-axed steer.
And then Percy beat him mercilessly. The bay shrieked like a human being under the dreadful flailing, but he took fearful punishment before he was beaten.
There were no jibes ready to McSporran’s lips now.
“What are you going to do with him now?” he asked. His mouth was dry and he spat when he had spoken.
“Take him back to the barn and look after him. He’ll come quietly now. He’ll not work to-day, though. He needs a lot of arnica for the next few hours.”
He walked to the shrinking horse and taking hold of the bridle brought him to his feet. Then he stepped back a few paces. The trembling animal walked slowly to him, head down, The humility of his surrender was pitiful. Percy felt an aching lump gather and grow in his throat. He walked away, crossing the gelding, to take his seat on the wagon.
They told him afterwards, what happened then. The gelding, it seems, had been frightened by the treatment of his companion and, as Percy passed, he lashed out, one of his hoofs catching the Englishman full in the side.
VITHEN Percy came dizzily to his * ’ senses, he was lying in a cool, quiet room which smelt of lavender. He felt as if the whole of his left side had been smashed in. He groaned and tried to turn over on his back. A small, warm hand was laid on his.
It was Betty’s voice speaking: “Don’t move! You’re allright now. The doctor from Marquis has been here and he’s set the four ribs that were broken. See if you can’t sleep a little.”
Percy painfully maneouvred his neck into a position where he could see her. She was sitting beside the bed. “I don’t remember just what happened,” he said, with faint politeness, “I remember having a scuffle with the jolly old bay, and then
“And then you got criminally careless and let the meek and lowly gelding kick you,” she finished for him. “Do you think you are well enough to read this?” She showed him a yellow cablegram envelope.
“Oh, I say,” Percy besought her, “would you mind seeing what the dear old pater has to say to his erring son? I’m afraid I can’t turn over very happily. Don’t read it if he’s more than usually horrid.”
She read the telegram carefully. Then she looked down at Percy, hereyesshining softly, a gentle, woman-smile curving her lips.
“It isn’t horrid. It’s rather nice, in fact. This is what it says: ‘Have wired you one thousand dollars stop come home if you must stop advise you stay and learn farming cavalry training will help with horses stop send you capital if you convince me you will stick. Father.’
Percy was weak, of course, and perhaps a little light-headed. Whatever the cause was, it must be recorded that he reached over and captured the hand that held the cablegram.
“Bring home the sheaves. That’s what little old Freddy said Be—Miss McCullough. You told me the other day— frightfully decent it was of you—that you wanted me to try the West. Do you know, ever since that night I’ve wanted to, really I have! I wonder if I mightn’t do something worthwhile out here. Get a little place of my own, and a wife and—er —kiddies—and all that sort of rot, what?”
Betty laughed. But it was a nice sort of laugh to hear; jolly, and, perhaps, something more.
“Stooking’s been very, very good for you I’d see what happens if you
use the thousand dollars you’re getting, properly, if I were you!’
One more, for him, sturdy pressure of her hand and then a sigh which told Betty that her little speech had been interpreted aright.
“Righto! Fearfully good of you, though!”