The Educated Fool
In which a Mr. McClumpha plays Romeo and the cow country learns a thing or two about grit
J. PAUL LOOMIS
THEY'S two kinds o’ ejucated folks—wise, an’ otherwise,” observed Pete McQuegg, mellowed old cowpuncher. He hooked his long leg, clad in chaps that looked like the flank of a shedding buffalo, over his saddle-horn and whittled a fill for his pipe. “Not that they’re any diff’rent from ev’rybody else in that respect,” he continued, “but ev’rybody else thinks so.
“Boyd Hadley you just mentioned, for instance. Ev’rybody says he’s makin’ a fizzle with his pure-bred White-faces. Yet no one ’ud notice it if Boyd hadn’t spent four years at college an’ come back here ’mongst us feather-haired punchers ’long the North Saskatchewan talking pedigrees an’ blood-lines an’ balanced rations. Fellow here once we called the Ejucated Fool because he used so many words we couldn’t savvy.
“It purty nigh fit him too. He knew the why-an’wherefore o’ ev’rything under the sun, an’ the what-todo-about-it o’ just about nothin’ in p’ticular. An’ the trouble was he couldn’t keep still about it.
“He was Butte Creek’s third ‘school-marm.’ After Myrl Kenyon married Joe Martish an’ Bertha Tuer run off with Slim Fagan—each one of them leavin’ the schoolboard afoot—-ol’ Sam McCosham, the chairman, allowed they’d have to steady things some. So they advertised for a man teacher.
“I was workin’ for Sam then, an’ happened to be dryin’ my shoepacks by the stove an’ therefore sittin’ in unofficial at the board meetin’ when he opened the first application. It was real correct an’ businesslike an’ was signed ‘Donald McClumpha.’
“Sounds sort o’ substantial,” remarks Sam; “name ’specially.” ’Cause it was a square-cornered mouthful like his own name, I reckon.
“It does that,” I puts in, uninvited. “Substantial as the hoof-beats of a gallopin’ Clydesdale.”
“I b’lieve we’ll hire him,” says Sam. “What d’y’ think, Ed?”
Ed Parnum agrees like he always does, an’ that makes a majority an’ the thing’s done. The teacher was to stay there at McCosham’s.
I come in one night from roundin’ up the cayuses off their winter range an’ found Mr. McClumpha at the supper table. Youngster about twenty-two. Thin eager face the sun had never burned much, an’ big dark sober eyes. He stood up an’ I nearly whistled.
“Six foot one,” I says to myself, “an’ split to the chin ! What a rider he ought to make—if he can find a hoss tall enough !”
Next day we started in breakin’ the broncs for spring work, ridin’ ’em first to take some o’ the frost out o’ ’em. The new school teacher was right there on the corral fence all excited about it.
“D’y’~know,” says he, when he gets a chance to catch hold the front of my mackinaw, “I don’t believe Mr. Brassington”—that’s Hank, our best bronc-fighter— “is going about this correctly. I’ve a splendid book on ‘equistration’ and it says begin by winnin’ a horse’s confidence and affection.”
“Did you explain that to Mr. Brassington?” I enquires.
“Yes, but he didn’t seem to consider it seriously. Perhaps if you . . .”
“Oh, yes, I’ll speak to him. Hank, you bow-legged ol’ maverick,” I yells, “take your saddle off that broom-tail an’ give him a lump o’ sugar.”
Then an’ there Hank resolves to get this “equestrian” straddle of a horse as soon as possible.
His chance came the next day. Mr. McClumpha wanted to help us with the job o’ movin’ the cattle down to the banks o’ the Saskatchewan where the sun had thawed the snow off the ridges an’ the dogies could begin to graze. Moira, Sam’s oldest daughter, was anxious to feel sod under a horse’s hoofs again too, an’ she was sittin’ on her pinto waitin' for us to start. Hank brought out ol’ Sandy, most dependable horse on the ranch, for the teacher to ride. Shorty Foracre come right forward with his batwing chaps, an’ our equestrian was all dressed up when he got ’em on. They fit him like a saddle on a goose.
Well, it give ev’ry body a jolt to see ol’ Sandy hump his back an’ start cuttin’ didoes the minute the tenderfoot hoisted into the saddle. O’ course there was a yard o’ daylight between him an’ leather the first jump, but somehow them long legs o’ his steered him down between the saddle-horn an’ cantle. He grabbed for ev’rything in reach but a side-jump sent him out over Sandy’s shoulder. Only he didn’t fall! He hung head down an’ all spraddled out. The belt o’ his chaps was hooked over his saddle-horn!
Sandy shied an’ bucked a few more times an’ then lit out across the prairie like a bullet-creased coyote. Hank an’ Shorty an’ me all jumped for our nags but Moira was away three rods ahead o’ us. An’ that pinto o her s was fast! The runaway was headin’ straight for a deep brushy coulee where we could just see ourselves gatherin’ up the new teacher in a basket, when Moira began to swing her rope. She wasn’t close enough—she’d never make it! Then her rope shot out—full length—an’ the noose just clipped over Sandy’s ears. That plucky little pinto plowed the snow an’ mud for ten yards but he stopped the big sorrel right on the coulee rim.
The equestrian was pretty well shuck up an’ didn’t know till I told him that it was Moira had saved him.
He tried to thank her but she just said it was nothin’ an’ shook her yellow head an’ laughed. He knew she was laughin’ at him an’ he shut up an’ walked back to the house. Said he didn’t b’lieve he cared for any more ridin’ that day.
Hank hurried with Sandy to the barn but I stepped into the stall in time to see somethin’ drop to the floor when he stripped the saddle off him. I picked it up. It was a copper belt rivet. Hank looked sheepish.
“I thought so,” I says. “What d’y’ mean, riskin’ th’ kid’s neck an’ mebbe spoilin’ a good horse with your foolishness?”
“You mind your own business,” he snaps. “How’d I know the fool wasn’t goin’ off high an’ handsome? How’d I know he’d have to hang feet up like a bat on his saddle-horn?”
“Well, if I was foreman, I’d fire you,” I snorts, an’ stamps out o’ the stable.
The tenderfoot knew a trick had been played on him, but he never seemed to blame Hank. What disappointed me was it plumb cured him o’ ridin’. But it didn’t cure him o’ talkin’. He talked “rural economics” when he didn’t know whether steer prices was highest in October or May. He talked geology, fillin’ us up about the hundred-foot diny-saurs an’ flyin’ ithyrambocusses that used to run loose around here, when he didn’t know a badger from a bobcat amongst the varmits that’s here now. We alius let him rave, an’ then laughed over it afterward. Old Sam defended him against our jokes as long as he could, but finally he got so disgusted he named him the Ejucated Fool hisself. Still Mr. McClumpha give satisfaction as a teacher, for he knew his three R’s backwards an’ across an’ how to teach ’em, too. His whole trouble was he didn’t know when nor where to stop teachin’.
AFTER spring seedin’ the Olivers give a dance in their big haymow. The Ejucated Fool rode to it with Sam an’ Mrs. McCosham an’ the kids in the spring wagon. Moira rode with Hank Brassington in his new buggy. It was took for granted she was soon to marry Hank. Ever since she was a slim stringy-haired kid stealin’ away from the housework to ride after cattle on some half-tame bronco, he’d seemed to fancy her. Now that she’d filled out into a right handsome young woman with laughin’ gray eyes an’ a teasin’ red mouth he’d just about took possession of her. Sam approved of it, an’ what Sam said around his house was law.
It looked, too, like Moira could go farther an’ do worse. Hank was a big good-looking cuss; a bit hobnailed with his jokes; but steady, an’ a good rider an’ cowman. Moira’d always seemed to think he was about right.
But somethin’ happened that night at the dance, though I don’t think anybody knew what it was till a long time afterward. Up till suppertime ev’rything went as per usual with ol’ Bill Bolander sawin’ his fiddle an* doin’ a step-dance with his moccasined feet an’ Slats Eagen callin’ the quadrilles, beginnin’:
“Now big foot up an’ little foot down,
Swing that pretty girl roun’ an’ roun’.’*
An’ ev’rybody shufflin’ an’ tramplin’ an’ laughin’. Kids sleepin’ on coats in one corner an’ us he-wallflowers herded in another.
Among which was the Ejucated Fool. Mebbe he noticed the people, but his eyes all evenin’ was on the fiddler. After supper somebody sang an’ somebody jigged an’ then they called on the new “schoolmarm” to do somethin’. He hesitated a bit, then he crossed the floor. Some folks tittered at his ganglin’ shape an’ somebody whispered his nickname, but when he asked ol’ Bill for his fiddle an’ began playin’, ev’rything was still. What he played I’ve no idee—they wasn’t any tune—but theÿ was deep parts like a strong wind high up in big timber an’ soft parts like Butte Creek ripplin’ over stones an’ high sweet notes like a veery’s song on a warm, still afternoon.
Moira an’ Hank were sittin’ near me. Hank was fingerin’ his scarf an’ scrapin’ a bit of dried mud off his boot-heel. But the girl was leanin’ forward, still as a statue. Her lips were parted; her eyes shinin’ an’ soft. I couldn’t even see her breathe, but I could see the beatin’ of her pulse in her throat. An’ as he played Don McClumpha seemed to know what she was feelin’. Before he was through he was playin’ just to her.
He finished, an’ you could a’ heard a pin drop—for an instant. Then Hank’s big hands come together, plop—plop—plop '
“Fine kid!” he bawls out, “but now give us somethin* quick an’ devilish. Somethin’ that’ll make us shake a leg.”
Moira was on her feet an’ her face had reddened in a flash. I declare, I thought she was goin’ to box Hank’s ears. But she didn’t—she stamped her foot an’ tried to say somethin’ an’ couldn’t, an’ then she was across the room askin’ Don to play again. But he stood there red an’ awkward with folks watchin’ ’em an’ clappin’ till Slats cleared the air by callin’: “Ev’rybody waltz!”
There was somethin’ different about the way Moira looked at Don after that an’ the way he looked at her. He’d ’peared to marvel at her ever since that day she caught 01’ Sandy, admirin’ vastly but not able to understand. But now his eyes took on that look a good dog has for his master—a look that shows he understands him even while he ranks him higher than the stars. An’ once he dared to bring out his own fiddle— we didn’t know till then he had one—an’ he played for her on the porch in the long summer twilight. Moira sat an’ listened like she was froze there till Sam had to call twice in his fog-horn voice that it was time ev’rybody was in bed. An’ kick me if that ol’ scoot didn’t suspect somethin’ right then an’ send the teacher to Ed Parnum’s to board!
'THAT summer we began missin’ cattle Just a fat steer now an’ then that might be strayed, o’ course. But it looked like someone was making a business of supplyin’ cheap beef to the railway construction camp down the valley. Sam rode down to the camp an’ learned they was buying most of their meat from Lew Warlick, a cross-eyed quarterbreed anybody’d suspect from the look o’ him. Still Lew had a ranch o’ his own an’ who could say he wasn’t butcherin’ his own cattle? We rode the range a lot, but we couldn’t find anything— p’ticularly none of them Drag Y steers, once they’d turned up missin’. It worried Sam a lot. They wasn’t his steers—he was runnin’ stock on shares, but he’d have to make good the losses.
Well, one day when he wasn’t teachin’, Don McClumpha was pokin’ ’round in a lonesome spot down where Butté Creek runs into the North Saskatchewan. He was hot on the trail o’ one o’ them million-year-old diny-saurs he was always expectin’ to tree in some cut-bank. What he found was half a dozen steer hides on a gravel bar.
Y’know in midsummer the river is high, ’count o’ the snow meltin’ in the mountains, but it falls quick when there comes a cool spell. Which is what had happened, an’ the hides, with stones inside ’em, was high an’ dry where the water had been five foot deep a few days before.
Even though he was called a fool with some reason, Don had learned enough from the talk around the ranchhouse to know this looked suspicious. He unrolled one o’ the hides an’ puzzled out the Drag Y brand. So he set out hotfoot for Mr. McCosham’s. His long legs was carryin’ him across the prairie at a fivemile clip when who should he meet but Hank an’ Moira. He flagged ’em an’ unburdened his heart right away. Hank’s face lit up an’ he slapped the leg o’ his chaps in delight that they had at last found somethin’ to work on.
“Climb up behind me,” he says, “an’ show me where them hides are.”
Don was jubersome of anything Hank suggested, but he got aboard clumsily, an’ in half an hour they was on top the cut-bank above the gravel bar. Peekin’ over they seen Lew Warlick totin' the last o’ them hides across the bar an’ pitchin’ it into the deep channel. Then the breed got on his buckskin horse an’ rode down the bar to a place where he could scramble up the bank. On top the bank was a bluff o’ timber.
Hank was waitin’ for him but Lew didn’t come up just where he expected. Hank’s horse nickered the minute the buckskin come in sight, an’ in a flash Warlick was flat to his horse’s neck scootin’ away through the brush like a rabbit. Hank, tearin’ after him, emptied his gun without puttin’ a scratch on the rustler.
When Warlick come out on the far side the bluff there was Moira—though she’d been told to keep ’way out o’ it—tryin’ to head him. He took out down along the river bank, her close behind. When Hank got clear o’ the brush he couldn’t shoot for fear o’ hittin’ Moira, so he come poundin’ along, yellin’ for her to get out o’ the way. Moira’s pinto closed up to the buckskin, crowdin’ him toward the cutbank. Warlick spurred with all his might but he couldn’t pass her. His ugly cross eyes were vicious an’ he yelled a warnin’.
But nothin’ scared Moira. She darted in like a flash, quirt arm high, an’ hit Warlick’s horse across the nose. The buckskin shied away—an’ the edge o’ the cut-bank crumbled under him. That instant Warlick shot.
Don McClumpha, afoot, foggin’ along ’way behind, rounded the bluff in time to see Moira pitch from her saddle. His heart just stopped an’ his long legs buckled under him. Then he caught himself an’ raced on harder than ever.
To Hank ev’rything just blazed red. He was off his horse without checkin’ the brute’s gait an’ down that cut-bank in aff' avalanche o’ dirt an’ gravel. Warlick was just untanglin’ himself from his horse when Hank hit him like a cyclone. A bullet gouged Hank’s cheek an’ powder burned his face an’ eyes. He snatched the breed’s gun an’ flung it in the river.
When Hank knew what he was doin’ Warlick was dead—all twisted an’ mauled an’ black from chokin’.
On top the bank again Hank found Don usin’ his shirt an’ some hankerchiefs to bandage Moira’s side. Tears was streamin’ down his face an’ he was whiter’n a ghost. Yet, by thunder, it was this Ejucated Fool that give orders to Hank now.
“Get some poles,” he says, “an’ lash ’em into a frame with the strings off your saddle. Now fasten your saddleblanket over it some way to make a -stretcher.”
So they carried her home—two hours it took ’em—an’ then Hank stove up his best horse ridin’ to Moccasin Hill for a doctor.
She lived? Yes; but that wasn’t all the story. She couldn’t walk again. The bullet had lodged against her spine, Doc Gunnison said, in a place where he was afraid to try an operation. An’ Doc was a hard-headed ol’ cuss who’d saved so many lives in his thirty years o’ frontier practice nobody could argue with him. To Sam McCosham Doc’s judgment was the last word. Why! Hadn’t Doc Gunnison helped Moira to come into this world an’ her half-dozen brothers an’ sisters also an' hadn’t he pulled her mother through pneumonia an’ fixed Sam’s arm when it was all twisted up in a threshin’ machine? You bet he had, an’ that’s what Sam told Don when he tried to insist that a specialist in Winnipeg or Edmonton could remove the bullet, so Moira’d be all right again.
“Specialist!” 01’ Sam snorted. “All they’re good for is to charge long bills an’ mebbe kill her besides. An’ what ha’ you got to say about it anyhow?”
So Moira sat ev’ry day in her chair by the open window an’ watched the poplar bluffs turn yellow an’ the buttes beyond the river grow smoky an’ far away an’ heard the sky music o’ the sand-hill cranes goin’ south. In the dreamy fall sunshine she could see her pinto in the horse pasture kickin’ up his idle heels or cornin’ to the gate to whinny at her. Her face lost its tan an’ grew thinner ev’ry day. Only her eyes, big an’ gray, seemed like her. They could always smile, even through tears.
It was a hard jolt to Hank. He loved her powerfully, without a doubt, an’ yet to him it was now most like she was dead. How could he think o’ marryin’ a girl who couldn’t walk? He was sorry for her, terrible sorry—an’ also sorry for himself.
But Don hurried over from the schoolhouse ev’ry afternoon. Two miles he’d foot it an’ back to Parnum’s again. Always he’d bring his fiddle an’ play to her. Sometimes I saw ’em at close range. She’d be lookin’ out the window, with those eyes of her’s like two evenin’ stars, an’ while he played his eyes never left her face. He was a mighty sober boy them days, an’ didn’t talk unless spoken to.
He tried to teach Moira to play; without much luck. But one day he found she could sing. It was a mighty thin little voice at first—only a whisper of the old tones in which she used to sing the “Cowboy’s Lament,” an’ holler at the cattle. But ev’ry day he coaxed her to sing more an’ taught her new songs.
He couldn’t sing no sweeter than a crow hisself, but he could play the tunes in such a way that after she’d learned the words she just couldn’t keep still. An’ how her voice did come back to her!
Not so strong as before but twenty times as sweet. One little song I heard her sing made my old eyes blink. It was something about gray days and gray eyes, and tears and raindrops and the rainbow bein’ a smile.
So it went till a day when the rim o’ the sky was bluish black above the redbrown o’ leafless willow brush that stretched away to the horizon, an’ the first snowflakes was idlin’ down. Sam an’ the boys were roundin’ up the cattle down by the Saskatchewan an’ I was chorin’ round the stable. Don come to me an’ handed me a letter. It was from some important soundin’ doctors in Edmonton. It said that while they could in no wise state positively without an examination, it seemed probable from his description of the case that an operation would be successful.
“What case?” I asks, dumber even than I looked.
“Why, Moira. Will you help me, Pete?”
“Take her to Edmonton. Her mother’s willin’, but I talked to her father last night an’ I don’t have to tell you what he said.”
“No, you don’t. An earthquake couldn’t change Sam’s mind, once it’s set.
But see here,” I says, “are you askin’ me to help with a kidnappin’ or an elopement?”
He looks at me kind o’ blank
“Why neither one. I’m simply takin’ her to Edmonton to have that operation.”
“You’re takin’ her from under her father’s roof against his wishes. Also you’re gettin’ Sam in for a big expense he ain’t fixed to pay.”
“I’m paying for it,” Don says simply.
“I’ve saved some money—to study music. An’ I’ll sell my violin. It’s a really good one, you know, my father left me.”
“Well that’s somethin’,” I admits, “but there’s a lot more for you to think about. This ain’t a matter o’ .settin’ a broken leg. It don’t have to be done. You ain’t goin’ to find a doctor that’ll do it on your say-so against her father’s wishes. Also, ’spose Doc Gunnison’s right—that she don’t live through the operation?”
A terror jumped into Don’s eyes.
“But what can I do?” he cries in desperation. “She can’t—oh, she just musn’t go on like this!”
‘Well,” I answers, “I don’t see but you’ve got one way to help her—mor’n you’ve been a-doin’. Get yourself the right to take on this responsibility. She’s of age; marry her.”
“Marry her!” A light flashed up in his eyes—an’ died again. “But she loves Hank !”
“Oh, sure,” I exclaims, “she does love Hank! You poor, blind goop; you go right now an’ ask her how much she loves Hank.”
He looked at me without seein’ me, turned away, an’ then come hoppin’ back an’ grabbed me by both arms.
“Pete,” he cries, “do you mean it—that she really might marry me?”
“Ask her!” I commands, shovin’ him away. “Don’t do your proposin’ to a horse-faced ol’ cow-puncher.”
He didn’t get that, however. He was headin’ for the house.
I caught up my bay team out o’ the pasture an’ harnessed ’em. Then I come to the house for instructions. Moira was at her window, an’ beside her was Don, bendin’ over one o’ her little hands an’ kissin’ it an’ lookin’ up at her with a world o’ longin’ in his eyes. Her face was turned away. She was cryin’.
I slipped inside.
“Love you?” I heard her say. “You’ll never know how much I love you! But I can’t—Suppose I never —suppose I were to stay a burden to you always?”
“You couldn’t be a burden to me, no matter what,” he answered. An’ then he picked up his fiddle. What he played was the tune of that song about the tears and the raindrops—“an’ when the rainbow comes, that is your smile.”
Then he laid down his fiddle an’ took her up in his arms.
I had to drive mighty careful. Even on a cot in the covered spring-wagon, the trip was a cruel one for Moira. An’ since it wasn’t train day on the branch line that comes to Moccasin Hill, we headed for Belpre on the main line south o’ the Saskatchewan. It was evenin’ when we reached the ferry. When we were in mid-river, we looked back up the side o’ the valley an’ seen two horsemen cornin’ hell-for-leather down the trail. It was easy to make out Hank’s big black an’ Sam’s ol’ Sandy.
I looked at Don. “The jig’s up,” I says, kind-a quiet.
Don didn’t say a thing. Scairt stiff, I reckoned. His eyes fixed on the travellin’ blocks up on the big ferry-cable as though they fascinated him. Then his look followed down the smaller cables that run through the pulleys at either end o’ the scow an’ over the windlass in the centre.
We were nearin’ the south side an’ the ferryman was squarin’ up the scow head-on to the bank. Don got down careless-like an’ took a hammer an’ punch out ,o’ the boot on the front o’ the wagon. He strolled over to the side near the stern pulley. As the ferryman lowered the apron an’ grounded the scow, this Ejucated Fool they said never could do anything hopped over the railin’ an’ went at that pulley. In a jiffy he’d pulled the cotter pin out o’ the bolt. With three good licks he knocked the bolt out o’ the pulley.
The wheel dropped in the water with a splash an’ the cable fell slack. I drove off just as the end o’ the scow swung down-stream an’ Don jumped after me.
We heard the ferryman cussin’ wildly but his ferry was hangin’ by one end, plumb out o’ commission.
Whether Sam an’ Hank finally got across in a boat an’ follered us I don’t know. I turned off the trail soon as we got out o’ sight an’ we jolted across the prairie. Soon it was dark, an’ snowin’, too. Finally we hit the trail to Vawter, the next town up the line) an’ got there toward mornin’. Lord knows what Moira suffered that night, but Don an’ I heard mighty little o’ it.
Next day I was best man at a weddin’. But ’stead o’ standin’ by the groom, I held the bride on her feet while the preacher did the knot-tyin’. Then I carried her on board the train for Edmonton.
T)ETE filled his pipe, meditatively.
“But the operation; was it a success?” I asked, impatiently.
“Don sent me a card to that effect. It was a long time reachin’ me. I was workin’ over by Midnight Lake—Sam havin’ fired me. Then, for a long time I didn’t hear no more of ’em.
“Last fall, when I was down to Winnipeg with cattle, I heard a fellow playin’ a fiddle on the radio. I just concluded to go an’ hear some musie. There was a concert that night at the Majestic Theatre an’ I got me a roost in niggerheaven. A tall, long-haired guy with a little splint of a shillelah directed the orchestra. The music was big an’ grand an’ sometimes almost broke out into a tune but never quite done so. Old Highpockets, with the sliver, went through all kinds o’ funny manoeuvres, but just the same I could feel him pullin’ the music out o’ them fifty players just the way he wanted it.
“Then a girl come on the stage an’ began to sing. She looked beautiful there under the spotlight, but I forgot ev’rything but her voice. Someway, it took me right out on the prairie on a spring mornin’ with the wind smellin’ o’ things beginnin’ to grow an’ the m ïadow-larks an’ song-sparrows singin’.
“But that wasn’t all. She sang again, an’ I had to hold myself to my seat as that voice come floatin’ up to me:
‘Gray days are your gray eyes, Gold days your hair—”
“I fought my way to her after the performance. First thing she asked about was her pony.
“ ‘Moira,’ I says, ‘where’s Don? Have you quit him? How come they call you Moira McNair?’
“ ‘Quit him?’ she laughs—an’ say, she was beautiful! “ ‘Why Pete, He directs the orchestra.
“ ‘But-my name? Don’t you know singers must have names that sound musical?’ ” McClumpha sounds like—what was it you once said? Like the hoof-beats of a gallopin’ Clydesdale.’ ”