Work To Do
A story of the far North where men are men— and women are women
GRACE YEOWARD SCHIERHOLTZ
THE EAGER look faded from Jean McGrath’s face as she scanned the page. Anger narrowed her snapping black eyes and she flung the letter across the breakfast table to her husband.
“Mother won’t come south,” she raged. “Imagine a woman of her age preferring that fur-trading fort, miles from civilization, to a modern home among her friends!”
Bob McGrath reached a long arm for the page. “Your mother has friends everywhere,” he remarked quietly as he began to read.
Jean drummed impatiently on the table as she watched him. Her mother, Mrs. Carey, the daughter of a Hudson’s Bay Company factor, had been born in Fort Lipton. She had come south to the city to live after her marriage, but, widowed six months before, she had insisted on going back north.
Jean hated the idea and had protested and argued when Mrs. Carey left. But her resentment then was nothing to what she felt now. Shortly before, where there happened to be no men in the fort, Mrs. Carey had guided a mountie to a sick prospector. They forded rivers, plowed through bush and muskeg, and the two of them had brought the man out and saved his life.
Bob was exceedingly proud of his mother-in-law’s act and told everyone he knew, including a reporter. Tales like that of the North, especially with women in them, made news. A headline story, with pictures that Bob supplied, had resulted.
But he reckoned without Jean. She had said little when her mother wrote of her trip and sent the pictures, and she never mentioned it to any of her friends.
But she said plenty when she saw the story. Fortunately for Bob, she blamed one of the air-mail pilots for giving it to the paper.
She was unreasonable in her anger, insisting that she was dreadfully humiliated, that it would jeopardize her position in society.
Bob didn’t admit his part; he dared not, for he loved peace.
Any mention of the story made Jean shudder and she wrote her mother at once, insisting that she come south.
Now she sat watching her husband slowly reading the letter and at last she couldn’t control her impatience any longer.
“You see,” she exclaimed, “mother has absolutely no sense of the fitness of things. She’d just as soon sit on a smelly wharf and gossip with a bewhiskered trapper as attend a reception at Government House.”
“The trapper might be more entertaining, at that,” Bob remarked dryly, as he laid the letter down. "They’ve mighty interesting tales to tell, those same bewhiskered gents from back of beyond.”
“I could shake you, Bob McGrath,” Jean stormed. “You’re as bad as mother. But she’s got to come out before winter. There was no reason why she should ever have gone.”
“Maybe no reason to us, but when your father died she was lonesome and idle. After all, if she is happy there, why do you worry?”
Jean fairly ground her teeth. “Because it is no place for a middle-aged woman. I wouldn’t mind her having a summer camp there, but to stay all winter is senseless.”
“The only difference between a summer and winter home at Fort Lipton is 160 degrees Fahr, in temperature, or thereabouts,” Bob observed as he passed his cup for more coffee.
Jean poured it with the air of hoping it would scald him. “Think how I feel when I have to admit that mother has gone native and is hibernating along the rim of the Arctic!” “She isn’t within five hundred miles of the Arctic.”
“You needn’t make me out a liar for five hundred miles that far north. Besides, I live in terror of another headline story.”
Bob shivered and hoped fervently that she’d never discover just how that story had broken into print. “Don’t be silly, Jean.”
“There must have been plenty men in the fort to go on that trip,” Jean raged on. “Oh, never mind telling me that
they were all off fire fighting, or whatever the men do up there when they want to be invisible. Yes, yes, I know that the mountie had just arrived and didn’t know the trail. But I still tell you that mother didn’t need to go.”
BOB HAD been married seven years but once in a while he forgot himself and argued. "Even if there were men handy, which you know quite well there weren’t, Jean, shouldn’t your mother go? She’d been over that trail when she was a girl and often since, on her visits to her father there. I can’t see why you take that publicity so hard.” “You can’t, you have no finer feelings,” Jean retorted. “The stories were bad enough, but those pictures!” She shuddered. "Mother in breeks and a ragged mackinaw and what looked like a dogskin cap. I’ve seen better looking pictures of whaling Eskimos. I wish I could tell that pilot who brought the story out, just what I think of him.”
Bob didn’t want to discuss that. “Snap out of it, Jean, you’ve got the wrong slant on this.”
“I have not. I can stand it if she insists on going back in the spring—it is fashionable to have summer cabins in outlandish places—but she’s got to return to civilization for the winter.”
“Civilization is a matter of opinion, not geography. She thinks it’s civilized there.”
“Don’t be funny. She must come out.”
Bob shrugged his broad shoulders. “How are you going to persuade her?”
“I can’t, but you can.”
“I?” he shouted. “You’re crazy, woman.”
“Not a bit. Mother listens to you. So you dash up to Fort Lipton and bring her home.”
“How? Under arrest?” he asked sarcastically.
“Any way you like,” Jean retorted coolly.
“I won’t even try it.”
“Yes, you will and as soon as you can too.”
As Bob was making the dining room resound with his emphatic protests, the door pushed open and six-year-old Jimmie eased in. His round, rosy face, framed by a halo of brown curls, gave him the false appearance of an angelic child.
Jean was too deep in her problem to pay much attention tö him. She spooned oatmeal into his porridge dish while she explained her plan in detail.
Bob was against it; he didn’t see why Mrs. Carey couldn’t live in the North if she wanted to; he was busy; he had no arguments to bring her out.
“You can find plenty if you want to,” Jean told him.
Jimmie had been listening attentively, a calculating look in his big eyes. “Are you going for grandma?”
“He is,” Jean said.
Jimmie sighed into his oatmeal. “I wisht she was here.”
"There, ” Jean cried triumphantly. “Tell her that. She thinks the sun only rises so it can set on Jimmie. Tell her he wants her, needs her—that’ll do the trick.”
“Jimmie misses the constant flowof nickels,” Bob growled. “The pop com and ice cream. Yes, yes, the little darling loves his grandmother but it’s a grasping affection. The young golddigger knows she’s clay in his hands.”
“She makes swell cookies,” Jimmie reflected.
Jean noted the point and renewed her attack on her husband.
Bob realized that he was beaten. After all, he had to live with Jean and he hated discord. “All right, all right, I’ll go,” he yielded. “It’s against my better judgment and it’s not playing fair, but I’ll go.”
“At once,” Jean persisted.
“On the next plane.” He jumped up and hurried out, banging the door behind him.
FOUR DAYS later an airplane set Bob McGrath down at Fort Lipton. It had been a wonderful trip. The rivers looked like endless strings dropped from a careless hand to a green carpet, the lakes like blobs of meringue spilled from an overflowing bowl, even the muskeg’s desolation was dimmed. He forgot his distaste for his errand in the thrill of the sky ride.
The wharf at Fort Lipton was crowded. Although airplanes were no longer a novelty, every self-respecting citizen rushed to the river at the first faint hum of the powerful engines.
Bob’s sharp eyes spotted Mrs. Carey, and he grinned to himself as he thought of his wife’s fury if she could have seen her mother so much at home in that noisy, jostling crowd. Mrs. Carey looked around with the casual air of one not expecting to recognize any of the passengers. She was a short, stocky woman in an old tweed skirt and a red-andblack mackinaw. The wind tossed her iron-grey hair around her shrewd, kindly face.
Chatting and laughing, she suddenly recognized her sonin-law. Blinking in surprise and fright, she elbowed her way to him. “Bob, what brings you here? Jean, Jimmie—is there anything wrong?” she cried anxiously.
“Not a thing.” He bent to kiss her. “Everyone is fit as a fiddle.”
Her fears allayed, Mrs. Carey was once more her alert self. She stood back, hands on her ample hips and looked at him with eyes that bored. “So you came five hundred miles by plane just to call on me?” she challenged him.
Bob felt his face redden as he bent to pick up his club bag. “Why shouldn’t I jaunt through the skies to see your hideout?”he laughed. “Aren’t you going to take me home and feed me? I’m hungry enough to eat a trapper, raw.”
“Hungry,” Mrs. Carey forgot her suspicions. “Of course & you are, just like Jimmie.” “The boy’s lonesome for ¿you,” Bob put in, thinking it an opportune time to mention the grandson.
“He is? The lamb.” Mrs. Carey made a pretense of pinning her hair back to hide her misty eyes. “Tell me all about him—what he’s doing, and his cute sayings.”
Bob sighed in relief. This might be easier than he had expected. If she were lonely enough for Jimmie, it wouldn’t be as hard as he had thought to persuade her to return to the city with him.
They passed through the fort. A dozen or so log buildings, including the store, with the Mounted Police barracks just across the trail from it. The path wound above the river, now a slow, sluggish stream at low water. As far as the eye could see on the other side, there was nothing but dense forest.
Mrs. Carey had built her cabin just above the river.
Right behind it, tall evergreens formed a green, living wall. On the east side there was a cleared spot for a garden, and on the south, a tiny pocket-handkerchief of lawn whose edge overhung the steep bank. Gay flowers bordered the path and vines ran riot over the log walls.
Bob exclaimed in surprise.
His mother-in-law looked sharply at him. “Almost fit to live in,” she remarked dryly.
“Oh, I never thought you lived in the tree tops,” he remonstrated.
“No, I don’t think you did. But Jean does. She thinks I sleep under brush and cook on a flat stone. But come in and see the rest.”
She flung open the cabin door and Bob blinked again at the cozy interior. A long, bright living room with two small bedrooms on the east side and a kitchen and woodshed on the south. The rooms were plainly furnished but bright with cretonne and paint, and gaily colored hooked mats were scattered over the shining floor.
In the neat little kitchen she pointed to a cushioned rocker. “Sit there and we can talk.”
BOB SAT down and stretched out his long legs. Although he knew that Jean wouldn’t want him to admire the place lest her mother get the notion that it was too nice to leave, he couldn’t refrain from telling her how homelike and cozy it was.
Mrs. Carey’s face glowed with pleasure. “I’m glad you like it. Freighting everything in that can’t come in a plane is mighty slow. For months I managed with a few packing boxes, which are as plentiful here as diamonds.”
“It must have been inconvenient.”
Mrs. Carey shrugged her shoulders as she sliced some dried meat. “Too many interesting things happen here to notice creature comforts. But in a weak-minded moment I told Jean I was sleeping on boughs in a bunk and eating out of a frying-pan beside an open lire. I thought it would interest her, but none of my explanations since can persuade her that I’m not living like that now.”
Bob squirmed, at a loss for an answer. He dared not, considering his errand, say what he thought about the situation, yet it went against his grain to agree with Jean’s harsh criticisms.
Mrs. Carey hurried from the stove to the tiny pantry and back to the table, which she covered with a snowy cloth and set with bright dishes. “We’ll eat here in the kitchen. It’s quicker and cozier.”
Bob did full justice to the meal. “You’re a swell cook, mother. No wonder Jimmie longs for your ginger snaps.” But the subtle flattery was wasted. “Anyone with normal intelligence and the ability to read and write can learn to cook plain, wholesome food. Jean makes cookies just as good as I do.”
Her son-in-law grimaced. He might have known better. By the time they washed the dishes, it was dusk. Mrs. Carey lit a fire in the huge stone fireplace and they drew up their chairs. She picked up her knitting and sat silent.
Bob realized that she was wondering why he had come, and very likely guessing the reason. There was no use in evading the issue. He wrent straight to the point, explaining how they missed her, how lonely Jimmie was.
“You mean Jean’s ashamed of me living here among trappers and prospectors? She wrote pages of protests after that story was in the paper.”
Jean hadn’t told Bob that. “She was a little annoyed about it,” he admitted.
“A little !” Mrs. Carey laughed. “Have you any idea who gave it to the paper?”
“Jean blames one of the pilots,” he hedged.
Bob bit his lip. She certainly was too smart for comfort. He didn’t want to continue that line of conversation. “Jean thinks you aren’t comfortable; she doesn’t understand this life.”
“She should, but she doesn’t want to. I brought her with me to see my father almost every summer until she was fourteen, when she refused to come again. She hates it.” “She misses you, mother. Won’t you come down for the winter?”
“I don’t think so. I like it here.”
“Come till spring.”
She shook her head as she bent to count stitches. “There’s work for me here; in the city I’m just a cog. Here I have a place in the community, a citizen’s place with a citizen’s responsibilities.”
Bob wouldn’t let himself look at her side of the argument. He dared not, lest he weaken—and he had to face Jean when he got home. His success meant so much to her; she was actually unhappy at the idea of her mother away off in the North.
He argued his case well, now and then bringing Jimmie in. Mrs. Carey began to weaken. As he shrewdly guessed, the mention of her only grandson did it.
“I would like to see him,” she admitted at last.
“Then come home and we’ll all be happy.”
Silence. Mrs. Carey’s knitting slid to the floor and she sat looking into the fire. At last she spoke in a flat voice. “I suppose I had better return with you, Bob. When do you want to go?”
“On the next plane. I ain’t stay here very long.”
Mrs. Carey looked around her cozy room and sighed. “All right, I’ll see about the cabin. Now, off to bed with you.”
Bob went off to the spare bedroom. He had won, Jean would be delighted, but somehow the victory didn’t give him the pleasure a victory should.
NEXT MORNING it was chilly. A few flakes of snow drifted along the biting north wind. The vines were all frost touched. Bob shivered as he chopped wood while Mrs.
Carey cooked breakfast. Perhaps Jean was right in thinking it was no place for her mother once the short summer season was over.
He filled the wood box and reflected that the long dark winter must be lonely. The chores done, he huddled over the stove and rubbed his stiff fingers.
They were just finishing breakfast when a knock sounded.
“Come in,” Mrs. Carey called.
A man in the scarlet tunic of the Mounted Police entered. Mrs. Carey introduced the two men, then pointed to a chair.
“Have some breakfast, Constable Stewart.”
“Thanks, but Pm in a desperate rush. Pete Toovey was murdered last night; his head bashed in with a slab of cordwood.”
Mrs. Carey cried out. “His wife! Where is she, poor child?”
A second’s silence before Stewart answered slowly. “At the barracks.”
With a quickness one wouldn’t expect in a woman of her build, Mrs. Carey leaped to her feet and shook her finger under the mountie’s nose. “What do you mean by such a performance, Neil Stewart? And you know if she did kill him, it’s a medal the poor child should have, not a jail term. That Pete Toovey never was any good; he beat her, as you jolly well know. If people hadn’t helped her, she and her baby would have starved. Then you dare arrest her because her husband is murdered. Shame on you, go right back and let her out.”
The mountie edged away from her. “I can’t, Mrs. Carey, Pete Toovey was a beastly husband, all right, but the law is the law. She admits that they were alone last night, that they had a violent quarrel and he hit her.”
“All the more reason why you should free her,” Mrs. Carey cried. “Don’t you dare stand there and tell me that a man has a right to beat his wife. She’s a mere child, not much bigger than her baby.”
“I know, Mrs. Carey, and even if she is found guilty, I’m sure the circumstances will warrant her a light sentence. But as it is, I’ve got to hold her.”
“Where’s her baby?”
“I took it to Mrs. Syre.”
Mrs. Carey’s eyes blazed. “Separate a mother and her child, would you? It’s a sorry pass the law is coming to.”
Stewart protested. He was a very young, earnest policeman. “I had to. There’s no way of caring for a baby at the barracks, and Susie seemed to forget about it. Believe me, Mrs. Carey, I haven’t tried to be hard on the poor girl, I’ve done the best I could.”
Mrs. Carey snorted as she reached for her cap and mackinaw. “The best a man can do at a time like this is pitiful! I’m going right over.”
“That’s what I came to ask you to do,” Stewart admitted as he and Bob followed her out.
THEY HAD to break into a dog trot to keep up with her. At the barracks, a stolid half-breed woman sat in the outer office. Stewart unlocked the cell door. A slip of a girl, looking not more than sixteen, crouched against the far wall. Her big eyes stared in terror, her disordered black hair fell around her face in strings. But as she recognized her visitor, she stumbled to her feet, sobbing hysterically. Mrs. Carey crossed the cell in a bound and gathered the
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Work To Do
Continued from page 23 —Starts on page 22
frightened creature close, patting her gently. "Just cry it out, Susie, then we’ll talk. I know you didn’t do it.”
Susie Toovey clung to her, crying out words that no one could understand. The men stood awkwardly by till the girl’s tempest of grief subsided. She raised her white face that was streaked with tears. “Where’s my baby?”
Mrs. Carey glared at Stewart. “We’ll get her right away. Now, wash your face and comb your hair and you’ll feel better.”
The mountie dashed out for a basin of water and a towel. While the girl dabbed at her face, Mrs. Carey drew Stewart aside. “Get her baby right away.”
“Sure I will, Mrs. Carey. She was so wild and crazy she didn’t seem to notice it and I thought she might hurt it. I did what I considered best.”
“Then save me from your worst ! And this is no place for a woman and baby. I’ll take them home with me.”
Stewart started to demur, but she cut him short. “I’ll guarantee she’ll be on hand for her trial.”
“But it’s murder, and—”
“Sure it’s murder, and a mighty timely one. A man who’ll beat up a kid like Susie should be murdered.”
“I know, but the law—”
“You leave her with me, and she’ll be on hand when you want her. The very idea of taking her child away and locking her up in a cell that you keep for drunks and murderers, with just a half-breed woman in the outer office so you can say she wasn’t alone !” “It was the best I could do,” the harassed man explained.
“Huh ! If you don’t let her go home with me, the citizens of the fort’ll run you out on a rail.”
The mountie’s square jaw set in stubborn lines. “I don’t mind unfavorable opinión if I’m doing right.”
“Quite so,” she retorted. “But you aren’t, so you don’t need to worry about that. Now, fetch that baby. ’
Stewart hurried out. Bob grinned sympathetically as he looked after him. He wasn’t gone long, returning with a ten-months-old baby.
Mrs. Carey met him at the door and took the shrieking youngster from him. “That’s no way to carry a child.”
“Maybe,” Stewart replied as he wiped the perspiration off his forehead. “But it’s the only way I know’.”
Susie snatched the baby to her, kissing it again and again, talking to it in a sobbing voice.
A lump came into Bob’s throat, but he looked away and tried to harden his heart, as he drew’ his mother-in-law aside. “You can’t take a murderess into your house, mother.”
“Can’t I? Murder hasn’t been proved, and anyway, is a murderer worse than a potential one? Plenty women go around for
years with murder in their hearts toward their husbands.”
Bob couldn’t help grinning. “Yes, but this girl is accused of it.”
“Fiddlesticks, she didn’t do it, and if she did, he deserved it. We women have got to stick together. You scoot home and make sure the fire is blazing and the coffee hot.” Bob went.
Stewart started to object again. Mrs. Carey went over to the girl. “Susie, if I take you home with me, will you promise to stay right there so that Constable Stewart will know where to find you any time?”
Susie nodded, never taking her eyes off the other’s face. “I’ll do just what you say.” Mrs. Carey turned to Stewart and for a second he met her gaze, then he shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “All right, Mrs. Carey. But if she gets away or the O. C. finds out about this, it’ll be curtains for me.” “I’ll be responsible for her. Thanks, constable.” She bundled up her charges and they started for her cabin.
AS THEY stepped out of the biting wind into the warm, cozy room, some of the terror left Susie’s white face. She sank into a rocker and took her baby in her arms. Mrs. Carey made a hot breakfast, bathed the baby and put them both to bed.
Bob kept out of sight, splitting kindling, carrying out ashes, getting water. Several times he wanted to go in and remind his mother-in-law that the plane was due the next day on its return trip, but there was an air of suspense over the cabin and he hadn’t the courage to bring up an outside subject.
After dinner, Mrs. Carey was in the bedroom with Susie for a long time. When she came out to the kitchen, she put on her cap and mackinaw. “Will you stay here, Bob, while I do an errand? I know Susie won’t try to escape, but I promised Stewart not to leave her alone.”
Bob agreed and bit back the questions he ached to ask.
It was late in the afternoon when Mrs. Carey returned, nodding her head and talking to herself as she walked. Bob laid down the book he had been trying to read and questioned her about the case, but her answers were indefinite and he said no more.
After supper, at an hour that was just the start of the evening to Bob back in the city, Mrs. Carey said it was bedtime and waved him off to his room. She made herself a bed on the couch.
Next morning she had breakfast ready when he wakened. He dressed quickly and hurried to the kitchen.
“Why didn’t you call me?” he demanded. “I intended to light the fires at least.”
His mother-in-law shrugged her broad ¡ shoulders as she buttered toast. “I have to do it myself the rest of the year, so there’s 1 no use in getting out of the habit.”
He seized the opportunity to remind her
of the comforts of the city. “You do here, but back home, with gas and—”
A sharp knock at the door interrupted him. From force of habit, Bob started toward it, but Mrs. Carey merely called: “Come in.”
Constable Stewart raced across the living room, his face glowing, his eyes snapping with excitement. “Sam Yarrow confessed, Mrs. Carey. After you told me about him, I investigated. He and Pete Toovey had a row over a bottle. Pete started the fight, Sam declares, and in self-defense he struck him with a post. He claims—”
Mrs. Carey brushed the men aside and ran to Susie’s bedroom. They heard a shrill cry of joy, then sobbing. Mrs. Carey came back in a few minutes and calmly reproached them for letting the toast bum.
Bob caught her by the shoulder. “Never mind the toast. So that’s why you were out yesterday? How come you suspected this Yarrow?”
“Well,” she carefully scraped the burned toast, “a woman of Susie’s size, no matter how mad she was, could not kill a big brute like Toovey with a post. Besides, there’s been bad blood between Toovey and Yarrow for years, I know. Over another girl.”
Constable Stewart frowned. “I forgot to ask you how you knew that, Mrs. Carey? No one else seemed to remember it.”
“Oh, I was bom in the this fort, away back when it took six months or a year sometimes, to get a letter in from outside. I’ve been back nearly every summer since I left, and there isn’t much gossip around that I haven’t heard. However, I might as well admit that I didn’t do any detecting. Susie told me that Yarrow was there that night.”
“She told you,” Stewart shouted. "Why, she shut up like an oyster w-hen I tried to question her.”
“Sure she did, she was scared. She didn’t know how you might construe Yarrow’s presence, though she had nothing to do with it. She’s an ignorant little thing, not much more than a child and she’s terrified of the police.”
“I tried my best not to frighten her,” Stewart protested. “I was as gentle as I could be.”
“Of course, but the poor kid has suffered so much at the hands of that brute husband, she’s scared of all men.”
THEY TALKED a while longer before Stewart left, declining breakfast. As soon as he had gone, Susie appeared. A different Susie to the scared-rabbit person of the day before. There was color in her thin cheeks, she could look around without terror in her big black eyes. The baby, too, seemed to sense the changed atmosphere as it laughed and cooed. Mrs. Carey hummed tunelessly as she bustled around.
After breakfast a cousin of Susie’s from up the river came to take her and the baby to her people. Mrs. Carey had sent word to them the afternoon before.
Bob was greatly relieved. Everything had worked out fine. “Now that’s over, mother, we can leave on the plane this afternoon.” “I can’t go, Bob.”
“Can’t go,” he echoed in dismay. “But Susie’s off your mind.”
“There are plenty others need me.” "Including Jimmie,” he put in quickly.
She smiled. “Come now, Bob, you know I’m just an incident to Jimmie. Sure he loves me, but he can get along fine without me. I’m actually needed here, I know the people and the country and I have plenty of time.”
“They can take their troubles to someone else.”
“To whom? There isn’t anyone else. Susie confessed that she was so sure of being convicted that she was all ready to tear her dress into strips and strangle herself yesterday morning when we got there.”
Bob shivered. The poor, ignorant, frightened child. But he throttled his sympathies, he had to face Jean at home. “There won’t likely be another woman accused of murder here for years. And Jimmie wants to see his grandmother.”
Mrs. Carey shook her head. There was an air of finality about the movement. “Think of Susie’s baby, if she killed herself. That child is just as important as Jimmie. No, Bob, my place is here. Maybe I’ll come out in the spring for a visit, or you can send Jimmie in to stay with me.”
“But listen, mother—”
“You’re wasting breath, Bob. I’m needed here. There’s so little, if anything, that I can do in the city. A few years of idleness there, and I’d be one of those middle-aged females who enjoy poor health.”
He started to protested again, but as he looked deep into her steady grey eyes, he suddenly nodded his head. “You win, mother. Your place is where you are happiest, where you feel you re doing something. I’ll try and make Jean realize that.”