None But a Woman
Slander it was, no less, but was ever there an Irishman could be taught that fists prove nothing?
IT WAS YOUNG Sheila McCool brought news of the fight. She flew to my doorway like a shapely angel pursued, her dark blue Irish eyes a mixture of fire and apprehension.
"It’s happened,” she breathed grimly. “At the fair grounds. I knew you should have gone with him. Right in front of the grandstand—and all those people! Hurry, Uncle Larry.”
I reached for a jacket, wearily I must confess, a weariness not of young Sheila’s causing. I wasn’t her uncle. Ginger Willie McArdle was—her great-uncle—and at the age of seventy-three Ginger Willie McArdle still could get in enough jams to keep a whole family tree perpetually stormtossed. That is, with Becky McArdle away, and Becky McArdle at the moment was completing a week of shopseeing and gossip in Vancouver, for Ginger Willie a merciful hundred miles distant by rail and boat.
In the quick-turn mind of my hothead neighbor almost anything might loom as cause for sudden combat, but that the World Welter Championship battle of the night before should be the cause of it didn’t occur to me. Our Deep River Valley, on Vancouver Island, is far removed from the ringsides of New York.
"Elbows, head-butt, or feet?” I enquired, jackknifed in young Sheila’s green sports roadster. 1 had seen the old boy in action, his methods depending variously on the number of his opponents, their own ruggedness and preferred methods, or even upon their social status.
"Marquis of Queensberry,” said young Sheila, and the way her mouth tightened promised something unusually dire close ahead. She spun the wheel, threaded the narrow gateway and swung onto the hardsurfacing of Highway Hill with a squeal of tires. She sat very straight, a picture of sun-brown beauty and soft curves to hold the eyes of any man, her own eyes levelled on the winding mile of roadway ahead.
At the blind corner where highway joins river she applied brakes, pulled the wheel viciously over to avoid a chugging caravan filled with staring kids. We whisked along the treed bends in the valley bottom and entered Deep River town. We passed the park entrance, jammed with jostling pedestrians thronging the annual Deep River Fall Fair, and slowed for the bridge that crawled with a strange jumble of sleek tourist motors and rural traffic. It was then I got breath to enquire. “Who—this time?”
Her chin quivered. "Major-General Blunt-Willows.” “No!” 1 found myself sitting bolt upright beside her. "Not Old Ramrod!” She nodded. Blue eyes staring straight ahead suddenly showed tears. "Thunderation !” 1 muttered, and stared straight ahead too.
Here was something. In three years of living back of the McArdles I had heard many of Becky’s ideas and plans. Of them all, the romance of Sheila McCool and Tommy Willows had been a shining light, its culmination her goal of goals. For the past year she had talked—in strict confidence—of little else. If now Ginger Willie had blasted all those hopes by loosing hard fists upon the Valley’s proudest citizen—close neighbor of the McArdles , and sire of young Tommy Willows—life on Highway Hill was certain to assume, particularly upon Becky’s return, all the fire and brimstone trimmings of a hell on earth. “Well,” I asked, “where is he?”
"Where he belongs.” Mouth set unforgivingly, Sheila McCool blasted twin bugle horns sharply to warn a nohands bicycle exhibitionist. “Where, if it weren’t for Aunt Becky, I'd be glad to leave him,” she added grimly. “In jail.”
I FOUND my errant neighbor in the Deep River ix>lice station perched on the edge of a hard cot, smoking matches. He nodded shortly. Shadows on his crooked nose and crisscross wrinkles on a leathery neck showed up in the light reflected from cold cement walls. Decades of fights had left marks on Ginger Willie McArdle, but no other affair had whitened him like this.
‘The sergeant’s fixing up your bail,” I told him. "You’re in real trouble this time. OÍd Ramrod’s word is law in the Valley; people will line up for him like sheep. Witnesses.” Tufts of rust grey hair bristled from his ears as Ginger
Willie stiffened. A red glow crawled across his bald head. “I have friends—witnesses. I’d lay fists to him again if only I was free,” he promised heatedly.
Here was no sign of contrition, and contrition would be needed to square this mess. I tried a new tack.
“All right. Supposing you get clear on the assault charge —Sheila isn’t too happy about it all, and how is young Tommy Willows going to like you assaulting his governor, do you think?” As his eyes still held fire, I added casually. “Then, of course, there’s Becky, and her city plan.”
At mention of Becky he groaned. Remorse overcame him. He wilted. “I wish,” he said suddenly and earnestly, “I’d never left Ireland. This time she’ll be sellin’ the farm for sure. It was a mistake. I shouldn’t’ve struck the man,” he admitted.
Mere mention of Becky had humbled him. Becky selling the farm and going to the city was no idle fear. The arrangement was all in Becky’s favor, and dated back almost to their marriage thirty years earlier.
In three years I had heard the story many times from both Becky and McArdle, of how one fall day old Paddy Harrigan on the river road had his ninetieth birthday and got so incensed because they hid the rum on him that his heart went bad and he was dead the next, leaving his tenth and youngest daughter free to look around. Ginger Willie McArdle’s place on Highway Hill, with its rolling fields and well-treed fence lines, had seemed to Becky a likely spot to look from. They had w ed, and Ginger Willie,
whose nightly routine for years had included poker-playing, drinking and fighting, all with the loggers, w’as kept so busy he was respectable before he knew' it.
Becky had placed a firm hand on the McArdle helm. Old Harrigan’s death on account of rum, even though, as Ginger Willie still claimed, for the lack of it, had stiffened Becky on that evil, as on fights. “Drink means fights, and there never was nothing settled by fighting,” she repeatedly stated.
But she had a stronger hold on McArdle than talk. That was directly due to the sociable evening at the Arms Bend w'hen Ginger Willie had called Big Axel Hanson a sheepgutted Scandihoovian exile, all because he refused to twist wrists for a second keg of beer. Ginger Willie was about decided that the big logger must have horses’ hind feet for hands before he at last laid Big Axel cold with a head-butt to the jaw and piled three fellow Sw'edes across him to “hide him from the undertaker,” as he later explained.
Becky had met the victor and his proud seconds at the McArdle back door, on Highway Hill, and “Return him to the butcher shop where you found him,” she had ordered coldly. Only early ripening of the hay and a promise in writing had allowed Ginger Willie’s return to his own hearthstone.
That promise it was now that haunted him. It swore that should he again disgrace her by drink or fight, Becky McArdle was free to sell the place on Highway Hill and move to Vancouver near her sister, Deedie, as was her life wish.
Sitting there in the Deep River lockup, Ginger Willie considered this one-way arrangement and sighed. “It’s in writin’,” he repeated. “There’s nothin’ll stop her this time. A lost sheep of God’s open fields and streams prowlin’ hard city streets like a hunted wolf—that I’ll be, Larry!”
Sheep or wolf he was on the run as never before and I rode him hard. He would be, I pointed out, much better away from Highway Hill. Living, as he did, right next door, Blunt-Willows would make his life miserable. Old Ramrod was one who could do it. I reminded him gently of the time Becky had had getting young Sheila the breaks she deserved—convincing Mike McCool, who thought the logging game everything, that his daughter should have a car and a golf membership, trips and university, so that she might move naturally among people like Tommy Blunt-Willows’ crowd. “And now,” I ended, "with Becky’s plans blooming like Sheila’s own fair cheeks, you blast everything wide open by popping the kingpin of all the Valley—for no reason at all !”
“Reason!” He flared. “I had good reason! The man was slanderin’ Irish Johnny Clooney when passin’ me by. Straight slander it was, and a daumned lie to boot !”
At mention of Johnny Clooney light at last began to dawn. Following the fight broadcast of the night before. Ginger Willie had left my place with unusual abruptness. Canada’s welter champ, the toast of the Irish, being beaten by this New York east-sider, Planta, had stunned McArdle, I knew, but somehow there had seemed that familiar hunted look about him that only a portending run-in with Becky could produce. Last night I had wondered about it. Now came the hunch.
“How much money did you lose on that fight?” I asked.
“None.” He bristled. It was the logical reply, for Becky usually left no funds to encourage downfall in her absence. Then suddenly his eyes did slow tricks like a dog caught stealing; his pipestem creaked with pressure. “It may as well out, Larry,” he confessed, sighing. ‘Tm in a worse jam nor ever you could conceive. Big Tim’s gone to Jake Judd, leavin’ me with but one horse for the farm work. There’s three ton of hay bet with Bergstrom, and the horse mower lost to the big German, and a dozen of the missis’ best pullets besides. It’s doomed I was in all case, Larry', and with such woe on my mind Old Ramrod makin’ the dirty slander in passin’ me was more than flesh could bear.” There was a grim pause. “I struck him.”
The sergeant w'as calling from the front office. I pressed my advantage hurriedly. “What did Old Ramrod say?” I probed.
Ginger Willie McArdle rapped his pipe sharply on an iron cot corner and stood. His mouth was firm.
“I wouldn’t repeat it,” he said, Irish proud. “The trial’s the-morrow, the missis returnin’ home Sunday. Already I’ve woe enough upon me without gettin’ het up anew and mebbe wreckin’ a good governmint jail.”
HTHE courtroom was jammed early, people standing, the air crawling with purple ghosts of pipe smoke. Seated up front was a figure wearing the same serge suit with tight legs that came with him from Ireland. Propped by sober black tie and shining with hope, the peaceful visage of Ginger Willie McArdle might have passed for that of any one of the twelve Apostles.
Major-General Blunt-Willows, ramrod stiff in hairy tweeds, handled his own case. With military precision he exhibited to the court “painful abrasions, for the most part facial, resulting from the ruffianly and unprecipitated attack of the prisoner before the court.” He had had no earlier trouble with the prisoner. Herwas at a loss to understand the attack. Case well in hand, he sat down. Ginger Willie regarding him mildly.
Michael Boyle was first defense witness, an oak barrel for size and hardness. Standing by the sheep pens, he had overheard Mr. Willows make McArdle an offer for his place on Highway Hill and had heard Mr. McArdle politely decline the offer.
“So then Mr. Willows,” Michael finished, “strode away, disgruntled, and I saw nothin’ of neither until an hour, when Mr. Willows tackled Mr. McArdle right afore the grandstand and it filled with people.” In reply to questions. Boyle admitted it had been needful to subdue Mr. Willows, who appeared to have been drinking, by the use of mild force, the same accounting no doubt for the injury to the gentleman’s right eye and the ugly scabs upon the face of him.
Ramrod Blunt-Willows sprang to his feet, fuming, and promptly got the gavel as the next defense witness was called. This McCabe had been near the horse barns consulting Mr. McArdle about a young mare due to foal, when Mr. Willows had made a second offer for the McArdle ranch, saying he wanted it for a friend from England. Mr. McArdle had refused the offer in most friendly fashion. Later, seated in the grandstand with his childer about his knee, this McCabe had noticed shouting below, and a straining of necks to see.
The witness turned and pointed a quivering finger at Old Ramrod. “Here was this great man. yer honor—this great howk of a man -drunk as a lord, yer honor, an’ pilin’ onto poor old Willie there!”
The crowd reaction brought promise of clearing’ the court. Old Ramrod was on his feet, face the color of a windfall plum, words exploding from him. Magistrate “Wall-Eye” Johnson gazed from a window toward the sea and announced that he would hear the defendant’s story.
Ginger Willie rose, head shaking sadly at the pity of it all.
“Man dear, yer honor,” he began, rubbing chin bristles in deep thought,
“what a woeful thing it is fer two such lovin’ neighbors to be—”
“Tell what happened,” Wall-Eye snapped.
Ginger Willie straightened bent shoulders. “The man’s a close neighbor, yer honor. Whatever he done to me, and me an old man, Ah’m ready to ferget an’ fergive. As fer what happened, it all come so sudden I mind nothin’ till some strangers was pickin’ me body from the dirt an’ brushin’ off me Sunday clo’es, yer honor.”
Ginger Willie stole a casual glance toward the door, and then it was I understood his loving neighbor line. Young Sheila McCool was there—Sheila and Tommy Blunt-Willows, his blond head gold in a shaft of sunlight, neither looking near the other yet both too proud to move. Sheila’s Irish pride and an ultimatum to Tommy from his family heads had done it, both stem factors to be reckoned with. The youthful romance so near to Becky’s heart had been shattered, the cause of it all seated now, stroking his nose nervously.
Wall-Eye finished two minutes of mumbling and looked up.
“. . bound over for six months to keep the peace on pain of ninety days
incarceration following further offense. Court adjourned
Outside, a comparatively free man, Ginger Willie faced a crowd of jubilant, waiting Irishers.
“I’ll not be stoppin’ at the Arms Bend this day, lads.” he announced sadly. “Ah’m away home. Ah’ve sober thinkin’ to do.”
It was next night the golfers found Ginger Willie at my shack. He had spent the day on a hush tour, at last had succeeded in having the court item kept from the local papers.
“The-morrow I visit the neighbors to gain their silence.” He pulled up his chair for bacon and scrambled. “Ah’m usin' cajolery, blackmail, and me bare fist only if need be. I never knew afore the way time flies.”
He drew a letter from his shirt. Erom Becky, filled with life in Vancouver, centred on a house that could be bought cheap for cash if they hurried. The chance of a lifetime. She’d tell him all about it when she got home. As I returned the closely written page to him Ginger Willie sighed heavily. He was staring hard at his plate when the golfers came.
For ten years Valley golfers had coveted the McArdle land holding, to add to their present course. The way it sloped and rolled, grassy fields nicely dotted with maple and oaks, tantalized them. The fantastic stories told by court witnesses Michael Boyle and McCabe, of Ramrod Blunt-Willows’ sudden interest in the land, had brought a club committee hustling from a special meeting with an offer not to be refused.
Ginger Willie heard them out. His lean jaw, hinged at. tufted ears, jutted with blunt decision.
“The place is not fer sale. Forty year Ah’ve stumped an’ stoned, an’ there’s no gain in replantin’ an old tree.” He flared suddenly. “Ah’ve told ye that afore. Is there somethin’ wrong with yer heads that brings you back always?”
Red-faced Duke Fawcett, fisheries inspector when golf allowed, turned coldly at the door.
“We wouldn’t have bothered you except that your wife came to offer us first chance before she went away. When will Mrs. McArdle be home?”
Ginger Willie gulped, and calmed. “Soon.” His voice had the hollow moan of the Steep Rock foghorn at midnight. As the golfers left he loosed the neckband of his shirt, ran a knotty finger around it, and added with desperate feeling: “Too soon !”
“DECKY landed home a day early. I was helping Ginger ■*-' Willie scythe oats next my place when her hat with the flowers bobbed through the hedge from their yard. Becky was grey and small, walking always with a forward stoop as if her head hoped to be somewhere before her feet could quite make it. That head had a pair of keen eyeo that missed nothing, as her first speech indicated.
“Why do you not use the horse mower, McArdle? Is Big Tim or Bessie ill?”
Ginger Willie straightened and hesitated. “It’s loaned out,” he said then, and reached far down his lean neck for a gulp. “A new rancher from the Prairies—”
“My bags is at the hill’s foot where Thomas rode me to; then after we’ll have a cup of tea. You too, Larry; McArdle’s likely et all his meals at your place. Is the hens doing good, McArdle?—there don’t seem so many in the pullet run. Away now and bring the bags ! Come, Larry.” Ginger Willie whispered as we squeezed through the hedge: “Tell her nothin’ of Tim bein’ gone, nor the hay, nor hens. If she asts, never answer. She’ll go on talkin’.” She did. Seated on a chair edge in the McArdle kitchen, she rattled on, leaping from topic to topic without a verbal pause or stagger.
“A wonderful city is Vancouver with the new Lion’s Gate—McArdle! The clock’s stopped. Wind it. man, wind it ! Do ye not know the ill luck it is to be sleeping in a house wuth a stopped clock? As I was saying, a fine city,
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but fer a few toughs. Some there was near the dock I seen, drunk, and snarling like cur dogs among theirselves. Brains bediddled with drink an’ them trying to settle it all by fighting. Was ever there a man could learn that fists prove nothing! There’s fifteen pullets missing from the run, McArdle.”
Ginger Willie paled. “Stole,” he managed. “One stormy night.”
"Stole? Did ye call the police then?” Her mouth set. “I can see ye didn’t. I'll call them this minute!” She rose.
Ginger Willie gestured feebly. He raised his cup, slopping tea. “Hawks stole ’em,” he got out. “Two hawks—and an eagle.” She eyed him. “Hawks an’ eagles on a stormy night.” She started clearing away dishes. “A fine article to leave holding the place. The trouble’s not far to seek. I suppose fer days fpllowing the fight ye were utterly useless, McArdle!”
“Fight?” Ginger Willie’s throat apple worked faster than a pump plunger. His hands patted with spread fingers on his chest as if he couldn’t get breath.
“Of course. What ails ye, Gaper! ’Twasn’t till I heared them talking that I found this young Clooney’s a good lad and a gentleman. His people in Vancouver is line friends of the folk living next my sister. The woman it was that had her gall out. I can see now yer strong sentiment in him, McArdle. It’s a pity he was beat.” The blood came back to Ginger Willie’s face with a rush. He huffed a great
mouthful of cold tea to steady throat cords, and regained an even keel only in time as Becky stared out the window and folded her hands together, beaming.
“Is that not a picture now, McArdle?! Look.”
It was a picture that about caused him to choke. Sheila McCool, the loveliness of her face clouded over by a worried frown, was coming across the yard.
That same evening, with McArdle rushing to finish the oats, Ramrod BluntWillows launched the first arrow in his, scheme of bedevilment. He came to the line fence smothered by a high ragged hedge and loosed his throat for speech like a bull’s roar. Ginger Willie looked up from his scythe, dripping sweat.
“Your cur dog has been running myj orchard deer, McArdle. Jenkins is a dead shot. I thought it only decent *to warn you.” Old Ramrod turned and strode away.
Ginger Willie jerked up. “My dog’s tied fast!” he shouted after him. Old Ramrod paid no attention. Ginger Willie swallowed hard, and swore.
The following day came orders from Blunt-W’illows, through a lawyer, over the moving of a line fence established twenty years; the spring that fed both places from the hill up back became muddy and unfit, causing Ginger Willie to lug water uphill; there was trouble over a milk license that took the good part of a day to straighten; the assessor called, having someway learned of improvements to house and outbuildings, and the church people complained about a thistle patch in the small pasture next the graveyard, a spot that always had been blue with thistles, j
Ginger Willie hauled himself up the path to my door, his face haggard. “Ah’m: finished,” he admitted. “Flesh an’ blood’ll stand no more, Larry. If yon old perishite sets one more trouble on my trail—”
He paused with a hopeless gesture.; “Better die from hangin’ as from explosion, and it’s explode I will, at any minute,! without warnin’!”
“You hadn’t better,” I counselled.; “You’re over a barrel and Old Ramrod knows it. He’s trying to devil you into!
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assaulting him again, then you’d be for it. The ninety days you spent in jail would allow your wife nice time to sell the ranch and get settled in the city for your coming out party. There you’d be, jostling in trolley cars, wearing a white collar and packing a shopping bag loaded with canned stuff. Think it over.”
Heguljied. "If this is what old age offers one that’s worked hard fer fifty year, I want none of it,” he said slowly. “If he crosses my path again I’ll knot my thumbs about his pompous windpipe and prove to myself Ah’m still a man.”
“She’s better without me,” he snapped. “Better the widow of a man than wife to a lish-worm !”
Through the window I saw inspiration approaching my doorstep with long strides. “Tough on Sheila and Tommy,” I said quickly in preparation.
The hard jaw softened and he* looked away, “Man dear,” he sighed, “to think that yon blisterin’ old perishite should be favored to give birth to a fine lad like Tommy—and me childless.”
STEPS crunched in the doorway. Tommy Blunt-Willows stood there, six feet of him. He’d been riding, his clean-cut blond head without a hair displaced, his clothes well worn, clinging easily to him like good clothes cling to a good body.
“I’m in the devil of a jam,” Tommy said. “And Sheila over at your house crying.”
Ginger Willie had struggled to his feet. “Afore ye go further, Ah’ve an apology,” he offered earnestly. “Ah’m sorry I struck yer father, lad. Fair day.”
“What?” Tommy brightened. “How about telling the old gent? It mightn’t be too late.”
“Tell him!” Ginger Willie bristled to a hair. . “Young man. Ah’ll apologize to nobody Ah’ve had fine reason to strike. Ah’m apologizin’ to you, fer havin’ struck yer father.”
Tommy flopped in a chair and glowered. “A pair of ratty old fools, I should say. It’s Sheila and I have to suffer for it. What started it all?”
Ginger Willie looked uneasy. “It was somethin’ he said about Cloon—about a friend o’ mine. Slander it was.” His jaw slung out. “Ah’ll say no more. 1 wouldn’t repeat it!”
Tommy Blunt-W’illows shrugged. “Anyway the damage is done. He’s sending me to an uncle in England. To get me away from Sheila. No choice.”
Ginger Willie stared. “Ye mean ye go there, or—”
“Right. No home—not a cent.”
Ginger Willie eyed him long. He craned his neck toward the door to make sure Becky might not be within earshot.
“There’s many things a young man may do on his own.” he hinted. “Ye’re skookum enough. Healthy.”
Young Tommy nodded. “I like the woods and 'logging. The engineering end of it lits my schooling too, but there aren’t any openings—”
Over the hedge came Becky's weird wailing. “Yoo—hoooo!”
Ginger Willie rose. “Stiffen yer back! Yer young but once. Here on the Island ye’ve a good life—huntin’, an’ fishin’, an’ gowf, an’ freedom. Ye’d pine hellishin’, lad, cooped up away there fer life—without Sheila.”
Tommy shook his head. “I want her to have everything I've had. A grand girl like Sheila rates it. She wouldn’t go for me in the logging game.”
Ginger Willie dived to the doorway and turned. “Ask her. The thing is, be a man. Don’t ever be bluffed. Old Ram—I mean yer father'll give in after. They always do. As fer Sheila—assert yer man’s position! Ye need to be firm with these Irish ones,” he ended, and scurried obediently down the steps.
It was an hour later that I saw MajorGeneral Blunt-Willows headed grimly toward the McArdle bam, waving a riding
crop and muttering. The signs were unmistakable. I gained the inner harness room door and stood hidden not twenty feet from where Ginger Willie was milking old Jersey. While unwilling to go the length of his Irish friends in testimony, I still might be of use as a witness.
“Inciting to mutiny! A son of mine, under my authority. You—you—!”
Chuttering, purple-faced, Ramrod paced a beat, arms flailing.
“Is he not goin’ to England then?” (iinger Willie passed close by, his manner as mild as the milk he carried.
“1 don’t care where he goes. I’m here to give you the hiding you deserve!”
“There’s never any gain from fightin’,” (finger Willie observed sagely, [touring from bucket to can. “Especially when drunk.”
Major-General Blunt-Willows briskly removed his tweed jacket. “You’ll fight, you bogtrotting dog,” he promised. “On guard !”
For a man whose greatest life joy had been to hear and feel the thud and smuek of hard fists upon an opponent’s anatomy — battle with or without cause—Ginger Willie’s present calm was a miracle of selfcontrol. Only thought of ninety days immediate confinement and years of city suffering to follow could have steeled him to swallow such insults. He forced a sickly grin, swallowing hard.
“Calm yerself, Gen’ral,” he advised, almost as might a friend. “Fightin’ is but a weakness of the mind. Ah’ve learnt my lesson an’ Ah’m cured. As the missis always has preached at me—fists prove nothin’!”
At mention of Becky, Old Ramrod grew almost apoplectic. “A nose-poking, interfering old witch!” he shouted, and jerked to a halt, staring.
In the wide doorway stood Becky herself. She peered ahead a moment while her eyes became adjusted to the shadows inside, then looked from one to the other.
“McArdle, stand aside.” She spoke quietly, eyeing Old Ramrod. Slowly she reached to one side, her fingers closing about the smooth handle of a six-tined dung fork. Still calm, she addressed Blunt-Willows.
“If interfering be needed to save a fine lad from becoming a pompous baboon like that standing afore me, I’m interfering.” She moved a step closer, voice tense. “Ordering the lad to the ends of the earth and breaking the hearts of the two o’ them, ye pheasant-murdering—!”
“Becky! Becky, wumman ! Are ye gone mad altogether?” Ginger Willie dropped his pail. He was aflutter now, grey-faced.
“McArdle, this is my affair. He’s trespassing on land that I own, and it’s my place to.show him the way off.” She straightened, gripping the fork handle. “Blunt-Willows, get moving, an’ move smart, fer if ever I catch ye I’ll brand a row o’ tine marks acrosst the droop o’ yer pants that’ll be the first wounds ever ye got in action. Away!”
ing threats of further courts and law, Old Ramrod strode grimly before, Becky dose behind, six sharp tine points flirting with his rear. Ginger Willie stood goggling in the doorway as they reached the tall hedge.
TT WAS an ignominious retreat. Mouth-
“Law all ye like about it,” Becky told Old Ramrod. “Take me to court an’ I’ll make ye look a bigger fool than ye’ve already made yerself look, which would he something.” In the doorway Ginger Willie winced as she added, “It’s not me that’s on suspended sentence.”
As Becky came back, Ginger Willie eyed the ground. She replaced the fork and turned.
“Out with you, Larry, wherever yer hid.
I seen you headed here, and thanks.” She turned. “And now, with but the three of us here, let’s get down to brass bearings. McArdle. where’s them hens?”
Ginger Willie eyed the fork and confessed. “I bet them on Johnny Clooney’s loss.”
“He wasn’t fit,” Ginger Willie cut iro, pleading. “The lad was ill. I had no way of knowin’.”
Becky eyed him a long moment. Lines about the lips that seldom were stilll, deepened. Ginger Willie took a quick loolk from the bam door at grassy fields and still trees with their peaceful evening shadows, then waited for pronouncemenit of the life sentence he knew must come.
“McArdle,” she said, “you deserve to lose this ranch. There’s a fine house to be had near my sister in Vancouver an’ I’d buy it this minute but fer one thing.” She paused. In the silence a cock pheasant im the lower field squalled insolently. Ginger Willie gulped and stayed silent.
Becky gazed out over the valley to the sea. “I find to my woe,” she admitted, “that a week of city shambles is all that I can stand. I didn’t realize it till now.” She sniffed the barnyard about her. “Dear heaven but it’s good to be home, and we’re staying. We’ll need Big Tim. and the mower, and the hay, but we’ll get therm. When Johnny Clooney fights next we”11 just bet again and win them back. Them and some more.” She broke off. “Come iin now fer yer tea, McArdle. You toco, Larry.”
We went, myself too dumfounded for speech, Ginger Willie swallowing relief iin great gulps. Nearing the house, she turned to him, a glint in her eye.
“It’s mournful bad luck fer this Clooney lad that he mightn’t have took some fight lessons from yerself, McArdle. I hear you made a fine job of things at the Fair.”
Ginger Willie slowed his pace, but kept still in speech. Becky took his arm. “Sheila told me,” she confessed. “At her wit’s end she was about Tommy. She tolld me all, and wisely, knowing even at her age that when men gets finished making a hopeless mess of things there’s none but a woman can see a way out. I straightened their troubles first. It’s not easy for a lad like Tommy to break family custom, but you’ve brought it about, McArdle. Sheila’s with Tommy this minute, seeing camp-boss Mike McCool about a woods job that I fixed with Mike this early morning, though they don’t know it. Tommy’s all man, but them loggers is the boys’ll make him prove it.” Pausing for breath, she whirled. “But fer whatever reason under the sun, McArdle,” she marvelled, “did you go piling into old Ramsbottom in the first place?”
In spite of a life road ahead suddenly and miraculously swept clear of trouble, Ginger Willie still hesitated. “It—it was somethin’ he said about Johnny Clooney,” he admitted. “At the Fair it was, and a dirty slander no less. I’d as lief not—”
“Tuts an’ bullrushes! There’s only Larry here. Out with it.”
McArdle looked grim. “He as good as said that the lad cared so little for his loyal Irish backers that he let them down by enterin’ the ring with a bad ailment that give him no chance to win, at the same time tellin’ his handlers nothin’ of it.”
Becky stared. “A bad ailment? What was it, McArdle?”
Ginger Willie’s lean jaw tightened. “He was talkin’ with his English crony. He said Irish Johnny was fair loaded with—with intestinal fortitood. Hearin’ the lie from his lips, a rage fair drowned me. I struck him.”
Becky stopped short, mouth agape, but quickly recovered. As we entered the kitchen her quick look warned me to silence. She placed an arm about Ginger Willie’s shoulders and sank beside him on the old couch in the comer.
“It’s proud I am of you, Willie,” she told him gently. “Despite yer many faults at least yer a man.”
She stroked his bald head. “And,” she added, “whatever was Johnny Clooney’s woe we’ll back him next fight anyhow. With the good Irish handlers of him you may bet my last Leghorn pullet he’ll have had an operation fer the trouble long afore now.”