The Liar Hunter
W. O. MITCHELL
IF THERE is anything folks are more fussy about than their own kids, Jake says, it is the truth. They will get pretty snuffy if someone tells them they haven’t got any too good a grip on the truth. Jake ought to know; he is our hired man, and sometimes he will give the truth a stretch or two, but not like Old Man Gatenby. When Jake is done with her she will snap back into place; with Old Gate she is stretched for good.
Old Man Gatenby lives on his half section down Government Road from us, him and his daughter, Molly. He is about 40% wheat farmer, Jake says, 30% plain liar, and 30% magnifying glass. Even so, folks don’t call him a liar. Not with the temper he’s got.
Truth is a real handy thing to have lying around, Jake says, but sometimes a little of her will go a long ways. Miss Henchbaw at Rabbit Hill says Jake makes too little go too long a ways. You would expect her to say that. She is a teacher. She wouldn’t be so fussy about the truth if she hud got mixed up with Mr. Godfrey last summer.
Mr. Godfrey was the fellow came out West to visit with Molly Gatenby, and it was him gave Old Gate the worst dose of the truth that he ever got. Jake and me saw him the first day he was in town, because Old Man Gatenby was busy finishing up his crop and he asked us to give Mr. Godfrey a lift out from town. We did.
Without those glasses and that pale sort of a skin he had he would have been a nice-looking fellow. His eyes put me in mind of Mr. Cameron’s when he goes on about the flesh being so awful and the spirit being so dandy— dark and burny. Whenever he would say anything the words came out real far apart, like flies he was picking off fly paper. He was all the time clearing his throat just before he said something. He could have been a consolidated school principal.
He was just tin* kind of a fellow you would expect Molly to run with, her being so schoolteacher serious too. It Is funny for Old Gate to have a daughter like Molly. Her eyes are not old-timer eyes. Her face is not all creased up like some brown paper you crumple in your hand and then try to smooth out. Her eyes will put you in mind of those violets that are tangled up in prairie grass along about the end of April.
I guess she is the violet and Old Gate is the dead grass. That’s how they are.
Until we were out of Crocus, with Baldy’s hind quarters tipping up and down real regular and telephone poles stretching clear to the horizon, Mr. Godfrey didn’t say anything. Then he cleared his throat and said:
“The smallness of man—-the prairies bring it to one with—such impact—it—is almost the catharsis ot tragedy.’’
A jack rabbit started up to the left of the road, went over the prairie in a sailing bounce. “Huh!” Jake said.
“Catharsis—cleansing—as in the Greek tragedy— cathartic.”
“Oh,” Jake said, “that. Thuh alkali water sure is fear . . .” “Oh, no," Mr. Godfrey said. “I mean that it—has a . . .”
“Prairie’s scarey,” I said.
“Yes.” He looked down at me. “That’s it—exactly it.”
“I heard yuh was one of them prefessers,” Jake said. He spit curvey into the breeze. “Ain’t diggin’ in thuh bank of thuh Brokenshell, are yuh?” He meant where they’re getting those bones—the big ones that are older than anything.
“I dig,” Mr. Godfrey said, “in a manner of speaking—but for folklore.”
“Whut kinda ore?”
“Lore. Folklore — art — the common people . . .”
“That’s real nice.” Jake jiggled the lines at Baldy’s rump. “Who the heck is Art an’ what’s this all about?”
“Why—I . . .” He cleared his throat. “I look for songs—ballads that have—that express the life of the Old West.”
“ ‘Baggage Coach Behin’ the Train’?” Jake said. “ ‘Where Do the Flies Go in the Wintertime?’ ”
“But—mostly stories,” Mr. Godfrey said, “tall tales.”
“Is that right?” Jake looked real pleased, and he cleared his throat the way he does before he starts to yarn.
“I’m looking for liars,” Mr. Godfrey said.
Those dark, hungry eyes were staring right at Jake.
Jake swallowed. “Yuh don’t hafta look at me!”
“You bin talkin’ to Miss Henchbaw!”
“Do you think that she might help me? . . .” “Her! She’s real fussy about the truth. Truthfullest woman we got aroun’ here—hext tuh Molly Gatenby. Why, she . . .”
“Would you consider Mr. Gatenby a good source— of tall tales?”
“All depends,” Jake said. “Anythin’ Gate tells yuh, she’s blowed up to about four times natural size. You take hailstones—”
“A chronic liar.”
“Say!” Jake jumped. “Jist who do you—oh—yuh mean Gate.”
“How many kindsa liars you turned up so far?”
“There’s the defensive liar—and the occasional liar. I mentioned the chronic liar. The pragmatic or practical liar. I’m looking for the creative liar, of course.”
“Oh—a-course,” Jake said. “About Gate—I wouldn’t like tuh say he lied exactly—jist sorta deckerates thuh truth a bit.” He looked away from Mr. Godfrey’s eyes. “That’s all.” He looked back to Mr. Godfrey. “Tell me somethin’. You ever run intuh any trouble with folks?”
“Not yet,” said Mr. Godfrey.
“Well, young fella,” Jake said, “ye’re gonna.”
THE rest of the way home we just rolled along with the buckboard wheels sort of grinding. A gopher squeaked a couple of times. The way it is in fall, the air was just like soda pop. Every cnce in a while would come a tickle to your nose or your forehead, and you would brush at it, only it would keep right on tickling. You couldn’t see the spider webs floating on the air, except where the sunshine caught onto them and slid down. Mr. Godfrey had a lost look on his face whilst he stared off to the horizon with its strawstacks curling their smoke into the soft blue sky.
"Truth," said Jake, "is handy to have around, but sometimes a little will go a long ways." With romance at stake, Molly heartily agreed
At Gatenby’s corner Mr. Godfrey said thanks very much, and Jake looked like he was going to say something, then he seemed to change his mind and clucked at Baldy instead. Just before we turned in, Jake said: “I kin har’ly wait fer Gate tuh come over fer rummy tuhmorra night.”
But Old Gate didn’t come till a week later, and when he got to our place he wasn’t joking about how he’d nail Jake’s hide to a fence post. All the time he played rummy he kept drumming his fingers on the kitchen table. I saw him miss the Queen of Hearts for a run and the ten of spades to make up three of a kind. Jake marked down 45 against Gate.
“Ain’t doin’ so smart tuhnight, Gate.”
“Deal them there cards.”
“Yore deal, Gate.”
Gate started in shuffling the cards, all the time chewing so his chin come up almost to his nose.
Jake picked up the first card Gate dealt. “Looks like a early winter.”
“Leave them cards lie till I git ’em dealt!” Gate said it real short. Then, “ ’Tain’t polite.”
Jake didn’t say anything at all.
Gate lost the whole game. When Jake shoved him the cards to deal a new hand, he said:
“Tuh hell with her, Jake.”
“Ain’t yuh feelin’ so good, Gate?”
“Feelin’ good!” Gate’s voice cracked. He leaned across the table. “Right now you are lookin’ a teetotal nervous wreck right between the eyes!”
“My nerves—plum onstrung—hangin’ loose as thuh fringe on a Indian jacket. I tripped in ’em three times yesterday between thuh hog pens an’ thuh stock trough. An—” “I wouldn’t take on like that, Gate,” Jake said. “Yuh gotta relax.”
“Take on! Relax! ’Tain’t no skin offa yore knuckles! 'Tain't you he’s callin’ a liar—in yer own house—in fronts yer own daughter!”
Jake’s mouth dropped open. “Did he do that, Gate?”
“He might as well an’ be done with her!”
“Either he did,” Jake said, “er he didn’t.
Whatta yuh mean?”
“Look,” Mr. Gatenby said, “he’s got him a little black notebook—keeps-her in his hip pocket—every time I open my mouth, he opens that there notebook! ‘ ’Member thuh winter of oh six,’ I sez. Out comes thuh notebook. ‘Is it a fact?’ he sez. ‘Certain’y is,’ I sez. Bang, he snaps her shet—me too.
Can’t git another word outa me! Like thrashin’—ready tuh roll an’ he ups an’ throws a ball of binder twine intuh thuh cylinders. ‘Is it a fact?’ he sez. Whut’s he think I’m gonna tell him, thuh fat-brained, stoop-shouldered—”
“Now—ain’t that cathartic.”
Old Gate stared at Jake.
“New way of sayin’ she’s tragical,” Jake said quick.
Gate grunted. “I’ll tell yuh one thing fer certain— they ain’t gonna be no liar hunters tied up with thuh Gatenby outfit.”
He meant it.
A couple of nights later I heard Ma and my Aunt Margaret talking whilst they were giving the baby his bath. Aunt Margaret stays with us whilst her husband is in the Navy. My Dad fights too; he fights
for the South Saskatchewans. It is Aunt Margaret’s baby.
I heard her say, “With Herbert gathering this folklore, she’s ashamed of her own father.”
“Ashamed of her father!” Ma said.
“I hope nothing comes of it,” Aunt Margaret said. “It would—”
“You can let his head back now.” Ma looked at Aunt Margaret whilst she wrung out the washcloth. “Molly’s nobody’s fool. Her heart isn’t going to break in a hurry. In many ways she’s her father’s daughter.” “A liar, Ma?”
“She is not! Don’t you dare use that word again! That wood box—”
“I already filled it.”
“Help Jake wit h the cream then.”
I told Jake all about it. I said, “There's a dustup coming over to Gatenby’s, Jake.”
“Is there, now?” Jake said.
“Molly isn’t so fussy about Mr. Godfrey makin’ out her father’s a—a—what he’s makin’ him out to
“A tradegy,” Jake said, “to give a Greek thuh .heartburn.”
But a week later Jake was laughing on the other side of his face, when the whole works came over to our place to visit. That was the night Mr. Godfrey said something about how hot it had been down East that summer.
“Hot here too,” Jake said. For a minute he worked on his teeth with a sharpened matchstick and then he said. “Take thuh second week in July—tar paper on thuh roof of thuh chicken house she all bubbled up.”
“Did it really?” said Mr. Godfrey. On the chair beside him was Molly, sitting straight up like she expected something to happen, and she wanted to be ready to take off quick. Old Gate he’d hardly said anything since they came, just stared at the gas lamp in the centre of the kitchen table.
“Bubbled right up,” Jake said. “Noon of thuh second day, wispy aorta smoke was coming off of her.” “That a fact?”
Jake gave a little start like he’d stuck himself with the point of the matchstick. “Why—certain’y,” he said.
“Herbert—please!” Molly said it the way Ma talks when she’s holding in before company. I took a good look at her then, and I couldn’t see where she was like Old Gate. Take her hair in that lamplight, real pretty—yellow as a strawstack with the sun lying on it. Take her mouth, the way it is so red; take her
all around she is pretty as a sorrel colt. Gate is enough to give a gopher the heartburn.
Continued on page 22
The Liar Hunter
Continued from page 17
“—a hawin’ an’ a cawin’ jist as I come out,” Jake was saying. “That there tar paper on thuh hen house roof was so sticky thuh dumb fool crow had got himself stuck up in it. Real comical he was—liftin’ one foot an’ then thuh other. Course she was kinda tragical too—that there tar was hot. Musta bin kinda painful.”
“Why—that’s a wonderful—”
Molly cleared her throat, sort of warning; Mr. Godfrey quit reaching for his hip pocket.
“Inside of 10 minnits,” Jake went on, “a whole flocka crows was circlin’ over, the way they will when they hear another in trouble, an’ buhfore I knew it thuh whole roof was stuck up with ! crows somethin’fearful.”
“Herbert!” Mr. Godfrey had his notebook out and was opening it on his knee. Fie didn’t pay any attention to Molly and the funny look she had on her face.
“Aflutterin’ an’ ahollerin’, with their wings aslapping—our hen house sort of liftin’ and’ then settlin’ back agin. I headed fer thuh woodpile.”
“What for, Jake?” I said.
“Axe—wasn’t gonna let that hen house go without a fight. I chopped thuh roof loose from thuh uprights an’ away she went. Cleared thuh peak of thuh harn an’ headed south.”
MOLLY was standing up and she was looking down at Mr. Godfrey writing away like anything. Her face looked kind of white to me. “It’s about time we were going,” she said real soft.
“But we’ve just come!” Mr. Godfrey said. “This is the sort ofthing I—” “Folklore!” Molly said it like it was a cuss word.
Mr. Godfrey smiled and nodded his head and turned to Jake. “How long after the first crow came did—”
' “Let her go fer tuhnight,” Jake said.
“Don’t look now,” Molly said with I her voice tight, “but I’m tired and j sick of being Exhibit A for the common I people. Any time you feel you can—” “Oh, no, Molly,” Mr. Godfrey said, “you don’t und—”
“I’m afraid I do. These happen to be my people. They—”
“No call tuh fly off of thuh handle,” Jake told her.
“A little more tact on your part, Jake, wouldn’t have hurt at all!”
“Me—I didn’t do nothin’. That there story—”
“Just a tall tale,” Molly cut in on him, “like the thousands I’ve listened to all my life. I’m funny, but—”
“You shore are!” Jake said.
“There Lsn’t any harm in them,” Ma said.
“What makes it worse,” Molly said, “is they have no—no point—useless— utterly senseless and —immoral!”
“I can explain what it is that—” Mr. Godfrey began.
“You’ve been our guest!” Molly turned on him. “Not for one minute have you stopped insinuating that my—”
“I haven’t been making any—” “You certainly have!”
“Will you let me explain?”
“It’s a little late for that!”
“It shore is!” Jake was mad. “Standin’ there on yer hind feet an’ »lyin’ I’m senseless an’ useless an—an’ im—immortal!”
“Please, Jake.” That was Ma.
I got a look at Gate, and he had a grin clear across his face.
“That story about them—” “Was a lie, Jake Trumper! However you want—”
“Are you callin’ me a liar?” Jake he was off of the wood box.
“I hate to do it,” Molly said, “but you asked for it, Jake. You are the biggest. . . two-handed . . . clod-busting liar I have ever known!”
The kitchen clock ticked real loud against the silence. I could hear Jake’s breath whistling in his nose.
“With one exception,” Molly said. “My Dad.” She turned to Old Gate. “Take me home!”
I knew then what Ma meant; she is Gate’s daughter all right. I felt kind of sorry for Mr. Godfrey.
I FELT even more sorry for him the day me and Jake went into Crocus for Ma’s groceries. He was standing beside some yellow suitcases inside of MacTaggart’s, right by the door. Halfway down the counter was Molly; she stayed there.
“Hullo,” Jake said. “You catchin’ thuh four-ten?”
“Yes,” Mr. Godfrey said.
“Sorry tuh see yuh go.”
“You’re alone in your sentiment.” “Huh?”
“I say—you’re the only one who is.” “Oh—I wouldn’t—”
“I would,” Mr. Godfrey said. “I’ve made a mess of things, and there’s no use pretending I haven’t.” He was staring at Jake that way I told you about. I sort of fiddled with a doubleoh gopher trap hanging down from the counter. Mr. Godfrey looked past Jake to Molly by the canned tomatoes. She turned away. “I’d like to tell you something before I go.”
“Shoot,” Jake said.
“Somethin’ fer yuh tuhday?” That was Mr. MacTaggart, who had come out from the back and was leaning across the counter to Molly.
“My work is important,” Mr. Godfrey said. “I’m not just a—a liar hunter simply.” He was real serious. He wasn’t looking at Jake.
“Any apples in?” Molly said. “Apples,” Mr. MacTaggart said, and wrote it down with his stubby pencil, then looked up at Molly for what was next.
“What I do is important. Important as history is important.” Mr. Godfrey wasn’t dropping his words in relays now, but talking straight along, maybe because he was so darn serious.
“Gee!” I said, “you should hear how Jake wrassled Looie Riel an’—”
“Hold her, kid!”
“Not the history of great and famous men,” Mr. Godfrey explained, “hut of the lumberjacks and section men, hotelkeepers and teachers and ranchers and farmers. The people that really count.”
» “And—a tin of blackstrap,” Molly said it to Mr. MacTaggart, but she was looking at Mr. Godfrey. She didn’t sound like she was so fussy about getting any molasses.
“Their history isn’t to be found in records or in books.”
“This here Ontario cheese is real nice.”
“Their history is in the stories they tell—their tall tales. That’s why I gather—”
“Good an’ nippy.”
“And a pound of cheese,” Molly said. “And I can tell you why they lie,” Mr. Godfrey said.
“Anythin’ else?” Mr. MacTaggart said.
“If you’re interested,” Mr. Godfrey said.
“That’ll be nice,” Jake said.
“Was there somethin’ else?” Mr. MacTaggart asked.
“This is a hard country, I don’t have to tell you that. There are—drouth, blizzards, loneliness. A man is a pretty small thing out on all this prairie. He is at the mercy of the elements. He’s a lot like—like a—”
Continued on page 24
Continued fmm page 22
“Fly on a platter,” I said.
“Was there somethin” else yuh wanted?” said Mr. MacTaggart.
“That’s right,” Mr. Godfrey said. “These men lie about the things that hurt them most. Their yarns are, about the winters and how cold they are the summers and how dry they are. In this country you get the deepest snow, the worst dust storms, the biggest hailstones.”
“Mebbe yuh didn’t hear me—” Mr. MacTaggart said to Molly—“Was there somethin’ more yuh wanted?” “Rust and dust and hail and sawfly and cutworm and drouth are terrible things, but not half ns frightening if they are made ridiculous. If a man can laugh at them he’s won half the battle. When he exaggerates things he isn’t lying really; it’s a defense, the defense of exaggeration. He can either do that or squeal.” Mr. Godfrey picked up his bags and started for the door.
“Whilst you stand there makin’ up yer mind,” Mr. MacTaggart said, “I’ll get tuh Mrs. Totcoal’s order.”
“People in this country aren’t squealers.” Mr. Godfrey was standing in the doorway.
“You go ahead with the Totcoal order,” Molly said to Mr. MacTaggart with her eyes on Mr. Godfrey. She walked right up to him and she looked right at him. “I think I’ve just made up my mind.”
“Hey!” yelled Mr. MacTaggart, “not right in front of—”
“Jist a new kinds hist’ry,” Jake said, “gonna tickle Old Gate right up the back.”
“Oh!” Molly turned around. “I’d — what are we—what about Dad! Ho said if Herbert ever—”
“Mr. Godfrey better come out with us,” Jake said. “Don’t you tell yer Paw anythin’ about him still bein’ here. Jist say ye’re invited over to our place fer tuhnight. I got me a notion.” Jake ! leanetl down and picked up Mr. Godfrey’s bags. “I got me a notion about what makes Old Gate tick.”
AP OUR born Jake told me to beat it _ and I did. Him and Mr. Godfrey j were in there for quite a while. Me, I j was wondering what made Old Man ; Gatenby tick. I didn’t find out till that night.
Gate got quite a start when he saw Mr. Godfrey. “Ain’t you went yet?” he said.
“I—I missed the train,” Mr. Godfrey said. That was his first lie, what you might call a warming-up lie. Molly’s face got kind of red. Gate he settled back in his chair like he was ready for a tough evening.
“Never fergit thuh year hoppers was so bad,” Jake said. “Blacked out thuh sun complete.”
“This district had them terribly, I understand,” Mr. Godfrey said. “Of course they weren’t so big, were they?” “Big!” Jake said. “One of ’em lit on thuh airport at Broomhead an’ a RAF fella run 100 gallons a gas intuh him afore he reelized—”
“Albin!” Mr. Godfrey said—“Albin Hobblemeyer, they called that grasshopper. I have him in my files. Three years ago he—”
“Is that a fact?” Jake said.
“They named him as soon as he set foot in the district, after a man named Hobblemeyer—squashed him to death. Matter of fact he’s upset a number of the investigators digging for prehistoric remains in the bank of the Brokenshell. They’re not so sure that—”
“Yuh mean—mebbe them Brokenshell bones belonged to the great great gran’daddies of that there hopper?” Jake said.
“He was that big,” Mr. Godfrey said. “When he leaped, the back lash from his shanks licked up the topsoil for miles behind him and the tumbleweeds—”
“Say—” Old Gate was on the edge of his chair.
“He spit tobacco juice and smeared over an entire schoolhouse just newly painted. Naturally he caused a lot of excitement. People were worried sick. They couldn’t destroy him— bullets, buckshot just bounced off his chitinous hide, and people began to wonder what it would be like when he—”
“That’s a pretty feeble—” Gate started in.
“—began to lay eggs. They decided the only thing they could do would be to keep it on the hop.”
“Why, Mr. Godfrey?” I asked.
“A grasshopper has to dig a hole and back into it before it can lay. It was unfortunate that there was a man in the district named—uh—”
“Dewdney,” Jake said. “Wasn’t there a fella name of—”
Gate, he had a funny look on his face, like a fellow wanting a swim real bad but not wanting to take the jump. “Ain’t no fella name a Dewdney in Broomhead. There’s Dooley—got one leg shorter than thuh other—one-an’-ahalf-step Dooley.”
“That was the man,” Mr. Godfrey said, and Old Gate looked startled. “A very close man who had wanted to dig himself a reservoir to catch the spring runoff and couldn’t bring himself to laying out the money it would cost. He couldn’t resist the temptation to let the grasshopper dig it for him.”
Gate’s mouth dropped open and stayed that way.
“Unfortunately,” Mr. Godfrey said, “Albin laid an egg.”
Gate swallowed. “Tell me,” he said, “jist—how—how big an egg would a hopper like that lay?”
“Quite round,” Mr. Godfrey said, “and about the size of the average chicken house. Mr.—uh—”
“Dooley,” Gate said kind of dazed. “—he tried to crack it with an axe, and succeeded only in throwing his right shoulder out of joint when the axe bounced off the egg.”
“He decided then to pile birch chunks around it and in that way—uh —fry it—so that it couldn’t hatch. As soon as he had the wood lighted he got frantic as he thought that perhaps the heat might only speed up the hatching. So he put the fire out.”
“What thuh hell did he do?” Old Gate was really interested now.
“He rounded up the district’s entire supply of stumping powder. The last seen of the egg, it was headed for the States.”
Old Gate’s breath came out of him in one long swoosh.
“Is—that—a—fact?” He said it real weak.
Mr. Godfrey was looking over at Molly, and she was smiling. Jake looked like he’d just thrashed a 60bushel crop, too.
It was a week later, after Mr. Godfrey had gone back to stay with Gatenbys, that I asked Jake about something that had bothered me ever since that night.
“Jake,” I said, “he never told what happened to that hopper.”
“There,” Jake said, “is thuh tragical part of it. Albin, he fell in love.”
“Fell in love!”
“Yep. He was settin’ in this here Dooley’s back 40 one day an’ he looked up an’ seen one a them there fourengine bombers they’re flyin’ tuh Roosia. She was love at first sight. He took off, an’ thuh last folks seen was two little black specks disappearin’ tuh thuh North. Han’ me that there manure fork will yuh, kid?”