She was so dry the frogs learned to swim under dust and the boys put it right up to Sheet-lightnin' Trumper

W. O. MITCHELL March 1 1948


She was so dry the frogs learned to swim under dust and the boys put it right up to Sheet-lightnin' Trumper

W. O. MITCHELL March 1 1948


She was so dry the frogs learned to swim under dust and the boys put it right up to Sheet-lightnin' Trumper



I COULD feel both of my legs getting kind of numb the way they do when you are sitting on the edge of something a long time. But Jake and Old Man Gatenby didn’t let on they were get ting numb. They were too mad.

Jake was sitting beside me on our horse trough and he had his long legs kinked up at the knees just, like a grasshopper ready to spring. “You take Hatfield,” he said.

“You take him,” Old Man Gatenby said real snappy, “gives me the heartburn.” Old Man Gatenby and Jake are both old, but old Gate’s face has taken it. worse than Jake’s -— enough wrinkles to hold a three-day rain. Jake’s our hired man.

Even under the grey stubble you could tell from Jake’s face that he was mad. It was red and had knotty sort of bulges at the corners of his jaw. His Adam’s apple was jumping too. Like he was trying to get a hold of himself he kept quiet a minute whilst he stared at. a Wine-dot pecking in the dust; his eyes that are that faded sort of blue, stared at Old Man Gatenby’s dog lying with his long tongue spilled out and panting.

There hadn’t been any rain the last three weeks of July and even the hen looked thirsty.

“He brung rain to Medicine Hat,” Jake said. “Then there was that; other fella—come through Crocus districk with alia his machinery set up on a CPU flatcar. He—”

“Jist a sprinkly little shower didn’t even lay the dust,” said Old Man Gatenby.

Jake shifted to get himself easier on the edge of the trough. He squinted up at some fat popcorn clouds over top of us; he kept right on looking at that hot blue sky that had forgot how to rain. “He contracked to git paid fer any rain he brung over an’ above the average rainfall.”

“Didn’t do so good out Yalla Grass way,” said Old Gate. “Ner at Brokenshell—ner Union Jack— they run him outa Broomhead.”

“Nothin’ to do with him rainin’, ” interrupted Jake.

“It shore as—”

“That was accounta the poker game over the Chinaman’s—”

“Was not!”

“She was!” Jake looked right into Gate’s eyes the way they were like cloves stuck into a little round apple—one you let lay around a long time till it got all puckered and shrivelly.

OLD Man Gatenby pulled out a plug and squeezed off a corner with his knife. Then he lifted her to his mouth. “No rain maker,” he said with his voice stubborn and slow and like it hurt him to keep it down the way he was doing, “with no rain machine never brought no rain to nobody!” Then he spit.

“Don’t!” Jake yelled and Gate nearly fell into the trough.


“Don’t spit!”

Old Man Gatenby gawped at Jake;

“It’s sinful,” Jake said.


“Wastin’ yer moisture that way.”

Old Gate looked at Jake like he was a fork going into a thrashing machine. “Tryin’ to change the subjeck when yer sooperstishus-”

“ ’T’ain’t sooperstishus,” Jake said. If they got the right kinda machine, then they kin do it. “They kin do it in a pig’s ear,” said Gate.

“A heck of an awkward place to raise wheat.” “They kin not—”

“They kin so! I seen it done!” yelled Jake.

“You ain’t.” I was thinking it’s funny how when old folk get to arguing they do it a lot like the kids do at recess at Rabbit Hill.

“I done it myself!” Jake was bellering.

“You did n—!” Old Man Gatenby’s mouth

snapped shut. His little eyes sparkled at Jake. “You whut!”

Jake swallowed quick. “Why—I—afore I come to Crocus districk.”

“You bet it was afore you come here,” agreed Gate. “Where the heck did you do any rainin’? ” “In oh four—Manyberries way.”

“Is that so?” Old Gate’s voice was real polite. “Yep,” said Jake. “Use to call me Sheet-lightmn’ Trumper.”

“Did they now? You have much of a success of this here rain makin’ ?”

“In a way I did,” Jake said. “Then in a way I didn’t.”

“Either you brung her down er you didn’t bring ’er down,” said Old Gate.

“I brung her down all right,” said Jake. “Trouble was I didn’t have no control when I rained. Lotsa power—no control—none a them light misty rains —them skimpy quick little summer showers when I rained I really rained.”

“That’s nié¿,” said Old Man Gatenby and the wav he said it you knew he didn’t think it was nice at all.

“Take Dominion Day in oh five—got her turned on an’ couldn’t git her turned off all through August an’ September. Har’ly nobody got thrashed at all so she had to stan’ in the stook right through till spring—then they didn’t git no crop.”

“Why not?”

“Mice,” said Jake. “Stooks was fulla mice. Go by a field an’ see alia them spikers an’ field pitchers working without no pants—

“Without any pants, Jake!” I said.

“Yep. Stick a fork into a stook an’ out run the mice an’ up a fella’s pant leg. Had to thrash without no pants. Mice et alla the wheat—jist straw left. Can’t, thrash straw.”

“To git back to this here rain makin’,” Old Gate said nasty. “How did—”

“Never got away from her,” said Jake. “Jist explainin’ how come folks wasn’t so fussy about me rainin’ ! Too much moisture. Then, too, she was sort of a onhealthy rain—onnatural—folks got all kindsa stuff outa it—colds—flu—that’s when my rheumatism started up the first time.”

“I’d settle fer double pneumonia to git some moisture on that flax a mine,” said Gate. Old Man Gatenby had two hundred acres of flax—flax is just as thirsty as wheat or rye or oats. “An’ the way this here droughty weather has bin, makes a fella real disgusted to hear you blowin’ about how you kin rain an’ what all rain makers kin do with their machines—’nough to give a gopher the heartburn.” He went to spit, then changed his mind. “Sacerlidge.”

“You don’t believe me,” said Jake.

“You bet I don’t! Er else you’d rig up yer rain machine an’ rain.”

“I told you why I quit.”

“You ain’t told noth’ cept a whoppin’ jag a lies —Sheet-lightnin’ Trumper.”

Jake’s Adam’s apple was going up and down like a bucket in a well. “Ef I wanted to rain,” he said, “why I could do her right now.”

“I’m callin’ you,” Old Gate said and his little eyes looked at Jake real cold. “Bring on yer rain machine.”

“I ain’t got her made.”

“Well, make her.”

“I ain’t—the—’t’ain’t all that easy to—”

“See what I mean—just like I said -a whoppin’ jag a—”

“Don’t say it,” Jake warned him, “er you won’t never see rain again!” He got off of the horse trough. “I’ll rain,” he said.

“When?” said Gate.

“Soon as I git my machine put together.” “When’ll that be?”

“When I’m ready.” Jake spit.

“Don’t!” Old Man Gatenby yelled and Jake just looked at him.

“Come on, Kid,” he said, “we got chores to do.” Jake was quiet all through supper and Maw looked at him like she wondered ' what was the matter. She said: “I guess this dry weather is

getting on everyone’s nerves.”

Jake went right on with his Saskatoon pie, eating it real careful with his knife and fork. Jake is a neat eater.

“Jake’s going to make a rain machine,” I said. There was a clatter and Jake was looking up from a purple stain over the oilcloth. Maw’s eyes were wide and dark on Jake.

“If a person would keep his mouth shut,” Jake said, “he wouldn’t get him into so much trouble.” He got up jerky from the table and he started for the door. He turned back. “Not that he won’t have him a crop a trouble anyways, but maybe she won’t go so many bushels to the acre. An’ maybe, if he keeps his mouth shut, she won’t grade so high when he gits her. Number one hard.” He turned to the door, then back again. “Don’t fergit that, Kid.” As hè went out he said, “Like I done this afternoon.”

I didn’t dare ask Jake what he was going to work on when he got out paper and a stubby pencil that night, before bedtime. He bent over the table with h>s shadow all sprawly over the kitchen wall and flickering from the lamp light. I pretended like I was reading The Prairie Farm Review and all about folks with critters that are sick with something and how to can vegetables. You could hear the cream separator purring out in the back shed where Maw was and the moths ticking against the lamp chimney.

Jake grunted and threw down the pencil. “Yer bedtime, ain’t it, Kid?”

All the next day, whilst we were haying, Jake was quiet and he would say yes or he would say no or he would grunt at you. That was all. I was kind of glad to leave him and the rack and go down to the road for the mail. When I got a look at the Crocus Breeze that Mr. Cardwell had left in our box, I ran for Jake. He was really in trouble.

When Jake saw it, he just stood there with his fork in his hand and he looked kind of sick. It s Gate,” he said. “He done it.”

“What are you going to do, Jake!”

Jake shook his head slow and his eyes were looking off over our crop turning brown along the edges for want of moisture. He rubbed his chin and it made a scrapy sound. He looked up at the sky, then off to the horizon. Way off there you could see a speck.

“Only one thing to do, Kid,” he said.


“Make tne a machine.”


“This here,” Jake slapped at the paper, “this here about me bein’ a rain maker an’ about me makin’ a machine—it—Kid, I guess there’s worse things than havin’ folks laff at you, but I don’t know what they are.”

The speck off in the sky wasn’t a hawk; you could hear it now. Jimmy Shoelack. Jimmy was in th*' Air Force and he farms for Mrs. Christiansen who went back to the old country. He has a little yellow plane he uses for crop dusting and taking fellows out. hunting antelope and folks up for rides at fairs around our district. That’s the only thing Jake and Old Man Gatenby agree about—hating Jimmy Shoelack’s airplane the way it buzzes all over like an angry wasp, scaring teams and stock.

But Jake wasn’t paying any attention when Jimmy’s plane came over us low. He said:

“I’m knocking off for the rest of the afternoon, Kid. Gotta git busy with some inventin’. ”

THREE days later Old Man Gatenby showed up at our place to borrow our posthole auger— at least: that was what he said. Jake was real polite to him, just like he didn’t get them to print that story about Jake in the Crocus Breeze. After Jake had got him the auger, he said:

“ ’Bout that thefe machine. Lotta folks been askin’ me when she’ll be ready. August Petersen figgers his crop’s only good fer another week,

an’—” “I’m workin’ on her,” Jake said. “I’m workin’ on her.”

Continued on page 46

The Day Jake Made Her Rain

Continued from page 11

“Well,” said Old Gate, “it would be kinda nice to see somethin’.”

Without saying anything Jake turned away and started walking toward the chophouse, me and Old Man Gatenby following after. Jake threw open the door and he stepped aside.

Old Man Gatenby’s face, with his chin nearly touching his nose, poked out like a rooster getting ready to fight. He peered into the chophouse. “What’s that!”

“A rain machine,” said Jake.

1 looked in. I saw sort of a cross between a wind electric and a gas motor and two lightning rods. 1 looked again. There were two blue bulbs.

“Call that a rain machine!” said Old Gate.

“She shore is,” said Jake. “Ain’t got her perfected yet.”

“Turn her on,” said Gate. “Let’s see her run.”


“Why not?”

“She’s set for hail.”

“Well then—onset her.”

“That’s what ain’t perfected,” Jake mid. “She’s all ready to go except fer that one little hug in her. I ain’t bringin’ no hail down on—”

“Say,” said Old Man Gatenby, “ain’t them blue bulbs sort of familiar?”

Jake almost caught Gate’s nose in the door when he slammed it shut. “That there’s the machine 1 used bufo re. She worked then. She’ll work agin. She was shore dry them days— had this skinned a mile. Dry! Not a slough in the districk, jist dust. Seen the frogs sett in’ up to their eyes in dust, jist their two hump eyes showin’.” “Them blue bulbs—” started Gate. “All over the prairie where the sloughs use to be, little puffs a dust where the frogs was jumpin’. You’d see a frog jump, there’d be a plop a dust, then you’d see him swimmin’ the way a frog does—underdust swimmin’ not quite so clear as underwater swimmin’. Hearin’ ’em croakin’ in their dust spring nights was kinda nice, made a fella remember she was spring at first—”

“At first, Jake, what—”

“After a couple of dry years, them winds lickin’ up the top soil an’ pilin’ it against the fences an’ houses an’ granaries, wasn’t no dust left in them sloughs no more.” Jake stared at the ground and he said real sad, “Come the next spring not a frog in a slough, Hinda tragical the way they died, lacka dust.” f

Old Man Gatenby had' his face screwed up sour. “When,” he said, “do you intend on rainin’?”

Jake cocked his head and he pursed his mouth. “End a this week, the beginnin’ a the next.”

“That’s all I wanted to know,” said Gate.

“More likely beginnin’ a the next,” said Jake, and I heard him muttering something about change of the moon.

Now Jake didn’t seem so happy about his rain machine; he didn’t act 1 so perky about it as he had when he was showing it to Old Man Gatenby. He tinkered with it a bit, but most of the time whilst we finished up the haying, he was looking up into the sky. When you felt that wind oven-hot against your cheek, and when you tasted the dust dry in your throat, it was kind of hard to believe what Jake said about rain machines.

Wednesday our well went dry.

THURSDAY the Crocus Breeze announced Reverend Cameron was going to have a praying-for-rain Sunday. There was a little piece saying that Jake Trumper was going to rain on Tuesday next at Tincher’s back forty where the ground rose between the correction line and Government road. “He picks my day an’ he picks my place,” was all Jake said.

Friday Queen and Duke bolted so Jake fell off a load of hay and lit on his head. Here was how it happened.

We had a big load on and 1 had a hold of the lines and Jake was crawling to me when Jimmy Shoelack’s plane came low and fast as a scalded coyote over the rise of the draw. He headed straight for the team. Duke reared up in his harness, then Queen; then they both began to run. It took me the whole field and the load of hay to get them stopped. I turned to Jake, only he wasn’t on the load any more.

I tied them to the fence, then I ran back to where we’d been loading.

With his feet straight out in front of him, Jake was sitting on the baldheaded prairie right where he’d landed.

He wasn’t cussing. He was just sitting there and looking off into the distance.

“You all right, Jake?”

He just went right on sitting there and looking kind of stupid.

“You all right, Jake!”

He was getting up slow and creaky, breathing hard the way you do after you’ve run a long ways. He started off walking.

“This way, Jake,” I said.

He didn’t even hear me. Just like he was dreaming he kept on walking in the opposite direction from our house.

1 ran to catch up. “You better come home, Jake. Take a lay-down till you feel belt—”

He shook me off.

“That’s the wrong way, Jake.” “Wanta use Tincher’s phone.” “I'll go phone Dr. Fotheringham,” I said.

“Wanta use Tincher’s phone. Wanta git Jimmy Shoelack bad.”

“Jake,” I said, “just report him. They’ll fix him for what he did—” “Wanta use Tincher’s phone. Wanta thank him.”

“Thank—Jake!” I yelled, “you come on home with me on the rack!” Jake kept right on walking.

He got back late, whilst Maw was cleaning up the supper dishes. He went out to milking, singing “The Letter Edged In Black”; he came back with the milk pails, singing “The Baggage Coach Ahead.”

He didn’t go to church with Maw and me on Sunday, said he had to go over and see Jimmy Shoelack. The Reverend Cameron prayed for rain; he said for everybody to go right on praying next week and he’d take another try at her the following Sunday.

Monday a big parcel came for Jake in the mail.

“Is that for the rain machine?” I asked him. ,

“You might say she was, Kid.”

“You worried, Jake — about tomorrow?”

He looked up at the sky.

“Do you really think she’ll make rain?”

“T’ain’t a rain makin’ machine,” Jake said sharp.

“But you told Old Gate—”

“She’s a rain machine. Ain’t no machine kin make rain—that’s plumb silly—jist bring her down if she’s up there.”

“I see,” I said. “Jake.”


“Those there blue bulbs—Old Man Gatenby said—”

“Don’t pay no attention to what he says.”

“But, they look a lot like your—” “Kid,” Jake said, “when you say yer ‘Now I Lay Me Down’ tonight, after that there part about blessin’ folks, stick in about sendin’ a bunch of grey cloud tomorrah.”

I promised I would.

THE Lord must of heard. The next day, whilst Jake put up his rain machine on a platform in Tincher’s corner, the grey clouds built up. By afternoon she was dark clear to the horizon, but that didn’t mean anything; she’d done that lots of times without raining.

Everybody from our district came. They brought their lunches; they sat in the shade of their cars or their rigs and ate and drank coffee out of thermos jugs. Mr. Tincher organized some kids races just like a Sunday-school picnic at Ashton’s grove. Stevie Kiziw and me came first in the potato sack race; Axel Rassmussen was first in the egg and spoon race. Jimmy Shoelack was taking folks up for a cent a pound.

About four o’clock Jake got up on his platform. He looked down at the folks all gathered around and some kids playing tag at one end of the platform. He looked up at the sky thick with soft grey like a goose.

“Now look,” he said, “this here is a rain machine. I made it.” He stopped like he was looking for words. “I aim to rain with it. I—I ain’t gonna explain the principle she works on—rain makin’s a lot like other things, she takes faith. I’d say rain makin’ was about one per cent machine an’ ninety-nine per cent faith.”

“Fergit the hot air an’ git on to the rain!” yelled Mr. Botton.

“T’ain’t more wind we want!” That was Old Man Gatenby.

“All right,” Jake said back at them. “But she won’t work without faith, no more’n what she’ll work without gas. 1 gotta have yer faith—all the faith in this here districk. Its gotta grow outa you folks wantin’ the rain I’m gonna bring. You gotta wanta smell her cool on the air, an’ wanta hear her slappin’ loud on the roof, fillin’ up them thirsty cracks in yer land, sloppin’ outa yer stock troughs, fillin’ an’ risin’ in yer sloughs an’ wells!”

“I gotta have faith from the women folk, too. You gotta want me to rain as bad as you want pansies lookin’ up at you from yer flower beds, as bad as sweet peas an’ hollyhocks is thirsty fer something besides soapy throw-out water, as bad as you wanta write down stuff outa the Hudson’s Bay catalogue fer yer kids!”

Jake’s grey hair was standing right up on end, kind of misty. He seemed to be looking through the crowd for something. I turned around and I saw Jimmy Shoelack slipping away.

Jake said, “You gotta have faith she’s gonna happen! You gotta know it in yer gizzard an’ yer heart an’ yer soul! You gotta know her—if I was you I’d take an’ put something over my head, Mrs. Totcoal!” Mrs. Johnny Totcoal reached back and came up with a quilt from the democrat for her head and shoulders. “You gotta know her!” Jake was yelling, “clear as spring water!”

“Any of you folks has snuffy teams get a good holt on them lines!” I saw Mr. Sawyer reaching forward for the reins. “I want yer faith—an’ I’m a gonna git it!”

He had it. You could tell. I’m only a kid, but I could smell faith all over the place. You could see it in folks’ eyes. They knew Jake was going to rain; they knew it because it was ten times easier to know he would than it was to know he wouldn’t.

“Stan’ well back, folks!” Jake was yelling, “an’ gimme room! Git a holt of yer kids fer I aim tub rain!”

He gave the flywheel of the rain machine a spin; she coughed, she missed, she coughed again. Then she was going full blast. Jake struck a match on the seat of his overalls. Whoooshshshs, like a long breath between your teeth—and another and another and another—four rockets were trailing their fire tails into the sky.

Long and lean and angley Jake was facing the crowd again. You could hear his voice high and thin above the machine and something else. Then I realized it was the sound of Jimmy Shoelaek’s plane taking off. You could smell gas sharp on the air and you could see sparks wriggling and twisting between the two blue bulbs on the rain machine. Looking at those lightning rods pointing straight up to the sky and that motor chugging along, you could almost feel the machine hauling and drawing and pulling at that, moisture up in those grey clouds— just like sucking pop through a straw and out of a bottle.

SOMETHING was wrong. The machine had stopped, and Jake was looking off to where the sound of Jimmy Shoelack’s plane was fading away. He said real quiet:

“That’s her, folks.”

You could hear them breathing loud all around you. Old Man Gatenby coughed. The Botton kid let a holler out of him. There was the tinkle of halter shanks, the creak of harness. A car horn honked loud from somebody moving quick and hitting it with their elbow. Mrs. Totcoal took the quilt off of her head. Everybody was turning their eyes away like they were embarrassed.

I looked up to the platform where Jake was still standing. Just a dead machine—a gas motor, two lightning rods, the blue bulbs off of a rheumatism machine and our hired man. There was no faith in the faces of folks hooking up their traces and turning to their cars and taking a hold of their kids by the hands and not saying anything.

She sort of burst; she didn’t take a few minutes for you to realize what was happening; she didn’t start off with a few drops spanking you on the head or the cheek or the back of your hand; she up and let go all of a sudden. Folks quit whatever they were doing and they stood with their lower lips over their upper ones like it was something to taste and eat; the hides on all the horses were all of a sudden dark and gleamy; the shoulders on Jake’s coat were soaked in no time and the drops running crooked white tracks down through the dust over his face; the women’s dresses were plastered to them like your cotton bathing suit after a swim. She was sure rainin’!

Johnny Totcoal let a whoop and he off with his coat and he ripped open his shirt without doing the buttons and stood with the rain streaming through the hair on his chest. Up went the Reverend Cameron’s long arms and he shouted, “The Lord be praised!”

Old Man Gatenby’s mouth came shut like a gopher trap. “The Lord nothin’!” he yelled. “Sheet-lightnin’ Trumper!”

Jake just stood there in his rain.

It was after we got home I said: “Jake, why did Jimmy Shoelack—” “Like everythin’ else,” Jake said, “There’s bin a lotta advancement in rain makin’! That day Jimmy’s plane sent me kitin’ off of the hay, kinda reminded me of a article I read in the Prairie Farm Review.” He looked down at me for a minute. “Ever hear tell a dry ice, Kid?”

I looked right back at him. “Sure,” I said, “it was all over the prairies the year of the blue snow. That was when the dust all froze into solid cakes.” Jake looked at me kind of funny. He started to say something, but he changed his mind.

He knows better than to try fooling me. ★