Fiction

A HAT FOR BILLY JIM

The university people paid fifty cents a head and a quarter for kids. Just to measure. How much did they pay for pride?

LESLEY CONGER February 1 1951
Fiction

A HAT FOR BILLY JIM

The university people paid fifty cents a head and a quarter for kids. Just to measure. How much did they pay for pride?

LESLEY CONGER February 1 1951

A HAT FOR BILLY JIM

Fiction

LESLEY CONGER

The university people paid fifty cents a head and a quarter for kids. Just to measure. How much did they pay for pride?

THE SUMMER Billy Jim was four the family went down for the hop-picking. The tent they had was the one nearest the store and only a few yards from the edge of the rows of vines. It wasn’t much of a store, just a shack with an open front counter to it, and mostly it sold pop and candy to the kids.

The tents belonged to Mr. Dodge; they made a little dingy canvas village between the hop-fields and a patch of woods where the road from the highway came down into camp. The ground around the camp was hard and the grass yellow and dry. It was August.

A lot of people came that season, and the gambling was exciting. First Billy Jim would run around and around the two rows of kneeling players, and then he would stand behind his father and hop up and down to the drumming and singing, learning it himself: “Hai li hi hai li hi!” Double Jim was a smart gambler; once he guessed right eight times running. Billy Jim kept saying that when he grew up he’d be a gambler and he’d spend all winter making a fine set of bones for slahal too, and he’d always know how to guess where the plain white bone was no matter how smart the holders were.

Billy Jim was the youngest and he had a new red plaid shirt that Mrs. Jim had got for him in Vancouver. If he was anywhere to be seen in the camp, Mrs. Jim could see him right away, it was that red. And he had a new cap gun in a white leather holster and all he wanted right now was a cowboy hat.

Double Jim’s other kids, Paul and Joe, were big and nearly grown; this Mrs. Jim was the second Mrs. Jim, and Billy was her only boy. The first Mrs. Jim had died in the Indian hospital, 10 or 11 years ago.

THIS WAS the summer the people came from the University to measure everybody. Double Jim’s gambling luck had gone against him for two nights and he was feeling peevish. When he saw the new station wagon drive down the road into the camp, it made him kind of sore to see Billy Jim hopping around it with the other kids, patting the shiny fenders and the headlights almost t>efore it had stopped. He didn’t like Billy Jim hanging around white people. You’d think they’d have enough of their own business to worry about anyway, that they wouldn’t come around bothering

people all the time. He supposed it was true what old George Henry said, that they made money off Indians that way, like that young woman two summers ago who was asking all kinds of questions up on the reserve; she wanted to talk to George Henry but he just shut his door and wouldn’t come out. She said she was writing down about old times and the history of his people, but he wouldn’t have anything to do with it, so she finally had to go talk to Alec Lamont, and that, made old George

Henry laugh because everybody knew Alec didn’t even belong on the reserve and didn’t know anything about old times, anyway.

But Double Jim just stood there and didn’t call Billy away from the station wagon. It wasn’t that important.

There were two men in the station wagon and a girl. Mr. Dodge came around from in back of the store and stood there talking with them; then the girl took some things from the back of the station wagon and went and sat on the porch in front of the store. She was kind of an ugly girl with bright red hair and her clothes weren’t big enough for her, so everything pulled here and there when she moved. She sat down on the edge of the porch with her legs stretched straight out, in front of her and her feet crossed, and looked around at the camp, and smiled at Billy Jim.

Billy Jim stood and stared at her for a moment and then turned abruptly and ran around the side of the store where he could peek out now and then without being seen all the time. Doulde Jim watched long enough to see the two men and Mr. Dodge heading for One-Arm Charley’s tent with most of the kids following them, long enough to hear Mr. Dodge say as they went by, “Well, you begin on One-Arm Charley and if you can convince him you’ve got all his relatives. That’s a start on the rest of the camp, at any rate.” Double Jim felt the patronage in Mr. Dodge’s voice, and an old dislike for the man rose in him again.

Billy Jim finally came around from the side of the store and sat on the far edge of the porch, pretending to be fooling with his new cap gun while he watched the girl from the corner of his eye. Then he took aim and shot at One-Arm Charley’s tent, bang, bang, bang, once for each of the two white men and once for Mr. Dodge. The red-haired girl smiled at him.

“Shoot me dead too,” she offered.

Billy just looked at her without smiling back. She took a black case from the porch beside her and opened it up on her lap. Billy Jim thought at first it was marbles, and then he surreptitiously took a good long look and swallowed hard, feeling kind of queer. It was eyes, a whole box full of eyes, sitting there in rows.

He didn’t want to look at it, and he did want to look at it. He sat and looked sideways down at the ground so that he could see just a little.

“Want to see what color your eyes are?” the girl asked him. Billy Jim shook his head and looked avay. “Oh, come on, it’s like a game,” the girl said.

Billy Jim didn’t want to talk to her but he had to “How come you got all those eyes?” he asked.

The red-haired girl laughed. “Oh, they’re not real, if that’s what you’re thinking,” she said. “Somebody just made them.” She got up and walked over to him with the case in her hand. “See, each one is a different color. You look up at me and I’ll pick out the one that’s like your eyes and show you which it is.”

Billy looked up at her. She had funny pale-blue eyes; he didn’t like the looks of them very much.

“Here,” she said. “This one is the same as yours, this one that’s almost the darkest brown in the whole set.”

He pointed to the opposite corner of the tray. “That’s yours,” he said.

The girl reached for a brown canvas-covered folder. “Want to see what color your hair is?” she asked.

Double Jim was standing at the door of their tent. “You, Billy,” he said abruptly; Billy Jim obeyed that tone of voice without question. The red-haired girl was left sitting alone on the porch of the store. The only concession to her existence that Billy made was to turn as he entered the tent and shoot her dead with his cap pistol. She smiled uncertainly and put the brown case back down on the porch.

ONE-ARM CHARLEY wasn’t sure he wanted to be measured, whatever it was for. All the long-winded explanation didn’t make much sense. But it was 50 cents a head and a quarter for kids,

and he counted up what it would come to and said okay. His wife had been too sick to pick this season, and the summer hadn’t gone very well so far. Mr. Dodge smiled at the two men and they all walked back to the store.

“Oh, the news’ll get around,” Mr. Dodge said. “After all, it’s an easy way to pick up some extra cash. They can always use it.”

They measured all afternoon. Double Jim didn’t go near them, but be could see them from the tent, fooling around with long shiny measuring sticks and poking at the faces of Charley’s family and writing things down. One of the men was

taller and older and seemed to Ire doing most of the work while the other one watched and the girl marked things down on the sheets of paper she had. Old George Henry just stood leaning against a porch post; finally he came over and stuck his head inside the Jim family tent.

“Hey,” he said. “They ask One-Arm about his people and One-Arm tells them all Injun, all his family full-blood, high class, too.”

“They write that down?”

George Henry nodded. “Mebbe I get them to write down my father is Heyls. Then I’ll be big man, eh? I say, ‘Come see my father’s big footprints she left when she came around changing things.’

Mary Jim looked at him in disbelief. “They wouldn’t write that down!” “Sure,” said George Henry. “What do they know about Heyls? You say anything, they write it down.”

“They got a box full of eyes,” Billy Jim offered. “I seen it.”

“Hey!” said George Henry. “Mebbe I get me a big stick and go measure them.” He bowed elaborately. “Scuse me, bow tall are you? Scuse me, what your father, is she all white? Scuse me, what color eye you got?” He poked and prodded an imaginary victim. “Here, thank you, 50 cent, good-by.” Mary Jim tittered.

“A whole box full of eyes,” Billy said. “Did you see them?”

“Robbers!” said George Henry dramatically.

“Not real eyes,” Billy added hastily “Just eyes somebody made, that girl said.”

“Hair, too,” said George Henry. Fie stood in the tent a moment and turned and ducked out and went back to his place on the porch.

BILLY JIM got the stomach-ache that night. It didn’t want to go away, and Billy lay under a blanket in the tent and made little noises of pain with his mouth shut. Finally Mary went to George Henry’s wife and paid her to make some herb tea she knew about, and Billy drank as much as he could get down and by morning he had to go to the outhouse. Then the pain stopped and Billy felt pretty good, good enough so that he was outside with his cap pistol when the station wagon pulled into camp. He shot all the white people dead as they got out of the car doors, and then he sat down on the corner of the porch to watch them.

The red-haired girl smiled at him and said good morning.

“Do you want to be measured?” she asked.

Billy shook his head.

One of the men was measuring Susy Lamont. He kept saying numbers to the girl and she was writing them down. Susy was giggling in an embarrassed way. Then the man stopped a moment and turned to Billy. “Who’s your father?” he asked him.

“Heyls,” Billy said. Susy Lamont began to laugh out loud and then Billy laughed too.

“What’s funny?” asked the redhaired girl. “Who’s Heyls?” “Nobody,” said Susy Lamont. “Nobody,” echoed Billy Jim.

“His father is Double Jim,” Susy said. “He’s Billy Jim.”

“Don’t want to be measured, Billy?” asked tbe man. Billy shook his head and put his lips tight together.

“You could buy a lot of candy,” Susy suggested, but Billy shook his head again. He sat on the porch and shut his eyes a minute. He felt as if he were still tired out from his stomach-ache, and hot all over.

“You still sick?” asked Susy.

Billy shook his head but he wasn’t sure, and finally he went back to the tent and lay down.

When Double Jim came in from the hops Billy was burning with fever. He looked at his father and said, “I want a cowboy hat.”

“That’s all he says.” Mary was kneeling and rubbing his forehead.

“Get me a cowboy hat,” said Billy, fretfully.

The late afternoon sun was still hot and there were a few flies inside the tent. Billy didn’t seem to notice when they walked on his face; Mary sat and brushed them away. Double Jim stared moodily out at the hop-fields, making up his mind.

“I want a cowboy hat,” Billy said again.

“Where’s Paul and Joe?” Double Jim asked his wife.

“Store,” said Mary. “Paul got Billy some pop but he only drank half of it. They went back to watch that measuring.”

Double Jim was fishing in his pockets. “How much money you got?”

“Just food money,” Mary said.

“I’m goin’ into town when stores open tomorrow,” he said. Mary understood him and held out what money she had, but he shook his head. “You keep that. I’m gonna get some extra.” He hitched in his belt. “Paul and Joe get measured?” he asked.

“You told them no,” Mary answered.

“I want a cowboy hat,” whimpered Billy.

Double Jim went out.

MARY looked up to see the redhaired girl at the door of the tent. The girl hesitated a moment and then stooped and came in.

“I’m sorry Billy is sick,” she said. “What’s wrong?”

“He’s burning,” Mary said. She didn’t like this white girl, and still she felt ashamed of the ragged blanket Billy was lying on, and then she was ashamed, too, of not liking the girl. Mary brushed a fly from Billy’s forehead. He was whining a little.

“I’ve got some aspirin,” the girl said. “Sometimes that helps break a fever. Do you suppose Billy could get one down?”

Mary shrugged. “I dunno.”

“Do you have a glass of water, or something?”

Mary handed her the half-finished bottle of strawberry pop. It was already warm.

The girl knelt on the ground and took the aspirin tablet out of a little box from her shirt pocket. It was the last one; she handed the box to Billy. He looked at it with a flicker of interest but he was too tired to snap it open and shut again.

“You open your mouth and swallow this with a big drink of pop,” the girl said. Billy kept his mouth shut. “It’ll help you feel better.” His large, dark eyes looked filmy and dull. The girl blinked back tears.

Mary, watching her resentfully, felt uneasy. “Open your mouth,” she told Billy. The girl handed her the aspirin and she put it in Billy’s mouth. The girl propped him up and Mary held the pop bottle to his lips.

“You get well now,” the red-haired girl said to Billy. “You get well so you can go out and shoot your cap gun.” She stood up to go. Billy turned his head away and the aspirin box slipped out of his hand.

DOUBLE JIM drank down his orange pop and put the empty bottle on the store counter. He nodded at One-Arm Charley, who was standing on the porch and smoking. Paul and Joe were talking to two Cowichan Indian girls from Vancouver Island; the girls were giggling and nudging each other while the boys kept sober, sullen faces.

“You, Paul, Joe,” he called, jerking his head as a summons. They looked up at him and nodded curtly at the girls, who watched them leave and then fell to whispering with their heads close together.

“We gonna get measured,” Double Jim said.

“What for?”

“I’m goin’ in town tomorrow,” Double Jim said. “You help out so we get something for Billy.”

“He won’t eat or drink nothin’,” Paul objected. “He felt okay this morning. Why don’t Mary have Lucy Henry make him some more of that medicine?”

“Aw, it don’t really do no good,” Joe said. “You oughta get Mr. Dodge to get the doctor.”

“I’m not goin’ to Mr. Dodge,” said Double Jim.

“He ain’t that sick anyway,” Paul argued. “The stomach-ache’s gone, ain’t it? You gonna get him a cowboy hat?”

Double Jim cleared his throat and walked over to the people from the station-wagon. George Henry was sitting on the porch with his hat down over his face but Double Jim felt disapproval coming from his hidden eyes right through the brim of his hat.

“How much you pay?” he asked the older man. He knew how much already.

“Fifty cents for everybody over 18, and a quarter for kids.”

“I’m a big man, worth a dollar mebbe,” said Double Jim.

The man laughed. He stood half a foot taller than Double Jim. “Fifty cents,” he said, good-naturedly.

“Okay,” said Double Jim.

The man bent over and took some of the instruments from the porch. “Jean,” he called to the red-haired girl, “here’s a customer.”

“You’re Mr. Jim,” she said. She

held a sheaf of papers on a clip-board.

“James Jim,” he said. “You measure my kids, too, Paul and Joe.”

He stood unnaturally stiff, hating suddenly even to have his own kids watching him, hating the white man who could look down at the crown of his head. He burned with shame inside but he looked past the man’s shoulder to the rows of hops, and kept his face and himself unbetrayed. He did not dare to see whether George Henry was watching.

Be a big man with your own people, he said to himself, but then you got to trade your bigness for some white man’s money when you need it. No matter; think about Cowboy Billy Jim.

He rolled up his sleeve to expose the pale-toast colored skin of his upper arm; looked expressionless into the man’s narrow, intent face when he took the tray of eyes from the store porch; told the girl where his father and mother were from and their fathers and mothers and the two great-grandparents he knew about. His throat was dry when they finished. He could hardly bear to hold out his hand for the 50 cent piece; it was hard to walk away slowly and with dignity. When

he went past the corner of the porch George Henry lifted his hat but did not speak to him; but One-Arm Charley laughed good-humoredly.

“Eh, Jim,” he said, “they find out how close you are to a monkey?”

In the tent, he sat down heavily beside Billy Jim. “You go get measured,” he told his wife, and she rose. “One-Arm Charley he jokes,” said Double Jim bitterly. “What’s the matter I can’t?”

She touched his shoulder gently.

THERE was a big game that night but Double Jim wouldn’t even go out of the tent. He sat beside Billy. The noise of the game filled the camp; the big lights were on by the store and the two rows of players knelt facing each other, beating on the boards and singing. Maybe if he had bet something—but then he might lose it all instead of winning; two days in a row now he had cashed in his hops tickets and then lost it all.

Billy Jim tossed on the ragged blanket. “Get me a cowboy hat,” he whined.

“In the morning,” said Double Jim. “Mebbe you feel good enough I take you along, huh?” Mebbe you feel bad enough I got to take you to the doctor in town, he thought. Mary was out getting something from Lucy Henry. He bit down hard on his anger, thinking of the girl coming in and giving Billy the aspirin; maybe it wasn’t the right thing at all.

HE WATCHED Biily Jim all night, until, with so little warning, he did not have to watch any more. Then he took the white man’s money out of his pocket: three 50 cent pieces,

one for James Jim, one for Mary Jim, one for Paul Jim who was nineteen, and a quarter for Joe. He sat and looked at it in his palm, cold and fishbelly-shiny in the grey light before sunup. Mary was crying; Paul and Joe had fallen asleep.

He was waiting when the stationwagon came. He went to the older man while they were still getting their equipment out of the back of the car. He held out his hand with the money.

“You give me what you got yesterday,” he said.

The man looked at him, frowning in puzzlement. “What?”

“You give me the papers with the things written on about me and my family,” said Double Jim. “I give you your money back.” The girl, standing there with her clip-board of papers, drew in her breath sharply and bit her lip. Double Jim spoke to her. “My boy, Billy Jim, he died,” he said.

“Good Lord, didn’t you people get a doctor in?” asked the man, and then he softened his voice. “I’m—I’m sorry,” he said. “But surely you’ll need the money, then. I don’t quite understand . . .”

The girl was thumbing the papers and at last pulled four from the pile.

“Wait a minute,” the man said. “Listen here, Jean, we’re having a hard enough time getting a series together, can’t we convince him?”

“You give me the papers, I give you back the money,” insisted Double Jim.

“Now, surely the papers won’t do you any good. They aren’t anything we’ve taken away from you. Jean, be sensible.”

“Here you are, Mr. Jim,” the girl said, holding out the papers. She took the money and dropped it into her shirt pocket.

Double Jim stood there a moment with the papers in his hand, and then he folded them across once and slowly tore them up into small pieces and dropped them on the ground, and walked away. ★