The great First of July foot race
the last survivor of Fortune, B.C.’s first Dominion Day, now reveals what really happened when Sir Wilfrid Laurier came to town and the Fortune Flier finally ran out of beer
THE FIRST DOMINION DAY celebration in our town of Fortune was planned quite innocently. Oh, I know the legend of British Columbia tells it differently, but as the last survivor I can testify that no affront to Sir Wilfrid Laurier was intended. My uncle and guardian. Cedric Tuttle, made his motives clear from the start.
“Laurier,” Uncle Cedric said, "is a FrenchCanadian. But he can’t help that."
"And a Liberal,” said Art Cribbens. "He can help that."
"Yes, and a Liberal," Uncle Cedric agreed, “but he happens to be prime minister and you can't help that — not till the next election. And he’s passing through here on the first of July."
At my age of nine I wasn’t supposed to hear these important civic discussions in the harness room of Seth Ponsford’s livery stable, but 1 listened from the yard, pretending to currycomb my pony.
"July first is the nation’s birthday,” Uncle Cedric added. "Anti you might say Fortune’s birthday, too. A happy coincidence."
There was some truth in that coincidence. The town of Fortune had hardly existed a year earlier. when the sawmill opened. It must have been the youngest town in the B. C. interior.
Uncle Cedric sipped his glass thoughtfully, twisted the sharp points of his mustache and squinted at the others over the gold rims of his pince-nez. 1 recognized a certain gleam in his hard gray eyes.
"French-Canadian and Liberal." he repeated, “but you can't ignore him.”
"Why not?" Art Cribbens demanded. The face of the Weekly Courier's founder and editor, round and white as a china plate, took on a faint pink tinge and he began to bob up and down on the springs of his tiny legs. "Why not ignore him? He's ruined the country, hasn't he?”
“True enough,” said Uncle Cedric. "But you've got to look at it in a big way. The eyes of the nation will be on us."
Dandy Fortune, who had given the town its name and its Palace Hotel — a man believed to weigh over three hundred pounds, all solid gold, as was commonly said — had been leaning as usual against the door post and silently picking his teeth. Now he removed the toothpick from his mouth, looked at it intently down his crimson nose and slowly brought himself to the point of utterance.
"Liberal or French-Canadian," he said in his wheezing, creaky CONTINUED ON PAGE 56
The great First of July foot race continued from page 13
“With a hoarse bellow, the Fortune Flier lowered his head and charged like an angry bull
voice, “it don't signify, l aurier could put us on the map. handled right. Big crowds from all over. Good for business. You bet."
Seth Ponsford scratched his rim of gray whisker and admitted that maybe I.antier wasn't so bail after all. for a Liberal. From his bunk, where he sprawled behind a flaming beard. Montana, the stable man, expressed the opinion that Laurier was no worse than any other damned politician.
“Wrecked the country, that's all." said Art.
Uncle Cedric drained his glass deliberately and licked his mustache.
“Dominion Day." he said, “is above politics. What we need is something different. something unique, something to write the name of Fortune on the mind of Canada."
“In French. I suppose." Art sneered.
Uncle Cedric ignored the sarcasm. “We've got to make our first Dominion Day," he went on in that resonant courtroom voice that had swayed so many juries, “forever memorable. And I know how to do it. Is Petit in shape to run?"
Petit Dansereau seemed in fine shape to me. He was shoeing a horse in the blacksmith shop beside the livery stable and he didn't look much smaller than the horse. That was why everybody called him Petit, which was understood to mean small in French.
Nobody knew his right name anyway and Petit didn't care. He'd hardly learned a word of English since arriving from Rimouski with two remarkable talents. Petit could drink more beer than anyone in town and run faster than anyone in western Canada. Both records had been established beyond question and the Courier had christened Petit the Portune Flier.
You wouldn't guess his speed, though, by looking at him. He was about as fat as Dandy Fortune, six feet five in height, and under a tangle of black curls his face was like a baby's, hairless, swarthy and always fixed in a shy little grin.
The men in the harness room studied Petit through the doorway while he hammered a red-hot horseshoe and sang softly to himself in French.
“He's soft." Uncle Cedric said, "but we'll fix that. Yes, sir. the thing's perfect. Laurier comes to town and what does he find? He finds a fellow French-Canadian. one of his own compatriots, beating the best runners in the west. That'll touch him. Why. the whole country is going to ring with it."
“That's the ticket," said Dandy. "Sentiment. You bet."
Seth scratched his whisker again and inspected Petit anxiously.
“What," he asked, "if Petit don't win .’"
"No chance of that," said Uncle Cedric, “if he's in training. Remember what he
did in Nelson and Port Macleod, with no training either."
Of course. I hadn't seen Petit run in those distant cities but I'd watched him cover a measured mile in Fortune and leave his rivals from Kamloops. Revelstoke and Golden a good quarter of a mile behind. And this after he’d trained for weeks on beer and drunk at least two gallons just before the race. Having inspected him at the Palace bar, the outsiders had bet heavily against Petit and his local backers had won a lot of money, at high odds.
Now they observed Petit's hammer rise and fall, the muscles swelling in his bare arms.
"He'll do." Dandy grunted. "Trouble is. nobody’ll bet agin him."
"Ah, that's where you're wrong.” said Uncle Cedric, and he dropped his voice to a confidential tone. “They've got a new boy in Kamloops, name of Mickey Gropp, five feet high but made of steel. They call him the Kamloops Comet. They're keeping him dark but they'll bet on him all right. He runs a mile in five minutes flat."
"Nobody but a horse," Montana grumbled from the bunk, "can run a mile in five minutes."
"I timed him in Kamloops last week with my own watch." Uncle Cedric insisted. "Mark my words, he's dangerous. A teetotaler, too. I tell you Petit needs training. No more beer."
"Wait a minute." said Dandy. "You cut him down too quick and you'll throw him off his stride."
"No more beer!" Uncle Cedric repeated firmly. "I ought to know a little about training. After all, 1 won my Blue at
Oxford in the mile. No more beer. That was our Oxford method. Plow will it look if Laurier sees his fellow French-Canadian come in second, or last?”
"Serve him right." said Art.
“Well, let’s time Petit,” Seth suggested.
That evening the Fortune Flier drank eleven quarts of beer at the Palace bar. against Uncle Cedric's protests, and after taking off his boots, socks and all other garments except his overalls, prepared to run three times around the race track at the rodeo grounds, a mile.
At the starting point he warmed up as usual by dancing on the grass. Plis great arms and legs moved up and down with the rhythm of a machine until the sweat poured out of him in shiny globules.
“Eli bien," he said at last. “N'importe. It eeze nuzzing." With a hoarse bellow, he lowered his head and charged like a bull.
"See?" said Dandy as Petit came churning around the first lap. "He’s fine. Runs on beer. The hell with the Oxford method.”
Uncle Cedric said nothing but kept his eyes on his watch. When Petit finished the third lap in a lather, Uncle Cedric put the watch back in his pocket. "It won't do," he said. "Five minutes, twenty-eight seconds. No more beer."
Only a born diplomat and learned lawyer like Uncle Cedric could have cut Petit off his beer, but in the end the Flier retired to Seth’s ranch outside town with a hundred dollars and the promise of five hundred more if he beat the Kamloops Comet. Montana accompanied him to make sure he stayed on the wagon.
By this time Art had sent some lively news items to the Vancouver papers and
the Dominion Day race before the eyes of the prime minister made headlines all over the country. Before setting out on his tour Sir Wilfrid told the correspondents at Ottawa that he looked forward with pleasure to the athletic contest in Fortune and the traditional hospitality of the far west.
"What he’s looking forward to." said Art. "is Fortune’s vote in the next election. Dragging Dominion Day into politics already."
"Politics,” said Dandy, "is politics and don't signify. But business is business. We're on the map already.”
The celebration committee had organized a grand reception, the ladies of Fortune planned a picnic at the rodeo grounds and Dandy stocked the Palace with plenty of refreshments.
Art objected on principle to the big banner across the main street announcing that Fortune Welcomes Canada's Chieftain, but in a fine spirit of patriotism he published an editorial to explain that though the Courier was opposed to everything Laurier stood for, it esteemed manly sport far above the sordid game of politics.
Everything seemed to be going along well but I could see that Uncle Cedric was worried. As he told his colleagues, they had overdone the public build-up of Petit. The odds in his favor were now three to one in Kamloops, where most of the betting was done, and the chances of profit slight for his backers.
After a long argument in the harness room, the Courier published a discreet paragraph stating that Petit had sprained his ankle in training. That drove the odds down a little at Kamloops, and they fell again when the Kamloops Sentinel reported that Mickey Gropp, the Comet, had been released from his job in Finch's butcher shop, was training rigorously and had been clocked at a second under five minutes.
"Jest one of them Kamloops lies." said Montana. “Only a horse could do it."
All the same, the betting was even now at Kamloops, and some of the money was coming from Vancouver and C algary. Then the Vancouver Province sent a reporter to Fortune and published a lengthy verbatim interview with Petit, who only grinned and said he was feeling good. The Province gave such a favorable account of Petit s speed that the odds at Kamloops soon stood at four to one against the Comet.
The traveling men from Kamloops gathered all the information they could in the Palace bar and tried to see Petit training but Seth wouldn't let any stranger pass his gate at the ranch. Only Uncle Cedric was admitted to coach Petit in the Oxford method. This secrecy must have discouraged the outsiders. I he odds on Petit reached five to one.
That didn’t suit the celebration committee. In its next issue the Courier intimated that the Flier was troubled with “a slight heart ailment which his medical advisers do not consider serious.” That same night Petit escaped from the ranch, ran seven miles to town, barefoot, and consumed a considerable quantity at the Palace before Dandy arrived and stopped him.
Afterwards Petit sang Alouette and A la Claire Fontaine, in a small, sad voice on the steps of the hotel, clad only in his overalls, until Montana and two cowboys drove up in a buckboard and wrapped him in blankets and took him back to the ranch.
The story of that seven-mile run was in all the big papers arriving at the Courier office. The Ottawa Journal’s headline called Petit “The Beer Barrel on Legs” and the Vancouver Sun’s sport editor referred to him as “Fortune’s Fountain of Furious Froth.” Interviewed at Fort William, Sir Wilfrid said it was most interesting. He looked forward to the race with pleasure. By the middle of June the odds on Petit were seven to one at Kamloops.
For some reason I didn't understand, the assurance of Petit's victory failed to impress Uncle Cedric. He had become moody and irritable around the house, and Aunt Bertha told me to keep out of his way. Suddenly he went over to Kamloops on legal business, he said, and returned more cranky than ever. After watching Petit's daily work-out at the ranch, he warned the celebration committee that there must be a traitor in the camp.
“You can't tell me.” he said, “that Petit isn't getting beer. I could sec it coming out of him from every pore. He's slowing down.”
“I'll take care of that,” said Seth, whose bets on Petit were said to be nearly a thousand dollars. He moved out to the ranch with Montana and between them they watched Petit day and night.
Uncle Cedric reported that Petit's condition w'as steadily improving and he had pretty well mastered the Oxford running method. Yet Uncle Cedric remained strangely subdued and thoughtful. Above all, he said, the satisfactory change in the Flier must be kept secret.
“If that Kamloops crowd gets wind of it,” he told the celebration committee, “they'll smuggle in beer to him somehow. And he's trained so fine that even one drink in him and I wouldn't guarantee anything."
But the Kamloops crowd must have got wind of it. By the time Laurier reached Winnipeg the odds on Petit, according to the Daily Province, stood at nine to one. Since there was little chance of profit at these figures, I was surprised one night to hear Uncle Cedric strongly advise Aunt Bertha to put some of her housekeeping money on Petit, though his own investment must have been fairly heavy by now.
Aunt Bertha looked up from the sink, her face darkened to a deeper purple and her plump fist cut the air like a hatchet.
"At nine to one! You take me for crazy?”
She went on to remind Uncle Cedric of her losses in his last mining claim.
Uncle Cedric hadn't practised on juries for nothing. The dispute continued in the kitchen all evening while I listened from the stairs. Finally Aunt Bertha agreed to lend Uncle Cedric two hundred dollars on his promise to repay it three times over, win or lose, and take her on a trip to Vancouver as well. He wrote it down and she put the agreement in her bread box.
The money was in Uncle Cedric's
pocket next morning as he took the train for Kamloops, where he hoped to get the best possible odds without attracting attention.
The visit to Kamloops restored his spirits amazingly. When he got off the train two days later he gave me a silver dollar and informed the committee in the harness room that the Comet was overtrained and fading. And when Seth sent a note from the ranch to say that the Flier hadn't taken a drink for a week Uncle Cedric declared that the thing was in the bag.
"No one," he affirmed, "can beat him. sober."
Dandy was still doubtful.
" l ake a man off the stuff too sudden." he said, "and it's a shock to the constitootion."
"He looks to me a little white around the gills." Ait agreed. "Kind of peekv, like.”
"Nonsense." said Uncle Cedric. "Just nerves. I he same thing always happened to me tit Oxford. Keep him off beer and don't worry.”
That evening he assured Aunt Bertha that her money was as good as gold.
“Sir Wilfrid looked like God”
On the First of July Aunt Bertha was up early to press Uncle Cedric’s tail coat and sponge his top hat. He spent the morning in his study, polishing up the speech of welcome. I brushed my pony till he glistened.
The special train from Kamloops pulled in at noon — six extra coaches, two pullmans from Vancouver and Sir Wilfrid's private car at the rear.
Only the welcoming committee was allowed on the platform, but from my saddle at the edge of the crowd I could see the Kamloops passengers get oil first, among them a small, skinny youngster with a tight, crooked face, whom I took for the Comet. There were a dozen other runners and reporters and photographers and everybody was cheering.
A bigger cheer went up as a tall man in a gray frock coat stepped off the last car. He looked like a statue to me and when he lifted his gray top hat and his w'hite curls gleamed in the sun he looked like my private image of God. Though I had been brought up to believe that Sir Wilfrid Laurier was destroying the British Empire, I found myself shouting with the crowd.
Uncle Cedric lifted his black top hat. shook Sir Wilfrid’s hand and pulled the address of welcome from his pocket.
I didn't catch the words at the beginning but I could hear Uncle Cedric say in his clearest courtroom voice that "the issues of public policy may divide us and many loyal citizens of the City of Tortune can never support a government which they believe subversive of their highest ideals, nevertheless we greet respectfully the prime minister of our nation ...”
The rest was lost in the cheers. I couldn't hear Sir Wilfrid's answering remarks because my pony had started acting up and it was all I could do to keep in the saddle. The parade started down the main street, Dandy's red Reo in front. Sir Wilfrid stood beside the driver, bareheaded and bowing gracefully in all directions.
By the time I got to the rodeo grounds he was sitting on a long bench. Aunt Bertha on his right under her green parasol and Uncle Cedric on his left, with Art and Dandy. I tied my pony to a tree and squeezed through the crowd up to the back of the bench.
The runners had changed their clothes
in a tent already. One by one they were brought up to be introduced to Sir Wilfrid by Uncle Cedric. The Comet, in his blue shorts, exposed a knotted little body of rippling muscle that looked mighty dangerous to me.
Sir Wilfrid rose to shake his hand and give him a Hashing smile.
“Good luck.” he said, ‘"to Kamloops!"
"What did I tell you?" Art muttered t) Dandy. "Playing to the Kamloops \ote."
His words were drowned in a sudden roar as Petit stepped out of the tent, barefoot and naked except for a scrap of red silk pants around his middle. They were too tight for him. though he seemed to have lost half his weight. The old baby smile was gone. 1 thought he looked dizzy.
"Sir Wilfrid, allow me to present." said Unele Cedric, "your compatriot from Rimouski. Monsieur Dansereau. better Inown as Petit, the Flier."
"All Canadians arc compatriots of mine." Sir Wilfrid answered, a little sharply, but he gave Petit his hand and mother Hashing smile.
"Mon brave, comment ça va?” As an ifterthought Sir Wilfrid added: “Vive le sport.'"
"French talk." Art grumbled under his breath, "and the Fortune vote."
Petit just looked down at his bare feet and shuffled them in the dust.
"He ain't right." Dandy whispered to Uncle Cedric. "You’ve took him otf beer too quick."
“Nonsense!" Uncle Cedric whispered back behind his hand. "He's in the pink. Just nerves."
A dozen runners crouched at the starting line. Only Petit stood upright. His arms hung loosely by his sides. His eyes never left the ground.
Sir Wilfrid had settled back, still smiling. his gray gloves cupped over the silver knob of his cane. Uncle Cedric leaned forward, watch in hand.
There was no sound in all that crowd until, over Uncle Cedric's shoulder. I saw a Hash and heard the revolver crack, and all the runners seemed to leap into the air as one man. all except Petit. He had begun to dance at the starting line, his huge arms and legs moving like pistons.
Above the crowd's anxious murmur a little squeak came from Art.
"What's got into him?"
"Not beer anyways," Dandy grunted.
"Just wait," said Uncle Cedric, but the watch was shaking in his hand.
And sure enough, at that moment Petit lowered his head and charged. He was all right now. His dark body seemed to move like a locomotive down a track. On the first curve he passed the others as if they had been standing still, but the Comet was still ahead. On the straightaway opposite us. Petit passed him. too, like an engine running over a beetle, and he must have gained a lead of a hundred yards as he crossed the line of the first lap.
Even Sir Wilfrid had leaped to his feet. Art jumped up and down on the bench. Dandy made hoarse, choking sounds. Aunt Bertha waved hei parasol and howled: "Go it. Petit!" Alone among that cheering crowd. Uncle Cedric had slumped down limply, the pince - nez fallen from his nose on its black ribbon.
The Comet gained a little on the second lap but Petit passed the starting point far ahead. gliding with a machine s iron motion.
Sir Wilfrid lifted his gray topper, shouted "Bravo!" and patted Aunt Bertha's hand w ith his gray glove. He didn t seem to feel it when Art slapped him on the back and then, stooping over, yelled
in Uncle Cedric's ear: “You did it! You did it! The Oxford method!" But Uncle Cedric didn't move. He stared blankly at his watch and let it drop from his hand. It dangled with the pince-nez between his legs.
The thing happened in the middle of the last lap. Just as he churned into the straightaway. Petit seemed to wobble sideways. His legs crumpled slowly under him. and he sat down on the ground. A cry of horror went up from the crowd, then silence, broken by a single shrill scream from Aunt Bertha. Sir Wilfrid patted her hand and murmured: "Alors, courage ma chère.”
For a long moment Art peered fixedly across the field at Petit. "1 knew7 it." he gasped and his tiny hands clutched Uncle Cedric's shoulders. "See! You drained him out. by God! No beer."
Uncle Cedric didn't hear anything. He had risen to his feet at last with a strange, wild look on his face. But no sound came from his open mouth.
Petit's vast body slowly unfolded till he lay Hat on the ground, looking up at the sky. The Comet passed him without a glance, the others close behind, sped up on the curve and sprinted across the finish line. The cheer was thin. It came only from the Kamloops crowd.
Courageous Uncle Cedric
At that terrible instant Uncle Cedric's courage was a wonderful thing to see. He pushed Art aside, squared his shoulders and put his pince-nez back on his nose. The wild look had disappeared and in its place he turned a jaunty smile on l.aurier.
"The luck of the game." he said w'ithout a tremor. "For Ie sport'. But I'm sorry your boy from Quebec didn't win."
"Mals non." said Sir Wilfrid, again a little sharply. "All Canadians are the same to me." He put his arm around Uncle Cedric. "Ah. mon ami. I love a dead-game sportsman."
And noting the tears on Aunt Bertha's purple cheeks, the prime minister of Canada dabbed them gently with his silk handkerchief.
Dandy had stood and watched without a sound but now he did an odd thing. He snatched the top hat from Uncle Cedric's head and threw it on the ground and crushed it Hat under his patent-leather shoe.
Only one word came from that silent man. "Oxford." he said and shouldered his way through the crowd.
After the special train had pulled out. Petit drank seventeen bottles of beer at the Palace, supplied free by Dandy, and declared that he could have run a mile in four minutes, easy, if he hadn't been dehyd rated.
Uncle Cedric stayed home that night to comfort Aunt Bertha, who howled alternately about the race, her money and Uncle Cedric's lost mining claims, until she quieted down at last and described Sir Wilfrid as a perfect gentleman. Finally she announced that she would vote Liberal in the next election.
Even that didn't seem to upset Uncle Cedric particularly. He said he would go to Kamloops next day and collect a large legal fee. long owing, to cover his bets. And when he returned a few days later, with a thick roll of bills, he repaid Aunt Bertha's loan three times over and took her on a trip to Vancouver, as promised.
At the fall fair Petit drank a couple of gallons and ran a four-minute mile, according to Uncle Cedric’s new stopwatch. The time, unfortunately, wasn't official. ★