A Father’s Love
Mauney Bard did not enjoy mending fences. They were quite essential in the general economy of farming. Without them the cows would wander where they had no business, trampling precious crops or perhaps getting mired in these infernal boglands. In principle, therefore, his present occupation was logical, but in practice it was tedious.
During the long afternoon he occasionally paused for diversion to gaze across the wide tract of verdant wilderness before him. Like a lake, choked by vegetation from beneath and strangled by determined vegetation on all sides, the Lantern Marsh surrendered its aquatic ambition. There was very little water to be seen. Only a distant glare of reflected sky remained here and there, espied between banks of thick sedges. A cruel conspiracy of nature! Acres of rice-grass and blue flags with their bayonet-like leaves stabbed up through the all-but-hidden surface, while a flat pavement of rank lilies hastened to conceal any water that dared show itself. For two gloomy miles the defeated thing extended, while outraged evergreens, ill-nourished and frantic, crowded close, like friends, to shield its perennial disgrace.
It had always been there, unexplored and forbidding, inhabited by the mud hen, the wild duck, and the blue crane. Mauney sometimes hated its desolate presence and wondered why his father’s farm had to be so near it. But the question challenged custom and actuality—things his young brain had not learned to affront.
Late in the afternoon he was roused from work by a sound as of tensed, satin fans cutting the air. He looked up to behold the broad wings of a blue crane, passing low. The rising wind which had roused it from its feeding grounds brought the dank odor of decayed poplar wood and the wild aroma of rice-grass. His eye dropped to the green waste of the marsh, brushed into fitful waves of tidal grey, and then shifted to the moving limbs of bare hemlocks and birches at the border of the swamp.
Chilled by the sharp blast, he straightened himself to his feet, his shirt moulded to the underlying sculptory of his vigorous young chest. His wind-tossed, auburn hair peeled back from his fine forehead, as his wide, blue eyes received the rugged beauty and his lips smiled from sheer visual delight. Then, as he gazed, a bright magic, bursting from the west behind him, transformed his wilderness momentarily to a static tableau of metallic gold.
It was supper time. Moments since the kitchen bell had been ringing, rocking under its cupola on the kitchen roof. His father, his brother and the hired man, fertilizing the grain field beyond the shoulder of the hill, would have heard it and be promptly on their way. After drawing on his faded coat, he picked up a pair of pliers from the ground and shoved them into the hip
pocket of his overalls. He shouldered his axe and saw, then started.
The long marsh was separated from his father’s farm by the Beulah road, a narrow clay highway curving past the head of the swamp toward the village of Beulah. In the opposite direction, it ran on eventually to the town of Lockwood on the bank of the St. Lawrence. The Bard farmhouse, a prosperous red brick structure, faced the road and the swamp, presenting a stone fence of dry masonry, and within the fence an apple-orchard. At one side a lane, guarded by a board gate, led in from the road.
As Mauney swung up the lane toward the farmyard the crisp snap of a whip was borne to his ears from below the shoulder of the grain-field, followed by a man’s call to his horses:
“Git ap!... yah lazy devils!... git ap!”
A second crack of the whip—then the rumble of heavy wheels and the rattle of the board-bottom of the wagon. The usual, boring sights and sounds!
The yard echoed to the barking of a collie who was springing in savage enjoyment at the heels of tardy cows. The lazy animals jogged in awkward trot, as their full udders swung to the rhythm of their gait. As Mauney crossed the yard, wading with gluey steps through the soft under-foot, the dog darted toward him, splashing through brown-stained pools of stagnant water.
“Go on back, Rover!” he commanded, stepping aside to avoid his rough welcome. “Chase them up, Rover!”
Rover paused on his four feet only long enough to cast up a glance of searching inquiry at his young master’s face, when, as if satisfied that his mood were congenial,
he immediately returned to his task with doubled despatch.
In making toward the great, red barn at the farther side of the yard, Mauney passed the henhouse, from which radiated a pungent, ammoniacal odor, all too familiar to his nostrils. In the drive shed, on the beams several white hens were settling to roost. One of these fowl, jealous of position, pecked the head of its fellow, causing an expostulant cackle of pain. The sudden disturbance of this sound spread to the precincts of the quiescent henhouse, whereupon one crescendo of rasping invective followed another, leading to a distracting medley of full-throated excitement, that subsided only at the masterly clarion of a rooster, angry at being disturbed.
The returning wagon now rumbled nearer, over flat stones behind the barn, its heavy roar measured by the regular, metallic clip of the horses’ well-shod hoofs. “Git ap, there! What’re yuh doin’ there!” came the gruff voice of his father. A loud whip-crack broke the steady rhythm of the horses’ hoofs into an irregular gallop, while the thunder of the wagon filled the yard with increasing vibration.
Mauney ascended the stone bridge to the great double doors, which, owing to the wind, he opened with difficulty, and entered to grease the teeth of his saw and hang it carefully on two spikes driven into the side of the hay mow. He stood his axe in a corner and tossed the pliers into an empty soap box that stood on a rough carpenter’s bench. One of the doors, which he had left open, now slammed shut, stirring up a stifling cloud of chaff and rendering the interior of the barn unpleasantly dark. In turning he stumbled over a stick of stove-wood,
used for blocking the wheels of the hay-wagon, and fell forward. Putting, out his right hand, he brought the palm down heavily on the sharp end of a spike that projected from an upturned board. He regained his feet quickly and clasped his injured hand. It was too dark to see, but he felt a trickle of hot fluid accumulating in his other palm. A sickening pain mounted his arm in spirals, but he whistled a snatch of a song, and left the barn.
As he passed quickly toward the kitchen, the heavy team of Clydesdales rounded the corner of the yard, lifting their front feet high, their heads tightly reined, with foam blowing from their white mouths. As they were pulled up to a stop a horse within the barn whinnied. Then Mauney presently heard the jingle of chains as the team were being unhitched, and in the quiet air, his father’s voice saying:
“The young fellah’s gave us the slip!”
His brother William’s voice replied in the same disagreeable tone: “Wonder he wouldn’t give us a hand unhitchin.’ Fixin’ fences is easier’n spreadin’ cow dung. Least he could do would be to throw the horses a little hay!”
A warm wave of anger flushed Mauney’s face as he halted in the middle of the yard, half determined to go back, but his hand drove him imperatively toward the kitchen. On the edge of the porch he relieved his boots of adhering mud and manure on a scraper made from an old draw-knife turned upside down between supports. The two long upper panels of the kitchen door were replaced by glass and draped inside by a plain cotton curtain, through which a glow of lamp-light gave Mauney a grateful impression of homely coziness. After
rubbing his boots on the oval verandah mat of plaited rags, he pressed down the thumb latch and entered.
“Hello, Maun,” came a woman’s voice from the pantry, half-drowned by the noise of a mechanical egg-beater. “D’juh get the marsh fence finished?”
“Rome wasn’t built in a day, you remember,” he replied as affably as his feelings allowed.
“That’s right,” she called above the sound, “but your old man prob’ly thinks it didn’t take over a week.”
Mauney was examining his hand near the coal-oil lamp on the kitchen table. The spike had completely perforated his palm leaving a torn wound that still bled. He tossed his hat to the old couch by the door and bent nearer the lamp. Although big-bodied he had a boyish face, filled now with youthful perplexity. The skin over the prominent bridge of his nose had an appearance of being tightly drawn, although his nostrils were as sensitive as the young lips beneath them. His chin, by its fullness, suggested a vague, personal determination to be expected in one older, but his eyes sparkled with that devotion of eager attention which is reserved to youth alone.
He glanced toward the pantry from which the beating sound still emerged. “Do you know what to do for this?” he asked loudly.
The noise of the beater stopped.
“What d’juh say?”
“I hurt my hand and—”
She came forth, with her muscular arms covered by shreds of dough, and walked to glance at his stained hand.
“Oh good God!” she exclaimed, turning away. “I certainly do hate blood, Maun.”
She began rubbing the adherent dough from her arms.
“Just a minute,” she said. “Go soak it in the wash basin—here’s some warm water.” Taking a tea-kettle from the flat-topped stove, she poured into the basin, adding some cold water from the cistern pump.
As Mauney proceeded to follow her advice she rummaged through a cotton bag, hung on the back of the pantry door. “It’ll be all right, Maun,” she cheerfully prophesied. “A cut like that is safe if it bleeds, but if it don’t, watch out!”
She was a well-formed woman of twenty-seven, a trifle masculine about the shoulders, but with a feminine enough face displaying sharp, hazel eyes beneath black, straight brows. Her nose was passably refined, but her full lips wore a careless smile that lent not only a gleam of golden teeth, but a mild atmosphere of coarseness to her face. The excitement of Mauney’s injury had called up circumscribed patches of crimson to her cheeks and accentuated the nervous huskiness of her voice.
“One time,” she continued, while she tore a white cloth into long narrow strips, “my cousin ran a nail in her foot. They got Doc. Horne, and he did—God only knows what—but her foot got the size of a pungkin, only redder.”
As she rolled two or three crude bandages she glanced occasionally at Mauney, with keen, appraising eyes that followed the stretch of his broad shoulders bent over
the sink. As she nervously applied the bandage, a moment later, the sound of boots scraping outside the door contributed an added haste to her manner. Before she had finished, the door opened to admit Seth Bard.