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The McGregors
Johnny McGregor


The black team plodded patiently up the long grade that formed a height of land in the township. The high leather peaks on their collars were each crowned with a red ball and bright ribbons that hung limp now in the summer heat. Dust puffed up from the horses' feet to fall on the parched grass of the roadside and the sun beat down with a not unwelcome warmth on the battered felt hat off John McGregor as he sat with the reins in his hand, resting elbows on knees in unconscious imitation of old Roderick, the grandfather he had never seen. The brass of the harness buckles glittered in the sun, and the leather shone, darkly oiled.

The outfit was on the way home from the mill; the wagon with the green box and the high spring-seat was loaded with ground grain, called, in different places, chop, hash, or grist. As the team topped the rise, the load lightened and the horses moved more freely. They turned calm eyes to watch a small figure flying out of the schoolhouse that stood in its own yard close to the road.

"Wait, Johnny! Johnny McGregor, wait for me!" The blur of arms and legs, white dotted dress, and red hair turned out to be Katie Ryan, and it appeared that she wanted a ride. John hauled up the team and reached down to give the twelve-year-old a boost.

"Never mind, John, I can make it. Mind your horses." Katie and her lunch pail arrived aboard with considerable clatter, and the tempo of the afternoon suddenly picked up.

"How come you're all alone, Katie? Where are all the other kids?"

"All home by now, I guess. Old Henderson kept me in. I didn't have my spelling done. She's a mean old bitch."

The old party referred to couldn't have been more than twenty-five, as John well knew, for he had been casting bashful eyes in that direction himself.

"Come on, Katie, that's not fair. Someone has to teach you spelling and maybe a few other things."

The green eyes looked at him shrewdly from under the red mop. "Huh, I guess you think she's pretty nice; but you should hear her when she gets mad. She squawks. And she's mad most of the time."

"If all the children are like you, Katie, maybe there's good reason. Stop bouncing up and down on the seat or you'll scare the horses."

"Who cares; they're pretty pokey aren't they? Can't they go any faster than this?"

She reached down and picked up the end of a rein which dangled over the seat and swung it high. The startled team broke into a brief trot, but the load was too heavy and they settled down again.

"Look here, young lady, put that line down or I'll warm your little backside with it. Now sit quiet and be a lady, here comes Mr. McFadyen. You don't want a church elder to see you carrying on like this."

Katie subsided momentarily. The buggy approached silently, the clatter of wheels muffled by russet tires. The clip-clop of the horses' feet was musical without the usual accompaniment. The outfit slid by, ghostlike, as Elder McFadyen bowed stiffly. Katie did not stick out her tongue until after the buggy had passed.

"I'll bet he stops to see old Henderson. He's always shying around the school. Pa says he's looking for a new wife, and the old one not cold in her grave yet." John tried to hide his amusement and speak sternly to the saucy wench on the seat beside him.

"You little devil, have you no respect for anyone? Mr. McFadyen is a trustee and has three children in the school. He may have very good reason to stop there and you should say Miss Henderson and she's not old at all." But Katie was too quick for him.

"Why is she making eyes at old Fish-Face McFadyen, then? Pa says she's smart enough; she's ready to take the pig to get the sty, Pa says."

"Your pa says a lot too much, and so do you. If you were my little girl I'd tan your hide."

She grinned at him, and with the sly glint in the green eyes it was attractive, a hint of what was to come.

"No you wouldn't, Johnny, because you like me and I like you. I wouldn't be nasty with you. Can I please drive the team now? There isn't much further to go. They're the team that took the prize at the fair, aren't they? I saw you then; you were pretty proud, weren't you?"

John handed over the reins and showed her how to grasp them, palms held straight, a line in each hand. The small, freckled face was tense with concentration and she held the lines carefully. It made little difference, the horses plodded on as before. The Ryan house came in view.

"Oh, I just remembered Ma was going to make ice cream for supper, ice cream with strawberries in it. Oh, it will be gone if I don't get there quick. Oh, John, let me off please."

He had barely slowed the team when she leaped to the wagon wheel and from there to the ground. She was over a fence in a second, dashing madly in a short cut to the house.

John eyed the flying figure reflectively. "That's a Tartar for sure," he said to himself. "The man who gets her will have his hands full." He felt uneasy as the thought went through his mind, but he pushed it away to think of other things.

At the home gate the team stopped. They walked through the gate that John opened for them and stopped dutifully without being told, waiting for John to take command again. When the grain was unloaded, the horses were stabled. They munched their hay contentedly while John rubbed them down. He spent more time than was necessary caring for the team, for he loved horses, their dependence and their trust in human beings.

John's footsteps echoed as he walked the length of the empty stable. It was modern for its time and he was very proud of it. Across one end were the horses' stalls, six of them plus a box stall for a mare and colt. All the length of one side was taken up by a long row of double cattle-stalls. The mangers and the divisions were of wood, the floor was cement, and the cattle were tied loosely by iron chains. Running on an overhead track above the gutter was a large bucket; this was the litter carrier, and the very latest in stable equipment for the time. It did away with much of the back-breaking wheelbarrow work, but in spite of this was not universally accepted. Many objected that it was the lazy man's way.

John went up the set of steps to the huge new barn above. It stretched for eighty feet and crossed the old barn, which made a small leg of the "T". The new barn, like the stable, was virtually empty. The cattle were in the pastures, and the mows and granary were waiting for the new crops to be harvested. Bars of sunlight slanted through cracks between the sliding boards, and dust motes rode through them as pigeons flew up to roost on the wooden track at the peak. The track carried bundles at harvest time, high over the beams, to be dumped in the mows. This idea was also new, and while some still insisted on "pitching off" the grain sheaf by sheaf and the hay by the forkful, the benefits of the track and the fork and slings were so evident that they were adopted very quickly. John put some hay down a chute in front of the horses. Then he went down again and dipped some oats into a pail from a box where the grain slid down a pipe from the granary above. Casting his eye about to make sure that all was well, he walked to the door of the barn, accompanied by the shuffling and munching of the horses. He closed the door carefully and began walking to the house, aware suddenly that he was hungry.


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