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The McGregors
Jim and Katie


Jim shivered and straightened in the chair. It was the day-dream again, it always ended like this. Janet's death had seemed the end of everything, the shock from which there was no recovery; as the pulling of a vine from a wall sometimes wrecked the wall, so his very life had been threatened by the separation. Only an instinct for self-preservation had saved him: only by pushing the memory into the background and keeping it there, by losing himself in work or in some other interest, had he managed to survive.

He settled back in the chair again. It was so foolish, he thought, to dwell on this one scene, the tragic one, the end of their time together on earth. They were not the only ones; most married lives ended in something like this. There were Dan and Agnes MacDonald - now both gone - who died a few years apart. They had loved each other too. What good times they had had together, the four of them, and how many good things had come about through the years. His head sank to his chest. The bees hummed in the morning-glory blossoms. It was pleasant at this hour before the heat became intense.

"Aha Jim, there you are leading the life of Riley. How I wish I could sleep like that at ten o'clock in the morning. You old gaffers do have it easy."

Jim woke with a start. It was Elmer Watt, the milkman. Jim tried to rally his thoughts and come back to the present. The daydream had seemed so real.

"You're a bit late aren't you, Elmer? I just dozed off a minute waiting for the milk; and who are you to talk about old gaffers, you're no chicken yourself."

"I keep circulating though, Jim. Up at five in the morning and it will be dark when I finish tonight. No rest on an easy chair for the downtrodden; but I can't stand here blathering. See you."

Elmer was already on the step of the canopied wagon clucking to the horse before Jim could think of an answer. Elmer was a bit hard to take. It was a temptation to give him a sharp answer to jar his self-importance, but in the village, where you met people every day, you could not do this. Jim tolerated their oddities because it was just possible he might have some of his own. He got up stiffly from the chair. Certainly it wouldn't do to sleep at ten in the morning, and it wouldn't do to sit and mope either. He went inside and got his hat and coat from their pegs.

"I'm going out to the farm, Elspeth," he called. "It's a good harvest day and there must be something I can do to help out there."

"Will you be home for supper then?"

"Most likely. If not I'll phone you."

Elspeth made no comment. That was not unusual. She avoided conversation. After Janet's death she had spoken only in monosyllables for weeks. She had grieved, there was no doubt of that, but she had grieved silently, as an animal does. Never again would anyone get close to Elspeth.

Jim left without another word. What was the use? At the little barn he got a halter and a pan of oats and walked the short block to Sam Fraser's house where his horse pastured on Sam's grass lot. He was old now, eighteen past, and a little heavy and wind-broken. But he looked with interest at the halter and oats coming and accepted them graciously, slobbering some on the ground because his teeth were not all they had been. Jim hitched him to the buggy and mounted to the seat. He seized the lines and cracked the whip alarmingly.

"Come on, Sandy, get out of here."

They rattled past the house and down the street and then settled down to the steady jog which was Sandy's pace now, and Jim's too for that matter.

The harvest had started; the oats were nodding ripe on their stalks. John's Alec McPherson was cutting a field by the road, and his son, Alec's John, was stooping the sheaves. The stooks wandered in thick rows across the field. Jim stopped to talk to Alec's John.

"I see your father has got himself one of those new sheaf carriers for the binder."

"I told him he had to. Who wants to trail sheaves all over the place? I made him get a hayloader, too, this year. I said I'd leave and go west if he didn't get more things to work with."

"You young fellows are scared to bend your backs now," said Jim scathingly. "Come on, Sandy." Out of hearing, he spoke his mind to the horse, "Made him do this, made him do that, what is the world coming to?"

A cloud of dust appeared down the road, and Sandy pricked his ears. He slowed and prepared ostentatiously for trouble.

"Come on, you damned old fool, you know that car won't hurt you."

The car approached rapidly. Windy Willy Millar was behind the wheel. Sandy bucked and pranced, managing to get both front feet well into the air at once - no small feat at his age. In a few sideways leaps he worked off the frustration of days in old Sam's pasture. Then he felt the whip crack on his rear and straightened out for a burst of his old-time speed. It was most refreshing. They both felt the better for it.

The old farm came in sight. Sandy and Jim turned in at the gate and drove between the rows of poplars on one side and maples on the other. They were still young trees. He and Janet had planted them. Sandy slowed and clopped along contentedly. Jim looked through the poplars to where the house stood with the spruce trees on the windward side. They had planted the spruce too. Shep the collie came to meet them, white feet flashing. He made a token leap at Sandy's head, then wheeled and escorted them to the lawn gate.

"Hello Grampa, hello. We didn't know you were coming. Can I unhitch Sandy? Can I take him to the barn, can I?" This was young Rory, aged six, a nucleus of energy, a fountain of words, and the apple of Jim's eye.

"Careful now that he don't step on your bare feet. Yes, you can unhitch him, but don't stand under him. Unhook the hold-backs first and then the tugs like I showed you."

Jim got down stiffly and oversaw the operation. The tugs were tucked in the breeching and Sandy stepped ahead in the shafts. They proceeded to the barn. Rory proudly held the reins and did much unnecessary steering. Sandy could have walked to the barn blind-folded.

"Can I unharness him, Grampa, and rub him down? I'll be careful."

"There's no need, boy; I'll be going home the night."

"I can harness him again for you, Grampa. He wants to be cleaned up."

Sandy hadn't worked up any noticeable sweat. He needed a rubdown as much as he needed a fifth leg, but it was hard to say no to the boy.

"If you must, you must, laddie. But for heaven's sake, watch your bare feet."

Rory already had the harness off. Jim guessed it was safe to leave them. Sandy would be careful, and if the boy used any judgment at all he would be safe. Jim went toward the house and thought of the difference between Rory and John. John had been diffident, slow and shy about doing new things. Rory rushed in confidently. `The boy might do well if he ! could be kept out of the taverns. He remembered the other Rory.

Katie met him at the door. A smudge of flour was on her nose and her face was flushed with the heat of the cooking fire. "Good morning to you, Dad." She reached up the hand that was free of flour, grabbed him by one ear, and pulled his head down to where she could kiss him. Jim looked at this distractingly pretty young woman and wondered again whatever she had seen in John to marry him.

"I left Rory at the barn. He was bound to curry the horse. I hope he'll come to no harm."

"Not likely; the angels look after the boy, I think, either that or the old one himself. Since Molly came I've given up worrying."

He went over to where Molly lay in the cradle. It was the wooden cradle made from the big pine that had stood at the road gate. John had used the same tree for the kitchen cupboard and the table as well. And there were still wide pine boards stored in the hay mow.

Molly looked at him gravely. She was named for Katie's mother, but she looked like Janet. He put out a finger for her to clutch. She took it, but refused to smile.

"The bairn's a serious one; she doesn't take up with just anyone."

"She's a snooty one for sure," said Katie. "That's the Scotch in her."

"What's John doing? I came to help him." He had come for many reasons, but there was no need to go into that.

"He's stooking in the field behind the orchard, but you don't have to go rushing out there. Sit yourself down and I'll make coffee. There's a bit of rum left in the bottle and we'll just have a spot of that in the coffee, too."

Jim sat down without argument. He loved Katie's brand of coffee. There was a beverage made in Bruce County that was called coffee, but it wasn't like what Katie made. As they sat at the kitchen table Jim thought how easy it was to talk to this girl, this woman, his son's wife. For sure she chattered a lot, but mostly it made sense, and how pleasant it was to laugh or sit in silence without embarrassment. It might be that the Scotch had a lot to learn from the Irish, at least from the womenfolk, though the men were a palavering lot to be sure.

He started guiltily. "I must go and help John. The morn's fair gone and nothing done."

"Och man, sit yourself back down now. John can very well do his own stooking. Tell me the news of the town while I get the potatoes on for dinner. It's starved I am for a bit of gossip."

Jim was not one for gossip, but he did his best. He told her about Elspeth's strange silence. He talked about the condition of his garden and of Emil Weber's onions. He spoke at length about the new McPherson sheaf carrier and of the brashness of Alec's John and of the general disrespect shown by the younger generation. The rum was warming his heart.

"It amazes me, Katie, how I can sit here and blather so to you. Now that Janet's gone you are the only body I can talk to and say what is in me to say. With John and Elspeth I'm like a frozen turnip. It's terrible with Elspeth in the house in town. We tighten up and scare each other and can't talk. But I doubt you'll know what I'm meaning, lass."

"Indeed and I do, Dad. John's like that too. It's the damned Scotch pride in you all. There never was a race of people so set upon themselves and so full of conceit. You all do need a kick on the behind at times, especially my John, and who gives it to him? Why Katie does."

"You're laughing at me now, woman, but there's much in what you say. I'm worried about Elspeth with no woman to talk to and me only a bother to her."

"You just leave her, Dad. Elspeth's a grown woman, and people choose their own way. If they let themselves get stiff with fear and hide behind their pride, then that is their own doing, for sure. But get up now and go and find Rory before Sandy eats him. I have to set the table."

Rory was sitting on a box watching Sandy eat his hay. The horse's roan coat shone with the brushing and combing. A good six inches of straw had been spread for bedding.

"I gave him a pail of water, Grampa, and his hay. And after dinner I'll give him his oats."

"That's the boy, you'll be a horseman yet. We'll go now and find your father. He'll think we're poor help coming by so late."

The day went well. The sun beat down hot, the stubble rustled dry under foot, and the sheaves were heavy with good grain in them. Jim, Rory, and John set up the stooks. They all talked, with Rory easing the restraint between father and son much as Janet had used to do. It was a peaceful, happy time. When night came, Jim was tired, the muscles were old now.

"You'll stay the night, Father, and we'll finish stooking in the morn." Crafty John, he knew that gave Jim a good excuse to stay.

"Elspeth won't mind, and we all can have a bit of a clack together."

He slept in his old room, his and Janet's, the room with the stovepipe in it. There was a straw tick that seemed prickly and uncomfortable after the mattress in town. His muscles ached, and he slept fitfully, finally lying fully awake. He tried not to give in to this new trouble that had come upon him lately, a bothersome, humiliating thing. But finally he gave up and went quietly down the stairs. There was a chamber pot under the bed, but that was for women and old men. As he went out into the cool morning air on the porch, Shep thumped his tail in welcome, got up politely, and flopped down again with a rattle of bones on the hard floor.

Jim went out on the lawn and did what was necessary. The morning August mist lay thick all about. It blanketed everything up to ten feet in height, and the trees rose out of this sea of white. The barn loomed dimly in the starlight. All this was familiar. The trees he had planted, the house and the barn he had built, the very sky with the familiar stars overhead seemed to belong to him. He sat on the lawn seat in the summer house damp with the dew. The summer house and the seat he had made long ago of birch saplings from the swamp. He felt the seat and shook it. It was still firm and strong and the bark was smooth. It was odd how birch bark lasted forever.

He thought about how he soon would leave all this and go he knew not where. Perhaps Janet would be there, and his mother, but not old Rory. He grinned to himself. No, Rory would be telling the Devil himself how to direct his affairs. Or, perhaps there was no place to go, and no God and no Devil as well.

Jim rose to go inside. There was no point in addling his brain with all this thinking; that was no easy way to get ready for the morning's work. He stumbled a little on the porch steps; his legs felt suddenly weak. This was nonsense. He had never been this way before. He had been tired, fatigued, but never weak this way. It must be imagination; he would brush it off. He took several firm steps and reached the stairs. With his hand on the stair rail he felt a darkness coming, then he was on his knees and his face felt the roughness of the stair carpet and he smelled its musty odour. There was nothing for a while, and then a time of confusion. There were voices, but he couldn't hear what they said, and he felt that he was carried to a place in which he sank deeply far down, and he tried to move in this place and could not. Then there was Dr. Johnston's voice. He knew it was Dr. Johnston, but not what he said. Then it was quiet again, a long time.


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