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The McGregors
The Fight


A summer weekend found the framing gang near Goderich, by now a fair-sized town. They headed for the bright lights, travelling with a team and a three-seated democrat. There were several taverns, so the rounds were made, Ben McAdam keeping a parental eye on his charges. When they got, as he described it, "well oiled", and the first wire-edge of the tension had worn off, he would try to get them to a lunch-room where they could indulge in that other notable Scottish pastime, eating. A well-stuffed gang could then be persuaded, after another drink or two for the road, to leave for home, and any number of unpleasant incidents would be averted until the next time.

Unfortunately, on this occasion a number of sailors from a lake boat happened to be in one of the taverns. They sat at an adjoining table and were also well lubricated. Relations were amicable at first, and friendly badinage was tossed back and forth. As the evening wore on one of the framers, Willie MacCrimmon, was moved to sing. He sang in the Gaelic and considerably off-key. The song went on and on until one of the sailors could stand it no longer.

"For love of the angels, man, let up on that screeching. Whatever God-awful place were ye reared to get your tongue around words like yon."

Willie rose with dignity. "I'll hae ye know, man, ma mither sang that song to me as a child, and I'll hae no man call it screeching."

"Well, go out and climb a tree and sing it along with your mither, you ugly Scotch ape."

"No man can insult ma mither," said Willie, advancing bravely. "Stand up that I may bash ye on the neb."

So as one word led to another the battle was joined. As there happened to be only five sailors to the six framers, it was soon over. The sailors spilled out the door in retreat, heading down the street leading to the lake. The gallant Scots pursued, but Ben grabbed Jim by the collar.

"Hold hard, Jim boy, them sailors are bad business. I know. I was one. Help me get the boys rounded up before they get in more trouble."

The rest of the gang had pursued the sailors down the dark street for a couple of blocks. As they became short of wind they spied a lighted tavern and turned down a side street to celebrate the victory. Jim and Ben searched the dark streets but, unfamiliar with the wheel-like layout of Goderich, they soon became confused. As they turned a corner they met a group of their former enemies, now reinforced by friends carrying axe handles. A vicious sweep felled Jim, and Ben stood over him wielding fists and feet and then an axe handle wrestled from an enemy. The sailors, frightened perhaps by the sight of the man lying still and bleeding, took flight again. A light summer rain had begun to fall, plastering Jim's hair, wet and bloody, to his head. Ben bent over him. "Jim lad, are ye hurt bad?"

There was no answer, and Ben looked about for help. Across the street there was a light in the kitchen of a house. He hurried there. A tall, slim girl of perhaps nineteen or twenty answered his knock.

"Ma'am," said Ben doffing his cap and putting on his most responsible air, "my mate is lying out here bad hurt. He got hit on the head and I am fearful for him. Could we, if you please, bring him inside, and I will see to a doctor?"

"Of course you can. I will call my grandfather and my brother. We will have to carry him on something. Perhaps an overcoat will do."

Surprised by this cool competence, Ben went back to his charge. The four carried him in on a greatcoat. They put him on a couch, and a swift examination took place. The girl brought a basin of water and towels and commenced gently to clean the wound, but she said at once, "I think we'd best get a doctor."

"Peter," this to her brother, "run over to Dr. Craig's house as fast as you can and ask him to come. Tell him it looks like a skull fracture. I pray he's not away somewhere."

Dr. Craig's examination was unhurried. He did not seem surprised at what he found.

"I'm afraid, Mr. Ellis," he said to the grandfather, "that we'll have to operate here with your permission. I hesitate to move him in this condition. I have what is needful with me."

"By all means," said the elderly man. "Just tell us what to do."

"For one thing move this table under the hanging lamp. Then, Janet," this to the girl, "we need sheets and towels and hot water."

Jim was placed on the table, breathing heavily.

"Janet, either you or Mr. McAdam must give the anaesthetic. Do you think you can do it?"

"I can do as you tell me, Doctor."

"Mr. McAdam, can you take a pulse?"

"Yes, Doctor, and call me Ben."

"Then take his pulse now, Ben, and become familiar with it. It may become faster later. Peter, set that lamp on the sideboard and get me a lantern. I don't trust lamps in anyone's hands in these situations," he said as Peter went for the lantern.. "Lanterns don't have as many accidents."

So by the light of the lamps and a lantern there commenced one of the oldest operations known to man, trepanning, the removal or straightening of a piece of bone pressing on the brain. Ten thousand years ago men performed this operation using only crude instruments. Dr. Craig was no stranger to it; he had done the same thing at least half a dozen times. In a population in which about half was occupied in bush work, the number of accidents from falling limbs and trees toppling the wrong way was appalling. He worked slowly and coolly, and his assistants took courage from his unhurried manner. He finished, apparently satisfied.

"I see no reason why he should not recover.

They removed Jim to a bed already warmed by hot bricks and water bottles.

"I will lie on the couch," said Dr. Craig. "Wake me, of course, if there is anything unusual. In any case wake me in two hours without fail."

Dr. Craig went promptly to sleep. In his life sleep was a precious commodity. When morning came the doctor was called to another patient. He left instructions for Ben and Janet. "He'll come to soon and he'll be pretty sick. Keep him as quiet as you can, but don't be too alarmed if he makes a fuss. We do what we can, but we don't work miracles."

Jim forced himself awake at last. He had been in a strange, misty place with some sailors and Ben McAdam. He saw the girl beside the bed.

"I don't know you."

"Well, I know quite a lot about you. Wherever did you learn to swear like that?"

"I'm sorry, miss. I don't seem to know what's going on."

"You got a bang on the head and we brought you in here and Dr. Craig patched your thick skull."

"Oh Yes." Jim paused, considering. His thoughts required arranging. "That would be the axe handle. Where's Ben?"

"Asleep over there in the rocking chair."

"Tell him to get the team, I'm ready to go now."

"No, you're not ready to go, and won't be for a week or so. Lie quiet now. The doctor said you must be quiet."

"I can't, I'm going to puke."

"Hold tight, I'll get a basin ... now then."

There followed half an hour in which Jim alternately got relief and then wished he could die. Presently it was over. He lay back exhausted. Ben McAdam slept, snoring with his mouth open.

"Now, Mr. Jim `Bad Words' McGregor, I'll get some warm water and some soap and clean you up. You smell just like Dennis Riley's tavern, worse if anything, and a bit of soap in your mouth wouldn't hurt either."

The brave words were mostly to cover her own anxiety. The man certainly hadn't been quiet, and Dr. Craig was out of reach. But Jim was worn out; he slept for hours, and it looked like a normal sleep. The worried girl was ready to collapse herself. After an hour of near misses Ben swallowed his tongue. He woke, contemplating the ceiling, with a series of gurgles, then came fully awake.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, I dozed off there for a minute. How is he now?"

"He's well enough, but don't light a match. He got rid of a lot of bad whiskey. Where do you take your men for entertainment, Mr. McAdam?"

"Ah, the lads do have to get tanked up now and then, miss, but they mean no harm. I try to persuade them away from the stuff, and they say I'm just a fussy old hen. But we are beholden to you and to your grandfather, Miss Ellis. For what can be paid in money Andrew Murdoch will attend to. For your kindness and goodness we can only say thank you."

"Say no more about it, Mr. McAdam, or Ben, if I may call you so, and excuse my sharp words. I seem to be tired. We must have some help. Has he a sister, or perhaps his mother could come and stay?"

"I will round up theboys right now, miss. They will be wandering about like lost sheep. One of them will take a message to his mother. I will come then, if I may, and mind him while you get some rest."

The mother came; even behind Andrew Murdoch's fast horse and seated in his newest buggy with the good springs, it was a weary journey. The frail woman alighted almost in need of as much care as Jim. She rallied when she saw Janet's anxious look and straightened to the erect carriage in which she had been trained as a girl. After all, she was a MacNeill.

"My dear Miss Ellis, I thank you for the care of my boy and I thank God that he has been spared. If I may just rest a little, now; my strength seems to have left me."

They settled into a routine in which Jim was watched carefully for the first few days. He was not an easy patient. Never in his life had he been confined, and he refused to admit the need of it now. The two women, alike enough to have been mother and daughter, worked as a team. They praised, coaxed, scolded, and badgered Jim into a sulky submission. They managed to keep him in bed for a week. His mother left then for home.

"I'd best go, Janet, else I'll not have strength left to travel. And I thank you from my heart for all you have done. "You will have to let him up in spite of what Dr. Craig says; I think myself he's well enough."

The two stood face to face, and the heart of each was open to the other as they looked into each other's eyes.

"He's a good boy, Janet, and kind, though rough. This wild country makes them rough. But he's like all the rest, my dear, he'll be off into the bush somewhere carving out a farm for himself and it's hard for the women that follow these men. Think well about it, child, and make no mistake."

She was gone as Janet stood red-faced, her cool poise upset. Why, it was ridiculous, a rough workman, of course he meant nothing to her. It was just that she was always mothering something that was hurt, a bird or a pet, and now this hulking big Highlander.

"You might as well go now, Jim, you do yourself no good stewing and fretting like this. Why are you so ready to go back to that gang of roughnecks? Is Miss Ellis not treating you well? For myself I would be glad of a week's rest in her care."

"I think he doesn't like my cooking, Dr. Craig. His oatmeal isn't just the way he likes it."

"Now, Janet - Miss Ellis, I should say - you know that isn't so. It's just that I am well now and must not trouble you more. You have been so kind, and me a rough sort of man that knows but little of gentle ways. And you did things for me when I was very sick that I blush to think of, and all in a way that I must respect. You are very like my mother. I thought there was no woman like her. Now I know better."

Janet was taken aback by this lengthy speech and somewhat surprised by its courtesy. She said nothing.

"I would like to call here, Janet, when I am fully recovered, to see you and your grandfather, and I hope you will allow me to bring a small gift. I haven't the words to tell you how much it has meant to me to be in this house and to know you."

Still shocked by this flow of Celtic eloquence the girl hardly knew what to say.

"I will be going to Toronto soon, Mr. James McGregor," she said, at last, imitating his formality, "but at Christmas time I will be back with Peter and Grandfather. We would all be glad to see you at that time."

They parted on the porch with a formal handshake and the girl re-entered the house slowly, somewhat shaken and vaguely disappointed. She shook herself angrily.

"What could I expect? The man wouldn't kiss me out on the front porch in front of everyone. I could have managed it better."

Back with the gang, Jim was surprised to find that he was of little use. He got dizzy even going up a ladder. His head ached and his hands were shaky. To protect the wound he wore a hard hat of Andrew Murdoch's, of the kind called a Christy Stiff. The gang paid him exaggerated respect, referring to him as Mr. Murdoch. The joke wore thin after a time. Ben let him help with measurements and some mallet-and-chisel work. Most humiliating of all, he was water boy.

"Mr. Murdoch, if you please, some water over here."

He gave up and went home to help Angus on the farm.


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