Chapter XVII. The Pioneers' Picnic
 
  It is always fair weather
  When good fellows get together.
  ----Old Song.

The Pioneers' Picnic was the great annual social event of the Souris Valley, and was looked forward to by young and old. It was held each year on the first day of July, on the green flats below the town of Millford. In John Watson's home, as in many others, preparations for it began early.

One very necessary part of the real enjoyment of a holiday is cash, cold, hard cash, for ice-cream, lemonade; and "Long Toms" can only be procured in that way.

Tommy and Patsey for the first time bitterly regretted their country residence, for if they had been in Millford, they said, they could have delivered parcels and run errands and have had a hundred dollars saved easy. Pearl suggested the black bottles that were so numerous in the bush as a possible source of revenue, and so every piece of scrub and the bluff behind the house were scoured for bottles. Thirty-seven were found, and were cleaned and boxed ready for the day.

Then Bugsey's conscience woke up and refused to be silenced. "Lib Cavers ought to have them," he said sadly.

The others scouted the idea. Bugsey was as loath to part with them as the others; but they had their consciences under control and Bugsey had not.

"She couldn't take them in and sell them," said Tommy, speaking very loudly and firmly, to drown the voice of his conscience. "It wouldn't be dacent, everybody knowin' where they came from, and what was in them, and where it went to, and who it was, and all."

Tommy had ideas on what constituted good form.

Pearl was called upon to settle it and, after some thought, gave her decision.

"If you give Lib Cavers one package of 'Long Tom' popcorn and one of gum for a present, it'll be all right. Don't tell her why yer givin' it to her--just say, 'Present from a friend,' when you hand it to her."

"Maybe she don't like popcorn, anyway," Bugsey said, beginning to hope; "and I don't believe her ma will let her chew gum; and it don't look nice for little girls," he added virtuously.

"I'll tell you what we'll do," said Tommy, who was a diplomat. "We'll give it to her ma to give to her."

"Offer it, you mean," corrected Patsey; '"give it' means she tuk it."

Aunt Kate had been busy making suits for her young nephews all spring, for Aunt Kate was very handy with the needle. She had made shirts for Teddy and Billy with elaborate "flossin'" down the front, so elaborate indeed that it threatened to upset the peace of the family. Billy rebelled openly, and Teddy said when he was out of his Aunt's hearing, that he would rather go without a shirt than wear that scalloped thing. Aunt Kate was serene through it all, and told them how fond their Uncle Bill had been of that same pea-vine pattern. Pearl saw at once that there was going to be a family jar, and so saved the situation by getting Martha Perkins to make wide silk ties for the two boys, wide enough to hide the ramifications of the pea-vine--and then to avoid the uncomfortable questioning of Aunt Kate, she hid her glasses on the evening of June the thirtieth. "Anyway," Pearl said to herself, "she might get them broke on a big day like the 'First,' and she can see plenty without them, so she can."

The 'morning of July the first broke clear and sparkling, and before six o'clock the whole Watson family were stirring. Out in the garden the four little boys were pulling radishes and tying them into bunches. Mary, her hair done in many tight little pigtails, was doing a flourishing business' in lettuce. Jimmy was at the head of the green onion department. The Watsons had the contract of supplying green vegetables to the hotel for the day.

Pearl and Aunt Kate were sorting out clothes, while Mrs. Watson got the breakfast.

Down on the river-bank John Watson was cutting down poles for the new stable that he was going to put up in the fall. There was a great contentment in his heart as he looked at his twenty acres of wheat and the same of oats. The season had been so favourable that although the grain had been sown late, it was now well advanced. A field of fifteen acres farther up the river had been cleared and ploughed and would be in crop next year, and as he looked at his land in the sparkling morning sunshine something of Pearl's optimistic vision came to him, and in his fancy he saw all the roots and scrub cleared away and replaced by magnificent fields of grain, dappled with light and shade, his pasture full of cattle, a comfortable house instead of the weatherworn one before him, himself and the "Missus" enjoying peace and plenty; and the children growing up in wisdom's ways; and Pearlie--his heart's treasure, little Pearl, with the "natest fut in the country, and the sparrow shins of her"--Pearlie getting her chance.

"Faith, there's few of them can bate our Pearlie, I'm thinkin', if she can only get the chance."

By ten o'clock active preparations began on the junior members of the family. Mary's hair showed that putting in fourteen hard braids the night before is worth the trouble. She had a lovely barred muslin made out of an old one of Aunt Kate's that she couldn't wear now, being in mourning.

There were new suits for some, clean suits for all, and the only disturbance that occurred was when Danny would not "hold still" while Pearl fastened the front of his blouse; but just a hint of leaving him at home, made a better boy of Danny at once.

Bugsey, who was the first one dressed, went out to watch the weather, and in a short time came running in, in tears. There was a cloud coming up, and Bugsey, the pessimist, knew it was going to rain.

Pearl backed Danny out of the door, holding tight by his tie-strings, to look at the weather. Sure enough, black clouds had formed in the west, and were marching relentlessly up the sky. The whole family came out to look. In the east the sun blazed bright and unconcerned. The old pig ran past them carrying a wisp of hay in her mouth, and by common impulse three of the boys threw sticks after her. She was just trying to make it rain--she couldn't go to the picnic herself, and she'd just like to see it rain! Little whirls of wind circled around in the hip-yard, and there was an ominous roll of distant thunder. Loud wails broke from Bugsey, Danny, and Mary, and when the edge of the cloud went over the sun and the whole landscape darkened the wails became general.

"Come into the house," commanded Pearl, "it's only goin' to be a shower and lay the dust. Cheer up, there's enough blue 'sky to make a pair of pants, and it's not time for us to be goin' yet, anyway."

The tearful family followed her into the house and sat in doleful silence watching the big drops that began to beat on the western window.

Pearl was a strong believer in work as a remedy for worry. Jimmy was put to tightening up the buttons on his new suit. Tommy blackened boots with lampblack and lard, and Bugsey, who was weeping copiously, was put to counting radishes as a little bit of "busy work."

Pearl kept up a brave show of confidence in the weather, but Mrs. Watson's and Aunt Kate's contributions to the conversation were all of a humid character and dealt with spoiled feathers, parasols blown inside out, and muslin dresses so spattered with mud that they were not worth bringing home.

Pearl continued her preparations in the face of great discouragement. Aunt Kate foretold a three days' rain--it looked to be settlin' that way, and besides, look at that old gray hen, she hadn't gone in, and that was a sure sign of a long rain. This brought a renewed downpour in the house.

Pearl grew desperate. "Look at all the other hens that did go in," she said, as she tied the bows in her own hair. "I don't see the sense of taking that crazy old ike of a hen's word for it against all the other hens that have gone in. She's a mournful old thing, and is staying out to make the other ones feel bad, or else she don't know enough to go in. Hurry up, Mary, and get all that stuff in; it's a quarter to eleven now, and we've got Tommy to do yet when he's done with the boots. It's none of our business whether it rains now or not. We're not wantin' to go just now."

"Pearlie, dear," her mother said, "you're raisin' too many hopes in them."

"Hopes!" Pearl cried. "Did you say hopes, Ma? They look like a bunch with too many hopes, settin' there blubberin' their eyes out and spoiling their looks."

By eleven o'clock everything was ready but the weather, and then, as if it suddenly dawned on the elements that this was hardly a square deal on Pioneers' Picnic day, the clouds parted right over John Watson's house, and a patch of blue sky, ever widening, smiled down encouragingly. Sorrow was changed to joy. Bugsey dried his eyes when he saw the sun shining on the Brandon Hills.

A little breeze frolicked over the trees and flung down the raindrops in glittering showers, and at exactly a quarter past eleven the Watson family, seated on three seats in the high-boxed waggon, drove gaily out of the yard.

"Sure, we enjoy it all the better for getting the scare," said Mary the philosopher.

The Perkinses, in their two-seated buggy, were just ahead on the road. Even Martha, encouraged by Pearl, was coming to the picnic.

Behind the Watsons came the Caverses and the Motherwells.

"Let's ask Libby Anne to ride with us," said Tommy, but Mary, with fine tact, pointed out that she would see the bottles, and it might hurt her feelings, "for, mind you," said Mary, "she knows, young and all as she is."

Mary was one year younger herself.

Along every trail that led into the little town came buggies and waggons, their occupants in the highest good humour. There was a laughing ripple in the meadowlark's song, as if he were declaring that he knew all the time that the rain was only a joke.

Across the river lay the Horsehoe slough, a crescent of glistening silver, over which wild ducks circled and skimmed and then sank into its clear waters, splashing riotously, as if they, too, were holding an "Old Boys' Reunion." It was the close season for wild fowl, and nobody knew it better than they.

Coming down into the valley, innumerable horses, unhitched and tied to the wagons, were to be seen. The rain had driven away the mosquitoes, and a cool breeze, perfumed with wild roses and cowslips, came gently from the West. The Watsons drove to a clump of poplar trees which seemed to offer shade for the horses. Bugsey and Tommy carried the box of bottles to the drug-store, admonished by Pearl to drive a close bargain.

Pearl went with Jimmy and Patsey, who took the green vegetables to the hotel. Jimmy had been accustomed to bringing milk to the back door and was quite an admirer of Mr. Braden, the genial proprietor.

Mr. Braden himself came into the kitchen just as they knocked at the door. He was faultlessly dressed, and in a particularly happy mood, for the first of July was one of his richest harvests, both in the dining-room and in the bar, where many a dollar would be laid on the altar of "auld lang syne"; and besides this, Sandy Braden was really glad to see all the old timers, apart from any thought of making money. He paid Jimmy for the vegetables, and gave him an extra quarter for a treat for himself and the others.

Acting on a sudden impulse, Pearl said: "Mr. Braden, you know Bill Cavers, don't you?"

Mr. Braden said he did.

"Well," said Pearl, "they've all come to town to-day. Mrs. Cavers hasn't been here for ever so long, but Bill promised to stay sober to-day if she'd come."

Pearl hesitated.

"Well, what else?" he said.

"They're goin' to have a photo taken to send home to her folks in Ontario. Mrs. Cavers is all fixed up, with her hair curled, and Libby Anne has a new dress made out of her mother's weddin' one, and Bill is lookin' fine--he hasn't been drunk since that Sunday you took him away from the school when we were havin' church."

Mr. Braden suddenly stopped smiling.

"And what I want to ask you, Mr. Braden, as a real favour, is not to fill Bill up until they get the photo taken, anyway. You know how his lip hangs when' he's drunk--he wouldn't look nice in a photo to send home. Mrs. Cavers went all white and twitchy that day you took him away from church. I was right behind her, and I guess that's how she'd look in a photo if he got drunk, and she wouldn't look nice, either; and even Libby Anne wouldn't be lookin' her best, because she gets mad when her father is drunk, and says she'd like to kill you, and burn up all your whiskey, and lots of things like that that ain't real Christian. So you see, it would spoil the whole picture if you let him get drunk."

Sandy Braden was not a hard-hearted man, and so, when Pearl told him all this with her eyes on him straight and honest and fearless, he was distinctly uncomfortable.

He tried to get a grip on himself. "Who told you to come to me about it?" he asked suspiciously.

"Nobody told me," Pearl said. "I never thought of it myself until I saw you lookin' so fine and such fine clothes on you, and you so full of good humour, and I thought maybe you're not as bad as I always thought you were, and maybe you don't know what a bad time Mrs. Cavers and Libby Anne have when Bill drinks.

"You see," Pearl continued, after she had waited in vain for him to speak, "you've got all Bill had anyway. You mind the money they saved to go home--you got that, I guess, didn't you? And you'll not be losin' anything to-day, for Bill hasn't got it. He gave all the money he had to Mrs. Cavers--he was afraid he'd spend it--and that's what they're goin' to get the photo with."

Sandy Braden continued to look at the floor, and seemed to be unconscious of her presence.

"That's all I was wantin' to say," Pearl said at last. He looked up then, and Pearl was struck with the queer white look in his face.

"All right, Pearl," he said. "I promise you Bill won't get a drop here to-day." He tried to smile. "I hope the photo will turn out well."

"Thank you, Mr. Braden," Pearl said. "Good-bye."

Sandy Braden went back to the bar-room and told his bartender not to sell to Bill Cavers under any consideration. The bartender, who owned a share the business, became suspicious at once.

"Why not?" he asked.

"Because I don't want Bill Cavers to get drunk, that's all," he said shortly.

"Out with it, Sandy. Who's been at you? the W. C. T. U. been interviewing you?"

"That's none of your business Bob. If I choose to shut down on Bill Cavers it's nobody's business, is it?"

"Well, now, I guess it's some of my business," the bartender said. "Don't forget that I have a little interest in this part of the joint; and besides, you know my principles. I'll sell to any one who has the money--we're out for the coin, and we're not runnin' any Band of Hope."

"Now, see here, Bob, this man Cavers drinks up every cent he earns, and to-day I happen to know that he is trying to keep straight. They've come in to get a photo taken, and she hasn't been off the farm for years."

The bartender laughed.

"Bill will take a hot photo when he gets about two finger-lengths in him! No, it's not our business who buys. We're here to sell. That's one thing I don't believe in, is refusin' liquor to any man. Every man has a perfect right to as much liquor as he wants."

Sandy Braden was about to make a spirited reply, but some one called him in the office and in the excitement of the day's events he forgot all about Bill Cavers until his attention was called toward him later in the day.

* * *

Meanwhile the boys had disposed of their bottles to the drug-store, receiving in payment a bountiful supply of gum, licorice, and drug-store candies, and a Union Jack for each one. There was quite a run on bottles before an hour, for the Hogan twins cornered the market by slipping around to the alley at the back of the store and securing the bottles that stood in a box in the back shed. Then they came around to the front and sold them again, flags being the consideration every time, for the twins were loyal sons of the Dominion.

The drug-store man had bought his own bottles twice before he found out, but it is a proof of the twins' ability as financiers that they did not come back after he found it out. Lots of silly little boys would, but there is an advantage in being twins!

Down below the town, on the river-flat, the old timers were getting together. Under a grove of tall elms a group of the older men were recounting the stirring scenes of the boom days, when flour was ten dollars a bag, and sugar twenty-five cents a pound; and the big flood of '82, when the Souris, the peaceful little murmuring stream that now glinted through the trees below them, ran full from bank to bank and every house in Millford had a raft tied to its back door.

In the picnic grounds, which had been cleared out for this purpose years before, the women, faded and worn, most of them, with many long years on the prairie, but wonderfully brightened up by meeting old friends, spread their table-covers on the long, rough tables, and brought out the contents of their baskets.

Mrs. Watson introduced her sister-in-law to all the old friends, who at once received her into the sisterhood, and in a few minutes Aunt Kate was exchanging opinions on lemon pies with the best of them.

Then, speaking of pies, some one recalled Grandma Lowry's vinegar pies-that triumph of housewifely art, whereby a pie is made without eggs or milk or fruit, and still is a "pie!"

"Wasn't she a wonder? Did you ever see the beat of old Grandma Lowry?" they asked each other, looking up the hillside where they had laid her the year before, and hushing their voices reverently as if they were afraid that they might disturb her slumbers.

"I brought some of the vinegar pies to-day," Mrs. Slater said. "I thought it would be nice to remember her that way. She brought me over two of them the first Christmas we were in the country. I never will forget Grandma Lowry."

A little old woman in black stopped cutting the cake suddenly and looked up. Then she began to speak in a slow, monotonous voice. "She came to me," she said, "when my three boys were down with diphtheria in the dead of winter, and sat with my little Charlie the last night he was on earth. I says to her: 'Lie down, Mrs. Lowry'--she'd been up two nights already--but she says--I'll never forget just the way she said it--she says: 'Mary, I helped little Charlie to come into the world, and if it so be that he's goin' to leave it, who's got a better right than me to' be with him?'"

The shade of the elm-trees was getting smaller and smaller as the sun rose higher, and some of the old-timers were sitting in the sun before they noticed it, so interested were they in Mr. Slater's story of the surveying party that crossed the Assiniboine that fateful night in November, '79, when only five out of the eight got over.

Then the women announced, by beating on a dishpan, that dinner was ready, and every tree and bush gave answer--it was the old miracle of Roderick Dhu's men rising from copse and heath and cairn. Gray-haired men came running like boys, catching at each other's coat-tails, tripping each other, laughing, care-free, for it was Pioneers' Picnic day, and that is the one day when gladness and good-fellowship have full play, and cares and years with their bitter memories of hail and frost fall from them like a garment. Hungry little boys fell down out of trees, asking where was the pie! Little girls in fluffy skirts stood shyly around until some motherly soul ushered them down the line where she said there was plenty of room and lots of good eating.

Demure young ladies, assisted by young fellows in white aprons, poured tea and coffee from huge white pitchers, making frequent journeys to the stove over among the trees, and sometimes forgetting to come back until some one had to go for them!

There were roast chicken and boiled ham set in beds of crispest lettuce and parsley. There were moulds of chicken jelly with sprigs of young celery stuck in the top. There were infinite varieties of salads and jellies and pickles; there were platters full of strawberry tarts, made from last year's wild strawberries, which had been kept for this very occasion; there were apple pies covered with a thick mat of scalded cream. There was Mrs. Motherwell's half-hour cake, which tradition said had to be beaten for that length of time "all the one way"; there were layer cake, fig cake, rolled jelly cake, election cake, cookies with a hole, cookies with a raisin instead of a hole; there were dough nuts, Spanish bun and ginger-bread. No wonder that every one ate until they were able to eat no more.

Pearl helped to wait on the others. Danny did not say a word, but just laid about him. At last he called Pearl to him, and, in a muffled whisper, asked: "What is there now that I haven't had?" Pearl then knew that he was approaching the high-water mark.

* * *

Having overruled Martha's objections to mingling with her fellow-men at picnics, and having persuaded her to come and see for herself if picnics were not a good thing, Pearl felt responsible for her enjoyment of it.

Pearl had some anxious thoughts on the subject of a proper dress for Martha for the picnic, when she found that her best summer dress was a black muslin, which to Pearl seemed fit only for a funeral.

She wondered how to bring forward the subject without appearing rude, when Martha saved her from all further anxiety one day by coming over to ask her to help her to pick out a dress from the samples she had sent for. The magazine had begun to bear fruit.

They decided on a white muslin with a navy blue silk dot in it, and then Pearl suggested a blue ribbon girdle with long ends, a hat like Camilla's, a blue silk parasol, and long blue silk gloves.

When Pearl saw Martha the day of the picnic, it just seemed too good to be true that Martha could look so nice. She had braided her hair the night before and made it all fluffy and wavy, and under the broad brim of her blue hat it didn't look the colour of last year's hay at all, Pearl thought. Martha herself seemed to feel less constrained and awkward than she ever did before. Mrs. Francis would have called it the "leaven of good clothes."

Pearl was wondering what she was going to do with Martha, now that she had got her there, when she saw Arthur Wemyss, the young Englishman.

She took him aside and said: "Arthur, you are the very fellow I want to see. I've got Martha Perkins with me to-day, and she's pretty shy, you know--never been to any of these picnics before--and I'm so busy looking after all our young lads that I haven't time to go around with her. Now, I wonder if you would take her around and be nice to her. Martha's just a fine girl and young, too, if she only knew it, and she should be having a good time at picnics."

Arthur expressed his willingness to be useful. He would be glad, he said, to do his best to give Miss Martha a pleasant time.

And so it came about that Arthur, in his courteous way, escorted Martha through the throng of picnickers, found a seat for her at the table, and waited on her with that deference that seems to come so easy to the well-bred young Englishman.

Arthur was an open-hearted young fellow, and finding Martha very sympathetic, told her about his plans. Thursa was coming from England in December to marry him, and he was going to have a house put up just as soon as the harvest was over. His father had sent him the money, and so he was not depending entirely on the harvest. He showed her the plan of the house and consulted her on the best position for the cellar door and the best sort of cistern. He showed her a new photo of Thursa that he had just received. She was a fluffy-haired little thing in a much befrilled dress, holding a fan coquettishly behind her head. Martha noticed how fondly he looked at it, and for a moment a shivering sense of disappointment smote her heart. But she resolutely put it from her and feasted her eyes on the lovelight in his, even though she knew it was the face of another woman that had kindled it.

Arthur was a wholesome-looking young man, with a beaming face of unaffected good-humour, and to Martha it seemed the greatest happiness just to be near him and hear his voice. She tried to forget everything save that he was here beside her, for this one dear sweet afternoon.

When the thought of Thursa's coming would intrude on her, or the bitterer thought still that she was only a plain, sunburnt, country girl, with rough hands and uncouth ways, she forced them away from her, even as you and I lie down again, and try to gather up the ravelled threads of a sweet dream, knowing well that it is only a dream and that waking time is drawing near, but holding it close to our hearts as long as we can.