The Second Chance by Nellie L. McClung
Chapter XXI. Frozen Wheat
For them 'at's here in airliest infant stages, It's a hard world; For them 'at gets the knocks of boyhood's ages, It's a mean world; For them 'at nothin's good enough they're gittin', It's a bad world; For them 'at learns at last what's right and fittin', It's a good world.
----James Whitcomb Riley.
The summer was over, and the harvest, a great, bountiful harvest, was gathered in. The industrious hum of the threshing-machine was heard from many quarters, and the roads were dotted thick with teams bringing in the grain to the elevators.
In the quiet field on the hillside, where the spruce trees, straight and stiff, stand like faithful sentinels, the grass that had grown over Bill Cavers's grave was now sere and gray; only the hardy pansies were green still and gay with blossoms, mute emblems of the love that never faileth.
Mrs. Cavers and Libby Anne were still living on the rented farm. After Bill's death the neighbours, with true Western generosity, had agreed among themselves to harvest the crop for her. The season had been so favourable that her share of the crop would be a considerable amount.
It was a typical autumn day in middle September. The golden and purple flowers of the fall bespangled the roadside--wild sunflowers, brown-centred gaillardia, wild sage, and goldenrod. The bright blue of the cloudless sky set off the rich tints of autumn. The stubble fields still bore the golden-yellow tinge of the harvest, and although the maple leaves were fast disappearing before the lusty winds of autumn, the poplars, yellow and rust-coloured, still flickered gaily, the wild rosehaws and frost-touched milkweed still gave a dash of colour to the shrubbery on the river-bank.
There had been an early frost that fall, which had caught the late wheat, and now the grain which was brought into the elevators had to be closely graded. The temptation to "plug" the wheat was strong, and so much of it was being done that the elevator men were suspicious of every one.
Young Tom Steadman was weighing wheat in the Farmers' Elevator while the busy time was on, and although there was no outward hostility between him and Bud Perkins, still his was too small a nature to forget the thrashing that Bud had given him at the school two years ago, and, according to Tom's code of ethics, it would be a very fine way to get even if he could catch Bud selling "plugged" wheat.
The first load that Bud brought in Tom asked him if he had plugged it. Bud replied quite hotly that he had not.
"I suppose," said Tom, "you stopped all that since you joined the Church."
Bud's face flushed, but he controlled his temper and answered: "Yes, that's what stopped me, and I'm not ashamed to say so."
The manager of the elevator, who was present, looked at him in surprise. "Were you ever caught?" he asked.
"No," said Bud; "I was not."
"Well, then, you're a fool to ever admit that you did it," he said severely.
"I can't help that," Bud said. "I am not going to lie about it."
"Well, it makes people suspicious of you to know you ever did it, that's all," Mr. Johnston said.
"You are welcome to watch me. I am not asking you to take my word for it," Bud replied.
"You're a queer lad," said the elevator man.
Bud's wheat was closely examined, and found to be of uniform quality.
The wheat went up to the dollar mark and Thomas Perkins decided to rush his in to the elevator at once. He stayed at home himself and filled the bags while Bud did the marketing.
All went well for a week. Contrary to his own words about being suspicious of Bud, the elevator "boss" was, in his own mind, confident of the boy's honesty.
One day, just as Bud's second last bag was thrown in, young Steadman gave a cry of delight, and picked out a handful. Number II Northern was the grading that Bud had been getting all the week. Young Steadman showed it triumphantly to the elevator "boss" who examined it closely. It was frozen wheat!
Bud was gathering up his bags when the elevator man called him over.
"Look at that," he said, holding the wheat before him.
Bud looked at it incredulously. "That's not mine," he said.
Young Steadman's eyes were on him exultingly. He had got even at last, he thought.
"We'll have to see about this, Bud," the elevator man said sternly.
The other bag was emptied, and Bud saw with his own eyes that the middle of the bag was filled with frozen wheat! He turned dizzy with shame and rage. The machinery in the elevator with its deafening, thump-thump-thump, seemed to be beating into his brain. He leaned against the wall, pale and trembling.
The same instinct which prompted Tom Steadman when he hit Libby Anne Cavers prompted him now. "I thought you said you wouldn't do such a thing since you joined the Church," he said, with an expression of shocked virtue.
Bud's cup of bitterness was overflowing, and at first he did not notice what had been said.
Tom took his silence to mean that he might with safety say more. "I guess you're not as honest as you'd like to have people think, and joinin' the Church didn't do you so much good after all."
Bud came to himself with a rush then, and young Tom Steadman went spinning across the floor with the blood spurting from his nose.
* * *
Bud was fined ten dollars for assault, and of course it became known in a few hours that the cause of the trouble was that Bud had been caught selling frozen wheat in the middle of his bags.
Through it all Bud made no word of defence. No one knew how bitter was the sting of disgrace in the boy's soul or how he suffered. When he went home that afternoon there was a stormy scene. "I told you I would not sell 'plugged' wheat," he said to his father, raging with the memory of it, "and, without letting me know, you put it in and made me out a thief and a liar."
The old man moistened his lips. "Say, Buddie," he said, "it was too bad you hit young Steadman; he's an overgrown slab of a boy, and I don't mind you lickin' him, but they'll take the 'law' on ye every time; and ten dollars was a terrible fine. Maybe they'd have let you off with five if you'd coaxed them."
"Coax!" said Bud, scornfully. "I wouldn't coax them. What do I care about the money, anyway? That's not what I'm kicking about."
"Oh, Buddie, you are a reckless young scamp to let ten dollars go in one snort, and then say you don't care."
With an angry exclamation Bud turned away.
* * *
The next time Bud went to Millford Mrs. Burrell saw him passing the house and called him in. She had heard an account of the affair from the wife of the elevator "boss," and had told it to Mr. Burrell, who promptly declared he did not believe it, whereupon Mrs. Burrell grew indignant. Did he doubt Mrs. Johnston's word?
Mr. Burrell cautioned her not to speak of it to any one, and went out at once to see Bud. Mr. Burrell had only been gone a few minutes when Bud himself came driving past the house. Mrs. Burrell told herself that Providence had put Bud in her way. Mrs. Burrell blamed Providence for many things quite unjustly. "Come in, Bud," she called from the door; "I want to see you."
Bud knew the minister's wife but slightly; he had seen her at the services in the schoolhouse. He had intended going in to see Mr. Burrell, for he felt that he must tell some one that he was not guilty, and he felt that the minister was the one whose opinion he most valued. So he went in gladly, hoping that Mr. Burrell might be there.
"Now, Bud," Mrs. Burrell began, with her severest air, "I am sorry to say what I have to say, but it's all for your own good, and it really hurts me to say it."
"Don't say it then!" burst from the boy's white lips; he was too sore to stand any more.
"I must say it, Bud," she went on, as conscientious in her cruelty as Queen Mary. "You have done very wrong, and you must repent. I could not sleep a wink last night, thinking of it, and Mr. Burrell did think so much of, you, too."
"Did think!" Bud inferred from the heavy emphasis that Mr. Burrell's regard was all past, and he hid his face so that she might not see how deeply she had hurt him.
"But you are young yet, and your life is all before you, and you must repent and begin all over again. 'While the lamp of life holds out to burn, the vilest sinner may return.' You must pray for strength, so you won't be tempted to be dishonest again, and you really should apologize to young Mr. Steadman. Mrs. Johnston says his face is very sore."
Bud looked up quickly and said with flashing eyes: "I'm glad of that. I wish I had smashed him again--the pup!"
Then Mrs. Burrell was shocked utterly. "My dear boy," she said, "I am afraid your heart is very hard and wicked. Mr. Burrell thought you were soundly converted, too, but you seem to be really rebellious against God, who is kinder and better than any earthly parent. This is a matter for earnest and agonizing prayer."
Bud stood up and looked at her with eyes that flamed with anger. Unfortunately Bud, like Martha, was entirely lacking in humour; otherwise his heart would have been saved many a cruel hurt. "I don't want your prayers," he said, when he could control himself.
Something in the boy's face touched Mrs. Burrell's heart with pity. "Perhaps I've been wrong," she said. "I do make mistakes sometimes. I may have made one now."
"You certainly have," he said, as he took his hat and left the house.
Mrs. Burrell watched him going down the path with his long, swinging stride, and her heart was strangely troubled. She had a conviction that she had done no good, and perhaps had done a great deal of harm. "When I try to do good, evil comes of it," she said sorrowfully, and then she went to her own room and prayed; and it was an earnest and agonizing prayer, too; though very different from the prayer she had in mind when she spoke to Bud, for the burden of it all was this, that God would in some way overrule all her mistakes for good, and not let the boy suffer because of any word of hers.
She continued to plead until her heart found peace in the thought that has comforted so many of us in our sore need, that perhaps when He sees the faulty, crooked lines we are drawing, the Great Surveyor will, in His mercy, put in for us, here and there, the correction lines.
* * *
When Bud drove home that night his thoughts were far too bitter for a boy of eighteen. A sense of injustice was poisoning the fountains of his heart, and so, when he met Mr. Burrell, he felt he could stand no more. The whole world was against him now, he thought, and he would let them see he didn't care. He would never tell any one now about the wheat. He would never give away his father; but he would leave Millford right straight, leave it for ever, so when Mr. Burrell drew in his horse to speak to him, Bud turned his head and drove rapidly away. Mr. Burrell went home very sad about it all, wondering if Bud were really guilty, but determined to stand by him just the same.
When he got home Mrs. Burrell told him about her interview with Bud. She was thoroughly repentant now, and tearfully declared that she knew now she had been very unwise.
Mr. Burrell drove back that night to see Bud, but he was too late, for Bud had gone.
* * *
Arriving at his home, Bud stabled his horses, and then went into the house. His father was filling bags in the granary, but Bud felt that he could not bear to see him. He went to his own room and hurriedly changed his clothes. He had only one thought--to get away--to get away where no one knew him. In the last few hours the whole world had changed for him--that Mr. Burrell should so easily believe him guilty had overflowed his cup of bitterness.
A red and silver scripture text, in the form of a shield, hung on his bedroom wall; Martha had given it to him, some time ago, and it had often brought him comfort and inspiration.
"He is able to deliver you," it said.
Bud read it now scornfully, and with a sudden impulse tore it down and crushed it in his hands. "There's nothing in it," the boy cried bitterly.
He went out to the pasture and whistled to his pacing colt, which came to him at once. The boy laid his head on the colt's velvet neck and patted it lovingly.
"I'll come back for you, Bunko," he said. "You're mine, anyway."
The colt rubbed his head against Bud's arm.
Across the ravine, where the fringed blue gentian looked up from the sere grass, the cows were grazing, and Bud, from habit, went for them and brought them up to the bars.
The sun was setting when Bud reached the Cavers's house, for he could not go without saying good-bye to Libby Anne. She was driving their two cows in from a straw stack, and called gaily to him when she saw him coming.
"I've come to say good-bye, Lib," said Bud simply.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"I don't know--anywhere to get away from here." Then he told her what had happened.
"I'm glad you took a smash at Tom Steadman," she said, her big eyes flashing, when he had finished. Then suddenly she began to cry. "I don't want you to go," she sobbed. "You won't ever come back; I won't see you ever again."
"Don't say that, Libby," Bud cried in real distress--she looked so little and pale in her black dress--"I will come back some time, and I won't forget my little girl. You're my girl, you know, Lib."
"I'm your girl all right," the child said unsteadily. "But I want you to stay. I can't make up things like Pearl and Mary Watson can--I can do some pretendin' games pretty good now, but I can't pretend about you--I'll know you're gone all the time, Bud," and she caught her breath in a quivering sob.
Then Bud lifted the little girl in his arms and kissed her over and over again.
"Don't cry, Libby," he said. "I'm going away to make lots of money, and you mustn't fret. Every night I want you to say to yourself: 'I'm Bud's girl, and he won't forget me;' and whenever you get lonely or downhearted, just say that. Now Libby Anne, tell me who you are."
"I'm Bud's girl, all right," she answered gravely.
The sun had gone down in a crimson haze, and a misty tenderness seemed to brood over the world. The September evening was so full of peace and beauty with its muffled tinkle of cowbells and the soft song of the whippoorwill that came at intervals from the maple bush on Oak Creek, it was hard to believe that there were troubled hearts anywhere.
The hoarse whistle of a long freight train on the C. P. R. boomed harshly through the quiet air. "I must go, Lib," said Bud.
Libby Anne stood looking after him as he went quickly down the road. The evening twilight soon hid him from her sight, but she still looked down the winding road until it dipped down in the valley of Oak Creek.
Suddenly from the river-bank came the weird cry of a prairie wolf, and Libby Anne, turning with a shudder, ran home in the gathering dusk.