Chapter V. At the Chicken Hill School
 
  Ho! I'm going back to where
   We were youngsters! Meet me there,
  Dear old barefoot chums, and we
   Will be as we used to be,
  Lawless rangers up and down
   The old creek behind the town.
  ----James Whitcomb Riley.

If a river is measured by the volume of water in its current, the Souris River, on whose southern bank the little town of Millford is built, is but an insignificant stream; but if bold and precipitous banks, sheer cliffs, and a broad valley are to be considered, then the Souris may lay claim to some distinction. For a few weeks in the spring of the year, too, it is a swift and mighty flood that goes sweeping through the valley, carrying on its turbulent waters whirling ice-jams, branches of trees, and even broken bridge-timbers from the far country known as the "Antlers of the Souris." When the summer is very dry, the river shrinks to a gentle, trickling thread of water, joining shallow pools, overhung with gray-green willows that whiten in the breeze.

At Millford, the Souris flows almost straight east and keeps this direction for about three miles, and then turns sharply north toward the Sand Hill country, where six miles farther on it joins the Assiniboine.

On one of its banks, just before it takes the northern turn, stands the farmhouse of Thomas Perkins, a big white frame house, set in a grove of maples; a mile south is the big stone house of Samuel Motherwell, where Pearlie Watson wiped out the stain on her family's honour by working off the old ten-dollar debt of her father's.

Two miles farther east, on the old Turtle Mountain trail, stands the weather-beaten schoolhouse where Martha Perkins got her meagre education, and where Bud, her brother, was now attending. The schoolhouse is bare and unlovely, without tree or flower. The rain and the sun, the scorching winds of spring and winter's piercing blizzards have had their way with it for many years, and now it defies them all, for its paint is all gone, and it has no beauty for them to fade.

A straggling woodpile and a long straw covered shed stand near it. Three windows, curtainless and staring, are in each side, and a small porch with two steps leading up to it is at the south end. Here the gophers frolic in the quiet summer afternoons, and steal what is left of the children's dinners from the tin pails behind the door. The porch smells of crumbs.

Away to the east, Oak Creek runs through a wooded belt of fertile lands, its tall elms and spruce giving a grateful shade to the farmers' cattle. To the north are the sand-hills of the Aissinboine, where stiff spruce trees stand like sentinels on the red sand; but no tiny seedling had ever been brought to the school-yard, no kind hand had ever sought to relieve that desolate grayness, bleak and lonely as a rainy midnight in a deserted house.

Inside, the walls are dull with age, so dark and smoked you would think they could become no darker shade, but on the ceiling above the long stovepipe that runs from the stove at the door to the chimney at the other end, there runs a darker streak still. The stove is a big, square box, set on four stubby feet, and bears the name "Sultana."

Some small effort has been made to brighten the walls. One of Louis Wain's cat pictures, cut from a London Graphic, is stuck on the wall with molasses. There is a picture of the late King Edward when he was the Prince of Wales, and one of the late Queen Victoria framed with varnished wheat. There is a calendar of '93 showing red-coated foxhunters in full chase. Here the decorations end abruptly.

The teacher's desk is of unpainted wood, and on its lid, which lifts up, revealing the mysteries of mysteries below, there run ancient rivers of ink, pointing back to a terrible day when Bud Perkins leaned against the teacher's desk in class. A black spot on the floor under the teacher's chair shows just how far-reaching was Bud's offence.

The desks are all ink-stained and cut and inscribed with letters and names. Names are there on the old desks that can be read now on business and professional signs in Western cities, and some, too, that are written in more abiding type still, on the marble slabs that dot the quiet field on the river-bank.

The dreariness of the school does not show so much in the winter-time, when the whole landscape is locked in snow, and the windows are curtained by frost-ferns. The big boys attend school in the winter-time, too, for when there is nothing for them to do at home the country fathers believe that it is quite proper to pay some attention to education.

It was a biting cold day in January. The Christmas and New Year's festivities were over, and the Manitoba winter was settling down to show just what a Manitoba winter can do in the way of weather. The sky was sapphire blue, with fleecy little strings of white clouds, an innocent-looking sky, that had not noticed how cold it was below. The ground was white and sparkling, as if with silver tinsel, a glimmer of diamonds. Frost-wreaths would have crusted the trees and turned them into a fairy forest if there had been trees; but there was not a tree at the Chicken Hill School, so the frost-wreaths lay like fairy lace on the edges of the straw-covered shed and made fairy frills around the straggling woodpile. Everything was beautiful, blue and silver, sparkle and dance, glitter and glimmer.

Out on the well-tramped school-yard the boys and girls were playing "shinny," which is an old and honourable game, father or uncle of hockey.

Big Tom Steadman was captain of one side, and his fog-horn voice, as he shouted directions and objurgations to his men and his opponents, was the only discordant note in all that busy, boisterous, roaring scene.

Libby Anne Cavers was on the other side, and Libby Anne was a force to be reckoned with, for she was little and lithe, and determined and quick, with the agility of a small, thin cat. She was ten years old, but looked about seven.

Big Tom had the ball, and was preparing to shoot on the opposing goal. He flourished his stick in the air with a yell of triumph, and in his mind the game was already won. But he had forgotten Libby Anne, who, before his stick reached the ground, had slipped in her own little crook, and his stick struck the empty snow, for Libby Anne was fast flying up the field with the ball, while the players cheered. It was neatly done.

Tom Steadman ran after her in mad pursuit, and overtook her just as she passed the ball to Bud Perkins, who was the captain of her side. Then Tom Steadman, coward that he was, struck her with his heavy stick, struck fair and straight at her poor little thin shins, a coward's blow. Libby Anne doubled up into a poor little whimpering, writhing ball.

A sudden horror fell on the field, and the game stopped. Bud Perkins looked at her poor quivering little face, white as ashes now, his own face almost as pale, and then, pulling of his coat, ran over to' where Tom Steadman stood.

"Drop yer stick, you coward, and stand up to me," he said in a voice that rang with the blood-lust.

Tom Steadman was older and bigger, and he felt very sure that he could handle Bud, so his manner was full of assurance.

The school closed in around them and watched the fight with the stolid indifference of savages or children, which is much the same thing. Big Tom Steadman dealt his cruel sledge-hammer blows on Bud, on his face, head, neck, while Bud, bleeding, but far from beaten, fought like a cornered badger. The boys did not cheer; it was too serious a business for noisy shouting, and besides, the teacher might be aroused any minute, and stop the fight, which would be a great disappointment, for every boy and girl, big and little, wanted to see Tom Steadman get what was coming to him.

Bud was slighter but quicker, and fought with more skill. Big Tom could hit a knockout blow, but there his tactics ended. He knew only the one way of dealing with an antagonist, and so, when one of his eyes suddenly closed up and his nose began to bleed, he began to realize that he had made a big mistake in hitting Libby Anne when Bud Perkins was there. With a clever underarm hold, Bud clinched with him, and he fell heavily.

Libby Anne, limping painfully, put her "shinny" stick into Bud's hand.

"Sock it to him now, Bud," she said, "now you've got him."

Bud dropped the stick and tried to laugh, but his mouth would not work right.

"Get up, Tom," Bud said. "I won't hit you when you're down. Stand up and let me at you again."

Tom swore threateningly, but showed no disposition to get up.

"I guess he's had enough," Bud said. "He's sorry he hit you now, Libby Anne. He sees now that it's a dirty shame to hit a little girl. He never thought much about it before. Come away, kids, and let him think."

When school was called, the whole story of the fight came out.

Tom Steadman was the only son of one of the trustees--the trustee, indeed, the one who lived in the biggest house, was councillor of the municipality, owned a threshing-machine, boarded the teacher, and made political speeches--and so Bud's offence was not a slight one.

A school meeting was called, to see what was to be done. Young Tom was there, swollen of lip and nose, and with sunset shades around both eyes. Libby Anne was there, too, but she had been warned by her father, a poor, shiftless fellow, living on a rented farm, that she must not say anything to offend the Steadmans, for Mr. Steadman owned the farm that they were living on.

The trial was decided before it began. The teacher, Mr. Donald, was away attending the Normal, and his place was being filled by a young fellow who had not enough courage to stand for the right.

The question to be decided was this: Did Tom Steadman strike Libby Anne with intent to hurt; or did he merely reprimand her gently to "shinny on her own side"; or did she run under his stick when he struck at the ball? Tom Steadman said she ran under his stick, and he didn't see her, whereupon some of the children who were not living on rented farms groaned. Several of the children gave their testimony that Tom had without doubt struck her "a-purpose!" Then Mr. Steadman, Tom's father, a big, well-fed man, who owned nineteen hundred acres of land and felt that some liberty should be allowed the only son of a man who paid such a heavy school-tax, took charge and said, fixing his eyes on Bill Cavers, his poverty-stricken tenant: "Let us see what Libby Anne has to say. I should say that Libby Anne's testimony should have more weight than all these others, for these young ones seem to have a spite at our Tom. Libby Anne, did Tom strike you a-purpose?"

"Be careful what you say, Libby Anne," her father said miserably, his eyes on the ground. He owed Steadman for his seed-wheat.

Libby Anne looked appealingly at Bud. Her eyes begged him to forgive her.

Mr. Steadman repeated the question.

"Speak, Libby Anne," her father said, never raising his eyes.

"Did Tom hit you a-purpose?"

Libby Anne drew a deep breath, and then in a strange voice she answered: "No."

She flung out the word as if it burned her.

Libby Anne was a pathetic figure in her much-washed derry dress, faded now to the colour of dead grass, and although she was clean and well-kept, her pleading eyes and pale face told of a childhood that had been full of troubles and tears.

Bud stared at her in amazement, and then, as the truth flashed on him, he packed up his books, hot with rage, and left the schoolhouse.

Bill Cavers hung his head in shame, for though he was a shiftless fellow, he loved his little girl in his better moments, and the two cruel marks on her thin little shins called loudly for vengeance; but must live, he told himself miserably.

When Bud left the school Libby Anne was in her seat, sobbing bitterly, but he did not give her a glance as he angrily slammed the door behind him.

Two days after this, Bud was drawing wood from the big bush north of the Assiniboine, and as he passed the Cavers home Libby Anne, with a thin black shawl around her, came running out to speak to him.

"Bud," she called breathlessly, "I had to say it. Dad made me do it, 'cos he's scairt of old man Steadman."

Bud stopped his horses and jumped down. They stood together on the shady side of the load of poles.

"That's all right, kid," Bud said. "Don't you worry. I liked lickin' him."

"But Bud," Libby Anne said wistfully, "you can't ever forget that I lied, can you? You can't ever like me again?"

Bud looked at the little wind-blown figure, such a little troubled, pathetic face, and something tender and manly stirred in his heart.

"Run away home now, Libby Anne," he said kindly. "Sure I like you, and I'll wallop the daylight out of anybody that ever hurts you. You're all right, Libby Anne, you bet; and I'll never go back on you."

The bitter wind of January came down the Souris valley, cold and piercing, and cut cruelly through Libby Anne's thin shawl as she ran home, but her heart was warmed with a sweet content that no winter wind could chill.