Chapter VIII. A Good Listener
 
  The prosperity of a joke lieth in the ear of thine friend.
  ----Shakespeare.

While John Watson was busy fixing the dilapidated stables, he was joined by his nearest neighbour, Thomas Perkins, who was of a very sociable nature, and loved the sound of his own voice.

Thomas Perkins was a man of middle age, a stout man with a florid countenance and dewy blue eyes; his skin was of that quality that is easily roughened by the wind. He always spoke rapidly, and without punctuation.

"How do you do, Mr. Watson, how do you do? Just movin' in, eh? Well, sir, I'm glad to see you; the little house looked lonely since Bill and the wife left. Poor Bill, he was a decent chap, too; but he lost his bet."

"What was the bet about?" Mr. Watson asked, while the other man stopped to light his pipe.

"Well, you see, Bill bet the Government ten dollars that he could make a living on this farm, and the Government puts up the farm against the ten dollars that he can't. That's the way it goes. Nearly every body wins when they bet with the Government. I made the same bet twenty years ago, and it would take ten thousand dollars now to get me off of old seventeen, north half; you see, I won my bet, but poor Bill lost his. Still, it wasn't a fair race. Bill would have won it if the Government hadn't put the whiskey in his way. You can be pretty sure it's whiskey that wins it for the Government nearly every time when the homesteader loses. You'll win yours, all right, no fear of that. I made my start when I was nine years old; left home with the wind in my back--that's all I ever got from home--and I started right in to make my pile, and I guess I haven't done too bad, eh? What's that?"

Mr. Watson had not spoken, but the other man nudged him genially and did not resent his silence at all.

"First money I ever earned was from an old Scotch woman, picking potatoes at eleven cents a day, and I worked at it twenty-five hours a day, up an hour before day--there was no night there, you bet, it was like heaven that way; and then when I got my sixty-six cents, didn't she take it from me to keep. It was harder to get it back from her than to earn it--oh, gosh! you know what the Scotch are like. Ye see, my mother died when I was a little fellow, and the old man married again, a great big, raw-boned, rangey lady. I says: 'Not for mine,' when I saw her, and lit out--never got a thing from home and only had about enough clothes on me to flag a train--and I've railroaded and worked in lumber shanties. But a farm's the place to make money. How many of a family have ye?"

"Nine," John Watson said, after some deliberation.

"Well, sir, you'll save a lot of hired help; that's the deuce, payin' out money to hired help, and feedin' them, too. I lost two of my boys when they were just little lads, beginnin' to be some good. Terrible blow on me; they'd a been able to handle a team in a year or two, if they'd a lived--twins they were, too. After raisin' them for six years, it was hard--year of the frozen wheat, too--oh, yes, 'tain't all easy. Now, there's old Bruce Simpson, back there at Pelican Lake. It would just do you good to be there of a mornin.' He has four boys and four girls, and just at the clip of five o'clock them lads jump out of bed--the eight feet hit the floor at the same minute and come leppin' down the stairs four abreast, each fellow with a lantern, and get out to the stable and feed up. The four girls are just the same--fine, smart, turkey-faced girls they are, with an arm like a stove-pipe. You'll be all right with the help you've got--you'll have nearly enough to run a threshin' mill. Any girls?"

"Two girls," said John Watson.

"Two! That's not so bad--they'll be needed all right to help the missus. I have two girls, too; but one of them's no good--too much like the mother's folks. You know the Grahams are all terrible high-headed people--one of the old man's brothers is a preacher down in the States--Professor Graham, they call him--and sir, they can't get over it. Martha, my oldest girl, she's all right--straight Perkins, Martha is--no nonsense about her; but Edith, she's all for gaddin' round and dressin' up. 'Pa,' she says one day to me, 'I want a piano'--that was the Graham comin' out of her--and I says, says I 'Edie, my dear, run along now and let me hear you play a toon on the cream separator or the milkin'-stool,' says I; 'there's more money in it.' But, by George! the wife kept at me, too, about this piano business, just pesterin' the very life out o' me, until I got sick of it. But I got them one at last--I was at a sale in Brandon, last fall, and I got one for eighty dollars. I told them it cost four hundred--you have to do it, when you're dealin' with wimmin'--they like things to cost a lot. Well, sir, I got the worth of my money, let me tell you. It's a big, long, dappled one, all carved with grapes and lions. Two or three people can play it at once, and it's big enough to make a bed on it when there's company. But what do you think of this now? Oh, it has clean disgusted me. They don't like it because it won't go in the parlour door, and there isn't room for it in the hall, and if you'll believe me, it's sittin' out there in the machine-shed--so I've got to take it down to Winnipeg and try to change it.

"You see, that's what comes o' lettin' young ones go to school. Since Edie got her education she thinks she knows more than the rest of us. My boy, young Bob--but we call him Bud--he's been to school a good deal; but he and Steadman's boy had a row, and I guess Bud was put out--I don't know. I was glad enough to get him home to draw poles from the big bush. Old George Steadman is a sly old rooster, and the other day he comes up to me in Millford, snuffin like a settin' goose, and I saw there was something on his mind. 'What's wrong, George?' I said. 'It's about them oats you promised me for seed,' he said. I had promised him some of my White Banner oats this spring. 'Ye'll let me have them, will ye?' says he. 'I was wonderin' if it made any difference about the boys quarrelin',' says he. I says: 'No, George, it don't make no difference; if you have the money you can have the oats, but don't expect me to take no security on mortgaged property,' says I."

Mr. Perkins slapped his patient listener on the back and laughed uproariously.

"You see, that was the worst thing I could say to him, for he's so eternally proud of his land. He has nineteen hundred acres all paid for, and him and the missus is always talkin' about it."

"Did he have much when he started?" John Watson asked.

"Well, I should say not. His wife had some money; but, you bet, she has it yet. She was a Hunter; they're as tight as the bark to the tree, every one of them--they'd skin a flea for the hide and tallow. Well, I'll just tell you, she lent him forty dollars to buy a cow with the first year they were in this country, with the understandin' he'd pay her back in the fall. Well, the crop didn't turn out well and he couldn't pay her, so she sold the cow, and the kids had to do without milk. Well, I must be goin' now to see how things are goin'. I don't work much--I just kinda loaf around and take care of the stock. How would you like a yoke of oxen to plough with? I got two big husky brutes out there in the pasture that know how to plow--I got them on a horse deal--and they've never done a stroke of work for me. Come on over with me and I'll fix you up with harness and all. I got the whole thing."

John Watson looked at him in grateful surprise and thanked him for such welcome help.

"Oh, don't say a word about it, John," Mr. Perkins said genially, "I'll be glad to see the beggars having to work. Look out for the black one--he's a sly old dog, and looks to me like an ox that would keep friends with a man for ten years to get a good chance to land a kick on him at last."

When John Watson went over for the oxen, Mrs. Perkins came out bareheaded to make kind inquiries for his wife and family. From within came the mellow hum of the cream-separator, as Martha, the steady member of the family, played a profitable tune thereon.

That night Pearl called all her family to come out and see the sunset. The western sky was one vast blue lake, dotted with burning boats that ever changed their form and colour; each shore of the lake was slashed into innumerable bays, edged with brightest gold; above this were richest shades' of pale yellow, deepening into orange, while thick gray mountains of clouds were banked around the horizon, bearing on their sullen faces here and there splashes of colour like stray rose-petals.

John Watson watched it silently, and then said, more to himself than to anyone else: "It is putty, ain't it?"