Early Western Canada had it's challenges for the pioneer motorists on the scrub prairie.
| Constable Mac unfastened another button on his uniform jacket and pushed the bottom half of the Model T's windscreen open, letting a little more air flow through the open car against the heat of the day. The Alberta Provincial Police had only started using the small Fords a few years back, and already they were a favorite amongst the officers who patrolled the county roads and dirt tracks of their county. Mac had been lucky enough to be assigned one of the three cars that the detachment in Stettler had gotten, and he loved his daily patrol along the three hard packed dirt and gravel highways the county was blessed with.|
The motor car was revolutionizing police work, and the promise of his own had been one of the main reasons Mac had transferred from his post in the Royal Northwest Mounted Police. He was just as enthusiastic about the mechanical steed he now rode as he'd been about the horse he'd been first assigned 12 years earlier. Oh, there were times when he missed the feel of a horse and saddle between his legs, that much he would admit. But the noisy little chugging along the dirt roads and wagon tracks made certainly made patrols around the county a lot faster and efficient.
Not that there was a lot of crime to speak of in these parts. A little cattle rustling and illegal branding that the patrolling was there to discourage. There were also the bootleggers that cut through the county on their way to Moosejaw, although Mac had been fortunate enough not to encounter any of them yet. For the most part his job was to keep an eye on the land and remind the locals that the law was there if they needed it. The homesteaders in the area were mostly too busy trying to clear their own newly acquired claims of farm land to cause much trouble.
The provincial highway #12 ran westward all the way from the Saskatchewan border to Bentley over in Lacombe County, although Mac never had much reason to travel that far. His patrol route took him only as far west as Nevis, where he'd turn north and head up towards Buffalo Lake, then swing around south and head towards Big Valley. The loop had him crossing the highway again as it passed through Erskine, which was one of Mac's scheduled stops. The little settlement wasn't much, barely large enough to qualify as a village, and existed mainly because the Royal Mail had put a post office there beside the CPR tracks. And once you had a place for the locals to pick up their mail it was only a matter of time before someone would put up a general store so those same locals didn't have to ride all the way into Stettler for their flour and sugar. After that came the church and the feed store along with a few houses, and before anyone realized another settlement dotted the face of the scrub prairie.
Mac guided the car off the highway, letting the noisy open bodied Model T coast into the parking lot of the Erskine Grill. It only took a minimal touch on the braking lever to bring the patrol issued car to a stop, and once Mac shifted into neutral and shut the engine down he sat for a few moments, relaxing in the silence while he studied his surroundings.
The Grill had been a late comer to the settlement party, taking over the front half of the feed store when a couple of farm wives had gotten together and decided that their cooking was good enough that they could actually make money at it. The little venture had quickly grown into one of the more popular stopping spots for the homesteaders in the area, for both the men and their womenfolk. It gave them a chance to socialize and swap a bit of gossip and, if they could afford it, maybe get a taste of something a little different from what they ate at home. Most meals the sodbusters ate were hot and filling, but lacking a lot in variation.
Mac wasn't looking for food when he turned into the Grill's parking lot. An hour earlier he'd eaten his fill of the nice wholesome lunch packed his wife had packed this morning. She was always saying that restaurant cooking may be all well and good for some, but any husband of hers deserved food that was cooked proper. Mac tended to agree with her. Even the fanciest blue plate special was nothing compared to the taste of her thick sliced leftover ham between slices of yesterday's fresh bread, all wrapped in wax paper. He'd eaten half the sandwiches while parked in the shade of a roadside tree on the south shore of Buffalo Lake, just passed where the Rochen's had their homestead. The rest of the sandwiches he'd wrapped back up for later. Not because he wasn't hungry, but because today Edith had also thrown in a good chunk of the apple pie from last night dinner. The pie and coffee were the perfect accompaniment as he watched the wild geese paddling their way across water that was as still and clear as a sheet of glass.
The coffee, still warm and sweet in that clay mason jar she used, was about the only thing he'd told her wasn't necessary to pack him. A cup of Joe was only 2 cents after all, which he could well afford, and stopping for one gave him a chance to talk to the locals. Still, she insisted on packing it for him, so after the first couple of times he stopped mentioning it, and after a while he'd grown rather fond of taste and now wouldn't give it up for the world.
Mac set the brake so the car wouldn't roll away and got out of the car. It wasn't food or coffee he was after. Officers on patrol were required to regularly call in as they made their rounds, and the Grill had one of the few phones in the area.
In his three years as one of the local Alberta Provincial Police Mac had come to know every motor car in Stettler County, and the slow, measured walk across the hard packed dirt allowed him to study the three cars scattered around the lot as he approached. Two of the cars he could identify immediately. The open Hupmobile belonged to the Holtz's family, whose ranch was by now quite well established. It was also a ways further to the north and west of here. Someone had made the hour long trip into town, and of the family only the younger of the three boys would have reason to be parked in Erskine. No doubt he was using the excuse of picking up some part or other as a chance to continue courting that little redheaded Snodgrass girl who helped her father out at the general store. Everyone knew he was sweet on her, especially her father, who tended to keep a close eye whenever he knew the lad was around.
The second car, a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost with its odd combination of open driver's cockpit and covered in passenger compartment, belonged to the man everyone called The Major. His real name was Bartholomew, although he insisted that everyone call him Bart. Almost nobody did, preferring instead to refer to him after the rank he had when he'd returned from the Great War. The Major always claimed the motor car was a war trophy, captured at great personal risk from the Godless Huns during battle. The Major had maybe a dozen stories about how the former staff car, with its slit hooded headlamps and flag holders on the fenders, had managed to end up on Canadian soil. Almost as many as there were patched bullet holes stitching up the driver's side of the car. If you looked carefully you could still see the faintly legible military insignia through those off shade colour patches where the Major had painted them over.
Mac took a quick look in to the open driver's seat, checking for the distinctive paper sack from the local drug store the Major bought his medication from. The Major suffered from what was known as 'The Shakes', and the local doctor had written him a prescription for medication that everyone knew was two bottles of Hiram's best whiskey, ordered all the way from Walkerville in Ontario.
Unlike the rest of the county's population, who were unable, of perhaps unwilling, to try and convince a doctor they were ill, the prescription allowed the Major to legally drink under prohibition law. Everyone else was expected to make the three day drive into BC where they could by booze legally then sneak it back home. Not many went to that trouble though, not when there were plenty of bootleggers regularly passed through town, although you needed to know where to find them. And if you didn't know any or were reluctant to pay the price for the good quality stuff there was also plenty of the cheaper and easier to obtain local rot gut that was brewed in some farmer's barn.
The barn involved was a closely guarded secret, particularly where Mac was concerned. Not that Mac was going out of his way to find the place. Busting sod and clearing brush was hard work, and in his opinion folks needed a little something to look forward to. As long as the drinking stayed fun and ended with nothing more serious than the occasional fist fight and a couple of bruises, the small scale moonshine operation wasn't hurting anyone as far as he was concerned. Still, as everyone knew, Mac was a dutiful member on the side of the law, and if he was unfortunate enough to stumble across the identities of the local moonshiners he would have no choice but to shut it down, no matter how much he may have regretted doing so. Thankfully for both sides people tended to watch their mouths whenever he was around.
Thankfully, the distinctive paper sack was nowhere in sight, which probably meant that the Major had stopped here first on his way into town to pick it up. Most of the time the Major kept himself home when the shakes were upon him, but every once in a while Mac would get a report of that big Rolls Royce weaving its way slowly up main street, or being found nose first in a ditch someplace outside of town. Each time the Major was apologetic and swore it wouldn't happen again, but it wouldn't hurt to remind him that Johnny law was watching.
Mac turned his attention to the car he didn't recognize. The shiny fully enclosed Packard touring sedan with mud caked undercarriage was parked neat and square in front of the restaurant. That in itself was odd, and practically screamed big city. Only city folk bothered to line up in a parking space. Farm boys and even the townies just left their car where it suited them, not so much parked as temporarily abandoned. The paint was also shiny and recently washed, with only a thin film of road dust on the hood and doors. This was a direct contrast to the thick layer of fresh mud that caked the spoked wheels and undercarriage. Deciding the situation was interesting enough to warrant further investigation, and needing to call in anyway, Mac turned and headed inside.
As he expected, the younger of the Holtz boys was seated at a table towards the back, the object of his infatuation sitting properly in the chair opposite him with the table chastely between the two. As expected, there was a glass of pop between them, the two straws indicating they had been sharing the drink. The boy looked up with a guilty start when he saw Mac, snatching his hand off the table and burying it in his lap, even though it had probably had been doing nothing less innocent than toying with the pie fork in front of him. Mac attempted a friendly smile and nod, which probably didn't help matters. No worry, he wasn't there to interrupt the boy's courting. Stepping into the room he let the door swing closed behind him.
"Well good afternoon to you, Officer Mackintire," The woman behind the counter greeted him as she heard the screen door snapped closed behind him. She was in the middle of pouring the Major a cup of coffee and barely looked up as Mac came in. "What brings you in today?"
"Just need to borrow your phone to check in, Flo." As if she didn't know. Calling in was the usual reason Mac stopped at the Grill. The question was more habit than anything else, but they still went through the ritual every time.
"You know where it is Mac. Help yourself." She said, turning her attention back towards serving the major and his companion.
Mac lifted the receiver, but to his disappointment the party line already had a conversation in progress. Replacing the receiver back onto its cradle Mac returned to the main room. He would try again in a few minutes, and if the two women hadn't finished by then he would commandeer the line in the name of 'Official Police Business'. Meanwhile, he still had that muddy car to check out.
"And that's why we need a train station." The Major was saying to the stranger seated beside him as Mac re-entered the dining area.
"Still pushing that station idea Major? Thought you'd have given that up by now."
Along with the car the Major had also brought back a love of rail travel, and was known to lament on how the Canadian Pacific seemed interested only in the long haul passengers, leaving the daily travelers to find their own way around.
"Every town and village needs a station Mac." The major said, raising his head to look in his direction. "That's what makes towns grow. That's what I was just telling Vern here."
Thank the Major for providing a comfortable way to asking the stranger's identity.
"Vern, is it?" Mac said, turning towards the man in the expensive suit jacket next to the Major. "If you don't mind me asking, who are you and what brings you here today? Surely not the Major and his train station?"
"I don't mind at all." The man relied with polished ease. "I'm Vernon Smith, Minister of Railways and Telephones. I was down in Drumheller rallying for the United Farmers Party for the last few weeks. Now I'm on my way back to Edmonton for the spring sitting of Legislature."
The United Farmers Party had taken office a couple of years earlier and was quite popular amongst the prairie dwellers that actually cared about politics.
"Minister of railways? Sounds like the Major found the right one to bend the ear of, then."
"As I was telling Bart here," Vern continued with the practiced air of a politician, "Passenger travel is all well and good for getting eastern settlers to come out west where there's plenty of land for the taking, but local travel doesn't bring in enough profit to make it worthwhile. A train only makes money when it's moving, and stops only for water, coal, and cargo. You're too close to Stettler for coal and water, so until you get the local land cleared and start producing crops there's nothing here for them."
"But passengers will pay too." The Major continued doggedly.
"Give it up Major." Flo piped in from the other end of the counter. "When the Minister of Trains prefers to travel by car you know there's no future in rail."
"I take it that's your car out front?" Mac asked, finally getting to the point he had first noticed.
"That's her. Bought her in Toronto last year and had her shipped out. By rail." He added with a nod towards the Major. "Beautiful machine isn't she. Rides as smooth as glass and she'll do 50 on a clear stretch of road."
"Looks like you ran into a spot of trouble.
"What? Oh, the mud. Yeah. As I was telling Bart here, I got stuck in a mud hole at the bottom of that hill east of here. Had to walk across to that farm nearby and get a couple of local boys to pull me out."
Mac nodded in understanding. Every road developed mud holes after a heavy rain, but this particular mud hole seemed to stay wet far longer than the others. It was the one flaw in the otherwise fine stretch of road that the county engineers just couldn't seem to fix properly. Well known to the locals, it was notorious for trapping the unaware.
"That would be the John and Bobbie Shepherd." Mac said, referring to the helpful locals. It wasn't a hard guess. The Shepherd farm was not too far from the road and was invariably where stuck motorists would head. The Fleishhacker place was closer, but you couldn't see it from the road. Even if you could there wasn't likely to be anyone home except for Old Mamma, and with both her boys working at the cigar factory in town she was just as likely to chase you off as invite you in. Either way she'd be no help with a stuck motorcar.
The two boys were only too happy to hitch up a team and pull you out. Of course it wasn't all just being Christian and neighborly. The modest fee they expected in return gave the family a little spending money for their weekly shopping trips, and Mac said as much.
"Charitable?" The right honorable minister seemed astonished. "They didn't seem too charitable about it. The boys charged me four bits."
"Henry would have charged twice as much and more to come out from town with his tow truck, and you'd still be sitting there a waiting on him." Flo said from behind the counter. "Them boys did you a favor, don't you forget it."
"I suppose." Vernon admitted grudgingly as he turned back towards Mac. "Any other road problems I should be aware of?"
"Well," Mac replied, thinking. "The bridge at Content is still out, so if you were thinking of taking the coal road to Red Deer you'll have to go all the way west to Heatburg. If you're doing that you might as well just stick to the highway until you reach the other side of Lacombe. You can pick up highway 2 and head north to Edmonton or back south down to Red Deer."
"Yeah, I know that one well." The minister said as he dropped a few coins on the counter. "Been up and down that highway more times than I can count. Thanks for the advice."
Tipping his hat to the room the Honorable minister left. As his car grumbled to life in the parking lot Mac went back into the hall to try the phone again, this time chasing off the two women on the line who were still talking about chickens. There was little on the blotter that needed his immediate attention, so the whole effort felt a little wasted to him. Still, it was a routine task that needed to be done.
When he returned the Major was also gone, no doubt continuing into town and the promise of the medication he would be picking up. Mac also picked up his hat and made to leave.
"Sure you don't want coffee?" Flo asked, waving towards the stove where the pot simmered. "I can make a fresh pot if you want."
"thanks for the offer, but I'd better get going. There's the rest of my rounds to finish, and I need to stop in and see the shepherd boys."
"Why were you going to talk to them? They're not in trouble again are they?" Florence may have sounded concerned, but what she was really after was any little piece of juicy gossip she could share.
"Not as such. I just need to talk to them about repairs to the roof of Brennan's feed store."
"So it was them." Flo pounced eagerly on the news. One thing Mac knew was that you didn't tell Florence anything in confidence. Local gossip was her stock and trade, and Shepherd boys were known as notorious pranksters.
Townies waking up in the morning to find a buggy on top of the building of a local business was a staple prank among all the youngsters, but this time the Shepherd boys, if it had been them, had managed to outdo everyone by pulling it off with a fully loaded wagon of feed. Old Mark Brennan had been livid, and not just because it took his hands all day to fetch it down. He insisted the culprits be caught and made to pay for the damage the iron clad wheels had done to the wooden shake shingles.
"We don't know that for sure, Flo." Mac said, although it didn't make any difference as far as she was concerned. "Nobody has admitted it."
"Wouldn't have been anyone else." Flo insisted. "Everyone knows those two are bad apples. The whole family is."
"No better and no worse than most of the folks around here." Mac put in diplomatically as he walked towards the door. "Anyway, I'm just talking to them."
As Mac approached the hill he kept a careful eye on the deep puddle of mud at the bottom. Two days of hot summer sun had dried most of it out, but there was still a lot of wet to the soft dirt and the tracks where the Packard had been mired were still clearly visible, as were the hoof prints being baked into the edges where the boys had dragged it out. Steering carefully around the whole mess he chugged up the steep hill, shifting the little ford into first gear as it labored up the steep incline of hard gravel to the top.
As he crested the hill he was surprised to see a team and wagon approaching, being driven by the two people he was coming out to see. Roberts and his brother John were seated in the wagon looking just as surprised as he was. Pulling off to the side he shut the engine down and waited, stepping out as the two approached. The two looked at each other nervously as Mac held up a hand for them to stop. The younger looked like he was about to say something, but closed his mouth as Roberts gave him a warning look.
"Good afternoon to you Mac."The older of the two boys greeted as Mac approached the wagon, keeping a respectful distance from the two sweating workhorses that had been pulling the load. "And to what do we owe the honor of your presence?" The older of the brothers continued as Mac came to a stop near the buck board.
From his position on the ground Mac could see the tops of three oak barrels in the wagon, and gave them a curious glance. It looked like the boys were hauling water from the slough just up the road. Nothing unusual about that. Most families relied on drinking water hauled from the nearest river or lake until they could get a well dug on their homestead, and he knew the Shepherds were still digging theirs. Odd thing was, their homestead was in the opposite direction.
Mac turned his attention back to Roberts. "I'm here to talk to you boys about that stunt with that feed wagon you two pulled in town two weeks ago."
"Now you know you can't prove that was us, Mac." Roberts replied with that goofy grin of his. Beside him Johnny likewise broke into a smile. "You know that. And besides," He said with a knowing wink. "You gotta admit it sure were funny. I'd have loved to see old man Brennan's face when he saw it up there." He looked over at his brother, both of them laughing at the thought.
"Except that everyone knows it was you, Roberts." Mac said, matter of factly. "You two as much as said so bragging around town the next day. Although how the two of you pulled it off with a full wagon of feed is anyone's guess. But I'm not here to accuse you or get your confession. I'm here to tell you that you owe Brennan twelve dollars for that little stunt.
"Twelve dollars?" Johnny exploded, speaking up for the first time since Roberts had shushed him earlier. "Whats he want twelve dollars fer? Ain't none of the feed missing, we made sure of that."
Mac couldn't blame him for his reaction. Sodbusters working to turn the scrub prairie into pastureland didn't have that much money to speak of, and twelve dollars was almost the price of a good plow.
"It's not for the feed, Johnny." Mac replied, his tone still matter of fact. "It's damages to the warehouse roof. A roof will take a buggy just fine, every kid in the county knows that. But you boys of all people ought to know how heavy a wagon is. Especially one full of feed. You're lucky you didn't collapse the whole thing."
Johnny looked like he was going to argue, but Roberts shook his head silencing him again. The older brother turned back to the officer standing beside the wagon and spoke for both of them. "Shucks Mac. You know we didn't mean nothing by it. We were just having fun. But twelve whole dollars? We don't have that kind of money. How are we supposed to pay that?"
"That's between you and Mark Brennan how you're going to arrange that." Mac said, looking again towards the back of the wagon. "And now that I've done the job I set out to do, I have another question to ask of you."
"You know I can't stop the law from asking." Roberts replied, his good humor seemingly gone at the mention of the debt he wasn't expecting.
"What's in the barrels?" Mac asked, nodding his head towards the back of the wagon.
Johnny's eyes grew wide and nervous, but Roberts just looked at Mac calmly. "Water." He answered nonchalantly.
"Water?" Mac replied, his eyes watching Roberts' face as he did.
"Yeah," Roberts replied, meeting his gaze levelly "Just water."
"Then you don't mind if I have a look." Mac said, his eyes not leaving those of Roberts as he put a foot on the wheel hub, preparing to climb up.
For a moment the only sound was the buzz of flies and the swishing of horse tails from the team hiched to the front. "Be my guest." Roberts replied after the moment had passed, the grin returning to his face as he spread the arm not holding the reins in invitation.
Mac kept an eye on both boys as he climbed into the wagon bed and lifted the lid of one of the barrels carefully, dipping a hand into the dark liquid. Raising a cupped hand to his face, sniffing. The liquid did smell like slough water. Tasted like it too, with just a touch of pickle. He looked back towards the grinning Roberts.
"Isn't the whiskey you were expecting, is it." Roberts said, His grin growing wider seeing the disappointed look on Mac's face. "We may like a good joke or two, but we're not dumb enough to get involved in that sort of shenanigans."
"Three barrels of slough water. Doesn't seem like the best choice for drinking." Mac commented, dropping the lid back in place.
"It's not for drinking." Johnny said nervously, then clammed up again when Roberts shot him a look.
"What's it for then?" Mac asked casually, looking at Johnny.
"What he means is it's not for us. It's for the horses." Roberts put in before Johnny could say anything. "Horses need to drink. Especially on hot days like today."
That might be. Mac thought, looking towards the Shepherd homestead, then back up the road where his black model T with the white doors sat at the top of that steep hill.
Mac climbed back out of the wagon. Once his feet were back on the ground he turned and addressed the two, who hadn't stirred from where they were seated the whole time. "Everyone knows you take good care of these horses." Mac said. "A good team is worth its weight in gold."
"That sure is the truth sir." Johnny said, looking relieved. Poker was definitely not a hobby the boy should take up, Mac decided.
"I like you boys." Mac said, hooking his thumbs in his belt and unconsciously assuming the stance taken by every policeman on record as they stood beside a vehicle and lectured. "We may have had our differences but you're honest and good, just like your father. I know he would be proud to know your keeping that homestead of his going."
Roberts and his brother just sat there, listening impassively as Mac spoke. They'd heard the same or similar speech from just about everyone since their father had passed last year, and it was becoming a little boring to them.
"Now," Mac said, deciding to wind up his talk. "I'll let you get back to your work. The days wasting away and I know you still have a lot of brush to clear." He made as it to turn and go, then turned back. "You boys be careful on that hill there." He said, staring Roberts full in the face, as he spoke. You don't want to spill any of this water into that mud hole and make it any worse now, do you."
By the way Roberts eyes widened he knew the remark had struck home, although that was his only reaction.
"We'll be careful Mac. You can count on that." He said with a tip of his hat. "As a matter of fact I am thinking we should be clearing the south quarter anyhow, right Johnny?"
"South quarter?" Johnny said, obviously confused but trying t follow his brothers lead. "Oh, right South quarter. There's a lot of brush to clear off that south quarter. And the horses will need water while we do it. Yep better get the wagon to the south quarter."
"We'll be seeing you, Mac" Roberts said, flicking the reins and starting the team in motion, making a wide turn to head back in the direction they'd come from.
Mac smiled as he walked back towards his patrol car. Unless he missed his guess that infamous mud bog wasn't going to be that big problem any longer.