In September of 1916 I took another teaching post. The Hurleys were farmers from Ontario who had decided to move West with the boom and homesteaded near Deslisle. They had two little girls. Marjorie and Doris and kinder hearted people would have been hard to find.
Mrs Hurley's one item of luxury was a fur coat which she kept wrapped in papers in a chest. Every once in awhile she would take it out, stroke it lovingly, put it on and walk around the house proudly. She never wore it out-of-doors for fear it would wear out or some fearful calamity would befall it.
"You wait until you die, Mrs Hurley," I used to tease her. "Then Mr Hurley will marry again and his new wife will wear your coat out to the barn!"
She would smile, and wrap her treasure up again tenderly.
The schoolhouse was so cold in the mornings when I arrived that I decided to pay one of the older boys $5.00 for the season if he would come early to stoke the fire and empty the ashes from the day before. He was utterly reliable, never failing to have the schoolhouse warm when I arrived. One particularly bitter morning, I complimented Preston on his faithfulness.
"Can't let cows or horses down, so I guess I couldn't let you down either, Miss Sutton," he said.
Little Doris Hurley, a delicate little china-doll child, suffered constantly from stomach trouble. When I saw her mother, morning after morning, hurl a lump of fat from a large tub into the frying-pan, then throw a few eggs into the cold grease and leave the rest of the cooking to Fate while she went outdoors to feed the chickens, I understood the reason for the child's malady. Each night, soggy fried potatoes cooked in the same manner greeted every diner. With as much tact as I could muster, I approached Mrs. Hurley one morning.
"You have so many chores to do outside, Mrs. Hurley, I would be glad to look after the breakfast eggs if it would help."
"Land sakes, Patty, I'd be glad if you would! I sure don't take to the cookin much"
Everyone seemed to appreciate the change, and my own indigestion, as well as Doris, came to a sudden end.
When word of a neighbor's illness or misfortune came their way, both the Hurleys would automatically hitch up the team and be off at once to do whatever they could, while dishes and beds lay untended at home, cattle waited to be milked, and wood lay uncut for the stove.
Shortly before Christmas Mabel wrote that Father had caught a dreadful chill while traveling through the countryside on his Recruiting Officer duties. The chill turned to pneumonia, and everyone became desperately concerned as he took to his bed and began to rave in delirium. Dr. Crole advised that the disease would have to run its nine-day course. He too showed concern for our family's Tower of Strength.
I waited anxiously for Mabel's letters to keep me posted on Father's condition. One letter arrived telling me that Father was quite out of his head in delirium most of the time.
"I'm going," he said in a moment of lucidity to Mother who had kept a constant vigil at his bedside.
She knelt beside his bed, took both his hands in hers, and said firmly, "Joe Sutton, you are NOT going to die! You MUST fight for me and for the children. You've always been a fighter all your life, so FIGHT NOW!" Over and over she said the same thing while Father passed in and out of awareness. At one point, when he was quite delirious, Father cried out agonizingly, "What will the family do? What have I done to the boys?"
Mabel wrote, "It was dreadful to listen to him, but we found out that his real concern was for the boys security. It was quite a revelation to learn that he really cared so much!"
I was anxious to get home for the Christmas holidays to see for myself how Father was. One Saturday, just before the holiday, I asked Mr. Hurley if he would mind if I went into town with him to make a few seasonal purchases.
The big, shy man blushed deeply and said, "I'd be awful proud to have the school teacher drive into town with me"
Conversation was beyond Mr. Hurley's capabilities, but he drove the team with extra care that day, easing around holes in the trail and sitting up very straight so that any neighbors would see that the teacher had elected to ride with him!
Arriving at the house of Poplar Crescent for the Christmas holiday I met Mother coming down the stairway into the front hall.
"How is he?" I asked at once.
"He is a holy terror!" Mother cried, clasping her hands in front of her. "Good! Your father is on the mend!"...
Literature and school supplies for our little schoolhouse had to be ordered from Ottawa and textbooks from Toronto.
Truancy was the immediate responsibility of the teacher who rode out to contact the parents. Usually, there was a valid reason for children being absent - illness, or extra farm chores. It was a genuine sacrifice for parents to send their children to school until they were twelve or thirteen, at which time they would have finished Grade VIII. If the truant still did not return to school, the teacher contacted the school inspector - a man from the East together they decided what to do.
Preston's father had hurt his back and the boy got up even earlier than usual each morning to do extra farm chores before coming early to school to light the fire in the store. He was a fine scholar but there were just not enough hours in the day for work on the farm - which meant the family's survival - and school work too. That was a luxury. Glumly Preston came up to me one day.
"How is your father's back, Preston?" I asked.
"Not good, Miz Sutton. It looks as if I won't be coming back to school."
"But you have such a brilliant future ahead, if you just keep on! Don't you want to continue with your schooling?"
"Sure do, Miz Sutton. There's nothing I would like better. I really want to go to High School next year, but I can't leave the farm and go to town with Pa's back the way it is."
"Would it help if I went out to see your father and talked it over with him?"
"Dunno, Pa's a stubborn man!"
Unwilling to sacrifice Preston to the farm without a fight, I rode out to talk to his parents. Preston's father was in obvious pain', sitting awkwardly in the kitchen rocker while his wife prepared the evening meal.
"Preston is a fine student," I said. "Is he really good, Miz Sutton?"
"He's more than that! He has real potential. I do feel that it would be a tragedy for him to leave school now. He can go to High School in town next year, and I can promise you that he will have no difficulty. It's what Preston really wants to do."
"We want to do what's best for the boy, Miz Sutton. But how in tarnation can we manage here without him? He's been a real help since I've been laid up."
"Have you seen a doctor about your back?" I asked.
"No. But I've been thinking that I'd better if it don't let up soon"
"If I arrange an appointment with a good doctor in Saskatoon, will you go?"
I could see Preston's future flying out the window if I didn't do something drastic. The boy was standing awkwardly, first on one foot, then on the other, as he saw his scholastic future drift back and forth like a balloon. He held his breath while his father thought about the money such a trip would cost. Preston's mother waited too, in suspended animation, the dipper spilling water on the worn linoleum floor, unheeded. I could feel cold perspiration dampening my blouse. I had a nerve to ask these people to consider such a sacrifice!
Finally the farmer lifted his shaggy head. "Yes. If you see to the doctor, Miz Sutton, I'll go"
Riding home across the prairie that night, I had mixed feelings. Preston should have his chance for an education, if only...but what if Dr. Crole could find no cure for this man, whose back was his strength and his family's survival?
Many weeks later, Preston came to school, beaming.
"Pa's back's better, Miz Sutton. I'm going to High School next year.'"...
Looking out over the flat land at night, I could see a ghostly flame.
"Mr Hurley, is that a fire out there?" I asked.
"Where?" He hurried to my side, for a prairie fire was some thing to dread.
"There!" I said, pointing.
After a minute he said, "That's the Man from Regina!" His voice was low.
As I looked, the fire seemed to leap from place to place.
"Some folks say those are ghosts of people that have died. No one seems to know what it is, but it never seems to do no harm." His words were spoken slowly and in awe. The eerie light vanished to reappear in a moment in another place. Mr. Hurley went back to his chair, and I was left standing at the window. Marsh gas!' That's what it had to be. I shivered.
Millions of migrant fowl graced the sloughs that spring, lifting in flapping take-off to assault the dawn. The evening skies, stretching across the full dome of heaven, were stained rose and gold. Spring was exploding! Mallard drakes tipped their curled tail feathers, and meadow larks sang their quick, tripping song. How sweet was the scent of wolf willow! There were bumper crops in the making of Saskatoons, pin cherries and choke cherries.
I was teasing Mrs. Hurley one evening as I set the table with the usual tin plates.
"When are you going to get a set of real dishes, Mrs. Hurley ...when Mr. Hurley's next wife gets your fur coat?"
She refused to rise to the bait in her usual way, growing very serious as she said, "You know, Patty, our parents had to go without EVERYTHING just to exist back in Ontario. You can't begin to realize the thrift they had to practice. Why, my mother wouldn't even throw away a tiny bit of ash she used it to make soap with. "This is real fancy livin' for the likes of us.'"
Shame for my outspoken words showed in my face, but Mrs. Hurley was looking back through the years and failed to notice.
"Why I can remember, when winter cane, back home, we just to make do with the flour we had - a little every day. We had no horse to go into town with, and no money to buy anything anyway."
She turned back to her stove, nodding her head. "Yup this ere is real livin'!"
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