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The Coming of Mutt
An oppressive darkness shadowed the city of Saskatoon on an August day in 1929. By the clock it was hardly noon. By the sun--but the earth had obliterated the sun. Rising in the new deserts of the southwest, and lifting high on autumnal winds, the desecrated soil of the prairies drifted northward; and the sky grew dark.
In our small house on the outskirts of the city my mother switched on the electric lights and continued with the task of preparing luncheon for my father and for me. Father had not yet returned from his office, nor I from school. Mother was alone with the somber day.
The sound of the doorbell brought her unwillingly from the kitchen into the hall. She opened the front door no more than a few inches, as if expecting the menace of the sky to thrust its way past her into the house.
There was no menace in the appearance of the visitor who waited apologetically on the step. A small boy, perhaps ten years of age, stood shuffling his feet in the gray grit that had been falling soundlessly across the city for a day and a night. He held a wicker basket before him and, as the door opened, he swung the basket forward and spoke in a voice that was husky with the dust and with the expectation of rebuff.
"Missus," he asked in a pale, high tone, "would you want to buy a duck?"
Mother was a bit nonplussed by this odd echo of a catch phrase that had already withered and staled in the mouths of the comedians of the era. Nevertheless, she looked into the basket and to her astonishment beheld three emaciated ducklings, their bills gaping in the heat, and, wedged between them, a nondescript and bedraggled pup.
She was touched, and curious--although she certainly did not want to buy a duck.
"I don't think so," she said kindly. "Why are you selling them?"
The boy took courage and returned her smile.
"I gotta," he said. "The slough out to the farm is dry. We ate the big ducks, but these was too small to eat. I sold some down to the Chinee Grill. You want the rest, lady? They're cheap--only a dime each."
"I'm sorry," Mother replied. "I've no place to keep a duck. But where did you get the little dog?"
The boy shrugged his shoulders. "Oh, him," he said without much interest. "He was kind of an accident, you might say. I guess somebody dumped him out of a car right by our gate. I brung him with me in case. But dogs is hard to sell." He brightened up a little as an idea struck him. "Say, lady, you want him? I'll sell him for a nickel--that way you'll save a nickel for yourself."
Mother hesitated. Then almost involuntarily her hand went to the basket. The pup was thirsty beyond thirst, and those outstretched fingers must have seemed to him as fountains straight from heaven. He clambered hastily over the ducks and grabbed.
The boy was quick to sense his advantage and to press it home.
"He likes you, lady, see? He's yours for just four cents!"
Less than a month had elapsed since my parents and I had come out of the verdant depths of southern Ontario into the arid and dust-shrouded prairies.
It had seemed a foolhardy venture then, for those were the beginnings of the hard times, even in the east; while in the west the hard times--the times of drought and failure--were already old. I do not know what possessed my father to make him exchange the security of his job in Windsor for a most uncertain future as Saskatoon's librarian. It may be that the name itself, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, attracted him irresistibly. It may have been simply that he was tired of the physical and mental confines of a province grown staid and stolid in its years.
In any case he made his decision in the fall of 1928, and the rest of us acquiesced in it; I, with a high heart and bright anticipation; Mother, with grave reservations and gloomy prophecies.
Father spent that winter building a caravan, a trailer-house which was destined to carry us westward. It was a long winter for me. On Saturdays I joined my father under a shed and here we hammered and sawed industriously, and the caravan took shape. It was an unconventional shape, for my father was a sailor at heart and he had had but little experience in the design of land conveyances. Our caravan was, in reality, a houseboat perched precariously on the four thin wheels of an old Model T chassis. Her aspect was bluff and uncompromising. Her sides towered straight from the frame a full seven feet to a gently cambered deck (which was never referred to as a roof). She was big-boned and buxom, and she dwarfed poor Eardlie--our Model A Ford convertible--as a floating derrick dwarfs the tug which tows it.
Some of Father's friends used to come by now and again to watch our progress. They never said much, but when they went away it was with much thoughtful shakings of their heads.
Perhaps our caravan was no thing of beauty, but she was at least a thing of comfort. My father was an ingenious builder and he had fitted her cabin with every nautical convenience. There was a compact galley with a primus stove on gimbals, gimbaled lamps, great quantities of locker space, stowage for charts, a Seth Thomas chronometer on the forward bulkhead, two luxurious berths for my parents, and a folding pipe-berth for me. Dishes, our many books, and other loose oddments were neatly and securely racked in fitted cupboards so that even in the wildest weather they could not come adrift.
It was as well that my father took such pains to make the interior seaworthy, for, as we headed westward, we discovered that our wheeled vessel was--as sailors say--more than somewhat crank. Slab-sided and immense, she was the prey of every wind that blew. When a breeze took her from the flank she would sway heavily and, as like as not, scuttle ponderously to the wrong side of the road, pushing poor Eardlie with her. A head wind would force Eardlie into second gear and even then he would have to strain and boil furiously to keep headway on his balky charge. A stern wind was almost as bad, for then the great bulk of the tow would try to override the little car and, failing in this, would push Eardlie forward at speeds which chilled my mother's heart.
All in all it was a memorable journey for an eight-year-old boy. I had my choice of riding in Eardlie's rumble seat, where I became the gunner in a Sopwith Camel; or I could ride in the caravan itself and pilot my self-contained rocket into outer space. I preferred the caravan, for it was a private world and a brave one. My folding bunk-bed was placed high up under the rear window, and here I could lie--carefully strapped into place against the effect of negative gravity (and high winds)--and guide my spaceship through the void to those far planets known as Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Dakota.