March 31, 2010

The two-furrow riding plow

The Advocate's Devil – Historical Flash Fiction

“MONEY TO LOAN: – I have any amount of money at a low rate on first mortgage. W. HULL”

It was just the sort of filler that Wellington Hull loved to drop into the pages of his newspaper. Like most businessmen, he wore several hats.

Case in point, the advertisement on page one of today's Erin Advocate (Wednesday, March 30, 1910) from J.W. Turner, the Hillsburgh funeral director: “Our wallpaper has been tried and found guilty and condemned to be hung. Call early and get the bargains before they are all hung. Four cents and upwards per single roll.” Hillsburgh humour at its finest.

Here in Erin village, Mr. Hull was in the business of knowing everyone else's business. People who didn't qualify for a loan at the Union Bank could simply go upstairs to the newspaper office and make a deal with Hull. He was constantly auctioning farms and machinery, offering eight months of credit on sums over $10.

Hull was also the Erin “Correspondent” for the Standard Mercantile Agency of Toronto. That meant he was not only a debt collector for far-away wholesalers, but was empowered to rate the credit-worthiness of any Erin businessman. Information was the key to his success, which is why I was in his office. A printer's devil always gets the dirty jobs.

“Robert Campbell wants to borrow money from me, but he's new in town, so no one knows much about him. Last fall he showed me a brand new horse-drawn gang plow. Two-furrow. Seat for the driver and big wheels. International Harvester. Wants to put it up as collateral, but I don't think it he owns it. Suspect he borrowed it from his brother in Rockside, just for show.

“Now I have it on good authority that he and his family are going by stage coach to Fergus today to visit his uncle, who has taken ill. Take this letter to Campbell's farm, and when you find no one home, take a look in his barn. I need to know what implements he has there now.”

I took my 25 cent bonus and smiled about the things Hull didn't know, like the fact that I knew the combination to his office safe. And the distinct possibility that Campbell's 17-year-old daughter Edna would be home, alone. I packed a flask of Erin's finest and set off.

Caught a ride with a buggy headed for Alton and got off at the Tenth Line. As I neared the farm on foot, I saw a man on horseback riding down the lane from the house. I ducked into the swampy bush beside the road, and when he turned and rode by I saw it was George McCutcheon, a slimy sort who hung about the hotels and loaned money at usurious rates.

My friend at the post office said McCutcheon had received a mail order package of Phosphonol, advertised as an “Electric Restorer for Men” that would return every nerve in the body to its proper tension. “Premature decay and all sexual weakness averted at once.” Just $3 a box – almost half a week's wages.

Running up the lane, I found no one at the house. I stepped into the barn and heard a curse from the horse stalls. Edna stepped out, covered in straw, fastening the buttons of her blouse.

“Ethan! So nice to see you. Come here. Let's have a li'll dance.” Her words were slurred as she stumbled and grabbed my shoulders. I remembered last year's Fall Fair, when we had danced, then snuck off into the woods near the river. “What's the matter, you don't wanna dance?”

“Did he force you?”

“Ha!” She started laughing, caught herself, then put on her serious face. “No.”

“Why was he here?”

“I invited him. He was here last week, arguing with papa. We owe him 5 dollars. Or should I say, we used to owe him.”

“You shouldn't have.”

“Don't worry. I didn't.” She started to giggle. “Georgie Porgie wasn't up to the task.” She laughed, coughed, gagged, and soon the whiskey she had consumed was on the barn floor.

As she composed herself, I looked around. There was a small harrow, a rusty mower, a big wagon and an old-fashioned one-furrow walking plow.

I took Edna to her bedroom and laid her down on the bed. I covered her up, placed a kiss on her temple, breathed in the soft scent of her hair, and left.

“Yes, sir. I had a good look around Campbell's barn. There was a small harrow, a rusty mower, a big wagon and a brand new two-furrow riding plow.”

“Did anyone see you?”

“Not a soul.”