Even before I opened my eyes I knew that trouble was brewing. I peered over the edge of the bunk and saw my mother at the end of the coach stirring porridge with grim determination.
Tension hung in the air like a physical weight. Mothers dressed their children that morning, pulling and tugging at clothes with unnecessary vigor. The men stood outside on the train platform besides a long low building. I could hear their angry voices from where I lay. I promised myself that I would not get in anyone's way today for I knew from experience that retaliation from my father for even a minor misdemeanour under these conditions could be swift and severe. When the atmosphere was strained, it could be deadly! And so I dressed myself quickly and quietly, ate my porridge in silence, and escaped outside onto the platform.
I looked around me and got my first real look at Saskatoon. I saw few tiny houses clustered around a handful of Small shops spread along the single street. The beehive bumps I had noticed the night before down toward the frozen river were revealed in daylight as a colony of tents. Ploughs, wagons, farm machinery -all 1ay stacked in every direction. Bawling cattle, horses and oxen were penned in open enclosures. The air was cold and crisp. My breath hung visibly in front of my mouth and I kept blowing out little gasps just to see it! Great patches of snow lay everywhere.
"I want my goods and I want them NOW!" one angry man screamed waving a fist in the face of one of the men standing guard at a large tent.
'You'll have to wait until Mr. Barr arrives and the baggage numbers can be checked!" the guard stated firmly.
But the crowd was angry. Voices were raised from every side. "Where's the blighter?" "I shipped my goods directly from London. Now, WHERE ARE THEY?" "It's so cold. We need the warm things in our trunk. Just let me get at it, will you?" "I've just leaned that all the tents have been taken!" "What WILL become of us?"
While children clustered around a mother's skirts in the chill wind, fathers sought the man who had taken their money in exchange for a dream, which had now become a nightmare.
"And I'm a Man of God too! H'image!" someone said.
Suddenly a voice was raised over the throng. "There's the blighter - over there!" And an accusing forefinger pointed the direction for hundreds of angry eyes.
The Reverend Mr. Barr was spotted at some distance from the pulsating crowd. He was trying to mount a horse to escape from throng bent on irrational vengeance.
While some converged on the black-clad figure others stormed the tent containing their household possessions and heavier items of baggage. Everyone spoke at once. Some calmer voices said that there must be a reasonable explanation for the confusion; after all, letter had made arrangements across half a continent and an ocean. But most of the men were in no frame of mind to listen to reason.
"I want my money back! And I want it RIGHT NOW!" said one.
"So do I!"
The gathering was fast growing into a riot. Hot demands from Barr for the return of each man's investment finally resulted in a small amount actually exchanging hands on the spot. This was distributed among the families present.
We all stood around Mother while we watched the group encircling Barr. My father's familiar figure stood out in the crowd. He was shouting, trying to make himself hoard above the clamour of voices. Suddenly his temper ran to the mercurial upswing of a muscular right arm at the point of Mr. Barr's jaw - to the complete and dumbfounded fascination of his entire family!
Barr took advantage of the moment to flee on his horse at a gallop across the prairie, hotly pursued by men on foot desperate and angry enough to tear him to pieces if they could catch him.
Father returned to our little group.
"Well, it appears we must stay here for the time being," he said, his anger now spent. "So we must just make the best of it. There are only one or two bell tents available, so Mr. Spears is sending to Winnipeg for more. Now all of you stay here and I shall see what can be done."
A nightmare of improvisation now began. Crude shelters were erected from the most improbable materials. Some found they had nothing, and others searched their few remaining possessions to find some small item to share.
Probably because of the size of our family, we were given one of the available bell tents. My mother, sisters and we younger children remained inside most of the time where feather eiderdowns and blankets kept us reasonably warm. I distinctly recall being wrapped snugly in my mother's sealskin cape - a reminder of palmier days!
From his total remaining worldly wealth of $90.00 ~ father bought a small stove. It was impossible to cook inside the tent because the smoke enveloped us in choking waves. So mother and her stove moved outside into the freezing weather to cook for her large fami1ly of fourteen, including her daughter-in-law, Bert's wife. When it snowed, hailed or rained - and it did all of these -my father would stand above her, holding an umbrella over her head to shelter her as much as possible from the elements, somehow managing to look taller and more dignified than usual....
As more would-be homesteaders and supplies arrived from the east our colony of tents grew. More and more people pitched their new homes in the encampment near the frozen river. The local residents came down to observe us every day, winked knowingly among themselves, and walking away again.
At the edge of the settlement was a common perpetually churned into foul and slippery mud by oxen as the steady stream of settlers arrived and departed to homestead a small inked square on a map. Many a slow trek in a red and green Bain wagon ended in heartbreak when a family found their section under alkaline slough or high on a rocky incline where even the wind passed swiftly by.
Tales of such disappointments filtered back to us in the colony where a large wagon train was being readied for our group to carry on to Battleford, one hundred miles away and the last stopover before Britannia, which was yet another hundred miles further on.
"Come quickly! That chap who left on Tuesday is back! His clothes are torn and he's half demented!"
We hurried to find out what had happened. Mother gave a gasp when she recognized the man. The sole survivor of his family, he stood there in tatters. He flung his arms about as he tried to tell what had happened.
"We came to this steep bank. The horses didn't want to go down but I whipped them... The wagon pushed their feet out from under them ... Then it turned over and pinned my missus and the little one underneath .I couldn't get them out!" His hysterical voice broke into uncontrollable sobs. "They're dead!" hi wailed...." All dead....."
While the men tried to comfort the bereaved man, Mother took me by the hand. Mabel was carrying the baby, and Emmy had Buzzy's hand in hers. As we walked slowly back to the tent Mother mused aloud.
"She was such a dear little woman! I begged her to stay here at least until the weather warmed, but she said her husband's money was all but gone, and he was too proud to let anyone know. I shall remember her for a long time sitting up there on the wagon with her shawl around her baby. What a tragic end for people of such courage..."
With the settlement growing by numbers which increased with each immigrant train, the one baker in the town found it impossible to keep up with the demand for bread, so it was rationed to one loaf a day to each family. It was impossible to bake bread on our little outside stove, so Mother resorted to unethical means to meet our needs. First one child would be sent for a loaf, then another.
Fresh milk and eggs were providentially available from surrounding farms - at a price. The little meat obtainable for the stew pot came from my inexperienced brothers' snaring, bargaining and shooting, until we discovered that the town butcher threw away the heart and kidneys from the animals he slaughtered. This was a godsend to us and our stews became rich and nourishing.
Although my father was thrifty in the extreme, each small purchase reduced his funds at an alarming rate. A copper was at a premium, and everyone - children and adults alike - found ways to augment the common kitty. The older boys delivered milk for a copper or two and leaned very quickly to be first on the scene when a team of horses or oxen had to be held or hitched. They knew every inch of that slippery common as the steady stream of settler's case and went with their Bain Wagons piled high with chattels and hope.
It was at this time that Father met Doc Sparrow, a Vetinarian from Michigan, and the two men soon developed a working arrangement. At first Doe took Father with him, walking many miles a day to outlying farms where he bought a scrawny cow or two and perhaps a brace of oxen which the two men would then walk back to the settlement. Doe lived in a small bungalow with an enclosure outside where he treated and fattened the animals and sold them eventually to out moving settlers. It was not long before Father was going by himself to do the buying, Doc having taught him the basics of selecting cattle. In his spare time, Doe worked on a larger wooden house for himself.
The Saskatoon settlement was a 'natural' for horse-traders and many of these men arrived to take advantage of unsuspecting buyers. Wild prairie horses are kept in huge corrals while prospective purchasers were shown a well-trained 'sample'. Once a price was agreed upon, cowboys sitting on the corral fence would rope one or two of the unbroken prairie horses and the purchase were complete. Cree Indians sat around, wrapped in blankets, silently observing the man's business ethics.
But both Doc Sparrow and my father believed in honest trading. They gave good value for reasonable prices and soon earning the derision of these unethical horse-traders who appeared to feel no pang of conscience whatever when a newly purchased team of wild horses was finally hitched and unaccustomed to the traces, bolted through the settlement, overturning tents - a threat to the life and limb of anyone and anything in their path - to end in a tangle of traces and guy ropes with one or more broken legs and a totally bankrupt owner.
Some of our particular group from the Lake Manitoba who could scrape together enough money decided to return to England by the next train going East, unwilling to venture the last two hundred miles overland in a country which had so dismally and consistently failed their expectations. A few of these lacked courage, but others were so culturally and physically unsuited to the climate and conditions that they accepted retreat in preference to starvation.
However, most of our group joined in the preparations for one of the wagon trains going onwards to Battleford. Government gifts of seed and oxen were promised to these hardy souls.
Plans had been abandoned to have our group make up one mammoth caravan, so a number of families who elected to travel together would leave the compound from time to time. One group of a dozen or so wagons bogged down completely in a slough within sight of Saskatoon. Yet another wagon train met with disaster in a steep ravine far to the North. Tales of these catastrophes filtered back to those of us still in the tent village.
One day Father stood inside the flap of our makeshift tent home and looked around at all of us . Some major decision was about to be made; we all knew it. But we also knew better than to anticipate by asking any questions. And so we waited. At last he spoke.
"I have come to a decision," he said. "We are not going on to Britannia or to Battleford either. We shall remain here, in Saskatoon. I have given the matter a good deal of thought," he went on, "and I have decided that we have all had quite enough in experiencing the unknown. Our journey has been fraught with disappointments of one type and another, and who can really advise us if the land ahead is really as rich as we have been led to believe?"
We all waited, hardly daring to breathe. There was obviously more to come.
"I am convinced that this town will expand in the future. It is presently the end of the railway line, but it is bound to expand, I believe. It is ideally situated, and we already have all the evidence we need that hundreds of people are passing through. These people will need supplies of every kind. My present partnership with Doe Sparrow is expanding, and I feel that what we are witnessing now is the beginning of a thriving commercial centre.... We will Stay here," he decreed, "and become part of what Saskatoon is to become."
And he walked out of the tent.
It was with mixed feelings that we stood together one morning watching one of the last wagon trains leave for the North. This was the one in which we too had planned to travel onwards before Father changed his mind and decided to stay. We waved to those families to whom we had become so deeply attached, and all of us wondered how each would fare. But the most vivid imagination could not have foreseen the treacherous blizzard, already in the making somewhere in the North West, which would claim the lives of so many of these men, women, children, oxen, cattle, goods and dream. We eventually learned of the fate of so many of these hardy courageous folk, and Mother - who so rarely allowed herself the privilege of showing her inner feelings - was grief-stricken beyond consolidation.
The second week of May brought hot weather and strong winds dried the long prairie grass to tinder dryness. Ever more tales filtered back to Saskatoon of people who had lost their teams through lack of knowledge of how to care for them. Many did not know how to reharness, so left their animals in their traces where they died. Returning settlers told of prairie fires leaping from mile to mile; of birds shrieking past them in terror; of the ground alive with gophers, rabbits and terrified antelope - all running before the burning inferno.
Now that bitter winter winds had mellowed into gentler spring breezes, there was uneasiness in the compound. Each day the older residents case down to look closely at the still-frozen river and murmur among themselves. Those of us in the tent colony were at a complete loss to understand, and no one - not a single soul - had the caring human decency to warn us.
Then one day, with an echoing roar that carried for miles in the still air, the ice on the frozen river cracked! Massive blocks burst out of the encased river prison, shooting high into the air and piling up against each other as the swift water beneath moved the ice-mountains slowly at first, then ever more swiftly downstream. Huge cakes were hurled up on the bank to be discovered as small cubes in the coming July heat in some sheltered hollow. Young and old ran to the riverbank to watch the glittering spectacle.
Human endeavour was dwarfed in the face of Nature's night. Work in the little town stopped as the nightly swollen river swept entire sections of buildings, trees and broken boats past our startled gaze from far up the river, gathering momentum with each mile.
For days the massive blocks of ice swept past our campsite. I stood on the bank one day in the brilliant sunlight feeling insignificant in my five-year old self in the face 0£ the power of the nightly river. A white block of ice the size of a kitchen table came rushing toward me. There in the middle sat a little grey mouse. I gazed after him as he swept past on his great adventure. Long after he disappeared from view, I continued to wonder about him. That little mouse and his possible end haunted my dreams for years to come.
As the ice melted, the river rose. Late one night it came up the bank end entered our tents. sleeping children were roused to carry sodden belongings high up the bank away from the grasping water.
I too was awakened by my mother's firm hand end ordered sharply out into the night to carry heavy loads of blankets, cooking pots and an uncategorized assortment of household goods.
When daylight came, we were a pitiful sight. Countless sodden packing cases had split open, their contents strewn everywhere, ruined beyond repair. Among our personal scattered possessions was one case which my mother treasured above all the others, for it contained several paintings and a few other valued articles from her home in Upper Norwood in Yorkshire. We all stood around as she knelt in front of the sodden carton. As one ruined item after another was tenderly lifted from the doughy box, her valiant courage cracked and she gave vent to tears of hopeless frustration while her gathered children looked in disbelieving awe at this final tragedy.
Snug in their homes the local Saskatoon residents nodded their heads knowingly and commented that, "It serves them English people right for coming to a country like this without no proper knowledge of what it's like."....
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