"Joe, hitch up that ox of yours behind the wagon. We have work to do," said Father.
"How far is it to Moon Lake Valley?" Joe wanted to know as he brought the big he had gentled from a ca1f and tied Billy securely to the tall gate of the wagon already piled high with boxes. The canvas of a tent hung over the side of the wagon.
"Fifteen miles," said Father as he pushed down the canvas and roped the load securely into place.
"How long do you figure it will take to clear the site?" asked Ted as he brought the team, already in harness.
"About a week, I should think. You boys must stay there so we don't lose any time, and I shall come out each day to see how you are faring."
"I'll bet you will," muttered Joe under his breath to Reg. "And give us hell for not having more done too, I'll be bound.'"
Reg grinned back at Joe.
"Have you all got your mosquito nets?" Father was at his organizing best as he assembled three of his sons, told everyone to "Climb aboard now!" and mounted himself to the driver's seat.
As he picked up the reins he spied me standing In front of the shop observing the preparations for departure.
"Patty, help your mother! Keep an eye on Buzzy and Hay and don't be a nuisance! n
Ted gave me one of his slow smiles, a wink and a wave of his hand as the loaded wagon moved out.
Exposed as he was daily to land holdings for sale, it was inevitable that my father should be bitten by the 'Own Your Own Land' bug himself, and after three years he had found the perfect spot. He chose his one hundred and sixty acres of free homestead land in a lush valley bordering the Saskatchewan River. Here he had legally committed himself to live for at least six months and to improve over a period of three years, at the end of which he would acquire his deed to the property.
Each night when Father returned to the shop after supervising the clearing of the site, Mother would ask how the work was progressing.
"Lazy boys!" he would fret. "If I didn't keep at them they would waste hours In a day!"
"You work them too hard, Joe," she protested, shaking her head. "They are Just lads and they are doing the work of grown men. If you don't let up on them you will earn their undying resentment," she warned.
"Hard work is a lesson well learned in this country. No one can survive here without it!" he stated adamantly.
At the end of a week my brothers returned to Saskatoon. They were barely recognizable.
"What on earth is wrong with you all?" demanded Mother.
They fingered the ugly swollen lumps on face and hands gingerly.
"Those mosquitoes are something you wouldn't feature!" Joe spat. "They attack in armies!"
"But what about the netting we got to hang from your hats?" she wanted to know.
"The damn stuff waved about so you couldn't see what you were doing, so we took it off. And even before we did, the miserable things got inside!" Reg stated in anger and frustration.
"And at night when the wind went down they were something unbelievable!" said Ted, the quiet one, shaking his head in retrospect. "We lit smudge fires outside the tent and let the smoke blow in to clear the blighters out. Then you couldn't breathe! And you never could get them all. There was always one that buzzed around your head just when you were about to doze off!"
"They went for the team too, and we had to keep a smudge going beside them all night," Reg's young voice was full of anger.
"I'll get the baking soda," Mother said, hustling into the kitchen. "They do seem to go for the rich English blood," she said, returning and beginning to apply the soda and water mixture to the painful lumps. "We didn't have any mosquitoes in England," she said under her breath, and her jaw set in a hard line as she applied daub after daub on her disfigured sons.
At length she stepped back to survey her white-pocked brood with her head on one side. "By the by, are you finished clearing the land for the house yet?"
"Not by a long chalk!" said Ted. "We'll have to go back and spend another week at least. But right now we just couldn't stand another night of it!"
"Your father will be angry when he finds you back before the work is finished," she warned.
And he was.
"How do you expect to accomplish anything in this country if you are not prepared to cope with a little inconvenience?" he roared. But closer inspection of his exhausted, dejected group pulled him up short in his tirade and he settled for adding, "You must go back in a day or two. The carpenters are booked and will not wait."
And back they went. Boys and pulled, heaved and sweat until they dropped from exhaustion, to return again and again until each stump on the site for our new home was wrested from the reluctant virgin soil.
"What is it like at Moon Lake Valley?" I wanted to know.
"Well, there are a lot of trees," said Ted. That was good. I liked trees. "And one day we saw a lynx!"
"A Lynx!" I was totally spellbound in a delicious mixture of fear and adventure. "What did it look like?"
"Like a big grey shadow-cat. It was crouched in a tree ready to spring down on the stone boat we were using to haul the stumps out," Ted went on with a gentle twinkle in his eye as he put a protective arm around me.
"Weren't you scared to death?" I shivered, knowing that I should have been.
"Noooooo! Reg got him with his rifle...but only just in time though!" Ted's arm held me close as he fed the true facts into my vivid imagination, and I felt goose-bumpy all over.
"We heard its mate that same night," Ted vent on. "She was crying just like a baby. If we hadn't known already that they make that human crying sound we should have gone out looking for some abandoned infant."
I found out later that Reg had had a heated argument with Ted and Joe who had known that the noise was a lynx's cry. Reg had been hard to convince, and only after having the signs pointed out to the next day by the two older boys had he reluctantly come to accept the fact that there was no tiny baby lying out on the prairie, crying pathetically.
Once the site was cleared Father's two hired carpenters went out from town to camp on the land and erect a two-storey house. My parents had already named our new home-to-be 'Ashford House Farm, Fourteen-year-old Reg hauled each nail and every piece of lumber used in constructing the house all the way from the sawmill in Saskatoon. Day after day he drove the thirty-mile round trip so the carpenters would have their supplies for the next day.
The little shop was sold to new owners, and the Button family packed all its worldly possessions in readiness for the move to our prairie homestead.
We were up at first light in response to Father's commanding voice to "Get a move on now!" The shop no longer looked like the home it had been to us for the past three years. The shelves were cleared, no baking was on display, the pickle and apple barrels stood almost empty. I shuddered at the bleakness and climbed into the back of the wagon piled high with our household belongings to perch on a jolting packing case near Buzzy and Mabel.
The rough trail was lined with white scarred tree stumps. I thought how sad it was that lovely trees had to be cut as Man advanced upon Nature's secret places. No fences marked property boundaries. Rough boards were driven into the soil at infrequent intervals, and settlers were often left to guess where their property line ended.
"It is not far now," Father's confident voice flung back the words over his shoulder after we had bumped along for well over an hour. "We have to go just over the rise and you will be able to see it!"
We topped the hill and looked down into 'our' valley. The trail ahead wound through lush clumps of poplar. The leaves danced their silvery ballet in the breeze. Sunlight drenched the earth. Our new home rose in tall surprise on the crest of a hill, looking raw and newborn without a coat of paint. Far down the slope in front of the house lay the river, shimmering like a vibrant live thing in the sunlight. Father rested the team for a moment while we all feasted upon the picture displayed before us.
All Father's ready cash had been consumed in the building of our new house, so it was decided that a sod barn should be built on a poplar pole frame. This would house our two horses, Billy the ox, and the stock we anticipated acquiring in time to come. The roof pitched slightly to afford weather run-off, and the entire building was to prove warmer than the house in bitter winter weather.
I watched the boys wrestling with the first furrow being turned on our farm. Joe held Billy's head and the boy and ox pulled together, straining every muscle. Reg was behind, vainly trying to guide the blade of the hand plow in a reasonably straight line. It skipped and jumped from side to side over roots and stones. Since Father was not in sight the boys cursed freely.
"Can't you keep that bloody blade in the ground?" Joe demanded.
"If you think you can do any better, YOU try!" Reg shot back in anger.
"You are trying to dig too deep," Ted's quiet voice interjected. He had come upon the straining trio as he returned to the house from the river, half a mile away, carrying a neck-yoke from which two pails of water were suspended. "Alter the blade a little and it will go better," he advised.
After more vain attempts, the boys finally managed to plough a reasonably straight furrow - the first of many to follow in the days to come. As I watched, a meadow lark's nest was overturned by the severing blade. I ran to save it, but the three tiny eggs were broken, and the little unformed bodies lay motionless in ay hand. In tears I ran to Mother who gave me a small box which I lined with grass and tenderly laid the broken nestlings inside. I buried them near the house where Mother said she wanted a flower garden.
The boys dug a well where our butter, eggs and milk stayed sweet and cold when they were lowered into it in a large bucket. We discovered that we could not keep meat in the well, but prairie chickens, wild duck and fish were free for the catching, and our table was rich in variety. As soon as a new patch of ground was cleared, every inch was planted with vegetables, oats, barley and wheat. Father decided to plant flaxseed as an experiment. When it bloomed we had a waving sea of blue flowers which made us gasp in awesome pleasure.
Each one of us - from the oldest down to the tiniest - had to work. There were times when we felt like slaves to Father, our Feudal Overlord.
Fred, at twelve, was responsible for cutting wood. His poet's soul was affronted as he swung his axe from morning till night. We younger ones carried the chopped wood and piled it beside the house. As fast as Fred chopped and we piled, the voracious kitchen stove ate it up. Before long, Fred had used all the willow and poplar around the house and found he had to go farther afield with his axe. When he found hardwood, he chopped it and dragged it to the edge of the bush where he piled it up ready to be loaded on the wagon later on.
"I'll never get to be a doctor this way," he complained to Mother. "No school to go to! Just swinging this miserable axe all day long!" Mother could only shake her head solicitously.
Each night we waited expectantly for Father to come from Saskatoon where he went each morning to continue with his real estate and livestock business dealings. Sometimes he would have a few chickens in a crate in the buggy beside him. Sometimes there would be a cow lumbering along behind.
Now that I was a girl of eight, I too had special chores. Bach morning there were eggs to be gathered, .warm from the hen's downy breast. There were cows to be fed and milked after which Buzzy and I had to drive those huge bodies to some grassy pasture and stay with them until dusk.
One day Buzzy and I left our charges to their own boring devices and went exploring. Nature's wonderland opened before us as we wandered from the crest of one rise to another, oblivious to the danger of treed lynx ready to drop on unsuspecting trespassers. The wonder of a serene vale hidden in a secret fold of the hills stopped us in our tracks.
"Say Patty, I bet we're the first people in the whole world to stand here and see this place!" said Buzzy in a hushed voice as the awe and wonder of this probability struck him.
We picked wild flowers by the armload and had discovered three birds' nests before it was time to open our lunches. Afterwards, we lay back in the perfumed grass and I made up a story about a beautiful princess who looked like Mabel and a handsome prince who strongly resembled our captain on the Lake Manitoba. I became so involved in weaving the romantic tale that it was almost dusk when I suddenly remembered our bovine charges. The way back home seemed so much farther than it had on the way out. We were hot, hungry, and our limbs had become leaden with fatigue. The cows moved slowly, stopping every few steps to munch some particularly tempting morsel. It was getting dark!
"Get a stick, Buzzy!" I commanded, finding a long one for myself, and prodding the slow creatures as hard as I could.
Night shadows began to reach out for us, and we were gripped by fear. Throwing caution to the winds, we ran the cattle in fits and starts back toward the farm, thumping their flanks with our gads when they slowed down. When I noticed the milk spurting in small rivulets down their hind legs, I slowed down in alarm, for young though we were, we knew that each drop was precious and represented food and money to our family. Father would be furious, I knew, if the cows failed to give their usual yield that night. His wrath was something to be feared! Of course we were found out for the number of pails that night fell far short of the usual amount.
"You are older than Buzzy," stormed Father, his bushy eyebrows beetling wrathfully at me. "You are therefore responsible. 1 If you ever dare to do such a thing again I shall have no hesitation in thrashing you just little one of the boys!"
Fourteen year old Reg broke ten acres of virgin land, with the hand plough that first year. He disced and harrowed and sowed with the help of Billy the ox and our team of horses. A sea of undulating gold was his reward, stretching out under the vast dome of heaven. Our wheat was the best in the valley that season - which gave us all courage to face the coming winter. When Beg cut the hay, he accidentally included slough-grass for the winter feed - an error for which we were profoundly grateful during the long winter when the ribs of the cattle showed through their hides...
One morning Joe did not come down for breakfast.
"Where is Joe?" Mother asked.
The older boys shuffled uncomfortably. Mother went up to Joe's bed. There on the pillow she found a note: 'I'm off to Alberta to work on the big ranches. Don't worry about me. I'll be fine. Will write, Love Joe!'
"Oh, dear God! He's not even sixteen!" Mother was in tears as she handed the note to Father.
"Don't worry about Joe, now," said Father, patting Mother on the shoulder as he drew her to him. "He's been a bit lazy around here for some time now. He'll have to learn the hard way. He's bright enough when he wants to be. He'll be alright. 1 " But we could all see that Father was visibly shaken in spite of his reassuring words to Mother.
The autumn winds grew chill and the green leaves of the poplar turned to yellow gold. You could feel a sharp tang in the air during the day, and we needed extra blankets over us in bed at night. Mother and, Mabel toiled in the hot kitchen 'doing down' preserves for the coming winter.
"I do hope it's not going to be too long a season this winter," Mother said, looking out the window at the wind-swept scene. "Not for our very first one out here...."
But the prairie winter was no respecter of a woman's wish. The spine-chilling cold settled down upon us and the wind screamed past. We had bought a steer for the winter, and the carcass hung outside the back door. Looking outside at night we could see a pack of coyotes sitting around the would-be meal. Often they would howl and from time to time one would Jump high into the air - but never quite high enough to reward the uninvited guest. The ghostly grey group gathered nightly to gaze in longing at the unavailable feast. We never became accustomed to seeing the eerie visitors or to the sound of their appalling howls.
"You'd think his bottom would be frozen," said Mother, appearing beside me at the window early one morning as I watched the last of the pack, still sitting there in the grey light of early dawn.
When our store of winter feed was gone father said, "Reg, you must drive Billy to the Sand Hills for fodder."
"How far is that?" Reg wanted to know.
"About twenty miles away," Father replied.
"That's forty miles a day," gasped Reg.
"Yes," said Father."It is!"
Each day at first light Reg ate a hot breakfast of porridge and dressed for temperatures that reached sixty degrees below zero. He hitched Billy to the stone sled and pulled away out of sight into a white world of ice and snow. Three miles down the trail lived our nearest neighbour, a kindly soul with dark, piercing eyes and lank, grey hair untamed by pin or comb. Mrs. Lang would see Beg coming along at Billy's slow but steady pace, and meet him at her gate with a cup of tea which she kept on the stove from early daybreak in readiness for a chance passer-by. On through the wilderness drove the boy and ox, the breath from each turning to ice as soon as it was expelled. Their eyelashes froze together and cut into the skin. The bitter cold crept into their very marrow as the long miles were measured off at Billy's unhurried pace. Numb and frost-bitten, Reg reached the feed supplier in the Sand Hills at last.
"There's yer load," said the huddled figure of the keeper, and pointed to a pole barely showing at the top of a rounded heap of snow-covered frozen fodder.
It was back-breaking toil for a fourteen year old boy to dig the ice-packed load free and then pile it on the sled. His back, arms and legs felt as if they were broken for all time. But eventually the load was transferred to the sled and Reg once more climbed on and turned Billy around for the homeward Journey. The pangs of healthy hunger gnawed with increasing insistence as the afternoon wore into evening. It was not possible to take any food along since it could not possibly remain unfrozen for even part of that long Journey so Reg had nothing to eat until he got back home each night. Billy could not be hurried. He was maddeningly slow, but as dependable as Time. Each night Reg was more dead than alive when he pulled up again at Mrs. Lang's for that yearned-for cup of tea.
As her mental spirits drooped during the day, from time to time the four-times married Mrs. Lang fortified her outlook with another brand of spirit. A graduate of the School of Hard Knocks, her goodness was immeasurable. There she lived in a little shack of a house with her beautiful intelligent daughter, Millie, and a mentally unendowed son. Millie did most of the hard work on the small holding. The only other inhabitant of the house was a parrot whose virile vocabulary had been learned below decks when he had belonged to Millie's seafaring father. As Reg was ushered into the warm kitchen, he was greeted by the parrot's piercing voice: "Mother's 'ad a drop. Fetch the cup!"
Thinly thawed by his cup of tea, Reg settled back into the sled for the last three miles of his daily trip. By now, night was settling down in earnest around him as he and Billy plodded warily way through the bleakness. The cheery lights from our farmhouse cast long shadows across the snow in the distance. 'Crunch. Crunch 1 went Billy's hooves with metronome precision.
Suddenly the bawl of a hungry cow broke through the stillness to be joined by others and ensuing whinny-chorus from our horses. Through the barn door these poor skeletons came. They thundered down the trail towards Reg, knowing that he brought them food. They tore into the frozen load as Billy continued his slow progress toward the barn. Reg still had to unload the remaining fodder and unhitch Billy.
At last, staggering from fatigue and hunger, Reg opened the kitchen door and fell inside -where Mother and Mabel pulled off his snow-encrusted clothes and rubbed his frozen face, hands and feet.
He was suddenly surrounded by warmth and love and wonderful cooking smells and could forget for a few hours that he had the same interminable Journey to undergo again tomorrow....
© Copyright 2021