After we had been enveloped in an eternity of winter we searched longingly into the endless canopy of windswept sky for the first signs of spring. It was almost as though we despaired of it ever coming again. But one day the warm sun beat down and its healing penetrated the earth. Myriads of wild flowers appeared almost overnight in Moon Lake Valley, and hope was reborn.
Spring brought new neighbours who moved just a mile and a half up the road from us, between Mrs. Lang's and our Ashford House Farm. Mother sent me along to welcome the new arrivals with some newly baked bread and Yorkshire tea cakes.
Mrs Prior greeted me loudly in clear Cockney tones. I had barely time to absorb the startling sight of this woman with close-cropped and dressed in men's overalls before I was ushered into the new parlour where I came to a shocked standstill. My eyes felt as though they would pop right out of my head. There stood a huge white horse which Mrs. Prior had been in the act of grooming when I arrived! Just wait until Mother heard about this.' I escaped as soon as possible and raced home with the news.
"You really must NOT exaggerate so, Patty," Mother reprimanded as the words came tumbling out.
"But it's true! There she was, brushing that big horse in the parlour!"
Our new neighbour came to call on Mother soon afterwards. As the two women talked, Mrs. Prior confirmed my tale.
"Oi allus brings 'im in 'cause 'e's so much more cumf'tuble in the 'ouse. Then 'e knyows we luv 'im," she said simply.
One day I was sent to the Priors' with a clutch of goose eggs so our new neighbours could begin to raise a flock of their own. Mrs. Prior confided to me that she was pregnant.
"Bybies are so 'elpless, ahn't thy?" she asked dreamily. "Thy 1 re the most 'elpless of all hanymals!"
Mr. Prior was a small-boned man who looked a little like a rabbit. I never did hear him say anything other than, "Yes, dear," and "Haw, dear," in response to some comment of his wife's. He worked his heart out on the land, doing his best to save enough money so his wife could fulfill her most cherished dream of a 'trip back 'ome' to London for a few weeks. How these two people ever found the courage to leave England's largest city and begin a life of hardship on Canada's prairie we never discovered. Eventually, a little daughter was born to these two. They doted on her in exactly the same manner that they did on all their animals.
Father sold Mr. Prior a cow in calf. Once the voung one could be weaned, I was sent to demonstrate how to get it to drink from a pall. Mrs. Prior watched, fascinated, as the calf eagerly sucked at my fingers poking up through the milk.
"Aw, isn't it luvly ter see the wee thing tyke it's nurrish-ment!" she crooned.
Buzzy and I used to delight in visiting these neighbours. It was such fun to be the one to race home with the latest tale about people who were just a little greener at pioneering than we now were....
Living in a family where all the younger children were boys, I pushed myself to the limit to compete with them. Fred, at thirteen, was our leader. Ever on the lookout for a new challenge he decided one day that we should climb up on the barn roof and jump off into a pile of hay below. Buzzy and Ray thought it a splended idea. Afraid that my fear might show, I became effusive and said that the roof was not really all that high!
Up we climbed. Fred approached the edge, took a deep breath, and sailed down into the hay. By rights it ought to be my turn next, but I was having difficulty in gathering my skirts about my legs, so Buzzy jumped Instead.
"I want to jump too," wailed Ray as Fred put out a restraining hand.
"Not until you are five," declared our Leader. Then, sensing that I just might be using my long skirts as an excuse for not jumping, he said, "You simply can't jump in THAT! Your skirts will just fly up around your waist and we don't want to see your pants!"
"No, we don't want to see your pants," echoed Buzzy and Hay.
"Go into the house and get a pin or something," ordered Fred. "We'll wait for you to come back before we jump again!"
The offending folds anchored with a large pin which I had sneaked from Mother's sewing basket, I came back to the barn, doing my best not to look up at the roof which had never seemed so high before. From experience I knew that if I should hesitate a second the boys would taunt, "Go into the house! You're just a GIRL!"
Fred had a sly grin on his face as he stood scanning my face for the first evidence of fear. Well, I would show him? Up I climbed, stepped quickly to the edge of the roof, got a quick bearing on the hay pile, closed my eyes, and leaped into the air. The boys were beaming when I opened my eyes.
"You did that just like a boy, Patty!" The chorous was balm to my soul. Over and over again we jumped. Fred was about to have turn again, always trying to outdo everyone else by adding a little extra flair. This time he extended one arm, held his nose with the other hand, and stood on one leg at the edge of the barn roof before taking off into space.
"We need something higher," Fred announced, picking himself out of the hay.
Something higher! My heart sank.
"Let's find something to make it a REAL jump." Fred looked around. He discovered a wooden box which he placed on the roof at the very edge.
"There!" he exclaimed. "That's just about right!"
I looked up and my heart sank even lower.
Fred was to be the first to meet the new challenge. Playing the Fearless Wonder to the hilt, he stood swaying tantalizingly at the edge of the box. With a final grand gesture he sailed down through the air with such force that he overshot the centre of the pile of hay entirely and landed far over at the other side. A second after he hit the ground we saw his face contort. He cried out in pain as he clutched his foot. As we stood rooted to the spot blood began to spurt. A pitchfork had entered his instep and penetrated his entire foot. We gathered around and helped him hobble to the house on his one good leg, each of us noting the absence of tears and feeling pride in his great courage.
Mother took one look and began pulling out sheets which she tore quickly into bandages. She bathed the wound in boracic acid and water and applied precipitated mercuric ointment, while we all stood around feeling that we had participated in a truly daring feat. Fred, the wounded hero, lay back and permitted slavish attention from us all...
Buzzy and I were paying little attention to the cows we were herding, being far more intent on discovering gopher holes.
"Here's one of his escape tunnels, Patty!"
"And here's another!" I exclaimed. "We should plug up those in the trail so the cows don't break a leg," I decided, busily gathering lumps of earth and filling the treacherous openings.
"This one is bigger. Maybe it belongs to a badger!" said Buzzy. "Or a coyote even!"
Meanwhile, the cows grazed on. One discovered that Mrs. Lang had planted green oats across the trail and these were now in head. The cow settled down to serious feasting. Soon the other cows discovered the unexpected treat and we all spent a delightful afternoon until the sinking sun drew our attention to the tine.
"Hurry, Buzzy, or we'll be in trouble again!"
We goaded the cows with sticks but they refused to leave the oats. We rant at them. They ignored us and munched on. In desperation, I finally sent Buzzy home for help. Reg and Fred came on the run. The sun was nearly set by now and I was terrified of coyotes. At length, by hitting the cows great thumping whacks the four of us managed to part them from their meal. Tearful and dirty, I presented myself to Mother saying, "But even Reg and Fred could hardly get them to cornel" In the hope that somehow she would be able to soften the story when my father heard it.
It was still not light the next morning when we were awakened by agonizing groans from the barn. Dressed in night clothes and carrying lanterns the entire family entered the barn. There were our cows, bloated double their normal size and bellowing in agony. Father sent Reg on horseback for Doc Sparrow who came after what seemed an eternity while the rest of us Just stood there in helpless frustration, listening to that dreadful sound. The veterinarian took one look at the bulging animals bawling in pain, grabbed a pair of shears, and jabbed each cow in the side while we all stood there watching open-mouthed. The distended bellies deflated before our eyes, and the hideous sound ceased as the accumulated gas was allowed to escape.
After this incident Reg was put In charge, not only of our own cows, but those of neighbouring farmers as well. A fence was put down to the river's edge to keep the cattle away from the alkaline sloughs from which they sometimes drank in the early Spring before the river thawed, and typhoid germs passed into the milk. Reg grazed cattle on nearby vacant land at first, but then had to drive his charges farther afield. They became so numerous that he had to herd on horseback, riding from morning until sundown.
The bott fly was a seasonal hazard to the herd. This insect torpedoed into their hides, leaving boil-like lumps which had to be lanced. The hides then had permanent holes left in them and so were unfit for tanning.
Ever since Fred had received a copy of 'Robin Hood' for Christmas he had been acting the part. One day he decided that we should make some arrows and a bow. Under his direction a creditable bow took shape to be followed by a dozen arrows which we tapered to fine points. We painted a bull's eye on a piece of cloth and rigged the target In front of a pile of hay. We practiced each day until Fred, Buzzy and I were reasonably proficient.
Now it was my turn again to shoot, and I was concentrating on my aim. Buzzy and Fred were watching me. Ray was dashing here and there with the erratic motivation of a four-year old. I released the arrow just as he ran in front of the target. The arrow hit him in the eye. Paralyzed with shock we stood immobile until the little fellow let out a cry of pain and blood began to course down his face and, clothes. Fred ran for Mother while I rushed up to my little brother. With one swift movement I pulled the arrow out of his eye. His face swam in blood.
For some reason Father happened to be home that day. Each one of us hurried to help hitch the horse to the buggy and get Mother aboard with her blanket-wrapped son held close in her arms. Father drove the horse mercilessly for town and directly to the railway station where they walked the platform waiting for the Winnipeg train.
At length a train pulled in going to Vancouver. A number of passengers got off at our station. My parents held a hurried consultation as to whether it would be better for Mother and Ray to get on it and head for the hospital there, or wait until the Winnipeg train came along.
"I think you should wait," Father decided. "The Winnipeg hospital is large and I have heard their doctors are excellent."
"Ah wonderr if ah might be able t' help?" The soft Scottish burr reached Mother's ears as she walked up and down with her bleeding, screaming child in her arms. "Mah name is Dr. Crole. Ah'm fra' Glasgow an' ah've just cum in on the trrrain to starrrt a prrractice herrrrre."
Eagerly Mother pulled the blanket from Ray's face.
"It was an arrov. An accident," she explained as the doctor's deft fingers probed and pushed.
"Ah think ye had betterrr birring the wee laddie to mah consulting room where ah can attend to him prrroperly," said the young man.
They all piled into the buggy and drove to the doctor's new residence. My parents waited an eternity while Ray's eye was cleansed and examined.
"Ah think he's a verra fortunate young mon," the doctor said from the doorway at length, letting his slow smile appear for the first time. "Had it bin just a frraaaction of an inch to one side, he would be blind in that eye. As it is, ah'm fairrly cerrtain that no perrrmanent damage has been done." Back at the farm, we waited. My personal guilt was beyond the many attempts my family made to console. At length, the buggy cane into view in the dying light.
"Here they come!" cried Reg.
"And Mother's there tool Fred yelled in frank surprise.
"Young Ray is there too," Ted's quiet voice was happy.
I had been so devastated by guilt that I found no words. Only tears of relief coursed down my cheeks. There they were -all three of them. We could see their smiles as they pulled into the yard. I came out of self-imposed banishment, unable to accept the miracle until I had been reassured by my little brother himself. Then I melted into lusty sobs of relief and had to be put to bed by a comforting Mabel.
The prairie grass was tinder dry that second autumn on the farm. Ever since the second baker in Saskatoon had been burned to death with his wife and five children from ignited coal-oil, we children had been cautioned repeatedly about the hazards of fire. But now a new danger threatened. There were many more prairie fires this year because of the dry weather. Some were started by man's carelessness. Some by Nature's. We often saw tell-tale grey-black fire clouds in the distance.
I stood near the river one day looking at just such a cloud on the far shore. It seemed to be getting larger. It was! Suddenly a farmer appeared, running his cattle down and into the river where they stood bawling. Their cries triggered the fear mounting within me and I ran for the house as fast as I could.
"There's a fire across the river! The farmer is running all his stock into the water!" I panted.
"Is it coming this way?" Mother demanded, her hands suddenly still in the midst of kneading dough.
I nodded, unable to speak.
"Well, it still has to cross the river," she reasoned. Then she said, "Take a horse and get the boys!"
I bolted for the barn. My over-active imagination had by now conceived of the entire farm about to burst into flame around me. Throwing myself across the back of my new horse and sobbing lustily, we raced through the barn door, scattering pigs, chickens and geese on all sides. I rode like a wild th1ng to gather up my brothers and bring them back to the house.
We all gathered at the river. The clouds were much denser than before, but there was still no sign of the dreaded flame. More cattle now stood in the water on the far side of the river. One of the farmer's sons appeared, looking Lilliputian in the distance. He carried a pile of gunny sacks which he piled at the water's edge.
"What can we do to help him?" Fred wanted to know as we stood watching the several figures in silhouette against the skyline.
"Nothing now," Ted's quiet voice suddenly took command. "We may be needed here any minute."
"Do you think that our ten-furrow fire-break will save the house if the fire conies across the river, Ted?" Mother asked, her face set in concern.
"If it looks as though it will cross over, we will start to back-fire from the last furrow. In the meantime we should be doing what we can to prepare for anything."
Ted got a pile of gunny sacks of our own and threw them in at the water's edge. Then he, Reg and Fred carried them the half mile to the barn where they covered the feed. Back at the river the clouds of smoke were becoming more intense. The smell of burning grass lay pungent in our nostrils. On the far shore the cattle and horses standing in the water were becoming agitated. The farmer and about ten others appeared from over the hill. They came down to the water and waded in, throwing wet sacks over the animals' heads so they could not see the flames when they erupted. This seemed to settle them down a little.
Suddenly, on the crest of a rise on the horizon, I saw a tiny lick of orange flame. As I gasped, the figure of the fanner and two others silhouetted darkly against the swirling clouds of grey smoke ran toward the tongues of fire, swung their gunny sacks high over their heads like men demented, and with a sudden flexing of their knees, hurled the wet sacks down on the dancing flames. Another and another sprang up, each one being dealt with in turn by the crazed-looking forma.
"The wind has died down considerably," said Ted, his level blue eyes scanning the opposite shore for new hungry spurts of flame.
"Let us hope to God it stays down, then," said Mother. "Without your father here I don't know how we should cope!"
She failed to notice how her words cut the tall straight son at her side who had so ably, but quietly, taken charge.
"I think Ted could cope," I murmured, siding up to my big brother and putting my hand in his. He squeezed it a little and smiled down at me.
We waited there on the river shore for a long time. Hay kept near Mother's skirts and Mabel had both hands on Buzzy's shoulders as he stood in front of her. Ted, Reg and Fred murmured between themselves, deciding exactly what each was to do if the fire jumped the river.
When at length it seemed that we were to be spared, Mother said to Mabel, "Come along! We had better get on with that dough.
It will have risen all over the kitchen by now! Ted, go across and see what we can do for that poor fanner. If their house is gone, bring them back here. Maybe we could lock after their stock. See what needs doing and how we can help. In any case, I'll send over some baking when it comes from the oven."
When Father came home that night we told him about the fire. He set his jaw firmly and asked, "And how did your mother cope with all this?"
We told him that she had been fine. He nodded his head and said, "Your mother is a remarkable person. The more trouble there is, the more she smiles!"
But there was no word for anyone else - not even for tall Ted who had proved so ready and able to shoulder all the responsibility when the time had come....
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