The harvest was over, the preserving and pickling done. It was one of those soft, balmy days between autumn and winter. Buzzy, Hay and I were down by the river, idling away a stolen hour.
"Here comes a rider at a gallop!" announced Buzzy in some surprise.
In a cloud of dust, horse and rider came hurtling toward us. As he came near, he let out a blood-curdling whoop, swung a lariat and lassoed Hay.
"It's Joel" I screamed at the top of my lungs as I recognized that infectious grin under the big Stetson.
And what a sight he was! Shirt, vest, hat, chaps and boots! The four of us laughed and shouted together. Joe had picked Hay up and placed him in the saddle in front of him. Buzzy and I pelted up the trail to the house. As we ran, Joe lassoed each of us in turn. Mother and Mabel came to the door to see what the commotion was about.
"The prodigal son has returned!" Mother cried, clasping her son in her arms.
That night after supper we all sat around feasting our eyes on Joe who fashioned a rope from silk threads as he talked.
Toward the end of the winter in Alberta," he was saying, "When snow and ice covers everything, all of a sudden a huge arch appears in the sky - like this," and he raised his arms high over his head until his head touched. "It's called the Chinook Arch, and it's like a rainbow of clouds. It means that a real warm wind is coming directly. It may last for a couple of hours or a couple of days. It's so warm that the ice and snow begin to melt and turns to water just like that," and he snapped his fingers.
"We had a warm wind spring up like that out of nowhere last winter," Ted observed, his dreamy eyes looking back in reverie.
"I wonder if it's part of the samething?"
"I expect so," said Joe. "It comes down across the Rockies from the Japanese Current out in the Pacific somewhere, they say. Apparently it's felt as far east as Winnipeg."
"Does it mean that winter is over?" asked Mabel.
"Not over. There's still a hell of a lot of fierce cold ahead, but it does mean that there's HOPE of it being over," and Joe's infectious grin encircled each of us.
When he said 'hell' we all looked at Father in expectation of a verbal blast, but he let it pass, apparently in recognition that Joe was now a man. We all breathed more freely - including Joe...it would be just too unspeakable if anything happened to spoil one moment of this night, I thought.
"Tell us more, Joel" we begged.
"Well there will be about twenty-five of us out on the round- up. Each of us may have as many as six saddle horses. We use two a day and then they can rest for a couple of days before we ride them again. One rancher will supply the grub-wagon and cook for all his men. Cooky has a portable galvanized stove and he cooks for all of us on that."
"What sort of meals do you have?" Mother wanted to know.
"Oh - stew, bread, apple pie and buckets of coffee," Joe grinned at her.
"How many cattle are there in a round-up?" Father asked.
"About a thousand."
"How long does it take to get them all?"
"Weeks! They wander a long way on the summer range. And then there are a lot of new calves that are pretty skittish. But we sing to them at night, and that helps."
We all thought Joe was teasing, but he went on, "No, I'm serious! Those cows can stampede just like that!" and again Joe's fingers snapped together. "A storm or too many mosquitoes will just craze them. When that happens, vie sure don't get any sleep that night!"
"How long do you sing to them?" Mabel wanted to know. "About two hours every night."
"What kind of songs do you sing?" she went on, since music was Mabel's particular interest.
"Anything low and quiet," Joe replied. "Those cows are real ornery," and he shook his head, remembering.
" 'Ornery' ," said Mother. "What sort of word is that?"
"The right sort of word to describe them critters!" said Joe deliberately, and we all waited for Mother's usual reprimand when our grammar slipped.
It seemed that Mother had taken her lead from Father, and she settled for sitting back in her chair, lips pursed, shaking her head in resignation at this latest trial she had to endure.
"I have a horse I want you to pick up for me about a day's trip from here," said Father breaking the conversational lull that followed.
Joe continued to fashion the silk rope in silence for a moment. Then, "I'm not staying, Father...Reg win have to go for it."
"Not staying?" Mother sat bolt upright.
"No. I'm going back in a day or two. I just wanted to come home and see you all, so I rented the outfit and horse in town after I got off the train this afternoon. But I'm going back. I like the life," and Joe got up, stretched his arms over his head and said, "But right nov I'd like some more of that home baking of yours, Mother, and then I think I'll hit the sack!" He was deliberately teasing Mother who gave him a critical look, then willingly went to the cupboard to get all his favourites.
And so it was decided that Reg should go for the new horse. It meant an overnight stay at a 'stopping house 1 at Beaver Creek and was unusual enough to be regarded as an adventure. Eagerly we waited for Reg to return. He was a gifted mimic and would be sure to keep us entertained for hours as he acted out his trip for us in his own hilarious way.
"It was great!" said Reg, the night of his return with the new horse. "You pay a dollar a night for supper, a bed and breakfast, and your horse gets bedded and fed into the bargain. If you have a team, the charge goes up to a dollar and a half."
"What did you have for supper?" demanded Mother.
"Pork chops, fried potatoes, quantities of bread and butter, pie, applesauce, and green tea." and Reg wrinkled his nose in retrospect. "Then after supper while we were all sitting around the table re]axing, the fanner began to 'read his underwear 1 with a lighted taper...It was fascinating!"
As he spoke, Reg was acting out the fanner's actions. He held the imaginary taper up to an invisible seam, his eyes gleamed suddenly as he pounced upon an unseen 'something' which he then proceeded to demolish between his fingernails with great satis faction. Out of the corner of his eye, he was watching Mother. Pure horror was reflected on her face as she suddenly realized that Reg was supposedly picking lice from his underwear.
"Never did I expect to experience such things as I have since I came to Canada," she exclaimed, hands and eyes turned heavenwards.
Once the gales of laughter had subsided, Reg went on, "For breakfast the following morning, we had 'green bacon' - this is par-boiled and then fried - more fried potatoes, more quantities of homemade bread and butter, prunes, more applesauce made from dried apples, and more of that awful bitter green tea."
Just as Reg was finishing speaking, Mother leapt toward him with a cry.
"What's that crawling up your neck?" she screamed. "It's a FLEA!"
"Where? Where is the flea? I want to see too! I've never seen a flea!" Ray's little piping voice cried out sounding like one of the world's most deprived.
Reg was forcibly ejected from the house and made to strip to the buff in our frigid shed. Mother shaved extra quantities of yellow soap into the wash boiler, and Reg's clothes were cooked within an inch of their wearability. He in turn was scoured from his scalp down until he begged for mercy.
Washdays on the farm were a nightmare. It was the one day a week when Mother, we knew, would be irritable. Mabel - Mother's right hand in everything - bore the brunt of everyone's short temper on that day, always unruffled and serene.
Three of us had to help Mother. We lifted innumerable palls of water from the rain-barrel at the side of the house and carried them to the kitchen where she poured them into the huge copper boiler on the stove. Those articles which could not be boiled were scrubbed on a wash-board - things like Father's long johns.
Mother made her soap from fat and lye. The alkaline water plus the harsh caustics had, almost ruined her linens as well as her hands. When we first moved to the farm, she had used her cherished table linens daily, but had finally given in to using oilcloth which could so easily be wiped clean after each meal. The one cloth that remained intact was carefully stowed away for use at Christmas or when we had special guests. Once the wash was rinsed, it had to be mangled and then carried outdoors to hang on lines until it dried. In bad weather it had to be hung on improved lines throughout the house. Sometimes it took FOREVER to dry!
It had been a particularly slow drying day outside. We heard Father's buggy come up the trail and go into the barn. We were all busy with our own chores and none of us went out to meet him.
"I wonder what's keeping your father?" Mother asked after some considerable time.
Mabel went to the kitchen window to look out. We heard her gasp.
"What's the matter?" we wanted to know. "What is it?" "Come and look!" she cried.
We all joined Mabel at the window. There was Father in our yard. One leg of his drying long Johns was gripped firmly in his hands and he was pulling furiously. The other leg was being munched quite unconcernedly by one of our cows. As we looked, the clothes
pegs snapped the shoulders from the line and the tug-of-war began in earnest. Father turned his back to the cow, hauled the underwear over his shoulder, dug in his feet, and heaved with all his might. The cow's head advanced to the extent of jet another mouthful.
We could hear Father's voice raised in rage while the cow appeared oblivious to anything except her unexpected meal. Dropping to one knee, Father picked up a long stick. Turning to his opponent he beat her with all his might. With teeth clamped on her prize the cow lumbered away tearing the leg off Father's long Johns. Our parent gathered himself together and strode into the kitchen where we were all convulsed with laughter. On any other occasion we would have quailed from Father's rage, but as he stood there in the warm glow of our kitchen, holding the remnant of his long underwear in his hand, we were all over come by the night of a cow besting our omnipotent parent! To add insult to injury we could not drink that cow's milk for a week afterwards....something in the cloth or the washing caustics did not agree with her!
Ted had been even more quiet than usual lately. He would go off by hlmself for hours at a time. Buzzy and I would be sent to search for and eventually would discover our gentle brother sitting in the barn or upstairs in the house, gazing off into space.
This blue-eyed brother with the sensitive nature had not wanted to come to Canada. In his last year at school In England he had won a scholarship to London university and had planned to enter Mechanical Engineering the following term. When Father had announced that we were all moving to Canada Ted had been heartbroken. There was no question of him being left behind. . . the Suttons were a family and stayed together! Because every one of us had to work In order for us to survive, Ted's return to school In Canada had been impossible.
He appeared to have accepted his lot without complaint and contented himself with inventing mechanical devices. He had been happiest when he had created the pulley system for our well.
"Patty, go and fetch Ted for supper," Mother said.
I put on a heavy sweater and went to the barn. I looked for Ted in every corner. He wasn't there. I poked into every corner of the yard - to no avail. It was cold and I was getting hungry. Then I looked down the trail toward the river. There, half a mile away, I made out a huddled figure in the half light. Wrapping my sweater more tightly around me I hurried down the path calling Ted's name over and over. He paid no attention.
The angry words I had ready were stilled when I reached him at length and looked into his face. Ted was there but in body only.
Even at my young age I could see that my brother's spirit had gone away. Silently I took him by the hand, pulled him to his feet, and led him back to the house.
Ted stood there quite still when I let go of his hand in the kitchen. Mother gave him a sharp look and gently pushed him into his chair. But Ted would not feed himself at supper that night. I kept intercepting the anxious looks which my parents exchanged. Finally Mabel got up from her place and gently fed the unresponsive brother whose blue eyes were now entirely devoid of their former twinkle.
Buzzy, Ray and I were sent to bed early that night. We went, unprotestingly, a nameless fear clutching at our hearts. Before we were properly awake the next morning we heard voices in the yard below. Father was hitching up the buggy. It was very early - even for Father!
I raced to the window to see what was going on. I saw my Father gently lead Ted out of the house and help him into the waiting buggy. Where were they going? And at this hour? I dressed quickly and hurried downstairs to stand still suddenly, arrested by the tension evident in the scene before me. My Mother's face was ashen. One hand held to her quivering lips, the other arm held tightly across her breast, she looked agonizingly out the window as Father settled their son in the buggy seat. Mabel stood beside her, one arm around Mother's shoulders. She was biting her under lip and her grey eyes were full of tears.
I too looked out the window. Father finished tucking a blanket around Ted's knees, and then came around the back of the buggy to climb into the driver's seat on the other side. He looked at m y mother as he came past the window. His face was grey and set in fearful lines. I had never before seen him look this way. Then he mounted to the seat, picked up the reins, and with a final heartrending look over his shoulder, flicked the buggy into motion. It gathered speed quickly and was soon lost to view. Still Mother and Mabel stood at the window looking at the now-vacant trail. Then my mother turned and saw me standing there.
"Come and have your breakfast, Patricia," she said with a visible effort at control, and I decided not to ask any questions just then.
In time a letter reached us from the hospital in Prince Albert where Father had taken Ted. It stated simply that our Ted had died.... Now, like many another pioneering family, we had given one of our own to this new land.
That second winter on the farm was wicked. Our hens, brought into the kitchen out of the terrible cold, clumped around the floor on frozen feet. In time, their toes fell off and some began to eat their own eggs. Helpless, we stood by and watched them.
Father discussed this peculiar manifestation with some of the farmers when they met in town.
"They need calcium," said one. "Get them some gravel to scratch in."
This proved to be the solution for this particular problem but Father decided that there was still a great deal he had to learn about farming, and so began a regular correspondence with the Department of Agriculture in Ottawa which kept him supplied with pamphlets on growing grain and vegetables as well as raising stock. Since many of our Saskatchewan farmers were unable to read or write, most of our acquired knowledge had been passed on by the spoken word.
Once again Reg rode to the Sand Fills for feed for our growing herd. Each day he made that tortuous trip in temperatures that went down to sixty degrees below zero. We often feared for his safety when a blizzard raged outside, but Father would say, "Nonsense. 1 Billy nay be slow, but he will get home safely, never fear."
And somehow, Billy did, bringing Reg and the frozen fodder with him, day after day after day.
We heard many true tales of fanners who froze to death in the short distance between their own houses and barns when they were blinded by the swirling snow. They walked in endless circles until they dropped from exhaustion. We had a line strung from the barn to the house so that Fred, who was doing the milking, stall mucking and feeding of the stock, could be guided straight to the kitchen door.
When the long winter nights began to depress us and we became listless and irritable, Mother would say, "Come! Sit around and I'll tell you about the lovely driving trip your father and I took back in England."
This story was one of our favourites. We sat entranced as Mother told it again...
"We drove through five counties with a horse and buggy. The English countryside was so green and verdant, with rolling hills and dipping vales! When it was time for a meal, there was always a little village nestled in the hills, and we would pull up at the inn. After we ate, off we would go again, through more countryside, with the cattle grazing off to one side and perhaps a little river flowing on the other beside the road."
"Where were we?" Buzzy wanted to know.
"Why, I got Minnie Bales to come and stay with all of you we had at the time! Minnie was an old school friend of mine who never married. She has grey hair now," and Mother would unconsciously put a hand up to her own dark head. "I'm afraid you children proved more than a handful for poor Minnie," she went on. "Minnie was never one to roll very well with the punches, and she certainly locked harried when we got back. She greeted me at the front door saying, 'It will be a long time before I undertake such an arduous task again! How you ever manage them I shall never know. They can be such angels one minute and then do the most outrageous things in the very next!'"
"Tell us more about the trip," I begged, my imagination away ahead of the story.
"Well, when we stopped for the night at one particular inn, the landlord and two rosy-cheeked maids who waited on us thought we were a bride and groom!" Mother's face pinked in recall and Father's cheat expanded with pride as he too sat there listening. "And me with ten children too, at the time!"
That was the part I liked best. I was an incurable romantic Iargely due to seeing the dreamy far-away look in each parent's eyes as Mother related one of her stories about life back in England...
Weeks of preparation want into Christmas. Every night after the supper dishes were put away, we gathered around the kitchen table. Buzzy and Ray threaded long chains of bright red cranberries on string with long darning needles. The chains ware hung in draped festoons over the mantle and around each picture on the wall. The rest of us picked over dates, raisins and currants, one by one!
"Come, let's sing," Mother would say when we drooped over the never-ending piles of dried fruit. Then Mabel's clear soprano voice would soar into the kitchen rafters as she led us in one of the old Christmas carols.
When the time came to stir the puddings, each child took a turn. When the batter was thoroughly mixed, it was divided into separate puddings, steamed and hung in the beamed ceiling to await the Day.
On Christmas Eve clusters of raisins were placed in a large silver dish. We all stood around while Father ceremoniously poured brandy over them and then lighted a match. The blue flame rose to the accompaniment of universal 'Oh 1 a and "Ah 1 a. Ray was afraid to put his fingers into the flame to retrieve his own cluster, so I held his hand in mine and showed him that it didn't burn his fingers at all. The exotic taste warmed every part of my mouth as I savoured each morsel. When the 'snapdragon' w as gone, Mother took up her cherished, dog-eared copy of 'The Night Before Christmas' and we all gathered close to listen, from the oldest down to little Ray, each one enthralled anew by the tale.
A long silence followed the final, "Merry Christmas to all, And to an, a 'Good Night" 1
Then Mother said, "Come along, children. It's time to hang up your stockings!"
Christmas morning came early on the farm. Father got up first to stoke the kitchen range with wood. The cast iron pipes would have frozen during the night and had to be primed with hot water before any heat could travel through the house. There were chores as usual for everyone. There would be a sea of ice in the yard where the horses had stood, pawing the frozen ground after bringing Father home the night before. The stock had to be driven to water at a hole chopped in the frozen river. Then we had to draw water from the well to use in the house. The cows had to be milked and eggs gathered.
At last we were ready to open our stockings. Each one held an apple, orange, plenty of nuts, precious candy, and a small game or puzzle. We took time to savour each item.
After breakfast, the gifts were distributed by Father. There were books from our English relatives, mittens for each of us which Mother had found tine to knit in her few idle moments over the past month or two, a doll for me, and a clockwork or wind-up toy for each of the younger boys. The older ones usually received some longed-for item of clothing...Then, back to work, for there was much to do to prepare for dinner!
Bert, his Emily and their two children arrived in the early afternoon from town where Bert was now running a successful livery stable. Our own volatile Emmy, her husband and their two little girls came soon afterwards. Dick and Joe had come in on the morning train. Oh, what a day this was!
Mother's one remaining linen cloth graced the long tressle table. There were even real linen napkins too! Dishes of home-made pickles and relishes and cranberry sauce were distributed at intervals along the snowy length. The potatoes and turnip we were having had been grown right here on our own farm. The turkey was a beautiful bird, tended with care for this most special of all turkey destinies. We all talked at once as we worked, and we were happy.
The festive climax began when we all sat down at the long table. Father arose to give thanks for the feast we were about to enjoy. Hardly had we choroused 'Amen 1 when he brandished the carving knife over the golden fowl and made the first incision with great ceremony. And the culminating moment of triumph came when Mother carried aloft the flaming and biggest pudding of all amid lusty cheers from every one of us.
When we had finished, everyone sat back in contentment. There was a special sense of family 'belonging' at a time like this. The labour of each one of us had gone into this meal - this home - this time of grateful thanks. Each one of us knew this, and our sense of reward and fulfillment was great....
© Copyright 2022