A NOVEL OF THE CANADIAN WEST
Robert J. C. Stead
Author of "Kitchener and Other Poems," "Songs of the Prairie," "The Cow Puncher," ETC
The Musson Book Company Limited Publishers Toronto
FIRST PUBLISHED IN 1916.
PRELUDE I. THE BECK OF FORTUNE II. INTO THE WILDERNESS III. PRAIRIE LAND IV. ROUGHING IT V. THE SHORES OF THE INFINITE VI. IN THE SPELL OF THE MIRAGE VII. THE CALL OF THE FARTHER WEST VIII. INTO THE NIGHT IX. CRUMBLING CASTLES X. INTO THE FARTHER WEST XI. THE PRICE OF "SUCCESS" XII. A WHIFF OF NEW ATMOSPHERE XIII. SETTING THE TRAP XIV. THE GAMBLERS XV. THE LURE OF EASY MONEY XVI. THE HONOUR OF THIEVES XVII. THE FIGHT IN THE FOOTHILLS XVIII. CONVERGING TRAILS XIX. PRISONERS OF FATE XX. AN INQUEST—AND SOME EXPLANATIONS
Six little slates clattered into place, and six little figures stood erect between their benches.
"Right! Turn!" said the master. "March! School is dismissed"; and six pairs of bare little legs twinkled along the aisle, across the well-worn threshold, down the big stone step, and into the dusty road, warm with the rays of the Indian summer sun.
The master watched them from the open window until they vanished behind a ridge of beech trees that cut his vision from the concession. While they remained within sight a smile played upon the features of his strong, sun-burned face, but as the last little calico dress was swallowed by the wood the smile died down, and for a moment he stood, a grave and thoughtful statue framed within the white pine casings of the sash. His sober grey eyes stared unseeing into the forest, while the light wind that stirred the golden maple leaves toyed gently with his unruly locks.
His brown study lasted only a moment. With a quick movement he walked to the blackboard, caught up a section of sheepskin, and began erasing the symbols of the day's instructions.
"Well, I suppose there's reward in heaven," he said to himself, as he set the little schoolroom in order. "There isn't much here. The farmers will pay a man more to doctor their sick sheep than to teach their children. But, of course, they get both mutton and wool from a sheep. I won't stand it longer than the spring. If others can take the chance I can take it too. If it were not for her I would go to-morrow."
The last remark seemed to unlink a new chain of thought. The grey eyes lit up again. He wielded the broom briskly for a minute, then tossed it in a corner, fastened the windows, slipped a little folder into his pocket, locked the door behind him, carefully placed the key under the stone step where the first child in the morning would find it, and swung in a rapid stride down a by-path leading from the little schoolhouse into the forest.
Ten minutes' quick walking in the woods, now glorious in all their autumn splendour, brought him to a point where the sky stood up, pale blue, evasive, through the trees. The next moment he was at the water's edge, and a limpid lake stretched away to where the forests of the farther shore mingled hazily with sky and water. The point where he stood was a little bay, ringed with water-worn stones and hemmed around by the forest, except for one wedge of blue that broadened into the distance. He glanced about, as though expecting someone; he whistled a line of a popular song, but the only reply was from a saucy eavesdropper which, perched on a near-by limb, trilled back its own liquid notes in answer.
"I may as well improve the moments consulting my chart," he remarked to his undulating image in the water. "This thing of embarking on two new seas at once calls for skilful piloting." He seated himself on a stone, drew from his pocket the folder, and spread a map before him.
In a few moments he was so engrossed that he did not hear the almost noiseless motion of a canoe as it thrust its brown nose into the blue wedge before him. The canoe slid with its own momentum gracefully through the quiet waters, suddenly revealing a picture for the heart of any artist. Kneeling near its stern, her paddle held aloft and dripping, her brown arms and browner hair glistening in the mellow sun, her face bright with the light of its own expectancy, was a lithe and beautiful girl. In an instant her eye located the young man on the bank, and her lips moulded as though to speak; but when she saw how unobserved she was she remained silent and upright as an Indian while the canoe slipped gently toward the shore. Presently it cushioned its nose in the velvety sand. She rose silently from her seat, and stole on moccasined tip-toes along the stones until she could have touched his hair with her fingers. But her eyes fell over his shoulder on the papers before him.
"Always at your studies," she cried, as he sprang eagerly to his feet. "You must be seeking a professorship. But I suppose you have to be always brushing up," she continued, banteringly. "Your oldest pupil must be—let me see—not less than eight?"
He smothered her banter with his affection, but she stole the map from his fingers.
"I declare, if it isn't Manitoba! What next? Siberia or Patagonia? I thought you were still in the Eastern Townships."
"So I am—in school. But out of school I am spending a good deal of my time in Manitoba, Mary."
She caught a grave note in his voice as he said her name. Seizing his cheeks between her hands she turned his face to her. "Answer me, John Harris. You are not thinking of going to Manitoba!"
"Suppose I say I am?"
"Then I am going too!"
"John! Nothing unusual about a wife going with her husband, is there?"
"No, of course, but you know—"
"Yes, I know"—glancing at the ring on her finger. "This still stands at par, doesn't it?"
"Yes, dear," he answered, raising the ring to his lips. "You know it does. But to venture into that wilderness means—you see, it means so much more to a woman than to a man."
"Not as much as staying at home—alone. You didn't really think I would do that?"
"No, not exactly that. Let us sit down and I will tell you what I thought. Here, let me get the cushion...There, that's better. Now let me start at the beginning.
"Until you came here last summer—until all this happened, you know—I was quite satisfied to go on teaching—"
"And I have sown discontent—"
"Please don't interrupt. Teaching seemed as good as anything else—"
"As good as anything else! Better than anything else, I should say. What is better than training the tender child, inspiring him with your ideals—"
"Oh, I know all about that. Until I began to have some genuine ideals of my own I was satisfied with it. But now—well, everything is different."
"I know," she answered. "The salary won't support two. There's the rub."
They sat for some minutes, gazing dreamily across the broad sheet of silver.
"And so you are going to Manitoba?" she said at length.
"Yes. There are possibilities there. It's a gamble, and that is why I didn't want to share it with you—at first. I thought I would spend a year; locate a homestead; get some kind of a house built; perhaps break some land. Then I would come back."
"And you weren't going to give me a word in all those preparations for our future? You have a lot to learn yet, John. You won't find it in that folder, either."
He laughed lightly—a happy, boyish laugh. For weeks the determination to seek his fortune in the then almost unknown Canadian West had been growing upon him, and as it grew he shrank more and more from disclosing his plans to his fiancee. Had she been one of the country girls of the neighbourhood, a daughter of the sturdy backwoods pioneers, bred to hard work in field and barnyard, he would have hesitated less. But she was sprung from gentler stock. It seemed almost profane to think of her in the lonely life of a homesteader on the bleak, unsettled plains—to see her in the monotony and drudgery of the pioneer life. He had been steeling himself for the ordeal; schooling himself with arguments; fortressing his resolve, unconsciously, perhaps, with the picture of his own heroism in braving the unknown. And she had scaled every breastwork at a bound, and captured the citadel by the adroit diplomacy of apparent surrender.
She had snatched his confession at an unguarded moment. He had not meant to tell her so much—so soon. As he thought over the wheels he had set in motion their possible course staggered him, and he found himself arguing against the step he contemplated.
"It's a gamble," he repeated. "The agricultural possibilities of the country have not been established. It may be adapted only to buffalo and Indians. They say the Selkirk settlers have seen hardships compared with which Ontario pioneers lived in luxury...We may be far back from civilization, far from neighbours, or doctors, or churches, or any of those things which we take as a matter of course."
"Then you will need me with you, John, and I am going."
She could not mistake the look of admiration in his eyes. "Mary," he said, "you are a hero. I didn't think it was in you. I mean I—"
"A heroine, if you please," she corrected. "But I am not that—not the least bit. I want go because—because to go with you, even to Manitoba, is not nearly so dreadful as to stay home without you."
"But come," said the girl, springing lightly to her feet, "we have matters of great moment for immediate consideration."
He was at her heels. One hand resting on his strong arm sufficed to steady her firm body as she tip-toed over the stones. Somewhere in the canoe she found a parcel, wrapped in a white napkin. Under a friendly beech she laid her dainties before him.
In a crimson glory the sun had sunk behind the black forest across the lake. The silver waters had draped in mist their fringe of inverted trees along the shore, and lay, passive and breathing and very still, beneath the smooth-cutting canoe... One by one the stars came out in the heavens, and one by one their doubles wavered and mimicked in the lake. A duller point of light bespoke a settler's cabin on the distant shore.
"And we shall build our own home, and live our own lives, and love each other—always,—only, for ever and ever?" she breathed.
"For ever and ever," he answered.
A waterfowl cut the air in his sharp, whistling flight. The last white shimmer of daylight faded from the surface of the lake. The lovers floated on, gently, joyously, into their ocean of hope and happiness.
THE BECK OF FORTUNE
The last congratulations had been offered; the last good wishes, somewhat mixed with tears, had been expressed. The bride, glowing in the happy consciousness of her own beauty, and deified by the great tenderness that enveloped her new estate like a golden mist, said her farewells with steady voice and undrooping eyes. Once only, when two frail arms drew her to the great mother-heart that was fighting with joy and unspoken sorrow through its travail of the soul, did their bright rays moisten and tremble like sun-shafts in a pool. It was for the moment only; one hallowing kiss on the dear, white cheek; then, with uplifted head, she said good-bye, and the mother smiled upon her in a pride that was deeper than her pain. The breed that had not feared, a generation back, to cross the seas and carve a province and a future from the forest, was not a breed to withhold its most beautiful and noble from the ventures of the greater West.
It had been a busy winter for John Harris, and this, although the consummation of his great desire, was but the threshold to new activities and new outlets for his intense energies. Since the face and form of Mary Allan had first enraptured him in his little backwoods school district, a vast ambition had possessed his soul, and to-day, which had seemed to be its end, he now knew to be but its beginning. The ready consent of his betrothed to share his life in the unknown wilderness between the Red River and the Rocky Mountains had been a tide which, taken at its flood, might well lead him on to fortune. At the conclusion of his fall term he had resigned his position as teacher, and with his small savings had set about accumulating equipment essential to the homesteader. A team of horses, cows, a few ducks, geese, and hens; a plough, a wagon, a sleigh, a set of carpenter's tools; a gun, an axe, a compass, a chest of medicine, a box of books; a tent, bedding, spare clothing—these he had gathered together at the village store or at farmers' "sales," and the doing so had almost exhausted the winter and his money.
Because his effects were not enough to fill a car he had "doubled up" with Tom Morrison, a fine farmer whose worldly success had been somewhat less than his deserts, and who bravely hoped to mend his broken fortunes where land might be had for the taking. Their car had already gone forward, with Morrison's hired man nestling obviously in the hay, and two others hid under the mangers. When railways were invented they were excepted from the protection of the Eighth Commandment.
So John Harris and his bride took the passenger train from her city home, while their goods and chattels, save for their personal baggage, rumbled on in a box-car or crowded stolidly into congested side-tracks as the exigencies of traffic required.
At a junction point they were transferred from the regular passenger service to an immigrant train. Immigrant trains, in the spring of 'eighty-two, were somewhat more and less than they now are. The tourist sleeper, with its comfortable berths, its clean linen, its kitchen range, and its dusky attendant, restrained to an attitude of agreeable deference by his anticipation of a gratuity, was a grey atom of potentiality in the brain of an unknown genius. Even the colonist car, which has done noble service in later days in the peopling of the Prairie West, was only in the early stages of its evolution. The purpose of immigrant trains was to move people. To supply comforts as well as locomotion was an extravagance undreamed of in transportation.
The train was full. Every seat was taken; aisles were crowded with standing passengers who stumbled over bundles and valises with every pitch in the uncertain road-bed; women fought, bravely with memories too recent to be healed, and children crowed in lusty abandon or shrieked as they fell between the slippery seats. The men were making acquaintances; the communities from which they came were sufficiently interwoven to link up relationships with little difficulty, and already they were exchanging anecdotes in high hilarity or discussing plans and prospects with that mutual sympathy which so quickly arises among those who seek their fortunes together under strange conditions.
One or two of the passengers had already made the trip to Manitoba, and were now on the journey a second time, accompanied by their wives and families. These men were soon noted as individuals of some moment; they became the centre of little knots of conversation, and their fellow-immigrants hung in reverent attention upon every word from their lips. Their description of the great plains, where one might look as far as the eye could carry in every direction without seeing house or tree or any obstruction of the vision, fell with all the wonder of the Arabian Nights upon the eager company. Stories of the trail, of Red River cart and ox-team, of duck shooting by the prairie sleughs, the whiff of black powder from their muzzle-loaders and the whistle of sharp wings against the sky; of the clatter of wild geese which made sleep impossible, and the yelp of prairie wolves snapping up through the darkness; of thunder and lightning, of tempest and rain, of storm and blizzard and snow and cold—cold that crackled in the empty heavens like breaking glass and withered the cheek like fire; of Indians, none too certain, slipping like moccasined ghosts down the twilight, or peering unexpectedly through cabin windows; of hardship and privation and strength and courage and possibilities beyond the measure of the imagination—these fell from the lips of the favoured old-timers, punctuated with jest and prophecy and nicely-timed intervals of silence.
"And is there no stones there, or stumps?" asked a woman, big of bicep and deep of chest from years of wrestling with the rocks and timbers of Lanark. "Has the bush all been cleared away?"
"Bush? There's no bush to clear. The prairie's as bald as yer table—no reflection on yer cookin', ma good woman, but so it is, excep' for the grass that tickles yer fingers as ye walk an' the pea-vine that up-ends ye when ye're no thinkin'. Bush! Ah've burnt more bush from ma ten-acre clearin' than ye'll find in a dozen counties. 'Deed, ye'll think a little more bush 'd be a guid thing when ye have yer house to build an' a hungry stove to keep roarin' from November to April."
"But whereby do they make their fences, if they ha' no cedar rails?" demanded the woman, still unconvinced.
"Fences? An' why for would ye fence a farm, ye unsociable body? To keep the gophers out? Or to keep the badgers in? Seein' ye have all out-doors for yer cattle, an' the days of the buffalo are over, thanks to the white man's powder an' shot, what would ye have with fences?"
"But are ye sure it has no been all ploughed some time?" persisted the woman, who could not bring herself to believe that Nature, unaided, had left great areas ready for the hand of the husbandman. A life of environment amid forests and rocks had sorely cramped her imagination.
"Ah'm no sayin' for sure, but whoever ploughed it took a man's order. It will be a thousand miles long, Ah'm thinkin', an' nobody knows how wide. Pioneers like you an' me ha' been workin' our hands off in Canada" (it was a trick of the old-timers to think only of the Eastern Provinces as Canada), "an' in a hundred years we have no cleared what'd be a garden patch to that farm out yonder. Ah'm thinkin' it was a bigger Hand than yours or mine that did that clearin'."
"Tell us about the crops," said one of the men passengers. "What like wheat can ye grow?"
"Like corn," said the narrator, with great deliberation. "Heads like ears o' corn. Wheat that grows so fast ye can hear it. Nothin' uncommon to walk into wheat-fields when they's knee-high, an' have to fight yer way out like a jungle."
"Is the Injuns werry big?" piped a little voice. "My pa's go'n'to make me a bone-arrow so I can kill 'em all up."
"That's a brave soldier," said the man, drawing the child to his knee. "But Ah know a better way to fight Indians than with bows an' arrows. D'ye want me to tell ye a story?"
"'S about Moses?"
"No, Ah ain't quite up-to-date on Moses, but Ah can tell ye a story about a better way to fight Indians than with arrows an' powder. Ah fight 'em with flour an' blankets an' badger-meat, an' it's a long way better."
The child climbed up on the friendly knee, and interested himself in the great silver watch-chain that looped convenient to his fingers. "Go on wif your story, man," he said. "I's listenin'."
And big Aleck McCrae forgot the immigrants crowded around, forgot the lurch of the train and the window-glimpse of forests heavy-blanketed with snow, as he ploughed his fertile imagination and spread a sudden harvest of wonderment before the little soul that clung to his great watch-chain.
Harris and his young bride found much to occupy their attention. Their minds were big with plans, nebulous and indefinite but charged with potentiality, which they should put into effect when they had selected their prairie home. To the young girl, naturally of romantic temperament, the journey of life upon which they had so recently embarked together took on something of the glamour of knightly adventure. Through the roseate lens of early womanhood the vague, undefined difficulties that loomed before her were veiled in a mist of glory, as she felt that no sacrifice could really hurt, no privation could cut too deep, while she was fulfilling her destiny as wife and comrade to the bravest and best of men. The vast plains, heart-breaking in their utter emptiness, could only be full to her—full of life, and love, and colour; full of a happiness too great to be contained. She watched the gaunt trees rising naked from the white forest, and her mind flitted on a thousand miles in advance, while on the cold window-sill her fingers tapped time to the click of the car wheels underneath.
Harris, too, was busy with his thoughts. He measured the obstacles ahead with the greater precision of the masculine mind. To him, love was not a magician's wand to dissolve his difficulties in thin air, but a mighty power which should enable him to uproot them from his path. No matter what stood in the way—what loneliness, what hardship, what disappointment and even disillusionment—he should fight his way out to ultimate victory for the sake of the dear girl at his side. As she watched the wintry landscape dreamily through the window he shot quick glances at her fine face; the white brow, the long lashes tempering the light of her deep magnetic eyes; the perfect nose, through whose thin walls was diffused the faintest pink against a setting of ivory; lips, closed and tender as in the sleep of a little child; chin, strong, but not too strong; and a neck full and beautiful, the whole forming a picture of purity, gentleness, and confidence which set his being aglow with the joy of immeasurable possession. As he thought of her love, her faith, her confidence, he swore in his own big heart that neither harm nor want nor sorrow should come upon her; that through every adversity of life he would be her protector, her champion, her defence. And so in the charm and mirage of their young dream they rode dauntlessly, joyously, into the unknown.
With Ned Beacon, the trusty hired man, in charge of the carload of effects, under the direction of Tom Morrison, Harris was relieved of many duties and responsibilities that would have broken in somewhat rudely on his dream. Traffic was congested with the immigrant movement; cars were side-tracked at nameless places for indefinite periods, but stock had to be fed and cared for; bonds had to be provided, and all the conditions of departmental red tape complied with when the effects entered the United States, for in 1882 the All-Canadian railway was a young giant fighting for life with the mighty rocks of the North Shore route, and railway traffic with the New West was, perforce, billed over American roads. These details and a score of others called for patience, for tact, and a judicious distribution of dollar bills. Harris made a mental note of his obligation to Tom Morrison in the matter. He was shrewd enough to surmise that this was the farmer's very practical wedding gift, but he took debit for it nevertheless.
And so the journey wore on. As day succeeded day to the monotonous rumble of the car wheels the immigrants became better acquainted, and friendships took root that in after years were to brave every storm of adversity and bloom forth in the splendid community of spirit and sacrifice which particularly distinguished the pioneers. But the strain of travel drew heavily upon physical endurance; meals eaten stale from lunch-baskets, or hastily snatched at wayside stations; the cramp of days spent in the crowded seats; lack of exercise and lack of sleep; these laid their heavy finger on the strongest and heartiest. But one night the word went round that daylight would see them back on Canadian soil, and the lagging spirit of the travellers was revived. Someone struck up an impromptu song, parodied from a well-known hymn; men, and children joined in the chorus as they caught the words, and rolled it forth with a vigour that vibrated every timber of the car.
"O, Prairie Land, sweet Prairie Land, Where everyone joins heart and hand,"
they sang, and the sociability of the party teemed to swell with the volume of the song. A bond of human interest, human interdependence—perhaps, even, some phase of human suffering, was already linking them together with links of steel that should withstand every shock of the coming years, and bind together the foundations of a mighty land.
In the cold grey of a March morning, when the sun had not yet dispelled the mists of night, and the fringing woods back from the Red River loomed white and spectral through the frost, they re-entered the Empire, and in a few minutes were detraining at Emerson, the boundary town and gateway to the prairies which for a thousand miles stretched into the mysteries of the unknown.
INTO THE WILDERNESS
Emerson was the gateway of the great invasion. Situated just on the Canadian side of the International Boundary, the "farthest west" of rail communication, on the threshold of the prairie country, it seemed the strategical point for the great city which must arise with the settlement and development of the fertile kingdom of territory lying between the Lake of the Woods and the Rocky Mountains, and between the Forty-ninth Parallel and the unknown northern limit of agriculture. Sixty miles northward, at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, Winnipeg was throwing street-tendrils out from her main traffic trunk which marked the route the Indian carts had followed for years as they bore their buffalo hides and pemmican to the Hudson's Bay Company's post at Fort Garry. Winnipeg was to be on the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway—at least, so the promoters of its town-lot activity affirmed; but Selkirk, still farther north, was already flourishing in the assurance that the railway would cross the river at that point. But the Canadian Pacific Railway as yet existed upon paper; its advance guard were pouring nitro-glycerine into the rocks of the wild Lake Superior fastnesses, and a little band of resolute men were risking financial disaster an indomitable effort to drive through a project which had dismayed even the Government of Canada. Some there were who said the Canadian Pacific would never be built, many there were who said that if built it always be a charge upon the country—that in the very nature of things it could never become self-supporting.
So while Winnipeg and Selkirk indulged their visions Emerson was already enjoying to the full the prosperity which accompanied the inrush of settlers. Although the immigrants were not wealthy as the term is now understood even in an agricultural community, most of them had enough money to pay for their outfitting and place them on their homesteads for operations. Accommodation in Emerson was at a premium; hotel space was out of the question, and even the barest rooms commanded mining-camp prices. Those commodities which the settler must needs have had taken their cue from hotel prices, and were quoted at figures that provoked much thoughtful head-scratching on the part of the thrifty and somewhat close-fisted new arrivals from the East.
Harris left his wife with a company of other women in the Government immigration building while he set out to find, if possible, lodgings where she might live until he was ready to take her to the homestead country. He must first make a trip of exploration himself, and as this might require several weeks his present consideration was to place her in proper surroundings before he left. He soon found that all the hotels were full, and had they not been full the prices demanded were so exorbitant as to be beyond his reach; and even had it been otherwise he would have asked her to share the hardships of the exploration trip rather than leave her amid associations which were all too apparent in the hotel section of the town. The parasites and camp-followers of society, attracted by the easy money that might be wrung in devious ways from the inflowing tide of farmers, were already represented in force, and flaunted brazenly the seamy side of the civilization which was advancing into the New West.
Turning to parts of the town which were less openly engaged in business, legitimate, questionable, or beyond question, Harris inquired at many doors for lodgings for himself and wife, or for his wife alone. The response ranged from curt announcements that the inmates "ain't takin' boarders" to sympathetic assurances that if it were possible to find room for another it would be done, but the house was already crowded to suffocation. Great lines of washing in the back yards, and groups dirty children splashing in the spring mud, bore testimony to the congestion. The March sun was beating down with astonishing fierceness and the unside-walked streets were a welter of slush. In two hours Harris, notwithstanding his stout frame and his young enthusiasm, dragged himself somewhat disconsolately back to the immigration building with the information that his search had been fruitless.
At the door he met Tom Morrison and another, whom he recognized as the teller of Indian stories which had captivated the children of his car. Morrison was a man of forty, with a dash of grey in his hair and a kindly twinkle in his shrewd eyes; his companion was A bigger man, of about the same age, whose weather-beaten face bore testimony to the years already spent in pioneer life on the prairie.
"And what luck have ye had?" asked Morrison, seizing the young man by the arm. "Little, I'll be thinkin', by the smile ye're forcin' up. But what am I thinkin' of? Mr. McCrae is from 'way out in the Wakopa County, and an old-timer on the prairie. He knows every corner in the town, I'm thinkin'—"
"Aleck McCrae," said the big man. "We leave our 'misters' east of the Great Lakes. An' Ah'm not from Wakopa, unless you give that name to all the country from Pembina Crossing to Turtle Mountain. Ah'm doing business all through there, an' no more partial to one place than another."
"What is your line of business, Mr. McCrae?" asked Harris.
"Aleck, I said, an' Aleck it is."
"All right," said the other, laughing. "What is your business, Aleck?"
"My business is assisting settlers to get located on suitable land, an' ekeing out my own living by the process. There's a strip of country in there, fifty miles long by twenty miles wide, that Ah know like you knew your own farm down East. It cost me something to learn it, an' Ah sell the information for part of what it cost. Perhaps Ah can do something for you later, along professional lines. Just now, as Tom here tells me, you're hunting a house for the wife. Ah know Emerson too well to suppose you have found one."
"I haven't, for a fact," said Harris, reminded of the urgency of his mission. "I've tramped more mud this morning than would make a good farm in Ontario, but mud is all I got for my trouble."
"It's out of the question," said McCrae. "Besides, it's not so necessary as you think. What with the bad time our train made, an' the good time the stock-train made, an' the fact that they started ahead of us, they're in the yards now. That's a piece of luck, to start with. 'S nothing unusual for settlers to be held Up here two an' three weeks waiting for their freight, an' all the time bills piling up an' the cash running down in a way that knocks holes in their pockets."
"But I can't put my wife in a stock-car!" protested Harris.
"There's worse places," McCrae answered, calmly worrying a considerable section from a plug of black chewing tobacco. "Worse places, Ah should say. Ah've seen times when a good warm stock-car would have passed for heaven. But that ain't what Ah have in mind. We'll all turn in an' get the stock unloaded, hitch up horses, pack a load, an' get away. Morrison's hired man'll drive his team, an' Tom'll stay here himself an' look after the rest of the stuff. Ah've been making a canvass, an' Ah find we have six or seven families who can be ready to pull out this afternoon. An soon as we get into settled country, perhaps we can get accommodation, such as it is, along the way. But my team will go along, with a good tent an' some cooking outfit. Everyone has bedding, so we're all right for that. Now, if all hustle we can be started by four o'clock, an' out ten or twelve miles before we pitch camp. That's far enough for the horses the first day, anyway. How does it suit you?"
"What do you say, Mr. Morrison?"
"I think Aleck's plan is best. I've my wife and the two girls, and there's no roof for their heads here. I can find a place for myself, but I've got to get them started. Ned is a trusty man; he will drive my team. It suits me."
"But after we get there?" said Harris, "For my part, I don't know where I'm going. Even with Aleck's help it will take some time to look up my land and build a place to live in. Mind you," he said, as if forestalling a question in their minds, "I'm mightily obliged for the kindness of your offer, and it isn't myself I'm thinking about."
"Hoots, man!" said Morrison. "We ken who you're thinkin' about, right well. And a poor man ye'd be if ye didn't, for a bonnier lass never came out of Canada, and that's saying somethin'. But she'll be all right out there, and a deal better than if you left her here. There's not many settlers with houses in the country yet, Aleck tells me, but there's a few, and it's wonderful the e-las-ticity of a shanty on the prairie."
"Tom's right," said McCrae. "We haven't many of the conveniences of civilization out there yet, but we haven't the narrowness or vices either, an' your wife'll be both welcome an' safe in any farmer's home. Now, if it's all settled," continued McCrae, who had the leader's knack of suppressing indecision at the psychological moment, "we'll all turn in with unloading of the stock." Harris ran to tell his wife that they were to join a party for "the front" that very afternoon. She received the news joyously. Her only fear had been that she would be left behind during the weeks in which her husband made his exploration of the country.
In a few minutes all hands, both men and women, were busy at the cars. The horses, stiff and sore after their long journey, stalked rheumatically down the gangway. Feeling solid ground beneath their feet, they shook their heads vigorously, as though to rid them of the rumble of the cars, and presently were rolling and stretching in the warm sun. Dogs limped with muddy paws and boisterous affection upon masters and mistresses; cows lowed, roosters crowed, and pigs emitted little grunts, of that supreme happiness peculiar to their race. Many hands made the work light, and by mid-afternoon six sleighs were loaded for the journey. All the women and children were to go with the party; Morrison and one or two men would remain in Emerson, complete the unloading, and take charge of the effects until the teams should return from their long journey. McCrae, on account of his knowledge of the town and of the needs of the journey was chosen to secure the supplies. His team, which had wintered at Emerson, was to take the lead, and in his sleigh were a large tent, some cooking equipment, and an assortment of eatables, consisting mainly of dried meat, lard, beans, molasses, bread, flour, oatmeal, and tea. McCrae provided his team and equipment without charge; the cost of the provisions was reckoned up and divided among the immigrants in their various proportions to the whole party.
Each settler's sleigh carried that which seemed most indispensable. First came the settler's family, which, large or small, was crowded into the deep box. McCrae made them pack hay in the bottom of the sleigh-boxes, and over this were laid robes and blankets, on which the immigrants sat, as thickly as they could be placed. More robes and blankets were laid on top, and sacks stuffed very full of hay served the double purpose of cushioning their backs and conveying fodder for the animals. Such space as remained was devoted to grain for the horses, bundles of clothing and boxes of dishes, kitchen utensils, and family effects. In one of the sleighs a pig was quartered, and in another was a crate of hens which poked their heads stupidly through the cracks, blinking at the bright light. Behind the sleighs were tethered the cattle.
Morrison came up to Harris's sleigh, and gave it an approving inspection.
"You will all be fine," he said, "and a great deal better than wearyin' about here. Besides, you're just as well to be away," he added, in a somewhat lower voice. "McCrae tells me if this sun keeps up the roads will be gone before we know it, and that means a delay of two or three weeks. There's been a tremendous snow this winter, and a steady thaw, what with these north-runnin' rivers, means floods on the low-lyin' lands, and perhaps in the town itself, McCrae tells me he's none too sure about the bridge."
At this moment McCrae himself joined the group. "There's only two in your party, Harris," he said, "an' while Ah don't want to interrupt your honeymoon, there's another passenger to be taken care of. Dr. Blain is going with us, and Ah'm going to put him in your charge. He's a bit peculiar, but Ah don't think he'll give you any trouble. It's just a case of being too much of a good fellow. One thing Ah know—he's a doctor. Saw him last fall on a scarlet fever job. Settler's sod shack, twenty miles from nowhere. Three children down, mother down, father frantic. Well, Ah now that Blain camped right there in the thick of it; doctored, nursed, cooked, kep' house—did everything. An' they're all of 'em alive an' well to-day, or were when last Ah saw them. So he's worth more'n a speaking acquaintance, Harris; you may know that better some day. Ah'm going up town for him now; you can shift your stuff a little an' make room."
The whole party were ready for the road and waiting before McCrae appeared again. When he came a companion staggered somewhat uncertainly by his side.
"I'm aw'right, McCrae," he was saying. "I'm aw' right. Shay, whash thish? Shildren v Ishrul?"
"Come now, Doctor, straighten up. Ah want to introduce you."
"Introdush me? Thash right. Make me 'cquainted wish the ladish. How juhdo, Princhessh?" he said, stopping and gesticulating before an imaginary figure. "Thish is Dr. Blain, late of—late of—wash that, McCrae? Oh, very good. I'm awl right."
Half leading and half pulling, McCrae at last brought the doctor to Harris's sleigh. "Sorry he's in this shape," he whispered. "He'll likely go to sleep, an' be all right when he wakes up. Ah can't take him in my sleigh, an' Ah feel sure you can handle him."
"I'll do the best I can," said Harris, though he was little pleased with the prospect.
"Straighten up, Doctor," said McCrae, giving him a good poke in the ribs. "This is Mr. Harris, who you will travel with—Jack Harris. An' Mrs. Harris."
The doctor had glanced only casually at Harris, but at the mention of the woman's name he straightened up and stood alone.
"Glad to meet you, madam," he said. "And it's only proper that the pleasure should be all mine." There was a little bitterness in his voice that did not escape her ear.
"But indeed I am glad to meet you," she answered. "Mr. McCrae has been telling us something of your work among the settlers. We are very fortunate to have you with us."
He shot a keen look into her face. She returned his gaze frankly, and he found sarcasm neither in her eyes nor her voice.
"Help me in, McCrae," he said. "I'm a bit unsteady...There now, my bag. Don't move, Mrs. Harris...I think we are quite ready now, are we not?"
"Most remarkable man," whispered McCrae to Harris. "Wonderful how he can pull himself together."
McCrae hurried to his own sleigh, called a cheery "All ready!" and the party at once proceeded to get under way. This was not accomplished without difficulty. The cattle showed no disposition to follow the sleighs, but hung back, pulling on their ropes with amazing strength. One or two, in an excess of stubbornness, sat down in the snow and had to be dragged bodily. The settlers had three or four dogs along, but it was not considered safe to let them get at the cattle, lest the frightened animals should break their ropes and occasion further delay. The situation was only relieved by a number of men following behind, prodding vigorously and twisting the tails of the most recalcitrant. Presently the cows began to swing along, and, finding that no harm befell them, they soon settled into a slow but steady gait, and gave no more trouble until they began to tire with their travel.
The horses, too, had their own difficulties. Jaded and nervous with their long trip in the cars, and strange to the air and surroundings, they fidgeted and fretted, and soon the sweat-line was creeping up their backs. The sleigh trails stood high over the level of the surrounding prairie, and the horses were continually slipping off. The snow packed in hard balls under their feet, and at intervals the drivers were obliged to get out and clear it away. The March sun, which had shone down with such fierce heat during the middle of the day, now swung far to the westward, facing the travellers over an ocean of snow stretching away into the unknown. The day grew colder; women and children drew blankets tighter about them, and huddled lower in the sleighs to escape a sharp wind that slipped silently down from the north, carrying a ground-drift of icy particles in its breath.
Harris's thoughts were on his team, on the two cows trudging behind, and on the multiplicity of arrangements which his new life would present for decision and settlement. But his wife gazed silently out over the ocean of snow. The rays of the sun fell gratefully on her cheeks, pale and somewhat wan with her long journey. But the sun went down, and the western sky, cloudless and measureless, faded from gold to copper, and from copper to silver, and from silver to lead. Turning uncomfortably in her crowded seat the girl could see, far beyond the last of the teams, the road over which they had travelled, stretching away until it lost itself, a point in the gathering darkness. To the west it lost itself over the shoulder of the prairie... The men had ceased to shout to each other; the cattle plodded uncomplainingly; silently they moved in the midst of a silence expanding into the infinite. It was her first sight of the prairie, and a strange mixture of emotions, of awe, and loneliness, and a certain indifference to personal consequences, welled up within her. Once or twice she thought of home—a home so far away that it might have been in another planet. But she would not let her mind dwell on it for long. She was going to be brave. She had talked with the other women on the train and in the town. They were women from Ontario farms, some of them well into middle life, women who had known the drudge of unremitting toil since childhood. Their speech was faulty; their manners would not have passed muster amid her old associations; but their quiet optimism was unbounded, their courage was an inspiration. She too would be brave! For the sake of the brave man who sat at her side, guiding his team in the deepening darkness; for the sake of the new home that they two should build somewhere over the horizon; for the sake of the civilization that was to be planted, of the nation that must arise, of the manhood and womanhood of to-morrow—she would be brave. Deep in her heart she swore she would be brave, even while a recreant tear stole forth unbidden and froze into a little pearl of pathos on her cheek.
A bright star shone down from the west; one by one they appeared in the heavens...It grew colder. The snow no longer caked on the horses' feet; the sleigh-runners creaked and whined uncannily.
Suddenly a strange sound came down on the north wind—a sound that made the girl who had just been vowing to be brave nestle still closer to the big man at her side, and his arm fell protectingly about her. It was a succession of sharp barks like those of a dog, but the barks presently ran together in a long, doleful howl that rose in a high crescendo on the night air, and then slowly died away into a minor note that seemed to echo back and forth across the plain. As it died out in one point of the compass it was taken up in another, until the little party wending its way in the darkness seemed altogether surrounded by it.
"What is it?" whispered the girl. "What is it, Jack? Do you know?"
"I don't know," said the man. "It sounds like—wolves."
"Don't be alarmed, Mrs. Harris," said a quiet voice. Looking around they found the doctor sitting up in the sleigh. He had fallen asleep as soon as the journey started, and they had almost forgotten his presence.
"Don't be alarmed," he repeated. "Their howl is the only terrifying thing about them. Prairie wolves are very different from their cousins of the woods. They fill the night air with their howling, but they are cowardly brutes and would rather run than fight."
"I suppose you have had some strange experiences with animals of the prairies," said the girl, with a brave effort to appear at ease, but before the doctor could answer the team came to a sudden stop. The sleigh in front was obstructing the road, and the party closed up in solid formation.
"Camp Number One," called Aleck McCrae, from the head sleigh. "The horses and cattle are tired, an'—"
"And the captain is hungry," put in Ned Beacon. "Isn't that right?"
"Well, Ah am nursing a young appetite," admitted Aleck, exhibiting the slack of his belt. "Now, run these sleighs up in two rows," and Aleck indicated where he wanted them placed. "It's hard on the horses an' cattle, after the warm cars, but they'll stand it tonight if they're well blanketed. To-morrow night we'll be among the Mennonites, with a chance of getting stable room."
Under Aleck's direction the sleighs were run up in two rows, about twenty feet apart, facing the north. Two sleighs were then run across the opening at the north end, so that altogether they formed a three-sided court. Men with shovels quickly cleared the snow from the northerly portion of the court, and there the tent was pitched. On the south side of the tent, where they were sheltered from the north wind, the horses and cattle were lined up as closely as they could be crowded. Horse blankets, buffalo robes, rag carpets, and even family bedding, were tied about the animals. The horses were supplied with hay and oats and the cattle with hay alone, and after eating they lay down for the night, and were soon blowing and heaving in a warm fog of comfort.
Meanwhile inside the tent was a scene of great activity. The ground was covered with blankets, robes, and bedding. A lantern from the centre pole sent wedge-shaped shadows darting back and forth; the camp stove was set up, and a fire from wood which McCrae had brought along was soon crackling in it. Pots and pans were produced; women eager to be of service swarmed about the stove, and children, free at last of their muffling wraps, romped in high-laughtered glee among the robes or danced back and forward with the swinging shadows.
"Now this won't do at all," said McCrae, returning from an inspection of affairs outside. "Too many cooks, you know. Ah want one woman here. Everybody else sit down."
The captain's word was recognized as law. He selected an able-looking settler's wife as assistant cook, while the others, men, women, and children, sitting down, seemed to fill the tent to the limit of its capacity.
Savoury smells soon were coming from hot frying-pans, as sliced ham, with bread and gravy, was served up in tin plates and passed about the tent. Everybody—married men and women, maidens and young men, girls, boys, and little children—was ravenously hungry, and for a few minutes little could be heard but the plying of the viands. But as the first edge of hunger became dulled the edge of wit sharpened, and laughter and banter rollicked back and forward through the tent. The doctor, now quite sober, took a census, and found the total population to be twenty-eight. These he classified as twelve married, eight eligible, seven children, and himself, for whom he found no classification.
"You have a head for figures, Harris, I think," he said. "How much space can be allotted to each?"
Harris found that the tent was twelve by eighteen feet, and that about eight feet of floor space would be available for each person, if they moved the stove out.
"The space is sufficient, but the ventilation isn't," said the doctor, as he set about opening ventilator flaps. "If I am to be responsible for your health there are just two rules to follow. Do whatever Aleck McCrae tells you, and don't be afraid of fresh air, even with frost in it."
The tin plates had gone back to McCrae, and were returning, loaded this time with bread and molasses. A steaming cup of tea accompanied each plate. Fortunately there was milk for the children, two of the cows having contributed this important item of the commissariat.
When the meal was over and the dishes washed and packed, Aleck made another round of the camp before settling down for the night. Meantime mothers gathered their families about them as best they could; the little ones sleepily mumbled their prayers, and all hands, young and old, nestled down like a brood of tired chickens under the white wings of the protecting tent. Outside the ground-drift sifted gently about the sleighs, the cows sighed in contentment, and the wolves yapped to each other in the distance.
The afternoon that has just been described was typical of the days that were to follow as the immigrant party laboured its slow pilgrimage into the Farther West. True, they entered on the very next day a district having some pretence of settlement, where it was sometimes possible to secure shelter for the women and children under hospitable Mennonite roofs. The peculiar housekeeping principles of this class of settlers, however, which involved the lodging of cattle and horses in the same building with the human members of the family, discouraged too great intimacy with them, and for the most part the new-comers preferred the shelter of their own tent. They soon emerged from the Red River Valley, left the vast, level, treeless plain behind them, and plunged into the rolling and lightly wooded Pembina region. Here clumps of small willows and, where repeated fires had not destroyed them, light bluffs of slender poplars afforded a measure of protection, and from the resources of the few scattered settlers already in the country they were able to replenish their supplies of fodder for the stock, and even to add to their own larder. Fortunately the wind continued to blow from the north, and, although the sun shone with astonishing fierceness in the middle of the day, the snow thawed but little and the trail remained passable. Other parties of settlers, wending their way westward to the region where homesteads were still available, or moving in to lands located the previous year, were overtaken; and again the party were themselves overtaken by more rapid-moving immigrants from behind, so that in the course of four or five days their cavalcade stretched far ahead and far to the rear. Acquaintanceships were made quickly—no one stood on ceremony; and as the journey wore on the Harrises began to feel that they already possessed many friends in the country, and that life on the prairie would not be altogether lonely.
After numerous consultations with McCrae, Harris had arranged that his immediate destination should be in a district where the scrub country melted into open prairie on the western side of the Pembina. The Arthurses, who were also of the party, had homesteaded there, and Fred Arthurs had built a little house on the land the year before. Arthurs was now bringing his young wife to share with him the privations and the privileges of their new home. A friendship had already sprung up between Mrs. Arthurs and Mrs. Harris, and nothing seemed more appropriate than that the two women should occupy the house together while Harris sought out new homestead land and Arthurs proceeded with the development of his farm. It was McCrae, whose interest in every member of the expedition was that of a father, that dropped the germ of this suggestion into Arthurs' receptive ear, and it was with paternal satisfaction he found the young couples speedily work out for themselves the arrangements which he had planned for them all along.
After the crossing of the Pembina the party began to scatter—some to homesteads already located; others to friends who would billet them until their arrangements were completed. As team after team swung out from the main road a certain sense of loss was experienced by those who were left, but it was cheery words and good wishes and mutual invitations that marked each separation. At length came the trail, almost lost in the disappearing snow, that led to Arthurs' homestead. A quick handshake with McCrae, Ned Beacon, and the doctor, and a few others who had grown upon them in the journey, and the two young couples turned out to break their way over the little-used route that now lay before them.
Darkness was settling down—darkness of the seventh night since their departure from Emerson—when, like a mole on the face of the plain, a little grey lump grew on the horizon. Arthurs rose in his sleigh and waved his fur cap in the air; Harris sent back an answering cheer; the women plied their husbands with questions; even the horses took on new energy, and plunged desperately through the frozen snow which one moment supported their weight and the next splintered in broken ice-cakes beneath them. Slowly the mole grew until in the gathering shadows it took on indistinctly the shape of a building, and just as the rising moon crested the ridge of the Pembina hills the travellers swung up at the door. Arthurs had carried the key of the padlock in his hand for the last mile; everybody was out of the sleighs in a moment, and the next they were stamping their cramped feet on the cold wooden floor of the little shack. Arthurs walked unerringly to a nail on the wall and took down a lantern; its dull flame drove the mist slowly down the glass, and presently the light was beating back from the glistening frost which sparkled on every log of the little room.
"Well, here we are in Hungry Hall," said Arthurs. "Everything just as I left it." Then, turning to his wife, "Come, Lil," he said. "Jack, perhaps you have an engagement of your own." He took his wife in a passionate embrace and planted a fervent kiss upon her lips, while Harris followed his example. Then they sat down on the boxes that served for chairs, amid a happiness too deep for words...So the minutes passed until Mrs. Arthurs sprang to her feet. "Why, Mary," she exclaimed, "I do believe you're crying," while the moisture glistened on her own cheek. "Now, you men, clear out! I suppose you think the horses will stable themselves? Yes, I see you have the box full of wood, Fred. That's not so bad for a start. Leave some matches, and say, you might just get our boxes in here. Remember we've lived in these clothes for the best part of two weeks."
The young men sprang to their task, and as soon as they were out of the house the girls threw their arms about each other and wept like women together. It was only for a moment; a quick dash of the hand across the eyes, and both were busy removing coats and wraps.
The door opened, and their "boxes," as well as other equipment from the sleighs, were carried in, and the men disappeared to the little stable at the back of the house. After several attempts the girls succeeded in starting a fire in the rusted stove, and soon its grateful heat was radiating to every corner of the room. As they busied themselves unpacking dishes and provisions they had opportunity to take observations of the new place that for one was to be home and for the other a very welcome haven in a strange land.
The house was built of poplar logs, hewed and dovetailed at the corners with the skill of the Ontario woodsman. It was about twelve by sixteen feet in size, with collar-beams eight feet from the floor. The roof was of two thicknesses of elm boards, with tar-paper between. The floor was of poplar boards. The door was in the east side, near the south-east corner; the stove stood about the centre of the east wall. The only window was in the south; six panes of eight-by-ten glass sufficed for light. Through this window another lantern shone back from the darkness, and the flickering light from the stove danced in duplicate. A rough board table sat under the window; a box nailed in the south-west corner evidently served as cupboard. No tools or movables of any value had been left in the place, Arthurs having stored such effects with a neighbour, some dozen miles away, lest they be stolen from the cabin by some unscrupulous traveller during his absence.
"I like the plan of it very much," said Mrs. Arthurs, after a general survey of the room. "Don't you think Fred has shown good judgment in the design? This"—indicating the door—"will be my reception-room. And this, a little further in, is the parlour. The kitchen and pantry are right at hand—so convenient for the maid in serving, you know. And then our rooms. Fred and I will have the long room in the north-west wing, while you, of course, will occupy the guest-chamber in the northeast. Do not be alarmed, my dear; if the silence of the prairies weighs too heavily upon you we shall be within call. The bath may be reached from either room with equal convenience."
Both laughed, but Mary, more serious and sober-minded, was already slicing ham and greasing a frying-pan. "We need water, Lil—get some snow while I find the tea. The bread is hard, but there'll be coals presently, and we shall have toast. Lucky there were baked potatoes left over from last night's camp; they'll fry up fine along with this—" But already Lil was outside gathering snow.
She returned in breathless excitement. "Oh, Mary, I've just had a great thought. All my wedding china—presents, you know—is in that box, and I have my wedding clothes, too. Have you yours?"
"Of course. But why—"
"Why, dear, don't you see? The men are busy shovelling a path into the stable. It'll be an hour yet before they are in. Let's put on our wedding dresses, and set the table with our best dishes and best linen, just for a kind of post-nuptial. Let's!"
"But ham and fried potatoes!"
"And toast. Didn't you promise toast? And tea. And I'll wager there's some jam among provisions. Oh, let's hurry."
An hour later, when the hungry men returned after making their horses and cattle comfortable, they stopped in amazement at the sight that confronted them. Snowy linen, delicate china, and sparkling glass returned the soft light from one of those great lamps such as are bought only for presentation; and beside the table, like fairies spirited from a strange land, stood two beautiful women, robed in the delicate draperies of their bridal hour. Exclamations of surprise were drowned in a flood of tender associations, and never in palace or banquet-hall did sweeter content and happiness reign than among these four young pioneers as they sat down to their first home-served meal in the new land.
The days that followed were days of intense activity for both men and women. There was much to do, inside and out. In the interior of the little house an extraordinary change was wrought; simple draperies and pictures relieved the bareness of the walls; shelves were built for the accommodation of many trinkets dear to the feminine heart; a rag carpet covered the centre of the floor; plain but appetising dishes peeked enticingly from behind the paper curtain that now clothed the bare ribs of the cupboard; and a sense of homeliness pervaded the atmosphere. The two men, in their own realm, had found much to occupy them, although for some days the range of their activities was limited owing to the necessity of giving the horses a much-needed rest before putting them back into the harness.
A week had passed, and no sign of life, other than that of the little party itself, had been seen about the Arthurses' homestead, when one day Harris's eyes already becoming keen to the prairie distances, espied a dark point on the horizon. It grew slowly from a point to a spot, from a spot to an object, and at length was defined as a man on horseback. Presently Aleck McCrae drew up at the door.
"Hello, farmers," he cried, "how goes the battle? An' the good wives? Building a little Eden in this wilderness, I'll warrant. Tell them to put another name in the pot, an' a hungry name at that. I haven't seen a white woman's meal I don't know when."
The friends gathered about the old-timer, plying him with questions, which he answered or discussed until the meal was over, holding his own business quietly in the background. But, with supper ended, his pipe in his teeth and his feet resting comfortably in the oven, he broached his subject.
"Ready for the road in the morning, Jack? Don't want to break up your little honeymoon, y' know, but the month is wearing on. Nothing but horseback for it now, an' they do say the settlers are crowding up something wonderful. The best land's going fast. Most of them will hold up now, with the roads breaking, but by slipping out on our horses we can locate an' file before the real spring rush opens. You should get some kind of shelter up before the frost is out of the ground, so's to lose no time from ploughing once the spring opens."
Harris needed no urging, and in the early morning the two men, with blankets and provisions, started out on horseback for the still farther West. The snow was now going rapidly; water stood in a thousand pools and ponds on the face of the prairie, or ran with swift noiselessness in the creeks and ravines, although the real "break-up" of the streams would not occur until early in April. By avoiding the sleigh-trails and riding over the open prairie fairly sound footing was found for the horses and a good opportunity given to observe the land. Harris soon found that more judgment was required in the selection of a prairie farm than he had supposed, and he congratulated himself upon having fallen in with so experienced a plainsman as McCrae. On the first day they rode over mile after mile of beautiful country, following the survey stakes as closely as possible, and noting their location from time to time by the lettering on the posts.
"This is good enough for me," said Harris at length, as their horses crested a little elevation from which the prairie stretched away in all directions, smooth as a table. "Isn't it magnificent! And all free for the taking!"
"It's pretty to look at," said McCrae, "but I guess you didn't come West for scenery, did you?"
"Well, what's the matter with it? Look at that grass. If the soil wasn't all right it wouldn't grow native crops like that, would it?"
"The soil's all right," answered McCrae. "Nothing better anywhere, an' you can plough a hundred and sixty acres to every quarter-section. But this is in the frost belt. They get it every August—sometimes July. Shouldn't wonder but it'll be all right in time, when the country gets settled up, but most homesteaders can't afford to wait. We've got to get further West yet, into the higher land of the Turtle Mountain slopes. I know there's good stuff there that hasn't been taken."
And so they pressed on, until, in the bright sunshine, the blue line of the Turtle Mountain lay like a lake on the western horizon. Here McCrae began paying more minute attention to the soil, examining the diggings around badger holes, watching out for clumps of "wolf willow," with always a keen eye for stones and low-lying alkali patches and the general topography of the quarter.
"This is more rolling country, with more land broken up by sleughs an' creeks, but it's good stuff," he said. "It's early to make predictions, but I'll risk one guess. There are two classes of people coming into this country—men who are looking for wheat land, nothing but wheat land, an' men who want some wheat land an' some stock land. I predict that in twenty-five years the wheat farmers will be working for the mortgage companies, an' the stock farmers will be building up bank accounts. Now stock must have water, an' if you can get natural shelter, so much the better. A creek may break your land a little, but it's worth more than it costs."
Many times in their explorations they passed over sections that Harris would have accepted, but McCrae objected, finding always some flaw not apparent to the untrained eye. Once, where a little river had worn its way across the plain, they came on a sod shack, where a settler was already located. "Nice spot," said McCrae, "but too sandy. His farm'll blow away when he breaks the sod. There's an easy crossing there' though, an' perhaps he thinks the railway will hit him when it comes. That's all a gamble. It may go north of the lake; if it does we only bet on the wrong horse. We've got to take our chance on that."
But at length they rode over a quarter where McCrae turned his horse and rode back again. Forward and back, forward and back, they rode the whole hundred and sixty acres, until not a rood of it had escaped their scrutiny. On the south-east corner a stream, in a ravine of some depth, cut off a triangle of a few acres' extent. Otherwise it was prairie sod, almost level, with yellow clay lying at the badger holes. Down in the ravine, where they had been sheltered from fire, were red willows, choke-cherry bushes, and a few little poplars and birches; a winding pond marked the course of the stream, which was running in considerable volume. Even as they stood on the bank a great cracking was heard, and huge blocks of ice rose to the surface of the pond. Some of these as they rose turned partly on their edge, showing two smooth sides.
"Good!" exclaimed McCrae. "There's some depth of water there. That pond hasn't frozen solid, or the ice wouldn't come up like that. That means water all winter for stock, independent of your well—a mighty important consideration, which a lot of these land-grabbers don't seem to reckon on. Now there's a good quarter, Jack. I don't say it's the best there is; they'll be opening up new land that'd make your teeth water twenty-five years from now. But we can't explore the whole North-West, an' you're far enough from the railroad here. This coulee will give shelter for your stock in raw weather, an' there's a bench looks at though it was put there for your little house. There's light timber to the north, fit for fuel an' building, within fifteen miles, an' there'll be neighbours here before the summer's over, or I'm no prophet. What do you say?"
"The quarter suits me," said Harris. "And the adjoining quarter is good stuff too. I can take pre-emption right on that. But there's just one thing I'm in doubt about."
"How I'm going to square it with you for the service you have given. My cash is getting low, and—"
"Don't worry about that. I generally size up my customer an' bill him accordingly. If he has lots of money, an' seems likely to part with it foolishly, I put as much of it as I can in safe keeping. But there isn't any money fee as far as you're concerned. Fact is, I kinda figure on trading this bill out with you."
"Trading it out? How?"
"Well, I expect to be roving this country, east an' west, for some years to come, an' I've a little policy of establishing depots here an' there—places where I can drop in for a square meal an' a sleep an' a bit of Western hospitality. Places, too, if you like, where there are men to say a good word for Aleck McCrae. How's that suit you?"
Harris took his friend's hand in a warm grip. He rightly guessed that McCrae was not bartering his services for hospitality, but was making it easy for Harris to accept them by appearing to bargain for a service in return. So they shook hands together on the side of the bank overlooking the little coulee, and as they looked in each other's eyes Harris realized for the first time that McCrae was still a young man. A sense of comradeship came over him—a feeling that this man was more of a brother than a father. With admiring eyes he looked on McCrae's fine face, his broad shoulders, his wonderful physique, and the question he asked sprang from his lips before he could arrest it.
"Why don't you get married, Mac?"
"Who, me?" said McCrae, laughing; but Harris detected a tone in his voice that was not all happiness, and the thought came to him that McCrae's craving for hospitality might root deeper than he supposed.
"It's a long ride to the land office," continued McCrae, "an' you can't file a minute too soon. We'd better find a corner post an? make sure of the number of this section, an' put as much road behind us as we can tonight."
After filing at the land office Harris returned at once to the Arthurses' homestead. The news that the Harrises were to be neighbours within forty miles was received with enthusiasm by both Fred and Lilian Arthurs. But Harris was now consumed with a burning energy; he allowed himself only a precious half-day at the home of the Arthurses, bade his wife an affectionate farewell, and, with a cheery good-bye to the warm friends on the homestead, he was away down the trail to Emerson. By this time the sleighing was gone, and as his wagon was left with the car he rode one horse and led the other, carrying with him harness and such equipment as was absolutely necessary on the road. He expected some trouble from the streams, which were now breaking up in earnest, but he was determined that at all costs he would get his wagon, plough, and tools to the homestead before the frost came out of the ground and left the sod trails absolutely impassable.
On arrival at Emerson one of the first men he met was Tom Morrison. The two pioneers shook hands warmly, and in a few words Harris told of having selected his claim, waxing enthusiastic over the locality in which his lot was to be cast.
"I must get out there myself," said Morrison.
"Do," Harris urged. "There are some other line quarters in the neighbourhood, and nothing would be better than to have you on one of them."
"Well, we'll see. Now, I've got your wagon loaded ready for the road. I couldn't get all your stuff on, but I loaded what you'll want first, and the balance can come with the rest of mine, so you won't have to make another trip. Ned has been back for some days, and we're ready to pull out too. And the sooner the better. The river is risin' real dangerous like, and if it keeps on this town's goin' to be under water before it knows it. Indeed, it wouldn't surprise me if the bridge went out. So we took the rest of the stuff—yours and mine—out a day's haul on the road. It's in safe hands there, and we can get it later even if the bridge does go. We thought we might as well do that while waitin' for you."
"Waiting for me?" repeated Harris. "You don't mean to say you have stayed here just on my account?"
"Oh, no; you see, we wanted to get all the stuff out of danger."
But Harris read between the words that honest Tom had valued his interests equally with his own.
The west-bound trip was made in good time, although not without difficulty at some points in the road, and before the 10th of April Harris was back under the shelter of Arthurs' roof. He was for pressing on alone in the morning, but he found that his wife had made all her plans to accompany him and would listen neither to persuasion nor reason.
"No, Jack," she said, gently but firmly setting all his entreaties aside. "I'm not going to let you do all the pioneering. I'm going with you."
"But, Mary, there's no house, and no shelter, and no neighbours—nothing but sky and grass as far as you can see."
"All the more reason I should go," she answered. "If you have to rough it in the open you at least deserve your meals cooked for you, and such other help as a woman can give. We will take the cows—one of them is milking now; the calf will have to go in the wagon; but we'll have lots of milk, and I'm sure we'll get along. But I really must be with you. I really must, John, and you know—I'm going."
So at last he consented. The supplies of provisions were increased; room for the calf was found somewhere in the wagon, and together they set out to wrestle their fortunes from the wilderness.
On arrival at the homestead the young wife immediately gave evidence that she intended to bear her full share of the pioneer's duties. A comparatively dry spot was found among the little poplars, and here she built a tent with blankets and a bit of rag-carpet that came in most handy for such purposes. Their stove was set up, and although it smoked stubbornly for lack of draught, it furnished heat for cooking, and when Jack returned from tethering the horses the smell of frying ham and hot tea struck his nostrils.
"Well, that's better than rustling for myself, I will admit," he said, as she placed his supper on an improvised table. "But it's mighty rough on you."
"No, it isn't, either. I'm healthy—why, this prairie air gives me an appetite that city people would pay thousands for, and I'm strong—and happy."
He drew her to him, thrilled with the pride of her courage.
That night, before the darkness had gathered too deep, they selected the site of their house on the very bench that McCrae had indicated. It was about an acre in extent, and stood halfway between the prairie level and the bottom of the coulee, where a small river was now running...They would face their house eastward, so it would look over the pond fifty yards from the door, and the bank behind would shelter it from the north-west winds of winter...It was quite dark when they sought the cover of their little tent, and the wolves were howling far down the ravine.
Presently they were startled by a crashing noise, as of some big animals rushing upon them through the poplars, and the horses, in headlong haste, almost swept over their sleeping-place. On recognizing their master the animals stood, snorting and shivering.
"That wolf howl put the fear into the silly brutes," said Harris, speaking calmly, although his own flesh was creeping just a little. "I suppose they've ripped their tether ropes to pieces. Well, we'll tie them down here, where they'll have company." And he led them back a short distance into the bushes.
A moment later, suddenly, as if congealed out of thin air, on the bank right above them, silhouetted against the dim light in the western sky, stood a horse and rider. Instantly into Harris's mind came a warning of McCrae: "Sleep with one eye open when your horses are tethered out."
Harris had no proof that the strange rider was a horse thief, but it struck him at the moment that the terror of the horses might not have been due altogether to wolves. Sometimes these noble animals have an uncanny instinct for detecting danger. He stole silently toward the tent. There was a gun there, loaded with shot for any possible game on the prairie. As he moved in the deep darkness of the valley he stumbled over a root and fell. The same moment came a flash of light on the bank, and Harris heard the "thuk" of a ball burying itself in the sod. He lay perfectly still. The stranger peered into the darkness for a full minute; then, dismounting, began to come cautiously down the hillside. Harris would have rushed for his gun, but he feared to reveal the whereabouts of his wife. So he lay still, and the stranger came on, the glint of his gun-barrel showing in the darkness. It was evident he thought his bullet had found its mark, and he proposed still to possess himself of the horses. But he was taking no chances. Presently he discerned Harris's body on the ground, and again raised his gun to his shoulder. Harris lay in an agony of suspense, praying that the aim would be faulty, and that his assailant would advance until he could spring up and disarm him. Then came another flash, a loud report, a yell from the intruder, who half fell to earth, then scrambled to his feet, rushed up the bank, pulled himself somewhat limply on his horse, and rode into the darkness.
"Oh, Jack, are you killed?" cried the girl, rushing in his direction.
"Not even hurt," he answered; and she fainted in his arms.
He carried her to the tent and applied water to her forehead. As he was engaged in restoring her his hand fell on his gun. The barrel was hot.
He raised her face to his, and kissed her again and again.
In the morning they found a few drops of blood on the grass at the top of the bank.
Harris and his wife allowed themselves no time for nerve-strain over the experience of their first night on their homestead. It was fortunate for them there was so much to do, and that they were thrown entirely upon their own resources. Their little store of money was running very low, and they decided their house must be of the cheapest possible construction. Harris had already discussed his buildings with McCrae, who advised him to make use of sods, and gave general directions how to do so; and he now set about to put McCrae's suggestions into effect. Some fifteen miles north of the homestead was a valley in which grew trees of sufficient size for building purposes—poplars, cottonwoods, elms, and oaks. Farther down the valley, at the head of a lake, was a saw-mill, where boards and shingles might be bought—if one had money.
So this morning, after caring for their cows, they hitched the horses to the wagon, took an axe, a saw, their gun, and a lunch, and set out for the valley, returning late at night with sufficient logs and poles for the framework of their house and stable. The next day construction was commenced. Four stout posts were set on end, enclosing a rectangle twelve by sixteen feet. The tops of the posts were connected by logs laid upon them, dovetailed at the corners after the fashion of woodsmen, and held in position by wooden pins driven in auger-holes. Lengthwise along the centre, to form a ridgepole, another stout log was laid and the whole framework supported by additional posts, among which were two on the east side to enclose the door. Small poles were then placed on end, sloping slightly inwards, and resting against the plate-logs. Similar poles were laid from the plate-logs to the ridge-pole to support the roof.
Harris found a southern slope where the frost was out enough to admit of him ploughing some sods. He knew he would not get as good a sod here as later in the season might be found in some low-lying spot, but his first consideration was to get some kind of permanent shelter. So he ploughed the sods, three inches thick and fourteen inches wide, and cut them into two-foot lengths with his axe, to the sad injury of its cutting edge. These sods were then built into a wall like bricks, resting gently against the framework of poles, from which, however, they were separated by a padding of grass, which Harris cut in a sleugh with his scythe, and small willows from the ravine. This mattress of grass and willows prevented any earth shaking through into the house itself. A framework made of a hewn log was inserted in the south wall to leave space for a window, which should be bought when the family finances could afford such luxuries. For the time being it would be left open in fine weather and covered with canvas when the elements were gruff or unruly. The rag-carpet, when no longer needed as a tent, would be draped in the doorway, pending the purchase of boards to make a wooden door.
For a roof grass was laid on the poles and covered tightly with sods. Then Harris found a sticky, yellow clay in the side of the ravine, and two or three inches of this he spread carefully over the sods, like icing on a great cake. The greasy clay soon hardened in the sun, and became so impervious to water that the heaviest rains of summer made no impression upon it.
When, save for the missing door and window, the house was finished, they stood in the centre and admired. It was absolutely the product of their own labour, applied to such scanty resources as the prairie provided. But it was warm and snug, and, as they later on learned, the wall and roof of sod were almost perfect non-conductors of either heat or cold. The floor was of earth, but Mary Harris knew the difference between earth and dirt, although the words are frequently confounded, and her house was from the first a model of cleanliness and order.
By this time the snow was all gone, except in north-facing nooks along the ravine, and the frost was out of the sod in all places deep enough to admit of plouging. As the stock were taking no harm from the open air, thanks to the shelter of the ravine, Harris decided to delay the construction of his stable until after seeding and to proceed at once with the ploughing of his land. He had also to make a trip to Arthurs' for seed grain, and to borrow a couple of sections of drag harrows. With it all, by the middle of May he had sown fifteen acres of wheat, and notwithstanding a heavy snowfall about the 23rd, by the 1st of June he had added ten acres of oats. With his help Mary had planted a small garden of potatoes and vegetables, and a few flowers were springing up at the door of the house.
It was a life of hard, persistent work—of loneliness, privation, and hardship. But it was also a life of courage, of health, of resourcefulness, of a wild, exhilarating freedom found only in God's open spaces. They had learned to know the animals of the field—the cheeky gopher; the silent, over-industrious badger; the skunk, unchallenged monarch of his immediate circle; the sneaky coyote, whose terror is all in his howl; the red fox, softly searching amid the grass for the nests of ducks or prairie chicken; and the rabbit, curious but always gracefully elusive. Then there were the waterfowl, infinite in number. The stuffed ducks on the dinner-table were limited only by the amount of powder and shot which Harris cared to spend on the pond at their door. At night, when the horses had been unharnessed and dusk was setting in, he would slip his gun under his arm and walk down among the willows. It was necessary only to wait. Two graceful forms, feeding under a grassy bank, hearing a slight rustle above, would shove with quick, silent stroke into the supposed safety of their native element. Harris would peer through the dusk for the brighter markings of the male, for only a game-murderer shoots the female in the nesting season. Then, as they separated a little, his gun would speak; a sudden splashing of water; a sharp whistle of rapid wings cutting the air; a form, paddling an uncertain circle in the pond, then lying strangely flat upon the surface. Harris as yet had no dog, and often it meant stripping and a sharp plunge in the ice-cold water to bring in the trophy; but the strong, athletic young man counted that only part of the sport. At other times the nights were clamorous with the honking of wild geese, and in the morning Harris, slipping quietly over the bank of the coulee, would see the prairie white as from new-fallen snow with the backs of countless thousands of "wavies." Sometimes the geese, secure in the supposedly unsettled wilderness, relaxed the vigour of their military guard, and on such occasions he could get within range. But if there is one quality the goose lacks it is that which is most attributed to him—foolishness. On his marches through the unmapped desert of the air he moves with the precision of an army in the field, scouting out all the land, taking aerial observations before making camp, and immediately throwing out sentries around his feeding ground. But long-continued immunity from attack breeds carelessness, even in a goose, and the price of such neglect frequently adorned the table in Harris's cabin.
The prairie flowers, too, were a never-ending delight to the heart of the young woman. She knew some of them by name, but many were peculiar to the prairie. The first few warm days of spring had clothed all the wilderness with a magic carpet of pale-purplish blossoms, and the advancing season brought new blooms to view with every passing week. On Sundays, when there was total relaxation from their regular labours, the two, arm in arm, would stroll along the bank of the ravine, or walk, ankle-deep in strawberry blossoms, far over the undulating plain to the west. Returning, they would find their way to the edge of the stream, where, in the shallow crossing, the suckers would dart in all directions in panic at their appearance. Here they would sit and listen to the gentle murmur of the water, while fleecy clouds mirrored themselves in its glassy depths, and plovers ran whistling up and down the bank, and a meadow-lark sent its limpid challenge from a neighbouring bush. And at night, when the moon rose in wonderful whiteness and purity, wrapping field and ravine in a riot of silver, the strange, irresistible, unanswerable longing of the great plains stole down upon them, and they knew that here indeed was life in its fulness—a participation in the Infinite, indefinable, but all-embracing, everlasting.
THE SHORES OF THE INFINITE
The summer was a season of great activity and development. Harris did not sow any crop after the 1st of June, but applied himself then to the construction of his stable, which was built after the same fashion as the house. The shelter of its cool walls and roof was gratefully sought by the cows in the heat of the day, and its comparative freedom from mosquitoes was a haven to the horses in the evenings. Then there was more land to plough, and Harris's soul never dulled to the delight of driving the ploughshare through the virgin sod. There was something almost sacred in the bringing of his will to bear upon soil which had come down to him through all the ages fresh from the hand of the Creator. The blackbirds that followed at his heel in long, respectful rows, solemnly seeking the trophies of their chase, might have been incarnations from the unrecorded ages that had known these broad fields for chase and slaughter, but never for growth and production. The era of the near vision, demanding its immediate reward, had passed away, and in its place was the day of faith, for without faith there can be neither seed-time nor harvest.
But it was not only on Harris's homestead that development was taking place. As McCrae had predicted, there was a considerable movement of settlers into the district, and at several points their tents or rude houses now broke the vast sweep of the horizon. Tom Morrison had found land to the satisfaction of his heart within three miles of the Harris homestead, and his big log-house, eighteen by twenty-four, assumed the proportions of a castle by comparison with the smaller homes springing up around. Some miles to the east Dick Matheson, straight from the lumber camps of the Madawaski, had pitched his tent, and a few miles farther on was his friend of the shanties, John Burton. To the west were the Grants, and to the north Hiram Riles and his wife, Eliza. A mixed community they were, drawn from many corners, and all of them more or less under the heel of poverty; but they were filled with enthusiasm, with resourcefulness, and an indomitable determination to face and overcome all obstacles. A missionary had in some way spied out the field, and held monthly Sunday services at Morrison's house; and Dr. Blain, when not in one of his unfortunate debauches, had his headquarters at the new town of Plainville, which consisted of Sempter's general store and a "stopping-place," and which had sprung up near the junction of two streams in anticipation of the railway.
None of these pioneers was possessed of a complete farming equipment, but each had something which his neighbour lacked, and they made common cause together in their struggle with Nature. Thus Harris had no mower, but when haying season came he was able to borrow Morrison's, at the same time lending his plough to Riles, who simultaneously accommodated Morrison with his hayrack. Among the women exchanging became something of an exact science. Mrs. Grant was the proud possessor of a very modern labour-saver in the shape of a clothes-wringer, as a consequence of which wash-day was rotated throughout the community, and it was well known that Mrs. Riles and Mrs. Harris had to do their churning alternately. But it was Mrs. Morrison's sewing-machine that was the great boon to the community, and to it, perhaps, as much as the open-hearted hospitality of honest Tom and his wife, was due the fact that their house became the social centre of the district.
Nor was the settlement deprived of its share of sport and amusement. On one of his periodical visits McCrae donated a baseball, and Harris quickly shaped a bat from the trunk of a stout willow he found by the river-bed. They had all outdoors to play in, and it was a simple matter to mow the grass from a stretch of level prairie and turn over the sod at points to mark the bases. Unfortunately, there were not enough men in the community to make two baseball teams, but a species of game was devised in which the players batted in turn, and when not batting or base-running were always on the "out" side. Harris developed considerable ability as a pitcher, throwing the powerful straight ball which in those days was a greater menace to the bare hands of the catcher than to the batter at the plate. On the occasion of his monthly visits the missionary, who was an ardent ball-player, generally contrived to reach Morrison's by Saturday afternoon, and so was able to take part in the Saturday night game. And although he never took advantage of his association with the young men to "preach" to them, except on Sundays, a sense of comradeship sprang up, and a standard of sport was established which bore fruit in the community many years later.