Christmas at the Ranch

FORT VERMILION, ALBERTA
February 27
THERE is not time enough to answer all the letters that come and all the questions people ask. I will try to answer them in this diary. We are on the north side of Peace River in a bend, on what would be called a peninsula if this were a lake or a sea. It is quite a large piece of land, being about six miles wide across the narrowest part. Follow the river west from Fort Vermilion until it swings south — we are in that bend.
The river flows north and eventually empties into the Great Slave Lake. There are fish in the Peace River, as in nearly all the rivers and lakes in here; but hunting and fishing in this wilderness are not pleasant unless one establishes camps where one may take a little comfort at the end of a strenuous day’s sport. In summer the poisonous flies make life miserable, and in winter the cold is intense most of the time. Moose are usually shot along the river in the summer when they come down to drink.
To live alone in a wilderness needs a special attitude of mind. The heart must beat in sympathy with all creation. This faculty belongs to childhood and is lost to many, especially to the sophisticated of our cities; often those who come out here to make homes leave because they cannot stand it. Therefore it is not to be wondered at if my diary shows a childish mind, a love

for all animals and a love for Nature. These things make a populated world, and in such a world there is no loneliness.
They told me no woman could stand it longer than six years. I have been here almost seven years and I expect to end my days here. Some day the country will undoubtedly be opened to settlement and neighbors will come in, but even if they should not I should still be happy here. One reason is that the boy loves it: the good hunting and fishing make it an ideal place for a boy.
Before the depression, people sent me books and papers, but now very little comes and we know hardly anything of what goes on in the world; books and magazines are luxuries now. As for my diary, songs are more condensed than prose and far more expressive. When pressed for time I write the song that sings in my head at the moment. When I take up my pen it is a perpetual surprise to me to see what it writes.
I open the door and look out. Winter is out. there — silent, cold, and lifeless. It is growing dark in the cabin and I have lit the ‘butter-bitch.’ The dusk comes down silently and before one realizes it the night is here.
When I first lamented that it was hard to sit in the dark without a light, — my one pleasure denied me, to read and write, — Daddy fixed up what our great-grandmothers called a ‘bitch.’ He took a piece of cloth about five inches square and placed a button in the centre of it, a small, heavy coat button. He gathered the cloth up over the button and wound thread around it until there was a stem about an inch and a half long. Next he melted a shallow cup of butter, as we have no lard; bear grease would be good and is what we shall use this winter. The stem is the wick. He set it upright in the cup of melted butter and it makes a lovely light. It is not very smoky and is fine to read and write by.
If a stranger should step into our cabin to-night he would see me go out to a large box and take from it a handful of frozen slices of bread. He would wonder why I keep my bread out in the frozen air, and perhaps think it could not taste very good. I used to wonder why the women in this country froze up their entire bakings and always had boxes of bread standing out in the cold. I wonder no more, and will always freeze the bread whenever the weather permits, for then it stays ’new bread ’ as if it came right out of the oven, and we are all very fond of new bread. If it is thawed out in the oven it comes warm to the table. It is easier thawed out if it is sliced before freezing and scattered loosely in a box. I slice one loaf and scatter the slices in the box, then go in and slice another loaf, each loaf freezing before the next one is put in.
In the winter we cut up all our meat into small pieces, so that they are about right to go into my roaster, and then freeze them up. It is handy to bring in what we need for the day, but it would be hard if it had to be sawed off from the whole frozen carcass each day. In the fall all the roosters are dressed and frozen up also, thus making room for the hens in the henhouse. Every day I go and feed my hens and give them warm water to drink. It pays to fuss with them and try to make them comfortable through the winter, for if you do not the cold kills them and you soon have no hens.
‘And the sheep know the shepherd’s voice.’ When I enter the barnyard the sheep come to meet me. It is good to see them in their thick woolly coats. They at least are warm. I say, ‘Come, nannies, come, nannies,’ and they follow me to the fence and I give them a couple of bundles of green oat hay where the cows cannot take it from them. The lambs come to me and look up in my face and bleat for it in the dearest way. Though out of the world, we have a world of our own. And the inhabitants of our world are all dear to us. All are good.
Karl says he has been watching the rabbits coming to the garden in the moonlight from all directions; in twos and threes and singly they came. When about a hundred or so were there, Peter (the dog) saw them. He walked slowly toward them and drove the whole herd before him like a flock of diminutive sheep, past the well house and down into the willows. Then he came back sedately and lay down to watch the garden.

February 28
We are on the tail end of the coldest weather now, and every day the sun appears to be higher in the sky. In December he appeared only a little above the horizon and set again in the middle of the afternoon. Once again there is a row of tomato cans filled with earth, and the tiny tomato plants are struggling to reach the sunshine strained through the frosted windows. In the middle of the day the sun is warm enough to thaw the ice a little on the windows.
The dogs are howling at the coyotes across the river on the bluffs. The coyotes seem to prefer the bluffs and seldom come around to bother us here.

We keep too many dogs for them. To-night is very cold for the end of February; it will be more than forty below by morning. Karl made the hens a fire in their stove and said he would fill the stove up with chunks of wood so it would keep warm all night. The hens are beginning to lay some — two eggs to-day.

April 19
Even though the stomach be empty, the wild animal seeks shelter from the fury of the elements; when the storm abates he goes forth in search of food. So does man. Shelter comes first, then food, and last clothing. I grew up under a mortgage and I know. In later years it hung over me — debt, always debt. One is a slave to it in childhood and in its relentless grasp through life.
Once when I was a child the minister of our church spoke in a sermon of ‘ the station in life in which God has seen fit to place you.’ It stuck in my mind, for I was rebellious in those days and would not accept his dogma. From those days come thoughts that have shaped my whole life, for they lie deep in the subconscious mind. Now I accept life as it comes and know I cannot change it. It is interesting to go back to those days and think once more the thoughts I had then, for there is the key to what drove me into this wilderness home.
When very young I read this in a paper: ‘You are free to walk the streets hunting a job till your shoes are worn out; free to live in a tenement till you die.’ It made a deep impression on my mind and I never forgot it, nor my horror of tenements. I used to ride on the elevated in Chicago and look down into drab tenements full of cheerless-looking people living in poverty and dirt. Never would I live in a tenement, nor did I want always to have to work for others. I wanted a home and children, and it was poverty that drove me away step by step until at last I could go no farther. In here I stand a better chance to live through the depression than people in many settled communities farther south.
Spring is here, and I have walked and walked on the hillsides until my legs are wobbly. Spring is here, and that is happiness enough. How musical are the little frogs in the slough to-night!

May 10
I wish every poor hungry mortal could have baked potatoes and clotted cream to-night. Clotted cream is as good as butter on potatoes.
A tall trapper was with us last night. To-day he went with the boy to help him cut out the trail to the Fort. It is a bush road and there are fifteen miles for us to keep clear. There was a big wind last week and it was lucky for the boy that the tall trapper offered to help him cut and lift fallen trees out of the trail. He came through it on his horse and said it was the worst mess he had ever seen in this country.
This is the life for a boy when he is growing fast — long rides, plenty of hard work to strengthen the muscles, and good companions. He learns much on the trail not found in books, yet essential to the making of a man.
He learns, but his mind is not crowded with unassimilated facts. He enjoys what he learns, though sometimes the lessons are hard, for experience is often a rough teacher. I am not a believer in drudgery and too long hours for anyone, old or young. Each soul has something it wants to do and should have the leisure to do it. We are not work animals, though some people think so. An old man said to me once, ‘I have worked hard all my life and never had a day off to go fishing.’ He died without ever having that pleasure.
Boy is back, tired and hungry. The fallen trees were many, and there was much in the way of brush and poles across the trail that he cleared off alone, as the tall trapper went on to the Fort after helping him with the big logs. He will sleep well to-night, my tired boy, after the big supper he ate. Best of all, the trail is clear, so we may go to the Fort without stopping to cut out the road. The mail should be down soon — the river is free of ice.

May 12
Daddy came and called me. Though I stood quite close to him, he did not see me until I spoke. He said, ’In that faded dress you are like the partridge, so near the color of the landscape the hunter does not see her.’ Karl brought me five partridges last night when he came home with the cows. They are numerous in the willows by the river, and so good. The meat is white, and nicer than chicken creamed and spread on toast.
Said Karl to Daddy to-day, one man talking to another: ‘Mother is a little woman full of fears. She is afraid of wolves and bears and of being lost in the bush. I’d sure hate to be nervous and afraid of everything.’
Here in the cabin, I cook and bake and sew and talk to the little woman who lives in the looking-glass while Daddy sleeps in his chair. He sleeps more and more as the years go by, and my eyes grow poorer. I slip Daddy’s glasses off his nose as soon as he is asleep, for I cannot thread a needle or read without them. It is good to grow old this way. Soon younger hands will do what I cannot do.

One by one our duties end,
One by one the lights go out.

July 4
In the garden every day there is something unfolding, some new delight. Several people tucked flower seeds into their letters last winter, and in the spring I put them all in a cup and stirred them with my finger. The wee path winding through the garden has a single row of this mixture. Many flowers are unknown to me, and it is thrilling to walk out in the early morning and wonder at their strange loveliness and sweet perfume. When the sun has retired behind a glorious sunset in the north, that sweet old grandmothers’ favorite, the night-blooming stock, beautifies the garden with its dewy, fragrant flowers.

July 21
A boy is like a colt. To see the boy go off on his pony with a wave of his arm to me and ‘I ’ll be back when you see me,’ reminds me of a colt that has never been bridled. Karl does not know the life boys of his age live in city flats and apartments. We had a city boy here one summer whose joy was pathetic to see. As he rode with Karl I was reminded of a song in the Bible: —

Who loosened the bonds of the mustang?
The shouts of the driver he does not hear.
He explores the mountains.

That boy, the same age as Karl, is back in the States now going to high school. He hates to go to school and seems to forget nearly all he learns as soon as he is through a book. He will always remember what he learned the two months he roamed the wilderness with Boy.

His life seemed to be all movies to hear him tell it. The stories he told were pretty raw and full of bloodshed and fighting. The movies are something Karl is spared, and also the speed of the outside world, nerve-racking and death-dealing.

Who stops his ears against the hearing of bloodshed,
And closes his eyes against looking on evil — He shall dwell on the heights.

August 7
Bears are so common in here they excite no curiosity. When going to the Fort with Karl, I saw three bears standing in a slough drinking, a mother bear and two half-grown cubs. This afternoon I was really nervous, for I was all alone and had not told anyone where I was going as I should have done. I slipped away down to the river to pick a pail of wild raspberries for supper. When I looked up from my picking, there stood a big bear helping himself to the luscious fruit not more than twenty feet away. I am really afraid of bears and I hurried away in great haste, and not till I was safely home did I realize that the bear had no intention of eating me. It could be diagnosed as real panic, the state I was in as I fled — foolish woman that I am! It must be on account of hearing bear stories as a child, especially that awful story in the Bible telling how the bears ate up all those boys. My Bible history had pictures of them.

September 18
Daddy loves the hill where he will one day sleep with me beside him. It is the hill behind the cabin that has sheltered us for seven winters. The heart of me will be gone when Daddy goes. We often walk on the hill when the boy is away visiting of a Sunday. Hand in hand, it is sweet to walk so when we never know how soon we must part for a little while, only a little while, I hope. The farm looks pretty from the top of the hill, and we love it. Sometimes Daddy walks there alone and comes in singing, —

I wandered to-day to the hill, Maggie,
To watch the scenes below.

That is our song; it belongs to us. Winter nights we play many songs on the phonograph and always it is the last song.

To-day has been clear and cold, but no snow underfoot yet. Once more I went up on the hill, perhaps for the last time this year. ’T was a day to draw the heart. Music sang in my head and I wrote down the words.

Hilda Rose, Hilda Rose,
Where did you come from?
Where are you going?
You stand in the sunlight
Where breezes are blowing.
I am going to sing
Of two graves on a hill,
Where blizzards will blow
From the North full of snow.

October 9
The days have been full of work preparing for the long winter ahead. The nights are now cold with blasts straight from the North Pole.
This has been another red-letter day in life’s calendar. A family from the United States landed on our river bend at midnight. They came in a scow they had made themselves, and had drifted with the current looking for a good place to make a home.
The mother sat in the prow playing a flash light on the bank, for they thought they had gone far enough north and decided to land where the bank was low and grassy. They drifted into this river bend and their journey was ended. In a short while there was a blazing fire on the beach, moose meat was on frying and potatoes boiling for supper. The prayers of unseen thousands must have guided them. The longed-for neighbors have come.
This morning when Boy and I went down to the river after water they crowded around me asking questions, and then more questions. They talked only of food. They wanted to know what could be grown here and whether there would be plenty to eat. Their grubstake appeared to be adequate, and we have plenty of potatoes and other vegetables.
It made me happy to think that this Crusoe life is ended, but I fear the newcomers will soon feel the intense cold here. A tent is not a warm place when the ground is frozen and covered with snow — I know from most bitter experience. The man looked strong, and the mother, a tall, slender woman, seemed in good health. There are four young girls and a boy the same age as Karl.
They shot two moose on the way, and we gave them potatoes and vegetables, so they are well fixed for food.

October 12
We let the new people use our team and wagon, and they have moved on to their homestead, set up their tent, and begun work on a cabin to shelter them through the winter. The logs are handy and it will soon go up. How happy I am to have neighbors! The years have been long alone.

October 19
;A tent is no place to live in at this time of the year, and the new settlers found it out when their feet grew cold. One by one they came to us until now we are all living in the cabin, though it has but one room and was already pretty well filled up with the essentials of living on a farm. ‘Where there is room in the heart there is room in the house’ is a very old saying, and true.
It appears that the father lost his job and they read ‘The Stump Farm’ in the Atlantic and decided to pioneer in the Far North. They should have started earlier, for the time is short to prepare for the cold now almost upon us. To-day we are making comforters from material bought ‘outside.’ With so many hands it does not take long to finish a comforter. Karl is the happiest boy alive with a lad of his own age to play with. To-day they went hunting for partridges, each with a twenty-two rifle. Shells for the shotgun cost too much. Karl used to be lonely and run away to the Indians once in a while, and though it never hurt him it used to worry me. We are very glad that a white boy will live so close.
They all love the phonograph and play and play, especially the funny pieces and jazz. How light-hearted people from the outside are, and how easily they laugh! They laugh over nothing for the very joy of laughing. Life has been too serious for me. The human voice is sweet, and when I play the phonograph it is usually songs, for we are hungry for folks and it seems as if they were present when they sing for us.
It is enjoyable to have help with the cooking and the dishes for a while, and when I realize they will settle near us it seems too good to be true. Of course they will not be very close, but if they have ponies to ride we shall see them frequently. It will bring new interests into my life, and perhaps more settlers will come — they speak of a brother with a large family. Thus a community grows, once a start is made, until there are schools and clubs and social life. It cannot come too fast for me.

November 4
My neighbors are gone for a little while. The father has rented a log cabin at the Fort and moved his family there. It was best to do so, for he was getting along slowly with his building, not being used to the cold. He was a clerk in a store that shut down with the coming of hard times, and is not used to outdoor work.
To tackle a homestead in here with small resources and no experience will take plenty of grit, for hardships come to all. Theirs will not be like mine, for we had more experience and we have Daddy, without whom we could never have made it. He seems to know what to do in every emergency, having pioneered in several States, moving steadily westward and then north.
He often says, ‘Mother, you do not know what real hardship is.’ It is true. We have many things his mother never had, and we have always had plenty of wood. Not to have wood is a real hardship in a cold country. His mother burned straw all of one winter in Dakota, and one year she burned corn. No, I do not suppose I know what real hardship is.
These new people ought to do well, as the man is strong and in his prime and used to hard work. They had a farm before they drifted to the city, so they know what farm work is. In the spring they expect to go out and bring in an outfit and start farming, for they have a little money saved up. Their place is about six miles from our homestead, and that much nearer the Fort. The girls are strong and healthy. Two are through school and two are still in high school. They expect to go out to school next year and regard this year as a vacation. One expects to become a teacher and the other one wants to be a secretary in a business office some day.
The two older girls are married, but their husbands are working and did not come along. They will come later if the family likes the winters here.

November 7
The windows are frozen. It gives the cabin a dim, frosty look and reminds me that Christmas will soon be here. I cleaned the cupboard this morning and dusted everything and put on clean white shelf paper. Then I polished the cook-stove. It is a new stove, a gift from an Atlantic reader, and is a treasure. It has all the modern dampers and is a good baker. My old stove was an old army range that had gone through the last Indian war in Montana and had not a single damper. I love my new stove.
We are marooned — shut away in this wilderness. Yet I would rather be here than out where I should have to see the misery and the hopeless eyes of the aged who had been living on carefully invested savings and have lost all. Some of them write to me.

December 26
A very cold Christmas, but in the cabin is cheerful warmth and in our hearts the same. Yesterday was Christmas Day, and it brought a Christmas guest who is even now sleeping as only a tired boy can. Karl has one arm thrown across the boy’s chest as if to make sure even in sleep that it is a real boy come to be a brother to him at last — the brother he has longed for so long.
Yesterday afternoon (it was already dark, for our winter days are short) there came a soft knock at the door of the cabin. I was drowsing in my chair and Daddy was sleeping, while Karl was looking at his new book in the twilight. We never dreamed a human being could be out on such a cold day. My thoughts were on the Christmases of other days and my mind in tune with these thoughts, so I did not leave my chair by the fire, for the knock did not seem real, only an echo from the past. I merely said, ‘Come in, Christmas Guest,’ never expecting there could be anyone really at the door. It might be the wind or one of the dogs, although it seemed to be a real knock, too, though very, very soft.
The door opened at my invitation, and there stood a boy not much older than Karl. He came in and shut the door behind him quickly and asked, ‘May I stay?’ ‘Why, of course you may stay. You are the Christmas Guest I was wishing would come,’and I poked up the fire and gave him a rocking-chair close to the stove, for he was thinly clad and had no overcoat. He had walked from a farm not far from the Fort, where he had worked through the fall but where he was no longer needed. He had come north hoping to take up a homestead, and then found himself stranded in here. Someone had told him he might try our place for a job, as there was only Karl to do all the work and we might be glad to have him to help.
He is one of a large family who decided to pull out and earn his own living. He is a high-school graduate and appears to be from refined people and has very pleasing manners and a musical voice. His parents live on a farm in Manitoba and he left home early in the spring, picking up a few days’ work here and there until he finally landed at our door. He seems too good to be true — a treasure Santa Claus has brought to Karl.
His hair is auburn, but very dark, and when summer comes he will have as many freckles as Karl always gets, for Karl’s hair is inclined to red where the sun shines on it, and both boys have the same red and white complexion. Joe is five years older than Karl, so he will be a real help to him. I told Joe he could stay as long as he wished and was happy with us, and I would try to do for him the same as for Karl. Another boy to care for and a few more socks to mend are nothing compared to the joy he brings for Karl.

January 1
The boys are fast asleep and I have put Daddy to bed. We had a birthday party to-night and were quite excited over it. Joe happened to say during the week after Christmas that he had a birthday coming on New Year’s Day. Then he said it was his first birthday away from home and told us how his mother always trimmed his birthday cake for him with candy and nuts saved over from Christmas. This would be the first time he had not had a walnut cake to celebrate his birthday. I could see the lad was quite homesick, but I did not know how I could get a walnut cake way out here in the wilderness.
Then Karl said to me a little later when Joe had gone out, ‘Mother, in that funny papier-mâché pumpkin that came for your birthday there is a hollow place and I looked in and there are about a cupful of candies, little wee ones, and maybe about half a dozen walnuts. I thought you knew and were saving them for something special.’ So when the two boys were doing the evening chores I hurriedly made a three-layer cake, as I had plenty of eggs packed in the cellar in a box of oats. I frosted the cake and trimmed it with the walnut meats that seemed a gift from God to this lonely homesick boy. Then I spaced the tiny candies on the soft frosting, lit my biggest candle, and called the boys to supper. It was very dark outside and storming.
They came in, and the look on Joe’s face! He turned away, and the tears he wiped hastily on his sleeve, for it took him so completely by surprise. It loosened up the gates and he talked and talked, telling us of his home, his mother, and the kids, one little sister only six years old. For gifts he received a tie and The Stump Farm, on the flyleaf of which I wrote a birthday greeting, and then we all signed our names. His mother misses him, I know, and so do his father and the kids, for the longer he stays here the more we love that boy.

(To be continued)