The Moccasin Maker

by Emily Pauline Johnson

The Nest Builder

    “WELL! if some women aren’t born just to laugh!” remarked the station agent’s wife. “Have you seen that round-faced woman in the waiting-room?”
    “No,” replied the agent. “I’ve been too busy; I’ve had to help unload freight. I heard some children in there, though; they were playing and laughing to the beat of the band.”
    “Nine of them, John! Nine of them, and the oldest just twelve!” gasped his wife. “Why, I’d be crazy if I were in her place. She’s come all the way from Grey or Bruce in Ontario—I forget which—with not a soul to help her with that flock. Three of them are almost babies. The smallest one is a darling—just sits on the bench in there and dimples and gurgles and grins all the time.”
    “Hasn’t she got a husband?” asked John.
    “Of course,” asserted his wife. “But that’s just the problem now, or rather he’s the problem. He came to Manitoba a year ago, and was working right here in this town. He doesn’t seem to have had much luck, and left last week for some [Page 221] ranch away back of Brandon, she now finds out; she must have crossed his letter as she came out. She expected to find him here, and now she is in that waiting-room with nine children, no money to go further, or to go to a hotel even, and she’s—well, she’s just good-natured and smiling, and not a bit worried. As I say, some women are just born to laugh.”
    “Have they anything to eat?” asked the agent, anxiously.
    “Stacks of it—a huge hamper. But I took the children what milk we had, and made her take a cup of good hot tea. She would pay me, however, I couldn’t stop her. But I noticed she has mighty little change in her purse, and she said she had no money, and said it with a round, untroubled, smiling face.” The agent’s wife spoke the last words almost with envy.
    “I’ll try and locate the husband,” said the agent.
    “Yes, she’ll get his address to-night, she says,” explained the wife; “but no one knows when he will get here. Most likely he’s twenty miles away from Brandon, and they will have to send out for him.”
    Which eventually proved to be the case; and three days elapsed before the husband and father was able to reach the little border town where his wife and ample family had been installed as residents of the general waiting-room of a small, scantily-equipped station. No beds, no washing [Page 222] convenien- ces, no table, no chairs; just the wall seats, with a roof above them and the pump water at the end of the platform to drink from and dabble in. The distressed man arrived, harassed and anxious, only to be met by a round-faced, laughing wife and nine round-faced, laughing children, who all made sport of their “camping” experience, and assured him they could have “stood it” a little longer, if need be.
    But they slept in beds that night—glorious, feathery beds, that were in reality but solid hemp mattresses—in the cheapest lodging-house in town.
    Then began the home-building. Henderson had secured a quarter section of land and made two payments on it when his wife and children arrived, with all their “settlers’ effects” in a freight car, which, truth to tell, were meagre enough. They had never really owned a home in the East, and when, with saving and selling, she managed to follow her husband into the promising world of Manitoba, she determined to possess a home, no matter how crude, how small, how remote. So Henderson hired horses and “teamed” out sufficient lumber and tar-paper to erect a shack which measured exactly eighteen by twelve feet, then sodded the roof in true Manitoba style, and into this cramped abode Mrs. Henderson stowed her household goods and nine small children. With the stove, table, chairs, tubs and trunks, there was room for but one bed [Page 223] to be put up. Poor, unresourceful Henderson surveyed the crowded shack helplessly, but that round-faced, smiling wife of his was not a particle discouraged. “We’ll just build in two sets of bunks, on each end of the house,” she laughed. “The children won’t mind sleeping on ‘shelves,’ for the breadwinners must have the bed.”
    So they economized space with a dozen such little plans, and all through the unpacking and settling and arranging, she would say every hour or two, “Oh, it’s a little crowed and stuffy, but it’s ours—it’s home,” until Henderson and the children caught something of her inspiration, and the sod-roof shack became “home” in the sweetest sense of the word.
    There are some people who “make” time for everything, and this remarkable mother was one. That winter she baked bread for every English bachelor ranchman within ten miles. She did their washing and ironing, and never neglected her own, either. She knitted socks for them, and made and sold quantities of Saskatoon berry jam. When spring came she had over fifty dollars of her own, with which she promptly bought a cow. Then late in March they made a small first payment on a team of horses, and “broke land” for the first time, plowing and seeding a few acres of virgin prairie and getting a start.
    But her quaintest invention to utilize every resource possible was a novel scheme for chicken-raising. One morning the children came in [Page 224] greatly excited over finding a wild duck’s nest in the nearby “slough.” Mrs. Henderson told them to be very careful not to frighten the bird, but to go back and search every foot of the grassy edges and try to discover other nests. They succeeded in finding three. That day a neighboring English rancher, driving past on his way to Brandon, twenty miles distant, called out, “Want anything from town, Mrs. Henderson?”
    “Eggs, just eggs, if you will bring them, like a good boy,” she answered, running out to the trail to meet him.
    “Why, you are luxurious to-day, and eggs at fifty cents a dozen,” he exclaimed.
    “Never mind,” she replied, “they’re not nearly so luxurious as chickens. You just bring me a dozen and a half. Pay any price, but be sure they are fresh, new laid, right off the nest. Now just insist on that, or we shall quarrel.” And with a menacing shake of a forefinger and a customary laugh, she handed him a precious bank note to pay for the treasures.
    The next day Mrs. Henderson adroitly substituted hen’s eggs for the wild ducks’ own, and the shy, pretty water fowls, returning from their morning’s swim, never discovered the fraud.*
    “Six eggs under three sitters—eighteen chicks, if we’re lucky enough to have secured fertile eggs,” mused Mrs. Henderson. “Oh, well, we’ll see.” And they did see. They saw exactly [Page 225] eighteen fluffy, peeping chicks, whose timid little mothers could not understand why their broods disappeared one by one from the long, wet grasses surrounding the nest. But in a warm canton flannel lined basket near the Henderson’s stove the young arrivals chirped and picked at warm meal as sturdily as if hatched in a coop by a commonplace barnyard “Biddy.” And every one of those chicks lived and grew and fattened into a splendid flock, and the following spring they began sitting on their own eggs. But the good-hearted woman, in relating the story, would always say that she felt like a thief and a robber whenever she thought of that shy, harmless little wild duck who never had the satisfaction of seeing her brood swim in the “slough.”
    All this happened more than twenty years ago, yet when I met Mrs. Henderson last autumn, as she was journeying to Prince Albert to visit a married daughter, her wonderfully youthful face was as round and smiling as if she had never battled through the years in a hand-to-hand fight to secure a home in the pioneer days of Manitoba. She is well off now, and lives no more in the twelve-by-eighteen-foot bunk-house, but when I asked her how she accomplished so much, she replied, “I just jollied things along, and laughed over the hard places. It makes them easier then.”
    So perhaps the station agent’s wife was really right, after all, when she remarked that “some women were just born to laugh.” [Page 226]

* Fact. [back]