Thursday, February 26, 2015
They owned a small farm five miles up the river from the smelter. Just a little place, five acres, nothing like the fox farm they’d owned in the Yukon, on Lake Kluane, nor the family farms in Ontario and Manitoba, and very small compared to his older brother’s ranch in Montana. But it was a farm, with a cow and a pony and room to grow food, enough to keep themselves fed and some left over to sell. They sold butter and eggs to the head man at the smelter.
Walter Skinner had carpenter’s skills, and because their land lay by the river, with a nice little bay where the river curled in and made a gentle circle, he would catch logs as they came down in the spring, with the high water melted from the snows in all the mountains from the Monashees to the west slope of the Rockies. He had a long pike pole, like the loggers, and he could hook the logs as they came in with the eddy, then drive a steel eye into the end of each log and rope it to the bank. When he had enough of a boom he would crank up the telephone and call the mill. They sent up a tug and brought the logs down to be used to shore up the river bank below the smelter and the houses of the town.
One year the snow pack in the mountains was so deep that the run off brought down the ferry from Robson. The ferry turned round and round in the eddy and finally came in close enough to the bank so he could jump on board with his rope. He got on the phone again and this time the tug came from upriver.
They hadn’t been long on the five acres, just three or four years since the government ruined their fur farm in the Yukon by deciding that because of the war, and possible food shortages, it was no longer legal to use the big lake trout to feed foxes. No soldiers or civil servants ever showed up to fish the lake, and not one of the trout was ever sent to France or even the poor of Toronto. Nor did the Skinners get much money when they sold their place, because it could no longer be used as a fox farm. All their work could only buy them the little place on the Columbia, near a smelter that was killing everything green for miles around. But this was in mining country, and Walter, from his days in the Yukon, also knew about mines.
Walter and Emilia had adopted two small children, a boy and a girl, young relatives, after their parents died, one from the influenza epidemic that came at the end of the war, the other from pneumonia after falling in a creek in Washington State. The children had been born in the Yukon, but the mother had come from Washington State and the father from Montana. The children were still small when the parents came back to Washington, near the Coast, where the mother’s family owned a sawmill. The children’s grandfather had been Walter’s older brother, come out from Ontario and married in Montana, and he was killed when he got on a horse drunk and had the saddle horn driven into his chest.
Because the smoke from the smelter poisoned the grass in the Skinner’s field, the pony died. The little boy saw it happen, watching the little horse stumble around in ever tightening circles until it fell over and lay still.
Walter was a peaceful man and he kept a Bible by his bedside. There were stories of dancing shoes and fast horses when he was young, and they had discovered natural gas under the fields of the farm in Ontario, but all that was long gone by the time he was settled on the river with the eddy that caught logs and the ferry in the high water of the snow melt. Walter read his bible, and prayed, and forgave the government for ruining the fox farm. But when the pony died he decided he was not going to forgive the smelter until it gave him compensation. The Bible was very clear about what was owed from harm to a neighbour’s livestock.
Walter went to town, riding with a neighbour because he had no pony to pull his own buggy, and walked straight into the head man’s office, where he usually delivered the butter and the eggs.
The head man looked up from his desk. “Good morning, Walter. Good to see you. What can I do for you?”
“Selwyn, the smoke from your smelter is poisoning the grass in my field. It’s killed my pony. The boy saw him die. The pony walked around in a circle until he fell over.” Walter never used a lot of words to make a point.
The head man nodded and tore a piece of paper from his note pad. He had met the boy once, when he came with his father and the butter and eggs. “Well, Walter, I’m not admitting anything. I don’t want to discuss it. But I can tell you that there’s three dozen horses just come in on the train from Alberta. They’ll be taking them out of the stock cars right now, down at the station.” He was writing on the piece of paper as he spoke. “You give this to the foreman. It’s telling him that you are to have any of those horses that you want. He’ll give it to you.” He handed Walter the piece of paper.
Walter went down to the station. He saw the horses, being haltered and led one by one out of the stock cars, and then tied up at the long rail in front of the station. They were all in good shape, strong and healthy, any one of them more than due compensation for the dead pony. His eyes lighted on a handful of sound prospects. He knew horses. He came from farming stock, that had always known horses. But then he noticed the filly, because she was not only a lean and pretty horse, but she was young, a bit skittish, giving some trouble to the lad bringing her down the ramp from the stock car. Chestnut brown, like the chestnuts on the farm back in Ontario, along the Erie shore, and she brought memories of the better life there, the life before he got adventurous over the gold fields and the mines out west. She was a beautiful horse, perhaps not best suited to the plow and general work about the farm, but still strong enough for the work on their little place and she’d look lovely between the shafts of the buggy when Emilia drove into town. Emilia had known dignity, back in Ontario and Manitoba, raised on a big farm, trained as a milliner, and good on a horse. The pony hadn’t been much for her to ride, although he’d been good for the children. He told the foreman he’d take the filly, and he rode her home, bareback, remembering his life in Ontario.
The filly did her work, and was steady enough with the children on her back now and again, and Emilia agreed that she was a pretty horse and looked forward to the day there was a real excuse to hitch her to the buggy and drive into town. Emilia was not the sort of woman to dress up and get out on the road with a new horse just to show her off for no good reason. But when the day came, she put on her best hat for the ride, although she also really did need things for the kitchen they could not grow, and they had been told there was a parcel for them at the station.
When they arrived, the train was there again, but this time the workmen were off-loading big planks from a flat car. The work was going on near the place were people parked their buggies or trucks or cars, and there was no where else to stand the buggy, so he pulled over to the edge of the slope created by the build up of the rail bed and gave the reins to Emilia while he went into the station for the parcel.
He was just coming out of the building when he heard the racket. One of the workmen had dropped his end of the heavy plank. There was a loud crack as the plank landed on the pile, and the horse bolted, leaping so hard and fast down the slope that the buggy rolled. Emilia was thrown out, landing at the heels of the frightened mare. Her face caught the edge of a horse shoe, and after she rolled clear of the buggy she lay still on the ground as the horse kept moving, slowed down now by the drag of a buggy on its side, but the buggy had missed Emilia. The men were yelling, chasing and catching the filly, and a couple of women standing outside the station were screaming.
Walter ran to his wife. She lay face down and did not move. He thought she was dead and he had to accept that his folly over the chestnut mare had killed her. He rolled her over, his heart quite broken, his mind full of all the places they had struggled through in their life in the West, wondering how to tell the children, and praying for forgiveness for his foolish choice. There was a cut on her left cheek, right above the bone, and he pulled out his handkerchief to wipe away the blood.
But just as the women reached them, Emilia opened her eyes. “Walter?”
She moved and started to sit up.
“Oh, thank God! You’re alive, Emmy! I thought I’d killed you.”
She too had been raised on the farm and knew horses. “So did I. But you didn’t quite. But it was my fault too. I knew I should have made you take her back.” She moved so as to feel for broken bones, and poked herself here and there. “I’m all right. It helped to land in the dirt. Where’s my hat? It was my fault as much as yours, Walter. She was so much like home. But I knew I should have made you take her back.”
And that is what Walter did. He took the filly to the horse barns and exchanged her for a nice safe plug that served them without incident till they sold him and moved to the Coast.