Lauren lifted the stack of papers and photos from the small tin trunk and set them on her lap. Wiping dusty fingers on her jeans, she peered closely at each one.
“Grandma,” she whispered. “Great Uncle Harold. Oh, a receipt for barbed wire and kerosene. Two dollars.”
By turns, grinning and sighing and smudging away grimy tears, she came to the last item in the trunk, an old Bible. She inhaled the scent of ancient sweat and oil from the cracked and worn cover.
“Grandpa.” She reverently set the Bible down, then glimpsed a paper tucked inside the leather cover. The edges were crumbling and discoloured, so she unfolded it carefully, revealing a faded handbill with “Free Land in Western Canada” emblazoned across the top.
“So this is what persuaded you to come to Canada.”
It’s raining when I leave Liverpool. Nobody came to wave me off; it’s a week’s journey by foot, and with Pa poorly and Edmund needin’ to get the crop in, well, it was to be expected that I’d go it alone.
I watch the shoreline recede into the bleak drizzle, but I am not disheartened. I pull the poster from my inside pocket. “The New Eldorado,” it says. Free land, 160 acres.
I fold the handbill and stow it safely inside my coat.
My dream, my hope.
“What was it like, Grandpa? Leaving your family? Did you have regrets? It was the opportunity of a lifetime. But, I wonder if the journey was as easy as it says?”
The gleaming train rails stretch to the west as far as I can see. The ride is eternal, past mighty forests and lakes as big as seas. The land is immense and my eyes weary from looking. Yet, my heart is near exploding with anticipation.
I make many plans.
Lauren contemplated the claims and assurances written across the poster. Rich land, good for farming and wheat and cattle. Glorious promises of Paradise, the Promised Land. Milk and honey. Success.
“No wonder you were persuaded, Grandpa. Starting a fresh life in a newborn country. With homes for everyone, it says.”
The poster doesn’t mention living in a soddy house. It’s dark and damp, like a cave. Soil sifts into my bread and eyes, and when it rains, mud drips onto my bed. The dried buffalo chips I burn are smelly and smoky, but it’s ten miles to any timber.
Anders Andersen, my neighbour, says he’ll help build my house and barn, but I must first log the trees and haul them. Foremost, I must plough forty acres to fulfill my contract. The sod is like iron and ploughing is backbreaking.
“‘Protection by the government and nothing to fear.’ It must have seemed like a miracle, a dream, even a fairy tale. Too good to be true.” Lauren shook her head.
I have a bearskin to keep me warm. Shot the bear while he was skulkin’ around the corrals. Lost a few calves to wolves. Never could get a clean shot at them. Wily and cunning they are.
Fierce blizzards lasting for days and snow piled deep against the door are not mentioned on my handbill. Nor does it hint at the bone-chilling cold that kills my cattle during my third winter. Only two miserably thin cows survive.
Lonely I am, at times, with nothing but the wind for company. I imagine I hear voices, mocking whispers, in the wild howling.
I read and reread my old yellowing handbill. Sometimes, my hope dims, like the fading ink.
“Free land,” Lauren mused. “What an extraordinary era, full of adventure and expectation.
Free, indeed, I often say to myself. I gladly pay my ten dollars registration, but what price is the sweat and tears that soak the soil? What is the value of three infants lying beneath the sod, two dead of diphtheria and one who breathed but briefly?
Lauren stared out the window, trying to imagine the land as it had been. Then, in her mind’s eye, she saw her grandfather walking through the swaying wheat and turning to gaze at the farmhouse where she sat in the dusty attic. She slipped the poster back into the Bible.
I pray I leave something for my children and my children’s children. Something more than a musty soddy or flea-ridden bearskin. Hope and integrity and hard work, all borne from the virgin soil of this free land.
Nothing is ever free.
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