We were lost on the bleak Canadian prairie. Surrounded by coyotes howling and grass. Our first two weeks of marriage, we had crawled across this land first by train and now with a team and wagon. Every step forward was through heavy, prairie mud. This land was brutal; it would take from us before it gave us anything. We came to a fork in the road and the horse pulled left and my new husband said right. He won and he lost. One misstep, one wrong turn and we wandered even further into the unrelenting darkness. Despair started to settle in my heart.
We aren’t cut out for this. We didn’t have what it takes
My heart galloped with fear as the coyotes sounded closer. My eyes strained in the starlight.
“Will, I see a wee house there.” I grabbed Will’s forearm.
“I told you we would be fine.” I heard relief in his voice.
He didn’t see my frown in the darkness.
After knocking, we realized there was no one home and the door was locked.
The huge straw stack near the house was to be our home for the night. Will unhitched the horse and tied her to the buckboard wheel and made a hole in the straw stack and crawled in.
I crawled in beside him; one wrong turn and you could be homeless, without shelter, just like that. I felt the land was mocking me. Two weeks ago I was dressed in white lace. Now, because I dared to come here with my husband I was in homespun and sleeping in the elements.
As I settled into the straw, my mind raced over the last two weeks. Married on April 17, 1889, two days later, our settler’s effects packed in a train car. Today, May 3rd, 1889, I watched as Will signed for our claim. Once it was ours we looked at the land title like it was a brand new baby. Section 16 Township 07 Range 23 was all ours. His eyes met mine; I saw a determination there that made my heart glow. It was a determination that matched mine. Just like countless Canadians before us, we were going to start our life together on this piece of land.
Just as our eyes met over the land title, the agent carefully tidied up his papers.
“It is my duty to advise you, Mr. Robson, the Ralley’s are still on the property. They are well aware that they are squatters on the land. According to the assessment, the house and stable is worth one hundred and sixty nine dollars. You do not have to give them a penny. I am just making sure you know what you are walking in on.”
You could have told us that before we signed.
“How do we take the claim if someone is squatting there?”
“Very simple.” The clerk said firmly. “You wait for them to vacate the premises and you enter the house and declare it as yours.”
“That’s legal?” I gasped.
This sounds like lunacy!
“Will’s name is on the title and deed. He owns it and everything on it. Perfectly legal.”
Mr. Ralley, the original owner, had been informed that his claim had been cancelled. He had only broken ten acres; he had however built a house and a sod stable.
With my heart in my throat, together we staked out at the corner of the road and watched as the Ralley’s left for the day. Will drove right up to the house. I stood beside the wagon as my new husband opened an unlocked window.
Oh my stars! Are we really doing this?
After Will slithered through the window, he opened the door and smiled at me. A big fearless smile. I was going to join him in the kitchen, but he held his hand up.
“Hang on Annie. Let’s do this properly.”
“Will, they could be back at any minute! I’m scared to death.”
“What can they do? I’m here and it’s my land.”
“Shoot us as intruders.” I answered gravely.
Will Robson ignored my fears and scooped me up into his arms. Even with the possibility of the Ralley’s coming home he carried me into our new home. When he set me down in the kitchen my heart hammered with fear and excitement as he leaned in for a kiss.
“Welcome home, Annie.” He smiled at me.
“Welcome home, Will.” I smiled back.
I swallowed down the fear that made my heart gallop.
Heavens! Who would believe my husband broke into our own home through a window? Such a crude affair!
At three in the afternoon as Will chopped ice in the rain barrel and I was busy tidying the kitchen, Mr. Ralley, his three sons, his wife and a neighbor Jack Hutch came home. I saw them pull into our yard. I wrung my hands.
What would Will do?
Will stood there, very tall and slight, with an ax in his hand as the men opened the door and entered his house.
My eyes met Will’s. He didn’t put down the ax as his eyes followed them. I watched my new husband and tried not to shake with fear.
Mrs. Ralley walked into her former home, loosened the veil around her neck, sat down in front of the stove and put her feet in the cook stove. The men looked around and moved to the stove. I noticed Mr. Ralley’s lips thin with anger as his eyes landed on Will.
“Were you electioneering today?” Will asked politely as if we were all just meeting in the lobby of a hotel. As if he wasn’t about to evict them from this land today.
“No. I was in Brandon.” Mr. Ralley warmed his hands at the stove.
Mr. Ralley looked at Mr. Hutch. “When we left here, we locked the door.” He deliberately ignored my husband. He must have thought if he ignored him he would give up and go away.
You don’t know Will.
Will addressed Mr. Ralley. “You forgot to lock the window.”
Mr. Ralley ignored him and said to Mr. Hutch. “What do you do with a man that breaks into people’s houses?”
“Nothing can be done when a man breaks into his own home.” Will’s voice was like ice over iron.
My breath caught in my throat. Will Robson, standing in our kitchen with an axe declaring this home as his. I pressed my hand to my heart that galloped with respect and admiration instead of fear for the first time since that night we spent in the hay stack. The night that I realized how unforgiving this land was.
“Mr. Ralley, I am a fair man. I will offer you one hundred and sixty nine dollars for your house and your stable. You and I both know that not a court in the land would require me to do so. I offer it now and never again,” Will said for the benefit of Mr. Hutch.
I thought I should take that ax out of his hand and thought twice. He was still one man against two grown men and three sons.
“Not enough to buy a chicken,” grunted Mrs. Ralley. She finally pulled her feet out of the cook stove I was just starting to think of as my own.
“When you walk out the door, I won’t make that offer again.” Will’s voice sounded as hard as the ground we would break.
That statement suddenly dawned on Mrs. Ralley. She was really being evicted from her home because the claim had been canceled.
Why hadn’t they made other plans? Why had they ignored the fact that they had to leave for a whole year?
Mr. Hutch had heard enough. He opened the front door and stood aside as Mr. Ralley and his three sons shuffled out. It seems that when the Ralley’s couldn’t scare us off, they left. We shut the door and peeked out the window that Will had crawled through. Mr. Hutch and the Ralley’s talked a long time until finally they crawled into their carriages and drove off our land.
How vulnerable we are! Mr. Ralley hadn’t fulfilled his homestead duties so his family is homeless tonight. Sure, they’ll stay with friends but… what will happen if Will fails to complete the homestead duties… we can’t live in a hay stack in the winter!
We watched them until we couldn’t see them anymore.
I turned to Will. His knuckles were white as he held onto the ax.
Gently, I reached forward and placed my hand on his. Veins stood out on his hands and forearms. I noticed the difference between his hand and mine. His were huge and hard, ready for work, ready to defend us.
“Do you think you can do it, Will?” I looked from his hands to his eyes. “Can you break the acres? What if we are like the Ralley’s and…”
“Annie.” The hand that didn’t hold an ax carefully brushed hair from my eyes. “I can break those acres with one hand tied behind my back. We can survive anything through hard work and plain living.”
“I don’t want to live in a haystack.” Tears stung my eyes.
“You are going to live right here, with me, for the rest of our lives. I promise.”
I believed him. I tugged the ax out of his hand.
“I wasn’t going to use it.” His eyes met mine. “I sort of forgot I had it actually.”
I moved back to look out the window.
“Will they come back do you think?”
“No.” Will joined me at the window.
I smiled as he pulled me close, reached around me and securely locked the window.