I thought leading up to Christmas I would put up a few Christmas stories. Some of the stories are old, but I never tire of reading them.
This story was written by my father Ron, as it was told to him by his father Dapper. This is a Christmas story, but it’s also about a young man coming back from the war, finding himself and regaining his health after being terribly wounded on the fields of Passchendaele during World War I.
The photo above is of Bert’s Salt Meadow cabin. I took this photo in 1987. I know this because I have the same photo with Lisa standing in front pregnant with our daughter Kelsie. I spent some time at Salt Meadow this year. The cabin is no longer standing. It was difficult to find any remnants of this story from nearly 100 years ago. However, things haven’t changed all that much. The peacefulness and solitude was the same and I was there to do some healing of my own.
I hope you enjoy the story.
Dap had returned to the Valley following the First World War. Nineteen months of hospitalization for wound treatment and recovery from Tetanus hadn’t done a great deal for him. His pre-war 165-pound frame was down to about 125, and his sagging skin and pallid complexion gave him the appearance of being one step from the other side.
Bert took one look at him and said, “Boy, we’ve got to get some meat on those bones.” Bert and Damper, as Bert called him had been fast friends before the war, even though Dap was just in his early 20’s and Bert well up in his 40’s. But they liked the same things: the wilderness, aloneness, good hunting and fishing, the long solitary trails by day, and the quiet, peaceful nights around a bivouac campfire, or a game of Blackjack with a grimy deck in a solitary mountain cabin… Not that they were complete isolationists, because occasionally they enjoyed a “blow-out’ with good companions, with its friendly banter and a rousing sing-song.
It was Spring, so they planned a trip to the headwaters of Dutch Creek to hunt Bear, “just to get in shape.” Bert was a man of small stature, but rugged as a range bull, and he could shoulder the packs of two and still keep ahead on any mountain trail. The trop was good. Each day Dap got stronger and the healthy glow of long hours outdoors came back to his cheeks.
At “shedding” time when “in the prime” season was over, and nine Blackbears and two Grizzlies later, they returned to town.
After a few nights “on the town”, they packed the string of horses and went over Tegart’s Pass, down to Gooseberry Meadows, on the way to Bert’s cabin at Salt Meadows near the Big Palliser.
The water was quite high in the Kootenay River at the ford, but Bert, as always, was undaunted, and plunged right in leading his string of pack horses. “Keep his head up, Damper, and you will make it,” he shouted back, and horses and riders and summer supplies all arrived on the other side.
They spent a quiet summer in the isolation of the Kootenay Valley, generally letting each day do what it wished. They mended the horse corrals, cut and stored a little hay, and fixed the chinking in the main and trapline cabins. And towards the end of August, Dap went on a fishing trip to the Palliser River. He caught about 50 pounds of Cutthroat and some large Char from a single hole, and after having a good feed of fresh fish, the balance of the catch was left to rot in the sun to make bait for Martin and Lynx come trapping time.
Early September the days were shortening, storm clouds were starting to appear, the nights were getting sharper, and supplies were getting low. So off they went through Tegart’s Pass with a lengthy string of pack horses. And a couple of weeks later, following some good times renewing acquaintances in town, back again to the Palliser country, loaded with supplies for the winter. Snow would soon fill the pass, and this trip, they knew, was their last contact with civilization until the warm Spring winds opened up the trails.
Fast passing days tending the horses and snowshoeing the trapline, and evenings spent by candlelight preparing the furs or in idle chatter over a game of Crib or Blackjack, brought the weeks around to a few days before Christmas. The skies were bright and sunny, the air crisp and not too cold and Bert suggested they should go out and get some fresh meat for Christmas dinner.
They loaded the 30-30 carbine with a couple of shells (“that’s all we’ll need”), put on their snowshoes and started out, climbing the mountain directly behind the cabin. About noon they jumped a herd of goats, and Bert got off a quick shot but missed. He handed the rifle to Dap, and he snapped off a shot, but only wounded the animal. No more shells, but they couldn’t let the wounded animal crawl away to die in misery so they took up it’s trail.
Towards dusk, they came to the edge of a cliff and, peering over, they could see the exhausted wounded goat on a ledge quite a few feet below them. So, here they were on the same cliff with a goat they wounded and which they could not allow to suffer, but what could they do?
Dap armed himself with a big rock and approached the edge of the cliff. Bert grabbed his ankles, and Dap practically crawled out into space, took aim directly over his target, and dropped the huge boulder on the goat’s head. Harsh and primitive, but it disposed of the suffering animal. Then came the hazardous task of getting to the level where the goat was lying – and it was well after dark when the two tired men returned to the Salt Meadows cabin, each loaded with meat, and a hide, which, when cured, would serve as a bedside rug.
Christmas supper that year was fresh goat meat mulligan, loaded with potatoes, carrots, turnips and onions, which had been securely stored under the floor of the cabin, and Dap had thrown in a few dumplings to add a little “body”. Bert mixed a few raisins into the Bannock, and with a little imagination, that became a tasty plum pudding for dessert. And they toasted each other and the Day with a flask of rum Bert had safely kept for the occasion.
After supper the moon came up and every tree was a Christmas tree, glistening in the night light with their covering of sparkling snow. The horses stood contentedly in the meadow, and a million stars twinkled in the great canopy overhead. The air was breathlessly still… and then, clearly, almost as if from just across the meadow, came the sound of church bells, the bells of St. Peter’s calling the families of Windermere to worship.
And Bert and Dap were content, sharing the warm friendship and deep understanding close to nature in the Creator’s great original church.