A kind of afternoon drowsiness had crept over Irishtown. We passed Barney Lunney’s store with the blind down over the front window, crossed the bridge over Jimmy Moreau’s creek, and soon after went by Bob Scissons’ store. After that came the houses of the people who lived in Irishtown, the McGraths, the O’Mearas, the Gormans, until we came to Fanny Dolan’s house, the last on that side of the street. From there we looked across the road to Howard Sadler’s father’s farm on the very edge of the town of Almonte. We were in the country.
All its fascination unfolded as the horse plodded along unfalteringly in the traces, without interest in getting to our destination except on his own time. After passing the intersection of the Appleton road we came to Austin Darling’s farm. The cows were out in the grass near the road and Billy wondered about them.
“What kind of cows are those?” Billy asked.
“Those are Jerseys,” dad told him.
“Why are they that colour?” asked Billy again.
“It’s the same colour as the deer. The Jerseys are much the same size too as the deer,” dad told him.
“They’re small,” Billy observed.
“Yes, Billy, they’re small compared to the Holstein cows, and they don’t give anywhere near the same quantity of milk as the Holstein, but the butterfat content is much higher. That’s why some farmers choose the Jerseys. The milk is much richer in butterfat content than most other cows give.”
We came to another farm on the other side of the road with a white farm house on high ground surrounded by maple trees. It made a pretty picture, and I thought it would make a fine Christmas card. The barns stood back of the house by themselves. Two horses stood grazing in the pasture beside the barn. Except for their occasional movements as they clipped the grass, nothing disturbed the quiet of the afternoon.
Another road branched off from ours and I noticed a cemetery near the intersection of the two roads.
“What is this road called?” I asked my father.
“This is the Twelfth Line,” he said.
“Does that cemetery have a name too?” I went on.
“Only that it’s called the Twelfth Line Cemetery,” he explained. “Many of the early Irish settlers in this part of the country are buried in the Twelfth Line Cemetery. It has a lot of the history of early settlement.”
Something changed after we passed the cemetery corner at the Twelfth Line. We could not see another house, nor a sign of human habitation as the history books would have said and there was an air of desolation. Vegetation was sparse on both sides of the road. Only the occasional black spruce dotted the land.
The horse worked away knowing his own pace. He kept to it without change. So lonely was that part of the country we were driving through, and so uninhabited that after a while my curiosity broke out again.
“Does nobody live around here?” I asked.
“Not right here,” my father answered. “You can see the land would hold little attraction for a farmer. The soil is thin and the rock is close to the surface. The land could not grow anything, and is probably best left to new forest growth.”
“Does it have any name?” I wondered out loud, for it seemed to be deserted, with neither man nor animal in sight anywhere.
“Yes, it does have a name. This is The Burnt Lands. A great forest fire swept across this part of the country many years ago,” my father said, “a fire so disastrous that it raged for days and burned across thousands and thousands of acres. It burned so fiercely that it consumed all the trees and the soil itself.”
“Burned the soil?” I queried, knowing not the savagery of such a forest blaze.
“Yes, that’s right,” dad said. “The fire was so intense that it burned right down into the ground, and when the snow came in the winter after, people remarked how there were fingers of smoke still coming up from the ashes. The rock, you see, was still nursing the last of the hot embers all during that winter.”
“Do you remember that fire?” I asked.
“Not I, because I was only born the year after. But there are some men and women still living around here who have recollections of the fire from their childhood.”
We were on the road to Ottawa, I knew, and wondered if there would be any danger of forest fire for us three in the buggy and for the horse in the shafts. Some distance ahead of us lay Huntley Hill. There the road made a sudden sweep to the right and then a fearsome buttonhook turn to a goat’s path that wound its way along the face of the rock cliff to the farm land in the valley below.
Mother was terrified of this place. It could so easily provide a place of ambush for an enemy, and, in spite of the fact that the doctor had not a single known enemy, she expected that unknown assailants would not recognize him, and would attack him anyway. Either that, or the buggy would tumble off the road and roll helter-skelter down the face of the rocky cliff into the dense gorge below, and all in the car would be wounded, maimed or killed. At that point in my recollection dad spoke to the horse. “Haw, now,” he said, giving a slight nudge to the left rein. “Here,” he said, handing the lines to me, “Perhaps you would like to drive.”
We stepped down a little from the main road on to a pathway that led across land even more desolate than what we had passed through. I slapped the lines up and down over the horse’s back. Something urged me to try to get out of this lonely area as quickly as possible. Even though it was summer and my father showed little anxiety of any kind, I wanted to hasten the horse.
“No need to make the horse go faster,” he said. “He knows the best pace he can make in this kind of going. Besides, we’re not in any kind of hurry today.”
I didn’t tell him what I had heard one of the men at the blacksmith shop say of the Burnt Lands. He spoke of it as the most miserable place on earth, so unwelcome to human beings, or any of the animal kingdom, that even a rabbit would have to carry a lunch pail in going across the Burnt Lands. That chilling prospect spoke to me of the need to keep looking ahead and to the rear at the same time.
In a short while we came to a gorge. A farm house stood near the road as we came to the bottom and the horse began the climb up the other side.
“Who lives in there?” asked Billy.
“This is the Flynn place,” dad answered.
The Flynn place seemed to be cupped between two opposing faces of a broad valley that had rocky ledges for the lips of the bowl, and pleasant fields for cattle and sheep in the bottom land. A certain lonesomeness surrounded the house, the barns, and the cattle, but it was a lonesomeness much less intense than the Burnt Lands.
“How far do we have to go now?” Billy asked.
“Perhaps a mile and a quarter more,” dad said.
We came out of the dreary parts, and the less dreary, and entered into the most pleasant place in the world, a paradise of farm land, snug log houses, barns, and cattle grazing in the sun. The road led straight on. The horse must have known the way and needed no urging of any kind. I held the lines loose and looked about.
As the road sloped gently away ahead, two houses stood out, one on the right, and the other on the left. We turned into the laneway of the house on the right, and, at that moment I could see there was no need to think of going further. We had come to Morrisseys, and both Billy and I knew that the road came to an end at Morrisseys, or really at Morrisseys’ creek.
Three men whom my father had at another time called simply “the boys” came out of the house at the moment my father said “Whoa,” and the horse stopped. A large Manitoba maple tree stood near the side of the house. One of the boys came forward quickly and took hold of the horse’s bridle.
“Good day doctor,” said the one of the boys who appeared to be the eldest. “I see you’ve got helpers today. These your boys?”
“Yes, John and Billy. Billy’s the fair one.”
“I think these two lads will want to go exploring down by the creekside. That would be all right with you, doctor?”
“Yes, that’s fine.”
“If you’d like to go ahead inside, doctor, Himself is upstairs, of course. We’ll put the horse in the shade and give him water.”
Billy and I ran around to the side of the house, past the Manitoba maple, and over to the creek side. Water was very low at this time of year, but we were able to float some twigs in the current and watch them go off on the long journey to wherever the creek emptied, somewhere in the Mississippi I thought, from which it would travel down into the Ottawa River, and into the St. Lawrence, and off to the Atlantic. So I thought, unless it caught on something on the way it would be a world traveller from the edge of Morrisseys’ creek.
It took most of an hour before Billy and I heard the front door of the house open and men’s voices out in the open. Together we hurried back. The three boys had gathered under the Manitoba maple, all dressed in Carhartt’s blue denim overalls. The eldest one leaned against the trunk of the tree and seemed to be spokesman for the three.
“How do you find him today, doctor?” he asked.
“There’s not much change. Temperature is fine. Blood pressure is within reason. Pulse is a little weaker. He’s slipping a little more each time.”
“How much time does he have yet do you think, doctor?” the youngest one asked.
“Two weeks, perhaps a little more.”
Billy and I could see that there was something else worrying the eldest of the boys leaning against the Manitoba maple. He had leaned over to pluck a twig of grass as his brother left to bring the horse and buggy back. Now, with the grass stalk between his teeth, the worrying question came out. “Is he suffering doctor?”
“No. There’s no pain. The truth is he has lived a good long life, and has worked hard all his years. His time has come, as come it must to one and all. But he’s not in any pain at all.”
The horse came back and joined the throng of men and boys under the shade of the Manitoba maple. The middle one of three boys had heard the doctor’s words and asked, “Is it just what you’d call “Old Age”, doctor?”
“Indeed it is. Old Age. In your father’s case he has the satisfaction of knowing that he’s run a good race and can see the end in sight.”
“Is it time then to call the priest?” added the same questioner.
“No, not yet. The fact is I’ve spoken to the priest about his condition, but there’s no need to call the priest yet.”
“Is there anything then doctor, anything, do you think that we can do for Himself?”
“Yes, there is one thing. It’s important now to make sure of the will. That’s just to avoid the distress after he’s gone to find there’s no will, and the estate falls into the courts. It’s not the way your father would want, for that way causes only misery in a family.”
“Does that mean a lawyer, doctor?”
“Ordinarily it does, but it’s not by necessity.”
“Doctor,” the grass-chewing brother offered, “We’ve had no experience with law and courts at all, and I’ve a mind to say that Himself up there hasn’t either. Can you help us with this thing, the will?”
“It’s something that’s got to be done. It’s really not all that difficult. But it’s important to get it done while your father is still in good possession of all his faculties, and can make known what he would like to do for future arrangements for his family. Next time I come out I’ll bring a form of will and you can read it with your father and decide how he would like to set it down. It’s a family arrangement.”
“Well, thank you, doctor. I’m sure we’d all be glad to have your advice with it, and I’m sure Himself up there would too.”
“Very well, then. I’ll be back in another week’s time.”
“Here, doctor, let us lift the two lads up to the buggy seat. They’ve had a good time down there by Morrisseys’ Creek, I’m sure.”
“Yeah, we sure did,” came the agreement from Billy and me.
“Here, Billy, perhaps you can drive for a while,” my father said handing the lines to Billy.
I have often pondered the extent to which my father gave of himself to help those in need. Often this devotion took him well outside the realm of medicine. His concern and willingness to assist with settling the affairs of this dying man was just one of the many ways he exhibited his compassion.