CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

The days ahead were colder still. The cold threatened to extinguish the fire, and even with constant tending, they could feel little heat. William hurried to tend to the animals, telling Mary Kathleen to keep inside. He did not go to the woods or to the house. They all stayed in the cabin, trying to keep their warmth together. They hoped the Laws were faring well. They tried to play games but it was too cold. It sometimes seemed too cold to hold a conversation.

It was William who kept their spirits up, who told stories, though his lips felt numb with cold. He kept the fire going, and made sure Laurie was comfortable. He retrieved the furs from the sledge on his morning trip outside for extra warmth on their beds, and he threw one upon Laurie's lap as he sat upon his chair. Patches immediately came to nestle on top.

At night, Laurie woke up, shaking and shivering, hearing wolves in the night.

Mary Kathleen heard him moan. She did not want to move from her warmth under the blankets, but she couldn't sleep without seeing if he was okay. She opened the curtain and peered out into the darkness. She slid across the floor to his bed.

"Laurie?"

"It's so cold."

"I know."

"The wolves will come."

"No, they won't. They cannot come in."

"They will come for me. I cannot get away."

"No, Laurie." She could tell Laurie was shivering under all the covers. "Make space for a body," she told him as she lifted the heavy weight of the blankets. "Here, we will keep each other warm, and the wolves will stay away."

At first, it was no warmer, as the layers of clothing between them kept their body heat from reaching out, but momentarily, they both felt warmer. Laurie stopped shivering. His muscles relaxed, and he smiled into the darkness of the cabin.

"We're safe," he whispered. "The wolves can't get us. We're too strong, aren't we, Mary?"

"Yes," she replied. "We shall still be here when spring comes, the three of us. It takes more than cold and wolves and illness to send us packin'. Isn't that right, William?"

William was not asleep, as Mary Kathleen knew he was not. "Aye, we are a tough group, it would take more than that to beat us." He pulled himself out of bed to fill the fire again. "And one day we'll have a proper stove that will keep the heat better than this..." He glanced back at the small bed with the two cold noses peeping over the pile of covers. "Go back to sleep while you are warm. Patches is here by the fire. I'll bring her to bed with me."

"Yes, please do, Wil," said Laurie.

The morning was no warmer. Again William did the chores as fast as he could, returning quickly to the cabin. He broke the ice out of the buckets and wooden troughs and filled them with cold water from the stream, which he also had to break through with an axe. He told them that the animals were okay, having huddled together with their own body heat for warmth. He said he couldn't even count the hens at first, as they were one big ball.

Again Mary Kathleen warmed bricks for Laurie and William's feet, and they tried their best to keep warm and pass the day with their spirits intact.

After four days of frigid cold, the temperature broke. William headed over to Nathan Law's cabin to see how they fared through the deep freeze. Before he returned home, the wind picked up again, but the temperature did not fall like before. Still, Mary Kathleen left the covers on the window and the door to keep the draught out, but she peered out before she did so, looking for William. She saw a fine white mist on the wind.

Snow.

William must come home before snow came on the wind.

She turned back inside, closing the door.

It was much easier to do work with temperatures closer to the melting point, even with the wind blowing through the cracks. Mary Kathleen tried to catch up on some of the chores she'd put off. She worked fast and Laurie did not interrupt her. Instead, he took his turn at the butter churn, thumping the churn up and down in the tub, feeling the muscles in his arms burning as he worked them. Mary Kathleen washed clean as many of their underclothes as could be spared and hung them near the fire to dry while the stew simmered for supper. The bread had risen for the first time in days, and Mary Kathleen eyed the browning crust.

William blew into the cabin with the snow, which was heavier now.

"A blizzard is coming," he told them. "We just survived winter's bite and here she comes with her winds and her snows. I started back when I realised it wasnae just a snowfall."

"And the Laws?"

"They have pulled through as well. Now they will battle this storm as we do. They ken nae t'be goin' for water nae the animals without tying a rope to the house to follow back. It's too easy to go out and never come home again in a blizzard, especially with the river so near."

Mary Kathleen shivered and looked at Laurie, who bowed his head, remembering the Wallace children who lost their lives in the blizzard snows.

"Aye, well, dunnae look so glum, folks. We're all home, snug, and Mary Katie has this stew and, och, well, then, the bread has risen at last! There is good grace come to this cabin, at least. Laurie, how's that butter? Any grains?"

"I think so, come see."

William concurred that there was indeed, grains of butter forming all around the top of the bucket of the butter churn. The dash was thick itself, and William held it up for Mary Kathleen to see.

"Oh, Laurie, you've done a splendid job, it's almost ready."

Laurie smiled, feeling proud of himself. It had taken longer than Mary Kathleen would have taken, and he was exhausted, indeed, so exhausted he wasn't sure he could raise his arms again for a day or two, but it was worth it for the sense of accomplishment he felt. He'd helped with the chores, for true this time.

"Let me finish it off," William said, seeing how worn out Laurie was. "You take a rest. You've done more work on this homestead than I have today, Brother," he told Laurie with a grin.

Laurie's mouth turned up again, even as he leaned back in his chair, his eyes closed. The fire was not warm, because the heat was being sucked straight up the chimney, but he felt warmth from inside that kept him comfortable.

"He looks like the cat that ate the canary," said Mary Kathleen.

"That's pride in a hard day's work done," said William, hanging his coat and scarf to dry near the fire. He took some wood from the wood box and set the fire up some, not wanting to have it sucked up into the chimney and cause a fire.

"I'll be in the fields next," Laurie mumbled, his eyes still closed but a smile playing across his lips. "Stacking hay mounds."

"Aye," said William, sitting down. "A successful cut of hay, and crops to beat the others. I'll need you in the field, Laurence."

Laurie nodded. He'd do his best to be there.

The snow blew across the floor of the cabin and piled up against the opposite wall. It found its way in with the winds. Mary Kathleen kept her boots on at all times, and swept the snow away from the middle of the floor and the legs of the furniture. The snow piled up on one side of the cabin so high that it blew up over the roof when the wind took it. The other side wallowed in once the snow had nowhere else to go. Pretty soon William had a hard time getting the door open. The snow came to the bottom of the window. When he ventured to tend to the animals, William kept a tight grip on the rope tied from the cabin wall to the barn wall, secured tightly with huge iron nails with eyes on the ends. Still, Mary Kathleen and Laurie were tense until he returned safely each time he went out. It was too easy to get lost in the whiteness. Laurie had a new overwhelming respect for that feeling now.

Mary Kathleen was wondering if it would never end. The cold was relentless, and then the blizzard wind blew right through her bones. Laurie's smile did nothing to hide his gaunt cheeks. William fretted about the stores of potatoes, hay, and firewood. When the blizzard finally broke and the sun came out and the air was calm, they rejoiced, but it only lasted a day, for it dropped down fiercely cold once again. Mary Kathleen did not know how they would bear it.

"Dunnae get up," said William to Mary Kathleen and Laurie, who were once again huddled in one bed for warmth. It was only just dawn, and Mary Kathleen was ready to start breakfast.

"I'll bring in the eggs and milk but dunnae mind it now, Mary Katie. Stay warm. It's too cold."

She could see his breath cloud in the air though it was still dark. She nodded, watching him put on his greatcoat and fur hat and mittens. "Be careful," she said.

When he returned, he set the milk pail by the fire to thaw.

"The milk barely hit the pail before it was frozen solid," he said. "There's not much there. And here are only two eggs. Hens are too cold to lay."

"They're all alive?"

"Aye," William said. "Piled together for the warmth."

Mary Kathleen breathed a sigh of relief.

"Stay there. There's not enough milk yet, and the eggs are lacking. We'll catch some more sleep and hope it's warmer when we wake up again." William blew out the lamp and took off his boots and coat. He returned to his cold bed, shivering until he could warm the thick layer of covers again.

Mary Kathleen turned to look at Laurie in the darkness. She could see his eyes shining towards her.

"You all right?" she asked him.

"Aye," he replied.

"Go back to sleep, as William said. We'll be lazy today, take advantage."

She hoped she would be able to make do with two eggs and whatever amount the milk came to when they woke again.

Despite there being less things to work with, Mary Kathleen still was able to scratch together meals for the three of them that kept their bellies full. She was grateful for the good harvest they'd had, and the plentiful bounty this land had given them in the summer months of which she had been able to take advantage, thanks to Ada Bolan's knowledge and foresight. Variation margins narrowed but no-one complained. They ate what she put in front of them, glad there was something.

Laurie once again was back to working on feeding himself. Sometimes he didn't quite get all the food to his mouth, but he did not want Mary Kathleen feeding him. William fixed a spoon, knife, and fork for him so the handles were thicker wooden ones he could keep in his fist. It was a huge help and gave him the boost he needed in his confidence.

Many times a day, Mary Kathleen stopped to warm Laurie's hands and feet between her own palms, rubbing them to keep the blood flowing. He tried to move his fingers and toes as much as he could, but they still stayed cold. Mary Kathleen touched her own nose, experiencing the same thing.

"It can't stay winter forever," she told Laurie as she once again tried to warm a basin of water for washing. "Spring must come."

"It will come," Laurie said with hope, but he had dark circles under his eyes, and his face was thin.

William again returned from the barn, with another armload of wood for the woodbox. He sighed, looking at Mary Kathleen and then at Laurie. He'd promised them so much more than this, after all their hard work. They had done their part and this was all they had.

Mary Kathleen was barely a reed, under what must be two dresses and at least three petticoats, as well as a wrap and her coat. Laurie was nothing of the robust young man with whom he'd sung rally songs across the sea. He had given them extra shares of his portions when there wasn't enough. He wanted them to stay as warm as possible. He would get them through to spring, but it pained him to see how they suffered.

"I must go into King's Town," said William. "We have no sugar, the hens have stopped laying, the matches are nearly gone. The salt is running out and I need more gunpowder. The oxen will have some trouble in the deeper snow, but I must try."

"It's too cold, William, you'll all freeze," Mary Kathleen said.

"If I have to shovel them out, I will be warm. If we travel well, we will be fast and I shall get to shelter and be warm. They will be warm if they are working. I will stop and break their breath from their noses when I must, if that is what needs to be done. We need supplies, Mary Katie." His eyes were grave. "I will leave Laurie's gun loaded with you. You know how to shoot it. Keep the fire going, don't let it go out. I will stay to get warm, and put the oxen inside to warm them, and I will start home before dark, but I may not get home until after, depending on the state of the road. I'll take the furs to settle some of the debits. Is there anything you'll be needing?"

Mary Kathleen only added a spool of black thread and a spool of white thread for darning. Laurie requested peppermint sticks, with an innocent shrug of his shoulder. William sat to make a list of the practical goods they were needing, and added Laurie's sweet at the bottom. If there was enough, he would buy one for each of them.

William left whistling cheerfully, hot potatoes in his pockets to warm him, and hot stones wrapped in flannels at his feet from the fire. He was gone for a long time. It felt different than him being just out in the woods or at the Laws' homestead. It felt like he was far. The cabin felt alone. Laurie and Mary Kathleen could feel the difference.

"He'll bring back food," said Mary Kathleen. "Eggs and salt. We'll be able to make breakfast again and have salt for the stew. And we won't have to worry if we break the last of the three matches."

"There are only three?" Laurie said.

"Aye. 'Tis why we mustn't let the fire go out. We can always set the candles alight by the fire." She poked at it with the fire iron. "I wonder what else he will see in town? What else in the shop will he see?"

"Bags of sugar and flour and cornmeal."

"Aye. And bolts of calico and silk and homespun and damask. And buttons."

"And chocolate. And sugar sticks and jellies and playing cards. And quill pens and inks and cream-coloured writing paper."

"Oiled saddles and leather shoes and shiny furrows," Mary Kathleen imagined. "And books with gold edges."

They passed time thinking of things they would like to find in the shop, some of the ideas quite outlandish. After a while, talk of the foodstuffs as well as the cooking dinner made them hungry and Mary Kathleen saw it was noon. She hurriedly took the boiling pot of potato and rabbit stew, flavoured with carrots and onions, from the hook over the fire, and set it upon the spider on the table. The bubbles of stew gave off the thick aroma that set Laurie's mouth to watering.

"Now, I've made biscuits as best as can be made in this cold. They'll do to soak up the dregs but don't be boastin' about them to Mrs. Elisha Flewett," she teased Laurie, knowing no-one would ever brag up the breads and biscuits that did not rise this winter to anyone, let alone the Flewetts.

"I hope they didn't prepare, they don't cut their own wood, and the mill wouldn't have none to spare now with this cold snap and blizzard an' all. Imagine them, sitting in their big fancy home, no fire in any of their six fireplaces, and not one in a wood stove..."

"Laurence Williams!" Mary Kathleen admonished. "Don't be wishin' ill on them, even if they are—"

"Horrible?" asked Laurie.

Mary Kathleen was glad Laurie could not see her smile from where he was.

"Mary?"

"Yes?"

Laurie didn't reply and Mary turned toward him. "What is it, Laurie?"

Laurie pinched his lips together and shook his head. "It's not important right now."

Mary Kathleen put her hands to her sides. "More important than what? There's nothing right now, other than stew and us and a small spoon of tea leaves. Tell me."

"I want to try and walk."

Mary Kathleen's mouth dropped open.

"Now?"

"I don't know. Now. Yes. I want to try."

"But you are not strong. I don't know how you can stand."

"I... I know... it was a stupid idea. That's why I didn't say. I have to work harder before that."

"We can still try... Laurie, I didn't mean we couldn't. But we should have William to help us. If you're ready to try, William will help. Oh, Laurie, he would be happy to help, for you to try. If we try now, without him, you might get too overexerted... break into a fever... I don't want to cause you to get sick. Oh, Laurie, I am so glad you want to try."

"I don't know, Mary... I don't—"

"Hush, now. No fretting. This is a good thing. Now, let me pull this table closer..."

It was dark when Mary Kathleen and Laurie heard the thud of the oxen's feet in the snow and the sleigh runners pass the doors. Mary Kathleen pulled back the hide from the side of the window and saw the lantern hanging from the cart box. William's outline jumped from the box and unhitched the oxen before he took the lantern with him into the little barn.

By the time he returned from drying and blanketing the oxen and feeding them and the chickens, Mary Kathleen had put on her boots and a wool cape over her coat, and was hurrying over to the sleigh box.

"Ah, Miss Mary Katie, how did y' fare?" William sounded cheerful, but Mary Kathleen was certain he was chilled through the bones.

"We were fine, all fine, here, give me some of that, come inside, William," Mary Kathleen ordered. "You will be as frozen as a block of ice. Come sit by the fire."

Laurie greeted William, inviting him to sit and warm himself before his curiosity got the better of him and he asked about the things William had in the cotton sacks on the floor.

There was tea and flour and sugar, all the things they'd put on their list, but besides that, there were the peppermint sticks and sugar sticks and chocolate! There were crackers and a tin of sardines. There was twine for the snares and he'd had the axe blade sharpened properly. He had Mary Kathleen's spools of thread in his pocket.

"I feel better now," said William. "We've used up our credit, but we can survive now with a little more comfort, at least through this cold snap. And..." William put a peppermint stick and a cinnamon stick into Laurie's hand. "More than that, some enjoyment, too."

Mary Kathleen added the salt pork to the broth with the carrots and onions and peas and potatoes, and the smell of it immediately gave the cabin a homelier touch. Mary Kathleen smiled at William gratefully.

"I wouldnae ever let either of ye starve," he said to her.

"We would have found something," she assured him. "Are you sure you're warmed up? I can't be havin' you sick an' all. And what about news in town?"

"Yes, I'm fine, and there's been much going on. This weather has done others worse than us, for sure. There's been a fire at the Thomas house, wind sucked the fire clean up the chimney, set the whole place ablaze. They're staying with the Turners for now. And Thomas Willowby was taken for lost during the blizzard and then showed up three days later, having stayed sheltering in a cow shed clear on the other side of King's Town... a cousin of Colin Thatcher's, I think. And old Mrs. Wilfred Campbell died, though I thought, in all honesty, she'd died last year."

Mary Kathleen and Laurie both tried to stifle a chuckle over that last piece of news, but Mary Kathleen felt very saddened by the news of the Thomas house. That was an unfortunate setback for the Thomases. Mary Kathleen remembered Mr. Thomas playing fiddle at the social gatherings they'd had during the holidays last winter. She hoped they would be okay.

"Remember when I scraped that black soot from the chimney last autumn?" William asked Mary Kathleen, seeing her eying the fire. She nodded. "That is important. You know that, your Da must have told you that. Always keep the chimney flue clean."

Once they'd had the warm, thick stew with the fluffy biscuits and the dried apple turnovers with cream for dessert, and William had sat back with his pipe and his tea, and Laurie and Mary Kathleen had their tea and sweets, Mary Kathleen let William in on Laurie's surprise.

"Laurie wants to try something, with our help," she said.

William looked at Laurie with interest. "Aye, Laurie?"

Laurie set his mouth and nodded. "I want to try to stand. Maybe try to walk a little. Not far, I know I can't... but... I think I'd like to try."

William's face blossomed into a smile. "Well, I think I'd like to see that happen. And I would be right here. Shall we give it a go?"

Laurie nodded, all of a sudden looking uncertain. Mary Kathleen hurried to his right side, and William took to his left.

"When you're ready," Mary Kathleen said. "Only when you're ready. Take your time."

Laurie closed his eyes, letting Mary Kathleen pull the blanket from his lap and get his feet situated. They helped him put each arm around their shoulders. He held as tightly as he could, willing his muscles to obey him.

"Right," he said, taking a deep breath. "One... two..." When he said three, it was forced, as he pushed with all his strength with his thighs, into his knees, down to his calves, trying to get the leverage, as Mary Kathleen and William lifted on his arms and supported him. He cried out, feeling his legs shaking below him, one knee threatening to buckle.

But then, they held him straight. He was up. He was standing! He wasn't steady in any way and he burst out: "Don't let go!" But he was standing up on his own legs.

He was exhausted already, but he wanted to take a step, even only one. He closed his eyes again and concentrated on standing on one foot, shifting his weight to that foot, feeling it be strong under him. The other foot, he lifted slightly. It shook his whole body, and he could feel the pull in his middle where he did not have strength, and still he slid it forward. His boot kept his foot straight, or he was sure he would feel it tip to the side and drag, but it continued to slide ahead and then he thought he might be able to put his weight ahead and be a whole step forward but he didn't trust that knee so much now that he was here...

Mary Kathleen and William stepped forward beside him and helped him shift his balance and he made the step. The three of them cheered together, and Laurie almost wept. He wanted to try one more, so he repeated the whole thing with the other foot, and when they all stepped forward again, just a tiny step, but a step just the same, he was both elated and completely done in. They quickly carried him the two steps back to his chair and let him rest. He was shaking, but he was delighted.

"Even more reason for these candy sweets," said Mary Kathleen, with tears in her eyes. "We celebrate for Laurie's walking again."

Laurie was proud of himself. It was only two steps. But it was two steps more than any other day in months. He now had a record to start beating.