The Spruces

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  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 1999-09-01
  • Publisher: Harbour Pub Co
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Young, idealistic but frightfully naive, Kevin and Joanne decide to leave the urban streets of Toronto to homestead in the Peace River country. Life on the norther frontier, they learn, is far removed from anything they had experienced in the past. Even being jobless in the mean streets of a large city has nothing to compare with the troubles of homesteading in a norther climate. While The Spruces is set in the years of the Great Depression, the scene it describes is in many ways a forerunner to the back-to-the-land movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s when young and idealistic city people packed up and moved to isolated parts of Canada and tried to become self-sufficient. However, few of the later adventures ended as tragically as The Spruces.


KEVIN COULD HARDLY WAIT TO START DIGGING THE WELL. AFTER rushing through his breakfast, he dashed outside, picked up his shovel and set out on a quick tour of the island on which the house stood. Conditioned as he was by his session in the garden, he was sure that the work ahead would be child's play His muscles felt firm and supple, and already the slight folds of fat built up in days of idleness had almost completely disappeared. He felt fit and in high good spirits.

At first he was tempted to dig close to the house for Joanne's convenience, but he realized that the well would have to be much deeper at that level. In any case the distance only mattered if he were away from home, an unlikely event. At creek level therefore and not too far from their garden, he started his operation.

Selecting a small dip in the ground, he started with a circle some four feet in diameter. In the first layer he was hampered by roots that ran in every direction and had to be chopped out before he could insert the shovel. Then he hit a layer of grey gumbo that was dry and extremely hard. Again he had to use the axe this time to break up the gumbo before he could scoop it out. The whole operation took on a new dimension that should have discouraged him. Instead he rather enjoyed inching his way down even though it meant much slower progress than he had expected. Any task that could be measured pleased him immensely From time to time he would stop to savour the fresh air and to listen to the bird song all around him. Where else on earth could he find such peace and contentment?

By noon he had gone down about three feet where it began to dawn on

him that the worst was yet to come. It had not occurred to him that as the hole deepened it would become more and more difficult to throw the dirt out. Furthermore it was clear that his hole would have to be enlarged to permit more maneuverability All he could do was go down as far as he could and hope he would hit water before it became impossible.

When Joanne called, he went joyfully into the house and sat down at the table.

"Go and wash."

"What for? It's only mud and I will be going back to it in a few minutes."

"Look at me."

"Okay, I'm looking." Slowly he raised his eyes, taking in every well groomed inch of her. "You look like a city girl," he remarked with growing interest.

"Yes, and that is the way I am going to go on looking. It would be easy to let myself go, but I will not. We must go on being people. Do you want to look like the prototype farmer John, or even Ed?"

"I would be glad to look like Ed if it meant knowing everything he does. I can recall no farmer named John and therefore can not judge his attire."

"I do not want you to grow away from me. Let us resolve together always to wash, always to dress, always to be the people who came here. We must not decay."

He grinned. "Lead me to the wash dish, and lay out my tux for lunch. You have reformed me."

She paused in the doorway on her way to get the kettle. "I am not reforming you; I am merely trying to keep you as you were." She brought the kettle in and filled the basin. "There, my little man, wash thyself."

"Even so wash, Lord Jesus." Later in the afternoon he found he could no longer throw the dirt from the well without a tremendous heave on the shovel, and each time he tried, some of the load showered back into his face. Taking a blissful break, he leaned on his shovel pondering the problem. Suddenly through his mind there floated a cartoon about the war in which a character called "Ol' Bill" and one of his buddies were digging a trench. The man in the hole held a shovel to which was attached a string, and when the shovel was full, presumably 01' Bill would haul it up by the rope. It was a silly thought, but just possibly there might be some sense in it. Could he fasten a rope on both ends of the shovel so that the dirt would stay on it on the way up? Nonsense. A pail perhaps? The water pail on a rope. Joanne should be able to pull it up if he did not fill it too full. He would see what she thought of the idea.
The following morning they tried out the new plan with Kevin doing the digging and the filling of the pail. Hauling the loaded pail out of the well may not have been the easier of the two jobs, but Kevin could not face the thought of having Joanne go down the hole; it had begun to dawn on him that the well might collapse. The work went slowly even though the digging was becoming easier all the time.

Late in the afternoon Joanne called down, "Time's up; I have to get supper.

"Okay, you go ahead. I'll just loosen up the next layer before I join you.

Loosen it he did, but to no purpose as Joanne had drawn the pail out of the well. He decided that since he had to climb out for it in order to fill it, he might as well quit for the day Then to his horror he found he could not get out of the hole as he was down so far he could not reach the top. Since Joanne had withdrawn the rope there was nothing to take hold of. He tried jumping high enough to catch the rim. After several tries he stopped to take stock of the situation. Although Joanne knew where he was, she might not come to his rescue until supper was ready He tried calling out until he realized it was hopeless. She could never hear him from the house. For a second he panicked. What if the well caved in?

"Joanne!" he roared. "Joanne!"

He took out his watch. Five-thirty. "Joanne!"

"What is it? What's the matter?" her blessed face appeared against the sky.

"Thank God. You took the rope away; I can't get out."

"Oh boy!"

"Is the rope still tied to the tree?"


"Solid, solid? Don't forget I am a lot heavier than the pail."

"It is tied solid."

"All right, untie the pail and drop the end down to me."

"Here it comes."

He caught the end, tested his weight and then scrambled up the wall of the well.

"I thought I was in for it. It was horrible down there when I realized I couldn't get out."

At the end of the third day Kevin struck a rock and could go no deeper. Fortunately as it was not very large he was able to dig around it, break it loose and lift it onto the pail. As it was too large to fit inside he jammed it under the handle where it seemed secure.

"Haul away," he shouted.

Hauling with all her might Joanne was just able to bring it to the surface, but she could not swing the pail out of the hole. When she freed one hand to reach for the pail it tipped and the rock fell back down the well.

For Joanne it was the longest minute in her life. Hearing no sound, she leaned over and looked down into Kevin's startled face.

"It's all right," he said shakily "It's all right. just hand me the rope; my digging days are over. It just missed me by an inch."

"Oh Kevin, I am so sorry."

"It's all right honey, let us go and sit down. It was my fault - I should have realized you couldn't handle a thing like that."

"Oh what would we have done? What if it had hit you on the head? "How would I ever have gotten you out?"

"There would not have been much point in bothering."

Gently he guided her to the campfire, stirred the fire and moved the coffee pot where it would get hot. "Well, I wasn't hurt; that is the main thing. Let us forget it except to resolve to redouble our care in everything we do from now on."

He lay awake for a long time that night giving thanks to the gods or to God for having escaped. He also pondered on ways of removing the rock from the well without endangering themselves. He decided he would go down, put the rock in the pail, climb back out and lift it up himself. Fine, but they had, he thought dryly, almost come to the end of their rope. In another foot it would not reach and he needed slack to pull himself up. The well would have to be abandoned. What a waste of time and effort.

The next morning while Joanne was preparing breakfast, Kevin strolled out to have a look at his plan. He hated the thought of starting a new project without having finished the first. He climbed to the top of the dirt surrounding the well, picked up the pail, reattached it to the rope and dropped it in. The pail struck bottom with an unusual sound. He peered into the hole, and as his vision adjusted to the darkness he began bellowing, "Joanne" at the top of his voice.

"What is it? What's happening this time?" - flying from the house in her nightgown.

"We've hit it!

"We've hit water! Holy cow! We've hit water."

She peeked in the hole and cheered. They grabbed hands, jumped off the mound and spun in a circle.

"How do you like that? Our very first well and it's a gusher!"

"Down boy, down! There's water all right, but I can see little gushing."

Sobering, but still overjoyed, he drew on the rope, bringing up the pail full to the brim. Cautiously he inspected the contents before lifting it up and guzzling.
"Cold, by the Lord, cold and clear. You never tasted anything like it in your life. Think of it: no more bugs, no more green stuff-pure."

"Not bad," she admitted, "although it smells a bit like sulphur."

"That is because we had to go through hell to get to it." Again he lowered the pail into the well. "You know something?" he said with an air of wonderment.

"Many things."

"I think we are going to make a go of it. That chap that was here before, the Englishman, he survived didn't he? The difference is, though, he never accomplished anything. We have barely started and already we have a garden and a well. All it takes is work."

"He put up an exercise pole; that's something."

In a rare gesture of intimacy they walked back to the house, hand in hand, Kevin with a pail of fresh water in his free hand.

"If that stone had fallen on you last night, even if it didn't kill you, may have made it impossible for you to get out."

"And I would have had to spend the night at the bottom of the well."

"Yes, my dear, but you would have drowned."

"True. Then you wouldn't have had to listen to my mouth organ anymore."

"Do not joke about the unspeakable."

"A little black humour never hurt nobody"

"Ed said."

Excerpted from The Spruces by Rex Holmes
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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