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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"The Nest Builder" by Pauline Johnson

This story was published in one of my elementary school readers, and I remember its strong impression on me as a child. In fact, it's the only story in any reader that I remember from all my school days!

(I got this text of the story from It's one story in a collection called "The Moccasin Maker," by E. Pauline Johnson. You can find a bio of Miss Johnson here:

The Nest Builder

"Well! if some women aren't born just to laugh!" remarked the
station agent's wife. "Have you seen that round-faced woman in the

"No," replied the agent. "I've been too busy; I've had to help
unload freight. I heard some children in there, though; they were
playing and laughing to beat the band."

"NINE of them, John! NINE of them, and the oldest just twelve!"
gasped his wife. "Why, I'd be crazy if I were in her place.
She's come all the way from Grey or Bruce in Ontario--I forget
which--with not a soul to help her with that flock. Three of them
are almost babies. The smallest one is a darling--just sits on the
bench in there and dimples and gurgles and grins all the time."

"Hasn't she got a husband?" asked John.

"Of course," asserted his wife. "But that's just the problem now,
or rather he's the problem. He came to Manitoba a year ago, and
was working right here in this town. He doesn't seem to have had
much luck, and left last week for some ranch away back of Brandon,
she now finds out; she must have crossed his letter as she came
out. She expected to find him here, and now she is in that
waiting-room with nine children, no money to go further, or to
go to a hotel even, and she's--well, she's just good-natured and
smiling, and not a bit worried. As I say, some women are born just
to laugh."

"Have they anything to eat?" asked the agent, anxiously.

"Stacks of it--a huge hamper. But I took the children what milk we
had, and made her take a cup of good hot tea. She *would* pay me,
however, I couldn't stop her. But I noticed she has mighty little
change in her purse, and she said she had no money, and said it
with a round, untroubled, smiling face." The agent's wife spoke
the last words almost with envy.

"I'll try and locate the husband," said the agent.

"Yes, she'll get his address to-night, she says," explained the
wife; "but no one knows when he will get here. Most likely he's
twenty miles away from Brandon, and they will have to send out
for him."

Which eventually proved to be the case; and three days elapsed
before the husband and father was able to reach the little border
town where his wife and ample family had been installed as
residents of the general waiting-room of a small, scantily-equipped
station. No beds, no washing conveniences, no table, no chairs;
just the wall seats, with a roof above them and the pump water
at the end of the platform to drink from and dabble in. The
distressed man arrived, harrassed and anxious, only to be met by a
round-faced, laughing wife and nine round-faced, laughing children,
who all made sport of their "camping" experience, and assured him
they could have "stood it" a little longer, if need be.

But they slept in beds that night--glorious, feathery beds,
that were in reality but solid hemp mattresses--in the cheapest
lodging-house in town.

Then began the home-building. Henderson had secured a quarter
section of land and made two payments on it when his wife and
children arrived, with all their "settlers' effects" in a freight
car, which, truth to tell, were meagre enough. They had never
really owned a home in the East, and when, with saving and selling,
she managed to follow her husband into the promising world of
Manitoba, she determined to possess a home, no matter how crude,
how small, how remote. So Henderson hired horses and "teamed" out
sufficient lumber and tar-paper to erect a shack which measured
exactly eighteen by twelve feet, then sodded the roof in true
Manitoba style, and into this cramped abode Mrs. Henderson stowed
her household goods and nine small children. With the stove, table,
chairs, tubs and trunks, there was room for but one bed to be
put up. Poor, unresourceful Henderson surveyed the crowded shack
helplessly, but that round-faced, smiling wife of his was not a
particle discouraged. "We'll just build in two sets of bunks, on
each end of the house," she laughed. "The children won't mind
sleeping on 'shelves,' for the bread-winners must have the bed."

So they economized space with a dozen such little plans, and all
through the unpacking and settling and arranging, she would say
every hour or two, "Oh, it's a little crowded and stuffy, but it's
*ours*--it's *home*," until Henderson and the children caught
something of her inspiration, and the sod-roof shack became "home"
in the sweetest sense of the word.

There are some people who "make" time for everything, and this
remarkable mother was one. That winter she baked bread for every
English bachelor ranchman within ten miles. She did their washing
and ironing, and never neglected her own, either. She knitted socks
for them, and made and sold quantities of Saskatoon berry jam. When
spring came she had over fifty dollars of her own, with which she
promptly bought a cow. Then late in March they made a small first
payment of a team of horses, and "broke land" for the first time,
plowing and seeding a few acres of virgin prairie and getting a

But her quaintest invention to utilize every resource possible was
a novel scheme for chicken-raising. One morning the children came
in greatly excited over finding a wild duck's nest in the nearby
"slough." Mrs. Henderson told them to be very careful not to
frighten the bird, but to go back and search every foot of the
grassy edges and try to discover other nests. They succeeded in
finding three. That day a neighboring English rancher, driving past
on his way to Brandon, twenty miles distant, called out, "Want
anything from town, Mrs. Henderson?"

"Eggs, just eggs, if you will bring them, like a good boy," she
answered, running out to the trail to meet him.

"Why, you *are* luxurious to-day, and eggs at fifty cents a dozen,"
he exclaimed.

"Never mind," she replied, "they're not nearly so luxurious as
chickens. You just bring me a dozen and a half. Pay *any* price,
but be sure they are fresh, new laid, right off the nest. Now just
insist on that, or we shall quarrel." And with a menacing shake of
a forefinger and a customary laugh, she handed him a precious bank
note to pay for the treasures.

The next day Mrs. Henderson adroitly substituted hen's eggs for the
wild ducks' own, and the shy, pretty water fowls, returning from
their morning's swim, never discovered the fraud.

"Six eggs under three sitters--eighteen chicks, if we're lucky
enough to have secured fertile eggs," mused Mrs. Henderson. "Oh,
well, we'll see." And they *did* see. They saw exactly eighteen
fluffy, peeping chicks, whose timid little mothers could not
understand why their broods disappeared one by one from the long,
wet grasses surrounding the nest. But in a warm canton flannel
lined basket near the Henderson's stove the young arrivals chirped
and picked at warm meal as sturdily as if hatched in a coop by a
commonplace barnyard "Biddy." And every one of those chicks lived
and grew and fattened into a splendid flock, and the following
spring they began sitting on their own eggs. But the good-hearted
woman, in relating the story, would always say that she felt like
a thief and a robber whenever she thought of that shy, harmless
little wild duck who never had the satisfaction of seeing her brood
swim in the "slough."

All this happened more than twenty years ago, yet when I met Mrs.
Henderson last autumn, as she was journeying to Prince Albert to
visit a married daughter, her wonderfully youthful face was as
round and smiling as if she had never battled through the years
in a hand-to-hand fight to secure a home in the pioneer days
of Manitoba. She is well off now, and lives no more in the
twelve-by-eighteen-foot bunk-house, but when I asked her how she
accomplished so much, she replied, "I just jollied things along,
and laughed over the hard places. It makes them easier then."

So perhaps the station agent's wife was really right, after all,
when she remarked that "some women were just born to laugh."

(The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Moccasin Maker, by E. Pauline Johnson

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with
almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or
re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included
with this eBook or online at

Illustrations are from my childhood reader, "Under the North Star," 1946, Ryerson/Macmillan Co, Canada, illustrated by Hilton Hassell and Priscilla Hutchings. (Not specified which illustrator did these pictures.)

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