Grandpa remembered: a man of the Old West

His hands had roped calves and broken horses, but they could also hand out peppermints to adoring granddaughters

WINNIPEG — After a hearty meal, my maternal grandfather, Jonathan Clearwater, always reached up for a bowl he kept hidden at the back of the green buffet and offered me a smooth white peppermint from the palm of his big gnarled hand.

Grandpa’s hands had roped steers, branded cattle, broken wild horses, ushered in foals, treated sick livestock and grasped the smooth stock of a rifle. His were the hands of the wild west, toughened by wind and rain and sun, strengthened by hard work, tamed by the passing years.

He had fled from an abusive home at age 14, taking with him his 11-year-old brother.

They made their way in life as cowboys, helping to drive huge herds of cattle on the open ranges that straddled the 49th parallel during the late 1890s.

Grandpa’s first wife died giving birth to their third child and was buried somewhere on that prairie during a cattle drive. Her picture hung on the wall, and I often wondered about that pretty young woman and the rugged life that had claimed her much too young. I wondered if Grandpa thought of her, too.

Sometimes when I put my hand in his and we’d go out to feed his horses or milk the cow or water the chickens, I felt as if I were walking side by side with history, as close to a living legend as I’d ever get.

At other times, Grandpa and I just sat together on his favourite spot at the end of the sagging couch.

The crazy quilt that helped compensate for broken springs smelled like horses. Grandma had made it out of heavy overcoat patches outlined in a red wool featherstitch, a design that reminded me of the tom turkey’s footprints in the mud.

As I sat looking out the south window, my cheek bulging with a peppermint, I watched the vultures hovering over the dugout, their flight patterns handicapped by enormous meals of lizards. I shuddered at the thought, telling myself I must eat no more than two peppermints, even if Grandpa coaxed.

Grandpa told me about many birds that visited the dugout, small ones that bobbed up and down as they walked, “teeter-bum-snipes” he called them.

Every so often Grandpa leaned ahead slightly, squinting out the north window where he might spy a coyote scouting out a den of gophers, or a red fox hunting field mice. Their pelts brought in good money.

Grandpa and my uncles were all excellent marksmen and even as a child, I sensed the tremendous respect with which they handled guns.

A whole collection stood on the stairway landing, kept ready for target practice or deer season or duck hunting. There was usually game on Grandma’s supper table — venison or elk or partridge or prairie chicken, and lively discussions about recent hunting experiences spiced the conversation.

Sometimes as we sat together after a meal, Grandpa kept watch over the pasture where the “blue” cow grazed. Besides being a unique grey colour, she had a notorious reputation for jumping fences, and Grandpa could keep constant vigil over her behaviour from his spot on the end of the couch.

On occasion he lost sight of her. It was valid enough excuse to swing into the saddle of his sorrel mare and go off with his dogs for an afternoon hunt.

At such times I wandered out to play with a new litter of whimpering puppies, or gathered wild roses at the sand hill, or picked saskatoon berries behind the corral, milking them into a gallon syrup pail.

But that was long ago.

Where once the berries hung in purple clusters and the wind whispered through the poplars, there is nothing now but fields of prairie grain. The old farm buildings are gone, buried in the past, but memories of Grandpa and his homestead live on in the hearts and minds of his descendants scattered far and wide across the country.

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