Christmas at Mountain House|
It was Christmas Eve. Looked like a good Christmas, too, thought twenty-two year old Willie Crosina, as he finished the late afternoon chores. The war, thank God, was over.
Already men were coming home from the grim battlefields of Europe and Asia. All of Willie's family, four brothers, two sisters and their parents, were together to celebrate Christmas at Mountain House Ranch.
Mountain House had been Crosina's home ranch since the late 1800's when grandfather Crosina bought the place, then a stage coach stop on the route from Ashcroft to the Barkerville gold fields in B.C.'s Cariboo country. Many a hopeful miner stretched his legs at Mountain House while the driver changed horses. Willie wondered what they'd make of it now, transformed into a working ranch running three to four hundred head of cattle.
Those high-wheeled wooden stagecoaches were just a memory but residents still called local automobiles which ferried mail, freight, and passengers to remote Cariboo locations, 'stages'.
It had been snowing all day. Now, with the wind whipping the flakes, the snowfall was becoming a blizzard. Willie hoped Morris Bates, the hired man, was safely home with his family on the Sugar Cane Reserve. He decided Morris, familiar with Cariboo storms, had left Mountain House early enough to be out of the cold.
Willie turned, facing into the swirling snow. He noticed a faint glow of headlights moving toward the ranch along the road from Williams Lake eighteen miles away. Late Christmas shoppers from up-country headed home he thought. Suddenly the lights tiled wildly, then stopped moving altogether. "Probably slid in the ditch." Willie said to himself, heading for the house in a hurry.
Sure enough, soon a snow-covered stranger struggled up to the ranch house asking for help. The Likely stage, a station wagon Travel All, with a full load of passengers and Christmas freight, had missed a turn on the barely visible road. There it sat, nose first in the ditch. Passengers stood by, staring at their stalled transportation. Willie observed they seemed fairly merry for folks miles from home in a snowstorm.
The decision was quick. There was no point in digging out the stage. A foot of snow had fallen and more was coming fast. The road was drifted in. Bulldozers, which were the Highways Department's only snow clearing equipment, were scarce. There was no telling when a road crew might be along.
In hospitable Cariboo country, people looked after one another in emergencies. The perishables were unloaded from the stage, and the stranded travellers ushered to the ranch house where they were welcomed by the family as unexpected Christmas guests.
They were soon settled in, in the hired man's vacant room and in beds used by extra hands in the summer. To ranch women, accustomed from childhood to cooking for and coping with large crews, a few unlooked for visitors were no trouble. As family and guests got acquainted over dinner, it seemed as the old Mountain House stopping place was reliving its past.
The driver of the stage told them he was not long out of the Navy. So was another passenger who, on being discharged, had come straight back to his Cariboo home. Other passengers included an older gentleman and his son, owners of the Beaver Lake Ranch. A bit of a party developed as war stories gave way to ranching reminiscences.
On Christmas morning, some passengers seemed prepared to carry on with the party. Willie, assessing the guest's mood, explained succinctly. "My mother and sisters are putting a lot of effort into Christmas dinner. I want everybody in condition to enjoy it. So, you're all coming with me." Out they went, to give the cattle their Christmas dinner. By the time the men had loaded two tons of loose hay onto the wagons, driven the teams to the feed lot and distributed hay by hand with pitchforks to over three hundred head of cattle, a good part of the day had passed and everyone was hungry.
It was a cheerful, jovial dinner. There was even a bit of regret, when in the early dusk, the roar of a bulldozer announced the highways road crew. The Crosina's and their guests dug out the stage and got it back on the road. With warm thanks the travellers went on their way to Likely and the isolated ranches beyond.
One was already planning to return. The young former Navy man was so impressed with Willie's nineteen-year-old sister that he was determined to know her better. And he did. In a few years time they were married.
Fifty-four years later Willie Crosina still remembers that day fondly. "It was a nice Christmas dinner, "he declares, " spent with people you didn't usually have around at Christmas. All the more pleasant for being unexpected."
Sharing with strangers; that's the true spirit of Christmas.
(Trudy is a freelance writer living in Kamloops, B.C.)
Other articles by Trudy Frisk