by BENEDICT and NANCY FREEDMAN
THE worst winter in fifty years, the old Scotsman had told me. I’d only been around for sixteen, but it was the worst I’d seen. On the north side of the train the windows were plastered with snow, and on the south side great clouds of snow were whipped along by a sixty-mile gale. There was snow on top of the train and snow under the train, and all the snow there was left in the world in front of the train, which was why we were stopped.
“They’re sending us snowplows, no doubt,” the old Scotsman said. I looked out the window, but it was no snowplow I could see, nor the road, but only whirling, boiling, rushing gray-white snow.
“You’ll be telling your children you were in the blizzard of 1907,” the old man chuckled. “I was speaking to the conductor a while back. It’s forty below and dropping.” He opened his book and began to read.
It was because of my pleurisy I was being sent to Uncle John, who lived in Calgary, Alberta. Up till 1905 Alberta had been part of the great Northwest Territories, and it gave me a real thrill to go to a place that had been officially civilized for only two years.
My mother had had her doubts about letting me go into such a wilderness. We looked it up on a map of North America, and Alberta seemed awfully empty. Our part of the country, which was Boston, was covered with winding black lines meaning roads, and barbed-wire lines meaning railroads, and circles of all sizes meaning cities and towns. In Alberta there was none of this reassuring confusion. A couple of thin blue rivers, a couple of crooked lakes, and the map maker was through.
However, the doctors said the cold dry climate of Alberta would be good for my lungs, and Uncle John said it was a long, long time since he had seen one of his kin, and so at last my mother gave in and let me go.
I promised I’d dress warm and keep dry and not go out into the night where there were bears.
“Now, there’s a lot of snow up in those North places,”Mother cautioned me, “and you’ll always remember to wear your woolen socks. And when there’s a cold wind blowing, on with your shawl and button up.”
“Yes, Mother,” I said. She kissed me, smiled and cried, and the train pulled out. Now here I was in one of those “North places” and the old Scotsman was calling to me from across the aisle.
One of the trainmen had wiped off the frost from his window. The Scotsman pointed, and there against the stock fence along the right of way were hundreds of cows and steers, blown across the prairies by that icy gale and packed densely along the fence, frozen and dead.
There was frost all over my window, except where I had scratched a clear space to look out, and except for KATHERINE MARY O’FALLON printed underneath, and except for where I had drawn Juno’s ears. I had put Juno in the big lunch basket Mother had given me. I had to keep him in there during the day because dogs were supposed to be kept in the baggage car and there was a mean porter on this train. Juno was the worry of my life. He had broken a strand of wicker, and I was always in terror that he’d stick that black nose of his out the hole.
The train was just about stopped again. I thought maybe it was another snowplow come to clear off the tracks, so I tried to look out. But the window had frosted up in just that little while. I had to blow on it and scrape it off. There wasn’t much to see; snow on everything and not many trees.
We stopped, and I followed the people who were getting off to walk around and stretch their legs. It was awfully cold, and I’d forgotten to put my sweater on under my coat. Before long I climbed on the nearest coach and walked through to mine.
My berth had been made up, and I didn’t see Juno’s basket. I climbed in and searched frantically, looking into the most impossible places. I ran down the car. I ran back and, throwing myself on my slomach, peered under the berth. There was the basket, tucked away next to my valise, but even as I pulled it out, I knew it was empty.
The wheels began to turn, and an awful feeling stabbed into me that maybe he was under them. I began a frantic; search under seats, between bags, and around legs. A gray-haired man slopped me. “ If you’re looking for a black cocker spaniel, the porter has him. Carried him down that way.”I started running. He was stiil talking, but I couldn’t wait. Maybe they’d put Juno off. Maybe he was out there on the track, wandering lost around the station.
I was at the end of the coach and pulling at the heavy door, when I stopped. On the other side, the frightening covered part where the cars join, was Juno. He was sitting up on his hind legs because the mean porter was holding little bits of meat for him. I looked hard at the porter, and anyone could see that he wasn’t mean, but only sad and thin.
THEY called me early, but I was already awake. This was the day we’d be getting in, and I had a lot to do. First I got out the red plaid dress I’d been saving. I was sorry now I hadn’t worn it, because it was all in little lines that wouldn’t fall out. It had been thirty days in that suitcase.
I combed Juno and then gathered up my clothes and took them into the ladies’ room. I thought I looked very well in my new dress, even if it was wrinkled. People with red hair as a rule look awful in red, but my hair has enough brown in it to be called auburn. I tried to put il up in the figure eight my mother wore low on her neck. It was harder to do than I expected, because my hair is curly and wouldn’t cooperate. But when I had it up I looked at least eighteeen - too bad I had to spoil it by putting a ribbon on. That was the way Uncle John was to recognize me, by the big blue ribbon in my hair.
People began coming in to dress. I was fascinated by a very fat woman dressing inside her nightgown. She had her hands inside and pulled everything up from the bottom.
It was getting crowded near the looking glass, and the ladies began pushing. I had to decide where to put the ribbon. I fastened it in the right side and started back to my berth. The Scotsman shook my hands, both of them. “It’s been a fine trip. 1 hope you meet your uncle all right. It’s been a pleasure knowing you, Miss O’Fallon.”
Uncle John, Uncle John I tried to fix the name with a body. Tall and dark, a lean face, Mother had said. What if he wasn’t there? What would I do? What if he was there and didn’t recognize me, and went away? What if he didn’t like me?
The train was stopping. I grabbed Juno and put him in the basket. What would I say to Uncle John? Should I call him Uncle John, or Uncle, or - Would he really be here? I couldn’t believe it — John Kennedy, my mother’s brother.
Ten minutes later I was standing on the platform, and a tall, dark, lean gentleman with eyes just like my mother’s was smiling and saying, " Katherine Mary?”
Right then and there I put my arms around him and kissed him. Then I looked at him again. “I hope you’re my Uncle John,” I said.
“Yes, I’m your Uncle John.” Then he looked at me hard. “Just like your mother.”
Uncle John had a big coon coat for me. I put it on right over my other coat, and it felt good. I climbed into the cutter, sat on a buffalo robe, and had another thrown over my knees. The buffalo robes excited Juno. He took a corner of one in his mouth and rocked back and forth, growling ‘way down in his throat.
We started up. All Uncle did was pick up the reins, but those horses knew. It was like flying. We startled up the snow on every side, and the wind blew a challenge. Juno was completely subdued and lay against me with his nose under my arm.
I snuggled into the furs and look a couple of quick looks at Uncle John. He was dressed in a coon coat too and fur mittens. And a fur cap pulled down over his cars.
“What kind of fur is that?" I pointed to the mittens.
I could see Uncle John wasn’t much of a one for talking. “And the cap too?” I asked.
Well, that subject seemed to be exhausted. I was about to settle back and look at things when Uncle surprised me. “How did you leave your mother, Kathy?”
“Mother’s fine,” I said. “She sends you her love.”
Uncle John nodded his head and grunted. I tried to figure out what feeling that expressed, bul I couldn’t. So after a while I gave up and just watched the town go by. “Calgary’s a big city, isn’i it?”
“Yes,” Uncle said, “mighty big.”
That was that.
It took us two days to get to Uncle’s ranch. We were almost there when I noticed a difference in the air. It seemed warmer, and the sky Hushed a deep rose. The glow spread over everything. “ Uncle John,”I said, “my face feels warm.”
Uncle smiled. When I say he smiled, I mean he smiled with his eyes. They twinkled and wrinkled, and that’s about as much of a smile as he could manage. “ It’s going to chinook,” he said.
“ What’s that? ”
“You’ll see soon enough, Kathy.” By that time I knew my uncle well enough to know I’d hear no more about chinooks. I puzzled over the word a long time. It sounded Indian. Or maybe Eskimo.
“Well, we’re here,” Uncle said.
I looked around. We had turned off into an icy path, and I could see a fence. But that was all I could see.
“Up ahead.” Uncle pointed.
Yes, there was smoke. Soon I was able to make out a large square house, log-built. A man waved and shouted. Juno began to bark excitedly.
“Hello, Jim,” my uncle said. “ Where’s Johnny?”
Jim didn’t answer. He was grinning at me. He even started to remove his beaver cap. Uncle looked at me with twinkling eyes. “ I thought it better not to tell your mother that there’s only one other white girl in these parts. This is Jim, one of the hands. Miss O’Fallon, my niece.”
“Pleasure to meet you.” Jim was still grinning.
We got out of the cutter, and it felt good to be standing on solid ground.
“Where’s Johnny?” Uncle asked again.
Jim’s smile broadened. “Out celebrating the Boer War.”
Uncle grunted, and we went into the house. The contrast in temperature between indoors and outdoors was so great that I ripped my furs off before I said a word or looked around or did anything else.
Uncle showed me over the house. It had two bedrooms, a big kitchen, and a front room. It was very comfortable. Uncle had ten hands working the place, mostly looking after cattle. “They sleep in the bunkhouse,” he said.
“Is one of them named Johnny?” I asked, because I was wondering about what Jim had said.
“No.” Uncle took out his pipe and lighted up. “No, Johnny lives here with me. Does the cooking.”
“Where is he?”
“You heard what Jim says, he’s out celebrating.”
“But Jim said he was celebrating the Boer War.”
Uncle John puffed a while. “Yes,” he said at last, “that’s right, You see, we were in it together. That’s where I knew Johnny.”
I thought of all the snow outside, and the miles and miles of nothing. “ But how does he celebrate?”
“Humph!” Uncle said. And that was all I could get out of him.
I HAD gone to bed with Juno and a four-stripe Hudson’s Bay blanket. Uncle had given me a white one because the Indians said the white were the warmest. But that night it chinooked, and I threw off all my covers, for it blew hot and warm. The red glow deepened in the sky. In twenty-four hours the snow disappeared.
“Uncle,” I asked, “what’s happened? Overnight it’s spring.”
“Chinook,” he said. “It’s a current of air from the west, warmed by the Japanese Current. It moves in over our mountains and down. It gets warmer and drier as it comes. And when it reaches the prairie, the thaw sets in.”
At first I ran around and looked at everything. The earth was bare, with little grass blades pricking at it. What I had thought was field melted, and the Red Deer River ran its course. Juno and I took a long walk along its banks, looking into the swift, turbulent waters and listening for the different tones as it rushed at stones and boulders. We watched the ice break and disappear. The larger chunks were carried past like white rafts. It would have been a wild journey for anyone riding those ice cakes, for they whirled and struck - and for a moment lay in the shelter of the shallows before another eddy spun them on again.
We left the river and wandered up near the cut banks. They were low beds that once were mountain streams. Now they were dry, and cattle were grazing there, thousands of them. Juno barked and barked, but not one of the shaggy heads lifted to look at us. It is very fertile in these canyons, and the cattle graze all year round.
But today the snow had gone. Everywhere, from all things, there fell a constant drip: from branches, from roots, from boulders, from eaves. I went to sleep my second night on the ranch to the uneven rhythm of that wet, pattering sound. In the morning the sun shone on the moisture-soaked earth, and the sound of wet air shaking itself into the Red Deer torrent made a subtle kind of counterpoint. This magic land — this was the North.
I walked again to the river. It was much higher than the day before. In some places water ran over the prairie, keeping pace with the strong current of the river. I saw men at a distance, driving cattle. They shouted and waved at me. But the wind carried their words away, and l couldn’t hear. One of the figures separated itself from the group and came riding for me. It was Uncle John. “ Back to the house,” he yelled. “Get back to the house.”
I wasn’t used to being shouted at. Without answering, I turned and walked back.
No one was in the house. No one came for lunch either. I got awfully hungry, and when I couldn’t hold out any longer, I looked around in the kitchen and ended by eating some dried fruit. It was four o’clock by then, and I was feeling very lonesome and neglected. Even Juno was no company. He kept whining, and every once in a while let out a sharp bark. That made me nervous.
At first I thought I imagined it, but then I sat very still and listened, minute after minute. I was not mistaken. A low mournful sound vibrated through the house.
It was after dark when the men came trooping back, tired and silent. I’d been mad at all of them, but when I saw them, the anger went out of me. I put some coffee on the stove. It was hot and black, and the men relaxed.
“How many you reckon we lost ?”
“Hundred head, maybe.”
“MacDonald’s lost more,” Uncle said.
“What happened?” I felt I could ask it now.
Uncle John gulped coffee. “Stock drowned.”
“The men have been rounding them up for three, four days, since we first knew it was going to chinook. But there were a couple thousand head to get out.”
I still couldn’t understand. “But how did they drown ?”
“Ice jammed. Blocked the river. Flooded the prairie. We were working in three feet of water, and it was rising all the time.”
I tried to shut out the picture of thousands of beasts helpless in the flood.
I filled up the cups all around. Then Uncle John went on. “It went rushing and foaming into the canyons where the herds were grazing. We rounded them out as fast as we could. Got most of them. Got more than some. MacDonald lost five hundred head.”
I closed my eyes.
“ Happens every year, Miss,” one of the men said. “Most times we get ‘em out. Sometimes we don’t.”
I felt sick. Only that morning I’d seen them in the arroyos, red and white patches of them going on for miles.
I knew now what that strange monotonous vibration had been — the lowing of panic-stricken cows and steers struggling for a foothold, thrashing and churning till the water turned muddy. Men shouted at them, horses nudged them, water lashed over them, and their fear burst loose, stampeding them. The young fell and were trodden. They cried their soft low cry of terror, and the walls of the room had sounded with it. I looked at the eleven men sitting there in soggy boots. This, too, was the North.
I WAS in the kitchen, just finishing seven berry pies. They were currant — dried currants, at that. I’d never done this much cooking before, and I was up to my elbows in flour. There came an awful knock at the front door, as though someone were kicking it. I walked into the living room and stood uncertainly looking at the door. The thumping continued.
“Who’s there?” I asked. An extra kick was the only answer. I was alone in the house. “Who’s there?” I asked again.
“Open the door— or I’ll leave him on the porch!”
My first thought was that Uncle John had been hurt. I opened the door. A tall young man in a bright red jacket strode in. He carried a man on his back.
“Holy St. Patrick!” I cried. “Is he dead?”
The young man laughed and dumped his burden down on the couch. “Smell him,” he said.
I did. The odor reminded me of John L. Sullivan, the fighter. He used to stay at our house. He had a watch with diamond shamrocks on the back, and every time he’d come in smelling like this, there’d be one less diamond shamrock on that watch.
“Who is it?” I asked.
So this was the missing Johnny. “Will you turn him over, please.” I wanted a good look at him. He turned him, and I saw a little man with a big, shaggy mustache and a pale face with a yellow tinge to it.
“He needs some black coffee. You’d better be put t ing it on.”
I whirled around. I was five feet, four and one-half inches, but I had to look up, ’way up. “ I thank you kindly for bringing him back, and I’ll thank you to be on your way again, for I’m taking no orders from an English soldier.”
“An English soldier, am I? And what gave you that idea? ” He frowned down at me, and he was very good-looking.
“With that red coat, you’re either off to a fox hunt or you’re a British peeler, or maybe you’re both.”
“You little chit — look at the size of you and you insulting the uniform!”
That made me mad. He could have noticed my naturally curly hair or my eyes, instead of my size.
“Well, if you’re not an Englishman, who are you?”
“I’m Sergeant Mike Flannigan, of the Northwest Mounted.”
I never could really have thought he was an Englishman, not with the lilt he had to his speech.
Johnny Flaherty moaned from the couch. I had almost forgotten him.
“Miss O’Fallon,” the sergeant said paliently, “will you get the poor man some coffee?”
I decided to let this Irish cop know whom he was dealing with. Without a word I walked off into the kitchen. I heard Mike Flannigan singing, in a good and certainly big baritone, something that went “Heave ho, heave ho!” at the end of every line. In a moment he came in with Johnny Flaherty on his back again.
“Whatever are you doing?”
Mike backed up to the pump and slid Johnny off his back, then whirled to catch him as he sagged limply on the floor. Mike Flannigan braced him with a knee and a hand against the wall. With the other hand he pumped. “Got to sober him up before your uncle gets back.”
The water came in a sudden stream. He pushed Johnny’s head under it and continued pumping. For a moment there was no reaction except a feeble sputtering. Then suddenly Johnny let out a whoop and began thrashing wildly in all directions and using the same words John L. Sullivan used.
Flaherty’s arms and legs flayed out at every angle. The only stationary part of him was his head, which Mike held relentlessly under the pump. Profanity and water ran down the dripping mustache into the drain. And all the time Mike soothed him in a low soft brogue.
“ Don’t tell me you were celebrating an honorable historical event like the Boer War by getting completely and disgustingly drunk? And what’s it an anniversary of, this time ?”
“Mafeking,” Johnny said, “The Battle of Mafeking.” His speech was no longer thick.
“Uh-uh,” Mike said. “You celebrated that last time, only six weeks ago. How many times a year does a date come around?” His pump hand started working. “What month is this?”
“Isn’t it February?" Johnny asked. “That’s right,” he screamed, with his head halfway to the pump. “It’s April! Must’ve got mixed up for a moment,”
“You must have,”Mike said; and then, in his most beguiling tone, “What did you say you were celebrating, Johnny?”
“The victory of Ladysmith,” Johnny said, and they both started laughing. Johnny grabbed a towel and started rubbing his head and face, and then wound the towel around his neck.
He turned to me and gave me a sheepish grin, “I feel rotten, Miss Katherine. Besides which, your uncle’s going to be like the black Satan for the next lew days. I hope you can bring yourself to overlook the disgusting spectacle I’ve made of myself.”
“She shouldn’t forgive you, you old toper, and that’s a fact.”
“Keep out of this, Sergeant,” snapped Johnny, without taking his worried, red-veined eyes off me.
“Mr. Flaherty,” I said, “I’m sorry to learn you’re a drinking man. My mother always said it was the curse of the Irish, but if you like your coffee as strong as your drink, it’s ready for you.”
He seized the cup avidly in his hands. “And God bless you for this and for your forgivin ways. It’s an angel, in truth, has come to live with us.” He drank the coffee down without taking breath, “I’ll have a second cup, Miss, and then I’ll go to bed.”
Johnny drank down his second cup as he had his first. The front door slammed. “It’s your uncle!” Johnny was terrified. “I’m in bed! Tell him I came home peaceful and went straight to bed.” And Johnny was out the one door before Uncle John was in the other.
UNCLE walked right up to Mike Flannigan and shook him by the hand. " It ‘s good to see you, Mike. What brings you into our part of the country?”
“Well, John, rumor has it that a young lady has been seen in these parts, and I thought I’d better check on it.” He laughed and flashed his eyes at me to see how I was taking that.
“He came to bring Johnny home,” I said.
Uncle stopped laughing and his mouth clamped into a line. “Johnny home?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Mike said, but he didn’t seem to want to say anything more than that.
“Come home walking?”
“Sure,” Mike said.
“Sergeant Flannigan,” I began, “you know very well — ”
“I’m not saying he didn’t need a little assistance,” Mike put in, and looked at me in a way that made me know I’d better shut up. I did.
But Uncle John was mad. Plenty mad. He didn’t say anything. Just walked into the room he shared with Johnny. We could hear them in there going at it. Uncle John would start quiet and end shouting, and then Johnny would shout too, so that neither one could hear what the other was saying. And that was probably just as well. I was embarrassed that Sergeant Mike had to hear it. But he seemed to be enjoying it.
I went on preparing the dinner and setting the table and pretending 1 didn’t know what the words meant, although I did from John L. Sullivan. I was getting madder and madder at Mike Flannigan, so mad that I put two sets of spoons on the table and no forks. He noticed when I took off the extra spoons and laughed harder.
I stopped squarely in front of him. “What do you find so amusing, Sergeant?”
“A young lady like yourself in Alberta Territory.”
I didn’t know what he meant by that, so I looked at him sharply as though I did know. “Will you please tell my uncle that dinner is ready?”
“What about the hands?”
“They’ve eaten, all ten of them.” I must have sounded tired, for he went for Uncle right away.
They came back, Uncle John not saying much. I didn’t say much either, because I was mad, and Mike didn’t say much, because he was eating. After a while, when I’d stood it as long as I could, I asked my uncle, in a very polite voice, if he’d care for more potatoes. He put down his fork. “ Katherine Mary,” he said, “I think you’re not too favorably impressed with my friend Johnny Flaherty?”
“I’m not,” I said.
“Well,” my uncle said, “he takes a lot of putting up with, but it’s worth it to have the best cook in the Nort Invest.”
I remembered the mud on Johnny’s clothes and hands, and his face going from green to purple under the pump. “He can cook,” I said, “but it’s a question in my mind if I’d care to eat it.”
My uncle pushed back his chair, and so did Mike.
“Well,” said Mike, “when are you going to teach Kathy to shoot?”
“You mean go hunting?” I couldn’t believe it.
“Johnny bought her a twenty-two in town,” Uncle said.
“You won’t be needing any ammunition,” Mike said, and grinned at me.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Well, you can use the currants in those seven currant pies you baked.”
Was there really something wrong with the pies? I’d been saving mine for later because I was full. But I walked to the table and took a big bite of it to show him. It was as if I had pebbles in my mouth. I wondered what was wrong. But I wasn’t going to ask them, because they were laughing at me and because my mouth was too full of that currant rock pile to talk. I made a fake gulp and tried to hold my mouth naturally as if I had swallowed them.
Mike said good-bye. I didn’t answer because I couldn’t. He took my hand and leaned toward me till my hair brushed his cheek. “Spit ‘em out,” he said softly, “and next time, cook em.
I did no more cooking for a while. Johnny was back on the job, and he would only let me in the kitchen to sniff. But I made him promise to lei me get the dinner if ever Sergeant Mike Flannigan returned.
Oh, it was a fine revenge I was preparing for him! I would make currant pies with currants so soft and juicy they would melt in the mouths of the men, but his I would fill with buckshot. And while the others ate and enjoyed, he would break his jaws. Then I would say, not to him but to the walls, “It is weak teeth these redcoats have.”
ROSIE was a red-and-whi te Indian cay use, and Uncle John had told me Rosie was mine for as long as I stayed with him. But he hadn’t told Rosie. She was more trouble than a bag of wildcats. Some days she acted as if she had swallowed a pint of pepper. She dashed here and there, trotted and galloped and jumped ditches, whether I wanted to or not. The next day she would mope; a slow walk was her fancy, a slow walk that grew tireder and tireder and at last stopped altogether. If I kicked her, she’d go into a bumpy jog, two steps walking and two steps trot, and the moment my attention wandered, Rosie stopped.
Hard as it was to ride Rosie, it was harder to saddle her. I threw a blanket and saddle on her back. That was easy. But the moment I threaded the end of the cinch strap through the rings, Rosie’s eyes met mine, her nostrils twitched, she sucked in an enormous breath, and her stomach swelled up like a sausage balloon. Pull as I would, I could barely fasten the strap. I mounted her, out came her breath, the saddle slithered around, and the blanket worked loose.
On the ride back this particular day I just let Rosie lope along. I only pulled at the reins when she stopped to eat grass, which she did as often as she thought she could get away with it. Suddenly I jerked her up so hard and short she rolled her eyes and flicked her ears at me. I hadn’t meant to, but coming over the hill to the north of me was another rider.
In such wild and open country you rarely meet anyone, but it wasn’t that that made me pull at Rosie. Even at a distance I could see that the rider was tall, and that he was dressed in red. I told Rosie that there were other Mounties in the world, and it probably wasn’t Mike at all. But I didn’t believe myself, and my heart pounded fast and made more noise than Rosie’s hoofs.
He was close enough now for me to soe his uniform—’red jacket, dark-blue riding breeches with a yellow stripe, long brown boots, spurs, holster, beaver cap on top of black waving hair.
“How do you do, Sergeant Flannigan?”
“Get off your horse,” he said. That was certainly not the way to greet a young woman you hadn’t seen in three weeks. I gave him what I hoped was an icy look and dug my heels into Rosie, who shot off.
Mike wheeled his horse and took after me. It was a short race because he rode that big black horse of his right in front of Rosie. She stopped short; I went pitching forward and would have fallen if Mike hadn’t reached out and grabbed me and set me back in the saddle again.
He dismounted. “Get down,” he said.
I sat there with my lips pressed hard together, thinking things I could only have said if I’d been Johnny or John L. Sullivan.
Sergeant Mike reached up, put his two hands around my waist, and lifted me down. For just a minute I was standing awfully close to him, and for that minute I couldn’t do anything.
But I pulled away from him. “Mike Flannigan,” I said, “you’re not to push me around and pull me off horses. I’ll tell my uncle, and he and Johnny and the ten hands will ride you down, and even if you are a Mounty, they’ll hog-tie you and—” I had started out in a low, frigid voice, but by now I was yelling, and he watched me, slightly amused, as if I were putting on a show for him.
“Katherine Mary, you’re the hardest girl in the world to do anything for.”
I looked at him a little uncertainly. “What did you want to do for me?”
“I want to teach you to manage your horse.”
There he was telling me again.
“I know how to manage my horse.”
Mike laughed. “If you could have seen yourself bouncing all over, like a jack-in-the-box, you wouldn’t think so.”
“I ride very well.”
“You would if you’d tighten your cinch.”
“But Rosie—” I changed my mind. I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of showing me or telling me anything more.
“But Rosie blows out her stomach when you go to pull it tight. Is that it?”
“I low’d you —” Then 1 saw the grin on his face. “Yes, that’s it.”
“Well, look. Here’s what you’ve got to do.” He undid Rosie’s cinch and held it ready to tighten. Rosie took her usual big breath, blowing out her belly till it looked like a barrel. When she had it completely extended, Mike cracked her across the back with the flat of his hand. Rosie was so surprised she gave a sort of gasp, and all the breath went out of her. Her sides deflated like a punctured balloon, and in that moment the cinch was pulled in and tightened.
“There,” said Mike. “Now you do it.”
I tried to, but the first time I didn’t hit hard enough, and the second time I forgot to pull the cinch, but finally I got it.
“Did I do it right ?” I asked, knowing very well I had but wanting a little praise out of him.
“Now, another thing,”said Mike. " You’re riding English on a Western saddle. You’ve got to let out those stirrups.”He slipped them in a lower notch. “Try that,”and he handed me up.
“How is it? Comfortable?”
I had decided to say it was all wrong, but he asked me so eagerly that I had to let him be right. “Yes, it’s much better.”He looked at me and smiled, not that teasing grin but a sweet, gentle, kind smile. He had blue eyes, the bluest I had ever seen.
We looked at each other for a few minutes. Then I realized neither one of us was talking. And he was looking at me in a queer way. Of course, the sun was in his eyes, and it might have been that.
FOR a week I had been after Uncle John to get his permission to go to the O’Malleys’ dance with Mike. And all I could get out of him was “I’m thinking it over.”
I made a face to myself, but he caught me.
“And what’s the matter, Kathy?” he said. “Don’t you believe I’m thinking it over?”
I fired up. “You’ve been thinking it over night and day for a week,” I said. “It’s a wonder you’ve had time to attend to the cattle and the house and the accounts.”
“Well,” he said, “when’s the dance?”
“Your mother might not be wanting you to run off to dances at your age, even if it is with a Mounty, so I’ll have to continue to think it over.”He turned toward the door. “But get your clothes ready, just in case -”
When Mike came to pick me up, Uncle John was still thinking it over. He said he’d let me know his decision when we came back.
We laughed together as we saddled our horses.
“Your Uncle John,”said Mike, “never says anything straight on. Always hits it sideways.”
We rode off over the muddy road. A light irritating rain was falling, and I kept reaching down to make sure none of it was trickling off Rosie’s back into the saddlebag. In that saddlebag was my dance dress, very carefully folded, with round twists of newspaper in the folds to prevent creases. In my mackinaw pants and beaver coat I looked like Mike’s kid brother, but bouncing on Rosie’s side I had a dress that would remind him that I was a girl. Blue and shining it was, with heavy ruffles and a slender waist; and my blue shoes that matched were at ihe very bottom so as not to crush anything.
The O’Malley barn could be heard long before it could be seen. As we rode up the hill we heard the shrill notes of a fiddle start up, and the laughing and talk die down. Two Indians galloped by us in a wild silent race. The rain stopped for a while, and there was a pale gleam in the west where the moon was trying to break through. Mike stopped at the barn and told me to go up to the house to change. But I wanted to look in at the dance first.
Four or five Indians were standing around the door. They were dressed in dark-blue suits; and although the suits were all the same size, the Indians weren’t. Mike opened the door, and I peered into the huge, dimly lit room. A few smoky oil lamps hung from the rafters, throwing long, flickering shadows on the floor. The dancers were in a fast and furious square dance, but as far as I could make out there were ten men to every woman on the floor, and a few hundred more men lined up along the walls. Three fiddlers played wildly in the back, and near them a tall ferocious ‘breed with a dirty handkerchief around his neck plucked at a guitar, I heard the caller yelling above the racket, “Join hands round for a Birdie in the Cage! Get your partner and swing her off the floor! Join hands round - Birdie flyout and Hawkie fly in! Ilawkie fly out, give Birdie a swing! Everybody join hands and swing her all around!”
A space cleared in the center of the floor, and I watched a heavy-shouldered giant of a man swing his partner around and around, with everybody clapping and stamping. Her beaded moccasins barely touched the floor, her skirts billowed out, and her head was thrown back, eyes closed. I was frightened and excited and anxious to join the dance myself.
“I’ll run up to the house and change,” I told Mike. I walked out, and the four Indians in their blue suits looked at me and grinned. Mike appeared, glaring.
“I’ll lake you,” he said.
When we came hack to the dance, it was even more crowded. White trappers, ‘breeds, and Indians fought over the few Indian girls. I fell eyes staring at me from every corner. Before I threaded my way through the first square dance, I had received twenty proposals, including marriage. I was the only white girl there.
I never had time to sit down and catch my breath. Sometimes in the patterns of a dance I would he swept away from Mike. Arms would tighten around me, and faces would flash by — dark Indian faces gleaming with sweat and grease; red Scottish faces shining with heat; small French faces secretly smiling. The music flew by in wild, erratic rhythm, the laughter was loud and excited, and the floor of the barn shook under the heavy steps of the men.
Unexpectedly I heard Mike’s voice in my car. “Come over to the side,” he said, taking my hand. “There’s going to be trouble.” I followed Mike’s eyes and saw a pale man standing uncertainly by the door, scrutinizing the dancers.
“George Bailey,” Mike said. “And Bull MacGregor is here with the girl.”
“What girl? Who’s Bull MacGregor? Where?”
But my questions were answered quickly. Nearly everyone had stopped dancing, and a path opened. At one end of it I could see the giant who had whirled his partner in the air during “Birdie in the Cage.” A six-foot-four Scotsman he was, with dirty red hair and an uneven beard. At the other end of the hushed dancers stood George Bailey. He didn’t look at Bull MacGregor or the slender Indian girl, half his size, who stood next to him, staring at the floor. Instead, he looked over at Mike. There was whispering and talking from the crowd. Someone snickered, and the musicians went at their fiddles in an effort to start the dance again.
Mike and I watched Bull MacGregor swagger insolently past George Bailey on his way to the door. His girl half ran, half walked along with him. Bailey did not move; his hollow face showed no expression. MacGregor opened the door, and the wet air blew in. But the girl had turned around and stood staring at George Bailey. Her face also was expressionless, but her whole body was tense and expectant. MacGregor tapped her on the shoulder, but she did not feel it. He said something in a low voice. The girl didn’t move. He flushed from his forehead into the neck of his open shirt, and he hit the girl in the face, a hard short blow.
We all watched George Bailey. He was crossing the floor, slowly, steadily. His mouth was slightly open and his hand trembled, but he didn’t quicken his pace.
Bull MacGregor waited, leaning forward, swinging his huge fists, heavy as sledges. The girl scrambled to her feet and seized his arm. MacGregor flung her off, and she fell toward me and Mike. Her lip was bleeding, and there was a long purple welt on her cheek.
“Do something, Mike!” I pushed him. “Put him in jail.”
“Yes, yes, in jail,” the girl sobbed, clinging to me. “He kill him, he kill him!”
George Bailey was about ten feet away. He stopped uncertainly, hesitated, but MacGregor rushed him with a bellow that made me understand why they called him “Bull.” There was a flurry of punches, Mike and two other men stepped into the struggle, and it was all over in a second. Bull’s right arm was slashed and bleeding, and Bailey lay on the floor, shaking his head queerly. The two men helped him to his feet and pulled him away, while Mike stood in front of MacGregor and talked to him in a low voice.
“I’ll forget the scratch,” Bull said, “but if I see him around again, I’m going to let the dirty ‘breed have it.”
He turned toward the girl. “And now you, come on!” He put his hand on her shoulder and sprayed blood all over us both.
“Sergeant Mike, put him in jail,” the girl pleaded.
”He beat me, he choke me, he try kill me! Look —” and she started to undo the collar of her dress.
“Let her alone for tonight, Bull,” Mike said.
MacGregor growled something and turned toward the door. The blood was still trickling down his arm, but he ignored it.
“Mike,” I said angrily, “do something for her. That big bully! I’d just like to have seen him lay a hand on me.”
Mike grinned. “All right,” he said to the girl, “he beats you?”
“He try kill me all the time.”
“And you’re through with him for good?”
“ Yes, yes, through, finished.”
“All right. Come in in the morning and sign a complaint, and we’ll arrest him.”
“And you can stay here tonight. I’ll speak to the O’Malleys. They’ll put you up.”
Mike signed to an older woman, who came over to take her away. Her fingers clung to me, and she repeated, “Yes — in jail, in jail!”
I watched till the door shut behind her. The fiddles started up again with renewed vigor. But I wasn’t interested in music or dancing any more.
“Mike,” I whispered, “you will put that man in jail?”
He smiled. “She won’t come in to sign a complaint. She won’t even stay here tonight. In an hour she’ll go home to Bull.”
“No!” I cried, horrified.
“It’s happened before,” Mike said calmly. “They always go back.”
“Well,” I said, turning a little red, “if any man ever struck me, if he just laid his lilt lest finger on me, I’d get the biggest, sharpest knife in the kitchen, and I’d whet it all day on the grindstone; and it’s my belief, Sergeant Flannigan, that man wouldn’t sleep long in my house.”
Mike burst out laughing and swung me onto Ihe dance floor.
I didn’t like Mike’s callous attitude, and I didn’t like that bully’s roughness, and I didn’t like her weakness if she went back to him, and I was just irritated all around. So I guess I acted a little cool to Mike, and soon he seemed to draw into himself, and then we were riding home in silence.
Finally I said, “It was a very nice dance, and I thank you.” And he said, “Yes.”
I said, “I certainly enjoyed all the people, and the Indians, and the music.” And he said, “Yes.”
I kicked Rosie, hard. “You’re not much for talking this night?”
“No.” He smiled. “But women are unpredictable creatures, all of them. For instance, right now you’re sulky, and in a minute you’re going to laugh.” And he leaned over and squeezed my hand. I laughed. I couldn’t help it.
But that was all. He didn’t say another word. He didn’t squeeze my hand again or try to kiss me. We just rode ahead under the dark clouds. What I say is, men are unpredictable creatures, all of them.
Flashes of lightning ripped the heavens, and rain blinded our horses. I turned my face to the sky and laughed because the things you enjoy can’t hurt you. That’s what Mike always said. In spite of that my boots felt soggy, and the wet penetrated my heavy mackinaw.
ONCE we had passed the broken-down fence that marked Uncle’s property, the horses took heart and began to gallop.
“Ride right up on the porch,” Mike shouted. “I want to get you out of the rain.” So I rode Rosie under the shelter of the eaves and got off.
“I’ll take them around to the barn,” Mike said. “You go to bed.”
“I’ve had a very nice evening,” I said.
“Katherine Mary, get in the house and get out of those wet clothes.” I went into the house, but I gave the door a good slam so he’d know I was mad. And there was Uncle John sitting up.
“It’s a quarter to one,” said my uncle.
“It’s a wonder we ever got here in this rain. The horses almost got mired.”
“Where’s Mike? Didn’t he come in with you?”
“He’s seeing to the horses.”
“We can’t let him go on a night like this. He’ll sleep in the bunkhouse.”
The door opened and slammed, and Mike strode across the room, leaving puddles of water behind him. He nodded to Uncle. “I told Kathy to get into some dry clothes.”
I faced him. “I was just saying good night to my uncle. Any objections?”
Mike was looking grim, and Uncle interrupted. “He’s right, Kathy. You’re wet to the skin.”
What were the two of them — a couple of grandmas? I flounced out of the room.
“You can say good night in the morning,” Mike called after me. I didn’t even turn around.
I dried all over with a rough towel. It felt good. Then I got into my nightgown. I was still chilly, so I put on my robe too. Then I got into bed and pulled up the covers. I didn’t feel sleepy, and my behavior troubled me. After all, Mike had taken me out, and I’d had a wonderful time. And poor Uncle John waiting up till all hours. Then I’d acted like that.
I got out of bed and opened the door to the living room. Uncle was still there by the fire, and I came out and walked to the fireplace. Mike stuck his head around the corner of the kitchen door.
“I’m cold,” I said, and held out my hands to the fire. I wanted to say, “I’m sorry,”too, but Mike started yelling because I didn’t have any slippers on, and when he got through I didn’t feel like saying it any more.
“What are you doing in there anyway?” I asked him. “I thought you were supposed to be in the bunkhouse.”
“Well,” said Mike, “I was warming up some water for a hot bath. But as long as you’re still up, you’re the one who’s going to gel it.” I simply laughed.
Mike said nothing more, but poured the heated water from the kettle into a large washtub. Uncle John watched with interest. I pretended to be staring dreamily into the fire.
Mike came to the door. “It’s all ready,”he said.
“Uncle John, can you make out any salamanders in the flames?” I punctuated that sentence with a shriek, for Alike lifted me off my feet, carried me to a chair, set me down in it, rolled back nightgown and robe till they reached my knees, then stuck my feet into that tub of water.
“It’s too hot!” I screamed.
“It’s good for you.”
Uncle was shocked into movement, not much, but a little. He stood up. “Mike, I think this has gone too far.”
“It has, John,” Mike agreed, “and I want to talk to you about it right now.” He looked down at me. “You stay where you are.” He walked out of the kitchen and shut the door behind him.
I stepped quietly out of the tub, dried my feet with a dish towel, walked without one creak of the floor to the door, and stood listening, hoping to hear Uncle John bawl Mike out. But it was Mike who was doing the talking. I listened to one sentence, then another, and then I realized what he was leading up to, and then I heard him say it. He was asking Uncle John if he could marry me. I gasped. At least I think I did, because Mike pushed the door open.
“I thought I told you to stay in that tub.” He scooped me up and set me down again with my feet in the hot water. I had my arms around his neck, and I didn’t let go.
“ Mike, do you — Do you — ”
“Yes,” he said, and put my hands back in my lap. He walked over to Uncle John, who was shaking his head and talking to himself. Mike stopped in front of him. “Well, John?”
“I can’t give my consent, Mike. The girl’s too young, only sixteen. And she’s not well. Her lungs aren’t too strong.”
“I’ll look after her, John.” And we both knew he would.
“ You’ll be going back to your wild North, and you can’t take a delicate girl like Katherine Mary into a country like that. You know you can’t.”
Mike looked from me to my uncle. “There’s two ways of thinking, when it comes to that. To my mind, the country would harden her, make a strong woman of her.”
There was a silence between the men.
Finally Uncle said, “There’s no man I’d rather give her to than you, Mike Flannigan, and you know it well. But she was put in my charge by her mother. And her mother would not approve. She’s too young yet, and she has no strength. I’m thinking she should go back to Boston.”
I stamped my foot, forgetting it was in the tub, and the water splashed all over. “Have I nothing to say about this?” I asked the two of them.
Mike looked at me reproachfully. “Your uncle’s too good a friend for me to be talking a matter like this behind his back.”
“And what am I? I hope at least that you think as much of me as of my uncle.”
“Kathy, of course I do.”
“Well, then, you just say it. If you love me, you tell me right here and now. And if you want me to marry you, you ask me, and then maybe I will and maybe I won’t.”
Mike came over to me and crouched down by my chair so he could see my face. He spoke low so my uncle couldn’t hear. “I love you, Kathy. I always have, and I think you’ve .always known it.”
I couldn’t stand the look in his eyes, the earnest, almost pleading look. I turned away from it. I, a sixteen-year-old, had demanded that this sergeant of the Northwest Mounted humble himself, and he had.
“I’ll make you happy, girl. I’ll give my life to it. I want you for my wife.” He didn’t touch me. Didn’t even take my hand. But I felt and knew only Mike.
“I’m going to marry him,” I said to my uncle. But my uncle was no longer there. Mike stood up, drawing me with him. We held to each other, and I had never had him so close.
I shut myself in my room. All night long I went over it and over it with Mother, and sometimes she cried and sometimes she laughed and sometimes she didn’t do anything at all. And that’s what I was most afraid of. I could see her opening my letter. She would read it twice, because the first time she wouldn’t believe it. I had to stop her worry and her fear by telling about Mike. To know he was kind and good and capable - that would help her. Maybe I could make her know about Mike; but about the country he was taking me to — never.
I looked down at the words I had written: “We will be married here at the ranch on October 20, that’s next Sunday. Uncle will give me away, and Johnny will be best man. I have a beautiful dress, all white with lace at the throat and on the sleeves.”
I couldn’t put it off any more. I began a new paragraph, writing the words that had to be written. “Then we are going to Hudson’s Hope, where Mike is stationed. We’ll take the train from here to Edmonton. From Edmonton we must travel seven hundred miles by dog sled. Mike says the trip will take two or three months.”
I looked over what I had written, and crossed out the part about seven hundred miles and the words “two or three months.” Then I told her that my pleurisy didn’t bother me any more. I thought writing it down like this would help make it true. Because really 1 was worried that 1 might fold up on Mike somewhere along those seven hundred miles to Hudson’s Hope.
“I want for you to be here so much,” I told her, “but I know you can’t leave the house.” I would keep the fear pushed down inside of me, and no one would know it was there.
“I’m awfully happy,” I wrote.
I was. Awfully happy and awfully in love, and on Sunday I was marrying Mike.
WE HAD to leave Juno. He was too civilized to live on the trail. The sled dogs would tear him to pieces Mike warned me. “I’ll get you another Juno when we get to Hudson’s Hope.” He was the last tie with Boston and home.
Well, another Juno was behind me. The train Juno would be scrambling over the ranch. The Boston Juno would be curled up in my mother’s bedroom, where her grandmother, the Irish Juno, had had her first pups. And I was going to make Mike give me a Northwest Juno as soon as one of our sled dogs had a litter. For a second I was worried because it seemed to me that only male dogs could do that hard sled-pulling. But then the only dogs I’d seen in the North were sled dogs, and if they were all male —
It took me a long time to get used to these Northern dogs. Not dogs, but half-tamed wolves they seemed. Pat one on the head, and you’d lose a finger. I’ve seen Black-Tip take a bite out of the one in front of him while pulling the sled on the dead run. The greatest and most unbelievable confusion in the world is when dog teams go at each other, and snarl the traces like a wet fishline, and pile the goods in the snow, and mill around in growling fury.
About the only one with a gentle disposition was Black-Mittens. The half-breeds and the Crees seemed to think highly of the black parts of dogs, and so they were named Black-Ear, Black-Foot, Black-Socks, Black-and-White, Black-Patch, and so on, up to the magnificent leader of the team, Black-All-Over.
Every breath hurt me. I was tired. The going had been slow all day, and Mike was up ahead with the runner. Another mile, and he dropped back to my sled.
“How goes it, Minx?” he asked, and squeezed my hand.
I laughed and said. “Fine.”
He gave me a sharp look and then began telling me what a good rest we’d have tonight. “This isn’t a trapper’s cabin. The Howards have a big home with an organ. They had it freighted in.”
“Who are the Howards?” What I really wanted to know was: Is there a Mrs. Howard? I though! how nice it would be to talk to a woman. Mike jogged along by my side, and his forced breathing punctuated his speech. “Howard’s a lumberman. Got a mill up there at Taylor’s Flat.”
“Is he married?” I asked.
Mike laughed. “Well, all I know is they’ve got four sons.”
I smiled to myself. But the smile went out of me, for the cold was cutting at my insides with every breath. Pain was white, white and cold, and it was around me like a winding sheet. Something beat at my ears and dripped into my mind. After a while it made sense and I knew it was Mike talking.
“We’ll be there soon — soon, darling.”
Then I think I slept.
The motion stopped. I sat up and looked around. We were in a clearing. Ahead of us was a house, and a charred barn stood a little to one side. All over the clearing were neat slacks of firewood. Mike picked me up. His steps shook me and hurt.
He set me down inside, and the sudden heat almost choked me. There were a lot of people, all talking in whispers. A woman helped Mike undo my furs. “The poor child,”she said.
I remember being put in an iron bedstead, and Mike feeding me soup and then lying down beside me. I thought it funny he had on all his clothes and I wondered why he didn’t come under the covers.
When I opened my eyes it was daylight, and Mike wasn’t there. I sat up carefully to see how I felt, and I knew I was much better. My clothes were folded over a chair, and I began to put them on. I saw the door handle turn very softly and the door open very slowly.
Mike looked in. “Kathy,” and he was over by me in a step. He was so close that his worry and his fear and his love were mine too, and in me.
“I’m all right, Mike,”I told him before he could ask me. “Shhh,” I said. “It’s all over. I’m well now.”
Mike laughed shakily. “You’d think I was the one who had been sick.”
Then Mike went out of the room and came back with something that looked like a dog harness.
“It’s for you,” Mike said. He looked at the leather straps in his hand and then at me. “I think it’s a collapse of the right lung you’ve got. Now, don’t look scared, darling — because I’ve got the thing here that’s going to help you.” And he waved the dog harness.
“That?" I asked.
“It’s a brace that will keep your shoulders back. Haven’t you noticed how you’re leaning forward all the time? Why, the air your lungs are meant to be filled with never gets where it should.”I must have looked unconvinced because he added, “A good posture will keep you from getting so tired, Katherine.”
“You’ll have to put it on me, Mike. I’ll never figure out how it works.”
“Lift up your arms, then, and I’ll slip it on.” I did. But instead of slipping it over my arms, it was himself he slipped between them. He kissed me in the hollow of my throat, and it was a long time before we got that brace on.
That evening I met the Howard family. Mike had spoken of the Howard “boys,”but the youngest was five years older than I.
I went into the kitchen to ask Mrs. Howard if there was anything I could do. She was shocked at my wanting to help. “Eyes and hair,” she said, “that’s all you are; eyes and a mop of hair. The only thing you can do that will be of any use is to wash up for dinner.”
“Ma,” one of the boys called, “where’s dinner?”
Mrs. Howard looked harassed. She was stirring four or five pots and keeping a weather eye on twenty pairs of socks that hung over the stove. The line was strung too low, and every time she reached for a dish, the socks flapped in her face. The main course was beans, and she let me put them on the table. They had a very long table, and the Howard men and Mike were seated at it. Everything in the room was homemade — except a gilt organ. It was highly polished, and a candle gleamed at either end, giving it the appearance of a shrine, which it was to this family.
“Ma,” Mr. Howard called to the kitchen, “is it beans again?”
“Never you mind, Henry Howard.” She came in with meat in one hand and a pot of prunes in the other. “We got dessert tonight.” She set the prunes on the table. “These here are known as lumberman’s strawberries.”
I WAS startled by a low wailing cry that rose to a shriek. No one seemed to notice it or even look up. But it started Mr. Howard on a new t rain of thought. “Hear about our fire, Mike?”
“Noticed your barn was charred. Lose anything?”
The wail had been taken up and answered again and again in a maniacal crescendo of sound. I shuddered with it long after I stopped hearing it. Then I was hearing it again, a low minor wail that built and built until the final shriek tore through you.
“What is it?” I knew from the way the heads swung toward me that my voice was out of control.
“It’s nothing,” Mrs. Howard said. “A wolf pack’s out there crying to get at the bodies of the horses. They smell the cooked flesh, and it’s driving them crazy not being able to get at it.”
“ Yes,” one of the boys said, “we lost five horses. Barn was ablaze before we knew it. Couldn’t none of us get near it. The horses just roasted, that’s all.”
“It was terrible,” Mrs. Howard said. “You could hear the poor things screaming.”
The screaming of the dead horses and the screaming of the wolf pack blended, swelled, receded. I followed the curve of the rising inflection, and when it reached its shrill wailing peak, I screamed too. I jumped up and screamed on the same note as the wolves and the horses.
The men looked at me. I screamed and screamed.
There was a frantic rush for the door. Chairs overturned as the men fought to get out. Away they went, every male Howard, into the night. Mike was on his feet too. He took me by the shoulder.
“Katherine Mary — stop it!" lie spoke with a sternness I’d never heard before, and I did stop it. But the wolves didn’t. They kept it up. The shrill note of their cry hung in the air, faded, and came again. At the window I saw the frightened faces of the Howard men. I began to laugh, it was so funny. They could listen to tortured horses and a wolf pack in full cry, and it didn’t bother them. But a girl’s screams had chased them from their home in stumbling panic.
“Katherine Mary, stop it!”
I tried to say, “It ‘s all right — I’m just laughing,”but I was laughing too hard to say it, and Mike didn’t like my laughing any more than he had my screams. Tears were running through my fingers.
Mrs. Howard went to the door. “Freddy!" she called. “Come on in here and play something on the organ. It will calm her.”There was no answer.
“Freddy!" she said again. And Freddy slunk in. He gave me a quick furtive look and sat down at the organ. The tones came low and mellow, but the -howling pack held their pitch — making weird dissonant chords. The boy began another song, “ I wandered today to the hill, Maggie.”It was my mother’s song, one she sang as she fixed flowers for the best room and hummed when she hung the clothes to dry. And then I knew what it was all about. It hadn’t been the wolves. Their cry had the loneliness in it, and that was why I had to scream and cry with them. I was lonely, too, because I didn’t have my mother, and because under my feet, these two months, had been only the trackless white of this dead and frozen land, empty with loneliness.
Mike could see that the music wasn’t cheering me up any. He leaned over me and very gently lifted me to my feet. “We’ll get you to bed, Kathy,”he said.
Upstairs I tried to tell him that it was just that I hadn’t felt well, that it really didn’t mean anything. Mike’s face was full of misery, and I knew an unhappy determination was in him. But he held it in and would say nothing. I put my arms around his neck. “I’m happy, Mike. I love you and I’m happy.”
He pushed my head against his shoulder and stroked it. “I’m taking you back in the morning, Kathy.”
Mike and I lay awake with our own thoughts. And in the morning he took me on, not back. It was that night that I really became his wife, for I knew that this white land and its loneliness were a part of Mike. It was a part I feared, that I didn’t know or understand. But I knew that I had to know it and understand it, and even love it as Mike did. Because I wanted to be like Mike and then, after our lives had been lived, maybe I’d be Mike.
One night cannot dispose of a feeling or settle an attitude, and many a night on the way up to Hudson’s Hope I had to fight back the thoughts of my home and my mother and the tears that came with them. Yet it was a happy time and an exciting one, full of love and adventure. The fears grew smaller, and all they could do was peck at my happiness.
WHEN we reach the top you’ll see the flag. Then we’re there, Kathy.”
There was a flag in front of every Hudson’s Bay Company store in ihe Northwest. It meant hot food, rest, fresh supplies, conversation, people, a little oasis of humanity and comfort before going on through the white void. Only this time it would mean more; it would mean our home. After three months of travel, we’d have a home. We hadn’t reached it any too soon, either. For it was February, and the thaw set in during March. There was no traveling in this country in spring and summer, except by canoe. There was the flag coming into view, showing that the log house was not one of the half-dozen trappers’ cabins that hid themselves among the drooping, snow-laden trees.
I took Mike’s hand without saying anything. It was beautiful. The few cabins were grouped on a plateau, and below them hills rolled away, carrying white armies of poplar and pines on their backs. To the north and facing the village was a fifty-foot drop where in spring and summer the Feace River ran the gantlet of dark bluffs.
We pulled up in front of the store, and Mike pushed against the door just as it was thrown open by a big brawny giant from the inside. The two men collided, laughed, and gave each other a couple of pokes, the way men do. He was as tall as Mike, only thicker and bulkier. He was half in and half out of his furs.
“Son of a gun, son of a gun,” he kept saying, and all the time hitting and poking at Mike with his big beaver mitts. Then suddenly he caught sight of me. “I’ll be God-damned!" he said and stood there staring. Mike took my hand. “Kathy, meet Joe Henderson.” I smiled at him and said, “Hello,”but the big man was without words.
Mike laughed. “How long are you going to keep us standing out in fifty below, Joe?”
Joe mumbled something in his beard and kicked the door open. No sooner were wc in the house than Henderson found his voice.
“Uaawa!" he bellowed. “Uaawa!” A dark Indian woman appeared from the back room and stood poised like a wild thing.
“Where the hell did you go running off to?” And then, as she continued to stand there with frightened eyes, “Well want some tea, so get busy with it!" His voice lowered from a bellow to almost a whisper. “You see,”he said to me, but without looking at me, “you’ve got to think out every step for them. We’ll want food too, and she could be getting that while the water’s boiling. Only you can’t never explain that to them.”
He sighed and sat down on a packing case, leaving the two chairs to Mike and me. I looked around curiously. The woman worked in the center of the room over the stove. I looked away at once, for she seemed to wince under my glance. I concentrated instead on the room. There was the usual counter with shelves mounting to the ceiling behind it, and a tangle of goods piled and stuffed and jammed into the shelves. Wild masses of cascading flowered cottons tumbled over jelly glasses. Knives speared spools of wire, and a rusty alarm clock sat on top of twelve cans of beans. On the floor were piles of soft, gleaming pelts, and on one of these a naked baby slept, its tawny body blending with the skins.
“What a beautiful baby! Is it yours?" I asked the woman at the stove. She lifted her head to be sure I meant it, to be sure the white woman spoke to her. When she saw that both things were true, she smiled, a half smile that came into her eyes.
Henderson reached for an empty bottle. He had ihrown it at her, and she was picking up the shattered pieces before I realized what had happened. A cut over her eye bled onto her hands as she worked. Henderson had not watched to see if his bottle had landed a blow or not, but had turned back to us.
I stood up. “Mike,” I said, “I want to see our house.”
Mike stood up too.
“But wait.” Joe Henderson was upset. “You must eat. You’ve come a long way today.”
I walked toward the door and began putting on my furs. Mike stood uncertainly. No one said anything. The woman looked across at me and then back to the water, which had begun to boil. It was to the water she spoke.
“It bring much honor to house if Sergeant Mike and Mrs. Mike eat.”
I unbuttoned my jacket and sat down. Preparations for the meal went on. But the woman did not speak again.
After a while the child on the pelts stirred. I took him on my lap, but he wriggled off and walked on fat, unsteady legs to Joe Henderson. I caught my breath as I saw him grab hold of the giant’s pants leg with a small brown fist. The child said something, whether in Indian or gibberish I wasn’t sure.
“Does he talk?" I asked.
Joe Henderson gave me a strange look.
“Yes; in the language of the Beaver Indian, he calls me ‘Father.’” There was a mocking note in the man’s voice, but it was very gently that he stroked the dark head of his son.
“Tell the lady your name.”
The child turned in his father’s hands and regarded me a moment with serious eyes. “Siwah,”he said.
Henderson scowled, then turned to the woman, speaking unpleasant sounds in her tongue. She gave no answer, and the motions of her work were not interrupted. He turned to his child. His voice was no longer harsh, or perhaps it was the change back into English. Again he said, “Tell the lady your name.”
The reply came promptly. “Tommy Henderson.”
THE Indian woman served us silently, but did not eat herself. I was glad when it was over and we were out of the hot room with its smell of food.
Mike grinned down at me. “Which way do you think our house is, right or left ?" I looked in both directions. Coming in from the top of the hill I’d seen some cabins, but now a forest of pine hid them. “ Right, ” I guessed.
Mike laughed. “Right it is. Come on,” But I still stood there.
He looked back, trying to understand. “Excited?”
“Yes,” I said. “But that Joe Henderson, he mistreats her. Why, you. could kill a person with a bottle like that, couldn’t you?”
“Well,” Mike said, “maybe.”
I could see he was disappointed because he thought I wasn’t excited about seeing our house. So I put Joe Henderson and Tommy Henderson and the Indian woman into the back of my mind. And I put my fur mitten into Mike’s fur mitten.
“Come on,” he said, and turned into the pines. Ahead of us in a clearing stood a cabin. I stopped as we approached it. I was trying to know it all at once, the trees and the rocks, the ground rolling under my feet. This was home. Mike put his arm around my shoulder.
“Don’t look so awed, darling, it’s just my office.”
“Office?” I repeated the word blankly.
“Well, sure. I’ve got to have some place to lock up the criminals. Unless you want to keep them in the spare room.”
He pushed the door open, and I saw a large shabby desk and two chairs, one comfortable and one uncomfortable. There was a cupboard too, all padlocked. It didn’t look anything like a jail, and I couldn’t see why the prisoners couldn’t get out of the windows.
“Do you really keep prisoners here?”
Mike laughed. “Never have. In the first place, there’s very little crime. The Indians never give trouble unless there’s been liquor smuggled in. The ‘breeds are a little wilder. Every once in a while there’s woman trouble, squaw stealing. Then I bring ‘em in and put them to work.”
“What kind of work?”
“Oh, usually cutting me a winter’s supply of wood.”
“Well, if nobody’s locked up in it, what do you need an office for?”
Mike made a serious face. “Katherine, you don’t realize I’m a big man up here. That’s why I stay here. Sit down, girl, and I’ll tell you all about it.”He pushed me into the comfortable chair.
“This office is the Hudson’s Hope court and hospital.” He unlocked the cupboard at the back. It was filled with rows of neatly labeled bottles.
“Not much. Quinine, disinfectants.”
“You mean people really come to you when they’re sick?”
Mike said slowly, “We’re seven hundred miles from civilization or a doctor.”
“But do you know anything about it?”
“Not much. I bought some books in Calgary.”
I looked at this man that I had married. There was more here than a red coat.
“Where’s the house? I want to see that.”
“It’s behind the office.” He caught my hand as I started for the door.
“Kathy, I hope you won’t be disappointed in it. It’s just a house, you know; government-built.”
“ I’ll love it, Mike.” And I did. It was set cozily among the trees, and through a side window I could see Mike’s office. The house had a large front room and two bedrooms. There was a combination stove and heater, the kind they all had in this country. Logs to keep the room warm were shoved in the back, and the front was a wood stove for cooking meals on. The chinks in the walls were stuffed with moss. Over the bed was a buffalo skin.
I ran around and looked at things and planned the cleaning I would give everything, and how I would have more room by moving the table against the wall, and that I’d make new curtains. I whisked by Mike with a head full of ideas, but he reached out a sudden hand and caught me to him.
“Like it?” he asked. But how could I answer, with him kissing me so hard?
THE rest of the day was spent in cleaning, scrubbing, and scouring, and we went to bed very tired and happy. We were excited, too excited to sleep.
“You’ll make me a bookcase.”
“Yes,” he said. “In the summer there is the river, and in winter we walk on snowshoes over the white world.” I was feeling very drowsy and contented. I closed my eyes and snuggled under Mike’s arm. But a face came before my eyes, the dark, sullen face of the Henderson woman. I closed my eyes tighter to send it away. I was happy and sleepy, and I didn’t want any ugliness from the world to get into our cabin. I couldn’t keep it out. I saw again the flash of the bottle as it left Joe Henderson’s hand — saw the blood falling to the floor.
“Mike — ”
“Hmm?” said Mike in a very sleepy, faraway voice.
“Is that Indian woman Joe Henderson’s wife?”
“You might call her that.”
“But he acts as if he hates her.”
There was a long silence. I thought Mike had fallen asleep.
“Yes, I think he does,” Mike said slowly.
“Because of the boy. Everything is because of the boy.”
“Tommy?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Mike, and then he added, “There were two Tommys.” I lay still in the dark, waiting for his voice to continue.
“You see, there are many reasons why a man comes to live in a wild land like this. We come, you and I, Katherine Mary, because here we can live the real life, the life men were meant to live. But there are men who are used to the cities, who would never leave them except t hat they are driven. Joe Henderson was driven when Tommy died.
“He had only the one child, and he idolized him. But the boy was not strong, and Joe quarreled constantly with his wife because he thought she didn’t give Tommy proper care. Well, it certainly wasn’t her fault that Tommy caught diphtheria. Anyway, he was dead in four days.
“From that day on Joe was driven. It was only when he struck into the Northwest that any peace came to him. He seemed to take a sort of satisfaction in the rigor and the hardships. He came to be known as a steady man, one that left the Indian women strictly alone. Every three or four months, of course, he’d go on a binge. Then he’d talk about Tommy to anyone who would listen.
“Well, the Hudson’s Bay Company needed a man here, and Henderson got the job. He’s been here four years now. The first year he lived alone. He hated women — you couldn’t trust them. Hadn’t his own wife killed Tommy? But you’ve seen him, a big fiery man with red blood in him.
“I was glad when I came in from a couple of months on the trail to find Uaawa with him. I thought it might soften him a little to have a woman around again. And it did, for a while. But as soon as the baby was born, he changed. Of course, he shouldn’t have called him Tommy, but he did. And I think it hurt him every time he looked at the child, to see the dark Indian face of him. The other Tommy had been fair.
“He blamed Uaawa for a lot of things — for the boy’s black hair and brown face. The woman was Indian, and maybe that saved her from going out of her mind. She didn’t fight back, not when he beat her and kicked her around, and she didn’t go back to her people. That wasn’t her way. She was too Indian. For the child, Joe will do anything. He’s Tommy, and he loves him.”
I thought it all over quietly, a long time.
“ I think he’s made a mistake. I don’t think he’s fair to the Indian woman. But you can’t help being sorry for Mr. Henderson.”
Mike didn’t say anything. The complicated, tangled pattern of lives, where they touch and intertwine — it’s impossible to unravel it. I was sorry I had tried. Who can know anything about anything? Especially when they’re sleepy.
MIKE left early for his office. I promised to be over as soon as I’d done the dishes and help him straighten up out there. Then I had a good idea. I thought I’d put up a lunch, and we could eat in the office. It would be fun.
I began slicing bread for sandwiches. Suddenly 1 whirled and faced the room. There was nothing there, of course, but I felt that there was, and I worked uneasily. The feeling of being watched became stronger. Again I turned, this time toward the window, and I laughed with relief; for there, staring in, was a round-faced girl about six years old. I opened the door gently and smiled, so that she wouldn’t be afraid. But she bounded off like a deer, stopping a safe distance from the cabin to turn and stare.
“Wouldn’t you like to come in?” I called.
She just stood there regarding me silently with enormous black eyes.
“Come on,” I coaxed. But as she didn’t move, and it was cold with the door open, I shut it and went back to making lunch.
She came silently, so silently that I hadn’t really heard her, but I knew she was out there. I went to the door again, this time with a sandwich in my hand. I opened it and held out the sandwich. She looked at it and held out her hand. She fingered it carefully all over, then stuffed the whole thing in her mouth. I had decided that she knew no English, so I motioned to her to come inside. She watched my gesture with intent, curious eyes. Again the cold drove me in.
I counted over the sandwiches and tried to guess how many Mike could eat. I felt a cold gust on my back. The door was open. I continued working and waited for the slight click the door gave when it was closed. The click came. I smiled to myself.
I didn’t hear her move, but pretty soon the dark head was at my elbow and the dark eyes on the food. Excitement throbbed in them at the sight of the thick, buttered bread and the slices of meat. I reached down another sandwich to her. Again it was fingered all over with wonder and awe before it was popped whole into her mouth. Two other sandwiches followed. But the last one was not eaten. She carried it off. Stealthily, quietly, she was gone from my elbow, and when I turned to look, gone from my house. I had finished and was wrapping my sandwiches when the door opened again.
A brave in full Indian dress with much headwork nodded solemnly at me, stalked to the best chair in the house, and sat down. Behind him followed aunts, sisters, uncles, and cousins. Each gave me a nod or a grunt and then sat in my chairs. The last chair was finally occupied, and still they came, seating themselves ceremoniously on the floor.
When they were all in, you couldn’t have stepped for Indians. They sat there regarding me steadily and silently. I didn’t know what they wanted or why they were here, or what I was expected to do about it. A dozen children were gathered in the doorway, chattering excitedly, and in the middle of the group was my little friend, waving her sandwich triumphantly, and at the same time protecting it from the sudden onslaughts of the other children. “Holy St. Patrick!” I said aloud and stared hopelessly at the expectant faces and the hungry eyes that stared back at me. Could it be that they expected me to feed them?
I couldn’t just stand there with my mouth open. I had to do something. I was Sergeant Flannigan’s wife. I had a position to keep up in the community. I thought of a speech, saying I was not settled yet but that we’d all have a nice party soon. But, looking into the rows of swarthy, stolid faces, I was convinced that they wouldn’t understand my speech, that the only thing they’d understand was food. It was plainly my move, and forty people were waiting for me to make it.
I did. I put on a gracious smile. “What a lovely surprise! I am very glad to see all of you here.”
While I was saying this in a loud voice, I was rapidly counting noses. Twenty-eight grownups and twelve children. I had seven sandwiches. By cutting each sandwich into four parts, I would have twenty-eight pieces, each an inch wide. And there was a little meat left. The children could have that. I would put on tea. That, at least, there’d he enough of, except, of course, they’d have to drink in relays because there were only ten glasses.
Well, it was the strangest and silentest tea party ever given. I cut up the seven sandwiches and passed the pieces around. They were accepted gravely and gravely swallowed. But the ice wasn’t really broken until tea was served. Then the noise of much sucking and gusty sipping was punctuated by a few belches. This was evidently their idea of a good time. So I smiled and beamed and asked who would have some more tea. This was the only thing I said which they seemed to understand.
When they had had all the tea they could drink, the gentleman who had led the procession rose, grunted at me three times, and left. This was the signal for general departure. The women smiled shyly, and when the last one had pushed the last child out before her, I had to keep looking at the ten glasses, the crumbs, and the spot in the corner where one old crone had kept spitting, to assure myself that I had just given a tea party.
(To be Continued)