WENDIGO · PART ONE
Northern Wisconsin, 1858, in the woods at night
Somewhere out in the trees a twig snapped, followed by what sounded like footsteps. Heads turned, eyes looked out at the wall of black surrounding the ring of firelight, several of the young men reached for their hunting guns. The guide, Hennig, intervened before any shots were fired.
‘Set ’em down, boys.’ The group fell silent. There were more sounds, rustlings, snappings, thumps, flutters, giving rise to some embarrassed laughs and scoffs as they all peered into the dark.
‘No use looking out there,’ Hennig said. ‘Can’t see nothing anyhow. Just scare yourselves.’
Another snap, this time much closer. A thump like something big. The young men stiffened up and reached for their guns again.
‘Now what’d I say? What’d I say? You see me grabbing my gun? No, you don’t!’ They put the guns down somewhat reluctantly. ‘Thought you boys would have a little more sense else I never would’ve agreed to bring you out here. Fine hunters you’ll make if you jump every time you hear a bug. And you might go a little easy on that whiskey there, it’s got to last the whole trip.’
The whole trip would be three days and two nights. The guide, a Canadian named Hennig, was a longtime woodsman who advertised his ruggedness and years of experience with a suit of Kit Carson buckskins, a fur hat, untrimmed beard, and mannerisms just back country enough to seem authentic without offending. Those were promotional gimmicks necessary in a business where clients wanted to feel confident that the man holding their lives in his hands was the genuine article. Nevertheless, and in spite of the theatrical costume and posturing, Hennig actually was the genuine article. For many of the last fifty-some years he had been living and working in the woods. He had traveled through more wilderness and survived more perils and hardships than most frontier legends, fictional or real. He could speak passable French, at least half a dozen Athapaskan and Algonquian dialects, understood the habits of wild beasts, and, like many trappers and woodsmen of that time, had a sharp wit and was surprisingly well-read. It all showed in his face in ways that no imitator could hope to contrive, but if the customers wanted buckskin with fringe along with a bit of frontier showmanship, that’s what they’d get. This was how Hennig had chosen to occupy himself in his later years, and he enjoyed it too much to raise objections over the conventions of the business. When outfitters in the region were asked about guides, Hennig’s name would always be one of the first to come up, particularly if the prospective clients were the sort who had no business being in the woods. Hennig was the one who could take them in and bring them all back without any significant maimings or disfigurements. His current clients were six young workers from the lead mines down by Galena, Cornish immigrants who had managed to save enough money and convince the company to cut them enough time to take a real hunting trip in the real North Woods. If things worked out well at least one of them would shoot a deer, maybe a bear, and none of them would shoot each other.
The uncomfortable silence that followed Hennig’s reprimands over the guns and whiskey broke when someone said, ‘Tregian thinks there’s a Buckaboo out there.’
Then someone else, ‘A big ’orrible Buckaboo what’s going to rip ’is muggets out.’
A third voice, presumably Tregian, took exception and denied ever thinking such a thing. This provoked some more taunting, some scuffling, and more passing of the jug. Hennig let out a sigh and shook his head. It was always like this. Didn’t matter if the young men were miners or apprentices at law, they’d set out full of boast and bluff about what great hunters they were going to be, then, as soon as it got dark they’d get jumpy, get drunk, get silly, and if he didn’t do something about it they’d end up being a bigger danger to themselves than anything that ever came out of the woods.
‘Now boys, let’s not get all into a commotion here,’ he said, trying to sound more engaging than confrontational ‘Listen to me, I know it’s strange, looking out past the fire and not seeing anything but the dark. And you know there’s something there, don’t you? You can hear it. You just can’t see it.’ Hennig took a draw on his pipe and blew the smoke into the firelight. He had their attention, that was the first step. ‘But it can see you. Whatever it is, it’s got you between itself and the fire, so it can see you just fine. For all you know it could be something dangerous. Could be one of them buckaboos.’ The boys chuckled, but now it was a little more subdued. ‘Thing is, when you been out here long enough it gets so you can sense when something’s not right. And you know what to do. Most times, at least. Of course, there are times…,’ this in a more hushed tone. ‘That’s to say things do happen now and then. Not often they don’t, but there’s times. There’s things I’ve seen. Things I don’t particularly like to talk about. Still makes me uneasy. But there’s things I’ve seen.’
‘Worse than Buckaboo?’ a voice asked.
‘Well, I’m not saying your Buckaboo can’t be a right scary fellow if he puts himself to it, but I’ll tell you, there’s things far off in those woods that would make him wish he’d never left home. Things you’re better off not knowing about. Not when you’re going to have to sleep out here.’
‘Now really, Mr. Hennig, no need you treatin’ us like children.’
‘That’s right, we’re Cornishmen, true and brave, and ain’t fair you telling us so much and no more.’
‘We ain’t scared at all, really, you know?’
‘I’m not saying you are,’ he gave an affected sigh of resignation, ‘and I suppose if you fellows are going to pester me, then I suppose you’re going to hear something, seeing you’re not giving me a lot of choice in the matter.’ Hennig relit his pipe with a twig from the fire, then leaned close in to the others to make sure his words wouldn’t be heard by the forest. ‘It’s probably not a good idea, but I’ll tell you about one thing that happened. That’s all, and don’t blame me if it makes you uncomfortable.’ The young men waited eagerly while he made a conspicuous display of staring off into the darkness while he collected his thoughts from from some presumably remote corner of memory
‘How many years was it, now…? Forty, I’d say. At least that, eighteen-fifteen/sixteen. I was about the age of you fellows then, off on my first job in the fur trade. Now, this was back in the days when every gentleman, officer or parson of any account at all wore a hat made from prime, north country beaver. None of these silk toppers you see today, or felt made from some Argentine rat. Only genuine beaver would suit, and the places to gather it were already getting scarce. The North West Company, my employer, was pushing into wilderness then as fast as men could travel to keep ahead of their rival, Hudson’s Bay. Over three thousand miles up into what they called Rupert’s Land. Wasn’t Canada and America back then, you see. Just fur country named for some German prince. Two thousand miles they went, three thousand, then farther on into places only the Indians had heard of. There were only a few routes in and out, chains of rivers and lakes running the whole way from Montreal and Hudson’s Bay to west of the Rockies, down the Columbia to the ocean, or up Mackenzie’s River of Disappointment clear to the Polar Sea. But for all their length, those were narrow veins through big country. Posts and forts were spread along the routes, swapping clothes, blankets, food, guns and whiskey and anything else you could think of for a fortune in furs. And that’s where I ended up. A post right in the absolute middle of nothing. Well, Lake Athabasca, to be correct, Stinking Lake the Indians called it, one of the biggest anywhere, that’s the truth, but with nothing there except a Nor’wester fort, and a few trading posts. Some Indian villages — well, that was something I suppose, so it was a place. But all around it was nothing.
Now think of this, here we all are a day’s hike out from the closest town. Nice trail the whole way. But here you already feel the distance from civilization. Not just the miles, but the strangeness that comes of being a long way from what’s familiar. Suppose we were two days out, or two weeks. How strange would that feel? Well, the trip from Grand Portage to Lake Athabasca took us three months. And that was three months of steady travel through woods and swamps and scrub, lakes so big they took days to cross, and rivers so full of rapids and falls we had to haul our canoes and cargo as much as paddle them. There wasn’t much to tell where you were from where you’d just been or where you were going. We just followed the rivers, crossed the lakes, hauled over the portages, and with every stroke and every step we went deeper into a land where time wasn’t figured in hours or distance in miles. Sun and season were the only measures of how long and how far we’d traveled, or how far we had to go.
‘When we finally did make it to Athabasca, and then another hundred miles or so up the lake to our post, it was late in September. The season was changing, the days had grown shorter and the night colder. Snow was already piling up wherever the sun didn’t shine long enough to melt it off. These were reminders that there was no going back. No brigades would be heading out when the whole district was about to be froze up and snowed under, so no matter how I might feel about it, this was going to be home till spring.
‘When we got to the post it was an event occasioning a lot of fuss and flurry, and so as soon as we’d unloaded and I’d dropped off my gear in the main building, I was put right to work before I could even set up in quarters or get much of a look around. Our three canoes had brought in nearly four tons of gear and provisions, and trappers were already camped around the post waiting to stock up for winter. Food and goods started moving out fast as they could be inventoried and handed over, and the trappers seemed ready to fight each other to be first back into the woods. Where exactly they went was a mystery. The trappers never liked to talk about where they set their lines, and most of them didn’t speak enough English to say much to me anyway. They took their provisions, signed the book and were off. There were Indians, too, coming in to do a bit of trading for tobacco, powder and shot, traps, blankets. Not like Indians I’d seen in Montreal, always looking awkward and out of place, these were in their element, and by their manner made it clear they were at least the equal of any man they were dealing with.
Frontiersmen and Indians and more wilderness than I could imagine, it seemed like a real adventure. Well, I was a kid, I thought adventure was a fine thing, something to put an edge on life, make it rich and exciting. I’m sure there are places where that’s true, but what I didn’t know then was that this wasn’t one of them. When you’re traveling through places where staying alive depends on everything going right according to plan, a real adventure is the last thing in the world any sane person would wish for. That was a hard lesson, and when it came I was lucky to survive. Not everyone did.’
Hennig took a pause here to let those last words sink in. Since he’d begun talking, the sound of his voice was all that they heard. Now the noises from out in the trees began to fill the silence. As soon as they had worked their spell, Hennig lightened the tone a bit. ‘Now, let me tell you about that post I’d landed in. The main building was a decent show, I’ll say that. Square cut logs, parchment-pane windows, shingled roof, and a coat of whitewash that made it look proper enough for a family in town. That’s where I was assigned my quarters, not much more than a closet with no window and barely enough space for a cot, but as a junior company officer I was entitled to that much—no more. Also, along with the main building there were a few outbuildings, a warehouse, smokehouse, bunkhouse, a forge, all a little crude but solid. And surrounding the whole business stood a log palisade with a ledge-brace door that would have kept out anything that wasn’t real determined to get itself in. A shining example, it was, for every untamed and savage soul to lay eyes on and see what a well ordered, beneficial thing civilization is. Not some ramshackle wilderness operation, this was a Nor’wester post, and in case there were any doubts of ownership the bright red banner with N. W. Co. in white letters stated it clearly from the top of the flagpole.
It was odd, that bit of civilization out there, as if it could make me believe I wasn’t thousands of miles away from what it as imitating. It almost could. On some nights before the freeze-up I’d go down to the lake to look at the stars or watch the moon reflecting on the ice. Miles of shoreline along a lake nearly as big as an ocean, dozens of islands, and never a sign of anyone out there. It was beautiful, all that I’d ever dreamed about wilderness right there before me. But there was comfort knowing the post buildings with their people, lights and voices were right at my back. Kept me from feeling like I was being drawn in and swallowed up by all that emptiness.
‘Now, like I said, it was a small post so there wasn’t much of a staff. But since winter and early spring is when the bulk of the furs come in, there had to be a trading agent, along with enough support to keep the operation going. In our case the agent, the bourgeois as they were called, was an Scotsman named Turnbull. Thin, and drab as an old coat, he could have been taken by his looks for a low church parson, but Turnbull was a long time frontier trader, sharp and profane as any of his kind. Then there was Heddle, the blacksmith and carpenter, a big powerful Orkneyman who used to work for the Hudson’a Bay Company, and Heddle’s wife, Charlotte, a stout Chipewyan who probably had another name, and did the cooking and housekeeping. And there was Duchêne, the Guide, that was his title, captain of our canoe brigade. While he was one of the most important men at the post, technically Duchêne was an independent contractor signed on for the duration of the trip. He hired the paddlers and had full responsibility for them. Duchêne had brought us in, and he and his crew would get us back out when the time came, God willing. The rest were paddlers of various rank, a few Indians but mostly French Canadian engagés who worked for Duchêne. They were called Voyageurs, and their people had been traveling in the North Woods for so many generations that they’d become as distinct a race as the Indians. They also did some trapping and a lot of the trading, traveling out to the Indian camps during the winter. And there was me, an apprentice clerk called a Commis, sort of a bourgeois in training. I was employed and paid by the Company, and was supposed to command a certain amount of respect.
As that winter settled in trappers began arriving at our post with complaints about animals running in short supply. This wasn’t unusual. Areas could get trapped out quickly, and some of the smaller posts like ours didn’t stay in operation more than a year or two. Most of the posts we’d passed on our way up were abandoned, as ours would probably be after the season was over. Meantime something had to be done. The trappers only got paid for what they brought in. All their supplies were on credit against the pelts they’d deliver by spring, so if they weren’t going to end up in debt, some of them, at least, would have to move on to more productive territory. About half of them got together at one point and decided they’d head to Fort Chipewyan at the south end of the lake, their plan was to work their way northwest up along the Slave River up into the Mackenzie District where the lakes and streams hadn’t been worked as heavily. Turnbull didn’t like it. It would mean a poor showing for his post along with problems keeping the accounts straight, but if the furs weren’t there, that was going to happen no matter what. Bowing to what couldn’t be avoided, he gave his approval, not that he could have stopped them if they were determined. A few days later they headed out in a group. They did make it to Chipewyan, and they did set out to trap the country northwest of there. I learned this from John McGillivary, the trading partner at Chipewyan, when we stopped there on our way out that spring. Most of them made it back with their furs, but not all of them. Froze or starved to death I suppose. You see, that winter turned out to be a lot worse than anybody expected. Duchêne had been around and seen it all, and he said it was the worst he’d ever known. Even the Indians came through poorly, starving in some of the camps, and there were rumors that in a few places the dead were…, well, no need me going into that. But, believe me, there are things men fear more than hunger.
We still had some of the trappers working the streams, plus the voyageurs had already started setting lines to get the extra income, and the Indians would be bringing in whatever they could get. Anyway, the number of animals was what it was, and with fewer men going after them, each trapper was able to bring in enough to make it worth the trouble. At least for a time. When we got into the butt end of winter things slowed down considerable. Still, there was hope that with spring some of the free trappers working farther out in the wilds would start showing up with their season’s haul, but they were unpredictable, and would usually take their haul to whatever post was closest to where they had been working.
As the season wore on we started finding ourselves with more time and less to do. When the weather accommodated we did some trapping of our own. Not a lot came of it since we couldn’t range far from the post, but I learned the ins and outs, and how to stay alive when the elements are set on killing you. When the weather was too awful to even consider being outdoors we sat around the store, talking when we could think of something to say, and the rest of the time reading whatever was available. Turnbull had some novels by Smollett and a few small works on natural history. Heddle’s library was a bible and the six volumes of Henry’s Commentaries. These were the ammunition for his battle to make a good Christian of his wife so that he could enjoy her favors and services through eternity. A prospect that seemed to excite him more than her, and she progressed along the path to salvation at an indifferent pace. Myself, anticipating confinement in bad weather, I had brought some adventure novels along with a ripping Gothic by Mrs. Radcliffe called the Mysteries of Udolpho. At one point I lent the book to Turnbull, which set me in better stead than anything else I ever did around there.
So that was our exciting life, a bit of unproductive trapping, routine work getting the pelts that had already been brought in prepared to ship, and a lot of time snowed in and fighting off boredom. Indians would arrive from time to time to do a little business, or to obtain some credit. Hunters showed up now and then to drop of some game and get paid, and there was always more wood to chop for the fires. I was starting to think that all the tales of excitement and danger were made up by men who had never been within a thousand miles of a fur post. I may have been right about that, but for us things were about to change.
I was in the store one day with Turnbull, Heddle and Duchêne, drinking tea, and reminiscing about other times in other places just to come up with something to talk about. Snow had been coming down heavy since the night before, and that morning there was scarce enough daylight to brighten the window panes. An oil lamp hanging off the roof beam sputtered from wind working its way through cracks we could never find, but Heddle had a fire stoked up like a forge, so there was comfort from that. And there was comfort thinking we had a day ahead of us with nothing on but the weather. I was settling in on my third or fourth reading of Smollet's, Expedition of Humphry Clinker; and had reconciled myself to an uneventful day, when the door flings open and a trapper walks in.
I was there, like I said, and I remember it clear. The trapper stamps his feet and sheds a pile of snow onto the floor. He’s wearing clothes that are a mix of hand stitched and trade goods, there’s a half-stock rifle slung across his back, a flintlock pistol and a hatchet stowed in the sash that binds up his coat. Métis, I can tell that right off, part Indian, part French. And young, maybe seventeen, eighteen, about the same as me. A free trapper — coureur de bois they used to be called — first one to come in and the first I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t say a word, but he’s got two huge bundles of furs that he hoists onto the counter. Then he stands there and looks at us like he’s waiting to see what’s going to happen.
Turnbull gives him a nod, “Bonne journée, Sardou.” he says, and I can tell he’s surprised and pleased by the sudden appearance. “A howp yee’r weel eftur yur trevuls. Now hoo aboot ye put tae dhe doar an we’ll tak a luk at aw ye hay fur us heer.”
The trapper closes the door, then draws a knife out of his sash, cuts open one of the bundles and starts to spread the furs over the counter. And those furs are something — along with the beaver there’s otter, martin, even wolf, all taken through the harshest, coldest part of the season — pelts so thick you can dig your fingers right down into the fur and barely touch the hide. It isn’t a lot, but as quality counts they’re worth quite a bit.
“Dhay’z boanie furs, troolie.” Turnbull says, then turns to me. “Why dinna ye fetch ma freend Sardou sum het tea, appears leik he’s neer froazun throo.” He goes back to looking over the furs, then says to Sardou: “I dinnae guess you’ll settul fur the raiglur price?”
While I’m heating up the tea I hear Sardou say that he’ll take whatever Turnbull’s willing to give. He doesn’t care. But he wants to sign on as a paddler to work passage to Montreal. Turnbull asks him what in hell he wants to go there for, and if he’s had a scrap with his pa over something.
“Est mort,” Sardou tells him.
For a moment there’s silence while those words sink in. Then Turnbull puts his hands down flat on the counter. “Gid’s saik, Sardou! Why dinna ye tell us dhat ere? How’d it come aboot?”
“Accident,” Sardou says.
That seemed a little short. Accidents occur, and out there it’s not uncommon for them to be fatal, but a few words of explanation might have been appropriate in the circumstance. I had the tea ready so I offered it to him, but he waved it off even though I could see that he was cold. Turnbull’s curiosity was raised. “Accident! Is ony raizun you dinna waant t’ tell mee ony mair?” he says.
Over in his corner Duchêne was paying close attention. Now, Duchêne had no business with Company business, so he hadn’t said anything this whole time. Sardou shakes his head, and I notice that Turnbull seems uncomfortable about something.
“Where gat ye dhay?” he asks, looking at the furs. “Gid furs ’ve been kinna scairs hereaboot.”
Sardou hesitates. “…Vers l'Est.”
Turnbull runs his hand over one of the pelts. “Waal, ye dinna bist tay tell me. It’s yur business. But up east? I dinnae suppose ’twiz up ba Loch Ayaw noo, wiz it?”
“Il ya environ.” Sardou seems to regret the words as soon as he says them.
Turnbull pushes his old-style tricorne hat back on his head like he needs to give his mind some room to take this in. “I’v neer kend yur dad gae up dhat way. No een the Cree gae up dhat way.”
“Cours d'eau ont été épuisés.” Sardou was staring at the floor as he spoke. “Pensé que nous faire un essai.”
“Must ha’ been muckul bad t’ sen um dhair. Dhat, els hee loast hiz raizun, stick-an-stow. Leik plais fur a man t’ hev un ... accident. Diz oanie buddie ken aboot dhis?”
Sardou says he didn’t tell anybody.
“Dinna.” Turnbull gives the rest of us a look like we shouldn’t be saying anything about it either. “Heddle,” he says, “nae a wurd t’ yur weif, unnerstan?”
Heddle laughs, and gives him a reply in an Orkney dialect that I don’t think any of us understood perfectly. “A macht ana’ print it apo a bredside un rime it ta a tüne,” he says, then realizes that Turnbull doesn’t consider this a laughing matter. “Dunno wirri, Cheef, onibody hears oniting it sanna be trow me nor Charlotte.”
Turnbull gives him a nod and looks back at he trapper. “A’m soaray aboot dhis, Sardou.” he says. “Yur daddie wuz kith t’ me un the best woodsman A eer kend. Fur hiz saik A’ll see till’t Duchêne gits ye oot ’a heer shin a’ hiz brigade's reddie t’ trevul. Rikht Duchêne?” Duchêne doesn’t answer. Turnbull ignores that and takes Sardou out to get him set up in the bunkhouse with the other paddlers.
As soon as they’re gone I ask Duchêne, “What’s Lake Ayaw?”
“Un endroit maudit,” he says. “Cursed. Don’ go there.” He heads for the door, and I can see that he’s angry.
Heddle gets up and starts poking at the fire in the stove. “Luks lek we got wir some fash,” he says. “Dunno ken whit it iz. Dunno waant tae. Fash snees wi’ tü aber a bled in a bustadt lek dis. Aisy ta get yoursel skaed.” I assumed he was a advising me to stay out of it. Something that turned out to be more difficult than I’d expected.
On the day after all this, Taverner tells me that he wants me to join Duchêne and his top man, Martell, on a trading trip that was to set out in a few days. The plan was to get as far as the nearest Chipewyan camp before dark, make our trading arrangements, then in the morning move on to the next camp. Not counting the ones right outside the post, there were three Chipewyan camps altogether, so we would trade at the other two, spend another night, then head back. This was all straightforward and routine, although it was my first time going en derouine, as it was called, so it was altogether unexpected. It would also be my first time traveling by dog sled, which for the most part meant running along side the thing in snowshoes. Still despite the effort, it was a great relief to be outside of the compound and traveling through the woods. Duchêne seemed in a better mood, chattering away with Martell as they trotted along, and I couldn’t help wondering if Tavurner hadn’t scheduled this to keep the principal players away while Sardou got himself settled in.
Now, before I go on, let me tell you something about the bunkhouse. Unlike the main buildings, meant to impress the natives, a Company bunkhouse was about as miserable a place as you could find on this earth. I’d have to say that ours would have done little to improve on that reputation. Mud-chinked logs with no windows. A rough built fireplace that couldn’t work out with the chimney where to put the smoke. Mostly it went into eyes and throats. It was dark, damp, cold, with nothing but planks for beds, dirt for a floor, and a smell like a goat shed. Some of the men preferred taking their luck with the Indians and even married the squaws so they could spend the winter in a nice comfortable wigwam.
The paddlers were contract workers, mostly Frenchmen who’s great-great-grandfathers had come over with the first settlers, and set up their farms and villages in Quebec along the upper Saint Lawrence. Some of the more adventurous began working as traders, setting off into the North Woods with whatever goods they could carry. They eventually made their way to every corner of this country, and discovered the routes that would make the fur trade possible, but once the Companies came in with brigades and posts and forts, the Voyageurs got bumped down to transportation. The farms and villages were still back east, and whenever the Voyageurs were between jobs, that’s where they went — to their homes and families after being away sometimes for years.
And the life didn’t seem all that bad, which was a great credit to the Voyageurs. When it came to making the best of a miserable condition there was nobody better. They kept their spirits up with liquor, tobacco, and pride of who they were. They sang, danced, told stories. Life in the bunkhouse was like living in a tavern, and they were too busy having a good time to notice what a foul place it was. They’d go on from day to day, fed on little but pemmican and wild rice, no complaints, and the only fights were for the sport of it. Mostly, anyway. Then Sardou shows up. The trouble didn’t start right away. Not with us. It started first with the Indians. There was a winter camp just outside the stockade. Chipewyan, for the most. Some Métis. A few Cree, but them and the Chipewyan didn’t always get along. Anyhow, that night after Sardou arrived the Indians get into a real stew. Drums, chants, whoops and hollers, like they’re ready to go to war. Then, next morning a bunch of them leave. Just take their bundles and head out. After that we find things hanging on branches around the stockade — feathers and bones, bundles of moss tied up with thread. Of course, the natural guess was there must be something about Sardou that got them going, because none of us had done anything.
Now, here’s an odd thing about the voyageurs. I don’t know how much courage was in their nature, it didn’t always show, but challenged by any kind of mortal danger they were the bravest men I’ve ever seen. Paddle a canoe into rapids that were death times over and laugh the whole way, never turn from a fight with man nor beast. Even so, if an Indian pointed a bone at them they just withered right up. I guess you’d say they were superstitious, but I’ll tell you, it ran a lot deeper than fretting over broken mirrors and black cats. There was a darkness in their souls. You wouldn’t guess it from the way went on day to day, but those spirit charms hanging off the branches brought it out the way bad air brings out the fever. They didn’t know what those things did exactly, but figured no sensible Indian would go to the trouble of making them if they didn’t work. The way I figured it, either they thought those charms were going to cause something evil to happen, or they were supposed to ward off something evil that was likely to happen. Either way there’s messing about with evil, and they don’t like it. Right off they get sullen and mean, and rumors start going around about what Sardou must have done to make this happen. Rumors they weren’t inclined to share with me.
Up till then they’d treated me pretty well, not quite like one of them, but they made some effort. Now, all of a sudden, I was a Company man.
Now, I should tell you a little more about my own role in all of this. As I said, I was there as sort of an apprentice, Commis was the term, not quite a Bourgeois, but still a Company man. My father was one of the Montreal partners, you see. Not big, but the fur trade had been his life, and now that he was on the business end he wanted his boy brought in properly. Up till then I’d had a measure of schooling, could tell you a Roman from a Greek and parse a phrase with either one if he happened by. I knew a rhomboid to see it, and could figure the tangent if an angle was right. But now my father reckoned it was time for me to learn something useful. He’d known Duchêne for years, traveled with him all through the fur districts back when he was getting started. He respected the man and trusted him to look out for me and teach me the things that mattered. And Duchêne knew what mattered. That’s the truth. There was no nonsense about him, and he wouldn’t stand for it in anybody else. To the voyageurs he rated just below God and The Company, and since he was a lot closer to those almighty masters them than any of them were, it made sense that staying on Duchêne’s good side was the only thing they had to worry about. He was small, like most of the French, small and dark, but he was strong as a prize fighter and could hoist a drunken paddler up by the scruff and box him sober without taking an extra breath. That’s if he felt the need to, which he sometimes did.
Now, one of the jobs that I had as a Commis was to look after the well being of the paddlers. This had me in the bunkhouse every few days, checking after the men’s health, listening to any complaints they were willing to make, that sort of thing. Then I’d pass whatever I’d learned on to Turnbull. I know, it sounds like I was a spy, but Turnbull wasn’t much interested in their politics or personal affairs. His interest was in keeping them healthy. They were, after all, our only way out. Without the Voyageurs there was no fur trade and no going home, it was as simple as that. It was in this medical capacity that I came to find out about Sardou’s unusual condition.
From the first that he arrived there Sardou had just tried to disappear into the shadows. He set his blanket on a bunk as far from the fire and the light as he could get. And he pretty much stayed there. He’d been in a gloomy condition when he showed up, but as time went by he seemed to be barely alive. He didn’t talk to anybody, and nobody talked to him. Now and then he’d come out for food, put some boiled rice in his bowl, then slink back into the dark and pick at the stuff. It bothered me, seeing somebody reduced to that, and I have to say I was disappointed in the way the men were behaving. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t really understand the problem, so I asked Duchêne.
“Young man loose his father,” Duchêne says. We’re by the lake where he’s surveying the sky for any signs of improvement in the weather. “Maybe he mourns in this way. Maybe he was too long by himself. Thinks too much on the dead. The men, they don’t like this. Makes them agité. Like the cat, eh?”
“And the Indians? Why are they so bothered by him?”
“Listen ga’çon,” he says in the tolerant but condescending manner used for children and half wits. “You want to know what the Indians think, you go talk to the Indians. Talk to their medicine man. He’ll tell you things they’ll scare you so bad you won’t never go to sleep again. But then what good will you be to the company, eh? Too tired to paddle. Too scared to be in the woods. No. Leave them to their business. Leave Sardou to his.”
Duchêne was dodging around something he didn’t want to tell me, but I knew it was pointless to try, I wouldn’t get anything more out of him.
A few days later I was with Turnbull sorting pelts while we discussed plans for a trading excursion to an Indian encampment about twenty-five miles to the West of us. I thought maybe with just the two of us talking together he might loosen up a bit and let me in on what he knew.
“Has oanie-buddie said oakht t’ ye?” he asks me. “Oakht purteeclur?”
“No,” I say. “Nothing particular. It’s just the things I see going on.”
“Ye mean ivrie-buddie treatin’ Sardou az he wiz poozhun. Weel, A guis A shid hay expekted dhat. Oanie-wei, ’tiz no surprise.”
“Why?” I ask. “ What exactly did he do?”
“Naything, railly. least naything dhat’s hiz fawt. Hiz daddie fell oot o’ lein wi’ sum local mainnurz. Muckul misfoartin dhair. Noa jist fur aw dhat, but fur hwawr ’t happened.”
“Matchi-Ayaw. Dhe Indians dinna like dhe place. Dinna want oanie buddie gowin’ thare. Hit’s cursed, ye see. Dhat’s dh’ Matchi pairt, eevil, cursed. Dhat’s hwawr hiz daddie deet, un as far as dhe Indians ar concerned dhat’s wei. Un Sardou shid ha’ deet too. But he didnay. ‘Tiz fashious un Dhay dinna like it.”
“But if nobody else goes there, and if he didn’t tell anybody but us, and none of us told anybody, how does everybody know about this?”
Turnbull shakes his head, “’Tiz th’ damndest thing. Yoo kenz, a trapper can shank throo dhe woods fur a year un ne’er see unidhur soul, but ivrie Indian gin a hunnur meils can tell ye where dhat trapper’s beent un hwit hee’z done. D’ ye ken hoo dhay day’t? D’ ye? Cuz I dinna. Dinna een wonder aboot it nay mair. It’s jist ane mair thing dhat ye see happen, un ye say, ‘dhat’s hoo it cumz here.’” He looks over a row of bundles and grabs one off the top. “I shid a put um i’ dhe main hoose wee us. Dhur stull would’a been fash, nay gettin aboot dhat, but leaet hee wouldnay be harassed. I jist wush dhis hay noa happened. I dinna ken hwit cam owr his daddie t’ gang up dhair. If oani-buddie shid ’ave kent better….”
“He might not have thought the curse was real.” I say, “do you?”
I noticed that Turnbull is working on the pelts that Sardou had brought in. “Hennig,” he says to me, “Dhur’z nae a mile o’ wattur nor lawnd utween heer un Fort William hiznay hud a curse put on ‘t by some-buddee. A’v cursit a few masel, un fur gid raizun. Hwit’s dufrunt aboot Loch Ayaw iz every-buddee kenz aboot hit. Hit’s a auld curse. A famous curse. Dhat maks it real inyoo, un dhat’s why nay-buddie wi any sense at aw wid gay dhair. Neer mein dee dhair. Gid! what wiz hee thinkin? Ull dayin. Simpul az dhat. Noo lukk at dhe moagur hee’z goatun hizsel in. Hiz daddie’s deed, hee’z gain half-daft, un noo dhur’z deel-a-bit hee can do but get oot. Dhat’s a muckul heekh preis fur yin gid load o’ heids. Un fur aw A ken dhay’ve a curse on ’em too. Dinna even ken if A shid risk shippin’ dhaim oot. leik wawr t’ hawd ’aim heer. Mebbee A shid just tak a loas un burn dhe hail lot. Hit’s a peetie though.” He runs his hand over a thick otter pelt. “Aye, dhat wid be a peetie.”
Turnbull’s attitude had me a little confused. Did he actually believe some supernatural evil was polluting the furs and driving Sardou mad? He was surprised when I suggested it.
“Noo, hwit d’ ye think?” he said, “A’m civuliized un a passubul Christian, fur Gid’s saik. Dinnae mak oannie mistak aboot dhat. But A’m no gettin paid t’ oapun foak's een tay th’ clear likht o’ reason, nur tay dhe redeemin’ grace o’ oor Saviour. Coodnay do’t gin A were. It’z ma joab tay git ulang wi dhur foak, hold dhair trust, jein in traede dhat’s fair ba dhe rools wee ’gree upoan. Yur joab tay. If dhat meens gee’n heed tay dhair ghoulies un gaisties dhan dhat’s wit wee do. If dhe Indians sayz thur’s a curs oan Loch Ayaw, ye thenk thaim fur dhe warnin’ un promise ye winna hay naything t’ do wi dhe place. Dhat’s hit. Brek yoor wurd, ye’ll pay dhe price, t’ain way or t’other, un in dhe end dhe bill gay t’ dhe Company. Thay dinna leik dhat, un hwei shid thay? Hwan ye sen a man aff t’ rin a poast thoozuns o’ meil uwaw, ye bist tae ken dhat hee winna rin fool o’ dhe local foak, hwit eer kinna haithuns thay ar. A’v ei been gid at dhat.” He picks up the ledger he’d been making his entries in. “Dhis iz hoo thay ken. Hit’s prif dhat A’m dayin dhe joab thay expeck. Noo I’v gat fash.”
Turnbull’s explination seems to cover things pretty well, at least as far as the Indians are concerned. Then I ask him about the Voyageurs and how they fit in with all of this.
“Th’ Voyageurs?” he says, “Gid faith…!” And then for one of the few times that I knew him I hear him laugh. “Ye ken, Hennig,” he says. “Thur’s sum feelds ‘o lair dhat ar tay mixtie-maxtie tay e’er find yur wei intay. A’ll jist say dhat in teim ye may lairn t’ get ulang wi dhaim, ye mikht een earn thair rispek, but ye’ll nivvur ken hoo thay think nor hwei dhay day hwit dhay day. Duchêne diz. Thay'r hiz foak, un it’s hiz joab t’ dail wi dhaim. As fur Sardou, oanistly, A’m in a bind thair. If A rug him oot ‘a dhe bunk-hoos noo it wull oanli mak things wawr oa um. Un I leev him dhair…, weel, A dinnay think oanie buddie ull day oakhut t’ troolie scaith um. Duchêne wudnay stawn fur’t. Thay jist waant um ‘t gang uwaw”.
I thought it was interesting that he said that, because it was the obvious solution. Just send him away, or let the Voyageurs drive him off. Considering Turnbull’s practical approach to matters it’s what I expected, and I assumed he hadn’t mentioned it before because he didn’t want to be seen as going back on his word.
“Do you think he might?” I ask. “Go back into the woods?”
“Na. Leest A howp noa. Hee widna last lang un hee did. If hee triis. A’ll day ivrie-thing A can tay stoap um.”
“For the Company?”
Turnbull noted my sarcasm. “Cuz hiz daddie wiz ma kith.”
So, Sardou stayed where he was, and the men went on with their grumbling. Malchance was a word I kept overhearing. Bad luck. A Jonah. They stayed clear of Sardou’s end of the cabin as much as they could, and made a show of crossing themselves if he so much as turned their way. I tried to stay neutral, but it was obvious that Sardou needed some looking after or he was going to wither up and die—another possible solution, and one that I hadn’t considered. I even wondered if it might have been Sardou’s intention. He must have realized how much trouble he was causing. Maybe he saw it as the best thing to do. I didn’t see it that way though, and I decided that if Turnbull was determined to keep him there, then the least I could do was keep him alive. I knew it would set me more at odds with the men, but there was a principle involved. That’s what I told myself, anyway. I think it probably had as much to do with our both being near the same age, both outsiders, and me being in a position to strike a friendship with someone who represented a legendary aspect of frontier life.
Let me explain here. You see, years ago, about the time your renowned Lewis and Clarke first set foot in unknown territory, our own explorers, Thompson, Pond, Mackenzie, were traveling and charting everything clear to the Pacific and up to the Arctic Sea. But the thing is, wherever those men went it seemed that the free trappers, Coureurs de bois, had been there first. They ranged through the wilderness with no restraints on them beyond their own courage and stamina, they owed nothing to any Company, belonged to no nation or tribe, and they lived by whatever rules suited them. Not everyone admired them for that, but as symbols of the unbound human spirit they filled the bill nicely. Like buccaneers or soldiers of fortune they were a boy’s ideal of adventure. Granted, the half-mad kid cringing in the shadows of the bunkhouse fell a little short of that mark, but his credentials were good. If he survived and recovered, then he and I would be the best of friends. Like Duchêne and my father were, only he’d be my friend. It’s almost embarrassing to think I ever believed things could be that simple. But then, to be honest, I wasn’t inclined to see things as over complicated. I was still caught up in the romance of being out in the wilds, dealing with trappers and Indians, hearing stories and knowing that soon I was going to have my own to tell. Of course, I never imagined the price I’d pay for some of those stories. If I had, well, it’s easy to say I’d have done things differently, but would it have mattered? I don’t know. Things happened around me that I was blind to. If I’d seen them, well, I don’t know there’s much I could have done to change them. There were forces at work bigger than I realized and more dangerous than I could have imagined. If I’d had any influence on matters at all, I’d say it was only to make them worse.
I did do what I could to keep Sardou alive, though. I sat there in the dark and talked to him. He wasn’t listening, but I talked just so he’d know I was there. I tried getting him to eat. Not much luck with that. And I made sure nobody tripped him or jabbed him when he had to go out. That cost me some strife with the others, but I wasn’t arguing with them. I endured their looks and comments without ever saying a word back. I wasn’t sure how Duchêne was going to take it all, but I found out.
About a week later I’m in the store and Duchêne comes in, sees that I’m by myself and tears right into me. “I know what you’re doin’.” His face is looking right up to mine. “You think my men are ignorant fools and you know better. But fools, they don’ last out here. Understand that, Ga’çon. And I don’ travel with fools.”
I back off to put some space between us, then set about defending myself. “They’re being cruel,” I say. “Cruel, to treat a person like that just because things have gone against him.”
Duchêne shakes his head and he looks at me like I’m a child. “Cruel? Dur? Sacre marde! Look aroun’ you.” he says with a sweep of his hand. “The Indians starve in th’ cold and die from th’ sickness. That’s what happen when things gone against you. The animal die in the trap gnawing off the leg. A trapper, in the storm he’s caught an freeze to death, he twist the ankle and by wolves he’s tore apart. It’s malchance. The boy carries it with him. The men know, they see it. The Indians know. He knows too. Knows they don’ want him here. Not anybody wants him here but you, and I tell you before, it’s not your business.”
There were plenty of good reasons for me not to challenge Duchêne, but at that moment I succeeded in ignoring every one of them. “Then what do you expect me to do?” I say, trying to look and sound like a man with some authority. “Watch him starve to death or be driven off because you and your men believe a lot of nonsense about curses and bad luck.”
“Listen,” he says to me, calmly, but I can tell his patience is being strained, “he’s the unfortunate boy, Sardou. I’m sorry, désolé. But we have the trip most dangerous. There will be accidents. Some men may die. If Sardou is with us he will be the reason. Anything happens, it will be Sardou’s fault. Bad weather, canoe split the seam, somebody break the leg. How long you think that goes on before it’s big trouble?”
“Then why did you agree to take him along? You could have refused.”
“Because I work for the Company,” and now I see his anger starting to smolder. “Câlice de tabarnac’ ! I do what the Bourgeois tells me, and Turnbull tells me, take the boy to Montreal. So I take him. I take him if he’s here to take. If he’s not, then…” Duchêne drops his voice when the door opens and Turnbull walks in. “Never mind,” he says. “Just remember, these foolish men, they seen things you should pray God you never do.”
I can’t say I cared much for Duchêne’s view of life, but I could see his point about Sardou causing trouble even if it wasn’t his fault. But getting rid of him, that was just too cold hearted for my civilized sensibilities. Besides, even if it was Duchêne’s job to make sure the trip ran smoothly, it wasn’t his place to be making decisions against Turnbull’s wishes. I even thought about talking to Turnbull and telling him right then that Duchêne might not be as trustworthy as he believed, but that would have made me an informer. I had my limits. Anyway, I had a suspicion that Turnbull might be secretly relieved if Duchêne managed to make this whole problem disappear, and so maybe I was the only one who wanted to keep Sardou around. But I was sure of this much, if Sardou was still here when the brigade was ready to go, Turnbull would stand good to his word and send him along. It wouldn’t matter if Duchêne liked it or not.