Book Excerpt: Song of the Spirit River – The Last Canoe
Jul 05, 2020 08:34AM
Image: Drawings for Song of the Spirit River were done by local artist Jill Crosby.
By Louise Sproule from The Review - July 4, 2020
Gordon Fraser’s book, “Song of the Spirit River,” was published in September 2016. The short stories in the book flow along like the Rouge River, meandering through stories of the people who first settled in the region — into the world today. The quiet of the bush and the roar of the river are reflected in Mr. Fraser’s stories, as the people of the community experienced joys and sorrows. Mr. Fraser wanted to share his book with people during this uncertain time, we will be bringing you chapters of his book for free, here on The Review’s website.
And now: here is the fifth chapter of “Song of the Spirit River.”
Two hundred years ago the backwoods north of Grenville, Quebec, were almost completely uninhabited. It is known that there was a community of Scots and Irish living near and around what is now called McGillivray Lake before 1810. At that time only the most adventurous of souls lived further beyond; far flung and independent.
To the north of McGillivray Lake, past the modern community of Kilmar and into the southern region of Harrington, there is a lovely valley dominated on the southwest by a mountain named the Highlands.
On a hillside off to the northeast of the Highlands is another high spot which slopes gently down to the south. There was a meadow on this hillside which for some reason never grew trees; an open place in a closed-in land, where the view stretches far out over the lower hills.
A passer-through in long-ago times stopped to look, and the name he gave that location stayed for generations; after one woman and one man made the place their home.
The cabin was in deep silence as Jim McRae lay sleepless in his bed. Beside him, his wife Nora snuggled up a little closer then relaxed into dreams. In the light beam from the near-full moon he could see the wall clock reading past midnight.
He looked at his wife’s face, soft in sleep, and wondered how he was so fortunate as to have found Nora. Without her assurances that he was capable, he would never have acquired Big Lonely.
The old clock ticked and the cabin started to take on a chill from the cold winter night. It was December 21, 1831; ten years and three months since he set foot on the dock at Montreal. A shiver went through Jim; not from the cold but the memories of that landing.
He had got on board the emigrant ship to Canada from Greenock Scotland with his mother, father, and younger sister. Only he debarked. Ship fever set in about six weeks out of port. His mother, already weakened by sea-sickness, died first. Then his sister about one week later, followed by his father only three days before he landed in Quebec. The port authorities confiscated all his family’s goods leaving him with only enough clothes to cover his back and completely alone when he finally arrived at Montreal.
Mabel MacLeod had seen him that day, standing lost on the dock, and she took him under her wing and back with her to the MacLeod settlement in Glengarry. There he lived in her cabin and worked in her fields. There he learned to read and write, to use an axe and plough a furrow. Mabel’s nephew, Norman MacLeod, took him as a helper when constructing log cabins and that gave him experience at building.
It was Big Norman who brought him along on a trip to the Hamilton sawmill just above the rapids on the Ottawa River, an excursion which set him to dreaming. Across the river stood some buildings along the shore and behind them rose high hills.
Those hills standing tall and green in the summer sun stayed in Jim’s mind long after he returned to the MacLeod settlement, as did the image of the bustling activity surrounding the sawmill. He questioned Norman about what lay beyond those high hills as they worked squaring timbers for another house. But Norman had not gone farther than the top of the Grenville canal. So Jim was left with only a vision until Constant Palache rode in on horseback, and his world opened up quicker than he could have imagined.
The clock ticked away in the silence. Jim pulled Nora a little closer in the warm bed, but memories unfolded and he let them float back.
When Jim saw Constant coming into the settlement from the Cornwall road, then swinging off his horse to greet McGillivray the blacksmith, he knew he was looking at a special person. Later that night, when a group had sat around MacCuaig’s table and pipes were lighted, Norman mentioned to Constant Palache Jim’s curiousness about what lay beyond the hills at Grenville. One answer led to another, then questions about news from the immigrant settlements which were forming in the valleys of Argenteuil. Constant travelled that region and seemed to know it all.
The next morning after Jim had done his chores, he saw Constant Palache at the blacksmith’s shop conversing with Norman. Then they called him over. Constant was heading up into the hills along the Rouge River and needed a good assistant. So he packed a bag with his few belongings, said farewell to Mabel, Norman, and all the others who had welcomed him, and swung up behind Constant Palache for the life changing ride to the river; and to Big Lonely.
He fell asleep with pleasant thoughts of his friend Constant Palache: Voyageur and paddler for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Timber scout and outback man supreme.
Nora shifted and awoke slightly. Just enough to look over towards the shadows nearer to the wood stove, for Jim and her were not alone in the cabin on Big Lonely. In a smaller bed with high wooden sides slept Mandy Ann. Four years, five months old. Mandy Ann had been born south of Big Lonely in that little community in the valley north of Grenville. After assuring herself that the girl slept soundly, Nora snuggled closer to Jim’s strong warm back and went over her journey to life on Big Lonely.
Nora Patton was her name before she married Jim. She was born in St. Andrews East into a big happy family where her mother taught her to sew and cook and the many tricks required to run a smooth household. At sixteen she took a job working for the MacMillan’s in their fine stone home at Grenville, right across the river from the Hamilton’s.
Her attractive appearance, gentle manners, and ability to set a table made her a vital part of the MacMillan household. There, over the feasts she helped present and the spirits she poured, gathered colourful crowds of entrepreneurs, ladies of high fashion, and travellers from many places. There she met Constant Palache and Constant introduced her to Jim McRae. Now she lay here with him, with their child sleeping close, and wished for little more.
During the two and one half years she worked for the MacMillan family, she had met many of the officers stationed at Grenville. At the grand gatherings which Mrs. MacMillan enjoyed putting together, her ability to engage conversation sometimes found her in the company of gentlemen lonely for a young woman’s presence. Her days off were often filled with gay rides in carriages, on horseback, or even in canoes with strong intelligent men; but none compared to Jim.
She met him while he was with Constant Palache in Grenville, working for a man named McCallum, checking a site for a sawmill. Jim was twenty years old when they met. From the first introduction at the MacMillan house, they got along. She could never quite describe it to herself but he seemed to be the other half of her. They could see each other across a room and sense each other’s thoughts. Feel the same flow of life as they made small talk and walked along the canal. When he left with Constant for a trek far to the north, she knew he would be back.
Jim did return in the spring. He came to the MacMillan house asking for her, informing Mrs. MacMillan of his wish to court Nora. Mrs. MacMillan made no objection whatsoever for when she saw the shine in Nora’s eyes at the request she was wise enough to step aside.
Jim and Nora spent the early summer making plans. Where they would live at the start, how they would make their living, where they would carve out their place in the area, which was expanding rapidly. They were married by the Anglican minister in Grenville on Saturday, August 1, 1826.
The old wall clock ticked, the moon beams grew longer and the cabin submitted to the 30-below winter night.
Jim’s eyes opened with the first gray light of dawn showing through frosted glass. Nora still slumbered, deep in her blankets. There was a hard chill in the cabin as he arose and quickly dressed. He went to the wood stove and stacked in birch bark, cedar kindling and dry strips of hardwood and struck a match. He closed the stove door as the flames caught quickly, then walked to the window to look out at the pale dawn.
As the stove heated and spread its warmth across the single room, Jim’s attention was taken by a little head, all surrounded by tussled curly blonde locks, popping out of patchwork quilts. Mandy Ann sat up in her crib, wrapped in her quilts, and spoke to her father.
“Oh Poppy, is it Christmas yet?” she asked while yawning deeply. Jim just shook his head. “No Mandy, not for a few more days.” A slight frown crossed his face for he knew she was looking forward to that day and he was ill prepared.
Little Mandy Ann twisted the quilt in her hands and talked downwards. “Sandy Claus will find me up here, won’t he Poppy? Like he did at Granny Rourke’s house, won’t he Poppy? He will know where I live?”
Across the room Nora was awake, lying with her head propped on her arm and listening to her child’s banter. Her eyes met Jim’s and they both knew each other’s thoughts. Mandy Ann had been born in the cabin along the Scotch Road and Christmas in that community had been special.
Granny Rourke, that wonderful widow who had taught Nora so much of backwoods life, had introduced Mandy Ann to the idea of Santa Claus; the old wise man who gave gifts to good girls and boys. Jim and Nora took on the custom and each year on Christmas morning there had been a special treat, from Santa Claus. But up here on Big Lonely they were at a loss as to what they could give to keep the tradition alive.
Nora spoke softly. “Oh Mandy Ann. This is our first Christmas up here and Santa Claus might not find you right away. He will be busy down at the settlements, and you don’t want him to miss all those girls and boys while he looks for you way up here. Do you?”
“Sandy Claus will find me. I know he will. Sandy Claus knows where all the good girls live. Granny told me so. You will see, Mommy. Sandy Claus will…” Her words trailed off as she glanced from her mother to her Dad.
Jim trimmed off the damper on the stove and thought of Christmas. He should have been more prepared for Mandy Ann’s first Christmas on Big Lonely. Down on the Scotch, it had been simple and fun to make up the idea of Santa Claus. When he went to town in September he should have picked something for her, but he did not and now Christmas Eve was four days away.
The air in the cabin warmed quickly as the sides of the wood stove took on a dull glow. Nora was at the table mixing buckwheat flour, eggs and milk for pancakes. Little Mandy Ann sat on a stool with her doll, telling it of Sandy Claus and how he found children everywhere. Granny said so.
Jim definitely did not want Mandy Ann’s innocence to be shattered, nor did Nora. When breakfast was finished and they stood close while cleaning dishes, Nora asked. “She is so looking forward to Christmas, Jim. What can we do to keep it special?”
Jim had been considering that same question all through breakfast and he had only one solution. “I’ll go to town. I’ve been thinking three days gone. Will you be alright here alone? I’ll see to it that the hay is down and plenty of wood in. Leave tomorrow morning; one day down, one day back, a few hours to stop and rest and see Granny. Should be back in the late afternoon, the 24th.”
Nora nodded assent.
Jim spent that day getting ready for the trek. He and Nora had three cows, (two dry), and a young bull they were hoping would build a herd of good Jerseys. They shared the cozy barn with three pigs, one sturdy Canadian horse, and eight chickens in a coup. He made certain there was enough hay down from the mow and water from the spring to last until his return.
The next morning dawned clear and cold. As the sun broke the eastern horizon, Jim laced on his cowhide moccasins, donned his heavy woollen coat and hat, hugged Mandy Ann and kissed Nora good bye, then headed out on snowshoes for the 20-mile walk to Grenville. Nora held Mandy Ann in her arms at the doorway as they watched him go.
To some, 20 miles cross-country through the backwoods in the dead of winter might seem daunting. But after all the days and nights he had tromped beside Constant Palache, learning to read the land and know the wildlife, Jim was more than ready for the walk.
He headed down from his cabin on Big Lonely; down that long gentle slope which had first drawn his attention to this place, mapping the trail in his mind. Beyond the edge of his meadow, through some pines and he would turn left. There was a join in the trail here; a sharp right would take him north, to the Rouge if he went far enough. But he had no interest there now. He would take the left, then straight for about five miles where he would skirt a lake. Beyond that it was through the forest to the top of the Scotch Road, then the relatively easy walk: the ten miles to Grenville. As he walked, he remembered his first passage this way, and Constant Palache.
After he left Mabel MacLeod’s farm, he had wandered far with Constant, packing gear and taking notes. Constant was completely at home in the wild, finding food and shelter wherever he was, no matter what season; and he taught Jim the ways of the wild: how to make a camp, fix a snowshoe or repair a canoe; how to mimic the bellow of the moose, how to understand the call of the wolf. For the best part of three years, Jim had lived beside Constant, learning and trying to emanate the man. They had walked the forests from the Gatineau River to Morin Bottoms, from Raw Cliff to Mont Tremblant.
It was on an exploration to some highlands, about three miles distant from where his cabin sits now, when he looked out to the east and saw what Constant called Big Lonely. It was the south face of a sloping hill where no trees grew. It appeared to Jim when he first sighted it as a meadow ready for the plough.
On his request, he and Constant had hiked over to the top of that slope and looked over to the heights where they had stood two hours before. There as he looked out he understood why Constant Palache had named this place Big Lonely.
They camped that night on the meadow and Jim explored. He found that there were many good maple trees for sugar and potash. Right where he thought a cabin could sit was a stand of big cedar trees, and amazingly for this height, a spring flowed with fine water. The sun set beyond the distant highlands and rose the next day with a blaze of splendour over the lower hills to the east. The place was big, with a vista almost unmatched by anything Jim had ever seen. And god, it was lonely; made a man seem small when looking out. Big Lonely it was and he would live here; the vision never left him.
Jim tromped through the snow, well on his way to town on a fine winter’s day.
Back on Big Lonely, Nora and Mandy Ann had chores galore. Together they fed the stock and brought the horse out to exercise in the snow. The sun shone bright and even though the thermometer read twenty below, the sun made the front yard pleasant. Then they went inside and spent the rest of the morning learning ABC’s, Mandy Ann concentrating hard as she traced out the letters.
When they were finished lunch, Nora decided to make soap; she was getting short and had all ingredients needed. She got the stove hot and put slabs of fat from the hog they had butchered into a big iron pot and set it to render. Mandy Ann watched closely as her mother worked, and Nora explained every move she did in the process and why it was done, and remembered her journey to Big Lonely.
After their wedding, Jim had brought her up the Scotch Road to McGillivray’s lake where there was a community. Jim had leased a log cabin there, backed onto a little stream, with a garden space already planted. Only about a mile north lived Granny Rourke and that first year while Jim worked in the forests, Nora spent much of her spare time with Granny.
Granny Rourke – Mildred – if one wished to be formal, had grown up in the backwoods, been married and had children. Her children both died from a fever she could not control, then her husband was killed when a tree fell on him while logging. Despite this, Granny lived on and held a positive attitude and a solid faith in God. Over sixty when Nora first met her, Granny Rourke became a mentor for Nora, showing her the many and varied wisdoms needed to run a backwoods household.
Nora had made soap before she met Granny, but Granny showed her how to do it without lye purchased from a store. She taught Nora how to find the edible plants and where the ginseng and wild hops grow. She showed her how to smoke and salt meats to make them last, and how to whip an old apple tree into sprouting new blossoms. Lessons learned from a lifetime of pioneer living, Granny passed on to Nora.
In the autumn of their second year married, after Jim had returned from an excursion with Constant Palache, he had packed a bag with some supplies and they went walking; straight north for a distance, then a big swing around a lake which shimmered and reflected in the fall sunshine. They continued, after stopping to eat a bite, walking through old forests on a trail that followed the low lands heading almost straight north. Then at a fork in the trail, Jim turned right. He took her by a devious trip up a long hill and then to the left to exit the woods at the heights of Big Lonely, looking down at the swooping vistas of far-away hills that rolled away to the south. There, right near some ancient cedars, near the bubbling spring, Jim made a bush camp for her and him.
He took saplings to form a dome and slabs of bark from downed trees to cover and make shelter. Then he cut cedar boughs to make a bed and spread out blankets. After a meal and tea they watched the sun set beyond the highlands, then made love the whole night through. When the sun rose in the morning and she saw Big Lonely in the light of dawn, she, like Jim, knew she had found her home. The place they would make their stand against all which life might throw at them.
As the day wore on, Jim was at the big valley at the north end of the Scotch Road. From here, the next ten miles were fairly easy going, for there was a broken trail. He stopped at Granny Rourke’s cottage to say hello and explain his need for a gift for Mandy Ann. He had thought of going straight to town, but a look at Granny’s roof showed it needed to be shovelled clear. So, while Granny strapped on her snowshoes and went off to see the Algonquin woman who made leather items, Jim shovelled.
Granny came back late. Jim had cleared all her roofs and it was dark so he stayed the night. The next day he was up early and jog-trotted on his snowshoes down to Grenville and the general store. When he arrived mid-morning, the clerk told him that if he could just wait a bit, the owner would be coming up from Cushing with a fresh load of goods. So Jim hung around.
He talked to Mr. and Mrs. MacMillan, telling that Nora and child were well in their home. Then he sat in Leroy’s tavern and heard about who was hiring and who had won the great fight the night before. It was almost four in the afternoon before Mr. Wilson arrived with a sleigh full. Jim chose two rolls of calico, different colours, thread, needles, and some lace. Then he purchased fifty pounds of flour, ten pounds of salt, five pounds of cane sugar, some yeast, a big bag of coloured candy, and a kaleidoscope.
When he was wrapping up his goods the store owner opened a crate to show him a gun he had brought for sale: a double-barrel coach gun, twenty balls to the pound, percussion cap fired. He and Jim went out behind the store as the owner demonstrated how there was no hang-fire with percussion caps. Jim bought the gun on the whim; complete with powder, five pounds of lead balls and caps.
He spent that night in a cot above the tavern and before daylight he was on his way up the Scotch, carrying about ninety pounds on his back. But he had carried double this weight sometimes when travelling with Constant Palache; the day dawned clear and the trail was good.
Up beyond McGillivray’s lake at Granny’s cabin she was waiting for him. The Algonquin woman had delivered a wonderfully-made doll. All soft doeskin and beads, with corn husks plaited for hair. She insisted that Jim stay for a bite, and he found her back door needed fixing, so it was mid-afternoon before he set off on the last part of his walk back to Big Lonely.
Nora started her day early also, feeding the animals while she listened to Mandy Ann’s chatter. They were both looking forward to Jim’s return, figuring him to arrive about time for supper. He would be tired; she knew that, so she would make something light and have a big meal on Christmas day. She had been hoarding for the day and she began the preparations.
She took out a smoked ham she had set carefully away then chose her best squash and turnip. Onions and potatoes would be trimmed up just before the meal tomorrow, and there were jarred wild plums for dessert. Tonight she would serve him flatbread and soup and tea.
She gave Mandy Ann her lessons and as the day wore on, she exercised the horse and thought of her love for Jim and this place, Big Lonely. She gave Mandy Ann an early supper, thinking to wait for Jim and eat with him.
As the sun was setting low and her lamp lit on the table, Nora smiled at the thought of Jim’s return. He would be tired for certain, but she was not. She stepped outside of her door and looked down over the meadows. The full moon would be rising soon, for she could see its light starting to colour the eastern sky. At least Jim would not be in darkness, but she had no fear for him. He had learned from Constant Palache.
In the last bit of daylight she took her buckets to the stoned-in spring and filled them, splashing water on the edge of spring. “Have to be careful,” she thought, as she carried those two buckets to the house to be warmed for her and Jim’s bath. “That’s going to get slippery.”
She got the stove burning strong and placed a large pot to heat while she put Mandy Ann in her crib. Mandy was nowhere ready for sleep until her Poppy arrived, so she sat in her bed and watched her mother putter away the time.
Nora had a plan: When Jim arrived she would feed him, then bathe him, pull the drapes around their bed and caress him until he slept. She smiled to herself at the thought of her man’s power and what sometimes happened when she teased him just beyond his control. She checked the water on the stove; two more buckets would make a great bath.
On the trail, Jim had about five miles left to go. It was hard slogging with the load he carried, even though he had made trail just two days ago. There was a crust which when he broke through, made him lift his snowshoes high for each step. When he started the long skirt around the lake he paused to look around and listen.
All was still in the forest of tall hardwoods, the moon beginning to mottle the path in bright light and shadows. He would be back at Big Lonely a couple of hours late but he would get there and the thought of Mandy Ann’s shining face and Nora’s soft body waiting for him quickened his steps.
As the moon rose over Big Lonely, Nora tucked Mandy Ann into her covers and added wood to the fire. Jim was late but should be here soon; meanwhile her water was evaporating away. Two more buckets.
While Mandy Ann lay talking to her doll, Nora put on her boots and coat, picked up her buckets, and went out into the cold night air. It was gorgeous, the moon part way up lighting the snow covered meadow in a golden light. She set the buckets aside while she checked all the stock in the steamy stable. Then she went to the spring for water.
As she picked up the full buckets and started towards the cabin her feet went out from under her on the sloped ice and she fell backwards, whiplashing her head onto the rock-hard surface. She lay dazed, unable to move a muscle.
She must have lost consciousness, for when she came to the moon was higher and she was very cold. She half crawled her way back to the cabin and into the warm space. She sat on a chair but started to pass out so she went to her bed.
Mandy Ann watched her mother with great concern. She knew something was very wrong but not what it was. She heard her mother saying to stay in bed until Poppy came back, then saw her mother slump onto the bed without another word. Something was terribly wrong with Mommy.
Mandy Ann did as she was told and stayed in her crib, watching and hoping her mother would awaken. But she did not. When the stove began to cool down and Mommy still had not got up to add wood, Mandy Ann climbed out of her bed and went to her mother. She shook her gently with no results then called, “Mommy… Mommy!” No answer.
Mandy Ann was only four and a half, but she had the clear head of a pioneer child. Her mother was sleeping hard and would not awake, but Poppy would be home soon and he would make things right. She looked at the wall clock; nine and three-quarters time.
Maybe she could go and meet him on the trail. Get him to hurry a little bit. She opened the cabin door to look down the meadow but no sign of Poppy. Mandy Ann went over to her mother’s bed and called gently again but Mommy slept soundly.
She considered the stove which was almost out, but knew she was not to touch it. She sat on her stool and thought for awhile, then put on her warm winter wear, and after a last shake of her mother’s shoulder, stepped out into the moonlit night.
She did not go far from the cabin for a while after quietly closing the door behind her. She just stood there and took in the silence and the golden light which lit the meadow and the barn and made the far away forest sparkle. From out of that forest her Poppy would come walking soon so she just stomped around in the snow to keep her feet warm and waited.
But the snowshoe tracks Poppy had left in the shining snow, leading down the gentle slope of the meadow, beckoned her and she followed them with tentative steps. She did not intend to go far but the walking was easy, for with her light weight she did not sink beyond the crust; leaving tiny tracks in the snow alongside those of her father.
The moon was right overhead and the whole countryside shone nearly as bright as a sunny day. She continued on downwards, not worried about being out alone, for she knew Poppy would walk out of the dark forest at the bottom of the meadow. Then she would tell him about Mommy, and he would make it right.
By the time she reached the bottom end of the meadow, the big trees seemed to open up for her and signs of snowshoe tracks led straight ahead. Mandy Ann looked back up the long slope to the cabin. She could see it clearly in the moonlight and it looked like a doll house way up there, with a glimmer of light in the window and the moon casting a slight shadow. All was silent as she entered beneath the tall trees and hurried, just a bit, to a long narrow opening in the woods.
She could still make out the dim outline of snowshoes leading straight out ahead, but there was no sign of Poppy. Indecision came upon her and she began to think maybe she had gone too far. But she walked on a bit more, hoping desperately to see Poppy appear out of those distant shadows.
Then she decided she was too far. From where she stood there was nothing familiar; only the white snow and dark trees lining both sides of the trail. A slight shock of fear ran through Mandy Ann. She would go back to Mommy and wait there. But when she turned around, the slight fear turned to near panic at what she saw.
The moon, no longer directly overhead, was casting shadows so that while going forward was bright moonlight, she now faced nearly pitch-black. She could not make out the snowshoe tracks in the darkness between the trees and in her attempt to hurry, missed the right side trail towards her home and got on the little-used left path, leading to nothing but a logging shanty far up the Rouge.
When her walking took her farther into the shadows and nothing looked right, Mandy Ann tried to keep her mind clear; figuring she could not be that far off, she kept going straight ahead. Then she heard the wolf.
Jim McRae was only about a mile from home when he heard the wolf’s call. He stopped to listen, for in that silence the howl rang clear off the side of the highlands. Jim had no real fear of wolves. He and Constant had many experiences with the big timber wolves which roamed these forests. But nevertheless, there was something very primordial in the call for the pack; and he knew that was what this lone wolf was doing.
“None of my affairs,” he thought as he straightened his pack and continued on the last stretch before the turn up the hill. When he heard the second wolf call from some distance ahead, on what he calculated was the trail up to the Rouge, he paused again. Constant Palache had taught Jim how to read the wolf’s call so he was not surprised when he heard the third wolf howl from the deep forest well ahead. A pack was forming.
Jim had only gone a short distance farther when he heard the fourth wolf sing. He knew how they talked: the first wolf found something of interest, then she called her family, then they would join up to see if the quarry was worth the fight. Likely, the victim was something old or wounded which would require little effort for four wolves. He tromped on.
Mandy Ann was almost in full-blown panic. She had never seen a wolf but that howl she heard made her hair stand up and sent shivers of fear through her little body. She saw a clear place of moonlight ahead and tried to run to it but she sank in the snow and heard the second wolf, ahead and to the left.
She took her time now, stepping carefully, aiming for the light, hearing the third wolf call, desperately hoping to gain the bottom of her meadow. But when she did reach open ground it was flatland with a deep gully dividing it and blocking her passage.
Then she heard the fourth wolf yelp from what seemed directly behind her and she ran once more; to the edge of the gully and slid down. The last thing she saw before slipping low was a large dark form watching her slide, not fifty feet away.
Jim was just at the point where the trail split, heading up out of the forest and beyond to his meadow, when he saw a shadow moving between tree trunks off to his left. Only a quarter mile to go now and he would be heading into his yard and the welcoming arms of Nora and Mandy Ann.
Those wolves had him thinking. Whatever they were after was not far ahead, maybe a half mile or so. Jim McRae knew the cycle of life in the backwoods and felt no disdain for wolves. They kept the rest of nature healthy, weeding out the weak, sick, and old. Yet good winter wolf pelts were valuable items and here were some which might be had.
His cabin could wait for a little bit more; he was almost home. He would check out those wolves, maybe bag one or two if the situation was right.
He removed his 90-pound pack and set it carefully under a tree, then unlimbered the coach gun. He carefully checked to be certain the caps were well seated, as he had been instructed; he knew each barrel held one twenty gauge slug.
He took off his snowshoes, loosened his jacket, and removed his hat so as to miss no sounds. With his trail hatchet under his belt and the new coach gun held in front, Jim McRae melted into the forest shadows.
Mandy Ann’s panic had gone away, or mostly. Although not quite five, the spirit of pioneer life flowed strong; she looked around her new surroundings.
In the moonlight she could see that it was a gully with a little stream at the bottom. The stream was frozen solid now but at some point it had risen high and cut a section of the gully bank, leaving an overhang and a place just large enough for her to crawl in. She got herself in there with her back pressed deep into the earth and waited.
She did not have to wait long before she saw the first wolf jump off the bank onto the frozen ice just a short distance away. Then she saw some snow slide down from where another beast stood almost right above her. Two more joined the first on the ice and began to approach.
When they were only about fifty feet away, she tried to scream but found that her voice did not work and only a whimper came out. With three great timber wolves now very near to where she was backed into the earth bank, she took off one of her bead-embroidered mittens and threw it at them. The wolves jumped back in surprise but did not go far.
Jim was coming from the way Mandy Ann had run, towards the gully he knew was there, but from a different angle. He was using all the skills taught to him by Constant Palache, creeping so cautiously in his moccasins that the wolves were totally unaware of the hunters becoming the hunted.
Jim snuck closer. He saw the wolves close in then scatter, and knew pretty well where their prey was hiding. He had no idea of what it was they were after, nor did he care; it was hides he wanted, then get home.
There were four wolves intent on something and Jim McRae only had two balls in his coach gun. He watched and reconsidered as a fifth wolf joined the pack.
Mandy Ann was in trouble and she knew it. But she did not panic a second time; certain in the way of young things that she was strong and all would work out. When those great dark shapes had inched so close she could almost feel their breath, she threw her second mitten and once more the pack backed off, but only a few feet.
Jim saw the fifth wolf come along the gully bed, but it, like the others was intent on the quarry under the bank and was completely unaware of Jim’s presence. With that many big timber wolves, they might put up a stand; and he wanted a pelt or two, not a fight. So he was beginning to slip away when he saw the wolf pack jump and something land on the ground in front of them. Then he watched as they crept closer again.
This was Mandy Ann’s last stand. She had nothing left to throw and the creatures were no longer afraid; edging closer. She calmed her mind, let a big picture of her happy home fill her thoughts, took a large inhale and yelled. “Poppy!”And her voice worked.
Within an instant Jim McRae was over the gully bank, between Mandy Ann and the pack. He fired twice then used the gun butt as a club until it shattered. He split a black skull with his hatchet and broke another beast’s back as it tried to scramble up the bank.
As suddenly as it had began the battle was over. Jim dropped his hatchet and grasped Mandy Ann tight to him as she sobbed. “Poppy. Oh Poppy! I knew you would come.”
As Jim carried Mandy Ann back to where his goods were stashed, she recounted to him what happened to her Mommy and why she wanted to meet him on the trail and how she got lost.
“All is good, Mandy Ann.” Jim said gently to his daughter as he shouldered his pack and lifted her into his arms. “You are brave and you did what you thought should be done. No one could ask for more. Let’s go see how Mommy is doing.” Jim’s long strides took them up across the meadow in the misty shaded moonlight, to the cabin on Big Lonely.
Nora recovered from the concussion and although she had a massive headache, that Christmas was one of the happiest days of her life. When Mandy Ann awoke Christmas morning and found the kaleidoscope and doll, she reprimanded Mommy for not believing Sandy Claus could locate her; even out here beyond the settlements.
Jim explained about finding Mandy Ann and bagging some wolves, but never told how close the situation had been.
They lived up there on Big Lonely for much of their lives. Over the years, their family grew to five children. Nora and Jim McRae watched from their heights as the land below them changed and the Harrington valley was born. The trails they blazed took on names and became roads: Rouge River, Harrington and Kilmar. Forests were felled and prosperous farms appeared.
Louise Sproule has been the publisher of The Review since 1992. A part-time job after high school at The Review got Sproule hooked on community newspapers and all that they represent. She loves to write, has covered every kind of event you can think of, loves to organize community events and loves her small town and taking photographs across the region. She dreams of writing a book one day so she can finally tell all of the town's secrets! She must be stopped! Keep subscribing to The Review . . . or else!
To read the original review and see related stories, follow this link to The Review website. https://thereview.ca/2020/07/04/song-of-the-spirit-river-the-last-canoe/