Sawmill Bay, NWT
Summer was ending. There was no discernible autumn this far north, only the quickening of Arctic wind that chilled the summer-green foliage one day, and buried it under a foot of snow the next. Bob smelled it on the air: another night, maybe two. The dogs did as well, and were restless for it, were eager as he to get back on the trail.
"Tomorrow, then?" Caroline knelt in front of the woodstove, where a pot of stew had spent all afternoon simmering; she was stabbing into the tiny oven with a meat fork, cursing. "I hate this thing," she said over her shoulder. "Wherever they send you next, I want a modern cook stove. You can tell them I said so."
Bob looked around the rough one-room cabin. It wasn't much, to be sure, but the Inuit did fine with far less. Besides, he would be gone in a few days and the old stove would serve Caroline perfectly well here by herself. He opened his mouth to say so, but then thought better of it. "I suppose I could try to requisition a better stove," he said slowly, thinking how queer it was that he always loved her best in the days before he had to leave her.
"There!" She wrested a misshapen loaf of bread from the tiny baking space under the firebox. The top crust was seared black and the side was lined with gouges. "I want to bake," she said meaningfully and met his eyes for a moment. Then she went to the breadboard and trimmed the burn away, slicing and buttering, and ladled out stew for their dinner.
This summer, Buck had holed himself up in the local RCMP station barracks with his notions of propriety and self-denial—Bob didn't want to label them 'bourgeois', lest someone call him a Communist, and yet that's just what those values were, doggone it!—and left Bob and Caroline to themselves in the cabin designated for married constables. It was, in fact, far too small a house for three adults, but it would do for a night, say. Several nights running, even, if they were all honest enough.
The first snowfall would strike in the next thirty-six hours; Bob knew it like an itch under his skin, calling him. As soon as it was deep enough, he and Buck would each load their sleds and set out on their patrol routes—separately until Thanksgiving in October, then together for a week, then apart again until Christmas. And Caroline, bless her, Caroline would be here, on her own, with only the local Inuit for company and the occasional traveling missionary to look in on her.
"You're pensive," she said, interrupting her own monologue about the dogs in the kennel and the handful of winter-proofing chores yet to be done.
Bob smiled across at her, realizing his bowl was long empty. He hadn't forgotten her question: 'Tomorrow, then?' "It'll have to be tomorrow, I think. We're out of time; I just don't know how to persuade him."
She sighed. "I invited him to dinner tonight, as usual. He said no."
Bob hummed, unsurprised. "Stubborn fool."
"I even kissed him, when we were alone in the station today, and not a friendly peck on the cheek, either." There was a shine in her eyes that Bob knew well, and not a little anger.
"Then he is a fool," he said with a smile.
She shook her head in frustration. "That stupid man."
"Whom we're both carrying an inexplicable torch for." Bob shrugged wryly and took her hand. A moment later, she rose from her side of the table and came to perch on his knee.
"This whole thing is ridiculous," she said with a soft, self-deprecating laugh.
He answered her with a kiss to her lips.
"After tomorrow, you'll both be gone for months and I'll be stuck here with do-gooder ninnies nosing into my business and everyone expecting me to hitch on to your parents' traveling library. I should make you and Buck both promise to come home and visit, never mind your hallowed patrol schedules."
"Oh, Caroline," he sighed, and hugged her tightly. She was strong and wiry, and her back was rigid with a frustration he shared. She wasn't the type of girl who could take a white picket fence life in town; she was made for the bush, and well they both knew it: out here, they were free. Anywhere else, they might be the center of a dozen potential scandals.
"Come to bed," she said, slipping off his lap. "I know I'm miserable company and I'm sorry for it." She tugged his hand. "Come and chase my blues away."
He stood up, smiling. "You never have to tell me twice."
With a graceful turn, she swooped the stewpot over to the sideboard and fed more logs into the stove. He took a moment to clear the dishes from the table knowing that soon the room would be warm enough to be naked, at least for a while. "Goodness, Bob," she said when she saw what he was doing, "leave that. I'll wash up later."
"Just helping," he said innocently, but he obeyed when she pointed at the bed.
"Tell me," she said when they had mostly disrobed and he had an eyeful of her pale, freckled skin in the golden kerosene lamplight. "When you share the bedroll on the trail…?"
Bob closed his eyes for a second, sorting through not nearly enough memories and all too many fantasies of Buck, and then pulled her close. "Mm, where to begin." He kissed her. "He's much stronger than he looks, you know."
She snorted indelicately, which always made him laugh. "He looks plenty strong to me," she said. She knelt back and swiftly dispatched the rest of their clothing, raising happy goosebumps, and then leaned in for another long kiss. "Tell me. How does he kiss when he truly wants it? How do his hands move?"
He ran a hand up her side, feeling ribs and muscle, such strength. "Oh, my love. He's all broad shoulders and long legs—I don't know why he's not a professional hockey player, come to think of it. He has the height."
"Bob." Annoyed, she drew out his name. "Give me this!"
"Sorry, love." He took a long breath. "Well, then. Imagine this is a bedroll, and that's a campfire..." Bob grasped for words. It would be another thing to write it out, but he'd sworn never to commit anything so incriminating to paper. "No," he said, sitting up. "Let me show you instead."
"Tomorrow," she said afterward, "I'll fix a going away dinner for the three of us. You can kiss him senseless, and then I can show him there's enough love here for all of us." Her face was flushed, determined.
Bob nodded, watching the way the lantern light fell and made copper lights in her hair. "We can try it." He paused. "He might run, though."
"But he knows we both love him." She frowned, and then sighed and rolled onto her back. "No, I suppose he wouldn’t run from us so much as from whatever it is that has him twisted up inside."
Bob kissed her shoulder and drew close around her. "I daresay it's you."
She huffed a laugh, but Bob could hear the worry in her pause before she said, "You don't really think that, do you?"
"No, no." He chuckled. "Women, I mean. You should see him down in Whitehorse, surrounded by city ladies. There he is trying to be gallant and blushing red as his serge. He really hasn't the foggiest what to do with a woman—not that any of us do, that is. Your species is an endless mystery to us poor men."
"Species!" She gave him an incredulous shove and wrestled out of his embrace.
"Your sex! Your sex!" Bob protested, laughing helplessly as her eyebrows rose further and, slowly, a familiar, naughty smirk crept over her face.
"I see. Well, then if my sex is as mysterious as all that," she said, "then you had better get to work solving it, Mountie." She moved his hand decidedly south. "I believe you should start there."
With a laugh he kissed her mouth and did as she bid him, kissing her soft curves as he went. How on earth had he won her in marriage, he wondered. Then he swallowed; as in so many things in his life, their marriage itself was thanks to Buck.
"I can hear you thinking about him," she murmured.
Of course she could. "I love you," he said, and kissed her stomach.
She sat up and kissed his mouth in return. "And Buck."
"Yes, him, too."
She kissed him again. "Good," she said, and lay back, seeming content to have him touch as he would in the time they had left.
They got up later to eat again and clean up the dinner things. There were chores to do for the little cabin, for Caroline, but after, Bob turned on the wireless set to a music program broadcast from Yellowknife and they danced in their stockinged feet, together, deep into the night.
Outside, the wind turned sharp and hard and temperatures plummeted. A wolf howled, and a heavy blanket of snow covered the land.