Chapter 1: Late Winter and Early Spring, 1920
The sourdough miner completed the task of field dressing the caribou, and turned his gaze to the starry skies. “Full moon soon,” he commented to the pack as they finished off the last of the offal. Hefting the carcass to his shoulder, he muttered, “Getting low on supplies. Ought to make a run into town tomorrow.” The team lead yipped in agreement.
He left the claim after sundown, which had him rolling into town just before sunup. Some townies occasionally commented on his odd habit, but he laughed, “The dogs know the trail, and they like running under the moon.” Then he would grin, with a small glint in his eye. The folks would shrug, and go about their business.
While he did not keep to an exact schedule for the timing of his trips, once he got to town he did have a set pattern. First thing was to deposit his workings at the bank as soon as they opened the doors, withdrawing only a small amount of scrip, enough to pay for whatever he needed out at the claim, a bed for a few nights and perhaps a bit extra. Next, before the sun even got a few degrees above the horizon, he checked into The Edward, the more modest of the two hotels in town. Getting the team bunked out back, he was able to settle in to sleep in the cheapest room at the hotel. The jibes about getting his schedule turned about for living in his mine were accepted with cheerful demeanor, for he encouraged them. “Doesn’t matter if it’s daylight or dark underground, after all!” he would chuckle as he accepted his room key.
Late afternoon would find him at the trading post, where he would barter the hides and furs he did not need for his own use for tea, sugar, flour, and whatever else he could not hunt for himself. He never had visitors to feed, but the occasional cuppa was a comfort. If the hunting was good for the community that season, he could make up the difference with scrip from the bank. But occasionally, he would be the only one to bring in surplus. He had the habit of handing off a couple of bills to Madame Sec-Paul, “should someone needs the extra.”
In either case. It had the dual purpose of supporting the town, and keeping certain busybodies from trying to drag him to mass. He had not willingly attended services after he entered university, though that was on the priest in his hometown more than any philosophical stand. Here, there was only the occasional service held. The Methodist circuit rider was the only preacher for five towns; a decent enough conversationalist the one time they happened to be in town the same day. He did give a good sermon, leaning more on the tenets of service to God through service to the community than the fire and brimstone of his boyhood memories.
He also bought rounds for his rifle, though he rarely used it beyond some desultory target practice. His normal hunting method worked best without the firearm, but he always bought ammunition and practiced. He had learned that lesson in Bucharest; predators targeted those that were perceived to be the weakest, and those that were on two legs saw an unarmed loner as an opportunity. He came through the unpleasant episode without a scratch, but a half-dozen footpads going missing in one evening made the neighborhood fall under scrutiny; he had not planned on leaving the city so soon, but needs must.
Last thing on his checklist would be to have a beer or two with supper at the pub. If it had been Sunday, he might have had a chess game or two with Miss Cherie at The Whitby Inn, but the rest of the week she and her girls were too busy. Both activities made him a visible part of the population, gave him a reputation as a sociable gentleman and courteous drinker, and let him hear what the latest rumors were before going to check on the team and then to bed sometime around dawn.
This time, the rumour mill was running well away from his mine and habits. He only needed to rebuff one offer to partner up, “Nae, ‘tis a small mine, just enough work to keep me busy, and dead easy to protect.”
The refusal was met with more information, “Oh aye - with the new constable arriving, we’ll all be better seen to.”
He shrugged, ambivalent. “Suppose so, but only if he knows to get out of town every now and again.”
“New constables being sent all over, now that they got young men coming back. Not all of them that’s been over there can bide in the cities, y’ken?” the bartender added. “The constable is due to be here soon as the steamer can get into Portage. You’ll be having your usual, Charles?”
“Aye, and whatever you’ve got for a sweet to finish,” Charles responded, his mind turning over the new information. A constable could mean it was time to move on, but he had not been around as long as he had by making rash decisions when there was time to plan.
“Hope he don’t expect a new building before summer,” Big Dan grumbled. “Bad enough that the winter’s been that hard, but we’ll not be having building lumber until the sawmill race thaws.”
The men who came to the edge of civilization were of three sorts, Charles had found; the ones who had nothing but their strength and with willingness to use it to build a new life were mostly the ones who built the towns, and prospered. The other two types tended to be a problem in the wild, for they were either running from society, or running from something in their own heads. Neither was particularly suited to the hard work of staying alive out in the wilderness. They would have to wait and see what sort of man the new constable would be.
Charles shrugged and muttered, “If they know what they are getting into, they’ll be sensible. If nae, then they’ll soon find out.”
Big Dan nodded, “We’ll find out in the next month or so.”
At least month to plan, Charles mused on the possible paths. He drank little, but steadily through the evening, as was his habit. There was little other information on the newcomer, just reiterations of the initial news, peppered with the personal views of each speaker. Many had no idea they were throwing their biases about for any with eyes to see to know how they skewed their tales.
His trip was fortuitous in the timing; the news of the appointment had arrived with the latest trapper run last week. With his habit to only come into town only a few times a year, and rarely during the summer, it would not be odd for him to not be around for the constable’s first days. Charles could wait and observe from the distance, even if it meant lurking in the woods. Soon enough to see if it was time to move on.
Charles packed up the new batch of supplies as soon as he woke the next sundown and slipped out to where the team guarded their sled. Another habit from years past to slip away when others were gathering together. The town was large enough to support a couple of saloons beyond the two hotels, so his absence would not immediately be noted. It helped that the night had become bitter cold, with heavy clouds obscuring the moon. “Hup, Tep,” he greeted the lead, “Time to fade into the night.”
A lupine grin accompanied the thought, *New meat watching*.
“Humph,” Charles exhaled, quickly transferring the load to the sled, his ears straining for the sound… there, by the woodshed; human, and trying to be sneaky. The scent was not one of the permanent residents, and lacked the undertone of blood that most of the trappers carried. Most likely one of the itinerant laborers at loose ends until the logging season began again. Probably planning to follow them out to the claim and take it over before the new constable showed. He made a great show of securing his purchases to the sled, as he quietly instructed the team in his original tongue as he got them hitched to the sled, “Just the one, so we take them out through the ravine.”
His feral smile was returned by the pack as they left town at a leisurely pace.
His surviving partner from that first squad was still belowdecks, in the hold, as it was harder for a horse to navigate the companionway stairs up to the deck. The two of them had been partners since his second engagement on the battlefield, and Francis had managed to “find” papers to have Miss Mae shipped back with him to Canada.
One of the sailors came up to the bow, and pointed out a smudge of smoke at the edge of the lake they were crossing, “Coming up to Portage in an hour or so. Figure you’d want to be on hand to offload that trickster of yours.” The old man’s chuckle took any sting from his words.
Entering the hold where the stallion was stabled, he murmured, “Just me, Mae.” The habit from their days in the battlefield served them well now. They were lucky that the stable boy in Halifax had sharp reflexes, and that Miss Mae was able to stop after the first panicked kick. Francis remembered Sergeant Murdoch’s comment that they could train the extreme vigilance out of the stallion, or adapt it to proper watchfulness. They decided having a watchful partner was better.
He had not mentioned to the riding instructor that he and Miss Mae talked it over before making that decision. They were already marked as an odd pair for bunking together during thunderstorms, no need to make it more obvious. Most of the stallion’s gear had not needed to be unpacked during their trip, as their trail equipment was not needed on the steamer, but Francis checked everything over, just the same.
“We’re going to be docking in about an hour, do you still want to get out on the road as soon as we debark?” At Miss Mae’s gentle whicker, he chuckled, “Yes, I know, getting out of town sounds good to me as well. Looks like good weather, maybe a bit colder than we had in Toronto or Regina.” They had not brought a great deal with them, though truth be told, they had not had many possessions to begin with. What little they had brought back from France was mostly the pieces of tack that had survived the war intact. Their trail gear from the war was supplemented by the quartermaster before they left training. “We should be fine for the trip up, as long as we don’t run into any severe weather. Hope the commander was right about them putting us up until the post can get built.”
He kept up an easy conversation as they left the ship, most of the sailors giving them plenty of room to maneuver. Miss Mae had not kicked a hole in the hull, but it had been a near thing when a deckhand had startled him their first night onboard. Once they were steady on the dock, Miss Mae’s head came up, tracking a solitary figure in bright scarlet among the woolen tweeds and the occasional point capote. “You’re right, that is probably our supervisor.”
At the horse’s snort, Francis patted his neck, “Don’t be rude. We do need to check in, after all.”
Sergeant Stanislaw returned the salute with an almost casual air. He looked old enough to be pensioned, yet he was still on active duty; it was a common sight these days. Most of the men who had stayed behind to keep things running were the ones too old for the army.
“Good to have you here. Post is this way,” he indicated the southern end of the docks. “We’ll get you up to date, fed, then on the road in the morning.” Miss Mae grumbled, and Francis shushed the horse. Stanislaw raised his eyebrow, and continued, “Best you head out at first light, your first trip out. This time of year we only get about ten hours of sunlight.”
“How far out is the town?” Francis asked.
“Forty-five or so miles, we haven’t had the surveyors out here for an official accounting yet.” He led the two around to the stable. “You and your horse could probably make the trip in seven hours in the summer, once you know the trail, but with the snow and mud right now, ten hours is pushing it.”
“Ho, Douglas! New recruits,” the sergeant called as they entered, A huge shadow in the back of the stable moved, “We were able to keep him here because he was too large to ship over.”
Francis stopped on the threshold, agape, “I’d say so. Mae was a tight fit on the riverboat, and he’s 16 hands.” Douglas towered over them all, leaning over the stall wall to gently lip Miss Mae’s ear in greeting.
“It’s what he would answer to after his first rider was lost in their first battle. Since the plow horse they assigned me got nicked for the artillery unit, he and I partnered up.” Francis got Mae settled into the stall the sergeant indicated. “Never did find out his official name, but with his penchant for finding abandoned sunbonnets, he got the nickname of Miss Mae.”
“Hope he’s not going to be stealing hats here, folks might take offense,” Stanislaw joked.
Francis chuckled as he stowed the last of the tack, “Oh, I know. The quartermaster’s wife in Regina gave him what-for last autumn for stealing her market-day hat every week. It became a game for them. We got her a new bonnet for Christmas, and she gave him the one he kept stealing at graduation.”
“Hah! If he could sneak up on Moira Richaud, he’ll do well up the falls,” the sergeant nodded. “Come into the office, there’s some… quirks about this posting they don’t understand in Ottawa.”
Francis was uneasy; yes, there were some laws he did not agree with (even a few he himself had run afoul of) but if there were “understandings”with criminals harming innocents, he might be done before he had begun.
Sergeant Stanislaw pulled a map from the shelf and spread it out on the desk, “You get to town, you are going to bunk at The Edward. Good, solid building, maybe not the most imaginative cook in the kitchen, but it will serve until the post is finished. Don’t take the cheapest room, it’s basically a broom closet with a bunk. I had to use it as a cell for the poacher we caught last autumn.” He pointed out another building, “The Whitby is more expensive, and you might be tempted to call it a ladies’ boarding house. But the rooms are all that are for rent there.” At Francis's frown, Stanislaw sighed, “There’s a couple thousand men in the area, and only a couple hundred women. Half of those are either married or children, and off limits. Over half of the eligible women left are part of the Dene tribes, and while they can be courted, they are not to be stolen or abused. Miss Cherie’s girls are good hostesses, and we’ll leave it at that.”
Francis nodded, “There are no, erm, freelancers in town?”
“Nope, might have a mail-order bride or two who decided working at the pub was better than working the claim, but they’re not professionals,” Stanislaw chuckled.
“Amazing what you can find in the Eaton’s catalogue,” Francis quipped. “Am I to avoid The Whitby entirely?”
“Maybe not entirely, because it’s the only place in town you can get wine since they dropped the wartime restrictions. The Edward has decent beer, and the Sec-Paul place will occasionally get in a shipment of decent whiskey, but Boudreau sells rotgut, and I don’t want to know where he gets it.” Stanislaw shuddered.
Francis nodded, “I don’t drink often, sir.”
“Good habit, but go visit the Whitby dining room sometime, because Mrs. Dean does wonders with a caribou roast.”
“Nice to know.” The situation prompted Francis to cautiously ask, “Are there any other things Ottawa doesn't understand about this place?”
Stanislaw studied him a moment, before stating, “As long as they’re old enough and everybody is there of their own free will, I ain’t seen a reason to get involved in what folks do in the privacy of their own homes.” He pointed at Francis with a glare, “Mind you, a man beats his wife, that’s not something to overlook, especially since it’s a violation of the vows. Also pretty stupid, considering there’s probably five fellas waiting in line to treat her better.” The he shrugged and leaned back in his chair, “Couple a fellas share a wife, as long as everybody’s happy, I figure it ain’t none of my business. Couple of fellas share a house but don’t share a woman, I really don’t care as long as everybody behaves themselves in public. We have our hands full with keeping the claim jumpers down and the treaty lands from being eroded by settlers who haven’t got the sense God gave a turnip.”
Francis nodded, “That I can follow. Are there any usual suspects for the trouble we do watch for?”
“Right - Boudreaux used to get top marks for flaunting the Prohibition laws, but that’s been a shift since the war ended. Here’s who we keep an eye out for now….”
Chapter 2: Late Spring, 1920
Settling in and getting his bearings, Constable MacKenzie discovers there is one more person to meet.
Francis had managed to meet everyone in and around town in the past two months except the eccentric old sourdough whose mine was so well hidden that nobody knew where it was. His cabin, yes; the tribal leaders were able to give the best directions, but nearly everyone had a general idea about where Pemberton lived. The mine, however, he was most cagey about. Not particularly surprising, considering he was a lone miner.
Most folks had even had a story or two about him. The Sec-Pauls were complimentary about the quality of hides he brought in during the winters. Madame Katerynka mentioned his habit to make sure when he was doing well to share his good fortune with those with less, without making a fuss.
He found out more when Father William came to town. “He might get his days and nights and weeks turned about, but he does care about his fellow man. We had a long talk about the meanings behind the shepherd metaphor in the gospels.” The elderly man was thin, even under his somber trail habit, but hefted a pair of saddlebags filled with books without apparent effort. “I do look forward to seeing him again, but our schedules have not matched up in the past two years. Good chess player, too.”
The comment about chess was repeated in The Whitby’s parlor and dining room. “Oh, Charles is such a sweet man. Always willing to indulge any of us with a game of chess or dominos, and he was such a dear to play whist with Mamère before she passed.” Miss Cherie had nothing but good to say about Pemberton.
Her companion and business manager concurred. “It is so nice to actually play cards with someone who is going to pay attention to the game,” Miss Hayreddîn was tall, fit and somewhat cool to him the first weeks he was in town, but she warmed up to him as he maintained a professional demeanor and did not venture past the public rooms.
Francis had begun to wonder about this paragon, until he heard the first sour note. As it was sounded by someone with fewer defenders. Most in town were not fans of John Eggert, and Eggert was not a fan of Pemberton. “Man all alone out there, never makes time with the girls, it ain’t natural. Plays chess, does he?” the man sneered, and shook his head, “Backgammon morelike. O’course, if he has a woman out there in his cabin, we ain’t nivver seen her, she could be chained to the stove.” It was all said in an oily sort of mutter, intended to insinuate all sorts of uncharitable or illegal things without outright saying anything.
Even with his sergeant’s instructions, he was loathe to say anything in retaliation. It was still illegal, on either of the alluded infractions. He was still new here, and stepping in the wrong direction could make the remainder of his tenure very uncomfortable. What was common behaviour for the average citizen could be used to remove him from his post, if someone took it into their head to write directly to Regina, or worse, Ottawa.
Still, even though Eggert’s insinuations were made in malice, if there was a chance that someone was being held against their will, that meant he should investigate. He made plans to head out to the Pemberton cabin, just to be sure there were no problems.
The moose herd kept closer to the claim this year, though Charles did not know if it was because they were trying to stay close to him, or if they were being forced out of their usual grazing lands by incoming settlers. It was not the first time that he had gained livestock by feeding on them, but it was the first time they had willingly coexisted with a predatory group like the wolf pack currently sleeping in the sled barn.
“You are protecting the herd, now?” Charles asked the wolf he called Hypatia. That was not her name in the pack; the wolves allowed him to give them human names in the beginning of their association because he could not manage the complexities of a scent name when they first met.
*They provide cover* the alpha of the pack explained. *The caribou see moose, think it is safe.*
“That sounds frighteningly like something my sire would have said about living in a university town.”
*Different prey, same tactic.* Her ears perked up, and she turned her head to the southeast, *Horse.*
Charles couldn’t hear the new arrival yet, but the pack started their happy call-and-response yips in preparation of a hunt game.
*New meat; wool, leather, little gunpowder… old hunter?* Hypatia’s quizzical headtilt would be amusing if Charles was ready for a confrontation. It was not late enough in the day for him to be able to take down anyone determined to kill him.
Then the connotations of a newcomer with a sense of an old hunter made sense as he caught the flash of red through the trees. “Might be the new constable. Too soon for me to meet him yet.” Charles had caught sight of him a few times since the constable's arrival a few months ago, but he had not been able to get a sense of what sort of man he was, not yet. There had not been a reason to go into town, and there had not been a chance to intercept him alone after dark.
*Hide in the burrow. We will go play.*
“Only play, please. He hasn’t been hunting, but don’t give him cause.” Charles entered the sled barn, and hurried to the tack room on the other side. Consciously holding his breath, he opened the cupboard where his combination overall, balaclava helmet, boots, goggles and gloves were kept.
Once he had donned his gear, he could hear the pack’s teasing yips and calls getting nearer the claim. Charles lifted the cupboard bottom, stepped onto the ladder underneath, and closed the cupboard door behind him. It was simple to lower the trapdoor above himself as he descended into his mine.
Everyone here that could manage one had a team, though they might not be useful April through October, but they were necessary for deep winter travel. Francis had no idea if it was normal for them to be completely loose, but most of the people in town who had a team fenced in a yard for their teams. The further out from town, the less likely there was a fence, to the point that the Dëne basically let their teams roam when they were not needed, trusting the team to stick together and close to home.
Mae’s ears swiveled, and he hesitated when Francis signaled a slow walk, but still moved forward down the trail.
Now, Francis thought the sounds he was hearing from the dogs were happy, but that was based on his limited experience with dogs in the north and his memories on the farm as a child. He soothed Mae, murmuring, “Just happy dogs, running loose like they did at Lac Brochet, okay?”
Mae snorted, likely saying something uncomplimentary about the dogs.
“I know, just keep from throwing me if you bolt, all right?”
This time, the horse’s whickering sounded like a soft chuckle, until the first of the dogs came into sight around the bend.
Francis had a sharp stab of primal fear - that did not look like any of the sled dogs around town.
They stared at each other for a few moments, before the… it had to be a dog, this close to the cabin, right? It (he, perhaps?) sneezed, then yipped and darted back down the trail.
“Okay, that was probably one of the team. Remember, Mr. Beaulieu told us about Pemberton’s dogs being mostly white dogs with some yellow fur, so… yeah.”
Mae was not buying it, and was slowly reversing when two more dogs popped up out of the brush behind them.
The horse shrieked and barely missed the larger dog’s head when he cow-kicked behind them and wheeled down the trail to gain more room.
Both dogs backed off a little, the smaller one sitting back and used one paw to wave at them as it softly yowled. Then the larger dog made an odd, soft and low howl, almost conversational sounds, then rolled onto his back, and wiggled, tongue hanging out of his mouth in a canine grin.
“Right, you’re sorry, fine, yes.” Francis said, his voice only shaking a little. He noticed about ten to twelve heads easing up out of the brush, carefully out of range. All of the dogs were chuffing, or making the same sort of conversational vocalizations that the first two had done.
“Miss Mae doesn’t take surprises well, so don’t tease, he’s been known to take a man’s head off before,” Francis said, not quite sure why he was talking to the dogs, but after years of talking to Mae, it was probably a habit. “We’re just coming in to check on Pemberton; it’s been months since anyone has seen him.”
The dogs moved away from the trail in front of them, and paced them to the meadow where there was a long, low building surrounded by… moose?
“There are days when I don’t think the wilderness can’t surprise me anymore,” Francis muttered. “Apparently, the wilderness thinks that’s a challenge.”.
Keeping Mae to an ambling walk, they advanced toward the cabin. The moose moved away, not startled, but seeming more interested in more grazing than the newcomers or the dogs.
Keeping an eye on the dogs as they tumbled and nipped at each other in mock-fight playing, Francis noted the elevated laundry pole held several items of men’s clothing, as well as some household linens, but no feminine items. While the cabin at first seemed to not have windows, once he dismounted, he could see a hint of glass under the deep eaves of the cabin. “Hallo the house!” he called, and waited for a response.
Casting an eye over the place, it was neat and in good repair, but lacking the sort of decorative touches most of the women in town added to their homes. The doors and shutters were oiled against the weather, not painted. There was not a garden plot around, not even for vegetables. The sliver of window he could see did not seem to be curtained. A single chair sat in the breezeway between the cabin and the sled barn. If Pemberton did have someone else here, there was very little evidence of them outside.
He approached the building, intending to call again, when the entire team dropped their playfulness. The dog that had been laying across the door to the barn stood and growled low and short.
Francis stopped, and took a step back when he heard the small whines coming from inside the barn. That sound was immediately recognizable; it brought to mind a fond memory of new puppies in a whelping box in his Mum’s kitchen. He brightened, “Oh, you have a litter to protect, congratulations.” Then he concentrated a bit on the the calls, and figured the pups to be still rather young. “We’ll come back later, when they’re older, and you’re receiving visitors.” He touched his hat to the dog, then remounted. “Let’s go, Mae.”
Most of the team stayed playing around the cabin, but the large female paced them to the tree line, and huffed when Francis touched his hat again, “Good evening, ma’am.”
As soon as he stepped out of the barn, Hypatia put her paws on his shoulders, gave him the deep stare that made her the pack alpha, and told him *You may court him as a mate.*
“Excuse me?” he said with a chuckle. “You met him once, and you are not my mum.”
*You are pack. I lead the pack. You will court him.* She punctuated her thoughts with a small huff.
“Fine, all right - but he wasn’t here even an hour,” Charles subtly shifted his shoulders after she dropped to all four feet. “Why do you suddenly want him to join the pack?”
*Fighter but knows when not to fight. Talked to us. Warned us not to sneak up on the horse. Cautious not frightened. Respected the burrow. Polite to me. Likes puppies.*
“Polite to you, hm?” He wandered out into the meadow, checking on the herd as he moved among them.
*Did the hat thing you do.*
Charles raised his eyebrows, and considered, “I will seek his friendship. He may not care to join with me.”
Chapter 3: September 22 and 24, 1920
Sometimes, the words flow gently, as with a small creek. Sometimes, there's a drought.
And sometimes, the dam breaks.
Francis moved into the new post building just as the leaves were turning, much to his relief. He had not needed much room for himself, but the simple addition of an office, separate from his living quarters, made it easier for him to actually have a place to relax where he was off-duty. It was also mercifully private, once he managed to rebuff most of the offers from ladies “to do” for him.
“No ma’am, Mum saw to it I could care for a home before I was out of short trousers. Thank you for the offer,” he tipped his hat to Miss MacLeod at her moue of disappointment. The sawmill owner’s daughter was one of the more persistent pursuers. Even if all he had known about keeping house was from living rough in Europe as a soldier, he would have still turned them down.
It was a worry in the back of his mind, whether the folks here would expect him to court one of the few eligible young ladies in town. He could not give them the fully honest reason why he would not care for such an action, but he might hint that he was dedicated to the job. A job that did not depend on the weather, the vagaries of herd migration or a lucky strike likely made him more attractive in the eyes of those who did not realize the dangers of that job. It was a very real possibility that he might not make it to retirement age.
In the weeks after moving his scant possessions into the new building, he still made the rounds of the two hotels and three public rooms for his evening meals, but made a point to keep to the office for mornings. He could make tea and boil an egg, and usually managed to not burn the bacon in the mornings, though he still bought bread from The Edward.
The cell in the official portion of the building had not yet been used, though both Boudreaux and Eggert had been guests in the broom closet masquerading as a room at The Edward before the post had been finished. Of the two, Jacques Boudreaux was the more pleasant to deal with. He was philosophical during his stay, owning up to the charge of Drunken and Disorderly behaviour, and paid the fine in the morning with good cheer, or as much good cheer as one with a severe hangover could muster.
John Eggert was an entirely different problem.
With the apparent failure to get Pemberton arrested, Eggert had chosen to cause as much trouble to and for the constable. He had, to date, been caught twice skulking around the building materials in Daniel MacLeod’s sawmill intended for the new detachment building, been accused of poaching fish traps by the tribal elders, managed to get himself banned from The Edward and The Rose for the summer and even managed to get himself thrown out of Boudreaux’s shack of a pub for fights. He had already earned a lifetime ban from The Whitby Inn years before Francis had been assigned to the town, under circumstances the ladies refused to discuss.
“The man is more irritating than the blackflies,” Stanislaw had commented during Francis’s latest trip down to Portage. “Seems like he’s not happy unless he’s causing trouble for someone else. I’ve gotten reams of paper tied up in the complaints filed against him. He tried to retaliate in kind, but he’s all bluster, with nothing to back it up.” The sergeant snorted as he signed off on the receipt of another dozen of the same. “Just keep documenting the problems and we’ll hand him off to the province court when he’s generated his weight in red tape.”
Talking it over with Miss Mae on the trip back, he found no further actions they could take. When they got back to town, Francis held his counsel until they were in their own stable. sighed, “I know everyone says Eggert’s mostly piss and vinegar, but I can’t help but think there is something I should do to stop him.” The stallion whickered and lipped Francis’s hair as he removed the saddle to the stand. “Thank you for your vote of confidence.”
He returned to his office to find Jonathan Matthieu-Sac-Paul searching his door. “Post for you, Constable. Seems we neglected to get you a letterbox, but I can order one in the next shipment.” The postmaster handed off the letters, and headed back to his other job at the Rose.
Besides the official report confirming the existence of the new detachment and the latest warnings of criminals at large, there was a delicately-addressed envelope. His curiosity piqued, Francis opened the personal letter first, while standing on the porch of the office.
The elegant handwriting continued in the letter, inviting him to supper next Sunday evening at the Whitby with Miss Pandit and Miss Hayreddîn. Francis frowned, wondering at the formality, when he caught the movement of bright ribbons out of the corner of his eye. Miss MacLeod was unabashedly snooping. He did not raise his head or otherwise acknowledge he knew she was watching, but managed a blush as he smiled, and tucked the letter into the breast of his jacket before entering his office to deal with the official correspondence. He would apologize to the ladies for possibly starting a rumour when he went to dinner.
M'sieur Gardino handed him a letter with his key. “Mail for you,came in Wednesday.”
“Ah, good - what day is it now?” Charles gave Jack a slightly confused smile.
“Friday,” the innkeeper replied with a grin, before he tilted his head at Charles’s bundle of hides, “You been by the bank yet?”
“Nope, just got in.” Charles shrugged, “Most of my team is still off in the woods, so I was riding shanks-naig this trip.” Alcmaeon had accompanied him, but that was partly because the team lead enjoyed tormenting the town dogs. “I’m worn out, but I’ll need to check in later today.”
“I’ll let Mr Dean know to expect you.”
“Ta,” Charles said absently as he read the letter from Miss Cherie. She and Miss Juno were issuing a formal invitation to Sunday supper, something they hadn’t done since the first year they were in charge of The Whitby. He put the letter away to haul his belongings to his usual room, laying aside the puzzle until he had rested.
Locking himself in the room, and barring the door besides, he exhaled, and tumbled onto the bed.
Four hours later, he inhaled. The heartbeat on the other side of the door was followed by a soft knock. “Mr Pemberton?”
“Aye, ‘m’up Mrs Gardino,” he mumbled as he pulled himself together.
“Just wanted to let you know the bank closes in an hour,” she replied. “D’ye want tea and scones before you go?”
“Ta’, ma’am.” Charles stretched, and hefted his trade bundle as her footsteps accompanied the retreating heartbeat. His rucksack would be safe enough in his room for the evening.
On the other hand, he might be in town longer than a day. Miss Cherie’s letter mentioned Sunday dinner. if it was important enough for her to write, he should stay in town long enough to see what was brewing.
Mrs Gardino had brought tea and scones to the table in the inglenook he favored. It was far enough from both the window and the kitchen to give him a good view of the public room; the vantage point put all of the doors in his line of sight. Not that there were any other patrons in for tea this early afternoon. Mrs Gardino might have a limited repertoire for dinner and supper, but her baking was sound.
While he applied himself to the tea, he turned the puzzle over in his head. It was true he had not had a formal invitation to supper at The Whitby in ages, for they had long ago crossed over to the sort of friendship where he had a standing invitation any Sunday evening. The letter meant Miss Cherie wanted to make sure he would stop by the next time he was in town.
Well, it wasn’t as if he had any pressing engagements at his claim; the pack would protect the cabin, and the pups were mobile enough. This would not be the first time he stayed in town longer than overday without them. He reached for another scone, and noticed the fraying cuff of his shirt sleeve; his “best” shirt, at that.
He could not remember when was the last time he had bought new clothes. It was probably past time to replenish his gear. His usual mode had not been fruitful of late, for there had not been a claim jumper out his way in some time. These days, they generally had clothes that were best burnt, anyway. He quickly finished his tea, leaving a fifty-cent piece to cover the meal and a little extra.
The covered walkway on the south side of the street (another reason to choose lodging at The Edward) passed by several establishments, including the Matthieu general store and trading company post on the way to the bank. A new addition to the window display was a small sign indicating tailoring and alterations were now offered there; that cemented his decision to supplement his wardrobe. But first, the bank.
Mr Dean was waiting for him at the door. Things must be going well, as the man had a new suit. He was still fit, though it was a mystery how he had not gained a great deal of weight, as he was married to the best cook in leagues.
They exchanged pleasantries as the silver ore was weighed and accounted. Mr Dean completed the transaction by asking, “So, your usual?”
“Ah, well” Charles gestured with his arm, “Perhaps a bit more, as it seems I may be in need of new togs.”
“Good thing Boudreaux’s niece has moved into town then. She’s quite the tailor.” Miller Dean chuckled as he dusted his cuffs. “She’ll have you fitted in good time,” he commented, counting out nearly triple Charles’s usual withdrawal. He could afford it, but the amount did startle him. Mr Dean continued, “She also works with furs, Jacques has been talking up the new moose hide coat she made for him as soon as she got here.”
“Would that be the tailor whose sign is in the window at Matthieu’s store?”
“The same,” Mr Dean nodded as he closed the cash box. The clock chimed the hour, and the banker asked, “Will you need anything else, today?”
“Not today, though I may be in town a bit longer this trip.” Charles hefted his bundle of hides and headed for the door. “If I need more, I’ll see you Monday.”
Stopping in at the store, he was able to trade most of the summer hides for a good price. Madame Matthieu-Sac-Paul shook her head, “Most of the hunters have moved farther afield, to the point that we are too far south for even them to consider trading here. Not a bad thing, since you and the Lac Brochet folks are the only ones to tan them properly anymore.”
Charles shook his head, “Only takes patience, something that’s not in great supply these days.” He indicated the few he had saved out of the trade, “Think I could get a new coat out of this lot?”
“Ah, just a moment,” she dashed up the stairs, quickly returning with a young woman.
Charles only got the impression of tall, slender, dark hair before he was strong-armed into the back of the store, where the young lady swiftly began to measure him. The whirlwind with a tape measure muttered, “Hunter or farmer?”
“Neither, i have a silver mine,” he eyed her warily as she took his neck measurement.
“Tch, not with those hands, you’re not.” Her eyebrows shot up over the wire rims of her spectacles when she took his upper arm measurement. “Though these arms are up for it.”
“I wear gloves when I work, which reminds me,” he called over his shoulder to the older woman, “I’ll need a new pair, as well as another combination overall.”
“Mr Pemberton, may I introduce Miss Philomène Boudreaux, late of Château-Richer, Québec?” Mrs Kateryna chuckled. “Miss Boudreaux, this is Charles Pemberton, resident hermit and occasional miner.”
Miss Boudreaux absentmindedly murmured “Enchanté” as she shook his hand, between taking his wrist measurement and his arm length.
Mrs Kateryna asked Charles, ”Going to get the full rig-out?”
“Aye, I’ve been remiss, and there’s only so much repair these old clothes will take before I’m turned out of The Whitby dining room.”
“Even with good care, clothes wear out.” Miss Boudreaux agreed as she whipped the tape through her fingers, looping it around her neck. “Though if you are dining at The Whitby, I’ll need a few weeks to finish a proper suit.”
“I won’t be needing a full suit, just some better shirts and a new waistcoat,” Charles replied. “Not that you wouldnae produce a fine one, but the winter gear comes first.” He stopped to look over the necktie selection, inwardly sighing at the decline of the cravat.
When his shopping was finished, he managed to leave with half the money he had pulled from the summer’s workings, but not all of the new clothes. “If you are going to tell people I outfitted you, I am going to make sure at least the better clothes do not look like you stole them from someone else’s washline,” Miss Boudreaux sniffed. “The town trousers and waistcoat will be finished by tomorrow afternoon, the jacket by Sunday next, and the coat in three weeks. If what my uncle has said holds true, that will be a week before the snow flies.”
“Jacques knows the weather here, better than that young pup at the station in Portage. If he tells you a storm is on the way, follow his directions.” Charles rubbed his chin, “On t’other hand, if he tells you the angel of death is at the door, that might be a sign to get him to sleep it off.”
“That part I knew,” she responded with an arched eyebrow.
As he exited the store, Alcmaeon dashed up to him, and circled around him, *Not leave soon?*
Charles knelt to scratch at the “dog’s” ears, “Staying out of trouble? I’ve a mind to stay a few days, this time.”
*Mate heat soon. Will stay.* and Al ran off to the north of town.
Charles pinched the bridge of his nose, He hoped he could get out of town before the team lead caused a nuisance.
Chapter 4: September 24 and 25, 1920
I Aten't Dead - Just got gnawed on by the holidays. We'll get through the weekend soon, though.
If not for the specific invitation, Charles would have likely headed up the trail Friday evening, slipping away while most of the town was at supper. However, he was beginning to think it might be a bad habit to short himself on sleep so often. With his usual plans, he was often comatose for two days after a trip to town, even after the equinox. The confusion he had displayed to Jack Gardino at which day of the week it had been, while a useful distraction, was not quite feigned. It was a worrying sign to lose time, at his age.
Though he had spent a great deal of time in the bank and store, the sun was just touching the horizon when his errands were finished. Charles found himself disinclined to roam the town for the moment. Perhaps an early dinner was in order, and he began to plan out the next few days. The hotel did have other amenities for guests besides the public room. He could have his new best shirts washed and pressed by Saturday afternoon, and the bathing facilities were less likely to be crowded Friday nights than Saturday. He made the arrangements with Mrs Gardino before the dinner rush.
After a filling but unimagnitive meal, Charles settled into his usual spot near the fireplace with his beer. The conversations tonight circled around the likelihood of McGrew needing more hands to manage the larger logs during the winter. Folks in recent years were also going to the sawmill for firewood, and Big Dan was happy enough to be able to sell what was not large enough for lumber. As long as the sawmill race flowed there would be more than enough work, but later in winter, the prime jobs would be in the woods.
Talk of the deep woods turned to the dangers of roaming out alone. There were enough greenhorns in the crowd that the tall tales were told alongside the reminiscences of the odder true stories. Old timers began to spin the legends later in the evening about the wendigo and trolls that hunted the unwary, spirits that would drain the life out of a man and leave a shell for the wolves. Charles chuckled to himself at the stories as he settled up, reminding Gardino he would be back after last call, and headed out into the night.
It was easier to keep an ear out for trouble by circulating through all of the venues to keep abreast of the news in all of the social circles. With more time on hand, he was able to drop in on each of the public rooms in town over the course of the weekend without being in a rush, and possibly miss something.
The Edward was favored by the loggers, the few farmers who had settled nearby, and most of the townswomen who came in for tea in the afternoons with Eleanor Gardino. The Rose was where the miners tended to congregate. The Whitby dining room catered to those who had (or wished they had) more refined tastes. Which left the other end of the spectrum to seek their beer at the Mélusine. The trappers used to come through frequently, but now it was mostly the transient laborers and local layabouts who were the regular custom.
Most of the gossip with those men was the same as it had been for years, but now the tales took a different turn before their conclusions. A constable in town meant that things which people might have let slide in years past were now actions with consequences. Fewer folks were likely to let their tempers fly if they were going to spend the night in a cell for it. But some people never changed until they were ended.
Case in point, Eggert had been busy, this summer. By the time Charles had dropped in at the Mélusine, the man was not in his usual spot at the bar, which made for a pleasant evening, not having to listen to his latest batch of poison. Boudreaux, however, was in high temper, which was most unusual for the laconic jack of all trades.
“J’suis tanné! That un esti d’cave” he huffed, refilling Charles’s mug. “D’ye know he had the gall to insult ma niece for telling him to shove off after he spends a week chanter la pomme with no hope?”
Charles nodded sagely, piecing together that Eggert had tried to court the new arrival, had been less than gracious in the face of her rejection, and possibly been thrown out of the only bar in town that would still let him in the door. The last time Charles had spoken French fluently was ages ago, but with the Quebecois, that was more help than hinderance.
“Not sure why he stays here, as much as he seems to hate work, snow, blackflies, and his fellow man.” Charles smiled into his beer, holding his breath as he pretended to drink. Boudreaux made his own beer and spirits, with great enthusiasm for the craft; it was a pity he had no talent for brewing or distilling. “I did happen to meet her this afternoon, left some hides for her to work up a new coat for me, and she’s tailoring something smart.”
The vitriol bled out of Jacques's manner quickly. “She’s right quick, especially as one of her trunks was the case for the last sewing machine in her family’s shop.” He straightened up, pulling his waistcoat into alignment. “Shame that she had to sell the rest of the shop to settle up, but I’m glad she did make it out here.”
Charles took a closer look at Jacques, and noted that in addition to the new clothes and more careful hygiene he displayed, the man had better colour, and the tightness around his eyes was not as pronounced. “She making sure you’re presentable?”
He cuffed Charles’s shoulder lightly, “Go’n wit’ ye! I get Sunday supper with the Sac-Pauls now, I needs be up to standard.”
“Good to have family close, though?” Charles asked.
Jacques nodded, “I wasn’t on the best of terms with any of them but my younger brother, after I left. T’was Mina’s papa, aye? We wrote, allus meaning to go back, I was. Shock to hear how they all passed in one winter.” At Charles’s raised eyebrow, he shook his head, “Spanish grippe. They all came down with it last December, but Philomène was the only one to survive.”
“Coming here to live was likely the best move she could make. Even with the smelter downriver, the air’s better for her here than in the cities. ‘Course that’d be true for all of us.” Charles searched his memory for what he remembered regarding influenza taught at university. Hugger’s thesis had been published after Charles received his degree, but he had not been able to follow up in current years, being so far removed from any medical schools.
“Ayup, when her doctor found out where I was, he said as much, though he worried about her travelling here,” Jacques shrugged, “something about the frailty of ladies.”
“Load of hogwash, that.” Charles snorted, “If they were all so frail, nobody’d survive childbirth, much less be able to take care of a household.”
The talk at the bar then drifted into the usual praise or commiseration of the spouses, over who had been through the most chores over the summer, and how much there was to do to prepare for the coming winter. The consensus of the bachelors was joy that they were free to do as they pleased, but the cost was they had to shoulder alone the responsibilities in which a helpmate could share the burden.
Charles’s mood was melancholy as he left the bar, prompting him to take the circuitous route around town, away from the more traveled paths. Returning to the Edward from the back alley, he met Gardino headed to the bathhouse. “Sorry, we had a row in the bar, so I haven’t had time to set things up,” the innkeeper apologized, but Charles waved him off.
“I can take care of it, you let the missus tend your battle wounds,” Charles nodded to the largest contusion on Gardino’s shoulder, with the scrape beginning to bleed through the man’s shirt.
“Thanks, I’m getting too old for this foolishness.”
Late as it was, Charles had the bathhouse to himself. Shaving by his reflection in the polished tin, he mulled over the conversation. The Gardinos had been in charge of the inn as long as he had been in town; longer than he had originally planned to stay. He had thought the mine would play out much sooner. If he was honest, he thought he would not be able to keep working the silver this long, either. Perhaps it was time to start looking for another place to go.
Francis held onto his patience by his fingernails. The fight had broken out at last call, and they had just gotten the last of the miscreants dealt with as dawn broke. Luckily, most of them had just gotten paid and were willing to own up to the damage they caused.
Of course, the instigator had scarpered.
Contrary to his first thought when the noise of the fight had caught Miss Mae’s attention, it was not one of the usual suspects. Eggert had not been in town last night, which was another worry, but one for another time. There was a new batch of men just now coming to town, and according to the long-term residents, at an odd time. It was not the absolute worst time to move here, that would be in the deep winter, but it was strange to have newcomers arrive now, just weeks before the snow would fly. Most folks would only come this far into the backcountry at the behest of a family member, such as Miss Boudreaux, or with a job offer in hand. These were neither, come to town looking for work, when most who were seeking jobs headed to larger cities.
Rough sorts, they were -- the kind that could handle the hard work mining or logging would require, but something about some of them set Francis’s teeth on edge. The least of the worries were that though they were unemployed, they had the cash to settle up their damages, for now.
Mrs Gardino was quite insistent that he at least have breakfast before going back to his office and bed. “You were here all night, and I know you can manage on your own, but today, let us help.” With Miss Mae likely still dozing in the stable, Francis agreed. As she poured the tea, she asked, “Something is troubling you, still?”
“How long have the Riggins brothers planned to stay?” Francis asked casually, as the pair were enthusiastic participants in the fight, but not the instigators.
“Those two are paid through the end of the month, but if what I have heard is accurate, they may be here through the spring. Andrew is a log driver, and younger one was looking to apprentice to him.” She shook her head, “They have argued about it, both here and in the beer parlor, as the older one wants Randall to have a better job. So they are both seeking work at the sawmill, which may work to everyone’s benefit if Miss McGrew’s hopes win out.”
Francis chuckled, with some relief, as he sipped his tea. “If her da hires either of them, I doubt he’ll take well to them following her about.”
“True enough, but there’s enough men here that they’ll have to court her properly, which is what she is probably angling for, after all.” She patted his shoulder, “I’ll get you some scones with fresh tea.”
Out of the score involved in the fight, nearly half were new men; not all of them had been caught last night. The Riggins brothers were part of that batch, and were making the proper moves to become part of the town. However, there were so many he still could not put a name to the face, even after spending the summer making the effort to know the locals.
Still, with one hermit miner left to meet, there were a little over a dozen men he needed to know more about, and quickly, before the first bad snowstorm. The times his troop had been sheltered during a long stretch of bad weather would be nothing, compared to folks who were not ready for a blizzard keeping them indoors for a week, if the tales the longtime residents were accurate. In the troop, there was at least the framework of stability with the chain of command; they were already in the habit of following the orders from the officers. Here, he was supposedly the Authority In Charge, with the town council. But even with the councilmen backing him up, most still were reserved. While he had been through a late spring blizzard, he had yet to weather a full winter here himself.
When Mrs Gardino brought more than just a fresh pot of tea with the scones, he asked, “Do you have time to answer some more questions? I need to get a better handle on the new men.”
“Let me tell Teddy he has the kitchen, and I’ll be right back.”
Chapter 5: September 26, 1920
In the glittering cities of Europe, dining late was currently the vogue, but Miss Cherie’s letter had indicated they would dine at seven. Charles rose at sunset, giving him time to dress and arrive a touch early, as they had usually taken the time to have an apéritif in their previous visits. Her letter, intriguing for its formality as well as its vagueness, had not given him any other clues what to expect.
Being served whiskey before dinner was traditional, for them. Being served spirits in a bone china teacup was not. When he raised his eyebrow at Cherie, she fluttered her hand at him, “We are having the constable to dinner as well. Until we know him better and he’s wethered a winter, it would not do to make him have to notice something.” Her own cup was mostly tea with only a splash of whiskey.
“Good thing you bought all those cases of whiskey before the war started,” Charles said, confirming his complicity. They had not done anything of the sort, with him making her whiskey run each year in the deep midwinter to restock the bar. But keeping the peace until the constable ruled on whether the ladies’ private parlor constituted a home was easy enough.
Juno joined them in a single drink, with a toast of, “To going unnoticed by those who would harm us.”
Cherie gave an unhappy sigh, “From your lips to God’s ear, dearest.” and sipped her toddy.
The constable arrived mere moments before the hall clock chimes announced the hour, as the trio finished their drinks. Charles had only seen him in passing, and at a distance, which had not prepared him for the full effect of Constable Francis MacKenzie polished and pressed in his dress uniform.
He did manage to not make a fool of himself during the formal introductions, but it was a near thing. Charles knew from personal experience that war was hideous, but a man in uniform was still an… inspiring sight. While he held the chair for Cheri, Charles grumbled under his breath, “Dirty pool, madame.”
She had the audacity to giggle at him.
Another surprise came when Juno bowed her head, “May we be grateful for the bounty provided through many hands and compassionate to those without.”
By reflex, Charles murmured, “mar sin bidh e” at the same time the others responded with their amens. He raised an eyebrow at Juno across the centerpiece filled with apples, and she gave a tiny shake of her head. The explanation would have to wait.
As the undercook presented the soup course, Constable MacKenzie inquired as to the health of the sled team. Charles chuckled, “They are doing well. This spring’s litter is about ready to start training in earnest, for the ones who show the aptitude. One or two might be better suited as guards, but I don’t think there will be any lapdogs in this set.” That was an understatement, but it always was good to mention the possibility to lead folks to think of the team as dogs.
“Any hunters in this lot?” Juno inquired.
“Mayhap, I dunno if they will play well with horses.” He took a sip of the potage parmentier, and nodded to Libby, “Good work on the soup.” She nodded in return and withdrew to the kitchen.
“I, well…” Constable MacKenzie cleared his throat, “I would have to make sure Miss Mae was calm enough for it to work, but perhaps we could help with training, if any show an aptitude for hunting instead of sled work.”
Charles considered the notion, “Aye, your mount is out of hunter lines, hm? We’ll have to get them used to each other for it to work without someone getting their head kicked in.”
“Miss Mae is probably a hunter, but I couldn’t tell you his proper lineage for certain, as his previous rider didn’t carry his papers with him into battle.” The constable shrugged, “By the time we got back, he certainly couldn’t work as a farm horse. He kicked the…” he cut a glance at Juno, with a duck of his head, “the dickens out of Uncle John’s second-best plow.”
“Your family is in farming, then?” Charles asked.
“The ones that are left, yes. My parents died while I was in France, and my uncle took over Pa’s portion of the farm. I didn’t fit in too well before I enlisted, and after, well…” the constable shrugged. “Home was all we had thought of over there, but the war had changed many of us more than the years away anywhere else would have.” He then gave a depreciative chuckle, “Besides, I had Miss Mae to think about.”
Juno nodded sagely, “Not heavy enough for a draft horse, and the wrong musculature for racing, police work is probably the best thing for him.”
The conversation turned to the hunting predictions from multiple sources as the beetroot salad was served, but as soon as Libby had returned to the kitchen, Charles mentioned “Last time I was up by Lac Brochet, Beaulieu mentioned there were some odd kills over the summer.”
“Odd in what way?” the constable asked.
“He called them wasteful, but what he described didn’t line up with the way greenhorn farmers hunt or even a trophy hunter.” Charles frowned, looking to Juno, “Do you remember that group from Minsk?”
She nodded, “Competitive idiots, setting up for photographs, barely cleaning the kill, and shocked when the bears found their campsite?”
“Nearly so - no signs of a campsite, but the kills were definitely by rifles, then dragged to just out of sight of their village and left to attract scavengers.” Charles then turned to the constable, “This was almost a month ago, have you heard anything from the elders?”
MacKenzie frowned, “No messages from the council, but the last time I was up that way was just before midsummer. I’ll check in with them this week. That does not sound like anything I’ve dealt with from the usual poachers, and definitely not an example of good neighbors.”
“Speaking of the usual poachers,” Miss Cherie asked with a twinkle in her eye, “how is Mr Boudreaux?”
“Not so much on poaching, I only had to arrest him twice so far,” MacKenzie chuckled. “Quite the gentleman, even when he was… impaired. Polite about the arrest, and he owned up to his actions once he was sober.”
“He has been looking better since his niece came to town, even if she is not living with him,” Charles added. “Hopefully he doesn’t need to be pickled to be able to tell us when a bad storm is coming."
“Everyone has mentioned something of that - do you really rely on his reports when there is a weather station in Portage?” MacKenzie asked.
“He has been here longer,” Juno said. “With over twenty years experience in reading the signs, especially the ones peculiar to this valley, his accuracy is much higher than the official station."
“Also, he is here and able to warn us sooner.” Cherie nodded, “We don’t always get the weather reports from downriver in a timely manner, and sometimes not at all.”
The constable frowned, “That is not right. I’ll work on getting their reports regularly, but I should probably check with Boudreaux, and start recording his forecasts for correlation.”
“I take it he was not the cause of the damage in the back hall of the hotel?” Charles asked.
Constable MacKenzie sat up a little straighter, “No, but I cannot speak to that arrest.”
The ladies spoke at the same time, “Eggert.” With their previous interactions with the man being far less than cordial, the pair no longer gave him a polite title. Juno continued, “Anytime you see him, he is causing trouble, and anytime you cannot see him, he is likely causing worse problems for someone else.
“I thought M'sieur Gardino had fixed up the damage,” MacKenzie frowned, “He would not allow me to assist with the repairs.”
“Nae, m’lad, not to worry - I noticed they’d refreshed the paint, and replaced the wardrobe in my room. I thought I was the only one to ask for the small berth.”
“You may be the only one to request it, yes; Mrs. Eleanor said it was supposed to be a room for the apprentice cook that came with them, but she got herself married nearly as soon as she arrived. I was never sure if that was the Gardino’s plan or not,” Cherie giggled. “That was a year or so before Maman and I arrived, so I could not tell you how true that could be.”
More gossip disguised as town history followed with the fish course. Charles appreciated the effort in the presentation of hot-smoked goldeye on toast points served with the delicate scandal caused ten years ago when the first of the trappers took to properly court one of the women of Lac Brochet. The constable seemed to be more amused than scandalized, which was a good sign.
Charles did not offer much but hearsay in his portion of the conversation. Framing the tidbits as something he had heard from another rather than something he had witnessed was a reflex now; it kept folks from being reminded of how long he had been around.
They got rather close to that question after the venison roast was served when Constable MacKenzie asked when the ladies had arrived in town.
“Maman and I arrived here some time ago, what with our neighborhood in Montreal becoming, shall we say, less hospitable?” Cherie smiled, and with a shrug that made it no consequence to move house over a thousand miles through rough country to an unknown destination. “We were not innkeepers, not then, but Maman owned a restaurant with several cabinet particulier. Well, it was seen as a good target for a young politician seeking to gain the favor of the conservative elements to be elected. When a significant number of our well-heeled regular patrons with ties to the party reduced their custom in favor of being viewed as ‘defenders of home and hearth’, we began to see more losses than just empty tables. The flatware began to show up at, erm, le mont-de-piété?” she asked Juno.
“Pfandhaus, ah - pawnbroker.” she supplied.
“Thank you, yes - M'sieur Harrison was one of the neighbors friendly to us, and sent them off with the constables. Unfortunately, he was not the only prêteur in the city, and we did not regain the full set."
“It’s a beautiful design, for all it is not a full service,” Constable MacKenzie commented.
“Oh, this is not the original set. Maman sold off the rest of the silver, save for a few of her favorite pieces,” Cherie gestured to the curio cabinet where an ornate tea service and an Art Nouveau castor set were displayed. “That provided much of our stake when we came here. After we learned the lesson, we ordered nickel silver for this place.”
Charles had not heard this story in the ten years they had been acquainted. True, he had only become close to the family in the past five years, but this evening was proving enlightening. “What brought you to the falls?”
“That year had been difficult, as we had lost Mémère that spring,” she nodded to the portrait of a striking young woman dressed in an elegant gown in the fashion of a half-century ago, “and with the thefts signaling the shift in the neighborhood, when we were offered he hotel at a reasonable price, Maman saw it as a sign we needed the change.” She sighed, and with a rueful smile, added “though if she had known the state of the hotel before we started out, I am not sure we would have come here.”
“It took the better part of two years to bring the place up to snuff,” Juno added. “I was here for the last half of the rebuilding, but I shudder to think the state of the place when you arrived."
“Was there enough custom to support two hotels then?” the constable asked.
“Depends on if you’re talking guests or patrons,” Charles replied.
“Oh, you terrible thing!” Cherie laughed, swatting his arm. “At first, we were just running a restaurant, as we did in Montreal. At least, as I thought we were. You understand, I was just out of the schoolroom when we arrived - Maman, myself, and eight... waitresses.”
“Ah, I take it they were not Harvey girls,” MacKenzie said with a smile and a trace of a blush.
Juno snorted, “No, we provided more comprehensive service.”
“My supervising officer did mention I should not rent a ‘furnished’ room until I had a better idea of the way the town worked,” Constable MacKenzie chuckled.
“Just as well, there might have been arguments over who was to get first crack at offering to furnish your room, when you first arrived,” Juno said. “Now that we know you better, most of the ladies are willing to to wait to be chased.”
Charles added with a small smile, “Even if one or two of them in town are putting aside being chaste to engage in the chase.”
“Mr Pemberton, that was horrible!,” Cherie laughed.
“Thank you, I try,” he replied, noting the constable’s blush turned his ears a delightful pink.
Francis managed to not be too awkward through the unexpectedly entertaining supper, though he had been surprised by the fourth joining the dinner party. Mr Pemberton was almost exactly as his neighbors described, though Francis was not prepared for the miner to be as elegantly turned out as he presented.
By the time the sweet of misâskwatômina compote on pound cake slices was served, the company felt as familiar as his patrol from the war or the study group he had joined while they were waiting to ship home.
“And what did you study?” Mr Pemberton asked.
“A bit of this and that. I was not entirely keeping track, as the classes were mostly offered to keep us occupied as we waited for orders. Though the jurisprudence classes were helpful in getting Miss Mae recorded as mine and shipped home with me, there are times when I wish I had taken some of the practical courses.”
“Oh? What did you neglect?” Miss Pandit asked.
Francis shrugged, “I can make tea and boil an egg, and on a good day I can manage to not burn my toast, but that is the extent of my cooking skills.”
“Ah, ‘tis simple chemistry at the base, but there are some who are artists, such as Mrs Dean and Miss Libby,” Mr Pemberton said.
“I may have exaggerated my competence in keeping house to avoid offers of assistance,” Francis said, ducking his head as his cheeks warmed.
“Ah, that’s a problem,” Miss Hayreddîn said. “Otherwise, I would have said to ask Mrs Dean to teach you.”
“Dinnae let on to Miss MacLeod that you cannae cook, though; she may take it as an invitation,” Mr Pemberton added. “Decent enough in plain cookery, but she hasnae the patience for proper baking.”
“You would know,” Miss Pandit nodded. She then turned to Francis, “The cloudberry tarts that won the contest last Victoria Day? He’s the one who bakes them.”
“Oh!” Francis sat up straighter, “Those were wonderful! Nearly made me homesick for Mum’s red currant hand pies.”
Mr Pemberton’s grin became a softer smile, “Thank you, ‘tis a fine complement to have my baking compare favorably to the comforts of home cooking.”
Instead of being shown the smoking parlor after dinner, Miss Hayreddîn asked Francis to join her in a postprandial stroll. He agreed, but not without an inward frown; evening walks were reserved for courting couples, where he was raised. However, with Miss Pandit smiling and wishing them a pleasant walk while she and Mr Pemberton indulged in a game of chess, Francis revised his worry.
He briefly offered his arm, but gave a slight shake of her head, “Thank you, no - it will cause just enough talk for us to be seen walking together after dark without clasping each other.” She gave a small smile, and spoke in a low tone that only reached him, “I hope you do not mind the subterfuge, as we do need to manage certain public opinions.”
Thus as they headed down the boardwalk, they did not walk arm in arm, but shoulder to shoulder as gentlemen companions would. He replied in a similar volume, “I would be happy to assist in keeping up appearances. I... may have tried to give a similar impression, and was preparing an apology for my actions.” Francis was glad for the uncertain light to hide his flush of embarrassment. “I am not inclined to court anyone so soon after my arrival, to be honest.” True enough, as it was too early to know if his advances in an unexpected quarter would be appreciated.
“I quite understand, Constable,” Miss Hayreddîn responded. “I would not be upset that we use each other as shields against unwanted attention. Perhaps we should make your invitation to Sunday dinner a regular happening.”
Francis smiled, and murmured, “Thank you, Miss Hayreddîn , this solves my social conundrum. You’re a brick.” He then flushed and stammered, “I-I mean -”
She chuckled, “I take it as a compliment in the spirit of gentlemanly sportsmanship.”
When they reached the end of the boardwalk, she nodded to the bridge spanning the river, “The moonlight will be enough for others to see us, but the sound of the waterwheel should cover our conversation.”
Francis nodded his agreement, “We should not be too long away, though.”
“This should only take a little time,” Miss Hayreddîn said, settling her hands on the railing, and tilting her head down to look at the water. “When his arrest was mentioned earlier this evening, I thought I should let you know some of the trouble Eggert has been stirring up. It would do us no good to have Mr Pemberton know about this, as he has a temper when it comes to protecting us.”
“Ah, he is courting Miss Pandit, then?” Francis hoped he was able to keep his voice steady.
Miss Hayreddîn’s mouth quirked into a half-smile, “No, he treats us as younger sisters, quite ready to thrash any who would make us unhappy. And in this case, he needs to be hands off.” Her demeanor sobered, “Eggert has been harassing several the women who work at our hotel. It has gotten bad enough that we have encouraged them to go everywhere in pairs or groups, even if it is less efficient.”
Francis frowned, “I will be happy to help when I am needed. Would you be willing to share what his threats involve?”
“Right now, it is mostly demanding favors without recompense, though Miss O’Connell mentioned he was planning to make her do as he wished when he owned the town.” Miss Hayreddîn tilted her head “It was an odd enough phrase that it made an impression.”
“It does pique the curiosity, doesn’t it?” Francis frowned, staring into the water, before shaking his head. “I will not make inquiries that would lead back to you, but if you and your employees could keep an ear out for anyone else having difficulties, I would appreciate it.” He schooled his features into a more pleasant expression, “May I escort you back to your home, Miss Hayreddîn?”
“Just so, Constable.”
As Juno left with the constable, Cheri turned to the sideboard with the decanter of whiskey in plain view. “I know he looked in this direction, but he did not say anything. Care for another?”
“Yes, please.” He sat the chessboard, “I still want to know what game you were playing tonight.”
She handed him a proper tumbler as she joined him, “A long game, dear. We needed Constable MacKenzie to meet you in a social fashion, with no agendas above board.”
“You’re worried,” he frowned at her, and considered, “Worried about me?”
“We always get the rumours in town, and for the first time in ages, folks have had questions about you. It may be nothing more than those new to town being unused to way things have been, however...” She sat gracefully, and made a casual opening move on the board. “The angle of the talk seems as if someone is trying to tarnish your reputation. Right now, it is being dismissed, but if you are not seen as an upstanding member of the community by enough of the newcomers…”
“Ah, someone is trying to cull me from the herd. Repudiate my standing, and whoever is leading the smear campaign can make it difficult for me to stay.” Charles sipped his whiskey and answered Cherie’s move with an aggressive response. “Other than the usual suspect, do you have any clues as to who is poisoning my tea?”
“Not at the moment, and this honestly seems to be too subtle for the usual thorn in everyone’s side,” she said musing over the board. “I thought our best plan was to put you in a better light with the new neighbors. You anticipated me with your trip to the new tailor, which made the introduction to the constable…” she mirrored his previous move, with a sly grin, “doubly efficient.”
“You are juggling knives, Cherie. Especially if you are trying to clean up my reputation, instead of muddying it.” Charles was not sure if she had an idea of his preferences, or just teasing.
The game forgotten for the moment, Cherie sighed. “You have not made it my business to know your inclinations, but I do tend to notice things. A solitary man in town is a focus of gossip. If you are seen to be calling on someone, it calms the waters. Now - Juno and I are perfectly willing to let folks think you are calling on me, if you are of a mind to come at the problem from that angle.”
“Hm, that would be one way to deal with it.” He mused over the issue, and realized that having to keep a schedule would make tethering his mind to the here and now much easier. “Dropping in for dinners at least once a month to start, then?”
“At least, though if you were to make an effort to attend the harvest festival with us, that would help make a favorable impression.” She set aside her glass, “Please do be careful, Charles. I worry that if you are not pushed out by opinion, someone will take a more direct action when you are out travelling alone.”
“I will bring the team with me to town more often,” he patted her hand. “You take care as well.”
The next morning, he returned to the store to have Miss Boudreaux make up what he called a proper courting suit while within the hearing range of other shoppers. If he perhaps picked up a new calendar and alarm clock in the same trip, the suit was what the town talked about for the next week.