Authors: Jacqueline Guest
Tags: #community, #juvenile fiction, #Metis and Aboriginal interest, #self-esteem and independence, #prejudice, #racism, #mystery, #different cultures and traditions, #Canadian 20th century history, #girls and women
“Thank you, Madame Ducharme. You are most gracious.” Kathryn decided she may look boorish in her ridiculous peasant clothes, but poor manners simply wouldn’t do, even if she did smell like a charwoman.
“I’ll remind you to call me Kokum,” the elder admonished.
“Yes, ma’am, I mean Kokum.” Kathryn amended
quickly, feeling as though she were addressing Mother Su
perior at school.
Kokum poured Belle’s tea. “Did you hear Claude Remy is back?”
Belle’s lips tightened. “He brought me a lot of fresh meat this morning. I’ll be able to make all of us a big pot of
Li Shivreu Pleu Bon
.” Seeing Kathryn’s exasperated face, she explained, “My famous Venison Supreme. Very tasty.” She turned back to Kokum. “Claude’s out back of the shed dressing the deer now.”
The old woman nodded as though she understood something unspoken. “He’ll be at the dance to welcome Kathryn to River Falls tonight. It’s at my place.”
“Oh, a dance! That is so kind of you, Rose Marie.” Aunt Belle said warmly. “What should we bring?”
The old woman cackled good naturedly, a sound like a raven laughing. “Why, bring yourselves, of course!”
For the dance that evening,
Kathryn chose a favourite dress. It was deep rose with ivory lace collar and cuffs, perfectly suitable for any evening’s entertainment back home. She spent a long time primping, dabbing her cheeks and lips with rouge from the precious little pot she’d brought with her, a Christmas present from Imogene last year. It had been her first foray into the womanly arts and when she’d shown her father, he’d said she was too young for such a gift, then he’d hugged her, laughing, and told her that try as he might, he couldn’t stop time and she was, indeed, growing up. She vowed to keep the tiny jar always.
To complete her ensemble, she added the most precious thing she owned – a gold locket her father had given her on
her fourteenth birthday. She had been thrilled with the ex
travagance and when she opened it, there were pictures of her parents, one on each side. Her father had said that whatever wonders life brought her way, and no matter what far-flung corners of the world she may visit, their love would be with her always.
Kathryn touched her lips with her fingertips, then, closing her eyes, blew her papa a kiss.
All that remained was to deal with her hair. It was not as thick as she would have liked, and she had to be ever so cautious using the curling tongs. Once, she’d burned a whole swath so badly, the locks had broken completely off when she’d unrolled them. That had been a painful, and embarrassing, lesson. Today, Kathryn was extra careful. She
wanted to be flawless so these people could see what a so
phisticated young lady she was.
“It’s rather later than is socially proper to arrive as a guest, especially the guest of honour, Aunt Belle. We should hurry.” Kathryn quickly tied the flounced black wool bolero she was wearing to ward off the night’s chill.
Belle laughed. “Don’t worry about being late. The party will last till dawn and won’t really get going until midnight, when everyone’s creaky joints are loosened and the little ones are asleep on the porch.”
After hearing this, Kathryn wondered if she was a tad overdressed. It sounded more like an informal family get-together than an evening gala. At last, they set off, talking as they wove their way through the towering pines on the dirt road to Madame Ducharme’s.
“You look every inch a proper young lady. Your father would be so proud.” Belle smiled at her niece.
“Thank you, Aunt Belle. And I am sure Mr. Remy will be suitably impressed with you.”
At this, her aunt’s eyebrow twitched as though to comment.
“Your dress...” Kathryn had noticed the precise lines and elegant cut of her aunt’s gently worn gown. “... it’s perfect.”
“Ah, yes. I’m sure Claude still approves of my outfit. It’s not the first time he’s seen it.” Aunt Belle shifted the load she was carrying to her other arm.
They were bringing two hefty baskets of venison to be distributed at the party – an odd hostess gift, to be sure, but after today’s experience, Kathryn decided nothing about River Falls’ society would surprise her.
Though the moon shimmered silver in the black vel
vet sky, Kathryn carried a lantern which shone brightly,
illuminating the gravel road ahead. As they made their way,
Aunt Belle regaled Kathryn with stories of her childhood growing up first in Batoche, then on the Road Allowances. The overall impression was one of a normal family, in fact, more normal than Kathryn’s own as she’d spent most of her life at the convent school. Many of the incidents were
funny and she couldn’t help but laugh at the antics her fa
ther had been up to. It was a side of him that she hadn’t been aware of.
Suddenly, a horseman sprang from the woods, blocking their path. The horses’ hooves stamped and pawed the ground sending swirling dust devils into the air. Panicked, Kathryn held the lantern up as much to see the rider as to let him see her.
The man was in the dark brown field jacket of the North West Mounted Police, the yellow stripe clearly visible on his navy breeches. He pushed his Stetson back on his head.
“What do we have here? Two lovelies out for an evening stroll.”
The rider’s pale eyes glowed eerily in the moonlight, his teeth a white gash across his face.
“We’ve no business with you, Constable Blake.” Belle spoke calmly as she casually pushed Kathryn behind her.
This was not the reaction one usually had when meeting a member of the police and instantly, Kathryn knew this situation was not good. Surreptitiously, she glanced about, judging the best escape route should it be needed.
“I’m makin’ sure no harm comes to you, Belle. This is a mighty lonely stretch of road.”
The man grinned, and in the lamplight it looked almost like a leer. “Some desperado might rob you of your valuables.”
will stay with me and I pity the man who tries to take them by force.” Aunt Belle drew herself up and raised her chin defiantly.
There was something going on here that Kathryn couldn’t understand and it had nothing to do with the baskets of venison. The man appeared odd for some reason, but Kathryn couldn’t put her finger on it. She shifted the lantern, and, with a jolt, saw what it was.
He had no ear on the right side of his head! A mutilated flap of angry red skin, twisted and torn, hugged his skull where his ear should have been. She recoiled, shuddering.
Much to Kathryn’s surprise, instead of backing away from the intruder as she had, Aunt Belle stepped boldly forward, causing the skittish horse to shy.
The constable reined his mount in with a vicious yank on the bit. “What’s your hurry? Got some eager buck waiting?” His attention then shifted to Kathryn. “And who’s this? Dang, you are a sweet little thing. I ain’t seen you with these squatters before and you sure don’t look half breed with that pretty yellow hair an’ all.”
The grin was definitely a leer now, and Kathryn’s throat went dry. “My name is Kathryn Tourond and I’m visiting my aunt,” she whispered, unable to force any more air out of her lungs.
Blake leaned over his saddle and rested his arm on the pommel, appraising her. “In that fancy dress, you’re like a present waitin’ to be unwrapped.” He spit tobacco juice into the dust. “Suits me fine.”
Kathryn’s skin crawled.
“I’ve no time for this nonsense, Cyrus.” Belle’s voice rang with steely determination as she reached back for Kathryn’s arm. Holding the basket in front of her like a shield, she pushed passed the horse and moved quickly down the road.
Kathryn’s heart was beating so loudly, she was sure her aunt could hear it.
“Don’t pay that village idiot any mind. Cyrus Blake’s one of the Mounted Police here to bring order to the lawless territories.” Her tone said this was not necessarily the case. “He’s not like any Mountie I’ve ever met. I don’t know how Sergeant Prentiss – he’s the constable’s boss – stands the lazy lout. Many brave young Canadian men are fighting for the Empire against the Boers in Africa and from what I’ve heard, Blake only joined the North West Mounted Police to avoid enlisting. Tells you a little about his character, or lack of it. One thing’s for certain, that man’s got a mouth on him. The best way to deal with his sort is to stay out of his way.”
Kathryn had the utmost respect for the North West Mounted Police, especially when they were in their scarlet dress uniforms, so polished and splendid, like handsome knights of old riding around on their chargers maintaining the right. This Constable Blake, however, must have failed his class in chivalry.
She sighed. It was always the same, never a white knight around when you needed one. Preferably one with a huge battleaxe and a razor-sharp sword, maybe a mace or two with extra long spikes.... She’d never admit it, but this incident had truly frightened her. She’s been so scared, she could hardly speak.
On the other hand, her aunt had been amazing. She slid a sidelong peek at Aunt Belle and could detect no trace of fear on the strong woman’s face. Impossible!
The scene Kathryn and her aunt arrived to at Madame Ducharme’s was very strange. Lights blazed from every window of the tumbledown shack; the staccato notes of a violin playing a fast tune rang out and it appeared that all the furniture had been removed from the house and piled haphazardly on the grass! They threaded their way past a settee and breakfront, then chairs and a wire birdcage hanging from a tall stand. When Kathryn peeked under the cloth covering the cage, she found herself nose to beak with a large, black and white magpie! What kind of crazy place was this?
“I can hear that Monsieur Arcand has brought his best fiddle tonight.” Belle laughed, the earlier incident with the constable seemingly forgotten. “He can play from dusk till dawn with only water to keep him going.”
When they entered the small house, Kathryn was amazed. The place was filled with noise as children ran about yelling, chasing each other and any unsuspecting dog or cat that didn’t escape fast enough. Adults clustered against the walls, laughing and talking over the lively music and stamp of feet, and in the centre, dancers were weaving and turning. No wonder the furniture had been removed.
Passing their baskets to one of the welcoming ladies who were preparing the food, Kathryn noted that all the men wore brightly coloured woven belts. “Why are they wearing those red scarves around their waists?”
Aunt Belle lifted her gaze heavenward. “Oh, Patrice, if you were here, I’d box your ears. Katy, those are
lii soncheur flesheys
Like the other phrases she’d been hearing here in River Falls, it sounded French, but not like the French she’d learned in convent school. Still, Kathryn gave it a try. “
Les ceintures flêchés
“They’re Red River sashes, my dear, and we Métis wear them to show our history and pride, much like a Scotsman wears his tartan kilt.”
Nudging their way through the throng, Aunt Belle led her to the scattering of chairs lining the wall and on which were sitting the old people of the community, including Madame Ducharme.
“How is our girl’s room coming along?” the grandmotherly lady demanded before either Aunt Belle or Kathryn had a chance to sit.
Aunt Belle assured her with a good natured laugh. “Tomorrow, the smooth clay, then two coats of whitewash and it will be perfect. Once that’s done, Katy can move her belongings in and unpack her trunk.”
Kathryn didn’t say a word at this. She had no intention of unpacking anything. She needed a plan to earn the train fare back to her real life and then, like the clever damsels being held prisoner in her stories, she would find a way to escape.
A gentleman walked up to Aunt Belle and spoke rapidly, her aunt replying in the same strange tongue. Again, it sounded like French – but only sometimes. Kathryn didn’t understand a word.
“What language was that?” Kathryn asked when the man walked away.
“Hmm, I’m guessing this is another omission on my brother’s part. That’s Michif, the Métis language. It’s part French and part Cree,” her aunt explained.