Red Ice for a Shroud
I could feel his eyes drilling into my back. I stopped walking and turned around. The old man remained on the trail where he’d blocked me and my work crew from going further. His orange hunter’s vest was an angry blot against the web of the leafless November forest. His shrunken frame as gnarled as the ancient maple he stood beside. Light glinted off his rifle.
A few steps beyond him stood his daughter, Yvette, in her bulky duffel coat, its metal buttons bright in the afternoon’s dull light. She hadn't moved either, not from the spot where he’d grabbed her arm and dragged her from our midst.
For several tense seconds he and I glared at each other, then slowly he raised his rifle and pointed it directly at me. The rustling behind me stopped.
Dead silence but for rapid breathing behind me and then John-Joe yelled, “Hey, put that stupid thing down! Someone’ll get hurt.”
Another voice muttered, “Crazy old man.”
"Madame Harris!” the old man yelled. “Allez-vous-en!”
His pointed rifle was enough translation to tell me to get the hell out of here. Even at this distance, I could feel his daughter’s eyes pleading, her silence saying “Go, I’m afraid.”
I turned to leave and collided with John-Joe. He stood rooted next to where he’d dropped his chainsaw on the trail, his arms crossed over his chest, his long bowed legs spaced apart, a look of pig-headed stubbornness on his bronzed face. His hawk feather lifted in the late autumn breeze then dropped back to its place on the brim of his orange cap.
“John-Joe, don’t make it worse,” I said. “There’s nothing we can do.”
“Who does the old bastard think he is?” John-Joe retorted, clenching his fists. “Why I could—“
“Forget it. Fighting won’t solve anything.” I pushed my way around him. “Come on guys. Let’s go.”
I clamped my long-handled clippers onto my backpack and started walking back along the section of new cross-country ski trail that I and my crew of four volunteers had just finished clearing of brush and trees. I motioned Chantal and Pierre to follow. If John-Joe wanted to tangle with the old man, then Eric Odjik, the brains behind this ski marathon venture, could pick up the pieces. I wanted no part of it.
Despite John-Joe being too handsome to be credible, I’d come to view him as an okay guy after he’d helped Eric and me prevent a gold mine from destroying our West Quebec wilderness. Now I wasn’t so sure. Several times since we’d begun cutting this section of marathon trail through the dense bush, John-Joe had kept the rest of us waiting. Overslept he would say. Yeah, sure. Probably just crawled out of the sweaty bed of his latest conquest. Most likely Chantal, if the hungry eyes he was casting in her direction were anything to go by. Twice he'd forgotten his chain saw and kept us drumming our fingers for over an hour while he returned to his apartment to retrieve it.
Damn Papa Gagnon.
And forget about Eric and his hot-air promises.
He’d vowed to get the old man’s okay to cross his precious land. “Sure Papa Gagnon’s ornery, but he owes me one. I'll do my part. Meg, you just make sure you do yours,” Eric had said in that officious manner he assumed when trying to be the big Chief, a card he rarely played although fully entitled to as the Band Chief of the Migiskan First Nation.
Yeah, well Eric, you blew it.
I stomped through the dead leaves, kicked a stump in my way, and slashed at it again with my axe.
"What do you do now?" gasped Chantal as she struggled to keep up with me. Her young, ripe body tugged at the seams of her stretch pants. One look at her shocking pink outfit the first day we met was enough to tell me I didn’t want this Quebecoise femme fatale on my crew. We had enough work without having to carry excess baggage. But Eric had insisted with a look in his eye that had set my insecurities jangling. But since it was his ski marathon, not mine, I complied.
"Damned if I know.” I decapitated a young spruce.
Now we had a ski trail that led nowhere. It had taken the five of us a week to get this far, one back-breaking week of chopping, sawing, clipping and hauling and we’d only managed to clear half the planned five kilometre distance. And what did we have to show for it, nothing but a dead-end trail, which looked more like the aftermath of a tornado than a perfectly manicured section of the 65K Migiskan Ski Marathon. And all because a selfish old man didn’t want us on his land.
“Sacrebleu ! You are screwed, that’s for sure,” joined in Pierre. He sucked deeply on the cigarette that seemed to grow from the side of his mouth. One of those dark brooding coureur de bois types, Pierre usually kept his thoughts to himself. But this time he seemed riled enough to say the words I was also thinking.
“Monsieur Eric will find a way,” offered Chantal in a breathless Pamela Anderson voice which seemed to emerge whenever a member of the male sex was close by.
“Not unless he wants to blow up the mountain,” I countered.
“But Monsieur is so smart. He will find another route down this big mountain.”
Yeah, and you’ll bat your baby blues at Eric too and wiggle your bum, I said to myself. Don’t think I haven’t seen the fawning looks you’ve been casting in his direction. Well, hands off him, he’s mine. I thought these last words with more bravado than I felt. Eric and I’d been going through a rough patch lately.
Pierre, not the least concerned about niceties, said, “Et bien ma p’tite, you will make this other trail like you make this one, on your ass, eh?” which prompted an immediate unladylike reply.
I was glad Pierre had said it, not I. I was tired of hearing my own voice yelling at Chantal to pull her weight. I still couldn’t fathom why she had wanted to participate in such heavy work when it was obvious she’d rather file her nails than rip them hauling logs.
“Okay guys, enough,” I interjected. “We still have a way to go before we’re off the old man’s land.”
We’d reached the end of the cedar swamp that filled the length of the valley floor and were starting the long slow climb back up the mountain local people called Le Nez de Champlain or Champlain’s Nose. Maybe it didn’t quite meet the heights of the western Rockies , but here in the Outaouais or West Quebec as we Anglos call the region, in the municipality of La Blanche , we called these steep hills on the north-western edge of the Laurentians, mountains.
At least the leaving wasn’t as slow as the coming. We did have our freshly cleared trail to ease our return through the hardwood forest. As I crunched through the decaying leaves, I couldn’t help but worry over Yvette. I’d been reluctant to leave her behind with her father. No telling what he might get up to given his mood. But I wasn’t about to take him on while he held a rifle in his hands. We’d already had one confrontation too many over his daughter. She didn’t need another.
Still, I didn’t trust him. A week ago, at the start of the trail clearing, Yvette had suddenly appeared clippers in hand saying her father had given her permission to join my crew. Today he’d pounced out of nowhere and pulled her away for no apparent reason other than perhaps not liking the carrot colour of my hair.
I peered through the curtain of tree trunks behind us fearing I would see the advancing streak of his fluorescent orange vest. I didn’t fancy hiking with a rifle aimed at our backs the entire two kilometer distance back to where his property abutted the Migiskan Reserve.
“Any sign of Papa Gagnon?” I asked.
“Non,” came a quick reply from Chantal.
However, as I turned to continue our retreat, Pierre called out, “I see something.”
I looked in the direction he pointed, towards a stand of old growth hemlock about fifty metres from the trail. With no lower branches to obstruct our view we would see Papa Gagnon, if he were there.
Something twinkled from behind one of the thick columnar trunks. It twinkled again.
“Can you tell what it is, Pierre?” I asked.
He answered, almost immediately, “Probably one of those tree tags .”
I waited for another flash. But the hemlock stand remained as still and silent as the surrounding maple bush.
Pierre was probably right. I’d seen enough of the markers myself, little round aluminum disks hammered into the bark of prime specimens of old growth trees. Last summer our forests had been invaded by a group of university students conducting some kind of government survey. This could be one of their tags . On the other hand, given Gagnon’s penchant for hassling trespassers, it more likely had something to do with his own forestry operation.
As we started to leave, Pierre asked, “Where is John-Joe? I do not see him.”
“Forget him,” I scanned the empty trail behind us. “Serve him right if he gets shot by the old man.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Chantal smile rather smugly to herself. “What’s J.J. up to?” I asked perhaps a little too sharply, but I was getting tired of her secret smiles and knowing glances.
With blue eyed innocence she replied, “J’n’ sais pas . But he is a big boy. I think he look after himself, eh?” And she wiggled her pink derriere at me as she resumed the slow climb up the hill.
I bit back the words of sarcasm I was aching to spill out and followed behind her.
Until this point the trail meandered gradually upwards over the contours of the rocky terrain. Now we began to weave back and forth as the trail scaled the steepest part of Champlain’s Nose. At the top of the climb we would reach Kamikaze Pass and the end of Papa Gagnon’s land.
The death-like calm, which invariably descends before winter’s advance, gripped the forest. Our shuffling through discarded leaves the only sound. Lifeless grey had erased all memory of summer’s flourishing green, while the songs of summer had been extinguished by the flight of its singers. Even the sky hung low and heavy. And, as if to reinforce winter’s pending arrival, a few scattered snowflakes drifted in the windless air.
“Enough. I do not carry this any longer.” A puffing Chantal threw her half-filled backpack to the ground and sank down onto the only soft spot, a moss-covered boulder.
“Don’t look at me, chickie.” Without a backward glance, I crunched onwards.
“Putain!” came a shriek from behind me.
And ‘bitch’ to you too. I continued walking. The threatening quiet of being utterly alone in the wilds would scare her into action.
“Pierre? You help me, eh?” she said switching to a simpering French. But it seemed Pierre was of like mind, for his footsteps continued without interruption behind mine.
I shifted the load on my back. Chantal did have a point. My pack was getting heavier with each forward step. And my leg was sore where the long-handled clippers knocked against my thigh.
It’d be good to get home to the warmth of my fireplace. A week with my back bent at an angle for which it wasn’t designed, namely clipping never-ending saplings and dragging freshly cut trees and branches from the trail, was having a toll on this tired middle-aged body, one that usually shied away from such strenuous activity. I wasn’t entirely upset that our trail blazing had been abruptly terminated. A few days respite would be good for the aching bones.
But it had better not be for long. We needed to complete this last section before winter buried it under a foot of snow.
I’d reached the steep drop-off which marked the start of Kamikaze Pass , supposedly a key attraction to the marathon’s hoped for success and the only route down the mountain. Without access to this pass, we had half a marathon.
So Eric had better fix this impasse and fix it fast.
But, for the moment, once the remnants of my crew and I were through the pass, we could breath easier. We would be out of Papa Gagnon’s sights and on Migiskan band lands.
I shifted the load on my back and glanced behind to see if Chantal was coming. No blob of shocking pink struggled up the trail. Nor did I see the long striding form of Pierre.
“Pierre? Where are you?” I called out. The only answer was a squirrel cursing me from the protective heights of a white pine.
It appeared even rock-like Pierre could be swayed by Chantal’s whimpers. Maybe I should take note and quit trying to prove I was just one of the guys. I should bat my eyelashes too and get some behemoth on a leash to do the heavy stuff.
In disgust, I kicked a stone and sent it flying over the edge of the trail. It felt good. I kicked another and another. I watched them bounce off the side of the cliff onto the rocks ten metres below, one skipped into the middle of a stream, another shattered on a glacier smooth boulder. Most stayed where they landed wedged in the angles of the rocks. A few settled on softness, a band of velvet moss that skirted the edge of the stream.
This sudden drop-off was the reason we called the pass Kamikaze. If a skier didn’t cling to the side of the mountain as they exited the pass, they could miss the turn and sail over the edge. I’d argued about the safety of this section. But Eric had overruled my objections with the argument that this was the kind of thrill world class marathon skiers expected. He’d also added that a couple of metres of snow would provide a soft enough landing for any skier who went over the edge.
However, as I looked at the jagged ground below, I wasn’t convinced. I wouldn’t want to fall on those rocks even if they were covered by a deep cushion of white powder.
I continued along the metre-wide ledge to Kamikaze Pass, which wasn’t much more than a narrow defile carved by eons of erosion on a vein of softer rock that sliced through the centre of Champlain’s hard granite Nose. The pass wasn’t long, no more than fifteen metres, but if we couldn’t use it we were screwed, to paraphrase Pierre.
Within seconds I reached the end of the Pass and a tree slashed with red that marked the end of Papa Gagnon’s land and the beginning of the Migiskan Reserve. I scrambled up another ten metres to the summit of Champlain’s Nose, found a spot sheltered from the cold wind and with relief dropped my pack and my aching bones to the ground to wait for Chantal and Pierre.
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