The crust of ice on the river splinters as our canoe nuzzles the sandy shore. Yank gets out of the boat, wades through the icy water, and pulls the canoe out of the lapping river. His shaggy eyebrows dip in an ornery frown.
“Blast. End of August and there’s ice.”
I agree with his gripe. Leaves litter the ground in untidy heaps, smelling of decay and damp.
Grabbing a couple of packs, Yank grumbles as he trudges through the willows to McDermott’s cabin. “Oughta head south. Gators’ll get you, but you won’t freeze yer dang toes off.”
I agree again and continue to unload the canoe.
“I hope McDermott’s got supper ready,” Yank whines. “My belly’s hitched to my backbone.”
Yank says he abandoned polite society in the East because there was no room for a man to be a man. People stacked like cordwood, he says, under a sky choked up with smoke. Up north here, a man can breathe and stretch.
And freeze to death after gnawing your boot-tops, I think wryly.
No smoke drifts from McDermott’s chimney, and the solitary window stares blankly into the twilight.
“Where’s McDermott? Seems he forgot our rendezvous.”
I think of the possibilities: grizzly, gold, or a girl. All unlikely undertakings for McDermott.
I start a fire, slice bacon from the slab hanging from the rafters, and measure flour. Yank pitches the bedrolls onto the bunks and brings a pail of water from the river.
“Lookee here. The shyster left a note.” Yank points to a scrap of paper anchored to the table with a river stone.
I fiddle with the biscuit dough and adjust the coffee pot. “What’s it say?”
“You’s the boss. Take a gander yourself.”
I flip the sputtering bacon. “Read it, Yank. The sooner we know what’s up with McDermott, the better.”
“Nah, I’m goin’ to fetch some more wood afore dark.” He slams the door, and soon, I hear the steady thwack of the axe.
I scoot to the table and study the note. There’s a T, like that in my own moniker, Thomas. Two Canoe Falls? Tumbler Creek? Tucker Ridge?
The coffee boils over as Yank comes in with an armload of spruce.
“Grub’s on,” I say. Yank drops the wood in the box and bellies up to the table. With his knife tip, he stuffs chunks of grease-soaked biscuit through his stringy mustache. He stabs at the note.
“So what’s up with McDermott?”
“Change of plans,” I say, ignoring the dribble of grease on Yank’s chin. Polite society, my eye.
“Like what?” he grunts through a mouthful of bacon.
“Don’t rightly know.” I slurp coffee, stalling. “Can’t quite make out his scrawl. Somethin’ with a T.”
I bank the fire and we collapse into our bedrolls.
“Tree line?” Yank’s voice perforates the dark.
“Could be.” Why would McDermott be up there?
“For Pete’s sake, get some shuteye.” I face the wall, not liking this guessing game one bit.
During breakfast, the note is like a stinking carcass.
Yank’s words are puffs of frost. “Tanner’s? Turban Rock?”
I down a forkful of beans. “He ain’t here. That’s it.”
“What are we gonna do?”
I scrutinize the note, hoping the mystery will miraculously unravel.
“Well?” Yank jabs the air with his knife.
“We wait. We’ll go to the fort, as planned, when McDermott gets back,” I say with unfelt conviction.
“Maybe he’s headin’ to Toronto. What then? River’s freezin’ up while we dawdle.”
He’s right, of course.
At noon, Yank announces, “I’m headin’ out.” He lashes up his bedroll and caches cold biscuits in his pocket. The prickle of fear in my gut annoys me.
“Godspeed,” I murmur as the canoe skims away. A snowflake melts on my cheek.
I split firewood and stash my furs, then swap between eating and sleeping. The third morning, a hearty “Hey, ho, anybody home?” awakens me, and McDermott busts into the cabin.
“You waited! Where’s Yank?”
“Gone. Afeared of winter movin’ in before you came back and us gettin’ to the fort.”
“Why would he worry? I said I’d be back today, Tuesday.”
I confess our shortage of schooling and my fears of Yank’s demise.
“Aye, a man alone is as good as dead.” McDermott chuckles dryly. “You should have put your knife into him, saving himself the nuisance of getting eaten by a grizzly or falling through thin ice.”
No, I should have learned to read.
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