A woman finds herself on the frontier road towards Canada, her recent husband has died and she finds she only cares for the attention of the native man who has promised to lead them to the fort that will strike the fur-trade deal her husband had been seeking.
Women don’t last long on the frontier without a man, ma’am. She heard that from more than one gentlemen as she put her husband of three weeks to rest in the cold sod, knowing that it was not dug deep enough to keep away predators. It had taken half of a day to dig it as deep as it was, with three men’s efforts to the task. They couldn’t linger longer nor should they. Francis would not be the first – nor the last – loss on their journey northward. He had deemed it a grand adventure, a ‘honeymoon’, to take her north into the canadian wilderness on a fur-trade venture he had funded. Helen had known he was a bright-eyed fool and yet she had gone with him. How could she argue not to? He was a man of riches and she was a woman bred to please him. She hadn’t thought he would fall ill within their first month, nor succumb to the illness. She should have known better. Francis was not a young man to accomplish such tasks. And yet, she did not deny him.
Now she found herself the widower of a half-hearted venture headed into the canadian wilderness. She had men who were beholden to her late Francis, more than those who had dug the grave for her, and one native tracker that was in their employ. Shawatis, known by the other three men as ‘John’, was their Mohawk guide. He was an aloof, unforgiving man, who had spared no interest in his benefactor when Francis first grew ill. If anything, Helen was confident that he had grown more and more impatient with their venture the sicker Francis became.
“John’s urgin’ us to go on now ma’am,” Joseph told her, his dirt-smudged face coming into view as she warmed her hands against the fire that had been built to warm her. She knew that the others begrudged having a woman – much less a ‘well-bred’ woman – on this venture. They were used to squaws, those poor native women who lived only to serve the men. She’d seen their gaunt, hollow-eyed faces as they trekked northward. She saw them laboring in the native camps, while their men were at their leisure. Helen was not that sort of woman nor would she ever be.
“If you are speaking of Shawatis,” Helen answered, her tone sharp and her eyes sharper as she narrowed them upon Joseph. “Then he may wait until my fingers are warm. I have buried my husband and am now in charge of this entire venture. I will decide when we are suited to leave.” Her blue-eyed gaze looked for the sharpness of Shawatis’ gaze and she held them as her chin lifted. “I appreciate the sense of urgency, but I will have this moment.”
Joseph was more used to the nature of highbred women and shrugged his large shoulders in response. Helen heard in passing as he muttered to Jean, their wagon leader, that the woman had ‘lost her mind’. Helen’s shoulders stiffened at the audacity of them. She may have married Francis – but she was not some eighteen year old dew-eyed child. She was nearly twenty-six and considered by most an unwanted spinster. It was why her family had pushed the match upon her. She tightened her hands around her fur-lined jacket and once more found her gaze holding on to Shawatis’. The native man rose from his crouch and blinked leisurely at her before he went to speak to the other men of their party.
Helen watched his unhurried movements for the third time that day, noting how easily he moved, how lithe his body could be. In the company of brutes like Joseph and Jean, it was no wonder Helen’s attention went to the only body who seemed to at least know how to keep one’s appearance clean. Other than her late husband and herself, it would seem the others in their company were fine with a lifestyle that never involved cleaning themselves nor changing their clothes. Whether or not Shawatis bathed she did not know. When he was enough to her, she never cringed away from his smell. He was musky, it was true, but weren’t all natives? He reminded her of the wilderness, with hints of pine, and dirt, and other-wordly qualities.
“Oh Francis,” she found herself saying, tearing her gaze back towards the flickering flames, “What have you left me to? You were too old for this and yet you were desperate for an adventure of a younger man.” Helen took a deep breath and settled herself for the task at hand. “You married a smart woman, I knew you appreciated that about me. It’s why you chose to include me on this venture. I knew you might’ve wanted more than what few nights we had… but I would never be ready for that life in a tent.” She tucked her hands into her fur-lined gloves and turned to wave Jean over.
“Jean, it is time to leave. Ready the horses. I’ll excuse myself to the wagon and await our departure. I expect we will make the fort in a fortnight?” Helen waited, searching the older Frenchman’s gaze as he balanced his knowledge of her language with his own.
“Yah,” Jean agreed, gesturing her towards the waiting wagon. “We’ll make it then.” He blinked three times furiously at her and then clapped his hands and whistled shrilly. The two young boys, no more than twelve or thirteen, who answered to him jumped to begin packing up their camp. Helen watched it all passively as she made her way towards the wagon.
A rough hand found her arm and squeezed, drawing her to pause and look over her shoulder. Her gaze met Joseph’s. “We should turn back,” he advised, the rancidness of his breath hot on her cheek for his nearness, “This is no journey fo’ a lady. I keep tellin’ ya.” He glowered in the direction of Shawatis. “Women like you. Pretty white women end up slaves to them. Do ya not unnerstand? It’s only a matter of time fo’ you follow Francis to the grave or worse.”
Helen ripped her arm free from Joseph’s and stepped in closer to jut her chin upwards and force him to take two steps back. “You forget your station, Joseph. I am your employer. You will not touch me again. Nor will you dictate to me what we will do. Upon my husband’s death I am incharge of this venture.” She shoved her shoulder against the larger man’s and walked with crisp steps towards her wagon.
She tried not to look for Shawatis – and yet he was there beside her wagon as she approached it. He had no smile for her, nor a word of rebuke. Helen could not quite understand the intensity of his gaze, nor the thrill it gave her down to her core as he held open the door for her to enter her wagon. She knew it was not a native gesture to do such an act. Their men never waited upon their women. Helen met his gaze as she stepped inside and turned to hold it as Shawatis closed the door behind her. Soon enough she would have to rid herself of the wagon and take the trek on horseback. And then she would have no barrier between her gaze and that of the native man who would lead them forward.
Helen leaned her head back against the wagon as it lurched forward, the calls of the men and the sound of horses drowning her thoughts away. Eventually, she turned and watched as the winter-swept world of the Canadian wilderness moved past her vision. “I’m sorry, Francis,” she murmured as they continued forward. For his death? Or for the betrayal of her heart? She wouldn’t be able to say for some weeks which she was sorry for – yet, she knew, she owed him those words as they left his corpse behind.
My professional background in biotechnology as a research chemist and as a veterinary technician has allowed me to have experienced two vastly different fields and for that I am thankful. In both careers, I have mentored, encouraged, and developed talent.
As a mother of two (a daughter and a son), I'm a self-proclaimed backyard chicken guru and someone who has “foster failed” nearly all the animals currently running the household. Oh, and I maintain a husband in my spare time.