Introduction: It is Easter morning, April 13, 1800, in a riverside farmhouse near St. Sulpice, Quebec, on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River some 45 kilometers northeast of Montreal. Everyone in this story is speaking French unless it says otherwise.
Antoine had just raked out the live coals from the back of the hearth and was rekindling the fire for morning when his father came in the door and put the bucket of Easter water on the table.
“You take the first drink, son,” Gabriel Guilbault said, taking a tin dipper from the hook on the wall and holding it out to him.
The small branches in the hearth had just begun to catch fire; Antoine crossed them with larger pieces of wood, then stood and brushed the ashes from his hands onto his pants legs before taking the dipper. He put the bowl gently into the bucket, pushing it just enough below the surface to let it fill with the cold water.
He drank, then swished the dipper in the bucket. “A blessed Easter, Papa,” he said, as he handed the dipper back, filled again.
His father drank some of the icy water. “And may the Good Lord provide a good spring, and a good year ahead, my boy,” he replied. He hung the dipper on the rim of the bucket. “Any sign of your mother or Jean Paul yet?”
“I heard Maman stir a bit as I came down the ladder, but I think she went back to sleep,” Antoine said. “Jean Paul? Of course not!”
His father smiled. “I should make him get up and help, but it is both a holiday and the Sabbath, and, besides, he’ll have plenty of work soon enough.”
Indeed he would, Antoine thought, as he put on his coat and followed his father out into the brisk dark morning. The ice was gone from the St. Lawrence here at Saint Sulpice and the river traffic between Montreal and Quebec, and on out to the ocean, had begun weeks ago.
That was not all that was starting up again with the coming of spring. Brigades of voyageurs were already at Lachine, packing their canoes for the long trip into the pays d’en haut, the wilderness where furs were gathered, and it was time for him to report to the North West Company and go up river, too.
He had signed a contract when the recruiter came to town last November.
He was only 15, two years younger than his father had been when he went up river. But Antoine was stronger than most boys his age, even in Quebec, where boys pitched hay to their cattle, hauled rocks from fields and cut trees for firewood and timber.
Besides, he had reminded his parents, his father had run the farm with little help until three years ago, when he became old enough and strong enough to do a full day’s work. Now Jean Paul was that age and could take his place.
And his parents had to admit that, however they felt about his going, the family needed the money he would bring back. His father had long looked forward to the day when he would have both his sons working alongside him on the farm, but the fact was, the family needed the money more than Gabriel Guilbault needed the help of two strong young men.
Antoine would probably be back in the fall, but, if he were chosen to go north, it would be for no more than three years. At the end of his time, he’d come back to St. Sulpice stronger than ever and would be that much more help to his father.
Antoine had made his argument, but at that last, his mother sighed and looked off into the distance, and he knew why.
It had been seven years, not three, since Alexis Gauthier had gone to the pays d’en haut, and then north, and then had disappeared forever.
Antoine’s father had opened the side door before he got to the barn, and the cows were already leaving for the pasture to seek the early green shoots of spring. He grabbed a hay fork and began to pitch their soiled straw bedding into a wheelbarrow.
The wood of the cows’ stalls, freshly rebuilt in the past six months, was still yellow. Once it had been decided, Antoine had taken on extra work, for two reasons.
One was to put the farm into perfect condition, so that Gabriel Guilbault would need only tend his cows and plow his fields, while greater tasks could wait until Jean Paul was older and Antoine was home again.
But the other was to help build his muscles, and his stamina, even more. A voyageur must paddle all day until it was time to sleep, and then awaken to paddle again.
And when the rapids were too much, or when they needed to go from one river to the next, he would have to carry a 90-pound pack or two, and perhaps the canoe as well, up hills and over rocks and down hills again to the next water.
Gabriel Guilbault had taken his son out onto the St. Lawrence and taught him to wield the long, thin paddle of the voyageur, but mostly, he had taught him to work, to work hard, to work without pause, to work without asking for rest, or for help, or for mercy.
His father nodded to him silently and went back to the house, as he had for the past year, leaving
Antoine to clean the barn and spread fresh bedding.
Antoine worked fast so he could clean his boots and wash up for the Easter Mass.
Text c. 2014, Mike Peterson – Illustrations c. 2014, Dylan Meconis