“Antoine Guilbault,” Antoine responded. They shook hands and began to work their way through the noisy, teeming crowd, Antoine holding up his bundle and his own cloth sack of belongings, and trying to keep his paddle close to avoid striking anyone as he followed Marcel.
The older man led the way down a side street until they came to the door of an inn. “Are you staying here?” Antoine asked Marcel before he pushed open the door.
“No, I’ll sleep by the docks tonight,” he said. “And I just arrived from Berthier.”
They went to a small table in the back and set their bundles and paddles in the corner. “That was a long walk,” Antoine said. “I started from St. Sulpice just after dawn and only got here a short time ago.”
“If you walk all night, then sleep on cobblestones, it makes the rest of the trip seem like fun,” Marcel said, holding up two fingers to a woman carrying a tray of stew in wooden bowls. “You are just going up and back?”
Antoine shrugged. “We’ll see. If the bourgeois will hire me to go north, I’d like to winter over.”
“Keep that to yourself,” Marcel advised. “The others will make fun of a first-timer who seems eager, and there’s no hurry. See if you still feel that way when we get to Grand Portage.”
“My father said it’s not hard to get hired for the winter.”
“Well, it’s certainly possible,” Marcel agreed, “if you are a hard worker. It depends on the bourgeois. If he likes you, and nobody likes him, you have a very good chance.” Antoine frowned and the older man laughed. “The more people who desert, the more people he must hire to take their places.”
“Are you coming right back?”
Marcel shook his head. “I returned last fall because my father is very old and I wanted to see him again. Now I have signed on as an hiverant. In three years, we’ll see.”
The woman brought their food. “Eat well, my friend,” he said. “You won’t have another meal like this for a long time.”
The loud, drunken party was still going on when they returned to the docks, but they found an alley next to a warehouse and lay with their bundles under their heads, both as pillows and to guard them from being stolen. Marcel was asleep quickly; Antoine lay awake listening to the singing and shouting before he drifted off.
* * *
When he awoke, it was still dark, but the celebrations had ended. He could hear men calling to each other as they moved goods from the warehouse to the dockside.
Marcel was sitting up, smoking his pipe. “We could go have a look,” he said, tapping his ashes out on the ground. “Though someone said something last night about smoked meat.”
It was a good idea. Antoine rummaged through his bag and brought out his uneaten supper. He tore the hunk of meat in two along its grain and handed half to his companion.
“See, you’ve learned already,” Marcel smiled around a mouthful of cold, smoky beef. “Share and share alike!”
They ate, then each combined his company bundle with his own belongings into one pack. They picked up their paddles and walked to the docks.
Marcel looked over the canoes approvingly. There were five huge canots de maîtres, each 36 feet long, to be paddled by eight or ten men and carrying three tonnes of cargo each. The sun had still not risen, but the canoes were nearly loaded, and the clerk was directing where the final bundles of supplies – powder and shot, sugar and flour, goods for trading – should go.
Marcel nodded towards two men standing at the head of the dock. “The bourgeois and his main clerk,” he said, and Antoine might have guessed, because, not only were they better dressed than the voyageurs and warehouse men, but one was speaking English to the other, who was nodding and holding papers.
The man with the papers stepped forward and began calling names. The voyageurs and those with them gathered to hear.
As names were called, men with families kissed their wives, parents and children and went to climb into the first, then second, then third canoe. Single men had already begun to filter out onto the dock, waiting to see which canoe would be their home for the next eight months.
Marcel’s name was called, not by the clerk, but by someone on the dock. He looked, then waved and he and Antoine approached the man.
“Jean Baptiste!” he said, and they embraced. “This is my young friend, Antoine.”
As they shook hands, Antoine gazed up at Jean Baptiste’s six-foot-long paddle.
“Avant or gouvernail?” Marcel asked.
“Gouvernail!” Jean Baptiste announced proudly. He would be in the stern of the canoe, steering the route the avant directed from the bow, while the milieux like Marcel and Antoine paddled in the center.
Then Antoine’s name, and, just after it, Marcel’s, were called for the number four canoe, and Jean Baptiste and Marcel laughed. “Welcome to my boat!” Jean Baptiste said.
They took seats across from one another, near Jean Baptiste in the stern, and then, when all five canoes were loaded and the bourgeois and his clerks aboard, they pushed off from the dock, raised their paddles and roared a good-bye to the crowd on shore as muskets were fired in the air, a cannon on the dock boomed its farewell, and they began the first song on the trip to Grand Portage.
C'est l'aviron qui nous mène, qui nous mène
C'est l'aviron qui nous mène en haut!
(It’s the rowing that leads us, which leads us,
It’s the rowing that leads us on up!)
Text c. 2014, Mike Peterson – Illustrations c. 2014, Dylan Meconis