“One moment,” Maman said, and Papa came from behind the curtain that separated their bedroom, wearing a fresh shirt and trousers, his hair wet and combed for church.
Once they were all together, Maman nodded to Jean Paul, who raised a dipper full of the Easter water Papa had drawn from the St. Lawrence that morning. “God bless our family, and the Good Lord watch over my brother on his travels,” he said, then sipped the water and passed the dipper to his mother.
“A Blessed Easter, and God watch over us all, wherever we may be,” she said, and drank, and replaced the dipper. “Papa?”
They stood with heads bowed as Papa said the Lord’s Prayer.
“Now, ready for church, Antoine!” Maman ordered. “You will go to Confession after Mass, yes?”
“Yes, Maman,” Antoine replied. “I spoke to Father Gamache last Sunday.”
He began towards the ladder to the loft where he and Jean Paul slept, but she gestured for him to wait. She dipped her thumb into the water and made a cross on his forehead, then looked into his eyes for a moment before waving him towards the ladder.
Even without Alexis Gauthier, she would have worried, Antoine told himself, as he changed into his clean clothes. All mothers worry. But she worried more, knowing how Alexis had disappeared up the river without a trace.
The Gauthiers were waiting at the gate as the Guilbaults came down to the roadside. It was a Sunday tradition for the families, whose farms stood side-by-side on the low, flat banks of the St. Lawrence, to walk into town together for Mass, and, for years, the adults had walked ahead while Antoine walked behind with Louise, who was his age and so had always been his best and nearly his only friend.
Their little brothers, Jean Paul and Maurice, used to run on ahead, but now that they were 12 and 10, simply walked along talking as well.
“Our last walk to church for a long time,” Louise said.
Antoine agreed. “I will do my chores in the morning and leave for Lachine. If I get there soon enough, I could be on the river Tuesday morning with the next brigade.”
Louise said nothing. They walked along quietly until Antoine spoke up again. “Jean Paul prayed for me this morning with his Easter water.”
“As he should,” Louise said.
“Do your parents still pray for Alexis to come home?” Antoine asked.
“You needn’t worry about me,” he said. “Your father was back in the fall and home all winter. Mine stayed away the full three years, but he was home at the end of his contract.”
“My uncle Jean was gone six years,” Louise said, “but he sent word that he was taking a second contract, so he wasn’t really late.”
She gazed out over the muddy, unplowed fields. “Sometimes letters get lost.”
Antoine stopped walking, and Louise turned to face him. “If I go north or take a second contract, I will send three letters by three different brigades,” he promised. “One of them will surely arrive.”
“And how many letters will you send if you drown, or if you are killed by natives?” she asked, but waved away the angry question as her eyes filled. “I’m sorry, Antoine, I’m sorry. I miss my big brother.”
“I know,” Antoine said. “He was our hero when we were little!”
She nodded quietly, looking down, as they began to walk again. “It’s so dangerous, so far away and such a long time,” she said. “I wish you could stay, but I know that you must go.”
“We need the money,” Antoine answered. They walked together quietly for several minutes before he admitted the truth. “And, Louise, I really want to see it! I want to go!”
* * *
Antoine was at the offices of the North West Company in Lachine just before sunset Monday.
He stood in line until he reached the desk where a man was signing up voyageurs in his ledger.
He held out his copy of the contract.
The man took the paper, then smiled at the new, clean knee-length hooded capot Antoine’s mother had made for him, and the fresh red toque on his head. “Sure you can keep up?”
“My father taught me to paddle,” Antoine said, “and he made me carry heavy loads all winter. And he has always sung the songs while we worked in the fields.”
“Grand Portage and back, in the middle,” the man declared, writing “milieu” next to Antoine’s name in the ledger.
“Take a bundle,” he pointed at a stack in the corner, “and be on the wharf two hours before dawn.”
He turned his attention to the tall voyageur next in line.
Antoine knew what was in the bundle: A shirt, trousers, a bandana and a blanket. He had brought only his paddle, a knife, some silver rings to trade with the natives and a twist of tobacco. He didn’t smoke, but his father said tobacco was good for trading with other voyageurs.
The sun had set while he was indoors. Now the dockside was crowded and noisy with voyageurs and their families and people with things to sell.
Men were shouting and singing and waving bottles in the air, and he could hear songs and laughter and fighting, all at the same time.
“They’ll go on like that all night,” a voice said. Antoine turned and saw the tall voyageur who had been behind him in line. “Come, we’ll get some food.”
“I brought some smoked meat,” Antoine said, but the older man brushed the idea way.
“Next time, you can buy supper for some penniless young pork-eater,” he said. “Tonight, it’s my turn.”
Text c. 2014, Mike Peterson – Illustrations c. 2014, Dylan Meconis