Montreal – 1793
As another bead of sweat dripped into his eye, Simon Cavendish swiped his forehead impatiently with his sleeve. “I’d heard it was cold in Canada.” He’d had quite enough humidity in India.
The man behind the desk tried to hide his amusement. “It’s still summer, Monsieur Cavendish. But do not worry, winter will be here very soon and you will not be complaining about the heat.” He punctuated his statement with a laugh that shook his jowls.
Simon forced a smile and shifted in the wooden chair, wishing he hadn’t dressed so formally. His waistcoat felt more like a corset, and he longed to remove his neck scarf and use it to mop his face. He’d kept his sandy hair short in India due to the heat, and it had become a habit—one he was very glad for considering the unexpected weather.
Shifting again, he resisted the urge to take his timepiece from the pocket in his breeches. Considering the fact that Simon himself was a month late, he supposed he shouldn’t complain about his employer’s tardiness.
The tapping of a walking stick signaled the approach of William Grant of the North West Company. The older man appeared and smiled politely. His white hair swept back from this forehead and round glasses perched on his nose. “Ah, Mr. Cavendish. We were afraid perhaps you’d decided to stay in England.”
Simon stood and shook Grant’s hand. “Not at all, sir. I’m afraid there was some dreadfully bad weather during the crossing and the ship needed repairs. The delays were interminable, but unavoidable. Now that I’m here I look forward to taking my post at Fort Charlotte.”
“Hmm. Yes. Come into my office for a chat, won’t you?”
After following Grant down a narrow hallway, Simon took a seat in the guest chair of the office. Leather-bound books lined the walls and a large map of the world hung on one of the walls. The window faced Vaudreuil Street.
“You come highly recommended from the East India Company. Experience dealing with the natives is very useful.” Grant settled himself behind his large desk.
“Well, I’m not sure how similar the locals in India are to the Indians here, but—”
Grant waved his hand dismissively. “I imagine they’re all the same for the most part.”
“Well… Surely not.” Simon had no idea what to expect of the natives, and he sincerely doubted they were interchangeable with those in India. He just hoped they were friendly.
“Tell me, why did you decide to come to Canada after India? You’re what, twenty-seven? Wasn’t there a nice girl back home in Surrey you wanted to marry?”
Simon flushed. Not likely. “I suppose I’m too much of an adventurer to settle down, Mr. Grant.”
“Oh, this land is an adventure, I can tell you that.” Grant chuckled. “Especially here in Lower Canada, where we are quite overrun by the French.”
Simon laughed along, although he had never had much cause to dislike the French. He supposed being English was reason enough for most. “Well, I’m sure it will prove an adventure indeed. I’m eager to get started.”
“Ah. This is where we run into trouble, Mr. Cavendish.”
A queasy sensation unfurled in Simon’s stomach. “Trouble?”
“I’m afraid all of our voyageurs are long gone on their way to Grand Portage and the fort.”
“Yes, the travelers, as they’re called. Coureurs des bois is another name for them—runners of the woods. Most leave in the spring, but we had scheduled a late trip to accommodate you and a clerk. However, when you were delayed, we had no choice but to send them without you.”
The queasiness gave way to full-blown nausea. “Surely there must be some way?”
“It’s a thousand miles via rivers and lakes. You were to go with one of our large boats—what we call a Montreal canoe. There would be ten men to help you on the journey and to do the paddling.” He smiled ruefully. “We can’t just call ’round another carriage as we would in England.”
The nausea continued unabated and a rivulet of sweat dripped down Simon’s spine. “Then what am I to do?”
“Wait until next spring. In the meantime we’ll try to find some ways to keep you busy. You can learn more about the business and the culture.”
Simon cringed at the thought. He came to Canada to explore and see the land, not to sit in an office in a city. “It’s not even August. Surely we still have time.”
“The journey takes six to eight weeks with a crew of eight or ten men. It’s theoretically possible to make it before the ice, which comes to the interior usually in October, but—”
“Then I want to try. Please, sir. I came here to do a job, and I’m determined to do it.”
Grant sighed. “I appreciate your ardor, Simon. I do. But it’s a dangerous journey at the best of times with a full crew. Even if I could rustle up a voyageur or two to accompany you—”
“But it’s possible?” A quiver of hope flared in Simon’s chest.
Grant regarded him for a few moments. “All right. Let me see what I can do. You must understand, though—you would be undertaking this trip at your own risk. If anything were to befall you, we would not be responsible.”
Simon was already nodding. “Yes. Absolutely.”
“Go back to your hotel and have a rest. I’ll let you know as soon as I can.”
“Thank you, sir.” Simon jumped to his feet and stuck his hand out, pumping Grant’s hand enthusiastically. “You won’t regret it.”
A rap on the door interrupted Simon’s pacing. After months on a ship, he was used to making the most of small spaces, and his modest but clean hotel room didn’t allow much freedom for wandering.
When he opened the door, he found a tall young man waiting in the hallway. “Hello!” Simon greeted him heartily.
The man nodded, unsmiling. “Mr. Grant sent me.” He said no more.
After a few awkward beats, Simon ushered him in. “Come in, come in. Sorry it’s not very palatial.”
The other man said nothing. He had shaggy, dark hair that fell over his forehead and he appeared to spend a fair amount of time in the sun. His eyes were a rather piercing green, Simon couldn’t help but notice. He wore a simple cotton shirt and canvas pants, was fit and trim, and clearly spent a great deal of time doing manual labor. He looked barely out of his teens, if that.
Simon realized with a start that he was staring. “So what’s the word?”
“I’m taking you to Grand Portage. We leave first thing tomorrow.”
“Excellent! Good show. I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.”
The man extended his hand. “Christian Smith.”
Simon took Christian’s hand, which was deeply calloused. “A pleasure to meet you. So you think we can make it in time?”
Christian shrugged. “You’ll have to learn fast how to paddle. It’ll just be the two of us.”
“Not a problem at all. I look forward to getting out there. Have you been before?”
“Excellent. So Mr. Grant was able to convince you to make one more trip.”
“He’s paying five times as much.”
“Ah.” Simon wondered how much of the fee would be deducted from his own pay. Still, it was worth it.
“We probably won’t make it.”
“Oh! Goodness. Of course we’ll make it.” Simon smiled, but the nausea had made a bold and unexpected return.
Christian shrugged. “If we don’t, they’ll just send someone else next year in your place.”
What a comforting thought. “Well, my trunk’s still packed, so I’ll be ready to push off tomorrow.”
Christian gazed at the steamer trunk in the corner of the room. “You’re not taking that.”
“Is it a bit too heavy?”
Christian regarded him as if he were entirely the most idiotic man on the face of the earth. “Yes. We’ll have packs we can carry on our backs.”
“I hate to be a bother, but I need my things. I’ll be overseeing operations at the fort, you see.”
“It’s going to be hard enough carrying the canoe.”
“Surely the canoe goes in the water?” Simon laughed, trying to establish a rapport.
Christian didn’t return his smile. “We’ll need to portage across some parts of the land to get to the next river or lake, or to avoid white water.”
“Sorry, I’m a tad confused. Portage? I know our final destination is Grand Portage and the fort, but…”
“It comes from the French. It means carrying the canoe. Over our heads.”
Simon looked at his trunk, which had accompanied him all over India. He’d grown rather attached to it, as silly as it seemed. However, he had porters in India. It appeared Canada was a bit more on the rough side. “All right. You’re the expert, after all.”
“I’ll bring you clothes and a pack tonight. I’ll leave them outside your door.”
“Oh, I have clothing. But thank you. I do appreciate the offer.”
Christian looked Simon up and down. Suddenly Simon felt foolish in his breeches and stockings. He was glad he’d never caved to fashion and gotten into the habit of wearing powdered wigs.
“I’ll bring you clothes.” With that, Christian turned and left.
A few hours later when Simon returned from dinner with his new employers, the pack was leaning against his door. Several cotton shirts, canvas breeches and leggings were folded neatly inside. There was also what appeared to be a long, red woollen hat, scarf and mittens and a multi-hued fabric belt. A pair of surprisingly sturdy, tall leather slippers with beaded decoration sat beside the pack.
The sun was just peeking above the horizon the next morning when Christian knocked on his door. Simon had arranged with Mr. Grant to keep his trunk until it could be returned to him, and he’d packed as many as the essentials in the canvas pack as he could.
Christian picked up the bag. “Too heavy.”
“I’ll be able to carry it, don’t worry.”
Without asking permission, Christian knelt down an opened the pack so he could inspect the contents. The first things he discarded were three books. “They’re only going to get wet.”
Simon opened his mouth to object, but he supposed it was true enough. Still, he hated to be without Shakespeare and his cookbook from India. He’d had to remember the recipes as best he could and jot them down for the cook at Fort Charlotte.
Next, Christian pulled out several tins. “What are these?”
“My spices. From India.”
“Are you going to trade them?”
The thought hadn’t occurred. “No, they’re mine.” Christian opened one of the tins and peered closely at the orange powder. Simon told him, “That’s turmeric. Excellent medicinal qualities and can be used to make some wonderful meat dishes.”
“You should only bring essentials.”
“My spices are essential. They’re not heavy.”
It seemed Christian couldn’t argue this last point, and he carefully nestled them back into the pack. Simon sighed with relief. Not having his books over the winter would be bad enough—he wanted a few comforts.
Christian pulled out Simon’s shaving kit. “Not essential.”
“Why, Mr. Smith, I’m not a savage! I will need to keep up some modicum of civilized life.”
Christian seemed suddenly incensed for a reason Simon couldn’t imagine. After a moment he tossed the kit back into the pack. “Don’t complain when you have to carry it.”
Simon pulled at the collar of his shirt. The rough material scratched his skin and he felt as if he were a child playing dress-up. “Are you sure these shoes are appropriate for going into the wilderness?” The leather slippers were comfortable, but Simon would have preferred sturdy boots.
“Yes. Indians have worn moccasins for more years that you can count.” Christian eyed him critically. “Where’s the belt?”
“I don’t think I need it. The pants stay up fine on their own.”
“You need it. To hang your cup and pipe.” Christian found the belt in the pack and handed it to Simon. As Christian waited, Simon fumbled. He wasn’t sure what it was about Christian that unnerved him so. Simon was his elder and obviously his superior by rank and class. What did he have to be so nervous about?
Without a word, Christian took the belt from him and expertly looped it around his waist in seconds. He stood close, and Simon found himself holding his breath until Christian stepped back. They were a similar height, with Simon perhaps an inch taller.
Simon exhaled and smiled. “Are we ready to go on our grand adventure?”
Christian simply nodded and led the way.
Copyright © Keira Andrews
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