Russell looked up into her cherubic face. Despite the harsh light, her large, round blue-grey eyes brought a sense of calm, and he welcomed the serenity. “I need to see to my horses, but first I figure
to rest a spell.”
to rest a spell.”
Francine looked down at the grizzled old man, smiled and dropped down next to him then Francine smiled again for his benefit after a soft laugh. “I don’t feel much like hiking through the hotel. I’ve had a day.”
“Know the feeling,” he said, rubbing his scalp with the heel of his hand.
Francine and Russell rested on a hard wooden bench. They could hear the storm outside.
“LeGarde est un nom français?” Russell asked.
“Vous parlez le français.”
“Oui, ma mère m'a enseigné certains, mon père était un citoyen français.”
“Ma mère et père sont le Canadien français.” Francine remembered her manners. “It is not polite to speak French in Alberta.” She giggled. “We should use English to be courteous,” she said.
Russell nodded in agreement.
Francine paused for a long while then said, “You are a mountain man, yes? I want to get to know the mountains. That is why I came here. I bought special shoes and clothes. I do not wish to go into the mountains dressed in seafaring thatch. I left my nailbag at home. When I go hiking here, I will not wear these brogans but special mountain runners. I even bought a special packsack. It’s Sacs Millet, a red one. Would you like to see it?”
Russell sorted all of her words. Some were familiar and some were not. He remembered the remarkable fisherman from New Brunswick with a hankering for mountain trout who could not adjust to time in the saddle, and the interesting new words that seafarer had used then glanced at Francine for help. “Sacs Millet?” he asked.
“It is a packsack, a day pack. I shopped for months before making my decision. I ordered online for home delivery from the Mountain Co-op. Could you look at it and tell me what you think?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know much about such things.”
“I thought you were a mountain man?”
“I’m not sure I know what that is.”
Francine suppressed an urge to laugh. “You have lived in the mountains.”
“My whole life.” Russell contemplated as he studied the good-looking gal at his side. “Here’s what I can tell you.” Desperate from circumstance, the old mountain man needed someone to know him. “I was born to an adventurous Frenchman and a Cree woman. My father moved us to northern British Columbia before I could walk. A second world war broke out, and my father left to defend his homeland. He never returned. So my young mother more or less raised us both.”
Francine appeared content. Her large eyes were soft with interest.
“I attended a mission school and lived there with the priests after my mother died of tuberculosis. I escaped when I was a boy and learned to break horses for the saddle then drifted into the mountains and spent my life freighting. I love the mountains.”
“You tell me so much.” Francine admired the older man. “What do you love most about the mountains?”
“I love the sound of water in a creek.”
“Tell me more.”
“In the fall, the water is down, and a creek is clear, easy to read, and quiet. Come winter, it just goes to sleep, and I know this because nature throws a thick white blanket over the top. In the spring, the water comes to life again. There’s a lot going on. And with ice melting and rocks moving, why, sometimes a man can’t even think over all the noise. But come summer, things settle down and sometimes you can hear a creek laugh.
“A creek can laugh? You are teasing me, yes?”
Russell smiled a distant smile. “Most of all, it’s the fall that’s best. The once again crisp mornings, still warm days, new snow up high, all the sharp colours, them creeks run clean with fish still in them. And the big bull elk sing their romance songs in the damp air.”
“You make me love the mountains,” she said. “You are a poet.”
Russell bobbed his head. “I don’t know about packsacks, but I do know mountains and maybe something about horses. I’ve never been to the sea. Don’t know much about the world.” Russell hung his head as if tired.
Francine noticed the change. “I would love to know about horses. I would like to learn to ride. Could you teach me?”
He perked. “Be happy to.”
“Why did you stay in the mountains? Was it the horses?”
“Not much of a story really. I was born then we moved way up to Telegraph Creek.” Russell began a smile. “My father, I always thought he wandered up into British Columbia to avoid the first world war. I don’t know, maybe he was feeling guilty when the second one came around. Anyway, he up and left and there we were—”
Francine politely interrupted. “My grandmother was born during the second war. It is our family scandal. My mother liked to tell how my great grandmother had an affair with a man who disappeared with so many others in that terrible conflict.”
Russell listened and nodded, taking her history into his memory.
“Please go on.” Francine nodded encouragement.
“Not much more to tell. When I was eight my mother up and died. I was sent to live at the mission. Ran away when I was twelve. They caught me and brought me back. I tried again when I was sixteen. I never have gone back. Worked around lumber camps and cow outfits until I got a job freighting.”
“Yes, I remember, freighting.”
“Back in the old days, last year, goods was hauled up into the high country by horses and mules. Not much work there now. Helicopters got it all.” Russell shuffled his feet as if he were ready to move on. “Do you have family?”
“Yes, I have four grandparents, my mother and father, a younger brother, and a younger sister. My father used to be a fisherman, but now he waits by the sea.”
“Know the feeling of losing your work.”
“We have always lived by the sea, and I am the first to come here to the mountains. I have pictures I could show you.”
“I’d like that. I have a scrapbook.”
Francine noted the expression on Russell’s face. Embarrassed, she said, “I am sorry if I said something. I was listening in the lounge. I know you have few things.”
“I have all I need.”
“Then I am forgiven?”
“Nothing to forgive, young lady. I’d very much like to show you my scrapbook. I got stories.” Russell Elizabeth’s voice was flush with eagerness.
“Tell me one,” she said and snuggled next to him.
Russell smiled and began. “Up north, in the tight woods, where there are few folk, there lives a creature. No ordinary creature mind you, but one with peculiar ways, a solitary hunter, seldom seen, always feared by those who know. It comes in the spring when there are bad storms. Something drives it out, I don’t know, and then it stalks the land.”
“What does it hunt?” Francine glanced to her left then right before drawing a tighter grip on the old man’s arm.
“I don’t know what it hunts normal, but when a big spring storm turns it out, it hunts men, eats their flesh. It breaks into homes or chases its prey until they quit. They say it is tall with long white hair and yellow eyes. It has a long stride, which carries it over deep snow or snag timber. It has a long deep call, like a horrible moan, that it gives when it hunts.”
“Have you seen this thing?” Francine squirmed on the hard bench.
“I have not seen it, though my mother said she saw it once when snow trapped our village one spring and some did what they had to do to survive.” He paused. “I have seen its tracks, heard its hunting call. It is a terrible thing to hear when you are alone in the woods.”
“What do they call this beast?”
“Windigo.” Russell spoke the name and went silent.
“I have decided I will never go out alone and never during a spring storm. I want to talk more, but I must find a washroom. Will you wait for me?”
“I need to see to my horses.”
“May I join you?”
“I’d like that.” Surprising himself, Russell patted Francine’s arm. “Life has more twists and turns than a mountain trail. You have to be able to ride in rough weather and sunshine.” He released her. “The good never lasts.” More than a bit embarrassed, astonished at his behavior, Russell finished. “Don’t rightly know why I said that.”
“You are sweet.” Francine’s fingers lingered at the edge of his hand.
Russell watched as the young woman took up a safety light and disappeared around a corner; her glow left a shadow trail that any could follow.