"You know, Caryn said that it starts at seven; I was meaning to ask you why we were going early," Meg said, following Fraser outside.
"I'm supposed to be there early," he answered.
"Oh." She supposed that he was expected to be a community leader, in his position. Nodding at that thought, she got her snowmobile out from under cover, strapped her rented helmet on, and drove down the hill the short ways to where he was climbing onto his.
"Ready?" he asked, fastening the strap under his chin.
"Yep," and she dropped her visor down and revved the engine. He closed his visor and started off down the incline towards town. It was about a thirty-minute ride; not far. She followed behind him, enjoying the speed and the rumbling of the engine beneath her. They wove in and out of the hills, through a few kilometres of woods and into another clearing, down into the river valley. They skimmed across the open landscape, onto the frozen MacKenzie river, stretched out for two kilometres, perfectly flat. They flew past the small ferry-house on the opposite bank before she had time to look at it closely. She had spotted a bush plane coming overhead, and it roared down low over the lake in greeting. Ahead of her, Fraser waved. The plane banked away, heading towards the small airfield near town. Farther off to the south, she could see another plane flying in. Despite herself, she grinned inside of her helmet.
They reached the riverbank on the opposite side, and Fraser navigated a smooth path up the side onto land, such as it was. She followed it carefully, wary of the rocks and the steep embankment, and then they raced through the last section of forest into the centre of Fort Liard. There were a few people moving down the street; mostly Native, but Harold Onsten was carrying on an animated conversation on the front porch of his store with a small crowd clustered around him.
When he caught sight of the two of them driving up, he waved them over. Fraser pulled up to a stop at the storefront and pushed up his visor.
"When are we starting?"
"A few minutes, a few minutes," Onsten said, nodding and pulling his plaid cap on. "Brought a visitor, eh?" He elbowed into the crowd, and they laughed. Ben smiled good-naturedly.
"Liven, I don't think you've met Ms. Thatcher," he said to one of the men on the porch, who was leaning against a post. Fraser turned slightly, with a gesture back at Meg. "Meg Thatcher, Liven Isature. Liven, Meg." Liven smiled at her and nodded, giving his cap a tug.
"Ma'am," he said. She nodded back.
"Liven is the council chief of this community," Fraser explained. "And Jeb Mallock, there, he owns the summer ferry and the airfield." Jeb nodded to her, also tugging his cap. He was chewing on something, in a kind of lazy, sure way. He smiled at her.
She suddenly felt extremely self-conscious, with eight pairs of male eyes on her, and she nodded back stiffly.
"Marc, Constable Jack Willis, Wren, Elway, and Constable Hugh Bohner." As Fraser said each of their names, the other men nodded and touched their caps. The two Mounties were out of uniform, as was Fraser. The night duty had probably fallen to Lecrue, the youngest at the outpost. Meg remembered when she had been assigned such shifts; now she assigned them to others.
"Everything's inside, already?"
"Yep," the man named Wren said with a nod. He appeared to be Metis. It was an interesting group gathered on the porch.
"All right, then," Fraser answered, and drove back around in a half-circle, towards the community hall. Meg followed him, noticing that a couple of the men stepped off the porch and started walking across the snowy street behind them. She wondered what was in the making. She and Fraser drove across the street and parked in the open lot next to the hall, then made their way into the building.
"You can leave your coat here, on one of the pegs," he said, gesturing at the long wall of wooden pegs down the length of the extended foyer. "Your things will be safe." He removed his own coat, and then took hers.
The warm air inside was a welcome change, and she looked around as the doors to the foyer closed behind her. There were long tables set up for most of the length of the room, draped in off-white tablecloths. Bowls of snack food were already set up along their length with lamps burning at intervals between them. Four women were moving from table to table, setting up things, and a baby in a walker was pushing its way stubbornly across the board floor, frowning in concentration as it made a beeline for the other side of the room.
"Sergeant Fraser!" At their entrance, one woman looked up and waved across at them. The others looked up with similar exclamations.
"Hello, Mrs. Winituk," Fraser answered. "How's everything coming?"
"Good, good. Mae's bringing over a load of napkins—we didn't have enough. Hello!" She waved at Meg. "Glad you could make it!"
"Thanks," she answered, feeling a bit self-conscious.
Two of the men from across the street came in behind them just then—Marc and Wren. She could see the rest moving up the steps, their heads visible through the glass panes in the door. A cold draft was coming in, and she moved to the side a bit. Her eyes travelled over to the other end of the hall, where there was a large space cleared—for dancing, she supposed—and a collection of musical instrument cases, two drums, and a few folded wooden seats propped against the far wall, beside a low stage area.
The two men moved past her, and went over to the instruments. Wren started unfolding the chairs, and Marc picked up a case and went about assembling the instrument inside. Fraser turned to her.
"Meg—I need to warm up a bit before tonight starts; if you're interested, Mrs. Winituk is organizing everything," he made a small gesture towards the woman on the far side of the room. "I apologize for not planning this all better; it slipped my mind before that I had to be here early, and I should have told you when I asked you to come."
"That's all right; I'm sure I can make myself useful. Are you playing tonight?"
"Yes," he smiled, and nodded past her at the other men as they made their way in, and then looked back down at her. "We're the unofficial official musical divertissement for the evening."
"Ah, I see." She smiled back, realizing that she was looking forward to the festivities. It had never really seemed to sink in before that he played the guitar; she had only seen him do it once, when they were on the train, though one night when she had stayed late working at the consulate, she had thought she heard him playing. She had come out of her office, creeping quietly out to sit on the steps, outside of the line of sight from his door. She had been unwilling to disturb him, afraid that if she did, he would stop playing. The chords had wafted out, soft, and then a bit of picking, a classical style that she thought she recognized. For a short while, he just seemed to be playing without any strict melody in mind, just progressions, a side note or two. Then he launched into a lively version of a traditional Scottish tune, and she found herself humming and keeping time with her fingers on her knees.
He must have heard the stairs creak or something, because his playing suddenly stopped, and she jumped off the step and scooted back into her office. He had appeared in his doorway a moment later, just as she was closing her door, and she nodded to him, then pushed it closed. He had not played again that night, and distracted by her thoughts, she had turned off her computer only a short while later, closed up her office, and gone home. It was those late nights in the darkened consulate that had weakened her defences the most, trying to work and knowing that he was just across and down the hall, probably lying on his cot reading a book. It was enough to make it very difficult for her to get any useful work done. She did not know why she had bothered—well, yes, she did, but that was not what she wanted to think about right now.
"Fraser!" Jeb called, rolling out one of the large drums. "You coming?"
"Be right there," Fraser answered, then looked down at Meg. "You're all right?"
"I'm fine, Ben," she answered. "Go. I'll find something to do back there."
"You don't mind?"
"No. I like being involved."
He nodded, satisfied, and headed off across the room. She looked over at the men, who were trying a few beats and notes as they were warming up their instruments and fingers. Setting her jaw, she headed across the room to find out what napkins needed folding and where the paper plates were.
"You certainly took your time getting here," Meg shouted over the din in the large hall.
"We left a little later than expected—hope I didn't miss anything!" Caryn grinned, Paul trailing close behind her.
"Not yet, though I did hear them planning a moose-call competition!" Meg grinned back and ladled out a cup of punch, making sure to leave a few bits of ice cream floating in the top, and handed it down to Paul. He took it eagerly and gulped it down.
"Thank you, ma'am," he said, grinning, ice-cream foam at the edges of his mouth. Another boy across the room shouted his name, and after a nod from his mother, he took off to find his friend.
"You're welcome!" Meg called after his retreating form. Caryn turned back to look at her, shaking her head.
"So, are you having fun?"
The hall had filled up quickly, families arriving from all around the area, bringing crock-pots and bowls full of food. Meg had been assigned to man the punch bowl, and she found herself enjoying it immensely. She liked having a place in the grand scheme of things. Three adolescents arrived in the middle of Caryn's words and took cups of punch, chattering excitedly all the while, and then drifted off again.
"What?" Meg leaned over the counter towards Caryn, after they walked away.
"Are you having fun?"
"Yes!" Meg grinned, and leaned back. Mrs. Winituk suddenly appeared at her elbow.
"How're things? Do you have enough ginger-ale? No? Let me go—Caryn! Honey, you look great!" She went around the counter in the kitchen and came out to give Caryn a sideways-hug.
"Anna!" Caryn smiled, returning it. "You look like you're in your element."
"Oh, there are so many things that I have to organize...we didn't have enough napkins, and then Jake Kincaid went off and brought back the caribou he'd been keeping on a hook behind the house. He's been outside skinning it for the past hour—Meg, dear, why didn't you tell me that the ginger-ale was running low?—" and then she was off again, sorting through the supplies in the back of the kitchen.
Meg continued ladling out the plastic cups of punch, barely keeping ahead of the stream of adults and children taking them and returning for a refill. Caryn took a glass, herself, and went behind the counter to sit beside her and watch the bustling hall. She made small talk with a number of people, introducing them to Meg, inquiring about news. Meg did not talk a lot; she seemed content manning the punch bowl and exchanging pleasantries on occasion.
Out of the corner of her eye, Caryn observed her friend. She was amused to find that, at regular intervals, Meg took a moment to look over the milling crowd and the children clamouring for more punch, to get a glance at the musicians at the other end of the hall.
They were playing a few traditional numbers, doing some improvisation as the hall filled up and the people settled around and mingled. The musicians had managed to work out an interesting combination of Native and European styles, sometimes alternating between them, other times weaving them together. Caryn admitted that it was fun to watch them play; the important thing was that they seemed to be enjoying themselves a great deal, which made for some wonderful music. They had been doing it for a number of years, dragging new people into the group on occasion. The minute they had found out that Fraser could play, Dave had told her, Marc had begun a campaign until he finally gave in. Dave played the tin whistle on occasion; she wondered if he had brought it this evening.
The music came to a close, and Liven stepped up to the front of the stage and raised his hands. Within a few seconds, everyone in the hall had turned towards him and hushed. Meg noted this with some admiration.
"I'd just like to welcome you all to this here gathering, and encourage you all to eat the food! We're going to end up taking it home if you don't."
The crowd laughed. Several of the women who had organized the event were the musicians' wives. Nothing wasted; they would be eating three-bean salad for a week.
"Also, we have a few things planned for tonight! Amanda Canbrary's third-grade class will be presenting a short one-act play, written by the kids themselves—"
"—and there will be a few singers and a few dancers—"
"—and the best call of the great bull moose will be won here tonight!—"
The men cheered while the drum roll built up.
"—once again trying to unseat the reigning victor for three years consecutive, Sergeant Benton Fraser!"
Everyone yelled and hooted. Fraser grinned and waved his hand dismissively. He rested it on the top of his guitar. Meg laughed and shook her head. Caryn grinned up at her.
"He's really quite good at it," she said.
"And you know what one sounds like?"
"Oh yes," she answered, chin up. "Do you?"
"I think that I'm going to find out."
"Hey, ma'am? Lady?" A boy was waving an empty punch cup in front of Meg. She took it and filled it, gave it back to him, and he mumbled a thanks and disappeared again, off into the crowd.
"So!" continued Liven, in his booming voice. "On with the party!"
Everyone applauded, Liven turned back to the band, and the noise of a roomful of conversations rose again. The band struck up some dinner music with a reed flute in the lead, and the tables formed into lines for the buffet. Caryn pushed herself up and went around Meg.
"I'm going to go get a plate. When I get back, I'll do that, and you get yourself something to eat." With that, she left the kitchen, pushing her way into the quickly-growing line. Meg poured in more soda and scooped in another box of ice cream, and then filled a few rows of cups with punch. She looked across the room—a narrow divide had cleared itself in the crowd, and her eyes travelled over to Fraser. He was strumming, tapping his foot in time to the music, and he glanced her way. Their gazes caught for a moment, and he smiled, nodded to her. She smiled back and gave a small wave.
Caryn arrived just in time to catch the exchange, and sidled past her with a teasing smile. The crowd closed again, and Meg whirled around, fixing her friend in a reprimanding glare as she sat down with the plate.
"You want some glazed chicken?" Caryn offered up a small leg.
"Mmm, thanks." Meg decided that there were enough cups filled, and took the piece of chicken. Caryn licked her fingers.
"Line's too long to go out now; wait until it gets a bit shorter."
Anna Winituk happened by, looked through the opening in front of the counter. "Everything going well?"
"Yep," answered Meg, between mouthfuls of very tasty honey-glazed chicken.
"Good, good. There are another dozen bottles of ginger-ale outside in the back, if you need them."
"I'll remember that, thanks. You should take a break; you've been working hard on this all for a long time, now."
"I will," the woman answered, smiling. "I think I'll have a sip now." She took a cup, nodded her thanks to Meg, and disappeared back off into the crowd.
"She's a nice lady," Meg observed.
"See, I told you," Caryn said, forking a clump of macaroni salad.
Meg nodded, and finished the leg. She dropped the bone in the trash beside the door of the kitchen and washed her hands. She found another fork and went about helping Caryn with the rest of the plate.
A young woman was singing a traditional Dene song, accompanying herself with a guitar. It was really quite pleasant, though Meg did not understand most of the language. The lilt of the tune was relaxing. The musicians had taken their mid-dinner break and were getting their own meals and spreading out around the room to eat with family and friends. Cooks and various volunteers were moving behind Meg and Caryn, in and out of the kitchen, sorting trays and unwrapping more food.
"Good evening ladies," Fraser said, appearing in the serving window in front of them.
"Good evening, sir," Caryn answered with a grin. "You wouldn't happen to be willing to part with one of those legs, would you?"
"What?" Meg, who had been chagrined at finding herself staring at his hands, suddenly looked over at Caryn, taken aback.
"The chicken leg. Padina's glazed chicken legs are to die for," Caryn said, smiling.
"Are you adding that to your list of cravings?" Fraser asked with a grin.
"For now, yes."
"Well, then, certainly," he said, and deftly moved one from his plate to theirs.
"Thanks," she said, and took a bite.
"Having a good time?" Meg asked him. He nodded and looked around.
"Mm-hmm," she nodded. She was conscious of the fact that she was staring at him, and that Caryn was staring at her. "Ah...do you want some punch?"
"Sure," he looked down at the neat rows. "Would you recommend one of these, or a fresh one?"
"Oh, a fresh one, definitely." She took out a clean cup and prepared to ladle. "With or without a disproportionately large lump of ice cream?"
"Hmm..." he looked thoughtful. "With...out. Well, how about one with, and one without?"
"Something like that. Or I'm just desperately thirsty."
"Oh, sorry—" and she quickly ladled him an lump-free one. He took it with a nod of thanks, finished it in about two seconds, and licked his lips. The gesture distracted her, but she took his now-empty cup, filled it again, this time leaving a bit of ice-cream, and handed it back, without missing a beat. Their fingers brushed lightly; there was no avoiding it.
"Thank you kindly."
He nodded to Caryn, who nodded back amidst her half-eaten chicken leg, and then he went off in the direction towards where Dave and Maggie were sitting with two other families. Meg poured herself a cup and sat back to sip it as she watched him walk away.
The third-grade production of Franklin and the Beaufort Sea ended tragically, as it always did, with everyone dead on the floor. The crowd clapped and school honours were awarded to a number of students, in every subject from basket-weaving to a spelling bee. Paul won a prize for his paper-maché sculpture of a giraffe. The baby in the walker pushed its way into the middle of the bee and cooed loudly at all the excitement until someone appeared to carry it back to a playpen set up in the corner, where it fell asleep ten minutes later, and stayed that way throughout the rest of the evening, despite the din.
Caryn noised around the room that Meg had done a bit of singing in college, and Harold Onsten dragged her up to the front and wheedled a song out of her. She agreed to sing something, as long as it was not a solo. Of course, Harold Onsten being who he was, he then convinced Fraser to accompany her—with the full participation of the crowd, it was really quite intimidating—and they conferred together quietly and chose a lively Irish tune. This would likely prompt everyone to join in with them, once they all recognized it, and they would not have to feel so self-conscious.
With Fraser playing mainly rhythm guitar, and the rest of the band members embellishing the simple tune, they began singing. They fell into a comfortable harmony a few lines into the song, and at the chorus, sure enough, the rest of the room joined in. Meg got a little more confident with more voices around her, and she let herself have a little fun. Well, more than a little fun. She had herself a great time, and hearing his tenor beside her made her enjoy it even more.
The energy in the room was up, everyone had finished their after-dinner relaxation, and half of the room poured out to dance. It was wonderful; she was flushed and excited and younger than she had felt for a long time. No one except for Caryn and Fraser knew who she was outside of this place, and neither of them held her to it. People congratulated her, struck up conversations with her, one or two men asked her to dance, and families invited her to their homes for dinner.
The evening had been going so well.