Fort Liard

Chapter 9

"I think he's ready to go into the first grade, but they don't allow that sort of thing without adequate testing," Caryn said, smoothing peanut butter across the slices. She had laid them out in three rows and was efficiently making sandwiches in assembly-line style. "Frankly, though, it's obvious to me that he's ready. He's already reading second-grade level books, Ruthie said." Caryn scooped out a gob of raspberry jelly and spread the other halves.

"Who's Ruthie?" Meg grunted, tugging snow boots onto Maggie, and trying to keep the little girl from rolling away from her all the while. "Hold still, honey."

"Town librarian," Caryn answered. She licked the jelly off her finger, then wiped it on a napkin and started cutting the sandwiches in half. "Paul? Don't forget to bring the two books you borrowed last time!"

"I won't, Mom," Paul piped up from his bedroom.

"He always keeps them so neat," Caryn said proudly, more to herself than anyone else. "He keeps them on his night stand."

"He likes reading?"

"Loves it." She wrapped the finished sandwiches up and put them, with the rest of the lunch, into the bag. There was enough for Meg and the two children, plus snacks. Meg finished getting Maggie's boots laced and her mittens on snugly. The little girl promptly took off running, in full suit, and disappeared into the bedroom she and Paul shared. After a minute, she suddenly gave a shout.

"Mommy!"

"What, Maggie?"

Maggie walked out the bedroom with an odd wiggle and made a face. Caryn sighed and rolled her eyes.

"I hafta go pee, Mommy."

"Meg, can you—?"

Meg smiled, Caryn shook her head, and a moment later, Meg had whisked the girl into the bathroom to unzip and unbutton and unlace everything she'd just finished. A few minutes later, after tugging everything back on again, Caryn and Paul met them at the door with books and the lunch bag.

"You'll be okay? You know how to get there?"

"Yes, I've gone to town a number of times, now—I'll be fine." Meg pulled on her jacket, gloves, hat, scarf...was she missing anything? Caryn handed her the lunch bag and the thermos.

"You know how to get to the school?"

"Caryn, there are less than two dozen buildings in the centre of town. I think I can pick it out: the one with the brightly-coloured slides."

"You'll do fine," she grinned, stepping back from the door.

"Do I have any books, Mommy?" Maggie asked.

"Not this time, honey. But you can take out two if Meg decides to take you to the library. Only two!"

"When is the library open?"

"It's attached to the school; it'll be open. Do you know which room to go to?"

"I'll ask at the desk."

"Remember to get home before dark. It'll be dark by three. It's harder to see—"

"Yes, Mom," Meg said with a smile, ushering the two children out the door. Caryn pushed the door closed behind them and watched them through the nearby window. Meg followed the excited children over to the sled behind the snowmobile, and buckled them in securely. She tucked the books, thermos, and lunch bag in the compartment in the front of the sled. Pulling her helmet on, she sat down and revved the engine, making sure it was warmed up. Caryn waved from the window, and the kids waved back, making muffled noises, all bundled up in scarves and pull-over winter head wraps. Meg gave a wave, and then they were off, flying down the hill to the valley below.

Meg looked behind her at the sled a few times during the twenty-minute trip, but they were both fine, bumping over the snow drifts and looking all around them. When they arrived in town without a problem, Meg heaved a sigh of relief, thankful that her memory hadn't failed her, and slowed down, looking for the schoolyard halfway across the centre. The slides were covered in snow, but she saw a line of blue plastic under the drifts, and headed in that direction. A few people waved to her, here and there, and she waved back.

There was another mother, her snowmobile parked near the entrance, putting her two children into their sled. Caryn had said there were six new children being brought to the evaluations this morning. As far as Meg knew, Paul was the only one being tested for placement above his age-level. He was an intelligent and inquisitive little boy; she knew he could read well, and he was starting his multiplication tables. He would do fine.

He looked nervous when they got inside, though, clutching the two library books to his chest. Meg tugged off their scarves and hats, and ushered them down the short hall. Paul resisted her slightly, and she bent down to encourage him.

"You'll do really well, Paul, don't worry."

"I wish Mommy was here."

"I know. She wanted to be here. She's thinking about you right now."

Meg led them up to the desk that looked like it was in the main office of the school.

"Hello," she said. The woman behind the desk looked up and smiled at her.

"Can I help you?"

"Yes, I'm looking for the placement testing room."

"Oh—let me get your information first." She got up and rifled through a filing cabinet behind her. Smiling, she brought the papers back and sat down. "Name?"

"Cooper, Paul."

"No—your name."

"Meg Thatcher; I'm a friend of the family. Caryn—his mother—is due in four days and she didn't want to travel."

"Meg...Thatcher," the woman repeated slowly, writing it down. After a moment, she looked up. "As in 'Margaret Thatcher'?" she asked.

"Yes," Meg answered, not wanting to get into this discussion for the umpteenth time in her life. Unfortunately, the Former Prime Minister had not been a household name when she was born. It seemed that people took endless fun in pointing out the obvious.

"Wow, are you related to—"

"No. I'm not. What other information do you need?"

The woman looked somewhat taken aback at the stiffness of her response. Meg tried a smile to placate her. The woman returned a tight smile of her own and tipped her head.

"Paul Cooper?"

"Yes."

"Are you his guardian?"

"No, I told you, I'm a friend of his mother's. She's expecting—"

"Oh yes. Age?"

"Five."

"Home address is the same?"

"Yes."

"Has he had all the required immunizations?"

Meg produced all the papers that Caryn had given her, and the woman inspected them. After making a few more notations, she signed the paper and gave it to Meg.

"Third room down on the left. Just knock."

"Thanks." Meg smiled, nodded, and started to turn, but then paused for a moment and looked back at the woman. "Just one question."

"Yes?"

"How many children attend this school?"

"About one hundred, up to the eighth grade. If they want schooling past that, they have to board down at Fort Nelson," she answered.

Meg nodded, and then guided the children down the hallway with her. Maggie tugged on her coat sleeve.

"'M hungry," she said.

"Let's just get Paul all set, and then we can see about getting a snack, okay?" Meg asked. Maggie nodded. They found the third door, and Meg nodded to Paul for him to knock. Taking a deep breath, he stepped forward and tapped tentatively on the door. There was no reply.

"Knock harder, Paul, it's okay."

He rapped again, and this time a woman's voice called out, "Come in!"

Paul pushed the door open, still holding his two books under his other arm, and walked in slowly, looking around. Meg nudged him forward, Maggie tagging behind them.

"Paul! Meg, it's good to see you! And little Maggie!" It was Anna Winituk, the head organizer for the social the previous week. She was cleaning up around the desks in the back of the room, and she set down her things to come over to them. "How are you doing, Mister Cooper?" she asked, looking down at the boy with a warm smile.

"Good, thank you, Missus Winituk."

"And you, Miss Cooper?"

"Good!" Maggie piped up.

"Glad to hear it! Come in, come in. You're looking well, too, Meg."

"Nothing to complain about," Meg replied, feeling suddenly odd as she realized the position she was in. Bringing two young children to school to talk to the teacher—she rather liked the responsibility.

"How's Caryn?"

"Oh good, though anxious, of course, to be over with it."

"God bless her, poor thing. I feel for her, what with six of my own. Do you have any?"

"No," Meg said, with a small smile. Instead of the awkward silence that she expected, Anna Winituk smiled widely and took her by the shoulder, gathering them all into the room with a gentle movement.

"Every one of us has some small things to be thankful for, no matter what they are."

"That's true enough," Meg replied, relieved.

"Now, Paul, you're here to try for entrance into the first grade?"

"Yes ma'am."

"Good then, let's get started. Can I take your coat?"

He gave the books to Meg to hold for a moment, and he shrugged out of his jacket. He gave it to Mrs. Winituk and took the books back. Meg admired his independence; his parents would be proud.

"Do you want to hold on to the books for now, or let me bring them back to the library."

"Hold on to 'em."

"We'll only take about an hour," Mrs. Winituk said.

"Noon, then?" Meg looked around to find Maggie, who had wandered over to the side of the room and was playing with a drawing board.

"Thereabouts," the woman replied. "I'll bring him out when we've finished, unless you'd like to stay with him."

"No, I think it'll be easier without the two of us hanging around."

"Well, you can stay in the teacher's lounge if you like; there's no one there until lunch. It's down the end of the hall, two rooms from the office. On the right."

"Thanks. You'll be okay, Paul?"

He nodded.

"Do your best, then, and we'll see you in a bit. C'mon, Maggie."

Maggie was enjoying her drawing board too much, and she shook her head stubbornly.

"She can take it with her," Mrs. Winituk laughed. "That's fine."

Meg smiled. "Thanks. C'mon honey." They gathered up the crayons and the drawing-board, and after both of them waved to Paul, they closed the door and headed down the hall. Meg carried the board in one hand and a load of hats, scarves, and mittens in the other.

"Are we gonna eat?"

"Snacks—yes, I'll go out and get the lunch bag. Let's put these things down, first."

"'Kay."

They walked past the lady at the front desk again, who nodded politely to them. Meg found the door to the lounge and went inside. They put their things down, and then taking Maggie's hand, Meg walked back down the corridor. She left Maggie in the foyer, and after grabbing the lunch from outside, they went back to the lounge for a snack of potato chips and apple juice. Maggie made herself busy with the colouring, and Meg settled back to read some more of Yukon Wild. The women were canoeing down the Yukon, and had stopped (as they did numerous times), at a riverside village to party the night away with various colourful locals. She was right in the middle of the drunken dancing when Maggie came over to look up at her with wide eyes.

"Meggie?"

"Mm?" Meg looked up from the pages.

"I hafta go to the baffroom."

Meg swung her legs down from their perch on the arm of the next chair and set the book aside. "All right, let's go find the ladies' room."

They found the woman at the front desk.

"Bathroom?"

"Right over there, second door down." She jerked her thumb at the third hallway in the building, to their left, and went back to her typing. They found the door, but before they went in, Meg thought she heard a familiar voice further down the corridor, floating back in a sing-song rhythm. When they left the bathroom, Meg paused, listening intently. She found herself heading down the corridor towards the open door at the far end.

"...now try

try hard

imagine now with all the

might you have

imagine that a certain horse

is you

a slim black horse

with muscles strong and

hard

a white maned horse

long silky tail to match..."

She took Maggie's hand, and they walked to the end of the hall. Swallowing, Meg peeked her head around the doorframe and found herself suddenly wondering how much else she had missed before, when she had the chance to see it. Fraser was seated cross-legged in the far corner with his back to the door. He was wearing his duty uniform, and the brown jacket was hung on the far wall alongside all of the other small ones. The sight of him sent a small twist into her stomach. Every child in the room was clustered around him, each with their eyes closed in concentration. His steady voice was guiding them through a poem.

"...imagine now

and find a special name

a horse's name that will

be yours alone

a magic name that's faster

than a shooting star

and brighter than the

full white moon at night..."

It was a story that she knew—a story that almost every child in the country knew—but she had never heard this particular poem before. She found herself caught up in it. She did not notice until Maggie slipped her little hand out from her fingers that the girl had started across the classroom. There was a young woman in the near corner, sitting behind the teacher's desk. She waved to Meg, and Meg smiled quickly back. It's okay, the teacher mouthed, clearly bemused. Meg felt herself redden, and she nodded a quick thank-you.

She dared not disturb the children's concentration, so she leaned against the doorframe and watched as Maggie calmly made her way between the various children to sit directly beside Fraser. He looked down at her and smiled, and she smiled back up at him and put her hand on his knee. He turned slightly to look behind him, probably expecting Dave, but when he saw Meg, he smiled sideways through the words. His blue eyes held hers for a moment, and then he barely paused before returning to the cadence of the poem and the children before him.

"...imagine now

beside your head

a flash of golden

lightening and a

smell of smoke

one pounding crash

of thunder

and your mind goes

blank."

Watching him, she glanced away with an embarrassed smile on her face. She quickly pulled it down and sighed to herself. How do you do this to me, Ben? Just watching the children's faces, their rapt attention evident, she knew she was not the only one. He painted a picture of the stormy night and whipping grasses and wailing winds with his voice, and she let the words carry her with them. The story of the pony in the lightening came to a crashing climax—and then there was his voice at its quiet lull again, this time with the children's eyes open as he continued to the end.

"...imagine now

your spirit rises to

that horse the young

man mounts

behind the line of fiery

gold a burst of light

a rumble like some

marching drums

and then across the

prairie sky you soar

his helmet glistening

your eyes alight

and all these hundred

years and more

whenever young folks join

the mounties march

your spirit rises on its

cloud legs

paws the air

the ghost horse of the

mounties and the young

man's soul

salute."

When he finished the last stanza, he paused, letting the quiet hold in the air for a moment, and then spoke again, this time in a normal tone.

"When the North-West Mounted Police were first formed and first camped at Dufferin, Manitoba in June of 1874, there was a storm in which lightening is reported to have not stopped from ten in the evening to six in the morning. Two hundred and fifty horses did stampede, and all were found but one. It's a true story. Does anyone have any questions?"

"What happened to the last horse?" a boy asked.

"He flew into the clouds with the man," he answered, but they pressed him for more, until he finally gave up and told them all to tell him what happened to the pony. They were all quiet, until little Maggie spoke up.

"He went to heaven to eat carrots," she stated matter-of-factly.

"Really?" Fraser asked.

"I know! I know, Sergeant Ben!" Another little boy on the side was wiggling with excitement, his hand waving back and forth.

"Where'd he go, Jeremy?"

"I think he went to the bathroom!"

All the second-graders laughed uproariously, and this immediately launched them into a contest between who could making the best farting noises into their palms. Meg found herself laughing when Fraser was beset with children who wanted to know how loud he could make his. After a few protests, he finally gave in and blew into his palms. It was loud, long, and sounded completely disgusting. The children loved it and begged him to do it again, but he shook his head and stood up.

"I need to be going, and thank you all for having me."

"Thank you for coming, Sergeant." The young teacher, also, was laughing.

"Anytime."

"Everyone back to your seats!" she called out. They all scurried to their desks and sat down as she came over to stand in front of the class. "Can we all say thank you to Sergeant Ben?"

"Thank...you!" they all chorused in unison.

"When are you coming back, Sergeant Ben?" one girl asked.

"As soon as I can, Milla," he answered. He gathered up his brown jacket with one hand, taking Maggie's hand with the other.

"Goo'bye," Maggie said, waving with her free hand.

"Good-bye," the class answered.

They met Meg out in the hallway, where half an awkward second passed before the three of them started down the corridor.

"Hello," she said.

"Good morning."

"Do you do this often?"

"Usually once a week. It depends on the class, and the topic I'm asked to cover."

"What kinds of things do you talk about?"

"Substance abuse, history, law enforcement, firearm safety precautions, currency watermarks, DNA recombination, international relations, basket weaving, skiing, any number of topics."

"I see. How is it that you're qualified to cover...DNA recombination?"

He looked sheepish. "Well, I'm not, really, but I was substituting for Jerry Lenough, and the biology students were arguing over the ribosomal—"

"—and you, of course, settled the argument for them."

"We looked it up in the textbook and figured out how the recombination process worked. Several of them have a great future in the field, I believe."

"So you're a natural teacher, then," Meg sighed. It was frustrating to feel so inadequate next to him so often. "Is there anything you're not perfectly good at?"

"Yes," he answered. She half-expected him to launch into some arcane topic on which he did not know everything about an even more arcane detail, but he remained silent. She looked across at him. He smiled, made a small gesture towards her, and stopped walking.

"What?" She frowned at him, stopping herself. Maggie stood between them, looking back and forth.

"The door to the lounge is right behind you. Perhaps you'd like to have some lunch with me?"

"Yes..." She turned and went through the door to the lounge, telling herself to pay more attention to her surroundings. Maggie came in behind her, tugging on her hand.

"What is it, honey?"

"Baffroom," Maggie said stubbornly. "I hafta go baffroom."

"Oh! Right," Meg said, turning. Fraser was standing in the hall, holding the door open for them. Meg followed Maggie out, glancing both ways while she tried to remember where the bathroom was. Fraser pointed. "Thanks," Meg said. "Be right back."

"No rush," he said, smiling, and disappeared into the lounge.

A few minutes later, they were back in the lounge themselves, with Maggie running ahead of Meg to pull herself onto a chair.

"Are we going to have lunch?" she asked, kneeling on the chair and looking excited.

"Yes, honey, sit down at the table." Meg was relieved to be doing something useful with herself while she got out Maggie's lunch. After making sure the little girl was comfortable, she sat down next to her and folded her arms on the table. Fraser was sitting opposite them and he started to get out his own lunch.

"Would you like some of my sandwich?" He held it out, as if to break off a half for her.

"No, thank you; I brought lunch. I'm just waiting for Paul to finish before I start eating."

"Ah," he sat back. "So that's why you're here."

"Why did you think I was here?" she asked. He looked at his uneaten sandwich with a kind of shrug.

"I didn't know." He tried to look noncommittal.

"You didn't answer the question," she said, propping her chin with one hand and fixing him in a stare. He took a bite of his sandwich and smiled at her. She smiled back. Maggie choked.

They both immediately moved to help her, but she was fine. She coughed, swallowed, and all was well with the world.

"Here, take a sip," Meg held the thermos-lid cup for her, and Maggie took it and drank a little. Ben sat back and watched Meg wipe at the little girl's shirt with a napkin. She took a chip out of Maggie's pile and ate it, smiling teasingly across at him. He started to feel a bit warm, and had to remind himself to take another bite of his sandwich.

"Here you go!" Amanda Winituk pushed open the door and came in behind Paul. "He's done for today!"

"Good job, Paul," Meg said. Paul looked pale, but he smiled.

"Good job," Fraser echoed. Paul's face lit up when he saw him.

"Sergeant Ben!"

"Hey," Fraser smiled. "How has your day been?"

"Oh, tough, but I got through it no sweat," Paul answered proudly, sitting down in the chair between the two adults.

"I knew you would," Fraser said. He finished his sandwich and watched as Meg gave Paul his food.

"Here's your sandwich, do you want half of the orange?"

Paul nodded, his mouth full of peanut-butter-and-jelly. Meg gave him a pile of chips and a juice box, and set about peeling the orange.

"Here, let me do that," Fraser said, holding out his hands. "Get yourself something to eat."

"Thanks." Meg handed the partially-peeled fruit over to him, along with a napkin.

"You're welcome."

"Do you have to be somewhere after this?" Meg asked, getting out the rest of the food.

"I'm giving a talk on—" half a pause, "—ah, contraceptives, to the seventh-graders. This afternoon." He peeled off half of the rind in one piece.

Meg raised one eyebrow. "How did they rope you into that?"

"They didn't 'rope me into it', as you say. I volunteered."

"He does quite a lot around here," Mrs. Winituk said, coming over with her lunch to sit with them. "I've half a mind to give him an honorary teaching certificate."

"Please," said Fraser, embarrassed. "It's really no trouble." He finished with the orange, and deftly halved it, handing the pieces across to Paul and Meg. Maggie did not like oranges.

"Well, he's a godsend. The children love him."

"So I see," said Meg drily.

"So, what do you do for a living?" Mrs. Winituk asked, turning to face Meg.

"Me? Ah...I work for the government."

"Really? Doing what?"

"Law enforcement and administration."

Fraser was licking his fingers and looking amused.

"So you, ah, do secretarial work, then?"

Fraser leaned back in his seat and smiled down at his shirt. Meg's self-esteem and occupational pride won over her half-hearted attempt at hiding any previous connection to the man across the table.

"No. I am an Inspector in the RCMP."

Amanda Winituk's mouth formed a small 'oh.' She looked across at Fraser. "That means...that is, is that a higher rank than yours, Ben?"

Fraser nodded.

"That's impressive, Ms. Thatcher."

"Meg, please," Meg said, and took a bite of her sandwich.

There were a few moments of silence, and then: "I heard that you two—"

They both looked at the teacher, and she smiled at them each in turn, taking note of their expressions.

"So it's true, then," she seemed to smile even wider.

"What's true?" Meg asked, part of her wanting to know what rumours were flying around in this little hamlet, and the other part of her just dreading the humiliation.

"Just that you used to work together. That's true, isn't it?"

"Yes," Fraser said, with a perfunctory nod. "It is."

"Why didn't you tell us that before, when you first brought her here?" Mrs. Winituk asked him.

"I, she didn't—"

"I'm taking this month on leave," Meg broke in. "He didn't bring me here. When I came, I preferred that no one knew I was a Mountie."

"I see," the woman nodded to herself. "Well, I hope you're enjoying Fort Liard. Are you?"

"It's definitely colourful," Meg answered drily.

"Aye, that it is," Mrs. Winituk said, with a wink. Fraser shook his head and drank his tea.


"What are you doing this evening?" he asked, holding the door open for her and the two children.

"Nothing in particular, why?" Her heart did a little leap and she told it to be quiet.

"Well...the Glens want to have us over for dinner sometime before you leave; I told them I'd try to get you to come," he answered. They strapped the children into the sled behind the snowmobile.

"Are you asking me out on a date, Sergeant?" Meg asked, finishing with Paul's straps. She straightened up to stand beside Fraser.

"Yes."

"I was wondering when we'd get around to that. After three days, I was beginning to think the mountain was a figment of my imagination," she said, with some amusement. Fraser had the grace to look slightly contrite—though only slightly.

"I'm not, unfortunately, schooled in the art of courtship," he replied, rather formally.

"Not if you keep talking like that, Ben," Meg answered, crossing her arms despite the bulk of her coat. "You don't have to go to any great lengths to impress me."

"Are you accusing me of being a charlatan?"

"Quite."

He narrowed his eyes at her, pretending to size her up.

"Your answer?"

"Yes. Six o'clock?"

"I'll tell Ivy."

"Don't use any big words."

"Why not?" he laughed.

"Because it takes up time that could be better used for this," she said smugly, and pulled him down to her, gloves tugging at his lapels. He did not argue; he just smiled, and acquiesced to a short kiss.

"Point conceded."

"Ewww!" Paul scrunched his face up in mock disgust, and Meg leaned down and pulled the boy's goggles into place. Fraser laughed. Meg smiled smugly, standing up again. She raised her eyebrows and Fraser stepped aside with a gesture of his arm. She moved past him to sit down on the snowmobile. "Six, then?"

"I'll see you. Drive safely."

"I will. Have a good afternoon, and good luck with the seventh-graders." She smiled wickedly at that, and pulled her helmet down. He nodded, grinned, and waved as they drove off.


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