The permafrost crunched beneath Pastor Léon Chevalier’s gum boots as he set to getting the mule hitched up to the wagon. A dying old-timer whom Léon prayed for on the man’s deathbed offered up his old mule Bess, as payment for his service. Old Jessie Tavish, an old timer, plus an outright miserable bugger to many, but a religious man just the same. As the dying man lay in a whore’s bed (at the Huron Hotel), Jessie held on tightly to the pastor’s hand. Afraid the devil would come for him.
“I sure as heck ain’t no gentleman like yourself,” Jessie confided to Léon in the final hours. The man’s dying face, his body all swollen from years of his love of hooch. His voice was raspy from the Boston quality brand cigars he had loved so much. “Not even to ma own son, God bless the little bastard.” He furiously made a sign of the cross on his chest then coughed out a hock of phlegm to a handkerchief. “I jus hope one day he kin forgive me.”
Being much younger than the old-timer, Léon stood listening to the man’s confessions. He nodded sympathetically to the man’s words as if he understood the dying man’s inner demons. In reality, though, he hadn’t been a pastor for long before he got the invite to travel north. He boarded a train from Quebec City and disembarked in Vancouver. On his way north, he met his future wife; together they headed towards the Klondike. On their honeymoon together, they left their old life behind, to start new. His wife planned to become a teacher, while he planned on saving as many poor souls as he could. Thus a week of settling in, Jessie happened to be his first client.
“I-I kilt a man once,” Jessie spoke the fact rather dryly like he had squished a bug between his fingers with idle disregard. “He was done the minute he tried to take from me.”
“So the Mounties out here, they aware of this thing you did?” Léon was still not used to speaking in English, but at least his wife was patient about it.
“Naw…” Jessie spat with disgust, “’Twas years ago when I was just a green foot. Suppose now if no one found his carcass to give him a Christian burial he’d long picked clean to the bone by now.”
“I see…” Léon took his spectacles off and rubbed his temple. “You know that murder is a sin, yes?”
“Now you see why I ask for forgiveness? I’ve done bad things, horrible things just for the sake of greed. I did some good too, thou I lived a hard life, but now I ask for forgiveness. I tried to do right, even tried to make it back to Boston before I died to see my family. Now I’m looking at Heaven’s gate and I can’t git in with all that’s due coming to me for it.”
“So you call me all this way to seek your forgiveness to the Lord, yes?”
“I do, and rightly so.” Jessie was delirious at the prospects of his soul saved from damnation. “I did my part in this rotten old world. I did my best, though my best wasn’t exactly what you’d consider right enough, I survived. I lived long enough to see the errors of my ways. Now what I seek is final, I done seek…”
“How you would say, redemption?” Léon had to ask, “For your sins there, is it not so?”
“…is a stake of my own in heaven.”
Léon wanted to roll his eyes Heavenwards, but he managed to keep a straight face and gripped on his Bible—so tightly held it that it curled and would not lay flat again. He glanced up across the room as a well-endowed, plump mistress sat in a rocker in the corner of the room. Wedged between her thick ruby-colored lips pursed a thick cigar, followed by a look of sheer boredom. She kept rocking patiently, waiting for her paid client to do his business then go. She had been the one that sought Léon to save the old-timer’s soul.
“Did you get a doctor for him?” Léon had asked her when she had sent a wraith of an Indian boy to fetch him.
“Yeah right I went and did,” she leaned on the closed door to the room. “Been here and done left with his share. Old Horse here ain’t worth saving. He’s down to the wick with no candle left to burn. So I figured I’d give him a little going away present for old time’s sake—you know? I even got me a shiny watch for it too.” She rummaged through the folds of her blouse. She then dangled the pocket watch from between her ample bosoms like a fishing lure for Léon to admire. “The man can’t keep himself fresh, but can sure keep his watch all purty an all shiny like.” She dangled it in front of his face.
Léon pushed his spectacles up and found his mouth felt dry. “I see you got a nice timepiece there, yes?”
“It’ll fetch me a few coin,” she stuffed it back between her breasts: chain and all.
Léon heard a persistent coughing from behind the door. He heard the miner moaning for them to hurry the Hell up.
“Well come on in then,” the whore opened the door wide and waved the pastor to enter. “He’s been calling specific like for you.”
So Léon did his part to help the old-timer into the next world. He even took two copper coins from his pocket and placed them on the dead man’s eyes. He then brought the blanket to cover the old miner’s head and did the last rites. Léon then stole a look to the whore that had before his arrival serviced his somewhat penitent client, and he took a stern tone.
“You just remember there is a special Hell for those that steal from the dead, Miss…” He balked, not knowing the whore’s Christian name. “You’re paid to get me here as for giving the man his last rites, so don’t even think of stealing from the dead. Yes, Mademoiselle?”
The woman lifted her head back, giving him a smoky cackle. “Oh don’t you worry any about saving me preacher man; if you stay out here long enough, you’d know already there is no place worse than this frozen Hell.”
The urchin boy that had fetched Léon from the cabin stood petting the ratty old mule just outside the hotel. The pastor looked at the little native child wondering if he were the miner’s bastard son mentioned. The boy turned to Léon’s presence; his dirty round face betrayed nothing. The poor boy had seen his share of hardships. Léon wondered if bringing his new wife was a good idea or not. The pastor smiled at the kid as he dug into his jacket pockets. Specifically for the small bag of gold, he received from the dying miner. He extracted a tiny nugget. Barely a scrap of gold, but as it slipped from his hand, the urchin snatched it from the air. Léon watched the boy run down the alley like a jackrabbit, disappearing around the corner. Léon thought of a quote from Joshua 1:6-15. “Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause the people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them.”
The pastor looked over the old mule. He couldn’t decide on taking it as part of his payment or not. But the whore had said the poor beast would’ve been on the butcher’s block by high noon. That alone would’ve been a waste of a good work animal. Originally Léon had no method of transport to head back home. A mule fit for work might come in handy before winter.
Hours later, Léon returned home with his mule, a small weathered little wagon. In the wagon held overpriced supplies. All provided by the slivers of gold from the old miner in Heaven. As Léon entered the cabin, he saw his wife preparing a meal. Her long tan, brown hair held up in a bun. Her only dress covered by a tattered cooking apron. Joliette had spent her childhood years growing up on the prairies, so the hardship of the north had become another test, to do with what they had.
“So, how did it go?” Joliette asked as she kept looking at their meal.
“Pretty good there,” Léon kissed her on the cheek.
“Saved a soul from eternal damnation?” She smiled as she whipped her hands on her apron. She had been preparing a meal for them with the rations they had had.
“You shot a rabbit?”
“A gift from a native woman I met when foraging for berries. We couldn’t talk, but she had a good heart.”
“I did my best,” Léon made a thin smile. “Now it’s for the Lord to decide if the old-timer gets into Heaven or not.”
“Amen to that,” she said under her breath. “Have you visited the Bishop yet?”
“I originally planned to see him, but I had to go save a soul in his place. I heard he took a trip by train to Dawson Creek.” Léon looked over their meal. The skinned rabbit stared blankly back at him on the table. “I’ll take the mule with me back to Bennett tomorrow. It’ll be faster that way in case he still hasn’t returned, yes?”
“A mule you say?” She turned away to hear him right.
“We got a mule as payment,” he then gestured to the big sack he brought in. “What’s more some gold for some supplies we desperately needed.”
“But why in tarnation would we need a mule for?” She crossed her arms.
“This far from others we need it. With the mule, I got a harness, a wagon. Now we can carry supplies back and forth with. But, no food for it though.” He gave a modest shrug. “But we can manage.”
“It’s just another one to take care of, another mouth to feed. Winter’s coming soon, so our rations as limited as they are…”
“One moment-” he held her shoulders. Her young face wrinkled in worry.
“Now-now beloved,” he touched her face, “worrying was never in your feature, but believe me that God provides.”
She scoffed his comment but still brought her hand over his. “Can we afford the mule?”
“Of course we can. I just need to get a hold of the Bishop before snowfall. After that, we should be just fine.”
She perked an eyebrow, “such as going to the Bishop to thank him for his kindness? Without him, we’d be freezing in the tent.”
“Yes, my precious little prairie flower,” He smiled down at her, “I promise.”
“God right you will Pastor Chevalier.” She bent in to kiss him on the cheek.
He laughed as he turned his face to kiss her full on the mouth, “I swear to God himself, I will.” He smiled as her eyes lit up like they did the day they met.
Léon got up early to do some of the routine chores as his wife slept. Before he slipped outside, he slid another piece of lumber in the small iron stove that kept the little cabin livable. Léon unlatched the door to leave the one room log cabin to welcome a new day. His eyes felt the brisk and cold air as he noted everything outside wore a layer of frost. After an hour of chopping wood, he’d pile it up against the side of the house for later. His breath hung in the air like steam. Any sweat on his brow instantly cooled. His throat grew parched and dry; it became so hard for him to swallow. His eyelashes threatened to stick together whenever he blinked. By midmorning, his wife brought out a kettle of hot tea for him and a porcelain cup that had belonged to her family since forever.
“You look cold,” she first poured a cup for him then held it out for him to take. “Here, have some hot tea.”
“I don’t feel it so much anymore,” as he set down the ax he started to shiver. “I’ll take some of this wood with me on the trip to town. It was getting a bit low.”
“So generous of you to stock the iron stove first. It gets so damn cold up here.” Joliette pulled her coat tight. “I found the cold on the prairies a bit harsh, but out here it goes right through you.”
“You’re right about that my beloved.” Léon blew on his cup of tea before drinking. It soothed his parched throat. “Today I’ll go see if my friend, the Bishop, is back from his trip.”
“So what are you waiting for?” She took the emptied cup from him to set it down on the block of wood he’d been chopping on.
“I thought that I’d wait for you to wake up before setting off.” He beamed at her, “I can’t leave until I see my little prairie flower.”
“Oh stop it you,” she bent down to kiss him on his cold cheek. “I’ll finish chopping the wood. You go on. When you return, there should be plenty wood for at least five winters.”
Léon pointed to the mule “she’ll be much faster for me, then by trekking by foot there.”
“Okay then, I ain’t going anywhere.”
He eyed the Winchester set up against the cabin wall. “I’ll leave that to you, you know, just in case you need to use it.”
“Fine and right you will,” she pulled Léon closer and held on to him. “Don’t worry about me I know how to use it. Why I used to go shooting with my older brothers,” she hid her face in his fleece jacket breathing in his scent. She so loved the way he smelled. “You kept the Winchester loaded, plus I saw where the bullets are.” She jiggled her tattered apron; in one of the pockets, it rattled ammo.
“Just remember though, if the Mountie catches wind of us having it-”
“I know he’ll take it away, even if we’re proper folk.”
“Plus that belonged to my Father before he passed on, you see? So I’d use it properly to protect us, and see to it that it just doesn’t get into the wrong hands…”
“Okay,” Joliette reached up to hold his cold face between her warm hands. She bent up to kiss him properly.
“I’m in the right mind to get us a dog too,” he held her tight to his chest as he rubbed her back. “No woman of mine should use a rifle. It ain’t ladylike, yes?”
“First the mule, then you talk about getting us a dog? Now why in tarnation would we need a dog for?”
“Well for one thing to protect you when I ain’t here, yes? Maybe to ward off all them man-eating wildlife I keep hearing about lurking in these parts.”
“I’d worry over some fella on hooch, wandering about looking for a mess of trouble. That alone seems most likely. Besides, most men are too far out into gold mining to cause any havoc. I must say though on our way here we did see our share of rattlers on the boat ride here. But at least with a snake, you can suck the poison out, but some people out there in the world—they’re just rotten to the core.”
“When I first left New France I didn’t expect to bring my beloved along.”
“Still you convinced me to follow.” She bent close to rub her nose against his. “I don’t regret a thing, so long as we’re together.”
“Ah but I know better than cross you. Remember that fella trying to be fresh with you on the boat ride here, yes?”
“A disrespectful deviant if you ask me.”
“But I must admit you impressed me my little prairie flower. I’ve ever seen a woman brawl like a man before.”
“Come to think of it; I think I heard that fellas’ nose break when his face struck the deck.”
Léon whistled, “Mon Dieu! I think I’ve made a mistake. I didn’t marry a woman. I must’ve mistakenly married me a man.”
Joliette burst out a laugh and then she punched him in the shoulder. “I’ll have you know I used to roughhouse my brothers before I became a woman. It was papa that sent me off to the boarding school to learn how to become a proper lady.”
“You think he got his money’s worth?”
“I managed to attract you didn’t I?”
“That you did.”
The ride on rugged trail felt hard on the rump. The mule was old, but it knew well enough were to get to after a few hard snaps on the reigns. It bayed indignity, but unlike a horse, it didn’t trot but plodded onwards until they had managed to pass through the dense forest until they came to a clearing. For miles, the trees were all dug up near the rocky creeks and rushing streams. Everywhere Léon looked stood a pitched tent, or some makeshift woodshed propped up around a group of men building boats. All of them raring to head higher north to where better prospects of gold lay. As Léon rode past, he spotted the local Tlingit tribe. They were the true inheritors of this part of the world. They all sat in their decorated blankets with designs of their Gods and protectors on them. Watching on in silence as the Stampeders labored around them.
The tribe sat stoic on the shoreline as the forest around them fell. The elders propped against the bigger rocks, while their grandchildren wildly ran around them squealing in play. The fire pit they had slowly died away. Léon, being a servant of God, and a native himself, offered some of the wood he had taken along to present to the Bishop. As he extracted some wood from one of the overloaded saddled bags, he whistled for one of the natives to approach.
What were a few strips of wood to me? He nodded back to the old squaw that graciously accepted his offering. “That should keep you warm a while, yes?”
The tan-skinned squaw gave him a toothful smile. The deep lines of her face proved how harsh the cold, the wind and the years of direct sunlight had done to her complexion. Living a life of struggle, but her clothes had ornate decorations. She wore bright, colorful beads, carved whalebone, and stitchery of deer fur over patches of bear hide. Her hands nested comfortably in soft leather mittens. Her feet cozy in the finest of beaver moccasins Léon had ever seen. Her spotted gray hair braided back, reached far below her pear-shaped waist. She held a sense of nobility about her, an air of importance.
“You are French?” She spoke suddenly in his native tongue.
“Yes, is it that noticeable?” He responded in kind.
“My husband was a Frenchmen. He taught me how to speak your language. I find it easier to understand than English. English, my children, learned to help the prospectors, but I prefer to talk to them in my people’s tongue. So they will not forget where they had come from.”
The old squaw tilted her head. “You seem a little dark to be just French. Are you of another tribe?”
“That’s correct Mademoiselle. I grew up in Quebec City.” Léon winked his eye as he tapped his nose. “My father had been a fur trader who married a Chippewa woman. Unfortunately, they’re both with the Lord now. But before that I become a pastor, to help spread the word of God to my people. Maybe even save their souls from sin.”
“So you’re between worlds,” she said to him. “You see through their eyes,” she pointed to the men at the shoreline building boats, “and then through ours.”
“Sometimes,” Léon nodded, “only I grew up mostly in a French community. But when someone figures it out—I cannot hide who I am.”
“Why would you hide it?”
“When I was learning to become a pastor the other students tormented me. But an instructor saw me as an equal and treated me kindly. I won’t forget his kindness, his generosity. Even out here in the Klondike, he has helped me adjust here as much as any proper man could.”
“Sounds like you admire him.”
“Like a brethren. Now if you excuse me, I was on my way to see him.”
“But of course, I shall leave you to your trip.” She turned to walk away but stopped to look back. “You take care of yourself out here, don’t lose your way.”
“Perhaps I’ll see you at one of my sermons, yes?” Léon adjusted his weathered topper hat, gave her a parting nod, he then cracked the reigns to get a move on. He had an old friend to meet.