Who would marrya riverman?
All along the Mackenzie down to Aklavik all the girls knew the wild and laughing Johnny Muskeg. But only Robina made him think of marriage. Then along came Alwin, the Ottawa clerk, with his pink bath towels
USUALLY when the boat landed, the three of them came in together for a drink, but this time there were only Gabe and Little Joe. They sat down at our table with an empty chair between them. Someone moved two glasses with the calculated innocence of a chess player and everyone watched from behind a long swallow.
Gabe wiped the foam off his upper lip like a man just back from a funeral. "Our Johnny Muskeg,” he began, "he loved a woman, you understand. And she loved him too, in a way, and in a way she didn’t.”
Little Joe was trying to grow a heard and lie stroked the fuzz on his chin as if lie expected to catch a couple mice. ' Dames are like that,” he said. 1 been trying to tell you.
Gabriel Mercredi had long grey hair and a curved pipe that smelled like the previous century, and everyone nodded as if they thought he should know about dames. He only picked up his glass and said, "It is not good to love a riverman.”
Gabe was a pilot on the Sickanni Queen. He’d brought the boat and her three barges into Yellowknife Bay that morning after coming up the Mackenzie from Aklavik.
When he put down his glass again he said, "Bobina, she could tell you. Oh, it is hard not to love some rivermen. They are carefree and wild and lull of laughter. But they are fickle too, like the wind on Great Slave Lake, and they come in and they leave again like the tide at Tuktoyaktuk. It is not good to love them.”
"Just tell them what happened,” Little Joe said. "You ain’t telling them nothing.
So Little Joe explained himself.
They were landing at Aklavik on the down-river run and Johnny Muskeg was anxious to get ashore because he had a surprise for his girl. He was out on the forward barge with a heaving line in his hand—till all oí a sudden he dropped it. Continued on page 2b And he started to unbutton his cuffs. Robina Stewart was on the shore all right. But she was standing farther back than usual. And she was hooked onto some government clerk’s right arm as if she was afraid he’d fall into the river.
“The way I got it figured,” Little Joe said, “all you got to do is stay away from women. Completely! Just use your head. Just never start anything, that’s all.”
“The way it began,” Gabe said, “we were pulling into Aklavik—not this last time, but two seasons before. It was something like last time, in a way, only Johnny had never met Robina, and we weren’t pushed for time. It was turning dark and there was no moon, so we couldn’t try the Oniak Channel till dawn. Our boat and three barges were tying up for the night. The boys were happy to have a night ashore. Oh, I went ashore too, but you know, I can only talk and remember. Some of the old women smile when they meet me, and they look away. I was young once, too.”
“Yeah, a long time ago,” Little Joe said. "But we were tying up in Aklavik two seasons before and so what?”
“So,” Gabe went on, “when the forward barge was close to shore our Johnny Muskeg, he made a jump. Like a flying squirrel. He lit on solid ground and ran up the shore with the headline and found a dead man. He made the line fast and waved his arm and the deck hands on the capstan began to take in the slack.
“While Johnny waited he looked around. Everyone meets a boat, you know. The Eskimo boys were watching from the deck of a schooner, and the Indian boys were in a group on the shore, squatting on their haunches. And all the girls were there, standing together, silent and never missing a thing. Very nice, they looked, their mukluks embroidered with colored silk and some of them wearing parka hoods and fur trimming on their dresses. Johnny, he looked mostly at those girls. He was wondering.
"It was then he noticed the girl with the fair hair.
“You know, most of us along the river have a little of the native blood —Slavey or Loucheux or Husky—and it is not often you see one with native blood who is fair.
“She was tall . . . not so tall, really, but she was slim as a fireweed and graceful, and it made her seem tall. And her fair hair was parted in the middle and combed straight back right down to her waist. Her lips were sad and full, and her eyes, like those almonds you have at Christmastime, they were dark—violet, Johnny said later, like the ribbons at the back of her head. The rest of us noticed her too.
"For a gangplank the deck hands shoved out a long two-by-six, narrow and springy, but Johnny Muskeg, in moccasins and a red-plaid shirt and with a knife on the back of his belt, he came strutting up like a peacock bird. I was watching from the pilothouse. The girls on the bank, they were watching too, and wondering.
"You know, the girls in the trading posts, they are shy and they are not so shy. It is hard to say. They are not like the women in Vancouver or Edmonton. They do not wonder if you have a good job or a new car or if you work hard. Life is too short. There is only one night and they wonder what you can do with one night only. It is difficult to say, sometimes.”
"Don’t the problem work both ways?” said Little Joe. But the old river pilot took a long drag on his pipe and laid down a smoke screen.
"That night our Johnny Muskeg put on his mail-order boots and he cut himself three times with his razor because he was singing while he shaved. The washroom is small and I was waiting.
"Maybe on the whole Mackenzie there was no one to come into port like our Johnny Muskeg. He could splice a line or dance a jig or carry more bales of fur than two other men put together. But best of all, he could love. It was always the same. In Fort Simpson waiting to try the Green Island Rapids, in Fort Norman waiting for a shipment of pitchblende from Great Bear, in Hay River or Fort Smith; all the girls knew when the Sickanni Queen was in. Eh, what a man!
"We left Aklavik by the early dawn,” Gabe went on. "We went down to the Arctic coast and then we came upstream again, and one night we tied up in Fort Simpson. There are some pretty girls in Fort Simpson. I could tell you a lot. But when we tied up to the shore, Johnny Muskeg was not on deck with the headline. He was not in the washroom getting shaved. That was a funny thing.
AFTER the devil. that And he was he always not so worked full of twice as hard when we loaded freight for Aklavik. Oh, he went out a little. A man is a man, you know. But the other girls all complained. That is bad, eh? They said it was not the same Johnny Muskeg.”
"He was gone on this Robina,” Little Joe said when he finally managed to get a word in edgewise. "I was telling you about our last trip. You see, for two years he’d been playing up to her every chance he got. They sort of planned to get married. So when he saw her with this government clerk he told me he was going to march ashore and take a poke at somebody and then maybe he’d spank somebody else. But before he could roll up his sleeves the skipper hailed us on the loudspeaker and told us to come up to the pilothouse.
"The skipper is a hard man. He opened up as we stepped through the door. 'It’s six o’clock on the dot, boys.
I want you to get that freight off. We’re leaving here at midnight sharp!’ "You see, Johnny Muskeg was the acting mate and he had to push the crew, and I was his sidekick.
" 'I’ve got to go ashore and straighten out some personal affairs,’ Johnny said. 'It might take a little longer, if you don’t mind.’
"The skipper banged his fist down on the table and a pair of binoculars and a deck of cards jumped about a foot. 'The Sickanni Queen sails at midnight, come hell or high water!’
"Johnny felt like a good-natured bear in a tough corner. Without even raising his voice he said, I’ll jump ship.’
" 'You jump,’ the skipper said, 'and you won’t fly out from Yellowknife at the end of this trip. You won’t go out to Vancouver to write for your mate’s ticket, and I’ll see to it that you’re a deck hand for the rest of your life.’
" 'I’ve got business,’ Johnny said. 'I can settle it by dawn.’
" 'What kind of business?’
" 'My girl, sir.’
" 'Monkey business!’
" 'No, sir. You’re wrong.’
"Nobody ever talked back to the old man like that, and his big face looked like a bucket of red-oxide paint. He’s an ex-deep-sea man from the Maritimes and he’s tougher than a marlin spike. 'This boat sails at midnight, business or no business, crew or no crew. This ain’t a honeymoon cruise. Now get that freight off!’
"We went out on deck and I noticed and so did Johnny that Robina and the clerk had disappeared.”
"I heard the argument,” Gabe said. "It was a shame. That midnight sun is a problem, you know. A man needs a little darkness with a woman and then he can find his courage. On our trip before that the sun didn’t set all night. But now the summer was far enough gone to give us some darkness that was dark. 1 did not want to sail at midnight because the channels are shallow and my old eyes are not so quick to see a ripple or a snag. But the young fellows . . . Ah, there was darkness and lots of girls and the promise of a moon, and after tonight there would be the lonely weeks on the river again. The skipper has not too soft a heart.
"Johnny was unloading lumber and bags of cement when I found him. 'Come with me,’ I said. 'I’ve got some things to pick up and 1 need your help. The skipper won’t say anything if he sees you with me.’
GABE was respected for his age and his wisdom, and his wisdom wasn’t confined to the fifteen hundred miles of river that were memorized in his head. He and Johnny went ashore and they started looking for Robina.
They looked in at her home—her father was a white trapper who married a Loucheux girl. But Robina wasn’t there. They searched the Anglican mission and the Catholic mission and a lot of places in between including a graveyard and a field of oats. The traders were closed up for the night, so they went into the shacks and tents along the shore. They smelled sealskin boots and polar bearskin trousers and caribou parkas and a few barrels of muktuk made from the corpses of white whales. But there wasn’t a whiff of the perfume that Johnny won at a bingo game in Yellowknife. It was beginning to look hopeless. They even went aboard an Eskimo mud scow that was tied up near the Sickanni Queen. On the scow they found two families of Eskimos and thirteen sled dogs. They found a pile of white fox skins, two canoes and a new sewing machine . . . but no sign of Robina.
And then, when they finally gave up, they found her. Gabe really did have something to pick up, though it hardly required two men. He wanted to find a sleeping bag he’d lent to a greenhorn student going down to join a survey party. The student traveled down the river with them on the previous trip and couldn’t get any equipment until he joined his party near Aklavik.
Gabe and Johnny walked into a small office to see if the sleeping bag had been sent into town, and the young lady who looked up from the desk was Robina Stewart.
'Fhe long fair hair that Johnny used to braid was cut short and worn curly in the latest fashion. "Good evening,” Robina said. "Could I help you?” She was wearing a new blue sweater that wasn’t a half size too big, and before she stood up she tugged at the bottom of the sweater. She seemed taller than usual, and Johnny’s eyes followed the tight grey skirt down toward the floor. Instead of mooseskin mukluks embroidered in silk thread, she was wearing high heels. "Could I help you?” she said again, and she smiled a little.
Then Johnny smiled too. "Hey, that’s a pretty classy rig. Think you could manage to go for a walk?”
"I can’t right now, Johnny. Honestly. This report has to go out to Ottawa tonight or else.”
"What time do you think you’ll have it finished?” he asked her.
"Not before midnight, I’m afraid. Probably a little after.”
"Midnight be damned! I mean —excuse me.” Johnny rubbed his nose and squinted at her make-up as if he wasn’t sure it was Robina—the girl he was going to spank. "Look here, I haven’t got much time. Maybe you could make allowances. Ottawa wouldn’t know . . .”
Robina had sat down again and now she began to type.
Johnny stared at her like an owl. "Hey, where did you learn to run that thing?”
"Alwin taught me.”
"Alwin! Who the—who’s Alwin?” "He works in the next office. He’s from a big city in Ontario. Kingston, or something. He’s a clerk now and if he gets a promotion he might get a good job with the department in Ottawa.”
"Where will I find this Alwin?” "He’s gone out to look for a bush pilot who came in this afternoon. One of our survey parties lost some equipment in a canoe accident.”
"When’ll he be back?”
"It depends on when he finds the bush pilot. He’ll be back for our date tonight.”
"What time is that?”
"Midnight or shortly after.”
"No, in his apartment.”
"Oh, one of those deals.”
Robina’s head snapped up from the typewriter. "Alwin is a gentleman and a very decent boy.”
"Well, three cheers for Alwin. But he isn’t half as decent as he’s going to be when I get finished with him.” "Don’t you dare touch him.”
"Call me Robbie, please.”
"Well I’ll be—look, Robin—Robbie. Speaking of apartments, I mean.
I bought us a house.”
"Oh.” Robina’s voice was the peep of a baby bird looking at its first worm.
"Yeah, you should see it,” Johnny said. "A real dandy. At my home in Fort Simpson. Made of peeled logs. You could do a lot with it. There’s some furniture in it already—a stove and a table and a bed. What else do we really need? There’s enough soil around the cabin for a little garden and out back there’s a place to keep dogs.” Robina was silent. She fidgeted with the waist of her skirt as if something underneath was too tight.
"You follow me?” Johnny said. "Our boat’ll be there quite a few times in the summer. And all winter I’ll be home. Sounds good, eh? And guess what! I’m flying out from Yellowknife when we get back this trip. I’ve never been outside before and the company’s sending me to Vancouver to write for my mate’s ticket. I’ll be making good money in the summer from now on, and in the winter I can trap or something. How does that suit you?”
Robina started hammering on the same key like a woodpecker. "Alwin wants to marry me.”
"Hey, what goes on while I’m away?” Johnny couldn’t believe what she was saying. He walked around behind her chair and picked her up and sat her on the desk. "Don’t spill the ink,” she said. He tipped her face up and kissed her lightly and then he was going to do it again, only more so, when all of a sudden she pushed him back and slapped at his bare arm.
"That’s just like you, Johnny Muskeg. That’s all you want.”
"What’re you talking about? And just watch who you slap.”
"You know what I’m talking about.” "Look, I like you. I mean—how else does a guy prove it?”
"That’s what I’m saying, Johnny.
That’s exactly the way it’s been for two years. Always this love-making . . . and never any love.”
"Well, how else—what does this Alwin guy do?”
"He respects me. He’s got a decent job and he’s working hard to save money and he thinks about the future.” "Wait a minute, now. Wait a minute. I never missed a meal yet. Oh, once in awhile, maybe.”
"You don’t understand. You don’t see what a girl wants.”
"I think I know what a girl wants. I got no written testimonials like in those magazines you read, but I could name a few satisfied customers.”
Johnny tried again to kiss her and she caught at his shirt front and pushed him back.
"Where d’you get these fancy ideas?” Johnny said. "From this Alwin guy, eh?”
"He loves me.”
"Well, isn’t that too sweet of him. I’ll bet he loves popcorn too. I’ll go bring in the pieces and I want to hear you say that you love him.”
"Go away, Johnny. You’re just
Though "good eating” fills the freezer It's a scientific law
That my choice is always something That there isn't time to thaw.
messing everything up. I’ve got to finish this report.”
"How about when you finish?”
"I’ve got a date . . . Oh, maybe. Go away now. Please, Johnny.” "Yeah, yeah, I’ll go away. But I’ll be back. Just don’t forget.”
Johnny’s high boots, with the trouser cuffs tucked into the tops, stamped across the floor.
MISS STEWART began doing something to her typewriter because all the keys seemed to come up at the same time when the door slammed, and while she was busy Gabe picked up his sleeping bag and followed after Johnny. Gabe had to catch him before he got into trouble. Aklavik was full of Mounties that day. Three of them.
"But I caught him,” Little Joe said. "He was coming onto the barge like a rutting bull moose and I dropped a sack of cement in front of him and asked him where the fire was.”
Little Joe explained how he calmed Johnny down.
"I’m jumping ship,” Johnny said. Little Joe reasoned with him. "If you jump ship you’ll never be a mate nor a skipper on this river. And that’s all you’ve ever wanted to be since the first time you saw a riverboat; since the first time you wondered what’s around the next bend in this old Mackenzie. So why jump ship? You got some screws loose?”
"If I don’t jump ship Robina will be married the next time I come back.” "So what?”
"What d’you mean, so what?”
"I mean women are a dime a dozen.” "Not Robinas, they ain’t.”
"Tell her to wait until winter. Then you come back at freeze-up and you move in again. Where’s the old touch?” "It won’t work, Joe. She’ll marry this guy, and she’ll marry him for keeps. Robina’s like that. But if I stayed now I could get her back. I think this Alwin guy is missing a lot of the best things in life.”
"Get to work and while you’re working think about it,” Little Joe said. "The old man is going to come storming down on us any minute. You’re the acting mate, remember?”
Johnny picked up three sacks of cement and carried them down the gangplank. He set them down so hard that one sack burst and the cement puffed out and covered his best pair of trousers with grey dust.
"He worked for three hours,” Gabe said. "He worked like a wheel dog until eleven o’clock, and then he stopped just the way he started.
"It was a little past twilight and the Richardson Mountains had disappeared into a kind of a grey gloom, but it wasn’t dark enough so we couldn’t travel. That was too bad. The silver Imperial Oil tanks on the shore beside our boat were ghosts, and the men unloading the barge were all shadows, except for the noise they made. I was sitting on a keg of nails smoking my pipe, and Johnny came over to where I was sitting.
" 'We’ll be finished by midnight,’ he said.
" 'The skipper’ll be here at midnight and ready to go,’ I told him. 'He’s gone ashore for a spell.’
'I’m going ashore too,’ Johnny said. 'I’ve got to find this Alwin and tell him to keep off my trap line.’
'I looked for him, Johnny, just to get a closer look than I got when we were landing. But I couldn’t find him anywhere.’
'I’ll bet he’s in his apartment by now. He’s meeting Robina there in less than an hour.’
'It’s up to you,’ I said. 'Just be here by midnight.’
'Maybe,’ Johnny said. 'But if I don’t make it, throw my gear ashore, will you?’
"He had made up his mind so it was no use arguing. I nodded my head.
"He turned around and walked down the gangplank.
"I called to Little Joe and when he came over I said, 'Go with him, Little Joe. Don’t let him try to settle anything with those big fool muscles of his. It won’t work in this place.’ ”
LITTLE JOE followed after and caught up to him at the Corps of Signals office. They went in and asked where Alwin lived, since there was sure to be only one Alwin in the settlement, and the corporal on duty told them where to go.
The apartment was in a new government building. Johnny and Little Joe went in and found the right door and knocked. They waited, and after a moment Johnny tried the doorknob. No one answered and he got suspicious, knowing what he’d be doing in a setup like that, and he knocked again. He knocked four times. Suddenly he
dropped his shoulder against the door and the door sprang open.
Johnny switched on the light and stepped in.
The apartment was empty.
Little Joe closed the door and stood inside in case anyone should try to investigate the noise. He took his
cap off and watched.
"So this is Alwin’s shack,” Johnny said. "Sure is quite a place.”
He flung open a closed door and stuck his head into what turned out to be a closet. A pair of skis standing in one corner still wore a C.O.D. tag.
A tweed topcoat and a suede leather jacket were hung on wire hangers. "You got no working clothes, eh, Alwin? When do you find time for all this sporting around?”
Johnny kicked at a full laundry bag and bent to examine a new pair of tennis shoes that lay on the floor. "Be no good on an oily deck.”
He straightened up and half closed the door and stopped. "What you got here?” Three parallel springs hung from a nail and Johnny found the springs had a handle at each end. He took the two handles and stretched the springs a few times, like elastic, and then he hung them back on the nail.
On a small desk there was a writing pad, a month-old Toronto newspaper, and a pile of blank forms that apparently had something to do with Alwin’s work. On the wall above the desk was a series of pennants—the kind for sale in train stations. Johnny read them aloud: "Toronto, Sudbury, Port Ar-
thur, Kenora, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton.” He touched one of them as if it was a dead moth. "You must have seen a lot of places, Alwin. And now you think you’re taking Robina out there. I got a surprise for you.” He opened and closed his fist. "If he comes to the door, Little Joe, make sure he doesn’t get away. We’ll see what those muscle builders did for him.”
Johnny sat down on an easy chair and when he sank deep into the cushion he laughed. "I could sit here all night and wait for you, Alwin. And if Robina gets here first she can join me.”
He picked up a book that listed a hundred careers for young men. After a few pages he got restless and jumped up.
In the bedroom he turned on a dim light above the bed and looked at the pictures on the walls: purple birds he had never seen before. "What a deal,” he said. He tried to operate the Venetian blinds. "It’s a little better than my shack all right. But so what? Make a man soft.”
He disappeared into the bathroom and a moment later his voice echoed out to Little Joe, "Did you ever see a pink bathroom? And these towels would make good blankets . . . Hey, look in here. He’s got more hair tonics and shave lotions than that drugstore in Yellowknife. There’s even some stuff here to stop—let’s see—body perspiration. Boy, he must be the latest thing out.”
Johnny came out of the bathroom rubbing a skin lotion into his hands. "I’m softening my knuckles for Alwin.
I wouldn’t want to ruin his complexion.”
He brushed the cement dust off the easy chair and sat down again. "There are two towels in there. One marked HIS and one marked HERS. Only the HERS one has never been used. The guy is like that new engineer we got: he’s all theory.”
Johnny was quiet for a long while. Then he said, "Come to think of it, a pink bathroom wouldn’t be so silly with a woman in it. Kind of nice, in fact. Too bad there’s no bathroom in that shack I bought. I’d get a can of pink paint.”
"Maybe we should get out,” Little Joe said. "This snooping is against the law, you know. And if I ever got a written invitation I must have lost it.”
Johnny ignored him. “Robina wouldn’t look too bad prancing around in her high heels on a thick heavy rug like that one. Maybe I could order one for our place. You could almost use a rug like that for a sleeping bag.” "Let’s go,” Little Joe said. "It’s nearly a quarter to.”
Johnny got up and walked into the kitchen. Above the clatter of pans he called to Little Joe, "You should see this layout. An electric stove instead of. one like I bought. You wouldn’t have to haul wood or split it or anything with this outfit. Just learn to run these knobs. The women in these places must stay good-looking forever.” He opened and slammed a heavy door. "You should see this refrigerator, Joe. As big as the one we got on the boat, and it’s all for one man. Or for his family, if he manages to get one¿ Imagine, eh? When you catch some; fish you could keep them in here as long as you like and maybe you wouldn’t have to smoke them or dry them or anything. What would you do with all your spare time?”
Again he opened a door. "This guy’s, got a whole trading post, Joe.” He paused as if he was waiting for someone to say grace. "There’s enough groceries here to last a whole winter. I’ll bet this Alwin never missed a meal in his life. What a job he must have. I don’t even see a rifle around the place. A girl would have a barrel of fun cooking in here, eh? He’s even got canned potatoes. Maybe we should cook ourselves a feed?”
"The skipper won’t wait for us,” Little Joe said. >
"Alwin,” Johnny said, talking to the' pantry as if he was talking to a man,; "I don’t know what you’ve got in your hand, but you’ve sure got some nice' cards on the table. You run a nice bluff.”
"Hey, Johnny,” Little Joe called,; "I’m a river rat and I aim to go on being one. This place is too high-class for me.”
Johnny turned the kitchen light off and on a few times. "I’ve got to scrape up a few bucks for a keg of coal oil and some groceries.” He laughed. "If Robina won a pot like this she’d never have to worry about—”
"Are you coming, Johnny?”
Johnny didn’t answer.
"Are you coming with me?”
Little Joe only heard the whirr of the refrigerator.
"I’m going,” Little Joe said. "You got less than fifteen minutes. Hurry up, Johnny.”
Gabe was putting Johnny Muskeg’s gear on deck beside the gangplank when Little Joe came out of the dark.
"Where’s Johnny?” Gabe said.
"He’s waiting to clean up on Alwin and talk to Robina, and mostly he’s snooping where he shouldn’t and talking to himself.”
"If he isn’t here when the skipper yells to take in the headline and the gangplank, throw this bedroll and those two kit bags ashore. I’m going to my cabin to get my eyeglasses, and then I’m going up to the pilothouse.”
LITTLE JOE was staring into his empty glass and fingering the fuzz on his chin. When someone pushed a bottle of Calgary in front of him he shook his head. "It don’t do nothing for me today.”
Gabe tapped his pipe empty in a sardine can. "When I got up to the pilothouse the skipper was waiting for the all clear signal. I remember. He was growling about the lazy deck hands. He had the telegraph set at SLOW AHEAD to keep the barge close in until the man who let go the headline could get aboard.
"All of a sudden the headline went slack and Little Joe began to pull it in by hand.
"The shadow that came out of the darkness and up the gangplank was Johnny Muskeg. Like a ¡bulldozer he came. When he saw his gear by the gangplank he swore and told a deck hand to take it down to the forecastle. He signalled all clear to the pilothouse.
"Two deck hands pulled in the gangplank and stopped to wave at a couple of native girls who were waving back as we drifted away from the shore. Johnny swore again. He told the deck hands to get the barges looking shipshape and if that was finished to scrub down the galley. They looked surprised and left the girls waving at nothing.
"I noticed about that time that the moon was coming up.
"Then Johnny turned on Little Joe. 'Haven’t you learned yet how to coil a line? Look alive, man! It’ll take a week to get that mess untangled, and you should be ready on the bow with a sounding pole. This ain’t a honeymoon cruise!’
"It was a funny thing, eh? We were away a few minutes ahead of schedule, and that never happened before. That John McKeg—that’s his real name —he will be a great skipper someday. He’ll be the greatest skipper on the river.” A-