Historical Fiction Indigenous Christian

This story contains sensitive content

Sensitive content: mild reference to violence, trauma.

Good stone streets, good stone buildings. Not far off from the proper French cities home across the ocean. The wind whistled down the Saint Lawrence, carrying the sickly-sweet city scent along with it. The late summer sun shone bright, providing a comfortable afternoon heat. Shouts and clamor from the port echoed behind Denis, the ship that carried him from his old life now docked and still.

He took in the sights, legs adjusting to solid ground again. He prayed as he walked, giving thanks for his safe passage.

Everywhere he looked, men had broad sashes of red wool tied around their waist, all manner of designs about them. White, blue, yellow, and green laced their way through the red, a striking look paired with the bright red toque. Curious, thought Denis. He spied a shop, lengths of red wool hanging in the window. The Company recruiters will be there all day. I rather like this New World fashion.

Denis entered the shop with a knock and a bonjour. The clerk stood cleaning his polished wood counter, goods upon goods behind him. “Bonjour,” said the clerk, his colony accent thick with a rather… unrefined manner. “What can I do for you, mister?”

“Would I be able to look at some of those sashes?” asked Denis.

“Ah! You want a ceinture fléché? Yes, yes, very popular item for a while now. Quickest way to look Québécois, non?”

“Ha! That’s a good point, mister. It was hard leaving the Old Country behind, but I am glad to see my Countrymen thriving out here.”

The clerk looked over his shoulder, then sauntered over to a bundle of the ceintures. “Thrive we do, friend,” he said as he laid the pile of fabric on the counter. “Work and land are more abundant this side of the ocean, so says mon grand-père.”

Denis ran his fingers along the ceintures, appreciating the quality, the sheer craftsmanship. “Wool, non? Are these loomed?”

“Ah, the workmanship is precise, eh? These are finger-woven if you can believe.”

Denis held up ceinture after ceinture; he chose one to stop and appraise. Woven in were two lines of arrows, yellow and green in the center. Another line, blue and white, pointed the opposite way at each edge. “I can believe it. Such beautiful, careful work.”

“That one, friend, is a more common design. Very popular.” The clerk eyed Denis, wrinkled clothes and unkempt beard telling. “If you don’t mind, when did you land ashore?”

Denis set the ceinture down, reaching for one with pairs of green and white diamonds weaved within the length of fabric. “Just this past hour, truth be told. I meant to head straight for the Company office, but these called to me,” said Denis, holding the ceinture up to inspect.

“You flatter me too much, my friend.” The clerk started separating the ceintures, allowing Denis easier viewing. “The Company’s a good choice. Hard work, sure, but they promise adventure, and adventure they do deliver. Are you hoping to work the Lakes?”

“The Lakes?” Denis set the ceinture down for another. “Too settled, I hear. Too settled is why I left France. I'm hoping for la vallée de la Rivière Rouge, where the land is beautiful, and the women,” Denis grinned, “even more so. So I’ve heard,” he said with a shrug.

The clerk let out a laugh. “Ah, you'll be wintering at Selkirk’s Colony for years, friend. You’re far from the first.” He picked out a ceinture, one broad blue and white arrow, weaved center to edges. “I think this one will look sharp on you,” he said, handing the ceinture to Denis. “Mister…?”

“Primeau.” Denis accepted it, holding it against his waist. “Look sharp, yes. I’m guessing hand-woven will cost me heavy, non? Why else should I buy one?”

The clerk’s expression shifted, all seriousness now. “Well! You can tie your coat closed, tuck your tobacco pouch and fire-bag into it.” He ran his hands to the fringed ends: red, white, and blue. “Spare threads to mend your clothes in the field. It can even be a tourniquet in the direst of situations. Everything a man needs for a life on the frontier.” The clerk closed his oft-recited script with a smile.

“Ha! Good sell, friend. I was willing buy one regardless.” Denis fumbled his coin pouch out from his coat, then tied his new ceinture around his waist.

“Just take caution out west, friend. The lands can be… wild still.”

Merci, but I have caution enough,” said Denis. “I try make right with the Lord. He leads me in the right paths.”

“That He does,” said the clerk. “That He does.”

Marc reached below his waist, snapping a blue thread free from the fringes of his father’s sayncheur flayshii. Lii bufloo, they ran hard today,” he said, handing the thread to his wife, Anne-Marie.

Taapway,” said Anne-Marie, now threading her needle. “Lii bufloo ran so hard they shook Joseph from his horse!” Those gathered around the campfire laughed.

With the day’s work done, the Hunt and harvest well behind the setting sun, the families gathered amongst themselves. They drew their wagons and carts into a large circle, making camp within, preparing to rest and celebrate. Fiddle music rose in the air, along with sounds of singing and dancing, cheering and laughter; fragrant wood smoke tinged with roasting bison meat rose into the calm, prairie evening as well.

“Hey!” said Joseph. “It’s the horse, I tell you. He’s too skittish! I had to really coax him to get that close to the herd.” He sat on the bench, blanket draped over his lap, while his sister mended the tear in the seat of his pants.

“You could keep a firmer grip on your saddle, nishiimish. You might shoot yourself next time you hit the ground.”

“Or” said Marc, “you can find your own wife to sew your pants up!” The campfire roared with laughter again. Marc reached for the leather pouch tucked beneath his sash. Retrieving the clay pipe within, he loaded it with tobacco. Lighting a twig aflame with the campfire, he brought it to the bowl, lighting his pipe’s contents with one puff, then another.

“Elizabeth is very pretty,” said Anne-Marie. “I’ve seen her watching you at the dances. Besides, you know I want Biibii René to have lii koozin.

“Elizabeth is English-born, though,” said Joseph.

“And?” asked Marc. “I think the Michif girls are too pretty for you anyway!” The folks ‘round the fire laughed harder than ever. Sensing his brother-in-law’s displeasure, he pushed the topic aside. “But maybe you can bring toon vyayloon out soon. I’d like to hear some reels, Joseph.”  

“Bah! Reels can wait for another night. Did you all not see Dakota watching us on the plains today?”

Dakota,” said Marc, “don’t like it when we stray too far from li Rivyayr Roozh when we come south. I reckon they’ll be looking for a fight. We can’t help where lii bufloo go.”

Anne-Marie held up her work, tear now mended. Beaded flowers, glowing faint against the dim firelight, were sewn up the legs of the buckskin trousers. “Fight all you want, boys. Just mind where you get shot. I’d hate to see nimaamaa’s work go to waste.”

Marc felt at the floral beadwork adorning the front of his buckskin coat; red, white, and blue to match his sayncheur. His mother-in-law’s handiwork was exceptional. “Wii, kimaamaa would scold me for years.”

“Why must we fight? They should let us hunt in peace,” said Joseph.

“Maybe one day our people can make peace,” said Marc. “But for now, ready yourself for a fight. Besides, we have our rifles, we have each other and, above all, we have the Lord.”

Taapway,” agreed Anne-Marie.

Marc ran his hand along his sayncheur, remembering his father’s words. “Make right with the Lord, Joseph, and He will lead you in the right paths. Then, moon frayr, you will not be fearing the fight.”

“You never come to Mass anymore,” said Anne-Marie. “Father Laflèche was happy to come on the Hunt with us.”

“True, true. Go see the Father tonight, then come to Mass in the morning. It’s never too late to make things right. Besides,” Marc smiled, “the prayers are beautiful out here on the prairies.”

“Okay, okay,” said Joseph. “Give me my pants back first, then.”

René tightened his grandfather’s sayncheur around his stomach, staunching the blood leaking from the shot there in his gut. He and Henry sat with their backs against the wall, admiring just how fine of a church they had built here in Batoche.

“What do you think they’re talking about?” asked Henry, nodding his head toward Riel and Dumont, conversing near the front of the church.

“I think it’s best if it stays between them,” answered René. Dumont had tears streaming down his face, while Riel was stoic as ever. They reached to shake hands, then Dumont pulled them into an embrace. The larger man’s weeps shook him against his friend.

“It’s hard to see him like this,” said Henry.

Wii, he’s a good kommandant. It must be hard for him to see us like this too.” René wriggled around, unable to get comfortable. The bullet burned deep within his belly. He looked down at his sayncheur, old brown blood staining the white threads, the fresh red blood blending into the red threads.

“A wound like that is a death sentence, my friend,” said Henry, wincing as he watched René clutch his stomach.

“True, but that’s what the British are bringing come morning. Either this wound takes me, or I’ll be hanging within the week.”

Henry looked at the floor with despair. Dumont, finished with his farewells, thundered down past the pews, throwing the doors open to steal away into the still night air.

“It’s not too late for you either, Henry,” said René. “There’s no shame in running to see a new day.”

“No, no. It was my choice to follow Louis. It’s still my choice, following him until the end.” Henry watched Riel as he knelt at the altar in prayer. “He’s a good man; he always wanted the best for his people.”

“He’s always loved the Lord, that Louis.” René felt at the frayed fabric wrapped around his belly. His hand found the thinned-out fringes at the end, played with the remaining threads while he remembered comforting, familiar words. “’Make right with the Lord, and He will lead you in the right paths,’ nipaapaa and nimooshoom always told us so. I believed it true.”

“Your father and grandfather, they sound like they were good men. It’s not that I doubt our Lord, but how? How can you believe He’s leading us right?”

“I do, simple as that. Look at Louis, he weeps not for what comes. He’s at peace, and so am I.”

They sat together, hushed conversations of other pairs and groups buzzing quiet.

“You know,” said Henry, “you speak good English for being Michif.”

And you, my friend, are actually good company. Considering that you’re English-born.” They laughed together, pain forgotten until René gave into a coughing fit, the bullet burning again. “I’m glad to have met and fought alongside you, Henry. What’s your family name?”

“Robertson. My grandfather, his­ father was a Scotchman. Signed with the company, chasing ‘adventure.’ He fell for an Ojibwe woman while working the Lakes. You?”

“Primeau. My grandfather landed at Québec City. He heard about Lord Selkirk’s little project, so he headed west. He fell in love with a Michif woman, marrying her as soon as he could.” They sat silent again a moment. “Primeau, it means ‘first’ in English; yet I'm the last of my friends to die. This battle’s been hard.”

“We did so well at Duck Lake. What happened?”

“There’s just too many British; even their weapons are too much. My friend P’tit Pierre stood too close to a cannon shot. He took metal in the gut like this,” René gestured to his stomach. “It ripped him right open though. He… he tried to hold his insides in.”

Henry’s eyes focused as if staring into the distance. “My little brother was taken by a cannon shot too. His leg flew right off. He cried and cried for our mum.” Henry’s head fell back against the wall. He blinked away tears. “What will happen to our people?”

René’s gaze fell upon Riel, then wandered above to the altar, then higher still to the crucifix affixed highest of all. “My wife and children fled towards the mountains. My hope is that our music, our languages will survive. Our dress is certain to fade, but our people will live.” Left hand on his wound, René touched his right hand to his forehead, brought it down to his chest, and then left shoulder to right. “Failing all else, our faith will live on. Our children can always turn to Christ, no matter how hard the days get.”

“You really are at peace, aren’t you?” Henry dabbed at the tears trailing down his dirt and blood-speckled cheeks. “I’m so scared. I… I miss my family. My wife, she's expecting, you know. I can’t imagine how hard fleeing is for her.”

René ran his hand along his sayncheur one last time. “I'm sure they will find the right paths.” He closed his eyes, praying he’d wake to see just one last sunrise.

May 12, 2022 22:37

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