Annie has her secrets too

Mowat Lodge

June 8, 1917

I came down in the morning to the back kitchen for breakfast. Shannon had left, but his mother was still there with Annie. They were cleaning up the breakfast dishes and were already starting on the other meals for the day. The kitchen had the smell of braised meat. It smelled of venison, not beef. There wasn’t supposed to be any deer hunting in the Park, but since the food shortages started in the City, slaughtered deer would magically appear once in awhile. The Park Rangers had the authority to take kill from Poachers and sell it. They would sell to the lodge but it seemed more and more that the line between Poacher and Ranger was being crossed in various parts of the Park and venison was becoming rather plentiful. There was talk of a big deer kill in the fall to supply meat to the cities so the regulations were not being heeded as seriously. Bartlett knew the Rangers wanted to supplement their income and he didn’t want any labour strife on his hand. The informal trade in venison was the ideal solution. Besides, the Rangers were poisoning the wolves over the winter, and the end result was an over-population of deer. It was good to get rid of them. Plus, the deer all seemed to hang out at the Hotels where the guests would feed them, pet them and give them names like “Buck”. I’m sure it was  ‘Buck’ that was being braised on the stove this very morning.

Annie knew exactly what I wanted to talk about. I could tell by the way she fussed around the kitchen. Old Mrs. Fraser knew I wanted to talk too, so she was determined to stay.

“Mom, could you bring the linens out back and hang them?” Annie called her “Mom” because Shannon did.

Old Mrs. Fraser, or “Mom”, left with the bag of linens. Estimating the time to hang them, we had about 10 minutes of private time to talk.

I looked at Annie, right into her eyes, “Annie, you know what I’m going to ask you?”

“Yes.”

“I can understand the temptation of the already open ones, but this one was closed. I could tell it was opened.

I took a breath, “It’s an offence. Only the War Ministry can do that. Does Shannon know?”

She swallowed hard. She knew she crossed a line. It’s one thing to be a poaching Ranger. It’s another thing to be Poacher.

“No.”

“Okay, let’s keep it at that. Just remember the Government takes a very dim view of profiteering and corruption. We all have to do our bit. You don’t want to lose the post office. It would be the end of the lodge.”

“I’m sorry.” Annie continued to look me in the eye. I could see the tears welling up.

Ordinarily, when men and women talked, they never looked each other in the eye directly. “Save that for the wedding vows,” I was told. But I always looked women in the eyes did because I always did it with my sisters. Because of my older sisters, I was always comfortable talking to women and striking up good friendships. The boys back at the Studio could never figure this out about me. They were always proud that they could drink and carouse and have their way with women (never looking them in the eyes), but it never occurred to them they could be friends with women too. Red-blooded artists need not always be women conquerors too. When Florence visited me she made sure to avoid the “louts in the Studio” as she called them. Once, a chap who happened be in the Studio, couldn’t stop harassing me about Florence, so I dropped him with my fists.

I have good friendships with women. It’s the same way with Annie.  With Winnie too, but things got further with her. No fault on my part, but Annie was always a bit smitten by the way I treated her. I talked to her, I helped her, and mostly important, I listened to her. Unlike Shannon, I never felt the need to hear my voice continually. Indeed, I always prefered to let others talk. It was the same with Daphne Crombie. I enjoyed her company, but her husband took notice, and decided that they better convalesce elsewhere.

I looked back at Annie. She knew by the expression of my face and the tone of my voice, this was serious business.

“Promise me, Annie. This is between me and Winnie. Promise.”

By then, the door flew open and Old Mrs. Fraser rushed in hollering. Turns out she stepped on a newly settled hornets’ nest out back. Hornets’ nest  appear in the darnedest places. This one happened to be in a hole at the by the bottom of the clothesline pole. A good soaking with kerosene and a match should fix that nest in short order. I’ll leave the glory of administering hellfire to hornets to Shannon. Thankfully, “Mom” only had a couple of stings. Nothing serious. I remember once hearing about the Rangers coming across a dead camper beside a nest. He had hundreds of stings and died from them. He was dead about a week and they could no longer recognize him when they found him.

I left the commotion in the kitchen and went out front to the lobby and then to the front verandah. I could barely see the lake. A fog and mist had descended from over the hills and it was turning into a persistent rain. This spring has been cold and terrible so far. And there were no signs that anything was getting better.

I needed to write a letter back to Winnie. This wasn’t a letter I could dash off in a moment. I had to consider my words and what my words meant. I also had to think about the letter getting into the wrong hands. I had to write it like the boys’ letters from the front. To get through the censors, they couldn’t write where they were or what they were doing. So it had to be words that, if fallen into enemy hands, meant nothing. But these letters from the boys, despite having all of concrete facts stripped out of them, still communicated everything to their their loved ones.

I needed they day to think about it. I needed to write the letter in time to catch the mail train tomorrow. It was over a week since the date of Winnie’s letter and I knew she would be more  frantic as each day passed. There’s no telling what might happen or what she might do. If I don’t write by tomorrow, I could expect as much as a  posse arriving from Huntsville to force me to make good on the situation.

Like the fog and mist that descended from over the hills, the afternoon had passed in a blur. So did dinner and the evening. There was talk at the table, but I can’t remember any of it. I just kept thinking about the deer formerly known as ‘Buck’ being on my plate.

Back to Mowat Lodge

June 7, 1917

I had a hell of a hangover this morning. The whisky we had yesterday hit me hard but at least I didn’t go blind. That happened numerous times after the Temperance Act went into effect and people started making their own alcohol  Sometimes the alcohol wasn’t right and people would go blind drinking it.

Officially, Camp Nominigan wasn’t supposed to provide alcohol to guests. That was the Bartlett’s law in the Park  but the lodge manager always kept a few bottles on hand when the opportunity arose. Especially, the Americans. They would pay handsomely for a bottle and leave a big tip afterwards.

John and Etienne left in the morning and took the coach to Algonquin Station. They were gone long before I was up. They had brought all their gear with them in their rooms last night so they didn’t have to bother me when they left. I had the camping gear and the extra canoe by the lake. A camp fire pit was close by, so I made breakfast and after packed all I could into my canoe covering with a rubber sheet. The rain was little more than a mist, but by the time I finished it was a steady rain.

Lowrie was still sleeping like a little rabbit in a hutch. I wanted to get on my way. I roused him.

“Lowrie, I’m leaving now. Take the tent back with you. We’ll get the other canoe in the next day or so.”

“Okay, Tom. My head hurts…”

“Sleep it off, Lowrie. No rush to check out.”

I had to leave Shannon’s canoes. It wasn’t unusual to leave the canoes at the different lodges and this wasn’t the exception. The canoe would eventually make it back to its home. If a Nominigan or Highland canoe shows up at Mowat Lodge, I’ll canoe down to make the switch.

I wanted to leave Nominigan fast, but I didn’t want to go back to Mowat Lodge right away. I was dreading what was in the letter. I felt like today was the last day of my own possibilities so I spent the whole day on Tea Lake fishing. They call it Tea Lake because the water is brown. Mostly from the fast running water coming in from Canoe and Smoke Lake churning up the junk from the bottom. There were logs littered along the shore, decaying and bobbing about. This probably makes the water brown too.

It was after 9pm when I finally returned back to Mowat Lodge. The clouds were so thick that despite the late sunset, it felt like the light of a late October evening. I pulled the canoe up onto the dock and out of nowhere Shannon appeared.

“Tom, I was waiting for you”

“Why?” I kept working on pulling up my gear. I had to pull everything out of the wrapped  rubber sheet. Everything was pretty much soaked.

“Mark Robinson came by. Said Bartlett heard you were drinking at Nominigan. The guides aren’t supposed to drink.”

I lied, “It wasn’t me. It was Lowrie.”

“I figured as much,” Shannon came closer. “Mark told me to say not to worry this time. Next time Bartlett might want to teach you a lesson.”

“Thanks for the message, Shann. Can you help me with my canoe?”

“Where’s the other one?”

“Still at Nominigan. I’ll get it in the next day or so.”

“Tom, they’re expensive things. If I lose one, it’ll have to come off your account.”

I was annoyed by his tone. I didn’t really care that much about money or accounts. I trusted that people would return things. But a lecturing by a profligate penny-pincher was almost too much to bear.

“Can you just help me with the canoe?”

With that interjection he grabbed the other end of the canoe and yanked it with his big arms. It caught me off balance, and I tripped over the fire grate that was between the dock and shed.

“You’ll have to move that damn fire grate. I’ll be the death of someone.”

“Yessir.” That was Shannon’s way of saying, “You don’t tell me want to do, I’ll do it in my own damn time.”

We walked up to the Lodge. The path was muddy and slippery. It was miserable for this time of year. It was supposed to be full summer but the wood stoves were still on at night to drive the moisture and cold out. I had heard about  ice-ages. Maybe we were entering another ice-age.

I first had to go to privy out back and then I went up to my room. There it was – Winnie’s letter.  And there the words jumped out at me:

” It is a certainty.”

It’s a certainty now. The variable is now a constant. A milestone. A milestone around my neck. I wasn’t really thinking about the situation during the day, but in reality I was thinking about it beneath the surface. Out of nowhere the plan started to emerge: I had to leave, but I had to do it in a way that nobody knew. It had to be a secret. I could elope with Winnie but I wasn’t sure that was the best thing either. Maybe I should go myself. I had to decide which way. Then I realized the plan for now. Say to Winnie that we’re going to elope. She’ll keep that a secret and if that is what happens, we can go West. But if for some reason, something doesn’t work out, I can go West  or more likely, South, on my own. Keep options open, they say.

I had a closer look at the envelope. I had been opened. I could see the smeared glue that could only happen by steaming it open. The paper was mottled too. A sure sign of what was transpiring between me and Winnie was no longer a secret. The only true secret I had was what I was finally planning to do in the end.

I need to settle this with Annie.

An Urgent Telegram

June 6, 1917

We broke camp not that early in the morning. I made breakfast: bacon, biscuits with marmalade and oatmeal. I made coffee for the guests and tea for myself. We packed up wet. We were supposed to be staying for another night but judging by their demeanour I wasn’t sure if they wanted to return as soon as possible.

We made it back into Smoke Lake later in the morning and then they saw Nominigan Camp on the lake shore. The camp is a nice looking outfit. It looked especially inviting to my two bedraggled guests who suggested that we stop there for lunch and dry off a bit more. We canoed near to the main lodge, disembarked and went to the dining room.

“We’ll have lunch here,” John said.

“That’ll be fine,” I said, “I’ll tend to the gear and canoes. Take your time. I’ll see you outside when you’re done.”

“Come with us for lunch.” Etienne said with his French-Canadian accent. But I could tell he was trained in an English school.

“No. The guides generally don’t eat with the guests.” It was a white lie. I could if I wanted to, but I didn’t want them to pay for my lunch which would have been two days of guide’s wages. I was friendly with the guests when guiding but I preferred to maintain a separation. I saw it too often where a guide started to think he was part of the vacation party and a brouhaha would erupt. With guests, guides were always on the losing end if something went wrong or an untoward word was spoken.

“Jolly, then. See you outside.” John began to navigate between the tables and sat down. Etienne followed suit.

I went outside when I saw Lowrie Dickson, madly paddling in the distance. Judging by his trajectory he was heading straight for me. He must have asked at Mowat Lodge where I was. He only need the name of a lake or two, after which I was pretty easy to find by the colour of my canoe.

When he was to shore, I pulled him up. He was out of breath, but he asked, “Where are your guests? I have an urgent telegram.”

“Inside. Want me to give it to them?”

“Sure, Tom.”, Lawrie looked grateful. He never really liked dealing with Visitors, as he called them.

I brought in the telegram and handed it to John. He looked surprised.

“Pony express from Mowat Lodge,” I said.

He smiled and tore open the envelope. Shannon made sure to seal all telegrams in an envelope after Annie had a chance to read them.

“Well it looks like its over. Laurier rejected Borden outright last night. Etienne, it looks like all we have to do now is drink whisky.” John threw the telegram of the table. “Tom, join us for a bottle of whisky. And tell your Pony Express gentleman to come join us, too. We have nothing better to do.”

With the prospect of whisky, my rules went out the window. I got Lowrie to join us. He was reluctant, but so too, the prospect of whisky paid by Park visitors was incentive enough.

So all this mysterious activity had to do with conscription. I had heard Borden was trying to form a new government with Laurier to see out the War.  But never in my wildest dreams did I expect any of that activity to touch us in the Park. We learned that John and Etienne decided to get away from the hubbub of Ottawa to discuss what the Coalition Government might look like. They wanted to do this without distraction, so John suggested a canoe trip.

By evening’s end we went through two and a half bottles of whisky. The hotel price of whisky, at my guide’s wage was a month’s worth. “No problem,” John said, “We have a special government fund for secret projects and whisky.”

“Speaking of secret projects, what’s the interest in Sims Pit?” I asked.

“Oh, that.” John replied. The whisky loosened up his tongue. “We caught wind that Sam Hughes started up another hare-brained weaponry project. He’s working on a high capacity flame-thrower apparatus that fits on a train engine. He had heard the Brits tried to do something at Somme.”

“Be as successful as the Ross Rifle.” I replied wryly.

“Even more successful! Once you build the train tracks across no-man’s land.” We had a good laugh on that one.

In the end, we never made it out of Camp Nominigan. When John and Etienne discovered they could take a stage to Algonquin Station in the morning and catch the first class to Ottawa they decided to stay the night. Lowrie and I set up camp just off the main lodge.

As we were getting ready for the night, Larry said suddenly, “Tom I should’ve brought it too!”

“What?” I said.

“Your letter from Winnie. Shannon said it came in yesterday”

I didn’t know whether it was the whisky, but I suddenly got numb all over. My future is in that letter.

Too Tired to Write

June 5, 1917

A long day of guiding today. Flies and rain are never the best companies especially when the company you’re with is not too friendly. They dumped the canoe and got everything wet. Had to go to the shore and try to dry things out but not possible in the rain. It’ll be a wet night with unhappy campers. The camp site we found is close to sand so it is getting into everything but the breeze is good to keep the bugs away.  The camp site has a good view of the sunset and should a have good view of the sunrise. There’s some deer not to far away, I saw them in the bush.

Despite the upsets, rain and poor company I prefer to do this than being inside. I should have asked Lawrie Dickson to come with me. I would have happily split the pay with him for the good company.

They’re asking about Sims Pit again. We’ll go by there tomorrow but it won’t be at night like they wanted.

I am wondering about Winnie. Wondering if she has sent a letter. I won’t know until I get back to the lodge. That’s it for tonight. I have to finish cleaning up. I hope to be able to have a smoke with my pipe in peace.