Tuesday, March 09, 2010

BORDERTOWNS: Chapter 17


On Sunday morning Ian sat in a buggy outside the Catholic Church in Pembina. He was waiting for Susan, who was attending early mass. Not a cloud marred the sky, and already the temperature was climbing. Although it promised to be a beautiful September day, Ian realized it might be a hot one. Susan had assured him that mass would be over by 8 a.m., and that she would bring the lunch for their planned picnic. Kirby had invited them to a tour of the fort, and after that stop they intended a leisurely lunch to the south, near the river. Ian found himself looking forward to Kirby's guided tour of the fort complex. His only other occasion to visit the fort had been prompted by the hanging of the two horse thieves.

Promptly at 8 o'clock the high double-doors of the church opened and people began straggling out. Susan was one of the first to appear; she was carrying a reed basket. Marguerite followed closely behind, breaking away from a conversation with two other ladies. When Ian waved from the buggy, both girls broke into warm smiles.

He admired their stylish dresses, knowing well that each of the girls made their own clothes due to limited finances. It was obvious that they were talented seamstresses. Susan had mentioned various individuals who owned the new Singer or White sewing machine. At the time he had been touched by her apparent desire for one. She had said, "I'll have one someday . . . I hope!" It was then he determined to get her a Singer as soon as they were married.

He had already contacted the Icelandic carpenter from South Pembina about the building of their new house. Complying with Susan's wish, he had purchased two lots only a block north of Grant's house and a short distance from his father's. Johanneson had assured him that he would be available to begin construction in early October.

Now that the harvest was completed, he'd sell his wheat to either LaMoure or Myrick, whichever buyer offered the higher price. He would hold back only enough seed for next year's crop.

"We can give Marguerite a ride to the ferry, can't we, Ian?" Susan and her sister were already crowding into the narrow buggy seat beside him.

"Sure, we have all day." Susan squeezed tightly against him to make room for her sister, forcing Ian to lean forward to speak with Marguerite. "Will you be seeing Charley this afternoon?"

She nodded. "We're going fishing after lunch."

"I'm going fishing, too." Susan smiled at Ian. "I'm after a big lunker, a 180-pounder." She squeezed Ian's knee, then turned to wink at her sister.

"Watch out! You may catch him. Then what'll you do?" Ian grinned.

"Just watch me." Susan nudged her sister. They exchanged mischievous glances.

Descending to the toll bridge across the Pembina, Ian paid the 5-cent fee. Three hundred yards further along the road, he reined in at the top of the hill, just above the Red River ferry. Several men were bathing on the opposite side of the river, just below the ferry landing. All appeared to be naked except one. He had evidently decided to wash his clothes the easy way. He appeared fully dressed. Ian was puzzled. The man looked to be either Brogan or Murphy; they looked much alike. Still, he couldn't be positive because of the distance. One thing was sure; it was a big man with a full, dark beard.

Just below Ian's buggy, several Indians were lazing about on the side hill. Two stood at the edge of the river, apparently fishing.

After dropping off Marguerite, Ian and Susan drove leisurely to the fort. Ian noted that although it was late in the season, the grasshoppers appeared unusually thick. He hoped there wouldn't be a problem with them in the coming year.

Stopping in front of the officer's quarters, he recognized Shawn Kirkpatrick. Shawn was seated on the veranda with a young lady, their closeness apparent. As their buggy drew near, Shawn stood and approached the four-wheeler.

"Is Kirby around, Shawn? He promised us a tour of the fort this morning."

"He's next door at headquarters. Can I be of assistance?" Shawn turned to pass a rueful look toward his female companion.

Ian almost laughed aloud, knowing Shawn was stretching his courtesy to the limit. "No, I've been to your office before, I'll find him." He could see the obvious relief on Shawn's face; also the young lady was smiling.

Taking Susan's hand, Ian helped her from the buggy and together they approached the headquarters steps. The door suddenly opened and Kirby stepped out. "Hello! . . . My
favorite folks! So you finally took me up on my offer."

Ian grinned. "We want the quick tour, Kirby. We've brought a picnic lunch and plan to take the road south along the river."

"Oh, yes, I've heard all about those romantic spots overlooking the muddy Red." Kirby winked at Susan.

She found herself blushing as Kirby laughed aloud. Then he thrust out his arm. "Let me be your escort Susan. We'll lead like the Indian bucks do. Ian can follow as the squaw."

To Ian, the fort buildings seemed well constructed. They formed three sides of a square, the officers’ quarters being on the south side. The east side facing the river was open, and he noted three brass cannon neatly lined up, facing east.

The circuit took nearly an hour, and it soon became obvious to Kirby that both Ian and Susan were anxious to leave. Having detected their impatience, he roguishly said, "You must stay for dinner at the officer's mess. I heard we're having steaks today."

Ian realized his leg was being pulled. "Sorry, Kirby, we're kind of in a hurry to see the southern vistas."

Kirby grinned, then slapped Ian on the shoulder. "I have a confession to make. I'm in a hurry myself. I'm to eat dinner in St. Vincent with a beautiful woman."

After leaving Kirby, Ian and Susan took the river road along the bush. Ian asked casually, "Just where are we going?"

Susan smiled and squeezed close to him. "The spot we're to look for is supposed to be two miles south of the fort. Marguerite and Charley come out here often, sometimes to fish, but I guess mostly to have privacy from the townspeople. There's an old dugout somewhere along the trail according to Marguerite. She said that about a half mile further on, the riverbank is covered with wild ferns. That's where she and Charley go."

"It's going to be a grand day." Ian was looking to the sparse fleecy clouds that dotted the sky. "Maybe a storm later; it's shaping up to be hot.”

"Think so?" Susan's eyes followed his gaze upwards.

He didn't answer, but turned to admire her upturned face, the smooth golden skin and her stylish bonnet, cut short in the rear to allow her two heavy braids to flow over her shoulders. Lordy, how he loved her! Soon she would be his wife.

The winding road swept around a mile-long curve, but a strip of willows, elms and high-bush cranberry thickets obscured the river from view. Gradually the trees thinned and several hundred yards of open prairie occasioned a view of the river.

Three deer suddenly burst from a patch of trees, their white tails bobbing up and down as they ran south across the clearing.

At the highest point of land just ahead, a mound of sod with a protruding stovepipe indicated the location of the abandoned dugout they sought. After stepping down from the buggy, Ian snapped an iron weight to the bridle of the horse. Carefully descending the embankment they inspected the crude house built into the side of the riverbank. The door hung askew, one leather hinge rotted away. The rough board floor inside had once been usable, but was now barely visible. It was almost entirely covered with dry dirt that had sifted from the walls. Viewed from the interior, the sagging roof looked dangerous. Pale, sun starved weeds grew from every crevice. A small cast iron stove, badly rusted, lay twisted to the side. Parts of the walls and the ceiling were black with soot.

Susan shuddered involuntarily. "Imagine anyone living in a hole like this? The roof is only of poles and brush."

"It didn't cost anything, except for the boards on the floor. It was a big room once, almost sixteen feet square. Looks like Indian work. Let's get out of here, it may be loaded with fleas."

"Can't we leave the buggy here, Ian? It's such a beautiful day. We can walk the last half mile."

Ian walked to the buggy to pick up the blanket and the reed basket. Then his eyes turned to the basket. It was shaped like a turtle, complete with legs and head. It even had a curved cover, cleverly interwoven to duplicate the markings of a turtle. Tipping it slightly to admire the work, he remarked, "Where did you find this? The work is amazing. In fact, it's almost unbelievable."

Susan tossed her head proudly. "Mother made it. She learned to do it when she was young, when she lived along the Minnesota River. She dyed the colored reeds in the old Indian way, using berries and heaven only knows what else."

They crossed several old buffalo watering trails leading to the river before finally arriving at the area of ferns. Turning downhill, they found a natural bower, partially shaded by willows. Susan took the blanket from Ian's arm and spread it on the ground. Lying down, she beckoned with her finger. Ian dropped to her side and kissed her hungrily.

Susan had planned this picnic and for this moment. Her passion came as a rushing flood. She wanted to be under him, his chest against her breasts. She took his mouth with long, melting kisses and felt her whole body aching intensely. She didn't want to fight this urge and yearning for him any longer. She wanted to surrender to her feelings.

Then she felt Ian release her. He sat up and looked at her seriously. "We've got to wait, Susan.”

"For what?" She sat up, suddenly angry. "No more waiting! You've kept me on tenterhooks for months. Have you changed your mind about marrying me?"

"Heck, no!" He turned to rummage in the basket. "Hey, you've brought two bottles of wine."

Moments passed and her anger faded. She removed the braids from her hair, then lay back on the blanket and suggested, "Open one for us."

Working with his jackknife, Ian cut out the cork and handed the bottle to her. "You get first lick."

Susan felt bits of cork on her tongue and wiped them away with the back of her hand. Raising the bottle, she took a sip, all the while thinking, I hope it's strong. He's got too many inhibitions. Returning the bottle to him, she watched as he drank freely from it. She was secretly glad for his long swig.

Wiping his lips, he said, "Not bad. What's it made from?"

"It's chokecherry. Mother made it."

Setting the bottle down carefully, he lay back beside her, locking his hands behind his head. A Blue Heron flew close by, silently skimming the water. Suddenly the bird caught sight of them and, startled, veered away.

Susan raised up to lean over him, smiling impishly. Lightly brushing his lips with her finger, she kissed him gently, and then began probing his lips with her tongue.

Aroused, he returned her caresses. She could feel the sensations of his arousal.

His hands reached to each side of her face, cradling it gently as he rolled her to her back, still maintaining the contact with her lips. Slowly he began unbuttoning the buttons of her blouse. Now his kisses were on her cheeks, her neck, and finally he was nuzzling her bared breasts. His lips finally contacted a sensitive nipple, driving her nearly wild with passion. Sliding her hands from the hard muscles of his back, she squeezed her fingers between them and began unbuttoning his shirt. She began shivering with anticipation as she felt his response against her thigh. Feeling his hand at her skirt, she aided him with the side buttons, then raised and thrust her skirt from her legs. Pulling him tightly to her, she kissed him almost frantically as he fumbled at her thighs, tugging at her chemise.

Looming over her, and surprised at the tightness, he hesitated, only to find her raising herself to thrust violently against him. Her response was instant, gaining in intensity as she opened her legs fully and he came into her. Her sharp cry of pain was barely audible, transferred to him only when she bit his lip in a paroxysm of fervor. Then her sounds were muted to a gentle moan.

Their coupling became violent as their contact was fully culminated. Her climax began as a long, lovely sensation with an indescribable ending of glorious feeling. Their thrusts continued as a dying feeling until there was nothing left.

Not wanting to part with him she locked her legs with his. She felt as if the beautiful feeling would have no end.

Ian noted the perspiration that gleamed on her forehead and temples. Her long dark hair, disarrayed, framed her oval face. She whispered, "I knew loving you would be wonderful!"

She finally released her legs and teased. "Now we can do this for the rest of our lives."

He cradled her head and kissed her again. Then, after long moments, he said, "I've been saving the best news until now. Johannason has promised to start our house in October. Pa and the boys will help. One problem though -- it’s our marriage. Why don't we get married next Sunday? I want a quick wedding, not a big wedding, and nothing fancy."

The sudden enthusiastic look on his face troubled her. "Where will we live until the house is ready?"

"I'll find something; but if all else fails, we can stay at one of the hotels. It'll only be for a month or two."

She struggled to get up from under him. "Let me up. Gosh, you're heavy." She laughed as she regained her feet. Then, reaching up, she stripped the chemise off over her head. Turning, she faced him proudly. She was fully naked and unashamed. "Look at me! I've never shown my breasts to a man before. This is what you're getting. Will it be enough for you?"

He had never before seen anything as beautiful. Her slender figure was perfect, firm, with curves in the right places. Her breasts jutted out regally and her entire body was without a blemish. While he watched in awe, she turned and walked the few steps to the river's edge. Her dive into the water was perfect, and it was long moments before she surfaced. When she did, she was nearly in the center of the river. She beckoned him with her hand.

Removing his remaining garments, Ian stepped from a weathered log and joined her. Although he prided himself on being a good swimmer, he found she was like an otter in the water. Try as he might, he could not catch her. Each time he nearly overtook her, she submerged and reappeared some distance away, always with a smile that encouraged him to try again. For several minutes they frolicked in the water, feeling, kissing and teasing until they suddenly became aware of a thrumming sound of a steamboat approaching from the south.

Susan was suddenly startled. "Ian, what'll we do?"

He grinned, "We'll just stay in the water and cover our faces with our hands. It's too late to get to shore."

Standing neck deep near the shore, with only their heads showing, they were subjected to cheering and ribald remarks as the boat came dangerously near them. Both Ian and Susan heard one man cry out, "It's Ian McLaren!"

When the boat was out of sight around the bend, they went ashore, laughing about their experience. Sitting on the blanket to dry, Susan turned to him coquettishly. "Someone recognized you."

"All the more reason to get married soon," he teased.

She fluffed her hair, and then she said, "Well, the priest won't marry us, that's certain. You're a Protestant. Who'll we get?"

"How about Reverend Scott? He's Presbyterian, and broadminded."

"Come here!" She crooked her finger at him. The sun had nearly dried them and the blanket was warm. Arching her neck to him, she reached for his shoulders and drew him down. Her undulations brought an immediate response. She felt his intentness as he took her again.

Lolling and caressing, they finally turned to the lunch, finishing the first bottle of wine, then the second. Susan was surprised at how well they fit together. Her head rested on his arm, her face turned toward him as he fell asleep. She studied every detail of his face -- his firm, straight nose, dark, long eyelashes and curved eyebrows. His lips were parted a fraction, almost tempting her to kiss him. She felt a fierce possessiveness. He's mine and only mine. I'll never give him reason to stray. She wrapped her arm around his waist. Within minutes she too succumbed to the fatigue of their loving and the swimming. They both slept.

The gradual buildup of clouds went unnoticed, and it was not until a faint rumbling began in the west that they awoke. Hurriedly dressing, they repacked the lunch basket and folded the blanket. They climbed to the top of the hill and saw a towering thunderhead moving rapidly toward them from the northwest. The temperature began dropping noticeably, and the wind brought a sudden chill. The leading edge of the storm clouds looked gray-white in color and were rolling wildly. Grasping Susan by the hand, Ian said, "We'll have to run for it. It looks like hail. If it is, the mare won't stand. She'll go wild and head for home."

They ran the half-mile in frantic haste, reaching the buggy just as the gray wall of the storm front was only a quarter-mile away. The wind suddenly reached almost hurricane force as Ian struggled to unhitch the horse. He pointed to the dugout and shouted to Susan, "Open the door. I'm going to get the mare inside." He had trouble, for the animal balked at the dark entrance. Handing the reins to Susan, he urged, "Pull on them. I'll slap her backside." At that instant the first huge hailstones came pelting down. The animal panicked and jumped through the doorway, nearly trampling Susan.

In the semi-darkness Ian held Susan closely as they watched huge hailstones cover the ground outside. Ian remarked in wonder, "It's sure late in the season for hail. Some of those hailstones are large enough to cause serious injury to a man or animal. We're lucky to have found this place. We could have gotten under the buggy, but we would have had to let the horse go home. She might have been cut badly. Call it a hunch, but I figured something would come out of this heat today." Running his hand through Susan's luxuriant hair, he added warmly, "Something wonderful did happen, didn't it?" He tilted Susan's head to kiss her again. Their contact began another surge of passion and

Susan finally drew back, adding with humor, "Not in here, Ian; you'll have to wait!"

After several minutes of hail the rain began, coming down in torrents. Ian sounded mollified. "Thank the Lord the crop is in and the field work is nearly done. Now all we have to do is wait for it to quit raining."

"What time is it?"

"About five o'clock, I guess. Let's wait an hour and if it doesn't let up, we'll have to leave. We've got to get to the ferry before dark. We don't want to get stuck on this side of the river.

Their eyes became accustomed to the dim light and Ian could see his horse near the back wall. The animal was morosely studying the two humans. Rummaging under a crude bench Ian found a wooden bucket with a missing stave. Turning it upside down near the entrance of the dugout, he sat down and drew Susan onto his lap.

When they judged it was long after 6 o'clock, they decided to brave the rain. While backing the horse between the shafts of the buggy, Ian quipped, "We'll look like drowned rats when we get to your place. My fault -- I should have put the top on the buggy." With a wry grin, she answered, "Golly, the rain is cold."

"Come on, climb up and put the blanket over you. It'll get soaked but it'll help some."

The mare, sensing home, a barn and feed, struck out at a brisk trot, occasionally attempting to break into a gallop. Ian was forced to hold her back. Her splashing hooves threw gobs of mud onto them as they huddled together under the blanket.

Within a half hour they were at the ferry, only to find the barge on the opposite side of the river. The rain had diminished somewhat, but Susan was shivering from the cold even though Ian held her close. Almost a quarter hour elapsed before the ferry returned and Ian quickly drove the buggy aboard, then he dismounted to pay the operator. In a hurry to cross the river, he assisted the ferryman by cranking on the propelling winch.

When they drove off the ferry, Ian smiled. "Did you see the look on the face of the ferry operator? We must have looked guilty as hell."

They found Annette the only one at home. She remarked over Ian's wet clothes and began hunting dry apparel for him.

Susan went upstairs, then almost immediately called down, "Ian, come upstairs. You can remove your wet clothes in my room."

Ian was embarrassed, wondering what Annette would think of her daughter urging him up to her room. At the top of the stairs Susan grasped his arm and led him into her small bedroom. She saw the questioning look on his face and smiled. "While you put the horse away, I told Mother we were getting married next week. She's in shock, but happy for me.

Seconds later Annette appeared at the door with clothing. Ian was embarrassed and stood behind the door as she passed them to Susan. He heard her say, "They should fit. They're Pete's, but they're clean."

Descending the stairs together, they entered the kitchen. Annette was filling coffee cups at the table. Placing the pot back on the stove, she approached Ian to embrace him warmly. For long seconds she held him, and then backed away smiling. "I always wanted a son!"

Leaving his horse in Grant's barn for the night, Ian walked home. The rain had finally ceased, but his boots sank deeply into the mud at every step. The pungent odor of skunk hung in the damp air; he guessed a dog must have roused it. Entering the back porch, he removed his boots and wet socks. All eyes were upon him as he entered the kitchen. The sudden warmth and smell of fresh baked bread seemed a glowing welcome. His father was sitting at the table fingering a coffee cup, while Mary and his mother bustled around the oven. When Jerold, Knute and Mike appeared from the living room, a smile came to Ian's face. He wondered what their reaction would be to his announcement. Before anyone could speak, he said quietly, "Susan and I have decided not to wait any longer. We're getting married next Sunday. We want a small, quiet wedding with just our two families."

The smiles that appeared on all of their faces seemed enough reward. His mother and Mary immediately seized him in an affectionate hug. His father slapped him on the shoulder as the boys took turns shaking his hand. Ian knew that with all the questions to follow, and the planning to be done, he would get little sleep this night.

Later, lying in bed, he didn't know that a luckier man ever existed.

The following Sunday morning after church, Reverend Scott followed the two buggies of the McLaren family back to their home. Upon their arrival, Maggy suggested, "Why don't you two have the wedding service on the lawn after we have coffee? The sun is out and it's a lovely day. It's so crowded inside."

"I'd like that." Susan was smiling as she turned to Ian.

Ian looked to her admiringly. She seemed more beautiful than ever. Her glossy hair hung loosely over her shoulders, reaching almost to her waist. Her dark eyes seemed to have a special sparkle and her facial features seemed serene. He knew that her dress, fine green cambric, while stylish, was her best go-to-church-dress. The wide white belt emphasized her narrow waist, and the high lace collar at her neck was trimmed with a white silk ribbon. A single strand necklace of imitation pearls complemented her smooth neckline.

Minutes later they all moved outdoors to the front lawn. Annette stood beside Susan as the ceremony began. She had beckoned insistently to Pete, indicating that he should stand beside her. He seemed reluctant at first; then a smile of pride came to his face; he stepped forward to join her. Joseph Grant had failed to appear.

Marguerite stood hand in hand with Mike. He had timidly approached her and reached to grasp her hand. She had a smile on her face, a look of eagerness and enthusiasm.

Kirby and Mary stood to the side, Kirby's arm around Mary's waist, his smile soft and loving. She felt a warm sense of pleasure and arched her neck back to look at him from time to time. Pressing close to him, she hoped her mother would not notice her aggressiveness. Her dress had a flattering tightness; her hair, combed back, was tied into two braids that extended far down over her shoulders.

Maggy had a proud serene look, completely composed. Her dress was tailored and her smooth hair was gathered and curled upwards at the edges. Patrick was wearing his only suit, the heavy wool Chevoit he had reluctantly purchased for the Christmas Ball at the fort. He looked uncomfortable, as the suit was excessively warm and had a stiff celluloid collar. It was obviously irritating his neck, making him twist from side to side. Maggy noted his movement and reached to grasp his hand, squeezing it tightly. She smiled at him reassuringly.

Jerold stood to Ian's right, clenching the wedding ring tightly in his hand. He was almost jealous of his brother, for Susan was more than just beautiful. She was his dream girl. Someday I hope I can be as lucky as Ian. She's everything I'd want in a wife. His imagination went as far as wishing that Susan had a younger sister.

Knute, a six-foot beanpole now, was dressed in new trousers and a white shirt. His devotion, never to be returned, was to Mary. He was forced to admit to himself that he was too young for her, and that he really liked Kirby. The lieutenant always treated him as an equal in their everyday discussions, especially topics involving farming and animals -- Knute's two main interests.

Maggy found tears forming in her eyes. Land o Goshen, why am I crying? I've just gained another daughter, a beautiful, talented daughter. She had long ago forgotten Susan's heritage; why, she was almost another Mary.

In minutes the ceremony was over; and after the hugging, kissing and hand shaking, the family moved into the house for the family dinner. It was at the table that Patrick provided a surprise. He passed an envelope down the table to Ian, and then waited expectantly. Ian looked puzzled, holding the envelope for long moments.

Susan smiled at him. "Well, open it, Ian. Don't keep us in stitches."

Ian began smiling as he examined the contents. Then he held up two slips of paper. "Two return-trip tickets to Winnipeg on the boats. They are for the Cheyenne." His eyes widened. "Gosh, it's for the Cheyenne that leaves Pembina at 4:30 this afternoon!" He turned to Susan. "Will we have time to make it?" She nodded, and then she turned to wink at Patrick. It became apparent to all that she had been in on the secret. Leaning over, she whispered in Ian's ear, "That's the same boat that passed us in the river last Sunday."

Ian laughed aloud, puzzling everyone. Hugging Susan closely, he whispered back, "That's our secret."

Mary interrupted, "Just think, Ian. You'll miss a wild shivaree tonight." She had a sly look on her face.

He smiled, "Knowing you all, it'll happen after we return."

Before Reverend Scott left the house, he called the newlyweds aside, to say, "This is my last advice to you. Never allow a break between you two to gather time. Mend it before everything is lost!"

Patrick and Maggy escorted the couple to Pembina in plenty of time to catch the Cheyenne. Ian's final words were, "Give us four or five days, Pa. When we get back, we'll be staying at Geroux's Hotel until our house is ready."