A Glibertarians Exclusive: North Country, Part I
Fort McKay, Alberta, June 1946
Corporal Ted Paige brought his old 1923 Grey-Dort touring car to a halt on the shoulder of the road, on a small rise overlooking the town. It was a clear, chilly day. The Athabasca River lay off to the right. A breeze stirred the leaves of a small stand of birches between the road and the river. Ahead, past the town, Ted could see a big expanse of spruce. He had arrived, here in the north country, and the little town looked just as his friend described it.
Ted had driven for two days to cover the three hundred miles from Edmonton to the Indian settlement which now lay before him. The battered old vehicle wasn’t really up to the trip, but it had been all he could afford. His demobilization pay from his service in the South Alberta Regiment hadn’t been all that generous.
At least it’s Canadian-made, he reminded himself. Not a Yank car. During the war he had been a gunner in a US-made tank, an M4 Sherman. The Shermans had replaced the Regiment’s old Canadian-built Ram tanks early in the war, but that didn’t relieve him of his preference for what was left of the Canadian automobile industry.
He pulled a wrinkled envelope out of his pocket. There was only a name on the sealed envelope: Penelope Testawich. The envelope bore no address. Ted knew only that the woman lived somewhere on the Reserve north of the village.
Ted Paige’s best friend, Albert Maskwa, had told him all about Penelope Testawich, except where precisely she lived. But he was in the right place, coming to the end of a trail that had begun in France, two years earlier.
He put the car back in gear. There was an old general store ahead, hopefully someone there would know where he could find the woman he sought. The old car’s tires ground in the gravel on the shoulder (tank treads grinding and squeaking, the big radial tank engine roaring) as he moved the car back onto the road.
The general store was dimly lit. An old Indian stood behind the counter, framed with jars of hard candies and cartons of cigarettes. He looked up with a narrow gaze as Ted walked in.
“Help you?” the old man asked, looking at Ted suspiciously.
I should have worn my uniform, Ted thought. A veteran might get a better greeting in a little town like this. “Pack of Players,” he said. The old man handed him a pack. As he paid for the smokes, Ted pulled the envelope out of his jacket pocket. “I’m hoping you can help me. I’m looking for a woman named Penelope Testawich. I understand she lives near here.”
The old Indian looked even more suspicious. “Why are you looking for her?”
“Do you know her?”
“I run the store. I know everybody.”
“You know Albert Maskwa?”
“I do. He joined up in 1942. Haven’t seen him since. Where is he now?”
Ted looked down at the floor. The memory was still hard to face (the sudden SLAM of impact, metal screeching, the wash of flame over the interior of the Sherman, scrambling madly out of the hatch, landing hard on the cool ground, and rolling frantically away from what Ted suddenly remembered the Krauts had derisively called the ‘Tommy-cooker’, the buzz of a Kraut machine gun and bullets whipping by overhead, the cold water of a roadside ditch) and so he took his time lighting a cigarette.
He took a drag on the smoke and answered. “Where is he now? By now he should be in the Bretteville-Sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery in France. He was killed in November of 1944.”
“Oh. So, you served with him?”
“I did. He was a tank driver, and I was a gunner in the same tank. C Squadron, 29th Canadian Armored Reconnaissance Regiment. We got hit. I got out. Albert didn’t.”
“He was my best friend. My brother.”
The old Indian grunted. A young woman came in with two children in tow. Ted politely stepped aside so she could present her shopping list to the old man, who quickly bustled about selecting items, adding up the total, and taking the young woman’s money.
When the young woman left, the storekeeper went back to his spot behind the counter. “If you were Albert’s friend, then you’ll know that Penelope was his intended. He will have told you. Are you here to talk to her about Albert?”
Ted pulled the envelope out of his pocket. “After the Falaise Gap, Albert and I each wrote a letter. I wrote mine to my parents, down in Edmonton. Albert wrote to Penelope. We each kept each other’s letters. We each agreed that if we… got hit, the other of us, we would deliver the letters in person.”
The old Indian looked at Ted. “That you did this, the two of you, that is a good thing.” He considered Ted through squinted eyes. “This town, this community, it’s a small community. We look out for one another. If anyone came to this place with bad intentions, they wouldn’t leave again.”
“I’m sure that’s true,” Ted agreed easily. “I have no bad intentions. I came only to deliver this letter, to talk to her about Albert, and then I’ll go back home. I made a promise. I aim to keep it.”
“I believe you. Penelope, she lives up in the Cree settlement north of town. Take the road north. Take your second left. Go about ten miles. You’ll see a little white house on the north edge of a meadow, tucked in against the trees. You’ll find her there.”
Ted thanked the old man and turned to go. The old Indian called after him: “What if both of you had gotten hit?”
Ted stopped in the doorway and looked back. His shoulder, as if in sympathy, twinged; Ted reached to rub the scar that a German grenade fragment (the cold dark night, trying to get some sleep in a ‘fart-sack’ under the tank, the hard ground, the sudden burst of shots and bursts as German infiltrators attacked the bivouac site with sub-machine guns and grenades, scrambling for his revolver, the sudden flowering of pain in this shoulder as a grenade burst next to the tank, his arm dropping useless, the feeling of being dragged into the tank through the floor hatch) had left.
“Then nobody would have gotten a letter,” he said.
The old Indian pursed his lips and nodded. “Then it is a good thing you did not.”
Outside, Ted climbed in the old car. He pressed the starter button, but the car only replied with an anemic buzz. Sighing, he got out, reached into the back seat, and got the crank handle. He set the spark down low and opened the manual throttle a little, then cranked the car to wheezing life. Tossing the crank handle back into the back seat, where it landed next to Ted’s battered old suitcase and stained Army sleeping bag, Ted climbed back in and took the road north.
The road was dusty and lightly graveled. Ted counted, took the second road left, but had to guess at the ten miles the old Indian had mentioned; the old Grey-Dort’s mileage counter was broken. But in time he arrived at what could only be the house the storekeeper had described.
There was no real laneway up to the house, only a vaguely defined wagon track. Ted pulled off the road and walked up the track towards the house, through a field of fireweed. The house was small, no more than ten by twenty; calling it “white” was a bit generous, as it clearly had not been painted for years. A small stovepipe vented white wood-smoke to the clear blue sky. To the side of the house there was a large garden, where a few chickens pecked lazily around. As he approached, a dog started barking. He could hear a woman’s voice calming the dog. As he stepped onto the house’s tiny porch, the door opened.
Penelope Testawich proved to be a small woman, with long black hair, sad black eyes and delicately defined cheekbones set in in a heart-shaped brown face. She was wearing men’s trousers and an old un-dyed cotton work shirt. “You lost?” she demanded.
“No,” Ted said. He extended the letter. “I brought you this.”
She took the envelope. “That’s Albert’s writing.” She looked up at Ted. “He’s not coming back, is he?”
“No,” Ted said again. “He’s not. Miss Testawich…”
“Call me Penelope.”
“All right – Penelope. My name’s Ted Paige. I’m from Edmonton. I was the gunner in the tank Albert drove. He was my best friend. Albert was killed in November, year before last. It was… Well, it’s a long story.”
Penelope looked at the envelope. She wiped away a single tear, then opened the envelope and scanned the single page.
“You’d better come in,” she said at last. “I was about to make something to eat. Are you hungry?”
“I could eat,” Ted said.
“Then come on in.”
She stepped back out of sight, into the dark interior of the house. Ted followed her in.
If you’re travelin’ in the north country fair
Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine