Chapter Three: Spring Melt

Penny didn't mind being called by that name, for it was enough that Le Loup knew she was born Abigail Chalk. He told her to never forget that fact, and to pay no mind to the despicable things Mrs. Parrish told her at the workhouse about her parents.

The latter part of February brought heavy snowstorms and there wasn't much that could be done outdoors, except shovelling snow and fetching firewood. Le Loup split the logs and Penny carried the wood inside. She was getting good at making fires and keeping them well lit.

One night Le Loup helped Penny to read a little story as she lay in her bed of furs and blankets before the fireplace. When the story was finished Penny asked, “How is my reading?”

You're getting better,” answered Le Loup. She was getting better, but she needed help and he sometimes found it tedious to have to interrupt the stories and pronounce so many words for her, and to define them.

Still, Le Loup was beginning to find this test of his patience rewarding. Penny had never been read to before she met him, rarely had the opportunity to hold a book in her hands, until the trapper introduced her to fairy stories, and now she delighted in the realm of the imagination, something that had been denied her by the very real and constant struggle to survive.

Le Loup rolled over on the floor and gazed at the firelight flickering on the rafters, beyond which was only darkness. It was a shabby place, he mused, but he'd seen much worse cabins. Smaller cabins. Colder cabins. Dirtier cabins. Penny made him appreciate that this really was a palace!

He said to her, “I ought to make you a proper bed.”

I like this one, Le Loup,” she replied.

Le Loup then realised the girl had no use for a “proper” bed. All her life she'd slept mostly on cold floors, or in the dirt, or on a pile of straw, in alleyways and doorways. She preferred the warmth of the fireside to a makeshift bed in a cold corner of the cabin.

I'll make one when the warm weather comes,” he said, “and you don't need to lay by the fire anymore.”

When will it get warm?”

Well, it's late February now,” said Le Loup, still fixated on the rafters; “the snow should start melting in April.”

There was a moment of silence, and then Penny, holding the book to her chest, blurted out, “Are you going to send me away?”

Le Loup rolled onto his side and looked at her, and though she displayed no outward sign of fear, he could almost feel her soul trembling.

I have a little money hidden away,” he said. “Not much, but it could bring you back to England, if you want.”

No!” was the immediate response. “I want to stay with you.”

Don't worry, pretty little Penny. You will always have a home with Le Loup. Besides, if I sent you away, Coal would be lonely.” And then he added, “And so would the little bear.”

What little bear?” Penny was curious to know.

This one!” Le Loup took a corner of the bear skin that was covering her and tickled her nose with the fur. Penny giggled, the first time she'd done so in the month that Le Loup had known her, and the smile disappeared from the trapper's face when he considered that it might have been the first time ever. He looked at her face: she was healthier now, had gained a few pounds. Le Loup was glad.

During the next two days he made a pair of snowshoes for Penny from birch and rawhide. It was essential that she be able to travel over the deep snow. They had to dig out the traps and reset the snares.

Le Loup wanted to look in on the Colletts and their children. The immigrants had purchased a log cabin about three miles away, and were having a rough time adjusting to life in the backwoods of Upper Canada. Their welfare was of little concern to the trapper, but he felt it best that Penny know where the closest neighbours were. He and Penny took the sled, though it contained few provisions: some flour and corn meal, brown sugar, some potatoes (which were starting to go bad), a rabbit, a bit of venison, tea and spices.

The trapper and his little ward made it there by mid-morning. Mr. Collett was away at a lumber mill, where he'd managed to find work. Mrs. Collett received Le Loup cordially, though she considered him a beast and wondered why her husband would make the acquaintance of such a man, other than that it seemed prudent to be neighbourly where neighbours were few and distant. She was also surprised to see Penny, whom she at first assumed was the Frenchman's daughter, until she spoke with a British accent.

The family was getting by. They owned a cow, and so were always stocked with milk, butter and cheese, but they were living off of salt pork, sausages, and bread, and it was a good thing that Le Loup could spare some flour and corn meal, as Mrs. Collett was running low.

The lady insisted on feeding her guests before their journey back home, and so they stayed for soup. Penny was quiet, and though Mrs. Collett perceived a wild aspect about the girl, she complimented the child on her relatively good table manners, taught to her by Mrs. Godwin at the Raikes Asylum. After this early lunch, the Collett children – a boy of twelve, a girl Penny's age, and a younger girl – took their new friend to see the stable, where they also had chickens, though they were laying few eggs.

Mrs. Collett asked about Penny, but Le Loup was careful not to say too much, other than that she was an orphan he'd rescued from certain death, and said nothing of the Jowett farm. The girl seemed quite fond of Le Loup, and Mrs. Collett felt less contemptuous of him now.

The stay was brief, as Le Loup had no further business at the Collett place. In return for the trapper's beneficence, Mrs. Collett gave him sausages, lard, maple syrup, milk, and a pair of knitted mittens for the girl. It was an equitable trade that benefited both parties.

The children were called back from the stable, and Penny put on the mittens. They looked out of place, since all her outwear was rawhide and fur. Still, she was happy with them and waved goodbye as she and Le Loup went on their way.

Penny remarked how clear the air was in the forest, used as she was to breathing in factory air and London air. She enjoyed the sweet smell of the pine trees, especially after a snowfall. They saw a lone wolf watching them from a distance, at which Coal barked.

Does he want to eat us?” whispered Penny.

No,” Le Loup answered. “We're not food for them unless they're starving, and he looks well fed. Besides, there's three of us and one of him. He won't bother us.”

Le Loup's words were reassuring, but Penny kept her hand on her knife hilt just the same.

After a late supper Penny asked Le Loup if she could go outside. He told her to bring Coal and to not wander far. There wasn't much chance of that: the forest still held many terrors for her, especially at night.

After what seemed a long while Le Loup went to check on Penny. He found her just outside the door, staring at the night sky to the south, at three stars perfectly aligned, and a red star above them. Le Loup knelt beside her and said, “Maybe those three stars are you and me and Coal.”

Penny continued to gaze: “Can I be the middle star?”

We'll call that one Abigail,” said Le Loup. “But we can only see them in the winter.”


I guess stars have seasons, too.”

You sure have lots of stars in Canada,” Penny remarked.

In the morning Le Loup made pancakes. It was Penny's first experience with maple syrup and she found the concoction delightful.

Afterwards, Penny started cleaning house, as she always did, toiling away as though she were at the workhouse, but Le Loup stopped her.

Come! We're going for a little walk,” said he.

Penny said nothing, but put down the broom. She donned her fur vest and toque, and her knitted mittens, and away they went. Le Loup brought the sled, but it was empty. There was no axe or saw or supplies of any sort, and they went in a direction she'd not been before.

They went through the woods, not too far, and emerged at the top of a small hill that sloped downwards to a clearing, where there was a frozen pond covered in snow. From top to bottom it was clear of obstacles.

Have you ever gone down a hill on a sled?” asked Le Loup.

No,” said Penny.

Well, it's time for little Penny to have fun!”

He instructed Penny to sit on the sled and hold fast the rope. She looked nervous, and fearing that she might jump off half way down, Le Loup sat behind her and took the rope himself.

I'll come with you,” he said, and pushed off. Coal went running after them, wagging his tail.

Penny screamed all the way down the hill as they sped faster and faster, and after reaching bottom they both tumbled off the sled and rolled through the snow. Le Loup was laughing, and Penny begged to go again.

She went down the hill alone several more times, and once again with Le Loup. He liked to hear her laugh.

Early in March it was time to go to Donkin again. The provisions were dwindling, and they were buttering their bread with lard. There hadn't been much luck with the traps of late, but some of the hides from earlier catches were ready. Besides, Crawford still owed Le Loup some money.

They made the long journey to Donkin and the first stop in town was the fur dealer. Le Loup carried in the bundle of hides, accompanied by Penny. Mr. Crawford came from the back room with his sleeves rolled up.

Monsieur Le Loup,” said he, “I see you brought me some pelts. Splendid! Business has been slow lately.”

Le Loup leaned over the counter on his beefy knuckles with a silent, black stare. “Not too slow to pay what you owe me, I hope.”

Crawford adjusted his glasses nervously. “No. I – I have your money.”

Crawford paid Le Loup and the promisory note was signed and filed. He paid in full for the new batch of furs, then , having fetched a bottle from the back, said, “Look here: I was given a bottle of Old Tom, all the way from England. I'd like you to have it.”

Le Loup cradled it in both hands as though admiring a bottle of the finest wine.

There's one more thing: someone was here asking about a trapper and a little girl,” said Crawford.

The proprietor had Le Loup's attention. “And who might that be?”

I don't know his name, but he was a farmer. Came in last week. I told him many trappers come through here with sons or daughters.”

That's good,” said Le Loup.

It's not for me to speak of another man's business.”

Le Loup reckoned that the man at the hardware store must have told Jowett that a trapper had been asking questions about him, and perhaps had spotted Le Loup about town with a young girl. It didn't matter: the only way Jowett would get the girl was over Le Loup's dead body.

He and Penny checked in at the hotel. Le Loup didn't order any food to be brought to the room. He wanted to eat out. He brought Penny to a rough tavern, one of the many public houses, where they would be inconspicuous. The gable-roofed building was faced in clapboards, but inside it was crude as could be: there was just the one room, with timber frames that were mostly unhewn logs, pine benches and stools and deal table all unplaned.

A family, presumably travellers staying upstairs, feasted in one of the corners, away from the growing mob of drunks and ruffians, the children sitting on granite blocks in front of the hearth.

There was a thick little table near that hearth, and there Le Loup and Penny sat. The house meals were limited, so the trapper ordered beefsteak, bread and beer; Penny had never been inside any sort of dining establishment before, so Le Loup asked that she be brought some chicken, pie and cocoa.

The hostess returned with the food in tin plates. “What a lovely girl!” she remarked. Then, turning to Le Loup, said, “Just a word of warning, sir: it tends to get a bit unruly here, if you know what I mean.”

Le Loup nodded his acknowledgement and the lady went away. After supper Penny was sitting at the hearth with the other children, and Le Loup was standing at the bar drinking, listening to a drunken labourer playing a lively tune on the harmonica, while others roared.

Men were arm-wrestling, pinching the bottoms of prostitutes, singing obscene songs. Penny and the other children were enjoying themselves, but the mother gathered up her brood and took them upstairs, reluctantly leaving her husband to drink. Le Loup took Penny back to the hotel.

He put her to bed, which had cotton sheets and a linsey-woolsey cover. “I'm going back out,” said Le Loup, “but I'll be back in a while. Now, get some sleep. We have a long journey tomorrow.”

Le Loup left, locking the door. He went back to the same tavern and found it crowded. He sat on one of the granite blocks by the hearth, where the children had been sitting. It suited him well to sit in the corner, where he could keep an eye out for enemies.

A well-dressed floozy named Sara sat on his knee and they drank whiskey. Le Loup became drunk, and kept eyeing the table on the other side of the room where the toughs were arm wrestling. He rose from his seat and ambled over to the table, just to get a closer look, but accepted a challenge without hesitation. A few placed money on the trapper: the former voyageur was brawny, barrel-chested, unintimidated. Le Loup defeated his opponent, a tall, wiry sawyer, with some difficulty.

One after another he conquered his challengers. A belligerent fellow wanted a rematch, but Le Loup's arm was getting sore and he wished to quit the contest. The man punched him in the eye, and Le Loup broke his nose with a mallet-like fist.

Take it outside, gents!” the proprietor's voice boomed from behind the counter, and he wasn't one to be trifled with. But as one of the brawlers was unconscious, there was no further disturbance to quell.

A trickle of blood ran from Le Loup's brow, and his lovely companion came and took him away. She brought him back to her place, a couple of blocks away, and he didn't return to the hotel until late at night.

At the first light of dawn Penny awoke, and she sat at the window. Northern stars were disappearing, and wisps of chimney smoke hung in the air. It was the same window Le Loup had been standing at the night Penny's friend was beaten with a cane. What a terrible thing to happen! Memories haunted her as she peered out at the snowy street, awful memories, which she tried to suppress. But life was good now with Le Loup, almost magical, and she hoped it could always be so.

The trapper awoke later than usual and splashed water on his face from a wash-bowl. Penny noticed his black eye. “It's nothing,” Le Loup insisted.

After a quick breakfast of ham and eggs delivered by a chamber maid, Penny released Coal from the stable while Le Loup fetched the sled, and they went shopping for provisions and supplies.

The street was bustling with activity, and Penny saw a girl about her age passing by, holding her father's hand. Each turned to look at the other out of curiosity. Penny admired the little girl's coat and bonnet, which were well-made, and her store-bought boots, and the pretty ringlets in her hair; but mostly she noticed the nice doll the girl was carrying. But what a wild little thing Penny must have seemed!

The journey home was a cold one, with a biting wind. At some point, Le Loup put Penny on the sled, which allowed him to move at a faster pace. She marvelled at the Frenchman's strength and stamina, bolstered as it was by the occasional shot of whiskey.

They arrived at the cabin in the evening and made a good fire. That night, while Penny was immersed in her book, an eerie wail arose outside in the distance. “Ghosts!” she yelped.

No, not ghosts,” said Le Loup. “Wolves.”

This was in no way comforting, as Penny was sure the beasts were coming to eat them. Le Loup sat with her and took the frightened girl in his arms.

They can't get in here. Besides, they know better than to come near Le Loup!” He held her till the howling stopped. “Now go to sleep, little one.”

There was less to eat in March. The few potatoes left were no longer fit for consumption, so Le Loup had Penny fetch containers of pickled vegetables from the root cellar. There were cucumbers and sauerkraut, which she enjoyed, but Le Loup had to encourage her to eat the beets, for her good health.

Soon the spring will come,” he told her, “and you can make a garden.”

Penny knew nothing about gardening, but the idea excited her. “What can I plant?”

Anything you like. You'll be in charge.”

The onslaught of snow continued. One morning they found themselves snowed in, and had to go through a window to dig themselves out. But Penny enjoyed all of winter's manifestations, now that she had warm clothes to wear, and would play in the yard for hours with Coal. She even made a snow house, just like Le Loup had showed her, and he was impressed.

One evening while the wind howled outside, Le Loup, with a little help from Penny, made Shrewsbury cakes. It was a simple recipe, requiring only a few ingredients, to which they added raisins. They sat before the fire and ate the cakes, Penny washing hers down with milk, Le Loup with gin.

He looked at Penny as she stared into the flames and nibbled at her treat. He had to wonder: did she feel safe now in his care, or did she live day to day, quietly dreading the misfortunes tomorrow might bring? Her welfare was paramount in his mind now, and he was beginning to feel more human than beast.

Penny finished her milk and set the clay cup on the hearth. Starved for affection, she slid over in front of Le Loup and ventured to lean back against him, hoping that he would receive her warmly. The trapper hesitated, but wrapped his arms around the girl and continued to watch the flames dance.

Do you have children, Le Loup?” Penny asked.

No,” he answered. “I never married.”


I was a voyageur from a young age, always travelling, sleeping under canoes by the river shore or in camps, living like an animal. I quit that life a few years ago and bought this cabin.”

Do you have a mother and father?”

They're dead,” said Le Loup. “I'm an orphan, my little Penny, just like you.”

There was a brief silence, then Penny blurted out: “We have each other.”

Le Loup smiled. “You see? It's not so bad!”

April came and the snow began to disappear rapidly, exposing the ground here and there. Soon Le Loup would be able to paddle his canoe along the nearby river, if the narrower parts were free of ice, saving much time on his excursions to Donkin and elsewhere. Paddling was another skill Penny was eager to learn.

One grey morning Le Loup went to make his usual rounds checking the traps, and he took Coal with him. Penny stayed behind to do her chores, and Le Loup told her not to wander far from the cabin.

After sweeping the floor, Penny took a bucket and went out the door to fetch some water from the river. Almost immediately her wrist was locked in a bony grip, which gave her a fright. It was Mr. Jowett, the farmer, come to claim her. This was a nightmare for the girl, and she was dumbstruck.

Say one word,” hissed Jowett, “and I'll break your arm!”

He peered into the woods to make sure the trapper was nowhere in sight, then, with a violent tug, dragged the girl off. Penny struggled to free herself from his grip, but she was no match for his strength. It felt like the world was crumbling beneath her feet.

She didn't cry out for Le Loup, who was too far away to hear. Instead, in a sheer panic, she tore the knife Le Loup had given her from its sheath and stabbed the farmer's forearm. He gave a sharp cry and let go of Penny's wrist. She ran in Le Loup's direction, still gripping her knife, and Jowett ran after her, holding his bleeding arm and cursing.

Penny ran for her life, splashing through puddles and mud and slushy snow. There was little chance of hiding in the woods, for the trees were barren of leaves. Still, she was able to lose the farmer briefly after running through some pines.

Jowett stopped to catch his breath and to listen. The forest was dead silent, except for drops of water hitting rotted leaves.

Come back to the farm, girl,” he said through gritted teeth. “Ophelia misses you, and we have a big fine meal waiting on the table.”

Penny saw a familiar tree in the distance and, taking a chance, bolted towards it. Immediately, the farmer was in pursuit. Penny made it to the tree and ducked behind the thick bole. Jowett moved forward casually now, confident that the girl had surrendered.

Penny peaked around the tree, and watched as Jowett crept towards her, his face red with rage. She sank lower to the ground, not taking her eyes off his, to draw him closer to her. He was wary only of the girl's knife, and not of the piece of meat dangling above his head. His next step was his last: there was a loud snap, and Jowett howled in awful agony. The fool had stepped into one of Le Loup's steel traps, hidden beneath the leaves!

Penny ran away while the farmer writhed upon the ground and cried out in pain. But the chain and the metal teeth of the trap held fast, and Jowett was a helpless, wounded captive.

At this time, Le Loup was carefully resetting a dead-fall trap, which had already killed a red fox, now stuffed in his sack. He heard nothing himself, but Coal was gazing in a certain direction and gave a telling grunt. Le Loup stood still a moment and listened.

At first there was only the wind hissing through the branches, then the trapper distinctly heard Penny's voice calling his name, but at a great distance.


He prodded the dog, and both raced towards the girl. Le Loup was worried that a wolf or a bear might be after Penny, and he ran as fast as he could. He came to a halt when he found her running towards him, but in her blind haste the desperate girl ran right into her guardian.

Le Loup knelt before her. “What is it, girl?” he demanded.

Mr. Jowett tried to take me away,” Penny gasped, trying to catch her breath. “But I ran, and now he's caught in a trap.”

Le Loup noticed the knife in her hand and restored it to its sheath.

Show me,” he said.

They hurried along the familiar route back towards the tree where Le Loup kept the steel trap, and even from a distance they could hear Jowett bellowing like a wounded ox. They found him lying on the wet ground, staring upward. Coal barked at the unusual catch.

Please, sir, help me,” Jowett pleaded, shivering in the chilly air.

Le Loup squatted a little distance away, silent, as if assessing the situation, and little Penny stood behind him. Finally, he said, “It was clumsy of you to step in one of my traps. There are wolves running about. If they should find you here, that would not be good!”

I beg you, sir!” the man replied.

Your name is Jowett, is it not?” asked Le Loup. The farmer didn't answer. “You've been a cruel master to this girl, so that she risked perishing in the snow rather than spend another day on your farm.”

She's my servant,” said Jowett through chattering teeth, “indentured to me until she turns eighteen. I paid for her voyage. In return she learns a trade, and is fed and clothed and sheltered. She signed a contract!”

Le Loup stood up and said, “I have work to do.” He turned and began walking away.

No!” hollered the farmer. “I release her. The girl is yours. Only don't leave me here.”

Le Loup came back. “Here's what you'll do: you'll sign an agreement; in return, I'll release you and try to take you to Donkin by canoe. You'll tell the doctor you stepped in a trap, nothing more.”

Yes,” Jowett agreed.

Le Loup instructed Penny to take Coal and fetch the sled from the cabin, as well as ink and any piece of paper she could find – a blank sheet torn from a book, if necessary. She ran off with the dog.

Le Loup clamped down on the double springs of the trap and released Jowett's leg, which was cut in three places by the metal teeth. “It's broken,” said Le Loup. He tore off a piece of the farmer's shirt and bandaged the wound.

Penny returned and Le Loup read out loud as he wrote with a quill: “I, Robert Jowett, farmer, am hereby freeing Abigail Chalk, a servant girl from England, from her contract, and into the care of Audric Le Loup, trapper, in exchange for a personal favour. April 8th, 1834.”

He had Jowett sign as best he could, then put his own signature as witness, as did Penny, who very slowly printed out “Abigail Chalk”, with Le Loup reminding her how to spell it.

With little delicacy, Le Loup threw Jowett onto the sled, then dragged him through the slush back to the cabin, where he would have transferred him to the canoe had the farmer not made an alternate suggestion.

I came here by horse and wagon,” said Jowett. “My boy is waiting in the woods. He'll take me to a doctor I know, closer to my home.”

Le Loup brought Jowett to his wagon, about a quarter of a mile away. A young boy was wandering about, waiting. He was shocked to see his father returning all bloody. With a heave Le Loup threw the farmer into the wagon, with the straw and dirt and tools.

It's best that you stay far away from here,” said the Frenchman. “You don't want to accidentally step in another trap.”

I thank you, sir,” said Jowett, “for saving my life.”

The boy covered his father in a blanket and drove away, and Le Loup watched until the wagon was gone from his sight. The farmer was of no concern to Le Loup, now. He got what he deserved.

The trapper went back to the cabin and found Penny sitting before the fire with the dog, too upset to do her chores. “Jowett will bother us no more,” said Le Loup. “I must tend to my traps. Coal will stay with you.”

Evening came and Penny was still quiet, but at Le Loup's behest she stood before him as he sat in his chair and gave every detail of the encounter with Jowett, how she lured him into the trap. A slight smile of amusement came to Le Loup's face.

You did good,” he said, holding her hands. “What a brave and clever girl you are. If we ever meet him in town again he'll go the other way. I'm sure of it.”

I was scared,” said Penny. “I thought I would never see you again.”

You mustn't worry about that, my little Penny. No one can take you away from Le Loup.”

She felt much better now. Le Loup made her some cocoa and they sat by the fire. The cup had no handle, so Penny held it in both hands and sipped the hot beverage. Afterwards it was time for bed, and when Le Loup had covered her up she said, “Thank you for keeping me, Le Loup.”

Penny turned on her side facing the fire, and in the light looked at her coin which she laid on the bear skin. She couldn't read the inscription, written in another language altogether, but it was an 1826 penny. The king was uninteresting to look at; however, she liked the side with the woman, who was holding a shield and a spear. Le Loup gave her the coin, and she would always keep it because it was her lucky penny.

(end of part 3)

(The End...for now)


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