MONDAY: The Line Cutter

BY NORM ROSOLEN

Copyright is held by the author.

Wednesday, March 28, 1962, North of Great Slave Lake, Northwest Territories, Canada
A LARGE black bear stirs in its den located under a fallen tree. The fall berry crop was poor, and hunger awakens it well before the spring melt. It sniffs blood, mingled with the scent of fire and the scent of a man, and follows the smell through the deep snow to the man’s camp.

Peering through the surrounding trees, it studies the scene. The blood-smell comes from a bird the man has in his hand. The man’s fire is worrisome, but it’s only a small blaze sunk into the snow.

The bear weighs its hunger against the risks. It will eat the bird and the man. As it stands a twig breaks, and the man turns quickly to look in its direction.

***

A bear runs over Jacques Doucet in an instant, charges through the fire, and scatters everything. Jacques’s stunned, then crawls, looks frantically for a weapon, and shouts obscenities. “Merde. Sacre. Tabarnac.

The bear should have kept running because of the fire, but tumbles, rolls to a stop and storms back. It flips 220 pound Jacques over like he’s a doll and slashes with a paw. A claw gets by Jacques’ left arm and gashes his face. The bear sinks its teeth into his arm through the thick wool of his coat and shakes him. Jacques thrashes and bellows, and the bear hesitates for a second.

Jacques’ free right hand brushes the hilt of his hunting knife that was knocked loose when the bear ran over him. It’s a lucky break, and he grabs it with fierce desperation. With all his considerable strength, Jacques shoves the blade into the bear’s chest.

“Fuck you,” he yells.

The animal drops Jacques’ arm, stands, its limbs flailing, and woofs and bellows. Jacques can see the hilt of his knife through the one eye that’s not blood soaked. The blade’s seven inches long. Any man would be finished, and the bear drops, like a felled tree, right on top of him.

Jacques’s pinned by the bear, below his waist, and beats at it with his fist. But it doesn’t move.

It takes forever to drag himself from under the corpse. The bear’s heavy, and every move is agony. Jacques’ left leg is bent awkwardly and hurts as if a baseball bat was laid into it. His face feels numb because it’s a good deep cut. Breathing is painful and his ribs hurt as, hand over hand, he makes his way to his supply packs. Blood dribbles into the packed snow from his face.

He digs out his whiskey bottle and takes a swig, then nibbles two hardtack biscuits, and composes himself. Dusk is settling in, and the temperature is dropping. He needs to deal with his mangled arm and face, so he fishes a t-shirt out of his pack, and holding it in his teeth, rips it in half. He soaks the pieces with whiskey and tapes the wadded-up cloth over the arm wounds and face gash. Jacques grunts with the pain induced by the antiseptic whisky.

The cold penetrates and Jacques begins shivering. He crawls into the tent and under his blankets. His arm aches, but his leg’s not bad if he doesn’t move. Legs and ribs feel all right, and nothing seems broken. The blood flow, from the gash on his face, slows and begins to dry and cake.

Sleep is sporadic, and when it does come, he dreams of the war, of searing pain from a German bullet and shrapnel slicing into him. Jacques tries to shake off the memories of explosions and screaming men. In one fragment, a grim German soldier floats by with a bullet hole through his helmet. The worst part is where Emilie reaches out to him, but she’s too far away for him to take her hand.

Between these bouts of dream-disturbed sleep, Jacques considers his options. The resupply plane will land on Lake Charles, mid-day Saturday. He could stay, but he doesn’t know if he’ll be missed if he’s not at the lake. And even if the pilot decided to look for him, it could be days before they found him, if ever. It’ll be rough, but he’ll hike to the lake, pulling his toboggan.

In the morning, Jacques starts off with a last glance at the dead bear and follows the barely visible trail he made into his camp almost three weeks earlier. He wears a makeshift splint around his left knee and cradles his throbbing left arm. Obstacles, easily managed on the way in, are ridiculously difficult to climb over or around on the way out. He stumbles along, on snowshoes, an old draft horse on its last legs.

The trip takes two days. He falls a few times and struggles in the deep snow to make it back up. Adding to his misery, his wounds fester.

Late the second day, he arrives at the lake, thirsty, hungry, exhausted, and wracked with pain. He lays some boughs and his blankets under a tree by the frozen shoreline. As dusk settles into night, he feels a calm satisfaction. He’s done all he can. Now, it’s up to fortune, good weather and a good plane. His mood’s matched by the starry scene and green undulating curtains across the sky. A shooting star streaks across the blackness, wolves call, and an owl hoots. Soon, he falls into an irregular sleep.

Saturday, around mid-day, the distant buzz of an aircraft catches Jacques’s attention, and he puts green spruce boughs on his fire. Smoke rises straight up, and a silvery, lumbering Beaver bush plane waggles its wings, as it passes low over the lake. Jacques watches it circle then land with plumes of snow swirling behind its skis. The pilot steers the plane as close to Jacques as possible, stops, climbs out onto a ski, and waves.

Wally dons snowshoes, gallops over to Jacques, and helps him stagger to the plane. Wally retrieves two morphine tablets from his first aid kit, and Jacques downs them with a whole thermos of water. After they take off, Wally radios Hay River and tells them he’s changing plans, heading to Yellowknife, and to let Jim Wilson know what happened. He dials Yellowknife and calls in the emergency.

Jacques is comatose when they land, so Wally and the ambulance crew jimmies him out of the plane and places him on a stretcher. Then, they whisk him to the hospital under a yowling siren. The emergency staff removes his stinking clothes, and his makeshift bandages. They swab him clean, x-ray him, hook him up to IVs, and shoot him up with penicillin. There’s no broken bones, so they just put a cast around his knee, and stitch and bandage his arm and face.

***

Jacques awakens in a hospital room. There’s a call-button on the bed frame, and he pages a fresh-faced young nurse named Diane.

She tells him he’s in Stanton Hospital in Yellowknife and has slept for over two days. She listens to his heart and takes his pulse and blood pressure. Jacques likes her touch.

“Your vitals are fine,” she says. “I think you’re overdue for a meal. Mr. Jim Wilson from your company said to give you anything you want.”

“Four eggs, scrambled. And four toast. And four sausages. And oatmeal porridge. Please. And the coffee black, with two big spoons of brown sugar and two on the oatmeal.”

After breakfast and the doctor’s visit, Diane asks, “How are you for visitors?”

“Who?” says Jacques.

“Everybody. You’re a celebrity. The phone’s ringing all the time. A reporter in Edmonton wants to come up, there’s one from our local paper, and the CBC wants to interview you for the national news. We can hold them off, but the Mounties want your statement right away. How’s tomorrow for that?”

“Fine.”

“And you have an old friend here. You might be surprised.”

“No one I remember.”

“She doesn’t expect you to remember.”

“She?”

Diane goes to the door, and a miracle walks into the room.

Mon Dieu,” he says. “Emilie.”

Diane backs out and closes the door.

Emilie walks over and grasps his right hand. After a wordless minute, she lets go and steps back. Her smile sucks the breath out of him.

“You remember me?” says Emilie.

“How could I forget?”

“It was so long ago. And I’ve changed.”

“Not so much,” he says.

Her hair’s the same burnt blond colour, and thick, but shorter now, professional. Her face is only a bit older, her smile is still broad and generous, and she’s still slim and very pretty.

“Last time was 1935,” he says. “Then I left for the lumber camp, and you left for Saint John.”

“I wrote you.”

“I wasn’t too good with the writing.”

“I thought maybe you could answer some way. Maybe get somebody to write for you.”

“I still have those letters,” he says.

“Really?” says Emilie.

Jacques nods.

“I read about you in the Army newspaper when I was in Sussex,” she says. “Sergeant Doucet, Royal 22nd Regiment, wounded in action in Italy. A war hero. I was very proud for you. But it made me cry too, because you might die.”

“A war hero twice. And still alive.” He attempts a bigger smile and winces. “And now here in the bush. Lucky, eh?”

Emilie guffaws.

“I think you should stop testing your luck,” she says.

Emilie tells Jacques about her marriage to Frank in 1939, then as an Army nurse in Sussex, New Brunswick. Frank had health issues and wasn’t accepted for military service. After the War, Frank took a job as chief accountant at Giant Mine in Yellowknife, and she got on as a nurse. They had two boys, Hank and Pete, then Frank died of pneumonia two years ago. She currently isn’t seeing anyone “special.”

“You decided to stay after Frank died?” Jacques says.

“I have a good career here. The winters are long, and I miss Shediac, but this is our home now. So that’s it. You know all about me. I’d like to hear about you, but I think tomorrow. Your boss, Jim Wilson, is arriving tomorrow afternoon, and you can tell both of us what happened with that bear. Jim must be a good friend.”

“Doctor Wilson is good to me,” says Jacques.

“He’s a doctor?”

“He’s a doctor in science. In geophysics. He knows how to find minerals without digging.”

“I’d like to meet him,” says Emilie. “Is that what you were doing, looking for minerals out in the bush, by yourself?”

“No. I don’t have brains for that. I’m a line cutter. I make paths, long straight lines through the bush so the survey crews can do their measures in the summer. They use electricity.”

“The money must be good.”

“Very good. Why else would anybody do it? I have to save because I’m getting too old.”

“You’re only 48.”

“In my business, there’s not too many doing this in their fifties.”

“I understand. We’ll talk some more, but I have work to do right now. Just rest, and I’ll see you in a bit.”

After a light snooze, Jacques takes calls from his family, and then Emilie sees him again. She reassures Jacques she won’t get into trouble.

“Do you remember when we met?” she says.

“May 1933. The Depression closed the logging camps, and I came home and worked on the farm. We met at a dance in the parish hall in Shediac.”

“You were 19, I was 16. You were so big, and so handsome, and the most graceful dancer. That surprised me. I was very attracted to you.”

“Then the next dance and the next one.”

“And you finally held my hand after one year,” says Emilie.

“I was slow,” says Jacques.

“We never kissed, did we?” says Emilie.

Jacques has no answer for that.

“I have to get back to work,” she says.

Emilie pecks Jacques on the forehead and stands back.

“Are you still a good dancer?”

He nods yes and says, “Not bad.”

Emilie turns and leaves, but the feel of her lipstick, the moisture of it, lasts for the longest time, and her scent lingers. His cock is fully erect, and he orders it to lie down.

***

Wally and the RCMP corporal greet Jacques in the morning. Wally hands Jacques the News of the North newspaper with three recent magazines in its fold. There’s a Popular Mechanics, a Time and a Playboy.

“Check the headline,” says Wally.

Logger Rescued After Bear Attack. The accompanying article is only a few lines long.

Jacques’ almost embarrassed and mumbles, “Merci, Wally.” He hides the Playboy under the newspaper.

The Mountie asks some questions, takes notes, and fills out a statement, which Jacques signs without any idea what it says.

Wally and the Mountie excuse themselves and Jacques says, “Thanks Wally. For saving my life.”

“Couldn’t have done it for a better guy, Jock. You’re gonna come out of this just right. Take good care of yourself, old buddy.”

Jacques pages Diane. “I need help to the washroom,” he says. “Please. I need a shave and a new bandage.” He points to his face, smiles and winces.

“Want to look good for the boss?” she says. “Or maybe someone else?” She winks. Jacques blushes.

At about two in the afternoon, Emilie escorts Jim Wilson into his room. Wilson sports a huge grin, holds his arms wide, and feigns a brotherly hug. Jacques asks Emilie to stay.

“Compadre, my best man in the world,” says Wilson. “Glad to see you’re looking so good. I think we’ll fly you right back out there tomorrow.”

“Give me a few days.”

“We’re getting Georges Gallant in to finish it.”

“Georges is a good man.”

“Another story to add to your folklore, mon ami.” Wilson turns to Emilie. “This man killed a bear with his knife, dragged himself with a broken leg ten miles through freezing cold and three feet of snow to his rescue plane. You know, he was a top sniper in the War. In the Van Doos. They gave him the Military Medal. That’s next to the Victoria Cross. And Jacques never lost a fight, and he’s been in a few.”

Emilie’s eyes widen at the mention of fights. Jacques doesn’t need this.

“Yeah,” says Wilson. “Saved me from a beating in the bar at the Territorial. Punched out this huge f, f, fellow. One punch, and this guy, he’s like a mountain, went straight down.”

“Lucky punch,” Jacques mutters and glances at Emilie. She’s not smiling. “He was drunk.”

Wilson leafs through the newspaper and magazines Wally brought. The Playboy’s in Emilie’s plain sight. Jacques groans to himself and glances her way. She’s more smirking than smiling. The hole is getting deeper.

Wilson is oblivious to the effect he’s having and continues to leaf through the Playboy. Why is Wilson doing this to him? Jacques needs to change the subject, but so what? He has as much chance with Emilie as he does of becoming a doctor of geophysics. There’s an awkward pause.

Emilie says, “Are you going to tell us what happened when the bear attacked you?”

Thank God, an escape from the Playboy and his fight history. “Ouai, ouai,” he says, but Wilson’s mouth opens and closes like he’s a gasping fish.

“Sorry to interrupt, Jock. Before you start, you gotta hear this first,” Wilson says. “I’m moving my head office here. All six of us. And my family. Took some convincing, I’ll tell you. Here’s the thing. I need someone who can guide, lead, and teach these scientists of mine how to function up here. You wouldn’t believe how soft they are. The job’s yours. Take some time before you answer.”

Wilson’s excitement tapers off, and he swivels his head between the two of them. Wilson glances at his wrist watch. “Hmm. I have an appointment,” he says. “It looks like I’m running a bit late. Sorry about that, but I better get going. So, I’ll leave you in the capable hands of this lovely lady. You can tell me what happened with that bear tomorrow.” They shake hands, and Jacques, somewhat stunned, tracks Jim’s hasty departure. He looks at Emilie and notes that her forehead and eyes have tightened. Uh oh.

For the first time, since she re-entered his life, Emilie isn’t smiling. She crosses her arms and looks stern. They’re quiet, looking at each other, thinking.

What was the name of the girlfriend he had in England before he shipped off to Italy? And what were the names of those seventeen German soldiers he killed in Italy and a few more in Holland? They gave him a nice medal for that, but the War screwed him up, and the end of the War didn’t fix him.

It was a bleak, black period, and jail was the last straw. After that, he worked at staying straight and sober, and after four more years, and his family’s support, he was more or less respectable again. The depression hasn’t returned for the last six years, but he has a lingering fear he’ll relapse again.

So, what will he tell Emilie if she asks? He’s not ashamed, and he’ll tell her the truth. Everything. Then, she can make up her own mind. But it seems like Emilie has already come to a conclusion. She looks down then back up and runs the tip of her tongue over her lips leaving them glossy and enticing.

Why would a beautiful, successful woman be interested in him, even if they did have those feelings long ago? And he’s not handsome, despite what she said earlier. Jacques knows he’s not stupid, and he can read and write now, even in English, but he is uneducated. Overall, she could do better, a lot better. Then, he surrenders. Despite his many shortcomings, if she wants him, then she can have him, although he’ll never understand why.

Emilie runs a hand over her flat stomach, seeming to smooth her uniform, and leans over to fuss with his bed sheet. She straightens his pyjama top unnecessarily. Her subtle fragrance overpowers his brain and shuts everything out, except for his erection. He slowly pushes his meal tray over it.

“You never tried to take advantage of me,” she says.

“I had to too much respect for you.”

Emilie kisses him on the forehead. It’s a kiss this time, not a peck. Jacques smiles, although his blushing, battered face rebels.

“We’ll need to change that, won’t we?” She touches his nose. “You look good.”

“It got broke,” he says. “Twice.”

“Gives you the rugged look. But no more fights.”

“I don’t do it for years. Too old.” And that’s sort of the truth.

She runs her index finger over his lips. “You have a beautiful mouth. There’s always a smile sitting there, or just behind.” She takes his hand, and matches it to her own. “It’s like a baseball mitt.”

Jacques nods. Is this feature good or bad? He would dearly love to take his big hand and run it over every square inch of her body.

“Drinking, smoking?” she asks.

“I don’t smoke. Well, maybe in the War a little. And I don’t drink too much no more.”

“That’s settled then. My boys want to meet the man who killed a bear with a knife. I’ll bring them to see you on Saturday. I think there’s a lot you can teach them.”

What does he know? Hunting, fishing, living in the bush, come to mind. How about sharpening an axe or knife to where you can shave with it? How about trapping a beaver or dressing a moose? Maybe not. It depends on the boys.

“Bon, très bon.” He notes that he reverts to French when he’s flustered.

Emilie places her hands behind Jacques’ head and brings her lips to his. She kisses Jacques full on the mouth. He raises his head, puts his arms around her and gently pulls her into him. He needs her, wants her so much.

After an eternity that’s much too short, Emilie pulls back, somewhat frazzled, her hair a touch askew. She straightens her uniform, looks bewildered.

“Your hair,” says Jacques, and points to his lips, for her lipstick is smeared. Emilie tries to pat her hair back into shape and gives up.

“I’ll be back tonight after I get the boys looked after. We’ll have privacy. Don’t touch that thing.” She looks at his erection. “I’ve been waiting a long time.”

She gives Jacques two goodbye pecks and leaves with the Playboy magazine.

Next morning, when Jim Wilson visits, Jacques tells Jim he will take the job offer.

4 comments

  1. Dave Moores

    Good stuff Norm! I was right there in the woods with Jacques. Nice bit of canadiana. For me, the piece ran long and the story could have been well told shorter.

  2. Geri Lalach

    This story is very good. I would really recommend, after some pruning, to enter it into some short story contests. I was hooked from the beginning. For me, I would’ve liked more time spent with the bear and Jacques and his return to the lake for pick up.
    It reminded me a bit of “Hatchet”, a wonderful story about a young boy stranded in the Canadian wilderness by Gary Paulson.

  3. Mitchell Toews

    I enjoyed the opening bear attack sequence! After the brief visit to the bear’s POV (fire bad!), we were into the struggle from Jaques’ perspective and it was great!

    I would gladly have read details about his struggles on the hike out. Deets! Smells, temp, sky, wind, snow, sounds, textures, day into night and back again, and his plan — a desperate journey!

    The Playboy bit was funny, telling.

    If shortened, some of the Emilie interaction could be trimmed. If lengthened, more about his post-war life; PTSD, alcoholism, retreat into solitude, living in the bush, etc. I wanted to know more about how he got there – what he felt, fears, regrets.

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