The large hand pulled me from my hiding spot.
“Listening to our conversation, farm boy?” Sebastian gripped my neck and pushed his pockmarked face close to mine.
For weeks, this man had tormented me, and now he had caught me sneaking around like a misbehaving child. His companions, Henri and Josef, were eager to witness another display of Sebastian’s legendary foul temper.
“Your ears are too big, Luc. Tell me what you heard.”
“Nothing,” I lied. To tell these men the truth would mean death. To tell them that I heard their plan to murder Nicolas Perrot, our expedition leader, would end my short time as a coureurs de bois, a runner of the woods.
Around the camp, the other men avoided Sebastian and took no notice of us. They busied themselves with unloading the canoes of their valuable beaver pelts.
Here in the woods of New France, the coureurs de bois live by their own laws. Tales of their brawling and wild ways were well known across the colony.
Sebastian was behind many of those tales. He was also second in command of our expedition. With Nicolas gone, Sebastian would grab a larger share of the money from the pelts. I had no doubt that Sebastian’s murder plan was real.
“I think you did hear something, farm boy.” Sebastian tightened his grip on my neck.
“Sebastian!” The large man jumped when he heard his name. Nicolas Perrot hurried toward us across the camp. Sebastian gave my neck one final squeeze.
“Breathe a word to Perrot and you will share his fate.” He shoved me aside and turned to face his boss.
I HAD TO LIE
“Keep pouring pine gum on that crack and your canoe will be too heavy to portage the Birchbreak Rapids tomorrow.” Nicolas Perrot smiled from the far end of my canoe later that night.
Nicolas knew that I was only 16 and too young to be a coureurs de bois. He also knew that another summer on my family’s farm would have been harder than the past two months of back-breaking portages. Under the weight of Sebastian’s secret, I now longed for those boring days back on the farm.
“What is troubling you,Luc?” Nicolas inspected my repair work, smoothing out the pine gum where it was too thick.
“Nothing,” I lied. Again. I could still feel Sebastian’s hand on my neck. The truth stuck in my throat and I was silent for the rest of the night.
The next morning, our camp was awake with activity before the sun had crested the tamaracks. Men worked quickly and quietly, loading their canoes with bundles of pelts and gear.
At my canoe, a paddle painted with a single blue fist leaned against the gunwale. Every man’s paddle was unique, and I recognized this one immediately.
“Don’t stand there like a frightened moose, farm boy.” Sebastian dropped a bundle of pelts into the canoe. “Today, you paddle with me.”
My arms ached at the pace Sebastian set, but I did not complain. We were far ahead of the other larger canoes.
“We’ll scout ahead and keep an eye out for trouble.” He had told Nicolas.
All morning, we navigated the river’s lazy course at a steady, strong pace. Sebastian paddled hard, and I had no choice but to match his strokes.
At midday, we paddled around a bend in the river to see its steady current turn fierce. On the low bank, brightly painted paddles stood upright in the soft sand. At the foot of each paddle was a small cross. Each paddle once belonged to a man, a coureurs de bois. Each cross marked that man’s death at the hands of the waters ahead. We had arrived at the Birchbreak Rapids.
“Portage.” Sebastian announced.
I steered the canoe toward the river bank. Sebastian hopped out, landing knee deep in the water. He tossed his paddle on the beach.
“You know too much, farm boy,” he said and grabbed the canoe’s gunwale. “Tonight, your paddle will join the others on this beach.” With a steady push, Sebastian launched my canoe back into the river and toward the rapids.
Angry white water boiled and splashed in a chaotic stew. I used my paddle to push the canoe away from the fi rst rock. I steered around a second and narrowly bounced passed a third. But I didn’t see the fourth.
I only heard the sickening rip as a rock tore through the bottom of the canoe. It sliced through the wet birch like a trapper’s knife through skin. One by one, the bundles of pelts fell through the bottom and into the river. A rush of water burst up in its place and swallowed me in a single gulp.
I rolled, banged and bounced my way through the rapids. The relentless rush of water pinned me under the surface. My lungs tightened. My head pounded. I was going to die and so was Nicolas Perrot. I was a coward who had feared Sebastian and kept silent when I should have spoken.
From the swirling water, the blue fi st of Sebastian’s paddle hit me in the face. At first I thought it was just another rock. But the paddle hovered in front of me. Someone was holding it steady against the rapids. Someone was trying to rescue me. I grabbed at the paddle. Immediately, I was dragged against the current toward the shore.
A familiar large hand pulled me from the water and dropped me at the river’s edge. I clung to the blue-fisted paddle as I coughed up water.
“Your paddle will not mark the beach this night, farm boy.” Sebastian leaned over me. He sounded relieved but his face betrayed his worry.
Why did Sebastian rescue me? Beside him was Nicolas Perrot. He was out of breath and his clothes wet. “I saw the rapids take you and we rushed down here.” Nicolas helped me sit on a rock. “Had we arrived a few moments later, you would be dead.”
The two men had run the length of the portage trail. They spotted me in the rapids and worked together to get the blue-fi sted paddle out to me. Sebastian’s paddle had saved my life. My cold hands could not let it go.
My head was ringing but my confusion was clearing. Nicolas hadn’t seen Sebastian push my canoe into the rapids. He thought it was an accident, and Sebastian was keeping his mouth shut.
Sebastian! Suddenly, I remembered his plan.
Behind Nicolas, Sebastian stood. In his hands, he held his long skinning knife. I tried to warn Nicolas, but the words stuck in my throat.
Sebastian moved closer, knife raised high.
I swung out with the blue-fisted paddle.
The wood cracked against Sebastian’s head. The skinning knife landed on the rocks. The coureurs de bois fell into the water.
We watched as Sebastian’s body disappeared beneath the swirling stew of rapids.
“He was my friend. But greed will end any friendship,” Nicolas said. He picked Sebastian’s knife from the rocks and a flash of sadness crossed his tired face. “It seems we will be adding a new paddle to the beach tonight, after all.”
Print off last page of this story (scroll back up, it's Image 7 on your left) for the corresponding feature game: The Canoe Race.
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Check the Beaver Index - e.g., coureurs de bois, voyageurs, portages, etc.
Liam O’Donnell writes everything from chapter books to comic strips. His fiction and non-fiction work has appeared in books, magazines and on television screens across North America and Europe. You can find him at liamodonnell.com.
Coureurs de bois (Runners of the Woods) were young men who traded life in the villages of New France for a life among the Native peoples. They were “unlicensed” fur traders.
They wanted to:
1) Make trading agreements with Native peoples.
2) Collect furs and sell them.
They also happened to:
3) Learn the Native peoples’ languages and way of life.
4) Expand the fur trade in Canada.
5) Add to the knowledge of the North American interior.
It started when French colonists first ventured west of the Ottawa River (in the mid-1660s). By 1680 there were about 500 coureurs around Lake Superior.
Because the fur trade was a booming business! Not even the French government could keep these adventurous men out of the woods. The Church couldn’t stop them either. The pious claim that a coureur’s life eroded Christian beliefs was basically ignored during the period.