A surprise check in at a northern teacherage reveals a disturbing situation that deepens.
| The snowstorm had ended sometime during the night and yesterday’s somber cloud cover had given way to a vast canopy of blue. The morning sun, still low in the sky, cast long shadows across the pristine blanket of snow that covered the partially treed landscape. It was bitterly cold, and except for the car, nothing was moving.
The car held two men. The driver, Greg Taylor, was a superintendent of schools for the Federal Department of Indian Affairs. A veteran of 30 years in the system, he was about to retire and was using his last few days of service to make one final circuit of his territory, savouring his goodbyes and, at the same time, introducing his successor, Ross Watson, to whoever he thought might matter.
Taylor had to concentrate on his driving, for the new snow had covered the road and filled the ditches so evenly that he could not be sure of where the road surface actually lay. He could only steer a course approximately midway between the barbed wire fences or the thin walls of trees that lined both sides of the road allowance. “This new snow makes a pretty picture, but I’d gladly trade it for a clear track that I could follow.”
“For sure,” Watson agreed. “And the glare on the snow doesn’t help either. I’m sitting here with my eyes half-shut.”
“Yeah. I always try to have sunglasses with me. Especially in winter. They’re part of my winter driving gear just like my parka and my mitts. Nobody should go out this time of year without survival equipment.”
“I guess you’re right. There are some long lonely roads out here.”
“You better believe it. Cars these days are pretty reliable, but you shouldn’t put too much confidence in them. They can still break down or get you stuck in a snowdrift.“
“Or a mud hole. I wonder how these new ones with the automatic transmissions will work if you want to rock yourself out of a mud hole.”
“I dunno. It’ll be awhile before you find out. Don’t expect his Majesty‘s government to spend an extra buck just so you won’t have to shift gears. Back before the war, we were lucky to get a car with a heater. On a cold day, I’d have to drive with the window partway down to keep the windshield from fogging over.”
“Guess we’ve all gone through that. This car seems pretty comfortable.”
“It’s a ‘48 and not too bad. Except for trimming it’s pretty well the same car as before the war - just like the ‘40s and the ‘41s. But I like it. It’s the first new car I’ve had since 1940.”
Taylor slowed as they approached a crossroad. In one corner of the intersection there was a squat ramshackle structure built mainly of logs, but with an elongated addition of sawn lumber stretching out from the rear. There was a hand-operated gasoline pump in front and several stacks of fence posts off to one side. White smoke curled from a metal chimney jutting out from the roof of the log portion. “A filling station out here?” queried Watson. “I’ll bet he hasn’t sold 50 gallons of gas since Christmas.”
Maybe not a lot of gasoline this time of year, but he’ll have done a nice bit of business just the same. This place is much more than a filling station. It is the heart of the community out here. Morris Nussbaum was here well before most of the homesteaders. He started up as a trading post. Sold to the Indians whatever they needed: traps and guns and ammunition; knives and pots and pans; blankets; flour, tea and tobacco. In exchange, he took in furs and seneca root. Then, when the homesteaders started coming in, he’d organize crews of Indians to pick roots off the cleared fields or cut fence posts or do anything that needed to be done. He has quite a big stock of goods ... real good prices on fishing tackle, and a lot of loyal customers.”
“Not at all. All the local farmers buy from him. And a lot of people from town – even Prince Albert – come out here to buy stuff you can’t find anywhere else. It makes a nice outing on a summer evening to put the kids in the car and drive out here to the Crossroads Store, even if it’s only to buy some ice cream. There is a fair-sized lake in behind those trees with a nice beach and a picnic area. It’s a pretty popular place all summer long, especially on Sundays. Morris and his wife are good sorts. They’ve worked hard all their lives and they’ve made a good living for themselves.”
“Did they raise a family out here?”
“Sure did. Three boys and a girl. All spaced evenly apart - one every four years - and all of them educated and doing well.”
“Are any of them still around here?”
“Good Lord, no! While they were growing up, they all helped out in the store. They took their schooling by correspondence with the bigger kids helping the younger ones. Then they all helped put the oldest one through University. When he graduated and went to work, he helped out with the next one. They all made it. The youngest one is a doctor in Winnipeg. The girl is in Ottawa. If she were a man, she’d be a deputy minister by now. Another boy is an engineering professor in Saskatoon. The oldest is a chartered accountant. He was in the army during the war, a major in the Paymaster Corps. He married the only child of a man who owns a meat packing plant in Vancouver. That’s where he is now, running the family business.
“It’s an interesting place,” Taylor continued. “On our way back, if it isn’t too late, we’ll drop in there and you can meet Morris and his missus. I took my son-in-law and grandson in there just before Christmas and we bought the kid a pair of Tackaberrys - as fine a pair of hockey skates as we could get anywhere. He’s a big kid and one hell of a hockey player – in his last year as a peewee. He’ll be moving up to bantam next year and should have a good pair of skates.”
“Kids grow so fast, he’ll likely need a new pair next year.”
“If he does, I’ll see that he gets ‘em. Scouts start noticing talent at the bantam age. If my grandson gets passed over, it won’t be because he doesn’t have a decent pair of skates.”
“The owners here must be getting along in years.“
“Oh yeah. The kids are all urging them to retire and move to a city but the old folks aren’t in a hurry. They like what they’re doing. They’re a great couple and you’ll enjoy them. But, right now, we’d better keep on our way. Our priority is to visit Tall Pine School, where you’ll have the pleasure of meeting Miss Jane Schiller.”
The school stood apart from an untidy scattering of decrepit cabins, some made from logs and others from rough-cut lumber. There didn’t seem to be anyone out and about, for the new snow have not been disturbed. But for the smoke escaping from the stove-pipe chimneys, one could have thought the settlement to be deserted.
The L-shaped school building served a double purpose. The main part of the structure, the L’s stem, was the classroom, while the L’s foot provided living quarters for the teacher. Each section had an ample front step giving access to an entry door. The snow had not been swept from either set of steps and there were no footprints. Nosed in beside the steps to the teacherage was a blue sedan, its roof and hood bearing a thick mantle of snow. The two men ascended the school steps. Taylor showed his irritation. “Dammit! With these people, anything is a reason for staying away from school. After this snowstorm, I should have known that attendance would be zero. But let’s have a look in. Miss Schiller will be glad to see us.” He opened the door and they looked in. There was no one there.
“So-oo, let’s check on the teacher.” They descended the school steps and climbed the ones leading to the door of the teacherage. Taylor knocked. There was no response. They waited a moment and knocked again. There was still no answer. “Well, hell! What do you make of this? She can’t have gone anywhere because her car is right there. It hasn’t moved – at least not since yesterday. What do you think?”
“I think we’d better look in,” Watson advised. “Maybe she needs help. She might be lying in there sick or in some kind of difficulty.”
Taylor nodded. “You’re right. Let’s go in.” He tried the door. It was locked. He knocked thunderously and tried the door again. “Anyone home?” he shouted. The house remained silent.
“Allow me,” said Watson and he motioned Taylor aside. Then, placing himself at just the right distance, he raised one foot to doorknob height and, rocking forward, smashed the sole of his size twelve boots against the door. There was a heavy thump, the brief sound of splintering wood and the door burst inward.
The men found themselves confronted by a heavyset woman. Her short blonde hair was curly, but in disarray. She was wrapped in a light blue bathrobe belted around the middle with a braided rope of navy blue. Visible below her robe were broad bare feet and thick ankles. One hand was clutching the front of her robe and the other was raised to cover her mouth as if to suppress a scream.
Taylor spoke first. “Oh Miss Schiller! Thank God you’re all right. We were worried about you. Sorry if we frightened you, but we felt that we had to come in.”
Miss Schiller lowered her hand. “You didn’t wait,” she said accusingly.
“No, I’m afraid we didn’t wait very long,” Taylor conceded. But we thought you might be caught in an emergency of some kind. Are you all right?”
“Yes, I’m ... no ... I’ve been sick. The flu. Since last week. Thursday.”
“And how are you getting on? Have you seen a doctor? Do you have anyone to look after you? Is there anything that we can do for you?” Taylor was all solicitude.
“I ... I didn’t know it was you. I thought it might have been ...” and her voice trailed off.
Watson spoke up. “If you have the flu, we’d better get you out of this cold doorway. Like it or not, we’ll have to come in for a few minutes ...at least long enough to fix this door. We can’t go away leaving it in this condition. We’ll patch it up and you can go back to bed.”
“Right,” said Taylor, “this cold draft can’t be doing you any good. We’ll come in and size up the damage we did to your door. I have a tool kit in my car. A hammer and a few nails is all I’ll need to make a temporary repair. Then I’ll have one of the maintenance men come out to do the job right.” He gestured toward Watson. “But I should introduce you to my associate. This is Ross Watson. He has just been appointed as superintendent and he’ll be taking over from me in just a few days. And Ross. Meet Miss Jane Schiller. Miss Schiller came all the way from Ontario last August to take charge of Tall Pine Day School.’’
Miss Schiller didn’t seem to notice the hand that Watson extended toward her. There was a growing awareness that she might have been wronged. This was a forced entry. An invasion. For no reason. Her face hardened and her pale eyes chilled. “You broke into my place … my home. You had no right …”
But Taylor broke in. “You are absolutely right. I see that now,” he soothed. “But our intentions were good. For all we knew, you might have been lying there unconscious.”
“Or worse,” added Watson. “Maybe even dead.”
”We really had no choice,” Taylor placated. “Now I’ll just fix this door as well as I can and we’ll be on our way and out of your hair.”
“You don’t need to fix the door. I can do it,” she began, but Taylor had already turned to go out to his car.
“We’re really sorry about this,” Watson apologized to the increasingly surly Miss Schiller.
She glared at him. “You don’t need to stay. The door is okay. It can stay like that for a few days. Anyway, I can fix it.“ She turned her back.
Taylor was soon back with his tools and a short pole cut from a young popular. One end of the pole forked to form a shallow Y. “Just prop this pole against the door with the fork under the knob. Then nobody can kick your door in the way Mr. Watson just did.“ Taylor was doing his best to allay the resentment he could read in Miss Schiller’s sullen demeanour. He gathered up his tools and a few scattered splinters of wood. “Okay, I think this does it for now. So, Mr. Watson, we can now ask Miss Schiller’s forgiveness, bid her farewell and get on our way. But I’ll have to check the school register and sign it just to show that I was here, so we’ll go out through the school.“ Two long strides brought him in front of the middle of three interior doors. He reached out to open it.
“No! Not that door,” gasped Miss Schiller. “That’s my pantry.”
But Taylor had already pulled the door wide open. And there, slack-jawed and quaking with fear, stood an Indian boy. Stark naked. Skinny. Both hands down covering his genitals. There was a sharp intake of breath throughout the room and a long second of silence. Then the boy slid around Taylor and spurted towards the entry door.
“What the hell!! Ross! Stop him! Catch that kid.” But the boy eluded Watson’s grasp and was out the door and down the steps in what seemed like one frantic leap.
The two men rushed to the door and saw the boy sprinting across the clearing towards the little cluster of cabins, seemingly unimpeded by the depths of the new snow. “Watch him, Ross. Watch where he goes. We’ll have to get that kid. I need to talk to him. Don’t let him get away,” Taylor commanded. The boy disappeared into a cabin.
The two men turned to face Miss Schiller. Taylor swelled with suddenly assumed authority, all trace of affability gone. “Miss Schiller, go and get dressed. We have to talk.“ Then, turning to Watson, “Ross, would you find that kid and bring him back here? No, he’s naked. We can’t drag him out in the cold. Stay with him and talk to him right where you find him. Maybe his parents are there. Find out all you can.”
Watson turned to go and then start. “The boy will want his clothes. He won’t talk to me if he’s naked.”
Taylor concurred. “You’re right. Miss Schiller, fetch the boy’s clothes and give them to Mr. Watson. Then we’ll settle this matter. Right here and now.” He accompanied Watson to the door and faced him, grinning ruefully. “Sorry to involve you in this mess. It’s my problem, but I hope you won’t mind helping me out. I want to have this all settled and done with before we leave here today. I know what I’m going to do. We saw what we saw and there’s only one explanation. But we’ll need some sort of confirmation from the boy. Can you get it for me?”
Miss Schiller, now wearing slacks and a sweater, appeared and wordlessly handed Watson a small bundle of clothing.
“Is this all?” asked Watson. “No Parka? No boots?”
“He wears moccasins,” was her curt reply. “And his parka isn’t here. Maybe it’s in the school.”
Following the boy’s footprints, the bundle of clothing under his arm, Watson slogged through the snow to the cabin in which the boy had sought refuge. He knocked. The door opened immediately and he went inside.
Two hours later, Watson was back in the teacherage. Miss Schiller was nowhere to be seen. Taylor was seated at the kitchen table. He motioned to indicate that Miss Schiller was in the bedroom. “I believe we’ve settled things at this end. Miss Schiller has had an urgent call to return to Ontario and I have accepted her resignation as of the day before yesterday. So today she is not a teacher in the employ of the federal government nor is she a bona fide tenant of this residence which is reserved for the exclusive use of our teachers. She is a squatter with no right to be here. So whatever was going on here this morning was not between a student of ours and his teacher, but was between two trespassers.”
“Miss Schiller tells me that she arrived here in August with only a couple of suitcases. It won’t take her long to pack. That’s what she’s doing now. We will escort her to Prince Albert and that will bring this sorry business to an end.”
“But the boy is a student,” Watson pointed out. “At least that’s what he told me.”
“Not if I say he isn’t,“ retorted Taylor. “He showed up here back in November and our Miss Schiller did not enter him properly in the school register. There is no record of his attendance here. He can become a student tomorrow if he likes, but today we don’t know him. He is nothing to us. This business is over and done with.“ Taylor nodded emphatically and tilted backwards in his chair.
“I see,” mused Watson. “Over and done with is it? Would you like to hear what I found out? I’ve been busy too, you know.”
“Of course. You went down there to get information and I want to hear it. What did you find out?“
“Well, his name is Richard Smoothstone – Dick to his friends – and he will be fifteen years old in April. He came here from Qu’Appelle last fall to stay with an aunt because his mother had taken off to Montana with a new man. Richard has been under Miss Schiller’s ... ah ...protection since just before Christmas.”
“How do you suppose that got started?”
“I suppose that she was just looking for someone and there he was. She fancies him and that was it. His auntie wasn’t looking out for him very well. I think Miss Schiller has a kind of ‘take charge’ personality and the poor kid didn’t have much of a chance. And besides, she did offer a powerful incentive.”
“An incentive? You mean something other than the pleasure of Miss Schiller’s loving embrace?”
“Now Greg, just listen and I will tell all. As I just told you, Dickie boy came Qu’Appelle. He learned to play hockey down there. He loves the game and, from what these people told me, is very good at it – certainly far better than any of the kids he played with on the reserve. Someone noticed him and last year he was invited to play with the bantam team in town. Apparently the team went all the way to the provincial finals and he was their top scorer.”
“And then he had to come up here, bringing only the clothes on his back. He had no hockey equipment, not even skates.“
“Oh yeah. And they play hockey here out on the lake. They put up a board fence as soon as the ice is thick enough.“
“Exactly. And there he is, the best young hockey player in the whole northeast having to get along with whatever cast-off equipment he can scrounge.”
“I’m beginning to see. Is this where Miss Schiller comes to the rescue?”
“Right on! Miss Schiller promised to supply everything for a complete hockey outfit right from the jockstrap out. Stuff the kid had only dreamt of owning. And he’s a Chicago Blackhawks fan. You know – Max and Doug Bentley – so along with everything else, the kid wanted a Blackhawks jersey.“
“I can understand that. Did she come across?“
“Not as readily as he did.”
“Just what do you mean by that?”
“Well, he gave his all at their first private session, but he didn’t get the whole package all at once. He had to earn it a bit at a time. First the shin pads, then the shoulder pads, then the gloves and so on. He has everything now except the skates and a new stick. The first stick got broken. He might have got the skates tonight if we hadn’t happened to turn up.“
“Christ-almighty! What a situation! So the skates are here?“
“So he says. She has them. He’s seen them. Tackaberrys. Apparently your Crossroads merchant has sold two or three pair out here this winter. They are viewed as reverently as the bones of a saint.”
“Well that kid has certainly earned them. Poor little fart.”
“Don’t feel too sorry for him. Apparently he’s done his bit of swaggering around, enjoying his role as the teachers stud.”
“Of course none of this is a secret.“
Taylor sat thoughtfully stroking his chin. Then he turned toward the bedroom and shouted, “Miss Schiller, can you hear me?“ Miss Schiller could. She appeared in the doorway, now dressed for travel. “Miss Schiller, have you packed those Tackaberry skates?“ Miss Schiller turned back into the bedroom only to emerge a moment later with the skates still in their carton and an immaculate hockey stick. She dropped them on the floor and silently returned to the bedroom.
Taylor addressed himself again to the bedroom door. “Miss Schiller, I see your car keys right here on the kitchen counter. Mr. Watson and I will start your car and warm it up for you. If it needs a boost, I have booster cables with me. We’ll follow you to Prince Albert. If we are to get there before dark, we should start out within the next half-hour. But first, Mr. Watson and I are going to deliver the Tackaberry skates and the stick to Richard.“ Then he turned to Watson. “I still think the kid has them coming.“
Something over a year went by. Taylor and Watson met by chance in a Vancouver shopping mall, their first encounter since their visit to Tall Pine Day School. They went for coffee.
Watson seemed to have a private joke. He said, “I’m sure you remember our visit to Tall Pines School that cold winter day a year ago.“
“How can I forget?“
“And the delectable Miss Schiller?“
“Well, she’s back with us.”
Taylor couldn’t conceal his astonishment. “Back? At Tall Pine? Surely not! She wouldn’t dare. Not teaching I hope.“
“No, she’s given up teaching. She’s her own boss and nobody can fire her now. You see, she’s the new owner of the Crossroads Store. And young Dick is the captain of the Tall Pine Blackhawks, the best dressed hockey team in the entire northeast.“