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The Deserter

The Deserter

by Douglas LePan
series edited by Michael Gnarowski
introduction by Scott Rayter
also available: eBook
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Settlers of the Marsh

Settlers of the Marsh

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
also available: eBook Paperback
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On the road leading north from the little prairie town Minor two men were fighting their way through the gathering dusk.

Both were recent immigrants; one, Lars Nelson, a giant, of three years’ standing in the country; the other, Niels Lindstedt, slightly above medium size, but compactly built, of only three months’. Both were Swedes; and they had struck up a friendship which had led to a partnership for the winter that was coming. They had been working on a threshing gang between Minor and Balfour and were now on their way into the bush settlement to the north-east where scattered homesteads reached out into the wilderness.

It was the beginning of the month of November.

Niels carried his suitcase on his back; Nelson, his new friend’s bundle, which also held the few belongings of his own which he had along. He wore practically the same clothes winter and summer.
Above five miles from town they reached, on the north road, the point where the continuous settlement ran out into the wild, sandy land which, forming the margin of the Big Marsh, intervened between the territory of the towns and the next Russo-German settlement to the north, some twenty miles or so straight ahead.

At this point the road leapt the Muddy River and passed through its sheltering fringe of bush to strike out over a sheer waste of heath-like country covered with low, creeping brush. The wind which had been soughing through the tree tops had free sweep here; and an exceedingly fine dust of dry, powdery ice-crystals began to fly — you could hardly call it snow so far.

It did not occur to Niels to utter or even harbour apprehensions. His powerful companion knew the road; where he went, Niels could go.

They swung on, for the most part in silence.

The road became a mere trail; but for a while longer it was plainly visible in the waning light of the west; in the smooth ruts a film of white was beginning to gather.

The wind came in fits and starts, out of the hollow north-west; and with the engulfing dark an ever thickening granular shower of snow blew from the low-hanging clouds. As the trail became less and less visible, the very ground underfoot seemed to slide to the south-east.

By that time they had made about half the distance they intended to make. To turn back would have given them only the advantage of going with, instead of against, the gathering gale. Both were eager to get to work again: Nelson had undertaken to dig wells for two of the older settlers in the bush country; and he intended to clear a piece of his own land during the winter and to sell the wood which he had accumulated the year before.

They came to a fork in the trail and struck north-east. Soon after the turn Nelson stopped.

“Remember the last house?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Niels, speaking Swedish.

“From there on, for twenty miles north and for ten miles east the land is open for homestead entry. But it is no good. Mere sand that blows with the wind as soon as the brush is taken off.”

They plodded on for another hour. The trail was crossed and criss-crossed by cattle paths. Which they were on, trail or cattle path, was hard to tell.

Once more Nelson stopped. “Where’s north?”

Niels pointed.

But Nelson did not agree. “If the wind hasn’t changed, north must be there,” he said pointing over his shoulder.

The snow was coming down in ever denser waves which a relentless wind threw sideways into their faces. The ground was covered now.

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The Tin Flute

The Tin Flute

Penguin Modern Classics Edition
also available: Paperback Paperback
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Toward noon, Florentine had taken to watching out for the young man who, yesterday, while seeming to joke around, had let her know he found her pretty. The fever of the bazaar rose in her blood, a kind of jangled nervousness mingled with the vague feeling that one day in this teeming store things would come to a halt and her life would find its goal. It never occurred to her to think she could meet her destiny anywhere but here, in the overpowering smell of caramel, before the great mirrors hung on the wall with their narrow strips of gummed paper announcing the day’s menu, to the summary clacking of the cash register, the very voice of her impatience. Everything in the place summed up for her the hasty, hectic poverty of her whole life here in St. Henri.

Over the shoulders of her half-dozen customers, her glance fled toward the counters of the store. The restaurant was at the back of the Five and Ten. In the glitter of the glassware, the chromed panels, the pots and pans, her empty, morose and expressionless ghost of a smile caught aimlessly on one glowing object after another.

Her task of waiting on the counter left her few moments in which she could return to the exciting, disturbing recollections of yesterday, except for tiny shards of time, just enough to glimpse the unknown young man’s face in her mind’s eye. The customers’ orders and the rattling of dishes didn’t always break into her reverie, which, for a second, would cause a brief tremor in her features.

Suddenly she was disconcerted, vaguely humiliated.

While she had been keeping an eye on the crowd entering the store through the glass swing-doors, the young stranger had taken a place at the imitation-marble counter and was calling her over with an impatient gesture. She went toward him, her lips slightly open, in a pout rather than a smile. How maddening that he should catch her just at the moment when she was trying to remember how he looked and sounded!

“What’s your name?” he asked abruptly.

She was irritated, less by the question than by his way of asking: familiar, bantering, almost insolent.

“What a question!” she said contemptuously, though not really as if she wanted to end the conversation. On the contrary, her voice was inviting.

“Come on,” said the young man, smiling. “Mine’s Jean. Jean Lévesque. And I know for a start yours is Florentine. Florentine this, Florentine that, Florentine’s in bad humour today, got a smile for me, Florentine? Oh, I know your first name all right. I even like it.”

He changed tone imperceptibly, his eyes hardened.

“But if I call you miss, miss who? Won’t you tell little old me?” he insisted with mock seriousness.

He leaned toward her and looked up with eyes whose impudence was apparent in a flash. It was his tough, strong-willed chin and the unbearable mockery of his dark eyes that she noticed most today, and, this made her furious. How could she have spent so much time in the last few days thinking about this boy? She straightened up with a jerk that made her little amber necklace rattle.

“And I guess after that you’ll want to know where I live and what I’m doing tonight,” she said. “I know you guys.”

“You guys? What do you mean, you guys?” he mocked, looking over his shoulder as if there were someone behind him.

“Just . . . you guys!” she said, half exasperated.

His familiar, slightly vulgar tone, which put him on her level, displeased her less than his usual behaviour and speech. Her smile returned, irritated but provocative.

“Okay, now!” she said. “What do you want today?”

Once again his look had that brutal familiarity.

“I hadn’t got around to asking what you’re doing tonight,” he said. “I wasn’t in that big a hurry. Normally I’d take another three days at least. But now you mention it. . . .”

He leaned back a little on the stool and weaved gently from side to side. As he stared at her, his eyes narrowed.

“Now then! Florentine, what’re you doing tonight?”

He saw that she was upset. Her lower lip was trembling, and she held it with her teeth. Then she busied herself pulling a paper napkin from a chrome box, unfolded it and spread it on the counter.

Her face was thin, delicate, almost childish. The effort she was making to control herself caused the small, blue veins on her temples to swell and knot, and her almost diaphanous nostrils, closing, pulled tight the skin of her cheeks, as smooth and delicate as silk. Her lips were still uncertain, still threatening to tremble, but Jean, looking in her eyes, was suddenly struck by their expression. Under the arched line of her plucked eyebrows, extended by a little streak of makeup, her lowered lids could not hide the thin bronze ray of a glance, cautious, attentive and extraordinarily eager. Then she blinked, and the whole pupil showed with a sudden gleam. Over her shoulders fell a mass of light-brown hair.

With no particular purpose the young man was watching her intently. She astonished more than she attracted him. And even this phrase he had just uttered, “What are you doing tonight?” . . . had been unexpected. It had taken shape in his mind without his knowing; he had tossed it out as one drops a pebble to test an unknown depth. But her reaction encouraged him to try again. Would I be ashamed to go out with her? he wondered. And then the idea that such a thought could intervene after he had gone this far pushed him on to greater daring. Elbows on the counter, eyes staring into Florentine’s, he was waiting, as if in a cruel game, for a move from her to which he could react.

She stiffened under his brutal scrutiny, and he was able to see her better. He saw her upper body reflected in the wall mirror, and he was struck by her thinness. She had pulled the belt of her green uniform as tight as it would go around her waist, but you could see that her clothing barely clung to her slender body. And the young man had a sudden glimpse of what her life must be like, in the rush and bustle of St. Henri, that life of spruce young girls with rouged cheeks reading fifteen-cent serial novels and burning their fingers at the wretched little fires of what they took for love.

His voice grew incisive, almost cutting.

“You’re from here? From St. Henri?” he asked.

She shrugged her shoulders, and her only reply was a vexed, ironical smile, again more like a pout.

“Me too,” he went on, with mocking condescension.

“So we can be friends, eh?”

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