River 8 - Home from Sault

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By Dawn Natelle


So far: River avoided problems with the law while helping the river cure the elders from the hospital. After that, there was a shopping trip to beautiful downtown St. Mary's in the evening, in preparation for the bigger excursion to the city on Saturday. Finally, River sees that her dad has a secret, which he won't tell her.

River woke early again, and was able to spend an hour in the river before heading back to wake her family first, and then went back to her tent at the JR campsite to wake her tent mates, who had learned to ignore her early rising. But today they grumbled about waking at 4 a.m., and having to rush to the shower facilities to shower and do their teeth in the pre-dawn.

Gail was last out, and had just gotten dressed when the Waters' van arrived to pick them up. The boys were sitting in the two seats in the second row, already half asleep again. Alison climbed into the back with Gina and Gail, telling her daughter to sit shotgun and keep Dale awake on the long drive down to the Sault. They headed out at five a.m.

They rode in silence, and soon River heard the sound of five sleeping people behind her. "So what was the big secret you wouldn't tell me about yesterday," she asked her dad. "You were in the office for a long time just to renew a camp site for a second week."

"Yes," Dale replied with a smile. "I met some of your friends there. The fellow who does the sweetgrass ceremony, and three others, who apparently are big shots in the band. When I told them why I was staying the second week ... no job to go back to ... they started to ask what kind of work I had done down there. It seems that the band has been looking for a construction manager for some time."

"You mean you might get a job up here?" River said excitedly.

"They want me to go out to their site on Monday, as a sort of a trial. Basically, I will work for them for the next week. They will pay me, and our campsite is free for the week. If they like what they see during that week, it can be a permanent thing. I've talked it over with your Mom, and she rather likes the idea. She is getting near the point where she will be made a manager of a small branch, or the assistant manager of a larger one, and she says that northern branches are hard to fill. She will work in Toronto for the next school year, so Mark can finish his term down there, while you and I can stay up here."

"That sounds so cool. Is the bank in Terrace Bay a Royal Bank?" Alison asked.

"I really don't know, and your mom wasn't sure. We are supposed to look as we drive through in a few minutes. If it is, that would be a perfect location for her, nice and close. If not, she would have to consider switching jobs, or going to another branch, if there is one within driving distance."

"Maybe she can get them to put a branch in St. Mary's, if there isn't a Royal branch in Terrace Bay," River suggested. "The town really needs one. I talked to the owner of the little store, and he says he wastes a lot of time driving to Terrace Bay to bank."

"And apparently the band has quite a bit of money in investments," Dale added. "They have quite a few millions in money they got from the government back in the 80s for land claims: well over $15 million. Most bands just split the money up between all the members, but up here they dispersed 25% that way, and kept the rest in an account for future projects. The one they are hiring me for is one of those. They are building a little subdivision on band land just east of the reserve. There will be up to 30 houses on the subdivision, and there are six under construction right now. Most of the workers are natives ... First Nations, I mean ... and not certified carpenters. They need someone who knows the building codes and construction practices to lead them."

"And that is where you come in," River said proudly.

"Yeppers. I was watching as we drove past the site, coming out of town, and it looks like one of the houses is being framed. They are log construction, using pine from the old growth forests around here. I asked if they were using local stone for the foundations and fireplaces, and the four of them just looked at each other. I think that is the moment I got the job. They had never even thought about using local stone, and that fits in with their hope to use as much labour from the band as possible."

"Can the people just start cutting stones? I always thought that was a specialized trade," River asked.

"It is," Dale explained. "But I know a mason down in Toronto who recently retired. He loves hunting, so I think we could get him up here, at least until winter. He could teach the First Nations lads his trade, and get in some hunting and fishing at the same time. His wife died a few years back, so I think there is a chance he could be convinced to move up here permanently."

"So you have him for stonework, and yourself for carpentry. What else do you need? Someone for logging the trees?"

"No, apparently there is a lot of local talent in that area. They have been harvesting trees for the pulp mill for decades, so there is nothing to teach them about that. Their problem is in putting the pieces together. Apparently they were planning to put simple truss roofs on the homes. It would be a shame to have a beautiful log home, and then topping it with a simple shingled roof. What they really need is a timber-truss system with cathedral ceilings."

"Can you do trusses like that?"

"Actually, I can. Mostly through a software program I used at the old company. I'm going to pick up a laptop in the Sault, and use my old password to re-download it from the cloud. If it can do what we need, then we can get the band to pick up the maintenance contract that my old company had. It is amazing for doing trusses. It prints out detailed engineering plans, and all I have to do is teach the men how to interpret the plans. They are probably visual learners, so by doing a few trusses they will become comfortable with them."

"Are you going to be making as much money as before?"

"The salary is lower, but the benefits are better," he said. "Not having to own a million dollar home in Toronto, at least not after your Mom moves up here, is huge. No need for suits, I can work in jeans. And I'll be able to walk to work."

"Walk to work?" River asked. "Where would we live?"

"That is one of the benefits," Dale said. "We get to live in the first home finished, at least until it is sold. It will be the show home for the others. Of course, that means it will have to be kept immaculate, so customers can come in at all hours. Can you do that? Your Mom won't be able to if she is in Toronto, except for weekends."

"Yeah, no problem. Remember, I'm a girl now. We are tidier."

"That's right," Dale chuckled. "So no mess like Ricky's room back home?"

"Ugh," River said. "I'll never live like that again. So where are these homes? Close to the river? Walking distance?"

Dale smiled. "The first six homes will back onto the river. Huge lots. You will have to walk a bit out the back door to get to the river, but it will be less than walking from our campsite."

River had to suppress a squeal of glee, remembering the people sleeping behind them. "It sounds perfect. When will the house be ready?"

"The elders were expecting it to be ready by November, when the snows start up here. I think we can shave a few weeks to a month off that schedule when I get things organized better. October 1 would be a good date, since that is when camping out at the park will become a bit chilly."

"So everything is in order then," River asked.

"Oh, not by a long shot," Dale laughed. "We have to find a good salesperson, design a web site, organize an office. There is a ton of things to be done. But I feel more energized and excited than I have been in years at the old job. There I was just a cog in the operation. Here I'm going to be the entire engine. I really didn't get much sleep last night, thinking about things, and talking with your Mom. That's why she is crashed out in the back with the girls."

River looked back. Mark and Paul were slumped on each other's shoulders, and a row back Gail, Gina, and Alison were cuddled up together, with Gina lying on Alison's shoulder in a cute picture pose. "Aww," she said. "They look like sisters."

"Look," Dale said a minute later. "It is Terrace Bay. Look for the bank."

"There, in that little strip mall," Alison pointed after a minute. "Darn, it is CIBC. I guess it would be too much to hope for that it could be Mom's bank."

"Don't worry, something will work out," Dale said. "She could even work for me running the office in the construction company, if I can build it up enough over the next year or so. But I know she loves banking. It will all come together in time."

They rode for a while, largely in silence, with only bits of conversation here and there, mainly River pointing things out so that Dale wouldn't get drowsy. It was 7:30 by the time they reached the little town of Wawa and saw the giant goose statue that makes the community famous, at least within 20 kilometers each direction.

That was the first rest stop, and they pulled in to fuel the van, then moved over to the attached cafe to fuel themselves. Everyone in the back grumbled: some for having their dreams interrupted, and others for having aches and pains from sleeping upright for the past two and a half hours.

Alison was not one of the complainers. Her newly rejuvenated body felt better after two and a half hours sleeping in a van than it used to feel getting up from her soft bed in Toronto after a full night's sleep. She offered to drive for the next leg, only insisting that Dale take over when they got into the city. This meant that all the riding positions changed, with Dale and the boys in the back, and Gina and Gail in the middle seats. Alison didn't want Dale wrapped up with the two young girls the way she had been for the first leg of the trip.

As Dale tucked in the back with the boys, Alison pulled out of the parking lot and returned the van to the TransCanada highway. "So did Dad tell you about his job offer?" she asked River.

"Yeah. He was so excited. He is really into the idea."

"Tell me about it ... we didn't sleep much at all last night. Thank goodness for that little nap on the way to here."

"So what do you think about it, Mom?"

"Well, I'm not looking forward to splitting the family up for the next few months. Your river brought your Dad and me so much closer together. It is almost like we are newlyweds again, but with nearly grown children. But he really wants this job, and I know you would have a hard time being parted from your river. Mark really wants to go to school in Toronto this fall, and I've put so much into my job, and moving up at the bank. I feel I am ready to head a branch now. I just have to convince my bosses that I am."

"You will Mom, I'm sure."

"Did you or your Dad happen to notice which bank was in Terrace Bay?"

River frowned. "Yeah. Not good news. It's CIBC."

"Shoot," Alison said. "I was so hoping it was Royal Bank. Oh well, I guess I can consider it as a possibility if I decide to make a lateral move to another bank."

"What about a satellite bank right in St. Mary's," River suggested. "I was chatting with the owner of the store, and he says he spends an hour every time he needs to go to the bank at Terrace Bay. And all the people from the reserve that get cheques have to cash them at the store or the liquor place."

"I don't know honey," Alison said. "It is a pretty small town to support a bank. Even satellite branches need a bigger base."

"Dad said that the band has a lot of money in investments. I bet they would move them to a local bank."

"Unless it is over $10-million, I don't think it would make that much of a difference."

"From what Dad said, it is more than that. Maybe twice that."

Alison didn't say anything for a while. "That might make a difference. I think perhaps on Monday I might put on a power suit and walk up and down main street St. Mary's and talk to the merchants. If I can build a credible case for a branch, maybe they will go for it at the Royal."

"Power suit? Do you have any of those up here? They are all in your closet in Toronto, aren't they?"

"That is what I plan to buy today," Alison said. "I need three new suits, at least, to fit this new body your river gave me. Not that I am complaining. And your Dad certainly hasn't been. I won't have time to shop when I get back to Toronto next Monday."

Again, the conversation lulled as they drove on, and it was just after 9:00 when they reached the Cambrian Mall. It was the smaller of the two malls in town and Alison didn't feel badly about driving to it to let Dale get as much sleep as possible. They left him in the van as the others went into the mall and looked around.

To River and the boys, used to Toronto malls, it was puny, with only a few dozen stores. Gail and Gina liked it. Compared to St. Mary's and Terrace Bay it was heaven. But both girls made semi-annual trips to the Sault with their parents, so they knew that the other mall in town was better. Nevertheless, they spent over an hour, and a couple hundred dollars, in Cambrian before heading back to the van. Dale took over driving downtown to the Station Mall, while River and the girls piled into the back seat.

At the bigger shopping complex, money started flowing. Over the next four hours, the girls spent all the money they had brought with them in the teen stores, as well as getting a few things for River, who still was not all the way into the girly-shopping mindset. She still preferred wearing the buckskin dresses and skirts that the native women had gifted her. The young boys got a few more things, although most of what they needed had been bought in St. Mary's. Alison actually spent the most, picking up three business suits and a few blouses and accessories. Having three young girls as style experts meant that she bought clothes a bit more trendy than she would otherwise, but even Dale and the boys proclaimed that she looked 'Hot' in her new suits.

They were all tapped out by a bit after three, and headed back to the van. They didn't have many bags, as Dale and the boys had taken the bulk of the materials back to the van while the girls were outfitting Alison. The mall was located downtown, and they had parked in a commercial lot next to a hotel. They all stopped at an ice cream shop along the way, while Dale headed on to the van.

As River approached, a bit ahead of the others and she saw her dad talking to a young woman, looking rather uncomfortable. As she neared, walking faster than the other girls, River noticed that the girl was one of the people, and seconds later, somehow she knew that the girl was from the river reservation.

"Sorry sir," the girl said as she backed away from Dale. "I thought you were here for the Steelmakers' convention."

"Pardon me," River asked her. "Are you from St. Mary's?"

The girl looked surprised, but before she answered Dale spoke: "River. That's all right. Let's just leave."

"How ... how did you know I was from there," the girl asked.

"We are from there," River said. Suddenly, what the girl was doing clicked into place. "Are you working here?"

"River," Dale was both uncomfortable and a bit angry. "Come. Now!"

Meanwhile, the girl looked embarrassed and nodded, looking down.

"You need to come back with us," River said.

"What?" Dale shouted.

"I can't go back. My sister and I," she looked over to another girl, standing a few dozen meters away, working a different corner of the parking lot, "we can't go back to our families. We would be too ashamed."

"You are both coming with us," River insisted.

"River. We don't have room," Alison said, coming over once she had the others, and all the shopping, in the van.

"It's all right," the girl said meekly. "We aren't worth worrying about."

"Yes you are," River said forcefully, reaching out and grabbing the girl's shoulder. A shock went through the girl at the touch, and her eyes opened wide, staring at River. River turned to her parents and said "We can make room for two more, somehow. We have to take these girls home." Dale caved first, nodding, and then Alison, who still didn't realize what their profession was.

"Okay," she said meekly. Then she shouted at the other girl. "Shelly, come here."

The other girl, perhaps a year or two older, sauntered over. "What's going on Marilyn?"

"These people ... her," she nodded at River, "they want to take us home."

"Home," the older girl said. "We don't have a home anymore. This is our home."

"You are people of the river," River said. "You always have a home there." She reached out and touched the older girl on the arm, and her eyes also opened wide.

"Who are you? How do you know about the river?"

"I talk to the river. It wants you to come home."

"We can go back?" the younger girl asked.

"You can always go back," River said. "Do we need to go anywhere, and pick up stuff for you?"

"No," Shelly said. "Besides, Pierre will be there, and if we come back without any money, he will get violent. We have nothing there we need."

With that, they crammed into the van. It was not going to be a comfortable trip back, with the boys and Gail and Gina in the three seat rear bench, and River, Shelly and Marilyn crammed into the two middle seats. Only Alison and Dale in the front were not crowded during the trip home.

The ride back was uneventful, with another stop in Wawa for gas and supper. Dale bought the two new girls a meal, and it seemed as if they hadn't eaten well in a while. They certainly seemed to have a major appetite.

River talked quietly with the two on the trip. Shelly turned out to be 16, although she had been on the street for the past two years. Marilyn was two years older, and had been in the Sault for three years. They had an older brother back at the reserve, along with three younger sisters. Just before Shelly came down to join Marilyn, she had met Pierre, when she still thought of him as a boyfriend rather than the pimp he turned out to be. He had gotten both girls hooked on cocaine, and they were apprehensive about travelling 100 kilometers an hour in the opposite direction from their next fix. They were also afraid of meeting up with their family and former friends, feeling that they had somehow ruined their lives.

As they got closer and closer to St. Mary's both girls got more and more agitated and nervous. Eventually River had to calm them down by promising that after they visited the River, they could leave town again without speaking to anyone in their family if they wanted.

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