The short story below is based on both my genealogical research and a family legend about “Big Joe DuBay a logger in 19th century Michigan.:
‘Manda watched the road every day for Joseph’s return, she knew that the heavy frosts at night would send the loggers home from the camp for the winter. She dreaded the summers, with him somewhere in the eerily dense forests beyond their small farm.
She didn’t complain about being the one to tend the crops and care for the animals, she was used to the hard work. She even enjoyed the opportunity to wear pants instead of her heavy skirts. She was cooler as she walked the rows of corn, squash, tomatoes, beans, and even some rice in the lowest part of their property.
The wheat and hay was saved for the cows and Joseph’s prized Percheron pair, a well-matched mare and stallion. They needed little in the way of aids to plough deep and straight rows for planting, or to mow the hay that kept them sleek and healthy all winter.
Elle and Homme produced a fine foal every year, this year Elle had foaled late, and Joseph did not know that this year’s colt was black instead of dapple-grey. Petit Noir was already getting large and powerful, although he was less than six months old. She petted him every day, and had woven a halter for the colt out of strips of waste fabric from her sewing. How he had strutted the first day she had settled it on his fuzzy black head!
How pleased Joseph would be to return to a farm ready for the winter; she had a pantry full of canned and dried fruit from the woods, She had traded in town for flour, sugar, and coffee. She had gotten a good price for their weaner pigs, especially the gilt that had red and black spots on her white hide. They stood to have a good winter, thanks to both of their hard work.
Their dog, a woolly mixed breed barked, and she heard the joy in his voice, only Joseph’s return would cause that, the children they already had charged out the door, calling, “Papa! Papa!”
‘Manda followed them, taking time to wrap a shawl around her shoulders, the fringe moving in time with her strides. She smiled to herself, by the light of the lantern she could see him distributing maple sugar candy to their children, taking the time to hug each one and greet them by name. He lifted little George to his shoulders and trotted towards her.
“’Manda, my dear wife, I ‘ave missed you so! Augustus ‘as no skill at the cooking, I am wearied of bacon and beans with black bread.” He held her close and inhaled the scent of lavender that always clung to her clothes, and her.
“Zhoseph! I am so glad to see you too. Now I will sleep well at night again. Allez, I ‘ave a fine roast boeuf for dîner with potatoes, beets, and a fine pain complet.”
“Ahhhh… I will eat well again! ‘Ow much wood ‘ave we for the winter?” Though he spoke lightly ‘Manda could hear something in his voice, a sadness he had not had before he left last spring.
“Zhoseph, what ‘as ‘appened?”
“Later, we will talk of it later ma petite.” He leaned over; far enough to kiss the carpenter’s square perfect part in her dark hair. He had spent the summer dreaming of watching her brush it at night, with a single candle bathing her in a golden halo of light.
Joseph’s pre-dinner prayer of thanks was heartfelt, even more deeply than usual. The lamps glowed brightly over the dinner, shining on ‘Manda’s china and silver, both decorated with golden D’s. The table itself gleamed from the patient sanding and oiling Joseph had lavished on it.
Dinner lasted late into the evening, Joseph told the children tales of the kinkajou that had terrorised the trappers, and the doe that had so little fear of them that she raised her twin fawns within sight of their single large cabin. The loggers had taken to leaving treats for the family on a convenient stump. By late summer the fawns would follow Augustus around, butting him with nubs of horns to beg for treats.
Pierre, the dog, gnawed happily on a beef bone under the trestle table Joseph had built to hold their growing family. Little George was settled in Joseph’s lap, leaning trustingly against his father’s 6’5”, well-muscled form. His dark eyes would flutter closed and then open in determination as soon as he heard his father’s voice.
Finally, after a treat of hot chocolate all of the children fell asleep under hand-sewn quilts on their bed of woven rope, under a down mattress. George was rocking slowly in the small bed, Joseph’s foot happily taking his turn at rocking their baby.
“Now, Joseph, tell me what has darkened your heart so?” ‘Manda took her husband’s calloused hands in her own.
“Ahhh, my ‘Manda, a terrible thing ‘appen this summer….” Joseph could not bring himself to look at his dainty, fearless wife.
“You know ‘ow the men are, they grow bored in the evening and seek something to fill the hours they would rather spend with their families. They will drink, gamble, and ‘ave fights to pass these lonely times. I usually spend the time reading, or praying to Le Bon Dieu. I rarely take a drink for drinking will lead to foolish acts
“One night, I did take a drink, I ached worse than usual because the saw had kicked back so many times on an ancien oak. I will not lie; I took more than one drink. “The men were fighting one another, boxing and wrestling.
Paddy, le petit Irlandais, drank more than any and grew hostile. He wished me to fight with ‘im, but I told ‘im non, for he is so much smaller than I, it could never be a fair fight.
“’E would not take my no for an answer and he attack me. I ‘ad no choice but to defend myself. I ‘ated to raise my ‘and to a friend so I did not ‘it as ‘ard as I can, I make a slow uppercut.
“Unfortunelment, he sharge me as I did this, I ‘it Paddy in the nose. He immediately fell down and did not get back up. Augustus check, and Paddy ‘ad died from that one blow.
“’Ow can I ever go to ‘Eaven to be with Le Bon Dieu et L’enfant Jesu after I ‘ave killed my friend? I must spend the rest of my life trying to return to God’s favour.
“I promise you, I will never drink again, nor raise my ‘and to any living thing. I will dedicate my life to Le Bon Dieu. From zees day forwar’ I will not swear and I will pray as often as I can…”
Zhoseph, my dear, it was not your fault, le pauvre Paddy made the mistakes.” ‘Manda cupped her husband’s face in her hands.
Joseph’s face crumpled and he began to sob, tearing sobs that shook his whole frame. Manda stood and buried his face in her stomach, to muffle his cries and not disturb the children.
“It will be all right, my dear, have zee authorities been notified?”
“Yes, Enri rode into the nearest town and brought their sheriff back. After he had spoken with everyone he said that Paddy’s death was an unfortunate accident, and that no-one would be charged.”
“When we go to Mass Sunday…” ‘Manda began.
“I ‘ave already ask Pere Robidaux to say a Mass for Paddy every morning, I pay ‘im too. I ‘ave also made arrangements to ‘elp ‘is widow and children. I personally rode to their ‘ome and apologise to Madame O’Brien…”
“Ahhhhh mon brave, you ‘ave t’ought of ever’t’ing. What did Pere Robidaux say of all this?
“After I confess to ‘im, ‘e give me a penance, an’ ‘e tell me God ‘as forgiven me. I cannot yet forgive myself for what ‘appened.”
“I know Zhoseph, I do not blame you, and I will always love you, for you are a truly good man.”
“Ma petite, ‘ow did I ever get so fortunate as to ‘ave you for my bride?”
“You make me laugh, right in the middle of Mass!” ‘Manda kissed Joseph and smiled brightly.
It was then that Joseph knew that he was truly home.