Liselotte and the Dease Lake Stampeders


Becky came to the dinner table and sat down quietly. No one noticed that she was not trying to get her fair share right along with her three older brothers. No one really gave Becky a second thought until she spoke. “Mom, I want to wear a dress to school tomorrow.”

The noise and dinnertime confusion came to an abrupt stop. The silence was so complete Becky could hear the waves pounding on the shore of Dease Lake. Her brothers were staring at her, stunned. What’s wrong with her? was written on everyone’s face.

Becky’s cheeks turned the color of her red hair. “Well, what’s wrong with wearing a dress?” she demanded glaring back. “You act as though I just asked Mom to cut off my legs!”

“You have to admit, Becky,” her mother said, “that this comes as a bit of a surprise. I was under the impression that you had forgotten you were a girl.”

Becky ignored that comment because it hit home all right. She was the president of the Dease Lake Stampeders and proud of it. Sheila, Becky’s best friend, had suggested the name in honor of Becky’s grandfather, who had fired their imagination with tales of the Yukon gold rush. He was one of the first settlers at Dease Lake, an isolated community in northern British Columbia. The girls thought Grandpa Dease was about the neatest man around.

Becky could do most things as well or better than any boy in their small one-room school. She could ski with ease or climb the tall pines surrounding the school yard. With three older brothers, Becky had had lots of encouragement. She was happiest when she and her handpicked pals were outdoors pretending to be explorers or gold miners. All the girls except Liselotte wanted to be in the club and even some of the boys.

Becky remembered the first time she had seen Liselotte walk timidly into the strange schoolroom. She was dressed in the latest style with a pretty pinafore over a frilly blouse. Her large eyes were framed by a cascade of dark curls. Becky wondered if the girl were actually dumb enough to curl her hair every night.

Liselotte never talked much because she was French Canadian and her English wasn’t very good. But Becky and her gang talked plenty. “Did you see that dress?” asked Sheila during recess, making a face.

“Yeah,” replied Becky, “she’s going to freeze this winter when it’s thirty degrees below zero if she doesn’t get countrified and start dressing right.” She looked approvingly at Sheila’s jeans and boots that matched her own.

And so, for Liselotte’s own good, Becky and the club members set to work trying to countrify her. They threw snowballs at her, sat on her, and tried to stuff her curls into a toque. They put her lunch box up in the highest pine tree so she would have to climb for it. Becky wasn’t really mean, she just figured Liselotte didn’t know what fun she was missing.

Liselotte had borne all of this quietly and with good humor, but she did not convert and seemed incapable of comprehending Becky’s good intentions. As for the lunch box, she asked one of Becky’s brothers to get it down for her. He did so willingly because all of the older boys were in love with Liselotte. That was OK with Becky, they were all welcome to her.

Anyone who would rather sit inside reading during recess instead of working on a snow fort was hopeless. Hopeless or not, over the winter Becky had slowly begun to admire Liselotte, who took the girls’ rather rough treatment good-naturedly, even laughing at herself with them. She never once went to the teacher to tattle or complain. Yet there was always a sort of sadness in Liselotte’s eyes that wasn’t quite disguised by her apparent sunny nature. But even that had not been enough for Becky to actually befriend the lonely girl. She had her own reputation to think of and her duties as president of the Dease Lake Stampeders. What would her gang think if she were overly friendly to someone who wore skirts!

Eventually Becky gave up on Liselotte and forgot about her as much as one could do in a one-room school. Once in a while, though, she would glimpse the small doll-like face peering out at them through the schoolhouse windows.

Then one day Becky realized that Liselotte wasn’t in school and hadn’t been for several days.

Later she asked Mrs. Parmenter who looked at Becky rather accusingly. “She is home and very sick,” she reported. “In fact, I rather doubt that she will be back.”

Becky, who had scarcely been sick in her whole life, could not imagine anyone being sick for more than a day or two. What does she mean Liselotte may not be back? Becky wondered. Is she going to die?

The rest of the day Becky couldn’t keep her eyes off the empty desk. The lonely chair seemed to accuse her, much like Mrs. Parmenter’s expression had when she asked about Liselotte. It tugged at her conscience, If I had taken more of an interest in Liselotte, the others would have too, Becky told herself. But she never wanted to do the same things we wanted to do. Still, quietly nagging thoughts wouldn’t go away. And added to them, Becky had to admit to herself, was a persistent wish that she were more like Liselotte. At least I’d like to be friends, she thought wistfully.

By the time Becky returned home from school, she had made a decision.

After dinner, Becky slipped up to her room. Her mother, sensing something was bothering her daughter, followed her to ask, “Is anything wrong, dear?”

“Yes,” she answered, “Liselotte is really sick and Mrs. Parmenter says she probably won’t be coming back to school.”

“Do you mean the little French girl? I am sorry to hear that.”

Becky turned toward the closet. “Mom, I’m going to wear a dress to school tomorrow so that I can visit her on the way home.”

Mom wondered what wearing a dress had to do with visiting Liselotte, but she knew her daughter well enough to keep such questions to herself.

The next morning, Becky felt uncomfortable when she put the dress on. “It’s going to be a rough day,” she sighed. But she did want to be more like Liselotte, and she hoped the dress would prove her sincerity.

She purposely waited until the last minute to join her brothers in the bus line. When Joey saw her, he said, “Say, you don’t look half bad in that dress today. Why don’t you wear one to school more often?”

She had not expected that and quickly looked to see if he were teasing. She could always tell if he were by the twinkle in his eyes, but her oldest brother’s face had a look of genuine sincerity. Maybe the day won’t go too bad after all, she decided.

Once at school, however, Becky was afraid she would face the worst ordeal. Sheila rushed up as soon as she got off the bus. “Hey!” she exclaimed in surprise. “Why on earth are you wearing a dress?”

“Mom is mending my jeans,” was Becky’s quick answer.

That was true enough, but Sheila wasn’t fooled. “You could have worn another pair.”

Nothing to do but tell the truth, Becky decided, and face the wisecracks that are sure to come. “I’m going to visit Liselotte after school. I don’t even know if I’ll be allowed in the house without a dress on.”

“Oh,” said Sheila, “I wish you’d told me. We could have gone together.”

“That’s great, Sheila,” Becky said, “Maybe we can go together again on Friday.”

The school day finally ended and Becky walked to the large Dalphond home located on a hill overlooking the brilliant blue of Dease Lake. It wasn’t far, which was good, because she was beginning to get cold feet. What will I say to Liselotte? she worried.

Walking up to the door, Becky knocked and half hoped no one would be home. But she soon heard light footsteps coming toward her on the other side. The door was opened by a petite, pretty woman who looked much like Liselotte. “Hello,” she said and smiled. “You must be here to visit Liselotte.”

Becky stepped in while Liselotte’s mother continued to talk in a thick French accent, not waiting for answers. “Lise is up in her room and will be delighted to see you. I’ll show you the way.” Mrs. Dalphond led the way upstairs. “Here we are,” she said, “and I’ll let you surprise her.” She patted Becky on the back and left her staring at the door.

Becky knocked and Liselotte’s soft voice said, “Entrez (enter).”

Cautiously Becky opened the door. Liselotte was sitting in bed with an enormous book in her lap. “Hi,” said Becky.

“Hello!” Liselotte said with a smile. “Why, you are wearing a dress, Becky. It’s nice of you but I think I like the jeans better.” Her huge eyes sparkled and Becky realized with a jolt that Liselotte was the only one all day who had teased her about wearing a dress. “I would prefer jeans, too,” Liselotte continued, “but Papa says we must dress civilized, even though we are in the wilderness. He is so … old-fashioned, is that the word?” She looked at Becky for confirmation.

Becky laughed. “That’s it,” she said. “What are you reading?” She bent over to look at the book. She was surprised to see that it was an illustrated encyclopedia of wild animals. “I didn’t know you were interested in wild animals.”

“Oh, yes!” Liselotte hopped out of bed. “Look at my wild animal collection.” She opened a little cupboard door and there, row upon row, were miniature wood carvings of wild animals.

Becky went over to examine them. She picked up a grizzly bear and ran her finger over the glowing, smooth wood. “I’ve never seen anything like this before!” she said, awed by the collection.

“My brother in Montreal carves wood for a living. He made them for me,” Lisolotte explained. Suddenly Liselotte began to cough and was forced to sit on her bed. Becky held her breath. Liselotte caught the expression on her face and gasped in between spells, “It’s OK. I have asthma. It will pass.”

“What causes asthma?” Becky asked.

Liselotte caught her breath. “This attack is due to all the pollen in the air at springtime. When I lived in Montreal it was far worse from the pollution. That is why we moved to Dease Lake.”

That reminded Becky of what Mrs. Parmenter had said. “Liselotte, aren’t you coming back to school?”

Liselotte looked at Becky with a puzzled expression. “Of course I’m coming back.”

“But I thought … Mrs. Parmenter said …” Becky stuttered.

“Oh, I know!” laughed Liselotte. “My father was almost transferred from his government job here, and you know how rumors get started. Mrs. Parmenter must have heard we were leaving.”

Becky knew well enough how rumors ran rampant in the small community. But before she had time to think about that she looked at her watch and said, “I have to run, Liselotte, but I’ll be back if I may. Get better soon, OK?” Becky waved at her new friend and hurried out of the room. As she took the steps two at a time she couldn’t believe how fast her hour with Liselotte had gone. And I was afraid I wouldn’t find anything to talk about, she thought in wonderment. But, oh, I’m so glad she’s staying in Dease Lake. She’ll be a great member of our club!

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dick Brown