“An honest tale speeds best,
being plainly told.”
– William Shakespeare, King Richard III, Act. 1V, Scene 4
(Sioux: We welcome you)
When the American Civil War ended in 1865, more than eight hundred thousand veterans found themselves unemployed. Most of them were war weary and eager for peaceful pursuits, but many thousands, heady with a sense of power and pent-up energy looking for some cause upon which to expend, refused to lay down their arms. Instead, these young, tough, battle hardened men sought and found adventures in the American west, along the frontier with Mexico and, in the north, under the leadership of the Fenians, carried on a little known war against British North America in the months preceding the birth of Canada in the Confederation of 1867.
This war, conducted without the official approval of the United States government at Washington, D.C., was aided and abetted by powerful political and financial interests centred on the American Party. They nurtured dreams of a United States of America that would reach from the warm waters of the Bay of Mexico to the Arctic lair of the Wolf Wind.
The Fenians were Irish-Americans whose loyalty to the land of their fathers still burned hot within their souls. They came to the conclusion that, by occupying British North America, they could hold it to ransom and force the English Crown to give independence to Ireland. While raids were launched along the eastern seaboard and the St. Lawrence River Valley, the most successful in the east was in June 1866, when one thousand men commanded by the Fenians crossed the Niagara River from Buffalo, New York, and occupied Fort Erie after defeating a force of Canadian volunteers.
Meanwhile, reports by Fenian intelligence agents indicated that the western plains north of the 49th parallel, claimed by the English and under fading control of the Hudson’s Bay Company, was ripe for the plucking. That great lone land, spreading one thousand miles from the bedrock of the Canadian Shield to the towering barrier of the Rocky Mountains, was home to about twenty thousand Indians, ten thousand half-breeds, and about two thousand whites.
The Fenians and their allies in the American Party concluded that the Indians and half-breeds had no high sense of allegiance to the English Crown nor to the Hudson’s Bay Company, whose grip on three-hundred-thousand square miles of the territory had by this time all but ceased to exist. Evidence of discord had become amply apparent seventeen years earlier when, in May 1849, the Métis — as the half-breeds were known — successfully rose against the company attempt to prevent them from trading freely into St. Paul, about three-hundred-and-fifty miles south into the United States Territory of Minnesota. In succeeding years, caravans of Red River carts heading for St. Paul grew in number from a few hundred a year, to more than two thousand by 1866. The Métis traded fur and pemmican for goods ranging from stoves to alcohol, weapons, ammunition, cloth and clothing — and at least one pool table and a sewing machine. Such was the degree of goodwill, the opinion was widespread that any intruding force from the south would be most welcome.
The Fenians also had been led to believe, accurately, that, because the effective power of the Hudson’s Bay Company having fallen into full decay, it therefore would be unable to muster any serious resistance. The way was wide open to strike for Ireland through the un-protected underbelly of British North America. To this end, even while the attack on Fort Erie was planned and executed, Fenian leaders laboured in St. Paul and throughout the head-water country of the Mississippi River with the high hope of raising an army of five thousand to make what was certain to be an easy occupation of Fort Garry, the company’s headquarters in the British territory, and thereby lay claim to the Crown’s entire northwest.
What the Fenians missed in their calculations was that the Indians and the Métis considered that the land belonged to them. While they were unhappy with the Hudson’s Bay Company and with the aggressive, hostile newcomers from the eastern provinces of the Canadas and from the eastern American states, most of whom seemed to have specialties in trouble making, land speculating, and whisky running, they were in no way prepared to yield to the Americans, let alone the Fenians — on either side of the 49th parallel.
The Métis were an intelligent, tough, and independent people descended from marriages between Indian women and both English- and French-speaking voyageurs and fur traders, and if there was any man among them who could lay claim to being a true son of the great lone land it was the French-speaking Métis leader, Gabriel Dumont.
Gabriel’s grandfather, Jean-Baptiste Dumont, married a woman of the Sarcee Tribe that was part of the formidable Blackfoot Confederacy. Among the children produced by this marriage were three sons — Gabriel, Isidore and Jean — who, at least as legend would have it, grew to be powerful giants standing well over six feet in height, and who quickly gained a reputation as being great hunters, trappers, guides and fighters. Isidore married a French-speaking Métis and the Gabriel of our story was born in 1837.
Better than a half-foot shorter than his father and uncles, Gabriel was at least their equal in learning the hard lessons of prairie life. While still in his early twenties, Gabriel Dumont had become a legend among Indian, half-breed, and white. No child cried from hunger in the shadow of Gabriel Dumont, no hearth without warmth. No heart without hope. Gabriel Dumont was renowned as a horseman among horsemen, a sharpshooter among sharp-shooters, and one who was unbeatable in hand-to-hand combat.
In 1862, when he was only twenty-five, the Métis of the White Horse Plains country awarded him their highest honour by electing him Chief of the Buffalo Hunt, thereby making him indeed, as he was often called, The Prince of the Prairies.
Even those against whom he would make war held him in the highest respect. One such was Sitting Bull, the great chief and leading medicine man of the fierce Sioux Nation, who learned lessons in guerrilla warfare from Gabriel Dumont that he would one day apply against General George Armstrong Custer, another was Inspector Samuel Benfield Steele of the North West Mounted Police, who was also to become a legend in his own right.
Inspector Steele was to record:
“One might travel the plains from one end to the other and never hear an unkind word said of Dumont. He would kill bison by the score and give them to those who were either unable to kill or who had no buffalo. Not until every poor member of the hunting parties had his cart filled with meat would he begin to fill his own. When in trouble, the cry of all was for Gabriel.”
Instead of Pierre LaForge coming up the trail, Gabriel Dumont frowned to see through his powerful field glasses a young woman being ridden to ground by three men on relatively fresh horses. Although she could ride well, the woman sitting astride the exhausted big bay wore a high-fashion city dress, looking as out of place in the Red River Valley as would a Métis buffalo hunter suddenly plunked down in the middle of a Boston blue chip afternoon tea.
The men closing in on her were a peculiar looking trio in their own right. One wore black in eastern sidewalk cut; one the garb now common among those who punched cattle west of the Mississippi River; and the third wore the northern blue uniform of a United States Cavalry Captain, complete with sword.
It was late August 1866. Dumont was about sixty miles south of the border town of Pembina, on a ridge overlooking the junction of the Carlton Trail and the Red River. He was waiting for Pierre LaForge, a courier on an urgent mission, due back today from St. Paul.
Now, as Dumont watched the strange riders, he recalled that through the years he had seen several parties of wealthy travellers stray into the high plains country — pays d’en haut, as the Métis called it — looking for excitement. This could be one such group, and the drama unfolding before him could be mere play-acting, underlining that the performers had more money than brains, riding, as they were, so long and so hard on such a scorching hot day. Dumont finally squinted against this conclusion: they were riding too hard; the woman’s mount clearly giving its last; it was much too serious for play.
Susan Ross was not joy-riding. She was in terrified flight for freedom and probably even for life itself. Her perfectly plucked eyebrows mocked her tear- and trail-soiled face. She had long ago lost her hat, and her waist-long honey-blonde hair was a nasty scramble of strings and knots. Her soft hands and fingers were a misery of cuts and broken blisters. Her inner thighs and her buttocks were a mass of saddle sores. Each time she touched down, she felt as if seared by flame.
All the way from St. Paul she had been told to seek help from Gabriel Dumont. No matter where she turned, all roads led to Gabriel. He was the only man who could save her from being taken back to Nova Scotia where the court had ruled she must serve the next fifty years as a bondslave for non-payment of debts. Fifty years! I’ll never live that long!
Repeatedly she looked fearfully over her shoulder at the three men riding her down and she lashed her spent gelding in a panic that was rapidly giving way to despair. “Move! Damn you! Move!”she cried as she saw her pursuers close to within a dozen lengths. “Ohhhhhh Gabriel! Where are you!”
“Go to Fort Garry,” they had told her at the last screeching caravan of Red River carts she had passed. “You’ll find him there. Only another two hundred miles.” Only another two hundred miles! These people talk of a hundred miles as those down home talk of a city block! She knew she would never make it. The men who hunted her had money and all the influence it could buy. They would get fresh horses; hers was dying on its feet, as hope was dying in her breast.
Now the man who was about to seize her and take her back was riding beside her and reaching for her reins. With a throttled scream her will to fight collapsed and she held her face in her hands, breaking into sobs as the gasping bay took the man’s pace down to a walk.
George Sloan, the man dressed in eastern cut, was tall, lean, and hard-muscled. As he closed the gap between himself and his prey, his face was fixed in cruel satisfaction. For six months and three-thousand twisting miles he had chased her. Twice he had captured her; twice she had made a fool of him by escaping. No more! This time he would teach her a lesson in submission she would never forget! This time, today, within the hour, he would break her spirit once and for all. He would bring her back east and collect the two-thousand dollar reward, the hardest money he had ever earned as a bounty hunter.
The cowpuncher, Laird McCoullagh, sported a deputy sheriff’s badge on his grimy shirt. He had a mean gleam in his eyes as he watched the painful bouncing of the woman ahead. He had come along because Sloan had said he needed a guide and McCoullagh, used to the saddle, had seen it as an easy way to make fifty dollars. McCoullagh, through grubby influence with powerful men within the American Party, had been sworn-in as a special deputy to give the chase and capture an air of legality, although it was clear to all concerned that this place was well beyond the jurisdiction of the St. Paul’s sheriff’s office. Aside from paying him as a guide, Sloan had promised McCoullagh full use of the woman’s body when they took her. It was visions of pleasuring himself with this fancy lady that now brightened his cold pale-blue eyes.
The third man, Captain Patrick O’Hearne, U.S. Cavalry (retired), had but a secondary interest in the woman. He had joined the other two in the chase only after he learned their possible destination; it would provide camouflage for a splendid opportunity to study, first hand, the terrain over which his Fenian-led army was to move on its way to Fort Garry. He also hoped to make useful contacts among the Métis, especially, if luck served, with the man called Gabriel Dumont. Intelligence had insisted that, if Dumont could be won over, Fort Garry and the British northwest would fall without a shot. Captain O’Hearne wanted to make as good an impression as possible and tried to distance himself from the other two men whenever they encountered a caravan of Red River carts. To be sure, however, the captain was not above carnal knowledge should the opportunity present itself.
The opportunity appeared close at hand as the three riders surrounded the woman.
Sloan was beside her now. Susan screamed in terror. He grabbed her by the arm and yanked her shoulder-first to the ground. Sloan leaped out of the saddle and let fly with a vicious kick but Susan instinctively dodged and, so great was the force of his motion, he found himself sitting hard on the ground.
As the other men laughed, he scrambled to his feet and took aim for another kick. But when Susan, like a battered boxer who knows a measure of safety may be found in a clinch, crawled toward him and grabbed him by the boot on which he was standing. Again, Sloan lost his balance and went down.
Furious at this latest humiliation, Sloan tore his leg loose and twisted into a position where he could send a fist smashing against the side of Susan’s face. “I’ll fix you, you bitch!” he hissed in a hoarse, breathless snarl. Susan, stunned by the punch, remained where she was, on all fours, swaying, blinking, as she tried to clear her head. Sloan was again on his feet and turning toward Laird, “The whip! Give me the whip! I’ll break this bitch now!”
Laird shrugged and grinned and tossed the coiled whip to Sloan, who snatched it out of the air, strung it out, and laid it back, while speaking bitterly through clenched teeth, “You’ll eat shit when I’m through with you bitch! And you’ll thank me for it!”
When the first stroke caught her across the upper back, Susan’s limbs gave out and, as if from a great distance, she heard herself scream in the blackness that overwhelmed her. But her eyes widened when the second cut came and she felt as if a red-hot wire had bitten her unprotected flesh. One followed another until she fainted.
“Jeezus chrise Sloan!” Captain O’Hearne said. “You better stop or you’re going to kill her!”
Sloan sucked air hard as he lashed her again, “I’ll teach her!”
Susan’s body merely responded with a spasm of muscle contraction, blood soaking red through tatters of her dress.
“You can’t teach a corpse!” O’Hearne said, “For chrissakes! She’s out cold! Can’t you tell?”
Sloan stood over her, legs apart, boots planted on either side of her waist, panting heavily as he gathered the whip into a new coil. “Well . . . when . . . she . . . comes . . . to . . . give her some more! I tell you, I’ll break her this time! I’ll break her!”
“Leave some for me!” said McCoullagh, still on his horse and very much amused. “Don’t break ’er. Just train ’er,” O’Hearne said.
Sloan snapped, “You got to break her before you can train her! Jeezus chrise! As an army man you gotta know that!”
O’Hearne had his mouth open to reply when McCoullagh demanded, “When can I have her! You said . . . ”
“Well for chrissakes! Here in the goddamned heat?” Sloan barked, giving his shoulders a sharp shrug against the sweat that slimed his shirt and jacket. “Let’s go down by the river; over there under those trees! When she comes to, I’m going to let her have some more! Then you can have her!”
“Sheee-it!” McCoullagh complained, “won’t be nothing but raw meat by the time you get through with her!”
“What do you care!” Sloan said with a grunt as he heaved Susan face down over her saddle, “All you want is a place to put your cock — I’ll make sure that much’ll be left in a piece.” He climbed into his saddle, gathered the reins of Susan’s bay and led the way to the water’s edge.
“Boy! You’re a real mean man!” McCoullagh muttered after Sloan with an admiring shake of his head.
“Only when I have to be,” Sloan replied curtly. “I’ve chased this bitch all over the continent and I don’t intend to chase her an inch further. When I get through with her, she’ll be eating out of my hand just like a well-trained bitch-dog!”
Sloan guided the horses knee deep into the river and then grabbed a fistful of Susan’s dress and yanked to pull her into the water, but the cloth just came away in his hands revealing a livid, lacerated back. Savagely he reached for her with both hands and pulled her down by the hips.
On contact with the water Susan snapped her head up, started screaming, spun around once to get her bearings and began wading for shore, “Don’t drown me!” she pleaded in her confusion, “Don’t drown me!”
Sloan turned his horse and followed her. “Stop!” he ordered as she touched dry sand. When she continued to stagger up the beach he let out the whip again, coiled it around her waist and yanked her off her feet.
Again Susan screamed, falling to her hands and knees, gasping for air.
Sloan leaped to stand over her, ripping off her clothes until she was naked from the waist up. “You gonna do what you’re told, slut! You gonna do what you’re told!” He kicked her hard on the side with a knee and sent her sprawling face down.
“Chrise Sloan!” said O’Hearne. “You cut her bad! She’s going to scar. You want her to scar? She’ll be worth less money that way!”
“I’ll scar her to the bone if need be!” Sloan said heavily, toeing her over and planting a boot on her stomach. “You gonna be a good girl bitch!” he said, brandishing the whip above his headwhat in slow circles.
Susan clutched at his boot with both hands but made no effort to escape or dislodge it. Her spirit collapsed. It had been too long. Too far. Too hard. The pain scrambled all thought except that there was no escape from this man; no place to hide; and no one, now that her meagre funds were exhausted, from whom she could even buy some kind of protection. Never, in all of her life, would she have imagined that she could be struck so low; never would she have believed that only money would be the buffer between dignity and degradation. Given the prompting, even as late as two years ago, when her future was before the courts, she would have said proudly that she would die before she would ever submit to the kind of abuse she was now suffering. Now she felt only exhaustion of spirit, massive pain, and blind terror.
“Please don’t whip me again!” she heard herself whine, “I beg you, please don’t whip me again! I’ll do whatever you say, only please don’t hit me again!”
Sloan’s anger melded with triumph, “You won’t run again?”
“No! I won’t run again!” Susan sobbed, “I’ll go back and serve my time! I promise! I promise! I promise!”
Sloan was at once satisfied and unsure. Somehow her humiliation, her surrender, had an incompleteness to it. He pushed his boot harder against her stomach but still she made no effort to resist; instead she curled around it as if trying to accommodate him with a more comfortable place to rest his foot.
Still edgy with lack of conviction, he took several steps back and cracked the whip over her, “Then crawl over here and lick my boots bitch!”
“Goddammit Sloan that’s enough!” O’Hearne said with a hoarse whisper, but he merely fidgeted in his saddle and did nothing.
Susan, now fully committed to surrender, was beyond pride. She painfully rolled over, struggled to her hands and knees and obeyed, her tongue leaving a black mark in the dust on the toe of first one boot and then the other.
“Not so high and mighty now, are you bitch!” Sloan sneered. When she only sobbed in response, he shouted, “Are you!”
“No!” she squealed, her naked, lacerated form collapsing inwardly in a tremble at his feet.
“Tell me you like doing that!”
Whimpering for pity, Susan said, “Yes. Yes . . . I . . . I . . . like it.”
For the moment at least, Sloan finally felt avenged. Her public humiliation, even before this scurvy public, had sated him to the extent at which he could withdraw from the urge to kill her outright. He knew, even as he crushed her last ounce of resistance, that he was dangerously close to killing her. Now he felt relieved of that need and he turned to McCoullagh with a smug smile, “Okay, Sheriff, she’s all yours.”
In anticipation, McCoullagh had already hobbled his horse and he had a knife in hand as he approached Susan, who remained where she was, lying front down on the sand. So defeated was she that she merely flinched when she felt his fingers cruel upon her. He cut away the remaining shreds of her clothing until she wore only stockings and her high-buttoned shoes.
“Me-gawd!” McCoullagh said and he whistled long and low with a wry face as he ran a knowing hand over her naked nether cheeks and then parted her thighs. “Look at them blisters!” So raw was her flesh that even a man so blunted in human feeling as he was impressed.
Sloan, still thinking of those thousands of miles and two escapes, only snorted, “Tender ass like that should know better than to try riding three-hundred-and-fifty miles first crack! And speaking of cracks, you gonna take her or not! The captain here, he looks real horny!”
“Yeah-yeah-yeah,” McCoullagh said in hasty reassurance of his intention as he unbuckled his gun belt and wriggled down his trousers. “But first I want to give her a taste of what’s coming.” He was chuckling now as he seized Susan’s hair at the top of her head and forced her up on her knees, turning her face so that he could thrust his crotch against it. “Now!”he hissed, “You get a nice friendly hold on my little friend here or I’ll use the whip on you myself!”
With a short shake of her head, and a whimper of abject compliance, Susan opened her mouth and reached out with her lips for McCoullagh’s erect penis. Then all four of them froze as a carbine thundered from nearby, the murderous buzz of lead sounding dangerously close as it passed among them and slapped the water just before its edge of sand.
“What the hell . . . !”squawked McCoullagh.
“Stand away from that woman, chien!”came the harsh command of Gabriel Dumont. “I can kill a fly at a hundred yards! Putting a bullet between your pig eyes at this distance would be no trouble at all — and it’d be a pleasure!”
Chilled with fear, McCoullah gave Susan an abrupt shove that sent her sprawling back onto the sand. He crabwalked away from her, vainly trying to pull up his pants.
Another shot exploded. “Hands behind your necks! All of you! Now!”
Dumont was grey with anger. Never in all his experience, nor in the folklore of his people, had he seen or heard of such a cold-blooded abuse of a woman. A Métis or Indian woman could be beaten in a drunken fight with her husband; slapped, or spanked, when she should have known it would have been better for her to hold her peace; or taken in love against her objections; but to have three grown men play with a woman as if she were a frog was not the way of the high plains country. Women were mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, lovers; they were significant to the hunt and the trading. They shared in good times and bad; no woman, no matter her crime, deserved the abuse these scavengers were imposing on the helpless victim they had captured.
As he emerged from cover about fifty yards away, just beyond the flood-line of the river bank, Dumont’s voice was seething as he held his rifle easy but dangerously from the waist with one powerful hand. “You’re like rabid dogs! I should kill all of you like rabid dogs! But you’ve got two legs — so you live! But don’t tempt me!”
The indication he would not be shot outright gave Sloan courage. “Now look here you! This woman belongs to me . . . I have papers . . . what’s happening to her, she deserves . . . ”
“Shut your mouth!” Dumont said, “or I’ll smash it shut!” By now he was on one knee beside Susan who was lying on her side curled in a fetal position. She was whimpering and quivering, dimly aware that she might have been rescued. He placed a light hand on her head, “There-there,” he offered kindly, speaking English with a pleasant French accent, “you’re free of these dogs now. Go down to the water and stand in it up to your neck. it’ll ease the pain.”
His previously harsh voice had so transformed that it matched the feel of his hand, gentle on Susan’s head, thereby giving her, for the first time, the courage to look at him. Tears and fluttering eyelids blurred his image but she saw that he who had rescued her was no classic prince charming. He had black hair and a black beard, a high, broad forehead, heavy brows, fierce dark eyes, a prominent nose, a cruel if sensuous mouth, all set against ash-brown flesh. As her blinking cleared her vision, she saw that he was terrifying to look at; still, here he was, instructing her while being tender in both voice and touch.
“Go now,” he whispered. “You’re safe. I’ll take care of these chiens. The water’ll do you good. Go!”
Susan, urgently trying to restrain suspicion and fear, hesitated. Dumont stroked her head. “Do as I say now. Go and stand in the water. it’ll ease the pain and you’ll be out of the way while I chain these dogs.”
The thought that she could be useful, even it meant only being out of the way, stirred courage anew in Susan. Whimpering again, she painfully gathered herself to her hands and knees and started to crawl toward the water’s edge.
“Walk!” Dumont said sharply, so sharply Susan’s limbs buckled slightly in fear and then she froze. “Walk!” he insisted in a much mellowed voice, realizing what he had done.
With an agonized whine she twisted to her feet, stepped falteringly toward the water and then broke into a run, splashing and wading until she was up to her chin. The relief from the burning was immediate and she slowly turned a grateful if sorrowful face toward Dumont, wondering the while just who was this strange man whose strength and will had almost instantly cowed her tormentors.
For his part, and despite the circumstances, Dumont had not been able to refrain from a man’s assessment of Susan as she made for the water. She was well-formed, torso matching limbs. She was slim, her breasts a firm handful each, well-rounded and carrying their nipples high. She had slender shoulders, slim waist, well-tapered legs and a beam that was narrow enough to show she had yet to know her first child, but broad enough to suggest she would be easy at this most important of all woman’s work. She was a most attractive female.
McCoullagh, trousers crumpled around the tops of his boots, still dared to challenge Dumont. “You can’t do this to me,” he said, thrusting his chest out, “I’m a deputy sheriff from St. Paul!”
“I know you,” Dumont growled. “You’re tavern trash. I’ve seen you before. I don’t know how it is that you’re wearing that badge — probably stole it — but it means nothing to me. Even if you got the badge legally, a St. Paul deputy sheriff has no authority here. So you’d do better to keep your mouth shut!”
McCoullagh stupidly persisted. “Well, can I at least pull up my pants!”
Dumont drove the butt of his rifle into McCoullagh’s stomach. The deputy sheriff collapsed in a fit of hoarse, wracking gasps.
Dumont, Henry repeater otherwise at easy cover, kicked McCoullagh’s holstered revolver from where it had been lying on the sand toward the river and he ordered the other two men to drop their weapons, slowly.
As he and O’Hearne obeyed, Sloan said, “Listen! You look like a reasonable man. I have a proposition for you. A proposition for you to make a lot of money.”
Dumont, watching the three men carefully, said nothing as he threw the second and then the third revolver safely beyond easy reach.
Encouraged by Dumont’s silence, Sloan continued, “This woman is a runaway slave and I’m bringing her back to her rightful owners.”
Dumont said, “Now put your hands behind your back and step back five times, slowly now, easy does it, real slow.”
As the three men obeyed, Sloan frowned and said, “Do you understand what I’m getting at . . . ?”
Dumont narrowed his eyes, “I thought the big war freed the slaves; besides, she looks white to me.”
“Well, now,” Sloan said with an ingratiating grin, thinking he might be making some headway. “She’s not that kind of a slave. She’s a bondslave. She was auctioned off, all according to law, for non-payment of debts. Back in Nova Scotia she’s worth ten thousand dollars and she has to put in fifty years of service before she can go free and she . . .”
“Fifty years!”Dumont said, and then he couldn’t help stating the obvious. “Why, she’d be an old woman by then!”
Sloan shrugged. “The law’s the law . . . ”
In the water, Susan listened intently, trembling as the men settled her future. She shuddered with gratitude as she heard Dumont say, “That’s not the law here! Now enough of this nonsense. I should kill you all or give you the kind of flogging you gave her; but you can thank God I’ve decided not to kill you, unless you force my hand, and that I don’t have time for the lash! So take off your boots and trousers and throw them all into a heap here! Now move!” He fired another slug, this time into the sand at their feet.
“Now just a minute,” said O’Hearne even as he hastily complied, “I’m a captain in the American cavalry! You can’t do this . . .”
“Merde!” Dumont snapped. “No fighting man I know would allow a woman to be treated like that!”
“But . . .” O’Hearne said, with a sidelong glance at the other two, “I . . . well, I tried to stop them from doing that. Yes I did!” he added, with a stubborn shut of his jaw.
McCoullagh who, like the others, was out of his pants and boots now, wasn’t about to let O’Hearne weasel out of the trio and, as if forgetting the blow he had suffered only minutes before, said earnestly, “Don’t believe him . . . he was gonna take her just as soon as I finished with her! Ain’t that right, Sloan?” he sneered.
Dumont marvelled at the man’s inability to comprehend the danger he was in, and for a fleeting moment considered putting an end to what must be a profoundly stupid existence. Instead, with a snap shot, he nipped off the lower tip of the man’s right ear; not much of it; just enough to give it a severe burn and produce a drop of blood.
“Silence!” Dumont shouted in the echo of the rifle’s exploding charge and against McCoullagh’s howling. He ordered all three to lie face down. Then he pulled the lariat from O’Hearne’s saddle. He knew army regulations called for it to be thirty feet long, and so, cut in ten-foot lengths, it would be perfect for tying together the hands and feet of each man behind the back.
Even yet, now bound as he was, Sloan persisted. “Listen,” he said, “listen . . .”
“I’m listening,” Dumont said, looking toward the woman and waving her out of the water.
“Look in my jacket,” Sloan urged. “Inside pocket on the right; you’ll find papers there. They’ll show you I carry the authority of the sheriff’s office in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It’s all there. Set me free. There’s a reward out for that woman — for two thousand dollars. Set me free and I’ll see that you get it; all of it! You know how much money that is? Why in Halifax you can buy yourself a big house and stable for two thousand dollars . . . ”
“I don’t want to live in Halifax,” Dumont said with a wink at Susan who had come slowly out of the water to stand near him, shock sufficiently faded so that modesty caused her to cup her left breast with her right hand, while her left settled over her pudendum. She shivered and choked back a whine as she heard Dumont say, “Besides, why should I settle for two thousand when the woman’s worth ten!”
Sloan writhed against his bonds in helpless exasperation. “But you don’t have to do anything for it! All you have to do is set me free and I’ll see that you get the money! Two thousand dollars!” he plunged on, desperately trying another tact. “At fifty cents a gallon, that’ll buy a lot of whisky!”
Dumont wanted to kick him for the insult, but, instead, he fished the papers out of the man’s pocket. “I’m not good at figures,” he said with a straight voice. “How many gallons of whisky will two thousand dollars buy?”
“Why . . . why . . .” Sloan figured, taking the bait, “why . . . why four thousand gallons!”
“Let’s see now,” Dumont said, handing the papers to Susan who took them fearfully, hands trembling, “with three-hundred-and-sixty-five days in the year, and if I drink a gallon of whisky a day, how long could I stay drunk for?” Now he was searching the saddle rolls of his prisoners for the cleanest blanket; not surprisingly, it was the captain’s.
“Well . . .” Sloan was saying, “why that’d be good for more than ten years.” But even as he spoke, he experienced that terrible let-down feeling people have when they realize that someone had been mocking them while pretending to be serious.
“Better than a ten-year drunk,” Dumont said, marvel in his voice. “Imagine that!” He draped the blanket over Susan’s shoulders and took the papers from her, with a wink inhis voice. “Are you the kind of woman who could make a man go on a ten-year drunk?”
Susan looked at him with widened eyes, still too confused by the battering to think quickly enough for a sensible response.
With a quick shake of his head, Dumont settled on his haunches about three feet from Sloan’s face, now turned on its right side so the bounty-hunter could easily see what his captor was doing. Dumont crumpled the official documents in his hands, made a little pile of them, struck a sulphur match, let it take for a couple of seconds, then placed the blue flame carefully on top.
With pop-eyed horror, Sloan shrieked, “At least read them!”
“Can’t read.” Dumont’s smile was grim as he stood up and watched the little fire develop and consume its twisting fuel.
“Don’t do that!” Sloan pleaded in a fury of horror. “I’ll have to go all the way back to . . . it’ll take me weeks . . . months . . to get new papers! You’re crazy! Who are you anyway!” he demanded fiercely as he vainly tried to shift closer to the fire and blow it out.
Even though Sloan’s mission was impossible, Dumont placed a moccasin boot on Sloan’s neck and held him where it was. “I am Gabriel Dumont,” he said, “and these papers are worthless here. Here we have no debt slaves. If you’re healthy, you hunt. If you can’t hunt, others will look after you. If you’ve got a creditor, the creditor will wait until you pay. If you can’t pay, it’s the creditor’s loss. You’ve got strange laws in Nova Scotia. You can keep them there.”
“You’re crazy!” Sloan hissed, squirming the while under Dumont’s foot. “You just set fire to two thousand dollars . . . ten thousand dollars! But it won’t do the bitch any good! I’ll get new papers! I’ll get her! You’ll see . . .” then his sound muffled as Dumont pushed his face into the sand.
Dumont looked at Susan, who had paled both at having found out who had rescued her and at Sloan’s renewed wrath. She was quietly crying in fear that the latter would make good his threats.
Dumont said, “You want to do anything to this idiot . . . to get even?”
Susan shrank and shook her head quickly. Even though Sloan was securely bound, even though the man who had mastered him professed to be the renowned Gabriel, her reserves were so low she had no energy even for uncontested revenge; the desire yes, but not the will. All she wanted to do was escape, to put the greatest possible distance between her and her persecutor.
Dumont shrugged and mashed the ashes of the documents into the sand with the sole of his boot.
Sloan had the courage of the obsessed. “I intend to report you,” he said, spluttering sand from his mouth. “I’m on the business of the Crown of England, by proper authority, this is English territory, you can’t trifle with that . . .”
Dumont didn’t bother to tell him that they were sixty miles south into American territory. “The English Crown can claim all it wants but it has no authority here. This land belongs to the Métis and our cousins the Indians.”
“But the Hudson’s Bay Company!”
“Of no account! We trade with the company if and when we please. When it doesn’t, we trade down to St. Paul or at American posts along the way. The Company has its forts in the territory but it controls no land and no people except its servants. But I’ve had enough of this foolishness. You’ve got no papers. The woman goes free. And you’d better consider yourselves lucky I’ve got better things to do with my bullets than to put some in your heads.”
As he spoke, Dumont gathered the weapons, boots and trousers of the three men and tied them into a bundle that he slung over the saddlehorn of McCoullagh’s horse. Then he made a lead rope for the three mounts. When he finished he looked over his captives in a final check to make sure they were securely bound and he said, “Now I want you dummies to listen because I’m only going to say this once: I’m going to take your mounts, your gear, and your weapons, ten miles south of here. There is a butte a couple of miles to the west — you’ll be able to see it from the main valley trail — I’ll leave your mounts hobbled there. When you find them, ride back to St. Paul and you,”he said, nudging Sloan with a toe, “you go back to Nova Scotia. As God is my witness, if I ever find any one of you back in the Red River Valley, or out on the high plains, I’ll not ask questions nor listen to your lies — I’ll shoot you like mad dogs!”
Despite this warning, O’Hearne now took his turn to try Dumont’s patience, “Mr. Dumont . . I don’t give a damn about this here woman. I really came north to . . . well, to see if I could meet you. I wanted to talk to you.”
Dumont’s cheeks puffed and, glancing at Susan, he rolled his eyes. “Well, talk!”
O’Hearne strained against his bonds, then went limp with resignation. “I think I can help you. You say the English Crown has no power here, but soon your eastern provinces will unite and, when they do, they’ll be looking west to send settlers. It’s bound to happen! And when the settlers come it’ll be the end of your kind of life. They’ll slaughter the buffalo and carve the prairies into farms. There’ll be no place for the Métis then! I’ve got five thousand troops mustering in St. Paul who’re prepared to help you fight to defend your territory. With the help of them, you’d be able to establish your own independent territory.”
For a moment that passed so quickly that she was unsure it happened, Susan thought she saw a shadow of sadness slide over Dumont’s face, but the latter only scoffed. “Letting your five thousand into our territory would be like rabbits letting in a wolf to protect them against a fox. No thank you, captain, we’ll look after ourselves. And my advice to you and your five thousand is to go elsewhere for their fun. We don’t need you. We don’t want you! Take my word as fair warning. Stay away!”
“You can’t stop them breed!” sneered McCoullagh. “I know you can’t raise more’n two hundred horse and most of them haven’t even got repeating rifles; just a bunch of old smoothbore muzzle loaders. We just finished smashing the most powerful army in the world, what makes you think you and your gadammed breed buffalo hunters can stop us? We’re gonna come up here and mash you just like we mashed the grey coats!”
As Dumont marvelled once again at the thick audacity of the man and wondered why he was still alive, O’Hearne bit off, “For chrissakes Laird, shut up and let me handle this!”
“Don’t tell me to shut up!” snarled McCoullagh. “I’m not in your dammed army now!”
Dumont shook his head slowly and held out an escorting hand to Susan, who was staring at him again with saucer eyes, seeming to appreciate for the first time that her liberation, at least for now, was a fact. At the touch of his hand on her blanketed elbow, she moved toward her stolen mount, musing as she carefully stepped her way, that she was indeed the rescued maiden being guided to safety by The Prince of the Prairies.
Dumont lifted her into her saddle and, as Susan settled painfully, he walked up the bank, leading the horses to where he had hobbled his own pony and remount. As she watched Dumont fork his saddle, Susan was surprised at how small his ponies seemed when next to her bay. But any comment she may have made was defused by Dumont when he said, after a pause during which he had studied the bound men:
“Captain, you come up here with your five thousand and you’ll drown in your own blood. We’re peaceful people but we know how to fight!”
“But we’re not coming to fight you!” O’Hearne protested. “We’re coming to help you fight the English!”
Dumont shrugged. “At the moment we’re at war with no one. Let no one make war on us.” By this time the angle of his climb was such that his back was toward his captives and he did not turn to look at them, nor did he speak to them again as they began to shout.
“Gadammed breed!” said McCoullagh.
“Shut up!” said the captain. “We need him on our side!”
“Fuck your side! I want the woman! She’s mine!” said Sloan.
Their voices turned full on each other, disputing each other’s right to speak, even right to live, each claiming his interest as paramount.
Dumont turned toward Susan with a wry smile. “Come on! We’ll leave these idiots now. And the faster we move the less time you’ll suffer. We’ll make camp about five miles down the trail. When we get there I’ll do something to heal your wounds. In two or three days you’ll be as soft and smooth as a baby.”
He set off at an easy gallop. Susan urged her bay to match Dumont’s speed. She believed him because she had to. She followed him because she had nowhere else to go.
Dumont called a halt at a copse of trees by the riverside about five miles south of where they had left the bound men. For most of the time, Susan, as much from exhaustion as from the whipping, had ridden almost faint in the saddle. Dumont helped her down and steadied her on her feet. He strung a line between two trees and tethered the horses. After slackening their cinches, he set about gathering twigs and branches for a small fire. When satisfied it would burn, he took a tin saucepan and a small sack from the pack of his re-mount. He set the sack beside the fire and filled the saucepan with water and set it on the glowing embers.
For the first time in all of this, he looked at Susan with something of a shy smile and said, indicating the saucepan, “You’re lucky I’ve got this. I never carry things like that with me. It’s for my wife. I bought it in Fort Garry.”
Susan was by nature a possessive woman so, despite having just escaped a brutal experience, she was more than a little chagrined to learn that there was a wife. She was standing in the shade, blanket loose around her shoulders, as she watched him, puzzled by his actions.
He took the sack and poured a white substance into the warm water.
“What’s that?” she heard herself saying.
“Salt. Also for my wife.” He stirred the fire and added more twigs.
Susan was about to ask why the salt and water, when Dumont stiffened in his crouch and held up his hand. Suddenly he stood and ran off the beach and back up to the trail, where he dropped to his stomach and turned an ear to the ground. His face brightened.
“Just as I thought,” he said, his face now relaxed with pleasant anticipation. “That has to be LaForge! Good!”
“Who comes?” Susan asked warily.
“Pierre LaForge,” he said. Then he said sharply, “Come here!”
She flinched and hesitated.
“Come-come! There’s not much time! He’s less than five minutes away!”
“But what for?” Susan asked crest-fallen as she stepped slowly toward him. “What . . . what are you going to do!”
He shook his head with self-admonishment for having all but forgotten that her experience had bruised her mind as well as her body.
“Only time will heal the wounds of the soul,” he said gently, removing the blanket, “but now I want to take care of the wounds of the flesh.” He spread the blanket on the sand between them and said, “Now lie there, face down.”
“You sound like a priest,” she said in tearful disappointment as she dropped to her knees on the blanket. “What do you mean, taking care of the wounds of my flesh? Are you going to rape me? You don’t have to rape me. I’ll yield in gratitude. I owe you my life . . .”
An indulgent chuckle rumbled deep in Dumont’s chest. “You remind me of my wife . . . you women . . . all you think about is sex!”
“Well, what . . . !”
“Just lie still. Warm water and plenty of salt. These together will dry up and heal your sores. At first it’ll feel like a thousand needles but it’s the quickest way. In three days your rump will be forever ready for the saddle and the cuts from the whip will be gone. I want to start the treatment now, before LaForge comes, because we’ll have a lot to talk about. Okay?”
“Okay.” Susan sighed and yielded her body to him.
Then she stiffened and screamed as he began to wash her gently with the saline solution. It did feel like a thousand needles. But even while she hissed and moaned she let out an involuntary laugh as she recalled his comment that the only thing women think about is sex. The truth was, as she felt his hard, powerful hands working tenderly on her back, sex was what she was indeed thinking about — and how lucky this strange man’s wife must be.
He had just completed the wash when they heard the sounds of a galloping horse coming toward them.
“Who —!” she exclaimed fearfully.
“Lie easy,” he said, “that’ll be LaForge. Don’t move. I’ll wave him down!” And he was gone.
As she lay there, burning from thighs to shoulders, she told herself that she must remember to ask him how he could tell it was LaForge by putting his ear to the ground. And thinking this, in the whisper of the breeze in the leaves, she dozed off, feeling safe for the first time in a year even though she was lying naked and helpless in the company of two men she had never met before.
Up on the trail, LaForge came to a halt before Dumont in a cloud of dust. He leaped off his rugged pony and the two men embraced. They were two men alike: naturals to the high plains country, afraid of no one and no thing. As they walked down to the river to slake thirst of man and mount, LaForge saw the woman but made no comment.
Speaking in the patois of the French-speaking Métis, LaForge said, “The Fort Erie occupation is confirmed. I was there myself and saw the Fenian troops and their flag flying over it.”
“And what of the government! What about Macdonald!” Dumont said. “Surely to God they’ve sent troops to throw them back across the Niagara!”
LaForge was face down in the water. He sat back on his haunches, gargled and spat a mouthful of water with a laughing scoff. “The government! Macdonald!”he said, standing now. “I’ll tell you what those heroes have done! They’ve appealed to the English in London, to appeal to the Americans in Washington to appeal to the invaders of Fort Erie, to leave, if you please!” LaForge made mockery of a grand bow with a wide sweep of his arm.
Dumont frowned and shook his head slowly, sadly.
“The Upper Canadians, the English,” LaForge said, “have the courage and brains of a sick old buffalo cow!”
Dumont nodded. “And what of St. Paul?”
“It’s madness there my friend,” LaForge said. “A kind of madness that has, for me, its own fascination. They come by horse, by foot, by wagon, by train, by river boat up the Mississippi, and they come by the thousands. Soldiers, men, women, children. No!” he smiled, seeing the look on Dumont’s face. “No! Not all to make war on us. Most are on their way to Oregon, through the Dakotah and Montana country.”
Now LaForge paused and took a cheroot from his vest pocket. He offered it to Dumont and, when the latter refused, he bit off the end and stuck it between his lips. He applied a sulphur flame to it, filled his mouth with smoke, and then blew out a long thin stream.
“I tell you Gabriel, they’re coming like flies. They’re coming to settle on the land, to tear the soil with their ploughs. They’ll destroy our hunting grounds. Soon, very soon, there’ll be much blood spilled on the prairie,” and he swept an arm to the west where the far horizon lay so quiet and hazy and unsuspecting in the midafternoon sun.
“And to go from bad to worse,” LaForge said, “parasites come with them. St. Paul overflows with gamblers, prostitutes, whisky runners, land speculators — all who prey on the innocent.” He looked at Dumont with a chilling grin. “The way things are going, Hank Flowers will find himself working day and night just to keep up.”
Dumont smiled tight and edged away from the invitation to distraction. “What about the Fenians?”
“Of course,” LaForge apologized, “it’s just that I feel I was in the middle of a . . . well . . . a new world in birth — a vision of what’s to come!”
Dumont nodded and put a friendly hand on LaForge’s shoulder, giving the latter a tender but urgent squeeze. “The Fenians . . .”
“In the middle of this muddle,” LaForge said, “the Fenians work by day and lamplight to recruit veterans and vermin to march on Fort Garry.”
LaForge rubbed his clean-shaven chin. “So far about one thousand — five hundred mounted, five hundred infantry. I saw seven field guns, five-pounders, muzzle loaders —”
“They’re at a camp about five miles west of St. Paul. They have money. They have plenty of arms and ammunition; more than enough for all. Plenty of food. Plenty of liquor . . .”
“Where does the money come from?”
“Hard to tell for sure but, from what I could learn, it seems that most of the direction comes from people in and around the American Party. Like you know, that bunch is supported by powerful politicians and entrepreneurs who think nothing would be better than to plant the American flag deep in our soil.”
“What’s the tavern talk in support of this adventure?” Dumont asked. While alcohol consumption and talk inspired thereby would not produce accuracy, the combination could offer insight on attitudes and intentions.
LaForge gave an abrupt shake of his head. “It’s incredible. It’s as if we don’t even exist. The leaders talk much about how the English have abandoned the northwest; how the eastern provinces are so deep in squabbling that they’ve got no interest in the territory west of the great lakes; how, therefore, the Americans have a natural right to occupy what they call empty land.”
Dumont tugged lightly at his beard. “When will they march?”
LaForge frowned. “Soon. Probably in two weeks. No later than the first week of September.”
“That’s a little late in the year to start a war,” said Dumont.
LaForge shrugged. “They think we’re going to welcome them like Christ Emself. They’re making a lot out of our victory over the Hudson’s Bay Company seventeen years ago. They point to the growing number of Red River cart caravans trading into St. Paul. They’re saying that we’re half-American already. They add up a few accuracies and come up with the wrong answers. All recruits think they’re in for an easy ride all the way to Fort Garry where the loot will be furs, buffalo skins, whisky, our land, and our women.”
“Do they know anything of the kind of resistance we can put up?” Dumont asked, eager to test LaForge’s information against that of Laird McCoullagh’s.
“They too have their spies,” LaForge nodded, “but to keep high the spirits of their men they say we’re even less than we are. They’re saying the best we can do, even if we do resist, is put twenty or thirty horse against them. They’re saying, accurately, most of the Métis only have ancient hunting pieces. Mostly they say we’d rather be hunting buffalo than fighting them.”
“Their intelligence is good,” Dumont said, sorting in his mind the difference between what the Fenians knew and what they were saying. “What’re their main sources?”
LaForge opened the palms of his hands, the tone of his voice generous. “Our people are innocent, Gabriel, and they love to talk. When a stranger during trading, or afterwards, in a tavern, asks questions about us or our way of life, we’re always glad to talk and brag. The Fenian intelligence officers are clever and experienced. They take a piece of information here, another there, and put them all together. For them, it’s been child’s play to get the information they need.”
Dumont nodded agreement, thinking he would be the last to condemn anyone from speaking boldly, frankly, and with pride about the Métis and their ways, as more than once he had done himself in St. Paul. There was no war yet; therefore no secrets to be held from the enemy. The only secrets were those now forming in his head, in that part of his mind that he had assigned to drawing up strategy and tactics to counter any attempt by the Fenians and by the American Party to fulfil their schemes. But he needed more information.
“What kind of weather have they been having down there?”
LaForge looked a little surprised. “Hot. Hot and more hot. Like up here, it’s been a dry summer.”
“I suppose that means summer uniforms. Is there any issue of winter clothing?”
“No!” LaForge smiled before his face fell serious, trying to fathom his leader’s line of reasoning. “You see they think they can reach Fort Garry in fifteen days.”
Dumont scoffed, “They could never move one thousand men and ordnance three-hundred-and-fifty miles in fifteen days!”
“These aren’t raw recruits, Gabriel, most of them are veterans.”
“They’ve been idle for at least a year.”
“But they drill every day.”
Dumont was silent for a moment, then he said, speaking slowly, “Still, an army that size won’t be able to live off the land; not now, now that the buffalo have gone from this country to the west. They’re going to have to bring supplies with them. To do that they’ll need teamsters, blacksmiths, cooks, harness makers, guides . . . they’ll only be able to move as fast as their wagons.” He paused and looked intently at LaForge. “Pierre, I want you to go back to St. Paul, round up as many friends as we can completely trust, and infiltrate the ordnance corps. As soon as the army begins to move, send me word. In two weeks time you can be certain that we’ll be out beyond the Missouri Coteau hunting buffalo in the land of the Dakotah Sioux. I’ll need continuous reports on the Fenian progress and we’ll do our best to make sure that progress is so poor they’ll never reach the border, never mind Fort Garry!”
LaForge’s eyes widened in surprise. “You mean to stop them on American soil?”
Dumont shrugged. “Can you think of a better place? Anyway, we were here first.” LaForge smiled and nodded. “No better place than right here my friend, no better place.”
“Then you’ll return to St. Paul?”
LaForge nodded again, then frowned and narrowed his eyes at Dumont. “But how will we stop them and conduct our buffalo hunt too? They’re planning their attack to coincide with the hunt, gambling that any of us who might oppose them — and especially you — would be too busy with the hunt to interfere.”
Dumont looked squarely at LaForge. “The problem is real. It’s a difficult one; but somehow we’ll solve it. Right now I’m not sure how myself, but we’ll find a way because we must!”
Confidence simply put; confidence simply won; confidence of one experienced fighting man in another — improvisation was the norm for survival in this challenging country.
For the first time LaForge gave direct indication that he had noticed the sleeping woman. He shook his head with an expression of contempt. “I see she didn’t get to you in time.”
“Almost,” said Dumont, his lips flattening in anger. “But by the time I got to her they’d really worked her over. What do you know about her?”
LaForge reported that he had heard of her from Juliette Brunelle, a Métis woman who worked as a clerk in one of the main dry goods stores in St. Paul and who was, when needed, a prime source of reliable intelligence. Juliette had befriended the eastern woman and had been the one originally to recommend, when Sloan had appeared in St. Paul, that she seek refuge among the Métis people, and specifically from Gabriel Dumont.
Juliette had placed her in the custody of a Métis caravan returning to the White Horse Plains west of Fort Garry. But LaForge had learned as he himself rode north, that Sloan, who had a nose like a dog, discovered her escape and destination and rode after her with two other men.
“About two hundred miles south of here,” LaForge said, “the three men arrived at the caravan camp late at night. Our people were amused by the idea of the woman escaping on an army horse so, while the men slept, they saddled it up and away she went, with no one thinking to give her proper riding clothes,” LaForge concluded with an indulgent grin. Then, with a glance in Susan’s direction, “What do you plan to do with her? Juliette will want to know.”
“Juliette has a soft heart,” said Dumont, turning to look at Susan.
“And yours is made of stone.”
Dumont smiled. “Tell Juliette I’ve taken responsibility for the woman. I’ll see that she comes to no further harm.”
LaForge nodded approval, then asked, “And what of the other three?”
Dumont told him what had happened, the condition in which he had left the three men, and where heplanned to leave their horses.
LaForge said, “It’ll take them days to walk the ten miles in their bare feet. They’ll have blisters and running sores worse than hers. I’ll tell our people back down the trail to offer them no assistance and, since I’m riding that way anyway, I’ll leave their mounts by the butte.”
And so it was done.