Read CHAPTER XXIV of Lords of the North , free online book, by Agnes C. Laut, on ReadCentral.com.

FORT DOUGLAS CHANGES MASTERS

I suppose there are times in the life of every one, even the strongest and I am not that when a feather’s weight added to a burden may snap power of endurance. I had reached that stage before encountering Le Grand Diable on the field of massacre at Seven Oaks. With the events in the Mandane country, the long, hard ride northward and this latest terrible culmination of strife between Nor’-Westers and Hudson’s Bay, the past month had been altogether too hard packed for my well-being. The madness of northern traders no longer amazed me.

An old nurse of my young days, whom I remember chiefly by her ramrod back and sharp tongue, used to say, “Nerves! nerves! nothing but nerves!” She thanked God she was born before the doctors had discovered nerves. Though neurotic theories had not been sufficiently elaborated for me to ascribe my state to the most refined of modern ills nervous prostration I was aware, as I dragged over the prairie with the horse at the end of a trailing bridle rein, that something was seriously out of tune. It was daylight before I caught the frightened broncho and no knock-kneed coward ever shook more, as I vainly tried to vault into the saddle, and after a dozen false plunges at the stirrup, gave up the attempt and footed it back to camp. There was a daze between my eyes, which the over-weary know well, and in the brain-whirl, I could distinguish only two thoughts, Where was Miriam and Father Holland’s prediction “Benedicite! The Lord shall be your avenger! He shall deliver that evil one into the power of the punisher.”

Thus, I reached the camp, picketed the horse, threw myself down in the tent and slept without a break from the morning of the 20th till mid-day of the 21st. I was awakened by the Bois-Brules returning from a demonstration before the gateway of Fort Douglas. Going to the tent door, I saw that Pritchard, one of the captive Hudson’s Bay men, had been brought back from a conference with the enemy. From his account, the Hudson’s Bay people seemed to be holding out against us; but the settlers, realizing the danger of Indian warfare, to a man favored surrender. Had it not been for Grant, there would have been no farther parley; but on news that settlers were pressing for capitulation, the warden again despatched Pritchard to the Hudson’s Bay post. In the hope of gaining access to Frances Sutherland and Eric Hamilton I accompanied him. Such was the terror prevailing within the walls, in spite of Pritchard’s assurance regarding my friendly purpose, admission was flatly denied me. I contented myself with verbal messages that Hamilton and Father Holland must remain. I could guarantee their safety. The same offer I made to Frances, but told her to do what was best for herself and her father. When Pritchard came out, I knew from his face that Fort Douglas was ours. Hamilton and Father Holland would stay, he reported; but Mistress Sutherland bade him say that after Seven Oaks her father had no friendly feeling for Nor’-Westers, and she could not let him go forth alone. Terms were stipulated between the two companies with due advantage to our side from the recent victory and the formal surrender of Fort Douglas took place the following day.

“What are you going to do with the settlers, Cuthbert?” I asked of the warden before the capitulation.

“Aye! That’s a question,” was the grim response.

“Why not leave them in the fort till things quiet down?”

“With all the Indians of Red River in possession of that fort?” asked Grant, sarcastically. “Were a few Nor’-Westers so successful in holding back the Metis at Seven Oaks, you’d like to see that experiment repeated?”

“’Twill be worse, Grant, if you let them go back to their farms.”

“They’ll not do that, if I’m warden of the plains,” he declared with great determination. “We’ll have to send them down the Red to the lake till that fool of a Scotch nobleman decides what to do with his fine colonists.”

“But, Grant, you don’t mean to send them up north in this cold country. They may not reach Hudson’s Bay in time to catch the company ship to Scotland! Why, man, it’s sheer murder to expose those people to a winter up there without a thing to shelter them!”

“To my mind, freezing is not quite so bad as a massacre. If they won’t take our boats to the States, or Canada, what else can Nor’-Westers do?”

And what else, indeed? I could not answer Grant’s question, though I know every effort we made to induce those people to go south instead of north has been misrepresented as an infamous attempt to expel Selkirk settlers from Red River. Truly, I hope I may never see a sadder sight than the going forth of those colonists to the shelterless plain. It was disastrous enough for them to be driven from their native heath; but to be lured away to this far country for the purpose of becoming buffers between rival fur-traders, who would stop at nothing, and to be sacrificed as victims for their company’s criminal policy I speak as a Nor’-Wester was immeasurably cruel.

Grant was, of course, on hand for the surrender, and he wisely kept the plain-rangers at a safe distance. Clerks lined each side of the path to the gate, and I pressed forward for a glimpse of Frances Sutherland. There was the jar of a heavy bolt shot back. Confused noises sounded from the courtyard. The gates swung open, and out marched the sheriff of Assiniboia, bearing in one hand a pole with a white sheet tacked to the end for a flag of truce, and in the other the fort keys. Behind, sullen and dejected, followed a band of Hudson’s Bay men. Grant stepped up to meet the sheriff. The terms of capitulation were again stated, and there was some signing of paper. Of those things my recollection is indistinct; for I was straining my eyes towards the groups of settlers inside the walls. When I looked back to the conferring leaders the silence was so intense a pinfall could have been heard. The keys of the fort were being handed to the Nor’-Westers and the Hudson’s Bay men had turned away their faces that they might not see. The vanquished then passed quickly to the barges at the river. Each of the six drunken fellows, whom I had last seen in the late Governor Semple’s office, the Highlanders who had spied upon me when I visited Fort Douglas but a year before, the clerks whom I had heard talking that night in the great hall, and many others with whom I had but a chance acquaintance, filed down to the river. Seeing all ready, with a North-West clerk at the prow of each boat to warn away marauders, the men came back for settlers and wounded comrades. I would have proffered my assistance to some of the burdened people on the chance of a word with Frances Sutherland, but the colonists proudly resented any kind offices from a Nor’-Wester. I saw Louis Laplante come limping out, leaning on the arm of the red-faced man, whose eye quailed when it met mine. Poor Louis looked sadly battered, with his head in a white bandage, one arm in a sling, and a dejected stoop to his shoulders that was unusual with him.

“This is too bad, Louis,” said I, hurrying forward. “I forgot to send word about you. You might as well have stayed in the fort till your wounds healed. Won’t you come back?”

Louis stole a furtive, sheepish glance at me, hung his head and looked away with a suspicion of moisture about his eyes.

“You always were a brute to fight at Laval! I might trick you at first, but you always ended by giving me the throw,” he answered disconsolately.

“Nonsense, Louis.” I was astounded at the note of reproach in his voice. “We’re even now let by-gones be by-gones! You helped me, I helped you. You trapped me into the fort, I tricked you into breaking a mirror and laying up a peck of trouble for yourself. Surely you don’t treasure any grudge yet?”

He shook his head without looking at me.

“I don’t understand. Let us begin over again. Come, forget old scores, come back to the fort till you’re well.”

“Pah!” said Louis with a sudden, strange impatience which I could not fathom. “You understand some day and turn upon me and strike and give me more throw.”

“All right, comrade, treasure your wrath! Only I thought two men, who had saved each other’s lives, might be friends and bury old quarrels.”

“You not know,” he blurted out in a broken voice.

“Not know what?” I asked impatiently. “I tell you I forgive all and I had thought you might do as much

“Do as much!” he interrupted fiercely. “O mon Dieu!” he cried, with a sob that shook his frame. “Take me away! Take me away!” he begged the man on whose arm he was leaning; and with those enigmatical words he passed to the nearest boat.

While I was yet gazing in mute amazement after Louis Laplante, wondering whether his strange emotion were revenge, or remorse, the women and children marched forth with the men protecting each side. The empty threats of half-breeds to butcher every settler in Red River had evidently reached the ears of the women. Some trembled so they could scarcely walk and others stared at us with the reproach of murder in their eyes, gazing in horror at our guilty hands. At last I caught sight of Frances Sutherland. She was well to the rear of the sad procession, leaning on the arm of a tall, sturdy, erect man whom I recognized as her father. I would have forced my way to her side at once, but a swift glance forbade me. A gleam of love flashed to the gray eyes for an instant, then father and daughter had passed.

“Little did I think,” the harsh, rasping voice of the father was saying, “that daughter of mine would give her heart to a murderer. Which of these cut-throats may I claim for a son?”

“Hush, father,” she whispered. “Remember he warned us to the fort and took me to Pembina.” She was as pale as death.

“Aye! Aye! We’re under obligations to strange benefactors when times go awry!” he returned bitterly.

“O father! Don’t! You’ll think differently when you know ” but a hulking lout stumbled between us, and I missed the rest.

They were at the boats and an old Highlander was causing a blockade by his inability to lift a great bale into the barge.

“Let me give you a lift,” said I, stepping forward and taking hold of the thing.

“Friend, or foe?” asked the Scot, before he would accept my aid.

“Friend, of course,” and I braced myself to give the package a hoist.

“Hudson’s Bay, or Nor’-Wester?” pursued the settler, determined to take no help from the hated enemy.

“Nor’-Wester, but what does that matter? A friend all the same! Yo heave! Up with it!”

“Neffer!” roared the man in a towering passion, and he gave me a push that sent me knocking into the crowd on the landing. Involuntarily, I threw out my arm to save a fall and caught a woman’s outstretched hand. It was Frances Sutherland’s and I thrilled with the message she could not speak.

“I beg your pardon, Mistress Sutherland,” said I, as soon as I could find speech, and I stepped back tingling with embarrassment and delight.

“A civil-tongued young man, indeed,” remarked the father, sarcastically, with a severe scrutiny of my retreating person. “A civil-tongued young man to know your name so readily, Frances! Pray, who is he?”

“Oh! Some Nor’-Wester,” answered Frances, the white cheeks blushing red, and she stepped quickly forward to the gang-plank. “Some Nor’-Wester, I suppose!” she repeated unconcernedly, but the flush had suffused her neck and was not unnoticed by the father’s keen eyes.

Then they seated themselves at the prow beside the Nor’-Wester appointed to accompany the boat; and I saw that Louis Laplante was sitting directly opposite Frances Sutherland, with his eyes fixed on her face in a bold gaze, that instantly quenched any kindness I may have felt towards him. How I regretted my thoughtlessness in not having forestalled myself in the Sutherlands’ barge. The next best thing was to go along with Grant, who was preparing to ride on the river bank and escort the company beyond all danger.

“You coming too?” asked Grant sharply, as I joined him.

“If you don’t mind.”

“Think two are necessary?”

“Not when one of the two is Grant,” I answered, which pleased him, “but as my heart goes down the lake with those barges

“Hut-tutt man,” interrupted Grant. “War’s bad enough without love; but come if you like.”

As the boats sheered off from the wharf, Grant and I rode along the river trail. I saw Frances looking after me with surprise, and I think she must have known my purpose, though she did not respond when I signalled to her.

“Stop that!” commanded Grant peremptorily. “You did that very slyly, Rufus, but if they see you, there’ll be all sorts of suspicion about collusion.”

The river path ran into the bush, winding in and out of woods, so we caught only occasional glimpses of the boats; but I fancied her eyes were ever towards the bank where we rode, and I could distinctly see that the Frenchman’s face was buried in his arms above one of the squarish packets opposite the Sutherlands.

“Is it the same lass,” asked Grant, after we had been riding for more than an hour, “is it the same lass that was disguised as an Indian girl at Fort Gibraltar?”

His question astonished me. I thought her disguise too complete even for his sharp penetration; but I was learning that nothing escaped the warden’s notice. Indeed, I have found it not unusual for young people at a certain stage of their careers to imagine all the rest of the world blind.

“The same,” I answered, wondering much.

“You took her back to Fort Douglas. Did you hear anything special in the fort that night?”

“Nothing but that McDonell was likely to surrender. How did you know I was there?”

“Spies,” he answered laconically. “The old voyageurs don’t change masters often for nothing. If you hadn’t been stuck off in the Mandane country, you’d have learned a bit of our methods. Her father used to favor the Nor’-Westers. What has changed him?”

“Seven Oaks changed him,” I returned tersely.

“Aye! Aye! That was terrible,” and his face darkened. “Terrible! Terrible! It will change many,” and the rest of his talk was full of gloomy portents and forebodings of blame likely to fall upon him for the massacre; but I think history has cleared and justified Grant’s part in that awful work. Suddenly he turned to me.

“There’s pleasure in this ride for you. There’s none for me. Will ye follow the boats alone and see that no harm comes to them?”

“Certainly,” said I, and the warden wheeled his horse and galloped back towards Fort Douglas.

For an hour after he left, the trail was among the woods, and when I finally reached a clearing and could see the boats, there was cause enough for regret that the warden had gone. A great outcry came from the Sutherlands’ boat and Louis Laplante was on his feet gesticulating excitedly and talking in loud tones to the rowers.

“Hullo, there!” I shouted, riding to the very water’s edge and flourishing my pistol. “Stop your nonsense, there! What’s wrong?”

“There’s a French papist demands to have speech wi’ ye,” called Mr. Sutherland.

“Bring him ashore,” I returned.

The boat headed about and approached the bank. Then the rowers ceased pulling; for the water was shallow, and we were within speaking distance.

“Now, Louis, what do you mean by this nonsense?” I began.

In answer, the Frenchman leaped out of the boat and waded ashore.

“Let them go on,” he said, scrambling up the cliff in a staggering, faint fashion.

“If you meant to stay at the fort, why didn’t you decide sooner?” I demanded roughly.

“I didn’t.” This doggedly and with downcast eyes.

“Then you go down the lake with the rest and no skulking!”

“Gillespie,” answered Louis in a low tone, “there’s strength of an ox in you, but not the wit. Let them go on! Simpleton, I tell you of Miriam.”

His words recalled the real reason of my presence in the north country; for my quest had indeed been eclipsed by the fearful events of the past week. I signalled the rowers to go without him, waved a last farewell to Frances Sutherland, and turned to see Louis Laplante throw himself on the grass and cry like a schoolboy. Dismounting I knelt beside him.

“Cheer up, old boy,” said I, with the usual vacuity of thought and stupidity of expression at such times. “Cheer up! Seven Oaks has knocked you out. I knew you shouldn’t make this trip till you were strong again. Why, man, you have enough cuts to undo the pluck of a giant-killer!”

Louis was not paying the slightest attention to me. He was mumbling to himself and I wondered if he were in a fever.

“The priest, the Irish priest in the fort, he say to me: ’Wicked fellow, you be tortured forever and ever in the furnace, if you not undo what you did in the gorge!’ What care Louis Laplante for the fire? Pah! What care Louis for wounds and cuts and threats? Pah! The fire not half so hot as the hell inside! The cuts not half so sharp as the thinks that prick and sting and lash from morn’g to night, night to morn’g! Pah! Something inside say: ’Louis Laplante, son of a seigneur, a dog! A cur! Toad! Reptile!’ Then I try stand up straight and give the lie, but it say: ‘Pah! Louis Laplante!’ The Irish priest, he say, ‘You repent!’ What care Louis for repents? Pah! But her eyes, they look and look and look like two steel-gray stars! Sometime they caress and he want to pray! Sometime they stab and he shiver; but they always shine like stars of heaven and the priest, he say, ‘You be shut out of heaven!’ If the angel all have stars, steel glittering stars, for eyes, heaven worth for trying! The priest, he say, ‘You go to abode of torture!’ Torture! Pah! More torture than ’nough here. Angels with stars in their heads, more better. But the stars stab through through through

“Bother the stars,” said I to myself. “What of Miriam?” I asked, interrupting his penitential confidences.

His references to steel-gray eyes and stars and angels somehow put me in no good mood, for a reason with which most men, but few women, will sympathize.

“Stupid ox!” He spat out the words with unspeakable impatience at my obtuseness. “What of Miriam! Why the priest and the starry eyes and the something inside, they all say, ’Go and get Miriam! Where’s the white woman? You lied! You let her go! Get her get her get her!’ What of Miriam? Pah!”

After that angry outburst, the fountains of his sorrow seemed to dry up and he became more the old, nonchalant Louis whom I knew.

“Where is Miriam?” I asked.

He ignored my question and went on reasoning with himself.

“No more peace no more quiet no more sing and rollick till he get Miriam!”

Was the fellow really delirious? The boats were disappearing from view. I could wait no longer.

“Louis,” said I, “if you have anything to say, say it quick! I can’t wait longer.”

“You know I lie to you in the gorge?” and he looked straight at me.

“Certainly,” I answered, “and I punished you pretty well for it twice.”

“You know what that lie mean” and he hesitated “mean to her to Miriam?”

“Yes, Louis, I know.”

“And you forgive all? Call all even?”

“As far as I’m concerned yes Louis! God Almighty alone can forgive the suffering you have caused her.”

Then Louis Laplante leaped up and, catching my hand, looked long and steadily into my eyes.

“I go and find her,” he muttered in a low, tense voice. “I follow their trail I keep her from suffer I bring them all back back here in the bush on this river I bring her back, or I kill Louis Laplante!”

“Old comrade you were always generous,” I began; but the words choked in my throat.

“I know not where they are, but I find them! I know not how soon perhaps a year but I bring them back! Go on with the boats,” and he dropped my hand.

“I can’t leave you here,” I protested.

“You come back this way,” he said. “May be you find me.”

Poor Louis! His tongue tripped in its old evasive ways even at the moment of his penitence, which goes to prove I suppose that we are all the sum total of the thing called habit, that even spontaneous acts are evidences of the summed result of past years. I did not expect to find him when I came back, and I did not. He had vanished into the woods like the wild creature that he was; but I was placing a strange, reasonless reliance on his promise to find Miriam.

When I caught up with the boats, the river was widening so that attack would be impossible, and I did not ride far. Heading my horse about, I spurred back to Fort Douglas. Passing Seven Oaks, I saw some of the Hudson’s Bay men, who had remained burying the dead not removing them. That was impossible after the wolves and three days of a blistering sun.

I told Hamilton of neither Le Grand Diable’s death, nor Louis Laplante’s promise. He had suffered disappointments enough and could ill stand any sort of excitement. I found him walking about in the up-stairs hall, but his own grief had deadened him to the fortunes of the warring companies.

“Confound you, boy! Tell me the truth!” said Father Holland to me afterwards in the courtyard.

Le Grand Diable’s death and Louis Laplante’s promise seemed to make a great impression on the priest.

“I tell you the Lord delivered that evil one into the hands of the punisher; and of the innocent, the Lord, Himself, is the defender. Await His purpose! Await His time!”

“Mighty long time,” said I, with the bitter impatience of youth.

“Quiet, youngster! I tell you she shall be delivered!”

At last the Nor-Westers’ Fort William brigade with its sixty men and numerous well-loaded canoes whose cargoes had been the bone of contention between Hudson’s Bay and Nor’-Westers at Seven Oaks arrived at Fort Douglas. The newcomers were surprised to find us in possession of the enemy’s fort. The last news they had heard was of wanton and successful aggression on the part of Lord Selkirk’s Company; and I think the extra crews sent north were quite as much for purposes of defence as swift travel. But the gravity of affairs startled the men from Fort William; for they, themselves, had astounding news. Lord Selkirk was on his way north with munitions of war and an army of mercenaries formerly of the De Meurons’ regiment, numbering two hundred, some said three or four hundred men; but this was an exaggeration. For what was he coming to Red River in this warlike fashion? His purpose would probably show itself. Also, if his intent were hostile, would not Seven Oaks massacre afford him the very pretence he wanted for chastising Nor’-Westers out of the country? The canoemen had met the ejected settlers bound up the lake; and with them, whom did they see but the bellicose Captain Miles McDonell, given free passage but a year before to Montreal and now on “the prosperous return,” which he, himself, had prophesied?

The settlers’ news of Seven Oaks sent the brave captain hurrying southward to inform Lord Selkirk of the massacre.

We had had a victory; but how long would it last? Truly the sky was darkening and few of us felt hopeful about the bursting of the storm.