Excerpt: The Debt

In advance of the publication of The Debt on September 21, here is a short excerpt:

MY NAME IS Daniel Archibald Cumberland. It may be familiar to those of you who studied Canadian history some years ago. I graduated with a PhD, published a number of articles in leading journals and was hard at work on turning my dissertation into a book. I took a postdoc in Saskatoon and made sure to attend all the conferences and gatherings I could, hoping to secure an academic posting somewhere. It was during those years my life began to go astray.

My work focused on western Canadian history and was typical of the academy at the time. Those of you familiar with Canadian history departments and all their various touchstones will know where my work derived from. And it was derivative, of this I can assure you. Though many told me I was doing bold, cutting edge work, I now can see that this was far from the case. My work was no more remarkable than any hundred other students who worked in the history departments across the country. We all added something to the conversation in our narrow domains, but we only echoed what others had said about history in other places.

I was part of a chorus, while certain that I was singing lead. Yet I understood on some fundamental level that what I was doing was of no consequence to anyone. A pervading sense of dissatisfaction led me to be arrogant and dismissive of anyone I perceived as having anything halfway original to say. I would pick apart their arguments and find flaws in minutiae. How could they have managed the trick of saying something, when I had not, the unvoiced part of my consciousness would ask.

By and large I ignored these doubts and carried on with my work, desperate to be elevated into the academy. What I hoped to do there, I couldn’t say. It was my goal, in and of itself. Life beyond that had no shape or hue.

All that changed when I went to do some research in a lost little corner of southeastern Alberta. Though my work was about the rural working class, I had spent little time among them. Still, I was convinced that I understood the overarching structures that shaped their minds, even as I dismissed those that constrained my own. I am embarrassed now to think of how great a fool I was, in so many ways.

Ostensibly my trip was to interview the editors of the, so-called, history books of the region. Each town had one and they generally consisted of a collection of life stories of all the families in the area. Most of the stories were written by one of the family members and detailed how they had come to the area and their lives there. They were utterly fascinating documents and I was excited to meet the people who had organized and edited, to explore their intentions.

It was during one of these interviews that I first heard of the lost Northwest Mounted Police fort. The fort had been established during the late eighteen hundreds, during the force’s expansion throughout the Northwest Territories. It had been established as a way station, on the way between Winnipeg and Calgary at the confluence of the South Saskatchewan and Red Deer rivers. The Cypress Hills, the site of the massacre that had led to the formation of the Mounties, was to the south. But after barely two years it was abandoned under mysterious circumstances.

A kindly couple, Bill and Linda Cartwright, who had a ranch with some land near the confluence, told me about the lost fort. I half-listened to what they had to tell me, uninterested in some police post abandoned long before the settlement of the area, which was my period of study and reason for being there. It was the name which attracted my attention: Fort Cumberland. There had been a Cumberland, obviously, who had bestowed his name upon the place, and I found myself wondering if we might be related in some way.

And so it began. From that tiny spark of curiosity bloomed a conflagration of obsession that consumed me entirely.

“We thought when we got your email that you must have been interested in the fort,” Bill Cartwright told me that first day. “You’d be surprised how many people try to find it.”

I admitted I found it surprising, for I could not imagine why anyone would have more than a passing interest in a fort that had been in existence for only two years, and that had been so long abandoned that no trace of it could be found.

“Well, it’s no different than you,” Linda said. “Why are you so interested in these history books? You have no connection to anyone in them, but here you are all the same.”

She smiled kindly as she said, but Linda could have no idea the terrible effect her words would have on me. It was as though the veil of my miserable life had been pulled aside. I was not interested in these history books, these mildly interesting stories—all of them so similar. I had tried to drag meaning from them, to build them up into something, but the truth was they were just lives and no different than mine, or anyone elses. The only reason I was here was in the desperate hope that I would find some original insight that would lead me to a tenure track job.

It did not interest me. None of it interested me. I would be miserable—more so than I was now—if I was successful in finding an academic job and forced to spend the rest of days pouring over the minutiae of lives of people I couldn’t bring myself to care about.

The story of a lost fort—which according to Bill and Linda had been abandoned with little explanation—was far more alluring. Part of it, at least at first, I must admit, was the fact of the fort’s name. I had no connection with anyone I was studying beyond happenstance, but I felt a strange connection with this Cumberland whose name had graced the lost fort. Who was he?


THE ANSWER LAY in the archives of the Northwest Mounted Police. Archibald Constant Cumberland was an officer in the force. He had joined the force in 1881 and by the time the fort was established in 1886 had risen to the rank of inspector. By all accounts his career was promising. Letters and reports from his superiors were full of praise for his work ethic, his judgment, and his fairness. He was, it seemed, the ideal Mountie, a rare thing in those days, as my study of the archives made clear.

After his promotion to Superintendent, Cumberland was given the task of establishing a new fort at the confluence of the South Saskatchewan and the Red Deer rivers. There had been reports of trouble between the Blackfoot Nation and whiskey traders, and, with the Riel Rebellion fresh in everyone’s minds, it was thought essential to have a police presence in that vast emptiness between Fort Battleford and Fort Calgary.

He named it Fort McGregor, and in all the reports that I read, both from him and others, that is the name used for the fort. Yet, the Cartwrights had been very clear in calling it Fort Cumberland. I phoned them back after I had begun my research, asking if they had heard of Fort McGregor.

“No,” Linda told me. “All anyone’s ever called it is Fort Cumberland. I remember my grandfather calling it that. He was one of the first settlers in this area.”

According to their history book, her grandfather had settled there in 1911, a little over twenty years after the fort had been abandoned. Somehow, in twenty years time, the fort’s name had been changed, at least in popular memory, and it was now called after the man who had been sent to found it.

Things went well at first, with the whiskey traders harassed from the area and the Blackfoot Nation pacified. But during their second winter things began to go awry. Cumberland arrested an Indian agent named Groves and was reprimanded for it. The reports that followed that—most of them sent on after the fort had been abandoned the next spring, due to the men being trapped there for the duration of the winter—were filled with references to mutinous plots and vague references strange, inexplicable occurrences.

In the new year Cumberland lost command of the fort, though it was not a mutiny, as he suspected. He was accused of the murder of one of his constables and held prisoner by the rest. The reports that followed were made by the fort’s remaining officer, a commissioned doctor, who painted a sad portrait of a man descending into paranoid madness. When winter broke and word of what happened was sent to Fort Macleod, an Inspector McNevitt was sent to investigate matters.

There was one report provided by the new inspector, echoing much of what the doctor had written earlier. Inspector Cumberland was a broken man, driven by unseen demons. In McNevitt’s opinion he was guilty of the crime he was accused of. But before he could pass judgment, McNevitt died, and this was where the records became strange.

The report on his death—again provided by the doctor—all but suggested murder. Yet no investigation was carried out, as far I could glean. I suspected that, in large part, this was because the fort was abandoned not long after the inspector’s death. All the men were court martialed for abandoning their posts, though they received little punishment beyond a discharge from the service. The fort was left abandoned, with no attempt made to resettle it, and I could find no mention made of it again in the force’s records. It was as though everyone involved agreed it was best left forgotten.

But the oddest thing by far was Cumberland’s fate. He was not among the court martialed, nor was he listed in the ranks of the NWMP in the years after. He had, it seemed, disappeared.

The Debt is now available for preorder:
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