Excerpt: The Debt

In advance of the publication of The Debt on September 30, here is a short excerpt:

From the personal diary of Inspector Archibald Constant Cumberland, June 7, 1886:

Fort McGregor, I am proud to record here, has been firmly established. I have already written my report to that effect and it is on its way to Superintendent Perry at Fort Macleod. We finished construction two days ago, and the men who were brought to help in the building have been sent on their way, along with my report. Only ten men now remain: myself, the eight constables, and the commissioned doctor, John Cabbot.

All of them are good men, in my judgment, an absolute necessity, for we are far from help out here on these lonely plains. Four of them fought alongside me in Riel Rebellion, so I know they are battle tested. Doctor Cabbot is newly commissioned, but he was trained at McGill and seems a competent man. He was raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, and tells me he spent some time in Deadwood and some other of the wilder environs of the American plains, so he understands well what our circumstances will be.

The other four constables are new recruits I chose from the latest batch to arrive from Ontario. I had some time training with them in Fort Macleod, with Superintendent Perry granting me my choice of the new crop, and I am confident I have selected the finest among them.

Our purpose is to keep the peace between the Indians of this region, members of the Cree Nations, and the whiskey traders who have lately come into this territory, having been chased from the Cypress Hills and the Fort Macleod. After the troubles that have consumed the territories in these last years, culminating in Riel’s second revolt, the Superintendent is taking no chances. The last Commissioner of the Mounted Police was replaced for his failures around the rebellion and the new Commissioner wants to see no such mistakes repeated. We are to be on guard for any such troubles that might arise.

The fort itself is located at the confluence of the South Saskatchewan and the Red Deer rivers, a largely desolate section of the Northwest Territories. It is, as yet, uninhabited, except for the aforementioned Indian nations and the whiskey traders. The nearest forts are Calgary to the west and Battleford to the east. There are a few settlements to the north and east, but to the west and south there is nothing but empty territory, inhabited by various tribes, as well as ranchers and others.

The Cree are to be confined to their reserves, as per the terms of the treaty they signed, but they have lately been ignoring those terms, the result of the failures of the agent assigned to them by the government. His name is Harold Groves, and he is a singularly useless man. The Indians do not trust him. I can only hope they will come to place their trust in my men and in me.

From the personal diary of Inspector Archibald Constant Cumberland, December 23, 1886:

I have been neglectful in my promise to keep a diary of my command here at Fort McGregor. The lone entry on these pages has mocked me these many long months, yet it goes against my inclination to put pen to paper. I am no writer, and the reports I have to dispatch to my superiors, and the letters to my family are writing enough for me I suppose.

The winter, thus far, has proven to be harsh one, though the men’s hearts are warmed by the approach of Christmas. Cabbot and I have done what we can, given our rather meager supplies, to prepare a feast for the men. There will, sadly, be little to drink, for we have nearly exhausted our supplies of rum and whiskey. What traders we were unsuccessful in chasing away, winter has succeeded in doing.

Even the Cree have abandoned the area for more pleasant climes, though where they might be in these territories, I do not know. Both rivers have been frozen since the middle of November and the temperature has been frigid for weeks on end. In addition to the cold, we have had so much snow that the drifts are nearly to the top of the fort’s ramparts. It is a battle to keep the gates clear so that we can open them, and many men, against my orders, do not even bother with the gate when going out to scout or hunt for game. They simply climb over the ramparts and make their way down to the river valley where there are deer by the hundreds, fighting through the snow for food. They will have a fearsome struggle to survive the winter, if the snow and cold persist. In the meantime, we shall not lack for fresh meat.

A small note—which I hesitate to even put to ink, for that is more credibility than it deserves—several of the men have reported sighting a ghost from the ramparts, wandering out at the confluence of the two rivers. Cabbot says—and I agree with him—that this is likely just a trick of the wind, which can be fearsome here, and snow, preying upon the weaker minds of the group who tend toward the superstitious. I am inclined to agree.

From the personal diary of Inspector Archibald Constant Cumberland, June 21, 1887:

It is the evening of the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and thunder rumbles in the distance. The summer evenings on these great plains are the greatest reward I have received for my career with the Northwest Mounted Police. When I stand upon the ramparts of this fort and stare off into the west at the long setting sun, the sky a marvel of red, purple and yellow, depending on the clouds that hover along the horizon, I have no doubts about my chosen profession.

Not that there is much reason for doubt these days. All is well one year into our stay at Fort McGregor. The whiskey traders have returned, but we are keeping a close eye upon them. Just yesterday I sent out two of my men to scout out their camps, where they are conducting their trading with the Cree nation. The Cree are at peace with us, and I believe I have gained their trust. Only yesterday the chief, a proud man called White Bear, said I was an honorable man.

Why am I so uneasy, then, as I put my pen to paper?

I do not want to admit it here, and yet, I feel I must. As I stood upon the rampart, gazing to the west, I saw a figure approaching along one of the old buffalo trails. The light was odd at that moment, for the sun was still bright upon the horizon, while overhead there were dark thunderheads. With the sharp glare of the sun in my eyes, and the shadows through which he walked, the stranger was more form than fact. By his general bearing and shape I first thought him an Indian, which was odd enough. Few of them travel alone, in my experience.

My immediate thought, given the direction he was heading, was to assume he was calling on the fort and that some sort of emergency was in the offing. I almost called to the other man on watch to put him on alert, but some innate caution stayed me. In the end that proved wise, for the figure kept a wide berth around the fort, heading toward the river. I walked along the rampart, following him as he passed alongside the fort and then into the valley.

As he came near the river, I felt the first spit of rain. There followed a flash of lightning and, an instant later, roiling thunder. Soon the fort was inundated with rain, followed quickly by hail, which sent me running for cover. As a result, I lost sight of figure as he entered the trees of the river valley and was unable to determine where he went.

Perhaps it was just the glare of the sun, or some other trick of shadow and light brought about by the evening and the thunderstorm, but I failed to get a clear look at him. What I could see was somewhat mystifying. It was as though he was an ill-defined sketch, by some lackadaisical painter, upon the landscape. He appeared to be wearing Indian dress, but it seemed, from my vantage, there was nothing to distinguish between the skins he wore and his bare flesh. His expression wasn’t formed—he had none, nothing to distinguish him.

I read the words now and I acknowledge they lack all sense, but that was the impression I had upon witnessing him. He was something in the process of becoming, yet there he was, walking within hailing distance of the fort.

Most discomforting of all, when I asked the other man on duty that night what his thoughts were on the stranger who had passed by, he claimed not to have seen him.

But he walked right along the northern edge of the fort and into the trees down there,” I said gesturing to the confluence of the two rivers.

The constable shrugged helplessly, not wanting to call me a madman. “I’m sorry sir,” he said. “I did not see anyone.”

At the time, I told myself it was just a trick of the light and that I had let my imagination get the best of me. But I have not been able to forget the strange, solitary figure and his shambling walk. The more I think back on the incident, the more certain I am at what I saw. And the further I get from explaining it.

The Debt is available now to pre-order


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