The Earth Lords, Page 2Gordon R. Dickson
“This whole place really should be put in some sort of order,” said Emma, replacing a stray strand of blond hair which had fallen onto her forehead, “but we never seem to have time.”
By which she probably meant, thought Bart, that she could not get Arthur to give the time to cooperate with her in straightening out the room. The odors of the skins and all the detritus of the previous winter that had come in with them, was thick in Bart’s nostrils as he began to work.
“There’s two bales of beaver pelts already tied up and ready to take out, Bart,” said Emma, as she reached the small mountain of furs she had evidently been working on. “Arthur, you can start baling up these lynx pelts I’ve just sorted out. . . .”
As Emma had said she was faster than her brother—and evidently sorting was not the only work at which Arthur was slow. He made hard work of getting the pelts baled and since Bart could not carry them one by one out to the porch until they were tied up, both men were well behind Emma by the time she dusted her hands together and stepped back from the section of bare split-log floor that was now showing before her.
“That’s that, then,” she said. “I’ll clean up and start to work on dinner while you two are getting the rest of those baled and outside.”
“You could give me a hand baling, then, Bart,” said Arthur.
“Glad to,” said Bart, moving to this new work and still being careful not to make up his bales so fast as to show up Arthur’s slowness and clumsiness. Together, they finished up the baling and carrying out of the bales to the porch, where Arthur covered them with a tarp and tied it down against possible wind and rain. He turned to Bart, dusting his hands as his sister had, but with no mention of cleaning himself up.
“Care for a drink?” he asked.
“It’d taste good,” said Bart.
Arthur led him on back through the store and back room to a stair that brought them up into the living quarters occupying the whole second story of the house. It was apparently divided into a living room with a table for eating at one end of it, two bedrooms and a kitchen. From the kitchen now came the sounds of Emma moving about and the good aromas of food.
Arthur led him to a tall cabinet, opened the upper of its two doors, and from a shelf produced a dark bottle and a couple of small glasses. He filled the glasses three-quarters full and handed one to Bart.
“Well, here’s luck to both of us,” he said and tossed his drink down. Bart followed his example. It was a western-made com whisky, not so raw as trade liquor, but not much of an improvement over what was sold across the counters of most stores like this—though Bart had seen none downstairs.
The whisky seemed to have given Arthur the gift of reading thoughts.
“I don’t sell alcohol,” he said. “Only causes trouble in a place like this. But for our own use . . . another?”
“Thanks,” said Bart.
Arthur refilled the glasses.
This time, Arthur sipped more slowly at his glass, but not very much so. Bart followed his example. Even so, it was only a couple of minutes before Arthur was pouring them a third drink, without even asking Bart if he wanted to be refilled.
“. . . You were asking if anyone around here had a horse for sale,” Arthur said, picking up the conversation where it had been interrupted by his pouring. “What’s wrong with that pony of yours?”
Bart thought it best not to mention the matter of his weight. “I’d like to carry more gear and supplies,” he said. “I’m headed into the mountains, and if I have to end up wintering up there, I’ll need more than I’ve got now. More blankets, more clothes and flour. More ammunition . . .”
“Well, anyway, there’s no horses available around here. You know these—” Arthur checked. He had clearly been about to say “these métis,” but the alcohol had not had a chance to work enough in him to give him the courage for it. “—these people. They go just about every place on foot. What horses there are, the ones who own them won’t want to part with—”
He broke off to turn his head toward the doorless entrance to the kitchen where Emma was audible but invisible around a comer.
“—Isn’t that right, Emma?”
He had shouted the last line. Emma called back.
“Isn’t what right, Arthur?”
“There’re no horses for sale around here!”
“No, I don’t think so. The pack-train handler may have an extra one he’d let go.”
“Don’t believe her,” said Arthur, dropping his voice and turning back to Bart. “That pack-train may lose horses along the way. Any spares the train-handler’s bringing along he’ll want to keep. No, I’m afraid you’re out of luck.”
He poured himself another drink and moved the neck of the bottle into position over Bart’s glass. But Bart already had it covered with one square, thick hand.
“All for you, is that it?” said Arthur. This time the alcohol put a noticeable jeer in his voice.
“Enough for now, anyway,” said Bart.
It was a question, he thought, why Arthur should be forcing whisky on the two of them like this. If Arthur had turned into a drunk since he had last seen him—but there had been no sign of that in the man Bart had first seen on the porch. On the other hand, Arthur could hardly be expecting to outdrink Bart, who clearly outweighed the Scotsman by a considerable amount.
Actually, Bart could have drunk half the bottle before dinner without losing his own manners; but it seemed to him that by refusing to drink himself, he might put a period to Arthur’s drinking.
In fact, that was what happened. Arthur defiantly finished his fourth glass of whisky but made no further efforts to refill his glass. That at least, thought Bart, made it clear that the store owner had not become, like so many on the western frontier, a slave to the bottle when it was available.
Some ten minutes later, Emma called them both to the table, which was now set with plates, silverware and filled dishes.
“You killed a chicken!” said Arthur as soon as he had finished saying grace after they had taken their seats at the table.
“It’s an occasion,” said Emma calmly.
Chickens were a delicacy out here. It was not that they could not find their own food once snow was off the ground, but that they had to be protected against hawks from the sky and four-footed marauders on the ground—to say nothing of humans unlikely or unable to raise their own fowl. Then in the icy, below-zero winters the birds had to be housed indoors and their quarters cleaned and cared for.
But the tone in Arthur’s now noticeably alcohol-tuned voice seemed not so much to be objecting to the slaughter of one of the prized birds as to the guest for whom it had been slaughtered.
“Will you pass the gravy, Bart?” said Emma, handing on the plate of chicken parts herself. “And you, Arthur, hand me the biscuits, if you will.”
The bowls of food were passed from hand to hand above the circle of the tabletop. In her quiet way, Emma was a good cook; and the chicken, gravy and potatoes, to say nothing of the young spring asparagus, added up to a meal such as Bart had not had in a long time. Afterward, Arthur went to sit in one of the livingroom chairs while Bart helped Emma clear the table. But once the dishes were in the kitchen, she merely rinsed and stacked them.
“I can wash up later,” she said, drying her hands on a small towel. “Right now, while there’s still some twilight left, you and I are going for a walk, Bart.”
“Fine!” he said.
They went out through the living room.
“We’re going for a turn up and down the street, Arthur,” said Emma as they passed him.
He sat up in his chair.
“You’re going out walking—”
“Just sit there and digest your dinner, Arthur,” said Emma. “I’ll do the dishes later. And you’d better bring the accounts up to date with the worth of those furs we sorted and baled today.” “I’ll do it,” said Arthur. He all but scowled at Bart. Otherwise, he made no more objection to his sister going walking in pu
blic with a man.
They went down the stairs, out of the building and into what passed for the settlement’s main street. It was trodden free of grass and other growing things, but it was late enough in the spring that the ground was no longer muddy—and yet early enough that the little evening breeze was not able to raise clouds of dust. They strolled down between the double row of structures.
The store building had been made of peeled logs; but most of these others were constructed of logs with the bark still on them. The shagginess this gave their appearance seemed to make them part of the ground on which they sat—ground which ran clear and free from the river and the valley wall on the far side to the more gentle slope that was the valley wall on this side, down which Bart had come.
“Arthur said at dinner you were hunting for your relatives and you thought they were off somewhere in the Rockies,” she said.
“That’s right,” Bart answered. “Father only mentioned them once. I don’t even know their names. But I got the clear idea they lived at some place in the mountains. Any place in there is bound to be small enough so that if I mention the name Dybig, and I’ve got relatives around, someone should be able to tell me.”
“After you find them, what’ll you do? Stay?” she asked. “Or will you be coming back this way?”
“I’d be coming back this way in any case,” said Bart, looking down at her. “Emma, I’ve never forgotten you, you know. I used to think of you, no matter where I was.”
“I thought of you, too, Bart,” she said—and his heart jumped; but she went on in the same soft voice, looking straight ahead of her, “but Arthur needs someone to look after him. Now that both Mother and Father are gone, there’s no one but me to do it.” The message was clear enough; but Bart’s feelings were so strong they broke out into words in spite of himself.
“There’s no one to take care of me, either,” he said.
“You’re a great deal more capable than Arthur, Bart.” She looked up at him. “And I’ve an obligation by blood to care for my brother.”
“But not to throw your life away on him!”
“God will decide whether I throw my life away or not,” Emma said. She put her small hand on the sleeve over his massive right forearm. “Dear Bart, you know how I’d feel if I was free to feel any way I wanted. But a person’s duty comes first, before anything. Didn’t you follow Louis Riel down into exile in the United States because of duty to your own father?”
“He wanted me to,” growled Bart.
“And my father would have wanted me to be a help and aid to Arthur as long as I was needed,” she said. “I’ll tell you what you do, Bart. Go find your relatives. Maybe when you come back things’ll have changed and I’ll be more free. Then we can get married—that is, if you still want me.”
“It’ll be a cold day in—on the face of the sun when I don’t!” he growled.
She ignored his near slip into profanity.
“It’s too bad our fathers, yours and mine,” she said thoughtfully, “won’t be around to see it.”
Bart checked himself from saying what he badly wanted to say—that his father, in spite of his short stature and spiderous ugliness, had been a brilliant, responsible man with a strong sense of independence and what was right. While Emma’s father had been another Arthur, if more religious about it; a selfish, narrowminded and bigoted man who had leaned all his weight on his wife while she lived, and on Emma after his wife’s death—for all that Emma at that time had been only thirteen years old.
Emma, he knew, had not seen her father that way. In fact, Emma found good in everyone, whether it was there or not, he told himself grimly. Which was perhaps a noble thing to do but led to situations like this one, which was unfair to her and hard on Bart.
He remembered a woman visitor to Sainte Anne, where they had all lived when both he and Emma had been young, asking Emma if her family were Quakers.
“Oh, no!” Emma had answered, shocked, for her father and mother had been strict Presbyterians; and at that age neither Emma nor Bart, who had been with her at the moment of the visitor’s question, had had any real notion of what a Quaker was. They only knew that it was something religious other than Emma’s Protestantism, and Bart’s father’s absent-minded observance of Roman Catholic rites.
It had not been until he went down into the States that Bart had encountered some actual members of the Society of Friends— those nicknamed Quakers—and for the first time understood how Emma could have been taken for someone brought up in their forms of religion. In all his life he had never seen Emma angry at anyone or without an excuse for anyone else, no matter what he or she had done. Her own life of automatically doing for others, she seemed to believe, was nothing unusual or remarkable.
“Her goodness is built into her bones,” Bart’s father had said in one of his rare moments of paying anything much more than passing attention to the people they lived among.
It was true. Emma did not think of herself as good, or kind or dutiful. Whatever she did, from putting in long hours at their store in Sainte Anne, or doing all the housework by herself after her mother’s death, was simply what she assumed anyone else would do in her position; unless something beyond their power prevented them.
And one result from that was that it had always been a waste of time for Bart to argue that she owed something to herself.
THEY HAD REACHED the end of the short street of buildings. There was a small graveyard with seven wooden crosses, of varying ages and sizes, standing in it, beyond the last house on the right side; but that hardly counted as part of the living settlement. They turned about and began walking back toward the store.
So far no one had come out of any of the houses to look at them. This was, of course, still the dinner hour, since Emma, Bart and Arthur had eaten, if anything, a little early. But no one had emerged to meet the stranger, which was peculiar in a little out-of-the-way place like this where strangers must come seldom. A couple of faces had looked out the tiny windows which were the most in the way of a view on the world the buildings owned; but they had been the faces of children.
There was, it occurred to Bart, the unpalatable possibility that Arthur and Emma—or more likely just Arthur alone—were disliked enough in the settlement so that no one wanted to have anything to do with a friend of theirs. The possibility reminded him of another, disquieting question. Bart would have preferred not to ask Emma about it; but since he was headed into strange territory from which he might not come back, he wanted to know how she was placed with these same neighbors who surrounded her.
“Emma,” he said; and the word seemed to come out suddenly, so that she looked up at him at once. For, after his giving up on any hope of getting her to consider leaving Arthur, they had been walking side by side in silence.
“Emma,” he said again, more quietly, “there were rumors when we went down to Montana that Arthur had become involved with the Scottites. I told people it made no sense. But . . . he wasn’t, was he? I mean he didn’t get himself into anything that would give people reason to jump to that conclusion about him?”
“Arthur?” Emma laughed. “A storekeeper has to keep the goodwill of his customers unless he wants to lose them, you know that, Bart. Most of our customers thought the world of Louis Riel.”
“Are you sure he couldn’t have done something without you knowing it that could have got such a rumor started?” Bart said. “It could be dangerous if he had, and neither of you’d realized it. You know how the métis still feel about Thomas Scott.”
“Of course I know,” she said.
And of course she did, as everyone did.
In 1867, the Canadian Federation had been formed, and soon thereafter it began to look as if the Hudson’s Bay Company, which had title to almost all the land between Ontario and the Pacific coast, would turn over its holding to the new nation.
The métis community in the area of the Red River Valley— which was to be
the center of Louis Riel’s power base—generally had little desire to be Canadian. But a vocal minority that was pro-Canadian soon made itself heard, particularly among the non-métis elements of the population; and their presence caused a friction that soon led to an uprising.
Into this turbulent situation had walked Louis Riel. He was a métis and a lawyer from Montreal with radical leanings. He had returned to St. Boniface, near Winnipeg, after receiving a letter from Bart’s father, who did not visibly involve himself in politics, but who kept his eye on all that was going on around him. Not even Bart understood exactly what his father’s position was, and where the older man’s interest lay. Lionel Dybig was considered by most, who did not know of the strength in his small body, to be essentially an invalid incapable of ordinary work—but one who did not need to do so, since he was well enough off financially to live without working. A smart but harmless bookworm, was the general concensus of people regarding him. A few other, brighter-than-average people who knew him, like Louis Riel, knew better.
Riel was a racial patriot, proud of both his French and Indian ancestry. He also believed in nonviolence, and had been proud of the fact that he had been able to bring the métis of the Red River Valley under his leadership without any violence.
Some of the people in that territory did not agree either with him or his policies; and in the self-defense of a peaceful community, he was forced to jail them. Mostly, these were the open advocates of violence among the so-called “Canadian Party,” and one of them was the man named Thomas Scott.
The majority of the métis were French and Roman Catholic. Scott was a Protestant Irishman and a thoroughgoing bigot, originally from Ontario; and he was one of the jailed group that later escaped and tried to create a countermovement among the local people. Scott himself tried to assassinate Louis Riel.
He was recaptured and once more imprisoned, but continued from his cell to try to fight for his way of doing things. The trouble he created was dangerous enough so that Riel’s party brought him to trial for his crimes. He was found guilty and executed.