Read an Excerpt
March 16, 1897
The Concorde stagecoach had been a tarry, shining black when they left the train station in Calgary. Now every surface was dull, and little drifts of yellow sat on the ledges between roof, wall, and wagon. Inside, the schoolteacher pulled back the leather window cover and looked at the Macleod Hotel, where she had reserved a room for the night. An impolite crowd jostled between the coach and the hotel’s door. She slumped back in her seat.
The scald-faced drummer opposite wore a superior smile. He had his fingers stuck in his trouser pockets to the second knuckle, a posture that spread his jacket halves and exaggerated the tightness of his waistcoat. Each button strained and the shiny cloth replicated his seamed flesh in a way the schoolteacher did not want to see. Looking at the floor, she was treated to an image of his fallen socks speckled white with skin. His un-shined shoes tweezed a drab carpet bag, bulging with samples.
She pulled the window blind again and the wind deflected into her face. She saw the bizarre crowd passing, moving within itself like a boiling fudge. Bow-tied storekeepers. Tradesmen in dusty jackets with hanging pockets. Bareheaded people fighting the crowd to chase a hat. The drovers, or “cowboys,” the dandies of this society, wore wide-brimmed chapeaux that seemed glued to their heads. They leaned against the posts that held up the hotel’s overhanging balcony, smoking cigarettes and looking amused.
And Indians! These were mostly in white-man’s clothing but a few had blanket coats cinched at the waist with brass-studded belts. The wild ones had long, loose hair, slung like rags across their starved faces. Children clinging to their legs looked like little cadavers.
She turned to the smug drummer and asked, “Why are so many people here, then?”
For some reason he was holding his breath. The air escaped with a whistle. “Necktie party,” he said.
She hated him, and one of the main reasons was this way of talking. Nothing clear. You had to ask and ask, thus appearing more interested than you were.
“What do you mean by that?”
The drummer reached between his feet. He abruptly hoisted himself and his carpet bag, turned the handle, and let the wind slap the door open. He squeezed out through the explosion of wind. Desperately, the schoolteacher plunged after him and stayed in his wake until they were inside. In the sudden relative quiet of the hotel, she said, “And who is to be hanged?”
“Indian, Charcoal. Murdered a Mountie, Wilde.”
“I don’t understand you. A wild Indian?”
“Name of the Mountie he killed was Sergeant Wilde. Shot him.”
A short, stout Englishman was in a cubby behind a flip-up board, keys on hooks behind him. When her turn came to sign the book, he saw her inscribe schoolteacher beside her name and said, “You’d be the miss for Fishburn School, then.” She admitted she was. Next he asked if she was going to the hanging. Beyond his filthy front window, the mass was surging west now, heads thrust into the wind. She certainly would not be, she said. Ignoring her meaning, he told her that he’d given her the second-floor room at the rear, which had a view of the gallows. Then he flipped his counter, squeezed through, clapped on a hat, and left.
A pair of boys had brought the luggage in before running off to the hanging. Hers stood by the door. She dragged the two suitcases up through the creaking, booming hotel. It appeared she was the only person present. In her tiny room, she passed the bed and tugged the green paper blind, letting it roll to the top. The dirty little window quaked in dry putty, sprayed cold air, but did provide a fly-specked view of the gallows stage, and the crowd like a dark mat out of which the gibbet thrust.
After a while, men climbed to that stage. She counted four. The condemned man was shackled and handcuffed, and supported by the others. They took off the ankle irons and dragged a bag over his head. The priest, his dress-like garment whipping, aimed his mouth at the condemned man’s ear. Then there were only two: the hangman and his victim.
It was a shocking motion that went up, not down, when the trap door fell. She thought it would be quick but it wasn’t. The Indian kicked and kicked. Until finally he did hang. Deadweight. The school teacher understood the word anew.
Dinner was at two long communal tables. She sought out the drummer. After witnessing the execution, the people in the hotel were excited in a dangerous way. She felt protected against the drummer’s hot, bulky flank. Had she seen the hanging, he asked. Certainly not, she said. He was waiting to be asked what he had seen. She let him wait.
Across the board and down sat a rancher and his wide-eyed son, then an old man with a long white beard like something groomed in a creek bottom, and finally a skinny, nervous youth with boils on his face. All four were bent over their stew. The young fellow with the boils filled the silence as water fills space.
“God’s will. Says right in Exodus. Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. Hand for hand. Foot for foot. Says again in Leviticus, 24:21: ‘and he that killeth a man, he shall be put to death.’”
This biblical authority mopped his bowl with a sopping crust. Then the older man beside him began to unbend and rise. He rose and rose, being very tall above the waist. His beard kept coming up as well until its white tail cleared the table. He drew a long handkerchief from his shirt pocket and daintily dabbed his beard. All this unwinding and dabbing was preparation for speech, and when his mouth bloomed pink in his beard, the voice was loud and French.
“Yessir me, I ting dey hang da last wild Indian today.”
The boy was poised to spout more Old Testament, but the old man was not finished.
“Yessir me, I wonder what dey’ll ever do now.”
December 16, 1899
For two days, the British guns had flown their shells over the dozen brick houses of Colenso, blasting the hills on the far side of the Tugela River. The lyddite exploded yellow and the sum of the blasts was a red earth cloud tinged with green. When the smoke and dust cleared, the general’s staff scoped the slopes looking for escaping men. Nothing. They threw in shrapnel rounds but, again, the effect was nil. The hills were as impassive as great turds.
On the second afternoon, Gen. Sir Redvers Buller, Red Heifer to the Boers, briefed his senior officers on the plan of attack. On the right, Buller would send Dundonald to fight for a hill that would be their buffer. On the left, Hart’s Irishmen would advance to the river and cross. But the centre was the key. There, Hildyard’s infantry brigades, with artillery support, would cross the Tugela beside the wrecked railway bridge. Then, all together, they would force their way up the hills. They would battle to the besieged town of Ladysmith and free her.
Until two days ago, there’d been a more cautious plan to go around the position. Then came word of General Methuen’s defeat on the Modder River. Red Heifer had seen red. He would pussyfoot no longer. Up the Boer middle he would go. If Louis Botha got in his way, he would smash him and his farmers like so many eggs.
The attack began at daybreak. Buller stood on Naval Gun Hill with his signalmen and staff officers. It did not take long to come apart. Hart had a sketch that showed the drift where he was to cross. He’d been told it was beside a loop in the river, where a creek emptied. Now, for some reason, he was going into the loop. He had been told the loop was a dangerous salient and not to go there. Now a message arrived. Hart could not find the creek and was following a Native guide to some other crossing. Buller sent a galloper back: “Stay out of the loop!” But Hart’s men were already surging into it.
A disturbing sound turned Buller’s attention to the centre. Colonel Long’s fifteen-pound guns were erupting. It was too soon and they were farther away than they should be. Stopford came riding to say that Long was ahead of Hildyard, by at least a mile.
Buller studied the hills in front of which these mistakes were being made in his name. It was not yet seven in the morning. Please, he implored, let those hills be empty. His answer was an abrupt roar of field guns and automatic rifles. Not his.
Much of what came next Buller would find out later. Hart’s masterful packing of the river loop created a target a blind man could not miss. It was enfiladed by Boer trenches on three sides. A private pinned down in the grass said the Mauser bullets came so fast they looked like telegraph wire. Another called it a butcher’s kitchen. The artillery, attempting to adjust to the changed plan, dropped its first shots on top of Hart’s men.
In the centre, Long was wounded through the guts. A third of his men were mown down. His twelve lightest guns were abandoned to the enemy. Only the heavy naval guns, his cow guns, lagged behind enough to be saved. Going forward to survey the mess, Buller took a piece of shell to the ribs. Captain Hughes, his doctor, came to check on him, and was shot through the lungs. Hughes died a bubbling death. In the attempt to retrieve the lost guns, Tommy Roberts, General Lord Roberts’ son, was killed. Buller called it off. Accepted defeat.
The next day, there was a ceasefire. Malay body snatchers hurried the wounded into ambulances. Dotted around the plain were one hundred and forty-three dead.
In the worst places, the river loop and where Long’s guns had been lost, the sound was no longer warlike or even agonized. Often there was a gaping silence, so great and meditative that the occasional thrashing fight to live by horse or man seemed unmannerly, like a dish thrown on a temple floor.
The Canadian Mounted Rifles
Pincher Creek, December 1899
Tommy Killam stood with the other children in the crowd on Main Street, come to see the soldiers off to South Africa. Along the hitching post in front of Charlie Beebe’s livery barn, many horses stood saddled. Fred Morden’s bay had a feed bag but the rest were staring miserably at the frozen ground. A Chinook meant it was windy but warm enough that the soldiers could parade without buffalo coats. It would have looked better, thought Tommy, if they all had uniforms and if the uniforms had been the same. As it was, the Mounties had Mountie ones, Fred Morden had a different kind, and the rest were in ranching and cowboy clothes.
While his teacher was not looking, Tommy stepped out of line and re-emerged at the corner. He pretended the move was so he could better hear Inspector Davidson, who was answering an earlier speech by Mr. Herron. Davidson was the Mountie in charge of the Pincher Creek detachment, and a terrible speaker who was trying to say how honoured he was to be an officer with the Canadian Mounted Rifles, Second Battalion; and how . . . honoured he was to lead such fine brave soldiers as these into the . . . honourable war for freedom in South Africa.
The real reason Tommy moved was to have a better look at Fred Morden. The Mordens were Killam’s next-door neighbours on the north side of the creek, and though Tommy was only ten and Morden grown up enough to go to war, they were friends. Fred let Tommy come over and take his coyote hounds for runs in the hills. When Tommy’s father gave him a .22 rifle off their store shelves at Christmas, it was Morden who took him to the canyon and taught him to hit tomato cans. Fred Morden had said many times, “Here’s my good friend Tommy.”
On Sundays, in good weather, Morden and his friends, including his girlfriend Trudy Black, went coyote hunting with hounds. They dressed up and pretended it was an English fox hunt. Tommy was not allowed to go but attended the punch parties afterwards, either in Morden’s yard or in their front room depending on the weather. Tommy was given a glass of punch like everyone else while he fooled with the tired dogs.
For the last two months, the parties had consisted less of jokes and more of Fred Morden explaining to the others why they had to fight in South Africa.
“You can’t be part of an Empire, enjoying its fruits, and not do your part.”
When Canada sent its first thousand troops, they were infantry from eastern militias. Fred called it an outrage and said Canada’s westerners must demand their right to fight. When the Canadian Mounted Rifles was formed, based on Mountie officers and western troopers, Tommy told Inspector Davidson to count him in. “Part of the fun,” he told his friends, was that they could take their own horses.
Tommy Killam didn’t try to sound like Fred Morden around his own friends. It just came out that way.