Read A Good Man Online

Authors: Guy Vanderhaeghe

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Westerns

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BOOK: A Good Man
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“I daresay you have, Sergeant Major.”

“Cheeky bastard and bloody useless besides,” says Francis. “An idiot with a teaspoon could have done a neater job of work.”

“I’m not in the right frame of mind,” says Case. “It distresses me to think that I, the master builder, will soon be long gone from here and never able to witness the joy I’ve brought to others.”

“Not gone yet. You’re mine until the thirty-first.” Francis crooks a finger. “Get yourself out of there and follow me. Major Walsh wants a word.”


Major James Morrow Walsh sits, spurred boot spiked on his gouged office desktop. Trouser leg rolled to his knee, he studies the scrim of rash on his calf. In Hot Springs, the Frenchman, Dr. Dupont, had taken one look at the distinctive eruptions on his limbs and passed judgment. “The
peau d’orange.”
That’s precisely what this morning’s new outbreak looks like, orange rind, shiny and reddish-orange, riddled with tiny pores. Dupont had warned him, “You must remain
tranquille, Monsieur. Toujours tranquille
. Mental disturbances excite the erysipelas.” Yesterday, Michael Dunne had gained an audience and disturbed the uneasy balance of his mind, and now he is suffering the consequences, chills, a loss of appetite, fatigue, aching joints.

Lately, it has been impossible to remain
: his stay in Hot Springs spoiled by rows with his wife, followed by a dressing-down from the minister of the interior, then Dunne had come wriggling into his brain like a greasy worm.

News of Custer’s defeat had reached Hot Springs on July 6. The telegram from Minister Scott ordering him to Ottawa arrived the next day. He had read that as a very good sign, recognition of his accomplishments. After all, he had graduated from Kingston’s School of Cavalry with a first-class certificate. He had seen what the Commandant had entered into his official record. “Walsh is the smartest and most efficient officer that has yet passed through the school. He is a good rider and particularly quick and confident at drill. I thoroughly recommend him to the attention of the Adjutant General.” Surely this file must have been brought to the attention of Secretary Scott; surely the minister had recognized the cut of his jib and realized that a man with his military skills was best suitedeal with the possibility of a Sioux attack. So without a moment’s hesitation, Walsh had fired off his reply in a telegram to the Department of the Interior. “Will depart within 24 hours.”

Knowing the storm this decision would cause, he had not consulted Mary in making it. From the moment they and their young daughter had taken up residence in Hot Springs’ most stylish and fashionable spa hotel, his wife had launched her campaign to get him out of the North-West Mounted Police. Mary wanted an ordinary husband, cozily camped in her parlour behind a newspaper, and she immediately went to work to drag him home to Prescott, tamed and in chains. It didn’t matter a whit to her that he had proved unsuitable for every other job he had ever had, discharged as a locomotive engineer for “running the rails recklessly,” a failure as a mechanic, then his disastrous stint as an irascible hotel manager.

Their trunks were barely unpacked, he was preparing himself to go off to a bathing cabin to take the waters, when she said, “I have spoken to Jenkins and he is willing to give you another chance at running the North American Hotel. Of course, you would be
on trial
, Jimmy darling, but if you would buckle down all would be well. We could resume family life in Prescott and repair your fragile health.”

She always called him Jimmy darling when she had a scheme up her sleeve. Turning to her, bath towel slung over his shoulder, he said, “If you think I’ll return to that, then you must be mad, Mrs. Walsh. Listening to old spinster ladies complain about drafts, and flies in their water pitchers, grinning docilely at two-bit peddlers of dry goods while they bitch about lumpy mattresses, I’d sooner put a goddamn pistol to my head and scatter my brains over the walls. Never. And do not return to this topic again.” That had set off the hysterics, the crying fits, the accusations that all he wanted was to get back to his “copper-skinned sluts.” Walsh was susceptible to women and women to Walsh. Mary knew that from her own experience; she had gone to the wedding altar big as a house.

Walsh often muses that if ever there was a skirt he shouldn’t have lifted, it was Mary’s. And the timing of his marriage couldn’t have been more unfortunate because five months after the knot had been tied with his pregnant bride, the militia was called out to put down Louis Riel’s insurrection on the Red River. And he had had to stay behind, sand a cradle, and curse his luck. His wife had robbed him of his crack at glory. By God, she wasn’t going to do it again.

When he told her he was off for Ottawa, that he was leaving the next day, Mary flung herself down on the bed and sobbed herself into a migraine. A little later, Cora sombrely crept into the room where her father sat with a railway timetable open on his knees, planning his escape route, and tucked her head into his side. As he studied departure and arrival times, he toyed with her curls.

No other child had a fonder papa than Walsh; Cora was his dearest girl, his angel, the light of his life. Each year, a thousand miles from Prescott where his beloved daughter was blowing out her cake candles, Cora’s birthday was celebrated in the Cypress Hills. On the wall over her father’s chair in the mess hall her name was spelled out in horseshoes. The room was decorated with bunting, paper chains,
pennants, and Union Jacks. B Troop reverently toasted her, and Walsh answered the toast with a rambling, emotional speech that exhaustively catalogued his daughter’s peerless virtues. He always ended it with eyes humid and glistening.

Shortly before he left for the train station, little Cora had climbed up on his lap and asked, “Will Mother be better soon?”

“When I am gone, Mother will be right as rain.”

Very gravely, Cora said, “I won’t be. Stay, Papa.”

“That is impossible. You must understand, Cora, it is Papa’s work that buys you your bread and butter, your cocoa that you love so much, and your pretty dresses. That is why he must go, to see you happy and content.”

From the bed, Mary broke in; she had been feigning sleep. “Liar, liar, liar,” she moaned, her voice choked in the pillow. “You care for nobody but yourself.”

He rained kisses on his daughter’s face, set her on the floor, and closed the door on the whole sorry business. Within the hour he was flying north, racing away from the future his wife had plotted and back to what he was sure he had been born to do. He sat and watched a fiery confetti of locomotive sparks whirl by his window in the darkness. When dawn broke, he counted the telegraph poles flashing by, each one bringing him closer to Ottawa, to his destiny. The burgeoning cornfields, the apple orchards, the fat cattle seemed fertile promises. Washington clattered by, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Montreal, and finally his train chugged into the national capital’s train station.

Travelling light as he was, there was no need to pause to find lodging. He strode directly up to Parliament Hill, brown Gladstone bag swinging in his hand. Walsh had never met Secretary Scott, but what he had heard about him didn’t impress. By all reports, he was a very queer duck, a vegetarian, a teetotalling,
Catholic. A nun with a beard. He expected to have his way with him.

But almost immediately things began to go amiss. A snotty clerk was not convinced of the urgency of Walsh’s mission; he was curtly told to wait his turn in a queue of shabby-looking office-seekers and petitioners. Two hours later, at last ushered into Secretary Scott’s office and introduced, he couldn’t restrain himself from acidly remarking to the minister, “That officious little majordomo left me kicking my heels in a corridor half the afternoon.”

Scott, a parched, bony-looking fellow with a long white beard hanging down his shirtfront like a bib, slowly raised his eyebrows and said, “I have a great deal of business to get through in the course of a day. People need to be sifted.” That said, he opened a file, scanned it. Without preamble he announced, “It is the view of the deputy minister of justice, Mr. Richards, that if the Sioux cross the border it will be somewhere in the vicinity of Wood Mountain. I concur with his evaluation.” Walsh could not disagree, but it irked him that this was presented as if it were some astounding revelation. It was not news to him. He had ridden over every inch of that ground, and felt that his opinion should have been solicited. That would only have been polite. He frowned and put a sour pucker to his mouth, but Scott did not notice. “Since you are in charge of the police detachment nearest Wood Mountain, the expectation is that you will be the first representative of the Crown these tribesmen will encounter. That is why I have called you here – to clarify the position adopted by the governments of the Dominion and the United Kingdom in regard to the Sioux.” With emphasis he added, “And to give you instructions on implementing the same.”

“I am at your service,” said Walsh, unable to stifle a half smile. The old stick’s pompous self-regard was amusing.

“Indeed you are, sir. Indeed you are.” Scott eased himself back in his chair, began to comb his beard with his fingers. For some time, the secretary scrutinized him with an intense gaze that made him feel he was a bug under a magnifying glass. Finally, Scott said, “You will patrol the border – assiduously patrol it, ceaselessly patrol it. If any party of Sioux, no matter how small, crosses into our territory, it is necessary that I be immediately informed by wire. Be exact and detailed in your transmissions. This is of the utmost importance since I am charged with relaying all information to the head of the British legation in Washington. Do you understand?”


“Exactitude is of the utmost importance because the governments of Great Britain, the United States, and the Dominion of Canada have agreed to cooperate fully in managing the Sioux threat.” His look was stern. “I regret to say our government has got off to a very bad start with the Americans. They have informed me they suspect us of withholding vital intelligence from them. You, it appears, bear some responsibility for their disgruntlement.”

That was a bewildering accusation. Affronted, he said, “Me? What the hell is it I am supposed to have done?”

“It is not what you have done, sir, but what you did not do. Isn’t it true that a great gathering of Indians took place in early June in the Cypress Hills,
territory – Peigans, Blackfoot, Bloods, Gros Ventres, Crow, and, most notably, the
How is it that the newspapers report it and I was left in the dark? The
Daily Globe
claims that as many as fifteen thousand natives convened there. Why was I not informed of that? Why weren’t the Americans apprised of the situation? Why did you not relay a dispatch to the garrison at Fort Benton?”

He was determined to give as good as he got. “May I remind you, sir, that at that moment I was on the point of taking sick leave in Arkansas? I had already surrendered my command at Fort Walsh to Assistant Commissioner Irvine.”

“That is a dodgy answer. You were still
in situ
. The Cypress Hills is your bailiwick, not Irvine’s. You had local knowledge. You might have shown some initiative and alerted the department of this convention of savages.”

“I have never been faulted for lack of initiative. No one has ever said I do not take things in hand.”

Scott waved away his objection. “You did not take
matter in hand, and because you didn’t, the Americans are unhappy. They say it was the Sioux who called this powwow, and that its purpose was to weld all the tribes into an alliance to drive the white men from the plains. Quite rightly, the Americans are angry that they receive do. Isnws of this extraordinary congregation of red men. In their eyes, our oversight was tantamount to wishing them harm. They assert that if they had received notice that the tribes had assembled in such numbers they might have anticipated such a large encampment of Sioux and North Cheyenne on the Little Bighorn. With such intelligence in hand, Custer might have averted disaster.”

“That’s a big might. If pigs had wings they might fly.”

“I ask you again to explain yourself. Why, before leaving your post for Arkansas, did you not dispatch a rider to Fort Benton to give the U.S. Army this news?”

“I have already explained. Assistant Commissioner Irvine was in charge. He is my ranking superior and I did not see it was my place to read him his duty. Your questions about why a messenger wasn’t sent might better be put to him.” The instant the words left his mouth he felt regret for criticizing a fellow officer to a trumped-up duffer like Scott. Quickly, he added, “But why would Irvine take such a step? How could he know what the Indians’ purpose was? Do you expect that one of them would pull him aside and say, ‘By the way, just in the interests of fair play, I want to let you know we have all decided to exterminate the white man. I would get ready if I were you, old sport.’ ”

BOOK: A Good Man
3.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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