the alien

Two women, two heartbreaks

W. O. MITCHELL January 1 1954
the alien

Two women, two heartbreaks

W. O. MITCHELL January 1 1954

WHEN IN OCTOBER most of the people had returned to the reserve and their children had begun to attend school for the new year, Carlyle took up his teaching without the interest it had held for him in other years. He had told Grace that there was no point in concerning themselves with Victoria; if she wished to make it easier for him then she would talk of the girl no more. Victoria had left the Rider cabin, was living, Ezra had told him, by herself in a tent at the far north side of the reserve. Carlyle knew that Grace had visited her several times since Dr. Sanders’ visit; he supposed that she had taken supplies of some sort to the girl.

VIII

IN APRIL they received a surprise visit from Mr. Gillis, of Western Power and Hydro; or rather Carlyle did, for Grace did not see him. He drove up and when Carlyle let the children go for noon, he was at the door of the school, had evidently been waiting there patiently for some time. The Senator was not with him; he told Carlyle that he had visited Old John in his cabin for a while before coming to the school; he had to go back right away; he couldn’t stay to lunch.

“Let’s go outside,” he suggested; they had been standing by Carlyle’s desk, several of the children who brought lunches to school were in the room, jaws moving slowly as they stared up at the two men from their desks. “It’s beautiful out,” said Gillis. “I missed last summer and I’ve regretted it ever since.”

They walked out into the spring sunshine, stood at the schoolyard fence by the ash pile, their privacy spoiled only by two cayuses lipping at the cinders there in an effort to make up for the salt lack in their diets.

“This is different from any of my other trips,” said Gillis. “That’s why it’s short. I want to talk with you about this power thing of ours.”

“Oh.”

“It’s been hanging fire for a long time now. Too long. It’s time it was worked out satisfactorily. I would like it to be—for us—for the Indians.” Gillis’ eyes were reflective as he gazed past the school and to the lifting hills of the reserve beyond. “I feel I have a little stake in them myself.” He lifted his arm and indicated the spread of the valley where here and there smoke lifted from the Indians’ homes. With the years the buildings had silvered, log and unpainted lumber taking on a soft and noncommittal grey—chameleon homes merging with the landscape. “After all it was my suggestion got them from under canvas,” Gillis was saying. “Then there are all the summers I’ve visited up here—I’m grateful for them. I would like to show my appreciation. I can—in my position with the company I can—again. I’ve had many happy hours along that stream. Now ...” His pleasant voice took on firmness. “We want to see this matter cleared up. It is actually.”

Carlyle was startled. “Is—what do you mean?”

“Everything is arranged. We’re ready to go ahead.”

“This is the first I’ve heard ...”

“We have everything planned out—have reached an agreement with Ottawa. That’s why I’m out here. I received a phone call from Toronto last night. All details have been taken care of now.”

“What is the agreement?”

“Last month we made another offer. It’s suitable—it’s been approved.” 

“What is the offer?”

“A fifty-thousand-dollar initial payment and fifteen thousand a year rental —the rental payment isn’t fixed it’s to be determined in the future - after ten years by the power used—as that rises so does the rental payment.” 

“About two hundred thousand ...”

“For the first ten years.”

“I don’t think that would meet with the councilors’ approval—does Ottawa ...”

“It’s been approved—accepted. It will be presented to the councilors for their approval. Of course that’s just a formality. Actually our first offer was fair enough—it would have gone through too.” He cleared his throat. “The second offer—I was instrumental in getting the second offer made. As I said, I have the interest of the Indians at heart too.”

“I still don’t think the band will— it isn’t what the band wants, Mr. Gillis. They want more land—two hundred thousand dollars if they were able to get deeded land for twenty an acre—would bring them no more than ten thousand acres and that’s going to be cut down by the project considerably. As it is the only land adjoining the reserve is Western Power and Hydro land so that unless your principals are willing to ...”

“They won’t.”

“Then it really isn’t much of an offer.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Sinclair. Ottawa doesn’t.”

“Perhaps not. But Ottawa doesn’t have the final say—the Indians ...”

“A few Indians aren’t going to stand in the way ...”

“They could be very stubborn. Don’t underestimate the sovereignty of the Indians—they’re pushed around but they have to be pushed around willingly!”

“The arrangement is going through.”

“Is it?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry it is.”

“Oh—it’s going through and I think we’re doing the right thing by them.We can’t be responsible for an impractical setup that—I mean—is it our fault that we can’t see our way clear to giving up land ...”

“That the Indians need.”

“ . . . That is the fault of the agency putting them here in the first place, with insufficient land, and where they must have known there was no chance to remedy that lack. Believe me—it was not good business my persuading the others to make this second offer—we could have managed with the first—in the end it will have cost us at least an extra hundred thousand—what the Indians ask would be a million—we are not going to do that, I assure you.”

“All right.”

“And I would like your help.”

“My help!”

“Perhaps the others were not so altruistic as I when they consented to the second offer. I did not put it to them in the light of the Indians’ need.”

“How did you?”

“I pointed out that while they could certainly get what they wanted under the conditions of our first offer they might be—ah—it might be felt that offer wasn’t a fair one—and while there was no doubt that it would have gone through—it would be nicer if we—if we could feel that everyone was quite satisfied an equitable arrangement had been made. That is almost so now—with the exception you mentioned a moment ago—the Indians themselves.”

“You mean that your company was willing to pay an additional hundred thousand dollars simply because of the feelings of a few Indians?”

“Not entirely—there were others. That is why I tell you that it is going through—the others are quite satisfied ...”

“And only Old John and Ezra and the other councilors-—the band members are left?”

“That’s right.”

“And you say it will go through whatever they think.”

“Yes.”

“Then why do you need my help?” 

“Well,” he sighed, “I told you that I’m grateful for the summers I’ve had up here. I am not an insensitive man. I’ve seen what you’ve done for these people. I was quite sincere when I said that I persuaded the others for the good of these Indians. I did. I would like to see them happy with the arrangement as it will be.”

“How do I ...”

“You have a great deal of influence with them. I would like you to use that influence ...”

“ . . . to make them happy with the arrangement.”

“Look—there is not the slightest chance that Western Power and Hydro will consider parting with that land. There is no hope for the Indians whatever in that direction. I am not telling you that what I offer is the best possible thing for them. I know they need more land. I think it would be wonderful if they had it. But—it—will not be! In a sense I have been disloyal to the best interests of my company when I persuaded the others to make this further offer. I did so because I wanted to see these people get some more—if they couldn’t get all that they needed.” 

“Mr. Gillis, that’s how it is?”

He nodded. “It is how it is. I would like you to see that’s how it is and to make them see that’s how it is. I could tell you that if they didn’t there would be the possibility that the second offer would be withdrawn and the company return to its first—unwilling to pay an additional hundred thousand dollars for a satisfaction that did not exist. That wouldn’t be quite right, for it has not been the Indians only who had to be satisfied. But I do advise you strongly to be satisfied with what you can get and not sacrifice it for something you cannot get.”

“And you expect me to give you an answer now?”

“Heavens no—not now. We want to get this cleared up as soon as we can— but it isn’t something you can decide right now—or if you had decided—that you could execute in a moment. I want you to think it over. I shall be out again in a week.”

“But I don’t see how I can . . . could ...”

“I would like to bring out or send you a copy of the contract—I would like to have the names of the councilors and band members—or their marks on that copy. That is what I want.”

“I should think Mr. Fyfe or the Senator ...”

“No — we are not concerned with the department or with Ottawa—the Indians themselves. I think they respect your judgment. I think you have their best interests at heart. I think you will see it as I do. I hope you will.”

His talk with Gillis had upset him more than he believed anything could now. His first impulse had been to speak to Grace about it; he had decided that he must think it over first. Gillis had convinced him of the hopelessness of the land exchange; there had been a serious undertone of sincerity in the man’s argument. And he knew that Grace’s would be an unthinking and emotional denial of the offer; he knew as well that he would find himself justifying it and that was distasteful to him. The offer was wrong. He knew that. Mentally he computed again and again the ten-year amount with initial payment and the rental—dividing it by the number of the band —the answer was small—in the class of calf cheques — treaty payments — those pittance stepping stones that carried them over hard times. He took the ten-year amount -divided by the number of families he subtracted the cost of renovating the old Sheridan house for a hospital roughly imagined the cost of operation that could be managed. At least there was that.

The offer was wrong. Gillis hadn’t denied that. But he had been so positive that Western Power and Hydro would do no more. He had closed that door firmly. And Carlyle knew that he had been telling him the truth. They would go no further. And if they would not, then perhaps damn it, what else was there? Once you had ruled out the land exchange there was nothing else. Even the first offer looked good — the second twice as good. There had been a threat--no--Gillis had admitted that they would not go back on the second offer. Then damn it let them put it through if they could—let them go ahead and put it through without the Indians’ accord. He was sick of it! Sick of the whole matter! Even if they had got the land deal—what difference would it have made? You couldn’t hold them up forever. They’d run it into the ground. They’d never make it on their own—never in a million years! What was to be gained? What had been gained with Victoria? At the thought of her he was suddenly sick with sadness. The wrong way. It was all being done the wrong way. The more they were helped the further down you pushed them into the muskeg —the harder you made it for them to get through the muskeg—and as soon as you took your hand away, they were lost. They went right down all the more quickly because they had relied on your help and it weakened them.

He wished he were out of it; he was tired. He couldn’t face Grace’s bright optimism. Later — he’d bring the matter up with her later. When he could fight. When he could fight.

He returned to the matter again and again during school hours; several times he was on the point of mentioning it to Grace, but the immediate prospect of coming to grips with the thing dulled his intention. At length when he felt he could worry himself no longer, he decided he must talk it over with her when he had returned from the school. He could put it off no longer. He stepped inside the house to find Louis Chinook, seated on a kitchen chair, his dark hat in his lap, dark glasses staring before him. The blind head drummer did not pause in what he was saying to Grace, busy over at the dispensary cupboard.

“. . . the old fellow used to have church the morning and he speak those young fellow. Tell ’em all what was wrong with the world. Then afternoon he have another one. Tell the old fellow all what was wrong. What he shouldn’t do. Now they don’t do that no more.” The dark glasses turned in Carlyle’s direction. “Don’t do that no more, Mr. Sinclair.”

“Grace.”

“You’re home early.” She did not turn from the dispensary cupboard. “I’m just getting Louis some ginger.”

“Now the young fellow do whatever he like,” observed Louis. “He don’t know no better.”

“Here you are Louis.” She handed him his ginger in a small paper candy bag.

“Cough medicine for the grownup, Mrs. Sinclair.”

“Have you a bottle?” Carlyle asked him.

“No.”

“That’s all right, Louis.” Grace returned to the cupboard, took out a bottle, reached in for a cork.

“Now the young fellow do what he like. Get drunk. Go in folks’ house— tight. Fight in there. They come in my house—drunk --fight—the little girl’s cryin’. So—thanks—so—I get up and I go out my house. Then come back after a while.”

“That all you want, Louis?” Carlyle asked him.

“Yes. Next day the fellow come over. He tell me he’s sorry.” Louis got up. “I guess that’s all.”

Grace went to him, took his sleeve and led him to the door. She turned back. “Car, will you take Louis as far as the trail?”

He went to Louis. Wordlessly he led him as far as the path, then returned to the house. He found that MacLean Powderface had called in the few moments it had taken him to put Louis on the trail home.

“Perhaps you ought to take him into town, MacLean,” Grace was saying. “He’ll be all right.”

“Car—MacLean says Howard’s sick —first it was a cold but he thinks it’s something more now.”

“Hey-uh,” said MacLean. “Huh-he-lay on the cuh-cuh-cot there. He’s hot.”

 “His chest?” said Grace.

“Wuh-well I—duh-don’t know.” 

“Take him into town in the truck tomorrow,” said Grace.

“No. He’ll get better,” MacLean assured her. “Mustard plaster. Mustard puh-pah-puh ...” his head began to sway, his eyes closed “ . . . plaster fixed him last time.”

Grace gave him the mustard plaster MacLean left.

“How’d it go, dear?” She did not look up from the pharmacy report sheet where she marked down Louis’ ginger and MacLean’s mustard plaster.

“Don’t you have any hours for that thing?”

She looked up. “What’s wrong?” 

“Louis—MacLean—can’t they come when you have dispensary hours?”

 “They come when they want medicine.”

“They come and they demand and they expect. What’s wrong with Louis?”

“He has a cold ...”

“No—no—he knows he’s supposed to save the bottle—wash it—bring it with him—when he feels like it!”

“Car, what’s made you angry?” 

“Nothing ...”

“You know it’s this way every spring —when the colds sweep through them. Do you begrudge them the medicine?” 

“No—no. It’s—I guess I get a little impatient ...”

“You shouldn’t.”

“But you have hours—they know the hours—why can’t they come in those hours?”

“Because their sickness doesn’t know the hours.”

“I don’t mean anything serious, Grace. I mean—their colds—and 'flu and a kink in the back or a headache ...”

“They come when their bodies move them to. That’s the way they are.”

“I suppose.”

“Car.”

“Yes.”

“What’s bothering you?”

“I—oh hell—I’m just fed up. I — sometimes I think we’re wasting our time. Nothing can be done for them.” 

“Oh, Car!”

“Everything you do for them ties them tighter to your aid. It’s time they —the trouble is they should have been left to sink or swim !”

“That’s not right.”

“Look at them. Who built the houses? The ones who were willing to work—a handful of them. The only ones worth ...”

“Car, they’re all humans ...”

 “And just what does that mean! That doesn’t answer anything!”

“It does for me, Car.”

“Well, it doesn’t for me! They’re not good ones—they’re not worthwhile ones. Not these! I’m not so sure they ever were! I question the nobility of these old chiefs—I question the honor and dignity they were supposed to have.”

“What about MacLean and . . . ” “A handful of the whole works. And way are they a cut above the others—because they were taught to read and write and pray? No. Because they were pushed out of the nest up at Hanley and they had to go to work for ranchers through the hills—because they starved for a while—that’s why they’re a little better. And the other lazy bastards—they can’t carry out a haying contract or fencing or rail cutting—honestly—the Prince Left-hands and the Johnny Educations. The worst thing that’s happened to these people is that they have this reserve and Ottawa to pull them through hard times!”

“But what about their health—their children’s education?”

“Useless! Hopeless! All they learn is to grab and chisel and scrounge better. With a better command of the language they can beg and borrow and steal...”

“Car—Car!”

“It’s pointless—worthless ...”

“It is for the older ones—I know— but not for the children—there’s your chance—you’re not teaching them simply arithmetic and spelling and reading—you’re giving them a chance their people never had ...”

“I give them nothing!”

“But you are, Car. The reserve system’s terribly wrong, but it’s ...” 

“Glorified relief!”

“But it holds the fort now, doesn’t it! Until the younger generation ...” 

“Who will be just one step further away from decency and respectability . . .”

“Until the younger children you’ve been, teaching get their chance—perhaps with the ranchers—perhaps with their own holding ...”

“There won’t be any holding for them. There’ll never be land enough for them!”

“There will—there will! It’ll work out! Car, I hate it when you get this way! It frightens me. You don’t mean it. I hope you don’t mean it. Oh, Car, I hope you don’t!”

“Oh ...” The breath left in a long drawn sigh. “I guess not. Don’t pay any attention to me. I suppose I don’t.”

“Victoria was only one,” she said to him gently. “There’ll be others.” She waited a moment. “There will be others.” She waited a moment. “There will be others,” she said again.

He supposed then was the time to tell her of his conversation with Gillis. He did not. After his outburst he felt drained of all energy.

THE AFTERNOON of the signing Old John, the councilor, sat in his cabin, the floor littered with the effluvia of stove and woodpile and table; ash, dust, bits of twig lay everywhere. Over the char and crumbs and grease on the bare wood table, blowflies swarmed with delight; a putrifying round of sausage moved with crawling maggots on a piece of newspaper. The old man swept it to the floor. Soon Herbert Tailfeather would be out from town with his order; no more kinnikinnick this month; it would be fresh pork steak and Philip Morris cigarettes and raisin bread now for a long time. Maybe if he spoke to Gillis again when he came — just before the signing maybe if he told he thought there should have been more—thirty dollars was a lot of raisin bread—hundred loaves maybe . . . ” The evening of the signing Old John’s cabin had been crowded unbelievably; they sat on the floor and stood along the walls; only Old John had a chair; Gillis was by the door, smiling now and again, shaking hands with each band member as he came in. Carlyle had not realized that the man had made so many acquaintances among the Indians in his visits to the valley.

Ezra Shot-Close with his black frock coat, his squashed nose, was the last to arrive. He told Carlyle in low solemn tones that MacLean Powderface’s son, Howard, had died, that the bridge was out so he could not get over to the Turkey Track ranch buildings to do the services for the boy. “What is this, Mr. Sinclair?” asked the lay preacher.

“You’ll hear, Ezra. Mr. Gillis will explain. I will say something.”

Gillis with understanding simplicity told the gathered Indians, through Prince Lefthand as an interpreter, the meaning of the new power company offer. Just as he had been with Carlyle a week before, he was quite convincing in his statement that there would be no land. The Indians listened to him, their faces showing no trace of feeling at the news that the power company would not make a land transfer in exchange for the power privileges they sought in Paradise Valley.

“Tonight I brought this paper . . . ” Gillis waited for Prince to translate.

“For you to sign with us . . .

“It is what I say—and what Mr. Sinclair will say . . .

“One hundred thousand dollars was the first—this one . . .

“Is two hundred thousand dollars . ..

“It is a good offer . . .

“And all . . .

“You will get ...”

He looked at Prince for a moment after he had finished, seemed about to add to what he had said, then instead went to the door and took up his old position.

Carlyle spoke to them. He did not have to use Prince, for he could talk to them in the language he had learned years before when he had first come to Paradise Valley.

“Mr. Gillis has told you the truth. This is the best we can do. He wants your marks on the paper. He says it will make no difference if you don’t. But it will be better this way. That is the paper on John’s table. I wanted the land for you, but you can’t have that. Ottawa says this is all right."


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