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Work in Progress - Shoot
by George Bowering

THLEES-LA and his brothers prepared the land. But white men came and "settled" it. That is a funny word. It means that before the white people came the land was unsettled. It was always moving around, nervous. It could not sit still. Those rolling hills were rolling. You could not count on anything. Rockslides slid. Snow melted and rivers overflowed. Fish came home every four years and then they took off again, gone to see the water around Japan. You could not count on the weather.

And the Indian people. They could not seem to settle the land. They were not cut out to be settlers. Didn't know how to drive a fencepost. Couldn't print a newspaper. Never played a heavy piano. Spent serious time playing a game with sticks.

When the McLean boys were the scourge of the Nicola Valley and the whole damn province, the newspaper-readers in Victoria and New Westminster were afraid of an Indian uprising. Some of the Nicola Valley ranchers were also afraid of an Indian uprising, and they saw Indians every day.

They thought the Indians had settled down. At bottom they thought they had settled for what they had now. But this Allan McLean was talking about some vision he had, talking about organizing the Indians. An uprising. The ranchers did not think that was a funny word.

Did the Nicola Valley ranchers fear an Indian uprising because they felt guilty or something for coming from afar and taking all the river land?

There was nothing in the newspaper about guilt.

But there was plenty about the Indian uprising in the Chilcotin. Allan McLean's father died over there, fighting for the white side.

DONALD MCLEAN was trying to become a story. He wanted the Indians to read him and tell each other stories about him. He wanted them to hold him in awe. He wanted to be a legend. He went around killing Indians all his adult life, and that was part of what he came to the new world to do. He was a successful fur trader. He started the first cattle ranch on the plateau. But he could not make any white man like him. He did not want the Indian people to like him. He killed Indians. He wanted them to make him a figure in their true stories.

So he went to a blacksmith and had an iron breastplate made. It did not fit perfectly. It did not hold his pectoral muscles like a hard woman. But it could be tied to his body underneath his jacket so it didn't show. Donald McLean was conquistador on the Thompson River. Indians could not kill him.

From time to time they ambushed Donald McLean. From the edge of the woods they fired shots at him and they saw some of them hit him. The bullets tore his jacket and knocked him out of the saddle, but he got back on his horse and chased Indians. Every time he killed an Indian there was a brother who wanted to ambush him.

Donald McLean had three elders brought to his office.

"I am Donald Iron Chest," he told them. "I cannot be killed by Indian bullets."

"Eye," said the elders. "Eye."

"I am the scourge of the range land. I hang Indians who laugh at the law."


"I am protected by a magic you have never seen. Indian bullets bounce off me. Go tell your people."

The elders adjusted their blankets and turned to go.

"Powerful magic," said Donald McLean, in his Tobermory accent.

IN 1864 the Chilcotin people were still not tamed. They did not wear any white people's clothes. The warriors had rings in their noses, and they wore wolf capes turned inside out. There were no French priests among the Chilcotins.

For two years Indian people had been dying under the trees. The white people from the south were here, looking for gold, dirty white men with no women of their own. When they came north with their old clothes they brought smallpox with them. In Victoria a forty-niner died of smallpox, so they vaccinated the white people and told the Indians to get out of town. The Indians got out of town, taking bacilli with them.

Indians died faster and faster. Their families were filled with sadness and became too weak to bury their children. Bodies were left where they last fell. Indians arrived at the forts and asked for food. They were told to get out of town.

The old story you heard is true. At Bella Coola some smart businessmen took blankets out of houses filled with dead people and sold them to other people a little farther inland. At Bella Coola there was one living person for every two dead people. No one told the Indians what was happening. They saw the white people walking around carrying things.

In Yale and Fort Douglas and Kamloops they vaccinated the white people. This was the great smallpox epidemic. In some villages the population went to zero. Archaeology began.

IN VICTORIA the men in suits were becoming concerned about all the forty-niners in the Province. They were building USAmerican cities among blasted trees in the Interior. Saloons looked like saloons in Nevada. Bad music was coming to town. The men in suits felt like Indians when the Scotchmen arrived. They did not want these avid foreigners to rearrange things. They decided to build another road to the plateau, from the Fraser River to the head of Bute Inlet. This was a stupid idea, given the terrain, what people in literature called "heroic."

Some white men were building a little bridge in the middle of the forest. They had lots of tools and horses and Indian women who had escaped the bacilli. They had lots of food and no whisky. They were not USAmericans. In front of them were a hundred steep mountains covered with night-darkened needle trees. No one was singing folk songs about these workers in the woods. No one knew they were there except some men in suits in Victoria. They were going to open the country and keep it British and grow old somewhere else.

Then one day a dozen Chilcotin men arrived, walking out of the forest. They had wolves on their shoulders. They did not have pock marks on their skin. They looked around at the camp and walked up close without smiles on their faces.

White men sat on stumps and held axes in their hands. The people they called their squaws were bent over steaming pots.

"You boys are a long way from home," said John Brewster, the chief of these surveyors.

"We are without food," said a Chilcotin man with a ring in his nose.

"I always heard you boys could live off the land," said Brewster.

"Will you give us a little food?" asked the Chilcotin man.

There were 18 other white men there, most of them standing now. They laughed, some of them. They said things the Chilcotins could not understand. They were heroes with no time for inconvenience. The Indian women attended to their fire.

"I'm sorry, boys, this here food is property of the company. It's for the progress of the highway to the Fraser. Sorry as them there cooks are, they are cooking for citizens. You will have to stay with your savage ways. Wish we could help you."

The Chilcotin man looked at Brewster as if his eyes were a precious metal no white man should ever reach for. Then the Indians turned around and walked back into the forest. They were followed by guffaws from the surveyors.

Indians were always fading into the trees. You never saw them again. The surveyors retired to their tents with their temporary women and did not hear the feet approaching over old needles in the cedar darkness.

That night 17 bodies were dropped into the stream and car, tied toward civilization. George Carman and another white man with blood on his face spent a week walking between the trees until they saw smoke.

"Murdering thieves," he told an inquiry in Victoria.

But eight years later some government men walked the berry bush path of the abandoned road and came upon the site. Despite the eight winters of snow and snowmelt they found tools leaning on trees, boots and hats on the ground, remnants of tents wrapped around undergrowth. They were lucky archaeologists.

IN 1864 the Chilcotins decided they had had enough, and began an uprising. That's what the white people called it. The Chilcotins did not know they had ever been down. George Carman crawled out of the bush and described what he could remember from the inside of a tent at the surveyors' camp. Various Chilcotin men caused what the white people called incidents here and there.

When the ranchers and fur traders talked to the government they said the Chilcotins were on a rampage. They didn't mention the women. For a while there were incidents at places lived in by white men who had felt the need to take Chilcotin women.

It is not easy to start an uprising when smallpox has been in your people for two years. The people were not getting enough to eat. The white people had all the land along the rivers. When your people are dying every day it is not easy to reach the anger on the other side of sadness. Not when your bodies are skinny on horses.

But the white people saw an uprising.

REDHEADED Donald McLean volunteered to lead a force against the Chilcotin uprising. He wanted to be in the story later on. He thought he might go into politics now that his fur-trading career was over and he was a rancher. He wanted to destroy Indians. He wanted to ride into camp with Chief Klatsassin on a rope.

He gathered 24 men, 50 rifles and 50 revolvers, and joined up with another posse of 40 men riding from the west. He took his son Duncan McLean to teach him colour. McLeans are not Indians, he told him. They shoot Indians.

He left his three older sons in Kamloops. He left the children, Allan and Charlie and Annie, in Hat Creek. He left Sophie with a bairn in her abdomen.

He went riding his prettiest horse into the Chilcotin country. He told his posse he was Captain McLean. He was riding for the law. Under his tunic he wore a heavy iron plate.

There were not many Indians left, so they thought they knew who they were looking for. The Indians knew who Captain McLean was. He walked into a person's house and shot uncles and babies. He said he had a monstrous magic. Even his English was hard to understand. He had red on his skull, like the dead father of Yellow Hair.

THE MEN in the posse were not all that familiar with their firearms. They knew their own rifles pretty well, but they were not from south of the medicine line. They did not usually carry pistols. In camp on the edge of Chilcotin country they sat around and pointed revolvers at trees. They stuck them into their waistbands. They opened them and peered inside. They sat on fallen fir trees and oiled their guns.

"Get them hands in the air or I'll ventilate you, " said one of the men from town.

"Why you sidewinder, you got the drop on me."

It was a serious and scary posse, but it was not the army, not the police. It was not a picnic in the firs, but these men weren't wearing uniforms.

"What the hell is a sidewinder?" one of the older men asked.

"Think it's one of them lake boats that there Mara's running."

Donald McLean kept himself at a little remove, like an officer on the eve of a historic battle. He had two pistols in holsters. He had a cap and ball rifle. He thought he should have had a sabre at his hip. His horse would rear as Indian bullets rang against the breastplate, and his sabre would cut bright arcs in the morning's light.

IN THE morning the grey light came off Tatla Lake as if it were rising from beneath, grey light surrounded by black trees. Dark humps were sleeping and there was no campfire. It was July. It would be 90' before 10 o'clock.

Captain McLean was already on his horse, and with him was an Indian the white people called Jack. McLean's dark beard was carefully combed. His long red hair was smooth.

"I have decided I want to kill a couple Indians before breakfast," he said, to no one but history.

So with Jack he rode his beautiful horse along the water's edge, and coming upon a promising defile he dismounted, saw that Jack did the same, and proceeded by foot up the slope on the west side, weapons all over his body. Up the hill they went, without more than ordinary care, Jack a few paces behind. Red McLean eyed every tree, every bush, every pile of long-agofallen rock. The sunlight was descending the hill in front of them but not as quickly as they climbed. Morning birds were finding July food everywhere. McLean heard his horse blow air through its nostrils far below.

Then he saw a slightly unnatural pile of fir boughs beneath a tree just behind the edge of the forest. McLean smiled and cocked his rifle. He would pretend that he had not seen the blind, get a little further into range, and before the enemy could act, blast the unbeliever to whatever afterlife might be waiting for him. He did not signal to Jack because he did not want to give any hint of his increased alertness.

Soon he had mounted to the vantage point he desired. He turned to face the insufficiently clever construction and quickly raised his long weapon.

The pile of fir boughs had been built by a man named Anukatlh just the afternoon before. This morning Anukatlh was lying prone behind some high willows with his own rifle pointed toward Donald McLean. As McLean raised his firearm, so Anukatlh encouraged his own, and immediately after the sudden morning noise McLean lay dead on the sloping ground, his breastplate beneath him. Anukatlh prepared and fired again, over Jack's head. Jack ran down the hill, and Anukatlh looked for a moment at the fallen captain, then walked uphill into the sunlight, into the darkness of the forest.

THEY TURNED Donald McLean over onto his back and opened his tunic. It was the first time anyone but a blacksmith had seen the iron chest. But Captain McLean was dead now and his magic would never pass on to any of his children. It would not reappear until his grandson George captured a lot of white men at Vimy Ridge.

Now Duncan McLean raised his borrowed pistol. Tears were running through dust on his face. He looked at his father's beard with dry pine needles in it. He put the pistol to his own head. But another young man grabbed his arm and took the gun away from him.

They dug a hole just above the lake and buried the Donald from Tobermory. The pursuit of the thin massacre warriors would continue without pure-white McLeans.

Jack did not feel as if the white men trusted him. When they woke up the next morning he was gone.

This excerpt is from Shoot, a novel in progress, by George Bowering.


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