Irniq Amaruq walked along the edge of the muddy trench filled with filthy rainwater, twigs and human waste that led from the outskirts of the Indian reservation to the outbuildings of Fort McKenzie.
Irniq was in his early thirties and a full blooded Cree indian. Over six foot tall, slim and with the sun burnt complexion of a man of the woods he was an imposing figure. He had been raised as a hunter and trapper by his father and grandfather and was regarded as one of the best trackers in the whole of the Northern Territories.
Though he lived in the indian reservation he spent most of his time on his own out hunting in the badlands. As soon as he returned to the settlement he always wanted to return to the wilds. Every time the place seemed more squalid and foreboding.
As he walked to the main office he looked around at how low his people had been brought in recent years.
Huddled beneath worn grey woollen blankets and lined along the roadway he could see the old women of his tribe, their faces etched with hardship and cruel lines left by lives of toil. They were sheltering from the constant rain in huddled corners beneath the roofs of their simple stone and earth houses and watched him impassively as he passed. One of them held out her hand and smiled weakly at him, and he reached into the pocket of his buckskin jacket and pulled out a few coins for her. It was enough for her to buy a meal for the night. He would have given her more but that was the last of his money. He knew though that she would not spend the money on food and instead the money would be spent on a small bag of snuff from the fort stores. Nearly all the old women in the camp were addicted to snuff. The women would either use snuff or if that was not available they would boil together tobacco and molasses in large vats and then drink the vile glutinous substance until they were intoxicated by it. Other women would smoke tobacco in pipes of sandstone or slate, with stems of whittled spruce, which were ornamented with traditional beadwork.
The old men preferred cheap whiskey and it was not unusual to find on a winters morning the frozen corpse of a drunk who had fallen into a stupor outside and then froze to death in the cold.
As he walked down the street through the open door of one hut he could see a beautiful young native woman breast feeding a thin naked male baby upon her left breast. He knew her name, Running Deer and remembered her when she was a child, before her innocence and pride were lost amidst the squalor of the reservation. Her long silken black hair tumbled over her shoulders and her dark brown eyes watched him as he passed. She could have been no more than sixteen or seventeen and already the years were already eating into her beauty. Everywhere he looked he could sense death and decay, the slow rot of life on the reservation that was eating away at the soul of his people.
He trudged through the thick brown Autumn mud and walked across the stream to the two story wooden building with the sign “ Fort Mckenzie - Hudson Bay Company” over the front door.
Fort Mckenzie had been built in 1916 by the dour Scotsman Jim Watt, a renowned fur trapper and hunter, a man whose great grandfather father had taken part in the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. Raised as a true Scot with an enduring hatred of both Britain, and the English, James Watt had chosen exile in the Canadian wilds rather than to stay in Britain. He fled Scotland in 1889 leaving Edinburgh for Quebec. He quickly established a reputation as a formidable bare knuckle boxer and fur trapper with a talent for swearing that made him the envy of many less experienced foul mouthed knave. When war with Germany was inevitable Jim Watt chose not to fight in the First World War. For him the idea of fighting, and possibly dying, for the British Empire in the fields of France was not even an option. For men such as him a home amongst the English hating Québécois French in the wilds of the Canadian forests was far more preferable than the company of the British soldiers facing German machine guns in the trenches of the Somme for the British Empire. He had chosen not to fight for his own family reasons, and was never motivated by cowardice. He had once been in a gunfight with three escaped prisoners who he had been hired to track through the backwoods of the Labrador coast. After being shot twice with a revolver in his left leg he still managed to return home over two hundred miles of tundra. All three of the escaped prisoners were killed by him during their encounter, their heads then lopped off and carried back to the Canadian constabulary tied to the back of his sled. He had left the bodies for the wolves and crows to feed upon.
Therefore when he said he wanted to build a new trading fort far up the Kokapoa river then people were surprised but they realised that if anyone could do it, then it would be James Watt. He had wanted to build a camp in the upper reaches of the river to enable him to open up the fur trade along the upper reaches of the great river for a while. This was due to the fact that once he set up his original trading post further down the Kokapoa river at Fort Chimo, he discovered that the Montagnais, Cree and Naskapi hunters that he wanted to trade with were not travelling down to the Fort Chimo outpost from their traditional hunting grounds in the ancient forests, 120 miles due south of Fort Chimo. To reach these native peoples who were regarded widely as the best trappers in the province, he decided to create an inland trading post at the edge of the barrens themselves. This was where the wilderness opened out into a vast vista of arboreal forests and snow clad mountain ranges cut with crystal clear rivers that flooded with melt waters in Spring, froze solid in winter and were stuffed with game in the summer.
This was not an easy mission even for a man like Jim Watt to accomplish. Though he was a determined and practical man nothing like this had even been considered before, even by the men of the Hudson Bay Company. The land upriver from Fort Chimo was known as the badlands and it had never been settled or even mapped by Europeans before, and many who did not know him actually thought him mad even to attempt to try and build the trading post. The remoteness that Fort Chimo endured amidst the forests would be as nothing compared to the fort that he intended to build even further upriver. It would have to be built entirely by him almost single-handedly and hewn out of the wilderness itself. Besides the wood, logs and other basic materials for the actual physical construction of the fort that could be gathered in the immediate area of the spot he had picked out, whatever other materials were needed for construction on the site and all the provisions that would be needed to sustain him during the building of the fort would have to come out of Fort Chimo's stores and then be moved to the site by dog sleds in the winter and by canoes in the summer. Watt with his own sweat and toil finally established the new post near the confluence of the Caniapiscau and Swampy Bay rivers and once he had built the basic beginnings of the settlement he then named it Fort McKenzie. To his great relief the new fort succeeded in attracting the native hunters and fur trappers from the south lands and the trading post flourished.
Since then the fort had grown ever larger in a completely haphazard and chaotic manner until the Naskapi Indians who had lived beside Fort Chimo had chosen in 1935 to move en masse to the camp. Many had died on the long march to the new reservation. They had chosen to move from Fort Chimo to Fort Mckenzie in early spring and once they had begun the journey a late winter snow had begun to fall and many of the tribe died of hypothermia and starvation before they could even reach the new camp.
Irniq himself saw his mother die on the long march. He had held her in his arms as her life faded from her eyes, the cold having worked its way deep into her lungs, and he had buried her in a quiet grove after hacking away at the frozen soil with an axe. He then carried on with the journey. Others were not so lucky. They were left to lay where they fell and became food for the packs of timber wolves that had followed the trail of the tribe for the duration of their entire journey. One night, during the height of the snow storm that killed so many of his people, a woman and her child were taken alive by the wolves when they got lost in a blizzard. Any who lagged behind faced certain death.
Irniq stepped across the muddy trench, avoiding the stinking corpse of a rot bloated rat, walked up the wooden steps to the front door and knocked hard, then pushed the door opened and walked in.
The stench of sweat, whisky, blood and dead animals instantly assailed his nose. In the corner of the room was a wooden desk behind which sat a tall, elderly, ruddy faced white man with a shock of bright ginger hair. On the walls were the obligatory game trophies. Deer, boar, bear and cougar heads decorated the walls from top to bottom. A Scottish claymore, a Scottish flag and a dartboard hung on the wall behind the desk. A bottle of whisky and a half full glass sat in front of the figure who was reading a newspaper and smoking a Cuban cigar. The red headed man looked up and smiled warmly. He offered a large, calloused hand and shook Irniq’s hand as a bulldog shakes the neck of a rat.
“ Irniq mah mukker, guid tae see ye. sit yerself doon.” He said with an Edinburgh accent that could have come straight out of the slums of the cities back streets.
Irniq nodded and pulled a chair out from beneath the desk and sat down.
“Drink ? ” said the man and offered him the bottle of whisky and a new glass.
Irniq shook his head.
“Aye, I forgot ye dinna drink. Yae dinna mind dae yae eef a dae “ and put the bottle back on the table after refilling the glass. He knocked back the half filled glass and then poured himself another one.
Irniq looked at him and spoke with his usual forthrightness, “ What do you want Jim ? “.
Jim looked at him, a faint smile on his lips, “ Straecht tae th' point as usual eh Irniq. guid. we hae a problem an' Ah ken ye need a job. ye interested ?
“Depends what the job is “
Jim laughed and opened the draw of the desk and pulled out a telegram. He placed the telegram on the desk and leant back in his chair. He didnt offer the telegram to Irniq as he knew he could not read.
“ Reit bludy scunner thes. Ah got thes telegram frae th' polis in chimo yesterday, it appears 'at a mukker ay oors, george cooper an' his guides hae gain missin'. no-ain has heard frae them fur ower two months an' they waur only supposed tae be it huntin' fur a fortnecht. Ah hae bin speart tae send it a guide tae gang an' swatch fur them. ur ye interested ? “
Irniq knew instantly that there had to be another reason why he was being asked to go out and search for the missing trappers.
“ Whats the real reason Jim. No-one cares if a trapper and his guides go missing you know that ? “ he asked.
Jim nodded and blew a smoke ring and gulped down another glass of the whisky.
“ Ah dunnae kinn. but theres bin some odd rumoors comin' it ay th' hudson bay area fur a puckle months noo. Stories aboot a rogue bear huntin' trappers wi' a pack ay bears. Ah ken, Ah ken its probably bullshit, but th' polis hae offered tae pay fifty dollars if anyain will tak' a swatch at th' area. Th' local tribes ur gettin' woriat an' hae bin demandin' th' polis gang an' tak' a swatch. Ye can swatch fur george at th' sam time. “
Irniq smiled and sat back in the chair, a look of incredulity on his face.
“ A pack of bears hunting trappers you say. How much have you had of that whisky Jim “ and laughed.
Jim looked annoyed and his face flushed, “ Nae bludy enaw thats fae sure! Ah ken 'ats rubbish. But ah hae bin ordered by th' polis tae send someain tae gang an' tak' a swatch. ye ur th' best trapper in th' district an' ye ken th' area well enough. Dae ye want th' job ur nae ? “.
Irniq put his hand out over the desk “ For 100 dollars “.
Jim scowled spat out “ Yae bastard. Aet’s a deal “ and shook his hand.
Irniq stood up and went to walk out the door.
He turned and said “ I will need supplies “.
Jim nodded and muttered “ Aye. Jist gang tae th' stores an' teel them Ah said ye ur tae hae whit ye need awe rite ".
Irniq closed the door behind him and walked back out in the rain. The sun was setting into the West, and a line of fiery crimson clouds lay across the horizon. Irniq turned left and walked towards the stores that lay just along the lane avoiding the filth that gurgled along the stream just inches from his moccasins.