by Camille Bouchard
Québec Amérique, 2014
There has still been no official sighting of the mouth of the Mississippi, but the soldiers have gone, only half the ships we set off with remain, and the Native tribes are growing increasingly hostile, so Monsieur de La Salle has decided to build a fort using debris from L’Aimable. We shall call it Fort Saint-Louis.
I have work to do, but whenever I get the chance I try hard to follow Marie-Élisabeth around without her knowing. It didn’t take me long to discover that unknown to her parents, two or three times a week whenever she goes to pick vegetables or wash clothes by the river, she hides away. She hides either in the tall grass in a meadow beside our camp, in a kind of cave created by a huge overhanging rock, or in a thicket of pine trees a little further away. I would worry for her safety because of the threat from the Natives… if Hiens wasn’t with her each time.
I know what’s going on between them for the quarter of an hour they spend hidden away together. I might even feel jealous. But I know all too well that Marie-Élisabeth derives no pleasure from these secret encounters. If she did, she would be glowing every time she walked back from them. But more often than not she’s crying. Or in a rage. Or her face is impossible to read.
How is the freebooter holding her in his power like this? How is he convincing her to give herself to him?
I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if I should speak to Monsieur Talon about it. I’m worried about what might happen. But I don’t think I’m helping Marie-Élisabeth by continuing to keep the promise I made her. Keeping quiet about what I know no longer seems the right thing to do. But at the same time, who should I talk to? A Recollect priest? Henri Joutel? And how would Hiens react if he found himself accused of repeatedly raping an eleven-year-old girl? Wouldn’t he take revenge on us? Or wouldn’t the band of scumbugs he hangs around with?
Fort Saint-Louis is quickly taking shape. It must be said that it’s not particularly sophisticated. We put up the main building at the top of a mound that would make an attack by the Natives more difficult—but not impossible. Monsieur de La Salle lives there along with a few privileged men from his entourage and the Recollect priests. Then there’s a house for the women and children, two more for the soldiers and workers, a stable, a warehouse, and a chapel next to our leaders’ central building.
But these mud-covered buildings aren’t enough to house everyone. Some men are building huts with bison pelts to shelter from the bad weather.
Sentries guard the four corners of our fort at all times. They have orders to shoot any Natives on sight. Everyone is gripped by fear.
After Le Joly left with at least one hundred twenty settlers who were hostile to Monsieur de La Salle, we might have thought that peace would come down on those of us left behind. No such luck! Because of our precarious predicament and the constant threats we face, discontent is growing.
For heaven’s sake! Why can’t some people get it into their heads that we’ll first have to roll up our sleeves and work hard before things improve?
“We captured the deserters, sir.”
Henri Joutel presents René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle with two men who fled the fort to strike out alone. They are pitiful. Their week-long stay in the forest has tested them to the limit. They are filthy, famished, thirsty, exhausted, and covered in mosquito bites.
Perhaps they wanted to go live with the Savages. One of them has fallen in love with a Native girl, I hear. Perhaps they reckoned on finding the Mississippi themselves, and planned on heading up it to the Canadian colonies before taking the first ship back to France. No one explains what they were thinking to us. They are tried behind closed doors.
“The verdict is in!” Moranget declares as he sits down among us that same evening by the fire. “The ringleader will be hanged tomorrow for desertion. Right there on that tree. You’ll all be here to see it—a reminder of the fate that awaits traitors working against His Majesty’s will. The second deserter has wholeheartedly repented and our leaders have chosen to be lenient. Nonetheless, he will have to sign an agreement to serve the King, right here in this very land, for ten years.”
“Time we left once and for all and started looking for this Mississippi everyone’s talking about,” a man murmurs a little too loudly.
“Your wish will be granted!” Moranget declares, for once not flying into a rage whenever he hears someone say what Monsieur de La Salle should do.
He’s no doubt thrilled at the thought of watching a man be executed tomorrow; he hardly ever puts his hand on the shoulder of the person he’s talking to. He seems to be in top form all right.
“Any man who, like you, wants to see some action will soon be in his element,” he continues. “Our leader has asked me to inform you that in a few days some fifty of us will be leaving Fort Saint-Louis. We will sail along the river until we find the Mississippi delta and can at last begin our great sacred mission.”
The shouts that greet the announcement seem to me to be more relieved than happy. I am hoping for only one thing: that Hiens the scumbag is not one of the men left behind at the fort, or any of the thugs he hangs around with.
Translated by Peter McCambridge
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