E-text prepared by Al Haines
THE LUCK OF THE MOUNTED
A Tale of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police
SERGEANT RALPH S. KENDALL
Ex-Member of the R.N.W.M.P.
Grosset & Dunlap Publishers New York
This truest of stories confirms beyond doubt, That truest of adages—"Murder will out!" In vain may the blood-spiller "double" and fly, In vain even witchcraft and sorcery try: Although for a time he may 'scape, by-and-by He'll be sure to be caught by a Hue and a Cry! —THE INGOLDSBY LEGEND
MY OLD COMRADES
PRESENT, AND EX-MEMBERS OF THE
THIS WORK IS DEDICATED WITH EVERY KIND THOUGHT
O sing us a song of days that are gone— Of men and happenings—of war and peace; We love to yarn of "th' times that was" As our hair grows gray, and our years increase. So—revert we again to our ancient lays— Fill we our pipes, and our glasses raise— "Salue! to those stirring, bygone days!" Cry the old non-coms of the Mounted Police. MEMORIES
All day long the blizzard had raged, in one continuous squalling moaning roar—the fine-spun snow swirling and drifting about the barrack-buildings and grounds of the old Mounted Police Post of L. Division. Whirraru!-ee!—thrumm-mm! hummed the biting nor'easter through the cross-tree rigging of the towering flag-pole in the centre of the wind-swept square, while the slapping flag-halyards kept up an infernal "devil's tattoo." With snow-bound roof from which hung huge icicles, like walrus-tusks, the big main building loomed up, ghostly and indistinct, amidst the whirling, white-wreathed world, save where, from the lighted windows broad streamers of radiance stabbed the surrounding gloom; reflecting the driving snow-spume like dust-motes dancing in a sunbeam.
Enveloped in snow-drifts and barely visible in the uncertain light there clustered about the central structure the long, low-lying guard-room, stables, quartermaster's store, and several smaller adjacent buildings comprising "The Barracks." It was a bitter February night in South Alberta.
From the vicinity of the guard-room the muffled-up figure of a man, with head down against the driving blizzard, padded noiselessly with moccasined feet up the pathway leading to the main building. Soon reaching his destination, he dived hastily through the double storm-doors of the middle entrance into the passage, and banged them to.
Flanking him on either side, in welcome contrast to the bitter world outside, he beheld the all-familiar sight of two inviting portals, each radiating light, warmth, and good fellowship—the one on his right hand particularly. A moment he halted irresolutely between regimental canteen and library; then, for some reason best known to himself, he steadily ignored both, for the time being, and passing on began slowly to mount a short flight of stairs at the end of the passage.
Sweet music beguiled each reluctant step of his ascent: the tinkle of a piano accompaniment to a roaring jovial chorus from the canteen assuring him with plaintive, but futile insistence just then, that—
Beer, beer! was glorious beer, etc.
Reaching the landing he paused for a space in an intent listening attitude outside the closed door of a room marked No. 3. From within came the sounds of men's voices raised in a high-pitched, gabbling altercation.
Turning swiftly to an imaginary audience, his expressive young countenance contorted into a grimace of unholy glee, the listener flung aloft his arms and blithely executed a few noiseless steps of an impromptu war-dance.
"They're at it again!" he muttered ecstatically.
Some seconds he capered thus in pantomime; then, as swiftly composing his features into a mask-like expression, he turned the handle and entered. On the big thermometer nailed outside the Orderly-room the mercury may have registered anything between twenty and thirty below zero, but inside Barrack-room No. 3 the temperature at that moment was warm enough.
Two men, seated at either end Of a long table in the centre of the room, busily engaged in cleaning their accoutrements, glanced up casually at his entrance; then, each vouchsafing him a preoccupied salutory mumble, they bent to their furbishing with the brisk concentration peculiar to "Service men" the world over. As an accompaniment to their labours, in desultory fashion, they kept alive the embers of a facetious wrangling argument—their respective vocabularies, albeit more or less ensanguined, exhibiting a fluent and masterly range of quaint barrack-room idiom and invective.
Both were clad in brown duck "fatigue slacks," the rolled-up sleeves of their "gray-back" shirts disclosing the fact that the sinewy forearms of both men were decorated with gay and fanciful specimens of the tattoo artist's genius. A third man, similarly habited, lay stretched out, apparently sleeping on one of the cots that were arranged around the room. Opening his eyes he greeted the newcomer with a lethargic "'Lo, Redmond!"; then, turning over on his side, he relapsed once more into the arms of Morpheus—his nasal organ proclaiming that fact beyond doubt.
The orderly aspect of the room bore mute evidence of regimental discipline. The blankets—with the sheets placed in the centre—were strapped into a neat roll at the head of each tartan-rugged cot, at the foot of which lay a folded black oil-sheet. Above, on a small shelf, were the spare uniform and Stetson hat, flanked on either side by a pair of high brown "Strathcona" riding-boots, with straight-shanked "cavalry-jack" spurs attached. On pegs underneath hung the regulation side-arms,—a "Sam Browne" belt and holster containing the Colt's .45 Service revolver. A rifle-rack at the end of the room contained its quota of Winchester carbines.
The last arrival, whom the sleeper had designated "Redmond," proceeded to divest himself of his short fur coat and, after dashing the snow from it and his muskrat-faced cap, unbuckled his side-arms, and hung all up at the head of his own particular cot.
Flashing across our retrospective mind-screens, as at times we dreamily delve into the past, beloved faces come and go. Forever in the memory of the writer, as his ideal conception of healthy, virile splendid Youth personified, will stand the bronzed, debonair, clean-shaven young face of George Redmond—or "Reddy," as he was more familiarly dubbed by his comrades of L. Division.
Handsome his countenance could not have been termed—the features were too strongly-marked and roughly-hewn. But it was an undeniably open, attractive and honest one—the sort of face that instinctively invited one's "Hail, fellow, well met!" trust at first sight. His hair was dark auburn in colour, short and wavy, with a sort of golden tinge in it; his forehead was broad and open, and below it were two uncommonly waggish blue eyes. His habitual expression was a mixture of nonchalant good humour and gay insouciance, but the slightly aquiline, prominent nose and the set of the square aggressive jaw belied in a measure the humourous curl of the lips.
Those who knew his disposition well were fully aware how swiftly the mocking smile could vanish from that indolent young face on occasion—how unpleasantly those wide blue orbs could contract beneath scowling brows into mere pin-points of steel and ice. Slightly above middle height, well-set-up and strongly, though not heavily made, the lines of his clean-built figure suggested the embodiment of grace, strength and activity.
He was dressed in the regulation winter uniform of the Force, consisting of a scarlet-serge tunic, dark-blue cord riding breeches with the broad yellow stripe down the side, thick black woollen stockings reaching to the knee, and buckskin moccasins with spurs attached. Over the stockings, and rolled tightly down upon the tops of the moccasins as snow-excluders, were a pair of heavy gray socks.
Wriggling out of his tightly-fitting red serge he carelessly flung that article onto the next cot; then, filling and lighting a pipe, he stretched out comfortably upon his own. With hands clasped behind his head he lazily watched the two previously-mentioned men at their cleaning operations, his expressive face registering indolent but mischievous interest, as he listened to their wrangling.
"No!" resumed one of the twain emphatically, apropos of some previous contention, "No, by gum! this division ain't what it used to be in them days."
He gave vent to a reminiscent sigh as he spat upon and rubbed up some powdered brick-dust.
"Billy Herchmer was O.C., Fred Bagley was Sergeant-Major—and there was Harry Hetherington, Ralph Bell, De Barre, Jeb Browne, Pennycuik, and all them old-timers. Eyah! th' times that was! th' times that was! Force's all filled up now mostly with 'Smart Aleck' kids, like Reddy, here, an'"—he shot a glance of calculating invitation at his vis-a-vis, Hardy—"'old sweats' from the Old Country Imperials."
Artfully to start some trivial but decidedly inflammable barrack-room argument was one of Corporal Dave McCullough's pet diversions. At this somewhat doubtful pastime he would exhibit a knowledge of human nature and an infinite patience worthy of a better object. From some occult reasoning of his Celtic soul the psychological moment he generally chose as being likely the most fruitful of results was either a few minutes before, or after "Lights Out."
When the ensuing conflagration had blazed to the desired stage he would quietly extinguish his own vocal torch and lie back on his cot with a sort of "Mark Antony" "Now let it work!" chuckle. "Getting their goats" he termed it. Usually though, when the storm of bad language and boots had subsided, his dupes, too, like those of "Silver Street" were wont to scratch their heads and commune one with another:—
—begod, I wonder why?
He was a heavy-shouldered man; middle-aged, with thick, crisp iron-gray hair and moustache and a pair of humourous brown eyes twinkling in a lined, weather-beaten face. His slightly nasal voice was dry and penetrating to the point of exasperation. For many years he had acted as "farrier" to L. Division.
George warily accepted the share of the pleasantry extended to him with a shrug, and a non-committal grin. But Hardy chose to regard it as a distinct challenge, and therefore a promising bone of contention. He gloated over it awhile ere pouncing.
A medium-sized, wiry, compactly-built man bodily, Hardy bore lightly the weight of his forty-five years. His hair was of that uncertain sandy colour which somehow never seems to turn gray; the edges of the crisply-curling forelock being soaped, rolled and brushed up into that approved tonsorial ornament known in barrack-room parlance as a "quiff." His complexion was of that peculiar olive-brown shade especially noticeable in most Anglo-Indians. In his smart, soldierly aspect, biting, jerky Cockney speech and clipped, wax-pointed moustache he betrayed unmistakably the ex-Imperial cavalry-man.
"Old sweats!" he echoed sarcastically—he pronounced it "aoweld"—"Yas! you go tell that t' th' Marines, me lad! . . . Took a few o' th' sime 'old sweats' t' knock ''Ay Leg!' 'Straw Leg' inter some o' you mossbacks at th' stort orf. Gee! Har! oh, gorblimey, yas!" He illustrated his trenchant remarks in suggestive pantomime.
"Ah!" quoth McCullough blithely, "Yu' know th' sayin'—'Old soldier—old stiff?' . . ."
His adversary burnished a spur viciously. "Old pleeceman—old son of a—" he retorted with a spiteful grin. "W'y, my old Kissiwasti here knows more abaht drill'n wot you do." He indicated a rather disreputable-looking gray parrot, preening itself in a cage which stood upon a cot nearby.
At the all-familiar sound of its name the bird suddenly ceased its monotonous beak and claw gymnastics for a space, becoming on the instant alertly attentive. There came a preliminary craning of neck and winking of white-parchment-lidded eyes, and then, in shockingly human fashion it proceeded to give voluble utterance to some startling samples of barrack-room profanity. Its shrill invective would have awakened the dead. The whistling, regular snores of the sleeper suddenly wound up with a gasping gurgle; he opened his eyes and, in a strong cereal accent gave vent to a somnolent peevish protest.
"Losh! . . . whot wi' you fellers bickerin' an' yon damn birrd currsin' I canna sleep! . . . gie th'—"
But Hardy silenced him with a warning finger.
"Sh-sh! McSporran!" he hissed in a loud eager whisper, "Jes' 'awk t' im? . . . gort th' real reg'mental tatch 'as old Kissiwasti! ain't he?"—his face shone with simple pride—"d' yer 'ken' that? sh-sh! listen now! . . . Yer shud 'ear 'im s'y 'Oot, mon!' . . . 'Awk t'im up an' tellin'yer w'y th' Jocks wear th' kilts."
Awhile McSporran listened, but with singular lack of enthusiasm. Presently, swinging his legs over the side of the cot with a weary sigh, he proceeded to fill his pipe. He was a thick-set, grey-eyed fair man about thirty, with a stolid, though shrewd, clean-shaven face.
"Best ye stickit tae wha' ye ca' 'English,' auld mon!" he remarked irritably, "Baith yersel' an' yer plurry pairrut. . . . Ou ay, I ken!—D'ye ken John Peel?—"
And, in derision he hummed a few lines of a rather vulgar parody of that ancient song that obtained around Barracks.
"Say, by gad, though! that bird is a fright!" ejaculated George suddenly, "Holy Doodle! just listen to what he said then? . . . If ever he starts in to hand out tracts like that when the O.C.'s up here inspecting he'll get invested with the Order of the 'Neck-Wring' for usurping his pet privilege. You'd better let Brankley the quartermaster have him. He was up here the other day and heard him. He was tickled to death—said he'd like to buy him off you, and 'top him off'—finish his education."
"Oh, 'e did, did 'e?" growled Hardy mutinously, but with ill-concealed interest, "Well, 'e ain't a-goin' t' 'ave 'im!" He breathed hard upon a buckle and polished it to his satisfaction. "Brankley is some connosser I will admit," he conceded grudgingly, "but Kissiwasti's got orl th' 'toppin orf wot's good fur 'im—dahn Regina—'e went through a reg'lar course dahn there—took 'is degree, so t' speak. . . . I uster tike an' 'ang 'is kydge hup in that little gallery in th' ridin school of a mornin'—when Inspector Chappell, th' ridin' master wos breakin' in a bunch o' rookies—'toppin' orf,' wot? . . ."
"Tchkk!" clucked McCullough wearily. "What is the use of arguin' with an old sweat like him? . . . Hardy'll be happy enough in Hell, so long as he can have his bloomin' old blackguard of a parrot along with him. If he can't there will be a pretty fuss."
"Bear up, Hardy!" comforted George. "When you've got that 'quiff' of yours all fussed up, and those new 'square-pushin'' dress-pants on you're some 'hot dog.' . . . Now, if I thought you could 'talk pretty' and behave yourself I'd—"
The old soldier grinned diabolically. "Sorjint?" he broke in mincingly "c'n I fall out an' tork t' me sister?—garn, Reddy! wipe orf yer chin! . . . though if I did 'appen t' 'ave a sister she might s'y th' sime fing abaht me, now, as she might s'y abaht you—to a lydy-fren' o' 'er's, p'raps. . . ."
"Say what?" demanded George incautiously.
Hardy chuckled again, "'Ere comes one o' them Mounted Pleecemen, me dear,—orl comb an' spurs,—mark time in front there. . . !" And he emitted an imitation of a barnyard cackle.
McCullough shot a glance at Redmond's face. "Can th' grief" he remarked unsympathetically, "you're fly enough usually . . . but you fairly asked for it that time."
Hardy spat into a cuspidor with long-range accuracy. He beamed with cheerful malevolence awhile upon his tormentors; then, uplifting a cracked falsetto in an unmusical wail, to the tune of "London Bridge is Falling Down," assured them that—
"Old soweljers never die, never die, never die, Old soweljers never—"
With infinite mockery Redmond's boyish voice struck in—
"Young soldiers wish they would, wish they—"
"'Ere!" remonstrated Hardy darkly, "chack it, Reddy! . . . You know wot 'appens t' them as starts in, a-guyin' old soweljers?—eh?—Well, I tell yer now!—worse'n wot 'appened t' them fresh kids in th' Bible wot mocked th' old blowke abaht 'is bald 'ead."
"Isch ga bibble! I don't care!" bawled the abandoned George; "can't be much worse than doing 'straight duty' round Barracks, here!—same thing, day in, day out—go and look at the 'duty detail' board—Regimental Number—Constable Redmond, 'prisoner's escort'—punching gangs of prisoners around all day long, on little rotten jobs about Barracks—and 'night guard' catching you every third night and—"
"Oyez! oyez! oyez! you good men of this—"
"Oh, yes! you can come the funny man all right, Mac—you've got a 'staff' job. Straight duty don't affect you. Why don't they shove me out on detachment again, and give me another chance to do real police work? . . . I tell you I'm fed up—properly. . . . I wish I was out of the blooming Force—I'm not 'wedded' to it, like you."
"'Ear, 'ear!" chimed in Hardy, with a sort of miserable heartiness. McSporran's contribution was merely a dour Scotch grin. In the moment's silence that followed a tremendous bawling squall of wind rocked the building to its very foundations. The back-draught of it sucked open the door, and, borne upon its wings, the roaring, full-chorused burst of a popular barrack-room chantey floated up the stairs from the canteen below—
"Old King Cole was a merry old soul, And a merry old soul was he— He called for his pipe, and he called for his glass, And he called for his old M.P."
Outside the blizzard still moaned and howled; every now and then, between lulls, screeching gusts of sleet beat upon the windows. The parrot, clinging upside down to the roof of its cage, winked rapidly with Sphinx-like eyes and inclined its head sideways in an intent listening attitude.
"Eyah! but th' Force's a bloomin' good home to some of you, all th' same," growled McCullough. "Listen to that 'norther'? . . . How'd you like to be chucked out into th' cold, cold world right now?—You, Hardy! that's never done nothin' but 'soldier' all your life—you, Reddy! with your 'collidge edukashun'?"
George, unmoved, listened respectfully awhile, lying on his stomach with his chin cupped in his hands. "Must have been a great bunch of fellows when you first took on the Force, Dave?" he queried presently.
From sheer force of habit the old policeman glanced at his interlocutor suspiciously. But that young gentleman's face appearing open and serene, merely expressing naive interest, he grunted an affirmative "Uh-huh!" and backed his conviction with a cheerful oath.
"Ah, they sure was. But where are they all now?" he rambled on in garrulous reminiscence, "some of 'em rich—some of 'em broke—an' many of 'em back on th' old Force again, an' glad to get their rations. There was some that talked like you, Mister Bloomin' Reddy!—fed up, an' goin' to quit—an' did quit—for a time. There was Corky Jones, I mind. Him that used to blow 'bout th' wonderful jobs he'd got th' pick of when he was 'time-ex.' All he got was 'reeve' of some little shi-poke burg down south. Hooshomin its real name, but they mostly call it Hootch thereabouts. A rotten little dump of 'bout fifty inhabitants. They're drunk half th' time an' wear each other's clothes. Ugh! filthy beggars! . . . He's back on th' Force again. There was Gadgett Malone. Proper dog he was—used to sing 'Love me, an' th' World is Mine.' He got all balled up with a widder, first crack out o' th' box, an' she shook him down for his roll an' put th' skids under him in great shape inside of a month. He's back on th' Force again. There was Barton McGuckin. When he pulled out he shook hands all around, I mind. Yes, sir! with tears in his eyes he did. Told us no matter how high he rose in th' world he'd never forget his old comrades—always rec'gnize 'em on th' street an' all that. On his way down town he was fool enough to go into one o' these here Romany Pikey dives for to get his fortune told. This gypsy woman threw it into him he was goin' to make his fortune in th' next two or three days by investin' his dough in a certain brand of oil shares. . . ."
McCullough paused and filled his pipe with elaborate care, "Th' last time I see him he was in th' buildin' an' contractin' line—carryin' a hod an' pushin' an Irishman's buggy . . . There's—but, aw hell! what's th' use o' talkin'?" he concluded disgustedly. "No! times ain't what they was, by gum!—rough stuff an' all things was run more real reg'mental them days—not half th' grousin' either."
"Reel reg'mental?" echoed Hardy mincingly, "aowe gorblimey! 'awk t'im? well, wot abaht it? I've done my bit, too!—in Injia. See 'ere; look!"
He pulled up the loose duck-pant of his right leg. On the outside of the hairy, spare but muscular limb, an ugly old dirty-white scar zigzagged from knee to ankle.
"Paythan knife," he informed them briefly, "but I did th' blowke in wot give it me." He launched into a lurid account of a border hill-scuffle that his regiment had been engaged in relating all its ghastly details with great gusto. "Cleared me lance-point ten times that d'y," he remarked laconically. "Flint was aour Orf'cer Commandin'—Old 'Doolally Flint'—'ard old 'ranker' 'e wos. 'E'd worked us sumphin' crool that week. Night marches an' wot not. I tell yer that man 'ad no 'eart for men or 'orses. An' you tork ababt bein' reel reg'mental, Mac! . . . 'e wos a reg'mental old soor if yer like! . . . Fit to drop we wos—wot wos left o' us, an' th' bloody sun goin' down an' all. But no! 'e give us no rest—burial fatigue right away. Free big trenches we buried aour pore fellers in—I can see 'em now. . . ."
For some few seconds he ceased polishing his glossy, mahogany-shaded "Sam Browne" belt, and, chin in hand, stared unseeingly straight in front of him. His audience waited. "Arterwards!" he cleared his throat, "arterwards—w'en we'd filled in 'e made us put th' trimmin's on—line 'em out 'ead an' foot wiv big bowlders. I mind I'd jes kern a-staggerin' ap wiv a big stowne for th' 'ead o' Number Free trench, but Doolally kep me a-markin time till 'e wos ready. 'Kem ap a bit, Private 'Ardy,' 'e sez, 'kem ap a bit! you're aht o' yer dressin'!' 'e sez. 'Arry Wagstaff, as wos in Number Two Squordron 'e pulls a bit o' chork aht of 'is pocket, an' 'e marks on 'is bowlder in big, fat letters 'Lucky soors—in bed ev'ry night'—but old Doolally 'appened to turn rahnd an' cop 'im at it. Drum-'ead coort-martial 'Arry gort for that, an' drew ten d'ys Number One Field Punishment. But that wos old Doolally all over . . . yer might s'y 'e 'adn't no sense o' 'umor, that man. Down country we moves next d'y, for Peshawur, where th' reg'ment lay. We'd copped a thunderin' lot o' prisoners—th' Mullah an' all."
"Wha' d'ye ca' a Mullah?" queried McSporran, with grave interest.
Hardy, carbine-barrel between knees—struggled with a "pull-through." "Mullah? well, 'e's a sorter—sorter 'ead blowke," he mumbled lamely.
"Kind of High Priest?" ventured George.
The old soldier beamed upon him gratefully, "Ar, that's wot I meant. 'E stunk that 'igh th' Colonel 'e sez—"
The storm doors banged below. "Redmond!—oh, Redmond!" The great, booming, bass voice rang echoing up the stairway. Involuntarily they all sprang to an attitude of alert attention. Rarely did Tom Belcher have to speak twice around Barracks.
"There's the S.M.!" muttered George. Aloud he responded "Coming, Sergeant-Major!" And he swung downstairs where a powerfully-built man in a snow and ice-incrusted fur coat awaited him.
"The O.C.'s orders, Redmond!—get your kit packed and hold yourself in readiness to pull out on the eleven o'clock West-bound to-morrow. You're transferred to the Davidsburg detachment. I'll give you your transport-requisition later."
The storm doors banged behind him, and then, Redmond, not without design, forced himself to saunter slowly—very slowly—upstairs again, whistling nonchalantly the while.
Expectant faces greeted him. "What's up?" they chorused. With a fine assumption of indifference he briefly informed them. McSporran received the news with his customary stolidity, only his gray eyes twinkled and he chuntered something that was totally unintelligible to anyone save himself. But its effect upon McCullough and Hardy was peculiar, not to say, startling in the extreme. With brush and burnisher clutched in their respective hands they both turned and gaped upon him fish-eyed for the moment. Then, as their eyes met, those two worthies seemed to experience a difficulty of articulation.
Dumfounded himself, George looked from one to the other, "What the devil's wrong with you fools?" he queried irritably.
Thereupon, McCullough, still holding the eyes of the Cockney, gasped out one magical word—"Yorkey!"
The spell was broken. "W'y, gorblimey!" said Hardy, "Ain't that queer?—that's jes' wot I wos a-thinkin' . . . Well, Gawd 'elp Sorjint Slavin now!" With which cryptic utterance he resumed his eternal polishing.
"Amen!" responded the farrier piously, "Reddy, here, an' Yorkey on th' same detachment. . . . What th' one don't know t'other'll teach him. . . . You'd better let 'em have th' parrot, too."
McSporran, back on his cot with hands clasped behind his head, gobbled an owlish "Hoot, mon! th' twa o' them thegither! . . . Losh! but that beats a' . . . but, hoo lang, O Lard? hoo lang?"
From various sources George had picked up the broken ends of many strange rumours relating to the personality and escapades of one Constable Yorke, of the Davidsburg detachment, whom he had never seen as yet. A hint here, a whisper there, a shrug and a low-voiced jest between the sergeant-major and the quartermaster, overheard one day in the Matter's store. To Redmond it seemed as if a veil of mystery had always enveloped the person and doings of this man, Yorke. The glamour of it now aroused all his latent curiosity.
"Why, what sort of a chap is this Yorke?" he inquired casually.
McCullough, busily burnishing a bit, shrugged deprecatingly and laughed. Hardy, putting the last touches to his revolver-holster, made answer, George thought, with peculiar reticence.
"Wot, Yorkey? . . . oh, 'e's a 'oly terror 'e is. . . . You arst Crampton," he mumbled—"arst Taylor—they wos at Davidsburg wiv 'im. Slavin's orl right but Yorkey!". . . He looked unutterable things. "Proper broken down Old Country torff 'e is, too. 'E's right there wiv th' goods at police work, they s'y, but 'e's sure a bad un to 'ave to live wiv. Free weeks on'y, Crampton stuck it afore 'e applied for a transfer—Taylor, 'e on'y stuck it free d'ys."
Redmond made a gesture of exasperation. "Ah-h! come off the perch!" he snarled pettishly, "what sort of old 'batman's' gaff are you trying to 'get my goat' with?"
His display of irritation drew an explosive, misthievous cachinnation from the trio.
"Old 'batman's' gaff?" echoed the Cockney grinning, "orl right, my fresh cove—this time next week you'll be tellin' us wevver it's old 'batman's' gaff, or not."
Outside, the blizzard still moaned and beat upon the windows, packing the wind-driven snow in huge drifts about the big main building. Inside, the canteen roared—
"Then—I—say, boys! who's for a drink with me? Rum, tum! tiddledy-um! we'll have a fair old spree!"
McSporran slid off his cot with surprising alacrity. "Here's ane!" he announced blithely. Hardy, carefully hanging up his spotless, glossy equipment at the head of his cot, turned to the farrier who was likewise engaged in arranging a bridle and a pipe-clayed headrope.
"Wot abaht it, Mac?" he queried briskly.
McCullough, in turn looked at Redmond. "All right!" responded that young gentleman with a boyish shrug and grin, "come on then, you bloomin' old sponges! let's wet my transfer. I'll have time to pack my kit to-morrow, before the West-bound pulls out."
Upon their departing ears, grown wearily familiar to its monotonous repetition, fell the parrot's customary adieu, as that disreputable-looking bird swung rhythmically to and fro on its perch.
"Goo' bye!" it gabbled, "A soldier's farewell' to yeh! goo' bye! goo' bye!"
Homeless, ragged and tanned, Under the changeful sky; Who so free in the land? Who so contented as I?. THE VAGABOND
The long-drawn-out, sweet notes of "Reveille" rang out in the frosty dawn. Reg. No. —— Const George Redmond, engaged at that moment in pulling on his "fatigue-slacks" hummed the trumpet-call's time-honoured vocal parody—
"I sold a cow, I sold a cow, an' bought a donk-ee—' Oh—what—a silly old sot you were!"
The room buzzed like a drowsy hive with hastily dressing men. Breathing hotly on the frosted window-pane next his cot, George rubbed a clear patch and glued his eye to it. The blizzard had died out during the night leaving the snow-drifted landscape frosty, still and clear. A rapidly widening strip of blended rose and pale turquoise on the eastern horizon gave promise of a fine day.
He turned away with a contented sigh and, descending the stairs, fell in with the rest of the fur-coated, moccasined men on "Morning Stable Parade."
Three hours later, breakfast despatched, blankets rolled and kit and dunnage bags packed, he received a curt summons from the sergeant-major to attend the Orderly-room. To the brisk word of command he was "quick-marched" "left-wheeled," and "halted" at "attention" before the desk of the Officer Commanding L. Division.
"Constable Redmond, Sir!" announced the deep-throated, rumbling bass of the sergeant-major; and for some seconds George gazed at the silvery hair and wide bowed shoulders of the seated figure in front of him, who continued his perusal of some type-written sheets of foolscap, as if unaware of any interruption. Elsewhere have the kindly personality and eccentricities of Captain Richard Bargrave been described; "but that," as Kipling says, "is another story."
Presently the papers were cast aside, the bowed shoulders in the splendidly-cut blue-serge uniform squared back in the chair, and Redmond found himself being scrutinized intently by the all-familiar bronzed old aristocratic countenance, with its sweeping fair moustache. Involuntarily he stiffened, though his eyes, momentarily overpowered by the intensity of that keen gaze, strayed to the level of his superior's breast and focussed themselves upon two campaign ribbons there, "North-West Rebellion" and "Ashantee" decorations.
Suddenly the thin, high, cultured voice addressed him—whimsically—sarcastic but not altogether unkindly:
"The Sergeant-Major"—the gold-rimmed pince-nez were swung to an elevation indicating that individual and the fair moustache was twirled pensively—"the Sergeant-Major reports that—er—for the past six months you have been conducting yourself around the Post with fair average"—the suave tones hardened—"that you have wisely refrained from indulging your youthful fancies in any more such—er—dam-fool antics, Sir, as characterized your merry but brief career at the Gleichen detachment, so—er—I have decided to give you another chance. I have here"—he fumbled through some papers—"a request from Sergeant Slavin for another man at Davidsburg. I am transferring you there. Slavin—er—damn the man! damn the man! what's wrong with him, Sergeant-Major? . . . Two men have I sent him in as many months, and both of 'em, after a few days there, on some flimsy pretext or another, applied for transfers to other detachments. Good men, too. If this occurs again—damme!"—he glared at his subordinate—"I'll—er—bring that Irish 'ginthleman' into the Post for a summary explanation. Wire him of this man's transfer! . . . All right, Sergeant-Major!"
"About-turrn!—quick-march!" growled again the bass voice of the senior non-com; and he kept step behind George into the passage. "Here's your transport requisition, Redmond. Now—take a tumble to yourself, my lad—on this detachment. You're getting what 'Father' don't give to many—a second chance. Good-bye!"
George gripped the proffered hand and looked full into the kindly, meaning eyes. "Good-bye, S.M.!" he said huskily, "Thanks!"
Westward, the train puffed its way slowly along a slight, but continual up-grade through the foothills, following more or less the winding course of the Bow River. Despite the cold, clear brilliance of the day, seen under winter conditions the landscape on either side of the track presented a rather forlorn, dreary picture. So it appeared to George, anyway, as he gazed out of the window at the vast, spreading, white-carpeted valley, the monotonous aspect of which was only occasionally relieved by sparsely-dotted ranches, small wayside stations, or when they thundered across high trestle bridges over the partly-frozen, black, steaming river.
Two summers earlier he had travelled the same road, on a luxurious trip to the Coast. The memory of its scenic splendor then, the easy-going stages from one sumptuous mountain resort to another, now made him feel slightly dismal and discontented with his present lot. Eye-restful solace came however with the sight of the ever-nearing glorious sun-crowned peaks of the mighty "Rockies," sharply silhouetted against the dazzling blue of the sky.
Children's voices behind him suddenly broke in upon his reverie.
"That man!" said a small squeaking treble, "was a hobo. He was sitting in that car in front with the hard seats an' I went up to him an' I said, 'Hullo, Mister! why don't you wash your face an' shave it? we've all washed our faces this morning' . . . . We did, didn't we, Alice?—an' washed Porkey's too, an' he said 'Hullo, Bo! wash my face?—I don't have to—I might catch cold.'"
"But Jerry!" said another child's voice, "I don't think he could have been a real hobo, or he'd have had an empty tomato-can hanging around his neck on a string, like the pictures of 'Weary Willie' an' 'Tired Tim' in the funny papers."
Then ensued the sounds as of a juvenile scuffle and squawk. Master Jerry apparently resented having his pet convictions treated in this "Doubting Thomas" fashion, for the next thing George heard him say, was:
"Goozlemy, goozlemy, goozlemy! . . . No! he hadn't got a tomato-can, silly! but he'd got a big, fat bottle in his pocket an' he pulled the cork out of it an' sucked an' I said 'What have you got in your bottle?' an' he said 'Cold tea' but it didn't smell a bit like cold tea. There's a Mounted Policeman sitting in that seat in front of us. Let's ask him. Policemen always lock hoboes up in gaol an' kick them in the stomach, like you see them in the pictures."
The next instant there came a pattering of little feet and two small figures scrambled into the vacant seat in front of Redmond. His gaze fell on a diminutive, red-headed, inquisitive-faced urchin of some eight years, and a small, gray-eyed, wistful-looking maiden, perhaps about a year younger, with hair that matched the boy's in colour. Under one dimpled arm she clutched tightly to her—upside-down—a fat, squirming fox-terrier puppy. Hand-in-hand, in an attitude of breathless, speculative awe, they sat there bolt upright, like two small gophers; watching intently the face of the uniformed representative of the Law, as if seeking some reassuring sign.
It came presently—a kind, boyish, friendly smile that gained the confidence of their little hearts at once.
"Hullo, nippers!" he said cheerily.
"Hullo!" the two small trebles responded.
"What's your name, son?"
An uneasy wriggle and a moment's hesitation then—"Jeremiah!" came a small—rather sulky—voice.
Breathing audibly in her intense eagerness the little girl now came to the rescue.
"Please, policeman?" she stopped and gulped excitedly—"please, policeman?—he doesn't like to be called that. . . . It isn't his fault. He always throws stones at the bad boys when they call him that. Call him just 'Jerry.'"
That gamin, turning from a minute examination of Redmond's spurred moccasins, began to swing his chubby legs and bounce up and down upon the cushioned seat.
"Her name's Alice," he volunteered, with a sidelong fling of his carrot-tinted head. "Yes! she's my sister"—he made a snatch at the pup whose speedy demise was threatened, from blood to the head—"don't hold Porkey that way, Alice! his eyes'll drop out."
But his juvenile confrere shrugged away from his clutch. "Stupid!" she retorted, with fine scorn, "no they won't . . . . it's on'y guinea pigs that do that!—when you hold them up by their tails." Nevertheless she promptly reversed that long-suffering canine, which immediately demonstrated its gratitude by licking her face effusively.
The all-important question of the hobo was next commended to his attention, with a tremendous amount of chattering rivalry, and, with intense gravity he was cogitating how to render a satisfactory finding to both factions when steps, and the unmistakable rustle of skirts, sounded in his immediate rear. Then a lady's voice said, "Oh, there you are, children! . . . I was wondering where you'd got to."
The two heads bobbed up simultaneously, with a joyful "Here's Mother!" and George, turning, glanced with innate, well-bred curiosity at a stout, pleasant-faced, middle-aged woman who stood beside them.
"I hope these young imps haven't been bothering you?" she said. "We were in that car behind, but I was reading and they've been having a great time romping all over the place. Oh, well! I suppose it's too much to expect children to keep still on a train."
With a fond motherly caress she patted the two small flaming heads that now snuggled boisterously against her on either side.
"Come now! Messrs. Bubble and Squeak!" she urged teasingly, "march!—back to our car again!"
"Bubble and Squeak" seemed appropriate enough just then, to judge by the many fractious objections immediately voiced by those two small mutineers. They were loth to part with their latest acquaintance and weren't above advertising that fact with unnecessary vehemence. Even the puppy raised a snuffling whine.
"Boo-hoo!" wailed Jerry, "don't want to go in the other car—me an' Alice want to stay here—the policeman's goin' to tell us all about hoboes—he—"
"Oh, dear!" came a despairing little sigh, "whatever—"
Their eyes met and, at the droll perplexity he read in hers, George laughed outright. An explosive frank boyish laugh. He rose with a courteous gesture. "I'm afraid it's a case of 'if the mountain won't come to Mahomet,'" he began, with gay sententiousness. "Won't you sit down?"
The matron's kindly eyes appraised the bold, manly young face a moment, then, with a certain leisurely grace, she stepped in between the seats and, seating herself, lugged her two small charges down beside her.
"I suppose, under the circumstances, an old woman like me can discard the conventionalities?" she remarked smilingly.
Jerry and Alice leered triumphantly at their victim. "Now!" Jerry shrilled exactingly "tell us all about hoboes!"
"They do carry empty tomato-cans, don't they?" pleaded Alice.
It was now their guardian's turn to laugh at his dismay. "You see what you've let yourself in for now?" she remarked.
"Seems I am up against it," he admitted, with a rueful grin, "well! must make good somehow, I suppose?"
With an infinitely boyish gesture he tipped his fur cap to the back of his head and leaned forward with finger-tips compressed in approved story-telling fashion.
"Once upon a time!—" a breathless "Yes-s"—those two small faces reminded him much of terriers watching a rat-hole—"there was a hobo." He thought hard. "He was a very dirty old hobo—he never used to wash his face. He was walking along the road one day when he heard a little wee voice call out 'Hey!'. He looked down and he saw an empty tomato-can on a rubbish heap. Tomato-cans used to be able to talk in those days and the hoboes were very good to them—always used to drink out of them and carry them to save them from walking. This can had a picture of its big red face on the outside. 'Give us a lift?' said the can. 'Where to?' said the old hobo. 'Back to California, where I came from,' said the can. 'All right!' said the old hobo, 'I'm goin' there, too.' And he picked the can up and hung it round his neck and kept on walking till they came to a house. The window of the house was open and they could see a big fat bottle on a little table. 'Ah!' said the old hobo 'here's an old friend of mine!—he's comin' with us, too,' And he shoved his arm through the window and put the bottle in his pocket. By and by they came to a river—'Hey!' said the can, again—'What's up?' said the old hobo—'I'm dry,' said the can—'So am I,' said the hobo; and he dipped the can in the water and gave it a very little drink. 'Hey!' said the can, 'give us a drop more!'—'Wait a bit!' said the old hobo, and he pulled the cork out of the bottle. 'Don't you pour any of that feller into me!' said the can, 'he'll burn my inside out—an' yours—if you pour him into me I'll open my mouth where I'm soldered and let him run out, and you won't be able to drink out of me any more. Chuck him into the river!—he's no good.'
"'You shut your mouth!' said the old hobo, 'or I'll chuck you into the river!' And he poured some of the stuff out of the bottle into the can—"
At this exciting point poor George halted for breath and mopped his forehead. He felt fully as thirsty as the tomato-can. But the children were upon him, clutching his scarlet tunic:
"What did he do then?" howled Jerry.
"Eh?" gasped the young policeman,—"oh, he opened his mouth where he was soldered and let the stuff run out. So the old hobo threw him into the river. That's why hoboes always pack a bottle with them now instead of a tomato-can."
He leaned back with a sigh and, thrusting his hands deep into his pockets, smiled wanly at his vis-a-vis.
"There!" he said, with feeble triumph, "I've carried out the sentence."
And it did him good to drink in her mirthful, waggish laugh.
"Yes!" she conceded gaily, "you certainly did great execution, though you look more like a prisoner just reprieved."
Jerry, screwing up his small snub nose leered triumphantly across her lap at Alice. "Goozlemy, goozlemy, goozlemy!" he squeaked, "that man was a real hobo."
His grimace was returned with interest. Alice hugged her puppy awhile contentedly, murmuring in that canine's ear, "What a silly old thing that tomato-can must have been. If I'd been him I'd have kept my mouth shut."
"Cow Run!" intoned the brakeman monotonously, passing through the coaches, "Cow Run next stop!" His eye fell on Redmond. "Wish I'd seen you before, Officer!" he remarked, "I'd have had a hobo for you. Beggar stole a ride on us from Glenbow, back there. The con's goin' to chuck him off here—do you want him?"
"No!" said Redmond shortly, "let the stiff go—I'm going on to Davidsburg—haven't got time to get messing around with 'vags' now."
The train began to slow down and presently stopped at a small station. Mechanically the quartette gazed through the window at the few shivering platform loungers, and beyond them to the irregular, low-lying facade of snow-plastered buildings that comprised the dreary main street of the little town.
Suddenly the children uttered a shrill yelp.
"There he is!" cried Alice, darting a small finger at the window-pane.
"I saw him first!" bawled Jerry.
And, slouching past along the platform, all huddled-up with hands in pockets, George beheld a ragged nondescript of a man whose appearance confirmed Master Jerry's previous assertion beyond doubt.
The children drummed on the window excitedly. Glancing up at the two small peering faces the human derelict's red-nosed, stubble-coated visage contorted itself into a friendly grimace of recognition; at the same time, with an indescribably droll, swashbuckling swagger he doffed a shocking dunghill of a hat.
Suddenly though his jaw dropped and, replacing his battered headpiece, with double-handed indecent haste the knight of the road executed an incredibly nimble "right-about turn" and vanished behind the station-house. Just then came the engine's toot! toot!, the conductor's warning "All aboar-rd!" and the train started once more on its journey westward.
Smiling grimly to himself, the policeman settled back in his seat again and glanced across at the lady. She was shaking with convulsive laughter.
"Oh!" she giggled hysterically "he—he must have seen your red coat!" another spasm of merriment, "it was as good as a pantomime," she murmured.
Evincing a keen interest in his soldierly vocation, for awhile she subjected him to an exacting and minute inquisition anent the duties and life of a Mounted Policeman. In this agreeable fashion the time passed rapidly and it was with a feeling of regret that he heard the brakeman announce his destination and rose to take leave of his pleasant companion. The children insisted on bidding their late chum a cuddling, osculatory farewell—Alice tearfully holding up the snuffling Porkey for his share. The train drew up at the Davidsburg platform, there came a chorus of "Good-byes" and a few minutes later George was left alone with his kit-bags on the deserted platform.
St. Agnes' Eve. Ah! bitter chill it was. The owl, for all his feathers, was a-cold; The hare limped, trembling, through the frozen grass; And drowsy was the flock in woolly fold. ST. AGNES' EVE
Edmond did not have to wait long. Sounding faint and far off came the silvery ring of sleigh-bells, gradually swelling in volume until, with a measured crunch! crunch! of hoofs on packed snow, a smart Police cutter, drawn by a splendid bay team, swung around a bend of the trail and pulled up at the platform. Redmond regarded with a little awe the huge, bear-like, uniformed figure of the teamster, whom he identified at once from barrack gossip.
"Sergeant Slavin?" he enquired respectfully, eyeing the bronzed, clean-shaven face, half hidden by fur cap and turned-up collar.
"Meself, lad!" came a rich soft brogue, "I was afther gettin' a wire from th' O.C., tellin' me he was thransfering me another man. Yer name's Ridmond, ain't it?—-Whoa, now! T an' B!—lively wid thim kit-bags, son!—team's pretty fresh an' will not shtand."
They swung off at a spanking trot. George surveyed the white-washed cattle-corrals and few scattered shacks which seemed to comprise the hamlet of Davidsburg.
"Not a very big place, Sergeant?" he remarked, "how far's the detachment from here?"
"On'y 'bout a mile" grunted the individual, squirting a stream of tobacco-juice to leeward, "up on the high ground beyant. Nay! 'tis just a jumpin' off place an' shippin' point for th' ranches hereabouts. Business is mostly done at Cow Run—East. Ye passed ut, comin'. Great doin's there—whin th' cowpunchers blow in. Some burg!"
"Sure looked it!" Redmond agreed absently, thinking of the casual glimpse he had got of the dreary main street.
They were climbing a slight grade. The sun-glare on the snow was intense; the cutter's steel runners no longer screeched, and the team's hoofs began to clog up with soft snow.
"They're 'balling-up' pretty bad, Sergeant!" remarked Redmond. And, as he spoke the "off" horse suddenly slipped and fell, and, plunging to its feet again, a leg slid over the cutter's tongue.
"Whoa, now! whoa!" barked Slavin, with an oath, as the mettled, high-strung animal began to kick affrightedly. Slipping again it sank down in the snow and remained still for some tense moments.
Like a flash Redmond sprang from the cutter, and rapidly and warily he unhooked the team's traces. This done he crept to their heads and slipped the end of the tongue out of the neck-yoke ring. Slavin by this time was also on his feet in the snow, with the situation well in hand. He clucked softly to his team, the fallen horse plunged to its feet again and the next moment all was clear. George, burrowing around in the snow unearthed a big stone, with which he proceeded to tap the team's shoes all round until the huge snow-clogs fell out. In silence the two men hooked up again and were soon on their way.
"H-mm!" grunted the big Irishman at last, eyeing his subordinate with a sidelong glance of approval, "h-mm! teamster?"
"Oh, I don't know, Sergeant" responded Redmond deprecatingly, "of course I've been around teams some—down East, on the old man's farm. . . I don't know that I can claim to be a real teamster—as you judge them in the Force."
"H-mm!" grunted Slavin again, "ye seem tu have th' makin's anyway." He expectorated musingly. "Wan time—down at Coutts 'twas—a young feller was sint tu me for tu dhrive. Mighty chipper gossoon, tu. 'Teamster?' sez I—'Some!' sez he, as if he was a reg'lar gun at th' business—'but I'm gen'rally reckoned handier wid a foursome 'n a single team.'"
"'Oh!' sez I, 'fwhere?' An' he tould me—Regina. Sez I thin ''tis Skinner Adams's undershtudy ye must have bin?—for he was Reg'mentil Teamster Sarjint there, an' sure fwas a great man wid a four-in-hand team.'"
"'Fwat, ould Skinner Adams?' sez me bould lad, kind av contempshus-like, 'Humph! at shtringin' out four I have Skinner Adams thrimmed tu a peak.' We was dhrivin' from th' station tu th' detachmint—same like tu we're doin' now. Whin we gits in I unhitches an' puts up th' team. 'Give us a hand tu shling th' harniss off!' sez I tu him—an' me shmart Aleck makes a shtab at ut wid th' nigh horse. He was not quite so chipper—thin, an' I noticed his hands thremblin', an' he was all th' time watchin' me close how I did wid th' off harse. I dhraws off wid th' britchin' on me arrum—'Come!' sez I—an' he shtarts in—unbucklin' th' top hame-shtrap.
"'As ye were!' sez I 'that's enough! I'm thinkin' th' on'y 'four' you iver shtrung out me young flapdhoodle was a gang av prisoners, an' blarney me sowl! ye shall go back tu th' Post right now, an' du prisoner's escort agin for awhile.'"
They had now reached the top of the grade where the trail swung due east, and faced a dazzling sun and cutting wind which whipped the blood to their cheeks and made their eyes water.
"Behould our counthry eshtate!" said Sergeant Slavin grandiloquently, with an airy wave of his arm, "beyant that big pile av shtones on th' road-allowance."
He chirped to his team which broke into an even, fast trot, and presently they drew up outside a building typical in its outside appearance of the usual range Mounted Police detachment. It was a fairly large dwelling, roughly but substantially-built of squared logs, painted in customary fashion, with the walls—white, and the shingled roof—red. A strongly-guyed flagstaff jutting out from one gable, and copies of the "Game" and "Fire Acts" tacked on the door gave the abode an unmistakable official aspect. Over the doorway was nailed a huge, prehistoric-looking buffalo-skull, bleached white with the years—the time-honoured insignia of the R.N.W.M.P. being a buffalo-head, which is also stamped on the regimental badge and button.
Dumping off the kit-bags, the two men drove round to the stable in the rear of the main dwelling, where they unhitched and put up the team. The sergeant led the way into the house. Passing through a small store-house and kitchen they emerged into the living room. On a miniature scale it was a replica of one of the Post barrack-rooms, except that the table boasted a tartan-rugged covering, that two or three easy chairs were scattered around, and some calfskin mats partially covered the painted hardwood floor. The walls, for the most part were adorned with many unframed copies of pictures from the brush of that great Western artist, Charles Russell, and black and white sketches cut from various illustrated papers. Three corners of the room contained cots, one of which the sergeant assigned to Redmond. The room, with its big stove, in a way looked comfortable enough, and was regimentally neat and clean and homelike.
George peered into the front room beyond which bore quite a judicial aspect. At one end of it a small dais supported a severe-looking arm-chair and a long flat desk, on which were piled foolscap, blank legal forms, law-books, and the Bible. In front was a long, form-like bench, with a back to it. At the rear of the room were two strongly-built cells, with barred doors. Around the walls were scattered a double row of small chairs and, on a big, green-baize-covered board next the cells hung a brightly burnished assortment of handcuffs and leg-irons.
"'Tis here we hould coort," Slavin informed him, "whin we have any shtiffs tu be thried."
Opening the front door George lugged in his bedding and kit-bags and, depositing them on his cot, flung off his fur coat, cap, and serge. Slavin divested himself likewise and, as the burly, bull-necked man stood there, slowly filling his pipe, Redmond was able to scan the face and massive proportions of his superior more closely.
Standing well over six feet, for the presentment of vast, though perchance clumsy, gorilla-like strength, George reflected with slight awe that he had never seen the man's equal. His wide-spreading shoulders were more rounded than square; his deep, arching chest, powerful, stocky nether limbs and disproportionately long, huge-biceped arms seeming to fit him as an exponent of the mat rather than the gloves. Truly a daunting figure to meet in a close-quarter, rough-and-tumble encounter! thought Redmond. The top of his head was completely bald; his thick, straight black brows indicating that what little close-cropped iron-gray hair remained must originally have been coal-black in colour. His Irish-blue eyes, alternately dreamy and twinklingly alert, were deeply set in a high-cheeked-boned, bronzed face, with a long upper-lipped, grimly-humorous mouth. Its expression in repose gave subtle warning that its owner possessed in a marked degree the strongly melancholic, emotional, and choleric temperament of his race. There was no moroseness—no hardness in it, but rather the taciturnity that invariably settles upon the face of those dwellers of the range who, perforce, live much alone with their thoughts. Sheathed in mail and armed, that face and bulky figure to some imaginations might have found its prototype in some huge, grim, war-worn "man-at-arms" of mediaeval times. Redmond judged him to be somewhere in his forties; forty-two was his exact age as he ascertained later.
In curious contrast to his somewhat formidable exterior seemed his mild, gentle, soft-brogued voice. And with speech, his taciturn face relaxed insensibly into an almost genial expression, George noted.
Attracted by a cluster of pictures and photographs above and around the cot in the corner opposite his own, the young fellow crossed over and scanned them attentively. Tacked up with a random, reckless hand, the bizarre collection was typically significant of someone's whimsical, freakish tastes and personality. From the sublime to the ridiculous—and worse—subjects pious and impious, dreamily-beautiful and lewdly-vulgar, comic and tragic, also many splendid photographs were all jumbled together on the walls in a shockingly irresponsible fashion. Many of the pictures were unframed copies cut apparently from art and other journals; from theatrical and comic papers.
George gazed on them awhile in utterly bewildered astonishment; then, with a little hopeless ejaculation, swung around to the sergeant who met his despairing grin with benign composure.
"'Tis Yorke's," said Slavin simply. It was the first time he had mentioned that individual's name. He struck a match on the seat of his pants and standing with his feet apart and hands clasped behind his back smoked awhile contentedly.
"Saw ye iver th' like av that for divarsiment?" he continued, with a wave of his pipe at the heterogeneous array, "shtudy thim! an', by an' large ye have th' man himsilf. He's away on pay-day duty at th' Coalmore mines west av here—though by token, 'tis Billy Blythe at Banff shud be doin' ut, 'stead av me havin' tu sind a man from here. He shud be back on Number Four th' night."
His twinkling orbs under their black smudge of eyebrow appraised the junior constable with faint, musing interest. "A quare chap is Yorkey," he continued gently—shielding a match-flame and puffing with noisy respiration—"a good polisman—knows th' Criminal Code from A tu Z—eyah! but mighty quare. I misdoubt how th' tu av yez will get along." He sighed deeply, muttering half to himself, "I may have tu take shteps—this time! . . ."
A rather ominous beginning, thought George. But, curbing his natural curiosity, he resolutely held his peace, awaiting more enlightenment. This not being forthcoming—his superior having relapsed once more into taciturn silence—he turned again to Yorke's exhibits with pondering interest. Sounding far-off and indistinct in the frosty stillness of the bleak foothills came the faint echoes of a coyote's shrill "ki-yip-yapping"—again and again, as if endeavouring to convey some insidious message. George continued to stare at the pictures. Gad! what a strange fantastic mind the man must have! he mused—what rotten, erratic desecration to shove pictures indiscriminately together like that! . . . Lack of space was no excuse. Millet's "Angelus," "Ally Sloper at the Derby," a splendid lithograph of "The Angel of Pity at the Well of Cawnpore," Lottie Collins, scantily attired, in her song and dance "Tara-ra-ra-boom-de-ay," Sir Frederick Leighton's "Wedded," a gruesome depiction of a Chinese execution at Canton, an old-fashioned engraving of that dashing, debonair cavalry officer, "Major Hodson," of Indian Mutiny fame, George Robey, as a nurse-maid, wheeling Little Tich in a perambulator, the grim, torture-lined face of Slatin Pasha, a ridiculously obscene picture entitled "Two coons scoffing oysters for a wager," that glorious edifice the "Taj Mahal" of India, and so on. "Divarsiment" indeed!
To this ill-assorted admixture three exceptions only were grouped with any sense of reason. The central picture was a beautifully coloured reproduction of Sir Hubert Herkomer's famous masterpiece "The Last Muster." Lovers of art subjects are doubtless familiar with this immortal painting. It depicts a pathetic congregation of old, white-haired, war-worn pensioners attending divine service in the chapel of Old Chelsea Hospital, with the variegated lights from the stained-glass windows flooding them with soft gentle colours. Flanking it on either side were portraits of the original founders of this historical institution in 1692—Charles II (The Merry Monarch) and his kindly-hearted "light o' love" Sweet Nell Gwynn of Old Drury.
With curiously mixed feelings George finally tore himself away from Yorke's pathetically grotesque attempt at wall-adornment. Strive as he would within his soul to ridicule, the pictures seemed somehow almost to shout at him with hidden meaning. As if a voice—a drunken voice, but gentlemanly withall—was hiccuping in his ear: "Paradise Lost, old man! (hic) Paradise Lost!"
And, mixed with it, came again out of the silence of the foothills the coyote's faintly persistent mocking wail—its "ki-yip-yap" sounding almost like "Bah! Yah! Baa!" . . . Some lines of an old quotation, picked up he knew not where, wandered into his mind—
Comedy, Tragedy, Laughter and Tears! Thou'rt rolled as one in the Dust of Years!
With a sigh he turned to his own cot and began to unpack and arrange his kit; in regulation fashion, and with such small faddy fixings customary to men inured to barrack life. Thus engaged the time passed rapidly. Later in the day he assisted the sergeant in making out the detachment's "monthly returns" and diary. This task accomplished, in the gathering dusk he attended "Evening Stables." There were two saddle-horses beside the previously-mentioned team. A splendid upstanding pair, George thought them. He was good with horses; possessing the faculty of handling them that springs only from a patient, kindly, instinctive love of animals.
"Nay! I dhrive mostly," Slavin was telling him, "buckboard an' team's away handier for a man av weight like meself. Eyah!" he sighed, "tho' time was whin I cud throw a leg over wid th' best av thim. Yorke—he gen'rally rides th' black, Parson, so ye'll take th' sorrel, Fox, for yeh pathrols. He's a good stayer, an' fast. Ye'll want tu watch him at mounthin' tho'—he's not a mane harse, but he has a quare thrick av turnin' sharp tu th' 'off'—just as ye go tu shwing up into th' saddle. Many's th' man he's whiraroo'd round wid wan fut in th' stirrup an' left pickin' up dollars off th' bald-headed.' Well! let's tu supper."
With the practised hand of an old cook he prepared a simple but hearty repast, upon which they fell with appetites keenly edged with the cold air.
"Are ye anythin' av a cuk?"
Redmond grinned deprecatingly and then shook his head.
"Eyah!" grumbled Slavin, "seems I cannot hilp bein' cuk an' shtandin' orderly-man around here. I thried out Yorkey. . . . Wan day on'y tho'—'tis th' divil's own cuk he is. 'Sarjint!' sez he, 'I'm no bowatchee'—which in Injia he tells me means same as cuk. An' he tould th' trute at that."
Some three hours later, as they lay on their cots, came to them the faint, far-off toot! toot! of an engine, through the keen atmosphere.
"That's Number Four from th' West," remarked Slavin drowsily, "Yorkey shud be along on ut. Well! a walk will not hurt th' man if—"
He chuntered something to himself.
Half an hour elapsed slowly—three quarters. Slavin rolled off his cot with a grunt and strode heavily to the front door, which he opened. Redmond silently followed him and together the two men stepped out into the crisply-crunching hard-packed snow. It was a magnificent night. High overhead in the star-studded sky shone a splendid full moon, its clear cold rays lighting up the white world around them with a sort of phosphorescent, scintillating brilliance.
Though not of a particularly sentimental temperament, the calm, peaceful, unearthly beauty of the scene moved George to murmur—half to himself:
"Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky, That dost not bite so nigh As benefits forgot, alas! As benefits forgot."
To his surprise came Slavin's soft brogue echoing the last lines of the old Shakespearian sonnet, with a sort of dreamy, gentle bitterness: "As binifits forghot—forghot!—as binifits forghot! . . . . Luk tu that now! eyah! 'tis th' trute, lad! . . . . for here—unless I am mistuk, comes me bould Yorkey—an' dhrunk as 'a fiddler's —— again. Tchkk! an' me on'y just afther warnin' um. . . ."
And, a far-away black spot as yet, down the moonlit, snow-banked trail, indistinctly they beheld an unsteady figure slowly weaving its way towards the detachment. At intervals the night-wind wafted to them snatches of song.
"Singin', singin'," muttered Slavin, "from break av morrn 'till jewy eve! . . . Misther B—— Yorke! luks 'tis goin' large y'are th' night."
Nearer and nearer approached the stumbling black figure, weaving an eccentric course in and out along the line of telephone poles; and, to their ears came the voice of one crying in the wilderness:—
"O, the Midnight Son! the Midnight Son! (hic) You needn't go trottin' to Norway— You'll find him in ev'ry doorway—"
A sudden cessation of the music, coupled with certain slightly indistinct, weird contortions of the vocalist's figure, apprised the watchers that a snow-bank had momentarily claimed him. Then, suddenly and saucily, as if without a break, the throbbing, high-pitched tenor piped up again—
"You'll behold him in his glory If you on'y take a run (hic) Down the Strand—that's the Land Of the Midnight Son."
Dewy eve indeed!—a far cry to the Strand! . . . How freakish sounded that old London variety stage ditty ridiculing the nightly silence of the great snow-bound Nor' West. Redmond could not refrain an explosive, snorting chuckle as he remarked the erratic gait of the slowly approaching pedestrian. As Slavin had opined, he was "going large." His vocal efforts had ceased temporarily, and now it was the junior constable's merriment that broke the frosty stillness of the night.
But Slavin did not laugh. Watchfully he waited there—curiously still, his head jutting forward loweringly from between his huge shoulders.
"Tchkk!" he clucked in gentle distaste—"In uniform . . . an' just afther comin' off the thrain! . . . th' like av that now 'tis—'tis scandh'lus! . . ."
Suddenly Redmond shivered, and his mirth died within him. The air seemed to have become charged with a tense, ominous something that filled him with a great dread—of what? he knew not. He felt an inexplicable impulse to cry out a warning to that ludicrous figure, whose crunching moccasins were now the only sounds that broke the uncanny stillness of the night. To him, the whole scene, bathed in the cold brilliance of its moonlit setting, seemed ghostly and unreal—a disturbing dream of comedy and tragedy, intermingled.
Inwards, between the telephone poles, the man came stumbling along, gradually drawing nigh to the motionless watchers. Halting momentarily, during his progress he made a quick stooping action at the base of one of the poles, as if with vague purpose, which action was remarked at least by Redmond.
Then, for the first time, he seemed to become aware of their presence, and making a pitiful attempt to dissemble his condition and assume a smart, erect military carriage he waved his riding-crop at them by way of salutation. Something in his action, its graceful, airy mockery, trivial though it was, impressed the gestures firmly in Redmond's mind. He became cognizant of a flushed, undeniably handsome face with reckless eyes and mocking lips; a slimly-built figure of a man of medium height, whose natural grace was barely concealed by the short regimental fur coat.
Halting unsteadily within the regulation three paces pending salute, he struck an attitude commonly affected by Mr. Sothern, in "Lord Dundreary," and jauntily twirled his crop, the while he declaimed:—
"Waltz me round again, Willie, Willie, Round and round and—"
"Round!" finished Slavin, with a horrible oath. There seemed something shockingly aboriginal—simian—in the swift, gorilla-like clutch of his huge dangling hands, as they fastened on the throat and shoulder of the drunken man and whirled him on his back in the snow—something deadly and menacing in his hard-breathing, soft-brogued invective:
"Yeh bloody nightingale! come off th' perch! . . . I'm fed up wid yeh!—I'll waltz yeh!—I'll tache yeh tu make a mock av Burke Slavin, time an' again! I'll—"
Redmond interposed, "Steady, Sergeant!" he implored shakily, his hand on his superior's shoulder, "For God's sake—"
But Slavin, in absent fashion, shoved him off. He seemed to put no effort in the movement, but the tense muscular impact of it sent Redmond reeling yards away.
"Giddap, Yorkey! God d——n ye for a dhrunken waster!—giddap! or I'll put th' boots tu yeh!" Terrible was the menace of the giant Irishman's face, his back-flung boot and his snarling, curiously low-pitched voice.
"No! not Burke, old man! . . . ah, don't!" gasped the rich tenor voice pleadingly from the snow—"ah, don't, Burke! . . . remember, remember . . . St. Agnes' Eve—
"St. Agnes' Eve. Ah! bitter chill it was, The—"
It broke—that throbbing voice with its strange, impassioned appeal. Far away over the snow the faint, silvery ring of a locomotive gong fell upon the ears of the trio almost like the deep, solemn tolling of bells.
Then slowly, and seemingly in pain, the prostrate man arose.
And yet! Redmond mused, sorry a figure as he cut just then, minus fur-cap and plastered with snow, alone with the shame which was his, he had an air, a certain dignity of mien, this man, Yorke, which stamped him far above the common run of men.
The junior constable, as he noted the dark hair, silvering and worn away at the temples, adjudged him to be somewhere between thirty and forty—thirty-five was his exact age as he ascertained later.
Now, with the air of a fallen angel, he stood there in the cold, snow-dazzling moonlight; his face registering silent resignation as to whatever else might befall him. The sergeant had stepped forward. Redmond looked on, in dazed apprehension. A solemn hush had fallen upon the strange scene, and stranger trio. Their figures flung weird, fantastic shadows across the diamond-sparkling snow-crust. George glanced at Slavin, and that individual's demeanor amazed him still further. The big man's face was transformed. There seemed something very terrible just then in the pathetic working of his rugged features, as if he were striving to allay some powerful inward emotion. Then huskily, but not unkindly—as perchance the father may have spoken to the prodigal son—came his soft brogue:
"Get yu tu bed, Yorkey! get yu tu bed, man! . . . an' thry me no more! . . . ."
Mutely, like a child, Yorke obeyed the order. Glancing at Redmond he turned and walked unsteadily into the detachment.
Perturbed and utterly mystified at the sordid drama he had witnessed, its amazing combination of brutality and pathos, George remained rooted to the spot as one in a dream. Instinctively though, he felt that this was not the first time of its enactment. Mechanically he watched the door close; then sounding far off and indistinct, Slavin's hoarse whisper in his ear brought him down to Mother Earth again with a vengeance:
"Did ye mark him stoop an' 'plant' th' 'hootch?'"
George nodded. "I wasn't quite wise to what he was at," he answered.
"Let us go get ut!" said Sergeant Slavin grimly, marching to the spot, "I will not have dhrink brought into th' detachment! . . . 'tis against ordhers."
He bent down, straightened up, and turning to Redmond who had joined him exhibited a bottle. He held it up to the light of the moon. It appeared to be about half empty. Extracting the cork, he smelt.
"'Tis whiskey," he murmured simply—much as Mr. Pickwick said: "It is punch." He made casual examination of the green and gold label. "'Burke's Oirish,' begob! . . . eyah! a brave ould uniform but"—he turned a moist eye on his subordinate—"a desp'ritly wounded souldier that wears ut—betther out av pain. 'Tis an' ould sayin': 'Whin ye meet th' divil du not turn tail but take um by th' harns.' . . . Bhoy! I thrust the honest face av yeh—I have tuk tu ye since th' handy lad ye showt yersilf with that team mix-up th' morn."
Redmond, mollified, grinned shiveringly. "I don't mind a snort, Sergeant," he said, "it's d——d cold out here. Beer's more in my line though. Salue!"
He took a swallow or two; the bottle changed hands.
"Eyah!" remarked Slavin sometime later—cuddling the bottle at the "port arms." "'Tis put th' kibosh on many a good man in th' ould Force has this same dhrink. Th' likes av Yorkey there"—he jerked his head at the lighted window—"shud never touch ut—never touch ut! . . . Cannot flirrt wid a bottle—'tis wedded they wud be tu ut. Now meself"—he paused impressively—"I can take me dhrink like a ginthleman—can take ut, or lave ut alone."
Absorptive demonstration followed. Came a long-drawn, smacking "Ah-hh!" "A sore thrial tu me is that same man," he resumed, "wan more break on his part, as ye have seen this night . . . an' I musht—I will take shteps wid um."
"Why don't you transfer him back to the Post?" queried George, wonderingly, mindful of how swiftly that disciplinary measure had rewarded his own reckless conduct at the Gleichen detachment. "He's got nothing on you, has he?"
"Fwhat?" . . . Slavin, turning like a flash, glared sharply at him out of deep-set scowling eyes, "Fwhat?"
Tonelessly, George repeated his query,
Slavin's glare gradually faded. "Eyah!" he affirmed presently, "he has! . . ." came a long pause—"but not as yu mane ut . . . oh! begorrah, no!" His eyes glittered dangerously and his wide mouth wreathed into an unholy grin, "'Tis a shmart man that iver puts ut over on me at th' Orderly-room. . . Fwhy du I not sind him into th' Post? . . . eyah! fwhy du I not? . . ."
Chin sunk on his huge chest, he mused awhile.
"Listen, bhoy!" A terrible earnestness crept into the soft voice. "I'll tell ye th' tale. . . . 'Twas up at th' Chilkoot Pass—in the gold rush av '98. . . . Together we was—Yorkey an' meself—stationed there undher ould Bobby Belcher. Wan night—Mother av God! will I iver forghet ut? Bitther cowld is th' Yukon, lad; th' like av ut yu' here in Alberta du not know. Afther tu crazy lost cheechacos we had been that day. We found thim—frozen. . . . A blizzard had shprung up, but we shtrapped th' stiffs on th' sled an' mushed ut oursilves tu save th' dogs.
"I am a big man, an' shtrong . . . . but Yorkey was th' betther man av us tu that night—havin less weight tu pack. I was all in—dhrowsy, an' wanted tu give up th' ghost an' shleep—an' shleep. . . . Nigh unto death I was. . . ."
The murmuring voice died away. A shudder ran through the great frame at the remembrance, while the hand clutching the bottle trembled violently. Unconsciously Redmond shook with him; for the horror Slavin was living over again just then enveloped his listener also.
"But Yorkey," he continued "wud not let me lie down. . . . God! how that man did put his fishts an' mucklucks tu me an' pushed an' shtaggered wid me' afther th' dogs, beggin' an' cursin' an' prayin' an' callin' me names that ud fairly make th' dead relations av a man rise up out av their graves. . . . Light-headed he got towards th' ind av th' thrail, poor chap! shoutin' dhrill-ordhers an' Injia naygur talk, an' singin' great songs an' chips av poethry—th' half av which I misremimber—excipt thim—thim wurrds he said this night. 'Shaint Agnus Eve,' he calls ut. Over an' over he kept repeathin' thim as he helped me shtaggerin' along. . . 'God!' cries he, betune cursin' me an' th' dogs an' singin' 'Shaint Agnus Eve'—'Oh, help us this night! let us live, God! . . . oh, let us live!—this poor bloody Oirishman an' me! . . .'"
The sergeant's head was thrown back now, gazing full at the evening star the moonbeams shining upon his upturned, powerful face. Cold as was the night Redmond could see glistening beads of sweat on his forehead. As one himself under the spell of the fear of death, the younger man silently watched that face—fascinated. It was calm now, with a great and kindly peace. Slowly the gentle voice took up the tale anew:
"We made ut, bhoy—th' Post—or nigh tu ut . . . in th' break av th' dawn. . . . For wan av th' dogs yapped an' they come out an' found us in th' snow. . . . Yorkey, wid his arrums round th' neck av me—as if he wud shtill dhrag me on . . . . an' cryin' upon th' mother that bore um. . . . Tu men—in damned bad shape—tu shtiffs . . . . an' but three dogs lift out av th' six-team we'd shtarted wid. . . . So—now ye know; lad! . . . Fwhat think ye? . . ."
What George thought was: "Greater love hath no man than this." What he said was: "He's an Englishman, isn't he?"
Slavin nodded. "Comes of a mighty good family tu, they say, but 'tis little he iwer cracks on himself 'bout thim. Years back he hild a commission in some cavalry reg'mint in Injia, but he got broke—over a woman, I fancy. He's knocked about th' wurrld quite a piece since thin. Eyah! he talks av some quare parts he's been in. Fwhat doin'? Lord knows. Been up an' down the ladder some in this outfit—sarjint one week—full buck private next. Yen know th' way these ginthlemin-rankers run amuck?"
"How does he get away with it every time?" queried Redmond. "Hasn't any civilian ever reported him to the old man?"
"Yes! wance—an' 'Father,' th' ould rapparee! he went for me baldheaded for not reporthin' ut tu."
With a sort of miserable heartiness Slavin cursed awhile at the recollection. "Toime an' again," he resumed, "have I taken my hands tu um—pleaded wid um, an' shielded um in many a dhirty scrape, an' ivry toime sez he, wid his ginthlemin's shmile: 'Burke! will ye thry an' overlook it, ould man?' . . . Eyah! he's mighty quare. For some rayson he seems tu hate th' idea av a third man bein' here, tho' th' man' wud die for me. Divil a man can I kape here, anyway. In fwhat fashion he puts th' wind up 'him, I do not know; they will not talk, out av pure kindness av heart an' rispict for meself, I guess. But—a few days here, an' bingo!—they apply for thransfer. Now ye know ivrythin', bhoy—fwhat I am up against, an' fwhy I will not 'can' Yorkey. Ye've a face that begets thrust—do not bethray ut, but thry an' hilp me. Bear wid Yorke as best ye can—divilmint an' all—for my sake, will yeh?"
Not devoid of a certain simple dignity was the grim, rugged face that turned appealingly to the younger man's in the light of the moon.
And Redmond, smiling inscrutably into the deep-set, glittering eyes, answered as simply: "I will, Sergeant!"
He declined an offer. "Nemoyah! (No) thanks, I've had enough."
For some unaccountable reason, Slavin smiled also. His huge clamping right hand crushed George's, while the left described an arc heavenwards. Came a throaty gurgle, a careless swing of the arm, and—
"Be lay loike a warrior takin' his rist, Wid his—
"I misrimimber th' tail-ind av ut," sighed Sergeant Slavin, "'Tis toime we turned in."
In silence they re-entered the detachment. Yorke, minus his moccasins, fur-coat and red-serge, lay stretched out upon his cot sleeping heavily, his flushed, reckless, high-bred face pillowed on one outflung arm. Above him, silent guardians of his rest, his grotesque mixture of prints gleamed duskily in the lamp-light.
Into Redmond's mind—sunk into a deep oblivion of dreamy, chaotic thought—came again Slavin's words:
"Shtudy thim picthures, bhoy! an', by an' large ye have th' man himsilf"
Soon, too, he slept; and into his fitful slumbers drifted a ridiculously disturbing dream. That of actually witnessing the terrible scene of the long-dead Indian Mutiny hero, Major Hodson, executing with his own hand the three princes of Oude.
Inshalla! it was done—there! there! against the cart, amidst the gorgeous setting of Indian sunset and gleaming minaret. "Deen! Deen! Futteh Mohammed!" came a dying scream upon the last shot—the smoking carbine was jerked back to the "recover"—a moment the scarlet-turbaned, scarlet-sashed English officer gazed with ruthless satisfaction at his treacherous victims then, turning sharply, faced him.
And lo! to Redmond it seemed that the stern, intolerant, recklessly-handsome countenance he looked upon bore a striking resemblance to the face of Yorke.
Burn'd Marmion's swarthy cheek like fire, And shook his very frame for ire, And—"This to me!" he said,— MARMION
Early on the morrow it came to pass that Sergeant Slavin, cooking breakfast for all hands, heard Yorke's voice uplifted in song, as that worthy made his leisurely toilet. He shot a slightly bilious glance at Redmond, who, "Morning Stables" finished, lounged nearby.
"Hear um?" he snorted enviously. "Singin'! singin'!—forever singin'!—eyah! sich nonsince, tu."
But, to George, who possessed a musical ear, the ringing tenor sounded rather airily and sweetly—
"Hark! hark! the lark at Heaven's Gate sings, And Phoebus 'gins arise, His steeds to water at those springs—"
"Fwhat yez know 'bout that?" Slavin forked viciously at the bacon he was frying. "Blarney my sowl! an' him not up for 'Shtables' at all! . . ."
"With ev'rything that pretty is:— My lady sweet, arise! arise! My lady sweet, arise!"
"My lady shweet!"—Slavin snorted unutterable things.
Yawning, the object of his remarks sauntered into the kitchen just then, and, deeming the occasion now to be a fitting one, the sergeant introduced his two subordinates to each other.
Yorke, with a bleak nod and handshake, swept the junior constable with a swiftly appraising glance. As frigidly was his salutation returned. Redmond remarked the regular features, suggestive rather of the ancient Norman type, the thin, curved, defiant nostrils and dark, arching eyebrows. The face, with its indefinable stamp of birth and breeding was handsome enough in its patrician mould, but marred somewhat by the lines of cynicism, or dissipation, round the sombre, reckless eyes and intolerant mouth. He had a cool, clear voice and a whimsical, devil-may-care sort of manner that was apparently natural to him, as was also a certain languid grace of movement. He possessed an irritating mannerism of continually elevating his chin and dilating his curved nostrils disdainfully in a sort of soundless sniff. Beyond a slight flush he showed little trace of his previous night's dissipation.
"Where do you hail from?" he enquired of George with casual interest over the mess-table later.
"Ontario," replied George laconically, "my people are farmers down there."
For a moment Yorke's arched brows lifted in puzzled surprise—came a repetition of his offensive sniffing mannerism; and he stared pointedly away again. It was difficult to be more insulting in dumb show.
George, mindful of his promise to Slavin, groaned inwardly. "I am going to hate this fellow" he thought.
The sergeant, from the head of the table, kept a keen watch upon the pair.
"An' fwhat?" came his soft brogue, by way of diversion, "an' fwhat made yu' take on th' Force?"
"Oh, I don't know!" Wearily, George shoved his hands deep into his pockets and leant back in his chair. "Old man's pretty well fixed—now. He's a member of the legislature for —— County. I was at McGill for some terms—medicine." A hopeless note crept into his tones. "I fell down on my exams . . . ran amuck with the wrong bunch an' all that—an'—an' . . . kind of made a mess of things I guess. . . . Went broke—came West. . . . That's why. . . ."
With a forlorn sort of forced grin he gazed back at his interlocutor. Yorke, unheeding the conversation, continued his breakfast as if he were alone.
"H-mm!" grunted Slavin, summing up the situation with native simplicity, "That's ut, eh?—but, for all ye have th' spache an' manners av a ginthleman—ranker somehow—somehow I misdoubt ye're a way-back waster like Misther Yorkey here!"
That hardened "ginthleman," absently sipping his coffee, flung a faintly-derisive, patient smile at his accuser. A perfect understanding seemed to exist between the two men. Redmond, musing upon the pathetically-sordid drama he had witnessed not so many hours since, relapsed into a reverie of speculation.
The silence was suddenly broken by the sharp trill of the telephone. Slavin arose lethargically from the mess-table and answered it.
"Hullo! yis! Slavin shpeakin'! Fwat?—all right Nick! I'll sind a man shortly an' vag um! So long! Oh, hold on, Nick! . . . May th' divil niver know ye're dead till ye're tu hours in Hivin! Fwhat?—Oh, thank yez! Same tu yez! Well! . . . so long!"
"Hobo worryin' Nick Lee at Cow Run. Scared av fire in th' livery-shtable. Go yu', Yorkey!" He eyed George a moment in curious speculation. "Yu' had betther go along tu, Ridmond! Exercise yez harse an'"—he lit his pipe noisily—"learn th' lay av th' thrails." He turned to the senior constable. "If ye can lay hould av th' J.P. there, get this shtiff committed an' let Ridmond take thrain wid um tu th' Post. Yu' return wid th' harses!"
"Why can't Redmond nip down there on a way-freight and do the whole thing?" said Yorke, a trifle sulkily. "It seems rot sending two men mounted for one blooming hobo."
"Eyah!" murmured Slavin with suspicious mildness, "'tis th' long toime since I have used me shtripes tu give men undher me wan ordher twice."
Yorke flashed a slightly apprehensive glance at his superior's face. Then, without another word, he reached for his side-arms, bridle, and fur-coat. He knew his man.
Redmond followed suit and they adjourned to the stable.
"I saw that beggar yesterday—on my way up," remarked George, ill-advisedly.
Yorke stared. "The hell you did! . . . why didn't you vag him then?" he retorted irritably.
Bursting with silent wrath at the "choke-off," with difficulty Redmond held his peace. In silence they saddled up and leading the horses out prepared to mount. Yorke swung up on the splendid, mettled black—"Parson." He had an ideal cavalry seat, and as with an easy grace he gently controlled his impatient horse, with an inscrutable, mask-like countenance he watched Redmond and the sorrel "Fox."
With toe in the leather-covered stirrup the latter reached for the saddle-horn. Poor George! fuming inwardly over one humiliation caused him shortly to be the recipient of another. Too late to his preoccupied mind came Slavin's warning of the day before.
Like a flash the sorrel whirled to the "off-side" and Redmond, swung off his balance, revolved into space and was pitched on his hands and knees in the snow. Fortunately his foot had slipped clear of the stirrup. In this somewhat ignominious position dizzily he heard Yorke's mocking tones:
"What are the odds on Fox, bookie? . . . I'd like a few of those dollars when you've quite finished picking them all up."
With an almost superhuman effort the young fellow controlled himself once more as he arose. Not lightly had he given a promise. Silently he dusted the snow from his uniform and strode over to where the sorrel awaited him. The horse had made no attempt to run away; apparently being an old hand at the game. It now stood eying its dupe, with Lord knows what mirth tickling its equine brain.
Slipping the "nigh" rein through the saddle-fork, then back to the cheek-strap again, George snubbed Fox's head towards him, making it impossible for the horse to whirl to the "off" as before. Warily and quietly he then swung into the saddle and the two men set off.
A few yards from the front of the detachment Yorke suddenly pulled up and, dismounting, felt around in the snow at the base of a well-remembered telephone-pole. It was Redmond's hour to jeer now, if he had been mindful to do so. But another usurped that privilege.
A queer choking sound made them both turn round. Slavin, his grim face registering unholy mirth, lounged in the doorway.
"Fwhat ye lukkin for, Yorkey?"
"Oh, nothing!" came that gentleman's answer.
"Ye'll find ut in th' bottle thin."
Insult was added to injury by the sergeant casually plucking that article from it's "rist" and chucking it over.
Yorke's face was a study. "Oh!" cried he dismally, "what wit! . . . give three rousing cheers!" . . . He mounted once more. "Well! there's no denying you are one hell of a sergeant!"
That worthy one grinned at him tolerantly. "Get yez gone!" he spat back, "an' du not linger tu play craps on th' thrail either—th' tu av yez!"
Long and grimly, with his bald head sunk between his huge shoulders, he gazed after the departing riders. "Eyah! 'tis best so!" he murmured softly, "a showdown—wid no ould shtiff av a non-com like meself tu butt in. . . . An', onless I am mistuk that same will come this very morn, from th' luks av things. . . . Sind th' young wan is as handy wid his dhooks as Brankley sez he is! . . . Thin—an' on'y thin will there be peace in th' fam'ly."
He re-lit his pipe and, shading his eyes from the snow-glare focussed them on two rapidly vanishing black specks. "I wud that I cud see ut!" he sighed, plaintively, "I wud that I cud see ut!"
It was a glorious day, sunny and clear, with the temperature sufficiently low to prevent the hard-packed snow from balling up the horses' feet. The trail ran fairly level along a lower shelf of the timber-lined foothills, which on their right hand sloped gradually to the banks of the Bow River in a series of rolling "downs." Sharply outlined against the blue ether the Sou' Western chain of the mighty "Rockies" reared their rosily-white peaks in all their morning glory—silent guardians of the winter landscape.
Deep down in his soul young Redmond harboured a silent, dreamy adoration for the beauty of such scenes as this. Under different conditions he would have enjoyed this ride immensely. But now—with his mind a seething bitter chaos consequent upon his companion's incomprehensible behavior towards him, he rode in a sort of brooding reverie. Yorke was equally morose. Not a word had fallen from their lips since they left the detachment.
Right under the horses' noses a big white jack-rabbit suddenly darted across the snow-banked ruts of the well-worn trail, pursuing its leaping erratic course towards a patch of brush on the river side. Simultaneously the animals shied, with an inward trend, cannoning their respective riders together. Yorke reined away sharply and glared.
"Get over'" he said curtly, "don't crowd me!"
He spoke as a Cossack hetman might to his sotnia, and, at his tone and attitude, something snapped within Redmond. To his already overflowing cup of resentment it was the last straw. His promise to Slavin he flung to the winds, and it was replaced with vindictive but cool purpose.
"Showdown!" he muttered under his breath, "I knew it had to come!" He was conscious of a feeling of vast relief. Aloud he responded, blithely and rudely, "Oh! to hell with you!"
Yorke checked his horse with a suddenness that brought the animal back onto its haunches. Sitting square and motionless in the saddle for a moment he stared at George with an expression almost of shocked amazement; then his face became convulsed with ruthless passion.
The junior constable had pulled up also, and now wheeling "half-left" and lolling lazily in his saddle with shortened leg stared back at his enemy with an expression there was no mistaking. His debonair young face had altered in an incredible fashion. Although his lips were pursed up with their whistling nonchalance his eyes had contracted beneath scowling brows into mere pin-points of steel and ice. He looked about as docile as a young lobo wolf—cornered.
"Ah!" murmured Yorke, noting the transformation; and he seemed to consider. He had seen that look on men's faces before. Insensibly, passion had vanished from his face; the bully had disappeared; and in his place there sat in saddle a cool, contemptuous gentleman.
"Are you talking back to me?" he said. He did not look astounded now—seemed rather to assume it.
Redmond's scowling brows lifted a fraction. "Talking back?" he echoed, "sure! Who the devil do you think you're trying to come 'the Tin Man' over?"
Reluctantly Yorke discounted his first impressions. Here was no self-conscious bravado. Warily he surveyed George for a moment—the cool appraising glance of the ring champion in his corner scanning his challenger—then, swinging out of the saddle, he dropped his lines and began to unbuckle his spurs.
There was no mistaking his actions. Redmond followed suit. A few seconds he looked dubiously at his horse, then back at Yorke.
"Oh, you needn't be scared of Fox beating it," remarked that gentleman a trifle wearily, "he'll stand as good as old Parson if you chuck his lines down."
Shading his eyes from the sun-glare he took a rapid survey of their surroundings, then led the way to a wind-swept patch of ground, more or less bare of snow. Arriving thither, as if by mutual consent they flung off caps, side-arms, fur-coats and stable-jackets. Yorke, a graceful, compactly-built figure of a man, sized up his slightly heavier opponent with an approving eye.
"You strip good" he said carelessly. "Well! what's it to be? . . . 'muck' or 'muffin'?"
"'Muffin' of course!" snapped Redmond angrily, "what d'ye take me for?—a 'rough-house meal ticket'?"
"All right!" said Yorke soothingly, "don't lose your temper!"
It may have been a shrewdly-calculated attempt to attain that end; and yet again it may have been only sheer mechanical habit that prompted him to stretch forth his hands in the customary salute of the ring.
With an inarticulate exclamation of rage the younger man struck the proffered hands aside and led with a straight left for the other's head. Yorke blocked it cleverly and fell into a clinch.
"Ah!" murmured Yorke in his antagonist's ear with a sinister smile, "rotten manners! for just that, my buck, I'll make you scoff 'muffin' 'till you're quite poorly!"
Working his arms cautiously, he sprang clear of the clinch, then, rushing his man and feinting for the ribs, he rocked Redmond's head back with two terrific left and right hooks to the jaw.