Authors: Guy Vanderhaeghe
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Westerns
But after a little reflection I realized that I had witnessed this madness before. Papers are papers, I suppose. I remember the days when the tone of our own respectable Canadian journals was every bit as frantic. The savage stalking the land then was the dipsomaniacal, ring-kissing, bony-shanked bogtrotter. Beware, the Irish Republican Army is massing on our border, a tribe of drunken pillagers and arsonists. Take heed, the secret society of Fenians in our midst is readying a massacre of Protestants that will make the gutters of Toronto and Montreal run with blood. The Irish in our customs service are passing on shipments of contraband arms and ammunition to their coconspirators. Priests are turning their churches into weapons depots; the sacristies are heaped with revolvers, rifles, and pikes. Come St. Patrick’s Day, Catholic graves will be opened and weapons retrieved from coffins for a dreadful day of murder and destruction; the countryside will be lit with burning barns and granaries.
A particle of truth feeds any panic. When I learned of D’Arcy McGee’s death at the hands of a Fenian gunman on Sparks Street, a byway so familiar to me that I could feel the cobblestones through the soles of my shoes as I read the column announcing his demise, the word
became real for me. And the invaders did come. I fought them. The bright brass
button of that young dead soldier still burns in my eyes. But for the rest, the nefarious priests, the plotting Irish hod-carriers? Ghosts of our invention, steam rising from overheated imaginations. Run a bayonet through steam, it passes blindly through a fog. Any flesh it strikes is likely to be innocent, any damage done, done to a bystander.
And while sitting in the graveyard on the hill, surrounded by revenants and wraiths, moodily gouging the sandy soil with the toe of my boot, another ghostly presence intruded. I sensed a stirring, a flickering against the trees on the hillside to my right. It froze me on my boulder; I strained to make it out. A trembling cloud of midges, a vague form drifting out of the forest shadows, swimming into the meagre moonlight, bit by bit knitting itself into a horse and rider.
A Sioux wolf, a scout? A horseshoe clinked against a stone, and I knew then whoever the man was, he was white. Another five-hundred-dollar-a-day dispatch rider bringing a warning from Fort Benton? Feeling my presence, the horse halted. Its startled whinny roused the man dozing in the saddle. Peering blindly up into the darkness, he called out, “Who’s there?”
There was a querulous confidence in his voice. The cemetery hill shielded Fort Walsh from his view so he had no reason to assume he was addressing a white man. I shouted down to him, “No need for alarm! I am with the Police!” and got to my feet to show myself.
There was no reply; he simply sat gazing up at me, immobile as an equestrian statue planted in a town square. I relit my candle and held it aloft to reveal myself. The night so calm the flame stood up like an exclamation mark.
Horse and rider crossed to the foot of the hill and began to leisurely negotiate the clumps of cactus and scrubby juniper that scatter the slope. Guided by my tiny beacon, the rider took his own sweet time, keeping me foolishly standing there. At last he jerked his horse to a stop before me, offered no word of greeting or acknowledgement, and again sat looking at me. The candle carved a closet of illumination, a space of uncomfortable intimacy out of the night. He remained absolutely still, lips frozen in a queer, dismissive smile. His dress was as odd as his manner. Nothing suitable for rough travel, a black derby squared on his head, a black frock coat, black trousers, a soiled white shirt, an equally filthy celluloid collar. A bank clerk cruising the wilds. But the body stuffed into those clothes was not the body of a pen driver; it was a block of solid flesh hammered into the notch of the saddle. Face cut square, jaw nearly as wide as the broad forehead, small, neat ears laid flat to the temples as if pinned there by tacks. The eyes, almost colourless, pale as rainwater in a pan, flat, depthless.
“My name is Case. Constable Wesley Case,” I said. His eyes slid away, a furtive movement, as if the name had pushed them off me and turned them to the whitewashed walls of the fort. Stupidly, I said, “You are at Fort Walsh.”
His head swivelled back to me. The mute found his voice and it was unequivocally rude. “Is Major Walsh back?”
“He returned several days ago. Do you bring a message to him?”
“Why would I have a message for Walsh?”
“Because most men with a scrap of common sense know better than to go traipsing about in the wilds putting their hair on offer to any Sioux warrior who happens along,” I said, irritably. “I presumed only important business would bring you here. And that would be business with Walsh.”
“Looking for a man name of Gobbler Johnson is my business. You know a fellow called Gobbler Johnson?”
“The name means nothing to me.”
“Well, maybe he found it convenient to trade that name for another. But he can’t lose a turnip-size goitre.” A huge fist went up, pressed itself to his throat. “That ring a bell?”
He shifted his weight in the saddle, causing the leather to gasp a complaint. “I guess I’ll have a look-see round here. Turn a few rocks over, see what’s under them.”
“If you’re looking to make trouble with this Gobbler Johnson – think twice. Major Walsh knows how to deal with mischief-makers. Fair warning,” I said.
“Fair warning,” he repeated. “Don’t concern yourself on account of me. I’m mild as milk.”
“Maybe, but give me your name. For Walsh.”
“That’s very policeman-like of you.” He ran his pale eyes up and down me. Then he said, “Michael Anthony Sebastian Dunne.” He pointed to the journal that hung forgotten in my hand. “Last name ends in an e. Maybe you’d like to write it down for the Major.”
“I’ll remember.” I blew out the candle and went to step around his horse. Dunne pulled his foot from the stirrup and thrust out his leg, barring my way.
“Put your damn leg down,” I said.
He eased his boot back into the stirrup. “I do hope Major Walsh found relief for the St. Anthony’s fire in those hot springs down in Arkansas. I hear it’s a most plaguing condition. What he’s facing, he’ll need to be fit as a fiddle.”
“The state of his erysipelas is no concern of yours.”
“Sundays we pray for the health of the Queen. And Walsh is as good as a prince in these parts. Ain’t it natural to ask?”
I tapped the insignia of rank on my sleeve. “Walsh does not confide personal information to a mere sub-constable.”
“Oh, I don’t think you’re no mere constable, Wesley Case. Far from it.”
His impudence was irksome. “Do you pretend to know me, sir?” I said.
Dunne looked past me down to the settlement’s wan lights. He remarked, “Somebody in Fort Benton give me the name of a fellow who rents beds hereabouts. It just went and lost itself. Maybe you know it.”
“Claggett,” I said.
He nodded. “That’s it.”
“I put you a question, Dunne. I want an answer. Do you pretend to know me?”
Gravely, he shook his head from side to side. It was like watching a boulder teeter. “No, I don’t know you from Adam,” he replied, giving a twitch to the reins. His horse gave a crow hop of surprise, brushed my shoulder with its flank, and broke into a shambling trot. I watched Dunne roll down the hill, broad shoulders tossing about like the gunwales of a barge in a heavy sea. Then horse and rider dissolved back into the liquid blackness from which they had emerged.
Midnight has come and gone hours ago. I have missed lights out and there will be hell to pay for it. Sergeant Major Francis will have me back on punishment detail. A small price to pay for a night of privacy. I write at a table in the back of the Billiard Emporium, which Mr. Halston Turncliffe has frugally outfitted with Fort Benton castoffs, two pool tables with cracked slate beds, and cues crooked as a dog’s hind leg. At my back are three shelves of tattered books and newspapers. For a one-penny fee, two-month-old copies of the
Illustrated London News
, and slightly newer editions of the
, can be rented. For books, Mr. Turncliffe charges a nickel a day: blood-and-thunders that offer a corpse every chapter, higher literature for the higher minded, a spine-cracked, dog-eared miscellany that includes Carlyle’s
History of the French Revolution
, the collected works of Sir Walter Scott (minus
Rob Roy, Ivanhoe
, and seven or eight Dickens novels.
Tonight, I play scholar in the Bodleian of the Cypress Hills. About eleven, when the last of the billiard players left, Mr. Turncliffe threatened to evict me, but relented and provided me with a coal-oil lamp and pen and ink when I waved two bits under his nose, enough to send him happy to his bed in the backroom.
“You might think of keeping notes,” I remember Father saying to me at the Ottawa train station when he sent me off to the Police. We were wrapped in a cloud of locomotive smoke and cinders. “Adventures in the West and so on. More than one man has done well from a thing like that. It could get your name about, even if it’s only a pamphlet for distribution on the hustings. Something patriotic, with mustard in it. That would set you apart from the average pol.”
Both parents demanding I produce an account of my life. One, so I might find myself. The other, so I might find fame, the brightest currency in politics. Mother suggested a few lines; Father a pamphlet. Now that I have begun to spill, I wonder where it will stop.
WALSH’S RECENT RETURN
has put B Troop on its mettle. By night, the men diligently thumb the
Regulations for the Instruction, Formations and Movements of the Cavalryand the Instructions for the Sword, Carbine, Pistol, and Lance Exercise; by day, they execute the prescribed drills under the watchful eye of officers. The Major wants them ready to fight. Today, as midday approaches, two seven-pound mountain cannons and their gun teams wait for the artillery instructor Standish’s command to go into action. The horses stamp, toss their heads, lash their tails, their trace chains jingling. Standish bellows, the drivers whistle, slap reins down hard on rumps, the guns surge forward, wheel spokes blurring, dust boiling, caissons bouncing, cannon barrels wagging as Standish roars above the din, “Look lively, you damned unwashed limbs of Satan! Turn them bloody horses! Bring them guns about, hard!” The gun carriages cut a savage arc, the barrels swinging round on target, a distant hill beyond the thin silver thread of Battle Creek. The drivers haul back on reins, the caissons skid to a stop, gunners scramble down from the boxes to unhook and sight the artillery. But they do not fire. Ammunition is in short supply. Every precious round is being held in reserve because it may be needed if the Sioux come.
The drumming of hooves, the clatter of gun carriages ended, a long-drawn-out cry of “Timber!” is heard from a nearby hill, followed by a resounding crash, a fusillade of cracking and popping branches. Chaff and dust puff from the trees like breath on a winter morning. A black murder of crows hoarsely caws, scolding the wood gang threatening their nests.
Case is hard at work just outside the palisades, digging a latrine trench. The Sergeant Major was not satisfied he was suffering enough under his first punishment detail, infirmary duty. At present there are only five bedridden, haphazardly diagnosed by Surgeon Kittson as if he were dealing cards from a deck: one malaria case, three beaver fever, one bloody flux. The infirmary may be hot as an oven and pullulating with bluebottles the size of hummingbirds, but for two days Case had scoured shit-spattered bedpans, changed sweat-soaked sheets, cooled brows, dispensed barley water, beef tea, and the surgeon’s favourite specific, Perry Davis Vegetable Pain Killer, with such cheerful alacrity that the Sergeant Major took it as a sign of calculated insubordination. Sergeant Major Francis is British Regular Army, retired from the 13th Light Dragoons, and even Walsh is a little in awe of a veteran of the Charge of the Light Brigade, one of the foolhardy immortalized in verse by Lord Tennyson, a poem so famous that a handful of sub-constables have actually read it. As the men say, even the Sergeant Major’s old pecker springs to attention when he salutes.
Francis has harboured a grievance against Case since the day he learned he had refused a commission, an insult to the Queen and the service. So it came as no surprise to the Sergeant Major to learn that Case had managed to get himself bought out of the force, and he means to carve his pound of flesh out of the whingeing coward while he still has time to do it. This morning he pulled Case off orderly duty and put him on hard labour “excavating a sanitary convenience,” a latrine trench a dozen yards long and eight feet deep. Case has been warned that if he dawdles or shirks, he will get a week in the lock-up and if that sentence extends beyond the remainder of his term of service, tough titty for him.
Stripped to the waist, Case streams sweat under the yellow glaring eye of the sun. Each swing of the pick bites away a tiny chip of earth; he may as well be digging up a cobbled street. Every half-hour he scrapes up these shards with a spade, flings them up on a mound beside the trench. An iron hoop of pain tightens around his kidneys. Heauses, wipes stinging eyes with a forearm, flexes blistered hands as he watches two officers listlessly knocking a tennis ball back and forth over a drooping net. They play with all the enthusiasm of convicts breaking stones. But Major Walsh, in his youth a celebrated rugby player, cricketer, canoeist, and boxer, is a great man for the games; like Wellington, he believes they prepare men for the battlefield. The Major limed the tennis court himself, and his junior officers know he takes favourable note of those who use it.
Case returns to work. The rhythmic thud of the pick, the whistle of his breath fills his ears. A shadow falls on him, and he looks up to see the Sergeant Major scowling down at him from the lip of the trench, legs planted wide, arms akimbo. “You call that a proper hole?” he barks. “I’ve known whores with bigger ones than that.”