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Corporal Cameron

The railway construction had reached the Beaver, and from Laggan westward the construction gangs were strewn along the line in straggling camps, straggling because, though the tents of the railway men were set in orderly precision, the crowds of camp- followers spread themselves hither and thither in disorderly confusion around the outskirts of the camp.

To Cameron, who for a month had been attached to Superintendent Strong's division, the life was full of movement and colour.  The two constables and Sergeant Ferry found the duty of keeping order among the navvies, but more especially among the outlaw herd that lay in wait to fling themselves upon their monthly pay like wolves upon a kill, sufficiently arduous to fill to repletion the hours of the day and often of the night.

The hospital tent where the little nurse reigned supreme became to Cameron and to the Sergeant as well a place of refuge and relief. Nurse Haley was in charge further down the line.

The post had just come in and with it a letter for Constable Cameron.  It was from Inspector Dickson.

"You will be interested to know," it ran, "that when I returned from Stand Off two days ago I found that Little Thunder, who had been waiting here for his hanging next month, had escaped.  How, was a mystery to everybody; but when I learned that a stranger had been at the Fort and had called upon the Superintendent with a tale of horse-stealing, had asked to see Little Thunder and identified him as undoubtedly the thief, and had left that same day riding a particularly fine black broncho, I made a guess that we had been honoured by a visit from your friend Raven.  That guess was confirmed as correct by a little note which I found waiting me from this same gentleman explaining Little Thunder's absence as being due to Raven's unwillingness to see a man go to the gallows who had once saved his life, but conveying the assurance that the Indian was leaving the country for good and would trouble us no more.  The Superintendent, who seems to have been captured by your friend's charm of manner, does not appear to be unduly worried and holds the opinion that we are well rid of Little Thunder.  But I venture to hold a different opinion, namely, that we shall yet hear from that Indian brave before the winter is over.

"Things are quiet on the reservations--altogether too quiet.  The Indians are so exceptionally well behaved that there is no excuse for arresting any suspects, so White Horse, Rainy Cloud, those Piegan chaps, and the rest of them are allowed to wander about at will.  The country is full of Indian and half-breed runners and nightly pow-wows are the vogue everywhere.  Old Crowfoot, I am convinced, is playing a deep game and is simply waiting the fitting moment to strike.

"How is the little nurse?  Present my duty to her and to that other nurse over whom hangs so deep a mystery."

Cameron folded up his letter and imparted some of the news to the Sergeant.

"That old Crowfoot is a deep one, sure enough," said Sergeant Ferry. "It takes our Chief here to bring him to time.  Superintendent Strong has the distinction of being the only man that ever tamed old Crowfoot.  Have you never heard of it?  No? Well, of course, we don't talk about these things.  I was there though, and for cold iron nerve I never saw anything like it.  It was a bad half-breed," continued Sergeant Ferry, who, when he found a congenial and safe companion, loved to spin a yarn--"a bad half-breed who had been arrested away down the line, jumped off the train and got away to the Blackfeet.  The Commissioner happened to be in Calgary and asked the Superintendent himself to see about the capture of this desperado.  So with a couple of us mounted and another driving a buckboard we made for Chief Crowfoot's encampment.  It was a black night and raining a steady drizzle.  We lay on the edge of the camp for a couple of hours in the rain and then at early dawn we rode in. It took the Superintendent about two minutes to locate Crowfoot's tent, and, leaving us outside, he walked straight in.  There was our man, as large as life, in the place of honour beside old Crowfoot. The interpreter, who was scared to death, afterwards told me all about it.

"'I want this man,' said the Superintendent, hardly waiting to say good-day to the old Chief.

"Crowfoot was right up and ready for a fight.  The Superintendent, without ever letting go the half-breed's shoulder, set out the case.  Meantime the Indians had gathered in hundreds about the tent outside, all armed, and wild for blood, you bet.  I could hear the Superintendent making his statement.  All at once he stopped and out he came with his man by the collar, old Crowfoot after him in a fury, but afraid to give the signal of attack.  The Indians were keen to get at us, but the old Chief had his men in hand all right.

"'Don't think you will not get justice,' said the Superintendent. 'You come yourself and see.  Here's a pass for you on the railroad and for any three of your men.  But let me warn you that if one hair of my men is touched, it will be a bad day for you, Crowfoot, and for your band.'

"He bundled his man into the buckboard and sent him off.  The Superintendent and I waited on horseback in parley with old Crowfoot till the buckboard was over the hill.  Such a half hour I never expect to see again.  I felt like a man standing over an open keg of gunpowder with a lighted match.  Any moment a spark might fall, and then good-bye.  And it is this same nerve of his that holds down these camps along this line.  Here we are with twenty- five men from Laggan to Beaver keeping order among twenty-five hundred railroad navvies, not a bad lot, and twenty-five hundred others, the scum, the very devil's scum from across the line, and not a murder all these months.  Whiskey, of course, but all under cover.  I tell you, he's put the fear of death on all that tinhorn bunch that hang around these camps."

"There doesn't seem to be much trouble just now," remarked Cameron.

"Trouble?  There may be the biggest kind of trouble any day.  Some of these contractors are slow in their pay.  They expect men to wait a month or two.  That makes them mad and the tinhorn bunch keep stirring up trouble.  Might be a strike any time, and then look out.  But our Chief will be ready for them.  He won't stand any nonsense, you bet."

At this point in the Sergeant's rambling yarn the door was flung open and a man called breathlessly, "Man killed!"

"How is that?" cried the Sergeant, springing to buckle on his belt.

"An accident--car ran away--down the dump."

"They are altogether too flip with those cars," growled the Sergeant.  "Come on!"

They ran down the road and toward the railroad dump where they saw a crowd of men.  The Sergeant, followed by Cameron, pushed his way through and found a number of navvies frantically tearing at a pile of jagged blocks of rock under which could be seen a human body. It took only a few minutes to remove the rocks and to discover lying there a young man, a mere lad, from whose mangled and bleeding body the life appeared to have fled.

As they stood about him, a huge giant of a man came tearing his way through the crowd, pushing men to right and left.

"Let me see him," he cried, dropping on his knees.  "Oh Jack, lad, they have done for you this time."

As he spoke the boy opened his eyes, looked upon the face of his friend, smiled and lay still.  Then the Sergeant took command.

"Is the doctor back, does anyone know?"

"No, he's up the line yet.  He is coming in on number seven."

"Well, we must get this man to the hospital.  Here, you," he said, touching a man on the arm, "run and tell the nurse we are bringing a wounded man."

They improvised a stretcher and laid the mangled form upon it the blood streaming from wounds in his legs and trickling from his pallid lips.

"Here, two men are better than four.  Cameron, you take the head, and you," pointing to Jack's friend, "take his feet.  Steady now! I'll just go before.  This is a ghastly sight."

At the door of the hospital tent the little nurse met them, pale, but ready for service.

"Oh, my poor boy!" she cried, as she saw the white face.  "This way, Sergeant," she added, passing into a smaller tent at one side of the hospital.  "Oh, Mr. Cameron, is that you?  I am glad you are here."

"Has Nurse Haley come?" enquired the Sergeant.

"Yes, she came in last night, thank goodness.  Here, on this table, Sergeant.  Oh I wish the doctor were here!  Now we must lift him on to this stretcher.  Ah, here's Nurse Haley," she added in a relieved voice, and before Cameron was aware, a girl in a nurse's uniform stood by him and appeared quietly to take command.

"Here Sergeant," she said, "two men take his feet."  She put her arms under the boy's shoulder and gently and with apparent ease, assisted by the others, lifted him to the table.  "A little further--there.  Now you are easier, aren't you?" she said, smiling down into the lad's face.  Her voice was low and soft and full toned.

"Yes, thank you," said the boy, biting back his groans and with a pitiful attempt at a smile.

"You're fine now, Jack.  You'll soon be fixed up now," said his friend.

"Yes Pete, I'm all right, I know."

"Oh, I wish the doctor were here!" groaned the little nurse.

"What about a hypo?" enquired Nurse Haley quietly.

"Yes, yes, give him one."

Cameron's eyes followed the firm, swift-moving fingers as they deftly gave the hypodermic.

"Now we must get this bleeding stopped," she said.

"Get them all out, Sergeant, please," said the little nurse.  "One or two will do to help us.  You stay, Mr. Cameron."

At the mention of his name Nurse Haley, who had been busy preparing bandages, dropped them, turned, and for the first time looked Cameron in the face.

"Is it you?" she said softly, and gave him her hand, and, as more than once before, Cameron found himself suddenly forgetting all the world.  He was looking into her eyes, blue, deep, wonderful.

It was only for a single moment that his eyes held hers, but to him it seemed as if he had been in some far away land.  Without a single word of greeting he allowed her to withdraw her hand. Wonder, and something he could not understand, held him dumb.

For the next half hour he obeyed orders, moving as in a dream, assisting the nurses in their work; and in a dream he went away to his own quarters and thence out and over the dump and along the tote road that led through the straggling shacks and across the river into the forest beyond.  But of neither river nor forest was he aware.  Before his eyes there floated an illusive vision of masses of fluffy golden hair above a face of radiant purity, of deft fingers moving in swift and sure precision as they wound the white rolls of bandages round bloody and broken flesh, of two round capable arms whose lines suggested strength and beauty, of a firm knit, pliant body that moved with easy sinuous grace, of eyes--but ever at the eyes he paused, forgetting all else, till, recalling himself, he began again, striving to catch and hold that radiant, bewildering, illusive vision.  That was a sufficiently maddening process, but to relate that vision of radiant efficient strength and grace to the one he carried of the farmer's daughter with her dun-coloured straggling hair, her muddy complexion, her stupid face, her clumsy, grimy hands and heavy feet, her sloppy figure, was quite impossible.  After long and strenuous attempts he gave up the struggle.

"Mandy!" he exclaimed aloud to the forest trees.  "That Mandy! What's gone wrong with my eyes, or am I clean off my head?  I will go back," he said with sudden resolution, "and take another look."

Straight back he walked to the hospital, but at the door he paused. Why was he there?  He had no excuse to offer and without excuse he felt he could not enter.  He was acting like a fool.  He turned away and once more sought his quarters, disgusted with himself that he should be disturbed by the thought of Mandy Haley or that it should cause him a moment's embarrassment to walk into her presence with or without excuse, determinedly he set himself to regain his one-time attitude of mind toward the girl.  With little difficulty he recalled his sense of superiority, his kindly pity, his desire to protect her crude simplicity from those who might do her harm. With a vision of that Mandy before him, the drudge of the farm, the butt of Perkins' jokes, the object of pity for the neighbourhood, he could readily summon up all the feelings he had at one time considered it the correct and rather fine thing to cherish for her. But for this young nurse, so thoroughly furnished and fit, and so obviously able to care for herself, these feelings would not come. Indeed, it made him squirm to remember how in his farewell in the orchard he had held her hand in gentle pity for her foolish and all too evident infatuation for his exalted and superior self.  His groan of self-disgust he hastily merged into a cough, for the Sergeant had his eyes upon him.  Indeed, the Sergeant did not help his state of mind, for he persisted in executing a continuous fugue of ecstatic praise of Nurse Haley in various keys and tempos, her pluck, her cleverness, her skill, her patience, her jolly laugh, her voice, her eyes.  To her eyes the Sergeant ever kept harking back as to the main motif of his fugue, till Cameron would have dearly loved to chuck him and his fugue out of doors.

He was saved from deeds of desperate violence by a voice at the door.

"Letta fo' Mis Camelon!"

"Hello, Cameron!" exclaimed the Sergeant, handing him the note. "You're in luck."  There was no mistaking the jealousy in the Sergeant's voice.

"Oh, hang it!" said Cameron as he read the note.

"What's up?"


"Who?" enquired the Sergeant eagerly.

"Me.  I say, you go in my place."

The Sergeant swore at him frankly and earnestly.

"All right John," said Cameron rather ungraciously.

"You come?" enquired the Chinaman.

"Yes, I'll come."

"All lite!" said John, turning away with his message.

"Confound the thing!" growled Cameron.

"Oh come, you needn't put up any bluff with me, you know," said the Sergeant.

But Cameron made no reply.  He felt he was not ready for the interview before him.  He was distinctly conscious of a feeling of nervous embarrassment, which to a man of experience is disconcerting and annoying.  He could not make up his mind as to the attitude which it would be wise and proper for him to assume toward--ah-- Nurse Haley.  Why not resume relations at the point at which they were broken off in the orchard that September afternoon a year and a half ago?  Why not?  Mandy was apparently greatly changed, greatly improved.  Well, he was delighted at the improvement, and he would frankly let her see his pleasure and approval.  There was no need for embarrassment.  Pshaw!  Embarrassment?  He felt none.

And yet as he stood at the door of the nurses' tent he was disquieted to find himself nervously wondering what in thunder he should talk about.  As it turned out there was no cause for nervousness on this score.  The little nurse and the doctor--Nurse Haley being on duty--kept the stream of talk rippling and sparkling in an unbroken flow.  Whenever a pause did occur they began afresh with Cameron and his achievements, of which they strove to make him talk.  But they ever returned to their own work among the sick and wounded of the camps, and as often as they touched this theme the pivot of their talk became Nurse Haley, till Cameron began to suspect design and became wrathful.  They were talking at him and were taking a rise out of him.  He would show them their error. He at once became brilliant.

In the midst of his scintillation he abruptly paused and sat listening.  Through the tent walls came the sound of singing, low-toned, rich, penetrating.  He had no need to ask about that voice. In silence they looked at him and at each other.

     "We're going home, no more to roam,
        No more to sin and sorrow,
      No more to wear the brow of care,
        We're going home to-morrow.

     "We're going home; we're going home;
        We're going home to-morrow."

Softer and softer grew the music.  At last the voice fell silent. Then Nurse Haley appeared, radiant, fresh, and sweet as a clover field with the morning dew upon it, but with a light as of another world upon her face.

With the spell of her voice, of her eyes, of her radiant face upon him, Cameron's scintillation faded and snuffed out.  He felt like a boy at his first party and enraged at himself for so feeling.  How bright she was, how pure her face under the brown gold hair, how dainty the bloom upon her cheek, and that voice of hers, and the firm lithe body with curving lines of budding womanhood, grace in every curve and movement!  The Mandy of old faded from his mind. Have I seen you before?  And where?  And how long ago?  And what's happening to me?  With these questions he vexed his soul while he strove to keep track of the conversation between the three.

A call from the other tent summoned Nurse Haley.

"Let me go instead," cried the little nurse eagerly.  But, light-footed as a deer, Mandy was already gone.

When the tent flap had fallen behind her Cameron pushed back his plate, leaned forward upon the table and, looking the little nurse full in the face, said:

"Now, it's no use carrying this on.  What have you done to her?" And the little nurse laughed her brightest and most joyous laugh.

"What has she done to us, you mean."

"No.  Come now, take pity on a fellow.  I left her--well--you know what.  And now--how has this been accomplished?"

"Soul, my boy," said the doctor emphatically, "and the hairdresser and--"

But Cameron ignored him.

"Can you tell me?" he said to the nurse.

"Well, as a nurse, is she quite impossible?"

"Oh, spare me," pleaded Cameron.  "I acknowledge my sin and my folly is before me.  But tell me, how was this miracle wrought?"

"What do you mean exactly?  Specify."

"Oh, hang it!  Well, beginning at the top, there's her hair."

"Her hair?"


"Then, her complexion--her grace of form--her style--her manner. Oh, confound it!  Her hands--everything."

"Well," said the little nurse with deliberation, "let's begin at the top.  Her hair?  A hairdresser explains that.  Her complexion? A little treatment, massage, with some help from the doctor.  Her hands?  Again treatment and release from brutalising work.  Her figure?  Well, you know, that depends, though we don't acknowledge it always, to a certain extent on--well--things--and how you put them on."

"Nurse," said the doctor gravely, "you're all off.  The transformation is from within and is explained, as I have said, by one word--soul.  The soul has been set free, has been allowed to break through.  That is all.  Why, my dear fellow," continued the doctor with rising enthusiasm, "when that girl came to us we were in despair; and for three months she kept us there, pursuing us, hounding us with questions.  Never saw anything like it.  One telling was enough though.  Her eyes were everywhere, her ears open to every hint, but it was her soul, like a bird imprisoned and beating for the open air.  The explanation is, as I have said just now, soul--intense, flaming, unquenchable soul--and, I must say it, the dressmaker, the hairdresser, and the rest directed by our young friend here," pointing to the little nurse.  "Why, she had us all on the job.  We all became devotees of the Haley Cult."

"No," said the nurse, "it was herself."

"Isn't that what I have been telling you?" said the doctor impatiently.  "Soul--soul--soul!  A soul somehow on fire."

And with that Cameron had to be content.

Yes, a soul it was, at one time dormant and enwrapped within its coarse integument.  Now, touched into life by some divine fire, it had through its own subtle power transformed that coarse integument into its own pure gold.  What was that fire?  What divine touch had kindled it?  And, more important still, was that fire still aglow, or, having done its work, had it for lack of food flickered and died out?  With these questions Cameron vexed himself for many days, nor found an answer.

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