The Man Who Went Back for More
GORDON PARK STIRRETT
Is a man ever beaten who will not admit it though face to face with death? Read this powerful story before you decide
THIS little tale may be added to the Odyssey of Canadian Railroaders. Tle second principal actor in the piece is far out on a homestead on the McLeod River, a few hundred miles from Edmonton, contentedly bringing up a pioneer family, and if you were to suggest that he suffers any regret or twinge of conscience from his actions he would not understand your point of view.
OLD” NEIL, as you knew him, came from Cape Breton, where a child had to be hearty to survive. Whether their extra splendid physique was a heritage from their Highland race, or was the result of their early struggle for a living, or followed from their whisky drinking in after life, is debatable, but it might have been a combination of all these intense influences that produced in “The Island” a breed of men unbeatable in America for stamina and courage. Boys and men learned to fight and “rassie” and practised at it, not from any quarrelsome or pugnacious frame of mind, but rather as an art, a pastime or an amusement, as less primitive males compete at tennis, baseball or lacrosse.
“Old” Neil, “Young”
Neil then, came around the North shore of Lake Superior with Isbister when he was building the C.P.R. in the days when a hardrock foreman was a real man. And then he was with Dan Mann in the West in the early railroad struggles. We always suspected that Dan Mann had a soft place in his heart for Neil on account of the early days; anyway, somebody always saw to it that Neil had a nice contract whenever there was work on the C.N.—though at that, Neil was a satisfactory subcontractor who knew how to build grade cheaply, and Dan may have mixed sentiment with good business, a habit of his,
NEIL was just back from Winnipeg from the usual Homeric spree that marked his visits to town—had just come back to camp on the Rainy River work where he had a five mile contract. There was a ten day space after a spree, when all the spleen and ugliness of his nature were on top, and his likeable qualities were well hidden. A young French lad, a well set up, dark, goodlooking boy of about twenty-two, was in the camp office buying a package of tobacco in a red and yellow bag. “How much dat ees?” fumbling in his pocket for his
"Fifty cents,” said Joe, the timekeeper.
“Qu'est ce que c'est—what’s dat? Feefty cents? Dat'â too much for one leetle sac hof dat tobac.”
“If you don’t like the price don’t—” began Joe, in a bored voice.
“Feefty cents,” went on Le Blanc, and holding the bag up high where he could see it and laugh at it. “Feefty cents for leetle you—she’s not wort no feefty cents, oui, she’s not wort dat. Maybe you doan know day price in all day camps, hein? She’s thairty-five cents.”
“She’s fifty cents here,” said Joe.
NEIL had been sitting sullenly on the edge of Joe’s bunk in behind the counter, and now he strode out in front of it towards the door which he opened and flung wide, without warning, trapping Le Blanc in between the heavy door and the counter, and then putting his back to the other side of the door frame he jammed the door with his foot into the unfortunate Frenchman. All this without a word, then going around the door, he grabbed Le Blanc by the neck of his shirt, hauled him out into the office, shoved him still struggling out of the door and delivered a well-timed kick at the departing figure.
“Come in here raising Hell about the price of tobacco, will you? No, you won’t,” and went outside after the ejected lad, now just recovering his wits. A stream of
good Quebec oaths and epithets greeted him and they fought. The youngster fought well, but never had a chance, and then, well whipped, he heard Neil say:
“Make out his time and put him down the trail. He ain’t goin’ to stay in my camp to-night,” and Neil subsided in his bunk, part of his liver having been worked off.
Le Blanc went “down the trail” badly battered, within an hour—it wasn’t healthy to stay around there, but he swore by the Holy Acre in Ville Marie that some time he’d whip “dat man.”
NEIL was built true tö type—just six feet in his socks and all in proportion, but with a slight stoop to his shoulders, and a heavy slow appearance—very deceptive, that slow appearance, because any good man from, say, Bruce County or Pembroke, where pride goes with fighting courage, would be confidently inclined, the first time to take on Neil if the occasion demanded, but not the second time. Neil was not slow in action.
Pretty soon, in two years, steel was laid on the rickety Rainy River line, and Neil was out on the prairie with a team outfit. Here was his metier; no more hard rock for him. Given a hundred and fifty teams, and the tough skinners to drive them, Neil could build railroad grade, and out west of Portage his snatchteams were filling up the wheel-scrapers to the brim.
Neil, from the side of a cut, watched the regular precision of his teams, loading, hauling out and dumping, loading, hauling out and dumping, and then, purposely, strode down into the cut, stopped a team of bays and turned to their skinner.
“I know you! What are you doing on my work—getting a job when I wasn’t around?”
That was all.
“I’ve come on your camp, you beeg black Neil, for gave you de beeg fight!” returned a nervous Le Blanc, and
backed up his words by a rush that nearly bowled over the big Highlander.
“Ugh," he grunted, and then fought.
'T'HERE were no rules, except get your man without weapons; the little active tiger versus the grizzly bear. The work stopped; all hands came on the run, and there in the natural theatre of the railroad cut, with an audience on either bank, they fought. Le Blanc, the tiger, never had a chance. Battered and bruised he lay there.
“Put somebody to drive his team and make out his time, and put him down the trail,” Neil said, then, turning to Le Blanc, “Don’t you ever come near me again, Pea-soup, if you want to live.”
And Neil, “Old Neil” by now, kept on building prairie railroads through Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta; kept on going into Winnipeg about three times a year, where big men like himself met at the Clarendon, and a week of man’s size jovial drinking would end with a grouch, and Neil’s camp would again have the doubtful pleasure of his company. After a week or so he was better. Men liked him well enough—his foremen and timekeepers liked him enough to keep on working for him when there were plenty of other good jobs to go to. He wasn’t a bad sort, quiet and strong, and never bragged. If he said he would do a thing, he did it; that was the unalterable rule with Neil, and he sometimes emphasized that point—his determination and dependability. Once, earlier he had decided to cut six miles off a trip, up North of Kenora, by cutting across Lac Seul. It was late in December and even the shore ice wasn’t any too good—besides, it was covered with a foot or so of slush snow; you couldn’t tell much what the ice was like. Somebody told him he had) better go around.
“I said I’d go across the lake,” said Neil McNeil, and! he went across on snow shoes. People often told that story about him.
UP NEAR Dauphin, three years after his Portage contract, he was riding in from his camp to the end of steel and he met a string of his freight waggons headed by his barn-boss. He drew up on the side of the trail, nodded to the barn-boss and took no appárent notice of the first three freighters to pass him; but he was down out of his buckboard, to stop the fourth team, and then grimly addressed its driver.
“You’ve come for another licking?”
There was no nervousness in the answer, only a sweet smile.
“Well, de good luck she’s wit’ me, kein? Now I doan got to went so damn long,” and Le Blanc was there with a rush.
The barn boss came back and wanted to interfere, but didn’t dare. The other teamsters crowded up and saw a good fight.
“Ugh,” grunted Neil, that was all.
“This time you get leeking!”
That was all, and they fought for half an hour. Le Blanc was older now and stronger and more confident than on previous occasions, but it was not to be for him. Generations of red and black-haired fighting men had given their Cape Breton scion a strength and skill that would not be denied.
“You drive his team into camp yourself,” Neil told the barn-boss, and turning again to a bloody-faced Le Blanc, “You get back down the trail. Pea-soup, I’ll probably kill you next time.”
Then he drove on to the end of steel leaving Le Blanc to limp on into the wilderness. Even the bitterness in his
heart could not hide from that optimist the hopelessness of his task of getting even with Neil McNeil.
“I go way dis time, maybe I come back, sais pas.”
FOR eight years Neil wandered about the big prairie west, going from job to job; making much money from some of his contracts, losing money sometimes, but always at work except in winter. His job finished at one place, he loaded up his slips and scrapers, fresnos and plows, cook tent and kitchen, living tents and blacksmith shop, water tank and big stable tent with the iron poles; loaded them all on the wagons, chained two-wheel scrapers on behind each load, hooked in a “four-up” in front and trekked off to a new job, for these were the halcyon days of the grader, and the appetite of the growing infant prairie provinces for main lines and branches seemed insatiable. But always old Neil took his regular trips to Winnipeg where he foregathered with his equals and scandalized the citizens, who by virtue of the phenomenal growth of their city were now self-important and more easily shocked than in earlier years. He spent his winters back in Cape Breton on a farm that he had bought for his old age.
AND Le Blanc wandered about in another non-conflicting path—becoming a character, too, to the men in the grading camps. The story of his fighting with Neil had spread about, and as one jocular timekeeper said, “Here is old ‘Greedy’ Le Blanc; he always goes back for more,” and the name stuck. “Greedy ” Le Blanc he was, at first to his face, and afterwards behind his back, for the allusion stung the sensitive spot in him and brought back the raw hatred and the humiliation he had endured, and if men supposed that the Le Blanc morale was injured by his defeats, most of them were converted to another way of thinking, for Le Blanc flipped a nasty right and left and had a tricky wrestling rough-ar.d-tumble hold and his courage bred within him.
At the end of eight years he was foreman in a mine, out in the Brazeau. Then the mine shut down. Work was scarce that year, but Le Blanc had saved some money, and when the super, asked him where he was going to hit for,
Le Blanc mused a while and told him.
“By Jeems! mebbe now I go for hunt my ole fren Neil. I pay heem l’addition—I doan forgot, but dis time I use de head like de han’ and foot—what for I got de head, hein? I teenk I go for see de ole fren.”
FT WAS late in the fall; frost was beginning *■ to harden up the prairie, and the grading outfits on the Eagle Lake branch were breaking camp and coming into Naseby. Old Neil’s contract was about six miles out with two weeks work left. Every night his teams kept plowing up the bottoms of the cuts and the borrow pits to prevent the dirt from freezing by morning. The old boy himself had been two days in town—still the same quiet rugged man with no trace of time on or in him—been two days in town, drinking moderately. There was quite a crowd of contractors at the wooden Windsor Hotel—the two McMillans, the two Murdocks, Ring Wiley, Pete Larson and others, idling about. They mostly occupied one end of the bar in a sedate fashion; the time for real drinking was not yet upon them.
That morning Neil announced, “I’m going back to camp about four o’clock—I’ve got my buckboard here.”
The morning had been a dull, heavy one, full of frost, with a whistling wind that drove the idlers about the big wood stove in the lobby of the Windsor. The cold grey threat grew in the sky, and about noon time a few tiny flecks of snow pecked at the faces of pedestrians.
“You better stay in to-night, Neil; she might be in a bad night,” said the younger Murdock.
“I’m going out to camp at four o’clock,” replied Neil.
TN A quiet corner of the lobby, with his cap *■ brim shading his face, Le Blanc watched and studied Neil as he slouched in an armchair. Now, close to the man who had humbled him, his smouldering anger re-kindled and a dark, passionate look of anger was on his face.
Quickly he rose and went out, his mind apparently made up. He would meet his foe out somewhere on the trail alone. All the old indignity and wrong that he had suffered welled up within him to strengthen his arm and call for revenge. Neil was still^a big strong
man—still in his prime. It would be a fair fight. He sniffed the wintry air of Naseby’s board-walked main street, took in the warning of the angry sky, halted and said to himself, as he would have told you:
“By Jeems! what for, Le Blanc, you doan use de head?”
Over at the boarding stable he found the driver of Neil’s buckboard.
“De ole man, hees send me ovaire for tol’ you hees stay on de town. Y ou tak’ de team back to camp an’ come back Sunday.”
“Say, I got to see old Neil before I go. Where is he?” “Hees up by de Win’sor Hotel, but I’ve tol’ you, you better not go for see heem now. Hees beat you out. Hee’s mad and mak de beeg fight.”
The driver knew his boss, so Le Blanc’s argument carried, and presently the buckboard rolled out of town, the driver and the team anxious to make their stable before dark.
AT FOUR o’clock, the first murk of the wintry prairie night was coming on Naseby. The rising wind carried small, very small, sharp bullets of snow, when Neil McNeil came to the livery stable and discovered his team’s absence. The explanation from the proprietor was strange, but he convinced Neil that it was true. Neil hesitated. There was no other team available, for it was only a boarding stable. Would he go back to the hotel? Then he remembered his voiced resolve to go back to camp. All right, he’d go ; it was only six miles and he could walk it in two hours on the trail. As he paused to look up at the sky, along came Le Blanc.
“I guess you doan go to camp to-night, Neil, hein?” Eight years had passed, yet something in the voice stirred up old antagonisms, though he couldn’t identify the speaker, clothed in a big sheepskin coat and high collar. “What you want to know for?”
But the other had passed on without reply, exulting to himself. He had used “de head.” Old Neil would walk out—and clothed in his big Mackinaw coat and felt shoes, his Mackinaw pants tucked into the tops of his socks, old Neil did .start. Le Blanc watched him out in the road, and then followed some five hundred yards behind. The love of combat was in Le Blanc’s heart as he stalked his prey. He’d show dat beeg black Neil—somewhere out on the trail he’d catch up with him and they would fight all alone. If there had been a buckboard there might have been a third person present; now there would be just the two of them, and he ground his teeth and twitched his shoulders as he mentally sent home the blows, and strained the body of his enemy. More than a dozen years of insult and ignominy from this man would, be wiped out.
OUT of town they went, the few straggling unpainted houses on the outskirts giving way completely to bald prairie; gently rolling prairie, brown and hard, no trace of green on its broad bosom. Brown, burnt, frozen sparse grass, a few inches high, bowed before the wind. The.wind was rising, coming out of the northern gloom, carrying larger and larger specks of hard, icy snow that bounced off the jackets and stung the faces of the two travelers. More snow came with the darkness. Before a mile was gone LeBlanc had to cut down the distance between them to keep his man in sight. Swiftly came the night, borne on the wings of the storm. Larger flakes of snow fell, rapidly whitening the ground; little drifts gathered in the ruts of the trail.
The man ahead bowed his big body to the storm and plowed, his determined way along, looking neither to the right nor left, nor behind, the pursuer coming closer and closer to keep in touch with him; and then deep darkness all at once, and a whirlwind of snow, heralded by an unearthly shriek of the wind that seemed to exult in its message of warning to an impotent, cowering prairie and its people. “Let all living things beware,” shrieked the wind, and before its shrillness had abated, down came the real snow—whirling, dancing madly up and down, round and round, veering off to all points of the compass and closing in again—buffeting, whipping, pommeling everything in its way, and the bitter cold of the waste North swept down and enveloped the prairie, searching for the heart of all life.
Pursuer and pursued were swallowed up in darkness—the black blur that had been Neil McNeil was lost to view, and Le Blanc plunged on in panic lest at last Fate should deny this chance of his making; plunged on blindly into the storm, but could not find his man.
Rapidly the trail drifted over, the snow deepened, the cold gloom grew thicker and Le Blanc knew he was lost—lost in the storm. Cursing his luck, yet angrier more at the loss of his prey than at his own danger, he decided to try back to town.
AN HOUR passed. He had put the wind at his back as well as he could because it kept him on the right return direction—but he hadn’t come on any town. He must have crossed the railroad if he had come the right direction. Then an other hour at right angles tq the wind; he passed nothing in all that desolate bleakness that would even be half a shelter. The cold was biting in further and further to his heart—the spring was out of his legs— he must keep on walking till daylight, or until shelter was accidentally reached. Taking a grip on himself, he methodically eased his movements—shortened his steps, getting the maximum of movement for a minimum of effort. He wasn’t going anywhere nowjust going to keep on moving, so why hurry and waste his strength? “Dat’s right,” he would have told you, “now, Le Blanc, you use de head.”
For some minutes he had been dimly conscious of a thicker black blur in the inky darkness of the night; it seemed to keep pace with him—was it imagination?-—a horse or a cow? That would mean shelter, maybe. He started off toward it. Yes, it was moving— was it a horse? And then suddenly up close, and unperceived himself, he saw that it was another man covered with a fur of sncw that
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made him look big and unwieldy in the darkness; it reminded Le Blanc of a snow man down in Quebec when he was a boy, and he wanted to laugh at it.
“Hello dair!” he bellowed, and from a distance of a few feet the figure turned to him, and out of the clothes came the hated voice of Neil McNeil. “Hello,” it said.
Amazement held Le Blanc speechless in his tracks. Silently he peered at his foe.
“Do you know where we are?” said the voice.
“ Non," replied Le Blanc.
“Then we are damn-well lost,” grunted the voice in deep tones.
AND suddenly content was the portion ■ of Joe Le Blanc. Things were shaping out well for him truly; here was a contest with Neil McNeil! It was doubtful if either of them would escape the night— probably be frozen to death unless luck was with them. They both knew that. But to be the last to give in; to keep up when the other sank from exhaustion, and then to kneel down and yell in his ear: “All right, beeg black Neil, who is de bes’ man after all? You lie down here and you you goan die, oui, and me, Le Blanc, I’m goan live, hein? I’m the inore strongair, me, Le Blanc, I’m de bes man, / ein? You remember dat—de last ting you know in dis worl’—you ees licked by Le Blanc.” It didn’t matter in the least what happened after—he himself might sink exhausted, but he would have had his revenge. Le Blanc was thrilled.
“You know me, beeg black Neil? Me, I’m Joe Le Blanc!” He came up closer.
A disdainful reply from the snow man, “Sure! I remember you now. You’re ‘Greedy’ Le Blanc. Come out here for another licking, Pea-soup?” he roared.
“Not to-night, beeg black Neil. I doan fight you like before—you’re goan freeze on de prairie to-night.”
“Who’s goin’ to freeze? Shut up, Peasoup! Go on about your business. I’ll go on mine. I don’t want you around.”
“Not me—oh, no, not me! I’m goan stay an’ watch you freeze,” and he retreated into the gloom.
SO THE strange wandering began again. Old Neil, conserving his strength and not even cursing in his anger at Le Blanc, slowly trudged through the darkness over the whitened cold waste, his back to the wind, going he knew not where; just keeping from freezing or sleeping until daylight, twelve hours ahead, or the almost unbelievable luck of stumbling on the town, or the railroad track, with Le Blanc following carefully not to get in the clutches of Neil and spoil this contest by foolish fighting— yet following close enough to track him through the snow—following like a malignant shadow.
On they went, the drifts deepening with every minute, the wind howling with renewed fury. Once they struck a fence and Neil carefully followed it around a field to find a gate and a trail leading somewhere—maybe to a haystack where
shelter could be had by burrowing into the hay. He found the gap, carefully kicked around in the snow and thought he found a trail underneath. Which way would he go?
Neil decided to explore inside the field first. With infinite precision, saving his strength, he went up and down, over and across the field in the darkness hoping to stumble orf he knew not what. The field yielded nothing, but it had helped to put in an hour. The fence posts, even if he could drag a few of them together after pulling out the wire staples, could he be sure of a fire? He tried the fence. The staples were in hard and firm. He gave it up. The only safety lay in going on. He traced around the fence again to the gap to follow the trail out, but he lost it in the first few yards, and again aimless wandering resulted—but he was slowing up. Once he faltered and stumbled in a drift. It was an effort to arise. Quickly Le Blanc was there, just as he made to his feet.
“Too bad,” yelled Le Blanc, “I teenk you go for die dat time.”
ON STRUGGLED McNeil, but after eight hours his weary benumbed limbs protested at their burden, and his step grew unsteady. Rallying, he thumped his arms about his body to quicken his circulation—to waken himself up, for he was feeling drowsy. Damn it, why was he sleepy? Never do to go to sleep out here—that was the one thing not to do. Yet the snow did look warm and soft, and he was cold and worn. Never do, never do, and he kept on for another hour, staggered along, going now more on his indomitable will than on his magnificent strength that was fast failing—staggered into a big drift, gave a feeble struggle and lay down slowly. Nice warm place— nice soft bed—fine place for a sleep, and as his eyes closed peacefully he was annoyed to find himself rudely wakened and that damned Pea-soup yelling in his ear: “Who’s de bes’ man now, beeg black Neil, hein? Me, Le Blanc. I’m de bes’ man, non? Wake hup and tol’ me I’m de bes’ man! Wake hup you!”
Sleepily, wearily, but undaunted, Neil McNeil replied, “Go away, Pea-soup! You get down the trail—next time I’ll kill you!” and settled into his last sleep.
NEXT morning a frost-bitten, weary, red-eyed Frenchman fell over the doorstep of a house on the edge of Naseby. For days he lay sick, and when revived he told them how he had been lost all night in the storm, but somehow walked out the night. Tÿey said it was wonderful —only a man with wonderful strength could do that. They were afraid that. Neil McNeil had perished. Search parties were out for him; and the Frenchman said, "Oui, dat’s right, only de bes’ man, she could do dat,” and left on the train that night. But it was not till spring that the searchers found the body of Neil McNeil.