The Moccasin Maker

by Emily Pauline Johnson

Mother o’ the Men
A Story of the Canadian North-West Mounted Police

    THE commander’s wife stood on the deck of the “North Star” looking at the receding city of Vancouver as if to photograph within her eyes and heart every detail of its wonderful beauty—its clustering, sisterly houses, its holly hedges, its ivied walls, its emerald lawns, its teeming streets and towering spires. She seemed to realize that this was the end of the civilized trail; that henceforth, for many years, her sight would know only the unbroken line of icy ridge and sky of the northernmost outposts of the great Dominion. To her hand clung a little boy of ten, and about her hovered some twenty young fellows, gay in the scarlet tunics, the flashing buffalo-head buttons, that bespoke the soldierly uniform of the Canadian North-West Mounted Police. They were the first detachment bound for the Yukon, and were under her husband’s command.
    She was the only woman in the “company.” The major had purposely selected unmarried men for his staff, for in the early nineties the Arctic was no place for a woman. But when the Government [Page 204] at Ottawa saw fit to commission Major Lysle to face the frozen North, and with a handful of men build and garrison a fort at the rim of the Polar Seas, Mrs. Lysle quietly remarked, “I shall accompany you, so shall the boy,” and the major blessed her in his heart, for had she not so decided, it would mean absolute separation from wife and child for from three to five years, as in those days no railways, no telegraph lines, stretched their pulsing fingers into the Klondyke. One mail went in, one mail came out, each year—that was all.
    “It’s good-bye, Graham lad,” said one of the scarlet-coated soldiers, tossing the little boy to his back. “Look your longest at those paved streets, and the green, green things. There’ll be months of just snow away up there,” and he nodded towards the north.
    “Oh, but father says it won’t be lonely at all up there,” asserted the child. “He says I’ll grow terribly big in a few years; that people always grow in the North, and maybe I’ll soon be able to wear buffalo buttons and have stripes on my sleeve like you;” and the childish fingers traced the outline of the sergeant’s chevrons.
    “I hope, dear, that you shall do all that, soon,” said Mrs. Lysle; “but first you must win those stripes, my boy, and if you win them as the sergeant did, mother shall be very proud of you.” [Page 205]
    At which, the said sergeant hastily set the boy down, and, with confusion written all over his strong young face, made some excuse to disappear, for no man in the world is as shy or modest of his deeds of valor as is a North-West “Mounted.”
    “Won’t you tell me, mother, how Sergeant Black got those stripes on his sleeve?” begged the boy.
    “Perhaps to-night, son, when you are in bed—just before mother says good-night—we’ll see. But look! there is the city, fading, fading.” Then after a short silence: “There, Graham, it has gone.”
    “But isn’t that it ’way over there, mother?” persisted the boy. “I see the sun shining on the roofs.”
    Mrs. Lysle shook her head. “No, dearie; that is the snow on the mountain peaks. The city has—gone.”
    But far into the twilight she yet stood watching the purple sea, the dove-gray coast. Her world was with her—the man she had chosen for her life partner, and the little boy that belonged to them both—but there are times even in the life of a wife and mother when her soul rebels at cutting herself off from her womenkind, and all that environment of social life among women means, even if the act itself is voluntary on her part. It was a relief, then, from her rather sombre [Page 206] musing at the ship’s rail, when the major lightly placed both hands on her shoulders and said, “Grahamie has toddled off to the stateroom. The sea air is weighting down his eyelids.”
    “Sea air?” laughed Mrs. Lysle. “Don’t you believe it, Horace. The young monkey has been just scampering about the deck with the men until his little legs are tired out. I’m half afraid our ‘Mounted’ boys bid fair to spoil him. I’ll go to him, for I promised him a story to-night.”
    “Which you would rather perish than not tell him, if you promised,” smiled the major. “You govern that boy the same way I do my men, eh, dear?”
    “It’s the only way to govern boys or soldiers,” she laughed back from the head of the companion-way. “Then both boy and soldier will keep their promises to you.”
    The major watched her go below, then said to himself, “She’s right—she’s always right. She was right to come north, and bring him, too. But I am a coward, for I daren’t tell her she’ll have to part from him, or from me, some day. He will have to be sent to the front again; he can’t grow up unlearned, untaught, and there are no schools in our Arctic world, and she must go with him, or stay with me; but I can’t tell her. Yes, I’m a coward.” But Major Lysle was the only person in all the world who would have thought or said so. [Page 207]
    “And will you tell me how Sergeant Black won his stripes, mother, before I go to sleep?” begged Graham.
    “Yes, little ‘North-West,’” she replied, using the pet name the men in barracks frequently called the child. “It’s just a wee story of one man fighting it out alone—just alone, single-handed—with no reinforcements but his own courage, his own self-reliance.”
    “That’s what father says, isn’t it, mother, to just do things yourself?” asked the boy.
    “That’s it, dear, and that is what Sergeant Black did. He was only corporal then, and he was dispatched from headquarters to arrest some desperate horse thieves who were trying to drive a magnificent bunch of animals across the boundary line into the United States, and then sell them. These men were breaking two laws. They had not only stolen the horses, but were trying to evade the American Customs. Your father always called them “The Rapparees,’ for they were Irish, and fighters, and known from the Red River to the Rockies as plunderers and desperadoes. There was some trouble to the north at the same time; barracks was pretty well thinned; not a man could be spared to help him. But when Corporal Black got his instructions and listened to the commanding officer say, ‘If that detachment returns from the Qu’Appelle Valley within twenty-four hours, I’ll order them out to assist [Page 208] you, corporal,’ the plucky little soldier just stood erect, clicked his heels together, saluted, and replied, ‘I can do it alone, sir.’
    “‘I notice you don’t say you think you can do it alone,’ remarked the officer dryly. He was a lenient man and often conversed with his men.
    “‘It is not my place to think, sir. I’ve just got to do,’ replied the corporal, and saluting again, he was gone.
    “All that night he galloped up the prairie trail on the track of the thieves, and just before daybreak he sighted them, entrenched in a coulee, where their campfires made no glow, and the neighing horses could not be heard. There were six men all told, busying themselves getting breakfast and staking the animals preparatory to hiding through the day hours, and getting across the boundary line the next night. Both men and beasts were wearied with the long journey, but Corporal Black is the sort of man that never wearies in either brain or body. He never hesitated a second. Jerking his rat-skin cap down, covering his face as much as possible, he rode silently around to the south of the encampment, clutched a revolver in each hand, and rode within earshot, then said four words:
    “‘Stand, or I fire!’ If a cyclone had swooped down on them, the thieves could not have been more astounded. But they stood, and stood yards away from their own guns. Then they demanded to know who he was, for of course they thought [Page 209] him a thief like themselves, probably following them to capture their spoil. Then Corporal Black unbuttoned his great-coat and flung it wide open, displaying the brilliant scarlet tunic of our own dear Mounted Police. They needed no other reply. At the point of his revolver he ordered them to unstake the horses. Then not one man was allowed to mount, but, breakfastless and frenzied, they were compelled to walk before him, driving the stolen animals ahead, mile upon mile, league after league.
    “Father says it was a strange-looking procession that trudged into barracks. Twenty beautiful, spirited horses, six hangdog-looking thieves, with a single exhausted horse in the rear, on which was mounted an alert, keen-eyed and very hungry young soldier who wore a scarlet tunic and buffalo-head buttons. The next day Corporal Black had another stripe on his sleeve.”*
    Her voice ceased, and she looked down at her son. The child lay for a moment, wide-eyed and tense. Then some indescribable quality seemed to make him momentarily too large, too tall, for the narrow ship’s berth. Then:
    “And he fought it out alone, mother, just alone—single-handed?”
    “Yes, Grahamie,” she said, softly. [Page 210]
    “Fought alone!” he said almost to himself. Then aloud: “Thank you, mother, for telling me that story. Perhaps some day I’ll have to fight it out alone, and when I do, I’ll try to remember Sergeant Black. Good-night, mother.”
    “Good-night, my boy.”

*          *          *          *          *          *

    The long, long winter was doing its worst, and that was unspeakable in its dreariness and its misery. The “Fort” was just about completed before things froze up—narrow, small quarters constructed of rough logs, surrounded by a stockade—but above its roof the Union Jack floated, and beneath it flashed the scarlet tunics, the buffalo-head buttons, the clanking spurs of as brave a band of men, “queened over” by as courageous a woman, as ever Gilbraltar or the Throne Room knew.
    As time went on the major’s wife began to find herself “Mother o’ the Men” (as an old Klondyker named her), as well as of her own boy. Those blizzard-blown, snow-hardened, ice-toughened soldiers went to her for everything—sympathy, assistance, advice—for in that lonely outpost military lines were less strictly drawn, and she could oftentimes do for the men what would be considered amazingly unofficial, were those little humane kindnesses done in barracks at Regina or MacLeod or Calgary. She nursed the men through every illness, preparing the food [Page 211] herself for the invalids. She attended to many a frozen face and foot and finger. She smoothed out their differences, inspirited them when they grew discouraged, talked to them of their own people, so that their home ties should not be entirely severed because they could write letters or receive them but once a year. But there were days when the sight of a woman’s face would have been a glimpse of paradise to her, days when she almost wildly regretted her boy had not been a girl—just a little sweet-voiced girl, a thing of her own sex and kind. But it always seemed at these moments that Grahamie would providentially rush in to her with some glad story of sport or adventure, and she would snatch him tightly in her arms and say, “No, no, boy of mine, I don’t want even a girlie, if I may only keep you.” And once when her thoughts had been more than usually traitorous in wishing he had been a girl, the child seemed to divine some idea of her struggle; for a moment his firm little fingers caught her hand encouragingly, and he said in a whisper, “Are you fighting it out alone, mother—just single-handed?”
    “Just single-handed, dearest,” she replied.
    Then he scampered away, but paused to call back gravely, “Remember Sergeant Black, mother.”
    “Yes, Grahamie, I’ll try to,” she replied brightly. At that moment he was the lesser child of the two. [Page 212]
    And so the winter crept slowly on, and the brief, brilliant summer flitted in, then out, like a golden dream. The second snows were upon the little fort, the second Christmas, the second long, long weeks and months of the new year. An unspoken horror was staring them all in the face: navigation did not open when expected, and supplies were running low, pitifully low. The smoked and dried meats, the canned things, flour, sealed lard, oatmeal, hard-tack, dried fruits—everything was slowly but inevitably giving out day upon day. Before and behind them stretched hummocks of trailless snow. Not an Indian, not a dog train, not even a wild animal, had set foot in that waste for weeks. In early March the major’s wife had hidden a single package of gelatine, a single tin of dried beef, and a single half pound of cornstarch. “If sickness comes to my boys” (she did not say boy), “I shall at least have saved these,” she told herself, in justification of her act. “A sick man cannot live on beans.” But now they were down to beans—just beans and lard boiled together. Then a day dawned when there was not even a spoonful of lard left. “Beans straight!”—it was the death knell, for beans straight—beans without grease—kill the strongest man in a brief span of days. Oh, that the ice bridges would melt, the seas open, the ships come!
    But that night the men at mess had beans with unlimited grease, its peculiar flavor peppered and [Page 213] spiced out of it. Life, life was to be theirs even yet! What had renewed it?
    But one of the men had caught something on his fork and extracted it from the food on his plate. It was an overlooked wick. The major’s wife had begun to boil up the tallow candles.* But the cheer that shook that rough log roof came right from hearts that blessed her, and brought her to the door of the men’s mess-room. The men were on their feet instantly. “A light has broken upon us, or rather within us, Mrs. Lysle!” cried a self-selected spokesman.
    “Illuminating, isn’t it, boys?” She laughed, then turned away, for the cheers and tears were very close together.
    Then one day when even starving stomachs almost revolted at the continued coarse mixture, a ribbon of blue proclaimed the open sea, and, into those waters swept the longed-for ship. Yet, strangely enough, that night the “Mother o’ the Men” wept a storm of tears, the only tears she had yielded to in those long five years. For with its blessing of food the ship had her hold bursting with liquors and wines, the hideous commerce that invades the pioneer places of the earth. Should the already weakened, ill-fed and scurvy-threatened garrison break into those supplies, all the labor and patience and mothering of this courageous woman would be useless, for after a bean diet in the Northern latitudes, [Page 214] whiskey is deadly to brain and body, and the victim maddens or dies.
    “You are crying, mother, and the ship here at last!” said Grahamie’s voice at her shoulder. “Crying when we are all so happy.”
    “Mother is a little upset, dear. You must try to forget you ever saw her eyes wet.”
    “I’ll forget,” said the boy with a finality she could not question. “The ship is so full of good things, mother. We’ll think of that, and—forget, won’t we?” he added.
    “All the things in the ship are not good, Grahamie, boy. If they were, mother would not cry,” she said.
    “I see,” he said, but stole from her side with a strained, puzzled look in his young eyes.
    Outside he was met by a laughing, joyous dozen of men. One swung the child to his shoulder, shouting, “Hurrah, little ‘North-West’! Hurrah! we are all coming to pay tribute to your mother. Look at the dainties we have got for her from the ship!”
    “I’m afraid you can’t see mother just now,” said the boy. “Mother is a little upset. You see, the ship is so full of good things—but then, all the things in the ship are not good. If they were, mother would not cry.” In the last words he unconsciously imitated his mother’s voice.
    A profound silence enveloped the men. Then one spoke. “She’ll never have cause to cry about anything I do, boys.” [Page 215]
    “Nor I!” “Nor!” “Nor I!” rang out voice after voice.
    “Run back, you blessed little ‘North-West,’ and tell mother not to be scared for the boys. We’ll stand by her to a man. She’ll never regret that ship’s coming in,’ said the gallant soldier, slipping the boy to the ground. And to the credit of the men who wore buffalo-head buttons, she never did.
    And in all her Yukon years the major’s wife had but one more heartache. That agonizing winter had taught her many things, but the bitterest knowledge to come to her was the fact that her boy must be sent “to the front.” To be sure, he was growing up the pet of all the police; he was becoming manlier, sturdier, more self-reliant every day. But education he must have, and another winter of such deprivation and horror he was too young, too tender, to endure. It was then that the battle arose in her heart. The boy was to be sent to college. Was it her place to accompany him to the distant South-east, to live by herself alone in the college town, just to be near him and watch over his young life, or was it here with her pioneer soldier husband, and his little isolated garrison of “boys” whom she had mothered for two years?
    The inevitable day came when she had to shut her teeth and watch Grahamie go aboard the southward-bound vessel alone, in the care of a policeman who was returning on sick leave[Page 216]—to watch him stand at the rail, his little face growing dimmer and more shadowy as the sea widened between them—watch him through tearless, courageous eyes, then turn away with the hopelessness of knowing that for one entire endless year she must wait for word of his arrival.* But his last brave good-bye words rang through her ears every day of that eternal year: “We’ll remember Sergeant Black, won’t we, mother? And we’ll each fight it out alone, single-handed, and maybe they’ll give us a chevron for our sleeves when it’s over.”
    But that night when the barracks was wrapped in gloom over the loss of its boy chum, the surgeon appeared in the men’s quarters. “Hello, boys!” he said, none too cheerfully. “Dull doings, I say. I’m busy enough, though, keeping an eye on Madam, the major’s lady. She’s so deadly quiet, so self-controlled, I’m just a little afraid. I wish something would happen to—well, make her less calm.”
    “I’ll ‘happen,’ doctor,” chirped up a genial-looking young chap named O’Keefe. “I’ll get sick and threaten to die. You say it’s serious; she’ll be all interest and medicine spoons, and making me jelly inside an hour.”
    The surgeon eyed him sternly, then: “O’Keefe,” he said, “you’re the cleverest man I ever came across in the force, and I’ve been in it eleven [Page 217] years. But man alive! what have you been doing to yourself? Overwork, no food—why, man, you’re sick; look as if you had fever and a touch of pneumonia. You’re a very sick man. Go to bed at once—at once, I say!”
    O’Keefe looked the surgeon in the eye, winked meaningly, and O’Keefe turned in, although it was but early afternoon. At six o’clock an orderly stood at the door of the major’s quarters. Mrs. Lysle was standing on the steps, her eyes fixed on the far horizon across which a ship had melted away.
    “Beg pardon, madam,” said the orderly, saluting, “but young O’Keefe is very ill. We have had the surgeon, but the—the—pain’s getting worse. He’s just yelling with agony.”
    “I’ll go at once, orderly. I should have been told before,” she replied; and burying her own heartache, she hurried to the men’s quarters. Her anxious eyes sought the surgeon’s. “Oh, doctor!” she said, “this poor fellow much be looked after. What can I do to help?”
    “Everything, Mrs. Lysle,” gruffed the surgeon with a professional air. “He is very ill. He must be kept wrapped in hot linseed poultices and—”
    “Oh, I say, doctor,” remonstrated poor O’Keefe, “I’m not that bad.”
    “You’re a very sick man,” scowled the surgeon. “Now, Mrs. Lysle has graciously offered to help nurse you. She’ll see that you have hot fomentations [Page 218] every half hour. I’ll drop in twice a day to see how you are getting along.” And with that miserable prospect before him, poor O’Keefe watched the surgeon disappear.
    “I simply had to order those half-hour fomentations, old man,” apologized the surgeon that night. “You see, she must be kept busy—just kept at it every minute we can make her do so. Do you think you can stand it?”
    “Of course I can,” fumed the victim. “But for goodness’ sake, don’t put me on sick rations! I’ll die, sure, if you do.”
    “I’ve ordered you the best commissariat boasts—heaps of meat, butter, even eggs, my boy. Think of it—eggs—you lucky young Turk!” laughed the surgeon.
    Then followed nights and days of torture. The “boys” would line up to the “sick-room” four times daily and blandly ask how he was.
    “How am I?” young O’Keefe would bellow. “How am I? I’m well and strong enough to brain every one of you fellows, surgeon included, when I get out of this!”
    “But when are you going to get out? When will you be out of danger?” they would chuckle.
    “Just when I see that haunted look go out of her eyes, and not till then!” he would roar.
    And he kept his word. He was really weak when he got up, and pretended to be weaker, but the lines of acute self-control had left Mrs. Lysle’s [Page 219] face, the suffering had gone from her eyes, the day the noble O’Keefe took his first solid meal in her presence.
    Even the major never discovered that worthy bit of deception. But a year later, when the mail went out, the surgeon sent the entire story to Graham, who, in writing to his mother the following year, perplexed her greatly by saying:
    “. . . . But there are three men in the force I love better than anyone in the world except you, mother. The first, of course, is father, the others, Sergeant Black and Private O’Keefe.”
    “Why O’Keefe?” she asked herself.
    But loyal little “North-West” never told her. [Page 220]

* The foregoing story is an actual occurrence. The author had the honor of knowing personally the North-West Mounted Policeman who achieved his rank through this action. [back]

* Fact. [back]

* Fact. [back]