The Shagganappi

by Emily Pauline Johnson

Gun-Shy Billy

    “NO, SIR! Not for me,” Bert Hooper was saying. “I won’t join the crowd if Billy is going. Do you fellows suppose I’m going to have my holiday all spoiled, and not get any game, all because you want Billy? He’s no good on a hunting trip. I tell you he’s gun-shy.”
    “That’s so,” said another boy. “I’ve seen him stop his ears with his fingers when Bert shot his gun off—more than once, too.”
    “Ought to be named ‘Gussie,’” said Bert. “A great big fellow like Billy, scared of a gun! He must be sixteen, and large for his age at that. He’s worse than that dog I had last year—don’t you remember, boys? He’d follow us for miles through the bush, raise game, point a partridge all right, and the second we shot a gun off—no more dog. All you’d see was a white-and-tan streak with its tail curled under it, making for home.”
    “Well,” said Tommy McLean, a boy who never spoke until all the rest had thrashed a subject out, “I’d rather see a fellow gun-shy than see him a bally idiot with fire-arms. I know when I got my gun, I got a lesson with it. Father gave it to me himself, when I was fourteen, last year. I never saw him look so serious as when he put it in my hands and said, ‘Tom,’ (he always calls me Tom, not Tommy, when he’s in earnest)—‘Tom,’ he said, ‘a gun is a good thing in the right hands, a bad thing in the wrong. A boy that is careless with a gun is worse than a born idiot; a boy that in play points a gun, loaded or unloaded, at any person, place, or thing, should be, and often does, land in prison. A gun is made for three [Page 204] things only: the first, to shoot animals and birds for food alone, not for sport; the second, to defend one’s life from the attack of wild beasts; the third, to shoot the tar out of the enemy when you are fighting as a soldier for your sovereign and your flag.’”
    “Bully for Tommy’s father!” yelled Bert. “I hate being lectured, but that sounds like good common sporting sense, and we’ll all try to stick by it on this hunting trip.”
    They were a nice lot of boys, all jolly, sturdy, manly chaps, who, however, seldom included Billy Jackson in their outings, for every holiday seemed to find him to busy to join them. For notwithstanding his unfortunate fear of a gunshot, Billy had always been a great lover of a uniform. As a youngster he would follow the soldiers every parade day, not for the glory of marching in step to the music of the band, but for the chance it gave him to throw back his shoulders, puff out his small chest, and blow on his tin pipe-whistle in adoring imitation of the bugler. He thought there was nothing in the world so important as the bugler. Billy thought it did not matter that the shining little “trumpet” merely voiced an officer’s commands. The fact always remained that at the clear, steady notes the soldiers wheeled to do his bidding; that the bugler was a power for courage or cowardice, whichever way a boy was built.
    Then, as he grew older, he, too, began to practice on a bugle. He would sit out on the little side verandah, early and late, tooting every regimental call he could remember, until the time cane when his perseverance met with reward. He actually found himself installed as bugler to the little regiment of smartly-uniformed men that was the pride of the gay Ontario city that Billy called home.
    Then it was that the other boys never got Billy on a holiday. When Victoria Day came the soldiers always went “into camp” for three days, strict military discipline reigned, and Billy must be with his company. When [Page 205] Dominion Day arrived the regiment always visited some distant city to assist in some important patriotic celebration. Thanksgiving Day always found them in the thick of annual drill, and there was sure to be a “sham battle” at which poor Billy had to toot the commands, his eyes blinking and the nerves chasing themselves up and down his back, while the blank cartridges peppered away harmlessly, and the field-pieces roared innocently past his ears.

    “The boys” usually came with throngs of citizens to see the “sham fights.” They would range themselves on a slope of hills, as near as possible to the “battlefield,” and often above the bellowing guns, above the colonel’s command, above his own shrill bugle calls, Billy could hear Bert Hooper and Tommy McLean egging him on, sometimes with jeers, sometimes with admiration, telling him to “Look up plucky now, Billy, and don’t stop your ears with your fingers!” He used to be astonished at himself that he cared so little whether they teased or cheered. He seemed to care for nothing in all the world but the Colonel’s voice and his bugle.
    Then the day came when he knew there was something greater than the colonel to be obeyed, something dearer than his bugle to be proud of. For many weeks the newspapers had teemed with little else but news of the South African War. Nothing was talked of in all Canada, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, but the battles, the hardships, the privations, of the gallant British regiments in the far-off enemy’s country. Then came the cry, wrung from England’s heart to her colonies, “Come over and help us!”
    Canada, Australia, New Zealand, sprang to their feet like obedient children, ready and anxious to fight and die for their mother at her first call.
    Billy and his father faced each other—one was sixteen, the other forty. They did not stand looking at each other as father and son, but as man and man.
    “Billy,” said his father, “you don’t remember your [Page 206] mother; she died while you were still a baby. If she were living, I would not hint of this to you, but—I go to South Africa with the very first Canadian contingent. You are the best bugler in Canada. What do you want to do?”
    For an instant Billy was speechless. His nerves shook with a boy’s first fear of battle. His old gun-shyness had him in its grip. Then his heart swelled with the pride aroused by his father’s words; he raised his head, his chin, his eyes, and suddenly his look caught a picture hanging in its deep gold frame on the wall. It was a picture of a little old grey-haired woman—a sad-faced old woman dressed in black and wearing a widow’s cap. It was a picture of Queen Victoria.
    Then Billy’s voice came.

    “I can’t remember ever having heard my mother speak, but”—pointing to the picture—“she has been calling me ever since the war began. I know I’m only a big kid, and I can’t fight with the men, but I can bugle, and, Dad, you and I’ll go together.”
    Once more they looked at each other as man to man. Then Billy’s father shook hands with him—a hard, true, clinging shake—and, without a word, left the room.
    Oh, what a day it was for the little city when the picked men of the regiment marched out in their khaki uniforms, halting at the railway station for all the last good-byes before the train pulled them out eastward, to board the transport ships that swung so impatiently in Halifax harbor! The whole town was at the station, every boy in the place shouting and cheering and wishing he were grown up, were clad in khaki, were shouldering an Enfield rifle, and were going to fight for the queen. When it was all over Bert and Tommy stood watching with straining eyes the fast disappearing train, handkerchiefs and caps and hands were waving from every window, faint snatches of cheers, and the tune of “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” came floating backward. But the boys only [Page 207] saw a small blotch of khaki color on the rear platform of the train, and a brilliant point of light where the golden Canada sun flung back its reflections from a well-polished bugle. They watched that light growing less and less in the distance, until it finally faded like a setting star.

*         *         *         *         *         *

    Weeks afterwards the newspapers rang with the glory of it all. The fame and the bravery of the Canadian regiments at the terrible battle of Paardeburg was known to all the world. Bert and Tommy and the rest of the boys devoured every line that touched on that wonderful fight, but their pride fairly broke bounds when in the great city papers they read this description.
    “Throughout the thickest of the fight, a small but noticeable figure held his ground like a rock. It was a stocky little ‘Canuck’ bugler, whose life seemed almost charmed, so thickly did the Boer bullets pepper about him, leaving him absolutely unhurt.”
    “That’s Billy!” they shouted hoarsely at each other. “Billy, as sure as you’re alive!” Then they fairly covered the town with the news, gathering all the boys together in one big rejoicing crowd, telling each other over and over again the story of the battle, and joining in the monster parade, carrying banners, flags, lanterns and torches, to give honor to Canadian pluck and patriotism.

*         *         *         *         *         *

    And then, one day, a train came steaming and roaring into the station. The thronging crowds, the gay flags, the merry bands, and the ringing cheers, were a welcome greeting for the little knot of war-worn men who had fought so loyally for queen and country.
    “The stocky little Canuck!” as everyone now called Billy Jackson, was almost the last to alight from the train. He looked terribly shy and bashful at the uproarious reception he got; but he stood erect in his faded and patched old khaki uniform, his battered bugle still flashed back [Page 208] the sunlight, and his handgrip was as firm as his father’s as the boys crowded up, yelling, “What’s the matter with Gun-Shy Billy? He’s all right!”
    But even as they cheered and welcomed him, Billy’s eyes grew strangely odd-looking. The shyness and the smile seemed to sink out of them. His glance had caught sight of a slender, black-draped figure standing far back from the welcoming crowd—the figure of a young woman whose fingers clasped the chubby hand of a boy about three years old. For an instant Billy stood voiceless, his eyes staring, his mouth twitching nervously, his hands rigid and icy.
    “Come on! Come on, fellows!” shouted the boys, as the crowd surged closer about him, and friendly hands seized him by arm and shoulder.
    But he moved not a step.
    “Why, Billy, what’s up?” exclaimed a dozen excited voices. “Come on! The carriages are waiting to start the parade! The band’s getting in line. Hurry up! Hurry up!”
    Then Billy spoke. His voice came, shaky, as in the old, gun-shy days; but quietly as he spoke, the words seemed to reach across the whole station platform.
    “Boys! Oh, boys! There’s poor Jack Morrison’s wife and the little lad he sent his love to!”
    The crowd hushed its gay clamor and every head turned towards the woman in black and the chubby child. They stood quite alone, silent, white-faced, weary. Jack Morrison was the only one who had not returned with the brave little band of soldiers who had set forth so valiantly months before.
    “I saw him fall,” said Billy hoarsely; “fall, shot in a dozen places. For a moment, boys, I think I failed to bugle. I dropped on my knees and raised his poor face out of the dust. ‘Billy,’ he said, ‘Billy, when you get home, give my love to my wife and little Buddie.’ Then [Page 209] he just seemed to sink into a heap, and I sprang up to ‘commands.’ Boys, through the rest of that fight I could see nothing but Mrs. Morrison’s white face, hear nothing but her sobs. Oh, the misery of it all! I seemed to grow into an old man all at once. I could see myself coming home, and all of us here cheering—all but Jack Morrison.
    No one spoke. A vast silence fell, and the cheering ceased. Then Billy walked quietly through the crowd, and standing beside the white-faced widow, picked up the child in his strong young arms. He was not used to babies, and looked awkward and stiff and terribly conscious. Then he pulled himself together.
    “I have a message for you, Mrs. Morrison, and for this little chap here. I’ll come and see you to-morrow, if I may, when all this fuss and flag-waving is over.”
    The woman looked blankly at him, with eyes that seemed watching for something—something that never came. Billy dared not trust himself to say another word. He finally set the child down and turned away.
    In a few minutes the “procession” was in full swing, Billy and his father, in one of the carriages, being driven beneath arches and banners, and handclasped on all sides. Somehow, he got through that uproarious day smiling, but shy as usual, but when night came he was tired and utterly undone, and “turned in” early. But sleep would not come. Then he arose and crept to his little bedroom window, standing there a long, long time alone in the dark—thinking. How glorious it all had been!—the glad, loyal faces of his boy friends, the magnificent welcome home—if only they could have brought Jack Morrison back with them! Oh! Billy would have given up all the glory, the music, the cheers, the banners, to get away from the haunting memory of a woman’s white, suffering face and black-robed figure, and the feel of the clinging hands of a tiny fatherless boy! His eyes did not see the homely [Page 210] street at his feet—the dying rockets and fireworks glaring against the sky. He saw only a simple grave in the open veldt in far-away Africa—a grave that he, himself, had heaped with stones formed in the one word “Canada.” At the recollection of it, poor Billy buried his aching head in his hands. The glory had paled and vanished. There was nothing left of this terrible war but the misery, the mourning, the heartbreak of it all! [Page 211]