Pierre And His People by Gilbert Parker
A Prairie Vagabond
Little Hammer was not a success. He was a disappointment to the missionaries; the officials of the Hudson's Bay Company said he was "no good;" the Mounted Police kept an eye on him; the Crees and Blackfeet would have nothing to do with him; and the half-breeds were profane regarding him. But Little Hammer was oblivious to any depreciation of his merits, and would not be suppressed. He loved the Hudson's Bay Company's Post at Yellow Quill with an unwavering love; he ranged the half-breed hospitality of Red Deer River, regardless of it being thrown at him as he in turn threw it at his dog; he saluted Sergeant Gellatly with a familiar How! whenever he saw him; he borrowed tabac of the half- breed women, and, strange to say, paid it back--with other tabac got by daily petition, until his prayer was granted, at the H. B. C. Post. He knew neither shame nor defeat, but where women were concerned he kept his word, and was singularly humble. It was a woman that induced him to be baptised. The day after the ceremony he begged "the loan of a dollar for the love of God" from the missionary; and being refused, straightway, and for the only time it was known of him, delivered a rumbling torrent of half-breed profanity, mixed with the unusual oaths of the barracks. Then he walked away with great humility. There was no swagger about Little Hammer. He was simply unquenchable and continuous. He sometimes got drunk; but on such occasions he sat down, or lay down, in the most convenient place, and, like Caesar beside Pompey's statue, wrapped his mantle about his face and forgot the world. He was a vagabond Indian, abandoned yet self-contained, outcast yet gregarious. No social ostracism unnerved him, no threats of the H. B. C. officials moved him; and when in the winter of 187_ he was driven from one place to another, starving and homeless, and came at last emaciated and nearly dead to the Post at Yellow Quill, he asked for food and shelter as if it were his right, and not as a mendicant.
One night, shortly after his reception and restoration, he was sitting in the store silently smoking the Company's tabac. Sergeant Gellatly entered. Little Hammer rose, offered his hand, and muttered, "How!"
The Sergeant thrust his hand aside, and said sharply: "Whin I take y'r hand, Little Hammer, it'll be to put a grip an y'r wrists that'll stay there till y'are in quarters out of which y'll come nayther winter nor summer. Put that in y'r pipe and smoke it, y' scamp!"
Little Hammer had a bad time at the Post that night. Lounging half- breeds reviled him; the H. B. C. officials rebuked him; and travellers who were coming and going shared in the derision, as foolish people do where one is brow-beaten by many. At last a trapper entered, whom seeing, Little Hammer drew his blanket up about his head. The trapper sat down very near Little Hammer, and began to smoke. He laid his plug- tabac and his knife on the counter beside him. Little Hammer reached over and took the knife, putting it swiftly within his blanket. The trapper saw the act, and, turning sharply on the Indian, called him a thief. Little Hammer chuckled strangely and said nothing; but his eyes peered sharply above the blanket. A laugh went round the store. In an instant the trapper, with a loud oath, caught at the Indian's throat; but as the blanket dropped back he gave a startled cry. There was the flash of a knife, and he fell back dead. Little Hammer stood above him, smiling, for a moment, and then, turning to Sergeant Gellatly, held out his arms silently for the handcuffs.
The next day two men were lost on the prairies. One was Sergeant Gellatly; the other was Little Hammer. The horses they rode travelled so close that the leg of the Indian crowded the leg of the white man; and the wilder the storm grew, the closer still they rode. A 'poudre' day, with its steely air and fatal frost, was an ill thing in the world; but these entangling blasts, these wild curtains of snow, were desolating even unto death. The sun above was smothered; the earth beneath was trackless; the compass stood for loss all round.
What could Sergeant Gellatly expect, riding with a murderer on his left hand: a heathen that had sent a knife through the heart of one of the lords of the North? What should the gods do but frown, or the elements be at, but howling on their path? What should one hope for but that vengeance should be taken out of the hands of mortals, and be delivered to the angry spirits?
But if the gods were angry at the Indian, why should Sergeant Gellatly only sway to and fro, and now laugh recklessly, and now fall sleepily forward on the neck of his horse; while the Indian rode straight, and neither wavered nor wandered in mind, but at last slipped from his horse and walked beside the other? It was at this moment that the soldier heard, "Sergeant Gellatly, Sergeant Gellatly," called through the blast; and he thought it came from the skies, or from some other world. "Me darlin'," he said, "have y' come to me?" But the voice called again: "Sergeant Gellatly, keep awake! keep awake! You sleep, you die; that's it. Holy. Yes. How!" Then he knew that it was Little Hammer calling in his ear, and shaking him; that the Indian was dragging him from his horse . . . his revolver, where was it? he had forgotten . . . he nodded . . . nodded. But Little Hammer said: "Walk, hell! you walk, yes;" and Little Hammer struck him again and again; but one arm of the Indian was under his shoulder and around him, and the voice was anxious and kind. Slowly it came to him that Little Hammer was keeping him alive against the will of the spirits--but why should they strike him instead of the Indian? Was there any sun in the world? Had there ever been? or fire or heat anywhere, or anything but wind and snow in all God's universe? . . . Yes, there were bells ringing--soft bells of a village church; and there was incense burning--most sweet it was! and the coals in the censer--how beautiful, how comforting! He laughed with joy again, and he forgot how cold, how maliciously cold, he had been; he forgot how dreadful that hour was before he became warm; when he was pierced by myriad needles through the body, and there was an incredible aching at his heart.
And yet something kept thundering on his body, and a harsh voice shrieked at him, and there were many lights dancing over his shut eyes; and then curtains of darkness were dropped, and centuries of oblivion came; and then--then his eyes opened to a comforting silence, and some one was putting brandy between his teeth, and after a time he heard a voice say: "'Bien,' you see he was a murderer, but he save his captor. 'Voila,' such a heathen! But you will, all the same, bring him to justice--you call it that? But we shall see."
Then some one replied, and the words passed through an outer web of darkness and an inner haze of dreams. "The feet of Little Hammer were like wood on the floor when you brought the two in, Pretty Pierre--and lucky for them you found them. . . . The thing would read right in a book, but it's not according to the run of things up here, not by a damned sight!"
"Private Bradshaw," said the first voice again, "you do not know Little Hammer, nor that story of him. You wait for the trial. I have something to say. You think Little Hammer care for the prison, the rope?--Ah, when a man wait five years to kill--so! and it is done, he is glad sometimes when it is all over. Sergeant Gellatly there will wish he went to sleep forever in the snow, if Little Hammer come to the rope. Yes, I think."
And Sergeant Gellatly's brain was so numbed that he did not grasp the meaning of the words, though he said them over and over again. . . . Was he dead? No, for his body was beating, beating . . . well, it didn't matter . . . nothing mattered . . . he was sinking to forgetfulness . . . sinking.
So, for hours, for weeks--it might have been for years--and then he woke, clear and knowing, to "the unnatural, intolerable day"--it was that to him, with Little Hammer in prison. It was March when his memory and vigour vanished; it was May when he grasped the full remembrance of himself, and of that fight for life on the prairie: of the hands that smote him that he should not sleep; of Little Hammer the slayer, who had driven death back discomfited, and brought his captor safe to where his own captivity and punishment awaited him.
When Sergeant Gellatly appeared in court at the trial he refused to bear witness against Little Hammer. "D' ye think--does wan av y' think--that I'll speak a word agin the man--haythen or no haythen--that pulled me out of me tomb and put me betune the barrack quilts? Here's the stripes aff me arm, and to gaol I'll go; but for what wint before I clapt the iron on his wrists, good or avil, divil a word will I say. An' here's me left hand, and there's me right fut, and an eye of me too, that I'd part with, for the cause of him that's done a trick that your honour wouldn't do-- an' no shame to y' aither--an' y'd been where Little Hammer was with me."
His honour did not reply immediately, but he looked meditatively at Little Hammer before he said quietly,--"Perhaps not, perhaps not."
And Little Hammer, thinking he was expected to speak, drew his blanket up closely about him and grunted, "How!"
Pretty Pierre, the notorious half-breed, was then called. He kissed the Book, making the sign of the Cross swiftly as he did so, and unheeding the ironical, if hesitating, laughter in the court. Then he said: "'Bien,' I will tell you the story-the whole truth. I was in the Stony Plains. Little Hammer was 'good Injin' then. . . . Yes, sacre! it is a fool who smiles at that. I have kissed the Book. Dam! . . . He would be chief soon when old Two Tails die. He was proud, then, Little Hammer. He go not to the Post for drink; he sell not next year's furs for this year's rations; he shoot straight."
Here Little Hammer stood up and said: "There is too much talk. Let me be. It is all done. The sun is set--I care not--I have killed him;" and then he drew his blanket about his face and sat down.
But Pierre continued: "Yes, you killed him-quick, after five years--that is so; but you will not speak to say why. Then, I will speak. The Injins say Little Hammer will be great man; he will bring the tribes together; and all the time Little Hammer was strong and silent and wise. Then Brigley the trapper--well, he was a thief and coward. He come to Little Hammer and say, 'I am hungry and tired.' Little Hammer give him food and sleep. He go away. 'Bien,' he come back and say,--'It is far to go; I have no horse.' So Little Hammer give him a horse too. Then he come back once again in the night when Little Hammer was away, and before morning he go; but when Little Hammer return, there lay his bride--only an Injin girl, but his bride-dead! You see? Eh? No? Well, the Captain at the Post he says it was the same as Lucrece.--I say it was like hell. It is not much to kill or to die--that is in the game; but that other, 'mon Dieu!' Little Hammer, you see how he hide his head: not because he kill the Tarquin, that Brigley, but because he is a poor 'vaurien' now, and he once was happy and had a wife. . . . What would you do, judge honourable? . . . Little Hammer, I shake your hand--so--How!"
But Little Hammer made no reply.
The judge sentenced Little Hammer to one month in gaol. He might have made it one thousand months--it would have been the same; for when, on the last morning of that month, they opened the door to set him free, he was gone. That is, the Little Hammer whom the high gods knew was gone; though an ill-nourished, self-strangled body was upright by the wall. The vagabond had paid his penalty, but desired no more of earth.
Upon the door was scratched the one word: How!