IT IS NOT surprising that over the years tall tales and legends grew up around the North-West Mounted. In 1874 three-hundred men crossed half of Canada to police a wilderness area larger than some small countries. After an auspicious beginning like that, almost any story one might concoct would not seem farfetched. Surpassing all others, the most famous legend of the Force was that 'a Mountie always gets his man'. This saying was first coined by a newspaperman writing for the Record out of Fort Benton, Montana Territory, but once this expression gained some notoriety, every member of the Force felt they had to live up to that reputation.
In the summer of 1878, I was stationed at a lonely substation south of Fort Walsh. The reason for my banishment to such lowly duty was mainly due to the fact that my name was mentioned most prominently in the reports sent back to Ottawa regarding my part in the signing of Treaty No. 6, and that I had given the entire Sioux Nation my permission to settle in Canada along with my personal assurance that they would not be harassed while they were here and were under the Queen's protection. 'This man's interference must be curbed', a Minister, who shall remain nameless, stated in a letter to my superior. 'Please find some duty for him where he cannot get into any more mischief.' And so, I found myself exiled to an isolated spot where not much ever happened.
That was until the middle of August when summer had set in with its usual severity. The heat began in the early morning and rose steadily as the day progressed. By noon the great yellow sphere reached its apex and seemed to linger there a might longer than it normally did. Water was not exactly scarce, but it was never a good idea to travel without a full canteen. The grey-brown landscape of the shortgrass plains was broken only by the pink hues of pincushion cactus.
While out on patrol duty I took it upon myself to visit the Boscovich farm where I had become acquainted with the entire Boscovich family, especially their daughter Laura. When I first met Laura, she was a very pretty young girl of sixteen and I found the two of us seemed particularly fond of each other, though our relationship was purely platonic, as would any between a respectable, fine young lady, and an upstanding gentleman such as myself. Since my life as a Mounted Policeman was often full and busy with duties and responsibilities, we had seldom seen one another since our initial meeting, though I did write her long letters during the lonely winter months that generally kept me close to the fort.
I had purposely dressed in my red serge that day with the intention of calling on Laura. I rode up to the Boscovich farm with great anticipation on the pretext of getting a cool drink of water from their well. When I arrived, Laura came out to meet me. She was even more beautiful than I remembered her. Her lovely face radiated a warm healthy glow and her rich brown hair cascaded down around her shoulders. She had on a plain, simple dress, but wore it with such grace and elegance that it might have been a fancy gown from Paris. Seeing her I could not help but recall the words of William Wordsworth:
She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Besides the springs of Dove,
A maid to whom there were none to praise:
And very few to love:
Or so I thought.
Laura greeted me with a warm smile, and I gave her the bouquet of prairie roses I picked on the trail. She took them and smelled their fragrance, and as she held them, I noticed how the beauty of the flowers paled next to her own.
"How wonderful it is to see you again, Corporal Barclay," she said in a charming European accent, and her blue eyes sparkling. "The family will all be pleased you have come for a visit. We get so few visitors out here, and today we have had two."
"Two?" I repeated. "Pray tell, who is the other?"
"Why young Mr. Peter Cord, of course" she answered still smiling, "our neighbour to the south. He left just a short time ago. Surely you have met him."
I had indeed met Mr. Peter Cord late of Fort Benton, Montana, who had come north just a year ago to homestead and begin a small farm. He was young man, only two years my senior, and was, I suppose, what some woman might regard as ruggedly handsome, and charming, but there was always something about Peter Cord that I did not like, though I was at a loss to know what it was. A young woman like Laura might be susceptible to his charms, and I was not too ashamed to say I did not like it.
I was invited to have lunch with the Boscovichs and afterward I entertained the family with a recitation of When We Two Parted, which I thought appropriate since it was time for me to go.
When we two parted
In silence and tears,
To sever for years . . .
I took my leave telling Laura I would look forward to seeing her again. She said that would be fine, but it could not be next Saturday, since that was when she had promised to go for a buggy ride with Peter Cord.
I rode off with my mind in a whirl contemplating the possibilities, and I decided that maybe it would be a good idea to have a talk with Mr. Peter Cord and find out his true intentions regarding Laura.
I took the trail to his farm that lay some miles to the south. I was halfway there when the sound of gunfire caused me to pull Alfred up short. At first, I was afraid some renegade Indians were perhaps on the warpath, but the sound of the gunfire convinced me it was not Indians. I put my heels to Alfred and rode on with cautious haste.
The terrain was hilly with clumps of poplars, and around one bend I saw a saddled horse standing nervously about as the gunplay continued. I dismounted and warily proceeded on foot. Huddled behind a rock and bleeding from a wound in his right shoulder was Peter Cord. He had the look of a trapped animal and I somehow thought that if Laura could see him now, it might bring him down a peg or two in her eyes. I instantly put such petty feelings aside and rushed to the man's aid.
"Corporal Barclay!" he exclaimed, surprised at seeing me. "What are you doing here?"
"I was on patrol and heard the gunshots," I said. "Are you badly hurt?"
"It's not good," he responded.
"What happened?" I asked as I took off his neckerchief and had him hold it against the wound to staunch the bleeding.
"I was riding along and was ambushed by two desperados."
"We will see about that," I said and moved out from behind the rock.
"I am Corporal Barclay of the North-West Mounted Police!" I announced in a loud authoritative voice. "I order you to stop in the Queen's name!"
I was answered by several shots that struck the ground around me, and I once again took refuge behind the rock.
"You can't talk to those men, Barclay," Peter Cord admonished. "Those are very dangerous men you're dealing with."
"I cannot believe they shot at me after I said I was a policeman, after all, I wear the red coat of the Queen," I said amazed.
"They don't care who you are, Barclay, and as for that red jacket, it only makes you a more tempting target."
Perhaps Cord was right, and I decided more forceful methods were required. He had been holding the gun with his left hand, but he was now using that hand to keep from bleeding. I took his gun and drawing my own Smith and Wesson revolver I made my way to a more advantageous position. I spied out my adversaries who had taken cover within a small grove of poplars. One was a tall man with a bright red shirt and white hat. The other wore a black hat, a large black neckerchief that stood out against a white shirt. Both wore two guns but were using rifles. I decided not to call out another warning but began to fire into the trees where they were. No gunfire was returned and soon I heard the beat of horses' hoofs, and I was certain the desperados were in retreat.
Making my way back to Peter Cord, I put him on his horse and the two of us rode on to his small farm. There I saw to his wound, and he took the opportunity to thank me.
"That was a brave thing you did back there, Corporal," he said. "I can't believe you were able to drive them off that way. I thank you kindly."
"You can thank me by telling me who those men are and why they attacked you."
Cord looked at me with a start. "What makes you think I know those men or what they wanted?"
"The way you spoke of them seemed to reflect familiarity," I said.
"I don't know them or what they wanted," he insisted.
"I do not believe that is true," I said, looking him in the eye.
He stared back at me but could not hold my gaze long.
"Alright," he finally said, looking away. "I suppose since you did come to my aid, I'll tell you. The truth is I do know them, and I do know why they ambushed me."
I sat at the table across from him and listened to his story.
"Those two men are outlaws by the name of Tom Wilkinson and Jim Ryan. I knew them down in Montana. At one time not long ago, I was part of their gang. A year ago, I decided to go straight, so I quit them, but found out it ain't that easy to quit Jim Ryan. It's his gang, and he don't like anybody walking away from it. The story goes that Ryan is from Texas and I don't believe I ever met a meaner man. That was one of the reasons I quit his gang. But I did quit and decided to come up here and live the honest life of a farmer. I swear Corporal Barclay, that's the God's-honest truth."
I took this all in and could only think of one thing; once Laura Boscovich learned of Cord's past, she would no longer consider him a right and proper suitor. Still, there had to be a way that I could make certain she would look more favourably in my direction. In a minute I had come up with a way that she would.
I rose from the table and prepared to leave.
"What are you going to do now?" Peter Cord asked anxiously. "Where are you going?"
"I am going after Ryan and his men, of course," I said. "I am going to bring them back and charge them with attempted murder, resisting arrest, and firing a weapon at a member of the Force."
"You can't go after these men, Barclay! You don't know them. They're killers. They don't have any respect for the law. I heard tell Ryan even shot a Texas Ranger when he was down south. These are very dangerous men, Barclay!"
"If they did not want trouble, they should not have come to Canada," I said and left him.
I packed what supplies I might need and rode south following the trail Ryan and his compatriot had made where they ambushed Cord. I lost the trail south of the border and decided to proceed to Fort Benton on the Missouri River.
Fort Benton was one of the last remnants of the now defunct fur trade. It began as a trading post in 1846, and because it could be reached by the steamboats that plied the mighty Missouri, it was heralded as North America's innermost port.
Fort Benton was one of the largest towns I had seen since coming to the western territories. Though it was the largest civilized centre in the west, it bespoke the worst of civilization, that which caters to man's most lowly and sordid weaknesses. On the outskirts of town were dirty whiskey shanties and dens of iniquity. In the town proper were more fancy saloons and what most referred to as hurdy-gurdy establishments. A United States Cavalry infantry had been stationed in Fort Benton to help control the Indian problem but had recently moved out. Their garrison, which was beginning to show signs of decay, was presently being occupied by local residents. I was to learn later that in Fort Benton, the best kept establishments were the ones that made money, namely the bars, saloons, and bawdyhouses. At first appearance I suspected the town lacked any law enforcement whatsoever, but in this I was mistaken. In the centre of town, I found the jailhouse across from the town square where a flagpole proudly flew the red, white and blue stars and stripes, and where also sat a canon that someone had brought as a memento from the American Civil War.
I thought it prudent to check in with the local constabulary, a courtesy call, so-to-speak, from one law enforcement officer to another. I had ridden down to Montana in my frontier garb—fringed buckskins, wide-brimmed hat—but decided I would make a better impression upon the local sheriff in my uniform. Sheriff Jerome Morgan seemed like a competent man, though his physical appearance did not fill one with confidence. Morgan was short and stout, with three-day-old whiskers on his round face. He was slovenly dressed, and his overall demeanour seemed unconcerned with events that did not directly concern him.
"So, you're one of them Mountie-boys I've heard tell of," Sheriff Morgan said in a casual manner. "I just become Sheriff here in Benton eight months ago, but I heard you Canada-boys have been through here before."
"Sheriff Morgan I'm here to inquire into the whereabouts of a known desperado named Jim Ryan. I heard he has a gang and sometimes operates out of Fort Benton."
Morgan nodded slowly. "Yep, I heard of Jim Ryan, and yep, I know where he is."
"That is excellent, Sheriff. He is wanted in Canada and must answer to a number of charges, so if you can tell me where he is I would like—"
My sentence was interrupted by a man who burst into the Sheriff's office and slammed the door behind him. He was a tall man, slightly taller than me and several years older. He wore a large hat with a tall crown and wide brim. His clothes looked more like something a cow-herder might wear, with batwing chaps and a long dusty slicker. His boots were pointed, and his spurs had spiky rowels. A Colt .45 hung on his right hip in a worn leather scabbard.
"I'm lookin' for the sheriff!" the man announced. His brows were heavy, and he sported a wide sweeping moustache. He spoke with a noticeable accent which was enhanced by a rather large wad of chewing tobacco that bulged on the left side of his mouth. "You Morgan?"
Sheriff Morgan nodded and regarded the big man with the same impassive manner he did me—perhaps even more so.
"My name's Dolan, I'm a Texas Ranger," the man said, pulling back his slicker to reveal a tin star within a circle. "I'm here lookin' for a man named Ryan. He's wanted."
"What's he wanted for?" Sheriff Morgan asked impassively.
"Murder. He killed a man down in El Paso a year ago. I'm here to find him and take him back to Texas—dead or alive."
I was slightly taken aback at the Texan's abrupt manner. He certainly seemed the type who needed a lesson in manners.
"Seems like Ryan's a very popular man," Morgan said to Dolan. "This Canada boy is lookin' for Ryan too."
The Texas Ranger looked me up and down from my hat to my spurs, then glared at me and regarded me hostilely. "I don't care who else wants Ryan, I got prior claim. If anyone is going to get hold of that murderer, it's going to be me."
I did not appreciate the man's abrasive impudence—especially coming from a lawman—and was about to tell him so when Sheriff Morgan spoke up.
"It don't make no difference who wants Ryan or who's got prior claim. Fact is I got Ryan locked up in my jail."
"What are the charges?" I wished to know.
"Discharging his weapon in public and resisting arrest."
"What?!" Dolan and I said together.
"Last night Ryan got drunk and started firing his revolver in the street. Some citizens almost got shot. When I went to get Ryan to stop, he threatened me with his weapon and resisted arrest. I managed to knock him insensible and he's in the back locked up."
"With all due respect, Sheriff Morgan," I said, "Ryan fired on a member of the North-West Mounted Police and wounded a farmer while trying to kill him."
"I got you both beat," Dolan proclaimed. "I told you Ryan murdered a man. Well, it just weren't any man. Ryan killed a Texas Ranger, a fellow lawman. As far as I'm concerned, I've got the most right to the man."
"Excuse me Ranger Dolan," I said, "but Ryan committed these crimes in Canada only recently. Your murder is a year old."
"What has that to do with it?" Dolan demanded.
"It took you an entire year to track down Ryan and I found him in a day. Now it would appear to me—"
"Look it here, mister fancy pants, you can't come down here with your fancy red coat and those shiny black boots and arrest an American citizen. I don't very much care what you think or how you do things in Canada. You're in the U.S. of A. now, and your ways ain't our ways. Now Sheriff, when do I get Ryan?"
"You don't," Morgan told him.
"Very good, Sheriff," I said, trying not to gloat too much. "I will make immediate arrangements to—"
"You don't get him either, Corporal Barclay. Ryan stays just where he is until the circuit court judge gets here and decides who gets who."
"Whom," I corrected him.
"What?" Morgan asked.
"The judge will decide who gets whom."
Both men regarded me strangely, and I thought it best to let the matter rest and refrain from correcting them in what they considered the English language.
Neither the Texas Ranger nor I were happy with Sheriff Morgan's decision, but there was little we could do. Dolan told me he was returning to Texas, but I decided to stay in Fort Benton with the hopes that in time I could persuade Morgan to turn Ryan over to me. It did not occur to me to inform the Sheriff that one of the reasons I was intent on bringing Ryan back to Canada was to impress Laura Boscovich, as I did not believe it would be of any of his concern.
I did not have to wait long before something happened. I had made arrangements for Alfred to be cared for in the local hostelry and for a little extra I was allowed to stay in the hay loft. Sometime in the middle of the night I was wakened by some commotion in town. Commotion in Fort Benton was quite common and went late into the evening hours, but something had happened that was of some importance. I went down into the street and heard some people talking about a jailbreak. A large crowd had gathered around the jail, but I did manage to push my way inside. There I found the town doctor bending over Sheriff Morgan who bled freely from what looked like a bullet wound.
"What happened?" I asked.
"From what I can tell, some men came in and busted their friend out of jail," the doctor replied, not looking up for he was busy bandaging up the sheriff.
"How is he?"
"Not good," the doctor replied. "He took a bullet in the chest near his left shoulder."
The voice was weak and hoarse and came from Sheriff Morgan who struggled for breath. I bent over his body.
"I am here, Sheriff."
His eyelids fluttered as he spoke. "They got Ryan. Pick up their trail. They're probably headed south for Coyote Canyon. Bring them back, Barclay. I know you can."
It was all he had the strength to say, and his eyes closed. I left the scene trusting the doctor to see to the wounded sheriff. Arresting Jim Ryan now became more than a means of impressing a girl; now a man who might die entrusted me to bring him in, and I felt duty-bound to do just that.
I asked a few locals how I might find Coyote Canyon, then immediately saddled Alfred and rode south. By morning I picked up the trail of five horses. As I rode on, the terrain had grown rocky, and the trail was getting harder to follow. The day gave way to evening, and I was trying to decide which way to go next when I heard a horse up ahead. I dismounted and moved forward cautiously. As my eyes came to rest upon a strange horse, the hairs on the nape of my neck rose from the feel of cold steel being placed up against the back of my head.
"Put up your hands," said a familiar voice with a southern drawl.
I raised my hands and half turned my head. "Ranger Dolan?" I said.
"If that's the way you sneak up on someone, you won't last long going against Jim Ryan," Dolan said, returning his Colt .45 back into its holster.
"What are you doing here?" I asked.
"I told you; I want Ryan."
"But I thought you left town when Sheriff Morgan refused to hand Ryan over to you."
"That was your mistake," Dolan said. "Say, Barclay, you ain't too bright, are ya?"
I ignored this remark, and he said, "I told you why I want Ryan; why do you want him?"
"As I stated before," I said with a hint of indignation, "Ryan is wanted in Canada for shooting a man and firing upon a member of the Force."
"So you said before," Dolan uttered with a suspicious glare. "What's the real reason?"
"Whatever do you mean?" I said.
"There must be some other reason you're so blamed set on bringing Ryan back with you. What is it?"
I turned away not able to look the Texan in the eye, for I could not tell him my reason for arresting Jim Ryan was more to impress a young lady than upholding the law.
"I suppose you do not know that the men who helped Ryan escape from Fort Benton wounded Sheriff Morgan?" I said. "Before the sheriff lost consciousness, he entrusted me to bring Ryan in."
The Texan ran a hand over his stubbled jaw. "Listen to me, Barclay," Dolan began as if he were about to reveal something important, then thought better of it. "I'm sorry about Morgan, I truly am, but that's the chances we take as lawmen. I know you got some special reason why you want Ryan, but if you don't want to tell me that reason . . . fine. I don't want to know. But what you need to know is that I am going to get him, and I don't need you getting in my way. So why don't you get on that pony of yours and head north until you reach Canada."
"Why not join forces, and after we get Ryan, we can decide what to do with him?" I proposed somewhat judiciously.
"Get it through your head Barclay, I don't want to join forces with you, and I already decided what to do with Ryan!"
I nodded my understanding to him and asked, "Are you opposed to sharing a camp before we part company?"
Dolan shook his head in exasperation. "Do you have coffee?" he asked.
"I have tea," I said.
A short time later we were sipping our tea, or should I say I was sipping, and Dolan was slurping.
"Just what do you boys do up there in Canada, anyway?" the Texas Ranger asked.
"We keep the peace and maintain the rights of all," I responded proudly.
"What's it like up there in Canada—cold?"
"The winters are cold."
"What's the land like?"
"It is . . . big," I said, realizing there was no better way to describe it. "You have never seen a land so big. There are lakes and rivers, and a sea of grass. There are pink and white wild roses, yellow and silver wolf willow, cottonwoods and poplar. Further west are the foothills and the mountains."
"Sounds right nice," he said. "Ever been down to Texas, Barclay?"
"No sir, I have not."
"You should get down there someday. Wide open spaces like your Canada, but we got more desert than snow down there. There's no sea of grass, instead we got sagebrush, and cactus and chaparral, but we do have wild roses. You should get down to Texas someday. Thanks for the tea, Barclay."
Dolan, who had been resting on his haunches, stood up, walked over and mounted his horse.
"It is getting dark," I said. "I planned on camping here for the night." Dolan regarded me questioningly to which I said, "I would be honoured if you shared my camp."
The Ranger looked about and wordlessly climbed down off his horse.
That night I prepared rechaud, which was pemmican fried with onions and potatoes that I purchased in Fort Benton. From his saddlebag Dolan brought forth a still-fresh hare, which he promptly skinned and placed on a spit over our campfire. I explained to Dolan that this was high living for a Mountie on patrol. The Texan had never eaten rechaud before, and in his own way complimented my cooking by saying he had eaten worse. We brought out our bedrolls and placed them on opposite sides of the campfire that was now dwindling coals. Dolan's mood turned sullen and silent, so I thought I might entertain him with a rendition of Shelley's To Night.
Swiftly walk o'er the western wave,
Spirit of night!
Out of the misty eastern cave,
Where all the long and lone daylight,
Thou wovest dreams of joy and fear,
Which make thee terrible and dear,
Swift be thy flight!
When I finished and thought he had fallen to sleep he asked, "What are you doing here, Barclay?"
"The same as you, I suppose."
"No, I mean why did you come west, and why did you want to be a lawman?"
"I never gave it much thought," said I, marvelling that I had never asked myself this question outright. "I suppose it was a way of serving my country, seeing new lands, new people. I wanted to find adventure."
"Is it everything you hoped?"
"Yes sir, it surely is."
"I'm taking' Ryan, Barclay," he said. "This is more than an adventure for me. You can have his compadres if you want."
"I do not want them; I want Ryan," I uttered. "And despite what I said before, I take my duties very seriously."
"Are all you Mountie boys this stubborn?" he asked.
"Only in the performance of our duty."
"Listen here, Barclay," Dolan said, "I don't know why you want Ryan, but I'm going to let you in on a little secret, though I don't know why since it ain't none of your business. I told you the reason I'm bringing Ryan back to Texas was because he murdered a Texas Ranger. But what I didn't tell you, was that the Ranger he killed was my brother. Now, what do you think of that?"
Dolan's announcement left me speechless. Here I was trying to bring in a man simply to impress Laura Boscovich, while Dolan was hoping to see justice done in order to honour a fellow law enforcement officer and a brother. I felt ashamed of myself, but I chose not to reveal this to Dolan.
"Alright, Ranger Dolan, I will help you get Ryan to take him back to Texas," I said.
"Who says I want or need your help?" Dolan said. "We happen to have a saying down in Texas—one riot; one Ranger."
"Simply a neighbourly gesture; decline it if you wish."
"We ain't neighbours, and you weren't invited to this hoedown; so why don't you mosey on back to Canada and arrest a moose or something."
"Alright, Dolan, have it your way," I said, and I turned over in my bedroll and went to sleep.
When I woke in the morning Dolan had already ridden off. I broke camp and continued after the outlaws. Despite what Dolan had said the night before, I was still intent on tracking down Ryan and his men. I had been told by a number of my superiors that I was a very determined man—actually they had all used the term bull-headed, but I believed they meant to say determined. I rode all that day without seeing anyone, though at times I felt I was being followed and assumed it was Dolan, though why he might be behind me, I could not say.
Later that evening I believed I was closing in on Ryan's gang. Finally, I saw the light of a campfire near a copse of poplar. From where I sat, I could still observe the outlaws undetected. The sun had gone down, and I believed I could approach them under the cover of darkness.
Ryan and his men were settling down to a hot supper, and I figured this was the best time to make a move. I made my way stealthily down to the camp. Considering everything I heard regarding Ryan and his men, I decided to approach the desperadoes with my Smith and Wesson revolver drawn. Fortunately for me I am light on my feet and learned to sneak up on people from Andre Messier, a Métis scout. I was practically into the camp before any of them knew it.
I levelled my weapon and announced, "I am Corporal Henry Barclay of the North-West Mounted Police, and I am placing you men under arrest. Which one of you is Jim Ryan?"
A man rose slowly, but with little concern. He was dressed in a bright red shirt and black hat. He was a tough-looking, pug-nose man whose eyes reflected danger and whose mouth spoke of cruelty. This man was not to be trusted and I did not plan on giving him any opportunity for treachery.
"I'm Jim Ryan," he responded, keeping his hands away from the guns that hung at his side. "Do I know you, Mister?"
"You are under arrest for the assault and attempted murder of Mr. Peter Cord."
Comprehension dawned on the face of Ryan. "You're the one who came to his rescue. I recognize the red coat. So you plan on taking me back to Canada, Mountie boy?"
"I can either take you back to Canada, or hand you over to Sheriff Morgan in Fort Benton," I told him. "From what I hear, you are wanted all over. Now you four men are coming with me, and . . . " I stopped short and counted them again. Ryan smiled a wicked smile, and I heard the cock of a revolver very close to my ear.
Up until that moment I believed I had had a short but illustrious career with the North-West Mounted Police. I had faced certain death on a number of occasions. I had battled the elements, faced down whiskey traders, and hostile natives, and though danger was a part of my life, I somehow knew I could always thwart death. I was not afraid of dying, and I always hoped that when my time came, I would face my death with the dignity befitting a member of the Force. It appeared that time was now.
I sat upon Alfred with my hands tied behind my back and a noose around my neck and the other end tied around the feeble branch of a dead tree. Ryan and his men were enjoying my predicament. They brought out a bottle of spirits and were getting intoxicated. Every once in a while one of them would smack Alfred on the rear in mocking jest, but Alfred was an excellent horse who knew his master was in danger and would not do anything to put my life at risk.
It was late now, and a campfire burned. Jim Ryan approached me with his gun drawn.
"Well, Mountie-boy, it looks like this is the end of the trail for you. You got anything to say?"
"I have made my peace with God," I said bravely. "And I have asked the Almighty to have mercy on your souls."
They all laughed at this. Obviously, these were not God-fearing men, and had given no thought to the day of Retribution. Little did they know that day was closer than they thought.
"Raise your hands, you miserable coyotes! I got you covered. One move and I'll fill you full of lead."
They all turned to the darkness where the voice issued. I recognized it as the voice of the Texas Ranger, Dolan. The outlaws raised their hands and Dolan entered the light of the campfire.
"Alright, you polecats," Dolan uttered, "which of you is going to untie him and take that noose from around his neck?" The Ranger glanced around uneasily and said, "There's one of you missing, ain't there?"
I drew in a breath to utter a cry of warning to my rescuer, but too late. One of the outlaws who had slipped into the shadows when Dolan burst onto the scene had worked his way behind the Texan and swinging a rifle like a club had knocked the Ranger senseless.
Dolan revived a short time later and he was not at all pleased with the outcome, for there he sat next to me on his horse with his hands tied behind his back and a noose around his neck.
"Are you alright, Ranger Dolan?" I asked, concerned.
The Ranger took a moment to appreciate his predicament. "If that ain't the most dern foolish question I ever heard," he said regarding me coldly.
"I do not wish you to think I do not appreciate your attempt to help me, Mr. Dolan," I said.
"I don't want to hear it, Barclay," he said. "If you'd listen to me this would never have happened."
"You make it sound as if this were entirely my fault."
"It is entirely your fault!" Dolan spoke.
"I do not see how—"
"That's enough of that," Ryan said. "You two should have knowed better than to try to get the drop on us, and now you're gonna' pay the price."
"Wait," I said. "As condemned men, are we not entitled to a last request?"
The outlaws looked at one another questioningly and shrugged.
"What's your request?" Ryan said.
"I would like the opportunity to recite Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade one last time," I said stoically.
"Do me a favour and kill me now," I heard Dolan mutter under his breath.
"You go ahead and say your last words, Mountie-boy," Ryan said.
I cleared my throat and began my recitation. I chose The Charge of the Light Brigade because it always was a personal favourite of mine. They were fitting words to meet one's end, and plus it was a lengthy piece, and I was determined to remain on this earth as long as possible.
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred . . .
I was only halfway through my recitation when Ryan interrupted and said, "That's enough of that. It's time to breathe your last."
I looked upward and smiled.
"Take heart, Mr. Dolan," I whispered. "They have made a grievous error. They have tied both ropes to the same branch which cannot support our combined weight. When we drop, the branch will break and that is our chance to catch them unaware and make our escape in the dark."
Dolan did not look at me nor change his facial expression, but simply nodded slightly.
Ryan stood nearby and simultaneously slapped our horses on which we sat. The horses bolted and Dolan and I dropped. I felt the noose around my throat tighten, and I waited for the branch to break and anticipated the fall to the ground. As I hung there, the realization was thrust upon me that my calculation regarding our weight breaking the branch was in error. In my long and distinguished career as a member of the North-West Mounted Police I have faced certain death many times, but perhaps no situation ever brought me so near the brink of death as when I hung from the neck and felt the noose tighten around my throat. I grew unaware of my surroundings as everything went dark.
I woke on the ground and Dolan was bending over me offering a cup of water. My head was swimming, and my throat was sore.
"What happened?" I choked out.
"It seems both of us will have to meet our Maker some other time," the Texan said simply, then indicated the outlaws who sat with their hands tied, while standing guard over them with a rifle in his hand was Sheriff Morgan.
"No one invited me to this necktie party, but I figured I'd come anyway," Morgan said, then asked me, "You alright?"
I nodded and asked, "How did you find us?"
"You two weren't the only ones who wanted these men. I know how to follow a trail too, you know. When I arrived, it looked as if you two could use some help."
"But when I left you in Fort Benton, you had been shot in the chest," I said. "I thought you were near death."
"It takes more than one bullet to keep me down," Morgan remarked.
"I, for one, am thankful for your timely arrival Sheriff, and am grateful for assistance."
"That's Barclay's way of sayin' 'much obliged'," Dolan nodded.
We camped there that night and took turns guarding the prisoners. In the morning Dolan, Morgan and I escorted the prisoners to Fort Benton.
The next day I went to see Sheriff Morgan in his office to discuss the prisoner, Ryan. I was not wearing my red serge but had dressed in my buckskin riding clothes. I expressed to Sheriff Morgan that I still was intent on taking Ryan back to Canada to answer charges.
"I'm sorry Corporal Barclay, but I turned Ryan over to Dolan. I figure the murder charge facing Ryan down in Texas took precedent over your charge of attempted murder up in Canada. I'm sorry Barclay, but that's the way it is. If you have charges against any of the other prisoners . . . "
"No thank you, Sheriff," I said disappointed. "I only wanted Jim Ryan and a man named Tom Wilkinson."
"I know Wilkinson," Morgan admitted. "Him and Ryan usually ride together. I'm surprised he wasn't with Ryan when we took the gang. I'll tell you what, Corporal Barclay, if I come across Wilkinson, I'll personally hold him for you. That's the best I can do."
I left the sheriff's office dejected with the intention of leaving Fort Benton immediately. My attention was arrested when I heard my name called out over the din of the noisy street. Texas Ranger Dolan approached me from across the street. He stuck out his right hand in a friendly gesture and I shook it.
"Heading back to Canada, Barclay?" he asked. I nodded. "Yeah, well, I'm taking' Ryan back to Texas today. Listen, Barclay, I'm sorry for the way things turned out, and that you're going back empty-handed. All I can say is better luck next time."
I nodded and turned toward the livery where Alfred was stabled.
"Barclay!" Dolan called out to me. I turned and he said, "How about a drink before I go?"
"I don't drink."
He was slightly taken aback at my disclosure, as if he did not understand what I had just said. Then he nodded and said, "That figures. Come on to the saloon with me anyway. Maybe I can buy you a cup of tea."
I agreed and we entered one of the larger establishments on the main street.
At the bar I noticed a moustachioed man who kept glancing over at us. His actions were suspicious as he endeavoured to appear as if he were not watching us. He was dressed in a white shirt with a black hat and a black neckerchief. Two six-guns hung on his hips. I tried to remember where I had seen the man before.
"You would excuse me for a moment, Mr. Dolan," I said. "I believe I know that man."
I approached the man at the bar who watched me from the corner of his eye.
"Excuse me, sir, but your name would not happen to be Tom Wilkinson, would it?"
As soon as I spoke these words, the room grew eerily silent, and I was aware of men moving away from me.
The man turned and faced me slowly. His eyes narrowed menacingly, and he spoke in a low, gruff voice.
"You ain't in Canada anymore, mister," he said. "Here in Fort Benton people mind their own business."
"How do you know I am from Canada?" I asked. When he did not answer, I continued. "I believe we had a slight altercation some days ago when you and Jim Ryan ambushed Mr. Peter Cord."
"You got anything else to say, mister?" the man said.
"Yes, I do. I am placing you under arrest and taking you back to Canada to answer charges of attempted murder."
The man's right hand moved, and he had almost gotten his gun out of its holster before a bottle crashed onto his head knocking him to the floor unconscious. Dolan stood with the broken neck of a bottle in his hand and said, "I thought maybe you might need some help."
"Thank you, Ranger Dolan."
Dolan and I parted company and I was able to escort Tom Wilkinson back to Canada without incident. I was happy not to be going back empty-handed, and I was eager to see the look on Laura Boscovich's lovely face when I successfully returned with one of the men who tried to kill Peter Cord. Though surely Laura already held me in high esteem, I was certain her admiration could not help but soar when she saw me now.
At Fort Walsh I turned Tom Wilkinson over to the officer of the guardhouse and filled out my report. Upon returning to my sub-station my first patrol took me out to the Boscovich farm. I arrived with a bouquet of black-eyed Susans and, as always, was warmly welcomed by Mr. and Mrs. Boscovich, who were thrilled and amazed at the account of my adventure since I saw them last, from my coming to the aid of Peter Cord to my returning with one of the men who attempted to kill him.
"Where is Laura?" I asked them. "I would like to tell her all about it."
"Oh, she is not here," Mrs. Boscovich said with a heavy Russian accent. "She is over at Peter Cord's farm."
"Peter Cord's farm!" I repeated.
"Yep, yep," Mr. Boscovich said, nodding his head. "Ever since Peter was shot, Laura has been helping him get better."
"She has gone over to visit him every day," Mrs. Boscovich said with suppressed enthusiasm. "With all the time they spent together, it did not take long for them to fall in love."
"In love?" was all I managed to say.
"Yep, yep," Mr. Boscovich added. "Them two plan to marry next spring."
"It will be a fine wedding," Mrs. Boscovich said, moved to tears. "And we want you to be there, Corporal Barclay. After all, you practically saved Peter's life."
"Yes, I did."
I left the Boscovich farm dejected and morose. Sensing my mood Alfred rode me away slowly, plodding along his head hanging down dejected, somewhat like mine. And like a poor Romeo of the wilderness, all my plans and efforts to be with my Juliette had ended not so much tragically, but with a hint of the ironic.
So, whereas the adage was true that the Mountie always gets his man, it was also true that in the end, the Mountie does not always get the girl.