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Ballads of a Cheechako
Robert W. Service
Clancy of the Mounted Police
In the little Crimson Manual it's written plain and clear
That who would wear the scarlet coat shall say good-bye to fear;
Shall be a guardian of the right, a sleuth-hound of the trail --
In the little Crimson Manual there's no such word as "fail" --
Shall follow on though heavens fall, or hell's top-turrets freeze,
Half round the world, if need there be, on bleeding hands and knees.
It's duty, duty, first and last, the Crimson Manual saith;
The Scarlet Rider makes reply: "It's duty -- to the death."
And so they sweep the solitudes, free men from all the earth;
And so they sentinel the woods, the wilds that know their worth;
And so they scour the startled plains and mock at hurt and pain,
And read their Crimson Manual, and find their duty plain.
Knights of the lists of unrenown, born of the frontier's need,
Disdainful of the spoken word, exultant in the deed;
Unconscious heroes of the waste, proud players of the game,
Props of the power behind the throne, upholders of the name:
For thus the Great White Chief hath said, "In all my lands be peace",
And to maintain his word he gave his West the Scarlet Police.
Livid-lipped was the valley, still as the grave of God;
Misty shadows of mountain thinned into mists of cloud;
Corpselike and stark was the land, with a quiet that crushed and awed,
And the stars of the weird sub-arctic glimmered over its shroud.
Deep in the trench of the valley two men stationed the Post,
Seymour and Clancy the reckless, fresh from the long patrol;
Seymour, the sergeant, and Clancy -- Clancy who made his boast
He could cinch like a bronco the Northland, and cling to the prongs of the Pole.
Two lone men on detachment, standing for law on the trail;
Undismayed in the vastness, wise with the wisdom of old --
Out of the night hailed a half-breed telling a pitiful tale,
"White man starving and crazy on the banks of the Nordenscold."
Up sprang the red-haired Clancy, lean and eager of eye;
Loaded the long toboggan, strapped each dog at its post;
Whirled his lash at the leader; then, with a whoop and a cry,
Into the Great White Silence faded away like a ghost.
The clouds were a misty shadow, the hills were a shadowy mist;
Sunless, voiceless and pulseless, the day was a dream of woe;
Through the ice-rifts the river smoked and bubbled and hissed;
Behind was a trail fresh broken, in front the untrodden snow.
Ahead of the dogs ploughed Clancy, haloed by steaming breath;
Through peril of open water, through ache of insensate cold;
Up rivers wantonly winding in a land affianced to death,
Till he came to a cowering cabin on the banks of the Nordenscold.
Then Clancy loosed his revolver, and he strode through the open door;
And there was the man he sought for, crouching beside the fire;
The hair of his beard was singeing, the frost on his back was hoar,
And ever he crooned and chanted as if he never would tire: --
"I panned and I panned in the shiny sand, and I sniped on the river bar;
But I know, I know, that it's down below that the golden treasures are;
So I'll wait and wait till the floods abate, and I'll sink a shaft once more,
And I'd like to bet that I'll go home yet with a brass band playing before."
He was nigh as thin as a sliver, and he whined like a Moose-hide cur;
So Clancy clothed him and nursed him as a mother nurses a child;
Lifted him on the toboggan, wrapped him in robes of fur,
Then with the dogs sore straining started to face the Wild.
Said the Wild, "I will crush this Clancy, so fearless and insolent;
For him will I loose my fury, and blind and buffet and beat;
Pile up my snows to stay him; then when his strength is spent,
Leap on him from my ambush and crush him under my feet.
"Him will I ring with my silence, compass him with my cold;
Closer and closer clutch him unto mine icy breast;
Buffet him with my blizzards, deep in my snows enfold,
Claiming his life as my tribute, giving my wolves the rest."
Clancy crawled through the vastness; o'er him the hate of the Wild;
Full on his face fell the blizzard; cheering his huskies he ran;
Fighting, fierce-hearted and tireless, snows that drifted and piled,
With ever and ever behind him singing the crazy man.
"Sing hey, sing ho, for the ice and snow,
And a heart that's ever merry;
Let us trim and square with a lover's care
(For why should a man be sorry?)
A grave deep, deep, with the moon a-peep,
A grave in the frozen mould.
Sing hey, sing ho, for the winds that blow,
And a grave deep down in the ice and snow,
A grave in the land of gold."
Day after day of darkness, the whirl of the seething snows;
Day after day of blindness, the swoop of the stinging blast;
On through a blur of fury the swing of staggering blows;
On through a world of turmoil, empty, inane and vast.
Night with its writhing storm-whirl, night despairingly black;
Night with its hours of terror, numb and endlessly long;
Night with its weary waiting, fighting the shadows back,
And ever the crouching madman singing his crazy song.
Cold with its creeping terror, cold with its sudden clinch;
Cold so utter you wonder if 'twill ever again be warm;
Clancy grinned as he shuddered, "Surely it isn't a cinch
Being wet-nurse to a looney in the teeth of an arctic storm."
The blizzard passed and the dawn broke, knife-edged and crystal clear;
The sky was a blue-domed iceberg, sunshine outlawed away;
Ever by snowslide and ice-rip haunted and hovered the Fear;
Ever the Wild malignant poised and panted to slay.
The lead-dog freezes in harness -- cut him out of the team!
The lung of the wheel-dog's bleeding -- shoot him and let him lie!
On and on with the others -- lash them until they scream!
"Pull for your lives, you devils! On! To halt is to die."
There in the frozen vastness Clancy fought with his foes;
The ache of the stiffened fingers, the cut of the snowshoe thong;
Cheeks black-raw through the hood-flap, eyes that tingled and closed,
And ever to urge and cheer him quavered the madman's song.
Colder it grew and colder, till the last heat left the earth,
And there in the great stark stillness the bale fires glinted and gleamed,
And the Wild all around exulted and shook with a devilish mirth,
And life was far and forgotten, the ghost of a joy once dreamed.
Death! And one who defied it, a man of the Mounted Police;
Fought it there to a standstill long after hope was gone;
Grinned through his bitter anguish, fought without let or cease,
Suffering, straining, striving, stumbling, struggling on.
Till the dogs lay down in their traces, and rose and staggered and fell;
Till the eyes of him dimmed with shadows, and the trail was so hard to see;
Till the Wild howled out triumphant, and the world was a frozen hell --
Then said Constable Clancy: "I guess that it's up to me."
Far down the trail they saw him, and his hands they were blanched like bone;
His face was a blackened horror, from his eyelids the salt rheum ran;
His feet he was lifting strangely, as if they were made of stone,
But safe in his arms and sleeping he carried the crazy man.
So Clancy got into Barracks, and the boys made rather a scene;
And the O. C. called him a hero, and was nice as a man could be;
But Clancy gazed down his trousers at the place where his toes had been,
And then he howled like a husky, and sang in a shaky key:
"When I go back to the old love that's true to the finger-tips,
I'll say: 'Here's bushels of gold, love,' and I'll kiss my girl on the lips;
'It's yours to have and to hold, love.' It's the proud, proud boy I'll be,
When I go back to the old love that's waited so long for me."
"Black is the sky, but the land is white --
(O the wind, the snow and the storm!) --
Father, where is our boy to-night?
Pray to God he is safe and warm."
"Mother, mother, why should you fear?
Safe is he, and the Arctic moon
Over his cabin shines so clear --
Rest and sleep, 'twill be morning soon."
"It's getting dark awful sudden. Say, this is mighty queer!
Where in the world have I got to? It's still and black as a tomb.
I reckoned the camp was yonder, I figured the trail was here --
Nothing! Just draw and valley packed with quiet and gloom;
Snow that comes down like feathers, thick and gobby and gray;
Night that looks spiteful ugly -- seems that I've lost my way.
"The cold's got an edge like a jackknife -- it must be forty below;
Leastways that's what it seems like -- it cuts so fierce to the bone.
The wind's getting real ferocious; it's heaving and whirling the snow;
It shrieks with a howl of fury, it dies away to a moan;
Its arms sweep round like a banshee's, swift and icily white,
And buffet and blind and beat me. Lord! it's a hell of a night.
"I'm all tangled up in a blizzard. There's only one thing to do --
Keep on moving and moving; it's death, it's death if I rest.
Oh, God! if I see the morning, if only I struggle through,
I'll say the prayers I've forgotten since I lay on my mother's breast.
I seem going round in a circle; maybe the camp is near.
Say! did somebody holler? Was it a light I saw?
Or was it only a notion? I'll shout, and maybe they'll hear --
No! the wind only drowns me -- shout till my throat is raw.
"The boys are all round the camp-fire wondering when I'll be back.
They'll soon be starting to seek me; they'll scarcely wait for the light.
What will they find, I wonder, when they come to the end of my track --
A hand stuck out of a snowdrift, frozen and stiff and white.
That's what they'll strike, I reckon; that's how they'll find their pard,
A pie-faced corpse in a snowbank -- curse you, don't be a fool!
Play the game to the finish; bet on your very last card;
Nerve yourself for the struggle. Oh, you coward, keep cool!
I'm going to lick this blizzard; I'm going to live the night.
It can't down me with its bluster -- I'm not the kind to be beat.
On hands and knees will I buck it; with every breath will I fight;
It's life, it's life that I fight for -- never it seemed so sweet.
I know that my face is frozen; my hands are numblike and dead;
But oh, my feet keep a-moving, heavy and hard and slow;
They're trying to kill me, kill me, the night that's black overhead,
The wind that cuts like a razor, the whipcord lash of the snow.
Keep a-moving, a-moving; don't, don't stumble, you fool!
Curse this snow that's a-piling a-purpose to block my way.
It's heavy as gold in the rocker, it's white and fleecy as wool;
It's soft as a bed of feathers, it's warm as a stack of hay.
Curse on my feet that slip so, my poor tired, stumbling feet --
I guess they're a job for the surgeon, they feel so queerlike to lift --
I'll rest them just for a moment -- oh, but to rest is sweet!
The awful wind cannot get me, deep, deep down in the drift."
"Father, a bitter cry I heard,
Out of the night so dark and wild.
Why is my heart so strangely stirred?
'Twas like the voice of our erring child."
"Mother, mother, you only heard
A waterfowl in the locked lagoon --
Out of the night a wounded bird --
Rest and sleep, 'twill be morning soon."
Who is it talks of sleeping? I'll swear that somebody shook
Me hard by the arm for a moment, but how on earth could it be?
See how my feet are moving -- awfully funny they look --
Moving as if they belonged to a someone that wasn't me.
The wind down the night's long alley bowls me down like a pin;
I stagger and fall and stagger, crawl arm-deep in the snow.
Beaten back to my corner, how can I hope to win?
And there is the blizzard waiting to give me the knockout blow.
Oh, I'm so warm and sleepy! No more hunger and pain.
Just to rest for a moment; was ever rest such a joy?
Ha! what was that? I'll swear it, somebody shook me again;
Somebody seemed to whisper: "Fight to the last, my boy."
Fight! That's right, I must struggle. I know that to rest means death;
Death, but then what does death mean? -- ease from a world of strife.
Life has been none too pleasant; yet with my failing breath
Still and still must I struggle, fight for the gift of life.
* * * * *
Seems that I must be dreaming! Here is the old home trail;
Yonder a light is gleaming; oh, I know it so well!
The air is scented with clover; the cattle wait by the rail;
Father is through with the milking; there goes the supper-bell.
* * * * *
Mother, your boy is crying, out in the night and cold;
Let me in and forgive me, I'll never be bad any more:
I'm, oh, so sick and so sorry: please, dear mother, don't scold --
It's just your boy, and he wants you. . . . Mother, open the door. . . .
"Father, father, I saw a face
Pressed just now to the window-pane!
Oh, it gazed for a moment's space,
Wild and wan, and was gone again!"
"Mother, mother, you saw the snow
Drifted down from the maple tree
(Oh, the wind that is sobbing so!
Weary and worn and old are we) --
Only the snow and a wounded loon --
Rest and sleep, 'twill be morning soon."
We talked of yesteryears, of trails and treasure,
Of men who played the game and lost or won;
Of mad stampedes, of toil beyond all measure,
Of camp-fire comfort when the day was done.
We talked of sullen nights by moon-dogs haunted,
Of bird and beast and tree, of rod and gun;
Of boat and tent, of hunting-trip enchanted
Beneath the wonder of the midnight sun;
Of bloody-footed dogs that gnawed the traces,
Of prisoned seas, wind-lashed and winter-locked;
The ice-gray dawn was pale upon our faces,
Yet still we filled the cup and still we talked.
The city street was dimmed. We saw the glitter
Of moon-picked brilliants on the virgin snow,
And down the drifted canyon heard the bitter,
Relentless slogan of the winds of woe.
The city was forgot, and, parka-skirted,
We trod that leagueless land that once we knew;
We saw stream past, down valleys glacier-girted,
The wolf-worn legions of the caribou.
We smoked our pipes, o'er scenes of triumph dwelling;
Of deeds of daring, dire defeats, we talked;
And other tales that lost not in the telling,
Ere to our beds uncertainly we walked.
And so, dear friends, in gentler valleys roaming,
Perhaps, when on my printed page you look,
Your fancies by the firelight may go homing
To that lone land that haply you forsook.
And if perchance you hear the silence calling,
The frozen music of star-yearning heights,
Or, dreaming, see the seines of silver trawling
Across the sky's abyss on vasty nights,
You may recall that sweep of savage splendor,
That land that measures each man at his worth,
And feel in memory, half fierce, half tender,
The brotherhood of men that know the North.
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