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- Northern Lights, Volume 5. - 1/11 -


[NOTE: There is a short list of bookmarks, or pointers, at the end of the file for those who may wish to sample the author's ideas before making an entire meal of them. D.W.]

NORTHERN LIGHTS

By Gilbert Parker

Volume 5.

THE ERROR OF THE DAY THE WHISPERER AS DEEP AS THE SEA

THE ERROR OF THE DAY

The "Error of the Day" may be defined as "The difference between the distance or range which must be put upon the sights in order to hit the target and the actual distance from the gun to the target."--Admiralty Note.

A great naval gun never fires twice alike. It varies from day to day, and expert allowance has to be made in sighting every time it is fired. Variations in atmosphere, condition of ammunition, and the wear of the gun are the contributory causes to the ever-varying "Error of the Day."

.........................

"Say, ain't he pretty?"

"A Jim-dandy-oh, my!"

"What's his price in the open market?"

"Thirty millions-I think not."

Then was heard the voice of Billy Goat--his name was William Goatry

"Out in the cold world, out in the street; Nothing to wear, and nothing to eat, Fatherless, motherless, sadly I roam, Child of misfortune, I'm driven from home."

A loud laugh followed, for Billy Goat was a popular person at Kowatin in the Saskatchewan country. He had an inimitable drollery, heightened by a cast in his eye, a very large mouth, and a round, good-humoured face; also he had a hand and arm like iron, and was altogether a great man on a "spree."

There had been a two days' spree at Kowatin, for no other reason than that there had been great excitement over the capture and the subsequent escape of a prairie-rover, who had robbed the contractor's money-chest at the rail-head on the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Forty miles from Kowatin he had been caught by, and escaped from, the tall, brown-eyed man with the hard-bitten face who leaned against the open window of the tavern, looking indifferently at the jeering crowd before him. For a police officer he was not unpopular with them, but he had been a failure for once, and, as Billy Goat had said: "It tickled us to death to see a rider of the plains off his trolley--on the cold, cold ground, same as you and me."

They did not undervalue him. If he had been less a man than he was, they would not have taken the trouble to cover him with their drunken ribaldry. He had scored off them in the past in just such sprees as this, when he had the power to do so, and used the power good-naturedly and quietly--but used it.

Then, he was Sergeant Foyle of the Royal North-West Mounted Police, on duty in a district as large as the United Kingdom. And he had no greater admirer than Billy Goat, who now reviled him. Not without cause, in a way, for he had reviled himself to this extent, that when the prairie- rover, Halbeck, escaped on the way to Prince Albert, after six months' hunt for him and a final capture in the Kowatin district, Foyle resigned the Force before the Commissioner could reproach him or call him to account. Usually so exact, so certain of his target, some care had not been taken, he had miscalculated, and there had been the Error of the Day. Whatever it was, it had seemed to him fatal; and he had turned his face from the barrack yard.

Then he had made his way to the Happy Land Hotel at Kowatin, to begin life as "a free and independent gent on the loose," as Billy Goat had said. To resign had seemed extreme; because, though the Commissioner was vexed at Halbeck's escape, Foyle was the best non-commissioned officer in the Force. He had frightened horse thieves and bogus land-agents and speculators out of the country; had fearlessly tracked down a criminal or a band of criminals when the odds were heavy against him. He carried on his cheek the scars of two bullets, and there was one white lock in his brown hair, where an arrow had torn the scalp away as, alone, he drove into the Post a score of Indians, fresh from raiding the cattle of an immigrant trailing north.

Now he was out of work, or so it seemed; he had stepped down from his scarlet-coated dignity, from the place of guardian and guide of civilisation, into the idleness of a tavern stoop.

As the little group swayed round him, and Billy Goat started another song, Foyle roused himself as though to move away--he was waiting for the mail-stage to take him south:

"Oh, father, dear father, come home with me now, The clock in the steeple strikes one; You said you were coming right home from the shop As soon as your day's work was done. Come home--come home--"

The song arrested him, and he leaned back against the window again. A curious look came into his eyes, a look that had nothing to do with the acts of the people before him. It was searching into a scene beyond this bright sunlight and the far green-brown grass, and the little oasis of trees in the distance marking a homestead and the dust of the wagon- wheels, out on the trail beyond the grain-elevator-beyond the blue horizon's rim, quivering in the heat, and into regions where this crisp, clear, life-giving, life-saving air never blew.

"You said you were coming right home from the shop As soon as your day's work was done. Come home--come home--"

He remembered when he had first heard this song in a play called 'Ten Nights in a Bar-room', many years before, and how it had wrenched his heart and soul, and covered him with a sudden cloud of shame and anger. For his father had been a drunkard, and his brother had grown up a drunkard, that brother whom he had not seen for ten years until--until--

He shuddered, closed his eyes, as though to shut out something that the mind saw. He had had a rough life, he had become inured to the seamy side of things--there was a seamy side even in this clean, free, wide land; and he had no sentimentality; though something seemed to hurt and shame him now.

"As soon as your day's work was done. Come home--come home--"

The crowd was uproarious. The exhilaration had become a kind of delirium. Men were losing their heads; there was an element of irresponsibility in the new outbreak likely to breed some violent act, which every man of them would lament when sober again.

Nettlewood Foyle watched the dust rising from the wheels of the stage, which had passed the elevator and was nearing the Prairie Home Hotel far down the street. He would soon leave behind him this noisy ribaldry of which he was the centre. He tossed his cheroot away. Suddenly he heard a low voice behind him.

"Why don't you hit out, sergeant?" it said.

He started almost violently, and turned round. Then his face flushed, his eyes blurred with feeling and deep surprise, and his lips parted in a whispered exclamation and greeting.

A girl's face from the shade of the sitting-room was looking out at him, half-smiling, but with heightened colour and a suppressed agitation. The girl was not more than twenty-five, graceful, supple, and strong. Her chin was dimpled; across her right temple was a slight scar. She had eyes of a wonderful deep blue; they seemed to swim with light. As Foyle gazed at her for a moment dumfounded, with a quizzical suggestion and smiling still a little more, she said:

"You used to be a little quicker, Nett." The voice appeared to attempt unconcern; but it quivered from a force of feeling underneath. It was so long since she had seen him.

He was about to reply, but, at the instant, a reveller pushed him with a foot behind the knees so that they were sprung forward. The crowd laughed--all save Billy Goat, who knew his man.

Like lightning, and with cold fury in his eyes, Foyle caught the tall cattleman by the forearm, and, with a swift, dexterous twist, had the fellow in his power.

"Down--down, to your knees, you skunk," he said in a low, fierce voice.

The knees of the big man bent,--Foyle had not taken lessons of Ogami, the Jap, for nothing--they bent, and the cattleman squealed, so intense was the pain. It was break or bend; and he bent--to the ground and lay there. Foyle stood over him for a moment, a hard light in his eyes, and then, as if bethinking himself, he looked at the other roisterers, and said:

"There's a limit, and he reached it. Your mouths are your own, and you can blow off to suit your fancy, but if any one thinks I'm a tame coyote to be poked with a stick--!" He broke off, stooped over, and helped the man before him to his feet. The arm had been strained, and the big fellow nursed it.

"Hell, but you're a twister!" the cattleman said with a grimace of pain.

Billy Goat was a gentleman, after his kind, and he liked Sergeant Foyle with a great liking. He turned to the crowd and spoke.

"Say, boys, this mine's worked out. Let's leave the Happy Land to Foyle.


Northern Lights, Volume 5. - 1/11

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