| An old timer tells a
young member of the Force about an incident in the early
days when patrol on horseback were the usual thing.
“Funny you should mention the name Johnson, son,”
the old-timer said to me. “Used t’know a man by that name.
We didn’t like him atall. Rode the dickens out him too. But
we were mighty sorry for that, one day. Yessir, mighty
sorry.” He slowly shook his gray head. “Poor old Johnson. …
Y’know, son. I learned one thing from him, though.” He
pointed the stem of his pipe at me. “You can never really judge a
man from his face or actions until the chips are down. Yessir,
Johnson taught me that. Poor old Johnson. I wonder where he
From his seat in the swivel chair behind the big
desk, the old-timer paused and stared reflectively at the closed door
of the detachment. Beneath his white, bushy moustache, his lips
were curled into a faint reminiscent smile. Striking a match he
lit his pipe.
Tonight, I told myself, the old-timer has a
story. Not wanting to interrupt him when he got started, I
quickly and quietly took the chair by the typewriter, loosened my
tunic, leaned back against the wall and waited. The graveyard
shift can be long sometimes; especially when duties are few. And
being fresh out of Depot, I hadn’t quite got used to it yet, although I
was trying hard. And I think the old-timer sensed this. He came
into the office two or three nights a week. Sometimes we played
crib, sometimes we just talked. That is, he talked, I
listened. Like tonight.
“Walter Isaiah Johnson was his full name, son,” the
old-timer began again. “The laziest man I ever met in my
life. He stood six foot seven in his socks. Had a head like
a pin with two small black eyes, cold and aloof. How that man
He chuckled to himself, blew smoke into the air,
then continued: “I often wondered why he ever joined up. It
wasn’t for the pay. Not in those days, anyway. Maybe it was
because of his legs. He had the strongest pair of legs which ever
girt a horse. Bar none. Yep! Wouldn’t atall be surprised if
that weren’t the reason. I guess he figured he could take it
easy. Sort of wrap those legs of his round the horse and
relax. And get paid for it, too.”
“We’d just started training a couple of days when
Walt – that’s what I used to call him – arrived. Late, as
usual. He told the sergeant-major he’d fallen asleep on the
train. Got off at Broadview instead of Regina. Mind you,
son he told the truth. But sometimes – Well, y’know what I mean,
son, it’s a wise man who uses his baser self on occasions. But
that was Walt. And that’s the way he told it. And as you
can imagine, the sergeant-major wasn’t pleased.”
The old-timer winked at me, and we both laughed.
After a while, he went on: “Well, the word
soon spread round barracks, as it does, and the boys took up the
sabre. They ribbed him a plenty. It would’ve stopped soon
if it hadn’t been for Walt’s attitude. He didn’t give a smart one
back. He didn’t smile. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t get
sore. He didn’t do nothing. Just looked at ‘em with
contempt written all over him.
“We got pretty sore at old Walt. He acted that
way all the time. We began to think he felt he was too good for
us. Actually, son, I believe now he just didn’t give a damn for
anyone. Not even himself. There’s men in this world like
I nodded to assure him I believed him. He
sucked on his pipe, then commenced to shake it, trying to force the
juice out of the stem.
“Anyway,” the old-timer went on, “as you would
expect, things went from bad to worse for him. He took a terrible
ridin’. But it didn’t bother him. Ridin’ him had as much
effect as shootin’ peas at that there filing cabinet. They just
bounced off him without leavin’ a dent.”
The old-timer got up off the chair and went over to
lean against the counter.
“In the gym we’d try to get him to put on the
gloves. He’d put ‘em on all right. But at the first punch
he’d get a sprained finger or ankle or something’. Always
somethin’ he could think of.” He stopped to clear his
throat. “Then we got to thinkin’ he was a bit yella. And
that was the worst thing of all. The boys stopped talking to
him. Ignored him completely. That would’ve bothered the
ordinary man. But it didn’t bother Walt. Nosir. That suited
“But why,” I asked, bewildered, “why didn’t they
“Discharge him?” the old-timer said, interrupting
me. He smiled. “Perhaps, son, the powers that be saw a
little more’n we did. Anyway the day came when we were all to
change our minds about him. I can remember it just as clear as if
it happened right here only five minutes ago. I’ll never forget
He came back and sat down in the chair. He put
his pipe aside, crossed his legs and looked at me.
“It was spring and we were ridin’ in the school when
the sergeant sent Johnson and me out to exercise our horses. The
sergeant used to like to do that so’s we’d get used to ridin’ on our
own. I had an old mare by the name of Nora. Johnson was on
Stub. They called him Stub because he was the stubbornest piece
of horseflesh you ever did see. I’m sure he must’ve been sired by
a mule. Mud - how that cussed horse hated mud. Get
him out on the prairie and if you let him hit a dry spot, you walked
home. It took more’n three men to get him movin’ again and back
to the stable.
“Well, this day everyone sorta thought Walt was in
for it. We’d had a chinook the last few days and a hot sun.
The prairie just looked like thousands of small lakes and rivers.
Mud everywhere y’looked. Prairie mud, thick and gooey.
“We clopped along, taking it easy. I didn’t
speak to Walt. He probably wouldn’t have answered anyways.
Instead, I pulled out my ocarina and began to play. It was real
nice, son, though I knew Walt didn’t appreciate my music. But I
liked to think I was keeping him awake. Soon we came to the gully
on this side of the main line railroad tracks. You know the place
“Well,” he continued, “we went along the gully for a
short distance and then had to cross the tracks. I pulled into
the lead, Indian fashion, with Walt following. I crossed the
tracks. And no sooner had I got over when I heard a train
whistle. I stopped playing. I knew it was the No. 10.
The local to Saskatoon in my time.”
“Still is,” I said.
The old-timer nodded. “I let the first blast
go, and was about to carry on with my tune to the gophers when if that
darn whistle didn’t go again. That sorta startled me, son.
Most times the No. 10 scooted by without even one toot. Getting
curious, I turned in my saddle to have a look.
“Son,” the old-timer said, leaning forward on one
knee. “I couldn’t believe my eyes.” He reached over to the
desk and pointed to the ink well. “Here, the No. 10 is coming
down the track for all she’s worth. Here” – he pointed at the
stapler on the far side of the desk – “is Stub with Walt on his back
parked plumb in the centre of the track. I almost fell clear off
my mount. I knew right away what’d happened. Stub had found
a dry spot on the grade.
“I yelled to Walt: ‘Get off’m! Get
off’m!’ Walt climbed off. He yanked, pushed, pulled and
cussed at Stub. The whistle of the train became a long
shriek. Stub moved a bit – but now that dang horse was facing the
“Walt kept on trying to get him off the
tracks. I never heard him speak so much, if y’call cussin’
speakin’. But I knew he’d never budge that goat. There
wasn’t time to do anythin’.
“’For gosh sake, Walt,’ I hollered, “Leave him
be. Get off the tracks!’
“Walt looked at me. Then at the train.
It couldn’t have been any more’n half a mile away. Then, so help
me, son, if he didn’t jump back into the saddle!
“I froze as I watched him. With all the power
in those big legs of his he began giving Stub a terrific
pounding. It was unmerciful punishment. The kind only Walt
could give to a horse.
“Already I could hear the sickening grind of metal
on metal as the brakes of the engine began to take hold. Then the
Devil himself took a hand here; Stub lowered his head like a bull and
shot forward – straight down the centre of the tracks toward the No. 10
with Walt still on his back. I prayed, son, I prayed, loud and
“They were no more’n fifty feet apart, galloping
madly toward each other. Walt’s spurs still diggin’ when I saw
Walt yank the reins viciously - ”
The old-timer stopped and mopped his brow. I found myself on the
edge of my seat.
I asked breathlessly, “What happened?”
The old-timer spoke in a whisper: “When Walt yanked,
Stub swerved and toppled over into the gully. Walt went with
him. The train missed ‘em by inches.”
“Whew!” I exclaimed.
“Yep, son. She was a close call. Walt
wasn’t even scratched. That man had a horseshoe round his neck
the day he was born. He’d been thrown clear. But he was mud
from the tip of his Stetson to the sole of his boots. Stub wasn’t
“Well, son, to cut a long story short, Walt dug
himself out of the mud, got Stub on his feet and climbed back on.
Just like that. Then he waved to the engineer, showing the train
boys he was all right.
“I was still shakin’ like a leaf when he rode up to
me, scrapin’ some of the mud off. And I was sore. “Look,
stupid,” I said to him – he wasn’t the type you could feel sorry for at
any time, son – ‘since when did you start riskin’ your neck for an
ornery horse. Y’gone crazy?” My hands were tremblin’ as I
held the reins. It wasn’t a nice thing t’see, son. I
imagined myself pickin’ up pieces of him here and there all over the
prairie. I guess I wasn’t in any frame of mind to think things
“Walt looked at me a long time before he
spoke. I shrivelled under that look, son. Contempt was
still written all over him; but there was a sorta patience in his
“When I was a kid, Luke,’ Walt said to me, ‘I saw a
train hit a cow. The cow had been standing still in the centre of
the track. When the smoke cleared, every car, including the
engine had been derailed. Ten people died in that wreck. If
that cow had been moving, either toward or away from the train, ten to
one the engine’s catcher would’ve tossed it clear. None of the
cars would’ve been derailed then. Nobody would’ve been
killed. Come on, let’s get heading back. I’m wet – ‘”
At that moment the telephone rang in the office,
interrupting the old-timer. I answered it. It was a call
from one of the cafes in town. They were having a little trouble
with a noisy customer. I left quickly.
And as I drove away from the detachment in the
police car, I couldn’t help asking myself what I would have done had I
been in Walt’s shoes. What would you have done?