the supertramp - W.H.Davies - proseClick image for Davies home



I NOW left Baltimore, travelling alone, making my way as fast as possible towards Chicago, where a canal was being built to facilitate commerce between that large inland city, and deep water, at which place I soon arrived.

On the banks of that canal were assembled the riff-raff of America and the scum of Europe; men who wanted no steady employment, but to make easy and quick stakes-for the pay was good-so as to indulge in periodical sprees, or in rare instances, for the more laudable purpose of placing themselves in a better position to apply for more respectable employment. They came and went in gangs, for the work was so hard that there were few men that did not require a week's rest after a month's labour. So much for the rough but honest working element. But unfortunately these canal banks were infested by other gangs, who did not seek work, and yet were often to be seen loafing about the various camps. Then how did these men live? For they could not successfully beg, seeing that work was to be had for the asking. Perhaps the explanation is that seldom a day passed but what a dead body was dragged out of the water, and more than two-thirds of these bodies bore the marks of murder. The bodies were not those of men coming from the city in search of employment, but of such men as had been known to have quit work a few days previous, having then had a month's or more pay On their persons, and who had been on the way to the city for enjoyment. Yes, these loafers were undoubtedly the thugs and murderers, and if a man was inclined to hazard his life, all he had to do was to make it known that he on the following day was to draw his earnings, with the intention of walking the canal banks to one of the distant towns. It was hardly likely that he would reach his destination, but would be taken out of the canal some days later-a murdered man. To defeat the purpose of these unscrupulous life-takers, the more timid workmen waited for one another until they were sufficiently strong in number to discharge themselves and travel without fear. But alas! there was many a man who prided himself on his own heart and muscles for protection and dared the journey alone. At the time of which I write there had been no houses built on those banks, therefore no women walked to and fro, and no children played there. No doubt such are to be seen there at the present day, innocent of the violence and the blood that was shed there in the past.

I had applied for work at one of these camps and being sickened of the same in a little more than three weeks demanded my earnings at the same time Cockney Tom and Pat Sheeny drew theirs, with the intention of accompanying them to Chicago. Being somewhat delayed in business, owing to the absence of the timekeeper, and being then compelled to remain for dinner, we soon saw the impossibility of reaching the city before midnight. Therefore it was arranged between us that we should settle for the night at some place halfway between the camp and the city, and rise early so as to enter the latter before noon on the following day. With this intention we started, after receiving dinner and pay, and after several hours' walk settled down.

There would be six hours' darkness and it was proposed that I should keep awake for the first two hours' watch, after which Cockney Tom would relieve me, and Pat would then keep watch until daybreak.

Now, in my two hours' watch I had on several occasions heard a stir in the adjoining bush, but not being able to see whether it was a man or a beast, I had not thought it necessary to alarm my companions. At last I considered my duty to be at an end, and, after rousing Cockney Tom, settled for sleep. Before I closed my eyes I noticed that the second watch was still lying recumbent, although he seemed to be wide awake; but I was too intent on my own sleep to care whether he would be faithful to his trust or not. I don't think I could have been asleep more than fifteen minutes when I was startled by a loud shout and, springing to my feet was just in time to see Cockney Tom in pursuit of one who was then entering the bush. The Irishman was also up, and we both followed the chase. We soon reached our companion, finding him standing dazed and confused as to which way the quarry had gone. He explained to us that when on watch he was lying down with his eyes closed, but with his ears wide open, and all his mental faculties at work. Suddenly, he heard a step near and opening his eyes saw a stranger standing within three feet of him. It was at that moment that he gave the alarm, but the stranger was too fleet to be overtaken. 'No doubt,' said Cockney, 'there is a gang of them at no short distance from here and if we are wise, we will continue our journey at once. I have seen the man's face before, at the camp, and know I shall recognise him if we meet again.' His advice of continuing our journey was hardly necessary, for sleep was now out of the question.

In less than a week after the above incident we three, having squandered our earnings in Chicago, were back at the old camp seeking re-employment. There happened to be only one vacancy, which the Irishman persuaded Cockney to accept, whilst we two would travel on to the next camp, a distance of two miles. We were about to do this when the boss ganger asked me if I would like a position in the boarding shanty as assistant cook. Knowing that an assistant cook meant no more than carrying water, peeling potatoes, washing dishes, keeping a good fire and opening cans of condensed meat and preserves-I felt quite confident in undertaking such a position. So the Cockney and I started to work at once, but before doing so, arranged for the keep of Pat until a vacancy occurred, his meals to be entered to our account. The next morning his chance came and he was set to work.

We had been working four days, and on the evening of that fourth day we three and a number of others were resting ourselves in a quiet place near the camp. Whilst seated there, smoking and talking, there came along four strangers, who seated themselves some distance from us, but within earshot of our conversation. No one paid much heed to them, for it was not unusual to be visited by strangers in quest of work. But there was one man who could not keep his eyes from them, and that was Cockney Tom. 'Yes,' he said to me after several long puffs at his pipe, 'that stranger, showing us his side face, is the very man who attempted to rob us.' Saying this the Cockney took off his cap and laying it carefully on the ground with its inside uppermost, placed therein his dirty clay pipe, as gently as a woman putting a sleeping babe in its cradle-and to the no small surprise of his companions began to address them in this oratorical fashion: 'Gentlemen, some time ago a man attempted to rob me and two others, and ever since then I have been longing to meet him face to face. At last we meet, and I would like to know what is to be done with him.' 'Why, give him a good hiding, of course,' cried several angry voices. On hearing this the Cockney at once turned towards the strangers - whom he had hitherto pretended not to notice-and in three bounds was standing over them. Placing his hands on the shoulders of one he said in a calm voice, 'This is my man.' The man referred to rose deliberately to his feet, as though he had expected this, and his companions did likewise. 'Well,' said he, 'what is the trouble?' 'You know quite well,' replied the Cockney, 'so you may as well strip without further question.' Whatever the stranger was, he certainly was no coward, for his coat and waistcoat were soon in the hands of his companion. The Cockney lost no time, and the next minute they stood squaring before each other in such a scientific way as promised the onlookers a most interesting exhibition. Although the stranger was the taller of the two, the Cockney seemed to possess the longer reach. Round after round they fought, and in spite of their heavy and muddy boots the footwork was neat, and the dodging of their heads and the feinting of their arms made the more gentle onlookers overlook the drawing of blood. There was no wrestling, or mauling on the ground, and there was no attempt at foul blows, for each of the principals seemed to value the favour of that most appreciative assembly. It looked more like a friendly exhibition than two men attempting to take life. The spectators laughed approval and buzzed with admiration until even the bleeding men, hearing this, chaffed one another, and smiled at each other grimly with their battered faces. Yes, it seemed friendly enough until the tenth round when the Cockney, who the round previous seemed to show signs of weariness, called to his assistance some latent force which set his arms to work like a pair of axes On a tree, and down his opponent fell, and the battle was lost and won. The stranger was borne away by his companions, and Cockney Tom returned to the camp to dress his injuries, which did not prevent him from work on the following day. The Cockney was well pleased with this exploit, and if his opponent was one of those thugs and murderers, who had taken an active part in perhaps fifty or sixty murders, he would certainly be lucky if he never met with severer punishment.