Stories of the Border Marches - John Lang

Dandy Jim the Packman

It was the back end of the year. The crops were all in, and but little was left of the harvest moon that had seen the Kirn safely won on the farms up "Ousenam" Water. A disjaskit creature she looked as the wind drove a scud of dark cloud across her pale face, or when she peered over the black bank below her, only to be hidden once more by an angry drift of rain. It was no night for lonely wayfarers. Oxnam and Teviot were both in spate, and their moan could be heard when the wind rested for a little and allowed the fir trees to be still. Only for very short intervals, however, did the tireless wind cease, and always, after a short respite, the trees were attacked again, and made to beck and bow their dark heads like the nodding plumes of a hearse. The road from Crailing was in places dour with mud, heavy-rutted by harvest carts, with ever and anon a great puddle that stretched across from ditch to ditch. But dismal or not dismal, the night had apparently no evil effect on the spirits of the one man who was trudging his homeward way from Crailing to Eckford.

Dandy Jim, the packman, was a young fellow who wanted more than evil weather and a dreich, black night to depress him. A fine, upstanding lad he was, with a glib English tongue that readily sold his wares, and which, along with a handsome, merry face, helped him with ease into the good graces of those whom he familiarly knew as "the lasses." Dandy Jim had had many a flirtation, but now he felt that his roving days were nearly past. He was seriously thinking of matrimony.

"She's a bonny lass," thought he contemplatively, dwelling on the charms of the young cook at the farmhouse he had left just past midnight, "bonny and thrifty, and as fond o' a laugh as I am mysel. That bit shop as ye come out o' Hexham, with red roses growing up the front o't, and fine-scented laylock bushes at the back, that would do us fine. . . ."

And so, safely wrapped up in happy plans and in thoughts of his apple-cheeked lady-love, Jim manfully splashed through puddles and tramped through mud, conscience free, and fearful of nothing in earth or out of it. The graveyard at Eckford possessed no horrors for him. "Bogles," quoth he, "what's a bogle? I threw muckle Sandy, the wrestler, at Lammas Fair, an' pity the bogle that meddles wi' me."

But, nevertheless, Jim, glancing towards the old church with its surrounding tombstones as he went by, saw something he did not expect, and quickly checked the defiant whistle that is, somehow, an infallible aid to the courage of even the bravest. There was a light over there among the graves, a flickering light that the wind lightly tossed, and that, somehow, did not suggest likeable things, even to Dandy Jim. Stock-still he stood for a couple of minutes watching the yellow glimmer among the tombstones, and then, with grim suspicion in his mind, he walked up to the churchyard gate. Nowadays we have only an occasional "watch-tower" in an old kirkyard, or a rusted iron cage over a grass-grown grave to remind us of times when human hyŠnas prowled abroad after nightfall, and carried off their white, cold prey to be chaffered for by surgeons for the dissecting-rooms. But Dandy Jim's day was the day of Burke and Hare, of Dr. Knox, and of many another murderous and scientific ghoul, and a lantern's gleam in a churchyard in the small hours usually meant but one thing. As he expected, a gig stood at the churchyard gate; a bony, strong-shouldered, chestnut mare tethered to the gate-post, munching, mouth in nose-bag. In the gig was a sack, standing upright—a remarkably tall sack, five foot ten high at least, stiffly balanced against the seat.

"Aye, aye," said Jim to himself, "it was a six-foot coffin when they planted Jock the day. Him an' me was much of an age and of a height, poor lad; and here he is now, off to Edinburgh to be made mincemeat of."

But even as he thought, he acted. The mare threw up an inquiring head as she felt a light step in the gig, and a sudden lightening of her load. But the wind wailed round the church and the rain beat down, dimming the glass in the flickering lantern, and every now and then Jim could hear a pick striking against a stone or a heavy thud as of a spadeful of damp earth being beaten down. Out of the gig came the sack, and out of the sack speedily came the packman's erstwhile acquaintance, Jock. A gap in the hedge across the road conveniently accommodated Jock's unresisting body, over he went into the next field, and once again the mare started as Dandy Jim sprang into the gig with one bound and quickly struggled into the empty sack. He was only just in time. A parting clatter of pickaxe and thud of spade, a swing of the lantern, that sent a yellow light athwart some grey old headstones, rough voices and hasty steps, and two men appeared, pushed their implements into the back of the gig, released the mare from her nose-bag, clambered in, one on either side of the upright sack, and drove off at a quick trot.

For some time they proceeded in silence.

"A good haul," at last one man remarked; "a young chap—in fine condition."

"A heavy load for the little mare," said he who held the reins; "fifteen stone if he's a pound. Not an easy one to tackle afore he died for want o' breath."

Packman Jim lurched against the speaker ere the words were well out of his mouth. With an oath the man shoved him back, and Jim stiffly leaned against the seat in as nearly the attitude of the corpse, to whom he was acting as understudy, as he was able to assume. They had got a little beyond Kalefoot, and the flooded river was sending its moaning voice above the sough of the wind and the drip of the rain when one of the men spoke again to his companion. His voice was husky, and he spoke in a low tone as though he feared some eavesdropper.

"Before God, man," he said, "I can feel the body moving." The other, in his voice all the horror of a dread he had been trying to hide, answered in a shrill scream, "It's warm, I tell ye!—the corpse is warm!"

Then came Dandy Jim's opportunity. His face was white enough in the uncertain glimmer of the gig's lamps when he thrust his head out of the sack and looked first at one and then at another of his companions. In a deep and hollow voice he spoke:

"If you had been where I hae been, your body would burn too," said he.

A screech and a roar were, according to Dandy Jim, the result of his remark, and on either side of the gig a man cast himself out into the darkness, the rain, and the mud, and ran—ran—in heedless terror for an unknown sanctuary. What happened to the pair no subsequent historian has recorded, but when Dandy Jim shortly afterwards wed an apple-cheeked cook and took up his abode in a rose-covered cottage near Hexham, he no longer trudged the Border roads with a pack on his back, but drove a useful gig, drawn by a very willing, strong-shouldered, chestnut mare.