Dandy Jim the
Packman by John
& Jean Lang
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 hyænas 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
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
"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.