Hoof and Claw
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Brannigan was wanting fresh meat, red meat. Both he and his partner, Long Jackson, were sick to death of trout, stewed apples, and tea. Even fat bacon, that faithful stand-by, was beginning to lose its charm, and to sizzle at them with an unsympathetic note when the trout were frying in it. And when a backwoodsman gets at odds with his bacon, then something has got to be done.
Going noiselessly as a cat in his cowhide larrigans, Brannigan made his way down the narrow trail between the stiff dark ranks of the spruce timber toward the lake. As the trail dipped to the shore he caught a sound of splashing, and stopped abruptly, motionless as a stump, to listen. His trained ears interpreted the sound at once.
"Moose pullin' up water-lily roots!" he muttered to himself with satisfaction. Edging in among the trunks beside the trail to be the better hidden, he crept forward with redoubled caution.
A few moments more and a sparkle of sunlight flashed into his eyes, and through the screening spruce branches he caught sight of the quiet water. There, straight before him, was a dark young moose cow, with a two-months calf at her side, wading ashore through the shadows.
Brannigan raised his rifle and waited till the pair should come within easier range. Cartridges are precious when one lives a five-days' tramp from the nearest settlement; and he was not going to risk the wasting of a single shot. The game was coming his way, and it was the pot, not sport, that he was considering.
Now, no one knew better than Brannigan that it was against the law of New Brunswick to shoot a moose at this season, or a cow moose at any season. He knew, also, that to shoot a cow moose was not only illegal, but apt to be extremely expensive. For New Brunswick enforces her game laws with a brusque and uncompromising rigor; and she values a cow moose at something like five hundred dollars. Brannigan had no stomach for a steak at such price. But he had every reason to believe that at this moment there was not a game-warden within at least a hundred miles of this unimportant and lonely lake at the head of the Ottanoonsis. He was prepared to gamble on this supposition. Without any serious misgivings, he drew a bead on the ungainly animal, as she emerged with streaming flanks from the water and strode up toward the thickets which fringed the white beach. But the calf by her side kept getting in the way, and Brannigan's finger lingered on the trigger, awaiting a clearer shot.
Suddenly a dense thicket, half-a-dozen yards or so distant from the leisurely cow, burst open as with an explosion, and a towering black form shot out from the heart of it. It seemed to overhang the cow for a fraction of a second, and then fell forward as if to crush her to the earth. Brannigan lowered his gun, a look of humorous satisfaction flitting over his craggy features.
"Thank you, kindly, Mr. B'ar," he muttered. "Ther ain't no game-warden on 'arth as kin blame me for that!"
But the matter was not yet as near conclusion as he imagined.The cow, apparently so heedless, had been wideawake enough, and had caught sight of her assailant from the tail of her eye, just in time to avoid the full force of the attack. She leapt aside, and the blow of those armed paws, instead of breaking her back, merely ripped a long scarlet furrow down her flank.
At the same instant she wheeled and struck out savagely with one razor-edged fore-hoof. The stroke caught the bear glancingly on the shoulder, laying it open to the bone.
Had the bear been a young one, the battle thus inauspiciously begun might have gone against him, and those lightning hooves, with their far-reaching stroke, might have drawn him in blood and ignominy to refuge in a tree. But this bear was old and of ripe experience. As if daunted by the terrific buffet he drew back, upon his haunches, seeming to shrink to half his size.
The outraged cow came on again furious and triumphant, thinking to end the matter with a rush. The bear, a wily boxer, parried her next stroke with a blow that broke her leg at the hock. Then his long body shot out again and upward, to its full height, and crashed down upon her neck, with a sick twist that snapped the vertebr? like chalk. She collapsed like a sack of shavings, her long dark muzzle, with red tongue protruding, turned upward and backward, as if she stared in horror at her doom.
The bear set his teeth into her throat with a windy grunt of satisfaction.
At that moment Brannigan fired. The heavy soft-nosed bullet crashed home. The bear lifted himself straight up on his hind legs, convulsively pawing at the air, then dropped on all fours, ran round in a circle with his head bent inwards, and fell over on his side. The calf, which had stood watching the fight in petrified amazement, had recovered the use of its legs with a bound at the shock of the report, and shambled off into the woods with a hoarse bleat of terror.
Hugely satisfied with himself, Brannigan strode forth from his hiding and examined his double prize. The bear being an old one, he had no use for it as food, now that he was assured of a supply of choice moose-venison; for he knew by experience the coarseness and rankness of bear-meat, except when taken young.
Touching up the edge of his hunting knife on the sole of his larrigan, he skinned the bear deftly, rolled up the heavy pelt, and tied it with osier-withes for convenience in the lugging. Then, after a wash in the lake, he turned back to fetch his partner and the drag, that they might haul the dead moose to the camp and cut it up conveniently at home. Glancing back as he vanished up the trail, he saw the orphaned calf stick its head out from behind a bush and stare after him pathetically.
"Mebbe I'd oughter shoot the little beggar too," he mused, "or the bears 'll jest get it!" But being rather tender-hearted where all young things were concerned, he decided that it might be big enough to look after itself, and so should have its chance.
A half hour later, when Brannigan and his partner, hauling the drag behind them briskly, got back to the lake, they found the calf standing with drooped head beside the body of its mother. At their approach it backed off a dozen yards or so to the edge of the bushes, and stood gazing at them with soft, anxious eyes.
"Best knock the ca'f on the head, too, while we're about it," said Long Jackson practically. "It looks fat an' juicy."
But Brannigan, his own first impulse in regard to the poor youngster now quite forgotten, protested with fervor.
"Hell!" he grunted, good-naturedly. "Ain't yer got enough fresh meat in this 'ere cow I've foraged fer ye? I've kinder promised that there unfortunate orphant she shouldn't be bothered none."
"She's too young yet to fend fer herself. The b'ars 'll git her, if we don't," argued Long Jackson.
But Brannigan's sympathies, warm if illogical, had begun to assert themselves with emphasis.
"This 'ere's my shindy, Long," he answered doggedly. "An' I say the poor little critter 'd oughter have her chance. She may pull through. An' good luck to her, ses I! We got all the fresh meat we want."
"Oh, if ye're feeling that way about the orphant, Tom, I ain't kickin' none," answered Jackson, spitting accurate tobacco-juice upon a small white boulder some ten or twelve feet distant. "I was only thinkin' we'd save the youngster a heap of trouble if we'd jest help her go the way of her ma right now."
"You ax her fer her opinion on that p'int!" grunted Brannigan, tugging the carcass of the moose on to the drag.
Long Jackson turned gravely to the calf.
"Do ye want to be left to the b'ars and the h'a'nts, in the big black woods, all by yer lonesome?" he demanded.
The calf, thus pointedly addressed, backed further into the bush and stared in mournful bewilderment.
"Or would ye rather be et, good an' decent, an' save ye a heap o' frettin'?" continued Long Jackson persuasively.
A bar-winged moose-fly, that vicious biter, chancing to alight at that moment on the calf's ear, she shook her lank head vehemently.
"What did I tell ye?" demanded Brannigan dryly. "She knows what she wants!"
"Kinder guess that settles it," agreed Long Jackson with a grin, spitting once more on the inviting white boulder. Then the two men set the rope traces of the drag over the homespun shoulders, and, grunting at the first tug, started up the trail with their load.
The calf took several steps forward from the thicket, and stared in distraction after them. She could not understand this strange departure of her mother. She bleated several times, hoarsely, appealingly; but all to no effect. Then, just as the drag, with its dark, pathetic burden, was disappearing around a turn of the trail, she started after it, and quickly overtook it with her ungainly, shambling run. All the way to the cabin she followed closely, nosing from time to time at the unresponsive figure on the drag.
Brannigan, glancing back over his shoulder from time to time, concluded that the calf was hungry. Unconsciously, he had come to accept the responsibility for its orphaned helplessness, though he might easily have put all the blame upon the bear. But Brannigan was no shirker. He would have scorned any such sophistry. He was worrying now over the question of what he could give the inconveniently confiding little animal to eat. He decided, at length, upon a thin, lukewarm gruel of corn-meal, slightly salted, and trusted that the sturdiness of the moose stomach might survive such a violent change of diet. His shaggy eyebrows knitted themselves over the problem till Long Jackson, trudging at his side, demanded to know if he'd "got the bellyache."
This being just the affliction which he was dreading for the calf, Brannigan felt a pang of guilt and vouchsafed no reply.
Arriving at the cabin, Jackson got out his knife, and was for setting to work at once on the skinning and cutting up. But Brannigan intervened with prompt decision.
"Don't ye be so brash, Long," said he. "This 'ere's Mary. Hain't yer got no consideration for Mary's feelings? She's comin' to stop with us; an' it wouldn't be decent to go cuttin' up her ma right afore her eyes! You wait till I git her tied up 'round behind the camp. Then I'll go an' fix her some corn-meal gruel, seein's we haven't got no proper milk for her." And he proceeded to unhitch the rope from the drag.
Jackson heaved a sigh of resignation, seated himself on the body of the slain cow, and fished up his stumpy black clay pipe from the depths of his breeches pocket.
"So ye're goin' to be Mary's ma, eh?" he drawled, with amiable sarcasm. "If ye'd jest shave that long Irish lip o' yourn, Tom, she'd take ye fer one o' family right enough."
He ducked his head and hoisted an elbow to ward off the expected retort; but Brannigan was too busy just then for any fooling. Having rubbed his hands and sleeves across the hide of the dead mother, he was gently approaching the calf, with soft words of caress and reassurance. It is improbable that the calf had any clear comprehension of the English tongue, or even of Brannigan's backwoods variant of it. But she seemed to feel that his tones, at least, were not hostile. She slightly backed away, shrinking and snorting, but at length allowed Brannigan's outstretched fingers to approach her dewy muzzle. The smell of her mother on those fingers reassured her mightily. Being very hungry, she seized them in her mouth and fell to sucking them as hard as she could.
"Pore little eejut," said Brannigan, much moved by this mark of confidence, "ye shall have some gruel quick as I kin make it." With two fingers between her greedy lips and a firm hand on the back of her neck, he had no difficulty in leading her around behind the cabin, where he tied her up securely, out of sight of the work of Long Jackson's industrious knife.
* * * * * *
On Brannigan's gruel Mary made shift to survive, and even to grow, and soon she was able to discard it in favor of her natural forage of leaves and twigs. From the first she took Brannigan in loco parentis, and, except when tied up, was ever dutifully at his heels. But she had a friendly spirit toward all the world, and met Long Jackson's advances graciously. By the end of autumn she was amazingly long-legged, and lank, and awkward, with an unmatched talent for getting in the way and knocking things over. But she was on a secure footing as member of the household, petted extravagantly by Brannigan and cordially accepted by Long Jackson as an all-round good partner. As Jackson was wont to say, she was not beautiful, but she had a great head when it came to choosing her friends.
As would naturally be supposed, Mary, being a member of the firm, had the free run of the cabin, and spent much of her time therein, especially at meals or in bad weather. But she was not allowed to sleep indoors, because Brannigan was convinced that such a practice would not be good for her health. At the same time she could not be left outdoors at night, the night air of the wilderness being sometimes infected with bears, lynxes, and wild-cats. A strong pen, therefore, was built for her against the end wall of the cabin, very open and airy, but roofed against the rain and impervious to predatory claws. In this pen she was safe, but not always quite happy; for sometimes in the still dark of the night, when Brannigan and Long Jackson were snoring in their hot bunks within the cabin, she would see an obscure black shape prowling stealthily around the pen, and hungry eyes would glare in upon her through the bars. Then she would bawl frantically in her terror. Brannigan would tumble from his bunk and rush out to the rescue. And the dread black shadow would fade away into the gloom.
When winter settled down upon the wilderness, it did so with a rigor intended to make up for several mild seasons.
The snow came down, and drove, and drifted, till Mary's pen was buried so deep that a tunnel had to be dug to her doorway. Then set in the long, steady, dry cold, tonic and sparkling, but so intense that the great trees would crack under it with reports like pistol shots upon the death-like stillness of the night. But all was warmth and plenty at the snow-draped cabin; and Mary, though she had no means of knowing it, was without doubt the most comfortable and contented young moose in all Eastern Canada. She was sometimes a bit lonely, to be sure, when Brannigan and Jackson were away on their snow-shoes, tending their wide circuit of traps, and she was shut up in her pen. At such times, doubtless, her inherited instincts hankered after the companionship of the trodden mazes of the "moose yard." But when her partners were at home, and she was admitted to the cabin with them, such faint stirrings of ancestral memory were clean forgotten. There was no companionship for Mary like that of Brannigan and Long Jackson, who knew so consummately how to scratch her long, waggling ears.
But Fate, the hag, growing jealous, no doubt, of Mary's popularity, now turned without so much as a snarl of warning and clawed the happy little household to the bone. In some inexplicable, underhanded way, she managed to set fire to the cabin in the night, when Brannigan and Jackson were snoring heavily. They slept, of course, well clad. They awoke choking, from a nightmare. With unprintable remarks, they leapt from their bunks into a scorching smother of smoke, snatched up instinctively their thick coats and well-greased larrigans, fumbled frantically for the latch, and burst out into the icy, blessed air. Mary was bawling with terror, and bouncing about in her pen as if all the furies were after her.
Brannigan snatched her door open, and she lumbered out with a rush, knocking him into the snow, and went floundering off toward the woods. But in a couple of minutes she was back again and stood trembling behind Long Jackson.
At first both woodsmen had toiled like demons, dashing the snow in armfuls upon the blazing camp; but the fire, now well established, seemed actually to regard the fluffy snow as so much more congenial fuel. Knowing themselves beaten, they drew back with scorched faces and smarting eyes and stood watching disconsolately the ruin of their home. Mary thrust her long-muzzled head around from behind her partners, and wagged her ears, and stared.
In the face of real catastrophe the New Brunswick backwoodsman does not rave and tear his hair. He sets his teeth and he does a good deal of thinking. Presently Brannigan spoke.
"I noticed ye come away in a hurry, Long!" he remarked drily. "Did ye think to bring anything to eat with ye?"
"Nary bite!" responded Jackson. "I've brung along me belt – it was kind of tangled up wi' the coat – an' me knife's in it, all right." He felt in the pockets of his coat. "Here's baccy, an' me pipe, an' a bit o' string, an' a crooked nail! Wish't I'd know'd enough to eat a bigger supper last night! I hadn't no sort of an appetite."
"I've got me old dudheen," said Brannigan, holding up his stubby black clay. "An' I've got two matches, jest two, mind yer! An' that's all I hev got."
They filled their pipes thoughtfully and lit them frugally with a blazing splinter from the wood pile.
"Which is nearest," queried Jackson, "Conroy's Upper Camp, or Gillespie's, over to Red Brook?"
"Conroy's, sure," said Brannigan.
"How fur, would ye say?" insisted Jackson, who really knew quite as much about it as his partner.
"In four foot o' soft snow, an' no snowshoes, about ten thousan' mile!" replied Brannigan consolingly.
"Then we'd better git a move on," said Jackson.
"I'm thinkin' we ain't got no time to waste starin' at bonfires," agreed Brannigan.
They turned their backs resolutely and headed off through the night and the snow toward Conroy's Camp, many frozen leagues to the south-eastward. Mary, bewildered and daunted, followed close at Brannigan's heels. And they left their blazing home to roar and fume and vomit sparks and flare itself out in the unheeding solitude.
Accustomed as they were to moving everywhere on snowshoes in the winter, the two woodsmen found it infinitely laborious and exhausting to flounder their way through a four-foot depth of light snow. They took half-mile turns, as near as they could guess, at going ahead to break the way.
Once they thought of putting this job upon Mary. But it was not a success. Mary didn't want to go ahead. Only with assiduous propulsion could they induce her to lead; and then her idea of the direction of Conroy's Camp seemed quite unformed. Sometimes she would insist upon being propelled sideways. So they soon gave up the plan, and let her take her place in the rear, which her humility seemed to demand.
Both men were in good condition, powerful and enduring. But in that savage cold their toil ate up their vitality with amazing speed. With plenty of food to supply the drain, they might have fought on almost indefinitely, defying frost and fatigue in the soundness of their physique. But the very efficiency of their bodily machinery made the demand for fuel come all the sooner. They smoked incessantly to fool their craving stomachs, till their pipes chanced to go out at the same time. Much too provident to use one of their two matches, which might, later on, mean life or death to them, they chewed tobacco till their emptiness revolted at it.
Then, envious of Mary, who browsed with satisfaction on such twigs and saplings as came in her way, they cut young fir branches, peeled them, scraped the white inner bark, and chewed mouthfuls of the shavings. But it was too early for the sap to be working up, and the stuff was no more eatable than sawdust. They speedily dropped this unprofitable foraging, pulled their belts tighter, and pushed on with the calm stoicism of their breed.
Long Jackson was first to call for a halt. The pallid midwinter dawn was spreading up a sky of icy opal when he stopped and muttered abruptly —
"If we can't eat, we must rest a spell."
Brannigan was for pushing on, but a glance at Jackson's face persuaded him.
"Give us one o' them two matches o' yourn, Long," said he. "If we don't hev' a fire, we'll freeze, with nothin' in our stommicks."
"Nary match, yet," said Jackson doggedly. "We'll need 'em worse later on."
"Then we'll have to warm ourselves huggin' Mary," laughed Brannigan. It was a sound proposition. They scooped and burrowed a deep pit, made Mary lie down, and snuggled close against her warm flanks, embracing her firmly. Mary had been for some time hankering after a chance to rest her long legs and chew her cud, so she was in no way loath. With head uplifted above her reclining partners, she lay there very contentedly, ears alert and eyes half closed. The only sound on the intense stillness was the slow grind of her ruminating jaws and the deep breathing of the two exhausted men.
Both men slept. But, though Mary's vital warmth was abounding and inexhaustible, the still ferocity of the cold made it perilous for them to sleep long. In a half-hour Brannigan's vigilant subconsciousness woke him up with a start. He roused Jackson with some difficulty. They shook themselves and started on again, considerably refreshed, but ravenously hungry.
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