Hoof and Claw
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"Whatever would we have done without Mary?" commented Brannigan.
"Ay, ay!" agreed Jackson.
All the interminable day they pushed on stoically through the soft, implacable snow-depths, but stopping ever more and more frequently to rest, as the cold and the toil together devoured their forces.
At night they decided that one of the precious matches must be used. They must have a real fire and a real sleep, if they were to have any chance of winning through to Conroy's Camp. They made their preparations with meticulous care, taking no risk. After the deep trench was dug, they made a sound foundation for their fire at one end of it. They gathered birch bark and withered pine shavings and kindlings of dead wood, and gathered a store of branches, cursing grimly over their lack of an axe. Then Jackson scratched one match cautiously. It lit: the dry bark curled, cracked, caught; the clear young flame climbed lithely through the shavings and twigs. Just then an owl, astonished, flew hurriedly through the branches far overhead. He stirred a branch heavily snow-laden. With a soft swish a tiny avalanche slid down, fell upon the fire, and blotted it out. Indignantly the two men pounced upon it and cleared it off, hoping to find a few sparks still surviving. But it was as dead as a last year's mullein stalk.
Comment was superfluous, discussion unnecessary. Fire, that night, they must have. They scooped a new trench, clear in the open. They used the last match, and they built a fire so generous that for a while they could hardly endure its company in the trench. Mary, indeed, could not endure it, so she stayed outside. They smoked and they talked a little, not of their chances of making Conroy's Camp, but of baked pork and beans, fried steak and onions, and enormous boiled puddings smothered in butter and brown sugar. Then they slept for some hours. When the fire died down Mary came floundering in and lay down, beside them, so they did not feel the growing cold as soon as they should.
When they woke, they were half frozen and savage with hunger. There were still red coals under the ashes, so they revived the fire, smoked, and got themselves thoroughly warm. Then, with belts deeply drawn in, they resumed their journey in dogged silence. According to the silent calculation of each, the camp was still so far ahead that the odds were all against their gaining it. But they did not trouble to compare their calculations or their hopes. Toward evening Long Jackson began to go to pieces badly. He had a great frame, and immense muscular power, but, being gaunt and stringy, he had no reserves of fat in his hard tissues to draw upon in such an emergency as this. In warm weather his endurance would have been, no doubt, equal to Brannigan's. Now the need of fuel for the inner fire was destroying him. The enforced rests became more and more frequent. At last he grunted —
"I'm the lame duck o' this here outfit, Tom. Ye'd better push on, bein' so much fresher'n me, an' git the boys from the camp to come back for me."
Brannigan laughed derisively.
"An' find ye in cold storage, Long! Ye'd be no manner o' use to yer friends that way.Ye wouldn't be worth comin' back fer." Jackson chuckled feebly and dropped the subject, knowing he was a fool to have raised it. He felt it was good of Brannigan not to have resented the suggestion as an insult.
"Reach me a bunch o' them birch twigs o' Mary's," he said. Having chewed a few mouthfuls and spat them out, he got up out of the snow and plunged on with a burst of new determination.
"That's where Mary's got the bulge on us," remarked Brannigan. "Ef we could live on birch-browse, now, I'd be so proud I wouldn't call the King my uncle."
"If Mary wasn't our pard, now," said Jackson, "we'd be all right. I'm that hungry I'd eat her as she stands, hair an' all."
Responding to a certain yearning note in Jackson's voice, Mary rubbed her long muzzle against him affectionately and nibbled softly at his sleeve.
Brannigan flushed. He was angry because his partner had voiced a thought which he had been at pains to banish from his own consciousness.
"Ef it hadn't a' been fer Mary, we wouldn't be alive now," said he sternly. "She's kep' us from freezin'."
"Oh, ye needn't git crusty over what I've said, Tom," replied Jackson, rubbing the long brown ears tenderly. "Mary's jest as much my pardner as she is yourn, an' I ain't no cannibal. We'll see this thing through with Mary, on the square, you bet. But– ef 'twasn't Mary– that's all I say!"
"Right ye are, Long," said Brannigan, quite mollified. But later in the day, as he glanced at his partner's drawn, sallow-white face, Brannigan's heart misgave him. He loved the confiding Mary quite absurdly; but, after all, as he reminded himself, she was only a little cow moose, while Long Jackson was a Christian and his partner. His perspective straightened itself out.
At last, with a heavy heart, he returned to the subject.
"Ye was right, Long," said he. "Ef we don't make Conroy's Camp purty soon, we'll hev to – well, it'll be up to Mary! Poor Mary! But, after all, she's only a little moose cow. An' I'm sure she'd be proud, ef she could understand!"
But Jackson was indignant, as he went laboring on, leaning upon Mary's powerful shoulder.
"Not much," he snorted feebly. "Ther' ain't goin' to be no killin' of Mary on my account, an' don't ye forgit it! 'Twouldn't do good, fer I wouldn't tech a sliver of her, not ef I was dyin'. An' it would jest be on-pleasant fer Mary."
Brannigan drew a breath of relief, for this meant at least a postponement of the unhappy hour. "Jest as ye like, Long!" he grunted. But he clenched his teeth on the resolution that, the moment his partner should become too weak for effective protest, Mary should come promptly to the rescue. After all, whatever Mary's own opinion on the subject, it would be an end altogether worthy of her. He drove a whole rabble of whimsical fancies through his mind, as he labored resolutely onward through the snow. But his mittened hand went out continuously to caress Mary's ears, pleading pardon for the treason which it planned.
The midwinter dark fell early, and fell with peculiar blackness on Jackson's half-fainting eyes. He was leaning now on Mary's shoulders with a heaviness which that young person began to find irksome. She grunted complainingly at times, and made good-natured attempts to shake him off. But she had been well trained, and Brannigan's voice from time to time kept her from revolt. Brannigan was now watching his partner narrowly in the gloom, noting his movements and the droop of his head, since he could no longer make much of his face. He was beginning to feel, with a heavy heart, that the end of poor Mary's simple and blameless career was very close at hand.
He was busily hardening his heart with forced frivolities. He felt his long knife. He slipped his mittens into his pocket that his stroke might be sure, swift, and painless, but his fingers shook a little with strong distaste. Then his eyes, glancing ahead, caught a gleam of yellow light through the tree-trunks. He looked again, to assure himself, and calmly pulled on his mittens.
"Mary," said he, "you've lost the chance o' yer life. Ye ain't goin' to be no hero, after all!"
"What're ye gruntin' about, Tom?" demanded Jackson dully, aroused by the ring in his partner's voice.
"There's Conroy's Camp right ahead!" cried Brannigan. Then he fell to shouting and yelling for help. Jackson straightened himself, opened his eyes wide, saw the light, and the sudden increase of it as the camp door was flung open, heard answering shouts, and collapsed sprawling on Mary's back. He had kept going for the last few hours on his naked nerve.
It was food Long Jackson wanted – food and sleep. And on the following day he was himself again. At dinner, beside the long plank table built down the middle of the Camp, he and Brannigan devoured boiled beans and salt pork and stewed dried apples, gulped down tins of black tea, and jointly narrated their experience to the interested choppers and teamsters, while Mary, shut up in the stables, munched hay comfortably and wondered what had become of her partners. They were big-boned, big-hearted children, these men of the New Brunswick lumber camps, quick in quarrel, quick in sentiment, but cool and close-lipped in the face of emergency. The "boss" of the camp, however, was of a different type – a driving, hard-eyed Westerner, accustomed to the control of lumber gangs of mixed races, and his heart was as rough as his tongue. In a lull in the talk he said suddenly to the visitors —
"We're about sick o' salt pork in this camp, mates, an' the fresh beef ain't been sent out from the Settlement yit. Coin's been too heavy. That fat young moose critter o' yourn'll come in mighty handy jest now. What d'ye want fer her as she stands?"
Long Jackson set down his tin of tea with a bump and looked at the speaker curiously. But Brannigan thought it was a joke, and laughed.
"Cow-moose comes high in New Brunswick, Mr. Clancy," said he pleasantly, "as ye must a' been here long enough to know."
"Oh, that's all right," answered the boss; "but there ain't a game-warden within a hundred miles o' this camp, an' I'd risk it if there was. What'll ye take?"
Brannigan saw that the proposal was a serious one, and his face stiffened.
"Where Mary's concerned," said he, speaking with slow precision, "I guess me an' my pardner here's all the game-wardens that's required. It's close season all year round fer Mary, an' she ain't fer sale at any price."
There was a moment's silence, broken only by a shuffle of tin plates on the table. Then Long Jackson said —
"An' that's a fact, Mr. Clancy."
The boss made a noise of impatience between his teeth. He was not used to being opposed, but he could not instantly forget that these visitors were his guests.
"Well," said he, "there ain't no property right in a moose, anyhow!"
"We think ther' be," replied Brannigan, "an' we know that there little moose-cow's our'n an' not fer sale at no price, what-so-ever!"
The boss was beginning to get angry at this incomprehensible attitude of his guests.
"Ther' ain't no property rights, I tell ye, in any wild critter o' these here woods. This critter's in my stables, an' I could jest take her, seein' as my hands needs her, without no talk o' payin' fer the privilege. But you two boys has been burnt out an' in hard luck, so I'll give ye the price o' good beef for the critter. Ye kin take it or leave it. But I'm going to kinder requisition the critter."
As he spoke he rose from his seat, as if to go and carry out his purpose on the instant. There had been already growls of protest from the men of the camp, who understood, as he could not, the sentiment of their guests; but he gave no heed to it. His seat was furthest from the door. But before he had taken two strides, Long Jackson was at the door, and had snatched up a heavy steel-shod "peevy." Having not yet quite recovered, he was still a bit excitable for a woodsman.
"Damn you, Jim Clancy, none o' yer butcherin'!" he shouted. Clancy sprang forward with an oath, but right in his path rose Brannigan, quiet and cold.
"Ye better hold on, Mr. Clancy," said he, "an' think it over. It's that little moose-critter what's jest seen us through, an' I guess we'll see her through, too, Jackson an' me!"
His tone and manner were civility itself, but his big lean fist was clenched till the knuckles went white.
Clancy paused. He was entirely fearless, whether it were in a fight or a log-jam. But he was no fool, and his vocation forced him to think quickly. He realized suddenly that in the temper of his visitors was a resolution which would balk at nothing. It would do him no good to have killing in the camp, even if he were not himself the victim. All this he saw at one thought, in the fraction of a flash. He saw also that his men would be against him. He choked back his wrath and cast about for words to save his face. And here one of his choppers came tactfully to his aid.
"We ain't wantin' fresh meat so bad as all that, Mr. Clancy," he suggested, with a grin. "Guess we'd rather wait for the beef."
"Aye, aye!" chimed in several voices pacifically.
Clancy pulled himself together and spoke lightly. "I s'pose ye're right, lads, an' it was yer own feed I was thinking of. If ye're satisfied, I must be. An' I was wrong, o' course, to treat our visitors so rough, an' try force any kind o' a bargain on them. I ax their pardon."
Taking the pardon for granted, he went back to his seat.
Brannigan, who had never lost grip of himself for a moment, sat down again with a good-natured grin. A murmur of satisfaction went round the table, and knives once more clattered on tin plates.
Long Jackson, by the door, hesitated and glared piercingly at the boss, who refrained from noticing.
At length he set down his weapon and came back to the table. In a minute or two his appetite returned, and he could resume his meal.
Out in the barn, in the smell of hay and horses, Mary lay tranquilly waving her ears, staring at her unfamiliar company, and chewing her comfortable cud, untroubled with any intuitions of the fate which had twice within the last few hours so narrowly passed her by.
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