Chapter 1. The Rat-Catchers of the Wabash
 

"Hey, you swate-scented little heart-warmer!" cried Jimmy Malone, as he lifted his tenth trap, weighted with a struggling muskrat, from the Wabash. "Varmint you may be to all the rist of creation, but you mane a night at Casey's to me."

Jimmy whistled softly as he reset the trap. For the moment he forgot that he was five miles from home, that it was a mile farther to the end of his line at the lower curve of Horseshoe Bend, that his feet and fingers were almost freezing, and that every rat of the ten now in the bag on his back had made him thirstier. He shivered as the cold wind sweeping the curves of the river struck him; but when an unusually heavy gust dropped the ice and snow from a branch above him on the back of his head, he laughed, as he ducked and cried: "Kape your snowballing till the Fourth of July, will you!"

"Chick-a-dee-dee-dee!" remarked a tiny gray bird on the tree above him. Jimmy glanced up. "Chickie, Chickie, Chickie," he said. "I can't till by your dress whether you are a hin or a rooster. But I can till by your employmint that you are working for grub. Have to hustle lively for every worm you find, don't you, Chickie? Now me, I'm hustlin' lively for a drink, and I be domn if it seems nicessary with a whole river of drinkin' stuff flowin' right under me feet. But the old Wabash ain't runnin "wine and milk and honey" not by the jug-full. It seems to be compounded of aquil parts of mud, crude ile, and rain water. If 'twas only runnin' Melwood, be gorry, Chickie, you'd see a mermaid named Jimmy Malone sittin' on the Kingfisher Stump, combin' its auburn hair with a breeze, and scoopin' whiskey down its gullet with its tail fin. No, hold on, Chickie, you wouldn't either. I'm too flat-chisted for a mermaid, and I'd have no time to lave off gurglin' for the hair-combin' act, which, Chickie, to me notion is as issential to a mermaid as the curves. I'd be a sucker, the biggest sucker in the Gar-hole, Chickie bird. I'd be an all-day sucker, be gobs; yis, and an all- night sucker, too. Come to think of it, Chickie, be domn if I'd be a sucker at all. Look at the mouths of thim! Puckered up with a drawstring! Oh, Hell on the Wabash, Chickie, think of Jimmy Malone lyin' at the bottom of a river flowin' with Melwood, and a puckerin'-string mouth! Wouldn't that break the heart of you? I know what I'd be. I'd be the Black Bass of Horseshoe Bend, Chickie, and I'd locate just below the shoals headin' up stream, and I'd hold me mouth wide open till I paralyzed me jaws so I couldn't shut thim. I'd just let the pure stuff wash over me gills constant, world without end. Good-by, Chickie. Hope you got your grub, and pretty soon I'll have enough drink to make me feel like I was the Bass for one night, anyway."

Jimmy hurried to his next trap, which was empty, but the one after that contained a rat, and there were footprints in the snow. "That's where the porrage-heart of the Scotchman comes in," said Jimmy, as he held up the rat by one foot, and gave it a sharp rap over the head with the trap to make sure it was dead. "Dannie could no more hear a rat fast in one of me traps and not come over and put it out of its misery, than he could dance a hornpipe. And him only sicond hand from hornpipe land, too! But his feet's like lead. Poor Dannie! He gets just about half the rats I do. He niver did have luck."

Jimmy's gay face clouded for an instant. The twinkle faded from his eyes, and a look of unrest swept into them. He muttered something, and catching up his bag, shoved in the rat. As he reset the trap, a big crow dropped from branch to branch on a sycamore above him, and his back scarcely was turned before it alighted on the ice, and ravenously picked at three drops of blood purpling there.

Away down the ice-sheeted river led Dannie's trail, showing plainly across the snow blanket. The wind raved through the trees, and around the curves of the river. The dark earth of the banks peeping from under overhanging ice and snow, looked like the entrance to deep mysterious caves. Jimmy's superstitious soul readily peopled them with goblins and devils. He shuddered, and began to talk aloud to cheer himself. "Elivin muskrat skins, times fifteen cints apiece, one dollar sixty-five. That will buy more than I can hold. Hagginy! Won't I be takin' one long fine gurgle of the pure stuff! And there's the boys! I might do the grand for once. One on me for the house! And I might pay something on my back score, but first I'll drink till I swell like a poisoned pup. And I ought to get Mary that milk pail she's been kickin' for this last month. Women and cows are always kickin'! If the blarsted cow hadn't kicked a hole in the pail, there'd be no need of Mary kicking for a new one. But dough is dubious soldering. Mary says it's bad enough on the dish pan, but it positively ain't hilthy about the milk pail, and she is right. We ought to have a new pail. I guess I'll get it first, and fill up on what's left. One for a quarter will do. And I've several traps yet, I may get a few more rats."

The virtuous resolve to buy a milk pail before he quenched the thirst which burned him, so elated Jimmy with good opinion of himself that he began whistling gayly as he strode toward his next trap. And by that token, Dannie Macnoun, resetting an empty trap a quarter of a mile below, knew that Jimmy was coming, and that as usual luck was with him. Catching his blood and water dripping bag, Dannie dodged a rotten branch that came crashing down under the weight of its icy load, and stepping out on the river, he pulled on his patched wool-lined mittens as he waited for Jimmy.

"How many, Dannie?" called Jimmy from afar.

"Seven," answered Dannie. "What for ye?"

"Elivin," replied Jimmy, with a bit of unconscious swagger. "I am havin' poor luck to-day."

"How mony wad satisfy ye?" asked Dannie sarcastically.

"Ain't got time to figure that," answered Jimmy, working in a double shuffle as he walked. "Thrash around a little, Dannie. It will warm you up."

"I am no cauld," answered Dannie.

"No cauld!" imitated Jimmy. "No cauld! Come to observe you closer, I do detect symptoms of sunstroke in the ridness of your face, and the whiteness about your mouth; but the frost on your neck scarf, and the icicles fistooned around the tail of your coat, tell a different story.

"Dannie, you remind me of the baptizin' of Pete Cox last winter. Pete's nothin' but skin and bone, and he niver had a square meal in his life to warm him. It took pushin' and pullin' to get him in the water, and a scum froze over while he was under. Pete came up shakin' like the feeder on a thrashin' machine, and whin he could spake at all, `Bless Jasus,' says he, `I'm jist as wa-wa-warm as I wa-wa-want to be.' So are you, Dannie, but there's a difference in how warm folks want to be. For meself, now, I could aisily bear a little more hate."

"It's honest, I'm no cauld," insisted Dannie; and he might have added that if Jimmy would not fill his system with Casey's poisons, that degree of cold would not chill and pinch him either. But being Dannie, he neither thought nor said it. `"Why, I'm frozen to me sowl!" cried Jimmy, as he changed the rat bag to his other hand, and beat the empty one against his leg." Say, Dannie, where do you think the Kingfisher is wintering?"

"And the Black Bass," answered Dannie. "Where do ye suppose the Black Bass is noo?"

"Strange you should mintion the Black Bass," said Jimmy. "I was just havin' a little talk about him with a frind of mine named Chickie-dom, no, Chickie-dee, who works a grub stake back there.

The Bass might be lyin' in the river bed right under our feet. Don't you remimber the time whin I put on three big cut-worms, and skittered thim beyond the log that lays across here, and he lept from the water till we both saw him the best we ever did, and nothin' but my old rotten line ever saved him? Or he might be where it slumps off just below the Kingfisher stump. But I know where he is all right. He's down in the Gar-hole, and he'll come back here spawning time, and chase minnows when the Kingfisher comes home. But, Dannie, where the nation do you suppose the Kingfisher is?"

"No' so far away as ye might think," replied Dannie. "Doc Hues told me that coming on the train frae Indianapolis on the fifteenth of December, he saw one fly across a little pond juist below Winchester. I believe they go south slowly, as the cold drives them, and stop near as they can find guid fishing. Dinna that stump look lonely wi'out him?"

"And sound lonely without the Bass slashing around! I am going to have that Bass this summer if I don't do a thing but fish!" vowed Jimmy.

"I'll surely have a try at him," answered Dannie, with a twinkle in his gray eyes. "We've caught most everything else in the Wabash, and our reputation fra taking guid fish is ahead of any one on the river, except the Kingfisher. Why the Diel dinna one of us haul out that Bass?"

"Ain't I just told you that I am going to hook him this summer?" shivered Jimmy.

"Dinna ye hear me mention that I intended to take a try at him mysel'?" questioned Dannie. "Have ye forgotten that I know how to fish?"

"'Nough breeze to-day without starting a Highlander," interposed Jimmy hastily. "I believe I hear a rat in my next trap. That will make me twilve, and it's good and glad of it I am for I've to walk to town when my line is reset. There's something Mary wants."

"If Mary wants ye to go to town, why dinna ye leave me to finish your traps, and start now?" asked Dannie. "It's getting dark, and if ye are so late ye canna see the drifts, ye never can cut across the fields; fra the snow is piled waist high, and it's a mile farther by the road."

"I got to skin my rats first, or I'll be havin' to ask credit again," replied Jimmy.

"That's easy," answered Dannie. "Turn your rats over to me richt noo. I'll give ye market price fra them in cash."

"But the skinnin' of them," objected Jimmy for decency sake, though his eyes were beginning to shine and his fingers to tremble.

"Never ye mind about that," retorted Dannie. "I like to take my time to it, and fix them up nice. Elivin, did ye say?"

"Elivin," answered Jimmy, breaking into a jig, supposedly to keep his feet warm, in reality because he could not stand quietly while Dannie pulled off his mittens, got out and unstrapped his wallet, and carefully counted out the money. "Is that all ye need?" he asked.

For an instant Jimmy hesitated. Missing a chance to get even a few cents more meant a little shorter time at Casey's. "That's enough, I think," he said. "I wish I'd staid out of matrimony, and then maybe I could iver have a cint of me own. You ought to be glad you haven't a woman to consume ivery penny you earn before it reaches your pockets, Dannie Micnoun."

"I hae never seen Mary consume much but calico and food," Dannie said dryly.

"Oh, it ain't so much what a woman really spinds," said Jimmy, peevishly, as he shoved the money into his pocket, and pulled on his mittens. "It's what you know she would spind if she had the chance."

"I dinna think ye'll break up on that," laughed Dannie.

And that was what Jimmy wanted. So long as he could set Dannie laughing, he could mold him.

"No, but I'll break down," lamented Jimmy in sore self-pity, as he remembered the quarter sacred to the purchase of the milk pail.

"Ye go on, and hurry," urged Dannie. "If ye dinna start home by seven, I'll be combing the drifts fra ye before morning."

"Anything I can do for you?" asked Jimmy, tightening his old red neck scarf.

"Yes," answered Dannie. "Do your errand and start straight home, your teeth are chattering noo. A little more exposure, and the rheumatism will be grinding ye again. Ye will hurry, Jimmy?"

"Sure!" cried Jimmy, ducking under a snow slide, and breaking into a whistle as he turned toward the road.

Dannie's gaze followed Jimmy's retreating figure until he climbed the bank, and was lost in the woods, and the light in his eyes was the light of love. He glanced at the sky, and hurried down the river. First across to Jimmy's side to gather his rats and reset his traps, then to his own. But luck seemed to have turned, for all the rest of Dannie's were full, and all of Jimmy's were empty. But as he was gone, it was not necessary for Dannie to slip across and fill them, as was his custom when they worked together. He would divide the rats at skinning time, so that Jimmy would have just twice as many as he, because Jimmy had a wife to support. The last trap of the line lay a little below the curve of Horseshoe Bend, and there Dannie twisted the tops of the bags together, climbed the bank, and struck across Rainbow Bottom. He settled his load to his shoulders, and glanced ahead to choose the shortest route. He stopped suddenly with a quick intake of breath.

"God!" he cried reverently. "Hoo beautifu' are Thy works."

The ice-covered Wabash circled Rainbow Bottom like a broad white frame, and inside it was a perfect picture wrought in crystal white and snow shadows. The blanket on the earth lay smoothly in even places, rose with knolls, fell with valleys, curved over prostrate logs, heaped in mounds where bushes grew thickly, and piled high in drifts where the wind blew free. In the shelter of the bottom the wind had not stripped the trees of their loads as it had those along the river. The willows, maples, and soft woods bent almost to earth with their shining burden; but the stout, stiffly upstanding trees, the oaks, elms, and cottonwoods defied the elements to bow their proud heads. While the three mighty trunks of the great sycamore in the middle looked white as the snow, and dwarfed its companions as it never had in summer; its wide-spreading branches were sharply cut against the blue background, and they tossed their frosted balls in the face of Heaven. The giant of Rainbow Bottom might be broken, but it never would bend. Every clambering vine, every weed and dried leaf wore a coat of lace-webbed frostwork. The wind swept a mist of tiny crystals through the air, and from the shelter of the deep woods across the river a Cardinal whistled gayly.

The bird of Good Cheer, whistling no doubt on an empty crop, made Dannie think of Jimmy, and his unfailing fountain of mirth. Dear Jimmy! Would he ever take life seriously? How good he was to tramp to town and back after five miles on the ice. He thought of Mary with almost a touch of impatience. What did the woman want that was so necessary as to send a man to town after a day on the ice? Jimmy would be dog tired when he got home. Dannie decided to hurry, and do the feeding and get in the wood before he began to skin the rats.

He found walking uncertain. He plunged into unsuspected hollows, and waded drifts, so that he was panting when he reached the lane. From there he caught the gray curl of smoke against the sky from one of two log cabins side by side at the top of the embankment, and he almost ran toward them. Mary might think they were late at the traps, and be out doing the feeding, and it would be cold for a woman.

On reaching his own door, he dropped the rat bags inside, and then hurried to the yard of the other cabin. He gathered a big load of wood in his arms, and stamping the snow from his feet, called "Open!" at the door. Dannie stepped inside and filled the empty box. With smiling eyes he turned to Mary, as he brushed the snow and moss from his sleeves.

"Nothing but luck to-day," he said. "Jimmy took elivin fine skins frae his traps before he started to town, and I got five more that are his, and I hae eight o' my own."

Mary looked such a dream to Dannie, standing there all pink and warm and tidy in her fresh blue dress, that he blinked and smiled, half bewildered.

"What did Jimmy go to town for?" she asked.

"Whatever it was ye wanted," answered Dannie.

"What was it I wanted?" persisted Mary.

"He dinna tell me," replied Dannie, and the smile wavered.

"Me, either," said Mary, and she stooped and picked up her sewing.

Dannie went out and gently closed the door. He stood for a second on the step, forcing himself to take an inventory of the work. There were the chickens to feed, and the cows to milk, feed, and water. Both the teams must be fed and bedded, a fire in his own house made, and two dozen rats skinned, and the skins put to stretch and cure. And at the end of it all, instead of a bed and rest, there was every probability that he must drive to town after Jimmy; for Jimmy could get helpless enough to freeze in a drift on a dollar sixty-five.

"Oh, Jimmy, Jimmy!" muttered Dannie. "I wish ye wadna." And he was not thinking of himself, but of the eyes of the woman inside.

So Dannie did all the work, and cooked his supper, because he never ate in Jimmy's cabin when Jimmy was not there. Then he skinned rats, and watched the clock, because if Jimmy did not come by eleven, it meant he must drive to town and bring him home. No wonder Jimmy chilled at the trapping when he kept his blood on fire with whiskey. At half-past ten, Dannie, with scarcely half the rats finished, went out into the storm and hitched to the single buggy. Then he tapped at Mary Malone's door, quite softly, so that he would not disturb her if she had gone to bed. She was not sleeping, however, and the loneliness of her slight figure, as she stood with the lighted room behind her, struck Dannie forcibly, so that his voice trembled with pity as he said: "Mary, I've run out o' my curing compound juist in the midst of skinning the finest bunch o' rats we've taken frae the traps this winter. I am going to drive to town fra some more before the stores close, and we will be back in less than an hour. I thought I'd tell ye, so if ye wanted me ye wad know why I dinna answer. Ye winna be afraid, will ye?"

"No," replied Mary, "I won't be afraid."

"Bolt the doors, and pile on plenty of wood to keep ye warm," said Dannie as he turned away.

Just for a minute Mary stared out into the storm. Then a gust of wind nearly swept her from her feet, and she pushed the door shut, and slid the heavy bolt into place. For a little while she leaned and listened to the storm outside. She was a clean, neat, beautiful Irish woman. Her eyes were wide and blue, her cheeks pink, and her hair black and softly curling about her face and neck. The room in which she stood was neat as its keeper. The walls were whitewashed, and covered with prints, pictures, and some small tanned skins. Dried grasses and flowers filled the vases on the mantle. The floor was neatly carpeted with a striped rag carpet, and in the big open fireplace a wood fire roared. In an opposite corner stood a modern cooking stove, the pipe passing through a hole in the wall, and a door led into a sleeping room beyond.

As her eyes swept the room they rested finally on a framed lithograph of the Virgin, with the Infant in her arms. Slowly Mary advanced, her gaze fast on the serene pictured face of the mother clasping her child. Before it she stood staring. Suddenly her breast began to heave, and the big tears brimmed from her eyes and slid down her cheeks.

"Since you look so wise, why don't you tell me why?" she demanded. "Oh, if you have any mercy, tell me why!"

Then before the steady look in the calm eyes, she hastily made the sign of the cross, and slipping to the floor, she laid her head on a chair, and sobbed aloud.