Chapter III. The Fifty Coons of the Canoper
 

Near noon of the next day, Jimmy opened his eyes and stretched himself on Dannie's bed. It did not occur to him that he was sprawled across it in such a fashion that if Dannie had any sleep that night, he had taken it on chairs before the fireplace. At first Jimmy decided that he had a head on him, and would turn over and go back where he came from. Then he thought of the coon hunt, and sitting on the edge of the bed he laughed, as he looked about for his boots.

"I am glad ye are feeling so fine," said Dannie at the door, in a relieved voice. "I had a notion that ye wad be crosser than a badger when ye came to."

Jimmy laughed on.

"What's the fun?" inquired Dannie.

Jimmy thought hard a minute. Here was one instance where the truth would serve better than any invention, so he virtuously told Dannie all about it. Dannie thought of the lonely little woman next door, and rebelled.

"But, Jimmy!" he cried, "ye canna be gone all nicht again. It's too lonely fra Mary, and there's always a chance I might sleep sound and wadna hear if she should be sick or need ye."

"Then she can just yell louder, or come after you, or get well, for I am going, see? He was a thrid peddler in a dinky little pleated coat, Dannie. He laid up against the counter with his feet crossed at a dancing-girl angle. But I will say for him that he was running at the mouth with the finest flow of language I iver heard. I learned a lot of it, and Cap knows the stuff, and I'm goin' to have him get you the book. But, Dannie, he wouldn't drink with us, but he stayed to iducate us up a little. That little spool man, Dannie, iducatin' Jones of the gravel gang, and Bingham of the Standard, and York of the 'lectric railway, and Haines of the timber gang, not to mintion the champeen rat-catcher of the Wabash."

Jimmy hugged himself, and rocked on the edge of the bed.

"Oh, I can just see it, Dannie," he cried. "I can just see it now! I was pretty drunk, but I wasn't too drunk to think of it, and it came to me sudden like."

Dannie stared at Jimmy wide-eyed, while he explained the details, and then he too began to laugh, and the longer he laughed the funnier it grew.

"I've got to start," said Jimmy. "I've an awful afternoon's work. I must find him some rubber boots. He's to have the inestimable privilege of carryin' me gun, Dannie, and have the first shot at the coons, fifty, I'm thinkin' I said. And if I don't put some frills on his cute little coat! Oh, Dannie, it will break the heart of me if he don't wear that pleated coat!"

Dannie wiped his eyes.

"Come on to the kitchen," he said, "I've something ready fra ye to eat. Wash, while I dish it."

"I wish to Heaven you were a woman, Dannie," said Jimmy. "A fellow could fall in love with you, and marry you with some satisfaction. Crimminy, but I'm hungry!"

Jimmy ate greedily, and Dannie stepped about setting the cabin to rights. It lacked many feminine touches that distinguished Jimmy's as the abode of a woman; but it was neat and clean, and there seemed to be a place where everything belonged.

"Now, I'm off," said Jimmy, rising. "I'll take your gun, because I ain't goin' to see Mary till I get back."

"Oh, Jimmy, dinna do that!" pleaded Dannie. "I want my gun. Go and get your own, and tell her where ye are going and what ye are going to do. She'd feel less lonely."

"I know how she would feel better than you do," retorted Jimmy. "I am not going. If you won't give me your gun, I'll borrow one; or have all my fun spoiled."

Dannie took down the shining gun and passed it over. Jimmy instantly relented. He smiled an old boyish smile, that always caught Dannie in his softest spot.

"You are the bist frind I have on earth, Dannie," he said winsomely. "You are a man worth tying to. By gum, there's nothing I wouldn't do for you! Now go on, like the good fellow you are, and fix it up with Mary."

So Dannie started for the wood pile. In summer he could stand outside and speak through the screen. In winter he had to enter the cabin for errands like this, and as Jimmy's wood box was as heavily weighted on his mind as his own, there was nothing unnatural in his stamping snow on Jimmy's back stoop, and calling "Open!" to Mary at any hour of the day he happened to be passing the wood pile.

He stood at a distance, and patiently waited until a gray and black nut-hatch that foraged on the wood covered all the new territory discovered by the last disturbance of the pile. From loosened bark Dannie watched the bird take several good-sized white worms and a few dormant ants. As it flew away he gathered an armload of wood. He was very careful to clean his feet on the stoop, place the wood without tearing the neat covering of wall paper, and brush from his coat the snow and moss so that it fell in the box. He had heard Mary tell the careless Jimmy to do all these things, and Dannie knew that they saved her work. There was a whiteness on her face that morning that startled him, and long after the last particle of moss was cleaned from his sleeve he bent over the box trying to get something said. The cleaning took such a length of time that the glint of a smile crept into the grave eyes of the woman, and the grim line of her lips softened.

"Don't be feeling so badly about it, Dannie," she said. "I could have told you when you went after him last night that he would go back as soon as he wakened to-day. I know he is gone. I watched him lave."

Dannie brushed the other sleeve, on which there had been nothing at the start, and answered: "Noo, dinna ye misjudge him, Mary. He's goin' to a coon hunt to-nicht. Dinna ye see him take my gun?"

This evidence so bolstered Dannie that he faced Mary with confidence.

"There's a traveling man frae Boston in town, Mary, and he was edifying the boys a little, and Jimmy dinna like it. He's going to show him a little country sport to-nicht to edify him."

Dannie outlined the plan of Jimmy's campaign. Despite disapproval, and a sore heart, Mary Malone had to smile--perhaps as much over Dannie's eagerness in telling what was contemplated as anything.

"Why don't you take Jimmy's gun and go yoursilf?" she asked. "You haven't had a day off since fishing was over."

"But I have the work to do," replied Dannie, "and I couldna leave--" He broke off abruptly, but the woman supplied the word.

"Why can't you lave me, if Jimmy can? I'm not afraid. The snow and the cold will furnish me protiction to-night. There'll be no one to fear. Why should you do Jimmy's work, and miss the sport, to guard the thing he holds so lightly?"

The red flushed Dannie's cheeks. Mary never before had spoken like that. He had to say something for Jimmy quickly, and quickness was not his forte. His lips opened, but nothing came; for as Jimmy had boasted, Dannie never lied, except for him, and at those times he had careful preparation before he faced Mary. Now, he was overtaken unawares. He looked so boyish in his confusion, the mother in Mary's heart was touched.

"I'll till you what we'll do, Dannie," she said. "You tind the stock, and get in wood enough so that things won't be frazin' here; and then you hitch up and I'll go with you to town, and stay all night with Mrs. Dolan. You can put the horse in my sister's stable, and whin you and Jimmy get back, you'll be tired enough that you'll be glad to ride home. A visit with Katie will be good for me; I have been blue the last few days, and I can see you are just aching to go with the boys. Isn't that a fine plan?"

"I should say that is a guid plan," answered the delighted Dannie. Anything to save Mary another night alone was good, and then--that coon hunt did sound alluring.

And that was how it happened that at nine o'clock that night, just as arrangements were being completed at Casey's, Dannie Macnoun stepped into the group and said to the astonished Jimmy: "Mary wanted to come to her sister's over nicht, so I fixed everything, and I'm going to the coon hunt, too, if you boys want me."

The crowd closed around Dannie, patted his back and cheered him, and he was introduced to Mister O'Khayam, of Boston, who tried to drown the clamor enough to tell what his name really was, "in case of accident"; but he couldn't be heard for Jimmy yelling that a good old Irish name like O'Khayam couldn't be beat in case of anything. And Dannie took a hasty glance at the Thread Man, to see if he wore that hated pleated coat, which lay at the bottom of Jimmy's anger.

Then they started. Casey's wife was to be left in charge of the saloon, and the Thread Man half angered Casey by a whispered conversation with her in a corner. Jimmy cut his crowd as low as he possibly could, but it numbered fifteen men, and no one counted the dogs. Jimmy led the way, the Thread Man beside him, and the crowd followed. The walking would be best to follow the railroad to the Canoper, and also they could cross the railroad bridge over the river and save quite a distance.

Jimmy helped the Thread Man into a borrowed overcoat and mittens, and loaded him with a twelve-pound gun, and they started. Jimmy carried a torch, and as torch bearer he was a rank failure, for he had a careless way of turning it and flashing it into people's faces that compelled them to jump to save themselves. Where the track lay clear and straight ahead the torch seemed to light it like day; but in dark places it was suddenly lowered or wavering somewhere else. It was through this carelessness of Jimmy's that at the first cattle-guard north of the village the torch flickered backward, ostensibly to locate Dannie, and the Thread Man went crashing down between the iron bars, and across the gun. Instantly Jimmy sprawled on top of him, and the next two men followed suit. The torch plowed into the snow and went out, and the yells of Jimmy alarmed the adjoining village.

He was hurt the worst of all, and the busiest getting in marching order again. "Howly smoke!" he panted. "I was havin' the time of me life, and plum forgot that cow-kitcher. Thought it was a quarter of a mile away yet. And liked to killed meself with me carelessness. But that's always the way in true sport. You got to take the knocks with the fun." No one asked the Thread Man if he was hurt, and he did not like to seem unmanly by mentioning a skinned shin, when Jimmy Malone seemed to have bursted most of his inside; so he shouldered his gun and limped along, now slightly in the rear of Jimmy. The river bridge was a serious matter with its icy coat, and danger of specials, and the torches suddenly flashed out from all sides; and the Thread Man gave thanks for Dannie Macnoun, who reached him a steady hand across the ties. The walk was three miles, and the railroad lay at from twenty to thirty feet elevation along the river and through the bottom land. The Boston man would have been thankful for the light, but as the last man stepped from the ties of the bridge all the torches went out save one. Jimmy explained they simply had to save them so that they could see where the coon fell when they began to shake the coon tree.

Just beside the water tank, and where the embankment was twenty feet sheer, Jimmy was cautioning the Boston man to look out, when the hunter next behind him gave a wild yell and plunged into his back. Jimmy's grab for him seemed more a push than a pull, and the three rolled to the bottom, and half way across the flooded ditch. The ditch was frozen over, but they were shaken, and smothered in snow. The whole howling party came streaming down the embankment. Dannie held aloft his torch and discovered Jimmy lying face down in a drift, making no effort to rise, and the Thread Man feebly tugging at him and imploring some one to come and help get Malone out. Then Dannie slunk behind the others and yelled until he was tired.

By and by Jimmy allowed himself to be dragged out.

"Who the thunder was that come buttin' into us?" he blustered. "I don't allow no man to butt into me when I'm on an imbankmint. Send the fool back here till I kill him."

The Thread Man was pulling at Jimmy's arm. "Don't mind, Jimmy," he gasped. "It was an accident! The man slipped. This is an awful place. I will be glad when we reach the woods. I'll feel safer with ground that's holding up trees under my feet. Come on, now! Are we not almost there? Should we not keep quiet from now on? Will we not alarm the coons?"

"Sure," said Jimmy. "Boys, don't hollo so much. Every blamed coon will be scared out of its hollow!"

"Amazing!" said the Thread Man. "How clever! Came on the spur of the moment. I must remember that to tell the Club. Do not hollo. Scare the coon out of its hollow!"

"Oh, I do miles of things like that," said Jimmy dryly, "and mostly I have to do thim before the spur of the moment; because our moments go so domn fast out here mighty few of thim have time to grow their spurs before they are gone. Here's where we turn. Now, boys, they've been trying to get this biler across the tracks here, and they've broke the ice. The water in this ditch is three feet deep and freezing cold. They've stuck getting the biler over, but I wonder if we can't cross on it, and hit the wood beyond. Maybe we can walk it."

Jimmy set a foot on the ice-covered boiler, howled, and fell back on the men behind him. "Jimminy crickets, we niver can do that!" he yelled. "It's a glare of ice and roundin'. Let's crawl through it! The rist of you can get through if I can. We'd better take off our overcoats, to make us smaller. We can roll thim into a bundle, and the last man can pull it through behind him."

Jimmy threw off his coat and entered the wrecked oil engine. He knew how to hobble through on his toes, but the pleated coat of the Boston man, who tried to pass through by stooping, got almost all Jimmy had in store for it. Jimmy came out all right with a shout. The Thread Man did not step half so far, and landed knee deep in the icy oil-covered slush of the ditch. That threw him off his balance, and Jimmy let him sink one arm in the pool, and then grabbed him, and scooped oil on his back with the other hand as he pulled. During the excitement and struggles of Jimmy and the Thread Man, the rest of the party jumped the ditch and gathered about, rubbing soot and oil on the Boston man, and he did not see how they crossed.

Jimmy continued to rub oil and soot into the hated coat industriously. The dogs leaped the ditch, and the instant they struck the woods broke away baying over fresh tracks. The men yelled like mad. Jimmy struggled into his overcoat, and helped the almost insane Boston man into his and then they hurried after the dogs.

The scent was so new and clear the dogs simply raged. The Thread Man was wild, Jimmy was wilder, and the thirteen contributed all they could for laughing. Dannie forgot to be ashamed of himself and followed the example of the crowd. Deeper and deeper into the wild, swampy Canoper led the chase. With a man on either side to guide him into the deepest holes and to shove him into bushy thickets, the skinned, soot-covered, oil-coated Boston man toiled and sweated. He had no time to think, the excitement was so intense. He scrambled out of each pitfall set for him, and plunged into the next with such uncomplaining bravery that Dannie very shortly grew ashamed, and crowding up beside him he took the heavy gun and tried to protect him all he could without falling under the eye of Jimmy, who was keeping close watch on the Boston man.

Wild yelling told that the dogs had treed, and with shaking fingers the Thread Man pulled off the big mittens he wore and tried to lift the gun. Jimmy flashed a torch, and sure enough, in the top of a medium hickory tree, the light was reflected in streams from the big shining eyes of a coon. "Treed!" yelled Jimmy frantically. "Treed! and big as an elephant. Company's first shot. Here, Mister O'Khayam, here's a good place to stand. Gee, what luck! Coon in sight first thing, and Mellen's food coon at that! Shoot, Mister O'Khayam, shoot!"

The Thread Man lifted the wavering gun, but it was no use.

"Tell you what, Ruben," said Jimmy. "You are too tired to shoot straight. Let's take a rist, and ate our lunch. Then we'll cut down the tree and let the dogs get cooney. That way there won't be any shot marks in his skin. What do you say? Is that a good plan?"

They all said that was the proper course, so they built a fire, and placed the Thread Man where he could see the gleaming eyes of the frightened coon, and where all of them could feast on his soot and oil-covered face. Then they opened the bag and passed the sandwiches.

"I really am hungry," said the weary Thread Man, biting into his with great relish. His jaws moved once or twice experimentally, and then he lifted his handkerchief to his lips.

"I wish 'twas as big as me head," said Jimmy, taking a great bite, and then he began to curse uproariously.

"What ails the things?" inquired Dannie, ejecting a mouthful. And then all of them began to spit birdshot, and started an inquest simultaneously. Jimmy raged. He swore some enemy had secured the bag and mined the feast; but the boys who knew him laughed until it seemed the Thread Man must suspect. He indignantly declared it was a dirty trick. By the light of the fire he knelt and tried to free one of the sandwiches from its sprinkling of birdshot, so that it would be fit for poor Jimmy, who had worked so hard to lead them there and tree the coon. For the first time Jimmy looked thoughtful.

But the sight of the Thread Man was too much for him, and a second later he was thrusting an ax into the hands accustomed to handling a thread case. Then he led the way to the tree, and began chopping at the green hickory. It was slow work, and soon the perspiration streamed. Jimmy pulled off his coat and threw it aside. He assisted the Thread Man out of his and tossed it behind him. The coat alighted in the fire, and was badly scorched before it was rescued. But the Thread Man was game. Fifty times that night it had been said that he was to have the first coon, of course he should work for it. So with the ax with which Casey chopped ice for his refrigerator, the Boston man banged against the hickory, and swore to himself because he could not make the chips fly as Jimmy did.

"Iverybody clear out!" cried Jimmy. "Number one is coming down. Get the coffee sack ready. Baste cooney over the head and shove him in before the dogs tear the skin. We want a dandy big pelt out of this!"

There was a crack, and the tree fell with a crash. All the Boston man could see was that from a tumbled pile of branches, dogs, and men, some one at last stepped back, gripping a sack, and cried: "Got it all right, and it's a buster."

"Now for the other forty-nine!" shouted Jimmy, straining into his coat.

"Come on, boys, we must secure a coon for every one," cried the Thread Man, heartily as any member of the party might have said it. But the rest of the boys suddenly grew tired. They did not want any coons, and after some persuasion the party agreed to go back to Casey's to warm up. The Thread Man got into his scorched, besooted, oil-smeared coat, and the overcoat which had been loaned him, and shouldered the gun. Jimmy hesitated. But Dannie came up to the Boston man and said: "There's a place in my shoulder that gun juist fits, and it's lonesome without it. Pass it over." Only the sorely bruised and strained Thread Man knew how glad he was to let it go.

It was Dannie, too, who whispered to the Thread Man to keep close behind him; and when the party trudged back to Casey's it was so surprising how much better he knew the way going back than Jimmy had known it coming out, that the Thread Man did remark about it. But Jimmy explained that after one had been out a few hours their eyes became accustomed to the darkness and they could see better. That was reasonable, for the Thread Man knew it was true in his own experience.

So they got back to Casey's, and found a long table set, and a steaming big oyster supper ready for them; and that explained the Thread Man's conference with Mrs. Casey. He took the head of the table, with his back to the wall, and placed Jimmy on his right and Dannie on his left. Mrs. Casey had furnished soap and towels, and at least part of the Boston man's face was clean. The oysters were fine, and well cooked. The Thread Man recited more of the wonderful poem for Dannie's benefit, and told jokes and stories. They laughed until they were so weak they could only pound the table to indicate how funny it was. And at the close, just as they were making a movement to rise, Casey proposed that he bring in the coon, and let all of them get a good look at their night's work. The Thread Man applauded, and Casey brought in the bag and shook it bottom up over the floor. Therefrom there issued a poor, frightened, maltreated little pet coon of Mrs. Casey's, and it dexterously ran up Casey's trouser leg and hid its nose in his collar, its chain dragging behind. And that was so funny the boys doubled over the table, and laughed and screamed until a sudden movement brought them to their senses.

The Thread Man was on his feet, and his eyes were no laughing matter. He gripped his chair back, and leaned toward Jimmy. "You walked me into that cattle-guard on purpose!" he cried.

Silence.

"You led me into that boiler, and fixed the oil at the end!"

No answer.

"You mauled me all over the woods, and loaded those sandwiches yourself, and sored me for a week trying to chop down a tree with a pet coon chained in it! You----! You----! What had I done to you?"

"You wouldn't drink with me, and I didn't like the domned, dinky, little pleated coat you wore," answered Jimmy.

One instant amazement held sway on the Thread Man's face; the next, "And damned if I like yours!" he cried, and catching up a bowl half filled with broth he flung it squarely into Jimmy's face.

Jimmy, with a great oath, sprang at the Boston man. But once in his life Dannie was quick. For the only time on record he was ahead of Jimmy, and he caught the uplifted fist in a grip that Jimmy's use of whiskey and suffering from rheumatism had made his master.

"Steady--Jimmy, wait a minute," panted Dannie. "This mon is na even wi' ye yet. When every muscle in your body is strained, and every inch of it bruised, and ye are daubed wi' soot, and bedraggled in oil, and he's made ye the laughin' stock fra strangers by the hour, ye will be juist even, and ready to talk to him. Every minute of the nicht he's proved himself a mon, and right now he's showed he's na coward. It's up to ye, Jimmy. Do it royal. Be as much of a mon as he is. Say ye are sorry!"

One tense instant the two friends faced each other.

Then Jimmy's fist unclenched, and his arms dropped. Dannie stepped back, trying to breathe lightly, and it was between Jimmy and the Thread Man.

"I am sorry," said Jimmy. "I carried my objictions to your wardrobe too far. If you'll let me, I'll clean you up. If you'll take it, I'll raise you the price of a new coat, but I'll be domn if I'll hilp put such a man as you are into another of the fiminine ginder."

The Thread Man laughed, and shook Jimmy's hand; and then Jimmy proved why every one liked him by turning to Dannie and taking his hand. "Thank you, Dannie," he said. "You sure hilped me to mesilf that time. If I'd hit him, I couldn't have hild up me head in the morning."