Chapter IV. When the Kingfisher and the Black Bass Came Home
 

"Crimminy, but you are slow." Jimmy made the statement, not as one voices a newly discovered fact, but as one iterates a time-worn truism. He sat on a girder of the Limberlost bridge, and scraped the black muck from his boots in a little heap. Then he twisted a stick into the top of his rat sack, preparatory to his walk home. The ice had broken on the river, and now the partners had to separate at the bridge, each following his own line of traps to the last one, and return to the bridge so that Jimmy could cross to reach home. Jimmy was always waiting, after the river opened, and it was a remarkable fact to him that as soon as the ice was gone his luck failed him. This evening the bag at his feet proved by its bulk that it contained just about one-half the rats Dannie carried.

"I must set my traps in my own way," answered Dannie calmly. "If I stuck them into the water ony way and went on, so would the rats. A trap is no a trap unless it is concealed."

"That's it! Go on and give me a sarmon!" urged Jimmy derisively. "Who's got the bulk of the rats all winter? The truth is that my side of the river is the best catching in the extrame cold, and you get the most after the thaws begin to come. The rats seem to have a lot of burrows and shift around among thim. One time I'm ahead, and the nixt day they go to you: But it don't mane that you are any better trapper than I am. I only got siven to-night. That's a sweet day's work for a whole man. Fifteen cints apace for sivin rats. I've a big notion to cut the rat business, and compete with Rocky in ile."

Dannie laughed. "Let's hurry home, and get the skinning over before nicht," he said. "I think the days are growing a little longer. I seem to scent spring in the air to-day."

Jimmy looked at Dannie's mud-covered, wet clothing, his blood- stained mittens and coat back, and the dripping bag he had rested on the bridge. "I've got some music in me head, and some action in me feet," he said, "but I guess God forgot to put much sintimint into me heart. The breath of spring niver got so strong with me that I could smell it above a bag of muskrats and me trappin' clothes."

He arose, swung his bag to his shoulder, and together they left the bridge, and struck the road leading to Rainbow Bottom. It was late February. The air was raw,and the walking heavy. Jimmy saw little around him, and there was little Dannie did not see. To him, his farm, the river, and the cabins in Rainbow Bottom meant all there was of life, for all he loved on earth was there. But loafing in town on rainy days, when Dannie sat with a book; hearing the talk at Casey's, at the hotel, and on the streets, had given Jimmy different views of life, and made his lot seem paltry compared with that of men who had greater possessions. On days when Jimmy's luck was bad, or when a fever of thirst burned him, he usually discoursed on some sort of intangible experience that men had, which he called "seeing life." His rat bag was unusually light that night, and in a vague way he connected it with the breaking up of the ice. When the river lay solid he usually carried home just twice the rats Dannie had, and as he had patronized Dannie all his life, it fretted Jimmy to be behind even one day at the traps.

"Be Jasus, I get tired of this!" he said. "Always and foriver the same thing. I kape goin' this trail so much that I've got a speakin' acquaintance with meself. Some of these days I'm goin' to take a trip, and have a little change. I'd like to see Chicago, and as far west as the middle, anyway."

"Well, ye canna go," said Dannie. "Ye mind the time when ye were married, and I thought I'd be best away, and packed my trunk? When ye and Mary caught me, ye got mad as fire, and she cried, and I had to stay. Just ye try going, and I'll get mad, and Mary will cry, and ye will stay at home, juist like I did."

There was a fear deep in Dannie's soul that some day Jimmy would fulfill this long-time threat of his. "I dinna think there is ony place in all the world so guid as the place ye own," Dannie said earnestly. "I dinna care a penny what anybody else has, probably they have what they want. What _I_ want is the land that my feyther owned before me, and the house that my mither kept. And they'll have to show me the place they call Eden before I'll give up that it beats Rainbow Bottom--Summer, Autumn, or Winter. I dinna give twa hoops fra the palaces men rig up, or the thing they call `landscape gardening'. When did men ever compete with the work of God? All the men that have peopled the earth since time began could have their brains rolled into one, and he would stand helpless before the anatomy of one of the rats in these bags. The thing God does is guid enough fra me."

"Why don't you take a short cut to the matin'-house?" inquired Jimmy.

"Because I wad have nothing to say when I got there," retorted Dannie. "I've a meetin'-house of my ain, and it juist suits me; and I've a God, too, and whether He is spirit or essence, He suits me. I dinna want to be held to sharper account than He faces me up to, when I hold communion with mesel'. I dinna want any better meetin'-house than Rainbow Bottom. I dinna care for better talkin' than the `tongues in the trees'; sounder preachin' than the `sermons in the stones'; finer readin' than the books in the river; no, nor better music than the choir o' the birds, each singin' in its ain way fit to burst its leetle throat about the mate it won, the nest they built, and the babies they are raising. That's what I call the music o' God, spontaneous, and the soul o' joy. Give it me every time compared with notes frae a book. And all the fine places that the wealth o' men ever evolved winna begin to compare with the work o' God, and I've got that around me every day."

"But I want to see life," wailed Jimmy.

"Then open your eyes, mon, fra the love o' mercy, open your eyes! There's life sailing over your heid in that flock o' crows going home fra the night. Why dinna ye, or some other mon, fly like that? There's living roots, and seeds, and insects, and worms by the million wherever ye are setting foot. Why dinna ye creep into the earth and sleep through the winter, and renew your life with the spring? The trouble with ye, Jimmy, is that ye've always followed your heels. If ye'd stayed by the books, as I begged ye, there now would be that in your heid that would teach ye that the old story of the Rainbow is true. There is a pot of gold, of the purest gold ever smelted, at its foot, and we've been born, and own a good living richt there. An' the gold is there; that I know, wealth to shame any bilious millionaire, and both of us missing the pot when we hold the location. Ye've the first chance, mon, fra in your life is the great prize mine will forever lack. I canna get to the bottom of the pot, but I'm going to come close to it as I can; and as for ye, empty it! Take it all! It's yours! It's fra the mon who finds it, and we own the location."

"Aha! We own the location," repeated Jimmy. "I should say we do! Behold our hotbed of riches! I often lay awake nights thinkin' about my attachmint to the place.

"How dear to me heart are the scanes of me childhood,
Fondly gaze on the cabin where I'm doomed to dwell,
Those chicken-coop, thim pig-pen, these highly piled-wood
Around which I've always raised Hell."

Jimmy turned in at his own gate, while Dannie passed to the cabin beyond. He entered, set the dripping rat bag in a tub, raked open the buried fire and threw on a log. He always ate at Jimmy's when Jimmy was at home, so there was no supper to get. He went out to the barn, wading mud ankle deep, fed and bedded his horses, and then went over to Jimmy's barn, and completed his work up to milking. Jimmy came out with the pail, and a very large hole in the bottom of it was covered with dried dough. Jimmy looked at it disapprovingly.

"I bought a new milk pail the other night. I know I did," he said. "Mary was kicking for one a month ago, and I went after it the night I met Ruben O'Khayam. Now what the nation did I do with that pail?"

"I have wondered mysel'," answered Dannie, as he leaned over and lifted a strange looking object from a barrel. "This is what ye brought home, Jimmy."

Jimmy stared at the shining, battered, bullet-punctured pail in amazement. Slowly he turned it over and around, and then he lifted bewildered eyes to Dannie.

"Are you foolin'?" he asked. "Did I bring that thing home in that shape?"

"Honest!" said Dannie.

"I remember buyin' it," said Jimmy slowly. "I remember hanging on to it like grim death, for it was the wan excuse I had for goin', but I don't just know how--!" Slowly he revolved the pail, and then he rolled over in the hay and laughed until he was tired. Then he sat up and wiped his eyes. "Great day! What a lot of fun I must have had before I got that milk pail into that shape," he said. "Domned if I don't go straight to town and buy another one; yes, bedad! I'll buy two!"

In the meantime Dannie milked, fed and watered the cattle, and Jimmy picked up the pail of milk and carried it to the house. Dannie came by the wood pile and brought in a heavy load. Then they washed, and sat down to supper.

"Seems to me you look unusually perky," said Jimmy to his wife. "Had any good news?"

"Splendid!" said Mary. "I am so glad! And I don't belave you two stupids know!"

"You niver can tell by lookin' at me what I know," said Jimmy. "Whin I look the wisest I know the least. Whin I look like a fool, I'm thinkin' like a philosopher."

"Give it up," said Dannie promptly. You would not catch him knowing anything it would make Mary's eyes shine to tell.

"Sap is running!" announced Mary.

"The Divil you say!" cried Jimmy.

"It is!" beamed Mary. "It will be full in three days. Didn't you notice how green the maples are? I took a little walk down to the bottom to-day. I niver in all my life was so tired of winter, and the first thing I saw was that wet look on the maples, and on the low land, where they are sheltered and yet get the sun, several of them are oozing!"

"Grand!" cried Dannie. "Jimmy, we must peel those rats in a hurry, and then clean the spiles, and see how mony new ones we will need. To-morrow we must come frae the traps early and look up our troughs."

"Oh, for pity sake, don't pile up work enough to kill a horse," cried Jimmy. "Ain't you ever happy unless you are workin'?"

"Yes," said Dannie. "Sometimes I find a book that suits me, and sometimes the fish bite, and sometimes it's in the air."

"Git the condinser" said Jimmy. "And that reminds me, Mary, Dannie smelled spring in the air to-day."

"Well, what if he did?" questioned Mary. "I can always smell it. A little later, when the sap begins to run in all the trees, and the buds swell, and the ice breaks up, and the wild geese go over, I always scent spring; and when the catkins bloom, then it comes strong, and I just love it. Spring is my happiest time. I have more news, too!"

"Don't spring so much at wance!" cried Jimmy, "you'll spoil my appetite."

"I guess there's no danger," replied Mary.

"There is," said Jimmy. "At laste in the fore siction. `Appe' is Frinch, and manes atin'. `Tite' is Irish, and manes drinkin'. Appetite manes atin' and drinkin' togither. `Tite' manes drinkin' without atin', see?"

"I was just goin' to mintion it meself," said Mary, "it's where you come in strong. There's no danger of anybody spoilin' your drinkin', if they could interfere with your atin'. You guess, Dannie."

"The dominick hen is setting," ventured Dannie, and Mary's face showed that he had blundered on the truth.

"She is," affirmed Mary, pouring the tea, "but it is real mane of you to guess it, when I've so few new things to tell. She has been setting two days, and she went over fifteen fresh eggs to-day. In just twinty-one days I will have fiftane the cunningest little chickens you ever saw, and there is more yet. I found the nest of the gray goose, and there are three big eggs in it, all buried in feathers. She must have stripped her breast almost bare to cover them. And I'm the happiest I've been all winter. I hate the long, lonely, shut-in time. I am going on a delightful spree. I shall help boil down sugar-water and make maple syrup. I shall set hins, and geese, and turkeys. I shall make soap, and clane house, and plant seed, and all my flowers will bloom again. Goody for summer; it can't come too soon to suit me."

"Lord! I don't see what there is in any of those things," said Jimmy. "I've got just one sign of spring that interests me. If you want to see me caper, somebody mention to me the first rattle of the Kingfisher. Whin he comes home, and house cleans in his tunnel in the embankment, and takes possession of his stump in the river, the nixt day the Black Bass locates in the deep water below the shoals. Thin you can count me in. There is where business begins for Jimmy boy. I am going to have that Bass this summer, if I don't plant an acre of corn."

"I bet you that's the truth!" said Mary, so quickly that both men laughed.

"Ahem!" said Dannie. "Then I will have to do my plowing by a heidlicht, so I can fish as much as ye do in the day time. I hereby make, enact, and enforce a law that neither of us is to fish in the Bass hole when the other is not there to fish also. That is the only fair way. I've as much richt to him as ye have."

"Of course!" said Mary. "That is a fair way. Make that a rule, and kape it. If you both fish at once, it's got to be a fair catch for the one that lands it; but whoever catches it, _I_ shall ate it, so it don't much matter to me."

"You ate it!" howled Jimnmy. "I guess not. Not a taste of that fish, when he's teased me for years? He's as big as a whale. If Jonah had had the good fortune of falling in the Wabash, and being swallowed by the Black Bass, he could have ridden from Peru to Terre Haute, and suffered no inconvanience makin' a landin'. Siven pounds he'll weigh by the steelyard I'll wager you."

"Five, Jimmy, five," corrected Dannie.

"Siven!" shouted Jimmy. " Ain't I hooked him repeated? Ain't I seen him broadside? I wonder if thim domn lines of mine have gone and rotted."

He left his supper, carrying his chair, and standing on it he began rummaging the top shelf of the cupboard for his box of tackle. He knocked a bottle from the shelf, but caught it in mid-air with a dexterous sweep.

"Spirits are movin'," cried Jimmy, as he restored the camphor to its place. He carried the box to the window, and became so deeply engrossed in its contents that he did not notice when Dannie picked up his rat bag and told him to come on and help skin their day's catch. Mary tried to send him, and he was going in a minute, but the minute stretched and stretched, and both of them were surprised when the door opened and Dannie entered with an armload of spiles, and the rat-skinning was all over. So Jimmy went on unwinding lines, and sharpening hooks, and talking fish; while Dannie and Mary cleaned the spiles, and figured on how many new elders must be cut and prepared for more on the morrow; and planned the sugar making.

When it was bedtime, and Dannie had gone an Jimmy and Mary closed their cabin for the night, Mary stepped to the window that looked on Dannie's home to see if his light was burning. It was, and clear in its rays stood Dannie, stripping yard after yard of fine line through his fingers, and carefully examining it. Jimmy came and stood beside her as she wondered.

"Why, the domn son of the Rainbow," he cried, "if he ain't testing his fish lines!"

The next day Mary Malone was rejoicing when the men returned from trapping, and gathering and cleaning the sugar-water troughs. There had been a robin at the well.

"Kape your eye on, Mary" advised Jimmy. "If she ain't watched close from this time on, she'll be settin' hins in snowdrifts, and pouring biling water on the daffodils to sprout them."

On the first of March, five killdeers flew over in a flock, and a half hour later one straggler crying piteously followed in their wake.

"Oh, the mane things!" almost sobbed Mary. "Why don't they wait for it?"

She stood by a big kettle of boiling syrup at the sugar camp, almost helpless in Jimmy's boots and Dannie's great coat. Jimmy cut and carried wood, and Dannie hauled sap. All the woods were stirred by the smell of the curling smoke and the odor of the boiling sap, fine as the fragrance of flowers. Bright-eyed deer mice peeped at her from under old logs, the chickadees, nuthatches, and jays started an investigating committee to learn if anything interesting to them was occurring. One gayly-dressed little sapsucker hammered a tree near by and scolded vigorously.

"Right you are!" said Mary. "It's a pity you're not big enough to drive us from the woods, for into one kittle goes enough sap to last you a lifetime."

The squirrels were sure it was an intrusion, and raced among the branches overhead, barking loud defiance. At night the three rode home on the sled, with the syrup jugs beside them, and Mary's apron was filled with big green rolls of pungent woolly-dog moss.

Jimmy built the fires, Dannie fed the stock, and Mary cooked the supper. When it was over, while the men warmed chilled feet and fingers by the fire, Mary poured some syrup into a kettle, and just as it "sugared off" she dipped streams of the amber sweetness into cups of water. All of them ate it like big children, and oh, but it was good! Two days more of the same work ended sugar making, but for the next three days Dannie gathered the rapidly diminishing sap for the vinegar barrel.

Then there were more hens ready to set, water must be poured hourly into the ash hopper to start the flow of lye for soap making, and the smoke house must be gotten ready to cure the hams and pickled meats, so that they would keep during warm weather. The bluebells were pushing through the sod in a race with the Easter and star flowers. One morning Mary aroused Jimmy with a pull at his arm.

"Jimmy, Jimmy," she cried. "Wake up!"

"Do you mane, wake up, or get up?" asked Jimmy sleepily.

"Both," cried Mary. "The larks are here!"

A little later Jimmy shouted from the back door to the barn: "Dannie, do you hear the larks?"

"Ye bet I do," answered Dannie. "Heard ane goin' over in the nicht. How long is it now till the Kingfisher comes?"

"Just a little while," said Jimmy. "If only these March storms would let up 'stid of down! He can't come until he can fish, you know. He's got to have crabs and minnies to live on."

A few days later the green hylas began to pipe in the swamps, the bullfrogs drummed among the pools in the bottom, the doves cooed in the thickets, and the breath of spring was in the nostrils of all creation, for the wind was heavy with the pungent odor of catkin pollen. The spring flowers were two inches high. The peonies and rhubarb were pushing bright yellow and red cones through the earth. The old gander, leading his flock along the Wabash, had hailed passing flocks bound northward until he was hoarse; and the Brahma rooster had threshed the yellow dorkin until he took refuge under the pig pen, and dare not stick out his unprotected head.

The doors had stood open at supper time, and Dannie staid up late, mending and oiling the harness. Jimmy sat by cleaning his gun, for to his mortification he had that day missed killing a crow which stole from the ash hopper the egg with which Mary tested the strength of the lye. In a basket behind the kitchen stove fifteen newly hatched yellow chickens, with brown stripes on their backs, were peeping and nestling; and on wing the killdeers cried half the night. At two o'clock in the morning came a tap on the Malone's bedroom window.

"Dannie?" questioned Mary, half startled.

"Tell Jimmy!" cried Dannie's breathless voice outside. "Tell him the Kingfisher has juist struck the river!"

Jimmy sat straight up in bed.

"Then glory be!" he cried. "To-morrow the Black Bass comes home!"