The Snow Child: A Novel (10 page)

BOOK: The Snow Child: A Novel
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Jack’s knees were unsteady as he leaned his rifle against a tree and went to the dead moose. He put his hands on its still-warm side and at last understood its size. Its antlers could have held Jack like a cradle, and his arms could not have circled its barrel chest. It had to weigh more than a thousand pounds, and that meant hundreds of pounds of good, fresh meat.

He’d done it. They had food for the winter. He would not go to the mine. He wanted to jump up and whoop and holler. He wanted to kiss Mabel hard on the lips. He wanted someone like George to smack him on the back and tell him well done.

He wanted to celebrate, but he was alone. The woods had a solemn air, and beneath the thrill in his own chest, there was something else. It wasn’t guilt or regret. It was trickier. He grabbed the base of each antler to reposition the head. It was heavy, but by leaning into the antlers he was able to jostle the head and neck around. Then he took his knife out of his pack and sharpened it on a steel, all the while considering the feeling in his gut. At last he knew—it was the sense of a debt owed.

He’d taken a life, a significant life judging by the animal laid out before him. He was obliged to take care of the meat and bring it home in gratitude.

But it was something about the child, too. Without her, he never would have seen the moose. She led him here and alerted him when, like a clod, he had passed by the animal. She moved through the forest with the grace of a wild creature. She knew the snow, and it carried her gently. She knew the spruce trees, how to slip among their limbs, and she knew the animals, the fox and ermine, the moose and songbirds. She knew this land by heart.

As Jack knelt in the bloody snow, he wondered if that was how a man held up his end of the bargain, by learning and taking into his heart this strange wilderness—guarded and naked, violent and meek, tremulous in its greatness.

 

The work was beyond Jack’s strength and experience. He had carved up chickens and a few sides of beef, but this wasn’t the same. This was a colossal, fully intact wild animal sprawled in its own blood in the middle of the woods. His shot had been good, through the front shoulders and lungs. He needed to open the gut to let the viscera and heat escape before the meat
spoiled, but it would be no easy task. The moose’s legs, each weighing more than a hundred pounds, were cumbersome and in the way. He tried to lodge his shoulder beneath a hind leg to expose the belly, but it was too unwieldy. He took a section of rope from his pack and wrapped it around the moose’s hind ankle. Using all his strength, he pulled it up and away, and then tied the rope to a tree behind the moose. This exposed the abdomen, though Jack feared that if the rope gave way, the leg could deliver quite a blow to the back of his head.

He sharpened his knife again, only because he wasn’t sure how to begin. Daylight was wasting, so he plunged his knife into the belly, remembered he didn’t want to puncture the gut sack and contaminate the meat, and pulled his knife back out slightly before cutting from stem to stern.

He was up to his elbows in blood and bowels when he heard something approaching through the forest. He thought it might be the child, but then he recalled how silently she traveled. A horse nickered. Jack stood, stretched his back, and wiped his knife on his pants.

It was Garrett Benson, walking a horse through the trees.

“Hello there,” Jack called to him.

“I heard shots. You got one down?”

“Yep.”

“A bull?”

Jack nodded.

The boy tied the horse to a nearby tree. As he neared, his eyes widened.

“Holy Moses! That’s one big moose.” Garrett went to the antlers, tried to stretch his arms from one side to the other and failed. “Ho-ly Moses,” he said again, more softly.

“Is he big?”

“Hell yeah.” A boy trying out a man’s language. “Hell yeah!”

“I didn’t know. This is the first bull I’ve seen up close.”

Garrett took off his glove and held out his hand. “Congratulations! He’s a dandy!”

Jack wiped some of the blood onto his pant legs and took the boy’s hand.

“Thanks, Garrett. I appreciate that. I have to say, I wasn’t expecting this.”

“No kidding. I mean, he’s a jim-dandy!”

This was an aspect of Garrett he hadn’t seen. The sulky smirk was gone, and his boyish face beamed.

“I was riding the river, looking for places to put out traps, when I heard your rifle,” Garrett said. “Bam. Bam. Two shots. That’s always a good sign. I figured you had something down. But boy howdy, I sure didn’t think it would be something like this.”

“He seemed good-sized to me,” Jack said.

The boy was quiet, reverent as he ran a hand down the antler bone.

“It’s bigger than any I’ve ever seen,” he said. “Sure bigger than anything I’ve ever shot.”

His opinion of Garrett improved. Not many thirteen-year-old boys could win a wrestling match with envy.

“Guess I’ve got my work cut out for me,” Jack said.

“It’s a lot. But with two of us, it’ll go all right.”

“Don’t feel you’re under any obligation to lend a hand.”

The boy took a knife from a sheath at his belt. “I’d like to.”

“Well, it’d be much appreciated. Maybe you can just give me a few pointers, walk me through some of it. The truth is, I’m in over my head.”

“Looks like you’re starting fine, pulling those guts out.” And the boy drew back the hide and peered inside the rib cage. “Yeah, see there? You can just cut that away and it’ll all come out slick.”

When they sliced away the heart and liver, each broader than a dinner plate, Jack slid them still wet into a gunnysack.

 

For the next several hours, Jack and the boy worked at the moose. It was wearying. Jack’s hands were cold and numb, and several times he nicked himself with the knife. His back and knees pained him. The sun slithered through the trees, the air cooled, the dead animal stiffened, but they kept at it. Sometimes Garrett offered advice about where to make a cut or how to separate a joint. He held the legs in place or pulled back the hide so Jack could work more easily. They joked some and talked some, but mostly just worked, and it was comfortable.

When they had cut away the legs and ribs, the tenderloin and backstrap and neck meat, Garrett fetched a handsaw from his saddlebags and they sawed the antlers from the skull.

“You’ve got to bring these back tonight,” Garrett said, “so we can show everybody. They’ll never believe it if we just tell them.”

Jack would have rather left the antlers and hauled more of the meat home, but he decided the quarters would be safe enough hanging in the trees until he could come back with the horse and wagon in the morning. He hated to disappoint the boy after all he’d done to help, so they strapped the antlers, vital organs, and some of the finest cuts of meat to Garrett’s saddle.

“That’s a good horse you got there,” Jack said as they secured the load. “Doesn’t balk at meat being strapped on.”

“I bought him myself from a miner who used him for packing. I’m going to make him into a trapping horse.”

Bloody and tired, they made their way through the trees, Garrett leading the horse by a rope. Jack hadn’t realized how close he was to his field, and from there they followed the wagon trail. It was nearing dark as they came into the yard.

“I sure am grateful for your help,” Jack said. “I’d still be out there hacking away by myself.”

“Sure. Sure,” Garrett said. “Wait till Mom and Dad see it.”

With Jack hobbling after him, Garrett rushed ahead.

“Looks like your folks beat you here,” Jack called out when he saw the sleigh in the yard. Just then, George and his two older sons came out of the barn.

“You’re not going to believe this!” Garrett hollered. “Jack shot the biggest damn moose you ever saw!”

CHAPTER 8
 

A
s she prepared that morning for the Bensons’ arrival, Mabel reminded herself of how it had been at their house for Thanksgiving. She would not fret about the stains on the tablecloth or the rough-plank floor that could never be scrubbed clean. Dinner would be well made, but not so much that it seemed she was trying to show them up. She didn’t own any men’s overalls and never intended to. Her long skirt and formal sleeves might be overdone, but they were all she had.

By late morning, the cabin was clean and the table set. She spent an hour or so fussing with her hair and rearranging the place settings. She was relieved when dusk came and the Bensons arrived on a sleigh pulled by one of their draft horses. George and the two older boys took the horse to the barn, while Esther unloaded some things from the sleigh and came to the door. There was no knock or opportunity to invite her in as Esther pushed past Mabel.

“Thank God, we’re finally here.” She tossed a dusty grain sack on the table, nearly knocking a plate to the floor. “I thought you could use some onions. We ended up with more than we need.”

She opened her coat and unloaded Mason jars from her oversized pockets. “This one here’s rhubarb jam. Terrific on sourdough pancakes. Did you get that sourdough to take? You’ve got to baby it some. Don’t let it get too hot or too cold. Oh, this one here is blueberry-raspberry, I think. Might have some currants in there. Hard to tell. Sure it will be good, though. Oh, and here’s some spicy pickled peas. George’s favorite. Don’t tell him I snuck you some.”

She took off her coat and threw it across the back of a chair. “I feared those were going to freeze on the way over. I had to keep them up next to me, just to be sure.” She laughed and looked up at Mabel as if finally taking notice of her. She flung her arms around Mabel’s shoulders, squeezed her tightly, and pressed her cold cheek up against Mabel’s.

“Oh, it’s so good to see you. I’ve been after George ever since Thanksgiving to get us over here. It’s no good being a woman in this country, is it? Too many men, in my opinion. And of course I go off and have all boys myself, as if there weren’t enough already.” Esther laughed and shook out her long braid. Then she looked around the cabin and Mabel felt a mixture of pride and shyness, sure that Esther was inspecting the curtains and clean kitchen and assessing her skills as a homemaker.

“Nice tight cabin you’ve got here. George says you’ve got some problems with the frost coming through, but that happens to us all on those cold days. Just crank up the fire, I say. Looks like you’ve got a sturdy woodstove. That makes all the difference.”

Esther stood next to the stove much the way Jack did, with her hands spread wide to the heat. Mabel realized she had never really studied the stove before, just as she knew that Esther had
yet to notice the carefully set table or the few photographs hanging on the walls. It was as if she were seeing a different cabin altogether.

“Jack hasn’t come home yet. He should be here anytime, and then we can have dinner. Would you like some tea? I put some water on.”

“Oh, that would be terrific. I’m cold and damp from the ride over. I’m not complaining, though. I’ve always liked the snow.”

“I do know what you mean. Or at least I can say I am finally getting accustomed to it. There’s been a lot to get used to here.”

Esther laughed. “Isn’t that the truth. I don’t know if you ever get used to it really. It just gets in your blood so that you can’t stand to be anywhere else.”

The women sat at the table, Mabel sipping her tea and Esther talking. Mabel waited for a chance to ask about the child, but Esther never seemed to take a breath.

BOOK: The Snow Child: A Novel
12.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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