FICTION

WEASEL SKIN

WILL R. BIRD March 15 1934
FICTION

WEASEL SKIN

WILL R. BIRD March 15 1934

WEASEL SKIN

WILL R. BIRD

THE CABIN was a blur in a waste of snow and scattered scrub tangles, a desolate blot of darkness in the discolored

wilderness.

Inside its moss-chinked walls three men were sleeping, rolled snugly in their blankets. They were trappers,

and they had come from their solitary winter camps to the cabin to await an airplane which would take them and their winter’s catch back to civilization.

A light wind whispered over the barren, a chill wind filled with a sense of thaw. It was April and spring was coming to the North. The w ind pulled lightly at the cabin dixir, which made no sound on its leather hinges, and its breath fanned an ember that had fallen from the sheet-iron stove when one of the sleepers had drowsily replenished the fire. The ember reddened and a tiny spiral of smoke rose toward the jxde rixif. Like an evil winking eye, the glow increased or darkened under pressure of the draught along the floor. Finally it burst into small flame.

After a time one of the sleepers stirred and strangled with smoke. He struggled up, gasping and choking.

"Fire !"

His shout was filled w ith fear. He plunged, hands over his eyes, to the door and wrenched it open. In an instant the interior was a roaring furnace.

An hour later the three men turned from the heap of smoking debris and made ready to journey southward.

They had saved a rifle, an axe, a cooking pot and frying pan, a few' provisions. That was all. Their entire winter’s catch had vanished in foul smoke.

"If you hadn’t kicked the door open we could have got her out,” Hawker said bitterly. He was a lean, dark man with straight black hair and a hatchet face. He lived and worked alone, and carried an unenviable reputation.

"There was too much fire also.” Dubuc joined in. "You fix the cabin twice for sure.” He was a short, swarthy, bullet-headed man, a hardened veteran of the bush and trap lines.

The third man made no answer to their accusations. He was stolid faced and heavy limbed, giving an impression of oxlike strength and intelligence. His name was Jim Perkins, and the others had twitted him many times for being slowminded. The three had been brought to the barren by the same plane the previous autumn, but Perkins had not been acquainted previously with the other two.

"Vie jest got two blankets,” Hawker said, gazing at their salvage. “I got them, an’ the rifle an’ sack of biscuits.”

"I got the axe,” Dubuc said, "the fry pan an’ bacon.”

Perkins gazed at them.

"I just got the kettle and tea,” he said. “I couldn’t find the tea right off because it had been knocked on the floor, but I knew we’d need it as much as anything.”

"An’ that’s all we’ve got, is it?” Hawker spat into the snow and looked at Dubuc.

"That’s all.” Dubuc answered.

Perkins said nothing. His mind was still a chaos. The fire had startled him mightily. In the swirling smoke he had seen Hawker thrust a tin of beans inside his jacket—-and now there was no tin on the heap in the snow !

"pACH MAN took his own load and they moved off across -‘-'the waste. Hawker leading. It was heartbreaking labor, for the shows were rotten with subtle thaws and heavy with moisture. For two weeks they had been loafing in the cabin, waiting for the plane, and they had softened. They plodded at a snail’s pace, and soon were clammy with perspiration.

Yet it was imperative that they travel. There was a drab sky and the air was filled with hints of a storm. They had no shelter. The barren stretched endlessly, its dirty whiteness a ghostly waste, its heavy stillness weird and chilling. The plane might not come for another two weeks, and they had not food for half that time.

“If it’s all like this,” Hawker said over his shoulder, "we’ll need a week to make it.”

"It’s four days from the lake,” Dubuc answered. "We’ve got to push along.”

“But we should stop noons to make tea,” Perkins said. “It don’t take long to boil the kettle, and tea’s a grand help.”

They did not trouble to answer him. He wras new to the North—it had been his first winter—and they regarded him as a clumsy amateur. His meagre catch had strengthened their opinions.

A single snowflake floated before Hawker, and he quickened.

“In an hour,” he said tersely, “it’ll be so thick you can’t see.”

"There’s bush,” Dubuc pointed ahead. “There’s a hollow.”

The spot he indicated was within two miles of them; a mass of snow-free greenery showing solid in the blotched wilderness. They travelled with all possible speed, yet before half the distance had been covered the storm was on them. Snow filled the air, blinded them, swirled and eddied about them. It had suddenly turned colder and a wind was rising.

Hawker kept in the lead, toiling doggedly. Each man was a sheeted figure aching with fatigue, and Dubuc called out sharply that they were not holding to the right direction.

“You find it, then.” Hawker yelled, and the shorter man plunged past him without a word.

Perkins, laboring behind Dubuc, bumped into Hawker, and the tall man snarled an oath, then elbowed past Perkins to get next to Dubuc. The storm sleeted their flesh and matted their eyebrows, but they finally slithered into the hollow—-a small ravine piled deep with snow.

Stunted spruce grew thickly. They wallowed into the largest thicket and cleared a refuge, interlacing brush to form a roof. Dead undergrowth furnished fuel, and they built a fire. Smoke encircled them in choking gusts, but they kept adding wood. They chilled as soon as they ceased exertions.

The day seemed endless. They were cramped in the small space, and the heat of the fire melted snow above them so that the brush dripped continually. Perkins made tea at noon and they fried bacon. Dubuc sliced scanty portions.

“She’s got to last,” he said.

He and Hawker, warmed by the tea. began to talk about their loss of fur and to quarrel over its worth.

"I’d have had five hundred clear.” Hawker said with an oath. “An’ I needed that money bad.”

"Same wit’ me,” Dubuc said angrily. “Me, I mak’ one note for tree hun’erd wit’ a man.”

They did not speak to Perkins.

IT WAS night before the storm lessened, and then a stronger wind piled the new snow in immense drifts. At dawn they clambered from the ravine and began their struggle southward. The going was far more difficult than on the previous day and it was intensely cold. The sky was bright as steel, and the glare of the sun forced them to use handkerchiefs as makeshift protection for their eyes.

They stopped, exhausted, at noon, and Perkins made tea while the others rested. They made no move to produce food.

“We’ll eat tonight,” Dubuc grunted.

Hawker did not trouble to say anything.

They rested three times before it was dark, and each time Perkins was far in the rear. He sank deeper in the drifts than the others, labored more in his travelling.

He did not speak as he reached the spot they chose for overnight but began building a fire. He filled the kettle with snow and hung it over the flames.

Dubuc sliced bacon carefully and placed it in the pan. Hawker counted the biscuits, and his face was grim.

They ate in silence. There was no speech as they gathered fuel or as they reclined on their brush beds, dozing and waking, aching with fatigue. Perkins had no blankets. The others did not offer to share theirs with him, and he dare not ask it. He woke frequently, shivering, and it was he who kept the fire going.

At daylight Hawker issued one biscuit to each after Perkins had made tea. When they had eaten them and a like issue of bacon, Dubuc produced a greasy pack of cards.

“We’re up agin her,” he said in a strange flat tone, looking at Perkins. "She’s five days more an’ there’s not grub to last. There’s only one way to do. We’re cuttin’ cards an’ low man stays out.”

Perkins’ heavy features evinced his struggle to gain Dubuc’s meaning.

“Stays where?” he asked in bewilderment.

“Out ! He’s not goin’ to have more grub, see.”

“Grub?” Perkins repeated dully. “Why?”

“The low-card man,” Dubuc explained with careful, hard patience, “don’ git more. There ain’t enough for free.” Perkins wet his lips with his tongue.

“But if I draw low I can follow your trail as—as . . .” He could not finish.

The others nodded.

“We’re takin’ the same draw,” Dubuc said. “I ain’t lucky wit’ cards. Mebbe it’s me. You ready to cut?”

“Wait a minute.” Hawker’s voice was harsh. “Who said you were running this show?”

Dubuc’s black eyes glittered.

“What you want?” he snarled.

“You’re not first, an’ somebody’ll shuffle for you.”

“For you, too,” Dubuc flamed. “You gits too many aces.” “Is that so!” grated Hawker. “Think I was blind back there in the cabin when you was slippin’ ’em from the bottom?”

“Hell wit’ you!” flared Dubuc. “You take discards, twice.”

They were each tense with sudden passion. Perkins, stunned by the turn of events, patted the sack of tea he carried.

“There’s plenty tea,” he said. “You ought to let me keep part of it.”

The sound of his voice caused the two men to relax.

“Let him cut first.” Hawker’s voice was thick with suggestion. “An’ we’ll let him have his share of the tea.” Dubuc shuffled the cards.

“Cut,” he said briefly. “Ace is high.”

Perkins had played poker with them in the cabin and had always lost. He pulled off his mitten and cut aimlessly. “Hell !” Dubuc hissed his amazement. “Look !”

A slow grin widened Perkins’ mouth. He had cut an ace. “You say who’s nex’.” Dubuc pointed at him.

“M-me?” stammered Perkins. "Why—I’ll say you’re next.”

Hawker seemed to crouch.

“All right,” he snarled. “Go ahead.”

Dubuc’s fingers were cold. He almost dropped the pack in a sliding motion as he split it.

“There she is!” He exhibited another ace.

Hawker jerked off his mittens and reached for the cards, planting the rifle behind him in the snow. He shuffled with lightning speed and the pack seemed to leap apart—at another ace !

“I kin git them same as you,” he jeered.

Dubuc’s frost-burned face hardened to terrible intensity. Hawker let the cards fall into the snow and reached for the rifle. He did not move jerkily or with apparent hurry, but with the next heartbeat the weapon was cradled on his arm and he had a bare

finger on the trigger. His nostrils dilated, and he watched as if he were cornered.

"Wait!” Perkins shouted, stumbling back from between them. “Don’t do anything crazy. Wait. I’ll be the one left out. Leave me plenty of tea, that’s all.”

“Sure.” said Dubuc, “an’ keep the kettle wit’ you.” “Yeah,” said Hawker, picking up his mittens. “Let’s git goin’.”

Perkins stood, staring, as if making a terrific attempt to solve the situation, as they climbed from the hollow.

“Wait !” he cried suddenly, plunging after them. “Look here. I’m no good at direction, and if your tracks get snowed over I’ll be lost.” He reached inside his jacket. "There’s six hundred and fifty dollars in this package. You take it, Dubuc, and mail it when you get out. The address is on it already.”

“Six hun’erd an’ fifty !” Dubuc stared at the thick, sealed paper packet. “You’ crazy to have it up here.” He placed the package carefully in his shirt pocket. “I’ll look after her mos’ sure. Good luck wit’ you.” he said.

They were ten paces away before Perkins could find his voice again.

“Good-by,” he called. “I’m going to try and follow you.” Hawker plunged on, headed towafd a horizon dotted more thickly with scrub growth. Dubuc looked back once and waved a hand.

THEY HAD left him half the tea. Perkins tied the sack again and hung the small kettle to his belt, then followed the trail in the snow. As he topped a small rise Hawker’s sneering tones came to him faintly.

"... that’s how dumb he is, carryin’ that much up here.”

He kept in their tracks, trying to travel as easily as possible, glancing occasionally at their figures, dark against the snow dazzle. By noon they were half a mile from him, and when he had made a fire and had plenty of strong tea they were but small specks as they held in view over rougher going. Sometimes they vanished altogether, then would emerge from the w'hiteness and surmount a tiny ridge, suggesting a most painful persistence.

Perkins travelled slowly in the loose snow, but he maintained his pace. All the afternoon he plodded on, snail-like in the vast solitude. He had lost sight of the others, had ceased trying to see them, but he kept patiently on until it was too dark to travel longer. Then he stopped and built a fire.

The place he had chosen was another small ravine. I íe scooped a shelter in its growth, and made a bed of boughs that he broke with his hands. Each move seemed sluggish, but he uprooted deadwood with little effort and broke large sticks as if they were twigs. Reclined on his brush, he dozed, waking every few minutes to replenish the fire. At midnight he sat up and gazed stupidly at the embers. Finally he nodded as if he had reached a decision, and filled the kettle with snow. When the tea was ready he groped in an inner part of his clothing and brought three biscuits to view, then a tin of beans. It was fcx)d he had snatched up as he searched for tea in the smokefilled cabin. He had not mentioned having it.

He heated the beans and enjoyed his fcxxl, eating slowly and with great relish.

The hot drink and beans drove out the cold that had

stabbed his body. He slept easily until the fire died and he shivered again.

At dawn he moved on. He had three more biscuits and he ate them before starting. An hour’s trudging gave him a wide survey of the region beyond, but no slow-moving dark specks were visible.

The barren gave way to wooded country, spruce and pine in solid rank that necessitated tortuous detours. Every now and then a bough would bend suddenly and unload its burden of soft snow. The small noises such happenings made, and the powdery' gusts, were ignored. He kept following the trail with the utmost diligence.

Three times during the day he stopped and made tea, and the hot drink ran through him like liquid fire. The scorching flood was at once his fcxxl and a supreme luxury. The cold had modified, and the sun had strength in windless places.

At night he made his fire beside a group of small dead pines. It was easy to get plenty of fuel. There was no wind at all in the thick growth, and the heat of the flames seemed to linger longer. He heaped on the brittle branches and bathed himself in the soothing warmth. The light revealed his nigged features.

They were slightly gaunt, but there was nothing to suggest that he was tired.

With the first hint of daylight he had made tea, and it was still dark beneath the trees when he began travelling. Then the bush thinned and he was confronted by a long, broad excuse of unspotted whiteness that glittered brilliantly in the morning sun. He had reached the lake.

The tracks led down the centre of it like a straight line, and it was noon before he reached the far end. The shore was a steep bank, and he toiled in making

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Weasel Skin

Continued from fage 21

the ascent. Once up, he went on without a halt and was under the trees when he halted suddenly. For a long moment it was utterly still except for his labored breathing.

The men whom he had followed had made camp under a huge windfall. The brush on which each man had lain was there, bedded in the snow, and he could see the dark yellow stain where they had emptied their tea dregs. But he merely glanced at their camping place; his gaze was fixed on something beyond. It was Dubuc’s body, stiff and distorted, beside the trail !

Perkins went to it slowly. Twice he halted, aghast, but at last he could see the manner of Dubuc’s death. He had been shot through the head !

He stood again before forcing himself to kneel and explore the dead man’s clothing. There was no need for fumbling. All the fastenings he had intended undoing were undone. It was very easy to reach Dubuc’s shirt pocket—but the pocket was empty.

Perkins surveyed the twisted form in new wonderment as he saw a bullet hole in the jacket, too high up to reach the heart. There had been two shots. He turned, after comprehending, and scanned the tracks. He could see that Dubuc had run several yards before pitching forward.

There were other markings, a zigzag of them. He could see by the different footprints where Hawker had stood, where he had leaped, to left, to right, and where he had fallen sideways and back, as if something had knocked him down. But Hawker was not here now.

Perkins kicked away the snow and found the axe. Evidently it had felled Hawker and then gone on into the drift, leaving little trace. Ail at once Perkins exclaimed aloud. There was blood on the snow. It had dripped freely, was scattered about. Hawker had risen and gone on, but he had been hurt.

Perkins went back and made a patient search of Dubuc’s pockets.

“Ah-h!’’

His long-drawn exclamation had a curious echo in the stillness. He sprang up and made a fire on the ashes near the windfall. He had made a find. There were seven biscuits and a thick strip of bacon hidden in the lining of Dubuc’s jacket.

He ate it all, cutting the bacon with the axe and gulping it raw. and drinking plenty of tea. Finished, Perkins removed the rolled blanket that Dubuc had been carrying and, after a long hesitation, went along Hawker’s trail.

That night Perkins camped in the protection of a thick grove. The weather had warmed greatly, and he slept half the night in the warmth of the blanket.

In the morning the sun had such strength that there were melted places on an outcropping of rock that he passed, and snow fell continually from the trees. But he scarcely noticed. He was watching ahead. Hawker’s trail was wavering. In the afternoon Perkins found two places where Hawker had fallen.

T)ERKINS found Hawker feebly trying to

build a fire. The man was on his knees in the snow, breaking twigs and piling them on the flame. Every move he made was slow and uncertain, and he had gathered little fuel beyond the twigs.

“Hello,” Perkins called.

Hawker started so violently that he fell backward. He start'd with horror and groped for his rille. His face was ghastly with fear.

“Hello,” Perkins said again. “Don’t you know me?” He saw where the rifle had dropped from sight in a drift.

“Yo-you can’t be him!” Hawker gasped. “You—you hadn’t anything but tea.”

“It’s me all right.’’ Perkins said quickly. “I had some biscuits in my pockets and a tin of beans.”

"In vour pockets!" Hawker's jaw sagged. “You?”

"Yes,” Perkins said. “I got them when I was trying to find the tea. I saw you weren’t going to say anything about that tin of beans you had, so I didn’t say anything about what I had. Dubuc had some bacon hid. too.”

“Dubuc!” Hawker parroted the name hoarsely.

“Yes. I saw where you killed him back there.” Perkins had walked in closer and was standing where the rifle had sunk.

“Me!” Hawker tried to shout.

“You,” Perkins said evenly.

“I had to.” Hawker looked still more ghastly. “He tried to get me with the axe. Look what he did.” He pointed to his left shoulder.

The jacket had been slashed; all the clothing was gashed ojien. Perkins could see an awkward bandage of tom blanket. It bulged and was soaked with blood.

"He’d have killed me if I hadn’t got him,” Hawker said. “He was layin’ to git me an’ I knowed it.” Hawker sank in the snow like a desjierately wounded animal. “Git some wood,” he whined. “I’m freezin’ stiff.”

In a few moments Perkins had the fire blazing high and had cut plenty of brush for Hawker to lie on. Then he filled the kettle with snow and began cutting bacon to fry. He had taken Hawker’s sack of food without asking jiermission.

Hawker lay back, watching. He drank the hot tea and ate a little food, then shook his head.

“She’s hurtin’ bad,” he said.

Perkins made a bigger fire. He had eaten many slices of bacon and many biscuits, and he felt vastly revived. He opened Hawker’s jacket and examined the wound. It had swollen horribly, was a frightful hurt. The axe had bitten deep and blood oozed continually. Hawker’s shirt was sodden with it.

“Does it—look bad?” the injured man asked.

“Yes.” Perkins arranged the pad as best he could, then stood up and gazed into the gloom. “I don’t know what to do.”

“It’s two days more to outside.” Hawker’s voice held no hope. "I can’t make it. I guess —I’m done.” It seemed an increasing effort for him to talk.

“It’s too bad,” Perkins said. “Would you like more tea?”

“Yes.” Hawker’s face looked yellowish in the firelight. “It warms me. I never knowed it could be so cold.”

“It’s because you're hurt.” Perkins filled the kettle again. “It ain’t really cold.” Hawker settled back on the brush.

“Then I guess I'm goin’—to p>ass out,” he said, his voice lowered to a whisper.

"You tell me anything I can do,” Perkins said. He had made a great blazing fire and tucked both blankets around Hawker.

“You got—jxiF>er—and p>encil?”

“Sure.” Perkins produced a small notebook.

“Quick—while I’m settin’ up,” Hawker pxinted. He wrote in a hand scrawled over two jxiges:

"I killed Jen Dubuc. I shot him to git what he carried. He got me with the axe. I’m ritin this so you won’t blame anybody else. Sim Hawker.”

“There.” Hawker slumped back on the brush. “Give that to Tom Jerry—-on the {»lice. He—knows me—an’ my writin’.

That’ll—clear you.”

“Thanks," Perkins said. “That's mighty good of you.”

“No, it ain’t.” Hawker rolled his head. “Me’n him—left you—dirty. We should have—stuck together. You’re—white.”

“I might have kept up,” Perkins said. “1 wish you’d told Dubuc it was you fixed the fire that night. He blamed me.”

Hawker made no response. It was a long time before he spoke.

“Listen. The river’s—just ahead. Keep to—the bank—this side. It’ll take you— right in.”

It was very dark and the light of the fire danced and wavered along the trees. Perkins stood awkwardly beside the brush as if he did not know what to do.

“It’s here.” Hawker tried to get a hand in his pocket. Perkins bent over and helped him. It was the packet he had given Dubuc. Hawker tried to speak again, but failed.

Perkins rose and began gathering wood for the fire. When he had a sufficient pile, he knelt beside Hawker and searched his pockets. He found a few biscuits and a tin of beans.

The hollow where they had made the fire was a small depression and there was not room to make another bed of brush. Perkins,

after a long hesitation, dragged the dead man to a spot outside the circle of light. Then he rearranged the bed and renewed the fire.

He sat. staring into the flames, frowning in heavy concentration, then drew the sealed packet from his pocket. After more deliberation he tore it open, revealing a perfect weasel skin and a letter.

“Dear Aunt," he read. “I promised I would send you the first skin I caught, and it is enclosed. It’s a prize one. and I I hope you are satisfied that I am now a real trapper . . ”

“If I hadn’t had that ready to mail.” Perkins muttered. “I wouldn't have had anything I could have fooled them with.” He tossed the fur. wrapping and letter on the fire. “You wouldn’t have thought fellows like them would have swallowed what I told them.” he went on. “It’s a mighty lucky thing for me I thought quick enough to try it.” He gazed at the shadows where he had dragged Hawker. “They’d do anything, they would.” he whispered.

He reached for the kettle. He would eat the tin of beans before he slept. He had plenty of food to last two days.