The Last Trick
WILL R. BIRD
UP ALONG Nan Valley, in the sugar maple hills, Barney Delaney’s carefree habits and quick thinking had gained him a reputation long before he was sixteen. “He’s always up to tricks,” everyone said. “You can never depend on him.” All the village had heard him say he never intended to be a farmer or a woodsman. Leader in countless escapades, he always eluded capture.
His father, old Paddy Delaney, had dealt harshly with him many times in order to ensure his more regular attendance at the woodpile and schoolhouse, but Barney had an even temperament. He accepted certain discomforts of boyhood as inevitable, until he felt he had reached man size. Then his ideas changed.
A few days after Barney was sixteen the old man cornered him in the woodshed. “Teacher says somebody put a hornets’ nest under the water bucket.” he growled. “I reckon you done it, because you’re alius up to tricks?” “No,” Barney said. “I didn’t do it.”
“Who did, then?” the old man demanded.
“I’m not going to tell,” Barney observed.
‘Then I’m goin’ to give you a hidin’ on principles,” old iddy decided.
“No, pa,” young Barney said. “You nor nobody isn’t fing to give me any more lickin’s on principle.”
“Ho,” blared Paddy. “So that’s how you’re feelin.’ You’re too smart to get proved on, and everybody knows it, but that ain’t goin’ to save you.”
“All right, then.” Barney’s voice was nervous but controlled. “Watch yourself.”
What happened then was never told, but the woman who kept house for them found Paddy lying in the woodshed in a rather battered condition and Barney had run away and wasn’t seen for the next five years.
He came back the summer after Paddy died, a tall easymoving young man with all the glamour of a seaman who had visited far ports, with skin and hair as fair as a woman’s and teasing blue eyes that made havoc with the hearts of half the girls of Nan Valley. He flirted with them ardently, but played his tricks and joked without favor, so that when he was gone no one of them could claim more rights than another. And that was the way he carried on every time he came home.
Each time he came he stayed with his cousin, Michael Coolen, and Michael, ten years younger, a sturdy, thickshouldered, slow-minded lad, liked his company and always begged him to stay longer.
Some of the people said Barney would stop his tricks and settle down when he had had a few years of roving, but time passed and he made no change. “I’m a rolling stone,” he would laugh at them, “and why should I gather any moss as long as I’m never in debt to my stomach and have clothes on my back?”
“But you should marry,” they would say. “You’ll be wishing, some day, that you had a fire to sit by and a bed you could call your own.”
“Forbid the day,” Barney would retort. “A man is as old as he feels, and I’m a colt yet. Besides, I’ve never seen the one I want to sit with.”
Then he would turn his coat inside out and black his face and go begging at back doors, fooling some of the old ones every time he did it. Or he would work for an hour with infinite patience to get a young pig into a neighbor’s bedroom. No one knew, when Barney was in the village, what trick he would do next, and there were those who wished his visits were fewer.
But Michael Coolen always welcomed him. He had grown to be a fine, strongly built young man himself, and because he was hesitant and slow to think, he admired Barney the more and never tired of his tricks, though he was often a victim.
It seemed, to the majority of the people in the village, to be a mean quirk of fate that Barney should be making one of his infrequent visits when Mary Peterson came back to Nan Valley. She had just ceased being a leggy school kid when her people moved down country, and now she had come back a slim, dark-haired girl with a captivating dimple in her chin and soft brown eyes that made men want to win her confidence. She had been a schoolmate of Michael’s, though a year or two younger than he, and she it was who had prompted him many times in class when his thinking was too slow.
Michael introduced her rather proudly. Afterward, he said to Barney, “She was always my girl, and now that she’s back I’ll make sure of her. She’ll make me a fine wife.”
“She’d make any man a fine wife,” Barney teased, but he soon sobered, and that night, for the first time in his life, he asked Michael for a job.
“You’ll be needing a man for your chopping this winter and in the sugar bush in the spring,” he said. “I can use an axe as good as any, and I’ve never worked in a maple camp since I used to sneak from school to carry pails for your father. Take me on and I’ll promise I’ll earn my wages.”
“Why do you want work?” Michael asked him, surprised.
“Because,” Barney answered him, “I’ve made up my mind to settle down.”
THAT WAS enough. Michael hired him all right. He knew Barney would be a good man in the woods, and great company around the sugar camp when the sap was running free and they had to keep the evaporator boiling all night.
There was plenty of talk in the village when Barney’s decision became known, and much speculation as to how he would behave. But there need have been no worry, for he was as steady as Michael, playing none of his tricks and acting like a gentleman. Especially with Mary Peterson. Everyone noticed his manner with her and the absence of his usual pranks.
Fate seemed to be continuing her quirks when word went around that Mary’s father had rented the sugar bush alongside of Michael’s and that Mary was going to stay at the house camp and cook her father’s meals. Some of the people went so far as to warn Michael he might lose his girl if he didn’t watch out, but Michael only laughed at them. To him, Barney being ten years older, was a middle-aged man, and he would have declared that Mary wouldn’t look twice at anyone that old; which went to prove how little Michael knew of life.
For Mary Peterson almost found herself in Barney’s arms the first time she met him alone in Michael’s camp.
Barney’s blue eyes and polite manners seemed to fascinate her, and when he asked her point-blank if she were promised to Michael, she hesitated until he smiled. Then he began his way of making love to her and, with the practice of years, he was very pleasing. He said the things Mary wanted to hear, telling her, with his easy confidence, how lovely she was and how different from the other girls in the valley. He told her he was through with his tricks after seeing her the first time, and hoped to become a respected citizen.
Of course Mary was no fool at all, but she had her vanity
like any of her kind and Michael would never say such things in a lifetime. Then Barney became bolder and asked her for a kiss, and because he was so coaxing, and so good to look at with his handsome bronzed cheeks and blond hair, she found it difficult to refuse him. It was always hard for Mary to say “no,” for her chin was gentle and her lips deep and soft.
But that day Michael came to the camp and eased the situation. “Hello, Mary,” he said. “I’m glad you’ll be so near, and we hope you come over any time you have the chance. But watch yourself with Barney. He’s always playing tricks on somebody.”
Mary found plenty of errands to Michael’s camp, and it was generally Barney who was around. She would take them sour pickles, which are a treat in the sugar bush, or a plate of hot biscuits made at her father’scamp, and Barney would be cutting wood or washing pans and he would make the most of his opportunity. He could smile at her as if his smile were a caress and praise her in little ways that made her flush with pleasure. Sometimes she would enjoy it so much that when Michael arrived she would feel contrite and tender toward him.
“Send Barney out to gather sap,” she whispered to him one day. “Or do you want him here with me all the time?”
Michael stared at her first, then grinned slowly. “I guess you’re trying to kid me,” he said. “Barney’s too old to matter.”
It was her turn to be surprised. “Don’t you think that,” she warned him. “Why he—he acts younger than you do.”
Michael seemed to think it over, and next day he started Barney doing the gathering though he didn’t like it altogether. Michael knew every tree of the nine hundred he and Barney had tapped, every path and windfall in the bush, and he wondered if Barney would miss any of the pails. Michael’s soul was in his work. He knew every grained and weathered board of the sugar camp, every strainer and ladle, and how to keep red squirrels out of the sap tanks at the rear. He dwelt so much on every detail that his thoughts had no worry over Barney’s intentions with Mary.
It was a spring when the sap ran well and Michael worked early and late, with Barney keeping pace. “You’re the best man I ever had,” Michael told him candidly, “and I’m going to share profits with you. I’d never have made such good sugar, or so much of it, if I’d had an ordinary man.”
“Suits me,” Barney grinned, “because I’ll need the money.”
“You really intend to settle down?” Michael stared at him.
“I surely do. I’ve fooled long enough, and from now on I’m doing different.”
“Have you any plans?” Michael asked. “Maybe you could stay with me.”
Barney looked at him quickly, then shook his head. “I’ll have my own place,” he explained. “I’ll start a little chicken farm just outside some town. I’ve got it all figured. A man with a nice wife doesn’t want to make a machine out of himself, and with a place like that there’ll be no land to plow, no horses or cattle to mess with, and still plenty to live on. Another thing, a woman wants some fun out of life, and with a place like that we can leave the chickens in their pens and go into the town to a show of some kind. I’ve got it all planned, Michael.”
“You sound as if you had,” Michael admitted, “and I’m glad of it. One thing, though. Who’s the lucky woman?”
“I’ve been wondering over that part myself.” Barney had watched Michael’s expression as he talked and now he seemed to relax. “I shouldn’t have much trouble to find one.”
“No. not you.” Michael was busy with the stirring ladle. “Get a woman with your own ideas and you’ll have a good time.”
“And you’d be surprised,” Barney said evenly, “if you knew how many women have my ideas.”
rT'HE NEXT day Barney told Mary about the extra money he was to receive, and the plans he had discussed with Michael. Then he developed a trick of wondering aloud when she could hear.
“I’m wondering,” she heard him repeat, “what a nice girl would say if I asked her to help me keep chickens and count eggs and slip into town with me of an evening to see a show. Wouldn’t she like that sort of thing? Tomorrow, or some day, I’m going to ask her, and if she says ‘yes,’ 1 wouldn’t trade seats with a king.”
Then he would look at Mary and laugh like a boy, so that she felt he was one. He showed no signs of age. no slightest worry line, no wrinkles. His eyes were clear and blue, his mouth ready with a grin and his laughter spontaneous. “Come over again tomorrow,” he called when she was leaving. “I’ll be alone in the afternoon, for Michael’s going to the farm. I want to tell you about my chickens.”
All the rest of the day and that night Mary thought of Barney and his exuberance, his easy speech, and then she would remember the tensity she had seen at the back of his blue eyes. It was that which had tightened her emotions and set her wondering about herself.
Barney had a way with the women —but it was a woman who taught him that taking the last trick doesn’t always win the game
One felt certain of Michael. It wasn’t that he was exactly stolid or dull, but he had a sureness that had made her love him. An independence of decision that was a part of his sureness. One always knew what Michael was thinking and what Michael would do. She had played with him as a child, had grown up with him. They had had all their sports together—skating and swimming and picnicking. Always there had been others along, gay little parties, yet always, instinctively, she had clung to Michael. In all her dreamings she had never pictured herself as any other than Michael’s wife. But now . . .
She decided, in the morning, that she would not go over to Michael’s camp, and with her thinking evolved an almost childish anger at Barney for suggesting it. Then, in the afternoon, she found herself with him in the camp he and Michael used as their living quarters.
“Hello, Mary,” he greeted her. “I’m so glad you came. I’ve been hungry to see you.”
Her heart leaped at the way he said it; no other man could say such things and make them sound so sincere. She smiled, and could not find words to answer him.
She started to remove her hat. Their hands touched, and then he had pulled her toward him. unhurried, and kissed her, holding his lips tightly to hers as if his were the right. Released, she was not furious as she wanted to be, nor could she rouse herself to oppose him. She stepped back, merely, and said, “You nearly crushed my hat.”
“Sorry,” he said, his eyes holding her gaze. “I’ll be more careful next time.”
Mary felt her body go hot and cold. She could not understand her not hating him. nor could she tell herself that she was being dishonest with Michael. Finally she looked at Barney, her cheeks flaming. “There’s not to be a next time.” she said. “This isn’t fair. I’ll have to go back if you don’t behave.”
Instantly he was begging. “Please don’t. Listen. Mary. All my life I’ve fooled around, but now I want to be serious. I’m sorry if I made a wrong move now, for I want to please you—I want you to like me.”
She faced him squarely. “What about Michael?” she asked, her voice very low.
“Does Michael love you as I do?” He stood away from her, tense and pleading. “Does he ever think of you when he’s at his work. You know he doesn’t. You know he’ll be fond of you the same as any man here in Nan Valley, and be proud to have you in his house, but that’s all. And it isn’t love. Every time I’m out on the sap road I keep seeing your face before me. I can see that little dimple in your chin, that flick of hair in front of your ear. I can see you smile. I work hours on end thinking about you, hardly knowing a thing I do, and I’m nearly crazy when you’re really here. I love you, Mary.”
He said it so tenderly that Mary could not check him, did not want to. There was a warm glow within her. She had a sense of discovery and triumph. It took all her will power to keep away from him and ask her question.
“I haven’t known you, Barney, but— how many others have you told this same thing?”
For a moment he made no answer and the color seemed to leave his cheeks. When he spoke his voice was as low and tense as hers. “It’s a natural thing for you to ask me, Mary, but I declare to you, as I hope for your love, that I have never spoken seriously to any other woman. Fun I’ve had with dozens, and everyone knows it. but it was nothing but fun. You’re the first woman I’ve ever wanted.”
He was terribly in earnest and Mary could not make any response. He seemed to sense it. “Forgive me if I’m frightening you,” he said; “and I’m forgetting the furnace. What about fixing up a lunch while I look after the fires?”
SHE AGREED eagerly. She made tea and boiled eggs and sliced ham. and Barney came when she had it ready. They sat at either side of the rough table and he talked of his boyhood in the valley and the troubles he had made for his father, of his running away and wanting always to be moving, to be seeing new places, so that she began to see the picture he was weaving for her.
“I’ve never wanted to settle anywhere,” he said. “I’ve always felt that if I kept on looking I’d find, some day, what I was looking for. But now—” he stopped abruptly. “I’m foolish to sit here telling you all this,” he said. “I haven’t any right to take the advantage, and Michael is one of the best. I don’t know a finer.” “Advantage,”Mary heard herself say. “ W hat do you mean ? I don ’ t understand. ’ ’ It was a lie. She knew what he meant, but her emotions were crying for him to say it.
He stood up, tall and handsome in the little camp, and put out his hands. “One more kiss,” he said, “and then you go.” She let his hands take hers and then he kissed her, swiftly and lightly. “Mary,” he said gently, “would you be crazy enough to marry me?”
Now that he had said it, Mary gasped. She had striven with all her will to make him say the words and, now that he had. some sudden perverse caution leaped within her, steadied her and drew her from him. “I don’t know,” she faltered. “It’s too quick to say.”
There was a quick alarm in his eyes. “Sure.” His agreement was hearty. “I shouldn’t have said that now. It isn’t fair to you.”
“Yes, Barney,” she said. “It’s fair enough. Give me time, that’s all.”
He went with her a distance as she returned to her father’s camp, and she hurried, for she did not want to see Michael when he arrived.
Her father looked at her shrewdly as he ate his evening meal. “Michael away?” “Yes,” she nodded, and felt the flush on her cheeks.
“Don’t mind me.” Her father was a quiet, hard-working man, but he looked at her quizzically. “Don’t make up your mind in a hurry,” he advised. “Barney puts on a good show. Michael don’t shine beside him, but when you choose, take the one you 11 want when it isn’t fun that’s needed.”
She had not heard him make a speech like it, and he turned suddenly and went from the camp as if he had said more than he had intended, but his words were in her ears until she went to bed. Then she could not sleep, because Barney held her thoughts and she remembered the alarm that had risen in his eyes. Apparently he had been sure of what she would say, and as she recalled the moment she was amazed, too. that she had denied him. Finally she thought of Michael and with such a rush of pent feeling that before she slept she liad cried a long time into her pillow. Her world had become upset.
It grew warmer overnight and the sap gushed for a time, then gradually ceased its flow. Bluejays flitted everywhere and flocks of wild geese honked overhead. The snow melted inches in an afternoon. The air was warm and filled with a tang of spring and growth. Michael took a load of sugar to the village and left Barney gathering pails. The season had ended.
Mary came to the camp again. She had meant to stay away, but her will weakened. She wanted to talk with Michael, she told herself. Barney grinned boyishly when he saw her. “I’ve got something for you,” he called.
It was a heart of maple sugar, made in an old mold he had located. “A real sweetheart,” he said, watching her closely.
She tried to meet his humor, to turn the moment aside with a jest, but. with her lips half-parted to reply, he pulled her to him and kissed her, easily, then with tensity, and her arms went around him tightly and she clung to him, almost fearing to breathe lest it break the spell.
But Barney pulled away. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean it to be like this.”
“Why not?” Mary was breathing deeply and her voice trembled. “Is anything wrong?”
He stared at her, almost incredulously. “Why, Michael ... ?”
“Anybody home?” It was a shout from ¡ outside, and Mary’s father came in. “Oh. j you’re here,” he said. “I just found bear j tracks on a sap road and I wanted to be sure you were all right. There was a cub | along, and at this time of year an old bear can be dangerous.”
“You’re right.” Barney agreed. “I’ll not let Mary go back without one of us is with her.”
But Mary's father was in no hurry to leave. He talked about Michael’s methods of making sugar and inspected the evaporator and the sap tanks and molds for sugar. He was still there, puttering about, when Michael came back from the settlement.
“Don’t you go walking alone between the camps any more,” Michael said as soon as he had seen Mary. “There’s a big bear in this bush and I brought my rifle in.” It was an old army weapon. “I could only find one cartridge, so I’ll have to make sure of my aim if I get a chance to shoot.” He patted the heavy stock. “Mary can shoot with a .22 I have,” he said. “She hit a porcupine up in that big pine by the river.” He was in good spirits. “Maple prices are good, Barney. Two cents a pound more’n \ I’d figured. We’ve had a good spring.”
He lingered for a time as if wishing they would start some discussion, but Mary 1 could not think of words and Barney was oddly quiet. “Guess I’ll take my axe and go down to the bend,” Michael said. 1 “There’s an old beech that will blow down this summer and block the road if I leave it standing.”
THEY watched him go. his broad shoulders seeming to fill the lane between the trees, his hat sitting fairly on his dark curls. And, watching him, Mary was suddenly aware of something that arose within her, a thousand tumbling memories, school days with Michael, picnics with Michael, his sturdy figure ever beside her. to bait her hook, to fasten her skate strap, to build her a campfire. All her good days had been with Michael—honest, sincere Michael whom any girl could love for the way of him with a girl.
She put her hand out as if she would thrust something away from her. “I think I’ll go back to the camp,” she said. “Will you come along?”
“Surely, Mary.” Barney sprang up at once, and then her emotions were again on fire, and the flame of them made her forget as quickly as she had remembered. “I don’t want to hurry you,” he went on in his thrilling voice, “but you won’t forget, will you, that I’m waiting for you to decide?”
“No, I won’t,” she said shakily. “One minute I think I know, and then I’m all upset again. I—I’ll let you know soon.”
He took his axe from the corner and then they went quickly, for she felt the restraint with which he held himself as if it were something visible. He tried to make easy conversation, pointing to buds nearly opened, to a first butterfly fluttering in the sunlight, to the spreading bare patches in the glades.
At the first sap line the road gouged a drift of snow banked against the slope on their right, and as they passed along there was a sudden scampering sound, then whimperings, and a young bear cub, kicking helplessly, cascaded to the road beside them, a victim of his efforts to peer at them from the overhanging drift.
Startled by the happening, Mary screamed, and Barney struck with his axe. He knocked the squalling youngster from her path. It seemed a light blow, but the cub became an inert and puny bit of fur in the sled tracks.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” Barney said tensely. “Run back to camp, fast as you can. Run!” He spun her around and pushed her. Terrified by his action, she ran, but glanced over her shoulder. Her knees almost gave way. A huge black body was crashing through the underbrush, charging at Barney.
For a few yards her strength weakened, and then she was running more swiftly. She looked around again. She saw Barney leaping farther up the road to hard-packed snow. Saw his axe blade glint as he brandished it in menace. Saw the bear charge him. The axe was struck from Barney’s grip. But the bear went down in a flurry of leaves and snow as a windfall crashed beneath her weight, and then Barney was up a young maple to its first branches, just beyond the bear’s lunging reach.
“Run!” His shout came to her. “Get into the camp! Shut the door!”
Inside, with the door hooked, Mary sank to the camp bench and began sobbing. Her nerves had given way. She had never known such fear. The bear was a monstrous fury, a fearful disaster.
Presently she went to the window at the end of the camp and peered out in an agony of apprehension. She could not see the distant road. A clump of trees barred her vision. She listened intently, and could hear faint snarling noises. Trembling and fearful, she unhooked the door and went outside.
The dreadful sounds were more distinct, and were enhanced by the quiet of the woods, only broken by the drippings and subsidings of snows melting on old brush covers.
She could see Barney plainly. He was crouched in the first branches of the maple, and the bear, stretched enormously in her efforts to reach him, was a raging fury beneath him. The smallness of the tree hindered her climbing. She could not hold her great weight with the grip she secured. Barney kicked at her huge paws as she tried to get a secure hold, and when she struck at him she fell backward to the snow, snarling in a fresh rage.
Dry-lipped, her heart pounding, Mary watched—and thought of Michael.
Then she thought of his rifle.
It was on the rack where he had placed it, and she took it down carefully. Its weight was much greater than she had expected, but she took it outside and examined it feverishly to find the safety catch and the way to set the hammer. Ready, she went along the road, trying to ignore the awful snarlings that tore at her courage. Halfway to the bear an old stump beside the road would give her fine support as she aimed the rifle.
Barney had seen her and his call was filled with panic.
“Mary. Listen—get back!”
She paused, not daring to answer.
“Go back.” At his shouting, the bear reared again and tore at the tree with her teeth and claws, rocking the young maple. “Listen, Mary. There isn’t any bullet. You can’t shoot. I took it out. Hear me— I took it out. It's on the shelf in the camp. I wanted to fool Michael.”
Rocked in the tree, his shouts came in different tone, but she heard every word distinctly, and she ran back toward the camp, sobbing, her courage crumpling.
She reached the door and let the rifle drop on the floor. Still sobbing, she dragged the bench to the wall and began searching the shelves. She tore down small pans and molds, the tea caddy, everything gathered there. Then went on to the other shelves across the camp. Some tins clattered to the floor, and she ran to the door to look again at Barney.
An instant she stood, trembling with fear. Her lips moved but there was no sound. Her hands leaped to her throat, held there. Michael had heard the shouting. He was coming swiftly, his axe held ready.
She went forward, taking uncertain steps, not knowing she was moving. Barney was shaking the tree, leaning downward and yelling defiance, and the bear was in a frenzy, rushing at the tree and tearing at it with her teeth. She never heard Michael’s tread in the rotted snows and he was within feet of her before she sensed his nearness.
EVERYTHING happened in a flash. " Slavering in fury, the great beast wheeled to charge. Barney yelled again— and dropped below, yelling. The bear turned.
It was at that split second that Michael struck, and his axe blade sank to the haft in the back of her skull. The great beast rocked back on her haunches and collapsed, a bloodied heap, in the snow.
“Oh—Michael !” Racing headlong down the road, Mary arrived and she gripped Michael as if she would never let him go for the rest of her life. “Michael—oh— Michael !”
Michael’s arm went around her, held her. “It’s all over,” he said. “Nobody’s hurt.”
“But—you—you—” She could not say it, could not place in words the terrible fear that had knifed her as he faced the bear.
Then Barney spoke. She had forgotten him entirely. He held out his hand. “Thanks, Michael,” he said in a queer, hoarse voice. “I’ll not forget this.”
“Don’t thank me. If you hadn’t jumped when you did . .
“Sure,” Barney’s voice almost broke, “but I wouldn’t have jumped there if any other man on earth had held the axe. I knew I could depend on you.”
He looked away from them. “You better take Mary to the camp,” he said. “She’s been scared badly.”
They reached the stump beside the road and Mary pointed to it. “I had your rifle, Michael,” she said tremulously. “I—I was going to shoot from there, but Barney shouted at me.”
“From here!” Michael glanced back. “Darling, you’d have been caught. You couldn’t have hit that bear and she’d have caught you sure. I'm so glad you went back when he shouted.”
They reached the camp and there Mary held to him, trembling and shuddering. “Barney.” she whispered, “did his best.” “You bet he did.” Michael’s arms were tighter. “He knew exactly what to do, like he does in everything.”
It was a long time after when Barney came to the camp. “Don’t let me bother you.” he grinned. “I was over to see your father, Mary, and told him you were all right. I was saying good-by to him.” “Good-by?” Michael stared.
“Yes, I think it’s the spring in my blood or something. Anyhow I’m going to get moving again. Maybe I ’ll be back next fall or some time, but I can’t settle around here yet. I’m going out now to see some of the boys over the river. So long, Mary, and good luck.”
He left with a grin, and Mary knew as he went that she would not see him again, that he would not say another good-by.
“What a man !” Michael shook his head. “Always up to his tricks.” Then he saw the rifle on the floor and picked it up. He slid back the bolt carefully to make sure that everything was all right. Mary peered and saw the dark bullet at the end of the cartridge. Her eyes filled. “I wanted to fool Michael.” It was that shout that had sent her, sobbing, to the cabin, her decision forever made.
“Is anything wrong?” Michael asked anxiously as her chin quivered.
She tried to find her handkerchief and her fingers encountered something broken in her pocket.
“No,” she managed. “I’m just shaky. Imagine feeling bad because I’ve broken this sugar heart Barney gave me!”