Beetle Ring's Thanksgiving Mascot

by Sheldon C. Stoddard

Beetle Ring had the reputation of being the toughest lumber camp on the river. The boys were certainly rough, and rather hard drinkers, but their hearts were in the right place, after all.
SIX months of idleness following a long run of fever, a lost position, and consequent discouragement had brought poverty and wretchedness to Joe Bennett.

The lumber camp on the Featherstone, where he had been at work, had broken up and gone, and an old shack, deserted by some hunter, and now standing alone in the great woods, was the only home he could provide for his little family. It had answered its purpose as a makeshift in the warm weather, but now, in late November, and with the terrible northern winter coming swiftly on, it was small wonder the young lumberman had been discouraged as he tried to forecast the future.

His strength had returned, however, and lately something of his old courage, for he had found work. It was fifteen miles away, to be sure, and in "Beetle Ring" lumber camp, the camp that bore the reputation of being the roughest on the Featherstone, but it was work. He was earning something, and might hope soon to move his family into a habitable house and civilization.

But his position at Beetle Ring was not an enviable one. The men took scant pains to conceal their dislike for the young fellow who steadfastly refused to "chip in" when the camp jug was sent to the Skylark, the nearest saloon, some miles down the river, and who invariably declined to join in the camp's numerous sprees. But Bennett worked on quietly.

And in the meantime to the old shack in the woods the baby had come—in the bleak November weather.

Night was settling down over the woods. An old half-breed woman was tending the fire in the one room of the shack, and on the wretched bed lay a fair-faced woman, the young wife and mother, who looked wistfully out at the bleak woods, white with the first snow, then turned her wan, pale face toward the tiny bundle at her side.

"Your pappy will come to-night, baby," she said, softly. "It's Saturday, and your pappy will come to-night, sure." She drew the covers more closely, and tucked them carefully about the small figure.

"Mend the fire, Lisette, please. It's cold. And, Lisette, please watch out down the road. Sometimes Joe comes early Saturdays."

The old woman shook her head and muttered over the little pile of wood, but she fed the fire, and then turned and looked down the long white trail.

"No Joe yet," she said, with a sympathetic glance toward the bed. She looked at the thick gray clouds, and added, "Heap snow soon."

But the night came down and the evening passed, while the women waited anxiously. It was near midnight when the wife's face lighted up suddenly at a sound outside, and directly there was a pounding, uncertain step on the threshold. The door opened and Bennett came in clumsily.

The woman's little glad cry of welcome was changed to one of apprehension at her husband's appearance. The resolute swing and bearing of the lumberman—that had returned as he regained his strength—were gone. He clumped across the room unsteadily on a pair of rude crutches, his left foot swathed in bandages—a big, ungainly bundle.

"What is it, Joe?" the wife asked anxiously.

"Just more of my precious luck, that's all, Nannie." He threw off the old box coat and heavy cap, brushed the melting snow from his hair and beard, and without waiting to warm his chilled hands at the fire, hobbled to the bed and bent over the woman and the tiny bundle.

"Are you all right, Nan?" he asked anxiously.

"All right, Joe; but I've been so worried!"

"And the baby, Nan?"

The wife gently pushed back the covers and proudly brought to view a tiny pink and puckered face. "Fine, Joe. She's just as fine, isn't she?"

A proud, happy light flickered for a moment in the man's eyes as he stooped to kiss the tiny face; then he shut his teeth hard and swallowed suddenly.

"What is it, Joe?" his wife asked, looking at the rudely bandaged foot.

"Cut it—nigh half off, and hurt the bone. It'll be weeks before I can do a stroke of work again. It means—I don't know what, and I daren't think what, Nannie. The cook sewed it up." He glowered at the injured member savagely.

His wife's face grew paler still, but she only asked tenderly, "How did you ever get here, Joe?"

"Rode one of Pose Breem's hosses—his red roan."

"Fifteen miles on horseback with that foot? I should have thought it would have killed you, Joe."

"I had to come, Nan," said the lumberman. "I didn't know how you were getting on, and I had to come."

"I didn't suppose they'd let you have a horse, any of 'em, now sleighing's come."

"They wouldn't—if I'd asked 'em. They don't seem to like me very well, and I didn't ask."

His wife's big, wistful eyes were turned upon him in quick alarm. "I'm scared, Joe, if you took a horse without asking. What'll they think? Where is it, Joe?"

"Don't ye worry, Nan. I've sent the horse back by Pikepole Pete. He'll have him back before morning—Pose won't miss him till then—and I wrote a note explaining. Pose will be mad some, but he'll get over it."

The young lumberman listened uneasily to the storm, which was increasing, looked at his wife's pale face a moment, and added:

"I had to come, Nan. I just had to."

But the woman was only half reassured. "If anything should happen," she said, "if he shouldn't get it back, they'd think you—you stole it, and——"

"There, there, Nan!" broke in her husband, "don't be crossing bridges. Pete'll take the horse back. I've done the fellow lots of favours, and he won't go back on me. Don't worry, girl!"

He moved the bandaged foot and winced, but not from the pain of the wound. The hard look grew deeper on his face. "I'm down on my luck, Nan," he said, hopelessly. "There's no use trying. Everything's against me, everything—following me like grim death. And grim death," he jerked the words out harshly, "is like to be the end of it, here in this old shack that's not fit to winter hogs in, let alone humans. There's not wood enough cut to last a week. You'll freeze, Nan, you and the baby, and I'm—just nothing."

He took two silver dollars from his pocket, and said, almost savagely, "There's what we've got to winter on, and me crippled."

But his wife put her hand on his softly. "Don't you give up so, Joe," she said. And presently she added: "Next Thursday's Thanksgiving. We've seen hard times, and we may see harder, but I never knew Thanksgiving to come yet without something to be thankful for—never."

Outside the storm continued, fine snow sifting down rapidly. "Pikepole Pete" found stiff work facing it, and bent low over the red roan's neck.

"Blue blazes!" he muttered. "Bennett's a good fellow all right, and he's hurt; but if he hadn't nigh saved my life twice he could get this critter back himself fer all of me!" He glanced at the dark woods and drew up suddenly. "The road forks here, and Turner's is yonder—less than a mile. I'll hitch in his barn a spell and go on later," and he took the Turner fork.

But at Turner's Pete found two or three congenial spirits—and a jug; and a few hours later the easy-going fellow was deep in a tipsy sleep that would last for hours.

The following Sunday morning came bright and clear upon freshly fallen snow that softened all the ruder outlines of town and field and woods. Beetle Ring camp lay wrapped in fleecy whiteness.

The camp was late astir, for Sunday was Beetle Ring's day—not of rest, but of carousal. Two men had started out rather early—the camp's jug delegation to the Skylark. Presently the men began to straggle out to the snug row of sheds where the horses were kept. Posey Breem yawned lazily as he threw open the door of his particular stall, then suddenly brought himself together with a jerk and stared fixedly.

"What ails you now, Pose? Seen a ghost?"

"Skid" Thomson stopped with the big measure of feed which he was carrying.

"No, I've seen no ghost," said Breem slowly, still staring. "Look here, Skid!" Thomson looked into the stall, and nearly dropped the measure.

"By George, Pose!" he said. "By—George!"

The news flew over the camp like wildfire. Posey Breem's red roan, the best horse in the camp, had been stolen! The burly lumbermen came hurrying from all directions. There was no doubt about it—the horse was gone, and the snow had covered every trace. There was absolutely no clue to follow. Silently and sullenly the men filed in to breakfast. In a lumberman's eyes hardly a crime could exceed that of horse stealing.

"What I want to know is," said Breem, as he glanced sharply round the long room of the camp, "what's become of that yellow-haired jay—Bennett?"

"By George!" said Skid Thomson, "that's right! Where is the critter?"

"Skipped!" said Bill Bates, sententiously, after a quick search had been made. "It's all plain enough now. I never liked the close-fisted critter."

"Nor I, either!" growled Skid. "Never chipped in with the boys, but was laying low just the same."

"You won't catch him, either," said Bates. "They're sharp—that kind. The critter knew 'twould snow and hide his tracks."

"And I'd just sewed up his blamed foot!" muttered the cook in disgust.

"Maybe we'll catch him. Up to Fat Pine two years ago," began Breem, reminiscently, "Big Donovan had a horse stole. They caught the fellow."

"Yes, I remember," said Skid Thomson. "I was there. We caught him up north." The men nodded understandingly and approvingly.

"Wuth a hundred and fifty dollars, the roan was," said Breem.

Beetle Ring camp passed an uneasy day, the "jug" for once receiving scant attention. Late in the afternoon "Trapper John," an old half-breed who hunted and trapped about the woods, stopped at the camp to get warm.

"Didn't see anybody with a horse last night or this morning, eh, John?" asked Posey Breem.

"Um, yes," responded the old trapper, quickly. "Saw um horse las' night—man ride—big foot—so." Old John held out his arms in exaggerated illustration.

Beetle Ring rose to its feet as one man. "What colour was the horse, John?" asked Breem softly.

"Huh! Can't see good after dark, but think um roan." Breem looked slowly round the silent camp, and Beetle Ring grimly made ready for business.

It was evening when the men stopped a few rods below the shack. A light shone out from a window, lighting up a little space in the sombre woods.

"The fellow's got pals prob'bly," said Posey Breem. "You wait here while I do a little scouting."

Breem crept cautiously into the circle of light, and glancing through the uncurtained window, saw his man—with his "pals." He saw upon the miserable bed a woman with a thin, pale face and sad, wistful eyes, eyes that yet lighted up with a beautiful pride as they rested upon the man, who sat close by, holding a tiny bundle in his arms.

The man shifted his position a little, so that the light fell upon the bundle, and then the watcher outside saw the sleeping face of a baby.

There was a rumour in the camp that Posey Breem had not always been the man that he was—that a woman had once blessed his life. But since they had carried the young mother away, with her dead baby on her breast, to place the two in one deep grave together, he had gone steadily downward.

With hungry eyes Breem gazed at the scene in the poor little house, his thoughts flying backward over the years. A sudden sharp, impatient whistle roused him, and he strode hastily back to the waiting men.

"Well, Pose?" interrogated Skid impatiently.

"He's there, all right," said Breem, in a peculiar tone. "I ain't overmuch given to advising prowling round folks' houses, but you fellows just look in yonder." He jerked his head toward the shack. And a line of big, rough-looking men filed into the little illumined space, to come back presently silent and subdued.

"Now let's go home," said Breem, turning his horse toward camp.

"And your horse, Pose?" questioned Bates.

"Burn the horse!" said Breem quickly. "D'ye think the like of yonder's a horse thief? I ain't worrying 'bout the horse." And the men rode back to camp silently.

The next morning, when Breem swung open the door of the stall, he was not surprised to find the red roan standing quietly by the side of his mate. A bit of crumpled paper was pinned to the blanket. Breem read:

I rode your horse. I had to. I'll surely make it right.

"Course he had to!" growled the lumberman, and he passed the paper round.

"Oncommon peart baby," said Skid, at last.

"Dreadful cold shack, though!" muttered Bates, conveying a quarter of a griddlecake to his mouth.

"That's just it," said Pose, scowling. "Just let a stiff nip of winter come, and the woman yonder and the little critter, they'd freeze, that's what they'd do, in that old rattletrap."

The men looked at one another in solemn assent. "And I've been thinking," continued Breem, "since Bennett there belonged to the camp, and since we kind of misused the fellow for being stingy—for which we ought to have been smashed with logs—that we have a kind of a claim on 'em, as 'twere, and they on us. And we must get 'em out of that yonder before they freeze plumb solid." He stopped inquiringly.

"Right as right," assented several.

"And I've been thinking," said Bates suddenly, "about that storeroom of ours. It's snug and warm, and there's a lot of room in it, and we can put a stove into it and——" But the rest of Bates's suggestion was drowned in a round of applause.

"And I've been thinking, just a little," put in Skid Thomson, "and if I've figured correct, next Thursday's Thanksgiving—don't know as I've thought of it in ten years—and if we stir round sharp we can get things ready by then, and—well, 'twouldn't hurt Beetle Ring to celebrate for once——" But Skid was also interrupted by a cheer.

"And it's my firm belief," reflected Bates with an air of profound conviction, "that that baby of Bennett's was designed special and, as you might say, providential, for to be Beetle Ring's mascot. Fat Pine and Horseshoe have 'em—mascots—to bring luck, and I've noticed Beetle Ring ain't had the luck lately it should have."

Bates paused, and the camp meditated in silent delight.

Thanksgiving morning was a cold one, but clear. More snow had fallen, and the deep, feathery whiteness stretched away until lost in the dark background of the pines and spruces. A wavering line of smoke rose over the roof of the little old shack in the woods.

Bennett was winding rags round the armpieces of the rough crutches. He had dragged in some short limbs the day before for fuel, but in so doing had broken open the wound, which gave him excruciating pain.

"Joe," said his wife, suddenly, "where are you going?"

"I'm going to try for help, Nan. We're out of nigh everything, and my foot no better."

"You can't do it, Joe. You—you'll die, if you try, Joe, alone in the woods. Oh, Joe!"

The look of hope that had never wholly left the woman's eyes was slowly fading out.

"We'll all die if I don't try, Nannie. I'm——"

"Huh!" suddenly exclaimed the old woman, peering out of the little window. "Heap men, heap horses! Look, see 'em come!"

Bennett turned hastily, and saw a long line of stalwart men and sturdy horses threshing resolutely through the deep snow and heading directly for the shack. He looked keenly at the men, and his face paled a little, but he said steadily, "It's the Beetle Ring men, Nan."

His wife gave a sharp cry. "It's the horse, Joe! It's the horse! They're after you, Joe, sure!" She caught her husband's arm.

The men were now filling up the little space before the shack. Directly there came a sounding knock. Bennett opened the door to admit the burly frame of Posey Breem. He said quietly:

"I'm here all right, Pose, and I took your horse, but——"

"Burn the hoss!" said Breem explosively. "That's all right. Shake, pard!" He held out a brawny hand. Bennett "shook" wonderingly.

"Wife, pard?" asked Breem, gently, nodding toward the bed. Bennett hastily introduced him.

"Kid, pard?" Breem pointed a stubby finger at the little bundle.

Bennett nodded.

The lumberman grinned delightedly, then coughed a little, and began awkwardly:

"Pard, th' boys over at Beetle Ring heard—as you might say, accidental"—Breem coughed into his big hand—"about your folks over here, your wife and—the baby. They were powerful interested, specially about the baby. Why, pard, some of the boys hain't seen a baby in ten years, and we thought as you belonged to the camp, maybe you and your wife would allow that the camp had a sort of claim on the little critter yonder." He eyed the tiny bundle wistfully.

"And another thing that hit the boys, pard," he went on. "Up at Fat Pine they got what they call a mascot, bein' a tame b'ar; an' up at Horseshoe they got a mascot, bein' a goat. Lots of camps have 'em—fetches luck. And the boys are sure that this baby of yours was designed special to be Beetle Ring's mascot. Now, pard, Beetle Ring, as you know, ain't what you'd call a Sunday-school, but the boys they'll behave. They fixed up that storeroom to beat all, nice bed, big stove, and lots of wood, and so on, and we've got a cow for the woman and baby. Say, we want you powerful. Got a sleigh fixed, hemlock boughs and a cover of robes and blankets, and Skid'll drive careful. He's a master at drivin', Skid is. You'll come, won't you? The boys are waitin'."

Big tears were in the woman's eyes as she turned toward her husband. "Oh, Joe," she said, and choked suddenly; but she pressed the baby tightly to her breast. "I knew 'twould come Thanksgiving."

"There, pard," said Breem, after blowing his nose explosively, "you just see to wrappin' up the woman and the kid, and me and Skid, being as you're hurt, you know, 'll tote 'em out to the sleigh."

The young mother was soon placed carefully in the sleigh, the old woman following. But when Skid Thomson appeared in the door of the old shack, bearing a tiny form muffled up with wondrous care, the whole of Beetle Ring shouted.

Breem led up a spare horse for Bennett's use. The latter stopped short, with a curious expression on his face. The horse was the red roan.

But Breem only said, his keen eyes twinkling:

"Under such circumstances as these, pard, you're welcome to all the hosses in Beetle Ring."

With steady, practiced hand Skid Thomson guided his powerful team through the deep snow, over the rough forest road; and sometimes brawny arms carried the sleigh bodily over the roughest places.

At the close of the day an anxious consultation took place in the big main room of Beetle Ring, and presently two men appeared outside.

They walked slowly toward what had been the camp's storeroom, but halted before the door hesitatingly.

"You go in ahead, Skid, and ask 'em," said Breem, earnestly, to his companion.

"No, go ahead yourself, Pose. I'd be sure to calk a hoss or split a runner, or somethin'. Go on!"

Breem knocked, and both went in.

"All right, pard?"

"Right as right, Pose," said Joe Bennett.

"Wife all right?" Breem turned toward the bed, and Mrs. Bennett smiled up at him with happy eyes, and with a bit of colour already showing in her pale face. Breem smiled back broadly. Then he asked, "And, pard, the baby?"

"Peart as peart, Pose."

Breem waited a little, twirling his cap, but receiving a sharp thump from Thomson, went on:

"The boys, pard, are anxious about the little critter. They're kind of hankering, pard, and, mum, if you are willin', and ain't 'fraid to trust her with us, why, we'd be mighty glad to tote her—just for a few minutes—over to camp. The boys are stiddy, all of 'em, stiddy as churches. They hain't soaked a mite to-day, mum, and they ain't goin' to; they've hove the jug into a snowdrift, and they'd take it kind, mum—if you are willin'."

The woman, still smiling happily, was already wrapping up the baby.

Breem held up a warning finger when he returned a little later, and again smiled delightedly.

"Went to sleep a-totin'—if you'll believe it, the burned little critter!" he said, softly. "And," he added, "the boys, pard, are mighty pleased; and, mum, they thank you kindly. They say, the boys do, there ain't such a mascot as theirs in five hundred miles; they see luck comin', chunks of it, pard, already." And the big fellow went out and closed the door gently.