The Shagganappi

by Emily Pauline Johnson



Jack o’ Lantern


CHAPTER I.

    EVERYBODY along the river knew old “Andy” Lavergne; for years he had been “the lamplighter,” if such an office could exist in the rough backwoods settlement that bordered that treacherous stream in the timber country of northern Ontario. He had been a great, husky man in his time, who could swing an axe with the best of the lumbermen, but an accident in a log jam had twisted his sturdy legs and hips for life, and laid him off active service, and now he must cease to accompany the great gangs of choppers in the lumber camps, and do his best to earn a few honest dollars about the settlement and the sawmill. So the big-hearted mill hands paid him good money for doing many odd jobs, the most important of which was to keep a lantern lighted every dark night, both summer and winter, to warn them of the danger spot in the Wildcat river, that raced in its treacherous course between the mill and their shanty homes on the opposite shore.
    This danger spot was a perfect snarl of jagged rocks, just below the surface of the black waters that eddied about in tiny whirlpools, deadly to any canoe in summer, and still more deadly in winter, for the ice never formed here as in the rest of the river. Only a thin, deceptive coating ever bridged that death hole, and the man who mistook it for solid ice would never live to cross that river again. So, on the high bank above this death trap old Andy lighted his lantern, year in and year out. Sometimes he was accompanied by his old gray horse, who followed him about like a dog. Sometimes little Jacky Moran, his young neighbor, went to help him on very [Page 127] stormy or windy nights. Sometimes both Jacky and the horse would go, and as a reward for his assistance old Andy would always lift the boy to the gray’s back and let him ride home. Then one wet spring old Andy got rheumatism in his poor, twisted legs, and the first night he was unable to leave his shanty Jacky came whistling in at nightfall and offered to take the lantern up stream alone. Andy consented gratefully, and, with the horse at his heels, Jacky set out for the bank above the dangerous spot.
    “I believe, old Gray, it’s the lantern you love as much as you love Andy,” laughed the boy as he struck a match and sheltered its flame from the wind. “Here you are following me and the lantern just as if belonged to us, or as if Andy were here. How’s that?” But the old gray only stood watching the lamp-lighting. His long, pathetic face was very expressive, but, try as he would, he could not speak and tell the boy that he had learned to love him as well as Andy. So he only put his soft nose down to Jacky’s shoulder, and in his own silent way coaxed the boy to mount and ride home, which Jacky promptly did, bursting into the old Frenchman’s shanty with the news that the gray had followed the lantern.
    “Don’t you believe it, Jacky,” chuckled Andy. “The gray loves the lantern, I know, but it’s you he’s followed. You see that horse knows a lot, and he knows that his old master is never likely to light that lantern again, and he wants you for his master now.”
    “Well, he may have me,” smiled the boy. “We’ll just light up together after this.” Which they certainly did, for that was the beginning of the end. Andy could never hobble much further than his own door, and Jacky took upon his young shoulders the duties of both lamp-lighting and feeding and caring for his now constant companion, the gray.
    “I see your Jacky is helping old Andy since he’s been [Page 128] laid up,” said Alick Duncan, the big foreman, some weeks later, as he paddled across the river with the boy’s father.
    “Oh, he likes Andy,” replied Mr. Moran, “and he likes the old horse, and he likes the work, too. He feels important every time he lights that lantern to steer the mill hands off danger.”
    “Speaking of the horse,” went on the big foreman, “they’re short one up at the lumber camp. The boss sent down yesterday that we had to get him an extra horse by hook or crook. They’ve started hauling logs. It would be a great thing if Andy could sell that nag at a good figure. It would help him out. He’s hard up for cash, I bet. I’ll speak to him to-night about it.”
    At supper Tom Moran mentioned what a fine thing it was for Andy that there was an urgent demand for a horse at the lumber camp; that he could get twice the money for old Gray that the animal was worth. Mrs. Moran agreed that it would be a great help to old Andy, but Jacky’s small face went white, he ceased his boyish chatter, and his little throat refused to swallow a mouthful of food.
    As soon as he could, he escaped, slipped outside, and made for Andy’s shanty as fast as his young legs could carry him. With small ceremony he flung open the door, to find the old Frenchman sitting in his barrel chair, a single tallow candle on the shelf above his head, his ever present pipe between his lips, and his lame leg stuck up on a bench before a tumbledown stove, where a good spruce fire crackled and burned. For the first time the extreme poverty of the place struck Jacky’s senses. He realized instantly, but for the first time, how much in need of money the poor old cripple must be, but, nevertheless, his voice shook as he exclaimed, “Oh, Andy, you won’t sell old Gray? Oh, you won’t, will you?”
    “Why not, youngster?” asked a deep voice from the gloom beyond the stove, and Jacky saw with a start that Alick Duncan was already there with his offer to buy. [Page 129]
    “Because,” began the boy, “because—well, because he helps us, Andy and me; he helps us light up at night.” It was a lame excuse, and poor Jacky knew it.
    “It appears to me Andy ain’t doing much lighting up these days,” went on the foreman. “And you know, kid, Andy’s old and sick, and money don’t come easy to him. If he gets one square meal of pork and beans a day, he’s getting more than I think he does. The horse is no use to him now. He can’t even pay for its keep when next winter comes. He can’t use it, anyhow, and Andy needs the money.”
    But the boy had now recovered his balance.
    “But timber hauling would kill old Gray. He wouldn’t last any time at it; he’s too old,” he argued.
    “That’s so, sonny,” said the foreman; “he sure can’t last long at that work, but don’t you see Andy will have his money, even if the horse does peg out?”
    “But—but Gray will die,” said the boy tremulously.
    “Maybe,” answered the foreman, “but Andy will have something to live on, and that is more important.
    “But I’ll help Andy,” cried the boy enthusiastically. “I’m used to the lighting up now. I can do all the work. Can’t the mill hands go on paying him just the same as ever? Can’t they, Andy? I’ll do the lamp-lighting for you, and we’ll just keep old Gray. Won’t you, Andy? Won’t you?”
    The boy was at Andy’s shoulder, his thin young fingers clutched the old shirt-sleeve excitedly, his voice arose, high and shrill and earnest.
    “Why, boy,” said the old Frenchman, “I didn’t know you cared so much. I don’t want to sell Gray, and I won’t sell him if you help me with my work for the mill hands.”
    Alick Duncan rose to his feet, his big, hearty laugh ringing out as Jacky seized his hand with the words, “There, Mr. Duncan. Andy won’t sell Gray. He says so. You heard him.” [Page 130]
    The big foreman stooped, picked up the boy, and swung him on his shoulder as if he had been a kitten.
    “All right, little Jack o’ Lantern, do as you like. We mill hands will go on with Andy’s pay, only you help him all you can—and maybe he’ll keep the old gray—just for luck.”
    “I know it’s for luck,” laughed Jacky. “The gray knows so much. Why, Mr. Duncan, he knows everything; he knows as much as the mill hands.”
    “I dare say,” said the big foreman dryly. “If he didn’t he wouldn’t have even horse sense.”
    “But why do you call me that—‘Jack o’ Lantern’?” asked the boy from his perch on the big man’s shoulder.
    “Because I thought the name suited you,” smiled the foreman. “I’ve often seen the little Jack o’ Lantern hovering above the marshes and swales, a dancing, pretty light, moving about to warn woodsmen of danger spots, just as your lantern, Jacky, warns the rivermen of that nasty ‘wildcat’ place in the river.”
    “But,” said the boy, “dad has always told me that the Jack o’ Lantern is a foolish light, that it deceives people, that it misleads them, that sometimes they follow it and then get swamped in the marshes.”
    “Yes, but folks know enough to not follow your lantern, boy,” answered the foreman seriously. “Your light is a warning, not an invitation.”
    “Well, the warning light will always be there, as long as I have legs to carry it,” assured Jacky, as the big foreman set him down on the floor. Then—“And when I fail, I’ll just send the gray.”
    They all laughed then, but none of them knew that, weeks later, the boy’s words would come true. [Page 131]

CHAPTER II.

    IT WAS late in January, and the blackest night that the river had ever known. A furious gale drove down from the west and the very stars were shut in behind a gloomy sky. Little Jacky Moran trimmed his lantern, filled it with oil, whistled for Gray, and set forth as the black night was falling. The oncoming darkness seemed to outdo itself. Before he was half way up the river, night fell, and he found that he could see but a very few feet before him, although it was not yet half-past five o’clock. At six the men would leave the mill over the river, and, journeying afoot across the ice, would reach home in safety if the lantern were lighted, and if not, any or all of them might be plunged into the treacherous “Wild Cat,” with no hope of ever reaching shore alive.
    “He called me Jack o’ Lantern,” the boy said to himself. “It’s a dancing, deceiving light, but he’ll find to-night that I’ll deceive nobody.” And through the darkness the child plodded on. Behind him walked the stiff-kneed old horse, solemn-faced and faithful, following the lantern with stumbling gait, his soft nose, as ever, very near the boy’s shoulder. The way seemed endless, and Jacky, with stooped and huddled shoulders, bent his head to the wind and forged on. Then, just as he was within fifty yards of the turn that led up to the danger spot, an unusually wild gust swept his cap from his head and sent it bounding off the narrow footpath. Boylike, he reached for it, and failing to recapture it, started in pursuit. In the darkness he did not see the little ledge of earth and rock that hung a few feet above a “dip” on the left side, and in his hurried chase he suddenly plunged forward, and was hurled abruptly to a level far below the footpath. He fell heavily, badly. One foot got twisted somehow, and as he landed he heard a faint sharp “crack” in the region of his shoe. Something seemed to grow numb [Page 132] right up to his knee. He tried to struggle to his feet, but dropped down into a wilted little heap. Then he realized with horror that he was unable to stand. For a moment he was bewildered with pain and the utter darkness, for in his fall the lantern had rolled with him, then gone out. The boy struck a match, and with but little difficulty lighted the lantern. It seemed strange that the gale had ceased so suddenly, until, in looking about, he saw that he was in a hollow, and the wind was roaring above his head. He was quite sheltered where he lay, but his brief gratitude for this gave way to horrified dismay when he discovered that the light, too, was sheltered—that the ledge of earth and rock arose between him and the river bank, that he could never reach the dreaded danger spot with his warning light, and, near to it though he was, the flame was completely obscured from the sight of anyone crossing the ice.
    For a moment the situation overwhelmed him. He sat and shivered. The agony of his injured foot was now asserting itself above the first numbness, and the realization that he was failing to warn the mill hands, that he was only a Jack o’ Lantern after all, seized on his young heart and brain like a torturing claw. Despair settled down on him, blacker, more terrible than the coming night. He fancied he could hear the mill hands crash through the death hole, and he called wildly, “Help! Oh, somebody help me!” all the time knowing that the shanties were too far away for anyone there to hear, and that the footpath above him was too lonely for any chance lumberman to be taking at this hour. No one ever passed that way but himself, and in the old days Andy and the gray—oh, he had not thought of the gray—where had the animal gone? Instantly he whistled, called, whistled again, and over the ledge above his head looked a long, serious face, with great solemn eyes, and a soft, warm nose. The very sight gave the boy courage, and at his next whistle the old horse carefully picked his way down [Page 133] the bank, and reaching down his long neck, felt Jacky’s shoulder with his velvety muzzle.
    “Oh, Gray,” cried the boy, “you must help me. You must do something, oh, something, to help!” Then he made an attempt to stand, to get on the animal’s back, but his poor foot gave out, and he huddled down to the ground again in pitiful, hopeless pain. The horse’s nose touched his ear, starting him from a fast oncoming stupor. At the same instant the six o’clock whistle blew at the mill across the frozen river. In a few moments the men would be coming home, crossing the ice, perhaps to their death instead of to the warm supper awaiting them at their shanty homes. The thought of it all gripped Jacky’s young heart with fear, but he was powerless to warn them. He could not take a single step, and he was rapidly becoming paralyzed with cold and pain. Once more the soft nose of the old horse touched his ear. With the nearness of the warm, friendly nose, his quick wit returned.
    “Gray!” he almost shouted, “Gray-Boy, do you think you could take the lantern? Oh, Gray-Boy, help me think! I’m getting so numb and sleepy. Oh, couldn’t you carry it for me?” With an effort the boy struggled to his knees, and slipping his arms about the neck of his old chum, he cried, “Oh, Gray, I saved you once from dying at the logging camp. They’d have killed you there. Save the mill hands now just for me, Gray, just for Jack o’ Lantern, because I’m deceiving them at last.”
    The warm, soft nose still snuggled against his ear. The horse seemed actually to understand. In a flash the boy determined to tie the lantern to the animal’s neck. Then, in another flash, he realized that he had nothing with which to secure it there. The horse had not an inch of halter or tie line on him.
    Then across Jacky’s tense ears fell the horror of the six o’clock whistle. No time now to kneel there and beg the animal with words it could not understand. An inspiration [Page 134] came to him like an answer to prayer, and within two seconds he acted upon it. Ripping off his coat, he flung it over the horse’s neck, the sleeves hanging down beneath the animal’s throat. Slipping one through the ring handle of the lantern, he knotted them together. The horse lifted his head, and the lantern swung clear and brilliant almost under the soft, warm nostrils.
    “Get up there, old Gray! Get up!” shouted the boy desperately, “clicking” with his tongue the well-known sound to start a horse on the go. “Get up! And oh, Gray, go to the danger spot, nowhere else. The danger spot, quick! Get up!”
    The animal turned, and slowly mounted the broken ledge of earth and rock. Jacky watched with strained, aching eyes until the light disappeared over the bluff. Then his agonized knees collapsed. His shoulders, with no warmth except the thin shirt-sleeves to cover them, began to sting, then ache, then grow numb. Once more his huddled into a limp little heap, and this time his eyes closed.

*         *         *         *         *         *

    “Do you know, father, I’m anxious about Jacky,” said Mrs. Moran, as they sat down to supper without the boy. “He’s never come back since he started with the lantern, and it’s such an awful night. I’m afraid something has happened to him.”
    “Why, nothing could have happened,” answered Mr. Moran. “The lantern was burning at the ‘death-hole’ all right as we crossed the ice.”
    “Then why isn’t Jacky home long ago?” asked Mrs. Moran. “He never goes to Andy’s at this hour. He is always on time for supper. I don’t like it, Tom, one bit. The night is too bad for him not to have come directly home. There, hear that wind.” As she spoke the gale swept around the bend of the river, and the house rocked with the full force of the storm. [Page 135]
    Tom Moran shoved back his chair, leaving his meal half finished. “That’s so,” said he, a little anxiously, as he got into his heavy coat. “I’ll go up shore and see. Oh, there’s Alick now, and ‘Old Mack,’” as a thundering knock fell on the door. “They said they were coming over after supper for a talk with me.” Then, as the door burst open, and the big foreman, accompanied by “Old Mack,” shouldered their way into the room, Tom Moran added: “Say, boys, the kid ain’t home, and his mother is getting nervous about him. Will you two fellows take a turn around the bend with me to hunt him up?”
    “What!” yelled the big foreman. “Our little Jack o’ Lantern out in this blizzard? You better believe we’ll go with you, Tom. And what’s more, we’ll go right now. Hustle up, boys.” And Alick Duncan strode out again, with a frown of anxiety knitting his usually jovial face.
    “Lantern’s there all right,” he shouted, as they neared the bank above the danger spot. He was a few yards in advance of Jack’s father and “Old Mack.” Then suddenly he stood stock still, gave vent to a long, explosive whistle, and yelled, “Well, I’ll be gin-busted! Look a’ there, boys!” And following his astounded gaze, they saw, on the brink of the river, an old gray horse, with down-hanging head, his back to the gale, and about his neck a boy’s coat, from the knotted sleeves of which was suspended a lighted lantern.
    Tom Moran was at the animal’s side instantly. “His mother was right,” he cried. “Something has happened to Jacky.” And he began searching about wildly.
    “Now look here, Tom,” said the big foreman, “keep your boots on, and take this thing easy. If that horse knows enough to stand there a-waiting for the boy, he knows enough to help us find him. We’ll just pretend to lead him home, and see what he’ll do.” And relieving the horse of the lantern, he tied the little coat closer about the long throat, and, using it as a halter, induced the gray to follow him. Down the bank from the danger spot [Page 136] they went, round the bend to the footpath, along the trail for fifty yards. Then the horse stopped. “Come on here! Get up!” urged the big foreman, as he strained at the coat sleeve. But the horse stood perfectly still, and refused to be coaxed further. “I’ll bet Jack o’ Lantern is around here somewhere. Jack o’—oh, Jack o’!” he shouted, for Tom Moran’s throat was choked. He could not call the boy’s name.
    “Jack o’ Lantern—where are you?” reiterated Alick Duncan. But there was no reply.
    Meanwhile “Old Mack” had been snooping around the hollows at one side of the trail, and Jacky’s father was peering about the ledges opposite. Presently he stopped, leaned over, and with love-sharpened eyesight, saw a little, dark heap far below lying in the snow. “There’s something here, boys,” he called brokenly.
    Alick Duncan sprang to the ledge, looked over, made a strange sound with his throat, and with an icy fear in his great heart, that never had known fear before, he laid his big hand on Tom Moran’s shoulder and said, “Stay here, Tom. I’ll go. It will be better for me to go.” And slipping over the ledge, he dropped down beside the unconscious boy. In another minute he was rubbing the cold hands, rousing the dormant senses. Presently Jacky spoke, and with a shout of delight the big foreman lifted the boy in his huge arms, and, struggling up the uneven ledge, he shouted, “He’s all O.K., Tom—just kind of laid out, but still in the fight.”

    With the familiar voice in his ears, Jacky’s senses returned, for, lifting his head, he cried, “Oh, Mr. Duncan, did Gray-Boy take the lantern to the danger-spot?”
    “Bet your boots he did, son,” said Tom Moran, stretching down his arms to help the big foreman lift his burden. “We found him standing still and firm as a flag pole, with that light hoisted under his chin.”
    “Thank goodness!” sighed the boy. “Oh, I was so afraid he’d go home with it, instead of to the river.” [Page 137] Then, with a little gasp, “Mr. Duncan, I told you once Gray had as much sense as a man. He saved you.”
    “No, Jack o’ Lantern,” said the big foreman gently, as he wrapped his great coat around the half-frozen boy, “no, siree, it was you, and your quick wits, that did it. Old Gray got the lantern habit, but it would have done no good had you not had sense enough to sling the light around his neck; and you leaving yourself to freeze here without a coat—bless you, youngster! The mill hands and this big Scotchman won’t forget that in a hurry.”
    And it was on faithful old Gray’s back that the injured boy rode home—home to warm blankets, warm supper, and the warm love of his mother, but also to the knowledge that one of the smaller bones in his ankle had broken when he heard that snapping sound. But it did not take so long to mend, after all, and one day in the early spring the big foreman appeared, his shrewd eyes twinkling with fun, although he made the grave statement that Andy had at last consented to sell old Gray.
    “It isn’t true! It can’t be true!” gasped Jacky. “Sell Gray-boy after what he did to save the mill hands? Oh! I can’t believe Andy would do such a thing.” And his thin little face went white, and his poor foot dragged as he stood erect, as if to fight for the horse’s rights.
    “But Andy has sold him, nevertheless,” grinned Alick Duncan, “sold him to me and the other mill hands, and we’re going to give him away.”
    “Away?” cried the boy, with startled, agonized eyes.
    “Yes, lad,” answered the big foreman seriously; and placing his strong hand on Jacky’s head, he added, “Give him away to the bravest little chap in the world—a chap we all call Jack o’ Lantern.”
    For a moment the boy stood speechless, then held out his arms—for the old gray horse had come slowly up to the shanty, and with downbent head was laying his soft, warm muzzle against Jacky’s ear. [Page 138]