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THE LOST OXEN
IT was now approaching time to tap the maples again; but owing to the disaster which had befallen our effort to make maple syrup for profit the previous spring, neither Addison nor myself felt much inclination to undertake it. The matter was talked over at the breakfast table one morning and noting our lukewarmness on the subject, the old Squire remarked that as the sugar lot had been tapped steadily every spring for twenty years or more, it would be quite as well perhaps to give the maples a rest for one season.
That same morning, too, Tom Edwards came over in haste to tell us, with a very sober face, that their oxen had disappeared mysteriously, and ask us to join in the search to find them. They were a yoke of "sparked" oxen — red and white in contrasting patches. Each had wide-spread horns and a "star" in his face. Bright and Broad were their names, and they were eight years old.
Neighbor Jotham Edwards was one of those simpleminded, hard-working farmers who ought to prosper but who never do. It is not easy to say just what the reason was for much of his ill fortune. Born under an unlucky planet, some people said; but that, of course, is childish. The real reason doubtless was lack of good judgment in his business enterprises.
Whatever he undertook nearly always turned out badly. His carts and ploughs broke unaccountably, his horses were strangely prone to run away and smash things, and something was frequently the matter with his crops. Twice, I remember, he broke a leg, and each time he had to lie six weeks on his back for the bone to knit. Felons on his fingers tormented him; and it was a notable season that he did not have a big, painful boil or a bad cut from a scythe or from an axe. One mishap seemed to lead to another.
Jotham's constant ill fortune was the more noticeable among his neighbors because his father, Jonathan, had been a careful, prosperous farmer who kept his place in excellent order, raised good crops and had the best cattle of any one thereabouts. Within a few years after the place had passed under Jotham's control it was mortgaged, the buildings and the fences were in bad repair, and the fields were weedy. Yet that man worked summer and winter as hard and as steadily as ever a man did or could.
Two winters before he had contracted with old Zack Lurvey to cut three hundred thousand feet of hemlock logs and draw them to the bank of a small river where in the spring they could be floated down to Lurvey's Mills. For hauling the logs he had two yokes of oxen, the yoke of large eight-year-olds that I have already described, and another yoke of small, white-faced cattle. During the first winter the off ox of the smaller pair stepped into a hole between two roots, broke its leg and had to be killed. Afterwards Jotham worked the nigh ox in a crooked yoke in front of his larger oxen and went on with the job from December until March.
But, as all teamsters know, oxen that are worked hard all day in winter weather require corn meal or other equally nourishing provender in addition to hay. Now, Jotham had nothing for his team except hay of inferior quality. In consequence, as the winter advanced the cattle lost flesh and became very weak. By March they could scarcely walk with their loads, and at last there came a morning when Jotham could not get the older oxen even to rise to their feet. He was obliged to give up work with them, and finally came home after turning them loose to help themselves to what hay was left at the camp.
The old Squire did not often concern himself with the affairs of his neighbors, but he went up to the logging camp with Jotham; and when he saw the pitiful condition the cattle were in he remonstrated with him.
"This is too bad," he said. "You have worked these oxen nearly to death, and you haven't half fed them!"
"Wal, my oxen don't have to work any harder than I do!" Jotham replied angrily. "I ain't able to buy corn for them. They must work without it."
"You only lose by such a foolish course," the old Squire said to him.
But Jotham was not a man who could easily be convinced of his errors. All his affairs were going badly; arguing with him only made him impatient.
The snow was now so soft that the oxen in their emaciated and weakened condition could not be driven home, and again Jotham left them at the camp to help themselves to fodder. He promised, however, to send better hay and some potatoes up to them the next day. But during the following night a great storm set in that carried off nearly all the snow and caused such a freshet in the streams and the brooks that it was impracticable to reach the camp for a week or longer. Then one night the small, white-faced ox made his appearance at the Edwards barn, having come home of his own accord.
The next morning Jotham went up on foot to see how his other cattle were faring. The flood had now largely subsided; but it was plain that during the storm the water had flowed back round the camp to a depth of several feet. The oxen were nowhere to be seen, nor could he discern their tracks round the camp or in the woods that surrounded it. He tried to track them with a dog, but without success.
Several of Jotham's neighbors assisted him in the search. Where the oxen had gone or what had become of them was a mystery; the party searched the forest in vain for a distance of five or six miles on all sides. Some of the men thought that the oxen had fallen into the stream and had drowned; it was not likely that they had been stolen. Jotham was at last obliged to buy another yoke of cattle in order to do his spring work on the farm.
Two years passed, and Jotham's oxen were almost forgotten. During the second winter, after school had closed in the old Squire's district, Willis Murch, a young friend of mine who lived near us, went on a trapping trip to the headwaters of Lurvey's Stream, where the oxen had disappeared and where he had a camp. One Saturday he came home for supplies and invited me to go back with him and spend Sunday. The distance was perhaps fourteen miles; and we had to travel on snowshoes, for at the time — it was February — the snow was nearly four feet deep in the woods. We had a fine time there in camp that night and the next morning went to look at Willis's traps.
That afternoon, after we had got back to camp and cooked our dinner, Willis said to me, "Now, if you will promise not to tell, I'll show you something that will make you laugh."
I promised readily enough, without thinking much about the matter.
"Come on, then," said he; and we put on our snowshoes again and prepared to start. But, though I questioned him with growing curiosity, he would not tell me what we were to see. "Oh, you'll find out soon enough," he said.
Willis led off, and I followed. I should think we went as much as five miles through the black growth to the north of Willis's camp and came finally to a frozen brook, which we followed for a mile round to the northeast.
"I was prospecting up this way a week ago," Willis said. "I had an idea of setting traps on this brook. It flows into a large pond a little way ahead of us, but just before we get to the pond it winds through a swamp of little spotted maple, moose bush and alder."
"I guess it's beaver you're going to show me," I remarked.
"Guess again," said Willis, "But keep still. Step in my tracks and don't make the brush crack."
The small growth was so thick that we could see only a little way ahead. Willis pushed slowly through it for some time; then, stopping short, he motioned to me over his shoulder to come forward. Not twenty yards away I distinguished the red-and-white hair of a large animal that was browsing on a clump of bushes. It stood in a pathway trodden so deep into the snow that its legs were completely hidden. In surprise I saw that it had broad horns.
"Why, that's an ox!" I exclaimed.
"Yes," said Willis, laughing. "His mate is round here, too."
"Willis," I almost shouted, "they must be the oxen Jotham lost two years ago!"
"Sure!" said Willis. "But don't make such a noise. There are moose here."
"Moose!" I whispered.
"There's a cow moose with two moose calves. When I was here last Thursday afternoon there were three deer with them. The snow's got so deep they are yarding here together. They get water at the brook, and I saw where they had dug down through the snow to get to the dry swamp grass underneath. They won't leave their yard if we don't scare them; they couldn't run in the deep snow."
We thought that probably the oxen had grown wild from being off in the woods so long. However, Willis advanced slowly, calling, "Co-boss!" Seeing us coming and hearing human voices, the old ox lifted his muzzle toward us and snuffed genially. He did not appear to be afraid, but behaved as if he were glad to see us. The other one — old Broad — had been lying down near by out of sight in the deep pathway, but now he suddenly rose and stood staring at us. We approached to within ten feet of them. They appeared to be in fairly good flesh, and their hair seemed very thick. Evidently they had wandered off from the logging camp and had been living a free, wild life ever since. In the small open meadows along the upper course of the stream there was plenty of wild grass. And, like deer, cattle will subsist in winter on the twigs of freshly grown bushes. Even such food as that, with freedom, was better than the cruel servitude of Jotham!
On going round to the far side of the yard we spied the three deer, the cow moose and her two yearling calves. They appeared unwilling to run away in the deep snow, but would not let us approach near enough to see them clearly through the bushes.
"You could shoot one of those deer," I said to Willis; but he declared that he would never shoot a deer or a moose when it was snow-bound in a yard.
We lingered near the yard for an hour or more. By speaking kindly to the oxen I found that I could go very close to them; they had by no means forgotten human beings. On our way back to Willis's camp he reminded me of my promise. "Now, don't you tell where those oxen are; don't tell anybody!"
"But, Willis, don't you think Jotham ought to know?" I asked.
"No, I don't!" Willis exclaimed. "He has abused those oxen enough! They've got away from him, and I'm glad of it! I'll never tell him where they are!"
We argued the question all the way to camp, and at last Willis said bluntly that he should not have taken me to see them if he had thought that I would tell.
"You promised not to," said he. That was true, and there the matter rested overnight.
When I started home the next morning Willis walked with me for two miles or more. We had not mentioned Jotham's oxen since the previous afternoon; but I plainly saw that Willis had been thinking the matter over, for, after we separated and had each gone a few steps on his way, he called after me:
"Are you going to tell about that?"
"No," said I, and walked on.
"Well, if you're not going to feel right about it, ask the old Squire what he thinks. If he says that Jotham ought to be told, perhaps you had better tell him." And Willis hastened away.
But on reaching home I found that the old Squire had set off for Portland early that morning to see about selling his lumber and was not to return for a week. So I said nothing to any one. The night after he got back I watched for a chance to speak with him alone. After supper he went into the sitting-room to look over his lumber accounts, and I stole in after him.
"You remember Jotham's oxen, gramp?" I began.
"Why, yes," said he, looking up.
"Well, I know where they are," I continued.
"Where?" he exclaimed in astonishment.
I then told him where Willis had found them and about the yard and the moose and deer we had seen with the oxen. "Willis doesn't want Jotham told," I added. "He says Jotham has abused those oxen enough, and that he is glad they got away from him. He made me promise not to tell any one at first, but finally he said that I might tell you, and that we should do as you think best."
The old Squire gave me an odd look. Then he laughed and resumed his accounts for what seemed to me a long while. I had the feeling that he wished I had not told him.
At last he looked up. "I suppose, now that we have found this out, Jotham will have to be told. They are his oxen, of course, and we should not feel right if we were to keep this from him. It wouldn't be quite the neighborly thing to do — to conceal it. So you had better go over and tell him."
Almost every one likes to carry news, whether good or bad; and within fifteen minutes I had reached the Edwards farmhouse. Jotham, who was taking a late supper, came to the door.
"What will you give to know where your lost oxen are?" I cried.
"Where are they? Do you know?" he exclaimed. Then I told him where Willis and I had seen them. "Wal, I vum!" said Jotham. "Left me and took to the woods! And I've lost two years' work from 'em!"
For a moment I was sorry I had told him.
The next day he journeyed up to Willis's camp with several neighbors; and from there they all snowshoed to the yard to see the oxen and the moose. The strangely assorted little herd was still there, and, so far as could be judged, no one else had discovered them.
Jotham had intended to drive the oxen home; but the party found the snow so deep that they thought it best to leave them where they were for a while. Since it was now the first week of March, the snow could be expected to settle considerably within a fortnight.
I think it was the eighteenth of the month when Jotham and four other men finally went to get the oxen. They took a gun, with the intention of shooting one or more of the deer. A disagreeable surprise awaited them at the yard.
At that time — it was before the days of game wardens — what were known as "meat-and-hide hunters" often came down over the boundary from Canada and slaughtered moose and deer while the animals were snow-bound. The lawless poachers frequently came in parties and sometimes searched the woods for twenty or thirty miles below the Line in quest of yards.
Apparently such a raiding party had found Willis's yard and had shot not only the six deer and moose but Jotham's oxen as well. Blood on the snow and refuse where the animals had been hung up for skinning and dressing, made what had happened only too plain.
Poor Jotham came home much cast down. "That's just my luck!" he lamented. "Everything always goes just that way with me!"