Authors: Eowyn Ivey
“Well, it’d be much appreciated. Maybe you can just give me a few pointers, walk me through some of it. The truth is, I’m in over my head.”
“Looks like you’re starting fine, pulling those guts out.” And the boy drew back the hide and peered inside the rib cage. “Yeah, see there? You can just cut that away and it’ll all come out slick.”
When they sliced away the heart and liver, each broader than a dinner plate, Jack slid them still wet into a gunnysack.
For the next several hours, Jack and the boy worked at the moose. It was wearying. Jack’s hands were cold and numb, and several times he nicked himself with the knife. His back and knees pained him. The sun slithered through the trees, the air cooled, the dead animal stiffened, but they kept at it. Sometimes Garrett offered advice about where to make a cut or how to separate a joint. He held the legs in place or pulled back the hide so Jack could work more easily. They joked some and talked some, but mostly just worked, and it was comfortable.
When they had cut away the legs and ribs, the tenderloin and backstrap and neck meat, Garrett fetched a handsaw from his saddlebags and they sawed the antlers from the skull.
“You’ve got to bring these back tonight,” Garrett said, “so we can show everybody. They’ll never believe it if we just tell them.”
Jack would have rather left the antlers and hauled more of the meat home, but he decided the quarters would be safe enough hanging in the trees until he could come back with the horse and wagon in the morning. He hated to disappoint the boy after all he’d done to help, so they strapped the antlers, vital organs, and some of the finest cuts of meat to Garrett’s saddle.
“That’s a good horse you got there,” Jack said as they secured the load. “Doesn’t balk at meat being strapped on.”
“I bought him myself from a miner who used him for packing. I’m going to make him into a trapping horse.”
Bloody and tired, they made their way through the trees, Garrett leading the horse by a rope. Jack hadn’t realized how close he was to his field, and from there they followed the wagon trail. It was nearing dark as they came into the yard.
“I sure am grateful for your help,” Jack said. “I’d still be out there hacking away by myself.”
“Sure. Sure,” Garrett said. “Wait till Mom and Dad see it.”
With Jack hobbling after him, Garrett rushed ahead.
“Looks like your folks beat you here,” Jack called out when he saw the sleigh in the yard. Just then, George and his two older sons came out of the barn.
“You’re not going to believe this!” Garrett hollered. “Jack shot the biggest damn moose you ever saw!”
s she prepared that morning for the Bensons’ arrival, Mabel reminded herself of how it had been at their house for Thanksgiving. She would not fret about the stains on the tablecloth or the rough-plank floor that could never be scrubbed clean. Dinner would be well made, but not so much that it seemed she was trying to show them up. She didn’t own any men’s overalls and never intended to. Her long skirt and formal sleeves might be overdone, but they were all she had.
By late morning, the cabin was clean and the table set. She spent an hour or so fussing with her hair and rearranging the place settings. She was relieved when dusk came and the Bensons arrived on a sleigh pulled by one of their draft horses. George and the two older boys took the horse to the barn, while Esther unloaded some things from the sleigh and came to the door. There was no knock or opportunity to invite her in as Esther pushed past Mabel.
“Thank God, we’re finally here.” She tossed a dusty grain sack on the table, nearly knocking a plate to the floor. “I thought you could use some onions. We ended up with more than we need.”
She opened her coat and unloaded Mason jars from her oversized pockets. “This one here’s rhubarb jam. Terrific on sourdough pancakes. Did you get that sourdough to take? You’ve got to baby it some. Don’t let it get too hot or too cold. Oh, this one here is blueberry-raspberry, I think. Might have some currants in there. Hard to tell. Sure it will be good, though. Oh, and here’s some spicy pickled peas. George’s favorite. Don’t tell him I snuck you some.”
She took off her coat and threw it across the back of a chair. “I feared those were going to freeze on the way over. I had to keep them up next to me, just to be sure.” She laughed and looked up at Mabel as if finally taking notice of her. She flung her arms around Mabel’s shoulders, squeezed her tightly, and pressed her cold cheek up against Mabel’s.
“Oh, it’s so good to see you. I’ve been after George ever since Thanksgiving to get us over here. It’s no good being a woman in this country, is it? Too many men, in my opinion. And of course I go off and have all boys myself, as if there weren’t enough already.” Esther laughed and shook out her long braid. Then she looked around the cabin and Mabel felt a mixture of pride and shyness, sure that Esther was inspecting the curtains and clean kitchen and assessing her skills as a homemaker.
“Nice tight cabin you’ve got here. George says you’ve got some problems with the frost coming through, but that happens to us all on those cold days. Just crank up the fire, I say. Looks like you’ve got a sturdy woodstove. That makes all the difference.”
Esther stood next to the stove much the way Jack did, with her hands spread wide to the heat. Mabel realized she had never really studied the stove before, just as she knew that Esther had yet to notice the carefully set table or the few photographs hanging on the walls. It was as if she were seeing a different cabin altogether.
“Jack hasn’t come home yet. He should be here anytime, and then we can have dinner. Would you like some tea? I put some water on.”
“Oh, that would be terrific. I’m cold and damp from the ride over. I’m not complaining, though. I’ve always liked the snow.”
“I do know what you mean. Or at least I can say I am finally getting accustomed to it. There’s been a lot to get used to here.”
Esther laughed. “Isn’t that the truth. I don’t know if you ever get used to it really. It just gets in your blood so that you can’t stand to be anywhere else.”
The women sat at the table, Mabel sipping her tea and Esther talking. Mabel waited for a chance to ask about the child, but Esther never seemed to take a breath.
“I know I’m going to talk your ear right off tonight. It’s just so good to have a woman to visit with. Those boys, they do their best, but really they’re happier if I keep quiet. Around the dinner table it’s always grunt, harrumph, give me some more of this and that. Me, I like to have a good sit-down and talk. That’s about all I really miss about town sometimes. Just a good conversation now and then. I don’t even care too much what we talk about.”
She then went on to talk about last year’s crops and the railroad’s plans to expand, how the bigwigs from back in Washington had come all the way to the Territory to inspect the tracks and pose for photographs, and how all of this mining and expansion would mean more demand for farm goods. Then she talked about the wolves that were running the river and how their younger son wanted to trap a few for the bounty money.
“That boy of mine hasn’t showed up yet, has he? He’s supposed to meet us here, coming by horse on the river.”
Then Esther asked about the fox Jack had seen in the fields. “They’ll snatch your chickens as soon as they get a chance,” she said. “You ought to shoot him next time you see him.”
Never in her life had anyone suggested Mabel shoot something. She didn’t mention she had never picked up a gun. It seemed an embarrassing fact in front of Esther.
“Oh. Yes,” she said. “I suppose so.” She was preparing to say that she had indeed seen the fox, with a little girl, right near their barn, but just then the door burst open.
“Well, call it beginner’s luck,” George said. “Jack’s gone and shot the biggest moose in the entire valley. Gals, you’ve got to come and see this.”
Mabel tried to imagine what she would see in the barn as she followed George and Esther through the snow. She expected an entire animal, still in its skin and fur, still a moose. When she stepped into the lantern light and saw the disembodied antlers atop their bloody stump, she drew in a breath.
“Holy Moses!” Esther said.
“That’s exactly what I said, Mom. Isn’t it?” and the boy turned to Jack. “Ho-ly Moses.” His excited, youthful voice startled Mabel nearly as much as the scene before her.
“Those antlers got to go seventy inches across,” Garrett said, posing behind them like an African hunter with his trophy.
Suddenly Jack grabbed her about the waist from behind, swung her around to face him, and for a second lifted her off her feet.
“I did it, love. I got our moose!” He kissed her quick and hard on the neck, like he was a much younger man, and she a younger woman. He smelled of wild animal and moonshine, and his eyes twinkled from drink. When he set her back down on the straw floor, she was disoriented.
“Oh,” was all she could manage.
The barn was a garble of talk and cheers while Jack told how he had heard something behind him, turned around, and here was this bull moose just a few strides from his own field, and he had shot it, and then Garrett came along and he couldn’t have done it without him. A bottle was passed none too discreetly among the men and the two older sons, and each held it up and called out “Cheers!” while Garrett begged in vain for a swig.
“Not just yet, sprout,” Esther said, and then she took a drink herself, and the men all laughed. Mabel kept quietly to herself. But Esther turned to her and held out the bottle.
“Oh come, come,” she said playfully. “Drink a toast to your hunter!” So Mabel took the moonshine and held the cold glass to her mouth. The vapor alone was enough to make her cough, but she tipped it back and let the icy-hot liquid splash against her lips, and then she coughed and coughed and handed the bottle back while everyone laughed merrily.
“So no coal mine for you this year, eh, Jack?” George asked.
“Suppose not. I guess we’ll have an old-fashioned Alaskan winter—moose and potatoes until we can stand them no more.”
Mabel smiled up at Jack and knew she should be glad, but she couldn’t rid her mind of the sawed edge of skull bone at her feet.
Just when her hands were going numb with cold, everyone decided to go back to the cabin for dinner. Jack took the lantern down from its hook on a beam and wrapped an arm around Mabel’s shoulders as they walked through the snow. Suddenly she was married to a northern hunter, a woodsman who gutted moose and toasted moonshine in a barn. Everything was topsy-turvy and unfamiliar.
The raucous party made its way into the cabin, all of them talking at once and shaking snow from their clothes. When Jack took off his coat, his arms were plastered with cracked, dried blood, and it was smeared across his shirt and pants. No one else noticed, but he looked at Mabel and down at himself. “Suppose I should wash up before dinner.”
Garrett brought in a gunnysack and set it on the kitchen counter. From it Esther took a veined, rounded muscle the size of a bread loaf and Mabel realized it was the animal’s heart. Esther began to slice it thinly with a knife.