Puslapio vaizdai

Traps and Guns and Other Things



F all the salient features that make up the patchwork of what we call the past, I remember none more clearly

than those cold winter mornings when regularly I would tumble out of bed long before daylight to go to my rabbit-traps. In shivering haste I would break the ice in the waterpitcher, pour a gill or two of water into the bowl,-it never appeared to be so cold when used in small quantity, brush my shying fingers over its frosty surface, pass the dampened tips lightly across such parts of my face as were more accessible, finish my dressing, and hurry down-stairs. It seemed an absurd waste of time, since a more elaborate toilet would be required before breakfast and school; but some such rites were conscientiously necessary to a proper going forth to face the world after sleep. It was supposedthe supposition was not mine to lift one above the plane of the barbarian.

In the warm living-room I would wind my "comforter" about my neck and retrieve my cap from the small table in the corner, where I had flung it clear across the room as I entered the door the night before. The flinging of the cap was automatic, and I can still see in memory my three younger brothers, at a later period, come into the room and fling their caps to the same table with the same subconscious repetition of long-accustomed habit. If we had been met on our entrance and the caps taken from us, we would

have been momentarily at a loss, wondering what we had forgotten. It would have been the half-conscious movement of our arms in flinging the caps. It was our mental symbol of being at home.

Outside the door I would break into a trot, and speedily come to the Long Road or Dewick's Hill, up which I would hasten, with the hardened snow of those unsurpassed coasting-places crunching and creaking under my boots. At the top of either hill I would come at once to "the Neck," and under its trees find deeper snow and the windless hush of thick woods. Even when a gale roared in the boughs far overhead, I would walk in comparatively hushed spaces, hedged in by the boles of close-set trees and the high undergrowth of laurel, its leaves still undisturbed and vividly green, and often capped with white masses of snow. In daylight one saw everywhere the crossing trails of birds and small four-footed creatures, the tracks of the birds now and then joined by the trail of dragging tails into the semblance of endless sprays of slender vines denuded of their foliage.

On a narrow wood road I reached a carefully concealed mark, and, jumping through the screening laurel, passed straight into the woods, where by a series of blazes I had marked the lines of my traps. With snow on the ground, in the dark mornings, the course was naturally plainer, for my tracks guided me then. The snow

betrayed, too, whether they had been the beauty of the morning or for the visited by others.

I never approached a trap without a quickened beating of the heart. Would it be sprung? When it was, not upright, but bowed with the weight of the gray rabbit that hung stiff in the noose, I had the thrill that comes only in the great moments of life. The still, gray form was not a dead thing. It was the proof of my victory over wild nature, and linked me with the romantic past, with Natty Bumppo and other loved heroes of my boyhood. What child knows Natty Bumppo today? For that matter, what modern child goes out before dawn to rabbittraps?

It was a toilsome tramp at times, when the snow lay heavy on the underbrush and beat down the laurel into almost insurmountable barriers, yet even then less discomforting than on the mornings of rain or dripping fog, when every disturbed bough or twig sent down a shower of cold drops. One year I had nearly a hundred traps, and long before I had visited them all I would view the black network of boughs to the east against a near background of yellow or crimson, and when I turned homeward at last, and came to the edge of the wood, I saw the tops of the hills on the west side of the harbor already touched with the sun, and the eastern windows of their few houses far-flashing centers of white fire. Down on our side of the valley, as I came to my gate, everything still lay in shadow, and nothing would be stirring but the blue spires of smoke going up from many breakfast fires. But whatever the weather might be, I was always glad for the moment-glad for the impulse that had sent me forth on a certain sort of adventure, glad for

struggle against cold and snow that had left me with the feeling of not being conquered in spirit.

I suppose that in nine tenths of the houses of the village a boy thus coming home to breakfast would have been met at his door by the same odorsthe odors of buckwheat cakes and sausage or ham. There might be eggs with the ham, but there would be no other difference. The last thing at night, from November until the end of March, the batter-pot, with its mixture of buckwheat flour and "canaille" flour, "set" with yeast, would be placed near the kitchen fire to rise overnight. We did not believe in beginning the day undernourished. The fruit and breakfast foods, or the toast and marmalade, of modern days would have been disdained as food fit only for those about to die. Strong coffee was an accompaniment, though the young were not always permitted to use it.

Early in the autumn, before the season for rabbits, we had made long partridge-hedges, or runs, athwart the thickly wooded hollows, and had set snares for quails along the edges of the pastures, using for snares the horsehair we had begged from such of our relatives as possessed horses or from good-natured farmers. We frequently set our snares in the nearer fields of Level-land and Vanderbeck, though for most of us who were "downstreeters" the Neck was always the favorite hunting-ground.

It was a tract of twelve hundred acres of land, mostly wooded, and stretched along the east side of the harbor to the sound, along the sound east to Mount Sinai Harbor, and thence inland to the "lower road" into

town, which it followed to the edge of the village itself, ending not far from my father's house. The owners were two elderly maiden sisters who never disfigured the woods and fields with warnings against trespass and gunning, and asked only that we leave undisturbed the squirrels that frequented the grove of great chestnut-trees covering the steep slopes that half-encircled their house. We religiously respected We religiously respected this request, and in return were permitted to wander everywhere at will. There we gathered the trailing-arbutus in early spring and the pink-and-white bloom of the laurel in late June, set our snares and rabbit-traps, and carried our first guns. There, too, in autumn we gathered hazelnuts and walnuts.

§ 2

Before our gunning days had come, of course, that optimistic age when we had believed in the bow and arrow, and hour after hour tramped the fields with arrows set to bowstrings, and our eager eyes roving from side to side in search of a flying mark. We made our bows of hickory or cedar, though we never came to any certainty of conviction as to which was the better wood for the purpose. Happily, their ineffectiveness as procurers of game at that age counted for less than the part they played as adjuncts of the realism of the make-believe world through which we moved with vast enthusiasm.

My inseparable companions at that period were the two sons of the principal of the school, and in the woods near their home we recreated to the best of our ability the atmosphere of "The Last of the Mohicans," which at the moment impressed us deeply. We built rival huts, walling them over with the interlaced boughs of the

scrub-oak, the strong stems of which kept its foliage long after its deep, glowing red had changed to a rich brown. In these snug retreats we stored winter apples and turnips, and hung up ears of corn to dry, and bunches of sweet-fern. The dried sweet-fern we smoked, though not so much for pleasure as for the realism of those moments when we "smoked the pipe of peace." The corn we roasted, but the turnips we ate raw, considering them both delightful food and bounties of Nature, a euphemism that delicately veiled the fact that the "bounties" had been pulled in the farmers' broad fields.

As the oldest, E and I arrogated to ourselves the dignity of being Mohicans, leaving to H- and his companions the lot of representing the despised Hurons. For weeks we spoke so consistently the lofty language of Cooper's heroes that more than once we inadvertently startled the uninitiated and covered ourselves with confusion. I remember that "Hist!" "yonder varlet," "not so,” and “stay thy coward hand" were constantly on our lips in our talk with one another, though it hardly comported with common usage to say to one's mother, as E- once did when his objected to some action, "Thou speakest ill."

Mindful of the customs of our prototypes, in our battles we waited in "ambushes," and crept for hours through the thick underbrush in the fond belief that Chingachgook himself could not have moved more silently. We had barred out bows and arrows as manifestly too dangerous for weapons, and we went armed with what we called "darts," long chestnut wands that we carved elaborately and hurled at one another in attack. We had agreed

to aim only at the torso of an enemy, and that he, being struck, was to count himself "dead." Once, rising from ambush to attack the Hurons as they came up a wooded path, my dart went wide, and struck H- close to his temple. He uttered a most un-Huronlike howl and clapped his hands to his head, and warfare ceased at once as we saw the blood run down between his fingers.

Now, every boy has a vast awe for a blow on the temple, and in the expectation of seeing him collapse at any moment, it was a very frightened company that led the wounded Huron down to his mother. As she dressed the wound, and we, in the nervous reaction of our fears at the sight of her composed face, stood about her, garrulous in explanations, I weakly tried to excuse myself by contending that H had no right to dodge, and all would have been well if he had not. She diplomatically agreed, but added that as dodging seemed instinctive whenever a blow threatened, perhaps a better way of fighting might be found. We enthusiastically agreed in that moment of vast relief.

Yet blood flowed again in the play before our fascination for it ended. One Saturday afternoon a much older boy joined us, and expressed his gracious willingness to take part. Now, I had always claimed, and been allowed, the right to personate the silent, but lofty-minded, Uncas; but on the new boy's declaration that he would assume that character, the others, flattered by the interest of an older boy, readily agreed. I did not. Angry words followed, and then the sudden flashing up of hostilities, in which by some lucky chance I made my rival's nose bleed badly. He paused mo

mentarily to stanch the flow of blood, but without ceasing his threats of dire vengeance, while from the safe distance of the tactical retreat I had made after my successful onset, I watched him with growing uncertainty. I was angry no longer, while he, it was evident, was furious, and this, coupled with his greater size and age, made me doubtful; and when at last I saw him making ready to come up with horse, foot, and artillery, I diplomatically changed the character of the contest and went into action. In other words, I fled.

All that beautiful autumn afternoon he doggedly chased me over the whole town, through dooryards and over back fences and up hill and down. With my growing confidence in my ability to escape, it became at last a game in a way that it was possible even to enjoy. Of course I might have gone home to a safe asylum at once, but my appearance at so unusual an hour would have caused surprised questioning, and to explain that I had blooded the nose of so nice a boy as my pursuer would probably have resulted in incarceration at home, and freedom, though in flight, was preferable to that on a holiday. On Monday, in the neutral territory of school, we could safely meet, protected by that admirable philosophy of boyhood, which believes that each day is sufficient unto itself.


We did not wholly abandon "The Leather Stocking Tales" and the woodcraft of the red men, but "Ivanhoe" and Robin Hood for a time converted our primeval forest into "the greenwood," and as Locksley, or Robin Hood, we shot at peeled willow wands with

cloth-yard shafts, and as a reluctant over the heads of the horses, we had Sheriff of Nottingham harried Hover the whole country-side. As the younger brother of E, he was the lawful, if sometimes obstreperous, substitute for unpopular characters. We always used a "cloth-yard shaft," thinking the novel term a realistic touch, though long puzzled by the curious insistence of writers to make a yard of cloth the attribute of an arrow, like the tail to a kite. With the literal-mindedness of youth, we could see no other explanation.

But it was the genius of E that made "Ivanhoe" really live, at least for a thrillingly dramatic hour. Locksley's skill had speedily grown tame, especially as we had never succeeded in making it our own, and one day, idly wandering in search of something to do, we had come to the familiar pastures of Level-land, on the top of the hill east of the village. The first field, for the time in pasture, was like a great saucer, or amphitheater, on the slopes of which two of the farmer's horses were browsing. The "upper barn" stood at the northeast corner of the field, and was used only for hay, the farmer's main barn being down in the village and not far from his house, which stood next to my father's. Whatever happened in the bowl was reasonably safe from observation.

To E's fruitful mind there came the thought that a kindly Providence had here provided the lists for the tournament in "Ivanhoe," which we had read over and over again; and there were the farmer's horses. A spoken hint of his thought was alone sufficient, and a moment later we were racing home for bridles and lances.

Perhaps an hour later, with our improvised bridles of small rope noosed

mounted our steeds from the fence, and with two long poles for lances, had taken our places on opposite slopes of the field, with the bottom of the bowl between us, where we were to meet in mimic battle. But as E raised his hand as a signal to advance, and, clapping my heels against the ribs of my charger, I felt myself in motion, misgivings seized me. A vast gulf appeared to yawn before the low-held head of my horse as, stumbling, he jogged down the steep slope, and my lance wavered uncertainly in a hand that seemed to know instinctively that it could be better employed by grasping the mane. My horse, in passing, snatched at a tall weed, and the convulsive movement caused by the action tore the bridle from my hand. It fell out of my reach, of course, and as I looked anxiously up for my foe, I saw with vast relief that his steed, becalmed, was cropping the grass on the opposite side of the slope, with Edesperately tugging at the bridle.

From the depths of his hereditary knowledge as a descendant of horsemen in his loved Wyoming Valley, E gravely declared that the horses needed training, to which I as gravely agreed, and for a time we walked them up and down the slope. Because neither would take to himself the shame of confessing that his ardor had cooled, we again paused at the top for a fresh trial.

But the horses had grown nervous, and as we neared the foot of the slopes they broke into a lumbering gallop. Mindful of my misfortune with the dart, we had already agreed to aim our lances low at each other's legs and to grasp them lightly; but now as we seemed to rush together in a vast cata

« AnkstesnisTęsti »