It was a bright day in August. The whispering rustle of the leaves as they turned their white sides to the soft breath of the southwest wind, the buzzing of the ostentatiously busy bees, the lapping of the river as it gurgled happily along on its everlasting travels, the half-drowsy note of a thrush, and the peevish cry of a catbird seemed only to accentuate the Sabbath hush that was upon all nature.
The day was very warm, but the deep shade of the elms in front of the cabin afforded a delightful retreat, almost as cool as a cellar.
Tom and Liney Fox had walked over to visit Balser and Jim; and Sukey Yates, with her two brothers, had dropped in to stay a moment or two, but finding such good company, had remained for the day.
The children were seated at the top of the slope that descended to the river, and the weather being too warm to play any game more vigorous than "thumbs up," they were occupying the time with drowsy yawns and still more drowsy conversation, the burden of which was borne by Tom.
Balser often said that he didn't mind "talking parties" if he could only keep Tom Fox from telling the story of the time when he went to Cincinnati with his father and saw a live elephant. But that could never be done; and Tom had told it twice upon the afternoon in question, and there is no knowing how often he would have inflicted it upon his small audience, had it not been for an interruption which effectually disposed of "Cincinnati" and the live elephant for that day.
A bustling old hen with her brood of downy chicks was peevishly clucking about, now and then lazily scratching the earth, and calling up her ever-hungry family whenever she was lucky enough to find a delicious worm or racy bug.
The cubs were stretched at full length in the bright blaze of the sun, snoring away like a pair of grampuses, their black silky sides rising and falling with every breath. They looked so pretty and so innocent that you would have supposed a thought of mischief could never have entered their heads. (Mischief! They never thought of anything else. From morning until night, and from night until morning, they studied, planned, and executed deeds of mischief that would have done credit to the most freckle-faced boy in the settlement. Will you tell me why it is that the boy most plentifully supplied with freckles and warts is the most fruitful in schemes of mischief?) A flock of gray geese and snowy ganders were floating on the placid surface of the river, opposite the children, where a projection of the bank had caused the water to back, making a little pool of listless eddies.
"Mischief! They never thought of anything else."
Suddenly from among the noiseless flock of geese came a mighty squawking and a sound of flapping wings, and the flock, half flying, half swimming, came struggling at their utmost speed toward home.
"Look, Balser! Look!" said Liney in a whisper. "A wolf!"
Balser turned in time to see a great, lank, gray wolf emerge from the water, carrying a gander by the neck.
"Balser turned in time to see a great, lank, gray wolf emerge from the water, carrying a gander by the neck."
The bird could not squawk, but flapped his wings violently, thereby retarding somewhat the speed of Mr. Wolf.
Balser hurried to the house for his gun, and with Tom Fox quickly paddled across the river in pursuit of the wolf. The boys entered the forest at the place the wolf had chosen. White feathers from the gander furnished a distinct spoor, and Balser had no difficulty in keeping on the wolf's track. The boys had been walking rapidly for thirty or forty minutes, when they found that the tracks left by the wolf and the scattered feathers of the gander led toward a thick clump of pawpaw bushes and vines, which grew at the foot of a small rocky hill. Into the thicket the boys cautiously worked their way, and, after careful examination, they found, ingeniously concealed by dense foliage, a small hole or cleft in the rocks at the base of the hill, and they at once knew that the wolf had gone to earth, and that this was his den.
Foxes make for themselves and their families the snuggest, most ingenious home in the ground you can possibly imagine. They seek a place at the base of a hill or bluff, and dig what we would call in our houses a narrow hallway, straight into the hill. They loosen the dirt with their front feet, and throw it back of them; then with their hind feet they keep pushing it farther toward the opening of the hole, until they have cast it all out. When they have removed the loose dirt, they at once scatter it over the ground and carefully cover it with leaves and vines, to avoid attracting unwelcome visitors to their home.
When the hallway is finished, the fox digs upward into the hill, and there he makes his real home. His reason for doing this is to prevent water from flowing through his hall into his living apartment. The latter is often quite a cave in the earth, and furnishes as roomy and cozy a home for Mr. and Mrs. Fox and their children as you could find in the world. It is cool in summer and warm in winter. It is softly carpeted with leaves, grass, and feathers, and the foxes lie there snugly enough when the winter comes on, with its freezing and snowing and blowing.
When the fox gets hungry he slips out of his cozy home, and briskly trots to some well-known chicken roost; or perhaps he finds a covey of quails huddled under a bunch of straw. In either case he carries home with him a dainty dinner, and after he has feasted, he cares not how the wind blows, nor how the river freezes, nor how the snow falls, for he is housed like a king, and is as warm and comfortable and happy as if he owned the earth and lived in a palace.
Wolves also make their dens in the earth, but they usually hunt for a place where the hallway, at least, is already made for them. They seek a hill with a rocky base, and find a cave partially made, the entrance to which is a small opening between the rocks. With this for a commencement, they dig out the interior and make their home, somewhat upon the plan of the fox.
The old wolf which Balser and Tom had chased to earth had found a fine dinner for his youngsters, and while the boys were watching the hole, no doubt the wolf family was having a glorious feast upon the gander.
The boys, of course, were at their rope's end. The dogs were not with them, and, even had they been, they were too large to enter the hole leading to the wolf's den. So the boys seated themselves upon a rock a short distance from the opening, and after a little time adopted the following plan of action.
Balser was to lie upon his breast on the hillside, a few yards above the opening of the wolf den, while Tom was to conceal himself in the dense foliage, close to the mouth of the cave, and they took their positions accordingly. Both were entirely hidden by vines and bushes, and remained silent as the tomb. They had agreed that they should lie entirely motionless until the shadow of a certain tree should fall across Tom's face, which they thought would occur within an hour. Then Tom, who could mimic the calls and cries of many birds and beasts, was to squawk like a goose, and tempt the wolf from his den so that Balser could shoot him.
It was a harder task than you may imagine to lie on the ground amid the bushes and leaves; for it seemed, at least so Tom said, that all the ants and bugs and worms in the woods had met at that particular place, and at that exact time, for the sole purpose of "drilling" up and down, and over and around, his body, and to bite him at every step. He dared not move to frighten away the torments, not to scratch. He could not even grumble, which to Tom was the sorest trial of all.
The moment the shadow of the tree fell upon his face Tom squawked like a goose, so naturally, that Balser could hardly believe it was Tom, and not a real goose. Soon he uttered another squawk, and almost at the same instant Mr. Wolf came out of his hall door, doubtless thinking to himself that that was his lucky day, for he would have two ganders, one for dinner and one for supper, and plenty of cold goose for breakfast and dinner the next day. But he was mistaken, for it was the unluckiest day of the poor wolf's life. Bang! went Balser's gun, and the wolf, who had simply done his duty as a father, by providing a dinner for his family, paid for his feast with his life.
"Bang! went Balser's gun, and the wolf . . . paid for his feast with his life."
"We'll drag the body a short distance away from the den," said Balser, "and you lie down again, and this time whine like a wolf. Then the old she-wolf will come out and we'll get her too."
"I wouldn't lie there another hour and let them ants and bugs chaw over me as they did, for all the wolves in the state."
"But just think, Tom," answered Balser, "when the wagons go to Brookville this fall we can get a shilling apiece for the wolfskins! Think of it! A shilling! One for you and one for me. I'll furnish the powder and shot if you'll squawk and whine. Squawks and whines don't cost anything, but powder and lead does. Now that's a good fellow, just lie down and whine a little. She'll come out pretty quick."
Tom still refused, and Balser still insisted. Soon Balser grew angry and called Tom a fool. Tom answered in kind, and in a moment the boys clinched for a fight. They scuffled and fought awhile, and soon stumbled over the dead wolf and fell to the ground. Balser was lucky enough to fall on top, and proceeded to pound Tom at a great rate.
"Now will you whine?" demanded Balser.
"No," answered Tom.
"Then take that, and that, and that. Now will you whine?"
"No," cried Tom, determined not to yield.
So Balser went at it again, but there was no give up to stubborn Tom, even if he was on the under side.
At last Balser wiped the perspiration from his face,
and sitting astride of his stubborn foe,
"Tom, if you'll whine I'll lend you my gun for a whole day."
"And powder and bullets?" asked Tom.
"Well, I guess not," answered Balser. "I'll lick you twenty times first."
"If you'll lend me your gun and give me ten full loads, I'll whine till I fetch every wolf in the woods, if the bugs do eat me up."
"That's a go," said Balser, glad enough to compromise with a boy who didn't know when he was whipped.
Then they got up, and were as good friends as if no trouble had occurred between them.
Balser at once lay down upon the hillside above the wolf den, and Tom took his place to whine.
The boys understood their job thoroughly, and Tom's whines soon brought out the old she-wolf. She looked cautiously about her for a moment, stole softly over to her dead mate, and dropped by his side with a bullet through her heart.
Tom was about to rise, but Balser
"Whine again; whine again, and the young ones will come out."
Tom whined, and sure enough, out came two scrawny, long-legged wolf whelps.
The boys rushed upon them, and caught them by the back of the neck, to avoid being bitten, for the little teeth of the pups were as sharp as needles and could inflict an ugly wound. Balser handed the whelp he had caught to Tom, and proceeded to cut two forked sticks from a tough bush, which the children called "Indian arrow." These forked branches the boys tied about the necks of the pups, with which to lead them home.
"Caught them by the back of the neck."
Tom then cut a strong limb from a tree with his pocket-knife. This was quite an undertaking, but in time he cut it through, and trimmed off the smaller branches. The boys tied together the legs of the old wolves and swung them over the pole, which they took upon their shoulders, and started home leading the pups. They arrived home an hour or two before sunset, and found that Liney and Sukey had arranged supper under the elms.
"The boys tied together the legs of the old wolves and swung them over the pole . . . and started home leading the pups."
The boys scoured their faces and hands with soft soap, for that was the only soap they had, and sat down to supper with cheeks shining, and hair pasted to their heads slick and tight.
"When a fellow gets washed up this way, and has his hair combed so slick, it makes him feel like it was Sunday," said Tom, who was uneasily clean.
"Tom, I wouldn't let people know how seldom I washed my face if I were you," said Liney, with a slight blush. "They'll think you clean up only on Sunday."
Tom, however, did not allow Liney's remarks to interrupt his supper, but continued to make sad havoc among the good things on the log.
There was white bread made from wheat flour, so snowy and light that it beat cake "all holler!" the boys "allowed." Wheat bread was a luxury to the settler folks in those days, for the mill nearest to the Blue River settlement was over on Whitewater, at Brookville, fifty miles away. Wheat and the skins of wild animals were the only products that the farmers could easily turn into cash, so the small crops were too precious to be used daily, and wheat flour bread was used only for special occasions such as Christmas, or New Year's or company dinner.
Usually three or four of the farmers joined in a little caravan and went in their wagons to Brookville twice a year. They would go in the spring with the hides of animals killed during the winter, that being the hunting season, and the hides then taken being of superior quality to those taken at any other time.
Early in the fall they would go again to Brookville, to market their summer crop of wheat.
Mr. Fox and a few neighbours had returned from an early trip to market only a day or two before the children's party at Balser's home, and had brought with them a few packages of a fine new drink called coffee. That is, it was new to the Western settler, at the time of which I write, milk sweetened with "tree sugar" being the usual table drink.
Liney had brought over a small gourdful of coffee as a present to Mrs. Brent, and a pot of the brown beverage had been prepared for the supper under the elms.
The Yates children and Tom were frank enough to admit that the coffee was bitter, and not fit to drink; but Liney had made it, and Balser drank it, declaring it was very good indeed. Liney knew he told a story, but she thanked him for it, nevertheless, and said that the Yates children and Tom were so thoroughly "country" and green that she couldn't expect them to like a civilized drink.
This would have made trouble with Tom, but Balser, who
saw it coming,
"Now you shut up, Tom Fox." And Balser had so recently whipped Tom that his word bore the weight of authority.
Besides the coffee and the white bread there was a great gourd full of milk with the cream mixed in, just from the spring-house, delicious and cold. There was a cold loin of venison, which had been spitted and roasted over a bed of hot coals in the kitchen fireplace that morning. There was a gourd full of quail eggs, which had been boiled hard and then cooled in the spring-house. There were heaping plates of fried chicken, and rolls of glorious yellow butter just from the churn, rich with the genuine butter taste, that makes one long to eat it by the spoonful; then there was a delicious apple pie, sweet and crusty, floating in cream almost as thick as molasses in winter.
They were backwoods, homely children; but the supper to which they sat down under the elms was fit for a king, and the appetite with which they ate it was too good for any king.
During the supper the bear cubs had been nosing about the log table, begging each one by turns for a bite to eat. They were so troublesome that Jim got a long stick, and whenever they came within reach he gave them a sharp rap upon the head, and soon they waddled away in a pet of indignant disgust.
For quite a while after Jim had driven them off there had been a season of suspicious quietude on the part of the cubs.
Suddenly a chorus of yelps, howls, growls, and whines came from the direction of the wolf pups. The attention of all at the table was, of course, at once attracted by the noise, and those who looked beheld probably the most comical battle ever fought. Tom and Jerry, with their everlasting desire to have their noses into everything that did not concern them, had gone to investigate the wolf pups, and in the course of the investigation a fight ensued, whereby the wolves were liberated. The cubs were the stronger, but the wolves were more active, thus the battle was quite even. The bears, being awkward, of course, were in each other's way most of the time, and would fall over themselves and roll upon the ground for a second or two, before they could again get upon their clumsy feet. The consequence was that the wolves soon had the best of the fight, and, being once free from the cubs, scampered off to the woods and were never seen again.
When the wolves had gone the cubs turned round and round, looking for their late antagonists; but, failing to find them, sat down upon their haunches, grinned at each other in a very silly manner, and then began to growl and grumble in the worst bear language any one had every heard.
Balser scolded the cubs roundly, and told them he had taught them better than to swear, even in bear talk. He then switched them for having liberated the wolves, and went back to supper.
The switching quieted the bears for a short time, but soon their spirit of mischief again asserted itself.
After another period of suspicious silence on the part
of the cubs, Jim put a general inquiry to the
"What do you s'pose they're up to this time?"
"Goodness only knows," responded Balser. "But if I hear another grunt out of them, I'll take a stick to them that'll hurt, and off they'll go to their pen for the night."
The settlers frequently caught swarms of bees in the woods, and Balser's father had several hives near the house. These hives were called "gums," because they were made from sections of a hollow gum tree, that being the best wood for the home of the bees. These hollow gums were placed on end upon small slanting platforms, and were covered with clapboards, which were held tightly in their place by heavy stones. There was a small hole, perhaps as large as the end of your finger, cut in the wood at the base, through which the bees entered, and upon the inside of the hive they constructed their comb and stored their honey.
"These hives were called 'gums.' "
I told you once before how bears delight to eat fish and blackberries. They are also very fond of honey. In fact, bears seem to have a general appetite and enjoy everything, from boys to blackberries.
Hardly had Balser spoken his threat when another duet of howls and yelps reached his ears.
"Now what on earth is it?" he asked and immediately started around the house in the direction whence the howls had come.
"Geminy! I believe they've upset the bee-gum," said Jim.
"Don't you know they have?" asked Balser. By that time the boys were in sight of the bears.
"Well, I know now they have, if that suits you any better. Golly! Look at them paw and scratch, and rub their eyes when the bees sting. Good enough for you. Give it to 'em, bees!" And Jim threw back his head and almost split his sides with laughter.
Sure enough, the bears had got to nosing about the bee-gums, and in their every hungry greediness had upset one. This, of course, made the bees very angry, and they attacked the cubs in a buzzing, stinging swarm that set them yelping, growling, and snapping, in a most desperate and comical manner. All their snapping and growling, however, did no good, for the bees continued to buzz and sting without any indication of being merciful. A little of this sort of thing went a long way with the black mischief-makers, and they soon ran to Balser and Jim for help. The bees, of course, followed, and when the boys and girls saw the bees coming toward them they broke helter-skelter in all directions, and ran as fast as they could go. The bears then ran to the river, and plunged in to escape their tormentors.
When the gum had been placed in position again and the bees had become quiet, the cubs, thinking the field clear came out of the water dripping wet. Then they waddled up close to the girls, and out of pure mischief shook themselves and sprinkled the dainty clean frocks with a shower from their frowzy hides.
That sealed the fate of the cubs for the day, and when Balser marched them off to their pen they looked so meek and innocent that one would have thought that they had been attending bear Sunday-school all their lives, and were entirely lacking in all unwarrantable and facetious instincts.
They went to bed supperless that evening, but had their revenge, for their yelps and whines kept the whole family awake most of the night.
By the time the bears had been put to bed, darkness was near at hand, so the supper dishes and gourds were washed and carried to the kitchen. Then the visitors said good night and left for home.