J OHN HOFER was climbing steadily up the green mountain side.
When he could spare breath he whistled; but he was only ten, the mountain was steep, and he had a tall basket strapped to this back.
He was all alone and the mountain was big; but the stony path he followed, curve and twist as it might, would lead him safe home, that he knew.
Presently he stopped under a rock, rested his basket on a jutting ledge and looked down the steep slope into the valley he had just left, in the bottom of which lay a tiny village with a tall church spire. It was like a picture, the huddled stone houses looked so small in the distance with the tremendous mountain peaks of bare rock rising beyond them.
But John was not thinking of that. He was thinking of his friends Tito and Josef who lived in the house farthest up the stream that sparkled like a silver thread through the valley. He knew they were at that moment sitting with their father and mother at the long bench carving goats out of little blocks of wood. That is, the father and mother were carving the goats, while Tito and Josef smoothed down the blocks and got them ready. And in the next big, white house with such broad balconies and wide lattices, the whole family were busy constructing comical jumping-jacks. They had once given him one, but that was when he was a little boy, and he had broken it long ago. Over there, close to the stream,—in that little building not much bigger than a doll's house,—old Herr Weinert sat all day long turning little wagon wheels on his whirling lathe.
Indeed, in each house he could recall some similar scene, for he was looking down into the Toy Valley where every man, woman, and child is busy making toys from morning until night. And this they do, in order to fill the great sack that Santa Claus carries over the earth at Christmas time, to stuff the stockings of the children even in far-away America.
All over the world the children know and love these toys, though they may never have heard of the busy workers of the Toy Valley.
Yes, the boy up on the mountain side with the tall basket strapped to his back is Donkey John. But you must not let on you know, for nobody called him Donkey John then, or anything but John Hofer, because that was his real name. He had to earn the name of Donkey John, and how he did it you will find out if you read on far enough.
As to John's personal appearance, excepting for his clothes, he very much resembled any other little boy of ten,—that is, he had a round face beautifully freckled in the summer time, round eyes, and a mouth that was able to break into a delightful smile when he was pleased.
Probably, had you seen him up there on the mountain side, you would have said, "What an odd looking boy"; but that would be because you looked at his clothes rather than at him. For he lived in a country where all the boys wore their trousers down to their heels, and little tight vests with broad belts and cock-a-lorum hats, and on their feet were great heavy wooden shoes shaped somewhat like canal boats. And all the little girls wore full round petticoats down to their heels with flat waists and three-cornered kerchiefs tied over their braids, which were coiled neatly about their pretty heads, and on their feet were little wooden shoes that also looked like canal boats,—little bits of canal boats. You have seen them in picture books many a time; but it is another matter to see a boy dressed like John walking around in real life. As to the basket he had strapped to his back, that is the way all the people of the Toy Valley carry their possessions about.
If you live shut up in a high valley between tremendously high mountains, where there are no roads and no wagons and hardly any horses, you have to lay the burdens on your own back. And if you do, there is nothing so convenient as the tall, wedge-shaped baskets, wide above, narrow below, flat on the side towards the back, rounding out on the other side, that all the people, including John, wore when they had anything to carry.
While John, up on the mountain side, was looking down on the houses in the bottom of the deep valley and thinking about the people who lived in them, a large, golden-brown squirrel, fluffy-tailed and bright-eyed,—such as inhabit those mountains,—sat on a tree watching him and at last attracted his attention by a sharp chuckling bark. John turned quickly at the sound, and seeing the squirrel so close, stood very still with a wide smile on his round face. The squirrel kept still too, as still as a mouse in the radiance of that smile. There is no knowing what the upshot would have been had not John given a startled shriek and suddenly thrown out his arms, when the squirrel darted past quite close to his hand and disappeared in a cleft of the rock. And none too soon, for a great bird swooped down, merely swerving slightly as John cried out, and with a vicious scream, circled over the branch where the squirrel had sat, and then rose swiftly into the air above.
John had seen the shadow of the great hawk "geier," the people there call it, around the corner of the rock which stood between it and the tree where the squirrel was perched.
As the bird ascended rapidly, he seized a stone and cried out in a threatening voice, "Oh, I know you, it is you that came down and stole one of Anton's lambs last month!" He flung the stone with all his might, although the hawk was far out of reach; then he once more took up his basket and continued his slow, steady task of climbing up, up, up.
Presently a loud, prolonged call echoed and reëchoed along the sides of the mountain, and he replied with a shrill cry that also went echoing back and forth. He waited, and soon his father's head appeared above a clump of bushes, and in a moment more the two were going on together, father Hofer ahead on the narrow path and almost hidden from sight by the tall basket he also wore strapped to his back. They ascended the steep, green slopes without speaking, for father Hofer was a man of few words.
It was only the middle of the afternoon, and yet the evening shadows were already creeping over the little village down below, for the Toy Valley is so narrow and so deep that only in the middle of the day does the sun shine in. Indeed, some of the houses built on the slopes of the mountain never get a ray of sunshine all winter long. But on the side where the Hofers lived it was different.
After a while the path reached the end of the steep, green slopes and zigzagged up steeper than ever through the dark evergreen woods.
John no longer turned around every few moments to look down below, for the village was hidden from sight under the crags of the mountain, and as he climbed on, all he could see was the mysterious, dark spaces of the woods and that great basket that seemed to be walking up the mountain on his father's legs.
For an hour they climbed up the rocky path among the fragrant trees, but at last they saw light shining ahead as though they were about to climb out into the sky.
When they got to the edge of the woods they saw a house standing on a grassy swell yet higher up and full in the sunlight. It was their own home and looked very cheerful after the dark forest.
Mother Hofer, who had heard the sharp ring of their shoe-spikes against the stones, came running out to meet them. John quickly wriggled out of his basket straps, took off his shoes and sat down on the bench by the side of the door to rest.
It was dark down in the valley now, the village was lost to sight under the mountain and all one could see were a few houses on the high slopes opposite, so far away that they looked no larger than grains of rice. Indeed, one could not have seen them at all if they had not been painted white. Yet in each one of them lived merry little people, busy now no doubt, putting away the toys they had been making for Santa Claus to carry away to the children out in the big world.
While John sat resting, the mother unpacked the baskets. Father Hofer's held a bag of flour, some salt and a few other such things. John's had a package of thread for his mother to make lace with, some yarn, and a new sheep bell. He jumped up, took out the sheep bell and tinkled it. "It has a pretty sound," said his mother, stopping to listen.
"Yes," said John, "think how it will tell where the old black sheep is! The rascal cannot hide from me with this on his neck!" and John shook the bell again to show the others how much noise it could make.
"Father, let us hang the bell on the new wooden collar you made the other day. Then all will be new!"
"Yes, so we will, but first go and look after Franz. Don't you hear him pawing in the stall?"
John ran and opened the barn door. He had not far to go for the barn was under the same roof with the house; it was indeed the other half of the house, that being the convenient way in which everybody lived in the Toy Valley.
As soon as the door was opened Franz jumped out and kicked up his little heels and shook his shaggy head and long ears and looked at John out of the corner of his eye as much as to say, "You will never catch me again!"
But John knew old Franz and did not try to catch him. He sat down on the bench and began to crack a green hazel nut between his teeth. Franz lifted his head in the air and hee-hawed with all his might, still watching John, who paid no attention. Then Franz whirled around and took a drink out of the wooden trough and the next moment John felt a velvet nose against his cheek. Still he paid no attention—and then the donkey's great head was thrust into his lap and John caught hold of the halter. Franz tried to pull away, but it was too late and John soon had him in the stall again with some fresh hay to eat.
Usually he would have played with old Franz a while, but to-night he was too impatient to get at the new sheep bell to want to waste time on the donkey. So poor Franz was shut up and John ran towards the house door.
"Now for the new bell, father," he shouted.
But Mother Hofer had a word to say about that. "Not yet John, not yet. We must first eat supper. Your father is hungry. He was off before daylight this morning with only a bit of bread in the bottom of his basket. You had your dinner before you went down to meet him, but the poor father had nothing," and Mother Hofer bustled about getting the meal ready.
The outside door of their house opened into a little room paved with large, flat stones. It was as black as ink inside from the smoke which for more than a hundred years had risen from the open hearth. There was no chimney and the smoke had to escape through a hole in the wall near the ceiling or through the open door. The fireplace was only a stone platform in the middle of which Mother Hofer kindled a little fire of sticks—like a camp fire. Then she set an iron grating with legs over the fire and on this a long-handled frying pan.
As John watched her his mouth began to water, for he knew they were going to have fritters for supper, and all at once he felt very hungry. Sputter! sputter! went the fritters in the hot fat. "Now run, John, and get a plate!"—and the fritters were soon smoking in a savory pile.
Then they went into another room where was no trace of smoke and sat on the benches at the side of the table and ate fritters and goat's-milk cheese—all they wanted—and John drank a bowl of milk besides.
"Now, father," said John, as soon as he had stuffed the last fritter into his mouth, "now for the new sheep bell."
Mother Hofer gathered up the dishes and John climbed up on the big brick stove and took the wooden collar down from the shelf above it. Then he and his father sat and worked quite contentedly until the bell was fitted into the notch in front of the collar and fastened securely.
"Now, John," said Father Hofer, "you must watch just how it is done, so you can do the next one yourself. A boy must learn to be useful or else he will not make a useful man."
"Yes, father," said John, and the bell being now hung on the collar and all ready for the black sheep's neck, John went off to bed and was soon sound asleep.