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Margaret Warner Morley


Winter Draws Near

I am sorry the summer is most over," said John one day, "for we shall not bring the flock to the pasture much longer."

"Yes, but the snow will come and that is better than herding," and Anton cut a caper at the thought.

The summer was over indeed. Frosty nights soon began to whiten the ground. The grain that had yellowed the slopes about the Toy Valley now hung in sheaves like a golden curtain across the fronts and sides of the houses where it had been put on the lattices to dry.

As the boys drove their flock each day to the distant pastures, they saw the men gathering in the harvest and the short-petticoated women helping in field and meadow.

There were bright green turnip patches here and there, and every morning John and Anton filled their pockets with juicy turnips so white and crisp and spicy! The goats liked them too, and there was much shouting and stone-flinging whenever they had to pass by a turnip field.

Presently there came a sound like clog-dancing from some of the barns, and when the boys passed close to one of these barns, they saw the sunbeams before the open door full of golden mist, and they smelled a sweet, suffocating odor which they knew to be the dust from the grain being threshed inside. Sometimes they stopped a moment to peep in at the wide doors of some barn close to their path and watch the threshers; men and women in a line, rising and bowing, rising and bowing as the flails whirled over their heads and then fell with a thud upon the grain spread upon the floor. An old woman spread the sheaves in rows with the heads of grain all pointing one way, and the threshers walked slowly up and down, up and down, swinging their flails in unison. When the grain was well beaten out, the old woman raked away the straw, while a boy swept the plump kernels into a pile in one corner.

"It makes me sneeze," said Anton, suiting the action to the word, as they went on, and the sound of the threshing struck up again behind them.

"I like to smell it," replied John, "and I like the sound. I like it when you hear it on all sides in the early morning. It is like people dancing at weddings," and he began to dance, clappity-clap, clappity-clap, in his wooden shoes on the stony path.

"I like better the sound of the sheep and goats pattering along the path," declared Anton, "but best of all is to hear a herd of cows going up a rocky trail. I followed Big Peter's herd to the Big Alp with him once," and then he added confidently, "yes, it will soon be winter now. The cows have already come down from the high Alps and soon we shall no longer need to take the goats to pasture."

He was right, for in a few day the first snow fell, and, though it was not enough to cover the ground, yet no one could now venture out into the mountains for fear a sudden storm would swoop down from the icy summits and bury flocks and herders and freeze them to death. No one must again venture into the high pastures or over the dangerous passes until spring came, and with her soft hands uncovered the snow-blanketed earth, waked up the starry Alpine flowers, and cast a mantle of summer verdure over the rugged northland.

The snow beds that had glistened all summer in the high laps of the mountains, widened and lengthened and climbed up toward the peaks, until they covered all the summits excepting the great upright cliffs too steep for snow to cling to.

But though the boys might no longer lead the flocks to the distant pastures, they found plenty to do, for there were the red preissel berries to gather for the winter.

Now in the Toy Valley and the mountains round about, there is no fruit but the preissel berries, for it is too high and the winters are too long and cold even for apples. There were once two apple trees growing there, and once in a while they bore a few apples; but nobody ever knew whether these apples would have ripened or not, for they never got the chance. How could apples ripen when there were only a dozen or so of them and several times that many boys in a hurry to know how they tasted? So they were always eaten green, though they never did anybody any harm.

But the preissel berries! You should have seen them in the fall of the year growing like a thick green carpet speckled with red berries all through the forest. The children went out and gathered them by the bushel for their mothers to cook and put away for the winter; for, as though to make up for the lack of other fruits, the preissel are the most delicious red berries that ever spangled a mountain forest. They look and taste a little like cranberries, though not so sour and much spicier. They tasted pretty good raw, and out in the woods, John and Anton often ate whole handfuls of them, though, like sensible boys, they liked them better when cooked with plenty of sugar.

Besides gathering plenty of preissel berries for their respective families, they had another task to perform that did not take very long and that was very pleasant indeed. One morning you might have seen John starting out with his basket on his back, whistling the liveliest tune he knew. He was going to gather moss and berries in the Pixies' Forest for his mother to place in the deep window sills.

He had not gone far when he saw Anton with his basket, bent on the same errand. He slipped behind a rock and gave a loud squeaking sound at which Anton turned around. John squeaked again, and Anton, picking up a stone, ran softly towards the spot where John was hidden. When he had come quite close, John jumped out and both boys laughed uproariously, for Anton had thought it was a wood-rat squeaking under the rock, and they both considered it a capital joke.

The Pixies' Wood is a strange place where all one can see is great rounded boulders piled one on the other and overgrown with moss and trees. It is full of dark caverns that lie between the boulders and, though now broad daylight, it is yet dark and dismal in there. Only a little snow had yet fallen here and the bright mosses and red berries were easy to find. The boys hunted for the prettiest, but were careful to keep rather close together, for, though they pretended not to be afraid of the pixies, still neither of them would have quite liked to meet one. "They pinch and maul you," said John, looking fearfully around the edge of a black cavern, "and if they catch you here alone, they roll you over and over on the sharp rocks."

"They'll not maul me," said Anton, proudly, "I'll—" but John never knew what terrible thing Anton would do to the pixies, for a fearful scream sent both boys tumbling over the rocks as fast as they could go, until they were quite out of the Pixies' Wood.

"It was that old hawk," said John, indignantly, pointing to the large bird sailing above their heads.

"The pixies sent him," replied Anton. "They sent him to find us. Do you know, nobody has ever gone clear across the Pixies' Wood. It is big, but nobody knows how big, for they won't let you in, only a little way."

"I think the moss is just as good out here, anyhow," and John threw himself down on a bed of it in the sunshine, then started up as a lively squirrel ran across a near rock and scampered chattering up a tree. In a moment both boys were after the squirrel who leaped lightly from branch to branch among the fir trees and was soon out of sight.

"This is where he comes to eat," and Anton pointed to a great pile of cone scales under a tree. "He sits up on that limb and gnaws the scales off of the cones and eats out the little nuts," and seizing a cone that lay on the ground, Anton proceeded to bite it to pieces squirrel-wise and eat the tiny sweet nuts that lay at the bottom of each scale.

"It would take a year to get enough," said John, imitating him. Then he threw down his cone and said very soberly, "Do you know, Anton, what I am going to do?"

"No. What?" asked Anton, curiously.

"I am going to pray every night to the good God to let me be a wood-carver. I am going to pray every night for two years, and then I am going to take a tool and begin."

"Where are you going to get the tool?"

"Haven't I told you?" and John looked reproachfully at his friend. "I am going to pray every night for two years, and then you will see that the dear God will send me the tool."

"I don't need to pray to go to the Big Alp, for father is willing. You better come up there with me, John," said Anton, in a troubled voice. "It costs nothing and the boys do not have to work hard, only watch the cows to see that they do not stray into dangerous places."

"No, Anton, I must carve the beautiful zirbel wood into toys."

"But to pray two years for a tool—why, John, you will go to sleep and forget sometimes, and that will make a difference."

"No, Anton, I shall not forget."

The boys finished filling their baskets with the pretty green vines and mosses and bright berries, and when John got home, his mother took them from the basket and arranged them very prettily in the space on the broad window seat between the double windows. Then Father Hofer fastened the inside sashes, and the little house on the lonely mountain side was warm and ready for the long winter.