Christmas morning the boys awakened early and crept from beneath their warm bearskins in eager anticipation of gifts from Santa Claus. Of course they had long before learned who Santa Claus was, but they loved the story, and in the wisdom of their innocence clung to an illusion which brought them happiness.
The sun had risen upon a scene such as winter only can produce. Surely Aladdin had come to Blue River upon the wings of the Christmas storm, had rubbed his lamp, and lo! the humble cabin was in the heart of a fairyland such as was never conceived by the mind of a genie. Snow lay upon the ground like a soft carpet of white velvet ten inches thick. The boughs of the trees were festooned with a foliage that spring cannot rival. Even the locust trees, which in their pride of blossom cry out in June time for our admiration, seemed to say, "See what we can do in winter;" and the sycamore and beech drooped their branches, as if to call attention to their winter flowers given by that rarest of artists, Jack Frost.
The boys quickly donned their heavy buckskin clothing and moccasins, and climbed down the pole to the room where their father and mother were sleeping. Jim awakened his parents with a cry of "Christmas Gift," but Balser's attention was attracted to a barrel standing by the fireplace, which his father had brought from Brookville, and into which the boys had not been permitted to look the night before. Balser had a shrewd suspicion of what the barrel contained, and his delight knew no bounds when the found, as he had hoped, that it was filled with steel traps of the size used to catch beavers, coons, and foxes.
Since he had owned a gun, Balser's great desire had been to possess a number of traps. As I have already told you, the pelts of animals taken in winter are of great value, and our little hero longed to begin life on his own account as a hunter and trapper.
I might tell you of the joyous Christmas morning in the humble cabin when the gifts which Mr. Brent had brought from Brookville were distributed. I might tell you of the new gown for mother, of the bright, red mufflers, of the shoes for Sunday wear and the "store" caps for the boys, to be used upon holiday occasions. I might tell you of the candies and nuts, and of the rarest of all the gifts, an orange for each member of the family, for that fruit had never before been seen upon Blue River. But I must take you to the castle on Brandywine.
You may wonder how there came to be a castle in the wilderness on Brandywine, but I am sure, when you learn about it, you will declare that it was fairer than any castle ever built of mortar and stone, and that the adventures which befell our little heroes were as glorious as ever fell to the lot of spurred and belted knight.
Immediately after breakfast, when the chores had all been finished, Balser and Jim started down the river to visit Liney and Tom. Balser carried with him two Christmas presents for his friends—a steel trap for Tom, and the orange which his father had brought him from Brookville for Liney.
I might also tell you of Tom's delight when he received the trap, and of Liney's smile of pleasure, worth all the oranges in the world, when she received her present; and I might tell you how she divided the orange into pieces, and gave one to each of the family; and how, after it had all been eaten, tears came to her bright eyes when she learned that Balser had not tasted the fruit. I might tell you much more that would be interesting, and show you how good and true and gentle were these honest, simple folk, but I must drop it all and begin my story.
Balser told Tom about the traps, and a trapping expedition was quickly agreed upon between the boys.
The next day Tom went to visit Balser, and for three or four days the boys were busily engaged in making two sleds upon which to carry provisions for their campaign. The sleds when finished were each about two feet broad and six feet long. They were made of elm, and were very strong, and were so light that when loaded the boys could easily draw them over the snow. By the time the sleds were finished the snow was hard, and everything was ready for the moving of the expedition.
First, the traps were packed. Then provisions, consisting of sweet potatoes, a great lump of maple sugar, a dozen loaves of white bread, two or three gourds full of butter, a side of bacon, a bag of meal, a large piece of bear meat for the dogs, and a number of other articles and simple utensils such as the boys would need in cooking, were loaded upon the sleds. They took with them no meat other than bacon and the bear meat for the dogs, for they knew they could make traps from the boughs of trees in which they could catch quail and pheasants, and were sure to be able, in an hour's hunting, to provide enough venison to supply their wants for a much longer time than they would remain in camp. There were also wild turkeys to be killed, and fish to be caught through openings which the boys would make in the ice of the creek.
Over the loaded sleds they spread woolly bearskins to be used for beds and covering during the cold nights, and they also took with them a number of tanned deerskins, with which to carpet the floor of their castle and to close its doors and windows. Tom took with him his wonderful hatchet, an axe, and his father's rifle. Axe, hatchets, and knives had been sharpened, and bullets had been moulded in such vast numbers that one would have thought the boys were going to war. Powder horns were filled, and a can of that precious article was placed carefully upon each of the sleds.
Bright and early one morning Balser, Tom, and Jim, and last, but by no means least, Tige and Prince, crossed Blue River and started in a northwestern direction toward a point on Brandywine where a number of beaver dams were known to exist, ten miles distant from the Brent cabin.
En route for the castle
Tom and Tige drew one of the sleds, and Balser and Prince drew the other. During the first part of the trip, Jim would now and then lend a helping hand, but toward the latter end of the journey he said he thought it would be better for him to ride upon one of the sleds to keep the load from falling off. Balser and Tom, however, did not agree with him, nor did the dogs; so Jim walked behind and grumbled, and had his grumbling for his pains, as usually is the case with grumblers.
Two or three hours before sunset the boys reached Brandywine, a babbling little creek in springtime, winding its crooked rippling way through overhanging boughs of water elm, sycamore, and willows, but, at the time of our heroes' expedition, frozen over with the mail of winter. It is in small creeks, such as Brandywine, that beavers love to make their dams.
Our little caravan, upon reaching Brandywine, at once took to the ice and started upstream along its winding course.
Jim had grown tired. "I don't believe you fellows know where you're going," said he. "I don't see any place to camp."
"You'll see it pretty quickly," said Balser; and when they turned a bend in the creek they beheld a huge sycamore springing from a little valley that led down to the water's edge.
"There's our home," said Balser.
The sycamore was hollow, and at its roots was an opening for a doorway.
Upon beholding the tree Jim gave a cry of delight, and was for entering their new home at once, but Balser held him back and sent in the dogs as an exploring advance guard. Soon the dogs came out and informed the boys that everything within the tree was all right, and Balser and Tom and Jim stooped low and entered upon the possession of their castle on Brandywine.
The first task was to sweep out the dust and dry leaves. This the boys did with bundles of twigs rudely fashioned into brooms. The dry leaves and small tufts of black hair gave evidence all too strongly that the castle which the boys had captured was the home of some baron bear who had incautiously left his stronghold unguarded. Jim spoke of this fact with unpleasant emphasis, and was ready to "bet" that the bear would come back when they were all asleep, and would take possession of his castle and devour the intruders.
"What will you bet?" said Tom.
"I didn't say I would bet anything. I just said I'd bet, and you'll see I'm right," returned Jim.
Balser and Tom well knew that Jim's prophecy might easily come true, but they had faith in the watchfulness of their sentinels, Tige and Prince, and the moon being at its full, they hoped rather than feared that his bearship might return, and were confident that, in case he did, his danger would be greater than theirs.
After the castle floor had been carefully swept, the boys carried in the deerskins and spread them on the ground for a carpet. The bearskins were then taken in, and the beds were made; traps, guns, and provisions were stored away, and the sleds were drawn around to one side of the door, and placed leaning against the tree.
The boys were hungry, and Jim insisted that supper should be prepared at once; but Tom, having made several trips around the tree, remarked mysteriously that he had a plan of his own. He said there was a great deal of work to be done before sundown, and that supper could be eaten after dark when they could not work. Tom was right, for the night gave promise of bitter cold.
Limpy did not tell his plans at once, but soon they were developed.
The hollow in the tree in which the boys had made their home was almost circular in form. It was at least ten or eleven feet in diameter, and extended up into the tree twenty or thirty feet. Springing from the same root, and a part of the parent tree, grew two large sprouts or branches, which at a little distance looked like separate trees. They were, however, each connected with the larger tree, and the three formed one.
"What on earth are you pounding at that tree for?" asked Jim, while Tom was striking one of the smaller trees with the butt end of the hatchet, and listening intently as if he expected to hear a response.
Tom did not reply to Jim, but in a moment entered the main tree with axe in hand, and soon Balser and Jim heard him chopping.
The two boys at once followed Tom, to learn what their eccentric companion was doing. Tom did not respond to their questions, but after he had chopped vigorously for a few minutes the result of his work gave them an answer, for he soon cut an opening into the smaller tree, which was also hollow. Tom had discovered the hollow by striking the tree with his hatchet. In fact, Tom was a genius after his own peculiar pattern.
The newly discovered hollow proved to be three or four feet in diameter, and, like that in the larger tree, extended to a considerable height. After Tom had made the opening between the trees, he sat upon the ground, and with his hatchet hewed it to an oval shape, two feet high and two feet broad.
Jim could not imagine why Tom had taken so much trouble to add another room to their house, which was already large enough. But when Tom, having finished the opening upon the inside, went out and began to climb the smaller tree with the help of a few low-growing branches, the youngest member of the expedition became fully convinced in his own mind that the second in command was out of his head entirely. When Tom, having climbed to a height of twelve or fifteen feet, began to chop with his hatchet, Jim remarked, in most emphatic language, that he thought "a fellow who would chop at a sycamore tree just for the sake of making chips, when he might be eating his supper, was too big a fool to live."
Tom did not respond to Jim's sarcasm, but persevered in his chopping until he had made an opening at the point to which he had climbed. Balser had quickly guessed the object of Tom's mighty labors, but he did not enlighten Jim. He had gone to other work, and by the time Tom had made the opening from the outside of the smaller tree, had collected a pile of firewood, and had carried several loads of it into the castle. Then Tom came down, and Jim quickly followed him into the large tree, for by that time his mysterious movements were full of interest to the little fellow.
Now what do you suppose was Tom's object in wasting so much time and energy with his axe and hatchet?
You will at once understand that the opening which Tom had cut in the tree at the height of twelve or fifteen feet was for the purpose of making a chimney through which the smoke might escape.
The boys kindled a fire, and in a few minutes there was a cheery blaze in their fireplace that lighted up the room and made "everything look just like home," Jim said.
Then Jim went outside and gave a great hurrah of delight when he saw the smoke issuing from the chimney that ingenious Tom had made with his hatchet.
Jim watched the smoke for a few moments, and then walked around the tree to survey the premises. The result of his survey was the discovery of a hollow in the third tree of their castle, and when he informed Balser and Tom of the important fact, it was agreed that the room which Jim had found should be prepared for Tige and Prince. The dogs were not fastidious, and a sleeping-place was soon made for them entirely to their satisfaction.
The castle on the Brandywine.
Meantime the fire was blazing and crackling in the fireplace, and the boys began to prepare supper. They had not had time to kill game, so they fried a few pieces of bacon and a dozen eggs, of which they had brought a good supply, and roasted a few sweet potatoes in the ashes. Then they made an opening in the ice, from which they drew a bucketful of sparkling ice water, and when all was ready they sat down to supper, served with the rarest of all dressings, appetite sauce, and at least one of the party, Jim, was happy as a boy could be.
The dogs then received their supper of bear meat.
The members of the expedition, from the commanding officer Balser to the high privates Tige and Prince, were very tired after their hard day's work, and when Tom and Balser showed the dogs their sleeping-place, they curled up close to each other and soon were in the land of dog dreams.
By the time supper was finished night had fallen, and while Tom and Balser were engaged in stretching a deerskin across the door to exclude the cold air, Jim crept between the bearskins and soon was sound asleep, dreaming no doubt of suppers and dinners and breakfasts, and scolding in his dreams like the veritable little grumbler that he was. A great bed of embers had accumulated in the fireplace, and upon them Balser placed a hickory knot for the purpose of retaining fire till morning, and then he covered the fire with ashes.
After all was ready Balser and Tom crept in between the bearskins, and lying spoon-fashion, one on each side of Jim, lost no time in making a rapid, happy journey to the land of Nod.
Tom slept next to the wall, next to Tom lay Jim, and next to Jim was Balser. The boys were lying with their feet to the fire, and upon the opposite side of the room was the doorway closed by the deerskin, of which I have already told you.
Of course they went to bed "all standing," as sailor say went they lie down to sleep with their clothing on, for the weather was cold, and the buckskin clothing and moccasins were soft and pleasant to sleep in, and would materially assist the bearskins in keeping the boys warm.
It must have been a pretty sight in the last flickering light of the smouldering fire to see the three boys huddled closely together, covered by the bearskins. I have no doubt had you seen them upon that night they would have appeared to you like a sleeping bear. In fact, before the night was over they did appear to—but I must not go ahead of my story.
The swift-winged hours of darkness sped like moments to the sleeping boys. The smouldering coals in the fireplace were black and lustreless. The night wind softly moaned through the branches of the sycamore, and sighed as it swept the bare limbs of the willows and the rustling tops of the underbrush. Jack Frost was silently at work, and the cold, clear air seemed to glitter in the moonlight. It was an hour past midnight. Had the boys been awake and listening, or had Tige and Prince been attending to their duties as sentinels, they would have heard a crisp noise of footsteps, as the icy surface of the snow cracked, and as dead twigs broke beneath a heavy weight. Ah, could the boys but awaken! Could the dogs be aroused but for one instant from their deep lethargy of slumber!
Balser! Tom! Jim! Tige! Prince! Awaken! Awaken!
On comes the heavy footfall, cautiously. As it approaches the castle a few hurried steps are taken, and the black, awkward form lifts his head and sniffs the air for signs of danger.
The baron has returned to claim his own, and Jim's prophecy, at least in part, has come true. The tracks upon the snow left by the boys and dogs, and the sleds leaning against the tree, excite the bear's suspicion, and he stands like a statue for five minutes, trying to make up his mind whether or not he shall enter his old domain. The memory of his cozy home tempts him, and he cautiously walks to the doorway of his house. The deerskin stretched across the opening surprises him, and he carefully examines it with the aid of his chief counsellor, his nose. Then he thrusts it aside with his head and enters.
He sees the boys on the opposite side of the tree, and doubtless fancies that his mate has gotten home before him, so he complacently lies down beside the bearskins, and soon, he, too, is in the land of bear dreams.