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, nor 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.