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   Chapter 2 RIGHT OUT INTO THE WOODS.

Winter Fun By William Osborn Stoddard Characters: 19904

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Vosh Stebbins hurried away from Deacon Farnham's pretty soon after supper, but he had made no sort of mistake in staying that long. He had understood his duty to his mother precisely, and he had done it to her entire satisfaction. Almost her first words, after his return home, were,-

"Made ye stay to tea, did they? Well, I wouldn't have had ye not to stay, for any thing. Susie's fetched along her brother with her, has she? Now, jest you sit right down, and tell me; and I won't say one word till you git through, and I want to know."

"Miss Farnham wants a dozen of eggs."

"You don't say! Well, you jest take 'em right over, but don't you wait a minute. They won't want ye 'round the first evening. Tell her our poultry's doin' first-rate, and I don't see why she doesn't ever have any kind of luck with winter layin'. She doesn't manage right, somehow. Tell her it's all in feedin' of 'em. No kind of hens'll do well onless they git somethin' to eat."

Vosh was counting his eggs into a basket, thirteen to the dozen; and he was out of the door with them before his mother had said half she wished to say about the best method for making hens prosper in cold weather. He obeyed his orders excellently, however, and came back at once to make his report to his mother as to the results of his first visit; that is, he returned to sit still, and put in a few words here and there, while she told him all he had done and said, and a good deal more than he had said or done, at Deacon Farnham's tea-table.

It looked at last as if Mrs. Stebbins could almost have gone right on with an account of what was yet doing and saying around the great fire in the sitting-room. Vosh loved his mother dearly; but he was all the while thinking of that other fireplace, and wishing he were there-not in it, of course, but sitting in front of it.

There was indeed a great deal of merry talk going on there, but Mrs. Farnham was a considerate woman. She insisted upon it that her niece and nephew must be tired with their long journey, and that they should go to bed in good season. It was of little use for them to assert the contrary, and Susie knew more about country hours than her brother did. The sitting-room had to be given up, fire and all, in favor of sleep.

The last words Porter Hudson heard anybody say that night came from the lips of Penelope:-

"You needn't wait for me to ring the second bell in the morning. You'd a good deal better come right down into the sitting-room, where it's warm."

It had taken three generations of hard-working and well-to-do Farnhams to build all there was of that great, queer, rambling, comfortable old farmhouse. Each owner had added something on one side or the other, or in the rear; so that there was now room enough in it for the largest kind of a family. Porter Hudson now had a good-sized chamber all to himself; but he remarked of it, shortly after he got in,-

"No furnace heaters in this house; of course not: they don't have such things in the country."

No: nor was there any gas, nor hot and cold water; and the furniture was only just as much as was really needed. He had never before slept in a feather-bed; but he was not at all sorry to burrow into one that night, out of the pitilessly frosty air of that chamber.

"How a fellow does go down!" he said to himself; "and it fits all around him. I'll be warm in a minute." And so he was, and with the warmth came the soundest kind of slumber. The Farnhams had kept any number of geese, year after year, in earlier days, and all their feather-beds were uncommonly deep and liberal.

Susie had Pen for a chum, and that was a good reason why neither of them fell asleep right away. It is always a wonder how much talking there is to be done. It is a good thing, too, that so many enterprising people, old and young, are always ready to take up the task of talking it, even if they have to lie awake for a while.

Silence came at last, creeping from room to room; and there is hardly anywhere else such perfect silence to be obtained as can be had in and about a farmhouse away up country, in the dead of winter and the dead of night. It is so still that you can almost hear the starlight crackle on the snow, if there is no wind blowing.

Winter mornings do not anywhere get up as early as men and women are compelled to, but it is more completely so on a farm than in the city. The chamber Porter Hudson slept in was as dark as a pocket when he heard the clang of Penelope's first bell that next morning after his arrival. He sprang out of bed at once, and found his candle, and lighted it to dress by. One glance through the frosty windows told him how little was to be seen at that time of the year and of the day.

In another instant all his thoughts went down stairs ahead of him, and centred themselves upon the great fireplace in the sitting-room. He dressed himself with remarkable quickness, and followed them. He thought that he had never in his life seen a finer-looking fire, the moment he was able to spread his hands in front of it.

Mrs. Farnham was there too, setting the breakfast-table, and smiling on him; and Porter's next idea was, that his aunt was the rosiest, pleasantest, and most comfortable of women.

"It would take a good deal of cold weather to freeze her," he said to himself; and he was right.

He could hear aunt Judith out in the kitchen, complaining to Susie and Pen that every thing in the milk-room had frozen. When Corry and his father came in from feeding the stock, however, they both declared that it was a "splendid, frosty, nipping kind of a morning." They looked as if it might be, and Porter hitched his chair a little nearer the fire; but Corry added,-

"Now, Port, we're in for some fun."

"All right. What is it?"

"We're going to the woods after breakfast. You and I'll take our guns with us, and see if we can't knock over some rabbits."

"Shoot some rabbits!"

"I'll take father's gun, and you can take mine."

Just then Pen's voice sounded from the kitchen excitedly,-

"Do you hear that, Susie? They're going to the woods. Let's go!"

"Oh! if they'll let us."

"Course they will."

"Pen! Penelope Farnham! Look out for those cakes."

"I'm turning 'em, aunt Judith. I'm doing 'em splendidly.-Susie, some of your sausages are a'most done. Let me take 'em out for you."

"No, Pen: I want to cook them all myself. You 'tend to your cakes."

Buckwheat-cakes and home-made sausages,-what a breakfast that was for a frosty morning!

Susie Hudson was puzzled to say which she enjoyed most,-the cooking or the eating; and she certainly did her share of both very well for a young lady of sixteen from the great city.

"Port, can you shoot?" asked Corry a little suddenly at table.

"Shoot! I should say so. Do you ever get any thing bigger than rabbits out here?"

"Didn't you know? Why, right back from where we're going this morning are the mountains. Not a farm till you get away out into the St. Lawrence-river country."

"Yes, I know all that."

"Sometimes the deer come right down, specially in winter. Last winter there was a bear came down and stole one of our hogs, but we got him."

"Got the hog back? Wasn't he hurt?"

"Hurt! Guess he was. The bear killed him. But we followed the bear, and we got him,-Vosh Stebbins and father and me."

Porter tried hard to look as if he were quite accustomed to following and killing all the bears that meddled with his hogs; but Pen exclaimed,-

"Now, Susie, you needn't be scared a bit. There won't be a single bear-not where you're going."

"Won't there?" said Susie almost regretfully. "How I'd like to see one!"

There was a great deal more to be said about bears and other wild creatures; and, just as breakfast was over, there came a great noise of rattling and creaking and shouting in front of the sitting-room windows.

"There he is!" said Corry.

Susie and her brother hurried to look; and there was Vosh Stebbins with Deacon Farnham's great wood-sleigh, drawn by two pairs of strong, long-horned, placid-looking oxen.

"Couldn't one pair draw it?" asked Porter of Corry.

"Guess they could, but two's easier; and, besides, they've nothing else to do. We'll heap it up too. You just wait and see."

There was not long to wait, for the excitement rose fast in the sitting-room, and Susie and Pen were in that sleigh a little in advance of everybody else. Its driver stood by the heads of his first yoke of oxen, and Susie at once exclaimed,-

"Good-morning, Vosh. What a tremendous whip!"

"Why, Susie," said Pen, "that isn't a whip, it's an ox-gad."

"That's it, Pen," said Vosh; but he seemed disposed to talk to his oxen rather than to anybody else. The yoke next the sleigh stood on either side of a long, heavy "tongue;" but the foremost pair were fastened to the end of that by a chain which passed between them to a hook in their yoke. These latter two animals, as Vosh explained to Susie, "were only about half educated, and they took more than their share of driving."

He began to do it for them now, and it was half a wonder to see how accurately the huge beasts kept the right track down through the gate and out into the road. It seemed easier then, for all they had to do was to go straight ahead.

"Let me take the whip, do, please," said Susie; and Vosh only remarked, as he handed it to her,-

"Guess you'll find it heavy."

She lifted it with both hands; and he smiled all over his broad, ruddy face, as she made a desperate effort to swing the lash over the oxen.

"Go 'long now! Git ap! Cluck-cluck."

She chirruped to those oxen with all her might, while Vosh put his handkerchief over his mouth, and had a violent fit of coughing.

"You'll do!" shouted her uncle from behind the sleigh. "That's first-rate. I'll hire you to team it for me all the rest of the winter.-Boys, you'd better put down your guns. Lay t

hem flat, and don't step on 'em."

Porter Hudson had stuck to his gun manfully from the moment it was handed him. He had carried it over his shoulder, slanting it a little across towards the other shoulder. He had seen whole regiments of city soldiers do that, and so he knew it was the correct way to carry a gun. He was now quite willing, however, to imitate Corry, and put his weapon down flat on the bottom of the sleigh. The gun would be safe there; and, besides, he had been watching Vosh Stebbins, and listening, and he had an idea it was time he should show what he knew about oxen. They were plodding along very well, and Susie was letting them alone at the moment.

"Susie," he said, "give me that gad."

Vosh looked somewhat doubtful as she surrendered the whip. They were going up a little ascent, and right beyond them the fences on either side of the road seemed to stop. Beyond that, all was forest, and the road had a crooked look as it went in among the trees.

Porter had stronger arms than his sister, and he could do more with an ox-gad. The first swing he gave the long hickory stock, the heavy, far-reaching lash at the end of it came around with a "swish," and knocked the coon-skin cap from the head of Vosh. Then the whip came down-stock, lash, and all-along the broad backs of the oxen.

"Gee! Haw! G'lang! Get up! G'lang now! Haw! Gee!"

Porter felt that his reputation was at stake. He raised the gad again, and he shouted vigorously. The tongue-yoke of oxen right under his nose did not seem to mind it much, and plodded right along as if they had not heard any one say a word to them; but their younger and more skittish helpers in front shook their heads a little uneasily.

"Gee! Haw! G'lang!"

Porter was quite proud of the way the lash came down that time, and the cracker of it caught the near ox of the forward team smartly on the left ear. It was a complete success, undoubtedly; but, to Porter's astonishment, that bewildered yoke of steers forward whirled suddenly to the right. The next moment they were floundering in a snow-drift, as if they were trying to turn around and look at him.

Perhaps they were; but Vosh at that moment snatched the gad from Porter, and sprang out of the sleigh, saying something, as he went, about "not wanting to have the gals upset." Corry was dancing a sort of double shuffle, and shouting,-

"That's it! First time I ever saw an ox-team gee and haw together. Hurrah for you, Port!"

"Pen," said Susie, "what does he mean?"

"Mean? Don't you know? Why, it's 'gee' to turn 'em this way, and it's 'haw' to turn 'em that way. They can't turn both ways at once."

That double team had set out to do it quite obediently, but Vosh got matters straightened very quickly. Then he stuck to his whip and did his own driving, until the sleigh was pulled out of the road, half a mile farther, into a sort of open space in the forest. There was not much depth of snow on the ground, and there were stumps of trees sticking up through it in all directions. Vosh drove right on until he halted his team by a great pile of logs that were already cut for hauling.

"Are they not too big for the fireplace?" asked Susie of Pen.

"Of course they are," said Pen; but Corry added,-

"We can cut up all we want for the stoves after we get 'em to the house. The big ones'll cut in two for back-logs."

He had been telling Porter, all the way, about the fun there was in felling big trees, and that young gentleman had frankly proposed to cut down a few before they set out after any rabbits or bears.

"Just see father swing that axe!" said Pen proudly, as the stalwart old farmer walked up to a tall hickory, and began to make the chips fly.

"It's splendid!" said Susie.

Vosh Stebbins had his axe out of the sleigh now, and seemed determined to show what he could do.

It looked like the easiest thing in the world. He and the deacon merely swung their axes up, and let them go down exactly in the right place; and the glittering edges went in, in, with a hollow thud, and at every other cut a great chip would spring away across the snow.

"It doesn't take either of them a great while to bring a tree down," said Corry. "You fetch along that other axe, and we'll try one. They've all got to come down: so it doesn't make any difference what we cut into."

The girls were contented to stay in the sleigh and look on, and the oxen stood as still as if they intended never to move again.

"Susie!" exclaimed Pen, "here comes Ponto. Nobody knew where he was when we started."

There he was now, however,-the great shaggy, long-legged house-dog,-coming up the road with a succession of short, sharp barks, as if he were protesting against being left out of such a picnic-party as that.

"Pen! he's coming right into the sleigh."

"No, he ain't. You'll see. He'll go after Corry. He's only smelling to see if the guns are here. He knows what they mean."

"Will he hunt?"

"I guess he will. When father or Corry or Vosh won't go, he goes off and hunts by himself, only he doesn't bring home any game."

He seemed just now to be stirred to a sort of frenzy of delighted barking by what his nose told him, but at the end of it he sat down on the snow near the sleigh. No dog of good common sense would follow a boy with an axe away from the place where the guns were.

Meantime, Corry had picked out a maple-tree of medium size, and had cut a few chips from it. It was easy to see that he knew how to handle an axe, if he could not bury one as deeply in the wood of a tree as could his father or Vosh. He also knew enough too, somehow, to get well out of the way when he handed the axe to Porter Hudson, remarking,-

"Now, Port, cut it right down. Maybe it's a bee-tree."

"Bee-tree! Are there any in winter? Do you ever find any?"

"Well, not all the while; but there are bee-trees, and the bees must be in 'em, just the same, in any kind of weather."

That was so, no doubt; but if there had been a dozen hives of bees hidden away in the solid wood of that vigorous maple-tree, they would have been safe there until spring, for all the chopping of Porter Hudson. He managed to make the edge of the axe hit squarely the first time it struck, but it did not more than go through the bark. No scratch like that would get a chip ready. Porter colored with vexation; and he gave his next cut a little hastily, but he gave it with all his might. The edge of the axe hit several inches from the first scratch, and it seemed to take a quick twist on its own account just as it struck. It glanced from the tree, and away it went into the snow, jerking its handle rudely out of Porter's hands.

"I declare!"

"I say, Port, don't let's cut down any more trees. Let's get our guns, and go down into the swamp for some rabbits. There's Ponto. He'll stir 'em up for us."

Porter was fishing for his axe with a pretty red face, and he replied,-

"I guess we'd better. I'm not much used to chopping."

"Of course not."

"We burn coal in the city."

"No chopping to do. I know how it is. Got your axe? Come on."

All that was very polite; but Corry had less trouble now, in keeping up a feeling of equality with his city cousin. They were nearly of an age; but a city boy of fourteen has seen a great many things that one of the same years, brought up among the northern lakes and mountains, knows nothing about, and Corry had been a little in awe of Porter.

They had tucked their trousers into their boots when they left the house; and now they got their guns out of the sleigh, slung their powder-flasks and shot-pouches over their shoulders, and marched away through the woods.

The two girls looked after them as if they also were hungry for a rabbit-hunt. As for Ponto, that very shaggy and snowy dog was plainly intending to run between every two trees, and through each and every clump of bushes, as if in a desperate state of dread lest he might miss the tracks of some game or other. Sniff, sniff, sniff, everywhere! and twice he actually began to paw the snow before he and his two sportsmen were out of sight from the sleigh.

"Boys can have more fun in the woods than girls," began Susie half regretfully.

"No, they can't, Susie. Just you watch that tree. It'll come down pretty quickly. It'll make the splendidest kind of a crash."

It was good fun to watch that chopping, and see the chips fly. Susie found herself becoming more and more deeply interested, as the wide notches sank farther and farther into the massive trunks of the two trees her uncle and Vosh Stebbins were working on. Vosh chopped for dear life; but, in spite of all he could do, the deacon had his tree down first. It was a tall, noble-looking tree. There were no branches near the ground, but there was a fine broad crown of them away up there where the sun could get at them in summer. It seemed almost a pity to destroy a forest-king like that, but at last it began to totter and lean.

"O Pen! it's coming."

"Don't shut your eyes, Susie: keep 'em open, and see it come."

Susie did try; but when that tall, majestic trunk seemed to throw out its great arms, and give the matter up, she could not look any longer, and she put her head down. Then she heard a tremendous dull, crashing sound, and her eyes came open to see a cloud of light snow rising from the spot on which the forest-king had fallen.

"Isn't it splendid!"

"Yes, Pen, it's wonderful."

"Vosh's tree is almost ready. There! it's going to go."

Vosh had not been as careful as Deacon Farnham in aiming the fall of his tree, for it went down into the arms of a smaller one, crashing and breaking through them; and the sharp, snapping sound of the crushed branches went far and wide through the silence of the snowy forest.

Pen said nothing, and Susie was conscious of a sort of still feeling, as if she had no further remarks to make just then.

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