The Young Timber-cruisers; or, Fighting the Spruce Pirates/Chapter 5

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In the morning the boys had an opportunity to examine the wangan. It was an old story to Bub, yet he took a delight in pointing out things to Stanley.

“The stock is low now ’cause it’s coming on summer. Next fall all these shelves will be filled. For the next month a few crews will cut and peel poplar. Has to be cut and peeled in June, you know; but we don’t go in very strong for it,” explained Bub.

The outfit consisted of an eighteen foot canoe, weighing about seventy-five pounds and four big calf-skin knapsacks. The latter were capable of holding some three bushels, but Abner divided up the supplies so that he and Charlie carried seventy-five pounds each while Stanley and Bub were required to carry about fifty each. As the canoe was to be used whenever possible and as the frequency of the streams, ponds and lakes permitted of navigation for a large part of the way the packs were only carried when falls and other obstructions necessitated leaving the water, or when trips inland were made.

The supplies, Stanley noticed, were limited to salt pork, potatoes, bacon and flour, salt and coffee and a generous supply of tobacco.

“Our bill of fare will get a bit monotonous,” whispered Stanley as he took his place in the middle of the canoe.

“You’ll find it tastes mighty good, and when we add a trout or a partridge you’ll say it’s the best you ever ate,” declared Bub. “Trust Abner to keep in supplies.”

“Where will We camp?” inquired Stanley, hungry for information and beginning to feel that he was a veteran woodsman.

“Where’d ye advise?” drawled Abner, who overheard the query.

Not to be caught Stanley took his time in surveying the rugged landscape. The black growth, or cedar and tamarack in the lowlands extending up to the spruce and fir, was interspersed at intervals by hardwood ridges. Near the banks of the stream patches of ghostly birch grew tall and slim.

“Well,” he finally decided, “I’d go up between those two hills and camp on some high, dry spot.”

Charlie made a sound in his throat and dug viciously with his paddle, while Abner in a voice trembling with impatience, asked “Why?”

“For two things,” replied Stanley, now confident he was answering correctly. “I’d camp where I could get a fine view of the mountains to the west and northwest and where I wouldn’t get cold from sleeping near the water.”

“By jing! if we was nearer the mills I’d go back and jump on that there saw and tell ’em to keep ye chained,” exploded Abner.

“Good!” endorsed Charlie.

“Why! what have I said now?” cried Stanley.

“What are we out here for?” rebuked Abner, resting his paddle. “Are we here for views, or timber? Why do we foller the streams? It’s because the timber has got to come down the streams. I’m surprised at ye. It don’t seem as if ye’d live long enough to yard so much ignorance.”

“Good talk,” muttered Charlie.

“We camp on streams ’cause the timber must come to the streams,” added Abner. “Try and remember that. It ain’t no good to find spruce if ye can’t git it out.”

“Then I’d camp under those birches on the bank and have them cut and shipped down to the lake the first thing,” Stanley sought to mollify.

Charlie’s moosehide moccasin beat an angry tattoo.

“Keep it up and you’ll go overboard,” groaned Bub, under his breath.

“Is it possible!” murmured Abner, appealing to the back of Charlie’s head. “To think of Abner Whitten taking a younker out in the woods who don’t even know that birch can’t be floated down stream. Why in sin do ye s’pose them birch has been left?” he continued, now raising his voice. Then before Stanley could attempt to reply he ran on, “It’s because they ain’t near a railroad and because they can’t go in the drive. Ye can tow ’em across a lake, but ye can’t drive ’em. They’re too heavy.”

“I see,” mumbled Stanley, hanging his head.

“Don’t see,” corrected Charlie, shaking his head sorrowfully.

“Ye right, Charlie; he don’t see nothing,” cried Abner, to whom the youth’s lack of knowledge seemed incredible.

“He saw a saw,” meekly reminded Bub.

Abner half opened his month, then swallowed convulsively. “I beg yer pardon, young man. There’s a first time to everything. Mebbe ye’ll larn a few things after a while.”

“Why don’t you tell him that maple and beech won’t go in a drive any more’n birch will?” indignantly demanded Bub. “You’re the worst man to pick on a feller that I ever see.”

“I’ll tan your jacket some day,” mildly promised Abner, lighting his pipe. Then kindly, “What Bub says is correct, of course; only I s’posed everyone knew it. Very little maple and beech are cut up here and it’s only a doller’n half stumpage.”

“I don’t know what that means,” desperately confessed Stanley.

“It means ye can go in and out all you want and pay only a doller'n half a cord. Stumpage means the value of the timber as it grows,” patiently explained Abner.

“Boy learn when old man,” grunted Charlie. “Carry ’round falls.”

Thus far the four had been paddling through dead water, but now the guide’s keen ears caught the sound of falling water, although it was some time before the voyagers came to the obstruction. It was Stanley’s first experience in making a “carry” and he dimly realized that life in the woods might under certain conditions have its physical drawbacks. Not only the packs and rifles had to be toted for a considerable distance, but the canoe also, of course. Above the falls Abner and Charlie put aside the paddle and poled up the swift water.

Then came more “carries,” around rapids, called “rips” by Bub, around big trees that had fallen out into the stream.

It was when about to enter Kennebago lake that Stanley received a second lesson in wood life. The canoe was floating idly near a broad expanse of bog when there sounded a cry that was suggestive of the cackling of a hen. In the domestic environment of the farmyard Stanley would have paid no heed, but out here, with no signs of human habitations to break the monotony of woods and water, the noise caused him to start nervously.

The others in the canoe lifted their heads quickly on having heard it, Bub being unusually grave of face. Stanley, with Abner’s sarcasm fresh in mind, did not venture to seek information. He thought Charlie quickened his stroke and from this decided there must be a danger signal in the harsh note. From the tail of his eye he observed that Abner was gazing apprehensively towards the bog, and he wished that he might be given a paddle and be allowed to aid in some degree in making from the shore. He also wished that Charlie would turn out into the open lake and not hold a parallel course. But he said nothing. If danger confronted them he would prove he could meet it in a manly fashion.

Then the paddles were held motionless and the two men and Bub seemed to be listening intently. The strain was beginning to tell on Stanley when the cackle exploded right at his side, and with a half smothered cry he started to his feet.

“Sit down! Squat!” thundered Abner, as the canoe tipped to a dangerous angle.

“What—what was it?” whispered Stanley, staring at the water and discovering nothing.

“Mebbe bear,” said Charlie.

“Keep still,” commanded Abner, as the sound again rose from the side of the canoe and Stanley was about to capsize the craft.

The sight of Bub, trailing his paddle, overcome by laughter assured Stanley there could be no danger and he grinned sheepishly.

“O my son!” feebly exclaimed Bub, “we knew you’d do it. The minute I heard it I knew you’d git anxious if we kept quiet and sort of sober. What a treat you’re going to be to me.”

“I’m through being nervous,” muttered Stanley. “If a panther leaps into the canoe I won’t stir a peg.”

“Wal, ye come near dumping us just ’cause of a water bird,” chuckled Abner. “If anyone but Charlie was forward we’d been in the lake. That’s one reason I made ye lash everything tight this morning. If we didn’t git dumped in swift water I figgered on your doing it in still.”

“But where is it? I heard it at my elbow?” puzzled Stanley, now intent only on satisfying his curiosity.

Bub caught his arm and pointed to a speck on the water. “There it is,” he informed. “It’s a water bird, called the pied billed grebe. It swims under water with just its nostrils out. I used to take city fellers out just to see them fidget. Always strike ’em near bogs. If a city chap is alone he’ll think he’s haunted and will hike into camp pale as a ghost.”

On making camp that night Stanley went with Bub without knowing the programme. Under Bub’s direction he cut a quantity of long poles and carried them to where a giant boulder presented a perpendicular face.

“Just the rock I wanted,” cried Bub.

“Why?” vacantly inquired Stanley.

“Watch and learn, my son,” advised Bub. He then placed a long pole between the crotches of two convenient saplings at a distance of about three feet from the face of the rock. “This is the front of the leanto,” he explained, rapidly laying the poles from this support to the ground.

“But you can’t see anything,” protested Stanley, deciding the structure to be very impractical.

“I’m building this to sleep in,” reminded Bub. “There you are; ten feet from opening to the back, ten feet wide and eight feet high. Now when we build a fire against the rock the heat will be reflected onto us as we sleep, and we’ll be snug as bears in a holler tree. Now cut some more poles as the ground is rough and Abner always wants it poled up even, with the slant towards the fire. While you’re doing that I’ll fix the roof.”

Catching the idea Stanley soon secured a second bundle of poles and without being instructed skillfully arranged them in the leanto.

“Good work,” applauded Bub. “You can do things all right once you’ve been shown. Now watch me lay these spruce boughs, tips down. It’s wonderful how few boughs will make a leanto waterproof. Pine boughs are even better. And there we have a right angle triangle of a house, with the roof as the hypothenuse.”

“But it’s warm enough to sleep out of doors,” said Stanley.

“You’ve been hustling,” smiled Bub. “Wait till the sun goes down. The nights are cold up here and you’ll like your blankets. Charlie will do the squaw work and keep the fire going through the night, but you and I will git the wood. He’ll want the sticks six or eight feet long. Then we’ll have to git some boughs for the floor.”

Charlie and Abner now appeared, the former carrying two partridge, while Abner had a string of trout.

“I thought it was against the law to kill birds,” innocently observed Stanley. “And, say, I didn’t hear any gun.”

“Bird try to bite; I kill um,” gravely informed Charlie.

Abner smiled dryly and said, “We’ll have the trout to-night and the birds to-morrow for breakfast.” Saying this he quickly cut the fish down the back, cleaned them and arranged them in a common bread toaster. Slices of salt pork were also added.

Stanley was keenly interested in observing how Charlie prepared the birds. Cleaning them with incredible quickness he brought from the shore a mass of clay and without removing the feathers placed the clay about the birds until each was a huge moist ball. Before so enveloping them he filled them with a dressing made of bread and onions, several of the latter being brought for this purpose.

“Who do you expect to eat that mess?” asked Stanley, turning up his nose in disgust.

“I will if I git to it first,” assured Bub.

“Bah! it’s all clay. I’m not a clay eater.”

“No one will make ye eat it,” said Abner. “I’ll eat yer share.”

After the evening meal the two men smoked in silence for a short time and then knocking out their pipes into the carefully arranged fire they proceeded to turn in between the blankets, lying with their feet to the blaze.

“It’s too early for bed,” whispered Stanley.

“You’ll git use to going to bed early up here,” explained Bub. “It’s impossible to sleep after sun-up. Minute it begins to git light seems if you must be up and hustling.”

It was Stanley’s first night in a leanto. The wangan had furnished a roof; now he was in the open and was about to learn his first experience in night sounds.

Charlie and Abner were breathing heavily when close at hand rang out a murderous shriek. Appalling in its menace to ignorant ears it was small wonder that Stanley gave a frightened gasp and flopped over between Abner and Bub.

“Git off of me,” groaned Abner. “What’s the matter with ye?”

“Didn’t you hear it?” asked Stanley, his heart thumping loudly.

“Great horned owl,” sleepily informed Bub. “Shut up.” Bub might have added that it was perhaps the wildest cry in nature in this region where the flora and fauna of the south meet the Hudsonian and Canadian animate and inanimate life, and resulting in a wonderful variety. But Bub was too sleepy and Stanley crept back to his place on the outside, still nervous from the shock.

Then it seemed as if the entire night was filled with blood-curdling threats. To the nerve tingling cry of the owl were added the blood chilling scream of the Canadian lynx, called the lucerfee, the explosive “qua!” of the “qua bird,” or black crowned night heron, and the hideous voice of the old squaw duck, sometimes styled the “soap-bubble” bird from its rapidly repeated “a-wa-wa-wa-wa.” Each of these unfamiliar voices contained a horrible threat to the untutored youth, and only by a great effort did he keep from crying aloud. Overhead a Wilson snipe was giving its weird wing sound of “hoo-hoo-hoo” in a whistling note.

“There is something about to attack us,” he finally cried out, unable to control himself as a heavy step sounded near his head.

“Consarn it! can’t ye keep quiet?” angrily cried Abner. “Think I’m going to set up nights with ye?”

“But I tell you, some big creature is just outside,” insisted Stanley.

“Porcupine,” quietly explained Charlie.

“Yas, it’s a porcupine,” growled Abner. “It walks heavy and sounds like a bear, but it ain’t. Now go to sleep.”

“Hark,” was Stanley’s reply. “Can’t you hear it? Two men talking in the woods.” As he paused there came a muffled note, indeed resembling the voices of two men conversing in low tones.

“That’s a coon,” impatiently informed Abner.

“Please quit, Stan,” begged Bub. “I want to go to sleep.”

“Yas, git to sleep,” commanded Abner. “And when ye hear a sound of some one scolding under their breath don’t rouse me up by jumping onto my chest. For it won’t be nothing but a skunk. And if ye hear a pumping sound, don’t grab for a rifle, for it’ll be the ‘stakedriver,’ or bittern. If ye hear a o—hoo it’s a black bear, but he won’t bother us. And I guess that’s about all ye’ll be afraid of to-night. Now, keep shut.”

“I’m going out and down to the water,” said Stanley, quietly.

“Why?” gasped Abner, sitting up.

“Because I’m afraid,” confessed Stanley.

“Him good boy,” remarked Charlie as before he could be prevented, Stanley disappeared in the darkness.

“Blame it all!” growled Abner. “Whoever see such a feller? S’pose one of us must go fetch him back. He’ll either go insane, or git lost.”

“Wait. I git him by’mby,” said Charlie.

In the meantime Stanley cautiously felt his way down to the water’s edge, palpitating in every nerve. He was trying to punish himself for entertaining any sensation of fear; and the sweat stood thick on his forehead as he advanced. Abner said it was a coon; his nerves told him it was two men talking in stealthy voices, probably talking, about him. He dropped to the ground as the great horned owl sounded its terrible cry above his head.

But as he steeled his courage and doggedly advanced he became conscious of a new note, a note of sweetness and love. It was the night flight song of the woodcock, only he gave credit to three birds for the music. First came the beautiful twitter as the bird rose in huge spirals into the evening sky; then in descending flowed the pure strains of a canary, quickly followed by a slightly nasal, clarionet-like “b-z-z.”

He forgot the possible o-hoo of the bear and the hoot-owl’s similar call. The barking of a fox passed unnoted and the trilling, booming chorus near at hand was unheard; for now the beautiful night sounds were flooding him with a wonderful melody and the harsher notes were as if they never had been. Out somewhere in the darkness the O1d Ben Peabody bird, or white-throated sparrow, was vying with the Phoebe bird, and waves of music rippled across the lake and smothered the bog in harmony.

But the sweetest of all was the good-night song of the hermit thrush. It came in a lull, as if in the evening’s programme a place of honor had been reserved for this incomparable songster. Stanley’s eyes filled with tears as the sad, sweet notes were poured forth. It seemed as if the singer were telling about other days, when all was pure and true, and a shadow of homesickness fell upon the youth as he sought to interpret the song.

With bowed head he stumbled along the bank and without any particular purpose groped his way back to the lean-to.

Charlie was re-arranging the fire, seemingly; in reality about to set forth in quest of the wanderer.

“Git nerve back?” asked Charlie, gently.

“I heard the most beautiful song,” cried Stanley. “It will ring in my ears at night-fall, so long as I live, I hope.”

“See bear? See panther?” gravely inquired the guide.

“No; I saw nothing. I was so absorbed with my music that I nearly broke my neck tripping over the canoe. When I fell my hand fortunately struck the paddle and I saved myself.”

Noisy Charlie straightened with the lithe ease and quickness of a panther and picked up his rifle. Abner, too, seemed electrified and rose quickly if awkwardly and reached for his firearm. To Stanley’s further surprise Bub rolled over and seized his weapon.

“What’s the matter?” whispered Stanley.

“Don’t you see; you found a canoe with paddles. It’s someone snooping ’round to do us dirt. If it was a friend he’d come up to the fire and take pot luck,” rapidly explained Bub, examining his rifle.

“Why! it was our canoe, I supposed,” muttered Stanley.

Bub, despite his excitement, found time to smile whimsically. “We brought our paddles up here. You lugged ’em,” he reminded.

“All stay here. I go,” harshly commanded Charlie.

“The Injun has the best head for this sort of thing,” murmured Abner, lying flat and pushing his rifle ahead of him.

Stanley rubbed his eyes in fresh wonder; Noisy Charlie had vanished. One moment he was one of the group; the next he was gone. And no sound betrayed the course of his going.

Then with staccato sharpness and abruptness came the report of a rifle, followed by several more.

“By jing! they’ve jumped him!” cried Abner, rising to his feet.

“Let us run to the rescue,” said Stanley, his teeth chattering even as he was willing to advance.

“Ye two keep quiet and stay here. If they nailed him Charlie don’t need any help. If they missed him he’ll take care of hisself.”

“They missed him,” murmured Bub. “Someone fired at him and he returned the compliment.”

As he finished Charlie stood with them again, coming as silently as he had gone.

“Big Nick,” he quietly informed. “Come to kill canoe, stop trip. I fool him. He shoot. I shoot. He gone.”

“Was he alone?” queried Abner anxiously.

“Alone here. Friends near,” replied Charlie. “Big canoe. Friends bring him most here. Come rest alone. Go now to find friends. Bad place to have boys. Go to sleep now.” And calmly returning to his blanket he quickly fell asleep. Abner followed his example, but Bub and Stanley remained awake for more than an hour, conversing in quivering whispers.

“There’s going to be trouble,” declared Stanley for the twentieth time.

“Charlie ain’t talked as much in years as he has to-night,” said Bub. “My son, you wanted things exciting. I’m sorry to say you’re going to have your wish.”