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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter17)

2006-09-08 19:33

  CHAPTER XVII Canoeing on the Upper Hudson

  There is only one kind of a man I can't size up; that's the faller that shets up and says nothing. -Sayings of Si Sylvanne.

  A settler named Hulett had a scow that was borrowed by the neighbours whenever needed to take a team across the lake. On the morning of their journey, the Dutchman's team and wagon, the canoe and the men, were aboard the scow, Skookum took his proper place at the prow, and all was ready for "Goodbye." Rolf found it a hard word to say. The good old Dutch mother had won his heart, and the children were like his brothers and sisters.

  "Coom again, lad; coom and see us kvick." She kissed him, he kissed Annette and the three later issues. They boarded the scow to ply the poles till the deep water was reached, then the oars. An east wind springing up gave them a chance to profit by a wagon-cover rigged as a sail, and two hours later the scow was safely landed at West Side, where was a country store, and the head of the wagon road to the Schroon River.

  As they approached the door, they saw a rough-looking man slouching against the building, his hands in his pockets, his blear eyes taking in the new-comers with a look of contemptuous hostility. As they passed, he spat tobacco juice on the dog and across the feet of the men.

  Old Warren who kept the store was not partial to Indians, but he was a good friend of Hendrik and very keen to trade for fur, so the new trappers were well received; and now came the settling of accounts. Flour, oatmeal, pork, potatoes, tea, tobacco, sugar, salt, powder, ball, shot, clothes, lines, an inch-auger, nails, knives, awls, needles, files, another axe, some tin plates, and a frying pan were selected and added to Hendrik's account.

  "If I was you, I'd take a windy-sash; you'll find it mighty convenient in cold weather." The store keeper led them into an outhouse where was a pile of six-lighted window-frames all complete. So the awkward thing was added to their load.

  "Can't I sell you a fine rifle?" and he took down a new, elegant small bore of the latest pattern. "Only twenty- five dollars." Rolf shook his head; "part down, and I'll take the rest in fur next spring." Rolf was sorely tempted; however, he had an early instilled horror of debt. He steadfastly said: "No." But many times he regretted it afterward! The small balance remaining was settled in cash.

  As they were arranging and selecting, they heard a most hideous yelping outdoors, and a minnute later Skookum limped in, crying as if half-killed. Quonab was out in a moment.

  "Did you kick my dog?"

  The brutal loafer changed countenance as he caught the red man's eye. "Naw! never touched him; hurted himself on that rake."

  It was obviously a lie, but better to let it pass, and Quonab came in again.

  Then the rough stranger appeared at the door and growled: "Say, Warren! ain't you going to let me have that rifle? I guess my word's as good as the next man's."

  "No," said Warren; "I told you, no!"

  "Then you can go to blazes, and you'll never see a cent's worth of fur from the stuff I got last year."

  "I don't expect to," was the reply; "I've learned what your word's worth." And the stranger slouched away.

  "Who vas he?" asked Hendrik.

  "I only know that his name is Jack Hoag; he's a little bit of a trapper and a big bit of a bum; stuck me last year. He doesn't come out this way; they say he goes out by the west side of the mountains."

  New light on their course was secured from Warren, and above all, the important information that the mouth of Jesup's River was marked by an eagle's nest in a dead pine. "Up to that point keep the main stream, and don't forget next spring I'm buying fur."

  The drive across Five-mile portage was slow. It took over two hours to cover it, but late that day they reached the Schroon.

  Here the Dutchman said "Good-bye: Coom again some noder time." Skookum saluted the farmer with a final growl, then Rolf and Quonab were left alone in the wilderness.

  It was after sundown, so they set about camping for the night. A wise camper always prepares bed and shelter in daylight, if possible. While Rolf made a fire and hung the kettle, Quonab selected a level, dry place between two trees, and covered it with spruce boughs to make the beds, and last a low tent was made by putting the lodge cover over a pole between the trees. The ends of the covers were held down by loose green logs quickly cut for the purpose, and now they were safe against weather.

  Tea, potatoes, and fried pork, with maple syrup and hard-tack, made their meal of the time, after which there was a long smoke. Quonab took a stick of red willow, picked up-in the daytime, and began shaving it toward one end, leaving the curling shreds still on the stick. When these were bunched in a fuzzy mop, he held them over the fire until they were roasted brown; then, grinding all up in his palm with some tobacco, and filling his pipe he soon was enveloped in that odour of woodsy smoke called the "Indian smell," by many who do not know whence or how it comes. Rolf did not smoke. He had promised his mother that he would not until he was a man, and something brought her back home now with overwhehning force; that was the beds they had made of fragrant balsam boughs. "Cho-ko- tung or blister tree" as Quonab called it. His mother had a little sofa pillow, brought from the North —— a "northern pine" pillow they called it, for it was stuffed with pine needles of a kind not growing in Connecticut. Many a time had Rolf as a baby pushed his little round nose into that bag to inhale the delicious odour it gave forth, and so it became the hallowed smell of all that was dear in his babyhood, and it never lost its potency. Smell never does. Oh, mighty aura! that, in marching by the nostrils, can reach and move the soul; how wise the church that makes this power its handmaid, and through its incense overwhelms all alien thought when the worshipper, wandering, doubting, comes again to see if it be true, that here doubt dies. Oh, queen of memory that is master of the soul! how fearful should we be of letting evil thought associated grow with some recurrent odour that we love. Happy, indeed, are they that find some ten times pure and consecrated fragrance, like the pine, which entering in is master of their moods, and yet through linking thoughts has all its power, uplifting, full of sweetness and blessed peace. So came to Rolf his medicine tree.

  The balsam fir was his tree of hallowed memory. Its odour never failed, and he slept that night with its influence all about him.

  Starting in the morning was no easy matter. There was so much to be adjusted that first day. Packs divided in two, new combinations to trim the canoe, or to raise such and such a package above a possible leak. The heavy things, like axes and pans, had to be fastened to the canoe or to packages that would float in case of an upset. The canoe itself had to be gummed in one or two places; but they got away after three hours, and began the voyage down the Schroon.

  This was Rolf's first water journey. He had indeed essayed the canoe on the Pipestave Pond, but that was a mere ferry. This was real travel. He marvelled at the sensitiveness of the frail craft; the delicacy of its balance; its quick response to the paddle; the way it seemed to shrink from the rocks; and the unpleasantly suggestive bend-up of the ribs when the bottom grounded upon a log. It was a new world for him. Quonab taught him never to enter the canoe except when she was afloat; never to rise in her or move along without hold of the gunwale; never to make a sudden move; and he also learned that it was easier to paddle when there were six feet of water underneath than when only six inches.

  In an hour they had covered the five miles that brought them to the Hudson, and here the real labour began, paddling up stream. Before long they came to a shallow stretch with barely enough water to float the canoe. Here they jumped out and waded in the stream, occasionally lifting a stone to one side, till they reached the upper stretch of deep water and again went merrily paddling. Soon they came to an impassable rapid, and Rolf had his first taste of a real carry or portage. Quonab's eye was watching the bank as soon as the fierce waters appeared; for the first question was, where shall we land? and the next, how far do we carry? There are no rapids on important rivers in temperate America that have not been portaged more or less for ages. No canoe man portages without considering most carefully when, where, and how to land. His selection of the place, then, is the result of careful study. He cannot help leaving some mark at the place, slight though it be, and the next man looks for that mark to save himself time and trouble.

  "Ugh" was the only sound that Rolf heard from his companion, and the canoe headed for a flat rock in the pool below the rapids. After landing, they found traces of an old camp fire. It was near noon now, so Rolf prepared the meal while Quonab took a light pack and went on to learn the trail. It was not well marked; had not been used for a year or two, evidently, but there are certain rules that guide one. The trail keeps near the water, unless there is some great natural barrier, and it is usually the easiest way in sight. Quonab kept one eye on the river, for navigable water was the main thing, and in about one hundred yards he was again on the stream's edge, at a good landing above the rapid.

  After the meal was finished and the Indian had smoked, they set to work. In a few loads each, the stuff was portaged across, and the canoe was carried over and moored to the bank.

  The cargo replaced, they went on again, but in half an hour after passing more shoal water, saw another rapid, not steep, but too shallow to float the canoe, even with both men wading. Here Quonab made what the Frenchmen call a demi-charge. He carried half the stuff to the bank; then, wading, one at each end, they hauled the canoe up the portage and reloaded her above. Another strip of good going was succeeded by a long stretch of very swift water that was two or three feet deep and between shores that were densely grown with alders. The Indian landed, cut two light, strong poles, and now, one at the bow, the other at the stern, they worked their way foot by foot up the fierce current until safely on the upper level.

  Yet one more style of canoe propulsion was forced on them. They came to a long stretch of smooth, deep, very swift water, almost a rapid-one of the kind that is a joy when you are coming down stream. It differed from the last in having shores that were not alder-hidden, but open gravel banks. Now did Quonab take a long, strong line from his war sack. One end he fastened, not to the bow, but to the forward part of the canoe, the other to a buckskin band which he put across his breast. Then, with Rolf in the stern to steer and the Indian hauling on the bank, the canoe was safely "tracked" up the "strong waters."

  Thus they fought their way up the hard river, day after day, making sometimes only five miles after twelve hours' toilsome travel. Rapids, shoals, portages, strong waters, abounded, and before they had covered the fifty miles to the forks of Jesup's River, they knew right well why the region was so little entered.

  It made a hardened canoe man of Rolf, and when, on the evening of the fifth day, they saw a huge eagle's nest in a dead pine tree that stood on the edge of a long swamp, both felt they had reached their own country, and were glad.

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