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Rolf in the Woods(Chapter46)

2006-09-08 19:48

  CHAPTER XLVI Hoag's Home-Coming

  When it comes to personal feelin's better let yer friends do the talkin' and jedgin'. A man can't handle his own case any more than a delirious doctor kin give hisself the right physic —— Sayings of Si Sylvanne.

  The coming of springtime in the woods is one of the gentlest, sweetest advents in the world. Sometimes there are heavy rains which fill all the little rivers with an overflood that quickly eats away the ice and snow, but usually the woodland streams open, slowly and gradually. Very rarely is there a spate, an upheaval, and a cataclysmal sweep that bursts the ice and ends its reign in an hour or two. That is the way of the large rivers, whose ice is free and floating. The snow in the forest melts slowly, and when the ice is attacked, it goes gradually, gently, without uproar. The spring comes in the woods with swelling of buds and a lengthening of drooping catkins, with honking of wild geese, and cawing of crows coming up from the lower countries to divide with their larger cousins, the ravens, the spoils of winter's killing.

  The small birds from the South appear with a few short notes of spring, and the pert chicadees that have braved it all winter, now lead the singing with their cheery "I told you so" notes, till robins and blackbirds join in, and with their more ambitious singing make all the lesser roundelays forgot.

  Once the winter had taken a backward step —— spring found it easy to turn retreat into panic and rout; and the ten days Quonab stayed away were days of revolutionary change. For in them semi-winter gave place to smiling spring, with all the snow-drifts gone, except perhaps in the shadiest hollows of the woods.

  It was a bright morning, and a happy one for Rolf, when he heard the Indian's short "Ho," outside, and a minute later had Skookum dancing and leaping about him. On Hoag the effect was quite different. He was well enough to be up, to hobble about painfully on a stick; to be exceedingly fault-finding, and to eat three hearty meals a day; but the moment the Indian appeared, he withdrew into himself, and became silent and uneasy. Before an hour passed, he again presented the furs, the gun, the canoe, and the traps to Rolf, on condition that he should get him out to his folks.

  All three were glad to set out that very day on the outward trip to Lyons Falls.

  Down Little Moose River to Little Moose Lake and on to South Branch of Moose, then by the Main Moose, was their way. The streams were flush; there was plenty of water, and this fortunately reduced the number of carries; for Hoag could not walk and would not hobble. They sweat and laboured to carry him over every portage; but they covered the fifty miles in three days, and on the evening of the third, arrived at the little backwoods village of Lyons Falls.

  The change that took place fn Hoag now was marked and unpleasant. He gave a number of orders, where, the day before, he would have made whining petitions. He told them to "land easy, and don't bump my canoe." He hailed the loungers about the mill with an effusiveness that they did not resdond to. Their cool, "Hello, Jack, are you back?" was little but a passing recognition. One of them was persuaded to take Rolf's place in carrying Hoag to his cabin. Yes, his folks were there, but they did not seem overjoyed at his arrival. He whispered to the boy, who sullenly went out to the river and returned with the rifle, Rolf's rifle now, the latter supposed, and would have taken the bundle of furs had not Skookum sprung on the robber and driven him away from the canoe.

  And now Hoag showed his true character. "Them's my furs and my canoe," he said to one of the mill hands, and turning to the two who had saved him, he said: "An' you two dirty, cutthroat, redskin thieves, you can get out of town as fast as ye know how, or I'll have ye jugged," and all the pent-up hate of his hateful nature frothed out in words insulting and unprintable.

  "Talks like a white man," said Quonab coldly. Rolf was speechless. To toil so devotedly, and to have such filthy, humiliating words for thanks! He wondered if even his Uncle Mike would have shown so vile a spirit.

  Hoag gave free rein to his tongue, and found in his pal, Bill Hawkins, one with ready ears to hear his tale of woe. The wretch began to feel himself frightfully ill-used. So, fired at last by the evermore lurid story of his wrongs, the "partner" brought the magistrate, so they could swear out a warrant, arrest the two "outlaws," and especially secure the bundle of "Hoag's furs" in the canoe.

  Old Silas Sylvanne, the mill-owner and pioneer of the place, was also its magistrate. He was tall, thin, blacklooking, a sort of Abe Lincoln in type, physically, and in some sort, mentally. He heard the harrowing tale of terrible crime, robbery, and torture, inflicted on poor harmless Hoag by these two ghouls in human shape; he listened, at first shocked, but little by little amused.

  "You don't get no warrant till I hear from the other side," he said. Roff and Quonab came at call. The old pioneer sized up the two, as they stood, then, addressing Rolf, said:

  "Air you an Injun?" "No, sir." "Air you half-breed?" "No, sir." "Well, let's hear about this business," and he turned his piercing eyes full on the lad's face.

  Rolf told the simple, straight story of their acquaintance with Hoag, from the first day at Warren's to their arrival at the Falls. There is never any doubt about the truth of a true story, if it be long enough, and this true story, presented in its nakedness to the shrewd and kindly old hunter, trader, mill-owner and magistrate, could have only one effect.

  "Sonny," he said, slowly and kindly, "I know that ye have told me the truth. I believe every word of it. We all know that Hoag is the meanest cuss and biggest liar on the river. He's a nuisance, and always was. He only promised to give ye the canoe and the rifle, and since he don't want to, we can't help it. About the trouble in the woods, you got two witnesses to his one, and ye got the furs and the traps; it's just as well ye left the other furs behind, or ye might have had to divide 'em; so keep them and call the hull thing square. We'll find ye a canoe to get out of this gay metropolis, and as to Hoag, ye needn't a-worry; his travelling days is done."

  A man with a bundle of high-class furs is a man of means in any frontier town. The magistrate was trader, too, so they set about disposing of their furs and buying the supplies they needed.

  The day was nearly done before their new canoe was gummed and ready with the new supplies. When dealing, old Sylvanne had a mild, quiet manner, and a peculiar way of making funny remarks that led some to imagine he was "easy" in business; but it was usual to find at the end that he had lost nothing by his manners, and rival traders shunned an encounter with Long Sylvanne of the unruffled brow.

  When business was done —— keen and complete —— he said: "Now, I'm a goin' to give each of ye a present," and handed out two double-bladed jackknives, new things in those days, wonderful things, precious treasures in their eyes, sources of endless joy; and even had they known that one marten skin would buy a quart of them, their pleasant surprise and childish joy would not have been in any way tempered or alloyed.

  "Ye better eat with me, boys, an' start in the morning." So they joined the miller's long, continuous family, and shared his evening meal. Afterward as they sat for three hours and smoked on the broad porch that looked out on the river, old Sylvanne, who had evidently taken a fancy to Rolf, regaled them with a long, rambling talk on "fellers and things," that was one of the most interesting Rolf had ever listened to. At the time it was simply amusing; it was not till years after that the lad realized by its effect on himself, its insight, and its hold on his memory, that Si Sylvanne's talk was real wisdom. Parts of it would not look well in print; but the rugged words, the uncouth Saxonism, the obscene phrase, were the mere oaken bucket in which the pure and precious waters were hauled to the surface.

  "Looked like he had ye pinched when that shyster got ye in to Lyons Falls. Wall, there's two bad places for Jack Hoag; one is where they don't know him at all, an' take him on his looks; an' t'other is where they know him through and through for twenty years, like we hev. A smart rogue kin put up a false front fer a year or maybe two, but given twenty year to try him, for and bye, summer an' winter, an' I reckon a man's make is pretty well showed up, without no dark corners left unexplored.

  "Not that I want to jedge him harsh, coz I don't know what kind o' maggots is eatin' his innards to make him so ornery. I'm bound to suppose he has 'em, or he wouldn't act so dum like it. So I says, go slow and gentle before puttin' a black brand on any feller; as my mother used to say, never say a bad thing till ye ask, 'Is it true, is it kind, is it necessary?' An' I tell you, the older I git, the slower I jedge; when I wuz your age, I wuz a steel trap on a hair trigger, an' cocksure. I tell you, there ain't anythin' wiser nor a sixteen-year-old boy, 'cept maybe a fifteen-year-old girl.

  "Ye'll genilly find, lad, jest when things looks about as black as they kin look, that's the sign of luck a-comin' your way, pervidin' ye hold steady, keep cool and kind; something happens every time to make it all easy. There's always a way, an' the stout heart will find it.

  "Ye may be very sure o' this, boy, yer never licked till ye think ye air an' if ye won't think it, ye can't be licked.

  It's just the same as being sick. I seen a lot o' doctorin' in my day, and I'm forced to believe there ain't any sick folks 'cept them that thinks they air sick.

  "The older I git, the more I'm bound to consider that most things is inside, anyhow, and what's outside don't count for much.

  "So it stands to reason when ye play the game for what's inside, ye win over all the outside players. When ye done kindness to Hoag, ye mightn't a meant it, but ye was bracin' up the goodness in yerself, or bankin' it up somewher' on the trail ahead, where it was needed. And he was simply chawin' his own leg off, when he done ye dirt. I ain't much o' a prattlin' Christian, but I reckon as a cold-blooded, business proposition it pays to lend the neighbour a hand; not that I go much on gratitude. It's scarcer'n snowballs in hell —— which ain't the point; but I take notice there ain't any man'll hate ye more'n the feller that knows he's acted mean to ye. An' there ain't any feller more ready to fight yer battles than the chap that by some dum accident has hed the luck to help ye, even if he only done it to spite some one else —— which 'minds me o' McCarthy's bull pup that saved the drowning kittens by mistake, and ever after was a fightin' cat protector, whereby he lost the chief joy o' his life, which had been cat-killin'. An' the way they cured the cat o' eatin' squirrels was givin' her a litter o' squirrels to raise.

  "I tell ye there's a lot o' common-sense an' kindness in the country, only it's so dum slow to git around; while the cussedness and meanness always acts like they felt the hell fire sizzlin' their hind-end whiskers, an' knowed they had jest so many minutes to live an' make a record. There's where a man's smart that fixes things so he kin hold out a long time, fer the good stuff in men's minds is what lasts; and the feller what can stay with it hez proved hisself by stayin'. How'd ye happen to tie up with the Injun, Rolf?"

  "Do ye want me to tell it long or short?" was the reply. "Wall, short, fer a start," and Silas Sylvanne chuckled.

  So Rolf gave a very brief account of his early life.

  "Pretty good," said the miller; "now let's hear it long."

  And when he had finished, the miller said: "I've seen yer tried fer most everything that goes to make a man, Rolf, an' I hev my own notion of the results. You ain't goin' to live ferever in them hills. When ye've hed yer fling an' want a change, let me know."

  Early next day the two hunters paddled up the Moose River with a good canoe, an outfit of groceries, and a small supply of ready cash.

  "Good-bye, lad, good-bye! Come back again and ye'll find we improve on acquaintance; an' don't forget I'm buying fur," was Si Sylvanne's last word. And as they rounded the point, on the home way, Rolf turned in the canoe, faced Quonab, and said: "Ye see there are some good white men left;" but the Indian neither blinked, nor moved, nor made a sound.

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