S. Weir (Silas Weir) Mitchell.

Far in the forest, a story online

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eyes were dark and the pupils strangely dilated.
A huge, gray, tangled beard hid his mouth, but
the nose was large and bold, the forehead massive,
and the ears stood out like small wings.

" I guess maybe pungies is puzzled to know what
boys is for. When you know what rattlers is for,
maybe the Lord 'ill let you know why pungies
bother small boys. To keep 'em awake, maybe."


"I'm wide enough awake," said the lad; and,
in fact, he looked it.

" Well, I don't say you don't use your eyes. Keep
on a-usin' 'em. I used mine pretty well when I had
'em, and I ain't sorry, neither." The lad made no
reply, and the man presently added, " That's the
wust of havin' no eyes ; makes a man use his
tongue sich a lot. There's a heap of talk a man's
eyes kin do, and git answers accordin', without
sich eternal tongue-chatter." Then he paused a
moment. " Ef I could see, I wouldn't have to
wonder what makes you so quiet like."

A look of interested contemplation had mean-
while grown on the lad's face as he regarded the
strong blind Samson still leaning on his axe-
handle. " I was thinking," and he paused, — " I
was thinking how sorry I am for you, and — and
how bright and nice it is out here."

His companion caught his meaning instantly.
" You allers did like me, Paul : I knowed that the
first day I seen you. I don't mind bein' pitiful fur
boys and women. As fur men, 'fore a man pities me
he'd best see ef he kin fall thirty-three pines in a day
and run a bob-sled to beat Philetus Richmond."

" But you can't break a jam now, Uncle Phil."
Most of his fellows called him Uncle Phil, in gentle
instinctive recognition of his forest rank and general
kindliness of relation to the young.

" You hadn't oughter said that. Don't you go to
tell folks things they knows a derned sight too well."

The lad's face, prone to signal feeling, fell. He
hitched up what he called his galluses {Anglice, sus-


penders). The pair were quick of mental touch,
and had some remote and one-sided kinship of
moral structure.

" Lumber Bill was telling us last night how you
found the key to the log-jam on the Sinnemaho-
ninsr and broke it when there wasn't one of those
Smethport chaps dared try it. That's what made
me say it, Uncle Phil. I'm sorry. I might have

"Well, Paul Preston, I didn't mind, — much.
Cur'us how a thing comes into a fellow's mind
and kind of squeezes out another thing he needn't
of said. Don't you be afeerd of say in' soft things
to folks that's down. Not that I'm down much.
You're like that there mother of yourn. I guess
most real fellows has a gal's heart somewhere.
Where's that other axe ? Fetch it, lad. This 'ain't
no edge."

Paul brought the axe, and sat down again on the
stump and fought the midges, while he silently
watched Philetus. The woodsman rolled his sleeves
up over a pair of tawny, knotted arras, threw down
his ragged straw hat, whirled the blue steel around
his head, and smote deep into the stately pine
against which he had been leaning. Blow followed
blow with marvellous precision. The fragments of
odorous pine flew far and wide, the solid trunk
rang resonant through its dense core, and the
branches above shivered as if conscious. By and
by he had cut two-thirds through the great bole.
Then he paused.

" Look sharp," he said. " I give Irm three more


licks, and then look out. He'll fall north, among
them birches. Guess that'll clear him. Ther' ain't
no pines to stay him."

A look of increasing interest crossed the boy's
face as he spoke : " How do you know the north,
Uncle Phil ?"

The giant laughed as he bent his head and wiped
against his rolled-up red sleeve the sweat of his
brow. " What ! you've been a year or more round
these woods and don't know the moss likes the
north side of trees ?" And, as he spoke, he patted
the slightly swaying bole.

" I did know it, but I forgot you could feel it
just as well as I can see it."

" Ef I lived long enough, I do believe I'd git eyes
at them finger-ends. Perhaps you'd like to know
how I guess three licks 'ill make a dead tree of this
here pine ?"

The boy smiled. " I was thinking that. How do
you guess so, Uncle Phil ?"

" Heerd your mind, maybe. You come here.
Now you jus' listen. Put your head nigh that tree.
There, ag'in' it. Ain't it speakin' ?"

The boy was aware of creaking, crackling sounds,
as the south wind moving the vast height of the
pine broke fibre after fibre of the slight wedge-
shaped base on which it still rested. A faint sense
of something akin to pity seized the lad as he
looked up at its warrior pride of clean-limbed trunk
and wholesome leafage. He was not yet old enough
to capture the fleeting reasons for his faint emotion.

"Kind of groans, I call 'em," said Philetus.


Then his face changed, and it was singularly ex-
pressive. Something of the rough primitive wood-
king grew upon it, — a wild joy in destruction.

" "Wish I could see him smash them gay birches !
Can hear it, anyways."

" I didn't ask what made you know they're
birches." This lad was to lose nothing in life for
lack of a questioning tongue.

"I heerd 'em, Paul. 'Ain't they got ragged
britches, them birches? — and don't I hear the
rags flap ? Every feller oughter be blind ten years
and deaf ten more, and then git his eyes and ears.
He'd know a heap, I tell you he would. Don't the
wind talk diff'rent in a pine and a beech and a
poplar? You jus' shet yer eyes and git that ther'
language. Now look sharp. Them birches don't
guess what's a-comin'. It's me or the Lord Almighty
as has doomed 'em. These many years 'twas so set
as I was to do it, and they was to bide it." This
musing, half-mystical mood, the outcome of a par-
tially-forgotten creed, was at times common enough
with Philetus to astonish his comrades, but not so
completely as it would have done a like class else-
where. He went on, " 'Most always it is three
goes or nine, — I disremember." Then he added,
" 'Tain't fair to be talkin' sich wisdom to boys.
Only you mind, when you git older, thet ther's a
man named Swedenborg that knowed things and
critters and rocks inside their great-coats, and don't
you go to thinkin' I'm a-talkin' nonsense, when
you can't take it in."

The lad stood puzzled, but respectful and silent.


He had in after-years the habit of saying nothing
when he had nothing to say, and, being of a widely
curious appetite for knowledge, had the mental art
of the attentive listener.

After a pause Philetus said, " You don't under-

" No, I don't."

" Wall, you'd like to. That's goin' to be your
kind; but ther's growed-up people jus' laughs and
says I'm out of their depths. When I see a man in
two foot water yellin' for help and thinkin' he's out
of his depth because he 'ain't got the judgment to
stan' up on the legs God giv' him, it makes me
mad. Now fur it. Git back a piece."

Paul retreated, and with eager interest watched
the strokes of doom. Once, — twice, — thrice; the
forest rang to the blows. The great sheaf of green
bowed as the south wind swayed it, stood erect
again, then bent its proud state as never once before
to storm or cumbering snows its strength had
bowed. Slowly as a monarch with no haste of fear
lays his head upon the block, it moved to its fall.
Then, with a strange noise of cracking fibres below
and swifter motion above, the tall shaft fell with a
crash, amidst innumerable lesser sounds of the torn
branches of down-tumbled birches and the quick
swish of beaten leaves. The woodman leaned on
his axe.

" I done that there job well. I kin handle an axe
yet, Paul Preston. My strength ain't much abated."

"It was splendid, Uncle Phil. I wish I could
chop like you !"


"You'll chop with them brains of yourn some
day, I guess. What was't that man at your house
said? Somethin' 'bout choppin' logic. For all he
was two weeks in my house, I never kin call him

" Oh, Mr. Eiverius," cried the boy, laughing. " I
think he meant just arguing, you know."

" That ain't your kind nuther, younker. You've
got the same way your mother's got of hearin'
things out to the end of 'em, and then a-sayin'
somethin' short and quick. I don't like that there
man much. He's too sot in his ways. He's the
kind hangs about women. I never cum home he
ain't a trapseyin' 'round, talkin' to Myry. Guess
he'd 'a' died ef it hadn't 'a' bin for Mrs. Preston.
Couldn't of knowed much, anyway, to git in a
scrape like that." He had a fine sense of the
humiliation there was in the fact of the man he
disliked having needed help from a woman.

"Well, he knows a lot," urged the boy, de-
fensively, remembering much kindly helpfulness
and their frequent talk of other lands and the
greater world Paul longed to see.

" Yes, he knows inside of books. He's got a no-
tion God ain't writ nuthin' but books. I say God
writ in the souls of men ; and when you hears a
man talkin' wisdom, that's nigher truth than books

"But suppose a man puts his wisdom into
books ?" pleaded the boy. " Isn't that the same,
Phil ?"

" 'Tain't got the life in it."


" Oh !" said the boy, puzzled, and taking time to

" I alius did wonder what fetched that 'ere man
up into these here woods. It's nigh about two
years since he come. He must own a power of
land round about. lie's got judgment 'bout land,
but he ain't got none 'bout men. He's too much
boss for Philetus Richmond."

Paul was silent. He knew well enough that the
German's abrupt soldierly methods were foreign
and repugnant to the woodmen he employed.

" Now you go call ole Consider," said Philetus.
" I've been a-hearin' his axe this half-hour. What
did I say call for ? You might as w T ell call the dead."

" I'll bring him," said Paul, and went away at
a trot through the woods. Presently he came upon
a small, rather stout man of some fifty years, who
was busy passing a tape-measure around a tree.
He did not move until the boy touched him. Then
he turned a clean-shaven face, simple and honest in
expression, but remarkably sweetened by the smile
that now lit it up. Speech was useless with him.
He was utterly deaf; but the boy, evidently accus-
tomed to his needs, pointed towards the place he
had left, and, laughing, pulled at the man's sleeve
and slapped his own stomach.

" Grub-time, and Philetus waitin'. I'll come.
Hold on a bit."

He ended his task, pocketed his tape, lifted his
axe, and moved away silent. As they came near
Philetus, he said, with a curious softness in his
tones, —


" Kep' you bidin , a bit, ears/' The deaf man
smiled. "Old eyes won't hear, Paul," added the
blind woodman. " Come along. He'll roller. Bell} 's
a good clock. Mine gits fast nigh feedin'-time."

Consider came after them with a sort of quiet
patience, and now and then dropped a remark to
his friend. The pair made a queer couple. Years
before, over a log camp-fire, and then in the woods,
they had formed a friendly and useful partnership
in life to which one brought eyes and the other ears.
They usually bargained to work together, and in fact
were rarely long apart, the smaller man, with his
round simple visage and pug-like tilt of atrophied
nose, being little more than a trusty canine guide to
the stanch, blind man, away from whom he had
the restlessness of a creature who misses his master.

" Take care of that felled tree, Phil," he said.

" All right, Consider. Come along." He spoke
always turning his face to his friend, who was quick
to catch his meaning. " I hear the horn at Widder
Preston's. Mus' be that small Becky, or the man
— I've forgot his name ag'in, Paul."

"Think of the Alleghany," laughed the lad,

" Dern sech a name ! He don't git much breath
into that 'ere horn." And as he spoke they came
into the stumps of the clearing, and saw the river
sparkling beyond the log cabin, and in the fore-
ground, on a stump, a short woman's figure, blow-
ing with much effort a long tin horn which gleamed
in the strong noonday light. The two woodmen
and the boy paused a hundred yards away at the


snake fence which kept the cows in their pasture-
field. Meanwhile, to the left, the figure on the
stump blew again another blast, unaware that the
persons she was thus signalling were close at hand.
Even to the lad's accustomed eye there was some-
thing humorous in this stout little creature bal-
ancing herself now and then with outstretched
arms on the sloped stump-top.

The two men as they presently climbed the snake
fence came to a rest for a moment on the upper
rail. The elder man — and he may have been sixty-
five years — had some half-felt sense of fun in the
notion of the fat little person thus innocently posed
on the forest pedestal of a blackened pine stump. His
dog-like companion, now sunning his bald round
head, with his toes tucked into the third rail of the
fence for comfortable stay, understood all this well
enough, and had a canine capacity for accepting the
moods of his friend. His perceptions came slowly,
but were true enough, and his round head wagged
responsive as the dog's tail, in cheerful, quite honest
applause and acceptance of whatever came to him
from Philetus. He glanced now in his habitual
way at the strong, sombre, blind visage lit up for the
moment with a smile, and then looked anew at the
dark figure exhausting its breath on the horn. He
had, unlike his friend, whose humor was rather
grim, a natural but tardy sense of the mirthful
aspects of life. Slowly now a grin drew out the
corners of his mouth and spread smooth the con-
venient little furrows which fell from them and were
as comfortable scuppers darkly indicative of leakage


from excessive quid within. la a moment or two
the gathering fulness of amusement puckered the
fat cheeks and half shut the eyes, and he chuckled
aloud. The giant leaning on the fence looked up
with his changeless areas of dark eyes. As usual, he
made haste to complement his comrade's defect, —
a process now become with both men automatic in
less as well as greater matters.

" Must look ridikelus, to see a woman bustin 5
herself like that 'ere and gittin' no kind of decent
sound." He patted the small man on the leg to call
his attention, and then expanded his own cheeks in
sign of appreciative comment. Then he twitched
Consider's sleeve, which was at once comprehended
as a desire for descriptive help from his partner's

" She's a-rockin' on that there burnt stump nigh
the well. Guess Gabril couldn't blow no harder.
And she don't see us, — she don't," which last fact
so convulsed the small man that at length the graver
woodman of a sudden broke into a laugh which
was volcanic and astounding in its vigor and was
heard far and near.

" He's a-laughin' awful, Paul. I feel the fence
shake," said Consider. " Mostly I kin fetch him."

At the sound Becky came down awkwardly from
the stump, and, after hanging the tin horn on a nail
under the cabin eaves, walked to the door-way,
whence came out, also summoned by the giant's
laugh, Mrs. Paul Preston. She bent to break off a
dead leaf or two from the little bed of geraniums
on either side of the door-stone, and then stood


still in the entrance to meet the workmen and her
boy. A gray linen dress fitting closely her arms
and figure, with no excess of skirts, showed her
rather unusual height and notable but not unwhole-
some slightness of build. The features, delicate of
model, were largely fashioned. The complexion was
less pale than it had been a year ago. An unusual
mass of dark-brown hair was coiled with neatness
on the back of her head, which carried its weight
well. Thinness does not exclude the chance of that
grace which is often denied to the essential fulness
of beauty ; and grace she had, in motion, voice, and
ways. As she rose up from her little task, she glanced
quickly at her hands, hard with labor, but scrupu-
lously clean to the broken but spotless nails, and
then smiled, seeing a spot or two on the long white
apron she wore. Turning back, she undid its tie,
threw it on a chair-back, and, coming out to the
cabin door again, awaited the arrival of the little
group which had paused on the way.

As the two men and Paul crossed the clearing,
they were joined by the German as to whom Phile-
tus had so distinctly expressed himself to Paul. His
straight carriage, and the long amber-tinted mous-
tache on a face otherwise clean-shaven, made sharp
contrast with the slouching, careless figures of the
two woodmen. He gave them a cheerful good-morn-
ing, touching Paul in an affectionate way on the
shoulder. His manner was frank and pleasant, and
gave no note of the decisive abruptness he carried
into affairs or with which he issued orders to those
whom he instinctively treated as more or less in-


telligent machines. He was probably well aware
both of the peculiarity of his manner and of its un-
fitness for the men about him; but the ways and
habits of command are difficult to forget, and he
made less effort to change them than was perhaps
wise or politic.

"Let me carry your rifle, sir," said Paul, and
proudly shouldered the gun. " What a lot of
squirrels you've got !" he added.

" Clean shot," said Consider Kinsman, handling
them as they lay where the hunter had dropped
them at his feet. " Two on 'em barked," he added,
in the high-pitched voice of the deaf. " They
oughter all on 'em been barked."

" That is so," said Kiverius. " Becky will growl
at the state they are in."

"Kill any rattlers?" said Consider. "They're
thick as midges down Laurel Mountain way."

" I never kill them. Why you men always
murder them I cannot see. They never attack
you unless you come too near. They don't run.
They are as brave as any of you."

Consider gave it up, unable to follow.

"You're ag'in' Scriptures, Mr. Eyverus," said
Philetus. " The seed of the woman's got to bruise
the sarpent's head. It was so set in the beginnin'."

" I admit the order, but decline to obey," returned
the German, smiling. " Even your friend Sweden-
borg doesn't insist on it."

" It's for a flesh sign of evil. Them that don : t
slay it for a livin' sin, they're a-goin' to let it live
in the spirit."


" Well, Philetus, the rattlesnake as a scapegoat
is certainly a novelty. A dozen or so a day ought
to give a man a pleasant margin of wickedness.
Do you take size into account ?— There's Becky.
Pick up the squirrels, Paul."

Philetus made no reply. He disliked greatly to
have his mystical fancies lightly regarded. He
liked as little the precision of thought with which,
in his graver mood, BAverius met and overthrew
his theories. The woodman's age and reputation
for former prowess with axe and rifle caused the
rough men of the woods to listen with mere in-
difference or show of attention to Philetus when
in his moods of obscure reflection and as obscure
statement, but in the German these raised a smiling
comment or aroused him to distinct attack, neither
of which Philetus liked.

At the door Mrs. Preston met them, the men
moving away towards the well. " You have been
fortunate," she said to Riverius, glancing at the
squirrels Paul carried.

" Yes, I had a pleasant tramp."
Then she turned to the boy. " Where are the
eggs ?" she said.

" I did not go for them, mother."
" And why not ? When you left me, I told you
to go to Mrs. Richmond's. There is not an egg in
the house."

" Philetus said it was no use, mother. The foxes,
he says, have scared them so they don't lay worth
a cent."

" But I told you to go."


" I know, mother; but what was the good ?"

" Well, and what do you propose to do about

" Why, there isn't anything to do."

" Indeed !" she said, quietly.

He cast a shy, embarrassed look up at her face.
It was grave, and as stern as gentle nature let it be.
He got no comfort from his study, and went away
in silence around the cabin.

Meanwhile, Consider let down the bucket on its
balanced pole into the shallow well, and presently
both workmen, having partaken of water within
and without, went to the kitchen door, back of
which, on a permanently-placed roller, hung a
rough towel, of which each made use. When
they looked out, the boy was not in sight, but the
mother with Riverius was waiting for them at the

" Philetus Richmond," she said, " you should
not have kept that boy from doing what I told him
to do."

Truth was a part of the old fellow's essential life.
He answered, frankly, " Well, ma'am, fact was,
I were a mawsel lonesome, not havin' Consider
handy, and — well, the foxes has bin a-furagin'."

" It must not happen again," she said.

"No, ma'am," he returned, meekly, while the
deaf man looked from one to the other, puzzled.

" Come in to dinner," she added, and, as they
followed, Riverius approached her.

" Where is Paul ?" he said.

" I do not know. I am vexed with him. All


the men spoil him. I must get him away from

" I will go over this afternoon and bring what
eggs there are." He spoke with a barely percepti-
ble German accent, and the tones were refined.

" No," she said. " Come in. Becky is away, so
I cooked myself: indeed, myself is pretty well
cooked. As to the potatoes, I am in doubt; but
Becky made the pie. Come in."

The log house was comfortable enough. Within,
the walls were clay-plastered to fill the chinks, and
then covered with splints or axe-hewn boards from
the outer side of logs. Over these, in the rather
ample sitting-room, Mrs. Preston, with aid from
Paul, had laboriously tacked large rolls of ruddy
and gray birch-bark. Kough planks across the
timbers gave the unusual luxury of a ceiling, like
the walls birch-covered, above which in the loft
slept Paul, except when the winters drove him to
sleep below in the common sitting-room. A huge
fireplace of unhewn granite rocks projected from
the farther wall. Above, on a chimney-plank, were
the two candlesticks which had attracted the Ger-
man's notice. The chairs were ugly and solid ; the
table, a product of some woodcraftsman's tools, was
strong and grimly useful. In curious contrast, the
Raphael Morghen of Guido's Crucifixion hung in a
worn frame on the wall, the sole ornament. Here
and there, however, on the birch-bark, a brush of
unusual skill had been busy, and had scattered
about, in odd caprice, admirably-rendered portraits
of golden-rod, asters, dogwood-blossoms, and cardi-


nal flowers. Over the chimney a mass of sheep-
laurel and the larger rhododendrons was still
unfinished. All were dimly visible by the light
which entered scantily through gnarled panes of
glass which distorted the landscape without into
singular deformity. On one side opened the
bedroom of the owner, and outside was a rough
kitchen, above which the woman Becky slept,
unless the intense cold of winter drove her, like
Paul, to a shake-down on the floor of the room be-
neath. However primitive, this w T as probably the
best house for miles around, and its owner a person
socially and in education far above any of her

The table was spread, not in the kitchen, as usual,
but in the sitting-room, to escape the heat which a
July day made more than sufficient. There was
no cloth. A dish of trout, a bit of bacon with
eggs, the potatoes as to which Mrs. Preston had
expressed doubts, an apple-pie, set all at once on
the well-scrubbed board, made up the meal. As
they stood a moment, Biverius stroked his tawny
moustache, looked up and said aloud, with distinct-
ness, " Give us this day our daily bread." Then
they sat down. The silver forks marked with a
worn crest alone distinguished the meal from that
of any forest home on the swift Alleghany. Phi-
letus took his fork in his fist, with a certain awk-
wardness, and mentally surveyed the instrument,
wishing that he had what he called a real fork.
Consider helped him with care, at times glancing
at the plate to see that he had enough. The


meal went on rather quietly; a sense of entire
social equality was the forest custom, and employer
and employed lived and ate together in a common
life of mutual respect, but almost absolute famili-
arity of relation. A certain undefined quality in the
ways and manners of Mrs. Preston was, however,
felt and acknowledged by the rough men with

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Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellFar in the forest, a story → online text (page 3 of 17)