The Blazed Trail by Stewart Edward White
Part II: The Landlooker
In the morning he thatched smooth the roof of the shelter, using for the purpose the thick branches of hemlocks; placed two green spruce logs side by side as cooking range; slung his pot on a rod across two forked sticks; cut and split a quantity of wood; spread his blankets; and called himself established. His beard was already well grown, and his clothes had become worn by the brush and faded by the sun and rain. In the course of the morning he lay in wait very patiently near a spot overflowed by the river, where, the day before, he had noticed lily-pads growing. After a time a doe and a spotted fawn came and stood ankle-deep in the water, and ate of the lily-pads. Thorpe lurked motionless behind his screen of leaves; and as he had taken the precaution so to station himself that his hiding-place lay downwind, the beautiful animals were unaware of his presence.
By and by a prong-buck joined them. He was a two-year-old, young, tender, with the velvet just off his antlers. Thorpe aimed at his shoulder, six inches above the belly-line, and pressed the trigger. As though by enchantment the three woods creatures disappeared. But the hunter had noticed that, whereas the doe and fawn flourished bravely the broad white flags of their tails, the buck had seemed but a streak of brown. By this he knew he had hit.
Sure enough, after two hundred yards of following the prints of sharp hoofs and occasional gobbets of blood on the leaves, he came upon his prey dead. It became necessary to transport the animal to camp. Thorpe stuck his hunting knife deep into the front of the deer's chest, where the neck joins, which allowed most of the blood to drain away. Then he fastened wild grape vines about the antlers, and, with a little exertion drew the body after him as though it had been a toboggan.
It slid more easily than one would imagine, along the grain; but not as easily as by some other methods with which Thorpe was unfamiliar.
At camp he skinned the deer, cut most of the meat into thin strips which he salted and placed in the sun to dry, and hung the remainder in a cool arbor of boughs. The hide he suspended over a pole.
All these things he did hastily, as though he might be in a hurry; as indeed he was.
At noon he cooked himself a venison steak and some tea. Then with his hatchet he cut several small pine poles, which he fashioned roughly in a number of shapes and put aside for the future. The brains of the deer, saved for the purpose, he boiled with water in his tin pail, wishing it were larger. With the liquor thus obtained he intended later to remove the hair and grain from the deer hide. Toward evening he caught a dozen trout in the pool below the dam. These he ate for supper.
Next day he spread the buck's hide out on the ground and drenched it liberally with the product of deer-brains. Later the hide was soaked in the river, after which, by means of a rough two-handled spatula, Thorpe was enabled after much labor to scrape away entirely the hair and grain. He cut from the edge of the hide a number of long strips of raw-hide, but anointed the body of the skin liberally with the brain liquor.
"Glad I don't have to do that every day!" he commented, wiping his brow with the back of his wrist.
As the skin dried he worked and kneaded it to softness. The result was a fair quality of white buckskin, the first Thorpe had ever made. If wetted, it would harden dry and stiff. Thorough smoking in the fumes of punk maple would obviate this, but that detail Thorpe left until later.
"I don't know whether it's all necessary," he said to himself doubtfully, "but if you're going to assume a disguise, let it be a good one."
In the meantime, he had bound together with his rawhide thongs several of the oddly shaped pine timbers to form a species of dead-fall trap. It was slow work, for Thorpe's knowledge of such things was theoretical. He had learned his theory well, however, and in the end arrived.
All this time he had made no effort to look over the pine, nor did he intend to begin until he could be sure of doing so in safety. His object now was to give his knoll the appearances of a trapper's camp.
Towards the end of the week he received his first visit. Evening was drawing on, and Thorpe was busily engaged in cooking a panful of trout, resting the frying pan across the two green spruce logs between which glowed the coals. Suddenly he became aware of a presence at his side. How it had reached the spot he could not imagine, for he had heard no approach. He looked up quickly.
"How do," greeted the newcomer gravely.
The man was an Indian, silent, solemn, with the straight, unwinking gaze of his race.
"How do," replied Thorpe.
The Indian without further ceremony threw his pack to the ground, and, squatting on his heels, watched the white man's preparations. When the meal was cooked, he coolly produced a knife, selected a clean bit of hemlock bark, and helped himself. Then he lit a pipe, and gazed keenly about him. The buckskin interested him.
"No good," said he, feeling of its texture.
Thorpe laughed. "Not very," he confessed.
"Good," continued the Indian, touching lightly his own moccasins.
"What you do?" he inquired after a long silence, punctuated by the puffs of tobacco.
"Hunt; trap; fish," replied Thorpe with equal sententiousness.
"Good," concluded the Indian, after a ruminative pause.
That night he slept on the ground. Next day he made a better shelter than Thorpe's in less than half the time; and was off hunting before the sun was an hour high. He was armed with an old-fashioned smooth-bore muzzle-loader; and Thorpe was astonished, after he had become better acquainted with his new companion's methods, to find that he hunted deer with fine bird shot. The Indian never expected to kill or even mortally wound his game; but he would follow for miles the blood drops caused by his little wounds, until the animals in sheer exhaustion allowed him to approach close enough for a dispatching blow. At two o'clock he returned with a small buck, tied scientifically together for toting, with the waste parts cut away, but every ounce of utility retained.
"I show," said the Indian:--and he did. Thorpe learned the Indian tan; of what use are the hollow shank bones; how the spinal cord is the toughest, softest, and most pliable sewing-thread known.
The Indian appeared to intend making the birch-knoll his permanent headquarters. Thorpe was at first a little suspicious of his new companion, but the man appeared scrupulously honest, was never intrusive, and even seemed genuinely desirous of teaching the white little tricks of the woods brought to their perfection by the Indian alone. He ended by liking him. The two rarely spoke. They merely sat near each other, and smoked. One evening the Indian suddenly remarked:
"You look 'um tree."
"What's that?" cried Thorpe, startled.
"You no hunter, no trapper. You look 'um tree, for make 'um lumber."
The white had not begun as yet his explorations. He did not dare until the return of the logging crew or the passing of someone in authority at the up-river camp, for he wished first to establish in their minds the innocence of his intentions.
"What makes you think that, Charley?" he asked.
"You good man in woods," replied Injin Charley sententiously, "I tell by way you look at him pine."
"Charley," said he, "why are you staying here with me?"
"Big frien'," replied the Indian promptly.
"Why are you my friend? What have I ever done for you?"
"You gottum chief's eye," replied his companion with simplicity.
Thorpe looked at the Indian again. There seemed to be only one course.
"Yes, I'm a lumberman," he confessed, "and I'm looking for pine. But, Charley, the men up the river must not know what I'm after."
"They gettum pine," interjected the Indian like a flash.
"Exactly," replied Thorpe, surprised afresh at the other's perspicacity.
"Good!" ejaculated Injin Charley, and fell silent.
With this, the longest conversation the two had attempted in their peculiar acquaintance, Thorpe was forced to be content. He was, however, ill at ease over the incident. It added an element of uncertainty to an already precarious position.
Three days later he was intensely thankful the conversation had taken place.
After the noon meal he lay on his blanket under the hemlock shelter, smoking and lazily watching Injin Charley busy at the side of the trail. The Indian had terminated a long two days' search by toting from the forest a number of strips of the outer bark of white birch, in its green state pliable as cotton, thick as leather, and light as air. These he had cut into arbitrary patterns known only to himself, and was now sewing as a long shapeless sort of bag or sac to a slender beech-wood oval. Later it was to become a birch-bark canoe, and the beech-wood oval would be the gunwale.
So idly intent was Thorpe on this piece of construction that he did not notice the approach of two men from the down-stream side. They were short, alert men, plodding along with the knee-bent persistency of the woods-walker, dressed in broad hats, flannel shirts, coarse trousers tucked in high laced "cruisers "; and carrying each a bulging meal sack looped by a cord across the shoulders and chest. Both were armed with long slender scaler's rules. The first intimation Thorpe received of the presence of these two men was the sound of their voices addressing Injin Charley.
"Hullo Charley," said one of them, "what you doing here? Ain't seen you since th' Sturgeon district."
"Mak' 'um canoe," replied Charley rather obviously.
"So I see. But what you expect to get in this Godforsaken country?"
"Beaver, muskrat, mink, otter."
"Trapping, eh?" The man gazed keenly at Thorpe's recumbent figure.
"Who's the other fellow?"
Thorpe held his breath; then exhaled it in a long sigh of relief.
"Him white man," Injin Charley was replying, "him hunt too. He mak' 'um buckskin."
The landlooker arose lazily and sauntered toward the group. It was part of his plan to be well recognized so that in the future he might arouse no suspicions.
"Howdy," he drawled, "got any smokin'?"
"How are you," replied one of the scalers, eying him sharply, and tendering his pouch. Thorpe filled his pipe deliberately, and returned it with a heavy-lidded glance of thanks. To all appearances he was one of the lazy, shiftless white hunters of the backwoods. Seized with an inspiration, he said, "What sort of chances is they at your camp for a little flour? Me and Charley's about out. I'll bring you meat; or I'll make you boys moccasins. I got some good buckskin."
It was the usual proposition.
"Pretty good, I guess. Come up and see," advised the scaler. "The crew's right behind us."
"I'll send up Charley," drawled Thorpe, "I'm busy now makin' traps," he waved his pipe, calling attention to the pine and rawhide dead- falls.
They chatted a few moments, practically and with an eye to the strict utility of things about them, as became woodsmen. Then two wagons creaked lurching by, followed by fifteen or twenty men. The
last of these, evidently the foreman, was joined by the two scalers.
"What's that outfit?" he inquired with the sharpness of suspicion.
"Old Injin Charley--you remember, the old boy that tanned that buck for you down on Cedar Creek."
"Yes, but the other fellow."
"Oh, a hunter," replied the scaler carelessly.
The man laughed. "Couldn't be nothin' else," he asserted with confidence. "Regular old backwoods mossback."
At the same time Injin Charley was setting about the splitting of a cedar log.
"You see," he remarked, "I big frien'."