Chapter XLII. Autumn Work and Sport
 

The barn was now up, and the carpenters were roofing it in, while two days more of work would complete the sty and poultry-house. Every stroke of the hammer told rapidly now, and we all exulted over our new and better appliances for carrying out our plan of country life. Since the work was being done by contract, I contented myself with seeing that it was done thoroughly. Meanwhile Merton was busy with the cart, drawing rich earth from the banks of the creek. I determined that the making of great piles of compost should form no small part of my fall and winter labor. The proper use of fertilizers during the present season had given such a marked increase to our crops that it became clear that our best prospect of growing rich was in making the land rich.

During the last week of September the nights were so cool as to suggest frost, and I said to Mousie: "I think we had better take up your geraniums and other window plants, and put them in pots or boxes. We can then stand them under a tree which would shelter them from a slight frost. Should there be serious danger it would take us only a few minutes to bring them into the house. You have taken such good care of them all summer that I do not intend that you shall lose them now. Take your flower book and read what kind of soil they grow best in during the winter, and then Merton can help you get it."

The child was all solicitude about her pets, and after dinner she and Merton, the latter trundling a wheelbarrow, went down to the creek and obtained a lot of fine sand and some leaf-mould from under the trees in the woods. These ingredients we carefully mixed with rich soil from the flower-bed and put the compound in the pots and boxes around the roots of as many plants as there was room for on the table by the sunny kitchen window. Having watered them thoroughly, we stood them under a tree, there to remain until a certain sharpness in the air should warn us to carry them to their winter quarters.

The Lima-beans, as fast as the pods grew dry, or even yellow, were picked and spread in the attic. They could be shelled at our leisure on stormy winter days.

Early in September my wife had begun to give Mousie, Winnie, and Bobsey their lessons again. Since we were at some distance from a schoolhouse we decided to continue this arrangement for the winter with the three younger children. I felt that Merton should go to school as soon as possible, but he pleaded hard for a reprieve until the last of October, saying that he did not wish to begin before Junior. As we still had a great deal to do, and as the boy had set his heart on some fall shooting, I yielded, he promising to study all the harder when he began.

I added, however: "The evenings have grown so long that you can write for half an hour after supper, and then we will review your arithmetic together. It will do me good as well as you."

During the ensuing weeks we carried out this plan partially, but after a busy day in the open air we were apt to nod over our tasks. We were both taught the soundness of the principle that brain work should precede physical exercise.

The 1st day of October was bright, clear, and mild, and we welcomed the true beginning of fall in our latitude most gladly. This month competes with May in its fitness for ideal country life. The children voted it superior to all other months, feeling that a vista of unalloyed delights was opening before them. Already the butternuts were falling from several large trees on the place, and the burrs on the chestnuts were plump with their well-shielded treasures. Winnie and Bobsey began to gather these burrs from the lower limbs of an immense tree, eighteen feet in circumference, and to stamp out the half-brown nuts within.

"One or two frosts will ripen them and open the burrs," I said, and then the children began to long for the frost which I dreaded.

While I still kept the younger children busy for a few hours every clear morning in the garden, and especially at clipping the runners from the strawberry plants in the field, they were given ample time to gather their winter hoards of nuts. This pursuit afforded them endless items for talk, Bobsey modestly assuring us that he alone would gather about a million bushels of butternuts, and almost as many chestnuts and walnuts. "What will the squirrels do then?" I asked.

"They must do as I do," he cried; "pick up and carry off as fast as they can. They'll have a better chance than me, too, for they can work all day long. The little scamps are already taking the nuts off the trees--I've seen 'em, and I wish Merton would shoot 'em all."

"Well, Merton," said I, laughing, "I suppose that squirrels are proper game for you; but I hope that you and Junior won't shoot robins. They are too useful a bird to kill, and I feel grateful for all the music they've given us during the past summer. I know the law permits you to shoot them now, but you and Junior should be more civilized than such a law."

"If we don't get 'em, everybody else will, and we might as well have our share," he replied.

I knew that there was no use in drawing the reins too tight, and so I said: "I have a proposition to make to you and Junior. I'd like you both to promise not to shoot robins except on the wing. That will teach you to be expert and quick-eyed. A true sportsman is not one who tries to kill as much game as possible, but to kill scientifically, skilfully. There is more pleasure in giving your game a chance, and in bringing it down with a fine long shot, than in slaughtering the poor creatures like chickens in a coop. Anybody can shoot a robin, sitting on a bough a few yards off, but to bring one down when in rapid flight is the work of a sportsman. Never allow yourself to be known as a mere 'pot-hunter.' For my part, I had rather live on pork than on robins or any useful birds."

He readily agreed not to fire at robins except when flying, and to induce Junior to do likewise. I was satisfied that not many of my little favorites would suffer.

"Very well," I said, "I'll coax Mr. Jones to let Junior off to- morrow, and you can have the entire day to get your hands in. This evening you can go down to the village and buy a stock of ammunition."

The boy went to his work happy and contented.

"Papa, where can we dry our butternuts?" Winnie asked.

"I'll fix a place on the roof of the shed right away," I said. "Its slope is very gradual, and if I nail some slats on the lower side you can spread the millions of bushels that you and Bobsey will gather."

Now Bobsey had a little wagon, and, having finished his morning stint of work, he, with Mousie and Winnie, started off to the nearest butternut-tree; and during the remainder of the day, with the exception of the time devoted to lessons, loads came often to the shed, against which I had left a ladder. By night they had at least one of the million bushels spread and drying.

As they brought in their last load about five o'clock in the afternoon I said to them, "Come and see what I've got."

I led the way to the sty, and there were grunting three half-grown pigs. Now that the pen was ready I had waited no longer, and, having learned from Rollins that he was willing to sell some of his stock, had bought three sufficiently large to make good pork by the 1st of December.

The children welcomed the new-comers with shouts; but I said: "That won't do. You'll frighten them so that they'll try to jump out of the pen. Run now and pick up a load of apples in your wagon and throw them to the pigs. They'll understand and like such a welcoming better;" and so it proved.

At supper I said: "Children, picking up apples, which was such fun this evening, will hereafter be part of your morning work, for a while. In the room over the sty is a bin which must be filled with the fallen apples before any nuts can be gathered."

Even Bobsey laughed at the idea that this was work; but I knew that it would soon become so. Then Mousie exclaimed, "Papa, do you know that the red squirrels are helping us to gather nuts?"

"If so, certainly without meaning it. How?"

"Well, as we were coming near one of the trees we saw a squirrel among the branches, and we hid behind a bush to watch him. We soon found that he was tumbling down the nuts, for he would go to the end of a limb and bite cluster after cluster. The thought that we would get the nuts so tickled Bobsey that he began to laugh aloud, and then the squirrel ran barking away."

"You needn't crow so loud, Bobsey," I said. "The squirrel will fill many a hole in hollow trees before winter, in spite of you."

"I'll settle his business before he steals many more of our nuts," spoke up Merton.

"You know the squirrel wasn't stealing, my boy. The nuts grew for him as truly as for you youngsters. At the same time I suppose he will form part of a pot-pie before long."

"I hate to think that such pretty little creatures should be killed," said Mousie.

"I feel much the same," I admitted; "and yet Merton will say we cannot indulge in too much sentiment. You know that we read that red squirrels are mischievous in the main. They tumble little birds out of their nests, carry off corn, and I have seen them gnawing apples for the sake of the seeds. It wouldn't do for them to become too plentiful. Moreover, game should have its proper place as food, and as a means of recreation. We raise chickens and kill them. Under wise laws, well enforced, nature would fill the woods, fields, and mountains with partridges, quail, rabbits, and other wholesome food. Remember what an old and thickly settled land England is, yet the country is alive with game. There it is protected on great estates, but here the people must agree to protect it for themselves."

"Junior says," Merton explained, "that the partridges and rabbits in the mountains are killed off by foxes and wild-cats and wood- choppers who catch them in traps and snares."

"I fancy the wood-choppers do the most harm. If I had my way, there would be a big bounty for the destruction of foxes, and a heavy fine for all trappers of game. The country would be tenfold more interesting if it were full of wild, harmless, useful creatures. I hope the time will come when our streams will be again thoroughly stocked with fish, and our wild lands with game. If hawks, foxes, trappers, and other nuisances could be abolished, there would be space on yonder mountains for partridges to flourish by the million. I hope, as the country grows older, that the people will intelligently co-work with nature in preserving and increasing all useful wild life. Every stream, lake, and pond could be crowded with fish, and every grove and forest afford a shelter and feeding-ground for game. There should be a wise guardianship of wild life, such as we maintain over our poultry-yards, and skill exercised in increasing it. Then nature would supplement our labors, and furnish a large amount of delicious food at little cost."

"Well, papa, I fear I shall be gray before your fine ideas are carried out. From what Junior says, I guess that Bagley and his children, and others like them, will get more game this winter than we will, and without firing a shot. They are almost as wild as the game itself, and know just where to set their snares for it. I can't afford to wait until it's all killed off, or till that good time comes of which you speak, either. I hope to shoot enough for a pot- pie at least to-morrow, and to have very good sport while about it."

"I have good news about the Bagley children," said my wife. "I was down there to-day, and all the children begin school next Monday. Between clothes which our children have outgrown, and what Mrs. Bagley has been able to buy and make, all three of the young Bagleys make a very respectable appearance. I took it upon myself to tell the children that if they went to school regularly we would make them nice Christmas presents."

"And I confirm the bargain heartily," I cried. "Merton, look out for yourself, or the Bagley boy will get ahead of you at school."

He laughed and, with Junior, started for the village, to get their powder and shot.

The next morning after preparing a good lot of cartridges before breakfast, the two boys started, and, having all day before them, took their lunches with the intention of exploring Schunemunk Mountain. The squirrels, birds, and rabbits near home were reserved for odd times when the lads could slip away for a few hours only.

Our new barn, now about completed, gave my wife and me as much pleasure as the nuts and game afforded the children. I went through it, adding here and there some finishing touches and little conveniences, a painter meanwhile giving it a, final coat of dark, cheap wash.

Our poultry-house was now ready for use, and I said to Winnie, "To- night we will catch the chickens and put them in it."

The old horse had already been established in the stable, and I resolved that the cow should come in from this time. In the afternoon I began turning over the fodder corn, and saw that a very tew more days would cure it. Although I decided not to begin the main husking until after the middle of the month, I gathered enough ears to start the pigs on the fattening process. Toward night I examined the apples, and determined to adopt old Mr. Jarmson's plan of picking the largest and ripest at once, leaving the smaller and greener fruit to mature until the last of the month. The dark cellar was already half filled with potatoes, but the space left for such apples as we should pick was ready. From time to time when returning from the village I had brought up empty barrels; and in some of these, earlier kinds, like tall pippins and greenings, had been packed and shipped to Mr. Bogart. By his advice I had resolved to store the later varieties and those which would keep well, disposing of them gradually to the best advantage. I made up my mind that the morrow should see the beginning of our chief labor in the orchard. I had sold a number of barrels of windfalls, but they brought a price that barely repaid us. My examination of the trees now convinced me that there should be no more delay in taking off the large and fine- looking fruit.

With the setting sun Merton and Junior arrived, scarcely able to drag their weary feet down the lane. Nevertheless their fatigue was caused by efforts entirely after their own hearts, and they declared that they had had a "splendid time." Then they emptied their game- bags. Each of the boys had a partridge, Merton one rabbit, and Junior two. Merton kept up his prestige by showing two gray squirrels to Junior's one. Bed squirrels abounded, and a few robins, brought down on the wing as the boys had promised.

I was most interested in the rattles of the deadly snake which Junior had nearly stepped on and then shot.

"Schunemunk is full of rattlers," Junior said.

"Please don't hunt there any more then," I replied.

"No, we'll go into the main Highlands to the east'ard next time."

Merton had also brought down a chicken hawk; and the game, spread out on the kitchen table, suggested much interesting wild life, about which I said we should read during the coming winter, adding: "Well, boys, you have more than earned your salt in your sport to- day, for each of you has supplied two game dinners. We shall live like aldermen now, I suppose."

"Yes," cried Merton, "whetheryou call me 'pot-hunter' or not, I mean my gun to pay its way."

"I've no objections to that," was my laughing answer, "as long as you shoot like a sportsman, and not like a butcher. Your guns, boys, will pay best, however, in making you strong, and in giving you some well-deserved fun after your busy summer. I feel that you have both earned the right to a good deal of play this month, and that you will study all the harder for it by and by."

"I hope you'll talk father into that doctrine," said Junior, as he sat down to supper with us.

The boys were drowsy as soon as they had satisfied their keen appetites, and Mousie laughed at them, saying that she had been reading how the boa-constrictor gorged himself and then went to sleep, and that they reminded her of the snake.

"I guess I'll go home after that," said Junior.

"Now you know I was only poking a little fun," said Mousie, ruefully, as she ran into the kitchen and gathered up his game for him, looking into his face so archly and coaxingly that he burst out: "You beat all the game in the country. I'll shoot a blue jay, and give you its wings for your hat, see if I don't;" and with this compliment and promise he left the child happy.

Merton was allowed to sleep late the next morning, and was then set to work in the orchard, I dividing my time between aiding in picking the apples and turning over the fodder corn.

"You can climb like a squirrel, Merton, and I must depend on you chiefly for gathering the apples. Handle them like eggs, so as not to bruise them, and then they will keep better. After we have gone over the trees once and have stacked the fodder corn you shall have a good time with your gun."

For the next few days we worked hard, and nearly finished the first picking of the apples, also getting into shocks the greater part of the corn. Then came a storm of wind and rain, and the best of the apples on one tree, which, we had neglected, were soon lying on the ground, bruised and unfit for winter keeping.

"You see, Merton," I said, "that we must manage to attend to the trees earlier next year. Live and learn."

The wind came out of the north the day after the storm, and Mr. Jones shouted, as he passed down the road, "Hard frost to-night!"

Then indeed we bustled around. Mousie's flowers were carried in, the Lima-bean poles, still hanging full of green pods more or less filled out, were pulled up and stacked together under a tree, some tomato-vines, with their green and partially ripe fruit, were taken up by the roots and hung under the shed, while over some other vines a covering was thrown toward night.

"We may thus keep a supply of this wholesome vegetable some weeks longer," I said.

Everything that we could protect was looked after; but our main task was the gathering of all the grapes except those hanging against the sides of the house. These I believed would be so sheltered as to escape injury. We had been enjoying this delicious fruit for some time, carrying out our plan, however, of reserving the best for the market. The berries on the small clusters were just as sweet and luscious, and the children were content.

Sure enough, on the following morning white hoar-frost covered the grass and leaves.

"No matter," cried Winnie, at the breakfast-table; "the chestnut burrs are opening."

By frequent stirring the rest of the corn-fodder was soon dried again, and was stacked like the rest. Then we took up the beets and carrots, and stored them also in the root cellar.

We had frost now nearly every night, and many trees were gorgeous in their various hues, while others, like the butternuts, were already losing their foliage.

The days were filled with delight for the children. The younger ones were up with the sun to gather the nuts that had fallen during the night, Merton accompanying them with his gun, bringing in squirrels daily, and now and then a robin shot while flying. His chief exploit however was the bagging of half a dozen quails that unwarily chose the lower part of our meadow as a resort. Then he and Junior took several long outings in the Highlands, with fair success; for the boys had become decidedly expert.

"If we only had a dog," said Merton, "we could do wonders."

"Both of you save your money next summer, and buy one," I replied; "I'll give you a chance, Merton."

By the middle of the month the weather became dry and warm, and the mountains were almost hidden in an Indian summer haze.

"Now for the corn-husking," I said, "and the planting of the ground in raspberries, and then we shall be through with our chief labors for the year,"

Merton helped me at the husking, but I allowed him to keep his gun near, and he obtained an occasional shot which enlivened his toil. Two great bins over the sty and poultry-house received the yellow ears, the longest and fairest being stored in one, and in the other the "nubbin's," speedily to be transformed into pork. Part of the stalks were tied up and put in the old "corn-stalk barn," as we called it, and the remainder were stacked near. Our cow certainly was provided for.

Brindle now gave too little milk for our purpose, whereas a farmer with plenty of fodder could keep her over the winter to advantage. I traded her off to a neighboring farmer for a new milch cow, and paid twenty dollars to boot. We were all great milk-topers, while the cream nearly supplied us with butter.

Having removed the corn, Mr. Jones plowed the field deeply, and then Merton and I set out the varieties of raspberries which promised best in our locality, making the hills four feet apart in the row, and the rows five feet from one another. I followed the instructions of my fruit book closely, and cut back the canes of the plants to six inches, and sunk the roots so deep as to leave about four inches of soil above them, putting two or three plants in the hill. Then over and about the hills we put on the surface of the ground two shovelfuls of compost, finally covering the plants beneath a slight mound of earth. This would protect them from the severe frost of winter.

These labors and the final picking of the apples brought us to the last week of the month. Of the smaller fruit, kept clean and sound for the purpose, we reserved enough to make two barrels of cider, of which one should go into vinegar, and the other be kept sweet, for our nut-crackings around the winter fire. Bobsey's dream of "millions of bushels" of nuts had not been realized, yet enough had been dried and stored away to satisfy even his eyes. Not far away an old cider-mill was running steadily, and we soon had the barrels of russet nectar in our cellar. Then came Saturday, and Merton and Junior were given one more day's outing in the mountains with their guns. On the following Monday they trudged off to the nearest public school, feeling that they had been treated liberally, and that brain-work must now begin in earnest. Indeed from this time forth, for months to come, school and lessons took precedence of everything else, and the proper growing of boys and girls was the uppermost thought.