Chapter XXIV

Two boys turned loose on a present-day farm can find enough interesting things to do to fill a book much larger than this. For me to go into the details of that week's visit to Avon Dale would preclude any possible chance of your hearing the end of this story. And there are still many things that need telling.

But though no great or grave adventure befell the two boys while they stayed at the plantation, you may imagine the days they spent together. Back of the farm buildings lay the fields, all up and down the river bank for miles. And back of the fields, crowding close to the edge of the plowed ground, the big trees of an age-old forest rose. The great wild woods ran straight back from the plantation for five hundred miles, broken only by rivers and the steep slopes of the Alleghanies, as yet hardly heard of by white men. Giant oaks, ashes and tulip trees mingled with the pine and hemlock growth. The hillsides where the sun shone through were thick with rhododendron and laurel. And all through this sylvan paradise the upper branches and the underbrush teemed with wild life. Squirrels, partridges and occasional turkeys offered frequent marks for the long muzzle-loading rifles, while a thousand little song birds flitted constantly through the leaves. Jeremy had never seen such hunting in his colder northern country. The game was bigger and more dangerous in New England, but never had he found it so plentiful. As the boys were both good marksmen, a great rivalry sprang up between them. They scorned any but the hardest shots--the bright eye of a squirrel above a hickory limb fifty yards off or the downy form of a wood pigeon preening in a tree top. Though a good deal of powder and lead was spent in the process, they were shooting like old leather-stocking hunters by the end of the week.

The last two days had to be spent indoors, for a heavy autumn rain that came one night held over persistently and drenched the valley with a sullen, steady pour. Little muddy rivulets swept down across the fields and joined the already swollen current of the Brandywine. On the morning when they started back, the river was running high and fast and yellow along the low banks, but a bright sun shone, and a fresh breeze out of the west promised fair weather.

The horses were left at the plantation. They took their guns and a day's provisions and carried a long, narrow-beamed canoe down to the shore. It was a dugout, quite unlike the graceful birch affairs that Jeremy had seen among the Penobscots, but serviceable and seaworthy enough.

Job, happy to be on the water once more, took the stern paddle, Bob knelt in the bow, and Jeremy squatted amidships with the blankets and guns. With a cry of farewell to the kindly folk on the bank, they shoved out and shot away down the swift river.

It was exciting work. The stream had overflowed its banks for many yards and the brown water swirled in eddies among the trees. To keep the canoe in the main channel required judgment and good steering. Job proved equal to the occasion and though with their paddling the swiftness of the current gave the craft a speed of over ten miles an hour, he brought her down without mishap into a wide-spreading cove. They rested, drifting slowly across the slack water. "This can't be far from Cantwell's," Bob was saying, when Jeremy gave a startled exclamation, and pointed toward the shore, some fifty yards away. A little girl in a gray frock stood on the bank, her arms full of golden rod and asters. She had not seen the canoe, for she was looking behind her up the bank. At that instant there was a crashing in the brush and a big buck deer stepped out upon the shore, tossing his gleaming antlers to which a few shreds of summer "velvet" still clung. He was not twenty feet from the girl, who faced him, perfectly still, the flowers dropping one by one from her apron.

It was the rutting season and the buck was in a fighting mood. But he was puzzled by this small motionless antagonist. He hesitated a bare second before launching his wicked charge. Then as he bellowed his defiance there came a loud report. The buck's haunches wavered, then straightened with a jerk, as he made a great leap up the bank and fell dead. From Jeremy's long-barrelled gun a wisp of smoke floated away. Betty Cantwell sat down very suddenly and seemed about to cry, but as the canoe shot up to the shore she was smiling once more. They took her aboard and started down stream again. A few hundred yards brought them to the edge of the Cantwell clearing, where Bob hailed the negroes working in the field and gave them orders for bringing down the dead buck.

At the landing John Cantwell was waiting in some anxiety, for the sound of Jeremy's shot had reached him at the house. Bob told the story, somewhat to Jeremy's embarrassment, for nothing was spared in the telling. The Quaker thanked him with great earnestness and reproved his daughter gently for straying beyond the plantation.

After another of those famous dinners Job and the boys returned to their craft, for there were many miles to make before night. As Jeremy took up the bow paddle he waved to Betty on the bank, and thrilled with happiness at the shy smile she gave him. Once again they were in the current, shooting downstream toward tidewater.

It was mid-afternoon when they crossed the Brandywine bar and paddled past the docks of Wilmington. Outside in the Delaware there was a choppy sea that made their progress slower, and the sun had set when the slim little craft ran in for the beach above New Castle. The voyagers shouldered their packs and made their way up the High Street to the brick house.

When the greetings were over and the boys were changing their clothes before coming down for supper, Clarke Curtis entered their room. "Lads," he said, "I'd advise you to go early to bed tonight. You'll need a long rest, for in the morning you start overland for New York." At Bob's exclamation of surprise he went on to explain that the Indian Queen had weighed anchor two days before for that port, and as there was no other ship leaving the Delaware soon, he wished the boys to board her at New York for the voyage to New England. Both youngsters were overjoyed at the prospect of an early start. Bob, who had been promised that he could accompany his chum, was hilarious over the news, while Jeremy was too happy to speak.

Later, as they were packing their belongings for the trip, Job Howland came in. He, too, looked excited. "Jeremy, boy," he said, "I'd have liked to go north with you, but something else has come my way. Mr. Curtis bought a new schooner, the Tiger, last week, and she's being fitted out now for a coast trader. He offered me the chance to command her!"

"Three cheers!" shouted Bob. "Then New Castle will be your home port, and I'll see you after every voyage!"

The three comrades chatted of their prospects a while and shortly went to bed.