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A Maple Sugar Camp In The Wilderness








From: Far Past The Frontier

Selecting a stout limb for his purpose, Ree set to work to cut and trim
it, making a short, heavy club. He believed that if he should jump
suddenly down among the wolves, their surprise would be so great as to
keep them away for perhaps a second--long enough to permit him to seize
his rifle, and again fight his way into the tree. As he trimmed the thick
branch, however, an increasing danger presented itself. The unusual
howling of the pack and the scent of blood were attracting other wolves
to the spot. Before his club was ready, he had counted seven newcomers
galloping through the snow to join their blood-thirsty brothers.

To put his life in peril by jumping down among so many of the fierce
creatures was to run a greater risk than Ree thought wise; but his
fertile brain presented a new plan. He partially split one end of his
club and securely bound the handle of the knife in the opening thus made,
with strips of buckskin cut from his clothing. In this way he made a
strong but cumbersome spear, and holding to the lowest branch of the
tree, he leaned far down and stabbed and slashed at every wolf within
reach.

Several were wounded and their yelps of pain and rage were added to the
hideous, hungry cries of the others. Again and again the bold boy cut and
thrust as the wolves kept coming within his reach. The snow was dyed with
blood. For half an hour the battle was carried on.

At last by a lucky stroke Ree gave one of the howling mass beneath him so
deep a cut across the neck, that it sprang but a few yards away and fell
dead, its head half cut off. At once the others pounced upon the wolf's
body, tearing it to pieces, scrambling and fighting in a most horrible
manner.

Now was Ree's chance. He leaped quickly to the ground and seized his
blood-stained rifle; in another moment he would have been safe. But he
was so chilled--so stiff from the cold, that he missed his hold when
first he sprang to catch the lowest branch, and before he could try
again, a monstrous gray wolf dashed toward him. With a hungry howl, its
jaws dripping blood, it launched itself through the air, straight for
Ree's throat.

With wonderful nerve the boy stood his ground. He did not falter, nor
hesitate. He met the hot-mouthed, vicious brute, his rude spear clasped
in both hands, and drove the blade deep in its shaggy shoulder. With an
almost human shriek and ferocity the wolf sprang sidewise under the
impulse of the steel's sharp thrust, and the spear quivering in its
flesh, was jerked from the boys' hands.

Ree's first impulse was to run in pursuit, as the wolf dashed into the
woods, to recover his knife; but in an instant the whole pack was upon
him again, having made short work of their cannibal-like feast, and only
by the greatest dexterity was he able again to seize his rifle and climb
to safety, ere they reached him.

"Now some of you will smart!" the half-frozen boy exclaimed, and he
clenched his teeth in righteous anger. Shot after shot he poured into the
blood-thirsty brutes, and watched with horror as those remaining alive
pounced upon the dying ones. Four wolves he killed and two he wounded,
then sat still awhile to catch his breath and scrutinize the dozen
animals remaining, to see whether the one in whose body his knife had
been carried off, was there. He did not see it, though the twilight gloom
was now dispelled by bright moonlight. So, soon he resumed the terrible
execution he had wrought among the pack, and was firing as fast as he
could load, when he heard John's familiar whistle.

"Watch out, John! There are still eight of the fiercest wolves you ever
saw here!" he called in warning, but almost simultaneously his chum's
rifle sounded, and but seven wolves remained. Another and another went
down to death and the five which were left, taking fright at last, sped
away among the timber, howling dismally.

"You had me scared into fits, almost," John cried, as Ree climbed down.
"Why, how cold you are!" he exclaimed, grasping his friend's hand. "And
your teeth are chattering! How did it happen any way? Come along home!"

"I'll tell you about it; but we'd better skin the wolves that have not
been half eaten, first. Bloody as a battle field, isn't it?"

"Skin nothing! Come along! It is most terribly cold and you are half
frozen. We can get the skins in the morning if there is any thing left of
them."

For once Ree yielded and when he had recovered his snow-shoes John
marched him off at a pace which soon put his blood in circulation.

If ever the young pioneers appreciated the rude comforts of their cabin,
they did that night. It was sweet to feel snug and warm and safe, as Ree
told the story of his adventure more fully than at first; to stretch
their weary legs toward the crackling fire and lean back in the fur
covered seat they had constructed. It was pleasant to eat a lunch of nuts
secured from the Indians, and venison steaks cut thin and broiled crisp.
It was comfortable to creep into bed and lie awake and talk of their
plans; of their friends in far away Connecticut; of incidents of their
trip; of the strange absence of Tom Fish; of the sad story of Arthur
Bridges--of many, many things.

And it was pleasant to watch with half closed eyes, the firelight dancing
on the rough cabin walls, shining in the little looking glass near the
door, showing the rifles within easy reach in the corner near the bed;
the two sets of pistols in their hostlers on the table they had made; the
gleaming blades of their axes, beside the fire-place; the books Ree loved
so well, arranged on a board from the old cart, which did duty as a
mantel, and John's fife beside them; the frying-pan and their few dishes
on and in a little cupboard in the corner. It was sweet, too, to fall
asleep at last and dream of the present, past and future--enjoying the
perfect rest which the fatigue of honest, hard work by those possessed of
honest hearts must ever bring.

The boys were very tired this night, partly from the unusual exercise of
walking so far on snow-shoes, no doubt. But they slept soundly and were
early awake. Directly after breakfast they visited the scene of the fight
with the wolves. They little expected to find anything left of their
victims, excepting bones, but they greatly desired to find the knife
which had been Capt. Bowen's present.

Bones they did find--but nothing else. There was every evidence of a
ghastly feast having been eaten by the wolves and other animals during
the night. Even the skeletons of those which had been slaughtered, were
torn to pieces, and for rods around the snow was dyed crimson.

To cry over spilled milk was no part of Ree's disposition, and though he
deeply regretted the loss of his knife, he did not allow himself to be
dispirited, though little he thought how important a part in their
adventures the knife was yet to play.

In their walks about the woods at different times, Ree and John had
observed that there were many sugar maples near their cabin and had
agreed that they must make some sugar when spring came. That very
afternoon, therefore, they began preparations.

Blocks of wood, cut into lengths of about two feet, they hollowed out
with their axes, making troughs in which to catch the sap of maples. The
work was tedious and many a trough was split and spoiled when all but
completed, before they caught the knack of avoiding this by striking
curved strokes with their axes, and not letting the blades cut in deeply,
in line with the grain of the wood.

This work, and the making of spouts by punching the pith out of sumac
branches occupied several days. Not all their time could be given to it,
however, as traps must be visited and Indians given attention; for now
that the weather was becoming warm the savages came frequently, often
with many furs secured during winter hunting expeditions.

"We have made a pretty good living and a nice sum of money for each of
us, when our furs shall have been marketed, and have also made ourselves
a home," said Ree one day, as they were estimating the probable value of
their stores. "After deducting for all losses, we will still have done
splendidly if we are fortunate in getting the skins to Pittsburg or
Detroit and working a fair bargain with the buyers."

"We better get a good canoe Ree, and learn to use it; then we can take
the furs from here to Detroit by water, traveling along the shore of Lake
Erie," John suggested. "Capt. Pipe has a couple of fine, big canoes of
his own, buried for the winter. I believe he would sell us one."

"We will go and have a talk with him about it soon," Ree answered. But it
was not for many days that the lads found time to do this.

Fine weather came sooner than they expected. The spring of 1791 was one
of the earliest known to the section which is now Northern Ohio. Even in
February the sun came out bright and warm and the cold winds
disappeared.

John and Ree awoke one morning after a rainy night to find the water high
in the river, the ice gone and the air as mild as on a day in May.

"Hooray! I've a mind to take a swim!" John shouted, looking with
enthusiasm at the high water.

"I wish we had our canoe now," Ree joined in; "but I'll tell you, old
chap, we must get our maples tapped, if we are to get any sugar."

John turned away from watching the swift, deep current with a sigh.
Somehow he did not feel like working; but under Ree's influence he soon
forgot his "spring fever" feeling, and with a small auger bored holes in
the trees. Into these holes Ree drove the spouts, placing a trough
beneath each one, to catch the sap which at once began to flow.

As all the trees were near the cabin the boys might have carried the sap
to their fire-place for boiling, but as this would necessitate the
carrying of a great deal of wood, they hung their largest kettle on a
pole laid across two forked sticks driven in the ground for that purpose,
just at the top of the hill near the edge of the clearing.

By noon enough sap was collected in the troughs to make it necessary to
begin the boiling, and from then on through all that day and the next,
one of the boys was constantly busy, keeping the fire blazing hot and
gathering sap to keep the kettle well filled, as the water was boiled
away, leaving only its sweetness. At last they added no fresh sap but
allowed the syrup in the kettle to boil down thicker and thicker making
in the end, most delicious molasses.

The boys finished the boiling in the cabin that night, and when the syrup
had become thick enough, they were able by stirring and cooling it, to
make an excellent quality of sugar. And it had been so long since either
of them had tasted sweets, that the maple's fine product was indeed a
treat. The prospect that they would be able to make enough sugar to last
them until another spring, was highly agreeable, and they were willing
enough to work hard during many days which followed.

One regret the boys had, was that they possessed but two kettles, neither
of which was very large; but they boiled sap in both and found that by
greasing the upper edges of the vessels that they could keep them quite
full and still the sap would not boil over.

They also tried the very primitive method used by the Indians before they
had kettles in which to make sugar. Several large, nearly round stones
were washed clean, then heated very hot in the fire. With improvised
tongs they were then lifted into a large keg of cold sap. As this
operation was constantly repeated, the sap was heated and slowly
evaporated.

The process proved so very slow and laborious, however, that the boys
soon abandoned it. But while the experiment was being tried, something
occurred which made John laugh until he held his sides. The keg of sap
had been heated to almost a boiling point, and putting a couple of large,
hot stones in it both boys left the camp, John to gather more sap and Ree
to chop some wood.

As John was returning, he discovered a young bear prowling about the
camp. The animal evidently had not been long out of its winter quarters
and was hungry. It sniffed the sweet odor which came from the evaporating
maple water, and ambled up to the keg.

Quietly John ran and called Ree, and they both hurried softly back just
as the bear put its nose deep into the hot sap. A squeal of pain
followed, and the poor cub nearly turned a backward somersault, with such
sudden energy did it take its nose out of the keg. Wild with the smarting
burns the creature rushed blindly about, almost burying its head in the
cool leaves and earth, and missing its footing, somehow, as it approached
a steep part of the hill, fell and rolled to the bottom, squealing and
growling woefully. Before John could check his laughter, the bear had
picked itself up and trotted swiftly away, and Ree was willing to let it
go unharmed, though he could have shot it.

This incident set the boys to thinking. Bruin evidently knew the smell of
honey better than of sap. All bears delight in sweet things, and Ree said
he had no doubt there were bee trees in the neighborhood. At any rate,
the lads decided, it would be well worth while to be on the lookout for
them as they were about the woods during the spring and summer.

Continued fine weather put an end to the maple season. In a fortnight the
buds began to open on the trees and the flow of sap ceased. About this
time, too, the Portage trail, not far away, was constantly traversed by
redskins, many of them strangers, and there were daily calls at the cabin
of the young Palefaces. So there was much to do; the spring crops must be
planted, the pile of furs must be taken to market and fences must be
completed to keep deer and other animals out of the cornfield they
proposed having.

There was another thing needing early attention, and that was the
securing of land at the junction of the Portage trail and the river. For
the boys could not but see how advantageous that place would be as a
trading point, and they wished to build a new and larger cabin there.
Moreover, as the country was opened up and settled, the land about so
favorable a site for a town would probably become very valuable.

"We will go to see Capt. Pipe to-morrow, and bargain with him for a
canoe, and for some land where the trail and the river meet," said Ree
one warm March night as they sat on the doorstep of their cabin, in the
moonlight.





Next: The Hatred Of Big Buffalo

Previous: Treed By Wolves



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