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CHAPTER IV. PROFESSIONAL SOCIETY.

The deacon's cowhide cut deep; but the thrashing didn't last long: and after it was all over, Hiram wandered out aimlessly by himself, down the snowclad valley of Muddy Creek, and along to the wooded wilds and cranberry marshes near the Ontario debouchure, to forget his troubles and the lasting smart of the weals in watching the beasts and birds among the frozen lowlands. He had never been so far from home before, but the weather and the ice were in his favour, enabling him to get over an amount of ground he wouldn't have tried to cover in the dry summer time. He had his skates with him, and he skated where possible, taking them off to walk over the intervening land necks or drifted snow-sheets. The ice was glare in many places, so that one could skate on it gloriously; and before he had got half-way down to Nine-Mile Bottom he had almost forgotten all about the deacon, and the sermon, and the beating, and the threatened ten chapters of St. John (the Gospel of Love the deacon called it) to be learned by heart before next Lord's day, in expiation of the heinous crime of having read that pernicious work the 'Vicar of Wakefield.' It was the loveliest spot he had ever seen in all his poor unlovely little existence.

Close under the cranberry trees, by a big pool where the catfish would be sure to live in summer, Hiram heard men's voices, whispering low and quiet to one another. A great joy filled his soul. He could see at once by their dress and big fur caps what they were. They were trappers! One piece of romance still survived in Geauga County, among the cranberry swamps and rush beds where the flooded creek flowed sluggishly into the bosom of Ontario; and on that one piece of romance he had luckily lighted by pure accident. Trappers! Yes, not a doubt of it! He struck out on his skates swiftly but noiselessly toward them, and joined the three men without a word as they stood taking counsel together below their breath on the ice-bound marshland.

'Hello, sonny!' one of the men said in a low undertone. 'Say whar did you drop from? What air you comin' spyin' out a few peaceable surveyors for, eh? Tell me.'

'I didn't think you was surveyors,' Hiram answered, a little disappointed. 'I thought you was trappers.' And at the same time he glanced suspiciously at the peculiar little gins that the surveyors held in their great gauntleted hands, for all the world like Oneida traps for musk-rats.

The man noticed the glance and laughed to himself a smothered laugh—the laugh of a person accustomed always to keep very quiet. 'The young un has spotted us, an' no mistake, boys,' he said, laughing, to the others. 'He's a bit too 'cute to be took in with the surveyor gammon. What do you call this 'ere, sonny?'

'I calc'late that's somewhar near a mink trap,' Hiram answered, breathless with delight.

'Wal, it is a mink trap,' the trapper said slowly, looking deep into the boy's truthful eyes. 'Now, who sent you down here to track us out and peach upon us; eh, Bob?'

'Nobody sent me,' Hiram replied, with his blue eyes looking deep back into the trapper's keen restless grey pair. 'I kem out all o' my own accord, 'cos father gave me a lickin' this mornin', an' I've kem out jest to get away for a bit alone somewhar.'

'Who's your father?' asked the man still suspiciously.

'Deacon Winthrop, down to Muddy Creek Deepo.'

'Deacon Winthrop! Oh, I know him, ruther. A tall, skinny, dried-up kind of fellow, ain't he, who looks as if most of his milk was turned sour, an' the Hopkinsite Confession was a settin' orful heavy on his digestion?'

Hiram nodded several times successively, in acknowledgment of the general accuracy of this brief description. 'That's him, you bet,' he answered with unfilial promptitude. 'I guess you've seed him somwhar, for that's him as like as a portrait. Look here, say, I'll draw him for you.' And the boy, taking his pencil from his pocket, drew as quickly as he was able on a scrap of birch-bark a humorous caricature of his respected parent, as he appeared in the very act of offering an unctuous exhortation to the Hopkinsite assembly at Muddy Creek meeting-house. It was very wrong and wicked, of course—a clear breach of the Fifth Commandment—but the deacon hadn't done much on his own account to merit honour or love at the hands of Hiram Winthrop.

The man took the rough sketch and laughed at it inwardly, with a suppressed chuckle. There was no denying, he saw, that it was the perfect moral of that thar freezed-up old customer down to the Deepo. He handed it with a smile to his two companions. They both recognised the likeness and the little additions which gave it point, and one of them, a Canadian as Hiram conjectured (for he spoke with a dreadful English accent—so stuck-up), said in the same soft undertone: 'Do you know where any mink live anywhere hereabouts?'

'A little higher up stream,' Hiram answered, overjoyed, 'I know every spot whar ther's any mink stirrin' for five miles round, anyhow.'

The Canadian turned to the others.

'Boys,' he said, 'you can trust the youngster. He won't peach on us. He's game, you may be sure. Now, youngster, we're trappers, as you guessed correctly. But you see, farmers don't love trappers, because they go trespassing, and overrunning the fields: and so we don't want you to say a word about us to this father of yours. Do you understand?'

Hiram nodded.

'You promise not to tell him or anybody?'

'Yes, I promise.'

'Well, then, if you like, you can come with us. We're going to set our traps now. You don't seem a bad sort of little chap, and you can see the fun out if you've a mind to.'

Hiram's heart bounded with excitement. What a magnificent prospect! He promised to show the trappers every spot he knew about the place where any fur-bearing animal, from ermine to musk-rat, was likely to be found. In ten minutes, all four were started off upon their skates once more, striking up the river in the direction of the deacon's, and setting traps by Hiram's advice as they went along, at every likely run or corner.

'You drew that picture real well,' the Canadian said, as they skated side by side: 'I could see it was the old man at a glance.'

Hiram's face shone with pleasure at this sincere compliment to his artistic merit. 'I could hev done it a long sight better,' he said simply, 'ef my hands hadn't been numbed a bit with the cold, so's I could hardly hold the pencil.'

It was a grand day, that day with the trappers—the gipsies of half-settled America; the grandest day Hiram had ever spent in his whole lifetime. How many musk-rats' burrows he pointed out to his new acquaintance along the bank of the creek; how many spots where the mink, that strange water-haunting weasel, lurks unseen among the frozen sedges! Here and there, too, he showed them the points where he had noticed the faint track of the ermine on the lightly fallen snow, and where they might place their traps across the path worn by the 'coons on their way to and from the Indian corn patch. It was cruel work, to be sure, setting those murderous snapping iron jaws, and perhaps if Hiram had thought more about the beasts themselves (whom after all he loved in his heart) he wouldn't have been so ready to aid their natural enemies in thus catching and exterminating them: but what boy is free from the aboriginal love of hunting something? Certainly not Hiram Winthrop, at least, to whom this one glimpse of a delightful wandering life among the woods and marshes—a life that wasn't all made up of bare fields and fall wheat and snake fences and cross-ploughing—seemed like a stray snatch of that impossible paradise he had read about in 'Peter Simple' and the 'Buccaneers of the Caribbean Sea.'

'Say, Bob,' the Canadian muttered to him as they were half-way through their work (in Northern New York every boy unknown is ex officio addressed as Bob), 'we shall be back in these diggings in the spring again, looking after the summer furs, you see. Now, don't you go and tell any other trappers about these places we've set, because trappers gener'ly (present company always excepted) is a pretty dishonest lot, and they'll poach on other trappers' grounds and even steal their furs and traps as soon as look at 'em. You stand by us and we'll stand by you, and take care you don't suffer by it.'

'When'll you come?' Hiram asked in the thrilling delight of anticipation.

'When the first spring days are on,' the Canadian answered. 'I'll tell you the best sign: it's no use going by days o' the month—we don't remember 'em mostly;—but it'll be about the time when the skunk cabbage begins to flower.'

Hiram made a note of the date mentally, and treasured it up in safety on the lasting tablets of his memory.

At about one o'clock the trappers sat down upon the frozen bank and ate their dinner. It would have been cold work to men less actively engaged; but skating and trapping warms your blood well. 'Got any grub?' one of the men asked Hiram, still softly. Your trapper seems almost to have lost the power of speaking above a whisper, and he moves stealthily as if he thought a spectral farmer was always dogging his steps close behind him.

'No, I ain't,' Hiram answered.

'Then, thunder, pitch into the basket,' his new friend said encouragingly.

Hiram obeyed, and made an excellent lunch off cold hare and lake ship-biscuit.

'Are you through?' the men asked at last.

'Yes,' Hiram replied.

'Then come along and see the fun out.'

They skated on, still upward, in the general direction of the blackberry bottom. When they got there, Hiram, now quite at home, pointed out even more accurately than ever the exact homes of each individual mink and ermine. So the men worked away eagerly at their task till the evening began to come over. Then Hiram, all aglow with excitement and wholly oblivious of all earthly considerations, became suddenly aware of a gaunt figure moving about among the dusky brushwood and making in the direction of his friends the trappers. 'Hello,' he cried to his new acquaintances in a frightened tone, 'you'd best cut it. Thar's the deacon.'

The Canadian laughed a short little laugh. 'All right, Bob,' he said coolly; 'we ain't afraid of him. If he touches you to hurt you, I surmise he'll find himself measuring his own height horizontally rather quicker than he expected.' The deacon overheard the alarming prediction, and, being a wise man in his generation, prudently abstained from making any hostile demonstration to Hiram in the presence of his self-constituted protectors. 'Good evenin', gents all,' he said, advancing blandly.

'I'd lost my son, d'ye see, an' I'd kem out right here to look after him. Hiram, you come along home, sonny; your mother's most out of her mind about you, I kin tell you.'

'Good evening, Colonel,' the Canadian answered in a determined fashion. 'We're sorry business has compelled us to trespass on your property; but the fur trade, Colonel, the fur trade is a pretty exacting profession. The Lord Chief Justice of England insists upon his ermine, you see, Colonel, and the demand compels the supply. We're all instruments, sir, instruments merely. Your boy's a pretty smart lad, and if he concentrates his mind upon the subject, I surmise that he'll grow up to be a pretty accomplished trapper.' (The deacon's disgust spoke out volubly at this suggestion even upon his lantern-jawed impassive countenance.) 'Well, sir, he's been very useful to us, and we particularly request that you won't lick him for it. We don't wish him to be hurt. We're law-abiding citizens, Colonel, but we won't let that boy be hurt. You understand, sir—pre-cisely so. Bob, we'll clear them traps on Saturday morning. You come then and report proceedings.'

'All right,' Hiram answered defiantly; 'I'll be along.'

'Good evenin', Colonel,' the three men said.

'Good evenin', gents all,' the deacon answered, boiling over with wrath, but smothering his rage till they were well off the premises.

Hiram turned and walked home in perfect silence by the side of his father. They had got inside the house before the deacon ventured to utter a single word, then he closed the door firmly, cuffed Hiram half a dozen times over about the head, and cried angrily, 'I was afeard, sonny, you'd got drownded in the creek, reely: I was afeard you was cut off in your sin this time; I was afeard of a judgment, I was: for I've reproved you often, sonny; you can't blame it agin me that I hain't reproved you often: and he that bein' often reproved hardeneth his neck shall suddenly be destroyed.'

'Wal,' Hiram cried through his tears (he was a stubborn un, some), 'it's you that hardens it, ain't it? What do you go allus hittin' it for?'

''Tain't that neck, you scoffin' sinner,' the deacon answered savagely, dealing him another cuff or two about the head. 'Tain't that neck, you know as well as I do: it's the sperritooal neck the prophet is alloodin' to. But you shall have some cow-hide, again, Hiram; don't you be afeard about it: you shan't go to reprobation unhindered ef I kin help it. 'The rod an' reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame. Mis' Winthrop, I'm afeard this son o' yours'ull bring you to shame yet, marm, with his sinful onregenerate practices. What's he bin doin'?

Now, you jest guess: why, bringin' a whole crowd of disrepootable trappers a-settin' mink-traps an' ermine-springes on his own father's blackberry lot. He ain't satisfied with the improvin' company he kin get to home, he ain't, but he must go consortin' and associatin' with a lot of no-account, skulkin', profane trappers—a mean crowd, a mob, a set of low fellers I wouldn't hold no intercourse with, anyhow. Hiram Winthrop, it's my belief you hev got no sense of the dignity of your persition.'

'I beg pardon, Colonel,' the Canadian interposed, lifting the latch of the front door lightly (it opened into the living room), 'but I wish gently to protest against them opprobrious epithets being out of thoughtlessness applied to the exacting perfession of the fur trade. The fur trade, sir, is a most noble perfession. The honourable Hudson Bay Company, for whose deepo at Kingston I trade, is a recognised public body, holding a charter from Queen Victoria, and reckoning among its officials several prominent gentlemen of the strictest probity. I should be sorry, Colonel, and my mates'ud be sorry, to cause any unpleasantness as a sequel to this little excursion: but we can't stand by and hear them opprobrious epithets applied to the noble per-fession of the fur trade, or to ourselves as its representatives in Geauga County. I'll trouble you, Colonel, to withdraw them words, right away, with a candid apology, and to give us your word of honour that you ain't going to thrash this little chap for the exertions he has made to-day on behalf of the noble perfession which me and my mates has the pleasure and honour of representing. Otherwise, I don't hesitate to say, Colonel, I surmise there'll be a little unpleasantness somewhere between us.'


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