The Long Rifle
Every evening before he began to tell stories, Pa made the bullets for his next day’s hunting. Laura and Mary helped him. They brought the big, long-handled spoon, and the box full of bits of lead, and the bullet-mold. Then while he squatted on the hearth and made the bullets, they sat one on each side of him, and watched.
First he melted the bits of lead in the big spoon held in the coals. When the lead was melted, he poured it carefully from the spoon into the little hole in the bullet-mold. He waited a minute, then he opened the mold, and out dropped a bright new bullet onto the hearth.
The bullet was too hot to touch, but it shone so temptingly that sometimes Laura or Mary could not help touching it. Then they burned their fingers. But they did not say anything, because Pa had told them never to touch a new bullet. If they burned their fingers, that was their own fault; they should have minded him. So they put their fingers in their mouths to cool them, and watched Pa make more bullets.
There would be a shining pile of them on the hearth before Pa stopped. He let them cool, then with his jack-knife he trimmed off the little lumps left by the hole in the mold. He gathered up the tiny shavings of lead and saved them carefully, to melt again the next time he made bullets.
The finished bullets he put into his bullet pouch. This was a little bag which Ma had made beautifully of buckskin, from a buck Pa had shot.
After the bullets were made, Pa would take his gun down from the wall and clean it. Out in the snowy woods all day, it might have gathered a little dampness, and the inside of the barrel was sure to be dirty from powder smoke.
So Pa would take the ramrod from its place under the gun barrel, and fasten a piece of clean cloth on its end. He stood the butt of the gun in a pan on the hearth and poured boiling water from the tea kettle into the gun barrel. Then quickly he dropped the ramrod in and rubbed it up and down, up and down, while the hot water blackened with powder smoke spurted out through the little hole on which the cap was placed when the gun was loaded.
Pa kept pouring in more water and washing the gun barrel with the cloth on the ramrod until the water ran out clear. Then the gun was clean. The water must always be boiling, so that the heated steel would dry instantly.
Then Pa put a clean, greased rag on the ramrod, and while the gun barrel was still hot he greased it well on the inside. With another clean, greased cloth he rubbed it all over, outside, until every bit of it was oiled and sleek. After that he rubbed and polished the gunstock until the wood of it was bright and shining, too.
Now he was ready to load the gun again, and Laura and Mary must help him. Standing straight and tall, holding the long gun upright on its butt, while Laura and Mary stood on either side of him, Pa said:
“You watch me, now, and tell me if I make a mistake.”
So they watched very carefully, but he never made a mistake.
Laura handed him the smooth, polished cow-horn full of gunpowder. The top of the horn was a little metal cap. Pa filled this cap full of the gun-powder and poured the powder down the barrel of the gun. Then he shook the gun a little, and tapped the barrel, to be sure that all the powder was together in the bottom.
“Where’s my patch box?” he asked then, and Mary gave him the little tin box full of little pieces of greased cloth. Pa laid one of these bits of greasy cloth over the muzzle of the gun, put one of the shiny new bullets on it, and with the ramrod he pushed the bullet and the cloth down the gun barrel.
Then he pounded them tightly against the powder. When he hit them with the ramrod, the ramrod bounced up in the gun barrel, and Pa caught it and thrust it down again. He did this for a long time.
Next he put the ramrod back in its place against the gun barrel. Then taking a box of caps from his pocket, he raised the hammer of the gun and slipped one of the little bright caps over the hollow pin that was under the hammer.
He let the hammer down, slowly and carefully. If it came down quicklyâ€”bang!â€”the gun would go off.
Now the gun was loaded, and Pa laid it on its hooks over the door.
When Pa was at home the gun always lay across those two wooden hooks above the door. Pa had whittled the hooks out of a green stick with his knife, and had driven their straight ends deep into holes in the log. The hooked ends curved upward and held the gun securely.
The gun was always loaded, and always above the door so that Pa could get it quickly and easily, any time he needed a gun.
When Pa went into the Big Woods, he always made sure that the bullet pouch was full of bullets, and that the tin patch box and the box of caps were with it in his pockets. The powder horn and a small sharp hatchet hung at his belt and he carried the gun ready loaded on his shoulder.
He always reloaded the gun as soon as he had fired it, for, he said, he did not want to meet trouble with an empty gun.
Whenever he shot at a wild animal, he had to stop and load the gunâ€”measure the powder, put it in and shake it down, put in the patch and the bullet and pound them down, and then put a fresh cap under the hammerâ€”before he could shoot again. When he shot at a bear or a panther, he must kill it with the first shot. A wounded bear or panther could kill a man before he had time to load his gun again.
But Laura and Mary were never afraid when Pa went alone into the Big Woods. They knew he could always kill bears and panthers with the first shot.
After the bullets were made and the gun was loaded, came story-telling time.
“Tell us about the Voice in the Woods,” Laura would beg him.
Pa crinkled up his eyes at her. “Oh, no!” he said. “You don’t want to hear about the time I was a naughty little boy.”
“Oh, yes, we do! We do!” Laura and Mary said. So Pa began.
The Story of Pa and the Voice in the Woods.
“WHEN I was a little boy, not much bigger than Mary, I had to go every afternoon to find the cows in the woods and drive them home. My father told me never to play by the way, but to hurry and bring the cows home before dark, because there were bears and wolves and panthers in the woods.
“One day I started earlier than usual, so I thought I did not need to hurry. There were so many things to see in the woods that I forgot that dark was coming. There were red squirrels in the trees, chipmunks scurrying through the leaves, and little rabbits playing games together in the open places. Little rabbits, you know, always have games together before they go to bed.
“I began to play I was a mighty hunter, stalking the wild animals and the Indians. I played I was fighting the Indians, until the woods seemed full of wild men, and then all at once I heard the birds twittering good night. It was dusky in the path, and dark in the woods.
“I knew that I must get the cows home quickly, or it would be black night before they were safe in the barn. And I couldn’t find the cows!
“I listened, but I could not hear their bells. I called, but the cows didn’t come.
“I was afraid of the dark and the wild beasts, but I dared not go home to my father without the cows. So I ran through the woods, hunting and calling. All the time the shadows were getting thicker and darker, and the woods seemed larger, and the trees and the bushes looked strange.
“I could not find the cows anywhere. I climbed up hills, looking for them and calling, and I went down into dark ravines, calling and looking. I stopped and listened for the cowbells and there was not a sound but the rustling of leaves.
“Then I heard loud breathing and thought a panther was there, in the dark behind me. But it was only my own breathing.
“My bare legs were scratched by the briars, and when I ran through the bushes their branches struck me. But I kept on, looking and calling, Sukey! Sukey!
“Sukey! Sukey!” I shouted with all my might. “Sukey!”
“Right over my head something asked, Who?”
“My hair stood straight on end.
“Who? Who?” the Voice said again. And then how I did run!
“I forgot all about the cows. All I wanted was to get out of the dark woods, to get home.
“That thing in the dark came after me and called again, Who-oo?
“I ran with all my might. I ran till I couldn’t breathe and still I kept on running. Something grabbed my foot, and down I went. Up I jumped, and then I ran. Not even a wolf could have caught me.
“At last I came out of the dark woods, by the barn. There stood all the cows, waiting to be let through the bars. I let them in, and then ran to the house.
“My father looked up and said, Young man, what makes you so late? Been playing by the way?”
“I looked down at my feet, and then I saw that one big-toe nail had been torn clean off. I had been so scared that I had not felt it hurt till that minute.”
Pa always stopped telling the story here, and waited until Laura said:
“Go on, Pa! Please go on.”
“Well,” Pa said, “then your Grandpa went out into the yard and cut a stout switch. And he came back into the house and gave me a good thrashing, so that I would remember to mind him after that.
“A big boy nine years old is old enough to remember to mind,” he said. “There’s a good reason for what I tell you to do,” he said, “and if you’ll do as you’re told, no harm will come to you.”
“Yes, yes, Pa!” Laura would say, bouncing up and down on Pa’s knee. “And then what did he say?”
He said, “If you’d obeyed me, as you should, you wouldn’t have been out in the Big Woods after dark, and you wouldn’t have been scared by a screech-owl.”
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