On the Claim
WE had been walking through close-woven Jack-pines. Did I say walking? Well, climbing is the better word; for if you have made your way through our Wisconsin woods with their fallen trunks — relics of great Norways and white-robed birches — with their masses of fern fronds, and their soft, deep beds of needles and luxuriant mosses; if you have threaded the stubborn maze of “ Yaks,” as the settlers call them, and guided your two feet successfully, keeping out of unexpected holes that tell of the “ furtive folk,” — if you have done this, you will agree that it is not unlike mounting a long ladder with steps far apart — a ladder that differs from Jacob’s in that this one leads not only to, but through, the Kingdom Beautiful.
Well, as I said, we had been walking, and as the result of an afternoon’s effort we had found one corner-post, for Statia is the proud possessor of a claim and for that reason owns four corner-posts, though I know that she has seen only one, the other three being on paper and in Mr. Ericcson’s head. Mr. Ericcson is a most important person in this region of scattered cabins and wilderness, — surveyor, carpenter, and autocrat in all matters of hunting and agriculture.
This claim is Statia’s latest hobby. She usually drives several at a time, but now she has found something so engrossing that it has taken the place of the D. A. R., settlement work, golf, stamp-, coin-, and china-collecting,socialism, and even the Woman’s Club; and she has come up here with one purpose,—that of holding a model claim, and building an ideal cabin, with a more than ideal boulder fireplace.
When she first proposed that we spend a summer in this big, new Northwest, I confess that my sisterly devotion was somewhat strained. I had always liked the country when I knew that I could get into it and out of it; but I had wanted the road to lead both ways, and I knew that in this scheme the arrow pointed in but one direction. Nevertheless, I assented, and there has been no regret. The spirit of the Wild has won me, and I love it, not only for the broad stretches, the hills, the lakes, and the remnants of the once noble forest, but also for the human interest that is already part of it. When man’s hold upon the soil is so slowly tightened, the struggle borrows from the romantic, and Hercules slaying Hydra is not more admired than is the patient grubber who finally pulls out the last root of the scrub-oak.
And now I go back to the corner-post. We had found it with the aid of two compasses and six pairs of eyes, for we had company and all had joined in the search. Statia had well-nigh caressed the rude little block, — the joy of ownership is strong within her, — while we had seated ourselves to rest and to admire, not the marker, but the tangled ravine below us. Suddenly Allen, our twelve-year old nephew, exclaimed, “ Why, what’s on that stone ? ” There, only a few feet below, on a huge rock-table, lay something distinct from the cones and mosses. It proved to be a book wrapped in a bit of gingham and tied with grass, — a cheaply bound copy of Lorna Doone. The fly-leaf bore the one word, “Jane.”
Now, in these parts, neighbor is spelled with a capital. Every settler knows every other settler within a wide radius, and even then his list of acquaintances is not long. And we — the “ summer folks ” — have in our sojourns learned, or caught, the same friendly curiosity. We knew the names of these daughters of the wilderness, — the Irish Maggie, Katie, and Mulvania, the four Swedish maidens who looked just alike; but among these and the few remaining we found no Jane.
Concluding that some hunter mast have dropped it, I kept the book and its wrappings as we started homeward, for the leveling rays told us that we must hasten if we would see the sun set while we were eating our bread and milk and blueberries on the screened-in porch — our latest pride.
We had just reached the trail when we saw approaching Hal Thrall, the young Abe Lincoln of our neighborhood, — a rather picturesque figure, too, —lank and awkward when ill-luck brings him into conversation, but almost graceful when wielding his mighty axe. Hal had worked for us as often as his own claim-duties had permitted, and I, the maker of muffins and johnnycakes, had several times wrung from him sentences! To be sure, they were blunt and embarrassed, but the strong, rugged features and the twinkle in the kind eyes had again suggested the great hero.
This time he came swinging along, his yellow wolf-dog at his heels. The man seemed to be looking for something, for his keen gaze was bent upon the blueberry and winter-green leaves that lined the path; but seeing us, he halted and his eyes fastened upon me.
“’Scuse me, Miss, but could I see you a minute ? ” The others went on and I stood beside the young giant, who, after much shifting and hesitating, blurted, —
“ Miss, you found that! ”
“ Yes, Mr. Thrall, I did — over on a big rock below the thick woods.”
“ Thankee, Miss. That’s where I was dinner hour.” Sunburn could not account for half the color that had kindled his honest face.
“ Lorna Doone is a beautiful story,” I remarked.
“ I ain’t much of a reader, but — I’ve heard it said.” The book was safe in his big hand, but still he stood.
Woman’s intuition is sometimes overcredited. That Hal Thrall should be confused was not strange, especially when the topic was literary. And now I led on blindly.
“ Mr. Thrall, we heard that you had given up your claim.”
“ Yes, ma’am, I’ve traded with Pete Rickbaum,”
“ I don’t know the Rickbaum claim. Where is it ? ”
“ Over by Moon’s corners — where the road’s like a double S. You know that white house ? ”
“The one next to the schoolhouse ? Why, Mr. Thrall, how are you going to run a bachelor shack over there ? You know whoever lives on that place has to board the school-mistress! ”
For a moment he faltered. Then came the answer — this time clear and steady:
“ Yes, ma’am, that’s just what I’m thinkin’ of doin’! ”