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مجموعه: سهم من از کوهستان / کتاب: سهم من از کوهستان / فصل 12

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In Which I Find a Real Live Man

One of the gasping joys of summer was my daily bath in the spring. It was cold water, I never stayed in long, but it woke me up and started me into the day with a vengeance.

I would tether Frightful to a hemlock bough above me and splash her from time to time. She would suck in her chest, look startled, and then shake. While I bathed and washed, she preened. Huddled down in the water between the ferns and moss, I scrubbed myself with the bark of the slippery elm. It gets soapy when you rub it.

The frogs would hop out and let me in, and the woodthrush would come to the edge of the pool to see what was happening. We were a gay gathering – me shouting, Frightful preening, the woodthrush cocking its pretty head. Occasionally The Baron Weasel would pop up and glance furtively at us. He didn’t care for water. How he stayed glossy and clean was a mystery to me, until he came to the boulder beside our bath pool one day, wet with, the dew from the ferns. He licked himself until he was polished.

One morning there was a rustle in the leaves above. Instantly, Frightful had it located. I had learned to look where Frightful looked when there were disturbances in the forest. She always saw life before I could focus my eyes. She was peering into the hemlock above us.

Finally I too saw it. A young raccoon, It was cluttering and now that all eyes were upon it began coming down the tree.

And so Frightful and I met Jessie Coon James, the bandit of the Gribley farm.

He came headfirst down to our private bath, a scrabbly, skinny young raccoon. He must have been from a late litter, for he was not very big, and certainly not well fed. Whatever had been Jessie C. James’s past, it was awful. Perhaps he was an orphan, perhaps he had been thrown out of his home by his mother, as his eyes were somewhat crossed and looked a little peculiar. In any event he had come to us for help. I thought, and so Frightful and I led him home and fed him.

In about a week he fattened up. His crumply hair smoothed out, and with a little ear scratching and back rubbing, Jessie C. James became a devoted friend. He also became useful. He slept somewhere in the dark tops of the hemlocks all day long, unless he saw us start for the stream. Then, tree by tree, limb by limb, Jessie followed us. At the stream he was the most useful mussel digger that any boy could have. Jessie could find mussels where three men could not. He would start to eat them, and if he ate them, he got full and wouldn’t dig any more, so I took them away from him until he found me all I wanted. Then I let him have some.

Mussels are good. Here are a few notes on how to fix them.

“Scrub mussels in spring water. Dump them into boiling water with salt. Boil five minutes. Remove and cool in the juice. Take out meat Eat by dipping in acorn paste flavoured with a smudge of garlic, and green apples.” Frightful took care of the small game supply, and now that she was an expert hunter, we had rabbit stew, pheasant potpie, and an occasional sparrow, which I generously gave to Frightful. As fast as we removed the rabbits and pheasants new ones replaced them.

Beverages during the hot summer became my chore, largely because no one else wanted them. I found some sassafras trees at the edge of the road one day, dug up a good supply of roots, peeled and dried them. Sassafras tea is about as good as anything you want to drink. Pennyroyal makes another good drink. I dried great bunches of this, and hung them from the roof of the tree room together with the leaves of winterberry. All these fragrant plants I also used in cooking to give a new taste to some not-so-good foods.

The room in the tree smelled of smoke and mint. It was the best-smelling tree in the Catskill Mountains.

Life was leisurely. I was warm, well fed. One day while I was down the mountain, I returned home by way of the old farmhouse site to check the apple crop. They were summer apples, and were about ready to be picked. I had gathered a pouchful and had sat down under the tree to eat a few and think about how I would dry them for use in the winter when Frightful dug her talons into my shoulder so hard I winced.

“Be gentle, bird!” I said to her.

I got her talons out and put her on a log, where I watched her with some alarm. She was as alert as a high tension wire, her head cocked so that her ears, just membranes under her feathers, were pointed east. She evidently heard a sound that pained her. She opened her beak. Whatever it was, I could hear nothing, though I strained my ears, cupped them, and wished she would speak.

Frightful was my ears as well as my eyes. She could hear things long before I. When she grew tense, I listened or looked. She was scared this time. She turned round and round on the log, looked up in the tree for a perch, lifted her wings to fly, and then stood still and listened.

Then I heard it. A police siren sounded far down the road. The sound grew louder and louder, and I grew afraid. Then I said, “No Frightful, if they are after me here won’t he a siren. They’ll just slip up on me quietly.” No sooner had I said this than the siren wound down, and apparently stopped on the road at the foot of the mountain. I got up to run to my tree, but had not got past the walnut before the patrol cars started up and screamed away.

We started home although it was not late in the afternoon. However, it was hot, and thunderclouds were building up. I decided to take a swim in the spring and work on the moccasins I had cut out several days ago.

With the squad car still on my mind, we slipped quietly into the hemlock forest. Once again Frightful almost sent me through the crown of the forest by digging her talons into my shoulder. I looked at her. She was staring at our home. I looked, too. Then I stopped, for I could make out the form of a man stretched between the sleeping house and the store tree.

Softly, tree by tree, Frightful and I approached him. The man was asleep. I could have left and camped in the gorge again but my enormous desire to see another human being overcame my fear of being discovered.

We stood above the man. He did not move, so Frightful lost interest in my fellow being. She tried to hop to her stump and preen. I grabbed her leash however, as I wanted to think before awakening him. Frightful flapped. I held her wings to her body as her flapping was noisy to me. Apparently not so to the man.

The man did not stir. It is hard to realize that the rustle of a falcon’s wings is not much of a noise to a man from the city, because by now one beat of her wings and I would awaken from a sound sleep as if a shot had gone off. The stranger slept on. I realized how long I’d been in the mountains.

Right at that moment, as I looked into his unshaven face, his close-cropped hair and his torn clothes, I thought of the police siren, and put two and two together.

“An outlaw?” I said to myself. “Wow!” I had to think what to do with an outlaw before I awoke him.

Would he be troublesome? Would he be mean? Should I go live in the gorge until he moved on? How I wanted to hear his voice, to tell him about The Baron and Jessie C. James, to say words out loud. I really did not want to hide from him; besides, he might be hungry, I thought. Finally I spoke.

“Hi!” I said. I was delighted to see him roll over, open his eyes, and look up. He seemed startled, so I reassured him. “It’s all right, they’ve gone. If you don’t tell on me I won’t tell on you.” When he heard this, he sat up and seemed to relax.

“Oh,” he said. Then he leaned against the tree and added “Thanks.” He evidently was thinking this over, for he propped his head on his elbow and studied me closely.

“You’re a sight for sore eyes,” he said and smiled. He had a nice smile – in fact, he looked nice and not like an outlaw at all. His eyes were very blue and, although tired, they did not look scared or hunted.

However, I talked quickly before he could get up and run away.

“I don’t know anything about you, and I don’t want to. You don’t know anything about me and don’t want to, but you may stay here if you like. No one is going to find you here. Would you like some supper?” It was still early, but he looked hungry.

“Do you have some?”

“Yes, venison or rabbit?”

“Well . . . venison.” His eyebrows puckered in question marks. I went to work.

He arose, turned around and around, and looked at his surroundings. He whistled softly when I kindled a spark with the flint and steel. I was now quite quick at this, and had a tidy fire blazing in a very few minutes. I was so used to myself doing this that it had not occurred to me that it would be interesting to a Stranger.

“Desdemondia!” he said. I judged this to be some underworld phrase. At this moment Frightful, who had been sitting quietly on her stump, began to preen. The outlaw jumped hack, then saw she was tied and said, “And who is this ferocious-looking character?” “That is Frightful; don’t be afraid. She’s quite wonderful and gentle. She would be glad to catch you a rabbit for supper if you would prefer that to venison.” “Am I dreaming?” said the man. “I go to sleep by a campfire that looked like it was built by a boy scout, and I awaken in the middle of the eighteenth century.” I crawled into the store tree to get the smoked venison and some cattail tubers. When I came out again, he was speechless.

“My storehouse,” I explained.

“I see,” he answered. From that moment on he did not talk much. He just watched me. I was so busy cooking the best meal that I could possibly get together that I didn’t say much either. Later I wrote down that menu, as it Was excellent.

“Brown puffballs in deer fat with a little wild garlic, fill pot with water, put venison in, boil. Wrap tubers in leaves and stick in coals. Cut up apples and boil in can with dogtooth violet bulbs. Raspberries to finish meal.” When the meal was ready, I served it to the man in my nicest turtle shell. I had to whittle him a fork out of the crotch of a twig, as Jessie Coon James had gone off with the others. He ate and ate and ate, and when he was done he said, “May I call you Thoreau?”

“That will do nicely,” I said. Then I paused – just to let him know that I knew a little bit about him too. I smiled and said, “I will call you Bando.” His eyebrows went up, he cocked his head, shrugged his shoulders and answered, “that’s close enough.”

With this he sat and thought I felt I had offended him, so I spoke. “I will he glad to help. I will teach you how to live off the land. It is very easy. No one need find you.” His eyebrows gathered together again. This was characteristic of Bando when he was concerned, and so I was sorry I had mentioned his past. After all, outlaw or no outlaw, he was an adult, and I still felt unsure of myself around adults. I changed the subject.

“Let’s get some sleep,” I said.

“Where do you steep?” he asked. All this time sitting and talking with me, and he had not seen the entrance to my tree. I was pleased. Then I beckoned, walked a few feet to the left, pushed back the deer-hide door, and showed Bando my secret.

“Thoreau,” he said. “You are quite wonderful.” He went in. I lit the turtle candle for him, he explored, tried the bed, came out and shook his head until I thought it would roll off.

We didn’t say much more that night. I let him sleep on my bed. His feet hung off, but he was comfortable, he said. I stretched out by the fire. The ground was dry, the night warm, and I could sleep on anything now.

I got up early and had breakfast ready when Bando came stumbling out of the tree. We ate crayfish, and he really honestly seemed to like them. It takes a little time to acquire a taste for wild foods, so Bando surprised me the way he liked the menu. Of course he was hungry, and that helped.

That day we didn’t talk much just went over the mountain collecting foods. I wanted to dig up the tubers of the Solomon’s-seal from a big garden of them on the other side of the gorge. We fished, we swam a little, and I told him I hoped to make a raft pretty soon, so I could float into deeper water and perhaps catch bigger fish.

When Bando heard this, he took my axe and immediately began to cut young trees for this purpose. I watched him and said, “You must have lived on a farm or something.” At that moment a bird sang.

“The wood peewee,” said Bando, stopping his work. He stepped into the woods, seeking it. Now I was astonished.

“How would you know about a wood peewee in your business?” I grew bold enough to ask.

“And just what do you think my business is?” he said as I followed him.

“Well, you’re not a minister.”

“Right!”

“And you’re not a doctor or a lawyer.”

“Correct.”

“You’re not a businessman or a sailor.”

“No, I am not.”

“Nor do you dig ditches.”

“I do not.”

“Well . . .”

“Guess.”

Suddenly I wanted to know for sure. So I said it.

“You are a murderer or a thief or a racketeer; and you are hiding out.”

Bando stopped looking for the peewee. He turned and stared at me. At first I was frightened. A bandit might do anything. But he wasn’t mad, he was laughing. He had a good deep laugh and it kept coming out of him. I smiled, then grinned and laughed with him.

“What’s funny, Bando?” I asked.

“I like that,” he finally said. “I like that a lot.” The tickle deep inside him kept him chuckling. I had no more to say, so I ground my heel in the dirt while I waited for him to get over the fun and explain it all to me.

“Thoreau, my friend, I am just a college English teacher lost in the Catskills. I came out to hike around the woods, got completely lost yesterday, found your fire and fell asleep beside it. I was hoping the scoutmaster and his troop would be back for supper and help me home.” “Oh, no.” My comment. Then I laughed. “You see Bando, before I found you, I heard squad cars screaming up the road. Occasionally you read about bandits that hide out in the forest, and I was just so sure that you were someone they were looking for.” We gave up the peewee and went back to the raft-making, talking very fast now, and laughing a lot. He was fun. Then something sad occurred to me.

“Well, if you’re not a bandit, you will have to go home very soon, and there is no point in teaching you how to live on fish and bark and plants.” “I can stay a little while,” he said. “This is summer vacation. I must admit I had not planned to eat crayfish on my vacation but I am rather getting to like it.” “Maybe I can stay until your school opens,” he went on. “That’s after Labour Day, isn’t it?”

I was very still, thinking how to answer that.

Bando sensed this. Then he turned to me with a big grin.

“You really mean you are going to try to winter it out here?”

“I think I can.”

“Well!” He sat down, rubbed his forehead in his hands, and looked at me. “Thoreau, I have led a varied life – dishwasher, sax player, teacher. To me it has been an interesting life. Just now it seems very dull.” He sat awhile with his head down, then looked up at the mountains and the rocks and trees. I heard him sigh.

“Let’s go fish. We can finish this another day.”

That is how I came to know Bando. We became very good friends in the week or ten days that he stayed with me, and he helped me a lot. We spent several days gathering white oak acorns and groundnuts, harvesting the blueberry crop and smoking fish.

We flew Frightful every day just for the pleasure of lying on our backs in the meadow and watching her mastery of the sky. I had lots of meat, so what she caught those days was all hers. It was a pleasant time, warm, with occasional thunder showers, some of which we stayed out in. We talked about hooks. He did know a lot of books, and could quote exciting things from them.

One day Bando went to town and came back with five pounds of sugar.

“I want to make blueberry jam,” he announced. “All those excellent berries and no jam.”

He worked two days at this. He knew how to make jam. He’d watched his Pa make it in Mississippi, but we got stuck on what to put it in.

I wrote this one night:

August 29

The raft is almost done. Bando has promised to stay until we can sail out into the deep fishing holes.

Bando and I found some clay along the stream bank. It was as slick as ice. Bando thought it would make good pottery. He shaped some jars and lids. They look good – not Wedgwood, he said, but containers. We dried them on the rock in the meadow, and later Bando made a clay oven and baked them in it. He thinks they might hold the blueberry jam he has been making.

Bando got the fire hot by blowing on it with some homemade bellows that he fashioned from one of my skins that he tied together like a balloon. A reed is the nozzle.

August 30

It was a terribly hot day for Bando to be firing clay jars, but he stuck with it. They look jam-worthy, as he says, and he filled three of them tonight. The jam is good, the pots remind me of crude flower pots without the hole in the bottom. Some of the lids don’t fit. Bando says he will go home and read more about pottery making so that he can do a better job next time.

We like the jam. We eat it on hard acorn pancakes.

Later. Bando met The Baron Weasel today for the first time. I don’t know where The Baron has been this past week, but suddenly he appeared on the rock, and nearly jumped down Bando’s shirt collar. Bando said he liked The Baron best when he was in his hole.

September 3

Bando taught me how to make willow whistles today. He and I went to the stream to cut two whistles about eight inches long. He slipped the bark on them. That means he pulled the wood out of the bark, leaving a tube. Remade a mouthpiece at one end cut a hole beneath it, and used the wood to slide up and down like a trombone.

We played music until the moon came up. Bando could even play jazz on the willow whistles. They are wonderful instruments, sounding much like the wind in the top of the hemlocks. Sad tunes are best suited to willow whistles.

When we played The Young Voyageur’ tears came to our eyes, it was so sad.

There were no more notes for many days. Bando had left me saying: Good-bye, I’ll see you at Christmas. I was so lonely that I kept sewing on my moccasins to keep myself busy. I sewed every free minute for four days, and when they were finished, I began a glove to protect my hand from Frightful’s sharp talons.

One day when I was thinking very hard about being alone, Frightful gave her gentle call of love and contentment. I looked up.

“Bird,” I said. “I had almost forgotten how we used to talk.” She made tiny movements with her beak and fluffed her feathers. This was a language I had forgotten since Bando came. It meant she was glad to see me and hear me, that she was well fed, and content. I picked her up and squeaked into her neck feathers. She moved her beak, turned her bright head, and bit my nose very gently.

Jessie Coon James came down from the trees for the first time in ten days. He finished my fish dinner. Then just before dusk, The Baron came up on his boulder and scratched and cleaned and played with a fern leaf.

I had the feeling we were all back together again.

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