“If you wouldn’t waste so much time, Pa wouldn’t get so mad at you.”
Caleb glanced through the falling snow at his stepbrother Alex, who was sitting on a log watching him split wood in the dark. He put another piece on the block, then reached back and tugged the collar of his shirt, trying to keep it from scratching the painful welts on his back.
“And he wouldn’t switch you so much if you had the sense to start crying sooner,” Alex added, knowing full well why Caleb was moving so stiffly. “You know he always stops five or six hits after you start crying. Why do you just stand there and let him keep beating you?”
“If I gave in, you’d call me a chicken for it,” Caleb said.
Alex picked up a clump of snow, which he made into a small ball. “I’d rather be a chicken than a fool,” he said, tossing it at the chopping block. “You’re just stubborn. I wouldn’t take a beating like that over a bunch of stupid pictures.”
Caleb swung the ax up and brought it down, sending the two halves of wood flying from the block. One good thing was that he had been drawing on a piece of paper and not in his journal.
His stepfather had torn up the paper with the pictures from John Gabriel’s powder horn that Caleb had so carefully copied, but at least his book of drawings was safe under the straw in the barn loft.
Caleb had been so intent on the markings of the scrimshaw powder horn that he didn’t notice the door of the store open, didn’t hear his stepfather come up to John Gabriel’s horse, where Caleb was carefully copying the designs onto the paper.
He put another piece of wood on the block and split it, then another. The beating with the hazel branch was bad enough, but he knew it wasn’t over. When his stepfather started switching him, the Mohawk trapper had gathered his furs, got on his horse and rode away from the store in disgust.
That big beautiful, thick dark otter, the wide beaver pelts and the packet of little muskrat furs would all end up being traded to somebody else, and Dan McKenzie would blame his stepson, not himself.
But Caleb had already been punished in a way that hurt more than any beating. He had seen the look of pity that John Gabriel gave him as he rode away. John Gabriel was a good man, and Caleb was ashamed.
As he split wood in the snow and dark, that shame helped him make up his mind.
“I’m going away,” he said quietly, as he leant the ax against the block and began to gather the split wood and pile it by the store wall.
Alex looked at him through the falling snow. “Going? What do you mean?”
“I’m going to Ogdensburgh. I’m going to join Forsyth’s Rifles. I’m going to the war.”
Alex laughed. “Forsyth won’t take you. You’re only 14, same as me! You have to be 16 just to join the militia, never mind the regular army!”
“They won’t ask questions when they see I can handle a gun. Anyway, I’d rather get shot by the British than beat to death here,” Caleb said.
He’d finished stacking the split wood and picked up the ax again, but paused as he placed a new piece of wood on the chopping block. “When my ma married your pa, I thought I was getting a new father, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Your pa just got himself a free mule to whip.”
“You make him mad, drawing when you ought to be working,” Alex said. “I know he’s hard on you, but all your drawing is just foolishness.”
“I do plenty of work. You know I work as hard as you do,” Caleb said. “You just work slower to make it last longer.”
“Well, that’s a fact,” Alex said, and laughed. “I guess I’m smarter than you.”
Caleb started to reply, but then both boys looked toward the road. They could hear voices coming through the snow in the dark, and then the creaking sounds of wood pulling against itself, and horses, and more voices.
“You won’t have to run away to them,” Alex said quietly. “They’re coming here!”
And through the swirling snow slowly came the shapes of a dozen men in uniform, walking, and a horse-drawn sledge jostling along the rutted, snow-covered road into the clearing in front of the store.
Alex stood to go fetch his father, but the dog had already begun to bark inside the store and Dan McKenzie stepped out on the porch as a tall, heavy-set sergeant walked up.
“We’re going to need to camp in your clearing,” the man said. “We may need some supplies.” There was a pause as he and Dan McKenzie looked at each other. “We can pay,” the sergeant added, and the storekeeper relaxed.
“It is them!” Caleb said quietly to Alex. “See their green coats? We saw them when we went up to Ogdensburgh to fetch the flour shipment, remember?”
“You’re going to have to cut your own firewood,” McKenzie was saying. “I don’t have but enough for winter, myself. How long do you reckon on staying?”
“Just long enough for any stragglers to catch up,” the sergeant replied. “The British have taken Ogdensburgh.”
Text copyright 2012, Mike Peterson – Illustrations copyright 2012 Christopher Baldwin