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Authors: Elizabeth George Speare

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The Sign of the Beaver

BOOK: The Sign of the Beaver
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The Sign of the Beaver
Elizabeth George Speare
Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents

...

copyright

Dedication

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER 25

Houghton Mifflin Company Boston

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Speare, Elizabeth George.
The sign of the beaver.

Summary: Left alone to guard the family's wilderness
home in eighteenth-century Maine, a boy is hard-pressed
to survive until local Indians teach him their skills.
[1. Frontier and pioneer life—Fiction. 2. Indians
of North America—Fiction. 3. Survival—Fiction.
4. Friendship—Fiction] I. Title.
P
Z
7.
S
7376
S
i 1983  [Fic] 83-118
I
S
B
N
0-395-33890-5

Copyright © 1983 by Elizabeth George Speare

All rights reserved. For information about permission
to reproduce selections from this book, write to
Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue
South, New York, New York 10003.

Printed in the United States of America

MP 30 29 28 27

To William and Michael

CHAPTER 1

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some time after his father had gone out of sight among the trees. There was just a chance that his father might turn back, that perhaps he had forgotten something or had some last word of advice. This was one time Matt reckoned he wouldn't mind the advice, no matter how many times he had heard it before. But finally he had to admit that this was not going to happen. His father had really gone. He was alone, with miles of wilderness stretching on every side.

He turned and looked back at the log house. It was a fair house, he thought; his mother would have no cause to be ashamed of it. He had helped to build every inch of it. He had helped to cut down the spruce trees and haul the logs and square and notch them. He had stood at one end of every log and raised it, one on top of the other, fitting the notched ends together as snugly as though they had grown that way. He had climbed the roof to fasten down the cedar splints with long poles, and dragged up pine boughs to cover them. Behind the cabin were the mounds of corn he had helped to plant, the green blades already shooting up, and the pumpkin vines just showing between the stumps of trees.

If only it were not so quiet. He had been alone before. His father had often gone into the forest to hunt, for hours on end. Even when he was there, he was not much of a talker. Sometimes they had worked side by side through a whole morning without his speaking a single word. But this silence was different. It coiled around Matt and reached into his stomach to settle there in a hard knot.

He knew it was high time his father was starting back. This was part of the plan that the family had worked out together in the long winter of
1768,
sitting by lamplight around the pine table back in Massachusetts. His father had spread out the surveyor's map and traced the boundaries of the land he had purchased in Maine territory. They would be the first settlers in a new township. In the spring, when the ice melted, Matt and his father would travel north. They would take passage on a ship to the settlement at the mouth of the Penobscot River. There they would find some man with a boat to take them up the river and then on up a smaller river that branched off from it, many days' distance from the settlement. Finally they would strike out on foot into the forest and claim their own plot of land. They would clear a patch of ground, build a cabin, and plant some corn. In the summer his father would go back to Massachusetts to fetch his mother and sister and the new baby, who would be born while they were gone. Matt would stay behind and guard the cabin and the corn patch.

It hadn't been quite so easy as it had sounded back in their house in Quincy. Matt had had to get used to going to sleep at night with every muscle in his body aching. But the log house was finished. It had only one room. Before winter they would add a loft for him and his sister to sleep in. Inside there were shelves along one wall and a sturdy puncheon table with two stools. One of these days, his father promised, he would cut out a window and fasten oiled paper to let in the light. Someday the paper would be replaced with real glass. Against the wall was a chimney of smaller logs, daubed and lined with clay from the creek. This too was a temporary structure. Over and over his father had warned Matt that it wasn't as safe as a stone chimney and that he had to watch out for flying sparks. He needn't fear. After all the work of building this house, Matt wasn't going to let it burn down about his ears.

"Six weeks," his father had said that morning. "Maybe seven. Hard to reckon exactly. With your ma and sister we'll have slow going, specially with the new little one.

"You may lose track of the weeks," he had added. "Easy thing to do when you're alone. Might be well to make notches on a stick, seven notches to a stick. When you get to the seventh stick you can start looking for us."

A silly thing to do, Matt thought, as though he couldn't count the weeks for himself. But he wouldn't argue about it, not on the last morning.

Then his father reached up to a chink in the log wall and took down the battered tin box that held his watch and his compass and a few silver coins. He took out the big silver watch.

"Every time you cut a notch," he said, "remember to wind this up at the same time."

Matt took the watch in his hand as gently as if it were a bird's egg. "You aim to leave it, Pa?" he asked.

"It belonged to your grandpa. Would've belonged to you anyhow sooner or later. Might as well be now."

"You mean—it's mine?"

"Aye, it's yourn. Be kind of company, hearing it tick."

The lump in Matt's throat felt as big as the watch. This was the finest thing his father had ever possessed.

"I'll take care of it," he managed finally.

"Aye. I knowed you would. Mind you don't wind it up too tight."

Then, just before he left, his father had given him a second gift. Thinking of it, Matt walked back into the cabin and looked up at his father's rifle, hanging on two pegs over the door.

"I'll take your old blunderbuss with me," his father had said. "This one aims truer. But mind you, don't go banging away at everything that moves. Wait till you're dead sure. There's plenty of powder if you don't waste it."

It was the first sign he had given that he felt uneasy about leaving Matt here alone. Matt wished now that he could have said something to reassure his father, instead of standing there tongue-tied. But if he had the chance again, he knew he wouldn't do any better. They just weren't a family to put things into words.

He reached up and took down the rifle. It was lighter than his old matchlock, the one his father had carried away with him in exchange. This was a fine piece, the walnut stock as smooth and shining as his mother's silk dress. It was a mite long, but it had a good balance. With this gun he wouldn't need to waste powder. So it wouldn't hurt to take one shot right now, just to try the feel of it.

He knew his father always kept that rifle as clean as a new-polished spoon. But because he enjoyed handling it, Matt poked about in the touchhole with the metal pick. From the powder horn he shook a little of the black powder into the pan. Then he took one lead bullet out of the pouch, wrapped it in a patch of cloth, and rammed it into the barrel. As he worked, he whistled loudly into the stillness. It made the knot in his stomach loosen a little.

As he stepped into the woods, a bluejay screeched a warning. So it was some time before he spotted anything to shoot at. Presently he saw a red squirrel hunched on a branch, with its tail curled up behind its ears. He lifted the rifle and sighted along the barrel, minding his father's advice and waiting till he was dead sure.

The clean feel of the shot delighted him. It didn't set him back on his heels like his old matchlock. Still, he hadn't quite got the knack of it. He caught the flick of a tail as the squirrel scampered to an upper branch.

I could do better with my own gun, he thought. This rifle of his father's was going to take some getting used to.

Ruefully he trudged back to the cabin. For his noon meal he sat munching a bit of the johnnycake his father had baked that morning. Already he was beginning to realize that time was going to move slowly. A whole afternoon to go before he could cut that first notch.

Seven sticks. That would be August. He would have a birthday before August. He supposed his father had forgotten that, with so many things on his mind. By the time his family got here, he would be thirteen years old.

CHAPTER 2

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stomach was gone. By the morning after that Matt decided that it was mighty pleasant living alone. He enjoyed waking to a day stretched before him to fill as he pleased. He could set himself the necessary chores without having to listen to any advice about how they should be done. How could he have thought that the time would move slowly? As the days passed and he cut one notch after another on his stick, Matt discovered that there was never time enough for all that must be done between sunrise and sunset.

Although the cabin was finished, his father had left him the endless task of chinking the spaces between the logs with clay from the creek bank. At the edge of the clearing there were trees to fell to let in more sun on the growing corn, and underbrush that kept creeping closer over the cleared ground. All this provided plenty of wood to be chopped and stacked in the woodpile against the cabin wall.

To cook a meal for himself once or twice a day, he had to keep a fire going. Twice in the first few days he had waked and found the ashes cold. Back home in Quincy, if his mother's fire burned out she had sent him or Sarah with her shovel to borrow a live coal from a neighbor. There was no neighbor here. He had to gather twigs and make a wad of shredded cedar bark, then strike his flint and blow on the tiny spark until it burst into flame. A man could get mighty hungry before he had coaxed that spark into a cooking fire.

The corn patch needed constant tending. In these hot, bright days, every drop of water that those green shoots demanded had to be lugged from the creek, a kettleful at a time, and there was no way to water the corn without encouraging the weeds as well. As fast as he pulled them, new ones sprang up. The crows drove him distracted, forever flapping about. A dozen times a day he would dash at them fiercely, shouting and waving his arms. They would just fly lazily off and wait on a nearby treetop till his back was turned. He dared not waste his precious powder on them. At night wild creatures nibbled the tops of the green shoots. Once he sat up all night with his rifle across his knees, batting at the mosquitoes. When morning came he stumbled into the cabin and slept away half the day. That was the second time he let the fire go out.

He seemed to be hungrier than ever before in his life. The barrel of flour was going down almost as fast as when two were dipping into it. He depended on his gun to keep his stomach filled. He was still proud of that gun, but no longer in awe of it. Carrying it over his shoulder, he set out confidently into the forest, venturing farther each day, certain of bringing home a duck or a rabbit for his dinner. For a change of diet he could take his fish pole and follow the twisting course of the creek or walk the trail his father had blazed to a pond some distance away. In no time he could catch all the fish he could eat. Twice he had glimpsed a deer moving through the trees just out of range of his rifle. One of these days, he promised himself, he would bring one down.

BOOK: The Sign of the Beaver
12.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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