The Path to Freedom – Chapter One, The Sawyer’s Son

A Statewide Serial Story made possible with funding from the New York State United Teachers

The Path to Freedom - Chapter One, The Sawyer’s Son

“Hold on.”

David stopped walking; Jonathan took one more step and then stopped beside him, looking around the green forest as they stood side-by-side on the path.

Luke Van Gelder walked around to the other side of the cart, to the stack of freshly-cut firewood, and began to pile it in. Jonathan turned his head slightly to watch, since it was his side of the cart that Luke was working on, and because Jonathan always wanted to see what was happening.

David just shuffled one hoof impatiently on the forest floor, waiting to be told to move forward again. David was always ready to move forward, but he was well-trained and would wait for his 14-year-old master’s command.

As Luke tossed the last stick of wood into the cart, however, David raised his brown head and looked up the hillside, and Luke paused to find out why. A moment later, he heard it, too.

“Hold on,” he said again, this time nearly in a whisper, and silently began to work his way up the hill. The horses watched, and Jonathan shook his head, rattling his harness.

The rattle didn’t matter. Luke had made enough noise with the firewood that their presence in the forest was no secret. He crept the last few feet to the crest of the hillside, carefully putting each foot straight down to avoid kicking any branches or plants.

Over the top of the hill, down at the bottom of the small valley where a thin creek ran through swampy moss, he saw motion in a patch of bushes. Luke held his breath and stayed low, just peering over the edge of the hilltop.

A fat sow came out of the brush, followed by three good-sized porkers, and made her way to the creek to drink, standing in the mud nearly to her belly. Luke watched for a moment, to see if a fourth pig would join them, but, when it did not, he stood up.

The pigs scattered at the motion and the sow led her family up the opposite hillside and away. It didn’t matter: The valley was full of beech trees and she’d be back in another six weeks or so, once the beechnuts began to fall.

One more pig gone. He wasn’t surprised, but it was disappointing to get all the way to July and still lose one, probably to a bobcat or maybe coyotes. The sow had begun with eight piglets that spring and three was a good count, if she could keep track of them until snowfall.

Luke went back down to the path where the horses and cart waited.

“Come on,” he said, and clucked with his tongue as he started down the path to where the next pile of firewood lay.
This was the easy part; this was the fun part, gathering it all up.

Earlier in the week, Luke had spent several days out there on his own, cutting up all the long branches from the previous winter’s logging, cutting it into useful lengths and stacking it by the path.

It wasn’t hard work, but it meant using his muscles instead of David and Jonathan’s, because the forest floor beyond the path was too soft for the cart, especially in a wet summer like 1777 had been so far in the Hudson Valley.

In the winter, the cart stayed in the barn and, once the huge logs had been stripped of their branches, the horses skidded them across the snowy, frozen ground through the woods to the sawmill by the river.

Paths didn’t matter then: David would wisely pick the best way to the fallen log and Jonathan would go with him, weaving their way through the trees.

Once the chains were hooked up, the two horses would bend their shoulders into the task of pulling the log forward while Luke, his father or his grandfather walked beside them, sometimes giving commands, often simply helping them keep a good pace.

“You don’t give David orders,” his grandfather, Opa, liked to say. “You just give him suggestions.”

This had been a good day. The next pile of wood was the last and the cart was nearly full anyway. The rain had held off and Luke had smeared enough bear grease, boiled with cedar chips, on his skin to keep the mosquitos and punkies from making him miserable, a trick settlers in the Hudson Valley had learned long ago from their Mohawk neighbors.

And the raspberries were ripe, so he had sweet snacks all along as he trailed through the woods gathering firewood with his horses. A day like today was nearly as much fun as a day with no work at all.

He had just put the last stick from the last pile into the cart when he saw his older sister, Sylvie, coming down the path towards them.

“Papa needs you at the house right away,” she said, as he clucked the horses forward. “The militia has been called out. Burgoyne is on his way.”

Return next Tuesday for Chapter Two, The Militia Called Out

Text copyright 2017, Mike Peterson – Illustrations copyright 2017 – Christopher Baldwin

This project was made possible with the support of the New York Newspapers Foundation with funding from the New York State United Teachers.


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