Carl Ericson was being naughty. Probably no boy in Joralemon was being
naughtier that October Saturday afternoon. He had not half finished
the wood-piling which was his punishment for having chased the family
rooster thirteen times squawking around the chicken-yard, while
playing soldiers with Bennie Rusk.
He stood in the middle of the musty woodshed, pessimistically kicking
at the scattered wood. His face was stern, as became a man of eight
who was a soldier of fortune famed from the front gate to the
chicken-yard. An unromantic film of dirt hid the fact that his
Scandinavian cheeks were like cream-colored silk stained with
rose-petals. A baby Norseman, with only an average boy's prettiness,
yet with the whiteness and slenderness of a girl's little finger. A
back-yard boy, in baggy jacket and pants, gingham blouse, and cap
whose lining oozed back over his ash-blond hair, which was tangled now
like trampled grass, with a tiny chip riding grotesquely on one flossy
The darkness of the shed displeased Carl. The whole basic conception
of work bored him. The sticks of wood were personal enemies to which
he gave insulting names. He had always admired the hard bark and
metallic resonance of the ironwood, but he hated the poplar--"popple"
it is called in Joralemon, Minnesota. Poplar becomes dry and dusty,
and the bark turns to a monstrously mottled and evil greenish-white.
Carl announced to one poplar stick, "I could lick you! I'm a gen'ral,
I am." The stick made no reply whatever, and he contemptuously shied
it out into the chickweed which matted the grubby back yard. This
necessitated his sneaking out and capturing it by stalking it from the
rear, lest it rouse the Popple Army.
He loitered outside the shed, sniffing at the smoke from burning
leaves--the scent of autumn and migration and wanderlust. He glanced
down between houses to the reedy shore of Joralemon Lake. The surface
of the water was smooth, and tinted like a bluebell, save for one
patch in the current where wavelets leaped with October madness in
sparkles of diamond fire. Across the lake, woods sprinkled with
gold-dust and paprika broke the sweep of sparse yellow stubble, and a
red barn was softly brilliant in the caressing sunlight and lively air
of the Minnesota prairie. Over there was the field of valor, where
grown-up men with shiny shotguns went hunting prairie-chickens; the
Great World, leading clear to the Red River Valley and Canada.
Three mallard-ducks, with necks far out and wings beating hurriedly,
shot over Carl's head. From far off a gun-shot floated echoing through
forest hollows; in the waiting stillness sounded a rooster's crow,
"I want to go hunting!" mourned Carl, as he trailed back into the
woodshed. It seemed darker than ever and smelled of moldy chips. He
bounced like an enraged chipmunk. His phlegmatic china-blue eyes
filmed with tears. "Won't pile no more wood!" he declared.
Naughty he undoubtedly was. But since he knew that his father, Oscar
Ericson, the carpenter, all knuckles and patched overalls and bad
temper, would probably whip him for rebellion, he may have acquired
merit. He did not even look toward the house to see whether his mother
was watching him--his farm-bred, worried, kindly, small, flat-chested,
pinch-nosed, bleached, twangy-voiced, plucky Norwegian mother. He
marched to the workshop and brought a collection of miscellaneous
nails and screws out to a bare patch of earth in front of the
chicken-yard. They were the Nail People, the most reckless band of
mercenaries the world has ever known, led by old General Door-Hinge,
who was somewhat inclined to collapse in the middle, but possessed of
the unusual virtue of eyes in both ends of him. He had explored the
deepest cañons of the woodshed, and victoriously led his ten-penny
warriors against the sumacs in the vacant lot beyond Irving Lamb's
Carl marshaled the Nail People, sticking them upright in the ground.
After reasoning sternly with an intruding sparrow, thus did the
dauntless General Door-Hinge address them:
"Men, there's a nawful big army against us, but le's die like men, my
As the veteran finished, a devastating fire of stones enfiladed the
company, and one by one they fell, save for the commander himself, who
bowed his grizzled wrought-steel head and sobbed, "The brave boys done
From across the lake rolled another gun-shot.
Carl dug his grimy fingers into the earth. "Jiminy! I wisht I was out
hunting. Why can't I never go? I guess I'll pile the wood, but I'm
gonna go seek-my-fortune after that."