Pa's Hunting Lesson - a little of Lewis Wetzel's early life a few years before Part 1 begins
After they all washed up in the river, Pa announced, “I’ve got a surprise for you boys.” He reached under the seat and set his musket on the oak-bench seat.
“You taking us hunting, Pa?” Eleven year old George asked.
Their father nodded.
“Yippee!” shouted Lewis, age nine.
He handed them each a deerskin sack of lead balls, pulled tight with with a rawhide drawstring, then slipped around each of their necks a small powder horn carved from the tips of wood buffalo horns. Writing was carved on each horn.
They jumped up and down in excitement.
“What does it say?” Lewis asked.
“It’s your initials, dummy,” said George, looking from his horn to Lewis’. “Yours says L.W. for Lewis Wetzel. Mine says G.W. for George Wetzel.”
Lewis scowled at George and shook his fist in George’s face. George pushed Lewis’s fist aside and pointed to the letters. “This here’s an ‘L’, for Lewis,” said George. “And this here’s a ‘W” for Wetzel.”
Lewis looked at his father. “Is that right, Pa?”
Lewis smile widened. “Ours to keep, sir?”
Pa nodded. “I aim to take you boys huntin, but I want you boys to work together. Not fighting. You hear? Or they’ll be consequences.”
They rode down the bumpy dirt road. The two boys were excited. Pa often gave them target practice, but the only thing they ever hunted was shooting up at the sky when the pigeons flew over. They knew that wasn’t hunting. It took no skill. There was so many pigeons they couldn’t miss. The birds were so thick they couldn’t even see the blue sky for hours, sometimes days.
Just before crossing the log bridge at the creek, Pa pulled the wagon over and set the brake. He walked away from the wagon and headed into the woods along the creek. The boys ran to catch up. Though their father moved quickly, he also moved quietly, walking across logs rather than on leaves when he could, or sticking to animal trails where their wasn’t much vegetation. He wove back and forth. When they passed under a tree with owl pellets scattered on the ground, he rubbed the toe of his moccasin and the two young boys saw the bones and small skulls fall out. He pointed up into the tree above. “Owls.”
The boys dropped to their knees and picked through the pellet. They found more laying around nearby and broke them open with their fingers, picking through the bones
“How . . “
“Shhhh” he said, putting his finger to his lips.
He walked on and they ran to catch up.
Occasionally, he would stop to point out scat or footprints from different animals. All he would say was “deer”, “coon”, “bear” “wolf”, or whatever the animal was, and he would stand their silently to give the boys time to poke through the scat, or look over the footprint, then move on. He led them deeper and deeper into the woods. They walked for a couple of hours.
“Pa, I’m thirsty,” said Lewis. It was a summer day and the air warmed up as they walked
Their father looked up trying to get a glimpse of the sun through the thick trees. The sun was already straight up. He turned to his left and walked straight for several hundred yards to the creek. The boys ran into it and scooped mouthfuls with their hands. He walked upstream and brushed aside the top of the water and reached down with the cup he carried at his belt and scooped out a cupful.
He smiled at his boys. “Anybody hungry.”
“Yes sir,” said Lewis.
“I am, too, sir,” said George.
“Good,” he said. “It’ll help your aim. As you can see, these woods are full of meat-animals. Wouldn’t you agree, George?”
“But we didn’t see any, sir?” said Lewis. “How are we going to find them?”
Their father laughed, a big hardy laugh, that echoed through the trees.
“Good question,” Lewis.” Pa caressed Lewis’ head. “There’s two ways, and they both take practice. Just two ways - you can count that high, can’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” said Lewis, flushing in the face. “I can count to a hunnerd.”
“What are the two ways, sir?” George asked.
“Wait for em, or go looking for em.” He winked at George and grinned widely.
The boys stood there looking at each other.
“Now, I’ve got things to do.” Their father pointed off towards Wheeling. “That way’s west. That’s where our cabin is. Which way does the sun set, Lewis?
“You’re a smart boy, Lewis.”
Lewis smiled and stood proud.
“If you go looking, go that way." He pointed to the east. “And we’ll meet back here. Start back afore the sun gets too low, so you’ll be able to know which way you’re headed. You hear me, George? You’re the oldest, so you’re in charge.”
“Yes sir,” George said.
“Supposing we don’t find nuthin, sir, ” asked Lewis.
“Then you’ll go hungry,” Pa answered.
“Will you be back afore dark?” asked George.
“I don’t rightly know. Maybe. Maybe not. Ain’t cold, though. You’ll be alright. Got steel and flint, George?”
“No sir,” said George.
“You?” Pa asked Lewis.
Pa reached into the pouch he had tied to his waist. “Take mine,” he said, and handed it to George. “If I ain’t back afore dark, go ahead and cook whatever it is you got and I’ll see you when I see you.”
“Can’t I go back with you, sir,” Lewis asked.
“What fer?” he said. “You want to learn to hunt, don’t you?”
“Well, this is lesson number one.” He walked over to a large silver-trunked sycamore tree, pulled out his knife and carved a big X. “I’ll meet you back here, at this mark. Keep coming back to this X so you don’t get lost. Don’t make me come looking for you. I may be back tonight, maybe tomorra, maybe even in a coupla days. I want to come back to this X and find you, you hear? George?”
“Good luck to you, then,” he said, and tipped his coonskin hat.
“What is it Lewis?”
“Pa, what happens if it rains? asked Lewis.
“You’re full of questions, boy. You’ll get wet. Or you could make yourselves a shelter. Anymore questions?”
“Sir? What about injuns?” asked George.
“They ain’t coming across the river, so I doubt you’ll see any. If I thought there were, I wouldn’t leave you by yourselves. You just got to worry about cougars and bears and wolves. If you see any injuns, stay out of their way. Sneak away and climb a tree. And stay put.”
George looked up into a big oak tree. There wasn’t a limb for 20 feet. Lewis looked around and noticed a smaller tree with limbs that reached over into the big oak, and nudged his brother.
Their father followed Lewis glance and nodded approvingly.
“Anymore questions? George?”
“Lewis? “No sir.”
“I’ll look for you at this tree, so stay around here. I’ll be back as soon as I’m able. Stay together. And don’t shoot each other. And don’t lose my musket!” Their father suddenly spun around and with big strides headed back down the stream towards the wagon.
George and Lewis had grown up in these woods.They explored the forest after their father left. They took turns carrying the musket. They followed game trails and got down on their hands and knees and sniffed around scat until they could smell which way the animals went. They moved quietly through the forest, walking on logs and rocks so they wouldn’t disturb the thick layer of noisy leave. In the big trees, the squirrels would chatter and run higher, circling around the trunks of sycamores and maples and oaks, and as hard as they’d tried, they couldn’t get a clean shot, although they tried. They each wasted a bullet and got nothing for their effort but oak leaves. They spotted a rabbit, and gave chase, but the rabbit circled around behind them and they lost sight of it. They saw lots of birds, but none big enough to waste a shot at. They heard deer, but the deer heard them first, and were gone by the time the boys got close to where they had been.
Lewis had sharp hearing. He was leading the way down a deer trail that wove in and out of deep brush along the creek, pushing the vines and branches and bushes aside. George carried the musket. Lewis suddenly stopped and put up his hand.
“What?” George mouthed, shrugging his shoulders.
Lewis turned to face George and chattered his teeth, and he pointed up, ahead of them, into a big oak.
George looked where Lewis was pointing. A red squirrel ran back and forth on a large branch, 40 feet up. It stopped, looked down at them, and chit-chitted angrily. George was already tapping down a ball down the barrel of the musket.
“Can you get him?” Lewis whispered.
George aimed the musket and sighted down the barrel. The squirrel turned abruptly and ran to the big trunk and disappeared behind it. George waited for the squirrel to show himself.
“Chit, chit, chit” they both heard, and George looked away from the gun sight to see the squirrel re-emerge farther up on a branch on the opposite side of the tree. He brought the musket over and aimed and squeezed the trigger.
Boom! went the the muzzle loader.
“You got him!” yelled Lewis. Even before it hit the ground, they could see that all they had was the squirrel’s tail the way it floated softly down like a feather. They looked back up in the tree, and Lewis caught just a glimpse of the squirrel disappearing into the leaves at the top of the tree.
They hung around, waiting to get another shot, but they never saw the squirrel again. There was no meat at all in the tail, but Lewis took it anyway and tucked it under his belt.
They walked game trails for another hour, and they were both tired from carrying the heavy musket. They kept going away from the sun so that they could follow it back to the tree marked with an X.
In a swampy spot they found a thicket of berries. They were both hungry. Lewis grabbed a handful of juicy red berries. George slapped his hand, sending the berries flying.
“What’d you do that fer?”
“They’re Doll’s Eyes, you idiot. Don’t you know nuthin? They’re poisonous.”
“How do you know?”
George just shrugged.“I just do.”
Later they came upon a sunny opening with a few mayapples growing in a bunch. “I know I can eat these,” Lewis announced, popping a little yellow fruit into his mouth.
“One’s OK,” George said. “They’ll make you sick if you eat too many. And make sure you spit out the seeds.”
“You’re not the boss of me,” replied Lewis, popping another into his mouth.
Later, they heard the call of a turkey, making its characteristic “gobble, gobble, gobble.” They followed the sound, but it always seemed to stay just ahead of them and they couldn’t catch sight of it. After an hour, George announced that it was time to start heading back, if they wanted to reach the X tree by nightfall.
Little Lewis was agreeable to anything. His stomach hurt. Tha mayapples were giving him a tummy ache. He let George take the lead and they worked their way back, circling away from their original trail, but following the same general direction, but wading across the creek to come back on the opposite side.
They gathered greens and berries and dug up some cat-tail roots as they wandered around. These foods weren’t new to either of them. They often helped their mother and sister Christina gather food in the big forest.
Lewis was the first to spot the still steaming turd. It was a big, wet, green clump, the size of a loaf of bread. George put his finger to his lips while he loaded the musket. Whatever animal left it was still close. They could see where it had been chewing on the bark of willows along the creek, and the trail crossed the still muddy creek. They used sign language to each other, and proceeded quietly on the easy to follow trail. They could see where it had slipped, climbing the opposite bank.
George went first up the bank, slipping and sliding, and then lay and reached down and took the musket, then helped Lewis up. They heard heavy feet running through the leaves ahead. They ran as fast as they could, trying to be quiet, and trying to stay hidden behind trees so George could get close enough for a shot.
But they never saw it, whatever it was. They heard it running, but try as they might, they could never see it. They spent a couple of hours of futile effort and the sun started down behind the big trees, and light was fast disappearing.
Lewis, though younger, had a better sense of direction than George and remembered every rock and tree. He led the way back to the big tree marked with their father’s X before it got fully dark. Once they found it, George handed the musket to Lewis and told him to unload it and to get as much dry wood as he could find and break off some wax plant, too, if he saw any, to help start the fire.
“How come I have to do everything?”
“You make the fire, then.” George held out the steel and flint.
“OK. OK,” said Lewis. “You don’t have to be so bossy. I’ll get the wood. I know where there’s a wax tree. Over yonder.” He pointed towards the creek.
“Don’t get lost,” said George.
Under the big, virgin forest, the sky was shut out, but it was already dark even without the big trees blotting out the sky. Occasionally, an owl would hoot. Mosquitoes buzzed around them. George got a fire started in a pile of dry leaves and shoved in a piece of wax plant and the fire started burning brightly. Lewis stomped on branches, breaking them up while George fed them to the fire.
It wasn’t long before they had a bed of coals and they sat around with stomach’s growling, waiting for the cat-tail roots to cook. George chewed on a sassafras leaf. Lewis began to cry.
“Shut up, or I’ll give you something to cry about.” For emphasis, George spit the juice of sassafras juice into he fire like a grown-up chewing tobacco. The fire hissed.
Lewis cried louder. “i want to go home.”
“Go ahead then. I ain’t stoppin you.”
“Pa . . . Pa . . . Pa” Lewis stuttered, trying to catch his breath.
“Pa said to stay til he fetched us,” George said.
“What . . . what . . .what . . . “ Lewis sobbed. “What . . . if he don’t.” Lewis wiped his eyes on his sleeve.
“He will. You know he will.”
“What happens if we don’t find no meat animals for a week?” Lewis asked.
“You heard Pap. We don’t get something, we go hungry. Least til he gets back. We ain’t gonna starve.” He poked at the cat-tails
“I”m hungry!” Lewis began to cry, then stopped as quickly as he started. “I saw a paw paw tree over yonder.” Lewis pointed into the blackness.
“Go ahead. Eat one. They ain’t ripe yet,” George said. “Eat ‘em now, and your mouth will turn inside out. Here, chew on this.” George reached into his sack and handed Lewis a handful of crumbled up green sassafras leaves. And rub ‘em on your skin, too. He scrubbed his own neck and arms, showing Lewis how. “It’ll keep the skeeters away.”
Lewis stuffed some of the green leaves into his mouth, and copied his brother, rubbing more on his ankles and arms, neck and face. It was a quiet night. There was no wind. No rain. They ate the cat-tails. Occasionally, their mother cooked them and they tasted a little like corn. The fire burned low. They lay next to each other with their heads on a pile of leaves.
“Ever wonder what it would be like to be an injun,” Lewis asked.
“Nope. They’re savages. Kill and eat their own babies, I hear.”
"What’d they do that fer?
“Easy hunting, I guess,” said George.
“Pa says they might try to steal his horses.”
“I’d like to see em try. He wouldn’t let them get away with it. I’d get me a scalp. I’d make him a good injun,” George announced matter-of-factly the way their father did when he talked about Indians. George laughed at his own joke. When Lewis didn’t say anything, George added “Only good injun’s a dead one.”
The boys lay there quietly and their breathing got slower and heavier. Lewis daydreamed of Indians riding along on his father’s horses and shooting them one by one.
The fire burned low. Something moved in the leaves outside the circle of light from their fire. George stood up and stepped towards the dark, tossing a stick “Shoo! Hi -yah!!!” and he stomped his feet. Whatever it was ran off.
A little while later, they heard the sound of movement through the leaves again. George repeated the movement, throwing a stick and shouting “Hi-yah. Git!”
A low, throaty growl answered him. Close.
“Wolves!” Lewis jumped to his feet, looking around for the musket.
“Hand me the musket!” shouted George.
Lewis pointed over to the X tree. Their father’s musket was leaning against it. Lewis had set it down there after unloading it.
Just past the musket they could see movement.
They heard movement in the leaves behind them. There was more than one. There was another low growl. The hairs on Lewis’ neck and stood up. His ears followed the movement. In his peripheral vision he spotted a movement. “I see one,” he said. “Over there.” He pointed to the other side of the fire, which was now just a few faint embers.
“Build the fire back up,” George ordered. “They’re afraid of fire.”
“You build it up,” replied Lewis.
“Both of us then,” George relented. George grabbed leaves and sticks with one hand and threw them in the fire. Lewis pushed them towards the fire with his moccasin. The fire caught and burned a little brighter.
“More,” ordered George.
“What do you think I’m doing,” rshouted Lewis, pushing a dead branch closer with his foot as he backed towards the fire. Lewis pulled the knife from the sheath in his belt. It had a deer antler handle and a sharp iron blade. He held it out in front of him and the blade shone in the light.
George lay a wax tree branch into the fire. It flared up and he held up a flaming stick high above his head, lighting up the dark beyond their campfire.
“There’s three!” yelled Lewis. The shiny yellow eyes were all they could see in the blackness.
“Follow me, Lew”, George, without waiting for an answer, inched towards the wolves and the X tree.
Lewis sliced through the air with his knife. “Come and git it!” he threatened to the yellow eyes. The wolves were bigger than him. They backed up at the boys’ approach, but didn’t take their eyes off them. One growled again.
George, holding the flaming branch in front, leaned over and picked up the barrel of the musket and passed it to Lewis. Nine year old Lewis stuck the knife blade in his teeth and took hold of the stock. The powder horn was slung over his shoulder and he slipped the funnel of it to the barrel and poured some down the barrel, spilling a lot of it. He kept his eyes on the nearest set of yellow eyes as he reached into the little muskrat bag at his waist, pulled out a lead ball and popped it down the barrel. Without wasting a movement he slipped the ramrod from the holder and down the barrel, tapping it twice.
George started backing up. Lewis leveled the gun at the wolf in front. They heard a growl behind them. Lewis looked over his shoulder and saw a big black wolf between them and the fire. George froze and nearly dropped the flaming wax tree branch.
Lewis twirled around quick as a blink, took quick aim and with a loud BOOM! put a hole right between the yellow eyes. The wolf’s legs just gave out and it plopped straight down. The other wolves scattered at the sound. Lewis was already reloading, but the wolves didn’t come back.
John Wetzel hadn’t really planned to leave the two young boys overnight, but the meeting of the militia to discuss the Indian problem along the border went on and on.
Everyone was chipping in to help pay for scouts along the river, and that was helping, but there were still incidents, then retaliation leading to reprisal. No one was sure who started what, nor did they much care, but they had trouble agreeing on what to do.
He didn’t arrive home until nearly midnight. At dawn, he was the first one up. He roused Mary and Christina to put together a feast for the two boys in case their hunting hadn’t been successful. They filled a wicker basket with a loaf of bread, a chunk of freshly churned butter and two thick slices of venison filet from the deer the oldest sibling Martin had shot. When Pa came walking into the campsite the next morning, George and Lewis were happily chewing on wolf drumsticks, and more was drying by the fire. A wolf-skin, tied to a hoop of fresh willow branches was drying next to the fire.