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Donkey John of the Toy Valley by  Margaret Warner Morley






ARLY one morning Father Hofer got out another sled, for he had left the first one down the mountain, put on his wooden shoes with the long spikes in the heels, wrapped up well and wound the scarf many times around his head and neck. John knew his father was going down to the village and almost fell over with surprise and delight when he asked him if he would like to go too. He was ready in a moment, and they trudged, all three,—for Mother Hofer [87] must see them start,—through the snow to where the gully led down far towards the bottom of the valley.

Father Hofer placed the sled carefully and firmly on the platform of snow at the top. Then he seated himself and John got on behind, his arms around his father's waist and his legs drawn well up out of the way. He had often taken short sled trips with his father down the mountain side near home, but he had never yet gone down the long slide to the village in the valley. He had often come there to see his father start and had held his breath as he saw him flash down and out of sight under the great rock. Then he and his mother would wait patiently for the father to return, for they did not know until he got back whether he had reached the bottom alive. Now they were both going down [88] and the poor mother stood alone with clasped hands and murmured a prayer as she watched them.

John was eleven now and very proud to be allowed to go down into the Toy Valley in the winter time. "Are you quite ready, my son?" his father asked in a serious voice, and John knew the fatal moment had come. He gripped his father very tight, shut his eyes and bowed his head against his father's back as he felt the sled move; faster and faster it went until John felt as though they had left the earth entirely and were flying through the air. Then came a strange, swaying motion that gave him a sudden sick sensation. He felt his father's body sway far out and he, clutching fast, swayed too; then the sled shot ahead again faster than before and John knew the dangerous curve had been [89] passed and that he and his father were flying down the mountain in safety. It is no wonder John almost lost his senses clinging there, for the sled shot down through the icy air with the rapidity of a railway train. In what seemed to John ages, though it was only a few minutes, the speed slackened and, finally, the sled stopped and John raised his head and looked about. They were in the midst of a forest of fir trees whose branches dipped to the ground burdened with snow. The sun was shining brightly and Father Hofer was looking at John in a kindly manner. "Well done, my son," he said, and John, who was yet so dazed he could hardly stand, smiled broadly.

They dragged the sled after them a little way and then flew down another steep gully, but not so long nor so [90] steep as the first one. Again the sled came to a standstill, but this time only wide, white slopes lay about them.

They were quite below the black fir forest and now they slid easily enough down over the steep open meadows to the very bottom of the valley.

They went at once to the store where Father Hofer left a package of lace to be sent away and sold. There was nobody in the store but the man behind the counter, for in the winter all the people were busy carving and stayed all day long in their own houses. But Father Hofer and the shopkeeper had a long talk, while John looked about the store at the many things it contained, until he discovered a wooden frame filled with carver's tools of many shapes and sizes, and before this he planted himself until his father was ready to go.

[91] John followed through the crooked street, so narrow now with banks of tumbled snow piled high above his head that he could not walk at his father's side, but had to trot on behind. His father went so fast that he had no time to look at the gay paper toys pinned up in some of the windows, although he knew the children who had put them there. And the broad window sills!—how well they were filled with green moss and bright berries,—though none were prettier than their own at home. Still he would have liked to stop and look at them and at the bright flowers growing in pots in the window where Dono and Peter lived.

But his father went too fast, straight on to the large, wide-roofed, latticed house where the Herders lived. Their [92] window sills, too, were banked with moss and green leaves.

They pushed open the outside door and went into a smoke-stained room like the entrance to their own house. Beyond this was another room, larger than theirs, with a big brick stove in one corner, and here Mr. and Mrs. Herder and three of their children were sitting at a long wooden table at work.

They all got up when John and his father entered. They were glad to see them and had many questions to ask about the health of the family and how the winter was going up on the mountain. Then they sat down and the Herders took up their work again while the visitors looked on and the talk continued. Mr. and Mrs. Herder sat opposite each other, each with a stick of wood clamped to the table in front, [93] against which they held the bit of wood they were cutting, and into which the tool struck when it glanced off. They were carving little wooden horses and doing it very quickly. The oldest boy made the first cuts in the rude block. Father Herder finished hewing out the form and them passed it along to Mother Herder, who, with her small, sharp tools, quickly and neatly separated the hind legs, smoothed and shaped them, cut down the front legs until they were slender and shapely, modelled the ears, the nose, the neck, until the little horse, no larger than your hand, looked quite alive. Then she passed it to Henrico, a boy about Anton's age, who, with a little tool, made some long, fine lines to represent the mane.

John went and stood behind Henrico. [94] He longed to take the little tool and try, but he only said, "It looks easy to do."

"Yes," said Henrico, proudly, "I learned it all this winter. When I first tried, the lines went crosswise and looked not at all like a horse's mane. But, now see," and he moved the tool very quickly, and the shavings rolled out and the mane grew under his skilful touch in quite a wonderful way.

"It looks so easy," said John, at last, "I wish I could try."

"No, no," said Mother Herder, anxiously, "you would spoil the wood and maybe break the tool. It takes practice."

"John wants to carve," said Father Hofer, "but I tell him it is folly, for none of our family has ever carved."

[95] He said this a little sadly, for it was a great honor in the Toy Valley to be able to carve.

"I am going to carve," came a piping voice, apparently from the roof. John looked around and saw little Hans peeping down at him from the bed made on the platform above the stove. He had gone up there to take a nap because it was so warm. All the children laughed, for little Hans was a great pet.

John looked enviously at the young Herders who sat busy at the table with their parents. They were all doing some part of the work on the horses and the youngest of them was no older than John himself. When he got tired of watching the busy fingers perform the work that looked so easy, his eyes wandered about until, through an [96] open door which led into another room, he saw piles and piles of horses apparently all finished. Finally, he went and stood in the door-way and looked at them.

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