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The months went by, and winter’s long nights held a hint of spring and summer to come. The snow had stopped falling, and turned to water in the occasional sunlight that poked through the breaking clouds. The Deerslayer and the Bootmaker could often be found sitting on the porch watching the drops fall from the melting icicles that hung from their roofs.
“Bootmaker,” the Deerslayer said one day, “why don’t I take a little of the venison that we have stored down by the river, and that shirt you just completed, and head over the mountain to the village. I hear there is a man who sells a brown liquid, served warm, called coffee, that is a delight to drink. Perhaps he would trade us for a little of it. After our hard work this winter, why not treat ourselves to a soothing beverage on the fine and brief spring evenings to come?”
“I like the idea,” said the Bootmaker. “I shall await your return.”
The Deerslayer set off the next morning, and crossed the mountains to the village without incident. He traded his small package of meat and the shirt for a bag of coffee and returned with great haste to his friend’s fireside in the mountain valley, where they drank heartily of the fine libation brought from the village.
(The Coffee Trader traded most of the meat he got in the bargain for an additional shipment of coffee, which he hoped to trade to the Bootmaker for a pair of boots on the Deerslayer’s next visit. He planned to offer these boots and the shirt to an ambitious, if poorly clad, young man who could often be found hanging around the village looking for work. The Coffee Trader hoped to entice the lad to work for him as a parcel and message carrier for people living in the region, in exchange for goods and services, which the Coffee Trader would in turn add to the shelves of his trading post to offer to customers in the village for their respective goods and services. He planned to call his proposed new venture a “postal service.”)
Then, one week after the Deerslayer’s return to the valley, 20 horsemen, accompanied by the Violin Player, rode up to the Bootmaker’s cabin and confronted the two men. “We hear you two are great entrepreneurs who fashioned a deal which kept you both warm and fed through this hard winter,” said the leader, by way of introduction.
“Yes,” said the Bootmaker in reply, setting down his stitching.
“We have come from the village over the mountain,” said the horseman, “and a newly elected committee of compassion there has just been formed to take care of the many poor members of our society. They have determined that everyone must look after someone who is not as fortunate as himself. They have decided that you two will be responsible for the Violin Player, who is hungry and has no place to live. You will give him food and shelter, free of charge.”
“But this winter, for the first time, we managed to stay both warm and fed — without taking anything from anyone,” said the Deerslayer, stepping forward. “Before now, we were part of ‘the poor,’ ‘the hungry,’ and ‘the less fortunate.’ The wealth we enjoy today is our own creation.” He leveled his gaze at the Violin player. “What is keeping you from doing the same?”
“Not everyone is as good a hunter or tailor as you,” shouted someone from the rear of the group.
“And not everyone is blessed with the skills necessary for survival,” barked the Violin Player, pushing himself to the front of the pack. “My violin playing brings joy to people’s hearts, but just because it won’t put food on my table, clothes on my back, or a roof over my head, why should I be forced to suffer?”
“It would appear,” answered the Bootmaker, coolly, “that the only person here who wishes to use force is you.”
“You came to our village and traded food and clothing for coffee,” said the leader, ignoring the Bootmaker’s words. “This makes you quite wealthy by our standards. Yet,” he continued, the disapproval obvious in his voice, “you turned away the Violin Player when he offered you music in exchange for sustenance.”
“He should have offered us coffee,” came the Deerslayer’s even retort.
The leader of the group waved his hand, as if to brush aside the words he was hearing. “Nevertheless, from this moment forward you are responsible for this man, the Violin Player.” And with that, the group galloped out of the valley, leaving the Violin Player staring mockingly at his new keepers.
The Deerslayer and the Bootmaker could only stare back in angry astonishment.
* * *
“We could just turn him away.”
The Deerslayer and the Bootmaker were huddled in a corner of the Bootmaker’s cabin. They were contemplating a future that now included caring for another person, while their unwanted guest helped himself to the meat hanging over the fire. “And if the horsemen return from the village?” the Deerslayer asked. “What then?”
“We will tell them that we simply will not be a party to their ‘compassion,’” the Bootmaker said.
The Deerslayer sat contemplatively, mulling their options. “Why invite trouble?” he thought out loud. “What if we just give the Violin Player our scraps of clothes and food, and avoid any problems?”
“Two reasons,” the Bootmaker said quickly. “The first is that we have absolutely no idea what lies ahead. The future can hold many twists and turns. It could hold more prosperity — more game, better weather, more opportunities for trade, but it could also hold many perils. We have been storing our excess food and clothes in hopes that we could soon trade them for better things for ourselves. However, we also realize that if we are ever snowed in or suffer from a depletion of the game, or any other misfortune, then those stores will be the difference between life and death!”
The Deerslayer sat silent, considering the Bootmaker’s words. “And the second reason?” he asked momentarily.
“The second reason,” said the Bootmaker, casting a scornful glance towards their visitor, “is principle. We — you and I, not this man, or the mob that forced him on us — are responsible for own lives. Should bad times come our way — and heaven knows we’ve both seen enough of those — we would not go into the village and demand assistance. We worked for what we have, and now are being told to give some of it up for someone who refuses to work for a single thing. Why allow this man to spend one more minute living off our labor, when he, and those who brought him, will just take it as a sign of our sanction?”
“Because,” interjected the Violin Player, who, unbeknownst to the friends, had stepped within earshot of their conversation, “if you try to deny me what the committee has determined is my fair share of your food and clothing, they will just force you to instead. You see,” he said, taking a large bite from a chunk of meat held in his fist, “yours was not the first house that we visited. The first people who were told to take care of me refused, as you are considering doing, and the committee ordered their house burned to the ground. As soon as they rebuild — which they are very busy doing — they’ve agreed to accommodate someone else from the village. The committee can be very convincing.”
“Then we will give you only inferior clothes and poor cuts of meat, and let you sleep on the floor,” shouted the Bootmaker, his face red with rage. “You will quickly find that a life lived on someone else’s back can be no better than what pitiful existence you could make for yourself! We’ll see how long you stay after that!” He then stormed out of the house, leaving the Deerslayer to hear the Violin Player’s menacing sneer:
“The committee has already thought of that. They want a weekly report to ensure that I am kept happy.”
And so it went, for a while. The Violin Player stayed, and the two friends cared for him. When their arrangement had become, if not comfortable, at least acceptable, the Violin Player even mocked their initial protestations. “All of your fears,” he scoffed, “what did they mean? You acted as if the world would end for having to part with a little of your precious work, for my sake. Hah! You can barely notice me, for how little I take. You should be glad I don’t ask the committee to make you give me more.”
(Back in the village, the Coffee Trader, who never received a second visit from the Deerslayer and who was compelled by the committee to give his spare shirt to his own ward, informed the young man waiting for work that the postal service plan had been abandoned. The young man, half naked, yet refusing to become a ward himself and live off the forced labor of another, left the village to look for work elsewhere, and died of exposure as he crossed the open plain.)
It wasn’t long before the Violin Player was asking for more. The next time the horsemen arrived in the valley, it was to inform the friends that the Violin Player would henceforth be provided with an extra blanket and a new bed, as he had sent a request to the committee the previous week complaining about being cold. The committee had ruled that it was a reasonable request. When the Bootmaker responded that not even he or the Deerslayer had had a new bed since either could remember, the leader merely informed them that the committee had also ordered that the horsemen be fed and housed during their brief stopovers in the valley. “But, why?” asked the two men, utterly exasperated.
“We are doing the community’s business on these errands,” came the reply, “and the committee has decreed that we deserve to be compensated for our labor. Haven’t you two maintained all along that labor deserves to be rewarded?”
Two weeks later, the Bootmaker was ordered to add dessert to the Violin Player’s evening meals.
After only a few short months, the Deerslayer was returning from his hunts with little meat. It was, of course, a lie. The Deerslayer was having no trouble killing game, but was eating most of the meat before returning to the valley. He felt that it made no sense to work so hard only to have so much taken by the Violin Player. Unfortunately, this also meant that his friend, the Bootmaker, had to go without, as he could not find an excuse to bring him along that would not raise the Violin Player’s suspicions; he knew that the Violin Player would have them both severely punished if he found he was being “deprived.” So he watched his friend starve along with his enemy. Making the situation worse, he could not bring back the skins of animals he claimed he hadn’t killed, so there was little material with which to make new clothes.
As another harsh winter began to set in, relations between the friends were becoming increasingly strained. The Deerslayer had to keep his deception from the Bootmaker, as the Bootmaker would demand that he abandon the scheme. Where once he had felt comradeship and affection, he now felt only guilt.
The Bootmaker, left with little choice, set out to try his own hand at hunting again. He experienced minor success, only to see his own labors devoured by the hungry Violin Player. (Dessert had long since been abandoned; the Violin Player knew better than to complain.)
Soon, the Bootmaker too was returning with little meat. He ate most of his own modest kills in secret. Not aware that the Deerslayer was doing the same, he too felt guilty for his lies.
However, in time he saw that the Deerslayer, unlike the Violin Player and himself, was not losing any weight. He began to suspect that the Deerslayer was deceiving him. His guilt was turning into resentment.
He started to complain that he was “too hungry” to sew, but would wake in the dead of night to sew for himself in secret. The Deerslayer thought the clothes worn by the Bootmaker were in surprisingly good condition. He took umbrage, but was deterred from a confrontation by his own bad conscience.
The Violin Player noticed all of the changes, and considered voicing his concerns to the committee, but feared a disruption of the status quo. After all, he was still eating, if a little less than he had recently grown accustomed to.
The Deerslayer moved back to his own cabin. He didn’t give a reason; he just stopped returning to the Bootmaker’s home after his hunts. The Bootmaker and the Violin Player would sometimes wake in the night, certain they could smell meat cooking on the other side of the valley.
As winter’s brutal snows began to lay a heavy blanket across the high mountain valley, life for the trio was changing for the worse.
The Deerslayer’s clothes were soon in tatters; his toes protruded from the tips of his ratty boots. He could not venture out in the snow to hunt, so he went hungry.
The Bootmaker, always a poor hunter, could not adequately feed himself. Without sufficient skins, it wasn’t long before he too was wearing rags.
And the Violin Player, hungry and half-naked, burned his treasured instrument for a little warmth.
Back in the village, the horsemen reported conditions in the valley to the committee, which promptly voted to have the three forcibly relocated to the village, where they would from this time forth be cared for by the Coffee Trader. The committee then adjourned for the evening. They honestly did not understand some people’s complaints. Arranging society was not, in their opinion, very complicated at all.
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