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The Ox-Bone Skates

By: Dorothea Boyd Wolfe

With great excitement Dirk Balfoort clutched his home-made skates under his arm and strode out from his house, brown breeches flapping about his long legs, until he reached the foot of the steep street. He was to join the rest of his Company at the Van Cuyler house where they were to meet before the skating race.

From up the hill, near the entrance of the log fort, he could hear the rattling of the keys of the night watchman as he was beginning his nightly round of duty.

"Five o'clock, December 24th, in the Year of our Lord 1764, And all is well!" he was crying out as he walked.

All about Fort Orange there was the crisp tanginess of winter in the evening air, and the catcalls and laughter of the gathering youth flavored the scene with the deepest expectancy. The reason? This was the night of the Annual Company Skate Races on the river, something which no teen-age Dutch fellow or girl in Fort Orange would ever miss. The four Companies into which the youth had been divided--Blue, Green, Red, and Yellow--were to compete against one another. The winning Company would be treated by all the others to a Grand Party on New Year's Eve.

Below the town lay the Hudson River, smoothly mirrored, a glaze of thick ice surrounded by sheet-white snow-covered hills, thickly wooded with glistening ice-coated trees. Beyond all that there may have watched the eager eye of the bear or the wolf, or even the red man. But none of these sturdy Dutchmen thought of danger tonight.

Dirk was the head of the Blue Company. "Company Head" was the biggest honor a fellow could earn--it being given to the older, wiser and more courageous youths of this frontier colony. Tonight he wore his castor hat, trimmed with the blue band of his Company, perched jauntily over his light-chestnut colored hair. From time to time he could see the Red, Green and Yellow bands of the competing Companies as they skittered past him.

"Do you think you will win tonight, Dirk boy?" Vrouw VanDerHeyden called from her stoop to this rugged six-footer as he passed.

"We hope so," he answered her.

Yes, his Company had to beat the other Companies in the races. Dirk felt confident of winning. Were not the top skaters in the town under the Blue colors?

The Van Cuyler house stood, narrow and yellowish, at the foot of the broad street. Crow steps ascended both sides of the roof, and at the peak a saucy cock-rooster weather vane kept constant and careful vigil.

Dirk's knock at the massive double door was gaily answered by Eva Van Cuyler and Anne Wessels. Dirk's pulse raced at the sight of Anne. He had started to notice lately how very attractive she was, with her long golden braids and her bright blue eyes, and he had begun to dream dreams.

"You're just in time, Dirk," Anne said in greeting. She led him through the hall, which was decorated with holly green vines and smelling of pine branches.

He could hear, coming from the library, the chatter of many young voices which he recognized. Dirk left his skates in the hall with all the others. They were lined up in pairs along the wainscoted stairway. He would have been blind not to have noticed Claes Van Hoesen's new skates with their gleaming metal runners. Direct from Holland, they were the most expensive and the best skates that Fort Orange had ever boasted.

Dirk ran his finger over his own ox-bone runners, runners that he had cut and rubbed and polished and sharpened himself to a homemade perfection. They were no match for Claes' skates, but Dirk felt no envy. Claes, with all his money and his grand blades, was still no match for Dirk on skates. Still, there had been rumors lately that Claes felt that he was the proper and rightful head of the Blue Company. His friend Jan Schuyler had told him only yesterday that Claes was trying to get the group to vote for a new leader. Well, if the Company wanted Claes, then Dirk would not stand in the way. But such an episode would certainly reduce him to a minimum in the eyes of Anne Wessels at this time---and it would do the opposite for Claes.

"Dirk is here," Eva announced to her guests, and a cheer went up.

"Well, well, here comes the boy," chanted Claes from across the bustling room. He was seated elegantly near the tiled and festooned fireplace, impressive indeed in his silk stockings, frills and ruffles, many buttons, and silver-buckled shoes. "Better grab something to eat so you won't fall over when you get out there on the ice."

Dirk ignored the implication. "Thank you, Claes. Our Company certainly will be out to win tonight."

"And we will win, for sure," Jan said, "with Dirk Balfoort skating for us!"

The crowd let up some hurrahs and loud applause.

"Humph! Just wait until you see me on my new Amsterdam imported skates. You never witnessed anything like the performance of these beauties," Claes announced when the group had quieted down.

"They are nice," Dirk said, hoping to avoid an argument and any division in the group. "I for one can't wait to see what they'll do on the ice."

Claes laughed. "Oh, you'll see. That is, if you can manage to keep close enough behind me to see anything at all."

"We'll believe it when we see it, Claes!" came from the infuriated Jan.

"That's enough!" said Dirk, asserting his authority, and they all settled down. "Domine Freylinghausen was telling us just last Sunday about attaining 'the higher order of excellence in our Christian life. So often it is ruined by bitter, selfish and unruly words. "The tongue is a fire," the Bible says, and "a wise man…among you…let him show out of a good life his works with meekness of wisdom."

"Ha!" Claes said, mockingly. "The boy Dirk is giving us one of his sermons. Does he think he, too, is a Domine?

Dirk's eyes met Anne's, and she smiled. Was it a smile of approval over Dirk's sudden reference to Scripture, or approval of Claes' teasing? Well, there wasn't a person in all Fort Orange, or all along the Hudson River, who could put a finger on the spotless, Christ like life of Pastor Freylinghausen. If the Domine's life was the result of following Christ, then Dirk was willing to take the teasing, or anything else, that came his way. He only hoped that Anne, the prettiest girl in all Fort Orange, felt the same way.

The Blues were a hearty group, and they all ate and sang and laughed and planned for the race to follow, all with great boisterousness.

Dirk couldn't take his eyes off Anne. He was inwardly relieved when Claes finally excused himself from the party, saying he would join them at the river.

"Must get my legs in stride, you know," he explained, bowing himself out with a flourish of his Flemish beaver felt hat with its two plumes.

Jan gave Dirk a poke in the ribs and whispered, "Keep your eye on Claes tonight. I don't trust him. He'll do anything to win the race."

"Well, if he does, the victory will still be with the Blues," Dirk replied. To himself, though, he admitted that who would win the race meant a great deal. For, would not Anne look with delight at the winner?

Dirk's spirits soared as they downed the fruits, nuts, and Christmas cakes. It hardly seemed possible the time had gone when Eva announced that the first race was scheduled to start in only twenty minutes.

Each young man hastily donned his Blues' cap, muffler, jacket and mittens, sorted out his own skates from the pile, and ran out of the house and down to the river bank. Gone was the house and dark street and all thoughts of anything else but skating to win.

The brackish water, now deeply frozen, was already the scene of shrieks and calls of excitement, the bustle of strapping on skates and testing the wind and the ice for its influence on their speed.

Dirk sat on a rough log near the icy edge and unslung his own skates. Suddenly he stiffened. Slowly the horrible fact raced through every fiber of his being. Something had happened to his skates. His ox-bone skates dangled in his hand, obviously ruined.

In the darkness and the hurry of getting to the river he hadn't noticed it before. Dirk ran a sensitive thumb over one runner and then the other. There was no room for doubt. The edge of one was nicked, and the other was almost split clear through in one place. Dirk was sure such a calamity was not a "mere accident."

"Well, well, what's the matter, Dirk?" Claes glided up, doing a fancy twirl that was meant to impress everyone. "You look worried over the race."

Dirk couldn't tell Claes that his skates were broken. That would be a perfect cause for laughter and taunting. A good sport went in with what he had, even with splintered skates, and did the best he could even if he already knew the race was lost.

"Well, I don't blame you for looking so glum," Claes continued, "for I expect to win tonight."

"Perhaps you shall," Dirk sighed. He then squared his broad shoulders. "But I will be doing my best to win--and beat you."

"If I win, the Company is thinking of choosing a new Head," Claes said. "Pretty lucky boy, I am. And I'll soon be married to the prettiest girl in the Company!"

Dirk looked at him as though he couldn't believe his ears. "The prettiest girl in the Company? You mean Anne?"

Claes laughed, thoroughly enjoying Dirk's discomfort. "None other. Just thought I'd let you know."

"Father is giving me a house and land up near the Flats," Claes continued.

So Claes was serious over Anne! Was he, Dirk Balfoort, foolish enough to hope that a girl would wait for an unmoneyed boy who would have to spend an entire spring cutting his way through massive forests and steamy swamps to barter with the Indians for some furs which, if he had good fortune, would be valuable enough to sell to the East India Company? Would a girl wait all the following summer for him to transact business, then wait some more while he obtained a small piece of land upon which he would build a one-room log house with his own hands? All this would take a long, long time.

It was as if Claes could read his thoughts.

"Ah, money speaks so very loudly in the world, doesn't it, Dirk?

"Yes, Claes, it does. But it doesn't buy everything."

"No? And what does it not buy?"

"It doesn't buy Christ the Savior with His peace and happiness in the heart---and Eternal Life."

"Oh, you sound like a missionary. Go tell that to the Indians," Claes scoffed.

"Claes, every man needs Jesus, 'for all have sinned.'"

"Well, you are getting more and more like that strict Domine, aren't you? I'll have you know that the Van Hoesens are above reproach in this town. If I ever get into trouble, I will send for you so I can hear your little words of advice."

"If you ever get into trouble, the Lord says that He will 'abundantly pardon.'"

Claes skated away in disdain.

Dirk turned his attention to his skates and wondered if they might hold together for the race. Securing his skates onto his shoes, he rose to stand on them and test the blades. He stretched and flexed his legs and found the skates were still under him. When the judges announced the big race, he prayed that his splintered and chipped ox-bones would not snap.

Everyone able to celebrate Christmas Eve and able to be out of his house was there. They lined the bank and the edge of the cleared rink, some of them warming themselves around brilliant fires. At the finishing line were the judges, among them the notable Pieter Barentsten, commander of the army post, Colonel Schuyler, mayor of the town, and the popular Domine Freylinghausen. The strict Domine believed in keeping a watchful and helpful eye on his flock, not only on Sunday but every day of the week. He could thus give the needed warning or admonition or encouragement "in season."

Most of the sturdy lads toeing the starting line were the heads of their Companies, along with each team's best skaters, and probably most of them were showing their skill on skates in the Company races for the last time. For when a boy became a man and married young, as most of them did, he was no longer a member of a Company but was a new, strange creature in an even stranger world of sobriety and responsibilities.

The gun cracked, resounding into the night air, and they were off. A shout went up from the excited crowd. This was the longest race of the meet, and Dirk took it with long, slow strides. He was a bit hesitant, feeling out his skates, afraid to bear down, hoping that the weakened runner would not suddenly snap.

The nicked blade kept pulling awkwardly, picking annoyingly at the ice instead of gliding smoothly over the surface.

But the skates held. Dirk was more confident now and so increased his pace down the track. The onlookers were urging him on, some calling for a little more action. However, Claes passed him with a backward smirk, and then William Bradt of the Green Company.

The first round was anybody's race, and the crowd was shouting itself hoarse. Each Company had its favorite and each had its rooters, and they were born to be naturally enthusiastic about the sport.

The second round found Claes and William and Dirk edging slightly ahead of the others. Dirk was still taking it easy, waiting for the final stretch. By now he had overcome the clawing feeling that the nicked runner had given him at first. And the split blade had held thus far, giving him a little more assurance.

One more turn remained at the north end of the track, and then he could forget about the cracked runner. After that turn, he would give it everything he had.

Claes was pulling far out in the lead. Dirk passed William Bradt and the Green Company boys let out a howl of remorse for their champion. The leaders pressed hard toward the bend.

Dirk was catching up and was at Claes' heels now. He could see that Claes was short of breath by this time. He bent himself against the sharp wind, his young muscular body cutting it like a tireless sturgeon. Swiftly and deftly the winged feet flew over the ice. Left, right, left, right, the nimble blades hardly seemed to touch the glassy surface.

Now Dirk pressed his tall, lean body on the right. There was no sound that could be heard by the screeching crowd, but Dirk felt it, and his streaking body lurched sharply forward, the foot biting the frozen surface and sending him sprawling awkwardly off balance. Throwing out his arm to break the sudden fall, Dirk felt a sharp pain in his right wrist. He caught the sound of Claes' laugh as he whizzed on past, followed swiftly by the others.

There was no use in watching Claes take the bows. It was not that it mattered so much that Claes had won, but this was certainly an ungraceful way to lose. Dirk grunted as he loosened his skates and walked off the ice.

And many people were laughing at him!

"Gek! Idioot! Wat dunder, boy!" he heard, among other yells.

Over along the shore, clustered about the flickering fires, he spotted Anne and Claes talking together. The Blue caps were huddled together, discussing something important and intentionally leaving Dirk an outsider. Perhaps even now they were choosing Claes as the new leader of the Company. Soon Claes would be helping Anne on with her skates, and they and the other young people would be laughing and singing and gliding merrily over the frozen river.

Dirk had to get away. As he climbed the embankment toward the stockade, his broken skates rattled dejectedly, and his wrist hurt him. But from somewhere inside, the aching hurt was even more unbearable. He felt, in spite of his bigness, like the little boy he remembered he was one summer long ago when he had stubbed his toe while berrying and how he had cried then, and he wanted miserably to cry like that now. But he could not cry, he would not. But he felt so lonely, feeling that same emptiness, only more keenly, for a young man's pains are so much sharper than those of a small boy.

From far up Patroon Street he heard the eerie cry of the "Klopper Man" shaking his watch rattle and calling "Nine o'clock, December 24th, in the Year of our Lord 1764. And all is well!"

All is well! Dirk grunted again and rubbed his wrist. As he neared the Wessel's brick home, he could see through a window the warm glow of the pine-torch standing in the corner of the fireplace. He could almost hear its spit and crackle and smell the burning black pitch. Back of him there echoed the soft patter of running feet somewhere in the light falling snow, and it made him sense deeply his social desolation. Then he heard his name.

"Dirk! Dirk!"

She was then beside him, with her pretty hand-knitted blue knit Dutch cap, out of which bobbed the golden braids, and with her skates jangling over her slim shoulder.


"Dirk! You did not stay. Are you hurt badly?"

"No, not much." He looked down at her and thought to himself that if she would stand on tiptoe she might even come up to his shoulders. "You should be back on the river skating with Claes, Anne."

"Claes? Claes is not skating. You see, he is quite disgraced."

A soft feathery flake of snow lit on her nose, and Dirk wanted to brush it away with his hand. But instead, he watched it melt and glisten on her cheek. Or were those tears on her cheek?

"Claes disgraced? You mean I'm disgraced, don't you?"

"No, not you. Some in the company were just talking with the judges. They said that they saw Claes with your skates in the hallway before he left. He could not lie to Domine Freylinghausen, so he confessed he had tampered with them. And so William Bradt was declared the winner."

"And the Blue Company is very disappointed in me," Dirk sighed.

"No, they're not. Everyone in our Company agreed that we are proud and happy to have such a good sport and fine Christian example as you are to be our Head, Dirk."

Dirk reached out and took her mittened hand in his. "I just can't believe that Claes would do such a thing."

Anne shook her head. "I think he is sorry now and wishes to be like you. Whatever it was you said to him has influenced him greatly. He told me he wants to see you to ask for your advice."

"Then I will see him first thing tomorrow."

Anne lowered her eyes. "Claes is a foolish boy who has not yet grown up, Mynheer Dirk."

She had called him "Mister!" She had called him a "man." "Anne, it will take me such a long time to deserve that. If you are not already promised-----"

She shook her head.

"Then I have been wishfully hoping that I might become a boslooper this spring, and that I might bring back enough furs to sell, and buy---us---a house." He had whispered the "us," but she had heard it.

"I will wait, Dirk. I will wait." Her hand slid from his grasp, and he watched her as she disappeared up the stoop and inside to her own fireside.

There was suddenly a new warmness within him. Something he had never felt before nor even understood was creeping through him. His steps turned toward his own home. Now there was no more pain, no more heaviness. These broken, whim-wham skates, he would keep them always to remember this night when he became a "man"---a "mynheer."

The "Klopper Mann" passed him across the white street and shouted a greeting, "A Beautiful, Beautiful Snowy Christmas Eve to you. And all is well."

"All is Well!" Dirk called back, and the thought brought deep satisfaction to his heart. It did indeed have to be the most wonderful Christmas Eve of his life.

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