TWO LITTLE SAVAGES By Ernest Thompson Seton (1903) FOR THE LAST 130 years or so, small boys in America have played the game called cowboys and Indians. Even now, in the age of Nintendo games and Native Americans, they continue to.

The curious thing is that nearly all the small boys want to be Indians. When I was little myself, I used to pretend I was part Indian. My father had a framed portrait of a Blackfoot Indian boy named First Stabber, and it was my favorite piece of artwork in the world. First Stabber looked to be about 12. He was dressed in fringed buckskin; he wore beautifully beaded moccasins; in one hand he held a lethal-looking hatchet and in the other a hunting knife. I knew I could never be as good as that -- but I nevertheless often pretended that I was his younger brother. When I was about 8, I even tried asking my mother to call me Second Stabber, but this did not appeal to her.

It is easy to see why being Indian appeals to small boys, though. At least as they imagine Indian life in the days before whites came, it was wonderfully free and daring. Better yet, most of it was on a technological level that a boy can imagine mastering. There's no way he can manufacture caps and cap pistols for himself (much less fix his Nintendo if there's a circuitry problem), but he really could make himself a bow and set of arrows. Condos are beyond his reach, but a tipi is not. If he were an Indian, a boy of 12 or 14 might perfectly conceivably be able to feed, clothe and house himself in the woods, and thus -- at least for a summer weekend -- be entirely independent of dull parental life.

There is one book above all other books that will appeal to boys (and girls) who have had such fantasies. And it is quite capable of creating the fantasy in those who haven't. This is Ernest Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages.

The book takes place in Canada, but not in one of the wild parts. It's set in tame farm country, where deer are extinct and Indians have long been gone. The nearest thing to wilderness is a big swamp 10 miles away, where no one lives because no one has gotten around to draining the water yet. The time must be around 1880.

The main character is a boy named Yan. Yan is no farm kid; he has grown up in a small provincial city, one of the many children in a shabby-genteel family.

Yan is the family misfit. What he cares about is pure nature. He dreams -- what else? -- about being an Indian, and in his secret fantasies he tries to talk and act like one. What his parents and most of his siblings care about is respectability, plus a particularly deadening kind of religion. When Yan is trying to get a dollar together to buy his first nature book -- he is about 11 -- he starts doing odd jobs for neighbors, to earn a nickel here, a dime there. His father finds out, and instantly forbids him to continue. Stacking firewood is not work fit for a gentleman's son, the father thunders. But this same father gives him no allowance at all, not even a nickel a week. Says he can't afford to.

When Yan is 14, he gets tuberculosis, and is sent off to live on a farm for a year and regain his health. He will earn every penny of his room and board doing farm chores, so this the father can afford.

William Raften, the Irish-born farmer who takes Yan in, has a son the same age, a boy names Sam. Sam shares Yan's passion for the woods -- and quickly gets infected with his equal passion to live like an Indian. Before Yan has been a week on the farm, the two boys have started to build a tipi in the patch of weeds down by the creek that runs through Raften's farm. The farmer is perfectly willing to let them, provided they get all their chores done first.

They hit a problem almost immediately. They are trying to fasten the tipi poles together with willow withes, which keep slipping. The farmer comes down to see how his son and the city boy are doing -- and offers them some baling wire from the barn. Yan answers, "We ain't allowed to use anything but what the Indians had or could get in the woods."

"An' who don't allow yez?"

"The rules."

Raften is amused by this, and promptly shows them how to find and use the tough branches of a shrub called leatherwood.

Yan and Sam soon have their tipi and their camp. They now constitute themselves the Sanger Indians. Sam has metamorphosed into the Great Chief Woodpecker, and Yan is the almost as great chief Little Beaver. And the book is fully launched.

A long series of adventures follows. Woodpecker and Little Beaver learn to paint themselves with war paint. They learn to make arrows, to hunt, to track, to read the forest floor like a book. They encounter an imaginary banshee and a horribly real three-fingered tramp. With help from Mrs. Raften, they get permission to spend three weeks entirely in the woods, extra chores to be done when they get back. They admit a third boy to the tribe. They get a technical adviser in the person of a lonely old man named Caleb Clark, who many years ago had lived with real Indians. There's a grand climax, involving a trip to the big swamp, a new and rival "Indian" tribe, and the three-fingered tramp.

Two Little Savages has some four or five separate charms. The greatest, of course, is the wonderful if vicarious sense of accomplishment the reader gets, watching Yan and Sam acquire skill after skill. It isn't entirely vicarious, either. Seton is unobtrusive about his instruction -- but relying only on Two Little Savages, a reader could fletch his or her own arrows, make a very beautiful wood and leather drum, build an excellent small dam. All this using only what the Indians had or could get in the woods.

But the book offers other pleasures almost as great. The character studies of Yan and Sam, for example -- and of many other people as well, such as Guy Burns, the irrepressibly boastful third member of the tribe. There are the marginal illustrations, by my count numbering well over 200. My two favorites are a study of 12-year-old Guy Burns with and without war paint (the difference is amazing), and a tiny set of a dozen tipis as decorated by different tribes. Seton, a master artist, drew all these himself.

Then there's Seton's ability to keep two or three plots going at once, all of them exciting. There are the formal full-page illustrations (22 of them); there is Sam's lively wit, and so on.

I can think of only two flaws. Seton does have a certain taste for melodrama when dealing with grown-up characters. And in true Victorian style he is impossibly sentimental about little girls. But there is only one of these in the book -- Sam's kid sister Minnie -- and only one scene where you actually cringe.

I can never be First Stabber (and now that as a grown-up I know what the name means, I wouldn't want to be). But maybe I can be that milder thing, First Recommender. I'll recommend. Two Little Savages would make a stunning present for almost any kid who loves the woods. Noel Perrin teaches American literature at Dartmouth. A Note on Availability: "Two Little Savages" is available as a Dover paperback