Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 01
Of all the people that ever went west that expedition was the most remarkable.
A small boy in a big basket on the back of a jolly old man, who carried a cane in one hand, a rifle in the other; a black dog serving as scout, skirmisher and rear guard - that was the size of it. They were the survivors of a ruined home in the north of Vermont, and were travelling far into the valley of the St Lawrence, but with no particular destination.
Midsummer had passed them in their journey; their clothes were covered with dust; their faces browning in the hot sun. It was a very small boy that sat inside the basket and clung to the rim, his tow head shaking as the old man walked. He saw wonderful things, day after day, looking down at the green fields or peering into the gloomy reaches of the wood; and he talked about them.
'Uncle Eb - is that where the swifts are?' he would ask often; and the old man would answer, 'No; they ain't real sassy this time o' year. They lay 'round in the deep dingles every day.'
Then the small voice would sing idly or prattle with an imaginary being that had a habit of peeking over the edge of the basket or would shout a greeting to some bird or butterfly and ask finally: 'Tired, Uncle Eb?'
Sometimes the old gentleman would say 'not very', and keep on, looking thoughtfully at the ground. Then, again, he would stop and mop his bald head with a big red handkerchief and say, a little tremor of irritation in his voice: 'Tired! who wouldn't be tired with a big elephant like you on his back all day? I'd be 'shamed o' myself t' set there an' let an old man carry me from Dan to Beersheba. Git out now an' shake yer legs.'
I was the small boy and I remember it was always a great relief to get out of the basket, and having run ahead, to lie in the grass among the wild flowers, and jump up at him as he came along.
Uncle Eb had been working for my father five years before I was born. He was not a strong man and had never been able to carry the wide swath of the other help in the fields, but we all loved him for his kindness and his knack of story-telling. He was a bachelor who came over the mountain from Pleasant Valley, a little bundle of clothes on his shoulder, and bringing a name that enriched the nomenclature of our neighbourhood. It was Eben Holden.
He had a cheerful temper and an imagination that was a very wilderness of oddities. Bears and panthers growled and were very terrible in that strange country. He had invented an animal more treacherous than any in the woods, and he called it a swift. 'Sumthin' like a panther', he described the look of it a fearsome creature that lay in the edge of the woods at sundown and made a noise like a woman crying, to lure the unwary. It would light one's eye with fear to hear Uncle Eb lift his voice in the cry of the swift. Many a time in the twilight when the bay of a hound or some far cry came faintly through the wooded hills, I have seen him lift his hand and bid us hark. And when we had listened a moment, our eyes wide with wonder, he would turn and say in a low, half-whispered tone: ' 'S a swift' I suppose we needed more the fear of God, but the young children of the pioneer needed also the fear of the woods or they would have strayed to their death in them.
A big bass viol, taller than himself, had long been the solace of his Sundays. After he had shaved - a ceremony so solemn that it seemed a rite of his religion - that sacred viol was uncovered. He carried it sometimes to the back piazza and sometimes to the barn, where the horses shook and trembled at the roaring thunder of the strings. When he began playing we children had to get well out of the way, and keep our distance. I remember now the look of him, then - his thin face, his soft black eyes, his long nose, the suit of broadcloth, the stock and standing collar and, above all, the solemnity in his manner when that big devil of a thing was leaning on his breast
As to his playing I have never heard a more fearful sound in any time of peace or one less creditable to a Christian. Weekdays he was addicted to the milder sin of the flute and, after chores, if there were no one to talk with him, he would sit long and pour his soul into that magic bar of boxwood.
Uncle Eb had another great accomplishment. He was what they call in the north country 'a natural cooner'. After nightfall, when the corn was ripening, he spoke in a whisper and had his ear cocked for coons. But he loved all kinds of good fun.
So this man had a boy in his heart and a boy in his basket that evening we left the old house. My father and mother and older brother had been drowned in the lake, where they had gone for a day of pleasure. I had then a small understanding of my loss, hat I have learned since that the farm was not worth the mortgage and that everything had to be sold. Uncle Eb and I - a little lad, a very little lad of six - were all that was left of what had been in that home. Some were for sending me to the county house; but they decided, finally, to turn me over to a dissolute uncle, with some allowance for my keep. Therein Uncle Eb was to be reckoned with. He had set his heart on keeping me, but he was a farm-hand without any home or visible property and not, therefore, in the mind of the authorities, a proper guardian. He had me with him in the old house, and the very night he heard they were coming after me in the morning, we started on our journey. I remember he was a long time tying packages of bread and butter and tea and boiled eggs to the rim of the basket, so that they hung on the outside. Then he put a woollen shawl and an oilcloth blanket on the bottom, pulled the straps over his shoulders and buckled them, standing before the looking-glass, and, hang put on my cap and coat, stood me on the table, and stooped so that I could climb into the basket - a pack basket, that he had used in hunting, the top a little smaller than the bottom. Once in, I could stand comfortably or sit facing sideways, my back and knees wedged from port to starboard. With me in my place he blew out the lantern and groped his way to the road, his cane in one hand, his rifle in the other. Fred, our old dog - a black shepherd, with tawny points - came after us. Uncle Eb scolded him and tried to send him back, but I pleaded for the poor creature and that settled it, he was one of our party.
'Dunno how we'll feed him,' said Uncle Eb. 'Our own mouths are big enough t' take all we can carry, but I hain' no heart t' leave 'im all 'lone there.'
I was old for my age, they tell me, and had a serious look and a wise way of talking, for a boy so young; but I had no notion of what lay before or behind us.
'Now, boy, take a good look at the old house,' I remember he whispered to me at the gate that night ''Tain't likely ye'll ever see it ag'in. Keep quiet now,' he added, letting down the bars at the foot of the lane. 'We're goin' west an' we mustn't let the grass grow under us. Got t'be purty spry I can'tell ye.'
It was quite dark and he felt his way carefully down the cow-paths into the broad pasture. With every step I kept a sharp lookout for swifts, and the moon shone after a while, making my work easier.
I had to hold my head down, presently, when the tall brush began to whip the basket and I heard the big boots of Uncle Eb ripping the briars. Then we came into the blackness of the thick timber and I could hear him feeling his way over the dead leaves with his cane. I got down, shortly, and walked beside him, holding on to the rifle with one hand. We stumbled, often, and were long in the trail before we could see the moonlight through the tree columns. In the clearing I climbed to my seat again and by and by we came to the road where my companion sat down resting his load on a boulder.
'Pretty hot, Uncle Eb, pretty hot,' he said to himself, fanning his brow with that old felt hat he wore everywhere. 'We've come three mile er more without a stop an' I guess we'd better rest a jiffy.'
My legs ached too, and I was getting very sleepy. I remember the jolt of the basket as he rose, and hearing him say, 'Well, Uncle Eb, I guess we'd better be goin'.'
The elbow that held my head, lying on the rim of the basket, was already numb; but the prickling could no longer rouse me, and half-dead with weariness, I fell asleep. Uncle Eb has told me since, that I tumbled out of the basket once, and that he had a time of it getting me in again, but I remember nothing more of that day's history.
When I woke in the morning, I could hear the crackling of fire, and felt very warm and cosy wrapped in the big shawl. I got a cheery greeting from Uncle Eb, who was feeding the fire with a big heap of sticks that he had piled together. Old Fred was licking my hands with his rough tongue, and I suppose that is what waked me. Tea was steeping in the little pot that hung over the fire, and our breakfast of boiled eggs and bread and butter lay on a paper beside it. I remember well the scene of our little camp that morning. We had come to a strange country, and there was no road in sight. A wooded hill lay back of us, and, just before, ran a noisy little brook, winding between smooth banks, through a long pasture into a dense wood. Behind a wall on the opposite shore a great field of rustling corn filled a broad valley and stood higher than a man's head.
While I went to wash my face in the clear water Uncle Eb was husking some ears of corn that he took out of his pocket, and had them roasting over the fire in a moment. We ate heartily, giving Fred two big slices of bread and butter, packing up with enough remaining for another day. Breakfast over we doused the fire and Uncle Eb put on his basket He made after a squirrel, presently, with old Fred, and brought him down out of a tree by hurling stones at him and then the faithful follower of our camp got a bit of meat for his breakfast. We climbed the wall, as he ate, and buried ourselves in the deep corn. The fragrant, silky tassels brushed my face and the corn hissed at our intrusion, crossing its green sabers in our path. Far in the field my companion heaped a little of the soft earth for a pillow, spread the oil cloth between rows and, as we lay down, drew the big shawl over us. Uncle Eb was tired after the toil of that night and went asleep almost as soon as he was down. Before I dropped off Fred came and licked my face and stepped over me, his tail wagging for leave, and curled upon the shawl at my feet. I could see no sky in that gloomy green aisle of corn. This going to bed in the morning seemed a foolish business to me that day and I lay a long time looking up at the rustling canopy overhead. I remember listening to the waves that came whispering out of the further field, nearer and nearer, until they swept over us with a roaring swash of leaves, like that of water flooding among rocks, as I have heard it often. A twinge of homesick ness came to me and the snoring of Uncle Eb gave me no comfort. I remember covering my head and crying softly as I thought of those who had gone away and whom I was to meet in a far country, called Heaven, whither we were going. I forgot my sorrow, finally, in sleep. When I awoke it had grown dusk under the corn. I felt for Uncle Eb and he was gone. Then I called to him.
'Hush, boy! lie low,' he whispered, bending over me, a sharp look in his eye.' 'Fraid they're after us.'
He sat kneeling beside me, holding Fred by the collar and listening. I could hear voices, the rustle of the corn and the tramp of feet near by. It was thundering in the distance - that heavy, shaking thunder that seems to take hold of the earth, and there were sounds in the corn like the drawing of sabers and the rush of many feet. The noisy thunder clouds came nearer and the voices that had made us tremble were no longer heard. Uncle Eb began to fasten the oil blanket to the stalks of corn for a shelter. The rain came roaring over us. The sound of it was like that of a host of cavalry coming at a gallop. We lay bracing the stalks, the blanket tied above us and were quite dry for a time. The rain rattled in the sounding sheaves and then came flooding down the steep gutters. Above us beam and rafter creaked, swaying, and showing glimpses of the dark sky. The rain passed - we could hear the last battalion leaving the field - and then the tumult ended as suddenly as it began. The corn trembled a few moments and hushed to a faint whisper. Then we could hear only the drip of raindrops leaking through the green roof. It was dark under the corn.