Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 02
We heard no more of the voices. Uncle Eb had brought an armful of wood, and some water in the teapot, while I was sleeping. As soon as the rain had passed he stood listening awhile and shortly opened his knife and made a little clearing in the corn by cutting a few hills.
'We've got to do it,' he said, 'er we can't take any comfort, an' the man tol' me I could have all the corn I wanted.'
'Did you see him, Uncle Eb?' I remember asking.
'Yes,' he answered, whittling in the dark. 'I saw him when I went out for the water an' it was he tol' me they were after us.'
He took a look at the sky after a while, and, remarking that he guessed they couldn't see his smoke now, began to kindle the fire. As it burned up he stuck two crotches and hung his teapot on a stick' that lay in them, so it took the heat of the flame, as I had seen him do in the morning. Our grotto, in the corn, was shortly as cheerful as any room in a palace, and our fire sent its light into the long aisles that opened opposite, and nobody could see the warm glow of it but ourselves.
'We'll hev our supper,' said Uncle Eb, as he opened a paper and spread out the eggs and bread and butter and crackers. 'We'll jest hev our supper an' by 'n by when everyone's abed we'll make tracks in the dirt, I can'tell ye.'
Our supper over, Uncle Eb let me look at his tobacco-box - a shiny thing of German silver that always seemed to snap out a quick farewell to me before it dove into his pocket. He was very cheerful and communicative, and joked a good deal as we lay there waiting in the firelight. I got some further acquaintance with the swift, learning among other things that it had no appetite for the pure in heart.
'Why not?' I enquired.
'Well,' said Uncle Eb, 'it's like this: the meaner the boy, the sweeter the meat.'
He sang an old song as he sat by the fire, with a whistled interlude between lines, and the swing of it, even now, carries me back to that far day in the fields. I lay with my head in his lap while he was singing.
Years after, when I could have carried him on my back' he wrote down for me the words of the old song. Here they are, about as he sang them, although there are evidences of repair, in certain lines, to supply the loss of phrases that had dropped out of his memory:
I was goin' to Salem one bright summer day, I met a young maiden a goin' my way; O, my fallow, faddeling fallow, faddel away.
An' many a time I had seen her before, But I never dare tell 'er the love thet I bore. O, my fallow, etc.
'Oh, where are you goin' my purty fair maid?' 'O, sir, I am goin' t' Salem,' she said. O, my fallow, etc.
'O, why are ye goin' so far in a day? Fer warm is the weather and long is the way.' O, my fallow, etc.
'O, sir I've forgorten, I hev, I declare, But it's nothin' to eat an' its nothin' to wear.' O, my fallow, etc.
'Oho! then I hev it, ye purty young miss! I'll bet it is only three words an' a kiss.' O, my fallow, etc.
'Young woman, young woman, O how will it dew If I go see yer lover 'n bring 'em t' you?' O, my fallow, etc.
''S a very long journey,' says she, 'I am told, An' before ye got back, they would surely be cold.' O, my fallow, etc.
'I hev 'em right with me, I vum an' I vow, An' if you don't object I'll deliver 'em now.' O, my fallow, etc.
She laid her fair head all on to my breast, An' ye wouldn't know more if I tol' ye the rest O, my fallow, etc.
I went asleep after awhile in spite of all, right in the middle of a story. The droning voice of Uncle Eb and the feel of his hand upon my forehead called me back, blinking, once or twice, but not for long. The fire was gone down to a few embers when Uncle Eb woke me and the grotto was lit only by a sprinkle of moonlight from above.
'Mos' twelve o'clock,' he whispered. 'Better be off.'
The basket was on his back and he was all ready. I followed him through the long aisle of corn, clinging to the tall of his coat. The golden lantern of the moon hung near the zenith and when we came out in the open we could see into the far fields. I climbed into my basket at the wall and as Uncle Eb carried me over the brook, stopping on a flat rock midway to take a drink, I could see the sky in the water, and it seemed as if a misstep would have tumbled me into the moon.
'Hear the crickets holler,' said Uncle Eb, as he followed the bank up into the open pasture.
'What makes 'em holler?' I asked.
'O, they're jes' filin' their saws an' thinktin'. Mebbe tellin' o' what's happened 'em. Been a hard day fer them little folks. Terrible flood in their country. Everyone on em hed t' git up a steeple quick 'she could er be drownded. They hev their troubles an' they talk 'bout 'em, too.'
'What do they file their saws for?' I enquired.
'Well, ye know,' said he, 'where they live the timber's thick an' they hev hard work clearin' t' mek a home.'
I was getting too sleepy for further talk. He made his way from field to field, stopping sometimes to look off at the distant mountains then at the sky or to whack the dry stalks of mullen with his cane. I remember he let down some bars after a long walk and stepped into a smooth roadway. He stood resting a little while, his basket on the top bar, and then the moon that I had been watching went down behind the broad rim of his hat and I fell into utter forgetfulness. My eyes opened on a lovely scene at daylight Uncle Eb had laid me on a mossy knoll in a bit of timber and through an opening right in front of us I could see a broad level of shining water, and the great green mountain on the further shore seemed to be up to its belly in the sea.
'Hello there!' said Uncle Eb; 'here we are at Lake Champlain.'
I could hear the fire crackling and smell the odour of steeping tea.
'Ye flopped 'round like a fish in thet basket,' said Uncle Eb. ''Guess ye must a been drearnin' O' bears. Jumped so ye scairt me. Didn't know but I had a wil' cat on my shoulders.'
Uncle Eb had taken a fish-line out of his pocket and was tying it to a rude pole that he had cut and trinmed with his jack-knife.
'I've found some crawfish here,' he said, 'an' I'm goin' t' try fer a bite on the p'int O' rocks there.'
'Goin' t' git some fish, Uncle Eb?' I enquired.
'Wouldn't say't I was, er wouldn't say't I wasn't,' he answered. 'Jes goin' t' try.'
Uncle Eb was always careful not to commit himself on a doubtful point. He had fixed his hook and sinker in a moment and then we went out on a rocky point nearby and threw off into the deep water. Suddenly Uncle Eb gave a jerk that brought a groan out of him and then let his hook go down again, his hands trembling, his face severe.
'By mighty! Uncle Eb,' he murtered to himself, 'I thought we hed him thet time.'
He jerked again presently, and then I could see a tug on the line that made me jump. A big fish came thrashing into the air in a minute. He tried to swing it ashore, but the pole bent and the fish got a fresh hold of the water and took the end of the pole under. Uncle Eb gave it a lift then that brought it ashore and a good bit of water with it. I remember how the fish slapped me with its wet tail and sprinkled my face shaking itself between my boots. It was a big bass and in a little while we had three of them. Uncle Eb dressed them and laid them over the fire on a gridiron of green birch, salting them as they cooked. I remember they went with a fine relish and the last of our eggs and bread and butter went with them.
Our breakfast over, Uncle Eb made me promise to stay with Fred and the basket while he went away to find a man who could row us across. In about an hour I heard a boat coming and the dog and I went out on the point of rocks where we saw Uncle Eb and another man, heading for us, half over the cove. The bow bumped the rocks beneath us in a minute. Then the stranger dropped his oars and stood staring at me and the dog.
'Say, mister,' said he presently, 'can't go no further. There's a reward offered fer you an' thet boy.'
Uncle Eb called him aside and was talking to him a long time.
I never knew what was said, but they came at last and took us into the boat and the stranger was very friendly.
When we had come near the landing on the 'York State' side, I remember he gave us our bearmgs.
'Keep t' the woods,' he said, 'till you're out o' harm's way. Don't go near the stage road fer a while. Ye'll find a store a little way up the mountain. Git yer provisions there an' about eighty rod farther ye'll strike the trail. It'll take ye over the mountain north an' t' Paradise Road. Then take the white church on yer right shoulder an' go straight west'
I would not have remembered it so well but for the fact that Uncle Eb wrote it all down in his account book and that has helped me over many a slippery place in my memory of those events. At the store we got some crackers and cheese, tea and coffee, dried beef and herring, a bit of honey and a loaf of bread that was sliced and buttered before it was done up. We were off in the woods by nine o'clock, according to Uncle Eb's diary, and I remember the trail led us into thick brush where I had to get out and walk a long way. It was smooth under foot, however, and at noon we came to a slash in the timber, full of briars that were all aglow with big blackberries. We filled our hats with them and Uncle Eb found a spring, beside which we built a fire and had a memorable meal that made me glad of my hunger.
Then we spread the oilcloth and lay down for another sleep. We could see the glow of the setting sun through the tree-tops when we woke, and began our packing.
'We'll hev t' hurry,' said Uncle Eb, 'er we'll never git out o' the woods t'night 'S 'bout six mile er more t' Paradise Road, es I mek it. Come, yer slower 'n a toad in a tar barrel.'
We hurried off on the trail and I remember Fred looked very crestfallen withtwo big packages tied to his collar. He delayed a bit by trying to shake them off, but Uncle Eb gave him a sharp word or two and then he walked along very thoughtfully. Uncle Eb was a little out of patience that evening, and I thought he bore down too harshly in his rebuke of the old dog.
'You shif'less cuss,' he said to him, 'ye'd jes' dew nothin' but chase squirrels an' let me break my back t' carry yer dinner.'
It was glooming fast in the thick timber, and Uncle Eb almost ran with me while the way was plain. The last ringing note of the wood thrush had died away and in a little while it was so dark I could distinguish nothing but the looming mass of tree tranks.
He stopped suddenly and strained his eyes in the dark. Then he whistled a sharp, sliding note, and the sound of it gave me some hint of his trouble.
'Git down, Willie,' said he, 'an' tek my hand. I'm 'fraid we're lost here 'n the big woods.'
We groped about for a minute, trying to find the trail.
'No use,' he said presently, 'we'll hev t' stop right here. Oughter known berter 'n t' come through s' near sundown. Guess it was more 'n anybody could do.'
He built a fire and began to lay out a supper for us then, while Fred sat down by me to be relieved of his bundles. Our supper was rather dry, for we had no water, but it was only two hours since we left the spring, so we were not suffering yet Uncle Eb took out of the fire a burning brand of pine and went away into the gloomy woods, holding it above his head, while Fred and I sat by the fire.
''S lucky we didn't go no further,' he said, as he came in after a few -minutes. 'There's a big prec'pice over yender. Dunno how deep 't is. Guess we'd a found out purty soon.'
He cut some boughs of hemlock, growing near us, and spread them in a little hollow. That done, we covered them with the oilcloth, and sat down comfortably by the fire. Uncle Eb had a serious look and was not inclined to talk or story telling. Before turning in he asked me to kneel and say my prayer as I had done every evening at the feet of my mother. I remember, clearly, kneeling before my old companion and hearing the echo of my small voice there in the dark and lonely woods.
I remember too, and even more clearly, how he bent his head and covered his eyes in that brief moment. I had a great dread of darkness and imagined much evil of the forest, but somehow I had no fear if he were near me. When we had fixed the fire and lain down for the night on the fragrant hemlock and covered ourselves with the shawl, Uncle Eb lay on one side of me and old Fred on the other, so I felt secure indeed. The night had many voices there in the deep wood. Away in the distance I could hear a strange, wild cry, and I asked what it was and Uncle Eb whispered back,' 's a loon.' Down the side of the mountain a shrill bark rang in the timber and that was a fox, according to my patient oracle. Anon we heard the crash and thunder of a falling tree and a murmur that followed in the wake of the last echo.
'Big tree fallin'!' said Uncle Eb, as he lay gaping. 'It has t' break a way t' the ground an' it must hurt. Did ye notice how the woods tremble? If we was up above them we could see the hole thet tree hed made. Jes' like an open grave till the others hev filed it with their tops.'
My ears had gone deaf with drowsiness when a quick stir in the body of Uncle Eb brought me back to my senses. He was up on his elbow listening and the firelight had sunk to a glimmer. Fred lay shivering and growling beside me. I could hear no other sound.
'Be still,' said Uncle Eb, as he boxed the dog's ears. Then he rose and began to stir the fire and lay on more wood. As the flame leaped and threw its light into the tree-tops a shrill cry, like the scream of a frightened woman, only louder and more terrible to hear brought me to my feet, crying. I knew the source of it was near us and ran to Uncle Eb in a fearful panic.
'Hush, boy,' said he as it died away and went echoing in the far forest. 'I'll take care o' you. Don't be scairt. He's more 'fraid uv us than we are o' him. He's makin' off now.'
We heard then a great crackling of dead brush on the mountain above us. It grew fainter as we listened. In a little while the woods were silent.
'It's the ol' man o' the woods,' said Uncle Eb. 'E's out takin' a walk.'
'Will he hurt folks?' I enquired.
'Tow!' he answered, 'jest as harmless as a kitten.'