Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 03
Naturally there were a good many things I wanted to know about 'the ol' man o' the woods,' but Uncle Eb would take no part in any further conversation.
So I had to lie down beside him again and think out the problem as best I could. My mind was never more acutely conscious and it gathered many strange impressions, wandering in the kingdom of Fear, as I looked up at the tree-tops. Uncle Eb had built a furious fire and the warmth of it made me sleepy at last. Both he and old Fred had been snoring a long time when I ceased to hear them. Uncle Eb woke me at daylight, in the morning, and said we must be off to find the trail. He left me by the fire a little while and went looking on all sides and came back no wiser. We were both thirsty and started off on rough footing, without stopping to eat. We climbed and crawled for hours, it seemed to me, and everywhere the fallen tree trunks were heaped in our way. Uncle Eb sat down on one of them awhile to rest.
'Like the bones o' the dead,' said he, as he took a chew of tobacco and picked at the rotten skeleton of a fallen tree. We were both pretty well out of breath and of hope also, if I remember rightly, when we rested again under the low hanging boughs of a basswood for a bite of luncheon. Uncle Eb opened the little box of honey and spread some of it on our bread and butter. In a moment I noticed that half a dozen bees had lit in the open box.
'Lord Harry! here's honey bees,' said he, as he covered the box so as to keep them in, and tumbled everything else into the basket. 'Make haste now, Willie, and follow me with all yer might,' he added.
In a minute he let out one of the bees, and started running in the direction it flew. It went but a few feet and then rose into the tree-top.
'He's goin' t' git up into the open air,' said Uncle Eb. 'But I've got his bearins' an' I guess he knows the way all right.'
We took the direction indicated for a few minutes and then Uncle Eb let out another prisoner. The bee flew off a little way and then rose in a slanting course to the tree-tops. He showed us, however, that we were looking the right way.
'Them little fellers hev got a good compass,' said Uncle Eb, as we followed the line of the bees. 'It p'ints home ev'ry time, an' never makes a mistake.'
We went further this time before releasing another. He showed us that we had borne out of our course a little and as we turned to follow there were half a dozen bees flying around the box, as if begging for admission.
'Here they are back agin,' said Uncle Eb, 'an' they've told a lot o' their cronies 'bout the man an' the boy with honey.'
At length one of them flew over our heads and back in the direction we had come from.
'Ah, ha,' said Uncle Eb, 'it's a bee tree an' we've passed it, but I'm goin' t' keep lettin' 'em in an' out. Never heard uv a swarm o' bees goin' fur away an' so we mus' be near the clearin'.'
In a little while we let one go that took a road of its own. The others had gone back over our heads; this one bore off to the right in front of us, and we followed. I was riding in the basket and was first to see the light of the open through the tree-tops. But I didn't know what it meant until I heard the hearty 'hurrah' of Uncle Eb.
We had come to smooth footing in a grove of maples and the clean trunks of the trees stood up as straight as a granite column. Presently we came out upon wide fields of corn and clover, and as we looked back upon the grove it had a rounded front and I think of it now as the vestibule of the great forest
'It's a reg'lar big tomb,' said Uncle Eb, looking back over his shoulder into the gloomy cavern of the woods.
We could see a log house in the clearing, and we made for it as fast as our legs would carry us. We had amighty thirst and when we came to a little brook in the meadow we laid down and drank and drank until we were fairly grunting with fullness. Then we filled our teapot and went on. Men were reaping with their cradles in a field of grain and, as we neared the log house, a woman came out in the dooryard and, lifting a shell to her lips, blew a blast that rushed over the clearing and rang in the woods beyond it A loud halloo came back from the men.
A small dog rushed out at Fred, barking, and, I suppose, with some lack of respect, for the old dog laid hold of him in a violent temper and sent him away yelping. We must have presented an evil aspect, for our clothes were torn and we were both limping with fatigue. The woman had a kindly face and, after looking at us a moment, came and stooped before me and held my small face in her hands turning it so she could look into my eyes.
'You poor little critter,' said she, 'where you goin'?'
Uncle Eb told her something about my father and mother being dead and our going west Then she hugged and kissed me and made me very miserable, I remember, wetting my face with her tears, that were quite beyond my comprehension.
'Jethro,' said she, as the men came into the yard, 'I want ye t' look at this boy. Did ye ever see such a cunnin' little critter? Jes' look at them bright eyes!' and then she held me to her breast and nearly smothered me and began to hum a bit of an old song.
'Yer full o' mother love,' said her husband, as he sat down on the grass a moment 'Lost her only baby, an' the good Lord has sent no other. I swan, he has got putty eyes. Jes' as blue as a May flower. Ain't ye hungry? Come right in, both o' ye, an' set down t' the table with us.'
They made room for us and we sat down between the bare elbows of the hired men. I remember my eyes came only to the top of the table. So the good woman brought the family Bible and sitting on that firm foundation I ate my dinner of salt pork and potatoes and milk gravy a diet as grateful as it was familiar to my taste.
'Orphan, eh?' said the man of the house, looking down at me.
'Orphan,' Uncle Eb answered, nodding his head.
'Best in the world,' said Uncle Eb.
Want t' bind 'im out?' the man asked.
'Couldn't spare 'im,' said Uncle Eb, decisively.
'Where ye goin'?'
Uncle Eb hesitated, groping for an answer, I suppose, that would do no violence to our mutual understanding.
'Goin' t' heaven,' I ventured to say presently - an answer that gave rise to conflicting emotions at the table.
'That's right,' said Uncle Eb, turning to me and patting my head. 'We're on the road t' heaven, I hope, an' ye'll see it someday, sartin sure, if ye keep in the straight road and be a good boy.'
After dinner the good woman took off my clothes and put me in bed while she mended them. I went asleep then and did not awake for a long time. When I got up at last she brought a big basin of water and washed me with such motherly tenderness in voice and manner that I have never forgotten it. Uncle Eb lay sleeping on the lounge and when she had finished dressing me, Fred and I went out to play in the garden. It was supper time in a little while and then, again, the woman winded the shell and the men came up from the field. We sat down to eat with them, as we had done at noon, and Uncle Eb consented to spend the night after some urging. He helped them with the milking, and as I stood beside him shot a jet of the warm white flood into my mouth, that tickled it so I ran away laughing. The milking done, I sat on Uncle Eb's knee in the door-yard with all the rest of that household, hearing many tales of the wilderness, and of robbery and murder on Paradise Road. I got the impression that it was a country of unexampled wickedness and ferocity in men and animals. One man told about the ghost of Burnt Bridge; how the bridge had burnt one afternoon and how a certain traveller in the dark of the night driving down the hill above it, fell to his death at the brink of the culvert.
'An' every night since then,' said the man, very positively, ye can hear him drivin' down thet bill - jes' as plain as ye can hear me talkin' -the rattle o' the wheels an' all. It stops sudden an' then ye can hear 'im hit the rocks way down there at the bottom O' the gulley an' groan an' groan. An' folks say it's a curse on the town for leavin' thet hole open.'
'What's a ghost, Uncle Eb?' I whispered.
'Somethin' like a swift,' he answered, 'but not so powerful. We heard a panther las' night,' he added, turning to our host. 'Hollered like sin when he see the fire.'
'Scairt!' said the man o' the house gaping. 'That's what ailed him. I've lived twenty year on Paradise Road an' it was all woods when I put up the cabin. Seen deer on the doorstep an' bears in the garden, an' panthers in the fields. But I tell ye there's no critter so terrible as a man. All the animals know 'im - how he roars, an' spits fire an' smoke an' lead so it goes through a body er bites off a leg, mebbe. Guess they'd made friends with me but them I didn't kill went away smarting with holes in 'em. An' I guess they told all their people 'bout me - the terrible critter that walked on its hind legs an' lied a white face an' drew up an' spit 'is teeth into their vitals 'cross a ten-acre lot. An' putty soon they concluded they didn't want t' hev no truck with me. They thought thin clearin' was the valley o' death an' they got very careful. But the deer they kep' peekin' in at me. Sumthin' funny 'bout a deer - they're so cu'rus. Seem's though they loved the look o' me an' the taste o' the tame grass. Mebbe God meant em t' serve in the yoke some way an' be the friend o' man. They're the outcasts o' the forest - the prey o' the other animals an' men like 'em only when they're dead. An' they're the purtiest critter alive an' the spryest an' the mos' graceful.'
'Men are the mos' terrible of all critters, an' the meanest,' said Uncle Eb. 'They're the only critters that kill fer fun.'
'Bedtime,' said our host, rising presently. 'Got t' be up early 'n the morning.'
We climbed a ladder to the top floor of the cabin with the hired men, of whom there were two. The good lady of the house had made a bed for us on the floor and I remember Fred came up the ladder too, and lay down beside us. Uncle Eb was up with the men in the morning and at breakfast time my hostess came and woke me with kisses and helped me to dress. When we were about going she brought a little wagon out of the cellar that had been a playing of her dead boy, and said I could have it. This wonderful wagon was just the thing for the journey we were making. When I held the little tongue in my hand I was half-way to heaven already. It had four stout wheels and a beautiful red box. Her brother had sent it all the way from New York and it had stood so long in the cellar it was now much in need of repair. Uncle Eb took it to the tool shop in the stable and put it in shipshape order and made a little pair of thills to go in place of the tongue. Then he made a big flat collar and a back-pad out of the leather in old boot-legs, and rigged a pair of tugs out of two pieces of rope. Old Fred was quite cast down when he stood in harness between the shafts.
He had waited patiently to have his collar fitted; he had grinned and panted and wagged his tail with no suspicion of the serious and humiliating career he was entering upon. Now he stood with a sober face and his aspect was full of meditation.
'You fightin' hound!' said Uncle Eb, 'I hope this'll improve yer character.'
Fred tried to sit down when Uncle Eb tied a leading rope to his collar. When he heard the wheels rattle and felt the pull of the wagon he looked back at it and growled a little and started to run. Uncle Eb shouted 'whoa', and held him back, and then the dog got down on his belly and trembled until we patted his head and gave him a kind word. He seemed to understand presently and came along with a steady stride. Our hostess met us at the gate and the look of her face when she bade us goodbye and tucked some cookies into my pocket, has always lingered in my memory and put in me a mighty respect for all women. The sound of her voice, the tears, the waving of her handkerchief, as we went away, are among the things that have made me what I am.
We stowed our packages in the wagon box and I walked a few miles and then got into the empty basket. Fred tipped his load over once or twice, but got a steady gait in the way of industry after a while and a more cheerful look. We had our dinner by the roadside on the bank of a brook, an hour or so after midday, and came to a little village about sundown. As we were nearing it there was some excitement among the dogs and one of them tackled Fred. He went into battle very promptly, the wagon jumping and rattling until it turned bottom up. Re-enforced by Uncle Eb's cane he soon saw the heels of his aggressor and stood growling savagely. He was like the goal in a puzzle maze all wound and tangled in his harness and it took some time to get his face before him and his feet free.
At a small grocery where groups of men, just out of the fields, were sitting, their arms bare to the elbows, we bought more bread and butter. In paying for it Uncle Eb took a package out of his trouser pocket to get his change. It was tied in a red handkerchief and I remember it looked to be about the size of his fist. He was putting it back when it fell from his hand, heavily, and I could hear the chink of coin as it struck. One of the men, who sat near, picked it up and gave it back to him. As I remember well, his kindness had an evil flavour, for he winked at his companions, who nudged each other as they smiled knowingly. Uncle Eb was a bit cross, when I climbed into the basket, and walked along in silence so rapidly it worried the dog to keep pace. The leading rope was tied to the stock of the rifle and Fred's walking gait was too slow for the comfort of his neck.
'You shifless cuss! I'll put a kink in your neck fer you if ye don't walk up,' said Uncle Eb, as he looked back at the dog, in a temper wholly unworthy of him.
We had crossed a deep valley and were climbing a long hill in the dusky twilight
'Willie,' said Uncle Eb, 'your eyes are better'n mine - look back and see if anyone's comin'.'
'Can't see anyone,' I answered.
'Look 'way back in the road as fur as ye can see.
I did so, but I could see no one. He slackened his pace a little after that and before we had passed the hill it was getting dark. The road ran into woods and a river cut through them a little way from the clearing.
'Supper time, Uncle Eb,' I suggested, as we came to the bridge.
'Supper time, Uncle Eb,' he answered, turning down to the shore.
I got out of the basket then and followed him in the brush. Fred found it hard travelling here and shortly we took off his harness and left the wagon, transferring its load to the basket, while we pushed on to find a camping place. Back in the thick timber a long way from the road, we built a fire and had our supper. It was a dry nook in the pines -'tight as a house,' Uncle Eb said - and carpeted with the fragrant needles. When we lay on our backs in the firelight I remember the weary, droning voice of Uncle Eb had an impressive accompaniment of whispers. While he told stories 1 had a glowing cinder on the end of a stick and was weaving fiery skeins in the gloom.
He had been telling me of a panther he had met in the woods, one day, and how the creature ran away at the sight of him.
'Why's a panther 'fraid o' folks?' I enquired.
'Wall, ye see, they used t' be friendly, years 'n years ago - folks 'n panthers - but they want eggszac'ly cal'lated t' git along t'gether some way. An' ol' she panther gin 'em one uv her cubs, a great while ago, jes t' make frien's. The cub he grew big 'n used t' play 'n be very gentle. They wuz a boy he tuk to, an' both on 'em got very friendly. The boy 'n the panther went off one day 'n the woods - guess 'twas more 'n a hundred year ago - an' was lost. Walked all over'n fin'ly got t' gom' round 'n round 'n a big circle 'til they was both on 'em tired out. Come night they lay down es hungry es tew bears. The boy he was kind o' 'fraid 'o the dark, so he got up clus t' the panther 'n lay 'tween his paws. The boy he thought the panther smelt funny an' the panther he didn't jes' like the smell o' the boy. An' the boy he hed the legache 'n kicked the panther 'n the belly, so 't he kin' o' gagged 'n spit an' they want neither on 'em reel comf'able. The sof paws o' the panther was jes' like pincushions. He'd great hooks in 'em sharper 'n the p'int uv a needle. An' when he was goin' t' sleep he'd run 'em out jes' like an ol' cat - kind o' playflil - 'n purr 'n pull. All t' once the boy felt sumthin' like a lot o' needles prickin' his back. Made him jump 'n holler like Sam Hill. The panther he spit sassy 'n riz up 'n smelt o' the ground. Didn't neither on 'em know what was the matter. Bime bye they lay down ag'in. 'Twant only a little while 'fore the boy felt somethin' prickin' uv him. He hollered 'n kicked ag'in. The panther he growled 'n spit 'n dumb a tree 'n sot on a limb 'n peeked over at thet queer little critter. Couldn't neither on 'em understan' it. The boy c'u'd see the eyes o' the panther 'n the dark. Shone like tew live coals eggszac'ly. The panther 'd never sot 'n a tree when he was hungry, 'n see a boy below him. Sumthin' tol' him t' jump. Tail went swish in the leaves like thet. His whiskers quivered, his tongue come out. C'u'd think o' nuthin' but his big empty belly. The boy was scairt. He up with his gun quick es a flash. Aimed at his eyes 'n let 'er flicker. Blew a lot o' smoke 'n bird shot 'n paper waddin' right up in t' his face. The panther he lost his whiskers 'n one eye 'n got his hide fill' o' shot 'n fell off the tree like a ripe apple 'n run fer his life. Thought he'd never see nuthin' c'u'd growl 'n spits ' powerful es thet boy. Never c'u'd bear the sight uv a man after thet. Allwus made him gag 'n spit t' think o' the man critter. Went off tew his own folks 'n tol' o' the boy 'at spit fire 'n smoke 'n growled so't almos' tore his ears off An' now, whenever they hear a gun go off they allwus thank it's the man critter growlin'. An' they gag 'n spit 'n look es if it made 'em sick t' the stomach. An' the man folks they didn't hev no good 'pimon o' the panthers after thet. Haint never been frien's any more. Fact is a man, he can be any kind uv a beast, but a panther he can't be nuthin' but jest a panther.'
Then, too, as we lay there in the firelight, Uncle Eb told the remarkable story of the gingerbread hear. He told it slowly, as if his invention were severely taxed.
'Once they wuz a boy got lost. Was goin' cross lots t' play with 'nother boy 'n lied t' go through a strip o' woods. Went off the trail t' chase a butterfly 'n got lost. Hed his kite 'n' cross-gun 'n' he wandered all over 'til he was tired 'n hungry. Then he lay down t' cry on a bed o' moss. Putty quick they was a big black bear come along.
'"What's the matter?" said the bear.
'"Hungry," says the boy.
'"Tell ye what I'll dew," says the bear. "If ye'll scratch my back fer me I'll let ye cut a piece o' my tail off t' eat."
'Bear's tail, ye know, hes a lot o' meat on it - heam tell it was gran' good fare. So the boy he scratched the bear's back an' the bear he grinned an' made his paw go patitty-pat on the ground - it did feel so splendid. Then the boy tuk his jack-knife 'n begun t' cut off the bear's tail. The bear he flew mad 'n growled 'n growled so the boy he stopped 'n didn't dast cut no more.
'"Hurts awful," says the bear. "Couldn't never stan' it. Tell ye what I'll dew. Ye scratched my back an' now I'll scratch your'n."
'Gee whiz!' said I.
'Yessir, that's what the bear said,' Uncle Eb went on. 'The boy he up 'n run like a nailer. The bear he laughed hearty 'n scratched the ground like Sam Hill, 'n flung the dirt higher'n his head.
'"Look here," says he, as the boy stopped, "I jes' swallered a piece o mutton. Run yer hand int' my throat an I'll let ye hev it."
'The bear he opened his mouth an' showed his big teeth.'
'Whew!' I whistled.
'Thet's eggszac'ly what he done,' said Uncle Eb. 'He showed 'em plain. The boy was scairter'n a weasel. The bear he jumped up 'an down on his hind legs 'n laughed 'n' hollered 'n' shook himself
'"Only jes' foolin," says he, when he see the boy was goin' t' run ag'in. "What ye 'fraid uv?"
'"Can't bear t' stay here," says the boy, 'less ye'll keep yer mouth shet."
'An the bear he shet his mouth 'n pinted to the big pocket 'n his fur coat 'n winked 'n motioned t' the boy.
'The bear he reely did hev a pocket on the side uv his big fur coat. The boy slid his hand in up t' the elbow. Wha' d'ye s'pose he found?'
'Durmo,' said I.
'Sumthin' t' eat,' he continued. 'Boy liked it best uv all things.'
I guessed everything I could think of, from cookies to beefsteak, and gave up.
'Gingerbread,' said he, soberly, at lengrh.
'Thought ye said bears couldn't talk" I objected.
'Wall, the boy 'd fell asleep an' he'd only dreamed o' the bear,' said Uncle Eb. 'Ye see, bears can'talk when boys are dreamin' uv 'em. Come daylight, the boy got up 'n ketched a crow. Broke his wing with the cross-gun. Then he tied the kite swing on t' the crow's leg, an' the crow flopped along 'n the boy followed him 'n bime bye they come out a cornfield, where the crow'd been used t' comin' fer his dinner.'
'What 'come o' the boy?' said I.
'Went home,' said he, gaping, as he lay on his back and looked up at the tree-tops. 'An' he allwus said a bear was good comp'ny if he'd only keep his mouth shet - jes' like some folks I've hearn uv.'
'An' what 'come o' the crow?'
'Went t' the ol' crow doctor 'n got his wing fixed,' he said, drowsily. And in a moment I heard him snoring.
We had been asleep a long time when the barking of Fred woke us. I could just see Uncle Eb in the dim light of the fire, kneeling beside me, the rifle in his hand.
'I'll fill ye full o' lead if ye come any nearer,' he shouted.