Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 04

Chapter 4

We listened awhile then but heard no sound in the thicket, although Fred was growling ominously, his hair on end. As for myself I never had a more fearful hour than that we suffered before the light of morning came.

I made no outcry, but clung to my old companion, trembling. He did not stir for a few minutes, and then we crept cautiously into the small hemlocks on one side of the opening.

'Keep still,' he whispered, 'don't move er speak.'

Presently we heard a move in the brush and then quick as a flash Uncle Eb lifted his rifle and fired in the direction of it Before the loud echo had gone off in the woods we heard something break through the brush at a run.

''S a man,' said Uncle Eb, as he listened. 'He ain't a losin' no time nuther.'

We sat listening as the sound grew fainter, and when it ceased entirely Uncle Eb said he must have got to the road. After a little the light of the morning began sifting down through the tree-tops and was greeted with innumerable songs.

'He done noble,' said Uncle Eb, patting the old dog as he rose to poke the fire. 'Putty good chap I call 'im! He can hev half o' my dinner any time he wants it.'

'Who do you suppose it was?' I enquired.

'Robbers, I guess,' he answered, 'an' they'll be layin' fer us when we go out, mebbe; but, if they are, Fred'll frnd 'em an' I've got Ol' Trusty here 'n' I guess thet'll take care uv us.'

His rifle was always flattered with that name of Ol' Trusty when it had done him a good turn.

Soon as the light had come clear he went out in the near woods with dog and rifle and beat around in the brush. He returned shortly and said he had seen where they came and went.

'I'd a killed em deader 'n a door nail,' said he, laying down the old rifle, 'if they'd a come any nearer.'

Then we brought water from the river and had our breakfast. Fred went on ahead of us, when we started for the road, scurrying through the brush on both sides of the trail, as if he knew what was expected of him. He flushed a number of partridges and Uncle Eb killed one of them on our way to the road. We resumed our journey without any further adventure. It was so smooth and level under foot that Uncle Eb let me get in the wagon after Fred was hitched to it The old dog went along soberly and without much effort, save when we came to hills or sandy places, when I always got out and ran on behind. Uncle Eb showed me how to brake the wheels with a long stick going downhill. I remember how it hit the dog's heels at the first down grade, and how he ran to keep out of the way of it We were going like mad in half a minute, Uncle Eb coming after us calling to the dog. Fred only looked over his shoulder, with a wild eye, at the rattling wagon and ran the harder. He leaped aside at the bottom and then we went all in a heap. Fortunately no harm was done.

'I declare!' said Uncle Eb as he came up to us, puffing like a spent horse, and picked me up unhurt and began to untangle the harness of old Fred, 'I guess he must a thought the devil was after him.'

The dog growled a little for a moment and bit at the harness, but coaxing reassured him and he went along all right again on the level. At a small settlement the children came out and ran along beside my wagon, laughing and asking me questions. Some of them tried to pet the dog, but old Fred kept to his labour at the heels of Uncle Eb and looked neither to right nor left. We stopped under a tree by the side of a narrow brook for our dinner, and one incident of that meal I think of always when I think of Uncle Eb. It shows the manner of man he was and with what understanding and sympathy he regarded every living thing. In rinsing his teapot he accidentally poured a bit of water on a big bumble-bee. The poor creature struggled to lift hill, and then another downpour caught him and still another until his wings fell drenched. Then his breast began heaving violently, his legs stiffened behind him and he sank, head downward, in the grass. Uncle Eb saw the death throes of the bee and knelt down and lifted the dead body by one of its wings.

'Jes' look at his velvet coat,' he said, 'an' his wings all wet n' stiff.

They'll never carry him another journey. It's too bad a man has t' kill every step he takes.'

The bee's tail was moving faintly and Uncle Eb laid him out in the warm sunlight and fanned him awhile with his hat, trying to bring back the breath of life.

'Guilty!' he said, presently, coming back with a sober face. 'Thet's a dead bee. No tellin' how many was dependent on him er what plans he bed. Must a gi'n him a lot o' pleasure t' fly round in the sunlight, workin' every fair day. 'S all over now.'

He had a gloomy face for an hour after that and many a time, in the days that followed, I heard him speak of the murdered bee.

We lay resting awhile after dinner and watching a big city of ants. Uncle Eb told me how they tilled the soil of the mound every year and sowed their own kind of grain - a small white seed like rice - and reaped their harvest in the late surnmer, storing the crop in their dry cellars under ground. He told me also the story of the ant lion - a big beetle that lives in the jungles of the grain and the grass - of which I remember only an outline, more or less imperfect.

Here it is in my own rewording of his tale: On a bright day one of the little black folks went off on a long road in a great field of barley. He was going to another city of his own people to bring helpers for the harvest. He came shortly to a sandy place where the barley was thin and the hot sunlight lay near to the ground. In a little valley close by the road of the ants he saw a deep pit, in the sand, with steep sides sloping to a point in the middle and as big around as a biscuit. Now the ants are a curious people and go looking for things that are new and wonderful as they walk abroad, so they have much to tell worth hearing after a journey. The little traveller was young and had no fear, so he left the road and went down to the pit and peeped over the side of it.

'What in the world is the meaning of this queer place?' he asked himself as he ran around the rim. In a moment he had stepped over and the soft sand began to cave and slide beneath him. Ouick as a flash the big lion-beetle rose up in the centre of the pit and began to reach for him. Then his legs flew in the caving sand and the young ant struck his blades in it to hold the little he could gain. Upward he struggled, leaping and floundering in the dust. He had got near the rim and had stopped, clinging to get his breath, when the lion began flinging the sand at him with his long feelers. It rose in a cloud and fell on the back of the ant and pulled at him as it swept down. He could feel the mighty cleavers of the lion striking near his hind legs and pulling the sand from under them. He must go down m a moment and he knew what that meant. He had heard the old men of the tribe tell often - how they hold one helpless and slash him into a dozen pieces. He was letting go, in despair, when he felt a hand on his neck. Looking up he saw one of his own people reaching over the rim, and in a jiffy they had shut their fangs together. He moved little by little as the other tagged at him, and in a moment was out of the trap and could feel the honest earth under him. When they had got home and told their adventure, some were for going to slay the beetle.

'There is never a pit in the path o' duty,' said the wise old chief of the little black folks. 'See that you keep in the straight road.'

'If our brother had not left the straight road,' said one who stood near, 'he that was in danger would have gone down into the pit.'

'It matters much,' he answered, 'whether it was kindness or curiosity that led him out of the road. But he that follows a fool hath much need of wisdom, for if he save the fool do ye not see that he hath encouraged folly?'

Of course I had then no proper understanding of the chiefs counsel, nor do I pretend even to remember it from that first telling, but the tale was told frequently in the course of my long acquaintance with Uncle Eb.

The diary of my good old friend lies before me as I write, the leaves turned yellow and the entries dim. I remember how stern he grew of an evening when he took out this sacred little record of our wanderings and began to write in it with his stub of a pencil. He wrote slowly and read and reread each entry with great care as I held the torch for him. 'Be still, boy - be still,' he would say when some pressing interrogatory passed my lips, and then he would bend to his work while the point of his pencil bored further into my patience. Beginning here I shall quote a few entries from the diary as they cover, with sufficient detail, an uneventful period of our journey.

AUGUST 20 Killed a partridge today. Biled it in the teapot for dinner. Went good. 14 mild.

AUGUST 21 Seen a deer this morning. Fred fit ag'in. Come near spilin' the wagon. Hed to stop and fix the ex. 10 mild.

AUGUST 22 Clumb a tree this morning after wild grapes. Come near falling. Gin me a little crickin the back. Willie hes got a stun bruze. 12 mild.

AUGUST 23 Went in swinmun. Ketched a few fish before breaklus'. Got provisions an' two case knives an' one fork, also one tin pie-plate. Used same to fry fish for dinner. 14 mild.

AUGUST 24 Got some spirits for Willie to rub on my back. Boots wearing out. Terrible hot. Lay in the shade in the heat of the day. Gypsies come an' camped by us tonight. 10 mild.

I remember well the coming of those gypsies. We were fishing in sight of the road and our fire was crackling on the smooth cropped shore. The big wagons of the gypsies - there were four of them as red and beautiful as those of a circus caravan - halted about sundown while the men came over a moment to scan'the field. Presently they went back and turned their wagons into the siding and began to unhitch. Then a lot of barefooted children, and women under gay shawls, overran the field gathering wood and making ready for night. Meanwhile swarthy drivers took the horses to water and tethered them with long ropes so they could crop the grass of the roadside.

One tall, bony man, with a face almost as black as that of an Indian, brought a big iron pot and set it up near the water. A big stew of beef bone, leeks and potatoes began to cook shortly, and I remember it had such a goodly smell I was minded to ask them for a taste of it. A little city of strange people had surrounded us of a sudden. Uncle Eb thought of going on, but the night was coming fast and there would be no moon and we were footsore and hungry. Women and children came over to our fire, after supper, and made more of me than I liked. I remember taking refuge between the knees of Uncle Eb, and Fred sat close in front of us growling fiercely when they came too near. They stood about, looking down at us and whispered together, and one young miss of the tribe came up and tried to kiss me in spite of Fred's warnings: She had flashing black eyes and hair as dark as the night, that fell in a curling mass upon her shoulders; but, somehow, I had a mighty fear of her and fought with desperation to keep my face from the touch of her red lips. Uncle Eb laughed and held Fred by the collar, and I began to cry out in terror, presently, when, to my great relief, she let go and ran away to her own people. They all went away to their wagons, save one young man, who was tall with light hair and a fair skin, and who looked like none of the other gypsies.

'Take care of yourself,' he whispered, as soon as the rest had gone. 'These are bad people. You'd better be off'

The young man left us and Uncle Eb began to pack up at once. They were going to bed in their wagons when we came away. I stood in the basket and Fred drew the wagon that had in it only a few bundles. A mile or more finther on we came to a lonely, deserted cabin close to the road. It had began to thunder in the distance and the wind was blowing damp.

'Guess nobody lives here,' said Uncle Eb as he turned in at the sagging gate and began to cross the little patch of weeds and hollyhocks behind it 'Door's half down, but I guess it'll de beeter'n no house. Goin' t' rain sartin.'

I was nodding a little about then, I remember; but I was wide awake when he took me out of the basket The old house stood on a high hill, and we could see the stars of heaven through the ruined door and one of the back windows. Uncle Eb lifted the leaning door a little and shoved it aside. We heard then a quick stir in the old house - a loud and ghostly rattle it seems now as I think of it - like that made by linen shaking on the line. Uncle Eb took a step backward as if it had startled him.

'Guess it's nuthin' to be 'fraid of;' he said, feeling in the pet of his coat He had struck a match in a moment. By its flickering light I could see only a bit of rubbish on the floor.

'Full o' white owls,' said he, stepping inside, where the rustling was now continuous. 'They'll do us no harm.'

I could see them now flying about under the low ceiling. Uncle Eb gathered an gathered an armful of grass and clover, in the near field, and spread it in a corner well away from the ruined door and windows. Covered with our blanket it made a fairly comfortable bed. Soon as we had lain down, the rain began to rattle on the shaky roof and flashes of lightning lit every comer of the old room.

I have had, ever, a curious love of storms, and, from the time when memory began its record in my brain, it has delighted me to hear at night the roar of thunder and see the swift play of the lightning. I lay between Uncle Eb and the old dog, who both went asleep shortly. Less wearied I presume than either of them, for I had done none of the carrying, and had slept along time that day in the shade of a tree, I was awake an hour or more after they were snoring. Every flash lit the old room like the full glare of the noonday sun. I remember it showed me an old cradle, piled full of rubbish, a rusty scythe hung in the rotting sash of a window, a few lengths of stove-pipe and a plough in one comer, and three staring white owls that sat on a beam above the doorway. The rain roared on the old roof shortly, and came dripping down through the bare boards above us. A big drop struck in my face and I moved a little. Then I saw what made me hold my breath a moment and cover my head with the shawl. A flash of lightning revealed a tall, ragged man looking in at the doorway. I lay close to Uncle Eb imagining much evil of that vision but made no outcry.

Snugged in between my two companions I felt reasonably secure and soon fell asleep. The sun, streaming in at the open door, roused me in the morning. At the beginning of each day of our journey I woke to find Uncle Eb cooking at the fire. He was lying beside me, this morning, his eyes open.

'Fraid I'm hard sick,' he said as I kissed him.

'What's the matter?' I enquired.

He struggled to a sitting posture, groaning soit went to my heart.

'Rheumatiz,' he answered presently.

He got to his feet, little by little, and every move he made gave him great pain. With one hand on his cane and the other on my shoulder he made his way slowly to the broken gate. Even now I can see clearly the fair prospect of that high place - a valley reaching to distant hills and a river winding through it, glimmering in the sunlight; a long wooded ledge breaking into naked, grassy slopes on one side of the valley and on the other a deep forest rolling to the far horizon; between them big patches of yellow grain and white buckwheat and green pasture land and greener meadows and the straight road, with white houses on either side of it, glorious in a double fringe of golden rod and purple aster and yellow John's-wort and the deep blue of the Jacob's ladder.

'Looks a good deal like the promised land,' said Uncle Eb. 'Hain't got much further t' go.'

He sat on the rotting threshold while I pulled some of the weeds in front of the doorstep and brought kindlings out of the house and built a fire. While we were eating I told Uncle Eb of the man that I had seen in the night.

'Guess you was dreamin',' he said, and, while I stood firm for the reality of that I had seen, it held our thought only for a brief moment. My companion was unable to walk that day so we lay by, in the shelter of the old house, eating as little of our scanty store as we could do with. I went to a spring near by for water and picked a good mess of blackberries that I hid away until supper time, so as to surprise Uncle Eb. A longer day than that we spent in the old house, after our coming, I have never known. I made the room a bit tidier and gathered more grass for bedding. Uncle Eb felt better as the day grew warm. I had a busy time of it that morning bathing his back in the spirits and rubbing until my small arms ached. I have heard him tell often how vigorously I worked that day and how I would say: 'I'll take care o' you, Uncle Eb -won't I, Uncle Eb?' as my little hands flew with redoubled energy on his bare skin. That finished we lay down sleeping until the sun was low, when I made ready the supper that took the last of everything we had to eat. Uncle Eb was more like himself that evening and, sitting up in the corner, as the darkness came, told me the story of Squirreltown and Frog Ferry, which came to be so great a standby in those days that, even now, I can recall much of the language in which he told it

'Once,' he said, 'there was a boy thet hed two grey squirrels in a cage. They kep' thinkin' o' the time they used t' scamper in the tree-tops an' make nests an' eat all the nuts they wanted an' play I spy in the thick leaves. An they grew poor an' looked kind o' ragged an' sickly an' downhearted. When he brought 'em outdoors they used t' look up in the trees an' run in the wire wheel as if they thought they could get there sometime if they kep' goin'. As the boy grew older he see it was cruel to keep 'em shet in a cage, but he'd hed em a long time an' couldn't bear t' give 'em up.

'One day he was out in the woods a little back o' the clearin'. All t' once he heard a swift holler. 'Twas nearby an' echoed so he couldn't tell which way it come from. He run fer home but the critter ketched 'im before he got out o' the woods an' took 'im into a cave, an' give 'im t' the little swifis t' play with. The boy cried terrible. The swifts they laughed an' nudged each other.

'"O ain't he cute!" says one. "He's a beauty!" says another. "Cur'us how he can git along without any fur," says the mother swift, as she run er nose over 'is bare foot. He thought of 'is folks waitin' fer him an' he begged em t' let 'im go. Then they come an' smelt 'im over.

'"Yer sech a cunin' critter," says the mother swift, "we couldn't spare ye."

'"Want to see my mother," says the boy sobbing.

'"Couldn't afford t' let ye go - yer so cute" says the swift. "Bring the poor critter a bone an' a bit o' snake meat"

'The boy couldn't eat. They fixed a bed fer him, but 'twant clean. The feel uv it made his back ache an' the smell uv it made him sick to his stomach.

'"When the swifts hed comp'ny they 'd bring 'em overt' look at him there 'n his dark comer. "'S a boy," said the mother swift pokin' him with a long stick "Wouldn't ye like t' see 'im run?" Then she punched him until he got up an' run 'round the cave fer his life. Happened one day et a very benevolent swift come int' the cave.

'"'S a pity t' keep the boy here," said he; "he looks bad."

'"But he makes fun fer the children," said the swift.

"Fun that makes misery is only fit fer a fool," said the visitor.

'They let him go thet day. Soon as he got hum he thought o' the squirrels an' was tickled t' find 'em alive. He tak 'em off to an island, in the middle of a big lake, thet very day, an' set the cage on the shore n' opened it He thought he would come back sometime an' see how they was ginin' along. The cage was made of light wire an' hed a tin bottom fastened to a big piece o' plank. At fust they was 'fraid t' leave it an' peeked out o' the door an' scratched their heads's if they thought it a resky business. After awhile one stepped out careful an' then the other followed. They tried t' climb a tree, but their nails was wore off an' they kep' fallin' back. Then they went off 'n the brush t' find some nuts. There was only pines an' poppies an' white birch an' a few berry bushes on the island. They went t' the water's edge on every side, but there was nuthin there a squirrel ud give a flirt uv his tail fer. 'Twas near dark when they come back t' the cage hungry as tew bears. They found a few crumbs o' bread in the cup an' divided 'em even. Then they went t' bed 'n their ol' nest.

'It hed been rainin' a week in the mount'ins. Thet night the lake rose a foot er more an' 'fore mornin' the cage begun t' rock a teenty bit as the water lifted the plank. They slep' all the better fer thet an' they dreamed they was up in a tree at the end uv a big bough. The cage begun t' sway sideways and then it let go o' the shore an' spun 'round once er twice an' sailed out 'n the deep water. There was a light breeze blowin' offshore an' purty soon it was pitchin' like a ship in the sea. But the two squirrels was very tired an' never woke up 'til sunrise. They got a terrible scare when they see the water 'round 'em an' felt the motion o' the ship. Both on 'em ran into the wire wheel an' that bore down the stern o' the ship so the under wires touched the water. They made it spin like a buzz saw an' got their clothes all wet. The ship went faster when they worked the wheel, an' bime bye they got tired an' come out on the main deck. The water washed over it a little so they clim up the roof thet was a kin' uv a hurricane deck. It made the ship sway an' rock fearful but they hung on 'midships, an' clung t' the handle that stuck up like a top mast. Their big tails was spreadover their shoulders, an' the wind rose an' the ship went faster 'n faster. They could see the main shore where the big woods come down t' the water 'n' all the while it kep' a comin' nearer 'n' nearer. But they was so hungry didn't seem possible they could live to git there.

'Ye know squirrels are a savin' people. In the day o' plenty they think o' the day o' poverty an' lay by fer it. All at once one uv 'em thought uv a few kernels o' corn, he hed pushed through a little crack in the tin floor one day a long time ago. It happened there was quite a hole under the crack an' each uv 'em bad stored some kernels unbeknown t' the other. So they hed a good supper 'n' some left fer a bite 'n the mornin'. 'Fore daylight the ship made her pott 'n' lay to, 'side liv a log in a little cove. The bullfrogs jumped on her main deck an' begun t' holler soon as she hove to: "all ashore! all ashore! all ashore!" The two squirrels woke up but lay quiet 'til the sun rose. Then they come out on the log 'et looked like a long dock an' run ashore 'n' foun' some o' their own folks in the bush. An' when they bed tol' their story the ol' father o' the tribe got up 'n a tree an' hollered himself hoarse preachin' 'bout how 't paid t' be savin'.

'"An' we should learn t' save our wisdom es well es our nuts," said a sassy brother; "fer each needs his own wisdom fer his own affairs."

'An the little ship went back 'n' forth 'cross the cove as the win' blew. The squirrels hed many a fine ride in her an' the frogs were the ferrymen. An' all 'long thet shore 'twas known es Frog Ferry 'mong the squirrel folks.'

It was very dark when he finished the tale an' as we lay gaping a few minutes after my last query about those funny people of the lake margin I could hear nothing but the chirping of the crickets. I was feeling a bit sleepy when I heard the boards creak above our heads. Uncle Eli raised himself and lay braced upon his elbow listening. In a few moments we heard a sound as of someone coming softly down the ladder at the other end of the room. It was so dark I could see nothing.

'Who's there?' Uncle Eb demanded.

'Don't p'int thet gun at me,' somebody whispered. 'This is my home and I warn ye t' leave it er I'll do ye harm.'