Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 06

Chapter 6

The lone pine stood in Brower's pasture, just clear of the woods. When the sun rose, one could see its taper shadow stretching away to the foot of Woody Ledge, and at sunset it lay like a fallen mast athwart the cow-paths, its long top arm a flying pennant on the side of Bowman's Hill. In summer this bar of shadow moved like a clock-hand on the green dial of the pasture, and the help could tell the time by the slant of it. Lone Pine had a mighty girth at the bottom, and its bare body tapered into the sky as straight as an arrow. Uncle Eb used to say that its one long, naked branch that swung and creaked near the top of it, like a sign of hospitality on the highway of the birds, was two hundred feet above ground. There were a few stubs here and there upon its shaft -the roost of crows and owls and hen-hawks. It must have passed for a low resort in the feathered kingdom because it was only the robbers of the sky that halted on Lone Pine.

This towering shaft of dead timber commemorated the ancient forest through which the northern Yankees cut their trails in the beginning of the century. They were a tall, big fisted, brawny lot of men who came across the Adirondacks from Vermont, and began to break the green canopy that for ages had covered the valley of the St Lawrence. Generally they drove a cow with them, and such game as they could kill on the journey supplemented their diet of 'pudding and milk'. Some settled where the wagon broke or where they had buried a member of the family, and there they cleared the forests that once covered the smooth acres of today. Gradually the rough surface of the trail grew smoother until it became Paradise Road - the well-worn thoroughfare of the stagecoach with its 'inns and outs', as the drivers used to say - the inns where the 'men folks' sat in the firelight of the blating logs after supper and told tales of adventure until bedtime, while the women sat with their knitting in the parlour, and the young men wrestled in the stableyard. The men of middle age had stooped and massive shoulders, and deep-furrowed brows: Tell one of them he was growing old and he might answer you by holding his whip in front of him and leaping over it between his hands.

There was a little clearing around that big pine tree when David Brower settled in the valley. Its shadows shifting in the light of sun and moon, like the arm of a compass, swept the spreading acres of his farm, and he built his house some forty rods from the foot of it on higher ground. David was the oldest of thirteen children. His father had died the year before he came to St Lawrence county, leaving him nothing but heavy responsibilities. Fortunately, his great strength and his kindly nature were equal to the burden. Mother and children were landed safely in their new home on Bowman's Hill the day that David was eighteen. I have heard the old folks of that country tell what a splendid figure of a man he was those days - six feet one in his stockings and broad at the shoulder. His eyes were grey and set under heavy brows. I have never forgotten the big man that laid hold of me and the broad clean-shaven serious face, that looked into mine the day I came to Paradise Valley. As I write I can see plainly his dimpled chin, his large nose, his firm mouth that was the key to his character. 'Open or shet,' I have heard the old folks say, 'it showed he was no fool.'

After two years David took a wife and settled in Paradise Valley. He prospered in a small way considered handsome thereabouts. In a few years he had cleared the rich acres of his farm to the sugar bush that was the north vestibule of the big forest; he had seen the clearing widen until he could discern the bare summits of the distant hills, and, far as he could see, were the neat white houses of the settlers. Children had come, three of them - the eldest a son who had left home and died in a far country long before we came to Paradise Valley - the youngest a baby.

I could not have enjoyed my new home more if I had been born in it. I had much need of a mother's tenderness, no doubt, for I remember with what a sense of peace and comfort I lay on the lap of Elizabeth Brower, that first evening, and heard her singing as she rocked. The little daughter stood at her knees, looking down at me and patting my bare toes or reaching over to feel my face.

'God sent him to us - didn't he, mother?' said she.

'Maybe,' Mrs Brower answered, 'we'll be good to him, anyway.'

Then that old query came into my mind. I asked them if it was heaven where we were.

'No,' they answered.

''Tain't anywhere near here, is it?' I went on.

Then she told me about the gate of death, and began sowing in me the seed of God's truth - as I know now the seed of many harvests. I slept with Uncle Eb in the garret, that night, and for long after we came to the Brower's. He continued to get better, and was shortly able to give his hand to the work of the farm.

There was room for all of us in that ample wilderness of his imagination, and the cry of the swift woke its echoes every evening for a time. Bears and panthers prowled in the deep thickets, but the swifts took a firmer grip on us, being bolder and more terrible. Uncle Eb became a great favourite in the family, and David Brower came to know soon that he was 'a good man to work' and could be trusted 'to look after things'. We had not been there long when I heard Elizabeth speak of Nehemiah - her lost son - and his name was often on the lips of others. He was a boy of sixteen when he went away, and I learned no more of him until long afterwards.

A month or more after we came to Faraway, I remember we went 'cross lots in a big box wagon to the orchard on the hill and gathered apples that fell in a shower when Uncle Eb went up to shake them down. Then cane the raw days of late October, when the crows went flying southward before the wind - a noisy pirate fleet that filled the sky at times - and when we all put on our mittens and went down the winding cow-paths to the grove of butternuts in the pasture. The great roof of the wilderness had turned red and faded into yellow. Soon its rafters began to show through, and then, in a day or two, they were all bare but for some patches of evergreen. Great, golden drifts of foliage lay higher than a man's head in the timber land about the clearing. We had our best fun then, playing 'I spy' in the groves.

In that fragrant deep of leaves one might lie undiscovered a long time. He could hear roaring like that of water at every move of the finder, wallowing nearer and nearer possibly, in his search. Old Fred came generally rooting his way to us in the deep drift with unerring accuracy.

And shortly winter came out of the north and, of a night, after rapping at the windows and howling in the chimney and roaring in the big woods, took possession of the earth. That was a time when hard cider flowed freely and recollection found a ready tongue among the older folk, and the young enjoyed many diversions, including measles and whooping cough.