Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 07

Chapter 7

I had a lot of fun that first winter, but none that I can remember more gratefully than our trip in the sledgehouse - a tight little house fitted and fastened to a big sledge. Uncle Eb had to go to mill at Hillsborough, some twelve miles away, and Hope and I, after much coaxing and many family counsels, got leave to go with him. The sky was cloudless, and the frosty air was all aglow in the sunlight that morning we started. There was a little sheet iron stove in one comer of the sledgehouse, walled in with zinc and anchored with wires; a layer of hay covered the floor and over that we spread our furs and blankets. The house had an open front, and Uncle Eb sat on the doorstep, as it were, to drive, while we sat behind him on the blankets.

'I love you very much,' said Hope, embracing me, after we were seated. Her affection embarrassed me, I remember. It seemed unmanly to be petted like a doll.

'I hate to be kissed,' I said, pulling away from her, at which Uncle Eb laughed heartily.

The day came when I would have given half my life for the words I held so cheaply then.

'You'd better be good t' me,' she answered, 'for when mother dies I'm goin' t' take care o' you. Uncle Eb and Gran'ma Bisnette an' you an' everybody I love is goin' t' come an' live with me in a big, big house. An' I'm goin' t' put you t' bed nights an' hear ye say yer prayers an everything.'

'Who'll do the spankin?' Uncle Eb asked.

'My husban',' she answered, with a sigh at the thought of all the trouble that lay before her.

'An' I'll make him rub your back, too, Uncle Eb,' she added. 'Wall, I rather guess he'll object to that,' said he.

'Then you can give 'ins five cents, an' I guess he'll be glad t' do it,' she answered promptly.

'Poor man! He won't know whether he's runnin' a poorhouse er a hospital, will he?' said Uncle Eb. 'Look here, children,' he added, taking out his old leather wallet, as he held the reins between his knees. 'Here's tew shillin' apiece for ye, an' I want ye t' spend it jest eggsackly as ye please.' The last words were spoken slowly and with emphasis.

We took the two silver pieces that he handed to us and looked them all over and compared them.

'I know what I'll do,' said she, suddenly. 'I'm goin' t' buy my mother a new dress, or mebbe a beautiful ring,' she added thoughtfully.

For my own part I did not know what I should buy. I wanted a real gun most of all and my inclination oscillated between that and a red rocking horse. My mind was very busy while I sat in silence. Presently I rose and went to Uncle Eb and whispered in his ear.

'Do you think I could get a real rifle with two shilin'?' I enquired anxiously.

'No,' he answered in a low tone that seemed to respect my confidence. 'Bime by, when you're older, I'll buy ye a rifle - a real rip snorter, too, with a shiny barrel 'n a silver lock. When ye get down t, the village ye'll see lots o' things y'd rather hev, prob'ly. If I was you, children,' he added, in a louder tone, 'I wouldn't buy a thing but nuts 'n' raisins.'

'Nuts 'n' raisins!' Hope exclaimed, scornfully.

'Nuts 'n' raisins,' he repeated. 'They're cheap 'n' satisfyin'. If ye eat enough uv 'em you'll never want anything else in this world.'

I failed to see the irony in Uncle Eb's remark and the suggestion seemed to have a good deal of merit, the more I thought it over.

''T any rate,' said Uncle Eb, 'I'd git somethin' fer my own selves.'

'Well,' said Hope, 'You tell us a lot o' things we could buy.'

'Less see!' said Uncle Eb, looking very serious. 'There's bootjacks an' there's warmin' pans 'n' mustard plasters 'n' liver pads 'n' all them kind o' things.'

We both shook our heads very doubtfully.

'Then,' he added, 'there are jimmyjacks 'n' silver no nuthin's.'

There were many other suggestions but none of them were decisive.

The snow lay deep on either side of the way and there was a glimmer on every white hillside where Jack Frost had sown his diamonds. Here and there a fox track crossed the smooth level of the valley and dwindled on the distant hills like a seam in a great white robe. It grew warmer as the sun rose, and we were a jolly company behind the merry jingle of the sleigh bells. We had had a long spell of quiet weather and the road lay in two furrows worn as smooth as ice at the bottom.

'Consarn it!' said Uncle Eb looking up at the sky, after we had been on the road an hour or so. 'There's a sun dog. Wouldn't wonder if we got a snowstorm' fore night.

I was running behind the sledge and standing on the brake hooks going downhill. He made me get in when he saw the sun dog, and let our horse - a rat-tailed bay known as Old Doctor - go at a merry pace.

We were awed to silence when we came in sight of Hillsborough, with spires looming far into the sky, as it seemed to me then, and buildings that bullied me with their big bulk, so that I had no heart for the spending of the two shillings Uncle Eb had given me. Such sublimity of proportion I have never seen since; and yet it was all very small indeed. The stores had a smell about them that was like chloroform in its effect upon me; for, once in them, I fell into a kind of trance and had scarce sense enough to know my own mind. The smart clerks, who generally came and asked, 'Well, young man, what can I do for you?' I regarded with fear and suspicion. I clung the tighter to my coin always, and said nothing, although I saw many a trinket whose glitter went to my soul with a mighty fascination. We both stood staring silently at the show cases, our tongues helpless with awe and wonder. Finally, after a whispered conference, Hope asked for a 'silver no nothing', and provoked so much laughter that we both fled to the sidewalk. Uncle Eb had to do our buying for us in the end.

'Wall, what'll ye hev?' he said to me at length.

I tried to think-it was no easy thing to do after all I had seen.

'Guess I'll take a jacknife,' I whispered.

'Give this boy a knife,' he demanded. 'Wants t' be good 'n sharp. Might hev t' skin a swift with it sometime.'

'What ye want?' he asked, then turning to Hope.

'A doll,' she whispered.

'White or black?' said he.

'White,' said she, 'with dark eyes and hair.'

'Want a reel, splendid, firs'-class doll,' he said to the clerk. 'Thet one'll do, there, with the sky-blue dress 'n the pink apron.'

We were worn out with excitement when we left for home under lowering skies. We children lay side by side under the robes, the doll between us, and were soon asleep. It was growing dark when Uncle Eb woke us, and the snow was driving in at the doorway. The air was full of snow, I remember, and Old Doctor was wading to his knees in a drift. We were up in the hills and the wind whistled in our little chimney. Uncle Eb had a serious look in his face. The snow grew deeper and Old Doctor went slower every moment.

'Six mild from home,' Uncle Eb muttered, as he held up to rest a moment. 'Six mild from home. 'Fraid we're in fer a night uv it.'

We got to the top of Fadden's Hill about dark, and the snow lay so deep in the cut we all got out for fear the house would tip over. Old Doctor floundered along a bit further until he went down in the drift and lay between the shafts half buried. We had a shovel that always hung beside a small hatchet in the sledgehouse - for one might need much beside the grace of God of a winter's day in that country - and with it Uncle Eb began to uncover the horse. We children stood in the sledgehouse door watching him and holding the lantern. Old Doctor was on his feet in a few minutes.

''Tain' no use tryin',' said Uncle Eb, as he began to unhitch. 'Can't go no further t'night'

Then he dug away the snow beside the sledgehouse, and hitched Old Doctor to the horseshoe that was nailed to the rear end of it. That done, he clambered up the side of the cut and took some rails off the fence and shoved them over on the roof of the house, so that one end rested there and the other on the high bank beside us. Then he cut a lot of hemlock boughs with the hatchet, and thatched the roof he had made over Old Doctor, binding them with the reins. Bringing more rails, he leaned them to the others on the windward side and nailed a big blanket over them, piecing it out with hemlock thatching, so it made a fairly comfortable shelter. We were under the wind in this deep cut on Fadden's Hill, and the snow piled in upon us rapidly. We had a warm blanket for Old Doctor and two big buffalo robes for our own use. We gave him a good feed of hay and oats, and then Uncle Eb cut up a fence rail with our hatchet and built a roaring fire in the stove. We had got a bit chilly wading in the snow, and the fire gave us a mighty sense of comfort.

'I thought somethin' might happen,' said Uncle Eb, as he hung his lantern to the ridge pole and took a big paper parcel out of his great coat pocket. 'I thought mebbe somethin' might happen, an' so I brought along a bite o' luncheon.'

He gave us dried herring and bread and butter and cheese.

''S a little dry,' he remarked, while we were eating, 'but it's drier where there's none.'

We had a pail of snow on top of the little stove and plenty of good drinking water for ourselves and the Old Doctor in a few minutes.

After supper Uncle Eb went up the side of the cut and brought back a lot of hemlock boughs and spread them under Old Doctor for bedding.

Then we all sat around the stove on the warm robes and listened to the wind howling above our little roof and the stories of Uncle Eb. The hissing of the snow as it beat upon the sledgehouse grew fainter by and by, and Uncle Eb said he guessed we were pretty well covered up. We fell asleep soon. I remember he stopped in the middle of a wolf story, and, seeing that our eyes were shut, pulled us back from the fire a little and covered us with one of the robes. It had been a mighty struggle between Sleep and Romance, and Sleep had won. I roused myself and begged him to go on with the story, but he only said, 'Hush, boy; it's bedtime,' and turned up the lantern and went out of doors. I woke once or twice in the night and saw him putting wood on the fire. He had put out the light. The gleam of the fire shone on his face when he opened the stove door.

'Gittin' a leetle cool here, Uncle Eb,' he was saying to himself.

We were up at daylight, and even then it was snowing and blowing fiercely. There were two feet of snow on the sledgehouse roof, and we were nearly buried in the bank. Uncle Eb had to do a lot of shoveling to get out of doors and into the stable. Old Doctor was quite out of the wind in a cave of snow and nickering for his breakfast. There was plenty for him, but we were on short rations. Uncle Eb put on the snow shoes, after we had eaten what there was left, and, cautioning us to keep in, set out for Fadden's across lots. He came back inside of an hour with a good supply of provisions in a basket on his shoulder. The wind had gone down and the air was milder. Big flakes of snow came fluttering slowly downward out of a dark sky. After dinner we went up on top of the sledgehouse and saw a big scraper coming in the valley below. Six teams of oxen were drawing it, and we could see the flying furrows on either side of the scraper as it ploughed in the deep drifts. Uncle Eb put on the snow shoes again, and, with Hope on his back and me clinging to his hand, he went down to meet them and to tell of our plight. The front team had wallowed to their ears, and the men were digging them out with shovels when we got to the scraper. A score of men and boys clung to the sides of that big, hollow wedge, and put their weight on it as the oxen pulled. We got on with the others, I remember, and I was swept off as soon as the scraper started by a roaring avalanche of snow that came down upon our heads and buried me completely. I was up again and had a fresh hold in a jiffy, and clung to my place until I was nearly smothered by the flying snow. It was great fun for me, and they were all shouting and hallooing as if it were a fine holiday. They made slow progress, however, and we left them shortly on their promise to try to reach us before night. If they failed to get through, one of them said he would drive over to Paradise Valley, if possible, and tell the Browers we were all right

On our return, Uncle Eb began shoveling a tunnel in the cut. When we got through to the open late in the afternoon we saw the scraper party going back with their teams.

'Guess they've gi'n up fer t'day,' said he. 'Snow's powerful deep down there below the bridge. Mebbe we can get 'round to where the road's clear by goin' 'cross lots. I've a good mind t' try it.'

Then he went over in the field and picked a winding way down the hill toward the river, while we children stood watching him. He came back soon and took down a bit of the fence and harnessed Old Doctor and hitched him to the sledgehouse. The tunnel was just wide enough to let us through with a tight pinch here and there. The footing was rather soft' and the horse had hard pulling. We went in the field, struggling on afoot - we little people - while Uncle Eb led the horse. He had to stop frequently to tunnel through a snowdrift, and at dusk we had only got half-way to the bridge from our cave in the cat. Of a sudden Old Doctor went up to his neck in a wall of deep snow that seemed to cut us off completely. He struggled a moment, falling on his side and wrenching the shafts from the runners. Uncle Eb went to work vigorously with his shovel and had soon cut a narrow box stall in the deep snow around Old Doctor. Just beyond the hill dipped sharply and down the slope we could see the stubble sticking through the shallow snow. 'We'll hev t' stop right where we are until mornin',' he said. 'It's mos' dark now.

Our little house stood tilting forward about half-way down the hill, its runners buried in the snow. A few hundred yards below was a cliff where the shore fell to the river some thirty feet It had stopped snowing, and the air had grown warmer, but the sky was dark We put nearly all the hay in the sledgehouse under Old Doctor and gave him the last of the oats and a warm cover of blankets. Then Uncle Eb went away to the fence for more wood, while we spread the supper. He was very tired, I remember, and we all turned in for the night a short time after we had eaten. The little stove was roaring like a furnace when we spread our blankets on the sloping floor and lay down, our feet to the front, and drew the warm robes over us. Uncle Eb, who had had no sleep the night before, began to snore heavily before we children had stopped whispering. He was still snoring, and Hope sound asleep, when I woke in the night and heard the rain falling on our little roof and felt the warm breath of the south wind. The water dripping from the eaves and falling far and near upon the yielding snow had many voices. I was half-asleep when I heard a new noise under the sledge. Something struck the front corner of the sledgehouse - a heavy, muffled blow - and brushed the noisy boards. Then I heard the timbers creak and felt the runners leaping over the soft snow. I remember it was like a dream of falling. I raised myself and stared about me. We were slipping down the steep floor. The lantern, burning dimly under the roof, swung and rattled. Uncle Eb was up on his elbow staring wildly. I could feel the jar and rush of the runners and the rain that seemed to roar as it dashed into my face. Then, suddenly, the sledgehouse gave a great leap into the air and the grating of the runners ceased. The lantern went hard against the roof; there was a mighty roar in my ears; then we heard a noise like thunder and felt the shock of a blow that set my back aching, and cracked the roof above our heads. It was all still for a second; then we children began to cry, and Uncle Eb staggered to his feet and lit the lantern that had gone out and that had no globe, I remember, as he held it down to our faces.

'Hush! Are you hurt?' he said, as he knelt before us. 'Git up now, see if ye can stand.'

We got to our feet, neither of us much the worse for what had happened- My knuckles were cut a bit by a splinter, and Hope had been hit on the shins by the lantern globe as it fell.

'By the Lord Harry!' said Uncle Eb, when he saw we were not hurt. 'Wonder what hit us.'

We followed him outside while he was speaking.

'We've slid downhill,' he said. 'Went over the cliff Went kerplunk in the deep snow, er there'd have been nuthin' left uv us. Snow's meltin' jest as if it was July.'

Uncle Eb helped us into our heavy coats, and then with a blanket over his arm led us into the wet snow. We came out upon clear ice in a moment and picked our way along the lowering shore. At length Uncle Eb clambered up, pulling us up after him, one by one. Then he whistled to Old Doctor, who whinnied a quick reply. He left us standing together, the blanket over our heads, and went away in the dark whistling as he had done before. We could hear Old Doctor answer as he came near, and presently Uncle Eb returned leading the horse by the halter. Then he put us both on Old Doctor's back, threw the blanket over our heads, and started slowly for the road. We clung to each other as the horse staggered in the soft snow, and kept our places with some aid from Uncle Eb. We crossed the fence presently, and then for a way it was hard going. We found fair footing after we had passed the big scraper, and, coming to a house a mile or so down the road called them out of bed. It was growing light and they made us comfortable around a big stove, and gave us breakfast. The good man of the house took us home in a big sleigh after the chores were done. We met David Brower coming after us, and if we'd been gone a year we couldn't have received a warmer welcome.