Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 16

Chapter 16

I remember how hopefully we started that morning with Elizabeth Brower and Hope waving their handkerchiefs on the porch and David near them whittling. They had told us what to do and what not to do over and over again. I sat with Gerald on blankets that were spread over a thick mat of hay. The morning air was sweet with the odour of new hay and the music of the bobolink. Uncle Eb and Tip Taylor sang merrily as we rode over the hills.

When we entered the shade of the big forest Uncle Eb got out his rifle and loaded it. He sat a long time whispering and looking eagerly for game to right and left. He was still a boy. One could see evidences of age only in his white hair and beard and wrinkled brow. He retained the little tufts in front of his ears, and lately had grown a silver crescent of thin and silky hair that circled his throat under a bare clhn. Young as I was I had no keener relish for a holiday than he. At noon we halted beside a brook and unhitched our horses. Then we caught some fish, built a fire and cooked them, and brewed our tea. At sunset we halted at Tuley Pond, looking along its reedy margin, under purple tamaracks, for deer. There was a great silence, here in the deep of the woods, and Tip Taylor's axe, while he peeled the bark for our camp, seemed to fill the wilderness with echoes. It was after dark when the shanty was covered and we lay on its fragrant mow of balsam and hemlock. The great logs that we had rolled in front of our shanty were set afire and shortly supper was cooking.

Gerald had stood the journey well. Uncle Eb and he stayed in while Tip and I got our jack ready and went off in quest of a dugout He said Bill Ellsworth had one hid in a thicket on the south side of Tuley. We found it after an hour's tramp near by. It needed a little repairing but we soon made it water worthy, and then took our seats, he in the stern, with the paddle, and I in the bow with the gun. Slowly and silently we clove a way through the star-sown shadows. It was like the hushed and mystic movement of a dream. We seemed to be above the deep of heaven, the stars below us. The shadow of the forest in the still water looked like the wall of some mighty castle with towers and battlements and myriads of windows lighted for a fete. Once the groan of a nighthawk fell out of the upper air with a sound like that of a stone striking in water. I thought little of the deer Tip was after. His only aim in life was the one he got with a gun barrel. I had forgotten all but the beauty of the scene. Suddenly Tip roused me by laying his hand to the gunwale and gently shaking the dugout. In the dark distance, ahead of us, I could hear the faint tinkle of dripping water. Then I knew a deer was feeding not far away and that the water was falling from his muzzle. When I opened my jack we were close upon him. His eyes gleamed. I shot high above the deer that went splashing ashore before I had pulled my trigger. After the roar of the gun had got away, in the distant timber, Tip mentioned a place abhorred of all men, turned and paddled for the landing.

'Could 'a killed 'im with a club,' said he snickering. 'Guess he must a looked putty tall didn't he?'

'Why?' I asked.

'Cos ye aimed into the sky,' said hc. 'Mebbe ye thought he was a bird.'

'My hand trembled a little,' said I.

''Minds me of Bill Barber,' he said in a half-whisper, as he worked his paddle, chuckling with amusement.

'How's that?' I asked.

'Nothin' safe but the thing he shoots at,' said he. 'Terrible bad shot. Kills a cow every time he goes huntin'.'

Uncle Eb was stirring the fire when we came whispering into camp, and Gerald lay asleep under the blankets.

'Willie couldn't hit the broadside of a bam,' said Tip. 'He don't take to it nat'ral.'

'Killin' an' book learnin' don't often go together,' said Uncle Eb.

I turned in by the side of Gerald and Uncle Eb went off with Tip for another trip in the dugout. The night was chilly but the fire flooded our shanty with its warm glow. what with the light, and the boughs under us, and the strangeness of the black forest we got little sleep. I heard the gun roar late in the night, and when I woke again Uncle Eb and Tip Taylor were standing over the fire in the chilly grey of the morning. A dead deer hung on the limb of a tree near by. They began dressing it while Gerald and I went to the spring for water, peeled potatoes, and got the pots boiling. After a hearty breakfast we packed up, and were soon on the road again, reaching Blueberry Lake before noon. There we hired a boat of the lonely keeper of the reservoir, found an abandoned camp with an excellent bark shanty and made ourselves at home.

That evening in camp was one to be remembered. An Thomas, the guide who tended the reservoir, came over and sat beside our fire until bedtime. He had spent years in the wilderness going out for nothing less important than an annual spree at circus time. He eyed us over, each in turn, as if he thought us all very rare and interesting.

'Many bears here?' Uncle Eb enquired.

'More plenty 'n human bein's,' he answered, puffing lazily at his pipe with a dead calm in his voice and manner that I have never seen equalled except in a tropic sea.

'See 'em often?' I asked.

He emptied his pipe, striking it on his palin until the bowl rang, without answering. Then he blew into the stem with great violence.

'Three or four 'n a summer, mebbe,' he said at length.

'Ever git sassy?' Uncle Eb asked.

He whipped a coal out of the ashes then and lifted it in his fingers to the bowl of his pipe.

'Never real sassy,' he said between vigourous puffs. 'One stole a ham off my pyazz las' summer; Al Fifield brought 't in fer me one day -smelt good too! I kep' savin' uv it thinlan' I'd enjoy it all the more when I did hev it. One day I went off cuttin' timber an' stayed 'til mos' night. Comin' home I got t' thinkin' o' thet ham, an' made up my mind I'd hev some fer supper. The more I thought uv it the faster I hurried an' when I got hum I was hungrier'n I'd been fer a year. when I see the ol' bear's tracks an' the empty peg where the ham had hung I went t' work an, got mad. Then I started after thet bear. Tracked 'im over yender, up Cat Mountin'.'

Here Ab paused. He had a way of stopping always at the most interesting point to puff at his pipe. It looked as if he were getting up steam for another sentence and these delays had the effect of 'continued in our next'.

'Kill 'im?' Uncle Eb asked.

'Licked him,' he said.

'Huh!' we remarked incredulously.

'Licked 'im,' he repeated chucking. 'Went into his cave with a sledge stake an' whaled 'im - whaled 'im 'til he run fer his life.'

Whether it was true or not I have never been sure, even to this day, but Ab's manner was at once modest and convincing.

'Should 'a thought he'd 'a rassled with ye,' Uncle Eb remarked.

'Didn't give 'im time,' said Ab, as he took out his knife and began slowly to sharpen a stick.

'Don't never wan' t' rassle with no bear,' he added, 'but hams is too scurce here 'n the woods t' hev 'em tuk away 'fore ye know the taste uv 'em. I ain't never been hard on bears. Don't seldom ever set no traps an' I ain't shot a bear fer mor'n 'n ten year. But they've got t' be decent. If any bear steals my vittles he's goin' t' git cuffed bard.'

Ab's tongue had limbered up at last. His pipe was going well and he seemed to have struck an easy grade. There was a tone of injury and aggrievement in his talk of the bear's ingratitude. He snailed over his whittling as we laughed heartily at the droll effect of it all.

'D'ye ever hear o' the wild man 'at roams 'round'n these woods?' he asked.

'Never did,' said Uncle Eb.

'I've seen 'im more times 'n ye could shake a stick at,' said Ab crossing his legs comfortably and spitting into the fire. 'Kind o' thank he's the same man folks tells uv down 'n Paradise Valley there - 'at goes 'round 'n the clearin' after bedtime.'

'The night man!' I exclaimed.

'Guess thet's what they call 'im,' said Ab. 'Curus man! Sometimes I've hed a good squint at 'im off 'n the woods. He's wilder 'n a deer an' I've seen 'im jump over logs, half as high as this shanty, jest as easy as ye 'd hop a twig. Tried t' foller 'im once er twice but tain' no use. He's quicker 'n a wil' cat.'

'What kind of a lookin' manis he?' Tip Taylor asked.

'Great, big, broad-shouldered feller,' said Ab. 'Six feet tall if he's an inch. Hed a kind of a deerskin jacket on when I seen 'im an' breeches an' moccasins made o' some kind o' hide. I recollec' one day I was over on the ridge two mile er more from the Stillwater goin' south. I seen 'im gittin' a drink at the spring there 'n the burnt timber. An' if I ain't mistaken there was a real live panther playin' 'round 'im. If 't wa'n't a panther 'twas pesky nigh it I can'tell ye. The critter see me fast an' drew up 'is back. Then the man got up quickerin' a flash. Soon 'she see me -Jeemimey! didn't they move. Never see no human critter run as he did! A big tree hed fell 'cross a lot o' bush right 'n his path. I'll be gol dummed if 'twan't higher 'n my head! But he cleared it - jest as easy as a grasshopper'd go over a straw. I'd like t' know wher he comes from, gol dummed if I wouldn't. He's the consamdest queerest animal 'n these woods.'

Ab emphasised this lucid view of the night man by an animated movement of his fist that held the big hunting knife with which he whittled. Then he emptied his pipe and began cutting more tobacco.

'Some says 'e 's a ghost,' said Tip Taylor, splitting his sentence with a yawn, as he lay on a buffalo robe in the shanty.

'Shucks an' shoestrings!' said An, 'he looks too nat'ral. Don't believe no ghost ever wore whiskers an' long hair like his'n. Thet don't hol' t' reason.'

This remark was followed by dead silence. Tip seemed to lack both courage and information with which to prolong the argument.

Gerald had long been asleep and we were all worn out with uphill travelling and the lack of rest. Uncle Eb went out to look after the horses that were tethered near us. Ab rose, looked up through the tree-tops, ventured a guess about the weather, and strode off into the darkness.

We were five days in camp, hunting, fishing, fighting files and picking blueberries. Gerald's cough had not improved at all - it was, if anything, a bit worse than it had been and the worry of that had clouded our holiday. We were not in high spirits when, finally we decided to break camp the next afternoon.

The morning of our fourth day at Blueberry Uncle Eb and I crossed the lake, at daylight, to fish awhile in Soda Brook and gather orchids then abundant and beautiful in that part of the woods. We headed for camp at noon and were well away from shore when a wild yell rang in the dead timber that choked the wide inlet behind us. I was rowing and stopped the oars while we both looked back at the naked trees, belly deep in the water.

But for the dry limbs, here and there, they would have looked like masts of sunken ships. In a moment another wild whoop came rushing over the water. Thinking it might be somebody in trouble we worked about and pulled for the mouth of the inlet. Suddenly I saw a boat coming in the dead timber. There were three men in it, two of whom were paddling. They yelled like mad men as they caught sight of us, and one of them waved a bottle in the air.

'They're Indians,' said Uncle Eb. 'Drunk as lords. Guess we'd better git out o' the way.'

I put about and with a hearty pull made for the other side of the lake, three miles away. The Indians came after us, their yells echoing in the far forest. Suddenly one of them lifted his rifle, as if taking aim at us, and, bang it went the ball ricocheting across our bows.

'Crazy drunk,' said Uncle Eb, 'an' they're in fer trouble. Pull with all yer might'

I did that same putting my arms so stiffly to their task I feared the oars would break

In a moment another ball came splintering the gunwales right between us, but fortunately, wcll above the water line. Being half a mile from shore I saw we were in great peril. Uncle Eb reached for his rifle, his hand trembling.

'Sink 'em,' I shouted, 'an' do it quick or they'll sink us.'

My old companion took careful aim and his ball hit them right on the starboard bow below the water line. A splash told where it had landed. They stopped yelling. The man in the bow clapped his hat against the side of the boat.

'Guess we've gin 'em a little business t' ten' to,' said Uncle Eb as he made haste to load his rifle.

The Indian at the bow was lifting his rifle again. He seemed to reel as he took aim. He was very slow about it. I kept pulling as I watched him. I saw that their boat was slowly sInking. I had a strange fear that he would hit me in the stomach. I dodged when I saw the flash of his rifle. His ball struck the water, ten feet away from us, and threw a spray into my face.

Uncle Eb had lifted his rifle to shoot again. Suddenly the Indian, who had shot at us, went overboard. In a second they were all in the water, their boat bottom up.

'Now take yer time,' said Uncle Eb coolly, a frown upon his face.

'They'll drown,' said I.

'Don't care if they do, consam 'em,' he answered. 'They're some o' them St Regis devils, an' when they git whisky in 'em they'd jes' soon kill ye as look at ye. They am' no better 'n rats.'

We kept on our way and by and by a wind came up that gave us both some comfort, for we knew it would soon blow them ashore. Ab Thomas had come to our camp and sat with Tip and Gerald when we got there. We told of our adventure and then Ab gave us a bad turn, and a proper appreciation of our luck, by telling us that they were a gang of cut-throats - the worst in the wilderness.

'They'd a robbed ye sure,' he said. 'It's the same gang 'at killed a man on Cat Mountain las' summer, an' I'll bet a dollar on it.'

Tip had everything ready for our journey home. Each day Gerald had grown paler and thinner. As we wrapped him in a shawl and tenderly helped him into the wagon I read his doom in his face. We saw so much of that kind of thing in our stern climate we knew what it meant. Our fun was over. We sat in silence, speeding down the long hills in the fading light of the afternoon. Those few solemn hours in which I heard oniy the wagon's rumble and the sweet calls of the whip-poor-will-waves of music on a sea of silence-started me in a way of thought which has led me high and low these many years and still invites me. The day was near its end when we got to the first big clearing. From the top of a high hill we could see above the far forest, the red rim of the setting sun, big with winding from the skein of day, that was now flying off the tree-tops in the west.

We stopped to feed the horses and to take a bite of jerked venison, wrapped ourselves warmer, for it was now dunk and chilly, and went on again. The road went mostly downhill, going out of the woods, and we could make good time. It was near midnight when we drove in at our gate. There was a light in the sitting-room and Uncle Eb and I went in with Gerald at once. Elizabeth Brower knelt at the feet of her son, unbuttoned his coat and took off his muffler. Then she put her arms about his neck while neither spoke nor uttered any sound. Both mother and son felt and understood and were silent. The ancient law of God, that rends asunder and makes havoc of our plans, bore heavy on them in that moment, I have no doubt, but neither murmured. Uncle Eb began to pump vigorously at the cistern while David fussed with the fire. We were all quaking inwardly but neither betrayed a sign of it. It is a way the Puritan has of suffering. His emotions are like the deep undercurrents of the sea.