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PROUD-FLESH AND POWDER-POST
A SUDDEN thaw with rain now interrupted our wood-chopping and carried off nearly all the snow. Cold icy weather soon followed, however; but meantime we boys had gone on a singular sort of errand up into the great woods, and became involved in a curious adventure.
The fact was that we now had a very painfully lame sojourner at the Old Squire's, in the person of Asa Doane who had wounded the instep of his foot with an ax the first day he worked with us in the wood-lot. It was a deep cut, and what old people quaintly call "proud-flesh" got into it. The wound refused to heal on account of granulations.
There is a tiny borer which eats seasoned oak wood, boring thousands of minute holes through it till it becomes a mere shell, and turning out a fine white powder, known among country folk as "powder-post." When a shovel or a pitchfork-handle snaps suddenly, or an ax helve or a rake's tail breaks off under no great strain, the farmer says, "'Twas powder-post."
If this small pest obtains lodgment in a barn, or in the oak finish or furniture of a house, it is likely to do a vexatious amount of damage, and no practicable method of checking its ravages has been found. Varnishes do not exclude it. Boiling will kill the borer, but furniture and wainscotings are not easily boiled. From the frames of old buildings, when of oak, powder-post will sometimes run in streams when a beam or brace is struck.
But everything has its virtues, if only they can be found out, and long ago, in New England, some rustic Æsculapius discovered that powder-post was a sovereign balm for all flesh-wounds, causing them to heal rapidly, without proud-flesh. And if proud-flesh appeared, the wound would still heal if it were opened and dressed with powder-post.
What modern medical science would predicate concerning this panacea, I know not, but thousands of cuts, in rural districts, treated with powder-post, did very well, and faith in it waxed strong. So when Asa cut his foot, the old folks declared that the foot must be done up in powder-post. "If it isn't," they said. "proud-flesh will get into it."
It was a bad cut. Asa had been hard at work, when his ax, glancing, had buried the blade in his instep; the very bones were cut. We ran to him, tied a handkerchief round his ankle, and twisted it tight with a stick to ligate it, but blood flowed profusely.
When at last we had helped him home, night was at hand, and no "powder-post" could be found. Several people said, however, that plenty of it could be obtained at an old hay barn up in the great woods. The braces of that barn had been made of cleft red oak, and were powder-posted.
The barn was four miles distant, but next morning Asa's brother James, Willis Murch and the writer set off to go there. James carried an ax with which to split the timbers, and we took along four old newspapers on which to gather up the precious dust, with a bottle in which to put it.
It was a cold morning; the ground was icy and hard frozen, but the sky was calm and bright.
"This is a weather-breeder," the Old Squire remarked at breakfast, and low down on the southern horizon, scarcely visible above the hilltops, was a line of slate-gray cloud.
We set off immediately after breakfast; it was a good time for hunting; the swamps were frozen and the foliage off the trees. Willis had brought his gun, loaded for deer.
At length we heard a deer run, and followed it for an hour or more. James then espied a hedgehog in a poplar-tree, which Willis shot. The long black-pointed quills were a curiosity to me, but we did not deem such game worth carrying home.
Owing to these delays it was near noon when we reached the clearing, and the sky had become overcast, but as we crossed Stoss Pond brook a new diversion presented itself. The pools were frozen over, but the ice was so transparent that the bottom was plainly visible, and we could see trout lying sluggishly in the deep water. Several of them were fine fish that looked as if they might weigh a pound or more.
James had heard it said that if a gun is fired with the muzzle held just through the ice of a frozen pool the concussion may so stun the fish beneath that they will float up to the under side of the ice. Willis was afraid that this would burst his gun, but the trout looked so alluring that at last he ventured the experiment. James cut a small hole with the ax, and Willis lying down thrust the muzzle of the gun about six inches beneath the ice. Then he edged away, and stretching out his arm at full length pulled the trigger. The gun recoiled, but no apparent damage was done.
For a few moments the water was turbid with the smoke, but when it cleared, there, sure enough, were five or six of the very largest trout floating, belly upward, against the ice. We had but to cut through and take them out, but James was so slow with his ax that two of the trout recovered and darted away.
We had four fine fish to show for the charge of powder, and immediately searched for another pool. We soon came to one much deeper and better stocked with trout, and Willis fired under the ice again. Eight fish were secured here, and going on up the stream we found still another pool. This time Willis thrust the gun deeper into the water, with the result that about a foot of the barrel was split open!
He and James had words about this accident, for Willis, much chapfallen over the mishap, blamed Doane, and declared that he ought to buy him a new gun.
James now hit upon a stratagem for capturing trout on his own account. Knowing that it was the concussion which stunned the trout he went to the old barn and procured a long board. Using this like a flail, he could strike the ice a blow that made a noise well-nigh as loud as a gun. When just the right sort of blow was given the trout below would turn on their backs and float up to the ice. Two good strings of trout were secured, and by this time Willis thought it best to make peace.
"Come on, boys!" he exclaimed. "We had better be going. It's two o'clock, and beginning to snow."
So engrossed had James and I become in this new method of fishing that we had not heeded the weather. Fine snow was falling already.
"But I must get the powder-post for Ase's foot!" exclaimed James.
"Hurry, then," said Willis, and we ran to the barn. Wooden pins held the oak braces of the frame in position. We knocked out the pins, and prying out two of the braces, split them, and then beat the pieces on the newspapers. The white powder ran from the perforated wood in tiny streams. The bottle filled but slowly, however, and it needed much splitting and hammering to obtain even a teaspoonful of powder-post. Then, at the last moment, Willis spilled nearly all we had collected, and another brace had to be taken out and split.
By this time our newspapers were torn to bits, and altogether we had much trouble in collecting half a bottleful. When at last we corked up the bottle and hurried out of the barn, a heavy snow storm was raging. We could not even see the woods across the clearing. But we ran as fast as we could, and for fifteen minutes scarcely slackened our pace.
The whole forest had taken on a wintry aspect. The snow rattled on the bare twigs and sodden leaves, and the rising gusts of wind sighed drearily.
"It seems to me that we ought to come to that little hollow where the muck-holes are," James said at length. "I think we're heading off too far toward Stoss Pond."
Thereupon we tacked and, gripping our strings of fish, ran on again, but presently were perplexed to discern the side of a mountain looming up, directly ahead.
"There, now, what did I tell you?" cried James. "That's Stoss Pond Mountain."
Thereupon we tacked again, and ran on.
The storm thickened and the forest darkened, but on we went through brush and thicket till we came to the bank of a large brook.
"We didn't cross any such brook as this on our way up!" James exclaimed.
"We're away down on Stoss Pond brook," said Willis. "We've come wrong! If you both think you know more than I, keep on; I'm going in the other direction," and Willis set off to run again. James and I followed him. In the course of five minutes we came suddenly out into cleared land.
"There! What did I tell you?" cried Willis. "This is Wilbur's pasture. We're almost home now."
James and I were too much gratified to question Willis' apparently superior wisdom and followed after him, intent only on getting home to dinner. The storm was now driving thick and fast. We could not see a hundred yards ahead, but we seemed to be on level ground, such as I had never seen in Wilbur's pasture. Soon we came to another large brook.
"There's no brook in Wilbur's pasture!" exclaimed James, stopping short.
"I don't care!" cried Willis. "This must be Wilbur's pasture!" He crossed the brook.
"Of course it is!" he shouted back to us, "for there's Wilbur's barn ahead of us!"
We hastened after him, and came to a barn about which the storm eddied in snowy gusts.
"But where is Wilbur's house?" asked James.
We looked round in perplexity. There was no house in sight; but here was a barn, and the door was ajar. We went in. It was empty of hay or cattle. The barn looked curiously familiar, but it was not till we perceived the torn newspapers and the pieces of split oak brace on the floor that the full truth dawned on us. It was the old hay barn we had left an hour previously!
We had run five miles through the woods only to reach the place from which we had started! James looked at me and I looked at Willis. A sense of utter bewilderment fell on us. In fact, we were terrified. , All hope of dinner, or of reaching home at all that night, deserted us. The storm was increasing; the late November day was at an end. Dusk fell.
For a while we scarcely spoke. The old barn creaked dismally as each gust of wind racked it; loose boards rattled and banged. No created place can be more dreary than an old, empty barn.
After our exertions we soon felt very chilly. We would not have dared build a fire in the barn, even if we had had matches. Willis groped about in the old hay bay and gathered a few armfuls of musty hay, which we spread on the barn floor; and then we lay down as snugly together as we could nestle, but nothing sufficed to warm us, and we lay shivering for what seemed hours.
James and I finally fell asleep, and perhaps Willis did, although he always denied it. At last he waked us, shaking us violently.
"You mustn't sleep!" he exclaimed. "You'll freeze to death and never wake up!
"It's getting terribly cold," he continued. "We'd better get up and jump around."
But James and I did not wish to stir from that one small slightly warmed spot. Our toes and fingers ached. A fine dust of snow sifted down through the cracks on our faces; a gale was raging, and how that old barn creaked!
"I guess it would be warmer under the barn floor," Willis said at last. "There's almost always old dry stuff under a barn floor. If we can lift a plank or two we'll get down there."
"Yes, we had better," quavered James, his teeth chattering. "If we get under the floor the barn will be less likely to kill us if it blows down."
Willis crept to the ends of the floor planks, and tried first one and then another. He found one that could be raised and tipped it over, making an aperture large enough to descend. It was pokerish moving about in the dark, but we thrust down our legs and found that there was dry chaff and hay there. Willis let himself down and felt around, then bade us get down beside him. We snuggled together under the floor, and with our hands banked the old dry stuff about our shivering bodies.
It seemed safer down there, and we felt the wind less, but lay listening to the gusts, more than half expecting with every one to hear the barn fall over us.
Probably we fell asleep after a while, for my next recollection is of coughing chaff, then noticing that it had grown slightly light. The wind appeared to have lulled in part. James, who was in the middle, felt warm as a kitten. I was but half awake, and so cold that I selfishly crept over between him and Willis. That waked James; he began to crawl back over me into the warm spot, but bumped his head against the barn floor and landed on Willis, who waked in a bad temper.
"What you doing!" he snarled. "Getting the warm chaff all away from my back!"
James thrust out a hand and grasped what he supposed was Willis's hair.
"Where is your old head, anyway!" he exclaimed. "Is that it? Your mouth isn't with it, is it?" Willis did not reply; he was falling asleep again.
"Say, Willis, has your mouth got strayed away from your head?" said James.
"Is that your head?" he exclaimed a moment after, speaking to me.
"Keep still, can't you?" I growled. "You've been in the middle all night! I want to go to sleep now."
"Well, by gummy, it isn't his head either!" cried James. "Whose head is that over there?"
"You lie down, Jim," said Willis.
"But there's somebody else here!" cried James, with a queer note in his voice, and he scrambled back over us both. The space was all too narrow for such a maneuver, and his knees felt hard.
"Now, look here," said Willis. "You quit that!"
But James was climbing through the hole to the barn floor above. "You must get out of there!" he cried. "There is something down there."
By this time Willis was fully waked up. He reached over with his hand, on the side where James had been, and then he, too, gave a spring and climbed out on the floor! That alarmed me in turn, and I followed them, bumping my head in my haste. "What is it?" I exclaimed.
"I don't know," said Willis, his voice shaking from cold and excitement.
"He's got an awful thick head of hair," said James, "but he felt warm! Seemed to be all hair!"
"I'll bet it's a bear!" cried Willis. "Denned up, under the floor!"
With that James and I made for the door, but Willis said he did not believe it would come out, if it was asleep for the winter.
For some time we stood near the door, prepared for flight. It was growing light, however, and with the daylight our courage revived. First Willis, then James and I, went back to the hole in the floor and peeped down, but it was too dark to distinguish objects.
Growing bolder, Willis ventured to lift another floor plank over where our strange bed-fellow lay, and even now I seem to see James' dilated eyes, as we looked down on a great round mat of shaggy black hair!
We had now no doubt that it was indeed a bear. Willis lowered the plank gently into its place, and, going outside, we discovered that there was a hole at the far end of the barn where the old stone work under the sill had fallen out.
This discovery excited us so much that we nearly forgot our miserable plight. The bear's skin and the state bounty would be worth sixteen dollars. As Willis' gun was useless, we concluded that the thing for us to do was to run home — if we could find the way — and get assistance.
We had scarcely left the barn when we saw two men come out of the woods. One of them had a gun. As they drew nearer, we perceived that the foremost was Willis' older brother, Ben Murch, and the other Addison.
"They're out hunting for us! Now don't you tell them we got lost!" said Willis, with that guile which is apt to develop in a boy who has older brothers that tease him. "Make them believe we've been guarding this bear all night."
James looked to me and laughed, but Willis did the talking, and when Ben called out to demand why in the world we had not come home, Willis shouted:
"We've got a big bear under the barn! We are afraid he'll get away!"
Neither Ben nor Addison asked us another question, but hastened to see the bear. A plank was pulled up, and Ben shot the animal at short range. It scarcely moved, and did not even growl.
Removing its hide, however, proved a bitterly cold job for Willis and Ben, and they were so long about it that James, Addison and I finally left them and went home with our powder-post and the string of frozen trout.
In consequence, when James and I asked for our share of the ursine bounty, both Willis and his brother denied our claim. As the original discoverer of the bear, James deemed himself ill-used and was not on speaking terms with the Murch boys for a number of weeks. The net result of the adventure to me was merely a bad cold.
As for the powder-post, well, it was used, and at length, Asa's foot healed. So it may be as well to give the time-honored panacea the benefit of the doubt as to its efficacy as an antidote for proud-flesh.