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Scarin' the Duke
Long 'bout the time of the Fenian Raid the children round our way became so timid on account of the terrible stories told about that awful monster, the Wild Irishman, that they was afraid to go to bed without a candle, and the excitement so worked on their nerves that at the least sudden surprise they'd spring up an' holler as if by instinct. Even big boys like me an' Ed was at that time would tread very gingerly when passin' along the road by the big woods, for the most alarmin' rumors was afloat, and we didn't know what minute the Wild Irishman would spring out upon us, for he was a mighty real phantom to us, I tell you.
Why, not fifteen miles from our home the soldiers found about fifty rifles in a load of hay which an Irish farmer was pretendin' to take to market, and in consequence we come to believe that every Irishman in the country was in league with the bloody cut-throats from across the Line, who was threatenin' invasion of our quiet country.
But to get back to my story: Me an' Ed was both credulous youngsters, and old Abe Amey used to tell us such harrowin' tales, that we was on the raw edge of a panic half the time.
I remember we was goin back after the cows one evenin', and it required all our nerve to go over the crossway in the dusk, I swanny! The crossway was a road through a swamp from the front pasture to the burnt lands. It was originally a log road, but the logs had sunk into the mud, and father had it filled in with gravel, the stones bein' very hard an' sharp.
When goin' over this crossway, me an' Ed (we always went barefoot them days) would pick our way over the log ends to avoid the stones, and we was always happy when we discovered the cows in the front pasture, for the swamp was a place of terror to be passed an' the burnt lands was even worse.
If you never was a boy an' never went after the cows of a cloudy evenin', and never see witches an' ghosts an' murderers pokin' their ugly heads round the corners, or through the middle of black, twisted, pine stumps, you don't know the rudiments of the sensation called bein' scart to death! Me an' Ed would start out bold enough, for Jane would generally go with us to the little hill above the orchard, at the end of the lane, and then, after makin' us promise not to move for five minutes, turn back an' streak it for home as fast as her legs could carry her. Nothin' on earth could have tempted her to go further than the end of the lane, and she thought me an' Ed was heroes of a wonderful sort.
After the last flicker of Jane's white feet as she turned into the gate near the drive-house, us boys would start back with faces bold as brass, but with hearts fairly turnin' sick with fear. We knew we had to go back after them cows, and while we fully believed that one night or another the Wild Irishman would certainly get us an' eat us alive, just as Abe Amey told us, yet we daren't own up to father an' ourselves that we was cowards. So we fairly pushed ourselves back toward the swamp an' its horrors.
Now an' then an owl would send out a shrill hoot, and me an' Ed would shiver all over an' then look sheepishly at each other, quick like, to see if the other had noticed the jump. I always thought that Ed was a perfect hero, and I knew myself to be a sneakin' coward, and I guess Ed had similar ideas in regard to him an' me, only in his case I was the hero an' he the coward.
Anyway, we got along to the crossway all right, and passed over it with no more'n half a dozen frights. The cows was in the far corner of the burnt lands, as we knew from the bells. So we had to pass the whole array of monster stumps!
We thought it no shame now to hold hands an' go on tiptoe, lookin' straight ahead an' sideways at the same time.
There was one twisted stump which had scart us many a time. In the twilight it always looked as if a man's head an' right shoulder was pushed cautiously out from one side. The man had thick hair, a full beard and ferocious eyes. Many's the time we'd stood spellbound lookin' at this bug-a-boo, and even after lookin' the stump over by daylight, it was impossible for us to pass it boldly. This evenin' we hauled up before it with a jerk.
"It's a sure enough man this time!" Ed whispered, and I could feel him tremblin' all over.
I confess I was actually too scart to open my mouth. The head an' shoulders was there the same as usual, but the eyes was brighter, and do you believe it, I could plainly see the man's right hand clutchin' an axe! I could hardly believe my eyes, but there could be no mistake. There was the handle plain as day, and the glitterin' axe poised ready to strike.
I looked at Ed an' he at me. Our faces was thin an' pale. We just stood there an' quaked for about two minutes, and then with a yell turned an' lit out for home. You never see such runnin' in all your life. We went over logs three feet high as if they was nothin'. We bounded as if on springs. We literally flew. Just before we come to the crossway, Ed turned his head an' looked over his shoulder. He let out a yell that would scare the dead, and shrieked:
"George, look what's comin'!"
I looked, and at the same moment jumped fully ten feet forward. Not fifty feet behind come boundin' along a snakey-lookin' thing with a big black head, that every other moment leaped into the air.
We didn't pick our way over the cross-way. Right through the middle of it we went, and our bare feet never felt the sharp stones, for we couldn't turn our heads now without seein' that reptile behind us. But it didn't seem to gain, and when we struck the new pasture, I dared to say to Ed: —
"We're gainin' on it, don't you think ?"
We certainly was gainin' on it, for its head grew smaller an' smaller, and when we got to the lane we found it had entirely disappeared. Then we slowed down to get our breath, and when we'd come to a stop, Ed felt somethin' draggin' from his pocket, and found it was a piece of yarn.
Have you guessed what it was? Yes, that's right. The boundin' snake was just Ed's yarn ball that had worked from his pocket an' unravelled as he ran, the ball bouncin' along for all the world like a snake.
We didn't feel half so sheepish over this as you might think, for we was not out of our troubles yet. The yarn ball had looked like a snake, and we'd been fooled, but, by gravy! the man with the axe was no joke! We could swear to the axe. Nothin' on earth but an axe could that be what we'd seen. We was just as certain that the Wild Irishman was behind the stump as that we was two scart boys; and we knew, too, that the cows was in the burnt fields an' that it was milkin' time. What was we to do!
"Ed," says I, "we've got to get them cows."
"I just can't go back there again," says Ed. "I ain't goin' to be killed by the Wild Irishman if I never see the cows!" he says.
"But father'll whale us if we go home without 'em," I says.
Ed hesitated. The one thing he was mortally sure of was that whalin'. The Irishman might or might not kill him, but he knew positive that bein' scared wouldn't weigh a feather with father, and that a lickin' was sure.
"We'll have to go back," he said, and shivered.
Then I began to hedge. "S'pose we say we couldn't find 'em?" I says.
"It's no use," says Ed. "He'll know better."
We turned an' retraced our steps.
Now, I've never been much of a hero in my own eyes. I never felt I could do my family justice if called out for a soldier; but do you know, I've always felt proud of myself an' Ed for goin' back that night.
It was fairly dark when we got to the crossway, and our jaws was tight shut. We didn't tremble now; we was feelin' numb. I didn't know whether I was walkin' on stones or moss. Night-hawks was whirlin' an' shriekin' overhead, and the swamp seemed alive with owls; but on we went, holdin' hands an' grittin' our teeth. Presently we heard the cow bells. We stopped to listen. Yes, sure enough, the cows was comin' towards us. We stood like two statues, drawn up rigid, our ears open. Soon old Limeback, the leader, swung into view, and trailin' after her was the rest of the herd. Seein' us, Limeback stopped, curved her neck an' looked at us, and then with a toss of her head as much as to say, " Why, it's them boys," moved on.
Father met us at the head of the lane. "What kept you so long?" he asked, sharply.
I squeezed Ed's hand an' Ed squeezed back.
"The cows was hard to find, sir," I said.
Two-thirds of all the lies I've told in my life I told to father.
But this ain't what I set out to tell you at all. I wanted to tell you not how me an' Ed was scared, but how we scart the Duke.
The Duke was a neighbor boy whose right name was Wellington Benn. Jane nicknamed him the Duke because he was so utterly unlike his famous namesake. The Duke was a real bona fide coward, — one of the snivellin', cryin' kind, — and a boy only half as big could bluff him off the playground. He wouldn't fight, but he'd talk back as long as he dared, and a mighty mean tongue he had. We all hated him, but Jane worst of all, and do you know, he was real fond of Jane.
Well, one winter night in them Fenian times I've been tellin' you about, me an' Ed went down to get scart by old Abe Amey. Why we went I don't know, 'cept it was fascination, for Abe was a natural-born story teller, an' he knew all the news about the Fenians — where an' when they would land, — and he had every man, woman an' child in Canada burnt at the stake before our eyes.
Why, one night he was yarnin' this way to a lot of us, and his stories was so blood curdlin' that he got excited himself, and takin' down a long musket he had hangin' on the wall, he said, his eyes flashin' —
"Jest est let a Fenian step his foot through my gate an' I'll spile his pictur' fer him, by Jerooshy!"
Just then, as luck would have it, we heard a stealthy step goin' round the corner of the house. Abe leaped to the door, hauled off an' let fire, kerbang! We heard somethin' give a grunt, and drop. It was Abe's pet Jersey cow! He set right down an' cried over it, but he didn't let up on his stories on account of it.
Well, this night Abe filled me an' Ed up with all we wanted, and we started to walk home. It was a bright winter's night an' we wasn't much afraid, for there was no woods near.
Ed wore a big buffalo overcoat that father had. It was twice too big for him, but he liked to wear it, kinder to show off, I guess. The collar went up over his head an' the sleeves came over his hands.
As we trudged along we heard some one comin' down the road. You can hear approachin' footsteps a long ways on the frozen snow. This might be the Wild Irishman, or more likely only a neighbor, but we was takin' no chances them days, and we crawled over the fence and hid behind it to let the stranger pass. Nearer an' nearer the figure come, an' we soon see it was no Fenian, but only the Duke.
Quick as a flash it occurred to me that here was a fine opportunity to scare the Duke half to death, and I whispered my plan to Ed.
He saw it at once, and just as the Duke got opposite us I made a growl as deep as I could an' Ed went over the fence on all fours just like a bear. And say! do you know, he looked so darn savage in that big buffalo coat, springin' up from the snow, that I never blamed the Duke for bein' scart.
Was the Duke scart? Scart ain't no name for it. He let out one yell an' went down in the road in a heap as Ed sprang at him. He was kickin' in a fit when I reached him, and I'm blamed if the feller recovered consciousness for two days.
We lugged him as far as our place an' then father drove him home.
"I never see anything like it," says Ed to Jane as earnest as a judge, — "I never see anything like it. Me an' George was comin' along whistlin' as natural as could be, when we hears a yell in front of us an' the Duke goes into a fit. I wonder what could have ailed him!"
"P'raps he saw his shadder!" says Jane, dryly. "The Duke ain't no hero."
"May be," says Ed, "but I never see the like of it."