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BORROWED FOR A BEE HUNT
WE were eating breakfast one morning late in August that summer when through an open window a queer, cracked voice addressed the old Squire:
"Don't want to disturb ye at your meals, Squire, but I've come over to see if I can't borry a boy to hark fer me."
It was old Hughy Glinds, who lived alone in a little cabin at the edge of the great woods, and who gained a livelihood by making baskets and snowshoes, lining bees and turning oxbows. In his younger days he had been a noted trapper, bear hunter and moose hunter, but now he was too infirm and rheumatic to take long tramps in the woods.
The old Squire went to the door. "Come in, Glinds," he said.
"No, Squire, I don't believe I will while ye're eatin'. I jest wanted to see if I could borry one of yer boys this forenoon. I've got a swarm of bees lined over to whar the old-growth woods begin, and if I'm to git 'em I've got to foller my line on amongst tall trees and knock; and lately, Squire, I'm gettin' so blamed deaf I snum I can't hear a bee buzz if he's right close to my head! So I come over to see if I could git a boy to go with me and hark when I knock on the trees."
"Why, yes, Glinds," said the old Squire, "one of the boys may go with you. That is, he may if he wants to," he added, turning to us.
Addison said that he had something else he wished to do that forenoon. Halstead and I both offered our services; but for some reason old Glinds decided that I had better go. Grandmother Ruth objected at first and went out to talk with the old fellow. "I'm afraid you'll let him get stung or let a tree fall on him!" she said.
Old Hughy tried to reassure her. "I'll be keerful of him, marm. I promise ye, marm, the boy shan't be hurt. I'm a-goin' to stifle them bees, marm, and pull out all their stingers." And the old man laughed uproariously.
Grandmother Ruth shook her head doubtfully; old Hughy's reputation for care and strict veracity was not of the best.
When I went to get ready for the jaunt grandmother charged me to be cautious and not to go into any dangerous places, and before I left the house she gave me a pair of gloves and an old green veil to protect my head.
Before starting for the woods we had to go to old Hughy's cabin to get two pails for carrying the honey and a kettle and a roll of brimstone for "stifling" the bees. As we passed the Murch farm the old man told me that he had tried to get Willis, who stood watching us in the dooryard, to go with him to listen for the bees. "But what do you think!" he exclaimed with assumed indignation. "That covetous little whelp wouldn't stir a step to help me unless I'd agree to give him half the honey! So I came to git you, for of course I knowed that as noble a boy as I've heered you be wouldn't act so pesky covetous as that."
Getting the tin pails, the kettle and the brimstone together with an axe and a compass at the old man's cabin, we went out across the fields and the pastures north of the Wilbur farm to the borders of the woods through which old Hughy wanted to follow the bees.
A line of stakes that old Hughy had set up across the open land marked the direction in which the bees had flown to the forest. After taking our bearings from them by compass we entered the woods and went on from one large tree to another. Now and again we came to an old tree that looked as if it were hollow near the top. On every such tree old Hughy knocked loudly with the axe, crying, "Hark, boy! Hark! D'ye hear 'em? D'ye see any come out up thar?" At times he drew forth his "specs" and, having adjusted them, peeped and peered upward. Like his ears, the old man's eyes were becoming too defective for bee hunting.
In that manner we went on for at least a mile, until at last we came to Swift Brook, a turbulent little stream in a deep, rocky gully. Our course led across the ravine, and while we were hunting for an easy place to descend I espied bees flying in and out of a woodpecker's hole far up toward the broken top of a partly decayed basswood tree.
"Here they are!" I shouted, much elated.
Old Hughy couldn't see them even with his glasses on, they were so high and looked so small. He knocked on the trunk of the tree, and when I told him that I could see bees pouring out and distinctly hear the hum of those in the tree he was satisfied that I had made no mistake.
When bee hunters trace a swarm to a high tree they usually fell the tree; to that task the old man and I now set ourselves. The basswood was fully three feet in diameter, and leaned slightly toward the brook. In spite of the slant, old Hughy thought that by proper cutting the tree could be made to fall on our side of the gully instead of across it. He threw off his old coat and set to work, but soon stopped short and began rubbing his shoulder and groaning, "Oh, my rheumatiz, my rheumatiz! O-o-oh, how it pains me!"
That may have been partly pretense, intended to make me take the axe; for he was a wily old fellow. However that may be, I took it and did a borrowed boy's best to cut the scarfs as he directed, but hardly succeeded. I toiled a long time and blistered my palms.
Basswood is not a hard wood, however, and at last the tree started to fall; but instead of coming down on our side of the gully it fell diagonally across it and crashed into the top of a great hemlock that stood near the stream below. The impact was so tremendous that many of the brittle branches of both trees were broken off. At first we thought that the basswood was going to break clear, but it finally hung precariously against the hemlock at a height of thirty feet or more above the bed of the brook. From the stump the long trunk extended out across the brook in a gentle, upward slant to the hemlock. The bees came out in force. Though in felling the tree I had disturbed them considerably, none of them had come down to sting us, but now they filled the air. Apparently the swarm was a large one.
Old Hughy was a good deal disappointed. "I snum, that 'ere's a bad mess," he grumbled.
At last he concluded that we should have to fell the hemlock. Judging from the ticklish way the basswood hung on it, the task looked dangerous. We climbed down into the gully, however, and, with many an apprehensive glance aloft where the top of the basswood hung threateningly over our heads, approached the foot of the hemlock and began to chop it. The bees immediately descended about our heads. Soon one of them stung old Hughy on the ear. We had to beat a retreat down the gully and wait for the enraged insects to go back into their nest.
The hole they went into was in plain sight and appeared to be the only entrance to the cavity in which they had stored their honey. It was a round hole and did not look more than two inches in diameter. While we waited for the bees to return to it old Hughy, still rubbing his sore ear, changed his plan of attack.
"We've got to shet the stingin' varmints in!" he exclaimed. "One of us has got to walk out with a plug, 'long that 'ere tree trunk, and stop 'em in."
We climbed back up the side of the gully to the stump of the basswood. There the old man, taking out his knife, whittled a plug and wrapped round it his old red handkerchief.
"Now this 'ere has got to be stuck in that thar hole," he said, glancing first along the log that projected out over the gully and then at me. "When I was a boy o' your age I'd wanted no better fun than to walk out on that log; but my old head is gittin' a leetle giddy. So I guess you'd better go and stick in this 'ere plug. A smart boy like you can do it jest as easy as not."
"But I am afraid the bees will sting me!" I objected.
"Oh, you can put on them gloves and tie that 'ere veil over your head," the old man said. "I'll tie it on fer ye."
I had misgivings, but, not liking to fail old Hughy at a pinch, I let him rig me up for the feat and at last, taking the plug, started to walk up the slightly inclined tree trunk to the woodpecker's hole, which was close to the point where the basswood rested against the hemlock. I found it was not hard to walk up the sloping trunk if I did not look down into the gully. With stray bees whizzing round me, I slowly took one step after another. Once I felt the trunk settle slightly, and I almost decided to go back; but finally I went on and, reaching the hole, grasped a strong, green limb of the hemlock to steady myself. Then I inserted the plug, which fitted pretty well, and drove it in with the heel of my boot.
Perhaps it was the jar of the blow, perhaps it was my added weight, but almost instantly I felt the trunk slip again — and then down into the gully it went with a crash!
Luckily I still had hold of the hemlock limb and clung to it instinctively. For a moment I dangled there; then with a few convulsive efforts I succeeded in drawing myself to the trunk of the hemlock and getting my feet on a limb. Breathless, I now glanced downward and was terrified to see that in falling the basswood had carried away the lower branches of the hemlock and left no means of climbing down. If the trunk of the hemlock had been smaller I could have clasped my arms about it and slid down; but it was far too big round for that. In fact, to get down unassisted was impossible, and I was badly frightened. I suppose I was perched not more than thirty-five feet above the ground; but to me, glancing fearfully down on the rocks in the bed of the brook, the distance looked a hundred!
Moreover, the trunk of the basswood had split open when it struck, and all the bees were out. Clouds of them, rising as high as my legs, began paying their respects to me as the cause of their trouble. Luckily the veil kept them from my face and neck.
I could see old Hughy on the brink of the gully, staring across at me, open-mouthed, and in my alarm I called aloud to him to rescue me. He did not reply and seemed at a loss what to do.
I had started to climb higher into the shaggy top of the hemlock, to avoid the bees, when I heard some one call out, "Hello!" The voice sounded familiar and, glancing across the gully, I saw Willis Murch coming through the woods. Seeing us pass his house and knowing what we were in quest of, Willis, curious to know what success we would have, had followed us. He had lost track of us in the woods for a time, but had finally heard the basswood fall and then had found us.
Even at that distance across the gully I saw Willis's face break into a grin when he saw me perched in the hemlock. For the present, however, I was too much worried to be proud and implored his aid. He looked round a while, exchanged a few words with old Hughy and then hailed me.
"I guess we shall have to fell that hemlock to get you down," he shouted, laughing.
Naturally, I did not want that done.
"I shall have to go home for a long rope," he went on, becoming serious. "If we can get the end of a rope up there, you can tie it to a limb and then come down hand over hand. But I don't think our folks have a rope long enough; I may have to go round to the old Squire's for one."
Since old Hughy had no better plan to suggest, Willis set off on the run. As the distance was fully two miles, I had a long wait before me, and so I made myself as comfortable as I could on the limb and settled down to wait.
Old Hughy hobbled down into the gully with his kettle and tried to smother the bees by putting the brimstone close to the cleft in the tree trunk and setting it afire; but, although the fumes rose so pungently that I was obliged to hold my nose to keep from being smothered, the effect on the bees was not noticeable. Old Hughy then tried throwing water on them. The water was more efficacious than the brimstone, and before Willis returned the old man was able to cut out a section of the tree trunk and fill his two pails with the dripping combs — all of which I viewed not any too happily from aloft.
Willis appeared at last with the coil of rope. With him came Addison and Halstead, much out of breath, and a few minutes later the old Squire himself arrived. They said that grandmother Ruth also was on the way. Willis, it seems, had spread alarming reports of my predicament.
Willis and Addison tied numerous knots in the rope so that it should not slip through my hands and knotted a flat stone into the end of it. Then they took turns in throwing it up toward me until at length I caught it and tied it firmly to the limb on which I was sitting. Then I ventured to trust my weight to it and amid much laughter but without any difficulty lowered myself to the ground.
In fact, I was not exactly the hero. The hero, I think, was Willis. But for his appearance I hardly know how I should have fared.
Old Hughy, I remember, was rather loath to share the honey with us; but we all took enough to satisfy us. The old man, indeed, was hardly the hero of the occasion either — a fact that he became aware of when on our way home we met grandmother Ruth, anxious and red in the face from her long walk. She expressed herself to him with great frankness. "Didn't you promise to be careful where you sent that boy!" she exclaimed. "Hugh Glinds, you are a palavering old humbug!"
Old Hughy had little enough to say; but he tried to smooth matters over by offering her a piece of honey comb.
"No, sir," said she. "I want none of your honey!"
All that the old Squire had said when he saw me up in the hemlock was, "Be calm, my son; you will get down safe." And when they threw the rope up to me he added, "Now, first tie a square knot and then take good hold of the rope with both hands."