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WHEN BEARS WERE DENNING UP
DESPITE the hard times and low prices, the old Squire determined to go on with his lumber business that winter; and as more teams were needed for work at his logging camp in the woods, he bought sixteen work-horses, from Prince Edward Island. They had come by steamer to Portland; and the old Squire, with two hired men, went down to get them. He and the men drove six of them home, hitched to a new express wagon, and led the other ten behind.
The horses were great, docile creatures, with shaggy, clumsy legs, hoofs as big as dinner plates, and fetlocks six inches long. Later we had to shear their legs, because the long hair loaded up so badly with snow. Several of them were light red in color, and had crinkly manes and tails; and three or four weighed as much as sixteen hundred pounds apiece. Each horse had its name, age, and weight on a tag. I still remember some of the names. There was Duncan, Ducie, Trube, Lill, Skibo, Sally, Prince, and one called William-le-Bon.
They reached us in October, but we were several weeks getting them paired in spans and ready to go up into the woods for the winter's work.
The first snow that fall caught us in the midst of "housing-time," but fine weather followed it, so that we were able to finish our farmwork and get ready for winter.
Housing-time! How many memories of late fall at the old farm cling to that word! It is one of those homely words that dictionary makers have overlooked, and refers to those two or three weeks when you are making everything snug at the farm for freezing weather and winter snow; when you bring the sheep and young cattle home from the pasture, do the last fall ploughing, and dig the last rows of potatoes; when you bank sawdust, dead leaves or boughs round the barns and the farmhouse; when you get firewood under cover, and screw on storm windows and hang storm doors. It is a busy time in Maine, where you must prepare for a long winter and for twenty degrees below zero.
At last we were ready to start up to the logging camp with the sixteen horses. We hitched three spans of them to a scoot that had wide, wooden shoes, and that was loaded high with bags of grain, harnesses, peavies, shovels, axes, and chains. The other ten horses we led behind by halters.
Asa Doane, one of our hired men at the farm, drove the three spans on the scoot; Addison and I sat on the load behind and held the halters of the led horses. We had often taken horses into the woods in that way, and expected to have no trouble this time; although these horses were young, they were not high-spirited or mettlesome. We started at daybreak, and expected, if all went well, to reach the first of the two lumber camps by nine o'clock that evening.
We had a passenger with us an eccentric old hunter named Tommy Goss, with his traps and gun. He had come to the farm the previous night, on his way up to his trapping grounds beyond the logging camps, and as his pack was heavy, he was glad of a lift on the scoot. Tommy was a queer, reticent old man; I wanted him to tell me about his trapping, but could get scarcely a word from him. We were pretty busy with our horses, however, for it is not easy to manage so many halters.
The air was very frosty and sharp in the early morning; but when the sun came up from a mild, yellow, eastern sky, we felt a little warmer. Not a breath of wind stirred the tree tops. The leaves had already fallen, and lay in a dense, damp carpet throughout the forest; the song birds had gone, and the woods seemed utterly quiet. When a red squirrel "chickered" at a distance, or when a partridge whirred up, the sound fell startlingly loud on the air.
There was, indeed, something almost ominous in the stillness of the morning. As we entered the spruce woods beyond the bushy clearing of the Old Slave's Farm, Addison cast his eye southward, and remarked that there was a "snow bank" rising in the sky. Turning, we saw a long, leaden, indeterminate cloud. It was then about nine o'clock in the morning.
By ten o'clock the cloud had hidden the sun, and by noon the entire sky had grown dark. The first breath of the oncoming storm stirred the trees, and we felt a piercing chill in the air. Then fine "spits" of snow began to fall.
"It's coming," Addison said; "but I guess we can get up to camp. We can follow the trail if it does storm."
At the touch of the snow, the coats of the horses ruffled up, and they stepped sluggishly. Asa had to chirrup constantly to the six ahead, and those behind lagged at their halters. The storm increased and we got on slowly. By four o'clock it had grown dark.
Suddenly the horses pricked their ears uneasily, and one of them snorted. We were ascending a rocky, wooded valley between Saddleback Mountain and the White Birch Hills. The horses continued to show signs of uneasiness, and presently sounds of a tremendous commotion came from the side of the hills a little way ahead. It sounded as if a terrific fight between wild animals was in progress. The horses had stopped short, snorting.
"What's broke loose?" Addison exclaimed. "Must be bears."
"Uh-huh!" old Tommy assented. "Tham's b'ars. Sounds like as if one b'ar had come along to another b'ar's den and was tryin' to git in and drive tother one out. B'ars is dennin' to-night, and tham as has put off lookin' up a den till now is runnin' round in a hurry to get in somewhars out of the snow.
"A b'ar's allus ugly when he's out late, lookin' for a den," the old trapper went on. "A b'ar hates snow on his toes. Only time of year when I'm afraid of a b'ar is when he is jest out of his den in the spring, and when he's huntin' fer a den in a snowstorm."
Addison and I were crying, "Whoa!" and trying to hold those ten horses. Asa was similarly engaged with his six on the scoot. Every instant, too, the sounds were coming nearer, and a moment later two large animals appeared ahead of us in the stormy obscurity. One was chasing the other, and was striking him with his paw; their snarls and roars were terrific.
We caught only a glimpse of them. Then all sixteen of the horses bolted at once. Asa could not hold his six. They whirled off the trail and ran down among the trees toward a brook that we could hear brawling in the bed of the ravine. They took the scoot with them, and in wild confusion our ten led horses followed madly after them. Bags, harnesses, axes, and shovels flew off the scoot. Halters crossed and crisscrossed. I was pulled off the load, and came near being trodden on by the horses behind. I could not see what had become of old Tommy or the bears.
Still hanging to his reins, Asa had jumped from the scoot. Addison, too, still clinging to his five halters, had leaped off. Before I got clear, two horses bounded over me. The three spans on the scoot dashed down the slope, but brought up abruptly on different sides of a tree. Some of them were thrown down, and the others floundered over them. Two broke away and ran with the led horses. It was a rough place, littered with large rocks and fallen trees. In their panic the horses floundered over those, but a little farther down came on a bare, shelving ledge that overhung the brook. Probably they could not see where they were going, or else those behind shoved the foremost off the brink; at any rate, six of the horses went headlong down into the rocky bed of the torrent, whence instantly arose heart-rending squeals of pain.
It had all happened so suddenly that we could not possibly have prevented it. In fact, we had no more than picked ourselves up from among the snowy logs and stones when they were down in the brook. Those that had not gone over the ledge were galloping away down the valley.
"Goodness! What will the old Squire say to this?" were Addison's first words.
After a search, we found a lantern under a heap of bags and harness. It was cracked, but Asa succeeded in lighting it; and about the first object I saw with any distinctness was old Tommy, doubled up behind a tree.
"Are you hurt?" Addison called to him.
"Wal, I vum, I dunno!" the old man grunted. "Wa'n't that a rib-h'ister!"
Concluding that there was not much the matter with him, we hastened down to the brook. There hung one horse William-le-Bon head downward, pawing on the stones in the brook with his fore hoofs. He had caught his left hind leg in the crotch of a yellow birch-tree that grew at the foot of the ledges. In the brook lay Sally, with a broken foreleg. Beyond her was Duncan, dead; he had broken his neck. Lill was cast between two big stones; and she, too, had broken her leg. Moaning dolefully, Prince floundered nearby. Another horse had got to his feet; he was dragging one leg, which seemed to be out of joint or broken.
Meanwhile the storm swirled and eddied. We did not know what to do. Asa declared that it was useless to try to save Prince, and with a blow of the axe he put him out of his misery. Then, while I held the lantern, he and Addison cut the birch-tree in which William-le-Bon hung. The poor animal struggled so violently at times that they had no easy task of it; but at last the tree fell over, and we got the horse's leg free. It was broken, however, and he could not get up.
As to the others, it was hard to say, there in the night and storm, what we ought to do for them. In the woods a horse with a broken leg is little better than dead, and in mercy is usually put out of its misery. We knew that the four horses lying there were very seriously injured, and Asa thought that we ought to put an end to their sufferings. But Addison and I could not bring ourselves to kill them, and we went to ask Tommy's advice.
The old man was pottering about the scoot, trying to recover his traps and gun. He hobbled down to the brink of the chasm and peered over at the disabled animals; but "I vum, I dunno," was all that we could get from him in the way of advice.
At last we brought the horse blankets from the scoot and put them over the suffering creatures to protect them from the storm. In their efforts to get up, however, the animals thrashed about constantly, and the blankets did not shelter them much. We had no idea where the horses were that had run away.
At last, about midnight, we set off afoot up the trail to the nearest lumber camp. Asa led the way with the lantern, and old Tommy followed behind us with his precious traps. The camp was nearly six miles away; it proved a hard, dismal tramp, for now the snow was seven or eight inches deep. We reached the camp between two and three o'clock in the morning, and roused Andrews, the foreman, and his crew of loggers. Never was warm shelter more welcome to us.
At daybreak the next morning it was still snowing, but Andrews and eight of his men went back with us. The horses still lay there in the snow in a pitiful plight; we all agreed that it was better to end their sufferings as quickly as possible.
We then went in search of the runaways, and after some time found them huddled together in a swamp of thick firs about two miles down the trail. We captured them without trouble and led them back to the scoot, which we reloaded and sent on up to camp with Asa. Addison and I put bridles on two of the horses, Ducie and Skibo, and rode home to the farm.
It was dark when we got home, and no one heard us arrive. After we had put up the horses, we went into the house with our dismal tidings. The old Squire was at his little desk in the sitting-room, looking over his season's accounts.
"You go in and tell him," Addison said to me.
I dreaded to do it, but at last opened the door and stole in.
"Ah, my son," the old gentleman said, looking up, "so you are back."
"Yes, sir," said I, "but but we've had trouble, sir, terrible trouble."
"What!" he exclaimed. "What do you mean?"
"We've had a dreadful time. Some bears came out ahead of us and scared the horses!" I blurted out. "And we've lost six of them! They ran off the ledges into Saddleback brook and broke their legs. We had to kill them."
The old Squire jumped to his feet with a look of distress on his face. Addison now came into the room, and helped me to give a more coherent account of what had happened.
After his first exclamation of dismay, the old Squire sat down and heard our story to the end. Naturally, he felt very badly, for the accident had cost him at least a thousand dollars. He did not reproach us, however.
"I have only myself to blame," he said. "It is a bad way of taking horses into the woods leading so many of them together. I have always felt that it was risky. They ought to go separate, with a driver for every span. This must be a lesson for the future."
"It is an ill wind that blows no one any good," says the proverb. Our disaster proved a bonanza to old Tommy Goss; he set his traps there all winter, near the frozen bodies of the horses, and caught marten, fishers, mink, "lucivees," and foxes by the dozen.