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UNCLE BILLY MURCH'S HAIR-RAISER
At about this time Tom and I were up at the Murches' one evening to see Willis, and persuaded old Uncle Billy, Willis' grandfather, to tell us his panther story again. That panther story was a veritable hair-raiser; and we were never tired of hearing the old man tell it. Owing to our severe climate panthers were never very numerous in northern New England — not nearly so numerous as panther stories, in which the "panther" is usually a Canadian lynx. Even at present we occasionally hear of a catamount or an "Indian devil"; but perhaps the last real panther was trapped and shot in the town of Wardsboro, Vermont, in 1875. There can be no doubt whatever that it was a genuine panther, for its skin and bones, handsomely mounted, as taxidermists say, can be seen at any time in the Museum of Natural History in Boston. It is a fine specimen of the New England variety of the Felis concolor and would no doubt have proved an ugly customer to meet on a dark night.
No doubt there were panthers larger than that one. According to Uncle Billy the Wardsboro panther was a mere kitten to the one that he once encountered when he was a boy of fourteen. Our old Squire, who then was fifteen years old, was with him and shared the experience. But try as we would, we never could induce him to tell the story. "You get Uncle Billy Murch to tell you about that," he would say and laugh. "That's Uncle Billy's story; he tells it a little better every time, and he has got that catamount so large now that I am beginning to think that it must have been a survival of the cave tiger." Yet when pinned down to it the old Squire admitted that he was with Grandsir Billy on that night and that they did have an alarming experience with an animal that beyond doubt was a large and hungry panther.
I must have heard the story ten or twelve times in all, and I recollect many of Grandsir Billy's words and expressions. But the old man's vocabulary was "picturesque"; when he was describing exciting events he was apt to drift into language that was more forceful than choice. It will be best therefore to give this account substantially as years later — long after Grandsir Billy had passed away — the old Squire told it one afternoon when he and I were driving home together from a field day of the grange.
It seems that back in the days when the county was first settled the pioneers found the ponds and streams in peaceful possession of an ancient trapper whom they called Daddy Goss. Trapping was his business; he did nothing else. Every fall and winter while he was tending his trap lines he used to stay for a week or a month at a time at the settlers' houses. Frequently the wife of a settler at whose house he was staying would have to take drastic measures to get rid of him; no gentler measures than taking his chair and his plate away from the table or putting his bundle of things out on the doorstep would move him. "As slow to take the hint as old Daddy Goss," came to be a local proverb.
One December while he was staying at the Murch farm he fell sick with a heavy cold, and while he lay in bed he fretted constantly about his traps. At last he offered Billy Murch, who was then fourteen years old, half of all the animals that might be in them if he would go out and fetch them home. The line of traps, he said, began at a large pine-tree near the head of Stoss Pond and thence extended round about through the then unbroken forest for a distance of perhaps fifteen miles to a birch-bark camp on Lurvey's Stream that the old trapper had built to shelter himself from storms two years before.
Billy wanted to go but his mother would not consent to his going alone. So he talked the matter over with the old Squire, who was a year older than Billy, and offered him half the profits if he would accompany him; and the result was that the two boys took the old man's flintlock gun and set off at daylight the following morning. They were not to stop to skin any animals that they found in the traps, but were to make bunches of them and carry them home on their backs. The old trapper would not trust them either to skin the catch or to reset the traps. Since there were only two or three inches of snow on the ground, they did not have to use snowshoes and hoped therefore that they should return by evening. They found the first trap on Stoss Pond and from there followed the line without much difficulty, for Daddy Goss had made a trail by spotting trees with his hatchet. Moreover, the marten traps were "boxed" into spruce-trees at a height of two or three feet from the ground and could easily be seen.
There is an old saying among trappers that nothing catches game like a neglected trap; and that time at least the adage was correct. The boys found a marten in the second trap and found others at frequent intervals. What was remarkable, they found three minks, two ermines and a fisher in traps on high, hilly forest land. I think the old Squire once said that they took nineteen martens from the traps, of which there were one hundred and two.
The boys soon found themselves loaded down with fur. Since they were to have half of what they brought home, they did not like to leave anything. So with an ever increasing burden on their backs they toiled on from trap to trap. Before night each was carrying at least forty and perhaps fifty pounds. They had brought thongs for tying the animals together. Billy carried his bunch slung over the stock of the gun, which he carried over his shoulder. His comrade carried his on a short pole. A good many of the martens were still alive in the traps and had to be knocked on the head; the blood from them dripped from the packs on the snow behind.
Fifteen miles is a long tramp for boys of their age, and, since December days are short, it is not astonishing that the afternoon had waned and the sun set before they reached the birch-bark camp. From that place they would have to descend Lurvey's Stream for two or three miles to Lurvey's Mills, and then reach home by way of a wagon road. Dusk falls rapidly in the woods. By the time they reached the camp they could barely see the "blazes" on the tree trunks. They decided to kindle a fire and remain at the camp till the next morning. Each began at once to collect dry branches and bark from the white birch-trees that grew along the stream.
It was not until then that Billy made a bad discovery. In those days there were no matches; for kindling a fire pioneers depended on igniting a little powder and tow in the pans of their flintlocks. But when Billy un-slung his pack of martens from the stock of the gun he found that the thong had somehow loosened the flint in the lock and that it had dropped out and was lost. Both boys were discouraged, for the night was chilly. They crept inside the camp, which was barely large enough to hold two persons. It was merely a boxlike structure only six feet square and five feet high; sheets of bark from the large white birch-trees were tied with small, flexible spruce roots to the frame, which was of light poles. The door was a small square sheet of bark bound to a little frame that would open and shut on curious wooden hinges. Though the camp was frail, it kept off the wind and was slightly warmer than it was outside. The boys found a couch of dry fir boughs inside, but the only cover for it was a dried deerskin and one of Daddy Goss's old coats.
Meanwhile full darkness had fallen; and there would be no moon till late at night. An owl came circling round and whoop-hooed dismally. Billy said that he wished he were at home, and his companion admitted that he wished he were there also. They closed the door and then, lying down as close together as they could, put the two bunches of fur at their feet and covered themselves with the old coat and the deer hide. But they had scarcely lain down when crashes in the underbrush startled them, and they heard a great noise as of a herd of cattle running past. The old Squire peeped out at the door. "I guess it's deer," he said. "Something's scared them."
He lay down again; but a few minutes later they heard what sounded like a shriek a long way off up the stream. Billy started up. "Now what do you s'pose that was, Joe?" he exclaimed.
"I — I don't know."
"It sounded," said Billy, "just as the schoolmistress did when she stepped on a snake last summer."
They sat up to listen; pretty soon they heard the noise again, this time much nearer.
"It's coming this way, Joe!" Billy whispered. "What do you s'pose it is?"
They continued to listen, and soon they heard a short, ugly shriek close by in the woods.
"Joe, I'm afraid that's a catamount," Billy said unsteadily.
The old Squire picked up the useless gun and sat with it in his hands. For some time there were no more outcries; but after a while they heard the crumpling of snow and the snapping of twigs behind the camp. Some large animal was walking round; several times they heard the sough of its breath.
"Joe, I'm scared!" Billy whispered.
The old Squire was frightened also, but he opened the door a crack and peered out. On the snow under the birch-trees he could distinguish the dark form of a large panther. It had seen the door move and had crouched as if to spring. He saw the flash of two fiery eyes in the dim light and again heard the sough of the creature's breath before he clapped the door shut and braced the gun against it. But he had no confidence in the flimsy birch bark; so he got out his jackknife and bade Billy get out his. It did not occur to them that the panther had scented the freshly killed game and had followed the trail of it.
The boys passed dreadful hours of suspense during that long, cold December night. More than once they heard the creature "sharpen its claws" on tree trunks, and the sound was by no means cheerful. The brute seemed bent on remaining near the little camp. I remember that Grandsir Billy said that they heard it "garp" several times; I suppose he meant yawn. The circumstance seems rather strange. He said that it "garped" like a big dog every time it sharpened its claws. Yet it did not cease to watch the little inclosure.
At last, tired with watching the boys fell asleep, a circumstance that is not strange perhaps when you consider they had, plodded fifteen miles that day and had carried heavy loads.
They slept for some time. From later events the boys could infer what took place outside the hut. The late-rising moon swung up from behind the dark treetops. The panther had crept to within a few feet of the shack. Suddenly it crouched and sprang upon the roof of the little camp! When it struck the flimsy roof, the boys woke up. For an instant the whole frail structure shook; then it reeled and partly collapsed. The boys sprang up, and as they did so a big paw with claws spread burst through the roof and came down between them! The claws opened and closed as the paw moved to and fro. Billy's face was scratched slightly, and Joe's jacket was ripped. Joe then seized the paw with both hands and tried to hold it. The roof swayed and trembled and, for a moment, seemed about to fall; then the panther withdrew its paw, and the boys heard the creature leap off and bound away.
Hunters say that if a panther misses its first spring it will not try again. That may sometimes be true; but in this case the panther went off a short distance among the trees and after a few minutes crept forward as if to spring again. Terribly excited, the boys peered out at it and waited. They could not close the door of the camp. The whole structure had lurched to one side, and several sheets of bark had fallen from the light frame. Billy wanted to rush out and run, but his comrade, fearful lest the panther should chase them, held him back.
Now for the first time it occurred to Joe that he might divert the creature's attention by throwing out some of the dead martens. Cutting one of them loose, he slung it as far as he could into the woods. Immediately the panther stole forward, seized the carcass of the little animal in its mouth and ran off. But before long it returned, and then Joe threw out a second marten, which the panther carried off. After the boys had thrown out two more martens, the panther did not return, and they saw nothing more of it. As soon as day dawned they crept forth from their shattered camp, hastened down the stream and reached home with their trapped animals.
The first time I heard Grandsir Billy tell the story he said that the panther was as large as a yearling steer. Later he declared that it was the size of a two-year-old steer; and I have frequently heard him say that it was as large as a three-year-old! The old Squire said it was as large as the largest dog he ever saw.