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CHAPTER VIII

"OLD THREE-LEGS"

Monday morning dawned bright and very warm. As we were about to sit down to breakfast, Catherine Edwards called at the door and left a letter for me, from my mother, which had arrived at the Corners post-office on Saturday, but which Neighbor Edwards, who had brought the mail for us late that evening, had overlooked; my letter had consequently lain over, in his coat pocket, until that morning, when he had chanced to discover it.

My mother had written me a very nice letter, as such letters go, exhorting me to good behavior in general; and if she had stopped short at that point, it would have been better. She went on, however, to tell me of affairs at home, of what she was doing, of "Bush," our cat, of the canary, of three or four boys and girls with whom I was acquainted, and also of a grand parade of returned soldiers.

I had not half finished it, when I was seized with such a pang of homesickness as I hope never to feel again; in fact, I do not believe that I ever could feel another such pang. It penetrated my entire being; I could not swallow a mouthful of breakfast. It seemed to me that I should choke and die right there, if I did not get up and start for home that very minute; and I knew I could not go. Blue is no adequate word with which to describe such sensations. In the course of an hour, however, this first fit passed off for the most part, but left me very pensive and melancholy. I was aware, too, that the Old Squire had noticed my mood.

As we hoed corn that forenoon, a boy came driving a horse and "drag" into the field; it was Edgar Wilbur, one of the lads whom I had seen the day before while coming from church. The Wilburs lived at the farm next beyond the Edwardses, about three-quarters of a mile distant from us. Mr. Wilbur was not a wholly thrifty farmer, and often borrowed tools at the Old Squire's. Edgar had now come for the "cultivator," for their corn.

While we were loading it on the drag for him, Edgar told us boys that he had to go to the back pasture to salt their sheep that afternoon, and asked us to go with him. Addison replied that we were too busy with our hoeing; but the Old Squire, who had overheard what was said, looked at me with a compassionate smile, and said that I might go if I liked. I suppose he hoped that the trip with Edgar would cheer me up. Accordingly, after dinner, I was given my liberty, and set off for the Wilburs, leaving Halstead grumbling over what he deemed my unmerited good fortune.

The Wilburs lived in a one-story red house; and their barn was a somewhat weather-beaten, infirm old structure, yet the place had a cozy appearance; there were beds of flowers by the house door, and a great bunch of pink hedge roses on one side of the way leading into the yard, with a thick bush of lilacs on the other. Elsie and Georgie were at the district school; but Mrs. Wilbur, a fresh-faced, pleasant woman, came to the door and very kindly asked me in, offering me presently a glass of spruce beer which had a queer flavor, I thought, and which I was not quite able to finish.

Meantime Edgar or Ned, as his mother called him had filled a six-quart pail with salt, and we set off immediately for the sheep pasture. The distance was considerable, fully a mile; we first crossed their hay fields, then a cow pasture and then a belt of woodland, through which ran a cart road. Gradually ascending a considerable slope of the woodland, we came out upon the cleared crest of a long ridge. This was the "back pasture;" it was inclosed by a high hedge fence, made of short, dry, spruce shrubs. This fence we climbed, and then Edgar began calling the sheep, "Ca-day, ca-day, ca-day, ca-day," stopping at intervals to give me various items of information as to their flock and the extent of the pasture. The Murches, who lived on the farm next beyond the Wilburs, pastured their sheep with them, in this same back pasture; they had a flock of thirty-eight, while the Wilburs had thirty-three, but there were over a hundred lambs. Every spring the two farmers and the boys repaired, or rebuilt, the high hedge fence in company. The pasture was of seventy-five acres extent, Edgar said; but it was much broken by crags and grown up to patches of dark, low spruce.

Altogether it was a very wild locality, wholly inclosed by somber forests; and from the top of one of the ledges, which I climbed, I could see no cleared land, far or near, save on the side next to their farms, and that at quite a distance. This ledge, I recollect, had a vein of white quartz running across it, displaying at one point a trace of rose-color; and I remember thinking that some time I would come here and break out specimens of this handsome stone.

At length in response to Ned's calls, we heard a faint ba-a-a, toward the north end of the pasture, and going in that direction, past a number of spruce copses and many other ledges, we came in sight of the flock of sheep, feeding in a hollow near a spring. A great mob of lambs were following their mothers and frisking about the rocks; and there was one black sheep and one black lamb which, at first sight, I thought were dogs or some other animals. "That black sheep is Murches'," Ned said. "She's got two lambs; but that black lamb is in our flock. There's South Down blood in a good many of them. You can tell the South Downs by their black fore legs and smut faces. There's fifteen pairs of twins in our flock and about as many in Murches'. Ca-day, ca-day, ca-day."

Catching sight of us and the salt pail, the flock now came crowding eagerly about us. The ovine odor was very strong. Black flies troubled the poor creatures grievously, and another larger, evil-looking fly was buzzing about their noses.

"We are coming up in a day or two and tar all their noses," said Ned, dealing out the salt in numerous handfuls, throwing it down on smooth spots upon the grass, and running backwards to avoid the onward rush of the sheep.

"Now let's count 'em," he continued. "We always count 'em when we salt 'em. Let's see, can you reckon good? Murches have got thirty-eight sheep and fifty-three lambs, and we've got thirty-three sheep and forty-eight lambs. How many does that make in all?"

After some cogitation, we agreed that there must be seventy-one sheep and a hundred and one lambs, or a hundred and seventy-two all told. That was what there should be; and we now set out to ascertain by counting if all were there.

This was a greater feat than would appear at first thought, the flock was so crowded together and so constantly running about. We made several attempts, but as many times lost the count, or grew confused. At length, we drove the sheep apart, and the salt being eaten by this time, we contrived to enumerate eighty-two on one side and eighty-seven on the other.

"Now how many's that?" said Ned. I could not make but a hundred and sixty-nine from it; but Ned said that he guessed 'twas more. After studying on it awhile, however, he agreed with me; and we then counted the flock again, twice more, in fact, before we were both satisfied that there were but a hundred and sixty-nine present.

"Now that's bad," said Ned.

"What suppose has become of them?" I asked.

"Dogs, maybe," replied Ned, "or else a 'lucivee,' or a bear."

"Perhaps 'twas men," I suggested.

"O no, I don't think that," said Ned. "If 'twas in the fall, I should think it might be, for there are some folks down at the Corners that have been laid in stealing sheep. But let's see whether it's sheep or lambs that's gone, and whose 'tis, whether it's ours or Murches'. Now all our sheep have got two slits in the right ear and a crop off the left; but Murches' have a crop off both ears; and all our lambs have got red paint across the fore shoulders, but Murches' have got red on the rump." This necessitated a new count and a much more difficult one.

"I'll count the ones with slits and crops," said Ned; "and you count the ones with two crops." But we were nearly half an hour establishing the fact that one of the "two crops" was missing.

"It is one of Murches' sheep that's gone," said Ned; "I'm glad it isn't ours." We then counted the lambs and found also that the missing ones were two of the Murches'.

"It's an old sheep with twins," said Ned.

"Isn't she off by herself somewheres?" I asked.

"Not very likely to be unless she's got hung; they always keep together," replied Ned. "But she may have got hung in the brush, or else has tumbled in between big rocks and can't get out. I suppose we ought to look her up if that's so.

"I'll tell you what we will do," continued Ned; "we will walk clean round the pasture, in the first place, keeping where we can see the fence, for she may be hung in it."

Thereupon we set off to walk around the pasture, going along the farther side to the northwest and the southwest first. The fence skirted the thick bushes and woods. Toward the southwest corner there was a long, craggy ledge a little within the pasture fence. It fell off, rough, rocky and almost perpendicular on that side, from a height of fifteen or twenty feet, and about the foot of the crag were many of the low, black spruces, but from the upper side one could walk out on the bare, smooth rocks to the very brink of the ledge. We approached from this upper side, and as we came out on it, to look down into the corner of the pasture, a crow cawed suddenly and sharply, and we saw three crows rise, flapping, off the ground, below the crag.

"Hoh!" Ned exclaimed. "What are those black chaps up to there?"

We stopped and looked down attentively into the partly open plat of pasture, inclosed around on the lower side by the seared, reddish line of the now dried hedge fence.

"Why, Ned, see the wool down there on the ground!" I cried, as a white mass caught my eye.

"Something's killed the sheep there!" replied Ned, in a low tone. "See the head there and the meat and bones strung along. Something's killed her and eaten her half up; and there looks to be part of a lamb farther along by that little fir."

A very strange sensation, partly fear, stole over me, as we stood there looking down upon the torn remains of the sheep and lamb. The place was far off in the woods and the surroundings were wild and somber. There was something uncanny, too, in the way those crows rose up and went flapping away. In less degree, I think Ned experienced similar sensations, for he stood without speaking for a moment, then said, "O it may have been done by a dog, or maybe she died.

"Let's climb down and see what we can see," he continued.

"We can see that the sheep is dead from up here," I replied, for I did not like the idea of going down there very well.

"Come along," said Ned, laughing. "You needn't be afraid."

"I'm not afraid," said I. "But it is a kind of lonesome looking place."

"Yes, 'tis," replied Ned, stopping for a little to look again. "But let's go down and see. They'll ask us all about it, and we've got to find out what we can."

He walked along the top of the ledge, and, coming to a place where we could descend between some large split rocks, began to climb down. I followed after him, a little in the rear. Ned had got down among the small spruces, at the foot of the crag, when he suddenly called back to me that one of the lambs was there. "Poor little chap, he's hid here, under the brush," he continued; and on getting down, I saw the lamb standing far under the thick, dark boughs.

"I never saw a lamb hide in that way before," said Ned. "He's been awful scared by something."

We crept around and tried to catch the lamb; it ran along the foot of the rocks among the evergreens, but did not bleat, nor behave at all as lambs generally do.

"He's got blood on his side there," remarked Ned. "But he may have got that off the old sheep."

After looking at the lamb a moment, Ned started to go down where the carcass of the sheep lay, but I felt a little timid and stood still, near the foot of the rocks.

It was not far to go, not more than a hundred feet, I think, being about half way down to the thick, reddish hedge of recently cut spruce. Ned approached within a few yards and after looking at the fleece and bones a minute, stopped to pick up a wisp of wool, when from right at hand there burst forth the most frightful growl that I ever heard. It broke on the utter stillness of that quiet nook like a thunder peal and it so wrought on my already alert senses that I yelled outright from sudden terror!

For the moment I could not have told from what quarter the terrible sound came, for the high rocks behind me reverberated it. Following instantly upon the growl, however, we heard a cracking of the brush in the thicket below the hedge fence; and next moment there issued through a hole in it a large black animal of terrific aspect, that to my startled eyes looked as large as an ox!

Not that I stopped to estimate its size. I was on the move by the time it had issued from the hole of the hedge fence; but a boy's eye will take in a good deal at one glance, under such circumstances. It was a steep ascent betwixt the rocks to the top of the ledge; but if I had possessed wings, I could not have got up much more quickly. As I gained the top, I thought of striking off for the upper side of the pasture, and thence running for my life toward the farms; but at the same instant my eye fell on a low-growing oak, a few rods away, the lower limbs of which I thought that I could jump up and seize. I had started for it, but had taken only a bound or two, when I heard Ned say, "Hold on," behind me. I looked back. He had gained the top of the ledge almost as quickly as I had, but had stopped there. "Hold on," he exclaimed in a low voice. I stopped and stood, half breathless and panting, ready to bound away again and half inclined to do so.

Ned was looking down from the ledge and motioned to me with his hand to return. After some hesitation, I tiptoed back to him.

"See him?" he whispered to me. "He's right there behind that little spruce, close beside the sheep. He's looking up here and harking!" The black animal was half hidden by the spruce boughs, yet I could see him, and experienced a curious nervous thrill as I made out its shaggy outlines.

"Isn't it a bear?" I whispered.

"Cracky, yes," whispered Ned. "A big one, too!"

"But won't he chase us?"

"Guess not," replied Ned. "Ye see, 'tis the sheep he felt so mad about. He'd killed the sheep and that lamb last night, I expect, and eaten them part up. And he had only gone down there a little way into the firs behind the fence and was kinder watching till he got hungry again. He saw and heard us come along, but he kept still and didn't say a word till he saw me stoop down to touch it. Then, sir, he just spoke right out in meetin'! Told me to get out and let his meat alone. O, don't I wish I had a good gun, loaded with a ball!"

"Would you dare to fire at him, Ned?" I said.

"Well," replied Ned, doubtfully, looking around and seeing the oak, and then glancing down the rocks, "I dunno, but I believe I would get good aim and let strip at him. If I hit him and hurt him, but didn't kill him, he might come for us, lickety switch. But he couldn't get up here very quick. We should have time to climb that tree."

"I wish we could shoot him!" I whispered, beginning to wax warlike.

"I've a great mind to let a stone go down there," said Ned, looking about. "Let's both get stones and throw at once, and see what he will do. If he starts up here, we'll put for that tree."

This was an extremely exciting proposition, but I was getting bolder. We found each a stone as big as a coffee-cup.

"Now both together," whispered Ned, and we flung them with all our power. We did not hit our mark, but they struck the ground near the spruce and bounced past it, quite closely. The bear growled again, savagely, and started stiffly out from his covert, past the remains of the sheep. We both turned to run, but noticing that the creature had stopped, we pulled up again. The bear saw us and growled repeatedly, yet did not come far past his jealously guarded treasure. He shuffled about, keeping his head drawn down in a peculiar manner, but we could see that his eye was on us. After a few moments, he drew back behind the spruce again. Thereupon we threw more stones; and again the beast rushed out, growling and scratching up the grass in an odd manner; he did not appear inclined to pursue us, however, and we now noticed that there was something clumsy in its gait, like a limp.

"Gracious!" Ned suddenly exclaimed. "That's old 'Three-Legs!' He's come round again!"

"What, the bear that lost his foot in a trap?" I asked, remembering what Ellen and Theodora had told me a few days before.

"Yes, siree!" cried Ned. "He's an awful old sheep-killer! He comes round once in a while. But he's mighty cunning! He's a savage one, too, but he can't run very fast."

"Then let's pelt him!" I exclaimed.

"No, no," said Ned. "We must hurry back home and raise a crew. That bear must be killed, you know. If we don't, he will come round every week and take a sheep all summer."

We therefore set off in haste, to run to the Wilbur farm, where we arrived very hot and out of breath just as the family was sitting down to supper. "Old 'Three-Legs' is in the sheep pasture!" shouted Ned at the door. "Get the gun, pa! I'm going to tell the Murches!"

Mr. Wilbur owned a gun, but it was not in shooting condition. We then ran down the hill to the Murch farm, and there our story created considerable excitement. Ben and Willis at once brought out a double-barrelled gun, which their father proceeded to load, but they lacked bullets and heavy shot. Willis and Ned and I therefore ran to the Edwardses to notify Thomas and his father and procure ammunition. At the Edwardses they had both shot and also a musket which carried balls. This latter weapon was at once charged for bear.

Mr. Edwards, however, advised me to go home and notify the Old Squire and Addison, in order that they, too, might join the hunt, if disposed.

I set off at a run again; but by this time I had become not a little leg-weary; night, too, was at hand. The boys were milking, and I met the Old Squire coming toward the house with two brimming pailfuls. "Old 'Three-Legs' has just killed one of Murches' sheep and a lamb, too!" I shouted.

"Is that so?" said the old gentleman, but the intelligence did not excite him so much as I had expected it would. He looked at me and said, "You look badly heated. You have run too hard."

"But that old bear's killed a sheep!" I exclaimed. "They are all going after him. They sent me to get you and the boys."

By this time Addison and Halstead had risen off their milking stools to hear the tidings, and exhibited signs of interest.

"Did you see the bear, my son?" the Old Squire asked.

"Yes, siree!" I exclaimed, and thereupon I poured forth all the particulars. "They want all of us to load our guns and go with them," I cried expectantly.

"Well," remarked the Old Squire, with what seemed to me a very provoking lack of enthusiasm. "If they are all going, I guess they will not need us. You had better go to the well and wash your face and head in some cold water, then rest a while and have your supper; it has been a very hot day."

"But old Three-Legs!" I exclaimed. "He may get away!"

"Yes, he may," said Gramp, laughing. "I should not wonder if he did.

"I will tell you something about bears, my son," he went on, good-naturedly. "A bear is quite a knowing animal, and sometimes very cunning. This one they call old 'Three-Legs' is remarkably so. I'm very sure that, if we all went over there as quick as we could, and stayed around all night, we shouldn't find him. That bear knew just as well as you did that you had gone to get help and would be back with it; and I shouldn't wonder if by this time he was three miles away and still going. What that bear did after you and Ned left was to listen awhile, till he made sure you were gone, then stuff himself with as much more of that mutton as he could hold, and leave the place as fast as he could go. He's gone, you may depend upon it; and he will not come near that place again for a week or two probably. That is bear nature and bear wit. They seem to know some things almost as well as men. They know when they kill sheep that men will make a fuss about it. That bear was lying quiet there, with his ears open for trouble; he wasn't much afraid of two boys, but he knows there are men and guns not far off."

I was really very tired and after hearing this view of the case was not much sorry to rest and have my supper. We learned next day that Thomas and his father, and Ned and the Murches went over to the pasture with their guns, but they failed to find the bear. The Murches set a trap at the place where the sheep had been killed, and kept it there for ten days. A hound was caught in it, but no bear.

I remember that my sleep that night was somewhat disturbed by exciting dreams of hunting. At the breakfast table next morning I told the story of our adventure over again, and described the ugly demonstrations of the bear at such length, that I presently saw grandfather smiling, and detected Addison giving a sly wink to Theodora. This confused me so much that I stopped in haste and was more cautious about my realistic descriptions in future. Halstead began hectoring me that forenoon concerning my adventure, and nicknamed me "the great bear hunter." Much incensed, I retorted by asking him whether he had paid for that seed-corn. Hearing that, Addison, who was near us, cast an inquiring look at Halstead, and the latter hurriedly changed the subject; he was unusually polite to me for several days afterwards.


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