Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
AT THE OLD SLAVE'S FARM
We had breakfast at six; and then Asa Doane hitched up old Sol and Nancy to the farm wagon on which we loaded our outfit and set off to take up our friends, Thomas and Kate, also Willis Murch. We were to have four days, five, including Sunday (for this was Thursday); Gramp expressly stipulated, however, that we should remain quiet in our camp over the Sabbath.
"Now, boys," said the old gentleman, coming out to see us off, "be prudent and careful, avoid rash encounters with man or beast.
"Addison," he continued in a lower voice, "I shall expect you to see that everything goes right."
Gram's instructions to the girls had been given already and many times repeated. We drove off in high spirits; and the old folks stood looking after us. Happening to cast a glance to the upper windows of the house, I saw Halstead's face, with so black a frown on it, that I experienced a sudden foreboding.
But the beauty of the early autumnal morning, and the exaltation which we all felt at starting out for a holiday, soon dispelled other thoughts.
We had, as I now think, done wrong to exclude Halse; but it was a choice of evils. His disposition was so peculiar, that we should most likely have had trouble, if he had gone with us; and yet in leaving him behind, we were prompting him to some bad act on account of the slight.
Thomas and Kate were waiting for us by the roadside and, after a joyous greeting, climbed into the wagon; we then drove on to take up Willis, whom we found equally on the alert. Each made contributions to the common stock of provisions and outfit.
Half a mile above the Murch farm, the road entered the borders of the "great woods," and immediately became little better than a trail, rather rough and bushy; yet a well-marked track extended for five miles into the forest, as far as Clear Pond from the shores of which pine lumber had been drawn out two years previously. From the pond a less well trodden trail led on over a high ridge of forest land, to the northwest, for three miles, then descended into a heavily timbered valley, to an old log structure known as "the skedaddlers' fort."
From "the skedaddlers' fort," there was still the faint trace of a path through the woods, for two miles further, to the banks of Lurvy's Stream.
Thence the path continued along the bank of this large brook, for four or five miles, then crossed it at a sandy ford, to a large opening in the forest, partly natural meadow and partly cleared, called "the old slave's farm," where there were two deserted log cabins.
Years before, a negro, said to have been a slave who had escaped from one of the Southern States and was fleeing to Canada, settled in the woods here by the stream, thinking perhaps that he had reached Canada already. He cleared land, subsisted somehow, and made for himself a considerable farm upon the naturally open intervale. He lived here alone for many years, seen at times by passing lumbermen, or hunters. Some ludicrous stories are told of the fright which the sight of a jet black man gave inexperienced whites who chanced to stumble upon him suddenly and alone in the woods! There were certain ignorant persons who always considered this poor, lonely outcast as being a near relative of "old Nick."
During the Civil War he disappeared from his "farm" and may have returned to the South, being no longer in fear of bondage. A little cabin of hewn logs had sufficed him for a house and a few yards distant another cabin gave shelter to his poultry and cow. These cabins having stood unoccupied for many years in snow and rain, had bleached themselves into cleanliness, and were not unfit to camp in for a few days. It was here that we had decided to make our headquarters, while exploring the streams and forest adjacent.
We had taken an ax as well as a gun; and by stopping to clear an occasional windfall from the old road and going slowly over the logs, stones and holes, the horses took us up to Clear Pond in about two hours.
The deciduous trees were now nearly bare, save here and there a beech or a deep purple ash. The golden red foliage of the sugar maples and the yellow birches lay rustling under foot.
The woods looked light and open since the leaves had fallen. Only the hemlocks and spruces retained their somber density, with a few firs in the swamps and here and there a lofty pine on the mountain sides. All the summer birds had gone already; but a few red-headed woodpeckers were still tapping decayed tree trunks; and numerous jays made the woodland resound to their varied outcries, first shrill and obstreperous, then plaintive. Far up a hillside of poplar, a horde of crows were clamoring over some corvine scandal, perhaps.
It was a sylvan, but wholly lonely scene, save for the partridges rising, after every few rods, from the path in rapid whirring flight, or standing still for a moment with sharply nodding heads and a quick, short note of alarm, ere taking wing.
Willis, walking ahead with his gun, soon startled us with its near report, adding a fine speckled cock to our prospective larder; erelong he shot another and still another. These fine birds were very plenty in the borders of the "great woods."
On reaching Clear Pond, we were obliged to say good-by to our team. The wagon could go no further; for here the more recent lumber road terminated, the trail beyond being older and much obstructed by fallen trees.
Then began the real labor of carrying our baskets. Addison and I led off with one basket and the ax; while Tom and Willis followed with the other. The girls came on at leisure, in the rear; they were seeing a great deal that was novel in the woods; and having but light loads, they could enjoy it better than we boys who were carrying the bushel baskets.
Going up the side of the wooded ridge, a pine marten was espied in full chase after a red squirrel, up and down the trunk of a spruce.
"What a specimen he would make to mount!" Addison exclaimed, and dropping his "ear" of our basket, unslung his gun and ran forward to get a shot; but the shy creature vanished in time to save its life, through the thick tops of the adjacent trees. Near the top of the ridge, he fired at a red-tailed hawk which had alighted on the top of a pine stub; the distance was too great, however, and the hawk sailed away placidly.
After crossing the ridge, the path led us through denser, darker woods. A large animal which Willis thought to be a bear, but Addison and Thomas deemed more likely to be a deer, was heard to run away through a copse of cedar, a little in advance of us. We passed some very large swamp elms here and several basswoods fully four feet in diameter.
At length, a few minutes before twelve o'clock, by the old silver watch (which Kate had brought from home to keep time for us during the trip) we came out at the "skedaddlers' fort," where we had planned to stop for lunch and make a pot of coffee. This was the first time I had heard of this old structure, thus singularly named. But Willis, Thomas and Kate knew its history; Addison and our girls had also heard accounts of it.
It stood in the midst of a little opening — now overgrown again — made by felling the great bass, hemlock, and spruce trees, of which its log walls were built. In length, it may have been forty feet, by about twenty-five in width. It was substantially roofed with logs and "splits" covered with gravel. There were little ports, six or eight inches square, at intervals in the walls, at a height of six or seven feet from the ground, and one heavy door, or gate, of hewn plank, five or six inches thick. The little brook in the valley flows beneath one corner of the building, ensuring water to those who may have dwelt within.
This log structure, suggestive both of warfare and refugee life, was a great puzzle to a party of city young men who not many years ago penetrated these forest solitudes, on a hunting excursion. They concluded that it was built at a time when defense against the Indians was necessary. A writer for a New York magazine, who seems to have stumbled on this old "block-house," as he calls it, also came to the conclusion that it was a relic of early border warfare.
It is nothing of the sort, however, and instead of being a hundred years old, it is less than fifty. The city visitors did not make proper allowance for the rapidity with which, in a damp, dense forest, everything made of wood becomes moss-grown and decays.
During the Civil War, there was a class of so-called "skedaddlers;" fellows undeserving the name of citizens, who, when the Republic called for their services, ran away to Canada, or, gaining some remote covert in the forest, defied the few officials who could be spared from the front, to enforce law at home. But to the honor of our people it can be truthfully said, that these weak-hearts were comparatively few in number. Such there were, however; and to a party of them the "skedaddlers' fort" owes its existence. It was built at about the time the first "draft" of men was ordered in 1862. There were two or three leading spirits, and altogether a gang of eighteen or twenty men banded together in that vicinity to elude the enrollment. They "skedaddled" one night — that was the time this ugly word originated — and took refuge in the woods with their guns; and not long after, it is supposed, they built this log fortalice in the depths of the wilderness.
In the dubious state of public feeling at that time, the people of the county did not say much, directly, about the skedaddlers. No one, not of the gang, knew who or how many were at the fort. At one time it was rumored that there were a hundred armed men in the woods, probably an exaggeration. Several farmers lost young cattle, which it was supposed were stolen to supply food for the fort. One story was, that a number of cows had been driven into the woods, to furnish a supply of milk. It is hardly probable that these men could have been so ignorant as to think that they would be able to resist the power of the government, if official action were taken against them, although the fact of their building a fort gave color to such a supposition. The wildest boasts were made, indirectly, through sympathizers with them. Ten thousand troops, it was asserted, could not drive them out of the woods! The skedaddlers, it was said, were about to set up a new State there in the wild lands and declare themselves free of the United States! Another threat was that they would get "set off" and join Canada. If a Federal soldier showed his blue coat in those woods (so rumor said), he would suddenly meet a fate so strange that nobody could describe it!
Some months passed, when a boy named Samuel Murch — an older brother of Willis and Ben — who trapped in the woods every fall, discovered the fort one day and reconnoitered it. He had followed a cow's tracks up from the cleared land. Several men were seen by him about the stockade, and there was a large camp-fire burning outside, with kettles hanging from a pole over it.
Every two or three days thereafter, Sam Murch, as he trapped, would go around for a sly peep at the "fort;" and he kept people informed as to appearances there.
It chanced that in October, that fall, a young volunteer, named Adney Deering, came home on a furlough. He had been wounded slightly in the leg, by a fragment of shell.
Adney, who was a bright, handsome young fellow, then in his twentieth year, looked very spruce in his blue uniform. He was brimful of patriotism and gave graphic accounts of battles, with warlike ardor. When he heard of the "skedaddlers" and their fort, he expressed the greatest indignation and contempt for them. At a husking party one evening, several of the young men proposed that Adney should go with them on a deer hunt in the "great woods," before he went back to his regiment. Someone then remarked that, if he went, he had better not wear his uniform, as threats had been made of shooting the first soldier who showed his head in the woods. This aroused Adney's ire. "Let them shoot!" he exclaimed. "I will wear my uniform anywhere I choose to go! I will go all through those woods and walk right up to the door of their 'fort!'"
Several of the older men then advised him not to go near the "fort."
"Pooh!" cried Adney. "I used to know many of those fellows. They are a set of cowards. Ten to one, they wouldn't dare fire at a soldier!"
Others who were present thought they would dare; and Adney became excited. "It is a disgrace," he exclaimed, "that those skulkers are allowed to harbor there!" And he offered to wager that he could take six soldiers and drive them out, without firing a single cartridge.
One or two of his friends laughed at this boast, which so exasperated Adney that he instantly declared that he could drive them out alone. All laughed still more heartily at that. The laughter only stimulated Adney to make good his rather loud boast, if possible; and the result was, that he hit on the following stratagem for routing the "skedaddlers." There was no lack of drums in the neighborhood, for in those days the boys, who were not old enough to volunteer, had fond dreams of going to the War as drummer-boys. Adney went about privately next morning with Sam Murch and induced three or four young fellows to take drums and go with him into the woods that afternoon. Under Sam's lead the little party arrived in the vicinity of the "fort," shortly before nightfall. Adney then stationed one of the boys with his drum at a point to the northeast of the log fortress, at a distance of about half a mile from it, in the thick woods. Another was posted farther around to the north; and still another to the northwest.
Adney's orders to them all were to keep quiet at their posts until they heard him fire a gun. Then all three were to beat the "long roll," then a quickstep; in fact, they were to make all the drum-racket they could, as if a number of companies, or regiments, were advancing on the fort from all quarters, except the south.
Adney himself went down near the fort, just at dusk, and contrived to give the inmates a glimpse of his figure in his army blue — as if he were a spy, reconnoitering the place. He then withdrew, and ten or fifteen minutes later, fired off his gun, when at once from three different points, in the darkening forest, there burst forth the roll of drums, Adney calling out in military accents, "Steady! Close up! Forward! Forward!"
The result showed that the young soldier's estimate of the valor of the skedaddlers was a perfectly correct one. For no sooner did they hear the roll of drums, than, fancying that they were being surrounded by a force of soldiers, they deserted their fort and skedaddled again, out through the woods on the south side. From the stories they afterward told, it is pretty clear that they did some remarkable running that night, and were about as badly frightened as they could be. Six or seven of them kept to the woods and made their way into Canada, where they lived till after the close of the War. One, the "Lieutenant" of the gang, ran home — as his wife told the story — and hid under a pile of old straw in the back yard. Several others were known by their neighbors to be lurking at their homes, keeping in cellars and chambers, during the following week. In short, this well-planned "attack" of Adney's broke up their rendezvous in the "great woods," and the fort was never occupied afterwards. The young soldier, who had approached near enough to witness the stampede, bivouacked his small drum-corps there that night very comfortably, and marched home in triumph next morning. The affair created much merriment and many jokes; and the moral would seem to be, that a fellow who will sneak off when his country calls for his services, is never a person to be feared as a warrior.
It was not a very pleasant place to linger in; and directly after we had taken our luncheon, we resumed our journey along the old trail, having a hard jaunt before us (as Addison well knew) to reach the "old slave's farm" before nightfall. There were a great many windfalls across the trail from the "fort," to the stream; we were an hour at least making the two miles, and the path along the bank was even worse, for freshets had lodged great quantities of drift stuff on the flats, so that, at last, we abandoned the trail altogether and took to the less obstructed woods, a little back from the banks.
The stream is a pretty one, being here not above forty or fifty feet in width, running over a sandy bed, sometimes pebbles, and again bending around in a deep pool where there are trout of good size, or at least were then.
It seemed a very long way to the opening; the girls were becoming tired; and we boys with the baskets had quite enough of it, long before we reached the ford which Addison and Thomas, who had been here before, remembered to be near two very tall pines. Several times we feared that we must have passed it; but finally, at about four o'clock, the great bushy opening on the other side of the stream came in view. Immediately then Addison saw the pines, and taking off our boots and stockings, we all walked across on a sandy bar over which the water ran in a shallow, being nowhere over a foot deep. It was quite cold, however, so that we were glad to replace socks and boots, after crossing.
The old slave's cabins stood about two hundred yards from the brook and, as above described, were situated some twenty yards apart. The land about them had been cleared at one time and put into grass, or corn. But low clumps of hazel-nut bushes were now growing around the cabins. About a year previously a party of deer hunters had camped here for a few days and, thinking the cabins snug and pleasant, had cleared them out nicely and built bunks in them to sleep in. We found the remains of their old couches of fir boughs still in the bunks. Their camp-fire had been made in the open space, midway between the two cabins; and they had constructed a species of stone fireplace for setting their kettles in.
"Here we are!" Addison exclaimed, as we set down our baskets. "What say to this for a camping-place, girls!"
"Oh, this is jolly!" cried Kate. "And won't it be nice, Doad, we girls can have a whole cabin all to ourselves! Now which one can we have?"
"You are privileged to take your choice," replied Addison. "Take the one you like best."
The girls went peeping into each, to examine them well, and were in doubt for some moments. In fact, there was not much to choose betwixt the two.
At length, Kate announced that they would have the one "the old slave" lived in, himself.
"No doubt he spent many a lonesome hour there," said Theodora. "I should like to know his history."
"That's what nobody can find out," said Tom. "But I am glad he lived here and left his hut for us to camp in."
We sat on the grassy sward of the old yard and rested for some minutes, then began our preparations for supper.
"Now we must all fall to with a will," said Addison. "It is a job to get things fixed up nice for night."
"Addison, you be captain and tell us each what to do," suggested Kate. "We will all obey and work like good soldiers; — for we all want some supper, I guess."
"Well, then," said Addison, "what do you want for your supper?"
"Poached eggs on toast!" cried Ellen.
"I think some of those partridges would go well," said Kate.
"Would it take long to fricassee them?" Addison asked.
"Oh, not very long," said Theodora.
"I can dress them off in ten minutes," said Willis, "if you don't insist on their being picked and will let me skin them instead; for I can take their skins off, feathers and all, in just one minute apiece."
"Go ahead," exclaimed Addison; "Tom, get dry wood from that drift-heap down by the brook and build a nice camp-fire; and Kate, you and Doad unpack the baskets and get the coffee-pot, tin kettle and frying-pan ready. While you are doing that, the rest of us can throw out those old yellow boughs from the bunks, then cut new ones and make the bunks all up sweet and fresh for night; and after that we will drag up a lot of wood for our camp-fire, through the evening."
"Shall we not keep a camp-fire burning all night?" Theodora asked.
"Oh, yes! let's not let the fire go out!" cried Ellen. "We're a dreadful ways from home, up here in the great woods! How many miles have we come, Ad?"
"About seventeen miles, all told."
"Yes; do let's have a good roaring fire all night," said Kate.
It quite frightened the girls to think how far they were from home, in the forest, now that the sun began to sink behind the tree tops.
"All right!" laughed Addison. "Gather lots of wood. It will take piles of it to burn all night."
But Theodora made a discovery which gave them a good deal of comfort.
"We've got a door to our cabin!" she called out from inside it. "Quite a good door. See," she said, swinging it. "We can shut our cabin up, just like any house, and fasten it, too. Here's a great button on the door-post. Nothing can get in to hurt us after we shut and button our door. Have you got any door to your cabin?"
Investigation of our cabin disclosed no door. There was a button on the door-post; but the door had been removed.
The girls laughed at us. "A fine house you've got!" said Kate. "No door! You will be carried off before morning by a panther."
"Never mind us," replied Addison. "Fasten up your own door, snug and tight."
"When we get ready to go to bed," said Willis, "we will turn our button; I guess that will answer for us.
"But I've got the partridges all dressed," he continued, "and I'm going to cut them up and put them into the tin kettle, to parboil, and then, when they are partly cooked, you can put them into the frying-pan, if you like."
"Can't you thicken up some kind of a flour and butter gravy to go with those partridges, Kate?" said Tom.
"Why, bless you, Thomas, there's no flour!" replied his sister.
"I think I could use Indian meal instead of flour," said Theodora, "though I wouldn't promise it would be as good, since it might taste a little coarse."
"Well, try it, anyway," said Tom; "for I like that kind of a gravy first rate."
"Oh, it just makes me laugh to hear boys talk about cooking," exclaimed Kate. "They do have such droll ideas!"
"Well, I know what I like," said Tom; "and I wouldn't give much for a girl that cannot make a gravy."
"Oh, the nice, agreeable boy! So he should have his gravy on his partridge," teased Kate.
"I've too much regard for the reputation of our family to quarrel with my sister before folks," laughed Thomas. "She's an awful provoking thing, though!"
"Oh, the dear boy!" retorted Kate.
"Somebody give me some cold water to hold in my mouth," groaned Tom. "She must have the last word, anyway."
That was quite a common kind of encounter between Tom and his sister Kate; yet I never saw brother and sister more attached to each other. Only about a year and a half younger than her brother, Kate was a match for him in about everything and rather more than a match in repartee.
Meantime Theodora was toasting some squares of bread to put in the partridge fricassee, and looking about for a dish to manufacture Tom's butter and meal gravy in.
There was a copse of little firs, standing about a low, wet piece of ground, a few hundred feet away. To these we had recourse for the material to fill the bunks.
Thomas having collected a woodpile of good proportions, proceeded to put on fourteen potatoes to boil, reckoning two for each member of the party; and as the partridges were boiling briskly, fast progressing to the cooked condition, Catherine made coffee. It was agreed, however, that after that evening, we were to take coffee but once per day; and everybody voted to have it in the morning.
Addison now busied himself devising a "table;" and in this matter he was assisted by the labors of the previous party of deer-hunters who had left a large board behind them, to be set on forked stakes, driven into the ground; there were also two rough benches for seats.
It was not till after dusk had fairly settled over the wilderness that our supper was pronounced ready by the many cooks who had taken a hand in its preparation. The camp-fire was replenished, so that a genial glow and plenty of light was diffused about; and then our meal began. We had the three partridges quite well cooked; and Thomas had his dear gravy. There were boiled potatoes and some pork, fried crisp, to suit Willis; also boiled eggs for all and plenty of toasted bread with butter. Kate had also brought a lot of "cookies," which went well with coffee.
Addison sat at one end of the table and dished out the partridges. Theodora presided over the coffee; and Ellen and Kate looked after the toast. The long jaunt had given us fine appetites and we cleared the rude board of the eatables, enjoying it as only a hungry party of campers, who have had their own supper to get and have waited an hour or two for it to cook, can enjoy such a meal.
Dishes had then to be picked up, and water brought and heated; for dishes must needs be washed.
"Oh dear!" sighed Ellen. "I did hope I could get to a place once where there were no dishes to be washed. I always have it to do at home."
"You've got to that place!" exclaimed Thomas. "I'll wash them, if you girls will agree to eat off them next meal and find no fault."
"I'll wipe them if Tom'll wash them!" cried Willis. "'Tis tough for girls always to have to wash dishes."
"I agree to find no fault for one," said Ellen.
"We might do as they are said to do in the lumbering camps," remarked Addison; "that is to eat off the same plates without washing, till we forget what we ate off them last."
"I object to such a plan as that!" cried Theodora. "I would rather wash them all, myself."
Tom and Willis washed the dishes that night, however; and the girls sat back on their bench and smiled and pinched each other, to see the performance.
By the time the dishes question was disposed of and everything had been tidied up and the fire once more attended to, the darkness of an October night had fallen. Everything outside the circle of our firelight was veiled in obscurity. There was no moon and it was a little cloudy, at least, the stars did not seem to show much. Very soon as we sat on our benches in front of the girls' cabin, we began to hear various wild notes from the great somber forest about us.
"What is that kind of plaintive cry that I hear now and then near the stream?" Theodora asked. "It's like the word seet! I have heard it several times since dark, once or twice back of the cabins, and now out there by the two pines."
"That? Oh, that is the night note of a little mouse-catching owl," said Addison. "Some term it the saw-whet owl, I believe. There are numbers of these little fellows about at night, in these woods. They catch lots of woods mice and such small birds as chickadees."
"But hark! what was that strange, lonesome, hollow cry?" said Ellen, as an outcry at a distance, came wafted on the still air.
"Oh, that's a raccoon," said Tom. "He's trying to attract the notice of some other 'coon. You'll hear him for fifteen or twenty minutes now, every minute or so."
"They came into our corn-field last year," said Willis. "We heard them every night, calling to each other. I set a trap, but never could get any of them into it."
Willis went on to relate several raccoon stories which his older brothers had told him. "Hullo!" he suddenly interrupted himself. "Hear that? away off up there by the foot of the mountain?"
"I know what that was," said Tom. "That was a screamer."
"What is a 'screamer?'" Theodora asked.
"Oh, it's a kind of wild-cat," replied Thomas. "You tell her, Addison."
"If it is a wild-cat, it is the same as the 'lucivee,' or loup-cervier," replied Addison. "But I have never heard one cry out at night; so I cannot say for certain."
"Oh, I have," said Willis. "They have little tassels on the top of their ears and are about as big as a fair-sized dog. But they never come near a camp; they are so shy that you never can get sight of one, though the lumbermen tell stories of having fights with them. They've got long claws and could scratch like sin, if they were cornered up anywheres."
"Sometimes they will follow after anybody for a long ways," said Thomas. "Father told me that, when he was a boy, the mill stream at the village got so low one fall that they could not grind wheat or corn there. So grandpa sent him over to Pride's grist mill, in Willowford, with the horse and wagon and a load of corn. There were a lot of grists in ahead of him; and before the miller got around to grind out father's corn, it was dark, and he had to drive home, thirteen miles, in the evening. It was woods nearly all the way then; and after he had gone a mile, or two, and it had come on very dark, so dark he could hardly see his hand before him, he heard a snarling noise behind him. Turning round, he saw two bright spots just behind the wagon. It scared him; he started the horse up, but those spots came right close along after him. Every time he looked around, he would see them, and he could hear the creature's feet pat in the road, too, as it ran after the wagon. He kept the horse trotting along pretty fast and held the butt of his whip all ready to strike, if the creature jumped into the wagon. It didn't jump in, but kept near the hind end of the wagon; and it followed father for as much as two miles, till he met a man with an ox team. He was so taken up watching for those eyes, back there in the dark, that he came near running into the ox team; but the man shouted to him to pull up. He told the man that something had been chasing him; but the eyes had disappeared; and he saw nothing more of them. Father thinks now that it was a 'screamer,' though it might have been a panther. There were lots of panthers in the woods, in those days."
"Are there any now?" asked Theodora, looking a little uncomfortable.
"No," said Addison. "I don't think there are."
"Well, I'm not so sure of that," said Thomas. "There may be one passing through here, once in a while. Did you ever hear the Old Squire tell the story of the panther that he and my grandfather killed, when they were boys?"
"No," said Addison. "The old gentleman never talks much of his early exploits."
Ellen said that she had heard Gram speak of it once.
"Tell the story, Tom," said I.
"Oh, you get the old gentleman to tell it to you, sometime," replied Tom. "I can't tell it good. But 'twas real scarey and interesting. Something about a cow. The panther killed my grandfather's father's cow, I believe. The men were all away. It was in the winter time; and those two boys followed the panther's track away up into the great woods here somewheres and shot it. It's a real interesting story. You get the old gentleman to tell it to you some evening."
"We will," said Theodora. "I'll ask him the first night after we go home."
"My! Did you hear what an awful noise that was, just now?" exclaimed Kate.
We had all heard it — a singular yell, not wholly unlike the human voice, yet of ugly, wild intonation. Addison and Thomas exchanged glances.
"Queer what a noise a screech owl will make," the former remarked, after a moment's silence.
"Dear me, was that a screech owl?" said Theodora.
"Oh, I guess so," replied Addison carelessly. "They make an awful outcry sometimes."
Tom did not say anything, but he told me next day that it was a bear which had made that cry, only a little ways from the camp; and that he had winked to Addison not to tell the girls, for they were looking nervously about them, after hearing the "screamer" story.
It was not a cold night, for October; yet as the evening advanced the fire felt very comfortable.
As we sat talking, several striped squirrels came out in sight into the firelight. There were hundreds of these little fellows there in the clearing, gathering the hazel nuts for their winter store. The hazel nuts were very large, nearly the size of those sold as filberts. The squirrels made their winter burrows in the ground about the old stumps. Kate had gathered a pint dipper full of the nuts before dark; and as we sat talking, we cracked them with round stones from the stream. Once we heard a great rushing and running, as of large animals through the bushes, at no great distance away.
"Hear the deer go!" Willis exclaimed.
Tom laughed. "We will pop over some of them to-morrow," said he. But he whispered to me a few minutes later, that he expected two bears were having a squabble over there in the brush. By and by we heard them running again; and this time they passed around to the south of our camping place, and we heard them go, splashing, through the stream and away into the woods on the other side. Willis jumped up and gave a loud so-ho! which resounded far across the darkened wilderness; and then for a time all the wild denizens of the forest seemed to remain quiet, as if listening to this unusual shout.
"Oh, don't, Willis!" cried Ellen. "It seems as if you were telling all these wild creatures where we are!"
"So I am," said Willis; "if they want to call on us, they will find a load of buckshot all ready for them."
"What time is it, Kate?" Addison at length asked.
"Twenty-five minutes to ten," she replied.
"Well, we want to get an early start to-morrow morning," said Addison. "So I guess we had better go to bed and try to get as much sleep as we can. I'm for one."
"So am I," said Theodora. "But I don't believe I shall sleep much."
"Oh, you need not be the least bit afraid," said Addison.
"We'll look out for you, girls," said Thomas. "I will kindle up a good fire, so that it will shine right into your cabin; and you can close and button your door. You need not be one bit afraid to go to sleep. Nothing will come near this fire."
"You are going to keep the camp-fire burning all night, Addison, aren't you now?" said Theodora.
"Oh, yes," replied he, cheerily. "If I don't get too soundly asleep," he added, in a lower voice, at which Tom and Willis laughed, well knowing that it is one thing for a tired party to talk of tending a fire all night, but quite another thing to actually do so, as the morning's cold ashes generally show.
"If I don't miss of it," said Tom, "I'm going to have a rare dish for breakfast. I hope I sha'n't over-sleep."
"What is it?" Ellen asked.
"Oh, you will find out at breakfast," he replied.
"Well, good-night, boys," said Kate. "I hope you will all sleep well, but not so well as to forget the camp-fire."
"No, please now do not let that go out," added Theodora.
"We will look out for it," said Willis — "in the morning!"
Good-nights were interchanged; the girls then went into their cabin and not very long after shut and fastened their door.
We boys, in the doorless cabin, soon spread up our own bunks; we were all tired, and novel as the situation was to me, I think I had not been lying down over ten or fifteen minutes, when I fell soundly asleep.
As a rule, healthy young folks, from twelve to fifteen years of age, do not lie awake much in the night, under any circumstances. Once asleep, they are not apt to wake, till well rested. The normal condition of a boy of that age, is to be in the open air all day, actively employed, either in play, or work, which keenly interests him, and to have all the good food he wants, at suitable hours. To a boy thus engaged, the period from the time he falls asleep in the evening till next morning, is apt to be one of utter oblivion. That is the way to sleep. Older persons, troubled by insomnia and its usual cause, bad digestion, would do well to return to these simple and health-giving modes of life, best seen in an active boy, or girl.
Somebody shook me. I thought I had but that moment fallen asleep. It was Thomas. "Wake up," he whispered. "Let's you and I go catch some trout for breakfast. They say this brook is full of them. I brought along my hooks. Come on."
The word trout is a good one to get a sleepy boy's eyes open with; I rose at once.
"Let's go out still," whispered Tom, "so as not to wake the girls. I don't want them to see us start off, for we may not have any luck, you know; and it's a thing I never could stand, to come back from fishing, with no fish, and have folks asking me where my fish are."
Addison was awake and lay regarding us, sleepily; but Willis had already got up and gone out with the gun. It was quite light and nearing sunrise; there was a slight frost on the crisp grass about the cabins. The fire had gone out, hours before; not even a smoldering ember or a wreath of smoke, remained of it. The squirrels had already begun to "chicker" in the hazel copses; and a large pileated woodpecker was calling out loudly from the top of a tall pine stub, off in the opening.
We had nothing for bait, except a bit of white, fat pork. First we went down to the ford. "Look there," said Tom, pointing to our tracks of yesterday in the sand and some more recent impressions, nearly or quite as large. "See those bear tracks! Some bear has been smelling about here, during the night! Oh, this is quite a place for game. But don't talk bear much before the girls, or we shall get them so skittish that we cannot stir. They'll feel quite courageous this morning, when they wake up and find nothing has carried them off, if they don't see these bear tracks." Thomas proceeded to scuff the tracks over with his boot.
We then cut two hazel fishing rods, tied a line and hook to each, baited the hooks with a scred of the pork, and then going down the stream, till we came to a pool at a bend, crept carefully up to the verge of the bank and gently dropped in our hooks.
"Shake 'em just a little easy," whispered Tom; for as yet my education in the art of trout fishing had been neglected. "Shake the bait easy, and kind o' bob it up and down; and if you get a bite don't yank very hard, just a little pull, and then swing him out on to the bank."
His words were hardly out, before I felt a vigorous tug at my hook, and quite forgetful of advice, gave a tremendous jerk and flung a half pound trout clean over our heads and into the hazel bushes!
"Gracious! you've scared every fish in this hole!" exclaimed Tom. "But that's a good trout. Pick him up and string him. I guess I'll go up stream now, and you fish on down stream. When we each get a dozen, we will go to the camp; but don't stay too long, anyway."
Tom was a little disgusted, I suppose, with the way I yanked out that trout, and thought that I had better fish by myself. He went off up the brook. I determined to catch a dozen as quickly as he did. So I strung my half-pound fish on a hazel twig, and scud along to the next bend of the brook. I had no more than looked to my bait and dropped in there, when I had a bite and (this time more carefully) swung out a thumping big trout that would have weighed near a pound! His sides were well specked with red; he was a beauty!
Taking him off the hook, after some trouble with him in a bunch of brush, I strung him, dropped in again, and had a third one out — smaller — in less than half a minute. The brook was plainly well stocked with trout. Baiting again, I tossed in and caught a fourth in less time than it had taken me to cut off the scred of pork. I got a fifth and a sixth, both good-sized, and had my seventh bite, when, jerking, I lost him, and the hook, catching on a dry pine branch which stuck out from a pile of drift, was broken. It was the only one I had, and I stamped the ground with vexation. Tom would beat me now; and as it would do no good to linger after the hook was gone, I took my string of half a dozen — weighing fully three pounds — and went back to camp as fast as I could, in order to show good time on the half dozen.
I was in a few minutes ahead of Thomas. But he brought a dozen nice ones, though some of his were smaller than mine. He had one larger than my largest, however. The eighteen, as we laid them out on the grass, were a pretty lot to look at, with the sunshine playing on their spotted sides.
Meantime, I had heard Willis's gun several times, and Tom said that he had heard it, too. "He's shooting partridges, or else gray squirrels, I guess," Tom remarked. "Gray squirrels, where they have fed on hazel nuts for a month or two, make a luscious good stew."
Addison had just come out and kindled a fire; and before we had our trout dressed, ready to fry, Willis came in with a string of four partridges, but no squirrels.
"Are the partridges plenty?" Ad asked.
"Well, there's some. They seem a little shy, though," replied Willis, taking the cap off the tube of the gun, which had a percussion lock. "I shouldn't wonder if some hunter had been firing among them, by the way they fly," he added. "But we can get all we shall want."
"Aren't the girls up yet?" said Thomas. "Wonder what they would say if they knew the fire all went out by eleven o'clock! There's lots of bears round here, too."
"That's so," said Willis. "I've seen bear sign out here in the opening this morning in more'n a dozen places."
"Well, keep quiet about it," said Thomas. "We'll call it deer. When any of us speak of deer, we boys will know that it's bear. It's of no use to scare the girls; and the bears won't touch us this time of year anyway."
We began getting breakfast. Potatoes were put to roast in the embers; but the chief dish was to be trout. Thomas began frying them in butter and meal and set a big tin platter down by the fire to keep them hot, after he had taken them from the pan. Willis tended the fire and kept the embers banked over the potatoes; and Addison got on water for coffee. About this time the door of the girls' cabin was heard to creak; and we saw Catherine and Theodora peeping out.
"What lazy things girls are!" Addison exclaimed, derisively. "Here it is nigh seven o'clock and you sluggards are not out yet."
"Oh, we've been awake and up a long time," said Kate. "It was fun to lie and hear you boys pottering about, trying to get breakfast, and to hear you talk, too. I suppose we shall all be obliged to go down to the brook to wash our faces," she added. "I don't believe any of you boys have thought of washing your faces yet! Tom looks frowzy; I won't say anything about the others."
"No," said Addison. "We don't think of such a thing as washing our faces up here!"
"Well, then, you had better, if you are going to take breakfast with us; hadn't they, Theodora?"
"Indeed, they had!" cried Theodora. "I decline to sit down to breakfast with any fellow who hasn't washed his face."
Thereupon the three girls set off for the ford, with combs, soap and towels.
"You will see a lot of deer tracks down there in the sand," Thomas called after them, with a wink to the rest of us.
Our breakfast was nearly ready, and with everything keeping warm by the fire, we now ran down to the ford, to perform our own rather tardy ablutions. The girls, looking fresh as pinks, had finished theirs and were gathering more hazel nuts, and Theodora and Kate had crossed the ford to gather a few bunches of high-bush cranberry fruit, which they espied hanging temptingly out over the stream, on that side. These cranberries make a nice relish for meat, or fish.
"Come on, girls!" Tom called out, as soon as we had doused our faces and ran a comb through our locks. "Come on now, lively! Breakfast is all ready and I've got something nice, I assure ye."
We went back to the cabins together.
"I didn't know that deer made such big tracks as those down there in the sand," said Theodora. "I thought deer made little tracks more like sheep tracks."
"Oh, caribou deer make tremendous tracks, as big as a man's almost, because they step down upon their fetlocks and their feet are hairy," said Thomas, with a wondrous wise look to the rest of us.
"But are there caribou deer in Maine?" Theodora asked.
"Oh, a good many," replied Addison.
"Don't ask them any more questions, Doad," said Kate. "They are deceiving us about something, I don't know what, exactly. But let them enjoy it, if they find so much sport in it."
We sat down to breakfast at once, and the trout were delicious, at least we all thought so; and so were the baked potatoes, eggs and toast.
"Now," said Addison after we had finished, "my program for to-day is to climb the mountain over on the other side of the stream, and search for some mineral ledges which I have heard of there. I don't want the others to go with me, unless they want to, and would rather do that than anything else. There are plenty of nice trips to make. Those who wish can go to dig spruce gum upon the side of that dark-looking mountain on the far side of the opening here; or they can go fishing, or hunting, or go out here and collect hazel nuts for winter. For we can carry home a bushel of nuts with us if we choose."
"We might get ten bushels," said Thomas, "if we could only dig out the hoards of these squirrels that have been at work all the fall."
"Then there is another trip that I want to make," said Addison. "They say there is a mountain side, about five miles up here to the northeast of us, that is covered with balm o' Gilead trees, thousands of them. I want to find out if that is really so, and if the trees are easy to reach. For I have heard that druggists, in Boston and New York, pay four dollars a pound for the buds of this tree, when gathered at the proper season, in the early spring, to use for liniments and other medicines. If that is so, and there are great numbers of the trees, I want to make a trip up here about the first of May, next spring, and gather two bushel baskets full. I don't see why a small party might not earn a couple of hundred dollars in a few days."
"Good idea!" exclaimed Catherine. "And will you include us girls in your money-making party?"
"Of course," said Addison, "If you will go and help gather the buds, it shall be share and share alike."
"Then Addison," said Kate, laughing, "I guess I will join your expedition to-day. For you seem to be a pretty good business man, and I like folks that look out for making money."
"My sister Kate is a great girl for money," said Thomas.
"That is so," replied Kate. "I think that money is a great institution. I would like to get lots of it."
"I know that we all want to go on each and all of these trips," said Theodora. "I do, at any rate. So why not all go with Addison to-day, then go to look for the balm o' Gileads to-morrow; and then all go after spruce gum the next day."
"Next day is Sunday!" exclaimed Ellen.
"Well, then, Monday," said Theodora.
"But Monday we have to go home," said Willis. "My father told me to get back Monday and no mistake about it."
"Well then, we shall have to make a short trip after gum and go hazel-nutting and fishing all in one day," said Addison. "I don't see but that Tom and Willis will have to make the exploring trip up to the balm o' Gilead place to-day, if they are willing."
"All right," said Thomas.
"Why not make the trip this forenoon," said Willis, "and so come around to join you at this mountain over across where you are going for minerals."
"That will suit me," said Addison.
Our plans for the day were laid accordingly; and half an hour later, Addison and I, with the three girls, set off on our excursion to the mountain side; while Tom and Willis took the gun and went up the brook, in the direction of the balm o' Gilead hill.
"We shall get around where you are by noon," said Thomas. "You will hear us shouting for you."
Our party of five had first to ford the brook, then make a trip of two miles or more through the forest. We took a lunch of bread and cheese, and a dipper along with us, as it was doubtful whether we should return till late in the day. The forest on the intervale between the stream and the mountain was mainly of spruce, basswood, yellow birch and a few firs. The balsam blisters on the leaden gray trunks of the latter were now plump and full, and when punctured, yielded each a few drops of balsam, as clear as crystal — the same "Canada balsam" which microscopists make so much use for preserving their "slides" of specimens. The French Canadians call the tree epinette blanche; it is very abundant in the swamps of the eastern provinces.
The yellow birches were large trees of very solid wood, displaying trunks shaggy with curling bark and moss. Many of the basswoods, too, were very large; the trunks of these when old had furrowed bark not wholly unlike sugar maples, but rather less rugged, and more regularly grooved. The great white ash trees, too, presented similar furrowed bark, but of lighter gray tint.
The spruces which were here most numerous, varied from a foot to two feet in diameter, being such as are ordinarily cut for lumber throughout Maine and Canada. These are the trees which afford the chewing gum, sold in the larger towns and cities. Kate was not long discovering some fine great lumps of it which studded a seam in a large spruce. "Lend me your knife, Addison," she exclaimed. "I want to dig some gum. Come here, girls."
Enough was dug in a few minutes to keep our whole party chewing all that day and at intervals for many subsequent days. It is a rather bootless kind of effort, at best, though it may tend to develop the muscles of one's jaws.
In the course of an hour we reached the foot of the mountain, then began climbing up the side of it, which was quite steep and rough. Boulders of all sizes obstructed the way and we soon came to high ledges of bare gray rock which Addison declared to be mostly of granite. Through these rocks and ledges, however, there ran a great many veins of white quartz. Some of these veins were narrow, only an inch, or a few inches, thick; but others were wider and we presently found one of lovely tinted rose quartz not less than a yard thick.
"Oh, how beautiful!" Theodora exclaimed; she and Kate sat down by it, admiring the fine rosy tint. They wished to break off pieces to carry home; but we had brought no sledge, or other stone mason's tools. By searching about at the foot of the ledge below, however, Addison found a number of rosy fragments which had broken off in the lapse of time and fallen down the hillside. Such specimens are attractive to gather up, but heavy to carry home.
The girls having grown somewhat fatigued by this time, Addison and I left them at the rose quartz ledges, and went on more rapidly, to search for other minerals. We climbed higher up the mountain side, then went back and forth for nearly an hour. At last we came to the place he was in search of, a long crevice extending up and down the rough face of a ledge which rose almost perpendicularly to a height of forty feet.
The crevice was only wide enough to thrust in one's fingers and seemed to be lined with large, hexagonal crystals, as clear as water. The points of these crystals, which had beautiful facets, jutted out past each other in many places, and seemed to match together like teeth in opposed jaws. Still higher up in the same ledges, there were scores of quartz veins, converging and crossing each other in a network; and in some of this white quartz there were minute, bright, yellow specks which Ad said was gold. He thought that there was both gold and silver in this ledge, and that if the top were blasted off, the quartz beneath would be found still richer in these precious metals; — that being the theory of mining engineers, as he had heard his father explain it.
After we had looked it over for a time, I went back to conduct the girls to the place; and with half an hour of hard climbing, they arrived at the foot of the crag.
Immediately then we discovered Addison, laboriously at work, attempting to break out fragments containing the crystals, by beating on the adjacent rock with a large stone. He had already succeeded in crushing off some of the crystals; but he ruined far more of the handsome points than he secured whole.
"Oh, aren't they beautiful!" was Theodora's first exclamation. "Do let's get a lot of them!"
"Is this what the hunters call the 'diamond ledge?'" Catherine asked.
"Yes," replied Addison, "but of course these crystals are only of quartz and by no means very valuable, save to put in collections of minerals. They are nothing but quartz rock."
"But they are very pretty," said Kate. "I would like to get a lot of them to set around our front doorstep."
"If only we had drills and a hammer, with a few pounds of gunpowder, we could throw out handsome specimens!" exclaimed Addison. "Sometime, let's get some tools and come up here. Who knows what lovely ones there may be deeper down in the crevice!"
As he was speaking, we heard a distant halloo, away to the north of us. "That's Tom and Willis," said I. "They're coming round this way."
We answered their shouts and soon heard another halloo.
"They'll find us now," said Addison.
"Let's spread our luncheon down here in the shadow of the crag," said Theodora.
There was no water at hand, so I took the little pail in which the lunch had been brought, and set off down the mountain in quest of some. Descending into a little hollow, I found a spring issuing from beneath a large rock. It was very cold water; the spring was shallow, yet with the dipper, I was able slowly to dip up a three quart pail nearly full. It was a delicate task to carry it up the steep mountain side, without spilling it. When at length I rejoined the party, at the foot of the crag, Tom and Willis were coming up from another direction.
"Hullo, Ad!" exclaimed Tom. "Seen any game?" I thought from the way he spoke that he and Willis had seen something in that line.
"No," said Addison, "we have been looking for something different. Have you seen any?"
"Yes, sir-ee!" said Tom.
"What was it?" inquired Kate.
"Deer," said Tom with a knowing look at the rest of us boys.
"You don't say so!" exclaimed Addison. "Really deer! How snug did you get to a deer?"
"Snug enough to put our hands on him!" said Willis, with a chuckle.
"What, have you killed a deer?" asked Addison, incredulously.
"Really and truly we have!" said Tom, with a ring of exultation in his voice. "'Twasn't a very big one, though," he added.
"No," said Willis, "it was only a yearling deer. We came upon him behind a tree root. He only ran a few steps and then turned round to snuff at us. Tom let him have a load of heavy shot and knocked him stiff as a mitten."
"We shot two hedgehogs, too, up there at the balm o' Gilead hill," said Tom.
"Did you skin that deer?" Addison inquired, laughing.
"Yes; and we've got ten or twelve pounds of the meat, wrapped up in the skin."
"But where is the skin?" I asked.
"Oh, we left the skin, with the meat wrapped up in it, back here a few steps by a rock," replied Thomas. "I thought," he added with a knowing glance at us boys, "that I wouldn't bring such a thing as a green hide right up here where you had your luncheon spread out."
"Thomas," said Kate, looking sharply at him, "you are telling some kind of crooked story."
"Willis," said Thomas carelessly, "go get that deer hide."
Willis hesitated an instant, then went off through the bushes and in a few moments returned with a gory skin, rolled up, with the hair side carefully turned in.
"Want to examine it, Kate?" said he, holding it towards her.
"No, no," said Catherine and Theodora both in a breath. "Do take the dreadful thing away! But there's something wrong about your story all the same, Tom," Kate added with a searching look at him. "I can tell when you are fibbing just as well as need be; and I shall find out what you boys are looking so funny at each other for, yet."
"You are a very knowing girl, Kate," said Tom. "But let's have some luncheon and change the subject."
"Not till you go down to the spring and wash your hands," said Catherine, "after handling that dreadful thing."
Peace having been restored by the washing of hands, luncheon was eaten.
"Yes," said Willis, "and we saw two minks and a fish-cat, as we went up the stream; but they all three got out of sight before Tom could draw a bead on them."
"Wise minks," said Ellen.
"And Willis thinks that he caught a glimpse of a 'screamer,' just as we were going through a little fir thicket," Tom remarked.
"I'm almost sure it was one," corroborated Willis. "Oh, I wish we had a lot of traps and could stay up here a fortnight. I should like two dozen mink traps and a couple of big traps."
"What do you want of such big traps?" said Kate carelessly. "To catch deer in?"
"Of course not," said Willis. "No hunter around here ever sets traps for deer."
"I was thinking I had never heard of such a thing," replied Catherine, demurely.
"But how about the balm o' Gileads?" Addison asked suddenly.
"Oh, there's quite a growth of them!" replied Tom. "On the slope of the mountain, there are twenty or thirty old trees and no end of young ones coming up. I should think there was fifty acres of them altogether, shouldn't you, Willis?"
"I should," said Willis. "There would be buds enough there, though I should think it would be a stint to gather them."
"Oh, I don't think it would be such a very bad job," said Tom. "We could bend down the tops of the young trees and pick the buds off fast. I believe I could pick five or six pounds a day, anyhow."
"Five pounds would be twenty dollars, according to Addison's reckoning," said Theodora.
"Very fair wages for us!" said Kate. "I would even work for less."
"None of your jokes!" exclaimed Addison.
"I think that I could get a living, digging spruce gum up here," Kate went on. "Spruce gum is said to bring a dollar per pound, when nice and clean; I could dig gum days, and scrape it clean evenings, and live in the 'old slave's cabin;' that is, I could if the 'deer' didn't scare me away," she added, with a significant glance at us boys which made us feel rather foolish.
"Kate, you are almost as knowing as your grandma!" exclaimed Tom, derisively; "and you're not a quarter as old yet. Fact, you are almost too knowing for your age."
"Don't think other folks are too knowing because you are a little backward yourself, Thomas!" cried Kate. "Your deer stories are not quite right; there is something weak in them."
"Take a swallow of cold water in your mouth, Tom," said Addison, laughing.
Luncheon being disposed of, we gathered up our specimen crystals and the fragments of rose quartz, packed the crystals in moss, in the pail, and then tied up the rose quartz in one of our jackets. The latter made a rather heavy pack and, together with the pail, proved quite a load down the mountain and back through the woods to the opening. Willis took the deer skin; and Tom carried the deer meat. We returned across the wooded intervale, seeing no game but a partridge, which Willis shot, and reached the ford and the cabins at about four o'clock in the afternoon.
All of us were somewhat tired and sat down on the grass, or the benches, to rest awhile. The sun had already sunk near the tree-tops again; for by October 20th the afternoons are short in Maine. It was chilly, too.
"There will be a harder frost to-night than there was last night," Addison remarked.
Thomas brought wood and kindled a fire. "We must be stirring," he said. "It takes a long time to get dinner."
"What are we going to have to-day for dinner?" Ellen asked.
"Deer steak, I suppose," said Catherine, laughing.
"We must have those partridges that Willis shot this morning," said Addison.
"I can catch more trout," said Thomas.
"No; let's have the trout for breakfast," remarked Theodora. "They are splendid, fresh caught, for breakfast."
Willis went to get the partridges which he had hung up in a clump of hazels, a little way back of the cabins, but immediately returned, saying that they were missing. "Some creature has smelled them and pulled them down, I guess," said he.
"Suppose it was a deer?" asked Kate.
"Keep quiet," said Tom. "You've said enough about deer."
"If she says deer again, let's tie that green deer hide over her head, Tom!" exclaimed Willis.
"You will not hear me say anything more, but I shall go on thinking, all the same," replied Catherine.
Theodora had gone into their cabin, to fetch our tin ware and frying-pan.
"Why!" she exclaimed, coming hastily out, in some fluster, "almost all our bread is gone!"
"Then somebody's been here," said Addison, "while we were away."
"Everything in the baskets has been pulled over," said Theodora.
We went to examine and found the baskets had really been disturbed, but nothing save bread had been removed.
"Some hungry hunter, I guess," said Addison. "Well, I hope it did him good."
"I reckon there's where the partridges went," said Tom.
"Well, he wasn't a very bad visitor," said Willis, "or he might have stolen a good deal more."
"Indeed, he might," said Theodora.
"But I wish he had left our bread and butter alone," exclaimed Ellen. "Who knows how dirty his hands were!"
"This raid cuts our dinner down a little, — losing those partridges," said Tom. "So let's have our venison and some eggs fried with it."
But on looking into the basket, all the eggs were found to have disappeared, save eight!
"Worse and worse!" Addison exclaimed. "We shall have to fall back on potatoes, and do some good hunting and fishing during the rest of our stay here."
Tom was already slicing up the rather odd-looking venison, getting it ready to fry. Addison brought water and put on potatoes to boil; and Kate declared that she was going to make a dish of Indian meal mush, and have some of it to fry for breakfast, next morning.
Willis took the gun and slipped away, intending to knock over a few more partridges, to go with the one he had just shot, across the stream.
Ellen, too, went out to gather hazel nuts.
A dark bank of clouds had risen in the west, and the wind began to blow a little; it was not quite as pleasant as on the previous evening.
In the course of an hour our dinner was ready. Ellen had gathered a quart of nuts, and Willis came in with another partridge. It was not a good night for shooting, he said; and when he went inside our cabin to set aside the gun, he privately told Addison and me, that he had heard a dog bark off in the woods, to the west of the opening. Somehow it made us feel uneasy to think that some person, or persons, might be hanging about the place, though they had not shown themselves very evilly disposed toward us, having merely taken a loaf or two of bread and some eggs. Still there was no knowing who they were, or what their intentions might be.
The table was rigged up and we sat down to it as before. The fried venison was good and went well with our potatoes; and we had an egg apiece. But Kate's corn meal mush was the best dish, for we had plenty of butter and sugar to garnish it; and we also toasted some cheese.
The sky had grown wholly overcast; and by the time we had finished our dinner, night came on. We had still to collect wood for a camp-fire; and all four of us boys set about this task at once and also carried armfuls of dry pine from a stub, a little way off, into our cabin to have in the morning for our fire, in case of rain. The wind was blowing and the air felt chilly and raw. There was not much pleasure in sitting out of doors, even before a fire; so we at length carried our benches into the girls' cabin and placed them around, just inside the open door, where the firelight shone in pleasantly. It was much more comfortable there than out in the wind. The smoke also drifted into our own cabin a good deal, but here we were quite out of it.
Nell produced her pailful of hazel nuts, and with this rather late dessert for our dinner, we whiled away an hour or more, Thomas or Addison going out now and then to tend the fire and keep it blazing brightly.
"What shall it be to-morrow," Theodora at length said; "fishing, or hazel-nutting?"
"Fishing in the morning and hazel-nutting in the afternoon will be a good plan, I guess," Addison remarked, — when, as he spoke, we heard a rather strange sound off in the woods. It was the first wild note of any kind which had come to our ears during the evening; the inhabitants of the forest seemed not to be musically inclined that night.
"I would like to know what made that noise," Tom said. "That wasn't a bear, nor a 'screamer.'"
We sat listening and pretty soon heard it again, a peculiar, long-drawn-out, hollow note.
"It doesn't sound like an animal's cry," said Addison. "It is more like a noise I have heard made by blowing through some big sea-shell."
"Not very likely to be sea-shells up here in the woods," remarked Theodora.
"Are there really any Indians in the 'great woods?'" I asked.
"I think not," said Addison.
Just then we heard the noise again. It seemed to be nearer and appeared to have moved around towards the stream.
"Well, that beats me all out for a noise!" exclaimed Willis. "I can't even guess what makes it."
"Nor I," said Tom. "Never heard anything like it."
To hear a mysterious sound like that, off in the wilderness, at night, will disturb almost anyone. Addison kept laughing and trying to talk of other things. Thomas stepped out as if to fix up the fire, but slipped into the other cabin and got the gun. He came out to one side, however, so that the girls did not see him from where they sat, and stood the gun against their cabin. All the while Addison was talking on, telling the girls how the Indians cooked hedgehogs by coating them all over with clay, then roasting them under their camp-fires. The girls were not very good listeners, however, for we kept hearing that same hollow, moaning noise, and it did not seem to be very far off. We were all pretty sure that it was not an animal, and concluded that it must be a man, or a number of men; but why they were making such a strange noise as that, we could not understand.
Suddenly the sound burst forth close at hand, apparently near the stream. It startled us all badly, and Thomas reached for the gun.
"I think, boys," said Kate quite calmly, yet with a curious little flutter in her voice, "that we had better all get inside the cabin here and shut the door."
"Perhaps we had," said Addison. "For if it is anybody who means mischief, it is foolish for us to sit in the light here where we can be seen so plainly."
Thereupon we all beat a retreat inside the cabin, shut the door and buttoned it; the firelight shone in, however, both through cracks in the door and chinks betwixt the logs. Tom drew the partridge charge from his gun and put in another heavier one, with five or six buckshot, mixed with the bird shot.
A moment or two after, we heard the noise again; and this time it seemed to be just in the rear of the other cabin. Addison stood with an eye at a crack, looking out.
"It's human beings, fast enough," he said in a low voice.
The girls were of course a good deal alarmed. We made the door fast with a prop in case an attack should be made.
Suddenly a large stone fell on the roof with a tremendous bump and clatter! It caused the girls to cry out in affright!
"Ad, this is somebody trying to scare us!" Tom muttered.
"Or murder us!" cried Ellen.
"You don't suppose it is Halse, do you?" I asked. "He threatened us with something or other!"
"Maybe," said Addison, doubtfully. "No; I don't believe he would dare come up here alone in the night," he added, after a moment's thought. "Halse is a great coward in the dark."
On the whole it did not seem likely that Halstead would be so many miles from home, in the woods, at that time of night.
Another stone struck on the roof, and soon a third struck the door! Then several seemed to fall on the roof at once, which led us to surmise that there was more than one person concerned in the attack.
Both Addison and Tom kept their eyes at the cracks, looking out to see if any of our assailants showed themselves.
"They are standing out there in that hazel clump, just beyond the other cabin," Addison muttered. "I can see the bushes move there, every time a stone is thrown."
Just then a tremendous thump came against the door!
"I'll let them know they can't pelt us like that!" exclaimed Tom, taking up the gun. "Open the door just a crack, Ad, so I can push the muzzle out."
"I would not fire right at the bush," said Addison. "But fire high to let them know we are armed."
Tom thrust out the gun — and next instant we were all nearly deafened by the report!
Immediately following the report, too, there came a loud cry, a cry that thrilled me through and through, for I thought that I recognized the voice. Theodora cried out, "Oh, that's Halse! You've shot him! You've shot him!"
"That did sound a little like Halse!" cried Willis.
We were terror-stricken, yet uncertain. Addison cautiously opened the door and stepped out. Tom and I followed him. Willis, however, caught up the gun and began hastily to reload it.
"Halse!" Addison at length called out. "Are you there, Halse?"
Theodora followed us out and also Kate. "Oh, I'm so afraid he's killed!" Theodora cried out, almost sobbing.
Several of us called out; but there was no reply; and we could now hear no movement in the hazels.
"Do let's go and see," implored Theodora; and then Addison and Thomas took brands from the camp-fire and, waving these about, went out cautiously towards the bush clumps. We kept close behind them, Willis with the gun loaded; he was afraid that this was some trick to draw us into an ambush.
But on reaching the hazels, there was nothing to be found, save three round stones as big as a man's fist or bigger, evidently brought there from the bed of the stream, to throw at the cabin.
"Oh, dear!" exclaimed Theodora. "I suppose he has dragged himself away somewheres. I know he was hit by the way he cried out."
"I did not aim right at the bush," said Tom; "but I suppose the gun may have scattered."
"Plague take him!" exclaimed Willis. "I don't much care if he is hit."
"Oh, don't talk so!" cried Ellen.
"No; don't talk so," said Catherine. "If he is hit and has crept away, we must find him if we can."
"Of course," said Addison who was peering about on the ground, "we will do all we can to find him and care for him, if it really was he."
"Halse! Halse!" Tom shouted, as loudly as he could. "Answer, Halse, if you are hurt! We will take care of you!"
There was no reply.
"He may be dead by this time!" lamented Theodora.
Then we began searching in earnest; we rekindled the fire, and taking brands, looked the ground all over for twenty rods or more from the cabins, in that direction. Not a trace could be discovered.
"I guess he wasn't hurt much," Willis said privately to me.
But that wild outcry had taken a dreadful hold on Theodora's fancies. With the tears starting constantly to her eyes, she searched and implored the rest of us to keep looking about. I half expected we might come upon Halse in the bushes; for I knew that if one of those heavy shot had struck him, it might cause a fatal wound.
Tom, too, felt very badly and very nervous; so did Kate.
At last we went back to the cabin, for it seemed of no use to search longer. Theodora was so wrought up, that she even wanted to start off for home in the darkness, to notify the Old Squire. Nothing could persuade her that Halse was not wounded or killed.
But Addison said at once that we could not think of making such a trip in the night; that we would wait till morning and see what could be discovered then; and he advised the girls to go to sleep and get as good a night's rest as they could.
"It will do no good to cry, or keep awake, Doad," he said. "We can do nothing till daylight."
Accordingly we went to our own cabin and left the girls to shut themselves into theirs and sleep if they could. We all felt very much disturbed; yet I, for one, fell asleep and slept through the rest of the night quite soundly. I doubt whether Theodora slept, however. She was awake and out with Addison long before I roused up. Catherine and Ellen, too, were astir, and they had all four been searching, ever since it had grown light enough.
Willis had gone to fish for trout; he came back with a fine string of them, just as I was waking up. As he sat dressing them to fry for breakfast, he declared again that he was not at all afraid that Halse was much injured.
But all the rest of us had our fears, and not much interest was felt in breakfast or anything else, save to get ready to start for home, as quickly as possible. For Addison had decided that the best thing to do, under the circumstances, was to go home and see what could be learned there of Halse's movements.
We therefore ate a breakfast of such food as could be most quickly prepared, then packed up our luggage, and began our long trip back home, through the woods. It was far from being a pleasant walk. The zest and anticipation of our outing had departed. We plodded drearily on and reached Clear Pond at about one o'clock. Here, after a hasty lunch, Addison ran on ahead, to reach home and come back with the team. The entire burden of the baskets, guns, etc., now fell on Tom, Willis and me; the girls were tired, and we got on slowly.
At last, after two or three hours, we heard Addison coming along the winter road with the horses and wagon, while still at a considerable distance. The girls sat down to wait for him to come near enough to speak. Theodora, in particular, feared the worst.
But as soon as Addison came in sight, where we were sitting on a log by the side of the trail, he swung his hat, and shouted, "All right!"
"Thank Providence!" burst from Theodora's lips; and we all jumped up and shouted for joy.
"But was it Halse?" exclaimed Tom and Kate and I, all in a breath.
"Yes, it was," replied Addison with a touch of scorn in his voice. "He and Alf Batchelder."
"And he isn't hurt?" Theodora asked.
"Well, no, not by us," said Addison dryly. "The Old Squire has held a private interview with him out at the west barn. Halse may not be quite as comfortable now as he might be."
"Good enough!" shouted Willis, Tom and Kate in chorus; and I am afraid that Ellen and I joined in the sentiment. Theodora only looked unhappy.
"Halse has confessed," Addison continued, after we were all in the wagon, jogging on homeward. "The Old Squire made him tell everything and disciplined him afterwards. It was like this. After dinner yesterday, Halse pretended that he was sick and went up-stairs. Gram followed him up there with the Vermifuge bottle. She found him in bed. He wouldn't say what ailed him. After she went down-stairs, he got out on the ell roof and ran away, over to Batchelder's. Alf and he then put their heads together and started for the old slave's farm, intending to play they were Cannucks and frighten us nearly to death. That was old Hewey's moose-horn that they were booing through; they borrowed it of the old man, on their way up, pretending they were going moose-hunting."
"Then Halse wasn't hit after all," said Kate.
"No; it was Alf. We were all wrong about that voice. One of Tom's little partridge shot struck Alf on his wrist. It did not injure him much, but drew blood and frightened him.
"They then cut sticks for home; and Halse tried to get into his room over the ell roof at about three o'clock this morning. But our folks had already discovered that he had run away. The Old Squire heard him on the roof and nabbed him just as he was crawling in at the window.
"He was quite a subdued, tearful-eyed, peaceable-looking boy, when I saw him an hour ago," Addison concluded, with a curl of his lip.
"But let's not say a word to plague him any further," said Theodora.
"Oh, I shall not speak of it," replied Addison.
"Nor I," said Willis. "But I would like to have had hold of the Old Squire's whip a spell."
And thus, in this miserable way, our first camping trip terminated. It was raining the following morning and continued very wet for several days; we were not able to return to "the old slave's farm" that fall.