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THE OLD SQUIRE'S PANTHER STORY
It seemed good, even after only three days' camping out, to sit down in the house again and see the supper table nicely set and Gram at the head of it. She welcomed us home as warmly as if we had been absent for weeks; the Old Squire was still a little disturbed, from his recent "interview" with Halstead.
Halse, himself, did not come to supper; and nobody mentioned his name during the entire evening.
Little Wealthy was plainly overjoyed to see us back and, despite the pout which she had worn when we went off without her, talked very fast to us and told us of all the occurrences during our absence.
"Aunt Olive" was with us for a week; she and Gram and Wealthy had begun to dry apples; and after supper, Aunt Olive brought in three bushel basketfuls of bruised Baldwins and Greenings, along with some natural fruit; she also produced the old paring machine, coring knives and a hank of stringing twine and needle, and in short made ready for a busy evening.
"Now, young folks," quoth she, "you've been off and had a fine time; and I s'pose you're all ready to make the apples fly! It will not take us long to do up these three bushels to-night, if you all work smart."
It was an invitation not to be refused, under the circumstances, though Theodora and Ellen made wry faces. They disliked to cut apples, it is such dirty, sticky work and blackens one's hands so badly. Addison took up the paring machine, good-naturedly.
"Here's my old friend of last year," said he, screwing it to the leaf of the kitchen table. "I pared bushels with it last fall, and I guess I'll pare them now, while the rest of you trim and core and string them. We must have dried apples, I suppose, for pies and sauce; at least, Gram says we must."
He fixed an apple on the fork of the machine and then in a moment had whirled the skin off it, in a long, thin ribbon which descended into the basket set beneath the table. I thought it looked to be fun; — but that was before I understood the business as well as I subsequently came to do.
Finding that we had mustered in good force to cut the apples, Gram got out her basket of socks to darn and presently summoned Theodora to assist her. The Old Squire sat at the other side of the table and began to read his Maine Farmer, which had come that night from the post office; but he stopped reading often to hear what Addison had to tell of our trip. Ellen and I trimmed and halved the apples, as Addison pared them; "Aunt Olive" cored and Wealthy strung the cored halves.
At length, when Gramp seemed to have looked his paper pretty nearly through, Theodora said that we had a particular favor to ask of him that evening.
"Ah!" said the old gentleman, looking over the top of his glasses. "What can Theodora want?"
"But I want you to promise to grant it before I tell what it is," replied Theodora.
The Old Squire laughed. "That's asking quite a good deal," he remarked. "But I hope I am not running much risk."
"Well, then, grandfather," said Theodora, "we all want you to tell us the story of the panther that you and Mr. Edwards shot up in the great woods when you were boys. Thomas and Catherine have been telling us about it; and we want to hear the story."
"Yes, sir," said Addison. "Please tell us about that."
The old gentleman hedged a little. "Oh, that is not much of a story," said he.
"Come, Squire, I've heard tell o' that 'ere catamount that you and Zeke Edwards killed; but I never could get the particulars," said Aunt Olive. "Jest give us the particulars."
Gramp tried to put us off. "I'm no great hand at stories," he said. "You must get Hewey Glinds to tell you bear and catamount stories."
"But you promised me, Gramp," Theodora reminded him.
At length, after some further excuses, the Old Squire was induced to make a beginning, and having begun, told us the following story which I give in words as nearly like his own as I can now remember.
"It was in the year 1812. I was little more than a boy at that time, and the country was quite new here. We had a clearing of about fifty acres and had not yet built our present buildings; and our only neighbors, nearer than the settlement in the lower part of the township, where the village now stands, were the Edwardses. Old Jeremy Edwards came here at about the same time that my father came.
"Eighteen-twelve was the time of our second war with England. Soldiers for it did not volunteer then; troops had to be raised by draft. Father and neighbor Edwards were both drafted. I well remember the night they were summoned. Mother and Mrs. Edwards cried all night. But there was no help for it. There were no such things as substitutes then. They had to go the next morning, and leave us to take care of ourselves the best we could.
"Little Ezekiel Edwards — Thomas's and Kate's grandfather — was just about my age; and the men being away, everything depended on us. Those were hard times; we had a great deal to do. We used to change works, as we called it, so as to be together as much as we could; for it was rather lonesome, planting and hoeing off in the stumpy, sprouted clearings. That was a long, anxious summer! We heard from father only once. He was somewhere near Lake Champlain.
"We were getting things fixed up to pass the winter as well as we could, when one night, about the first of November, Ezekiel came running over to ask if we had seen anything of old Brindle, their cow. It had been a bright, Indian-summer day, and they had turned her out to feed; but she had not come up as usual, and was nowhere in sight. It was dusk already, but I took our gun and, starting out together, we searched both clearings. Brindle was not in the cleared land.
"'We shall have to give her up to-night, Zeke,' said I; 'but I will go with you in the morning. She's lost or hedged up somewhere among windfalls.' We heard 'lucivees' snarling, and as we went back along, saw a bear digging ground-nuts beside a great rock. These were common enough sounds and sights in those days; still, we did not care to go off into the forest after dark.
"Several inches of snow came during the night and the next morning was cloudy and lowering. Zeke came over early. Brindle had not come in. He brought his gun and had taken Skip, their dog; and we now started off for a thorough search in the woods. Everything looked very odd that morning, on account of the freshly fallen snow. The snow had lodged upon all the trees, especially the evergreens, bending down the branches; and every stump and bush was wreathed in white.
"As the cows used frequently to follow up the valley — where the road now is — to the northward, we entered it and kept on to where it opens out upon Clear Pond, at the foot of the crags which you probably noticed as you passed. There is just a footpath between the crags and the pond, which is very deep on that side. About the pond and the crag the trees were mostly spruce. This morning they looked like multitudes of white tents, lined with black. And this appearance, with the ground all white, and the not yet frozen water looking black as ink, made everything appear so strange, that although we had several times been there before, we now scarcely knew the place.
"As yet we had seen no traces of Brindle. But just as we came out on the pond, at the foot of the crag, we heard a fox bark, quite near at first, then at a distance. Skip sprang ahead among the snowy spruces, but came back in a few moments, and, looking up in our faces, whined, then ran on again.
"'He's found something!' exclaimed Zeke.
"We hurried forward on his track, and a few rods further, saw him standing still, whining; and there, under a thin covering of snow, near the water, lay old Brindle, torn and mangled, and partially eaten.
"A feeling of awe crept over us at the sight.
"'Dead!' whispered Zeke.
"'Something's killed her!' I whispered back.
"There were fresh fox tracks all around, and the carcass had been recently gnawed in several places. Some transient little fox had been improving the chance to steal a breakfast. But what savage beast had throttled resolute old Brindle?
"With strange sensations we gazed around. Not a breath of air stirred the snow-laden boughs; and the wild, gray face of the precipice, towering above us, seemed to grow awesome in the stillness.
"Looking more closely, we now discerned, partially obscured by the more recent snowflakes, some broad footprints, as large as old Brindle's hoofs, leading off along the narrow path between the crag and the pond. After examining our priming, we followed slowly on these tracks, Skip keeping close to us, and glancing up earnestly in our faces.
"Very soon, however, the tracks stopped. Beyond a certain point there were no footprints. Skip whined, almost getting under our feet in his efforts to keep near us. Suddenly then a piercing scream broke the stillness, and on a jutting rock, fully twenty feet above us, and in the very attitude of springing, we saw a large gray creature, its claws protruding on the ledge, its ears laid back and its long tail switching to and fro! It screamed again, then leaped down. Zeke and I started to run back along the path, but both stumbled on the snowy rocks. Next moment we heard a yell from Skip, then a loud growl. The panther had seized him; and then we saw it go bounding back up the rocks, grappling and gathering up the dog in its mouth, at every leap. Climbing still higher, it gained a projecting ledge, along which it ran to a great cleft, or fissure, seventy or eighty feet above the path. There it disappeared.
"Its onslaught had been so sudden, that for some moments we stood bewildered. Then, remembering our danger, we turned to run again, but had taken only a few steps when another scream rooted us to the path! The panther had come out in sight and was running to the place where it had climbed up.
"Frightened as we were, we knew that it was of little use to run and both pulled up. As long as we stood still, the animal crouched, watching us; but the moment we stirred, it would rise and poise itself as if to spring. We were afraid if we ran that the animal would bound down and chase us.
"How long we stood there, I don't know, but it seemed very long. We grew desperate. 'Let's fire,' Zeke whispered; and we raised our old flint-locks. They were well charged with buckshot, if they would only go off. The panther growled, seeing the movement, and started up; but we pulled the triggers. Both guns were discharged. We then sprang away down the path, but glancing back, beheld the panther struggling and clinging to one of the lower ledges to which it had jumped, or fallen, from the rocks above.
"'We hit him!' exclaimed Zeke. 'Hold up,' — and we both turned.
"For a long time the beast clung there, writhing and falling back. Screech after screech echoed from the mountain side across the pond. We could see blood trickling down the rock.
"The animal grew weaker, at length, and by and by fell down to another rock, where, after fainter struggles and cries, it finally lay still. We loaded and fired again, and the fur flew up, but there was no further movement. Skip and Brindle were avenged, as much as they could be; but it was a long time before the Edwards family ceased to lament their loss.
"We went to the place twice afterwards during the winter. A mass of gray fur was still lying on the rock, thirty or forty feet above the path. And for years after, we could see some of the panther's bones there."
To us young folks who had so recently been camping in the "great woods" and had passed along the foot of this very crag where the panther had been shot, the Old Squire's story was intensely interesting. We could vividly imagine the scene and the fears of the two pioneer boys, on that snowy November forenoon, more than fifty years ago.
When I went up to bed that night, I found Halse soundly asleep. He did not wake and I did not disturb him; but he was astir and dressing, when I waked next morning, and before we went down, he began to laugh and to ridicule us, on account of the fright we were in at the cabin when those stones were tumbling on the roof. "And I broke up your camping trip, anyway," he added, exultantly. "You were the scaredest lot of chickens I ever saw! Shut yourselves up in your shanty and fastened the door with props!"
I did not much blame him for wanting to crow a bit, after all that had happened.
On the whole it was fortunate that we came home when we did. The storm continued; all next day it poured and drove furiously; but apple-cutting went on blithely indoors. What was rare for him, Addison had a bad cold with a very sore throat; and we all retired early that night, not having as yet caught up all arrears of broken sleep from the camping trip.
But it was not to be a night of rest; and I for one was destined to have an exciting experience before morning. Shortly after midnight there came an obstreperous knocking and thumping at the outer door, so loud that it waked us in our beds up-stairs. It was repeated twice; and then I heard the Old Squire below call out, "Who's there?"
"It's me," replied a troubled voice.
"Well, but who's 'me?'"
"Bobbie Sylvester. And please, sir, my folks want you to send one of the boys after the doctor, quick!"
There was a sudden exclamation of wrath and indignation from Addison in his room, with a chain of comments, which it is not necessary to remember.
"Why, what's the matter?" we heard the Old Squire call out. But just then we distinguished the murmur of Gram's voice, and a moment later heard her coming up the stairs to speak to us.
"Boys," said she, "one of you must ride to the village after the doctor for Mrs. Sylvester."
"But, Gram, it's a terrible night," Ad expostulated.
"I know it, boys," said she. "It's a bad night, but somebody must go."
"Let Sylvester go himself, then!" cried Addison, angrily.
"Well, but you know he hasn't any horse, and has rheumatism," said the old lady.
Then began to dawn on me what I came to know full well later, that whenever certain of our poorer neighbors were taken ill, or an additional small member was about to be added to their families, they were very prone to come hurrying to our door at dead of night, beseeching some of us to ride seven miles to the village for the doctor.
Addison was really unfit to go. No doubt he felt unusually irritable. "By the holy smoke!" he exclaimed. "I wish there wasn't a baby under the Canopy!" — and while I was trying to puzzle out and piece together all these darkling hints and inferences, the Old Squire came up stairs and after a word with Addison and Gram, told me that I would have to rig up, get on old Sol's back and take my first turn riding for Dr. Cummings. That settled it.
Thereupon I began dressing in haste, Halstead lying at his ease and crowing over me as I did so; and I am sorry to add that I was in a mood so un-cousinly that I at length gave him a swipe with my thick jacket as I put it on to hasten down stairs.
It was still raining fiercely; but they rigged me up as best they could for the trip — buttoned me into an old buffalo coat (it was a huge fit for a boy, thirteen), tied a woollen comforter around my neck, and another one over the top of my cap, to hold that on my head and keep my ears warm. Wool socks, a pair of large boots, and some heavy mittens completed my outfit.
Gram herself went to the stable and looked to the saddle. I mounted; Gramp pulled the great door of the stable open, and I rode forth into the rain and darkness.
After a few moments outside, I could see objects, in outline. So much rain had fallen that the road was completely saturated. I got on pretty well, however, until I came to the meadow a mile from home, where the road crossed low ground and a large brook. There was a plank-bridge here twenty feet long. The brook was now very high — a good deal higher, in fact, than any of us had anticipated. It had risen several feet since nightfall.
The moment I came to the meadow I found that there was water all over it, and also in the road, extending back two hundred yards from the bridge to the foot of the hill. I could not see how it looked, and, of course, did not fully realize how high and rapid the stream had grown. Old Sol splashed through the water till we came near the bridge. There the water was up to my feet, in the road. On pulling up, I could hear it rushing and swirling along over the bridge. I supposed the bridge was undisturbed, for there were stones laid on the planks at each end, I could see nothing save a black expanse all round me. Hesitating a moment, I summoned my courage and dug my heels into old Sol's sides. He went forward till his feet touched the first planks. There he stopped and snorted. I gave him the spur. He leaped forward and seemed to strike his feet on planks. But, as was afterwards ascertained, some of them were washed out, and all of them were afloat. At his next spring his legs went down among them. Then the full force of the current struck him, he rolled over sidewise, and horse and boy went off the lower end of the bridge, in eight feet of swift water.
It is needless to say that I was holding to the horse's mane for dear life. As we rolled over the "stringer" of the bridge, I was partly under the horse. We went down and I distinctly touched bottom with my left foot, but clutched the horse's mane with both hands and hugged the saddle with both legs. It seemed to me that we rolled over before we came to the surface. Then we went under again, but a moment later, the horse got foothold in shallower water, and floundered out on the further side of the brook.
If I had let go of him I would certainly have been drowned; for the skirts of the buffalo coat had been driven by the current over my head, and with all those water-soaked clothes on, not even a powerful swimmer could have got out. I felt as if I weighed a ton. My cap was gone, and with it, my comforters.
I wasn't very much frightened, I hadn't had time to be, though I remember thinking when we rolled off the end of the bridge, that no doctor would get to the Sylvesters' that night.
The horse waded off the meadow to a set of bars, and we got back into the road; and on coming to the foot of the hill I dismounted and partly wrung some of my clothes, though it still rained heavily. If I had not been on the further side of the stream, I'm sure I would have gone home, for I felt awfully cold and homesick.
The road was badly gullied, and I had still another brook to cross; but the stream there was not so rapid, and after reconnoitering the bridge as well as I could in the dark, I ventured upon it, and found that I could pass.
I do not think that I was more than an hour and a half reaching the village. It was so dark that I had difficulty in finding the doctor's house, though I knew the place. A moment later I dismounted, and knocked at his door. After a while a window was raised, and Dr. Cummings asked what was wanted. I told him, and I can safely assert that he did not seem overjoyed.
"How are the roads?" he asked, after some hesitation.
"Hum! And the bridges?"
I replied that I thought one of them had been washed away.
"Washed away? How did you get over then?"
"My horse swam."
"Well, I'll tell you," said the doctor. "I'm about used up, and have just come in from a hard ride. You call Dr. Green. He's a young man, just settled here. I don't want to be hoggish with him. Call Dr. Green."
Dr. Green was a young homśopathist who had come to the village the year before. It was said that Dr. Cummings did not like him, also that Dr. Green reciprocated the sentiment.
"Shall I tell Dr. Green that you sent me for him?" I asked, as I got on my horse.
Dr. Cummings did not reply.
I then went to Dr. Green's door, and did my errand there. "Have you been for Dr. Cummings?" was his first question.
"Yes," said I, "and he sent me to you."
"He's a shirk," said the young doctor, "but I'll go."
He came out directly, saddled his own horse and set off with me, asking no questions about the road. It still rained, and the wind was in our faces. I led the way. The doctor followed. He kept up pretty well. He had on a suit of yellow oil-skin, and I could see that some ways back.
When we got to the hill near the meadow, I pulled up and told him about the bridge. "You can try it," said I, "if you want to, but I am going to wait till it gets light before I try it again."
"You are a pretty fellow," said he. "Why didn't you tell me of that before?"
"I was afraid you might not come," said I, "and it was my business to get a doctor."
"Go ahead, then," said he, grittily. "Let's try it."
"No, thank you," said I. "Once in that brook is enough for me, in one night."
"Well, then," said he, "do you know any other bridge or ford?"
I knew of a bridge two miles above. The road was like porridge, but we reached it, tried it carefully, and at length got across without swimming. The remainder of the way was comparatively uneventful; and we reached the Sylvesters' just as day began to dawn. Four old ladies were there, including Gram. They greeted the doctor with great glee. He was late — but all was well.
Nevertheless, that was a good trip for young Dr. Green. The folks thereabouts said that he must be a staunch young fellow to turn out on such a night. I always felt that they might have added a word for me, too.
The doctor told me a while ago that that ride was worth a thousand dollars to him.
"Well, then, doctor, suppose we divide that thousand," I said.
"Why?" said he. "What for?"
"Well, I went after you that night, and piloted you up there," said I.
"That's true," said he, "but you must collect your fee of the patients, as I do."
"Little there's left for me when you are done with them," said I.
I found my cap and comforters about a fortnight after that, in the top of some choke-cherry bushes below the bridge.