Of all the people that ever went west that expedition was the most
A small boy in a big basket on the back of a jolly old man, who
carried a cane in one hand, a rifle in the other; a black dog serving
as scout, skirmisher and rear guard - that was the size of it. They
were the survivors of a ruined home in the north of Vermont, and
were travelling far into the valley of the St Lawrence, but with no
Midsummer had passed them in their journey; their clothes were
covered with dust; their faces browning in the hot sun. It was a
very small boy that sat inside the basket and clung to the rim, his
tow head shaking as the old man walked. He saw wonderful
things, day after day, looking down at the green fields or peering
into the gloomy reaches of the wood; and he talked about them.
'Uncle Eb - is that where the swifts are?' he would ask often; and
the old man would answer, 'No; they ain't real sassy this time o'
year. They lay 'round in the deep dingles every day.'
Then the small voice would sing idly or prattle with an imaginary
being that had a habit of peeking over the edge of the basket or
would shout a greeting to some bird or butterfly and ask finally:
'Tired, Uncle Eb?'
Sometimes the old gentleman would say 'not very', and keep on,
looking thoughtfully at the ground. Then, again, he would stop and
mop his bald head with a big red handkerchief and say, a little
tremor of irritation in his voice: 'Tired! who wouldn't be tired with
a big elephant like you on his back all day? I'd be 'shamed o'
myself t' set there an' let an old man carry me from Dan to
Beersheba. Git out now an' shake yer legs.'
I was the small boy and I remember it was always a great relief to
get out of the basket, and having run ahead, to lie in the grass
among the wild flowers, and jump up at him as he came along.
Uncle Eb had been working for my father five years before I was
born. He was not a strong man and had never been able to carry
the wide swath of the other help in the fields, but we all loved him
for his kindness and his knack of story-telling. He was a bachelor
who came over the mountain from Pleasant Valley, a little bundle
of clothes on his shoulder, and bringing a name that enriched the
nomenclature of our neighbourhood. It was Eben Holden.
He had a cheerful temper and an imagination that was a very
wilderness of oddities. Bears and panthers growled and were very
terrible in that strange country. He had invented an animal more
treacherous than any in the woods, and he called it a swift.
'Sumthin' like a panther', he described the look of it a fearsome
creature that lay in the edge of the woods at sundown and made a
noise like a woman crying, to lure the unwary. It would light one's
eye with fear to hear Uncle Eb lift his voice in the cry of the swift.
Many a time in the twilight when the bay of a hound or some far
cry came faintly through the wooded hills, I have seen him lift his
hand and bid us hark. And when we had listened a moment, our
eyes wide with wonder, he would turn and say in a low,
half-whispered tone: ' 'S a swift' I suppose we needed more the fear
of God, but the young children of the pioneer needed also the fear
of the woods or they would have strayed to their death in them.
A big bass viol, taller than himself, had long been the solace of his
Sundays. After he had shaved - a ceremony so solemn that it
seemed a rite of his religion - that sacred viol was uncovered. He
carried it sometimes to the back piazza and sometimes to the barn,
where the horses shook and trembled at the roaring thunder of the
strings. When he began playing we children had to get well out of
the way, and keep our distance. I remember now the look of him,
then - his thin face, his soft black eyes, his long nose, the suit of
broadcloth, the stock and standing collar and, above all, the
solemnity in his manner when that big devil of a thing was leaning
on his breast.
As to his playing I have never heard a more fearful sound in any
time of peace or one less creditable to a Christian. Weekdays he
was addicted to the milder sin of the flute and, after chores, if
there were no one to talk with him, he would sit long and pour his
soul into that magic bar of boxwood.
Uncle Eb had another great accomplishment. He was what they
call in the north country 'a natural cooner'. After nightfall, when
the corn was ripening, he spoke in a whisper and had his ear
cocked for coons. But he loved all kinds of good fun.
So this man had a boy in his heart and a boy in his basket that
evening we left the old house. My father and mother and older
brother had been drowned in the lake, where they had gone for a
day of pleasure. I had then a small understanding of my loss, hat I
have learned since that the farm was not worth the mortgage and
that everything had to be sold. Uncle Eb and I - a little lad, a very
little lad of six - were all that was left of what had been in that
home. Some were for sending me to the county house; but they
decided, finally, to turn me over to a dissolute uncle, with some
allowance for my keep. Therein Uncle Eb was to be reckoned
with. He had set his heart on keeping me, but he was a farm-hand
without any home or visible property and not, therefore, in the
mind of the authorities, a proper guardian. He had me with him in
the old house, and the very night he heard they were coming after
me in the morning, we started on our journey. I remember he was a
long time tying packages of bread and butter and tea and boiled
eggs to the rim of the basket, so that they hung on the outside.
Then he put a woollen shawl and an oilcloth blanket on the
bottom, pulled the straps over his shoulders and buckled them,
standing before the looking-glass, and, hang put on my cap and
coat, stood me on the table, and stooped so that I could climb into
the basket - a pack basket, that he had used in hunting, the top a
little smaller than the bottom. Once in, I could stand comfortably
or sit facing sideways, my back and knees wedged from port to
starboard. With me in my place he blew out the lantern and groped
his way to the road, his cane in one hand, his rifle in the other.
Fred, our old dog - a black shepherd, with tawny points - came
after us. Uncle Eb scolded him and tried to send him back, but I
pleaded for the poor creature and that settled it, he was one of our
'Dunno how we'll feed him,' said Uncle Eb. 'Our own mouths are
big enough t' take all we can carry, but I hain' no heart t' leave 'im
all 'lone there.'
I was old for my age, they tell me, and had a serious look and a
wise way of talking, for a boy so young; but I had no notion of
what lay before or behind us.
'Now, boy, take a good look at the old house,' I remember he
whispered to me at the gate that night ''Tain't likely ye'll ever see it
ag'in. Keep quiet now,' he added, letting down the bars at the foot
of the lane. 'We're goin' west an' we mustn't let the grass grow
under us. Got t'be purty spry I can tell ye.'
It was quite dark and he felt his way carefully down the cow-paths
into the broad pasture. With every step I kept a sharp lookout for
swifts, and the moon shone after a while, making my work easier.
I had to hold my head down, presently, when the tall brush began
to whip the basket and I heard the big boots of Uncle Eb ripping
the briars. Then we came into the blackness of the thick timber
and I could hear him feeling his way over the dead leaves with his
cane. I got down, shortly, and walked beside him, holding on to the
rifle with one hand. We stumbled, often, and were long in the trail
before we could see the moonlight through the tree columns. In the
clearing I climbed to my seat again and by and by we came to the
road where my companion sat down resting his load on a boulder.
'Pretty hot, Uncle Eb, pretty hot,' he said to himself, fanning his
brow with that old felt hat he wore everywhere. 'We've come three
mile er more without a stop an' I guess we'd better rest a jiffy.'
My legs ached too, and I was getting very sleepy. I remember the
jolt of the basket as he rose, and hearing him say, 'Well, Uncle Eb,
I guess we'd better be goin'.'
The elbow that held my head, lying on the rim of the basket, was
already numb; but the prickling could no longer rouse me, and
half-dead with weariness, I fell asleep. Uncle Eb has told me since,
that I tumbled out of the basket once, and that he had a time of it
getting me in again, but I remember nothing more of that day's
When I woke in the morning, I could hear the crackling of fire, and
felt very warm and cosy wrapped in the big shawl. I got a cheery
greeting from Uncle Eb, who was feeding the fire with a big heap
of sticks that he had piled together. Old Fred was licking my hands
with his rough tongue, and I suppose that is what waked me. Tea
was steeping in the little pot that hung over the fire, and our
breakfast of boiled eggs and bread and butter lay on a paper beside
it. I remember well the scene of our little camp that morning. We
had come to a strange country, and there was no road in sight. A
wooded hill lay back of us, and, just before, ran a noisy little
brook, winding between smooth banks, through a long pasture into
a dense wood. Behind a wall on the opposite shore a great field of
rustling corn filled a broad valley and stood higher than a man's
While I went to wash my face in the clear water Uncle Eb was
husking some ears of corn that he took out of his pocket, and had
them roasting over the fire in a moment. We ate heartily, giving
Fred two big slices of bread and butter, packing up with enough
remaining for another day. Breakfast over we doused the fire and
Uncle Eb put on his basket He made after a squirrel, presently,
with old Fred, and brought him down out of a tree by hurling
stones at him and then the faithful follower of our camp got a bit
of meat for his breakfast. We climbed the wall, as he ate, and
buried ourselves in the deep corn. The fragrant, silky tassels
brushed my face and the corn hissed at our intrusion, crossing its
green sabers in our path. Far in the field my companion heaped a
little of the soft earth for a pillow, spread the oil cloth between
rows and, as we lay down, drew the big shawl over us. Uncle Eb
was tired after the toil of that night and went asleep almost as soon
as he was down. Before I dropped off Fred came and licked my
face and stepped over me, his tail wagging for leave, and curled
upon the shawl at my feet. I could see no sky in that gloomy green
aisle of corn. This going to bed in the morning seemed a foolish
business to me that day and I lay a long time looking up at the
rustling canopy overhead. I remember listening to the waves that
came whispering out of the further field, nearer and nearer, until
they swept over us with a roaring swash of leaves, like that of
water flooding among rocks, as I have heard it often. A twinge of
homesick ness came to me and the snoring of Uncle Eb gave me
no comfort. I remember covering my head and crying softly as I
thought of those who had gone away and whom I was to meet in a
far country, called Heaven, whither we were going. I forgot my
sorrow, finally, in sleep. When I awoke it had grown dusk under
the corn. I felt for Uncle Eb and he was gone. Then I called to him.
'Hush, boy! lie low,' he whispered, bending over me, a sharp look
in his eye.' 'Fraid they're after us.'
He sat kneeling beside me, holding Fred by the collar and
listening. I could hear voices, the rustle of the corn and the tramp
of feet near by. It was thundering in the distance - that heavy,
shaking thunder that seems to take hold of the earth, and there
were sounds in the corn like the drawing of sabers and the rush of
many feet. The noisy thunder clouds came nearer and the voices
that had made us tremble were no longer heard. Uncle Eb began to
fasten the oil blanket to the stalks of corn for a shelter. The rain
came roaring over us. The sound of it was like that of a host of
cavalry coming at a gallop. We lay bracing the stalks, the blanket
tied above us and were quite dry for a time. The rain rattled in the
sounding sheaves and then came flooding down the steep gutters.
Above us beam and rafter creaked, swaying, and showing glimpses
of the dark sky. The rain passed - we could hear the last battalion
leaving the field - and then the tumult ended as suddenly as it
began. The corn trembled a few moments and hushed to a faint
whisper. Then we could hear only the drip of raindrops leaking
through the green roof. It was dark under the corn.
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