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Chapter 3

Naturally there were a good many things I wanted to know about
'the ol' man o' the woods,' but Uncle Eb would take no part in any
further conversation.

So I had to lie down beside him again and think out the problem as
best I could. My mind was never more acutely conscious and it
gathered many strange impressions, wandering in the kingdom of
Fear, as I looked up at the tree-tops. Uncle Eb had built a furious
fire and the warmth of it made me sleepy at last. Both he and old
Fred had been snoring a long time when I ceased to hear them.
Uncle Eb woke me at daylight, in the morning, and said we must
be off to find the trail. He left me by the fire a little while and went
looking on all sides and came back no wiser. We were both thirsty
and started off on rough footing, without stopping to eat. We
climbed and crawled for hours, it seemed to me, and everywhere
the fallen tree trunks were heaped in our way. Uncle Eb sat down
on one of them awhile to rest.

'Like the bones o' the dead,' said he, as he took a chew of tobacco
and picked at the rotten skeleton of a fallen tree. We were both
pretty well out of breath and of hope also, if I remember rightly,
when we rested again under the low hanging boughs of a basswood
for a bite of luncheon. Uncle Eb opened the little box of honey and
spread some of it on our bread and butter. In a moment I noticed
that half a dozen bees had lit in the open box.

'Lord Harry! here's honey bees,' said he, as he covered the box so as
to keep them in, and tumbled everything else into the basket.
'Make haste now, Willie, and follow me with all yer might,' he
added.

In a minute he let out one of the bees, and started running in the
direction it flew. It went but a few feet and then rose into the
tree-top.

'He's goin' t' git up into the open air,' said Uncle Eb. 'But I've got
his bearins' an' I guess he knows the way all right.'

We took the direction indicated for a few minutes and then Uncle
Eb let out another prisoner. The bee flew off a little way and then
rose in a slanting course to the tree-tops. He showed us, however,
that we were looking the right way.

'Them little fellers hev got a good compass,' said Uncle Eb, as we
followed the line of the bees. 'It p'ints home ev'ry time, an' never
makes a mistake.'

We went further this time before releasing another. He showed us
that we had borne out of our course a little and as we turned to
follow there were half a dozen bees flying around the box, as if
begging for admission.

'Here they are back agin,' said Uncle Eb, 'an' they've told a lot o'
their cronies 'bout the man an' the boy with honey.'

At length one of them flew over our heads and back in the
direction we had come from.

'Ah, ha,' said Uncle Eb, 'it's a bee tree an' we've passed it, but I'm
goin' t' keep lettin' 'em in an' out. Never heard uv a swarm o' bees
goin' fur away an' so we mus' be near the clearin'.'

In a little while we let one go that took a road of its own. The
others had gone back over our heads; this one bore off to the right
in front of us, and we followed. I was riding in the basket and was
first to see the light of the open through the tree-tops. But I didn't
know what it meant until I heard the hearty 'hurrah' of Uncle Eb.

We had come to smooth footing in a grove of maples and the clean
trunks of the trees stood up as straight as a granite column.
Presently we came out upon wide fields of corn and clover, and as
we looked back upon the grove it had a rounded front and I think
of it now as the vestibule of the great forest.

'It's a reg'lar big tomb,' said Uncle Eb, looking back over his
shoulder into the gloomy cavern of the woods.

We could see a log house in the clearing, and we made for it as
fast as our legs would carry us. We had a mighty thirst and when
we came to a little brook in the meadow we laid down and drank
and drank until we were fairly grunting with fullness. Then we
filled our teapot and went on. Men were reaping with their cradles
in a field of grain and, as we neared the log house, a woman came
out in the dooryard and, lifting a shell to her lips, blew a blast that
rushed over the clearing and rang in the woods beyond it A loud
halloo came back from the men.

A small dog rushed out at Fred, barking, and, I suppose, with some
lack of respect, for the old dog laid hold of him in a violent temper
and sent him away yelping. We must have presented an evil aspect,
for our clothes were torn and we were both limping with fatigue.
The woman had a kindly face and, after looking at us a moment,
came and stooped before me and held my small face in her hands
turning it so she could look into my eyes.

'You poor little critter,' said she, 'where you goin'?'

Uncle Eb told her something about my father and mother being
dead and our going west Then she hugged and kissed me and made
me very miserable, I remember, wetting my face with her tears,
that were quite beyond my comprehension.

'Jethro,' said she, as the men came into the yard, 'I want ye t' look
at this boy. Did ye ever see such a cunnin' little critter? Jes' look at
them bright eyes!' and then she held me to her breast and nearly
smothered me and began to hum a bit of an old song.

'Yer full o' mother love,' said her husband, as he sat down on the
grass a moment 'Lost her only baby, an' the good Lord has sent no
other. I swan, he has got putty eyes. Jes' as blue as a May flower.
Ain't ye hungry? Come right in, both o' ye, an' set down t' the table
with us.'

They made room for us and we sat down between the bare elbows
of the hired men. I remember my eyes came only to the top of the
table. So the good woman brought the family Bible and sitting on
that firm foundation I ate my dinner of salt pork and potatoes and
milk gravy a diet as grateful as it was familiar to my taste.

'Orphan, eh?' said the man of the house, looking down at me.

'Orphan,' Uncle Eb answered, nodding his head.

'God-fearin' folks?'

'Best in the world,' said Uncle Eb.

Want t' bind 'im out?' the man asked.

'Couldn't spare 'im,' said Uncle Eb, decisively.

'Where ye goin'?'

Uncle Eb hesitated, groping for an answer, I suppose, that would
do no violence to our mutual understanding.

'Goin' t' heaven,' I ventured to say presently - an answer that gave
rise to conflicting emotions at the table.

'That's right,' said Uncle Eb, turning to me and patting my head.
'We're on the road t' heaven, I hope, an' ye'll see it someday, sartin
sure, if ye keep in the straight road and be a good boy.'

After dinner the good woman took off my clothes and put me in
bed while she mended them. I went asleep then and did not awake
for a long time. When I got up at last she brought a big basin of
water and washed me with such motherly tenderness in voice and
manner that I have never forgotten it. Uncle Eb lay sleeping on the
lounge and when she had finished dressing me, Fred and I went out
to play in the garden. It was supper time in a little while and then,
again, the woman winded the shell and the men came up from the
field. We sat down to eat with them, as we had done at noon, and
Uncle Eb consented to spend the night after some urging. He
helped them with the milking, and as I stood beside him shot a jet
of the warm white flood into my mouth, that tickled it so I ran
away laughing. The milking done, I sat on Uncle Eb's knee in the
door-yard with all the rest of that household, hearing many tales of
the wilderness, and of robbery and murder on Paradise Road. I got
the impression that it was a country of unexampled wickedness
and ferocity in men and animals. One man told about the ghost of
Burnt Bridge; how the bridge had burnt one afternoon and how a
certain traveller in the dark of the night driving down the hill
above it, fell to his death at the brink of the culvert.

'An' every night since then,' said the man, very positively, ye can
hear him drivin' down thet bill - jes' as plain as ye can hear me
talkin' - the rattle o' the wheels an' all. It stops sudden an' then ye
can hear 'im hit the rocks way down there at the bottom O' the
gulley an' groan an' groan. An' folks say it's a curse on the town for
leavin' thet hole open.'

'What's a ghost, Uncle Eb?' I whispered.

'Somethin' like a swift,' he answered, 'but not so powerful. We
heard a panther las' night,' he added, turning to our host. 'Hollered
like sin when he see the fire.'

'Scairt!' said the man o' the house gaping. 'That's what ailed him.
I've lived twenty year on Paradise Road an' it was all woods when I
put up the cabin. Seen deer on the doorstep an' bears in the garden,
an' panthers in the fields. But I tell ye there's no critter so terrible
as a man. All the animals know 'im - how he roars, an' spits fire an'
smoke an' lead so it goes through a body er bites off a leg, mebbe.
Guess they'd made friends with me but them I didn't kill went away
smarting with holes in 'em. An' I guess they told all their people
'bout me - the terrible critter that walked on its hind legs an' lied a
white face an' drew up an' spit 'is teeth into their vitals 'cross a
ten-acre lot. An' putty soon they concluded they didn't want t' hev
no truck with me. They thought thin clearin' was the valley o' death
an' they got very careful. But the deer they kep' peekin' in at me.
Sumthin' funny 'bout a deer - they're so cu'rus. Seem's though they
loved the look o' me an' the taste o' the tame grass. Mebbe God
meant em t' serve in the yoke some way an' be the friend o' man.
They're the outcasts o' the forest - the prey o' the other animals an'
men like 'em only when they're dead. An' they're the purtiest critter
alive an' the spryest an' the mos' graceful.'

'Men are the mos' terrible of all critters, an' the meanest,' said
Uncle Eb. 'They're the only critters that kill fer fun.'

'Bedtime,' said our host, rising presently. 'Got t' be up early 'n the
morning.'

We climbed a ladder to the top floor of the cabin with the hired
men, of whom there were two. The good lady of the house had
made a bed for us on the floor and I remember Fred came up the
ladder too, and lay down beside us. Uncle Eb was up with the men
in the morning and at breakfast time my hostess came and woke
me with kisses and helped me to dress. When we were about going
she brought a little wagon out of the cellar that had been a playing
of her dead boy, and said I could have it. This wonderful wagon
was just the thing for the journey we were making. When I held
the little tongue in my hand I was half-way to heaven already. It
had four stout wheels and a beautiful red box. Her brother had sent
it all the way from New York and it had stood so long in the cellar
it was now much in need of repair. Uncle Eb took it to the tool
shop in the stable and put it in shipshape order and made a little
pair of thills to go in place of the tongue. Then he made a big flat
collar and a back-pad out of the leather in old boot-legs, and rigged
a pair of tugs out of two pieces of rope. Old Fred was quite cast
down when he stood in harness between the shafts.

He had waited patiently to have his collar fitted; he had grinned
and panted and wagged his tail with no suspicion of the serious
and humiliating career he was entering upon. Now he stood with a
sober face and his aspect was full of meditation.

'You fightin' hound!' said Uncle Eb, 'I hope this'll improve yer
character.'

Fred tried to sit down when Uncle Eb tied a leading rope to his
collar. When he heard the wheels rattle and felt the pull of the
wagon he looked back at it and growled a little and started to run.
Uncle Eb shouted 'whoa', and held him back, and then the dog got
down on his belly and trembled until we patted his head and gave
him a kind word. He seemed to understand presently and came
along with a steady stride. Our hostess met us at the gate and the
look of her face when she bade us goodbye and tucked some
cookies into my pocket, has always lingered in my memory and
put in me a mighty respect for all women. The sound of her voice,
the tears, the waving of her handkerchief, as we went away, are
among the things that have made me what I am.

We stowed our packages in the wagon box and I walked a few
miles and then got into the empty basket. Fred tipped his load over
once or twice, but got a steady gait in the way of industry after a
while and a more cheerful look. We had our dinner by the roadside
on the bank of a brook, an hour or so after midday, and came to a
little village about sundown. As we were nearing it there was some
excitement among the dogs and one of them tackled Fred. He went
into battle very promptly, the wagon jumping and rattling until it
turned bottom up. Re-enforced by Uncle Eb's cane he soon saw the
heels of his aggressor and stood growling savagely. He was like
the goal in a puzzle maze all wound and tangled in his harness and
it took some time to get his face before him and his feet free.

At a small grocery where groups of men, just out of the fields,
were sitting, their arms bare to the elbows, we bought more bread
and butter. In paying for it Uncle Eb took a package out of his
trouser pocket to get his change. It was tied in a red handkerchief
and I remember it looked to be about the size of his fist. He was
putting it back when it fell from his hand, heavily, and I could hear
the chink of coin as it struck. One of the men, who sat near, picked
it up and gave it back to him. As I remember well, his kindness
had an evil flavour, for he winked at his companions, who nudged
each other as they smiled knowingly. Uncle Eb was a bit cross,
when I climbed into the basket, and walked along in silence so
rapidly it worried the dog to keep pace. The leading rope was tied
to the stock of the rifle and Fred's walking gait was too slow for
the comfort of his neck.

'You shifless cuss! I'll put a kink in your neck fer you if ye don't
walk up,' said Uncle Eb, as he looked back at the dog, in a temper
wholly unworthy of him.

We had crossed a deep valley and were climbing a long hill in the
dusky twilight.

'Willie,' said Uncle Eb, 'your eyes are better'n mine - look back
and see if anyone's comin'.'

'Can't see anyone,' I answered.

'Look 'way back in the road as fur as ye can see.

I did so, but I could see no one. He slackened his pace a little after
that and before we had passed the hill it was getting dark. The road
ran into woods and a river cut through them a little way from the
clearing.

'Supper time, Uncle Eb,' I suggested, as we came to the bridge.

'Supper time, Uncle Eb,' he answered, turning down to the shore.

I got out of the basket then and followed him in the brush. Fred
found it hard travelling here and shortly we took off his harness
and left the wagon, transferring its load to the basket, while we
pushed on to find a camping place. Back in the thick timber a long
way from the road, we built a fire and had our supper. It was a dry
nook in the pines -'tight as a house,' Uncle Eb said - and carpeted
with the fragrant needles. When we lay on our backs in the
firelight I remember the weary, droning voice of Uncle Eb had an
impressive accompaniment of whispers. While he told stories I
had a glowing cinder on the end of a stick and was weaving fiery
skeins in the gloom.

He had been telling me of a panther he had met in the woods, one
day, and how the creature ran away at the sight of him.

'Why's a panther 'fraid o' folks?' I enquired.

'Wall, ye see, they used t' be friendly, years 'n years ago - folks 'n
panthers - but they want eggszac'ly cal'lated t' git along t'gether
some way. An' ol' she panther gin 'em one uv her cubs, a great
while ago, jes t' make frien's. The cub he grew big 'n used t' play 'n
be very gentle. They wuz a boy he tuk to, an' both on 'em got very
friendly. The boy 'n the panther went off one day 'n the woods -
guess 'twas more 'n a hundred year ago - an' was lost. Walked all
over 'n fin'ly got t' goin' round 'n round 'n a big circle 'til they was
both on 'em tired out. Come night they lay down es hungry es tew
bears. The boy he was kind o' 'fraid 'o the dark, so he got up clus t'
the panther 'n lay 'tween his paws. The boy he thought the panther
smelt funny an' the panther he didn't jes' like the smell o' the boy.
An' the boy he hed the legache 'n kicked the panther 'n the belly, so
't he kin' o' gagged 'n spit an' they want neither on 'em reel
comf'able. The sof paws o' the panther was jes' like pincushions.
He'd great hooks in 'em sharper 'n the p'int uv a needle. An' when
he was goin' t' sleep he'd run 'em out jes' like an ol' cat - kind o'
playfull - 'n purr 'n pull. All t' once the boy felt sumthin' like a lot o'
needles prickin' his back. Made him jump 'n holler like Sam Hill.
The panther he spit sassy 'n riz up 'n smelt o' the ground. Didn't
neither on 'em know what was the matter. Bime bye they lay down
ag'in. 'Twant only a little while 'fore the boy felt somethin' prickin'
uv him. He hollered 'n kicked ag'in. The panther he growled 'n spit
'n dumb a tree 'n sot on a limb 'n peeked over at thet queer little
critter. Couldn't neither on 'em understan' it. The boy c'u'd see the
eyes o' the panther 'n the dark. Shone like tew live coals eggszac'ly.
The panther 'd never sot 'n a tree when he was hungry, 'n see a boy
below him. Sumthin' tol' him t' jump. Tail went swish in the leaves
like thet. His whiskers quivered, his tongue come out. C'u'd think
o' nuthin' but his big empty belly. The boy was scairt. He up with
his gun quick es a flash. Aimed at his eyes 'n let 'er flicker. Blew a
lot o' smoke 'n bird shot 'n paper waddin' right up in t' his face. The
panther he lost his whiskers 'n one eye 'n got his hide fill' o' shot 'n
fell off the tree like a ripe apple 'n run fer his life. Thought he'd
never see nuthin' c'u'd growl 'n spits ' powerful es thet boy. Never
c'u'd bear the sight uv a man after thet. Allwus made him gag 'n
spit t' think o' the man critter. Went off tew his own folks 'n tol' o'
the boy 'at spit fire 'n smoke 'n growled so't almos' tore his ears off
An' now, whenever they hear a gun go off they allwus thank it's the
man critter growlin'. An' they gag 'n spit 'n look es if it made 'em
sick t' the stomach. An' the man folks they didn't hev no good
'pimon o' the panthers after thet. Haint never been frien's any more.
Fact is a man, he can be any kind uv a beast, but a panther he can't
be nuthin' but jest a panther.'

Then, too, as we lay there in the firelight, Uncle Eb told the
remarkable story of the gingerbread hear. He told it slowly, as if
his invention were severely taxed.

'Once they wuz a boy got lost. Was goin' cross lots t' play with
'nother boy 'n lied t' go through a strip o' woods. Went off the trail
t' chase a butterfly 'n got lost. Hed his kite 'n' cross-gun 'n' he
wandered all over 'til he was tired 'n hungry. Then he lay down t'
cry on a bed o' moss. Putty quick they was a big black bear come
along.

'"What's the matter?" said the bear.

'"Hungry," says the boy.

'"Tell ye what I'll dew," says the bear. "If ye'll scratch my back fer
me I'll let ye cut a piece o' my tail off t' eat."

'Bear's tail, ye know, hes a lot o' meat on it - heam tell it was gran'
good fare. So the boy he scratched the bear's back an' the bear he
grinned an' made his paw go patitty-pat on the ground - it did feel
so splendid. Then the boy tuk his jack-knife 'n begun t' cut off the
bear's tail. The bear he flew mad 'n growled 'n growled so the boy
he stopped 'n didn't dast cut no more.

'"Hurts awful," says the bear. "Couldn't never stan' it. Tell ye what
I'll dew. Ye scratched my back an' now I'll scratch your'n."

'Gee whiz!' said I.

'Yessir, that's what the bear said,' Uncle Eb went on. 'The boy he
up 'n run like a nailer. The bear he laughed hearty 'n scratched the
ground like Sam Hill, 'n flung the dirt higher'n his head.

'"Look here," says he, as the boy stopped, "I jes' swallered a piece o
mutton. Run yer hand int' my throat an I'll let ye hev it."

'The bear he opened his mouth an' showed his big teeth.'

'Whew!' I whistled.

'Thet's eggszac'ly what he done,' said Uncle Eb. 'He showed 'em
plain. The boy was scairter'n a weasel. The bear he jumped up 'an
down on his hind legs 'n laughed 'n' hollered 'n' shook himself.

'"Only jes' foolin," says he, when he see the boy was goin' t' run
ag'in. "What ye 'fraid uv?"

'"Can't bear t' stay here," says the boy, "'less ye'll keep yer mouth
shet."

'An the bear he shet his mouth 'n pinted to the big pocket 'n his fur
coat 'n winked 'n motioned t' the boy.

'The bear he reely did hev a pocket on the side uv his big fur coat.
The boy slid his hand in up t' the elbow. Wha' d'ye s'pose he
found?'

'Durmo,' said I.

'Sumthin' t' eat,' he continued. 'Boy liked it best uv all things.'

I guessed everything I could think of, from cookies to beefsteak,
and gave up.

'Gingerbread,' said he, soberly, at length.

'Thought ye said bears couldn't talk,' I objected.

'Wall, the boy 'd fell asleep an' he'd only dreamed o' the bear,' said
Uncle Eb. 'Ye see, bears can talk when boys are dreamin' uv 'em.
Come daylight, the boy got up 'n ketched a crow. Broke his wing
with the cross-gun. Then he tied the kite swing on t' the crow's leg,
an' the crow flopped along 'n the boy followed him 'n bime bye
they come out a cornfield, where the crow'd been used t' comin' fer
his dinner.'

'What 'come o' the boy?' said I.

'Went home,' said he, gaping, as he lay on his back and looked up
at the tree-tops. 'An' he allwus said a bear was good comp'ny if he'd
only keep his mouth shet - jes' like some folks I've hearn uv.'

'An' what 'come o' the crow?'

'Went t' the ol' crow doctor 'n got his wing fixed,' he said, drowsily.
And in a moment I heard him snoring.

We had been asleep a long time when the barking of Fred woke us.
I could just see Uncle Eb in the dim light of the fire, kneeling
beside me, the rifle in his hand.

'I'll fill ye full o' lead if ye come any nearer,' he shouted.

Irving Bacheller