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WHEN WE WALKED THE TOWN LINES
IT was some time the following week, I think, that the old Squire looked across to us at the breakfast table and said, "Boys, don't you want to walk the town lines for me? I think I shall let you do it this time — and have the fee," he added, smiling.
The old gentleman was one of the selectmen of the town that year; and an old law, or municipal regulation, required that one or more of the selectmen should walk the town lines — follow round the town boundaries on foot — once a year, to see that the people of adjoining towns, or others, were not trespassing. The practice of walking the town lines is now almost or quite obsolete, but it was a needed precaution when inhabitants were few and when the thirty-six square miles of a township consisted mostly of forest. At this time the southern half of our town was already taken up in farms, but the northern part was still in forest lots. The selectmen usually walked the north lines only.
When the state domain, almost all dense forest, was first surveyed, the land was laid off in ranges, so-called, and tiers of lots. The various grants of land to persons for public services were also surveyed in a similar manner and the corners and lines established by means of stakes and stones, and of blazed trees. If a large rock happened to lie at the corner of a range or lot, the surveyor sometimes marked it with a drill. Such rocks made the best corners.
Usually the four corners of the town were established by means of low, square granite posts, set in the earth and with the initial letter of the township cut in it with a drill.
As if it were yesterday I remember that sharp, cold morning. Hard-frozen snow a foot deep still covered the cleared land, and in the woods it was much deeper. The first heavy rainstorm of spring had come two days before, but it had cleared off cold and windy the preceding evening, with snow squalls and zero weather again. Nevertheless, Addison and I were delighted at the old Squire's proposal, especially since the old gentleman had hinted that we could have the fee, which was usually four dollars when two of the selectmen walked the lines and were out all day.
"Go to the northeast corner of the town first," the old Squire said. "The corner post is three miles and a half from here; you will find it in the cleared land a hundred rods northeast of the barn on the Jotham Silver place. Start from there and go due west till you reach the wood-lot on the Silver farm. There the blazed trees begin, and you will have to go from one to another. It is forest nearly all the way after that for six miles, till you come to the northwest town corner.
"You can take my compass if you like," the old Squire added. "But it will not be of much use to you, for it will be easier to follow the blazed trees or corner stakes. Take our lightest axe with you and renew the old blazes on the trees." He apparently felt some misgivings that we might get lost, for he added, "If you want to ask Thomas to go with you, you may."
Tom was more accustomed to being in the woods than either of us; but Addison hesitated about inviting him, for of course if he went we should have to divide the fee with him. However, the old Squire seemed to wish to have him go with us, and at last, while Theodora was putting up a substantial luncheon for us, Ellen ran over to carry the invitation to Tom. He was willing enough to go and came back with her, carrying his shotgun.
"It will be a long jaunt," the old gentleman said as we started off. "But if you move on briskly and don't stop by the way, you can get back before dark."
The snow crust was so hard and the walking so good that we struck directly across the fields and pastures to the northeast and within an hour reached the town corner on the Silver farm. At that point our tramp along the north line of the town began, and we went from one blazed tree to another and freshened the blazes.
We went on rapidly, crossed Hedgehog Ridge and descended to Stoss Pond, which the town line crossed obliquely. We had expected to cross the pond on the ice; but the recent great rainstorm and thaw had flooded the ice to a depth of six or eight inches. New ice was already forming, but it would not quite bear our weight, and we had to make a detour of a mile through swamps round the south end of the pond and pick up the line again on the opposite shore.
Stoss Pond Mountain then confronted us, and it was almost noon when we neared Wild Brook; we heard it roaring as we approached and feared that we should find it very high.
"We may have to fell a tree over it to get across," Addison said.
So it seemed, for upon emerging on the bank we saw a yellow torrent twenty feet or more wide and four or five feet deep rushing tumultuously down the rocky channel.
Tom, however, who had come out on the bank a little way below, shouted to us, above the roar, to come that way, and we rejoined him at a bend where the opposite bank was high. He was in the act of crossing cautiously on a snow bridge. During the winter a great snowdrift, seven or eight feet deep, had lodged in the brook; and the recent freshet had merely cut a channel beneath it, leaving a frozen arch that spanned the torrent.
"Don't do it!" Addison shouted to him. "It will fall with you!"
But, extending one foot slowly ahead of the other, Tom safely crossed to the other side.
"Come on!" he shouted. "It will hold."
Addison, however, held back. The bridge looked dangerous; if it broke down, whoever was on it would be thrown into the water and carried downstream in the icy torrent.
WHEN WE WALKED THE TOWN LINES
"Oh, it's strong enough!" Tom exclaimed. "That will hold all right." And to show how firm it was, he came part way back across the frozen arch and stood still.
It was an unlucky action. The whole bridge suddenly collapsed under him, and down went Tom with it into the rushing water, which whirled him along toward a jam of ice and drift stuff twenty or thirty yards below. By flinging his arms across one of those great cakes of hard-frozen snow he managed to keep his head up; and he shouted lustily for us to help him. He bumped against the jam and hung there, fighting with both arms to keep from being carried under it.
Addison, who had the axe, ran down the bank and with a few strokes cut a moosewood sapling, which we thrust out to Tom. He caught hold of it, and then, by pulling hard, we hauled him to the bank and helped him out.
Oh, but wasn't he a wet boy, and didn't his teeth chatter! In fact, all three of us were wet, for, in our excitement, Addison and I had gone in knee-deep, and the water had splashed. over us. In that bitter cold wind we felt it keenly. Tom was nearly torpid; he seemed unable to speak, and we could hardly make him take a step. His face and hands were blue.
"What shall we do with him?" Addison whispered to me in alarm. "It's five miles home. I'm afraid he'll freeze."
We then thought of the old Squire's logging camp on Papoose Pond, the outlet of which entered Wild Brook about half a mile above where we had tried to cross it. We knew that there was a cooking stove in the camp and decided that our best plan was to take Tom there and dry his clothes. Getting him between us, we tried to make him run, but he seemed unable to move his feet.
"Run, run, Tom!" we shouted to him. "Run, or you'll freeze!"
He seemed not to hear or care. In our desperation we slapped him and dragged him along between us. Finally his legs moved a little, and he began to step.
"Run, run with us!" Addison kept urging.
At last we got him going, although he shook so hard that he shook us with him. The exertion did him good. We hustled him along and, following the brook, came presently to a disused lumber road that led to the logging camp in the woods a few hundred yards from the shore of the pond. All three of us were panting hard when we reached it, but our wet clothes were frozen stiff.
We rushed Tom into the camp and, finding matches on a shelf behind the stovepipe, kindled a fire of such dry stuff as we found at hand. Then, as the place warmed up, we pulled off Tom's frozen outer coat and waistcoat, got the water out of his boots, and set him behind the stove.
Still he shook and could speak only with difficulty. We kept a hot fire and finally boiled water in a kettle and, gathering wintergreen leaves from a knoll outside the camp, made a hot tea for him.
At last we put him into the bunk and covered him as best we could with our own coats, which we did not miss, since the camp was now as hot as an oven. For more than an hour longer, however, his tremors continued in spite of the heat. Addison and I took turns rushing outside to cut wood from dry spruces to keep the stove hot. A little later, as I came in with an armful, I found Addison watching Tom.
"Sh!" he said. "He's asleep."
The afternoon was waning; a cold, windy night was coming on.
"What shall we do?" Addison whispered in perplexity. "I don't believe we ought to take him out; his clothes aren't dry yet. We shall have to stay here all night with him."
"But what will the folks at home think?" I exclaimed.
"Of course they will worry about us," Addison replied gloomily. "But I'm afraid Tom will get his death o' cold if we take him out. We ought to keep him warm."
Our own wet clothes had dried by that time, and, feeling hungry, we ate a part of our luncheon. Night came on with snow squalls; the wind roared in the forest. It was so bleak that we gave up all idea of going home; and, after bringing in ten or a dozen armfuls of wood, we settled down to spend the night there. Still Tom slept, but he breathed easier and had ceased to shiver. Suddenly he sat up and cried, "Help!"
"Don't you know where you are?" Addison asked. "Still dreaming?"
He stared round in the feeble light. "Oh, yes!" he said and laughed. "It's the old camp. I tumbled into the brook. But what makes it so dark?"
"It's night. You have been asleep two or three hours. We shall have to stay here till morning."
"With nothing to eat?" Tom exclaimed. "I'm hungry!"
In his haste to set off from home with Ellen he had neglected to take any luncheon. We divided with him what we had left; and he ate hungrily.
While he was eating, we heard a sound of squalling, indistinct above the roar of the wind in the woods.
"Bobcat!" Tom exclaimed. Then he added, "But it sounds more like an old gander."
"May be a flock of wild geese passing over," Addison said. "They sometimes fly by night."
"Not on such a cold night in such a wind," Tom replied.
Soon we heard the same sounds again.
"That's an old gander, sure," Tom admitted.
"Seems to come from the same place," Addison remarked. "Out on Papoose Pond, I guess."
"Yes, siree!" Tom exclaimed. "A flock of geese has come down on that pond. If I had my gun, I could get a goose. But my gun is in Wild Brook," he added regretfully. "I let go of it when I fell in."
The squalling continued at intervals. The night was so boisterous, however, that we did not leave the camp and after a time fell asleep in the old bunk.
The cold waked me soon after daybreak. Tom and Addison were still asleep, with their coats pulled snugly about their shoulders and their feet drawn up. I rekindled the fire and clattered round the stove. Still they snoozed on; and soon afterwards, hearing the same squalling sounds again, I stole forth in the bleak dawn to see what I could discover.
When I had pushed through the swamp of thick cedar that lay between the camp and the pond, I beheld a goose flapping its wings and squalling scarcely more than a stone's throw away. A second glance, in the increasing light, showed me the forms of other geese, great numbers of them on the newly formed ice. On this pond, as on the other, water had gathered over the winter ice and then frozen again.
With the exception of this one gander, the flock was sitting there very still and quiet. The gander waddled among the others, plucking at them with his pink beak, as if to stir them up. Now and then he straightened up, flapped his wings and squalled dolorously. None of the others I noticed flapped, stirred or made any movement whatever. They looked as if they were asleep, and many of them had their heads under their wings.
At last I went out toward them on the new ice, which had now frozen solid enough to bear me. The gander rose in the air and circled overhead, squalling fearfully. On going nearer, I saw that all those geese were frozen, in, and that they were dead; the entire flock, except that one powerful old gander, had perished there. They were frozen in the ice so firmly that I could not pull them out; in fact, I could scarcely bend the necks of those that had tucked them under their wings. I counted forty-one of them besides the gander.
While I was looking them over, Tom and Addison appeared on the shore. They had waked and missed me, but, hearing the gander, had guessed that I had gone to the pond. Both were astonished and could hardly believe their eyes till they came out where I stood and tried to lift the geese.
"We shall have to chop them out with the axe!" Tom exclaimed. "By jingo, boys, here's goose feathers enough to make two feather beds and pillows to boot."
The gander, still squalling, circled over us again.
"The old fellow feels bad," Addison remarked. "He has lost his whole big family."
We decided that the geese on their way north had been out in the rainstorm, and that when the weather cleared and turned cold so suddenly, with snow squalls, they had become bewildered, perhaps, and had descended on the pond. The cold wave was so sharp that, being quite without food, they had frozen into the ice and perished there.
"Well, old boy," Tom said, addressing the gander that now stood flapping his wings at us a few hundred feet away, "you've lost your women-folks. We may as well have them as the bobcats."
He fetched the axe, and we cut away the ice round the geese and then carried six loads of them down to camp.
If we had had any proper means of preparing a goose we should certainly have put one to bake in the stove oven; for all three of us were hungry. As it was, Addison said we had better make a scoot, load the geese on it, and take the nearest way home. We had only the axe and our jackknives to work with, and it was nine o'clock before we had built a rude sled and loaded the geese on it.
As we were about to start we heard a familiar voice cry, "Well, well; there they are!" And who should come through the cedars but the old Squire! A little behind him was Tom's father.
On account of the severity of the weather both families had been much alarmed when we failed to come home the night before. Making an early start that morning, Mr. Edwards and the old Squire had driven to the Silver farm and, leaving their team there, had followed the town line in search of us. On reaching Wild Brook they had seen that the snow bridge had fallen, and at first they had been badly frightened. On looking round, however, they had found the marks of our boot heels on the frozen snow, heading upstream, and had immediately guessed that we had gone to the old camp. So we had their company on the way home; and much astonished both of them were at the sight of so many geese.
The two households shared the goose feathers. The meat was in excellent condition for cooking, and our two families had many a good meal of roast goose. We sent six of the birds to the town farm, and we heard afterwards that the seventeen paupers there partook of a grand goose dinner, garnished with apple sauce. But I have often thought of that old gander flying north to the breeding grounds alone.
The following week we walked the remaining part of the town line and received the fee.