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COLD weather was again approaching. October had been very wet; but bright, calm days of Indian summer followed in November. And about that time Catherine, Theodora and Ellen had an odd adventure while out in the woods gathering partridge berries.
At the old farm we called the vivid green creeping vine that bears those coral-red berries in November, "partridge berry," because partridge feed on the berries and dig them from under the snow. Botanists, however, call the vine Mitchella repens. In our tramps through the woods we boys never gave it more than a passing glance, for the berries are not good to eat. The girls, however, thought that the vine was very pretty. Every fall Theodora and Ellen, with Kate Edwards, and sometimes the Wilbur girls, went into the woods to gather lion's-paw and mitchella with which to decorate the old farmhouse at Thanksgiving and Christmas. But it was one of their girl friends, named Lucia Scribner, or rather Lucia's mother, at Portland, who invented mitchella jars, and started a new industry in our neighborhood.
Lucia, who was attending the village Academy, often came up to the old farm on a Friday night to visit our girls over Saturday and Sunday. On one visit they gathered a basketful of mitchella, and when Lucia went home to Portland for Thanksgiving, she carried a small boxful of the vines and berries to her mother. Mrs. Scribner was an artist of some ability, and she made several little sketches of the vine on whitewood paper cutters as gifts to her friends. In order to keep the vine moist and fresh while she was making the sketches, she put it in a little glass jar with a piece of glass over the top.
The vine was so pretty in the jar that Mrs. Scribner was loath to throw it away; and after a while she saw that the berries were increasing in size. She had put nothing except a few spoonfuls of water into the jar with the vine; but the berries grew slowly all winter, until they were twice as big as in the fall.
Mrs. Scribner was delighted with the success of her chance experiment. The jar with the vine in it made a very pretty ornament for her work table. Moreover, the plant needed little care. To keep it fresh she had only to moisten it with a spoonful of water every two or three weeks. And cold weather — even zero weather — did not injure it at all. Friends who called on Mrs. Scribner admired her jar, and said that they should like to get some of them. Mrs. Scribner wrote to Theodora and suggested that she and her girl friends make up some mitchella jars, and sell them in the city.
That was the way the little industry began. The girls, however, did not really go into the business until the next fall. Then Theodora, Ellen, and Catherine prepared over a hundred jarfuls of the green vine and berries. Those they sent to Portland and Boston during Christmas week under the name of Mitchella Jars, and Christmas Bouquets. The jars, which were globular in shape and which ranged from a quart in capacity up to three and four quarts, cost from fifteen to thirty-five cents apiece. When filled with mitchella vines, they brought from a dollar and a quarter to two dollars.
On the day above referred to they set out to gather more vines, and they told the people at home that they were going to "Dunham's open" — an old clearing beyond our farther pasture, where once a settler named Dunham had begun to clear a farm. The place was nearly two miles from the old Squire's, and as the girls did not expect to get home until four o'clock, they took their luncheon with them.
They hoped to get enough mitchella at the "open" to fill fifteen jars, and so took two bushel baskets. Four or five inches of hard-frozen snow was on the ground; but in the shelter of the young pine and fir thickets that were now encroaching on the borders of the "open" the "cradle knolls" were partly bare.
However, they found less mitchella at Dunham's open than they had hoped. After going completely round the borders of the clearing they had gathered only half a basketful. Kate then proposed that they should go on to another opening at Adger's lumber camp, on a brook near the foot of Stoss Pond. She had been there the winter before with Theodora, and both of them remembered having seen mitchella growing there.
The old lumber road was not hard to follow, and they reached the camp in a little less than an hour. They found several plats of mitchella, and began industriously to gather the vine.
They had such a good time at their work that they almost forgot their luncheon. When at last they opened the pasteboard box in which it was packed, they found the sandwiches and the mince pie frozen hard. Kate suggested that they go down to the lumber camp and kindle a fire.
"There's a stove in it that the loggers left three years ago," she said. "We'll make a fire and thaw our lunch."
"We have no matches!" Ellen exclaimed, when they reached the camp.
Inside the old cabin, however, they found three or four matches in a little tin box that was nailed to a log behind the stovepipe. Hunters had occupied the camp not long before; but they had left scarcely a sliver of anything dry or combustible inside it; they had even whittled and shaved the old bunk beam and plank table in order to get kindlings. After a glance round, Kate went out to gather dry brush along the brook.
Running on a little way, she picked up dry twigs here and there. At last, by a clump of white birches, she found a fallen spruce. As she was breaking off some of the twigs a strange noise caused her to pause suddenly. It was, indeed, an odd sound — not a snarl or a growl, or yet a bark like that of a dog, but a querulous low "yapping." At the same instant she heard the snow crust break, as if an animal were approaching through the thicket of young firs.
More curious than frightened, Kate listened intently. A moment later she saw a large gray fox emerge from among the firs and come toward her. Supposing that it had not seen or scented her, and thinking to frighten it, she cried out suddenly, "Hi, Mr. Fox!"
To her surprise the fox, instead of bounding away, came directly toward her, and now she saw that its head moved to and fro as it ran, and that clots of froth were dropping from its jaws. Kate had heard that foxes, as well as dogs and wolves, sometimes run mad. She realized that if this beast were mad, it would attack her blindly and bite her if it could. Still clutching her armful of dry twigs, she turned and sped back toward the camp. As she drew near the cabin, she called to the other girls to open the door. They heard her cries, and Ellen flung the door open. As Kate darted into the room, she cried, "Shut it, quick!"
Startled, the other two girls slammed the door shut, and hastily set the heavy old camp table against it.
"It's only a fox!" Kate cried. "But it has gone mad, I think. I was afraid it would bite me."
Peering out of the one little window and the cracks between the logs, they saw the animal run past the camp. It was still yapping weirdly, and it snapped at bushes and twigs as it passed. Suddenly it turned
back and ran by the camp door again. Afterward they heard its cries first up the slope behind the camp, and then down by the brook.
"We mustn't go out," Kate whispered. "If it were to bite us, we, too, should go mad."
There was no danger of the beast's breaking into the camp, and after a while the girls kindled a fire, thawed out their luncheon and ate it. The December sun was sinking low, and soon set behind the tree tops. It was a long way home, and they had their baskets of mitchella to carry. Hoping that the distressed creature had gone its way, they listened for a while at the door, and at last ventured forth; but when they drew near the place where Kate had gathered the dry spruce branches they heard the creature yapping in the thickets ahead. In a panic they ran back to the camp.
Their situation was not pleasant. They dared not venture out again. Darkness had already set in; the camp was cold and they had little fuel. The prospect that any one from home would come to their aid was small, for they were now a long way from Dunham's open, where they had said they were going, and where, of course, search parties would look for them. Kate, however, remained cheerful.
"It's nothing!" she exclaimed. "I can soon get wood for a fire." Under the bunk she had found an old axe, and with it she proceeded to chop up the camp table.
"The only thing I'm afraid of," she said, "is that the boys will start out to look for us, and that if they find our tracks in the snow, they'll come on up here and run afoul of that fox before they know it."
"We can shout to them," Ellen suggested.
Not much later, in fact, they began to make the forest resound with loud, clear calls. For a long while the only answer to their cries came from two owls; but Kate was right in thinking that we boys would set out to find them.
Addison, Halstead and I had been up in Lot 32 that day with the old Squire, making an estimate of timber, and we did not reach home until after dark. Grandmother met us with the news that the girls had gone to Dunham's open for partridge-berry vines, and had not returned. She was very uneasy about them; but we were hungry and, grumbling a little that the girls could not come home at night as they were expected to, sat down to supper.
"I am afraid they've lost their way," grandmother said, after a few minutes. "It's going to be very cold. You must go to look for them!" And the old Squire agreed with her.
Just as we finished supper Thomas Edwards, Kate's brother, came in with a lantern, to ask whether Kate was there; and without much further delay we four boys set off. Addison took his gun and Halstead another lantern. We were not much worried about the girls; indeed, we expected to meet them on their way home. When we reached Dunham's open, however, and got no answer to our shouts, we became anxious.
At last we found their tracks leading up the winter road to Adger's camp, and we hurried along the old trail.
We had not gone more than half a mile when Tom, who was ahead, suddenly cried, "Hark! I heard some one calling!"
We stopped to listen; and after a moment or two we all heard a distant cry.
"That's Kate!" Tom muttered. "Something's the matter with them, sure!"
We started to run, but soon heard the same cry again, followed by indistinct words.
"What's the matter?" Tom shouted.
Again we heard their calls, but could not make out what they were trying to say. We were pretty sure now that the girls were at the old lumber camp; and hastening on to the top of the ridge that sloped down
toward the brook, we all shouted loudly. Immediately a reply came back in hasty, anxious tones:
"Take care! There's a mad fox down here!"
"A what?" Addison cried.
"A fox that has run mad!" Kate repeated.
"Where is he?" Halstead cried.
"Running round in the thickets," Kate answered. "Look out, boys, or he'll bite you. That's the reason we didn't come home. We didn't dare leave the camp."
This was such a new kind of danger that for a few moments we were at a loss how to meet it. Tom looked about for a club.
"It's only a fox," he said. "I guess we can knock him over before he can bite us."
He and Addison went ahead with the club and the gun; Halstead and I, following close behind, held the lanterns high so that they could see what was in front of them. In this manner we moved down the brushy slope to the camp. The girls, who were peering out of the door, were certainly glad to see us.
"But where's your 'mad' fox?" we asked.
"He's round here somewhere. He really is," Kate protested earnestly. "We heard him only a little while ago."
Thereupon, while the girls implored us to be careful, we began to search about by lantern light. At last we heard a low wheezing noise near the old dam. On bringing the lantern nearer we finally caught sight of an animal behind the logs. It was a fox surely enough, and it acted as if it were disabled or dying. While Halstead and I held the lanterns, Addison took aim and shot the beast. Tom found a stick with a projecting knot that he could use as a hook, and with it he hauled the body out into plain view. It was a large cross-gray fox.
"Boys, that skin's worth thirty dollars!" Tom exclaimed.
"But I shouldn't like to be the one to skin it," Addison said. "Don't touch it with your hands, Tom."
While the girls were telling us of the fox's strange actions we warmed ourselves at the fire in the camp stove, and then all set off for home, for by this time it was getting late and the night was growing colder.
Halstead led the way with the two lanterns; Addison and I, each shouldering a basket of mitchella, followed; Tom, dragging the body of the fox with his hooked stick, came behind the girls. It was nearly midnight when we reached home.
Tom still thought that the fox's silvery pelt ought to be saved; but the old Squire persuaded him not to run the risk of skinning the creature.