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A JANUARY THAW
JUST before school closed a disagreeable incident occurred.
It was one of the few times that the old Squire really reproved us sternly. Often, of course, he had to caution us a little, or speak to us about our conduct; but he usually did it in an easy, tolerant way, ending with a laugh or a joke. But that time he was in earnest.
He had come home that night just at dark from Three Rivers, in Canada, where he was engaged in a lumbering enterprise. He had been gone a fortnight, and during his absence Addison, Halstead and I had been doing the farm chores. The drive from the railway station on that bleak January afternoon had chilled the old gentleman, and he went directly into the sitting-room to get warm. So it was not until he came out to sit down to supper with us that he noticed a vacant chair at table.
"Where is Halstead?" he asked. "Isn't Halstead at home?"
No one answered at first; none of us liked to tell him what had happened. We had always found our cousin Halstead hard to get on with. Lately he had been complaining to us that he ought to be paid wages for his labor, when, as a matter of fact, what he did at the farm never half repaid the old Squire for his board, clothes and the trouble he gave. During the old gentleman's absence that winter Halstead had become worse than ever and had also begun making trouble at the district school.
His special crony at school was Alfred Batchelder, who had an extremely bad influence on him. Alfred was a genius at instigating mischief, and he and Halstead played an odious prank at the schoolhouse, as a result of which the school committee suspended them for three weeks.
That was unfortunate, for it turned the boys loose to run about in company. Usually they quarreled by the time they had been together half a day; but this time there seemed to be a special bond between them, and they hatched a secret project to go off trapping up in the great woods. They intended to stay until spring, when they would reappear with five hundred dollar's worth of fur!
Addison and I guessed that something of the sort was in the wind, for we noticed that Halstead was collecting old traps and that he was oiling a gun he called his. We also missed two thick horse blankets from the stable and a large hand sled. A frozen quarter of beef also disappeared from the wagon-house chamber.
"Let him go, and good riddance," Addison said, and we decided not to tell grandmother or the girls what we suspected. In fact, I fear that we hoped Halstead would go.
The following Friday afternoon while the rest of us were at school both boys disappeared. That evening Mrs. Batchelder sent over to inquire whether Alfred was at our house. Halstead, to his credit, had shown that he did not wish grandmother to worry about him. Shortly before two o'clock that afternoon, he had come hastily to the sitting-room door, and said, "Good-by, gram. I'm going away for a spell. Don't worry." Then, shutting the door, he had run off before she could reply or ask a question.
When we got home from school that night, Addison and I found traces of the runaways. There had been rain the week before, followed by a hard freeze and snow squalls, which had left a film of light snow on the hard crust beneath. At the rear of the west barn we found the tracks of a hand sled leading off across the fields toward the woods.
"Gone hunting, I guess," said Addison. "They are probably heading for the Old Slave's Farm, or for Adger's lumber camp. Let them go. They'll be sick to death of it in a week."
I felt much the same about it; but grandmother and Theodora were not a little disturbed. Ellen, however, sided with Addison. "Halse will be back by tomorrow night," she said. "He and Alfred will have a spat by that time."
Saturday and Sunday passed, however, and then all the following week, with no word from them.
On Tuesday evening, when they had been gone eleven days, Mrs. Batchelder hastened in with alarming news for us. She had had a letter from Alfred, she said, written from Berlin Falls in New Hampshire, where he had gone to work in a mill; but he had not said one word about Halstead!
"I don't think they could have gone off together," she said, and she read Alfred's letter aloud to us, or seemed to do so, but did not hand it to any of us to read.
We had never trusted Mrs. Batchelder implicitly; and a long time afterwards it came out that there was one sentence in that letter that she had not read to us. It was this: "Don't say anything to any of them about Halstead." Guessing that there had been trouble of some kind between the boys, she was frightened; to shield Alfred she had hurried over with the letter, and had tried to make us believe that the boys had not gone off together.
Addison and I still thought that the boys had set out in company, though we did not know what to make of Alfred's letter. We were waiting in that disturbed state of mind, hoping to hear something from Alfred that would clear up the mystery, when the old Squire came home.
"He has gone away, sir," Addison said at last, when the old gentleman inquired for Halstead at supper.
"Gone away? Where? What for?" the old gentleman asked in much astonishment; and then the whole story had to be told him.
The old Squire heard it through without saying much. When we had finished, he asked, "Did you know that Halstead meant to go away?"
"We did not know for certain, sir," Addison replied.
"Still, you both knew something about it?"
"Did either one of you do anything to prevent it?"
We had to admit that we had done nothing.
The old Squire regarded us a moment or two in silence.
THE OLD SQUIRE REPROVED US STERNLY
"In one of the oldest narratives of life that have come down to us," he said at last, "we read that there were once two brothers living together, who did not agree and who often fell out. After a time one of them disappeared, and when the other — his name was Cain — was asked what had become of his brother, he replied, 'Am I my brother's keeper?'
"In this world we all have to be our brothers' keepers," the old Squire continued. "We are all to a degree responsible for the good behavior and safety of our fellow beings. If we shirk that duty, troubles come and crimes are committed that might have been prevented. Especially in a family like ours, each ought to have the good of all at heart and do his best to make things go right."
That was a great deal for the old Squire to say to us. Addison and I saw just where we had shirked and where we had let temper and resentment influence us. Scarcely another word was said at table. It was one of those times of self-searching and reflection that occasionally come unbidden in every family circle. The old Squire went into the sitting-room to think it over and to learn what he could from grandmother. He was very tired, and I am afraid he felt somewhat discouraged about us.
Addison and I went up to our room early that evening. We exchanged scarcely a word as we went gloomily to bed. We knew that we were to blame; but we also felt tremendously indignant with Halstead.
Very early the next morning, however, long before it was light, Addison roused me.
"Wake up," he said. "Let's go see if we can find that noodle of ours and get him back home."
It was cold and dark and dreary; one of those miserable, shivery mornings when you hate to stir out of bed. But I got up, for I agreed with Addison that we ought to look for Halstead.
After dabbling our faces in ice-cold water and dressing we tiptoed downstairs. Going to the kitchen, we kindled a fire in order to get a bit of breakfast before we started. Theodora had heard us and came hastily down to bear a hand. She guessed what we meant to do.
"I'm glad you're going," said she as she began to make coffee and to warm some food.
It was partly the bitter weather, I think, but Addison and I felt so cross that we could hardly trust ourselves to speak.
"I'll put you up a nice, big lunch," Theodora said, trying to cheer us. "And I do hope that you will find him at the Old Slave's Farm, or over at Adger's camp. If you do, you may all be back by night."
She stole up to her room to get a pair of new double mittens that she had just finished knitting for Addison; and for me she brought down a woolen neck muffler that grandmother had knitted for her. Life brightens up, even in a Maine winter, with a girl like that round.
Addison took his shotgun, and I carried the basket of luncheon. No snow had come since Halstead and Alfred left, and we could still see along the old lumber road the faint marks of their hand-sled runners. In the hollows where the film of snow was a little deeper, two boot tracks were visible.
"Halse wouldn't go off far into the woods alone, after Alf left him," said I.
"No, he is too big a coward," said Addison.
It was thirteen miles up to the Old Slave's Farm, where the negro — who called himself Pinkney Doman — had lived for so many years before the Civil War.
"We can make it in three hours!" Addison exclaimed. "If we find him there, we shall be back before dark. And we had better hurry," he added, with a glance at the sky. "For I guess there's a storm coming; feels like it."
In a yellow-birch top at a little opening near the old road we saw two partridges eating buds; Addison shot one of them and took it along, slung to his gun barrel.
The faint trail of the sled continued along the old winter road all the way up to the clearing where the negro had lived, and by ten o'clock we came into view of the two log cabins. Very still and solitary they looked under that cold gray sky.
"No smoke," Addison said. "But we'll soon know." He called once. We then hurried forward and pushed open the door of the larger cabin. No one was there.
But clearly the two truants had stopped there, for the sled track led directly to the door of the cabin. There had been a fire in the stone fireplace. Beside a log at the door, too, Addison espied a hatchet that a while before we had missed from the tool bench in the wagon-house.
"Well, if that isn't like their carelessness!" he exclaimed, laughing. "I'll take this along."
But the runaways had not tarried long. We found the sled track again, leading into the woods at the northwest of the clearing.
"Well, that settles it," said Addison. "They haven't gone to Adger's, for that is east from here. I'll tell you! They went to Boundary Camp on Lurvey's Stream. And that's eighteen or nineteen miles from here." He glanced at the sky. "Now, what shall we do? It will snow to-night."
"Perhaps we could get up there by dark," said I.
For a moment Addison considered. "All right!" he exclaimed. "It's a long jaunt. But come on! "
On we tramped again, following that will-o'-the-wisp of a hand-sled track into the thick spruce forest. For the first nine or ten miles everything went well; then one of the dangers of the great Maine woods in winter suddenly presented itself.
About one o'clock it began to snow — little icy pellets that rattled down through the tree tops like fine shot or sifted sand. The chill, damp wind sighing drearily across the forest presaged a northeaster.
"We've got to hurry!" Addison said, glancing round.
We both struck into a trot and, with our eyes fastened to the trail, ran on for about two miles until we came to a brook down in a gorge. By the time we had crossed that the storm was upon us and the forest had taken on the bewildering misty, gray look that even the most experienced woodsman has reason to dread.
The snow that had fallen had obscured the faint sled tracks, and Addison, who was ahead, pulled up. "We can't do it," he said. "We shan't get through."
My first impulse was to run on, to run faster; that is always your first instinct in such cases. Then I remembered the old Squire's advice to us what to do if we should ever happen to be caught by a snowstorm in the great woods:
"Don't go on a moment after you feel bewildered. Don't start to run, and don't get excited. Stop right where you are and camp. If you run, you will begin to circle, get crazy and perish before morning."
Addison cast another uneasy glance into the. dim forest ahead. "Better camp, I guess," he said. Turning, we hurried back into the hollow.
A few yards back from the brook were two rocks, about six feet apart and nearly as high as my head. Hard snow lay between them; but we broke it into pieces by stamping on it, and succeeded in clearing most of it away, so that we bared the leaves and twigs that covered the ground. Then, while I hacked off dry branches from a fallen fir-tree, Addison gathered a few curled rolls of bark from several birches near by and kindled a fire between the rocks.
We kept the fire going for more than an hour, until all the remaining snow was thawed and the frost and wet thoroughly dried out, and until the rocks had become so hot that we could hardly touch them. Then, after hauling away the brands and embers, we brushed the place clean with green boughs, and thus made for ourselves a warm, dry spot between the rocks.
With poles and green boughs, we made for our shelter a roof that was tight enough to keep out the snow. Except that we made a little mat of bark and dry fir brush, to lie on, and that Addison brought an armful of curled bark from the birches and a quantity of dry sticks to burn now and then, that was the extent of our preparation for the night. We had as warm and comfortable a den as any one could wish for.
We decided not to cook our partridge, but to eat the food in our basket. After our meal we got a drink of water at the brook, then crawled inside our den and as Maine woodsmen say — "pulled the hole in after us," by stopping it with boughs.
"Now, let it storm!" Addison exclaimed.
Taking off our jackets and. spreading them over us, we cuddled down there by the warm rocks, and there we passed the night safely and by no means uncomfortably.
It was still snowing fast in the morning; but the flakes were larger now, and the weather had perceptibly moderated during the latter part of the night. The forest, however, still looked too misty for us to find our way through it.
"We might as well take it easy," Addison said. "If Halse is at Boundary Camp, he will not leave in such weather as this."
All that forenoon it snowed steadily, and in fact for most of the afternoon. More than a foot of snow had come. We opened the front of our snow-coated den, kindled a fire there, and after dressing our partridge broiled it over the embers. Still it snowed; but the weather now was much warmer. By the following morning, we thought, we should have clear, cold weather and should be able to set out again.
But never were weather predictions more at fault. The next morning it was raining furiously; and our den had begun to drip. In fact, a veritable January thaw had set in.
All that forenoon it poured steadily; and water began to show yellow through the snow in the brook beside our camp. Addison crept out and looked round, but soon came back dripping wet.
"Look here!" said he in some excitement. "There's a freshet coming, and Lurvey's Stream is between us and Boundary Camp. If we don't start soon, we can't get there at all."
Just as he finished speaking a deep, portentous rumbling began and continued for several seconds. The distant mountain sides seemed to reverberate with it, and at the end the whole forest shook with heavy, jarring sounds. We both leaped out into the rain.
"What is it, Ad?" I cried.
"Earthquake," said Addison at last. "I've heard the old Squire say that one sometimes comes in Maine, when there is a great winter thaw."
The deep jar and tremor gave us a strange sense of insecurity and terror; there seemed to be no telling what might happen next. Accordingly, we abandoned our moist den and set off in the rain. We went halfway to our knees at every step in the now soft, slushy snow. Addison went ahead with the hatchet, spotting a tree every hundred feet or so, and I followed in his tracks, carrying the basket and the gun. In fifteen minutes we were wet to our skins.
For three or four miles we were uncertain of our course. The forest then lightened ahead, and presently we came out on the shore of a small lake that looked yellow over its whole surface.
"Good!" Addison exclaimed. "This must be Lone Pond, and see, away over there is Birchboard Mountain. Boundary Camp is just this side of it. It can't be more than four or five miles."
Skirting the south shore of the pond, we pushed on through fir and cedar swamps. Worse traveling it would be impossible to imagine. Every hole and hollow was full of yellow slush. Finally, after another two hours or so of hard going, we came out on Lurvey's Stream about half a mile below the camp, which was on the other bank. A foot or more of water was running yellow over the ice; but the ice itself was still firm, and we were able to cross on it.
Even before we came in sight of the camp, we smelled wood smoke.
"Halse is there!" I exclaimed.
"It may be trappers from over the line," Addison said. "Be cautious."
I ran forward, however, and peeped in at the little window. Some one was crawling on the floor, partly behind the old camp stove, and I had to look twice before I could make out that it was really Halstead. Then we burst in upon him, and Addison said rather shortly, "Well, hunter, what are you doing here?"
Halstead raised himself slowly off the floor beside the stove, stared at us for a moment without saying a word, and then suddenly burst into tears!
It was some moments before Halstead could speak, he was so shaken with sobs. We then discovered that his left leg was virtually useless, and that in general he was in a bad plight. He had been there for eight days in that condition, crawling round on one knee and his hands to keep a fire and to cook his food.
"But how did you get hurt?" Addison asked.
"That Alf did it!" Halstead cried; and then, with tears still flowing, he went on to tell the story — his side of it.
While getting their breakfast on the third morning after they had reached the camp, they had had a dispute about making their coffee; hard names had followed, and at last, in high temper, Alfred had sprung up declaring that he would not camp with Halstead another hour. Grabbing the gun, he had started off.
"That's my gun! Leave it here! Drop it!" Halstead had shouted angrily and had run after him.
Down near the bank of the stream, Halstead had overtaken him and had tried to wrest the gun from him. Alfred had turned, struck him, and then given him so hard a push that he had fallen over sidewise with his foot down between two logs. Alfred had run on without even looking back.
The story did not astonish us. For the time being, however, we were chiefly concerned to find out how badly Halstead was injured, with a view to getting him home. His ankle was swollen, sore and painful; he could not touch the foot to the floor, and he howled when we tried to move it.
Evidently he had suffered a good deal, and pity prevented us from freeing our minds to him as fully as we should otherwise have done. The main thing now was to get him home, where a doctor could attend him.
"We shall have to haul him on the hand sled," Addison said to me; and fortunately the sled that Alfred and he had taken was there at the camp.
But first we cooked a meal of some of the beef, corn meal and coffee they had taken from the old Squire's.
It was still raining; and on going out an hour later we found that the stream had risen so high that we could not cross it. The afternoon, too, was waning; and, urgent as Halstead's case appeared, we had to give up the idea of starting that night. During the rest of the afternoon we busied ourselves rigging a rude seat on the sled.
There were good dry bunks at the camp, but little sleep was in store for us. Halstead was in a fevered, querulous mood and kept calling to us for something or other all night long. Whenever he fell asleep he tumbled about and hurt his ankle. That would partly wake him and set him crying, or shouting what he would do to Alfred.
Throughout the night the roar of the stream outside grew louder, and at daybreak it was running feather white. As for the snow, most of it had disappeared; stumps, logs and stones showed through it everywhere; the swamps were flooded, and every hole, hollow and depression was full of water.
That was Wednesday. We made a soup of the beef bone, cooked johnnycake from the corn meal and kept Halstead as quiet as possible. We had left home early Sunday morning and knew that our folks would be greatly worried about all three of us.
As the day passed, the stream rose steadily until the water was nearly up to the camp door.
"If only we had a boat, we could put Halse in it and go home," Addison said.
We discussed making a raft, for if we could navigate the stream we could descend it to within four miles of the old farm. But the roaring yellow torrent was clearly so tumultuous that no raft that we could build would hold together for a minute; and we resigned ourselves to pass another night in the camp.
The end of the thaw was at hand, however; at sunset the sky lightened, and during the evening the stars came out. At midnight, while replenishing the fire, I heard smart gusts of wind blowing from the northwest. It was clearing off cold. Noticing that it seemed very light outside, I went to the door and saw the bright arch of a splendid aurora spanning the whole sky. It was so beautiful that I waked Addison to see it.
By morning winter weather had come again; the snow slush was frozen. The stream, however, was still too high to be crossed, and the swamps and meadows were also impassable. We now bethought ourselves of another route home, by way of a lumber trail that led southward to Lurvey's Mills, where there was a bridge over the stream.
"It is five miles farther, but it is our only chance of getting home this week," Addison said. .
We were busy bundling Halstead up for the sled trip when the door opened and in stepped Asa Doane, one of our hired men at the farm, and a neighbor named Davis.
"Well, well, here you are, then!" Asa exclaimed in a tone of great relief. "Do you know that the old Squire's got ten men out searching the woods for you? Why, the folks at home are scared half to death!"
We were not sorry to see Asa and Davis, and to have help for the long pull homeward. We made a start, and after a very hard tramp we finally reached the old farm, thoroughly tired out, at eight o'clock that evening.
Theodora and grandmother were so affected at seeing us back that they actually shed tears. The old Squire said little; but it was plain to see that he was greatly relieved.
If the day had been a fatiguing one for us, it had been doubly so for poor Halstead. We carried him up to his room, put him to bed and sent for a doctor. He did not leave his room again for three weeks and required no end of care from grandmother and the girls.
Little was ever said among us afterwards of this escapade of Halstead's. As for Alfred, he came sneaking home about a month later, but had the decency, or perhaps it was the prudence, to keep away from us for nearly a year.