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- Eben Holden - 2/52 -
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 history.
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 head.
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.
We heard no more of the voices. Uncle Eb had brought an armful of wood, and some water in the teapot, while I was sleeping. As soon as the rain had passed he stood listening awhile and shortly opened his knife and made a little clearing in the corn by cutting a few hills.
'We've got to do it,' he said, 'er we can't take any comfort, an' the man tol' me I could have all the corn I wanted.'
'Did you see him, Uncle Eb?' I remember asking.
'Yes,' he answered, whittling in the dark. 'I saw him when I went out for the water an' it was he tol' me they were after us.'
He took a look at the sky after a while, and, remarking that he guessed they couldn't see his smoke now, began to kindle the fire. As it burned up he stuck two crotches and hung his teapot on a stick' that lay in them, so it took the heat of the flame, as I had seen him do in the morning. Our grotto, in the corn, was shortly as cheerful as any room in a palace, and our fire sent its light into the long aisles that opened opposite, and nobody could see the warm glow of it but ourselves.
'We'll hev our supper,' said Uncle Eb, as he opened a paper and spread out the eggs and bread and butter and crackers. 'We'll jest hev our supper an' by 'n by when everyone's abed we'll make tracks in the dirt, I can'tell ye.'
Our supper over, Uncle Eb let me look at his tobacco-box - a shiny thing of German silver that always seemed to snap out a quick farewell to me before it dove into his pocket. He was very cheerful and communicative, and joked a good deal as we lay there waiting in the firelight. I got some further acquaintance with the swift, learning among other things that it had no appetite for the pure in heart.
'Why not?' I enquired.
'Well,' said Uncle Eb, 'it's like this: the meaner the boy, the sweeter the meat.'
He sang an old song as he sat by the fire, with a whistled interlude between lines, and the swing of it, even now, carries me back to that far day in the fields. I lay with my head in his lap while he was singing.
Years after, when I could have carried him on my back' he wrote down for me the words of the old song. Here they are, about as he sang them, although there are evidences of repair, in certain lines, to supply the loss of phrases that had dropped out of his memory:
I was goin' to Salem one bright summer day, I met a young maiden a goin' my way; O, my fallow, faddeling fallow, faddel away.
An' many a time I had seen her before, But I never dare tell 'er the love thet I bore. O, my fallow, etc.
'Oh, where are you goin' my purty fair maid?' 'O, sir, I am goin' t' Salem,' she said. O, my fallow, etc.
'O, why are ye goin' so far in a day? Fer warm is the weather and long is the way.' O, my fallow, etc.
'O, sir I've forgorten, I hev, I declare, But it's nothin' to eat an' its nothin' to wear.' O, my fallow, etc.
'Oho! then I hev it, ye purty young miss! I'll bet it is only three words an' a kiss.' O, my fallow, etc.
'Young woman, young woman, O how will it dew If I go see yer lover 'n bring 'em t' you?' O, my fallow, etc.
''S a very long journey,' says she, 'I am told, An' before ye got back, they would surely be cold.' O, my fallow, etc.
'I hev 'em right with me, I vum an' I vow, An' if you don't object I'll deliver 'em now.' O, my fallow, etc.
She laid her fair head all on to my breast, An' ye wouldn't know more if I tol' ye the rest O, my fallow, etc.
I went asleep after awhile in spite of all, right in the middle of a story. The droning voice of Uncle Eb and the feel of his hand upon my forehead called me back, blinking, once or twice, but not for long. The fire was gone down to a few embers when Uncle Eb woke me and the grotto was lit only by a sprinkle of moonlight from above.
'Mos' twelve o'clock,' he whispered. 'Better be off.'
The basket was on his back and he was all ready. I followed him through the long aisle of corn, clinging to the tall of his coat. The
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