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- Eben Holden - 5/52 -
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 1 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' gom' 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' playflil - '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
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