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   Chapter 4 WINTER COMFORT.

Winter Fun By William Osborn Stoddard Characters: 18869

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Susie and Pen had a grand ride to the farmhouse on the wood-sleigh.

Perched away up there on top of the brushwood, they could get the full effect of every swing and lurch of the load under them. Vosh Stebbins had to chuckle again and again, in spite of his resolute politeness; for the girls would scream a little, and laugh a great deal, when the sleigh sank suddenly on one side in a snowy hollow, or slid too rapidly after the oxen down a steeper slope than common. It was great fun; and, when they reached the house, Susie Hudson almost had to quarrel with aunt Judith to prevent being wrapped in a blanket, and shoved up in a big rocking-chair into the very face of the sitting-room fireplace.

"Do let her alone, Judith," said aunt Farnham. "I don't believe she's been frost-bitten."

"I'm not a bit cold."

"I'm real glad o' that," said aunt Judith; "but ain't you hungry?-Pen, you jest fetch up some krullers."

Susie admitted that she could eat a kruller, and Pen had no need to be told twice.

When Vosh came back from the woods with his second load, it was dinner-time; and Deacon Farnham came with him. Only a few minutes later, there was a great shouting at the kitchen-door, and there were the two boys. The whole family rushed out to see what they had brought home, and Susie thought she had never seen her brother look quite so tall.

"Corry beat ye, did he?" said Vosh as he turned the rabbits over. Something in the tone of that remark seemed to add, "Of course he did;" and Port replied to it,-

"Well, he's used to it. I never fired a gun before in all my life."

That was a frank confession, and a very good one to make; for the deacon exclaimed,-

"You never did! I declare! then you've done tip-top. You'll make a marksman one of these days."

"I hit two of my rabbits on the full run, anyhow."

"How about the deer?" said Vosh with a sly look. "Did you hit him on the run?"

"When you meet him," said Corry, "you can just ask him. He's the only fellow that knows: I don't."

"Like as not he doesn't either."

"Vosh," said Mrs. Farnham, "tell your mother to come over with you after tea, and spend the evening."

"She'll come: I know she will. I'll finish my chores early."

He swung his axe to his shoulder, and marched away, very straight, with a curious feeling that some city people were looking at him.

The boys and the girls and the older people were all remarkably ready for that dinner as soon as it was on the table.

"Pen," said Susie, "I didn't know chopping down trees would make me so hungry."

"Yes," said Deacon Farnham, "it's as bad as killing deer. Port and Corry are suffering from that. You did your chopping, as they did their deer-killing, at a safe distance."

After dinner it was a puzzle to everybody where the time went, it got away so fast. Pen took Susie all over the house, and showed her every thing in it, from the apples in the cellar to the spinning-wheel that had been carried up stairs the day before, and would have to come down again to-morrow.

"Aunt Judith's got a pile of wool, Susie. You ought to see it. She's going to spin enough yarn to last her all next summer."

"I'll get her to teach me to spin."

"Can you knit? If you can't, I'll teach you how. It's awful easy, as soon as you know."

Susie told Pen about her tidies and crochet-work and some other things, and was getting a little the best of it, until Pen asked very doubtfully,-

"Can you heel a stocking? It's worse, a good deal, than just to narrow 'em in at the toes. Aunt Judith says there ain't many women nowadays that can heel a stocking."

"I'll make her show me how. Dear me, Pen! did you know how late it is? Where can all the time have gone to?"

Corry and Porter knew where a part of theirs had gone, after they got back from the barns, and delivered to Mrs. Farnham and aunt Judith the eggs they had found. Corry got out his checker-board, and laid it on the table in the sitting-room.

"It's a big one," said Porter. "Where are your men?"

"Hanging up there in that bag. The wooden men got lost. We take horse-chestnuts for black men, and walnuts for white ones."

"S'pose you make a king?"

"That's a butternut, if it's black. If it's white, you put on one of those chunks of wood."

There was no danger of their getting out of checker-men; but Corry Farnham had a lesson to learn.

Porter Hudson knew a great deal more about checkers than he did about tree-chopping or rabbits.

Game after game was played, and it seemed to Corry as if his cousin "hit some of them on a full run." He got up from the last one they played, feeling a very fair degree of respect for Port; and the latter was pretty well restored to his own good opinion of himself.

That was something, for all his morning's experiences had been a little the other way; and he was not half sure he could again hit a running rabbit, if he should have a chance to try.

Susie and Pen had watched them for a while, but both boys had been very obstinate in not making any of the good moves Pen pointed out to them.

There were chores to do both before and after tea; and Porter went out with Corry, determined on undertaking his share of them.

"Did you ever milk cows, Port?"

"Well, no, I never did; but I guess I could if I tried."

"Well, I guess you'd best not try to-night, but you can learn before you go home. Some of our cows are skittish in cold weather."

Port was quite contented, after getting into the cowyard, to let the milking be done by some one who knew how; and he had the satisfaction of seeing Corry kicked over into the snow-pail, milk, and all-by a brindled heifer who had no need of any kind of weather to bring out her natural skittishness.

There were pigs and cattle and horses to feed, and supper to be eaten; and when, at last, the boys had finished their duties, the rest of the family was already gathered in the sitting-room.

Mrs. Farnham and aunt Judith had their knitting; and the deacon had a newspaper in his lap, with his spectacles lying in the middle of it. It seemed, however, the most natural thing in the world, that they should all be sitting in a great semicircle in front of the fireplace. The night promised to be a cold one, and the fire had been built for it in the most liberal manner.

"Corry," said Porter, "what are all those flat-irons and hammers for?"

"Why, to crack nuts. I'm going down cellar to bring 'em up,-butternuts and hickory-nuts. There was a big crop of 'em last fall."

"I'll go with you."

"So will I," said Pen. "Come, Susie, and we'll bring up the apples and pears and some cider."

"Now, Pen," said aunt Judith, "look out you don't leave the cider runnin', like you did once. You may fetch up a cake of maple-sugar, if anybody wants any. And don't you tetch them hard russets. They won't be fit to eat till spring."

Aunt Judith's instructions continued almost without cessation, till the young folk were all at the bottom of the cellar-stairs. Corry and Pen carried candles; but the light of these only served to make that cellar look ten times larger and darker and more mysterious. It seemed as if it had neither sides nor ends; but the heavy black beams overhead were not so wonderfully far away. Pen showed Susie bin after bin of carefully selected winter apples and pears, and there were half a dozen barrels of cider ranged against the wall.

"It's all pretty sweet now, but it'll be hard enough some time. Then some of it'll make vinegar."

"What's in the little barrel?"

"Aunt Judith's currant-wine. She says it'll be the best wine in the world when it's old enough. Whenever anybody in the Valley gets sick, she takes a bottle of it, and goes there."

"She's real good."

"Susie, look at all the mince-pies on the swing-shelf."

"Ever so many!"

Scores of them, for the swing-shelf ran the whole length of the cellar right down the middle, and it held double rows of pies all ready to be carried up and warmed for use. Susie would have been willing to stay a few minutes, and look at the treasures in that cellar; but Corry suddenly exclaimed,-

"Port, let's hurry. They've come. Don't you hear Mrs. Stebbins?"

Just a little before that, aunt Judith up stairs had turned to the deacon with the remark,-

"Joshaway, I knew she'd come with Vosh. You can always hear her before she gets to the gate; leastwise, on a quiet night like this. I remember one night it was a-stormin', and the wind blew so hard she got right up to the door, and I hadn't heard a sound till she had her hand on the latch."

They could hear her now.

"And, Lavawjer, you must just mind one thing: you mustn't talk too much. Let them do their own talkin', specially Susie. I can't begin to tell what kind of a gal she's growin' up to be, onless I can hear her talk."

"Then Vosh'll have to keep a-givin' his mother somethin' to eat," snapped aunt Judith: "she never stops talkin' any other time."

Mrs. Farnham herself, while the young people were down stairs, had thoughtfully walked out into the storeroom adjoining the kitchen, and returned with a long-handled wire corn-popper, and a bag of what she called "'tucket corn." It was corn with small, round, blue-black kernels, that can pop out larger and whiter, for its size, than any other kind that grows. There is a legend that the seed of it came originally from the island of Nantucket; bu

t it has short "nubbin" ears, and even the island Indians must have found it a poor crop for any thing but popping.

Mrs. Stebbins was at the door now; and she never dreamed of knocking, and waiting out there in the cold until somebody should come to let her in. She was hardly over the threshold, before she said, as she loosened her shawl,-

"Judith, where is Susie and her brother, and Corry and Pen? They haven't gone away somewhere the very first night, have they? Vosh he told me they'd be at home, and I just thought I'd come over."

"They're down cellar. They'll be right up in a minute. Now, Angeline, you jest take off your hood and sit down.-Vosh, there's a chair. Hadn't you better take that popper and set to work?"

"Vosh tells me," continued his mother, "the boys got half a dozen of rabbits to-day. I don't care much for rabbits, but their hind-legs'll do to brile. And they seen a deer too. I'd ha' thought they might ha' shot it, if it was nigh enough. But then, deer isn't anyways like as easy to kill as they was when I was a gal. And they was only a couple of boys. I do say, now, here they come, and they're makin' racket enough for twenty."

They were coming indeed, streaming up out of the cellar, with every pair of hands full and a little more; and Mrs. Stebbins did not stop for an instant.

"Susie, is that you? Well, now, I must kiss you right away. Vosh said you was lookin' real pretty, and so you be; but he ain't always a good jedge. I knowed your mother when she wasn't no older'n you be now. She was Joshaway Farnham's sister. And so she's gone South for her health, and your father's gone with her, and you've come to put in the rest of your winter up here?-I do declare, Lavawjer, ef you ain't kerful, you'll burn up every kernel of that corn. Don't you stop to talk, and gawk around. Jest you tend to your corn-poppin'."

She had managed to get up from her chair and kiss Susie without interrupting the steady clack of her tongue; but she was a little out of breath for a moment, and sat still and watched them while they deposited upon the table the tall brown pitcher of cider, the pans of fruit, and the maple-sugar. The young folks had a chance to say a word to Vosh, and Corry and Porter each picked up a flat-iron and a hammer. There were plenty of nuts ready for them; and the sound of the cracking, and of the rattling, bursting corn in the popper, mingled oddly with Susie's efforts to answer the rapid inquiries poured upon her by Mrs. Stebbins.

"Now, Susie, I'm glad you've come. You're right from the city, and you're a well-grown gal now, and you know all about the fashions. We don't hear a word about 'em up here away till they've all come and gone, and somethin' else is in fashion. Got to wearin' short dresses, hev they? Think of me, or Judith, or your aunt Sarah Farnham, in short dresses! Wearin' panners too. I do say! What won't they put on next! Last thing they got up was them little skimp skirts for hard times, that came so nigh bein' the ruin of the dry-goods men. Didn't take no cloth at all.-Lavawjer, you're a-talkin' again. You just tend to your pop-corn."

"Now, Angeline," said Mrs. Farnham, "do take an apple, or a pear."

"Yes, Angeline," said aunt Judith, "and here's a plate of popped corn, and some nuts.-Joshaway, pour her out a mug of cider.-Pen, go to the cupboard and fetch a plate of krullers. It's the coldest kind of a night."

"So it is," began Mrs. Stebbins, "but the winters ain't what they used to be. No more the butternuts aren't, somehow; but I must say, you make out to have good fruit, though how you do it in these times beats me. Our trees die out."

Likely as not they did; but the attack had fairly begun, and poor Mrs. Stebbins found herself out-numbered. The deacon pressed her with the cider, and Mrs. Farnham with the krullers. There was the heaped-up plate of snowy white popped corn, and beside it was the tempting little hill of cracked hickory-nuts and butternuts. Susie broke off for her a noble piece of maple-sugar; and aunt Judith herself took a candle, and went down cellar for a couple of the best mince-pies. It was all too much for conversation of the kind Mrs. Stebbins delighted in.

"O Vosh!" suddenly exclaimed Susie. "Corry told us this morning about the bear you killed last winter."

It was cruel to mention such a thing just as Mrs. Stebbins had lifted a kruller, and she began to say,-

"Yes, about that bear. Lavawjer's father"-But she had to pause a moment, and Vosh took it up with,-

"No, Susie, I didn't kill him: I guess it was all three of us. He was chockfull of lead when he rolled over. We weren't twenty feet from him. Deacon Farnham he fired first, and then I did, and Corry; and we all had double-barrelled guns, and we didn't one of us miss. But it was a big bear"-

"Biggest kind," said Corry, "or he never could ha' lifted a fat hog clean out of the pen the way he did."

"I knowed a bear," began Mrs. Stebbins; but aunt Judith interrupted her with,-

"Now, Angeline, do take a slice of mince-pie. It's cold, but sometimes it's better cold than it is when it's warm."

The pie was too much for the memory of that other bear.

The sound of popping corn and cracking nuts had been almost incessant, and the young people had now succeeded in breaking all the ice the fire had left in that sitting-room. They were old acquaintances all around, and were chatting away merrily among themselves, with less and less reference to what might be going forward among the old folk by the table.

Mrs. Farnham and aunt Judith seemed to keep right along with their knitting, whatever else they might be doing. It seemed to do itself, a great deal like their breathing. Even the deacon managed to look into the corners of his newspaper while he pared an apple, or talked to Mrs. Stebbins. The light of the great astral-lamp on the table mingled with that from the fireplace in a sort of reddish-golden glow, that flickered over the walls and faces in a way to make every thing and every body wear a warm, contented, cosey look, that was just the right thing for a frosty winter evening.

By and by there came almost a full half-minute of silence, and at the end of it Vosh burst out as if an idea had taken him by surprise.

"I do declare! I never saw any thing jollier'n this is, in all my born days."

"Vosh," said Corry, "Port can beat you at checkers. You ought to have seen the way he beat me to-day. You just try him a game."

"Now, Lavawjer," said his mother from beyond the table, "you kin play well enough for way up here, but you can't think of comin' up to sech a young feller as Porter Hudson. He'll beat ye, sure."

At all events, he needed no more than that to make him try to do it; and Penelope brought out the great square board, and the bag of home-made checkers.

It must be confessed, that, after his triumphant experience with Corry, Porter Hudson imagined himself to have quite taken the measure of up-country skill and science at that game. He sat down to his new trial, therefore, with a proud assurance of a victory to come. It would have been kind of Corry to have given his cousin the least bit of a warning, but that young gentleman had been himself too roughly handled to feel very merciful. Besides, he had some very small and lingering doubt as to the result, and was willing to wait for it.

He need not have had any doubt, since there was really no room for any. Vosh was a born checker-player, and it is never easy to beat a fellow of that sort. Nobody ever knows exactly how they do it, and they themselves cannot tell. Their spare men get to the king-row, and their calculations come out right; and if you are Porter Hudson, and are playing against them, you get beaten very badly, and there's no help for you.

Corry watched that game with a suppressed chuckle, but it was a dreadful puzzle to Port. Even Pen did not venture to suggest a single good move, and the older people talked very quietly.

Mrs. Stebbins was a proud woman when Susie exclaimed,-

"Vosh has won it!"

It was of no use for aunt Judith to say,-

"Won't you have another slice of pie, Angeline, and some more cider?"

Mrs. Stebbins responded,-

"I don't keer if I do. Only I'm afeard it'll make me dream and talk in my sleep. Lavawjer always did play checkers mighty spry, but he ain't the player his father was when he was a young man. He didn't have no time to play checkers after he got to runnin' a farm of his own. Pie? Yes, Judith, you've got jest the right knack of makin' mince-pies." And while she went on to tell of the various good and bad pies she had seen or tasted, all the rest agreed with her about those they were eating. In fact, the good things of all sorts went far to reconcile even Porter Hudson to his defeat, and Vosh was truly polite about that. In less than two minutes he managed to get the other boys, and even the girls, talking about hunting, skating, coasting, sleigh-riding, and catching fish through the ice.

The evening seemed to melt away, it went so fast; and no one was willing to believe how late it was when Mrs. Stebbins began to put on her hood. They all saw her and Vosh to the door, and did not close that until the gate shut behind the last words the good woman succeeded in sending back to them.

It was something about boiled cider in mince-pies, but they failed to get it.

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