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   Chapter 13 A FIRESIDE STORY.

Winter Fun By William Osborn Stoddard Characters: 12880

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


Porter Hudson had a great deal upon his hands the forenoon following the coming of those wolves. He had to see his uncle take off their skins and that of the buck; and he had a great many questions to ask about wild animals in general, and wolves in particular. Pen had informed him, before she went to school, that the two wolf-skins were to be turned into buffalo-robes for Vosh's cutter and her father's big sleigh. She may also have been correct when she added, "They're the best kind of blankets you can get." Susie herself took an interest in that, for she was already crocheting the most fanciful red border she could think of for the rich fur of the wildcat they had brought home from Mink Lake. It promised to be an uncommonly brilliant lamp-mat.

As for Vosh and Corry and Pen, they were even eager to get to school early. The people of Benton Valley would know nothing about the wolves until the story should be set a-going. All three of them told it well, not only after they reached the school-house, but to some acquaintances whom they met on the way. If Pen's version was hardly as correct as the other two, there was certainly more of it; but her improvements were as nothing to those it received afterwards. Every boy and girl that heard it carried it home in a different shape. As many as could do so at noon were especially happy on that account; and such as lived too far away, and had brought luncheons with them, got along as well as they could, holding in, and hoping that they would still be the first to tell it to their folks.

Some were sure to be disappointed, for such news travels fast. One farmer who was in the village with a load of oats never waited to dicker about the price he sold them at, but got away at once, and stopped at six houses before he reached his own. By supper-time there were elderly ladies in the village who felt like bracing their front-gates with boards, and wondered if the wolves were really going to pester the village all winter. Perhaps the best and most vivid account of the fight was given by one small boy to Elder Keyser and his wife to carry home to Cobbleville. His description was very good, of how the buck led the wolves into Deacon Farnham's kitchen; and how Mrs. Farnham and aunt Judith and Mrs. Stebbins, and Susie Hudson and Pen, were there all alone, eating apples, till the men came in from hunting, and helped them. The elder had a meeting to go to that evening, or he would have driven over at once to inquire into the matter, and see if any of the family were really very badly bitten by those ferocious wild beasts. He took "Wolves in sheep's clothing" as a text for his next sermon, and it was most attentively listened to. Elder Evans and his wife got out their horse and cutter at once, and went in a hurry: so did Mrs. Squire King, only she took her big double sleigh, with the longest gilded goose-necks in that whole region. There were six ladies in it by the time she reached the foot of the hill below the Farnham homestead; for she was a good neighbor, and loved company. Somebody was out looking at the wolf-skins until nearly tea-time; but not one soul would stay to tea, after obtaining all the facts of that affair to go home with.

All that Mrs. Squire King saw of Susie Hudson made her feel more in earnest about the party; but she resolutely sealed her lips over it, except in a small bit of confidential talk with aunt Judith and Mrs. Farnham, and the five ladies who went with her in her own sleigh to see about the wolves.

It was a very busy tea-table, for ever so many people had to be talked about, and what they said had to be repeated; and Pen broke down entirely in trying to rehearse a wolf-story the teacher had told the scholars who staid in at noon. It turned out to have been a tiger-story with an elephant in it, and Pen had added the snow on her own responsibility.

After tea a little while, Vosh came over with a sled to get his wolf-skin and his share of the buck; and it would have been a small miracle if his mother had not come with him. The weather was every bit as cold as it had been the night before, and she said so as she entered the house.

"Never mind, Angeline," said aunt Judith. "Sit right down, and take off your things, and there won't be any howling done to-night."

"I jest do hope not, Judith Farnham, for I waked up nine times afore mornin' last night, and each time I was kind o' dreaming that I heard something; and it kep' me every now and then, all day, a-remembering that story of old Mrs. Lucas and Alvin Lucas, and that was ever so long ago. And it always did seem to me one of the queerest things; and you can't account for it, nohow."

"What was it, Mrs. Stebbins?" asked Susie. "Couldn't you tell us the story?"

They were all sitting around the fireplace; and Susie was gazing at a flickering blaze on the top log, or she might have noticed that her uncle and aunts had not said a word.

"Tell it? Well, I s'pose I can; but it isn't much of a story, after all. They do say that story-tellin's a good thing of a winter evening, when it's as cold as this; but I wasn't ever much of a hand at it, and it's got to be an old story now, what there is of it."

Vosh had no doubt heard the story, and knew what was coming; but both Corry and Pen joined with Port and Susie to urge Mrs. Stebbins a little. The deacon was still silent, and aunt Judith and Mrs. Farnham seemed to be knitting more rapidly than usual. Mrs. Stebbins hemmed twice to clear her throat, and drank some cider, and said it was a good thing to know how to keep it sweet all winter by putting in a chunk of lime while it was a-fermenting; and then she told her story.

"There's a wolf in it," said Pen to Porter Hudson; but it went right along, just the same.

"The Lucases they owned the farm we live on now; and it's a right good one, as soon as Vosh is old enough to handle it himself. That was away back when your uncle Joshaway was a young man, and he and Alvin Lucas were the closest kind of friends; and there wasn't a likelier young man around here than Alvin was, unless it was Vosh's father or your uncle Joshaway. It was before either one of 'em was married; and the war broke out the spring before, and it seemed as if all the young men was half crazy before harvestin' was over. There was eighteen of the very best and pick went right out from Benton Valley, and twice as many more from over

Cobbleville way, first thing, as soon as the grain was in, and some of the after-ploughin' was done. It was queer, but somehow, when they came together, they elected Alvin Lucas captain of that company; and a young fellow from Cobbleville was next; and Levi Stebbins was only a corporal at first; and your uncle Joshaway was a private, but he got to be a major before the war was over; and Vosh's father he came home a captain, with a big scar on his right arm, and he'd lost one of his front teeth in a scrimmage. But I must go right on to the wolf part."

"O Mrs. Stebbins!" exclaimed Pen with a long breath, "I'd forgot all about the war."

"So has most people," said Mrs. Stebbins; "and it's well they have, for it's only a root of bitterness now, and it ort not to be dug up for ever and ever. But that first winter after the war begun was an awful cold one, up hereaway. Leastwise, there kem a bitter snap, like the one we're having now; and somehow it seemed as if we never missed all those young men so much, not even in the fall work, as we did after winter sot in. There was a good many fire-places like this all over the country, where the folks missed the best face they had, for the one that isn't there always kind o' seems to be the best; and old Mrs. Lucas she counted on Alvin, most likely, a good deal as I do on Vosh. He was away down on the Potomac with his company, and there hadn't been a man of 'em hurt up to the time of that cold snap, and they sent letters home as reg'lar as clock-work; and people thought the war wasn't sech a dreadful thing, after all, so long as nobody got killed from Benton Valley and Cobbleville. Your folks lived right here, and mine away over on the other hill, nigh the dividing-line into the Sanders school-district; and your grandfather and grandmother Farnham were alive, and Susie Farnham she hadn't married Reuben Hudson and gone to the city, and Judith she was a young woman; and those two gals was at home with the old folks one evening"-

Just then Deacon Farnham got up from his chair, and sat down again; and aunt Judith rubbed her spectacles very hard indeed, and Mrs. Farnham looked at her, sidling, as if to see if she were interested in the story; and Pen looked around at every one, for she knew that Mrs. Stebbins must be getting pretty near the wolf now.

"It was one bitter cold night, and all the Lucases were at home, except, of course, Alvin; and there were four younger than he was; but he was the likeliest, as well as the oldest, and his next brother didn't go into the war till the second year. Old Mrs. Lucas wasn't nervous generally, but that night there seemed to be something the matter with her; and it was as dark as a pocket, as well as being so cold you could hardly keep the hens from freezing. She kept a-going to the window; and her husband, I heard him tell my mother about it, how she seemed to be listening for something, and all of a sudden she broke out, 'John, it's a wolf! Hear him! He's out there in the road! Something's happened to Alvin!' Now, I ain't a mite superstitious, and she wasn't, and John Lucas wasn't; but there was a charge of buckshot in his gun, and he took it up, and went right out"-

"Was the wolf there?" asked Pen with widely open eyes; for Mrs. Stebbins paused a moment, as if for breath, and aunt Judith's knitting had dropped into her lap, and she was staring hard at the fire.

"Yes, Pen," went on Mrs. Stebbins, "and he was nigher the house, and he howled again; and he sot still, and held his head up to howl, till John Lucas and his next son-Roger, his name was-got within shot of him; for he was crazed with the frost, jest as wolves will get in sech times."

"Did they kill him?" asked Corry.

"Dead as a mackerel," said Mrs. Stebbins. "And he was the biggest kind; but it didn't seem to comfort Mrs. Lucas a mite, and it was the strangest kind of a thing, after all. There isn't any superstition in me: but, when the next letters kem from the war, there'd been a scrimmage on the Potomac that very night; and Capt. Alvin Lucas, and four men from Benton Valley, and twice as many from Cobbleville, had been killed in it."

"I don't believe the wolf knew a word about the skirmish," said Port. "He couldn't, you know."

"Besides," said Pen, "they shot him; and he couldn't go all around the valley, and over to Cobbleville, and howl for the other folks."

Susie was just going to say something to aunt Sarah about it; but she and aunt Judith had suddenly arisen, and were walking out into the kitchen. Mrs. Stebbins looked down at her knitting, just the same, and finished her story as she toed out the last half-inch of that stocking.

"It kem awful hard on John Lucas, and he sold out his farm that next spring, and went West; and Levi Stebbins bought it as soon as his army time was ended, and he could come home again; and Joshaway he staid in till it was all over. Old Mrs. Lucas, it took her awful; but she was a good woman, for she said she couldn't get her mind right about losing Alvin till she could feel to sympathize with the mothers of men that was killed on the other side. I never had no trouble about that, for Levi he always spoke well of the Southern soldiers, and so did your uncle Joshaway; and mothers are mothers, no matter where you find 'em."

Mrs. Stebbins was quiet for a moment, and then remarked,-

"Lavawjer, it's time we was a-going home."

"I guess it is, mother."

It was while she was getting on her things that Deacon Farnham beckoned Susie Hudson away into the parlor entry for a moment, and whispered to her,-

"You are old enough to know some things, Susie. Don't say any thing more about that story. Speak to Port, and I will to Corry. Your aunt Sarah's elder brother was the first man killed in that skirmish: that was what came to her."

"And aunt Judith?"

"Capt. Lucas. They were engaged."

"O uncle Joshua!"

"That is what the war meant to both sides, my dear."

"I'm glad it was ever so long ago, and we don't know any thing about it," said Susie; and that was about what Port said when they spoke to him. It was not much of a wolf-story, after all, but it had helped away a winter evening, and perhaps it had done something more; for the boys and girls of one generation should not be ignorant, altogether, of the sufferings and sacrifices of those who have lived and died before they came to take their turn at it.

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