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   Chapter 14 THE BEAR-TRAP.

Winter Fun By William Osborn Stoddard Characters: 22117

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


When the family came down to breakfast the next morning, it looked as if every thing but the venison-steaks and johnnycake and hot coffee had been forgotten. The steaks were capital; and as for the johnnycake, nobody in all Benton Valley could beat aunt Judith at that sort of thing. She was proud of her skill, and liked to see its products eaten; but even as Porter Hudson was helping himself to his third slice, she said to him,-

"Once, when I was a girl, I remember being out of bread for a whole week."

"O aunt Judith!" exclaimed Pen, "didn't you eat any thing?"

"We had plenty of milk and pork and eggs and poultry, and we didn't starve. We pounded corn in a mortar and made samp, and we hulled some corn and made hominy, and ate it, and did capitally well."

"I think I could live a while on such starvation as that," remarked Susie, "especially if I had maple-sugar to melt down, and pour on the samp."

"We had some," said aunt Judith; "but we were just about out of flour and meal, when there came a thaw and a freshet; and the mill-dams all gave way, as if they'd agreed to go down together; and we had to wait till the mills got to running again. It wasn't easy to get a grist ground, even then; but we didn't suffer any. Folks sent ever so far for flour; but there wasn't any railroad then, and the roads were awful for a few weeks. There used to be great freshets in those days."

"That's a thing that might come any time after the bears turn over," said Mr. Farnham; and Port instantly asked him,-

"After the bears turn over! What have they to do with it?"

"Didn't you know that? Well, well! You're a city boy, and don't have any bears at home. Every bear hunts up a hollow tree as soon as it's too cold for him to get around in the woods comfortably, and sits down before it till there's a heavy snow. Then he creeps in, and gets the hole snowed up, and goes to sleep. He never dreams of waking up till spring; but, as soon as the sun is hot enough to warm the tree on one side, it makes him comfortable on that side of him, and he turns over in his sleep to warm the other. It's a sure sign of a thaw; and the snow melts pretty fast after that, till it's time for him to creep out and get something to eat."

"How hungry he must be!" said Pen.

"When is the best time to hunt for bears?" asked Port, with a dim idea that he would like to boast of having killed a few.

"Along in the fall, when the nuts are coming down. They're fattest then. They trap 'em every year all through the mountain country north."

"Trap 'em! Is there any trap big enough to catch a bear in?" asked Port.

"Big enough! I'd say so. And sometimes it's a wolf, or a wildcat, or a panther, instead of a bear; and I know of a man getting caught in one once."

"Did he get out?" asked Pen.

"I won't tell you about it now; but when we get into the sitting-room this evening, I'll let you know just how one man made a bear of himself away up on Sawbuck Mountain."

That was something to look forward to; but not long after Corry and Pen had gone to school, Porter Hudson took his gun, and marched away to the woods, all alone by himself. The crust was still as firm as ever, and there had been no snow worth mentioning since the great storm.

"I don't know exactly what I'm going to kill," he said to himself; "but I'm ready for any thing that comes."

His first call for Ponto had been obeyed somewhat fatly and sluggishly; but, the moment the old dog saw the gun, he was another and a more willing animal. He led the way, head and tail up, until he came to the spot in the road where the wolves had pulled down the buck. The new snow, thin as it was, covered all traces of that adventure. But Ponto's memory, or nose, made him precisely accurate. Port was quite willing to stop a moment, and recall how that spot had looked in the moonlight, and how uncommonly loud and sharp had seemed to be the reports of the guns. All the hills had echoed them; and it occurred to him, that, if he should now meet a pack of wolves, he would have but two loads of buckshot, instead of eight.

"And no slugs," he added. "I should have brought some along. I don't care, though. I could climb a small tree, and fire away."

He afterwards noted quite a number of small trees well adapted to such business. So were some lower limbs of several larger trees, and he stood for a few minutes under one of these. He imagined himself sitting on that great projecting branch, climbing out to where it was ten feet above the snow, with a large pack of very ferocious and hungry wolves raging around below him, while he loaded and fired until the last of them had keeled over.

"Wolves can't climb," he remarked to himself; and he felt that such an affair would be grand to tell of when he should get back to the city. It would make a sort of hero of him, and the wolves could be skinned right there. He enjoyed it mentally; but that particular pack of wild beasts, killed off, in his imagination, under that tree, were all the game, of any kind, that he obtained that day. Ponto did better, for he discovered innumerable tracks in the snow, and they seemed to answer his purposes admirably. He could sniff and bark, and run and come back again, and look up into Port's face as if he were saying, "There, I've had another hunt."

Port had one. In fact, he hunted until he was sick of it, and decided that it was altogether too cold to hunt any longer. It seemed to him that he had been gone from the house a very long time indeed; and he was all but astonished, on his return, to discover that he was quite in season for dinner.

"Didn't you see any thing whatever?" asked Susie. She had felt a little anxiety about him, considering what dreadful things the forest was known to contain, and was even relieved to have him reply,-

"Not so much as one rabbit. You never heard any thing so still as the woods are."

"Didn't know but what you might bring home a few deer," said Deacon Farnham, "or find a bear-tree."

"I'm good and hungry, anyhow," said Port; "and it's the hardest kind of work, looking all around for nothing."

He had not done that. No city boy can spend a morning in the winter forest, with a gun and a dog, without learning something. It is an experience he will not forget so long as he lives.

Those had been great days for Vosh Stebbins. He felt that he had new duties on his hands ever since his new neighbors came, and was more and more inclined to hurry home from school in the afternoon, and get his chores done early. His mother remarked more than once that she had hardly one moment to say a word to him, and that he could split more wood in half an hour than any other boy in Benton Valley. Nevertheless it was at their own supper-table that evening that she said to him,-

"We'd best not go over to the other house to-night, Lavawjer. We've been there a good deal lately, and I like to be neighborly, and it's a good idee to help 'em with their city cousins, and I never seen any that I took to more'n I do to Port and Susie Hudson; but there's reason in all things, and we mustn't be runnin' in too often."

Vosh buttered another hot biscuit, and did not make any reply, because he could not think of the right one to make. It was made for him just a little after tea, when he told his mother that every thing he had to do was done. She had cleared away the tea things, and had taken her knitting, and both of them were sitting by their own fireplace.

"Our sittin'-room," she said, "isn't as big as Joshaway Farnham's, and it doesn't call for more'n half so much fire; but it's a nice one, and I wish we had more folks into it. We must ask 'em all to come over some evening, and I'll see if I can't make 'em feel comfortable. I'll make some cake, and we've got a'most every thing else on hand. And that makes me think: I want Judith Farnham's new recipe for makin' the kind of cake she had Christmas and New-Year's; and you can put on your overcoat and come right over with me, and we won't stay one minute, and you mustn't let them get ye to talkin' about any thing." And Vosh was beginning to get ready before she reached that point. She put away her knitting at once, and said there was plenty of wood on the fire, for they were coming right back; and so Vosh piled on two more large logs, and they started. He may have had ideas of his own as to how much wood might burn while he and his mother were walking to Deacon Farnham's and returning. Some short walks are long ones, if the people who walk them are not careful.

"I'm real glad they've come," said Mrs. Farnham the moment she heard her neighbors at the gate. "They're good company, too, and it must sometimes be kind of lonely for 'em,-only two in the house, and no young people."

Her fireside had no lonely look, and it was all the brighter for those who now came in. It was of no manner of use for Mrs. Stebbins to speak about cake, and say she had not come to stay. Vosh settled himself at once with a hammer and a flat-iron and some hickory-nuts; and aunt Judith pulled up a rocking-chair, remarking,-

"Now, Angeline, don't let us have any nonsense. Sit right down here and be comfortable. I'll make a copy of the receipt for you to-morrow, and I always put in more eggs than it calls for."

"Vosh," said Pen, "you mustn't make too much noise. Father's going to tell a story. It's of a man that got lost in the woods, and made a bear of himself."

"I've known fellows do that, and not go far into the woods either," said Vosh; and Susie thought a moment before she added,-

"So have I. But then, some men can be bears, and not half try."

The deacon laughed, and put down the apple he was paring.

"I don't know if it's much of a story," said he; "but it has one advantage over some other stories, for it's a true one.-Take an apple, Mrs. Stebbins.-Corry, pass them to Vosh.-Pen, well, keep the cat in your lap if you want her."

"Now," said aunt Judith, "I guess everybody's ready."

"I won't go home till after the story, nohow," said Mrs. Stebbins; "but speaking of bears"-

"Mother," interrupted Vosh, "you've dropped your yarn. Here it is."

"Hem!" said the deacon. "There were more bears all around the country once than there are now, and they did more mischief. It was really worth while to take a hunt for 'em now and then; and there's always a good market for bear-skins, if you cure 'em well. The way my story came about was this:-

"There was one November when the woods were just full of deer, and some young fellows from Benton Valley made up their minds they'd have a good hunt before the real cold weather came. There hadn't been just such an Indian summer for years and years, and camping out in the mountains was no kind of hardship. The nights were cold, but the days were warm; and all four of them were strapping young men, used to taking care of themselves, and brimful of fun.

"They went up beyond Mink Lake, and it looked as if the deer kept away from them all that first day. Th

ey'd have gone to bed hungry, if it hadn't been for some fish they caught; and the next morning they made up their minds they'd go out singly, in different directions, and see which of them would do best. What was curious, they didn't have but one dog along, and his owner counted on having the most game, as a matter of course."

"He was the man that got beared," whispered Pen to the cat in her lap; but her father went right on,-

"The man that owned the dog started out from camp right along the slope of Sawbuck Mountain, northerly; and there are little lakes every mile or so, and they're just swarming with fish. He was following an old path that was pretty well marked. Maybe it was an old Indian trail; but white men had followed it in winter, for the trees were blazed, so you could follow it if there was snow on the ground to hide it."

The deacon paused a moment, as if thinking how to go on; and Porter Hudson asked him eagerly,-

"Did he have the kind of luck I had yesterday?"

"Well, not exactly," replied his uncle. "Before it was ten o'clock by his watch, he had killed and hung up three deer. Real fat ones they were, too, and one of them was a seven-year-old buck with horns that were worth having."

"'Pears to me," remarked Mrs. Stebbins, "the deer nowadays don't have the horns they did when I was a gal;" but the deacon went right on,-

"He didn't know just how many miles he might be from camp; and he knew he'd need help in carrying in those deer, unless he should cut up the meat and set out to smoke it right there."

"And good smoked deer-meat is something worth having," said his wife.

"But he walked on for half a mile or so, just as if there was any use in going for another deer that day, till he came out into a sort of open. The land sloped down to the shore of a little lake as regularly and smoothly as if it had been cleared for a deer-pasture. There wasn't a deer on it just then; but right in the edge of the opening the hunter found something that set him a-thinking. It was the best bear-trap he had ever seen. There was a little ledge of rocks; and about the middle of it was a break that made a square place the size of a small bedroom, only it wasn't much more than six feet high by ten feet deep. The fellows that made the trap had built up the front with heavy upright logs to hang their gate on, and covered the top with logs."

"Please, uncle Joshua," said Susie, "what is the gate for?"

"To let the bears in. Did you ever see a figure 4 rat-trap? That's it. The gate lifts up, with a strong sapling for a hinge, and the ends of the sapling (that's the roller) are fitted into the logs at the sides. There's a long pole fitted into the gate to lift it by, and, when that's pulled down flat on top of the trap, the gate is up about level. There was a wooden catch geared through the roof of that trap so nicely, that, when the pole was in the notch of it, the trap was set to spring at any kind of pull on the bait. The lower end of that catch hung away back by the rock, and the whole machine was in prime order."

"It was somebody else's trap," remarked Corry doubtfully.

"Oh, he could see that nobody had been there that year. The timber was all seasoned, and there was grass growing against the gate. There was a good stiff latch, made with a deep notch in the logs to hold that gate after it came down; and, if a bear once shut himself in, there was no possibility of his getting out. The hunter looked it all over, and made up his mind he'd set the trap, and go back to the last deer he'd killed, and get some fresh meat for bait, and see if something could be done with it. It was some time before he could get at the pole so as to bring it down; but he worked it with a grape-vine for a rope, and it came into place perfectly. Then he went to his deer, and got his bait, and hurried back, as if he were afraid some beast or other would get caught before the bait was there to account for it. You use it just as you use toasted cheese in a rat-trap, only you tie it on, so it'll take a hard pull to get it off. A bear is sure to pull, and that springs the trap; a panther isn't so apt to be stupid about it; and a wolf won't, unless he's hungry. They're more cunning than a bear is, anyhow."

"He didn't toast the whole deer, and put him on?" said Pen.

"No, he didn't toast any thing; but he was hard at work, tying all he had taken from the inside of that deer to the catch of the trap, when something happened that he hadn't been looking for."

"Was it a bear?" said Pen.

"Worse than that. He had pulled too hard on the catch, and it had slipped the pole free, and down came the gate with a bang, and he had trapped himself completely. The gate just missed the dog when it fell, but it left him outside. The first thing the hunter did was to laugh. Then he said he would finish tying the meat on, and go up and set the trap over again. He tied it on carefully, and set out to get ready for bears; but, when he tried to lift that gate, it wouldn't lift. It was made heavy purposely; and it was caught in the notch below, just exactly right, for the man that made that trap knew how. There was nothing about it to laugh at, and the hunter sat down and thought it over: so did the dog, looking at him through the cracks of the logs, and whimpering. It doesn't take a good dog long to understand when things are going badly."

"He could have chopped his way out," said Port.

"Yes," said the deacon, "but he had no axe, and a jack-knife is a poor tool to work with on seasoned timber. He tried it for a while; but it seemed as if he might whittle away for a week, or till he starved to death, before he could make a hole to get out by. He couldn't dig under, for limestone rock is hard digging. He worked a little at the roof, but that had been weighted with heavy stones, so that a bear could not have stirred a log of it. On the whole, it was a pretty tight place to be in; and it was dinner-time, and he was tremendously hungry. He had not a mouthful to eat or drink, and he knew his friends would not be uneasy about him before night, and not much even then. He was uneasy already, and so was the dog. The poor fellow came and pawed at the logs, and whined and whined; then he went back, and stood and barked like mad at the whole concern."

"What a pity he didn't have an axe to chop himself out!" said Pen. "Then he wouldn't have staid there and starved to death."

"He didn't do that exactly," said the deacon. "He sat down and thought about it, and studied that gate, until by and by an idea came to him. It was the middle of the afternoon before it came, but it was a good one. There were splinters of wood around the floor of the trap, and he had whittled a heap of shavings from the log he had worked on. He gathered them all, and began to crowd them into the chinks of the logs, away up in both corners of the gate, just under the roller that it swung on. Soon as he'd got them well packed in, he took out his match-box, and set them on fire. There isn't any trouble about getting dry wood to burn; and it was plain enough, that, if the ends of that roller were burned away, the gate would have to go down."

Everybody around that fireplace felt sure about the burning qualities of seasoned wood, for they all had to pull away a little, and the story went on.

"The fire kindled well on both corners. The fact was, it kindled a little too well, and it spread, and the smoke began to come back into the trap. Just before the hunter took out his match-box, he had looked around for his dog, and the fellow wasn't anywhere to be seen. There was time now to wonder what had become of him, but no amount of whistling brought him. Then the smoke grew too thick to whistle in, and the hunter lay down to get some fresher air at the bottom of the gate. The fire spread to the logs of the roof, and began to climb down the gate, and the trap became the hottest kind of a place. It took a long time for all that; but there was plenty of excitement in watching it, and in wondering whether or not he was going to roast himself to death instead of getting out. It grew hotter and hotter, until it could hardly be endured, and the smoke was stifling. At last the hunter sprang up, and gave a shove at the gate with all his might. If he had done it before, it might have let him out sooner. The gate went over upon the ground with a crash, and one jump carried the man out of the trap. He had left his rifle outside, leaning against a tree; and there it was yet, but there was not a sign of the dog.

"He had left a big piece of deer-meat out there too; and his next thought was that he had plenty of fire to cook by, and that he wanted some supper as soon as he had been to the lake for a long drink of water. That water tasted good, now, I tell you, and so did the broiled meat afterwards; for the sun was only an hour high, and he had had an early breakfast that morning. He sat and cooked and ate, and felt better; and all the while the fire was finishing up the bear-trap, roof and all. He did his cooking on the gate; and, if he had not been able to get out when he did, the gate and roof would have cooked him."

"Oh!" exclaimed Pen. "And he wasn't hurt a mite?"

"No," said her father; "and just as he finished eating, and rose to pick up his rifle and start for the camp, there came a yelp, yelp, yelp through the woods, and there was his dog got back again. He hadn't come alone either; for right along behind him, travelling good and fast, were the three other hunters. The dog had been to the camp for them, and made them understand that his master was in trouble."

"Splendid!" exclaimed Susie.

"And when they saw the smoke of that fire, they all shouted and ran, till the dog gave a howl and a jump, and began to dance around the man he belonged to. He told his friends the whole story, and there was the fire to prove the truth of it; and each of them had killed a deer that day."

"And how did you ever come to know just exactly how it all happened," said Mrs. Stebbins, "so't you can tell it right along, 'most as if you'd been there?"

"Well," said the deacon, "I suppose it's because I was the man that got caught in the trap; and the other three were Alvin Lucas, and Levi Stebbins, and Sarah's brother, Marvin Trowbridge, that's living now at Ticonderoga."

"I'd heard the story before," said aunt Sarah, "and I remember seeing that dog when he was so old he was gray."

"I guess he didn't get turned out of the house when he was old," said Port enthusiastically; "but why didn't you fix the trap, and set it again?"

"That's the very thing we did; and we caught three bears in it, and one wildcat, before the snow came. Only we always took care to bait the hook before we set the trap; and nobody else had to set it on fire to get out of it."

"Vosh," said his mother, "as soon as I've finished this apple, it'll be time for you and me to be getting ready to go home."

"That's all," said the deacon.

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