BEYOND THE PASTURE BARS
“I’ll trade ye a shipment of spices for that five-hundred acre farm,” said the shorter of the two.
“For a thousand to boot, and not a cent less,” replied the taller.
“It’s a trade,” said the spice merchant as he drew from his pocket a sizable roll of bills and counted out ten of one hundred dollar denomination. “This will seal the bargain.”
A third person, the shortest of the group, in fact a mere “sawed-off,” stood by as witness to this lively transaction.
“When can I have my spices?” inquired the tall fellow.
“Within ten minutes,” replied the spice merchant with the utmost confidence.
“The Jenny S. is due right now.” And he suddenly disappeared.
Leisurely the tall fellow and the very short fellow strolled towards the wharf to take a look over the broad expanse of the Pacific and to await the arrival of the Jenny S. from the Orient.
They didn’t have to wait long, for there, before their very eyes, the great ship had just rounded a promontory, and was fast coming to port, flag flying and propeller pounding the heavy sea.
With telescopes leveled on the ship, the tall fellow and the very short fellow beheld – What do you think they beheld? – the spice merchant himself standing on the bridge!
What’s more, he seemed to be the only man on the ship – “the cook and the captain bold, and the mate” of the Jenny S.
By this time you will not be surprised if I tell you that the tall man was my ten-year-old cousin; the spice merchant, his nine-year-old cousin, and likewise mine; and the “sawed off,” my five-year-old self. The broad Pacific was the frog pond; the Jenny S., a raft; the shipment of spices, a
bucket of sweet flag roots hastily pulled up from the lower end of the pond; and the bucket
itself, a cedar sap bucket surreptitiously lifted from Grandfather’s choice collection.
The Jenny S. was indeed a masterpiece, both in plan and construction. A beneficent hurricane had blown down a bulky spruce tree close by the pond, from which my two cousins with a dull, two-man crosscut saw, and a duller ax, by dint of courage and tenacity, had worried out two eight-foot logs. With much puffing and prying, often at cross purpose, we arranged the logs about five feet apart on a sloping bank, with a third of their bulk in the water. Then we scanned the decrepit board fence surrounding the Frog Pond Pasture, if perchance we might discover a few five or six foot lengths of board which were, in our judgment, of no real benefit to the fence.
These hypothetical boards we planned to lay across the logs and thus make a floor to stand on.
By stretching our collective conscience far beyond what should have been the breaking point, and by creating several well-spaced transparencies in the fence so that the cows could get a much clearer view of whatever was happening on the other side, we assembled quite a sizable pile of boards. These, supplemented by odds and ends which we picked up around the barns, we sawed into proper lengths, and laid them across the logs. Then the real estate broker and the spice merchant slammed into the craft two or three pounds of rusty nails in varying degrees of crookedness, amid much tumult and shouting, in which exercise I played a creditable role.
We nailed to the mast “her holy flag.” Yes, it was holey all right, for grass hoppers had both dined and supped on it in divers places. In fact, it was an old flag a Grand Army veteran had cast upon a brush pile when he placed a bright new one on the grave of a comrade last Decoration Day. To the old veteran this faded rag was no longer the flag for which he had fought in ’61.
Truly, after the devastation wrought by sun and wind, rain and snow, to say nothing of grasshoppers, it would have taken a vivid imagination to discern ”broad stripes and bright stars.”
But as we all possessed just such an imagination, we accepted the old relic as the flag of the
For the christening we found an empty Hood’s Sarsaparilla bottle and filled it with hard cider from Grandfather’s fine stock. Then, with a few well-chosen words by the acting Secretary of the Navy, an effective application of the cider, and a concerted tugging with pries, the Jenny S. lurched down the ways into the ocean to the silent applause of a vast concourse of spectators, no less than ten
thousand – polliwogs! who, inasmuch as they had no flags to wave (as spectators are supposed to do at ship launchings), waved their tails.
From that day on, we made many journeys to the ends of the earth, both business and sight-seeing. We developed such speed in the engines and such efficiency in the crew that we were able to deliver a consignment of ice cream. to the Eskimos at 12 noon, and land a company of missionaries on the Hottentots at 12:10 p.m. of the same day We acquired extensive estates in various parts of the world, built stone walls around them, and sold them for fabulous sums, always for something “to boot.”
Such were the homely joys afforded a trio of youngsters back in the eighties by that puddle of water we called the frogpond. It was indeed a mere puddle, perhaps a half acre in extent and not more than six feet at its greatest depth but to us it was a beautiful sheet of water, with its bays and inlets, its promontories carpeted with soft green moss and shaded by spruce and hemlock trees.
Of all the interesting features of Grandfather’s west pasture, we’d have voted the frog pond
number one on the list and evidently somebody of an earlier generation was of the same mind, for he had given its name – The. Frog Pond Pasture – to all those acres sloping westward from the pasture bars. Who was that unknown man – or woman? I was at least six years old before it occurred to me that it might not have been an Indian.
The thought of the Frog Pond Pasture calls up memories not only of happy seasons of play, but also of not unhappy days of work; of play in the early years in the jolly companionship of my beloved cousins and of work in the latter “teen” years,
after they both had left me disconsolate, to go away to school and to find other homes.
But to me, work in the Frog Pond Pasture was never drudgery; that just couldn’t happen here.
But earlier yet, even before I was old enough to go thither alone to play, the Frog Pond Pasture with its adjoining woodlands, many acres in extent, fascinated me; it was a place of mystery, unexplored, inhabited by strange birds and animals, especially at night. Out of its dark recesses came the weird hoot of the barred and the great horned owls, the blood-curdling plaint of the screech owl. the husky bark of the fox the unearthly yowl of the bobcat, and the endless iteration of the
whippoorwill. What food for a child’s imagination! There were pleasant sounds, too, as when the hermit thrush, known all through my boyhood as the “nightingale,” chanted his vesper anthem, the sweetest of all bird songs, but tinged with melancholy. Out of the frog pond with ice barely melted, came the welcome rattle of the croaking frogs, harbingers of spring; and an evening or two later, the still merrier chorus of the piping frogs. And after the croakers and the pipers had started their large families and become silent,- an occasional bullfrog, just to save the reputation of the frog clan
for music came up to the surface with a solo in double bass –”TRRRROONK, TRRRROONK.
I can’t name the day I first explored any part of this delectable pasture. Perhaps it was when I tagged after my mother or a favorite aunt or cousin as they went out under a fair June sky, in quest of wild strawberries. A small boy wasn’t expected to pick berries to go into the shortcake for dinner or to swell the supply of strawberry jam that was to bring the thought of summer to a family sitting around the lamp lit supper table in December. But he could fill his own stomach and smear his own
face like the little wild Indian he was. And he could chase butterflies to his heart’s content if he didn’t injure their soft wings; or, if he would be “real careful,” he could even steal up to the edge of the frog pond and watch the polliwogs scamper. He could stand up to the wild rose bushes which grew (and still grow) in such abundance there, and smell the sweet but wild fragrance of those lovely open-face blossoms of pink and gold.
Or perhaps I was riding down on the buckboard with Father to the pasture spring for a tub of drinking water, when the dooryard well was going dry – to that blessed spring that runs on forever, and has tided our family over more than one terrific drought. And when I think of what it has meant, not only to our family during the past ninety years, and the four families that lived in succession on the place before Grandfather acquired it, and to the neighbors who fall upon its largess whenever their water supply runs low, and to the long line of cattle that, during the past hundred and fifty years, have taken their walk from the barn thither for their daily drink – when I think of all this, I wonder why the west pasture was not named for the spring instead of the frog pond.
But however or whenever it was I first set my foot there, the fact remains that my acquaintance with the old pasture and its adjoining woods grew apace, as when, bundled with muffler, and protected with ear muffs and mittens I rode for the first time on the sled with the men as they gathered maple sap into the “draw” tub. It was a rough ride, at least in spots, when, for instance, the sled would nose-dive into a thank-ye-mam– a performance which always excited the horses and made them gallop through the next one. But it was fun to hold onto the guy chain., or try to, even
if I was occasionally slung headfirst into a snow drift, or’ got a squirt in the eye as the maple sap churned away in the big tub, like ocean waves breaking on a ledge.
Then, too, I liked to ride around those same winter woodland paths as the men gathered up the piles of cord-wood on the traverse sled, or great logs on the bob sled, and drew them up to a level spot near the farm buildings to await the annual visit of the sawing machine. I could watch a squirrel or a woodpecker while the wood was being loaded, and climb to the top of the load for a triumphal ride home, the shock to my anatomy being effectively eased by several thicknesses of horse
blankets upon which I sat.
But whether we were after maple sap to boil into sugar, or cord wood to assuage the appetite of three hungry~ wood-burning stoves~ I had a perfect opportunity to explore all parts of the Frog Pond Pasture woods. I knew every nook and cranny, or so I thought. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when, two or three months later, after the snow had gone and the leaves had come, I followed my father on my first fishing excursion through those same woods as through a strange country.
How changed everything was!
“Remember the thank-ye-mam where you tumbled off the sled and into the snow drift?” asked Father.
“Oh my! I couldn’t forget that I” I replied.
“Well, there it is.” A painted trillium was blooming in the deepest part of the depression and, as we stooped to admire its lovely hues, a small brown bird darted from a very ingenious nest and scuttled away, feigning a broken wing.
“Remember the hollow beech you saw last winter where the squirrels had stored away so many beech nuts all shelled and ready to set on their dinner tables?”
“I couldn’t forget that, either,” I replied.
“Well, there is the stump of the tree,” said Father.
It didn’t look at all as it did in the winter; but the pain came back to my heart when I thought of those poor little squirrels that Jim had made homeless when he chopped down the tree and ate the beechnuts! Of course, when he began chopping, Jim didn’t know he was taking away the squirrels’ home, but he had no excuse for eating their winter’s store. He should have gathered his own supply of beechnuts last October, and shelled them with his own jackknife, before his own fireside.
When we reached the brook, which was our objective, that, too, was changed. Last winter it was sleeping under its sheet of ice and coverlet of snow – sleeping, but dreaming – for it was murmuring a sweet song, low and indistinct, as if from the heart of Dreamland, its pure musical quality muffled by the thick covering of snow.
But the brook had long since heard the call of the robin, and had thrown off its winter covering; and on this day it was awake, singing with clear unmuffled voice. I’m glad I first heard its spring song on that May morning when I trudged after Father and carried the string of trout; for ever since that day, the brook, like the spring and the frog pond, has had a warm place in my heart. To outsider, and especially to the hundreds of fishermen who yearly take their toll of trout from its gushing waters, it would rank far ahead of the spring and the frog pond in importance; but of course very few of those fishermen ever drank of the spring, and positively none of them ever sailed to Bombay on the Jenny S!
The brook flows the whole width of the woodlot, entering amid a thicket of alders jealously guarding its banks – a headache to that fisherman who presumes to reel out more than eighteen inches of line. Presently it clears the alders and winds its way between soft, moss-covered banks through a sparsely-wooded glade where a few pointed firs pierce, the sky. It was here that Charlie Indian had his log hut. of course many years before Grandfather owned the land.
Charlie is supposed to have been a full-blood Indian. perhaps the last of the Cowsucks in this vicinity, for he outlived old Joe of Coos by several years. He spent much of his time in hunting and fishing. Occasionally he worked for the Deacon who lived over on the West Hill; and when well fortified with the Deacon’s hard cider, he was a formidable competitor in almost any kind of unskilled manual labor. But especially as a mower in the hayfield. If several men were mowing in the same lot, Charlie, by universal consent (or demand), was placed at the head; for no one’s legs
would have been safe with Charlie next behind him. He slew not only grass. But bushes and stumps as well,and even the very stones shuddered at his approach. The only thing that fazed him was a nest of hornets; this he circumspectly avoided. When, as it sometimes happened, he discovered the nest too late. he’d throw his scythe and run and bellow an Indian war whoop. When he was mowing at the head of the line, he’d look back through the corner of his eye, and if his followers were lagging, he’d quicken his pace and shout: “Me mow – me mow more’n a Yankee man1”
All this Father told me as we slowly made our way down the brook on that first fishing trip. But he didn’t tell me how some practical joker presented
Charlie with a box of carthartic pills and told him to take the entire contents of the box for a dose. What Charlie said when somebody asked him how he liked’ em wouldn’t have been proper for the ears of the small boy I then was; and if I should set his words down here, they’d burn a hole in the page before the censor could get at them with his scissors.
But of course we didn’t linger too long sentimentalizing over Charlie Indian, for we were really after trout for dinner – and for fun.
We followed the brook, therefore, as it slipped quietly through the glade into the tall, dark woods where its bed became rougher, filled as it was with large rocks. In several places, as the brook flowed onward, it fell over ledges, making picturesque cascades; then it gathered into a deep pool; then it spread out over a bed of pebbles which caused a “shingly” surface, only to gather itself into a narrow channel between rocks, and to tumble again over a ledge into another broad, deep pool over which a great hemlock, centuries old, had fallen, forming a perfect bridge some eight or ten feet above the cataract and pool. On this log we sat as Father let out his line into the pool, and drew up enough trout to complete our quota for dinner.
But we kept on sitting there after the last trout had bitten, while Father told me of Indians – not more about old Charlie, but of other Indians who lived a hundred and more years before Charlie’s day, who followed the ancient trail which passed but a scant quarter-mile from where we were sitting – that famous trail leading from the Connecticut River to Lake Champlain, over which many captives were led to Canada.
Then to mitigate the jar to our nerves by the thought of massacres and scalpings, we became quiet and listened to the music of the tiny cataract and the songs of a myriad of birds in the trees above us. Then we continued our way down the broo, admiring the lovely wild iris and the double columbines that grew in small clumps along the brookside, and seemed to reflect with their rich hues the color of the sky.
Presently we stopped for a moment
where the brook, just before gliding under the fence that separated Grandfather’s land from his neighbor’s, forms itself into a broad, deep pool.
“That’s the place where the boys from school used to come for a dip, “ said Father.
“It was never deep enough for swimming, but it was a good place to splash around in.
Mebbe you’ll come up here, too, when you go to school”
His guess was correct; a few months later, after having been enrolled (aged five) as a freshman in the school of District No.1, I wasn’t a bit surprised to find myself in the company of boys going up in the noon recess for a dip in that very pool.
And, believe me, when that bunch of fifteen boys, aged from five to twenty-one, were stripped and splashing around in that miniature pond, there wasn’t much room left for the fish.
How proud I was that the “ole swimmin’, hole” – or should I say splashin’ hole? – was in Grandfather’s brook!
But our pleasant fishing trip was ended, and Father reeled up his line.
Then we started on our homeward trek through the woods, following the line fence, he with fishpole over his shoulder, and I with the wherewithal for our dinner, our ears still ringing with woodland music wild and sweet. I felt then I had really explored the woodlands, having seen them both with and without a covering of snow.
As the days and the years rolled on, there was more play beyond the pasture bars – more fishing in the brook, swimming in the frog pond, hunting for the hepatica and the wake-robin in early spring, and gathering beechnuts after the frosts had opened the burs, and. the autumn winds had sent the nuts down in showers, among the seared leaves.
There was work, too, in increasing amount as time went on; for no small boy can remain small – not if blessed with such an appetite as mine was. There were easy chores at first, like taking lunches to the wood-choppers, and remaining with them to help pile the brush chopped out of the tree-tops. In sugaring time there was sap for a boy to gather, at first with a small pail, and later, aw he grew in size, with a larger pail.
This was more play than work, however; for the boy liked the taste of new sugar in March extremely well, nor did he ever object to having a
tub of maple sugar within easy jabbing distance of his jackknife any time of year.
But if sugaring in spring appealed to my physical appetite, so did gathering leaves under the frog pond maples in early November appeal to my imagination. The thought of the horses, the cattle, and the pigs all snuggling in a warm bed of leaves on a cold night in January, was motive enough for my enjoyment of this yearly task. But there was something more – something about an Indian Summer day that enthralled me; blue skies above, a dreamy haze upon the mountains, bluebirds flocking for their southern journey, red squirrels scampering over the old rail fence, their cheeks filled with beechnuts to be stored away in a hollow tree against the needs of winter, a screaming hawk soaring in sweeping circles far up in the azure, dry leaves rustling in deep hollows or piled high against sunny banks. And as my hands were busy gathering those leaves, and tossing them by basketfulls into the great cart for winter beds, my heart found joy merely in being alive – not the joy that breaks into laughter~ but the joy that sweetens life, solemn but beautiful, experienced but never expressed in words, a submerged poem never quite coming to the surface.
But there was more than work and play with the Frog Pond Pasture as locale.
There were chores, also – those little jobs in the twilight zone that were neither work nor play.
They weren’t hard enough to be rated as work; and, because they had to be done at a definite time, no one would think of them as play.
Chore s were a pretty commonplace diet, but sometimes they were seasoned with the pepper and spice of tragedy or comedy, as on the day when, according to my custom, I carried a midday lunch of milk out to the pasture bars, for my pet heifer whose name~ believe it or not, was Ichabod.
Usually Ichabod didn’t wander far from the pasture bars, and came instantly at my call. One day, however, she was farther away, apparently exploring the woodland. I called eagerly for a minute or two before she broke away from whatever was holding her attention, and came galloping out of the woods for her lunch, adorned with full beard!
Have you ever seen a moustache cup – one of those funny contraptions from which our bearded New England grandfathers, as well as Kentucky colonels used to drink their coffee? Never was man or beast in more urgent need of one than Ichabod was at that moment. Into the pail she thrust her bewhiskered nose, and sooped and slobbered and blew bubbles as usual. Then, as she neared the bottom of the pail, in obedience to an instinct all calves have to induce a greater flow of milk, she gave the pail a terrific bunt, only to withdraw her head instantly and cry with pain. I reported her strange looks and stranger actions to Grandfather.
“Hedgehog!” he exclaimed. “stuck her nose on a cussed hedgehog! That’s what comes of sticking yer nose into other folks’s business. Now let that be a lesson to you, young man! “
I never was openly saucy to Grandfather, but I wanted to say: “Who’s’ been sticking his nose into whose business? ‘Tain’t my nose that’s sore; it’s Ichabod’s.” Just then I saw a twinkle in Grandfather’s eye, so I didn’t take him too seriously, and was glad I’d been a good boy (or a coward), and hadn’t sauced him.
But my nose was sore, and every other part of my body as well, when I witnessed the operation which followed – the removal of those cruelly-barbed porcupine quills. Grandfather closed in on Ichabod’s larboard side; the hired man embraced her stern; while Father, leaning heavily against her starboard, with his left arm around her neck and a pair of sure-grip pincers in his right hand, proceeded to bewhisker her. Tough as the experience was, Ichabod survived, and became a large and
handsome cow and the mother of a numerous progeny.
Another quite agreeable chore was to water the horses at the spring. When my older cousin was at home, he would take Flying Tiger and I, old Katy or old Doody. We’d lead them down and then ride them home bareback. With nothing but a halter to guide them (which was nothing at all), we didn’t think it wise to induce much speed. Sometimes we’d take them directly back to their stalls. other times, when there was work for a team to do, we’d guide them past the stable door and across the road to the shed where the harnesses were kept.
One morning there was work for the horses– work that had to be attended to right away.
To expedite matters, when a short distance from the barn, my cousin, returning from the spring, dug his heels into Flying Tiger’s ribs, at the same time slapping his rump with the end of the halter rope.
The old horse, capable of considerable speed when his stubborn mind ran in that direction, put on his best act, and approached the barn with as much ado as General Sheridan’s steed entering Winchester.
The intention of my cousin who, by the way, was as good a bareback rider as there was outside the Wild West, was to rush the old horse past the stable door, and across the road to the shed.
But either he didn’t get his idea over, or Flying Tiger, ornery old cuss that he was, had an idea of his own; and when opposite the stable door, came down on all four feet at once, and stopped instantly, then whirled left to the stable door. But my cousin kept on going towards the shed. Indeed “he flew through the air with the greatest of ease,” but the landing wasn’t so easy. I won’t tell you how many feet it was from the take-off – you wouldn’t believe me; besides, I didn’t measure it.
He looked surprised enough as he lay there in a heap; then, as he pulled himself together, he began to laugh, and everybody else laughed with him when they found he wasn’t hurt. Even Flying Tiger let out a loud laughing whinny.
Then there was another chore, perhaps best of all, that took me in various and circuitous routes beyond the pasture bars – driving home the cows. But