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The Window In The Shack





THE attitude in which the plump baby hung limply over the woman's left
arm looked most uncomfortable. The baby, however, seemed highly
content. Both his sticky fists clutched firmly a generous "chunk" of
new maple-sugar, which he mumbled with his toothless gums, while his
big eyes, widening like an owl's, stared about through the dusk with a
placid intentness.

From the woman's left hand dangled an old tin lantern containing a
scrap of tallow candle, whose meagre gleam flickered hither and
thither apprehensively among the huge shadows of the darkening wood.
In her right hand the woman carried a large tin bucket, half filled
with fresh-run maple-sap. By the glimmer of the ineffectual candle,
she moved wearily from one great maple to another, emptying the
birch-bark cups that hung from the little wooden taps driven into the
trunks. The night air was raw with the chill of thawing snow, and
carried no sound but the soft tinkle of the sap as it dript swiftly
into the birchen cups. The faint, sweet smell of the sap seemed to
cling upon the darkness. The candle flared up for an instant,
revealing black, mysterious aisles among the ponderous tree-trunks,
then guttered down and almost went out, the darkness seeming to swoop
in upon its defeat. The woman examined it, found that it was all but
done, and glanced nervously over her shoulder. Then she made anxious
haste to empty and replace the last of the birchen cups before she
should be left in darkness to grope her way back to the cabin.

The sap was running freely that spring, and the promise of a great
sugar-harvest was not to be ignored. Dave Stone's house and farm lay
about three miles distant, across the valley of the "Tin Kittle," from
the maple-clad ridge of forest wherein he had his sugar-camp. The camp
consisted of a little cabin or "shack" of rough boards and an open
shed with a rude but spacious fireplace and chimney to accommodate the
great iron pot in which the sap was boiled down into sugar. While the
sap was running freely, the pot had to be kept boiling uniformly and
the thickening sap kept skimmed clean of the creaming scum; and
therefore, during the season, some one had to be always living in the
camp.

Dave Stone had built his camp at an opening in the woods, in such a
position that, from its own little window in the rear, he could look
out across the wide valley of the "Tin Kittle" to a rigid grove of
firs behind which, shielded from the nor'easters, lay his low frame
house, and red-doored barn, and wide, liberal sheds. The distance was
only about three miles, or less, from the house to the sugar-camp. But
Dave Stone was terribly proud of the prosperous little homestead which
he had carved for himself out of the unbroken wilderness on the upper
"Tin Kittle," and more than proud of the slim, gray-eyed wife and
three sturdy youngsters to whom that homestead gave happy shelter. On
the spring nights when he had to stay over at the camp, he liked to be
able to see the grove that hid his home.

It chanced one afternoon, just in the height of the sap-running, that
Dave Stone was called suddenly in to the settlement on a piece of
business that could not wait overnight. A note which he had endorsed
for a friend had been allowed to go to protest, and Dave was excited.

"Ther' ain't nothin' fer it, Mandy," said he, "but fer ye to take the
baby an' go right over to the camp fer the night, an' keep an eye on
this bilin'."

"But, father," protested his wife, in a doubtful voice, "how kin I
leave Lidy an' Joe here alone?"

"Oh, there ain't nothin' goin' to bother them, an' Lidy 'most ten
year old!" insisted Dave, who was in a hurry. "Don't fret, mother.
I'll be back long afore mornin'!"

As the children had no objection to being left, Mrs. Stone suffered
herself to be persuaded. In fact, she went to her new duty with a
certain zest, as a break in the monotony of her days. She had lent a
hand often enough at the sugar-making to be familiar with the task
awaiting her, and it was with an unwonted gaiety that she set out on
what appeared to her almost in the light of a little adventure.

But it was later than she had intended when she actually got away, the
baby crowing joyously on her arm, and the children calling gay
good-byes to her from the open door. Jake, the big brown retriever,
tried to follow her; and when she ordered him back to stay with the
children, he obeyed with a whimpering reluctance that came near
rebellion. As she descended the valley, her feet sinking in the snow
of the thawing trail, she wondered why the dog, which had always
preferred the children, should have grown so anxious to be with her.

When she reached the camp, she was already tired, but the pleasant
excitement was still upon her. When she had skimmed the big,
slow-bubbling pot of syrup, tested a ladleful of it in the snow,
poured in some fresh sap, and replenished the sluggish fire, dusk was
already stealing upon the forest. In her haste she did not notice that
the candle in the old lantern was almost burned out. Snatching up the
lantern, which it was not yet necessary to light, and the big tin
sap-bucket, and giving the baby, who had begun to fret, a lump of hard
sugar to keep him quiet on her arm, she hurried off to tend the
farthest trees before the darkness should close down upon the
silences.

* * * * *

When the last birch cup had been emptied into the bucket, the candle
flickered out; and for a moment or two the sudden blackness seemed to
flap in her face, daunting her. She stood perfectly still till her
eyes readjusted themselves. She was dead tired, the baby and the
brimming bucket were heavy, and the adventurous flavour had quite gone
out of her task.

In part because of her fatigue, she grew suddenly timorous. Her ears
began to listen with terrible intentness till they imagined stealthy
footsteps in the silken shrinkings of the damp snow. At last her eyes
mastered the gloom till she could make out the glimmering pathway, the
dim, black trunks shouldering up on either side of it, the clumps of
bushes obstructing it here and there. Trembling--clutching tightly at
the baby, the lantern, and the sap-bucket--she started back with
furtive but hurried footsteps, afraid to make any noise lest she
attract the notice of some mysterious powers of the wilderness.

As the woman went, her fears grew with her haste till only the
difficulties of the path, with the weight of her burdens, prevented
her from breaking into a run of panic. The baby, meanwhile, kept on
sucking his maple-sugar and staring into the novel darkness. The
woman's breath began to come too fast, her knees began to feel as if
they might turn to water at any moment. At last, when within perhaps
fifty paces of the shack, to her infinite relief she saw a dark, tall
figure take shape just over the top of a bush, at the turn of the
trail. She had room for but one thought. It was Dave, back earlier
than he had expected. She did not stop to wonder how or why. With a
little, breathless cry, she exclaimed: "Oh, Dave, I'm so glad! Take
the baby!" and reached forward to place the little one in his arms.

Even as she did so, however, something in the tall, dim shape rising
over the bush struck her as unfamiliar. And why didn't Dave speak? She
paused, she half drew back, while a chill fear made her cheeks
prickle; and as she slightly changed her position, the dark form grew
more definite. She saw the massive bulk of the shoulders. She caught a
glint of white teeth, of fierce, wild eyes.

With a screech of intolerable horror, she shrank back, clutching the
baby to her bosom, swung the brimming bucket of sap full into the
monster's face, and fled with the speed of a deer down another trail
toward the shack. She was at the door before her appalled brain
realized that the being to which she had tried to hand over the child
was a huge bear.

Bewildered and abashed for a few seconds by the deluge of liquid and
the clatter of the tin vessel in his face, the animal had not
instantly pursued. But he was just out of the den after his long
winter sleep and savage with hunger. Moreover, he had been allowed to
realize that the dreaded man-creature which he had met so unexpectedly
was afraid of him! He came crashing over the bushes, and was so close
at the woman's heels that she had barely time to slam the shack door
in his face.

As she dropped the rude wooden latch into place, the woman realized
with horror how frail the door was. Momentarily she expected to see it
smashed in by a stroke of the monster's paw. She did not know a bear's
caution, his cunning suspicion of traps, his dread of the scent of
man.

There was no light in the shack, except a faint red gleam from the
open draft of the stove, and the gray pallor of the night sky
glimmering in through the little window. The woman was so faint with
fear that she dared not search for the candles, but leaned panting
against the wall and staring at the window as if she expected the bear
to look in at her. She was brought to her senses in a moment, however,
by the baby beginning to cry. In the race for the shack, he had lost
his lump of sugar, and now he realized how uncomfortable he was. The
woman seated herself on the bench by the stove and began to nurse him,
all the time keeping her eyes on the pale square of the window.



When the door was slammed in his face, the bear had backed away in
apprehension and paused to study the shack. But at the sound of the
baby's voice he seemed to realize that here, at least, were some
individuals of the dreaded man tribe who were not dangerous. He came
forward and sniffed loudly along the crack of the door till the
woman's heart stood still. He leaned against it, tentatively, till it
creaked, but the latch and hinges held. Then he prowled around the
shack, examining it carefully, and doubtless expecting to find an open
entrance somewhere. In his experience, all caves and dens had
entrances. At last the window caught his attention. The woman heard
the scratching of his claws on the rough outer boarding as he raised
himself. Then the window was darkened by a great black head looking
in.

Throwing the baby into the bunk, the woman snatched from the stove a
blazing stick, rushed to the window with it, and made a wild thrust at
the dreadful face. With a crash the glass flew to splinters, and the
black face disappeared. The bear was untouched, but the fiery weapon
had taught him discretion. He drew back with an angry growl, and sat
down on his haunches as if to see what the woman would do next. She,
for her part, after this victory, grew terribly afraid of setting the
dry shack on fire; so she hurriedly returned the snapping, sparkling
brand to the stove. Thereupon the bear resumed his ominous prowling,
round and round the shack, sometimes testing the foundations and the
door with massive but stealthy paw, sometimes sniffing loudly at the
cracks; and the woman returned to the comforting of the baby.

In time the little one, fed full and cherished, went to sleep. Then,
with nothing left to occupy her mind but the terrors of her situation,
the woman found those stealthy scratchings and sniffings, and the
strain of the silences that fell between, were more than she could
endure. At first, she thought of getting a couple of blazing sticks,
throwing open the shack door, and deliberately attacking her besieger.
But this idea she dismissed as quite too desperate and futile. Then
she remembered that bears were fond of sweets. A table in the corner
was heaped with great, round cakes of fragrant sugar, the shape of the
pans in which they had been cooled. One of these she snatched up, and
threw it out of the window. The bear promptly came around to see what
had dropped, and fell upon the offering with such ardour that it
vanished between his great jaws in half a minute. Then he came
straight to the window for more, and the woman served it out to him
without delay.



The beast's appetite for maple-sugar was amazing, and as the woman saw
the sweet store swiftly disappearing, her fear began to be tempered
with indignation. But when her outraged frugality led her to delay the
dole, her tormentor came at the window so savagely that she made all
haste to supply him, and fell to wondering helplessly what she should
do when the sugar was all gone.

As she stood at the window, watching fearfully the vague, monstrous
shape of the animal as he pawed and gnawed at the last cake, suddenly,
far across the shadowy valley, a red light leaped into the sky. For a
moment the woman stared at it with an absent mind, absorbed in her
own trouble, yet noticing how black and sharp, like giant spears
upthrust in array, the tops of the firs stood out against the glow.
For a moment she stood so staring. Then she realized where that wild
light came from. With a cry she turned, rushed to the door, and tore
it open. But as the dark of the forest confronted her, she remembered!
Slamming and latching the door again, she rushed madly back to the
window, and stood there clutching the frame with both hands, praying,
and sobbing, and raving.

And the bear, having finished the sugar, sat up on his haunches to
gaze intently, ears cocked and jaws half open, at that far-off, fiery
brightness in the sky of night.

As the keen tongues of flame shot over the treetops, the woman
clutched at her senses, and tried to persuade herself that it was the
barn, not the house, that was burning. It was, in truth, quite
impossible to discern, at that distance, which it was. It was not
both; of that she was certain. She also told herself that, if it was
the house, it was too early for the children to be asleep; and even if
they were asleep, Jake would wake them; and presently some
neighbours, who were not more than a mile away, would come to comfort
their fears and shelter them. She would not allow herself to harbour
the awful thought that the fire might have caught the children in
their sleep. Nevertheless, do what she could to fight it away, the
hideous suggestion kept clamouring at her brain, driving her to a
frenzy. Had she been alone in this crisis, the great beast watching
and prowling outside the shack would have had no terrors for her. But
the baby! She could not run fast with that burden. She could not leave
him behind in the bunk, for the bear would either climb in the window
or batter in the door when she was gone. Yet to stand idle and watch
those leaping flames--that way lay madness. Again her mind reverted to
the blazing brand with which she had driven the bear from the window.
If she took one big enough and carried it with her, the bear would
probably not dare even to follow her. She sprang eagerly to the stove,
but the fire was already dying down. It was nothing but a heap of
coals, and in her stress she had not noticed how cold it had grown in
the shack. She looked for wood, but there was none. She had forgotten
to bring in an armful from the pile over by the sugar-boiler. Well,
the plan had been an insane one, hopeless from the first. But, at
least, it had been a plan. The failure of it seemed to leave her
tortured brain a blank. But the cold--that was an impression that
pierced her despair. She went to the bunk, and covered the sleeping
baby with warm blankets. As she leaned over him, she heard the bear
again, sniffing, sniffing along the crack at the bottom of the door.
She almost laughed--that the beast should want anything more after all
that sugar! Then she felt herself sinking, and clutched at the edge of
the bunk to save herself. She would lie down by the baby! But instead
of that she sank upon the floor in a huddled heap.

Her swoon must have passed imperceptibly into the heavy sleep of
emotional exhaustion, for she lay unstirring for some hours. The
crying of the little one awoke her.

Stiff, half frozen, utterly dazed, she pulled herself up to the
bunk, nursed the child, and soothed him again to sleep. Then the
accumulation of anguish which had overwhelmed her rolled back upon her
understanding. She staggered to the window.

The dreadful illumination across the valley had died down to a faint
ruddiness, just seen through the thin tops of the firs. The
fire--whether it had been the barn or the house--had burned itself
out. Whatever had happened, it was over. As she stood shuddering,
unable to think, not daring to think, her eyes rested upon the bear,
huge and formless in the gloom, staring at her, not ten feet away. She
answered the stare fixedly, no longer aware of fearing him. Then she
saw him turn his head suddenly, as if he had heard something. And the
next moment he had faded away swiftly and noiselessly into the
darkness, like a startled partridge. She heard quick footsteps coming
up the trail. A dog's fierce growl broke into a bark of warning. That
was Jake's bark! She almost threw herself at the door, and tore it
open.

* * * * *

Dave Stone had got back from the settlement earlier than he expected,
driving furiously the last two miles of his journey, with his eyes
full of the red light of that burning, his heart gripped with
intolerable fear. He had found his good barn in flames, but the
children safe, the house untouched, the stock rescued. The children,
prompt and resourceful as the children of the backwoods have need to
be, had loosed the cattle from the stanchions and got them out in
time. Neighbours, hurrying up in response to the flaming summons, had
found the children watching the blaze enthusiastically from the
doorstep, as if it had been arranged for their amusement. Seeing
matters so much better than they might have been, Dave was struck with
a new apprehension, because Mandy had not returned. It was hardly
conceivable that she had failed to see the flames from the window of
the shack! Then why had she not come? Followed by Jake, he had taken
the camp trail at a run to find out what was the matter.

As he drew near the shack, the darkness of it chilled him with dread.
No firelight gleam showed out from the window! And no red glow came
from the boiling-shed! The fire had been allowed to die out under the
sugar-pot! As the significance of this dawned upon him, his keen
woodsman's eyes seemed to detect through the dark a shape of thicker
blackness gliding past the shack and into the woods. At the same
moment Jake growled, barked shortly, and dashed past him, with the
hair bristling along his neck.

The man's blood went to ice, as he sprang to the door of the shack,
crying in a terrible voice: "Mandy! Mandy! Where are--" But before
the question was out of his mouth, the door leaped open, and Mandy was
on his neck, shaking and sobbing.

"The children?" she gasped.

"Why, they're all right, mother!" replied the man cheerfully. "It
was only the barn--an' they got the critters out all safe! But what's
wrong here? An' what's kep' you? An' didn't you--"

But he was not allowed to finish his questionings, for the woman was
crying and laughing and strangling him with her wild clasp. "Oh,
Dave!" she managed to exclaim. "It was the bear--as tried to git
us--all night long! An' he's et up every crum of the last bilin'."





Next: The Return Of The Moose

Previous: When The Truce Of The Wild Is Done



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