Chapter XVIII. Butternuts and Bobsey's Peril

I restrained the children until after dinner, which my wife hastened. By that time Junior was on hand with a small wagon-load of pails and pans.

"Oh, dear, I wanted you to help me this afternoon," my wife had said, but, seeing the dismayed look on the children's faces, had added, "Well, there's no hurry, I suppose. We are comfortable, and we shall have stormy days when you can't be out."

I told her that she was wiser than the queen of Sheba and did not need to go to Solomon.

The horse was put in the barn, for he would have mired in the long spongy lane and the meadow which we must cross. So we decided to run the light wagon down by hand.

Junior had the auger with which to bore holes in the trees. "I tapped 'em last year, as old Mr. Jamison didn't care about doin' it," said the boy, "an' I b'iled the pot of sap down in the grove; but that was slow, cold work. I saved the little wooden troughs I used last year, and they are in one of the pails. I brought over a big kittle, too, which mother let me have, and if we can keep this and yours a-goin', we'll soon have some sugar."

Away we went, down the lane, Junior and Merton in the shafts, playing horses. I pushed in some places, and held back in others, while Winnie and Bobsey picked their way between puddles and quagmires. The snow was so nearly gone that it lay only on the northern slopes. We had heard the deep roar of the Moodna Creek all the morning, and had meant to go and see it right after breakfast; but providing a chickenhome had proved a greater attraction to the children, and a better investment of time for me. Now from the top of the last hillside we saw a great flood rushing by with a hoarse, surging noise.

"Winnie, Bobsey, if you go near the water without me you march straight home," I cried.

They promised never to go, but I thought Bobsey protested a little too much. Away we went down the hill, skirting what was now a good- sized brook. I knew the trees, from a previous visit; and the maple, when once known, can be picked out anywhere, so genial, mellow, and generous an aspect has it, even when leafless.

The roar of the creek and the gurgle of the brook made genuine March music, and the children looked and acted as if there were nothing left to be desired. When Junior showed them a tree that appeared to be growing directly out of a flat rock, they expressed a wonder which no museum could have excited.

But scenery, and even rural marvels, could not keep their attention long. All were intent on sap and sugar, and Junior was speedily at work. The moment he broke the brittle, juicy bark, the tree's life- blood began to flow.

"See," he cried, "they are like cows wanting to be milked."

As fast as he inserted his little wooden troughs into the trees, we placed pails and pans under them, and began harvesting the first crop from our farm.

This was rather slow work, and to keep Winnie and Bobsey busy I told them they could gather sticks and leaves, pile them up at the foot of a rock on a dry hillside, and we would have a fire. I meanwhile picked up the dead branches that strewed the ground, and with my axe trimmed them for use in summer, when only a quick blaze would be needed to boil the supper kettle. To city-bred eyes wood seemed a rare luxury, and although there was enough lying about to supply us for a year, I could not get over the feeling that it must all be cared for.

To children there are few greater delights than that of building a fire in the woods, and on that cloudy, chilly day our blaze against the rock brought solid comfort to us all, even though the smoke did get into our eyes. Winnie and Bobsey, little bundles of energy that they were, seemed unwearied in feeding the flames, while Merton sought to hide his excitement by imitating Junior's stolid, business-like ways.

Finding him alone once, I said: "Merton, don't you remember saying to me once, 'I'd like to know what there is for a boy to do in this street'? Don't you think there's something for a boy to do on this farm?"

"O papa!" he cried, "I'm just trying to hold in. So much has happened, and I've had such a good time, that it seems as if I had been here a month; then again the hours pass like minutes. See, the sun is low already."

"It's all new and exciting now, Merton, but there will be long hours--yes, days and weeks--when you'll have to act like a man, and to do work because it ought to be done and must be done."

"The same would be true if we stayed in town," he said.

Soon I decided that it was time for the younger children to return, for I meant to give my wife all the help I could before bedtime. We first hauled the wagon back, and then Merton said he would bring what sap had been caught. Junior had to go home for a time to do his evening "chores," but he promised to return before dark to help carry in the sap.

"There'll be frost to-night, and we'll get the biggest run in the morning," was his encouraging remark, as he made ready to depart.

Mrs. Jones had been over to see my wife, and they promised to become good friends. I set to work putting things in better shape, and bringing in a good pile of wood. Merton soon appeared with a brimming pail. A kettle was hung on the crane, but before the sap was placed over the fire all must taste it, just as it had been distilled by nature. And all were quickly satisfied. Even Mousie said it was "too watery," and Winnie made a face as she exclaimed, "I declare, Merton, I believe you filled the pails from the brook!"

"Patience, youngsters; sap, as well as some other things, is better for boiling down."

"Oh what a remarkable truth!" said my wife, who never lost a chance to give me a little dig.

I laughed, and then stood still in the middle of the floor, lost in thought.

"A brown study! What theory have you struck now, Robert?"

"I was thinking how some women kept their husbands in love with them by being saucy. It's an odd way, and yet it seems effective."

"It depends upon the kind of sauce, Robert," she said with a knowing glance and a nod.

By the time it was dark, we had both the kettles boiling and bubbling over the fire, and fine music they made. With Junior for guest, we enjoyed our supper, which consisted principally of baked apples and milk.

"'Bubble, bubble,' 'Toil' and no 'trouble'--"

"Yet, worth speaking of," said my wife; "but it must come, I suppose."

"We won't go half-way to meet it, Winifred."

When the meal was over, Junior went out on the porch and returned with a mysterious sack.

"Butternuts!" he ejaculated.

Junior was winning his way truly, and in the children's eyes was already a good genius, as his father was in mine.

"O papa!" was the general cry, "can't we crack them on the hearth?"

"But you'll singe your very eyebrows off," I said.

"Mine's so white 'twouldn't matter," said Junior; "nobody'd miss 'em. Give me a hammer, and I'll keep you goin'."

And he did, on one of the stones of the hearth, with such a lively rat-tat-snap! that it seemed a regular rhythm.

"Cracked in my life well-nigh on to fifty bushel, I guess," he explained, in answer to our wonder at his skill.

And so the evening passed, around the genial old fireplace; and before the children retired they smacked their lips over sirup sweet enough to satisfy them.

The following morning--Saturday--I vibrated between the sugar-camp and the barn and other out-buildings, giving, however, most of the time to the help of my wife in getting the house more to her mind, and in planning some work that would require a brief visit from a carpenter; for I felt that I must soon bestow nearly all my attention on the outdoor work. I managed to keep Bobsey under my eye for the most part, and in the afternoon I left him for only a few moments at the sugar-bush while I carried up some sap. A man called to see me on business, and I was detained. Knowing the little fellow's proneness to mischief, and forgetfulness of all commands, I at last hastened back with a half guilty and worried feeling.

I reached the brow of the hill just in time to see him throw a stick into the creek, lose his balance, and fall in.

With an exclamation of terror, his own cry forming a faint echo, I sprang forward frantically, but the swift current caught and bore him away.