POWDER-POST

By C. A. Stephens

There is a tiny borer which eats seasoned oak wood, boring thousands of minute holes through it till it becomes a mere shell, and turning out a fine white powder known among country folk as "powder-post." When a shovel or a pitchfork-handle snaps suddenly, or an axe-helve or a rake's tail breaks off under no great strain, the farmer says, "'Twas powder-post."

If this small pest obtains lodgment in a barn, or in the oak finish or furniture of a house, it is likely to do a vexatious amount of damage, and no practicable method of checking its ravages has been found. Varnishes do not exclude it. Boiling will kill the borer, but furniture and wainscotings are not easily boiled.

From the frames of old buildings, when of oak, powder-post will sometimes run in streams when a beam or brace is struck.

But everything has its virtues, if only they can be found out; and long ago, in New England, some rustic AEsculapius discovered that powder-post was a sovereign balm for all flesh-wounds, causing them to heal rapidly, without "proud flesh." And if proud flesh appeared, the wound would still heal if it were opened and dressed with powder-post.

What modern medical science would predicate concerning this panacea, I know not, but thousands of cuts in rural districts treated with powder-post did very well, and faith in it waxed strong. So when Sam Eastman cut his foot over in the "east woods," all the wiseacres in the neighborhood declared that that foot must be done up in powder-post. "If it isn't," they said, "proud flesh will get into it, and that boy will be lame all winter."

It was a bad cut. Sam and Willis Murch had been splitting four-foot logs, when Sam's axe, glancing from a log, had buried the blade in his instep; the very bones were cut. There were four of us boys at work together. We ran to him, tied a handkerchief round his ankle, and twisted it tight with a stick; but blood flowed profusely. We did not know how to apply a tourniquet.

When at last we had helped Sam home, night was at hand; and although we went to all the neighbors, we could not collect enough powder-post to dress the cut. Several people said, however, that plenty of it could be obtained at the old Plancher barn, for the braces of that barn had been made of cleft red oak, and were "all powder-posted." But the Plancher barn was four miles distant, in the clearing in the "great woods." A settler bearing the name had cleared a farm there forty years before, and had lived there for over twenty years. Ill fortune beset him, however. His children died, his house burned on a winter night, and he moved away in discouragement, abandoning the property.

The clearing was known to all the boys of the locality as a favorite haunt of foxes.

The next morning Sam's younger brother, John, Willis Murch and I went up to the old barn to get powder-post. John had a small axe with which to split the timbers, four old newspapers in which to gather up the precious dust, and a bottle in which to put it.

It was Thanksgiving morning. The sun rose in a clear, straw-colored sky. It was cold; the ground was frozen, and there was skating on the small ponds.

Red squirrels were scolding on the borders of the wood-lots, and blue jays came squalling into the orchards.

"This is a weather-breeder," grandmother remarked at breakfast.

Low down on the southern horizon, scarcely visible above the hilltops, was a line of slate-gray cloud.

Willis and I were not sorry of an excuse for a jaunt through the woods, for Willis owned a gun—an old army rifle bored out smooth for shot. Our only anxiety was to get back in good season for dinner. Thanksgiving dinner was always at three o'clock.

We set off immediately after breakfast. There was no need for haste on Sam's account, for John told us that the cut foot was no longer very painful, and Sam had slept well. The distance was about four miles, but there was neither road nor path through the forest.

It was a good time for hunting, for the swamps were frozen and the foliage was off the trees. The leaves were sodden, and no longer rustled underfoot. Red and gray squirrels scampered across our path, but Willis disdained to fire at them. He was loaded for deer; besides he had but three extra charges. Powder and shot were usually scarce with us.

At length we heard a deer run, and followed it for an hour or more.
Then John espied a hedgehog in a poplar-tree, and Willis shot it.
The long black-pointed quills were a curiosity to us, but we did
not deem such game worth carrying home.

It was near noon when we reached the clearing, and the sky had become overcast, but as we crossed the Plancher brook a new diversion presented itself. The pools were frozen over, but the ice was so transparent that the bottom was plainly visible, and we could see trout lying sluggishly in the deep water. Several of them were fine fish, that looked as if they might weigh a pound or more.

I had heard older boys say that if a gun is fired with the muzzle held just through the ice of a frozen pool, the concussion will so stun the fish beneath that they will float up to the under side of the ice. Willis was afraid that this would burst his gun, but the trout looked so alluring that at last he ventured the experiment. John cut a small hole with the axe, and then Willis, lying down, thrust the muzzle of the gun about six inches beneath the ice.

Then he edged away, and stretching out his arm at full length, pulled the trigger. The gun recoiled, but no apparent damage was done.

For a few moments the water was turbid with the smoke, but when it cleared, there, sure enough, were five or six of the very largest trout floating, belly upward, against the ice. We had but to cut through and take them out, but John was so slow with his axe that two of the trout recovered and darted away.

We had four fine fish to show for the charge of powder, and immediately searched for another pool. We soon came to one much deeper and better stocked with trout, and Willis fired under the ice again. Eight fish were secured here; and going on up the brook, we found still another pool. This time Willis thrust the gun deeper into the water, with the result that about a foot of the muzzle was split open!

We had angry words about this accident, for Willis, much chapfallen over the mishap, blamed me, and declared that I ought to buy him a new gun. As I had but fifty cents in the world, there was no other way for me but to scoff at Willis's claim. He then seized all the trout. This did not altogether please John Eastman, and he and I turned our backs on Willis, and hit upon a stratagem for capturing trout on our own account. Knowing that it was the concussion of the shot that stunned the trout, we went up to the old barn and procured a long, sweeping board. Using this like a flail, we could strike the ice a blow that made a noise well-nigh as loud as a gun. When we gave just the right sort of blow, the trout below would turn on their backs and float up to the ice. John and I soon secured two good strings of trout; and by this time Willis, who had followed us, thought it best to make peace.

"Come on, boys!" he exclaimed. "We had better be going. It's two o'clock, and beginning to snow."

We had become so engrossed in our novel method of fishing that we had not heeded the weather. Fine snow was falling.

"But I must get the powder-post for Sam's foot!" exclaimed John.
Willis and I had forgotten that.

"Hurry, then," said Willis, "or we shall be late to Thanksgiving dinner! I'm hungry now!"

We ran to the barn. The lean-to door was off its hinges, but wooden pins held the oak braces of the frame in position. We knocked out the pins, and prying out two of the braces, split them, and then beat the pieces on the newspapers. The white powder ran from the perforated wood in tiny streams. The bottle filled slowly, however, and it needed much splitting and hammering to obtain even a teaspoonful of powder-post. Then, at the last moment, Willis spilled nearly all that he had collected, and another brace had to be taken out and split.

By this time our newspapers were torn in pieces, and altogether we had much trouble in collecting half a bottleful. When at last we corked up the bottle and hurried out of the barn, a heavy snowstorm had set in. We could not even see the forest across the clearing. But we ran as fast as we could, and for fifteen minutes scarcely slackened our pace.

The whole forest had taken on a wintry aspect. The snow rattled on the bare twigs and sodden leaves, and the rising gusts of wind sighed drearily.

"It seems to me we ought to come to that little hollow where the muck-holes are," John said.

"So I think," replied Willis, stopping to look about.

"I think we're heading off too far toward Stoss Pond," said I.

"Oh no, we're not!" cried Willis. "Come on!"

Gripping our strings of fish, we ran on again, but presently we were perplexed to discern the side of a mountain looking up directly ahead.

"There, now, what did I tell you?" said I. "That's Stoss Pond mountain."

Thereupon we tacked again, and ran on.

The storm thickened and the forest darkened, but on we went through brush and thicket till we came to the bank of a large brook.

"We didn't cross any such brook as this on our way up!" John exclaimed.

"We're away down on Stoss Pond brook," said Willis. "We've come wrong! If you both think you know more than I, keep on; I'm going in this other direction," and Willis set off to run again. John and I followed him. In the course of five minutes we came suddenly out into cleared land.

"There! What did I tell you?" cried Willis. "This is Wilbur's pasture. We're almost home now."

John and I were too much gratified to question Willis's superior wisdom and followed after him, intent only on getting home to dinner. The storm was now driving thick and fast. We could not see a hundred yards ahead, but we seemed to be on level ground, such as I had never seen in Neighbor Wilbur's pasture. Soon we came to another large brook.

"There's no brook in Wilbur's pasture!" exclaimed John, stopping short.

"I don't care!" cried Willis. "This must be Wilbur's pasture!" He crossed the brook.

"Of course it is!" he shouted back to us, "for there's Wilbur's barn—right ahead of us!"

We hastened after Willis, plodding through dry, snowy grass, and came to a barn about which the storm eddied in snowy gusts.

"But where's Wilbur's house?" asked John.

We looked round in perplexity. There was no house in sight; but here was a barn, and the door was ajar. We went in. It was empty of hay or cattle. The barn looked curiously familiar; but it was not till we perceived the torn newspapers and the pieces of split oak brace on the floor that the full truth dawned on us. It was the old Plancher barn!

We had run five miles through the woods, only to reach the place from which we had started.

John looked at me, and I looked at Willis. A sense of utter bewilderment fell on us. John and I did not even think to revile Willis. In fact, we were terrified. All hope of dinner, or of reaching home at all that night, deserted us. The storm was increasing; the late November day was at an end.

For a while we scarcely spoke. John Eastman, who was the youngest, began to cry. The old barn creaked dismally as each gust of wind racked it, and loose boards rattled and banged. No created place can be more dreary than an old and empty barn.

After our exertions we soon felt very chilly. We should not have dared build a fire in the barn, even if we had had matches. Willis groped about in the old hay bay and gathered a few handfuls of musty hay, which we spread on the barn floor, and then lay down as snugly together as we could nestle, but nothing that we could do sufficed to warm us, and we lay shivering for what seemed hours.

John and I finally fell asleep, and perhaps Willis did also, although he always denied it. At last he waked us, shaking us violently.

"You mustn't sleep!" he exclaimed. "You'll freeze to death and never wake up!"

"It's getting terribly cold," he continued; "we'd better get up and jump round."

But John and I did not wish to stir from that one small slightly warmed spot. Our toes and fingers ached. A fine dust of snow sifted down on our faces; and how that old barn did creak! A gale was raging.

"I guess it would be warmer under the barn floor," Willis said, at last. "There's almost always old dry stuff under a barn floor. If we can only lift up a plank or two, we'll get down there."

"Yes, let's do it!" quavered John. "If we get under the floor the barn won't kill us, maybe, if it blows down."

Willis crept to the ends of the floor planks, next the lean-to, and tried first one and then another. Soon he found one that could be raised and tipped it over, making an aperture large enough to descend through. It was "pokerish" moving about in the dark; but we thrust down our legs and found that there was dry chaff and hay there. Willis let himself down and felt around, and then bade us get down beside him. We snuggled together under the floor, and with our hands banked the old stuff about our shivering bodies.

It seemed safer down there, and we felt the wind less, but lay listening to the gusts—expecting with every one to hear the barn fall over us.

Probably we fell asleep after a while; for my next recollection is of coughing chaff, and then noticing that it had grown slightly light. The wind appeared to have lulled. John, who was in the middle, felt warm as a kitten. I was but half awake, and so cold that I selfishly crept over between him and Willis. That waked John; he began to crawl back over me into the warm spot, but bumped his head against a sleeper of the barn floor and landed on Willis, who waked in a bad temper.

"What you doing!" he snarled. "Getting the warm chaff all away from my back!"

John thrust out a hand and grasped what he supposed to be Willis's hair.

"Where is your old head, anyway!" he exclaimed. "Is that it? Your mouth isn't with it, is it?" Willis did not reply; he was falling asleep again.

"Say, Willis, has your mouth got strayed away from your head?" said
John.

"Is that your head?" he exclaimed a moment after, speaking to me.

"Keep still, can't you?" I growled. "You've been in the middle all night! I want to go to sleep now."

"Well, by gummy, it isn't his head either!" cried John. "Whose head is that over there?"

"You lie down, John," said Willis.

"But there's somebody else here!" cried John, with a queer note in his voice; and with that, he scrambled back over us both. The space was all too narrow for such a maneuvre, and his knees felt hard. "Now look here," said Willis. "You quit that!"

But John was climbing through the hole to the barn floor above. "You must get out of there!" he cried. "There is something down there."

By this time Willis was fully waked up. He reached over with his hand, on the side where John had been, and then he, too, gave a spring and climbed out on the floor! That alarmed me in turn, and I followed them, bumping my head in my haste. "What is it?" I exclaimed.

"I don't know," said Willis, his voice shaking from excitement.

"He's got an awful thick head of hair," said John; "but he felt warm! Seemed to be all hair!"

"I'll bet it's a bear!" cried Willis. "Denned up, under the floor!"

With that John and I made for the door; but Willis said he did not believe it would come out, if it was asleep for the winter.

For some time we stood near the door, prepared for flight. It was growing light, and with the daylight our courage revived. First Willis, then John and I, went back to the hole in the floor and peeped down; but it was too dark to distinguish any object.

Growing bolder, Willis ventured slowly to lift another floor plank over where our hairy bed-fellow lay; and even now I seem to see John's dilated eyes, as we looked down on a great round mat of shaggy black hair!

We had now no doubt that it was, indeed, a bear. Willis lowered the plank gently into its place; and going outside, we discovered that there was a hole at the far end of the barn where the old stone work under the sill had fallen out.

The discovery excited us so that we forgot our miseries. The bear's skin and the state bounty would be worth sixteen dollars. As Willis's gun was useless, we concluded that the thing for us to do was to run home—if we could find the way—and get assistance.

We had scarcely left the barn when we saw two men come out of the woods. One of them had a gun. As they drew nearer, we perceived that the foremost was Willis's older brother, Ben Murch, and the other John's father.

"They're hunting for us! Now don't you tell them we got lost!" said Willis, with the guile so apt to develop in a boy who has older brothers who tease him.

"But we did," said John.

"If you tell them I'll lick you!" exclaimed Willis. "Make them believe we've been guarding this bear!"

John and I did not know what to think of so glaring a deception; but Willis did the talking; and when Ben called out to demand why in the world we had not come home, Willis shouted:

"We've got a big bear under the barn! He's ours, and we are afraid he'll get away!"

Neither Ben nor Mr. Eastman asked us another question, but hastened to see the bear. A plank was pulled up, and then Ben shot the beast at short range. It did not even growl.

They made a rude sled of saplings, of the kind known to hunters as a "scoot," and drew the bear home; and from the vainglorious talk of Willis one might have thought us the three most valiant lads that ever ranged the forest! John and I said little. It was rather fine to be considered heroes, who would not leave a bear even to go home to a Thanksgiving dinner; but I am glad to remember that we did not feel quite right about it; and soon afterward John and I revealed the true state of things to our folks at home.

The Murches claimed the lion's share of the spoils, but gave John and me a dollar apiece; and I recollect that I had a very bad cold for a week. Sam's cut foot healed promptly. It was dressed three times with powder-post, and showed no sign or symptoms of "proud flesh."