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
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
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
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
"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
"There, now, what did I tell you?" said I. "That's Stoss Pond
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
John thrust out a hand and grasped what he supposed to be Willis's
"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
"Say, Willis, has your mouth got strayed away from your head?" said
"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
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
"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