Of all the people that ever went west that expedition was the most remarkable.
A small boy in a big basket on the back of a jolly old man, who carried a cane in one hand, a rifle in the other; a black dog serving as scout, skirmisher and rear guard — that was the size of it. They were the survivors of a ruined home in the north of Vermont, and were travelling far into the valley of the St Lawrence, but with no particular destination.
Midsummer had passed them in their journey; their clothes were covered with dust; their faces browning in the hot sun. It was a very small boy that sat inside the basket and clung to the rim, his tow head shaking as the old man walked. He saw wonderful things, day after day, looking down at the green fields or peering into the gloomy reaches of the wood; and he talked about them.
‘Uncle Eb — is that where the swifts are?’ he would ask often; and the old man would answer, ‘No; they ain’t real sassy this time o’ year. They lay ‘round in the deep dingles every day.’
Then the small voice would sing idly or prattle with an imaginary being that had a habit of peeking over the edge of the basket or would shout a greeting to some bird or butterfly and ask finally: ‘Tired, Uncle Eb?’
Sometimes the old gentleman would say ‘not very’, and keep on, looking thoughtfully at the ground. Then, again, he would stop and mop his bald head with a big red handkerchief and say, a little tremor of irritation in his voice: ’Tired! who wouldn’t be tired with a big elephant like you on his back all day? I’d be ‘shamed o’ myself t’ set there an’ let an old man carry me from Dan to Beersheba. Git out now an’ shake yer legs.’
I was the small boy and I remember it was always a great relief to get out of the basket, and having run ahead, to lie in the grass among the wild flowers, and jump up at him as he came along.
Uncle Eb had been working for my father five years before I was born. He was not a strong man and had never been able to carry the wide swath of the other help in the fields, but we all loved him for his kindness and his knack of story-telling. He was a bachelor who came over the mountain from Pleasant Valley, a little bundle of clothes on his shoulder, and bringing a name that enriched the nomenclature of our neighbourhood. It was Eben Holden.
He had a cheerful temper and an imagination that was a very wilderness of oddities. Bears and panthers growled and were very terrible in that strange country. He had invented an animal more treacherous than any in the woods, and he called it a swift. ‘Sumthin’ like a panther’, he described the look of it a fearsome creature that lay in the edge of the woods at sundown and made a noise like a woman crying, to lure the unwary. It would light one’s eye with fear to hear Uncle Eb lift his voice in the cry