Young as I was, the rugged, elemental power of the old poet had somehow got to my heart and stirred my imagination. It all came not fully to my understanding until later. Little by little it grew upon me, and what an effect it had upon my thought and life ever after I should not dare to estimate. And soon I sought out the ’poet of the hills,’ as they called him, and got to know and even to respect him in spite of his unlovely aspect.
Uncle Eb skimmed the boiling sap, put more wood on the fire and came and pulled off his boots and lay down beside me under the robe. And, hearing the boil of the sap and the crackle of the burning logs in the arch, I soon went asleep.
I remember feeling Uncle Eb’s hand upon my cheek, and how I rose and stared about me in the fading shadows of a dream as he shook me gently.
‘Wake up, my boy,’ said he. ‘Come, we mus’ put fer home.’
The fire was out. The old man held a lantern as he stood before me, the blaze flickering. There was a fearsome darkness all around.
‘Come, Willy, make haste,’ he whispered, as I rubbed my eyes. ’Put on yer boots, an’ here’s yer little coat ‘n’ muffler.’
There was a mighty roar in the forest and icy puffs of snow came whistling in upon us. We stored the robes and pails and buckets and covered the big kettle.
The lofty tree-tops reeled and creaked above us, and a deep, sonorous moan was sweeping through the woods, as if the fingers of the wind had touched a mighty harp string in the timber. We could hear the crash and thunder of falling trees.
‘Make haste! Make haste! It’s resky here,’ said Uncle Eb, and he held my hand and ran. We started through the brush and steered as straight as we could for the clearing. The little box of light he carried was soon sheathed in snow, and I remember how he stopped, half out of breath, often, and brushed it with his mittens to let out the light. We had made the scattering growth of little timber at the edge of the woods when the globe of the lantern snapped and fell. A moment later we stood in utter darkness. I knew, for the first time, then that we were in a bad fix.
‘I guess God’ll take care of us, Willy,’ said Uncle Eb. ’If he don’t, we’ll never get there in this world never!’
It was a black and icy wall of night and storm on every side of us. I never saw a time when the light of God’s heaven was so utterly extinguished; the cold never went to my bone as on that bitter night. My hands and feet were numb with aching, as the roar of the trees grew fainter in the open. I remember how I lagged, and how the old man urged me on, and how we toiled in the wind and darkness, straining our eyes for some familiar thing. Of a sudden we stumbled upon a wall that we had passed an hour or so before.
‘Oh!’ he groaned, and made that funny, deprecating cluck with his tongue, that I have heard so much from Yankee lips.