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Among the Forrest Trees
Chapter XXIII - A Backwoods Lyceum

As soon as things were got into good shape in the boarding--house, the men formed themselves into a literary association for mutual entertainment, and to pass away the long winter evenings. They adopted rules and regulations, the same as institutions of greater pretensions.

Among the rules was one which required each man to furnish something for the amusement or edification of the rest.

Every one was left to his own option as to what his part should be. He might relate something of his personal experiences. He might relate some incidents in the experience of others. He might recite, give a reading, or make a speech. And if he could do none of these, he would be let off by singing a song. If he failed to do any of these he was subjected to a fine of one shilling, which was equal to twelve and a half cents. This was placed in the hands of Mr. Root to be held in trust until the breaking up of the association, when it was to be disposed of by a majority of the members of the fraternity.

The time limit was somewhat elastic. It ranged from two minutes to half-an-hour. An exercise of one hundred and twenty seconds would not be called too short; and one fifteen times as long would not be condemned for its length.

Another of the rules was that everything presented should be connected with backwoods life, and should illustrate the condition of things among the pioneer settlers.

Mr. Millwood, being the most quiet and thoughtful man in the company, was made President of the association. His duty was to preside over the exercises, and pass his opinion on the efforts of those who took part in the entertainments.

The names of all the men were put on a paper, and their turn came in the same order in which their names were on the list.

Whenever one of them was called by the President he was expected to provide something for the next meeting. And if he did not wish to do so he forthwith handed over the fine, and then the next name on the list was called.

The first name on the roll was "Little Jack," as the men called Mr. Pivot, the machinist. He promptly responded, and stepped to the middle of the floor to commence his remarks. He made a formal bow to the company, then said:

"Since we are all here working on a mill, I know of no subject that would be more appropriate than a little talk about a primitive backwoods grist-mill. And it is no mere fancy picture that I shall give you. But I will try to describe a real working mill, where thousands of bushels of wheat have been converted into bran and flour. The locality selected for the erection of the mill was on a beautiful stream of clear, cool, spring water. Here the speckled trout had disported themselves without interruption for unnumbered generations, until the sound of the woodman's axe might have warned them of coming changes, had they intelligence enough to take the warning. This stream ran through a deep glen at the foot of a mountain of considerable height. It was a very rapid running stream. In order to get sufficient `head' a dam was built across the stream some forty rods up the creek from where the mill was to stand. From the dam the water was carried in an elevated mill-race made of hewed timber, to where it poured on an overshot wheel about twenty feet in diameter.

"This mill was remarkable for three things, viz., the smallness of the log building, the enormous size of the water-wheel, and the rude simplicity of its machinery.

"The building was about twenty-four feet square The wheel was placed on the outside of the structure and on the end of .a large shaft which passed through the wall into the building. On this same shaft was constructed a wheel nearly as large as the waterwheel. A row of cogs was fixed on the side of this wheel, so as to fit into an upright pinion. In the upper end of the shaft of the pinion was an iron gudgeon. On the end of this was a simple piece of bent iron, on which the weight of the upper mill-stone rested and in the turning of this pinion the motion of the stone was produced. This was all the machinery there was, so far as the grinding process was concerned.

"The bolting operation was equally primitive in design and execution. The mill-stones were a couple of rough, hard flat rocks found in the vicinity of the mill, and got into shape by much pounding and patient labor. But simple though it was, thousands of bushels of wheat was ground in that little, unpretentious, back country mill. And many a loaf of good wholesome bread was made from this flour by our grandmothers and their daughters, and baked in the old-time bake kettles, as they were partly hidden in heaps of coals that glowed and crackled in the roomy recesses of old Dutch fireplaces. In those days of primitive methods and plain habits people were easily satisfied, and the sum total of human comfort was equally as great as in our day of greater pretensions." And with another bow, Mr. Pivot took his seat.

"Jack, you have done well. That story is nicely told, and the beauty of it is its truthfulness. I have seen that same mill, or one exactly like it, myself."

"Our mill," said Mr. Root, "is to be on a larger scale than that one, and it will cost a good deal more. But there will come a time when it, too, will be considered out of date, and have to give place to more extensive structures, and more complicated machinery, for mills, as well as other things, will have to keep pace with the progress of society."

"I think," said the President, "that Little Jack has made a good start, and I hope that all who attempt to speak will be as concise, and yet as explicit, as he has been.

"Mr. Dusticoat's name comes next on the list," continued the President.

Dusticoat was called for by three or four at once.

When he came forward, Mr. Dusticoat looked a little flushed, and seemed somewhat confused. He was not used to speechmaking. But he was willing to do the best he could. He commenced by saying:

"I think that I, at one time, worked in the same mill that Mr. Pivot spoke of. At all events, the description that he gave would just suit a mill that I run for a number of years, when I was a young man. I used to see some rather striking things there. I will tell you of some of them.

"To get to the mill, people had to come down the mountain. To get anything like a reasonable grade the road skirted along the side of the mountain for a long distance. In the winter time, the water issuing from one or two springy places would run over the road and freeze, leaving the track sometimes very slippery.

"One day as I stood in the mill door I saw a man with a yoke of oxen and a sled coming down the hill. When he came to one of the icy places his oxen began to slip, and soon fell down on the ice. The sled slid around until it got ahead of the oxen, with the tail end down hill, towards the mill. By some means it got loose from the oxen, and came tearing down the hill, wrong end first, and never stopped until it butted up against the side of the mill. Meanwhile the .owner stood and looked at his retreating property until he saw the bags of wheat safely deposited beside the mill door.

"He was a little man, by the name of Buckberry, and he was a terrible man to swear. When he came. and found that his grist was all right, he said he was sorry he had wasted so much breath and said so many bad words for nothing. He took a couple of pails of ashes and sprinkled them around the oxen, and then got them off the ice. Luckily, nothing was injured."

Mr. Dusticoat continued: "I remember one day a number of men came to the mill with new wheat, right after harvest. Some had woodshod sleds, drawn by oxen. One or two had a bag on the back of a horse, others carried their grist on their shoulders. Among these was a man and a boy, who had come between three and four miles. Each of them had a heavy load of wheat; in fact, the boy was so small that some of the men were surprised by the size of his load. They placed the lad on the scales and found that he weighed just sixty pounds. Then they put his load of wheat on the scales, and found it to be of the same weight as the boy. The little fellow had carried a load as heavy as himself all that distance over a very rough and hilly road.

"Boys in those days found plenty of exercise in the ordinary affairs of life. They did not need athletic sports to develop bone and muscle. But many of those boys were broken down before they came to be men by overwork and hardships.

"One day," continued Mr. Dusticoat, "there came to the mill a man with a bag of wheat to grind. He was a large, bony man, with a peculiar expression of countenance. He spoke like a man of some degree of culture. He had never been to the mill before, hence more notice was taken of him. He said he lived about four miles away, and this was his first bag of wheat threshed from his first crop. This man was living alone in a little shanty built in the middle of a four hundred acre block of land that belonged to him. He had neither chick nor child. Not a hoof nor feather could be seen about his home.

"We talked on different subjects, and I found my customer to be pretty well read on various subjects. He was rather fluent, and spoke with a slight brogue, just enough to tell what country he came from. After his grist had been in the hopper a few minutes, I took the toll-box and dipped it into the wheat in order to take the usual toll.

"In a moment the man had hold of my arm, and in a loud voice he demanded to know what I was going to do.

"I explained to him that I was simply taking toll for grinding his grist.

"Well," said he, "it seems to me that, after carrying it four long miles on my back, it is too bad for one to lose part of it for toll. I will not fetch any more wheat to your mill."

"It did no good to tell him that everybody had to give toll. He persisted in his resolution, and lived on boiled wheat and roasted potatoes for some years. Then he married and raised a family. He is dead now."

"Well," said Mr. Springboard, "that was a strange way for a man to live. He must have had something else beside boiled wheat and roasted potatoes."

Mr. Dusticoat replied: "He had salt, and sometimes a little butter or meat, but that was not often. In the spring he would make some maple sugar and molasses. He used hemlock for tea. He worked around a good deal among the neighbors, and after people got to know him they trusted him, and many a pail of milk and other things he carried home to his lonely little shanty. He would not clear off his land like other people. He said the time would come when the timber would be worth more than the land."

"The next name on the Iist is Mr. Springboard," said the President. "We will wait for his contribution to our entertainment until our next meeting."

"Which will be to-morrow evening," put in Little Jack.

To this all agreed, and the company dispersed for the night.

When the evening meal was over next night, the men gathered around the glowing fire that blazed and sparkled on the flagstone hearth, and sent a yellow light on everything in the house, giving to the men a peculiar shade of color, which had the appearance of a compound of three-parts saffron and one-part carmine. Seen in that peculiar light they looked like a strong, hardy lot of customers.

"Now for the talk," said Little Jack. "Mr. Springboard said he was ready to commence if the rest were ready to hear him."

"My stories will not be very long, nor very interesting, perhaps," said Mr. Springboard, "but they will be connected with new country life. They will be about the black bears."

"All right, then," said the President. "Let us hear something about bruin."

"I will tell them to you just as I heard them, without vouching for their truthfulness; but I believe them to be true myself, and you can please yourselves about it."

"One day a man was running a saw-mill in a lonely place. There was no one but himself around. He was cutting 'up some pine logs to fill a bill for lumber. The old upright saw was rattling away, and making more noise than progress. The thing was becoming monotonous.

"The man looked out of the end of the mill, and there, coming right towards him, was a large bear, walking up the skid-way, where the logs were drawn up into the mill. The man was scared, and climbed up on one of the beams, where he could watch the turn of events in safety. The bear walked into the mill with as much assurance as though the whole thing belonged to him. He jumped on the end of the log that was on the carriage, and sat down on his haunches like a dog to watch the movements of the saw-gate. He seemed to become very much interested in his surroundings. But every stroke of the saw was bringing him nearer to danger, as the carriage was drawn along by the machinery.

"He seemed to be completely absorbed in contemplation, until at last the points of the saw-teeth touched him on the end of his nose. He seemed to take that as an insult and a challenge for battle. With a cry of pain and rage he threw his fore-paws around the saw to give it the usual bearish hug. The contest between bear's teeth and saw teeth was a desperate one for a minute; but steel was harder than bone. In a short time poor bruin was cut in two, one piece falling on each side of the log.

'While seeking to investigate
A saw-mill's work one day,
Poor, honest bruin, met his fate
In an unseemly way.'

"This is what the sawyer wrote on a piece of board with charcoal, and nailed it up to one of the posts of the mill.

"I have another bear story to tell you," said Mr. Springboard, "and, if you don't object, I will tell it now. Two men went out hunting in the beginning of winter, when the first fall of snow covered the ground. They were brothers. When they reached the hunting ground they went but a short distance before they came on the track of a bear. They saw that it was freshly made, and resolved to follow it up and see where the animal had gone.

"They soon came to where the hear had gone into a thick cedar swamp. Being well acquainted with the locality, they knew that the swamp was not a large one. They arranged that one of them should keep on the track of the bear, while the other would go around the edge of the swamp, and see if he could find where the animal had come out. And if either of them carne across the object of their search he was to let the other know by firing his gun or by calling.

"The man followed the tracks into the swamp. It was difficult, in some places, to get through the thick growth of underwood that intercepted his way. But pushing along the best way he could, he came at length to where the bear had clambered over a fallen tree that lay up some feet from the ground. Mr. Bush, being an active man, placed his hand on the top of the log, and sprang over to the other side.

"When he came over he lit right on the top of the bear which was lying flat on its side in the snow. Before he had time to do anything the bear had him in its embrace. His gun was of no use to him now. His only means of defence was a hunter's knife that he carried in his belt.

"Calling loudly for his brother, he began to plunge the knife into the bear whenever and wherever he could get a chance. The fight was a fearful one. The claws and teeth of the bear were rapidly tearing the flesh from the man's bones. The long knife in the hands of the courageous hunter was just as rapidly letting the life's blood from the emptying veins of the infuriated brute.

"When the other man came up neither Bush nor the bear could stand on their feet, but lying side by side on the blood-covered snow they were fiercely, though feebly, carrying on the conflict. The brother put the muzzle of his rifle to the bear's ear and sent the whole charge into its head. This ended the fight. Help was procured and the wounded man was carried to the house of a settler, and medical assistance secured. Here he lay for weeks before he could be taken to his home in the adjoining township.

"One more short tale and I ain done with bears," said Mr. Springboard. "In the month of March, in a back township, a man was chopping up a fallen hollow tree. All of a sudden his axe went through the thin shell and struck into something that nave a terrific growl. He was startled to hear something crawling along the inside of the log on which he was standing. Presently a large bear came out of the end of the log in a perfect fury, but it was blind. The axe had cut right into its eyes and put them both out. The first thing that the bear touched was a tree. This it embraced and attacked most ferociously, and tried to tear it to pieces. The man went to the house, got his rifle and ended the bear's sufferings by sending a bullet through its heart."

"Well done, Mr. Springboard," said the President. "If all our little entertainments can equal the two last ones, our evenings won't he wasted."

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