"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.