Chapter 12. Huckleberries

There was a great clashing of tin pails, much running to and fro, and frequent demands for something to eat, one August afternoon, for the boys were going huckleberrying, and made as much stir about it as if they were setting out to find the North West Passage.

“Now, my lads, get off as quietly as you can, for Rob is safely out of the way, and won’t see you,” said Mrs. Bhaer, as she tied Daisy’s broad-brimmed hat, and settled the great blue pinafore in which she had enveloped Nan.

But the plan did not succeed, for Rob had heard the bustle, decided to go, and prepared himself, without a thought of disappointment. The troop was just getting under way when the little man came marching downstairs with his best hat on, a bright tin pail in his hand, and a face beaming with satisfaction.

“Oh, dear! now we shall have a scene,” sighed Mrs. Bhaer, who found her eldest son very hard to manage at times.

“I’m all ready,” said Rob, and took his place in the ranks with such perfect unconsciousness of his mistake, that it really was very hard to undeceive him.

“It’s too far for you, my love; stay and take care of me, for I shall be all alone,” began his mother.

“You’ve got Teddy. I’m a big boy, so I can go; you said I might when I was bigger, and I am now,” persisted Rob, with a cloud beginning to dim the brightness of his happy face.

“We are going up to the great pasture, and it’s ever so far; we don’t want you tagging on,” cried Jack, who did not admire the little boys.

“I won’t tag, I’ll run and keep up. O Mamma! let me go! I want to fill my new pail, and I’ll bring ’em all to you. Please, please, I will be good!” prayed Robby, looking up at his mother, so grieved and disappointed that her heart began to fail her.

“But, my deary, you’ll get so tired and hot you won’t have a good time. Wait till I go, and then we will stay all day, and pick as many berries as you want.”

“You never do go, you are so busy, and I’m tired of waiting. I’d rather go and get the berries for you all myself. I love to pick ’em, and I want to fill my new pail dreffly,” sobbed Rob.

The pathetic sight of great tears tinkling into the dear new pail, and threatening to fill it with salt water instead of huckleberries, touched all the ladies present. His mother patted the weeper on his back; Daisy offered to stay home with him; and Nan said, in her decided way,

“Let him come; I’ll take care of him.”

“If Franz was going I wouldn’t mind, for he is very careful; but he is haying with the father, and I’m not sure about the rest of you,” began Mrs. Bhaer.

“It’s so far,” put in Jack.

“I’d carry him if I was going wish I was,” said Dan, with a sigh.

“Thank you, dear, but you must take care of your foot. I wish I could go. Stop a minute, I think I can manage it after all;” and Mrs. Bhaer ran out to the steps, waving her apron wildly.

Silas was just driving away in the hay-cart, but turned back, and agreed at once, when Mrs. Jo proposed that he should take the whole party to the pasture, and go for them at five o’clock.

“It will delay your work a little, but never mind; we will pay you in huckleberry pies,” said Mrs. Jo, knowing Silas’s weak point.

His rough, brown face brightened up, and he said, with a cheery “Haw! haw!” – “Wal now, Mis’ Bhaer, if you go to bribin’ of me, I shall give in right away.”

“Now, boys, I have arranged it so that you can all go,” said Mrs. Bhaer, running back again, much relieved, for she loved to make them happy, and always felt miserable when she had disturbed the serenity of her little sons; for she believed that the small hopes and plans and pleasures of children should be tenderly respected by grown-up people, and never rudely thwarted or ridiculed.

“Can I go?” said Dan, delighted.

“I thought especially of you. Be careful, and never mind the berries, but sit about and enjoy the lovely things which you know how to find all about you,” answered Mrs. Bhaer, who remembered his kind offer to her boy.

“Me too! me too!” sung Rob, dancing with joy, and clapping his precious pail and cover like castanets.

“Yes, and Daisy and Nan must take good care of you. Be at the bars at five o’clock, and Silas will come for you all.”

Robby cast himself upon his mother in a burst of gratitude, promising to bring her every berry he picked, and not eat one. Then they were all packed into the hay-cart, and went rattling away, the brightest face among the dozen being that of Rob, as he sat between his two temporary little mothers, beaming upon the whole world, and waving his best hat; for his indulgent mamma had not the heart to bereave him of it, since this was a gala-day to him.

Such a happy afternoon as they had, in spite of the mishaps which usually occur on such expeditions! Of course Tommy came to grief, tumbled upon a hornet’s nest and got stung; but being used to woe, he bore the smart manfully, till Dan suggested the application of damp earth, which much assuaged the pain. Daisy saw a snake, and flying from it lost half her berries; but Demi helped her to fill up again, and discussed reptiles most learnedly the while. Ned fell out of a tree, and split his jacket down the back, but suffered no other fracture. Emil and Jack established rival claims to a certain thick patch, and while they were squabbling about it, Stuffy quickly and quietly stripped the bushes and fled to the protection of Dan, who was enjoying himself immensely. The crutch was no longer necessary, and he was delighted to see how strong his foot felt as he roamed about the great pasture, full of interesting rocks and stumps, with familiar little creatures in the grass, and well-known insects dancing in the air.

But of all the adventures that happened on this afternoon that which befell Nan and Rob was the most exciting, and it long remained one of the favorite histories of the household. Having explored the country pretty generally, torn three rents in her frock, and scratched her face in a barberry-bush, Nan began to pick the berries that shone like big, black beads on the low, green bushes. Her nimble fingers flew, but still her basket did not fill up as rapidly as she desired, so she kept wandering here and there to search for better places, instead of picking contentedly and steadily as Daisy did. Rob followed Nan, for her energy suited him better than his cousin’s patience, and he too was anxious to have the biggest and best berries for Marmar.

“I keep putting ’em in, but it don’t fill up, and I’m so tired,” said Rob, pausing a moment to rest his short legs, and beginning to think huckleberrying was not all his fancy painted it; for the sun blazed, Nan skipped hither and thither like a grasshopper, and the berries fell out of his pail almost as fast as he put them in, because, in his struggles with the bushes, it was often upside-down.

“Last time we came they were ever so much thicker over that wall great bouncers; and there is a cave there where the boys made a fire. Let’s go and fill our things quick, and then hide in the cave and let the others find us,” proposed Nan, thirsting for adventures.

Rob consented, and away they went, scrambling over the wall and running down the sloping fields on the other side, till they were hidden among the rocks and underbrush. The berries were thick, and at last the pails were actually full. It was shady and cool down there, and a little spring gave the thirsty children a refreshing drink out of its mossy cup.

“Now we will go and rest in the cave, and eat our lunch,” said Nan, well satisfied with her success so far.

“Do you know the way?” asked Rob.

“‘Course I do; I’ve been once, and I always remember. Didn’t I go and get my box all right?”

That convinced Rob, and he followed blindly as Nan led him over stock and stone, and brought him, after much meandering, to a small recess in the rock, where the blackened stones showed that fires had been made.

“Now, isn’t it nice?” asked Nan, as she took out a bit of bread-and-butter, rather damaged by being mixed up with nails, fishhooks, stones and other foreign substances, in the young lady’s pocket.

“Yes; do you think they will find us soon?” asked Rob, who found the shadowy glen rather dull, and began to long for more society.

“No, I don’t; because if I hear them, I shall hide, and have fun making them find me.”

“P’raps they won’t come.”

“Don’t care; I can get home myself.”

“Is it a great way?” asked Rob, looking at his little stubby boots, scratched and wet with his long wandering.

“It’s six miles, I guess.” Nan’s ideas of distance were vague, and her faith in her own powers great.

“I think we better go now,” suggested Rob, presently.

“I shan’t till I have picked over my berries;” and Nan began what seemed to Rob an endless task.

“Oh, dear! you said you’d take good care of me,” he sighed, as the sun seemed to drop behind the hill all of a sudden.

“Well I am taking good care of you as hard as I can. Don’t be cross, child; I’ll go in a minute,” said Nan, who considered five-year-old Robby a mere infant compared to herself.

So little Rob sat looking anxiously about him, and waiting patiently, for, spite of some misgivings, he felt great confidence in Nan.

“I guess it’s going to be night pretty soon,” he observed, as if to himself, as a mosquito bit him, and the frogs in a neighboring marsh began to pipe up for the evening concert.

“My goodness me! so it is. Come right away this minute, or they will be gone,” cried Nan, looking up from her work, and suddenly perceiving that the sun was down.
“I heard a horn about an hour ago; may be they were blowing for us,” said Rob, trudging after his guide as she scrambled up the steep hill.

“Where was it?” asked Nan, stopping short.

“Over that way;” he pointed with a dirty little finger in an entirely wrong direction.

“Let’s go that way and meet them;” and Nan wheeled about, and began to trot through the bushes, feeling a trifle anxious, for there were so many cow-paths all about she could not remember which way they came.

On they went over stock and stone again, pausing now and then to listen for the horn, which did not blow any more, for it was only the moo of a cow on her way home.

“I don’t remember seeing that pile of stones do you?” asked Nan, as she sat on a wall to rest a moment and take an observation.

“I don’t remember any thing, but I want to go home,” and Rob’s voice had a little tremble in it that made Nan put her arms round him and lift him gently down, saying, in her most capable way,

“I’m going just as fast as I can, dear. Don’t cry, and when we come to the road, I’ll carry you.”

“Where is the road?” and Robby wiped his eyes to look for it.

“Over by that big tree. Don’t you know that’s the one Ned tumbled out of?”

“So it is. May be they waited for us; I’d like to ride home wouldn’t you?” and Robby brightened up as he plodded along toward the end of the great pasture.

“No, I’d rather walk,” answered Nan, feeling quite sure that she would be obliged to do so, and preparing her mind for it.

Another long trudge through the fast-deepening twilight and another disappointment, for when they reached the tree, they found to their dismay that it was not the one Ned climbed, and no road anywhere appeared.

“Are we lost?” quavered Rob, clasping his pail in despair.

“Not much. I don’t just see which way to go, and I guess we’d better call.”

So they both shouted till they were hoarse, yet nothing answered but the frogs in full chorus.

“There is another tall tree over there, perhaps that’s the one,” said Nan, whose heart sunk within her, though she still spoke bravely.

“I don’t think I can go any more; my boots are so heavy I can’t pull ’em;” and Robby sat down on a stone quite worn out.

“Then we must stay here all night. I don’t care much, if snakes don’t come.”

“I’m frightened of snakes. I can’t stay all night. Oh, dear! I don’t like to be lost,” and Rob puckered up his face to cry, when suddenly a thought occurred to him, and he said, in a tone of perfect confidence,

“Marmar will come and find me she always does; I ain’t afraid now.”

“She won’t know where we are.”

“She didn’t know I was shut up in the ice-house, but she found me. I know she’ll come,” returned Robby, so trustfully, that Nan felt relieved, and sat down by him, saying, with a remorseful sigh,

“I wish we hadn’t run away.”

“You made me; but I don’t mind much Marmar will love me just the same,” answered Rob, clinging to his sheet-anchor when all other hope was gone.

“I’m so hungry. Let’s eat our berries,” proposed Nan, after a pause, during which Rob began to nod.

“So am I, but I can’t eat mine, ’cause I told Marmar I’d keep them all for her.”

“You’ll have to eat them if no one comes for us,” said Nan, who felt like contradicting every thing just then. “If we stay here a great many days, we shall eat up all the berries in the field, and then we shall starve,” she added grimly.

“I shall eat sassafras. I know a big tree of it, and Dan told me how squirrels dig up the roots and eat them, and I love to dig,” returned Rob, undaunted by the prospect of starvation.

“Yes; and we can catch frogs, and cook them. My father ate some once, and he said they were nice,” put in Nan, beginning to find a spice of romance even in being lost in a huckleberry pasture.

“How could we cook frogs? we haven’t got any fire.”

“I don’t know; next time I’ll have matches in my pocket,” said Nan, rather depressed by this obstacle to the experiment in frog-cookery.

“Couldn’t we light a fire with a fire-fly?” asked Rob, hopefully, as he watched them flitting to and fro like winged sparks.

“Let’s try;” and several minutes were pleasantly spent in catching the flies, and trying to make them kindle a green twig or two. “It’s a lie to call them fireflies when there isn’t a fire in them,” Nan said, throwing one unhappy insect away with scorn, though it shone its best, and obligingly walked up and down the twigs to please the innocent little experimenters.

“Marmar’s a good while coming,” said Rob, after another pause, during which they watched the stars overhead, smelt the sweet fern crushed under foot, and listened to the crickets’ serenade.

“I don’t see why God made any night; day is so much pleasanter,” said Nan, thoughtfully.

“It’s to sleep in,” answered Rob, with a yawn.

“Then do go to sleep,” said Nan, pettishly.

“I want my own bed. Oh, I wish I could see Teddy!” cried Rob, painfully reminded of home by the soft chirp of birds safe in their little nests.

“I don’t believe your mother will ever find us,” said Nan, who was becoming desperate, for she hated patient waiting of any sort. “It’s so dark she won’t see us.”

“It was all black in the ice-house, and I was so scared I didn’t call her, but she saw me; and she will see me now, no matter how dark it is,” returned confiding Rob, standing up to peer into the gloom for the help which never failed him.

“I see her! I see her!” he cried, and ran as fast as his tired legs would take him toward a dark figure slowly approaching. Suddenly he stopped, then turned about, and came stumbling back, screaming in a great panic,

“No, it’s a bear, a big black one!” and hid his face in Nan’s skirts.

For a moment Nan quailed; ever her courage gave out at the thought of a real bear, and she was about to turn and flee in great disorder, when a mild “Moo!” changed her fear to merriment, as she said, laughing,

“It’s a cow, Robby! the nice, black cow we saw this afternoon.”

The cow seemed to feel that it was not just the thing to meet two little people in her pasture after dark, and the amiable beast paused to inquire into the case. She let them stroke her, and stood regarding them with her soft eyes so mildly, that Nan, who feared no animal but a bear, was fired with a desire to milk her.

“Silas taught me how; and berries and milk would be so nice,” she said, emptying the contents of her pail into her hat, and boldly beginning her new task, while Rob stood by and repeated, at her command, the poem from Mother Goose:

Cushy cow, bonny, let down your milk,
Let down your milk to me,
And I will give you a gown of silk,
A gown of silk and a silver tee.

But the immortal rhyme had little effect, for the benevolent cow had already been milked, and had only half a gill to give the thirsty children.

“Shoo! get away! you are an old cross patch,” cried Nan, ungratefully, as she gave up the attempt in despair; and poor Molly walked on with a gentle gurgle of surprise and reproof.
“Each can have a sip, and then we must take a walk. We shall go to sleep if we don’t; and lost people mustn’t sleep. Don’t you know how Hannah Lee in the pretty story slept under the snow and died?”

“But there isn’t any snow now, and it’s nice and warm,” said Rob, who was not blessed with as lively a fancy as Nan.

“No matter, we will poke about a little, and call some more; and then, if nobody comes, we will hide under the bushes, like Hop-‘o-my-thumb and his brothers.”

It was a very short walk, however, for Rob was so sleepy he could not get on, and tumbled down so often that Nan entirely lost patience, being half distracted by the responsibility she had taken upon herself.

“If you tumble down again, I’ll shake you,” she said, lifting the poor little man up very kindly as she spoke, for Nan’s bark was much worse than her bite.

“Please don’t. It’s my boots they keep slipping so;” and Rob manfully checked the sob just ready to break out, adding, with a plaintive patience that touched Nan’s heart, “If the skeeters didn’t bite me so, I could go to sleep till Marmar comes.”

“Put your head on my lap, and I’ll cover you up with my apron; I’m not afraid of the night,” said Nan, sitting down and trying to persuade herself that she did not mind the shadow nor the mysterious rustlings all about her.

“Wake me up when she comes,” said Rob, and was fast asleep in five minutes with his head in Nan’s lap under the pinafore.

The little girl sat for some fifteen minutes, staring about her with anxious eyes, and feeling as if each second was an hour. Then a pale light began to glimmer over the hill-top and she said to herself, “I guess the night is over and morning is coming. I’d like to see the sun rise, so I’ll watch, and when it comes up we can find our way right home.”

But before the moon’s round face peeped above the hill to destroy her hope, Nan had fallen asleep, leaning back in a little bower of tall ferns, and was deep in a mid-summer night’s dream of fire-flies and blue aprons, mountains of huckleberries, and Robby wiping away the tears of a black cow, who sobbed, “I want to go home! I want to go home!”

While the children were sleeping, peacefully lulled by the drowsy hum of many neighborly mosquitoes, the family at home were in a great state of agitation. The hay-cart came at five, and all but Jack, Emil, Nan, and Rob were at the bars ready for it. Franz drove instead of Silas, and when the boys told him that the others were going home through the wood, he said, looking ill-pleased, “They ought to have left Rob to ride, he will be tired out by the long walk.”

“It’s shorter that way, and they will carry him,” said Stuffy, who was in a hurry for his supper.

“You are sure Nan and Rob went with them?”

“Of course they did; I saw them getting over the wall, and sung out that it was most five, and Jack called back that they were going the other way,” explained Tommy.

“Very well, pile in then,” and away rattled the hay-cart with the tired children and the full pails.

Mrs. Jo looked sober when she heard of the division of the party, and sent Franz back with Toby to find and bring the little ones home. Supper was over, and the family sitting about in the cool hall as usual, when Franz came trotting back, hot, dusty, and anxious.

“Have they come?” he called out when half-way up the avenue.

“No!” and Mrs. Jo flew out of her chair looking so alarmed that every one jumped up and gathered round Franz.

“I can’t find them anywhere,” he began; but the words were hardly spoken when a loud “Hullo!” startled them all, and the next minute Jack and Emil came round the house.

“Where are Nan and Rob?” cried Mrs. Jo, clutching Emil in a way that caused him to think his aunt had suddenly lost her wits.
“I don’t know. They came home with the others, didn’t they?” he answered, quickly.

“No; George and Tommy said they went with you.”

“Well, they didn’t. Haven’t seen them. We took a swim in the pond, and came by the wood,” said Jack, looking alarmed, as well he might.

“Call Mr. Bhaer, get the lanterns, and tell Silas I want him.”

That was all Mrs. Jo said, but they knew what she meant, and flew to obey her orders. In ten minutes, Mr. Bhaer and Silas were off to the wood, and Franz tearing down the road on old Andy to search the great pasture. Mrs. Jo caught up some food from the table, a little bottle of brandy from the medicine-closet, took a lantern, and bidding Jack and Emil come with her, and the rest not stir, she trotted away on Toby, never stopping for hat or shawl. She heard some one running after her, but said not a word till, as she paused to call and listen, the light of her lantern shone on Dan’s face.

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