January 30, 2023

A Hissin’ Fit

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eleazerbanner - CopyJournal—January 30–Monday

Margie and I had a busy weekend, and I haven’t had the chance to make an entry since Friday. Today the weather has moderated, and is cloudy with the temperature in the low 20’s. I haven’t ventured out yet this morning, but I expect Brinker will want a walk soon.

I have to recount a story Art Harrington related to me at the Grange Supper on Saturday night. But before I start this account, I’ll set a little background. Art was born the third son of Antti and Anna Heikkinen, and lived with his wife Effie on a plot of land his dad owned on the back side of Patch Mountain. Antti had arrived here from his native Finland speaking little English, but coming to a Finnish community he acclimated quickly. His first property purchase was the former Edwards Farm, which included the farm buildings in which Art now lived. The neat house and ell stood just off the road, and set back against a well pruned stand of trees. Art had carefully taken apart the sagging, weathered barn back to the long ell. He had meticulously stacked all the lumber, bundled all the unbroken shingles, and saved most of the nails that he had pulled.

Art was just as particular about the firewood stored in the ell. He had eight or nine cords of firewood neatly stacked in the different bays of the ell. There were piles of small kindling separated as pine, cedar, spruce, fir, and popple. Other areas had stacks, only as high as Effie can reach; of split or round wood of maple, ash, red oak, and birch all separated into different sizes. Art once described to me that he uses a specific type and size of wood depending on the temperature outside and whether he was cooking or heating.

The ell, on the inside, is like the long narrow corridor of Kimball’s boarding house, except wood piles imitate the wallpaper, with the occasional cobwebbed window interrupting the neat, linear feel. A trip into the house through the ell shed is an aromatic treat provided by the aroma of pine, cedar, and pungent red oak.

Well, enough of the background, I just wanted to give you a feel for the temperament and personality embodied in my friend Art.

This is exactly as Art retold the happening to me at the Grange, Saturday night…

“Effie had been having a hard time keeping up with filling the wood boxes by the stoves, so I would stock them up before bed at night. It had been blistering cold for many nights, so we have had to burn lots of wood just to keep the frost off the kitchen windows. I was out in the ell loading my left arm with oak round wood, carefully gazing through the frosty vapors left by my breath to select just the right size sticks to last through the night, when I first heard it…”

The sound started as a low grumbling and trailed off into a higher pitched hiss. I stopped my chore and turned sharply to look into a dark corner of the ell. At first my eyes, tearing by the cold air, couldn’t pick out any detail. I quickly moved my mittened right hand to wipe the large tear from my cheek and adjust the oval spectacles on my nose. I peered intently into the shadow made by the light of my dusty lantern and still couldn’t see anything. Everything was quiet, except the rustling of wind blown raspberry canes scrapping on the outside shingles. Had I just been hearing things? I waited… I guess so.

I took the arm load of wood into the kitchen and carefully laid the sticks down in the oak box by the big cook stove. I wiped the steam off my glasses and peeked into the parlor; Effie was still knitting and humming a favorite hymn. I went back into the kitchen and tramped out the back door into the ell for another load of wood. I was just about to reach for a gnarly stick of maple when I heard it again. This time the grumbling was deeper and longer, and the hissing more punctuated and loud. There was something on top of the birch pile up next to a four by eight cross beam. I carefully removed the lantern from its rusty holder, and lifted it above my head.

I held my gaze on an area in the very corner of the ell, where the old barn had been attached. There was a nest of spider webs hanging from the large cross beam, so it took many seconds for the dull, yellow light from the lamp I was slowly moving up and down to produce to two, glowing globes. These globes turned out to be the glaring eyes of an angry wildcat. Why he looked so angry, I could only guess. It should be me who would be angry, as it is my shed not his. He didn’t appear to be aggressive, so I just stared for a sort time. I went over to one of the sliding doors, and opened it a small crack for my new acquaintance to gracefully exit during the night. I finished loading up my arm and blew out the lantern, as I returned to the warmth of the kitchen.

I was up before dawn the next morning, and could see the snow falling lightly through the light from the kitchen windows. It was too cold to snow with much accumulation, but a little nuisance that needed to be cleaned off the steps of the ell and front stoop. When I finished this chore, I went into the ell through the sliding door left open overnight. There were no tracks of my visitor leaving during the snow showers, so I assumed he had “beat feet” soon after our encounter last night. I stomped my boots heavily on the plank floor to be sure I didn’t have any snow left; certainly didn’t want to wet Effie’s kitchen floor. The door protested when I slid it shut, squeaking and squawking as it closed against the weathered post. I walked down the narrow corridor of fire wood, and stopped to get another load of good hardwood.

I was startled by the sudden scratching sound of feet running along the top of one of the wood piles. I, being on the somewhat jumpy side, dropped the arm load of wood, sparsely missing my toes. I swung my body around, to curse the squirrel that surely was one of the many trying to use my shed and its winter shelter, but came eye to eye with the bristling wildcat. He acted as if I was intruding into his home without first knocking. He stared coldly at me, as I calmed myself down. I now carefully watched this feline intruder. He appeared to be poised to take a step away, or was he just gathering nerve to jump me? He turned his fluffy head and stepped a few short steps along the loose wood atop of the pile, to sit pompously on a flat piece of red oak. He scowled at me and murmured a low growl emanating from his throat, vibrating across a flattened tongue and between four dangerous looking canines.

This second meeting had lasted only a few seconds, when I assured myself that twelve or thirteen pounds of feline weren’t going to make mischief with a two hundred pound Scandinavian. I became a little angry at him, and wished that he had left the comfort of my ell shed and headed himself home. He had taken stock of me and must have felt I was of no threat to him, because he started to take a cat bath. I now was quite sure it was “Mr. Wildcat”. I was busy, and didn’t need the distraction of this vacationing cat. I went out the near ell door and walked through the yard and opened the far shed door, which I had most recently shut. I stomped back around to the near door toward the kitchen, thinking along the way, that I hoped Mr. Wildcat would take the hint.

I struck out early the next morning to do my chores in the cedar swamp, and worked all day with just a short break for a lunch of venison and “rat” cheese. The sun was just about to sink below the pine topped crest of Long Mountain, when I returned from my day cutting fence posts below the lower field. As I walked into the yard, I saw movement in the dusty window on the side of the ell—it was him. Damn, he’s still here and look at him stretching out and yawning. He probably was lying in the sun all day, while I sweated over my buck saw in the swamp! The nerve of that cat! I was now in quite a lather. My first thought was to get the Stevens .22 and end his furry existence on the top of the wood pile. But the thought of spilling blood on the wood, and skinnin’ the critter in this cold, turned my plan into one involving severe fright. I could and surely would make a ruckus with the old double barrel Winchester twelve gauge.

I stamped through the parlor where Effie was knitting, and retrieved the old stovepipe from behind the dining room door. I then tramped back through the parlor, just mumbling to myself about a problem that needed solving. I entered the ell shed, and had to stop and light the lantern, as the sun had now set beyond Long Mountain. I pulled out two bird shot loads from the breast pocket of my flannel vest, and slid them smoothly into the hollow barrels of the Winchester. I hefted the shotgun in my right arm, as the left arm held high the lantern.

I walked slowly down the isle of wood, listening and watching for any sign of Mr. Wildcat. Each step over the plank floor offered up a squeak or moan, certainly not a stealthy approach. The light from the lantern cast moving shadows throughout the dusty, cob webbed roof spaces. I heard muffled sounds of movement, then there he was perched on a cross member of shed framing. Not wanting to cause any real damage, I brought the Winchester up to my shoulder and steadied it with the left hand, and aimed at a small stack of soft pine logs that I hadn’t yet split for kindling. I intended to blast the birdshot into this wood, and scare the living spots right off Mr. Wildcat’s hide.

Well the swinging of the lantern distracted my aim, so I held and sighted the shotgun with one hand. I had the hammers on both barrels ready, but no fool would fire both at once, so I squeezed the front trigger as gently as I could. Blam… The ringing in my ears wasn’t even noticed, before the recoil of the first charge sent my right hand into a tighter grip that caused my finger to twitch on trigger number two. The sound of barrel number two firing was a long echo of the first. The stock had slipped from my shoulder on number one to my right breast side for the second round. This later recoil did me in, and sat me down; kerplunk…thud…on the cold shed floor.

I sat rather dazed for a few moments. I sensed the pungent smell of sulfur and could see the cloud of black powder wafting through the lantern light in the shed. My ears were ringing loudly, yet I had managed to keep hold of the lantern and Winchester. Wow! This must have been how Jack Ellingwood felt after being kicked in the chest by his Belgian yearling. I leaned the shotgun against a pile of red maple roundwood, and slowly rose to my feet. I walked slowly to the far shed doorway and held the lantern high, looking for tracks of the skittering cat. I was still somewhat shaken, but plainly there were no tracks in the newly fallen snow. Damn, again! Walking over to the wood pile and lifting my lantern assured me that; indeed, he was still there. He looked at me as if to laugh, and then the yawn again—I really disliked him at this point!

A cold draft tickled my mustache and a small, white plume of snow drew my attention to a gaping hole in the roof. Apparently my second shot went awry, hit a knot in the roofing, and shattered its way to the night sky. The hole, bigger than my fist, seemed to suck in bushel baskets of light snow. That was it, I was beaten—nothing could be worse!

Worse is what I got when I opened the kitchen door! Effie hadn’t seen the shotgun in my arms when I had tramped through the parlor earlier. The first shot caused such a start, that she pulled one of her needles completely out of her knitting. The second round upset her from the comfort of her rocker, and caused a very neat extraction of the second needle from my new dress sweater. Needless to say, “She wasn’t happy”. I had now met the second wildcat of the evening!

Over the next six days I teased, roiled, and coaxed, that old Mr. Wildcat. I poked him with a crotched stick, I threw blocks of wood his way, and I even set out a plate of smelly, luscious cat treats made from old sardines. But all this to no avail! On the seventh day he was gone….without a word…no thank you…nothing…just gone!

I missed my daily encounters with Mr. Wildcat, yeah right, for about five seconds maybe. It took me two months to sweet talk Effie into finishing my dress sweater. I eventually got new shingles made, and patched the hole in the roof. And there wasn’t hide nor hair of a squirrel, mouse, or rat in the ell shed until spring—one good thing!”

I assure you these are the words Art spoke to me and others the night of the Grange supper. You have to know that it was so good and intriguing, because I missed my second helping of Arlene Farrington’s famous custard pie.

Respectfully Submitted,
Eleazer Peabody

Read all of Eleazer Peabody’s Tales from Maine.