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Some Maple Sugar

King Philip, second son of Massasoit, and the most remarkable of all the New England Indians, was dead; but ''King Philip's" war went on. For after his death in the Rhode Island swamp fortress on that August night in 1676, many of his warriors fled to the Province of Maine and joined the Abnaki Indians in their efforts to annihilate some six thousand white settlers, whose hamlets or isolated cabins clung tenaciously to the coast and the mouths of the principal rivers. The tomahawk and torch threw a deadly blight over the land.

The Wells settlement was constantly harassed. The Abnaki, thanks to Baron de Saint-Castin, were well equipped for war; and the sturdy home-makers were in despair as the planting season drew near and there was no surcease in the vigilance of the red foe. Yet despite the horrors of the predatory warfare paralyzing the land, the two Haskins boys, William and John, and Abner Grover, their chum, were determined to enjoy life. The three were accustomed to pioneering and accepted savages as a part of the daily routine.

Like all lads they had a ''sweet tooth." Their daily diet consisted of game and fish and, in season, a few vegetables. When Indian raids interfered with hunting, the family existed on short rations of the coarsest foods. The one relief from the monotonous menu was afforded by the delicious maple syrup and maple sugar.

The spring following King Philip's death brought ideal weather conditions for "sapping"; clear, cold nights and bright, mild days. As the boys gathered in Abner's home. Nature coaxed and called them to visit the maple grove a mile away. Imagine their delight when Mr. Haskins came in and announced to his family and the Grovers that he had made a wide circuit to the north and east without finding a single sign of an Indian.

The following day, to their great joy, Captain Petts, a veteran of Indian wars, returned from making a wide reconnaissance and confidently reported the Indians had left the vicinity of Wells. To clinch this reassuring news, a messenger arrived from Portsmouth with word that the Indians had expressed a willingness to talk peace with the English commissioners.

With a shout, Abner sped away to find his friends and impart the great news. ''Now we can go to the brook and tap the maples,'' he exulted.

However, the boys bided their time until one day Mr. Haskins and Mr. Grover held an earnest consultation with the other men.

''Boys," abruptly called out Abner's father, ''your elders have decided that you may go to the grove to boil sap. You're to start for home each afternoon in time to arrive here before sundown. Some of us will try to come to meet you. Every other day one of us will range between the grove and the Big Woods, and should you hear a gun-shot, you're to drop your work and make for home. You will take two guns with you and you're not to fire them unless you see Indians."
Early the next morning the boys tied a big kettle to a home-made sled and lashed on the settlement's available supply of buckets and wooden spouts, or spiles. Long before they arrived at the brook they had apportioned the work. William was to tap the trees with John arranging the spouts and buckets. Abner was to hang the kettle on a green sapling, suspended between two forked posts, and clean out the small log shed, built two years before. All three were to turn to and accumulate the necessary fuel.

The grove followed the brook for two miles, ending at a wide opening. Beyond this opening the Big Woods began. Long before it was time to eat their midday lunch, the buckets were in place, the shed cleaned and enough wood for a day piled near the kettle.

Notwithstanding their display of unconcern, the boys each experienced the same emotion when beholding the mighty expanse of the Big Woods; a fear of the unknown, the sensation of being watched by malignant eyes. This depression quickly vanished, however, once the flames began crackling and John commenced calling out there were several inches of sap in each bucket. Lugging the kettle between them they made the rounds, and after drinking in turn, they placed what was left over the fire to boil. This was ''finished off" late in the afternoon and carefully poured into a bucket.
At the end of the week no one in Wells felt there was danger of a surprise attack; and it was voted to keep all the men at work for the next three days. Two days without scout protection passed uneventfully, but on the third, the glorious weather changed and the boys knew a storm was brewing and that it might be necessary to do the boiling in the shed. The wind was from the north and carried a keen edge.

"If it starts snowing today we'd better go home early," said Abner. "Some men from Portsmouth are on the way and I want to be there when they come. The storm will hurry them up."

Arrived at the grove, John, with his usual exuberance, started to examine the buckets and William whittled some shavings from a pine stick preparatory to starting the fire. For some reason unknown even by himself, Abner was downcast; when William finished pouring the sap into the kettle and began rallying him for not aiding in the work, he started convulsively and stared with wide eyes at something at the end of the shed. It was scarcely discernible in the clutter of tracks left by the boys, and yet it had not been there up to the time of their leaving the day before.

William chattered on. Abner glared at the alien foot-print. No settlement foot-gear had left that impress, it was made by an Abnaki moccasin. Slowly lifting his head and endeavoring to conceal his alarm, he swept his gaze about in a circle. He fully expected to behold dark forms flitting towards them through the maples; and his heart thumped rapidly as he saw little John making towards the north end of the line of buckets.

Picking up two buckets he gave them to William and said, ''Put those in the shed for me." William was a bit puzzled but stepped inside. Abner halted in the door, and now that no lurking savage could observe his friend's alarm he quickly explained, "I've seen Injun tracks. Don't make a sound. Whistle something. If they're watching, they mustn't know we suspect. Straighten out your face. Now listen; you must come out and get John and tell him to help you bring sap from the other end of the line. Act careless until you get to the opening then run for your lives and warn the settlement. Now, come out.''

''But you!" huskily whispered William, a terrible fear creeping into his eyes.

''If we all leave they will suspect something. I'll stay and give you two a start. I'll keep both guns as you're to run, not fight. Get John now but don't let him know."

William ran after his brother, but John was loath to turn back. Then William made a snow-ball and threw it and challenged the youngster to catch him. This bait was irresistible and John started in full pursuit. Abner by the fire cheered them on, crying, ''Catch him, John! You can catch him!" He saw John make a rush which William easily eluded. Then they passed behind some trees and were out of sight.

Overhead the gray clouds were racing towards the sea. The wind began spitting snow. The boy felt strangely alone and helpless. The sap was bubbling. He piled on more fuel until the syrup boiled. Still believing he was being watched, he began piling the fuel in tiers, whistling as he worked. Entering the shed, he peeped through a crack between the logs. He gave a little choking cry as he saw three bowed figures approaching the rear of the shed. They came on in a zig-zag, darting from tree to tree. He snatched up one of the guns but at once realized it would be useless for him to fire at such elusive targets. Then, before he could prepare for it, the three warriors were at the back of the shed to spy upon him.

Abner felt his lips tremble but managed to resume his whistling. He knew their sharp eyes were following every movement he made. Ignoring the guns he stepped to the door, and, in doing so made sure that the bar was in place. He believed the Indians would come around the corner and seize him, and to prevent this he called out, as though hailing the boys, and wave his hand and beckoned them to join him. He hoped the Indians would be deceived and remain quiet, thinking to bag three instead of one.

No sound came from the rear of the shed. The sap boiled over and gave Abner an inspiration. Drawing on his mittens of deer-skin, he seized the bail, removed the kettle and placed it on the piled-up fuel. He had made the tier some three feet high, and by standing upon it he believed he could attack the enemy in a surprising fashion. Leaping up beside the kettle he seized it with both hands, and with a mighty effort of his strong, young arms, hurled it over the edge of the sloping roof.

As he leaped to the ground and jumped through the doorway, pandemonium broke out back of the shed. With horrible screeches the three savages plunged into the snow to ease the pains of the scalding sap. Their clamor was answered by wild war-whoops deep in the grove. Abner closed the door, made it fast and stepped to a small loop-hole with one of the guns. Three dark forms were groaning and writhing in the snow close by. Other figures, but vaguely visible because of the gathering storm, were rapidly drawing near. Aiming at these he fired, snatched up the second gun and fired again, then hurriedly reloaded.

Instantly the woods became deathly quiet except for the noise of the storm. The scalded Indians vanished with the first shot. The boy knew they were circling the cabin, but so adroitly did they maneuver that he caught no glimpse of them. Then there came a crashing volley, followed by the cheers of white men. In another minute his father was shouting his name. He threw open the door and stepped out and beheld not only the settlers but a score of strangers; and he knew they were the men from Portsmouth. Whatever might have been the designs of the Indians, they were not seen again, although their trail was followed for many miles towards the Kennebec.

Hugh Pendexter


Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

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