Home And A Warm Hearth
The evening got cold quickly as darkness settled in. The big coonhound roared as Moses and Virgil neared the house. He bounded off the porch to greet them, nudging his nose in the squirrels the boy carried.
"Get away, Tom,” his master said, holding the squirrels as high over his head as possible, but the dog easily jumped that high, nipping at his quarry. "Get down, gosh darn you,” he said, kicking at the dog as it circled him, trying to get at the squirrels as Virgil turned trying to hide them from him. "Grampa, help!” he yelled. Tom persisted, like the good hunter he was until Moses finally intervened and grabbed him by the nape of the neck, while Virgil ran up the steps to safety.
Thomas F. Brown was an old coonhound, a Black and Tan, a born and bred hunter. He excelled at his job, and in addition, was all the best friends a boy could have. He never saved anyone from a burning building, but he was as loyal and brave as any dog could be, and if anyone ever needed saving, why old Tom was just the dog to do it. He was ferocious enough to stand up to a bear, and did once, so the story goes. When Virgil was just a pup himself, Tom took it upon himself to stand guard over him. No one dared to touch the tad. Nothing frightened Tom - except Aurelia and her broom. He didn't bother with horses anymore, either.
The blast of the heat on Virgil's face took his breath away as he entered the house, but it felt good against his red cheeks. And the smells that greeted him. Corn chowder and apple pie with cinnamon. Did that ever smell good to a hungry little boy.
"Mother, Mother,” he said excitedly, "Guess what we got for supper?" He ran to his mother who was cooking on the woodstove.
"I can't guess, " she said stirring the chowder.
"Four squirrels, mother. We got four squirrels with four shots."
"That’s good, Virgie,” she replied, untouched by all of the excitement. “Help Grampa clean them and then you clean yourself for supper. Aurelia, I hope you and Laura have the potatoes and carrots peeled and ready."
"Yes, mother," they said, and went on with their quilting.
Tom had snuck in the house quietly behind Moses and went to the fireplace where he laid down. Aurelia spotted him in the shadows.
"Virgil, get that hound out of this house."
"But Mother, its cold out."
"I don't care. I don't want him in here stinking up the place while we’re eating supper. Now, get him out, before I take the broom to you."
Tom must have understood the word broom, because every time Aurelia said it, he moved. Sometimes it was amazing how fast he could move with his bad hip. "Come on, Boy,” Virgil said, leading him out the door.
Moses and Virgil were quite a team. The squirrels’ jackets were off in no time and soon they were stewing on the stove with the potatoes, carrots and an onion.
Ruel and Julian came in from the darkness, followed by Alfred. The chores were done. "Something sure smells good,” said Ruel.
"I'm starved," said Julian.
"Reciting Shakespeare makes him hungry," said Alfred.
"I do my share of the work around here," he protested.
"Boys, boys,” said their mother, "My word, sometimes I think you're as bad as your younger brothers."
"Where are they?" asked Virgil.
"They said they were going hunting,” said their mother. "I thought they might have gone with you, Grampa."
"Those two, hunters?” laughed Moses. "I gave up on them a long time ago. They don’t have the patience or the interest. Always bickering between themselves. Why, they scare everything away in the woods."
With that, Milton and Austin came bursting through the door simultaneously, followed by a dark shadow that slipped quietly behind a chair near the fireplace.
"You bonehead," said Milton, pushing his brother.
"Hare brained," said Austin, pushing back.
"Boys, boys,” shouted their mother, "stop your arguing and get cleaned up for dinner."
"This dope almost shot me," said Milton.
"I did not,” protested Austin.
"I was pushing my way through a thicket trying to kick out a rabbit and this dunce shoots at me."
"I did not."
"Don't call your brother names," said their mother.
"The shot came so close twigs were falling all over me,” Milton continued. No one was paying attention.
"It did not."
"It's a good thing you can't shoot worth a darn or I'd probably be dead right now."
"Can I have your gun when you die, Milton?" Virgil asked.
"I shot at a bear," said Austin.
"A bear? Do I look like a bear?" shouted Milton.
"No, but you sure smell like one!" Austin replied.
Milton threw his coat at Austin but missed, hitting his mother instead. Without saying a word, she took the wooden spoon from the chowder and cracked Milton over the head with it.
"Ow!” he yelled. Austin laughed out loud, a mistake he immediately regretted when his mother turned and whacked him across the side of his head.
"Ow!" he yelled.
"Now, get busy cleaning yourselves up,” their mother ordered. The rascally pair stood silently, rubbing their drubbing, not daring to say another word.
"Can I have your gun when you die, Milton?" Virgil asked again.
"Shut up!" Milton screamed.
Aurelia thought she smelled something familiar. She looked over at the fireplace. "Virgil, I told you to get that hound out of the house."
"I did, Mother."
"Where’s my broom?” she shouted. Tom scrambled to his feet at the mention of the word and headed for the door. Virgil got there before his mother and let the dog out.
It wasn’t that Aurelia didn't like Tom. Actually he paid for his keep. Each winter Tom helped in harvesting dozens of raccoon skins which were sold to traders and shipped to coat manufacturers in the city. The proceeds bought utensils and dry goods for clothing, and staples that they couldn't grow, like coffee and sugar. Coffee and real white sugar were special, for special guests and special occasions, and those who served it were special hosts. That's how Tom paid his way. But the family paid too. The winter nights were long and Tom would laze away in front of the fireplace or by the woodstove, dreaming of the hunt, the chase, the capture, yowling and kicking in his restless sleep, and every once in a while he'd "Flrrrrp", and stink up the room. That's how the family paid, and that's how Thomas F. Brown got his middle name.
"All right, I think supper is ready. Let's sit down,” said their mother. The boys and Moses sat while Aurelia and the girls served the food. Then they sat and she folded her hands and said softly, "Lord, we offer thanks and grateful surprise for another of your miracles in providing us with bounty from this desolate rock pile here in the center of your Paradise."
Outside the dew quickly turned to frost under the clear, crisp night sky and the shining valley was inundated with a hushed stillness, a stillness whose secrets were known only to those blessed with that special gift.
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