CHAPTER FOUR...ARSON!


(Carolyn's note: The Cabin Chronicles is an ongoing feature on my life growing up in the Northwoods of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Each week I will be posting several new chapters on stories that will surprise you, stun you, and hopefully make you laugh and cry! To read past chapters, go to the heading entitled Blog on the top bar of tswails.com and click on the Cabin Chronicles. Hope you enjoy!)

The next morning dad was back on the phone. It was an old rotary model attached to the wall. Having a phone was a luxury. But dad knew to how to catch flies with honey. He'd convinced the telephone company into trenching a line from Federal Forest Highway 16 back to our camp by promising to be a lifelong customer (which he was).

The only snag was the telephone pole installed halfway between our camp and the highway. The pole stood in a small clearing back in the woods. It was a huge wildlife attraction. Bears, in particular. While birds and squirrels saw the pole as a handy roost. Bears saw a scratching post. So if a bear relieved his itchy back in the middle of the night, the chances of the phone working the next day were pretty slim.

But on this morning, the phone worked fine.

A few hours later, a sheriff’s deputy pulled into the grassy yard. We were shooed out of the cabin while dad and the deputy conferred over a cup of coffee. After awhile the deputy came out, and walked up the hill toward Old Lady Bingham’s camp.

It was all I could do not to follow. But my brother wasn’t game, so I reluctantly dropped the idea.

Instead I curled onto the front porch swing. Impatiently waiting. From this vantage point, I could see the hill rising to meet the Bingham's cabin.

It was about a half an hour later when I heard crunching steps coming back down.

It was the deputy. He again sat down and shared coffee with dad. The word was no lumber was found. Anywhere. Not a stick. The Junkins' had heatedly protested their innocence. Peering in through the window, I saw the deputy throw up his hands in defeat. Dad nodded. His face calm and composed. Dad thanked the lawman, and walked him out to his squad car. The dented black and white vehicle rumbled down the trail and was gone.

After that lumber never mysteriously disappeared. Dad finished the cookhouse, and it was thrill to hang there in the late afternoons laughing at the bugs.

About two weeks after dad’s midnight encounter with the Junkins’; we had a visitor.

It was Ben Claire. Ben lived about a half mile downstream from our place. He was a gruff old widower in his seventies who wore green suspenders and plaid shirts. After owning a company that stuffed mattresses in Marquette, Michigan, Ben had retired to the North Branch of the Paint River taking with him his nickname of “Mattress King”.

We called him “Uncle Ben”. He lived year round in a clapboard home that sat on the bank of the Paint River. And. He reigned supreme. The self-appointed King of the Forest. It wasn’t a stretch. Even the animals bowed down to him. Ben could summon bears from the woods with a call. Like well-behaved subjects, they ambled from the trees maintaining a respectful distance. Ben rewarded them with corn. He always carried a pitchfork, but never had to use it. If a bear got too close, Ben ordered the beast back. I sometimes watched from the safety of his porch wishing I could stand next to Ben and order the bears around myself.

Ben was incredibly self-sufficient. He canned berries, turtle meat, and dried fish from the river. His home ran on a furnace fueled by wood. He cooked on a wood burning stove. Ironically he was fascinated by human nature. He and dad would carry on many spirited conversations.

Nothing got past Ben. He knew all the secrets. Down to where the best berry picking patches could be found (which he refused to share with my mother to her everlasting chagrin). He knew every inch of the woods, the river, and its occupants both human and non-human.

Uncle Ben was also a frequent visitor to our camp. He was the self-appointed overseer to dad's many projects. He patrolled our land ousting the infrequent poachers and trespassers. There was nothing he would not do for dad.

He simply loved my father like a son. He always called him “Bobby”.

“Bobby,” he roared after climbing down from his battered green pick-up truck. From the safety of our fort erected in the woods just a couple hundred feet from the cabin, I had heard the truck coming. Even from a distance, I could tell something was up. Uncle Ben was crossing the yard puffed up like a Thanksgiving Day turkey.

“C’mon, let’s go,” I urged my brother who had been idling with me in the fort. “Uncle Ben’s got something, I can tell,” I continued. My brother perked up and followed me down the firehouse pole. (We never used the ladder.) Dad stepped out from the garage wiping his hands on an old rag.

My brother and I raced across the grass. Popped into the kitchen in time to see dad reaching for the ubiquitous coffee pot. Uncle Ben was on his high horse pacing back and forth. His gravelly voice filled the cabin. Hard of hearing, I think Ben thought everyone else was too.

My brother and I kept our distance. Ben was not fond of children. He didn’t dislike us, it was rather kids were an alien species, and he had little use for them. In his current state of agitation, Ben didn't realize we had slinked in through the door. My brother and I headed for the attic above the kitchen. Dad had transformed the space into a bedroom for us with built-in bunkbeds and a catwalk that ran the length of the wall. It was too hot to sleep up there in the summer, but in the winter it was sublime. Also perfect for covert activities. From our viewpoint we practically had a front row seat. Ben was still marching up and down the small kitchen. His closely cropped white hair bobbing back and forth below us. It was like watching a tennis match. Finally the coffee was ready. Dad and Ben sat down. Dad’s back was to us sitting at the table. Uncle Ben seated across from him.

Naturally Ben knew all about the missing lumber.

“Well Bobby,” he rasped. Dad passed Ben a coffee cup which he doctored up with cream. “Found myself over on the federal property, and stumbled across something real interesting.”

By now my brother and I were leaning so far over the catwalk to catch every word, we were in danger of plunging to the floor.

“Seems someone built themselves a couple of deer stands. With brand new lumber too!” he chortled.

Dad took a sip of coffee waiting patiently for Ben to continue his story. Ben was the consummate story teller. His listeners knew to never interrupt him.

“Well, that’s not right ya know eh? Can’t build yourself a deer blind on federal property,” he continued. “Don’t think the squirrels put ‘em up!” he laughed. “Ja, but I have a pretty good idea where they came from don’ cha’ know! Yes, sir, caught those rascals just about first hand. ”

Ben was clearly enjoying himself and working up to a rip bang conclusion of the story.

Uncle Ben knotted his thick fingers together and looked at my dad and cleared his throat. “Well now Bobby,” he said. “Those deer blinds are gone, eh”

I was about to explode with suspense.

“Craziest thing don’ cha’ know,” he continued. “They both just burned up. Nothing left. Not sure how it happened.”

And then.

He winked.

View of Paint River looking downstream toward Ben's place.

Cookhouse dad built to hang out in the summer to avoid bugs!

Inside view of cookhouse with cabin in the background.

Dad in later years, cooking on the wood burning stove in the cabin.

COMING UP NEXT...CHILDREN OF THE WOODS!

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