Little Nathan King was driving home his father's cows.
It was a cold night in October. In the clear sky the stars shone bright.
The dry leaves fluttered down upon the road where they lay in drifts.
The air was sharp. Once a chestnut burr dropped at the boy's feet.
"Winter will soon be here," Nathan said to himself. He was thinking of the snug kitchen and the good, warm supper that his mother would have ready for him.
It was dark. Nathan could just see the black shapes of the cows.
There were five of them. They were good, kind cows. Nathan liked to take care of them.
He liked to pat their sleek, smooth sides.
The cows were fond of Nathan. Sometimes the black cow would put out her rough tongue to touch his hand.
Now they were all in a hurry to reach the warm barn. They walked along the road as fast as they could.
"I think I will go by the wood path,"said Nathan to himself. "It is only half as afar, and I know every step of the way."
So he ran on before the cows, and let down the bars into the wood path.
The cows went on after him. They, too, knew every step of the path.Nathan often took them home that way. The end of the wood path was near the door of the barn.
It was very still in the woods. The dry leaves rustled as the cows walked through them. There was no other sound. The trees looked big and black.
Nathan whistled as he walked. He had never been in the woods after dark before. He was lad that he was not far from home.
Once the black cow stepped on a long, dry branch. The other end of the branch flew up in Nathan's face, and made him jump.
"What a baby I am!" said he. "There is nothing to be afraid of. I can see the lamp in our kitchen now."
Nathan is now on top of the hill. The trees were cut down on one side of the path. He could look across a cornrfield to his home.
He whistled more loudly than ever and walked bravely on.
"I wonder if there are ny bears in these woods," he was thinking. "Tom Shaw's father saw a bear on the mountain last week. Tom says he would like to meet one. I should run if I heard a bear coming."
Nathan stopped a moment to listen. His heart beat fast. He could feeli it thump, thump, thump against his jacket. But there was no sound except the breaking of twigs and the rustling of leaves under the heavy step of the cows.
"Home at last!" said Nathan.
His father heard him open the great gate, and came out with a light.
Nathan stood aside to let the cows go through the gateway. He always counted them as they went through.
One, two, three, four, five--one two, three, four, five--Nathan rubbed his eyes. Then he counted again. "One, two, three, four, five, six!" Where did the sixth cow come from? Was it a cow? It looked more like a dog.
"Father!" cried Nathan. "Here's a bear with the cows."
Mr. King laughed. He had opened the barn door. The cows were going in, one by one.
"What a boy you are!" he said. "You and Tom Shaw--why, it is a bear!"
Yes, it really was a bear. Mr. King swung the lantern close, to make sure.
When the bear saw the bright light, he turned slowly; then he went back through the gateway, across the road, into the wood path.
:"Let me get my gun!" cried Mr. King. "Take the lantern, Nathan!"
"Oh, don't shoot him, father!" begged Nathan. "Please don't shoot him. He came all the way through the woods with me, and he did not hurt me at all."
The boy was almost crying. He was holding his father's arm with both hands.
"Please don't shoot him!" he said again.
"Well," said Mr. King; "I don't like to let a bear go like that. He seems gentle enough but he might do some harm. Where did you find him, Nathan?"
"I did not find him," said the boy, still holding fast his father's arm. "He must have been in the woods. I was counting the cows just now, and there he was! I wish you would let him go. He was good to me when he might have hurt be. I think it would be mean to shoot him now."
"It is strange that the cows were not frightened," said Mr. King. "I suppose the old fellow was cold. He thought you looked as if you were a kind boy, Nathan."
Nathan knew that his father would not go after the bear now.
"I wish Tom Shaw had been here," said he. "I think I shall come home by the road tomorrow night. I am not very fond of bears, after all."
Jones Readers by Grades: Book Two, Ginn and Gompany, 1904, reprinted in Life in Early America: Learning to Read Yesterday and Today: Second and Third Grade Selections, edited by Jeanne S. Chall, published by Andrews and McMeel, Kansas City, 1994.