Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 678
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In the winter of 1768, the Hallowell family of Quincy, Massachusetts, purchases a plot of land in Maine territory. Their dream is to own a place of their own. Young Matt and his father make the arduous journey into the wilderness first. They plan to build a cabin and plant some corn in preparation for the rest of the family to arrive. According to their plan, Mr. Hallowell will return to Massachusetts to fetch his wife, young daughter, and his new baby in early summer. The round trip is estimated to take six or seven weeks. During that time, Matt will remain on the new homestead, to guard it and care for it, alone.
Mr. Hallowell is a little apprehensive about leaving his son with such a great responsibility, but he has faith in Matt, who has proven himself reliable. Before he leaves, he entrusts the boy with two valuable possessions—a silver watch that has belonged to the family for generations, and his good rifle, a "fine piece [with a] walnut stock as smooth and shining as his mother's silk dress."
When his father has gone, Matt takes the rifle and tries it out, just to get the feel of it. He then settles into the cabin and feels the desolation of its emptiness. Matt's father has instructed him to mark a notch on a stick for each day that passes. Matt reflects that by the time his family returns, it will be August. He will have had a birthday and will be thirteen years old.
Two days pass, and Matt discovers that it is actually "mighty pleasant" living alone. He spends his time putting the finishing touches on the cabin, chopping wood, tending the corn patch, and lugging water from the creek. Time passes quickly because there is so much to do. It is a good life, with only "a few small annoyances," one of which is the thought of Indians. Although his father has told him that there have not been any attacks in Maine since the last treaty was signed, Matt has heard some horrid tales. He has an eerie feeling from time to time that someone is watching him.
All in all, though, Matt is content with his life. He has grown used to the stillness, and he has found that in reality, the wilderness is rarely completely quiet. He is not entirely prepared, however, when one day, a visitor arrives unexpectedly.
In the dimness of an early evening, a heavyset man in a ragged army coat comes tramping out of the forest and greets Matt heartily. Surveying the cabin and the cornfield in a calculating manner, the man compliments the boy on his living arrangements and asks if he is alone. A bit puzzled by his own sense of uneasiness, Matt replies that his father "is away just now," but will be returning soon. Presumptuously, the man invites himself in for supper, and Matt, who has been taught to be "mannerly," has no choice but to oblige.
The man, who calls himself Ben, wolfs down the food that is provided, leaving little for Matt. He then asks for some tobacco and is disappointed when Matt says that he has none. Making himself at home in the cabin after eating, Ben begins to talk about himself. He reveals that he is a wanderer who sometimes lives among the Indians and that he is on the run because of an unfortunate incident in a nearby town. Ben can "tell a good story," and in most of his accounts, features himself as powerful and larger than life. Eventually, he falls asleep, and Matt, after cleaning up and banking the fire, also settles in for the night.
Matt is uneasy about his unwelcome visitor, and at first resolves to stay awake in the darkness and remain on guard. He is exhausted from the day's work, however, and, without realizing it, falls into a deep sleep. When he awakes, Ben is gone, along with Mr. Hallowell's fine rifle, which had been hanging above the door.