HIRAM THE YOUNG FARMER
By Burbank L. Todd
CHAPTER I. THE CALL OF SPRING
CHAPTER II. AT MRS. ATTERSON'S
CHAPTER III. A DREARY DAY
CHAPTER IV. THE LOST CARD
CHAPTER V. THE COMMOTION AT MOTHER ATTERSON'S
CHAPTER VI. THIS DIDN'T GET BY HIRAM
CHAPTER VII. HOW HIRAM LEFT TOWN
CHAPTER VIII. THE LURE OF GREEN FIELDS
CHAPTER IX. THE BARGAIN IS MADE
CHAPTER X. THE SOUND OF BEATING HOOFS
CHAPTER XI. A GIRL RIDES INTO THE TALE
CHAPTER XII. SOMETHING ABOUT A PASTURE FENCE
CHAPTER XIII. THE UPROOTING
CHAPTER XIV. GETTING IN THE EARLY CROPS
CHAPTER XV. TROUBLE BREWS
CHAPTER XV. ONE SATURDAY AFTERNOON
CHAPTER XVII. MR. PEPPER APPEARS
CHAPTER XVIII. A HEAVY CLOUD
CHAPTER XIX. THE REASON WHY
CHAPTER XX. AN ENEMY IN THE DARK
CHAPTER XXI. THE WELCOME TEMPEST
CHAPTER XXII. FIRST FRUITS
CHAPTER XXIII. TOMATOES AND TROUBLE
CHAPTER XXIV. "CORN THAT'S CORN"
CHAPTER XXV. THE BARBECUE
CHAPTER XXVI. SISTER'S TURKEYS
CHAPTER XXVII. RUN TO EARTH
CHAPTER XXVIII. HARVEST
CHAPTER XXIX. LETTIE BRONSON'S CORN HUSKING
CHAPTER XXX. ONE SNOWY MIDNIGHT
CHAPTER XXXI. "MR. DAMOCLES'S SWORD"
CHAPTER XXXII. THE CLOUD IS LIFTED
CHAPTER XXXIII. "CELERY MAD"
CHAPTER XXXIV. CLEANING UP A PROFIT
CHAPTER XXXV. LOOKING AHEAD
CHAPTER I. THE CALL OF SPRING
"Well, after all, the country isn't such a bad place as some city folk think."
The young fellow who said this stood upon the highest point of the Ridge Road, where the land sloped abruptly to the valley in which lay the small municipality of Crawberry on the one hand, while on the other open fields and patches of woodland, in a huge green-and-brown checkerboard pattern, fell more easily to the bank of the distant river.
Dotted here and there about the farming country lying before the youth as he looked westward were cottages, or the more important-looking homesteads on the larger farms; and in the distance a white church spire behind the trees marked the tiny settlement of Blaine's Smithy.
A Sabbath calm lay over the fields and woods. It was mid-afternoon of an early February Sunday—the time of the mid-winter thaw, that false prophet of the real springtime.
Although not a furrow had been turned as yet in the fields, and the snow lay deep in some fence corners and beneath the hedges, there was, after all, a smell of fresh earth—a clean, live smell—that Hiram Strong had missed all week down in Crawberry.
"I'm glad I came up here," he muttered, drawing in great breaths of the clean air. "Just to look at the open fields, without any brick and mortar around, makes a fellow feel fine!"
He stretched his arms above his head and, standing alone there on the upland, felt bigger and better than he had in weeks.
For Hiram Strong was a country boy, born and bred, and the town stifled him. Besides, he had begun to see that his two years in Crawberry had been wasted.
"As a hustler after fortune in the city I am not a howling success," mused Hiram. "Somehow, I'm cramped down yonder," and he glanced back at the squalid brick houses below him, the smoky roofs, and the ugly factory chimneys.
"And I declare," he pursued, reflectively, "I don't believe I can stand Old Dan Dwight much longer. Dan, Junior, is bad enough—when he is around the store; but the boss would drive a fellow to death."
He shook his head, now turning from the pleasanter prospect of the farming land and staring down into the town.
"Maybe I'm not a success because I don't stick to one thing. I've had six jobs in less'n two years. That's a bad record for a boy, I believe. But there hasn't any of them suited me, nor have I suited them.
"And Dwight's Emporium beats 'em all!" finished Hiram, shaking his head.
He turned his back upon the town once more, as though to wipe his failure out of his memory. Before him sloped a field of wheat and clover.
It had kept as green under the snow as though winter was an unknown season. Every cloverleaf sparkled and the leaves of wheat bristled like tiny spears.
Spring was on the way. He could hear the call of it!
Two years before Hiram had left the farm. He had no immediate relatives after his father died. The latter had been a tenant-farmer only, and when his tools and stock and the few household chattels had been sold to pay the debts that had accumulated during his last illness, there was very little money left for Hiram.
There was nobody to say him nay when he packed his bag and started for Crawberry, which was the metropolis of his part of the country. He had set out boldly, believing that he could get ahead faster, and become master of his own fortune more quickly in town than in the locality where he was born.
He was a rugged, well-set-up youth of seventeen, not over-tall, but sturdy and able to do a man's work. Indeed, he had long done a man's work before he left the farm.
Hiram's hands were calloused, he shuffled a bit when walked, and his shoulders were just a little bowed from holding the plow handles since he had been big enough to bridle his father's old mare.
Yes, the work on the farm had been hard—especially for a growing boy. Many farm boys work under better conditions than Hiram had.
Nevertheless, after a two years' trial of what the city has in store for most country boys who cut loose from their old environment, Hiram Strong felt to-day as though he must get back to the land.
"There's nothing for me in town. Clerking in Dwight's Emporium will never get me anywhere," he thought, turning finally away from the open country and starting down the steep hill.
"Why, there are college boys working on our street cars here—waiting for some better job to turn up. What chance does a fellow stand who's only got a country school education?
"And there isn't any clean fun for a fellow in Crawberry—fun that doesn't cost money. And goodness knows I can't make more than enough to pay Mrs. Atterson, and for my laundry, and buy a new suit of overalls and a pair of shoes occasionally.
"No, sir!" concluded Hiram. "There's nothing in it. Not for a fellow like me, at any rate. I'd better be back on the farm—and I wish I was there now."
He had been to church that morning; but after the late dinner at his boarding house had set out on this lonely walk. Now he had nothing to look forward to as he returned but the stuffy parlor of Mrs. Atterson's boarding house, the cold supper in the dining-room, which was attended in a desultory fashion by such of the boarders as were at home, and then a long, dull evening in his room, or bed after attending the evening service at the church around the corner.
Hiram even shrank from meeting the same faces at the boarding house table, hearing the same stale jokes or caustic remarks about Mrs. Atterson's food from Fred Crackit and the young men boarders of his class, or the grumbling of Mr. Peebles, the dyspeptic invalid, or the inane monologue of Old Lem Camp.
And Mrs. Atterson herself—good soul though she was—had gotten on Hiram Strong's nerves, too. With her heat-blistered face, near-sighted eyes peering through beclouded spectacles, and her gown buttoned up hurriedly and with a gap here and there where a button was missing, she was the typically frowsy, hurried, nagged-to-death boarding house mistress.
And as for "Sister," Mrs. Atterson's little slavey and maid-of-all-work——
"Well, Sister's the limit!" smiled Hiram, as he turned into the street, with its rows of ugly brick houses on either hand. "I believe Fred Crackit has got it right. Mrs. Atterson keeps Sister instead of a cat—so there'll be something to kick."
The half-grown girl—narrow-chested, round shouldered, and sallow—had been taken by Mrs. Atterson from some charity institution. "Sister," as the boarders all called her, for lack of any other cognomen, would have her yellow hair in four attenuated pigtails hanging down her back, and she would shuffle about the dining-room in a pair of Mrs. Atterson's old shoes——
"By Jove! there she is now," exclaimed the startled youth.
At the corner of the street several "slices" of the brick block had been torn away and the lot cleared for the erection of some business building. Running across this open space with wild shrieks and spilling the milk from the big pitcher she carried—milk for the boarders' tea, Hi knew—came Mrs. Atterson's maid.
Behind her, and driving her like a horse by the ever present "pigtails," bounded a boy of about her own age—a laughing, yelling imp of a boy whom Hiram knew very well.
"That Dan Dwight is the meanest little scamp at this end of the town!" he said to himself.
The noise the two made attracted only the idle curiosity of a few people. It was a locality where, even on Sundays, there was more or less noise.
Sister begged and screamed. She feared she would spill the milk and told Dan, Junior, so. But he only drove her the harder, yelling to her to "Get up!" and yanking as hard as he could on the braids.
"Here! that's enough of that!" called Hiram, stepping quickly toward the two.
For Sister had stopped exhausted, and in tears.
"Be off with you!" commanded Hiram. "You've plagued the girl enough."
"Mind your business, Hi-ram-Lo-ram!" returned Dan, Junior, grabbing at Sister's hair again.
Hiram caught the younger boy by the shoulder and whirled him around.
"You run along to Mrs. Atterson, Sister," he said, quietly. "No, you don't!" he added, gripping Dan, Junior, more firmly. "You'll stop right here."
"Lemme be, Hi Strong!" bawled the other, when he found he could not easily jerk away. "It'll be the worse for you if you don't."
"Just you wait until the girl is home," returned Hiram, laughing. It was an easy matter for him to hold the writhing Dan, Junior.
"I'll fix you for this!" squalled the boy. "Wait till I tell my father."
"You wouldn't dare tell your father the truth," laughed Hi.
"I'll fix you," repeated Dan, Junior, and suddenly aimed a vicious kick at his captor.
Had the kick landed where Dan, Junior, intended—under Hi's kneecap—the latter certainly would have been "fixed." But the country youth was too agile for him.
He jumped aside, dragged Dan, Junior, suddenly toward him, and then gave him a backward thrust which sent the lighter boy spinning.
Now, it had rained the day before and in a hollow beside the path was a puddle several inches deep. Dan, Junior, lost his balance, staggered back, tripped over his own clumsy heels, and splashed full length into it.
"Oh, oh!" he bawled, managing to get well soaked before he scrambled out. "I'll tell my father on you, Hi Strong. You'll catch it for this!"
"You'd better run home before you catch cold," said Hiram, who could not help laughing at the young rascal's plight. "And let girls alone another time."
To himself he said: "Well, the goodness knows I couldn't be much more in bad odor with Mr. Dwight than I am already. But this escapade of his precious son ought to about 'fix' me, as Dan, Junior, says.
"Whether I want to, or not, I reckon I will be looking for another job in a very few days."
CHAPTER II. AT MRS. ATTERSON'S
When you came into "Mother" Atterson's front hall (the young men boarders gave her that appellation in irony) the ghosts of many ancient boiled dinners met you with—if you were sensitive and unused to the odors of cheap boarding houses—a certain shock.
He was starting up the stairs, on which the ragged carpet threatened to send less agile persons than Mrs. Atterson's boarders headlong to the bottom at every downward trip, when the clang of the gong in the dining-room announced the usual cold spread which the landlady thought due to her household on the first day of the week.
Hiram hesitated, decided that he would skip the meal, and started up again. But just then Fred Crackit lounged out of the parlor, with Mr. Peebles following him. Dyspeptic as he was, Mr. Peebles never missed a meal himself, and Crackit said:
"Come on, Hi-Low-Jack! Aren't you coming down to the usual feast of reason and flow of soul?"
Crackit thought he was a natural humorist, and he had to keep up his reputation at all times and seasons. He was rather a dissipated-looking man of thirty years or so, given to gay waistcoats and wonderfully knit ties. A brilliant as large as a hazel-nut—and which, in some lights, really sparkled like a diamond—adorned the tie he wore this evening.
"I don't believe I want any supper," responded Hiram, pleasantly.
"What's the matter? Got some inside information as to what Mother Atterson has laid out for us? You're pretty thick with the old girl, Hi."
"That's not a nice way to speak of her, Mr. Crackit," said Hi, in a low voice.
The other boarders—those who were in the house-straggled into the basement dining-room one after the other, and took their places at the long table, each in his customary manner.
That dining-room at Mother Atterson's never could have been a cheerful place. It was long, and low-ceiled, and the paper on the walls was a dingy red, so old that the figure on it had retired into the background—been absorbed by it, so to speak.
The two long, dusty, windows looked upon an area, and were grilled half way up by wrought-iron screens which, too, helped to shut out the light of day.
The long table was covered by a red figured table cloth. The "castors" at both ends and in the middle were the ugliest—Hiram was sure—to be found in all the city of Crawberry. The crockery was of the coarsest kind. The knives and forks were antediluvian. The napkins were as coarse as huck towels.
But Mrs. Atterson's food—considering the cost of provisions and the charge she made for her table—was very good. Only it had become a habit for certain of the boarders, led by the jester, Crackit, to criticise the viands.
Sometimes they succeeded in making Mrs. Atterson angry; and sometimes, Hiram knew, she wept, alone in the dining-room, after the harumscarum, thoughtless crowd had gone.
Old Lem Camp—nobody save Hiram thought to put "Mr." before the old gentleman's name—sidled in and sat down beside the country boy, as usual. He was a queer, colorless sort of person—a man who never looked into the face of another if he could help it. He would look all around Hiram when he spoke to him—at his shoulder, his shirtfront, his hands, even at his feet if they were visible, but never at his face.
And at the table he kept up a continual monologue. It was difficult sometimes for Hiram to know when he was being addressed, and when poor Mr. Camp was merely talking to himself.
"Let's see—where has Sister put my napkin—Oh! here it is—You've been for a walk, have you, young man?—No, that's not my napkin; I didn't spill any gravy at dinner—Nice day out, but raw—Goodness me! can't I have a knife and fork?—Where's my knife and fork?—Sister certainly has forgotten my knife and fork.—Oh! Here they are—Yes, a very nice day indeed for this time of year."
And so on. It was quite immaterial to Mr. Camp whether he got an answer to his remarks to Hiram, or not. He went on muttering to himself, all through the meal, sometimes commenting upon what the others said at the table—and that quite shrewdly, Hiram noticed; but the other boarders considered him a little cracked.
Sister smiled sheepishly at Hiram as she passed the tea. She drowned his tea with milk and put in no less than four spoonfuls of sugar. But although the fluid was utterly spoiled for Hiram's taste he drank it with fortitude, knowing that the girl's generosity was the child of her gratitude; for both sugar and milk were articles very scantily supplied at Mother Atterson's table.
The mistress herself did not appear. Now that he was down here in the dining-room, Hiram lingered. He hated the thought of going up to his lonely and narrow quarters at the top of the house.
The other boarders trailed out of the room and up stairs, one after another, Old Lem Camp being the last to go. Sister brought in a dish of hot toast between two plates and set it at the upper end of the table. Then Mrs. Atterson appeared.
Hiram knew at once that something had gone wrong with the boarding house mistress. She had been crying, and when a woman of the age of Mrs. Atterson indulges in tears, her personal appearance is never improved.
"Oh, that you, Hi?" she drawled, with a snuffle. "Did you get enough to eat?"
"Yes, Mrs. Atterson," returned the youth, starting to get up. "I have had plenty."
"I'm glad you did," said the lady. "And you're easy 'side of most of 'em, Hiram. You're a real good boy."
"I reckon I get all I pay for, Mrs. Atterson," said her youngest boarder.
"Well, there ain't many of 'em would say that. And they was awful provokin' this noon. That roast of veal was just as good meat as I could find in market; and I don't know what any sensible party would want better than that prune pie.
"Well! I hope I won't have to keep a boarding house all my life. It's a thankless task. An' it ties a body down so.
"Here's my uncle—my poor mother's only brother and about the only relative I've got in the world—here's Uncle Jeptha down with the grip, or suthin', and goodness knows if he'll ever get over it. And I can't leave to go and see him die peaceable."
"Does he live far from here?" asked Hiram, politely, although he had no particular reason for being interested in Uncle Jeptha.
"He lives on a farm out Scoville way. He's lived there most all his life. He used to make a right good living off'n that farm, too; but it's run down some now.
"The last time I was out there, two years ago, he was just keepin' along and that's all. And now I expect he's dying, without a chick or child of his own by him," and she burst out crying again, the tears sprinkling the square of toast into which she continued to bite.
Of course, it was ridiculous. A middle-aged woman weeping and eating toast and drinking strong boiled tea is not a romantic picture. But as Hiram climbed to his room he wished with all his heart that he could help Mrs. Atterson.
He wasn't the only person in the world who seemed to have got into a wrong environment—lots of people didn't fit right into their circumstances in life.
"We're square pegs in round holes—that's what we are," mused Hiram. "That's what I am. I wish I was out of it. I wish I was back on the farm."
CHAPTER III. A DREARY DAY
Daniel Dwight's Emporium, the general store was called, and it was in a very populous part of the town of Crawberry. Old Daniel was a driver, he seldom had clerks enough to handle his trade properly, and nobody could suit him. As general helper and junior clerk, Hiram Strong had remained with the concern longer than any other boy Daniel had hired in years.
When the early Monday morning rush was over, and there was moment's breathing space, Hiram went to the door to re-arrange the trays of vegetables which were his particular care. Hiram had a knack of making a bank of the most plebeian vegetable and salads look like the display-window of a florist.
Now the youth looked out upon a typical city street, the dwellings on either side being four and five story tenement houses, occupied by artisans and mechanics.
A few quarreling children paddled sticks, or sailed chip boats, in the gutters.
"Come on, now! Get a move on you, Hi!" sounded the raucous voice of Daniel Dwight the elder, behind him in the store.
Hiram went at his task with neither interest nor energy.
All about him the houses and the street were grimy and depressing. It had been a gray and murky morning; but overhead a patch of sky was as blue as June. He suddenly saw a flock of pigeons wheeling above the tunnel of the street, and the boy's heart leaped at the sight.
He longed for freedom. He wished he could fly, up, up, up above the housetops and the streets, like those feathered fowl.
He knew he was stagnating here in this dingy store; the deadly sameness of his life chafed him sorely.
"I'd take another job if I could find one," he muttered, stirring up the bunches of yellowing radish leaves and trying to make them look fresh. "And Old Daniel is likely to give me a chance to hunt a job pretty sudden—the way he talks. But if Dan, Junior, told him what happened yesterday, I wonder the old gentleman hasn't been after me with a sharp stick."
From somewhere—out of the far-distant open country where it had been breathing all night the quivering pines, and brown swamps, and the white and gray checkered fields that would soon be upturned by the plowshares—a vagrant wind wandered into the city street.
The lingering, but faint perfume wafted here from God's open world to die in this man-made town inspired in the youth thoughts and desires that had been struggling within him for expression for days past.
"I know what I want," said Hiram Strong, aloud. "I want to get back to the land!"
The progress of the day was not inducive to a hopeful outlook for Hiram. When closing time came he was heartily sick of the business of storekeeping, if he never had been before.
And when he dragged himself home to the boarding house, he found the atmosphere there as dreary as the street itself. The boarders were grumpy and Mrs. Atterson was in a tearful state again.
Hiram could not stay in his room. It was a narrow, cold place at the end of the back hall at the top of the house. There was a little, painted bureau in it, one leg of which had been replaced by a brick, and the little glass was so blue and blurred that he never could see in it whether his tie was straight or not.
There was a chair, a shelf for books, and a narrow folding bed. When the bed was dropped down for his occupancy at night, he could not get the door open. Had there ever been a fire at Atterson's at night, Hiram's best chance for escape would have been by the window.
So this evening, to kill the miserable stretch of time until sleep should come to him, the boy went out and walked the streets.
Two things had saved Hiram Strong from getting into bad company on these evening rambles. One was the small amount of money he earned, and the other was the naturally clean nature of the boy. The cheap amusements which lured on either hand did not attract him.
But the dangers are there in every city, and they lurk for every boy in a like position.
The main thoroughfare in this part of the town where Hiram boarded was brightly lighted, gaudy electric signs attracting notice to cheap picture shows, catch-penny arcades, cheap jewelry stores, and the ever present saloons and pool rooms.
It looked bright, and warm, and lively in many of these places; but the country-bred boy was cautious.
Now and then a raucous-voiced automobile shot along the street; the electric cars made their usual clangor, and there was still some ordinary traffic of the day dribbling away into the side streets, for it was early in the evening.
Hiram was about to turn into one of these side streets on his way back to Mrs. Atterson's. Turning the corner was a handsome span of horses attached to a comfortable but mud-bespattered carriage. It was plainly from the country.
The light at the corner of the street shone brightly into the carriage. Hiram saw a well-built man in a gray greatcoat and slouch hat, holding the reins over the backs of the spirited horses.
Beside him sat a girl. She could have been no more than twelve or fourteen—not so old as Sister, by a year or two. But how different she was from the starved-looking, boarding house slavey!
She was framed in furs—rich, gray and black furs that muffled her from top to toe, only leaving her brilliant, dark little face with its perfect features shining like a jewel in its setting.
She was talking laughingly to the big man beside her, and he was looking down at her. Perhaps this was why he did not see what lay just ahead—or perhaps the glare of the street light blinded him, as it must have the horses, as the equipage turned into the darker side street.
But Hiram saw their peril. He sprang into the street with a cry of warning. And he was lucky enough to seize the nigh horse by the bridle and pull both the high-steppers around.
There was an excavation—an opening for a water-main—in this street. The workmen had either neglected to leave a red lantern, or malicious boys had stolen it.
Another moment and the horses would have been in this excavation and even now the carriage swayed. One forward wheel went over the edge of the hole, and for the minute it was doubtful whether Hiram had saved the occupants of the carriage by his quick action, or had accelerated the catastrophe.
CHAPTER IV. THE LOST CARD
Had Hiram Strong not been a muscular youth for his age, and sturdy withal, the excited horses would have broken away from him and the carriage would certainly have gone into the ditch.
But he had a grip on the bridle reins now that could not be broken, although the horses plunged and struck fire from the stones of the street with their shoes. He dragged them forward, the carriage pitched and rolled for a moment, and then stood upright again, squarely on its four wheels.
"All right, lad! I've got 'em!" exclaimed the gentleman in the carriage.
He had a hearty, husky sort of voice—a voice that came from deep down in his chest and was more than a little hoarse. But there was no quiver of excitement in it. Indeed, he who had been in peril was much less disturbed by the incident than was Hiram himself.
Nor had the girl screamed, or otherwise voiced her terror. Now Hiram heard her say, as he stepped back from the plunging horses:
"That is a good boy, Daddy. Speak to him again."
The man in gray laughed. He was now holding in the frightened team with one firm hand while he fumbled in the pocket of his big coat with the other.
"He certainly has got some muscle, that lad," announced the gentleman. "Here, son, where can I find you when I'm in town again?"
"I work at Dwight's Emporium," replied Hiram, rather diffidently.
"All right. Thanks. Here's my card. You're the kind of a boy I like. I'll surely look you up."
He held out the bit of pasteboard to Hiram; but as the youth stepped nearer to reach it, the impatient horses sprang forward and the carriage rolled swiftly by him.
The card flipped from the man's fingers. Hiram grabbed for it, but missed the card. It fluttered into the excavation in the street and the shadow hid it completely from the boy's gaze.
Had there been a lantern nearby, as there should have been, Hiram would have taken it to search for the lost card. For he felt suddenly as though Opportunity had brushed past him.
The man in the carriage evidently lived out of town. He might be a prosperous farmer. And, being a farmer, he might be able to give Hiram just the sort of job he was looking for.
The card, of course, would have put Hiram in touch with the man. And he seemed like a hearty, good-natured individual.
"And the girl—his daughter—was as pretty as a picture," thought Hiram, as he turned wearily toward the boarding house. "Well! I don't know that I'll ever see either of them again; but if I could learn that man's name and address I'd certainly look him up."
So much did this thought disturb him that he was up an hour earlier than usual the next morning and hurried to work by the way of the excavation in the street where the incident had occurred.
But he could not find the card, although he got down into the ditch to search for it. The loose sand, perhaps, rattling down from the sides of the excavation during the night, had buried the bit of pasteboard, and Hiram went on to Dwight's Emporium more disheartened than ever.
The work there went worse that morning. Old Daniel Dwight drove the young fellow from one task to another. The other clerks got a minute's time to themselves now and then; but the proprietor of the store seemed to have his keen eyes on Hiram continually.
There was always a slow-up in the work about ten o'clock, and Hiram had a request to make. He asked Old Daniel for an hour off.
"An hour off—with all this work to do? What do you mean, boy?" roared the proprietor. "What do you want an hour for?"
"I've got an errand," replied Hiram, quietly.
"Well, what is it?" snarled the old man, curiously.
"Why—it's a private matter. I can't tell you," returned the youth, coolly.
"No good, I'll be bound—no good. I don't see why I should let you off an hour——"
"I work many an hour overtime for you, Mr. Dwight," put in Hiram.
"Yes, yes; that's all right. That's the agreement. You knew you'd have to when you came to work at the Emporium. Stick to your contract, boy."
"Then why don't you stick to yours?" demanded the youth, boldly.
"Eh! Eh! What do you mean by that?" cried Mr. Dwight, glaring at Hiram through his spectacles.
"I mean that when I came to work for you seven months ago, you promised that, if I suited after six months, you would raise my wages. And you haven't done so," said the young fellow, firmly.
For a moment the proprietor of the Emporium was dumb. It was true. He had promised just that. He had got the boy cheaper by so doing. But never before had he hired a boy who stayed as long as six months, so he had never had to raise his wages.
He stammered for a moment; then a shrewd thought came to his mind. He actually smiled. When Mr. Dwight smiled it was worse than when he didn't.
"I told you that if you suited me I'd raise your pay, did I?" he snarled. "Well, you don't suit me. You never have suited me. Therefore, you get no raise, young man."
Hiram was not astonished; he was only indignant. Another boy might have expressed his anger by flaring up and tendering his resignation on the spot.
But Hiram had that fear of debt in his breast which is almost always a characteristic of the frugal, country-bred person. He had saved little. He had no prospect of another job. And every Saturday night he was expected to pay Mrs. Atterson three dollars and a half.
"At any rate, Mr. Dwight," he said, quietly, after a minute's silence, "I want an hour to myself this morning."
"And I'll dock ye ten cents for it," declared the old man.
"You can do as you like about that," returned Hiram, and he walked into the back room, took off his apron, and got into his coat.
He had it in mind to go to the big market, where the farmers drove in from out of town, and see if he could meet one of his old neighbors, or anybody else who could tell him of prospect of work for the coming season. It was early yet for farmers to be looking for extra hands; but Hiram hoped that he might see something in prospect for the future. He had made up his mind that, if possible, he would not take another job in town.
"And I can see pretty plainly that I've got about through at the Emporium," he thought, as he approached the open space devoted by the City of Crawberry to a market for the truckmen and farmers who drove in with their wares from the surrounding country.
At this time of day the bustle of market was over. The farmers would have had their breakfasts in the little restaurants which encircled the market-place, or would be preparing to drive home again. The hucksters and push-cart merchants were picking up "seconds" and lot-ends of vegetables for their trade. The cobbles of the market-place was a litter of cabbage leaves, spilled sprouts, spoiled potatoes, and other refuse.
Hiram walked about, looking for somebody whom he knew; but most of the faces around the market were strange to him. Several farmers he spoke to about work; but they were not hiring hands, so, when his hour was up, he went back to the Emporium, more despondent than before.
CHAPTER V. THE COMMOTION AT MOTHER ATTERSON'S
By chance that evening Hiram got home to his boarding house in good season. The early boarders—"early birds" Crackit always termed them—had not yet sat down to the long table in the dingy dining-room.
Indeed, the supper gong had not been pounded by Sister, and some of the young men were grouped impatiently in the half-lighted parlor.
Through the swinging door into the steaming kitchen Hiram saw a huge black woman waddling about the range, and heard her husky voice berating Sister for not moving faster. Chloe only appeared when a catastrophe happened at the boarding-house—and a catastrophe meant the removal of Mrs. Atterson from her usual orbit.
"She's gone to the funeral. That Uncle Jeptha of hern is dead," whispered Sister in Hiram's ear when she put his soup in front of him.
"Ah-ha!" observed Mr. Crackit, eyeing Hiram with his head on one side, "secrets, eh? Inside information of what's in the pudding sauce?"
Nothing went right at the boarding-house during the next two days. And for Hiram Strong nothing seemed to go right anywhere!
He demanded—and got the permission, with another ten-cent tax—another hour off to visit the market. But he found nobody who would hire a boy at once. Some of the farmers doubted if he knew as much about farm-work as he claimed to know. He was, after all, a boy, and some of them would not believe that he had even worked in the country.
Affairs at the Emporium were getting strained, too. Daniel Dwight was as shrewd a man as the next one. He saw plainly that his junior clerk was getting ready—like the many who had gone before him—for a flitting.
He knew the signs of discontent, although Hiram prided himself on doing his work just as well as ever.
Then, there was a squabble with Dan, Junior. The imp was always underfoot on Saturdays. He was supposed to help—to run errands, and take out in a basket certain orders to nearby customers who might be in a hurry.
But usually when you wanted the boy he was in the alley pitching buttons with loafing urchins of his own kind—"alley rats" his father angrily called them—or leading a predatory gang of the same unsavory companions in raids on other stores in the neighborhood.
And Dan, Junior "had it in" for Hiram. He had not forgiven the bigger boy for pitching him into the puddle.
"An' them was my best clo'es, and now maw says I've got to wear 'em just the same on Sunday, and they're shrunk and stained," snarled the younger Dan, hovering about Hiram as the latter re-dressed the fruit stand during a moment's let-up in the Saturday morning rush. "Gimme an orange."
"What! At five cents apiece?" exclaimed Hiram. "Guess not. Go look in the basket under the bench; maybe there's a specked one there."
"Nope. Dad took 'em all home last night and maw cut out the specks and sliced 'em for supper. Gimme a good orange."
"Ask your father," said Hiram.
"Naw, I won't!" declared young Dwight, knowing very well what his father's answer would be.
He suddenly made a grab for the golden globe on the apex of Hiram's handsomest pyramid.
"Let that alone, Dan!" cried Hiram, and seized the youngster by the wrist.
Dan, Junior, was a wiry little scamp, and he twisted and turned, and kicked and squalled, and Hiram was just wrenching the orange from his hand when Mr. Dwight came to the door.
"What's this? What's this?" he demanded. "Fighting, are ye? Why don't you tackle a fellow of your own size, Hi Strong?"
At that Dan, Junior, saw his chance and broke into woeful sobs. He was a good actor.
"I've a mind to turn you over to a policeman, Hiram," cried "Mr. Dwight, That's what I've a mind to do."
"I suppose you'll discharge me first, won't you?" suggested Hiram, scornfully.
"You can come in and git your money right now, young man," said the proprietor of the Emporium. "Dan! let them oranges alone. And don't you go away from here. I'll want you all day to-day. I shall be short-handed with this young scalawag leaving me in the lurch like this."
It had come so suddenly that Hiram almost lost his breath. He had part of his wish, that was sure. He was not likely to work for Daniel Dwight any longer.
The old man led the way back to his office. He had a little pile of money already counted out upon the desk. It was plain that he had intended quarreling with Hiram and getting rid of him at this time, for he had the young fellow's wages figured up to t hat very hour—and twenty cents deducted for the two hours Hiram had had "off."
"But that isn't fair. I'm willing to work to the end of the day. I ought to get my wages in full for the week, save for the twenty cents," said Hiram mildly.
To tell the truth, now that he had lost his job—unpleasant as it had been—Hiram was more than a little troubled. He was indeed about to be cast adrift.
"You'll git jest that sum, and not a cent more," declared Mr. Dwight, sharply. "And if you start any trouble here I'll call in the officer on the beat—yes, I will! I don't know but I ought to deduct the cost of Dan, Junior's, spoiled suit, too. He says you an' he was skylarkin' on Sunday and that's how he fell into the water."
Hiram had no answer to make to this. What was the use? He took the money, slipped it into his pocket, and went out.
He did not linger around the Emporium. Nor was he scarcely out of sight when a man driving a span of handsome bay horses halted his team before the store, jumped out, and went in.
"Are you the proprietor of Dwight's Emporium?" asked the man in the gray coat and hat, in his hearty tones. "You are? Glad to meet you! I'm looking for a young man who works for you."
"Who's that? What do you want of him?" asked Dan, Senior, doubtfully, and rubbing his hand, for the stranger's grip had been as hearty as his voice.
The other laughed in his jovial way. "Why, to tell the truth, I don't know his name. I didn't ask him. He's not much more than a boy—a sturdy youngster with a quick way with him. He did me a service the other evening and I wanted to see him."
"There ain't any boy working here," snapped Mr. Dwight. "Them's all the clerks I got behind the counter—and there ain't one of 'em under thirty, I'll be bound."
"That's so," admitted the stranger. "And although it was so dark I could not see that fellow's face, and I didn't ask his name, I am sure he was young."
"I jest discharged the only boy I had—and scamp enough he was," snarled Mr. Dwight. "If you were looking for him, you'd have been sorry to find him. I didn't know but I'd have to send for a policeman to git him off the premises."
"That's what I tell you. He was a bad egg. Mebbe he's the boy you want—but you won't get no good of him when you find him. And I've no idea where he's to be found now," and the old man turned his back on the man in the gray coat and went into his office.
The stranger climbed back into his buggy and took up the lines again with a preoccupied headshake.
"Now, I promised Lettie," he muttered, "that I'd find out all about that boy—and maybe bring him home with me. Funny that man gave his such a bad character. Wish I could have seen the lad's face the other night—that would have told the story.
"Well," and he dismissed the matter with a sigh, for he was busy man, "if he's got my card, and he is out of a job, perhaps he'll look me up. Then we'll see."
CHAPTER VI. THIS DIDN'T GET BY HIRAM
"I've sure got plenty of time now to look for a job," observed Hiram Strong when he was two blocks away from Dwight's Emporium. "But I declare I don't know where to begin."
For his experience in talking with the farmers around the market had rather dashed Hiram's hope of getting a place in the country at once. It was too early in the season. Nor did it look so much like Spring as it had a week ago. Already Hiram had to turn up the collar of his rough coat, and a few flakes of snow were settling on his shoulders as he walked.
"It's winter yet," he mused. "If I can't get something to do in the city for a few weeks to tide me over, I'm afraid I shall have to find a cheaper place to board than at Mother Atterson's."
After half an hour of strolling from street to street, however, Hiram decided that there was nothing in that game. He must break in somewhere, so he turned into the very next warehouse.
"Want a job? I'll be looking for one myself pretty soon, if business isn't better," was the answer he got from the first man he approached.
But Hiram kept at it, and got short answers and long answers, pleasant ones and some that were not so pleasant; but all could be summed up in the single monosyllable:
"I certainly am a failure here in town," Hiram thought, as he walked through the snow-blown streets. "How foolish I was ever to have come away from the country.
"A fellow ought to stick to the job he is fitted for—and that's sure. But I didn't know. I thought there would be forty chances in town to one in the country.
"And there doesn't seem to be a single chance right now. Why, I'll have to leave Mrs. Atterson's, if I can't find a job before next week is out!
"This mean old town is over-crowded with fellows like me looking for work. And when it comes to office positions, I haven't a high-school diploma, nor am I fitted for that kind of a job.
"I want to be out of doors. Working in a stuffy office wouldn't suit me. Oh, as a worker in the city I am a rank failure, and that's all there is about it!"
He went home to supper much more tired than he would have been had he done a full day's work at Dwight's Emporium. Indeed, the job he had lost now loomed up in his troubled mind as much more important than it had seemed when he had desired to change it for another.
Mother Atterson was at home. She hadn't more than taken off her bonnet, however, and had had but a single clash with Chloe in the kitchen.
"I smelled it burnin' the minute I set my foot on the front step!" she declared. "You can't fool my nose when it comes to smelling burned stuff.
"Well, Hiram," she continued, too full of news to remark that he was at home long before his time, "I saw the poor old soul laid away, at least. I wish now I'd got Chloe in before, and gone to see Uncle Jeptha before he was in his coffin.
"But I didn't think I could afford it, and that's a fact. We poor folks can't have many pleasures in this world of toil and trouble!" added the boarding house mistress, to whom even the break of a funeral, or a death-bed visit, was in the nature of a solemn amusement.
"And there the old man went and made his will years ago, unbeknownst to anybody, and me bein' his only blood relation, as you might say, though it was years since I seen him much, but he remembered my mother with love," and she began to wipe her eyes.
"Poor old man! And me with a white-faced cow that I'm afraid of my life of, and an old horse that looks like a moth-eaten hide trunk we to have in our garret at home when I was a little girl, and belonged to my great-great-grandmother Atterson——
"And there's a mess of chickens that eat all day long and don't lay an egg as far as I could see, besides a sow and a litter of six pigs that squeal worse than the the switch-engine down yonder in the freight yard——
"And they're all to be fed, and how I'm to do it, and feed the boarders, too, I don't for the life of me see!" finished Mrs. Atterson, completely out of breath.
"What do you mean?" cried Hiram, suddenly waking to the significance of the old lady's chatter. "Do you mean he willed you these things?"
"Of course," she returned, smoothing down her best black skirt. "They go with the house and outbuildings—'all the chattels and appurtenances thereto', the will read."
"Why, Mrs. Atterson!" gasped Hiram. "He must have left you the farm."
"That's what I said," returned the old lady, complacently. "And what I'm to do with it I've no more idea than the man in the moon."
"A farm!" repeated Hiram, his face flushing and his eyes beginning to shine.
Now, Hiram Strong was not a particularly handsome youth, but in his excitement he almost looked so.
"Eighty acres, so many rods, and so many perches," pursued Mrs. Atterson, nodding. "That's the way it reads. The perches is in the henhouse, I s'pose—though why the description included them and not the hens' nests I dunno."
"Eighty acres of land!" repeated Hiram in a daze.
"All free and clear. Not a dollar against it—only encumbrances is the chickens, the cow, the horse and the pigs," declared Mrs. Atterson. "If it wasn't for them it might not be so bad. Scoville's an awfully nice place, and the farm's on an automobile road. A body needn't go blind looking for somebody to go by the door occasionally.
"And if it got so bad here finally that I couldn't make a livin' keeping boarders," pursued the lady, "I might go out there and live in the old house—which isn't much, I know, but it's a shelter, and my tastes are simple, goodness knows."
"But a farm, Mrs. Atterson!" broke in Hiram. "Think what you can do with it!"
"That's what I'd like to have, you, or somebody else tell me," exclaimed the old lady, tartly. "I ain't got no more use for a farm than a cat has for two tails!"
"But—but isn't it a good farm?" queried Hiram, puzzled.
"How do I know?" snapped the boarding house mistress. "I wouldn't know one farm from another, exceptin' two can't be in exactly the same spot. Oh! do you mean, could I sell it?"
"The lawyer advised me not to sell just now. He said something about the state of the real estate market in that section. Prices would be better in a year or two. And then, the old place is mighty run down."
"That's what I mean," Hiram hastened to say. "Has it been cropped to death? Is the soil worn out? Can't you run it and make something out of it?"
"For pity's sake!" ejaculated the good lady, "how should I know? And I couldn't run it—I shouldn't know how.
"I've got a neighbor-woman in the house just now to 'tend to things—and that's costin' me a dollar and a half a week. And there'll be taxes to pay, and—and—Well, I just guess I'll have to try and sell it now and take what I can get.
"Though that lawyer says that if the place was fixed up a little and crops put in it would make a thousand dollars' difference in the selling price. That is, after a year or two.
"But bless us and save us" cried Mrs. Atterson, "I'd be swamped with expenses before that time."
"Mebbe not," said Hiram Strong, trying to repress his eagerness. "Why not try it?"
"Try to run that farm?" cried she. "Why, I'd jest as lief go up in one o' those aeroplanes and try to run it. I wouldn't be no more up in the air then than I would be on a farm," she added, grimly.
"Get somebody to run it for you—do the outside work, I mean, Mrs. Atterson," said Hiram. "You could keep house out there just as well as you do here. And it would be easy for you to learn to milk——"
"That whitefaced cow? My goodness! I'd just as quick learn to milk a switch-engine!"
"But it's only her head that looks so wicked to you," laughed Hiram. "And you don't milk that end."
"Well—mebbe," admitted Mrs. Atterson, doubtfully. "I reckon I could make butter again—I used to do that when I was a girl at my aunt's. And either I'd make those hens lay or I'd have their dratted heads off!
"And my goodness me! To get rid of the boarders—Oh, stop your talkin', Hi Strong! That is too good to ever be true. Don't talk to me no more."
"But I want to talk to you, Mrs. Atterson," persisted the youth, eagerly.
"Well, who'd I get to do the outside work—put in crops, and 'tend 'em, and look out for that old horse?"
Hiram almost choked. This opportunity should not get past him if he could help it!
"Let me do it, Mrs. Atterson. Give me a chance to show you what I can do," he cried. "Let me run the farm for you!"
"Why—why do you suppose that it could be made to pay us, Hi?" demanded his landlady, in wonder.
"Other farms pay; why not this one?" rejoined Hiram, sententiously. "Of course," he added, his native caution coming to the surface, "I'd want to see the place—to look it over pretty well, in fact—before I made any agreement. And I can assure you, Mrs. Atterson, if I saw no chance of both you and me making something out of it I should tell you so."
"But—but your job, Hiram? And I wouldn't approve of your going out there and lookin' at the place on a Sunday."
"I'll take the early train Monday morning," said the youth, promptly.
"But what will they say at the store? Mr. Dwight——"
"He turned me off to-day," said Hiram, steadily. "So I won't lose anything by going out there.
"I tell you what I'll do," he added briskly. "I won't have any too much money while I'm out of a job, of course. And I shall be out there at Scoville a couple of days looking the place over, it's probable.
"So, if you will let me keep this three dollars and a half I should pay you for my next week's board to-night, I'll pay my own expenses out there at the farm and if nothing comes of it, all well and good."
Mrs. Atterson had fumbled for her spectacles and now put them on to survey the boy's earnest face.
"Do you mean to say you can run a farm, Hi Strong?" she asked.
"I do," and he smiled confidently at her.
"And make it pay?"
"Perhaps not much profit the first season; but if the farm is fertile, and the marketing conditions are right, I know I can make it pay us both in two years."
"I've got a little money saved up. I could sell the house in a week, for it's always full and there are always lone women like me with a little driblet of money to exchange for a boarding house—heaven help us for the fools we are!" Mrs. Atterson exclaimed.
"And I expect you could raise vegetables enough to part keep us, Hi, even if the farm wasn't a great success?"
"And eggs, and chickens, and the pigs, and milk from the cow," suggested Hiram.
"Well! I declare, that's so," admitted Mrs. Atterson. "I'd been lookin' on all them things as an expense. They could be made an asset, eh?"
"I should hope so," responded Hiram, smiling.
"And I could get rid of these boarders—My soul and body!" gasped the tired woman, suddenly. "Do you suppose it's true, Hi? Get rid of worryin' about paying the bills, and whether the boarders are all going to keep their jobs and be able to pay regularly—And the gravy!
"Hiram Strong! If you can show me a way out of this valley of tribulation I'll be the thankfullest woman that you ever seen. It's a bargain. Don't you pay me a cent for this coming week. And I shouldn't have taken it, anyway, when you're throwed out of work so. That's a mighty mean man, that Daniel Dwight.
"You go right ahead and look that farm over. If it looks good, you come back and we'll strike a bargain, I know. And—and—Just to think of getting rid of this house and these boarders!" and Mrs. Atterson finished by wiping her eyes again vigorously.
CHAPTER VII. HOW HIRAM LEFT TOWN
Hiram Strong was up betimes on Monday morning—Sister saw to that. She rapped on his door at four-thirty.
Sometimes Hiram wondered when the girl ever slept. She was still dragging about the kitchen or dining-room when he went to bed, and she was first down in the morning—even earlier than Mrs. Atterson herself.
The boarding house mistress was not intentionally severe with Sister; but the much harassed lady had never learned to make her own work easy, so how should she be expected to be easy on Sister?
Once or twice Hiram had talked with the orphan. Sister had a dreadful fear of returning to the "institution" from which Mrs. Atterson had taken her. And Sister's other fearful remembrance was of an old woman who beat her and drank much gin and water.
Not that she had been ill-treated at the institution; but she had been dressed in an ugly uniform, and the girls had been rough and pulled her "pigtails" like Dan, Junior.
"Once a gentleman came to see me," Sister confided to Hiram. "He was a lawyer gentleman, the matron told me. He knew my name—but I've forgotten it now.
"And he said that somebody who once belonged to me—or I once belonged to them—had died and perhaps there would be some money coming to me. But it couldn't have been the old woman I lived with, for she never had only money enough for gin!
"Anyhow, I was glad. I axed him how much money—was it enough to treat all the girls in the institution one round of ice-cream soda, and he laffed, he did. And he said yes—just about enough for that, if he could get it for me. And I ran away and told the girls.
"I promised them all a treat. But the man never came again, and by and by the big girls said they believed I storied about it, and one night they came and dragged me out of bed and hung me out of the window by my wrists, till I thought my arms would be pulled right out of the sockets. They was awful cruel—them girls. But when I axed the matron why the man didn't come no more, she put me off. I guess he was only foolin'," decided Sister, with a sigh. "Folks like to fool me—like Mr. Crackit—eh?"
But Mrs. Atterson told Hiram, when he asked about Sister's meagre little story, that the institution had promised to let her know if the lawyer ever returned to make further inquiries about the orphan. Somebody really had died who was of kin to the girl, but through some error the institution had not made a proper record of her pedigree and the lawyer who had instituted the search a seemed to have dropped out of sight.
But Hiram was not troubled by poor Sister's private affairs upon this Monday morning. It was the beginning of a new week, indeed, to him. He had turned over a new leaf of experience. He hoped that he was pretty near to the end of his harsh city existence.
He hurried downstairs, long in advance of the other boarders, and Mrs. Atterson served him some breakfast, although there was no milk for the coffee.
"I dunno where that plague o' my life, Sister's, gone," sputtered the old lady, fussing about, between dining-room and kitchen. "I sent her out ten minutes ago for the milk. And if you want to get that first train to Scoville you've got to hurry."
"Never mind the milk," laughed the young fellow. "The train's more important this morning."
So he bolted the remainder of his breakfast, swallowed the black coffee, and ran out.
He arrived at Scoville while the morning was still young. It was not his intention to go at once to the Atterson farm. There were matters which he desired to look into in addition to judging the quality of the soil on the place and the possibility of making it pay.
He went to the storekeepers and asked questions about the prices paid for garden truck. He walked about the town and saw the quality of the residences, and noted what proportion of the townsfolk cultivated gardens of their own.
There was a big girls' boarding-school, and two small, but well-patronized hotels. The proprietors of these each owned a farm; but they told Hiram that it was necessary for them to buy much of their table vegetables from city produce men, as the neighboring farmers did not grow much.
In talking with one storekeeper Hiram mentioned the fact that he was going to look at the Atterson place with a view to farming it for its new owner. When he walked out of the store he found himself accosted by a lean, snaky-looking man who had stood within the store the moment before.
"What's this widder woman goin' to do with the farm old Jeptha left her?" inquired the man, looking at Hiram slyly.
"We don't know yet, sir, what we shall do with it," the young fellow replied.
"You her son?"
"No. I may work for her—can't tell till I've looked at the place."
"It ain't much to look at," said the man, quickly. "I come near buying it once, though. In fact—"
He hesitated, still eyeing Hiram sideways. The boy waited for him to speak again. He did not wish to be impolite; but he did not like the man's appearance.
"What do y' reckon this Mis' Atterson would sell for?" finally demanded the man.
"She has been advised not to sell—at present."
"Mr. Strickland, the lawyer."
"Humph! Mebbe I'd buy it—and give her a good price for it—right now."
"What do you consider a good price?" asked Hiram, quietly.
"Twelve hundred dollars," said the man.
"I will tell her. But I do not think she would sell for that price—nothing like it, in fact."
"Well, mebbe she'll feel different when she comes to think it over. No use for a woman trying to run a farm. And if she has to pay for everything to be done, she'll be in a hole at the end of the season. I guess she ain't thought of that?"
"It wouldn't be my place to point it out to her," returned Hiram, "coolly, if it were so, and I wanted to work for her."
"Humph! Mebbe not. Well, my name's Pepper. Mebbe I'll be out to see her some day," he said, and turned away.
"He's one of the people who will discourage Mrs. Atterson," thought Hiram. "And he has an axe to grind. If I decide to take the job of making this farm pay, I'm going to have the agreement in black and white with Mrs. Atterson; for there will be a raft of Job's comforters, perhaps when we get settled on the place."
It was late in the afternoon before Hiram was ready to start for the farm itself. He had made some enquiries, and had decided to stop at a neighbor's for overnight, instead of going to the house where a lone woman had been left in charge by Mrs. Atterson.
The Pollocks had been recommended to Hiram, and by leaving the road within half a mile of the Atterson farm, and cutting across the fields, he came into the dooryard of the Pollock place. A well-grown boy, not much older than himself, was splitting some chunks at the woodpile. He stopped work to gaze at the visitor with much curiosity.
"From what they told me in town," Hi said, holding out his hand with a smile, "you must be Henry Pollock?"
The boy blushed, but awkwardly took and shook Hi's hand.
"That's what they call me—Henry Pollock—when they don't call me Hen."
"Well, I'll make a bargain with you, Henry," laughed Hiram. "I don't like to have my name cut off short, either. My name's Hiram Strong. So if you'll agree to always call me 'Hiram' I'll always call you 'Henry.'"
"It's a go!" returned the other, shaking hands again. "You going to live around here? Or are you jest visiting?"
"I don't know yet," confessed Hiram, sitting down beside the boy. "You see, I've come out to look at the Atterson place."
"That's right over yonder. You can see the roof if you stand up," said Henry, quickly.
Hiram stood up and, in the light of the early sunset, he caught a glimpse of the roof in question.
"Your folks going to buy it of the old lady Uncle Jeptha left it to?" asked Henry, with pardonable curiosity. "Or are you going to rent it?"
"What do you think of renting it?" queried Hiram, showing that he had Yankee blood in him by answering one question with another.
"Well—it's pretty well run down, and that's a fact. The old man couldn't do much the last few years, and them Dickersons who farmed it for him ain't no great shakes of farmers, now I tell you!"
"Well, I want to look the farm over before I decide what I'll do," said Hiram, slowly. "And of course I can't do that to-night. They told me in town that sometimes you take boarders?"
"In the summer we do," returned Henry.
"Do you think your folks will put me up overnight?"
"Why, I reckon so—Hiram Strong, did you say your name was? Come right in," added Henry, hospitably, "and I'll ask mother."
CHAPTER VIII. THE LURE OF GREEN FIELDS
The Pollocks proved to be a neighborly family—and a large one. As Henry said, there was a "whole raft of young 'uns" younger than he was. They made Hiram very welcome at the supper table, and showed much curiosity about his personal affairs.
But the young fellow had been used to just such people before. They were not a bad sort, and if they were keenly interested in the affairs of other people, it was because they had few books and newspapers, and small chance to amuse themselves in the many ways which city people have.
Hiram slept with Henry that night, and Henry agreed to show the visitor over the Atterson place the next day.
"I know every stick and stone of it as well as I do ourn," declared Henry. "And Dad won't mind my taking time now. Later—Whew! I tell you, we hafter just git up an' dust to make a crop. Not much chance for fun after a week or two until the corn's laid by."
"You know all the boundaries of the Atterson farm, do you?" Hiram asked.
"Yes, sir!" replied Henry, eagerly. "And say! do you like to fish?"
"Of course; who doesn't?"
"Then we'll take some lines and hooks along—and mother'll lend us a pan and kettle. Say! We'll start early—'fore anybody's a-stir—and I bet there'll be a big trout jumping in the pool under the big sycamore."
"That certain-sure sounds good to me!" cried Hiram, enthusiastically.
So it was agreed, and before day, while the mist was yet rolling across the fields, and the hedge sparrows were beginning to chirp, the two set forth from the Pollock place, crossed the wet fields, and the road, and set off down the slope of a long hill, following, as Henry said, near the east boundary of the Atterson farm—the line running from the automobile road to the river.
It was a dull spring morning. The faint breeze that stirred on the hillside was damp, but odorous with new-springing herbs. As Hiram and Henry descended the aisle of the pinewood, the treetops whispered together as though curious of these bold humans who disturbed their solitude.
"It doesn't look as though anybody had been here at the back end of old Jeptha Atterson's farm for years," said Hiram.
"And it's a fact that nobody gets down this way often," Henry responded.
The brown tags sprung under their feet; now and then a dew-wet branch swept Hiram's cheek, seeking with its cold fingers to stay his progress. It was an enchanted forest, and the boy, heart-hungry from his two years of city life, was enchanted, too!
Hiram learned from talking with his companion that at one time the piece of thirty-year-old timber they were walking through had been tilled—after a fashion. But it had never been properly cleared, as the hacked and ancient stumpage betrayed.
Here and there the lines of corn rows which had been plowed when the last crop was laid by were plainly revealed to Hiram's observing eye. Where corn had grown once, it should grow again; and the pine timber would more than pay for being cut, for blowing out the big stumps with dynamite, and tam-harrowing the side hill.
Finally they reached a point where the ground fell away more abruptly and the character of the timber changed, as well. Instead of the stately pines, this more abrupt declivity was covered with hickory and oak. The sparse brush sprang out of rank, black mold.
Charmed by the prospect, Hiram and Henry descended this hill and came suddenly, through a fringe of brush, to the border of an open cove, or bottom.
At some time this lowland, too, had been cleared and cultivated; but now young pines, quick-springing and lush, dotted the five or six acres of practically open land which was as level as one's palm.
It was two hundred yards, or more, in width and at the farther side a hedge of alders and pussywillows grew, with the green mist of young leaves upon them, and here and there a ghostly sycamore, stretching its slender bole into the air, edged the course of the river.
Hiram viewed the scene with growing delight. His eyes sparkled and a smile came to his lips as he crossed, with springy steps, the open meadow on which the grass was already showing green in patches.
Between the line of the wood they had left and the breadth of the meadow was a narrow, marshy strip into which a few stones had been cast, and on these they crossed dry shod. The remainder of the bottom-land was firm.
"Ain't this jest a scrumptious place?" demanded Henry, and Hiram agreed.
At the river's edge they parted the bushes and looked down upon the oily-flowing brown flood. It was some thirty feet broad and with the melting of the snows in the mountains was so deep that no sign was apparent here of the rocks which covered its bed.
Henry led the way up the bank of the stream toward a huge sycamore that leaned lovingly over the water. An ancient wild grape vine, its butt four inches through and its roots fairly in the water, had a strangle-hold upon this decrepit forest monarch, its tendrils reaching the sycamore's topmost branch.
Under the tree was a deep hole where flotsam leaves and twigs performed an endless treadmill dance in the grasp of the eddy.
Suddenly, while their gaze clung to the dimpling water, there was a flash of a bronze body—a streak of light along the surface of the pool—and two widening circles showed where the master of the hole had leaped for some insect prey.
"See him?" called Henry, but under his breath.
Hiram nodded, but squeezed his companion's hand for silence. He almost held his own breath for the moment, as they moved back from the pool with the soundless step of an Indian.
"That big feller is my meat," declared Henry.
"Go to it, boy!" urged Hiram, and set about preparing the camp.
He cut with his big jack-knife and set up a tripod of green rods in a jiffy, skirmished for dry wood, lit his fire, filled the kettle from the river at a little distance from the eddy, and hung it over the blaze to boil.
Meanwhile Henry fished out a line and an envelope of hooks from an inner pocket, cut a springy pole back on the hillside, rigged his line and hook, and kicked a hole in the soft, rich soil until he unearthed a fat angleworm.
With this impaled upon the hook he cautiously approached the pool under the sycamore and cast gently. The struggling worm sank slowly; the water wrinkled about the line; but there followed no tug at the hook, although Henry stood patiently for several moments. He cast again, and yet again, with like result.
"Ah, ba!" muttered Hiram, in his ear; "this fellow's appetite needs tickling. He is being fed too well and turns up his nose at a common earthworm, does he? Let me show you a wrinkle, Henry."
Henry drew the line ashore again and shook off the useless bait.
"You're, not fishing," Hiram continued with a grim smile. "You've just been drowning a worm. But I'll show that old fellow sulking down below there that he is no match this early in the spring for a pair of hungry boys!"
He recrossed the meadow, and the stepping stones, to the wood. He had noticed a log lying in the path as he descended the hillside. With the toe of his boot he kicked a patch of bark from the log, and thereby lay bare the wavering trail of a busy grub. Following the trail he quickly found the fat, juicy insect, which immediately took the earthworm's place upon the hook.
Again Henry cast and this time, before the grub even touched the surface of the pool, the fish leaped and swallowed the tempting morsel, hook and all!
There was no playing of the fish on Henry's part. A quick jerk and the gasping spotted beauty, a pound and a quarter, or more, in weight, lay upon the sward beside the crackling fire.
"Whoop-ee!" called Henry, excitedly. "That's Number One!"
While Hiram dexterously scaled and cleaned the first trout, Henry caught a couple more. Hiram brought forth, too, the coffee, salt and pepper, sugar, a piece of fat salt pork and two table knives and forks.
He raked a smooth bed in the glowing coals, sliced the pork thin, laid some slices in the pan and set that upon the coals, where the pork began to sputter almost at once.
The water in the kettle was boiling and he made the coffee. Then he laid the trout upon the pan with three slices of pork upon each, and sat back upon his haunches beside Henry enjoying the delicious odor in anticipation of the more solid delights of breakfast.
They had hard crackers and with these, and drinking the coffee from the kettle itself, when it was cool enough, the two boys feasted like monarchs.
"By Jo!" exclaimed Henry. "This beats maw's soda biscuit and fat meat gravy!"
But as he ate, Hiram's gaze traveled again and again across the scrub-grown meadow. The lay of the land pleased him. The richness of the soil had been revealed when they dug the earthworm.
For thousands of years the riches of yonder hillside had been washing down upon the bottom, and this alluvial was rich beyond computation.
Here were several acres, the young farmer knew, which, however over-cropped the remainder of Uncle Jeptha's land had been, could not be impoverished in many seasons.
"It's as rich as cream!" muttered he, thoughtfully. "Grubbing out these young pines wouldn't take long. There's a heavy sod and it would have to be ploughed deeply. Then a crop of corn this year, perhaps—late corn for fear the river might overflow it in June. And then——
"Great Scot!" ejaculated Hiram, slapping his knee, "what wouldn't grow on this bottom land?"
"Yes, it's mighty rich," agreed Henry. "But it's a long way from the house—and then, the river might flood it over. I've seen water running over this bottom two feet deep—once."
They finished the al fresco meal and Hiram leaped up, inspired by his thoughts to brisker movements.
"Whatever else this old farm has on it, I vow and declare," he said, "this five or six acres alone might be made to pay a profit on the whole investment!"
CHAPTER IX. THE BARGAIN IS MADE
Henry showed Hiram the "branch", a little stream flowing into the river, which marked the westerly boundary of the farm for some ways, and they set off up the steep bank of this stream.
This back end of the farm—quite forty acres, or half of the whole tract—had been entirely neglected by the last owner of the property for a great many years. It was some distance from the house, for the farm was a long and narrow strip of land from the highway to the river, and Uncle Jeptha had had quite all he could do to till the uplands and the fields adjacent to his home.
They came upon these open fields—many of them filthy with dead weeds and littered with sprouting bushes—from the rear. Hiram saw that the fences were in bad repair and that the back of the premises gave every indication of neglect and shiftlessness.
Perhaps not exactly the latter; Uncle Jeptha had been an old man and unable to do much active work for some years. But he had cropped certain of his fields "on shares" with the usual results—impoverished soil, illy-tilled crops, and the land left in a slovenly condition which several years of careful tillage would hardly overcome.
Now, although Hiram's father had been of the tenant class, he had farmed other men's land as he would his own. Owners of outlying farms had been glad to get Mr. Strong to till their fields.
He had known how to work, he knew the reasons for every bit of labor he performed, and he had not kept his son in ignorance of them. As they worked together the father had explained to the son what he did, and why he did it, The results of their work spoke for themselves, and Hiram had a retentive memory.
Mr. Strong, too, had been a great, reader—especially in the winter when the farmer naturally has more time in-doors.
Yet he was a "twelve months farmer"; he knew that the winter, despite the broken nature of the work, was quite as valuable to the successful farmer as the other seasons of the year.
The elder Strong knew that men with more money, and more time for experimenting than he had, were writing and publishing all the time helps for the wise farmer. He subscribed for several papers, and read and digested them carefully.
Hiram, even during his two years in the city, had continued his subscription (although it was hard to find the money sometimes) to two or three of those publications that his father had most approved. And the boy had read them faithfully.
He was as up-to-date in farming lore now, if not in actual practise, as he had been when he left the country to try his fortune in Crawberry.
Beyond the place where the branch turned back upon itself and hid its source in the thicker timber, Hiram saw that the fields were open on both sides of this westerly line of the farm.
"Who's our neighbor over yonder, Henry?" he asked.
"Dickerson—Sam Dickerson," said Henry. "And he's got a boy, Pete, no older than us. Say, Hiram, you'll have trouble with Pete Dickerson."
"Oh, I guess not," returned the young farmer, laughing. "Trouble is something that I don't go about hunting for."
"You don't have to hunt it when Pete is round," said Henry with a wry grin. "But mebbe he won't bother you, for he's workin' near town—for that new man that's moved into the old Fleigler place. Bronson's his name. But if Pete don't bother you, Sam may."
"Sam's the father?"
"Yep. And one poor farmer and mean man, if ever there was one! Oh, Pete comes by his orneriness honestly enough."
"Oh, I hope I'll have no trouble with any neighbor," said Hiram, hopefully.
They came briskly to the outbuildings belonging to Mrs. Atterson's newly acquired legacy. Hiram glanced into the hog lot. She looked like a good sow, and the six-weeks-old shoats were in good condition. In a couple of weeks they would be big enough to sell if Mrs. Atterson did not care to raise them.
The shoats were worth six dollars a pair, too; he had inquired the day before about them. There was practically eighteen dollars squealing in that pen—and eighteen dollars would go a long way toward feeding the horse and cow until there was good pasturage for them.
These animals named were in the small fenced barnyard. In the fall and winter the old man had fed a good deal of fodder and other roughage, and during the winter the horse and cow had tramped this coarse material, and the stable scrapings, into a mat of fairly good manure.
He looked the horse and cow over with more care. It was a fact that the horse looked pretty shaggy; but he had been used little during the winter, and had been seldom curried. A ragged coat upon a horse sometimes covers quite as many good points as the same quality of garment does upon a man.
When Hiram spoke to the beast it came to the fence with a friendly forward thrust of its ears, and the confidence of a horse that has been kindly treated and looks upon even a strange human as a friend.
It was a strong and well-shaped animal, more than twelve years old, as Hiram discovered when he opened the creature's mouth, but seemingly sound in limb. Nor was he too large for work on the cultivator, while sturdy enough to carry a single plow.
Hiram passed him over with a satisfactory pat on the nose and turned to look at the white-faced cow that had so terrified Mrs. Atterson. She wasn't a bad looking beast, either, and would freshen shortly. Her calf would be worth from twelve to fifteen dollars if Mrs. Atterson did not wish to raise it. Another future asset to mention to the old lady when he returned.
The youth turned his attention to the buildings themselves—the barn, the cart shed, the henhouse, and the smaller buildings. That famous old decorating firm of Wind & Weather had contracted for all painting done around the Atterson place for the many years; but the buildings were not otherwise in a bad state of repair.
A few shingles had been blown off the roofs; here and there a board was loose. With a hammer and a few nails, and in a few hours, many of these small repairs could be accomplished. And a coat or two of properly mixed and applied whitewash would freshen up the whole place and—like charity—cover a multitude of sins.
Henry bade him good-bye now, they shook hands, and Hiram agreed to let his new friend know at once if he decided to come with Mrs. Atterson to the farm.
"We can have heaps of fun—you and me," declared Henry.
"It isn't so bad," soliloquized the young farmer when he was alone. "There'd be time to put the buildings and fences in good shape before the spring work came on with a rush. There's fertilizer enough in the barnyard and the pig pen and the hen run—with the help of a few pounds of salts and some bone meal, perhaps—to enrich a right smart kitchen garden and spread for corn on that four acre lot yonder.
"Of course, this land up here on the hill needs humus. If it has been cropped on shares, as Henry says, all the enrichment it has received has been from commercial fertilizers. And necessarily they have made the land sour. It probably needs lime badly.
"Yes, I can't encourage Mrs. Atterson to look for a profit in anything this year. It will take a year to get that rich bottom into shape for—for what, I wonder? Onions? Celery? It would raise 'em both. I'll think about that and look over the market prospects more fully before I decide."
For already, you see, Hiram had come to the decision that this old farm could be made to pay. Why not? The true farmer has to have imagination as well as the knowledge and the perseverance to grow crops. He must be able in his mind's eye to see a field ready for the reaping before he puts in a seed.
He did not go to the house on this occasion, but after casually examining the tools and harness, and the like, left by the old man, he cut off across the upper end of the farm and gave the neglected open fields of this upper forty a casual examination.
"If she had the money to invest, I'd say buy sheep and fence these fields and so get rid of the weeds. They've grown very foul through neglect, and cultivating them for years would not destroy the weeds as sheep would in two seasons.
"But wire fencing is expensive—and so are good sheep to begin with. No. Slow but sure must be our motto. I mustn't advise any great outlay of money—that would scare her to death.
"It will be hard enough for her to put out money all season long before there are any returns. We'll go, slow," repeated Hiram.
But when he left the farm that afternoon he went swiftly enough to Scoville and took the train for the not far distant city of Crawberry. This was Tuesday evening and he arrived just about supper time at Mrs. Atterson's.
The reason for Hiram's absence, and the matter of Mrs. Atterson's legacy altogether, had been kept from the boarders. And there was no time until after the principal meal of the day was off the lady's mind for Hiram to say anything to her.
"She's a good old soul," thought Hiram. "And if it's in my power to make that farm pay, and yield her a competency for her old age, I'll do it."
Meanwhile he was not losing sight of the fact that there was something due to him in this matter. He was bound to see that he got his share—and a just share—of any profits that might accrue from the venture.
So, after the other boarders had scattered, and Mrs. Atterson had eaten her own late supper, and Sister was swashing plates and knives and forks about in a big pan of hot water in the kitchen sink, (between whiles doing her best to listen at the crack of the door) the landlady and Hiram Strong threshed out the project fully.
It was not all one-sided; for Mrs. Atterson, after all, had been bargaining all her life and could see the "main chance" as quickly as the next one. She had not bickered with hucksters, chivvied grocerymen, fought battles royal with butchers, and endured the existence of a Red Indian amidst allied foes for two decades without having her wits ground to a razor edge.
On the other hand, Hiram Strong, although a boy in years, had been his own master long enough to take care of himself in most transactions, and withal had a fund of native caution. They jotted down memoranda of the points on which they were agreed, which included the following:
Mrs. Atterson, as "party of the first part", agreed to board Hiram until the crops were harvested the second year. In addition she was to pay him one hundred dollars at Christmas time this first year, and another hundred at the conclusion of the agreement—i. e., when the second year's crop was harvested.
Beside, of the estimated profits of the second year's crop, Hiram was to have twenty-five per cent. This profit was to be that balance in the farm's favor (if such balance there was) over and above the actual cost of labor, seed, and such purchased fertilizer or other supplies as were necessary. Mrs. Atterson agreed likewise to supply one serviceable horse and such tools as might be needed, for the place was to be run as "a one-horse farm."
On the other hand Hiram agreed to give his entire time to the farm, to work for Mrs. Atterson's interest in all things, to make no expenditures without discussing them first with her, and to give his best care and attention generally to the farm and all that pertained thereto. Of course, the old lady was taking Hiram a good deal on trust. But she had known the boy almost two years and he had been faithful and prompt in discharging his debts to her.
But it was up to the young fellow to "make good." He could not expect to make any profit for his employer the first year; but he would be expected to do so the second season, or "show cause."
When these matters were all discussed and the little memorandum signed, Hiram Strong, in his own room, thought the situation over very seriously. He was facing the biggest responsibility that he had obliged to assume in his whole life.
This was no boyish job; it was man's work. He had put his hand to an agreement that might influence his whole future, and certainly would make or break his credit as a trustworthy youth and one of his word.
During these past days Hiram had determined to "get back to the soil" and to get back to it in a business-like way. He desired to make good for Mrs. Atterson so that he might some time have the chance to make good for somebody else on a bigger scale.
He did not propose to be "a one-horse farmer" all his days.
CHAPTER X. THE SOUND OF BEATING HOOFS
On Monday morning Mrs. Atterson put her house in the agent's hands. On Wednesday a pair of spinster ladies came to look at it. They came again on Thursday and again on Friday.
Friday being considered an "unlucky" day they did not bind the bargain; but on Saturday money was passed, and the new keepers of the house were to take possession in a week. Not until then were the boarders informed of Mother Atterson's change of circumstances, and the fact that she was going to graduate from the boarding house kitchen to the farm.
After all, they were sorry—those light-headed, irresponsible young men. There wasn't one of them, from Crackit down the line, who could not easily remember some special kindness that marked the old lady's intercourse with him.
As soon as the fact was announced that the boarding house had changed hands, the boarders were up in arms. There was a wild gabble of voices, over the supper table that night. Crackit led the chorus.
"It's a mean trick. Mother Atterson has sold us like so many cattle to the highest bidder. Ungrateful—right down ungrateful, I call it," he declared. "What do you say, Feeble?"
"It is particularly distasteful to me just now," complained the invalid. "When Sister has learned to give me my hot water at just the right temperature," and he took a sip of that innocent beverage. "Don't you suppose we could prevail upon the old lady to renig?"
"She's bound to put us off with half rations for the rest of the time she stays," declared Crackit, shaking his head wisely. "She's got nothing to lose now. She don't care if we all up and leave—after she gets hers."
"That's always the way," feebly remarked Mr. Peebles. "Just as soon as I really get settled down into a half-decent lodging, something happens."