THE HERO OF HILL HOUSE
BY MABEL HALE
Home and Mother
The Stricken Home
Austin and His Father
Austin Goes to His Father
Humiliation for Austin
To the Country Again
The Captain's Guest
With Uncle John Again
Austin Takes Care of Himself
The Young Church-Member
The Battle of Two Wills
Seeking New Pasture
To the Hay-Fields
Six Weeks of Haying
Indecision and Restlessness
Mother Hilman's Opinion
Like the Troubled Sea
Planning for Themselves
Austin and Amy
Uncle Philip's Children
The Family Circle Narrows
A Stormy Season
Austin's New Home
The Opinions of Parson Hawley and His Wife
THE HERO OF HILL HOUSE
HOME AND MOTHER
It was the evening of a quiet day in late autumn, and the inmates of the little farm home were gathered safely together around the supper-table. I say the family, but they were not all there. Father's place was vacant, for he had gone to town that afternoon and would not be home till late bedtime. His reason for being late was the great shadow over this otherwise happy home. The children, down to baby Doyle, three years old, knew that when he came, he would be in no condition to be seen in the presence of his children, and that money which was needed badly in his home would have been spent for strong drink.
But all the others were there. Mother sat in her place at the foot of the table, and little Doyle sat at her right hand in his high chair. The others were ranged on both sides of the table, leaving the vacant place at the head. There were eight children in all, the eldest a boy of sixteen, and the youngest little Doyle. The three older children were boys, George and Wilbur, sixteen and fifteen years old, respectively, and Austin, aged thirteen. Then were two girls, Amy and Nell. After them came Harry, a fine little fellow of seven, Lila, a tiny girl of five, and last of all the baby.
Every child was robust and rosy, ready for a hearty meal and all the fun that was to be had. Mother sat as queen, a dear, beloved queen, and the children as they talked back and forth in happy freedom turned to her for reference and sanction in all that was said. There was not one but bowed in adoration at the beautiful mother's feet. And her eyes, how lovingly they rested upon them! And how she seemed to be treasuring them in her heart! This was indeed her kingdom, and she was happy. But of course there was a sadness in her happiness, because her husband and the father of her children was choosing a path that took him out of the family circle. But since such was his choice, she was determined to make it up to her lads and lassies to the best of her ability, and throw her teaching and daily instruction against the influence of their father. She was making this evening pleasant that they might forget the shadow that hung over them.
With supper over and the evening chores done, the family gathered about the fireside, some read, the little ones played, and Mother busied with her sewing. An atmosphere of peace rested upon them, in spite of the shadow that hangs over every home into which the demon drink has entered.
"Doyle, Lila, it is time for little people to be in bed. Harry, you have no lessons, you had better go to bed also," said the mother.
"So soon, Mother? May we not play a little longer?"
"Bedtime now, little man, and run along without waiting for more play."
Three little people trooped off to bed to be tucked in a little later after the good-night kisses and evening prayers. Soon the girls went sleepily off to bed with a good-night kiss. Just Mother and her boys were left, and now was the time for a quiet talk with them. A gentle word from her and the conversation was begun.
Softly she led them on till they were telling her of their doings among the boys, and their plans and hopes. It was only a friendly visit, but into it she put wise counsel as well as thoughtful understanding. They wondered, afterward, if she this evening felt the other shadow which at this time was entirely hidden from their eyes, that she should talk to them so. Perhaps she did. We can not know. But deeper than this was her yearning for her sons just entering manhood. She knew that only a little way at best could she go with them, and then they must choose their own path. She wanted the little time left to be filled with those things that would make their pathway light.
The evening passed, and after a time all were in their beds. Only one low light remained, and that was set to guide the father when he should return.
When the father came, if he had been in condition to notice, he would have seen a bare little room now that the mother was out of it, with signs of poverty everywhere. The old table and worn chairs, bare floors scarred with the tread of little feet, the scant cupboard, the worn shoes by the fire, all told how little the queen of the home had to work with. There was nothing of beauty here but herself and her love.
But Henry Hill did not think any of these thoughts. He was already half asleep, and he crawled into his bed without a word or thought for those whom he should have loved and protected. And in the morning each one of the family secretly thanked God that Father had lain down without disturbing them.
The morning brought another day of busy care for Elizabeth Hill. Her hands were full from morning till night helping, lifting the heavy burdens, and directing the work of the children, in all bearing the responsibility of the family.
Was she happy? Yes, in their love, and in the anticipation of the future of her children, especially her boys just entering manhood. Her thoughts were always with them, and her prayers followed them in all that they did. So much was at stake. Three lives to be made or marred. Three men to bless the world or to curse it. And they had the blight upon them which their father was bringing. Every woman who is a real mother knows that Elizabeth Hill's face was often wet with tears as she contemplated what the future might bring. And happy are the sons who are blessed with such a mother. Her value is untold. The wealth of the world has nothing to compare with her. Yet how often it is taken for granted that she will be as good as she is, and her life made unhappy by the ones for whom she works and prays!
If Elizabeth Hall had known, and if her boys had known, what lay just ahead, perhaps the days would have been made fuller yet of loving counsel and happy association. But the veil was before their faces, and they did not know. Possibly that was best. If the veil were lifted and we knew our future, our hearts might faint within us. It is enough that for each day is given grace for its toils. Elizabeth loved her boys and was giving them the best of herself, and that is all she could have done if she had known.
THE STRICKEN HOME
Henry Hill sat before the fire with his head in his hands and his elbows upon his knees, a picture of utter dejection and sorrow. The house was quiet with an unearthly quietness, those who were compelled to speak using the lowest tones, and tiptoeing about. The little ones, Doyle, Lila, and Harry, were not at home. Amy and Nell were silently, tearfully, trying to wash the few dishes that had been used at the almost untouched breakfast. The boys were attending to the morning chores, with faces as solemn and hearts as heavy as each could carry. A neighbor woman, kind, sympathetic, and busy, but with the same sadness pictured upon her face, kept coming and going between the bedroom and the room in which Mr. Hill sat.
Only that morning the physician had been there and had told them that she whose life had been the light and strength of the home was lying now upon her death-bed, that she would never again rise to take the burdens of life, that they would have to let her go. He had felt for Henry Hill as he had spoken, for the white horror and anguish in the man's face would have called out sympathy from a harder heart; but he wanted to say also that had she been given a lighter load to carry, if some of the anxiety and concern that now stirred his heart had been expressed when his wife was well, things might not now be as they are. But the kind doctor left these words unsaid. Henry Hill had all he could bear without them.
The holidays, with their festivities, were over, and life had just settled back into its every-day way, when Elizabeth Hill fell sick. She had never been ailing before. Her children had always known her as able to take the constant care and oversight of the family. Without her they were helpless and distraught, for there was no one to take her place. And when after one day's illness it became certain that her condition was critical, the anxiety and tension became intense. He who should have lightened her burden long ago now awoke to her need and was constantly by her side doing all that was in his power to restore her to health. But the black cloud settled heavier upon the home as each day saw the mother coming nearer the gates of death. The children looked at one another with pale faces and wide, frightened eyes as they saw the kind neighbor women come from their mother's bed with averted faces.
Though all was done that could be done, they could not hold her, and one night, with her weeping family around her, she loosed from her earthly habitation and went away. She who had been the soul of that home, lay dead. The calamity came upon the family like a shock. It left no spirit nor life in them. They knew not which way to turn. From the father down to Baby Doyle they were bereft. She to whom they had always looked for counsel and guidance lay in a sublime sleep from which they could not waken her.
As Henry Hill looked upon the motionless form of the woman whose love and confidence he had gained and who had been to him such a faithful wife in spite of his fickleness, he wept, and vowed; but what are tears and vows when the will has been weakened by self-indulgence? He looked about him helplessly. What was he to do? What could he do without her? He was almost a stranger to his children, and had no idea how to care for them. She had always carried the burden, taken the oversight, been the one to go ahead. He faced the future as helplessly as one of his little children.
Her boys looked upon her and knew that they had lost their best friend. Home would have little more attraction for them. George and Wilbur took selfish comfort in the thought that they were old and strong enough to care for themselves, but Austin forgot himself in wondering what would become of the children. The little ones spoke to Mama, but she did not answer, they called to her, but she did not hear, and they went away weeping; for though they could not tell what, they knew something dreadful had happened.
Kind friends and neighbors came in and did what has to be done at such a time. They pitied with full hearts the afflicted family, and they wept for their friend, for they too had loved her. They took her and laid her with others of death's sleepers in the silent churchyard, and her orphaned children returned with their helpless father to the lonely and broken home.
Only those who have returned home after Mother is gone know what these children and father suffered. Kind hands had put the house in order and the familiar furniture in its accustomed place, endeavoring to make the house look as if all were well. But they could not bring back the one who had made this house home, and to the children it was a dreary, lonely place. Fearfully they crept out-of-doors, only to find it as cheerless there.
That first night around the fireside without her, what a desolate place it was! The father sat with drooped head and heaving breast, and the children huddled together and some of them sobbed. Just to escape their misery they went early to bed, and little pillows were wet with tears. When they were all in bed a gentle hand tucked them in with a kind caress. "It is what Mother would have done," thought Austin, as he made the rounds.
In those first days of sorrow every one seemed to remember only his own heartache: but hearts can not always lie broken; in a little while they began to live again.
It was now, when life was dropping back into its old ways, that the greatness of their calamity became apparent. If Henry Hill had understood his opportunity, he might have stepped into his children's affections and been a true father to them. But he forgot them in his own self-pity. He was lonely, unspeakably lonely, and the house was dreary and dull without Mother. He who had always sought first of all his own pleasure and comfort now reached out for solace somewhere. And he found it with his old associates in his old haunts. When he returned to his home after these seasons he found the gloom and emptiness there more hard to bear. He hated with a deeper hatred the feeling of responsibility and care that was thrust upon him by the sight of his motherless children. He felt himself sinking under the strain, and he longed to ease himself in some way. If only a friend had been found to take the burden and bear it, how gladly would he have relinquished his place; but there was no one who would accept it. The neighbors were willing to help him with the children, but none of them were willing to do his part, and they waited for him to take the place that a father should.
George and Wilbur were restless at home since their mother was no longer there. It had been her influence that had kept them at home and in school for some time, and now she was not there they felt free to go when they wished, and they were out of the home in a short while. Night after night when the shadows crept over the fields, only Austin was at home with the children. It was he who cooked their meals and waited upon them. He loved them with a yearning love, thinking always of their mother and how she had labored for them. He was a boy thoughtful beyond his age, and, looking ahead, he saw what probably lay in store for them. To him home meant all, and the thought of the children's being scattered, never to know the sweetness of home association, was more than he could bear.
Added to his own feelings in the matter was the thought of his mother. If she knew, how it would grieve her to have her babies among strangers, and possibly to be ill-treated! Austin believed also that his father would be glad to see the home circle broken and the children scattered. It seemed that there was but one person to stand between the children and a broken home, and that person was himself. Though but a boy of thirteen he dedicated himself to them with a determination to stand by them and keep the home together. He put out of his mind every thought of following the example of his brothers, and settled himself to the care of the children. When he had made this decision, it seemed to him that his mother was near and was well pleased with what he had done. The children were quick to recognize in him their true friend and champion, and turned to him as if he had been their mother. So it was not long till apparently home was running along as smoothly as ever. Of course those living there felt a terrible void, which never could be filled.
Austin's father looked on with secret satisfaction at the course the boy was taking, glad that some one, if only this child, was willing to carry the responsibility of home. Day after day, as the household settled back into order and harmony, he felt his burden slipping; but the loss of his wife was as keenly before him as ever. He had loved her as much as he was capable of loving any one, and he felt the loss of her. Now that Austin was doing so well with the children he determined to get away from it all for a while.
"Austin, you could get along very well with the children if I were to be gone a few weeks, could you not?" he asked one day. "I am not feeling well, and it is so lonely here that I am not myself. Perhaps if I could have an outing, I should be better able to endure it."
AUSTIN AND HIS FATHER
Though Austin was but a child, he knew that his father was acting very selfishly in going away at this time, and that his real desire for going was to avoid responsibility rather than to cure loneliness. Many thoughts pressed in upon the boy as he contemplated his father's long absence, but the thought that gave him an answer was that if he refused, the home might be broken up. He seemed to see his mother's face, and it encouraged him to be brave. It was only a moment that he hesitated in answering, "Yes, Papa, I think I could manage all right; I might have to miss school part of the time."
"Well, I shall go with some of the boys down into the hills for a while to see if I can not get straightened out so that I shall be more fit for work. Your uncle John will look after you and see that nothing happens to you."
So the matter was settled. In a few days Henry Hill was off for a month of pleasure, leaving the children in Austin's care. He was right in thinking that his brother-in-law, John Moore, would look after the children. Mr. Moore was a brother to the children's mother and had the same noble principles as she had. He would gladly have taken the entire care of the children, but he thought it was their father's place to have their oversight, so stood back and said little. But when he knew they were left alone in the farmhouse, he was careful to know each morning and evening that all was well with them.
"Austin is as steady and reliable as a little old man," said his uncle after one of his visits. "He manages things over there as well as many an older person could."
"How a father could put so much on a mere child is a mystery," said some of the neighbor women.
"I would hate to be tied to a kitchen and a row of babies like he is," was his cousin Frank's opinion.
But of all these comments Austin was ignorant, nor did he think he was doing anything brave. He was doing the one thing that would keep the children together, and was encouraged with the thought that his mother was pleased with him, for it seemed to him that she knew.
Though Henry Hill was a selfish man, he often thought of his children while away, but stifled every remorseful thought with the assurance that Austin was taking good care of them. He assured himself that they were getting along as well as if an older person were with them; and this was true, for in the month that he was away, nothing of enough importance for comment occurred. The days went by as evenly as if the father had been there. But if Henry Hill thought that his mind would be more settled by his absence, he was disappointed; for as soon as he was again in sight of the house, the old loathing of the place attacked him. He longed to be away from it all forever. And when a man has all his life given way to his own personal impulses rather than stand by his duty, you need not expect him to brace up at a time like this and do his part.
From the point of reasoning which Mr. Hill took he was justifiable in feeling as he did. Everything about the little farmhouse reminded him of the woman he had loved. He never came to the house without a pang of painful loneliness at her absence. He felt himself incapable of caring for the children. She had always done that, and he did not know what they needed nor why. It would be better both for him and the children to be away from this dreary, grief-laden spot. But he could not take the children with him, and what would he do with them if he did? But there was Austin. Why should he feel tied to the children when Austin was willing to look after them? The thing to do was to get out and find a more suitable place, leaving Austin to look after home and the little ones.
But it would be pretty hard to leave so many children on one boy. The neighbors would have a great deal to say. Maybe he had better get a place for some of them. But where could he find a place? Why, to be sure—why had he not thought of that before?—he would take Lila and Doyle to his mother's, and Austin could manage the rest. That was just the thing, and no one could find fault with the arrangement, at least no one who knew Austin. And reasoning thus, he had his plans all made before he mentioned them. The sunny, pleasant days of spring had come, and the air was balmy and sweet with the perfume of blossoms, making the vagrant soul of Henry Hill sick with wanderlust, and he could hardly wait to put his plans into action.
"Austin, I believe I shall take Lola and Doyle out to your grandmother's, and try to get work there," he said one morning at the breakfast-table. "You can stay on here with the other children, and can get along very well if I am gone all summer. It will make it easier for you if I have the little ones."
Austin's chin dropped, and he looked at his father in blank amazement. Surely he had heard wrong. He started to protest, but another suggestion stopped him. "If I refuse, he will take all the children away, and we shall have no home; that would grieve Mother," mused the boy. Because Austin hesitated in answering, his father continued to explain his plan. "If I find a good job I shall get a house and send for the rest of you children and we shall live near your grandmother and uncles. I believe we can do better there than here." And having said this, he waited for Austin to speak.
"Yes, I suppose we could manage to get along a while," the boy said, choking a little. How lonely and bare his path looked before him he could not explain, and intuition told him it would be useless for him to try to do so. His father seemed to forget that he was lonely too, and missed the gentle mother.
Little more was said on the subject, but Mr. Hill arranged his affairs and, taking the two younger children with him, went to a distant State, leaving Austin and his two sisters and younger brother to look out for themselves for an indefinite period.
John Moore and his wife were shocked beyond measure when they learned Mr. Hill's plans, but knowing that it would be useless for them to remonstrate, they said nothing. However, they vowed in their hearts to look after the orphans in their father's absence. But there was one feature of his father's absence that Austin had not told any one. Had his uncle John known this, he would have been more than angry with his brother-in-law. Henry Hill had not left sufficient means with Austin for the care of the children. He had needed a neat sum for his fare and had taken almost all from the family purse, promising to send something back to Austin soon. One week had passed, and a second, and although a letter had come announcing their safe arrival, nothing had been said about money. The little home was becoming bare of food, and Austin did not wish to tell his circumstances to any one. He would have to find a way to make money for himself.
The neighborhood in which he lived abounded in market-gardens, and Austin decided to get work in the garden of a neighbor, with permission to bring the children with him and allow them to work what they could also. All of them together would be able to support themselves till their father found work and should help them again. With Austin to decide was to act, and the very next morning he went to the house of Mr. Long and asked for work. Mr. Long had been observing the boy and liked his pluck, and gave him work as he wished.
Now began a new epoch with Austin. There was a feeling of independence in making and using his own money that was very pleasant. He did not wonder that the older boys had gotten out to do for themselves. Though he had to rise early and work late to keep up his house-work and home chores, and his field-work, he did not count it a hardship. He felt manly and strong in doing it.
Mr. Hill smiled with pleasure when he read in Austin's letters of the arrangements he had made and how well they were getting along. That was just the thing. With the wages of the children they would not need much from him, and he would have more for himself. There was no need of Austin's having more than was actually necessary, and that would not be much. It was certainly fortunate that Austin had such a head for business.
But the best-laid plans sometimes prove to have a flaw, and this was unpleasantly true in this case. Though Mr. Hill explained at length to his parents how nicely Austin was getting along, he could not make them think all was well. They seemed to think, and others were of the same mind, that he was neglecting his duty.
"Who has the care of the children?" his mother asked him one day.
"Austin is looking after them," was the easy reply.
"You do not mean to say you left that boy with the care of the children," she exclaimed in amazement.
"Why, Mother, he manages them fine. I was gone a month a while back and everything was running along all right when I came home, and he had Lila and Doyle then, also."
"It is asking too much of the child, and I do not see how you can do it," was the sharp reply. "I will send for them as soon as I get enough ahead to set up housekeeping," promised Mr. Hill.
"Henry, when are you going to bring those children here?" she asked of him a few weeks later.
"Austin is working there and the others are helping him, and they are getting on so well I hate to bother them," he answered.
AUSTIN GOES TO HIS FATHER
One evening Austin and the children were coming home from their work in the gardens, tired and lonely. They could not get used to coming to the house so quiet and empty. Home was not as it used to be, but the brave children were making the best of it.
"I wonder if there will be a letter from Papa," Amy said as they drew near the mail-box, "and if he has a new home for us yet. I should like to see Grandma, and I do want to see Doyle and Lila." Harry, running on ahead, reached into the box and drew out a letter, at sight of which the other children quickened their steps. It was addressed to Austin and was in their father's handwriting:
"Dear Austin, I have gotten things in shape to have you children come to me. I will send you tickets in a few days. In the meantime dispose of the things in the house excepting what you can bring in your trunks. Uncle John will help you do this and see that you get started all right. Write me a card early enough so that I shall know when to meet you. We are all well. Henry Hill."
Austin was trembling all over with excitement mingled with tears. He was glad for the change, for the loneliness was nearly killing him, but he hated to leave Uncle John and his family, and all the neighbors, and Mother's grave. He had almost ceased to hope that his father would send for them, but here was the letter at last.
Henry Hill was careless, we must admit, in his duty, but he was not careless of the opinions of others. Be had been stung to the quick more than once by the insinuations and admonitions of his parents and acquaintances that he was not doing his duty by his children. His mother especially nagged him about it. He might have passed her words off as the whims of childishness, but she was not alone in her condemnations.
"Henry, you are not doing right. Austin is only a little boy and you are laying on him too great a burden," she would say.
"That is where you are mistaken, Mother. Austin is as tall as I am, and plenty strong enough to do all he is doing. They are getting along fine. Austin says so in his letters," he would answer.
"You are not doing right," retorted his mother, and her tones implied more than her words.
It seemed strange to Mr. Hill that he could not make any one understand the situation. Austin had been willing to stay. He had expressed no reluctance at all, and every week brought a letter from the children telling how well they were getting along. He was not hurt by any remorse at their words, but it seemed to him that they were unnecessarily partial to Austin in their judgment, and he felt a sort of animosity toward him on that account. Austin was only doing his duty by the children, so why should he be so praised and pitied? But a man can not long stand the bite of a fly without flinching, and Henry Hill found that he must do something to rid himself of these criticisms. He hated to do it, but he would have to send for the children and again set up housekeeping.
"O Elizabeth," he thought, "why did you have to be taken from me when I need you so much? If you were here, I would not have all this to bear. You made my life easy and happy."
It was with satisfaction that Mother Hill listened to her son explain that he had already sent for the children and must look for a house for them.
After a hasty toilet and a little to eat the children took the letter over to Uncle John's. Mr. Moore read it through, then sat still for a while without comment. At last he spoke, "What does Henry mean by laying such heavy responsibility upon the boy? No instructions, no plans! One would think he believed Austin to be of age."
"I suppose the only thing, Austin, for you to do is to make ready to go to him as your father tells us to do. I shall be glad to render you all the assistance possible. But I hate to see you go. If you remained here I could look after you and see that you get along all right. But it is not for me to say how your father shall manage his affairs." If John Moore expressed a little bitterness in addressing the boy, he kept back most of what he felt. He knew the habit of drink that bound his brother-in-law, and how it was weakening his manhood, and he doubted either the interest or the capability of the man to care for the children. He was certain a great deal of responsibility would rest upon Austin, and he feared the father would not always be just with him. But he wisely kept all these doubtful thoughts to himself and helped the boy prepare for the journey.
The children were up early the next morning for their last day of work in the gardens of Mr. Long. That gentleman was much concerned when Austin told him of the letter and their plans.
"Austin," he said, "you are a brave boy, and one that can be trusted. I am going to ask you to promise me one thing. When you are with your father again, do not follow in his steps. Your father has habits that are no good to him, and would only ruin your life."
"Mr. Long, I promised Mother long ago that I would never touch a drop of liquor," said Austin, knowing well what the man meant.
"Good for you, Austin; stand by that decision as long as you live, and it will be well with you."
Uncle John and Aunt Tillie were true to their promise about helping the children prepare for the journey. They spent much of the time with the children, and when the little house was empty of its furniture, they took them to their own home till time for them to go. Every day they heaped Austin with advice and counsel. The children heard them talking to him telling him just how to make the changes on their journey and how to arrange the baggage, and how to conduct themselves, and it filled them with respect for their brother. They felt safe in his care and certain that he would bring them safely to their father once more.
"Austin," said his uncle one day, "there is one promise I wish you to make me. You are a good boy and have started out the right way to make a noble man. I want you to say that you will not follow in your father's footsteps. He is not the man he would have been without drink. He caused your mother many heartaches. You will promise?"
"I promised Mama that before she died, and I will always keep it," answered Austin with feeling.
"I do not know how things will go when you are gone from here, but I tell you now, boy, that if you ever need a friend or find yourself out of a home, let me know, and I will send you money to come to us. I am sorry you are going so far away. I want to see that you have a chance to make good in life."
To the neglected, over-burdened boy these tender words were like a balm to his heart. He felt no sense of protection from his father, and he missed his mother always. At times it seemed that his load was too heavy for him to bear. Yet to his father he would make no complaint, lest the home be broken up. He loved the children tenderly for their own sake, and with a deeper love yet for her sake who had been called away from them. Sometimes he had to forget that he was a boy and look ahead and think like a man.
"Austin, we hear you are going to your father. We are glad of it, but, boy, take the advice of a friend of your father's, do not follow his footsteps. He is a good fellow and we like him, but he would have been a better man to his family if he never had learned to drink. It would never do you any good," said Pete Dykes one day.
Pete was one of his father's cronies, and this advice surprized Austin.
"Pete is right in that. You are better off if you never learn to drink," said Sam Phipps, Pete's companion.
"I have that settled and mean to stay by my decision," answered Austin while his eyes rested on the two men in pity.
At last the day came to start, and everything was ready for the journey. They would be at least a day and a night on the way, and would have to change in the heart of a great city, but Austin was certain that by following his uncle's careful directions they would get along all right. They started to the station early so that they should have time to stop and speak to the neighbors who would be at their gates to bid the children farewell. The eyes of the neighborhood were upon the children, and many expressions of disapproval of their father's management were made. Also the kind people remembered with genuine sorrow the loss of their friend and neighbor, Elizabeth Hill. Tears wet honest faces as the people bade the children good-by.
Uncle John and Aunt Tillie stood with their arms about the children as the great engine drew near, and clasped them once more to their bosoms in a last caress, then they were on the train and away. This journey was like their first month alone, too uneventful to deserve any comment. Their father was at the station to meet them and took them directly to their grandfather's home. As this home was too small to accommodate them long, their new home was waiting for them. Grandmother Hill received them with open arms. She felt much more contented to have them where she could know all was well. Lila and Doyle were delighted beyond measure to see their sisters and brothers, especially Austin. In all it was a most happy reunion, and it was with satisfaction that they went on down to the little cottage that had been prepared for them.
HUMILIATION FOR AUSTIN
His experience in the gardens of Mr. Long had a direct effect upon both Austin and his father. To Austin, whose manly feelings were early awakening, there was an untold sweetness in handling his own money. He found a keen pleasure in this that gave him a thirst for money-making, which was certain to assert itself at the first opportunity. No longer could he be satisfied in the house doing merely woman's work. He wanted to be a bread-winner also. He felt proud not to depend entirely upon his father.
His father was as enthusiastic as Austin at the anticipation of his making money, but the father's enthusiasm lay in the fact that so long as Austin was making money it would take less from him for the support of the family. To one who longed to spend upon himself and his accursed drink all that he could obtain, the supplying of a family of seven with food and clothes was no small burden. Henry Hill was not a common workman, but was capable of making good money, and had been favored with an opening which brought in plenty for the needs of his family. It was not necessary that they be in cramped circumstances But when the support of his family had been taken from his wages, it left but a small margin for his personal pleasure, and he hated sacrifice. While Austin could not make a man's wages, what he did earn helped remarkably in the family expenses.
The satisfaction of Austin and his father was mutual—though prompted by very different motives—when Austin obtained a position in one of the village stores. At this time he was just past fourteen, stood nearly six feet tall, and was well proportioned for his height. Many men were no taller nor heavier than he, but he lacked the strength of a full-grown man.
Amy and Nell were little misses of twelve and ten, pretty, dainty girls, full of life and activity. Their mother had begun their education in housework, and they had helped Austin since he had been taking the lead. They knew how to do all the simple household duties needful for their humble home. They could also cook simple meals quite well, and so far as knowledge of proceedings was concerned were able to keep up the housework. Austin was at home in the morning and evening and oversaw their work, helping with the heavier part. Working thus together they got along very well. But you must not suppose that these children were able to keep their home as an older person would have done. Always there was lacking the mother-touch.
When Austin saw how well the girls did, he felt satisfied to go to the store each morning, and his wages were sufficient to supply the family with plenty of good, wholesome food. His father was glad to have him do this, and withheld his own money, allowing Austin to assume the responsibility. Seeing that all was going so well, he would be away days at a time, and always when he returned everything was prospering.
Mr. Hill was apparently contented for a short while, but soon he had another attack of wanderlust, and, giving up his good position, he went into an adjoining State where an oil-boom was on and much work was to be had. He left the family as before in Austin's care, and also this time failed to provide means for their support while he was gone. He was sure Austin would find a way to keep things going. Austin was thankful for his work and that he could keep the home up, and stayed steadily at his place every day.
"Does Austin Hill work here?" asked a gentleman of the proprietor of the store one afternoon.
"Yes. He is in the back of the store now. I will call him. Austin." The boy answered, coming in immediately.
Taking him to one side, the man looked him over sharply and said: "I am a welfare officer and have received complaints about your family. I am told that your father is away and that the children are not being properly supported, in fact that they lack the food they should have. Is this a fact?"
Poor Austin! he stood in amazement, his face growing red and white by turns. He had been priding himself that he could do a man's part by the children, and had been elated at his success, and here the people thought he was starving them! When he could find words, he answered, "It is not true, I assure you. My father is away, but he has not been gone long, and in that time we have had plenty. At this time the house is well stocked with food, as you will find if you search it. Go see for yourself that this report is not true."
"No, I do not want to do that. I only want to know that the children are having plenty," the man replied.
"But I want you to go. I want you to know that it is not true. If you do not wish to go alone, take my aunt with you. She lives near by," Austin urged.
"Well, Austin, for your sake I will investigate. I am sorry I have wounded you so much, but I had to do something about it," he answered.
An hour later the officer was again in the store to see Austin. "I found the reports to be utterly false," he said. "If every family in town were as well supplied as yours, some people would live better." Austin's heart felt sick, and he was almost too ashamed to lift his head as he started for home. He felt disgraced and humiliated in the eyes of his neighbors. That it had been one of them who had uttered the complaint he was certain, but which one could be so base and false he could not guess. Never before had he had occasion to think he had enemies. Till now every one had seemed to be full of faith in him. What had he done to break their confidence? Not once did it occur to him that even if the reports had been true, he would not have been to blame. No one was accusing him of not doing his duty. It was evident that he was doing all he could. Nor did he stop to consider that to the minds of the people it was inconsistent that he, a boy of fourteen, should be supporting a family of six. He took the whole insult upon himself, writhing under the humiliation. He was half tempted to give up trying to care for the children. It looked as if failure was all he could expect.
But determined persistence was one of Austin's strong points, and he set to work to investigate the origin of these reports, and when he found their source, a new difficulty was presented and a real cause for concern made bare. Austin was gone all day long, being at home but a few moments at noon. The children, when not in school, found the house lonely and dull. They had no one to direct their efforts nor to control their impulses, so they came and went as they pleased. Austin had not thought of this difficulty, for till now they had lived in the country.
One of their neighbors had children about the age of the Hill children, and the two families played together much of the time. Amy and Nell, as well as the younger children, had formed the habit of gadding about among the neighbors, being at home very little. They were especially often found in the kitchen of this near neighbor, and, as one can easily see, the cooking of this woman would taste better to them than what they prepared at home themselves, and they were always glad for anything to eat they could get. This woman noticed the tendency of the children to seize upon any bit of food offered them, and formed her own conclusions. She was a woman who liked excitement, especially the kind caused by gossip, and, going about among the neighbors, she had circulated the reports which finally reached the officer with the result we have just heard.
But the contradictory reports of the officer put things in a different light, which angered her considerably. Why, we can not say, but she and her family vented their chief anger upon Austin. He it was who had discomfited them, and was therefore to blame.
Austin did not spare his reproofs to the children nor his commands as to their behavior in the future. He blamed them for running about as they had. Because he was so little older than the girls, he could not see why they should not feel some of the responsibility that loaded him. He could not sympathize with their carefree and thoughtless ways, and reproved them accordingly. He was indeed finding that the cares of a family man are many.
One evening as he and his family were eating supper, the thick, incoherent voice of a drunken man fell on their ears. Turning to the door, they saw him coming up the walk staggering. Austin stepped to the screen and latched it, not wishing him to come in among the children in that condition. The fellow was in a terrible anger, and, reeling up to the door, he said, "I want you, Austin Hill, to come out here. I am going to whip you for the lies you have been telling on us." Austin recognized him as one of the men from the home of the neighbor who had circulated the evil reports.
"I do not want to fight you. You are in no condition to fight, and I have done nothing to deserve a whipping," said Austin quietly.
"You come out here, you coward, and I will show you how you can put the lie on us as you have. Come out and let us settle this like men," commanded the fellow with horrid oaths.
Seeing he was crazy with drink, Austin said no more; but, making the door safe, he went away and left him alone. The man after a while went back home, and no more was said about it. But this incident depressed Austin all the more. His problem seemed too hard for him to solve. That night his pillow was wet with tears, and he longed for his mother to advise him. Though surrounded by his father's people, he had little help or encouragement from them, for they feared that Henry would depart and leave them the entire responsibility of the children if they assumed any care of them now. They had all confidence in Austin, but very little in the stability of his father.
His aunts were quick to see the mistakes Austin made in the management of the children—and he made many mistakes, for he was too young to have the wisdom to manage such a large family.
No wonder the boy was discouraged and depressed. But one vision strengthened him. Again he thought he saw his mother and that she smiled on him and bade him stand by the children. He took courage and the next morning was ready to face life again. Austin loved the children more and more, and as the responsibilities deepened upon him, he cried out in his heart, "God help me." And the Lord heard that prayer.
TO THE COUNTRY AGAIN
There were in Austin's mind grave doubts as to his being able to manage the children in town. They could not be trusted to do the right thing in his absence, and would be constantly bringing themselves into reproach. That his father could manage them better was doubtful, but it was easier when his father was there. In those days of discouragement Austin was near giving up. But the heaviest load will some time be lifted, and Austin felt his heart grow more light when he received a letter from his father, saying he had obtained work that suited him and had a house ready for the children as soon as they should come to him.
"Why not make the children ready and send them to him and you stay on with your work?" whispered the tempter, and the suggestion sounded good to Austin. Again came the vision of his mother and her desire that he keep the children together. He pitied the poor little things to be left to the mercies of their careless father. He was fast losing all respect for his parent, and he could not bear to let him neglect his mother's precious children.
Again it fell to Austin's lot to make ready for moving; but this time there was no Uncle John to take the oversight. The furniture was to be packed and sent as well as the bedding and clothes. It was a big undertaking, but was finally accomplished. It was with a feeling of relief that Austin left his grandfather's village. His experience with the welfare officer had been too great a humiliation to be soon forgotten.
The town to which his father brought them was full of excitement over an oil-boom, and men were making money fast and spending it just as fast. It was a gathering-place for loafers and gamblers, sin and wickedness abounding on every hand.
Mr. Hill was not located in the town, but had care of engines which kept pumps going out on the field. He was to have a house near his work after a while, but for the present he had a house five miles away. The country was wild and the neighbors few, and Austin saw that he would not be bothered with his children gadding among the neighbors here. That was a consolation, though he grieved to have them so far from a good school.
True to his impulses Austin found work as soon as he was settled in the new home. This time he hired to the farmers who had not all their fall work done yet. When he could no longer get work among them, he was compelled to remain at home, for he would not go away where he could not keep in touch with the children. But there was plenty to do at home. They wished to farm the next year, and he could prepare the ground this fall; besides, he obtained the privilege of clearing a certain piece of ground for the posts he could get from it. The sale of these posts brought in something, though not so much as if he had been working for wages.
It seemed especially necessary that he be at home with the children at night, for his father was often gone till late and then came home partly under the influence of drink. Austin knew that the children needed his protection.
"Austin," said his father in a surly tone one morning, "why are you lying around home all the time? Why do you not get out and make some money? I have enough to support without doing for you."
"I can not get any work near enough to be at home nights with the children. Besides I am working at those posts," was his answer.
"There is no need of your thinking you must be at home at night. The girls do the work anyway, and you could just as well get out and make something. Go hire yourself to one of the ranchmen along the river. Have some ambition and try to do something for yourself."
How these unkind words stung Austin! He was angry, vowing to himself that if that was all the thanks he was to receive for keeping the ends of the family together he would get out and make money.
That afternoon he visited two or three of the ranchmen, offering himself as a workhand; but when they observed how young he looked, each one asked concerning his age. When they heard that he was but fourteen, they said their work was too heavy for a boy.
"Did you get yourself a job?" asked his father that evening.
"No sir, no one would hire me because I am so young."
"Why did you tell them your age! they would have believed you if you had said you were seventeen."
"But I am not seventeen, and I do not like to tell what is untrue."
"You like an excuse to lie around home. I am getting tired of it, and mean you shall get out and hustle. Do you hear me?"
There had been a few rainy days just before this outbreak of his father's, and Austin had been in the house. But the next morning was sunny, and Austin was again at his chopping, and no more was said till another rainy spell. Then his father attacked him even more roughly, demanding that he get out and find work at once. Austin bore these insults as best he could because of his unwillingness to desert the family.
One Saturday night the father did not come home. After the children were in bed Austin sat up with a queer chill of anxiety in his heart. Something was amiss he was certain, for this was pay-night. He had no doubt but that his father was drinking and gambling with the other fellows in the little town or, worse yet, had gone with some of them down the track a dozen miles to the county-seat. If this were true, he would come home without a cent and be even more angry with Austin for not earning wages.
At last Austin lay down and fell asleep, and he did not waken till day-light. Seeing that his father's bed was not occupied, he knew his worst fears were realized and that his father was in trouble somewhere. The engines needed attention, and if they were neglected his father might lose his job, then where should they be? Touching Harry, who lay at his side, he said, "Harry, wake up and get ready to go with me to see about the engines; Papa did not come home last night, and we shall have to tend them. Amy, Nell, get up and fix us boys some breakfast and a lunch, for we shall have to see about the engines. Papa is not home yet." Hurrying into his clothes, he went out to feed and harness Old Ben, the white horse, which would pull them to the engines.
Two hours later the boys were off in a little open buggy behind poky Old Ben; a cold, drizzling rain was coming down, which wet and chilled them through and through, yet the boys journeyed with light hearts, for so buoyant are the spirits of youth that they can rise above the most unfavorable circumstances. They laughed and sang as the old horse ambled along.
At the first well Austin found the engine still, but with little Harry's help it was soon started.
The second engine, though, would not go. The boys worked with it till they were exhausted, but their efforts were without avail. Some little thing was wrong which neither of them knew how to remedy. As they stepped to the door of the shed to rest a little, to their surprize they heard the sound of voices. They were off from the main road a long way, and in a part of the country where they hardly expected to see any one on this rainy day. Looking in the direction from which the voices came, they saw two men approaching, driving a single horse. At closer range one of the men proved to be their father, and he was in a maudlin condition, reeling back and forth as the buggy bumped along. They could hear the men's voices in ribald laughter and singing. When they were near the building, Mr. Hill climbed clumsily out of the rig, and Austin tried to tell him what the difficulty was.
"Oh, that's nothing," he mumbled, "shoon have it fixed." Reeling as he walked, he went into the shed that sheltered the engine. The boys followed him, and while his mind was clear enough to adjust the engine, his legs were not steady enough to hold him up, and his boys had to hold him to keep him from falling into the machinery while he repaired the engine. It seemed to Austin at this time that he utterly despised his father. He wondered if he could ever feel toward this reeling, staggering, evil-minded man as a son should feel toward a father. Again came the thought of the children and what it would mean to leave them to him. He would not leave them so long as his father would permit him to remain under the home roof.
Before the hard, cold winter came, they moved into the house near his father's work. It was a lonely place with only a small yard cleared in the brush, and was as desolate a location as one could imagine. Yet the house rang with the laughter of the children, whose changing fortune had not chilled their merry hearts.
Thanksgiving passed as any other day, only that the children spoke of their mother oftener than usual. Even they wondered at all the changes which had come to them since the last Thanksgiving.
There was much damp weather, and Austin was unable to work much in the woods. So every day was made dark with the taunts and threats of his father. Sometimes it seemed to him that he could not stand it another day. He longed to get away, to be forever from the presence of his father, but he could not leave the children. What would become of them if he did? Very well he knew that in less than six months they would be scattered here and yonder, some of them to be abused and mistreated.
His father's insulting manner was bearing fruit in the children, and they were no longer submissive. It seemed to Austin that he had failed entirely.
It had now rained steadily for a week, and the mud and drip everywhere made all outdoors unpleasant. But in the Hill home the indoors was even more disagreeable. The new home was near the engines. Mr. Hill was in the house much of the time, and he was never pleasant among his children. Austin could not work in the woods because of the rain, and his presence irritated his father all the time. They were never in the house together but what something unpleasant was said between them, and Austin's spirit was becoming worn with the constant rasping. He thought he could not endure it much longer, and since his presence made the home so filled with contention he doubted whether he was doing right to stay.
"Austin, how much longer are you going to lie around this house? You have not done a day's work in weeks. I can't stand your idleness much longer. Why can you not be like your brothers?" growled Mr. Hill one morning a day or two after Thanksgiving.
Austin said nothing, for he had exhausted all his arguments; but at that instant a determination formed itself in his mind to put a stop to the whole affair. When his father had gone to the engine-room he went to the attic and brought down his best suit of clothes and, coming into the kitchen, prepared to brush and press them. When he put the irons on the stove, Amy noticed what he was about to do.
"You can't press those clothes this morning, for I am going to use the irons," she said in a fretful voice.
"I shall have to use them, Amy, but it will not take long."
"You can't have them, so there! You always want to do just your way, no matter what we want to do."
"Did you hear what Father said this morning?" asked Austin.
"He didn't say any more than he is always saying," she said a little less fretfully.
"He will not have to say anything of the kind again, for I am going to find work and not coming back till I have it," said Austin.
"Austin, you can't go away. What shall we children do!" exclaimed Amy, all her vexation leaving at the thought.
"I do not know; but it can not be much worse than having Father so angry all the time. I will get work on the river if I can, and will see you all as often as possible," answered Austin soothingly.
Amy said no more about the irons, but turned to her dish-washing with tearful eyes, her heart almost standing still at the thought of home without Austin. The other children who had heard the conversation stood about with consternation written on their little faces. Harry, who was a child to act when he thought he might help, hurried out to the engine-room and told his father what had occurred. Henry Hill was vexed because Austin's wages no longer came in; but he had no thought of sending the boy away. He knew too well that Austin's presence was needed in the home. But the seed of animosity that had been sown in his heart against Austin during the past summer was now bearing fruit, and he took a sort of pleasure in annoying the boy. He saw that Austin was sensitive about being dependent and he enjoyed seeing him wince. At Harry's alarm he only grunted a word of disapproval and went on with his work. He believed Austin was only trying to bluff him. He did not think the boy could be driven away from the children.
An hour later Harry was back again at his father's side, his face bathed in tears and his breast heaving with sobs. "Papa, Austin is going. He has his suitcase all packed and is ready to start."
Henry Hill jumped to his feet, his face red with anger. Could it be possible that Austin had such an idea in his head? If so, he would soon frighten it out of him. This looked too much like defiance in the boy!
"I will show him how to run away, the rascal. Harry, go to the barn and bring the buggy whip," and saying this the father rushed across the little opening between the two buildings and stamped into the kitchen. Austin was on his knees fastening his suitcase, which was all packed and ready for his start. He had not meant to bid his father good-by, nor to tell him any of his plans. He was too angry and his heart too defiant to want even to look at him again. When his father came in, Austin rose from his knees and faced him.
"What is up here, young man? I will let you know right here that there is going to be no running away from this ranch! You get that grip where it belongs, in a hurry," thundered the irate father.
"I am going away to find work. I shall take care of myself from this time on," said the boy resolutely facing the angry man.
"Take care of yourself," sneered his father, "you could not exist a month on your own resources. You take those clothes out of that grip and stop this nonsense!"
"I am going away, and you need not try to hinder me," said Austin in firm, even tones.
A fearful oath escaped the father's lips and he grabbed the whip which the sobbing Harry had brought; for as much as Harry loved Austin he dare not disobey his father's command. Turning again to Austin, the man thundered, "I'll thrash you within an inch of your life. Don't you dare to tell me you are going away when I forbid it. For once you will obey me."
Just then the engine gave a warning sound, which meant that without immediate attention it would stop running, so the enraged man turned about without another word and went out, leaving the frightened children looking after him. But the pause was only for a moment. Austin seized his opportunity and, picking up the suitcase and bidding the children a hasty farewell, he bolted out of the door and across the lot to freedom. He had been running as hard as he could go when still he heard the wails of the children and heard them calling to him. He took a course across the unbroken lands where there was not so much as a foot-path. In his timber-cutting he had become familiar with the lay of the land and took this rough way on purpose that his father might have difficulty in following him. He ran for almost a mile before he slackened his pace, and at every step he seemed to feel his father right behind him. He knew that now his father would be so angry as to have no sense at all, but would beat him nearly to death.
When at the edge of the river-bottom he stopped to take a breath he found that he was wet to the skin and that he had stepped into low places where the water had come up over his shoe-tops. And he remembered too that he had not a penny in his pockets, nor a bite to eat. A more forlorn boy could not be found than Austin as he stood there and looked across to the farmhouses along the river. But he smiled a little to himself as he thought, "I am one fellow who actually ran away from home. It was no walk away."
As he approached the river he found the lowlands much more wet and marshy than it had been in the hills, and he had to wade above his shoes a good deal of the time, and still the heavy drizzle kept up. He made for a farmhouse where he hoped to get work. As he came up he wished in his heart that the man would ask him no questions about his condition; for he saw that besides the wet and mud, he had torn his clothes in several places. But he was determined that if any questions were asked he would tell the truth, just as it was. He would not shield either his father or himself. His cause should stand upon its own foundation. He believed that almost any one would approve of his leaving home under the circumstances.
He knocked at the farmhouse door, and the man of the house answered his rap and hospitably invited the boy in. It was a temptation; but Austin remembered his soppy condition and did not like to soil the housewife's floors, so refused to enter.
"I am looking for work. Have you anything I can do?" he said.
"Are you not that Hill boy who wanted work a few weeks back?" asked the man kindly.
"Yes, and you thought you might have something for me later," replied Austin hopefully.
"If you had come yesterday I should have hired you; I found a man over at town last night, and he will be here today to begin. I am sorry I did not know you were still wanting the place."
With a heavy heart Austin turned from the door and journeyed on in the rain and mud. He had little hope of getting work at any of the other farms, and he did not know where to go. But he determined to do his best in seeking employment, and so stopped at every house he passed, asking the same question.
At last he reached the river at a place where a foot-bridge crossed it. To cross this bridge seemed to him to be cutting off the last retreat home. Here he must make his final decision. He stood with one foot on the bridge and one hand on the railing and pondered. Should he go on, or should he go back and face his father? He knew the taunts he would receive even if he were not beaten; but he would bear all that if it was his duty. Then there came to his mind the picture of his father that day he had come home after his drunken spree and found the boys trying to start the engine. At the thought his loathing of his father overcame him, and he turned and walked across the bridge. Never would he go back to live in the same house with that drunken fellow. If Henry Hill had realized the effect his life was having on his children even he would have considered.
Now that Austin had cut his last shore-line, had crossed the bridge away from home, he began to plan for himself. It was now past noon, and he was both hungry and cold. When he thought of his penniless condition a chill of apprehension came over him, for he had no mind to beg. He continued his search for work on this side the river, but with as little success. Though he could hardly have told why, he had kept on toward the railroad, and was approaching it where a small station stood. He had no money with which to buy a ticket, yet he hoped that in some way he might be able to follow the road to where he could find work.
When he reached the station he found no depot and only a few houses; a box car had been set beside the track and in it was a tiny waiting-room with a fire burning. A couple of men sat idly by smoking and talking, scarcely noticing when the boy came in. Austin was thoroughly tired out, more hungry than he had ever been in his life, and chilled to the bone. His feet had been wet all day, and he had not a dry stitch of clothing on him. Setting the suitcase down, he sank upon the rude bench at the side of the room and hardly moved for a long time. The early twilight of the gloomy evening came on, and still he sat, with a thoughtful, far-away look in his eyes. He did not know what to do next.
After a while the ticket agent came in. Seeing the boy sit in such a dejected position and without moving for a long time, he guessed that he was in trouble and in need of help.
"Where are you going, sir?" he asked Austin kindly.
"I hardly know. I have been looking for work among the farmers all day and none of them want to hire me, and I hardly know what to do next," said Austin.
"Do you live near here?"
"Yes, I have walked from home today; but I do not want to go back if I can avoid it. I want to find work."
"Had some trouble?"
At this question Austin looked around, and seeing that they were now alone and feeling certain that the man was kindly disposed toward him he told him all, shielding neither his father nor himself. It was so evident that he told the truth that the man believed him.
"Have you any means, or any way of making your expenses while you are looking for work?" was the next question.
"No sir, I have no money, and only want to get work. I have a friend at the next town whom I am quite certain would help me if I could only find him."
"Have you anything about you that you could sell if you got into a pinch?" again asked the man.
"Not a thing unless it would be this," and he held up a pocket-knife, which had been a gift of his mother's.
"If you will give me the knife I will give you your supper and a ticket to the next station," tactfully proposed the man, not wishing to make Austin feel like a beggar.
Accepting the offer he was taken to a little restaurant and given a good supper, and before it had grown much later he had a ticket and was aboard the train bound for the town where his friend was at work. Austin had taken opportunity while waiting for the train to change his clothes, and he now presented a much better appearance than when he was sitting by the little box-car fire.
When Austin left the train it was dark, and had been for some time. He had been so tired as the train bounded along that he hardly sensed his position. Dimly he had wondered where he would sleep that night. Now he stood for a moment on the little station platform wondering what he should do next. He did not know where to find his friend and was not certain he was here at all. This had been his only hope of finding work, and now he realized it had been a very forlorn one. Since he was here he must find the man or stay out in the cold all night. He saw the light of a hotel across the street. Going there, he asked if they knew his friend; but his friend was a stranger to them. He inquired about other hotels and rooming-houses, and was directed to two or three, which he visited with as little success. Standing again in the outside darkness he pondered what to do. He thought perhaps his friend might be known at the livery stable, and going there he asked again. The stableman knew no such a fellow, and by the flickering lantern-light he saw the look of disappointment and concern that crossed Austin's face.
"Where are you going to stay tonight?" he asked.
"I do not know. I have made no inquiry about it, hoping to find my friend," the boy replied.
"Every house in town is full; some folks will have to sit up at the hotel for lack of a bed. I have no idea where to tell you to go." Then after a moment's thought he added, "I could fix you a place here in the barn where you would be comfortable, and welcome."
"Thank you, sir; but, to be honest, I have no money to pay for even that bed," truthfully replied Austin.
"Well, a fellow can't stay out in the cold a night like this. Prepare to roll in and maybe you will have better luck tomorrow," good-naturedly replied the man, and taking an armful of rugs he went to an oat-bin and spread them out and left Austin to get to rest as soon as possible.
Though this was a novel bed to the boy, and the surroundings new and strange, so weary was he that he was soon fast asleep. It was morning when he wakened, but not yet light. He heard the man in the barn with the horses, so jumping up hastily he dressed and went out to help him, with the hope that he could remain and work about the barn, though this was not the kind of work he had wished for.
"Have you need of a hand around the barn?" he asked the man after a while. "If you have I should like a job."
"No, I can manage all there is to do very well," was the discouraging reply.
"Do you know of any work around here I could get?"
"Not a thing. You are most too young to stand the work in the oil-fields, and that is about all there is to do this time of year. I shall go over to the house now for my breakfast, and you look after things while I am gone and then you may go get yours," said the man, who felt genuine pity for the boy.
Austin enjoyed the warm breakfast and the kindness of the housewife who gave it to him. Before he left, the man handed him almost a dollar in change, another act of kindness.
Taking his suitcase again in his hand Austin proceeded on his uncertain journey. The money the stableman had given him would be sufficient to carry him to the village where his grandparents lived, and as he had heard that Wilbur was there, he decided to cease looking for his friend and go on to his grandparents' home and get assistance from his brother. He thought this would be only fair, for Wilbur had borne no responsibility, while he himself had given all his wages for the support of the family.
"Why, Austin!" exclaimed his grandmother when he came to her door. "Can this be you! I did not know you intended coming. How did you leave the children!"
"Everybody is well, thank you," primly replied Austin; for he was always a little afraid of his sharp-spoken grandmother. "Papa thought he could get along without me for a while, so I am looking for work. Do you know where I could find Wilbur? Perhaps he could help me get something right away."
"Will is in town somewhere; I see little of him. You come in and spend the night with us, and hunt him in the morning."
Austin spent a pleasant evening with the old folks; but he told them nothing of the trouble between him and his father, lest they might detain him and send word to his father where to find him. The next morning he found his brother, who was as surprized to see him as the grandparents had been.
"Hello, kid, how are the folks?" he had greeted him in a jolly tone.
"All right. Papa thought he could get on without me for a while, so I am looking for work. Do you know where I can get any?"
"No, I do not know of a thing. There is not much around here that is light enough for a kid," replied Wilbur, who felt his two years' superiority very much.
"Well, then, could you let me have some money to keep me till I do find work? I am completely broke and have not been able to get a thing to do."
"I'm sorry, Austin, but I am in the same fix. I lost on a game last night, and it left me in bad shape. I would let you have it if I could."
Austin did not remain with his brother long. He felt sick at heart to think he had so soon turned to the very course his mother had warned him against. From the flippant remarks Wilbur made it was plain he was sowing his wild oats with a reckless hand.
Though in the village where many of his father's people lived, Austin felt as lonely as he had the day before in the little box car beside the railroad. Thoughtfully he walked down toward the depot, wondering what to do. He had no heart to look for work. At the depot he met a young fellow of a friendly disposition who seemed disposed to talk with him. It took but a little probing by this smooth fellow to get from Austin all his story; for the boy was entirely unacquainted with the ways of the world. And to his new friend the whole thing seemed a joke. He confided to Austin that he was in nearly the same predicament, but that he knew a way to ride about the country without funds. Austin had heard of such things but did not know how it was done, and showed some interest; and the young man proceeded to explain to him the tricks of his trade, for he was by profession a loafer, a tramp.
That what the young man did was wrong, Austin knew; but he was so kind and engaging in his manner, and seemed to be such a friend just when Austin needed a friend very much, Austin consented to go with him on his next trip, which he intended beginning that very afternoon. Presently another young fellow of the same type as Austin's new found friend joined them, and the three boys waited at a convenient place for boarding a box car without being noticed.
THE CAPTAIN'S GUEST
It is hard to explain Austin's feelings at this time. He had a tender conscience and knew he was doing wrong; but he was penniless and so in need of a friend, and this young man had showed him kindness, and a way out of his difficulty. He kept promising himself that only this once would he be guilty of such a deed. He would get work as soon as possible. And he thought of the children. It seemed impossible that he had been gone from them only two days.
But the boys were not so successful as they had hoped to be in boarding the train and were able to get into only an open coal-car. Here they had to lie down till the train was out of the station, when they sat up and looked around. It was not long till they became painfully aware that the journey would not be taken in comfort. A strong wind was blowing and, after the rainy spell, it had turned cold. None of the boys had heavy coats, and the wind cut them through and through. It seemed to Austin that he would freeze to death. They huddled together to keep themselves warm. The older fellows laughed at the trouble they were in, for they were hardened to it. But to Austin, who was used to the shelter of home, it seemed horrible. Never will he forget that cold ride.
Added to his physical discomforts was the mental consciousness of wrong-doing.
Just at nightfall the boys climbed out of their uncomfortable carriage in the freight-yards of a thriving town some fifty or sixty miles north of their starting-point. Austin was so chilled he could hardly walk, but managed to follow the other fellows up-town. It is needless to say that his initiation into the life of a "bum" was not pleasant. But his companions seemed not to mind their discomfort, and he trudged along with them. When they reached town, they first got something warm to eat, then inquired for a place to stay. The man of whom they asked understood their circumstances, for he had seen many of their kind, and directed them to the auditorium in the city park as the most likely place they would find. This building had been made for the convenience of public speaking, not for a dormitory, and was a very poor place to stay on a cold night. It had walls on only the east and north, but afforded a shelter from the force of the cold north wind. The boys had no bedding, and had to keep themselves warm by building small fires of the leaves and sticks they could pick up in the dark, and by walking. It seemed to Austin that he would never see the night through; but finally morning came. He was again treated to a warm meal by his friend, and then they parted company with the third member of their crowd. Austin and his companion decided to strike out on foot to the next town. This pleased Austin, for he hoped to get work somewhere along the way. They had not gone far until it was plain that his companion was not looking for work, but for adventure. Austin wished he had not fallen into such company. However, after the kindness the boy had shown him he could not turn from him coldly.
At noon the hoys stopped at a farmhouse for dinner. They were not posing as tramps, but offered to pay for their meal. The family with whom they stopped was a lively, jolly one, and the glimpse of home-life Austin got made his heart ache. He longed to tell the kind man all his troubles but had no opportunity, for his companion led all the conversation telling the farmer and his boys a long and brilliant tale of his travels. He posed as a rich young fellow traveling in the present manner only for the novelty. Austin had a poor opinion of his methods and modes of travel, and decided that his companion was a cheap braggart, and nothing more.
After the noon's entertainment the boys tramped on, Austin longing for something solid to base his plans upon, his companion evidently contented with his vagabond life. Night found them in a town twenty miles north of the place from which they had started in the morning, and penniless.
But Austin's friend knew what to do. His first inquiry was for the Salvation Army, and being directed to the home of Captain Albright, they knocked at his hospitable door. He invited them in and made them welcome, asking them few questions about themselves. But the young man was inclined to talk and told the Captain how he had been converted in an Army meeting two nights before and what a glorious experience it was. Austin looked at him in astonishment and disgust. He knew now what kind of fellow he was traveling with—one who would lie about holy things for a bed and something to eat. The shame and mortification he felt were so keen that he could hardly look up while his companion enlarged to the Captain on his religious experience.
In the morning, after the boys had had a good night's rest and had eaten a hearty breakfast, good Captain Albright took them into his front room and read and prayed with them, then gave them some kind advice before they should go on their way.
"Boys, the kind of life you are now living does not pay. You are both young and strong and able to work, and you had better get something to do and stay with it and make men of yourselves. You are building now for all time and you can hardly afford to waste all your young manhood."
Austin was a quiet boy, and it was hard for him to speak, especially when his companion was so quick to occupy all the opportunity for conversation. All the morning he had been trying to get a chance to explain himself and get help from the Captain in finding work. Now was his chance, and he seized it, for his companion was silent on the subject of work.
"That is just what I want, sir. I am not used to this kind of life and I do not like it at all. Do you know where I could find work?"
"Right, my boy. You are welcome to remain with us till you can find something. Have you anything in mind you wish to do?"
"I have an uncle who has always been kind to me, and he promised to send me money and help me if I ever needed help, but as yet I have found no place to stay until I can hear from him."
"You are welcome to make your home with us until you can hear from him, and I advise you to write today," said the Captain.
Austin was only too glad to accept this offer and to part company with his doubtful friend. He took the postal card the captain gave him and hurriedly wrote his cry of distress and got it into the morning mail. His heart was now light, and he expected a reply in three or four days at the longest. In the meantime he made himself as useful as possible in the household of the kind Captain.
After a week a letter came to the Captain's address, but it was for Wilbur Hill instead of Austin. This puzzled Austin somewhat, but feeling certain it was meant for him, he opened it. The letter proved to be from his cousin Frank, and was in answer to his card.
"Will," the letter ran, "start east right away, working your way as best you can, and when you are nearer, I will help you." Austin was perplexed and not at all pleased. He did not wish to try any more penniless traveling. Three days of that had been enough for him. And that his uncle should fail in his promise seemed indeed unlike Uncle John.
Austin wrote again to his uncle, a letter this time, explaining the situation more clearly, and asking that the money be sent for his fare and promising to return it when he had work. His hopes had rallied much in writing the letter, and he was sure a more favorable answer would come soon. While he waited, he helped Captain Albright as much as he could. The Army people were making ready for their Christmas celebration, and found plenty for Austin's willing hands to do. Much food and old clothing had been donated to the Captain for distribution among the poor, and to Austin was given the task of gathering this together. He was happy in doing this, feeling that he was at least earning his board. But he could not understand why an answer to his letter should not come. Three weeks passed since he first came into Captain Albright's home, yet his uncle did not send him money nor acknowledge his letter.
One day a telegram came to him saying a ticket was at the office for him, and the message was signed by his uncle. Joy almost to distraction filled the boy's heart as he rushed to the depot to see if it were truly so.
It was only a day or two till Christmas, and Austin had consented to fill quite a large place on the program for the entertainment, but he could not wait now that his message had come. Captain Albright had been sorry for Austin in his perplexity and rejoiced with him in the good news, and released him from his part on Christmas Eve.
When Austin reached the great city on his way home, he was told that his train had gone and he could not get another till the next day. The fast train, which would pass through his uncle's town, stood then on the track; but it would not stop. Austin was getting wise in traveling and believed he could not get into anything out of which there would be no escape; so if he could once get on the fast train, he would trust luck to get him off. Dodging past the gatekeeper, he boarded this train. The conductor told him the train could not stop, but Austin waited to see what would happen. He had no money to stay in a hotel, and he wanted to get to his old home very much anyway. Shortly before they reached the village, the conductor told him the train would stop just outside for water.
WITH UNCLE JOHN AGAIN
It was noon, Christmas Day, when Austin stepped from the train at the watering-station just outside his old home village. Oh, the joy of familiar sights! He felt as if he should like to stoop and kiss the very earth under his feet, he was so glad to be at home again. He had not gone far till he saw familiar faces, but he did not stop, though all were glad to see him back again. His one thought was to see once more his beloved uncle. He hurried on, swinging his suitcase in his hand. For some reason it seemed much lighter than at other stages in his journey. He could hardly keep his feet on the ground, so light was his heart as he sped along.
At last the old farmhouse came in sight, and about the door were his cousins, who were wondering if Austin could have come on that train. They were expecting him any time and had a hearty welcome for him when he did come. Aunt Tillie had the Christmas dinner just ready to sit down to when the glad cry of the children announced Austin's arrival. All of them were at home that day to celebrate their last Christmas in the old house, for their father had sold the homestead and they were to move the coming week. It was with joy that the extra plate was laid for the wanderer.
"Well, well, Austin! you are here at last! I suppose you thought we never intended to answer your letter," said Uncle John laughing.
"I could not help wondering why you waited so long," answered Austin reproachfully, for he still felt grieved at his uncle's neglect.
"Look at this and tell me if you wonder that I did not answer it," said Uncle John bringing out the card Austin had written him from Captain Albright's home three weeks before. To Austin's surprize it was unsigned.
"How was I to know who wrote this?" asked his uncle with twinkling eyes, "you will have to sign your name if you want money from me."
"I do not see how I came to do anything like that," said Austin, abashed at his mistake.
"We never suspected you, and after talking it over at the supper-table we all came to the conclusion that the card was from Wilbur, and that he had gotten into some trouble and wanted help. He is so trifling that I decided to let him fight his own battles, so paid no more attention to the matter," explained his uncle.