Part 3 out of 5
Hiram said never a word, and the horses, yoked together, began to
crop the short grass springing upon the bank of the water-hole.
"You'll find out you're fooling with the wrong man, you
whippersnapper!" promised Dickerson.
"You can pay me two dollars and I'll mend the fence; or you can
mend the fence and we'll call it square," said Hiram, slowly,
and evenly. "I'm a boy, but I'm not to be frightened with a
Pete's long legs brought him flying back across the fields.
Nothing he had done in a long while pleased him quite as much as
Hiram turned, jerked at the horses' bridle-reins, turned them
around, and with a sharp slap on the nigh one's flank, sent them
both trotting up into the Atterson pasture.
"Stop that, you rascal!" cried Dickerson, grabbing the gun from
his hopeful son, and losing his head now entirely. "Bring that
"You mend the fence, and I will," declared Hiram, unshaken.
The angry man sprang down to his level, flourishing the gun in a
way that would have been dangerous indeed had Hiram believed it
to be loaded. And as it was, the young farmer was very angry.
The right was on his side; if he allowed these Dickersons, father
and son, to browbeat him this once, it would only lead to future
This thing had to be settled right here and now. It would never
do for Hiram to show fear. And if both of the long-legged
Dickersons pitched upon him, of course, he would be no match for
But Sam Dickerson stumbled and almost fell as he reached the edge
of the water-hole, and before he could recover himself, Hiram
leaped upon him, seized the shotgun, and wrenched it from his
He reversed the weapon in a flash, clubbed it, and raised it over
his head with a threatening swing that made Pete yell from the
top of the bank:
"Look out, Dad! He's a-goin' ter swat yer!"
Sam tried to scramble out of the way. But down came the gun butt
with all the force of Hiram's good muscle, and--the stock was
splintered and the lock shattered upon the big stone that here
cropped out of the bank.
"There's your gun--what's left of it," panted the young farmer,
tossing the broken weapon from him. "Now, don't you ever
threaten me with a gun again, for if you do I'll have you
"We've got to be neighbors, and we've got to get along in a
neighborly manner. But I'm not going to allow you to take
advantage of Mrs. Atterson, because she is a woman.
"Now, Mr. Dickerson," he added, as the man scrambled up, glaring
at him evidently with more surprise than anger, "if you'll make
Pete mend this fence, you can have your horses. Otherwise I'm
going to 'pound' them according to the stock law of the county."
"Pete," said his father, briefly, "go get your hammer and staples
and mend this fence up as good as you found it."
"And now," said Hiram, "I'm going home to gear the horse to the
wagon, and I'll drive over to your house, Mr. Dickerson. From
time to time you have borrowed while Uncle Jeptha was alive quite
a number of tools. I want them. I have made inquiries and I
know what tools they are. Just be prepared to put them into my
wagon, will you?"
He turned on his heel without further words and left the
Dickersons to catch their horses, and to repair the fence--both
of which they did promptly.
Not only that, but when Hiram drove into the Dickerson dooryard
an hour later he had no trouble about recovering the tools which
the neighbor had borrowed and failed to return.
Pete scowled at him and muttered uncomplimentary remarks; but Sam
phlegmatically smoked his pipe and sat watching the young farmer
without any comment.
"And so, that much is accomplished," ruminated Hiram, as he drove
home. "But I'm not sure whether hostilities are finished, or
have just begun."
ONE SATURDAY AFTERNOON
"The old Atterson place" as it was called in the neighborhood,
began to take on a brisk appearance these days. Sister, with the
help of Old Lem Camp, had long since raked the dooryard clean and
burned the rubbish which is bound to gather during the winter.
Years before there had been flower beds in front; but Uncle
Jeptha had allowed the grass to overrun them. It was a month too
early to think of planting many flowers; but Hiram had bought
some seeds, and he showed Sister how to prepare boxes for them in
the sunny kitchen windows, along with the other plant boxes; and
around the front porch he spaded up a strip, enriched it well,
and almost the first seeds put into the ground on the farm were
the sweet peas around this porch. Mother Atterson was very fond
of these flowers and had always managed to coax some of them to
grow even in the boarding-house back yard.
At the side porch she proposed to have morning-glories and
moon-flowers, while the beds in front would be filled with those
old-fashioned flowers which everybody loves.
"But if we can't make our own flower-beds, we can go without
them, Hi," said the bustling old lady. "We mustn't take you from
your other work to spade beds for us. Every cat's got to catch
mice on this place, now I tell ye!"
And Hiram certainly was busy enough these days. The early seeds
were all in, however, and he had run the seed-harrow over the
potato rows again, lengthwise, to keep the weeds out until the
young plants should get a start.
Despite the raw winds and frosts at night, the potatoes had come
up well and, with the steadily warming wind and sun, would now
begin to grow. Other farmers' potatoes in the vicinity were not
yet breaking the ground.
Early on Monday morning Henry Pollock appeared with bush-axe
and grubbing hoe, and Hiram shouldered similar tools and they
started for the river bottom. It was so far from the house that
Mrs. Atterson agreed to send their dinner to them.
"Father says he remembers seeing corn growing on this bottom,"
said Henry, as they set to work, "so high that the ears were as
high up as a tall man. It's splendid corn land--if it don't get
"And does the river often over-ran its banks?" queried Hiram,
"Pretty frequent. It hasn't yet this year; there wasn't much
snow last winter, you see, and the early spring floods weren't
very high. But if we have a long wet spell, as we do have
sometimes as late as July, you'll see water here."
"That's not very encouraging," said Hiram. Not for corn
prospects, at least."
"Well, corn's our staple crop. You see, if you raise corn enough
you're sure of feed for your team. That's the main point."
"But people with bigger farms than they have around here can
raise corn cheaper than we can. They use machinery in harvesting
it, too. Why not raise a better paying crop, and buy the extra
corn you may need?"
"Why," responded Henry, shaking his head, nobody around here
knows much about raising fancy crops. I read about 'em in the
farm papers--oh, yes, we take papers--the cheap ones. There is a
lot of information in 'em, I guess; but father don't believe much
"Doesn't believe much that's printed?" repeated Hiram, curiously.
"Nope. He says it's all lies, made up out of some man's
head. You see, we useter take books out of the Sunday School
library, and we had story papers, too; and father used to read
'em as much as anybody.
"But one summer we had a summer boarder--a man that wrote things.
He had one of these dinky little merchines with him that you play
on like a piano, you know---"
"A typewriter?" suggested Hiram, with a smile.
"Yep. Well, he wrote stories. Father learnt as how all that
stuff was just imaginary, and so he don't take no stock in
printed stuff any more.
"That man just sat down at that merchine, and rattled off a story
that he got real money for. It didn't have to be true at all.
"So father soured on it. And he says the stuff in the farm
papers is just the same."
"I'm afraid that your father is mistaken there," said Hiram,
hiding his amusement. "Men who have spent years in studying
agricultural conditions, and experimenting with soils, and seeds,
and plants, and fertilizers, and all that, write what facts they
have learned for our betterment.
"No trade in the world is so encouraged and aided by Governments,
and by private corporations, as the trade of farming. There
is scarcely a State which does not have a special agricultural
college in which there are winter courses for people who cannot
give the open time of the year to practical experiment on the
"That is what you need in this locality, I guess," added Hiram.
"Some scientific farming."
"Book farming, father calls it," said Henry. "And he says it's
"Why don't you save your money and take a course next winter
in some side line and so be able to show him that he's wrong?"
suggested Hiram. "I want to do that myself after I have fulfilled
my contract with Mrs. Atterson.
"I won't be able to do so next winter, for I shall be on wages.
You're going to be a farmer, aren't you?"
"I expect to. We've got a good farm as farms go around here.
But it seems about all we can do to pay our fertilizer bills and
get a living off it."
"Then why don't you go about fitting yourself for your job?"
"asked Hiram. Be a good farmer--an up-to-date farmer.
"No fellow expects to be a machinist, or an electrician, or the
like, without spending some time under good instructors. Most
that I know about soils, and fertilizers, and plant development,
and the like, I learned from my father, who kept abreast of the
times by reading and experiment.
"You can stumble along, working at your trade of farming, and
only half knowing it all your life; that's what most farmers do,
in fact. They are too lazy to take up the scientific side of it
and learn why.
"That's the point--learn why you do things that your father did,
and his father did, and his father before him. There's usually
good reason why they did it--a scientific reason which somebody
dug out by experiment ages ago; but you ought to be able to tell
"I suppose that's so," admitted Henry, as they worked on, side
by side. "But I don't know what father would say if I sprung a
college course on him!"
"I'd find out," returned Hiram, laughing. "You'd better spend
your money that way than for a horse and buggy. That's the
highest ambition of most boys in the country."
The labor of bushing and grubbing these acres of lowland was no
light one. Hiram insisted that every stub and root be removed
that a heavy plow could not tear out. They had made some
progress by noon, however, when Sister came down with their
Hiram built a campfire over which the coffee was re-heated, and
the three ate together, Sister enjoying the picnic to the full.
She insisted on helping in the work by piling the brush and roots
into heaps for burning, and she remained until midafternoon.
"I like that Henry boy," she confided to Hiram. He don't pull my
braids, or poke fun at me."
But Sister was developing and growing fast these days. She was
putting on flesh and color showed in her cheeks. They were no
longer hollow and sallow, and she ran like a colt-and was almost
The work of clearing the bottom land could not be continued
daily; but the boys got in three full days that week, and
Saturday morning. Henry, did not wish to work on Saturday
afternoon, for in this locality almost all the farmers knocked
off work at noon Saturday and went to town.
But when Henry shouldered his tools to go home at noon, Sister
appeared as usual with the lunch, and she and Hiram cut fishing
rods and planned to have a real picnic.
Trout and mullet were jumping in the pools under the bank; and
they caught several before stopping to eat their own meal. The
freshly caught fish were a fine addition to the repast.
They went back to fishing after a while and caught enough for
supper at the farmhouse. Just as they were reeling up their
lines the silence of the place was disturbed by a strange sound.
"There's a motorcycle coming!" cried Sister, jumping up and
looking all around.
There was a bend in the river below this bottom, and another
above; so they could not see far in either direction unless they
climbed to the high ground. For a minute Hiram could not tell
in which direction the sound was coming; but he knew the steady
put-put-put must be the exhaust of a motor-boat.
It soon poked its nose around the lower turn. It was a good-sized
boat and instantly Hiram recognized at least one person aboard.
Miss Lettie Bronson, in a very pretty boating costume, was in the
bow. There were half a dozen other girls with her--well dressed
girls, who were evidently her friends from the St. Beris school
"Oh, oh! what a pretty spot!" cried Lettie, on the instant.
"We'll go ashore here and have our luncheon, girls."
She did not see Hiram and Sister for a moment; but the latter
tugged at Hiram's sleeve.
"I've seen that girl before," she whispered. She came in the
carriage with the man who spoke to you--you remember? She asked
me if I had always lived in the country, and how I tore my
"Isn't she pretty?" returned Hiram.
"Awfully. But I'm not sure that I like her yet."
Suddenly Lettie saw Hiram and the girl beside him. She started,
flushed a little, and then gave Hiram a cool little nod and
turned her gaze from him. Her manner showed that he was not
"down in her good books," and the young fellow flushed in turn.
"I don't know as we'd better try to make the bank here, Miss,"
said the man who was directing the motor-boat. "The current's
"I want to land here," said Lettie, decidedly. It's the prettiest
spot we've seen--isn't it, girls?"
Her friends agreed. Hiram, casting a quick eye over the ruffled
surface of the river, saw that the man was right. How well the
stream below was fitted for motor-boating he did not know; but he
was pretty sure that there were too many ledges just under the
surface here to make it safe for the boat to go farther.
"I intend to land here-right by that big tree!" commanded Lettie
Bronson, stamping her foot.
"Well, I dunno," drawled the man; and just then the bow of the
boat swung around, was forced heavily down stream by the current,
and slam it went against a reef!
The man shot off the engine instantly. The bow of the boat was
lodged on the rock, and tip-tilted considerably. The girls
screamed, and Lettie herself was almost thrown into the water,
for she was standing.
MR. PEPPER APPEARS
But Hiram noted again that Lettie Bronson did not display terror.
While her friends were screaming and crying, she sat perfectly
quiet, and for a minute said never a word.
"Can't you back off?" Hi heard her ask the boatman.
"Not without lightening her, Miss. And she may have smashed a
plank up there, too. I dunno."
The Western girl turned immediately to Hiram, who had now come
to the bank's edge. She smiled at him charmingly, and her eyes
danced. She evidently appreciated the fact that the young farmer
had her at a disadvantage--and she had meant to snub him.
"I guess you'll have to help me again, Mr. Strong," she said.
"What will we do? Can you push out a plank to us, or something?"
"I'm afraid not, Miss Bronson," he returned. I could cut a pole
and reach it to the boat; but you girls couldn't walk ashore on
"Oh, dear! have we got to wade?" cried one of Lettie's friends.
"You can't wade. It's too deep between the shore and the boat,"
Hiram said, calmly.
"Then--then we'll stay here till the tide rises and dr-dr-drowns
us! " wailed another of the girls, giving way to sobs.
"Don't be a goose, Myra Carroll!" exclaimed Lettie. "If you
waited here for the tide to rise you'd be gray-haired and
decrepit. The tide doesn't rise here. But maybe a spring flood
would wash you away."
At that the frightened one sobbed harder than ever. She was one
of those who ever see the dark side of adventure. There was no
hope on her horizon.
"I dunno what you can do for these girls," said the man. "I'd
git out and push off the boat, but I don't dare with them
But Hiram's mind had not been inactive, if he was standing
in seeming idleness. Sister tugged at his sleeve again and
"Have they got to stay there and drown, Hi?"
"I guess not," he returned, slowly. "Let's see: this old
sycamore leans right out over them. I can shin up there with the
aid of the big grapevine. Then, if I had a rope---"
"Shall I run and get one?" demanded Sister, listening to him.
"Hullo!" exclaimed Hiram, speaking to the man in the boat.
"Well?" asked the fellow.
"Haven't you got a coil of strong rope aboard?"
"There's the painter," said the man.
"Toss it ashore here," commanded Hiram.
"Oh, Hiram Strong! " cried Lettie. "You don't expect us to walk
tightrope, do you?" and she began to giggle.
"No. I want you to unfasten the end of the rope. I want it
clear--that's it," said Hiram. " And it's long enough, I can
"For what?" asked Sister.
"Wait and you'll see," returned the young farmer, hastily coiling
the rope again.
He hung it over his shoulder and then started to climb the big
sycamore. He could go up the bole of this leaning tree very
quickly, for the huge grapevine gave him a hand-hold all the way.
"Whatever are you going to do?" cried Lettie Bronson, looking up
at him, as did the other girls.
"Now," said Hiram, in the first small crotch of the tree, which
was almost directly over the stranded launch, "if you girls have
any pluck at all, I can get you ashore, one by one."
"What do you mean for us to do, Hiram?" repeated Lettie.
The young farmer quickly fashioned a noose at the end of the
line--not a slipnoose, for that would tighten and hurt anybody
bearing upon it. This he dropped down to the boat and Lettie
"Get your head and shoulders through that noose, Miss Bronson,"
he commanded. "Let it come under your arms. I will lift you out
of the boat and swing you back and forth--there's none of you so
heavy that I can't do this, and if you wet your feet a little,
what's the odds?"
"Oh, dear! I can never do that!" squealed one of the other
"Guess you'll have to do it if you don't want to stay here all
night," returned Lettie, promptly. "I see what you want, Hiram,"
she added, and quickly adjusted the loop.
"Now, when you swing out over the bank, Sister will grab you,
and steady you. It will be all right if you have a care. Now!"
Lettie Bronson showed no fear at all as he drew her up and she
swung out of the boat over the swiftly-running current. Hiram
laid along the tree-trunk in an easy position, and began swinging
the girl at the end of the rope, like a pendulum.
The river bank being at least three feet higher than the surface
of the water; he did not have to shift the rope again as he swung
the girl back and forth.
Sister, clinging with her left hand to the grapevine, leaned
forward and clutched Lettie's hand. When she seized it, Sister
backed away, and the swinging girl landed upright upon the bank.
"Oh, that's fun!" Lettie cried, laughing, loosing herself from
"the loop. Now you come, Mary Judson!"
Thus encouraged they responded one by one, and even the girl who
had broken down and cried agreed to be rescued by this simple
means. The boatman then, after removing his shoes and stockings
and rolling up his trousers, stepped out upon the sunken rock and
pushed off the boat.
But it was leaking badly. He dared not take aboard his
passengers again, but turned around and went down stream as fast
as he could go so as to beach the boat in a safe place.
"Now how'll we get back to Scoville?" cried one of Lettie's
friends. "I can never walk that far."
Sister had dropped back, shyly, behind Hiram, when he descended
the tree. She had aided each girl ashore; but only Lettie had
thanked her. Now she tugged at Hiram's sleeve.
"Take 'em home in our wagon," she whispered.
"I can take you to Scoville--or to Miss Bronson's--in the farm
wagon," Hiram said, smiling. "You can sit on straw in the bottom
and be comfortable."
"Oh, a straw ride!" cried Lettie. "What fun! And he can drive
us right to St. Beris--And think what the other girls will say
and how they'll stare!"
The idea seemed a happy one to all the girls save the cry-baby,
Myra Carroll. And her complaints were drowned in the laughter
and chatter of the others.
Hiram picked up the tools, Sister got the string of fish, and
they set out for the Atterson farmhouse. Lettie chatted most of
the way with Hiram; but to Sister, walking on the other side of
the young farmer, the Western girl never said a word.
At the house it was the same. While Hiram was cleaning the
wagon and putting a bed of straw into it, and currying the horse
and gearing him to the wagon, Mrs. Atterson brought a crock
of cookies out upon the porch and talked with the girls from
St. Beris. Sister had run indoors and changed her shabby and
soiled frock for a new gingham; but when she came down to the
porch, and stood bashfully in the doorway, none of the girls from
town spoke to her.
Hiram drove up with the farm-wagon. Most of the girls had
accepted the adventure in the true spirit now, and they climbed
into the wagon-bed on the clean straw with laughter and jokes.
But nobody invited Sister to join the party.
The orphan looked wistfully after the wagon as Hiram drove out
of the yard. Then she turned, with trembling lip, to Mother
Atterson: "She--she's awfully pretty," she said, "and Hiram
likes her. But she--they're all proud, and I guess they don't
think much of folks like us, after all."
"Shucks, Sister! we're just good as they be, every bit," returned
Mrs. Atterson, bruskly.
"I know; mebbe we be," admitted Sister, slowly. But it don't feel
And perhaps Hiram had some such thought, too, after he had driven
the girls to the big boarding. school in Scoville. For they all
got out without even thanking him or bidding him good-bye--all
"Really, we are a thousand times obliged to you, Hiram Strong,"
she said, in her very best manner, and offering him her hand.
"As the girls were my guests I felt I must get them home again
safely--and you were indeed a friend in need."
But then she spoiled it utterly, by adding:
"Now, how much do I owe you, Hiram?" and took out her purse. "Is
two dollars enough?" This put Hiram right in his place. He saw
plainly that, friendly as the Bronsons were, they did not look
upon a common farm-boy as their equal--not in social matters, at
"I could not take anything for doing a neighbor a favor, Miss "
Bronson, said Hiram, quietly. "Thank you. Good-day. "
Hiram drove back home feeling quite as depressed as Sister,
perhaps. Finally he said to himself:
"Well, some day I'll show 'em!"
After that he put the matter out of his mind and refused to be
troubled by thoughts of Lettie Bronson, or her attitude toward
Spring was advancing apace now. Every day saw the development
of bud, leaf and plant. Slowly the lowland was cleared and the
brush and roots were heaped in great piles, ready for the torch.
Hiram could not depend upon this six acres as their only piece of
corn, however. There was the four-acre lot between the barnyard
and the pasture in which he proposed to plant the staple crop.
He drew out the remainder of the coarse manure and spread it upon
this land, as far as it would go. For enriching the remainder
of the corn crop he would have to depend upon a commercial
fertilizer. He drew, too, a couple of tons of lime to be used on
this corn land, and left it in heaps to slake.
And then, out of the clear sky of their progress, came a bolt as
unexpected as could be. They had been less than a month upon the
farm. Uncle Jeptha had not been in his grave thirty days, and
Hiram was just getting into the work of running the place, with
success looming ahead.
He had refused Mr. Bronson's offer of a position and had elected
to stick by Mrs. Atterson. He had looked forward to nothing
to disturb the contract between them until the time should be
Yet one afternoon, while he was at work in the garden, Sister
came out to him all in a flurry.
"Mis' Atterson wants you! Mis' Atterson wants you!" cried the
girl. "Oh, Hiram! something dreadful's going to happen. I know,
by the way Mis' Atterson looks. And I don' like the looks o'
that man that's come to see her."
Hiram unhooked the horse at the end of the row and left Sister to
lead him to the stable. He went into the house after knocking
the mud off his boots.
There, sitting in the bright kitchen, was the sharp-featured,
snaky-looking man with whom Hiram had once talked in town. He
knew his name was Pepper, and that he did something in the real
estate line, and insurance, and the like.
"Jest listen to what this man says, Hiram," said Mrs. Atterson,
"My name's Pepper," began the man, eyeing Hiram curiously.
"So I hear," returned the young farmer.
"Before old Mr. Atterson died we got to talking one day when he
was in town about his selling."
"Well?" returned Hiram. "You didn't say anything about that when
you offered twelve hundred for this place."
"Well," said the man, stubbornly, "that was a good offer."
Hiram turned to Mrs. Atterson. "Do you want to sell for that
"No, I don't, Hi," she said.
"Then that settles it, doesn't it? Mrs. Atterson is the owner,
and she knows her own mind."
"I made Uncle Jeptha a better offer," said Mr. Pepper, "and I'll
make Mrs. Atterson the same--sixteen hundred dollars. It's a
run-down farm, of course---"
"If Mrs. Atterson doesn't want to sell," interrupted Hiram, but
here his employer intervened.
"There's something more, Hi," she said, her face working
"strangely. Tell him, you Pepper!"
"Why, the old man gave me an option on the place, and I risked a
twenty dollar bill on it. The option had--er--a year to run; dated
February tenth last; and I've decided to take the option up,"
said Mr. Pepper, his shrewd little eyes dancing in their gaze
from Hiram to the old lady and back again.
A HEAVY CLOUD
Now, a rattlesnake is poisonous, but he gives fair warning; a
swamp moccasin lies in wait for the unwary and strikes without
sign or sound. Into Hiram Strong's troubled mind came the
thought that Mr. Pepper was striking like his prototype of the
A snaky sort of a man was Mr. Pepper--sly, a hand-rubber as he
talked, with a little, sickly grin playing about his thin, mean
mouth. When he opened it Hiram almost expected to see a forked
tongue run out.
At least, of one thing was the young farmer sure: Mr. Pepper was
no more to be trusted than a serpent. Therefore, he did not take
a word that the man said on trust.
He recovered from the shock which the statement of the real
estate man had caused, and he uttered no expression of either
surprise, or trouble. Mrs. Atterson he could see was vastly
disturbed by the statement; but somebody had to keep a cool bead
in this matter.
"Let's see your option," Hiram demanded, bruskly.
"Why--if Mrs. Atterson wishes to see it---"
"You show it to Hi, you Pepper-man," snapped the old lady. "I
wouldn't do a thing without his advice."
"Oh, well, if you consider a boy's advice material---"
"I know Hi's honest," declared the old lady, tartly. "And that's
what I'm sure you ain't! Besides," she added, sadly, "Hi's as
much interested in this thing as I be. If the farm's got to be
sold, it puts Hi out of a job."
"Oh, very well," said the real estate man, and he drew a rather
soiled, folded paper from his inner pocket.
He seemed to hesitate the fraction of a second about showing the
paper. It increased Hi's suspicion--this hesitancy. If the man
had a perfectly good option on the farm, why didn't he go about
the matter boldly?
But when he got the paper in his own hands he could see nothing
wrong with it. It seemed written in straight-forward language,
the signatures were clear enough, and as he had seen and read
Uncle Jeptha's will, he was quite sure that this was the old
man's signature to the option which, for the sum of twenty
dollars in hand paid to him, he agreed to sell his farm, situated
so-and-so, for sixteen hundred dollars, cash, same to be paid
over within one year of date.
"Of course," said Hiram, slowly, handing back the paper--indeed,
Pepper had kept the grip of his forefinger and thumb on it all
the time--"Of course, Mrs. Atterson's lawyer must see this before
she agrees to anything."
"Why, Hiram! I ain't got no lawyer," exclaimed the old lady.
"Go to Mr. Strickland, who made Uncle Jeptha's will," Hiram said
to her. Then he turned to Pepper:
"What's the name of the witness to that old man's signature?"
"Oh! Henry's father?"
"Yes. He's got a son named Henry."
"And who's the Notary Public?"
"Caleb Schell. He keeps the store just at the crossroads as you
go into town."
"I remember the store," said Hiram, thoughtfully.
"But Hiram!" cried Mrs. Atterson, "I don't want to sell the
"We'll be sure this paper is all straight before you do sell,
"Why, I just won't sell!" she exclaimed. "Uncle Jeptha never
said nothing in his will about giving this option. And that
lawyer says that in a couple of years the farm will be worth a
good deal more than this Pepper offers."
"Why, Mrs. Atterson!" exclaimed the real estate man, cheerfully,
"as property is selling in this locality now, sixteen hundred
dollars is a mighty good offer for your farm. You ask anybody.
Why, Uncle Jeptha knew it was; otherwise he wouldn't have given
me the option, for he didn't believe I'd come up with the price.
He knew it was a high offer."
"And if it's worth so much to you, why isn't it worth more to
Mrs. Atterson to keep?" demanded Hiram, sharply.
"Ah! that's my secret--why I want it," said Pepper, nodding.
"Leave that to m. If I get bit by buying it, I shall have to
suffer for my lack of wisdom."
"You ain't bought it yet--you Pepper," snapped Mrs. Atterson.
"But I'm going to buy it, ma'am," replied he, rather viciously,
as he stood up, ready to depart. "I shall expect to hear from
you no later than Monday."
"I won't sell it!"
"You'll have to. If you refuse to sign I'll go to the Chancery
Court. I'll make you."
"Well. Mebbe you will. But I don't know. I never was made to
do anything yet. By no man named Pepper--you can take that home
with you," she flung after him as he walked out and climbed into
But whereas Mrs. Atterson showed anger, Hiram went back to work
in the field with a much deeper feeling racking his mind. If the
option was all right--and of course it must be--this would settle
their occupancy of the farm.
Of course he could not hold Mrs. Atterson to her contract. She
could not help the situation that had now arisen.
His Spring's work had gone for nothing. Sixteen hundred dollars,
even in cash, would not be any great sum for the old lady. And
she had burdened herself with the support of Sister--and with Old
Lem Camp, too!
"Surely, I can't be a burden on her. I'll have to hustle around
and find another job. I wonder if Mr. Bronson would take me on
But he knew that the Westerner already had a man who suited him,
since Hiram had refused the chance Bronson offered. And, then,
Lettie had shown that she felt he had not appreciated their
offer. Perhaps her father felt the same way.
Besides, Hiram had a secret wish not to put himself under
obligation to the Bronsons. This feeling may have sprung from a
foolish source; nevertheless it was strong with the young farmer.
It looked very much to him as though this sudden turn of
circumstances was "a facer". If Mrs. Atterson had to sell the
farm he was likely to be thrown on his own resources again.
For his own selfish sake Hiram was worried, too. After all, he
would be unable to "make good" and to show people that he could
make the old, run-down farm pay a profit to its owner.
But Hiram Strong couldn't believe it.
The more he milled over the thing in his mind, the less he
understood why Uncle Jeptha, who was of acute mind right up to
the hour of his death, so all the neighbors said, should have
neglected to speak about the option he had given Pepper on the
And here they were, right in the middle of the Spring work, with
crops in the ground and--as Mrs. Atterson agreed--it would be too
late to go hunting a farm for this present season.
But Hiram kept to work. He had Sister and Old Lem Camp out
in the garden, hand-weeding and thinning the carrots, onions,
and other tender plants. That Saturday he went through the
entire garden--that part already planted--with either the horse
cultivator, or his wheel-hoe.
In planting parsnips, carrots, and other slow-germinating seeds,
he had mixed a few radish seed in the seeding machine; these
sprang up quickly and defined the rows, so that the space between
rows could be cultivated before the other plants had scarcely
broke the surface of the soil.
Now these radish were beginning to be big enough to pull. Hiram
brought in a few bunches for their dinner on Saturday--the first
fruits of the garden.
"Now, I dunno why it is," said Mrs. Atterson, complacently,
after setting her teeth in the first radish and relishing its
crispness, "but this seems a whole lot better than the radishes
we used to buy in Crawberry. I 'spect what's your very own
always seems better than other folks's," and she sighed and shook
She was thinking of the thing she had to face on Monday. Hiram
hated to see them all so downhearted. Sister's eyes were red
from weeping; Old Lem Camp sat at the table, muttering and
playing with his food again instead of eating.
But Hiram felt as though he could not give up to the disaster
that had come to them. The thought that--in some way--Pepper was
taking an unfair advantage of Mother Atterson knocked continually
at the door of his mind.
He went over, to himself, all that had passed in the kitchen
the day before when the real estate man had come to speak with
Mrs. Atterson. How had Pepper spoken about the option? Hadn't
there been some hesitancy in the fellow's manner--in his speech,
indeed ? Just what had Pepper said? Hiram concentrated his mind
upon this one thing. What had the man said?
"The option had--er--one year to run."
Those were the fellow's very words. He hesitated before he
pronounced the length of time. And he was not a man who, in
speaking, had any stammering of tongue.
Why had he hesitated? Why should it trouble him to state the
time limit of the option?
Was it because he was speaking a falsehood?
The thought stung Hiram like a thorn in the flesh. He put away
the tool with which he was working, slipped on a coat, and
started for Henry Pollock's house, which lay not more than half a
mile from the Atterson farm, across the fields.
THE REASON WHY
HIRAM found Abel Pollock mending harness in the shed. Hiram
opened his business bluntly, and told the farmer what was up.
Mr. Pollock scratched his head, listened attentively, and then
sat down to digest the news.
"You gotter move--jest when you've got rightly settled on that
place?" he demanded. "Well, that's 'tarnal bad! And from what
Henry tells me, you're a young feller with idees, too."
"I don't care so much for myself," Hiram hastened to say. "It's
Mrs. Atterson I'm thinking about. And she had just made up her
mind that she was anchored for the rest of her life. Besides,
I don't think it is a wise thing to sell the property at that
"No. I wouldn't sell if I was her, for no sixteen hundred
"But she's got to, you see, Mr. Pollock. Pepper has the option
signed by her Uncle Jeptha---"
"Jeptha Atterson was no fool," interrupted Pollock. "I can't
understand his giving an option on the farm, with all this talk
of the railroad crossing the river."
"But, Mr. Pollock!" exclaimed Hiram, eagerly, "you must know all
about this option. You signed as a witness to Uncle Jeptha's
"No! you don't mean that?" exclaimed the farmer. "My name to it,
"Yes. And it was signed before Caleb Schell the notary public."
"So it was--so it was, boy!" declared the other, suddenly smiting
his knee. "I remember I witnessed Uncle Jeptha's signature once.
But that was way back there in the winter--before he was took
"Yes, sir?" said Hiram, eagerly.
"That was an option on the old farm. So it was. But goodness me,
boy, Pepper must have got him to renew it, or something. That
option wouldn't have run till now."
Hiram told him the date the paper was executed.
"That's right, by Jo! It was in February."
"And it was for a year?"
Mr. Pollock stared at him in silence, evidently thinking deeply.
"If you remember all about it, then," Hiram continued, "it's
hardly worth while going to Mr. Schell, I suppose."
"I remember, all right," said Pollock, slowly. "It was all done
right there in Cale Schell's store. It was one rainy afternoon.
There was several of us sitting around Cale's stove. Pepper was
one of us. In comes Uncle Jeptha. Pepper got after him right
away, but sort of on the quiet, to one side.
"I heard 'em. Pepper had made him an offer for the farm that was
'way down low, and the old man laughed at him.
"We hadn't none of us heard then the talk that came later about
the railroad. But Pepper has a brother-in-law who's in the
office of the company, and he thinks he gits inside information.
"So, for some reason, he thought the railroad was going to touch
Uncle Jeptha's farm. O' course, it ain't. It's goin' over the
river by Ayertown.
"I don't see what Pepper wants to take up the option for, anyway.
Unless he sees that you're likely to make suthin' out o' the old
place, and mebbe he's got a city feller on the string, to buy
"It doesn't matter what his reason is. Mrs. Atterson doesn't
want to sell, and if that option is all right, she must," said
Hiram. "And you are sure Uncle Jeptha gave it for twelve
"Twelve months?" ejaculated Pollock, suddenly. " Why--no--that
don't seem right," stammered the farmer, scratching his head.
"But that's the way the option reads."
"Well--mebbe. I didn't just read it myself--no, sir. They jest
says to me:
"'Come here, Pollock, and witness these signatures' So, I done
it--that's all. But I see Cale put on his specs and read the
durn thing through before he stamped it. Yes, sir. Cale's the
carefulest notary public we ever had around here.
"Say!" said Mr. Pollock. "You go to Cale and ask him. It don't
seem to me the old man give Pepper so long a time."
"For how long was the option to run, then?" queried Hiram,
"Wal, I wouldn't wanter say. I don't wanter git inter trouble
with no neighbor. If Cale says a year is all right, then I'll
say so, too. I wouldn't jest trust my memory."
"But there is some doubt in your mind, Mr. Pollock? "
"There is. A good deal of doubt," the farmer assured him. "But
you ask Cale."
This was all that Hiram could get out of the elder Pollock. It
was not very comforting. The young farmer was of two minds
whether he should see Caleb Schell, or not.
But when he got back to the house for supper, and saw the doleful
faces of the three waiting there, he couldn't stand inaction.
"If you don't mind, I want to go to town tonight, Mrs. Atterson,"
he told the old lady.
"All right, Hiram. I expect you've got to look out for yourself,
boy. If you can get another job, you take it. It's a 'tarnal
shame you didn't take up with that Bronson's offer when he come
here after you."
"You needn't feel so," said Hiram. "You're no more at fault than
I am. This thing just happened--nobody could foretell it. And
I'm just as sorry as I can be for you, Mother Atterson."
The old woman wiped her eyes.
"Well, Hi, there's other things in this world to worry over
besides gravy, I find," she said. "Some folks is born for
trouble, and mebbe we're some of that kind."
It was not exactly Mr. Pollock's doubts that sent Hiram Strong
down to the crossroads store that evening. For the farmer had
seemed so uncertain that the boy couldn't trust to his memory at
No. It was Hiram's remembrance of Pepper's stammering when he
spoke about the option. He hesitated to pronounce the length of
time the option had been drawn for. Was it because he knew there
was some trick about the time-limit?
Had the real estate man fooled old Uncle Jeptha in the beginning?
The dead man had been very shrewd and careful. Everybody said
He was conscious and of acute mind right up to his death. If
there was an option on the farm be surely would have said
something about it to Mr. Strickland, or to some of the
It looked to Hiram as though the old farmer must have believed
that the option had expired before the day of his death.
Had Pepper only got the old man's promise for a shorter length of
time, but substituted the paper reading "one year" when it was
signed? Was that the mystery?
However, Hiram could not see how that would help Mrs. Atterson,
for even testimony of witnesses who heard the discussion between
the dead man and the real estate agent, could not controvert a
written instrument. The young fellow knew that.
He harnessed the old horse to the light wagon and drove to the
crossroads store kept by Caleb Schell. Many of the country
people liked to trade with this man because his store was a
Around a hot stove in the winter, and a cold stove at this time
of year, the men gathered to discuss the state of the country,
local politics, their neighbors' business, and any other topic
which was suggested to their more or less idle minds.
On the outskirts of the group of older loafers, the growing crop
of men who would later take their places in the soap-box forum
lingered; while sky-larking about the verge of the crowd were
smaller boys who were learning no good, to say the least, in
attaching themselves to the older members of the company.
There will always be certain men in every community who take
delight in poisoning the minds of the younger generation. We
muzzle dogs, or shoot them when they go mad. The foul-mouthed
man is far more vicious than the dog, and should be impounded.
Hiram hitched his horse to the rack before the store and entered
the crowded place. The fumes of tobacco smoke, vinegar, cheese,
and various other commodities gave a distinctive flavor to Caleb
Schell's store--and not a pleasant one, to Hiram's mind.
Ordinarily he would have made any purchases he had to make, and
gone out at once. But Schell was busy with several customers at
the counter and he was forced to wait a chance to speak with the
One of the first persons Hiram saw in the store was young Pete
Dickerson, hanging about the edge of the crowd. Pete scowled at
him and moved away. One of the men holding down a cracker-keg
sighted Hiram and hailed him in a jovial tone:
"Hi, there, Mr. Strong! What's this we been hearin' about you?
They say you had a run-in with Sam Dickerson. We been tryin'
to git the pertic'lars out o' Pete, here, but he don't seem ter
wanter talk about it," and the man guffawed heartily.
"Hear ye made Sam give back the tools he borrowed of the old
man?" said another man, whom Hiram knew to be Mrs. Larriper's
"You are probably misinformed," said Hiram, quietly. "I know no
reason why Mr. Dickerson and I should have trouble--unless other
neighbors make trouble for us."
"Right, boy--right!" called Cale Schell, from behind the counter,
where he could hear and comment upon all that went on in the
middle of the room, despite the attention he had to give to his
"Well, if you can git along with Sam and Pete, you'll do well,"
laughed another of the group.
The Dickersons seemed to be in disfavor in the community, and
nobody cared whether Pete repeated what was said to his father,
"I was told," pursued the first speaker, screwing up one eye and
grinning at Hiram," that you broke Sam's gun over his head and
chased Pete a mile. That right, son?"
"You will get no information from me," returned Hiram, tartly.
"Why, Pete ought to be big enough to lick you alone, Strong,"
continued the tantalizer. "Hey, Pete! Don't sneak out. Come and
tell us why you didn't give this chap the lickin' you said you
was going to?"
Pete only glared at him and slunk out of the store. Hiram turned
his back on the whole crowd and waited at the end of the counter
for Mr. Schell. The storekeeper was a tall, portly man, with a
gray mustache and side-whiskers, and a high bald forehead.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Strong?" he asked, finally having got
rid of the customers who preceded Hiram.
Hiram, in a low voice, explained his mission. Schell nodded his
head at once.
"Oh, yes," he said; "I remember about the option. I had
forgotten it, for a fact; but Pepper was in here yesterday
talking about it. He had been to your house."
"Then, sir, to the best of your remembrance, the option is all
"Oh, certainly! Pollock witnessed it, and I put my seal on it.
Yes, sir; Pepper can make the old lady sell. It's too bad, if
she wants to remain there; but the price he is to pay isn't so
"You have no reason to doubt the validity of the option?" cried
Hiram, in desperation.
"Then why didn't Uncle Jeptha speak of it to somebody before he
died, if the option had not run out at that time?"
"You grant the old man was of sound mind?"
"Sound as a pine knot," agreed the storekeeper, still reflective.
"Then how is it he did not speak to his lawyer about the option
when he saw Mr. Strickland within an hour of his death?"
"That does seem peculiar," admitted the storekeeper, slowly.
"And Mr. Pollock says he thinks there is something wrong about
the option," went on Hiram, eagerly.
"Oh, Pollock! Pah!" returned Schell. "I don't suppose he even
"But you did?"
"Assuredly. I always read every paper. If they don't want me
to know what the agreement is, they can take it to some other
Notary," declared the storekeeper with a jolly laugh.
"And you are sure that the option was to run a year?"
"Of course the option's all right--Hold on! A year, did you say?
Why--seems to me--let's look this thing up," concluded Caleb
He dived into his little office and produced a ledger from the
safe. This he slapped down on the counter between them.
"I'm a careful man, I am," he told Hiram. "And I flatter myself
I've got a good memory, too. Pepper was in here yesterday
sputtering about the option and I remember now that he spoke of
its running a year.
"But it seems to me," said Schell, pawing over the leaves of his
ledger, "that the talk between him and old Uncle Jeptha was for a
short time. The old man was mighty cautious--mighty cautious."
"That's what Mr. Pollock says," cried Hiram, eagerly.
"But you've seen the option?
"And it reads a year?
"Then how you going to get around that?" demanded Schell, with
"But perhaps Uncle Jeptha signed the option thinking it was for a
"That wouldn't help you none. The paper was signed. And why
should Pepper have buncoed him--at that time?"
"Why should he be so eager to get the farm now?" asked Hiram.
"Well, I'll tell you. It ain't out yet. But two or three days
ago the railroad board abandoned the route through Ayertown and
it is agreed that the new bridge will be built along there by
your farm somewhere.
"The river is as narrow there as it is anywhere for miles up and
down, and they will stretch a bridge from the high bank on your
side, across the meadows, to the high bank on the other side. It
will cut out grades, you see. That's what has started Pepper up
to grab off the farm while the option is valid."
"But, Mr. Schell, is the option valid?" cried Hiram, anxiously.
"I don't see how you're going to get around it. Ah! here's the
place. When I have sealed a paper I make a note of it--what the
matter was about and who the contracting parties were. I've done
that for years. Let--me--see."
He adjusted his spectacles. He squinted at the page, covered
closely with writing. Hiram saw him whispering the words he read
to himself. Suddenly the blood flooded into the old man's face,
and he looked up with a start at his interrogator.
"Do you mean to say that option's for a year? he demanded.
"That is the way it reads--now," whispered Hiram, watching him
The old man turned the book around slowly on the counter. His
stubbed finger pointed to the two or three scrawled lines written
in a certain place.
Hiram read them slowly, with beating heart.
AN ENEMY IN THE DARK
The whispered conference between Hiram Strong and the storekeeper
could not be heard by the curious crowd around the cold stove;
nor did it last for long.
Caleb Schell finally closed his ledger and put it away. Hiram
shook hands with him and walked out.
On the platform outside, which was illuminated by a single smoky
lantern, a group of small boys were giggling, and they watched
Hiram unhitch the old horse and climb into the spring wagon with
so much hilarity that the young farmer expected some trick.
The horse started off all right, he missed nothing from the
wagon, and so he supposed that he was mistaken. The boys had
merely been laughing at him because he was a stranger.
But as Hiram got some few yards from the hitching rack, the seat
was suddenly pulled from under him, and he was left sprawling on
his back in the bottom of the wagon.
A yell of derision from the crowd outside the store assured him
that this was the cause of the boys' hilarity. Luckily his old
horse was of quiet disposition, and he stopped dead in his tracks
when the seat flew out of the back of the wagon.
A joke is a joke. No use in showing wrath over this foolish
amusement of the crossroads boys. But Hiram got a little the
best of them, after all.
The youngsters had scattered when the "accident" occurred.
Hiram, getting out to pick up the seat, found the end of a strong
hemp line fastened to it. The other end was tied to the hitching
rack in front of the store.
Instead of casting off the line from the seat, Hiram walked back
to the store and cast that end off.
"At any rate, I'm in a good coil of hemp rope," he said to one of
the men who had come out to see the fun. "The fellow who owns it
can come and prove property; but I shall ask a few questions of
There was no more laughter. The young farmer walked back to his
wagon, set up the seat again, and drove on.
The roadway was dark, but having been used all his life to
country roads at night, Hiram had no difficulty in seeing the
path before him. Besides, the old horse knew his way home.
He drove on some eighth of a mile. Suddenly he felt that the
wagon was not running true. One of the wheels was yawing. He
drew in the old horse; but he was not quick enough.
The nigh forward wheel rolled off the end of the axle, and down
came the wagon with a crash!
Hiram was thrown forward and came sprawling--on hands and
knees--upon the ground, while the wheel rolled into the ditch.
He was little hurt, although the accident might have been
And in truth, he knew it to be no accident. A burr does not
easily work off the end of an axle. He had greased the old wagon
just before he started for the store, and he knew he had replaced
each nut carefully.
This was a deliberately malicious trick--no boy's joke like the
tying of the rope to his wagon seat. And the axle was broken.
Although he had no lantern he could see that the wagon could not
be used again without being repaired.
"Who did it?" was Hiram's unspoken question, as he slowly
unharnessed the old horse, and then dragged the broken wagon
entirely out of the road so that it would not be an obstruction
for other vehicles.
His mind set instantly upon Pete Dickerson. He had not seen the
boy when he came out of the crossroads store. If the fellow had
removed this burr, he had done it without anybody seeing him, and
had then run home.
The young farmer, much disturbed over this incident, mounted
the back of the old horse, and paced home. He only told
Mrs. Atterson that he had met with an accident and that the light
wagon would have to be repaired before it could be used again.
That necessitated their going to town on Monday in the heavy
wagon. And Hiram dragged the spring wagon to the blacksmith shop
for repairs, on the way.
But before that, the enemy in the dark had struck again. When
Hiram went to the barnyard to water the stock, Sunday morning, he
found that somebody had been bothering the pump.
The bucket, or pump-valve, was gone. He had to take it apart,
cut a new valve out of sole leather, and put the pump together
"We'll have to get a cross dog, if we remain here," he told
"Mrs. Atterson. There is somebody in the neighborhood who means
"Them Dickersons!" exclaimed Mrs. Atterson.
"Perhaps. That Pete, maybe. If I once caught him up to his
tricks I'd make him sorry enough."
"Tell the constable, Hi," cried Sister, angrily.
"That would make trouble for his folks. Maybe they don't know
just how mean Pete is. A good thrashing--and the threat of
another every time he did anything mean--would do him lots more
This wasn't nice Sunday work, but it was too far to carry water
from the house to the horse trough, so Hiram had to repair the
On Monday morning he routed out Sister and Mr. Camp at daybreak.
He had been up and out for an hour himself, and on a bench under
the shed he had heaped two or three bushels of radishes which he
had pulled and washed, ready for bunching.
He showed his helpers how the pretty scarlet balls were to be
bunched, and found that Sister took hold of the work with nimble
fingers, while Mr. Camp did very well at the unaccustomed task.
"I don't know, Hi," said Mrs. Atterson, despondently, "that it's
worth while your trying to sell any of the truck, if we're going
to leave here so soon."
"We haven't left yet," he returned, trying to speak cheerfully.
"And you might as well get every penny back that you can.
Perhaps an arrangement can be made whereby we can stay and
harvest the garden crop, at any rate."
"You can make up your mind that that Pepper man won't give us
any leeway; he isn't that kind," declared Mother Atterson, with
Hiram made a quick sale of the radishes at several of the stores,
where he got eighteen cents a dozen bunches; but some he sold at
the big boarding-school--St. Beris--at a retail price.
"You can bring any other fresh vegetables you may have from time
to time," the housekeeper told him. "Nobody ever raised any
early vegetables about Scoville before. They are very welcome."
"Once we get a-going," said Hiram to Mrs. Atterson, "you or
Sister can drive in with the spring wagon and dispose of
the surplus vegetables. And you might get a small canning
outfit--they come as cheap as fifteen dollars--and put up
tomatoes, corn, peas, beans, and other things. Good canned stuff
always sells well."
"Good Land o' Goshen, Hiram!" exclaimed the old lady, in
"desperation. You talk jest as though we were going to stay on
"Well, let's go and see Mr. Strickland," replied the young
farmer, and they set out for the lawyer's office.
Mrs. Atterson sat in the ante-room while Hiram asked to speak
with the old lawyer in private for a minute. The conference was
not for long, and when Hiram came back to his employer he said:
"Mr. Strickland has sent his junior clerk out for Pepper. He
thinks we'd better talk the matter over quietly. And he wants to
see the option, too."
"Oh, Hiram! There ain't no hope, is there?" groaned the old
"Well, I tell you what!" exclaimed the young fellow, " we won't
give in to him until we have to. Of course, if you refuse to
sign a deed he can go to chancery and in the end you will have to
pay the costs of the action.
"But perhaps, even at that, it might be well to hold him off
until you have got the present crop out of the ground."
"Oh, I won't go to law," said Mrs. Atterson, decidedly. "No good
ever come of that."
After a time Mr. Strickland invited them both into his private
office. The attorney spoke quietly of other matters while they
waited for Pepper.
But the real estate man did not appear. By and by
Mr. Strickland's clerk came back with the report that Pepper had
been called away suddenly on important business.
"They tell me he went Saturday," said the clerk. "He may not be
back for a week. But he said he was going to buy the Atterson
place when he returned--he's told several people around town so."
"Ah!" said Mr. Strickland, slowly. "Then he has left that threat
hanging, like the Sword of Damocles--over Mrs. Atterson's head?"
"I don't know nothin' about that sword, Mr. Strickland, nor no
other sword, 'cept a rusty one that my father carried when he
was a hoss-sodger in the Rebellion," declared Mother Atterson,
nervously. "But if that Pepper man's got one belonging to
Mr. Damocles, I shouldn't be at all surprised. That Pepper looked
to me like a man that would take anything he could lay his hands
on--if he warn't watched!"
"Which is a true and just interpretation of Pepper's character, I
believe," observed the lawyer, smiling.
"And we've got to give up the farm at his say-so--at any time?"
demanded the old lady.
"If his option is good," said Mr. Strickland. "But I want to
see the paper--and I can assure you, Mrs. Atterson, that I shall
subject it to the closest possible scrutiny.
"There is a possibility that Pepper's option may be questioned
before the courts. Do not build too many hopes on this," he
added, quickly, seeing the old lady's face light up.
"You have a very good champion in this young man," and the lawyer
nodded at Hiram.
"He suspected all was not right with the option and he has dug up
the fact that the witness to your uncle's signature, and the man
before whom the paper was attested, both believed the option was
for a short time.
"Caleb Schell's book shows that it was for thirty days. Uncle
Jeptha undoubtedly thought it was for that length of time and
therefore the option expired several days before he died.
"Mr. Pepper may have fallen under temptation. He considered
heretofore, like everybody else, that the railroad would pass
us by in this section. Pepper gambled twenty dollars on its
coming along the boundary of the Atterson farm--between you and
Darrell's tract--and thought he had lost.
"Then suddenly the railroad board turned square around and voted
for the condemnation of the original route. Pepper remembered
the option he had risked twenty dollars on. If it was originally
for thirty days, it was void, of course; but Uncle Jeptha is
dead, and he hopes perhaps, that nobody else will dispute the
validity of it."
"It's a forgery, then?" cried Mrs. Atterson.
"It may be a forgery. We do not know," said the lawyer, hastily.
"At any rate, he has the paper, and he is a shrewd rascal."
Mrs. Atterson's face was a study.
"Do you mean to tell me we have got to lose the farm?" she
"My dear lady, that I cannot tell you. I must see this option.
We must put it to the test---"
"But Schell and Pollock will testify that the option was for
thirty days," cried Hiram.
"Perhaps. To the best of their remembrance and belief, it was
for thirty days. A shrewd lawyer, however--and Pepper would
employ a shrewd one--would turn their evidence inside out.
"No evidence--in theory, at least--can controvert a written
instrument, signed, sealed, and delivered. Even Cale Schell's
memoranda book cannot be taken as evidence, save in a
contributory way. It is not direct. It is the carelessly
scribbled record, in pencil, of a busy man.
"No. If Pepper puts forward the option we have got to see if
that option has been tampered with--the paper itself, I mean. If
the fellow substituted a different instrument, at the time of
signing, from the one Uncle Jeptha thought he signed, you have no
case--I tell you frankly, my dear lady."
"Then, it ain't no use. We got to lose the place, Hiram," said
Mrs. Atterson, when they left the lawyer's office.
"I wouldn't lose heart. If Pepper is scared, he may not trouble
It's got ten months more to run," said she. "He can keep us
guessin' all that time."
"That is so," agreed Hiram, nodding thoughtfully. "But, of
course, as Mr. Strickland says, by raising a doubt as to the
validity of the option we can hold him off for a while--maybe
until we have made this year's crop."
"It's goin' to make me lay awake o' nights," sighed the old lady.
"And I thought I'd got through with that when I stopped worryin'
about the gravy."
"Well, we won't talk about next year," agreed Hiram. "I'll do
the best I can for you through this season, if Pepper will let us
alone. We've got the bottom land practically cleared; we might
as well plough it and put in the corn there. If we make a crop
you'll get all your money back and more. Mr. Strickland told me
privately that the option, unless it read that way, would not
cover the crops in the ground. And I read the option carefully.
Crops were not mentioned."
So it was decided to go ahead with the work as already planned;
but neither the young farmer, nor his employer, could look
forward cheerfully to the future.
The uncertainty of what Pepper would eventually do was bound to
be in their thought, day and night.
THE WELCOME TEMPEST
To some youths this matter of the option would have been such
a clog that they would have lost interest and slighted the
work. But not so with Hiram Strong.
He counted this day a lost one, however; he hated to leave the
farm for a minute when there was so much to do.
But the next morning he got the plow into the four-acre corn lot;
and he did nothing but the chores that week until the ground
was entirely plowed. Then Henry Pollock came over and gave him
another day's work and they finished grubbing the lowland.
The rubbish was piled in great heaps down there, ready for
burning. As long as the rain held off, Hiram did not put fire to
But early in the following week the clouds began to gather in a
quarter for rain, and late in the afternoon, when the air was
still, he took a can of coal oil, and with Sister and Mr. Camp,
and even Mrs. Atterson, at his heels, went down to the riverside
to burn the brush heaps.
"There's not much danger of the fire spreading to the woods; but
if it should," Hiram said, warningly, "it might, at this time
of year, do your timber a couple of hundred dollars' worth of
"Goodness me!" exclaimed Mother Atterson. "It does seem
ridiculous to hear you talk that a-way. I never owned nothin' but
a little bit of furniture before, and I expected the boarders to
tear that all to pieces. I'm beginning to feel all puffed up and
Hiram cut them all green pineboughs for beaters, and then set
the fires, one after another. There were more than twenty of the
great piles and soon the river bottom, from bend to bend, was
filled with rolling clouds of smoke. As the dusk dropped, the
yellow glare of the fire illuminated the scene.
Sister clapped her hands and cried:
"Ain't this bully? It beats the Fourth of July celebration in
Crawberry. Oh, I'd rather be on the farm than go to heaven!"
They had brought their supper with them, and leaving the others
to watch the fires, and see that the grass did not tempt the
flames to the edge of the wood, Hiram cast bait into the river
and, in an hour, drew out enough mullet and "bull-heads" to
satisfy them all, when they were broiled over the hot coals of
the first bonfire to be lighted.
They ate with much enjoyment. Between nine and ten o'clock the
fires had all burned down to coals.
A circle of burned-over grass and rubbish surrounded each fire.
There seemed no possibility that the flames could spread to the
mat of dry leaves on the side hill.
So they went home, a lantern guiding their feet over the rough
path through the timber, stopping at the spring for a long,
The sky was as black as ink. Now and again a faint flash in
the westward proclaimed a tempest in that direction. But not a
breath of wind was stirring, and the rain might not reach this
A dull red glow was reflected on the clouds over the
river-bottom. When Hiram looked from his window, just as he was
ready for bed, that glow seemed to have increased.
"Strange," he muttered. "It can't be that those fires
have spread. There was no chance for them to spread.
He sat at the window and stared out through the darkness.
There was little wind as yet; it was a fact, however, that the
firelight flickered on the low-hung clouds with increasing
"Am I mad?" demanded the young farmer, suddenly leaping up and
drawing on his garments again. "That fire is spreading."
He dressed fully, and ran softly down the stairs and left the
house. When he came out in the clear the glow had not receded.
There was a fire down the hillside, and it seemed increasing
He remembered the enemy in the dark, and without stopping to
rouse the household, ran on toward the woods, his heart beating
heavily in his bosom.
Slipping, falling at times, panting heavily because of the rough
ground, Hiram came at last through the more open timber to the
brink of that steep descent, at the bottom of which lay the smoky
And indeed, the whole of the lowland seemed filled with stifling
clouds of smoke. Yet, from a dozen places along the foot of
the hill, yellow flames were starting up, kindling higher, and
devouring as fast as might be the leaves and tinder left from the
wrack of winter.
The nearest bonfire had been a hundred yards from the foot of
this hill. His care, Hiram knew, had left no chance of the dull
coals in any of the twenty heaps spreading to the verge of the
Man's hand had done this. An enemy, waiting and watching until
they had left the field, had stolen down, gathered burning
brands, and spread them along the bottom of the hill, where the
increasing wind might scatter the fire until the whole grove was
in a blaze.
Not only was Mrs. Atterson's timber in danger, but Darrell's
tract and that lying beyond would be overwhelmed by the flames if
they were allowed to spread.
On the other side, Dickerson had cut his timber a year or two
before, clear to the river. The fire would not burn far over his
line. Whoever had done this dastardly act, Dickerson's property
would not be damaged.
But Hiram lent no time to trouble. His work was cut out for him
right here and now--and well he knew it!
He had brought the small axe with him, having caught it up from
the doorstep. Now he used it to cut a green bough, and then ran
with the latter down the hill and set upon the fire-line like a
The smoke, spread here and there by puffs of rising wind, half
choked him. It stung his eyes until they distilled water enough
to blind him. He thrashed and fought in the fumes and the murk
of it, stumbling and slipping, one moment half-knee deep in
quick-springing flames, the next almost overpowered by the smudge
that rose from the beaten mat of leaves and rubbish.
It was a lone fight. He had to do it all. There had been no
time to rouse either the neighbors, or the rest of the family.
If he did not overcome these flames--and well he knew it--Mother
Atterson would arise in the morning to see all her goodly timber
scorched, perhaps ruined!
"I must beat it out--beat it out!" thought Hiram, and the
repetition of the words thrummed an accompaniment upon the drums
of his ears as he thrashed away with a madman's strength.
For no sane person would have tackled such a hopeless task.
Before him the flames suddenly leaped six feet or more into the
air. They overtopped him as they writhed through a clump of
green-briars. The wind puffed the flame toward him, and his face
was scorched by the heat.
He lost his eyebrows completely, and the hair was crisped along
the front brim of his hat.
Then with a laughing crackle, as though scorning his weakness,
the flames ran up a climbing vine and the next moment wrapped a
tall pine in lurid yellow.
This pine, like a huge torch, began to give off a thick, black
smoke. Would some wakeful neighboring farmer, seeing it, know
the danger that menaced and come to Hiram's help?
For yards he had beaten flat the flames and stamped out every
spark. Behind him was naught but rolling smoke. It was dark
there. No flames were eating up the slope.
But toward Darrell's tract the fire seemed on the increase. He
could not catch up with it. And this solitary, sentinel pine,
ablaze now in all its head, threatened to fling sparks for a
If the wind continued to rise, the forest was doomed!
His green branch had burned to a crisp. He had lost his axe in
the darkness and the smoke, and now he tore another bough, by
main strength, from its parent stem.
Hiram Strong worked as though inspired; but to no purpose in
the end. For the flames increased. Puff after puff of wind
drove the fire on, scattering brands from the blazing pine;
and now another, and another, tree caught. The glare of the
He flung down the useless bough. Fire was all about him. He had
to leap suddenly to one side to escape a burst of flame that had
caught in a jungle of green-briars.
Then, of a sudden, a crash of thunder rolled and reverberated
through the glen. Lightning for an instant lit up the meadows
and the river. The glare of it almost blinded the young farmer
and, out of the line of fire, he sank to the earth and covered
his eyes, seared by the sudden, compelling light.
Again and again the thunder rolled, following the javelins of
lightning that seemed to dart from the clouds to the earth.
The tempest, so long muttering in the West, had come upon him
unexpectedly, for he had given all his attention to the spreading
And now came the rain--no refreshing, sweet, saturating shower;
but a thunderous, blinding fall of water that first set the
burning woods to steaming and then drowned out every spark of
fire on upland as well as lowland.
It was a cloudburst--a downpour such as Hiram had seldom
experienced before. Exhausted, he lay on the bank and let the
pelting rain soak him to the skin.
He did not care. Half drowned by the beating rain, he only
crowed his delight at the downpour. Every spark of fire was
flooded out. The danger was past.
He finally arose, and staggered through the downpour to
the house, only happy that--by a merciful interposition of
Providence--the peril had been overcome.
He tore off his clothing on the stoop, there in the pitch
darkness, and crept up to his bedroom where he rubbed himself
down with a crash-towel, and finally tumbled into bed and slept
like a log till broad daylight.
For the first time since they had come to the farm, Hiram was
the last to get up in the house. And when he came down to
breakfast, still trembling from the exertion of the previous
night, Mrs. Atterson screamed at the sight of him.
"For the good Land o' Goshen!" she cried. You look like a singed
chicken, Hiram Strong! Whatever have you been doing to yourself?"
He told them of the fight he had had while they slept. But he
could talk about it jokingly now, although Sister was inclined to
snivel a little over his danger.
"That Dickerson boy ought to be lashed--Nine and thirty
lashes--none too much--This sausage is good--humph!--and
pancakes--fit for the gods--But he'll come back--do more
damage--the butter, yes I I want butter--and syrup, though two
spreads is reckless extravagance--Eh? eh? can't prove anything
against that Dickerson lout?-well, mebbe not."
So Old Lem Camp commented upon the affair. But Hiram could not
prove that the neighbor's boy had done any of these things which
pointed to a malicious enemy.
The young farmer began to wonder if he could not lay a trap, and
so bring about his undoing.
As soon as the ground was in fit condition again (for the nights
rain had been heavy) Hiram scattered the lime he had planned to
use upon the four acres of land plowed for corn, and dragged it
in with a spike-toothed harrow.
Working as he was with one horse alone, this took considerable
time, and when this corn land was ready, it was time for him to
go through the garden piece again with the horse cultivator.
Sister and Lem Camp, both, had learned to use the man-weight
wheel-hoe, and the fine stuff was thinned and the weeds well cut
out. From time to time the young farmer had planted peas--both
the dwarf and taller varieties--and now he risked putting in some
early beans--"snap" and bush limas--and his first planting of
Of the latter he put in four rows across the garden, each,
of sixty-five day, seventy-five day, and ninety day sugar
corn--all of well-known kinds. He planned later to put in, every
fortnight, four rows of a mid-length season corn, so as to have
green corn for sale, and for the house, up to frost.
The potatoes were growing finely and he hilled them up for
the first time. He marked his four-acre lot for field
corn--cross-checking it three-feet, ten inches apart. This made
twenty-seven hundred and fifty hills to the acre, and with the
hand-planter--an ingenious but cheap machine--he dropped two and
three kernels to the hill.
This upland, save where he had spread coarse stable manure, was
not rich. Upon each corn-hill he had Sister throw half a handful
of fertilizer. She followed him as he used the planter, and they
planted and fertilized the entire four acres in less than two
The lime he had put into the land would release such fertility
as remained dormant there; but Hiram did not expect a big crop
of corn on that piece. If he made two good ears to the hill he
would be satisfied.
He had knocked together a rough cold-frame, on the sunny side
of the woodshed, to fit some old sash he had found in the barn.
Into the rich earth sifted to make the bed in this frame, he
transplanted tomato, egg-plant, pepper and other plants of a
delicate nature. Early cabbage and cauliflower had already gone
into the garden plot, and in the midst of an early and saturating
rain, all day long, he had transplanted table-beets into the rows
he had marked out for them.
This variety of vegetables were now all growing finely. He sold
nearly six dollars' worth of radishes in town, and these radishes
he showed Mrs. Atterson were really "clear profit." They had
all been pulled from the rows of carrots and other small seeds.
There were several heavy rains after the tempest which had been
so Providential; the ground was well saturated, and the river had
risen until it roared between its banks in a voice that could he
heard, on a still day, at the house.
The rains started the vegetation growing by leaps and bounds;
weeds always increase faster than any other growing thing.
There was plenty for Hiram to do in the garden, and he kept
Sister and Old Lem Camp busy, too. They were at it from the first
faint streak of light in the morning until dark.
But they were well--and happy. Mother Atterson, her heart
troubled by thought of " that Pepper-man," could not always
repress her smiles. If the danger of losing the farm were past,
she would have had nothing in the world to trouble her.
The hundred eggs she had purchased for five dollars had proven
more than sixty per cent fertile. Some advice that Hiram had
given her enabled Mrs. Atterson to handle the chickens so that
the loss from disease was very small.
He knocked together for her a couple of pens, eight feet square,
which could be moved about on the grass every day. In these pens
the seventy, or more, chicks thrived immensely. And Sister was
devoted to them.
Meanwhile the old white-faced cow, that had been a terror to
Mother Atterson at the start, had found her calf, and it was a
"Take my advice and raise it," said Hiram. "She is a scrub, but
she is a pretty good scrub. You'll see that she will give a good
measure of milk. And what this farm needs is cattle.
"If you could make stable manure enough to cover the cleared
acres a foot deep, you could raise almost any crop you might
name--and make money by it. The land is impoverished by the use
of commercial fertilizers, unbalanced by humus."
"Well, I guess You know, Hiram," admitted Mrs. Atterson. "And
that calf certainly is a pretty creeter. It would be too bad to
turn it into veal."
Hiram did not intend to raise the calf expensively, however. He
took it away from its mother right at the start, and in two weeks
it was eating grass, and guzzling skimmed milk and calf-meal,
while the old cow was beginning to show her employer her value.
Mrs. Atterson bought a small churn and quickly learned that
"slight" at butter-making which is absolutely essential if one
would succeed in the dairy business.
The cow turned out to pasture early in May, too; so her keep was
not so heavy a burden. She lowed some after the calf; but the
latter was growing finely under Hiram's care, and Mrs. Atterson
had at least two pounds of butter for sale each week, and the
housekeeper at the St. Beris school paid her thirty-five cents a
pound for it.
Hiram gradually picked up a retail route in the town, which
customers paid more for the surplus vegetables--and butter--than
could be obtained at the stores. He had taught Sister how to
drive, and sometimes even Mrs. Atterson went in with the,
This relieved the young farmer and allowed him to work in the
fields. And during these warm, growing May days, he found plenty
to do. Just as the field corn pushed through the ground he went
into the lot with his 14-tooth harrow and broke up the crust and
so killed the ever-springing weeds.
With the spikes on the harrow "set back," no corn-plants were
dragged out of the ground. This first harrowing, too, mixed the
fertilizer with the soil, and gave the corn the start it so sadly
Busy as bees, the four transplanted people at the Atterson
farmhouse accomplished a great deal during these first weeks of
the warming season. And all four of them--Mrs. Atterson, Sister,
Old Lem, and Hiram himself--enjoyed the work to the full.
TOMATOES AND TROUBLE
Hiram Strong had decided that the market prospects of Scoville
prophesied a good price for early tomatoes. He advised,
therefore, a good sized patch of this vegetable.
He had planted in the window boxes seed of several different
varieties. He had transplanted to the coldframe strong plants
numbering nearly five hundred. He believed that, under garden
cultivation, a tomato plant that would not yield fifty cents
worth of fruit was not worth bothering with, while a dollar from
a single plant was not beyond the bounds of probability.
It was safe, Hiram very well knew, to set out tomato plants in
this locality much before the middle of May; yet he was willing
to take some risks, and go to some trouble, for the sake of
getting early ripened tomatoes into the Scoville market.
As Henry Pollock had prophesied, Hiram did not see much of his
friend during corn-planting time. The Pollocks put nearly fifty
acres in corn, and the whole family helped in the work, including
Mrs. Pollock herself, and down to the child next to the baby.