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  • 1908
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And they decided to join the conspiracy.

There was some difficulty escaping from Uncle John and the Major that night, but Patsy got them interested in a game of chess that was likely to last some hours, while Beth stole to the barn and harnessed Joe to the surrey. Soon the others slipped out and joined her, and with Patsy and Beth on the front seat and Louise Inside the canopy they drove slowly away until the sound of the horse’s feet on the stones was no longer likely to betray them.

McNutt was waiting for them when they quietly drew up before his house. The village was dark and silent, for its inhabitants retired early to bed. By good fortune the sky was overcast with heavy clouds and not even the glimmer of a star relieved the gloom.

They put McNutt on the back seat with Louise, cautioned him to be quiet, and then drove away. Dan Brayley’s place was two miles distant, but in answer to Peggy’s earnest inquiry if she knew the way Beth declared she could find it blind-folded. In a few moments Louise had engaged the agent in a spirited discussion of the absorbing “mystery” and so occupied his attention that he paid no heed to the direction they had taken. The back seat was hemmed in by side curtains and the canopy, so it would be no wonder if he lost all sense of direction, even had not the remarks of the girl at his side completely absorbed him.

Beth drove slowly down the main street, up a lane, back by the lake road and along the street again; and this programme was repeated several times, until she thought a sufficient distance had been covered to convince the agent they had arrived at Brayley’s. They way was pitch dark, but the horse was sensible enough to keep in the middle of the road, so they met with no accident more than to jolt over a stone now and then.

But now the most difficult part of the enterprise lay before them. The girls turned down the lane back of the main street and bumped over the ruts until they thought they had arrived at a spot opposite McNutt’s own melon patch.

“What’s wrong?” asked the agent, as they suddenly stopped with a jerk.

“This ought to be Brayley’s,” said Beth; “but it’s so dark I’m not certain just where we are.”

McNutt thrust his head out and peered into the blackness.

“Drive along a little,” he whispered.

The girl obeyed.

“Stop–stop!” said he, a moment later. “I think that’s them contwisted fifteen-cent mellings–over there!”

They all got out and Beth tied the horse to the fence. Peggy climbed over and at once whispered:

“Come on! It’s them, all right.”

Through the drifting clouds there was just enough light to enable them to perceive the dark forms of the melons lying side by side upon their vines. The agent took out his big clasp knife and recklessly slashed one of them open.

“Green’s grass!” he grumbled, and slashed another.

Patsy giggled, and the others felt a sudden irresistible impulse to join her.

“Keep still!” cautioned McNutt. “Wouldn’t ol’ Dan be jest ravin’ ef he knew this? Say–here’s a ripe one. Hev a slice.”

They all felt for the slices he offered and ate the fruit without being able to see it. But it really tasted delicious.

As the girls feasted they heard a crunching sound and inquired in low voices what it was.

McNutt was stumping over the patch and plumping his wooden foot into every melon he could find, smashing them wantonly against the ground. The discovery filled them with horror. They had thought inducing the agent to rob his own patch of a few melons, while under the delusion that they belonged to his enemy Brayley, a bit of harmless fun; but here was the vindictive fellow actually destroying his own property by the wholesale.

“Oh, don’t! Please don’t, Mr. McNutt!” pleaded Patsy, in frightened accents.

“Yes, I will,” declared the agent, stubbornly. “I’ll git even with Dan Brayley fer once in my life, ef I never do another thing, by gum!”

“But it’s wrong–it’s wicked!” protested Beth.

“Can’t help it; this is my chance, an’ I’ll make them bum fifteen-cent mellings look like a penny a piece afore I gits done with ’em.”

“Never mind, girls,” whispered Louise. “It’s the law of retribution. Poor Peggy will be sorry for this tomorrow.”

The man had not the faintest suspicion where he was. He knew his own melon patch well enough, having worked in it at times all the summer; but he had never climbed over the fence and approached it from the rear before, so it took on a new aspect to him from this point of view, and moreover the night was dark enough to deceive anybody.

If he came across an especially big melon McNutt would lug it to the carriage and dump it in. And so angry and energetic was the little man that in a brief space the melon patch was a scene of awful devastation, and the surrey contained all the fruit that survived the massacre.

Beth unhitched the horse and they all took their places in the carriage again, having some difficulty to find places for their feet on account of the cargo of melons. McNutt was stowed away inside, with Louise, and they drove away up the lane. The agent was jubilant and triumphant, and chuckled in gleeful tones that thrilled the girls with remorse as they remembered the annihilation of McNutt’s cherished melons.

“Ol’ Dan usu’lly has a dorg,” said Peggy, between his fits of laughter; “but I guess he had him chained up ternight.”

“I’m not positively sure that was Brayley’s place,” remarked Beth; “it’s so very dark.”

“Oh, it were Brayley’s, all right,” McNutt retorted. “I could tell by the second-class taste o’ them mellings, an’ their measley little size. Them things ain’t a circumstance to the kind I raise.”

“Are you sure?” asked Louise.

“Sure’s shootln’. Guess I’m a jedge o’ mellings, when I sees ’em.”

“No one could see tonight,” said Beth.

“Feelin’s jest the same,” declared the little man, confidently.

After wandering around a sufficient length of time to allay suspicion, Beth finally drew up before McNutt’s house again.

“I’ll jest take my share o’ them mellings,” said Peggy, as he alighted. “They ain’t much ‘count, bein’ Brayley’s; but it’ll save me an’ the ol’ woman from eatin’ our own, or perhaps I kin sell ’em to Sam Cotting.”

He took rather more than his share of the spoils, but the girls had no voice to object. They were by this time so convulsed with suppressed merriment that they had hard work not to shriek aloud their laughter. For, in spite of the tragic revelations the morrow would bring forth, the situation was so undeniably ridiculous that they could not resist its humor.

“I’ve had a heap o’ fun,” whispered McNutt. “Good night, gals. Ef ye didn’t belong to thet gum-twisted nabob, ye’d be some pun’kins.”

“Thank you, Mr. McNutt. Good night.”

And it was not until well on their journey to the farm that the girls finally dared to abandon further restraint. Then, indeed, they made the grim, black hills of the plateau resound to the peals of their merry laughter.

CHAPTER XXV.

GOOD NEWS AT LAST.

It was on the morning following this adventure that Uncle John received a bulky envelope from the city containing the result of the investigation he had ordered regarding the ownership of the Bogue tract of pine forest. It appeared that the company in which he was so largely interested had found the tract very valuable, and had been seeking for the owners in order to purchase it or lease the right to cut the timber. But although they had traced it through the hands of several successive owners the present holders were all unknown to them until Mr. Merrick’s information had furnished them with a clue. A year ago the company had paid up the back taxes–two years overdue–in order to establish a claim to the property, and now they easily succeeded in finding the record of the deed from a certain Charles Walton to Jonas Wegg and William Thompson. The deed itself could not be found, but Uncle John considered the county record a sufficient claim to entitle the young folks to the property unless the ownership should be contested by others, which was not likely.

Uncle John invited Ethel and Joe to dine with him that evening, and Mary was told the occasion merited the best menu she could provide. The young folks arrived without any idea of receiving more than a good dinner and the pleasure of mingling with the cordial, kindly household at the farm; but the general air of hilarity and good fellowship pervading the family circle this evening inspired the guests with like enthusiasm, and no party could be merrier than the one that did full justice to Mary’s superior cookery.

One of the last courses consisted of iced watermelon, and when it appeared the three girls eyed one another guiltily and then made frantic attempts to suppress their laughter, which was unseemly because no one but themselves understood the joke. But all else was speedily forgotten in the interest of the coming ceremony, which Mr. Merrick had carefully planned and prepared.

The company was invited to assemble in the room comprising the spacious right wing, and when all were seated the little gentleman coughed to clear his throat and straightway began his preamble.

He recited the manner in which Captain Wegg and Will Thompson, having money to invest, were led into an enterprise which Bob West had proposed, but finally preferred another venture and so withdrew their money altogether from the Almaquo tract.

This statement caused both Joe and Ethel to stare hard, but they said nothing.

“Your grandfather, Ethel,” continued the narrator, “was much impressed by the value of another timber tract, although where he got his information concerning it I have been unable to discover. This piece of property, called the Bogue tract, was purchased by Wegg and Thompson with the money they withdrew from Almaquo, and still stands in their name.”

Then he recounted, quite frankly, his unjust suspicions of the hardware dealer, and told of the interview in which the full details of this transaction were disclosed by West, as well as the truth relating to the death of Captain Wegg and the sudden insanity and paralysis of old Will Thompson.

Joe could corroborate this last, and now understood why Thompson had cried out that West’s “good news” had killed his father. He meant, of course, their narrow escape from being involved in West’s supposed ruin, for at that time no one knew the report of the fire was false.

Finally, these matters being cleared up, Uncle John declared that the Pierce-Lane Lumber Company was willing to contract to cut the timber on the Bogue property, or would pay a lump sum of two hundred thousand dollars for such title to the tract as could be given. He did not add that he had personally offered to guarantee the title. That was an unnecessary bit of information.

You may perhaps imagine the happiness this announcement gave Joe and Ethel. They could scarcely believe the good news was true, even when the kindly old gentleman, with tears in his eyes, congratulated the young couple on the fortune in store for them. The Major followed with a happy speech of felicitation, and then the three girls hugged the little school teacher rapturously and told her how glad they were.

“I think, sir,” said Joe, striving to curb his elation, “that it will be better in the end for us to accept the royalty. Don’t you?”

“I do, indeed, my boy,” was the reply. “For if our people make an offer for the land of two hundred thousand you may rest assured it is worth much more. The manager has confided to me in his letter that if we are obliged to pay royalties the timber will cost us nearly double what it would by an outright purchase of the tract.”

“In that case, sir,” began Joe, eagerly, “we will–“

“Nonsense. The company can afford the royalty, Joe, for it is making a heap of money–more than I wish it were. One of my greatest trials is to take care of the money I’ve already made, and–“

“And he couldn’t do it at all without my help,” broke in the Major. “Don’t ye hesitate to take an advantage of him, Joseph, if ye can get it–which I doubt–for Mr. Merrick is most disgracefully rich already.”

“That’s true,” sighed the little millionaire. “So it will be a royalty, Joe. We are paying the same percentage to Bob West for the Almaquo tract, but yours is so much better that I am sure your earnings will furnish you and Ethel with all the income you need.”

They sat discoursing upon the happy event for some time longer, but Joe had to return to the hotel early because he was not yet strong enough to be out late.

“Before I go, Mr. Merrick,” he said, “I’d like you to give me my mother’s picture, which is in the secret drawer of the cupboard. You have the keys, now, and Ethel is curious to see how my mother looked.”

Uncle John went at once to the cupboard and unlocked the doors. Joe himself pushed the slide and took out of the drawer the picture, which had lain just beneath the Almaquo stock certificates.

The picture was passed reverently around. A sweet-faced, sad little woman it showed, with appealing eyes and lips that seemed to quiver even in the photograph.

As Louise held it in her hand something induced her to turn it over.

“Here is some writing upon the back,” she said.

Joe bent over and read it aloud. It was in his father’s handwriting.

“‘Press the spring in the left hand lower corner of the secret drawer.'”

“Hah!” cried Uncle John, while the others stared stupidly. “That’s it! That’s the information we’ve been wanting so long, Joseph!”

He ran to the cupboard, even as he spoke, and while they all thronged about him thrust in his hand, felt for the spring, and pressed it.

The bottom of the drawer lifted, showing another cavity beneath. From this the searcher withdrew a long envelope, tied with red tape.

“At last, Joseph!” he shouted, triumphantly waving the envelope over his head. And then he read aloud the words docketed upon the outside: “‘Warranty Deed and Conveyance from Charles Walton to Jonas Wegg and William Thompson.’ Our troubles are over, my boy, for here is the key to your fortune.”

“Also,” whispered Louise to her cousins, rather disconsolately, “it explains the last shred of mystery about the Wegg case. Heigh-ho! what a chase we’ve had for nothing!”

“Not for nothing, dear,” replied Patsy, softly, “for we’ve helped make two people happy, and that ought to repay us for all our anxiety and labor.”

* * * * *

A knock was heard at the door, and Old Hucks entered and handed Mr. Merrick a paper.

“He’s waiting, sir,” said he, ambiguously.

“Oh, Tom–Tom!” cried Joe Wegg, rising to throw his arms around the old man’s neck, “I’m rich, Tom–all my troubles are over–and Mr. Merrick has done it all–for Ethel and me!”

The ever smiling face of the ancient retainer did not change, but his eyes softened and filled with tears as he hugged the boy close to his breast.

“God be praised. Joe!” he said in a low voice. “I allus knew the Merricks ‘d bring us luck.”

“What the devil does this mean?” demanded Uncle John at this juncture, as he fluttered the paper and glared angrily around.

“What is it, dear?” inquired Louise.

“See for yourself,” he returned.

She took the paper and read it, while Patsy and Beth peered over her shoulder. The following was scrawled upon a sheet of soiled stationery:

“John Merrak, esquare, to
Marshall McMahon McNutt, detter.

“To yur gals Smashin’ 162 mellings at 50 cents a one …………………$81.00
Pleas remitt & save trouble.”

The nieces screamed, laughing until they cried, while Uncle John spluttered, smiled, beamed, and then requested an explanation.

Patsy told the story of the watermelon raid with rare humor, and it served to amuse everybody and relieve the strain that had preceded the arrival of McNutt’s bill.

“Did you say the man is waiting, Thomas?” asked Uncle John.

“Yes, sir.”

“Here–give him five dollars and tell him to receipt the bill. If he refuses, I’ll carry the matter to the courts. McNutt’s a rascal, and a fool in the bargain; but we’ve had some of his melons and the girls have had five dollars’ worth of fun in getting them. But assure him that this squares accounts, Thomas.”

Thomas performed his mission.

McNutt rolled his eyes, pounded the floor with his stump to emphasize his mingled anger and satisfaction, and then receipted the bill.

“It’s jest five more’n I ‘spected to git, Hucks,” he said with a grin. “But what’s the use o’ havin’ nabobs around, ef ye don’t bleed ’em?”

* * * * *

This story is one of the delightful “Aunt Jane Series” in which are chronicled the many interesting adventures in the lives of those fascinating girls and dear old “Uncle John.” The other volumes can be bought wherever books are sold. A complete list of titles, which is added to from time to time, is given on page 3 of this book.

(_ Complete catalog sent free on request._)