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   Chapter 10 THE SOUND OF BEATING HOOFS

Hiram the Young Farmer By Burbank L. Todd Characters: 13670

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


On Monday morning Mrs. Atterson put her house in the agent's hands. On Wednesday a pair of spinster ladies came to look at it. They came again on Thursday and again on Friday.

Friday being considered an "unlucky" day they did not bind the bargain; but on Saturday money was passed, and the new keepers of the house were to take possession in a week. Not until then were the boarders informed of Mother Atterson's change of circumstances, and the fact that she was going to graduate from the boarding house kitchen to the farm.

After all, they were sorry-those light-headed, irresponsible young men. There wasn't one of them, from Crackit down the line, who could not easily remember some special kindness that marked the old lady's intercourse with him.

As soon as the fact was announced that the boarding house had changed hands, the boarders were up in arms. There was a wild gabble of voices, over the supper table that night. Crackit led the chorus.

"It's a mean trick. Mother Atterson has sold us like so many cattle to the highest bidder. Ungrateful-right down ungrateful, I call it," he declared. "What do you say, Feeble?"

"It is particularly distasteful to me just now," complained the invalid. "When Sister has learned to give me my hot water at just the right temperature," and he took a sip of that innocent beverage. "Don't you suppose we could prevail upon the old lady to renig?"

"She's bound to put us off with half rations for the rest of the time she stays," declared Crackit, shaking his head wisely. "She's got nothing to lose now. She don't care if we all up and leave-after she gets hers."

"That's always the way," feebly remarked Mr. Peebles. "Just as soon as I really get settled down into a half-decent lodging, something happens."

Mr. Peebles had been a fixture at Mother Atterson's for nearly ten years. Only Old Lem Camp had been longer at the place.

The latter was the only boarder who had no adverse criticism for the mistress's new move. Indeed this evening Mr. Camp said nothing whatever; even his usual mumblings to himself were not heard.

He ate slowly, and but little. He was still sitting at the table when all the others had departed.

Mrs. Atterson started into the dining-room with her own supper between two plates when she saw the old man sitting there despondent in looks and attitude, his head resting on one clawlike hand, his elbow on the soiled table cloth.

He did not look up, nor move. The mistress glanced back over her shoulder, and there was Sister, sniffling and occasionally rubbing her wrist into her red eyes as she scraped the tower of plates from the dinner table.

"My soul and body!" gasped Mother Atterson, almost dropping her supper on the floor. "There's Sister-and there's Old Lem Camp! Whatever will I do with 'em?"

Meanwhile Hiram Strong had already left for the farm on the Wednesday previous. The other boarders knew nothing about his agreement with Mother Atterson; he had agreed to go to the place and begin work, and take care of the stock and all, "choring for himself", as the good lady called it, until she could complete her city affairs and move herself and her personal chattels to the farm.

Hiram bore a note to the woman who had promised to care for the Atterson place, and money to pay her what the boarding-house mistress had agreed.

"You can 'bach' it in the house as well as poor old Uncle Jeptha did, I reckon," this woman told the youth.

She showed him where certain provisions were-the pork barrel, ham and bacon of the old man's curing, and the few vegetables remaining from the winter's store.

"The cow was about gone dry, anyway," said the woman, Mrs. Larriper, who was a widow and lived with her married daughter some half-mile down the road toward Scoville, "so I didn't bother to milk her.

"You'll have to go to town to buy grain, if you want to feed her up-and for the chickens and the horse. The old man didn't make much of a crop last year-or them shiftless Dickersons didn't make much for him.

"I saw Sam Dickerson around here this morning. He borrowed some of the old man's tools when Uncle Jeptha was sick, and you'll have to go after 'em, I reckon.

"Sam's the best borrower that ever was; but he never can remember to bring things back. He says it's bad enough to have to borrow; it's too much to expect the same man to return what he borrows.

"Now, Mrs. Dickerson," pursued Mrs. Larriper, "was as nice a girl before she married-she was a Stepney-as ever walked in shoe-leather. And I guess she'd be right friendly with the neighbors if Sam would let her.

"But the poor thing never gits to go out-no, sir! She's jest tied to the house. They lost a child once-four year ago. That's the only time I remember of seeing Sarah Stepney in church since the day she was married-and she's got a boy-Pete-as old as you be.

"Now, on the other side o' ye there's Darrell's tract, and you won't have no trouble there, for there ain't a house on his place, and he lets it lie idle. Waiting for a rise in price, I 'spect.

"Some rich folks is comin' in and buying up pieces of land and making what they calls 'gentlemen's estates' out o' them. A family named Bronson-Mr. Stephen Bronson, with one little girl-bought the Fleigler place only last month.

"They're nice folks," pursued this amiable but talkative lady, "and they don't live but a mile or so along the Scoville road. You passed the place-white, with green shutters, and a water-tower in the back, when you walked up."

"I remember it," said Hiram, nodding.

"They're western folk. Come clear from out in Injiany, or Illiny, or the like. The girl's going to school and she ain't got no mother, so her father's come on East with her to be near the school.

"Well, I can't help you no more. Them hens! Well, I'd sell 'em if I was Mis' Atterson.

"Hens ain't much nowadays, anyhow; and I expect a good many of those are too old to lay. Uncle Jeptha couldn't fuss with chickens, and he didn't raise only a smitch of 'em last year and the year before-just them that the hens hatched themselves in stolen nests, and chanced to bring up alive.

"You better grease the cart before you use it. It's stood since they hauled in corn last fall.

"And look out for Dickerson. Ask him for the things he borrowed. You'll need 'em, p'r'aps, if you're goin' to do any farmin' for Mis' Atterson."

She bustled away. Hiram thought he had heard enough about his neighbors for a while, and he went out to look over the pasture fencing, which was to be his first repair job. He would have that ready to turn the cow and her calf into as soon as the grass began to grow.

He rummaged about in what had been half woodshed and half workshop in Uncle Jeptha's time, and found a heavy claw-hammer, a pair of wire cutters, and a

pocket full of fence staples.

With this outfit he prepared to follow the line fence, which was likewise the pasture fence on the west side, between Mrs. Atterson's and Dickerson's.

Where he could, he mended the broken strands of wire. In other places the wires had sagged and were loose. The claw-hammer fixed these like a charm. Slipping the wire into the claw, a single twist of the wrist would usually pick up the sag and make the wire taut again at that point.

He drove a few staples, as needed, as he walked along. The pasture partook of the general conformation of the farm-it was rather long and narrow.

It had grown to clumps of bushes in spots, and there was sufficient shade. But he did not come to the water until he reached the lower end of the lot.

The branch trickled from a spring, or springs, farther east. It made an elbow at the corner of the pasture-the lower south-west corner-and there a water-hole had been scooped out at some past time.

This waterhole was deep enough for all purposes, and was shaded by a great oak that had stood there long before the house belonging to Jeptha Atterson had been built.

Here Hiram struck something that puzzled him. The boundary fence crossed this water-hole at a tangent, and recrossed to the west bank of the outflowing branch a few yards below, leaving perhaps half of the water-hole upon the neighbor's side of the fence.

Some of this wire at the water-hole was practically new. So were the posts. And after a little Hiram traced the line of old postholes which had followed a straight line on the west side of the water-hole.

In other words, this water-privilege for Dickerson's land was of recent arrangement-so recent indeed, that the young farmer believed he could see some fresh-turned earth about the newly-set posts.

"That's something to be looked into, I am afraid," thought Hiram, as he moved along the southern pasture fence.

But the trickle of the branch beckoned him; he had not found the fountain-head of the little stream when he had walked over a part of the timbered land with Henry Pollock, and now he struck into the open woods again, digging into the soil here and there with his heavy boot, marking the quality and age of the timber, and casting-up in his mind the possibilities and expense of clearing these overgrown acres.

"Mrs. Atterson may have a very valuable piece of land here in time," muttered Hiram. "A sawmill set up in here could cut many a hundred thousand feet of lumber-and good lumber, too. But it would spoil the beauty of the farm."

However, as must ever be in the case of the utility farm, the house was set on its ugliest part. The cleared fields along the road had nothing but the background of woods on the south and east to relieve their monotony.

On the brow of the steeper descent, which he had noted on his former visit to the back end of the farm, he found a certain clearing in the wood. Here the pines surrounded the opening on three sides.

To the south, through a break in the wooded hillside, he obtained a far-reaching view of the river valley as it lay, to the east and to the west. The prospect was delightful.

Here and there, on the farther bank of the river, which rose less abruptly there than on this side, lay several cheerful looking farmsteads. The white dwellings and outbuildings dotted the checkered fields of green and brown.

Cowbells tinkled in the distance, for the weather tempted farmers to let their cattle run in the pastures even so early in the season. A horse whinnied shrilly to a mate in a distant field.

The creaking of the heavy wheels of a laden farm-cart was a mellow sound in Hiram's ears. Beyond a fir plantation, high on the hillside, the sharply outlined steeple of a little church lay against the soft blue horizon.

"A beauty-spot!" Hiram muttered. "What a site for a home! And yet people want to build their houses right on an automobile road, and in sight of the rural mail box!"

His imagination began to riot, spurred by the outlook and by the nearer prospect of wood and hillside. The sun now lay warmly upon him as he sat upon a stump and drank in the beauty of it all.

After a time his ear, becoming attuned to the multitudinous voices of the wood, descried the silvery note of falling water. He arose and traced the sound.

Less than twenty yards away, and not far from the bluff, a vigorous rivulet started from beneath the half-bared roots of a monster beech, and fell over an outcropping boulder into a pool so clear that sand on its bottom, worked mysteriously into a pattern by the action of the water, lay revealed.

Hiram knelt on a mossy rock beside the pool, and bending put his lips to the water. It was the sweetest, most satisfying drink, he had imbibed for many a day.

But the morning was growing old, and Hiram wanted to trace the farther line of the farm. He went down to the river, crossed the open meadow again where they had built the campfire the morning before, and found the deeply scarred oak which stood exactly on the boundary line between the Atterson and Darrell tracts.

He turned to the north, and followed the line as nearly as might be. The Darrell tract was entirely wooded, and when he reached the uplands he kept on in the shadowy aisles of the sap-pines which covered his neighbor's property.

He came finally to where the ground fell away again, and the yellow, deeply-rutted road lay at his feet. The winter had played havoc with the automobile track.

The highway was unfenced and the bank dropped fifteen feet to the beaten path. A leaning oak overhung the road and Hiram lingered here, lying on its broad trunk, face upward, with his hat pulled over his eyes to shield them from the sunlight which filtered through the branches.

This land hereabout was beautiful. The boy could appreciate the beauty as well as the utility of the soil. It was so pleasing to the eye that he wished with all his heart it had been his own land he had surveyed.

"And I'll not be a tenant farmer all my life, nor a farm-foreman, as father was," determined the boy. "I'll get ahead. If I work for the benefit of other people for a few years, surely I'll win the chance in time to at last work for myself."

In the midst of his ruminations a sound broke upon his ear-a jarring note in the peaceful murmur of the woodland life. It was the thud of a horse's hoofs.

Not the sedate tunk-tunk of iron-shod feet on the damp earth, but an erratic and rapid pounding of hoof-beats which came on with such startling swiftness that Hiram sat up instantly, and craned his neck to see up the road.

"That horse is running away!" gasped the young farmer, and he swung himself out upon the lowest branch of the leaning tree which overhung the carttrack, the better to see along the highway.

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