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   Chapter 19 THE REASON WHY

Hiram the Young Farmer By Burbank L. Todd Characters: 13918

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


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 price."

"No. I wouldn't sell if I was her, for no sixteen hundred dollars."

"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 signature."

"No! you don't mean that?" exclaimed the farmer. "My name to it, too?"

"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 sick."

"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."

"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 months?"

"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, excitedly.

"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 all.

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 so.

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 neighbors.

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 social gathering-place.

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 so

ap-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 old man.

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 son-in-law.

"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 customers.

"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, or not.

"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 right?"

"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 bad--"

"You have no reason to doubt the validity of the option?" cried Hiram, in desperation.

"Assuredly not."

"Then why didn't Uncle Jeptha speak of it to somebody before he died, if the option had not run out at that time?"

"Humph!"

"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 read it."

"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 Schell, suddenly.

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?

"Yes."

"And it reads a year?

"Oh, yes."

"Then how you going to get around that?" demanded Schell, with conviction.

"But perhaps Uncle Jeptha signed the option thinking it was for a shorter time."

"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 closely.

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.

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