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   Chapter 32 THE CLOUD IS LIFTED

Hiram the Young Farmer By Burbank L. Todd Characters: 8340

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Despite Hiram Strong's warning to his employer when they started work on the old Atterson Eighty, that she must expect no profit for this season's, work, the Christmas-tide, when they settled their accounts for the year, proved the young fellow to have been a bad prophet.

"Why, Hiram, after I pay you this hundred dollars, I shall have a little money left-I shall indeed. And all that corn in the crib-and stacks of fodder, beside the barn loft full, and the roots, and the chickens, and the pork, and the calf--"

"Why, Hiram! I'm a richer woman to-day than when I came out here to the farm, that's sure. How do you account for it?"

Hiram had to admit that they had been favored beyond his expectations.

"If that Pepper man would only come for'ard and say what he was going to do!" sighed Mother Atterson.

That was the continual complaint now. As the winter advanced all four of the family bore the option in mind continually. There was talk of the railroad going before the Legislature to ask for the condemnation of the property it needed, in the spring.

It seemed pretty well settled that the survey along the edge of the Atterson Eighty would be the route selected. And, if that was the case, why did Pepper not try to exercise his option?

Mr. Strickland had said that there was no way by which the real estate man's hand could be forced; so they had to abide Pepper's pleasure.

"If we only knew we'd stay," said Hiram, "I'd cut a few well grown pine trees, while I am cutting the firewood, have them dragged to the mill, and saw the boards we shall need if we go into the celery business this coming season."

"What do you want boards for?" demanded Henry, who chanced to be home over Christmas, and was at the house.

"For bleaching. Saves time, room, and trouble. Banking celery, even with a plow, is not alone old-fashioned, and cumbersome, but is apt to leave the blanched celery much dirtier."

"But you'll need an awful lot of board for six acres, Hiram!" gasped Henry.

"I don't know. I shall run the trenches four feet apart, and you mustn't suppose, Henry, that I shall blanch all six acres at once. The boards can be used over and over again."

"I didn't think of that," admitted his friend.

Henry was eagerly interested in his selected studies at the experiment station and college, and Abel Pollock followed his son's work there with growing approval, too.

"It does beat all," he admitted to Hiram, "what that boy has learned already about practical things. Book-farming ain't all flapdoodle, that's sure!"

So the year ended-quietly, peacefully, and with no little happiness in the Atterson farmhouse, despite the cloud that overshadowed the farm-title, and the doubts which faced them about the next season's work.

They sat up on New Year's eve to see the old year out and the new in, and had a merry evening although there were only the family. When the distant whistles blew at midnight they went out upon the back porch to listen.

It was a dark night, for thick clouds shrouded the stars. Only the unbroken coverlet of snow (it had fallen that morning) aided them to see about the empty fields.

In the far distance was the twinkle of a single light-that in an upper chamber of the Pollock house. Dickersons' was mantled in shadow, and those two houses were the only ones in sight of the Atterson place.

"And I was afraid when we came out here that I'd be dead of loneliness in a month-with no near neighbors," admitted Mother Atterson. "But I've been so busy that I ain't never minded it--

"What's that light, Hiram?"

Her cry was echoed by Sister. Behind the bam a sudden glow was spreading against the low-hung clouds. It was too far away for one of their out-buildings to be afire; but Hiram set off immediately, although he only had slippers on, for the corner of the barnyard fence.

When he reached this point he saw that one of the fodder stacks in the cornfield was afire. The whole top of the stack was ablaze.

"Oh, dear! Oh, dear!" cried Sister, who had followed him. "What can we do?"

"Nothing,", said Hiram. "There's no wind, and it won't spread to another stack. But

that one is past redemption, for sure!"

Hiram hastened back to the house and put on his boots. But he did not wade through the snow to the fodder stack that was burning so briskly. He merely made a detour around it, at some yards distant. Nowhere did he see the mark of a footprint.

How the stack had been set afire was a mystery. Hiram had stacked the fodder himself, with the help of Sister, who had pitched the bundles up to him. The young farmer did not smoke, and he seldom carried matches loose in his pockets.

Therefore, the idea that he had dropped a match in the fodder and a field mouse, burrowing for some nubbin of corn, had come across the match, nibbled the head, and so set the blaze, was scarcely feasible.

Yet, how else had the fire started?

When daylight came Hiram could find no footprint near the stack-only his own where he had circled it while it was blazing.

It was the stack nearest to the Dickerson line. Hiram, naturally, thought of Pete.

Since Mrs. Dickerson's sickness, Mother Atterson had been back and forth to help her neighbor, and whenever Sam Dickerson saw Hiram he was as friendly as it was in the nature of the man to be.

Hiram could not believe that Pete's father would now countenance any of his son's meannesses; yet when the young farmer went along the line fence, he saw fresh tracks across the Dickerson fields, and discovered where the person had stood, on the Dickerson side of the fence opposite the burned fodder stack.

But these footprints were all of three hundred feet from the stack, and there was not a mark in the snow upon Hiram's side of the fence, saving his own footprints.

"Maybe somebody merely ran across to look at the blaze. But it's strange I did not see him," thought Hiram.

He could not help being suspicious, however, and he prowled about the stacks and the barns more than ever at night. He could not shake off the feeling that the enemy in the dark was at work again.

January passed, and the fatal day-the tenth of February-drew nearer and nearer. If Pepper proposed to exercise his option he must do it on or before that date.

Neither Hiram nor Mrs. Atterson had seen the real estate man of late; but they had seen Mr. Strickland, and on the final day they drove to town to meet Pepper-if the man was going to show up-in the lawyer's office.

"I wouldn't trouble him, if I were you," advised the lawyer. "But if you insist, I'll send over for him."

"I want to know what he means by all this," declared Mrs. Atterson, angrily. "He's kept me on tenter-hooks for ten months, and there ought to be some punishment for the crime."

"I am afraid he has been within his rights," said the lawyer, smiling; but he sent his clerk for the real estate man, probably being very well convinced of the outcome of the affair.

In came the snaky Mr. Pepper. The moment he saw Mrs. Atterson and Hiram he began to cackle.

"Ye don't mean to say you come clean in here this stormy day to try and sell that farm to me?" asked the real estate man. "No, ma'am! Not for no sixteen hundred dollars. If you'll take twelve--"

Mrs. Atterson could not find words to reply to him; and Hiram felt like seizing the scoundrel by the scruff of his neck and throwing him down to the street. But it was Mr. Strickland who interposed:

"So you do not propose to exercise your option?"

"No, indeed-y!"

"How long since did you give up the idea of purchasing the Atterson place?" asked the lawyer, curiously.

"Pshaw! I gave up the idee 'way back there last spring," chuckled Pepper.

"You haven't the paper with you, have you, Mr. Pepper?" asked Mr. Strickland, quietly.

The real estate man looked wondrous sly and tapped the side of his nose with a lean finger.

"Why, I tore up that old paper long ago. It warn't no good to me," said Pepper. "I wouldn't take the farm at that price for a gift," and he departed with a sneering smile upon his lips.

"And well he did destroy it," declared Mr. Strickland. "It was a forgery-that is what it was. And if we could have once got Pepper in court with it, he would not have turned another scaly trick for some years to come."

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