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ABOUT this time an affair which had long been worrying Addison and myself came to a final settlement.
Up in the great woods, three or four miles from the old Squire's farm, there was a clearing of thirty or forty acres in which stood an old house and barn, long unoccupied. A lonelier place can hardly be imagined. Sombre spruce and fir woods inclosed the clearing on all sides; and over the tree-tops on the east side loomed the three rugged dark peaks of the Stoss Pond mountains.
Thirty years before, Lumen Bartlett, a young man about twenty years old, had cleared the land with his own labor, built the house and barn, and a little later gone to live there with his wife, Althea, who was younger even than he.
Life in so remote a place must have been somewhat solitary; but they were very happy, it is said, for a year and a half. Then one morning they fell to quarreling bitterly over so trifling ,a thing as a cedar broom. In the anger of the moment Althea made a bundle of her clothing and without a word of farewell set off on foot to go home to her parents, who lived ten miles away.
Lumen, equally stubborn, took his axe and went out to his work of clearing land for a new field. No one saw him alive afterwards; but two weeks later some hunters found his body in the woods. Apparently the tops of several of the trees he had been trying to cut down had lodged together, and to bring them down he had cut another large tree on which they hung. This last tree must have started to fall suddenly. Lumen ran the wrong way and was caught under the top of one of the lodged trees as it came crashing down. The marks showed that he had tried, probably for hours, to cut off with his pocket knife one large branch that lay across his body. They found the knife with the blade broken. He had also tried to free himself by digging with his bare fingers into the hard, rocky earth. If Lumen had been to blame for the quarrel, he paid a fearful penalty.
Afterwards, however, Althea declared that she had been to blame; and if that were true, she also paid a sad penalty. During the few remaining years of her life she was never in her right mind. She used to imagine that she heard Lumen calling to her for help, and several times, eluding her parents, she made her way back to the clearing. Every time when they found her she was wandering about the place, stopping now and then as if to listen, then flitting on again, saying in a sad singsong, "I'm coming, Lumen! Oh, I'll come back!"
Naturally, persons of a superstitious nature began to imagine that they, too, heard strange cries at the deserted farm, for no one ever lived there subsequently. Very likely they did hear cries — the cries of wild animals; that old clearing in the woods was a great place for bears, foxes, raccoons and "lucivees."
A year or two before we young folks went home to live on the old farm the town sold this deserted lot at auction for unpaid taxes. Some years before, vagrant woodsmen had accidentally burned the old house; but the barn, a weathered, gray structure, was still intact. Since the land adjoined other timber lots that the old Squire owned, he bid it off and let it lie unoccupied except as a pasture where sheep, or young stock that needed little care, could be put away for the summer.
The soil was good, and the grass was excellent in quality.
One year, in May, after we had repaired the brush fence, we turned into it our three Morgan colts along with two Percherons from a stock farm near the village, a Morgan three-year-old belonging to our neighbors, the Edwardses, three colts owned by other neighbors, and a beautiful sorrel three-year-old mare, the pet of young Mrs. Kennard, wife of the principal at the village academy. Her father, who had recently died, had given her the colt.
All four Morgans were dark-chestnut colts, lithe but strong and clear-eyed. And what chests and loins they had for their size! They were not so showy as the larger, dappled Percherons, perhaps, but they were better all-round horses. Lib, Brown and Joe were the names of our Morgans; Chet was the name that the Edwards young folks gave theirs. Yet none of them was so pretty as Mrs. Kennard's Sylph. She was, indeed, a blonde fairy of a mare, as graceful as a deer.
On the afternoon that we took Sylph up to the clearing, Mrs. Kennard walked all the way with us, because she wished to see for herself what the place was like. When she saw what a remote, wild region it was, she was loath to leave her pet there, and Mr. Kennard had some ado to reassure her. At last, after giving the colt many farewell pats and caresses, she came away with us. On the way home she said over and over to Addison and me, "Be sure to go up often and see that Sylph is all right." And, laughing a little, we promised that we would, and that we would also give the colt sugar lumps as well as her weekly salt.
"Salting" the sheep and young cattle that were out at pasture for the season was one of our weekly duties. When we were very busy we sometimes put it off until Sunday morning. Sometimes it slipped our minds altogether for a few days, or even for a week; but Mrs. Kennard's solicitude for her pet had touched our hearts, and we resolved that we should always be prompt in performing the task.
The colts had been turned out on Tuesday; and the following Sunday morning after breakfast Addison and I, with the girls accompanying us, set off with the salt and the sugar lumps. It was a long walk for the girls, but an inspiring one on such a bright morning. The songs of birds and the chatter of squirrels filled the woodland. Fresh green heads of bosky ferns and wake-robin were pushing up through the old mats of last year's foliage.
"How jealous the rest of them will be of Sylph!" said Ellen, who had the sugar lumps. "I believe I shall give each of them a lump, so that they won't be spiteful and kick her."
As we neared the bars in the brush fence we saw several of the colts at the upper side of the clearing beyond the old barn. At the first call from us, up went their pretty heads; there was a general whinny, and then they came racing to the bars to greet us. Perhaps they had been a little homesick so far from stables and barns.
"One — two — three — four — why, they are not all here!" Theodora said. "Here are only seven. Lib isn't here, or Mrs. Kennard's Sylph."
"Oh, I guess they're not far off," Addison said, and began calling, "Co' jack, co' jack!" He wanted them all there before he dropped the salt in little piles on the grassy greensward.
But the absent ones did not come. Ellen ventured the opinion that they might have jumped the fence and wandered off.
"Oh, they wouldn't separate up here in the woods," Addison said. "Colts keep together when off in a back pasture like this."
But when he went on calling and they still did not come, we began really to fear that they had got out and strayed.
"Let's go round the fence," Addison said at last, "and see if we find a gap, or hoofprints on the outside, where they have jumped over."
He and Theodora went one way, Ellen and I the other. We met halfway round the clearing without having discovered either gaps in the fence or tracks outside. Remembering that horses, when rolling, sometimes get cast in hollows between knolls, we searched the entire clearing, and even looked into the old barn, the door of which stood slightly ajar; but we found no trace of the missing animals and began to believe that they really had jumped out.
We gave the seven colts their salt and were about to start home to report to the old Squire when Ellen remarked that we had not actually looked among the alders down by the brook, where the colts went for water.
"Oh, but those colts would not stay down there by themselves all this time with us calling them!" Addison exclaimed.
"But let's just take a look, to be certain," Ellen replied, and she and I ran down there.
We had no more than pushed our way through the alder clumps when two crows rose silently and went flapping away; and then I caught sight of something that made me stop short: the body of one of the Morgan colts — our Lib — lying close to the brook!
"Oh!" gasped Ellen. "It's dead!"
Pushing on through the alders, we saw one of the Percherons near the Morgan. The sight affected Ellen so much that she turned back; but I went on and a little farther up the brook found the sorrel lying stark and stiff.
A moment later Ellen returned, with Addison and Theodora. Both girls were moved to tears as they gazed at poor Sylph; they felt even worse about her than about our own Morgan.
"Oh, what will Mrs. Kennard say?" Ellen cried. "How dreadfully she will feel!"
Addison closely examined the bodies of the colts. "I cannot understand what did it!" he exclaimed. "No marks. No blood. It wasn't wild animals. It couldn't have been lightning, for there hasn't been a thundershower this season. Must be something they've eaten."
We looked all along the brook, but could see no Indian poke, the fresh growths of which will poison stock. Nor had we ever seen ground hemlock or poisonous ivy there. The clearing was nearly all good, grassy upland such as farmers consider a safe pasturage. Truly the shadow of tragedy seemed to hover there.
We bore our sorrowful tidings home, and the old Squire was as much astonished and mystified as every one else. None of us had the heart either to carry the sad news or even to send word of it to Mrs. Kennard; but we notified the owner of the Percherons at once. He came to look into the matter the next morning.
The affair made an unusual stir, and all that Monday a considerable number of persons walked up to the clearing to see if they could determine the cause of the colts' mysterious death. Many and various were the conjectures. Some professed to believe that the colts had been wantonly poisoned. "It's a state-prison offense to lay poison for domestic animals," we overheard several of them say; but no one could find any motive for such a deed.
The owner of the Percheron brought a horse doctor, who made a careful examination, but he was unable to determine anything more than that the horses had died of a virulent poison. We buried them that afternoon.
Before night the news had reached Mrs. Kennard. In her grief she not only reproached herself bitterly for allowing Sylph to be turned out in so wild a place but held the old Squire and all of us as somehow to blame for her pet's death. The owner of the Percherons also intimated that he should hold us liable for his loss, although when a man turns his stock out in a neighbor's pasture it is generally on the understanding that it is at his own risk. He took away his other Percheron colt; and during the day all the other persons who had colts up there took their animals home. In all respects the occurrence was most disagreeable — a truly black Monday with us. The old Squire said little, except that he wanted the right thing done.
For an hour or more after we went to bed that night Addison and I lay talking about the affair, but we could think of no explanation of the strange occurrence and at last fell asleep. The next morning, however, the solution of the mystery flashed into Addison's mind. As we were dressing at five o'clock, he suddenly turned to me and exclaimed in a queer voice:
"I know what killed those colts!"
"What?" I asked.
"That fox bed!"
For a whole minute we stood there, half dressed, looking at each other in consternation. Without doubt, the blame for the loss of the colts was on us. What the consequences might be we hardly dared to think.
"What shall we do?" I exclaimed.
Addison looked alarmed as he answered in a low tone, "Keep quiet — till we think it over."
"We must tell the old Squire," I said.
"But there's Willis," Addison reminded me. "It was Willis who made the bed, you know."
The old clearing was, as I have said, a great place for foxes; and the preceding fall Addison and I, wishing to add to the fund we were accumulating for our expenses when we should go away to college, had entered into a kind of partnership with Willis Murch to do a little trapping up there. Addison and I were little more than silent partners, however; Willis actually tended the traps.
But there are years, as every trapper knows, when you cannot get a fox into a steel trap by any amount of artfulness. What the reason is, I do not know, unless some fox that has been trapped and that has escaped passes the word round among all the other foxes. There were plenty of foxes coming to the clearing; we never went up there without seeing fresh signs about the old barn. Yet Willis got no fox.
What is more strange, it was so all over New England that fall; foxes kept clear of steel traps. As the fur market was quick, certain city dealers began sending out offers of "fox pills" to trappers whom they had on their lists. Willis received one of those letters and showed it to us. The fox pills were, of course, poison and were to be inclosed in little balls of tallow and laid where foxes were known to come.
Trappers were advised to use them but were properly cautioned how and where to expose them. After picking up one of the pills, a fox would make for the nearest running water as fast as he could go; and that was the place for the trapper to look for him, for, after drinking, the fox soon expired. It has been argued that poison is more humane than the steel trap, since it brings a quick death; but both are cruel. There are also other considerations that weigh against the use of poison; but at that time there was no law against it.
The furrier who wrote to Willis offered to send him a box of those pills for seventy-five cents. We talked it over and agreed to try it, and Addison and I contributed the money.
A few days later Willis received the pills and proceeded to lay them out after a plan of his own. He cut several tallow candles into pieces about an inch long, and embedded a pill in each. When he had prepared twenty or more of those pieces of poisoned tallow, he put them in what he called a fox bed, of oat chaff, behind that old barn. The bed was about as large as the floor of a small room. At that time of year farmers
were killing poultry, and Willis collected a basketful of chickens' and turkeys' heads to put into the bed along with the pieces of tallow. He thought that the foxes would smell the heads and dig the bed over.
We had said nothing to any one about it. The old Squire was away from home; but we knew pretty well that he would not approve of that method of getting foxes. Indeed, he had little sympathy with the use of traps. Willis was the only one who looked after the bed, or, indeed, who went up to the clearing at all.
During the next three or four weeks Willis gathered in not less than ten pelts, I think. They were mostly red foxes, but one was a large "crossed gray," the skin of which brought twenty-two dollars. After every f ew days Willis "doctored" the bed with more pills; he probably used more than a hundred.
What had happened to the colts was now clear. They had nuzzled that chaff for the oat grains that were left in it and had picked up some of those little balls of tallow. We wondered now that we had not at once guessed the cause of their death, and we wondered, too, that we had not thought of the fox bed and the danger from it when we first turned the colts into the pasture. The fact remains, however, that it had never occurred to us that fox pills would poison colts as well as foxes.
All that day as we worked we brooded over it; and that evening, when we had done the chores, we stole off to the Murches' and, calling Willis out, told him about it and asked him what he thought we had better do. At first he was incredulous, then thoroughly alarmed. It was not so much the thought of having to settle for the loss of the horses that terrified him as it was the dread that he might be imprisoned for exposing poison to domestic animals.
"Don't say a word!" he exclaimed. "Nobody knows about that fox bed. If we keep still, it will never come out,"
Addison and I both felt that such secrecy would leave us with a mighty mean feeling in our hearts; but Willis begged us never to say a word about it to any one. He was as penitent as we were, I think; but the thought that he might have to go to jail filled him with panic.
We went home in a very uncomfortable frame of mind, without having reached any decision.
"We've got to square this somehow," Addison said. "If I had the money, I'd settle for the colts and say nothing more to Willis about it."
"Money wouldn't make Mrs. Kennard feel much better," I said.
"That's so; but we might find a pretty sorrel colt somewhere, and make her a present of it in place of Sylph — if we only had the money."
If it had not been for Willis, I
rather think that we should have gone to the old Squire that very evening and
told him the whole story; but the legal consequences of the affair troubled us,
and since they affected Willis more than they affected us we did
Week after week went by without our being able to bring ourselves to confess. The concealment was a source of daily uneasiness to us; although we rarely spoke of the affair to each other, it was always on our minds. Whenever we did speak of it together, Addison would say, "We've got to straighten that out," or, "I hate to have that colt scrape hanging on us in this way." We tried several times to get Willis's consent to our telling the old Squire; but he had brooded over the thing so long that he had convinced himself that if his act became known he would surely be sent to the penitentiary.
So there the matter lay covered up all summer until one afternoon in September, when the old Squire drove to the village to contract for his apple barrels, and I went with him to get a pair of boots. Just as we were starting for home we met Mrs. Kennard. Previously she had often visited us at the farm, but since the death of Sylph she had not come near us. The old Squire tried to-day to be more cordial than ever, but Mrs. Kennard answered him rather coldly. She started on, but turned suddenly and asked whether we had learned anything more about the death of those colts.
"And, oh, do you think that poor Sylph lay there, suffering, a long time?" she exclaimed, with tears in her eyes. "I keep thinking of it."
"No, we have learned nothing more," the old Squire said gently. "It was a mysterious affair; but I think all three of the colts died suddenly, within a few minutes."
That was all he could say to comfort her, and Mrs. Kennard walked slowly away with her handkerchief at her eyes. It was painful, and I sat there in the wagon feeling like a mean little malefactor.
"Very singular about those colts," the old Squire remarked partly to me, partly to himself, as we drove on. "A strange thing."
Sudden resolution nerved me. I was sick of skulking. "Sir," said I, swallowing hard several times, "I know what killed those colts!"
The old Squire glanced quickly at me, started to speak, but, seeing how greatly agitated I was, kindly refrained from questioning me.
"It was fox pills!" I blurted out. "Willis Murch and Ad and I had a fox bed up there last winter. We never thought of it when the colts were put in. They ate the poison pills."
The old Squire made no comment, and I plunged into further details.
"That accounts for it, then," he said at last.
I had expected him to speak plainly to me about those fox pills, but he merely asked me what I thought of using poison in trapping.
"I never would use it again!" I exclaimed hotly. "I've had enough of it!"
"I am glad you see it so," he remarked. "It is a bad method. You never know what may come of it. Hounds or deer may get it, or sheep, or young cattle, or even children."
We drove on in silence for some minutes. Clearly the old Squire was having me do my own thinking; for he now asked me what I thought should be done next.
"Ad thinks we ought to square it up somehow," I replied.
The old Squire nodded. "I am glad to hear that," he said. "What does Addison think we ought to do?"
"Pay Mr. Cutter for that Percheron colt."
"Yes, and Mrs. Kennard?"
"He thinks we could find another sorrel colt somewhere and make her a present of it."
The old Squire nodded again. "I see. Perhaps we can." Then, after a minute, "And what about letting this be known?"
"Willis is scared," I said. "Addison thinks it would be about as well now to settle up if we can and say nothing."
The old Squire did not reply to that for some moments. I thought he was not so well pleased. "I do not believe that, in the circumstances, Willis need fear being imprisoned," he said finally, "and I see no reason for further concealment. True, several months have passed and people have mostly forgotten it; perhaps not much good would come from publishing the facts abroad. We'll think it over."
After a minute he said, "I'm glad you told me this," and, turning, shook hands with me gravely.
"Ad and I don't want you to think that we expect you to square this up for us!" I exclaimed. "We want to do something to pay the bill ourselves, and to pay you for Lib, too."
The old Squire laughed. "Yes, I see how you feel," he said. "Would you like me to give you and Addison a job on shares this fall or winter, so that you could straighten this out?"
"Yes, sir, we would," said I earnestly. "And make Willis help, too!"
"Yes, yes," the old Squire said and laughed again. "I agree with you that Willis should do his part. Nothing like square dealing, is there, my son?" he went on. "It makes us all feel better, doesn't it?"
And he gave me a brisk little pat on the shoulder that made me feel quite like a man.
How much better I felt after that talk with the old Squire! I felt as blithe as a bird; and when we got home I ran and frisked and whistled all the way to the pasture, where I went to drive home the Jersey herd. The only qualm I felt was that I had acted without Addison's consent; but his first words when I had told him relieved me on that score.
"I'm glad of it!" he said. "We've been in that fox bed long enough. Now let Willis squirm." And when I told him of the old Squire's arrangement for our paying off the debt, he said, "That suits me. But we'll make Willis work!"
We went over to tell Willis that evening. He was, I think, even more relieved than we were; in the weeks of anxiety that he had passed he had determined that nothing would ever induce him to use poison again for trapping animals.
At that time many new telegraph lines were being put up in Maine; and the old Squire had recently accepted a contract for three thousand cedar poles, twenty feet long, at the rate of twenty-five cents a pole. Up in lot "No. 5," near Lurvey's Stream, there was plenty of cedar suitable for the purpose; the poles could be floated down to the point of delivery. The old Squire let us furnish a thousand of those poles, putting in our own labor at cutting and hauling. And in that way we earned the money to pay for the damage done by our fox pills.
Mr. Cutter, the owner of the Percheron, was willing to settle his loss for one hundred dollars; and during the winter, by dint of many inquiries, we heard of another sorrel, a three-year-old, which we purchased for a hundred and fifteen dollars. We took Mr. Kennard into our confidence and with his connivance planned a pleasant surprise for his wife. While Theodora and Ellen, who had accompanied us to the village, were entertaining Mrs. Kennard indoors, the old Squire and Addison and I smuggled the colt into the little stable and put her in the same stall where Sylph had once stood. When all was ready, Mr. Kennard went in and said:
"Louise, Sylph's got back! Come out to the stable!"
Wonderingly Mrs. Kennard followed him out to the stable. For a moment she gazed, astonished; then, of course, she guessed the ruse. "Oh, but it isn't Sylph!" she cried. "It isn't half so pretty!" And out came her pocket handkerchief again.
The old Squire took her gently by the hand. "It's the best we could do," he said. "We hope you will accept her with our best wishes."
Truth to say, Mrs. Kennard's tears were soon dried; and before long the new colt became almost as great a pet as the lost Sylph.
"Don't you ever forget, and don't you ever let me forget, how the old Squire has helped us out of this scrape," Ad said to me that night after we had gone upstairs. "He's an old Christian. If he ever needs a friend in his old age and I fail him, let my name be Ichabod!"