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WHEN OLD PEG LED THE FLOCK
DURING the fifth week of school there was an enforced vacation of three or four days, over Sunday, while the school committee were investigating certain complaints of abusive punishment, against Master Brench.
The complaints were from numbers of the parents, and concerned putting those props in pupils' mouths to abolish "buzzing" of the lips, while studying their lessons; and also complaints about "sitting on nothing," said to be injurious to the spine. The affair did not much concern us young folks at the old Squire's. Indeed, we did not much care for the school that winter. Master Brench's attention was chiefly directed to keeping order and devising punishments for violations of school discipline. School studies appeared to be of minor importance with him.
It was on Tuesday of that week, while we were at home, that the following incident occurred.
Owing to our long winters, sheep raising, in Maine, has often been an uncertain business. But at the old Squire's we usually kept a flock of eighty or a hundred. They often brought us no real profit, but grandmother Ruth was an old-fashioned housewife who would have felt herself bereaved if she had had no woolen yarn for socks and bed blankets.
The sheep were already at the barn for the winter; it was the 12th of December, though as yet we had had no snow that remained long on the ground. We were cutting firewood out in the lot that day and came in at noon with good appetites, for the air was sharp.
While we sat at table a stranger drove up. He said that his name was Morey, and that he was stocking a farm which he had recently bought in the town of Lovell, nineteen or twenty miles west of our place.
"I want to buy a flock of sheep," he said. "I have called to see if you have any to sell."
"Well, perhaps," the old Squire replied, for that was one of the years when wool was low priced. As he and Morey went out to the west barn where the sheep were kept, grandmother Ruth looked disturbed.
"You go out and tell your grandfather not to sell those sheep," she said after a few minutes to Addison and me. "Tell him not to price them."
Addison and I went out, but we arrived too late. Mr. Morey and the old Squire were standing by the yard bars, looking at the sheep, and as we came up the stranger said:
"Now, about how much would you take for this flock — you to drive them over to my place in Lovell?"
Before either Addison or I could pass on grandmother Ruth's admonition, the old Squire had replied smilingly, "Well, I'd take five dollars a head for them."
As a matter of fact, the old gentleman had not really intended to sell the sheep; he had not thought that the man would pay that price for them, because it was now only the beginning of winter, and the sheep would have to be fed at the barn for nearly six months.
But to the old Squire's surprise Mr. Morey, with as little ado as if he were buying a pair of shoes, said, "Very well. I will take them."
Drawing out his pocketbook, he handed the old Squire ten new fifty-dollar bills and asked whether we could conveniently drive the sheep over to his farm on the following day. In fact, before the old Squire had more than counted the money, Mr. Morey had said good-day and had driven off.
Just what grandmother Ruth said when the old gentleman went in to put the bills away in his desk, we boys never knew; but for a long time thereafter the sale of the sheep was a sore subject at the old farm.
The transaction was not yet complete, however, for we still had to deliver the sheep to their new owner. At six o'clock the following morning Halstead, Addison and I set out to drive them to Lovell. The old Squire had been up since three o'clock, feeding the flock with hay and provender for the drive; he told us that he would follow later in the day with a team to bring us home after our long walk. The girls put us up luncheons in little packages, which we stowed in our pockets.
It was still dark when we started. The previous day had been clear, but the sky had clouded during the night. It was raw and chilly, with a feel of snow in the air. The sheep felt it; they were sluggish and unwilling to leave the barn. Finally, however, we got them down the lane and out on the hard-frozen highway; Halstead ran ahead, shaking the salt dish; Addison and I, following after, hustled the laggards along.
The leader of our flock was a large brock-faced ewe called Old Peg. She was known to be at least eleven years old, which is a venerable age for a sheep. She raised twin lambs every spring and was, indeed, a kind of flock mother, for many of the sheep were either her children or her grandchildren. Wherever the flock went, she took the lead and set the pace.
So long as we kept Old Peg following Halstead and the salt dish, the rest of the sheep scampered after, and we got on well.
We had gone scarcely more than a mile when, owing to a too hasty breakfast, or the morning chill, Halstead was taken with cramps. He was never a very strong boy and had always been subject to such ailments. We had to leave him at a wayside farmhouse — the Sylvester place — to be dosed with hot ginger tea. At last, after losing half an hour there, we went on without him; Addison now shook the salt dish ahead, and I, brandishing a long stick, kept stragglers from lagging in the rear.
Three persons are needed to drive a flock of a hundred sheep; but we saw no way except to go on and do the best we could. Now that it was light, the sky looked as if a storm were at hand.
The storm did not reach us until nearly eleven o'clock, however; we had got as far as the town of Albany before the first flakes began to fall. Then Old Peg made trouble. Leaving the barn and going off so far was against all her ideas of propriety, and now that a snowstorm had set in she was certain that something or other was wrong. She looked this way and that, sometimes turning completely round to look at the road. Presently she made a bolt off to the left and, jumping a stone wall, tried to circle back through a field. Part of the flock immediately followed, and we had a lively race to head her off and start her along the road again.
Addison abandoned the salt dish, — it was no longer attractive to the sheep, — and helped me to drive the flock. At every cross road Peg seemed bent on taking the wrong turn. In spite of the cold she kept us in a perspiration, and we did not have time even to eat the luncheon that we had brought in our pockets. Old Peg's one idea was to lead the flock home to the old farm.
By hard work we kept the sheep going in the right direction until after three o'clock in the afternoon. By that time four or five inches of snow had fallen. It whitened the whole country and loaded the fleeces of the sheep. The flock had begun to lag, and the younger sheep were bleating plaintively. We were getting worried, for the storm was increasing, and as nearly as Addison could remember we had six miles farther to go. It would soon be night; the forests that here bordered the road were darkening already. We had no idea how we should get the flock on after dark.
Old Peg soon took the matter out of our hands. She had been plodding on moodily at the head of her large family for half an hour or more, and coming at length to a dim cross road that entered the highway from the woods on the north side, she turned and started up it at a headlong run.
How she ran! And how the flock streamed after her! How we ran, too, to head her off and turn her back! Addison dashed out to one side of the narrow forest road and I to the other. But there was brush and swamp on both sides. Neither of us could catch up with Old Peg. Stumbling through the snowy thickets, we tried to get past her half a dozen times, but she still kept ahead.
She must have gone a mile. When she at last emerged into an opening, we saw, looming dimly through the storm and the fast-gathering dusk, a large, weathered barn, with its great doors standing open.
"Well, let her go, confound her!" Addison exclaimed, panting.
Quite out of breath, we gave up the chase and fell behind. Old Peg never stopped until she was inside that barn. When we caught up with the rout, she had her flock about her on the barn floor.
"Perhaps it's just as well to let them stay overnight here," Addison said after we had looked round.
Thirty or forty yards farther along the road stood a low, dark house, with the door hanging awry and half the glass in the two front windows broken. Evidently it was a deserted farm. From appearances, no one had lived there for years. But some one had stored a quantity of hay in the mow beside the barn floor; the sheep were already nibbling at it.
"I don't know whose hay this is," Addison said, "but the sheep must be fed. The old Squire or Mr. Morey can look up the owners and settle for it afterwards."
We strewed armfuls of the hay over the barn floor and let the hungry creatures help themselves. Then we shut the barn doors and went to the old house.
Every one knows what a cheerless, forbidding place a deserted house is by night. The partly open door stuck fast; but we squeezed in, and Addison struck a match. One low room occupied most of the interior; there was a fireplace, but so much snow had come down the large chimney that the prospect of having a fire there was poor. As in many old farmhouses, there was a brick oven close beside the fireplace.
"Maybe we can light a fire in the oven," Addison said, and after breaking up several old boards we did succeed in kindling a blaze there. The dreary place was not a little enlivened by the firelight. We stood before it, warmed our fingers and munched the cold meat, doughnuts and cheese that the girls had put up for us.
But the smoke had disturbed a family of owls in the chimney. Their dismal whooping and chortling, heard in the gloom of the night and the storm, were uncanny to say the least. I wanted to go back to the barn, with the sheep; but Addison was more matter-of-fact.
"Oh, let them hoot!" he said. "I am going to stay here and have a fire, if I can find anything to burn."
While poking about at the far end of the room for more boards to break up, he found a battered old wardrobe with double doors and called to me to help him drag it in front of the oven.
"Going to smash that?" I asked.
"No, going to sleep in it," said he. "We'll set it up slantwise before the fire, open the doors and lie down in it. I've a notion that it will keep us warm, even if it isn't very soft."
The wardrobe was about four feet wide, and, after propping up the top end at an easy slant, we lay down in it, and took turns getting up to replenish the blaze in the oven. It was not wholly uncomfortable; but any sense of ease that I had begun to feel was banished by a suspicion that Addison now confided to me.
"I don't certainly know what place this is," he said, "but I'm beginning to think that it must be the old Jim Cronin farm. I've heard that it's over in this vicinity, away off in the woods by itself. If that's so," Addison went on, "nobody has lived here for eight or nine years. Cronin, you know, kept his wife shut up down cellar for a year or two, because she tried to run away from him. Finally she disappeared, and a good many thought that Cronin murdered her. Folks say the old house is haunted, but that's all moonshine. Cronin himself enlisted and was killed in the Civil War. By the way those owls carry on up the chimney I guess nobody ever comes here."
That account quite destroyed my peace of mind. I would much rather have gone out with the sheep, but I did not like to leave Addison. I got up and searched for more fuel, for I could not bear to think of letting the fire go out. No loose boards remained except an old cleated door partly off its hinges, which opened on a flight of dark stairs that led into the cellar. We broke up the door and took turns again tending the fire.
"Oh, well, this isn't so bad," Addison said. "But I wonder what the old Squire will think when he gets to Morey's place with the team and finds that we haven't come. Hope he isn't out looking for us in the storm."
That thought was disquieting; but there was nothing we could do about it, and so we resigned ourselves to pass the night as best we could. The owls still hooted and chortled at times, but their noise did not greatly disturb us now. After a while I dropped off to sleep, and I guess Addison did, too.
It was probably well toward morning when a cry like a loud shriek brought me to my feet outside the old wardrobe! A single dying ember flickered in the oven. Addison, too, was on his feet, with his eyes very wide and round.
"I say!" he whispered. "What was that?"
Before I could speak we heard it again; but this time, now that we were awake, it sounded less like a human shriek than the shrill yelp of an animal. The sounds came from directly under us; and for the instant all I could think of was Cronin's murdered wife!
Addison had turned to stare at the dark cellar doorway, when we heard it yet again — a wild staccato yelp, prolonged and quavering.
"There must be a wolf or a fox down there!" Addison muttered and picked up a loose brick from the fireplace.
He started to throw it down the cellar stairs, when three or four yelps burst forth at once, followed by a rumble and clatter below, as if a number of animals were running madly round, and then by the ugliest, most savage growl that ever came to my ears!
Addison stopped short. "Good gracious!" he exclaimed. "That's some big beast. Sounds like a bear! He'll be up here in a minute! Quick, help me stand this wardrobe in front of the doorway!"
He seized it on one side, I on the other, and between us we quickly stood that heavy piece of furniture up against the dark opening. Then, while I held it in place, Addison propped it fast with the door from the foot of the chamber stairs, which with one wrench he tore from its hinges.
It was evidently foxes, or bears, or both; but how they had got into the cellar was not clear. We started the fire blazing again and, standing in front of it, listened to the uproar. At times we heard yelps in the storm outside, at the back of the house, and decided that there must be some other way than the stairs of getting into the cellar.
After a while it began to grow light. Snow was still falling, but not so fast. The commotion below had quieted, but we heard a fox barking outside and from the back window caught sight of the animal moving about in the snow, holding up first one foot then another. Farther away, among the bushes of the clearing, stood another fox; and still farther off in the woods, a third was barking querulously. Tracks in the snow led to a large hole under the sill of the house where a part of the cellar wall had caved in.
"But there's a bear or some other large animal down cellar," Addison said. "You watch here at the window."
He got a brick and, pulling the old wardrobe aside, flung it down the stairs and yelled. Instantly there was a clatter below, and out from the hole under the sill bounded a big black animal, evidently a bear, and loped away through the snow.
We could now pretty well account for the nocturnal uproar. Bears hibernate in winter, but are often out until the first snows come. The storm had probably surprised this one while he was still roaming about, and he had hastily searched for a den.
The storm had abated, and we decided to start for Lovell at once. We gave the sheep a foddering of hay and then got the flock outdoors. Old Peg was very loath to leave the barn, and we had to drag her out by main strength. Addison went ahead and tramped a path in the deep snow. Finding that there was no help for it, Old Peg followed, and the flock trailed after her in a woolly file several hundred feet long. Flourishing my stick and shouting loudly, I urged on the rear of the procession.
In less than half an hour we met the old Squire with the team and two men from the Morey farm. The old gentleman had arrived there about six o'clock the night before and had been worried as to what had become of us. He must have passed the place where Old Peg had bolted up the road not long after we were there; but it was already so dark that he had not seen our snow-covered tracks.
"Well, well, boys, you must have had a hard time of it!" were his first words. "Where did you pass the night?"
"At the old Cronin farm, I guess," Addison replied.
"That lonesome place!" the old Squire exclaimed.
"It was slightly lonesome," Addison admitted dryly.
"Did you see a ghost?" one of the men asked with a grin.
"Not a white one," Addison replied. "But we saw something pretty big and black. There were owls in the chimney and foxes in the cellar — also a bear. I guess that's all the ghost there is. But there's a hay bill for somebody to pay; about three hundredweight, I think."
From there on, with the men to help us, we made better progress, and before noon we had delivered the flock to its new owner. The warm dinner that we ate at the Morey farm tasted mighty good to Addison and me.
We never saw Peg again; but before the winter had passed, the old Squire bought another small flock of sheep from a neighbor.