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TWO VERY EARLY CALLERS — EACH ON BUSINESS
Except on Sunday mornings, breakfast at the farm in summer came at six. The Old Squire himself was often astir at four; and we boys were supposed to get up at five, so as to have milking done and other barn chores off, ready to go into the field from the breakfast table. Gram and the girls also rose at five, to get breakfast, take care of the milk and look after the poultry. Everybody, in fact, rose with the birds in that rural community. But often I was scarcely more than half awake at breakfast; Ellen and Wealthy, too, were in much the same case.
On one of these early mornings when I had been there about three weeks, our drowsiness at the breakfast table was dispelled by the arrival of two early callers — each on business.
Gram was pouring the coffee, when the outer door opened and a tall, sallow, dark-complexioned woman entered, the same whom I had met on the Meadow Brook bridge, while leading Little Dagon. She wore a calico gown and sun-bonnet, and may have been fifty years of age; and she walked in quite as a matter of course, saying, "How do you do, Joseph, how do you do, Ruth?" to the Old Squire and Gram.
"Why, how do you do, Olive?" said Gram, but not in the most cordial of tones. "Will you have some breakfast with us?"
"I have been to breakfast, Ruth," replied this visitor, throwing back her sun-bonnet and thereby displaying a forehead and brow that for height and breadth was truly Websterian. "I came to get my old dress that I left here when I cleaned house for you last spring, and I should also like that dollar that's owing me."
"Olive," rejoined Gram severely, "I do not owe you a dollar."
"Ruth," replied the caller with equal severity, "you do owe me a dollar."
She proceeded, as one quite familiar in the house, to the kitchen closet and took therefrom an old soiled gingham gown.
"Olive," said the Old Squire, "are you quite sure that there is a dollar due you here?"
"Joseph," replied the lofty-browed woman, "do you think I would say so, if I did not know it?"
"No, Olive, I don't think you would," said the Old Squire.
"It's no such thing, Olive," cried Gram, looking somewhat heated. "I always paid you up when you cleaned house for me and when you spun for me."
"Always but that one time, Ruth. Then you did not — into a dollar," replied the sallow woman, positively.
An argument ensued. It appeared that the debated dollar was a matter of three or four years standing. There was little doubt that both were equally honest in their convictions concerning it, pro and con. Still, they were a dollar apart, somehow. Furthermore, it came out, that "Olive" when she felt periodically poor, or out of sorts, was in the habit of calling and dunning Gram for that dollar, much to the old lady's displeasure.
The Old Squire sat uneasily and listened to the talk, with growing disfavor. At last he pulled out his pocketbook. "I will pay you the dollar, Olive," he said, "if only to stop the dispute about it."
"You shan't do it, Joseph!" exclaimed Gram. "There's no dollar due her."
But the Old Squire persisted in handing the woman a dollar.
"I do not care whether it is due or not!" he exclaimed. "I have heard altogether too much of this."
"I thank you, Joseph, for doing me justice of my hard-handed employer," said the tall woman, austerely.
"Now did ever anybody hear the like!" Gram exclaimed, pink from vexation. "Oh, Olive, you — you — you bold thing, to say that of me!"
"There, there!" cried the Old Squire. "Peace, women folks. Remember that you are both Christians and public professors."
Gram sat and fanned herself, fast and hard. Our visitor folded the dress into a bundle and marched slowly and austerely out.
"Olive, I hope your conscience is clear," Gram called after her severely.
"Ruth, I hope your conscience is as clear as mine," the departing one called back in calm tones, from the yard outside.
She left an awkward silence behind her; breakfast had come to a standstill; and I improved the elemental sort of hush, to whisper to Theodora, who had been at the farm a year, and ask who this portentous disturber of the family credit really was.
"Oh, it is only 'Aunt Olive,'" Theodora whispered back. "She comes here to help us every spring and fall."
"Is she our actual aunt?" I asked in some dismay.
"No, she isn't our real, kindred aunt," said Theodora, "but folks call her Aunt Olive. She is a sister to Elder Witham; and they say she can quote more Scripture than the Elder himself.
"And I'm sort of glad that Gramp gave her the dollar," Theodora added, in a still lower whisper. "Maybe Gram did forget to pay her, once."
But Gram was both incensed and humiliated. She resumed the interrupted coffee pouring and handed the Old Squire his cup, with a look of deep reproach.
Partly to change the unpleasant subject, perhaps, he said to us briskly, "Boys, if we have good luck and get our haying work along, so we can, we will all make a trip over to Norridgewock and see Father Rasle's monument.
"Ruth, wouldn't you like to take a good long drive over to Norridgewock, after the grain is in?" he asked in pacificatory tones.
"Joseph!" replied Gram, "you make me smile! You have been talking of driving over to Norridgewock to visit Father Rasle's monument, and of going to Lovewell's Pond, ever since I first knew you! But you never have been, and I haven't a thought that you ever will go!"
"Well, but something has always come up to prevent it, Ruth," Gramp replied hastily.
"Yes, Joseph, and something will come up to prevent it this year, too."
It was at this point that the second early caller had his arrival announced. Little Wealthy, who had stolen out to watch Aunt Olive's departure and then gone to the barn to see to her own small brood of chicks, came running in headlong and cried, "Oh, Gram! Gram! a great big fox has got one of your geese — on his back — and is running away!"
"What!" exclaimed Gram, setting the heavy coffee-pot down again with a roiling bump. "Oh, Lord, what a morning. Where, child, where?"
"Out beyond the west barn!" cried Wealthy; but by this time Addison, Halse and I were out of doors, in pursuit.
Beyond the west barn, there was a little hollow, or swale, where a spring issued; and a few rods below the spring, a dam had been constructed across the swale to form a goose-pond for Gram's flock. It was a muddy, ill-smelling place; but hither the geese would always waddle forth of a summer morning, and spend most of the day, wading and swimming, with occasional loud outcries.
As we turned the corner of the barn, we met the flock — minus one — beating a retreat to the goose-shed. But the fox was not in sight.
"Which way did he go, Wealth?" cried Addison, for Wealthy had run after us, full of her important news.
"Right across the west field," she exclaimed. "He had the old goose on his back, and it was trying to squall, but couldn't."
"Get the gun, Halse!" exclaimed Addison. "No, it isn't loaded! Bother! But come on. The fox cannot run far with one of those heavy geese, without resting. He is probably behind the pasture wall."
We set off at speed across the field and heard Gram calling out to us, "Chase him, boys! Chase the old thief. You may make him drop it."
Away through the grass, laden with dew and "hopper spits," we careered, and came on the trail of the fox where he had brushed off the dew as he ran. But the rogue was not behind the pasture wall.
"Keep on," cried Addison, "he cannot run fast." We crossed the pasture and entered the sugar maple grove between the pasture and the Aunt Hannah Lot. As it chanced, the fox was lurking in the high brakes here, having stopped to rest, no doubt, as Addison had conjectured. We did not come upon him here, however; for warned probably by the noise which we made, the goose-hunter stole out silently on the farther side and ran on across the open fields of the Aunt Hannah Lot. As we emerged from the belt of woodland, we caught sight of him, toiling up a hillside beyond the fields, fifty or sixty rods away.
"It is of no use to chase him any further," said Addison, pulling up. "He will reach the woods in a few minutes more."
By this time we were all three badly out of breath. The fox had the best of the race. We could distinguish plainly the white goose across his back, in contrast to his butter-colored coat and great bushy tail.
"Wouldn't Gram fume to see that!" Halse exclaimed. "Her best old goose is taking its last ride."
"I think I know where that fox is going," remarked Addison. "I was in those woods, gunning, one day last fall, and I came to a fox burrow, in the side of a knoll, among trees. There was no end of yellow dirt, dug out, and there seemed to be two or three holes, leading back into the side-hill. I told the Old Squire about it. He said it was a fox-hole, and that there had been one there for years. When he was a young man, he once saw six foxes playing around that knoll, and, first and last, he trapped a number there."
We went back to our interrupted breakfast. Gram heard our tidings with much vexation. Gramp laughed. "If the foxes got every goose, I shouldn't cry," said he. "Nasty creatures! Worse than a parcel of pigs about the farm."
"But you like to put your head on a soft pillow as well as any one," replied Gram calmly. "If you know of anything that makes better pillows than live geese feathers, I shall be glad to hear about it."
The Old Squire not having any proper substitute to offer, Gram went on to say that she wished some of us possessed the energy (I believe she said spunk) to make an end of that fox; for now that it had achieved the capture of a goose from her flock, it would be quite likely to come back for another, in the course of a day or two.
This appeal stirred our pride, and after we had gone out to hoe corn that forenoon, Addison asked the Old Squire whether he thought it likely we could unearth the fox, if, as we suspected, it had its haunt in the burrow on the hillside of the Aunt Hannah Lot.
"Maybe," replied the Old Squire, "by digging hard enough and long enough. But 'tis no easy job."
Addison did not say anything more for ten or fifteen minutes, when he observed that as Gram seemed a good deal disturbed, he for one would not mind an hour or two of digging, if it would save her geese.
"Oh, I have nothing against her geese, boys," replied the old gentleman with a kind of apologetic laugh. "I like to hear her stand up for them once in a while.
"I wanted to get this corn hoed by to-morrow," he continued. "Let's see, to-morrow is Saturday. We will take the crowbar and some shovels and make a little trip over to that burrow, later this afternoon. Don't say anything about it at dinner; for likely as not we shall not find the fox there."
After we had hoed for some time longer, Addison said, "What if we have Halse run over to Edwardses', right after dinner, and ask Tom to take a bar, or shovel, and go with us. Tom is a good hand at digging, — and that fox may trouble them, too."
The Old Squire laughed. "You are a pretty crafty boy, Addison," said he.
Ad looked a little confused. "I knew Tom would like to go first rate," said he; "and as there may be considerable hard digging before us, I thought it would be all right to have somebody who could take his turn at it."
"Quite right," replied Gramp, still laughing. "Craft is a good thing and often helps along famously. But don't grow too crafty.
"I am quite willing for you to send for Thomas," he added. "I think it is a good idea."
Accordingly, at noon Halse went to the Edwards homestead, bearing an invitation to a fox-digging bee. They, too, were busy with their hoeing, but Mr. Edwards, who was a very good-humored man, gave Thomas permission to join us at two o'clock. When we went out from dinner to our own hoeing, we took along an axe, two spades, a hog-hook to pull out the fox, and a crowbar, also the gun; and after working two hours in the corn-field, we set off across the fields and pastures for the fox burrow, just as Thomas came running across lots to join us.
"Mother's glad to have me go," said he. "She lost a turkey last week; and father says there's a fox over in that burrow, this summer, no mistake. Father gets up at half-past three every morning now, and he says he has heard a fox bark over that way at about sunrise for a fortnight. But we will end his fun for him."
Thomas was such a resolute boy that it was always a treat to hear him talk.
Crossing the pasture, we climbed the hillside of the Aunt Hannah lot, and again entering the maple woods, went on for forty or fifty rods over rather rough ground.
"That's the knoll," said Addison, pointing to a hillock among the trees.
"Yes, that's the place," the Old Squire corroborated.
On the side of the knoll next us as we drew near, there was a large hole, leading downwards and backwards into the bank side. A quantity of yellow earth had been thrown out quite recently, looking as if dogs had tried to dig out the fox. Tom looked into the hole.
"Yes, siree," he exclaimed. "There's a fox lives here; I know by these flies in the mouth of the hole. You'll always see two or three of these flies at a hole where there's a fox or a wood-chuck."
Farther around the knoll there were two other holes, one beside a rock and the other under a birch-tree root, which manifestly led into the same burrow, deep back in the knoll.
"And only look here!" cried Addison. "See these bones and these feathers."
"Oho!" said the Old Squire. "'Tis a female fox with her cubs that has taken up her abode in the old burrow this summer. That accounts for her raids on the turkeys and geese; she's got a young family to look out for."
After some discussion, it was agreed to begin our assault at the hole where the bones and feathers had been brought out; and while Addison and I went to block up the entrance to the other two holes with stones, the Old Squire threw off his coat, and seizing the crowbar, commenced to break down the rooty ground over the hole, while Thomas and Halse cleared it away with their shovels. We worked by turns, or all together, as opportunity offered. It was no light task for a warm June afternoon, and we were soon perspiring freely. Gradually we removed the top of the knoll, following the hole inward, and came to the intersection of this one with another farther around to the west side. There was a considerable cavity here, matted underfoot with feathers and small bones. From this point the burrow crooked around a large rock down in the ground.
Listening now at this opening, we could hear faint sounds farther back in the earth, and an occasional slight sneeze.
"Digging to get away, or get out!" exclaimed Thomas.
While we were resting and listening, a sharp, querulous bark came suddenly to our ears from out in the woods behind us.
"'Tis the old fox!" said Addison. "She's been away. She isn't in the hole. But she has come back in sight, and she don't like the looks of us here." He seized the gun and went cautiously off in the direction of the sound, but could not again catch sight of the fox.
We resumed our digging, and soon broke into a still larger cavity, leading off from which were three passages. Fresh earth was flying back out of one of them.
"We are close hauls on the fox inside!" cried Thomas. "Stand ready with the gun, Ad; he may make a bolt out by us."
The Old Squire plied the crowbar again, and breaking down a part of the bank over the passage, we caught sight of three fox cubs, all making the dirt fly, digging away for dear life, to get farther back. As the bank broke down and the light fell in upon them, they turned for a moment from their labors, and casting a foxy eye up at us, "yapped" sharply and bristled themselves.
"Oh, the little rogues!" cried Addison. "Only look at them! Look at their little paws and their little noses all covered with yellow dirt! There they go at it again, digging!"
"Aren't they cunning!" exclaimed Thomas. "Fox all over, too. Regular little rascals. See the white of those eyes, will you, when they turn them up at us! Isn't that a rogue's eye now?"
"We will catch them and carry them home, and put them in a pen," said Addison. "By next November their skins will be worth something."
"They will make you lots of work, to tend them and get meat for them," said the Old Squire. "Their pelts will not half pay you for your trouble."
These cubs were several weeks old, I suppose, but they were not larger than half-grown kittens.
"It won't answer for you to grab them with your bare hands," the Old Squire warned us. "I did that once, when a boy, and found that a fox cub is sharp-bitten."
They were of rather lighter yellow tint than a full-grown fox, but otherwise much like, although their legs, we thought, were not yet as long in proportion as they would become; nor yet were their tails in full bush.
It was not quite as far across lots to the Edwards farm as it was to the Old Squire's, and at length Addison and Thomas set off to go there for a basket to put the foxes in, and some old thick gloves with which to catch them.
Meantime the rest of us remained hard by, to watch the burrow, lest the cubs should escape. Once, while the boys were gone, we heard the mother fox bark. Halse went after her with the gun; she was evidently lingering about, but he could not catch sight of her.
The boys returned with a bushel basket and an old potato sack, to tie over the top of it. A little more of the bank was then broken down, when Addison, reaching in with his hands, protected by a pair of buckskin gloves, seized first one, then another, of the snapping, snarling little vulpines and popped them into the basket. It was agreed that Thomas should have one of them; and in furtherance of this division of the spoils, Halse and Addison went around by way of the Edwards farm, with Tom and the basket, while the Old Squire and I loaded ourselves with the tools and took the direct route homeward.
Supper was ready and Theodora had been blowing the horn for us, long and loud; in fact, we met her by the corn-field, whither she had at length come in search of us. I hastily told her of the capture, but the Old Squire said, "Don't tell your grandmother till the boys come with the cubs, then we will show them to her."
So we went into the house and leisurely got ready for supper. At length, Addison and Halse came to the kitchen door with their basket; and Gramp said, "Come here, Ruth, and see two little fellows who helped eat your old goose."
Gram came out looking pretty stern at the word goose, and when Ad pulled the bag partly away and showed the two fox cubs, casting up the whites of their roguish eyes at her, she exclaimed harshly, "Ah, you little scamps!"
"But, oh, aren't they cunning! Aren't they pretty!" exclaimed Theodora and Ellen.
"Well, they are sort of pretty," admitted Gram, softening a little as she looked at them. "I suppose they are not to blame for their sinful natures, more than the rest of us."
We then told her of our exploit, digging them out of the burrow. The Old Squire thought that the mother fox would not trouble the farm-yard further, now that her family was disposed of.
After supper, Addison gathered up boards about the premises and built a pen out behind the west barn, in which to inclose the young foxes. As nearly as I can now remember, the pen was about fifteen feet long by perhaps six feet in width, with board sides four feet high. We also covered the top of it with boards upon which we laid stones. A pan for water was set inside the pen, and we gave them, for food, the various odds and ends of meat and other waste from the kitchen. For a day or two we enjoyed watching them very much.
They did not thrive well, but grew poor and mangy; and I may as well go on to relate what became of them. After we had kept them in the pen about a month, a dog, or else a fox, came around one night and dug under the side of the pen, as if making an attempt to get in and attack them. The outsider, apparently, was not successful in breaking in, and probably went away after a time, but it had dug a sufficiently large hole for the two young foxes to escape; they were discovered to be missing in the morning. Addison thought that it might possibly have been the mother fox.
One of these cubs — as we believed — came back to the pen under singular circumstances eight or nine months later. Having no use either for the old boards, or for the ground on which the pen stood, it was not taken away, but remained there throughout the autumn and following winter.
One day in April we heard two hounds baying, and as it proved, they were out hunting on their own account and had started a fox. We heard them from noon till near four in the afternoon, when Ellen, who was in the kitchen at one of the back windows, saw them, and, at a distance of twenty rods or less in advance of them, a small fox, coming at speed across the field, heading toward the west barn.
Addison and I were working up fire-wood in the yard at the time, and Ellen ran out to tell us what she had seen. We now heard the hounds close behind the barn, and getting the gun, ran out there. The fox, hard pressed evidently, had run straight to that old pen and taken refuge in it, through a hole in the top where the covering boards were off. But before we reached the spot, one of the hounds had also got in and shaken the life out of the refugee.
We could not positively identify the fox, yet it was a young fox, and we all thought that it resembled one of the cubs which we had kept in the pen. I am inclined to think that, finding itself in sore straits, it came to the old pen where, though a captive, it had once been safe from dogs which came about the place.