Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
THE THRASHERS COME
Truth to say, farm work is never done, particularly on a New England farm where a little of everything has to be undertaken and all kinds of crops are raised, and where sheep, cattle, calves, colts, horses and poultry have to be tended and provided with winter food, indoors. A thrifty farmer has always a score of small jobs awaiting his hands.
There were now brakes to cut and dry for "bedding" at the barn, bushes and briars to clear up along the fences and walls, and stone-heaps to draw off, preparatory to "breaking up" several acres more of greensward. The Old Squire's custom was to break up three or four acres, every August, so that the turf would rot during the autumn. Potatoes were then usually planted on it the ensuing spring, to be followed the next year by corn and the next by wheat, or some other grain, when it was again seeded down in grass.
About this time, too, the beans had to be pulled and stacked; and there were always early apples to be gathered, for sale at the village stores. Sometimes, too, the corn would be ripe enough to cut up and shock by the 5th or 6th of September; and immediately after came potato-digging, always a heavy, dirty piece of farm work.
Not far from this time, "the thrashers" would make their appearance, with "horse-power," "beater" and "separator," which were set up in the west barn floor. These dusty itinerants usually remained with us for two days and threshed the grain on shares: one bushel for every ten of wheat, rye and barley and one for every twelve of oats. There were always two of them; and for five or six years the same pair came to our barn every fall: a sturdy old man, named Dennett, and his son-in-law, Amos Moss. Dennett, himself, "tended beater" and Moss measured and "stricted" the grain as it came from the separator; — and it was hinted about among the farmers, that "Moss would bear watching."
We were kept very busy during those two days; Halse, I remember, was first set to "shake down" the wheat off a high scaffold, for Dennett to feed into the beater; while Addison and I got away the straw. I deemed it great fun at first, to see the horses travel up the lags of the horse-power incline, and hear the machine in action; but I soon found that it was suffocatingly dusty work; our nostrils and throats as well as our hair and clothing were much choked and loaded with dust.
We had been at work an hour or two, when suddenly an unusual snapping noise issued from the beater; and Dennett abruptly stopped the machine. After examining the teeth, he looked up where Halse stood on the scaffold, shaking down, and said, "Look here, young man, I want you to be more careful what you shake down here; we don't want to thrash clubs!"
"I didn't shake down clubs," said Halse.
"A pretty big stick went through anyway," remarked Dennett. "I haven't said you did it a-purpose. But I asked you to be more careful."
They went on again, for half or three-quarters of an hour, when there was another odd noise, and Dennett again stopped and looked up sharply at Halse. "Can't you see clubs as big as that?" said he. "Why, that's an old tooth out of a loafer rake. You must mind what you are about."
Halse pretended that he had seen nothing in the grain; and the machine was started again; but Addison and I could see Halse at times from the place where we were at work, and noticed that he looked mischievous. Addison shook his head at him, vehemently.
Nothing further happened that forenoon; but we had not been at work for more than an hour, after dinner, when a shrill thrip resounded from the beater, followed by a jingling noise, and one of the short iron teeth from it flew into the roof of the barn. Again Dennett stopped the machine, hastily.
"What kind of a feller do you call yerself!" he exclaimed, looking very hard up at Halse. "You threw that stone into the beater, you know you did."
"I didn't!" protested Halse. "You can't prove I did, either."
"I'd tan your jacket for ye, ef you was my boy," muttered Dennett, wrathfully. He and Moss got wrenches from their tool-box and replaced the broken tooth with a new one. The Old Squire, who had been looking to the grain in the granary, came in and asked what the trouble was.
"Squire," said Dennett, "I want another man to shake down here for me. That's a queer Dick you've put up there."
The Old Squire spoke to Addison to get up and shake out the grain and bade Halse come down and assist me with the straw. Halse climbed down, muttering to himself. "I want to get a drink of water," he said; and as he went out past the beater, he made a saucy remark to Dennett; whereupon the latter seized a whip-stock and aimed a blow at him. Halse dodged it and ran. Dennett chased him out of the barn; and Halse took refuge in the wood-shed.
The Old Squire was at first inclined to reprove Dennett for this apparently unwarranted act; he considered that he had no right to chastise Halse. "I will attend to that part of the business, myself," he said, somewhat sharply.
"All right, Squire," said Dennett. "But I want you to understand you've got a bad boy there. Throwing stones into a beater is rough business. He might kill somebody."
Halse did not come back to help me, at once; and at length Gramp went to the house, in search of him. Ellen subsequently told me, that Halse had at first refused to come out, on the pretext that Dennett would injure him. The Old Squire assured him that he should not be hurt. Still he refused to go. Thereupon the old gentleman went in search of a horsewhip, himself; and as a net result of the proceedings, Halse made his appearance beside me, sniffing.
"I wish it had stove his old machine all to flinders and him with it," he said to me, revengefully.
"Did you throw the stone into the beater?" I asked. The machine made so much noise that I did not distinctly hear what Halse replied, but I thought that he denied doing it; and whether he actually did it, or whether the stone slid down with the grain owing to his carelessness, I never knew. Addison shook down till night; and the next day Asa Doane came to help us; for the Old Squire deemed it too hard for boys of our age to handle the grain and straw, unassisted.
In May, before I came to the farm, Addison and Halse had planted a large melon bed, in the corn field, on a spot where a heap of barnyard dressing had stood. There were both watermelons and musk-melons. These had ripened slowly during August and, by the time of the September town-meeting, were fit for eating.
The election for governor, with other State and county officers, was held on the second Monday of September in Maine.
In order to raise a little pocket money, Addison and Halstead carried their melons, also several bushels of good eating apples and pears, to the town-house at the village, early on election day, and rigged a little "booth" for selling from. They set off by sunrise, with old Nancy harnessed in the express wagon.
As I had no part in the planting of the melons, I was not a partner in the sales, although Gramp allowed me to go to the town-meeting with him, later in the forenoon. The distance was seven miles from the farm.
The boys sold thirty melons at ten cents apiece and disposed of the most of the apples at two for a cent and pears at a cent apiece; so that the combined profits amounted to rather over seven dollars. Sales were so good, that they had disposed of their entire stock by three o'clock in the afternoon.
The polls were not closed, however, till sunset, that is to say voting could legally continue till that time. Halse had called on Addison for a division of the money, at about three o'clock, and received his share; he then told Addison that he was going home. Addison preferred to remain, to learn how the town had voted; for he was much interested in a "temperance movement" which was agitating that portion of the State that year.
The Old Squire had returned home, shortly after noon, and gone into the field to see to the digging of the potatoes. When we came in to supper, at six o'clock, Addison was just coming up the lane, on his way home.
"No doubt Williams is elected!" were his first words.
Williams was the Republican and Temperance candidate for representative to the State legislature. Addison was much elated; and after we sat down to supper, he began telling Theodora about the town-meeting; for some moments none of us noticed that one chair was empty. Then Gram said, "Where's Halstead?"
"I don't know," said the Old Squire, suddenly glancing at the vacant seat. "Didn't he come home with you, Addison?"
"No, sir," replied Ad. "He went home afoot, a little while after you left; at any rate he said that he was going home. I haven't seen him since."
"I don't think he has come home," said Theodora. "I haven't seen him at the house."
"Well, he said he was coming home, and I gave him his part of the melon and apple money," replied Addison. "That's all I know about it."
We thought it likely that he would come during the evening, but he did not, and we all, particularly Theodora, felt much disturbed about him.
Late in the night (it seemed to me that it must be nearly morning) I was wakened by Halse coming into our room. He crept in stealthily and undressed very quietly; but sleepy as I was, I heard him first muttering and then whistling softly to himself, in what appeared to me a rather curious manner. But I did not speak to him and soon dropped asleep again.
He was sleeping heavily when I got up in the morning. I did not wake him; and I noticed that his clothes and boots were very muddy and wet, for it had rained during the latter part of the night.
When we sat down to breakfast, he had not come down-stairs; and the Old Squire went up to our room. What he learned, or what he said to Halse, we did not ascertain. At noon Gram said that Halse was not well; but he was at the supper table that night.
As I had heard about the melon money I asked him that evening, after we had gone up-stairs, if he could let me have the money which I had borrowed of Theodora and Ellen, for him. I said nothing about my own loan to him, although I wanted the money. He made me no reply; two or three nights afterwards I mentioned the matter again; for I felt responsible, after a manner, for the girls' money.
"I hain't got no money!" he snapped out, with very ungrammatical shortness.
"Oh, I thought you had three dollars and a half," I observed.
"Well, I hain't," he said, angrily.
I said no more; but after awhile, he told me that he had set off to come home from the town-house, but stopped to play at "pitching cents" with some boys at the Corners, and that while there, he had either lost the money out of his pocket, or else it had been stolen from him.
I was less inclined to doubt this story than the one about the seed corn; for I had heard rumors of gambling, in a small way, at the Corners, by a certain clique of loafers there. It was said, too, that despite the stringent "liquor law," the hustling parties were provided with intoxicants. I had little doubt that Halstead had parted with his money in some such way. I recollected how odd his behavior had been after coming home that night; and although I could scarcely believe such a thing at first, I yet began to surmise that he had been induced to drink liquor of some kind.
A few nights after town-meeting, we lost five or six boxes of honey; some rogue, or rogues, came into the garden and drew the boxes out of the hives. The only clue to the theft was boot tracks in the soft earth and these were not sufficiently distinct to avail as evidence. In a general way we attributed it to the bibulous set at the Corners. The Old Squire and Addison had incurred the displeasure of Tibbetts and his cronies, from their avowed sentiments upon the Temperance question. I do not think that Halse knew anything of the honey robbery. I asked him the next day, whether he supposed the honey boxes had gone in search of his three dollars and a half. He saw that I suspected him, and flatly denied all knowledge of it; but he added, that if Gramp and Addison did not have less to say about rum-sellers, they might find themselves watching a big fire some night!
I asked him if he thought that Tibbetts and his crew were bad enough to set barns on fire.
"Well, isn't the old gent and Ad trying to break up Tibbetts' business, all the time!" retorted Halse.
"But do you stand up for them?" said I.
"I stand up for minding my own business and letting other folks alone!" exclaimed Halse. "And that's what the old man and Ad had better do."
"Maybe," said I, for I was not altogether clear in my mind on that point. "But they are a bad lot, out there at Tibbetts'; you say so, yourself."
"I didn't say so!" Halse exclaimed.
"Why, you told me that you thought they took your money, didn't you?" I urged.
"I said perhaps I lost it there," replied Halse in a reticent tone.
Addison believed that if Gramp would get a search warrant, a part of the honey might be found in one of two houses, at the Corners; but the Old Squire would not set the law in motion for a few boxes of honey. We young folks, however, were much exasperated over the loss of the sweets.
Two cosset lambs were also missing from our pasture at about this time; and as Addison and I drove past the Corners, on our way to the mill with another grist of corn, the day after the lambs were missed, we saw Tibbetts' dog gnawing a bone beside the road.
"Take the reins, a minute!" exclaimed Addison, pulling up. He then leaped out of the wagon with the whip, so suddenly, that the dog left the bone and ran off. Addison picked it up and examined it attentively. "It's a mutton bone, fast enough," said he. "It is one of the leg bones; the hoof is on it and there's enough of the hide to show that it was smut-legged, like ours. But of course we cannot prove much from it," he added, throwing the bone after the dog and getting into the wagon.
On our return, we called at the Post Office which was at Tibbetts' grocery. The semi-weekly mail had come that afternoon, and quite a number of people were standing about. I went in to inquire for our folks' papers and letters; and as I came out, I saw the grocer emerging from the grocery portion of the store.
"How d'ye do, Mr. Tibbetts," cried Addison. "I'm afraid your dog has been killing two of our lambs."
"Ye don't say!" said Tibbetts. "What makes ye think so?"
"Why, I thought it might be he; I saw him gnawing the bone of a smut-legged lamb like ours," replied Addison, with every appearance of extreme candor. "Cannot say certain of course, but I feel quite sure 'twas from one of ours."
Tibbetts looked at Addison a moment, then replied, "Wal, now, if ye can prove 'twas my dog killed 'em, I'll settle with the Squire."
"I'm afraid we cannot prove it," replied Addison and drove off. — "I thought that I would blame it all on the dog," he said, laughing.
Two or three days after that, Theodora, Ellen and Kate Edwards went out to the Corners to purchase something at the store and, instead of returning by the road, came home across lots, following the brook up through the meadows. They often took that route to and from the Corners; both enjoyed going through the half-cleared land along the brook.
Beside an old log in the meadow, where evidently someone had recently sat, they picked up and brought home with them, the bottom and about half the side of one of our lost honey-boxes; bits of fresh comb were still sticking to it. The rogues who took it had manifestly sat on that log while they regaled themselves.
After dark that evening, Addison and I carried the fragment out to Tibbetts' grocery and stuck it up on his platform. Addison also wrote on it with a blunt lead pencil, "To whom it may concern. This honey box was picked up on a direct line between the hives from which it was stolen and this place."
"Even if we cannot prove anything," he said, "I want to let them know that we've got a good idea who did it."
We thought that we had done a rather smart thing; but when the Old Squire heard of it, he told us that we had done a foolish one.
"Better let all that sort of thing alone, boys," he said. "Never hint, or insinuate charges against anybody. Never make charges at all, unless you have good proof to back you up. Tibbetts and his cronies are too old birds to care for any such small shot as that. They will only laugh at you. The less you have to say to them the better."
As Addison and I were talking over this piece of advice, later in the day, I asked him whether he believed that Tibbetts or any of his crew would set our barns afire, if the Old Squire took steps to enforce the liquor law against them.
"I guess they wouldn't dare do that," said Addison.
I then mentioned what Halse had said. Addison was greatly irritated, not so much from the covert threat implied, as to think that Halse sided against the Temperance movement.
"Now you see," said Addison, "if we do make a move against Tibbetts, Halse will be a traitor and carry word to him ahead. We shall have to watch him and never drop a word about our plans before him." He then told me, confidentially, that the Temperance sentiment had grown so strong, that its advocates hoped to be able to get Tibbetts indicted that fall and so close up his "grocery."
Addison and Theodora, as well as the Old Squire, thought that if the Corners clique could be broken up, Halstead would be a far better boy. Liquor was the only bond which held the clique together there. If the illicit sale of liquor could be stopped at Tibbetts', not only Hannis, but several others would leave the place; and probably Tibbetts himself would move away.
I do not think that it occurred to either Addison or Theodora that there was anything in the least reprehensible in conspiring to drive grocer Tibbetts out of town. I am sure that I then deemed it a good idea to drive him away, by almost any means, fair or foul.