Hiram the Young Farmer

Author: Burbank L. Todd

Chapter XX - An Enemy in the Dark

The whispered conference between Hiram Strong and the storekeeper could not be heard by the curious crowd around the cold stove; nor did it last for long.

Caleb Schell finally closed his ledger and put it away. Hiram shook hands with him and walked out.

On the platform outside, which was illuminated by a single smoky lantern, a group of small boys were giggling, and they watched Hiram unhitch the old horse and climb into the spring wagon with so much hilarity that the young farmer expected some trick.

The horse started off all right, he missed nothing from the wagon, and so he supposed that he was mistaken. The boys had merely been laughing at him because he was a stranger.

But as Hiram got some few yards from the hitching rack, the seat was suddenly pulled from under him, and he was left sprawling on his back in the bottom of the wagon.

A yell of derision from the crowd outside the store assured him that this was the cause of the boys’ hilarity. Luckily his old horse was of quiet disposition, and he stopped dead in his tracks when the seat flew out of the back of the wagon.

A joke is a joke. No use in showing wrath over this foolish amusement of the crossroads boys. But Hiram got a little the best of them, after all.

The youngsters had scattered when the "accident" occurred. Hiram, getting out to pick up the seat, found the end of a strong hemp line fastened to it. The other end was tied to the hitching rack in front of the store.

Instead of casting off the line from the seat, Hiram walked back to the store and cast that end off.

"At any rate, I’m in a good coil of hemp rope," he said to one of the men who had come out to see the fun. "The fellow who owns it can come and prove property; but I shall ask a few questions of him."

There was no more laughter. The young farmer walked back to his wagon, set up the seat again, and drove on.

The roadway was dark, but having been used all his life to country roads at night, Hiram had no difficulty in seeing the path before him. Besides, the old horse knew his way home.

He drove on some eighth of a mile. Suddenly he felt that the wagon was not running true. One of the wheels was yawing. He drew in the old horse; but he was not quick enough.

The nigh forward wheel rolled off the end of the axle, and down came the wagon with a crash!

Hiram was thrown forward and came sprawling—on hands and knees—upon the ground, while the wheel rolled into the ditch. He was little hurt, although the accident might have been serious.

And in truth, he knew it to be no accident. A burr does not easily work off the end of an axle. He had greased the old wagon just before he started for the store, and he knew he had replaced each nut carefully.

This was a deliberately malicious trick—no boy’s joke like the tying of the rope to his wagon seat. And the axle was broken. Although he had no lantern he could see that the wagon could not be used again without being repaired.

"Who did it?" was Hiram’s unspoken question, as he slowly unharnessed the old horse, and then dragged the broken wagon entirely out of the road so that it would not be an obstruction for other vehicles.

His mind set instantly upon Pete Dickerson. He had not seen the boy when he came out of the crossroads store. If the fellow had removed this burr, he had done it without anybody seeing him, and had then run home.

The young farmer, much disturbed over this incident, mounted the back of the old horse, and paced home. He only told Mrs. Atterson that he had met with an accident and that the light wagon would have to be repaired before it could be used again.

That necessitated their going to town on Monday in the heavy wagon. And Hiram dragged the spring wagon to the blacksmith shop for repairs, on the way.

But before that, the enemy in the dark had struck again. When Hiram went to the barnyard to water the stock, Sunday morning, he found that somebody had been bothering the pump.

The bucket, or pump-valve, was gone. He had to take it apart, cut a new valve out of sole leather, and put the pump together again.

"We’ll have to get a cross dog, if we remain here," he told "Mrs. Atterson. There is somebody in the neighborhood who means "us harm."

"Them Dickersons!" exclaimed Mrs. Atterson.

"Perhaps. That Pete, maybe. If I once caught him up to his tricks I’d make him sorry enough."

"Tell the constable, Hi," cried Sister, angrily.

"That would make trouble for his folks. Maybe they don’t know just how mean Pete is. A good thrashing—and the threat of another every time he did anything mean—would do him lots more good."

This wasn’t nice Sunday work, but it was too far to carry water from the house to the horse trough, so Hiram had to repair the pump.

On Monday morning he routed out Sister and Mr. Camp at daybreak. He had been up and out for an hour himself, and on a bench under the shed he had heaped two or three bushels of radishes which he had pulled and washed, ready for bunching.

He showed his helpers how the pretty scarlet balls were to be bunched, and found that Sister took hold of the work with nimble fingers, while Mr. Camp did very well at the unaccustomed task.

"I don’t know, Hi," said Mrs. Atterson, despondently, "that it’s worth while your trying to sell any of the truck, if we’re going to leave here so soon."

"We haven’t left yet," he returned, trying to speak cheerfully. "And you might as well get every penny back that you can. Perhaps an arrangement can be made whereby we can stay and harvest the garden crop, at any rate."

"You can make up your mind that that Pepper man won’t give us any leeway; he isn’t that kind," declared Mother Atterson, with conviction.

Hiram made a quick sale of the radishes at several of the stores, where he got eighteen cents a dozen bunches; but some he sold at the big boarding-school—St. Beris—at a retail price.

"You can bring any other fresh vegetables you may have from time to time," the housekeeper told him. "Nobody ever raised any early vegetables about Scoville before. They are very welcome."

"Once we get a-going," said Hiram to Mrs. Atterson, "you or Sister can drive in with the spring wagon and dispose of the surplus vegetables. And you might get a small canning outfit—they come as cheap as fifteen dollars—and put up tomatoes, corn, peas, beans, and other things. Good canned stuff always sells well."

"Good Land o’ Goshen, Hiram!" exclaimed the old lady, in "desperation. You talk jest as though we were going to stay on "the farm."

"Well, let’s go and see Mr. Strickland," replied the young farmer, and they set out for the lawyer’s office.

Mrs. Atterson sat in the ante-room while Hiram asked to speak with the old lawyer in private for a minute. The conference was not for long, and when Hiram came back to his employer he said:

"Mr. Strickland has sent his junior clerk out for Pepper. He thinks we’d better talk the matter over quietly. And he wants to see the option, too."

"Oh, Hiram! There ain’t no hope, is there?" groaned the old lady.

"Well, I tell you what!" exclaimed the young fellow, " we won’t give in to him until we have to. Of course, if you refuse to sign a deed he can go to chancery and in the end you will have to pay the costs of the action.

"But perhaps, even at that, it might be well to hold him off until you have got the present crop out of the ground."

"Oh, I won’t go to law," said Mrs. Atterson, decidedly. "No good ever come of that."

After a time Mr. Strickland invited them both into his private office. The attorney spoke quietly of other matters while they waited for Pepper.

But the real estate man did not appear. By and by Mr. Strickland’s clerk came back with the report that Pepper had been called away suddenly on important business.

"They tell me he went Saturday," said the clerk. "He may not be back for a week. But he said he was going to buy the Atterson place when he returned—he’s told several people around town so."

"Ah!" said Mr. Strickland, slowly. "Then he has left that threat hanging, like the Sword of Damocles—over Mrs. Atterson’s head?"

"I don’t know nothin’ about that sword, Mr. Strickland, nor no other sword, ’cept a rusty one that my father carried when he was a hoss-sodger in the Rebellion," declared Mother Atterson, nervously. "But if that Pepper man’s got one belonging to Mr. Damocles, I shouldn’t be at all surprised. That Pepper looked to me like a man that would take anything he could lay his hands on—if he warn’t watched!"

"Which is a true and just interpretation of Pepper’s character, I believe," observed the lawyer, smiling.

"And we’ve got to give up the farm at his say-so—at any time?" demanded the old lady.

"If his option is good," said Mr. Strickland. "But I want to see the paper—and I can assure you, Mrs. Atterson, that I shall subject it to the closest possible scrutiny.

"There is a possibility that Pepper’s option may be questioned before the courts. Do not build too many hopes on this," he added, quickly, seeing the old lady’s face light up.

"You have a very good champion in this young man," and the lawyer nodded at Hiram.

"He suspected all was not right with the option and he has dug up the fact that the witness to your uncle’s signature, and the man before whom the paper was attested, both believed the option was for a short time.

"Caleb Schell’s book shows that it was for thirty days. Uncle Jeptha undoubtedly thought it was for that length of time and therefore the option expired several days before he died.

"Mr. Pepper may have fallen under temptation. He considered heretofore, like everybody else, that the railroad would pass us by in this section. Pepper gambled twenty dollars on its coming along the boundary of the Atterson farm—between you and Darrell’s tract—and thought he had lost.

"Then suddenly the railroad board turned square around and voted for the condemnation of the original route. Pepper remembered the option he had risked twenty dollars on. If it was originally for thirty days, it was void, of course; but Uncle Jeptha is dead, and he hopes perhaps, that nobody else will dispute the validity of it."

"It’s a forgery, then?" cried Mrs. Atterson.

"It may be a forgery. We do not know," said the lawyer, hastily. "At any rate, he has the paper, and he is a shrewd rascal."

Mrs. Atterson’s face was a study.

"Do you mean to tell me we have got to lose the farm?" she demanded.

"My dear lady, that I cannot tell you. I must see this option. We must put it to the test---"

"But Schell and Pollock will testify that the option was for thirty days," cried Hiram.

"Perhaps. To the best of their remembrance and belief, it was for thirty days. A shrewd lawyer, however—and Pepper would employ a shrewd one—would turn their evidence inside out.

"No evidence—in theory, at least—can controvert a written instrument, signed, sealed, and delivered. Even Cale Schell’s memoranda book cannot be taken as evidence, save in a contributory way. It is not direct. It is the carelessly scribbled record, in pencil, of a busy man.

"No. If Pepper puts forward the option we have got to see if that option has been tampered with—the paper itself, I mean. If the fellow substituted a different instrument, at the time of signing, from the one Uncle Jeptha thought he signed, you have no case—I tell you frankly, my dear lady."

"Then, it ain’t no use. We got to lose the place, Hiram," said Mrs. Atterson, when they left the lawyer’s office.

"I wouldn’t lose heart. If Pepper is scared, he may not trouble you again."

It’s got ten months more to run," said she. "He can keep us guessin’ all that time."

"That is so," agreed Hiram, nodding thoughtfully. "But, of course, as Mr. Strickland says, by raising a doubt as to the validity of the option we can hold him off for a while—maybe until we have made this year’s crop."

"It’s goin’ to make me lay awake o’ nights," sighed the old lady. "And I thought I’d got through with that when I stopped worryin’ about the gravy."

"Well, we won’t talk about next year," agreed Hiram. "I’ll do the best I can for you through this season, if Pepper will let us alone. We’ve got the bottom land practically cleared; we might as well plough it and put in the corn there. If we make a crop you’ll get all your money back and more. Mr. Strickland told me privately that the option, unless it read that way, would not cover the crops in the ground. And I read the option carefully. Crops were not mentioned."

So it was decided to go ahead with the work as already planned; but neither the young farmer, nor his employer, could look forward cheerfully to the future.

The uncertainty of what Pepper would eventually do was bound to be in their thought, day and night.


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Chicago: Burbank L. Todd, "Chapter XX - An Enemy in the Dark," Hiram the Young Farmer, ed. Altemus, Henry and trans. Holcomb, Thomas Addis Emmett, an Holcomb, Martha A. Lyon in Hiram the Young Farmer Original Sources, accessed July 16, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CN56JEB1ZBUYZTD.

MLA: Todd, Burbank L. "Chapter XX - An Enemy in the Dark." Hiram the Young Farmer, edited by Altemus, Henry, and translated by Holcomb, Thomas Addis Emmett, an Holcomb, Martha A. Lyon, in Hiram the Young Farmer, Original Sources. 16 Jul. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CN56JEB1ZBUYZTD.

Harvard: Todd, BL, 'Chapter XX - An Enemy in the Dark' in Hiram the Young Farmer, ed. and trans. . cited in , Hiram the Young Farmer. Original Sources, retrieved 16 July 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CN56JEB1ZBUYZTD.