A Struggle for a Fortuneñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“What’s the matter?” inquired Jonas.
“I have found the bag but there is nothing in it, dog-gone the luck,” sputtered Caleb. “There is just a ‘shinplaster’ in it and it calls for two bits. Where is the rest of your money?” he added, turning fiercely upon Nat.
“That is all I have,” replied Nat. “It was in that bag, wasn’t it? Then I have no more to give you.”
Jonas took the bag, glanced at the shinplaster and put it into his pocket. The smile had now given away to the frown.
“Say, pap, ain’t you going to give that to me!” asked Caleb, who began to see that the interest he had taken in unearthing Nat’s money was not going to help very much.
“No; you can’t get no shoes with that money. I will take it and get some coffee with it the next time I go to town. Is this all the money you have left, Nat?”
“Every cent; and now you are going to take that away from me, too?”
“Of course; for I think it is the properest thing to do. You don’t ever go to church – ”
“And what is the reason I don’t? It is because I have not got any clothes to wear,” said Nat, who plainly saw what was coming next.
“That’s neither here nor there,” said Jonas. “Caleb goes to church, and he would go every Sunday if he had the proper things.”
“You bet I would,” said Caleb.
“So I think that if you don’t go to church and Caleb does, you had better take off them shoes. Take them off and give them to Caleb.”
“Now, Uncle Jonas, you are not going to make me go bare-footed this cold weather,” said Nat, anxiously. “If Caleb wants shoes let him go to work and earn them.”
“I can’t go to work about here,” said Caleb. “There’s nobody will hire me to do a thing.”
“Because you are too lazy; that’s what’s the matter with you,” said Nat, under his breath.
“Take off them shoes,” said Jonas.
Nat hesitated, but it was only for an instant. Jonas was not the man to allow his orders to be disobeyed with impunity, so he arose from his seat on the milk bucket with alacrity, disappeared in a little room where he kept a switch which he had often used on the boys when they did anything that Jonas considered out of the way, and when he brought it out with him he found Nat on the floor taking off his shoes.
“You have come to time, have you?” said the man with a grin. “So you are going to take them off and give them to Caleb, are you?”
“I am going to take them off because I can’t well help myself,” said Nat, boldly. “If I was as big as you are I would not take them off.”
“None of that sort of talk to me,” said Jonas, lifting the switch as if he were about to let it fall upon Nat’s shoulders. “You would take them off if you were as big as a mountain.”
When he had removed his shoes Caleb picked them up and in company with his father started toward the house. He wanted to put them where they would be safe, and Nat stood there in his bare feet watching him until he closed the door behind him.
We have not referred to the relationship which Nat bore to Jonas Keeler, but no doubt those into whose hands this story falls will be surprised to hear it.
Jonas was his uncle, and, by the way, Mr. Nickerson was no relation to any body under that roof. Nat’s father and mother were dead; his father was killed in the rebel army. Jonas found him in Manchester and brought him home “to keep him safe and sound;” at least that was what he said; but those who knew Jonas thought that the reason was because he suspected that Nat was heir to some money which would some day turn up in his favor. He did not see where the money was to come from, but he believed it, and that was enough. The truth of the matter was, Nat did not have a cent. After he had been there for some years Jonas began to think so too, and from that time his treatment of Nat was anything but what it ought to be. It was only when Mr. Nickerson began to take an interest in him that Nat had anything that he could call his own. He did not like the way Nat was abused – he was in his right mind then and hale and hearty in spite of his years – and took pity on him and determined to help him. That was where Nat’s money came from, and the way he happened to get it was this:
One day, when Jonas went to town, Mr. Nickerson watched his opportunity and followed him out to the field where he was at work alone. Nat greeted him very cordially for he was always glad to see him. Mr. Nickerson was the only one except Mrs. Keeler, who had a kind word to say to him, and Nat remembered him for it.
“Do you know what I would do if Jonas abused me as badly as he does you?” said he.
“No, sir, I don’t,” replied Nat.
“I would sit down and rest. He has gone away to town now, and when he comes home he can’t tell whether you have been at work or not.”
The boy leaned on his plow handles – he was eight years old and ought not to have been required to do that sort of work – and looked at Mr. Nickerson without speaking. He wanted to see if the man was in earnest.
“Jonas knows just how much I ought to have done, and when he comes home and finds that I have not got it all done, he will use that switch on me.”
Mr. Nickerson saw that there was some sense in this reasoning, and after kicking some clods out of his way and looking toward the house to make sure that there was no one watching him, he went on to say —
“Jonas uses you pretty rough, does he not?”
“Well, I will be a man some day, and then I will take it out of him, I bet you,” said Nat; and when he uttered the words he clenched his hands and his eyes flashed as if there were plenty of spirit in him.
“But that is going to be a long time for you to wait. If you had money do you think you could hide it where Jonas and Caleb could not find it?”
“But I haven’t got any,” said Nat.
“But I say supposing you had some; could you keep it out of their reach?” said Mr. Nickerson, when he saw Nat’s eyes brighten when he thought of all the fine things that money would buy for him. “If you don’t keep it out of their way you will get me into trouble.”
“Were you going to give me some money?” stammered Nat.
“I had thought some of it,” said the man, lowering his voice almost to a whisper and glancing again toward the house. “I have some money but I dare not keep it. Last night while I was awake, I saw Jonas come in very quietly and go through my trousers’ pocket; but he did not find any money there. If he had looked under the head of my bed close to the wall, he would have found two hundred dollars.”
While Mr. Nickerson spoke he had drawn a well-filled book from his pocket, opened it and showed to the astonished boy a whole lot of greenbacks which he had stowed away there.
Nat had never seen so much money before in his life. He thought if he were worth that much that he would drop the plow handles then and there and take to the woods.
“Where did you get so much?” he stammered at length.
“I worked for it, and that’s the way Jonas will have to get every cent he makes,” said Mr. Nickerson. “What would you do if you had all this money?”
“I would go down to the store and buy some new over-alls,” replied Nat, pushing out one leg so that Mr. Nickerson could see the gaping rent in his knee. “They haven’t been mended since I put them on.”
“Yes; and then when Jonas comes home he would see the new over-alls and would want to know where you got them. That plan would not work at all, for the first thing you know you would get me into trouble as well as yourself. Now I am going to give you half of this, because I think you are too smart a boy to let it fall into the hands of any body else.”
“But what shall I do with it? If you think Jonas will notice my new clothes when he comes home, I can’t buy any.”
“I don’t give it to you to buy good clothes with. In fact you had better let them alone. But when I was of your age I liked to have something to eat when I went to town of a Saturday afternoon – some candy and nuts and such like things.”
“Were you ever a boy?” said Nat, in surprise. The idea that that old, gray-headed man could remember so long ago as that fairly took his breath away.
“Oh, yes; I can remember when I was a boy, and it don’t seem so very far off, either. I was a young boy, bare-footed as yourself, but I always had money. My father let me have it all, and I never thought of running away from him to get a chance to spend it. You don’t get much candy, I suppose?”
“No, I don’t. I hardly know what it tastes like.”
“Well, you go down town and ask the grocery man to change one of these bills for you. You see they are all fives, and if you don’t spend more than ten cents at a time and keep the rest hidden away, it will be long before any body finds out that you have got any money.”
As Mr. Nickerson spoke he glanced toward the house again, looked all around to make sure that there was nobody in sight, and placed a handful of bills in Nat’s grasp, reaching down by the side of him so that no one could see him do it.
“Oh, Mr. Nickerson, you don’t know how much I thank you for – ”
“Yes, I understand all about that. But there is something else that I want to talk to you about. I want you to get me some tobacco with that money.”
“I’ll do it, and Jonas and Caleb won’t know a thing about it. I will hide it where they will never think of looking for it.”
“That is what I wanted,” said Mr. Nickerson, with a pleased smile on his face. “But you must be very careful. Don’t take but one bill at a time, and then if anybody should see you and take it away from you, they won’t get all the money.”
Mr. Nickerson turned abruptly away from him and walked toward the house, and Nat, feeling as he had never felt before, seized the plow handles and went on with his work. He glanced up and down the field and toward the house to satisfy himself that Caleb was not in sight, and when he went by a little clump of bushes that grew at the lower end of the lot he dropped the plow, took the reins off his neck and ran toward a fence corner and took his bills from his pocket.
“I guess this place will do until I can find a better one,” he muttered, as he scraped away the leaves and placed his treasure within it. “By gracious! It is always darkest just before day-light. And how do you suppose that Mr. Nickerson knew that I was planning to run away from Jonas? Now I tell you that he had better keep a civil tongue in his head or the first thing he knows when he calls me in the morning, and comes to my bed to use that switch on me because I don’t get up, I won’t be there. But then I can’t go as long as Mr. Nickerson lasts. He will want me to get some tobacco for him.”
Nat laid ninety-five dollars in the hole which he had dug for it, placed a chunk over it so that the leaves would not blow off and with a five-dollar bill safe in his pocket he returned to his work. He wanted to yell, he felt so happy; but when he raised his eyes as he turned his horse about, he saw Caleb standing in the upper end of the clump of bushes, regarding him intently. How long had Caleb been there and what had he seen? There was one thing about it: If he knew, the secret of that money he would have the hardest fight of his life before he placed his hands upon it.
“What’s the matter with you?” said Caleb, who did not fail to notice the look that came upon Nat’s face.
“There is nothing the matter with me,” said Nat. “I don’t see why I should do all the work and you sitting around and doing nothing.”
“What was old man Nickerson doing out here so long with you?” asked Caleb, who did not think it worth while to go into an argument about the work that Nat had spoken of. “He was here with you for half an hour, and you had all this piece of ground to be plowed up before pap came home. And you stayed here and listened to him, too.”
“Where were you?” asked Nat.
“I was around in the barn where I could see everything you did,” replied Caleb, with a knowing shake of his head.
“What did you see him do?”
“I saw him talking to you; that’s what I saw him do. You wasted fully half an hour with him.”
Nat drew a long breath of relief and felt considerably more at ease when he heard this, for if that was all that Caleb had seen, the secret of his money was safe. He had not seen Mr. Nickerson when he passed his hand down by his side and placed the bills safe in Nat’s hands.
“What was he talking to you about?” demanded Caleb.
“About certain things that happened when he was a boy,” returned Nat. “If you wanted to hear what he said you ought to have come out and listened. But I must go on or I will not get this piece plowed by the time your father comes back. Get up here, you ugly man’s horse.”
“Now you just wait and see if I don’t tell pap of that,” said Caleb, who grew angry in a moment. “I learn you to call pap’s horse ugly.”
“I didn’t say he was ugly. I said he belonged to an ugly man; and if your father did not look mad when he went to town, just because Mr. Nickerson wanted some tobacco, I don’t want a cent.”
The horse, after being persuaded by the lines, reluctantly resumed his work and Caleb was left there standing alone. There was something about Nat that did not look right to him. He always was independent, and acted as though he did not care whether Caleb spoke to him or not, but just now he seemed to be more so than ever.
“I wish I knew what was up between that boy Nat and old man Nickerson,” said he, as he started out toward the barn. “Every move that old man makes I think he has got some money hidden somewhere about here. Pap thinks so and so do I. I just keep a watch of Nat more closely than I have heretofore, and if I can find his money – whoop-pe!”
Jonas did not find any fault when he came home that night, for Nat, by keeping the horses almost in a trot, had got the field plowed, the team unharnessed and fed before he returned. He found fault with him and brought his switch into play more than once on other matters, but during the five years that elapsed he never said “money” to him once. During these five years he always kept his money concealed, and every time he went to town he always bought a goodly store of tobacco for the old man. And nobody ever suspected him or Mr. Nickerson, either. Of course, during this time, Jonas became more sullen and ugly than ever, and worse than all, Nat could see that there was something having an affect upon his old friend, Mr. Nickerson. Either it was his age or the treatment he received that had a gloomy impression upon him, but at any rate Mr. Nickerson was losing his mind. He no longer talked with Nat the way he used to, but was continually finding fault with his money and where it went to so suddenly that he could not get any more tobacco to chew to help him while away the hours. Jonas encouraged him to talk this way for somehow he got it into his head that Mr. Nickerson would some day forget himself, and that he would tell where he had hidden his money; but not a thing did he get out of him. The old gentleman was apparently as innocent of any thing he had concealed as though he had never heard any thing about it.
“You may as well give that up,” said his wife, after Jonas had tried for a long time to induce him to say something. “If he had any money when the war broke out, the rebels have got it.”
“Not much I won’t give it up,” declared Jonas, turning fiercely upon Mrs. Keeler. “If this old place could talk it would tell a heap. I have hunted it over and over time and again, but I can’t find any thing. I tell you I am going to get rid of him some day. I will send him to the poor house; and there’s where he ought to be.”
When Nat heard Jonas talk in this way it always made him uneasy. As soon as it came dark he would go to the place where he had hidden his tobacco and money and take them out and conceal them somewhere else, carefully noting the spot and telling the old man about it.
At the end of five years his money was all gone, and then Nat was in a fever of suspense because he did not know where he was going to get some more tobacco for Mr. Nickerson and candy for himself; and when he was asked for more he was obliged to say that his tobacco money had all been exhausted.
“Well, I expected it,” said Mr. Nickerson. “But it has lasted you a good while, has it not? There’s some difference between you and Jonas. I gave him all of a thousand dollars when I came here – ”
Nat fairly gasped for breath. He wondered what Jonas could have done with all that money.
“It is a fact,” said the old man. “He told me that it would keep me in spending money as long as I lived, and now it has been gone for several years. You had a hundred dollars, and it has lasted until now. You go out to the barn and in about half an hour I will be out there.”
Like one in a dream Nat made his way to the tumble-down building that afforded the cattle a place of refuge in stormy weather, and looked around for something to do while he awaited Mr. Nickerson’s return. If we were to say that he was surprised we would not have expressed it. Was the old man made of money? It certainly looked that way, for when a hundred dollars was gone he simply said “he had expected it” and went out to find more. In a few minutes he returned and placed another package of bills in Nat’s pocket.
“Do you know you told a lie to Jonas every time he asked you about this money?” said Nat.
“No, I did not,” said Mr. Nickerson, earnestly. “I told him that I did not have any more money for him; and I didn’t have, either. I have not got a cent about me.”
Nat was not old enough to remember the form of oath administered by the United States government to all its employees – “do you solemnly promise without any mental reservation” – for if he had been he would have seen how Mr. Nickerson got around it. Jonas did not administer this form of oath, Mr. Nickerson had a “mental reservation” that he had some money hidden but he did not say anything about it. He supposed that he was living up to the truth.
“I did not have a cent,” repeated the old “He could have searched me all over and not found any. When he asked me if I had man. any more concealed somewhere in the bushes, I found some way to avoid it. It is all right. I have not lied to him.”
With a hundred extra dollars in his pocket Nat thought he was able to buy himself a pair of shoes when the weather became cold. He bought them and as we have seen they were taken away from him and given to Caleb, because Caleb went to church and Nat did not. He had to wait a long time before Jonas bought him some foot-wearing apparel out of some of Mr. Nickerson’s money, and then he invested in them because he was fearful that his neighbors would have something to say about the boy’s condition, going about in all that sloppy weather with nothing to wear on his bare feet. This brings us down to the time when our story begins, when Jonas got into his wagon and drove toward town and Nat went to the potato patch to finish picking and digging and Caleb to the barn to complete his task of shelling corn.
We left Mr. Nickerson sitting in company with Jonas’s wife, bemoaning his loss of tobacco and trembling for fear of something he had said in regard to what he would do with his money in case he were done with it.
“I wish I had some money so that I could give you some of it when I am gone,” whined the old man. “For I shall not last much longer.”
“Oh, yes you will,” returned Mrs. Keeler. “You will last many years yet. There is Mr. Bolton who is almost a hundred years old.”
“But he gets different treatment from what I do,” said Mr. Nickerson. “He has tobacco every day in the week, if he is a mind to ask for it. And he did not give his son one thousand dollars to keep him while he lived.”
“Well, I can’t help that,” said Mrs. Keeler, with a sigh. “Your money is all gone, at least Jonas says so, and I don’t see what else you can do.”
“I don’t either,” said the old man; and as he spoke he got upon his feet and staggered toward the door. “Thank goodness I have a little money left,” he added to himself. “I must go and get me some tobacco. I have to be all by myself when Jonas is here, or else he would see me chewing it and would want to know where I got it. I hate to be so sly about everything I do.”
Mr. Nickerson left the house without any hat on, he was so wrapped up in his troubles that he forgot that he had a hat, and tottered toward the barn where Caleb was at work shelling corn. Caleb looked up when he heard his footsteps but when he saw who it was he went on with his work, paying no heed to him. The old man went by and just then an idea occurred to Caleb.
“I wonder if old Nickerson is going after some tobacco?” said he, laying down his ear of corn and rising hastily to his feet. “He thinks I am blind and Nat does, too; but I have seen him chewing tobacco plenty of times when he has asked father to get him some and he would not do it. I guess I’ll keep an eye on him.”
That was easy enough to do, for Mr. Nickerson did not pay much attention to what was going on near him. He stepped hastily out of the barn and followed along after him until he saw him enter the little clump of bushes at the lower end of the potato patch. He did not dare go any farther for fear the rustling of the bushes would attract the old man’s attention, but kept on around the clump until he reached a place where he could see the whole of the field without being seen himself. Mr. Nickerson presently appeared, kept on to a certain fence corner in which he was lost to view.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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