A Struggle for a Fortune
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He bent his steps this time toward the lean-to which Nat called his room. It was a little better than Mr. Nickerson’s and but a very little better. It was tight but there was no furniture in it; the dirt floor did duty as chairs and washstand. Whenever Nat got up in the morning and desired to perform his ablutions, there was the branch handy, and it was but little trouble to go down there. It was dark in here, too, but a slight feeling among the bed clothes showed Jonas that somebody had been there. The pillow was gone, and so were the quilts that Nat usually spread over him.
“This beats my time all hollow,” said Jonas, pulling off his hat and wiping his forehead. “If he should go out among the neighbors – but then he can’t have gone that far. Nat is going to make him up a bed somewhere.”
Jonas’s next trip was to the barn, and there he found Mr. Nickerson stretched out on a rude bed which Nat had made for him, and a lighted lantern throwing a dim light over the scene. Jonas first impulse was to find out what had become of that book. It was there, lying on the pillow close beside Mr. Nickerson’s head. Nat was seated on the floor a little ways from him, but he did not say anything when Jonas came in.
“Hello!” said the new-comer, with an attempt to appear cheerful. “What you laying down out here for? Why don’t you get up and go to your own room?”
“You have told me once that I need not come into your house any more,” said the old man, in his usual whining tone, “and I am going to take you at your word. I shall never go into your house again.”
“Shaw!” said Jonas, with a sorry effort at a laugh. “You didn’t pay any attention to what I said, do you? If I had brought your tobacco you would be all right now; but I was bothered so with a heap of things that happened while I was down town, that I forgot all about it. I didn’t mean nothing. Is this the book you were going to give me for a keepsake!”
“Oh, yes, that’s the one.”
“What does it say in it?” continued Jonas; and Nat could see that he was turning over the leaves very carefully.
“I wanted you to read it all, every word of it, and perhaps it would have done you some good.”
“Well, get up and go into the house. The old woman has got some hot tea left for you, and you will sleep better there than you will here. Have you got a programme, or whatever you call it, so that I can find where your money is hidden!”
“No, there is nothing of the kind there,” said Mr. Nickerson, with a movement which showed plainly that he wished Jonas would go away. “There is nothing but reading in the book.”
Jonas was getting angry again. Nat could see that by the looks of his face.
“Are you sure there is nothing in it?” he asked, in a voice which trembled in spite of himself.
“Not a thing. You can examine it and see for yourself. I shall not last long – ”
“I don’t want to hear no such talk as that. You will last longer than I will, I bet you.Nat, have you got any of this book stowed away about your good clothes?”
“No, sir, I have not,” answered Nat, rising to his feet. “You can search me and see.”
Nat was perfectly safe in making this proposition. We said he had put those two leaves into his pocket; so he did; but he had taken pains to conceal them since. In a remote corner of the barn were some corn huskings which Caleb had left there as he was working at the grain to be taken to the mill. Underneath that pile were the two leaves that Jonas wanted to find.
“That’s the way you always serve me when you think I have got anything you want,” said Nat boldly. “You took a quarter away from me that I had left after buying my shoes, and I haven’t seen it since.”
“Of course I did. It was the properest thing that I should have the handling of all your money; but any more such talk as that will bring the switch down on your shoulders in good shape. You hear me? There’s nothing but reading in this book, you say old man?”
“That’s all, and you would not have it when I offered it to you. I gave you a thousand dollars which you promised – ”
“Aw! shut up about that,” said Jonas, rising to his feet; for in order to hold conversation with Mr. Nickerson he had kneeled down by his side. “There’s nothing in here that tells about the money?”
“No, no, there is nothing of that kind, I have not got any money. I am a poor, feeble old man and shall not last long – ”
“I will bet you won’t,” roared Jonas, livid with rage and shaking his fist in the old man’s face. “You won’t get a bite of anything to eat until you tell me where that money is; you hear me?”
“I don’t expect it; I never have expected it. I shall die before morning – ”
Jonas did not wait to hear any more, nor did he say anything further about Mr. Nickerson getting up and going to his own room. He did stop long enough to throw the book at Nat, but Nat was on the alert and the missive did not touch him. It ruined the book so far as reading was concerned. The remaining leaves were torn out of it and scattered all over the floor, and it was useless for anybody to think of putting them together again.
“Thank goodness, he has gone at last,” said Mr. Nickerson, with a long drawn sigh of relief. “I expected he would come here.”
“So did I; and I took my leaves and hid them under this pile of corn,” said Nat. “Now I wish there was something else that I could do for you.”
“There is nothing, nothing. I shall not be here much longer to bother him, but he will think of me when I am gone. Nat, you must try to get that money. Don’t you let anybody see that paper. Hide it carefully so that no one can find it. Good night. I want to sleep now. Come in in the morning and see me.”
“I will do it,” said Nat getting upon his feet and shaking the old man cordially by the hand. “I shall not wait until morning, either. You may want something or other during the night.”
Nat went away feeling heavy hearted over what had just occurred. Something, he did not know what told him that the old man would never live to see the sun rise again. He felt guilty in going away from him, but Mr. Nickerson had requested it and he did not see what else there was to be done.
“I won’t take my clothes off at all when I lie down,” said Nat, going into his lean-to and shutting the door behind him. “And to think that I am rich and going to be rich through his death! I wish the old man was in perfect health and was going off with me. I would make his life be as peaceable as I knew how.”
Nat’s brain was so upset with all that had happened that he could not think very readily, but he did not ponder upon anything so much as he did upon what the old gentleman had said to Jonas: “I shall die before morning.” That was bringing the matter pretty close to him, and he resolved that he would not go to sleep at all; but his work with the potatoes had wearied him, and almost before he knew it he was in the land of dreams. He awoke with a start and it was broad day-light. To roll off his shake-down, seize his hat and make his way to the barn was the work of a very few minutes. Everything seemed quiet and still there. With cautious haste he opened the door and saw Mr. Nickerson lying on his shake-down just as he left him the night before. He wanted to say something to him but he did not dare. He drew a step closer and one look was enough. With frantic speed he ran to the house, pushed open the door and seized Jonas by the shoulder.
“Wake up, here,” he said, in a trembling voice. “The old man has bothered you for the last time. He is dead.”
Jonas was a sound sleeper and it was a hard task to awaken him; but there was something so thrilling in Nat’s words that he was on his feet in an instant. He looked at the boy as though he did not know what he meant.
“Mr. Nickerson lies dead down in your barn,” said Nat, earnestly. “He told you last night that he would die before morning, and sure enough he has.”
“Why-I-You don’t mean it!” exclaimed Jonas, his eyes wide with excitement.
“Don’t stop to talk, Jonas,” said Mrs. Keeler nervously. “Did you see him, Nat?”
“I have just come from there.”
“Then go along and see if you can do something,” urged his wife. “Maybe he ain’t dead.”
Jonas had by this time hurriedly put his clothes on, and he led the way to the barn with top speed, stopping only to call Caleb on the way. Everything was as Nat had left it the night before. There was “Baxter’s Saints’ Rest” with the leaves all torn out of it, lying by the dead man’s head, and it seemed as though the old man had not moved a finger since Nat bade him good night.
“Well, sir, he has gone up,” said Jonas; and Nat looked to see some little twinge of remorse in his tones. But there was not a particle that he could see, not even an expression of regret.
“Yes, he is gone, and now what remains for us to do? We can’t let him lie here,” said Nat, as he looked at the withered form of the old man.
“Say, Nat, don’t you say any thing about his being out here where the neighbors can hear it,” said Jonas, with a scowl, pulling Nat up close to him and whispering the words in his ear. “If you do, remember that switch.”
“I am not at all afraid of your whipping me,” said Nat, wrenching his arm out of Jonas’s grasp. “You have done that for the last time. You had better make arrangements to do something with Mr. Nickerson’s body, if you are going to.”
Jonas stood and looked at Nat as if he could scarcely believe his ears. The rebellion, which he had been working up for so long, had come suddenly and promptly, too, and the man was afraid of it. What was Nat going to do? There was but one thing that came up in Jonas’ mind and that was money. It dawned upon him that Mr. Nickerson had possibly taken the boy into his confidence and Jonas saw that if such were the case he must keep quiet in order to find out what it was.
“I don’t mean to harm you, Natty,” said he, but his looks certainly belied him, “but you can see for yourself how the neighbors will talk if they find out that the old man had been sleeping in my barn.”
“I understand all about that,” said Nat. “You need not fear of my saying any thing. You had better shut up Caleb’s mouth if you want the thing kept secret.”
Jonas evidently thought so too. He took Caleb off on one side and held a very earnest conversation with him, and after this, with Mrs. Keeler’s help, who came down to the barn as soon as she was fairly dressed, they made out to carry the old man’s body up to the house and lay it on Jonas’s bed. Nobody passed along the road while they were doing it. When the neighbors came there they would think that Mr. Nickerson had died in that room; they would not think of the barn at all. When this much had been done Nat was sent off post haste on a mule for the doctor, and Caleb was commanded to go around to those who lived close by and tell them of the bereavement that had come upon the house of Jonas Keeler during the night. After that Jonas seated himself upon a chair in the cabin, folded his arms, dropped his chin upon his breast and waited for the neighbors to come.
After that each one had his particular duties to perform, though the neighbors did the most of it. Jonas was too weak and dispirited to do any thing, even to doing the chores, and left it all to Caleb, who went about wondering if the old man’s taking off was going to work any change in his circumstances. Nat’s first care was to find the two leaves that were pasted together and hide them where there was no possibility of any body’s hunting them out. Then he settled down to think about his future. Mr. Nickerson was gone, and what had he to keep him longer under Jonas’s roof? He had seventy-five dollars in money, he had kept a strict account of that, and what was there to hinder him from going down to Manchester and making an effort to enrich himself? It required long study, but by the time the funeral was over Nat had decided upon his course.