BY FORREST CRISSEY
JUST look a' that boy, Dave!" exclaimed Mrs. Thomas, laying one hand on her husband's arm and pointing with the other at the boy sitting across the door of the tool-house, a pamphlet spread upon his knees and a stack of similar ones beside him.
"If he c'n just get his knees as high as his head and his nose in one o' them catalogues," continued Mrs. Thomas, "he doesn't know there's a wood-pile on earth—or chores either. Delia says they're all about printing-presses. Sometimes I wonder if it's a sign he's goin' t' be a scholar."
"I'd like t' see him show signs of doin' something," interrupted the husband.
"Yes, I know," admitted the wife, "but he's only a boy yet—just past 'leven. But I can't for the life of me see how he c'n get so fired up over that kind of truck, Dave. Why, he gets cart loads of it. Our box at the post-office is just stuffed with 'em 'most every time I get the mail; and I guess he borrows 'em from nearly every boy in town. He's read 'em till they're dog-eared. Dell says it's a regular craze with the boys, an' that they all have t' go through it sooner or later—leastways all that have any natural smartness. Blockheads, she says, don't care about printin'-presses, of course. He just sleeps with those catalogues—I find 'em on his bed 'most every mornin'. I never, as a girl, got so interested in Lena Rivers or Infelice as that boy is in them catalogues—not in my silliest story-readin' days."
"Seems t' me," chuckled her husband, as he reached for the oil can and turned his attention to the hub of the wheel plough, "that I've seen you studyin' th' catalogues of th' Consolidated Mail Order Supply House consid'ble now an' then."
"Oh, you!" exclaimed Mrs. Thomas, smiling good-naturedly at her husband's joke. "Of course—but that's different."
"Yes," returned the man, "he's a boy, and his mind's on printing-presses instid of on kitchen cabinets an' white iron bedsteads an' fancy jimcracks for th' parlor. But I've got to turn that corn lot to-day. Th' ground works fine. Looks as if I might be able t' get the biggest part of the spring work out of the way so's I c'n sit out th' Supervisors' meetin' with a clear conscience. The question of a new court-house is comin' up, an' th' session 'll likely be longer than common."
For a moment the mother stood in the big door of the barn, her eyes dwelling curiously, half proudly, on the absorbed face of the boy.
"Wouldn't it be queer," she murmured, "if he should take to such things and turn out a scholar!"
As she followed the path to the house her skirts brushed the pile of catalogues beside the boy, but he did not look up.
"I guess th' Empire's th' best for th' money, after all," she heard him saying to himself.
"But you haven't got th' money," she quietly remarked, stopping and turning her dark, serious eyes upon him. He started as if suddenly awakened, and testily throwing the catalogue to the ground, exclaimed:
"No! Nor hain't likely t' have, neither. It takes a lot t' get a good printin'-press like Stubb Harney's—an' I don't want anything less. But I c'd make a lot o' money with that press. Maybe I c'n get it, somehow, some time! It seems like I've got t' have it!"
His mother was about to make the prudent remark that the Harneys had more money than they knew what to do with, and that Willie was considered a spoiled little spendthrift; but the boy was not in a mood for a discussion of his secret enterprise, of the ambition that burned him consumingly, and so he moved on towards the wood-pile, feeling sure that his mother would not interrupt such laudable activity, even with wholesome advice.
The scraping of the buck-saw through the wood was of short duration, however. His back began to tire, and he soon straightened up to rest, looking long and dreamily at the line of willows along the lane, lovely in the tender green of their new foliage. And beyond the corn lot, where lines of black prairie soil were squirming back behind the sulky plough, was the vivid carpet of the winter wheat, which seemed to have sprung up overnight.
Spring had come! He hadn't noticed it before. The edge was gone from the breeze that came softly over the wild land to the west, and in a few days he could go barefooted—go in swimming, too; and perhaps this spring his father would give him the old watering-trough—a big log hollowed out—for a boat. He had waited almost as long as he could remember for his father to "get through" with that watering-trough and discard it for one built at the lumber yard with planks and rods.
Anyhow, spring had come again, and even if he had to wait and work and wait a long time—perhaps until he was almost a man—before he had enough to send away for the printing-press, it was good to have spring here again and feel the strange movings which its return always stirred within him.
Almost without his volition his feet began to carry him fieldward. He idled across the pasture and stopped under the walnut grove, kicking up the blackened shucks, rotted by the winter's snows, and listening with strange pleasure to the strident squawkings of bluejays teetering in the top branch of a walnut. Then he scouted along the stream, through its fringe of cottonwoods, until he came to the road, where he seated himself on the shoulder of a stone abutment and gazed into the waters of the little pool. The suckers would soon be running, and he could see a lazy red-horse nosing indolently along the bottom.
Sitting there, he looked back to the time when he had first thought of going down the stream in a boat. It seemed a very long while ago, and his sister Delia, he remembered, had stood with him on the bridge, holding his hand as they both peered over the guard rail. Then she had taken a crust of bread from their dinner pail and crumbled it slowly to see the fish come up for the crumbs as they struck the water. And every spring since he had said to himself, "This time I will go down the stream—'way down—and find where it goes to."
But now he was old enough—plainly old enough—and he would go right now and ask his father if he could have the old log watering-trough for a boat.
Just as he was making his way through the scraggy hedge into the corn lot, his eye caught the flutter of a printed page which had been blown against the willows. Instantly it was in his hand. The subtle thrall of the spring morning slipped from him, and again he was the potential craftsman, the spell of his dear enterprise shining from the eager eyes which saw in the vagrant, wind-tossed auction bill not the dull fact that Eli Towner, of Base Line, would offer at "public vendue" his stock of household effects, his horses, cattle, and farm implements, but letters, characters, symbols of the printer's magic art! Even the white spaces between the letters and the lines had their language for his understanding eye, and leaning against a shaggy willow—his finger slowly tracing each line of print—he abandoned himself to the fascination of mentally "setting up" the handbill from the type case. How deftly his fingers moved in his imaginary task, and how deliciously the types clicked down into their places in his composing-stick!
But as he mentally put the last period into place he awoke to the disillusioning realization that the thing of his desire was still as remote as when he had first looked upon Stubb Harney's new press as its stout packing was stripped away by impatient hands and it stood out in all. its bright, enchanting beauty in the chamber of Judge Harney's stable. His pain was now that of one who had sorrowed greatly, found a momentary distraction, and had then come suddenly back to his familiar grief with fresh shrinking from its grim and hateful presence.
What if spring had come again? What if he might at last have the watering-trough for a canoe and follow the beckoning, teasing waters of the stream through a maze of enchanting mysteries? What of anything? His heart's desire, the siren of his dreams, the magic thing of rhythmic, humming wheels and clicking ratchets—which received into its jaws squares of paper and gave out words, thoughts—this was still remote, illusive, unattainable, and life a dreary game of disappointment!
With unthinking footsteps he crossed the field and sat down upon the big stone, dejected, forlorn, the butt of fate. The near approach of his father, calling sharply to the team, stirred Gene to lift his gloomy eyes from the excited ant that was exploring the tiny crevices of the boulder to the approaching ploughman. How smoothly the thick prairie loam raised itself from behind the revolving knives and wriggled over the mould boards like great black worms! And how good was the smell of the freshly turned earth!
Suddenly the father jerked the horses to a halt, glared angrily before him, and exclaimed:
"There's that tarnation old stone again! Why in tunket couldn't that boulder just as well have planted itself somewhere else than in my best ploughed field? I've been ploughing around that stone for more'n thirty years, an' each year I forget all about it till I come t' this spot. Then the stone seems to fairly grin at me an' say: 'You've got t' turn out for me. I settled on this land first, an' I'll be here long after you're gone!' Gene, I'd give a ten-dollar note t' come home some day an' find that stone under the horse-chestnut in the front yard. That's where it should have squatted in the first place!"
The boy leaped from the stone and to the side of the plough so quickly that the horses rattled their traces in alarm.
"What's got into you, Gene?" exclaimed the father, quickly jerking the reins.
"Will yuh, pa?" he asked, in a quivering voice, "give ten dollars—t' me—if I'll put it in the front yard?"
The keen eyes of the man searched the face of the boy for a moment, and then smilingly shifted to the big stone. A burst of laughter suddenly broke from his lips and his body swayed convulsively. There was no smile on the set, quivering lips of the boy, whose eyes regarded his father's face—contorted with recurring spasms of mirth—in a dismayed and confused scrutiny.
Tears of merriment stood in the man's eyes, and he clutched his aching sides when his laughter had spent itself, and the boy's eyes dropped to the wide rim of the plough wheel. His fingers toyed nervously with the gear lever, and he swallowed laboriously before the words in his mind would voice themselves. His speech was thick and choky, but at length it came:
"Well, I heard Doc Wilbur say that Dave Thomas's word was as good as his bond."
In the silence which followed this assertion the boy's grimy fingers poked furtively along the flat wheel-rim, but his face was still downcast. He almost trembled as he waited to learn the effect which this statement with its implied challenge would bring upon his head.
"He did, did he?"—the man's tone had the ring of pride, of decision. The boy looked shyly up. "Well, son, I've always kept my word with you, haven't I?"
The boy nodded his head.
"But, mind you," continued the man, "no help from Buck or any other man—or boy, either. And no team in this deal!"
Again the father's eyes rested on the sullen, defiant face of the big stone, and again his laugh rang out on the soft air. But the boy was already at the lane and leaping towards the house with the spring, the elasticity, which hope, purpose, enterprise, put into the fickle, whimsical legs of small humans on the childhood side of adolescence.
That evening as the farmer and his wife sat on the door-step they saw the figure of the lad stealing down the lane. Again the man laughed and then told the incident of the morning.
"My ten's as safe as a cat under a barn. He can't ever—"
"I think it's downright mean of you, Dave, to put the boy up against a hopeless job like that. He wants that ten dollars worse'n you want anything on earth, an' I'm most afraid he'll wear himself out an' be sick trying to figure it out—an' maybe strain himself or get hurt in the bargain."
"Oh, I guess not," complacently replied the husband. "It 'll give him somethin' t' study on—somethin' practical that 'll help develop his mind in learning how t' do things. Besides, I never noticed him growin' thin over anything exceptin' too many green apples. He ain't strained himself or dislocated any limbs from violent use of a buck-saw, has he?"
"But his heart's awfully in this," returned the mother. "An' terrible big disappointments aren't good for boys. Besides, Gene's more sensitive than some."
"I guess he'll bear up under the blow, mother," continued the farmer, and then added: "Who's said he shouldn't have a printin'-press? Fact is, I've given him a possible chance to earn one."
"A chance!" retorted Mrs. Thomas.
"I said a possible chance," chuckled the farmer.
"Well," replied she, "he's awfully set an' determined, and he'll simply eat an' sleep with that stone until he finds it can't be moved—if he sleeps at all!"
The next morning Buck, the hired man, came upon the boy sitting on an upturned pail in the wagon-shed, his fixed eyes staring at the wheel cultivator.
" 'Scuse me!" soberly remarked Buck. "Didn't mean to break in on th' cogitations of a civil engineer. It's a great thing, son, t' be a civil engineer. Takes a mighty smart man t' trot in that class. I seen one up t' Peory onct, an' he had freckles just like your'n. That feller made a river turn tail an' run up-hill! But say, boy, why don't you drill a hole in th' stone, put in a blast of powder, an' blow it up? Then you could carry th' pieces in a wheelbarrow all right. Th' ol' man told me th' conditions he laid down, an' I didn't notice anything t' forbid that."
"You lemme alone, won't yuh, Buck? This hain't no foolin'; it's serious."
"They's some awful big turtles down in th' creek, son," returned the grinning hired man as he climbed into the wagon, "an' if you got enough of 'em harnessed up they'd more'n move that old rock all right!"
The boy watched Buck standing in the rattling, bouncing lumber-wagon driving at a keen trot across the uneven ground of the field, and knew that all the torments which the ingenious mind of the hired man could devise would be his portion until the incident of the big stone was at an end. The suggestion of the blasting-powder brought a faint smile to the boy's lips, but was instantly dismissed as "tricky." He had just decided to take the shovels from the wheel plough and drag it out to the stone to see if he could not contrive a kind of swinging cradle which would lift the boulder, when his sister appeared with a sly smile on her lips.
"Got it figured out yet?" she asked.
"Look here, Dell," he flamed, "if you plague me the way Buck does, I'll get even!—an' you know I can! So don't start in bein' mean."
"Oh, don't get smarty," she retorted. Then in a different tone she remarked: "Wouldn't it be great if you could do it! I guess that 'd take pa down some. I'll help you all I can, Gene."
"Pa didn't say anything that 'd prevent," he exclaimed, eagerly. "He just said no team or man or boy."
Together they trundled the cultivator down the lane and into the corn lot until it stood beside the stone. The boy's face fell.
"That won't do," he admitted, sadly. "Th' old stone's s' big it stands higher'n the cultivator hubs. But they's one good thing—it's on a kind of hummock. That 'll help it get started easier when I figger out a plan."
"Yes," answered Delia; "but the ground's ploughed, and that 'll make it hard pulling. Besides, there's a rise of ground where the yard begins."
"I know," he admitted, despondently.
"I guess you never can do it, Budd," she said, almost tenderly.
"Yes, I can, too!" he retorted. "I've got to. There hain't any two ways about that. Somehow that stone's got to be moved. But I can see now that men who do big things like that get 'em all figgered out in their minds first, an' don't waste time and strength on foolishness. I've got t' think it out first, Dell."
A week later, as Supervisor Thomas was starting for the county-seat in his bright new buggy, his wife said:
"If that boy don't turn up something before long, he'll go distracted. He just roams over the place from morning to night with the queerest look on his face—like old Tinker Woodard, that went loony back in Ohio. Tinker thought he'd built a contraption that 'd run one mill-wheel after another with the same fall of water. An' he died improvin' it. Gene's got so now that he forgets to eat. Haven't missed a cookey from the jar since you started him in on this crazy business—an' I'd know it if he took a single one, for I keep count on 'em just t' see. His room's all littered up with scraps of paper with queer lines on 'em—kind of drawin's like geography maps."
"Huh!" replied the father. "I guess he won't go into a decline over it right away."
The dust of the father's buggy had hardly cleared away from the road when the boy looked up from his paper and declared,
"Ma, I'm goin' t' town, and maybe I won't be back much before night."
"What are you goin' for?" she asked.
"Oh, just t' look 'round," he answered, vaguely.
"Well, you'll look peaked if you keep up this foolishness," she retorted, sharply. Then she disappeared into the house and brought out a package of cookies wrapped in a copy of the Princeville Clarion. "Put them in your pocket t' nibble on—an' here's a dime."
He grunted symptoms of thanks and started cross-lots in the direction of the village.
In the middle of the afternoon, as Mrs. Thomas was on her knees beside the front walk, drawing with careful fingers the mulching from the dark waxen fronds of the bleeding-heart which was pushing up its lusty crests through the protecting litter, she heard a quick clatter of hoofs, and saw the handsome black horse of the new veterinary leaping and snorting under a rein so tight that the driver was pulling himself up from the seat of his red runabout. As Mrs. Thomas had just seen Dr. Vinney drive past in the other direction, she was astonished. But the language of the veterinary as he began to get control of the excited animal made her pull her sunbonnet down over her face and exclaim:
"Goodness me! I thought Buck could swear awful when he got mad at a horse—but he's just nowhere!"
When the veterinary had disappeared up the road, with the evident intention of returning to town by the longer way of the Three Bridges, the woman pushed back her blue "shaker" and looked down the road towards Princeville. For a moment she stood transfixed, her dark eyes bulging and her small mouth partially open. Her astonishment this time exceeded speech, and she made no exclamation. With the alert erectness with which a horse in pasture approaches a suspiciously fascinating intruder, Mrs. Thomas moved towards the horse-block without removing her eyes for an instant from the distant object of her gaze. Occasionally she paused for a moment, then made another approach, her vision never wavering from the nearing thing in the highway. Mechanically she mounted the block, and there stood like a statue on its pedestal. After a few moments her lips moved, and she murmured:
"Bless my soul—but what a monstrous barrel! An' what makes it go? Can't see a sign of a man behind it!"
Finally, as the propelling power behind the hogshead came into view, the woman exclaimed:
"Gene Thomas! What in the world—"
"Barrel—hogshead," he tersely responded.
"Don't you know you most scared Dr. Yinney's horse into a runaway?"
"Nope; can't see over this. It's 'n awful job to roll that thing clear from town, ma."
"Sakes alive, child!" she responded.
"Folks along the road 'll think you're crazy."
"I ain't," the boy answered, with the first smile she had seen on his face since the moving of the big stone had been broached. "I've just got an idea. You wait an' see."
Then he turned in at the gate and started the huge barrel on its pilgrimage down the lane. He persisted until it stood beside the big stone—the goal of all his thoughts and dreams. There he sat in absorbed speculation, working out the details of the morrow's activities with all the excitement that the greatest of engineers have felt in giving battle with their cunning and skill to obstacles which defied them with the power and the insolence of sheer material resistance and strength. His dust-covered face was streaked with sweat, and his lips showed a border of pallor which did not escape the eye of his mother as he slouched wearily into his chair at the supper table.
"You look all petered out. I do wish you wouldn't get so fired up about things."
"I think," he shyly responded, glancing at his sister, who was motioning him to take his elbows off the table, "that I've got it. But I'll know to-morrow." A little later, in a voice somewhat muffled by the larger portion of a biscuit in his mouth, he asked, "Say, Buck, what makes 'em use pulleys like them on the hay-fork gear in the barn?"
"They use 'em so they can lift more—an' easier, of course," answered the hired man.
After supper he again appealed to the hired man.
"Show me just how that pulley business works, won't you, Buck? Can you pull a lot harder with one?"
"You bet you can! Now what's yer idee, sonny? Somethin' about that big stone?"
"Yes. Once I seen 'em movin' the ell of Widow Graves's old house up on to the street for a mil'nery shop for Miss Carboy, an' they used a lot of ropes and pulleys. It came to me when I looked at the mil'nery shop this afternoon. I thought I might use the pulleys on the hay-fork gear t' move th' stone with. But out back of Hudson's store I got my eye on that big hogshead. Some boys were rollin' it back and forth an' it had a keg inside. All of a sudden it came to me that if I could only get the big stone into that hogshead I could roll it all right. That seemed better than the pulley business."
"But the pulleys on the hay-fork ain't th' right kind," said Buck. "You want a reg'lar mover's block an' tackle. Ol' man Moseley's got one. Why don't you go over an' borrow it? Might take along a hatful of eggs, just to help. Then there's another thing I guess you hain't thought of. That's how you're goin' to get th' stone into th' barrel."
"Yes, I have," asserted the boy. "I'm goin' t' dig a hole so's I c'n set th' hogshead with its mouth to the stone and have the other end lower a little. Then I'm goin' t' hitch on with that tackle so's it 'll draw the stone to where it 'll slide into th' barrel's mouth. If I get the stone inside of that thing once, I'll make it roll somehow."
His half-trembling request for the tackle was good-naturedly received by "the moving-man," and the pulleys and ropes loaded into the democrat wagon. Once it was inside his own yard, the hired man stopped his work and volunteered.
"Now, boy, I'll rig it up right here and show how it works and how easy you can pull th' side right off a barn!"
"I see! I see what makes it pull s' strong," the lad exclaimed, as soon as its operation was demonstrated. There was a new light of courage in his eye as he took a spade on one shoulder and a shovel on the other and started for the stone. Once Buck visited the scene of his labors and said,
"Oh, gimme that shovel for a minute; I'll—"
"No, you won't," declared the boy. "Pa said I wasn't to let you help."
"All right. Better put a lot of hay in the bottom end of that thing, so's if the stone should slide in with a bang it wouldn't knock the bottom out. But I don't much believe it will! There ain't much danger of that. You'll know more about movin' big stones a little later than you do now."
Delia came out later and seated herself on the big stone, silently watching him dig and humming a gay tune. He reflected, as he leaned on his shovel to ease his back for a moment, that Dell was all right when she didn't boss, and that there was something in the way she watched him that said, "I'm going to stand by him, anyway."
This wordless emanation of comradeship, almost of confidence, cheered the boy, who shovelled with frenzied eagerness, and he felt a glow of kindliness towards the sister, two years older than himself, whose airs of superiority, especially in the presence of "comp'ny," often aroused his ire. To-day she certainly was not "stuck up."
At length he paused, mopped his face with the forearm of his sleeve, and surveyed the shallow, slanting pit he had dug with critical eye.
"Guess that 'll give it 'bout the right tilt," he remarked, judicially.
Together they laboriously carried a few old planks to the field and placed them in the bed prepared for the hogshead, to serve as skids when it came to rolling the huge barrel, with its precious burden, out of the depression in which it snuggled with its open end coaxingly ready to receive the big stone.
Then the tackle was rigged to the trunk of the old cottonwood at the edge of the field, the long "draw" of the rope affording a powerful leverage.
"You bring that old horse-blanket from the barn an' some pieces of stout rope," commanded the chief engineer.
"What you going to do with 'em?" inquired the sister.
"Make a kind of sling to fit 'round the far end of the stone, so's it 'll draw the stone even an' easy like. I thought that part of it out in the bed last night. Guess I didn't sleep very much. Men don't when they've got big things on their mind."
After this step in his plans had been laboriously completed he ran to the barn, the trinkets in his pockets jingling as he chugged along the lane, and soon returned, staggering under a forkful of straw, looking like a pair of unsteady thatched legs.
"Now, you pack this in the bottom of the barrel," he ordered, "while I bring s'more."
The trough of the barrel was also padded with straw, and the upper end wedged securely into place with stones.
"It's goin' to be an awful pull t' start th' old stone goin', but I've dug a little dirt away so's t' make it pitch forward a little. We'd better eat dinner an' get in good trim before we try. If we can't budge it alone, maybe ma'll take hold th' tackle with us an' help. Pa didn't say anything about her not helpin'."
During the noon meal he was silent, and his abstraction was indicated by the fact that he had nearly eaten the bowlful of brown gravy, when his mother exclaimed:
"Child alive! That's my gravy!"
"Thought it was soup," he answered, and grinned sheepishly—but was soon lost to his surroundings, deep in speculations of the mighty business before him. As he pushed back his plate he asked, "Ma, Want t' come out and watch me slip th' big stone into th' barrel?"
"What!" she replied. "I wouldn't be s' sure about it." But she left the dinner dishes standing upon the table—an eloquent testimony to her interest in the enterprise—and went afield with her children.
"Come on, Dell," he said, solemnly, after a careful examination of every fastening and pulley, "let's give her a little pull—kind of easy at first, an' see."
Together they grasped the rope, and, as it lifted from the ground in a taut line, his heart seemed almost to stop its beating. The mother stood by the big stone while the sturdy little figures of the boy and girl leaned more and more as they strained at the rope like fishermen bringing in a haul.
"It moves!" suddenly the mother shouted, with an excitement of which she was unconscious. This was answered by a wild yell of joy from the boy. He came running back and verified with his own eyes the triumphant fact that the great boulder had made an inch or two of progress.
"I'm awful 'fraid it's goin' to wobble," he remarked. "Ma, if you'll just take hold with Dell, I c'n stand back there 'n' see how it's goin' t' act."
"Ready?" she called back, after they had changed places.
"Now—easy!" he answered—and then waited in a consuming suspense. Would it move? Would it slide safely into the gaping, the inviting mouth of the hogshead? He almost prayed aloud, and his eyes were themselves bright and burning petitions for the achievement upon which his whole life's happiness seemed to hang. While he was holding his breath and waiting as the ropes grew tighter and tighter, the thought came to him, "If I fail, I don't want to live!"
Did it move, the great stone? or did it only tremble? The boy leaped behind it, braced his feet in the soil, and pushed.
It did move. It slipped from the cushion of earth which had held it, the granite king of the corn lot for uncounted years!
"Stiddy! Stiddy!" he shouted. For an instant it seemed that the rock, with malicious perversity, was going to dive straight through the bottom of the barrel. But it only rocked a little, and then slid softly into its nest of straw.
The next moment Mrs. Thomas was standing beside him, her arm partially about his neck and her apron half covering his face
"Aw, what's th' matter? I ain't cryin'!" came the muffled voice from under the apron. "I'm just sweaty—an'—an'—"
He wiggled from the sympathetic embrace of his mother without finishing the sentence, and roughly declared,
" 'Tain't done yet—by a long' shot!—if we have got it inside the barrel."
The three then braced against the cylinder and succeeded in rocking it, but could not quite roll it out of the depression in which it was cradled.
"I got it!" suddenly exclaimed the boy, racing down the lane to the tool-house. He returned with a hammer and a handful of heavy spikes. Into the far side of the barrel, close to the ground, he drove the spikes until they were embedded within one inch of the surface. These were placed on either side of the bulge of the barrel. The end of the pulling-rope was formed into a loop and this caught over the protruding heads of the spikes.
"If we c'd pull that old stone right out by th' roots," commented Gene, "I guess we c'n manage t' make this 'ere barrel roll up-hill a little!"
Again the magic ropes were drawn taut, and the commander of the enterprise waited with trembling intentness for the next turn of fate's wheel. His dark eyes were fiercely bright, and he stood watchful, eager, ready to leap to an emergency, to spend his whole strength in a frantic tug, to give the word of command at the instant of requirement. Slowly the huge barrel reared itself out of the depression, and the great rock chuckled into a new position with a muffled sound that was music to the boy.
"Who-o-p!" he yelled. "She's up on th' level. I ain't afraid now. But I've got t' put more straw in, so's to be sure the big stone won't smash out th' sides."
After the straw had been brought and the barrel plentifully stuffed, three pairs of hands were placed against its side, and finally its great cylindrical hulk yielded to the pressure, and foot by foot it was tumbled over the black furrows to the end of the lane. Then its progress was faster.
They paused opposite the little pond and sat down on the fence to rest. Not a word was spoken. The achievement was not yet complete, and even Mrs. Thomas felt the spell of acute suspense under which the captain of the enterprise and his ginghamed lieutenant labored. Once the anxious mother was moved to remark that she hoped that old barrel wouldn't go to pieces; but she checked herself and silently picked a few clinging burs from her skirt—ashamed of the violence with which her hand trembled as she did so. To "get all worked up over nothing" was to betray an undignified weakness in the code of this capable, reticent woman.
When it came to the rise of ground near the house, progress was more difficult—but the goal was nearer!—and the pushing, straining trio fought the way, inch by inch, and held the ground gained by keeping the blocking tight against the barrel. Then, as the way grew still steeper, the tackle was brought from the field, more spikes driven into the barrel, and the leverage of the pulleys again applied.
At last the barrel stood under the horse-chestnut, and the boy proudly asked:
"Ma, d'ye s'pose pa'd like it better to stand on end? I c'n put it that way, if you think so."
"Maybe he would, Genie," she answered. "It would look a little more like one of them stones your pa and I saw down Boston way on our wedding trip—with letters on 'em telling about great things that happened there."
Again taking another tackle, this time about its end, the barrel was slowly overturned, and at last stood on its open end. Feverishly the boy brought an axe and cut one hoop after another until the hogshead fell apart.
For an hour Gene lay upon his back in the front yard, occasionally rising upon bis elbow to look wistfully down the road. Suddenly he leaped to his feet, ran to the kitchen door, and shouted:
"He's comin', ma, he's comin'. You keep back. I'm goin' t' hide behind th' big stone."
David Thomas was looking reflectively across the opposite fields as he drove in front of the house, but he jerked the colts to a halt just inside the gate and sat up stiff and straight in his new-varnished buggy, staring at the big stone—the hidden boy studying his father's astonishment with eyes alight with triumph.
As Gene emerged from his ambush the father asked,
"Did you do it, son—accordin' t' agreement?"
"Ask ma," was the proud answer.
"Well, I vum!" muttered the Supervisor Thomas. "If that ain't gumption!"
Yes," the mother later confirmed, "he did it fair. An' you couldn't guess how if he'd agree t' forfeit that ten."
Instantly the familiar black wallet was withdrawn from the father's pocket, and his heavy fingers fumblingly unwound the encircling strap with delicious, tantalizing delay.
"Here's th' money, son," he remarked, a queer sparkle in his eye. Then he added, "I s'pose you'll have t' make a trip t' the post-office this evenin'!"
"Now, ma," eagerly exclaimed Gene, as his fingers closed upon the yellow gold note, "gimme th' rest o' my money;" and as the father stood listening to his wife's story of how the big stone had been moved they watched the hurrying figure of the boy vanishing into "the cross-lots woods" between the farm-house and the village.
Nearly a fortnight later—after an infinite period of blissful suspense—there was a family gathering in Gene's chamber—a gathering which included Buck, the hired man. The printing-press was enthroned on a strong dry-goods box and the type case stood beside it. The ink had been spread upon the revolving disk by a gummy roller. A great, shining happiness spoke from the boy's dark eyes as he said,
"Now, ma, you held th' light."
The hands which held the kerosene lamp above the type case trembled slightly, and the eyes which followed his fingers—dipping now into this tiny pen of the case and now into that—were touched with mingled pride and bewilderment. Finally the boy exclaimed,
"It's all set up; now I'm goin' t' make up th' form."
"Takes a long time, don't it?" commented Buck, when the form was finally slipped into its place in the press.
"Oh, I dun'no'—'twon't when I get used to it," responded the boy. His eager, tingling hand was on the wheel; it turned; the jaws of the press closed together, opened, and he drew forth the square of paper. After one proud glance at it he passed it to his father, who read:
Gen e Thomas
he Moved th E
"Don't you spoil that," exclaimed David Thomas, as he reluctantly yielded the yellow slip into his wife's hands. "I want it—that very one—just as 'tis!"
Then he drew out the long wallet and carefully extracted a five-dollar bill.
"Here, son," he said, "take that! This printin's worth it. I may want t' look at that some time when you've got to be an editor."
And as Mrs. Thomas went down the stairs, leaving the boy alone with his treasure, she murmured,
"My Gene—t' turn out a scholar!"