Bushrod, or "Bush" Wyckoff was only twelve years old when he went to work for Zeph Ashton, who was not only a crusty farmer, but one of the meanest men in the country, and his wife was well fitted to be the life partner of such a parsimonious person.
They had no children of their own, and had felt the need for years of a willing, nimble-footed youngster to do the odd chores about the house, such as milking cows, cutting and bringing in wood, running of errands, and the scores of odd little jobs which are easy enough for boys, but sorely try the stiff and rheumatic limbs of a man in the decline of life.
Bush was a healthy little fellow—not very strong for his years, but quick of movement, bright-witted, willing, and naturally a general favorite. The misfortunes which suddenly overtook his home roused the keenest sympathy of his neighbors. His father was a merchant in New York, who went to and from the metropolis each week day morning and evening, to his pleasant little home in New Jersey. One day his lifeless body was brought thither, and woe and desolation came to the happy home. He was killed in a railway accident.
The blow was a terrible one, and for weeks it seemed as if his stricken widow would follow him across the dark river; but her Christian fortitude and her great love for their only child sustained her in her awful grief, and she was even able to thank her Heavenly Father that her dear boy was spared to her.
But how true it is that misfortunes rarely come singly. Her husband had amassed a competency sufficient to provide comfortably for those left behind; but his confidence in his fellow-men was wofully betrayed. He was one of the bondsmen of a public official who made a hasty departure to Canada, one evening, leaving his business in such a shape that his securities were compelled to pay fifty thousand dollars. Two others were associated with Mr. Wyckoff, and with the aid of their tricky lawyers they managed matters so that four-fifths of the loss fell upon the estate of the deceased merchant.
The result swept it away as utterly as were the dwellings in the Johnstown Valley by the great flood. The widow and her boy left their home and moved into a little cottage, with barely enough left to keep the wolf of starvation from the door.
It was then that Bush showed the stuff of which he was made. He returned one afternoon and told his mother, in his off-hand way, that he had engaged to work through the summer months for Mr. Ashton, who not only agreed to pay him six dollars a month, but would allow him to remain at home over night, provided, of course, that he was there early each morning and stayed late enough each day to attend to all the chores.
The tears filled the eyes of the mother as she pressed her little boy to her heart, and comprehended his self-sacrificing nature.
"You are too young, my dear child, to do this; we have enough left to keep us awhile, and I would prefer that you wait until you are older and stronger."
"Why, mother, I am old enough and strong enough now to do all that Mr. Ashton wants me to do. He explained everything to me, and it won't be work at all, but just fun."
"Well, I hope you will find it so, but if he does not treat you kindly, you must not stay one day."
Bush never complained to his mother, but he did find precious little fun and plenty of the hardest kind of work. The miserly farmer bore down heavily on his young shoulders. He and his wife seemed to be continually finding extra labor for the lad. The little fellow was on hand each morning, in stormy as well as in clear weather, at daybreak, ready and willing to perform to the best of his ability whatever he was directed to do. Several times he became so weak and faint from the severe labor, that the frugal breakfast he had eaten at home proved insufficient, and he was compelled to ask for a few mouthfuls of food before the regular dinner hour arrived. Although he always remained late, he was never invited to stay to supper, Mr. Ashton's understanding being that the mid-day meal was the only one to which the lad was entitled.
But for his love for his mother, Bush would have given up more than once. His tasks were so severe and continuous that many a time he was hardly able to drag himself homeward. Every bone in his body seemed to ache, and neither his employer nor his wife ever uttered a pleasant or encouraging word.
But no word of murmuring fell from his lips. He resolutely held back all complaints, and crept away early to his couch under the plea that it was necessary in order to be up betimes. The mother's heart was distressed beyond expression, but she comforted herself with the fact that his term of service was drawing to a close, and he would soon have all the rest and play he wanted.
Bush allowed his wages to stand until the first of September, when his three months expired. He had counted on the pride and happiness that would be his when he walked into the house and tossed the whole eighteen dollars in his mother's lap. How her eyes would sparkle, and how proud he would be!
"Lemme see," said the skinflint, when settling day arrived; "I was to give you four dollars a month, warn't I?"
"It was six," replied Bush, respectfully.
"That warn't my understanding, but we'll let it go at that; I've allers been too gin'rous, and my heart's too big for my pocket. Lemme see."
He uttered the last words thoughtfully, as he took his small account-book from his pocket, and began figuring with the stub of a pencil. "Three months at six dollars will be eighteen dollars."
"Yes, sir; that's right."
"Don't interrupt me, young man," sternly remarked the farmer, frowning at him over his spectacles. "The full amount is eighteen dollars—Kerrect—L—em—m—e see; you have et seven breakfasts here; at fifty cents apiece that is three dollars and a half. Then, l—em—m—e see; you was late eleven times, and I've docked you twenty-five cents for each time; that makes two dollars and seventy-five cents."
Inasmuch as Bush's wages amounted hardly to twenty-five cents a day, it must be admitted that this was drawing it rather strong.
"L—em—m—e see," continued Mr. Ashton, wetting the pencil stub between his lips, and resuming his figuring; "your board amounts to three dollars and a half; your loss of time to two seventy-five; that makes six and a quarter, which bein' took from eighteen dollars, leaves 'leven seventy-five. There you are!"
As he spoke, he extended his hand, picked up a small canvas bag from the top of his old-fashioned writing-desk, and tossed it to the dumfounded boy. The latter heard the coins inside jingle, as it fell in his lap, and, as soon as he could command his voice, he swallowed the lump in his throat, and faintly asked:
"Is that—is that right, Mr. Ashton?"
"Count it and see for yourself," was the curt response.
This was not exactly what Bush meant, but he mechanically unfastened the cord around the throat of the little bag, tumbled the coins out in his hat and slowly counted them. They footed up exactly eleven dollars and seventy-five cents, proving that Mr. Ashton's figuring was altogether unnecessary, and that he had arranged the business beforehand.
While Bush was examining the coins, his heart gave a sudden quick throb. He repressed all signs of the excitement he felt, however.
"How do you find it?" asked the man, who had never removed his eyes from him, "Them coins have been in the house more'n fifty year—that is, some of 'em have, but they're as good as if they's just from the mint, and bein' all coin, you can never lose anything by the bank bustin'."
"It is correct," said Bush.
"Ar' you satisfied?"
"Then sign this receipt, and we're square."
The lad sat down at the desk and attached his name in a neat round hand to the declaration that he had received payment in full for his services from Mr. Zephaniah Ashton, up to the first of September of the current year.
"This is all mine, Mr. Ashton?"
"Of course—what do you mean by axin' that?"
"Good-day," grunted the miser, turning his back, as a hint for him to leave—a hint which Bush did not need, for he was in a tumult of excitement.
"That is the queerest thing that ever happened," he said to himself when he reached the public highway, and began hurrying along the road in the direction of Newark. "If he had paid me my full wages I would have told him, but all these are mine, and I shall sell them; won't Professor Hartranft be delighted, but not half as much as mother and I will be."
That evening Mr. Ashton and his wife had just finished their supper when Professor Hartranft, a pleasant, refined-looking gentleman, knocked at their door.
"I wish to inquire," said he, after courteously saluting the couple, "whether you have any old coins in the house."
"No," was the surly response of the farmer, "we don't keep 'em."
"But you had quite a collection."
"I had 'leven dollars and seventy-five cents' worth, but I paid 'em out this mornin'."
"To a boy named Bushrod Wyckoff?"
"They were given to him unreservedly?—that is, you renounce all claim upon them?"
"What the blazes ar' you drivin' at?" demanded the angry farmer. "I owed him 'leven dollars and seventy-five cents for wages, and I paid him purcisely that amount, and have his receipt in full. I'd like to know what business it is of yours anyway."
Now came the professor's triumph.
"Young Wyckoff called at my office this afternoon, and I bought a number of the coins from him."
"What!" exclaimed the amazed farmer, "you didn't pay him nothin' extra for that rusty old money, did you? You must be crazy."
"I did, and shall make a handsome thing of it. For instance, among the coins which you gave him was a copper penny, with a liberty cap, of 1793; I paid Bush three dollars for that; I gave him twenty-five dollars for a half dime coined in 1802; twenty dollars for a quarter dollar of 1827; the same sum for a half dollar, fillet head, of 1796; and, what caps all, five hundred dollars for a silver dollar of 1804. There are only five or six of the latter in existence, and I shall sell this specimen for at least eight hundred dollars. Mr. Ashton, sometimes a mean man overreaches himself, and it looks as though you had made a mistake. I bid you good-day, sir."
The numismatist spoke the truth; and when the miserly old farmer realized how completely he had turned the tables on himself, it is enough to say that his feelings may be "better imagined than described."