Chapter XIV. Self-Denial and its Reward
 

I remember little that followed until I was startled out of my chair by a loud knocking. The sunlight was streaming in at the window and John Jones's voice was at the door.

"I think we have all overslept," I said, as I admitted him.

"Not a bit of it. Every wink you've had after such a day as yesterday is like money put in the bank. But the sleighing is better now than it will be later in the day. The sun'll be pretty powerful by noon, and the snow'll soon be slush. Now's your chance to get your traps up in a hurry. I can have a two-hoss sled ready in half an hour, and if you say so I can hire a big sleigh of a neighbor, and we'll have everything here by dinner-time. After you get things snug, you won't care if the bottom does fall out of the roads for a time. Well, you have had to rough it. Merton might have come and stayed with us."

"Oh, I'm all right," said the boy, rubbing his eyes open as he rose from the floor, at the same time learning from stiff joints that a carpet is not a mattress.

"Nothing would suit me better, Mr. Jones, than your plan of prompt action, and I'm the luckiest man in the world in having such a long- headed, fore-handed neighbor to start with. I know you'll make a good bargain for the other team, and before I sleep to-night I wish to square up for everything. I mean at least to begin business in this way at Maizeville."

"Oh, go slow, go slow!" said Mr. Jones. "The town will mob you if they find you've got ready money in March. John junior will be over with a pot of coffee and a jug of milk in a few minutes, and we'll be off sharp."

There was a patter of feet overhead, and soon Bobsey came tearing down, half wild with excitement over the novelty of everything. He started for the door as if he were going head first into the snow.

I caught him, and said: "Do you see that chair? Well, we all have a busy day before us. You can help a good deal, and play a little, but you can't hinder and pester according to your own sweet will one bit. You must either obey orders or else be put under arrest and tied in the chair."

To go into the chair to-day would be torture indeed, and the little fellow was sobered at once.

The others soon joined us, eager to see everything by the broad light of day, and to enter upon the task of getting settled. We had scarcely come together before John junior appeared with the chief features of our breakfast. The children scanned this probable playmate very curiously, and some of us could hardly repress a smile at his appearance. He was even more sandy than his father. Indeed his hair and eyebrows were nearly white, but out of his red and almost full-moon face his mother's black eyes twinkled shrewdly. They now expressed only good-will and bashfulness. Every one of us shook hands with him so cordially that his boy's heart was evidently won.

Merton, to break the ice more fully, offered to show him his gun, which he had kept within reach ever since we left the boat. It made him feel more like a pioneer, no doubt. As he took it from its stout cloth cover I saw John junior's eyes sparkle. Evidently a deep chord was touched. He said, excitedly: "To-day's your time to try it. A rabbit can't stir without leaving his tracks, and the snow is so deep and soft that he can't get away. There's rabbits on your own place."

"O papa," cried my boy, fairly trembling with eagerness, "can't I go?"

"I need you very much this morning."

"But, papa, others will be out before me, and I may lose my chance;" and he was half ready to cry.

"Yes," I said; "there is a risk of that. Well, you shall decide in this case," I added, after a moment, seeing a chance to do a little character-building. "It is rarely best to put pleasure before business or prudence. If you go out into the snow with those boots, you will spoil them, and very probably take a severe cold. Yet you may go if you will. If you help me we can be back by ten o'clock, and I will get you a pair of rubber boots as we return."

"Will there be any chance after ten o'clock?" he asked, quickly.

"Well," said John junior, in his matter-of-fact way, "that depends. As your pa says, there's a risk."

The temptation was too strong for the moment. "O dear!" exclaimed Merton, "I may never have so good a chance again. The snow will soon melt, and there won't be any more till next winter. I'll tie my trousers down about my boots, and I'll help all the rest of the day after I get back."

"Very well," I said quietly: and he began eating his breakfast--the abundant remains of our last night's lunch--very rapidly, while John junior started off to get his gun.

I saw that Merton was ill at ease, but I made a sign to his mother not to interfere. More and more slowly he finished his breakfast, then took his gun and went to the room that would be his, to load and prepare. At last he came down and went out by another door, evidently not wishing to encounter me. John junior met him, and the boys were starting, when John senior drove into the yard and shouted, "John junior, step here a moment."

The boy returned slowly, Merton following. "You ain't said nothin' to me about goin' off with that gun," continued Mr. Jones, severely.

"Well, Merton's pa said he might go if he wanted to, and I had to go along to show him."

"That first shot wasn't exactly straight, my young friend John. I told Merton that it wasn't best to put pleasure before business, but that he could go if he would. I wished to let him choose to do right, instead of making him do right."

"Oho, that's how the land lays. Well, John junior, you can have your choice, too. You may go right on with your gun, but you know the length and weight of that strap at home. Now, will you help me? or go after rabbits?"

The boy grinned pleasantly, and replied, "If you had said I couldn't go, I wouldn't; but if it's choosin' between shootin' rabbits and a strappin' afterward--come along, Merton."

"Well, go along then," chuckled his father; "you've made your bargain square, and I'll keep my part of it."

"Oh, hang the rabbits! You shan't have any strapping on my account," cried Merton; and he carried his gun resolutely to his room and locked the door on it.

John junior quietly went to the old barn, and hid his gun.

"Guess I'll go with you, pa," he said, joining us.

"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed Mr. Jones. "It was a good bargain to back out of. Come now, let's all be off as quick as we can. Neighbor Rollins down the road will join us as we go along."

"Merton," I said, "see if there isn't a barrel of apples in the cellar. If you find one, you can fill your pockets."

He soon returned with bulging pockets and a smiling face, feeling that such virtue as he had shown had soon brought reward. My wife said that while we were gone she and the children would explore the house and plan how to arrange everything. We started in good spirits.

"Here's where you thought you was cast away last night," Mr. Jones remarked, as we passed out of the lane.

The contrast made by a few short hours was indeed wonderful. Then, in dense obscurity, a tempest had howled and shrieked about us; now, in the unclouded sunshine, a gemmed and sparkling world revealed beauty everywhere.

For a long distance our sleighs made the first tracks, and it seemed almost a pity to sully the purity of the white, drift-covered road.

"What a lot of mud's hid under this snow!" was John Jones's prose over the opening vistas. "What's more, it will show itself before night. We can beat all creation at mud in Maizeville, when once we set about it."

Merton laughed, and munched his apples, but I saw that he was impressed by winter scenery such as he had never looked upon before. Soon, however, he and John junior were deep in the game question, and I noted that the latter kept a sharp lookout along the roadside. Before long, while passing a thicket, he shouted, "There's tracks," and floundered out into the snow, Merton following.

"Oh, come back," growled his father.

"Let the boys have a few moments," I said. "They gave up this morning about as well as you could expect of boys. Would Junior have gone and taken a strapping if Merton hadn't returned?"

"Yes, indeed he would, and he knows my strappin's are no make- believe. That boy has no sly, mean tricks to speak of, but he's as tough and obstinate as a mule sometimes, especially about shooting and fishing. See him now a-p'intin' for that rabbit, like a hound."

True enough, the boy was showing good woodcraft. Restraining Merton, he cautiously approached the tracks, which by reason of the lightness and depth of the snow were not very distinct.

"He can't be far away," said Junior, excitedly. "Don't go too fast till I see which way he was a-p'intin'. We don't want to follow the tracks back, but for'ard. See, he came out of that old wall there, he went to these bushes and nibbled some twigs, and here he goes-- here he went--here--here--yes, he went into the wall again just here. Now, Merton, watch this hole while I jump over the other side of the fence and see if he comes out again. If he makes a start, grab him."

John Jones and I were now almost as excited as the boys, and Mr. Rollins, the neighbor who was following us, was standing up in his sleigh to see the sport. It came quickly. As if by some instinct the rabbit believed Junior to be the more dangerous, and made a break from the wall almost at Merton's feet, with such swiftness and power as to dash by him like a shot. The first force of its bound over, it was caught by nature's trap--snow too deep and soft to admit of rapid running.

John Jones soon proved that Junior came honestly by his passion for hunting. In a moment he was floundering through the bushes with his son and Merton. In such pursuit of game my boy had the advantage, for he was as agile as a cat. But a moment or two elapsed before he caught up with the rabbit, and threw himself upon it, then rose, white as a snow-man, shouting triumphantly and holding the little creature aloft by its ears.

"Never rate Junior for hunting again," I said, laughingly, to Mr. Jones. "He's a chip of the old block."

"I rather guess he is," my neighbor acknowledged, with a grin. "I own up I used to be pretty hot on such larkin'. We all keep forgettin' we was boys once."

As we rode on, Merton was a picture of exultation, and Junior was on the sharp lookout again. His father turned on him and said: "Now look a' here, enough's as good as a feast. I'll blindfold you if you don't let the tracks alone. Mrs. Durham wants her things, so she can begin to live. Get up there;" and a crack of the whip ended all further hopes on the part of the boys. But they felt well repaid for coming, and Merton assured Junior that he deserved half the credit, for only he knew how to manage the hunt.