Chapter XXXII. Cherries, Berries, and Berry-Thieves
 

An evening or two after this we were taught that not even in our retired nook had we escaped the dangers of city life. Winnie and Bobsey, in their rambles after strawberries, had met two other children, and, early in the acquaintance, fortunately brought them to the house. The moment I saw the strange girl, I recognized a rural type of Melissa Daggett, while the urchin of Bobsey's age did not scruple to use vile language in my hearing. I doubt whether the poor little savage had any better vernacular. I told them kindly but firmly that they must not come on the place again without my permission.

After supper I went over and asked Mr. Jones about these children, and he replied, significantly, looking around first to make sure that no one heard him:

"Mr. Durham, steer clear of those people. You know there are certain varmints on a farm to which we give a wide berth and kill 'em when we can. Of course we can't kill off this family, although a good contribution could be taken up any day to move 'em a hundred miles away. Still about everybody gives 'em a wide berth, and is civil to their faces. They'll rob you more or less, and you might as well make up your mind to it, and let 'em alone."

"Suppose I don't let them alone?"

"Well--remember, now, this is wholly between ourselves--there's been barns burned around here. Everybody's satisfied who sot 'em afire, but nothin' can be proved. Your cow or horse, too, might suddenly die. There's no tellin' what accidents would happen if you got their ill-will."

"I can't take the course you suggest toward this family," I said, after a little thought. "It seems to me wrong on both sides. On one hand, they are treated as outlaws, and that would go far to make them such; on the other, they are permitted to levy a sort of blackmail and commit crime with impunity. Of course I must keep my children away from them; but, if the chance offers, I shall show the family kindness, and if they molest me I shall try to give them the law to the utmost."

"Well," concluded Mr. Jones, with a shrug, "I've warned you, if they git down on yer, yer'll find 'em snakes in the grass."

Returning home, I said nothing to Winnie and Bobsey against their recent companions, but told them that if they went with them again, or made the acquaintance of other strangers without permission, they would be put on bread and water for an entire day--that all such action was positively forbidden.

It was evident, however, that the Melissa Daggett element was present in the country, and in an aggravated form. That it was not next door, or, rather, in the next room, was the redeeming feature. Residents in the country are usually separated by wide spaces from evil association.

It must not be thought that my wife and children had no society except that afforded by Mr. Jones's family. They were gradually making pleasant and useful acquaintances, especially among those whom we met at church; but as these people have no material part in this simple history, they are not mentioned.

The most important activities of the season were now drawing very near. The cherries were swelling fast; the currants were growing red, and were already pronounced "nice for pies;" and one morning Merton came rushing in with a red raspberry from the Highland Hardy variety. I was glad the time was at hand when I should begin to receive something besides advice from Mr. Bogart; for, careful as we had been, the drain on my capital had been long and steady, and were eager for the turn of the tide.

I had bought a number of old Mr. Jamison's crates, had painted out his name and replaced it with mine. I now wrote to Mr. Bogart for packages best adapted to the shipping of cherries, currants, and raspberries. For the first he sent me baskets that held about a peck. These baskets were so cheap that they could be sold with the fruit. For currants, crates containing twenty-four quart baskets were forwarded. These, he wrote, would also do for black-caps this season, and for strawberries next year. For the red raspberries he sent me quite different crates, filled with little baskets holding only half a pint of fruit. Limited supplies of these packages were sent, for he said that a telegram would bring more the same day.

The corn and potatoes were becoming weedy again. This time I made use of a light plow, Merton leading old Bay as at first. Then, with our hoes, we gave the rows a final dressing out. By the time we had finished, some of our grass was fit to cut, the raspberries needed a careful picking over, and the cherries on one tree were ready for market. The children and robins had already feasted, but I was hungry for a check from New York.

I had long since decided not to attempt to carry on haying alone at this critical season, but had hired a man, too aged to hold his own among the harvesters on the neighboring farms. Mr. Jones had said of him: "He's a careful, trusty old fellow, who can do a good day's work yet if you don't hurry him. Most of your grass is in the meadow, some parts fit to cut before the others. Let the old man begin and mow what he can, every day. Then you won't have to cure and get in a great lot of hay all at once, and perhaps, too, when your raspberries most need pickin'."

So, during the last days of June, old Mr. Jacox, who came at moderate wages, put in his scythe on the uplands. I spread the grass and raked it up when dry, and, with the aid of Merton and a rude, extemporized rack on the market-wagon, got the hay gradually into the barn. This labor took only part of the day; the rest of the time was employed in the garden and in picking fruit.

On the last day of June we gathered a crate of early raspberries and eight baskets of cherries. In the cool of the afternoon, these were placed in the wagon, and with my wife and the three younger children, I drove to the Maizeville Landing with our first shipment to Mr. Bogart.

"We are 'p'oducers,' at last, as Bobsey said," I cried, joyously. "And I trust that this small beginning will end in such big loads as will leave us no room for wife and children, but will eventually give them a carriage to ride in."

Merton remained on guard to watch our precious ripening fruit.

After our departure he began a vigilant patrol of the place, feeling much like a sentinel left on guard. About sun-down, he told me, as he was passing through the raspberry field, he thought he caught a glimpse of an old straw hat dodging down behind the bushes. He bounded toward the spot, a moment later confronting three children with tin pails. The two younger proved to be Winnie's objectionable acquaintances that I had told to keep off the place. The eldest was a boy, not far from Merton's age, and had justly won the name of being the worst boy in the region. All were the children of the dangerous neighbor against whom Mr. Jones had warned me.

The boy at first regarded Merton with a sullen, defiant look, while his brother and sister coolly continued to steal the fruit.

"Clear out," cried Merton. "We'll have you put in jail if you come here again."

"You shut up and clear out yerself," said the boy, threateningly, "or I'll break yer head. Yer pap's away, and we ain't afraid of you. What's more, we're goin' ter have some cherries before--"

Now Merton had a quick temper, and at this moment sprang at the fellow who was adding insult to injury, so quickly that he got in a blow that blackened one of the thief's eyes.

Then they clinched, and, although his antagonist was the heavier, Merton thinks he could have whipped him had not the two younger marauders attacked him, tooth and nail, like cats. Finding himself getting the worst of it, he instinctively sent out a cry for his stanch friend Junior.

Fortunately, this ally was coming along the road toward our house, and he gave an answering halloo.

The vagrants, apparently, had a wholesome fear of John Jones, junior, for, on hearing his voice, they beat a hurried retreat; but knowing that no one was at the house, and in the spirit of revengeful mischief, they took their flight in that direction. Seeing Mousie's flower-bed, they ran and jumped upon that, breaking down half the plants, then dashed off through the coops, releasing the hens, and scattering the broods of chickens. Merton and Junior, who for a few moments had lost sight of the invaders in the thick raspberry bushes, were now in hot pursuit, and would have caught them again, had they not seen a man coming up the lane, accompanied by a big dog. Junior laid a hand on headlong Merton, whose blood was now at boiling heat, and said, "Stop."