Chapter XXXVII. Rallying from the Blow
 

Our house was far enough from the barn to prevent the shock of the thunderbolt from disabling us beyond a moment or two. Merton had fallen off his chair, but was on his feet almost instantly; the other children were soon sobbing and clinging to my wife and myself.

In tones that I sought to render firm and quiet, I said: "No more of this foolish fear. We are in God's hands, and He will take care of us. Winifred, you must rally and soothe the children, while Merton and I go out and save what we can. All danger to the house is now over, for the worst of the storm has passed."

In a moment my wife, although very pale, was reassuring the younger children, and Merton and I rushed forth.

"Lead the horse out of the barn basement, Merton," I cried, "and tie him securely behind the house. If he won't go readily, throw a blanket over his eyes."

I spoke these words as we ran through the torrents of rain precipitated by the tremendous concussion which the lightning had produced.

I opened the barn doors and saw that the hay was on fire. There was not a second to lose, and excitement doubled my strength. The load of hay on the wagon had not yet caught. Although nearly stifled with sulphurous smoke, I seized the shafts and backed the wagon with its burden out into the rain. Then, seizing a fork, I pushed and tossed off the load so that I could draw our useful market vehicle to a safe distance. There were a number of crates and baskets in the barn, also some tools, etc. These I had to let go. Hastening to the basement, I found that Merton had succeeded in getting the horse away. There was still time to smash the window of the poultry-room and toss the chickens out of doors. Our cow, fortunately, was in the meadow.

By this time Mr. Jones and Junior were on the ground, and they were soon followed by Rollins, Bagley, and others. There was nothing to do now, however, but to stand aloof and witness the swift destruction. After the first great gust had passed, there was fortunately but little wind, and the heavy downpour prevented the flames from spreading. In this we stood, scarcely heeding it in the excitement of the hour. After a few moments I hastened to assure my trembling wife and crying children that the rain made the house perfectly safe, and that they were in no danger at all. Then I called to the neighbors to come and stand under the porch-roof.

From this point we could see the great pyramid of fire and smoke ascending into the black sky. The rain-drops glittered like fiery hail in the intense light and the still vivid flashes from the clouds.

"This is hard luck, neighbor Durham," said Mr. Jones, with a long breath.

"My wife and children are safe," I replied, quietly.

Then we heard the horse neighing and tugging at his halter. Bagley had the good sense and will to jerk off his coat, tie it around the animal's eyes, and lead him to a distance from the fatal fascination of the flames.

In a very brief space of time the whole structure, with my summer crop of hay, gathered with so much labor, sunk down into glowing, hissing embers. I was glad to have the ordeal over, and to be relieved from fear that the wind would rise again. Now I was assured of the extent of our loss, as well as of its certainty.

"Well, well," said the warm-hearted and impulsive Rollins, "when you are ready to build again, your neighbors will give you a lift. By converting Bagley into a decent fellow, you've made all our barns safer, and we owe you a good turn. He was worse than lightning."

I expressed my thanks, adding, "This isn't as bad as you think; I'm insured."

"Well, now, that's sensible," said Mr. Jones. "I'll sleep better for that fact, and so will you, Robert Durham. You'll make a go of it here yet."

"I'm not in the least discouraged," I answered; "far worse things might have happened. I've noticed in my paper that a good many barns have been struck this summer, so my experience is not unusual. The only thing to do is to meet such things patiently and make the best of them. As long as the family is safe and well, outside matters can be remedied. Thank you, Bagley," I continued, addressing him, as he now led forward the horse. "You had your wits about you. Old Bay will have to stand under the shed to-night."

"Well, Mr. Durham, the harness is still on him, all 'cept the head- stall; and he's quiet now."

"Yes," I replied, "in our haste we didn't throw off the harness before the shower, and it has turned out very well."

"Tell ye what it is, neighbors," said practical Mr. Jones; "'tisn't too late for Mr. Durham to sow a big lot of fodder corn, and that's about as good as hay. We'll turn to and help him get some in."

This was agreed to heartily, and one after another they wrung my hand and departed, Bagley jogging in a companionable way down the road with Rollins, whose chickens he had stolen, but had already paid for.

I looked after them and thought: "Thank Heaven I have not lost my barn as some thought I might at one time! As Rollins suggested, I'd rather take my chances with the lightning than with a vicious neighbor. Bagley acted the part of a good friend to-night."

Then, seeing that we could do nothing more, Merton and I entered the house.

I clapped the boy on the shoulder as I said: "You acted like a man in the emergency, and I'm proud of you. The bringing out a young fellow strong is almost worth the cost of a barn."

My wife came and put her arm around my neck and said:

"You bear up bravely, Robert, but I fear you are discouraged at heart. To think of such a loss, just as we were getting started!" and there were tears in her eyes.

"Yes," I replied, "it will be a heavy loss for us, and a great inconvenience, but it might have been so much worse! All sit down and I'll tell you something. You see my training in business led me to think of the importance of insurance, and to know the best companies. As soon as the property became yours, Winifred, I insured the buildings for nearly all they were worth. The hay and the things in the barn at the time will prove a total loss; but it is a loss that we can stand and make good largely before winter. I tell you honestly that we have no reason to be discouraged. We shall soon have a better barn than the one lost; for, by good planning, a better one can be built for the money that I shall receive. So we will thank God that we are all safe ourselves, and go quietly to sleep."

With the passing of the storm, the children had become quiet, and soon we lost in slumber all thought of danger and loss.

In the morning the absence of the barn made a great gap in our familiar outlook, and brought many and serious thoughts; but with the light came renewed hopefulness. All the scene was flooded with glorious sunlight, and only the blackened ruins made the frightful storm of the previous evening seem possible. Nearly all the chickens came at Winnie's call, looking draggled and forlorn indeed, but practically unharmed, and ready to resume their wonted cheerfulness after an hour in the sunshine. We fitted up for them the old coop in the orchard, and a part of the ancient and dilapidated barn which was to have been used for corn-stalks only. The drenching rain had saved this and the adjoining shed from destruction, and now in our great emergency they proved useful indeed.

The trees around the site of the barn were blackened, and their foliage was burned to a crisp. Within the stone foundations the smoke from the still smouldering debris rose sluggishly.

I turned away from it all, saying: "Let us worry no more over that spilled milk. Fortunately the greater part of our crates and baskets were under the shed. Take the children, Merton, and pick over the raspberry patches carefully once more, while I go to work in the garden. That has been helped rather than injured by the storm, and, if we will take care of it, will give us plenty of food for winter. Work there will revive my spirits."

The ground was too wet for the use of the hoe, but there was plenty of weeding to be done, while I answered the questions of neighbors who came to offer their sympathy. I also looked around to see what could be sold, feeling the need of securing every dollar possible. I found much that was hopeful and promising. The Lima-bean vines had covered the poles, and toward their base the pods were filling out. The ears on our early corn were fit to pull; the beets and onions had attained a good size; the early peas had given place to turnips, winter cabbages, and celery; there were plenty of green melons on the vines, and more cucumbers than we could use. The remaining pods on the first planting of bush-beans were too mature for use, and I resolved to let them stand till sufficiently dry to be gathered and spread in the attic. All that we had planted had done, or was doing, fairly well, for the season had been moist enough to ensure a good growth. We had been using new potatoes since the first of the month, and now the vines were so yellow that all in the garden could be dug at once and sold. They would bring in some ready money, and I learned from my garden book that strap-leaved turnips, sown on the cleared spaces, would have time to mature.

After all, my strawberry beds gave me the most hope. There were hundreds of young plants already rooted, and still more lying loosely on the ground; so I spent the greater part of the morning in weeding these out and pressing the young plants on the ends of the runners into the moist soil, having learned that with such treatment they form roots and become established in a very few days.

After dinner Mr. Jones appeared with his team and heavy plow, and we selected an acre of upland meadow where the sod was light and thin.

"This will give a fair growth of young corn-leaves," he said, "by the middle of September. By that time you'll have a new barn up, I s'pose; and after you have cut and dried the corn, you can put a little of it into the mows in place of the hay. The greater part will keep better if stacked out-doors. A horse will thrive on such fodder almost as well as a cow, 'specially if ye cut it up and mix a little bran-meal with it. We'll sow the corn in drills a foot apart, and you can spread a little manure over the top of the ground after the seed is in. This ground is a trifle thin; a top-dressin' will help it 'mazin'ly."

Merton succeeded in getting several crates of raspberries, but said that two or three more pickings would finish them. Since the time we had begun to go daily to the landing, we had sent the surplus of our vegetables to a village store, with the understanding that we would trade out the proceeds. We thus had accumulated a little balance in our favor, which we could draw against in groceries, etc.

On the evening of this day I took the crates to the landing, and found a purchaser for my garden potatoes, at a dollar a bushel. I also made arrangements at a summer boarding-house, whose proprietor agreed to take the largest of our spring chickens, our sweet corn, tomatoes, and some other vegetables, as we had them to spare. Now that our income from raspberries was about to cease, it was essential to make the most of everything else on the place that would bring money, even if we had to deny ourselves. It would not do for us to say, "We can use this or that ourselves." The question to be decided was, whether, if such a thing were sold, the proceeds would not go further toward our support than the things themselves. If this should be true of sweet corn, Lima-beans, and even the melons on which the children had set their hearts, we must be chary of consuming them ourselves. This I explained in such a way that all except Bobsey saw the wisdom of it, or, rather, the necessity. As yet, Bobsey's tendencies were those of a consumer, and not of a producer or saver.

Rollins and one or two others came the next day, and with Bagley's help the corn was soon in the ground.

Then I set Bagley to work with the cart spreading upon the soil the barn-yard compost that had accumulated since spring. There was not enough to cover all the ground, but that I could not help. The large pile of compost that I had made near the poultry-house door could not be spared for this purpose, since it was destined for my August planting of strawberries.

Perhaps I may as well explain about these compost heaps now as at any other time. I had watched their rapid growth with great satisfaction. Some may dislike such homely details, but since the success of the farm and garden depend on them I shall not pass them over, leaving the fastidious reader to do this for himself.

It will be remembered that I had sought to prepare myself for country life by much reading and study during the previous winter. I had early been impressed with the importance of obtaining and saving everything that would enrich the soil, and had been shown that increasing the manure-pile was the surest way to add to one's bank account. Therefore all rakings of leaves had been saved. At odd times Merton and I had gone down to the creek with the cart and dug a quantity of rich black earth from near its bank. One pile of this material had been placed near the stable door, and another at the entrance to the poultry-room in the basement of our vanished barn. The cleanings of the horse-stable had been spread over a layer of this black soil. When the layer of such cleanings was about a foot thick, spread evenly, another layer of earth covered all from sun and rain. Thus I had secured a pile of compost which nearly top- dressed an acre for fodder corn.

In the poultry-room we managed in this fashion. A foot of raked-up leaves and rich earth was placed under the perches of the fowls. Every two or three weeks this layer was shovelled out and mixed thoroughly, and was replaced by a new layer. As a result I had, by the 1st of August, a large heap of fertilizer almost as good as guano, and much safer to use, for I had read that unless the latter was carefully managed it would burn vegetation like fire. I believe that this compost-heap by the poultry-room window would give my young strawberry plantation a fine start, and, as has been shown, we were making great calculations on the future fruit.

I also resolved that the burning of the barn should add to our success in this direction. All the books said that there was nothing better for strawberries than wood ashes, and of these there was a great heap within the foundations of the destroyed building. At one time I proposed to shovel out these ashes and mix them with the compost, but fortunately I first consulted my book on fertilizers, and read there that this would not do at all--that they should be used separately.