Part I.
Chapter II.
 

One soft noon in the middle of August the farmer came in from the corn-field that an early frost had blighted, and told his wife that they must give it up. He said, in his weak, hoarse voice, with the catarrhal catching in it, that it was no use trying to make a living on the farm any longer. The oats had hardly been worth cutting, and now the corn was gone, and there was not hay enough without it to winter the stock; if they got through themselves they would have to live on potatoes. Have a vendue, and sell out everything before the snow flew, and let the State take the farm and get what it could for it, and turn over the balance that was left after the taxes; the interest of the savings-bank mortgage would soon eat that up.

The long, loose cough took him, and another cough answered it like an echo from the barn, where his son was giving the horses their feed. The mild, wan-eyed young man came round the corner presently toward the porch where his father and mother were sitting, and at the same moment a boy came up the lane to the other corner; there were sixteen years between the ages of the brothers, who alone were left of the children born into and borne out of the house. The young man waited till they were within whispering distance of each other, and then he gasped: "Where you been?"

The boy answered, promptly, "None your business," and went up the steps before the young man, with a lop-eared, liver-colored mongrel at his heels. He pulled off his ragged straw hat and flung it on the floor of the porch. "Dinner over?" he demanded.

His father made no answer; his mother looked at the boy's hands and face, all of much the same earthen cast, up to the eaves of his thatch of yellow hair, and said: "You go and wash yourself." At a certain light in his mother's eye, which he caught as he passed into the house with his dog, the boy turned and cut a defiant caper. The oldest son sat down on the bench beside his father, and they all looked in silence at the mountain before them. They heard the boy whistling behind the house, with sputtering and blubbering noises, as if he were washing his face while he whistled; and then they heard him singing, with a muffled sound, and sharp breaks from the muffled sound, as if he were singing into the towel; he shouted to his dog and threatened him, and the scuffling of his feet came to them through all as if he were dancing.

"Been after them woodchucks ag'in," his father huskily suggested.

"I guess so," said the mother. The brother did not speak; he coughed vaguely, and let his head sink forward.

The father began a statement of his affairs.

The mother said: "You don't want to go into that; we been all over it before. If it's come to the pinch, now, it's come. But you want to be sure."

The man did not answer directly. "If we could sell off now and get out to where Jim is in Californy, and get a piece of land--" He stopped, as if confronted with some difficulty which he had met before, but had hoped he might not find in his way this time.

His wife laughed grimly. "I guess, if the truth was known, we're too poor to get away."

"We're poor," he whispered back. He added, with a weak obstinacy: "I d'know as we're as poor as that comes to. The things would fetch something."

"Enough to get us out there, and then we should be on Jim's hands," said the woman.

"We should till spring, maybe. I d'know as I want to face another winter here, and I d'know as Jackson does."

The young man gasped back, courageously: "I guess I can get along here well enough."

"It's made Jim ten years younger. That's what he said," urged the father.

The mother smiled as grimly as she had laughed. "I don't believe it 'll make you ten years richer, and that's what you want."

"I don't believe but what we should ha' done something with the place by spring. Or the State would," the father said, lifelessly.

The voice of the boy broke in upon them from behind. "Say, mother, a'n't you never goin' to have dinner?" He was standing in the doorway, with a startling cleanness of the hands and face, and a strange, wet sleekness of the hair. His clothes were bedrabbled down the front with soap and water.

His mother rose and went toward him; his father and brother rose like apparitions, and slanted after her at one angle.

"Say," the boy called again to his mother, "there comes a peddler." He pointed down the road at the figure of a man briskly ascending the lane toward the house, with a pack on his back and some strange appendages dangling from it.

The woman did not look round; neither of the men looked round; they all kept on in-doors, and she said to the boy, as she passed him: "I got no time to waste on peddlers. You tell him we don't want anything."

The boy waited for the figure on the lane to approach. It was the figure of a young man, who slung his burden lightly from his shoulders when he arrived, and then stood looking at the boy, with his foot planted on the lowermost tread of the steps climbing from the ground to the porch.