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ON THE DARK OF THE MOON
IN a little walled inclosure near the roadside at the old Squire's stood two very large pear-trees that at a distance looked like Lombardy poplars; they had straight, upright branches and were fully fifty feet tall. One was called the Eastern Belle and the other the Indian Queen. They had come as little shoots from grandmother Ruth's people in Connecticut when she and the old Squire were first married. Grandmother always spoke of them as "Joe's pear-trees"; Joseph was the old Squire's given name. Some joke connected with their early married life was in her mind when she spoke thus, for she always laughed roguishly when she said "Joe's pears," but she would never explain the joke to us young folks. She insisted that those were the old Squire's pears, and told us not to pick them.
In the orchard behind the house were numerous other pear-trees. There were no restrictions on those or on the early apples or plums; but every year grandmother half jokingly told us not to go to those two trees in the walled inclosure, and she never went there herself.
I must confess, however, that we young folks knew pretty well how those pears tasted. The Eastern Belle bore a large, long pear that turned yellow when ripe and had a fine rosy cheek on one side. The Indian Queen was a thick-bodied pear with specks under the skin, a deep-sunk nose and a long stem. It had a tendency to crack on one side; but it ripened at about the same time as the Belle, and its flavor was even finer.
The little walled pen that inclosed the two pear-trees had a history of its own. The town had built it as a "pound" for stray animals in 1822, shortly after the neighborhood was settled. The walls were six or seven feet high, and on one side was a gateway. The inclosure was only twenty feet wide by thirty feet long. It had not been used long as a pound, for a pound that was larger and more centrally situated became necessary soon after it was built. When those two little pear-trees came from Connecticut the old Squire set them out inside this walled pen; he thought they would be protected by the high pound wall. A curious circumstance about those pear-trees was that they did not begin bearing when they were nine or ten years old, as pear-trees usually do. Year after year passed, until they had stood there twenty-seven years, with never blossom or fruit appearing on them.
The old Squire tried various methods of making the trees bear. At the suggestion of neighbors he drove rusty nails into the trunks, and buried bags of pear seeds at the foot of them, and he fertilized the inclosure richly. But all to no purpose. Finally grandmother advised the old Squire to spread the leached ashes from her leach tub — after she had made soap and hulled corn in the spring — on the ground inside the pen. The old Squire did so, and the next spring both trees blossomed. They bore bountifully that summer and every season afterward, until they died.
We had a young neighbor, Alfred Batchelder, who was fond of foraging by night for plums, grapes, and pears in the orchards of his neighbors. His own family did not raise fruit; they thought it too much trouble to cultivate the trees. But Alfred openly boasted of having the best fruit that the neighborhood afforded. One of Alfred's cronies in these nocturnal raids was a boy, named Harvey Yeatton, who lived at the village, six or seven miles away; almost every year he came to visit Alfred for a week or more in September.
It was a good-natured community. To early apples, indeed, the rogues were welcome; but garden pears, plums, and grapes were more highly prized, for in Maine it requires some little care to raise them. At the farm of our nearest neighbors, the Edwardses, there were five greengage trees that bore delicious plums. For three summers in succession Alfred and Harvey stole nearly every plum on those trees — at least, there was little doubt that it was they who took them.
They also took the old Squire's pears in the walled pen. Twice Addison and I tracked them home the next morning in the dewy grass, across the fields. Time and again, too, they took our Bartlett pears and plums. Addison wanted the old Squire to send the sheriff after them and put a stop to their raids, but he only laughed. "Oh, I suppose those boys love pears and plums," he said, forbearingly. But we of the younger generation were indignant.
One day, when the old Squire and I were driving to the village, we met Alfred; the old gentleman stopped, and said to him:
"My son, hadn't you better leave me just a few of those pears in the old pound this year?"
"I never touched a pear there!" Alfred shouted. "You can't prove I did, and you'd better not accuse me."
The old Squire only laughed, and drove on.
A few nights afterward both pear-trees were robbed and nearly stripped of fruit. We found several broken twigs on the top branches, and guessed that Alfred had used a long pole with a hook at the end with which to shake down the fruit. After what had passed on the road this action looked so much like defiance that the old Squire was nettled. He did nothing about it at the time, however.
Another year passed. Then at table one night Ellen remarked that Harvey Yeatton had come to visit
Alfred again. "Alfred brought him up from the village this afternoon," she said. "I saw them drive by together."
"Now the pears and plums will have to suffer again!" said I.
"Yes," said Ellen. "They stopped down at the foot of the hill, and looked up at those two pear-trees in the old pound; then they glanced at the house, to see if any one had noticed that they were passing."
"Those pears are just getting ripe," said Addison. "It wouldn't astonish me if they disappeared to-night. There's no moon, is there?"
"No," said grandmother Ruth. "It's the dark of the moon. Joseph, you had better look out for your pears to-night," she added, laughing.
The old Squire went on eating his supper for some minutes without comment; but just as we finished, he said, "Boys, where did we put our skunk fence last fall?"
"Rolled it up and put it in the wagon-house chamber," said I.
"About a hundred and fifty feet of it, isn't there?"
"A hundred and sixty," said Addison. "Enough, you know, to go round that patch of sweet corn in the garden."
"That wire fence worked well with four-footed robbers," the old Squire remarked, with a twinkle in his eye. "Perhaps it might serve for the two-footed kind. You fetch that down, boys; I've an idea we may use it to-night."
For several summers the garden had been ravaged by skunks. Although carnivorous by nature, the little pests seem to have a great liking for sweet corn when in the milk.
Wire fence, woven in meshes, such as is now used everywhere for poultry yards, had then recently been advertised. We had sent for a roll of it, two yards in width, and thereafter every summer we had put it up round the corn patch. None of the pests ever scaled the wire fence; and thereafter we had enjoyed our sweet corn in peace.
That night, just after dusk, we reared the skunk fence on top of the old pound wall, and fastened it securely in an upright position all round the inclosure. The wall was what Maine farmers call a "double wall"; it was built of medium-sized stones, and was three or four feet wide at the top. It was about six feet high, and when topped with the wire made a fence fully twelve feet in height.
The old pound gate had long ago disappeared; in its place were two or three little bars that could easily be let down. The trespassers would naturally enter by that gap, and on a moonless night would not see the wire fence on top of the wall. They would have more trouble in getting out of the place than they had had in getting into it if the gap were to be stopped.
At the farm that season were two hired men, brothers named James and Asa Doane, strong, active young fellows; and since it was warm September weather, the old Squire asked them to make a shakedown of hay for themselves that night behind the orchard wall, near the old pound, and to sleep there "with one eye open." If the rogues did not come for the pears, we would take down the skunk fence early the next morning, and set it again for them the following night.
Nothing suited Asa and Jim better than a lark of that sort. About eight o'clock they ensconced themselves in the orchard, thirty or forty feet from the old pound gateway. Addison also lay in wait with them. If the rogues came and began to shake the trees, all three were to make a rush for the gap, keep them in there, and shout for the old Squire to come down from the house.
Addison's surmise that Alfred and his crony would begin operations that very night proved a shrewd one.
Shortly after eleven o'clock he heard a noise at the entrance of the old pound. Asa and Jim were asleep. Addison lay still, and a few minutes later heard the rogues put up their poles with the hooks on them, and begin gently to shake the high limbs.
The sound of the pears dropping on the ground waked Asa and Jim, and at a whispered word from Addison all three bounded over the orchard wall and rushed to the gateway, shouting, "We've got ye! We've got ye now! Surrender! Surrender and go to jail!"
Surprised though they were, Alfred and Harvey had no intention of surrendering. Dropping their poles, they sprang for the pound wall. In a moment they had scrambled to the top. Then they jumped for the ground on the other side; but the yielding meshes of the skunk fence brought them up short. It was too dark for them to see what the obstruction was, and they bounced and jumped against the wire meshes like fish in a net.
"Cut it with your jackknife!" Harvey whispered to Alfred; and then both boys got out their knives and sawed away at the meshes — with no success whatever!
By that time Jim and Asa had entered the pound, and shouting with laughter, each grabbed a boy by the ankle and hauled him down from the wall. At about that time, too, the old Squire arrived on the scene, bringing a rope and a new horsewhip. I myself had been sleeping soundly, and was slow to wake. Even grandmother Ruth and the girls were ahead of me, and when I rushed out, they were standing at the orchard gate, listening in considerable excitement to the commotion at the old pound. When I reached the place Jim and Asa — with Addison looking — on had tied the rogues together, and were haling them up through the orchard.
"Take 'em to the barn, Squire!" Jim shouted.
"Shut the big doors, so the neighbors can't hear 'em holler, and then give it to 'em good!"
"Yes, give it to 'em, Squire!" Asa exclaimed. "They need it."
The old Squire was following after them, cracking his whip, for I suppose he thought it well to frighten the scamps thoroughly. It was too dark for me to see Alfred's face or Harvey's, but they had little to say. The procession moved on to the barn; I rolled the doors open, while Addison ran to get a lantern. Grandmother and the girls had retired hastily to the ell piazza, where they stood listening apprehensively.
"Now I am going to give you your choice," the old Squire said. "Shall I send for the sheriff, or will you take a whipping and promise to stop stealing fruit?"
Neither Alfred nor Harvey would reply; and the old Squire told Addison to hitch up Old Sol and fetch Hawkes, the sheriff. The prospect of jail frightened the boys so much that they said they would take the whipping, and promise not to steal any more fruit.
"I am sorry to say, Alfred, that I don't wholly trust your word," the old Squire said. "You have told me falsehoods before. We must have your promise in writing."
He sent me into the house for paper and pencil, and then set Addison to write a pledge for the boys to sign. As nearly as I remember, it ran like this:
"We, the undersigned, Harvey Yeatton and Alfred Batchelder, confess that we have been robbing gardens and stealing our neighbors' fruit for four years. We have been caught to-night stealing pears at the old pound. We have been given our choice of going to jail or taking a whipping and promising to steal no more in the future. We choose the whipping and the promise, and we engage to make no complaint and no further trouble about this for any one."
The old Squire read it over to them and bade them to take notice of what they were signing. "For if I hear of your stealing fruit again," said he, "I shall get a warrant and have you arrested for what you have done to-night. Here are four witnesses ready to testify against you."
Alfred and Harvey put their names to the paper while I held the lantern.
"Now give it to 'em, Squire!" said Jim, when the boys had signed.
From the first Addison and I had had little idea that the old Squire would whip the boys. It was never easy to induce him to whip even a refractory horse or ox. Now he took the paper, read their names, then folded it and put it into his pocket.
"I guess this will hold you straight, boys," he said. "Now you can go home."
"What, ain't ye goin' to lick 'em?" Jim exclaimed.
"Not this time," said the old gentleman. "Untie them and let them go."
Jim and Asa were greatly disappointed. "Let me give 'em jest a few licks," Jim begged, with a longing glance at the whip.
"Not this time," the old Squire replied. "If we catch them at this again, I'll see about it. And, boys," he said to them, as Jim and Asa very reluctantly untied the knots of their bonds, "any time you want a pocketful of pears to eat just come and ask me. But mind, don't you steal another pear or plum in this neighborhood!"
Addison opened the barn doors, and Alfred and Harvey took themselves off without ceremony.
Apparently they kept their promise with us, for we heard of no further losses of fruit in that neighborhood.