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AT that time a flock of twenty or thirty turkeys was usually raised at the old farm every fall — fine, great glossy birds. Nearly every farmhouse had its flock; and by October that entire upland county resounded to the plaintive Yeap-yeap, yop-yop-yop! and the noisy Gobble-gobble-gobble! of the stupid yet much-prized "national bird." At present you may drive the whole length of our county and neither hear nor see a turkey.
In their young days the old Squire and Judge Fessenden of Portland, later in life Senator Fessenden, had been warm friends; and after the old Squire chose farming for a vocation and went to live at the family homestead, he was wont to send the judge a fine turkey for Thanksgiving — purely as a token of friendship and remembrance. The judge usually acknowledged the gift by sending in return an interesting book, or other souvenir, sometimes a new five-dollar greenback — when he could not think of an appropriate present.
The old Squire did not like to accept money from an old friend, and after we young people went home to Maine to live he transferred to us the privilege of sending Senator Fessenden a turkey for Thanksgiving, and allowed us to have the return present.
By September we began to look the flock over and pick out the one that bade fair to be the largest and handsomest in November. There was much "hefting" and sometimes weighing of birds on the barn scales. We carefully inspected their skins under their feathers, for we sent the judge a "yellow skin," and never a "blue skin," however heavy.
That autumn there was considerable difference of opinion among us which young gobbler, out of twenty or more, was the best and promised to "dress off" finest by Thanksgiving. Addison chose a dark, burnished bird with a yellow skin; at that time our flock was made up of a mixture of breeds — white, speckled, bronze and golden. Halstead chose a large speckled gobbler with heavy purple wattles and a long "quitter" that bothered him in picking up his food.
Theodora and Ellen also selected two, and I had my eye on one with golden markings, but of that I need say no more here; as weeks passed, it proved inferior to Addison's and to Theodora's.
Even as late as October 20, it was not easy to say which was the best one out of five; at about that time I also discovered that Addison was secretly feeding his bronze turkey, out at the west barn, with rations of warm dough. Theodora and I exchanged confidences and began feeding ours on dough mixed with boiled squash, for we had been told that this was good diet for fattening turkeys.
When Halstead found out what we were doing, he was indignant and declared we were not playing fair; but we rejoined that he had the same chance to "feed up," if he desired to take the trouble.
At the Corners, about a mile from the old Squire's, there lived a person who had far too great an influence over Halstead. His name was Tibbetts; he was postmaster and kept a grocery; also he sold intoxicants covertly, in violation of the state law, and was a gambler in a small, mean way. Claiming to know something of farming and of poultry, he told Halstead that the best way to fatten a turkey speedily was to shut it up and not allow it to run with the rest of the flock. He said, too, that if a turkey were shut up in a well-lighted place, it would fret itself, running to and fro, particularly if it heard other turkeys calling to it.
The food for fattening turkeys, said Tibbetts, should consist of a warm dough, made from two parts corn meal and one part wheat bran. To a quart of such dough he asserted that a tablespoonful of powdered eggshells should be added, also a dust of Cayenne pepper. And if a really perfect food for fattening poultry were desired, Tibbetts declared that a tablespoonful of new rum should be added to the water with which the quart of dough was mixed. A wonderful turkey food, no doubt!
Tibbetts also told Halstead to take a pair of sharp shears and cut off an inch and a half of his turkey's "quitter," if it were too long and bothered him about eating. If the turkey grew "dainty," as Tibbetts expressed it, Halstead was to make the dough into rolls about the size of his thumb, then open the bird's beak, shove the rolls in, and make him swallow them — three or four of them, three times a day.
Halstead came home from the Corners and made a quart of dough according to the Tibbetts formula. I do not know certainly about the spoonful of rum. If Tibbetts gave him the rum, Halstead kept quiet about it; the old Squire was a strict observer of the Maine law.
None of us found out what Halstead was doing for four or five days, and then only by accident. For he had caught his speckled gobbler and put him down at the foot of the stairs in the wagon-house cellar; and he got a sheet of hemlock bark, four feet long by two or three feet wide, such as are peeled off hemlock logs, and sold at tanneries, for the turkey to stand on.
It was dark as Egypt down in that cellar, when the door at the head of the stairs was shut; and turkeys, as is well-known, are very timid about moving in the dark. That poor gobbler just stood there, stock-still, on that sheet of bark and did not dare step off it. Three times a day Halstead used to go down there, on the sly, with a lantern, and feed him.
This went on for some time; Addison and I learned of it from hearing a little faint gobble in the cellar one morning when the flock was out in the farm lane, just behind the wagon-house. The young gobblers were gobbling and the hen turkeys yeaping; and from down cellar came a faint, answering gobble. We wondered how a turkey had got into that cellar, and on opening the door and peering down the stairs, we discovered Halstead's speckled gobbler standing on the curved sheet of hemlock bark.
While Addison and I were wondering about it, Halstead came out, and roughly told us to let his turkey alone! In reply to our questions he at last gave us some information about his project and boasted that within three weeks he would have a turkey four pounds heavier than any other in the flock; but he would not tell us how to make his kind of dough.
Addison scoffed at the scheme; but to show how well it was working, Halstead took us downstairs and had us "heft" the turkey. It did seem to be getting heavy. Halstead also got his dough dish and showed us how he fed his bird. After the second roll of dough had been shoved down his throat, the poor gobbler opened his bill and gave a queer little gasp of repletion, like Ca-r-r-r! None the less, Halstead made him swallow four rolls of dough!
Addison was disgusted. "Halse, I call that nasty!" he said. "I wouldn't care to eat a turkey fattened that way. I've a good notion to tell the old Squire about this."
Halstead was angry. "Oh, yes!" he exclaimed. "After I raise the biggest turkey, I suppose you will go and tell everybody that it isn't fit to eat!"
So Addison and I went about our business, but we used to peep down there once in a while, to see that poor bird standing, humped up, on his sheet of bark. Sometimes, too, when we saw Halstead going down with the lantern to feed him, we went along to see the performance and hear the turkey groan, Ca-r-r-r!
"Halstead, that's wicked!" Addison said several times; and Halstead retorted that we were both trying to make out a story against him, so as to sneak our own turkeys in ahead of his.
Nine or ten days passed. Halstead was nearly always behindhand when we turned out to do the farm chores. As we went through the wagon-house one morning Addison stopped to take another peep at the captive; I went on, but a moment later heard him calling to me softly. When I joined him at the foot of the stairs he lighted a match for me to see. Hal-stead's gobbler lay dead with both feet up in the air. We wondered what Halstead would say when he went to feed his turkey. As we left, we heard him coming down from upstairs. He did not join us, to help do the chores, for half an hour. When he did appear, he looked glum; he had carried the poor victim of forced feeding out behind the west barn and buried him in the bean field — without ceremonies.
We said nothing — except now and then, as days passed, to ask him how the speckled gobbler was coming on. Halstead would look hard at us, but vouchsafed no replies.
The judge's turkey was sent to Portland on November 15; at that period each state appointed its own Thanksgiving Day, and in Maine the 17th had been set. Addison's choice had proved the best turkey: I think it weighed nearly seventeen pounds; he divided the five dollars with Theodora. The old Squire never learned of Halstead's bootless experiment in forced feeding.