ADDISON'S POCKETFUL OF AUGER CHIPS
ANOTHER year had now passed, and we were not much nearer realizing our plans for getting an education than when Master Pierson left us the winter before.
Owing to the bad times and a close money market, lumbering scarcely more than paid expenses that winter. This and the loss of five work-horses the previous November, put such stress on the family purse, that we felt it would be unkind to ask the old Squire to send four of us to the village Academy that spring, as had been planned.
"We shall have to wait another year," Theodora said soberly.
"It will always be 'another year' with us, I guess!" Ellen exclaimed sadly.
But during March that spring, a shrewd stroke of mother wit, on the part of Addison, greatly relieved the situation and, in fact, quite set us on our feet in the matter of funds. This, however, requires a bit of explanation.
For fifty years grandsir Cranston had lavished his love and care on the old Cranston farm, situated three miles from our place. He had been born there, and he had lived and worked there all his life. Year by year he had cleared the fields of stone and fenced them with walls. The farm buildings looked neat and well-cared for. The sixty-acre wood-lot that stretched from the fields up to the foot of Hedgehog Ledge had been cleaned and cleared of undergrowth until you could drive a team from end to end of it, among the three hundred or more immense old sugar maples and yellow birches.
That wood-lot, indeed, had been the old farmer's special pride. He loved those big old-growth maples, loved them so well that he would not tap them in the spring for maple sugar. It shortened the lives of trees, he said, to tap them, particularly large old trees.
It was therefore distressing to see how, after grand-sir Cranston died, the farm was allowed to run down and go to ruin. His wife had died years before; they had no children; and the only relatives were a brother and a nephew in Portland, and a niece in Bangor. Cranston had left no will. The three heirs could not agree about dividing the property. The case had gone to court and stayed there for four years.
Meanwhile the farm was rented first to one and then to another tenant, who cropped the fields, let weeds, briers, and bushes grow, neglected the buildings and opened unsightly gaps in the hitherto tidy stone walls. The taxes went unpaid; none of the heirs would pay a cent toward them; and the fifth year after the old farmer's death the place was advertised for sale at auction for delinquent taxes.
In March of the fifth year after grandsir Cranston died, Willis and Ben Murch wrote to one of the Cranston heirs, and got permission to tap the maples in the wood-lot at the foot of the ledge and to make sugar there.
They tapped two hundred trees, three spiles to the tree, and had a great run of sap. Addison and I went over one afternoon to see them "boil down" They had built an "arch" of stones for their kettles up near the foot of the great ledge, and had a cosy little shed there. Sap was running well that day; and toward sunset, since they had no team, we helped them to gather the day's run in pails by hand. It was no easy task, for there were two feet or more of soft snow on the ground, and there were as many as three hundred brimming bucketfuls that had to be carried to the sap holders at the shed.
Several times I thought that Addison was shirking. I noticed that at nearly every tree he stopped, put down his sap pails, picked up a handful of the auger chips that lay in the snow at the foot of the tree, and stood there turning them over with his fingers. The boys had used an inch and a half auger, for in those days people thought that the bigger the auger hole and the deeper they bored, the more sap would flow.
"Don't hurry, Ad," I said, smiling, as we passed each other. "The snow's soft! Pails of sap are heavy!"
He grinned, but said nothing. Afterward I saw him slyly slipping handfuls of those chips into his pocket. What he wanted them for I could not imagine; and later, after sunset, as we were going home, I asked him why he had carried away a pocketful of auger chips.
He looked at me shrewdly, but would not reply. Then, after a minute, he asked me whether I thought that Ben or Willis had seen him pick them up.
"What if they did?" I asked. But I could get nothing further from him.
It was that very evening I think, after we got home, that we saw the notice the tax collector had put in the county paper announcing the sale at public auction of the Cranston farm on the following Thursday, for delinquent taxes. The paper had come that night, and Theodora read the notice aloud at supper. The announcement briefly described the farm property, and among other values mentioned five hundred cords of rock-maple wood ready to cut and go to market.
"That's that old sugar lot up by the big ledge, where Willis and Ben were making syrup," said I. "Ad, whatever did you do with that pocketful of auger chips?"
Addison glanced at me queerly. He seemed disturbed, but said nothing. The following forenoon, when he and I were making a hot-bed for early garden vegetables, he remarked that he meant to go to that auction.
It was not the kind of auction sale that draws a crowd of people; there was only one piece of property to be sold, and that was an expensive one. Not more than twenty persons came to it — mostly prosperous farmers or lumbermen, who intended to buy the place as a speculation if it should go at a low price. The old Squire was not there; he had gone to Portland the day before; but Addison went over, as he had planned, and Willis Murch and I went with him.
Hilburn, the tax collector, was there, and two of the selectmen of the town, besides Cole, the auctioneer. At four o'clock Hilburn stood on the house steps, read the published notice of the sale and the court warrant for it. The town, he said, would deduct $114 — the amount of unpaid taxes — from the sum received for the farm. Otherwise the place would be sold intact to the highest bidder.
The auctioneer then mounted the steps, read the Cranston warranty deed of the farm, as copied from the county records, describing the premises, lines, and corners. "A fine piece of property, which can soon be put into good, shape," he added. "How much am I offered for it?"
After a pause, Zachary Lurvey, the owner of Lurvey's Lumber Mills, started the bidding by offering $1,000.
"One thousand dollars," repeated the auctioneer. "I am offered one thousand dollars. Of course that isn't what this farm is really worth. Only one thousand! Who offers more?"
"Fifteen hundred," said a man named Haines, who had arrived from the southern part of the township while the deed was being read.
"Sixteen," said another: and presently another said, "Seventeen!"
I noticed that Addison was edging up nearer the steps, but I was amazed to hear him call out, "Seventeen fifty!"
"Ad!" I whispered. "What if Cole knocks it off to you? You have only $100 in the savings bank. You couldn't pay for it."
I thought he had made a bid just for fun, or to show off. Addison paid no attention to me, but watched the auctioneer closely. The others, too, seemed surprised at Addison's bid. Lurvey turned and looked at him sharply. I suppose he thought that Addison was bidding for the old Squire; but I knew that the old Squire had no thought of buying the farm.
After a few moments Lurvey called, "Eighteen hundred!"
"Eighteen fifty," said Addison; and now I grew uneasy for him in good earnest.
"You had better stop that," I whispered. "They'll get it off on to you if you don't take care." And I pulled his sleeve impatiently.
Willis was grinning broadly; he also thought that Addison was bluffing the other bidders.
Haines then said, "Nineteen hundred"; and Lurvey at once cried, "Nineteen twenty-five!"
It was now apparent that Lurvey meant to get the farm if he could, and that Haines also wanted it. The auctioneer glanced toward us. Much to my relief, Addison now backed off a little, as if he had made his best bid and was going away; but to my consternation he turned when near the gate and cried, "Nineteen fifty!"
"Are you crazy?" I whispered, and tried to get him to leave. He backed up against the gatepost, however, and stood there, watching the auctioneer. Lurvey looked suspicious and disgruntled, but after a pause, said in a low voice, "Nineteen seventy-five." Haines then raised the bid to $2,000, and the auctioneer repeated that offer several times. We thought Haines would get it; but Lurvey finally cried, "Two thousand twenty-five!" and the auctioneer began calling, "Going — going — going for two thousand twenty-five!" when Addison shouted, "Two thousand fifty!"
Lurvey cast an angry look at him. Haines turned away; and Cole, after waiting for further bids, cried, "Going — going — gone at two thousand fifty to that young man by the gate — if he has got the money to pay for it!"
"You've done it now, Ad!" I exclaimed, in distress. "How are you going to get out of this?"
I was frightened for him; I did not know what the consequences of his prank would be. To my surprise and relief, Addison went to Hilburn and handed him $100.
"I'll pay a hundred down," he said, "to bind my bid, and the balance to-morrow."
The two selectmen and Hilburn smiled, but accepted it. I remembered then that Addison had gone to the village the day before, and guessed that he had drawn his savings from the bank. But I did not see how he could raise $1,950 by the next day. All the way home I wanted to ask him what he planned to do. However, I did not like to question him before Willis and two other boys who were with us. All the way home Addison seemed rather excited.
The family were at supper when we went in. The old Squire was back from Portland; grandmother and the girls had told him that we had gone to the auction. The first thing he did was to ask us whether the farm had been sold, and how much it had brought.
"Two thousand and fifty," said I, with a glance at Addison.
"That's all it's worth," the old Squire said. "Who bought it?"
Addison looked embarrassed; and to help him out I said jocosely, "Oh, it was bid off by a young fellow we saw there."
"What was his name?" the old Squire asked in surprise.
"He spells it A-d-d-i-s-o-n," said I.
There was a sudden pause round the table.
"Yes," I continued, laughing, for I thought the best thing for Ad was to have the old Squire know the facts at once. "He paid $100 of it down, and he has to get round with nineteen hundred and fifty more by to-morrow noon."
Food was quite forgotten by this time. The old Squire, grandmother, and the girls were looking at Addison in much concern.
"Haven't you been rather rash?" the old Squire said, gravely.
"Maybe I have," Addison admitted. "But the bank has promised to lend me the money to-morrow at seven per cent. if — if," — he hesitated and reddened visibly, — "if you will put your name on the note with me, sir."
The old Squire's face was a study. He looked surprised, grave, and stern; but his kind old heart stood the test.
"My son," he said, after a short pause, "what led you into this? You must tell me before we go farther."
"It was something I noticed over there in that wood-lot. I haven't said anything about it so far; but I think I am right."
He went upstairs to his trunk and brought down a handful of those auger chips, and also a letter that he had received recently. He spread the chips on the table by the old Squire's plate, and the latter, after a glance at them, put on his reading glasses. Dry as the chips had become, we could still see what looked like tiny bubbles and pits in the wood.
"Bird's-eye, isn't it?" the old Squire said, taking up a chip in his fingers. "Bird's-eye maple. Was there more than one tree of this?"
"More than forty, sir, that I saw myself, and I've no doubt there are others," Addison replied.
"Ah!" the old Squire exclaimed, with a look of understanding kindling in his face. "I see! I see!"
During our three or four winters at the old Squire's we boys had naturally picked up considerable knowledge about lumber and lumber values.
"Yes," Addison said. "That's why I planned to get hold of that wood-lot. I wrote to Jones & Adams to see what they would give for clear, kiln-dried bird's-eye maple lumber, for furniture and room finish, and in this letter they offer $90 per thousand. I haven't a doubt we can get a hundred thousand feet of bird's-eye out of that lot."
"If Lurvey had known that," said I, "he wouldn't have stopped bidding at two thousand!"
"You may be sure he wouldn't," the old Squire remarked, with a smile.
"As for the quarreling heirs," said Addison, "they'll be well satisfied to get that much for the farm."
The next day the old Squire accompanied Addison to the savings bank and indorsed his note. The bank at once lent Addison the money necessary to pay for the farm.
No one learned what Addison's real motive in bidding for the farm had been until the following winter, when we cut the larger part of the maple-trees in the wood-lot and sawed them into three-inch plank at our own mill. Afterward we kiln-dried the plank, and shipped it to the furniture company.
Out of the three hundred or more sugar maples that we cut in that lot, eighty-nine proved to be bird's-eye, from which we realized well over $7,000. We also got $600 for the firewood; and two years later we sold the old farm for $1,500, making in all a handsome profit. It seemed no more than right that $3,000 of it should go to Addison.
The rest of us more than half expected that Addison would retain this handsome bonus, and use it wholly for his own education, since the fine profit we had made was due entirely to his own sagacity.
But no, he said at once that we were all to share it with him; and after thinking the matter over, the old Squire saw his way clear to add two thousand from his share of the profits.
We therefore entered on our course at the Academy the following spring, with what was deemed a safe fund for future expenses.