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HOME > Inspiring Novel > A Son of Courage > CHAPTER V A WILDERNESS MERCHANT
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 Caleb Spencer, proprietor of the Twin Oaks store, paused at his garden gate to light his corncob pipe. The next three hours would be his busy time. The farmers of Scotia would come driving in for their mail and to make necessary purchases of his wares. His pipe alight to his satisfaction, Caleb crossed the road, then stood still in his tracks to fasten his admiring gaze on the rambling, unpainted building which was his pride and joy. He had built that store himself. With indefatigable pains and patience he had fashioned it to suit his mind. Every evening, just at this after-supper hour, he stood still for a time to admire it, as he was doing now.  
Having quaffed his customary draught of delight from the picture before him Caleb resumed his walk to the store, pausing at its door to straighten into place the long bench kept there for the accommodation of visiting customers. As he swung the bench against the wall he bent and peered closely at two sets of newly-carved initials on its smooth surface.
"W.W." he read, and frowned. "By ding! That's that Billy Wilson. Now let's see, 'A.S.' I wonder who them initials stand fer?" With a shake of his grizzled mop he entered the store.
A slim girl in a gingham dress stood in front of the counter placing parcels in a basket. She turned a flushed face, lit with brown roguish eyes, on Caleb, as he came in.
"Had your supper, Pa?" she asked.
"Yep." Caleb bent and scrutinized the basket.
"Whose parcels are them, Ann?" he questioned.
"Mrs. Keeler's," his daughter answered. "Billy Wilson left the order."
"Hump, he did, eh? Well, let's see the slip." He took the piece of paper from the counter and read:
One box fruit-crackers.
10 pounds granulated sugar.
Two pounds cheese.
1 pound raisins.
1 pound lemon peel.
4 cans salmon.
50 sticks hoarhound candy.
There were other items but Caleb read no further. He stood back sucking the stem of his pipe thoughtfully. "Whereabouts did that Billy go, Ann?" he asked at length.
"Why, he didn't go. He's in the liquor-shop settin' a trap for that rat, Pa."
"Oh he is, eh? Well, tell him to come out here; I want to see him."
Caleb waited until his daughter turned to execute his order, then the frown melted from his face and a wide grin took its place. "The young reprobate," he muttered. "What'll that boy be up to next, I wonder? I've got t' teach him a lesson, ding me! if I haven't. It's clear enough t' me that him and that young Keeler are shapin' fer a little excursion, up bush, and this is the way they take to get their fodder."
He turned slowly as his daughter and Billy entered from the rear of the shop and let his eyes rest on the boy's face. "How are you, Billy?" he asked genially.
"I'm well, thanks," and Billy gazed innocently back into Caleb's eyes. "I hope your rheumatiz is better, Mr. Spencer."
"It is," said Caleb shortly, "and my eyes are gettin' sharper every day, Billy."
"That's good," said Billy and bent to pick up the basket.
"Jest a minute, young man." Caleb's voice was stern. "I see you've cut your own and your best gal's initials onto my new bench. Did you have much trouble doin' it, might I ask?"
Billy stood up, a grin on his face. "That pine bench looked so invitin' I jest couldn't help tryin' my new knife on it," he explained. "But I didn't s'pose fer a minute that you'd mind."
"Well, by ding! I don't know but what I do mind. What if you should take a notion, some day, to carve up the side of this buildin', hey?"
Billy grew thoughtful. "I hadn't thought o' that," he said slowly. "It's pine, too, ain't it? It 'ud carve fine."
Caleb turned quickly towards a pile of goods, behind which an audible titter had sounded.
"Ann," he commanded, "you run along and get your supper."
He waited until his daughter had closed the door behind her. "Now Billy," he said, sternly, "understan' me when I say that if you ever so much as lay a knife-blade onto the walls of this here store I'll jest naturally pinch the freckles off'n your nose, one by one. Hear that?"
"Yes, sir."
"Well, heed it, and heed it close. I'll overlook the cuttin' of my new bench, but, by ding! I'd ruther you'd carve me than carve this store." He paused abruptly and bent on Billy a quizzical look. "Whose 'nitials are them under yourn?" he asked.
Billy started. "Oh gosh! I dunno, Mr. Spencer; I jest cut the first ones come into my head."
"Umph! I'm not so green as I look. I know whose they be. They're Ann's."
Billy was silent. Should he tell the truth and say that he had carved Ann's initials on the bench and those of Walter Watland beneath them at that young lady's pleading request? No!
"Well?" Caleb asked finally. "What about it?"
Billy drew himself up and lied like a gentleman. "I guess that's all there is about it," he said with dignity. "Ann's my girl, an' she said I could cut my 'nitials under hers if I wanted to take the chance."
"Oh, so she's your gal, is she?" Caleb thrust his hands deep into his pockets, striving hard to keep his face stern. "How long you and Ann been sweetheartin'?" he asked.
"Five er six years; maybe longer."
"Loramighty!" Caleb sank weakly on a pile of horse-blankets, and gasped. "But, Billy, she's only twelve now, and you—you can't be much more'n fourteen at most."
"I'm growin' fifteen," said Billy gravely. "Me an' Ann's been goin' together fer quite a long spell."
Caleb placed his empty pipe in one pocket, fished in another and drew out a plug of Radiant Star chewing tobacco. He took a generous bite from one corner of the plug and champed it meditatively.
"Well, Billy," he said with a twinkle in his eye, "seein's we're to be right close related, some day, I guess it's up to me to give you your supper. You go right along over to the house and eat with Ann."
"But I'm not hungry, Mr. Spencer," said Billy quickly.
"That don't make no difference; you go along. I see Ann's made a mistake in doin' up Mrs. Keeler's parcels. You can't go back for a bit, anyways, so you might as well have your supper."
Billy went out and Spencer watched him cross the road and enter the cottage. "Well, now," he chuckled, "ain't that boy a tartar? But," he added, "he's got to be slicker than he is to fool old Caleb. Now, you jest watch me."
He lifted the basket to the counter and, taking the parcels from it, carefully emptied their contents back into the drawers from which they had been filled. Then from beneath the counter he drew out a box and with exquisite pains filled each of the empty bags and the cracker-box with sawdust. He tied the bags, packed them in the basket, tucked a roll of tea lead in the bottom, to give the basket weight, and placed it on the counter. Then he went outside to sit on the bench and await Billy's return.
Caleb had come to Scotia Settlement when it was little more than a bald spot on the pate of the hardwoods. Gypsy-like he had strayed into the settlement and, to use his own vernacular, had pitched his wigwam to stay. One month later a snug log cabin stood on the wooded hillside overlooking the valley, and the sound of Caleb's axe could be heard all day long, as he cleared a garden spot in the forest. That forest ran almost to the white sands of Lake Erie, pausing a quarter of a mile from its shore as though fearing to advance further. On this narrow strip of land the pines and cedars had taken their stand, as if in defiance of the more rugged trees of the upland. They grew close together in thickets so dense that beneath them, even on the brightest day, blue-white twilight rested always. Running westward, these coniferous trees grew bolder and widened so as to almost cover the broad finger-like point of land which separated Rond Eau Bay from Lake Erie, and thither many of the wild things crept, as civilization advanced to claim their old roaming grounds. The point, known as Point Aux Pines, was ten miles long, affording abundance of food and perfect shelter.
But on the uplands the forests grew sparser as the axes of rugged homesteaders, who had followed in the footsteps of Caleb Spencer, bit home. Gradually farms were cleared, rough stumpy fields the tilling of which tested the hearts of the strongest, but whose rich soil gladdened even the most weary. A saw mill was erected on the banks of a stream known as Levee Creek. Gradually the rough log cabins of the settlers were torn down to be replaced by more modern houses of lumber.
And then Caleb Spencer had built his store and with far-seeing judgment had stocked it with nearly every variety of goods a growing community needs. Drygoods, Groceries, Hardware & Liquors! These comprehensive words, painted on a huge sign, stared out at all who passed along the road and in still more glaring letters beneath was the announcement, "Caleb Spencer, Proprietor."
Everybody liked Caleb. Even old man Scroggie had been fond of him, which is saying a great deal. It was said the old miser even trusted the gaunt storekeeper to a certain degree. At any rate it was commonly known that shortly before he died Scroggie had given into Spencer's keeping, to be locked away in his rusty old store safe, a certain legal-looking document. Deacon Ringold and Cobin Keeler had witnessed the transaction. Accordingly, after Scroggie was buried and a search for the will failed to disclose it, it was perhaps natural that a delegation of neighbors should wait on Caleb and question him concerning the paper which the deceased man had given him. To everybody's surprise Caleb had flared up and told the delegation that the paper in question was the consummation of a private matter between himself and the dead man, and that he didn't have to show it and didn't intend to show it.
Of course that settled it. The delegation apologized, and Caleb tapped a keg of cider and opened a box of choice biscuits just to show that there were no hard feelings. Now this in itself was surely indisputable proof of the confidence his neighbors reposed in Caleb's veracity and honesty, but considering the fact that Caleb had once quarrelled with the elder Stanhope, later refusing all overtures of friendship from the latter, and had even gone so far as to cherish the same feeling of animosity toward the son, Frank, that trust was little short of sublime. For, providing Caleb disliked Frank Stanhope—and he did and made no attempt to hide it—what would be more natural than that he should keep him from his rightful inheritance if he could?
But nobody mistrusted Caleb, Frank Stanhope least of all; and so, for the time being, the incident of the legal document was forgotten.
Tonight, as Caleb sat outside on the bench waiting for the first evening customers to arrive, he reviewed the pleasant years of his life in this restful spot and was satisfied. Suddenly he sat erect. From the edge of a walnut grove on the far side of the road came a low warble, sweet as the song of a wild bird, but with a minor note of sadness in its lilting.
"That's old Harry and his tin whistle," muttered Caleb, "Glory be! but can't he jest make that thing sing?"
Softly the last note died, and then the player emerged from the grove. He was little and bent. He wore a ragged suit of corduroys and a battered felt hat with a red feather stuck jauntily in its band. His face was small, dark, and unshaven. In one grimy hand he carried a small demijohn. Arriving opposite Caleb, he lifted his battered hat and bowed low as a courtier would do.
"Glory be! It's find ye alone I do," he spoke in rich Irish brogue. "It's trill ye a chune I did from the copse, yonder, so's to soften the hard heart of ye, Caleb. It's dhry I am as a last-year's chip, an' me little jug do be pinin' fer a refillin'."
Caleb's face grew stern. "I told you, Harry O'Dule, that I'd give you no more liquor," he replied.
"Faith, maybe ye did. But last night it's the skies thimselves said 'rain,' an' begorry! there's been not a sign av a shower t'day. What matters ut fer the fallin' av an idle wurrud now and thin? It's meself knows you're too tinder hearted t' refuse a small favor to a body that feels only love an' respect fer yourself an' the swate ones who wait ye in the flower-covered cottage, beyont."
"Stop your blarney, Harry. I tell you I'll give you no more whisky, and by ding! that goes!"
"Thin I'll be trudgin' back along the way," said O'Dule, hopelessly. "But afore I go, I'll be liltin' ye a small chune that'll mebee make ye understand somethin' av a sadness yer generosity could lessen. Listen thin!"
He set the jug down, and from his bosom drew forth a tin whistle. For a minute or two he played softly, his eyes on Caleb's. Then, gradually, his eyes closed and a rapt expression settled upon his grimy face as he led his listener down strange by-paths of fancy.
Suddenly, Caleb jumped from the bench. "Stop, Harry O'Dule!" he entreated. "That whistle of yours would soften the heart of old Nick himself. Do you want to set me crazy, man? Come, give me your jug, I'll fill it this time. But remember, never ag'in. I mean that, by ding!"
He snatched up the demijohn and went into the store. Old Harry sat down on the bench and waited until he returned.
"It's a good fri'nd ye've been t' me, Caleb," he said gratefully, as he lifted the jug and held it between his knees. "It's do widout me dhrink I cannot. Ut an' me whistle are me only gleams av sunlight in the gloom. I'll be after takin' a little flash of the light now, if ut's no objection ye have, for ut's long dhry I've been." He lifted the jug and took a long draught of its fiery contents.
"I'll be movin' now," he said, as he wiped his mouth on a tattered sleeve. "God kape you safe, Caleb Spencer, an' may yer whisky-barrel niver run dhry."
And placing his battered hat jauntily on his scanty locks, Harry picked up his jug and was lost amid the shadows.
Presently Billy Wilson emerged from the cottage, received his basket from Caleb, and trotted off toward the Keeler place.

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