Read CHAPTER XVII - A STRANGE ADMISSION of The Rival Campers Ashore The Mystery of the Mill , free online book, by Ruel Perley Smith, on

The days went by, and summer was near its end. Then, with the vacation drawing to a close, there came a surprise for Henry Burns, in the form of a letter from his aunt. It was she with whom he lived, in a Massachusetts town; but now she wrote that she had decided to spend the winter in Benton, and that he must enter school there at the fall term, along with Tom Harris and Bob White. “Then I stay, too,” exclaimed Jack Harvey, when he had read the important news and he did. The elder Harvey, communicated with, had no objection; and, indeed, there was a most satisfactory arrangement made, later, that Jack Harvey should board with Henry Burns and his aunt; an arrangement highly pleasing to the two boys, if it added later to the concern and worry of the worthy Miss Matilda Burns.

The days grew shorter and the nights cool; and, by and by, with much reluctance, the canoes were hauled ashore for the last time, of an afternoon, and stored away in a corner of the barn back of the camp; and fishing tackle for summer use was put carefully aside, also. There were lessons to be learned, and fewer half-days to be devoted to the sport for which they cared most.

The pickerel in the stream and the trout in the brook sought deeper waters, in anticipation of winter. The boys spent less and less of their time in the vicinity of the old Ellison farm.

Tim and Young Joe Warren stuck mostly by the camp, and drew the others there on certain select occasions. For Little Tim, by reason of long roving, had a wonderful knowledge of the resources of the country around the old stream. He had a beechnut grove that he had discovered, three miles back from the water, on the farther shore; likewise a place where the hazel bushes were loaded with nuts, and where a few butternut trees yielded a rich harvest. Young Joe and he gathered a great store of these, as the nights of early frost came on; and they spread a feast for the others now and then, with late corn, roasted in questionable fashion over a smoky box-stove that heated the camp stifling hot.

October came in, with the leaves growing scarlet in the woods and sharp winds whistling through the corn and bean stacks. Henry Burns and his friends had seen but little of the Ellisons, who were out of school for the winter, caring for the farm; but now the night of the 31st of October found Henry Burns and Jack Harvey, George Warren, Bob White and Tom Harris seated in the big kitchen of the Ellison farmhouse.

It was plainly to be seen that, although the Ellisons had been reduced in circumstances through the loss of the mill, there was still an abundance of its kind yielded by the farm. On a table were dishes of apples and fall pears; two pumpkin pies of vast circumference squatted near by, close to a platter of honey and a huge pitcher of milk.

It was dark already, though only half-past seven o’clock, and the lights of two kerosene lamps gleamed through the kitchen windows.

As hosts on this occasion, John and James Ellison presently proceeded to introduce their city friends to the delights of milk and honey; a dish composed of the dripping sweet submerged in a bowl of creamy milk, and eaten therewith, comb and all.

“Never hurt anybody eaten that way,” explained John Ellison, “and this is the real thing. The milk is from the Jersey cows in the barn, and the honey’s from the garret, where there’s five swarms of bees been working all summer.”

They need no urging, however.

“Poor Joe! He’ll die of grief when I tell him about this,” remarked George Warren, smacking his lips over a mouthful.

“Why didn’t you bring him along?” asked John Ellison. “I wanted you all to come.”

“Arthur’s off down town, and Joe’s gone to the camp with Tim Reardon,” explained the eldest of the Warren brothers. “Tim and Joe’ll be sky-larking around somewhere later. They’re great on Hallowe’en night, you know. They’ve got a supply of cabbage-stumps to deliver at the doors.”

And thus the talk drifted to Hallowe’en, the night when, if old romances could only be believed, there are witches and evil spirits abroad, alive to all sorts of pranks and mischief.

In the midst of which, and most timely, there came suddenly a sharp tap at one of the windows. They paused and turned quickly in that direction. James Ellison sprang to the window and peered out.

“Nothing there,” he said; “one of those big beetles, I guess, attracted by the light.”

They fell to eating again, when presently another smart rap at the window startled them.

John Ellison laughed. “It’s some of fat old Benny’s nonsense,” he said. “He wouldn’t come in, because you city chaps were coming. He’s rigged a tick-tack; I can see the string of it. Wait a minute and I’ll just steal ’round the other door and catch him at it. You fellows go on eating, and don’t pay any attention. I’ll catch him.”

They resumed the feast; and again the sharp rap sounded upon the window pane, caused by the clicking of a heavy nail suspended from the window sash by a pin and string, and yanked by somebody at the end of a longer string attached swinging in against the glass.

There came a yell of surprise shortly; and, in a moment, there appeared John Ellison clutching the culprit by the collar. Which culprit, to their astonishment, proved to be, not Benny Ellison but Young Joe.

“Here he is,” laughed John Ellison, dragging in his prisoner. “What’ll we do with him?”

“Clean him,” suggested George Warren, winking at the others. “He’s got a dirty face.”

True enough, Young Joe had, in the course of his evening’s adventures, acquired a streak of smut across one cheek.

Roaring at the suggestion, they seized the struggling captive, lifted him up bodily to the sink, where they held him face upward under a stream of water, pumped with a vigour. When they had done with him, Young Joe’s face was most assuredly clean.

“Now,” said John Ellison, as they set Joe on his feet again, “there’s a towel. Dry up and come and have some honey.”

Young Joe, grinning, and with a joyous vision of honey and pumpkin pie before him, obeyed with alacrity.

“Say,” he said, cramming a spoonful of the mess into his mouth, and gulping it with huge satisfaction, “can Tim come in? He’s out there.”

“Sure, bring him in,” assented John Ellison.

A few shrill whistles from Young Joe brought his companion to the door; and Tim Reardon was soon likewise equipped with bowl and spoon but not before he had got his ducking at the kitchen pump, which he took with Spartan fortitude.

Honey and milk, pies and fruit soon disappeared rapidly at the renewed attack. A fresh pie, added largely for the benefit of Young Joe and Tim, went the way of the others. Young Joe gave a murmur of surfeited delight as the last piece of crust disappeared; while Little Tim was gorged to the point almost of speechlessness, and could hardly shake his head at the proffer of more.

“Well,” said George Warren, at length, “what are you two chaps doing around here, anyway I’ll bet Joe smelled the food, clear down to the camp.”

Young Joe, in reply, turned to John Ellison, and motioned toward the farmyard. “Give us one of those pumpkins?” he asked.

The pumpkins referred to lay in a great golden heap beside one of the barns; and there were a few scattered ones lying out in the corn-field beyond.

“Why, sure,” responded John Ellison. “Have as many as you want.” And he added, with a sly wink at George Warren, “We give a lot of them to the pigs. You’re welcome.”

Young Joe, lifting himself out of his chair with some effort, due to the weight of pie and honey stowed within, disappeared through the door. He returned, shortly, carrying a large handsome pumpkin on his shoulder.

“What are you going to do with it?” asked John Ellison.

Young Joe grinned. “Going to give it to Witham,” he said.

In preparation for this act of generosity, Young Joe proceeded to carve upon one side of the pumpkin a huge, grinning face. Having finished which, with due satisfaction to artistic details, he stood off and admired his own handiwork.

“Looks a little like Witham,” he said. “Only it looks better-natured than he does.”

“You’d better let Witham alone,” said George Warren, assuming the patronizing tone of an elder brother. “He’s in a bad humour these days.”

“Not going to do any harm,” replied Young Joe. “Going to put it up on the flag-pole, eh Tim? Come along with us?”

“Why, if it’s got to be done,” said Henry Burns, speaking with the utmost gravity, “I suppose we might as well go along and see that it’s done right and shipshape;” and he arose from his chair. So, too, the others, save John Ellison.

“You fellows go ahead,” he said, “and then come back. I don’t feel like playing a joke on Witham. I’m too much in earnest about him.”

“That’s so,” returned Henry Burns. “I don’t blame you. We’ll be back in no time.”

They went down the hill, soon after, carrying the pumpkin between them by turns. They cut across the field on the hill slope, crossed the old bridge over the brook, and went on up the road toward the Half Way House.

“Look out for Bess Thornton,” said Jim Ellison, who had accompanied them. “She and the old woman are here now for the winter, keeping house for Witham.”

“She won’t let on, if she comes out,” said Tim.

But they saw nothing of her. Tired out with her day’s work, the girl had gone to bed and was soundly sleeping.

They arrived presently at a little plot of grass in front of the inn, from the centre of which there rose up a lofty flag-pole. It had been erected by some former proprietor, for the patriotic purpose of flying the American flag; but, to Colonel Witham’s thrifty mind, it had offered an excellent vantage for displaying a dingy banner, with the advertisement of the Half Way House lettered thereon. This fluttered now in a mournful way, half way up the mast, as though it were a sign of mourning for the quality of food and lodging one might expect at the hands of Colonel Witham.

A dim light shone in the two front office windows of the inn, but the shades were drawn so that they could not see within. Other than the lamplight, there seemed to be a flickering, uncertain, intermittent gleam, or variation of the light, indicating probably a fire in the open hearth.

The boys waited now for a moment, till Henry Burns, who had volunteered, went quietly up toward the hotel, to reconnoitre. He came back presently, saying that there was a side window, shaded only by a blind, half-closed on the outside, through which he had been able to make out old Granny Thornton and Colonel Witham seated by the fire.

“Run up the pumpkin,” he said; “I’ll go back there again and keep watch. If Witham starts to come out, I’ll whistle, and we’ll cut and run.”

He went back to the window, and took up his place there.

“Cracky!” exclaimed Young Joe; “who’s going to shin that pole? It’s a high one. Wish I hadn’t eaten that last piece of pie. How about you, Tim?”

“I can do it,” asserted Tim, stoutly.

“Nonsense!” exclaimed Harvey. “There’s the halyards. What more do you want? You cut a hole through the pumpkin, George, clear through the middle, so we can pass an end of the rope, and I’ll see that it goes up, and stays.”

The pumpkin being duly pierced, one free end of the halyard was passed through the hole. Then Harvey proceeded to tie a running knot, through which he passed the other free end of rope. They took hold with a will, and hoisted. Quickly, the golden pumpkin was borne aloft; when it brought up at the top of the pole, the running knot drew tight, and the pumpkin was fast with the difficulty presenting itself to whomever should seek to get it down, that the harder one pulled on the loose end of rope, the tighter he would draw the knot that held the thing high in air.

Now it shone forth in the darkness like an evil sort of beacon, its silly grotesque face grinning like a true hobgoblin of Hallowe’en; for, having scooped out its pulp and seeds, they had set a candle therein and lighted it just before they sent it aloft.

“Great, isn’t it?” chuckled Young Joe. “Now let’s get Henry Burns, and give Colonel Witham notice.” But, strangely enough, Henry Burns did not respond to their whistles, low at first, then repeated with louder insistence.

“That’s funny,” said George Warren. “Wait here a minute and I’ll go and get him.” But, to his surprise, when he had approached the corner of the inn, where he could see Henry Burns, still crouching by the half-opened blind, the latter youth turned for a moment and motioned energetically for him to keep away.

“Come on,” whispered George Warren, “the thing’s up; we want to get Witham out to see it.”

But Henry Burns only turned again and uttered a warning “sh-h-h,” then resumed his place at the window.

George Warren crept up, softly.

It was not surprising that Henry Burns had been interested by what he saw in the old room of the inn, and by what he at length came to hear. At first glance, there was Colonel Witham, fat and red-faced, strangely aroused, evidently labouring under some excitement, addressing himself vigorously to the old woman who sat close by. His heavy fist came down, now and then, with a thump on the arm of the chair in which he sat; and each time this happened poor old Granny Thornton jumped nervously as though she had been struck a blow. Her thin, peaked face was drawn and anxious; her eyes were fixed and staring; and she shook as though her feeble old frame would collapse.

Henry Burns, surprised at this queer pantomine, gazed for a moment, unable to hear what was being said. Then, the voice of Colonel Witham, raised to a high pitch, could be clearly distinguished. What he said surprised Henry Burns still more.

“I tell you I’ll have her,” cried Colonel Witham; “you’ve got to give her to me. What are you afraid of? I won’t starve her. Where’ll she go when you die, if you don’t? Let her go to the poorhouse, will you?”

And he added, heartlessly, “You can’t live much longer; don’t you know that?”

Old Granny Thornton, half lifting herself from her chair, shook her head and made a reply to Colonel Witham, which Henry Burns could not hear. But what she said was perhaps indicated by Colonel Witham’s reply.

“Yes, I do like her,” he said. “She’s a flyaway and up to tricks, but I’ll take that out of her. I’ll bring her up better than you could. I need her to help take care of the place.”

Again the woman appeared to remonstrate. She pointed a bony finger at Colonel Witham and spoke excitedly. Colonel Witham’s face flushed with anger.

“I tell you you’ve got to give her to me,” he cried. “I’ll swear you put her in my charge. I’ll take her. It’s that, or I’ll pack you both off to the poorhouse. I’ll make out the papers for you to sign. You’ll do it; you’ve got to.”

Old Granny Thornton sprang from her chair with a vigour excited by her agitation. She clutched an arm of the chair with one hand, while she raised the other impressively, like a witness swearing to an oath in court. And now, her voice keyed high with excitement, these words fell upon the ears of Henry Burns:

“You’ll never get her, Dan Witham. You can’t have her. She’s been here too long already. She’s going back, now. I can’t give her away, because because she’s not mine to give. She’s not mine, I tell you. She’s not mine!”

Then, her strength exhausted by the utterance, she sank back once more into her seat.

Colonel Witham, his face blank with amazement, sought now to rouse her once more. He arose and grasped her by an arm. He shook her.

“Whose is she, then, if she’s not yours?” he asked. “Whom does she belong to?”

What answer Granny Thornton made if any to this inquiry, was lost to Henry Burns; for, at this moment, George Warren, stealing to the window, tripped over a running vine and fell with a crash, amid a row of milk pans that Henry Burns had carefully avoided.

Henry Burns got one fleeting glimpse of the two by the fire springing up in alarm, as he and George Warren fled from the spot. A moment more, the others had joined them in flight, whooping and yelling to bring Colonel Witham to the door.

Looking back, as they ran, they saw presently a square patch of light against the dark background of the house, where Colonel Witham had thrown wide the front door; and, in the light that streamed forth from within, the figure of the colonel stood disclosed in full relief. He was gesticulating wildly, with angry gaze directed toward the grinning face of the pumpkin.

Colonel Witham strode down from the piazza and walked rapidly to the foot of the flag-staff. He seized the one end of the halyards that dangled within reach, and jerked hard upon it, endeavouring to shake the pumpkin from its lofty position. But it was of no avail. Every tug upon the rope served only to tighten the knot. The colonel glared helplessly for a moment, and then returned into the inn.

Again he emerged, bearing something in his hand, which he raised and aimed directly at the gleaming face. A report rang out. The echoes of the sound of Colonel Witham’s shotgun startled the crows in all the nests around. But the pumpkin stayed. The shot had only buried itself within its soft shell. The colonel would not give up so easily, however. Again and again he fired, hoping to shatter the pumpkin, or to sever the rope that held it.

Presently a shot extinguished the light within; and it was no longer an easy mark to see. Breathing vengeance upon all the boys for miles around, Colonel Witham finally gave it up, and retired, vanquished, to the inn, to await another day. The pumpkin was still aloft.

“Say, Henry,” asked George Warren, as they started off up the hill again, “what did you see in there, anyway? What did you want me to keep away for?”

Henry Burns, sober-faced and puzzled, gave a groan of disappointment. “Oh, if you’d only kept away for a moment,” he exclaimed. “I can’t tell you now; wait till by and by.”

“Jack,” he added, addressing his friend, “I’m going down to Benton. Tell John I couldn’t come back. I’ve got something to do.” And, to the surprise of his companions, Henry Burns left them abruptly, and went down the road at a rapid pace.

He had something to think over, and he wanted to be alone. What he had heard puzzled and astounded him. There was a mystery in the old inn, of which he had caught a fleeting hint. What could it all mean? He turned it over in his mind a hundred different ways as he walked along; as to what he had best do; whom he should tell of his strange discovery what was the mystery of Bess Thornton’s existence?

Certainly the air was full of mystery and strange surprises, this Hallowe’en night; and the old Ellison house up on the hill was not free from it. An odd thing happened, also, there. For, passing by the old cabinet where Benny Ellison hoarded his treasures, something impelled Mrs. Ellison to pause for a moment, open the doors and look within.

She smiled as she glanced over the shelves, with the odds and ends of boyish valuables arranged there; a book of stamps; some queer old coloured prints of Indian wars; birds’ nests; fishing tackle; a collection of birds’ eggs and coins. There were some two score of these last, set up endwise in small wooden racks. She glanced them over and one, bright and shiny, attracted her attention. She took it up and held it to the light. Then she uttered a cry and sank down on the floor.

Strangely enough, when John and Benny Ellison rushed in, at the sound of her voice, she was sitting there, sobbing over the thing; and they thought her taken suddenly ill. But she started up, at the sight of Benny Ellison, and asked, in a broken voice, how he had come by it. And when he had told her, she seemed amazed and strangely troubled.

“Then someone must have dropped it there recently,” she exclaimed. “How could that be? It must be the same. I never saw another like it. Oh, what can it mean?”

Strangest of all to Benny Ellison, she would not return the coin to his collection; but held it fast, and only promised that she would recompense him for it. He went to bed, sullen and surly over the loss of his treasure. Mrs. Ellison held the coin in her hand, gazing upon it as though it had some curious power of fascination, as she went to her room and shut the door.