Chauncey Judd: Wooster's Barn
When the morning of Thursday dawned, the storm showed no signs of abatement. The wind blew as only March winds can blow, piling the fleecy masses in drifts, and rendering the roads nearly impassable.
Tobiah was up very early in the morning, to start the fires at the tavern and attend to his numerous chores. He was engaged in this manner in the kitchen, and restoring to order the furniture, which showed signs of a late occupancy the night before, when the chamber door opened, and two men with packs already slung upon their backs, and with guns in their hands, came down. They were at first startled at seeing the negro, but perceiving that he was a servant of the family, included that they were in no danger of betrayal by him, and passed through the hall into the bar-room. Presently one of them, Graham, returned, and began to look carefully around the room, under the table and benches, which served instead of chairs, as if searching for something.
Los' anything, massa? Tobiah inquired.
I'm afraid so, was the reply.
Something's gone out of my pack this morning, which I know I had yesterday. We put down our bundles in the corner there, last night, while we ate supper, and I thought likely it dropped out when we took them to go up to bed,
What was it, sar? said Tobiah; and he drew near with his candle, to assist in the search; for the room was still quite dark in the thick gloom, after the stormy morning.
Ah, here it is! exclaimed the other, snatching something from the floor, and hastily thrusting it into his pocket. Rapid as was the motion, the quick eyes of the negro detected what he took to be a pistol. Graham made no further reply to the question, but returned immediately to the bar-room.
The sight of the pistol, with the general appearance of the strangers, awakened suspicions in the mind of Tobiah. He had heard, the day before, that a search was going on for somebody accused of robbery, and it, instantly occurred to him that these might be the persons. The arms they carried, together with their bundles, the distrustful look they gave him as they came down, all tended to confirm his suspicion. He resolved, however, to say, nothing about it at present, but to watch them very carefully-
Presently Captain Wooster came out from his apartment, and passed also into the bar-room. Tobiah had been there before he came into the kitchen, and a brisk fire was already blazing in the chimney.
The landlord had not met his guests the night before, but he needed no formal introduction. Doolittle was slightly known to him, being a relative of his brother David's family. The morning salutations were exchanged, and the customary transaction at the bar engaged in by the strangers with more than usual relish. A brief conversation followed as to the events of the day previous, and the prospect of their being able to get away that day. They inquired where they might find their companions, and were manifestly eager to leave the house as soon as possible, feeling that they were in danger there. Mr. Wooster went with them down to the horse-shed, and pointing to a large barn at a considerable distance in the meadow, bade them all keep quiet there during the day. Some men would probably come there, he said, with their oxen and sled for a load of hay, which fact, if they kept carefully out of sight, would tend to increase their safety rather than otherwise, since no one would think of suspecting their presence in a place thus occupied. Thus advised, the two men sprang over the fence, and speedily joined their comrades in the barn.
That day was gloomy in the extreme to the fugitives. They had intended to start with the first dawn of light, and thread their way over the hills and through the woods to Derby Landing, there to embark at night for Long Island. The severity of the weather, however, made them shrink from the exposure and fatigue. They were without boots or overcoats, both of which were articles not in common use in those days. A homespun flannel shirt and coarse woolen stockings sufficed for warmth, or if more were needed, it must be gained by vigorous work or other exercise. The bottoms of the trousers were tied about the ankles with strings, and sometimes an old stocking drawn over them, making a rude sort of legging. These, at best, were but a poor preparation for wading in the deep snow.
The barn was open and breezy. The boards with which it was covered had shrunk so that one's fingers might be thrust between them, while the ill-fitting and broken doors gave free access to light and storm. New England farmers had not learned then, - as too many, it is to be feared, have not learned yet, - that warmth is as necessary to the thrift of their animals as food, and that close and comfortable stables save many a ton of hay in the winter.
The entrance of Graham and Doolittle roused the sleepers in the hay; but after reconnoitering the view outside, and receiving the message sent them from their host, they concluded to remain where they were until the storm should abate. Designating one of their number to act as sentinel, and give notice if any one approached, they crept anew beneath their fragrant covering, and tried to go to sleep again. But the spell was broken, and to some, at least, sleep was impossible. The stern realities of their condition pressed upon their thoughts, and awoke too deep an anxiety to permit them to slumber any longer.
Such was especially the case with our young friend Chauncey. Under the excitement and fatigue of the preceding day, he had slept soundly through the night, oblivious alike of the past and the future. But with the return of consciousness dawned anew the realization of his peril. Never do the facts of our experience come to us with so vivid an impression as when we wake to them from the depths of a dreamless sleep. As they recur to us one by one, they thrill along our nerves like successive electric discharges, making them seem, if possible, more real than at the moment of their actual experience.
So it was with the young man. He was a prisoner. He was in the power of those who would not shrink at any moment to murder him. He was being hurried away, he knew not whither, to some dark destination, from which the chances were that he would never return. Then came, too, the remembrance of the sweet divine peace which had been granted him in his agony by the side of the old well in the cellar. He was in the hands of his heavenly Father still; of him who had twice interposed to save his life, and who in that hour of mortal terror had revealed himself to him as an unseen but loving Friend.
The thought was like a benediction to his overburdened heart. Silently he poured out the expression of his thankfulness and trust. He entreated the God who had made himself known to him, the God of Joseph and Daniel, to save him from bondage and restore him to his home. He prayed for all the inmates of that home, especially the ever dear father and mother, who, he knew, must be in deep grief on his account. Nay, he prayed for his captors themselves, that they might be induced to release him; and more, that they might be caused to see the sinfulness of their ways and be brought to repentance and a better life. In the earnestness of his feeling he forgot for the moment where he was; the words, which at first were little more than whispered sighs, became audible, and his eyes streamed with tears.
The deep emotion of Chauncey awoke some sympathetic feeling in the mind of David Wooster, by whose side be was lying, a little apart from the rest. Partly out of pity, and partly out of curiosity to hear what the former would say to such a question, he said to him,-
Do you believe praying does any good, Chauncey?
Why, yes, David - don't you?
Well, I don't know. I never knew much good come of it. Your praying people an't any better than other folks, so far as I can see. Besides, how do you know there is a God, anyway? You never saw nor heard him, and nobody living ever did. For my part, I believe it's all a humbug.
But the Bible says there is, pleaded Chauncey,
and it says, too, that he does hear and answer prayer.
Oh, the Bible says so! sneered David;
that's enough, I suppose. But what's the Bible, I'd like to know? An old book that came from nobody knows where. Why should I believe that, because the priests swear by it, while at the same time there's no two of them can agree what it means?
Well, I have not learning enough to answer all your questions, but at the same time I believe the Bible. My father and mother believe it. They read it every day, and they love it, and it does them good, I know that they who read and obey it are better men and women than those that don't. And as to praying, I know it is not useless.
How do you know it?
Well, for one thing. I believe God heard my prayer yesterday, when you were going to throw me into the well. He saved me then, and he gave me beside a sweet peace and confidence that he will go with me through all that is before me. I cannot tell what His will is, or how much I may be called to suffer, but he has made me feel that he is my Father, and that he will take care of me. Somewhere he says that all things work together for good to them that love him.
In spite of himself, David could not help being affected by the simple faith and tender earnestness of his companion, and he said,-
I hope it will be so, I'm sure. I don't wish you any harm, and it was an unlucky moment when we fell in with you. However, we must make the best of it now. Keep up good pluck, and whether your prayers are heard or not, I trust you will get back home by and by, safe and sound.
As the day wore on, the storm seemed to abate somewhat. It grew lighter, as if the sun were about to break through the heavy clouds. Towards noon, a team and sled with its broad rigging were seen coming from the road into the meadow, and approaching the barn. Mr. Daniel Wooster had sold a quantity of hay stored there to a Mr. Hazleton, one of his neighbors, and the necessities of the latter required that it should be taken away at once without waiting for a better day. At first, Captain Wooster had engaged to do the work of removing it, but this morning, fearing to disturb the secrecy of his nephews, and their companions, and possibly forseeing some legal hazard from putting himself into a position where he could not help having a knowledge of their concealment, he had excused himself to Mr. Hazleton, on the plea that his sled was broken, offering to do the work the next day. Mr. Hazleton, however, could not wait, and procured another man to do it instead.
Warned by Captain Wooster that such a visit might be made to the barn, the fugitives were already prepared for it. The hay would be taken from the large mow in the main bay, and they supposed there was little probability that the other parts of the barn would be disturbed. On the opposite side was a loft above the stables, which was filled with rye straw, the remains of the summer's harvesting which the month before had been thrashed out. Upon and behind this they had made spaces between the bundles where they might stow themselves, the open cracks in the boarding affording them plenty of air for breathing. Here they hoped to lie undiscovered during the brief time requisite for loading the hay. At the same time they had agreed that, if detected, they would seize upon the men in charge of the team and hold them in custody till night, when they might make their escape.
The teamsmen reached the barn and began their work. Having cleared the floor of litter, they first prepared their apparatus for weighing the hay. Mr. Hazleton ascended the stable loft and crept over the pile of straw to the scaffolding which rested on the great beams, to one of the timbers of which be attached a rope. This hanging directly over the floor, served to suspend the big steelyard to which the hay was slung in successive bundles for weighing. It was an anxious moment for those lying beneath the straw, as they felt the weight of the man passing along over them; but they lay profoundly still, and fortunately escaped detection.
The men worked with a will, for it was very cold.
A portion of the rope was laid in two parallel lengths upon the floor, upon which the hay was thrown from the mow. When as much was thus piled as the rope would compass, the loose ends were gathered and passed through the bight, making a slip-noose around the mass, then being lifted to the steelyard, its weight was speedily ascertained, and marked with a bit of chalk upon one of the boards of the barn. It was laborious work, and the men had little time or inclination for talking.
At length, in a brief pause in which they indulged for resting, Hazleton remarked that he thought it singular that Captain Wooster's sled should have been broken so soon, for it was a new one, and had never been used before that winter.
The more I think of it, said he,
the more I believe it was an excuse to get rid of the job. He had his old sled, even if the new one was broke. I don't believe he wanted to come out to-day. I wonder if he don't know something about this robbery that's making so much noise. They say the Wooster boys were in it, and that David's father was took last night and put under keepers for harboring them.
Mebbe so, said his companion,
but where do you s'pose the rogues be now?
I don't know. They haven't been caught yet, but they will be, you may depend, for the whole region is after them. The fellows are lurking around somewhere, and I shouldn't a bit wonder if the captain knows where.
Nor I either, said the other;
but we musn't stand here talking. The day is short, and we've got to pitch in.
So saying, he suited the action to the word, and plunged his fork into a heavy mass of hay. Just then, owing probably to the dust arising from the work, which penetrated every part of the barn, a suppressed sneeze was heard.
Hush! cried Hazleton;
what was that? I should almost think there was somebody hid here in the barn. Didn't you hear it? a kind of sneeze, or something!
Pshaw, no! replied the laborer.
Where can anybody be hid here? Besides, you know there wa'n't any tracks in the snow, and nobody could get here without leaving his mark. Hand up the rope yonder, and let's finish our job.
A half hour more and the loading was completed, the oxen brought around from under the shed, where they had had their bating, and the sled with its burden moved slowly away across the meadow.