"Sit up to the table, children, breakfast's ready."
The speaker was a woman of middle age, not good-looking in the ordinaryacceptation of the term, but nevertheless she looked good. She wasdressed with extreme plainness, in a cheap calico; but though cheap, thedress was neat. The children she addressed were six in number, varyingin age from twelve to four. The oldest, Harry, the hero of the presentstory, was a broad-shouldered, sturdy boy, with a frank, open face,resolute, though good-natured.
"Father isn't here," said Fanny, the second child.
"He'll be in directly. He went to the store, and he may stop as he comesback to milk."
The table was set in the center of the room, covered with a coarsetablecloth. The breakfast provided was hardly of a kind to tempt anepicure. There was a loaf of bread cut into slices, and a dish of boiledpotatoes. There was no butter and no meat, for the family were verypoor.
The children sat up to the table and began to eat. They were blessedwith good appetites, and did not grumble, as the majority of my readerswould have done, at the scanty fare. They had not been accustomed toanything better, and their appetites were not pampered by indulgence.
They had scarcely commenced the meal when the father entered. Like hiswife, he was coarsely dressed. In personal appearance he resembled hisoldest boy. His wife looking up as he entered perceived that he lookedtroubled.
"What is the matter, Hiram?" she asked. "You look as if something hadhappened."
"Nothing has happened yet," he answered; "but I am afraid we are goingto lose the cow."
"Going to lose the cow!" repeated Mrs. Walton in dismay.
"She is sick. I don't know what's the matter with her."
"Perhaps it is only a trifle. She may get over it during the day."
"She may, but I'm afraid she won't. Farmer Henderson's cow was takenjust that way last fall, and he couldn't save her."
"What are you going to do?"
"I have been to Elihu Perkins, and he's coming over to see what he cando for her. He can save her if anybody can."
The children listened to this conversation, and, young as they were, theelder ones understood the calamity involved in the possible loss of thecow. They had but one, and that was relied upon to furnish milk for thefamily, and, besides a small amount of butter and cheese, not forhome consumption, but for sale at the store in exchange for necessarygroceries. The Waltons were too poor to indulge in these luxuries.
The father was a farmer on a small scale; that is, he cultivated tenacres of poor land, out of which he extorted a living for his family, orrather a partial living. Besides this he worked for his neighbors bythe day, sometimes as a farm laborer, sometimes at odd jobs of differentkinds, for he was a sort of Jack at all trades. But his income, alltold, was miserably small, and required the utmost economy and goodmanagement on the part of his wife to make it equal to the necessity ofa growing family of children.
Hiram Walton was a man of good natural abilities, though of not mucheducation, and after half an hour's conversation with him one would say,unhesitatingly, that he deserved a better fate than his hand-to-handstruggle with poverty. But he was one of those men who, for someunaccountable reason, never get on in the world. They can do a greatmany things creditably, but do not have the knack of conquering fortune.So Hiram had always been a poor man, and probably always would be poor.He was discontented at times, and often felt the disadvantages of hislot, but he was lacking in energy and ambition, and perhaps this was thechief reason why he did not succeed better.
After breakfast Elihu Perkins, the "cow doctor," came to the door.He was an old man with iron-gray hair, and always wore steel-bowedspectacles; at least for twenty years nobody in the town could rememberever having seen him without them. It was the general opinion that hewore them during the night. Once when questioned on the subject, helaughingly said that he "couldn't see to go to sleep without his specs".
"Well, neighbor Walton, so the cow's sick?" he said, opening the outerdoor without ceremony.
"Yes, Elihu, she looks down in the mouth. I hope you can save her."
"I kin tell better when I've seen the critter. When you've got throughbreakfast, we'll go out to the barn."
"I've got through now," said Mr. Walton, whose anxiety for the cow haddiminished his appetite.
"May I go too, father?" asked Harry, rising from the table.
"Yes, if you want to."
The three went out to the small, weather-beaten building which served asa barn for the want of a better. It was small, but still large enoughto contain all the crops which Mr. Walton could raise. Probably hecould have got more out of the land if he had had means to develop itsresources; but it was naturally barren, and needed much more manure thanhe was able to spread over it.
So the yield to an acre was correspondingly small, and likely, from yearto year, to grow smaller rather than larger.
They opened the small barn door, which led to the part occupied by thecow's stall. The cow was lying down, breathing with difficulty. ElihuPerkins looked at her sharply through his "specs."
"What do you think of her, neighbor Perkins?" asked the owner,anxiously.
The cow doctor shifted a piece of tobacco from one cheek to the other,and looked wise.
"I think the critter's nigh her end," he said, at last.
"Is she so bad as that?"
"Pears like it. She looks like Farmer Henderson's that died a while ago.I couldn't save her."
"Save my cow, if you can. I don't know what I should do without her."
"I'll do my best, but you mustn't blame me if I can't bring her round.You see there's this about dumb critters that makes 'em harder to curethan human bein's. They can't tell their symptoms, nor how they feel;and that's why it's harder to be a cow doctor than a doctor for humans.You've got to go by the looks, and looks is deceivin'. If I could onlyask the critter how she feels, and where she feels worst, I might havesome guide to go by. Not but I've had my luck. There's more'n one of 'emI've saved, if I do say it myself."
"I know you can save her if anyone can, Elihu," said Mr. Walton, whoappreciated the danger of the cow, and was anxious to have the doctorbegin.
"Yes, I guess I know about as much about them critters as anybody," saidthe garrulous old man, who had a proper appreciation of his dignity andattainments as a cow doctor. "I've had as good success as anyone I knowon. If I can't cure her, you may call her a gone case. Have you got anyhot water in the house?"
"I'll go in and see."
"I'll go, father," said Harry.
"Well, come right back. We have no time to lose."
Harry appreciated the need of haste as well as his father, and speedilyreappeared with a pail of hot water.
"That's right, Harry," said his father. "Now you'd better go into thehouse and do your chores, so as not to be late for school."
Harry would have liked to remain and watch the steps which were beingtaken for the recovery of the cow; but he knew he had barely time to dothe "chores" referred to before school, and he was far from wishing tobe late there. He had an ardent thirst for learning, and, young as hewas, ranked first in the district school which he attended. I am notabout to present my young hero as a marvel of learning, for he was notso. He had improved what opportunities he had enjoyed, but these werevery limited. Since he was nine years of age, his schooling had been forthe most part limited to eleven weeks in the year. There was a summer aswell as a winter school; but in the summer he only attended irregularly,being needed to work at home. His father could not afford to hire help,and there were many ways in which Harry, though young, could helphim. So it happened that Harry, though a tolerably good scholar, wasdeficient in many respects, on account of the limited nature of hisopportunities.
He set to work at once at the chores. First he went to the woodpile andsawed and split a quantity of wood, enough to keep the kitchen stovesupplied till he came home again from school in the afternoon. This dutywas regularly required of him. His father never touched the saw or theax, but placed upon Harry the general charge of the fuel department.
After sawing and splitting what he thought to be sufficient, he carriedit into the house by armfuls, and piled it up near the kitchen stove.He next drew several buckets of water from the well, for it was washingday, brought up some vegetables from the cellar to boil for dinner, andthen got ready for school.