"Be careful about the fires, Clarence, and be sure and lock the doors
and windows before you got to bed."
"And don't leave the house alone any length of time. We will be back by to-morrow noon, if possible. There are so many tramps roaming about the country now, the house might be ransacked if you were to leave it alone," said his mother.
"I will see to everything, and forget nothing," answered Clarence.
He was a bright, manly boy of fifteen--the only child of his parents, who resided in the town of M------, in Wisconsin.
They were well-to-do farmers, with a comfortable home, and the neighborhood was a peaceful, quiet one, where Clarence had spent his fifteen uneventful years.
Of late--it was the summer of '78--the whole State of Wisconsin, and indeed, the whole West, had been full of homeless, idle men, known to us all as tramps. The hard times had thrown them out of work, and many of them had determined to beg, others to steal, for a livelihood. All sorts of rumors of petty thefts and robberies, and assaults, and sometimes murder, were heard from neighboring places, but so far the town of M------ had only been annoyed by beggars and loungers. That very day a villainous-looking fellow had been to the kitchen and begged Mrs. Ward--Clarence's mother--for something to eat, and she had got him a good lunch and allowed him to rest an hour in the kitchen before going farther in his quest for employment.
And now she and her husband were called to a neighboring village, some eight miles distant, by the sickness of her sister, who resided there, and Clarence was to be left alone in the house until the next day.
"I feel uneasy about you, Clarence," said his mother, as she took her seat in the carriage beside her husband. "I wish you would get some neighbor to stay with you to-night."
"You talk as if I were a baby, mother," he said. "It is not at all likely any of the tramps know you have been called away from home so suddenly, and they are no more likely to trouble the house to-night than last night. I am not at all afraid. Good-by. Give my love to auntie, and don't worry about me."
He waved his hat after the retreating carriage, and with a merry whistle turned toward the stables, where there were cows to milk, and horses to feed and bed.
He was hard at work when he heard a voice speak his name, and, looking, saw Mr. Sawyer, a neighbor who lived half a mile distant, approaching him.
"Where is your father?" asked Mr. Sawyer. "I want to see him about that trade we are trying to make."
"Gone," said Clarence, and then explained the situation.
"And you are all alone?" said Mr. Sawyer. "Are you not afraid?"
Clarence flushed with boyish pride. He was a fearless boy, and he did not like to be considered lacking in courage.
"Because, if you are," continued Mr. Sawyer, "I will run home and tell my wife about it, and come back and stay overnight with you."
"Oh, no, thank you!" returned Clarence, "I am not at all afraid; there is nothing to be afraid of."
Mr. Sawyer remained chatting with him until he had finished his chores, and, with a milk-pail in either hand, returned to the house.
They paused by the kitchen door. It was now nearly dusk.
"Be sure and lock up well," said Mr. Sawyer, "before you go to bed, Clarence."
Clarence glanced at the kitchen door. He had left the key upon the outside when he went to the barn, and it was gone!
"Look here, sir," he said, laughing, "you are trying to play a game on me. Give me the key."
"What key?" cried Mr. Sawyer, in amazement.
"Why, the key to this door that you took out a few moments ago to give me a scare. Come, hand it out. You thought you would see if I was as brave as I claimed, didn't you? Well, you see I am not at all shaky over the absence of the key; but all the same I would like it."
"Upon my honor, Clarence," cried Sawyer, "I have not touched the key. Let us look around in the grass by the door."
They looked vainly.
"Ah, well it is no matter," said Clarence carelessly. "I am quite sure the front-door key will lock this. And now I must go in and strain the milk before the cream rises. Mother told me to, so good night."
"Good night, Clarence," and Mr. Sawyer was gone.
Clarence strained the milk, and lighted a lamp, and brought in the wood for the morning fire, and laid the pine to cut into kindlings, and the butcher-knife beside it, on the stove-hearth. Then he went over the house, and locked windows and doors, all but the kitchen door, which no key would fit.
"It is very curious about that key," he mused. "I know I left it in the door when I went out. I believe Sawyer did take it to try my courage. Never mind--I'll fix it."
He took a stout piece of oak, several feet long, and braced it under the door-knob and against the floor. It fastened the door so securely, that any attempt to open it from the outside would only serve to brace it tighter.
Then, weary with a day's labor--for he was a hard-working boy, and never idle--he made himself ready for bed.
But before he retired he took down his father's double-barreled shotgun, and set it within reach of his bed. He knew it was loaded--his father had been shooting field-gophers only the day before, and had left both barrels loaded.
Then he blew out the light and tumbled himself into the little bed just off the kitchen, and was soon asleep.
He did not know how long he slept, but he awoke suddenly to hear a key fitted and turned, again and again, in the kitchen door. His first thought was that Sawyer was playing a trick upon him, but when he heard stealthy steps go around the house, and the sash of one of the kitchen windows being slowly and cautiously sawed away, he knew it was not Sawyer, but a burglar.
He crept from his bed, and drew on his clothes very quietly. Then he took the gun, and stealing along as silently as a cat, placed himself before the window where he heard the robber at work. It seemed hours before the sash was removed--hours measured by the wild beating of his young heart, that throbbed so loudly he almost feared it would betray his presence.
Then he heard a hoarse voice whisper: "Give me a match," and he heard the match struck against the wall, and he knew he had to contend against at least two assailants--how many more he could not tell.
The match made a momentary gleam in the darkness. Enough to show him the body of a man half-way through the opening in the window; enough to enable him to raise his gun and place it against the breast of the man and fire. But the cap snapped and the match went out, and the man dropped into the darkness without.
Desperate, and conscious only of peril, Clarence thrust the gun through the aperture and fired into the darkness. His assailants now knew that he was in their power. Both barrels of his gun were emptied, and they were unharmed. Quick as the spring of a ferocious cat, one of them leaped through the window and seized him in the darkness. He clung to his gun, and beat his enemy over the head and shoulders with it whenever he could make use of his arm.
But suddenly it was snatched from his grasp, and then a desperate thought flashed into his mind. He began to jerk himself and assailant back toward the stove. If he could only reach the knife he had left on the hearth with the kindling, he might save his own life at the sacrifice of another.
The robber's hands were on his throat, and death seemed very near--horrible, murderous death, in the darkness and alone--when he reached out and felt the stove-hearth cold under his hand.
Another jerk, another reach, and the knife was in his hand, its blade buried deep in his assailant's heart. Then he felt the warm blood spurt over his hands, the clutch of the robber loosen, and sick and horrified, he sprang up and kicked aside the oaken prop that fastened the door, and rushed out into the night. He had conquered one of his enemies alone and single-handed, but he knew not how many more lurked outside.
His calls and cries brought Mr. Sawyer to the door, to listen to the boy's excited tale, and see his blood-stained hands.
"It is better not to go back to-night," said Mr. Sawyer. "We do not know how many of them there may be--let us wait till morning."
At daybreak they returned to the scene of the terrible struggle.
The kitchen floor was covered with blood, and the sheets from the adjoining bed were missing, evidently used to bandage the wounds of the assassin, of whom no trace could be found. He was never found, and no trace of the world-be robbers has ever been obtained.
A week later, in the loft of the barn, on the hay, the sheets were found, stiff with blood, and as perfectly red as if they had been in the dyer's hands. It seemed probable that the wounded man had died and been secretly conveyed from the barn, as had he been carried away living, the sheets would not have been left. Nothing else from the house was taken. The robbers were evidently in haste to get away from the scene of their attempted plunder without a further loss of life.
I do not think Clarence could be hired to stay alone in that house now, and the fear that the surviving tramp will yet wreak vengeance on his head for the life he took to save his own is ever present with the brave boy, who is still regarded as the young hero of M------.