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Authors: Gilbert L. Morris

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BOOK: Secret of Richmond Manor
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The men all were grinning as they ate. Leah saw they were watching her. She sat bolt upright, her lips set in a stubborn line.

Finally Silas said, “Just try one, Leah. It won't kill you.”

Leah looked at him and then sniffed. “Well, all right, but just one.” She picked up a frog leg from the platter and took a small bite. She took another bite.

“It's good, isn't it? I told you it would be,” Jeff said. “Just jump in now and eat all you want.”

Leah found, to her surprise, that she really did like frog legs. They tasted a little like chicken and a little like fish.

“Now every time you want a good meal, all you have to do is go out and gig you a frog,” Jeff said.

“No, I wouldn't stick that gig into a frog or anything else.”

“You're not as tenderhearted toward the chickens though,” Jeff teased. “I've seen you wring the neck of many a fine bird.”

“Chickens are different,” Leah argued. “Anyway, I'm not gigging any old frogs.”

After the meal, she cleaned up, and soon afterward Lt. Majors and Tom took their leave.

“We've got to get back to camp,” the lieutenant said. “We sure appreciate that good meal, Leah. You're a fine cook.” He turned to Silas. “Thanks for having us out.”

Jeff said, rather formally, “Let me stay another night, will you, Lieutenant? I don't have anything to do when I get back to camp. Maybe I can go hunting and get some rabbits for Mr. Carter.”

His father glanced at Leah, cocking his head to one side. He looked back at Jeff and looked about to tease the boy but must have decided better of it. “If it's all right with Mr. Carter, it's all right with me,” he said. “As long as you're back tomorrow.”

“Let the boy stay.” Silas nodded. “Some fresh jackrabbit would go down pretty good.”

“All right then.”

Lt. Majors and Tom said their good-byes and went out and climbed into the wagon. Jeff and Leah came outside and waved as they disappeared.

“Can I go hunting with you, Jeff?”

“Why, sure. It'll be like old times. But first I've got to teach your Uncle Silas who's the best checker player.” He went back inside and challenged his host. “I'm ready to show you how to be a real checker player, Mr. Carter.”

“All right, we'll see about that.”

Uncle Silas set up a board on the kitchen table, and soon the two were deeply engaged in a fierce battle.

Leah was amused at the seriousness with which Jeff took the game. When he made an especially good move, he would pound the table, making the checkers jump up and down, and shout, “Yahoo!”

On the other hand, when Silas jumped one or two of his men, Jeff would scowl and hunch down in his chair as if preparing to make a bayonet charge.

Finally at midmorning the game was interrupted when someone called out, “Hello, is anyone home?”

Leah went to the door and saw a young neighbor outside, Rafe Tolliver. He was sixteen years old—and she had thought at times that he was fond of her. “Come in, Rafe,” she invited.

Rafe Tolliver was tall with blond hair and light blue eyes. He looked Leah over, then said, “Hi, Jeff. Are you giving him a good thrashing?”

Silas grinned. “I've beat him three out of five. I guess that makes me the champion.”

“No, it don't,” Jeff argued heatedly. “We're going to play the best eight out of ten.”

Rafe winked at Leah, saying, “After they settle which one of them is best,
I'll
teach them how to play checkers.”

“What are you doing today, Rafe?”

“I'm going hunting after chores. I've got my dog all ready. I expect I'll get me a mess of coons.”

Jeff looked up quickly. “I'd like to go, Rafe, if I wouldn't be in the way.”

“Why, shoot! You can't get too many people out on a coon hunt.” Rafe grinned. He obviously liked Jeff. Then he looked over at Leah and said, “If you'll get out of that dress and into your old overalls, I'll let you go too. What're you all dressed up for?”

Leah felt her face flush. She had put on her second-best dress, a light yellow affair with white daisies crocheted across the front. “Oh, I just like to wear a nice dress every once in a while.”

“She wears it when she eats frog legs.” Uncle Silas grinned slyly. “I'll bet she'd wear it for some good fried coon, wouldn't you, Leah?”

Leah turned and walked away, saying, “Oh, you hush, Uncle Silas!”

Rafe said, “I guess we'll go about dusk tonight. I've got my chores to do. Come on over to our place about six. Better bring some grub too, Leah. We're liable to get hungry out there.”

“Rafe's a pretty nice fellow, isn't he?” Jeff asked Leah after the boy left.

“Oh, yes, he is. He helps Uncle Silas sometimes with things only a man can do.”

“I thought you could do anything a man could do,” he teased. Then he threw up both hands. “Wait a minute! Don't shoot! I was just kidding.” He looked out the window and watched Rafe disappear into the distance. “I think he's kind of sweet on you. He looked like it to me.”

“Don't be silly!”

“I'm not being silly. Just shows he has good taste.”

Leah shot a look at Jeff, then blushed. “I don't know about that. He's a nice boy, though.” She changed the subject, saying, “If we're going to go hunting, I'll need to get all my work done too. Why don't you go out there and work on that woodpile? Uncle Silas will be needing at least two or three cords this winter.”

“All right, I'll do that.”

* * *

“Well, how do you like this new dog of mine?” Rafe asked, putting his hand proudly on the head of a large coonhound.

“He looks good. What is he?”

“This here's a black-and-tan. Best coon dog in the world!”

The dog's fur was black with a bluish tinge, except for his muzzle and feet. These were soft brown like a fine suede jacket. He had a glossy coat and clear bright eyes. He held his tail above his back, and he looked wide awake, not tired like some dogs.

“He weighs over fifty pounds. Look at those muscles on him!”

“What's his name?” Leah asked.

“His name's Stonewall, named after the general.”

“You can't get a name better than that.” Jeff grinned. He put his hand out, and the dog sniffed, then licked it. “Sure is a fine dog. Is he good with coons?”

“Good with coons? Of course he is. Why, I wouldn't have a dog that wouldn't get a coon,” Rafe said indignantly.

“Is he fast?” Jeff demanded.

“Well, he's fast enough.” Rafe shrugged. “Fastest dog's a greyhound. But what would one of them things be worth on a coon hunt? Nothing! What counts is smarts. A dog's either smart or dumb. You can teach him lots of things, but you can't teach him sense. Either he's got it,” Rafe pronounced, “or he ain't got it. You two about ready to go?”

Jeff nodded, and they left the house. A big moon was shining, and far off the barking of dogs sounded like bells. “Somebody else out hunting,” Jeff remarked.

“Yep, but they ain't got no Stonewall dog like we got.”

They made their way along the road for awhile, then turned into the deep woods. They walked for what seemed hours to Leah, the two boys chatting from time to time. They seemed to have forgotten her, which made her feel a little left out.
I wish it was just Jeff and me on this coon hunt
, she thought.
Those two won't do anything but talk about dogs all night long
.

The moon was rising quickly, and all of a sudden Stonewall let out a strange sound. It was half bark and half howl. He was somewhere up ahead, and Rafe said excitedly, “That's a coon!”

“How do you know? Maybe it's a possum.”

Rafe began to run, but he shouted disgustedly, “Why, Stonewall would die of shame if he ever took out after a possum! He knows he's a coon dog, not a possum dog.”

They ran hard as the dog bayed, and they finally reached a big tree with Stonewall at the bottom. “He's got one treed all right, but I can't see it. We'll have to wait a while here. Maybe build a fire so we can see what we're doing.”

For a while, they circled the tree, trying to see through the darkness. But none of them could spot a coon.

“You know what I think?” Rafe said suddenly.

“What's that, Rafe?” Leah asked.

“Look how close these trees are together. I think that ole coon went up this tree”—he pointed upward, moving his arm—“climbed out on one of those limbs, and jumped into another tree and then maybe another tree.”

Jeff looked around. “I've known coons to do that, all right. I had me a dog back in Kentucky named Rocky. You know, he knew how to mark a tree. He'd figure out that the critter must've gone to another tree, and he'd start searching until he found Mr. Coon, maybe just coming down.”

“Ain't no dog that smart,” Rafe said.

“Rocky was. Anyhow, let's kind of spread out. There ain't nothing up in this tree.”

Sure enough, the dog struck a scent some hundred yards away.

“Told you,” Jeff said. “He got out of that first tree. Let's get him.”

Evidently the coon was smarter than any of them and even smarter than the dog, for they could not catch him.

Finally Leah was out of breath and tired. “I can't go much farther,” she panted.

Jeff must have seen that she was about past going. “Me too. Let's build a fire, Rafe. We'll eat something, then go after him again.”

“All right,” Rafe agreed.

They set about finding an open spot. The boys quickly found enough dead wood to make a fire, and soon a merry crackling blaze drove the darkness back. They sat down, and Leah opened the sack they had taken turns carrying.

“I'm hungry,” she announced.

“What've you got in there?” Rafe demanded. “Whatever it is, it'll be good.”

Leah began pulling out food and handing it off. “Well, here's some cold fried chicken—and here's some frog legs we had left. Jeff, you liked them so much, you can have all of them. Here's some baked potatoes and some biscuits.”

“Let me have some of all of it,” Jeff said.

They sat around the fire eating, quickly at first, then slowing down. When they were full, Leah said, “That's all, except for some fried pies.”

Jeff sat up straight. “Fried
apple
pies?”

“Yes. I hid them from you and your greedy relatives.”

“Gimme!” Jeff held out his hand.

“There's only three of them. Just one apiece.”

“Well, let me eat yours. You don't like them much anyway, Leah.”

“I do so!” she said offendedly. “Don't be such a pig.”

Jeff took his pie and sat back. “I'll give you all my share of the coon, if you'll give me your pie, Rafe.”

“Nothing doing. I can catch a coon anytime.” Rafe grinned. “But I can't get fried pies like this!”

They ate the pies and then decided they were thirsty.

“There's a creek back a ways, but I'm too tired and full to go get a drink,” Jeff said.

“Let's just rest awhile.” Leah leaned against a tree. She looked at the fire and said, “I love being out in the woods like this, where it's nice and quiet and with a nice fire.”

“Well, you're in good company too.” Rafe grinned. “That makes a big difference.

Leah smiled at him and nodded. “It sure does, Rafe.”

Rafe glanced at Jeff. “Well, Jeff, you've got to go back to the army, but I'll be sure Leah gets to go coon hunting and maybe trout lining once in a while.”

Jeff gave him an angry look but said nothing.

They sat talking, letting the sounds of the night filter through to them. And finally Rafe lay back and soon began to snore.

“He sounds like a sawmill!” Jeff exclaimed. “I don't see how anybody could sleep in the same house with him.”

“He
is
loud, isn't he?” Leah giggled. She looked over to where the young man was lying on his back, his mouth wide open. “It'd be mean if I found a bug and dropped it in there, wouldn't it?”

“It might be fun. Do you want to do it?”

“No, he might get mad.”

“We could tell him that it fell out of a tree,” Jeff suggested.

“No, it would be mean. You wouldn't want someone to do that to you, would you?”

“It's been worse in camp. They pull some awful tricks on us young fellas—the older soldiers do.”

The fire crackled, and Jeff reached over and put a few more sticks on it. As he stirred them, the sparks swirled high into the air. He said, “It looks like those sparks are mingling with the stars, don't it, Leah?”

Leah looked up and saw indeed that the white cold stars were all mixed up with the hot flaming sparks. “One of my teachers told me those stars are on fire. They don't look it, do they?”

“No, they don't. They look like icy points, real cold. But they do flicker sometimes. They last a little bit longer than those sparks, though.”

“I wish I knew all their names—all those stars, I mean.”

“Pa knows a lot of them,” Jeff said. “He taught me some. That right up there—see it—that real bright one? That one's called Sirius. Pretty, isn't it?”

“Serious? How could a star be serious?”

“I don't know. That's just what Pa said. Look! There's the Big Dipper. See?”

“I can't see it. Never could pick it out.”

Jeff came over and sat down. He put his hand on her head and put his face next to hers. “Now look—right where I'm pointing your head—” He held her head steady, then released one hand and put his arm out. “Right along my arm. Just take a sight. It looks like a dipper turned upside down.”

“I don't see a thing.”

Jeff shook his head. “Look! See that star, those four—they make the cup of the dipper. The other part is bent over.”

BOOK: Secret of Richmond Manor
3.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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