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Abner Balberry uttered the name in a loud, clear voice and waited fully a minute for an answer.
"Nat!" he repeated. "I want you to answer me, do you hear? Nat!"
Still there was no reply, and now, in some alarm, Abner Balberry turned back into his bedchamber and donned part of his clothing.
"If that boy is moving around this house I'm goin' to know it," he murmured to himself, as he felt his way toward Nat's room. Coming to the door, he threw it open and took a step toward the bed.
As we already know, it was empty. The discovery was something of a shock to the farmer and for the moment he stood stock-still, gazing at the bed and feeling under the covers to make certain that his nephew was not really there.
"Gone!" he muttered at last. "He must be downstairs. More'n likely he went down to git somethin' to eat. Wait till I catch him! I'll tan him well!"
Hoping to catch Nat unawares, he tiptoed his way down the stairs and entered the living room. Then he passed to the kitchen and the shed, and came back to peer into the parlor. Not a trace of the lad was to be found anywhere.
"I certainly heard him," he reasoned. "I certainly did."
"Mr. Balberry!" The call came from the housekeeper. "Are you up?"
"Yes, I am."
"Oh, all right."
"But it ain't all right! Nat's up too."
"Is he down there with you?"
"No, I don't know at all where he is. I'm a-lookin' fer him."
By this time Mrs. Felton's curiosity was aroused and she lost no time in slipping on her wrapper. When she came down she brought with her a lamp.
"Where do you suppose he went?" she asked.
"How do I know?" snarled Abner Balberry.
The housekeeper happened to glance into the pantry. She was about to utter an exclamation, but checked herself.
"What did you say, Mrs. Felton?"
"I—I didn't say anything."
"He ain't in there, is he?"
"Has he been at the victuals?"
"Not—not very much," stammered the housekeeper.
"Humph! I guess he ate as much as he wanted. Jest wait till I catch him—I'll tan him harder than he was ever tanned before!"
"Maybe he went to bed again."
"No, I jest looked into his room."
Abner Balberry unlocked the kitchen door and stepped out into the dooryard. As he did this he caught sight of somebody running swiftly down the road.
"Hi! Stop!" he yelled. "Stop, Nat, do you hear?"
To this there was no answer, and the fleeing individual merely ran the faster.
"Was it Nat?" asked the housekeeper.
"To be sure it was. Oh, wait till I lay my hands on him!" And the farmer shook his fist at the figure that was fast disappearing in the gloom.
"What's that light in the barn?" demanded Mrs. Felton, an instant later.
"Up in the haymow."
Abner Balberry gave a glance toward the structure.
"The barn's afire!" he screamed. "Thet good-fer-nuthin' boy has set the place on fire!"
"Oh! oh!" screamed the housekeeper, and began to tremble from head to feet, for to her mind a fire was the most dreadful thing that could happen.
"I've got to git thet fire out," said the farmer, and ran toward the barn with all speed.
"Be careful, or you'll be burnt up!" screamed Mrs. Felton.
"Go on an' git the water pails!" said the farmer. "Fill everything with water. An' bring a rag carpet, an' I'll soak thet too!"
He already had an old patch of carpet used at the doorstep in his hand, and this he soused in the watering trough as he passed. Then he ran into the open barn and mounted to the loft.
The fire was in a patch of hay at one end of the loft, close to an open window. Regardless of his personal safety, Abner Balberry leaped in and threw part of the hay out of the window. Then he began to beat out the fire with the water-soaked carpet.
"Here's some water," came timidly from below, and Mrs. Felton appeared with two pails full to the brim. He took these upstairs and dashed them on the flames.
"You look out or you'll be burnt up!" cried the housekeeper. She was trembling to such a degree that she could scarcely stand.
"Git some more water," was Abner Balberry's only reply. The thought that his barn might be totally destroyed filled him with dread, for there was no insurance on the structure—he being too miserly to pay the premium demanded by the insurance company.
More water was procured by Mrs. Felton, and at last it was apparent that the farmer was getting the best of the fire. He worked hard and did not seem to mind the fact that his eyebrows were singed and his hands slightly blistered.
"There! now I've got it!" he sighed at last.
"Are you sure?" asked the housekeeper in a faint voice.
"Yes, but I'm a-goin' to hunt around fer sparks. Git some more water."
Additional water was soon at hand, and Abner Balberry began a minute search of the whole loft, on the lookout for stray sparks. A few were found and extinguished, and then the excitement came to an end.
"How thankful I am that the barn didn't burn down," said the housekeeper, as the farmer came below and began to bathe his face and hands.
"It was hot work."
"Are you burnt much?"
"More'n I want to be. Jest wait till I catch Nat!"
"Do you think——" began the housekeeper.
"O' course I do!" snorted Abner Balberry. "Didn't I see him a-runnin' away from the barn?"
"I never thought Nat would be wicked enough to set a barn on fire."
"He was mad because I wouldn't give him no supper. He's a young rascal, he is!"
"But to burn a barn!"
"Thet boy has got to be taken in hand, Mrs. Felton. I've let him have his own way too much. I'm goin' to lay down the law good an' hard after this."
"Maybe he won't come back," suggested the housekeeper.
This thought startled the farmer and he lost no time in finishing his washing.
"I'm goin' after him," he announced. "If he thinks to run away I'll put a spoke in his wheel putty quick."
Taking another look around, to make certain that the fire was really out, Abner Balberry brought out one of his horses and hitched the animal to a buckboard, in the meantime sending the housekeeper back to the house to get his hat and coat.
"Where do you suppose you'll find him?" asked Mrs. Felton.
"Somewhere along the road most likely."
"Maybe he'll hide on you."
"He had better not. If he does that, I'll call on the squire about him."
"Can you do that?"
"O' course I can. Didn't he try to burn down the barn? The squire can make out a warrant for his arrest."
"It would be awful to have him arrested."
"Well, he brought it on himself," answered Abner Balberry, doggedly. "He had no right to try to set the barn afire. Next thing you know, Mrs. Felton, he'll be a-trying to burn us up in our beds."
"Oh, I don't think Nat would be as bad as that."
"You don't know thet boy as well as I do. He's sly an' stubborn, and he'll do 'most anything when he's crossed. But I'll fix him! Jest you wait an' see!"
"How far will you follow him?"
"As far as it's necessary. If he thinks he can git away from me he'll find out, sooner or later, he is mistaken."
"You don't know when you'll be back?"
"No. It may be I'll have to wait in town till the squire opens his office—that is, if I can't find Nat."
"But you are going to look for him yourself first?"
With this answer Abner Balberry drove off in the darkness. Mrs. Felton watched him and heaved a long and deep sigh.
"Too bad!" she murmured. "If he catches Nat it will surely go hard with that boy. Well, I didn't think he was bad enough to set fire to a barn!"
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