It was four o'clock in the afternoon when Frank Courtney left the cars and set foot on the platform before the station at Prescott, five miles distant from the town of Jackson, in Southern Minnesota.
He looked about him, but could see no village.
Prescott was a stopping place for the cars, but there was no settlement of any account there, as he afterward found.
He had supposed he would find a stage in waiting to convey him to Jackson, but it was clear that the business was not large enough to warrant such a conveyance.
Looking about him, Frank saw a farm wagon, the driver of which had evidently come to receive some freight which had come by rail.
Approaching the driver, who seemed to be—though roughly dressed—an intelligent man, Frank inquired:
"How far is Jackson from here, sir?"
"Five miles," was the answer.
"Is there any stage running there from this depot?"
"Oh, no! If there were, it wouldn't average two passengers a day."
"Then I suppose I must walk," said Frank, looking rather doubtfully at the two heavy valises which constituted his baggage.
"Then you are going to Jackson?"
"I come from Jackson myself, and in fifteen minutes shall start on my way back. You may ride and welcome."
"Thank you, sir!" said our hero, quite relieved. "I hope you will allow me to pay you as much as I should have to pay in a stage."
"No, no, my lad," said the farmer, heartily. "The horse can draw you as well as not, and I shall be glad to have your company."
"Thank you, sir!"
"Just climb up here, then. I'll take your baggage and put it on the wagon behind."
When the farmer had loaded up, he started up the team. Then, finding himself at leisure, he proceeded to satisfy his curiosity by cross-examining his young passenger.
"Do you come from the East?" he asked.
"I am last from Chicago," answered Frank, cautiously.
"I suppose you've got some friend in Jackson?" ventured the farmer, interrogatively.
"You are the only man living in Jackson that I ever met," he said.
"Indeed!" said the driver, puzzled. "Are you calculating to make a long stay in our village?" he asked again, after a minute's pause.
"That depends on business," answered the young traveler.
"Are you in business?"
"I have a stock of stationery which I shall offer for sale in Jackson," answered Frank.
"I am afraid you'll find it rather a poor market. If that's all you have to depend upon, I am afraid you'll get discouraged."
"I am also agent for an illustrated book," said Frank. "I may be able to dispose of a few."
"Perhaps so," answered the farmer, dubiously. "But our people haven't much money to spend on articles of luxury, and books are a luxury with us."
"I always heard that Jackson was a flourishing place," said Frank, who felt that now was his time to obtain a little information.
"It ought to be," said the farmer; "but there's one thing prevents."
"What is that?"
"A good deal of our village is owned by a New York man, to whom we have to pay rent. He has a rascally agent—a Mr. Fairfield—who grinds us down by his exactions, and does what he can to keep, us in debt."
"Has he always been agent?"
"No. Before he came there was an excellent man—a Mr. Sampson—who treated us fairly, contented himself with exacting rents which we could pay, and if a man were unlucky, would wait a reasonable time for him to pay. Then we got along comfortably. But he died, and this man was sent out in his place. Then commenced a new state of things. He immediately raised the rents; demanded that they should be paid on the day they were due, and made himself harsh and tyrannical."
"Do you think the man who employs him knows how he is conducting his agency?" Frank inquired.
"No; there is no one to tell him. I suppose Mr. Fairfield tells him a smooth story, and he believes it. I am afraid we can hope for no relief."
"What would he say," thought Frank, "if he knew I were a messenger from Mr. Percival?"
"What sort of a man is this Mr. Fairfield in private life?" he asked.
"He drinks like a fish," was the unexpected reply. "Frequently he appears on the street under the influence of liquor. He spends a good deal of money, lives in a large house, and his wife dresses expensively. He must get a much larger salary than Mr. Sampson did, or he could not spend money as he does."
Though Frank had not much worldly experience, he could not help coming to the conclusion that Mr. Fairfield was acting dishonestly. He put together the two circumstances that this new agent had increased the rents, and yet that he had returned to Mr. Percival only about half as much as his predecessor had done. Clearly, he must retain in his own hands much more than he had a right to do.
"I shall have to report unfavorably on this man," he thought.
One point must be considered—where he was to find a boarding place on his arrival in Jackson.
"Is there a hotel in Jackson?" he asked.
"There is a tavern, but it's a low place," answered the farmer. "A good deal of liquor is sold there, and Mr. Fairfield, our agent, is one of the most constant patrons of the bar."
"I don't think I should like to stop there," said Frank. "Isn't there any private family where I can get board for a week or two?"
"If you don't object to plain fare," said the farmer, "I might agree to board you myself."
This was precisely what Frank wanted, and he replied that nothing would suit him better.
"We live humbly," continued Mr. Hamlin—for this, Frank learned, was his driver's name—"but we will try to make you comfortable."
"I feel sure of that, sir, and I am much obliged to you for receiving me."
"As to terms, you can pay whatever you can afford. My wife and children will be glad to see you. It's pretty quiet out here, and it breaks the monotony to meet any person from the East."
"How long have you lived in Jackson, Mr. Hamlin?"
"About eight years. I was not brought up as a farmer, but became one from necessity. I was a bookkeeper in Chicago for a good many years, until I found the confinement and close work were injuring my health. Then I came here and set up as a farmer. I got along pretty well, at first; at any rate, I made a living for my family; but when Mr. Fairfield became agent, he raised my rent, and, in other ways, made it hard for me. Now I have a hard struggle."
"I thought you were not always a farmer," said Frank.
"What made you think so?"
"You don't talk like a farmer. You have the appearance of a man who has lived in cities."
"Seems to me you are a close observer, for a boy of your years," said Mr. Hamlin, shrewdly.
"I should be glad if your compliment were deserved," he answered. "It's a pity you were not agent, instead of Mr. Fairfield," suggested Frank, pointedly.
"I wish I were," answered Hamlin. "I believe I should make a good one, though I might not turn over as much money to my employer. I should, first of all, lower the rents and make it as easy for the tenants as I could in justice to my New York principal."
"Do you know how much Mr. Fairfield receives—how large a salary, I mean?"
"I know what Mr. Sampson got—twelve hundred dollars a year; but Mr. Fairfield lives at the rate of more than twice that sum, if I can judge from appearances."
"I suppose you would be contented with the salary which Mr. Sampson received?"
"Contented! I should feel like a rich man. It would not interfere with my carrying on my farm, and I should be able to make something from that. Why, it is as much as I received as a bookkeeper, and here the expenses of living are small, compared with what they were in Chicago. I could save money and educate my children, as I cannot do now. I have a boy who wants a classical education, but of course there are no schools here which can afford it, and I am too poor to send him away from home. I suppose I shall have to bring him up as a farmer, though it is a great pity, for he is not fitted for it."
Mr. Hamlin sighed, but Frank felt in unusually good spirits. He saw his way clear already, not only to recommend Mr. Fairfield's displacement, but to urge Mr. Hamlin's appointment in his stead; that is, if his favorable impressions were confirmed on further acquaintance.
"It seems to me," said the driver, changing the subject, "you might find something better to do than to peddle stationery."
"I don't mean to follow the business long," answered Frank.
"It can't pay much."
"I am not wholly dependent upon it," said our hero. "There is one advantage about it. It enables me to travel about and pay my expenses, and you know traveling is agreeable to a boy of my age."
"That is true. Well, your expenses won't amount to much while you are in Jackson. I shall only charge you just enough to cover expenses—say three dollars a week."
Frank was about to insist on paying a larger sum, but it occurred to him that he must keep up appearances, and he therefore only thanked his kind acquaintance.
By this time they had entered the village of Jackson.
"There's Mr. Fairfield now!" said Mr. Hamlin, suddenly, pointing with his whip to a rather tall, stout man, with a red nose and inflamed countenance, who was walking unsteadily along the sidewalk.
Frank carefully scrutinized the agent, and mentally decided that such a man was unfit for the responsible position he held.
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