Gateway to the Classics: Kristy's Christmas Surprise by Olive Thorne Miller
Kristy's Christmas Surprise by  Olive Thorne Miller

How the Horse Told

I T was the first day of skating in the village of B——, and nearly the whole town was out to enjoy it. Every boy and girl fortunate enough to own a pair of skates, and many who were forced to content themselves with sliding, were there. The lake was gay with bright colors, and the air filled with shouts of laughter.

Towards evening there arose between the young people a trial of speed, and a race was quickly arranged. Many started together, but soon all fell off, one after another, till only three were left, the acknowledged best skaters in the village: Kittie Manton, a bright girl, and a great favorite among the schoolboys, and two boys who were equally anxious to keep up with her, and to beat each other. They were about evenly matched, but Phil Bartlett happened to wear a pair of bright new skates, and in spite of his opponent's strongest efforts, he went ahead, and kept there.

The sport was put an end to by a snowstorm, and the lake was quickly deserted. The skating contest was all in fun, of course, and no one thought of having any feeling about it, except the boy who was beaten. Harry Carter was rather an important personage, in his own estimation, and he went away in a furious rage.

"The mean sneak!" he muttered to himself, as he stalked off towards home, his skates dangling over his shoulder, "just because he had on new skates! He can't beat me in a fair trial, and he knows it! I wonder where he got those Clubs, anyway—his father's as poor as Job's turkey. I'll pay him off, anyway. I'd like to put a few nicks in those new skates, and then see him try to beat me again!" So he went on—this foolish youth—his mind filled with thoughts of revenge.

Evil designs ripen quickly, and before bed-time Harry had thought of a plan which he meant to carry out that very night.

Phil Bartlett was the son of a farmer, and lived about two miles from the village. After he thought every one was in bed in the quiet town, Harry Carter stole out of his window onto the top of a piazza, climbed down the trellis, to the injury of some vines which grew over it, and took his way to the stable. He dared not touch one of the carriage horses, for his father was very particular about them, and very observing, but neither did he intend walking two miles into the country, even to be revenged. His father had a superannuated horse called Ned, kept solely for the purpose of dragging barrels of water from the spring at the back of the lot which supplied the house.

No one would notice whether Ned was used or not—so reasoned Harry—and Ned should carry him out to the Bartlett farm. The old horse was soon saddled and brought out, though not without some difficulty; for the intelligent animal knew as well as Harry did that night was his time to rest. However, out he was finally driven, and Harry mounted and rode out of the yard.

On ordinary occasions he would not have enjoyed a midnight ride through the lonely woods, but now he was too angry to care for anything, however unpleasant. When he reached Bartlett's, he found the gate open into the yard, and he rode directly in, turning one side away from the house, and off from the road, and tied Ned to a tree near.

Harry's long ride had somewhat cooled his rage, and as he opened the side-door of the farmhouse, which was never locked, the thought struck him that his proceeding was very much like that of a burglar. The notion of Squire Carter's son being a burglar tickled his fancy so much that he had to smother a laugh.

"Now where shall I look for the confounded skates?" he thought, as he fumbled around the walls of the passageway. "I wonder where Phil sleeps? Wouldn't it be a joke to take them right out from under his very nose! No doubt he sleeps with them beside him, they're so precious!" he added sneeringly, his anger of the afternoon rising in his heart again.

Just at the moment his groping hand fell on the skates, hanging from a peg among coats and hats.

"Jolly! that's lucky!" he thought, running his hand over them, to be sure that they were the new ones. "He must have known I was coming, and hung 'em here handy! I'll soon fix you!" he went on, "and I've a good mind to carry off the beggar's coat and hat too, just to keep him at home awhile; the skating won't last long, and it'll be good for his precious health." With this, not stopping to give it a second thought, he snatched a coat and a fur cap which he well knew was Phil's, stole softly out, and closed the door. The garments he thought he would hide for a day or two, and then write a note, anonymously, to tell where they might be found; but the skates he must injure seriously. A few sharp blows across a stone that he had noticed where he tied his horse, made them for the time, at least, if not forever, quite useless. He then gave them a fling towards the house, not wishing to take the trouble to restore them to their peg.

The coat and hat he carried off a half mile on his way home, to a deserted barn he knew of, and threw them into a window. He knew no one would be likely to go to the building, and when he had had enough sport out of it, he could easily let Phil know where they were to be found.

Having thus completed his mischief, he hurried home, urging old Ned into a pace that he seldom indulged in, in his old age. He put the tired horse into the stable, and at last, towards morning, climbed the trellis again, and crept into bed.

As the school bell rang the next morning, and Harry went in with the other scholars, he chuckled at the idea that Master Phil would stay at home to-day, and he smiled as he pictured his rage. What then was his amazement to see Phil in his usual seat, hard at work with his books. He did not look up, and Harry began to fear that he had not yet discovered the accident to his skates, and that he himself must have dreamed about the coat and cap. When out at recess, he saw that Phil wore a different cap, but no other sign could he discover that his revenge had been taken. But although Phil looked calm, there was a tempest under his quiet face. He was only waiting for the proper time, to speak out. On getting up that morning early, as he always did, he had been unable to resist one glance at the beloved skates. A new pair of skates to Harry Carter meant simply going to a store and buying them, but to Phil Bartlett they meant months of saving money, and hours of extra work. This pair was the result of a whole summer's self-denial and saving, and he valued them accordingly. He did not find them in their usual place, and a quick search revealed the fact that his cap was also gone. To get more light, he opened the door. The light snow on the ground, which had ceased before Harry came out, showed footprints and suggested to Phil that a thief had been around.

Careful not to step on the tracks, he went out, and near the door came upon the ruined skates. A cry of horror escaped him as he gathered them up, and now with greatest care—for it was his only clue to the perpetrator—he followed the trail. The footprints led directly to a tree, where he found the tracks of a horse, and the dents in the stone where the skates had been injured.

Following the horse's tracks, which were perfectly clear and distinct, he came to the road, and there they turned towards the village, and were lost. A groan fell from his lips at this point. "I shall never find him!" he thought. Yet in looking closer he noticed something unusual in the footprints of the horse. He stooped to examine, and made the curious discovery that no two of the horse's feet were in the same condition. Of the fore feet one shoe was loose and the other was smooth, as he could easily see from the track; and of the hind feet one had a shoe that was broken and the other had no shoe at all.

Getting these facts carefully in his mind, Phil went back to the house and called his father, who also examined the trail, and then, finding his coat gone from its usual peg, put on another, and started for the village to see lawyer James, telling Phil to go to school as usual, while he worked the thing up.

Near the village he found a cast horseshoe, with which he at once went to the village blacksmith, who made all the horseshoes for the neighborhood. A little questioning brought out the fact that the stray shoe belonged to Squire Carter's Ned, and an examination of the horse's feet confirmed his statement, and also proved that Ned was the horse who had left his tracks in Mr. Bartlett's yard. The broken vines, and the disordered state of the snow on the roof, were scarcely needed to point out the culprit.

The working out of all this, and consulting with the lawyer, took time, and school was about being dismissed before it was brought to a conclusion. Perhaps no one was ever more confounded than Harry Carter, when, on leaving the schoolroom that morning, he found himself face to face with the village constable, who arrested him on the charge of theft, in sight of the whole school.

"It's false!" shouted Harry, white with rage. "Who says so? Prove it!"

"It is easily proved," said the officer. "You were tracked to the door of the house from your own window."

"I admit," said Harry haughtily, noticing Phil's eager face in the crowd which gathered around them, "that I went out to be revenged, and to spoil a pair of skates, but I'm not a burglar—I didn't break into a house."

"Not strictly," said the man, "for the house was not locked, but you are arrested for stealing."

"I never did!" shouted Harry again, furious at this charge.

"There's a coat and hat gone," said the officer quietly. Harry had forgotten them; a scornful smile crept over his face.

"That was a joke; they're in Johnson's barn; I was going to write a note, telling where they could be found, to-morrow or next day."

"The law recognizes no jokes," said the constable. "You entered the house at night, and carried away property, whatever your motive. You'll have to prove it a joke—if you can—before the Justice, and anyway I can't stay here talking. You'll have to go, and you had better go quietly, or—" and he made a significant gesture, which convinced Harry that he meant what he said. It did begin to look like stealing now, and Harry's face fell.

He was followed by all the boys in school, as he marched to the room where the Justice was found, and in shame and mortification heard the whole story of his night's exploit related by Phil. It was corroborated by Mr. Bartlett, and also by his father's stableman, who had to acknowledge finding the old horse tired out, for he was not used of late even to four-mile journeys, and to recognize the missing shoe.

The best witness, however, was Ned himself; for on being taken out to the farm by Squire Carter, who refused to believe in his son's guilt till he had inspected the evidences for himself, the intelligent animal, when the lines were left loose, turned of his own accord into the gate, and leaving the beaten path, turned one side and came to a halt under the tree. The evidence was irresistible, and the horse was the one who told, with his unusual tracks and this conclusive conduct.

Squire Carter, mortified and angry at the foolish performance of his son, resolved to give him a good lesson, that should cure him of any desire to take the law into his own hands again. He first let him spend one night, which was Christmas eve, in the jail to give him time to think about it; and then he settled the matter by the payment of quite a large sum of money. Even that was not the end, for to make sure that the lesson was well learned, and his somewhat hot-headed son thoroughly cured of malicious mischief, he insisted upon Harry's paying the amount of the costs from his own money.

Now this was worse than all. For a year Harry had been saving his money—as well as Phil—but not for a paltry pair of skates. His aim and the desire of his heart was to own a yacht, in which to navigate the waters of a beautiful lake near the village. He was expert in the management of boats, and delighted in them more than in any other thing, and he had collected nearly the amount necessary to make the purchase.

More than this: he had selected his boat, and induced the owner to wait a week more, till his next allowance should complete the sum asked for it; he had talked about it with all the boys, fixed upon a new name for it, and even asked Kittie Manton to confer it as soon as the spring should open and the season begin. He almost felt that the yacht was his own.

And now—it was almost like drawing his heart from his body; but his father sternly insisted that he should give every cent of that precious money to farmer Bartlett, to settle the affair without a trial and imprisonment.

It was many years before Harry Carter could thank his upright father for this act which seemed so cruel at the time, but he did at last; and he admitted—after he had grown to respected manhood—that it had put an end to his boyish desire to be revenged.

"We'll have to go back to the girls if I tell the only unusual story I know of Christmas," said Miss Kate. "This is about one whom we all know, Aunt Jane's pretty niece Bessie. Aunt Jane told it to me herself several years ago. It happened when Bessie first came to her."

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