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The Pony that Kept the Store by Susan Coolidge

 

It was a shabby old store, built where two cross-roads and a lane met at the foot of a low hill, and left between them a small triangular space fringed with grass. On the hill stood a summer hotel, full of boarders from the neighboring city; for the place was cool and airy, and a wide expanse of sea and rocky islands, edged with beaches and wooded points, stretched away from the hill's foot.

In years gone by, the shabby old store had driven quite a flourishing trade during the months of the year when the hotel was open. The boarders went there for their ink and tacks; their sewing-silk and shoe-buttons; for the orange marmalade and potted ham which they carried on picnics; for the liquid blacking, which saved the boot-boy at the hotel so much labor; the letter-paper, on which they wrote to their friends what a good time they were having; and all the thousand and one things of which people who have little to do with their time and money fancy themselves in want. But a year before the time at which the events I am about to relate took place, the owner of the store built himself a new and better one at a place a mile further on, where there was a still larger hotel and a group of cottages, and removed thither with his belongings. The old building had stood empty for some months, and at last was hired for a queer use,—namely, to serve as stable for a very small Shetland pony, not much larger than a calf, or an extra large Newfoundland dog.

“Cloud” was the pony's name. He belonged to Ned Cabot, who was nine years old, and was not only his pony, but his intimate friend as well. Ned loved him only the better for a terrible accident which had befallen Cloud a few months before.

The Cabots, who had been living on Lake Superior for a while, came back to the East with all their goods and chattels, and among the rest, their horses. It had been a question as to how little Cloud should travel; and at last a box was built which could be set in a freight-car, and in which, it was hoped, he would make the journey in safety. But accidents sometimes happen even when the utmost care is taken, and, sad to relate, Cloud arrived in Boston with his tiny foreleg broken.

Horses' legs are hard to mend, you know; and generally when one breaks, it is thought the easiest and cheapest way out of the trouble to shoot the poor animal at once, and buy another to take his place. But the bare mention of such a thing threw Ned into such paroxysms of grief, and he sobbed so dreadfully, that all his family made haste to assure him that under no circumstances should Cloud be shot. Instead, he was sent to a hospital,—not the Massachusetts General, I think, but something almost as superior in its line, where animals are treated, and there the surgeons slung him up, and put his leg into plaster, exactly as if he had been a human being. Had he been a large, heavy horse, I suppose they could hardly have done this; but being a little light pony, it was possible. And the result was that the poor fellow got well, and was not lamed in the least, which made his little master very happy. He loved Cloud all the more for this great escape, and Cloud fully returned Ned's affection. He was a rather over-indulged and overfed pony; but with Ned, he was always a pattern of gentleness and propriety. Ned could lie flat on his back and read story books by the hour without the least fear that Cloud would jump or shy or shake him off. Far from it! Cloud would graze quietly up and down, taking pains not to disturb the reading, only turning his head now and then to see if Ned was comfortable, and when he found him so, giving a little satisfied whinny, which seemed to say, “Here we are, and what a time we are having!” Surely, no pony could be expected to do better than that.

So now little Cloud, with his foreleg quite mended and as strong as ever, was the sole occupant of the roomy old country store. A little stall had been partitioned off for him in a corner where there was a window, out of which he could see the buckboards and cut-unders drive by, and the daisies and long grass on the opposite slope blowing in the fresh sea wind. Horses have curiosity, and like to look out of the window and watch what is going on as well as people do.

There were things inside the store that were worth looking at as well as things outside. When Mr. Harrison, the storekeeper, moved away, he carried off most of his belongings, but a few articles he left behind, I suppose because he did not consider them worth taking away. There were two blue painted counters and some rough hanging shelves, a set of rusty old scales and weights, a row of glass jars with a little dab of something at the bottom of each,—rice, brown sugar, cream-of-tartar, cracker crumbs, and fragments of ginger-snaps. There was also a bottle half full of fermented olives, a paper parcel of musty corn flour, and, greatest of all, a big triangle of cheese, blue with mould, in a round red wooden box with wire sides, like an enormous mouse-trap. It was quite a stock-in-trade for a pony, and Cloud had so much the air of being in possession, that the smallest of the children at the hotel always spoke of the place as his store. “I want to go down to Cloud's store,” they would say to their nurses.

Ned and his sister Constance took a great deal of the care of the pony on themselves. A freckled little country lad named Dick had been engaged to feed and clean him; but he so often ran away from his work that the children were never easy in their minds for fear lest Cloud had been forgotten and was left supperless or with no bed to lie upon. Almost always, and especially on Sunday nights, when he of the freckles was most apt to absent himself, they would coax their mother to let them run down the last thing and make sure that all was right. If it were not, Ned would turn to, and Constance also, to feed and bed the pony; they were both strong and sturdy, and could do the work very well, only Constance always wanted to braid his mane to make it kink, and Ned would never let her; so they sometimes ended with quarrelling.

One day in August it happened that Ned's father and mother, his big brother, his two sisters, and, in fact, most of the grown people in the hotel, went off on a picnic to White Gull Island, which was about seven miles out to sea. They started at ten in the morning, with a good breeze, and a load of very attractive-looking lunch-baskets; but at noon the wind died down, and did not spring up again, and when Ned's bedtime came, they had still not returned. Their big sail could be seen far out beyond the islands. They were rowing the boat, Mr. Gale, the hotel-keeper, said; but unless the wind came up, he did not think they would be in much before midnight.

Ned had not gone with the others. He had hurt his foot a day or two before, and his mother thought climbing rocks would be bad for it. He had cried a little when Constance and the rest sailed away, but had soon been consoled. Mrs. Cabot had arranged a series of treats for him, a row with Nurse, a sea-bath, a new story-book, and had asked a little boy he liked to come over from the other hotel and spend the afternoon on the beach. There had been the surprise of a box of candy and two big peaches. Altogether, the day had gone happily, and it was not till Nurse had put Ned to bed and gone off to a “praise meeting” in the Methodist chapel, that it occurred to him to feel lonely.

He lay looking out at sea, which was lit by the biggest and whitest moon ever seen. Far away he could catch the shimmer of the idle sail, which seemed scarcely nearer than it had done at supper-time.

“I wish Mamma were here to kiss me for good-night,” reflected Ned, rather dismally. “I don't feel sleepy a bit, and it isn't nice to have them all gone.”

From the foot of the hill came a sound of small hoofs stamping impatiently. Then a complaining whinny was heard. Ned sat up in bed. Something was wrong with Cloud, he was sure.

“It's that bad Dick. He's gone off and forgotten to give Cloud any supper,” thought Ned. Then he called “Mary! Ma-ry!” several times, before he remembered that Mary was gone to the praise meeting.

“I don't care!” he said aloud. “I'm not going to let my Cloudy starve for anybody.”

So he scrambled out of bed, found his shoes, and hastily put on some of the clothes which Mary had just taken off and folded up. There was no one on the piazza to note the little figure as it sped down the slope. Everybody was off enjoying the moonlight in some way or other.

It was, indeed, as Ned had suspected. Dick of the freckles had gone fishing and forgotten Cloud altogether. The moon shone full through the eastern windows of the store, making it almost as light as day, and Ned had no trouble in finding the hay and the water-pail. He watched the pony as he hungrily champed and chewed the sweet-smelling heap and sucked up the water, then he brushed out his stall, and scattered straw, and then sat down “for a minute,” as he told himself, to rest and watch Cloud go to sleep. It was very pleasant in the old store, he thought.

Presently Cloud lay down on the straw too, and cuddled close up to Ned, who patted and stroked him. Ned thought he was asleep, he lay so still. But after a little while Cloud stirred and got up, first on his forelegs and then altogether. He stood a moment watching Ned, who pretended to be sleeping, then he opened the slatted door of his stall, moved gently across the floor and went in behind the old blue counter.

“What is he going to do?” thought Ned. “I never saw anything so funny. Constance will never believe when I tell her about it.”

What Cloud did was to take one of the glass jars from the shelf in his teeth, and set it on the counter. It was the one which held the gingersnap crumbs. Cloud lifted off the lid. Just then a clatter of hoofs was heard outside, and another horse came in. Ned knew the horse in a minute. It was the yellow one which Mr. Gale drove in his buckboard.

The yellow horse trotted up to the counter, and he and Cloud talked together for a few minutes. It was in pony language, and Ned could not understand what they said; but it had to do with the gingersnaps, apparently, for Cloud poured part of them out on the counter, and the buckboard horse greedily licked them up. Then he gave Cloud something by way of payment. Ned could not see what, but it seemed to be a nail out of his hind shoe, and then tiptoed out of the store and across the road to the field where the horses grazed, while Cloud opened a drawer at the back of the counter and threw in the nail, if it was one. It sounded like a nail.

He had scarcely done so when more hoofs sounded, and two other horses came in. Horse one was the bay which went with the yellow in the buckboard, the other Mr. Gale's sorrel colt, which he allowed no one to drive except himself. Cloud seemed very glad to see them. And such a lively chorus went on across the counter of whinnies and snorts and splutters, accompanied with such emphatic stamps, that Ned shrank into a dark corner, and did not dare to laugh aloud, though he longed to as he peeped between the bars.

The sorrel colt seemed to want a great many things. He evidently had the shopping instinct. Cloud lifted down all the jars, one by one, and the colt sampled their contents. The cream-of-tartar he did not like at all; but he ate all the brown sugar and the cracker crumbs, tasted an olive and let it drop with a disgusted neigh, and lastly took a bite of the mouldy cheese in the red trap, and expressed his opinion of it by what seemed to be a “swear-word.” Then he and the bay-horse and Cloud went to the end of the store where a rusty old stove without any pipe stood, sat down on their haunches before it, put their forelegs on its top, and began, as it seemed, to discuss politics; at least, it sounded wonderfully like the conversation that had gone on in that very corner in Mr. Harrison's day, when the farmers collected to predict the defeat of the candidate on the other side, whoever he might be.

They talked so long that Ned grew very sleepy, and lay down again on the straw. He felt that he ought to go home and to bed, but he did not quite dare. The strange horses might take offence at his being there, he thought; still, he had a comfortable feeling that as Cloud's friend they would not do him any real harm. Even when, as it seemed, one of them came into the stall, took hold of his shoulder, and began to shake him violently, he was not really frightened.

“Don't!” he said sleepily. “I won't tell anybody. Cloud knows me. I'm a friend of his.”

“Ned! wake up! Ned! wake up!” said some one. Was it the red horse?

No, it was his father. And there was Mamma on the other side of him. And there was Cloud lying on the straw close by, pretending to be asleep, but with one eye half open!

“Wake up!” said Papa; “here it is, after eleven o'clock, and Mamma half frightened to death at getting home and not finding you in your bed. How did you come down here, sir?”

“Cloud was crying for his supper, and I came down to feed him,” explained Ned. “And then I stayed to watch him keep store. Oh, it was so funny, Mamma! The other horses came and bought things, and Cloud was just like a real storekeeper, and sold crackers to them, and sugar, and took the money—no, it was nails, I think.”

“My dear, you have been dreaming,” said Mrs. Cabot. “Don't let him talk any more, John. He is all excited now, and won't sleep if you do.”

So, though Ned loudly protested that he had not been asleep at all, and so could not have dreamed, he was put to bed at once, and no one would listen to him. And next day it was just as bad, for all of them, Constance as well as the rest, insisted that Ned had fallen asleep in the pony's stall and dreamed the whole thing. Even when he opened the drawer at the back of the counter and showed them the shoe-nail that Cloud had dropped in, they would not believe. There was nothing remarkable in there being a nail there, they said; all sorts of things were put in the drawers of country stores.

But Ned and Cloud knew very well that it was not a dream.