The Coon Dog by Sarah Orne Jewett

Story type: Literature


In the early dusk of a warm September evening the bats were flitting to and fro, as if it were still summer, under the great elm that overshadowed Isaac Brown’s house, on the Dipford road. Isaac Brown himself, and his old friend and neighbor John York, were leaning against the fence.

“Frost keeps off late, don’t it?” said John York. “I laughed when I first heard about the circus comin’; I thought ‘t was so unusual late in the season. Turned out well, however. Everybody I noticed was returnin’ with a palm-leaf fan. Guess they found ’em useful under the tent; ‘t was a master hot day. I saw old lady Price with her hands full o’ those free advertisin’ fans, as if she was layin’ in a stock against next summer. Well, I expect she ‘ll live to enjoy ’em.”

“I was right here where I ‘m standin’ now, and I see her as she was goin’ by this mornin’,” said Isaac Brown, laughing, and settling himself comfortably against the fence as if they had chanced upon a welcome subject of conversation. “I hailed her, same ‘s I gener’lly do. ‘Where are you bound to-day, ma’am?’ says I.

“‘I ‘m goin’ over as fur as Dipford Centre,’ says she. ‘I ‘m goin’ to see my poor dear ‘Liza Jane. I want to ‘suage her grief; her husband, Mr. ‘Bijah Topliff, has passed away.’

“‘So much the better,’ says I.

“‘No; I never l’arnt about it till yisterday,’ says she; an’ she looked up at me real kind of pleasant, and begun to laugh.

“‘I hear he’s left property,’ says she, tryin’ to pull her face down solemn. I give her the fifty cents she wanted to borrow to make up her car-fare and other expenses, an’ she stepped off like a girl down tow’ds the depot.

“This afternoon, as you know, I ‘d promised the boys that I ‘d take ’em over to see the menagerie, and nothin’ would n’t do none of us any good but we must see the circus too; an’ when we’d just got posted on one o’ the best high seats, mother she nudged me, and I looked right down front two, three rows, an’ if there wa’n’t Mis’ Price, spectacles an’ all, with her head right up in the air, havin’ the best time you ever see. I laughed right out. She had n’t taken no time to see ‘Liza Jane; she wa’n’t ‘suagin’ no grief for nobody till she ‘d seen the circus. ‘There,’ says I, ‘I do like to have anybody keep their young feelin’s!’”

“Mis’ Price come over to see our folks before breakfast,” said John York. “Wife said she was inquirin’ about the circus, but she wanted to know first if they couldn’t oblige her with a few trinkets o’ mournin’, seein’ as how she ‘d got to pay a mournin’ visit. Wife thought ‘t was a bosom-pin, or somethin’ like that, but turned out she wanted the skirt of a dress; ‘most anything would do, she said.”

“I thought she looked extra well startin’ off,” said Isaac, with an indulgent smile. “The Lord provides very handsome for such, I do declare! She ain’t had no visible means o’ support these ten or fifteen years back, but she don’t freeze up in winter no more than we do.”

“Nor dry up in summer,” interrupted his friend; “I never did see such an able hand to talk.”

“She’s good company, and she’s obliging an’ useful when the women folks have their extra work progressin’,” continued Isaac Brown kindly. “‘T ain’t much for a well-off neighborhood like this to support that old chirpin’ cricket. My mother used to say she kind of helped the work along by ‘livenin’ of it. Here she comes now; must have taken the last train, after she had supper with ‘Lizy Jane. You stay still; we ‘re goin’ to hear all about it.”

The small, thin figure of Mrs. Price had to be hailed twice before she could be stopped.

“I wish you a good evenin’, neighbors,” she said. “I have been to the house of mournin’.”

“Find ‘Liza Jane in, after the circus?” asked Isaac Brown, with equal seriousness. “Excellent show, was n’t it, for so late in the season?”

“Oh, beautiful; it was beautiful, I declare,” answered the pleased spectator readily. “Why, I did n’t see you, nor Mis’ Brown. Yes; I felt it best to refresh my mind an’ wear a cheerful countenance. When I see ‘Liza Jane I was able to divert her mind consid’able. She was glad I went. I told her I ‘d made an effort, knowin’ ’twas so she had to lose the a’ternoon. ‘Bijah left property, if he did die away from home on a foreign shore.”

“You don’t mean that ‘Bijah Topliff ‘s left anything!” exclaimed John York with interest, while Isaac Brown put both hands deep into his pockets, and leaned back in a still more satisfactory position against the gatepost.

“He enjoyed poor health,” answered Mrs. Price, after a moment of deliberation, as if she must take time to think. “‘Bijah never was one that scattereth, nor yet increaseth. ‘Liza Jane’s got some memories o’ the past that’s a good deal better than others; but he died somewheres out in Connecticut, or so she heard, and he’s left a very val’able coon dog,–one he set a great deal by. ‘Liza Jane said, last time he was to home, he priced that dog at fifty dollars. ‘There, now, ‘Liza Jane,’ says I, right to her, when she told me, ‘if I could git fifty dollars for that dog, I certain’ would. Perhaps some o’ the circus folks would like to buy him; they ‘ve taken in a stream o’ money this day.’ But ‘Liza Jane ain’t never inclined to listen to advice. ‘T is a dreadful poor-spirited-lookin’ creatur’. I don’t want no right o’ dower in him, myself.”

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“A good coon dog ‘s worth somethin’, certain,” said John York handsomely.

“If he is a good coon dog,” added Isaac Brown. “I would n’t have parted with old Rover, here, for a good deal of money when he was right in his best days; but a dog like him ‘s like one of the family. Stop an’ have some supper, won’t ye, Mis’ Price?”–as the thin old creature was flitting off again. At that same moment this kind invitation was repeated from the door of the house; and Mrs. Price turned in, unprotesting and always sociably inclined, at the open gate.


It was a month later, and a whole autumn’s length colder, when the two men were coming home from a long tramp through the woods. They had been making a solemn inspection of a wood-lot that they owned together, and had now visited their landmarks and outer boundaries, and settled the great question of cutting or not cutting some large pines. When it was well decided that a few years’ growth would be no disadvantage to the timber, they had eaten an excellent cold luncheon and rested from their labors.

“I don’t feel a day older ‘n ever I did when I get out in the woods thi way,” announced John York, who was a prim, dusty-looking little man, a prudent person, who had been selectman of the town at least a dozen times.

“No more do I,” agreed his companion, who was large and jovial and open-handed, more like a lucky sea-captain than a farmer. After pounding a slender walnut-tree with a heavy stone, he had succeeded in getting down a pocketful of late-hanging nuts which had escaped the squirrels, and was now snapping them back, one by one, to a venturesome chipmunk among some little frost-bitten beeches. Isaac Brown had a wonderfully pleasant way of getting on with all sorts of animals, even men. After a while they rose and went their way, these two companions, stopping here and there to look at a possible woodchuck’s hole, or to strike a few hopeful blows at a hollow tree with the light axe which Isaac had carried to blaze new marks on some of the line-trees on the farther edge of their possessions. Sometimes they stopped to admire the size of an old hemlock, or to talk about thinning out the young pines. At last they were not very far from the entrance to the great tract of woodland. The yellow sunshine came slanting in much brighter against the tall trunks, spotting them with golden light high among the still branches.

Presently they came to a great ledge, frost-split and cracked into mysterious crevices.

“Here’s where we used to get all the coons,” said John York. “I have n’t seen a coon this great while, spite o’ your courage knocking on the trees up back here. You know that night we got the four fat ones? We started ’em somewheres near here, so the dog could get after ’em when they come out at night to go foragin’.”

“Hold on, John;” and Mr. Isaac Brown got up from the log where he had just sat down to rest, and went to the ledge, and looked carefully all about. When he came back he was much excited, and beckoned his friend away, speaking in a stage whisper.

“I guess you ‘ll see a coon before you ‘re much older,” he proclaimed. “I ‘ve thought it looked lately as if there ‘d been one about my place, and there’s plenty o’ signs here, right in their old haunts. Couple o’ hens’ heads an’ a lot o’ feathers”–

“Might be a fox,” interrupted John York.

“Might be a coon,” answered Mr. Isaac Brown. “I ‘m goin’ to have him, too. I ‘ve been lookin’ at every old hollow tree I passed, but I never thought o’ this place. We ‘ll come right off to-morrow night, I guess, John, an’ see if we can’t get him. ‘T is an extra handy place for ’em to den; in old times the folks always called it a good place; they ‘ve been so sca’ce o’ these late years that I ‘ve thought little about ’em. Nothin’ I ever liked so well as a coon-hunt. Gorry! he must be a big old fellow, by his tracks! See here, in this smooth dirt; just like a baby’s footmark.”

“Trouble is, we lack a good dog,” said John York anxiously, after he had made an eager inspection. “I don’t know where in the world to get one, either. There ain’t no such a dog about as your Rover, but you ‘ve let him get spoilt; these days I don’t see him leave the yard. You ought to keep the women folks from overfeedin’ of him so. He ought to ‘ve lasted a good spell longer. He’s no use for huntin’ now, that’s certain.”

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Isaac accepted the rebuke meekly. John York was a calm man, but he now grew very fierce under such a provocation. Nobody likes to be hindered in a coon-hunt.

“Oh, Rover’s too old, anyway,” explained the affectionate master regretfully. “I ‘ve been wishing all this afternoon I ‘d brought him; but I did n’t think anything about him as we came away, I ‘ve got so used to seeing him layin’ about the yard. ‘T would have been a real treat for old Rover, if he could have kept up. Used to be at my heels the whole time. He could n’t follow us, anyway, up here.”

“I should n’t wonder if he could,” insisted John, with a humorous glance at his old friend, who was much too heavy and huge of girth for quick transit over rough ground. John York himself had grown lighter as he had grown older.

“I ‘ll tell you one thing we could do,” he hastened to suggest. “There ‘s that dog of ‘Bijah Topllff’s. Don’t you know the old lady told us, that day she went over to Dipford, how high he was valued? Most o’ ‘Bijah’s important business was done in the fall, goin’ out by night, gunning with fellows from the mills. He was just the kind of a worthless do-nothing that’s sure to have an extra knowin’ smart dog. I expect ‘Liza Jane ‘s got him now. Perhaps we could get him by to-morrow night. Let one o’ my boys go over!”

“Why, ‘Liza Jane ‘s come, bag an’ baggage, to spend the winter with her mother,” exclaimed Isaac Brown, springing to his feet like a boy. “I ‘ve had it in mind to tell you two or three times this afternoon, and then something else has flown it out of my head. I let my John Henry take the long-tailed wagon an’ go down to the depot this mornin’ to fetch her an’ her goods up. The old lady come in early, while we were to breakfast, and to hear her lofty talk you ‘d thought ‘t would taken a couple o’ four-horse teams to move her. I told John Henry he might take that wagon and fetch up what light stuff he could, and see how much else there was, an’ then I ‘d make further arrangements. She said ‘Liza Jane ‘d see me well satisfied, an’ rode off, pleased to death. I see ’em returnin’ about eight, after the train was in. They ‘d got ‘Liza Jane with ’em, smaller ‘n ever; and there was a trunk tied up with a rope, and a small roll o’ beddin’ and braided mats, and a quilted rockin’-chair. The old lady was holdin’ on tight to a bird-cage with nothin’ in it. Yes; an’ I see the dog, too, in behind. He appeared kind of timid. He ‘s a yaller dog, but he ain’t stump-tailed. They hauled up out front o’ the house, and mother an’ I went right out; Mis’ Price always expects to have notice taken. She was in great sperits. Said ‘Liza Jane concluded to sell off most of her stuff rather ‘n have the care of it. She ‘d told the folks that Mis’ Topliff had a beautiful sofa and a lot o’ nice chairs, and two framed pictures that would fix up the house complete, and invited us all to come over and see ’em. There, she seemed just as pleased returnin’ with the bird-cage. Disappointments don’t appear to trouble her no more than a butterfly. I kind of like the old creatur’; I don’t mean to see her want.”

“They ‘ll let us have the dog,” said John York. “I don’t know but I ‘ll give a quarter for him, and we ‘ll let ’em have a good piece o’ the coon.”

“You really comin’ ‘way up here by night, coon-huntin’?” asked Isaac Brown, looking reproachfully at his more agile comrade.

“I be,” answered John York.

“I was dre’tful afraid you was only talking, and might back out,” returned the cheerful heavy-weight, with a chuckle. “Now we ‘ve got things all fixed, I feel more like it than ever. I tell you there’s just boy enough left inside of me. I ‘ll clean up my old gun to-morrow mornin’, and you look right after your’n. I dare say the boys have took good care of ’em for us, but they don’t know what we do about huntin’, and we ‘ll bring ’em all along and show ’em a little fun.”

“All right,” said John York, as soberly as if they were going to look after a piece of business for the town; and they gathered up the axe and other light possessions, and started toward home.


The two friends, whether by accident or design, came out of the woods some distance from their own houses, but very near to the low-storied little gray dwelling of Mrs. Price. They crossed the pasture, and climbed over the toppling fence at the foot of her small sandy piece of land, and knocked at the door. There was a light already in the kitchen. Mrs. Price and Eliza Jane Topliff appeared at once, eagerly hospitable.

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“Anybody sick?” asked Mrs. Price, with instant sympathy. “Nothin’ happened, I hope?”

“Oh, no,” said both the men.

“We came to talk about hiring your dog to-morrow night,” explained Isaac Brown, feeling for the moment amused at his eager errand. “We got on track of a coon just now, up in the woods, and we thought we ‘d give our boys a little treat. You shall have fifty cents, an’ welcome, and a good piece o’ the coon.”

“Yes, Square Brown; we can let you have the dog as well as not,” interrupted Mrs. Price, delighted to grant a favor. “Poor departed ‘Bijah, he set everything by him as a coon dog. He always said a dog’s capital was all in his reputation.”

“You ‘ll have to be dreadful careful an’ not lose him,” urged Mrs. Topliff. “Yes, sir; he ‘s a proper coon dog as ever walked the earth, but he’s terrible weak-minded about followin’ ‘most anybody. ‘Bijah used to travel off twelve or fourteen miles after him to git him back, when he wa’n’t able. Somebody ‘d speak to him decent, or fling a whip-lash as they drove by, an’ off he ‘d canter on three legs right after the wagon. But ‘Bijah said he wouldn’t trade him for no coon dog he ever was acquainted with. Trouble is, coons is awful sca’ce.”

“I guess he ain’t out o’ practice,” said John York amiably; “I guess he ‘ll know when he strikes the coon. Come, Isaac, we must be gittin’ along tow’ds home. I feel like eatin’ a good supper. You tie him up to-morrow afternoon, so we shall be sure to have him,” he turned to say to Mrs. Price, who stood smiling at the door.

“Land sakes, dear, he won’t git away; you ‘ll find him right there betwixt the wood-box and the stove, where he is now. Hold the light, ‘Liza Jane; they can’t see their way out to the road. I ‘ll fetch him over to ye in good season,” she called out, by way of farewell; “‘t will save ye third of a mile extra walk. No, ‘Liza Jane; you ‘ll let me do it, if you please. I ‘ve got a mother’s heart. The gentlemen will excuse us for showin’ feelin’. You ‘re all the child I ‘ve got, an’ your prosperity is the same as mine.”


The great night of the coon-hunt was frosty and still, with only a dim light from the new moon. John York and his boys, and Isaac Brown, whose excitement was very great, set forth across the fields toward the dark woods. The men seemed younger and gayer than the boys. There was a burst of laughter when John Henry Brown and his little brother appeared with the coon dog of the late Mr. Abijah Topliff, which had promptly run away home again after Mrs. Price had coaxed him over in the afternoon. The captors had tied a string round his neck, at which they pulled vigorously from time to time to urge him forward. Perhaps he found the night too cold; at any rate, he stopped short in the frozen furrows every few minutes, lifting one foot and whining a little. Half a dozen times he came near to tripping up Mr. Isaac Brown and making him fall at full length.

“Poor Tiger! poor Tiger!” said the good-natured sportsman, when somebody said that the dog did n’t act as if he were much used to being out by night. “He ‘ll be all right when he once gets track of the coon.” But when they were fairly in the woods, Tiger’s distress was perfectly genuine. The long rays of light from the old-fashioned lanterns of pierced tin went wheeling round and round, making a tall ghost of every tree, and strange shadows went darting in and out behind the pines. The woods were like an interminable pillared room where the darkness made a high ceiling. The clean frosty smell of the open fields was changed for a warmer air, damp with the heavy odor of moss and fallen leaves. There was something wild and delicious in the forest in that hour of night. The men and boys tramped on silently in single file, as if they followed the flickering light instead of carrying it. The dog fell back by instinct, as did his companions, into the easy familiarity of forest life. He ran beside them, and watched eagerly as they chose a safe place to leave a coat or two and a basket. He seemed to be an affectionate dog, now that he had made acquaintance with his masters.

“Seems to me he don’t exactly know what he ‘s about,” said one of the York boys scornfully; “we must have struck that coon’s track somewhere, comin’ in.”

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“We ‘ll get through talkin’, an’ heap up a little somethin’ for a fire, if you ‘ll turn to and help,” said his father. “I ‘ve always noticed that nobody can give so much good advice about a piece o’ work as a new hand. When you ‘ve treed as many coons as your Uncle Brown an’ me, you won’t feel so certain. Isaac, you be the one to take the dog up round the ledge, there. He ‘ll scent the coon quick enough then. We ‘ll ‘tend to this part o’ the business.”

“You may come too, John Henry,” said the indulgent father, and they set off together silently with the coon dog. He followed well enough now; his tail and ears were drooping even more than usual, but he whimpered along as bravely as he could, much excited, at John Henry’s heels, like one of those great soldiers who are all unnerved until the battle is well begun.

A minute later the father and son came hurrying back, breathless, and stumbling over roots and bushes. The fire was already lighted, and sending a great glow higher and higher among the trees.

“He’s off! He ‘s struck a track! He was off like a major!” wheezed Mr. Isaac Brown.

“Which way ‘d he go?” asked everybody.

“Right out toward the fields. Like’s not the old fellow was just starting after more of our fowls. I ‘m glad we come early,–he can’t have got far yet. We can’t do nothin’ but wait now, boys. I ‘ll set right down here.”

“Soon as the coon trees, you ‘ll hear the dog sing, now I tell you!” said John York, with great enthusiasm. “That night your father an’ me got those four busters we ‘ve told you about, they come right back here to the ledge. I don’t know but they will now. ‘T was a dreadful cold night, I know. We did n’t get home till past three o’clock in the mornin’, either. You remember, don’t you, Isaac?”

“I do,” said Isaac. “How old Rover worked that night! Could n’t see out of his eyes, nor hardly wag his clever old tail, for two days; thorns in both his fore paws, and the last coon took a piece right out of his off shoulder.”

“Why did n’t you let Rover come tonight, father?” asked the younger boy. “I think he knew somethin’ was up. He was jumpin’ round at a great rate when I come out of the yard.”

“I did n’t know but he might make trouble for the other dog,” answered Isaac, after a moment’s silence. He felt almost disloyal to the faithful creature, and had been missing him all the way. “‘Sh! there’s a bark!” And they all stopped to listen.

The fire was leaping higher; they all sat near it, listening and talking by turns. There is apt to be a good deal of waiting in a coon-hunt.

“If Rover was young as he used to be, I’d resk him to tree any coon that ever run,” said the regretful master. “This smart creature o’ Topliff’s can’t beat him, I know. The poor old fellow’s eyesight seems to be going. Two–three times he’s run out at me right in broad day, an’ barked when I come up the yard toward the house, and I did pity him dreadfully; he was so ‘shamed when he found out what he ‘d done. Rover’s a dog that’s got an awful lot o’ pride. He went right off out behind the long barn the last time, and would n’t come in for nobody when they called him to supper till I went out myself and made it up with him. No; he can’t see very well now, Rover can’t.”

“He ‘s heavy, too; he ‘s got too unwieldy to tackle a smart coon, I expect, even if he could do the tall runnin’,” said John York, with sympathy. “They have to get a master grip with their teeth through a coon’s thick pelt this time o’ year. No; the young folks gets all the good chances after a while;” and he looked round indulgently at the chubby faces of his boys, who fed the fire, and rejoiced in being promoted to the society of their elders on equal terms. “Ain’t it time we heard from the dog?” And they all listened, while the fire snapped and the sap whistled in some green sticks.

“I hear him,” said John Henry suddenly; and faint and far away there came the sound of a desperate bark. There is a bark that means attack, and there is a bark that means only foolish excitement.

“They ain’t far off!” said Isaac. “My gracious, he’s right after him! I don’t know’s I expected that poor-looking dog to be so smart. You can’t tell by their looks. Quick as he scented the game up here in the rocks, off he put. Perhaps it ain’t any matter if they ain’t stump-tailed, long’s they ‘re yaller dogs. He did n’t look heavy enough to me. I tell you, he means business. Hear that bark!”

“They all bark alike after a coon.” John York was as excited as anybody. “Git the guns laid out to hand, boys; I told you we ‘d ought to follow!” he commanded. “If it’s the old fellow that belongs here, he may put in any minute.” But there was again a long silence and state of suspense; the chase had turned another way. There were faint distant yaps. The fire burned low and fell together with a shower of sparks. The smaller boys began to grow chilly and sleepy, when there was a thud and rustle and snapping of twigs close at hand, then the gasp of a breathless dog. Two dim shapes rushed by; a shower of bark fell, and a dog began to sing at the foot of the great twisted pine not fifty feet away.

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“Hooray for Tiger!” yelled the boys; but the dog’s voice filled all the woods. It might have echoed to the mountain-tops. There was the old coon; they could all see him half-way up the tree, flat to the great limb. They heaped the fire with dry branches till it flared high. Now they lost him in a shadow as he twisted about the tree. John York fired, and Isaac Brown fired, and the boys took a turn at the guns, while John Henry started to climb a neighboring oak; but at last it was Isaac who brought the coon to ground with a lucky shot, and the dog stopped his deafening bark and frantic leaping in the underbrush, and after an astonishing moment of silence crept out, a proud victor, to his prouder master’s feet.

“Goodness alive, who ‘s this? Good for you, old handsome! Why, I ‘ll be hanged if it ain’t old Rover, boys; it’s old Rover!” But Isaac could not speak another word. They all crowded round the wistful, clumsy old dog, whose eyes shone bright, though his breath was all gone. Each man patted him, and praised him, and said they ought to have mistrusted all the time that it could be nobody but he. It was some minutes before Isaac Brown could trust himself to do anything but pat the sleek old head that was always ready to his hand.

“He must have overheard us talkin’; I guess he ‘d have come if he ‘d dropped dead half-way,” proclaimed John Henry, like a prince of the reigning house; and Rover wagged his tail as if in honest assent, as he lay at his master’s side. They sat together, while the fire was brightened again to make a good light for the coon-hunt supper; and Rover had a good half of everything that found its way into his master’s hand. It was toward midnight when the triumphal procession set forth toward home, with the two lanterns, across the fields.


The next morning was bright and warm after the hard frost of the night before. Old Rover was asleep on the doorstep in the sun, and his master stood in the yard, and saw neighbor Price come along the road in her best array, with a gay holiday air.

“Well, now,” she said eagerly, “you wa’n’t out very late last night, was you? I got up myself to let Tiger in. He come home, all beat out, about a quarter past nine. I expect you had n’t no kind o’ trouble gittin’ the coon. The boys was tellin’ me he weighed ‘most thirty pounds.”

“Oh, no kind o’ trouble,” said Isaac, keeping the great secret gallantly. “You got the things I sent over this mornin’?”

“Bless your heart, yes! I ‘d a sight rather have all that good pork an’ potatoes than any o’ your wild meat,” said Mrs. Price, smiling with prosperity. “You see, now, ‘Liza Jane she ‘s given in. She did n’t re’lly know but ‘t was all talk of ‘Bijah ’bout that dog’s bein’ wuth fifty dollars. She says she can’t cope with a huntin’ dog same ‘s he could, an’ she ‘s given me the money you an’ John York sent over this mornin’; an’ I did n’t know but what you ‘d lend me another half a dollar, so I could both go to Dipford Centre an’ return, an’ see if I could n’t make a sale o’ Tiger right over there where they all know about him. It’s right in the coon season; now ‘s my time, ain’t it?”

“Well, gettin’ a little late,” said Isaac, shaking with laughter as he took the desired sum of money out of his pocket. “He seems to be a clever dog round the house.”

“I don’t know ‘s I want to harbor him all winter,” answered the excursionist frankly, striking into a good traveling gait as she started off toward the railroad station.

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