The boys now decided to keep close watch, and to avail themselves of every opportunity to procure tobacco, even if they were forced to steal it. The word "steal" had, of course, a certain horror to John because of the picture his aunt had described of a prison and a thief; but he soothed his conscience by saying, "There isn't anything else in the world except tobacco that I would think of stealing." But the stealing habit, like the tobacco habit, continues to grow stronger, unless it is in some way broken. As tobacco contains a poison that affects the physical being, so in a similar manner lying and stealing have a ruinous effect upon the moral nature. The three -- lying, stealing, and tobacco using -- too often go hand in hand.
The first effort of the boys to secure the much-coveted tobacco was made one day when they, while roaming about over the prairie, discovered a man hard at work in a field. The man seemed to be lifting something that was very heavy, and Will suggested to the boys that they go and lend their services provided the man would give them each a chew of his tobacco in return; and Will did not forget to add that they must each take as generous a bite as their mouths could accommodate. The man was glad to accept their help; and together with his own efforts, the work was soon finished. Then, in fulfillment of his agreement, he handed them his plug of tobacco that they might each take the "chew" he had promised them.
According to Will's suggestion the boys did not stop with an ordinary chew; but each took all that his mouth would contain. When they returned the plug, it was so small that the boys were all afraid the man would find fault with them; so they hurried away from the spot as rapidly as possible. As soon as they were far enough away, they removed the tobacco from their mouths; and they found that, by taking very small chews at a time, the amount was sufficient to last them for some time. Several times they succeeded in securing tobacco in this way, and by economizing were able to get along pretty well for a while. But the plan did not always work; for the neighbors' becoming aware of the scheme, prepared themselves with a small piece of tobacco to offer the greedy boys.
After that, in order to secure their tobacco, they were often forced to pick up partly-chewed quids, found where they had been thrown away by the owners. These the boys usually washed; sometimes, however, in their eagerness they could not wait to attend to even this amount of cleanliness, but crammed the tobacco into their mouths just as they had found it. Even cigar stubs; in fact, everything in the form of tobacco, that had been thrown away, they eagerly gathered and used to satisfy their ravenous appetites.
With a foundation now laid for both lying and stealing and with their consciences dulled, the boys were constantly laying plans to gratify their evil desires. Many a pocket they robbed of its contents if it happened to contain tobacco in any form. But this was a slow process at best; even under the most favorable circumstances it yielded them but very little returns for their efforts. But one day Will informed the boys that he had made a discovery -- that he had found out that there was a lot of plug tobacco in the big chest in his father's room. "Now, if we could think up some way to get into that chest when the old folks are gone away to town," he suggested, "we could get all the chewing tobacco we would want for a long while. I thought I would watch and see where Dad put the key, but he took it with him. Guess he carries it with him everywhere he goes. I wonder if we couldn't manage in some way to break the lock. My, but I tell you we could get a big haul! I wonder if we hadn't better try it some day when the old folks go to town?"
"Hooray, that's just it!" shouted the smaller boys in the same breath.
And John asked quickly: "When will they go to town again? This is only Wednesday."
"It won't be long, I'm sure," Will answered reassuringly. "They'll go either Friday or Saturday sure. But we'll have to get busy and think out a way to break that lock. My, but won't the old man be mad when he finds out about it! We'll have to act just as if we couldn't see how on earth such a thing could have happened."
"Yes; and we'll have to hide the tobacco good, or Pa might find it," chimed in Charley.
"Hey, Will," John exclaimed in a hurried undertone -- for all the boys had learned to speak low when mentioning their plans -- "if we could take the hinges off from the back of the chest, we wouldn't have to break the lock at all."
"Why, John, that's just it! How in the world did you think of that scheme?" Will exclaimed, as he slapped his little cousin on the back. "I say, my boy, you had better look out or you'll be a man before your big cousin! It doesn't matter, you know, about the height, if you have the sense."
Now, John (although so young) was quite ingenious; and he often suggested ideas that, for their shrewdness, were far beyond his years. For such he was always praised by Will, and was encouraged to make other plans.
Being encouraged by his cousin's praise, the child's brain became even more active, and he said, "If we just cut a little piece from each plug, Uncle won't be so apt to miss the tobacco."
"That's just it again!" emphatically assented Will. "I declare, John, you surprise me! And now, we must have everything all ready so that the minute they leave we can get busy. Let's see, what'll we need? A screw-driver -- and will we need a hammer?"
"We'll need a real sharp knife to cut the tobacco," John suggested.
"I'll get the things ready," Charley volunteered; and so they planned and waited for the time to come when they could carry out their scheme.
The time came on the following Saturday. Early in the morning the uncle and aunt drove away in the "buckboard," and were on their way to the city where they were to do their trading. All three of the boys had been unusually anxious to help their elders get started, forgetting in their eagerness that they might be thus revealing some of their plans. Scarcely did they give the uncle and aunt time to disappear in the distance before they had commenced their evil work.
"Here's the tools," Charley said, as he brought forth the screw-driver, hammer, and sharp knife. "Where shall I put them?"
"Oh, anywhere so they'll be handy!" Will told him; and then the three boys hastened to the room containing the chest and were soon kneeling on the floor, examining carefully the object of their interest.
The chest, a long, narrow, flat box somewhat darkened with age, was closed and securely fastened; and the tiny padlock that hung from its side seemed to say, "If you please, I am here to protect my master's property from the hand of any thieves; and to the extent that it is within my power, I shall perform my duty." Its bold front and defiant appearance did not, however, daunt the purpose of the boys. After giving it a brief examination, they slipped around to the opposite side of the chest, and by the aid of the screw-driver, removed the lower half of the rusty hinges.
"Thank goodness, this chest is old!" Will exclaimed as he brushed from his forehead the large beads of perspiration. "If these screws turned any harder, I never could get them out. Guess we'll earn our tobacco this time all right!"
[Illustration: Opening the Chest]
Scarcely had the last screw been removed when up came the lid; and almost instantly three pairs of eager eyes were greedily gazing down upon the contents of the wooden chest. There were in it a package of old letters, various articles of clothing, a few trinkets, etc.; but only that part of the contents that was carefully packed in one corner claimed the attention of the boys. This, a pile of long brown strips, or plugs, of tobacco, was what they wanted; and soon Will was busily engaged in cutting a narrow slice from each plug and John and Charley were dividing the slices into three equal parts. But in their haste and excitement, none of the boys forgot to fill their mouths with the filthy stuff, and to chew while they worked.
As Will cut a piece from the last plug, he glanced about over the piles and said with a look of satisfaction: "Now that ain't so bad, is it, boys? That ought to last quite a spell; and when it's gone, we can come back here, or maybe something else will turn up." And then, when he saw the boys rearranging the tobacco in the chest, he said, "Look out there! You'll have to get everything just like it was, or we'll be caught and have had our fun for nothing!" When the chest was repacked, the last screw in its place, and the tiny scraps of tobacco that had fallen upon the floor had been carefully preserved, the boys looked at one another with satisfaction, and Will said, "That's a pretty slick job all right, if I do say so; and its a lot better than breaking the lock would have been. I'll tell you it takes some brains to do up a thing like that, and it makes me feel as if I'd like more of them."
To this John smiled and said: "Hey, Will, do you know what's in that trunk?" John referred to a large trunk that was sitting near the bed on the opposite side of the room.
"Couldn't tell you all that's in it, but it's locked; and it's in that trunk that Dad keeps his revolvers. There's two of them, because I saw inside the trunk the other day." And then as the new thought presented itself to his mind, he exclaimed, "I wonder why we couldn't get into that trunk the same as we did the chest?"
In a twinkling, all the boys were examining the trunk, but to their dismay, they found that the hinges, instead of being on the outside of the trunk, were arranged differently, and they could not get at them. Again it was John who suggested a plan whereby they could accomplish their desires. "Just take a nail," he said, "and turn the head of it around in the lock. I've watched my father do that, and he gets his open every time."
The trunk, which was an old one, yielded quickly to the efforts made by the boys; and upon raising the lid, they saw before them two shining weapons that were supposed to have been carefully hidden away from their inexperienced fingers. John and Will each quickly caught one up in his hand; and Will began handling his as though it were a toy, but not so did John.
John's father had taught him something of the dangers connected with the handling of a gun or revolver. Besides, John was at one time present when a duel was fought; and on that occasion one of the duelists was killed. The memory of that incident and of his father's warnings, made John very careful about pointing the revolver at either of his cousins. It was, therefore, with intense fear that John looked into the barrel of his cousin's revolver as Will snapped it, aimlessly pointing in his direction; and John exclaimed, "Turn that thing away, or you'll shoot me."
Will's answer was: "You needn't be afraid, John. This revolver isn't loaded."
But John, seeing his cousin's careless attitude, was afraid; and he dodged down behind a barrel of carpet-rags near which he had been standing. It was well that John did not longer remain where he had been; for the revolver contained a solitary load, and the frequent pulling of the trigger discharged this. The bullet passed the very spot where John had a moment before been standing, and lodged itself deep in the side of the trunk.
This experience marked an awakening-time in all of the boys' lives; at that moment their consciences, which had almost fallen asleep, were aroused, and in startling phrases gave them accounts of their evil deeds. With great haste the boys returned the weapons to their former hiding place, relocked the trunk, and in so far as it was possible, covered all the traces of the accident. Then, with hearts full of guilty thoughts, the three boys hastened from the place where a scene of horror had very nearly been enacted.
Out in the open, where the air was fresh and pure, their spirits to a certain degree revived. But their usual laughter, fun, and merry-making had been dampened; and as they wended their way to the prairie pasture-land, few words were passed between them. Poor little misguided boys! warned, and yet left so ignorant of what was the right and the wrong way.
Through the voice of conscience God endeavored to speak to John and to tell him that his ways were evil and that he and his cousins would some day get into serious trouble if they continued in the way they were going; but, although he was sad, he could not understand. He wanted to be a good boy for his father's sake (for his father was the best friend he knew); and most of all he desired to become the man that that parent had wished him to be. John's disregard for his father's warnings from time to time had been due to the fear that, if he obeyed, his early manhood would be hindered.
Could that father have given his little son an object-lesson such as an aged monk once, while walking through a forest, gave his scholar, John might have been spared much suffering. The monk, stepping before four plants that were close by, pointed to the first, a plant just beginning to peep above the ground; to the second, one well-rooted in the earth; to the third, a small shrub; and to the fourth, a full-sized tree.
Then turning to his young companion, he said, "Pull up the first." This the boy easily did.
"Now, pull up the second." The youth obeyed, but not with so much ease.
"And now the third." This time before the boy succeeded in uprooting the plant, he had to put forth all his strength and to use both his arms.
"And now," said his master, "try your hand on the fourth." But although the lad grasped the trunk of the tree in his arms, he scarcely shook its leaves; and he found it impossible to tear its roots from the earth. Then the wise old man explained the meaning of the four trials.
"This, my son," he said, "is just what happens to our bad habits and passions. When they are young and weak, we can by a little watchfulness and by a little discipline, easily tear them up; but if we let them cast their roots deep down into our souls, no human power can uproot them. Only the almighty hand of the Creator can pluck them out. For this reason, my boy, watch your first impulses."
Or, could John have heard the story of the giant who fell in with a company of pigmies, he might have taken a different course. The giant roared with laughter at the insignificant stature and wonderful boastings of the pigmies. He ridiculed their threats when they told what they expected to do to him; but when he fell asleep that night, he was at their mercy. And he did not know until he awoke in the morning that while he was asleep these tiny people of whom he had made sport had bound him with innumerable threads and that he was their helpless captive. But John knew nothing of these stories or of other things that teach the lessons he so much needed; and perhaps his father did not know, so that he could tell his son what he should have been told.
The use of tobacco is an evil. When God made tobacco and pronounced it good, He did not mean for it to go into the mouth of any man or woman, much less into the mouths of children. Tobacco is a deadly poison; and the constant use of any poison must injure the body of the one who uses it. When it has sapped the strength from both the mind and the body, it leaves the individual weakened in every way and makes it harder for him to live a good, pure life.
No person who uses tobacco may be said to be perfectly well. Such a person may not realize how his health is impaired, because the stupor that the poison produces numbs his sensibilities; but the very appetite he has for tobacco is in itself a disease. In order for an habitual user to realize the harm that tobacco is doing to his health, he has simply to stop its use for a short time and watch the effect on his system.
Tobacco is not a food that God intended man to eat. In man's case it feeds only a craving that it has itself created. But the leaves of the tobacco plant do serve as food for the large, green worms that live and thrive in tobacco fields. Yes; tobacco is "very good" for the "creeping things" for which it was created; but it was not intended as food for man.
Could John and his cousins have understood all this when the next tobacco famine came to them, it seems that each would surely have resisted the temptation to stoop down, pick up a partly chewed quid of tobacco, cram it greedily into his watering mouth, and chew it as though it was the sweetest morsel he had ever tasted. But the boys did not know. They thought such things were manly.