from Century Magazine
Pap Briggs's Phenomenal Hen-Food
by Ellis Parker Butler
When Pap Briggs became too old to farm any longer, he sold his place to Jed Slocum, and put the money in the Kilo Bank at four per cent, and moved into a small house in Kilo to end his days peacefully. His sole companion was his daughter Sally, who did his housework, and had an ambition to own a real silk dress. But Pap said alpaca was "plenty good," so Sally swallowed her ambition at one gulp, and contented herself with the alpaca.
As for Pap Briggs, his wants were simple. An egg for breakfast, and enough tobacco to burn all day, were his chief earthly desires. It was Sally who made him buy a set of "store" teeth, and he wore them for her sake, and to his own great discomfort, for they were a plain, unmistakable misfit, and felt, as he said, "like I got my mouth full o' tenpenny nails." When out of Sally's sight he avoided this feeling by carrying them in his hand, hidden in his red bandana handkerchief. At the store he used to show them with a great deal of pride, and openly boasted of their cost and beauty. On Sunday he wore them all day, and felt as prim as a Pilgrim Father.
When Miss Sally moved to town she said there was one thing her father shouldn't do, after living all his life on a farm, and that was, have store eggs for his breakfast.
"Hens is enough trouble, Lord knows," said Miss Sally, "an' dirty, if they can't be kep' in their place; but there's some comfort in their cluckin' round, an' I guess I'll have plenty time, an' to spare, to tend to 'em; so, Pap, you won't have to eat no stale eggs fer breakfast ef I kin help it. They ain't nothin' I hate to think on like eatin' boughten eggs. Nobody knows how old, or who's been a-handlin' them; an' thet you sha'n't do, sure's my name's Briggs!"
So she brought half a dozen hens and a gallant rooster to town with her, and supervised the erection of a cozy coop and hen-yard, and Pap had the comfort of knowing his eggs were fresh. But fresh or not, it made no difference to him so long as he had one each morning and it was fairly edible.
"These teeth o' mine," he told Rogers, the grocer, "cost twelve dollars down to Franklin, by the best dentist there; but, law sakes! a feller can't eat hard stuff with any comfort with 'em for fear of breakin' 'em every minute. They ain't nothin' but chiny, an' you know chiny's the breakiest thing man ever made. Thet's why I say, 'Give me eggs fer breakfast, Sally,' an' eggs I will have."
The six hens did their duty nobly during the summer and autumn and a part of the winter, and Pap had his egg unfailingly; but in December the long, cold spell came, and the six hens struck. It was the longest and coldest spell ever known in Kilo, and it hung on and hung on until the entire hen population of eastern Iowa became disgusted and went on a strike. Eggs went up in price until even packed eggs of the previous summer sold for twenty-seven and thirty cents a dozen, and angel cake became an impossible dainty.
The second morning that Pap ate his eggless breakfast he suggested that perhaps Sally might buy a few eggs at the grocery.
"Pap Briggs," she exclaimed reproachfully, "the idee of you say in' sich a thing! As ef I would cook packed eggs! No; we'll wait, an' mebby the hens'll begin layin' again in a day or two."
But they did not, and the days became a week, and two weeks, and still no eggs rewarded her daily search. Pap knew better than to repeat his suggestion of buying eggs, for Sally Briggs said a thing only when she meant it, and to mention it again would exasperate her.
"Our hens don't lay a blame egg," he told Rogers, complainingly, "an' Sally won't buy eggs, an' I can't eat nothin' but eggs fer breakfast, so I reckon I'll jist starve to death naturally."
"Why don't you try some of our hen-food?" asked Rogers, taking up a package and reading from the label. "'Guaranteed to make hens lay in all kinds of weather, the coldest as well as the warmest.' Thet's jist what you want, Pap."
"Well," he said, "I been a-keepin' hens off an' on fer nigh forty year, an' I ain't never seen none o' the stuff thet was ary good; but I got to hev eggs or bust, so I'll take a can o' the stuff. But I ain't no hopes of it, Rogers; I ain't no hopes."
His pessimism was well founded. The cold spell was too much for even the best hen-food to conquer. No eggs rewarded him.
One evening he was sitting in Rogers's, smoking his pipe and thinking. He had been thinking for some time, and at length a sparkle came into his eyes, and he knocked the ashes from his pipe, and arose.
"Rogers," he said, "mix me up about a nickel's wuth o' corn-meal, an' a nickel's wuth o' flour,an'" -- he hesitated a moment and then chuckled -- " an' a nickel's wuth o' washblue."
"Fer heaven sakes, Pap, said Rogers, "hev you gone plumb crazy?"
"No I ain't," said Pap. "I ain't gone plumb crazy, ner I ain't lost all my brains yit, neither. Thet's a hen-food I invented."
"Hen-food!" exclaimed Rogers. "You don't 'low thet'll make hens lay, do you?"
"I ain't advisin' no one to use it as don't want to," said Pap; "but I'm a-goin' to feed thet to my hens "; and he chuckled again.
"You're up to some devilment, sure," said Rogers, laughing. "What is it, Pap?"
"You jist keep your hand on your watch till you find out," answered Pap, and he took the package and went home.
"Sally," he said, as he entered the house, "I got some hen-food now thet's bound to make them hens lay, sure."
She took the package and opened it.
"For the law's sake, Pap," she said, "what kind o' hen-food is this? It's blue!"
"Yes," said Pap; "it is blue, ain't it? It's a mixture of my own. It don't look like much, but I bet you a silk dress it'll make them hens lay. I ain't been raisin' hens off an' on fer forty year fer nothin'. You got to study the hen, Sally, an' think about her. Why don't a hen lay in cold weather? 'Cause the weather makes the hen cold. This'll make her warm. You jist try it. Give them a spoonful apiece, an' I reckon they'll lay."
"I don't believe it," she snapped, "an' I'll hold you to thet silk dress, sure's my name's Briggs." But the next day she gave them the allotted portion.
That evening when Pap Briggs knocked the ashes from his pipe and rose from his seat in Rogers's store, he said, "Rogers, hev you got some mainly fresh eggs -- eggs you kin recommend?"
"Yes, I hev," said Rogers, with a grin. "So yer hen-food don't work, Pap?"
"It's a-workin'," he said, "an' you can give me a dozen o' them eggs. An', say, you needn't tell Sally."
Rogers laughed. "I'm on," he said.
Pap put the bag of eggs back of the cracker-box, and put three of them in his pocket.
When he reached home he quietly slipped around the house and deposited the three eggs in three nests. Then he went in.
The next morning Sally greeted him with a smile. "Eggs this mornin', Pap," she said. "Thet hen-food did work like a charm. I got three eggs."
Pap ate his without comment until he had finished the second.
"It does seem good to hev eggs again," he said. That evening and the next evening he deposited three eggs as before.
On the third morning Sally said: "It's queer about them hens, Pap; they lay, but they don't cluck like a hen generally does when she lays an egg."
Pap hesitated a moment.
"It's sich cold weather," he said, "I reckon thet's why."
About a week later Sally said: "I do declare to gracious, Pap, them hens do puzzle me. Here they are a-layin' as reg'lar as summer-time, an' never cluckin' or lettin' on a bit, an' the queerest thing is they jist lay three eggs every day. It don't seem natural."
That night Pap put four eggs in the nests. The next he put in five, then three, and the danger into which his wiles had fallen was averted.
One morning Sally startled him by saying: "Pap, I can't make them hens out. Here they are a-layin' right along, an' all at once they quit layin' decent-sized eggs like they ought, an' begin layin' little, mean things no bigger 'n banty eggs."
Pap scratched his head.
"You mus' allow, Sally," he said, "thet it's quite a strain on a hen to keep a-layin' right along through sich weather as this, an' I'm only thankful they lay any. Mebby ef you give 'em a leetle more o' thet hen-food they'll do better."
"I believe it," said Sally. "Why, it's wonderful, Pap. I shouldn't be a bit surprised to find 'em layin' duck eggs ef I jist gave 'em enough o' thet stuff."
Pap looked closely at her face, but it was innocent. She suspected nothing.
The next day the eggs were of the proper size.
"It's a real blessin' to hev hens a-layin'," she said one day. "I took half a dozen over to the minister's wife this mornin', an' she was so pleased! She said it was sich a blessin' to hev fresh eggs again. She was gittin' so sick o' them she's been a-buyin' at Rogers's. She was downright thankful."
About a week later she said:
"Them hens of ourn do beat all creation. I run out o' thet hen-food a week ago, an' hain't give 'em a mite since, an' they keep on a-layin' jist the same. I can't make head nor tail of 'em, Pap."
Pap squirmed in his chair.
"Pshaw now, Sally," he said, "you oughtn't do thet. Feed 'em plenty of it. They deserve it. Ef you stop feedin' 'em they'll stop layin' pretty quick. The effect of thet stuff don't last more 'n two weeks. No," he said thoughtfully; "ten days is the longest I ever knowed it to last on 'em."
If Pap Briggs enjoyed his eggs for breakfast, he enjoyed as fully the many laughs he had with Rogers over his scheme, and Rogers found it hard to keep his promised secrecy. It would be such a good story to tell. But Pap exhorted him daily, and he did not let the secret out.
One Sunday morning Pap came down to his breakfast and took his seat. Sally brought his coffee and his bacon. Then she brought a plate of moistened toast.
"You've forgot the eggs, Sally," said Pap, admonishingly.
"They ain't none this mornin'," said Sally, briefly.
Pap looked up and saw that her mouth was set very firmly.
"No eggs?" he asked tremulously.
"No," she said decidedly; "no eggs! I kin believe thet hens lay eggs an' don't cluck, an' I kin believe thet hens lay eggs all winter, an' I kin believe thet Plymouth Rock hens lay Leghorn eggs an' Shanghai eggs an' banty eggs, Pap, but when hens begin layin' spoiled eggs I ain't no more faith in hens."
Pap Briggs laid down his knife and fork.
"Spoiled eggs!" he ejaculated.
"Yes, spoiled eggs," she said. "You an' Rogers ought to be more careful."
Pap turned his piece of bacon over and eyed it critically.
"Had I better git thet silk dress in Franklin or hev Rogers order it?" Sally asked.
Pap ran his fingers through his hair, felt his beard, and then grinned sheepishly.
"Blame ef I care where you git it," he said.