"Take care, Joe," warned Polly, wondering if she hadn't done wrong in proposing stagecoach, "don't fly round so. You'll hurt your hand. I'd get up on the front seat if I were you, and begin to drive."
"Would you have the horses run into something, Polly, kersmash," cried Joel, tugging at Mamsie's rocking chair to bring it into line, "or make the stage-coach tumble over and roll down hill?"
"Dear me," cried Polly, going into the pantry to mix up her brown bread, and wondering which would be the less of the two evils, "I'm sure I don't know, Joel."
"I'm goin' to have 'em do both," decided Joel. "Dave, pull this up, will you?" So little David ran and gave a lift on the other side of the big rocking chair, to haul it into place. "We'll run into somethin' an' th' horse'll shy, and that'll make the old stage-coach roll down hill. Gee-whickets!" he brought up, in huge delight.
"I shan't let you play it at all," said Polly, from the pantry, "if you say such words, Joel. You'll just have to stop and go and sit down. So remember."
Joel was clambering up into Mr. Tisbett's seat on the box, but he ducked his head at Polly's rebuke. "Get in, Dave," he shouted, recovering himself. "Hurry up. You're the passenger that wants to go to Boxford. You're awful slow. I'll drive off without you if you don't make haste," he threatened, gathering up in his left hand the bits of string that were fastened to a nail in the corner of the shelf.
Little David, feeling it a dreadful calamity to be left behind when he wanted to go to Boxford, hopped nimbly into the opening in the pile of chairs that represented the stage-coach, and off they drove.
"I can't hold my whip," cried Joel in distress, after a minute or so of bowling along on the road to Boxford, accompanied with much shouting to Mr. Tisbett's pair of black horses, and excitement generally as the stage-driver tried to get out of the way of the great number of teams on the turnpike. "O dear, it ain't any fun without the whip!" and the whole establishment came to a dead stop.
"I'll hold the whip," cried the passenger, eagerly, poking his head out of the stage-coach window.
"No, you won't, either," cried Joel. "You're the passenger. O dear me, there ain't any fun without th' whip!"
"Then I can drive," said little David. "Do let me, Joel," he pleaded.
"I won't either," declared Joel, flatly. "I'm Mr. Tisbett, and besides, there won't be anybody inside if you get up here."
"Phronsie might be passenger," said David, reflecting a moment.
"Goody, oh, so she might!" cried Joel, "and Seraphina too. And that'll make more upset. Then you may come up here, Dave," he promised. But when Polly was made acquainted with this fine plan, she refused to allow Phronsie to enter into such a noisy play. And Joel's face dropped so dismally that she was at her wits' end to know how to straighten out the trouble. Just then one of the Henderson boys came up to the door with a little pat of butter in a dish for Mrs. Pepper.
"Here comes Peletiah Henderson," announced Polly, catching sight of him through the window. "Now, p'r'aps he can stop and play with you, Joel."
"He ain't much good to play," answered Joel, who never seemed to be able to wake up the quiet boy to much action.
"Oh, Joel, he'll play real pretty, I guess," said Polly, reprovingly, "and he's such a good boy."
"He might be the passenger," said Joel, thinking busily, as Polly ran to the door to let the Henderson boy in. "We'll play he's the minister goin' over to preach in Boxford, and we'll upset him just before he gets there. Jump out, Dave, and get up here."
"I don't know as we ought to upset him if he's the minister," objected David, doubtfully, as he clambered up to Joel's side. Still, a perfect thrill of delight seized him at his promotion to the seat of honor, and his little hands trembled as Joel laid the precious whip within them.
"No, I guess I'd rather you had the reins," decided Joel, twitching away the whip to lay the bits of string in David's little brown hands. "You can drive first, 'cause I want to crack the whip awful loud as we start. And then I'll take 'em again."
David, who would much rather have cracked the whip, said nothing, feeling it bliss enough to be up there on the box and doing something, as Peletiah, a light-haired, serious boy, walked slowly into the kitchen.
"You're the passenger," shouted Joel at him, and cracking his whip, "and you're going over to Boxford. Hurry up and get into the stage-coach. I'm Mr. Tisbett."
"And I'm helping, Peletiah," cried David, turning a very pink and happy face down toward him.
"I don't want to go to Boxford," said Peletiah, deliberately, and standing quite still, while Polly ran into the pantry to slip the little pat of butter on to another plate.
"Oh, how good it looks!" she said, longing for just one taste.
"Well, you've got to go," said Joel, obstinately, "so get in."
"I don't want to go to Boxford," repeated Peletiah, not stirring.
Joel cracked the whip angrily, and glared down at him.
"P'r'aps he wants to go somewhere else," said little David, leaning forward and clutching the reins carefully, "and that'll be just as good."
"Do you?" asked Joel, crossly. "Want to go anywheres else, Peletiah?"
Peletiah considered so long over this that Joel, drumming with his heels on the dashboard, got tired out, and shouted, "Hurry up and get in—th' stage-coach's goin'!" which had the desired effect, to make the passenger skip in much livelier than he intended.
"Now we're goin' to Boxford," announced Joel, positively, cracking his whip at its loudest. "Be careful, David; hold the horses up."
"He said he didn't want to go to Boxford," put in little David, trembling all over at the vast responsibility of holding in Mr. Tisbett's black horses, and the passenger's being taken where he didn't want to go.
"Well, he didn't tell us where he did want to go," said Joel, "and th' stage is goin' to Boxford. Boxford, Box," he screamed to imaginary people along the road. "Anybody want to go to Boxford?"
"I said I didn't want to go to Boxford," interrupted the passenger in the general din.
"Well, you've got to," said Joel, "'cause the stage is goin' there. Boxford—Boxford! Anybody goin' to Boxford? Want to go, Marm?" an imaginary old woman sitting on a stone by the roadside.
"I'm goin' to get out," announced Peletiah, in a tone that convinced Joel that remonstrance was useless.
"No, you mustn't," cried Joel, "and you can't, either, for th' accident's comin' now," he added cheerfully.
Davie held his breath, and clutched the lines tighter yet, and Joel screamed shrilly, "Look out!" and gave an awful kick with his heels to the back of the top chair, and before anybody could say a word, over it came, knocking Davie with it, and before the passenger could get out, Mr. Tisbett and his assistant and the best part of the whole establishment seemed to be on top of him.
Polly heard the noise and came rushing out. "Oh, boys—boys!" she cried in a fright, "are you hurt?" for everything seemed to be in a heap together, with some small legs kicking wildly about, trying to extricate the persons to whom they belonged.
"I ain't," announced Joel, hopping out of the heaps and shaking the black hair out of his eyes. "Oh, Polly, it was such fun!" he cried.
"Davie! Davie and Peletiah!" cried Polly, an awful dread at her heart, on account of the little guest, as she hung over the wreck, pulling busily at the chairs, "are you all safe?"
Little David tried to speak, but his head ached dreadfully, and the breath seemed to have left his body. Peletiah said slowly, "I barked my shin, and I didn't want to go to Boxford."
"O dear me," exclaimed Polly, fishing him out, "that's too bad! Joel, you oughtn't to have taken him to Boxford if he didn't want to go."
"That wouldn't 'a' made any difference," declared Joel, "'cause we had to get upset, anyway."
"Well, Davie's hurt, I expect," said Polly, looking Peletiah carefully all over, as in duty bound to a guest, as he stood up before her.
"Oh, no, I ain't, Polly," said little David, trying to speak cheerfully, and crawling out with a big lump on his forehead.
"O dear me!" exclaimed Polly, at sight of it. "Well, I'm glad, child, it's no worse," as she rapidly examined the rest of him. "Now you must have some pieces of wet brown paper on that."
"I'm glad I haven't got to have wet brown paper all over me," declared Joel, with a grimace—"old, slippery, shiny brown paper."
"I barked my shin," gravely announced Peletiah, standing quite still.
"Oh, so you did," cried Polly, with a remorseful twinge. "Now you must wait, Davie, till I fix Peletiah up, for he's company, you know."
"I guess Grandma's got some wormwood—the stuff she made for Phronsie's toe when 'twas pounded," suggested Joel, quite oblivious to the black looks which Peletiah was constantly casting on him.
"You may run over and see," said Polly. "O dear me, no, you can't, Joe, just look at your hand!" as she happened to glance up.
Joel looked down quickly at the big white bundle in the sling. "There ain't nothin'—" He was going to say, "the matter with my hand, Polly," when he saw some very red spots spreading quickly along its surface.
"Oh, now you've burst open the cut," cried Polly, forgetting herself, and turning quite white. "What shall we do, and Mamsie away!"
Little David, at that, burst into a loud cry, and Joel tried to say, "No, I haven't," but looking very scared at Polly's scream.
"Oh, I'll fix it, Joe," she exclaimed in haste, though how she managed to get the words out she never knew. "Let me see, Mamsie would untie it if she were here, and put on court plaster. Now, David, you run over to Grandma's and ask her to give us some more. She told us to come if we wanted it, and I'll put on a fresh piece just as tight, oh, you can't think!" Polly kept talking all the time, feeling that she should drop if she didn't, and little David, forgetting all about the lump on his forehead, that now was most as big as an egg, ran off as fast as he could, and presently returned with the court plaster, waving it over his head.
Polly took off the bloody rag, setting her lips tightly together, until she saw Joel's face again. Then she began quickly, "Oh, what a nice time you're goin' to have at the bonfire, Joe!"
"Is there goin' to be a bonfire?" asked Peletiah, with more interest than he had hitherto shown.
"Yes," said Polly, "there is, Peletiah. Mr. Blodgett's goin' to burn up all that rubbish left after he pulled down his cow-pen, you know."
"When's he goin' to burn it?" continued Peletiah.
"This afternoon," said Polly. "Ben's over there, and Joel's goin', and David." All the while she was dabbing off the blood running out of the side where the court plaster slipped when the stage went over. Then she cut off another bit from the piece Grandma sent over, and quickly pasted it over the edge of the old piece. "There now, Joey," she cried, "that's as nice as can be! Now I'll get you a fresh piece of cloth to tie it up in."
"I don't want it tied up," cried Joel, wiggling his fingers; "they feel so good to be out, Polly."
"Oh, you must have 'em tied up," cried Polly, decisively, running back with the cloth. "Hold your hand still, Joe; there now, says I, that's all done!" She gave a great sigh of relief, when at last Joel's arm was once more in its sling.
"I'm glad it's all back again, Polly," said little David, viewing the white bundle with satisfaction.
"So am I, I declare," said Polly, folding her hands to rest a bit.
"I guess I'll go to that bonfire," observed Peletiah. At the sound of his voice, Polly came to herself with a little gasp. "Oh, I forgot all about you, Peletiah, and David's head. I'll see your shin first, 'cause you're company."
When Peletiah's small trouser leg was pulled up, Polly saw with dismay a black and blue spot rapidly spreading. "O dear me," she cried, down on her knees, "what will dear Mrs. Henderson say? and she's so good to us!"
"And I didn't want to go to Boxford, either," said Peletiah.
"Well, David, you must just run back and ask Grandma if we may have a little wormwood," said Polly. "I'd go, but I don't like to leave you children alone," in distress as she saw Davie's lump on his forehead, and his hot, tired face. "I'm sorry, for you've just been over."
"I'll go," cried Joel, springing off, but Polly called him back.
"No, you can't, Joe," she cried, "you'll burst that cut open again, maybe. Davie must go. Tell Grandma one of the minister's boys has got hurt."
So Davie ran over again, trying not to think how his head ached, and in he came in a few minutes with the bunch of wormwood dangling at his side.
"She said—Grandma did—pound it up and tie it on with a rag, if you haven't got time to steep it," said Davie, relinquishing the bundle into Polly's hand, "and to put some on my head, too," he added, feeling this to be a calamity as much worse as could be imagined than to have on the brown paper bits.
"So I will," declared Polly. "Oh, how good of Grandma! Boys, we must do ever and all we can for her, she's so nice to us. Now I must pound this up, just as she said."
This operation was somewhat delayed by all three of the boys hanging over her and getting in the way. And Phronsie, who had been busy with Seraphina in the bedroom, now running out to add herself to the number, it was a little time before Peletiah's small leg had the wet rag tied on.
"Well, now you're done," said Polly, thankfully, "and you'd better run home, Peletiah, and tell your mother all about it, and how sorry we are."
"Yes," said Peletiah, slowly moving off, "I will, 'cause she told me to come right back."
"Oh, Peletiah!" exclaimed Polly, in horror, "and you've been here all this time!"
"And I didn't want to go to Boxford," said Peletiah, going off. Pretty soon, back he came, just as Polly finished bathing Davie's head. "I'll take the dish," he said. "Mother said bring it back."
DEACON BLODGETT'S BONFIRE
But that afternoon it began to rain smartly, so nobody went to the bonfire after all. "P'r'aps," Polly had kept saying to herself, "all Mr. Atkins' sacks will be sewed up by the next time Mr. Blodgett tries to burn up his rubbish, and then I can go," but she didn't speak a word to her mother, for then Mrs. Pepper would find out how dreadfully disappointed Polly had been at the thought of not seeing the grand spectacle. So she worked on busily, expecting every day to hear Ben say, "Now we're goin' to set it off to-day," for he was at work pretty steadily now, for Farmer Blodgett. But he never did.
At last one day, Ben came home very late to supper, so late that Polly ran to the window ever so many times, exclaiming, "Bensie never was so late before." Phronsie had long been in bed, and the boys were anxiously looking up at the clock to see if it were anywhere near half-past seven, when Ben came in.
"Why, Ben Pepper!" exclaimed Polly, aghast, "whatever is the matter?"
"I should ask so, too," said Mother Pepper, "only I know Ben will tell when he is rested. Let him eat his supper, Polly, and don't bother him with questions."
So Polly took off the clean towel that had covered Ben's supper on the table, and hovered over him, watching every mouthful. But she didn't say a word.
"You see," said Ben, when he had appeased his appetite somewhat, and eating more slowly, "I really couldn't help it, for the bonfire was such a big one."
"The bonfire?" screamed Polly. "What do you mean, Ben?"
"Why, Mr. Blodgett's bonfire, to be sure," said Ben. "Whatever else could I mean, Polly?" leaning back to look over his shoulder at her.
"You haven't gone and had that bonfire without telling us, Ben Pepper!" cried Polly, in amazement. "Oh, how could you do such a dreadful mean thing!" she added passionately.
"Polly—Polly!" cried Mother Pepper, in dismay.
"Well, I don't care," said Polly, recklessly, "it was perfectly awfully mean, Mamsie, to go and have that bonfire without telling us a single thing about it. Now we can't one of us ever see it," she mourned.
"Better not judge Ben till you hear the reason, Polly," advised Mother Pepper, gravely. "I'll warrant he had some good one."
"So I have," cried Ben, with a dreadful feeling at his heart that his comrade Polly blamed him. "Mr. Blodgett told me I mustn't run home and tell you, though I begged him as hard as I could to let me."
"Then he is a very mean man," exploded Polly, with flashing eyes and a little red spot on either cheek.
"Take care, Polly," said Mrs. Pepper.
"I don't think so," said Ben, decidedly, shaking his head in disapproval of Polly; "he's been as good as gold to me, and—"
"So he has, Ben," Mother Pepper was guilty of interrupting.
"And he's been bothered to death to get the right time to work on that old bonfire, and today the men said the rubbish ought to be got off, 'cause two of 'em can come only a day more, and they want to get the ground ready for planting. So all of a sudden Mr. Blodgett comes over to the south meadow and calls out, 'Come, boys, we're going to set to on that bonfire!' And then I begged him to let me just run home and tell you all, and he couldn't, and that's all," said Ben, calmly finishing the account.
"I don't see how you could help it, Ben," said his mother, "nor Mr. Blodgett either, for that matter."
Polly stood quite still, the waves of color spreading over her face. Then she took a step forward, and threw her arms around Ben's neck.
"Oh, Ben!" she cried convulsively, "I'm so sorry I was cross."
"All right, Polly," said Ben, reassuringly, and patting her cheek, "and I guess next time you'll wait and hear about things."
"I surely will," promised poor Polly.
So no one saw the wonderful Blodgett bonfire, after all, except Peletiah Henderson, who was going past that farm when the excitement was at its height. But Ben comforted them all, and Polly helped out wonderfully, by repeating everything he said. "Now, children, I'll watch; there'll be other bonfires, I expect. Maybe before long; so I shouldn't wonder if we got another chance to see a big fire." It came sooner than they expected, but it wasn't a bonfire.
It was one night about a week after. The little brown house was as still as a mouse, everybody abed and asleep. Suddenly Phronsie woke up with a fretful little cry. "I want a drink of water," she wailed, sitting straight in the trundle bed.
"Oh, no, you don't," said Polly, sleepily. "Hush, Phronsie, and lie down again. You'll wake Mamsie."
Phronsie's little lips quivered. In the darkness Polly couldn't see the small face and its sorrowful eyes, so she turned over again on her pillow. "Go to sleep, like a good girl," she said, almost asleep.
"I can't, Polly," said Phronsie, almost ready to cry out, "and I am truly thirsty. Please, Polly, a drink of water." She put out her little hand to feel for Polly's, but in a minute the regular breathing told her that Polly had fallen asleep. So Phronsie sat still in the middle of the trundle bed, and choked back the tears.
But her little throat was parched and dry, and at last the tears rolled over the round cheeks.
"I won't wake poor Polly up," she said; "I can get it myself," and she crawled out of the trundle bed, having some difficulty in getting over the side, and made her way out into the kitchen. It was very bright there, at which Phronsie stared wonderingly, as there was no candle lighted, so she easily found her way to the pail of water which Ben always got the last thing at night and set on the bench by the window.
"I can reach the dipper," said Phronsie, standing on tiptoes, and seizing it, she thrust it into the pail. How it happened, she didn't know, and there was no one else there to see, but over with a great clatter came the pail and the dipper to the floor.
Polly started up in bed. Mamsie, who was very tired, still slept on. "Phronsie," cried Polly, remembering in a flash about the drink of water, "I'll get it for you," and she put out her hand to pat the little figure in the trundle bed. There was no Phronsie there!
Polly hopped wildly out into the kitchen, to hear Phronsie gurgling out her distress, as she stood in her little white nightie, her hands stuck straight out, and the water dripping from her every pore. The pail and dipper were rolling away at their own sweet wills across the old kitchen floor. And over all shone a great light as bright as day, only it was tinged with red.
"Phronsie Pepper!" exclaimed Polly, and "What's this light?" all in the same breath. And huddling Phronsie up in her arms, Polly raced along to the window. A great burst of light, red and glaring, shot across the sky, and lighted up the whole heavens.
"Oh, we're burning up! Something's afire! Grandma Bascom!" screamed Polly. "Ben—Ben—wake up! Mamsie! Fire—fire!" she called.
She could hear Ben spring out of bed, and Mrs. Pepper was in the kitchen in a minute, and Joel and David were tumbling downstairs at Ben's heels, and they all threw on their clothes and rushed out of doors. But it wasn't Grandma Bascom's. Her little cottage stood peaceful and quiet, with only the dreadful red light playing over it.
"I can't think where it is," said Ben. "It seems so near, and we know it isn't, 'cause Grandma's is the only house for more'n half a mile." Meanwhile, the smoke was pouring into the sky, and when it cleared there was that dreadful red light glare again. "Oh, Ben!" exclaimed Polly, with clasped hands, as they all stood in front of the little brown house, breathlessly watching, "it must be Parson Henderson's."
"No," said Ben, "that isn't the right direction."
"It's nice Mrs. Beebe's, I know," said Joel, racing around excitedly. "And now it will burn up all those boots and shoes," which, luckily, Phronsie didn't hear.
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Ben, "it isn't anywhere near Mr. Beebe's shop. It's ever so far off. And a barn, I guess, 'cause it burns like hay."
"I hope there aren't any horses in it," sighed Polly, with a shiver, sitting down on the doorstone, and holding Phronsie very closely in her arms.
"Wherever it is, you ought to go and help, Ben," said his mother.
"I was thinking so myself, now I know 'tisn't near here, and I can leave you all," said Ben, hurrying off.
"I'm goin', I'm goin'," cried Joel, wildly darting off.
"No—no, Joel," said Mrs. Pepper, "you're too little to go to a fire."
"I'd pass buckets," said Joel, "and climb the ladders—and—"
"No," said his mother, firmly.
He was afraid to cry, lest she should send him in the house, so he ran out into the road and watched impatiently to see if anybody was coming along to go to the fire. Presently they all heard wagon wheels.
"Somebody's comin'!" screamed Joel, running back into the yard. "Oh, Mammy, mayn't I ride with 'em and just see the fire? I won't get out of the wagon; truly, I won't."
"No," said Mrs. Pepper, "it's no use to ask it, Joel," and he knew it wasn't. "It's hard enough to let Ben go, though that's his duty. You can ask the people in the wagon if they know where the fire is." And Joel, delighted that there was some part in the excitement for him, tore madly down to the roadside and demanded this of the people in the team.
"It's Deacon Blodgett's barn," they screamed at him as the old horse spun by, raising a cloud of dust.
"What did he say?" asked Mrs. Pepper, as Joel raced back breathlessly.
"It's Deacon Blodgett's barn," screamed Joel, quite overcome. "O dear me! So we are seeing his bonfire, ain't we, Mammy?"
"Polly," said Mrs. Pepper, her face looking ghastly in the red light, "this is perfectly dreadful for poor Mrs. Blodgett and the good deacon. Oh, if we could only help them!" She looked off at the clouds of smoke now obscuring the red glare, and her hands usually so quiet were wringing each other.
"Ben's there by this time," said Polly, feeling that nothing was hopeless with Ben close by. "Think of that, Mamsie."
"I'm so glad of that," breathed Mrs. Pepper, thankfully. "Now he'll have a chance to show his gratitude for what Deacon Blodgett's done for him."
"Polly," said Phronsie, suddenly raising her head where she had hidden it on Polly's arm, "do you suppose Mr. Blodgett's nice mooly cow is going to burn up?" She clasped her fat hands as she brought out the question fearfully.
"No, I hope not, Pet," said Polly, soothingly. "Don't let's think of it," but her heart ached, nevertheless. How good Mrs. Blodgett had been to send down that sweet, rich milk, once in a while, for Phronsie.
"See! Oh, ain't it a buster!" shouted Joel out in the road, hoping some other team would come by.
"Joel," called Mrs. Pepper, even in her anxiety over good friends' trouble, unwilling to let the word pass, "what did you say?"
"Well, it's a big fire, anyway," said Joel. "Come on, Dave, out here and see it," for Dave, at the first glimpse, had slunk down on the grass silently to watch the sky.
"No," said little David, "I don't want to go, Joel. Mamsie—" and he turned a troubled face to her—"do you suppose God's going to let good Mr. Blodgett's barn burn up?"
"No," said Mrs. Pepper, "I don't b'lieve God had anything to do with it, Davie. Like enough it's some man been in there with a pipe, but we'll hope the fire'll be put out. And don't you be troubled; God wouldn't let any one be hurt, least of all a good man like Deacon Blodgett."
"Oh," said little David, quite relieved.
And when Ben came home in the early dawn—Mamsie and the rest of the bunch of the little Peppers sitting up for him, for Phronsie wouldn't go to bed, so Polly held her in her arms—they found this was just the case.
"And they've caught the tramp who was smoking the pipe," cried Ben, excitedly, "but that won't save the barn, and the horse and—"
"Hush!" cried Polly, with a look at Phronsie. But her eyes were closed, and her head was bobbing sleepily on Polly's breast.
"Better lay her on my bed now, Polly," said her mother, "and she'll doze off, most likely."
"Yes, the cow has gone with the rest of the tools and wagons," said Ben, mixing things up inextricably. "O dear me!" And he rested his streaked face on his grimy hands.
"Oh, Ben," cried Joel, "you're as black as you can be! How I wish I could 'a' gone!" he added, feeling it the highest state of bliss to come home looking like that from working in a fire. "Well, I feel black," said Ben, and down went his head lower yet in his hands.
His mother went swiftly over to him and pressed her hand gently on his hair. "You couldn't help it, Ben," she said, "you'd 'a' saved it, if you'd been able."
"Yes," said Ben, brokenly, "I would, Mamsie."
OLD MAN PETERS' CENT
Joel was walking along the road very slowly, swinging on his arm the tin pail that was to bring home the molasses. "I wish some one would come along who'd give me a ride," he thought, feeling hot, and wishing he were home, to lie on the cool grass in the orchard, after he had first drunk all he wanted to at the well.
"I could drink the whole bucketful," he declared. "My, ain't I thirsty! Oh, goody, I hear a wagon!" and he hopped to one side of the road. "Ugh—it's old man Peters!"
Mr. Peters slackened up as he passed Joel, but he didn't offer to let him ride. And Joel didn't want to, anyway. After a grumpy look at the Pepper boy, the old man in the wagon put the well-worn leather reins between his knees and took out a battered pocket-book, scowling above its contents as he went over a business transaction just completed at Badgertown. Then he slapped it together and stuck it into his pocket, and seizing the reins, he doubled them up, cutting the horse across the thin flanks.
"Gee-lang, there—will you!" cried old man Peters, shrilly, "or I'll make ye!"
Joel stepped back into the middle of the road, and began to trudge along in the wake of the wagon. Suddenly he stopped, and stared at something shining in the road. It was little and round, but it sent up a bright gleam that found an answering one in Joel's black eyes.
"Oh, I've found a whole cent!" he exclaimed joyfully. Then his heart stood quite still. It must belong to old man Peters.
"I don't care," said Joel, defiantly, to himself, "he left it in the road. It's mine, now, for I picked it up." And he clutched it tightly in his warm little palm, and dug his heels into the hot sand, glad enough he had had to go to the store after that molasses, for otherwise he wouldn't have found that cent.
"It doesn't belong to you." It seemed as if Mamsie was walking there beside him, and had said the words, and involuntarily Joel glanced on either side. "I don't know as he dropped it," he said to himself, walking very fast, and trying to shake off the unwelcome thoughts; "I didn't see him."
"But you did see him take his pocket-book out, and you ought to hurry after him and give it back," and Joel started on a lively run, without giving himself a chance to think twice.
"Mr. Peters! Mr. Peters!" he cried, running along, and screaming after the retreating wagon.
Mr. Peters looked back and shook his whip at him. "I ain't a-goin' to give you a ride," he said, "an' you needn't think you can catch on behind." So he gave the horse another cut, that made him amble along at his best speed.
Joel chased as long as he was able to, the perspiration streaming from his red face, screaming when he could find breath, "Stop, Mr. Peters, a minute," till Mr. Peters shook his fist at him as well as his whip. At last Joel dropped from sheer exhaustion on the roadside grass.
"That Pepper boy—th' one they call Joel—is a perfect nuisance," snarled Mr. Peters, after putting his horse up in the barn, and going into the house. "I passed him on the road, and he looked as if he 'xpected me to give him a lift."
"Oh, Pa, why didn't you?" said Mrs. Peters, pityingly, "they have such a hard time, those little Pepperses. I s'pose he was dreadful tired."
"S'pose he was," said Mr. Peters, going into the keeping room to sit down over the weekly paper. "I warn't a-goin' to take him up; and then the imperdent little chap started to run after me, a-yellin' all the way. I'd a horsewhipped him if I c'd 'a' reached him."
"I wish you wouldn't feel so about boys," deprecatingly said his wife, a little woman; "they don't hurt you none, and I wish you wouldn't, Pa."
"Well, I ain't a-goin' to have 'em round me," snarled Mr. Peters. "An' there ain't no call for you to say any more about's fur's I know, Marindy," and he jerked open the newspaper, put his feet on the round of another chair, got his spectacles out of their case and on his nose, and prepared to be comfortable. He never knew when his paper slid to the floor, and his bald head was bobbing over his empty hands. Mrs. Marinda Peters was upstairs sorting rags to give the rag-man when next he came by, the only way she could earn a little money for her own use, and the daughter was away; so Joel Pepper walked in without any one's knowing it. He had knocked and knocked at the kitchen door until his knuckles were sore, and tired of waiting, concluded to walk in by himself; for go home he would not, with Mr. Peters' cent in his pocket. So he marched in and stood by the old man's chair.
"Here's your cent," he said, holding it out in his hot fingers. His empty pail struck suddenly on the edge of the chair with a clang, the noise, more than the words, waking the old man up.
"Hey? What d'ye want?" cried Mr. Peters, his eyes flying open suddenly.
"Your cent," said Joel, holding it out. "A cent? I hain't any money to give ye," snarled old Mr. Peters, now fully aroused, "And d'ye git out of this house soon's ye can, or I'll give ye suthin' to git for." His spectacles slipped to the end of his nose as he started to get out of the chair.
"I don't want any cent," said Joel, hotly, sticking the one between his finger and thumb up under the old man's nose. "Here, take it. Don't you see it? It's yours."
"Mine? My cent?" repeated the old man, staring at it. "What d'ye mean? I hain't give ye no cent."
"I found it in the road. You dropped it," said Joel, feeling tired to death. And dropping it hastily on the window-ledge he hurried off, swinging his tin pail violently.
"What's the matter?" asked Mrs. Peters, at the sound of the voices; and, leaving the rag-bag suddenly, she hurried over the stairs. Old Mr. Peters, hearing her coming, picked up the cent, and, not stopping to put it in the old leather pocket-book, slipped it into his vest pocket, and seizing the newspaper, fell to reading.
"Joel," called Mrs. Peters, as Joel was running out of the untidy yard, "what is it? Come here and tell me."
"Let th' boy alone, can't ye, Marindy?" screamed Mr. Peters, irritably; "beats all how you allers interfere in my business—just like a woman!" he fumed, as Joel came back slowly.
But Mrs. Peters was as persistent in her way as her husband, and she soon had the whole story laid bare. When that was done, she took Joel into the buttery and gave him a big wedge of custard pie. "You better go t'other way, and not past the keepin' room window," she said, "and eat it."
Joel, with enthusiasm considerably abated as he examined his pie in the shadow of the big seringa bushes, concluded he didn't want it very much. But feeling very hungry, which was his usual condition, he finished it to the last crumb. "There warn't any sugar in, for one thing," he said critically. "I wonder why folks can bake pies who don't know how, and Mamsie never can have any."
"That boy found your cent in th' road, and brought it clear way up here," cried Mrs. Marindy, on a high key, going into the keeping room, where the old man sat absorbed in his paper.
"S'pose he did?" grunted old Mr. Peters.
"I sh'd think you'd 'a' give it to him, Pa. It's a shame. Such a hot day as 'tis, too."
"I don't have no cents to throw away," snarled old Mr. Peters. "And I wish you'd let me read my paper in peace and quiet."
"Well, I sh'd think anybody who'd got a heart in their bosom 'ud feel sorry for them five little Pepperses. I don't s'pose they see a cent to spend from one year's end to another." And she made up her mind to bake a whole custard pie, sometime, and smuggle it down to Mrs. Pepper.
"Though how I'll manage," she lamented, "would puzzle the Dutch and Tom Walker. But I'll try, just the same."
Meanwhile, Joel, though he made light of the cent business, was relating his visit to the Peters' homestead, and the presentation of the piece of pie.
"'Twas most horrid old pie," he said, with a wry face.
"Oh, Joey," said Mrs. Pepper, "when Mrs. Peters tried to be kind to you. You ate it, didn't you?" and she laughed with the others when he said yes.
"But 'twas horrid," cried Joe. "I can't help it, Mamsie. There wasn't any sugar in it, and it was black and smutty and thin. Why don't we ever have any pie in the little brown house, Mamsie?" he asked suddenly.
"Why don't little boys talk sensibly?" asked Mrs. Pepper. "It's a great deal to have the little brown house, anyway, Joel, I sh'd think you'd know that."
"Mamsie," said Polly, hearing this, "s'posin' we didn't have the little brown house; just s'posin', Mammy," and her cheek turned quite white.
"I know it, Polly," said Mrs. Pepper, quickly, setting busy stitches on Davie's jacket, where she was rapidly sewing a patch, "that's the way to talk. Just supposing we hadn't any little brown house."
"But we have got it, Mamsie," said Joel, throwing himself flat on the floor, to indulge in a long and restful roll.
"Well, we may not always have it. If folks don't appreciate their blessings, sometimes they fly away."
"How's the little brown house going to fly away, Mamsie?" demanded Joel, sitting quite straight.
"Well, it may," said Mrs. Pepper, with a wise little nod. "Mercies often take to themselves wings. Come, Polly, you may pick out these basting threads; that patch is done, thank fortune!"
Joel hopped to his feet, and ran swiftly out, craning his neck to see the tip of the chimney on the little house, and surveying it critically on all sides.
"It isn't going to fly—it isn't," he declared, quite relieved. Polly humming away some merry nonsense to Mamsie, neither of them heard him. So he came close to their chairs and repeated it: "Say, the little brown house can't fly away—there ain't any wings."
"You take care you don't say anything discontented about not having pie and other things," said Mother Pepper with a smile, looking off from her work for a minute to let her eyes rest on his face, "and I guess the wings won't grow, Joey."
"Anyway, I'm glad I don't live at old man Peterses house," said Joel, going back to his resting-place on the floor, and waving his feet in the air.
"Mamsie, do you suppose old Mr. Peters ever was a little boy?" asked Davie, thoughtfully.
"Dear me, yes," said Mrs. Pepper, abstractedly, as she was lost in thought over the question, Could she get the patch on Joel's little trousers before dark?
"A real boy?" persisted David. "Yes, of course," answered Mother Pepper, moving her chair to get a little more of the waning light. "But I don't know what kind of a boy," she added. "I don't think he was a very nice boy, Mamsie," declared David. "Not a real, very splendid one."
"Huh!" cried Joel, in a tone of contempt. "I guess he wasn't, Dave Pepper! I wouldn't have played with him at all," he added, in great disgust.
"Wouldn't you, Joel?" cried little David, running over to sit down by him on the floor, and observing great care to keep clear of the waving legs.
"No, indeed, sir," declared Joel. "I wouldn't have played once with him, not if he'd lent me his knife. An' his skates and—"
"Oh, Joel, not even if he'd lent you his skates?" cried David, incredulously.
"No, sir-ree! Nor if he'd let me have his horse to drive as much as I wanted to," declared Joel, most positively, with another wave of his legs.
Little David collapsed on the floor by his side, his eyes fixed on the ceiling, as he lay and thought it over.
"I'd 'a' said, 'Go right away, you bad old Peters boy.'" cried Joel, delighted at impressing David so completely, "'or I'll take a stick to you.'"
"And then you'd be very much like old Mr. Peters yourself, Joel," said Polly, catching the last words.
THE STAGE-COACH RIDE
"Children," said Mrs. Pepper, and how her eyes shone! "I've got something very nice to tell you—that is, for Joel and David. Your turn will come sometime, Polly," and Mother Pepper smiled encouragingly at her.
"Polly's turn never comes," said Ben, gloomily, who felt dreadfully fretted to think he couldn't earn money enough to do something nice for her. "We eat it all up as fast as we get paid," he had once said to his mother.
"And that's what we have mouths for," she had answered brightly. It never would do for Ben to get discouraged, so she kept all the little ache in her heart out of sight. Now she beamed at Ben.
"Oh, Polly's time's coming," she said; "never fear, Ben."
Ben looked ashamed when he heard Mamsie's hopeful words, and brightened up at once.
"Thank you, Ben," she said, going up to his chair to lay her hand on his shoulder. "Mother doesn't know what she'd do if her big boy failed her. Well now, children, I must hurry and tell you the good news about Joel and David. Mr. Tisbett has invited them to go on the stage to-morrow to Strawberry Hill."
Once a week Mr. Tisbett ran the stage down to Strawberry Hill, returning by the East District. It was quite the prettiest ride out of Badgertown, following now and then the course of Cherry brook, and past fertile fields and forests, by a winding, rambling thoroughfare. And when once the settlement of Strawberry Hill was reached, there were Green's Tavern and the stop for dinner!
Joel and David greeted this announcement with howls of delight. Phronsie caught the spirit and danced around the old kitchen in a clean pink calico dress, and cheeks to match.
"Oh, Phronsie, I don't believe you know what you're dancing for," cried Ben with a laugh, and seizing her as the bustle died down a bit.
"Yes, I do, Bensie," said Phronsie, struggling to get down to dance again.
"Well, what is it then?"
"Joel and Davie said 'O-oh' and 'Goody'!" hummed Phronsie, beginning to dance harder than ever.
"I thought so," laughed Ben.
"Don't tease her," begged Polly, coming up.
"Polly, I wish you were going too," said Ben, suddenly, who couldn't help saying it.
"Dear me, I couldn't go and leave all the work, Ben," exclaimed Polly, "even if Mr. Tisbett had asked me."
"Well, I wish you could go, all the same," sighed Ben.
Polly shook her head, and clapped her hands at Phronsie, and tried to forget what Ben had said. But it stayed there, deep in her heart, nevertheless.
Joel and David could hardly sleep that night for thinking of the splendid treat of the morrow. Oh, if it should rain! They trembled as they rolled over on their backs and listened for any chance pattering on the roof.
"It doesn't rain a single drop," declared Joel, rolling over on his side again, and carrying most of the bedclothes with him.
"But it may, Joel," said little Davie, fearfully.
"No, it isn't going to," said Joel, confidently.
"Mamsie said we were to be good boys," said David, after a pause, in which Joel was lost in the wildest imaginings of sometime driving Mr. Tisbett's black horses. "Don't you know she did, Joey?" twitching his arm.
"Well, I'm going to be good. I'm always good," said Joel, jerking away his arm.
"Oh, Joel," cried little Davie, involuntarily.
"Well, I'm going to be good to-morrow, anyway," declared Joel. "You'll see, Dave; as good as pie."
"Because Mamsie said she'd trust us," continued David, "and we'd make trouble for Mr. Tisbett unless we minded him."
Joel didn't reply, trying to decide whether he should hold the reins both together in one hand or use two, Mr. Tisbett observing both methods.
"I guess I'll hold 'em in two hands," he said at last, "'cause most likely he won't let me take the whip at the same time. Ain't I glad I haven't cut the right one any more!" He held it up and squinted at it as well as he could for the darkness. There wasn't even a scar to be seen, thanks to Mother Pepper's good care.
"Boys—boys, go to sleep," called Polly's voice over the stairs. "They're so excited," she said, going back to her mother, "about tomorrow. Mamsie, isn't it good that they're going?" she cried, with shining eyes.
Mrs. Pepper looked at her keenly. "Yes, 'tis, Polly," she answered simply.
What a time they had getting the boys ready for their unwonted journey! Joel rebelled at the thorough scrubbing that Polly insisted on before he was inducted into his clean clothes.
"We wash all the time. Mamsie makes us," he grumbled. "Ow, Polly, you're rubbing my ear off."
"That's only every day," said Polly, who dearly loved to fix up with extra preparations on important occasions. "And this—why, Joel Pepper, you've never been away on a journey before. Just think, you're going on a stage-coach clear over to Strawberry Hill!"
"I know it," said Joel, trying to appear as if it were an everyday affair, while little David turned pale with excitement.
"Well, now then, I believe you're nice and clean," said Polly, standing off and viewing Joel, red and shiny from her efforts. "All except this other ear must be washed a little bit more."
"Oh, Polly," cried Joel, viewing her soapy cloth in alarm, "you've done it enough. Mamsie," he howled, "Polly's a-washing me just dreadful." But Mother Pepper did not seem to hear, so Polly finished, and then began on Joel's hair.
This was so much worse an undertaking, that the whole household were very glad indeed when it was over.
"I hope no one will ask you again to go anywhere, Joel," said Ben. "Goodness me, Polly, I sh'd think you'd be all tired out getting him ready!"
"Well, he's done now," said Polly, pushing back the damp rings of hair from her own brow, while she pulled Joel's jacket straight with the other hand. "Now, Joe, if you go and sit down and don't move, you'll be all nice when Mr. Tisbett comes; and I'll take Davie."
To little David the whole task of washing and combing his hair, and arranging him in his neatly mended best clothes, was one long, tremulous delight. He wouldn't have had it omitted for the world. At last he was patted and brushed, and pronounced "just perfect," Polly sealing her approval by a kiss that she meant for his forehead, but it fell on the tip of his nose instead.
"You didn't kiss me," said Joel, in an injured voice.
"Well, you didn't stand still long enough," retorted Ben, answering for Polly. "Goodness me, Joel, I'd as soon dress an eel as you!"
"G'lang there! Whoa!" And the stagecoach rattled up in fine shape.
"Mr. Tisbett's come! Mr. Tisbett's come!" roared Joel, as if everybody couldn't see and hear the stage-driver's hearty tones, to say nothing about the stamping of the horses and the rumble of the wheels. And darting out, he flew over the grass. "Let me sit up there with you, Mr. Tisbett," he screamed, trying to get up on the wheel.
"Sho, there! So you may. Give us your hand, Joe, my boy," said Mr. Tisbett, brimming over with good humor, and a warm feeling at heart at making the Peppers so happy, and he put out his brawny hand, gave a jerk, and in a minute there was Joel smiling and shouting and waving his hat to David and the others escorting him down to the roadside.
"Remember what I told you, Joel," said Mother Pepper, fixing her black eyes on him.
"Yes'm," said Joel, nodding his head, "I'll remember, Mammy. I'm going to sit next to Mr. Tisbett," he cried, seeing the preparations to lift Davie up to a seat on the box.
"Joel," warned his mother.
"I'm a-goin' to have you up top here, along of me," said Mr. Tisbett, "so's I can look out for you. And I'm a-goin' to tell where you'll set, too, Joel. Now, you just hist over there, and let Davie in betweenst us; he's littler. There you be," as Joel promptly obeyed and took the outside seat.
"Good-by, Mammy," shrilled little David, stretching forward to look past Mr. Tisbett's burly figure, and longing for another kiss.
"Good-by. Good-by, Joel."
"Crack-snap!" went Mr. Tisbett's whip. Off pranced the two black horses, and round went the wheels. He never made such a fine start in his life, Mr. Tisbett decided, when suddenly, "Stop! oh, stop!" screamed Joel, and the stage-driver, looking around at him, saw his face convulsed with the effort not to cry, as he yelled again, flinging out his hands frantically, "Stop!"
"Whoa!" cried Mr. Tisbett to the prancing black horses, so suddenly they nearly sat back on their haunches. "What's the matter of ye, for the land's sakes o' Goshen?"
"I want to get down," cried Joel, with a frantic lunge. "Let me get down!"
"Hold on there, or you'll break your neck," roared Mr. Tisbett. "What you want to get down for?" and he scratched his head, his habit when in perplexity.
"I want to kiss my Mamsie," stammered Joel, and now the tears began to come.
"Sho!" cried Mr. Tisbett, "so you shall. There. Now then!" Joel, in some way, was lifted up and swung clear of the wheel, when he set out for a run to the little brown house. Mrs. Pepper and Polly and Ben were standing still in the front yard and watching them, while Phronsie was making cheeses, holding out her little pink calico frock to sink slowly in a puff on the grass.
"Good-by, Mamsie," cried Joel, flinging his arms around her neck, "I'll be good, I truly will."
"I know you will, Joel," said Mrs. Pepper, drawing him close to her, while she kissed and fondled him to his heart's content. Then he rushed back again. Mr. Tisbett leaned down and gave him his brawny hand once more, and up he flew. "Crack! snap!" went the whip—off pranced the horses—round went the wheels—and away they all went!
Joel hung to the railing of the seat against which he leaned, with a blissful feeling that he was rushing through the air, and he saw nothing but those black horses below him. As for little Davie, he didn't dare to breathe, but peered out from his place between Mr. Tisbett's long, square figure and Joel, seeing nothing, only conscious that everything was perfectly beautiful.
Mr. Tisbett slackened up after about a mile of this sort of driving. He always liked to give a good impression in going through the town. Folks invariably rushed to the windows, and said, "The stage is going by," and they never seemed to be tired of such amusement. So Mr. Tisbett always gratified them to the fullest extent. To-day, as he hadn't many passengers till he came to the Four Corners, he let the horses go at their utmost speed, occasionally glancing at the rapt faces of the Pepper boys, when he would roll his quid from one cheek to the other, and smile in great satisfaction.
"Easy there, now," he said to the black horses, holding them up a bit. "Well now, that's something like, eh, Joel?" And he leaned over to see Joel's face.
Joel was slow in finding his tongue. At last he answered, "Yes, sir," but continued to stare at the horses.
"I guess this ere boy likes it, if you don't," exclaimed Mr. Tisbett, somewhat disappointed at Joel's lack of appreciation, and peering down at Davie. "Eh, David?"
"I think it's just like Heaven," said little David, with a long-drawn sigh of bliss.
"That's a fact," cried Mr. Tisbett, well pleased. "And so you liked it?"
"I loved it, Mr. Tisbett," declared David, solemnly.
"And you've said it about right," declared Mr. Tisbett, the smile dropping away from his jolly face, but the satisfaction remaining. "And I love them two horses's if they was folks. Fact!" And Mr. Tisbett slapped the toe of his big boot with his whip. "Now Jerry's a trifle the smartest, and—"
"No! No!" howled Joe, in protest, and leaning clear over David so abruptly that the stage-driver started and involuntarily pulled up his horses smartly. "I like Bill the best."
"Hey—sho, now!" exclaimed Mr. Tisbett, relaxing his tight grip on the reins. "You've waked up, have ye? Well, you set back and hang on to that there railing, or you'll break your neck. Then what would your Ma say to me? and I shouldn't never take you again."
"Mr. Tisbett," said little Davie, deliberately, "I like Jerry the best, too. I do."
"No, you don't," screamed Joel, with a nudge in Davie's side, "Bill's the best. Say so, Dave."
"I can't," said little David, quite decidedly, "'cause I think just as Mr. Tisbett does."
"They're both good; good as gold," Mr. Tisbett here made haste to say. "An' sometimes I think one's better'n t'other, an' then again I don't know. So, boys, the only way to fix it up straight is to like 'em both best. Well, we're comin' to my first passenger," and the stage-driver chirked up the horses. "Now step lively there." And presently the turn of the road brought them to a white house with green blinds and a big piazza across one end.
There was a tall woman walking up and down in front of the house, and by the roadside a great collection of boxes, and a huge carpet bag, two baskets, and a bird-cage.
"Beats all how women act," exclaimed Mr. Tisbett, in vexation. "Why can't she set in th' house and wait for me? I ain't never been late. Now I s'pose she'll take my head off."
David glanced up in terror at Mr. Tisbett's shaggy head under the big straw hat, and then at the tall woman who was to take it off. "Joel," he whispered, "we mustn't let her." But Joel had no ears for anything that Davie might say, but was occupied in seeing the stage-driver flourish up to meet the passenger.
"Good mornin', Miss Beaseley," said Mr. Tisbett, in his pleasantest way, springing over the wheel the moment the horses stopped.
"I've been a-waitin' here," said Mrs. Beaseley, tartly, "the longest time. I thought you never'd come."
"'Twould 'a' been a sight easier to 'a' waited in th' house," observed Mr. Tisbett, composedly, proceeding to pack the array of boxes and bags in the coach, "bein's I warn't schedooled to reach here till quarter past seven. And it's just three minutes to that time now, Marm." He stopped to pull out an immense silver watch, the only thing that could draw Joel's attention from the black horses. Now he stared at it until it disappeared again in Mr. Tisbett's waistcoat pocket.
"Well, you needn't waste the time now," said Mrs. Beaseley, in asperity. "I'm sure there's little enough left. Put that carpet bag in careful, Mr. Tisbett; it's got some cups and sassers in I'm a-takin' to my daughter in Strawberry Hill."
"All right, Marm," said Mr. Tisbett, setting the carpet bag, that seemed in danger of bursting, so full was it packed, on one of the seats. "I hain't never broke any o' my passengers' belongings yet, and I'm too old to begin to-day." To which Mrs. Beaseley deigned no reply, only to say, "You put 'em all in, and I'll get in last."
So Mr. Tisbett put in the bandbox and a smaller box, and one two or three sizes larger, and the rest of the bags and the two baskets, and a bundle. Then he picked up the birdcage.
"You let that be!" screamed Mrs. Beaseley. "I'm a-goin' to take that in my hand; you'll scare that bird to death."
"You get in and set down, and I'll hand it in to you," said Mr. Tisbett. "I ain't a-goin' to scare your bird. I've seen 'em before, and handled 'em, too, for that matter."
"I shan't set foot in that stage till all my things is in, and packed to suit me," declared Mrs. Beaseley, positively. "You gimme the bird;" with that she seized the bird-cage, and holding it well before her, she stepped up the first step. The next minute she was precipitated on the floor of the stage, with the birdcage under her. When she was helped up, and the bird-cage was set on the seat opposite, Mr. Tisbett slammed to the stage door quickly, and hopped nimbly to the box, leaving her straightening her bonnet. All the while she was giving vent to a torrent of abuse because the stage-coach steps were too high, the bird screaming and fluttering wildly in fright.
"Didn't I tell you she'd take my head off?" said Mr. Tisbett, with a sly wink at the boys, and a little chuckle as he resumed the reins and they started off.
Little David drew a long breath of relief, and gazed again at the shaggy head under the old straw hat. "It isn't off, Mr. Tisbett," he said, "and I'm so glad."
"Hey?" exclaimed Mr. Tisbett, staring at him. "What's the boy mean? Oh,—my soul an'—body!" And he slapped his thigh with his brawny hand, and burst out into a hearty laugh that seemed to echo on every side, as the stage-coach spun along.
"I sh'd think you'd laugh," exclaimed Mrs. Beaseley, in withering scorn, inside the vehicle, "when I've smashed my best bonnet, and shook that bird to death—like enough he'll die—and tromped all up the front breadth to my dress." But as there was no one to hear her, and Mr. Tisbett still laughed on, seeming unable to stop himself, the stage-coach contributed a very merry spectacle to those privileged to see it, as they bowled along to the next passenger for Strawberry Hill.
"So you thought she'd really took my head off, did ye?" asked Mr. Tisbett at last, and mopping his face with his bandanna. "O dear me! Hee-hee-hee!"
"You said she was going to, Mr. Tisbett," said little David, gravely.
"So I did. I see I must be careful what I say, after this. Well, David, she'd like to 'a' took my head off, an' would, if she'd had her way."
"O dear!" exclaimed little David, greatly shocked.
"But she hain't, yer see," finished Mr. Tisbett, cheerfully, "it's on, an' set stiddy. Sho, now, easy there, Bill and Jerry! We must stop for Mr. Filbert."
The next passenger was a thin, wiry little man, who seemed to beg pardon constantly for being in somebody's way. And after Mr. Tisbett had slung his hair trunk on the rack, Mr. Filbert stepped gently into the stage-coach. "Excuse me, Marm," he said to the woman. "Did I step on your toes?"
"You hain't hurt me none," said Mrs. Beaseley, "and you hain't teched my toes. Goodness me, after the treatment I've had, an' th' sass I've took, I guess I won't complain."
The little wiry man sank into the furthest corner and pulled out from his pocket a newspaper, which he tried to read. But Mrs. Beaseley, beginning on the statement of what she had suffered waiting for Mr. Tisbett, and every minute since the journey was begun, Mr. Filbert never got more than ten lines down the first page.
At last, after picking up a little girl, and a boy who spent his time in thrusting out his head from the swinging vehicle to stare enviously up at Joel, the stage-coach rattled in fine fashion, bringing everybody to the doors and windows, into Strawberry Hill, and pulled up at the tavern. Here all the passengers got down; Mrs. Beaseley insisting that she ought to pay but half price, considering all things, and with very black looks, when Mr. Tisbett coolly waited till every cent was in his palm. The little thin man skipped nimbly out of the coach, and, with a backward alarmed look at her, hurried to get into a wagon waiting a little distance off, in which Mr. Tisbett deposited the hair trunk.
"Say, how'd you get up there?" asked the boy, tumbling out of the coach to stare up at Joel. The small girl, who was going to spend Sunday at her grandmother's, got out with dignity, carrying her best clothes in a bundle. She stopped a minute to hear what Joel said.
"I stepped up," said Joel; "how'd you s'pose?"
"How'd he let you?" persisted the boy, pointing with a dingy thumb to the stage-driver. "He never let me."
'"Cause he did," said Joel, curtly, "that's the reason."
"Oh!" said the boy, and Mr. Tisbett coming back, he moved off. But he still continued to watch.
"Now, says I, we'll hop down," cried Mr. Tisbett, which Joel proceeded to do in a trice, glad enough to stretch his legs. "Here, David, give us your hand." And the stage-driver soon had little David on the ground. "Now, Bill and Jerry, it's your turn." And very soon Mr. Tisbett was busy in unbuckling straps and tackling, to release the big horses, Joel in a wild delight getting dreadfully in the way, and being, as he thought, an immense help. Little David stood off and watched the proceeding, longing to help too, but too timid to say so. The other boy rushed up. "Oh, let me help!" he cried, thrusting a tousled head in between the two busy with the harness.
The stage-driver shot him a keen look. "It will be time enough for you to help in this ere job, Jim," he said, "when I ask you." So Jim slunk off, to stare at a distance again. And at last the horses were led off to the big barn to get their dinner of oats and hay, and then Mr. Tisbett drew Joel and David away.
But this was a hard task, for Joel hung over Bill and Jerry in delight, watching every mouthful. "Can't I climb up on his back and sit there while he eats?" he begged, pointing at Bill, while even little David much preferred the old barn with its sweet odor, and the big haymows, to any other place.
"No, you can't," said Mr. Tisbett, answering Joel. "And you ain't a-goin' to be in this barn. I can't leave you here alone. Your Ma wouldn't like it. And besides, you've got to have somethin' to eat. I always get my dinner here. So come along; you're my company to-day, an' I told Mrs. Pepper not to put you up anything to eat."
Strangely enough, at the mention of dinner, Joel still clung to the hope of remaining with the horses. Seeing which, the stage-driver wasted no more words, but picked an end of his jacket in his fingers and bore him off. Once within the cosey little dining room, with the green paper shades flapping in the summer breeze, and seated at the table with the tavern-keeper's wife bustling around to lay on the hot dishes, Joel thought differently, and had a hard time to keep his tongue still. Little Davie watched everything silently, with wide-open blue eyes.
"I'm goin' to hev ham an' eggs," said Mr. Tisbett. "Fried on both sides, Mrs. Green, an' plenty of 'em."
"All right," said the tavern-keeper's wife, with a smile for the jolly stage-driver who always made it pleasant for them all when he took his dinner there once a week. "Now, what's these boys goin' to have?"
"As good a dinner as you've got in the house, Mrs. Green," said Mr. Tisbett, heartily; "these are the little Pepperses, and they live over to Badgertown, Marm." He said this with an air much as he might have announced, "This is the Lord Mayor of London," if he had been called upon to introduce that functionary.
"Oh!" exclaimed Mrs. Green, much impressed, "I'll do my best. Well now, I've got boiled dinner an' a raspb'ry shortcake. Do you think they'd like that?" She appealed to the stage-driver.
"Yes sir-ree!" cried Joel, smacking his lips; "we don't have anything but potatoes and salt for our dinner. Oh, David!" he seized little Davie's arm tightly, "raspberry shortcake, she said; that's what Polly was telling about she hoped we could have sometime."
THE FIGHT AT STRAWBERRY HILL
"Now, then," exclaimed Mr. Tisbett, when dinner was over, and the little Peppers declared they couldn't eat any more, "I'm a-goin' to set out on th' porch a minute or two. I allers let Bill an' Jerry rest a full hour," pulling out the big silver watch again.
"When I'm a man," cried Joel, leaning back in his chair, wishing he could eat some more raspberry shortcake, "I'm goin' to have a watch just like yours, Mr. Tisbett."
"I thought you were going to have horses just like Bill an' Jerry," said Mr. Tisbett, in surprise.
"Oh, I am!" cried Joel, in alarm at being misunderstood; "exactly like Bill and Jerry."
"You ain't goin' to have horses an' a watch!" cried the stage-driver, keeping very sober. "You must choose between the two."
"Then I'll take the horses," decided Joel, quickly.
"You've got two, Mr. Tisbett," observed David, quietly.
"Eh? Oh, so I have!" cried Mr. Tisbett. "Well, p'r'aps we'll let Joe have 'em both, then; that is, if he's a good boy. Well, can't either on you eat any more? What a pity, an' Mrs. Green has such good things."
The tavern-keeper's wife cried out that some way her raspb'ry shortcake wasn't quite so light as what she had day before yest'day. "La, Mr. Tisbett!" she exclaimed, smoothing her apron delightedly, "if you'd only happened along then, 'twould 'a' melted in your mouth."
"This suits me to a T," said Mr. Tisbett. "Now, Joel, if you and David will play round here real pretty, an' be good boys, I'll set on th' porch an' pass th' time o' day with the folks."
The little Peppers promising they would be as good as could be, Mr. Tisbett slouched off to the big arm-chair, where he always took his accustomed rest at Strawberry Hill while the horses were put up in the barn. Joel ran back to tell Mrs. Green, "I like you,—I do; you make awful nice things," and David echoed the same, as they both scampered out of the house.
"I declare, they're as pretty-behaved children's I ever see," confided the tavern-keeper's wife to the rest of the family who were at home, the tavern-keeper himself being away for the day. "Poor things, although they were so hungry, an' they don't get much to eat at home, they didn't grab an' pick at things." And she made up her mind to put up a little bundle of her sugar cookies for them to eat on the way back.
"I wish we could have taken some of the raspberry shortcake home to Polly," mourned Davie, speaking out what had been running in his mind all through the dinner. "She's never tasted any."
"Well, we couldn't," said Joel, with a qualm of conscience because he hadn't thought of it before; "Mamsie's told us it isn't nice to speak of taking things home. Hurry up, Dave," as they raced on. "I know it," said little Davie. But he sighed, nevertheless.
"Now where'll we go?" asked Joel, leaning breathless against the big maple on the edge of the back dooryard.
"Mr. Tisbett said we were to play round here," said little Davie.
"Of course," assented Joel, in a superior way "Well, let's peek in th' barn the first thing."
"Oh, Joe, we mustn't go in!" exclaimed little David, holding him back. "Mr. Tisbett said we weren't to be in the barn."
"I know it," said Joel, twitching away. "I said peek, Dave. Mr. Tisbett didn't say not to do that." So both boys got as far as they could on the threshold of the big sweet-smelling barn, without stepping over the sill, and craned their necks to get a sight of the two black horses.
"I can't see 'em! O dear me!" cried Joel, grumpily. "I wish there was a window we could climb up to."
"We can hear 'em eating," said little David, taking great satisfaction in that.
"Hoh—what's that! I want to see 'em," Joel ran on discontentedly. "O dear me! Mr. Tisbett wouldn't care if we just stepped in up to that post."
"Yes, he would," cried Davie, in alarm lest Joel should really step over.
"Let me alone," cried Joel, crossly. "O dear me! I can't see a bit of 'em." And in a minute, without stopping to think, he hopped over the door-sill and jumped into the barn.
Little David stood still in terror.
"Come here, Dave," called Joel, in glee, being careful not to go beyond the big post, "you can see 'em just as good's can be. Bill's got his mouth full of hay, an' he's bobbing his head, and the wisps are tickling Jerry, an' he don't like it," and Joel laughed heartily.
Suddenly somebody slapped David on the back, precipitating him over the sill, and "Jim" ran in past him. "Helloa. What are you doin'?" he asked Joel.
Joel looked at him, but didn't answer.
"I live here," said Jim, "over in Strawberry Hill. An' Mrs. Green's my a'nt; and I've just come home from my grandmother's."
Joel said nothing as to this family history, but continued to gaze at the horses. David picked himself up from the barn floor, and hurrying out over the sill, began to dust his clothes, glad that Joel had not seen him tumble in.
"I knocked him over," snickered Jim. "Hee-hee! Cry-baby!" and he pointed to little David, whose face was quite red as he tried to brush his best clothes clean again.
"I'm not crying," said Davie, indignantly, and raising his hot face.
"You knocked him over!" cried Joel, boiling with wrath, and, deserting the big post, he squared off toward the Strawberry Hill boy, and doubled up his little brown fists. "Then you've got to fight me."
"All right," said Jim, glad he was so much bigger. "I know a place down in th' cow-pasture where I can lick you's easy's not."
"You ain't a-goin' to lick me," cried Joel, sturdily, "I'm goin' to lick you," while little David, sick with terror, screamed out that he wasn't hurt; that he didn't care if Jim did push him over, and for Joel to come back—come back! But Joel and Jim were already halfway to the cow-pasture, and Davie, wild with fright, stumbled over across the barnyard, and off to the house to find Mr. Tisbett.
"He's just gone into th' house," said one of the farmers who always took this hour, on the occasion of the stage-driver's weekly visit, to come to the tavern porch and get the news. "He'll be out in a minute or two. Sit down, sonny; you're dreadful hot."
But David wrung his hands, and rushed into the tavern. The dining room was dark and cool, all the dinner things being carried out, except the pickle dish and the sugar bowl; and the crumbs swept off from the table, and the green blinds pulled to. He could hear the rattle of the dish-washing and the clearing-up generally out in the kitchen, and he plunged in. "Where—where's Mr. Tisbett?" he cried, his breath most gone, from fright, and his little face aflame.
"Goodness me, how you scart me!" exclaimed the tavern-keeper's wife, who, with another woman, was flying around to get the work done up. "Oh, it's one of the Pepper boys. What's the matter, dear?" with a glance at David's hot face. "What you ben a-runnin' so for?"
"Joel." It was all David could say, as he pointed off where he thought the cow-pasture was. "Somethin's happened to that other boy. Didn't you say his name was—Joel?" said the other woman, fastening very small but sharp eyes on David.
"Mercy me! you don't think it!" exclaimed the tavern-keeper's wife, her ruddy face taking a scared expression. "Dear me! I must call Mr. Tisbett. Mr. Tisbett!" she screamed, running, if the speed she now exercised could be called by that name, for it was more like waddling, out to the porch.
"He isn't there," gasped David, following her. "Oh, dear Mrs. Green, please hurry and find him," he implored.
"I don't know no more'n the dead where he is, child," said Mrs. Green, turning a perplexed face to David, after the old farmer had said the same thing over again. "Mr. Tisbett's got the run o' the place, an' likely as not, he's stepped to one o' the neighbors," pointing to a small cluster of houses a quarter of a mile away.
Little David groaned and clasped his small hands in distress.
"Then nothing can stop their fighting?" he exclaimed in despair.
"Fighting? Who's fighting?" demanded Mrs. Green, sharply.
"Joel and Jim," said David, glad to think he'd remembered what Mr. Tisbett called the boy, yet sorry, as it flashed over him, that the tavern-keeper's wife was his "a'nt."
"He pushed me down," and his face turned more scarlet yet. But it was necessary to tell the dreadful thing, else Mrs. Green would think Joel was to blame in beginning the fight.
But the tavern-keeper's wife had her own reasons for believing differently. And without wasting her breath on words, except to ask David, "Where?" she flung her dish-towel, which she had been carrying in her hand, across her arm, and picking up her skirts, she made remarkably good time across the barnyard by a shorter cut, which she was familiar with, to the cow-pasture.
Jim saw her coming first, and much as he disliked on ordinary occasions to see his "a'nt," he now hailed her approach with secret delight, for the Badgertown boy was giving him all he could do to protect himself. So he now shouted out, "My a'nt's comin'. Stop!"
"I don't care," cried Joel, pommelling away. So Jim struck back as well as he could, longing to hear Mrs. Green scream out, "Stop!" which she did as soon as she had breath enough, and shaking her dish-towel at them. "You wait there, Jim," she commanded, on top of her call, as she came panting on; and Jim, looking all ways for escape, saw there was no use in attempting it. When she did reach him, she seized him and shook him till his head seemed to wobble on his shoulders. Then, with a resounding box on the ear, that seemed like a clap of thunder, she paused to take breath.
"Oh," begged little David, "don't hurt him, dear Mrs. Green."
"Why did you stop us?" glowered Joel, wrathfully, turning his bloody little nose up in scorn. "I could 'a' done that to him's easy as not, if you'd let me."
Mrs. Green stamped her ample shoe on the ground. "You start for home," she said to Jim, "an' tell your Pa if he lets you show your face over here for a long spell, he'll settle with me."
Jim took one dive across the cow-pasture, scaled the fence, and disappeared.
"Now you come along of me," said Mrs. Green. "Goodness land alive! I'm all shook to pieces," and she started for the tavern. "I'll wash your face," to Joel; "then I guess you ain't hurt much," yet she regarded him anxiously.
"I ain't hurt a bit," declared Joel, stoutly, and wiping off the blood with the back of one chubby hand. "And I could 'a' licked him's easy as nothin'," he added regretfully.
"I wish I'd let you, before I took him in tow," said the tavern-keeper's wife, hastily, getting over the ground as well as she could.
"Mamsie wouldn't have liked it," cried little Davie, running on unsteady feet by Joel's side, and looking at him sadly. "Oh, no, she wouldn't, dear Mrs. Green."
"I don't s'pose she would now," said Mrs. Green. "Well, Jim's a bad boy, if I am his a'nt. Like enough he'll git a trouncing from his father," she added cheerfully, as some compensation.
"What is a trouncing?" asked Joel, suddenly, as they hurried on.
"The land alive, don't know what a trouncing is!" ejaculated the tavern-keeper's wife. "It's a whipping, and Jim's father knows how to give it good, I tell you."
Joel stood still. Little David stared in horror in Mrs. Green's face.
"I don't want him to be whipped," said Joel, slowly. It was one thing to fight it out with fists in the cow-pasture, but quite another to go home to be whipped by a father.
"Oh, yes, he will," repeated Mrs. Green, in her cheeriest way, and shaking her head at him. "You needn't fear, Joel, he'll catch it when he gets home."
"But I don't want him to," declared Joel, loudly, not moving. "He mustn't! Stop his father from whipping him! He shan't." And before Mrs. Green could recover from her astonishment, he plunged her deeper yet, by bursting into tears.
She gazed from him to David, still shaking her head helplessly. "Well, if I ever!" she exclaimed, when she came out of it.
"And I shall just run and tell his father not to," blubbered Joel, realizing if Jim was to be saved from that awful whipping, he must be the one to do it. "Where does he live?" he cried, emerging from his tears at the chance of action.
"Over there," answered the tavern-keeper's wife. "Well, if I ever!" pointing to a yellow house. She kept ejaculating this over and over, as she pursued her way to the house, thoughtfully swinging her dish-towel.
Joel, with David at his heels, ran off across the cow-pasture, tumbled over the fence, and followed the direction that Jim had taken and that Mrs. Green had pointed, leading to the dingy yellow house.
Long before they reached it, they could hear squeals that were not pleasant to hear, and that made them quicken their pace, to run around the house-place, and plunge almost into the face of an untidy woman who hurried to the door.
"What d'ye want?" she demanded, as the two boys stopped panting before her.
"Jim," gasped Joel.
"And his father," added little David, breathlessly
"They're both out there," said the woman, pointing with the hand holding the dish-towel, to the dilapidated woodshed. "He's gittin' a lickin', and Pa's a-givin' it."
The squeals were now so much worse that Joel gave a plunge that carried him to the woodshed door, and little David, his heart in his mouth at thought of Jim's father, followed as best he could. Joel dashed in. "Oh, do stop!" he screamed.
Jim's father turned; he had a big stick in his hand. When little David saw it he shuddered and sat down helplessly on the woodshed floor, in among all the clutter and dirt. Jim, with his knuckles twisted into his streaming eyes, whirled around from under the big hand grasping his collar. When he saw Joel, he screamed worse than ever. "Don't let him kill me, Pa," he roared, huddling up to him.
Joel sprang up to a tall, big-shouldered man with a bearded face. "Oh, sir," he cried, "please don't whip Jim any more—p'r'aps he didn't mean to push David over, I don't b'lieve. Don't whip him." He put out his little brown hand, and boldly seized the stick.
"Hey?" roared the big man. "Well, I'm beat all to smithereens," and his hand holding the stick dropped to his side. Jim stopped from sheer amazement, the roar dying in his throat.
"If you'll only let him go," said Joel, "I'd be much obliged, sir," remembering how Mamsie said he should be polite when asking a favor.
The big man grinned all over his bearded face. "I don't see but what I've got to, you ask me so pretty," he said, showing nearly every tooth in his head. "Well, Jim. you're let off for this time. I hadn't only just begun," he added to Joel, as he hung up the stick on a beam.
Jim bounded off, climbed a tree, and watched to see the boys go away.
"What's your name?" asked his father, as Joel helped David to his feet, and they started off.
"Joel Pepper," he answered, "and this is my brother David. Say how do you do, Dave," he whispered, pulling his sleeve. But little Davie was too far gone in distress to speak, only to smile faintly. "And we live over in Badgertown in a little brown house," continued Joel, feeling that he ought to make up for David's silence.
"Oh!" said Jim's father.
"And we must go now," said Joel, keeping hold of David's jacket, "'cause you see Mr. Tisbett may be wanting us"—very desirous of getting away.
"Did ye come with Mr. Tisbett?" asked the big man.
"Yes, we did," said Joel. "Come on, Dave. We must go, sir. Good-by." And pulling David along, he ran at a smart pace off toward the tavern.
Mr. Tisbett was standing on the porch, just starting for them, when the two boys ran up. And in front of him was the tavern-keeper's wife, telling the whole story as far as she knew it, the old farmer hitching forward his chair to catch every word. When the stage-driver saw them, he hemmed loudly, and made a sign for Mrs. Green to stop.
"Well, now, I s'pose," he drawled, "it's about time to hitch up them horses. Want to come and help, Joe and David?"
Joel gave a skip of delight and released Davie's jacket. "Oh, whickety—yes!" he cried. Little David did not answer, but smiled his pleasure, and the tavern-keeper's wife went into the house to get her bundle of cookies ready.
But just as they got to the barn Joel hung back suddenly. "I ain't goin' in," he said. Mr. Tisbett didn't hear him, but marched on. Little David stopped in perplexity.
"No, I can't," said Joel, growing very sober, "'cause I was naughty and went in. Mr. Tisbett doesn't know it. O dear me!"
"You can tell him," suggested David, thoughtfully.
"O dear, dear!" exclaimed Joel, just ready to cry, as he could hear Mr. Tisbett lift down the harness, and call out, "Stand still, there, Bill—good Jerry."
"Why, boys!" exclaimed the stage-driver suddenly, coming to the door, the harness in his hand. "What on earth's the matter? I thought ye was jest crazy to come in, Joel," he added reproachfully.
Then Joel burst right out. "I've been naughty—and went in." And he flung himself across the threshold, shaking with disappointment at losing the best chance of the whole day.
Mr. Tisbett looked at Davie for explanation. So David, telling it as well as he could, got through with the story finally.
"I can't say that ye warn't naughty, Joel," said the stage-driver, slowly, "'cause ye were. But I'm a-goin' to let ye in, and besides, I need ye to help me with them horses," and Mr. Tisbett began to look very worried at once.
Joel sat very straight. "Oh, I'll help you, Mr. Tisbett," he cried joyfully. And in a minute they were all three in the big stall, and Joel was in the very midst of things, and even David forgot his fright enough to lend a helping hand, and to feel his importance, and presently the big black horses were led out of the barn, and harnessed into the stage-coach.
"Now, hop up!" cried Mr. Tisbett, when he had gone carefully around and around the big coach, to see that every strap and buckle was in place, and had got down on his knees to be quite sure the springs were all right. Then he gave David a lift up to the box, Joel clambering up on the other side. "We'll drive up to th' door," he said, "an' get th' passenger," for there was one woman going over to Badgertown.
"Oh, let me drive!" begged Joel; "just up to the door, Mr. Tisbett," he implored.
"We don't want to be upset under folks' noses," said Mr. Tisbett. "Land! I'd rather 'twould happen where there warn't no one to see, if 'twas going to."
"I wouldn't upset it for anything," promised Joel. "Please, Mr. Tisbett."
But Mr. Tisbett sat down and gathered up the reins and drove round with such a flourish that it never had been surpassed, it seemed to the people on the tavern porch. And the one woman got in with her basket, and the tavern-keeper's wife ran down the steps and stood on her tiptoes and handed up to Joel the bundle of cookies, begging them to come again. And the old farmer said "Good day," and the woman with little sharp eyes, who had been washing the dishes, hurried out, pulling down her sleeves, to see them off. And away they rattled, with faces turned toward home and Mamsie.
They had proceeded about a quarter of a mile, when Mr. Tisbett suddenly asked, "Want to drive, Joel? Come along over here," and he reached past David and took his hand. "Now, then, I'm goin' to set in the middle a little spell," and before Joel could recover from his astonishment, he found the old leather reins in his brown hands. He was driving Mr. Tisbett's black horses!
IN THE LITTLE BROWN HOUSE
The delights of that day at Strawberry Hill never died out of remembrance, as Joel and David went over it constantly, so that the whole Pepper family soon felt that they had been of the company in the stage-coach along with Mr. Tisbett. Only when once the story was told of the trouble with Jim, as it was by David, Mrs. Pepper decided that that should never be referred to again. But her black eyes glowed when little David proudly related how Joel had stopped the beating that Jim's father was giving him, although the account was much delayed, Davie was in such a tremble.
But the dinner! The two boys couldn't tell enough times to suit themselves or their audience, about that wonderful meal.
"How did it taste?" asked Polly, as Joel finished the description of Mrs. Green's raspberry shortcake, and smacked his lips over it.
"Just like all the best things you ever tasted in your life, Polly Pepper," he answered. "And the juice ran out all over it, and there was sugar on top."
"Oh, Joel," cried Polly, incredulously, "not sugar on top, and inside too!" and she paused to think how such a fine shortcake could taste.
"Yes, there was," said Joel; "lots and lots of sugar, Polly Pepper, was all sprinkled on top. Wasn't it, Dave?"
"Yes," said little Davie, and his mouth watered as he thought of it.
"And sugar inside—was it sweet?" persisted Polly, still standing quite still.
"As sweet as anything," declared Joel, positively, and bobbing his stubby black head. "You can't think what a shortcake that was, Polly, if you try ever so hard."
"Mamsie," cried Polly, suddenly, "do you suppose we'll ever have one? Do you?"
"Maybe," said Mrs. Pepper, not looking into the brown eyes, but keeping her own bent on her work; "but I wouldn't think of it, Polly, if I were you. Things don't happen if you sit down and fold your hands and watch for 'em."
"Well, I don't b'lieve it will ever happen that we do get a shortcake, any more than we had a chicken pie," said Polly, turning away with a sigh.
"Why, you had your chicken pie, Polly," cried Joel, "only 'twas a goose."
"Old gray goose!" said Polly, scornfully. "It was trimmed with a posy, though, and that was nice, wasn't it, Mammy?" brightening up.
"Yes, indeed," cried Mrs. Pepper, cheerily; "and you baked it so good, Polly."
"So it was baked good," said Polly, all her good humor returning. "And it did not make so much matter, did it, Mamsie, that he was tough?"
"No, indeed," said Mrs. Pepper, laughing; "he lasted all the longer, you know, Polly."
"Mean old gray goose!" exclaimed Joel, at the remembrance; "he most broke my teeth, trying to eat him."
"Do you remember, Joe, how you teased for the drumstick?" laughed Polly. "You soon put it down on your plate, didn't you?"
"Yes," said Joel, bobbing his head, "I remember, Polly. I couldn't bite a single thing off. Mean old goose!"
"He looked nice," said little Davie, thoughtfully, "he was so brown, and there were Polly's flowers on top of him."
"Yes," said Polly, "those were nice, children. Well, p'r'aps we'll get a really and truly chicken pie sometime. And if the old stove would behave, and not have these dreadful holes coming all the time, where the putty tumbles out, it would be perfectly splendid. Now," cried Polly, running up to the stove, and shaking her brown head at it, "you've got to do your very best. If you don't, I'm sure I shall just give up!"
"Will you cry, Polly?" asked Phronsie, creeping up behind her.
"Yes, maybe," said Polly, recklessly. "Yes, I really think I shall have to cry, Phronsie, if that old stove lets the putty Ben put in last week tumble out again."
"Then it mustn't, Polly," said Phronsie, very decidedly, "let the—What is it Ben put in?"
"The putty, child," said Polly.
"It mustn't let the putty tumble out," said Phronsie. Then she ran up to the stove, and laid her little face up against its cold, black surface, for on summer afternoons there was never any fire in it. "You mustn't be naughty, old stove," she said, "for then Polly will cry."
"Oh, Phronsie!" cried Polly, "you've smutted your face, and blacked up your nice clean dress," and she pulled her back in dismay.
"O dear!" whimpered Phronsie, in distress, as she looked down at the long black streak across her pink calico gown. "I didn't mean to, Polly; truly, I didn't."
"Never mind," said Mrs. Pepper, looking across the kitchen; "Mother'll wash it out for you by and by. Put on another one, Polly."
"Let me wash it, Mammy," begged Polly, carrying Phronsie off to wash her face and get her into another gown.
"No, you'll only spread it more, for you don't know how, Polly," answered Mother Pepper. So Polly, feeling as if there were a great many things she must grow up and learn, hurried off with Phronsie into the bedroom.
And then it was that Joel suddenly thought of the circus he meant to have whenever the time came ready. "Come on out to the woodpile, Dave," he said, "and let's talk it over."
It was a good two hours after when Joel and David clambered down from the woodpile, and ran into the house.
"Joel," said Mother Pepper, "you forgot to fill up the wood box; see, it's nearly empty."
"It's always empty," Joel began, his head nearly bursting with big plans for his circus.
"Joel," said Mrs. Pepper, sternly, "don't let me ever hear you fret at your work again. Go straight out and bring in the kindlings."
"And I'm going to help, too," cried David, skipping after. So it wasn't very long before the two boys had brought in two good basketsful of kindlings, which just filled the wood box behind the stove.
"I'm glad it's done," remarked Joel, with great satisfaction, knocking off the little splinters sticking to his fingers.
"People always are glad when their work is finished," said Mrs. Pepper, breaking off a fresh needleful of thread.
"Shall you be glad, Mamsie?" suddenly asked Joel, who never could get over the idea that it was a perfect delight to his mother to sit and sew.
"Of course she will," cried Polly, unguardedly. "Mamsie's tired to death sewing and working all the time."
Little David's face grew very long, and he turned away, hoping no one would see him cry. Joel burst into a loud fit of sobbing.
"I think—it's—too—too bad," he blubbered, covering his face with his arm, "that Mamsie has—has—to sew and work—all the time."
"Now you see, Polly," said Mrs. Pepper, putting aside her work and drawing Joel on her lap, "what mischief a few words can do. There, there, Joel, don't cry," and she patted his black hair. "Mother's glad to work for her children, and she gets rested when they're good." But Joel sobbed on, and she had to repeat it many times before he would wipe his tears, and be comforted. Little Davie drew near silently, to hear what she said.
Phronsie, in the bedroom, saw Joel in Mamsie's lap, and Davie hanging over her chair, and she pattered across the kitchen floor. "Take me, too, do Mamsie," holding out her arms.
"So Mamsie will," cried Mrs. Pepper, heartily, and drawing her up to sit next to Joel, on her lap. When little Davie saw that, "I wish there was room," he said softly, "to hold me, too, Mamsie."
"Well, there is," said Mother Pepper, opening her arms, "and for Polly, too," for she saw Polly's head drooping from her reproof.
"Oh, Mamsie!" cried Polly, running over to her, to get within the good arms, though she couldn't sit on her lap, of course, as there were three little Peppers there already; "I'm sorry I spoke, but I didn't think."
"Didn't think makes most all of the trouble in this world," said Mrs. Pepper, gravely; "so see to it that next time you don't have to make that excuse, Polly child," and she dropped a kiss on Polly's red cheek.
"It's just this way, children," she went on, smiling on all the bunch; "Mother is really glad to work, and every stitch she puts in, she keeps thinking, now that's for Ben and Polly and Joel and David and Phronsie." Mother Pepper's black eyes went lovingly around on all the faces so near her own. "And I keep looking ahead, too, to the time when the little brown house people are going out into the world and—"
"Oh, we aren't ever going out into the world, Mammy," declared Polly, in alarm. "We are going to stay in the little brown house forever'n ever."
"Forever'n ever," echoed Phronsie, folding her hands tightly together; while the two boys vociferously protested that nothing should ever drive them out of the little brown house. "No, not even to live over in Strawberry Hill with nice Mrs. Green."
"Well, anyway, we must all live and grow up so that the little brown house won't be ashamed of us," said Mrs. Pepper, "and that's what Mother is working for; so don't let me hear any more crying about it. Now remember, all of you." With that she opened her arms wide again. "Now scamper off," she said, with a bright smile, and she picked up her sewing and sent her needle cheerily in and out once more.
That evening, after the supper things were all cleared away, Joel began by drawing Davie off in a corner to whisper mysteriously. "Let him alone, Polly," said Ben, in a low voice. "Joe'll tell of his own accord, pretty soon."
And sure enough, it wasn't ten minutes. Mother Pepper had gone into the bedroom to tuck Phronsie away for the night, when Joel said triumphantly, "We know something, Dave and me, and we won't tell what 'tis."
"All right," said Ben, coolly. "Polly, I guess I'll mend Mamsie's washboard. I shan't have another chance so good this week."
"I wish you would, Bensie," said Polly, well pleased, for Polly dearly loved everything kept mended up, and "shipshape," as Mrs. Pepper used to say. "I'll spread the paper down so you don't get any mess on the floor." So she ran to the pile of old weekly newspapers her mother always saved, when any of the Badgertown people sent her a copy, as they did once in a while, and flapping one open, she soon had a "paper carpet," as she said merrily, on the floor. And Ben, coming out from the woodshed, with the washboard in his hand, together with the hammer and nails, the kitchen began to hum with the noise.
"Yes," said Joel, loudly, "we do; we know something real fine, Dave and I. Don't we, Dave?" with a nip on Davie's little arm.
"Ow!" said Davie.
"That so?" assented Ben, coolly.
"Yes, and we aren't goin' to tell, either," said Joel, "not a single word; so there, Ben!" Then he began to whisper as fast as he could to David.
"You'll tell, yourself, Joe, without anybody's asking," said Ben, as Joel began again with: "It's perfectly splendid, Ben Pepper. And oh, Polly, you don't know what we do; does she, Dave?"
"Polly and I will know pretty soon," added Ben.
"No, you won't, either," contradicted Joel. "We aren't ever in all this world goin' to tell of the circus I'm goin' to—"
"There!" shouted Ben, throwing down the hammer. "You've told it, Joe, just the same as I knew you would. Ha, ha!"
"Don't, Ben," begged Polly, "it teases Joel. Well, we don't know what kind of a circus you are going to have, Joey," she said kindly, "so we'll be just as much surprised when we see it."
"Will you?" cried Joel; "well, then, Polly, I'd rather tell the whole, if you'll be surprised when you see all the animals."
"I guess you will," said Ben, in a low voice; "there's no danger in promising that."
"I truly will, Joey," promised Polly. "Do be still, Ben."
"Well, to begin with, Polly, there's going to be a rhodo—What's that you told us about in your story of the circus?"
"Hoh, hoh!" laughed Ben, busily at work over the washboard, "there's your rhododendron, Polly. I thought Joel wouldn't forget to have one in his circus."
"Go on, Joel," said Polly, with a cold shoulder for Ben. "Now I know your circus is going to be perfectly elegant," she cried enthusiastically, running over to their corner. "Do tell us about it, Joel."
Joel, vastly complimented that Polly took such an interest in his plan, now began lustily to set it forth, and little Davie piped in whenever there was a chance for a word, which wasn't often. And finally Ben said, "I guess I'll move my washboard and the 'paper carpet' up there with you all," and Polly said, "Oh, do, Ben."
And presently they were all so very jolly, Ben deciding not to say anything more of Polly's rhododendron, that none of them knew when Mother Pepper said above their heads, "I thought you didn't know 'twas five minutes past your bedtime, Joel and David," pointing to the clock.
Joel practised the part of so many animals in the next week that the little brown house people became quite accustomed to any strange grunting or roaring they might chance to hear, as if a whole menagerie were let loose. Only Mamsie forbade that such noise should be allowed within doors. And every once in a while Joel would rush into the kitchen, with "Polly, how does an elephant scream?" and "Tell me, Polly, does a kangaroo cry this way?" until Polly was quite worn out.
"I guess you'll be glad when that circus of Joe's is over with," said Ben. "I pity you, Polly. I'd enough sight rather chop wood for Mr. Blodgett."
"Well, you needn't," cried Polly, "pity me, Ben, for Joel's so very happy. And poor Mr. Blodgett! O dear, it's too bad his barn's all burnt up."
"And the horse and the cow," said Ben, very soberly.
"Hush!" warned Polly, looking around to see if Phronsie heard. Luckily, she was in the bedroom, sitting down by the lower bureau drawer, which was open, and trying on her red-topped shoes, getting every button into the wrong button-hole. "Oh, Ben," Polly rushed up to whisper in his ear, "I do think that was too dreadful for anything."