THE ADVENTURES OF JOEL PEPPER
By MARGARET SIDNEY
I. JOEL AND THE SNAKE
II. WHAT DAVE HEARD
III. DEACON BROWN'S NAIL PILE
IV. THE MUFFIN MAN AND THE TRAMP
V. ON BANDY LEG MOUNTAIN
VI. AB'M'S BIRTHDAY PARTY
VII. JOEL GOES A-FISHING
VIII. WHY THEY SAID NO
IX. THE BAG OF RYE FLOUR
X. MAMSIE'S SURPRISE
XI. DR. FISHER'S VISIT
XII. AT GRANDMA BASCOM'S
XIII. PASSENGERS FOR THE BOXFORD STAGE
XIV. DEACON BLODGETT'S BONFIRE
XV. OLD MAN PETERS' CENT
XVI. THE STAGE-COACH RIDE
XVII. THE FIGHT AT STRAWBERRY HILL
XVIII. IN THE LITTLE BROWN HOUSE
XIX. CIRCUS PLANS
XX. CIRCUS OR MENAGERIE?
XXI. JOEL'S CIRCUS
XXII. THE MINISTER'S CHICKENS
XXIII. THE BLACKBERRIES AND THE BULL
XXIV. HOW JOEL STARTED THE FIRE
XXV. JOEL SELLS SHOES FOR MR. BEEBE
XXVI. Miss PARROTT'S COACH AND THE COASTING
XXVII. PRINCES AND PRINCESSES
THE ADVENTURES OF JOEL PEPPER
JOEL AND THE SNAKE
"Come on, Dave!"
It was Joel's voice, and Polly pricked up her ears. "'Tisn't going to hurt you. Hoh! you're a 'fraid-cat—old 'fraid-cat!"
"No, I'm not 'fraid-cat," declared little Davie, trying to speak stoutly; "I'm coming, Joel," and his little rusty shoes pattered unevenly down the rickety board walk.
"Jo-el!" called Polly, thinking it quite time now to interfere.
Joel scuttled behind the old woodshed, and several smothered grunts proclaimed his disapproval at the interruption.
"Now I know you're up to some mischief," declared Polly, "so you just come into the house, Joel Pepper, and tell me what it is."
"'Tisn't," said Joel, loudly insisting. "Don't go, Dave," in a loud whisper. Thereupon ensued a lively scuffle, evidently, by the noise they made.
"I must," said little Davie; "Polly called us."
"No, she didn't call you," declared Joel. "You stay here. She said 'Joel.'"
"Bo-oys!" sang out Polly's voice, not to have any doubt in the matter.
"There, she did call me," cried Davie, wriggling to get free from Joel's clutch; "she said 'boys!'"
"She's always calling us," said Joel, in an injured voice, dragging himself away from the charms of the woodshed to straggle slowly back to the house.
There sat Polly on the big stone that served as a step for the back door, with her hands folded in her lap. Little Davie skipped by Joel, and ran up to her, with a flushed face.
"Now I should like to know what you've been up to, Joey Pepper?" said Polly, her brown eyes full on him.
"Haven't been up to anything," mumbled Joel, hanging his chubby face.
"Yes, you have, I know," declared Polly, in her most positive fashion; "now tell me what it is, and right straight off, Joel. Begin." She kept her hands still folded in her lap. "What were you going to do?"
Joel squirmed all over the little patch of ground before the flat doorstone, and dug the toes of his shoes into the dirt.
"Don't do so," cried Polly. "You'll get bigger holes in 'em. Oh, Joel, to think how naughty you are, and Mamsie away!"
At that Joel gave a loud howl, nearly upsetting Polly from her stone; then, digging his two fists into his eyes, he plunged forward and thrust his black head on the folded hands in her lap. "I ain't naughty," he screamed. "I ain't, and Mamsie won't care. O dear—ooh—ooh!"
"Tell me what you were going to do, before I can say you are not naughty," said Polly, dreadfully frightened at his outburst, but not unfolding her hands.
"I was only going to—going to—going to—" mumbled Joel, trying to burrow past her hands, and get into the comforting lap.
"Going to do what?" demanded Polly, still not moving.
"I was going to—going to—" said Joel, in smothered tones.
"Stop saying you were going to," commanded Polly, in her firmest tones.
"You told me to tell you," said Joel. "O dear! I was going to—"
"Well, tell then, at once; what were you going to do? Hurry up, Joe; now go on."
"I was going to—" began Joel again. "O dear me! I was going to—" he mumbled, burrowing deeper yet.
"Joel Pepper!" cried Polly, in a tone that brought him bolt upright, his round face streaked with tears that his dirty little hands had tried to wipe off, the rest of them trailing over his round nose. "O dear me! Now you must go into the 'provision room' and stay. Don't you remember Mamsie said you'd have to go there the next time you wouldn't tell what you'd done?" And Polly looked as if she were going to cry at once.
"Oh, no—no!" screamed Joel, in the greatest distress, and clutching Polly's arm. "I'll tell you, Polly; I'll tell." And he began to rattle off a lot of words, but Polly stopped him.
"No, it's too late now. I've said it, and you must go; for Mamsie wouldn't like it if you didn't."
Thereupon Joel gave a terrible howl. Little Davie, in distress, clapped his hands to his ears. "Oh, Polly, don't make him," he was saying, when heavy steps came around the corner of the house. "Any ra-ags to sell?" sang out the voice of a very big man.
Joel took one black eye away from his brown hands, and shot a sharp look at him. Then he howled worse than ever.
"No," said Polly, "not to-day, Mr. Biggs. There was a bagful Mamsie said I might sell, but I can't get it now."
"Sho! that's too bad," ejaculated Mr. Biggs. "What's the matter with him?" pointing a square, dingy thumb at Joel. "Stomach-ache?"
"No," said Polly, sadly, "it's worse than that. Please go away, Mr. Biggs, and come some other day."
"Worse'n stomach-ache," said Mr. Biggs, in astonishment, and slapping his big hands together; "then I can't take him with me. But t'other one might go, if you say so, marm." He always called Polly marm, and she liked it very much. He now pointed to David.
"Where are you going?" asked Polly, while
David took away his hands from his ears to hear, too.
"Why, you see, marm, Mis' Pettingill, up to th'East Quarter—you know Mis' Pettingill?"
"No," said Polly.
"I do," roared Joel, forgetting his distress. "I know, Polly. She lives in a nice yellow house, and there's a duck-pond, and cherry trees." He pranced up to Mr. Biggs, smiling through his tears.
"That's it," cried Mr. Biggs, delighted at being understood. "This boy knows." He laid his hand heavily on Joel's shoulder. "Well, he seems to be better now, so I'll take him and t'other one along of me, marm, if you say so. Ye see, Mis' Pettingill told me to come up there sometime, 'cause she's got a lot o' rags—ben a-makin' quilts, she said, all winter, and I laid out to go to-day, so here I be, on my way."
"Whickets!" shouted Joel, the last tear gone. "Come on, Dave. Oh, won't we have fun! I'm going to sit in the middle. Let me drive. Let me, Mr. Biggs." He swarmed all over the big rag-man.
Little David stood perfectly still and clasped his hands in delight.
Polly drew a long breath, and the rosy color flew out of her cheek. "You can't go, Joe," she said slowly. "Mamsie wouldn't like it, after you've been naughty."
Joel's arms fell down at his side, and he stared wildly at her a moment. Then he flung himself flat on the ground and roared.
"He's worse agin," said Mr. Biggs, in great distress. "I guess he wants pep'mint. My mother used to give me that when I'd et green apples."
But Polly shook her head. "He can't go, Mr. Biggs," she said; "but Davie can."
At this little Davie gave a squeal of joy, and took three steps down the grass plot, but stopped suddenly.
"All right," said Mr. Biggs, heartily. "Come on, boy; I must be off. It's a good piece down to Mis' Pettingill's. And she always wants me to take time a-weighin' her rags." And he began to lumber off.
"I don't want to go if Joel can't," said Davie, slowly, and turning his back to the red rag-wagon waiting out in the road. He twisted his fingers hard, and kept saying, "No, I don't want to go, Polly, if Joel can't."
"All right, Davie," said Polly, beginning to cuddle him; "only you must remember, Mr. Biggs won't go again this summer out to Mrs. Pettingill's, most likely."
Davie shook his head again, and twisted his fingers worse than ever. "I don't want to go if Joel can't," he said, while Joel roared harder still, if that were possible. So Polly had to run down the grassy slope to overtake Mr. Biggs, who was now getting up into his red cart, in front of the dangling tin dishes, brooms, and pails with which it was filled.
"If you please, sir," she said, the rosy color all over her cheek, "there can't either of the boys go."
"Hey? What's the matter with the littlest one," cried Mr. Biggs, turning around with one foot on the shaft. "Is he took sick, too?"
"No—no," said Polly, clasping her hands in distress, "but he won't go unless Joel goes. Oh, I do thank you so much, Mr. Biggs, for asking them."
"Sho now! that's too bad," said the rag-man, his foot still on the shaft, and his big face wrinkled perplexedly. "Beats all, how suddint they're took. Now you better give 'em a dose o' pep'mint, marm, both on 'em."
But Polly shook her head as she ran back up the grassy slope again. So Mr. Biggs had nothing to do but to drive off, which he did, staring hard at them; and every little while he turned back, to gaze in astonishment over his shoulder, until the big red wagon went round the slope of the hill and was lost to view.
"Now, Joel," said Polly, firmly, "you must just stop making such a noise, and go right into the provision room, and get the stool, and sit down till I tell you to get up."
To sit down on the old wooden stool in the middle of the provision room, with the door shut, was one of the worst punishments that Mrs. Pepper inflicted; and Polly's cheek got quite white. Little Davie, on seeing this, untwisted his fingers and went up to her. "Don't cry, Polly," he said suddenly, as he saw her face, and laid his hand in hers.
Joel stopped roaring, and looked up at her through his tears.
"I'm not going to cry," said Polly, "because I know Joel will be good now, and go at once and get on his stool in the provision room."
Joel swallowed hard and stumbled up to his feet, wiping his cheeks with the back of one grimy hand.
"That's right," said Polly; "now go right in and shut the door."
"O dear me," said little Davie, hiding his face in Polly's gown, as Joel went slowly off. They could hear the provision room door shut. Then Polly turned. "Oh, Davie," she cried. Then she stopped, at the sight of his face.
"Now you and I must go in the house and think of something to do for Mamsie before she gets home," she cried in a cheery burst. So they both hurried in over the old flat stone.
"Now what will it be, Davie?" asked Polly, with another glance at his pale little face. "Let's think," she wrinkled her brows in perplexity.
"We can't wash the dishes," said Davie, slowly, standing quite still in the middle of the old kitchen, "'cause they're all done, Polly."
"No, and we can't wash the floor, 'cause that's all done," said Polly, wrinkling her forehead worse than ever. "Dear me, we must think of something, Davie. O dear me, what can it be?"
"We might," said little David, slowly, "try to write some letters, Polly. That would make Mamsie glad, I guess."
"O dear me," exclaimed Polly, in dismay, "I suppose it would, Davie." She sighed, and stood quite still.
"I s'pose Mamsie would say, 'How nice,'" said little David, reflectively.
"And you and I ought to get right at it this very minute," declared Polly, all her energy returning to her after that one dreadful pause, "so come on." And presently the two had the old table against the wall pulled out into the middle of the kitchen floor, and Polly ran and got the big piece of foolscap paper laid away carefully in the upper bureau drawer in the bedroom. Across the top ran the letters set there by the minister in obedience to Mrs. Pepper's request.
"I'll get the brown paper—let me, Polly," cried David, quite in his usual spirits now. And he clambered up, and got out a carefully folded piece laid away after it had come home wrapped around one of the parcels of coats and sacks Mrs. Pepper had taken to sew.
"Won't it be most beautiful when we can write on the white paper, Polly?" he cried, as he ran back into the kitchen, waving the brown paper at her.
Polly set the precious copy along the top of the white foolscap, straight on the table.
"Oh, that will be a long time, Davie," she said, gazing in an awe-struck way at the array of wonderful letters Parson Henderson had made for them. "Mamsie won't ever let us try until we can make 'em good and straight. O dear me, I don't s'pose I'll ever get a chance." She sighed; for writing bothered Polly dreadfully. "The old pen twists all up whenever I get it in my hand, and everything goes crooked."
"Oh, Polly, you're going to write real nice, by and by," said little Davie, setting down the brown paper, and smoothing out the creases. "Now where's the ink-bottle? Let me get it, Polly, do," he begged, running over to the corner cupboard.
"No, you mustn't, Dave," said Polly in alarm, "you'll spill it. I'll get it," hurrying after him.
"I won't spill it, Polly"—but Polly was already on her tiptoes, and lifting down the old black ink-horn that had been Father Pepper's. "Isn't it nice that Mrs. Henderson filled it up for us so good?" she said, carrying it over carefully to set on the table. "You can get the pen, Davie."
So David ran over to the shelf where, in a corner behind the little china mug given to Phronsie when she was a baby, lay the pen in its long black holder. Getting up on a chair, he seized it.
"If Phronsie hadn't gone with Mamsie, she'd want to write," he said, "wouldn't she, Polly?" as he hopped down again.
"Yes, indeed," said Polly, drawing up the inkstand into the best place, and sighing. "Well, dear me, I'd ever so much rather hold her hand while she writes, than to do it myself." And she gave a long stretch.
"Then you wouldn't ever learn yourself," said little Davie, wisely, and putting the pen down carefully.
"No," said Polly, with a little laugh, "I s'pose I shouldn't, Davie." O dear me, she thought, I ought not to laugh when Joel's in there all alone in the provision room. "Well, now we're all ready. I'm just going to peek and see if he's all right. You stay here, Davie."
With that she hopped off down the little steps to look through the big crack in the old door of the provision room.
"Why—where—" she started back and rubbed her eyes, and stared again. "Oh! Davie," she screamed. Then she clapped her hands over her mouth. "It never'd do to scare him," she said. And she opened the provision room door and rushed in. The old stool stood in the middle of the floor, but there was no Joel to be seen.
Polly ran here and there. "Joel—Joel!" she cried, peering into every corner, and looking into the potato bag and behind some boxes that the storekeeper had given the boys to make things out of, and that were kept as great treasures. "O dear me, what shall I do? I must tell Davie now, so he can help me find him—" when she heard a funny noise, and rushing outside, she heard Joel say, "Don't come, Polly, he's 'most dead."
Polly gave a gasp, and bounded to his side, as Joel flopped around on the ground, his back toward her, his black eyes fastened on something doubled up in his fists.
"O dear me, Joel, what is it?" cried Polly, bending over him.
"Ow—go way!" roared Joel, twisting worse than ever, and squeezing his brown hands together tightly; "he'll get away, maybe, and bite you."
"Oh, he'll bite you, Joe," cried Polly, in great alarm. "O dear me, let me see what it is! I can help, Joel, I can help."
She flung herself down on the ground close to his side. Just then out rushed Davie from the provision room.
"Keep him away, keep him away," screamed Joel, trying to turn his back on both of them. But Polly caught sight of a dangling thing hanging from his clenched hands.
"Oh, Joel!" She gave one scream, "It's a snake!"
"I know it," said Joel, trying to twitch back again; "it's an ugly mean old adder, Polly, but he's most dead. I've squeezed his neck."
"Let me see him," cried Polly. "Turn around, Joel. I'll help you. O dear me!" as Joel whirled back, the long body of the snake flopping from one side to the other. "If he'd keep still, I could cut off his tail high up. I'll go and get the hatchet—" and she ran off.
"Hoh! you needn't," cried Joel after her, in great dudgeon, and giving a final wrench. "There, I've deaded him; see, Polly—see, Dave!" and he held the snake up triumphantly.
"A snake!" screamed Davie, tumbling over backward on the grass. "O dear me, it's a snake, Polly!" and he huddled up his feet and tucked them under him.
"Ain't he big?" cried Joel, swinging the long dangling body at Davie as Polly ran back.
"Don't scare him, Joel," she cried. "O goodness me! What a big one, and a gray adder, too. Oh, Joel, are you sure he didn't bite you anywhere? Do throw him down and let me see," she begged anxiously. But Joel swung the snake back and forth. "Hoh, I guess not!" he said scornfully, "not a single snip, Polly. Ain't he big! I killed him all alone by myself."
"Yes—yes, but do put him down, Joel," she begged, "and let me see if you're all right."
So Joel at last set his snake on the ground, and straightened out his tail; then he commenced to run all around him. "Ain't he a buster, Polly!" he cried, his eyes shining.
Polly looked at him reprovingly out of her brown eyes. "Mamsie wouldn't like you to say that word," she began. "But you won't again, I know," seeing his face.
"No," said Joel, brightening up, "I won't, Polly. But ain't he big! You couldn't a-killed him, Dave," he cried at little Davie tucking up his toes under him on the grass.
"No," said Davie. "O dear me, he may be alive and bite us all now."
"Hoh!" exclaimed Joel, "he's just as dead as anything. See!" and he twitched up the long gray snake by the tip of the tail and swung it over his head.
"Oh, don't, Joe!" begged Polly, running over to put her arms around David, who burrowed into them as far as he could. "Do put him down, and come and tell us how you killed him. There, let's all sit down on the doorstep. Come, boys."
"I'm going to hold my snake," announced Joel, stopping the swing in mid-air to pat the adder's head lovingly. "Ain't he sweet, Polly?"
Davie shivered and turned his eyes away.
"No, you must not hold him," said Polly, decisively. "If you do, you can't sit on the step beside us."
"Then I won't hold him," said Joel, running up to them, "but I'll have him close to me," and he laid the snake by the side of the doorstep. "I'm going to sit here by you, Polly."
Little Davie thrust up his head and looked fearfully around Polly.
"You can't have that snake here, Joel," announced Polly, in her most determined tone. "Put him off on the grass in the orchard," as the one scraggy apple tree was called. "Now hurry, like a good boy, and then come and tell us how you killed him."
"I can't see him good, 'way off there," grumbled Joel, and picking up his snake he dragged him through the grass. "Just a little bit nearer," he pleaded.
"Not a single bit of an inch nearer, Joel Pepper," said Polly, firmly. So Joel laid the snake down and ran back and sat down on the end of the step by Polly.
"Now begin," said Polly.
"Well, I was sittin' on the old stool," said Joel, his chubby face getting very red, "when I heard a scrunchin' an' a swishin', an' I thought 'twas you, Polly, so I didn't look round."
"No," said Polly, with a little shiver, "it wasn't me. Go on, Joey."
"Well, it scrunched an' it swished, and it didn't stop, so then I looked around."
"O dear me!" exclaimed Polly, throwing one arm around Joel, and drawing him to her. Little Davie sat up quite straight and folded his hands.
"And he was sticking up his head behind the potato bag, looking at me just like this." Joel flew off the doorstep and stood up as tall as possible and ran out his tongue.
Little Davie gave a loud scream. "Oh, you brave Joel!" exclaimed Polly, tumbling off from the doorstep to throw her arms around him, and kiss his stubby black hair.
"Phoo! that's nothing!" cried Joel, who always hated to be praised.
"And I'm just as proud of you as I can be," Polly ran on with kindling eyes. "Oh, Joel!"
Joel wriggled all over with delight at that "Oh, Joel!"
"And now come back and tell us the rest," said Polly, hanging to his brown hand. "Go on, Joel," as they sat down again on the doorstep.
"Well, he looked at me, and I looked at him," said Joel, "and then I said 'Squish!' and he bobbed down his head, just a minute, and I jumped and I grabbed him by the neck, and that's all, Polly." And Joel gave a long stretch.
But Polly had her arms around his neck. "Oh, you brave, brave Joel," she cried. "Mamsie'll be so proud of you! Think what she'll say when she comes home!"
WHAT DAVE HEARD
"Dave," said Joel, in a whisper. It was the middle of the night, and the loft was very still, save for Ben's breathing over in his bed in the corner.
"Don't say a word!" Joel laid his mouth close to the ear on the straw pillow; "if you do, I'll nip you and snip you."
"Ow!" said little Davie, huddling down under the scanty blanket and dragging it over his head.
"Sh—, be still!" cried Joel, with a wrathful pinch. "Ben'll hear you,—there now, just see!"
"What's the matter, boys?" asked Ben, sleepily.
Down flew Joel in a heap under his end of the blanket, where he bestowed a kick from one set of toes on David in a little heap against the wall.
The loft was as still as a mouse, so Ben turned over again. "I guess Joel wanted a drink of water, and he's gone to sleep and forgot all about it. Now, that's good," and off he went again.
Joel's black stubby head popped up, and he peered into the darkness. "Now, I've got to wait ever'n ever so long," he grumbled softly to himself. "No, there he goes!" he added joyfully, as Ben breathed hard. "Now, Dave," he rolled over and ducked under the blanket-end, "if you scream again, I'll snip, and snip, and snip you, most dreadful."
"I won't," declared little David, fearfully. "Oh, I won't, Joe," huddling off from the little brown fingers.
"Promise, now, you'll never tell,—black and blue,—hope to die if I do."
"We must tell Mamsie," said David.
Joel gave an impatient wriggle. "Mamsie won't care, and she's too busy. Now say it, 'black and—"'
"And we must tell Polly," cried little Davie, in a smothered voice. "Oh, Joel, we must tell Polly."
"Sh!" cried Joel, with a warning pinch on the small arm that sent David into a worse heap than before. "Now, you've gone and waked Ben up again," and he pricked up one ear from under the bedclothes.
"Oh!" exclaimed little David, thinking of Mamsie and Polly whom he was not to tell.
Joel drew a long breath, as Ben did not stir.
"Well, say 'black and blue—hope to die if I do,'" commanded Joel, sliding back again under the blanket. "Hurry up, Dave."
"'Black and—blue—hope—to die if I do,'" mumbled poor little David, stuffing the end of the blanket into his mouth, trying not to cry as he thought of Mamsie and Polly.
"Now, you know I've found a cave, and I'm goin' up there to live some day," announced Joel in a smothered whisper, his mouth close to David's ear.
"Where?" cried David, fearfully.
"Sh! don't speak so loud. Over in 'Bandy Leg Mountain.'"
"Ooh,—dear me!" cried David, stopping himself in the middle of a scream. "Won't old 'Bandy Leg' catch you, Joel?"
"Hoh—no, I ain't afraid!" declared Joel. "He's been dead a hundred years, I guess. An' beside, I could knock him flat, yes, sir-ree!" He doubled up his little brown fist, and bounced up in the middle of the old shake-down.
"What's the matter, Joe?" called Ben, sleepily; "turn over and go to sleep, and you'll forget again about the drink of water."
Joel flung himself flat, and burrowed along the whole length of the bed, knocking Davie's shins all the way.
"You're pullin' all the blanket off me," said Davie, clutching his end from Joel's frantic grasp.
"Go to sleep, boys," said Ben, sharply. "And Joe, stop grumbling for a drink of water. Now you've waked up David."
Joel gripped Davie fast and clapped one hand over his mouth.
"Dear me, I think Ben might stay asleep a minute," he muttered in an injured voice. "Now, don't you speak a single word and I'll tell you all about it," after a long pause, in which they heard nothing but a rat nibbling away in the corner.
"I'm goin' up there to-morrow, an' I'm goin' to take my gun, an' some things to eat, an'—"
"Oh, Joel!" interrupted little David, "you can't ever in all this world. Polly won't let you."
"Polly'll let us go an' play some to-morrow," said Joel, sturdily, "'cause there ain't any work to do. So there now! An' maybe I'll see a bear. An'——"
"O dear me!" exclaimed little Davie, quite overcome, and trembling in every limb. "He'll eat you. Joel, I'm going to tell Polly."
"You can't," said Joel, coolly; "you said 'Black-an-blue-hope- to-die-if-I-do,' and I'm goin' to take you."
"Oh, I can't go," declared Davie, bouncing up in terror. "I ain't goin'. I ain't, Joey. I ain't——"
"Sh-sh!" warned Joel, with another nip.
"I ain't—I ain't—" cried David, softly, through his tears.
"Pshaw! I guess there ain't any bear up there," said Joel, scornfully. "Be still, Dave!"
"An' old—old Bandy Legs'll catch—catch me," mumbled David, digging his small knuckles into his eyes.
"Old Bandy Legs has been dead ever'n ever so long. I guess a thousand years," said Joel; "an' there's flowers there—oh, most beautiful ones!"
"Are there?" asked David, taking down his hands. "What kinds, Joel?"
"Oh, all sorts. The most be-yewtiful flowers, red and yellow and green, you can't think, Dave Pepper."
"I never saw a green flower," said little David, thoughtfully.
"Well, they're up there. Oh, sights an' sights," said Joel, recklessly. "An' pink and blue an'——"
"Are you sure there are green flowers up there, Joel?" asked David, huddling up to him close.
"Sh—stop talking—oh, the most beyewtiful things, I tell you, grow up by that cave."
"I might go up and get some not very near the cave, Joel," said Davie, after a long breath. "Not very near."
"So you could," said Joel, quickly. "Then I guess you'll be glad, Dave Pepper, that you came up with me."
"I shall bring down most of the green ones, Joey," cried little David, joyfully, "'cause I can get the others down below the mountain."
"Yes—yes," whispered Joel, impatiently.
"An' if I plant 'em, they'll grow, and then Mamsie'll be glad, an' Polly too," he whispered, dreadfully excited. "Won't Polly be glad though, Joe? She's never seen a green flower."
"Yes; now go to sleep," cried Joel, with a nudge, "and remember not to say a word to me to-morrow about it."
"Can't I say anything to you behind the wood pile?" asked David, in surprise.
"No, not a teenty word. An' don't you look at me. If you do, Old Bandy Legs'll come after you."
"You said he was dead," cried David in a fearful whisper, and crouching tight to Joel and gripping him with both arms. "O dear me!"
"So he is; but he'll catch you if you say a single word. Now go to sleep, an' when I tell you to come with me to-morrow, you must start just as quick as scat."
"I shall take a basket for the green flowers," said Davie, trying not to think of "Old Bandy Legs."
"No, you mustn't; you can bring 'em down in your arms."
"I can't bring many," said little David, swallowing hard. "I can't bring many, Joe, an' Polly'll want some in her garden."
"Well, old Bandy Legs won't let you get any, if you don't stop," said Joel, crossly, "so there now!" and he rolled off to the edge of the old straw bed, and in two minutes was fast asleep, leaving little Davie peering up at the rafters to watch for the first streak of light, determined to get as many green flowers as he possibly could for Polly's garden.
"I'll twist up a birch-bark basket, to bring 'em down in," he decided. And the first thing either of them knew, there was Polly shaking their arms and laughing. "You lazy little things, you—get up! I've been calling and calling and calling you to breakfast."
Joel and David flew up into the middle of the bed.
"Joe was teasing all night for a drink of water," said Ben, as Polly ran down into the kitchen. "An' I was just going to get up and fetch him some, when he tumbled to sleep again."
"Dear me," said Polly, rushing at her work; "well, I'll keep their porridge warm. Now, Phronsie, you can't help me about these dishes."
"I'm just as big since yesterday," said Phronsie, standing up on her tiptoes to turn an injured face to Polly. "See, Polly."
"So you are," said Polly, bursting into a laugh. "Well, I tell you, Pet, what you might do that would help me more."
"More than to wash the dishes, Polly?" cried Phronsie, tumbling down from her tiptoes. "Oh, do tell me, Polly!" And she ran up to her, and seized Polly's check apron with both fat little hands.
"Why, you see I can't do the dishes, all of 'em, till the boys get through their breakfast," said Polly, with a sober face, looking at the old clock, as she thought of the seams on the sacks she was going to fly at as soon as the work was done in the kitchen. How nice it was that Mamsie had promised she might try this very morning while Mrs. Pepper was down at the parsonage, mending the minister's study carpet. "Now I guess the money'll begin to come in, and Mamsie won't have to work so hard," thought Polly over and over, and her heart beat merrily, and the color flew over her cheek.
"Tell me, Polly," begged little Phronsie, holding the apron tight.
"Well, now, Pet, there's a snarl of thread in the work-basket. Don't you remember, the spool rolled under the table, and nobody saw it go, and the boys kicked it up and made it into a mess, an' Mamsie put it into the little bag, an' I was to pick it out when I got time? If you only could do that, Phronsie, just think how it would help."
Phronsie gave a long sigh. She dropped the apron, and folded her hands. "Would it help so very much, Polly?" she asked.
"Ever an' ever so much," said Polly. "You needn't do but a little now, an' some other day p'raps you could do some more."
"I'm going to do it all," said Phronsie, shaking her yellow head determinedly. So she got her little wooden chair from against the wall, and set it in the middle of the kitchen floor, and then brought the little cotton bag out of the old work-basket. "I shall do it all this very one minute," she declared softly, as she sat down and drew out the snarl of thread.
"Now, boys," called Polly, as she took one look at her, and just stopped to drop a kiss on the yellow hair, "you must just come downstairs this very minute. If you don't, you can't have any breakfast."
"Coming," sang Joel, and presently down he tumbled, two steps at a time, pulling on his jacket as he went.
"Such a long time to stay abed," reproved Polly; "just think of it, it's after seven o'clock, Joel Pepper, and Mamsie's been gone half an hour!"
"An' I'm working," said Phronsie, twitching at the end of the thread with an important air. "I'm going to pick out the whole of this, I am, for Mamsie. See, Joey!" She held up the snarl, and away the spool raced, as if glad to get off once more.
"Hoh!" said Joel, "you're making it worse'n ever, Phron."
"No, I'm not," cried Phronsie, clutching the snarl with both little fists. "Oh, no, I'm not; am I, Polly?" And the big tears began to race over her round cheeks.
"No," said Polly. "Oh, for shame, Joel, to make Phronsie cry!"
"I didn't make her cry," denied Joel, stoutly, his face working badly. "I'll get the spool—I'll get the spool. See, Polly, here 'tis," and he dived under the table, and came up bright and shining with it in his hand.
"There now, Phronsie; see, Joel's got it for you," said Polly, beaming at him. "Now, Pet, I'll tell you what, let's put Mamsie's basket on the floor, and old Mr. Spool in it. There, Joey, drop him in, then he can't run away again. Now, then!"
"Mr. Spool can't run away again," smiled Phronsie through her tears, and leaning out of her little wooden chair to see Joel drop the spool in. "That's nice, Polly, isn't it? Now he can't run away again," she hummed.
"Indeed, it is," sang Polly, delighted; "he's fast now, so fly at your snarl, Pet, Mamsie'll be so pleased to think you've picked out some of it."
"I'm going to pick it all out," declared Phronsie in a tone of determination. And wiping off the tears on the back of her fat little hand, she set to work, humming away again to herself.
"Now, whatever keeps David!" cried Polly, dishing out Joel's mush from the kettle on the stove, and setting the bowl on the table.
"He's coming," said Joel, hastily. "O dear me, I wish we ever had anything, Polly Pepper, but mush and molasses for breakfast!"
"Some people don't have anything half as good," said Polly, starting for the stairs.
"What don't they have?" asked Joel in alarm, as he watched her go.
"Oh, I don't know; different things. Da-vid!" she called.
"You said they didn't have things half as good," said Joel, stopping with a spoonful of porridge halfway to his mouth. "So you know what they are, now, Polly Pepper."
"Oh, well, they don't. Plenty and plenty of people don't get near as good things as we have every day for breakfast."
"What are they, the things the plenty and plenty of people get?" persisted Joel, beginning on his breakfast comfortably, since Polly was going to talk.
"Oh—let me see," said Polly, pausing at the foot of the stairs. "Old bread, for one thing."
"Is it mouldy?" asked Joel.
"Um—yes, I s'pose so," answered Polly, wrinkling up her face. "Eat your own breakfast, Joe, and not stop to think of what other people have. Da-vid!'"
"You said 'things,'" said Joel, severely, "and you only told me mouldy old bread, Polly Pepper! What else?"
"O dear, I don't know."
"I mean—well, cold potatoes, for one thing. I s'pose most everybody has potatoes. Now eat your breakfast, Joey Pepper. Those are things. Eat your breakfast this minute!"
When Polly spoke in that tone, the three little Peppers knew they must obey. Joel ducked his head over his bowl of mush, and began to hurry the spoonfuls as fast as he could into his mouth.
"I must go up and see what is the matter with David," said Polly, preparing to run up the stairs. Just at this moment he appeared coming slowly down. "Oh, here you are!" cried Polly, brightly, running over to the old stove to dish out his bowl of mush. "Now, Davie, fly at your breakfast, 'cause I've got to sew all the morning just as hard as ever I can."
DEACON BROWN'S NAIL PILE
"Now, boys," said Polly, as Joel pushed back his chair, "I want you to help me, that is, as soon as Davie has finished his breakfast."
"Oh, that's too bad," grumbled Joel, loudly, "when we got all our kindlings chopped yesterday, an' there ain't anything else to do. You know you said we could play to-day, Polly Pepper!"
"I didn't say all day; but of course you can," replied Polly, with a fine scorn, "if you don't want to help, Joel. I'm sure the little brown house can get along without a boy who isn't glad to make it as nice as he possibly can."
The idea of the little brown house getting along without him made Joel aghast at once, and he stood quite still. Davie laid down his spoon, and got out of his chair quickly.
"What is it, Polly?" he cried, the pink color all over his cheek.
"Dear me!" cried Polly, merrily, "the very idea of a boy trying to help who hasn't finished his breakfast. Go back and eat every bit of that mush and molasses, Davie dear; then, says I, we'll see what you can do."
"I'll be through in just a minute, Polly." David ran back and clambered into his chair, plying his spoon so fast that Polly cried in dismay, "Oh, Davie, you'll choke yourself!"
"No, I won't," said Davie, with a very red face, and swallowing hard, "it's all slipping down. There, see, Polly. I'm all through; truly I am." He got out of his chair again, and ran up to her.
"So you are," said Polly, glancing approvingly at the bare bowl. "Well now, I'll tell you, Davie, what you can do. You know that pile of old nails that Deacon Brown said Ben might have? Well, 'tisn't nice, you know, to play all day, so you may pick over some of 'em, and get the good ones out. Ben will be so surprised, even if you don't get but a few ready."
"I'm going to work all the morning at 'em," declared little Davie, gladly, hopping off toward the door.
"No, I don't want you to work but a little while," said Polly, decisively, and picking up the breakfast dishes to wash. "You can have most all to-day to play in. And then some other day, when there isn't any other work to do, you can pick over some more; and pretty soon, before you know it, they'll all be done, and Ben'll be so surprised, for they'll be ready when he wants to mend the woodshed."
"I don't want to pick over any crooked old nails," proclaimed Joel, loudly, and knocking his heels against the pantry door. "I sh'd think Deacon Brown might have given us some good ones."
"For shame, Joel!" said Polly, hurrying across the floor with the pile of dishes; "it's fine of him to give us these. And there are lots of good ones amongst 'em."
"You told me not to say 'lots,' the other day," said Joel, with a sharp look out of his black eyes to see if Polly would relent.
"So I did," she cried, and the color flew over her cheek. "Dear me, it is so hard not to say things that you don't like to hear other people say."
"Well, I don't want to pick over old rusty nails," said Joel, ignoring this remark, "and it's real mean, Polly Pepper, to make me, when I want to go and play!" And he kicked his heels worse than ever.
"I don't make you," said Polly, pouring the hot water into the dish-pan and dashing in the soap, "but I shouldn't think it was nice to go out to play right after breakfast. You might work an hour, and then you'd enjoy the play all the better."
"I'd enjoy the play now. And a whole hour, too!" cried Joel, in a dudgeon. "Why, Polly Pepper! a whole hour!"
"That's right, Davie," said Polly, smiling brightly at him, as the little fellow ran out into the woodshed. Then she began to sing, without looking at Joel.
"A whole hour," shouted Joel. But Polly kept a cold shoulder toward him, running up and down in a merry song till a little bird outside the window trilled away as hard as he could, to keep her company.
"A whole hour—" Joel ran up and pulled her dress. "It's as mean as it can be to make me work a whole hour, Polly Pepper!"
"Chee—chee—chee," called the little bird, and away Polly sang, splashing the dishes up and down in the hot soap-suds, till the old kitchen seemed full of merry bustle. Joel regarded her closely for two or three minutes, and then went slowly out.
David was up on top of the wood bin in the shed, and tugging at the box of nails that Ben had put on one of the beams.
"I can't get it down," he said. "Come help me, Joel, do."
But Joel kicked his feet on the woodshed floor. So little David gave another pull at the box, wavered, and clutched wildly at the air, and before Joel could speak, came tumbling down, and after him, the heavy box, spilling the nails as it fell. He lay quite still, and Joel only stopped to take one look.
"Oh, Polly, Dave's killed, I guess," he screamed, rushing into the kitchen, his face working fearfully.
Polly stopped her song in mid-air, and turned quite white. "Oh, no, I guess not," she said with a gasp, as she saw his face. Then she remembered Phronsie. "Come out here, Joe," and she gently pushed him out into the little entry.
"I guess I'll go, too," said Phronsie, who had been humming a soft refrain to Polly's song, and laying down the snarl carefully in Mamsie's big work-basket she went softly out after them.
"Now, Joel," Polly was saying out of white lips, "don't you scream. Think of Phronsie, and—"
"What is it, Polly?" asked Phronsie's soft voice.
"O dear me! What shall I do!" Polly turned. "Phronsie dear, you mustn't come now." Joel had sunk down and covered his face with his hands, trying not to scream. "Go right back to your chair, Polly says so. Be a good girl, Pet." She looked straight into the blue eyes wide with astonishment at being sent back.
"Please let me, Polly," begged the little girl.
"No," said Polly, firmly, "Mamsie wouldn't like it. Go back, Phronsie, and shut the door."
Phronsie turned without a word and went slowly back, and as Polly seized Joel's hand and sped into the woodshed, they could hear the kitchen door shut, and knew that she had gone back to her chair.
When Polly and Joel reached little David, Joel was beyond words, and he fell down and flung his arms around the little figure. Davie stirred and moaned. "Help me lift him up, Joe," cried Polly, hoarsely.
"I couldn't get the nails," said David, "and then they all spilled. I'm sorry, Polly," and he opened his eyes and looked up into her white face.
When Joel saw that David could speak, he gave a great gasp. "It was my fault," he sobbed.
"Never mind, Davie dear," said Polly, soothingly. "We can pick the nails up."
"I'll pick 'em up," cried Joel, delighted to find something to do, and he sprang up and went scrambling around and sweeping them into a pile with his fingers, while the big tears trailed down his round cheeks.
"See, now," said Polly, trying to speak gayly, "how the old nails have to hop into the box again."
"So they do," said David, with a wan little smile. Then he shut his eyes.
"Run as fast as you can, Joe," said Polly, "and ask Grandma Bascom to come over." Then she lifted Davie and struggled with him to a pile of grain bags in the corner. "I can't get him into the bedroom till Joel helps me, and besides, I must get Phronsie out of the kitchen first," she thought. "Oh, God! please don't let Davie die," she cried deep in her heart.
Joel flew on the wings of the wind, his heart beating like a trip-hammer, over down across the lane to Grandma Bascom's little cottage. Grandma, with a tin pan full of wet corn meal, was just going out to feed her hens, when he dashed up behind her. "Please come!" he shouted, his trembling mouth close to her cap-border. "Polly wants you!"
"Polly's here, now that's nice!" said Grandma, well pleased. "You just wait a minute, and I'll be ready to see her. Come, Biddy-Biddy," she called, and waddling off, she gathered up a handful of the wet corn meal.
"Oh, come now!" roared Joe, and seizing her hand, he pulled her back toward the kitchen. "Dear Grandma Bascom, please come; Dave's killed, I guess," and before she knew it, she was halfway to the little brown house, and in a minute or two more there she was before Davie lying on the pile of grain bags, and Polly holding his hand, and fanning him with an old newspaper.
"He's all right," said Grandma, with a practised eye; "only just fainted a bit. Now 'tisn't anything to what my son John's Abram did one summer he spent with me. Used to tumble over most every day."
"He fell," said Polly. She could say no more, but pointed up to the beam. Then she found her voice. "The box of nails—I didn't know 'twas up there, see!" and she pointed to them, where Joel had tried to gather them up.
"He fell down from there?" asked Grandma, looking up at the beam.
Polly nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Joel wrung his hands together, and stood quite still.
"In that case," said Grandma, "this boy must go for Dr. Fisher just as soon as he can."
"Run, Joe, as hard as ever you can," gasped Polly.
No need to tell Joel that. Over the fields and across lots he ran like a deer, scaling stone walls in a flash, only to reach the doctor's house to be told that he was away twenty miles into the country. Then Joel sat down on the grass by the roadside, and burying his face in his hands, cried as if his heart would break.
He didn't mind that a pair of spirited black horses were coming down the road, the bright horses all a-jingle, and the carriage all a-bloom with gay colors, and merry with cheery voices.
"What's the matter?" called somebody to him, but he cried on as hard as he could.
Then his little shoulder in his homespun jacket was shaken smartly. "See here, my boy, either you tell me what you're screaming for, or I'll pick you up and carry you off."
Joel looked up, the streams of tears making muddy paths along his face, where he had rubbed it with his grimy hands. "Dave's killed," he burst out, "and the—the doctor's gone away!"
"Come on." It was a kind face that was over him, and in a minute Joel felt himself lifted by a pair of strong arms that presently tossed him into the carriage, in amongst the occupants, while the owner of the arms jumped in beside him. "Do you know the way home?" he asked.
"Of course," said Joel; "it's the little brown house—" then he began to cry again.
"See here, my lad, look at me." Joel rolled his eyes up at the man, the rest of the people keeping quite still to listen. "You are a brave boy, I know. Now I'm a doctor, and if you'll just take me to your house, I'll have a look at that Dave of yours. Which way?"
Joel sat bolt upright as well as he could, being crammed in between a big fat man and his kind friend, and directed this way and that way, his tears all gone, and before any one could hardly think twice, the pair of black horses and the jingling harness and big carriage had stopped before the little brown house, and the doctor was springing over the stepping-stones in such a lively fashion that Joel had to run to keep up with him, until there they were, with Grandma Bascom waddling around in search of some herbs that were drying in the corner of the woodshed, and Polly still holding David's hand as he lay on the pile of grain bags. And in five minutes the new doctor had all the examination made, and Davie was sitting up, his head on Polly's shoulder; and no bones were broken, and all the trouble was the fright produced by the shock of the fall. And the color flew back into Polly's cheek, and Grandma Bascom kept saying, "Praise the Lord—and who be ye, anyway?" bobbing her cap-border at the new doctor. And he laughed and didn't tell her.
But he did tell some funny stories. And little Davie laughed; and when they saw that, they all laughed, and the people out in the carriage said, "Just like Dr. Herman," and one tall girl, with her hat all covered with red roses, said, "Uncle John is always doing such queer things. I do wish he would hurry and come. It is too bad to have our driving tour interrupted like that." And pretty soon down the stepping-stones he came, as light and quick as could be, Grandma Bascom lifting both hands and calling after him, "Well, you're an angel of the Lord, anyway," and the new doctor was laughing. But he had stopped to look into Polly's brown eyes. "Don't worry, little girl, he's all right," he said.
Joel squeezed past them through the doorway, and ran after him.
"Please stop just a minute," he begged.
"Hey?" said the doctor, turning his foot on the step. The tall girl in the hat with big red roses looked impatient enough, and beat her foot on the carriage floor, but Joel kept on.
"I like you," he burst out, "ever'n ever so much."
The doctor put one hand on Joel's stubby black hair, and turned his grimy face up. "You've got to be a man," he said; "now look out for it while you're a boy. I guess you'll do." He jumped into the carriage and drove the black pair of horses off at a smart gait down the road, while Joel stood on the roadside grass to see him go.
THE MUFFIN MAN AND THE TRAMP
So when the time came that was to bring Mamsie home that night, tired, but happy to fold her baby to her heart, for Phronsie always climbed into her lap to untie her bonnet-strings, there was David, running around brisk as a bee, his cheeks pink as a rose, and Joel, who had stuck to the old box of nails all day, despite Polly's pleadings to stop and rest, gave a shout that the last was done, and stretched his tired legs. Then he gave a hop and skip and jump around and around the grass before the little brown house.
"Whickets! that feels good!" he cried, stopping for a long breath by the old green door; then away again, kicking up his heels like a colt.
"He's done 'em almost every one," said Davie, mournfully, standing on the doorstone to see him go; "he wouldn't let me help only a teenty bit, and he's so tired, Polly."
"Joel wanted to do 'em, Davie dear," said Polly, coming to the door, on hearing that, and giving him a loving little pat. "I know all about it, why he wanted to do it"—for Joel had told her the whole story—"and Mamsie'll be glad he did it. How I wish she'd come!" peering down the dusty road.
"How I wish she'd come!" echoed Phronsie, poking her head in between Polly's gown and the door jamb.
"Dear me," cried Polly, whirling around, "are you there, Pet? Well, Mamsie's coming pretty soon. I think I see—No, 'tisn't," as David started to scamper over the stepping-stones—"it's a man turning the road. Anyway, she'll be here before we hardly know it, I guess. Now let's play something, and that'll make the time go faster."
"Oh, hooray!" cried little Davie, and, "Hooray!" piped Phronsie. "Joel—Joel!" screamed David; and Phronsie clapped her hands and screamed too, and Polly laughed and called as hard as she could, for Joel, imagining himself a gay trotting horse, was slapping his legs with a switch, and careering around the back of the little brown house in a great state of excitement. Now hearing the calls, he came whooping around, making all the noise he possibly could, so there was a perfectly dreadful din, and no wonder that the man Polly had seen turning the road came nearer without any one noticing him.
He thought it was so convenient for him that all the children in the house should be out in the front yard, that perhaps he had better hop over the stone wall and go quietly in at the back door; for really he was very hungry, and there must be as much as a piece of bread, although the little brown house didn't look as if it held much meat and pie and cake. So over the wall he went, and slunk in through the tall grass, just as Polly was marshalling her forces on the greensward in front and saying, "Now, children, what shall we play?"
"Tag—tag!" screamed Joel, crowding up in front. "Now begin, Polly, do, and let me be it."
"I'd rather have the Muffin Man," said Davie, wistfully.
"Muffin—Man—Muffin—Man," echoed Phronsie, beating her small hands. "Oh, Polly, please do let us have the Muffin Man," she cried, her yellow hair flying over her flushed face as she hopped up and down. "Please, Polly!"
"Pshaw!" Joel exclaimed, contemptuously, "that old Muffin Man, he's no fun. I say 'Tag.' Do begin, Polly," he pulled her sleeve impatiently.
"The Muffin Man is so very nice," said Davie, reflectively, "and we haven't played it in so long."
"That old—" began Joel, crossly. Then he caught Polly's eye. "All right, Dave," he cried. "Go on, Polly. And let Dave be the Muffin Man, do, Polly."
Polly shot him a beaming glance. "Now that's nice," and she took Phronsie's hand, who was so overcome with delight she could not stand still, but was engaged in making a cheese, and tumbling over in a heap on the grass. "Come on, Pet," and Polly pulled her up, "don't you see the Muffin Man is waiting for us?" for there was David standing off at the end of the grass-plot, as stiff as a stick, and most dignified, all ready to receive his visitors.
It was after the merry line was dancing back into place that Joel happened to glance up at the window of the kitchen. And as quick as a shot he dropped Polly's hand and skipped off on the tips of his toes over the grass and around the back of the house.
"Dear me!" cried Polly, "whatever can have happened to Joel?"
"Do come on, Polly," begged Phronsie, pulling at her other hand, and lifting her flushed face pleadingly, "and let us see the Muffin Man once more."
"So we will, dear," said Polly. "Now then!" So they danced off gayly. "We all know the Muffin Man—the Muffin Man—the Muffin Man. We all know the Muffin Man, that lives in Crumpet Lane."
Meantime, Joel rushed in over the back doorstep and into the kitchen before the man he had seen through the kitchen window could hear him and turn away from the old cupboard. When he did, he said something that wouldn't have sounded nice had Joel stopped to hear it. As it was, he bounded in. "What are you doing in our house?" he cried, doubling up his fists. "Hey?" said the man. He wasn't very nice to look at either, and he peered over and around Joel's sturdy figure, to see if more of the children were coming after. When he saw that Joel was alone, and could hear the gay voices out on the grass-plot, he looked perfectly wicked, and he laughed as he pointed a long and dirty hand at him.
"You scream, or stir from your tracks, and I'll make mincemeat of you!" he hissed.
"I ain't a-goin' to scream," declared Joel, scornfully, "an' I'm goin' to drive you out of our house." With that he dashed at the man with both small brown fists well doubled up, pommelling right and left, and butting his stubby black head into the stranger's waistcoat. And the next minute he was caught in the long hands and tossed with a thump to the old kitchen floor, and the wicked eyes were over him as he lay there panting.
"What did I tell you!" cried the man. "Now I'm going to make mincemeat of you."
"We all know the Muffin Man that lives in Crumpet Lane," sang Polly and Phronsie merrily, out on the grass-plot, as they danced away.
"Where is Joel?" cried Polly, as they stopped to take breath.
"Just once more," begged Phronsie, pulling her hand; "please, Polly." So down to see the Muffin Man again they danced.
Meantime, Joel was tied up tight and fast with the clothes-line to the table leg, and in order that he should not use his tongue, Seraphina's clothes, where Phronsie had thrown her on the floor, were torn off and crammed into his mouth.
"Now I guess you'll keep still," said the man, turning back to the cupboard with a grin; "and as long as those youngsters are at their noise out there, I'm safe enough," and he pulled out Polly's bread she had just baked that day, done up in a clean old towel.
"Humph!" as he thrust his tousled head into the cupboard, and searched for butter, and ran his dirty hands all over the clean, bare shelves—"well, this will keep me from starving." So he rolled the towel as tightly as he could over the bread, and slouched off, shaking his fist at Joel with a parting scowl.
"Now, Phronsie, I can't play another single time," said Polly. "I must see where Joel is." So she dropped the fat little hand and raced off, the other children after her.
"Joel—Joel—" they all cried, and just then Mamsie was coming down the road—oh! so tired, as she had had to stay later than usual, for the Conference was to meet at the minister's house next day, and besides the study carpet to be put down, there were ever and ever so many things to be done. But she had an extra quarter of a dollar in her pocket, and Polly was to run over after the Conference dinner and get a basket of the eatables. "If they leave any," Miss Jerusha, the minister's sister, had said grimly, "which isn't very likely. I've heard 'em preach often enough of starved souls. La! 'tisn't a circumstance to the starved bodies they bring along to Conference." So Mrs. Pepper was turning in at the dooryard of the little brown house in a happy frame of mind, when she heard a babel of voices, and Phronsie's little shrill voice above them all.
"Goodness me, the house must be afire!" she exclaimed, hurrying over the grass and in at the door. There was Joel, tied hand and foot, his black eyes blazing, while he was talking as fast as he could rattle, and Polly was untying the clothes-line, little Davie getting in the way, with trembling fingers, while Phronsie stood still and screamed.
"He's got all our bread!" shouted Joel. "Oh, Mamsie!" Phronsie turned and saw Mrs. Pepper, and ran to her with outstretched arms.
"Whatever in all this world," exclaimed Mother Pepper, grasping her baby tightly. "There—there—Phronsie, don't cry, Mammy's here."
"Oh, Mamsie—Mamsie!" mourned Polly, tugging at the knots in the clothes-line. Davie scuttled over to Mother Pepper and tried to get within her arms, too.
"Our bread!" screamed Joel, in a rage, and kicking at the knots. "Let me up! I'm going after him. He's got it all out of the cupboard, I tell you!"
"Joel," said Mrs. Pepper, kneeling down by him, with Phronsie by her side, and putting both arms around his struggling figure, "Mother doesn't care about the bread; she's got you safe."
Joel snuggled up close to her. "I couldn't help his gettin' it," he sniffled, "Mamsie, I couldn't." Then he broke out into a loud sob.
"Mother knows you couldn't," said Mrs. Pepper, and she shivered as she thought of what might have been. "You're my brave boy. But you mustn't go after him, nor out of the house."
"Oh, Mammy!" exclaimed Joel, lifting up his head, his tears all gone. "I can catch him." He gave an impatient pull at the knots.
"Take care, Joe," cried Polly, "you're pulling 'em tighter. Oh, Mammy, let us all go after him," she begged with flashing eyes. "We can catch the bad wicked man."
"No," said Mrs. Pepper, firmly, "not a single one of you must stir out of this house unless I tell you. And as for bread, why, we can do without it so long as Joel is safe."
"Phooh!" said Joel, "he didn't hurt me any," just as Polly got the last knot out that tied his arms. Then he set to work to help her get his legs free. And in a trice he jumped to his feet and ran to the window.
"Oh, Mamsie," he teased, craning his neck to look up and down the road, "do let me go. I can get some sticks in the woodshed, and I guess I can scare him then."
"All of us," pleaded Polly, hurrying to Mrs. Pepper; "just think, Mamsie, with big sticks. Do let us."
But Mother Pepper shook her head. "We'll all go over to Grandma Bascom's and see if he went there. Then Ben'll be home, and he can run over and tell Deacon Brown. He'll know how to catch the thief."
"I'm goin' with Ben," announced Joel, decidedly, and coming into the middle of the kitchen with a bound. "He's my thief. An' I'm goin' with Mr. Brown to catch him. So there!"
Mrs. Pepper shivered again, but smiled at Phronsie, who clutched her tightly with her little arms around the neck. "Well, I declare!" she said with a cheery laugh, "aren't you going to untie Mother's bonnet-strings, Baby?"
"Yes, Phronsie," said Polly, with another little laugh, "so you ought to. I declare, we're all so excited we don't know what to do. I'm going to make your tea, Mamsie," and she spun off to the old stove.
Mrs. Pepper smiled at her approvingly. "I won't wait for that now; we ought to get over and see how Grandma Bascom is. I don't believe he went there, but we'll see."
"I forgot all about her," said Polly, in a shamefaced way. "I'll run down the lane and see. You don't need to come, Mamsie. We three will go."
"I'm goin'. I'm goin'," screamed Joel, rushing for the door.
"Joel," called his mother, "come here." Joel slowly retraced his steps.
"Remember one thing. You stay with Polly, and do just as she says. And now, children, hurry along. And if you see the man, you call me." And Mrs. Pepper went to the door, and, with Phronsie in her arms, watched them scramble down the lane, and up to Grandma's little cottage.
But Grandma Bascom hadn't seen anybody pass that way, and wasn't a bit afraid. There she sat, drinking her bowl of tea out under the lilac bushes.
"Run in an' get some pep'mint drops out o' the cupboard," she said sociably, "they're in the big green dish. Be careful of it, for it's cracked."
"We can't," said Polly, "Mamsie wants us to come right home."
Joel's mouth watered. "'Twon't take but a minute, Polly," he said.
"No, Joe, we mustn't," said Polly, firmly. "Good-by, Grandma. Now, let's run, boys, as fast as we can, home to Mamsie, and see which will get there first"
ON BANDY LEG MOUNTAIN
And so Joel finally went to the cave alone. But not before a good many weeks, for the two boys didn't get play-day again in a long while. There was work to do picking rocks for the neighboring farmers; and then came potato-planting time when they could help Ben as he worked for Deacon Brown, who always paid them well in potatoes that kept them through the winter. And, dear me, there was always wood to pick up and split, Ben doing the heaviest part of the chopping; and errands down to the store for Indian meal and molasses and flour, and to fetch and carry back the coats and sacks that Mamsie was always sewing up. So at it they kept all the pleasant days. And, of course, on the rainy days no one could think of getting off to the woods. So presently Joel almost forgot about wanting to go, until one day when Polly broke out, "Now, boys, you can play a good while to-day; your work's all done up."
Joel twitched Davie's arm and hauled him out to the woodpile behind the shed. "Now come on, Dave, let's go to old Bandy Leg Mountain."
"No, I don't want to. I'm never goin' there," said Davie, shrinking back.
"Not after the flowers?" said Joel, aghast at that.
David looked longingly off to the tip of the mountain overhanging Badgertown.
"N-no," he said slowly.
"You see," said Joel, wheedlingly, "there must be such a very great lot up there, and nobody to pick 'em, Dave."
Davie turned his blue eyes full of delight: "I might go a little way; but I'm not going to the cave; only just after the flowers—the green ones and the others."
"All right," said Joel, carelessly, thinking that after Davie got started he could persuade him to keep on. "Now, you wait here till I get my gun."
Joel's gun was an old willow branch out of which he had knocked the pith; then he would put in round pebbles, when he wanted to use it, and punch them out suddenly with another stick, screaming out at the same time, "Look out, my gun's going off. Bang!"
So he ran off nimbly and got his gun from the corner of the woodshed, where he had hidden it, and then in to Polly in the kitchen.
"Give us somethin' to eat, Polly, please. Dave an' me."
"You can get some bread in the tin pail in the provision room, Joe," she said, without looking up. She was trying to sew up a long seam in one of the coats Mother Pepper was making for Mr. Atkins, and it bothered her dreadfully, for it wouldn't look like Mamsie's, try as she would. And she had picked it out three times, and was just threading her needle to begin again, when Joel rushed in.
"Why, you've only been through breakfast a little while," she said quickly. "Dear me, Joe, seems to me you're always hungry."
"How I wish 'twas gingerbread!" cried Joel, tumbling over the rickety steps in a trice. "Polly, why don't we ever have any?" he called back, twitching off the cover of the pail. It fell to the floor and rattled off, making a great noise.
"Stop banging that pail, Joe," called Polly, in a sharp little voice, and twisting the end of the thread tighter. "Dear me, this hateful thing won't go in that eye. Go in, you!" with a push that sent the thread way beyond the needle.
"I ain't bangin' the pail," contradicted Joel, in a loud, injured voice; "the old thing fell down. 'Twarn't my fault." And he ran noisily across the provision room to pick it up.
"Well, set it on tight," said Polly, "and you're a very naughty boy, Joel, and always making a fuss over the bread pail."
Joel didn't hear her, as he was busily engaged in cramming the cover on the pail, and in a minute or two he came up with his pockets full of dry bread, and his chubby face beaming with satisfaction.
Polly tried again, without avail, to thread her needle, and at last, as he ran out with a good whoop, she laid it down and put her head back against Mamsie's big chair in which she was sitting. "O dear," she sighed, "how I wish I could go off to-day and play just once! How good it must be in the woods!"
"Don't you suppose you'll go when you are a big woman?" asked Phronsie, laying down Seraphina, where she sat on the floor, and regarding her gravely. "Ever, Polly?"
"O dear me, yes," said Polly, twitching up her head again, and picking up the needle and thread. "And I'm a bad, naughty girl, Phronsie, to fret," she added, her ill-humor flying. "There, now you've concluded to go in, have you?" this to the eye of the needle.
"You're never bad, Polly," said Phronsie, taking up Seraphina once more, feeling that everything was right, as she had seen Polly smile, and beginning to tie on a remarkable bonnet upside down.
"Yes I am, Pet, often and often," said Polly, with very red cheeks, "and I ought to be put in the corner."
"Oh, Polly,—put in the corner!" cried Phronsie, in a tone of horror. "Why, you couldn't be. You're Polly!"
"Well, I need it," said Polly, shaking her brown head, while the needle flew in and out merrily. Suddenly she laid it down. "I must go out and tell Joel I'm sorry. I was cross to him. I'll be back in a minute," and she sped off.
When she came back she looked very sober.
"They've gone down to the brook, I suppose," glancing at the clock. "Well, I'll tell Joe just as soon as he gets home," and slipping into the big chair again, she set to work, and presently the old kitchen was very quiet, except for the little song that Phronsie was crooning to Seraphina. At last this stopped, and Polly, looking off from her work, saw that Phronsie had fallen over on the floor, and was fast asleep.
"Poor thing!" exclaimed Polly, "she wants her nap." So she took her up, and carried her into the bedroom, and laid her on the big four-poster, and came out and shut the door.
"Now I do believe I'll have time to finish these two seams, if I fly at 'em," she said joyfully. "Then, says I, this old coat's done, and Mamsie can send the bundle back to-night when she gets home"—for Mrs. Pepper was away helping one of the village housekeepers to make her supply of soft soap. Many and many such an odd job did Mother Pepper get, for which she was thankful enough, as it helped her to eke out her scanty pittance.
Joel and David trotted on as fast as possible, by many a short cut through the woods, till they reached the foot of "Bandy Leg Mountain," so called because the hermit who had lived and died there had short crooked legs. And at last they began to climb up its face, David peering on every side for any chance at spying out the wonderful flowers.
"I most b'lieve there aren't any," at last he said, his feet beginning to drag.
"Come on," cried Joel, way ahead. "Hoh! what you stoppin' down there for? Of course you won't find any until you get up nearer the top. Come on!" and he disappeared in a thick clump of undergrowth.
"Where are you, Joel?" cried Davie. He was now too frightened to move, and he was sure he heard a lion roar, though it was only his heart beating and thumping; so he sat down on the moss and pine needles, and waited. Joel would surely come back. Meantime a little bird came up and perched on the branch above his head, and sang to him, so he felt less lonely.
Joel, supposing Davie was close behind him, trudged on and on. "Hooray, we're most there!" he shouted at last. "Come on, Dave," and he turned around. "Why—Dave—Dave!"
"I guess he's just back there," and Joel ran on, for there was the big hole in the rocks, and perhaps he'd really see a bear! and, O dear! he must have his gun ready. And Joel soon stopped thinking about David, but bounded ahead as fast as he could, and squirmed in through the narrow slit, and wriggled along down toward the end of the cave.
Suddenly a very funny noise struck his ear; it wasn't a bit like a bear, nor even a wood-chuck, for they couldn't talk. And there surely were a number of voices. Joel stopped squirming, and stared with wide eyes into the darkness. It smelt dreadfully in there, so close and hot, and before he could stop it he gave an awful sneeze.
"What's that?" exclaimed one of the voices. Then they whispered, and Joel heard some one say, "We're found out." And another one said a bad word, and laughed, saying nobody'd ever find them there.
"I guess there's lots in there," said Joel, "an' I better go," so he wriggled back out into the light. And he hadn't been there but a minute when something came squirming down along after him. Joel flew into the bushes and peered out between the branches.
"Why, it's the man who stole Polly's bread!" he almost screamed. The man went past the bush, so near that his long dirty fingers could have picked him out in a minute, and then went down the other way, looking around carefully, and whistling away softly to himself, and presently returned to the cave. And as soon as he had gone in again, Joel hopped out of his bush, and ran at a lively pace down the mountain-side, thinking only of meeting David, and then to get Ben and Deacon Brown and a lot of men, "and won't we come back and catch every single one of 'em, then!"
There was David fast asleep under his tree, and the little bird singing to him. "Dave—Dave!" shouted Joel, shaking him hastily, "wake up! The man that stole our bread's up there. The cave's full of 'em. I'm goin' to get Ben, an' catch 'em!"
"I'm goin'—to—get—the—flowers," said little Davie, sitting up straight and blinking. Joel seized his hand and spun him along as fast as he could around the rocks and boulders that now stood in the way.
Ben was at Deacon Blodgett's, and looked up to see Joel and David, hot and panting, rush into the field. "I'm so tired," said Davie, and sank down; "O dear me, Ben, I'm so tired."
Joel told his story, rattling it off so that Ben had to shake his jacket many times. "Hold on there, Joe," he said, "you haven't seen half that. You've been asleep."
"Come up and see," cried Joel, excitedly. "Oh, Ben, come up and see."
"What's all this?" asked Farmer Blodgett, drawing near. So Ben told it as well as he could for Joel, who wanted to go over every word again, and at last they made him understand.
"Now that boy," said Mr. Blodgett, shifting his quid of tobacco into the other cheek, "bein's he's a Pepper, knows what he's a-talkin' of. I'm of th' opinion pretty strong that I'm a-goin' up Bandy Leg."
"Oh, good! Mr. Blodgett," exclaimed Joel, hopping up and down in his delight. "Do please hurry this minute and come on."
"Bein's I've lost more hens and chickens the last two weeks than I ever have in my life before, and only yest'day wife had a hull pan o' doughnuts took off from the back steps where she'd set 'em to cool, why I'm of the opinion pretty strong that Bandy Leg Mountain will bear lookin' into. So I'll call Peter an' Jed, an' we'll hoof it up there right away."
"Oh, Mr. Blodgett, do hurry," begged Joel, "and come." And he began to dance off impatiently.
"Hold on!" cried the farmer, turning back, "you ain't goin'."
Joel stood absolutely still. "Not going!"
"Th' idee o' takin' a leetle chap like you," laughed Deacon Blodgett. "Why, I couldn't look your Ma in the face, Joel Pepper, ef I sh'd do sech a thing."
Joel scanned Ben's face.
"I'm sorry, Joe," said Ben, "but Mamsie wouldn't like it, you know."
Joel gave a howl. "They're mine. And he's my man who stole our bread; an' they all b'long to me, for I found 'em." He kept screaming on.
"Mercy me!" cried Ben, shaking his arm, "stop screaming so, Joe, you're scaring all Mr. Blodgett's men. They'll think you're half killed. See 'em running here."
"I don't have to go after 'em, to call 'em, s'long as you yell like that," observed Farmer Blodgett, grimly.
"An' they all b'long to me, every single one of 'em," screamed Joel, harder than ever, "so there! an' Mamsie'd let me," he added in a fresh burst.
"Well, I can't let you," declared Ben, decidedly, "without she says so; and if we wait here much longer, all those fellows will be slipping off, maybe. They can hear you up there, for all I know, you make such a noise."
"See here," cried Deacon Blodgett, sternly, "Joe Pepper, you stop that noise! Ain't you 'shamed, bein' Mrs. Pepper's boy, to take on so? Now I'll tell you what I'll do. You've done a good thing a-drummin' up those scamps, an' I don't wonder you want to go an' see 'em ketched."
"I want to help catch 'em, and they're mine," said Joel, through his tears.
"Well,"—and the farmer smiled grimly,—"I don't wonder, so now I'll tell you what I'll do. Peter shall go along with you home, an' if your Ma says come, he'll bring you after us. So march lively."
"Mother isn't home," said Ben. "She's at Miss Perkins' working, to-day." While Joel screamed shrilly, "Oh, dear-dear-dear, p'r'aps she won't let me go!"
"Then you hadn't ought to want to," said Deacon Blodgett, sternly. "Start lively, now, and see."
But Mrs. Pepper, looking into her boy's eyes, and hearing his story, stood quite still, and Joel's heart went down to his toes.
"I think a boy who can act as bravely as you have, Joe," she said at last, slowly, "ought to go and see the job finished. Mother can trust you. Run along," and Joel's feet twinkled so fast that Peter could hardly see them go.
AB'M's BIRTHDAY PARTY
The robbers were caught, and were lodged in the county jail, and all the farmers who had hen-roosts robbed, and the farmers' wives who had their doughnuts stolen, kept coming over to the little brown house or stopping Mrs. Pepper after church on Sunday to thank her for what her boy had done, until it got so that when Joel saw a bonnet coming along the dusty road, or a wagon stop in front, he would run and hide.
"I won't have 'em put their hands on my head and call me good boy," he cried, shaking his black hair viciously. "I'll kick 'em—so there!" So one day, when he caught sight of a wagon just about to stop, he ran, as usual, as fast as he could, off over to Grandma Bascom's.
"Now that's too bad," said a big tall woman, who got out of the wagon and made her way up to the door, "for Mis' Beebe said in partic'ler I was to bring Joel, an' he ain't to home."
"Go and call him, Polly," said Mrs. Pepper, "Come in, won't you, and sit down?"
Phronsie tried to drag forward a chair, while Polly ran out the back door, calling, "Joel—Joel!"
"Bless her heart!" exclaimed the visitor, looking at Phronsie. "No, I can't set; I've got to keep an eye on that horse." As Mr. Beebe, who ran the little shoe shop up in the town, owned a horse that nothing but a whip could make go, this seemed unnecessary. However, Mrs. Pepper only smiled hospitably, while the woman went on.
"You see, I've only jest about come, as 'twere, on from the West, an' bein' my boy's got a birthday, an' him bein' grandson, as you may say, to Mis' Beebe, she thought she'd give him a party."
"Oh, are you Mr. Beebe's daughter?" asked Mrs. Pepper, in perplexity. "I thought the old people hadn't any children."
"No more'n they hain't," said the visitor, leaning composedly against the door jamb and keeping her eye on the horse; "but as you may say, Ab'm's their grandson, for my husband's mother was sister to Mis' Beebe, an' she's dead, so you see it's next o' kin, an' it comes in handy to call her Grandma."
"Oh, yes," said Mrs. Pepper.
"Well, an' so Mis' Beebe's goin' to give Ab'm a party. La! she's been a-bakin' doughnuts all this mornin', got up at four o'clock an' begun 'em. I never see such sugary ones. They're sights, I tell you."
Polly now ran in. "I can't find Joel, Mamsie," she said sadly.
"Well, Mis' Beebe said I was to bring him most partic'ler; she'd rather see him than any of the rest o' you. She said, 'Marinthy, be sure to bring that boy who was so brave about them robbers. Tell him I've made some doughnuts special for him.'"
"O dear!" exclaimed Polly, clasping her hands, "whatever can we do, Mamsie, to find him?"
"You must not wait any longer," said Mrs. Pepper, remembering how, the day before, Joel, had run down to the brook, and been gone for hours, following along its course, never coming home till dinner-time. "Get Phronsie ready, and Davie and yourself. But I'm sorry for Joey to lose the treat," she said sadly.
"So'm I," said Abram's mother, "an' Mis' Beebe'll feel dreadful bad. Well, I'm afraid that horse'll start, so I'll get in, an' you can all come out when you get ready."
Pretty soon Polly emerged from the bedroom with a sad look on her rosy face, and her brown eyes drooped as she led Phronsie along as fresh and sweet as a rose, all ready.
"Tisn't nice a bit to go without Joel, Mamsie," said Polly, disconsolately.
"You can't help it, Polly," replied her mother, "and it won't do to keep Abram's mother waiting. So go on, and take care of the children, and see that they behave nicely. And don't let Phronsie eat more than one doughnut. And be careful to tie the shawl over her when she comes home."
"I'll remember, Mamsie," said Polly, and wishing there wasn't such a thing in the world as a party, she put Phronsie into the wagon, and climbed up beside her. Davie, with a very sober face at thought of leaving Joel behind, craned his neck and watched for him as long as the little brown house was in sight.
"You see," said Abram's mother, twitching the reins, when at last the old horse decided to start, "I had to hurry away an' get in. I sh'd a-liked to a' set an' passed the time o' day longer with your Ma, but I didn't darst to. It's dretful to have a horse run. I couldn't never a-catched him in all this world, stout as I be. Land! I hain't run a step for ten years, 'cept last spring I was to Sister Jane's, an' her cow took after me, an' I had to."
"O dear," breathed Phronsie, turning her face up as she sat squeezed in between Abram's mother and Polly, "did he hurt you?"
"Bless your heart!" exclaimed the woman, beaming at her, "no, for he didn't catch me. You see I had on a red shawl, an' the critter didn't like it."
"Oh!" said Phronsie.
"No; sho there, easy, you!" cried Abram's mother, holding the old leather reins as tightly as possible, and bracing back; "I guess he won't run, bein's I'm so strong in my hands. Well, you see Jane she hollered out o' th' window, 'Throw away your shawl, M'rinthy, he'll kill you.'"
"O dear me!" exclaimed Phronsie. "An' did he kill you, Mrs. Big Woman?" she asked anxiously.
"No; why here I be," said Abram's mother, with a hearty laugh. "Well, how could I throw off my shawl an' me a-runnin' so, an' 'twas all pinned across me, an' my brother'd brought it from over seas. So I had to run."
Phronsie sighed, and kept her troubled eyes raised to the big face above her.
"An" the first thing't ever I knew, I went down kerslump into a big compost heap, an'—"
"What's a compost heap?" asked Davie, getting up to stand in the wagon back of them.
"Oh, manure an' sich, all gone to rot," said Abram's mother.
"O dear me!" said Davie.
"An' that cow—'twas a bull, I forgot to tell you, Jane's husban' told me afterwards—he kept right on over my head, couldn't stop, you know, an' he went bang up against a tree on t'other side, an' it knocked him flat."
"Did it hurt him?" asked Phronsie, in a sorry tone.
"I s'pose so," said Abram's mother, "for he didn't know nothin', an' th' men folks came who'd seen me runnin' an' heard Jane hollerin' an' took him off before he came to, which he did after a spell, as lively as a cricket. An' they dragged me up, more dead'n alive, an' I hain't run a step since."
Phronsie drew a long breath of relief that no one was killed. Davie gazed at Abram's mother in great satisfaction. "Tell us some more," he said.
"An' I might as well have flung off that red shawl," she went on, ignoring his request, "if I could a' got out that pin, for it was all smutched up, fallin' in that mess, an' I couldn't put it on my back. It beats all how you never know what's best to do; but then, says I, you've no call to worry afterwards, if you decide in a hurry. Sho now, go easy, you!" And at last they drew up at Mrs. Beebe's door.
There she stood in the doorway, in a cap with new pink ribbons, and old Mr. Beebe just a little back, smiling and rubbing his hands, and in the little window where the shoes and rubbers and slippers were hanging was a big round face plastered up against the small panes of glass.
"There's Ab'm, now," exclaimed his mother, proudly. "I guess when you see him you'll say there never was sech a boy. Well, I'm glad we're here safe an' sound, an' this horse hain't run nor nothin'. Now, hop out,"—which injunction was not needed.
Good Mrs. Beebe ran her eye over the little bunch of Peppers as they jumped down over the wheel. "Why, where's Joel?" she cried. "In the bottom o' th' wagon, I s'pose," she added, laughing and shaking her fat sides.
"Yes, where's Joel?" cried Mr. Beebe, rubbing his hands together harder than ever. "I want him to tell me all about how he ketched them robbers."
Polly was just going to tell all about Joel, and why he couldn't come, when the big woman shouted out, "They couldn't find him, for he warn't to home."
"Sho, now, that's too bad!" ejaculated Mr. Beebe, dreadfully disappointed. Mrs. Beebe already had Phronsie in her arms, and was whispering to her some of the delights to come. "Well, well, well, come right in, all of you, and make yourselves to home. I'll take care of the horse, Marinthy; go in an' set down."
"I'm sure I'm glad to," said Marinthy, getting over the little steps quickly after the Pepper children, and nearly knocking down David, who came last. "Ab'm, come here an' make your manners," she called. Ab'm got down from the pile of boxes where he had been looking out of the window, and slouched forward, his finger in his mouth.
"Speak up pretty, now," said his mother, pulling his jacket down with a twitch, and looking at him admiringly; "these children's come to your party. Say how do you do, an' you're glad to see 'em."
"How do you do, an' you're glad to see 'em—"
"Land sakes alive!" cried his mother, with a shake; "hain't you no more manners'n that? Do say it right."
"You told me to say it so," said Ab'm, doggedly.
"No, I didn't," retorted his mother with another shake. The little bunch of Peppers turned quite pale, and scarcely breathed.
"Did anybody ever see sech a boy, an' he that's had no pains spared 'n his bringin' up? Well, he's ten to-day, thank fortune, an' he'll soon be a-takin' care o' himself."
Phronsie crept closer to Polly. "Take me home," she said. "I want my Mammy."
"O dear me," thought Polly, "whatever shall I do! It will make dear Mr. and Mrs. Beebe feel so badly if I don't stop her. Phronsie," and she drew her off one side of the shop, old Mrs. Beebe having gone into the inner room, "you know Mamsie told us all to be good."
"Yes," said Phronsie, her lips quivering, and the tears beginning to come in her blue eyes.
"Well, it would just about make dear Mrs. Beebe and dear Mr. Beebe sick to have you feel badly and go home."
"Would it?" asked Phronsie, swallowing hard.
"Yes," said Polly, decidedly, "it would. People never go to a party, and then say they must go home."
"Don't they, Polly?" asked the little girl.
"No," said Polly, decidedly, "I never heard of such a thing. And just think, Phronsie Pepper, how Mamsie would look! Oh, you can't mean to be a naughty girl."
"I—won't—be a naughty—girl, Polly," promised Phronsie, battling with her tears, "an' I won't look at the big woman, nor the boy. Then I'll stay."
So Polly kissed her, and pretty soon Mrs. Beebe bustled in, her round face quite red with the exertions she had been making, and Mr. Beebe having seen to his horse, came in rubbing his hands worse than ever, saying, "Now, if we only had Joel, we'd be all right."
"Now, my dears,"—began Mrs. Beebe. "Why, you haven't laid off your things yet!" to the Peppers.
"No'm," said Polly, "but we will now, thank you, Mrs. Beebe," and she untied Phronsie's sun-bonnet and took off the shawl, David putting his cap down on the counter, keeping a sharp, disapproving eye on Ab'm every minute.
"When are you coming for a new pair of shoes?" whispered Mr. Beebe, getting hold of Phronsie and lifting her to his knee.
Phronsie thrust out her little foot. "See," she cried gleefully, forgetting for a moment the big woman and the boy, "dear, nice Mr. Beebe, they're all here." Then she poked out the other foot. "I buttoned 'em up all myself."
"No?" cried Mr. Beebe, greatly delighted; "well, now, when those are worn out, you come and see me again, will you?"
"They aren't ever going to be worn out," said Phronsie, positively, and shaking her head.
"Hoh, hoh!" laughed Ab'm, suddenly finding his tongue, "your shoes ain't never goin' to wear out! Ma, did you hear her?"
Phronsie started and hid her face on Mr. Beebe's fat shoulder. Polly hurried to her side.
"Be still!" cried his mother; "hain't you no manners, an' they're company? Ab'm Bennett, I'm ashamed of ye." With that she leaned over and gave him a box on the ear.
It was perfectly dreadful, and Polly had all she could do to keep from bursting out crying. And what they would have done, no one knows, if Mrs. Beebe hadn't said, "Won't you all walk out into the parlor an' set down to the table? Come, Pa, you lead with Phronsie."
"Ab'm oughter," said his mother; "that's style, seein' th' party's fer his birthday."
"Well, you go first then, Marinthy," said old Mr. Beebe, dryly, "with him, an' Phronsie an' I'll foller on. Now then, my dear." He set her on the floor, and bent his old white head down to smile into her face reassuringly, while her trembling fingers held his hand fast.
"Polly," said little David, as they brought up the rear of the procession, "I am so very much afraid of that boy."
"The party will soon be through," said Polly, encouragingly. "I'm so glad that Joel isn't here, for he'd say something, I'm afraid, if Ab'm scares Phronsie again," and she gave a sigh of relief.
Oh, the table! There were doughnuts, sure enough, as Mrs. Marinthy had said, "The biggest I ever see, and the sugariest." No wonder good Mrs. Beebe got up at four o'clock to make them! And a great dish of pink and white sticks and cunning little biscuits with real butter on them, and a cake, with little round candies sprinkled all over the top. Was there ever such a beautiful birthday party!
Phronsie, clinging to good Mr. Beebe's hand, thought not, and her glances wandered all up and down in delight, to bring her eyes at last up to Polly's brown ones, when her little face broke into a happy smile. Ab'm was so intent on choosing which of the pink and white sticks he should pick for, that he could think of nothing else, so Mrs. Beebe got them all seated without any further trouble. Old Mr. Beebe was just saying, "Now, if Joel was only here, we'd be all right," when the shop door opened suddenly, and into the little parlor ran Joel, very red in the face.
"Now that's nice enough," cried Mrs. Beebe, getting out of her chair, her pink cap-ribbons all in a flutter, while old Mr. Beebe exclaimed, with a beaming face, "Well, I declare! ef I ain't glad to see you. Set right down by me."
"No, he'll set here, Pa," said Mrs. Beebe, pushing up the chair next to Ab'm; "there's more room this side." So Joel marched up and got into his seat.
"An' so you thought you'd come," said Mr. Beebe, with a jolly little laugh. "Now we'll have fine times, won't we, Phronsie?" patting her hand. "How'd you git here?"
"I walked," said Joel, who couldn't for his life keep his eyes from the doughnuts, "'cept when I met a man with a load of hay. An' he was so slow I got down again, for I was afraid I'd miss the party."
"Hee, hee, hee!" chuckled Mr. Beebe; "well, wife, do give Joel a doughnut; he must be tired, a-comin' so far."
"Oh, thank you," cried Joel, thrusting out his hand eagerly.
"'Tain't style, where I come from out West, to help the doughnuts first, an' specially when that boy's just come," said Mrs. Marinthy, with a great air.
Joel dropped his doughnut to his plate as if it had been a hot cake, and leaned over to fasten his black eyes on her big face. "Well, pass the biscuits, do, then," said old Mr. Beebe, good-naturedly; "let's get somethin' a-goin', Ma." So the little biscuits were passed, but Joel did not take one; he still sat regarding Ab'm's mother.
"Ma, Ma," said Ab'm in a loud whisper, and twitching her elbow, "this strange boy's a-lookin' at you all the time. Make him stop, do."
At this Phronsie gave a little cry. "Don't let 'em hurt Joey," she gasped, turning to Mr. Beebe.
"There shan't nothin' hurt Joel, don't you be afraid," he whispered back.
"Hoh, hoh!" cried Ab'm, pointing a big fat finger at her, that might have been cleaner; "hear her now. An' she said her shoes warn't never goin' to wear out. Hoh, hoh!"
"You let our Phronsie alone," screamed Joel, tearing his black eyes off from Mrs. Marinthy's face to fasten them on her son. "Ow! he pinched me," roared Ab'm, edging suddenly off to his mother.
"I didn't," cried Joel, stoutly; "I did't touch him a single bit! But he shan't scare Phronsie, or I'll pitch into him. Yes, sir-ree!"
"Joel!" cried Polly, in great distress, across the table.
"Well, he shan't scare Phronsie," cried Joel, "this boy shan't, or I will pitch into him," and his black eyes blazed, and he doubled up his little brown fists.
"Joel," commanded Polly, "do you stop, this very minute," and, "Oh, sir!" looking up at Mr. Beebe, and, "Oh, marm!" and her brown eyes were fixed imploringly on Mrs. Beebe's round countenance, "I do feel so ashamed, and Mamsie will be so sorry. But please will you let us go home?" And poor Polly could say no more.
"An' I sh'd think you'd better go home," said Ab'm's mother, with asperity; "a-comin' to a birthday party and abusin' the boy it's give for. I never see th' like. An' to think how I driv' you clear over here, an' that horse most runnin' away all the time."
Polly got out of her chair and sorrowfully went up to Joel. "We'll sit out in the shop, if you please, dear Mr. and Mrs. Beebe, till you get through the party. And then, if you please, we'd like to go home." Joel's head dropped, and his little brown fists fell down. "I'm sorry," he mumbled.
Mrs. Beebe picked off the biggest pink stick from the pile on the dish and slid it on Joel's plate. "Eat that," she whispered. "Ab'm's goin' home in a week, an' then, says I, you shall come over an' visit with me." And Mr. Beebe looked over at him and nodded his white head, and Joel was quite sure he winked pleasantly at him. But the pink stick and doughnut lay quite untouched on his plate, and after a time, Polly having crept back to her seat, the biscuits had been passed around again, and the grand cake with the candies on top had been cut, the pink and white sticks were divided, and the doughnuts went up and down the table, and lo and behold! the party was over.