"What's gone with that boy, I wonder? You TOM!"
The old lady pulled her spectacles down and looked over them about the
room; then she put them up and looked out under them. She seldom or
never looked THROUGH them for so small a thing as a boy; they were her
state pair, the pride of her heart, and were built for "style," not
service--she could have seen through a pair of stove-lids just as well.
She looked perplexed for a moment, and then said, not fiercely, but
still loud enough for the furniture to hear:
"Well, I lay if I get hold of you I'll--"
She did not finish, for by this time she was bending down and punching
under the bed with the broom, and so she needed breath to punctuate the
punches with. She resurrected nothing but the cat.
"I never did see the beat of that boy!"
She went to the open door and stood in it and looked out among the
tomato vines and "jimpson" weeds that constituted the garden. No Tom.
So she lifted up her voice at an angle calculated for distance and
There was a slight noise behind her and she turned just in time to
seize a small boy by the slack of his roundabout and arrest his flight.
"There! I might 'a' thought of that closet. What you been doing in
"Nothing! Look at your hands. And look at your mouth. What IS that
"I don't know, aunt."
"Well, I know. It's jam--that's what it is. Forty times I've said if
you didn't let that jam alone I'd skin you. Hand me that switch."
The switch hovered in the air--the peril was desperate--
"My! Look behind you, aunt!"
The old lady whirled round, and snatched her skirts out of danger. The
lad fled on the instant, scrambled up the high board-fence, and
disappeared over it.
His aunt Polly stood surprised a moment, and then broke into a gentle
"Hang the boy, can't I never learn anything? Ain't he played me tricks
enough like that for me to be looking out for him by this time? But old
fools is the biggest fools there is. Can't learn an old dog new tricks,
as the saying is. But my goodness, he never plays them alike, two days,
and how is a body to know what's coming? He 'pears to know just how
long he can torment me before I get my dander up, and he knows if he
can make out to put me off for a minute or make me laugh, it's all down
again and I can't hit him a lick. I ain't doing my duty by that boy,
and that's the Lord's truth, goodness knows. Spare the rod and spile
the child, as the Good Book says. I'm a laying up sin and suffering for
us both, I know. He's full of the Old Scratch, but laws-a-me! he's my
own dead sister's boy, poor thing, and I ain't got the heart to lash
him, somehow. Every time I let him off, my conscience does hurt me so,
and every time I hit him my old heart most breaks. Well-a-well, man
that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble, as the
Scripture says, and I reckon it's so. He'll play hookey this evening, *
and [* Southwestern for "afternoon"] I'll just be obleeged to make him
work, to-morrow, to punish him. It's mighty hard to make him work
Saturdays, when all the boys is having holiday, but he hates work more
than he hates anything else, and I've GOT to do some of my duty by him,
or I'll be the ruination of the child."
Tom did play hookey, and he had a very good time. He got back home
barely in season to help Jim, the small colored boy, saw next-day's
wood and split the kindlings before supper--at least he was there in
time to tell his adventures to Jim while Jim did three-fourths of the
work. Tom's younger brother (or rather half-brother) Sid was already
through with his part of the work (picking up chips), for he was a
quiet boy, and had no adventurous, troublesome ways.
While Tom was eating his supper, and stealing sugar as opportunity
offered, Aunt Polly asked him questions that were full of guile, and
very deep--for she wanted to trap him into damaging revealments. Like
many other simple-hearted souls, it was her pet vanity to believe she
was endowed with a talent for dark and mysterious diplomacy, and she
loved to contemplate her most transparent devices as marvels of low
cunning. Said she:
"Tom, it was middling warm in school, warn't it?"
"Powerful warm, warn't it?"
"Didn't you want to go in a-swimming, Tom?"
A bit of a scare shot through Tom--a touch of uncomfortable suspicion.
He searched Aunt Polly's face, but it told him nothing. So he said:
"No'm--well, not very much."
The old lady reached out her hand and felt Tom's shirt, and said:
"But you ain't too warm now, though." And it flattered her to reflect
that she had discovered that the shirt was dry without anybody knowing
that that was what she had in her mind. But in spite of her, Tom knew
where the wind lay, now. So he forestalled what might be the next move:
"Some of us pumped on our heads--mine's damp yet. See?"
Aunt Polly was vexed to think she had overlooked that bit of
circumstantial evidence, and missed a trick. Then she had a new
"Tom, you didn't have to undo your shirt collar where I sewed it, to
pump on your head, did you? Unbutton your jacket!"
The trouble vanished out of Tom's face. He opened his jacket. His
shirt collar was securely sewed.
"Bother! Well, go 'long with you. I'd made sure you'd played hookey
and been a-swimming. But I forgive ye, Tom. I reckon you're a kind of a
singed cat, as the saying is--better'n you look. THIS time."
She was half sorry her sagacity had miscarried, and half glad that Tom
had stumbled into obedient conduct for once.
But Sidney said:
"Well, now, if I didn't think you sewed his collar with white thread,
but it's black."
"Why, I did sew it with white! Tom!"
But Tom did not wait for the rest. As he went out at the door he said:
"Siddy, I'll lick you for that."
In a safe place Tom examined two large needles which were thrust into
the lapels of his jacket, and had thread bound about them--one needle
carried white thread and the other black. He said:
"She'd never noticed if it hadn't been for Sid. Confound it! sometimes
she sews it with white, and sometimes she sews it with black. I wish to
geeminy she'd stick to one or t'other--I can't keep the run of 'em. But
I bet you I'll lam Sid for that. I'll learn him!"
He was not the Model Boy of the village. He knew the model boy very
well though--and loathed him.
Within two minutes, or even less, he had forgotten all his troubles.
Not because his troubles were one whit less heavy and bitter to him
than a man's are to a man, but because a new and powerful interest bore
them down and drove them out of his mind for the time--just as men's
misfortunes are forgotten in the excitement of new enterprises. This
new interest was a valued novelty in whistling, which he had just
acquired from a negro, and he was suffering to practise it undisturbed.
It consisted in a peculiar bird-like turn, a sort of liquid warble,
produced by touching the tongue to the roof of the mouth at short
intervals in the midst of the music--the reader probably remembers how
to do it, if he has ever been a boy. Diligence and attention soon gave
him the knack of it, and he strode down the street with his mouth full
of harmony and his soul full of gratitude. He felt much as an
astronomer feels who has discovered a new planet--no doubt, as far as
strong, deep, unalloyed pleasure is concerned, the advantage was with
the boy, not the astronomer.
The summer evenings were long. It was not dark, yet. Presently Tom
checked his whistle. A stranger was before him--a boy a shade larger
than himself. A new-comer of any age or either sex was an impressive
curiosity in the poor little shabby village of St. Petersburg. This boy
was well dressed, too--well dressed on a week-day. This was simply
astounding. His cap was a dainty thing, his close-buttoned blue cloth
roundabout was new and natty, and so were his pantaloons. He had shoes
on--and it was only Friday. He even wore a necktie, a bright bit of
ribbon. He had a citified air about him that ate into Tom's vitals. The
more Tom stared at the splendid marvel, the higher he turned up his
nose at his finery and the shabbier and shabbier his own outfit seemed
to him to grow. Neither boy spoke. If one moved, the other moved--but
only sidewise, in a circle; they kept face to face and eye to eye all
the time. Finally Tom said:
"I can lick you!"
"I'd like to see you try it."
"Well, I can do it."
"No you can't, either."
"Yes I can."
"No you can't."
An uncomfortable pause. Then Tom said:
"What's your name?"
"'Tisn't any of your business, maybe."
"Well I 'low I'll MAKE it my business."
"Well why don't you?"
"If you say much, I will."
"Much--much--MUCH. There now."
"Oh, you think you're mighty smart, DON'T you? I could lick you with
one hand tied behind me, if I wanted to."
"Well why don't you DO it? You SAY you can do it."
"Well I WILL, if you fool with me."
"Oh yes--I've seen whole families in the same fix."
"Smarty! You think you're SOME, now, DON'T you? Oh, what a hat!"
"You can lump that hat if you don't like it. I dare you to knock it
off--and anybody that'll take a dare will suck eggs."
"You're a liar!"
"You're a fighting liar and dasn't take it up."
"Aw--take a walk!"
"Say--if you give me much more of your sass I'll take and bounce a
rock off'n your head."
"Oh, of COURSE you will."
"Well I WILL."
"Well why don't you DO it then? What do you keep SAYING you will for?
Why don't you DO it? It's because you're afraid."
"I AIN'T afraid."
Another pause, and more eying and sidling around each other. Presently
they were shoulder to shoulder. Tom said:
"Get away from here!"
"Go away yourself!"
"I won't either."
So they stood, each with a foot placed at an angle as a brace, and
both shoving with might and main, and glowering at each other with
hate. But neither could get an advantage. After struggling till both
were hot and flushed, each relaxed his strain with watchful caution,
and Tom said:
"You're a coward and a pup. I'll tell my big brother on you, and he
can thrash you with his little finger, and I'll make him do it, too."
"What do I care for your big brother? I've got a brother that's bigger
than he is--and what's more, he can throw him over that fence, too."
[Both brothers were imaginary.]
"That's a lie."
"YOUR saying so don't make it so."
Tom drew a line in the dust with his big toe, and said:
"I dare you to step over that, and I'll lick you till you can't stand
up. Anybody that'll take a dare will steal sheep."
The new boy stepped over promptly, and said:
"Now you said you'd do it, now let's see you do it."
"Don't you crowd me now; you better look out."
"Well, you SAID you'd do it--why don't you do it?"
"By jingo! for two cents I WILL do it."
The new boy took two broad coppers out of his pocket and held them out
with derision. Tom struck them to the ground. In an instant both boys
were rolling and tumbling in the dirt, gripped together like cats; and
for the space of a minute they tugged and tore at each other's hair and
clothes, punched and scratched each other's nose, and covered
themselves with dust and glory. Presently the confusion took form, and
through the fog of battle Tom appeared, seated astride the new boy, and
pounding him with his fists. "Holler 'nuff!" said he.
The boy only struggled to free himself. He was crying--mainly from rage.
"Holler 'nuff!"--and the pounding went on.
At last the stranger got out a smothered "'Nuff!" and Tom let him up
"Now that'll learn you. Better look out who you're fooling with next
The new boy went off brushing the dust from his clothes, sobbing,
snuffling, and occasionally looking back and shaking his head and
threatening what he would do to Tom the "next time he caught him out."
To which Tom responded with jeers, and started off in high feather, and
as soon as his back was turned the new boy snatched up a stone, threw
it and hit him between the shoulders and then turned tail and ran like
an antelope. Tom chased the traitor home, and thus found out where he
lived. He then held a position at the gate for some time, daring the
enemy to come outside, but the enemy only made faces at him through the
window and declined. At last the enemy's mother appeared, and called
Tom a bad, vicious, vulgar child, and ordered him away. So he went
away; but he said he "'lowed" to "lay" for that boy.
He got home pretty late that night, and when he climbed cautiously in
at the window, he uncovered an ambuscade, in the person of his aunt;
and when she saw the state his clothes were in her resolution to turn
his Saturday holiday into captivity at hard labor became adamantine in