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The Boys and Uncle Josh by W. O. Stoddard

 

"Hey Billy, my boy! Going skating?"

"Yes, Uncle Josh, Joe Pearce and me. The big pond's frozen solid."

"Is it safe?"

"Charley Shadders he says it's twenty feet thick in some places."

"Twenty feet thick! I declare! That's pretty thick ice. How did he know?"

"I don't know. I guess he guessed at it. He's an awful guesser."

"I should say he was. Twenty feet thick! Why, Billy, the water's only five feet deep in summer."

"Oh, but," exclaimed Joe Pearce, who had been listening with all the eagerness of twelve years old, "it swells water to freeze it, Uncle Josh."

"So it does, so it does. But I never heard of a swell like that." And Uncle Josh—for he was uncle to all the small boys in the village—shook his fat sides with laughter, but it was not all about the remarkable ice, for his next question was, "But, Billy, you've put all your skating on one foot. How's that?"

"'Cause it's all in one skate."

"Well, it's big enough. Why don't you divide it, and give the other foot a fair share?"

"I've put mine on the other foot," shouted Joe, trying to balance himself on one leg and hold up an uncommonly large skate for inspection.

How those skates were strapped on! They were even steadied with pieces of rope, and had bits of wood and leather stuffed in under the straps to make them fit.

"You see, Uncle Josh," explained Billy, "my brother Bob he went away to college, and left his skates, 'cause, he said, the college was out of ice this winter. And Joe Pearce he didn't have any. And Christmas forgot to give me any. And so we divided 'em, and took the sled, and we're going to the big pond."

"That was fair. Only you haven't divided the sled."

"The sled won't divide," said Joe, with a solemn shake of his curly head; "but I'd like to divide my skate with my other foot."

"I'll tell you what, boys," suddenly exclaimed Uncle Josh, "let's have a little Christmas of our own."

"Have you got any?" asked Billy.

"I guess I have. Come right along to the store with me."

"Come on, Joe. Keep your skate on. Don't limp any more'n you can help."

But both he and Joe cut a queer figure as they followed Uncle Josh up the street; for when a boy makes one of his legs longer than the other, and slips and slides on that foot, it makes a good deal of difference in the way he walks.

Everybody knew Uncle Josh, and although he was a deacon and a very good man, everybody expected to see a smile on his face, and to hear him chuckle over something when they met him. So nobody was half so much surprised as Joe and Billy were, and their surprise did not come to them until they reached the store. But it came then.

"Skates for these boys," said Uncle Josh, as they went in. "One for each foot, all around. Straps too."

That was it, and now the boys were doing more chuckling than Uncle Josh himself.

"Billy," asked Joe, "do you know what to say?"

"Why, we must thank him."

"Yes, I s'pose so. But that doesn't seem to be half enough."

"Can't we thank him big, somehow?"

"Enough for two pair of skates?"

"That's so. We can't do it."

They had to give it up; but they did their best, and Uncle Josh cut them short in the middle of it.

"Come, come, boys, we can't stay here all day. There won't be another Saturday again for a week, and then it may rain. Don't put your skates on. Wait till we get to the pond. Bring along the big ones. They'll do for me."

"Why, are you going, Uncle Josh?"

"Of course I am. If the ice is twenty feet thick, I want to skate on it. That kind of ice'll bear anybody."

And so the boys tied the big skates upon the sled, and were starting off, when Uncle Josh exclaimed:

"No, boys, give 'em to me. I haven't had a pair of skates in my hand for twenty years. I want to see how it would seem to carry them."

There were not a great many people to be met in a small village like that, but every one they did meet had a smile for Uncle Josh and his skates, till they reached the miller's house, just this side of the pond. And there was Mrs. Sanders, the miller's wife, sweeping the least bit of snow from her front stoop.

"Joe," said Billy, "do you see that?"

"And Charley Shadders was guessing, then. He said snow wouldn't light on her stoop."

"There isn't but mighty little of it, and it didn't cost her anything."

But just at that moment Mrs. Sanders was resting on her broom, and looking very severely at Uncle Josh, and saying,

"Now, Deacon Parmenter, where are you going with those boys? Skates, too, at your time of life."

"Good-morning, Sister Sanders. I declare, if you'll go with us, I'll trot right back and get a pair of skates for you. I'd like to see a good-looking young woman like you—"

"Deacon Parmenter! Me? To go skating? With you and a couple of boys? I never!"

But she did not look half so angry as she did at first. She was a plump and rosy woman; but she had a pointed nose, and her lips were thin. Billy whispered to Joe Pearce, "Aunt Sally says it'd keep any woman's lips thin to work 'em as hard as Mrs. Sanders does hers."

They were almost smiling just now, for Uncle Josh went on: "Now, Sister Sanders, I know it's a little queer for an old fellow like me, but it's just the thing for young folks. Just you say the word, and you shall have 'em. You're looking nicely this morning, Sister Sanders."

"Billy," whispered Joe, "how red in the face Uncle Josh is getting!"

"So is she," said Billy. "If he goes on that way, she'll come along and spoil the fun."

"No, she won't."

Joe was right, for Mrs. Sanders brought her broom down on the front step with a great bang with one hand, and she smoothed her front hair with the other, as she answered Uncle Josh: "No, Deacon Parmenter, I couldn't bring myself to set such an example. You must take good care of the boys, and see that they do not get into any mischief. If I was their mothers, I'd feel safer about them to know you was with 'em."

Uncle Josh had a spell of coughing just then, and it seemed to last him till he and the boys were away past the miller's house, and going down the slope toward the pond.

It was frozen beautifully, for the weather had been bitterly cold, without any snow to speak of. The pond was all one glare and glitter, and more than twenty men and boys were already at work on it, darting around, like birds on their ringing, spinning, gliding skates. Only that some of the smaller boys put one more in mind of tumbler pigeons than of any other kind of birds.

It was quite wonderful how quickly Joe and Billy had their new skates on, and Uncle Josh looked immensely pleased to see how well they both knew how to use them.

"Why, boys, you haven't tumbled down once. How's that?"

"Oh, we know how," said Billy; "and the ice is great. Thick ice always skates better'n thin ice."

But Uncle Josh had seated himself on the sled, and was hard at work trying to put on Brother Bob's big skates.

They fitted him well enough, but he seemed to have a deal of trouble in getting hold of the straps.

"Seems as if my feet were further away from me than they were twenty years ago."

"Joe," said Billy, "let's help. We can strap 'em for him."

"That's good, boys. Pull tight. Tighter. Let me stamp a little. There—one hole tighter. Now buckle."

And so they went on, till Uncle Josh's skates were strapped, as Joe Pearce said, "so they couldn't wiggle."

"That's all right," said Uncle Josh. "Now, you boys, just skate away, anywhere, and I'll enjoy myself."

They hardly liked to leave him, but off they went, for the boys to whom they wanted to show their new skates were away over on the other side of the pond.

"I don't know if this ice is twenty feet thick," muttered Uncle Josh, as he pulled his feet under him, "but it looks twenty miles slippery. Ice on this pond always freezes with the slippery side up. Steady, now. There! I'm glad I've got the sled to sit down on."

It was well it was a good strong sled, with thick ice under it, for Uncle Josh sat down pretty hard, and he was a fat, jolly, heavy sort of man.

He sat right still and laughed for a whole minute, and then he tried it again.

This time he succeeded in standing up, and he was just saying to himself, "I wish Jemima Sanders had come along to see me skate," when one of his feet began to slip away from him.

"I know how," he shouted. "There's no help for it. I must strike right out."

So he did, and his first slide carried him nearly a rod on that one skate before he could get the other one down. He did that, however, and it worked finely, for he had been a good skater when he was a young man. He had kept hold of the rope-handle of the sled, and it was following him. That is, when he struck out with a foot he swung his long arms too, and the sled swung around on the ice as if it was half crazy.

"What can be the matter with my ankles?" he said to himself. "They used to be good ankles."

No doubt; but then the last time he had skated before that, they had not had so much to carry.

"Billy," exclaimed Joe Pearce, "Uncle Josh is agoing!"

"How he does go! Ain't I glad it's thick ice!"

"Let's go. Come on, boys."

Other eyes than theirs had been watching Uncle Josh, for everybody knew him, and nobody had ever seen him skate, and Joe and Billy were followed by almost all the boys on the pond.

"Hurrah for Uncle Josh!"

"Can't he skate, though!"

"See him go."

Right across the pond, as if he were in a desperate hurry to reach the opposite bank before the ice could melt under him, went Uncle Josh, and with him, all around him, swung the sled.

It may have served as a sort of balance-wheel, and helped to steady him, but it could not steer him. Neither could he steer himself, and the next thing he knew he was headed down the pond, and skating for dear life toward the dam.

"If I stop, I shall come down," he said, with a sort of gasp. "I'm getting out of breath. Good! I'm pointed for the shore again, and there's a snow-bank."

All the boys were racing after him now, but they had stopped shouting in their wonder at what could have got into Uncle Josh. He himself was beginning to feel very warm, for it was a good while since he had done so much work in so short a time.

"Here comes the shore!" But just as he said it, there he was, and the skate he was sliding on caught in a chip on the ice.

The wind had been at work to keep the pond clean when it piled that snow-bank, and had left it all heaped up, white and soft and deep, and into it went Uncle Josh, head first, while the sled was pitched a rod beyond him.

"Get the sled, Billy," said Joe.

"He skated himself right ashore."

"Guess he isn't hurt."

"HURT? NO, INDEED!" "HURT? NO, INDEED!"

"Hurt? No, indeed!" shouted Uncle Josh, as he came up again through the snow. "That's the way we used to skate when I was a boy. Billy, where's that sled?"

He did not seem in any hurry to stand up, but Joe Pearce found his hat, and handed it to him.

"Thank you, Joseph. Billy, you may bring the sled right here in front of me."

"He wants to sit down," said one of the boys.

"He's sitting down now," said Joe. But Billy brought the sled, and Uncle Josh carefully worked himself forward upon it, and began to brush away the snow.

"I'm as white as a miller," he chuckled to himself. "Boys, I guess you may do the rest of my skating for me to-day."

"Don't those skates fit?" asked Joe.

"Oh yes, they fit well enough. It's the ice that doesn't fit. It's too wide for me."

"Well," said Billy, "we'll pull you across. Take hold, boys."

"I declare!" began Uncle Josh; but the boys had seized the rope, and were off in a twinkling.

"It's fun," they heard him mutter; "but what would Sister Sanders say?"

"There she is!" exclaimed Billy, "right down by the shore. She's come to see us skate."

"Hold on, boys! hold on! Let me get my skates off."

But there were so many boys pulling and pushing around that sled that before they could all let go and stop it, the pond had been nearly crossed, and there was Mrs. Sanders.

Uncle Josh did not seem to see her at all, and only said, "Now, boys, just unbuckle my skates for me, will you?"

It would have been done more quickly if there had not been so many to help, and by the time one skate was loose, Uncle Josh was laughing again.

"Deacon Parmenter!"

"Is that you, Sister Sanders? They're all safe—every boy of them. Just wait a moment now, and they'll be ready for you."

"Ready for me! What can you mean? I'm just amazed and upset, Deacon Parmenter. A man like you, to be cutting up in such a way as this!"

"There they are, Sister Sanders. You can put 'em right on. Come and sit down on the sled. They're a little large for me, but they'll just fit you; I know they will."

Uncle Josh had very carefully risen to his feet, and was holding out to her Brother Bob's big skates, straps and all. Her face grew very rosy indeed as she looked at them.

"Fit me!" she exclaimed—"those things fit me! Why, Deacon Parmenter, what can you mean?"

"Too small, eh? Well, now, I'd ha' thought—"

But Mrs. Sanders turned right around and marched away toward her own house without saying another word.

"Boys," said Uncle Josh, "the skating is fine, but there isn't any more of it than you'll want. Billy, take care of Brother Bob's skates for him. I hope you'll all have a good time."

He was edging and sliding along toward the shore while he was talking, and the last they heard him say was,

"I can skate well enough, but I'm afraid somebody else'll have to do my walking for me for a week or two."

"He's just the best man in the village," said Joe Pearce.

"So he is," said Billy; "but I'm glad the ice was thick. What would we have done if he'd broken through?"

"That's why fat men like him don't skate, Billy. Did you see what a hole he made in that there snow-bank?"

He had, and so had the rest, but they all skated a race across the pond to take another look at it, and wonder how he ever managed to get out.