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Jed's First Half by William O. Stoddard

 

Jed was thinking.

Anybody who looked at him would have seen that much, for he was standing all alone at the corner, leaning against the big poplar, with both hands in his trousers pockets.

The village was one long "main street," with little short side streets cutting across it, so that it did not have any "middle" to speak of; but the "centre" of it and of everything else was right there before Jed's eyes, on the steps of the grocery. It was in the shape of a stack of boxes of fire-crackers, and Jed was gazing at it.

It had been almost cruel of old Philips, the grocer, to pile them up out there the last week in June, to make Jed and the other boys count their pennies and feel uncomfortable.

Fourth of July was coming, and Jed knew he would not be half ready for it. There were five other little Pullmans, and Jed felt as if he alone could use up "fire-crackers for six."

Think of having one of those boxes—a whole one—with nobody knew how many packs in it!

"I'd treat every boy I know, except Prop Hooker; and mebbe I'd give him some if he'd promise not to throw any more stones at Barlow."

The thought of such riches was a little too much for a boy of nine, and Jed slowly sidled around the trunk of the poplar, as if he were trying to get away, but his eyes did not turn with him. They stuck to the crackers.

"Hullo, my little man, what's your name?"

"Jed, sir."

He had to look up, up, up, to get at the grim, weather-beaten, but not unkindly face of the elderly farmer before him.

"Jed, eh? What's your whole name?"

"Jedediah Rittenhouse Pullman. I live down there in that yellow brick house behind the maple-trees."

"You don't say! Why, if you'd ha' let your name drag after you, the back end of it wouldn't but just be coming out of the front gate now. Can you drive cows?"

"That's what I have to do every night and morning. 'Tain't everybody can drive our brindled heifer neither."

Jed was thinking again. He had made up his mind that the stranger was a head taller than Grandfather Pullman—in fact, that he was taller than any other man in the world, except old Mr. Myer, the maple-sugar man, and he had to stoop to get into his own house.

"You don't say! Well, I'm down here alone, and I've got a loaded team to drive, and I've bought a cow, and I want a smart boy to drive her home for me."

"How far is it?"

"Only to Topham. Little more'n twelve mile. I'll send ye home by somebody. Pay ye well, too. Will you go?"

Jed hesitated a moment, but it was only because he seemed to be listening to a great rattle of fire-crackers to come—a cow-load of them.

"Course I'll go, if mother'll let me."

"We'll see her about it right away. You're just the boy I want. Give you four shillings."

A York shilling was twelve and a half cents, and four of them made half a dollar. Oh, what fire-works!

Mrs. Pullman met them at the door, and the first word she said was, "Why, is that you, Deacon Giddings?"

Then Jed knew it was all right, and while his mother talked with Deacon Giddings, he went and combed his hair, and put on his Sunday hat and a pair of shoes and stockings.

"Jed's a tough little fellow," said his mother, "and he's used to driving cows."

She might have said more than that for him. Even Deacon Giddings had picked him out as the "toughest-lookin' little chap he'd seen in a long time." The deacon was in a hurry, though, and almost before Jed began to realize it, he was dancing around behind a very reluctant and rebellious cow, right up the main street, with his new friend watching him from the seat of the heavily loaded wagon.

"Ain't I glad I brought Barlow along!" said Jed to himself, again and again. "He's a small dog, but he just knows how to bark the best kind."

Barlow was indeed a small dog, very fat and very yellow, and with less than two inches of stubby tail, but he was keeping up a very steady racket at the heels of the cow. He could hardly have done better if he had been a perpetual pack of fire-crackers, going off one at a time.

Once they were out of the village and into the country road, the work became easier, and Barlow could now and then sit down and pant awhile before opening a fresh bark.

"You're the boy for me," said the Deacon, from the wagon. "But ain't you afraid that dog o' yourn'll bark himself to death?"

"No, sir, he's used to it. Our brindled heifer always keeps him barking."

"You don't say! Well, I'm glad I know your folks. What do you mean to do with your money?"

"Fourth of July, sir."

"That's it. I declare! Well, now, I might have thought of that. Gingerbread, nuts, candy—"

"No, sir. Fire-crackers."

"You don't say! Look out for that cow; she's heading down the road again. Hear that dog bark! I declare!"

She was quickly headed right again, and Deacon Giddings had by no means got to the end of the questions he wanted to ask.

They were not all about Jed's own affairs. In fact, he seemed willing to know everything there was to be known about the Pullman family, and all their relations, and all their neighbors.

Jed was willing enough to answer, whenever the cow would let him, and it made the long walk in the hot sun go by faster and easier.

It was slow enough even then, and by the time they reached Penniman's Corners, seven miles from the village, Deacon Giddings remarked, "Twelve o'clock, I declare! Jedediah Rittenhouse Pullman, you and I and the horses must have something to eat. The cow too, if she can stand still long enough."

Jed had been thinking of that very thing for the last mile or two, and he was glad enough to drive the cow into the tavern barn-yard.

Barlow stood at the gate for a minute or so after it was shut, and barked his best. Enough to last the cow while they were getting their dinners.

The tavern at Penniman's Corners was not so large as some there are in London and Paris and New York, but it was a wonderful thing to Jed, and so was the long dinner table, nearly three times as long as his mother's biggest table at home. There must have been more than two dozen people at that table.

"Jedediah," said the Deacon, before a great while, "you sit still. Eat all you can. I'm going to see about something."

Jed was busy with a great ear of boiled corn, and all he could do was to nod; but when he at last came out of the dining-room, there was news waiting for him.

A big son of Deacon Giddings had come on horseback to meet him, and Jed would not be needed any more, nor Barlow.

Jed's heart began to trouble him, in spite of the boiled corn.

"Oh, it's all right, Jedediah! You needn't feel bad about it. I've fixed a night's lodgin' for ye with Widder Simmons, right across the road there. She's to have a shillin' for it, and you can keep the other three, and go home in the mornin'. Here they are."

That was liberal, considering that Jed had driven the cow little more than half way to Topham, and Jed's face was bright again instantly.

The Deacon had a good deal more to say to him, but before long he, and his son, and the loaded team, and the cow disappeared in a cloud of dust up the north road.

For the first time in his life Jed felt lonely. The Deacon had taken him over and introduced him to Mrs. Simmons, and nobody could be blamed for feeling lonely in the same room with her. Jed could not remember seeing a smile on the face of Deacon Giddings, but then he had talked, and there was fun in him somewhere, and he had paid him his four shillings like a man. The Widow Simmons did not talk and she did not smile, and she looked at Jed through her silver-rimmed spectacles in a way that made him feel more and more alone in the world every minute.

Barlow had looked in her face just once, and then he had gone out in front of the house, and laid down in the grass.

Nearly an hour went by, or it seemed so to Jed, before he mustered courage to say, "May I go out, ma'am, and walk around a little?"

"Hain't ye walked fur enough for one day? I wonder your mother ever let sech a mite of a thing go a-cattle-drovin'. Well, go 'long. Only don't you be late for supper. You won't git a bite if you be."

Jed was out of the house in a twinkling, with his hand on the pocket which contained his four shillings.

"Barlow, come here."

It was no use to say, "Come here," for Barlow was travelling down the home road as fast as his short legs could carry him. When he reached what he may have thought a safe distance, he sat down and barked back. It was his turn to say, "Come here," and Jed understood it.

"It's only seven miles home, and no cow. What's the use of my staying here?"

It was plain enough that Jed was thinking again, and he was counting those four bits of silver coin over and over. There would be only three of them left if he staid all night at Mrs. Simmons's. Two packs of crackers gone, at six and a quarter cents a pack.

"I'd have to walk home, after all, or pay for a ride, or catch on to some wagon. No, sir! I'm going now."

He was afraid to say as much to the widow. He did not even go near the house again.

As for Barlow, that active dog refused to even sit down another time on the grass of Penniman's Corners.

Jed was half afraid he might be headed off and stopped by somebody. Mrs. Simmons might come after him, and insist on his staying overnight and paying her that shilling. Somebody else might take the other three away from him.

It was a great trial to be travelling alone with so much money as that, and Barlow must have felt it more or less, for he did not even bark. He had very few chances to sit down, however, for Jed did not feel really safe until he could see the steeple of the village church, and he walked better than he ever had before.

He was a very tired boy when he reached the corner of his own street, there by Mr. Philips's grocery, and he leaned up against the big poplar for a long look at the stack of boxes of fire-crackers.

"Ain't I glad I came back! Come here, Barlow."

But Barlow was lying down, with a large job of panting to do, and he did not come.