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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"
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