When I was a boy in a printing-office in Missouri, a loose-jointed, long-legged, tow-headed, jeans-clad, countrified cub of about sixteen lounged in one day, and without removing his hands from the depths of his trousers pockets or taking off his faded ruin of a slouch hat, whose broken rim hung limp and ragged about his eyes and ears like a bug-eaten cabbage-leaf, stared indifferently around, then leaned his hip against the editors' table, crossed his mighty brogans, aimed at a distant fly from a crevice in his upper teeth, laid him low, and said, with composure:
"Whar's the boss?"
"I am the boss," said the editor, following this curious bit of architecture wonderingly along up to its clock-face with his eye.
"Don't want anybody fur to learn the business, 'tain't likely?"
"Well, I don't know. Would you like to learn it?"
"Pap's so po' he cain't run me no mo', so I want to git a show somers if I kin, 'tain't no diffunce what--I'm strong and hearty, and I don't turn my back on no kind of work, hard nur soft."
"Do you think you would like to learn the printing business?"
"Well, I don't re'ly k'yer a durn what I do learn, so's I git a chance fur to make my way. I'd jist as soon learn print'n' 's anything."
"Can you read?"
"Well, I've seed people could lay over me thar."
"Not good enough to keep store, I don't reckon, but up as fur as twelve-times-twelve I ain't no slouch. 'Tother side of that is what gits me."
"Where is your home?"
"I'm f'm old Shelby."
"What's your father's religious denomination?"
"Him? Oh, he's a blacksmith."
"No, no--I don't mean his trade. What's his religious denomination?"
"Oh--I didn't understand you befo'. He's a Freemason."
"No, no; you don't get my meaning yet. What I mean is, does he belong to any church?"
"Now you're talkin'! Gouldn't make out what you was a-tryin' to git through yo' head no way. B'long to a church! Why, boss, he's be'n the pizenest kind of a Free-will Babtis' for forty year. They ain't no pizener ones 'n' what he is. Mighty good man, pap is. Everybody says that. If they said any diffrunt they wouldn't say it whar I wuz--not much they wouldn't."
"What is your own religion?"
"Well, boss, you've kind o' got me thar--and yit you hain't got me so mighty much, nuther. I think 't if a feller he'ps another feller when he's in trouble, and don't cuss, and don't do no mean things, nur noth'n' he ain' no business to do, and don't spell the Saviour's name with a little g, he ain't runnin' no resks--he's about as saift as if he b'longed to a church."
"But suppose he did spell it with a little g--what then?"
"Well, if he done it a-purpose, I reckon he wouldn't stand no chance,--he oughtn't to have no chance, anyway, I'm most rotten certain 'bout that."
"What is your name?"
"I think maybe you'll do, Nicodemus. We'll give you a trial, anyway."
"When would you like to begin?"
So, within ten minutes after we had first glimpsed this nondescript he was one of us, and with his coat off and hard at it.
Beyond that end of our establishment which was farthest from the street was a deserted garden, pathless, and thickly grown with the bloomy and villanous "jimpson" weed and its common friend the stately sunflower. In the midst of this mournful spot was a decayed and aged little "frame" house with but one room, one window, and no ceiling--it had been a smoke-house a generation before. Nicodemus was given this lonely and ghostly den as a bedchamber.
The village smarties recognized a treasure in Nicodemus right away--a butt to play jokes on. It was easy to see that he was inconceivably green and confiding. George Jones had the glory of perpetrating the first joke on him; he gave him a cigar with a fire-cracker in it and winked to the crowd to come; the thing exploded presently and swept away the bulk of Nicodemus's eyebrows and eyelashes. He simply said:
"I consider them kind of seeg'yars dangersome"--and seemed to suspect nothing. The next evening Nicodemus waylaid George and poured a bucket of ice-water over him.
One day, while Nicodemus was in swimming, Tom McElroy "tied" his clothes. Nicodemus made a bonfire of Tom's by way of retaliation.
A third joke was played upon Nicodemus a day or two later--he walked up the middle aisle of the village church, Sunday night, with a staring hand-bill pinned between his shoulders. The joker spent the remainder of the night, after church, in the cellar of a deserted house, and Nicodemus sat on the cellar door till towards breakfast-time to make sure that the prisoner remembered that if any noise was made some rough treatment would be the consequence. The cellar had two feet of stagnant water in it, and was bottomed with six inches of soft mud.
But I wander from the point. It was the subject of skeletons that brought this boy back to my recollection. Before a very long time had elapsed, the village smarties began to feel an uncomfortable consciousness of not having made a very shining success out of their attempts on the simpleton from "old Shelby." Experimenters grew scarce and chary. Now the young doctor came to the rescue. There was delight and applause when he proposed to scare Nicodemus to death, and explained how he was going to do it. He had a noble new skeleton--the skeleton of the late and only local celebrity, Jimmy Finn, the village drunkard--a grisly piece of property which he had bought of Jimmy Finn himself, at auction, for fifty dollars, under great competition, when Jimmy lay very sick in the tanyard a fortnight before his death. The fifty dollars had gone promptly for whiskey and had considerably hurried up the change of ownership in the skeleton. The doctor would put Jimmy Finn's skeleton in Nicodemus's bed!
This was done--about half-past ten in the evening. About Nicodemus's usual bedtime--midnight--the village jokers came creeping stealthily through the jimpson weeds and sunflowers towards the lonely frame den. They reached the window and peeped in. There sat the long-legged pauper, on his bed, in a very short shirt, and nothing more; he was dangling his legs contentedly back and forth, and wheezing the music of "Camptown Races" out of a paper-overlaid comb which he was pressing against his mouth; by him lay a new jews-harp, a new top, a solid india-rubber ball, a handful of painted marbles, five pounds of "store" candy, and a well-knawed slab of gingerbread as big and as thick as a volume of sheet music. He had sold the skeleton to a travelling quack for three dollars and was enjoying the result!