Just before the circus came, about the end of July, something happened that made Pony mean to run off more than anything that ever was. His father and mother were coming home from a walk, in the evening; it was so hot nobody could stay in the house, and just as they were coming to the front steps Pony stole up behind them and tossed a snowball which he had got out of the garden at his mother, just for fun. The flower struck her very softly on her hair, for she had no bonnet on, and she gave a jump and a hollo that made Pony laugh; and then she caught him by the arm and boxed his ears.
"Oh, my goodness! It was you, was it, you good-for-nothing boy? I thought it was a bat!" she said, and she broke out crying and ran into the house, and would not mind his father, who was calling after her, "Lucy, Lucy, my dear child!"
Pony was crying, too, for he did not intend to frighten his mother, and when she took his fun as if he had done something wicked he did not know what to think. He stole off to bed, and he lay there crying in the dark and expecting that she would come to him, as she always did, to have him say that he was sorry when he had been wicked, or to tell him that she was sorry when she thought she had not been quite fair with him. But she did not come, and after a good while his father came and said: "Are you awake, Pony? I am sorry your mother misunderstood your fun. But you mustn't mind it, dear boy. She's not well, and she's very nervous."
"I don't care!" Pony sobbed out. "She won't have a chance to touch me again!" For he had made up his mind to run off with the circus which was coming the next Tuesday.
He turned his face away, sobbing, and his father, after standing by his bed a moment, went away without saying anything but "Don't forget your prayers, Pony. You'll feel differently in the morning, I hope."
Pony fell asleep thinking how he would come back to the Boy's Town with the circus when he was grown up, and when he came out in the ring riding three horses bareback he would see his father and mother and sisters in one of the lower seats. They would not know him, but he would know them, and he would send for them to come to the dressing-room, and would be very good to them, all but his mother; he would be very cold and stiff with her, though he would know that she was prouder of him than all the rest put together, and she would go away almost crying.
He began being cold and stiff with her the very next morning, although she was better than ever to him, and gave him waffles for breakfast with unsalted butter, and tried to pet him up. That whole day she kept trying to do things for him, but he would scarcely speak to her; and at night she came to him and said, "What makes you act so strangely, Pony? Are you offended with your mother?"
"Yes, I am!" said Pony, haughtily, and he twitched away from where she was sitting on the side of his bed, leaning over him.
"On account of last night, Pony?" she asked, softly.
"I reckon you know well enough," said Pony, and he tried to be disgusted with her for being such a hypocrite, but he had to set his teeth hard, hard, or he would have broken down crying.
"If it's for that, you mustn't, Pony dear. You don't know how you frightened me. When your snowball hit me, I felt sure it was a bat, and I'm so afraid of bats, you know. I didn't mean to hurt my poor boy's feelings so, and you mustn't mind it any more, Pony."
She stooped down and kissed him on the forehead, but he did not move or say anything; only, after that he felt more forgiving toward his mother. He made up his mind to be good to her along with the rest when he came back with the circus. But still he meant to run off with the circus. He did not see how he could do anything else, for he had told all the boys that day that he was going to do it; and when they just laughed, and said, "Oh yes. Think you can fool your grandmother! It'll be like running off with the Indians," Pony wagged his head, and said they would see whether it would or not, and offered to bet them what they dared.
The morning of the circus day all the fellows went out to the corporation line to meet the circus procession. There were ladies and knights, the first thing, riding on spotted horses; and then a band-chariot, all made up of swans and dragons. There were about twenty baggage-wagons; but before you got to them there was the greatest thing of all. It was a chariot drawn by twelve Shetland ponies, and it was shaped like a big shell, and around in the bottom of the shell there were little circus actors, boys and girls, dressed in their circus clothes, and they all looked exactly like fairies. They scarce seemed to see the fellows, as they ran alongside of their chariot, but Hen Billard and Archy Hawkins, who were always cutting up, got close enough to throw some peanuts to the circus boys, and some of the little circus girls laughed, and the driver looked around and cracked his whip at the fellows, and they all had to get out of the way then.
Jim Leonard said that the circus boys and girls were all stolen, and nobody was allowed to come close to them for fear they would try to send word to their friends. Some of the fellows did not believe it, and wanted to know how he knew it; and he said he read it in a paper; after that nobody could deny it. But he said that if you went with the circus men of your own free will they would treat you first-rate; only they would give you burnt brandy to keep you little; nothing else but burnt brandy would do it, but that would do it, sure.
Pony was scared at first when he heard that most of the circus fellows were stolen, but he thought if he went of his own accord he would be all right. Still, he did not feel so much like running off with the circus as he did before the circus came. He asked Jim Leonard whether the circus men made all the children drink burnt brandy; and Archy Hawkins and Hen Billard heard him ask, and began to mock him. They took him up between them, one by his arms and the other by the legs, and ran along with him, and kept saying, "Does it want to be a great big circus actor? Then it shall, so it shall," and, "We'll tell the circus men to be very careful of you, Pony dear!" till Pony wriggled himself loose and began to stone them.
After that they had to let him alone, for when a fellow began to stone you in the Boy's Town you had to let him alone, unless you were going to whip him, and the fellows only wanted to have a little fun with Pony. But what they did made him all the more resolved to run away with the circus, just to show them.
He helped to carry water for the circus men's horses, along with the boys who earned their admission that way. He had no need to do it, because his father was going to take him in, anyway; but Jim Leonard said it was the only way to get acquainted with the circus men. Still, Pony was afraid to speak to them, and he would not have said a word to any of them if it had not been for one of them speaking to him first, when he saw him come lugging a great pail of water, and bending far over on the right to balance it.
"That's right," the circus man said to Pony. "If you ever fell into that bucket you'd drown, sure."
He was a big fellow, with funny eyes, and he had a white bulldog at his heels; and all the fellows said he was the one who guarded the outside of the tent when the circus began, and kept the boys from hooking in under the curtain.
Even then Pony would not have had the courage to say anything, but Jim Leonard was just behind him with another bucket of water, and he spoke up for him. "He wants to go with the circus."
They both set down their buckets, and Pony felt himself turning pale when the circus man came toward them. "Wants to go with the circus, heigh? Let's have a look at you." He took Pony by the shoulders and turned him slowly round, and looked at his nice clothes, and took him by the chin. "Orphan?" he asked.
Pony did not know what to say, but Jim Leonard nodded; perhaps he did not know what to say, either; but Pony felt as if they had both told a lie.
"Parents living?" The circus man looked at Pony, and Pony had to say that they were.
He gasped out, "Yes," so that you could scarcely hear him, and the circus man said:
"Well, that's right. When we take an orphan, we want to have his parents living, so that we can go and ask them what sort of a boy he is."
He looked at Pony in such a friendly, smiling way that Pony took courage to ask him whether they would want him to drink burnt brandy.
"To keep me little."
"Oh, I see." The circus man took off his hat and rubbed his forehead with a silk handkerchief, which he threw into the top of his hat before he put it on again. "No, I don't know as we will. We're rather short of giants just now. How would you like to drink a glass of elephant milk every morning and grow into an eight-footer?"
Pony said he didn't know whether he would like to be quite so big; and then the circus man said perhaps he would rather go for an India-rubber man; that was what they called the contortionists in those days.
"Let's feel of you again." The circus man took hold of Pony and felt his joints. "You're put together pretty tight; but I reckon we could make you do if you'd let us take you apart with a screw-driver and limber up the pieces with rattlesnake oil. Wouldn't like it, heigh? Well, let me see!" The circus man thought a moment, and then he said: "How would double-somersaults on four horses bareback do?"
Pony said that would do, and then the circus man said: "Well, then, we've just hit it, because our double-somersault, four-horse bareback is just going to leave us, and we want a new one right away. Now, there's more than one way of joining a circus, but the best way is to wait on your front steps with your things all packed up, and the procession comes along at about one o'clock in the morning and picks you up. Which 'd you rather do?"
Pony pushed his toe into the turf, as he always did when he was ashamed, but he made out to say he would rather wait out on the front steps.
"Well, then, that's all settled," said the circus man. "We'll be along," and he was going away with his dog, but Tim Leonard called after him:
"You hain't asked him whereabouts he lives?"
The circus man kept on, and he said, without looking around, "Oh, that's all right. We've got somebody that looks after that."
"It's the magician," Jim Leonard whispered to Pony, and they walked away.
A crowd of the fellows had been waiting to know what the boys had been talking about to the circus man, but Jim Leonard said, "Don't you tell, Pony Baker!" and he started to run, and that made Pony run, too, and they both ran till they got away from the fellows.
"You have got to keep it a secret; for if a lot of fellows find it out the constable'll get to know it, and he'll be watching out around the corner of your house, and when the procession comes along and he sees you're really going he'll take you up, and keep you in jail till your father comes and bails you out. Now, you mind!"
Pony said, "Oh, I won't tell anybody," and when Jim Leonard said that if a circus man was to feel him over, that way, and act so kind of pleasant and friendly, he would be too proud to speak to anybody, Pony confessed that he knew it was a great thing all the time.
"The way'll be," said Jim Leonard, "to keep in with him, and he'll keep the others from picking on you; they'll be afraid to, on account of his dog. You'll see, he'll be the one to come for you to-night; and if the constable is there the dog won't let him touch you. I never thought of that."
Perhaps on account of thinking of it now Jim Leonard felt free to tell the other fellows how Pony was going to run off, for when a crowd of them came along he told them. They said it was splendid, and they said that if they could make their mothers let them, or if they could get out of the house without their mothers knowing it, they were going to sit up with Pony and watch out for the procession, and bid him good-bye.
At dinner-time he found out that his father was going to take him and all his sisters to the circus, and his father and mother were so nice to him, asking him about the procession and everything, that his heart ached at the thought of running away from home and leaving them. But now he had to do it; the circus man was coming for him, and he could not back out; he did not know what would happen if he did. It seemed to him as if his mother had done everything she could to make it harder for him. She had stewed chicken for dinner, with plenty of gravy, and hot biscuits to sop in, and peach preserves afterward; and she kept helping him to more, because she said boys that followed the circus around got dreadfully hungry. The eating seemed to keep his heart down; it was trying to get into his throat all the time; and he knew that she was being good to him, but if he had not known it he would have believed his mother was just doing it to mock him.
Pony had to go to the circus with his father and sisters, and to get on his shoes and a clean collar. But a crowd of the fellows were there at the tent door to watch out whether the circus man would say anything to him when he went in; and Jim Leonard rubbed against him, when the man passed with his dog and did not even look at Pony, and said: "He's just pretending. He don't want your father to know. He'll be round for you, sure. I saw him kind of smile to one of the other circus men."
It was a splendid circus, and there were more things than Pony ever saw in a circus before. But instead of hating to have it over, it seemed to him that it would never come to an end. He kept thinking and thinking, and wondering whether he would like to be a circus actor; and when the one came out who rode four horses bareback and stood on his head on the last horse, and drove with the reins in his teeth, Pony thought that he never could learn to do it; and if he could not learn he did not know what the circus men would say to him. It seemed to him that it was very strange he had not told that circus man that he didn't know whether he could do it or not; but he had not, and now it was too late.
A boy came around calling lemonade, and Pony's father bought some for each of the children, but Pony could hardly taste his.
"What is the matter with you, Pony? Are you sick?" his father asked.
"No. I don't care for any; that's all. I'm well," said Pony; but he felt very miserable.
After supper Jim Leonard came round and went up to Pony's room with him to help him pack, and he was so gay about it and said he only wished he was going, that Pony cheered up a little. Jim had brought a large square of checked gingham that he said he did not believe his mother would ever want, and that he would tell her he had taken if she asked for it. He said it would be the very thing for Pony to carry his clothes in, for it was light and strong and would hold a lot. He helped Pony to choose his things out of his bureau drawers: a pair of stockings and a pair of white pantaloons and a blue roundabout, and a collar, and two handkerchiefs. That was all he said Pony would need, because he would have his circus clothes right away, and there was no use taking things that he would never wear.
Jim did these up in the square of gingham, and he tied it across cater-cornered twice, in double knots, and showed Pony how he could put his hand through and carry it just as easy. He hid it under the bed for him, and he told Pony that if he was in Pony's place he should go to bed right away or pretty soon, so that nobody would think anything, and maybe he could get some sleep before he got up and went down to wait on the front steps for the circus to come along. He promised to be there with the other boys and keep them from fooling or making a noise, or doing anything to wake his father up, or make the constable come. "You see, Pony," he said, "if you can run off this year, and come back with the circus next year, then a whole lot of fellows can run off. Don't you see that?"
Pony said he saw that, but he said he wished some of the other fellows were going now, because he did not know any of the circus boys and he was afraid he might feel kind of lonesome. But Jim Leonard said he would soon get acquainted, and, anyway, a year would go before he knew it, and then if the other fellows could get off he would have plenty of company.
As soon as Jim Leonard was gone Pony undressed and got into bed. He was not sleepy, but he thought maybe it would be just as well to rest a little while before the circus procession came along for him; and, anyway, he could not bear to go down-stairs and be with the family when he was going to leave them so soon, and not come back for a whole year.
After a good while, or about the time he usually came in from playing, he heard his mother saying: "Where in the world is Pony? Has he come in yet? Have you seen him, girls? Pony! Pony!" she called.
But somehow Pony could not get his voice up out of his throat; he wanted to answer her, but he could not speak. He heard her say, "Go out to the front steps, girls, and see if you can see him," and then he heard her coming up the stairs; and she came into his room, and when she saw him lying there in bed, she said: "Why, I believe in my heart the child's asleep! Pony! Are you awake?"
Pony made out to say no, and his mother said: "My! what a fright you gave me! Why didn't you answer me? Are you sick, Pony? Your father said you didn't seem well at the circus; and you didn't eat any supper, hardly."
Pony said he was first-rate, but he spoke very low, and his mother came up and sat down on the side of his bed.
"What is the matter, child?" She bent over and felt his forehead. "No, you haven't got a bit of fever," she said, and she kissed him, and began to tumble his short black hair in the way she had, and she got one of his hands between her two, and kept rubbing it. "But you've had a long, tiresome day, and that's why you've gone to bed, I suppose. But if you feel the least sick, Pony, I'll send for the doctor."
Pony said he was not sick at all; just tired; and that was true; he felt as if he never wanted to get up again.
His mother put her arm under his neck, and pressed her face close down to his, and said very low: "Pony dear, you don't feel hard toward your mother for what she did the other night?"
He knew she meant boxing his ears, when he was not to blame, and he said: "Oh no," and then he threw his arms round her neck and cried; and she told him not to cry, and that she would never do such a thing again; but she was really so frightened she did not know what she was doing.
When he quieted down, she said: "Now say your prayers, Pony, 'Our Father,'" and she said, "Our Father" all through with him, and after that, "Now I lay me," just as when he was a very little fellow. After they had finished she stooped over and kissed him again, and when he turned his face into his pillow she kept smoothing his hair with her hand for about a minute. Then she went away.
Pony could hear them stirring about for a good while down-stairs. His father came in from uptown at last, and asked: "Has Pony come in?"
And his mother said; "Yes, he's up in bed. I wouldn't disturb him, Henry. He's asleep by this time."
His father said: "I don't know what to make of the boy. If he keeps on acting so strangely I shall have the doctor see him in the morning."
Pony felt dreadfully to think how far away from them he should be in the morning, and he would have given anything if he could have gone down to his father and mother and told them what he was going to do. But it did not seem as if he could.
By-and-by he began to be sleepy, and then he dozed off, but he thought it was hardly a minute before he heard the circus band, and knew that the procession was coming for him. He jumped out of bed and put on his things as fast as he could; but his roundabout had only one sleeve to it, somehow, and he had to button the lower buttons of his trousers to keep it on. He got his bundle and stole down to the front door without seeming to touch his feet to anything, and when he got out on the front steps he saw the circus magician coming along. By that time the music had stopped and Pony could not see any procession. The magician had on a tall, peaked hat, like a witch. He took up the whole street, he was so wide in the black glazed gown that hung from his arms when he stretched them out, for he seemed to be groping along that way, with his wand in one hand, like a blind man.
He kept saying in a kind of deep, shaking voice, "It's all glory; it's all glory," and the sound of those words froze Pony's blood. He tried to get back into the house again, so that the magician should not find him, but when he felt for the door-knob there was no door there anywhere; nothing but a smooth wall. Then he sat down on the steps and tried to shrink up so little that the magician would miss him; but he saw his wide goggles getting nearer and nearer; and then his father and the doctor were standing by him looking down at him, and the doctor said:
"He has been walking in his sleep; he must be bled," and he got out his lancet, when Pony heard his mother calling: "Pony, Pony! What's the matter? Have you got the nightmare?" and he woke up, and found it was just morning.
The sun was shining in at his window, and it made him so glad to think that by this time the circus was far away and he was not with it, that he hardly knew what to do.
He was not very well for two or three days afterward, and his mother let him stay out of school to see whether he was really going to be sick or not. When he went back most of the fellows had forgotten that he had been going to run off with the circus. Some of them that happened to think of it plagued him a little and asked how he liked being a circus actor.
Hen Billard was the worst; he said he reckoned the circus magician got scared when he saw what a whaler Pony was, and told the circus men that they would have to get a new tent to hold him; and that was the reason why they didn't take him. Archy Hawkins said: "How long did you have to wait on the front steps, Pony dear?" But after that he was pretty good to him, and said he reckoned they had better not any of them pretend that Pony had not tried to run off if they had not been up to see.
Pony himself could never be exactly sure whether he had waited on the front steps and seen the circus magician or not. Sometimes it seemed all of it like a dream, and sometimes only part of it. Jim Leonard tried to help him make it out, but they could not. He said it was a pity he had overslept himself, for if he had come to bid Pony good-bye, the way he said, then he could have told just how much of it was a dream and how much was not.
Jim Leonard's stable used to stand on the flat near the river, and on a rise of ground above it stood Jim Leonard's log-cabin. The boys called it Jim Leonard's log-cabin, but it was really his mother's, and the stable was hers, too. It was a log stable, but up where the gable began the logs stopped, and it was weather-boarded the rest of the way, and the roof was shingled.
Jim Leonard said it was all logs once, and that the roof was loose clapboards, held down by logs that ran across them, like the roofs in the early times, before there were shingles or nails, or anything, in the country. But none of the oldest boys had ever seen it like that, and you had to take Jim Leonard's word for it if you wanted to believe it. The little fellows nearly all did; but everybody said afterward it was a good thing for Jim Leonard that it was not that kind of roof when he had his hair-breadth escape on it. He said himself that he would not have cared if it had been; but that was when it was all over, and his mother had whipped him, and everything, and he was telling the boys about it.
He said that in his Pirate Book lots of fellows on rafts got to land when they were shipwrecked, and that the old-fashioned roof would have been just like a raft, anyway, and he could have steered it right across the river to Delorac's Island as easy! Pony Baker thought very likely he could, but Hen Billard said:
"Well, why didn't you do it, with the kind of a roof you had?"
Some of the boys mocked Jim Leonard; but a good many of them thought he could have done it if he could have got into the eddy that there was over by the island. If he could have landed there, once, he could have camped out and lived on fish till the river fell.
It was that spring, about fifty-four years ago, when the freshet, which always came in the spring, was the worst that anybody could remember. The country above the Boy's Town was under water for miles and miles. The river-bottoms were flooded so that the corn had to be all planted over again when the water went down. The freshet tore away pieces of orchard, and apple-trees in bloom came sailing along with logs and fence-rails and chicken-coops, and pretty soon dead cows and horses. There was a dog chained to a dog-kennel that went by, howling awfully; the boys would have given anything if they could have saved him, but the yellow river whirled him out of sight behind the middle pier of the bridge, which everybody was watching from the bank, expecting it to go any minute. The water was up within four or five feet of the bridge, and the boys believed that if a good big log had come along and hit it, the bridge would have been knocked loose from its piers and carried down the river.
Perhaps it would, and perhaps it would not. The boys all ran to watch it as soon as school was out, and stayed till they had to go to supper. After supper some of their mothers let them come back and stay till bedtime, if they would promise to keep a full yard back from the edge of the bank. They could not be sure just how much a yard was, and they nearly all sat down on the edge and let their legs hang over.
Jim Leonard was there, holloing and running up and down the bank, and showing the other boys things away out in the river that nobody else could see; he said he saw a man out there. He had not been to supper, and he had not been to school all day, which might have been the reason why he would rather stay with the men and watch the bridge than go home to supper; his mother would have been waiting for him with a sucker from the pear-tree. He told the boys that while they were gone he went out with one of the men on the bridge as far as the middle pier, and it shook like a leaf; he showed with his hand how it shook.
Jim Leonard was a fellow who believed he did all kinds of things that he would like to have done; and the big boys just laughed. That made Jim Leonard mad, and he said that as soon as the bridge began to go, he was going to run out on it and go with it; and then they would see whether he was a liar or not! They mocked him and danced round him till he cried. But Pony Baker, who had come with his father, believed that Jim Leonard would really have done it; and at any rate, he felt sorry for him when Jim cried.
He stayed later than any of the little fellows, because his father was with him, and even all the big boys had gone home except Hen Billard, when Pony left Jim Leonard on the bank and stumbled sleepily away, with his hand in his father's.
When Pony was gone, Hen Billard said: "Well, going to stay all night, Jim?"
And Jim Leonard answered back, as cross as could be, "Yes, I am!" And he said the men who were sitting up to watch the bridge were going to give him some of their coffee, and that would keep him awake. But perhaps he thought this because he wanted some coffee so badly. He was awfully hungry, for he had not had anything since breakfast, except a piece of bread-and-butter that he got Pony Baker to bring him in his pocket when he came down from school at noontime.
Hen Billard said, "Well, I suppose I won't see you any more, Jim; good-bye," and went away laughing; and after a while one of the men saw Jim Leonard hanging about, and asked him what he wanted there at that time of night; and Jim could not say he wanted coffee, and so there was nothing for him to do but go. There was nowhere for him to go but home, and he sneaked off in the dark.
When he came in sight of the cabin he could not tell whether he would rather have his mother waiting for him with a whipping and some supper, or get to bed somehow with neither. He climbed softly over the back fence and crept up to the back door, but it was fast; then he crept round to the front door, and that was fast, too. There was no light in the house, and it was perfectly still.
All of a sudden it struck him that he could sleep in the stable-loft, and he thought what a fool he was not to have thought of it before. The notion brightened him up so that he got the gourd that hung beside the well-curb and took it out to the stable with him; for now he remembered that the cow would be there, unless she was in somebody's garden-patch or cornfield.
He noticed as he walked down toward the stable that the freshet had come up over the flat, and just before the door he had to wade. But he was in his bare feet, and he did not care; if he thought anything, he thought that his mother would not come out to milk till the water went down, and he would be safe till then from the whipping he must take, sooner or later, for playing hooky.
Sure enough, the old cow was in the stable, and she gave Jim Leonard a snort of welcome and then lowed anxiously. He fumbled through the dark to her side, and began to milk her. She had been milked only a few hours before, and so he got only a gourdful from her. But it was all strippings, and rich as cream, and it was smoking warm. It seemed to Jim Leonard that it went down to his very toes when he poured it into his throat, and it made him feel so good that he did not know what to do.
There really was not anything for him to do but to climb up into the loft by the ladder in the corner of the stable, and lie down on the old last year's fodder. The rich, warm milk made Jim Leonard awfully sleepy, and he dropped off almost as soon as his head touched the cornstalks. The last thing he remembered was the hoarse roar of the freshet outside, and that was a lulling music in his ears.
The next thing he knew, and he hardly knew that, was a soft, jolting, sinking motion, first to one side and then to the other; then he seemed to be going down, down, straight down, and then to be drifting off into space. He rubbed his eyes and found it was full daylight, although it was the daylight of early morning; and while he lay looking out of the stable-loft window and trying to make out what it all meant, he felt a wash of cold water along his back, and his bed of fodder melted away under him and around him, and some loose planks of the loft floor swam weltering out of the window. Then he knew what had happened. The flood had stolen up while he slept, and sapped the walls of the stable; the logs had given way, one after another, and had let him down, with the roof, into the water.
He got to his feet as well as he could, and floundered over the rising and falling boards to the window in the floating gable. One look outside showed him his mother's log-cabin safe on its rise of ground, and at the corner the old cow, that must have escaped through the stable door he had left open, and passed the night among the cabbages. She seemed to catch sight of Jim Leonard when he put his head out, and she lowed to him.
Jim Leonard did not stop to make any answer. He clambered out of the window and up onto the ridge of the roof, and there, in the company of a large gray rat, he set out on the strangest voyage a boy ever made. In a few moments the current swept him out into the middle of the river, and he was sailing down between his native shore on one side and Delorac's Island on the other.
All round him seethed and swirled the yellow flood in eddies and ripples, where drift of all sorts danced and raced. His vessel, such as it was, seemed seaworthy enough. It held securely together, fitting like a low, wide cup over the water, and perhaps finding some buoyancy from the air imprisoned in it above the window. But Jim Leonard was not satisfied, and so far from being proud of his adventure, he was frightened worse even than the rat which shared it. As soon as he could get his voice, he began to shout for help to the houses on the empty shores, which seemed to fly backward on both sides while he lay still on the gulf that swashed around him, and tried to drown his voice before it swallowed him up. At the same time the bridge, which had looked so far off when he first saw it, was rushing swiftly toward him, and getting nearer and nearer.
He wondered what had become of all the people and all the boys. He thought that if he were safe there on shore he should not be sleeping in bed while somebody was out in the river on a roof, with nothing but a rat to care whether he got drowned or not.
Where was Hen Billard, that always made fun so; or Archy Hawkins, that pretended to be so good-natured; or Pony Baker, that seemed to like a fellow so much? He began to call for them by name: "Hen Billard—O Hen! Help, help! Archy Hawkins—O Archy! I'm drowning! Pony, Pony—O Pony! Don't you see me, Pony?"
He could see the top of Pony Baker's house, and he thought what a good, kind man Pony's father was. Surely he would try to save him; and Jim Leonard began to yell: "O Mr. Baker! Look here, Mr. Baker! It's Jim Leonard, and I'm floating down the river on a roof! Save me, Mr. Baker, save me! Help, help, somebody! Fire! Fire! Fire! Murder! Fire!"
By this time he was about crazy, and did not half know what he was saying. Just in front of where Hen Billard's grandmother lived, on the street that ran along the top of the bank, the roof got caught in the branches of a tree which had drifted down and stuck in the bottom of the river so that the branches waved up and down as the current swashed through them. Jim Leonard was glad of anything that would stop the roof, and at first he thought he would get off on the tree. That was what the rat did. Perhaps the rat thought Jim Leonard really was crazy and he had better let him have the roof to himself; but the rat saw that he had made a mistake, and he jumped back again after he had swung up and down on a limb two or three times. Jim Leonard felt awfully when the rat first got into the tree, for he remembered how it said in the Pirate Book that rats always leave a sinking ship, and now he believed that he certainly was gone. But that only made him hollo the louder, and he holloed so loud that at last he made somebody hear.
It was Hen Billard's grandmother, and she put her head out of the window with her nightcap on, to see what the matter was. Jim Leonard caught sight of her, and he screamed: "Fire, fire, fire! I'm drownding, Mrs. Billard! Oh, do somebody come!"
Hen Billard's grandmother just gave one yell of "Fire! The world's a-burnin' up, Hen Billard, and you layin' there sleepin' and not helpin' a bit! Somebody's out there in the river!" and she rushed into the room where Hen was, and shook him.
He bounced out of bed and pulled on his pantaloons, and was down-stairs in a minute. He ran bareheaded over to the bank, and when Jim Leonard saw him coming he holloed ten times as loud: "It's me, Hen! It's Jim Leonard! Oh, do get somebody to come out and save me! Fire!"
As soon as Hen heard that, and felt sure it was not a dream, which he did in about half a second, he began to yell, too, and to say: "How did you get there? Fire, fire, fire! What are you on? Fire! Are you in a tree, or what? Fire, fire! Are you in a flat-boat? Fire, fire, fire! If I had a skiff—fire!"
He kept racing up and down the bank, and back and forth between the bank and the houses. The river was almost up to the top of the bank, and it looked a mile wide. Down at the bridge you could hardly see any light between the water and the bridge.
Pretty soon people began to look out of their doors and windows, and Hen Billard's grandmother kept screaming: "The world's a-burnin' up! The river's on fire!" Then boys came out of their houses; and then men with no hats on; and then women and girls, with their hair half down. The fire-bells began to ring, and in less than five minutes both the fire companies were on the shore, with the men at the brakes and the foremen of the companies holloing through their trumpets.
Then Jim Leonard saw what a good thing it was that he had thought of holloing fire. He felt sure now that they would save him somehow, and he made up his mind to save the rat, too, and pet it, and maybe go around and exhibit it. He would name it Bolivar; it was just the color of the elephant Bolivar that came to the Boy's Town every year. These things whirled through his brain while he watched two men setting out in a skiff toward him.
They started from the shore a little above him, and they meant to row slanting across to his tree, but the current, when they got fairly into it, swept them far below, and they were glad to row back to land again without ever getting anywhere near him. At the same time, the tree-top where his roof was caught was pulled southward by a sudden rush of the torrent; it opened, and the roof slipped out, with Jim Leonard and the rat on it. They both joined in one squeal of despair as the river leaped forward with them, and a dreadful "Oh!" went up from the people on the bank.
Some of the firemen had run down to the bridge when they saw that the skiff was not going to be of any use, and one of them had got out of the window of the bridge onto the middle pier, with a long pole in his hand. It had an iron hook at the end, and it was the kind of pole that the men used to catch driftwood with and drag it ashore. When the people saw Blue Bob with that pole in his hand, they understood what he was up to. He was going to wait till the water brought the roof with Jim Leonard on it down to the bridge, and then catch the hook into the shingles and pull it up to the pier. The strongest current set close in around the middle pier, and the roof would have to pass on one side or the other. That was what Blue Bob argued out in his mind when he decided that the skiff would never reach Jim Leonard, and he knew that if he could not save him that way, nothing could save him.
Blue Bob must have had a last name, but none of the little fellows knew what it was. Everybody called him Blue Bob because he had such a thick, black beard that when he was just shaved his face looked perfectly blue. He knew all about the river and its ways, and if it had been of any use to go out with a boat, he would have gone. That was what all the boys said, when they followed Blue Bob to the bridge and saw him getting out on the pier. He was the only person that the watchman had let go on the bridge for two days.
The water was up within three feet of the floor, and if Jim Leonard's roof slipped by Blue Bob's guard and passed under the bridge, it would scrape Jim Leonard off, and that would be the last of him.
All the time the roof was coming nearer the bridge, sometimes slower, sometimes faster, just as it got into an eddy or into the current; once it seemed almost to stop, and swayed completely round; then it just darted forward.
Blue Bob stood on the very point of the pier, where the strong stone-work divided the current, and held his hooked pole ready to make a clutch at the roof, whichever side it took. Jim Leonard saw him there, but although he had been holloing and yelling and crying all the time, now he was still. He wanted to say, "O Bob, save me!" but he could not make a sound.
It seemed to him that Bob was going to miss him when he made a lunge at the roof on the right side of the pier; it seemed to him that the roof was going down the left side; but he felt it quiver and stop, and then it gave a loud crack and went to pieces, and flung itself away upon the whirling and dancing flood. At first Jim Leonard thought he had gone with it; but it was only the rat that tried to run up Blue Bob's pole, and slipped off into the water; and then somehow Jim was hanging onto Blue Bob's hands and scrambling onto the bridge.
Blue Bob always said he never saw any rat, and a good many people said there never was any rat on the roof with Jim Leonard; they said that he just made the rat up.
He did not mention the rat himself for several days; he told Pony Baker that he did not think of it at first, he was so excited.
Pony asked his father what he thought, and Pony's father said that it might have been the kind of rat that people see when they have been drinking too much, and that Blue Bob had not seen it because he had signed the temperance pledge.
But this was a good while after. At the time the people saw Jim Leonard standing safe with Blue Bob on the pier, they set up a regular election cheer, and they would have believed anything Jim Leonard said. They all agreed that Blue Bob had a right to go home with Jim and take him to his mother, for he had saved Jim's life, and he ought to have the credit of it.
Before this, and while everybody supposed that Jim Leonard would surely be drowned, some of the people had gone up to his mother's cabin to prepare her for the worst. She did not seem to understand exactly, and she kept round getting breakfast, with her old clay pipe in her mouth; but when she got it through her head, she made an awful face, and dropped her pipe on the door-stone and broke it; and then she threw her check apron over her head and sat down and cried.
But it took so long for her to come to this that the people had not got over comforting her and trying to make her believe that it was all for the best, when Blue Bob came up through the bars with his hand on Jim's shoulder, and about all the boys in town tagging after them.
Jim's mother heard the hurrahing and pulled off her apron, and saw that Jim was safe and sound there before her. She gave him a look that made him slip round behind Blue Bob, and she went in and got a table-knife, and she came out and went to the pear-tree and cut a sucker.
She said, "I'll learn that limb to sleep in a cow-barn when he's got a decent bed in the house!" and then she started to come toward Jim Leonard.