It all seemed very strange to Pony. First, Jim Leonard was going to run off with him on a raft, and then he was going to have Pony go by land and follow him on the raft; then suddenly he fixed it so that Pony was going alone, and he was going to pass the last night with him in the barn; and here, all at once, he was only coming, maybe, to see him off in the morning. It made Pony feel very forlorn, but he did not like to say anything for fear Jim Leonard would call him cowardy-calf.
It was near sunset, on a cool day in the beginning of October, and the wind was stirring the dry blades in the corn-patch at the side of the barn. They made a shivering sound, and it made Pony lonesomer and lonesomer. He did not want to run off, but he did not see how he could help it. Trip stood at the wood-house door, looking at him, but he did not dare to come to Pony as long as he was near the barn. But when Pony started towards the house Trip came running and jumping to him, and Pony patted him and said, “Poor Trip, poor old Trip!” He did not know when he should see such another dog as that.
The kitchen door was open, and a beautiful smell of frying supper was coming out. Pretty soon his mother came to the open door, and stood watching him patting Trip. “Well, have you made up with poor old Trip, Pony? Why don’t you come in, child? You look so cold, out there.”
Pony did not say anything, but he came into the kitchen and sat in a corner beyond the stove and watched his mother getting the supper. In the dining-room his sisters were setting the table and his father was reading by the lamp there. Pony would have given almost anything if something had happened just to make him tell what he was going to do, so that he could have been kept from doing it. He saw that his mother was watching him all the time, and she said: “What makes you so quiet, child?”
Pony said, “Oh, nothing,” and his mother asked, “Have you been falling out with Jim Leonard?”
Pony said no, and then she said, “I almost wish you had, then. I don’t think he’s a bad boy, but he’s a crazy fool, and I wish you wouldn’t go with him so much. I don’t like him.”
All of a sudden Pony felt that he did not like Jim Leonard very much himself. It seemed to him that Jim Leonard had not used him very well, but he could not have told how.
After supper the great thing was how to get out to the barn without any one’s noticing. Pony went to the woodshed door two or three times to look out. There were plenty of stars in the sky, but it seemed very dark, and he knew that it would be as black as pitch in the barn, and he did not see how he could ever dare to go out to it, much less into it. Every time he came back from looking he brought an armload of wood into the kitchen so that his mother would not notice.
The last time she said, “Why, you dear, good boy, what a lot of wood you’re bringing for your mother,” for usually Pony had to be told two or three times before he would get a single armload of wood.
When his mother praised him he was ashamed to look at her, and so he looked round, and he saw the lantern hanging by the mantel-piece. When he saw that lantern he almost wished that he had not seen it, for now he knew that his last excuse was gone, and he would really have to run off. If it had not been for the lantern he could have told Jim Leonard that he was afraid to go out to the barn on account of ghosts, for anybody would be afraid of ghosts; Jim Leonard said he was afraid of them himself. But now Pony could easily get the lantern and take it out to the barn with him, and if it was not dark the ghosts would not dare to touch you.
He tried to think back to the beginning of the time when he first intended to run off, and find out if there was not some way of not doing it; but he could not, and if Jim Leonard was to come to the barn the next morning to help him start, and should not find him there, Pony did not know what he would do. Jim Leonard would tell all the fellows, and Pony would never hear the last of it. That was the way it seemed to him, but his mind felt all fuzzy, and he could not think very clearly about it.
When his mother finished up her work in the kitchen he took the lantern from the nail and slipped up the back stairs to his little room, and then, after he heard his sisters going to bed and his father and mother talking together quietly, he lit the lantern and stole out to the barn with it. Nobody noticed him, and he got safely inside the barn. He used to like to carry the lantern very much, because it made the shadows of his legs, when he walked, go like scissors-blades, and that was fun; but that night it did not cheer him up, and it seemed as if nothing could cheer him up again. When Trip first saw him come out into the woodshed with the lantern he jumped up and pawed Pony and licked the lantern, he was so glad, but when Pony went towards the barn Trip stopped following him and went back into the wood-house very sadly. Pony would have given almost anything to have Trip come with him, only, as Jim Leonard said, Trip would whine or bark, or something, and then Pony would be found out and kept from running off.
The more he wanted to be kept from running off the more he knew he must not try to be, and he let Trip go back when he would have so gladly helped him up into the hay-loft and slept with him there. He would not have been afraid with Trip, and now he found that he was dreadfully afraid. The lantern-light was a charm against ghosts, but not against rats, and the first thing Pony knew when he got into the barn a rat ran across his foot. Trip would have kept the rats off. They seemed to just swarm in the loft when Pony got up there, and after he hung the lantern on a nail and lay down in the hay they did not mind him at all. They played all around, and two of them got up on their hind legs once and fought, or else danced, Pony could not tell which. He could not sleep, and after a while he felt the tears coming and he began to cry, and he kept sobbing, and could not stop himself.
When Pony’s mother was ready to go to bed she said to Pony’s father: “Did Pony say good-night to you?” and when he said no, she said, “But he must have gone to bed,” and she ran up the stairs to see. She came down again in about half a second and she said, “He doesn’t seem to be there,” and she raced all through the house hunting for him. In the kitchen she saw that the lantern was gone and then she said: “I might have known he was up to some mischief, he was so quiet. This is some more of Jim Leonard’s work. Henry, I want you to go right out and look for Pony. It’s half-past nine.”
Then Pony’s father knew that it would be no use to talk and he started out. But the whole street was quiet, and all the houses were dark as if the people had gone to bed. He went up town and to all the places where the big boys were apt to play at night, and he found Hen Billard and Archy Hawkins, but neither of them had seen Pony since school. They were both sitting on Hen Billard’s front steps, because Archy Hawkins was going to stay all night with him, and they were telling stories. When Pony’s father asked about Pony and seemed anxious they tried to comfort him, but they could not think where Pony could be. They said perhaps Jim Leonard would know.
Then Pony’s father went home, and the minute he opened the front door Pony’s mother called out: “Have you found him?”
His father said: “No. Hasn’t he come in yet?” and he told her how he had been looking everywhere, and she burst out crying.
“I know he’s fallen into the canal and got drowned, or something,” and she wrung her hands together; and then he said that Hen Billard and Archy Hawkins thought Jim Leonard would know, and he had only stopped to see whether Pony had happened to come in, and he was going straight to Jim Leonard’s mother’s house; and Pony’s mother said: “Oh, go, go, go!” and fairly pushed him out of the house.
By this time it was ten o’clock and going on eleven, and all the town was as still as death, except the dogs. Pony’s father kept on until he got down to the river-bank, where Jim Leonard’s mother lived, and he had to knock and knock before he could make anybody hear. At last Jim Leonard’s mother poked her head out of the window and asked who was there, and Pony’s father told her.
He said: “Is Jim at home, Mrs. Leonard?” and she said:
“Yes, and fast asleep three hours ago. What makes you ask?”
Then he had to tell her. “We can’t find Pony, and some of the boys thought Jim might know where he is. I’m sorry to disturb you, Mrs. Leonard. Good-night,” and he went back home.
When he got there he found Pony’s mother about crazy. He said now they must search the house thoroughly; and they went down into the cellar first, because she said she knew Pony had fallen down the stairs and killed himself. But he was not there, and then they hunted through all the rooms and looked under the tables and beds and into the cupboards and closets, and he was not there. Then they went into the wood-house and looked there, and up into the wood-house loft among the old stoves and broken furniture, and he was not there. Trip was there, and he made them think so of Pony that Pony’s mother took on worse than she had yet.
“Now I’m going out to look in the barn,” said Pony’s father. “You stay quietly in the house, Lucy.”
Trip started to go with Pony’s father, but when he saw that he was going to the barn he was afraid to follow him, Pony had trained him so; and Pony’s father went alone. He shaded the candle that he was carrying with his hand, and when he got into the barn he put it down and stood and looked and tried to think how he should do. It was dangerous to go around among the hay with the candle, and the lantern was gone.
Almost from the first Pony’s father thought that he heard a strange noise like some one sobbing, and then it seemed to him that there was a light up in the loft. He holloed out: “Who’s there?” and then the noise stopped, but the light kept on. Pony’s father holloed out again: “Pony! Is that you, Pony?” and then Pony answered, “Yes,” and he began sobbing again.
In less than half a second Pony’s father was up in the loft, and then down again and out of the barn and into the yard with Pony.
His mother was standing at the back door, for she could not bear to stay in the house, and Pony’s father holloed to her: “Here he is, Lucy, safe and sound!” and Pony’s mother holloed back:
“Well, don’t touch him, Henry! Don’t scold the child! Don’t say a word to him! Oh, I could just fall on my knees!”
Pony’s father came along, bringing Pony and the lantern. Pony’s hair and clothes were all stuck full of pieces of hay, and his face was smeared with hay-dust which he had rubbed into it when he was crying. He had got some of Jim Leonard’s mother’s hen’s eggs on him, and he did not smell very well. But his mother did not care how he looked or how he smelled. She caught him up into her arms and just fairly hugged him into the house, and there she sat down with him in her arms, and kissed his dirty face, and his hair all full of hay-sticks and spider-webs, and cried till it seemed as if she was never going to stop.
She would not let his father say anything to him, but after a while she washed him, and when she got him clean she made him up a bed on the lounge and put him to sleep there where she could see him. She said she was not going to sleep herself that night, but just stay up and realize that they had got Pony safe again.
One thing she did ask him, and that was: “What in the world made you want to sleep in the barn, Pony?” and Pony was ashamed to say he was getting ready to run off. He began:
“Jim Leonard—” and his mother broke out:
“I knew it was some of Jim Leonard’s work!” and she talked against Jim Leonard until Pony fell asleep, and said Pony should never speak to him again.
She and Pony’s father sat up all night talking, and about daybreak he recollected that he had left the candle burning in the barn, and he ran out with all his might to get it before it set the barn on fire. But it had burned out without catching anything, and he was coming back to the house when he met Jim Leonard sneaking towards the barn door. He pounced on him, and caught him by the collar, and he said as savagely as he could: “What are you doing here, Jim?”
Jim Leonard was too scared to speak, and Pony’s father hauled him to the house door, and holloed in to Pony’s mother: “I’ve got Jim Leonard here, Lucy”; and she holloed back:
“Oh, well, take him away, and don’t let me see the dreadful boy!” and Pony’s father said:
“I’ll take him home to his mother, and see what she has to say to him.”
All the way down to the river-bank he did not say a word to Jim Leonard, but when they got to Jim Leonard’s mother’s house, there she was with her pipe in her mouth coming out to get chips to kindle the fire with, and she said:
“I’d like to know what you’ve got my boy by the collar for, Mr. Baker?”
Pony’s father said: “I don’t know myself; I’ll let him tell you. Pony was hid in the barn last night, and I just now caught Jim prowling around on the outside. I should like to hear what he wanted.”
Jim Leonard did not say anything. His mother gave him one look, and then she went into the house and came out with a table-knife in her hand.
She said, “I reckon I can get him to tell you,” and she went to a pear-tree that there was before her house and cut a long sucker from the foot of it. She came up to Jim and then she said: “Tell!”
She did not have to say it twice, and in about half a second he told how Pony had intended to run off and how he put him up to it, and everything. Pony’s father did not wait to see what Jim Leonard’s mother did to Jim.
When Pony woke in the morning he heard his mother saying: “I could almost think he had bewitched the child.”
His father said: “It really seems like a case of mesmeric influence.”
Pony was sick for about a week after that. When he got better his father had a very solemn talk with him, and asked why he ever dreamed of running away from his home, where they all loved him so. Pony could not tell. All the things that he used to be so mad about were like nothing to him now, and he was ashamed of them. His father did not try hard to make him tell. He explained to him what a miserable boy he would have been if he had really got away, and said he hoped his night’s experience in the barn would be a lesson to him.
That was what it turned out to be. But it seemed to be a lesson to his father and mother, too. They let him do more things, and his mother did not baby him so much before the boys. He thought she was trying to be a better mother to him, and, perhaps, she did not baby him so much because now he had a little brother for her to baby instead, that was born about a week after Pony tried to run off.