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Chapter 2

THE RIGHT THAT PONY HAD TO RUN OFF, FROM THE WAY HIS FATHER ACTED

Pony had a right to run off from some of the things that his father had done, but it seemed to him that they were mostly things that his mother had put his father up to, and that his father would not have been half as bad if he had been let alone. In the Boy’s Town the fellows celebrated Christmas just as they did Fourth of July, by firing off pistols and shooting crackers, and one Christmas one of the fellows’ pistols burst and blew the ball of his thumb open, and when a crowd of the fellows helped him past Pony’s house, crying and limping (the pain seemed to go down his leg, and lame him), Pony’s mother made his father take Pony’s pistol right away from him, and not let him have it till after New Year’s; and what made it worse was that Pony had faithfully kept his promise to her that he would not fire anything out of his pistol but paper wads, while all the other fellows were firing shot, and tacks, and little marbles, out of theirs; and some of them tried to shame him into breaking his word, and he had to stand their calling him cry-baby, and everything.

Then, she would not let his father get him a gun to go hunting with, because he would have to fire something besides wads out of that, and would be sure to kill himself. Pony told her that he would not kill himself, and tried to laugh her out of the notion, but it was no use, and he never had a gun till he was twelve years old; he was nine at the time I mean. One of the fellows who was only eight was going to have a gun as soon as his brother got done with his.

She would hardly let his father get him a dog, and I suppose it was something but Pony’s disappointment about the gun that made her agree to the dog at last; even then she would not agree to his having it before it had its eyes open, when the great thing about a puppy was its not having its eyes open, and it was fully two weeks old before he was allowed to bring it home, though he was taken to choose it before it could walk very well, and he went every day afterwards to see how it was getting along, and to watch out that it did not get changed with the other little dogs. The first night after he got it to his own house, the dog whined so with homesickness that it kept everybody awake till Pony went to the woodshed, where it was in the clothes-basket, and took it into his own bed; then it went to sleep, and did not whine a bit. His father let him keep it there that one night, but the next he made him put it out again, because he said it would get the house full of fleas; and he said if it made much more trouble he would make Pony take it back.

He was not a very good father about money, because when Pony went to ask him for a five-cent piece he always wanted to know what it was for, and even when it was for a good thing a fellow did not always like to tell. If his father did not think it was a good thing he would not let Pony have it, and then Pony would be ashamed to go back to the boys, for they would say his father was stingy, though perhaps none of them had tried to get money from their own fathers.

Every now and then the fellows tried to learn to smoke, and that was a thing that Pony’s father would not let him do. He would let him smoke the drift-wood twigs, which the boys picked up along the river shore and called smoke-wood, or he would let him smoke grapevine or the pods of the catalpa, which were just like cigars, but he was mean about real tobacco. Once, when he found a cigar in Pony’s pocket, he threw it into the fire, and said that if he ever knew him to have another he would have a talk with him.

He was pretty bad about wanting Pony to weed his mother’s flower-beds and about going regularly to school, and always getting up in time for school. To be sure, if a show or a circus came along, he nearly always took Pony in, but then he was apt to take the girls, too, and he did not like to have Pony go off with a crowd of boys, which was the only way to go into a show; for if the fellows saw you with your family, all dressed up, and maybe with your shoes on, they would make fun of you the next time they caught you out.

He made Pony come in every night before nine o’clock, and even Christmas Eve, or the night before Fourth of July, he would not let him stay up the whole night. When he went to the city, as the boys called the large town twenty miles away from the Boy’s Town, he might get Pony a present or he might not, but he would not promise, because once when he promised, he forgot it, and then Pony’s mother scolded him.

There were some boys’ fathers in the Boy’s Town who were good fathers, and let their children do whatever they pleased, and Pony could not help feeling rather ashamed before these boys. If one of that sort of fellows’ fathers passed a crowd of boys, they would not take any notice of their boys; but if Pony’s father came along, he would very likely say, “Well, Pony!” or something like that, and then all the fellows would hollo, “Well, Pony! Well, Pony!” and make fun of his father, when he got past, and walk like him, or something, so that Pony would be so mad he would hardly know what to do. He hated to ask his father not to speak to him, or look at him, when he was with the fellows, but it seemed to him as if his father ought to know better without asking.

There were a great many things like that which no good father would have done, but the thing that made Pony lose all patience, and begin getting ready to run off right away, was the way his father behaved when Pony got mad at the teacher one day, and brought his books home, and said he was not going back to that school any more. The reason was because the teacher had put Pony back from third reader to the second and made him go into a class of little fellows not more than seven years old. It happened one morning, after a day when Pony had read very badly in the afternoon, and though he had explained that he had read badly because the weather was so hot, the teacher said he might try it in the second reader till the weather changed, at any rate; and the whole school laughed. The worst of it was that Pony was really a very good reader, and could speak almost the best of any of the boys; but that afternoon he was lazy, and would not pay attention.

At recess, after the teacher had put him back, all the fellows came round and asked him what he was going to do now; and he just shut his teeth and told them they would see; and at noon they did see. As soon as school was dismissed, or even before, Pony put all his books together, and his slate, and tied them with his slate-pencil string, and twitched his hat down off the peg, and strutted proudly out of the room, so that not only the boys but the teacher, too, could see that he was leaving school. The teacher looked on and pretended to smile, but Pony did not smile; he kept his teeth shut, and walked stiffly through the door, and straight home, without speaking to any one. That was the way to do when you left school in the Boy’s Town, for then the boys would know you were in earnest; and none of them would try to speak to you, either; they would respect you too much.

Pony’s mother knew that he had left school as soon as she saw him bringing home his books, but she only looked sorry and did not say anything. She must have told his father about it when he came to dinner, though, for as soon as they sat down at the table his father began to ask what the trouble was. Pony answered very haughtily, and said that old Archer had put him back into the second reader, and he was not going to stand it, and he had left school.

“Then,” said his father, “you expect to stay in the second reader the rest of your life?”

This was something that Pony had never thought of before; but he said he did not care, and he was not going to have old Archer put him back, anyway, and he began to cry.

It was then that his mother showed herself a good mother, if ever she was one, and said she thought it was a shame to put Pony back and mortify him before the other boys, and she knew that it must just have happened that he did not read very well that afternoon because he was sick, or something, for usually he read perfectly.

His father said, “My dear girl, my dear girl!” and his mother hushed up and did not say anything more; but Pony could see what she thought, and he accused old Archer of always putting on him and always trying to mortify him.

“That’s all very well,” said his father, “but I think we ought to give him one more trial; and I advise you to take your books back again this afternoon, and read so well that he will put you into the fourth reader to-morrow morning.”

Pony understood that his father was just making fun about the fourth reader, but was in earnest about his going back to school; and he left the table and threw himself on the lounge, with his face down, and cried. He said he was sick, and his head ached, and he could not go to school; his father said that he hoped his headache would wear off in the course of the afternoon, but if he was worse they would have the doctor when he came home from school.

Then he took his hat and went out of the front door to go up town, and Pony screamed out, “Well, I’ll run off; that’s what I’ll do!”

His father did not take any notice of him, and his mother only said, “Pony, Pony!” while his sisters all stood round frightened at the way Pony howled and thrashed the lounge with his legs.

But before one o’clock Pony washed his face and brushed his hair, and took his books and started for school. His mother tried to kiss him, but he pushed her off, for it seemed to him that she might have made his father let him stay out of school, if she had tried, and he was not going to have any of her pretending. He made his face very cold and hard as he marched out of the house, for he never meant to come back to that house any more. He meant to go to school that afternoon, but as soon as school was out he was going to run off.

When the fellows saw him coming back with his books they knew how it was, but they did not mock him, for he had done everything that he could, and all that was expected of anybody in such a case. A boy always came back when he had left school in that way, and nobody supposed but what he would; the thing was to leave school; after that you were not to blame, whatever happened.

Before recess it began to be known among them that Pony was going to run off, because his father had made him come back, and then they did think he was somebody; and as soon as they got out at recess they all crowded round him and began to praise him up, and everything, and to tell him that they would run off, too, if their fathers sent them back; and so he began to be glad that he was going to do it. They asked him when he was going to run off, and he told them they would see; and pretty soon it was understood that he was going to run off the same night.

When school was out a whole crowd of them started with him, and some of the biggest fellows walked alongside of him, and talked down over their shoulders to him, and told him what he must do. They said he must not start till after dark, and he must watch out for the constable till he got over the corporation line and then nobody could touch him. They said that they would be waiting round the corner for him as soon as they had their suppers, and one of them would walk along with him to the end of the first street and then another would be waiting there to go with him to the end of the next, and so on till they reached the corporation line. Very likely his father would have the constable waiting there to stop him, but Pony ought to start to run across the line and then the fellows would rush out and trip up the constable and hold him down till Pony got safe across. He ought to hollo, when he was across, and that would let them know that he was safe and they would be ready to let the constable up, and begin to run before he could grab them.

Everybody thought that was a splendid plan except Archy Hawkins, that all the fellows called Old Hawkins; his father kept one of the hotels, and Old Hawkins used to catch frogs for the table; he was the one that the frogs used to know by sight, and when they saw him they would croak out: “Here comes Hawkins! Here comes Hawkins! Look out!” and jump off the bank into the water and then come up among the green slime, where nobody but Old Hawkins could see them. He was always joking and getting into scrapes, but still the boys liked him and thought he was pretty smart, and now they did not mind it when he elbowed the big boys away that were talking to Pony and told them to shut up.

“You just listen to your uncle, Pony!” he said. “These fellows don’t know anything about running off. I’ll tell you how to do it; you mind your uncle! It’s no use trying to get away from the constable, if he’s there, for he’ll catch you as quick as lightning, and he won’t mind these fellows any more than fleas. You oughtn’t try to start till along about midnight, for the constable will be in bed by that time, and you won’t have any trouble. You must have somebody to wake you up, and some of the fellows ought to be outside, to do it. You listen to your grandfather! You ought to tie a string around your big toe, and let the string hang out of the window, the way you do Fourth of July eve; and then just as soon as it strikes twelve, the fellows ought to tug away at the string till you come hopping to the window, and tell ’em to stop. But you got to whisper, and the fellows mustn’t make any noise, either, or your father will be out on them in a minute. He’ll be watching out, to-night, anyway, I reckon, because—”

Old Hawkins was walking backward in front of Pony, talking to him, and showing him how he must hop to the window, and all at once he struck his heel against a root in the sidewalk, and the first thing he knew he sat down so hard that it about knocked the breath out of him.

All the fellows laughed, and anybody else would have been mad, but Old Hawkins was too good-natured; and he got up and brushed himself, and said: “Say! let’s go down to the river and go in, before supper, anyway.”

Nearly all the fellows agreed, and Old Hawkins said: “Come along, Pony! You got to come, too!”

But Pony stiffly refused, partly because it seemed to him pretty mean to forget all about his running away, like that, and partly because he had to ask his mother before he went in swimming. A few of the little fellows kept with him all the way home, but most of the big boys went along with Old Hawkins.

One of them stayed with Pony and the little boys, and comforted him for the way the rest had left him. He was a fellow who was always telling about Indians, and he said that if Pony could get to the Indians, anywhere, and they took a fancy to him, they would adopt him into their tribe, if it was just after some old chief had lost a son in battle. Maybe they would offer to kill him first, and they would have to hold a council, but if they did adopt him, it would be the best thing, because then he would soon turn into an Indian himself, and forget how to speak English; and if ever the Indians had to give up their prisoners, and he was brought back, and his father and mother came to pick him out, they might know him by some mark or other, but he would not know them, and they would have to let him go back to the Indians again. He said that was the very best way, and the only way, but the trouble would be to get to the Indians in the first place. He said he knew of one reservation in the north part of the State, and he promised to find out if there were any other Indians living nearer; the reservation was about a hundred miles off, and it would take Pony a good while to go to them.

The name of this boy was Jim Leonard. But now, before I go the least bit further with the story of Pony Baker’s running away, I have got to tell about Jim Leonard, and what kind of boy he was, and the scrape that he once got Pony and the other boys into, and a hair-breadth escape he had himself, when he came pretty near being drowned in a freshet; and I will begin with the hair-breadth escape, because it happened before the scrape.

William Dean Howells

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