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Chapter 3

JIM LEONARD’S HAIR-BREADTH ESCAPE

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 clap-boards, 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 afterwards 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 corn-field.

He noticed as he walked down towards 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 corn-stalks. 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 another; 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 towards 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 night-cap 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 towards 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 drift-wood 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.



“‘i’ll learn that limb to sleep in a cow-barn!’”


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 towards Jim Leonard.

William Dean Howells

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