As I said, it was in the spring that Jim Leonard’s hair-breadth escape happened. But it was late in the summer of that very same year that he got Pony Baker and all the rest of the boys into about one of the worst scrapes that the Boy’s Town boys were ever in.
At first, it was more like a dare than anything else, for when Jim Leonard said he knew a watermelon patch that the owner had no use for, the other boys dared him to tell where it was. He wagged his head, and said that he knew, and then they dared him to tell whose patch it was; and all at once he said it was Bunty Williams’s, and dared them to come and get the melons with him. None of the boys in the Boy’s Town would take a dare, and so they set off with Jim Leonard, one sunny Saturday morning in September.
Some of the boys had their arms round one another’s necks, talking as loud as they could into one another’s faces, and some whooping and holloing, and playing Indian, and some throwing stones and scaring cats. They had nearly as many dogs as there were boys, and there were pretty nearly all the boys in the neighborhood. There seemed to be thirty or forty of them, they talked so loud and ran round so, but perhaps there were only ten or eleven. Hen Billard was along, and so were Piccolo Wright and Archie Hawkins, and then a great lot of little fellows.
Pony Baker was not quite a little fellow in age; and there was something about him that always made the big boys let him go with their crowd. But now, when they passed Pony’s gate and his mother saw them, and because it was such a warm morning and she thought they might be going down to the river and called out to him, “You mustn’t go in swimming, Pony, dear; you’ll get the ague,” they began to mock Pony as soon as they got by, and to hollo, “No, Pony, dear! You mustn’t get the ague. Keep out of the water if you don’t want your teeth to rattle, Pony, dear!”
This made Pony so mad that he began to cry and try to fight them, and they all formed in a ring round him and danced and whooped till he broke through and started home. Then they ran after him and coaxed him not to do it, and said that they were just in fun. After that they used Pony first-rate, and he kept on with them.
Jim Leonard was at the head, walking along and holloing to the fellows to hurry up. They had to wade the river, and he was showing off how he could hop, skip, and jump through, when he stepped on a slippery stone and sat down in the water and made the fellows laugh. But they acted first-rate with him when they got across; they helped him to take off his trousers and wring them out, and they wrung them so hard that they tore them a little, but they were a little torn already; and they wrung them so dry that he said they felt splendid when he got them on again. One of his feet went through the side of the trouser leg that was torn before it got to the end, and made the fellows laugh.
When the boys first started Jim said he had got to go ahead so as to be sure that they found the right patch. He now said that Bunty Williams had two patches, one that he was going to sell the melons out of, and the other that he was going to let them go to seed in; and it was the second melon patch that he had deserted.
But pretty soon after they got over the river he came back and walked with the rest of the boys, and when they came to a piece of woods which they had to go through, he dropped behind. He said it was just the place for Indian, and he wanted to be where he could get at them if they started up when the boys got by, as they would very likely do.
Some of the big fellows called him a cowardy-calf; but he said he would show them when the time came, and most of the little boys believed him and tried to get in front. It was not long before he stopped and asked, What if he could not find the right patch? But the big boys said that they reckoned he could if he looked hard enough, and they made him keep on.
One of the dogs treed a squirrel, and Jim offered to climb the tree and shake the squirrel off; but Hen Billard said his watermelon tooth was beginning to trouble him, and he had no time for squirrels. That made all the big boys laugh, and they pulled Jim Leonard along, although he held back with all his might and told them to quit it. He began to cry.
Pony Baker did not know what to make of him. He felt sorry for him, but it seemed to him that Jim was acting as if he wanted to get out of showing the fellows where the patch was. Pony lent him his handkerchief, and Jim said that he had the toothache, anyway. He showed Pony the tooth, and the fellows saw him and made fun, and they offered to carry him, if his tooth ached so that he could not walk, and then suddenly Jim rushed ahead of the whole crowd.
They thought he was trying to run away from them, and two or three of the big fellows took after him, and when they caught up with him, the rest of the boys could see him pointing, and then the big boys that were with him gave a whoop and waved their hats, and all the rest of the boys tore along and tried which could run the fastest and get to the place the soonest.
They knew it must be something great; and sure enough it was a watermelon patch of pretty near an acre, sloping to the south from the edge of the woods, and all overrun with vines and just bulging all over with watermelons and muskmelons.
The watermelons were some of the big mottled kind, with lightish blotches among their darker green, like Georgia melons nowadays, and some almost striped in gray and green, and some were those big, round sugar melons, nearly black. They were all sizes, but most of them were large, and you need not “punk” them to see if they were ripe. Anybody could tell that they were ripe from looking at them, and the muskmelons, which were the old-fashioned long kind, were yellow as gold.
Now, the big fellows said, you could see why Bunty Williams had let this patch go to seed. It was because they were such bully melons and would have the best seeds; and the fellows all agreed to save the seeds for Bunty, and put them where he could find them. They began to praise Jim Leonard up, but he did not say anything, and only looked on with his queer, sleepy eyes, and said his tooth ached, when the fellows plunged down among the melons and began to burst them open.
They had lots of fun. At first they cut a few melons open with their knives, but that was too slow, and pretty soon they began to jump on them and split them with sharp-edged rocks, or anything, to get them open quick. They did not eat close to the rind, as you do when you have a melon on the table, but they tore out the core and just ate that; and in about a minute they forgot all about saving the seeds for Bunty Williams and putting them in one place where he could get them.
Some of the fellows went into the edge of the woods to eat their melons, and then came back for more; some took them and cracked them open on the top rail of the fence, and then sat down in the fence corner and plunged their fists in and tore the cores out. Some of them squeezed the juice out of the cores into the shells of the melons and then drank it out of them.
Piccolo Wright was stooping over to pull a melon and Archie Hawkins came up behind him with a big melon that had a seam across it, it was so ripe; and he brought it down on Piccolo’s head, and it smashed open and went all over Piccolo. He was pretty mad at first, but then he saw the fun of it, and he took one end of the melon and scooped it all out, and put it on in place of his hat and wore it like a helmet. Archie did the same thing with the other end, and then all the big boys scooped out melons and wore them for helmets. They were all drabbled with seeds and pulp, and some of the little fellows were perfectly soaked. None of them cared very much for the muskmelons.
Somehow Pony would not take any of the melons, although there was nothing that he liked so much. The fellows seemed to be having an awfully good time, and yet somehow it looked wrong to Pony. He knew that Bunty Williams had given up the patch, because Jim Leonard said so, and he knew that the boys had a right to the melons if Bunty had got done with them; but still the sight of them there, smashing and gorging, made Pony feel anxious. It almost made him think that Jim Leonard was better than the rest because he would not take any of the melons, but stayed off at one side of the patch near the woods, where Pony stood with him.
He did not say much, and Pony noticed that he kept watching the log cabin where Bunty Williams lived on the slope of the hill about half a mile off, and once he heard Jim saying, as if to himself: “No, there isn’t any smoke coming out of the chimbly, and that’s a sign there ain’t anybody there. They’ve all gone to market, I reckon.”
It went through Pony that it was strange Jim should care whether Bunty was at home or not, if Bunty had given up the patch, but he did not say anything; it often happened so with him about the things he thought strange.
The fellows did not seem to notice where he was or what he was doing; they were all whooping and holloing, and now they began to play war with the watermelon rinds. One of the dogs thought he smelled a ground-squirrel and began to dig for it, and in about half a minute all the dogs seemed to be fighting, and the fellows were yelling round them and sicking them on; and they were all making such a din that Pony could hardly hear himself think, as his father used to say. But he thought he saw some one come out of Bunty’s cabin, and take down the hill with a dog after him and a hoe in his hand.
He made Jim Leonard look, and Jim just gave a screech that rose above the din of the dogs and the other boys, “Bunty’s coming, and he’s got his bulldog and his shotgun!” And then he turned and broke through the woods.
All the boys stood still and stared at the hill-side, while the dogs fought on. The next thing they knew they were floundering among the vines and over the watermelon cores and shells and breaking for the woods; and as soon as the dogs found the boys were gone, they seemed to think it was no use to keep on fighting with nobody to look on, and they took after the fellows.
The big fellows holloed to the little fellows to come on, and the little fellows began crying. They caught their feet in the roots and dead branches and kept falling down, and some of the big fellows that were clever, like Hen Billard and Archie Hawkins, came back and picked them up and started them on again.
Nobody stopped to ask himself or any one else why they should be afraid of Bunty if he had done with his melon patch, but they all ran as if he had caught them stealing his melons, and had a right to shoot them, or set his dog on them.
They got through the woods to the shore of the river, and all the time they could hear Bunty Williams roaring and shouting, and Bunty Williams’s bulldog barking, and it seemed as if he were right behind them. After they reached the river they had to run a long way up the shore before they got to the ripple where they could wade it, and by that time they were in such a hurry that they did not stop to turn up their trousers’ legs; they just splashed right in and splashed across the best way they could. Some of them fell down, but everybody had to look out for himself, and they did not know that they were all safe over till they counted up on the other side.
Everybody was there but Jim Leonard, and they did not know what had become of him, but they were not very anxious. In fact they were all talking at the tops of their voices, and bragging what they would have done if Bunty had caught them.
Piccolo Wright showed how he could have tripped him up, and Archie Hawkins said that snuff would make a bulldog loosen his grip, because he would have to keep sneezing. None of them seemed to have seen either Bunty’s shotgun or his bulldog, but they all believed that he had them because Jim Leonard said so, just as they had believed that Bunty had got done with his melon patch, until all at once one of them said, “Where is Jim Leonard, anyway?”
Then they found out that nobody knew, and the little fellows began to think that maybe Bunty Williams had caught him, but Hen Billard said: “Oh, he’s safe enough, somewheres. I wish I had him here!”
Archie Hawkins asked, “What would you do to him?” and Hen said: “I’d show you! I’d make him go back and find out whether Bunty really had a bulldog with him. I don’t believe he had.”
Then all the big boys said that none of them believed so, either, and that they would bet that any of their dogs could whip Bunty’s dog.
Their dogs did not look much like fighting. They were wet with running through the river, and they were lying round with their tongues hanging out, panting. But it made the boys think that something ought to be done to Jim Leonard, if they could ever find him, and some one said that they ought to look for him right away, but the rest said they ought to stop and dry their pantaloons first.
Pony began to be afraid they were going to hurt Jim Leonard if they got hold of him, and he said he was going home; and the boys tried to keep him from doing it. They said they were just going to build a drift-wood fire and dry their clothes at it, and they told him that if he went off in his wet trousers he would be sure to get the ague. But nothing that the boys could do would keep him, and so the big fellows said to let him go if he wanted to so much; and he climbed the river bank and left them kindling a fire.
When he got away and looked back, all the boys had their clothes off and were dancing round the fire like Indians, and he would have liked to turn back after he got to the top, and maybe he might have done so if he had not found Jim Leonard hiding in a hole up there and peeping over at the boys. Jim was crying, and said his tooth ached awfully, and he was afraid to go home and get something to put in it, because his mother would whale him as soon as she caught him.
He said he was hungry, too, and he wanted Pony to go over into a field with him and get a turnip, but Pony would not do it. He had three cents in his pocket—the big old kind that were as large as half-dollars and seemed to buy as much in that day—and he offered to let Jim take them and go and get something to eat at the grocery.
They decided he should buy two smoked red herrings and a cent’s worth of crackers, and these were what Jim brought back after he had been gone so long that Pony thought he would never come. He had stopped to get some apples off one of the trees at his mother’s house, and he had to watch his chance so that she should not see him, and then he had stopped and taken some potatoes out of a hill that would be first-rate if they could get some salt to eat them with, after they had built a fire somewhere and baked them.
They thought it would be a good plan to dig one of these little caves just under the edge of the bank, and make a hole in the top to let the smoke out; but they would have to go a good way off so that the other fellows could not see them, and they could not wait for that. They divided the herrings between them, and they each had two crackers and three apples, and they made a good meal.
Then they went to a pump at the nearest house, where the woman said they might have a drink, and drank themselves full. They wanted awfully to ask her for some salt, but they did not dare to do it for fear she would make them tell what they wanted it for. So they came away without, and Jim said they could put ashes on their potatoes the way the Indians did, and it would be just as good as salt.
They ran back to the river bank, and ran along up it till they were out of sight of the boys on the shore below, and then they made their oven in it, and started their fire with some matches that Jim Leonard had in his pocket, so that if he ever got lost in the woods at night he could make a fire and keep from freezing. His tooth had stopped aching now, and he kept telling such exciting stories about Indians that Pony could not seem to get the chance to ask why Bunty Williams should take after the boys with his shotgun and bulldog if he had given up the watermelon patch and only wanted it for seed.
The question lurked in Pony’s mind all the time that they were waiting for the potatoes to bake, but somehow he could not get it out. He did not feel very well, and he tried to forget his bad feelings by listening as hard as he could to Jim Leonard’s stories. Jim kept taking the potatoes out to see if they were done enough, and he began to eat them while they were still very hard and greenish under the skin. Pony ate them, too, although he was not hungry now, and he did not think the ashes were as good as salt on them, as Jim pretended. The potato he ate seemed to make him feel no better, and at last he had to tell Jim that he was afraid he was going to be sick.
Jim said that if they could heat some stones, and get a blanket anywhere, and put it over Pony and the stones, and then pour water on the hot stones, they could give him a steam bath the way the Indians did, and it would cure him in a minute; they could get the stones easy enough, and he could bring water from the river in his straw hat, but the thing of it was to get the blanket.
He stood looking thoughtfully down at Pony, who was crying now, and begging Jim Leonard to go home with him, for he did not believe he could walk on account of the pain that seemed to curl him right up. He asked Jim if he believed he was beginning to have the ague, but Jim said it was more like the yellow janders, although he agreed that Pony had better go home, for it was pretty late, anyway.
He made Pony promise that if he would take him home he would let him get a good way off before he went into the house, so that Pony’s father and mother should not see who had brought him. He said that when he had got off far enough he would hollo, and then Pony could go in. He was first-rate to Pony on the way home, and helped him to walk, and when the pain curled him up so tight that he could not touch his foot to the ground, Jim carried him.
Pony could never know just what to make of Jim Leonard. Sometimes he was so good to you that you could not help thinking he was one of the cleverest fellows in town, and then all of a sudden he would do something mean. He acted the perfect coward at times, and at other times he was not afraid of anything. Almost any of the fellows could whip him, but once he went into an empty house that was haunted, and came and looked out of the garret windows, and dared any of them to come up.
He offered now, if Pony did not want to go home and let his folks find out about the melon patch, to take him to his mother’s log-barn, and get a witch-doctor to come and tend him; but Pony said that he thought they had better keep on, and then Jim trotted and asked him if the jolting did not do him some good. He said he just wished there was an Indian medicine-man around somewhere.
They were so long getting to Pony’s house that it was almost dusk when they reached the back of the barn, and Jim put him over the fence. Jim started to run, and Pony waited till he got out of sight and holloed; then he began to shout, “Father! Mother! O mother! Come out here! I’m sick!”
It did not seem hardly a second till he heard his mother calling back: “Pony! Pony! Where are you, child? Where are you?”
“Here, behind the barn!” he answered.
Pony’s mother came running out, and then his father, and when they had put him into his own bed up-stairs, his mother made his father go for the doctor. While his father was gone, his mother got the whole story out of Pony—what he had been doing all day, and what he had been eating—but as to who had got him into the trouble, she said she knew from the start it must be Jim Leonard.
After the doctor came and she told him what Pony had been eating, without telling all that he had been doing, the doctor gave him something to make him feel better. As soon as he said he felt better she began to talk very seriously to him, and to tell him how anxious she had been ever since she had seen him going off in the morning with Jim Leonard at the head of that crowd of boys.
“Didn’t you know he couldn’t be telling the truth when he said the man had left his watermelon patch? Didn’t any of the boys?”
“No,” said Pony, thoughtfully.
“But when he pretended that he shouldn’t know the right patch, and wanted to turn back?”
“We didn’t think anything. We thought he just wanted to get out of going. Ought they let him turn back? Maybe he meant to keep the patch all to himself.”
His mother was silent, and Pony asked, “Do you believe that a boy has a right to take anything off a tree or a vine?”
“No; certainly not.”
“Well, that’s what I think, too.”
“Why, Pony,” said his mother, “is there anybody who thinks such a thing can be right?”
“Well, the boys say it’s not stealing. Stealing is hooking a thing out of a wagon or a store; but if you can knock a thing off a tree, or get it through a fence, when it’s on the ground already, then it’s just like gathering nuts in the woods. That’s what the boys say. Do you think it is?”
“I think it’s the worst kind of stealing. I hope my boy doesn’t do such things.”
“Not very often,” answered Pony, thoughtfully. “When there’s a lot of fellows together, you don’t want them to laugh at you.”
“O Pony, dear!” said his mother, almost crying.
“Well, anyway, mother,” Pony said, to cheer her up, “I didn’t take any of the watermelons to-day, for all Jim said Bunty had got done with them.”
“I’m so glad to think you didn’t! And you must promise, won’t you, never to touch any fruit that doesn’t belong to you?”
“But supposing an apple was to drop over the fence onto the sidewalk, what would you do then?”
“I should throw it right back over the fence again,” said Pony’s mother.
Pony promised his mother never to touch other people’s fruit, but he was glad she did not ask him to throw it back over the fence if it fell outside, for he knew the fellows would laugh.
His father came back from going down-stairs with the doctor, and she told him all that Pony had told her, and it seemed to Pony that his father could hardly keep from laughing. But his mother did not even smile.
“How could Jim Leonard tell them that a man would give up his watermelon patch, and how could they believe such a lie, poor, foolish boys?”
“They wished to believe it,” said Pony’s father, “and so did Jim, I dare say.”
“He might have got some of them killed, if Bunty Williams had fired his gun at them,” said Pony’s mother; and he could see that she was not half-satisfied with what his father said.
“Perhaps it was a hoe, after all. You can’t shoot anybody with a hoe-handle, and there is nothing to prove that it was a gun but Jim’s word.”
“Yes, and here poor Pony has been so sick from it all, and Jim Leonard gets off without anything.”
“You are always wanting the tower to fall on the wicked,” said Pony’s father, laughing. “When it came to the worst, Jim didn’t take the melons any more than Pony did. And he seems to have wanted to back out of the whole affair at one time.”
“Oh! And do you think that excuses him?”
“No, I don’t. But I think he’s had a worse time, if that’s any comfort, than Pony has. He has suffered the fate of all liars. Sooner or later their lies outwit them and overmaster them, for whenever people believe a liar he is forced to act as if he had spoken the truth. That’s worse than having a tower fall on you, or pains in the stomach.”
Pony’s mother was silent for a moment as if she could not answer, and then she said, “Well, all I know is, I wish there was no such boy in this town as Jim Leonard.”