CHAPTER I -- A PRIVATE, LESSON FROM A BULLDOG
"WANT to be a school-master, do you? You? Well, what would you do in Flat Crick deestrick, I'd like to know? Why, the boys have driv off the last two, and licked the one afore them like blazes. You might teach a summer school, when nothin' but children come. But I 'low it takes a right smart man to be school-master in Flat Crick in the winter. They'd pitch you out of doors, sonny, neck and heels, afore Christmas."2
The young man, who had walked ten miles to get the school in this district, and who had been mentally reviewing his learning at every step he took, trembling lest the committee should find that he did not know enough, was not a little taken aback at this greeting from "old Jack Means," who was the first trustee that he lighted on. The impression made by these ominous remarks was emphasized by the glances which he received from Jack Means' two sons. The older one eyed him from the top of his brawny shoulders with that amiable look which a big dog turns on a little one before shaking him. Ralph Hartsook had never thought of being measured by the standard of muscle. This notion of beating education into young savages in spite of themselves dashed his ardor.3
He had walked right to where Jack Means was at work shaving shingles in his own front yard. While Mr. Means was making the speech which we have set down above, and punctuating it with expectorations, a large brindle bulldog had been sniffing at Ralph's heels, and a girl in a new linsey-woolsey dress, standing by the door, had nearly giggled her head off at the delightful prospect of seeing a new school-teacher eaten up by the ferocious brute.
The disheartening words of the old man, the immense muscles of the young man who was to be his rebellious pupil, the jaws of the ugly bulldog, and the heartless giggle of the girl, gave Ralph a delightful sense of having precipitated himself into a den of wild beasts. Faint with weariness and discouragement, and shivering with fear, he sat down on a wheelbarrow.
"You, Bull!" said the old man to the dog, which was showing more and more a disposition to make a meal of the incipient pedagogue, "you, Bull! git aout, you pup!" The dog walked sullenly off, but not until he had given Ralph a look full of promise of what he meant to do when he got a good chance. Ralph wished himself back in the village of Lewisburg, whence he had come.
"You see," continued Mr. Means, spitting in a meditative sort of a way, "you see, we a'n't none of your saft sort in these diggin's. It takes a man to boss this deestrick. Howsumdever, ef you think you kin trust your hide in Flat Crick school house I ha'n't got no 'bjection. But ef you git licked, don't come on us. Flat Crick don't pay no 'nsurance, you bet! Any other trustees? Wal, yes. But as I pay the most taxes, t'others jist let me run the thing. You can begin right off a Monday. They a'n't been no other applications. You see, it takes grit to apply for this school. The last master had a black eye for a month. But, as I wuz sayin', you can jist roll up and wade in. I 'low you've got spunk, maybe, and that goes for a heap sight more'n sinnoo with boys. Walk in, and stay over Sunday with me. You'll hev' to board roun', and I guess you better begin here."4
Ralph did not go in, but sat out on the wheelbarrow, watching the old man shave shingles, while the boys split the blocks and chopped wood. Bull smelled of the newcomer again in an ugly way, and got a good kick from the older son for his pains. But out of one of his red eyes the dog warned the young school-master that he should yet suffer for all kicks received on his account.
"Ef Bull once takes a holt, heaven and yarth can't make him let go," said the older son to Ralph, by way of comfort.
It was well for Ralph that he began to "board roun'" by stopping at Mr. Means's. Ralph felt that Flat Creek was what he needed. He had lived a bookish life;5 but here was his lesson in the art of managing people, for he who can manage the untamed and strapping youths of a winter school in Hoopole County has gone far toward learning one of the hardest of lessons. And in Ralph's time, things were worse than they are now. The older son of Mr. Means was called Bud Means. What his real name was, Ralph could not find out, for in many of these families the nickname of "Bud" given to the oldest boy, and that of "Sis," which is the birthright of the oldest girl, completely bury the proper Christian name. Ralph saw his first strategic point, which was to capture Bud Means.
After supper, the boys began to get ready for something. Bull stuck up his ears in a dignified way, and the three or four yellow curs who were Bull's satellites yelped delightedly and discordantly.
"Bill," said Bud Means to his brother, "ax the master ef he'd like to hunt coons. I'd like to take the starch out uv the stuck-up feller."
"'Nough said," was Bill's reply.
"You durn't do it," said Bud.
"I don't take no sech a dare," returned Bill, and walked down to the gate, by which Ralph stood watching the stars come out, and half wishing he had never seen Flat Creek.
"I say, mister," began Bill, "mister, they's a coon what's been a eatin' our chickens lately, and we're
goin' to try to ketch the varmint. You wouldn't like to take a coon hunt nor nothin', would you?"
"Why, yes," said Ralph, "there's nothing I should like better if I could only be sure Bull wouldn't mistake me for the coon."
And so, as a matter of policy, Ralph dragged his tired legs eight or ten miles, on hill and in hollow, after Bud, and Bill, and Bull, and the coon. But the raccoon climbed a tree. The boys got into a quarrel about whose business it was to have brought the axe, and who was to blame that the tree could not be felled. Now, if there was anything Ralph's muscles were good for, it was climbing. So, asking Bud to give him a start, he soon reached the limb above the one on which the raccoon was. Ralph did not know how ugly a customer a raccoon can be, and so got credit for more courage than he had. With much peril to his legs from the raccoon's teeth, he succeeded in shaking the poor creature off among the yelping brutes and yelling boys. Ralph could not help sympathizing with the hunted animal, which sold its life as dearly as possible, giving the dogs many a scratch and bite. It seemed to him that he was like the raccoon, precipitated into the midst of a party of dogs who would rejoice in worrying his life out, as Bull and his crowd were destroying the poor raccoon. When Bull at last seized the raccoon and put an end to it, Ralph could not but admire the decided way in which he did it, calling to mind Bud's comment, "Ef Bull once takes a holt, heaven and yarth can't make him let go."
But as they walked home, Bud carrying the raccoon by the tail, Ralph felt that his hunt had not been in vain. He fancied that even red-eyed Bull, walking uncomfortably close to his heels, respected him more since he had climbed that tree.
"'Purty peart kind of a master," remarked the old man to Bud, after Ralph had gone to bed. "Guess you better be a little easy on him. Hey?"
But Bud deigned no reply. Perhaps because he knew that Ralph heard the conversation through the thin partition.
Ralph woke delighted to find it raining. He did not want to hunt or fish on Sunday, and this steady rain would enable him to make friends with Bud. I do not know how he got started, but after breakfast he began to tell stories. Out of all the books he had ever read he told story after story. And "old man Means," and " old Miss Means," and Bud Means, and Bill Means, and Sis Means listened with great eyes while he told of Sinbad's adventures, of the Old Man of the Sea, of Robinson Crusoe, of Captain Gulliver's experiences in Liliput, and of Baron Munchausen's exploits.
Ralph had caught his fish. The hungry minds of these backwoods people were refreshed with the new life that came to their imaginations in these stories. For there was but one book in the Means library, and that, a well-thumbed copy of "Captain Riley's Narrative," had long since lost all freshness.
"I'll be dog-on'd," said Bill, emphatically, "ef I hadn't 'ruther hear the master tell them whoppin' yarns than to go to a circus the best day I ever seed!" Bill could pay no higher compliment. 6
What Ralph wanted was to make a friend of Bud. It's a nice thing to have the seventy-four-gun ship on your own side, and the more Hartsook admired the knotted muscles of Bud Means the more he desired to attach him to himself. So, whenever he struck out a peculiarly brilIiant passage, he anxiously watched Bud's eye. But the young Philistine kept his own counsel. He listened, but said nothing, and the eyes under his shaggy brows gave no sign. Ralph could not tell whether those eyes were deep and inscrutable or only stolid. Perhaps a little of both.
When Monday morning came, Ralph was nervous. He walked to school with Bud.
"I guess you're a little skeered by what the old man said, a'n't you?"
Ralph was about to deny it, but on reflection concluded that it was best to speak the truth. He said that Mr. Means's description of the school had made him feel a little down-hearted.
"What will you do with the tough boys? You a'n't no match for 'em." And Ralph felt Bud's eyes not only measuring his muscles, but scrutinizing his countenance. He only answered:
"I don't know."
"What would you do with me, for instance?" and Bud stretched himself up as if to shake out the reserve power coiled up in his great muscles.
"I sha'n't have any trouble with you."
Why, I'm the wust chap of all. I thrashed the last master, myself."
And again the eyes of Bud Means looked out sharply from his shadowing brows to see the effect of this speech on the slender young man.
"You won't thrash me, though," said Ralph.
"Pshaw! I 'low I could whip you in an inch of your life with my left hand, and never half try," said young Means, with a threatening sneer.
"I know that as well as you do."
"Well, a'n't you afraid of me, then?" and again he looked sidewise at Ralph.
"Not a bit," said Ralph, wondering at his own courage.
They walked on in silence a minute. Bud was turning the matter over.
"Why a'n't you afraid of me?" he said presently.
"Because you and I are going to be friends."
"And what about t'others?"
"I am not afraid of all the other boys put together."
"You a'n't! The mischief! How's that?"
"Well, I'm not afraid of them because you and I are going to be friends, and you can whip all of them together. You'll do the fighting and I'll do the teaching."
The diplomatic Bud only chuckled a little at this; whether he assented to the alliance or not Ralph could not tell.7
When Ralph looked round on the faces of the scholars -- the little faces full of mischief and curiosity, the big faces full of an expression which was not further removed than second-cousin from contempt -- when young Hartsook looked into these faces, his heart palpitated with stage-fright. There is no audience so hard to face as one of school-children, as many a man has found to his cost. Perhaps it is that no conventional restraint can keep down their laughter when you do or say anything ridiculous.
Hartsook's first day was hurried and unsatisfactory. He was not master of himself, and consequently not master of anybody else. When evening came, there were symptoms of insubordination through the whole school. Poor Ralph was sick at heart. He felt that if there had ever been the shadow of an alliance between himself and Bud, it was all "off" now. It seemed to Hartsook that even Bull had lost his respect for the teacher. Half that night the young man lay awake. At last comfort came to him. A reminiscence of the death of the raccoon flashed on him like a vision. He remembered that quiet and annihilating bite which Bull gave. He remembered Bud's certificate, that ''Ef Bull once takes a holt, heaven and yarth can't make him let go." He thought that what Flat Creek needed was a bulldog. He would be a bulldog, quiet, but invincible. He would take hold in such a way that nothing should make him let go. And then he went to sleep.
In the morning Ralph got out of bed slowly. He put his clothes on slowly. He pulled on his boots in a bulldog mood. He tried to move as he thought Bull would move if he were a man. He ate with deliberation, and looked everybody in the eyes with a manner that made Bud watch him curiously. He found himself continually comparing himself with Bull. He found Bull possessing a strange fascination for him. He walked to school alone, the rest having gone on before. He entered the school-room preserving a cool and dogged manner. He saw in the eyes of the boys that there was mischief brewing. He did not dare sit down in his chair for fear of a pin. Everybody looked solemn. Ralph lifted the lid of his desk. "Bow-wow! wow-wow!" It was the voice of an imprisoned puppy, and the school giggled and then roared. Then everything was quiet.
The scholars expected an outburst of wrath from the teacher. For they had come to regard the whole world as divided into two classes, the teacher on the one side representing lawful authority, and the pupils on the other in a state of chronic rebellion. To play a trick on the master was an evidence of spirit; to "lick" the master was to be the crowned hero of Flat Creek district. Such a hero was Bud Means; and Bill, who had less muscle, saw a chance to distinguish himself on a teacher of slender frame. Hence the puppy in the desk.
Ralph Hartsook grew red in the face when he saw the puppy. But the cool, repressed, bulldog mood in which he had kept himself saved him. He lifted the dog into his arms and stroked him until the laughter subsided. Then, in a solemn and set way, he began:
"I am sorry," and he looked round the room with a steady, hard eye -- everybody felt that there was a conflict coming -- "I am sorry that any scholar in this school could be so mean" -- the word was uttered with a sharp emphasis, and all the big boys felt sure that there would be a fight with Bill Means, and perhaps with Bud -- "could be so mean -- as to -- shut up his brother in such a place as that!"
There was a long, derisive laugh. The wit was indifferent, but by one stroke Ralph had carried the whole school to his side. By the significant glances of the boys, Hartsook detected the perpetrator of the joke, and with the hard and dogged look in his eyes, with just such a look as Bull would give a puppy, but with the utmost suavity in his voice, he said:
"William Means, will you be so good as to put this dog out of doors?"8
CHAPTER II -- A SPELL COMING
THERE was a moment of utter stillness; but the magnetism of Ralph's eye was too much for Bill Means. The request was so polite, the master's look was so innocent and yet so determined. Bill often wondered afterward that he had not "fit" rather than obeyed the request. But somehow he put the dog out. He was partly surprised, partly inveigled, partly awed into doing just what he had not intended to do. In the week that followed, Bill had to fight half a dozen boys for calling him "Puppy Means." Bill said he wished he'd licked the master on the spot. 'Twould 'a' saved five fights out of the six.
And all that day and the next, the bulldog in the master's eye was a terror to evil-doers. At the close of school on the second day Bud was heard to give it as his opinion that "the master wouldn't be much in a tussle, but he had a heap of thunder and lightning in him."
Did he inflict corporal punishment? inquires some philanthropic friend. Would you inflict corporal punishment if you were tiger-trainer in Van Amburgh's happy family?9 But poor Ralph could never satisfy his constituency in this regard.
"Don't believe he'll do," was Mr. Pete Jones's comment to Mr. Means. "Don't thrash enough. Boys won't l'arn 'less you thrash 'em, says I. Leastways, mine won't. Lay it on good is what I says to a master. Lay it on good. Don't do no harm. Lickin' and l'arnin' goes together. No lickin', no l'arnin', says I. Lickin' and l'arnin,'lickin' and larnin', is the good ole way."10
And Mr. Jones, like some wiser people, was the more pleased with his formula that it had an alliterative sound. Nevertheless, Ralph was master from this time until the spelling-school came. If only it had not been for that spelling-school! Many and many a time after the night of the fatal spelling-school Ralph used to say, "If only it had not been for that spelling-school!"
There had to be a spelling-school. Not only for the sake of my story, which would not have been worth the telling if the spelling-school had not taken place, but because Flat Creek district had to have a spelling-school. It is the only public literary exercise known in Hoopole County. It takes the place of lyceum lecture and debating club. Sis Means, or, as she wished now to be called, Mirandy Means, expressed herself most positively in favor of it. She said that she 'lowed the folks in that district couldn't in no wise do without it. But it was rather to its social than to its intellectual benefits that she referred. For all the spelling-schools ever seen could not enable her to stand anywhere but at the foot of the class. There is one branch diligently taught in a backwoods school. The public mind seems impressed with the difficulties of English orthography, and there is a solemn conviction that the chief end of man is to learn to spell. "'Know Webster's Elementary'11 came down from Heaven," would be the backwoods version of the Greek saying but that, unfortunately for the Greeks, their fame has not reached so far. It often happens that the pupil does not know the meaning of a single word in the lesson. This is of no consequence. What do you want to know the meaning of a word for? Words were made to be speIled, and men were probably created that they might spell them. Hence the necessity for sending a pupil through the spelling-book five times before you allow him to begin to read, or indeed to do anything else. Hence the necessity for those long spelling-classes at the close of each forenoon and afternoon session of the school, to stand at the head of which is the cherished ambition of every scholar. Hence, too, the necessity for devoting tbe whole of the afternoon session of each Friday to a "spelling-match." In fact, spelling is the "national game" in Hoopole County. Baseball and croquet matches are as unknown as Olympian chariot races. Spelling and shucking are the only public competitions.12
So the fatal spelling-school had to be appointed for the Wednesday of the second week of the session, just when Ralph felt himself master of the situation. Not that he was without his annoyances. One of Ralph's troubles in the week before the spelling-school was that he was loved. The other that he was hated. And while the time between the appointing of the spelling tournament and the actual occurrence of that remarkable event is engaged in elapsing, let me narrate two incidents that made it for Ralph a trying time.
CHAPTER III -- MIRANDY, HANK: AND SHOCKY
MIRANDY had nothing but contempt for the new master until he developed the bulldog in his character. Mirandy fell in love with the bulldog. Like many other girls of her class, she was greatly enamored with the "subjection of women," and she stood ready to fall in love with any man strong enough to be her master. Much has been said of the strong-minded woman. I offer this psychological remark as a contribution to the natural history of the weak-minded woman.
It was at the close of that very second day on which Ralph had achieved his first victory over the school, and in which Mirandy had been seized with her desperate passion for him, that she told him about it. Not in words. We do not allow that in the most civilized countries, and still less would it be tolerated in Hoopole County. But Mirandy told the master the fact that she was in love with him, though no word passed her lips. She walked by him from school. She cast at him what are commonly called sheep's-eyes. Ralph thought them more like calf's eyes. She changed the whole tone of her voice. She whined ordinarily. Now she whimpered. And so by ogling him, by blushing at him, by tittering at him, by giggling at him, by snickering at him, by simpering at him, by making herself tenfold more a fool even than nature had made her, she managed to convey to the dismayed soul of the young teacher the frightful intelligence that he was loved by the richest, the ugliest, the silliest, the coarsest, and the most entirely contemptible girl in Flat Creek district.
Ralph sat by the fire the next morning trying to read a few minutes before school-time, while the boys were doing the chores and the bound girl was milking the cows, with no one in the room but the old woman. She was generally as silent as Bud, but now she seemed for some unaccountable reason disposed to talk. She had sat down on the broad hearth to have her usual morning smoke; the poplar table, adorned by no cloth, stood in the middle of the floor, the unwashed blue teacups sat in the unwashed blue saucers; the unwashed blue plates kept company with the begrimed blue pitcher. The dirty skillets by the fire were kept in countenance by the dirtier pots, and the ashes were drifted and strewn over the hearth-stones in a most picturesque way.
"You see," said the old woman, knocking the residuum from her cob pipe, and chafing some dry leaf between her withered hands preparatory to filling it again, "you see, Mr. Hartsook, my ole man's purty well along in the world. He's got a right smart lot of this world's plunder, one way and another." And while she stuffed the tobacco into her pipe Ralph wondered why she should mention it to him. "You see, we moved in here nigh upon twenty-five years ago. 'Twas when my Jack, him as died afore Bud was born, was a baby. Bud'll be twenty-one the fif' of next June."13
Here Mrs. Means stopped to rake a live coal out of the fire with her skinny finger, and then to carry it in her skinny palm to the bowl -- or to the hole of her cob pipe. When she got the smoke a-going, she proceeded:
"You see, this yere bottom land was all Congress land in them there days, and it sold for a dollar and a quarter, and I says to my ole man, 'Jack,' says I, 'Jack, do you git a plenty while you're a-gittin'. Git a plenty while you're a-gittin',' says I, 'fer 'twon't never be no cheaper'n 'tis now,' and it ha'n't been; I knowed 'twouldn't," and Mrs. Means took the pipe from her mouth to indulge in a good chuckle at the thought of her financial shrewdness. "'Git a plenty while you're a-gittin',' says I. I could see, you know, they was a powerful sight of money in Congress land. That's what made me say, 'Git a plenty while you're a-gittin'.' And Jack, he's wuth lots and gobs of money, all made out of Congress land. Jack didn't git rich by hard work. Bless you, no! Not him. That a'n't his way. Heard work a'n't, you know. 'Twas that air six hundred dollars he got along of me, all salted down into Flat Crick bottoms at a dollar and a quarter a acre, and 'twas my sayin' 'Git a plenty while you're a gittin'' as done it." And here the old ogre laughed, or grinned horribly, at Ralph, showing her few straggling, discolored teeth.
Then she got up and knocked the ashes out of her pipe, and laid the pipe away and walked round in front of Ralph. After adjusting the chunks so that the fire would burn, she turned her yellow face toward Ralph, and scanning him closely came out with the climax of her speech in the remark: "You see as how, Mr. Hartsook, the man what gits my Mirandy'll do well. Flat Crick land's wuth nigh upon a hundred a' acre."
This gentle hint came near knocking Ralph down. Had Flat Creek land been worth a hundred times a hundred dollars an acre, and had he owned five hundred times Means's five hundred acres, he would have given it all just at that moment to have annihilated the whole tribe of Meanses. Except Bud. Bud was a giant, but a good-natured one. He thought he would except Bud from the general destruction. As for the rest, he mentally pictured to himself the pleasure of attending their funerals. There was one thought, however, between him and despair. He felt confident that the cordiality, the intensity, and the persistency of his dislike of Sis Means were such that he should never inherit a foot of the Flat Creek bottoms.
But what about Bud? What if he joined the conspiracy to marry him to this weak-eyed, weak-headed wood-nymph, or backwoods nymph?
If Ralph felt it a misfortune to be loved by Mirandy Means, he found himself almost equally unfortunate in having incurred the hatred of the meanest boy in school. "Hank" Banta, low-browed, smirky, and crafty, was the first sufferer by Ralph's determination to use corporal punishment, and so Henry Banta, who was a compound of deceit and resentment, never lost an opportunity to annoy the young school-master, who was obliged to live perpetually on his guard against his tricks.
One morning, as Ralph walked toward the school-house, he met little Shocky. What the boy's first name or last name was the teacher did not know. He had given his name as Shocky, and all the teacher knew was that he was commonly called Shocky, that he was an orphan, that he lived with a family named Pearson over in Rocky Hollow, and that he was the most faithful and affectionate child in the school. On this morning that I speak of, Ralph had walked toward the school early to avoid the company of Mirandy. But not caring to sustain his dignity longer than was necessary, he loitered along the road, admiring the trunks of the maples, and picking up a beech-nut now and then. Just as he was about to go on toward the school, he caught sight of little Shocky running swiftly toward him, but looking from side to side, as if afraid of being seen.
"Well, Shocky, what is it?" and Ralph put his hand kindly on the great bushy head of white hair from which came Shocky's nickname. Shocky had to pant a minute.
"Why, Mr. Hartsook," he gasped, scratching his head, "they's a pond down under the school-house," and here Shocky's breath gave out entirely for a minute.
"Yes, Shocky, I know that. What about it? The trustees haven't come to fill it up, have they?"
"Oh! no, sir; but Hank Banta, you know --" and Shocky took another breathing spell, standing as close to Ralph as he could, for poor Shocky got all his sunshine from the master's presence.
"Has Henry fallen in and got a ducking, Shocky?"
"Oh! no, sir; he wants to git you in, you see."
"Well, I won't go in, though, Shocky."
"But, you see, he's been and gone and pulled back the board that you have to step on to git ahind your desk; he's been and gone and pulled back the board so as you can't help a-tippin' it up, and a-sowsin' right in ef you step there."
"And so you came to tell me." There was a huskiness in Ralph's voice. He had, then, one friend in Flat Creek district -- poor little Shocky. He put his arm around Shocky just a moment, and then told him to hasten across to the other road, so as to come back to the school-house in a direction at right angles to the master's approach. But the caution was not needed. Shocky had taken care to leave in that way, and was altogether too cunning to be seen coming down the road with Mr. Hartsook. But after he got over the fence to go through the "sugar camp" (or sugar orchard, as they say at the East), he stopped and turned back once or twice, just to catch one more smile from Ralph. And then he hied away through the tall trees, a very happy boy, kicking and ploughing the brown leaves before him in his perfect delight, saying over and over again: "How he looked at me! how he did look!" And when Ralph came up to the school-house door, there was Shocky sauntering along from the other direction, throwing bits of limestone at fence rails, and smiling still clear down to his shoes at thought of the master's kind words.
"What a quare boy Shocky is!" remarked Betsey Short, with a giggle. "He just likes to wander round alone. I see him a-comin' out of the sugar camp just now. He's been in there half an hour." And Betsey giggled again; for Betsey Short could giggle on slighter provocation than any other girl on Flat Creek.
When Ralph Hartsook, with the quiet, dogged tread that he was cultivating, walked into the school room, he took great care not to seem to see the trap set for him; but he carelessly stepped over the board that had been so nicely adjusted. The boys who were Hank's confidants in the plot were very busy over their slates, and took pains not to show their disappointment.
The morning session wore on without incident. Ralph several times caught two people looking at him. One was Mirandy. Her weak and watery eyes stole loving glances over the top of her spelling-book, which she would not study. Her looks made Ralph's spirits sink to forty below zero, and congeal.
But on one of the backless little benches that sat in the middle of the school-room was little Shocky who also cast many love glances at the young master; glances as grateful to his heart as Mirandy's ogling -- he was tempted to cail it ogring -- was hateful.
"Look at Shocky," giggled Betsey Short, behind her slate. "He looks as if he was a-goin'to eat the master up, body and soul."
And so the forenoon wore on as usual, and those who laid the trap had forgotten it, themselves. The morning session was drawing to a close. The fire in the great old fire-place had burnt low. The flames, which seemed to Shocky to be angels, had disappeared, and now the bright coals, which had played the part of men and women and houses in Shocky's fancy, had taken on a white and downy covering of ashes, and the great half-burnt back-log lay there smouldering like a giant asleep in a snow drift. Shocky longed to wake him up.
As for Henry Banta, he was too much bothered to get the answer to a "sum" he was doing, to remember anything about his trap. In fact, he had quite forgotten that half an hour ago in the all-absorbing employment of drawing ugly pictures on his slate and coaxing Betsey Short to giggle by showing them slyly across the school-room. Once or twice Ralph had been attracted to Betsey's extraordinary fits of giggling, and had come so near to catching Hank that the boy thought it best not to run any further risk of the beech switches, four or five feet long, laid up behind the master in sight of the school as a prophylactic.14 Hence his application just now to his "sum" in long division, and hence his puzzled look, for, idler that he was, his "sums" did not solve themselves easily. As usual in such cases, he came up in front of the master's desk to have the difficulty explained.15 He had to wait a minute until Ralph got through with showing Betsey Short, who had been seized with a studying fit, and who could hardly give any attention to the teacher's explanations, she did want to giggle so much! Not at anything in particular, but just at things in general.
While Ralph was "doing" Betsey's "sum" for her, he was solving a much more difficult question. A plan had flashed upon him, but the punishment seemed a severe one. He gave it up once or twice, but he remembered how turbulent the Flat Creek elements were; and had he not inly resolved to be as unrelenting as a bulldog? He fortified himself by recalling again the oft-remembered remark of Bud, "Ef Bull wunst takes a holt, heaven and yarth can't make him let go." And so he resolved to give Hank and the whole school one good lesson.
"Just step round behind me, Henry, and you can see how I do this," said Ralph.
Hank was entirely off his guard, and, with his eyes fixed upon the slate on the teacher's desk, he sidled round upon the broad loose board misplaced by his own hand, and in an instant the other end of the board rose up in the middle of the school-room, almost striking Shocky in the face, while Henry Banta went down into the ice-cold water beneath the school house.
"Why, Henry!" cried Ralph, jumping to his feet with well-feigned surprise. "How did this happen?" and he helped the dripping fellow out and seated him by the fire.
Betsey Short giggled.
Shocky was so tickled that he could hardly keep his seat.
The boys who were in the plot looked very serious indeed.
Ralph made some remarks by way of improving the occasion. He spoke strongly of the utter meanness of the one who could play so heartless a trick on a schoolmate. He said that it was as much thieving to get your fun at the expense of another as to steal his money. And while he talked, all eyes were turned on Hank -- all except the eyes of Mirandy Means. They looked simperingly at Ralph. All the rest looked at Hank. The fire had made his face very red. Shocky noticed that. Betsey Short noticed it, and giggled. The master wound up with an appropriate quotation from Scripture. He said that the person who displaced that board had better not be encouraged by the success -- he said success with a curious emphasis -- of the present experiment to attempt another trick of the kind. For it was set down in the Bible that if a man dug a pit for the feet of another he would be very likely to fall in it himself. Which made all the pupils look solemn, except Betsey Short, who giggled. And Shocky wanted to. And Mirandy cast an expiring look at Ralph. And if the teacher was not love-sick, he certainly was sick of Mirandy's love.16
When school was "let out," Ralph gave Hank every caution that he could about taking cold, and even lent him his overcoat, very much against Hank's will. For Hank had obstinately refused to go home before the school was dismissed.
Then the master walked out in a quiet and subdued way to spend the noon recess in the woods, while Shocky watched his retreating footsteps with loving admiration. And the pupils not in the secret canvassed the question of who moved the board. Bill Means said he'd bet Hank did it, which set Betsey Short off in an uncontrollable giggle. And Shocky listened innocently.
But that night Bud said slyly: "Thunder and lightning! what a manager you air, Mr. Hartsook!" To which Ralph returned no reply except a friendly smile. Muscle paid tribute to brains that time.
But Ralph had no time for exultation; for just here came the spelling-school.