Chapter IV
 

His discovery irritated him the more. Next thing, this ole Teacher's Pet would do she'd get to thinkin' she was pretty! If that happened, well, nobody could stand her! The long lashes made her eyes shadowy, and it was a fact that her shoulder blades ceased to insist upon notoriety; you couldn't tell where they were at all, any more. Her back seemed to be just a regular back, not made up of a lot of implements like shoulder blades and things.

A contemptible thing happened. Wesley Bender was well known to be the most untidy boy in the class and had never shown any remorse for his reputation or made the slightest effort either to improve or to dispute it. He was content: it failed to lower his standing with his fellows or to impress them unfavourably. In fact, he was treated as one who has attained a slight distinction. At least, he owned one superlative, no matter what its quality, and it lifted him out of the commonplace. It helped him to become better known, and boys liked to be seen with him. But one day, there was a rearrangement of the seating in the schoolroom: Wesley Bender was given a desk next in front of Dora Yocum's; and within a week the whole room knew that Wesley had begun voluntarily to wash his neck--the back of it, anyhow.

This was at the bottom of the fight between Ramsey Milholland and Wesley Bender, and the diplomatic exchanges immediately preceding hostilities were charmingly frank and unhyprocitical, although quite as mixed-up and off-the-issue as if they had been prepared by professional foreign office men. Ramsey and Fred Mitchell and four other boys waylaid young Bender on the street after school, intending jocosities rather than violence, but the victim proved sensitive. "You take your ole hands off o' me!" he said fiercely, as they began to push him about among them.

"Ole dirty Wes!" they hoarsely bellowed and squawked, in their changing voices. "Washes his ears!"... "Washes his neck!"... "Dora Yocum told his mama to turn the hose on him"... "Yay-ho! Ole dirty Wes tryin to be a duke!"

Wesley broke from them and backed away, swinging his strapped books in a dangerous circle. "You keep off!" he warned them. "I got as much right to my pers'nal appearance as anybody!"

This richly fed their humour, and they rioted round him, keeping outside the swinging books at the end of the strap. "Pers'nal appearance!"... "Who went and bought it for you, Wes?"... "Nobody bought it for him. Dora Yocum took and give him one!"

"You leave ladies' names alone!" cried the chivalrous Wesley. "You ought to know better, on the public street, you--pups!"

Here was a serious affront, at least to Ramsey Milholland's way of thinking; for Ramsey, also, now proved sensitive. He quoted his friends--"Shut up!"--and advanced toward Wesley. "You look here! Who you callin' 'pups'?"

"Everybody!" Wesley hotly returned. "Everybody that hasn't got any more decency than to go around mentioning ladies' names on the public streets. Everybody that goes around mentioning ladies' names on the public streets are pups!"

"They are, are they?" Ramsey as hotly demanded. "Well, you just look here a minute; my own father mentions my mother's name on the public streets whenever he wants to, and you just try callin' my father a pup, and you won't know what happened to you!"

"What'll you do about it?"

"I'll put a new head on you," said Ramsey. "That's what I'll do, because anybody that calls my father or mother a pup--"

"Oh, shut up! I wasn't talking about your ole father and mother. I said everybody that mentioned Dora Yocum's name on the public streets was a pup, and I mean it! Everybody that mentions Dora Yocum's name on the pub--"

"Dora Yocum!" said Ramsey. "I got a perfect right to say it anywhere I want to. Dora Yocum, Dora Yocum, Dora Yocum!--"

"All right, then you're a pup!"

Ramsey charged upon him and received a suffocating blow full in the face, not from Mr. Bender's fist but from the solid bundle of books at the end of the strap. Ramsey saw eight or ten objectives instantly: there were Wesley Benders standing full length in the air on top of other Wesley Benders, and more Wesley Benders zigzagged out sideways from still other Wesley Benders; nevertheless, he found one of these and it proved to be flesh. He engaged it wildly at fisticuffs; pounded it upon the countenance and drove it away. Then he sat down upon the curbstone, and, with his dizzy eyes shut, leaned forward for the better accomodation of his ensanguined nose.

Wesley had retreated to the other side of the street holding a grimy handkerchief to the midmost parts of his pallid face. "There, you ole damn pup!" he shouted, in a voice which threatened to sob. "I guess that'll teach you to be careful how you mention Dora Yocum's name on the public streets!"

At this, Ramsey made a motion as if to rise and pursue, whereupon Wesley fled, wailing back over his shoulder as he ran, "You wait till I ketch you out alone on the public streets and I'll--"

His voice was lost in an outburst of hooting from his former friends, who sympathetically surrounded the wounded Ramsey. But in a measure, at least, the chivalrous fugitive had won his point. He was routed and outdone, yet what survived the day was a rumour, which became a sort of tenuous legend among those interested. There had been a fight over Dora Yocum, it appeared, and Ramsey Milholland had attempted to maintain something derogatory to the lady, while Wesley defended her as a knightly youth should. The something derogatory was left vague; nobody attempted to say just what it was, and the effects of the legend divided the schoolroom strictly according to gender.

The boys, unmindful of proper gallantry, supported Ramsey on account of the way he had persisted in lickin' the stuffin' out of Wesley Bender after receiving that preliminary wallop from Wesley's blackjack bundle of books. The girls petted and championed Wesley; they talked outrageously of his conqueror, fiercely declaring that he ought to be arrested; and for weeks they maintained a new manner toward him. They kept their facial expressions hostile, but perhaps this was more for one another's benefit than for Ramsey's; and several of them went so far out of their way to find even private opportunities for reproving him that an alert observer might have suspected them to have been less indignant than they seemed--but not Ramsey. He thought they all hated him, and said he was glad of it.

Dora was a non-partisan. The little prig was so diligent at her books she gave never the slightest sign of comprehending that there had been a fight about her. Having no real cognizance of Messrs. Bender and Milholland except as impediments to the advance of learning, she did not even look demure.