I. Joel and the Snake
 

"Come on, Dave!"

It was Joel's voice, and Polly pricked up her ears. "'Tisn't going to hurt you. Hoh! you're a 'fraid-cat--old 'fraid-cat!"

"No, I'm not 'fraid-cat," declared little Davie, trying to speak stoutly; "I'm coming, Joel," and his little rusty shoes pattered unevenly down the rickety board walk.

"Jo-el!" called Polly, thinking it quite time now to interfere.

Joel scuttled behind the old woodshed, and several smothered grunts proclaimed his disapproval at the interruption.

"Now I know you're up to some mischief," declared Polly, "so you just come into the house, Joel Pepper, and tell me what it is."

"'Tisn't," said Joel, loudly insisting. "Don't go, Dave," in a loud whisper. Thereupon ensued a lively scuffle, evidently, by the noise they made.

"I must," said little Davie; "Polly called us."

"No, she didn't call you," declared Joel. "You stay here. She said 'Joel.'"

"Bo-oys!" sang out Polly's voice, not to have any doubt in the matter.

"There, she did call me," cried Davie, wriggling to get free from Joel's clutch; "she said 'boys!'"

"She's always calling us," said Joel, in an injured voice, dragging himself away from the charms of the woodshed to straggle slowly back to the house.

There sat Polly on the big stone that served as a step for the back door, with her hands folded in her lap. Little Davie skipped by Joel, and ran up to her, with a flushed face.

"Now I should like to know what you've been up to, Joey Pepper?" said Polly, her brown eyes full on him.

"Haven't been up to anything," mumbled Joel, hanging his chubby face.

"Yes, you have, I know," declared Polly, in her most positive fashion; "now tell me what it is, and right straight off, Joel. Begin." She kept her hands still folded in her lap. "What were you going to do?"

Joel squirmed all over the little patch of ground before the flat doorstone, and dug the toes of his shoes into the dirt.

"Don't do so," cried Polly. "You'll get bigger holes in 'em. Oh, Joel, to think how naughty you are, and Mamsie away!"

At that Joel gave a loud howl, nearly upsetting Polly from her stone; then, digging his two fists into his eyes, he plunged forward and thrust his black head on the folded hands in her lap. "I ain't naughty," he screamed. "I ain't, and Mamsie won't care. O dear--ooh--ooh!"

"Tell me what you were going to do, before I can say you are not naughty," said Polly, dreadfully frightened at his outburst, but not unfolding her hands.

"I was only going to--going to--going to--" mumbled Joel, trying to burrow past her hands, and get into the comforting lap.

"Going to do what?" demanded Polly, still not moving.

"I was going to--going to--" said Joel, in smothered tones.

"Stop saying you were going to," commanded Polly, in her firmest tones.

"You told me to tell you," said Joel. "O dear! I was going to--"

"Well, tell then, at once; what were you going to do? Hurry up, Joe; now go on."

"I was going to--" began Joel again. "O dear me! I was going to--" he mumbled, burrowing deeper yet.

"Joel Pepper!" cried Polly, in a tone that brought him bolt upright, his round face streaked with tears that his dirty little hands had tried to wipe off, the rest of them trailing over his round nose. "O dear me! Now you must go into the 'provision room' and stay. Don't you remember Mamsie said you'd have to go there the next time you wouldn't tell what you'd done?" And Polly looked as if she were going to cry at once.

"Oh, no--no!" screamed Joel, in the greatest distress, and clutching Polly's arm. "I'll tell you, Polly; I'll tell." And he began to rattle off a lot of words, but Polly stopped him.

"No, it's too late now. I've said it, and you must go; for Mamsie wouldn't like it if you didn't."

Thereupon Joel gave a terrible howl. Little Davie, in distress, clapped his hands to his ears. "Oh, Polly, don't make him," he was saying, when heavy steps came around the corner of the house. "Any ra-ags to sell?" sang out the voice of a very big man.

Joel took one black eye away from his brown hands, and shot a sharp look at him. Then he howled worse than ever.

"No," said Polly, "not to-day, Mr. Biggs. There was a bagful Mamsie said I might sell, but I can't get it now."

"Sho! that's too bad," ejaculated Mr. Biggs. "What's the matter with him?" pointing a square, dingy thumb at Joel. "Stomach-ache?"

"No," said Polly, sadly, "it's worse than that. Please go away, Mr. Biggs, and come some other day."

"Worse'n stomach-ache," said Mr. Biggs, in astonishment, and slapping his big hands together; "then I can't take him with me. But t'other one might go, if you say so, marm." He always called Polly marm, and she liked it very much. He now pointed to David.

"Where are you going?" asked Polly, while

David took away his hands from his ears to hear, too.

"Why, you see, marm, Mis' Pettingill, up to th'East Quarter--you know Mis' Pettingill?"

"No," said Polly.

"I do," roared Joel, forgetting his distress. "I know, Polly. She lives in a nice yellow house, and there's a duck-pond, and cherry trees." He pranced up to Mr. Biggs, smiling through his tears.

"That's it," cried Mr. Biggs, delighted at being understood. "This boy knows." He laid his hand heavily on Joel's shoulder. "Well, he seems to be better now, so I'll take him and t'other one along of me, marm, if you say so. Ye see, Mis' Pettingill told me to come up there sometime, 'cause she's got a lot o' rags--ben a-makin' quilts, she said, all winter, and I laid out to go to-day, so here I be, on my way."

"Whickets!" shouted Joel, the last tear gone. "Come on, Dave. Oh, won't we have fun! I'm going to sit in the middle. Let me drive. Let me, Mr. Biggs." He swarmed all over the big rag-man.

Little David stood perfectly still and clasped his hands in delight.

Polly drew a long breath, and the rosy color flew out of her cheek. "You can't go, Joe," she said slowly. "Mamsie wouldn't like it, after you've been naughty."

Joel's arms fell down at his side, and he stared wildly at her a moment. Then he flung himself flat on the ground and roared.

"He's worse agin," said Mr. Biggs, in great distress. "I guess he wants pep'mint. My mother used to give me that when I'd et green apples."

But Polly shook her head. "He can't go, Mr. Biggs," she said; "but Davie can."

At this little Davie gave a squeal of joy, and took three steps down the grass plot, but stopped suddenly.

"All right," said Mr. Biggs, heartily. "Come on, boy; I must be off. It's a good piece down to Mis' Pettingill's. And she always wants me to take time a-weighin' her rags." And he began to lumber off.

"I don't want to go if Joel can't," said Davie, slowly, and turning his back to the red rag-wagon waiting out in the road. He twisted his fingers hard, and kept saying, "No, I don't want to go, Polly, if Joel can't."

"All right, Davie," said Polly, beginning to cuddle him; "only you must remember, Mr. Biggs won't go again this summer out to Mrs. Pettingill's, most likely."

Davie shook his head again, and twisted his fingers worse than ever. "I don't want to go if Joel can't," he said, while Joel roared harder still, if that were possible. So Polly had to run down the grassy slope to overtake Mr. Biggs, who was now getting up into his red cart, in front of the dangling tin dishes, brooms, and pails with which it was filled.

"If you please, sir," she said, the rosy color all over her cheek, "there can't either of the boys go."

"Hey? What's the matter with the littlest one," cried Mr. Biggs, turning around with one foot on the shaft. "Is he took sick, too?"

"No--no," said Polly, clasping her hands in distress, "but he won't go unless Joel goes. Oh, I do thank you so much, Mr. Biggs, for asking them."

"Sho now! that's too bad," said the rag-man, his foot still on the shaft, and his big face wrinkled perplexedly. "Beats all, how suddint they're took. Now you better give 'em a dose o' pep'mint, marm, both on 'em."

But Polly shook her head as she ran back up the grassy slope again. So Mr. Biggs had nothing to do but to drive off, which he did, staring hard at them; and every little while he turned back, to gaze in astonishment over his shoulder, until the big red wagon went round the slope of the hill and was lost to view.

"Now, Joel," said Polly, firmly, "you must just stop making such a noise, and go right into the provision room, and get the stool, and sit down till I tell you to get up."

To sit down on the old wooden stool in the middle of the provision room, with the door shut, was one of the worst punishments that Mrs. Pepper inflicted; and Polly's cheek got quite white. Little Davie, on seeing this, untwisted his fingers and went up to her. "Don't cry, Polly," he said suddenly, as he saw her face, and laid his hand in hers.

Joel stopped roaring, and looked up at her through his tears.

"I'm not going to cry," said Polly, "because I know Joel will be good now, and go at once and get on his stool in the provision room."

Joel swallowed hard and stumbled up to his feet, wiping his cheeks with the back of one grimy hand.

"That's right," said Polly; "now go right in and shut the door."

"O dear me," said little Davie, hiding his face in Polly's gown, as Joel went slowly off. They could hear the provision room door shut. Then Polly turned. "Oh, Davie," she cried. Then she stopped, at the sight of his face.

"Now you and I must go in the house and think of something to do for Mamsie before she gets home," she cried in a cheery burst. So they both hurried in over the old flat stone.

"Now what will it be, Davie?" asked Polly, with another glance at his pale little face. "Let's think," she wrinkled her brows in perplexity.

"We can't wash the dishes," said Davie, slowly, standing quite still in the middle of the old kitchen, "'cause they're all done, Polly."

"No, and we can't wash the floor, 'cause that's all done," said Polly, wrinkling her forehead worse than ever. "Dear me, we must think of something, Davie. O dear me, what can it be?"

"We might," said little David, slowly, "try to write some letters, Polly. That would make Mamsie glad, I guess."

"O dear me," exclaimed Polly, in dismay, "I suppose it would, Davie." She sighed, and stood quite still.

"I s'pose Mamsie would say, 'How nice,'" said little David, reflectively.

"And you and I ought to get right at it this very minute," declared Polly, all her energy returning to her after that one dreadful pause, "so come on." And presently the two had the old table against the wall pulled out into the middle of the kitchen floor, and Polly ran and got the big piece of foolscap paper laid away carefully in the upper bureau drawer in the bedroom. Across the top ran the letters set there by the minister in obedience to Mrs. Pepper's request.

"I'll get the brown paper--let me, Polly," cried David, quite in his usual spirits now. And he clambered up, and got out a carefully folded piece laid away after it had come home wrapped around one of the parcels of coats and sacks Mrs. Pepper had taken to sew.

"Won't it be most beautiful when we can write on the white paper, Polly?" he cried, as he ran back into the kitchen, waving the brown paper at her.

Polly set the precious copy along the top of the white foolscap, straight on the table.

"Oh, that will be a long time, Davie," she said, gazing in an awe-struck way at the array of wonderful letters Parson Henderson had made for them. "Mamsie won't ever let us try until we can make 'em good and straight. O dear me, I don't s'pose I'll ever get a chance." She sighed; for writing bothered Polly dreadfully. "The old pen twists all up whenever I get it in my hand, and everything goes crooked."

"Oh, Polly, you're going to write real nice, by and by," said little Davie, setting down the brown paper, and smoothing out the creases. "Now where's the ink-bottle? Let me get it, Polly, do," he begged, running over to the corner cupboard.

"No, you mustn't, Dave," said Polly in alarm, "you'll spill it. I'll get it," hurrying after him.

"I won't spill it, Polly"--but Polly was already on her tiptoes, and lifting down the old black ink-horn that had been Father Pepper's. "Isn't it nice that Mrs. Henderson filled it up for us so good?" she said, carrying it over carefully to set on the table. "You can get the pen, Davie."

So David ran over to the shelf where, in a corner behind the little china mug given to Phronsie when she was a baby, lay the pen in its long black holder. Getting up on a chair, he seized it.

"If Phronsie hadn't gone with Mamsie, she'd want to write," he said, "wouldn't she, Polly?" as he hopped down again.

"Yes, indeed," said Polly, drawing up the inkstand into the best place, and sighing. "Well, dear me, I'd ever so much rather hold her hand while she writes, than to do it myself." And she gave a long stretch.

"Then you wouldn't ever learn yourself," said little Davie, wisely, and putting the pen down carefully.

"No," said Polly, with a little laugh, "I s'pose I shouldn't, Davie." O dear me, she thought, I ought not to laugh when Joel's in there all alone in the provision room. "Well, now we're all ready. I'm just going to peek and see if he's all right. You stay here, Davie."

With that she hopped off down the little steps to look through the big crack in the old door of the provision room.

"Why--where--" she started back and rubbed her eyes, and stared again. "Oh! Davie," she screamed. Then she clapped her hands over her mouth. "It never'd do to scare him," she said. And she opened the provision room door and rushed in. The old stool stood in the middle of the floor, but there was no Joel to be seen.

Polly ran here and there. "Joel--Joel!" she cried, peering into every corner, and looking into the potato bag and behind some boxes that the storekeeper had given the boys to make things out of, and that were kept as great treasures. "O dear me, what shall I do? I must tell Davie now, so he can help me find him--" when she heard a funny noise, and rushing outside, she heard Joel say, "Don't come, Polly, he's 'most dead."

Polly gave a gasp, and bounded to his side, as Joel flopped around on the ground, his back toward her, his black eyes fastened on something doubled up in his fists.

"O dear me, Joel, what is it?" cried Polly, bending over him.

"Ow--go way!" roared Joel, twisting worse than ever, and squeezing his brown hands together tightly; "he'll get away, maybe, and bite you."

"Oh, he'll bite you, Joe," cried Polly, in great alarm. "O dear me, let me see what it is! I can help, Joel, I can help."

She flung herself down on the ground close to his side. Just then out rushed Davie from the provision room.

"Keep him away, keep him away," screamed Joel, trying to turn his back on both of them. But Polly caught sight of a dangling thing hanging from his clenched hands.

"Oh, Joel!" She gave one scream, "It's a snake!"

"I know it," said Joel, trying to twitch back again; "it's an ugly mean old adder, Polly, but he's most dead. I've squeezed his neck."

"Let me see him," cried Polly. "Turn around, Joel. I'll help you. O dear me!" as Joel whirled back, the long body of the snake flopping from one side to the other. "If he'd keep still, I could cut off his tail high up. I'll go and get the hatchet--" and she ran off.

"Hoh! you needn't," cried Joel after her, in great dudgeon, and giving a final wrench. "There, I've deaded him; see, Polly--see, Dave!" and he held the snake up triumphantly.

"A snake!" screamed Davie, tumbling over backward on the grass. "O dear me, it's a snake, Polly!" and he huddled up his feet and tucked them under him.

"Ain't he big?" cried Joel, swinging the long dangling body at Davie as Polly ran back.

"Don't scare him, Joel," she cried. "O goodness me! What a big one, and a gray adder, too. Oh, Joel, are you sure he didn't bite you anywhere? Do throw him down and let me see," she begged anxiously. But Joel swung the snake back and forth. "Hoh, I guess not!" he said scornfully, "not a single snip, Polly. Ain't he big! I killed him all alone by myself."

"Yes--yes, but do put him down, Joel," she begged, "and let me see if you're all right."

So Joel at last set his snake on the ground, and straightened out his tail; then he commenced to run all around him. "Ain't he a buster, Polly!" he cried, his eyes shining.

Polly looked at him reprovingly out of her brown eyes. "Mamsie wouldn't like you to say that word," she began. "But you won't again, I know," seeing his face.

"No," said Joel, brightening up, "I won't, Polly. But ain't he big! You couldn't a-killed him, Dave," he cried at little Davie tucking up his toes under him on the grass.

"No," said Davie. "O dear me, he may be alive and bite us all now."

"Hoh!" exclaimed Joel, "he's just as dead as anything. See!" and he twitched up the long gray snake by the tip of the tail and swung it over his head.

"Oh, don't, Joe!" begged Polly, running over to put her arms around David, who burrowed into them as far as he could. "Do put him down, and come and tell us how you killed him. There, let's all sit down on the doorstep. Come, boys."

"I'm going to hold my snake," announced Joel, stopping the swing in mid-air to pat the adder's head lovingly. "Ain't he sweet, Polly?"

Davie shivered and turned his eyes away.

"No, you must not hold him," said Polly, decisively. "If you do, you can't sit on the step beside us."

"Then I won't hold him," said Joel, running up to them, "but I'll have him close to me," and he laid the snake by the side of the doorstep. "I'm going to sit here by you, Polly."

Little Davie thrust up his head and looked fearfully around Polly.

"You can't have that snake here, Joel," announced Polly, in her most determined tone. "Put him off on the grass in the orchard," as the one scraggy apple tree was called. "Now hurry, like a good boy, and then come and tell us how you killed him."

"I can't see him good, 'way off there," grumbled Joel, and picking up his snake he dragged him through the grass. "Just a little bit nearer," he pleaded.

"Not a single bit of an inch nearer, Joel Pepper," said Polly, firmly. So Joel laid the snake down and ran back and sat down on the end of the step by Polly.

"Now begin," said Polly.

"Well, I was sittin' on the old stool," said Joel, his chubby face getting very red, "when I heard a scrunchin' an' a swishin', an' I thought 'twas you, Polly, so I didn't look round."

"No," said Polly, with a little shiver, "it wasn't me. Go on, Joey."

"Well, it scrunched an' it swished, and it didn't stop, so then I looked around."

"O dear me!" exclaimed Polly, throwing one arm around Joel, and drawing him to her. Little Davie sat up quite straight and folded his hands.

"And he was sticking up his head behind the potato bag, looking at me just like this." Joel flew off the doorstep and stood up as tall as possible and ran out his tongue.

Little Davie gave a loud scream. "Oh, you brave Joel!" exclaimed Polly, tumbling off from the doorstep to throw her arms around him, and kiss his stubby black hair.

"Phoo! that's nothing!" cried Joel, who always hated to be praised.

"And I'm just as proud of you as I can be," Polly ran on with kindling eyes. "Oh, Joel!"

Joel wriggled all over with delight at that "Oh, Joel!"

"And now come back and tell us the rest," said Polly, hanging to his brown hand. "Go on, Joel," as they sat down again on the doorstep.

"Well, he looked at me, and I looked at him," said Joel, "and then I said 'Squish!' and he bobbed down his head, just a minute, and I jumped and I grabbed him by the neck, and that's all, Polly." And Joel gave a long stretch.

But Polly had her arms around his neck. "Oh, you brave, brave Joel," she cried. "Mamsie'll be so proud of you! Think what she'll say when she comes home!"