XV. Old Man Peters' Cent
 

Joel was walking along the road very slowly, swinging on his arm the tin pail that was to bring home the molasses. "I wish some one would come along who'd give me a ride," he thought, feeling hot, and wishing he were home, to lie on the cool grass in the orchard, after he had first drunk all he wanted to at the well.

"I could drink the whole bucketful," he declared. "My, ain't I thirsty! Oh, goody, I hear a wagon!" and he hopped to one side of the road. "Ugh--it's old man Peters!"

Mr. Peters slackened up as he passed Joel, but he didn't offer to let him ride. And Joel didn't want to, anyway. After a grumpy look at the Pepper boy, the old man in the wagon put the well-worn leather reins between his knees and took out a battered pocket-book, scowling above its contents as he went over a business transaction just completed at Badgertown. Then he slapped it together and stuck it into his pocket, and seizing the reins, he doubled them up, cutting the horse across the thin flanks.

"Gee-lang, there--will you!" cried old man Peters, shrilly, "or I'll make ye!"

Joel stepped back into the middle of the road, and began to trudge along in the wake of the wagon. Suddenly he stopped, and stared at something shining in the road. It was little and round, but it sent up a bright gleam that found an answering one in Joel's black eyes.

"Oh, I've found a whole cent!" he exclaimed joyfully. Then his heart stood quite still. It must belong to old man Peters.

"I don't care," said Joel, defiantly, to himself, "he left it in the road. It's mine, now, for I picked it up." And he clutched it tightly in his warm little palm, and dug his heels into the hot sand, glad enough he had had to go to the store after that molasses, for otherwise he wouldn't have found that cent.

"It doesn't belong to you." It seemed as if Mamsie was walking there beside him, and had said the words, and involuntarily Joel glanced on either side. "I don't know as he dropped it," he said to himself, walking very fast, and trying to shake off the unwelcome thoughts; "I didn't see him."

"But you did see him take his pocket-book out, and you ought to hurry after him and give it back," and Joel started on a lively run, without giving himself a chance to think twice.

"Mr. Peters! Mr. Peters!" he cried, running along, and screaming after the retreating wagon.

Mr. Peters looked back and shook his whip at him. "I ain't a-goin' to give you a ride," he said, "an' you needn't think you can catch on behind." So he gave the horse another cut, that made him amble along at his best speed.

Joel chased as long as he was able to, the perspiration streaming from his red face, screaming when he could find breath, "Stop, Mr. Peters, a minute," till Mr. Peters shook his fist at him as well as his whip. At last Joel dropped from sheer exhaustion on the roadside grass.

"That Pepper boy--th' one they call Joel--is a perfect nuisance," snarled Mr. Peters, after putting his horse up in the barn, and going into the house. "I passed him on the road, and he looked as if he 'xpected me to give him a lift."

"Oh, Pa, why didn't you?" said Mrs. Peters, pityingly, "they have such a hard time, those little Pepperses. I s'pose he was dreadful tired."

"S'pose he was," said Mr. Peters, going into the keeping room to sit down over the weekly paper. "I warn't a-goin' to take him up; and then the imperdent little chap started to run after me, a-yellin' all the way. I'd a horsewhipped him if I c'd 'a' reached him."

"I wish you wouldn't feel so about boys," deprecatingly said his wife, a little woman; "they don't hurt you none, and I wish you wouldn't, Pa."

"Well, I ain't a-goin' to have 'em round me," snarled Mr. Peters. "An' there ain't no call for you to say any more about's fur's I know, Marindy," and he jerked open the newspaper, put his feet on the round of another chair, got his spectacles out of their case and on his nose, and prepared to be comfortable. He never knew when his paper slid to the floor, and his bald head was bobbing over his empty hands. Mrs. Marinda Peters was upstairs sorting rags to give the rag-man when next he came by, the only way she could earn a little money for her own use, and the daughter was away; so Joel Pepper walked in without any one's knowing it. He had knocked and knocked at the kitchen door until his knuckles were sore, and tired of waiting, concluded to walk in by himself; for go home he would not, with Mr. Peters' cent in his pocket. So he marched in and stood by the old man's chair.

"Here's your cent," he said, holding it out in his hot fingers. His empty pail struck suddenly on the edge of the chair with a clang, the noise, more than the words, waking the old man up.

"Hey? What d'ye want?" cried Mr. Peters, his eyes flying open suddenly.

"Your cent," said Joel, holding it out. "A cent? I hain't any money to give ye," snarled old Mr. Peters, now fully aroused, "And d'ye git out of this house soon's ye can, or I'll give ye suthin' to git for." His spectacles slipped to the end of his nose as he started to get out of the chair.

"I don't want any cent," said Joel, hotly, sticking the one between his finger and thumb up under the old man's nose. "Here, take it. Don't you see it? It's yours."

"Mine? My cent?" repeated the old man, staring at it. "What d'ye mean? I hain't give ye no cent."

"I found it in the road. You dropped it," said Joel, feeling tired to death. And dropping it hastily on the window-ledge he hurried off, swinging his tin pail violently.

"What's the matter?" asked Mrs. Peters, at the sound of the voices; and, leaving the rag-bag suddenly, she hurried over the stairs. Old Mr. Peters, hearing her coming, picked up the cent, and, not stopping to put it in the old leather pocket-book, slipped it into his vest pocket, and seizing the newspaper, fell to reading.

"Joel," called Mrs. Peters, as Joel was running out of the untidy yard, "what is it? Come here and tell me."

"Let th' boy alone, can't ye, Marindy?" screamed Mr. Peters, irritably; "beats all how you allers interfere in my business--just like a woman!" he fumed, as Joel came back slowly.

But Mrs. Peters was as persistent in her way as her husband, and she soon had the whole story laid bare. When that was done, she took Joel into the buttery and gave him a big wedge of custard pie. "You better go t'other way, and not past the keepin' room window," she said, "and eat it."

Joel, with enthusiasm considerably abated as he examined his pie in the shadow of the big seringa bushes, concluded he didn't want it very much. But feeling very hungry, which was his usual condition, he finished it to the last crumb. "There warn't any sugar in, for one thing," he said critically. "I wonder why folks can bake pies who don't know how, and Mamsie never can have any."

"That boy found your cent in th' road, and brought it clear way up here," cried Mrs. Marindy, on a high key, going into the keeping room, where the old man sat absorbed in his paper.

"S'pose he did?" grunted old Mr. Peters.

"I sh'd think you'd 'a' give it to him, Pa. It's a shame. Such a hot day as 'tis, too."

"I don't have no cents to throw away," snarled old Mr. Peters. "And I wish you'd let me read my paper in peace and quiet."

"Well, I sh'd think anybody who'd got a heart in their bosom 'ud feel sorry for them five little Pepperses. I don't s'pose they see a cent to spend from one year's end to another." And she made up her mind to bake a whole custard pie, sometime, and smuggle it down to Mrs. Pepper.

"Though how I'll manage," she lamented, "would puzzle the Dutch and Tom Walker. But I'll try, just the same."

Meanwhile, Joel, though he made light of the cent business, was relating his visit to the Peters' homestead, and the presentation of the piece of pie.

"'Twas most horrid old pie," he said, with a wry face.

"Oh, Joey," said Mrs. Pepper, "when Mrs. Peters tried to be kind to you. You ate it, didn't you?" and she laughed with the others when he said yes.

"But 'twas horrid," cried Joe. "I can't help it, Mamsie. There wasn't any sugar in it, and it was black and smutty and thin. Why don't we ever have any pie in the little brown house, Mamsie?" he asked suddenly.

"Why don't little boys talk sensibly?" asked Mrs. Pepper. "It's a great deal to have the little brown house, anyway, Joel, I sh'd think you'd know that."

"Mamsie," said Polly, hearing this, "s'posin' we didn't have the little brown house; just s'posin', Mammy," and her cheek turned quite white.

"I know it, Polly," said Mrs. Pepper, quickly, setting busy stitches on Davie's jacket, where she was rapidly sewing a patch, "that's the way to talk. Just supposing we hadn't any little brown house."

"But we have got it, Mamsie," said Joel, throwing himself flat on the floor, to indulge in a long and restful roll.

"Well, we may not always have it. If folks don't appreciate their blessings, sometimes they fly away."

"How's the little brown house going to fly away, Mamsie?" demanded Joel, sitting quite straight.

"Well, it may," said Mrs. Pepper, with a wise little nod. "Mercies often take to themselves wings. Come, Polly, you may pick out these basting threads; that patch is done, thank fortune!"

Joel hopped to his feet, and ran swiftly out, craning his neck to see the tip of the chimney on the little house, and surveying it critically on all sides.

"It isn't going to fly--it isn't," he declared, quite relieved. Polly humming away some merry nonsense to Mamsie, neither of them heard him. So he came close to their chairs and repeated it: "Say, the little brown house can't fly away--there ain't any wings."

"You take care you don't say anything discontented about not having pie and other things," said Mother Pepper with a smile, looking off from her work for a minute to let her eyes rest on his face, "and I guess the wings won't grow, Joey."

"Anyway, I'm glad I don't live at old man Peterses house," said Joel, going back to his resting-place on the floor, and waving his feet in the air.

"Mamsie, do you suppose old Mr. Peters ever was a little boy?" asked Davie, thoughtfully.

"Dear me, yes," said Mrs. Pepper, abstractedly, as she was lost in thought over the question, Could she get the patch on Joel's little trousers before dark?

"A real boy?" persisted David. "Yes, of course," answered Mother Pepper, moving her chair to get a little more of the waning light. "But I don't know what kind of a boy," she added. "I don't think he was a very nice boy, Mamsie," declared David. "Not a real, very splendid one."

"Huh!" cried Joel, in a tone of contempt. "I guess he wasn't, Dave Pepper! I wouldn't have played with him at all," he added, in great disgust.

"Wouldn't you, Joel?" cried little David, running over to sit down by him on the floor, and observing great care to keep clear of the waving legs.

"No, indeed, sir," declared Joel. "I wouldn't have played once with him, not if he'd lent me his knife. An' his skates and--"

"Oh, Joel, not even if he'd lent you his skates?" cried David, incredulously.

"No, sir-ree! Nor if he'd let me have his horse to drive as much as I wanted to," declared Joel, most positively, with another wave of his legs.

Little David collapsed on the floor by his side, his eyes fixed on the ceiling, as he lay and thought it over.

"I'd 'a' said, 'Go right away, you bad old Peters boy.'" cried Joel, delighted at impressing David so completely, "'or I'll take a stick to you.'"

"And then you'd be very much like old Mr. Peters yourself, Joel," said Polly, catching the last words.