XVI. The Stage-Coach Ride
 

"Children," said Mrs. Pepper, and how her eyes shone! "I've got something very nice to tell you--that is, for Joel and David. Your turn will come sometime, Polly," and Mother Pepper smiled encouragingly at her.

"Polly's turn never comes," said Ben, gloomily, who felt dreadfully fretted to think he couldn't earn money enough to do something nice for her. "We eat it all up as fast as we get paid," he had once said to his mother.

"And that's what we have mouths for," she had answered brightly. It never would do for Ben to get discouraged, so she kept all the little ache in her heart out of sight. Now she beamed at Ben.

"Oh, Polly's time's coming," she said; "never fear, Ben."

Ben looked ashamed when he heard Mamsie's hopeful words, and brightened up at once.

"Thank you, Ben," she said, going up to his chair to lay her hand on his shoulder. "Mother doesn't know what she'd do if her big boy failed her. Well now, children, I must hurry and tell you the good news about Joel and David. Mr. Tisbett has invited them to go on the stage to-morrow to Strawberry Hill."

Once a week Mr. Tisbett ran the stage down to Strawberry Hill, returning by the East District. It was quite the prettiest ride out of Badgertown, following now and then the course of Cherry brook, and past fertile fields and forests, by a winding, rambling thoroughfare. And when once the settlement of Strawberry Hill was reached, there were Green's Tavern and the stop for dinner!

Joel and David greeted this announcement with howls of delight. Phronsie caught the spirit and danced around the old kitchen in a clean pink calico dress, and cheeks to match.

"Oh, Phronsie, I don't believe you know what you're dancing for," cried Ben with a laugh, and seizing her as the bustle died down a bit.

"Yes, I do, Bensie," said Phronsie, struggling to get down to dance again.

"Well, what is it then?"

"Joel and Davie said 'O-oh' and 'Goody'!" hummed Phronsie, beginning to dance harder than ever.

"I thought so," laughed Ben.

"Don't tease her," begged Polly, coming up.

"Polly, I wish you were going too," said Ben, suddenly, who couldn't help saying it.

"Dear me, I couldn't go and leave all the work, Ben," exclaimed Polly, "even if Mr. Tisbett had asked me."

"Well, I wish you could go, all the same," sighed Ben.

Polly shook her head, and clapped her hands at Phronsie, and tried to forget what Ben had said. But it stayed there, deep in her heart, nevertheless.

Joel and David could hardly sleep that night for thinking of the splendid treat of the morrow. Oh, if it should rain! They trembled as they rolled over on their backs and listened for any chance pattering on the roof.

"It doesn't rain a single drop," declared Joel, rolling over on his side again, and carrying most of the bedclothes with him.

"But it may, Joel," said little Davie, fearfully.

"No, it isn't going to," said Joel, confidently.

"Mamsie said we were to be good boys," said David, after a pause, in which Joel was lost in the wildest imaginings of sometime driving Mr. Tisbett's black horses. "Don't you know she did, Joey?" twitching his arm.

"Well, I'm going to be good. I'm always good," said Joel, jerking away his arm.

"Oh, Joel," cried little Davie, involuntarily.

"Well, I'm going to be good to-morrow, anyway," declared Joel. "You'll see, Dave; as good as pie."

"Because Mamsie said she'd trust us," continued David, "and we'd make trouble for Mr. Tisbett unless we minded him."

Joel didn't reply, trying to decide whether he should hold the reins both together in one hand or use two, Mr. Tisbett observing both methods.

"I guess I'll hold 'em in two hands," he said at last, "'cause most likely he won't let me take the whip at the same time. Ain't I glad I haven't cut the right one any more!" He held it up and squinted at it as well as he could for the darkness. There wasn't even a scar to be seen, thanks to Mother Pepper's good care.

"Boys--boys, go to sleep," called Polly's voice over the stairs. "They're so excited," she said, going back to her mother, "about tomorrow. Mamsie, isn't it good that they're going?" she cried, with shining eyes.

Mrs. Pepper looked at her keenly. "Yes, 'tis, Polly," she answered simply.

What a time they had getting the boys ready for their unwonted journey! Joel rebelled at the thorough scrubbing that Polly insisted on before he was inducted into his clean clothes.

"We wash all the time. Mamsie makes us," he grumbled. "Ow, Polly, you're rubbing my ear off."

"That's only every day," said Polly, who dearly loved to fix up with extra preparations on important occasions. "And this--why, Joel Pepper, you've never been away on a journey before. Just think, you're going on a stage-coach clear over to Strawberry Hill!"

"I know it," said Joel, trying to appear as if it were an everyday affair, while little David turned pale with excitement.

"Well, now then, I believe you're nice and clean," said Polly, standing off and viewing Joel, red and shiny from her efforts. "All except this other ear must be washed a little bit more."

"Oh, Polly," cried Joel, viewing her soapy cloth in alarm, "you've done it enough. Mamsie," he howled, "Polly's a-washing me just dreadful." But Mother Pepper did not seem to hear, so Polly finished, and then began on Joel's hair.

This was so much worse an undertaking, that the whole household were very glad indeed when it was over.

"I hope no one will ask you again to go anywhere, Joel," said Ben. "Goodness me, Polly, I sh'd think you'd be all tired out getting him ready!"

"Well, he's done now," said Polly, pushing back the damp rings of hair from her own brow, while she pulled Joel's jacket straight with the other hand. "Now, Joe, if you go and sit down and don't move, you'll be all nice when Mr. Tisbett comes; and I'll take Davie."

To little David the whole task of washing and combing his hair, and arranging him in his neatly mended best clothes, was one long, tremulous delight. He wouldn't have had it omitted for the world. At last he was patted and brushed, and pronounced "just perfect," Polly sealing her approval by a kiss that she meant for his forehead, but it fell on the tip of his nose instead.

"You didn't kiss me," said Joel, in an injured voice.

"Well, you didn't stand still long enough," retorted Ben, answering for Polly. "Goodness me, Joel, I'd as soon dress an eel as you!"

"G'lang there! Whoa!" And the stagecoach rattled up in fine shape.

"Mr. Tisbett's come! Mr. Tisbett's come!" roared Joel, as if everybody couldn't see and hear the stage-driver's hearty tones, to say nothing about the stamping of the horses and the rumble of the wheels. And darting out, he flew over the grass. "Let me sit up there with you, Mr. Tisbett," he screamed, trying to get up on the wheel.

"Sho, there! So you may. Give us your hand, Joe, my boy," said Mr. Tisbett, brimming over with good humor, and a warm feeling at heart at making the Peppers so happy, and he put out his brawny hand, gave a jerk, and in a minute there was Joel smiling and shouting and waving his hat to David and the others escorting him down to the roadside.

"Remember what I told you, Joel," said Mother Pepper, fixing her black eyes on him.

"Yes'm," said Joel, nodding his head, "I'll remember, Mammy. I'm going to sit next to Mr. Tisbett," he cried, seeing the preparations to lift Davie up to a seat on the box.

"Joel," warned his mother.

"I'm a-goin' to have you up top here, along of me," said Mr. Tisbett, "so's I can look out for you. And I'm a-goin' to tell where you'll set, too, Joel. Now, you just hist over there, and let Davie in betweenst us; he's littler. There you be," as Joel promptly obeyed and took the outside seat.

"Good-by, Mammy," shrilled little David, stretching forward to look past Mr. Tisbett's burly figure, and longing for another kiss.

"Good-by, Davie."

"Good-by. Good-by, Joel."

"Crack-snap!" went Mr. Tisbett's whip. Off pranced the two black horses, and round went the wheels. He never made such a fine start in his life, Mr. Tisbett decided, when suddenly, "Stop! oh, stop!" screamed Joel, and the stage-driver, looking around at him, saw his face convulsed with the effort not to cry, as he yelled again, flinging out his hands frantically, "Stop!"

"Whoa!" cried Mr. Tisbett to the prancing black horses, so suddenly they nearly sat back on their haunches. "What's the matter of ye, for the land's sakes o' Goshen?"

"I want to get down," cried Joel, with a frantic lunge. "Let me get down!"

"Hold on there, or you'll break your neck," roared Mr. Tisbett. "What you want to get down for?" and he scratched his head, his habit when in perplexity.

"I want to kiss my Mamsie," stammered Joel, and now the tears began to come.

"Sho!" cried Mr. Tisbett, "so you shall. There. Now then!" Joel, in some way, was lifted up and swung clear of the wheel, when he set out for a run to the little brown house. Mrs. Pepper and Polly and Ben were standing still in the front yard and watching them, while Phronsie was making cheeses, holding out her little pink calico frock to sink slowly in a puff on the grass.

"Good-by, Mamsie," cried Joel, flinging his arms around her neck, "I'll be good, I truly will."

"I know you will, Joel," said Mrs. Pepper, drawing him close to her, while she kissed and fondled him to his heart's content. Then he rushed back again. Mr. Tisbett leaned down and gave him his brawny hand once more, and up he flew. "Crack! snap!" went the whip--off pranced the horses--round went the wheels--and away they all went!

Joel hung to the railing of the seat against which he leaned, with a blissful feeling that he was rushing through the air, and he saw nothing but those black horses below him. As for little Davie, he didn't dare to breathe, but peered out from his place between Mr. Tisbett's long, square figure and Joel, seeing nothing, only conscious that everything was perfectly beautiful.

Mr. Tisbett slackened up after about a mile of this sort of driving. He always liked to give a good impression in going through the town. Folks invariably rushed to the windows, and said, "The stage is going by," and they never seemed to be tired of such amusement. So Mr. Tisbett always gratified them to the fullest extent. To-day, as he hadn't many passengers till he came to the Four Corners, he let the horses go at their utmost speed, occasionally glancing at the rapt faces of the Pepper boys, when he would roll his quid from one cheek to the other, and smile in great satisfaction.

"Easy there, now," he said to the black horses, holding them up a bit. "Well now, that's something like, eh, Joel?" And he leaned over to see Joel's face.

Joel was slow in finding his tongue. At last he answered, "Yes, sir," but continued to stare at the horses.

"I guess this ere boy likes it, if you don't," exclaimed Mr. Tisbett, somewhat disappointed at Joel's lack of appreciation, and peering down at Davie. "Eh, David?"

"I think it's just like Heaven," said little David, with a long-drawn sigh of bliss.

"That's a fact," cried Mr. Tisbett, well pleased. "And so you liked it?"

"I loved it, Mr. Tisbett," declared David, solemnly.

"And you've said it about right," declared Mr. Tisbett, the smile dropping away from his jolly face, but the satisfaction remaining. "And I love them two horses's if they was folks. Fact!" And Mr. Tisbett slapped the toe of his big boot with his whip. "Now Jerry's a trifle the smartest, and--"

"No! No!" howled Joe, in protest, and leaning clear over David so abruptly that the stage-driver started and involuntarily pulled up his horses smartly. "I like Bill the best."

"Hey--sho, now!" exclaimed Mr. Tisbett, relaxing his tight grip on the reins. "You've waked up, have ye? Well, you set back and hang on to that there railing, or you'll break your neck. Then what would your Ma say to me? and I shouldn't never take you again."

"Mr. Tisbett," said little Davie, deliberately, "I like Jerry the best, too. I do."

"No, you don't," screamed Joel, with a nudge in Davie's side, "Bill's the best. Say so, Dave."

"I can't," said little David, quite decidedly, "'cause I think just as Mr. Tisbett does."

"They're both good; good as gold," Mr. Tisbett here made haste to say. "An' sometimes I think one's better'n t'other, an' then again I don't know. So, boys, the only way to fix it up straight is to like 'em both best. Well, we're comin' to my first passenger," and the stage-driver chirked up the horses. "Now step lively there." And presently the turn of the road brought them to a white house with green blinds and a big piazza across one end.

There was a tall woman walking up and down in front of the house, and by the roadside a great collection of boxes, and a huge carpet bag, two baskets, and a bird-cage.

"Beats all how women act," exclaimed Mr. Tisbett, in vexation. "Why can't she set in th' house and wait for me? I ain't never been late. Now I s'pose she'll take my head off."

David glanced up in terror at Mr. Tisbett's shaggy head under the big straw hat, and then at the tall woman who was to take it off. "Joel," he whispered, "we mustn't let her." But Joel had no ears for anything that Davie might say, but was occupied in seeing the stage-driver flourish up to meet the passenger.

"Good mornin', Miss Beaseley," said Mr. Tisbett, in his pleasantest way, springing over the wheel the moment the horses stopped.

"I've been a-waitin' here," said Mrs. Beaseley, tartly, "the longest time. I thought you never'd come."

"'Twould 'a' been a sight easier to 'a' waited in th' house," observed Mr. Tisbett, composedly, proceeding to pack the array of boxes and bags in the coach, "bein's I warn't schedooled to reach here till quarter past seven. And it's just three minutes to that time now, Marm." He stopped to pull out an immense silver watch, the only thing that could draw Joel's attention from the black horses. Now he stared at it until it disappeared again in Mr. Tisbett's waistcoat pocket.

"Well, you needn't waste the time now," said Mrs. Beaseley, in asperity. "I'm sure there's little enough left. Put that carpet bag in careful, Mr. Tisbett; it's got some cups and sassers in I'm a-takin' to my daughter in Strawberry Hill."

"All right, Marm," said Mr. Tisbett, setting the carpet bag, that seemed in danger of bursting, so full was it packed, on one of the seats. "I hain't never broke any o' my passengers' belongings yet, and I'm too old to begin to-day." To which Mrs. Beaseley deigned no reply, only to say, "You put 'em all in, and I'll get in last."

So Mr. Tisbett put in the bandbox and a smaller box, and one two or three sizes larger, and the rest of the bags and the two baskets, and a bundle. Then he picked up the birdcage.

"You let that be!" screamed Mrs. Beaseley. "I'm a-goin' to take that in my hand; you'll scare that bird to death."

"You get in and set down, and I'll hand it in to you," said Mr. Tisbett. "I ain't a-goin' to scare your bird. I've seen 'em before, and handled 'em, too, for that matter."

"I shan't set foot in that stage till all my things is in, and packed to suit me," declared Mrs. Beaseley, positively. "You gimme the bird;" with that she seized the bird-cage, and holding it well before her, she stepped up the first step. The next minute she was precipitated on the floor of the stage, with the birdcage under her. When she was helped up, and the bird-cage was set on the seat opposite, Mr. Tisbett slammed to the stage door quickly, and hopped nimbly to the box, leaving her straightening her bonnet. All the while she was giving vent to a torrent of abuse because the stage-coach steps were too high, the bird screaming and fluttering wildly in fright.

"Didn't I tell you she'd take my head off?" said Mr. Tisbett, with a sly wink at the boys, and a little chuckle as he resumed the reins and they started off.

Little David drew a long breath of relief, and gazed again at the shaggy head under the old straw hat. "It isn't off, Mr. Tisbett," he said, "and I'm so glad."

"Hey?" exclaimed Mr. Tisbett, staring at him. "What's the boy mean? Oh,--my soul an'--body!" And he slapped his thigh with his brawny hand, and burst out into a hearty laugh that seemed to echo on every side, as the stage-coach spun along.

"I sh'd think you'd laugh," exclaimed Mrs. Beaseley, in withering scorn, inside the vehicle, "when I've smashed my best bonnet, and shook that bird to death--like enough he'll die--and tromped all up the front breadth to my dress." But as there was no one to hear her, and Mr. Tisbett still laughed on, seeming unable to stop himself, the stage-coach contributed a very merry spectacle to those privileged to see it, as they bowled along to the next passenger for Strawberry Hill.

"So you thought she'd really took my head off, did ye?" asked Mr. Tisbett at last, and mopping his face with his bandanna. "O dear me! Hee-hee-hee!"

"You said she was going to, Mr. Tisbett," said little David, gravely.

"So I did. I see I must be careful what I say, after this. Well, David, she'd like to 'a' took my head off, an' would, if she'd had her way."

"O dear!" exclaimed little David, greatly shocked.

"But she hain't, yer see," finished Mr. Tisbett, cheerfully, "it's on, an' set stiddy. Sho, now, easy there, Bill and Jerry! We must stop for Mr. Filbert."

The next passenger was a thin, wiry little man, who seemed to beg pardon constantly for being in somebody's way. And after Mr. Tisbett had slung his hair trunk on the rack, Mr. Filbert stepped gently into the stage-coach. "Excuse me, Marm," he said to the woman. "Did I step on your toes?"

"You hain't hurt me none," said Mrs. Beaseley, "and you hain't teched my toes. Goodness me, after the treatment I've had, an' th' sass I've took, I guess I won't complain."

The little wiry man sank into the furthest corner and pulled out from his pocket a newspaper, which he tried to read. But Mrs. Beaseley, beginning on the statement of what she had suffered waiting for Mr. Tisbett, and every minute since the journey was begun, Mr. Filbert never got more than ten lines down the first page.

At last, after picking up a little girl, and a boy who spent his time in thrusting out his head from the swinging vehicle to stare enviously up at Joel, the stage-coach rattled in fine fashion, bringing everybody to the doors and windows, into Strawberry Hill, and pulled up at the tavern. Here all the passengers got down; Mrs. Beaseley insisting that she ought to pay but half price, considering all things, and with very black looks, when Mr. Tisbett coolly waited till every cent was in his palm. The little thin man skipped nimbly out of the coach, and, with a backward alarmed look at her, hurried to get into a wagon waiting a little distance off, in which Mr. Tisbett deposited the hair trunk.

"Say, how'd you get up there?" asked the boy, tumbling out of the coach to stare up at Joel. The small girl, who was going to spend Sunday at her grandmother's, got out with dignity, carrying her best clothes in a bundle. She stopped a minute to hear what Joel said.

"I stepped up," said Joel; "how'd you s'pose?"

"How'd he let you?" persisted the boy, pointing with a dingy thumb to the stage-driver. "He never let me."

'"Cause he did," said Joel, curtly, "that's the reason."

"Oh!" said the boy, and Mr. Tisbett coming back, he moved off. But he still continued to watch.

"Now, says I, we'll hop down," cried Mr. Tisbett, which Joel proceeded to do in a trice, glad enough to stretch his legs. "Here, David, give us your hand." And the stage-driver soon had little David on the ground. "Now, Bill and Jerry, it's your turn." And very soon Mr. Tisbett was busy in unbuckling straps and tackling, to release the big horses, Joel in a wild delight getting dreadfully in the way, and being, as he thought, an immense help. Little David stood off and watched the proceeding, longing to help too, but too timid to say so. The other boy rushed up. "Oh, let me help!" he cried, thrusting a tousled head in between the two busy with the harness.

The stage-driver shot him a keen look. "It will be time enough for you to help in this ere job, Jim," he said, "when I ask you." So Jim slunk off, to stare at a distance again. And at last the horses were led off to the big barn to get their dinner of oats and hay, and then Mr. Tisbett drew Joel and David away.

But this was a hard task, for Joel hung over Bill and Jerry in delight, watching every mouthful. "Can't I climb up on his back and sit there while he eats?" he begged, pointing at Bill, while even little David much preferred the old barn with its sweet odor, and the big haymows, to any other place.

"No, you can't," said Mr. Tisbett, answering Joel. "And you ain't a-goin' to be in this barn. I can't leave you here alone. Your Ma wouldn't like it. And besides, you've got to have somethin' to eat. I always get my dinner here. So come along; you're my company to-day, an' I told Mrs. Pepper not to put you up anything to eat."

Strangely enough, at the mention of dinner, Joel still clung to the hope of remaining with the horses. Seeing which, the stage-driver wasted no more words, but picked an end of his jacket in his fingers and bore him off. Once within the cosey little dining room, with the green paper shades flapping in the summer breeze, and seated at the table with the tavern-keeper's wife bustling around to lay on the hot dishes, Joel thought differently, and had a hard time to keep his tongue still. Little Davie watched everything silently, with wide-open blue eyes.

"I'm goin' to hev ham an' eggs," said Mr. Tisbett. "Fried on both sides, Mrs. Green, an' plenty of 'em."

"All right," said the tavern-keeper's wife, with a smile for the jolly stage-driver who always made it pleasant for them all when he took his dinner there once a week. "Now, what's these boys goin' to have?"

"As good a dinner as you've got in the house, Mrs. Green," said Mr. Tisbett, heartily; "these are the little Pepperses, and they live over to Badgertown, Marm." He said this with an air much as he might have announced, "This is the Lord Mayor of London," if he had been called upon to introduce that functionary.

"Oh!" exclaimed Mrs. Green, much impressed, "I'll do my best. Well now, I've got boiled dinner an' a raspb'ry shortcake. Do you think they'd like that?" She appealed to the stage-driver.

"Yes sir-ree!" cried Joel, smacking his lips; "we don't have anything but potatoes and salt for our dinner. Oh, David!" he seized little Davie's arm tightly, "raspberry shortcake, she said; that's what Polly was telling about she hoped we could have sometime."