XVII. The Fight at Strawberry Hill
 

"Now, then," exclaimed Mr. Tisbett, when dinner was over, and the little Peppers declared they couldn't eat any more, "I'm a-goin' to set out on th' porch a minute or two. I allers let Bill an' Jerry rest a full hour," pulling out the big silver watch again.

"When I'm a man," cried Joel, leaning back in his chair, wishing he could eat some more raspberry shortcake, "I'm goin' to have a watch just like yours, Mr. Tisbett."

"I thought you were going to have horses just like Bill an' Jerry," said Mr. Tisbett, in surprise.

"Oh, I am!" cried Joel, in alarm at being misunderstood; "exactly like Bill and Jerry."

"You ain't goin' to have horses an' a watch!" cried the stage-driver, keeping very sober. "You must choose between the two."

"Then I'll take the horses," decided Joel, quickly.

"You've got two, Mr. Tisbett," observed David, quietly.

"Eh? Oh, so I have!" cried Mr. Tisbett. "Well, p'r'aps we'll let Joe have 'em both, then; that is, if he's a good boy. Well, can't either on you eat any more? What a pity, an' Mrs. Green has such good things."

The tavern-keeper's wife cried out that some way her raspb'ry shortcake wasn't quite so light as what she had day before yest'day. "La, Mr. Tisbett!" she exclaimed, smoothing her apron delightedly, "if you'd only happened along then, 'twould 'a' melted in your mouth."

"This suits me to a T," said Mr. Tisbett. "Now, Joel, if you and David will play round here real pretty, an' be good boys, I'll set on th' porch an' pass th' time o' day with the folks."

The little Peppers promising they would be as good as could be, Mr. Tisbett slouched off to the big arm-chair, where he always took his accustomed rest at Strawberry Hill while the horses were put up in the barn. Joel ran back to tell Mrs. Green, "I like you,--I do; you make awful nice things," and David echoed the same, as they both scampered out of the house.

"I declare, they're as pretty-behaved children's I ever see," confided the tavern-keeper's wife to the rest of the family who were at home, the tavern-keeper himself being away for the day. "Poor things, although they were so hungry, an' they don't get much to eat at home, they didn't grab an' pick at things." And she made up her mind to put up a little bundle of her sugar cookies for them to eat on the way back.

"I wish we could have taken some of the raspberry shortcake home to Polly," mourned Davie, speaking out what had been running in his mind all through the dinner. "She's never tasted any."

"Well, we couldn't," said Joel, with a qualm of conscience because he hadn't thought of it before; "Mamsie's told us it isn't nice to speak of taking things home. Hurry up, Dave," as they raced on. "I know it," said little Davie. But he sighed, nevertheless.

"Now where'll we go?" asked Joel, leaning breathless against the big maple on the edge of the back dooryard.

"Mr. Tisbett said we were to play round here," said little Davie.

"Of course," assented Joel, in a superior way "Well, let's peek in th' barn the first thing."

"Oh, Joe, we mustn't go in!" exclaimed little David, holding him back. "Mr. Tisbett said we weren't to be in the barn."

"I know it," said Joel, twitching away. "I said peek, Dave. Mr. Tisbett didn't say not to do that." So both boys got as far as they could on the threshold of the big sweet-smelling barn, without stepping over the sill, and craned their necks to get a sight of the two black horses.

"I can't see 'em! O dear me!" cried Joel, grumpily. "I wish there was a window we could climb up to."

"We can hear 'em eating," said little David, taking great satisfaction in that.

"Hoh--what's that! I want to see 'em," Joel ran on discontentedly. "O dear me! Mr. Tisbett wouldn't care if we just stepped in up to that post."

"Yes, he would," cried Davie, in alarm lest Joel should really step over.

"Let me alone," cried Joel, crossly. "O dear me! I can't see a bit of 'em." And in a minute, without stopping to think, he hopped over the door-sill and jumped into the barn.

Little David stood still in terror.

"Come here, Dave," called Joel, in glee, being careful not to go beyond the big post, "you can see 'em just as good's can be. Bill's got his mouth full of hay, an' he's bobbing his head, and the wisps are tickling Jerry, an' he don't like it," and Joel laughed heartily.

Suddenly somebody slapped David on the back, precipitating him over the sill, and "Jim" ran in past him. "Helloa. What are you doin'?" he asked Joel.

Joel looked at him, but didn't answer.

"I live here," said Jim, "over in Strawberry Hill. An' Mrs. Green's my a'nt; and I've just come home from my grandmother's."

Joel said nothing as to this family history, but continued to gaze at the horses. David picked himself up from the barn floor, and hurrying out over the sill, began to dust his clothes, glad that Joel had not seen him tumble in.

"I knocked him over," snickered Jim. "Hee-hee! Cry-baby!" and he pointed to little David, whose face was quite red as he tried to brush his best clothes clean again.

"I'm not crying," said Davie, indignantly, and raising his hot face.

"You knocked him over!" cried Joel, boiling with wrath, and, deserting the big post, he squared off toward the Strawberry Hill boy, and doubled up his little brown fists. "Then you've got to fight me."

"All right," said Jim, glad he was so much bigger. "I know a place down in th' cow-pasture where I can lick you's easy's not."

"You ain't a-goin' to lick me," cried Joel, sturdily, "I'm goin' to lick you," while little David, sick with terror, screamed out that he wasn't hurt; that he didn't care if Jim did push him over, and for Joel to come back--come back! But Joel and Jim were already halfway to the cow-pasture, and Davie, wild with fright, stumbled over across the barnyard, and off to the house to find Mr. Tisbett.

"He's just gone into th' house," said one of the farmers who always took this hour, on the occasion of the stage-driver's weekly visit, to come to the tavern porch and get the news. "He'll be out in a minute or two. Sit down, sonny; you're dreadful hot."

But David wrung his hands, and rushed into the tavern. The dining room was dark and cool, all the dinner things being carried out, except the pickle dish and the sugar bowl; and the crumbs swept off from the table, and the green blinds pulled to. He could hear the rattle of the dish-washing and the clearing-up generally out in the kitchen, and he plunged in. "Where--where's Mr. Tisbett?" he cried, his breath most gone, from fright, and his little face aflame.

"Goodness me, how you scart me!" exclaimed the tavern-keeper's wife, who, with another woman, was flying around to get the work done up. "Oh, it's one of the Pepper boys. What's the matter, dear?" with a glance at David's hot face. "What you ben a-runnin' so for?"

"Joel." It was all David could say, as he pointed off where he thought the cow-pasture was. "Somethin's happened to that other boy. Didn't you say his name was--Joel?" said the other woman, fastening very small but sharp eyes on David.

"Mercy me! you don't think it!" exclaimed the tavern-keeper's wife, her ruddy face taking a scared expression. "Dear me! I must call Mr. Tisbett. Mr. Tisbett!" she screamed, running, if the speed she now exercised could be called by that name, for it was more like waddling, out to the porch.

"He isn't there," gasped David, following her. "Oh, dear Mrs. Green, please hurry and find him," he implored.

"I don't know no more'n the dead where he is, child," said Mrs. Green, turning a perplexed face to David, after the old farmer had said the same thing over again. "Mr. Tisbett's got the run o' the place, an' likely as not, he's stepped to one o' the neighbors," pointing to a small cluster of houses a quarter of a mile away.

Little David groaned and clasped his small hands in distress.

"Then nothing can stop their fighting?" he exclaimed in despair.

"Fighting? Who's fighting?" demanded Mrs. Green, sharply.

"Joel and Jim," said David, glad to think he'd remembered what Mr. Tisbett called the boy, yet sorry, as it flashed over him, that the tavern-keeper's wife was his "a'nt."

"He pushed me down," and his face turned more scarlet yet. But it was necessary to tell the dreadful thing, else Mrs. Green would think Joel was to blame in beginning the fight.

But the tavern-keeper's wife had her own reasons for believing differently. And without wasting her breath on words, except to ask David, "Where?" she flung her dish-towel, which she had been carrying in her hand, across her arm, and picking up her skirts, she made remarkably good time across the barnyard by a shorter cut, which she was familiar with, to the cow-pasture.

Jim saw her coming first, and much as he disliked on ordinary occasions to see his "a'nt," he now hailed her approach with secret delight, for the Badgertown boy was giving him all he could do to protect himself. So he now shouted out, "My a'nt's comin'. Stop!"

"I don't care," cried Joel, pommelling away. So Jim struck back as well as he could, longing to hear Mrs. Green scream out, "Stop!" which she did as soon as she had breath enough, and shaking her dish-towel at them. "You wait there, Jim," she commanded, on top of her call, as she came panting on; and Jim, looking all ways for escape, saw there was no use in attempting it. When she did reach him, she seized him and shook him till his head seemed to wobble on his shoulders. Then, with a resounding box on the ear, that seemed like a clap of thunder, she paused to take breath.

"Oh," begged little David, "don't hurt him, dear Mrs. Green."

"Why did you stop us?" glowered Joel, wrathfully, turning his bloody little nose up in scorn. "I could 'a' done that to him's easy as not, if you'd let me."

Mrs. Green stamped her ample shoe on the ground. "You start for home," she said to Jim, "an' tell your Pa if he lets you show your face over here for a long spell, he'll settle with me."

Jim took one dive across the cow-pasture, scaled the fence, and disappeared.

"Now you come along of me," said Mrs. Green. "Goodness land alive! I'm all shook to pieces," and she started for the tavern. "I'll wash your face," to Joel; "then I guess you ain't hurt much," yet she regarded him anxiously.

"I ain't hurt a bit," declared Joel, stoutly, and wiping off the blood with the back of one chubby hand. "And I could 'a' licked him's easy as nothin'," he added regretfully.

"I wish I'd let you, before I took him in tow," said the tavern-keeper's wife, hastily, getting over the ground as well as she could.

"Mamsie wouldn't have liked it," cried little Davie, running on unsteady feet by Joel's side, and looking at him sadly. "Oh, no, she wouldn't, dear Mrs. Green."

"I don't s'pose she would now," said Mrs. Green. "Well, Jim's a bad boy, if I am his a'nt. Like enough he'll git a trouncing from his father," she added cheerfully, as some compensation.

"What is a trouncing?" asked Joel, suddenly, as they hurried on.

"The land alive, don't know what a trouncing is!" ejaculated the tavern-keeper's wife. "It's a whipping, and Jim's father knows how to give it good, I tell you."

Joel stood still. Little David stared in horror in Mrs. Green's face.

"I don't want him to be whipped," said Joel, slowly. It was one thing to fight it out with fists in the cow-pasture, but quite another to go home to be whipped by a father.

"Oh, yes, he will," repeated Mrs. Green, in her cheeriest way, and shaking her head at him. "You needn't fear, Joel, he'll catch it when he gets home."

"But I don't want him to," declared Joel, loudly, not moving. "He mustn't! Stop his father from whipping him! He shan't." And before Mrs. Green could recover from her astonishment, he plunged her deeper yet, by bursting into tears.

She gazed from him to David, still shaking her head helplessly. "Well, if I ever!" she exclaimed, when she came out of it.

"And I shall just run and tell his father not to," blubbered Joel, realizing if Jim was to be saved from that awful whipping, he must be the one to do it. "Where does he live?" he cried, emerging from his tears at the chance of action.

"Over there," answered the tavern-keeper's wife. "Well, if I ever!" pointing to a yellow house. She kept ejaculating this over and over, as she pursued her way to the house, thoughtfully swinging her dish-towel.

Joel, with David at his heels, ran off across the cow-pasture, tumbled over the fence, and followed the direction that Jim had taken and that Mrs. Green had pointed, leading to the dingy yellow house.

Long before they reached it, they could hear squeals that were not pleasant to hear, and that made them quicken their pace, to run around the house-place, and plunge almost into the face of an untidy woman who hurried to the door.

"What d'ye want?" she demanded, as the two boys stopped panting before her.

"Jim," gasped Joel.

"And his father," added little David, breathlessly

"They're both out there," said the woman, pointing with the hand holding the dish-towel, to the dilapidated woodshed. "He's gittin' a lickin', and Pa's a-givin' it."

The squeals were now so much worse that Joel gave a plunge that carried him to the woodshed door, and little David, his heart in his mouth at thought of Jim's father, followed as best he could. Joel dashed in. "Oh, do stop!" he screamed.

Jim's father turned; he had a big stick in his hand. When little David saw it he shuddered and sat down helplessly on the woodshed floor, in among all the clutter and dirt. Jim, with his knuckles twisted into his streaming eyes, whirled around from under the big hand grasping his collar. When he saw Joel, he screamed worse than ever. "Don't let him kill me, Pa," he roared, huddling up to him.

Joel sprang up to a tall, big-shouldered man with a bearded face. "Oh, sir," he cried, "please don't whip Jim any more--p'r'aps he didn't mean to push David over, I don't b'lieve. Don't whip him." He put out his little brown hand, and boldly seized the stick.

"Hey?" roared the big man. "Well, I'm beat all to smithereens," and his hand holding the stick dropped to his side. Jim stopped from sheer amazement, the roar dying in his throat.

"If you'll only let him go," said Joel, "I'd be much obliged, sir," remembering how Mamsie said he should be polite when asking a favor.

The big man grinned all over his bearded face. "I don't see but what I've got to, you ask me so pretty," he said, showing nearly every tooth in his head. "Well, Jim. you're let off for this time. I hadn't only just begun," he added to Joel, as he hung up the stick on a beam.

Jim bounded off, climbed a tree, and watched to see the boys go away.

[Illustration: "OH SIR,' HE CRIED, 'PLEASE DON'T WHIP JIM ANY MORE'"]

"What's your name?" asked his father, as Joel helped David to his feet, and they started off.

"Joel Pepper," he answered, "and this is my brother David. Say how do you do, Dave," he whispered, pulling his sleeve. But little Davie was too far gone in distress to speak, only to smile faintly. "And we live over in Badgertown in a little brown house," continued Joel, feeling that he ought to make up for David's silence.

"Oh!" said Jim's father.

"And we must go now," said Joel, keeping hold of David's jacket, "'cause you see Mr. Tisbett may be wanting us"--very desirous of getting away.

"Did ye come with Mr. Tisbett?" asked the big man.

"Yes, we did," said Joel. "Come on, Dave. We must go, sir. Good-by." And pulling David along, he ran at a smart pace off toward the tavern.

Mr. Tisbett was standing on the porch, just starting for them, when the two boys ran up. And in front of him was the tavern-keeper's wife, telling the whole story as far as she knew it, the old farmer hitching forward his chair to catch every word. When the stage-driver saw them, he hemmed loudly, and made a sign for Mrs. Green to stop.

"Well, now, I s'pose," he drawled, "it's about time to hitch up them horses. Want to come and help, Joe and David?"

Joel gave a skip of delight and released Davie's jacket. "Oh, whickety--yes!" he cried. Little David did not answer, but smiled his pleasure, and the tavern-keeper's wife went into the house to get her bundle of cookies ready.

But just as they got to the barn Joel hung back suddenly. "I ain't goin' in," he said. Mr. Tisbett didn't hear him, but marched on. Little David stopped in perplexity.

"No, I can't," said Joel, growing very sober, "'cause I was naughty and went in. Mr. Tisbett doesn't know it. O dear me!"

"You can tell him," suggested David, thoughtfully.

"O dear, dear!" exclaimed Joel, just ready to cry, as he could hear Mr. Tisbett lift down the harness, and call out, "Stand still, there, Bill--good Jerry."

"Why, boys!" exclaimed the stage-driver suddenly, coming to the door, the harness in his hand. "What on earth's the matter? I thought ye was jest crazy to come in, Joel," he added reproachfully.

Then Joel burst right out. "I've been naughty--and went in." And he flung himself across the threshold, shaking with disappointment at losing the best chance of the whole day.

Mr. Tisbett looked at Davie for explanation. So David, telling it as well as he could, got through with the story finally.

"I can't say that ye warn't naughty, Joel," said the stage-driver, slowly, "'cause ye were. But I'm a-goin' to let ye in, and besides, I need ye to help me with them horses," and Mr. Tisbett began to look very worried at once.

Joel sat very straight. "Oh, I'll help you, Mr. Tisbett," he cried joyfully. And in a minute they were all three in the big stall, and Joel was in the very midst of things, and even David forgot his fright enough to lend a helping hand, and to feel his importance, and presently the big black horses were led out of the barn, and harnessed into the stage-coach.

"Now, hop up!" cried Mr. Tisbett, when he had gone carefully around and around the big coach, to see that every strap and buckle was in place, and had got down on his knees to be quite sure the springs were all right. Then he gave David a lift up to the box, Joel clambering up on the other side. "We'll drive up to th' door," he said, "an' get th' passenger," for there was one woman going over to Badgertown.

"Oh, let me drive!" begged Joel; "just up to the door, Mr. Tisbett," he implored.

"We don't want to be upset under folks' noses," said Mr. Tisbett. "Land! I'd rather 'twould happen where there warn't no one to see, if 'twas going to."

"I wouldn't upset it for anything," promised Joel. "Please, Mr. Tisbett."

But Mr. Tisbett sat down and gathered up the reins and drove round with such a flourish that it never had been surpassed, it seemed to the people on the tavern porch. And the one woman got in with her basket, and the tavern-keeper's wife ran down the steps and stood on her tiptoes and handed up to Joel the bundle of cookies, begging them to come again. And the old farmer said "Good day," and the woman with little sharp eyes, who had been washing the dishes, hurried out, pulling down her sleeves, to see them off. And away they rattled, with faces turned toward home and Mamsie.

They had proceeded about a quarter of a mile, when Mr. Tisbett suddenly asked, "Want to drive, Joel? Come along over here," and he reached past David and took his hand. "Now, then, I'm goin' to set in the middle a little spell," and before Joel could recover from his astonishment, he found the old leather reins in his brown hands. He was driving Mr. Tisbett's black horses!