XXIII. The Blackberries and the Bull
 

"Now, Joel," said Polly, a few days after, "you mustn't tease for the pie, you know, 'cause Mamsie may not be able to get the white flour."

"P'r'aps she will," said Joel, swinging his tin pail, and kicking the sweet fern with his bare feet; "then, Polly, we could have it, couldn't we?"

"Maybe," said Polly, with her thoughts not so much on blackberry pie, as how good it was to be out of doors for a whole afternoon. "Oh, Joe, what a big butterfly!"

"Hoh--that's nothing!" said Joel, who was rather tired of butterflies. "I'm going to pick bushels and bushels of blackberries, Polly."

"You'll do well if you pick a quart," said Polly, laughing, remembering his past experiences. "Oh, Joel, isn't it just lovely to go blackberrying like this!" and her brown eyes sparkled.

"The bushes scratch like everything," said Joel, with another kick at the sweet fern.

"It's nice to go blackberrying," hummed Phronsie, holding fast to a little tin cup the rag-man had presented her on his last visit. "I'm going to pick ever and ever so many, to carry home to my Mamsie."

"So you shall," cried Polly, rapturously; "and, children, I never saw anything so perfectly beautiful as it is this afternoon! Isn't the sky blue!"

Little David looked up and smiled. Joel threw back his head and squinted critically. "I wish I could go sailing up there on that cloud," he said.

"I don't," said Polly, merrily, swinging her tin pail. "I'd rather be down here and going blackberrying with you children. Well, come on, we ought to hurry, 'cause we want to take home as many as we can."

"You're always hurrying us, Polly Pepper," grumbled Joel, lagging behind. "What for, if we can't have any pie?"

"Well, we can carry home the berries to Mamsie, anyway," said Polly, moving on very fast. Phronsie trotted after her with a very happy face.

"Now, children," said Polly, when they reached the place where the bars were to be taken down, "we must keep together, and not straggle off. Remember, Joe; then when we're ready to go home, it won't be such a piece of work to get started."

Joel was already pulling at the bars. "Come on, Dave, and help," he called.

"We'll go right across this corner," said Polly, when the bars were put back, and they were on the other side, "and then, says I, we'll soon be at the blackberry patch. O my, just see that bird!"

"Polly's always stopping to look at birds," said Joel.

"I like 'em, too," said David. "And that one is just beautiful."

"It's just beautiful," hummed Phronsie, who wanted to stop every moment and pick clover blossoms, or the big waving green grasses.

"Well, come on, Pet," said Polly, seeing this, "or we shan't ever get to the blackberry patch; and then, says I, what would Mamsie ever do for her berries!"

At this, such a dreadful distress seized the whole bunch of little Peppers, that they one and all scuttled as fast as they could through the long grass, Phronsie not looking back once to pick a single blossom; and Polly presently had her company all marshalled up in good order in a perfect thicket of blackberry bushes, where the berries hung as thick and ripe as could be.

For a few minutes no one spoke; the big blackberries tumbling into the tin pails making the only noise, though Phronsie dropped hers into the grass as often as she put one in her little cup. And they worked so fast, that no one noticed that Polly's blue sky was getting overcast by white patches of puffy clouds that looked as if they were chasing each other. At last Joel said, "Ow!" and began to complain that he was all scratched up by the prickly bushes, and when Phronsie heard that, she set down her tin cup and held up her fat little arms. "See, Polly," she said gravely.

"O dear me, now that's too bad, Pet!" So Polly had to come out from her nice little clump where she was picking fast, and kiss the little red marks on Phronsie's arms. "Now don't lean in the bushes again; I'll show you a place. There," and Polly pointed to some low branches that stood out; and the blackberries on them were thick and ripe.

"Ooh!" said Phronsie, when she saw them; and she forgot all about her arms, that prickled and ached, and Polly flew back to her clump again.

Rumble--rumble! "Oh, boys!" gasped Polly, "there can't be a thunder-storm coming!" and she poked her head out from her clump, and stared up at the sky in dismay. "There surely is! Now we must run home like everything." She skipped out and seized Phronsie's arm. "Come, Pet," and not stopping to look, she set out upon a run. Phronsie began to wail, and then pulled back. "I've left my cup, Polly," she said.

"Didn't you bring it?" cried Polly, pausing a minute. "Boys," as she saw that they hadn't started, "come this minute, and bring Phronsie's cup," she screamed. "Now come on, child; they run so much faster they will soon overtake us."

Phronsie, with her mind at rest about her cup, kept up as well as she could by Polly's side. "I guess I shall have to carry you," at last said Polly, as the boys came rushing up in high glee over their dash across the meadow.

"Where's my cup?" asked Phronsie, holding out eager hands.

"Here," said Joel, thrusting it at her. "Now come on, Dave, let's see who will get to the bars first."

Phronsie peered within the tin cup. "Why--where--" she began. Then she turned two big sorrowful eyes up toward Polly. "They aren't there," she said.

"What--the berries? Oh, never mind, Pet, you shall have some of mine," said Polly, whose only thought was how to get home as quickly as possible. "Goodness me, child!" as a raindrop splashed on her nose. "I really shall have to carry you," and Polly picked her up, and tried to hurry over the ground.

"But they won't be mine I picked," wailed Phronsie. "Polly, I want my very own."

"Well, the boys spilled 'em, I s'pose," said Polly, staggering on, her own tin pail swinging from her arms, while Phronsie grew heavier and heavier every minute, and the clouds blacker and blacker. "Dear me, I didn't think it was so far across this meadow!" when suddenly Joel screamed out, "Oh, Polly, he's coming!" and there, from the further corner of the field, was walking quite smartly a bull, and he was looking straight at her and Phronsie.

"I mustn't run," said Polly; "Mamsie said once, I remember, I must look straight at any cross animal, and not let 'em see that I was afraid." So she set Phronsie down on the ground. "Now, Pet, don't run, but walk to Joel as fast as you can," for Joel and David were over the bars, which they hadn't taken the trouble to take down for themselves, intending to do it for Polly and Phronsie when they should come up.

Phronsie set off at once, since Polly had told her to do so, and was soon nearly at the bars. Joel sprang over to meet her.

"Don't run, Joe," called Polly, in a warning voice; "just take her over the bars." Then she slowly went backward, keeping her brown eyes fastened on the bull, who still walked toward her, with his eyes fixed on her face.

Joel got Phronsie safely over the bars, David, with trembling fingers, pulling her from the other side, and all was going on well when Polly stepped backward into a little gully, and over she went in a heap. In a minute, the bull tossed his head and quickened his pace, and by the time she was up on her feet, he was coming on toward her at a trot, and with an angry light in his eyes.

All of a sudden, Joel shot past her. "I'll stop him, Polly," he said cheerily, and he dashed in between her and the bull, who, not liking this interference, now shook his head angrily. Joel then turned off, and the animal went after him.

"Joel, you'll be killed!" cried Polly, rushing after him, to make the bull turn from the chase. But it was useless; for both were now well across the field, Joel running like wildfire, and the bull snorting and kicking up the ground in his rage after him. And Polly, straining her eyes, pretty soon saw Joel turn swiftly and duck, and the bull run with full force against a tree, before he could stop himself. And there was Joel clambering over a high stone wall. Then she started and rushed for the high bars, climbed them in a flash, and when the disappointed bull came running back, there she was, with the other two, huddled up in a place of safety. And in a minute Joel scrambled around from his stone wall. So there they were, all together, safe and sound!

"Oh, Joel, are you really here?" exclaimed Polly, laughing and crying over him together.

"Yes," said Joel, "I am, Polly;" then he looked up from her arms that she had thrown around his neck. "You've lost your berries, Polly Pepper, and the tin pail. Now what will Mamsie say?"

"I guess she won't say anything," said Polly, with a little shiver. "Come, children, we must run, now, as fast as we can, for it is going to rain like everything."

"Joey," said Polly, when they paused a moment to take breath, "you must give Phronsie some of your berries when we get home; that's a good boy, for I promised her some of mine. Hers got spilt, and now I haven't any."

"Well, mine shook out of the pail," said Joel, dismally, "when I swung it at that old bull's face."

"I'll give her mine," declared Davie. "You shall have 'em all, Phronsie."

Phronsie, at that, could not express her delight, but she clasped her hands, and gave a great sigh of satisfaction.

When they all reached home, there was Mamsie watching for them anxiously. And they all scampered in out of the rain like so many rabbits.

"Children, I've got such a surprise for you," said Mother Pepper, as soon as she could take off the wet clothes from Phronsie, and get her into something dry. "Now, you all better get your things off, and hang 'em to dry by the stove, and get on some clean clothes."

"I ain't wet, and we haven't got any berries, 'cept Dave, an' he gave 'em to Phronsie," said Joel. "They all got shook out of the pails, Polly's and mine did, when the bull chased us."

"When the bull chased you!" repeated Mrs. Pepper, while her black eyes roved from one to the other.

"Oh, Joel, don't tell Mamsie this way," said Polly, pulling his jacket. "Besides, Phronsie doesn't know what we ran for."

"David," said Mrs. Pepper, "take Phronsie into the bedroom and shut the door. Now then, Polly and Joel, tell me all about it, every word."

So they did, not sparing themselves a bit of the account, Joel cutting in when he thought Polly didn't tell enough what she did.

"But oh, Mamsie, you can't think how splendid Joe was!" cried Polly, with shining eyes; "he couldn't have done better if he'd had a sword and gun." Then she told it all over--his part--dilating at great length upon it, until Joel got down on the floor and rolled and kicked in dismay, because he couldn't stop her.

"Make her stop, Mamsie," he howled.

"And oh, when Ben comes home, won't I have a splendid story to tell him!" finished Polly. "How I wish he'd come now," and the queerest thing was, the door opened, and in he walked.

"I got through earlier than I expected," he said. "Why, what makes you all look so queer?"

"We've had enough to make us look queer," answered Mrs. Pepper. Her eyes shone too! "Polly will tell you," she added.

So Polly, glad enough to tell the story, went over it all, bit by bit. When she came to Joel's part, Ben seized him from off the floor. "See here, I'll give you a ride, Joe, in honor of it," and setting him on his shoulder, Ben pranced around and around the old kitchen, till Joel screamed with delight.

"I tell you what, that was fine!" declared Ben, and his eyes shone too. Then Phronsie drummed on the bedroom door, and begged to be let out, in spite of all that Davie could do to stop her.

"Do run and let her out, and Davie, too," said Mrs. Pepper, quite as excited as either Polly or Ben.

"I'll go," said Joel, flying off with alacrity. So Phronsie and David came running in, well pleased to be once more in the midst of things; and then it was time for supper, and all the while she was laying the cloth and getting out the dishes, Polly was looking at Joel, and her brown head went up proudly, and every once in a while she would run over and drop a kiss on his stubby hair.

And when Davie went up to the loft back of him that night, as they were going to bed, Joel turned around on the upper stair. "We'll play bull to-morrow, Dave," he said.

"No, I don't want to," said little Davie, with a shiver.

"Pooh! I do; it's splendid! You may be the bull, if you want to," said Joel, generously.

"I don't want to," protested Davie, fretfully, and hurrying off his clothes, to tuck into bed, where he huddled down.

"Well, you've got to," said Joel, determinedly, giving his jacket a fling to the corner, "'cause if you don't, I'll be the bull, and chase you just awful. So there now, Dave Pepper!"

But Davie was spared that tribulation, for when the next day came, Mrs. Pepper had so much work for them all to do, that the chase dropped entirely out of Joel's mind, even if he had a moment in which to accomplish it. The great surprise that Mrs. Pepper had told them of, now came out, everybody being so full of the adventure with the bull, that it completely crowded out everything else.

"Now you can't guess," said Mrs. Pepper, smiling at them all, when she had repeated, "such a surprise, children," "so I might as well tell you. It was--"

"Oh, Mammy, let us guess," howled Joel. "I know--it is a horse! Somebody's given you one."

A perfect shout greeted this, but Joel was in no wise dashed. "I don't care," he said, "that would be a surprise."

"Yes, I think it would be," laughed Ben. "Guess again, Joe, and don't give such a wild one."

"Then I guess it's some candy," said Joel, coming down with a long jump to a possibility; "and do give us some right away."

"No, it isn't candy," said Mrs. Pepper, smiling at him.

"Then I don't care what it is," declared Joel, turning off indifferently; "and say, Polly, what have you got for breakfast?"

"The same as ever," said Polly, with only half an ear for him, her mind being intent on the splendid surprise; "you know, Joel; what makes you ask?"

"Mean old breakfast!" said Joel, with a grimace. "Polly, why don't we ever have anything but mush?"

"You know that too, Joe," said Polly, with a cold shoulder for him. "Do let me be, I want to guess Mamsie's surprise. O dear me! whatever can it be?" She wrinkled up her brows, and lost herself in a brown study.

"I guess I know," said Ben, slowly, after a good look at Mrs. Pepper's face.

"What?" roared Joel, interested again, since Ben had guessed it.

"It's blackberries," answered Ben, with a shrewd nod of his head. "Isn't it, Mamsie?"

"Yes, it is," said Mrs. Pepper; "you've guessed it, sure enough, Bensie."

"Hoh--old blackberries!" cried Joel, dreadfully disappointed, and falling back to the other corner.

"The blackberries aren't to be ours," said Mrs. Pepper; "that is--"

"Not to be ours," repeated the children together, while even Ben looked surprised.

"No." Mrs. Pepper laughed outright to see their faces. "You can't guess," she said again, "so I'll tell you. Mrs. Brown is sick, and I'm to make her blackberry jell over here; and she's given me some sugar, besides the pay she'll give me, so now we can have our pie."

There was a perfect babel at this, the five little Peppers having always before them the hope of some day hearing their mother say they should have a blackberry pie--to make up for not being able to accomplish the chicken pie that Polly and all the others had so longed for--and which was quite beyond their expectations. Now the blackberry pie was really coming!

"Make it now. Make it now, Mamsie, do," begged Joel, his mouth watering.

"Goodness me!" exclaimed Polly; "why, it's before breakfast, Joe. The idea of teasing Mamsie to do it now."

"And I can't do it just after breakfast, either," said Mrs. Pepper, "for I must begin as soon as I can on the jell, and you must all help me. There is ever so much you can all be useful in, about making jell. All but Ben, he's got to go to work, you know."

"When will you make the pie, then?" cried Joel, trying to smother his disappointment, and finding it hard work to do so.

"Just as soon as ever this jell is done and out of the way," said Mother Pepper, in her cheeriest tones. "So, Polly, fly at getting the breakfast ready, and when that's eaten, we'll all, except Ben, tackle the jell."

When the dishes were all cleared off, and Polly was washing them, Mrs. Pepper turned to Joel. "Run over to Mrs. Brown's now, Joe, and get her kettle."

"What kettle?" asked Joe, who didn't relish being turned out of the kitchen in all the bustle of getting ready for the jelly-making.

"The preserve-kettle," answered Mrs. Pepper. "She'll tell you where 'tis. I told her I'd send you over for it. And be real still, Joe, and don't ask her questions, 'cause she's miserable, and is in for a long sick spell if she doesn't look out."

So Joel went off, wishing there weren't any such things in the world as preserve-kettles, and presently, back he came, dragging it after him "bump-bump."

"Oh, Joe," cried Mrs. Pepper, in dismay, "how could you!"

"I don't b'lieve he's hurt it, Mamsie," said Polly, running up to examine the kettle closely; "he couldn't, could he? it's all iron."

"No, I don't suppose he could really hurt it any," said Mrs. Pepper, "but he oughtn't to drag it along and bump it. Things that don't belong to us should be handled extra carefully. Well now, Joe, set down the kettle, and go and wash your hands, you and Davie, and then come back and pick over these blackberries, and Polly'll take hold as soon as she gets through with the work."

"O dear, I don't want to pick over old blackberries," whined Joel.

"Then I suppose you don't care for any of the pie when it's baked," said his mother, coolly; "folks who can't help along in the work, shouldn't have any of the good things when they're passed around."

"Oh, yes, I do want some pie," declared Joel, vehemently. "Dave and me both want some; don't we, Dave?"

"Yes, I do," said little Davie, "very much indeed, Mamsie."

"And I want some pie," echoed Phronsie, hearing the last words, and smoothing down her pink apron.

"So you shall have, Phronsie," promised Mrs. Pepper, "and so shall every one of you who's glad to work, and be useful."

"We'll be useful and work," cried Joel, tumbling out into the woodshed to wash up. "Come on, Dave; then we'll get our pie when it's baked."