XXIV. How Joel Started the Fire
 

"Now," said Polly, to the old stove, "just remember how you acted that day when Mamsie made Mrs. Brown's jelly!" She was standing in front of it, and she drew herself up very straight. "You ought to be ashamed, you naughty thing, you! to make such trouble. Now I've stuffed you up all good and nice in the holes, and when I come home I'll build a fresh fire, and then, says I, you've got to bake a whole batch of bread just as nice!" and Polly shook her brown head very decidedly, and whirled off to the bedroom door. "Come, Phronsie," she called, "hurry up, Pet. O dear me!" Phronsie still sat on the floor by the big bureau, with one red-topped shoe in her hand, and patting it.

"The other one is on, Polly," said Phronsie, as she saw Polly's face; "truly it is," and she stuck one foot out.

"I sh'd think it was," laughed Polly; "every button is in the wrong button-hole, Phronsie."

Phronsie looked at the little shoe very gravely, then her lip quivered.

"Deary me, that's no matter," exclaimed Polly. "We'll have that all right in a twinkling." So she sat down on the floor, and took Phronsie's foot in her lap, and unbuttoned and buttoned up the shoe. "There now, that's done as spick-span as can be."

"What is 'spick-span,' Polly?" said Phronsie.

"Oh, nice--just right. Dear me, it means ever so many things," said Polly, with a little laugh. "Now then, let's have the other shoe on," and she held out her hand for it.

"Let me put it on," cried Phronsie, and drawing it back in alarm; "let me, Polly, oh, I want to put it on my very own self, I do!"

"Well, so you shall," promised Polly, "if you'll hurry, for you know I've got to bake my bread when I get back."

"Isn't there any bread?" asked Phronsie, drawing on the little shoe, and pausing, lost in thought, when it was half on.

"Yes, just enough to last till I get the new loaves baked," said Polly, longing to give the shoe a twitch and expedite matters; "that is, I think so. I never know how much Joel will eat."

"O dear me!" exclaimed Phronsie, much troubled.

"See here now, Pet," cried Polly, decidedly, "if you don't pull on that shoe quickly, I shall have to do it, for we must start--" which had the effect to make the little red-topped shoe slip on to Phronsie's fat foot in a trice.

"Now then, we're ready," said Polly at last, tying on Phronsie's pink sunbonnet. "Come, Phronsie," and she took her hand. "Joel," she called, as they went out the doorway, "where are you?"

"Here," said Joel, thrusting his head down the loft stairs, where he had heard every word that Polly had said to the old stove.

"Now you and Davie must look after the little brown house," said Polly, feeling very grown up and important, "and be good boys while we're gone down to the store after the bundle of sacks Mr. Atkins has got for Mamsie."

"Yes," said Joel, "we will, Polly."

So Polly ran over the stairs and kissed Joel and little Davie, who crowded up for one also, and then Phronsie had to come up to be kissed too.

"What are you two boys doing?" asked Polly.

"Nothin'," said Joel.

David was silently digging his toes back and forth on the floor.

"Well, you better come right down and play in the kitchen," said Polly, "then you can look after things;" and she helped Phronsie downstairs and took her hand, and they walked down the path and off on to the road in a very dignified way, for Polly loved to be fine, and it was always a gala occasion when she could dress Phronsie up neat and nice, for a walk to the store.

"I very much wish we had a parasol," sighed Polly, who never could get over the longing for one, ever since she saw Miss Pettingill's green sunshade, with waving fringe, that she carried to church; "but then, I don't suppose I'll ever get one," and she sighed again.

"It's nice to be walking down to the store, Polly," observed Phronsie, peering up at her from the depths of the pink sunbonnet, and smoothing her pink calico gown down in front.

"So it is, Chick," said Polly, with a merry laugh. "I don't b'lieve anybody ever had such perfectly good times as we do, in all this world."

"No, I don't b'lieve they ever did," said Phronsie, shaking her yellow head, delighted to see Polly gay once more. So they walked on quite contentedly.

Meanwhile, Joel turned to Davie up in the loft. "We'll keep the crickets in the box," he said, "till by'n by, an' go down, 'cause Polly said so. And I'm goin' to help her; you'll see." With these mysterious words he shoved a tin box half full of hopping black crickets under the bed, saying, "There, the cover's on. Come on, Dave," and scrambled down the stairs to the kitchen.

Little David went down more slowly, as if something were on his mind. When he reached the kitchen, Joel was standing in front of the stove, a pile of paper was down on the floor at his feet, and he had a match in his hand. Davie stared at him in amazement.

"I'm going to help Polly," declared Joel, loudly, holding his match quite fast with one hand, while he twitched off one of the covers, with the lifter.

"Oh, Joe, you aren't going to make a fire?" cried little David, horror-stricken, and rooted to the spot.

"Of course I am," declared Joel, boldly. "I heard Polly talking to the old stove just before she went away, and she's got to bake bread when she gets home, an' it's all right, an' she'll be so glad to see it ready for her." All the time he was talking he was stuffing the paper into the stove; then he ran into the woodshed, bringing out some kindlings. "We've got to fill the wood box, Dave," he said, to make talk and divert David's mind; and he crammed the wood in after the paper, till there wasn't much room left.

"You ought not to do it, Joe. O dear me, do stop," implored David, clasping his hands.

"I'm big enough," declared Joel, strutting around and pulling at the things that Polly said were dampers--though why they should be damp, when there was a fire in the stove every day, he never could see. "And when Polly sees that I can make it as good's she can, she'll let me do it every day. Yes, sir-ree!" With that he drew the match, and held it to an end of the paper, sticking up. And forgetting to put back the cover, he raced off to the wood, shed again for another armful of kindling.

"Joel!" screamed David, left behind in the kitchen. "Come! Oh, we're afire! We're afire!"

Joel dropped his kindlings and the heavier pieces of wood he had gathered up, and went like a shot back to the stove again. Great tongues of flame were shooting up toward the dingy ceiling.

"Why didn't you put the cover on?" cried he, terribly frightened, for he began to think, after all, perhaps it would be quite as well to let Polly make the fire. "It'll be all right, I'll have it on in a minute," suiting the action to the word, as he stuck the lifter into the cover and advanced to the stove.

"Oh, Joe, you'll be burnt up," cried David, in a dreadful voice, and wringing his hands.

Joel made a dash, but the flames swirled out at him, so he backed off.

"You can't do it," screamed Davie; "don't try it, Joe, you'll be all burnt up."

When Davie said that he couldn't do it, Joel made up his mind that he would. Besides, the very thought of the little brown house taking fire turned him desperate with fright; so he made a second dash, and somehow, he never could tell what made it, the cover slid on, and the flames muttered away to themselves inside, in a smothered kind of way, and there they were, shut up as tight as could be.

"'Twas just as easy as nothing," said Joel, drawing a long breath, and beginning to strut up and down, still carrying the cover-lifter. "You're such a 'fraid-cat, Dave," he added scornfully.

David was beyond caring whether or no he was called a 'fraid-cat, being stiff with fright, so Joel strutted away to his heart's content. "Now I must put in more wood," he declared, and, twitching off the cover, he crammed the stove as full as it would hold, on top of the blazing mass. Then he wiggled the dampers again, to suit him, paying particular attention to the little one in the pipe, then wiped his grimy hands, in great satisfaction, on his trousers.

"You see 'tisn't anything to make a fire," he observed to David; "an I'm goin' to build it every single day, after this. Polly'll be so s'prised. Now come on, Dave, let's go an' play," and Joel gave a long and restful stretch.

Little David, seeing the stove behaving so well, gave a sigh of relief, and coming slowly out of his fright, clattered after Joel, and soon they were down back of the house, where they had scooped out the ground, and filling it with water, had made what they called a pond. Here they now began to sail boats made out of bits of paper.

"Hi--there--you!" shouted a harsh voice. Joel and David, absorbed in getting their boats across the pond without running into each other, didn't hear. "Hi!" yelled the voice again, "your house is afire!"

Joel lifted his black head and stared. "Come here, you!" screamed a man, jumping out of a wagon in the middle of the road, in front of the little brown house. He was big and redheaded, and he held a whip in his hand.

This he shook frantically up toward the roof, screaming, "Your house is afire!"

Sure enough. Great volumes of smoke came pouring out of the chimney, which wasn't any too good, and once in a while a tongue of flame would sweep out, licking the sides of the bricks, as much as to say, "You can't shut me up entirely, you see." Oh, how merrily they danced!

"Get a bucket. Step lively, if you want to save your house!" roared the man at Joel, who took one good look at the chimney, then sprang for Mamsie's pail. "Get something, Dave," he screamed, "and bring some water."

Now that the fire had really come, David, strange to say, felt all his fright dropping from him. It was as if Mamsie said, "Save the little brown house, dears," and he rushed on the wings of the wind over down across the lane, and helped himself to Grandma Bascom's big bucket, always standing on a bench beside her kitchen door. And, with it almost full of water, he soon stood by the big red-headed man's side.

"You're a likely-headed pair o' chaps," said the man, as Joel dashed up with his pail, which he hadn't been able to find at once, as Mamsie had put some cloth she was going to bleach into it, and set it in the woodshed. "Now, then, I must climb the roof, an' you two boys must keep a-handin' up th' water as smart as you can."

"Oh, I'm goin' up on the roof," cried Joel, and springing up the gutter-pipe.

"Do ye think ye kin?" asked the man. But Joel was already halfway up. And presently the first pail of water was handed up, and splash it went on the flames, by this time coming out very lively at the chimney-top. But it didn't seem to do any good, only to sizzle and siss, for just as soon as a pailful of water was dashed on, out they popped again, as bright as ever. A boy, coming whistling down the road, stopped suddenly, took one look, and ran like lightning over across the fields on a short cut. "Fire--fire!" he screamed, and pretty soon, by dint of jumping stone walls and fences, he got into the street, at the end of which stood Mr. Atkins' grocery store. "Fire--fire!" he bawled every step of the way. "Where--where?" cried the people at the store, rushing to the door and craning their necks, as he flew by, intent on getting to the fire-engine house, so as to run back with the men who dragged the machine by the ropes.

"At the Pepperses little brown house," bawled the boy, plunging on.

"Now, Polly," Mr. Atkins was just saying, when the boy's scream was heard, "you tell your Ma she needn't hurry about these coats. I guess that paper'll cover 'em, if I put another knot in th' string. My land! what's that!--"

"Fire! Fire!" the boy was bawling all along the street. "It's the Pepperses little brown house."

Somebody said, "Poor children." Others, "Don't let 'em hear," "Too late!" and various other things.

"Come, Phronsie," said Polly, hoarsely, seizing the little fat hand. Phronsie, who was regarding some very pink and white sticks in a big candy jar on the shelf, tore her gaze away, and followed obediently as Polly pulled her along to the door.

"Oh, Polly, you hurt me," she said in a grieved way.

"Here, I'll take you," cried an old farmer with a long beard that looked like a bunch of hay, and he seized Phronsie and set her in his big wagon. Polly hopped in beside. "Don't be scart. We'll all go down and help," screamed a half dozen voices after her. Rattle--rattle--clang came the fire-engine, the boy who had brought the news having secured one of the most important places at one of the long ropes. And away they went, the procession gaining in length and strength at each step, till it seemed as if all Badgertown were on the road and bound for the little brown house.

The big red-headed man had dashed up to the roof by the side of Joel. "You better go down and hand water," he said, "an' bring the axe, we may have to cut away th' ruf." Joel, knowing it was worse than useless to disobey, slid down, and got the axe first, to have it ready--oh, dreadful thought!--to cut the little brown house with; and then the two buckets, as full as they could be lifted, went up, and came down empty. Up and down. Up and down.

"Here come th' folks," yelled the man on the roof. "Now we're all right. Don't you be scart, boys, th' fire-engine's comin'."

None too soon! A little fork of flame was just beginning to pop its head out between the shingles close to the chimney, as if to say, "You really needn't think you are going to keep us shut up." Up clattered the fire-engine with a dreadful noise into the back yard, which suddenly seemed to be full of people of all sizes. Joel, when he saw the firemen on hand, sprang for the roof again. This time he staggered up with his bucket of water.

"Oh, Joel!" He looked down and saw, as well as he could, for something seemed to be the matter with his eyes, Polly's face. Now that the danger was all over, for of course the fire-engine and all those people would save the little brown house, Polly was the last person whom Joel really wanted to see. And he busied himself in helping to haul up the water-buckets, that now came up pretty lively as the boys filled them and handed them to the firemen.

"You'd better get down," said more than one fireman. The roof now seemed to swarm with them.

"I ain't goin' to," said Joel, obstinately, reaching out for another bucket; "it's our house, so there!"

"Let him alone," said the big red-headed man, "he'll work as smart as any two of ye men. If it hadn't 'a' been for him and that one there," pointing with a grimy thumb to David on the ground, still patiently getting water and handing up his bucket, "we'd 'a' been all burnt up, by this time."

Joel's face got fiery red, all through the smut and grime. "If it hadn't been for me!" and down went his black head. Would Mamsie and Polly ever, ever forgive him?"

"Oh, Joel," screamed Polly from the ground, looking at him piteously, "do come down, dear!" But he really didn't hear now. It seemed to him if he didn't work to the very last, he could never look Mamsie in the face again, so he was now on the other side of the chimney, where the fire was the hottest.

"It's an even chance, if we save it," Joel heard one of the firemen say; "it's got in between the joints. See!"

"Then we've got to cut just that spot," said the big red-headed man, who, by reason of being on hand first, was considered to be the leader, and he swung his axe over his head. "Crash!" went the little brown roof. At the sound, Polly dragged Phronsie over to David's side.

"Now, then, in with the water lively, boys, and splash her out," cried the big red-headed man, who very much liked being a leader. And thereupon he stopped working, and set the others at it in such a brisk fashion that the water ran down in perfect rivers all over the roof, one or two of the streams soaking through, to drop into Ben's and Joel's and David's bedroom in the loft.

"It's out! It's out!" bawled some of the firemen on the roof to the men and boys. "You don't need to send up any more water."

"Look behind you!" screamed the boy who had first discovered the fire. He seemed to have eyes in the back of his head, and the firemen, whirling around, saw a little tongue of flame shooting determinedly up. It had run along underneath the shingles and hopped at the first chance it could get. So the buckets of water had to keep on flying up, to come down and be filled. Up and down, up and down, till Polly sank on the grass, unable to bear it another bit longer. "Oh, if I weren't a girl," she moaned passionately, "then I could be up there, and I know I'd save the little brown house. Oh, Mamsie! Mamsie!"

"Don't fret, Polly," said a good woman living in the village,--for by this time a long procession of men, women, and children had hurried in, crowding and jamming into the yard,--"ef it burns down, you shall all come to our house an' stay a spell, till you get another one."

"Don't," cried Polly, passionately, and shrinking off; "we can't live, if the little brown house goes. Oh, Mamsie! Mamsie!" and she sobbed as if her heart would break, and covered her face with her hands.

"Don't cry, Polly," and Phronsie's little hand crept softly up to her neck. But Polly couldn't stop. If there had been anything for her to do, she would have kept up, but to sit there and see the little brown house burn up, and know because she was a girl there was no place for her on the roof--why, there she was, sobbing as if her heart would break, and Phronsie clinging piteously to her neck.

A ringing shout struck upon her ear. "It's coming!" shivered Polly; "the roof's tumbling in!" and she hid her face lower yet. Wouldn't God stop the dreadful fire ever yet. He must, for Mamsie said He loved to help all His children. And--

"Hooray, Polly!" called Joel in her ear, putting a very black face up close to her pale one. "Don't you understand? It's all out. It is, truly, this time, every single squinchin' bit."

But Polly didn't understand, and they laid her back on the grass, and one woman said, "Get a pamleaf fan," and another cried, "Get th' water in that pail there," pointing to one not used, on the grass. And everybody got in everybody else's way, and crowded around her, and the water was dashed over her face till she was in a little pool of it, and still she didn't open her eyes. And Phronsie wailed and clung to her, getting as wet, so a thin woman remarked, "as a drownded rat," and David was on the other side, nearly as bad. As for Joel, he rushed up and down, completely gone with fright. After all his brave fight, to have Polly give out was something so very dreadful he couldn't think of it.

"Here comes Mrs. Pepper," said somebody, and, "Thank the Lord," said another, and down the road in the doctor's gig, the little doctor driving like mad, came Mamsie. They helped her out, and she was in the yard, never looking at the little brown house; for her black eyes were searching among the crowd, and her white lips tried to frame some words.

"All safe, Marm," sang out the big redheaded man; "and you've got some smart chaps," thinking he'd give all the comfort, and at once, that was in his power.

"Polly ain't just well," spoke up somebody, sympathetically, and in a minute Mamsie was down on the grass, with Polly's head in her lap, the other children swarming around her, and Dr. Fisher in the midst.

"Oh, I'm so ashamed," gasped Polly, coming to, and hiding her face on Mrs. Pepper's breast.

"Don't you feel badly, Polly child," said Mamsie, smoothing her brown hair gently; "you're all tired out. The little brown house is all safe--just think of that!"

Polly thrust up her head and took one look. "Mamsie," she whispered, holding to Mrs. Pepper's neck convulsively, "God did stop the dreadful fire, didn't He?"

"He surely did," said Mrs. Pepper, looking around on all her little group. The neighbors and townspeople, the firemen and the crowd, stole silently off and left them there, but Dr. Fisher stayed.

Suddenly Joel was missing. "Where is he?" asked Mrs. Pepper, a fresh alarm gathering on her face.

"P'r'aps he's gone with the engine," piped up the boy who had discovered the fire, and who seemed to think it his duty to watch that it didn't break out again.

"Oh, no, Joel wouldn't do that," said Mrs. Pepper.

"I'll find him," said little Dr. Fisher, who had his own views about Joel, after closely regarding his singed eyebrows and black face; "lucky enough if he doesn't need considerable patching up," he muttered to himself, as he strode off to reconnoitre.

"There's no use in your hiding," he said aloud, as if talking to some one. "So you might as well come out at once, and let me know where you're hurt, Joe, and I'll fix you before your mother sees you."

"I ain't hurt," said a voice from the lilac bushes.

"Oh, you are not?" said the little doctor, opening the bushes to peer within, his spectacles setting well down on the end of his nose, so that he looked over them. "That's good," and he soon had Joel out. "Now then, I'll fix you up as good as ever," and he rummaged his ample pockets for the things he had thrust into them for this very work.

"I ain't hurt," said Joel, wriggling furiously.

"Stand still, Joe," said the little doctor, coolly, "for I'm going to patch you up, so that you're decent to see your mother. Aren't you ashamed to get this way when Polly, poor brave girl, has been so sick? Why, what's the matter with you!" suddenly giving Joel a whirl, so that he could look in his face.

Joel's face was working frightfully. "I 'most--burnt--the little brown house--up," he gasped. "I made a fire in--the stove!"