V. On Bandy Leg Mountain
 

And so Joel finally went to the cave alone. But not before a good many weeks, for the two boys didn't get play-day again in a long while. There was work to do picking rocks for the neighboring farmers; and then came potato-planting time when they could help Ben as he worked for Deacon Brown, who always paid them well in potatoes that kept them through the winter. And, dear me, there was always wood to pick up and split, Ben doing the heaviest part of the chopping; and errands down to the store for Indian meal and molasses and flour, and to fetch and carry back the coats and sacks that Mamsie was always sewing up. So at it they kept all the pleasant days. And, of course, on the rainy days no one could think of getting off to the woods. So presently Joel almost forgot about wanting to go, until one day when Polly broke out, "Now, boys, you can play a good while to-day; your work's all done up."

Joel twitched Davie's arm and hauled him out to the woodpile behind the shed. "Now come on, Dave, let's go to old Bandy Leg Mountain."

"No, I don't want to. I'm never goin' there," said Davie, shrinking back.

"Not after the flowers?" said Joel, aghast at that.

David looked longingly off to the tip of the mountain overhanging Badgertown.

"N-no," he said slowly.

"You see," said Joel, wheedlingly, "there must be such a very great lot up there, and nobody to pick 'em, Dave."

Davie turned his blue eyes full of delight: "I might go a little way; but I'm not going to the cave; only just after the flowers--the green ones and the others."

"All right," said Joel, carelessly, thinking that after Davie got started he could persuade him to keep on. "Now, you wait here till I get my gun."

Joel's gun was an old willow branch out of which he had knocked the pith; then he would put in round pebbles, when he wanted to use it, and punch them out suddenly with another stick, screaming out at the same time, "Look out, my gun's going off. Bang!"

So he ran off nimbly and got his gun from the corner of the woodshed, where he had hidden it, and then in to Polly in the kitchen.

"Give us somethin' to eat, Polly, please. Dave an' me."

"You can get some bread in the tin pail in the provision room, Joe," she said, without looking up. She was trying to sew up a long seam in one of the coats Mother Pepper was making for Mr. Atkins, and it bothered her dreadfully, for it wouldn't look like Mamsie's, try as she would. And she had picked it out three times, and was just threading her needle to begin again, when Joel rushed in.

"Why, you've only been through breakfast a little while," she said quickly. "Dear me, Joe, seems to me you're always hungry."

"How I wish 'twas gingerbread!" cried Joel, tumbling over the rickety steps in a trice. "Polly, why don't we ever have any?" he called back, twitching off the cover of the pail. It fell to the floor and rattled off, making a great noise.

"Stop banging that pail, Joe," called Polly, in a sharp little voice, and twisting the end of the thread tighter. "Dear me, this hateful thing won't go in that eye. Go in, you!" with a push that sent the thread way beyond the needle.

"I ain't bangin' the pail," contradicted Joel, in a loud, injured voice; "the old thing fell down. 'Twarn't my fault." And he ran noisily across the provision room to pick it up.

"Well, set it on tight," said Polly, "and you're a very naughty boy, Joel, and always making a fuss over the bread pail."

Joel didn't hear her, as he was busily engaged in cramming the cover on the pail, and in a minute or two he came up with his pockets full of dry bread, and his chubby face beaming with satisfaction.

Polly tried again, without avail, to thread her needle, and at last, as he ran out with a good whoop, she laid it down and put her head back against Mamsie's big chair in which she was sitting. "O dear," she sighed, "how I wish I could go off to-day and play just once! How good it must be in the woods!"

"Don't you suppose you'll go when you are a big woman?" asked Phronsie, laying down Seraphina, where she sat on the floor, and regarding her gravely. "Ever, Polly?"

"O dear me, yes," said Polly, twitching up her head again, and picking up the needle and thread. "And I'm a bad, naughty girl, Phronsie, to fret," she added, her ill-humor flying. "There, now you've concluded to go in, have you?" this to the eye of the needle.

"You're never bad, Polly," said Phronsie, taking up Seraphina once more, feeling that everything was right, as she had seen Polly smile, and beginning to tie on a remarkable bonnet upside down.

"Yes I am, Pet, often and often," said Polly, with very red cheeks, "and I ought to be put in the corner."

"Oh, Polly,--put in the corner!" cried Phronsie, in a tone of horror. "Why, you couldn't be. You're Polly!"

"Well, I need it," said Polly, shaking her brown head, while the needle flew in and out merrily. Suddenly she laid it down. "I must go out and tell Joel I'm sorry. I was cross to him. I'll be back in a minute," and she sped off.

When she came back she looked very sober.

"They've gone down to the brook, I suppose," glancing at the clock. "Well, I'll tell Joe just as soon as he gets home," and slipping into the big chair again, she set to work, and presently the old kitchen was very quiet, except for the little song that Phronsie was crooning to Seraphina. At last this stopped, and Polly, looking off from her work, saw that Phronsie had fallen over on the floor, and was fast asleep.

"Poor thing!" exclaimed Polly, "she wants her nap." So she took her up, and carried her into the bedroom, and laid her on the big four-poster, and came out and shut the door.

"Now I do believe I'll have time to finish these two seams, if I fly at 'em," she said joyfully. "Then, says I, this old coat's done, and Mamsie can send the bundle back to-night when she gets home"--for Mrs. Pepper was away helping one of the village housekeepers to make her supply of soft soap. Many and many such an odd job did Mother Pepper get, for which she was thankful enough, as it helped her to eke out her scanty pittance.

Joel and David trotted on as fast as possible, by many a short cut through the woods, till they reached the foot of "Bandy Leg Mountain," so called because the hermit who had lived and died there had short crooked legs. And at last they began to climb up its face, David peering on every side for any chance at spying out the wonderful flowers.

"I most b'lieve there aren't any," at last he said, his feet beginning to drag.

"Come on," cried Joel, way ahead. "Hoh! what you stoppin' down there for? Of course you won't find any until you get up nearer the top. Come on!" and he disappeared in a thick clump of undergrowth.

"Where are you, Joel?" cried Davie. He was now too frightened to move, and he was sure he heard a lion roar, though it was only his heart beating and thumping; so he sat down on the moss and pine needles, and waited. Joel would surely come back. Meantime a little bird came up and perched on the branch above his head, and sang to him, so he felt less lonely.

Joel, supposing Davie was close behind him, trudged on and on. "Hooray, we're most there!" he shouted at last. "Come on, Dave," and he turned around. "Why--Dave--Dave!"

"I guess he's just back there," and Joel ran on, for there was the big hole in the rocks, and perhaps he'd really see a bear! and, O dear! he must have his gun ready. And Joel soon stopped thinking about David, but bounded ahead as fast as he could, and squirmed in through the narrow slit, and wriggled along down toward the end of the cave.

Suddenly a very funny noise struck his ear; it wasn't a bit like a bear, nor even a wood-chuck, for they couldn't talk. And there surely were a number of voices. Joel stopped squirming, and stared with wide eyes into the darkness. It smelt dreadfully in there, so close and hot, and before he could stop it he gave an awful sneeze.

"What's that?" exclaimed one of the voices. Then they whispered, and Joel heard some one say, "We're found out." And another one said a bad word, and laughed, saying nobody'd ever find them there.

"I guess there's lots in there," said Joel, "an' I better go," so he wriggled back out into the light. And he hadn't been there but a minute when something came squirming down along after him. Joel flew into the bushes and peered out between the branches.

"Why, it's the man who stole Polly's bread!" he almost screamed. The man went past the bush, so near that his long dirty fingers could have picked him out in a minute, and then went down the other way, looking around carefully, and whistling away softly to himself, and presently returned to the cave. And as soon as he had gone in again, Joel hopped out of his bush, and ran at a lively pace down the mountain-side, thinking only of meeting David, and then to get Ben and Deacon Brown and a lot of men, "and won't we come back and catch every single one of 'em, then!"

There was David fast asleep under his tree, and the little bird singing to him. "Dave--Dave!" shouted Joel, shaking him hastily, "wake up! The man that stole our bread's up there. The cave's full of 'em. I'm goin' to get Ben, an' catch 'em!"

"I'm goin'--to--get--the--flowers," said little Davie, sitting up straight and blinking. Joel seized his hand and spun him along as fast as he could around the rocks and boulders that now stood in the way.

Ben was at Deacon Blodgett's, and looked up to see Joel and David, hot and panting, rush into the field. "I'm so tired," said Davie, and sank down; "O dear me, Ben, I'm so tired."

Joel told his story, rattling it off so that Ben had to shake his jacket many times. "Hold on there, Joe," he said, "you haven't seen half that. You've been asleep."

"Come up and see," cried Joel, excitedly. "Oh, Ben, come up and see."

"What's all this?" asked Farmer Blodgett, drawing near. So Ben told it as well as he could for Joel, who wanted to go over every word again, and at last they made him understand.

"Now that boy," said Mr. Blodgett, shifting his quid of tobacco into the other cheek, "bein's he's a Pepper, knows what he's a-talkin' of. I'm of th' opinion pretty strong that I'm a-goin' up Bandy Leg."

"Oh, good! Mr. Blodgett," exclaimed Joel, hopping up and down in his delight. "Do please hurry this minute and come on."

"Bein's I've lost more hens and chickens the last two weeks than I ever have in my life before, and only yest'day wife had a hull pan o' doughnuts took off from the back steps where she'd set 'em to cool, why I'm of the opinion pretty strong that Bandy Leg Mountain will bear lookin' into. So I'll call Peter an' Jed, an' we'll hoof it up there right away."

"Oh, Mr. Blodgett, do hurry," begged Joel, "and come." And he began to dance off impatiently.

"Hold on!" cried the farmer, turning back, "you ain't goin'."

Joel stood absolutely still. "Not going!"

"Th' idee o' takin' a leetle chap like you," laughed Deacon Blodgett. "Why, I couldn't look your Ma in the face, Joel Pepper, ef I sh'd do sech a thing."

Joel scanned Ben's face.

"I'm sorry, Joe," said Ben, "but Mamsie wouldn't like it, you know."

Joel gave a howl. "They're mine. And he's my man who stole our bread; an' they all b'long to me, for I found 'em." He kept screaming on.

"Mercy me!" cried Ben, shaking his arm, "stop screaming so, Joe, you're scaring all Mr. Blodgett's men. They'll think you're half killed. See 'em running here."

"I don't have to go after 'em, to call 'em, s'long as you yell like that," observed Farmer Blodgett, grimly.

"An' they all b'long to me, every single one of 'em," screamed Joel, harder than ever, "so there! an' Mamsie'd let me," he added in a fresh burst.

"Well, I can't let you," declared Ben, decidedly, "without she says so; and if we wait here much longer, all those fellows will be slipping off, maybe. They can hear you up there, for all I know, you make such a noise."

"See here," cried Deacon Blodgett, sternly, "Joe Pepper, you stop that noise! Ain't you 'shamed, bein' Mrs. Pepper's boy, to take on so? Now I'll tell you what I'll do. You've done a good thing a-drummin' up those scamps, an' I don't wonder you want to go an' see 'em ketched."

"I want to help catch 'em, and they're mine," said Joel, through his tears.

"Well,"--and the farmer smiled grimly,--"I don't wonder, so now I'll tell you what I'll do. Peter shall go along with you home, an' if your Ma says come, he'll bring you after us. So march lively."

"Mother isn't home," said Ben. "She's at Miss Perkins' working, to-day." While Joel screamed shrilly, "Oh, dear-dear-dear, p'r'aps she won't let me go!"

"Then you hadn't ought to want to," said Deacon Blodgett, sternly. "Start lively, now, and see."

But Mrs. Pepper, looking into her boy's eyes, and hearing his story, stood quite still, and Joel's heart went down to his toes.

"I think a boy who can act as bravely as you have, Joe," she said at last, slowly, "ought to go and see the job finished. Mother can trust you. Run along," and Joel's feet twinkled so fast that Peter could hardly see them go.