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   Chapter 1 TOM MAKES A PROMISE

Tom Slade with the Colors By Percy K. Fitzhugh Characters: 11847

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Tom Slade hoisted up his trousers, tightened his belt, and lounged against the railing outside the troop room, listening dutifully but rather sullenly to his scoutmaster.

"All I want you to do, Tom," said Mr. Ellsworth, "is to have a little patience-just a little patience."

"A little tiny one-about as big as Pee-wee," added Roy.

"A little bigger than that, I'm afraid," laughed Mr. Ellsworth, glancing at Pee-wee, who was adjusting his belt axe preparatory to beginning his perilous journey homeward through the wilds of Main Street.

"Just a little patience," repeated the scoutmaster, rapping Tom pleasantly on the shoulder.

"Don't be like the day nursery," put in Roy. "All their trouble is caused by having very little patients."

"Very bright," said Mr. Ellsworth.

"Eighteen candle power," retorted Roy. "I ought to have ground glass to dim the glare, hey?"

The special scout meeting, called to make final preparations for the momentous morrow, had just closed; the other scouts had gone off to their several homes, and these three-Tom Slade, Roy Blakeley and Walter Harris (alias Pee-wee)-were lingering on the sidewalk outside the troop room for a few parting words with "our beloved scoutmaster," as Roy facetiously called Mr. Ellsworth.

As they talked, the light in the windows disappeared, for "Dinky," the church sexton, was in a hurry to get around to Matty's stationery store to complete his humdrum but patriotic duty of throwing up a wooden railing to keep the throng in line in the morning.

"The screw driver is mightier than the sword, hey, Dink?" called the irrepressible Roy, as Dinky hurried away into the darkness.

"All I wanted to say, Tom," said Mr. Ellsworth soberly, "is just this: let me do your thinking for you-even your patriotic thinking-for the time being. Do you get me? Don't run off and do anything foolish."

"Is it foolish to fight for your country?" asked Tom doggedly.

"It might be," retorted the scoutmaster, nothing daunted.

"I'm not going to stay here and see people drowned by submarines," muttered Tom.

"You won't see them drowned by submarines as long as you stay here, Tomasso," said Roy mischievously. He loved to make game of Tom's clumsy speech.

"You know what I mean," said Tom; "I ain't going to be a slacker for anybody."

"You might as well say that President Wilson is a slacker because he doesn't go off and enlist in some regiment," said Mr. Ellsworth; "or that Papa Joffre is a coward because he doesn't waste his time with a rifle in the trenches."

"Gee whiz, you can't say he's a coward," exclaimed Pee-wee, "because I saw him!"

"Of course, that proves he isn't a coward," said Roy slyly.

"There's going to be work, and a whole lot of it, for every one to do, Tom," continued Mr. Ellsworth pleasantly. "There is going to be work for old men and young men, for women and girls and boys-and scouts. And being a slacker consists in not doing the work which you ought to do. If a girl has a flower bed where she might grow tomatoes, and she grows roses there instead, you might call her a slacker.

"The officials in Washington who have this tremendous burden on their shoulders have told us what we, as scouts (Mr. Ellsworth always called himself a scout), ought to do. They have outlined a program for us. Now if you run off and join the army in the hope of doing a man's work, why then some man has got to knuckle down and do your work. See?"

"I'm sick of boring holes in sticks," grunted Tom.

"Well, I dare say you are. I never said it was as pleasant as eating ice cream. What I say is that we must all knuckle down and do what we can do best to help defend Old Glory. And we can't always choose our work for ourselves. I'm going to stay here, for the present, at least, and keep you scouts busy. And I don't consider that I'm a slacker either. If you all stand by me and help, I can be of more service right here, just now, than I could be if I went away."

"Then why does the government have posters out all around, urging fellers to join the army?" said Tom, unconvinced.

"There are fellers and fellers," said Mr. Ellsworth, mimicking Tom's pronunciation of the word, "and what is best for one isn't necessarily best for another. These posters are for fellows older than you, as you know perfectly well. I'm talking now of what is best for you-at present. Won't you trust me? If you can't obey and trust your scoutmaster, you couldn't obey and trust your captain and your general."

"I never said I didn't," said Tom.

"Well, then, leave it to me. When the time comes for you to join the army, I'll tell you so, and I'll shout it so loud that you can't make any mistake. Meanwhile, put aside all that idea and knuckle down and help. You're just as much with the colors now as if you were in the trenches.... You'll be on hand early to-morrow?"

"I s'pose so," said Tom sullenly.

Mr. Ellsworth looked at him steadily. No doubt it was something in Tom's grudging manner that made him apprehensive, but perhaps too as he looked at the boy who had been growing up before his eyes in the past two years, he realized as he had not realized before that Tom had come to be a pretty fine specimen and could stand unconcerned, as he certainly would, at the most rigid and exacting physical test.

When Tom's rapid growth had brought the inevitable advent of long trousers, arousing the unholy mirth of Roy Blakeley and others, Mr. Ellsworth had experienced a jarring realization that the process had begun whereby his scouts would soon begin slipping away from him.

He had compromised with Time by making Tom a sort of assistant scoutmaster and encouraging Connie Bennett to work into Tom's place as leader of the Elk Patrol; and he had lived in continual dread lest Tom (who might be counted on for anything) discover his own size, as it were, and get the notion in his stubborn head th

at he was too big to be a scout at all.

But Tom had thought too much of the troop and of the Elks for that, and a new cause of apprehension for Mr. Ellsworth had arisen which now showed in every line of his face as he looked at Tom.

"I want you to promise me, Tom, that you won't try to enlist without my permission. If you'll say that and obey Rule Seven the same as you have always obeyed it, I'll be satisfied."

"How about Rule Ten?" said Tom, in his usual dogged, half-hearted manner; "a scout has got to be brave, he's got to face danger, he's--"

"You notice Rule Seven comes before Rule Ten," snapped Mr. Ellsworth. "They put them in the order of their importance. The men who made the Handbook knew what they were about. The question is just whether you're going to continue to respect Rule Seven, that's all."

Mr. Ellsworth knew how to handle Tom.

"Yes, I am," Tom said reluctantly.

"Then that's all there is to it. Give me your hand, Tom."

Tom put out his hand, and as the scoutmaster shook it his manner relaxed into the usual off-hand way which the scouts so liked and which had made him so popular among them.

"President Wilson wasn't in any great rush about going to war, and I don't want you to be in a hurry to get into a uniform. You're in a uniform already, if it comes to that. And the Secretary of War says our little old scout khaki is going to make itself felt. I'd be the last to preach slacking, and when it's time, if the time comes, I'll tell you.... You know, Tom," he added ruefully, "you're getting to be such a fine, strapping fellow that it makes me afraid you'd get away with it if you tried. I don't like to see you so big, Tom--"

"Don't you care," said Pee-wee soothingly, "I'm small still."

"If you were old enough, I wouldn't say anything against it," Mr. Ellsworth added. "But you're not, Tom. Some people don't seem to think there's anything wrong in a boy's lying about his age to get into the army. But I do, and I think you do-- Don't you?" he added anxiously.

"Y-e-es."

"Of course, you couldn't enlist without Mr. Temple's consent, he being your guardian, unless you lied-and I know you wouldn't do that."

"You didn't catch me in many, did you?"

"I never caught you in any, Tom."

"Well, then--"

"Well, then," concluded Mr. Ellsworth, "I guess we'd all better go home and get some sleep. We've got one strenuous day to-morrow."

"It's going to be a peach," said Roy, looking up at the stars. As they started to move away, Mr. Ellsworth instinctively extended his hand to Tom again.

"I have your promise, then?" said he.

"Y-e-s."

"I'm not stuck on that 'yes.'"

"Yes," said Tom, more briskly.

"That you won't do anything along that line till you consult me?"

"Don't do anything till you count ten," said Roy.

"Make it ten thousand," said Mr. Ellsworth.

"And after you've counted ten," put in Pee-wee, "if you decide to go, I'll go with you, by crinkums!"

"Go-o-d-night!" laughed Roy. "That ought to be enough to keep you at home, Tomasso!"

Tom smiled, half grudgingly, as he turned and started toward home.

"You don't think he'd really enlist, do you?" queried Roy, as he and Pee-wee and Mr. Ellsworth sauntered up the street.

"He won't now," said the scoutmaster. "I have his promise."

"Otherwise, do you think he would?"

"I think it extremely likely."

"And lie about his age?"

Mr. Ellsworth screwed his face into a funny, puzzled look. "There's a good deal of that kind of thing going on," he said, "and I sometimes think the recruiting people wink at it, or perhaps they are just a little too ready to judge by physical appearance. Look how Billy Wade got through."

"He doesn't look eighteen," said Roy.

"Of course he doesn't. But he told them he was 'going on nineteen,' and so he was-just the same as Pee-wee is going on fifty."

Roy laughed.

"The honor of enlisting, the willingness to sacrifice one's life, seems to cover a multitude of sins in the eyes of some people," said the scoutmaster. "Heroic duty done for one's country will wipe out a lot of faults.-It's hard to get a line on Tom's thoughts. He asked me the other day what I thought about the saying, To do a great right, do a little wrong. I don't know where he rooted it out, but it gave me a shudder when he asked me."

"He was standing in front of the recruiting station down at the postoffice yesterday," said Roy, "staring at the posters. Goodness only knows what he was thinking about. He came along with me when he saw me."

"Hmmm," said Mr. Ellsworth thoughtfully.

"But I guess he wouldn't try anything like that here-the town is too small," said Roy. "Even the recruiting fellow knows him."

"Yes; but what worries me," said Mr. Ellsworth, "is when he goes to the city and stands around listening to the orators and watches the young fellows surging into the recruiting places. That phrase, Your country needs you, is dinging in his ears."

"He'd get through in a walk," said Roy.

"That's just the trouble," Mr. Ellsworth mused. "Tom would never do anything that he thought wrong," he added, after a pause; "but he has a way of doping things out for himself, and sometimes he asks queer questions."

"Well, he promised you, anyway," said Roy finally.

"Oh, yes, that settles it," Mr. Ellsworth said. "All's well that ends well."

"We should worry," said Roy, in his usual light-hearted manner.

"That's just what I shan't do," the scoutmaster answered.

"All right, so long, see you later," Roy called, as he started up Blakeley's hill.

Mr. Ellsworth and Pee-wee waved him goodnight. Presently Pee-wee deserted and went down, scout pace, through Main Street, laboriously hoisting his belt axe up with every other step. It was very heavy and a great nuisance to his favorite gait, but he had worn it regularly to scout meeting ever since war had been declared.

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