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   Chapter 8 No.8

What Might Have Been Expected By Frank Richard Stockton Characters: 14166

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

A Lively Team.

"I want you to understand, Harry," said Mr. Loudon, one day, "that I do not disapprove of what you and Kate are doing for old Aunt Matilda. On the contrary, I feel proud of you both. The idea was honorable to you, and, so far, you have done very well; better than I expected; and I believe I was a little more sanguine than any one else in the village. But you must not forget that you have something else to think of besides making money for Aunt Matilda."

"But, don't I think of other things, father?" said Harry. "I'm sure I get along well enough at school."

"That may be, my boy; but I want you to get along better than well enough."

This little conversation made quite an impression on Harry, and he talked to Kate about it.

"I suppose father's right," said she; "but what's to be done about it? Is that poor old woman to have only half enough to eat, so that you may read twice as much Virgil?"

Harry laughed.

"But perhaps she will have five-eighths of enough to eat if I only read nine-sixteenths as much Latin," said he.

"Oh! you're always poking arithmetic fun at me," said Kate. "But I tell you what you can do," she continued. "You can get up half an hour earlier, every morning, and that will give you a good deal of extra time to think about your lessons."

"I can think about them in bed," said Harry.

"Humph!" said Kate; and she went on with her work. She was knitting a "tidy," worth two pounds of sugar, or half a pound of tea, when it should be finished.

Harry did not get up any earlier; for, as he expressed it, "It was dreadfully cold before breakfast," on those January mornings; but his father and mother noticed that the subject of Aunt Matilda's maintenance did not so entirely engross the conversation of the brother and sister in the evenings; and they had their heads together almost as often over slate and schoolbooks as over the little account-book in which Kate put down receipts and expenditures.

On a Thursday night, about the middle of January, there was a fall of snow. Not a very heavy fall; the snow might have been deeper, but it was deep enough for sledding. On the Friday, Harry, in connection with another boy, Tom Selden, several years older than himself, concocted a grand scheme. They would haul wood, on a sled, all day Saturday.

It was not to be any trifling little "boy-play" wood-hauling. Harry's father owned a woodsled-one of the very few sleds or sleighs in the county-which was quite an imposing affair, as to size, at least. It was about eight feet long and four feet wide; and although it was rough enough,-being made of heavy boards, nailed transversely upon a couple of solid runners, with upright poles to keep the load in its place-it was a very good sled, as far as it went, which had not been very far of late; for there had been no good sledding for several seasons. Old Mr. Truly Matthews had a large pile of wood cut in a forest about a mile and a half from the village, and the boys knew that he wanted it hauled to the house, and that, by a good day's work, considerable money could be made.

All the arrangements were concluded on Friday, which was a half-holiday, on account of the snow making travelling unpleasant for those scholars who lived at a distance. Harry's father gave his consent to the plan, and loaned his sled. Three negro men agreed to help for one-fourth of the profits. Tom Selden went into the affair, heart and hand, agreeing to take his share out in fun. What money was made, after paying expenses, was to go into the Aunt Matilda Fund, which was tolerably low about that time.

Kate gave her earnest sanction to the scheme, which was quite disinterested on her part, for, being a girl, she could not very well go on a wood-hauling expedition, and she could expect to do little else but stay at home and calculate the probable profits of the trips.

The only difficulty was to procure a team; and nothing less than a four-horse team would satisfy the boys.

Mr. Loudon lent one horse, old Selim, a big brown fellow, who was very good at pulling when he felt in the humor. Tom could bring no horse; for his father did not care to lend his horses for such a purpose. He was afraid they might get their legs broken; and, strange as it seemed to the boys, most of the neighbors appeared to have similar notions. Horses were very hard to borrow that Friday afternoon. But a negro man, named Isaac Waddell, agreed to hire them his horse Hector, for fifty cents for the day; and the storekeeper, after much persuasion, lent a big gray mule, Grits by name. There was another mule in the village, which the boys could have if they wanted her; but they did not want her-that is, if they could get anything else with four legs that would do to go in their team. This was Polly, a little mule, belonging to Mrs. Dabney, who kept the post-office. Polly was not only very little in size, but she was also very little given to going. She did not particularly object to a walk, if it were not too long, and would pull a buggy or carry a man with great complacency, but she seldom indulged in trotting. It was of no use to whip her. Her skin was so thick, or so destitute of feeling, that she did not seem to take any notice of a good hard crack. Polly was not a favorite, but she doubtless had her merits, although no one knew exactly what they were. Perhaps the best thing that could be said about her was, that she did not take up much room.

But, on Saturday, it was evident that Polly would have to be taken, for no animal could be obtained in her place.

So, soon after breakfast, the team was collected in Mr. Loudon's back-yard, and harnessed to the sled. Besides the three negroes who had been hired, there were seven volunteers-some big and some little-who were very willing to work for nothing, if they might have a ride on the sled. The harness was not the best in the world; some of it was leather, and some was rope and some was chain. It was gathered together from various quarters, like the team-nobody seemed anxious to lend good harness.

Grits and thin Hector were the leaders, and Polly and old Selim were the pole-horses, so to speak.

When all the straps were buckled, and the chains hooked, and the knots tied (and this took a good while as there were only twelve men and boys to do it), Dick Ford jumped on old Selim, little Johnny Sand, as black as ink, was hoisted on Grits, and Gregory Montague, a tall yellow boy, with high boots and no toes to them, bestrode thin Hector. Harry, Tom, and nine negroes (two more had just come into the yard) jumped on the sled. Dick Ford cracked his whip; Kate stood on the back-door step and clapped her hands; all the darkies shouted; Tom and Harry hurrahed; and away they did not go.

Polly was not ready.

And what was more, old brown Selim was perfectly willing to wait for her. He looked around mildly at the little mule, as if he would say: "Now, don't be in a hurry, my good Polly. Be sure you're right before you go ahead."

Polly was quite sure she was not right, a

nd stood as stiffly as if she had been frozen to the ground, and all the cracking of whips and shouting of "Git up!" "Go 'long!" "What do you mean, dar? you Polly!" made no impression on her.

Then Harry made his voice heard above the hubbub.

"Never mind Polly!" he shouted. "Let her alone. Dick, and you other fellows, just start off your own horses. Now, then! Get up, all of you!"

At this, every rider whipped up his horse or his mule, and spurred him with his heels, and every darkey shouted, "Hi, dar!" and off they went, rattledy-bang!

Polly went, too. There was never such an astonished little mule in this world! Out of the gate they all whirled at full gallop, and up the road, tearing along. Negroes shouting, chains rattling, snow flying back from sixteen pounding hoofs, sled cutting through the snow like a ship at sea, and a little darkey shooting out behind at every bounce over a rough place!

"Hurrah!" cried Harry, holding tight to an upright pole. "Isn't this splendid!"

"Splendid! It's glorious!" shouted Tom. "It's better than being a pi-" And down he went on his knees, as the big sled banged over a stone in the road, and Josephine's Bobby was bounced out into a snow-drift under a fence.

Whether Tom intended to say a pirate or a pyrotechnic, was never discovered; but, in six minutes, there was only one of the small darkies left on the sled. The men, and this one, John William Webster, hung on to the poles as if they were glued there.

As for Polly, she was carried along faster than she ever went before in her life. She jumped, she skipped, she galloped, she slid, she skated; sometimes sitting down, and sometimes on her feet, but flying along, all the same, no matter how she chose to go.

And so, rattling, shouting, banging, bouncing; snow flying and whips cracking, on they sped, until John William Webster's pole came out, and clip! he went heels over head into the snow.

But John William had a soul above tumbles. In an instant he jerked himself up to his feet, dropped the pole, and dashed after the sled.

Swiftly onward went the sled and right behind came John William, his legs working like steamboat wheels, his white teeth shining, and his big eyes sparkling!

There was no stopping the sled; but there was no stopping John William, either, and in less than two minutes he reached the sled, grabbed a man by the leg, and tugged and pulled until he seated himself on the end board.

"I tole yer so!" said he, when he got his breath. And yet he hadn't told anybody anything.

And now the woods were reached, and after a deal of pulling and shouting, the team was brought to a halt, and then slowly led through a short road to where the wood was piled.

The big mule and the horses steamed and puffed a little, but Polly stood as calm as a rocking-horse.

Notwithstanding the rapidity of the drive, it was late when the party reached the woods. The gathering together and harnessing of the team had taken much longer than they expected; and so the boys set to work with a will to load the sled; for they wanted to make two trips that morning. But although they all, black and white, worked hard, it was slow business. Some of the wood was cut and split properly, and some was not, and then the sled had to be turned around, and there was but little room to do it in, and so a good deal of time was lost.

But at last the sled was loaded up, and they were nearly ready to start, when John William Webster, who had run out to the main road, set up a shout:

"Oh! Mah'sr Harry! Mah'sr Tom!"

Harry and Tom ran out to the road, and stood there petrified with astonishment.

Where was the snow?

It was all gone, excepting a little here and there in the shade of the fence corners. The day had turned out to be quite mild, and the sun, which was now nearly at its noon height, had melted it all away.

Here was a most unlooked-for state of affairs! What was to be done? The boys ran back to the sled, and the colored men ran out to the road, and everybody talked and nobody seemed to say anything of use.

At last Dick Ford spoke up:

"I tell ye what, Mah'sr Harry! I say, just let's go 'long," said he.

"But how are you going to do it?" said Harry. "There's no snow."

"I know that; but de mud's jist as slippery as grease. That thar team kin pull it, easy 'nuff!"

Harry and Tom consulted together, and agreed to drive out to the road and try what could be done, and then, if the loaded sled was too much for the team, they would throw off the wood and go home with the empty sled.

There was snow enough until they reached the road-for very little had melted in the woods-and when they got fairly out on the main road the team did not seem to mind the change from snow to thin mud.

The load was not a very heavy one, and there were two horses and two mules-a pretty strong team.

Polly did very well. She was now harnessed with Grits in the lead; and she pulled along bravely. But it was slow work, compared to the lively ride over the snow. The boys and the men trudged through the mud, by the side of the sled, and, looking at it in the best possible light, it was a very dull way to haul wood. The boys agreed that after this trip they would be very careful not to go on another mud-sledding expedition.

But soon they came to a long hill, and, going down this, the team began to trot, and Harry and Tom and one or two of the men jumped on the edges of the sled, outside of the load, holding on to the poles. Then Grits, the big mule, began to run, and Gregory couldn't hold him in, and old Selim and thin Hector and little Polly all struck out on a gallop, and away they went, bumping and thumping down the hill.

And then stick after stick, two sticks, six sticks, a dozen sticks at a time, slipped out behind.

It was of no use to catch at them to hold them on. They were not fastened down in any way, and Harry and Tom and the men on the sled had as much as they could do to hold themselves on.

When they reached the bottom of the hill the pulling became harder; but Grits had no idea of stopping for that. He was bound for home. And so he plunged on at the top of his speed. But the rest of the team did not fancy going so fast on level ground, and they slackened their pace.

This did not suit Grits. He gave one tremendous bound, burst loose from his harness and dashed ahead. Up went his hind legs in the air; off shot Gregory Montague into the mud, and then away went Grits, clipperty-clap! home to his stable.

When Harry and Tom, the two horses, the little mule, the eight colored men, the sled, John William Webster and eleven logs of wood reached the village it was considerably after dinner-time.

When the horse-hire was paid, and something was expended for mending borrowed harness, and the negroes had received a little present for their labor, the Aunt Matilda Fund was diminished by the sum of three dollars and eighty cents.

Mr. Truly Matthews agreed to say nothing about the loss of his wood that was scattered along the road.

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