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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Flight Of Pony Baker: A Boy's Town Story - Chapter 10. The Adventures...
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The Flight Of Pony Baker: A Boy's Town Story - Chapter 10. The Adventures... Post by :FyreBrigidIce Category :Long Stories Author :William Dean Howells Date :May 2012 Read :2783

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The Flight Of Pony Baker: A Boy's Town Story - Chapter 10. The Adventures...


Very likely Pony Baker would not have tried to run off any more if it had not been for Jim Leonard. He was so glad he had not got off with the circus that he did not mind any of the things at home that used to vex him; and it really seemed as if his father and mother were trying to act better. They were a good deal taken up with each other, and sometimes he thought they let him do things they would not have let him do if they had noticed what he asked. His mother was fonder of him than ever, and if she had not kissed him so much before the fellows he would not have cared, for when they were alone he liked to have her pet him. But one thing was, he could never get her to like Jim Leonard, or to believe that Jim was not leading him into mischief whenever they were off together. She was always wanting him to go with his cousin Frank, and he would have liked to ask Frank about running off, and whether a fellow had better do it; but he was ashamed, and especially after he heard his father tell how splendidly Frank had behaved with two thousand dollars he was bringing from the city to the Boy's Town; Pony was afraid that Frank would despise him, and he did not hardly feel fit to go with Frank, anyway.

Frank Baker was one of those fellows that every mother would feel her boy was safe with. She would be sure that no crowd he was in was going to do any harm or come to any, for he would have an anxious eye out for everybody, and he would stand between the crowd and the mischief that a crowd of boys nearly always wants to do. His own mother felt easy about the younger children when they were with Frank; and in a place where there were more chances for a boy to get sucked under mill-wheels, and break through ice, and fall from bridges, or have his fingers taken off by machinery than any other place I ever heard of, she no more expected anything to happen to them, if he had them in charge, than if she had them in charge herself.

As there were a good many other children in the family, and Mrs. Baker did her own work, like nearly every mother in the Boy's Town, Frank almost always had some of them in charge. When he went hunting, or fishing, or walnutting, or berrying, or in swimming, he usually had one or two younger brothers with him; if he had only one, he thought he was having the greatest kind of a time.

He did not mind carrying his brother on his back when he got tired, although it was not exactly the way to steal on game, and the gun was a heavy enough load, anyway; but if he had not got many walnuts, or any at all--as sometimes happened--it was not a great hardship to haul his brother home in the wagon. To be sure, when he wanted to swim out with the other big boys it was pretty trying to have to keep an eye on his brother, and see that he did not fall into the water from the bank where he left him.

He was a good deal more anxious about other boys than he was about himself, and once he came near getting drowned through his carelessness. It was in winter, and the canal basin had been frozen over; then most of the water was let out from under the ice, and afterwards partly let in again. This lifted the ice-sheet, but not back to its old level, and the ice that clung to the shores shelved steeply down to the new level. Frank stepped on this shore ice to get a shinny-ball, and slipped down to the edge of the ice-sheet, which he would be sure to go under into the water. He holloed with all his might, and by good luck some people came and reached him a stick, by which he pulled himself out.

The scare of it haunted him for long after, but not so much for himself. Whenever he was away from home in the winter he would see one of his younger brothers slipping down the shore ice and going under the ice-sheet, and he would break into a cold sweat at the idea. This shows just the worrying kind of boy Frank was; and it shows how used he was to having care put upon him, and how he would even borrow trouble when he had none.

It generally happens with any one who makes himself useful that other people make him useful, too, and all the neighbors put as much trust in Frank as his mother, and got him to do a good many things that they would not have got other boys to do. They could not look into his face, a little more careworn than it ought to be at his age, without putting perfect faith in him, and trying to get something out of him. That was how he came to do so many errands for mothers who had plenty of boys of their own; and he seemed to be called on in any sort of trouble or danger, when the fathers were up-town, and was always chasing pigs or cows out of other people's gardens, and breaking up their hens from setting, or going up trees with hives to catch their bees when they swarmed.

I suppose this was how he came to be trusted with that pocketful of money, and why he had a young brother along to double his care at the time.

The money was given him in the city, as the Boy's Town boys always called the large place about twenty miles away, where Frank went once with his mother when he was eleven years old. She was going to take passage there on a steamboat and go up the Ohio River to visit his grandmother with his sisters, while Frank was to go back the same day to the Boy's Town with one of his young brothers.

They all drove down to the city together in the carriage which one of his uncles had got from the livery stable, with a driver who was to take Frank and his brother home. This uncle had been visiting Frank's father and mother, and it was his boat that she was going on. It lay among a hundred other boats, which had their prows tight together along the landing for half a mile up and down the sloping shore. It was one of the largest boats of all, and it ran every week from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh, and did not take any longer for the round trip than an ocean steamer takes now for the voyage from New York to Liverpool.

The children all had dinner on board, such a dinner as there never was in any house: roast beef and roast chicken; beefsteak and ham in chafing-dishes with lamps burning under them to keep them hot; pound-cake with frosting on, and pies and pickles, corn-bread and hot biscuit; jelly that kept shaking in moulds; ice-cream and Spanish pudding; coffee and tea, and I do not know what all.

When the children had eaten all they could hold, and made their uncle laugh till he almost cried, to see them trying to eat everything, their mother went ashore with them, and walked up the landing towards the hotel where the carriage was left, so as to be with Frank and his little brother as long as she could before they started home. She was about one of the best mothers in the Boy's Town, and Frank hated to have her go away even on a visit.

She kept giving him charges about all the things at home, and how he must take good care of his little brothers, and see that the garden gate was fastened so that the cows could not get in, and feed the chickens regularly, and put the cat out every night, and not let the dog sleep under his bed; and they were so busy talking and feeling sorry that they got to the hotel before they knew it.

There, whom should they see but one of the Boy's Town merchants, who was in the city on business, and who seemed as glad to meet them as if they were his own relations. They were glad, too, for it made them feel as if they had got back to the Boy's Town when he came up and spoke to Mrs. Baker. They had started from home after a very early breakfast, and she said it seemed as if they had been gone a year already. The merchant told her that he had been looking everywhere for somebody he knew who was going to the Boy's Town; and then he told Mrs. Baker that he had two thousand dollars which he wanted to send home to his partner, and he asked her if she could take it for him when she went back.

"Well, indeed, indeed, I'm thankful I'm not going, Mr. Bushell!" Mrs. Baker said. "And I wouldn't have supposed I could be, I'm so homesick. I'm going up the river on a visit to mother; but if I was going straight back, I wouldn't take your two thousand dollars for the half of it. I would be afraid of losing it, or getting robbed and murdered. I don't know what wouldn't happen. I would be happy to oblige you, but indeed, indeed I couldn't!"

The merchant said he was sorry, but if she was not going home he supposed he would have to find some one who was. It was before the days of sending money by express, or telegraphing it, and the merchant told her he was afraid to trust the money in the mail. He asked her who was going to take her carriage home, and she told him the name of the driver from the livery stable in the Boy's Town, who had come to the city with them.

Mr. Bushell seemed dreadfully disappointed, but when she went on to say how anxious she was that the driver should get Frank and his brother home before dark, he brightened up all of a sudden, and he asked, "Is Frank going back?" and he looked down into Frank's face and smiled, as most people did when they looked into Frank's face, and he asked, "What's the reason Frank couldn't take it?"

Mrs. Baker put her arm across Frank's breast and pulled him away, and said, "Indeed, indeed, the child just sha'n't, and that's all about it!"

But Mr. Bushell took the boy by the arm and laughed. "Let's feel how deep your pants' pocket is," he said; and he put his hand into the pocket of Frank's nankeen trousers and felt; and then, before Mrs. Baker could stop him, he drew a roll of bank-notes out of his own pocket and pushed it into Frank's. "There, it's just a fit! Do you think you'd lose it?"

"No, he wouldn't lose it," said his mother, "and that's just it! He'd worry about it every minute, and I would worry about him!"

She tried to make the merchant take the money back, but he kept joking; and then he turned serious, and told her that the money had to be put in the bank to pay a note, and he did not know any way to get it to his partner if she would not let Frank take it; that he was at his wits' end. He said he would as lief trust it with Frank as with any man he knew; that nobody would think the boy had any money with him; and he fairly begged her to let Frank take it for him.

He talked to her so much that she began to give way a little. She felt proud of his being willing to trust Frank, and at last she consented. Mr. Bushell explained that he wished his partner to have the money that evening, and she had to agree to let Frank carry it to him as soon as he got home.

The Boy's Town was built on two sides of a river. Mr. Bushell's store was across the river from where the Bakers lived, and she said she did not want the child to have to go through the bridge after dark. Perhaps it was her anxiety about this that began the whole trouble; for when the driver came with the carriage, she could not help asking him if he was sure to get home before sundown. That made him drive faster than he might have done, perhaps; at any rate, he set off at a quick trot after Mr. Bushell had helped put the two boys in. Mrs. Baker gathered her little girls together and went back to the boat with her heart in her mouth, as she afterwards said.

The driver got out of the city without trouble, but when he came to the smooth turnpike road, it seemed to Frank that the horses kept going faster and faster, till they were fairly flying over the ground. The driver pulled and pulled at the reins, and people began to hollo, "Look out where you're going!" when they met them or passed them, and all at once Frank began to think the horses were running away. He had not much chance to think about it, though, he was so busy keeping his little brother from bouncing off the seat and out of the carriage, and in feeling if Mr. Bushell's money was safe; and he was not certain that they were running away till he saw people stopping and staring, and then starting after the carriage.

The horses tore along for two or three miles; they thundered through the covered bridge on Mill's Creek, and passed the Four-Mile House. By the time they reached the little village beyond it they had the turnpike to themselves; every team coming and going drove into the gutter.

At the village a large, fat butcher, who was sitting tilted back in a chair at the door of his shop, saw the carriage coming in a whirlwind of dust, and he knew what the matter was. There was a horse standing at the hitching rail, and the butcher just had time to untie him and jump into the saddle when the runaways flew by. He took after them as fast as his horse could go, and overhauled them at the end of the next bridge and brought them to a stand.

It had really been nothing but a race against time. No one was hurt; the horses were pretty badly blown, that was all; but the carriage was so much shaken up that it had to be left at a wagon-shop, where it could not be mended till morning. The two boys were taken back to Four-Mile House, where they would have to pass the night.

Frank worried about his father, who would be expecting them home that evening; but he was glad his mother did not know what had happened. He was thankful enough when he felt his brother all over and found him safe and sound, and then put his hand on his pocket and found that Mr. Bushell's money was still there. He did not eat very much supper, and he went to bed early, after he had put his brother in bed and seen him fall asleep almost before he got through his prayers.

Frank was very tired, and pretty sore from the jouncing in the carriage; but he was too worried to be sleepy. He began to think, What if some one should get Mr. Bushell's money away from him in the night, while he was asleep? And then he was glad that he did not feel like sleeping. He got up and put on his clothes and sat down by the window, listening to his brother's breathing and looking out into the dark at the heat-lightning in the west. The day had been very hot and the night was close, without a breath of wind. By-and-by all the noises about the house died away, and he knew everybody had gone to bed. The lantern under the tavern porch threw a dim light out into the road; some dogs barked away off. There was no other sound, and the stillness was awful. He kept his hand on the pocket that had the money in it.

After a while Frank began to feel very drowsy, and he thought he would lie down again, but he promised himself he would not sleep, and he did not undress; for if he took his pantaloons off, he did not know how he could make sure every minute that the money was safe, unless he put it under his pillow. He was afraid if he did that he might forget it in the morning, and leave it when he got up.

He stretched himself on the bed beside his brother, and it seemed to him that it was hardly a second before he heard a loud crash that shook the whole house; and the room looked full of fire. Another crash came, and then another, with a loud, stony kind of rolling noise that seemed to go round the world. Then he knew that he had been asleep, and that this dreadful noise was the swift coming of a thunder-storm.

It was the worst storm that was ever known in Mill Creek Valley, so the people said afterwards, but as yet it was only beginning. The thunder was deafening, and it never stopped a moment. The lightning hardly stopped, either; it filled the room with a quivering blaze; at times, when it died down, the night turned black as ink, and then a flash came that lit up the fields outside, and showed every stick and stone as bright as the brightest day.

Frank was dazed at first by the glare and the noise; then he jumped out of bed, and tried for two things: whether the money was still safe in his pocket, and whether his brother was alive. He never could tell which he found out first; as soon as he knew, he felt a little bit better, but still his cheerfulness was not anything to brag of.

If his brother was alive, it seemed to be more than any one else in the house was besides himself. He could not hear a soul stirring, although in that uproar there might have been a full-dress parade of the Butler Guards in the tavern, firing off their guns, and he could not have heard them. He looked out in the entry, but it was all dark there except when he let the flashes of his room into it. He thought he would light his candle, for company, and so that the lightning would not be so awfully bright. He found his candlestick easily enough--he could have found a pin in that glare--but there were no matches.

So he decided to get along without the candle. Every now and then he put his hand in his pocket, or on the bulge outside, to make sure of the money; and whenever a very bright flash came, he would listen for his brother's breathing, to tell whether he had been struck by lightning or not. But it kept thundering so that sometimes he could not hear. Then Frank would shake him till the boy gave a sort of snort, and that proved that he was still alive; or he would put his ear to his brother's breast, and listen whether his heart was beating.

It always was, and by-and-by the rain began to fall. It fell in perfect sheets, and the noise it made could be heard through the thunder. But Frank had always heard that after it began to rain, a thunder-storm was not so dangerous, and the air got fresher. Still, it blazed and bellowed away, he could never tell how long, and it seemed to him that he must have felt a thousand times for Mr. Bushell's money, and tried a thousand times to find whether his brother had been struck by lightning or not. Once or twice he thought he would call for help; but he did not think he could make anybody hear, and he was too much ashamed to do it, anyway.

Between the times of feeling for the money and seeing whether his brother was alive, he thought about his mother: how frightened she would be if she knew what had happened to him and his brother, after they left her. And he thought of his father: how troubled he must be at their not getting home. It seemed to him that he must be to blame, somehow, but he could not understand how, exactly; and he could not think of any way to help it.

He wondered if the storm was as bad on the river and in the Boy's Town, and whether the lightning would strike the boat or the house; the house had a lightning-rod, but the boat could not have one, of course. He felt pretty safe about his father and the older-younger brother who had been left at home with him; but he was not sure about his mother and sisters, and he tried to imagine what people did on a steamboat in a thunder-storm.

After a long time had passed, and he thought it must be getting near morning, he lay down again beside his brother, and fell into such a heavy sleep that he did not wake till it was broad day, and the sun was making as much blaze in the curtainless tavern-room as the lightning had made. The storm was over, and everything was as peaceful as if there had never been any such thing as a storm in the world. The first thing he did was to make a grab for his pocket. The money was still there, and his brother sleeping as soundly as ever.

After breakfast, the livery-stable man came with the carriage, which he had got mended, and Frank started home with his brother once more. But they had sixteen miles to go before they would reach the Boy's Town, and the carriage had been so badly shattered, or else the driver was so much afraid of the horses, that he would not let them go at more than a walk. Frank was anxious to get home on his father's account; still he would rather get home safe, and he did not try to hurry the driver, for fear they might not get home at all.

It was four o'clock in the afternoon when they stopped at his father's house. His older-younger brother, and the hired girl, whom his mother had got to keep house while she was gone on her visit, came out and took his little brother in; and the girl told Frank his father had just been there to see whether he had got back. Then he knew that his father must have been as anxious as he had been afraid he was. He did not wait to go inside; he only kicked off the shoes he wore to the city and started off for his father's office as fast as his bare feet could carry him.

He found his father at the door. He did not say very much, but Frank could see by his face that he had been worrying; and afterwards he said that he was just going round to the livery stable the next minute to get another team, and go down towards the city to see what had become of them all. Frank told him what had happened, and his father put his arms round him, but still did not say much. He did not say anything at all about Mr. Bushell's money or seem to think about it till Frank asked:

"I'd better take it right straight over to his store, hadn't I, father?"

His father said he reckoned he had, and Frank started away on the run again. He wanted to get rid of that money so badly, for it was all he had to worry about, after he had got rid of his brother, that he was out of breath, almost, by the time he reached Mr. Bushell's store. But even then he could not get rid of the money. Mr. Bushell had told him to give it to his partner, but his partner had gone out into the country, and was not to be back till after supper.

Frank did not know what to do. He did not dare to give it to any one else in the store, and it seemed to him that the danger of having it got worse every minute. He hung about a good while, and kept going in and out of the store, but at last he thought the best thing would be to go home and ask his father; and that was what he did.

By this time his father had gone home to supper, and he found him there with his two younger brothers, feeling rather lonesome, with Frank's mother and his sisters all away. But they cheered up together, and his father said he had done right not to leave the money, and he would just step over, after supper, and give it himself to Mr. Bushell's partner. He took the roll of bills from Frank and put it into his own pocket, and went on eating his supper, but when they were done he gave the bills back to the boy.

"After all, Frank, I believe I'll let you take that money to Mr. Bushell's partner. He trusted it to you, and you ought to have the glory; you've had the care. Do you think you'll be afraid to come home through the bridge after sunset?"

The bridge was one of those old-fashioned, wooden ones, roofed in and sided up, and it stretched from shore to shore, like a tunnel, on its piers. It was rather dim, even in the middle of the brightest day, and none of the boys liked to be caught in it after sunset.

Frank said he did not believe he should be afraid, for it seemed to him that if he had got through a runaway, and such a thunder-storm as that was the night before, without harm, he could surely get through the bridge safely. There was not likely to be anybody in it, at the worst, but Indian Jim, or Solomon Whistler, the crazy man, and he believed he could run by them if they offered to do anything to him. He meant to walk as slowly as he could, until he reached the bridge, and then just streak through it.

That was what he did, and it was still quite light when he reached Mr. Bushell's store. His partner was there, sure enough, this time, and Frank gave him the money, and told him how he had been so long bringing it. The merchant thanked him, and said he was rather young to be trusted with so much money, but he reckoned Mr. Bushell knew what he was about.

"Did he count it when he gave it to you?" he asked.

"No, he didn't," said Frank.

"Did you?"

"I didn't have a chance. He put it right into my pocket, and I was afraid to take it out."

Mr. Bushell's partner laughed, and Frank was going away, so as to get through the bridge before it was any darker, but Mr. Bushell's partner said, "Just hold on a minute, won't you, Frank, till I count this," and he felt as if his heart had jumped into his throat.

What if he had lost some of the money? What if somebody had got it out of his pocket, while he was so dead asleep, and taken part of it? What if Mr. Bushell had made a mistake, and not given him as much as he thought he had? He hardly breathed while Mr. Bushell's partner slowly counted the bank-notes. It took him a long time, and he had to wet his finger a good many times, and push the notes to keep them from sticking together. At last he finished, and he looked at Frank over the top of his spectacles. "Two thousand?" he asked.

"That's what Mr. Bushell said," answered the boy, and he could hardly get the words out.

"Well, it's all here," said Mr. Bushell's partner, and he put the money in his pocket, and Frank turned and went out of the store.

He felt light, light as cotton, and gladder than he almost ever was in his life before. He was so glad that he forgot to be afraid in the bridge. The fellows who were the most afraid always ran through the bridge, and those who tried not to be afraid walked fast and whistled. Frank did not even think to whistle.

His father was sitting out on the front porch when he reached home, and he asked Frank if he had got rid of his money, and what Mr. Bushell's partner had said. Frank told him all about it, and after a while his father asked, "Well, Frank, do you like to have the care of money?"

"I don't believe I do, father."

"Which was the greater anxiety to you last night, Mr. Bushell's money, or your brother?"

Frank had to think awhile. "Well, I suppose it was the money, father. You see, it wasn't my own money."

"And if it had been your own money, you wouldn't have been anxious about it? You wouldn't have cared if you had lost it, or somebody had stolen it from you?"

Frank thought again, and then he said he did not believe he had thought about that.

"Well, think about it now."

Frank tried to think, and at last he said. "I reckon I should have cared."

"And if it had been your own money, would you have been more anxious about it than about your brother?"

This time Frank was more puzzled than ever; he really did not know what to say.

His father said: "The trouble with money is, that people who have a great deal of it seem to be more anxious about it than they are about their brothers, and they think that the things it can buy are more precious than the things which all the money in the world cannot buy." His father stood up. "Better go to bed, Frank. You must be tired. There won't be any thunder-storm to-night, and you haven't got a pocketful of money to keep you awake."

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