Authors: Carol Ryrie Brink
The least that they could do!
The children thought this over as they walked to school. Hetty and Minnie had run on ahead; but Tom, Caddie, and Warren walked more slowly, discussing weighty matters.
“Mr. Tanner is so big and healthy and brown,” Caddie said, “and look what
was young. Mr. Ward’s childhood days must have been sumpin terrible.”
“What worries me,” Tom said, “Father doesn’t seem to take it very seriously. I wonder if he’s doing all he should for Mr. Ward?”
“How do you mean?” asked Warren, his face puckered with anxiety.
“Well, you know what Mr. Tanner said about folks up the river leaving it to the folks down-river to take care of the preacher; and the folks down-river saying that the ones up-river would take care of him, so why should they worry—”
“But Dunnville folks have turned out to build and furnish him a house,” said Caddie. “Mother and Father gave a bedstead and two chairs, and Father loaned them his team to pull stumps and grade for the new church.”
“Sure,” Tom said. “I guess they’ve done what they could all right. But I was thinking—we haven’t done anything.”
The three walked in silence for a few paces. Tom’s words and the memory of the circuit rider’s story filled them with a sense of guilt. There were two kinds of sins, they knew—sins of commission and sins of omission. Just at the moment they couldn’t remember any sins which they had
(There might very well be some, but so far even Hetty had not discovered them.) But, if it came to thinking of things which they had
doing when they should have done them, then perhaps they had sinned against poor Mr. Ward.
Caddie said, “Well, I’ve got my wool money. If I gave a tenth of that, that would be a tithe. Wouldn’t it? That’s what the Bible says you ought to give.”
Her voice sounded relieved. That was a simple way of getting Mr. Jedediah Ward off her conscience.
“I’ve got those horseshoes I’ve picked up on the roads,” Tom said. “I can sell them to the blacksmith, and put the money in the collection plate.”
“What can I do?” asked Warren bleakly.
Nobody answered him, for they had reached the schoolyard by that time. Tom saw two of the older boys skinning the cat on the high bar between two pine trees on which the little children’s swing was strung and, with a yell like a wild Indian’s, he went to match his prowess to theirs. At the same time Maggie Bunn and Jane Flusher darted out and enfolded Caddie into one of those whispering, giggling, three-girl secret societies which the boys abhorred.
Warren stood all alone by the schoolhouse door, and he felt very sad indeed. Caddie had her wool money. Tom had been picking up horseshoes for years. But Warren’s pocket, like the pocket of a preacher, was always empty. Coins often entered his pocket, it is true; but they never lingered there. They passed out very rapidly to more delightful places. They rolled away to the candy counter at the Dunnville store; they hurried off after tops and marbles and kites. When the candy was eaten, the tops and marbles lost, and the kites blown far away across the woods and prairies to the amazement of the eagles and the Indians, Warren had nothing left in his pockets but his hands.
He felt very sorry and ashamed. Here was poor Mr. Ward, half starved, Mother said, and Warren was like the heartless people in Mr. Tanner’s tale: he gave the preacher nothing.
School took up as usual with roll call and singing of the multiplication tables. Then, while the little children on the front benches braided mats, Miss Parker assembled the older children for a reading lesson. Instead of their McGuffey Readers, for a week now Miss Parker had had them read a story about Indians. It was really a long poem written by the Massachusetts poet Mr. Longfellow, and it told about an Indian boy named Hiawatha and all his friends in the forest. Usually Warren was very much interested, although he did have a hard time with the long names and he thought it would have been easier if Mr. Longfellow had just gone ahead and told the story, as Mr. Tanner told his, without stopping to put in all the hard words.
But today Warren was so busy wondering what he could give to poor Mr. Ward that he did not listen to the story of Hiawatha. Dimly, through the fog of his worry, he heard the various readers taking up the tale where they had left it yesterday. He should have been warned when Caddie began to read, for she sat across the aisle from him. Her voice went tripping lightly and gaily among the forests of long words.
“‘Minne-wawa!’ said the pine-trees,
‘Mudway-aushka!’ said the water.
Saw the firefly, Wah-wah-taysee …”
Caddie was the best speller in the class, and she enjoyed the long words very much. She would have gone right on reading as long as anyone would listen to her. But unfortunately Miss Parker’s sharp eyes were fixed on Warren’s vacant ones.
“Just a moment, Caddie,” she said, holding up her hand. “There is one person in this class who is not paying strict attention. Warren, will you kindly tell me what Caddie has been reading?”
…” said Warren, trying to remember.
whispered Caddie under her breath.
…” repeated Warren distractedly.
“Pass him the book, Caddie,” said Miss Parker. “Let him find the passage for himself.”
Caddie couldn’t help feeling sorry for Warren. He really should have been paying attention, especially when she had just been reading so beautifully; but still she knew how difficult it was for him to have to stand up and read in public. As she passed him the book she put her thumb on the line where he should start.
Miss Parker turned to look at Warren
Warren was smart enough to begin reading where her thumb had been, but the sight of the long words paralyzed his tongue.
“‘Minnie-Minnie-Minnie …’ “
“Present,” piped little Minnie from the front row, thinking that the roll was being called a second time.
Warren,” prompted Miss Parker ominously.
“‘Minne-haha!’ said the pine-trees,”
read Warren hastily. “
’Muddy Oshkosh!’ said the water.”
“No, no, Warren,” corrected Miss Parker. “Oshkosh is in the geography lesson.”
“Saw the firefly, Wah-wah-wah-wah …”
“You may be seated,” said Miss Parker coldly. “It is clear that you were not paying attention to the reading of a beautiful poem, Warren. You may stay after school and read it aloud to me, when we shall have more time to go into the fine points of spelling and pronunciation.”
Warren sighed. One trouble often led right into another one, Warren knew from experience, and this seemed no exception to the rule.
Sitting on the high stool beside Miss Parker’s desk after school, Warren reflected sadly that surely Mr. Longfellow, who was called the children’s poet, did not intend to have little children staying after school because of him. If only Mr. Longfellow had been a trifle more considerate in the matter of long, queer words!
At last Miss Parker finished correcting the arithmetic slates and turned around in her seat to look at Warren.
“Whatever was the matter with you this morning, Warren?
You sounded like a frog who has swallowed too large a minnow.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I’ll try to do better.”
“I know,” Miss Parker said more kindly, “that some of the words are hard. That’s why you have to pay attention, you see. But when we get on a little farther you will like the poem better, I am sure, and there won’t be so many difficult words. I was going to make you write
fifty times on the blackboard, Warren, but now I’ve changed my mind.”
“You have, ma’am?” asked Warren hopefully.
He could still catch up with Tom and Caddie before they reached home if he ran like the wind. But her next words dashed his hopes.
“Yes, instead of that I’m going to let you read ahead a little bit. Begin here, where my finger is pointing.”
Warren sighed heavily. It was surely a disappointing day, but there was nothing for it but to read where Teacher pointed.
“Then Iagoo, the great boaster …
Made a bow for Hiawatha;
From a branch of ash he made it,
From an oak-bough made the arrows,
Tipped with flint, and winged with feathers,
And the cord he made of deer-skin.”
Well, this was a little better! Warren’s voice began to lose its singsong drone.
“Then he said to Hiawatha:
‘Go, my son, into the forest,
Where the red deer herd together,
Kill for us a famous roebuck,
Kill for us a deer with antlers!’”
All the way home, walking by himself after the others had dispersed, Warren heard words singing in his ears.
“Go, my son, into the forest,
Kill for us a deer with antlers.”
Something else, which he had lately heard, echoed in his mind. It was Mr. Tanner’s great voice saying, “We boys grew into mighty hunters, as clever to stalk a deer and catch him with an arrow to his heart as any Indian lad.”
Suddenly Warren jumped up in the air and cracked his heels together. Between them, Mr. Tanner and the children’s poet had solved his problem for him.
On Saturday morning, very early before anyone else was up, Warren arose and quietly pulled on his clothes. He did not bother to wash his face. Washing the face seemed to him an unnecessary refinement which was only visited upon boys with mothers and sisters. This morning he had no time for it. He went to the kitchen and lifted down from the pegs behind the door Father’s handsome spring-lock gun. Father had taught him how to shoot it, but he had never before taken it out alone.
Now Warren shivered a little in the frosty autumn dawn as he went across the fields carrying Father’s gun. His mind
wrestled with the thought of how he could carry home a famous roebuck if he were fortunate enough to get one. Hiawatha or the Tanner boys would have slung it carelessly over one shoulder, but he thought that he should probably be obliged to fetch Robert Ireton from the barn to help him. Of course, he could always call on Tom and Caddie to drag the deer with antlers home; but they would want to know why he had not taken them with him in the first place and what he intended to do with the prize now that he had it.
The truth of the matter was that Warren did not himself quite know why he was keeping his expedition a secret from the family. It was perhaps because Caddie had her wool money, and Tom had his horseshoes, and Warren had only empty pockets. When he flung down the haunch of venison on Mr. Ward’s table, he wanted it to be his own contribution. The most truly generous persons are those who give silently without hope of praise or reward.
Roebucks did not seem to be plentiful in the woods about Dunnville that Saturday morning. The first large moving object which Warren glimpsed through the trees turned out to be Flushers’ cow. He was just pulling the trigger of Father’s gun when he recognized her, and fortunately he had presence of mind enough to jog the gun upward in the nick of time so that the shot went over her back into the trees beyond. The frosty silence of the morning was scattered into terrible reverberations. The sound of the gun frightened Warren as much as it did the cow, and it set the bluejays and crows to chattering and scolding and the woods to echoing.
“Oh, golly!” thought Warren. “What if I’d killed the Flushers’ cow!”
One thing the boy Hiawatha had never had to contend with was the neighbors’ cow. Warren had to sit down on a stump for a moment to catch his breath. It was partly, of course, because he hadn’t had his breakfast that his stomach felt so queer.
But presently he got up and went on again.
The animals had all come out and looked at Hiawatha and begged, “Do not shoot me, Hiawatha.” But nothing like that happened in Dunnville. Either the spring-lock gun or Warren’s determined appearance kept them from showing themselves. He wasted another shot on a large brown object, glimpsed through the trees, which turned out to be a rock. Warren began to be a little anxious about the amount of Father’s ammunition which he was wasting. Also he was very hungry.
Perhaps, after all, his stomach was as important in its own way as Mr. Ward’s was. He began to hear Mother’s voice saying, “Poor, dear boy, he looks half starved!” and surely the words referred to him.
The sun was well up in the sky now, and Warren reflected that the corn-meal mush would be cold on the breakfast table at home and that the bacon would all be eaten. Everybody would be saying, “Where is Warren?”
It was at this point that Warren gave up the chase and turned homeward. But such is the strangeness of fate that, the moment he had given up the hunt as utterly useless, he saw a large plump rabbit sitting quietly under a thorn-apple
tree, making of itself a perfect target. Warren raised Father’s gun and fired; and while a rabbit was certainly not as fine a prize as a roebuck, it was very much easier to carry home.
One might have thought that now Warren’s troubles were over. He had shot a nice piece of game as his contribution to the support of the new preacher. A few hours earlier that had been the only thing he could think of doing which would make him happy. But, now that he had succeeded in getting an excellent, plump rabbit, he found the rest of his day beset with difficulties.