Authors: Carol Ryrie Brink
PRING IS A WONDERFUL SEASON
for ideas. In the spring Caddie’s ideas surged up like the sap in the red twig dogwood and the scrub willow. The rising sap made the willow twigs golden yellow and the dogwood red; Caddie’s ideas made her cheeks glow and her eyes sparkle. She saw the lambs leaping and dancing in the upper pasture, and it seemed that her numerous ideas sprang up also with joyous bounds and curvettings.
Her eyes took in everything in the changing landscape. She saw the arbutus at the edge of the snow, and the skunk cabbage with its solitary, clownish blossom. She saw last year’s cattails standing fuzzy and frayed at the edge of the marsh near the schoolhouse. She saw that they had lost their bright, fresh brown color and that they were swollen with moisture and ready to release their seeds upon the wind. Caddie knew from experience that if you knock old cattails together their downy fuzz flies off like the fur of fighting cats. Something about this whimsical thought made Caddie pause and look again—and one of her bright ideas rose gay and sparkling to the surface of her mind.
That was the year when Miss Parker had first come to teach the Dunnville school for three months in winter and two months in summer. Miss Parker had not yet had her
battle with Obediah Jones as to who should rule the schoolroom. Obediah and his brother Ashur were taller than Miss Parker; they were the biggest boys in school, and they never let anybody forget it. That winter the boys of school had taken sides. Some followed the two bullies; others followed Tom and George Custis in opposition to the Jones brothers.
Warren, of course, was on Tom’s side, along with Sam Flusher and Silas Bunn. It did not take long for the girls’ sympathies to be as sharply divided as the boys’, and Caddie, Maggie Bunn, and Jane Flusher formed a sort of ladies’ auxiliary to Tom’s forces—not that they had ever been invited to do so, of course. The boys wanted no hangers-on in petticoats, you may be sure, and any assistance the girls might offer was purely voluntary. For, although Tom, Caddie, and Warren were as thick as hops at home, at school with the other boys Tom had to maintain a decent show of scorn toward women.
Caddie couldn’t help resenting this a little, because she felt, with some justice, that she was as accomplished in men’s arts as any of them. Couldn’t she plow, couldn’t she whittle a willow whistle, couldn’t she ride a wild horse bareback, as well as any of them? The answer, of course, was yes.
Yet all through the furious snow battles which had been waged that winter between Tom’s and Obediah’s forces, Caddie had had to stand on the side lines or content herself with manufacturing snowballs inside the fort. If she made tactical suggestions or began hurling snowballs herself,
Tom said, “Say, you keep out of this. This is no fight for girls.” George would have let Caddie in on an equal footing with the boys, but Tom said, “No. Ma will skin me alive if I let her get a black eye. She’s got to stay out. This is men’s work.”
The worst of it was that Obediah’s side was nearly always victorious. If it had been a contest in spelling or arithmetic, Tom’s side would have had an easy victory; but outdoors on the schoolgrounds the Jones boys’ superior size and toughness gave them the advantage.
It usually happened (accidentally, I suppose) that Miss Parker’s bell rang just in time to save Tom’s warriors from serious injury. But during the last snow battle of the season Ashur had tied up the clapper of Teacher’s bell and, before she could get it untied again, Tom’s crowd had suffered a black eye, a cut lip, and numerous bruises. Caddie felt shame for them. She also longed to see the Jones boys humbled. But before anything further was done the snow had all vanished like magic, and spring was at hand.
With the melting snow had come a truce and an interval of peace which must have raised poor Teacher’s hopes.
School was almost over now for the season. Soon the boys would have to stay at home to help with the plowing and seeding, and the weeds could grow untrampled in the empty schoolhouse yard until the summer days when work was slack again and school would be resumed.
It was just at this moment in the spring that Caddie saw the innocent, sweet cattails standing thick and promising in the marsh behind the schoolhouse.
“Millions of them,” Caddie said to Maggie, pointing them out.
“Millions of them!” breathed Maggie.
“They’ve been there all winter, too,” said Jane, “and we never even saw them!”
During several recess periods thereafter the girls were busy cutting cattails, and storing them under the school-house steps. They carried them tenderly, like sleeping babes, so that none of the loosened fuzz should be disturbed.
One or two of the younger boys asked “Watcha doing?” and the girls were vague in their replies—something about stuffing for doll pillows, it seemed. The older boys were too scornful of feminine folly to pay the slightest attention to these preparations. They had their own concerns, for it seemed pretty certain that Obediah’s crowd would not suffer school to close without a final showdown.
Still the last week passed uneventfully, and the closing program went down in history with nothing more remarkable to commemorate it than Caddie’s spirited rendering of “Woodman, Spare That Tree.”
But, when the last note of the last song had faded on the air, Obediah and Ashur were the first pupils out of the schoolhouse.
They went out grinning and whistling through their teeth, and Caddie said to Maggie and Jane,
It better be
We haven’t got much time to lose.”
They hurried into their coats and caps without bothering to gather up their books and slates. There was a scent of battle on the wind.
The first blow fell when Tom and George emerged from
the schoolhouse with the rest of their crowd close at their heels. Obediah and Ashur were waiting outside. With nice timing each one thrust out a long, ill-clad foot just as Tom and George were reaching the last step. Tom and George had expected the attack to come from above rather than below. They were caught off their guard and promptly fell upon their noses in a very tidy but disconcerting manner.
Pushed from behind by some of Obediah’s fellows, Warren, Silas, and Sam tripped over the prostrate bodies of Tom and George; and the whole of Tom’s crowd suddenly found itself in a pile of flailing arms and legs, unable to arise and defend itself. Obediah’s crowd now fell upon Tom’s crowd with yelps of glee, and a tremendous uproar of shouting and howling arose which might have been heard as far as the Tavern on the other side of the river.
Caddie did not wait to tie her bonnet strings. At the sound of battle she and Maggie and Jane burst out of the schoolhouse and began to pull their store of cattails out from under the school steps.
Thus armed, they darted into the edges of the fight and began beating Tom’s opponents over the head with the fuzzy ends of the cattails. A long-stemmed cattail makes a surprisingly good weapon. Like a long thin rapier it allows the one who wields it to keep well out of range of his enemy’s fists, and every blow is accompanied by a wonderful explosion of choking fuzz.
Obediah’s warriors began to cough and choke and sneeze. Their eyes began to water. They were enveloped in a cloud of flying fur. Gradually they gave over trying to beat the life out of Tom’s gang, and started to pursue the cattail wielders. Screams of the girls were added to the general hubbub. Now, in this instant’s respite, Tom’s men were on their feet again and hot after the girls’ pursuers.
They were caught of their guard
Cattail fighting is something which even the smallest scholars can take pleasure in. Hetty and the little Hankinson half-breeds and all of the younger boys and girls armed themselves with cattails and began to beat Obediah and Ashur and their sympathizers over the head with them. The air was hazy with flying fur, and a most enjoyable howling and yammering and sneezing arose to the blue spring heavens.
In vain Miss Parker clapped her hands and rang her bell. Her efforts only added to the general pandemonium.
At last Obediah and his fellows turned tail and ran, followed by a few persistent boys and by a trail of cattail fur. Some of the more enthusiastic members of the victorious party began beating one another over the head with cattails just for the pure delight of the sport, and because they hated to see a good thing come to an end. But fortunately the supply of cattails which the girls had cut was presently exhausted. The shouting began to subside, although the sneezing continued for some time. The children looked at one another and gradually their savagery gave place to laughter.
“Look at you!”
“Say, but you’re a sight!”
“What’ll your Ma say, anyhow!”
Miss Parker’s neat and tidy scholars had turned into
furry beasts. The cattail fuzz was stuck all over their woolen garments as securely as if it had grown there.
“All we need is tails,” said Caddie.
Warren picked up a discarded cattail reed and began to wag it behind him like a tail.
“Look! Look! I’ve got one!” he shouted. “Look! I’ve got a tail!”
Victorious and pleased with themselves, the good children of school all caught up tails and began to wag them joyously behind them. In twos and threes and fours they took their various ways homeward, all of them prancing and capering, barking or yowling, and wagging their tails behind them.
So school dispersed that year, and the uncomprehending mothers of Dunnville welcomed home strange beasts whose sturdy homespun garments were coated for weeks with a mysterious fur which defied all brushing and shaking and hanging in the wind.
Wagging and prancing contentedly between Tom and George, Caddie suddenly remarked, “You know, Tom, cattails were my idea.”
“It wasn’t bad,” said Tom. “I might have thought of it myself, only I didn’t get around to it.”
“I think it was pretty good,” said George admiringly. “I think we’d ought to let her in on our side, Tom—honest I do.”
“Well—” said Tom, his voice more friendly than his words, “I don’t see how we’re going to keep her out. It looks like she’s in already.”
Caddie gave her cattail tail an extra wag. She had no
idea what Mother would say at the appearance of her coat, but she knew that any punishment she might have to endure would be a small matter beside the satisfaction of seeing the fur fly around Obediah’s ears and of hearing Tom say, “It looks like she’s in already!”
The Willow Basket
—that’s what they are!” said Mrs. Woodlawn decidedly.
Shiftless was a terrible word in pioneer Wisconsin. Caddie, Tom, and Warren exchanged discouraged glances. They had been delighted to see the McCantrys come back—even if the father, mother, and four children
returned on foot, wheeling all of their possessions in a wheelbarrow.
Mr. and Mrs. McCantry and the four children were standing in the road now, casting wistful glances at the Woodlawns’ cozy white house while they waited for Tom and Caddie to inform their parents of their old neighbors’ return.
“But, Mother,” said Caddie, “Emma is so nice, and all they’ve got left is what they can carry in a wheelbarrow.”
“They had just as good a chance here as the rest of us,” said Mrs. Woodlawn severely. “They had a farm, but they must needs sell it for what they could get and go on to something finer. And now, it seems, they are back with nothing but a wheelbarrow.”
“We must not judge people too hastily, Harriet,” said Mr. Woodlawn mildly, from the doorway.
“Oh, Father, we may ask them in for the night, mayn’t we?” begged Caddie.
“Well, now,” said Mr. Woodlawn, with a pleasant wink at Caddie over his wife’s smooth dark head, “we’d better let the McCantrys go on to the next farm. The Bunns or the Silbernagles will take them in for the night, and that will let us out of any obligation.”
Mrs. Woodlawn whirled about with a suspicious look in her eyes and was just in time to catch her husband’s smile and the tail end of his wink.
“Go along with you!” she said, beginning to laugh. “I never intended to let them go without supper and a night’s rest, and you know that. But I do feel better for having said what I think of them!”