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2006-08-28 22:47

    The air was mellow with the warmth of the young spring sun. Locusts whirred in rhapsody. Bluebirds throbbed their love songs joyously. The drone of insects, the shimmer of hear, were in the atmosphere. One could almost see green things grow. To confine youth within four walls on such a day was an outrage against human nature.

    A lean, wiry boy, hatchet-faced, stared with dreamy eyes out of the window of his prison. By raising himself in his seat while the teacher was not looking he could catch a silvery gleam of the river through the great firs. His thoughts were far afield. They were not concerned with the capitals of the States he was supposed to be learning, but had fared forth to the reborn earth, to the stir and movement of creeping things. The call of nature awakening from its long winter sleep drummed in his heart. He could sympathize with the bluebottle buzzing against the sunny windowpane in its efforts to reach the free world outside.

    Recess! With the sound of the gong his heart leaped, but he kept his place in the line with perfect decorum. It would never do to be called back now for a momentary indiscretion. From the school yard he slipped the back way and dived into a bank of great ferns. In the heart of this he lay until the bell had called his classmates back to work. Cautiously he crept from his hiding place and ran down to the river.

    Flinging himself on Big Rock, with his chin over the edge, he looked into the deep holes under the bank where the trout lay close to the strings of shiny moss, their noses to the current, motionless save for the fanning tails.

    Idly he enjoyed himself for a happy hour, letting thoughts happen as they would. Not till the school bell rang for dismissal did he drag himself back with a sigh to the workaday world that called. He had a lawn to mow and a back yard to clean up for Mr. Rawson.

    With his cap stuck on the back of his head and his hands in the pockets of his patched trousers, the boy went whistling townward on his barefoot way. At Adams Street he met the schoolchildren bound for home. A dozen boys from his own room closed in on him with shouts of joyous malice.

    "Played hookey! Played hookey! Jeff Farnum played hookey!" they shrilled at him.

    Ned Merrill assumed leadership of the young Apaches. "You're goin' to catch it. Old Webber was down askin' for you. Wasn't he, Tom? Wasn't he, Dick?"

    Tom and Dick lied cheerfully to increase Jeff's dread. They added graphic details to help the story.

    The victim looked around with stoicism. He remembered the philosophy of the optimist that a licking does not last long.

    "Don't care if he was down," the boy bluffed.

    "Huh! Mr. Don't Care! Mr. Don't Care!" shrieked Merrill gleefully.

    They made a circle around Jeff and mocked him. Once or twice a bolder tormentor snatched at his cap or pushed a neighbor against him. Then, with the inconstancy of youth, they suddenly deserted him for more diverting game. A forlorn little Italian girl was trying to slip past on the other side of the street. Someone caught sight of her and with a whoop the Apaches were upon her pell-mell. She began to run, but they hemmed her in. One tugged at her braided hair. Another flipped mud at her dress from the end of a stick. Merrill snatched her slate and made off with it.

    Jeff cut swiftly across the street. Merrill was coming directly toward him, his head turned to the girl. Triumphant whoops broke from his throat. He bumped into Jeff, stumbled, and went down in the mud.

    Young Merrill was up in an instant, clamorous for battle. His hands and clothes were plastered with filth.

    "I'm goin' to lick the stuffin' out of you," he bellowed.

    Jeff said nothing. He was very white. His fingers worked nervously.

    "Yah! Yah! He's scared," the mob jeered.

    Jeff was. In that circle of hostile faces he found no sympathy. He had to stand up to the bully of the class, a boy who could have given him fifteen pounds. Looking around for help, he saw that none was at hand. The thin legs of the rescued Italian girl were flashing down the street. On the steps of the big house of P. C. Frome a six-year-old little one was standing with her nurse. Nobody else was in sight except his cousin, James, and the Apaches.

    "You're goin' to get the maulin' of your life," Ned Merrill promised as he slipped out of his coat. "Webber'll lick you if he finds out you been fightin'," James Farnum prophesied cheerfully to his cousin. He intended to do his duty in the way of protest and then watch the fight.

    Ned worked his wiry little foe to the fence and pummeled him. Jeff ducked and backed out of danger. Keeping to the defensive, he was being badly punished. Once he slipped in the mud and went down, but he was up again before his slower antagonist could close with him. Blood streamed from his nose. His lip was gashed. Under the buffeting he was getting his head began to sing.

    "Punch him good, Ned," one of the champion's friends advised.

    "You bet he is," another chortled.

    Their jeers had an unexpected effect. Jeff's fears were blotted out by his desperate need. Some spark of the fighting edge, inherited from his father, was fanned to a flame in the heart of the bruised little warrior. Like a tiger cat he leaped for Ned's throat, twisted his slim legs round the sturdy ones of his enemy, and went down with him in a heap.

    Jeff landed on the bottom, but like an eel he squirmed to the top before the other had time to get set. The champion's patrician head was thumped down into the mud and a knobby little fist played a painful tattoo on his mouth and cheek.

    "Take him off! Take him off!" Merrill shrieked after he had tried in vain to roll away the incubus clamped like a vise to his body.

    His henchmen ran forward to obey. An unexpected intervention stopped them. A one-armed little man who had drifted down the street in time to see part of the fracas pushed forward.

    "I reckon not just yet. Goliath's had a turn. Now David gets his."

    "Lemme up," sobbed Goliath furiously.

    "Say you're whopped." Jeff's fist emphasized the suggestion.

    "Doggone you!"

    This kind of one-sided warfare did not suit Jeff. He made as if to get up, but his backer stopped him.

    "Hold on, son. You're not through yet. When you do a job do it thorough." To the former champion he spoke. "Had plenty yet?"

    "I——I'll have him skinned," came from the tearful champion with a burst of profanity.

    "That ain't the point. Have you had enough so you'll be good? Or do you need some more?"

    "I'm goin' to tell Webber."

    "Needs just a leetle more, son," the one-armed man told Jeff, dragging at his goatee.

    But young Farnum had made up his mind. With a little twist of his body he got to his feet.

    Merrill rose, tearful and sullen. "I——I'll fix you for this," he gulped, and went sobbing toward the schoolhouse.

    "Better duck," James whispered to his cousin.

    Jeff shook his head.

    The little man looked at the boy sharply. The eyes under his shaggy brows were like gimlets.

    "Come up to the school with me. I'll see your teacher, son."

    Jeff walked beside him. He knew by the sound of the voice that his rescuer was a Southerner and his heart warmed to him. He wanted greatly to ask a question. Presently it plumped out.

    "Was it in the war, sir?" "I reckon I don't catch your meaning."

    "That you lost your arm?" The boy added quickly, "My father was a soldier under General Early."

    The steel-gray eyes shot at him again. "I was under Early myself."

    "My father was a captain——Captain Farnum," the young warrior announced proudly.

    "Not Phil Farnum!"

    "Yes, sir. Did you know him?" Jeff trembled with eagerness. His dead soldier-father was the idol of his heart.

    "Did I?" He swung Jeff round and looked at him. "You're like him, in a way, and, by Gad! you fight like him. What's your name?"

    "Jefferson Davis Farnum."

    "Shake hands, Jefferson Davis Farnum, you dashed little rebel. My name is Lucius Chunn. I was a lieutenant in your father's company before I was promoted to one of my own."

    Jeff forgot his troubles instantly. "I wish I'd been alive to go with father to the war," he cried.

    Captain Chunn was delighted. "You doggoned little rebel!"

    "I didn't know we used that word in the South' sir."

    Chunn tugged at his goatee and laughed. "We're not in the South, David."

    The former Confederate asked questions to piece out his patchwork information. He knew that Philip Farnum had come out of the war with a constitution weakened by the hardships of the service. Rumors had drifted to him that the taste for liquor acquired in camp as an antidote for sickness had grown upon his comrade and finally overcome him. From Jeff he learned that after his father's death the widow had sold her mortgaged place and moved to the Pacific Coast. She had invested the few hundreds left her in some river-bottom lots at Verden and had later discovered that an unscrupulous real estate dealer had unloaded upon her worthless property. The patched and threadbare clothes of the boy told him that from a worldly point of view the affairs of the Farnums were at ebb tide.

    "Did . . . did you know father very well?" Jeff asked tremulously.

    Chunn looked down at the thin dark face of the boy walking beside him and was moved to lay a hand on his shoulder. He understood the ache in that little heart to hear about the father who was a hero to him. Jeff was of no importance in the alien world about him. The Captain guessed from the little scene he had witnessed that the lad trod a friendless, stormy path. He divined, too, that the hungry soul was fed from within by dreams and memories.

    So Lucius Chunn talked. He told about the slender, soldierly officer in gray who had given himself so freely to serve his men, of the time he had caught pneumonia by lending his blanket to a sick boy, of the day he had led the charge at Battle Creek and received the wound which pained him so greatly to the hour of his death. And Jeff drank his words in like a charmed thing. He visualized it all, the bitter nights in camp, the long wet marches, the trumpet call to battle. It was this last that his imagination seized upon most eagerly. He saw the silent massing of troops, the stealthy advance through the woods; and he heard the blood-curdling rebel yell as the line swept forward from cover like a tidal wave, with his father at its head.

    Captain Chunn was puzzled at the coldness with which Mr. Webber listened to his explanation of what had taken place. The school principal fell back doggedly upon one fact. It would not have happened if Jeff had not been playing truant. Therefore he was to blame for what had occurred.

    Nothing would be done, of course, without a thorough investigation.

    The Captain was not satisfied, but he did not quite see what more he could do.

    "The boy is a son of an old comrade of mine. We were in the war together. So of course I have to stand by Jeff," he pleaded with a smile.

    "You were in the rebel army?" The words slipped out before the schoolmaster could stop them.

    "In the Confederate army," Chunn corrected quietly.

    Webber flushed at the rebuke. "That is what I meant to say."

    "I leave to-morrow for Alaska. It would be pleasant to know before I go that Jeff is out of his trouble."

    "I'm afraid Jeff always will be in trouble. He is a most insubordinate boy," the principal answered coldly. "Are you sure you quite understand him?"

    "He is not difficult to understand." Webber, resenting the interference of the Southerner as an intrusion, disposed of the matter in a sentence. "I'll look into this matter carefully, Mr. Chunn."

    Webber called immediately at the office of Edward B. Merrill, president of the tramway company and of the First National Bank. It happened that the vice-president of the bank was a school director; also that the funds of the district were kept in the First National. The schoolteacher did not admit that he had come to ingratiate himself with the powers that ruled his future, but he was naturally pleased to come in direct touch with such a man as Merrill.

    The financier was urbane and spent nearly half an hour of his valuable time with the principal. When the latter rose to go they shook hands. The two understood each other thoroughly.

    "You may depend upon me to do my duty, Mr. Merrill, painful though such a course may be to me."

    "I am very glad to have met you, Mr. Webber. It is a source of satisfaction to me that our educational system is in the care of men of your stamp. I leave this matter with confidence entirely in your hands. Do what you think best."

    His confidence was justified. After school opened next morning Jeff was called up and publicly thrashed for playing truant. As a prelude to the corporal punishment the principal delivered a lecture. He alluded to the details of the fight gravely, with selective discrimination, giving young Farnum to understand that he had reached the end of his rope. If any more such brutal affairs were reported to him he would be punished severely.

    The boy took the flogging in silence. He had learned to set his teeth and take punishment without whimpering. From the hardest whipping Webber had ever given he went to his seat with a white, set face that stared straight in front of him. Young as he was, he knew it had not been fair and his outraged soul cried out at the injustice of it. The principal had seized upon the truancy as an excuse to let him escape from an investigation of the cause of the fight. Ned Merrill got off because his father was a rich man and powerful in the city. He, Jeff, was whipped because he was an outcast and had dared lift his hand against one of his betters.

    And there was no redress. It was simply the way of the world.

    Jeff and his mother were down that afternoon to see their new friend off in the _City of Skook._ Captain Chunn found a chance to draw the boy aside for a question.

    "Is it all right with Mr. Webber? What did he do?"

    "Oh, he gave me a jawing," the boy answered.

    The little man nodded. "I reckoned that was what he would do. Be a good boy, Jeff. I never knew a man more honorable than your father. Run straight, son."

    "Yes, sir," the lad promised, a lump in his throat.

    It was more than ten years before he saw Captain Chunn again.


    As an urchin Jeff had taken things as they came without understanding causes. Thoughts had come to him in flashes, without any orderly sequence, often illogically. As a gangling boy he still took for granted the hard knocks of a world he did not attempt to synthesize.

    Even his mother looked upon him as "queer." She worried plaintively because he was so careless about his clothes and because his fondness for the outdoors sometimes led him to play truant. Constantly she set before him as a model his cousin, James, who was a good-looking boy, polite, always well dressed, with a shrewd idea of how to get along easily.

    "Why can't you be like Cousin James? He isn't always in trouble," she would urge in her tired way.

    It was quite true that the younger cousin was more of a general favorite than harum-scarum Jeff, but the mother might as well have asked her boy to be like Socrates. It was not that he could not learn or that he did not want to study. He simply did not fit into the school groove. Its routine of work and discipline, its tendency to stifle individuality, to run all children through the same hopper like grist through a mill, put a clamp upon his spirits and his imagination. Even thus early he was a rebel.

    Jeff scrambled up through the grades in haphazard fashion until he reached the seventh. Here his teacher made a discovery. She was a faded little woman of fifty, but she had that loving insight to which all children respond. Under her guidance for one year the boy blossomed. His odd literary fancy for Don Quixote, for Scott's poems and romances she encouraged, quietly eliminating the dime novels he had read indiscriminately with these. She broke through the shell of his shyness to find out that his diffidence was not sulkiness nor his independence impudence.

    The boy was a dreamer. He lived largely in a world of his own, where Quentin Durward and Philip Farnum and Robert E. Lee were enshrined as heroes. From it he would emerge all hot for action, for adventure. Into his games then he would throw a poetic imagination that transfigured them. Outwardly he lived merely in that boys' world made to his hand. He adopted its shibboleths, fought when he must, went through the annual routine of marbles, tops, kites, hop scotch, and baseball. From his fellows he guarded jealously the knowledge of even the existence of his secret world of fancy.

    His progress through the grades and the high school was intermittent. Often he had to stop for months at a time to earn money for their living. In turn he was newsboy, bootblack, and messenger boy. He drove a delivery wagon for a grocer, ushered at a theater, was even a copyholder in the proofroom of a newspaper. Hard work kept him thin, but he was like a lath for toughness.

    Seven weeks after he was graduated from the high school his mother died. The day of the funeral a real estate dealer called to offer three, hundred dollars for the lots in the river bottom bought some years earlier by Mrs. Farnum.

    Jeff put the man off. It was too late now to do his mother any good. She had had to struggle to the last for the bread she ate. He wondered why the good things in life were so unevenly distributed.

    Twice during the next week Jeff was approached with offers for his lots. The boy was no fool.

    He found out that the land was wanted by a new railroad pushing into Verden.

    Within three days he had sold direct to the agent of the company for nine hundred dollars. With what he could earn on the side and in his summers he thought that sum would take him through college.

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