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HOME > Classical Novels > The Worst Boy in Town > CHAPTER IV. SHARP AXES AND SHARPER WITS.
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CHAPTER IV. SHARP AXES AND SHARPER WITS.
During the week preceding the great contest with axes there was very little truancy, fighting or bad hours to be complained of by the parents of the boys of Doveton. The excitement natural to an approaching struggle was sufficient even for the nerves of the most irrepressible juvenile natures in town. Most of the boys went into training at their respective family wood-piles, and those who had no uncut wood on hand resorted to the unprecedented operation of requesting permission to work at that of somebody else. The story of the bet became noised abroad, beyond the limits of the town, and several sturdy country boys having signified their desire to earn fifty cents by a half day's work, the crowd allowed them to enter for the contest, for anything was more endurable than Jack Wittingham's conceit; Jack himself welcomed them, of course, in the most hearty manner in the world. Toward the last of the week the sound of the grindstone was heard in the land, and as several boys had asked and received permission to use saws instead of axes, the melodious voice of the hand saw file arose to stimulate in nervous persons of religious tendencies an increased appreciation of the promised peace of Heaven. Then every carpenter who owned a boy of wood-chopping age suddenly missed his best oil stone, and sundry axes had their edges dressed so keenly that no one denied their owner's assertions that a man might shave himself with those axes and not know but they were rabbit paws or puff balls. The juvenile rowdies, who treasured old copies of sporting papers, read up on the training of prize-fighters, with the result that they indulged in ablutions with unhabitual frequency, and took an amount and variety of exercise which threatened to exorcise the demon which inhabits the juvenile loafer.

The morn of the eventful day dawned at last, and, early as it was when Doctor Wittingham had to start for the railway station, there was already approaching his wood-pile fat Billy Barker, who was so treacherous a sleeper that he had remained awake all night so as to be on hand in time in the morning. Then one of the loafers, whose family owned no timepiece, lounged up, and made Billy very uncomfortable with prophecies that a certain boy would hardly escape melting on such a warm day as that particular Saturday promised to be, and that only a pair of leg boots could be trusted to save enough of the remains to justify a full sized funeral. Then one of the country boys appeared, riding bareback upon an ancient mare, and his extreme taciturnity became as annoying to Billy as the chaffing of the loafer had been, while the loafer himself visibly abated his arrogance by a degree or two. Then the Pinkshaw twins approached, each with an axe in one hand and a piece of bread and butter in the other. Matt Bolton came next, quite out of breath, for though he had half an hour to spare, a sense of his official responsibility had somehow impelled him to run every step of the way from his own home. Lame Joey Wilson staggered in soon after, with his heavy "saw horse" and saw, and close behind him came a country boy whose family had brought him as far as the main street in the farm wagon. Then two loafers, successful catchers of occasional saw logs and drift wood, lounged up from the river. Several boys from the neighborhood known as the other side of town, approached in a body, led by big Frank Parker, who was the largest boy in school and who it was always considered a privilege to follow. Then as the hour for business came nearer, boys approached from all directions so rapidly that they could scarcely be catalogued, and when Matt drew his sister's watch from his pocket for the twentieth time and announced that it was ten minutes of eight, there were present forty-three boys, five horses (belonging to the delegation from the country), besides three unemployed men who had come to look on. The stalwart appearance of some of the larger contestants terrified certain small, weak and lazy boys into determining to throw up the sponge in advance, but when the challenger, the boastful Jack himself, sauntered out from the house with an axe on his shoulder, a toothpick in his mouth and an intolerable air of self-sufficiency in his face, the nerves of the most timid boy grew suddenly as fine as steel, and he determined to drop dead on his axe rather than let that bragging Jack crow over him any longer.

Suddenly Matt mounted the wood-pile, consulted his sister's watch, and exclaimed—

"Only five minutes more. Now, fellows, this is to be a fair fight, you know. Every man picks his own place, carries wood to it from the pile, cuts each stick into three equal lengths, and throws in front of him whatever he chops. If at twelve o'clock there's any doubt who has done most, the biggest piles are to be laid up straight against a stake, and carefully measured. Nobody need split his wood. When it's time to begin, I'll holloa 'One, two, three—go!' and when twelve o'clock comes I'll say 'One, two, three—stop!' I'll have a pail of water and a cup here by the fence, for anyone who wants a drink."

The boys were already carrying the four foot sticks of wood to their chosen locations, and between the confusion of selecting desirable places and that occasioned by snatching from a wood-pile which did not afford elbow-room for forty-three boys at a time, there was considerable bad feeling engendered, and sundry punishments with impolite names were promised for the indefinite future. The country boys had judiciously hugged the ends of the wood-pile from the moment of their arrival, which prospective advantage certain other boys attempted to nullify by taking wood from the ends, and there might have ensued a serious collision had not Matt, who had moved the judge's stand from the wood-pile to the fence, shouted,

"Eight o'clock. One, two, three—go!"

Thirty-nine axes came down nearly as one, and four saws began a not discordant quartette across the bark of sundry sticks, while the three unemployed men thrust their hands deep into their pockets and adjured the boys, collectively, to "go in." A chip from fat Billy Barker's axe started to avenge Billy upon his tormentor of an hour before, and it struck the loafer in the back of the neck with such force that the bad boy howled with anguish, and volubly condemned his soul to all sorts of uncomfortable places and conditions. The axes soon broke the uniformity of their stroke; some flew at the rate of nearly a blow a second, others, particularly those of the country boys, were slow, but oh, so regular! Still others, confined almost exclusively to the loafers, struck the wood rapidly and with a particularly vicious hardness which was not without its influence upon boys of small spirit. The peculiar ringing of an occasional "glance" was heard, and soon a yell from Scoopy Brown, who was a very awkward boy, called general attention to that youth, who was sitting upon the ground holding one of his feet and weeping bitterly. A careful examination determined that his axe had not gone deeper than the stocking, so Scoopy dried his tears and began work again, his spirits sharpened by many uncomplimentary remarks by the loafers and others who had lost time by stopping work to look at him.

Within a quarter of an hour fat Billy Barker had visited the water-pail three times; a quarter of an hour later he was curled up with agony beside the fence, his only consolation consisting in making dreadful faces at the big loafer who had proved a tolerable prophet. At the same time two other boys, one of whom had broken an arm within three months, and the other being so small that he realized the folly of contending against many large boys, retired from the contest, and took place among the spectators, who already consisted of seven men, one woman (with baby) and two dogs. Then one of the loafers declared that although he could beat as easily as falling off a log, fifty cents wouldn't pay for half a day of work under such a sun. Of the spare forty who remained, nearly half were of apoplectic hue, so that Matt the umpire, consulting his sister's watch, felt in duty bound to inform them that barely half an hour had elapsed, and that they would never get through the morning unless they took things easier.

As for Jack, he did splendidly. With great sagacity he had selected the largest sticks, these requiring less handling, and fewer delays between an old stick and a new one, besides making a heap look more bulky. His axe was in capital condition, as his physique always was, his nerve was equally good, and he had the additional incentive of wanting to keep up the general interest, which would be sure to flag if he were discovered to be falling behind. The country boys led him a close race, and compelled him to do his best, as did also two of the loafers. At the end of the first hour, Matt the umpire, who had attended closely to his sister's watch for the ten minutes preceding, shouted "Nine o'clock," and most of the country boys stopped for a brief rest. Jack was glad to follow their example, and at the same time one of the loafers took a flask bottle from his pocket and swallowed considerable whiskey. A request, proffered by another loafer, that the bottle be passed was met by a reply similar in tenor to that given by the five wise virgins to their foolish companions, and the apparent meanness of this proceeding made even the weariest boy determine to at least beat that particular loafer.

Half-past nine came, and with it a loud snap which proved to proceed from the saw block of lame Joey Wilson. As Joey was a very pleasant little fellow, with a widowed mother whose lot in life was not the easiest, another boy, who had a saw, pressed it upon Joey, and thus honorably retired from a contest which had kept his back aching frightfully for nearly an hour. Then two or three other boys honestly acknowledged themselves completely used up, and they retired to such shade as the fence afforded and constituted themselves an invalid corps of observation. The loafer who had drank the whiskey dropped suddenly, muttered something about sunstroke, and crawled away unlamented by any one.

At the cry of "Ten o'clock!" the working force had dwindled to twenty-seven axes and two saws. Two boys had been legitimately summoned from the field by their legal guardians, and at least half a dozen others longed earnestly for a similar fate. Jack began to be doubtful of the entire success of his scheme, but the country boys all stuck manfully to business, and at least one of them was beginning to show signs of becoming excited. The remaining loafers, too, hung on very well, and so did a spare half dozen of other boys, mostly large. The crowd was still large and industrious enough to astonish several farmers who drove into town, and the road became literally paved with chips. The invalid corps increased at about the rate of four men an hour between ten and eleven, but by this time Jack's mind was easy, for the only danger was that there would not be wood enough left with which the fittest who survived could complete the half day. Nearly all the loafers broke down, as loafers always do during the decisive hour, and the strife narrowed down to the country boys, one loafer, big Frank Parker, lame Joey Wilson and Jack. Each boy had his special adherents; the loafers cheered their own representative with much outlandish language, most of the men encouraged the country boys, the delegation from the other side of town urged big Frank Parker to "lay himself out," to "come down lively," to "sling himself," and to do many other things which to the youthful mind seem best signified by idioms of great peculiarity, but the mass of sympathy was pretty equally divided between Jack and lame Joey Wilson. Eligible sticks of wood began to be sought at the piles of those who had abandoned the contest, and Matt the umpire had to exert the extreme measure of his authority to prevent the partizans of the two favorites from rushing in and carrying wood for them. The breaking of the axe-helve of one of the country boys elicited a tremendous roar from the entire assemblage, which was now upon its feet. The lame Joey Wilson faction began to sing the chorus "Go in lemons, if you do get squeezed," which was known to be Joey's favorite air and the song stimulated Joey wonderfully, noting which fact the adherents of Jack started "John Brown's body lies mouldering in the grave," which Jack was known to consider the finest thing ever written. But somehow the tune did not stimulate Jack as it was expected to do; perhaps the words with which the air is indissolubly associated had a depressing effect upon him, besides, the two songs were roared with about equal volume of sound, and as they are written in different keys, measures, and time, the general effect was horribly discordant and annoying to a tired man.

At half past eleven the remaining sticks, like angels' visits, became far between, and finally dwindled to one, over which two of the country boys fought, dropping it in their struggle, to be triumphantly snatched and sawed by lame Joey Wilson. Then Matt, the umpire, first ascertaining from his sister's watch that it was not yet twelve o'clock, announced that any man might take a stick from any other man who had uncut sticks before him. At thirteen minutes of twelve, five of the six country boys were upon their last sticks and the other had a single stick yet uncut before him, which seemed to lie between Jack and lame Joey Wilson. Jack's axe glanced several times and Joey got the stick, and at precisely ten minutes before twelve Joey had the last stick reposing in three pieces upon his pile. The whole crowd rushed in, but Matt shouted—

"Everybody get back—quick—get back! every man piles his own wood!"

Some little delay occasioned by the difficulty of getting stakes against which to stake the piles which seemed largest, was ended by an order to pile against the fence. It was generally admitted, by every one but the country boys, that the decision must be between Jack and Joey, and as Jack was quick upon his feet and Joey, an account of his lame leg, was slow, the former was allowed to assist the latter, but no one noticed that Jack took considerable wood from the piles of the boys who had been unsuccessful with the saw; the result was that Joey's pile was so much the larger that no one insisted upon a measurement, and Matt handed the half dollar to lame Joey Wilson without a protest from any one, though the shouts that went up formed a conglomerate sound which was truly appalling to any adult ear which it reached.

Then the boys separated and started homeward with their respective axes, saws, and saw-horses. Dr. Wittingham met several of them, as he returned at an earlier hour than Jack had expected from his consultation. What to make of the unusual number of business looking boys he did not know, but as he went around to the wood-pile to see how his son had begun his self-imposed penalty, the truth dawned upon him, and he exclaimed:

"I've used every evening this week upon that chapter of heredity, and now it isn't worth the paper it's written on!"
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