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HOME > Classical Novels > Boys of the Central > CHAPTER I. A WORD AND A BLOW.
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 An algebra recitation was in progress in D section.  
Reed was on his feet explaining the given problem with his usual quickness and accuracy. Suddenly Mr. Horton interrupted him.
“Very well, Reed, take your seat. Crawford, you may continue the explanation.”
Crawford stumbled to his feet with a confused glance at the teacher.
“I—er—don’t know exactly where Reed left off, sir,” he stammered.
“If you had been paying attention you would have known. Failure, Crawford. Freeman, you may continue,” said Mr. Horton.
Freeman—a slender, pale-faced boy—occupied the seat directly in front of Crawford’s. He rose promptly and began where Reed had left off, but in a moment he stopped, the color rose in his face, he hesitated, stammered and dropped back into his seat, saying, “I can’t do it, sir.”
Mr. Horton, whose eyes had been on some restless boys in another part of the room, turned around with a glance of surprise. Freeman was not an especially quick scholar, and his frequent absences on account of illness kept him from taking the rank in the class that his steady work would otherwise have secured for him, but a failure was a rare thing for him.
“I think you can do that, Freeman. Try again,” said the teacher.
The boy rose, and once more attempted to go on with the problem, but as before, his face flushed and he dropped quickly back into his seat.
“I am sorry, Freeman, but I must give you a failure,” said Mr. Horton; but as he spoke, another boy sitting across the aisle from Crawford rose, and said clearly and distinctly, “Mr. Horton, Freeman can solve that problem, I think, if he can stand by your desk.”
At this, low hisses sounded from different parts of the room, but a glance from Mr. Horton suppressed them, as he said quietly, “Freeman, step forward to my desk and finish the recitation if you can.”
With a look of relief, the little fellow stepped forward, and, without a moment’s hesitation, solved the problem clearly and correctly.
He cast a grateful glance at the boy who had spoken for him as he returned to his seat, but he[3] shivered as he saw the ugly, threatening look in Crawford’s eyes, and caught the words hissed close to his ear, as Crawford leaned over his desk: “I’ll settle with you for that, and with that donkey that brayed for you, too.”
At recess, Mr. Horton kept both Freeman and Clark, the boy who had spoken for him, and questioned them, but he could get no information from either. He was certain however, in his own mind, that Crawford was the one to blame. He believed that Crawford was at the bottom of much of the trouble and disorder in his class-room, but it was all so slyly done that it was next to impossible to fix the blame where it belonged.
“It was real good of you, Stanley, to help me out,” Freeman said gratefully, as, Mr. Horton having dismissed them, the two went down to the playground; “but I’m afraid Crawford’ll serve you some mean trick to pay for it.”
“He served you a mean enough one, this morning,” answered Clark. “Sticking pins into you, wasn’t he?”
“Yes,” replied Freeman; “he had ’em fastened somehow to the toe of his shoe. They must have been big pins too, for they hurt like fury. Look here!” He pointed to some dark spots on his black stockings, below his short trousers.
“Blood?” said Clark, inquiringly, and as Freeman nodded, he added:—
“It’s a shame, Ray. I see him tormenting you in all sorts of ways whenever Horton isn’t looking. You ought to have your seat changed. Why don’t you?”
“Oh no!” said Freeman, quickly. “He’d say I was a coward then, and couldn’t stand a little fun. No, I’ll stick it out—but,” he added, half laughing, “I wish he wouldn’t stick so many things into me. I reckon I know how a pin-cushion feels.”
Crawford, with half a dozen of his particular cronies, stood on the playground near the door. They seized upon Clark and Freeman as they came out.
“Well, Sissies, did you tell the master all about it?” demanded Crawford, scornfully.
“We did not tell him anything,” answered Clark quietly, looking straight into the other’s angry eyes.
“It’s a lie. You did, too!” said Crawford, hotly.
“We didn’t either!” began Freeman, indignantly; but the big fellow who was holding him gave him a shake and told him to “hush up,” while Crawford repeated loudly and distinctly, “It’s a lie!”
A crowd quickly gathered about the group. There was a moment of silence, while all waited to see what Clark would do. His face was very white and his hands were clenched, but still looking straight into Crawford’s angry eyes, he answered steadily, “You can believe me or not, as you like. I have told you the truth.”
“You’re a sneak, a coward and a telltale! Take that!” said Crawford, in reply, and as he spoke he struck Clark across the mouth.
Clark’s eyes fairly blazed then. He took one step forward, and grasped Crawford’s wrists with a grip that made him wince and draw back, but the next instant Clark released him and turned away, saying, “I would not lower myself enough to fight with you.”
“Ha, ha! Coward—coward! You’re afraid, and try to sneak out of it that way,” called Crawford loudly; and more than one voice joined in the cry, and shouted, “Coward! Coward!” as Clark walked swiftly through the hall and up the stairs to his seat. Little Freeman followed him, but as he glanced at his friend’s white, set face, he dared not speak to him, and slipping into his own seat, he opened a book, and pretended to be studying. In another moment, the bell summoned the boys from the playground. Those of section D, as they returned to their seats, cast curious or scornful glances at Clark, but he never raised his eyes to look at one of them, and when school was dismissed he was the first to leave the room, not waiting even for little Freeman, who was his devoted admirer, and counted it a great honor, as well as pleasure, to walk home with him.
Freeman was feeling very badly about the affair. He considered himself to blame for it all, and he[6] longed to tell Clark how sorry he was, but he knew instinctively that his friend could not bear to talk of it then; so he did not attempt to overtake him, but walked slowly on alone, so deep in thought that he did not notice quick footsteps behind him, till his cap was suddenly snatched off and flung into a mud-puddle, while Crawford’s loud, rough voice exclaimed, “Now, little telltale, you’ve got to take your punishment. I told you I’d pay you out, and I meant it.”
“But I didn’t do anything to you,” protested Freeman, shrinking from the other’s rough grasp.
“Didn’t do anything to me!” echoed Crawford harshly. “It was all your fault. That fool of a Clark was standing up for you, wasn’t he?”
“But—” began Freeman.
“You hush up! We’ve had chin enough from you,” interrupted Crawford, and while three or four of his cronies stood by laughing and jeering, he seized the little fellow, who was five years younger than himself, and nothing like his size, and rolled him over and over in the puddle, where he had already thrown his cap. It had rained heavily the night before, and there was water enough to soak Freeman’s clothing pretty thoroughly. Not content with this, Crawford rubbed mud over the lad’s face and hands, and tried to force it into his mouth before he released him.
“There!” he exclaimed at last. “Now run and tell Clark all about it.”
“Telltale! Telltale!” chorused the others, as Freeman, exhausted by his ineffectual struggles, and dripping wet, picked up his cap and books, and hurried off. He looked at no one that he met, but all the same he was keenly conscious of the curious glances at his flushed face and dripping clothes as he went.
When he reached home he found no one there but his twin sister, Edith.
“Why, Ray!” she exclaimed, “what is the matter? How did you get so wet? But don’t stop to tell me,” she added hastily; “run right up stairs, and get on dry clothes first, and I’ll have some hot drink ready when you come down.”
She knew the danger of a chill for the delicate boy, and had the hot drink ready, and made him take it before she would let him tell her a word of what had happened. Indeed, he did not want to tell her at all, but these two had always shared each other’s joys and sorrows, so Edith soon knew the whole story, all except Crawford’s name. That Freeman would not tell for all her urging. She was so indignant, and scolded so long about it all, that her brother at last half forgot his own indignation in laughing at hers.
“I think it’s too shameful for anything, and the[8] boy ought to be suspended—I don’t care who he is!” she declared, her blue eyes flashing. “Ray, I think you ought to let Mr. Horton know about it, just so that this fellow will not dare to treat any other boy as he has treated you.”
“No, no, Edith, they sha’n’t have any grounds for calling me telltale,” Freeman answered, his thin face flushing as he heard again, in imagination, the taunting cry of “telltale,” that seemed still ringing in his ears. “Say, Edith,” he went on, “mind you don’t let mother know anything about this. She’d worry over it, and imagine me suffering all sorts of persecutions, and it isn’t likely that that fellow will trouble me any more, now that he’s had his ‘revenge,’ as he calls it.”
“But, Ray,” said his sister, “we can’t help mother’s knowing. You can’t wear those clothes again until they’ve been cleaned and pressed. They’ll have to be sent away for that, and mother must know about it.”
“Yes, and pay the bill,” groaned the boy. “I tell you, Edith, it’s awful hard on a big fellow like me to be just a bill of expense to mother, instead of being at work, helping her, as I feel I ought to be.”
“But she doesn’t feel that you ought to be,” said Edith. “You know it almost breaks her heart because she can’t send you to college, and I don’t think[9] anything would induce her to let you leave school until you graduate.”
“I know it,” sighed the boy, “and the worst of it is that I am such a weakling that I may never amount to anything in the world when I am through school.”
“Don’t worry over that, Ray. You are certainly stronger than you were a year or two ago, and maybe you won’t have any more sick spells to pull you down. I do hope not, any way,” and Edith laid her hand tenderly on his shoulder as he spoke.
He looked up at her gratefully, as he answered, “I wonder what I should do without you, Edith. You never let me get quite discouraged.”
“And never mean to,” she answered gaily, though her eyes filled with tears as she looked at the blue-veined temples, and the dark circles under the blue eyes so like her own.

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