“He’s taking holidays enough. I guess he can give us one,” said Moses Ayer, signing his name laboriously uphill.
“One licking more likely,” said Lewis Hoyt. He grinned as he took the big smooth-faced chip from Moses and added his signature. “Here, Molly, it’s your turn. Remember, you want to leave room for all the others that can possibly squeeze on.”
“If I couldn’t write smaller than that I wouldn’t sign,” retorted Molly Royce over his shoulder. “He’s got to stand treat and that’s all there is to it.”
While the three signers were busy at the master’s table, a little cloud of turkey feathers broke suddenly over a group of boys and girls who were gathered round the fireplace of the big schoolhouse. Jimmy Claiborne had thrown a handful of the feathers he was plucking at Louis Gist.
Louis, who was busy with another turkey, dropped it and sprang at Jimmy. Jimmy dodged among the others. The benches were overturned. In a moment a skirmish had broken out and the school was a mass of dodging figures, laughs and screams.
“Stop that racket,” cried Moses Ayer, pounding on the master’s table. “Listen here!—Jimmy Claiborne, you and Louis stop your fussing and come and sign this petition. Quit fooling. He may be banging at the door any minute.”
“Louis says Marion Royce don’t want me to go on the ark,” shouted Jimmy, “and I want to know if it’s true.”
“Come and sign,” yelled Moses. “The ark won’t be starting for a month and this petition goes into effect to-day. Quit your squabbling and come here.”
“I tell you you won’t go to New Orleans on the ark,” screamed Louis Gist, swinging his turkey round his head as he charged with it.
“Never mind New Orleans, I tell you,” cried Moses, reaching after Jimmy as Jimmy dodged the turkey swung at him. “Look out what you’re doing!” He caught at the turkey to ward it off, tripped over a puncheon, and went over, dragging the turkey and its holder with him.
Lewis Hoyt was still grinning. He caught the passing Jimmy by a fringe of his buckskin and drew him to the master’s desk.
“Sign here, if you’ve got sense enough,” he said. “You look as if you’d been rolling in a torn feather bed. If I were Marion Royce I’d leave you two muddle-heads behind even if I had to fill your places with girls.”
“I guess Marion would be mighty glad to fill one of their places with a girl,” gasped Moses Ayer, emerging from the little boys who had promptly fallen over him when he tripped.
Everyone laughed and looked at Milly Ayer. She blushed and bent over her book. She was one of the older girls who had sat quietly in the back rows, paying no attention to the younger ones about the fire.
“Don’t mind him, Milly, he’s only your brother,” said Louis Gist. Now that Jimmy Claiborne was captured he could return to finish plucking his turkey at the fireside. “Won’t we have a grand barbecue, if the old rascal doesn’t come!”
“We’ll have it even if he does come,” insisted Moses Ayer. “I guess an old toper that can stay away from his school four days at a time hasn’t much right to keep us from having a holiday. I guess he’s pretty lucky to be allowed to teach here at all.”
Lewis Hoyt, who was patiently guiding Jimmy Claiborne’s hand through the evolution of his long name, looked up.
“You can depend on it, Master Hempstead wouldn’t be here in Fish Creek teaching us if he wasn’t addicted to the bowl. He’s a scholar, and some day you’ll regret you didn’t appreciate what he’s tried to teach you.”
“Lewis is preaching again,” cried Moses. “What’s Master Hempstead taught us except the way to the Marietta tavern?”
“Who needs to go to Marietta since the Claibornes bought their new still,—except to hide himself?” asked Louis Gist.
There was a sudden silence over all the room. It was so quiet that Jimmy Claiborne’s labored writing was heard, and all the older scholars exchanged glances. The Claiborne still had been a bitter subject at Fish Creek, and some of the older boys had said that it was already ruining Jimmy Claiborne.
Lewis Hoyt held his hand closed over Jimmy’s as the silence fell,—a silence timed by the steady booming of the puncheon mauls at the little shipyard where the ark was building.
Jimmy’s hand trembled and stopped. Lewis steadily drove it to the finishing of the name.
“I wish there wasn’t a still on the whole length of the Ohio river,” Lewis said very quietly. “Come here, Louis Gist, it’s your turn to sign.”
Jimmy Claiborne went back to the fire, sullen, red-faced and silent, and while the incident was soon dismissed by the others he sat looking into the fire or plucking savagely at the feathers of his turkey. He and Louis had caught them that morning, just outside the schoolhouse, in their turkey trap.
Over at the shipyard the treenail hammers sounded, blending their sharp raps with the measured hollow strokes of the mauls. All the men on the creek were working on the ark which young Captain Marion Royce was building to go down to New Orleans with the spring “fresh.”
Jonas Sparks, the veteran shipwright, had come down from Marietta to oversee the work. Even Gaffir Hoyt was working there, and Uncle Amasa Claiborne, half of whose scalp the Indians had taken thirty years before.
And Louis Gist had told Jimmy that Marion would not let him go. Jimmy knew why. They were gradually coming to distrust him. He and Kenton and MacAfee were one party in the Fish Creek school; Moses and Lewis and Louis Gist another.
He wanted to go to New Orleans. He was entitled to. All winter long he had planned it. Marion Royce would not dare refuse. But Louis’ unconsidered speech rankled in his bitter heart. He would have been glad to escape into the woods, but he sat sullenly plucking his turkey for the barbecue, entrenched behind his knowledge that he had as much right in the schoolhouse as any of the others who chattered around him.
Free public schools had not yet been established in Ohio, but the pioneer families maintained a “subscription school” for their children in primitive schoolhouses of logs afterwards widely known as “Brush College.” Here masters of greater or less merit taught school six days in a week, with no holidays. Not a few, indeed, of the early schoolmasters of this new region were men whom certain weaknesses of character or appetite had exiled from the older walks of civilization. Except for such infirmities many of them were instructors of remarkable ability.
Master Hempstead’s foible was the all too common one of a fond and apparently ungovernable liking for beverages which inebriate. On a number of occasions he had dismissed school in the middle of the forenoon, and after touching homilies to his pupils, had walked out and not been seen again for several days. He had then reappeared, visibly the “worse for wear.”