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"No, it's my turn! You promised! You had the sled yesterday. Today I get to go down Devil's Hill. Frank Littrell crowed I couldn't do it. He called me chicken! I just have to do it. I'm going to use the sled the whole recess after lunch."
"Why can't you do the easy hill, Lucy—and share?" Cyrus griped. "Why do you always want to do scary things? You're just like pa! I heard him talking to Mr. Putnam and some of our other neighbors a few days ago. He wants us to move all the way out to Ohio. It isn't even a state, just a territory in the wilderness. People get killed going out there! We're safe and settled among folks right here in Vermont. Why can't he stay put? Why do you have to have the sled all the time!"
Our teacher, the Reverend Mr. Matthew Stacey, was looking at us as we walked into our one-room schoolhouse. My brother and I lowered our voices.
"Don't change the subject, Cyrus. And besides, I'm eleven! You're only ten," I hissed. "I'm stronger than you, and I'm going to take the sled! Anyway, you made a bargain. So there!" I stuck my tongue out.
"Wait and see! You'll be sorry!" Cyrus whispered.
"If I might have your attention!" Mr. Stacey struck his table smartly with a ruler and snapped in a no-nonsense voice, "please hang up your coats and take your places."
All morning I looked up at the clock. The minute hand ticked slowly from one number to the next. What did Cyrus mean by "You'll be sorry?" I wondered. At lunchtime I gobbled my bread and meat and ran out the door. I didn't see Cyrus. Good, I thought, I won't have to fight him for the sled. I put on my woolen capote and mittens.
The sled was right where I had left it. That was odd. Cyrus hadn't even tried to hide it. Why? I grabbed the ropes and started dragging the heavy sled up Devil's Hill, the highest point near the school. The snow was deep in poultney, Vermont, and it was hard pulling. When I finally reached the top, I looked down. It was a long, long way down. It's longer than I thought. I gulped and looked down again. No! I said I'd do it, and I will!
"Watch out! Here I come!" I yelled and threw myself on the hand sled pa had made for us and headed pell-mell down Devil's Hill toward the schoolhouse. I felt the hard wooden slats against my ribs as I skidded over the crust of ice. Snowflakes pricked at my face like little pins and stung my nose and eyes. My fingers seemed frozen stiff. The wind whistled past me and made a whirring noise as I rocketed down and down. I loved that feeling! Whee! I was flying!
Suddenly, through the blur of snow and ice, I saw a huge boulder that looked like it was speeding toward me. I could see its ragged edges and gigantic hard sides. I screamed! The sled's guiding rod was frozen. Oh, no! I couldn't steer. Just as I was about to collide with that gleaming rock, I leaned to the right with all my might and held on tightly as the sled flipped up on one runner. In a panic, I tried to straighten the guide rod, and the sled ricocheted to the left. Where had that huge rock come from? It had never been there on the slope. My left foot grazed the stone's surface as I flew by. Whoosh! The sled veered off to the right, and I was headed toward some little children playing in the snow. "Move! Run! Get out of the way!" I screamed, "I can't stop the sled! Run! Run!. "I missed them by inches.
Momentum kept building. Faster. Faster. The sled was out of control and racing toward the schoolhouse. "Oh, no!" I wailed in terror. The building loomed higher and closer!
At that moment, Cyrus came around the side of the building. He grinned wickedly and flung the door open wide. Where had he come from? Why was he there? The sled bumped over the doorframe like it was on wheels, bounced on a loose floorboard. Splat! I fell off in a heap on the floor. Wham! The sled ran smack against the andirons in the fireplace. Logs jolted out of the pile, and hot embers scattered all over the floor. The school was on fire! A sour smell of wood smoke was all around me. Flames started licking up from the floor. Everyone began to scream and run away. Oh, no! What had I done?
"Fire! Fire!" Everyone screamed.
"Quick!" Mr. Stacey yelled. "Sweep the coals back into the fireplace! The school will burn down! Stamp on the embers!" The man madly dancing across the glowing coals in front of the fireplace looked more like one of our chickens lurching around the yard after Ma cut its head off than the calm Mr. Stacey we knew. All of my classmates looked scared, but they began jumping and running. They used jackets and brooms to swoosh the live coals and burning ash back into the grate. They tramped on sparks coming up from the dry wood. Dazed, I watched it all from a sprawl on the floor.
Finally, the last ember was squashed. Everyone was quiet, and they all were looking at me. I sat very still. "Miss Sophronia Howe!" Mr. Stacey wasn't using his fire and brimstone voice. His tone was softer than I had ever heard it ... and much scarier. His forehead wrinkled, his eyebrows came together and soot flecked his cheeks. "Would you please explain yourself!
My limbs still splayed on the floor, I looked all the way up from his heavy boots, rough wool leggings and woolsey over-shirt to his scowling face with thin wisps of hair across his forehead. Already his bushy brows looked like storm clouds before the lightning, and his steely blue eyes looked down on me. Mr. Stacy was a busy farmer with little time for any kind of horseplay. He taught in our one-room school in the winter and gave hellfire sermons to the congregation at Hayden Chapel on the weekends. He had no time for cappers.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Stacey. When I steered around a boulder on the hill I could see I was heading right for some little kids and had to veer off toward the school to miss them. I didn't think about coming all the way in." I looked around and saw the smirk on Cyrus's face. I'd have bet anything right that minute that he'd got his friends and shoved that boulder in the way. That was just like him!
"Sorry won't do! You must start thinking before you act. Please take your place under the desk." I was stunned. I let my breath out slowly. I couldn't believe Mr. Stacey wasn't going to thrash me with the Old persuader on the wall! Why wasn't he paddling me? Why did he let me off so easy?
As punishment, Mr. Stacey either thrashed with that paddle or made students sit under his desk. I had been under that table a good many times. I knew his shoes better than his face. There was a neat patch on the right boot toe. His left boot heel was worn at the outside. If I saw those boots walking down the street, I could call, "Hello, Mr. Stacey," without looking up to see a head.
As I crawled under the table, I tried to comfort myself. I thought sitting there was better than the hurt and shame of getting paddled before the class. I peeked out the side at Cyrus. I bet you did this! Wait until I get you on the way home, I thought. You'll be sorry! Cyrus smiled at me smugly.
While I sat cramped under the desk all afternoon, the younger students read at the front of the room. The older students did math on slates at their tables. I could hear their writing rocks scritching and scratching. Our family, like most of the others, couldn't afford chalk. The only two students in school who used it sat near me, and their chalk made loads of dust. I could taste it in my mouth. I smelled it in my nose. I sneezed.
When I peeked out, Cyrus had his tongue wedged between his teeth—a sign that he couldn't remember what he'd just wiped off his slate. He'd run his fingers through his hair so much it stood up like little spikes all over his head. Good, I thought, and felt better. Serves him right! I hope he gets called on next. I could memorize easily, and that thought helped me forget the crick in my neck.
Overhead, I heard Mr. Stacey sharpening quill pens with more than his usual vigor. He was mad, really mad!. The older students used quills to write essays. I smelled the ink of lampblack and oil. Some of the ink dripped through a crack in the desk and made a little pool at my feet. I tried to move quietly. I didn't want it to get on my skirt, and I didn't want to rile Mr. Stacey. I peeked around the legs of the table again. My older sister Sarah bit her lower lip, twisted a lock of corn-colored hair between her fingers and rocked back and forth on a three-legged stool while she copied a passage from the Bible. Our parents built all of the stools and tables, and, because there were nine children in our family, we handed down the stools pa built.
I was stiff when school let out. It took me several minutes just to stand up straight. That gave Cyrus time to put on his blanket shirt and run half way up the hill toward home while I was still tying my capote and hood. He knew I was going to go after him before he got there. Neither Sarah nor my younger brother Thomas would tattle, but he'd blab to Ma. Of all my eight brothers and sisters, Cyrus was the worst!
Light was fading fast, and I barely could pick out Cyrus's shadow against the top of the snow-covered hill. Sarah and Thomas were trailing behind him. Big white flakes began drifting from the sky, so I didn't stop to listen to the scary silence that always came with a new snowfall. I was going at a fast trot and was ready to catch that traitor by the scuff of his neck when Cyrus yelled, "Stop! What's this?" We all gathered 'round to see what he was pointing to in the snow. Outlined in the powdery whiteness was a huge set of tracks. They marched down the hill and crossed the road, and wandered off across the meadow.
"What makes that kind of a footprint?" Sarah asked. "There's just one set of tracks. Do you suppose another animal is coming along?" Sarah took Thomas's hand. She was thirteen years old and always knew what to do. "I think we'd better hurry and all stay together!"
I tried to decide. I wanted to beat up Cyrus there in the snow, but what if some huge bear or gigantic wolf came after us? What if it saw Cyrus getting a thrashing and tried to help him? The bear might not understand that my little toad of a brother had it coming. He might take Cyrus's part. So I decided to be a good heart. I'd get closer to home, then I'd do him in. But he got home before I could catch him.
"Ma! pa!" we shouted, each of us pushing and shoving, trying to be first to get in the house. "Guess what we saw?"
Pa sat at the table. He had finished the milking early. He pulled closer to the fire to see the print on the newspaper he held, his gray hair fell down over his forehead. Ma stirred soup in an iron kettle hanging from a crane in the fireplace. She reached up to tuck a lock of hair back into the bun at the nape of her neck.
Cyrus crowed with self-importance, "I found it first. It was a huge paw print!"
Pa was a hunter. He put down the paper right away and asked, "What did the track look like?"
"Well!" Cyrus puffed out his chest and all but swaggered. "It was twenty or twenty-five inches long! It wasn't as wide as it was long. It ran out to a point at the heel. Oh, and it was checks-like all over," he finished, nearly out of breath with excitement.
Ma looked at pa her brown eyes bright and tried not to smile. Pa let out a huge guffaw! "Law, boy, somebody's been along there with snowshoes!"
Well! I can tell you that made me feel good. My, but I did enjoy his sheepish look. As we hung our coats on the hooks by the door, I whispered to Cyrus, "I knew that all along. You were so mean and guilty and running off. Otherwise, I would have told you and you wouldn't have made a jackass of yourself!" Of course, I didn't really know about snowshoes, but I'd never tell Cyrus that! He pulled my pigtails, and ran away, red-faced.
"Please do your chores before supper." Ma's voice sounded tired, and I remembered that she'd had a hard time eating lately. She upchucked most of her food every morning. Pa looked thoughtful, reached over and patted her hand. He stood to put more wood on the fire.
My older sisters Abby, the organizer, Becky, the flirt, and Minerva, the smart one, had been weaving cloth all day. They jumped up from the looms and the spinning wheel and started setting out supper.
"You young 'uns refill the porch woodpile," Abby called to the rest of us.
While Cyrus and pa split logs, Thomas helped Sarah and me pile heaps of split wood by the porch door. When pa and the boys went to wash up, Sarah and I carried a bundle of sticks and a few of the logs inside to stack by the fireplace.
The fireside was the center of our gathering room. Pa had made a large hearth of the smoothest, most regular stones we could find. They had been laid several feet into the room. A brick flue led up the chimney to the sky. As I placed the fresh-cut wood by the hearth, I was entranced for a moment by the roaring blaze in the huge fireplace. The light from this fire lit and heated the whole room so we didn't need candles.
The backlog that anchored the black andirons was about four feet long and two feet wide and seemed to birth the blood-orange flames that curled up and over another log about two-thirds its size. The fore-stick, about a foot in diameter, suddenly shifted on its perch at the front of the andirons, and a few sparks popped out onto the hearth, reminding me of the near disaster at school that day. I quickly dropped a smaller log between the fore and back logs—where we piled kindling each morning to arouse the banked fire—opened the iron door of the small baking oven at the side of the fireplace and removed the cornbread.
Abby and Becky placed two-quart pewter basins filled with bean soup, pewter platters laden with cracklin' cornbread and tankards of fresh milk on several stools and set beer on the table for pa. We children knelt around the stools with our spoons and ate soup from the same basin. We shared bread from the platters and drank the warm milk.
Abby fed two-year-old Eva and patted Eva's brown ringlets between bites. She, Becky and Minerva sat around one stool. "I spun the most today," Becky boasted. "And I wove a whole yard of cloth." Her yellow curls bobbed saucily.
With a scornful little smile, Minerva broke off some cornbread and boasted, "True, but I wove most yesterday. You've never caught up with my two-and-a-half yards."
Sarah, with a fine line of milk above her cupid's-bow lips, whispered, "Mr. Stacey asked how you were, Abby. I think he likes you."
"Ha, ha. Abby has a sweetheart! Abby has a sweetheart!" Cyrus sang and choked on his cornbread!
Abby tossed her head and sniffed.
Becky joined in. "If I couldn't do better than that old woman in knickers, I'd be happy to stay an old maid."
Minerva's brown eyes danced, "Maybe that's why you don't have a sweetheart, Becky, you can't do better."
"Enough!" pa didn't like family squabbling. "At eighteen, Abby is in no danger of spinsterhood. Stacey is a good man, hard working and sober. Becky, you would be better off putting your mind to weaving. Ma told me you girls turned out nearly eighty yards of linen and wool last year, thank the good Lord. We'll get income by selling what we don't use. Now, tell me what you learned in school today."
I held my breath and thought, here it comes. Sure to Betsy it did! Smirking, Cyrus began: "Well, we did have some excitement. Sophronia took that sled you made us down Devil's Hill. She shot right into the schoolhouse, and when the sled banged into the fireplace, sparks went all over the floor. She set the schoolhouse on fire! We all had to stomp out the fire, but we did it! Boy, was Mr. Stacey ever mad. Serves her right! She wouldn't share the sled! I wish she'd banged into that rock!"
Ma put her hand over her heart as she caught her breath. "Land o'Goshen! You did what!? Lordy, you could have burned down the school!"
Pa just threw back his head. He laughed so hard his eyes watered. "Did I ever tell you about taking my pa's horse? I spurred it so hard it bolted. That old nag was tied to a fence, and when we took off, most of that fence did too. What a paddlin' I got. I tell you, I couldn't sit down for a week." He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand.
"Are you going to paddle Sophronia? Are you pa?" Cyrus clapped his hands.
Pa looked at me for a long minute. I felt my face burning. "Well now, Lucy," he whispered softly, using his pet name for me, "how did that come about?"
I stuttered, "You see, um, well ... I started down the hill. Right in the way, half way down, I saw this huge boulder. I'd never seen it before. I had to pull off hard to miss it. When I steered back in the other direction so I wouldn't run into some little children, I was going so fast I lost control. I was headed right for the schoolhouse door. Cyrus was standing there. He opened the door, and I went right on in. But they got the fire out. Mr. Stacey sat me under the desk as punishment." I hung my head.
Pa rubbed his chin and just thought for a long minute. "I don't remember any boulders on that hill. I walked over there just last week when I went to the school board meeting. I thought what a good sledding hill it was. Come to think of it, I saw some pretty big boulders up on the bluff at Perry Heights. I reckon a bunch of boys with a tree limb as a lever could've pried one loose, and it would have dropped right down on the narrow part of Devil's Hill." He looked at Cyrus for another long minute. "And you were watching for her, you knew about the boulder and you opened the door?"
Excerpted from DANGEROUS JOURNEY by C. B. Murray Copyright © 2012 by C. B. Murray. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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