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One raw day in 1870 -- five years after the Civil War--a man came upon a boy. The man's face was round and ruddy, with blue eyes which fairly sparked laughs upon the world. The boy was pale and scrawny, with eyes barely able to steal glances. The man wore new boots. They boy's bare feet were caked with mud. The man's purple coat was warm. The boy shivered in rags. And it was a rakish top hat which sat on the man's head, whereas the boy had placed his hat -- an old cloth one -- on the muddy ground before him. For he was begging pennies by performing a shuffle of timid twists, jittery jumps, and sudden stops. The cap, however, was empty.
Looking on, the man suppressed a laugh; he'd seen puppets show more life than this boy. At the same time, he felt inclined to hoot at a performance he considered an insult to the arts be served.
The boy did have another audience: three loafers with slack faces who watched, chewed tobacco, and spat. It was only when the boy attempted a grand finale -- a kicking up of his heels which served to lay him out, facedown in the mud -- that the three laughed so long and loud they had to hug themselves to keep together. And when they realized the boy was not going to dance anymore, they went off -- though still they laughed.
As for the purple-coated man, he shrugged and began to go too, only to stop and -- thinking about the way those loafers laughed -- glance back. The boy was sitting in the mud, pawing his eyes like a half-drowned cat.
What, the man asked himself, had the boy done to make those loafers laugh so?
Feeling a mix of contempt and pity, the man started off, only to pause and study the boy yet again. Then,casually, he strolled back and dropped a coin into the boy's cap. The boy, taken by surprise, looked up.
"Sure, it's yours," the man said, with an accent which marked him as raised in Ireland. "You worked hard enough for it." He judged the boy to be no more than eight years of age.
The boy snapped the coin up with a dirty hand, then scrambled to his feet and stood with a bowed head.
"Is this the place you call your home?" the man demanded, gesturing to the snarl of shacks and shanties that stood beyond.
The boy, who wasn't sure where he came from, said nothing.
"Where do you hail from, then?"
The boy had no more notion regarding that question than he did the first, so again he gave no response.
"Well then," the man persisted, "what about the folks who feed you the odd bit of bread?"
The boy only shrugged.
Increasingly bemused, the man went on. "Well, surely now," he asked, "you own a name, don't you?"
Since, other than "Hey, you!" or "You, fool!" the boy had no name, he remained mute.
At this the man grew thoughtful. Then he said, "Per form that thing-a-ding again. The same as you done before."
"The what?" the boy replied at last.
"Your bit of a turvy jig. The turn that made those men go double daft with laughter."
When the boy did not move, the man jangled some coins within his pocket. "Yours," he coaxed, "if you dance."
The boy knew there was only one way to get the coins. So, though exhausted, he danced like he'd done before, but soon ran down like a windup toy with a broken spring.
The man grinned and offered up his coin. The boy--though he dared not check the value--grabbed it with such clumsy haste that the man laughed out loud.
"And you're absolutely sure you have neither kith nor kin?" he wanted to know.
Ashamed to acknowledge the truth of it all, the boy gazed at his toes.
"All right then," the man said, "you might as well come with me.
Now the boy looked up, his face a mix of hope and fear.
"I've got a traveling medicine show," the man explained. " 'Joe McSneed and His Merry Men,' it's called. I'm Mr. McSneed himself, the grand boss of it all. If you want yourself a place, it's yours."
"You can be my insurance policy."
The boy had no idea what the t meant.
"Mind," Mr. McSneed said, "if you don't want the job, you needn't bother yourself a moment to excess." So saying, he wheeled about on his fine heeled boots and marched off like a proud rooster.
The boy, uncertain if he should believe the man or not, watched him go. Then he looked at the new coin. It was a whole dollar, more money than he'd ever beheld before.
Now the truth is, the boy had no place to live. Nor had he eaten for two entire days. No doubt that was why, limping, as was his way, he began to follow after Mr. Joe McSneed.Punch with Judy. Copyright � by John Avi. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.