Author: Butler, Ellis Parker, 1869-1937
United States — Social life and customs — Fiction
Friendship — Fiction
Boys — Fiction
Mississippi River Valley — Fiction
Iowa — Fiction
Swatty: A Story of Real Boys
A Story of Real Boys
By Ellis Parker Butler
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY
TO FRED ERNST SCHMIDT
OF MUSCATINE, IOWA THE FAITHFUL COMPANION OF MY BOYHOOD THIS BOOK IS MOST GRATEFULLY INSCRIBED
I. THE BIG RIVER
II. MAMIE’S FATHER
III. THE “DIVORCE”
IV. THE STUMP
VI. THE CARDINAL’S SIGNET RING
VII. THE HAUNTED HOUSE
VIII. WASTED EFFORT
IX. THE MURDERERS
X. SLIM FINNEGAN
XI. “THIEF! THIEF!”
XII. THE RED AVENGERS
XIII. THE ICE GOES OUT
XIV. HERB BESTIRS
A STORY OF REAL BOYS
I. THE BIG RIVER
I guess if teachers always knew how lickings were going to turn out they wouldn’t lick us fellows so much. I am thinking about Miss Murphy, the one that taught the room me and Swatty and Bony was in, and about the time she was going to lick Swatty. One of the times. There were plenty of others.
You see, me and Swatty and Bony is chums, and we go together mostly, but this was when we was in Miss Murphy’s room. She’s a good-looker, but she’s a tartar, too, when it comes to licking.
The way of it was this: My sister Fan was mushy over Swatty’s brother Herb and she didn’t care who knew it, because they were engaged, and Fan was fixing up her things to get married in, and she wished I was a girl so I could be her flower girl at the wedding, but she didn’t know what she’d do with me. She thought maybe she’d lock me in the cellar, she said, but she didn’t mean it. She was always codding me and Swatty. She’d cod us that way, and then she’d give us a dime or something. She was all right, and Swatty thought so too.
So then Fan and Herb had a fight, like girls and fellows always do have; but this was a good one. It was because Herb said maybe Fan would like to have Miss Murphy for a bridesmaid, and Fan got mad because Herb had gone with Miss Murphy once. So then Fan wouldn’t forgive Herb. Herb came over and fought for three evenings, and then Swatty brought a note from him to Fan, and I took one from Fan to Herb, and that was the end of it. The note I took had a ring in it, because I could feel it. Then Fan just moped around the house and cried some, and after a while Herb had to go and teach the eighth grade at school, because Professor Martin broke his leg on the ice the janitor ought to have scraped off the steps but didn’t. So right away Herb began to get thick with Miss Murphy, but that didn’t make any difference to me. As soon as a fellow hasn’t got one girl he has another one, anyway, and I didn’t blame Herb. I was just sorry for Fan. And I thought Herb was crazy to make up to a school-teacher, especially a tartar like Miss Murphy. She was an awful licker. She’d lick a fellow for anything.
Well, one day me and Swatty was going to school and we was talking at each other the way we always did, and I said he thought he was great, didn’t he, because his brother was Miss Murphy’s beau, and Miss Muiphy wouldn’t lick him when his brother was her beau. I didn’t mean anything, I just said it, but Swatty hauled off and hit me one and dared me to say that again. So I said it again, and all the fellows got around and yelled “Fight! Fight!” and I had to fight him. It would have been a pretty good fight if Miss Murphy hadn’t come along. She jumped right at us and grabbed us both.
“Who started this fight?” she asked, hopping mad.
“He did,” I said.
“Didn’t neither!” said Swatty. “He did.”
“Who struck the first blow?” says Miss Muiphy.
Well, everybody told her Swatty did, which was the truth, and she let me go.
“Just as I thought, you—you little bulldozer,” she said, shaking him. “You’ve been getting entirely too uppish of late, young man. You think you can take advantage of—of circumstances; but I’ll teach you a thing or two. Get into school there, and wash yourself, and see that you are in your seat when the bell rings.”
So Swatty did it. Me and the Bony Highlander stayed out till the bell rung, and then we went in, too, and as we went past Swatty’s desk he whispered, “She thinks she’s going to lick me, but she ain’t.”
“Bet she does, if she said so,” I says; and I bet she would, too. So did the Bony Highlander, because we knew she was the sort that would rather lick a fellow than not.
Well, that was in the morning, and they never lick at noon because the way some fellows wriggle and twist it takes a long time to lick them, and it would use up the noon hour. So they lick after school in the afternoon when there is plenty of time. So me and the Bony Highlander waited for Swatty, and we tried to scare him. We told him we bet Miss Murphy would make him holler, because she licked with a rawhide pony switch and whipped on the legs where the switch would wrap around and sting, but we couldn’t get Swatty to even pretend he might holler. He said no teacher in the world could make him holler. We all said it. Or, I don’t know whether the Bony Highlander said it or not. He’d never been licked in school. He wasn’t the kind that gets licked, somehow. But he was a pretty nice fellow, anyway. We liked him just as well, but not as well as Swatty and me liked each other of course, because me and Swatty was cow-cousins.
Me and Swatty was both raised on the milk of the same cow, but it was Schwartzes’ cow, and when I was being raised on it Herb Schwartz used to fetch the milk around, the way Swatty does now. I guess that’s how Herb got to know Fan. But the Bony Highlander was just a kid that moved into the neighborhood.
His name wasn’t really Bony Highlander, but we called him that because when he was reading a piece of poetry out of the Reader in school, and ought to have said “bonny Highlander,” he said “bony Highlander.” But we mostly called him Bony for short, like we called Schwartzy Swatty for short. He was all right, but he never started to do things; he just went along when we did them, and waited on the outside of the fence, and things like that.
Well, we waited on the corner for Swatty that afternoon until the bell rung but he didn’t come, so we went along, and he was at school already, and after he had stayed in to be licked and Miss Murphy let him out, he told us why he went early. He knew where she kept her rawhide, in the closet at the end of the room on the shelf where the chalk boxes were, and he went early at noon and took his pocket-knife and cut the rawhide into little pieces about an inch long. He laid them all out on the shelf in a row, and he said he nearly died laughing when she went to pick it up and it was all in pieces. So Miss Murphy went to get another rawhide from another teacher, but everybody had gone home, and she told Swatty she would tend to him to-morrow.
“I’d rather have been licked to-day and then I’d be done with it,” I said, but Swatty didn’t say so.
“If you’ve got a licking,” he said, “you’ve got it, and you can’t ever un-get it, but I ain’t ever going to get this one. I’ll run away first.”
“Ah, I bet you get it to-morrow,” I said, and the Bony Highlander said so too.
“Bet I don’t!” said Swatty. So we made a bet. I bet him my clay pipe against a nigger-shooter rubber he had.
So the next day was when we’d know, and at noon Swatty came over to my barn to get some oilcloth we had in the barn to put in his pants so the licking wouldn’t hurt so much, and I guessed I would win the bet. But he couldn’t fix the oilcloth so it would do any good and let him sit down. He thought Miss Murphy would be onto it if he couldn’t sit down. So he gave that up. So we went to school.
When school was nearly out Swatty got up and started to walk down his aisle and up the next, like he was going out for a drink, but Miss Murphy, who was doing an example on the blackboard for the B class, turned around and saw him.
“Where are you going?” she asked, like tacks in a bottle.
“Just to get a drink,” said Swatty.
“You take your seat this instant!” said Miss Murphy, and when she said it, Swatty started to run; but she got there first and headed him off and grabbed him by the arm. He kicked at her shins, but she gave him a shake that made him see stars and marched him back to the end of the room. I thought she was going to take him to his seat, but she didn’t.
Our schoolhouse has four rooms on a floor—two in front and two in back—and the hall comes in the middle, but it don’t run all the way from front to back. In the middle in front on the second floor there is a little room with some books in it, and they call it the library room.
It has a window and three doors—one into the hall and one into our room, and one into the room across the hall. So Miss Murphy yanked Swatty into that room and locked all three doors. So she had him safe until she got ready to lick him. Then she was going to unlock the door and bring him out and do a good job, because she had a new rawhide all ready. I guess she made up her mind she’d lick him until he hollered that time.
So Swatty waited until school was out. Then he had to wait until Miss Murphy got rid of the ones she had kept in to write their names five hundred times, and things like that, but he didn’t wait. He opened the window and looked out, and right below him was the peak roof of the porch. It wasn’t very big, and it was slated, and if he slipped he’d be a goner and break a leg or something, but he got onto the window sill and hung down with his hands on the sill, and dropped. He dropped straddle of the roof and hung on the best way he could.
He said the only thing he thought about was what a fool he had been not to shut the window, but it was J une and most of the windows were wide open anyway, and I guess Miss Murphy didn’t notice. She unlocked the door and looked into the room and Swatty wasn’t there. Then I guess she thought maybe somebody had come to the library room for a book and had let Swatty out. She never put her head out of the window at all. So she was beaten that time, and she went home.
So Swatty waited until the janitor had swept all the rooms and started to sweep the walk and he hollered to him. It is none of the janitor’s business who gets licked or who don’t, so he came up to the room and helped Swatty get in the window. He just laughed about it.
So the next day Swatty went to school just the same as always, but at noon he came over to my barn and Bony came with him. They generally came because I had to feed my rabbits at noon. This time Swatty sort of poked at the sawdust that was the floor of our barn and didn’t say much. He most generally wore his hat on the back of his head, but this time he had it pulled down over his eyes and that was the way he did when he was getting ready to fight a fellow.
After a while he looked up.
“Are you fellows going to school this afternoon?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Ain’t you?”
“Go and get licked? I guess not!” he said. “I’m going down to the river.”
“What are you going to do down at the river?” Bony asked.
“Going to look at it; what you think I’m going to do?” said Swatty.
Well, looking at it wasn’t a bad thing to do, because the river was away up, and when the Mississippi is up it is worth looking at. It looks twice as big and sort of rounded up in the middle, and all sorts of things floating down it—dead trees, and boxes, and logs, and dead pigs, and sometimes sheds and things. It generally gets up in June, and we always go down on Saturdays to see how she’s getting along.
“She’s higher than she ever was,” said Swatty.
“Well, I guess she’ll be mighty high by Saturday,” said Bony.
“No, she won’t,” said Swatty, “because she’s going to begin falling to-day, the paper says. Why don’t you come along down with me?”
“Yes, and get licked for staying out of school!” I said.
“All right for you fellows, then!” said Swatty. “I’ll be mad at you for good. If you were going to get licked I’d just want to do something so I could get licked too. Don’t I always stick by you fellows? And when I’m going to get licked you go back on me. You’re ‘fraid-cats.”
“Who’s a ‘fraid-cat?” I asked, for I don’t let anybody call me that.
“You are!” said Swatty. “And so’s Bony. You’re afraid to stay out of school one afternoon. You’re afraid to stay out the day the river hits high-water mark. You’ll look nice, won’t you, with just you and Bony and a lot of girls in school!”
“Who said we’d be the only kids there?” I asked.
“Who said it? Why, I said it. You don’t think any kids will go to school this afternoon, do you? Everybody will be down at the levee—men and everybody. If the river don’t drop this afternoon she’ll go over the island levee. And you sit around in school like it was a common day! Why, it’s like—like election, or Fourth of July, or something like that! It’s worse than when the ice goes out.”
Well, I never knew a boy to get licked for staying out of school when the ice was going out of the river. He gets kept in the next day, or something, but nobody can blame a boy for wanting to see the ice go out, not even a teacher. So I guessed I’d go with Swatty, if I could sneak it. Bony didn’t want to go much, but he didn’t like both of us to call him a ‘fraid-cat, so he came. We climbed out of my barn window, because Swatty said we’d have to be careful; but I guess it wasn’t much use, because if we had gone out of the back gate it would have done just as well, and if we had gone out of the front gate nobody would have thought anything but that we were going to school. We kept in the alley all the way down to Indian Creek, and Indian Creek was worth seeing, I tell you.
Mostly there is nothing in it but a little bit of water twisting along in the wet sand, away down in the bottom of the creek bed, but now the creek was full right up to the top, and there were rowboats moored in it. We played in the rowboats a while, until a man came and chased us away, and then we went down along the creek to the river. I tell you, she was some river!
She went rushing along, all big and muddy and foamy, and she was half covered with floating stuff—bark and whole haystacks and old trees and boards and boxes and things. It scared a fellow just to look at her. It made me feel the way a little baby feels when a big twelve-wheel mogul engine comes roaring up to the depot platform, only ten times as scary. It was like a whole ocean starting out to rush away somewhere. We just stood and looked at it, and pretty soon Swatty says, “Gosh!” Only he always says “Garsh!” And I said, “Gee!” That was all we said, and Bony didn’t say anything. He just stepped backward three or four steps and looked frightened. That’s the way you always feel when you see the old Mississippi on a rampage. You feel as if you ought to do something to stop it, and you know you can’t—that nobody can. When it gets going it is going to keep right on. So we went down to the levee.
Well, there wasn’t any levee! Our levee is just a long down-hill of sand, and it wasn’t there. The river had backed clean up to the railroad tracks and was sploshing against the second rail of the outside track, and at the down-river end of the levee it had gone under the tracks and was all over Front Street at the corner. The ferry dock, that was usually away down at the bottom of the levee, was tied right up close to the railroad track, and the ferry was tied in behind the steamboat warehouse, so she wouldn’t wash away. The water was clean up over the floor of the steamboat warehouse, too, and nothing looked the way it used to look. It was worth forty lickings just to see how different everything was. We just stood and looked and couldn’t believe it.
“Come on,” said Swatty, all at once, “let’s have some fun. Let’s take off our shoes and stockings and have some fun.”
We went across the street and asked a man if we could leave our shoes and stockings in his store, and he said we could, and then we went back and began to wade where the water wasn’t very deep. There were a few other boys there, wading, and a lot of men standing around, looking at the water. Some would come down and look a while and then go away again, and all at once Swatty said, “Garsh! What if our fathers came down here!”
So we got away from there, quick. We went down below the steamboat warehouse, where the ferryboat was tied, because nobody was apt to come down there, and nobody did. We played on the ferryboat a while and then we got off her, and Swatty saw where somebody had fastened a lot of logs and bridge timbers to the railway track. I guess they were stuff some men had gone out in skiffs to catch as they floated by, before the river got so rampageous. The way they fastened them was to drive a spike in one end and tie a rope to that, and then tie the other end to the railway track. So Swatty said, “Come on! Let’s have some fun with these logs and bridge timbers,” or something like that; so we did. We walked on them, and some of them would sink under us, and then we would jump to another.
Well, there below the steamboat warehouse the water made an eddy, and the bark and foam and some sticks kept going around and around in the eddy, and pretty soon Swatty said: “Let’s ride on these logs,” and that was all right, too, because we could sit straddle of a log or a bridge timber and paddle with our feet. So we did that. Swatty cut three of them loose, and we each took a bridge timber, because they didn’t turn over like the logs did, and we paddled around in the eddy and played we were steamboats. I was the “War Eagle,” and Swatty was the “Mary Morton,” and Bony was the “Centennial.” We played that a long time and then we took boards for paddles, and we could go better that way so we played Indians in canoes, and I got on Swatty’s timber and let mine go, which was all right because the timbers would just go around and around in the eddy. But Bony wouldn’t get on with us, because he was afraid the timber would sink.
It got along to about five o’clock, and Bony said we had better go home. He was always the first to want to go home. He told Swatty that Swatty would be late going for his cow if he didn’t start right away, but Swatty said he didn’t care if the old cow never got home. He said it wouldn’t hurt the old cow to wait a while, anyway. So we started to paddle around the eddy again, and that time we got almost too far out, I guess, and the end of the timber stuck out beyond the eddy into the swift water.
“Back her up! Quick!” Swatty yelled, and we both tried to back her with our board paddles, but it was too late. The swift water caught her on the side and swung her right out into the current. Gee, but she went! Right away she was half a block away from Bony and I began to cry, for there was no telling where she’d stop. You couldn’t expect her to stop this side of St. Louis or New Orleans. So I began to cry, and I stooped down and hung onto the timber with both arms. It was all I could think of to do. But Swatty let on he wasn’t scared at all. He tried to paddle toward shore, but there was so v much driftwood and stuff floating that he couldn’t do it.
“Aw, shut up! Don’t be a cry-baby!” he yelled at me. “This ain’t nothing. Grab your paddle, and we’ll paddle out to the Tow Head and we’ll be all right.”
The Tow Head is the big island in the river below town, but more to this side of the river than to the other side. It is shaped like a horseshoe, with the two ends down-stream. Me and Swatty knew it pretty well because sometimes we used to row down there. It was all trees except a strip of sand on each side, and in low water there used to be a sandbar below it. It looked like a good idea to get to the Tow Head if we could; but I was afraid to sit up so I just stayed the way I was. But Swatty paddled like a good fellow. I guess the current helped him some. In low water there are two channels, one on each side of the Tow Head, but when the river is on a rampage it don’t care anything about channels—it just goes. But it kind of bends below town and I guess that helped Swatty.
He kept yelling at me not to be a ‘fraid-cat and to paddle, but I didn’t dare. So he paddled, and pretty soon I saw he was going to hit the Tow Head all right. That