BESIDE a stricken field I stood; On the torn turf, on grass and wood, Hung heavily the dew of blood. Still in their fresh mounds lay the slain, But all the air was quick with pain And gusty sighs and tearful rain. Two angels, each with d... Read more of The Watchers at Martin Luther King.caInformational Site Network Informational
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The Old Swimming Hole








From: Still Jim

"The same sand that gave birth to the coyote and the eagle
gave birth to the Indian and to me. I wonder why!"

MUSINGS OF THE ELEPHANT.


Little Jim and his mother were left very much alone by Big Jim's death.
Little Jim was literally the last of the Mannings. Mrs. Manning's only
relative, her sister, had died when Jim was a baby. There was no one to
whom Mrs. Manning felt that she could turn for help.

Jim pleaded to be allowed to quit school and go to work.

"I'm fourteen, Mama, and as big as lots of men. I can take care of you."

Mrs. Manning had not cried much. Her heartbreak would not give into
tears easily. But at Jim's words she broke into hysterical sobs.

"Jimmy! Jimmy! I don't see how you can ever think of such a thing after
all Papa said to you. Almost his last advice to you was about getting an
education. He was so proud of your school work. Why, all I've got to
live for now is to carry out Papa's plans for you."

Jimmy stood beside his mother. He was taller than she. Suddenly, with
boyish awkwardness, he pulled the sobbing little woman to him and leaned
his young cheek on her graying hair.

"Mama, I'll make myself into a darned college professor, if you just
won't cry!" he whispered.

For several days after the funeral, Jim wandered about the house and
yard fighting to control his tears when he came upon some sudden
reminder of his father; the broken rake his father had mended the week
before; a pair of old shoes in the wood shed; one of his father's pipes
on the kitchen window ledge. The nights were the worst, when the picture
of his father's last moments would not let the boy sleep. It seemed to
Jim that if he could learn to forget this picture a part of his grief
would be lifted. It was the uselessness of Big Jim's death that made the
boy unboyishly bitter. He could not believe that any other death ever
had been so needless. It was only in the years to come that Jim was to
learn how needlessly, how unremittingly, industry takes its toll of
lives.

Somehow, Jim had a boyish feeling that his father had had many things to
say to him that never had been said; that these things were very wise
and would have guided him. Jim felt rudderless. He felt that it was
incumbent on him to do the things that his father had not been able to
do. Vaguely and childishly he determined that he must make good for the
Mannings and for Exham. Poor old Exham, with its lost ideals!

It was in thinking this over that Jim conceived an idea that became a
great comfort to him. He decided to write down all the advice that he
could recall his father's giving him, and when his mother became less
broken up, to ask her to tell him all the plans his father might have
had for him.

So it was that a week or so after her husband's death, Mrs. Manning
found one of Jim's scratch pads on the table in his room, with a
carefully printed title on the cover:

MY FATHER'S ADVICES TO ME.

After she had wiped the quick tears from her eyes, she read the few
pages Jim had completed in his sprawling hand:

"My father said to me, 'Jimmy, never make excuses. It's always too late
for excuses.'

"He said, 'A liar is a first cousin to a skunk. There isn't a worse
coward than a liar.'

"He said to me, 'Don't belly-ache. Stand up to your troubles like a
man.'

"My father said, 'Hang to what you undertake like a hound to a warm
scent.'

"He said to me, 'Life is made up of obeying. What you don't learn from
me about that, the world will kick into you. The stars themselves obey a
law. God must hate a law breaker.'

"My father said, 'Somehow us Americans are quitters.'

"My mother said my father said, 'I want Jimmy to go through college. I
want him to marry young and have a big family.'

"The thing my father said to me oftenest lately was, 'Jimmy, be clean
about women. Some day you will know what I mean when I say that sex is
energy. Keep yourself clean for your life work and your wife and
children.'"

Mrs. Manning read the pages over several times, then she laid the book
down and stood staring out of the window.

"Oh, he was a good man!" she whispered. "He was a good man! If Jimmy
could have had him just two years more! I don't know how to teach him
the things a man ought to know. A boy needs his father.----Oh, my love!
My love----"

Down below, Jim was leaning on the front gate. His chum, Phil Chadwick,
was coming slowly up the street. The boys had not been near Jim since
the funeral. Jim had become a person set apart from their boy world. No
one appreciates the dignity of grief better than a boy, or underneath
his awkwardness has a finer way of showing it. Phil's mother, to his
unspeakable discomfort, had insisted now that he go call on Jim.

Phil, his round face red with embarrassment, approached the gate a
little sidewise.

"Hello, Still!" he said casually.

"Hello, Pilly!" replied Jim, blushing in sympathy.

There was a pause, then said Phil, leaning on the gate, "Diana's got her
pups. One's going to be a bulldog and two of 'em are setters.
U-u-u--want to come over and see 'em and choose yours?"

Jim's face was quivering. It was his father who had persuaded his mother
that Jim ought to have one of Diana's pups. Mrs. Manning felt toward
dogs much as she might have toward hyenas.

"I--I--guess not today, Pilly!"

Another long pause during which the lads swung the gate to and fro and
looked in opposite directions. A locust shrilled from the elm tree.
Finally Phil said:

"Still, you gotta come up to the swimming hole. It'll do you good.
He--he'd a wanted you to--to--to do what you could to cheer up. Come on,
old skinny. Tell your mother. We'll keep away from the other kids. Come
on. You gotta do something or you'll go nutty in your head."

Jim turned and went into the house. His mother forestalled his request.

"If Phil wants you to go swimming, dear, go on. It will do you good.
Don't stay in too long."

Jim and Phil walked up the road to the old Allen place. They climbed the
stile into a field where the aftermath of the clover crop was richly
green and vibrating with the song of cricket and katydid. The path that
the boys followed had been used in turn by Indian and Puritan. The field
still yielded an occasional hide scraper or stone axe.

There was a pine grove at the far edge of the field. In the center of
the grove was the pond that had for centuries been the swimming pool for
boys, Indian and white. Ground pine and "checkerberry" grew abundantly
in the grove. Both boys breathed deep of the piney fragrance and filled
their mouths with pungent "checkerberry" leaves. The path, deep worn by
many bare feet, circled round the great pines to the clearing where the
pond lay. It was black with the shadows of the grove where it was not
blue and white in mirroring the September sky. Lily pads fringed the
brim. Moss and a tender, long grass grew clear to the water's edge.

Several boys were undressing near the ancient springboard. They looked
embarrassed and stopped their laughter when they saw Jim. He and Phil
got into their swimming trunks quickly and followed each other in a
clean dive into the pool. They swam about in silence for a time and then
landed on the far side and lay in the sun on moss and pine needles.

The beauty and sweetness of the place were subtle balm to Jim. And
surely if countless generations of boy joy could leave association, the
old swimming hole should have spoken very sweetly to Jim. The swimming
hole was a boy sanctuary. The water was too shallow for men. Little
girls were not allowed to invade the grove except in early spring for
trailing arbutus. The oldest men in Exham told that their grandfathers,
as boys, had sought the swimming hole as the adult seeks his club.

Jim looked with interest at his legs. "I've got six. How many have you,
Pilly?"

Phil counted the brown bloodsuckers that clung to his fat calves.
"Seven. Mean cusses, ain't they."

Jim worked with a sharp edged stone, scraping his thin shanks. "You've
got fat to spare. They've had enough off of me today."

"I remember how crazy I was first time they got on me. Felt as if I had
snakes." Phil rooted six of the suckers off his legs and paused at the
seventh. "He's as skinny as you are, Still. I'll give him two minutes
more to finish a square meal."

The two boys lay staring out at the pond.

"Have you gotta go to work, Still?" asked Phil.

"Yes," replied Jim. "Mother says I can't, though."

Phil waited more or less patiently. His mates had long since learned
that Jim's silences were hard to break.

"But I'm going to get a job in the quarry as soon as I can keep from
getting sick at my stomach every time I see a derrick."

"My dad says your--he--he always planned to send you through college,"
said Phil.

Jim nodded. "I'll get through college. See if I don't. But I won't let
my mother support me. I've got a lot of things to finish up for him."

"What things?" asked Phil.

"Well," Jim hesitated for words, "he worried a lot because all the real
Americans are dying off or going, somehow, and he always said it was us
kids' business to find out why. That's the chief job."

"I don't see what you can do about it," said Phil. "That's a foolish
thing to worry about. Why----"

A boy screamed on the opposite side of the pond. It was so different
from the shouts and laughter of the moment before that Jim and Phil
jumped to their feet. Across the swimming hole a naked boy was dancing
up and down, screaming hysterically,

"Take 'em off! Take 'em off! Take 'em off!"

"It's the new minister's kid, Charlie," laughed Phil. "The fellows have
got the bloodsuckers on him. Ain't he the booby? Told me he was fifteen
and he's bigger'n you are. Screams like a girl."

Jim stood staring, his hand shielding his gray eyes from the sun. Across
the pond, the boys were doubled up with laughter, watching the
minister's son writhe and tear at his naked body. Suddenly, Jim shot
round the edge of the pond, followed by Phil. A dozen naked boys hopped
joyfully around the twisting Charlie. They were of all ages, from eight
to sixteen.

When Jim ran up to the new boy, his mates shouted: "Don't butt in, now,
Jim. Don't butt in. He's a darned sissy."

Jim did not reply. Charlie was considerably larger than he. He had a
finely muscled pink and white body, liberally dotted now with wriggling
brown suckers. This was a familiar form of hazing with the Exham boys.
There was a horror in a first experience with the little brown pests
that usually resulted in a mild form of hysteria very pleasing to the
young spectators. But Charlie was in an agony of loathing, far ahead of
anything the boys had seen.

As Jim ran up, Charlie struck at him madly and the boys yelled in
delight. Jim turned on them.

"Shut up!" he shouted. "Shut up now!"

Thin and tall, his boyish ribs showing, his damp hair tossed back from
his beautiful gray eyes that were now black with anger, Jim dominated
the crowd. There was immediate silence, broken only by Charlie's wild
sobs.

"Take 'em off! Take 'em off!"

"He's going to have a fit!" exclaimed Phil.

Charlie's lips were blue and foam flecked. Again as Jim approached him,
the minister's boy planted a blow on his ribs that made Jim spin.

"Charlie!" cried Jim. "Shut up!"

The same peculiarly commanding note that had silenced his mates pierced
through Charlie's hysteria. He paused for a moment, and in that moment
Jim said, "Hold your breath and they can't draw blood. I'll have 'em
off you in a second."

"C-c-can't they?" sobbed Charlie.

"Hold your breath and I'll show you," said Jim. "Here, Phil, take hold."

As they stripped the squirming suckers, Jim kept a hand on Charlie's
arm. "Can you fight, kid?" he asked. "You've got muscle. You'd better
lick the fellow that started this on you or you'll never hear the end of
it."

The blue receded from the older boy's lips. He had a fine, sensitive
face. "I can fight," he replied. "But I fight fellows and not snakes or
worms."

Jim nodded as he pulled off the last sucker. Then he turned to the boys,
his hand still on Charlie's arm. He spoke in his usual drawl:

"They's a difference between hazing a fellow and torturing him. Some
mighty gritty people can't stand snakes or suckers. You kids ought to
use sense. Who started this?"

The biggest boy in the crowd, Fatty Allen, answered: "I did. And if your
father hadn't just died I'd lick the stuffing out of you, Still, for
butting in."

A shout of derision went up from the boys. Jim's lips tightened. "You
lick the new kid first," he answered, "then tackle me. Get after him,
Charlie!"

Charlie, quite himself again, leaped toward Fatty and the battle was on.

There had been, unknown to the boys, an interested spectator to this
entire scene. Just as Charlie's screams had begun, a heavy set man,
ruddy and well dressed, with iron gray hair and black lashed, blue eyes,
had paused beside a pine tree. It was a vividly beautiful picture that
he saw; the pine set pool, rush and pad fringed, and the naked boys, now
gathered about the struggling two near the ancient springboard. One of
the smaller boys, moving about to get a better view of the battle, came
within arm reach of the stranger, who clutched him.

"Who's this boy they call Still?" he asked. "Stand up here on this
stump. I'll brace you."

The small boy heaved a sigh of ecstasy at his unobstructed view. "It's
Still Jim Manning. His father just got killed. He's boss of our gang."

"But he's not the biggest," said the stranger.

"Naw, he ain't the biggest, but he can make the fellows mind. He don't
talk much but what he says goes."

"Can he lick the big fellow?"

"Who? Fatty Allen? Bet your life! Still's built like steel wire."

"What did he start this fight for?" asked the man.

"Aw, can't you see they'd never let up on this new kid after he bellered
so, unless he licked Fatty? Gee! What a wallop! That Charlie kid is
going to lick whey out of Fatty."

"So Still is boss?" mused the stranger. "Could he stop that fight, now?"

"Sure," answered the child, "but he wouldn't."

"We'll see," said the stranger. He crossed over to the ring of boys and
touched Jim on the shoulder. "I want to speak to you, Manning."

Jim looked at the stranger in astonishment, then answered awkwardly,
"Can you wait? I've got to referee this fight."

"You will have to come now," said the man. "Your mother said to come
back at once, with me."

Jim walked into the ring, between the two combatants. "Drop it, fellows.
I've got to go home. We'll finish this fight tomorrow. Fatty can tackle
me then, too."

There were several protests but Fatty had had enough. He was glad of the
opportunity to dive into the pond. One after the other the boys ran up
the springboard until only Jim and the stranger were left. The man
walked back into the grove and in a moment Jim, in his knickerbockers
and blouse, joined him.

"I'm glad to see you can obey, as well as boss, me boy," said the man.
"Your mother says you don't know that a few days ago she advertised in
the N. Y. Sun for a position as housekeeper. I liked the ad and came
up to see her. I'm a lawyer in New York, a widower. I like your mother.
She's a lady to the center of her. But when she told me she had a boy
your age, I felt dubious. She wanted to send for you but I insisted on
coming meself. I wanted to see you among boys. Me name is Michael
Dennis."

Jim flushed painfully. "I don't want my mother to work like that. I can
support her."

"I'm glad that you feel that way, me boy. But on the other hand, you're
not old enough to support her the way she can support herself and you,
too."

"I'll never let my mother support me!" cried Jim.

"What can you do to prevent it?" asked Mr. Dennis. "Wouldn't you like to
live in New York?"

Jim hesitated. Dennis put his hand on Jim's shoulder. "I like you, me
boy. I never thought to want another child about me house. Come, we'll
talk it over with your mother."

Jim followed into the cottage sitting room, where his mother eyed the
two anxiously.

"I thought something must have happened," she said. "Did you have
trouble finding the pond?"

Mr. Dennis smiled genially. "Not a bit! I was just getting acquainted
with your boy. He's quite a lad, Mrs. Manning, and I'm going to tell you
I'll be glad to have him in me house. Now I'll just tell you what me
house is like and what we'll have to expect of each other."

After an hour's talk Dennis said: "I will give you fifty dollars a month
and board and lodging for the lad."

Mrs. Manning flushed with relief. Jim, who had not said a word since
coming into the house, spoke suddenly in his father's own drawl:

"I don't want anyone to give me my keep. I'll take care of the furnace
and do the work round the house you pay a man to do, and if that isn't
enough to pay for keeping me, I'll work for you in your office
Saturdays."

Mr. Dennis looked at the tall boy keenly, then said whimsically, "Well,
I thought you'd been smitten dumb."

"He's very still, Jim is, except when he's fearfully worked up. All the
Mannings are that way," said his mother.

Mr. Dennis nodded. "The house takes lots of care. Your mother will get a
maid to help her and I'll let the man go who has been doing janitor
service for me. With this arrangement, I'll make your mother's salary
$65 a month."

And so the decision was made.

It was the last week in September when Jim and his mother left Exham.
The day before they left the old town, Jim tramped doggedly up the
street toward the old Manning mansion. He had not been there since his
father's death.

When he reached the dooryard he stopped, pulled off his cap and stood
looking at the doorway that had welcomed so many Mannings and sped so
many more. The boy stood, erect and slender, the wind ruffling his thick
dark hair across his dreamer's forehead, his energetic jaw set firmly.
Now and again tears blinded his gray eyes, but he blinked them back
resolutely.

Jim must have stood before the door of his old home for half an hour, a
silent, lonely young figure at whom the quarry men glanced curiously.
When the whistle blew five Jim made an heroic effort and turned and
looked at the derrick, again spliced into place. He shuddered but forced
himself to look.

It was after sunset when Jim finally turned away. It was many years
before he came to this place again. Yet Exham had made its indelible
imprint on the boy. The convictions that had molded his first fourteen
years were to mold his whole life. Somehow he felt that his father had
been a futile sacrifice to the thing that was destroying New England and
that old New England spirit which he had been taught to revere. What the
thing was he did not know. And yet, with his boyish lips trembling, he
promised the old mansion to make good for his father and for Exham--poor
old Exham, with its lost ideals!





Next: The Brownstone Front

Previous: The Quarry



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