FictionForest

Chapter 1 – The Catastrophe

Louisa May AlcottNov 04, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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"Clear the lulla!" was the general cry on a bright December
afternoon, when all the boys and girls of Harmony Village were
out enjoying the first good snow of the season. Up and down three
long coasts they went as fast as legs and sleds could carry them.
One smooth path led into the meadow, and here the little folk
congregated; one swept across the pond, where skaters were
darting about like water-bugs; and the third, from the very top of
the steep hill, ended abruptly at a rail fence on the high bank above
the road. There was a group of lads and lasses sitting or leaning on
this fence to rest after an exciting race, and, as they reposed, they
amused themselves with criticising their mates, still absorbed in
this most delightful of out-door sports.

"Here comes Frank Minot, looking as solemn as a judge," cried
one, as a tall fellow of sixteen spun by, with a set look about the
mouth and a keen sparkle of the eyes, fixed on the distant goal
with a do-or-die expression.

"Here’s Molly Loo

And little Boo!"

sang out another; and down came a girl with flying hair, carrying a
small boy behind her, so fat that his short legs stuck out from the
sides, and his round face looked over her shoulder like a full
moon.

"There’s Gus Burton; doesn’t he go it?" and such a very long boy
whizzed by, that it looked almost as if his heels were at the top of
the hill when his head was at the bottom!

"Hurrah for Ed Devlin!" and a general shout greeted a sweet-faced
lad, with a laugh on his lips, a fine color on his brown cheek, and a
gay word for every girl he passed.

"Laura and Lotty keep to the safe coast into the meadow, and
Molly Loo is the only girl that dares to try this long one to the
pond. I wouldn’t for the world; the ice can’t be strong yet, though it
is cold enough to freeze one’s nose off," said a timid damsel, who
sat hugging a post and screaming whenever a mischievous lad
shook the fence.

"No, she isn’t; here’s Jack and Jill going like fury."

"Clear the track

For jolly Jack!"

sang the boys, who had rhymes and nicknames for nearly
every one.

Down came a gay red sled, bearing a boy who seemed all smile
and sunshine, so white were his teeth, so golden was his hair, so
bright and happy his whole air. Behind him clung a little gypsy of
a girl, with black eyes and hair, cheeks as red as her hood, and a
face full of fun and sparkle, as she waved Jack’s blue tippet like a
banner with one hand, and held on with the other.

"Jill goes wherever Jack does, and he lets her. He’s such a
good-natured chap, he can’t say ‘No.’"

"To a girl," slyly added one of the boys, who had wished to borrow
the red sled, and had been politely refused because Jill wanted it.

"He’s the nicest boy in the world, for he never gets mad," said the
timid young lady, recalling the many times Jack had shielded her
from the terrors which beset her path to school, in the shape of
cows, dogs, and boys who made faces and called her "’Fraid-cat."

"He doesn’t dare to get mad with Jill, for she’d take his head off in
two minutes if he did," growled Joe Flint, still smarting from the
rebuke Jill had given him for robbing the little ones of their safe
coast because he fancied it.

"She wouldn’t! she’s a dear! You needn’t sniff at her because she
is poor. She’s ever so much brighter than you are, or she wouldn’t
always be at the head of your class, old Joe," cried the girls,
standing by their friend with a unanimity which proved what a
favorite she was.

Joe subsided with as scornful a curl to his nose as its chilly state
permitted, and Merry Grant introduced a subject of general interest
by asking abruptly, –

"Who is going to the candy-scrape to-night?"

"All of us. Frank invited the whole set, and we shall have a tip-top
time. We always do at the Minots’," cried Sue, the timid trembler.

"Jack said there was a barrel of molasses in the house, so there
would be enough for all to eat and some to carry away. They know
how to do things handsomely;" and the speaker licked his lips, as if
already tasting the feast in store for him.

"Mrs. Minot is a mother worth having," said Molly Loo, coming up
with Boo on the sled; and she knew what it was to need a mother,
for she had none, and tried to care for the little brother with
maternal love and patience.

"She is just as sweet as she can be!" declared Merry,
enthusiastically.

"Especially when she has a candy-scrape," said Joe, trying to be
amiable, lest he should be left out of the party.

Whereat they all laughed, and went gayly away for a farewell
frolic, as the sun was setting and the keen wind nipped fingers and
toes as well as noses.

Down they went, one after another, on the various coasts, – solemn
Frank, long Gus, gallant Ed, fly-away Molly Loo, pretty Laura and
Lotty, grumpy Joe, sweet-faced Merry with Sue shrieking wildly
behind her, gay Jack and gypsy Jill, always together, – one and all
bubbling over with the innocent jollity born of healthful exercise.
People passing in the road below looked up and smiled involuntarily
at the red-cheeked lads and lasses, filling the frosty air with peals
of laughter and cries of triumph as they flew by in every conceivable
attitude; for the fun was at its height now, and the oldest and gravest
observers felt a glow of pleasure as they looked, remembering their own
young days.

"Jack, take me down that coast. Joe said I wouldn’t dare to do it, so
I must," commanded Jill, as they paused for breath after the long
trudge up hill. Jill, of course, was not her real name, but had been
given because of her friendship with Jack, who so admired Janey
Pecq’s spirit and fun.

"I guess I wouldn’t. It is very bumpy and ends in a big drift; not
half so nice as this one. Hop on and we’ll have a good spin across
the pond;" and Jack brought "Thunderbolt" round with a skilful
swing and an engaging air that would have won obedience from
anybody but wilful Jill.

"It is very nice, but I won’t be told I don’t ‘dare’ by any boy in the
world. If you are afraid, I’ll go alone." And, before he could speak,
she had snatched the rope from his hand, thrown herself upon the
sled, and was off, helter-skelter, down the most dangerous coast on
the hill-side.

She did not get far, however; for, starting in a hurry, she did not
guide her steed with care, and the red charger landed her in the
snow half-way down, where she lay laughing till Jack came to pick
her up.

"If you will go, I’ll take you down all right. I’m not afraid, for
I’ve done it a dozen times with the other fellows; but we gave it up
because it is short and bad," he said, still good-natured, though
a little hurt at the charge of cowardice; for Jack was as brave as a
little lion, and with the best sort of bravery, – the courage to do right.

"So it is; but I must do it a few times, or Joe will plague me and
spoil my fun to-night," answered Jill, shaking her skirts and
rubbing her blue hands, wet and cold with the snow.

"Here, put these on; I never use them. Keep them if they fit; I only
carry them to please mother." And Jack pulled out a pair of red
mittens with the air of a boy used to giving away.

"They are lovely warm, and they do fit. Must be too small for your
paws, so I’ll knit you a new pair for Christmas, and make you wear
them, too," said Jill, putting on the mittens with a nod of thanks,
and ending her speech with a stamp of her rubber boots to enforce
her threat.

Jack laughed, and up they trudged to the spot whence the three
coasts diverged.

"Now, which will you have?" he asked, with a warning look in the
honest blue eyes which often unconsciously controlled naughty Jill
against her will.

"That one!" and the red mitten pointed firmly to the perilous path
just tried.

"You will do it?"

"I will!"

"Come on, then, and hold tight."

Jack’s smile was gone now, and he waited without a word while
Jill tucked herself up, then took his place in front, and off they
went on the brief, breathless trip straight into the drift by the fence
below.

"I don’t see anything very awful in that. Come up and have another.
Joe is watching us, and I’d like to show him that we aren’t afraid of
anything," said Jill, with a defiant glance at a distant boy, who had
paused to watch the descent.

"It is a regular ‘go-bang,’ if that is what you like," answered Jack,
as they plowed their way up again.

"It is. You boys think girls like little mean coasts without any fun
or danger in them, as if we couldn’t be brave and strong as well as
you. Give me three go-bangs and then we’ll stop. My tumble
doesn’t count, so give me two more and then I’ll be good."

Jill took her seat as she spoke, and looked up with such a rosy,
pleading face that Jack gave in at once, and down they went again,
raising a cloud of glittering snow-dust as they reined up in fine
style with their feet on the fence.

"It’s just splendid! Now, one more!" cried Jill, excited by the
cheers of a sleighing party passing below.

Proud of his skill, Jack marched back, resolved to make the third
"go" the crowning achievement of the afternoon, while Jill pranced
after him as lightly as if the big boots were the famous
seven-leagued ones, and chattering about the candy-scrape and
whether there would be nuts or not.

So full were they of this important question, that they piled on
hap-hazard, and started off still talking so busily that Jill forgot to
hold tight and Jack to steer carefully. Alas, for the candy-scrape
that never was to be! Alas, for poor "Thunderbolt" blindly setting
forth on the last trip he ever made! And oh, alas, for Jack and Jill,
who wilfully chose the wrong road and ended their fun for the
winter! No one knew how it happened, but instead of landing in
the drift, or at the fence, there was a great crash against the bars, a
dreadful plunge off the steep bank, a sudden scattering of girl, boy,
sled, fence, earth, and snow, all about the road, two cries, and then
silence.

"I knew they’d do it!" and, standing on the post where he had
perched, Joe waved his arms and shouted: "Smash-up! Smash-up!
Run! Run!" like a raven croaking over a battlefield when the fight
was done.

Down rushed boys and girls ready to laugh or cry, as the case
might be, for accidents will happen on the best-regulated
coasting-grounds. They found Jack sitting up looking about him
with a queer, dazed expression, while an ugly cut on the forehead
was bleeding in a way which sobered the boys and frightened the
girls half out of their wits.

"He’s killed! He’s killed!" wailed Sue, hiding her face and
beginning to cry.

"No, I’m not. I’ll be all right when I get my breath. Where’s Jill?"
asked Jack, stoutly, though still too giddy to see straight.

The group about him opened, and his comrade in misfortune was
discovered lying quietly in the snow with all the pretty color
shocked out of her face by the fall, and winking rapidly, as if half
stunned. But no wounds appeared, and when asked if she was
dead, she answered in a vague sort of way, –

"I guess not. Is Jack hurt?"

"Broken his head," croaked Joe, stepping aside, that she might
behold the fallen hero vainly trying to look calm and cheerful with
red drops running down his cheek and a lump on his forehead.

Jill shut her eyes and waved the girls away, saying, faintly, –

"Never mind me. Go and see to him."

"Don’t! I’m all right," and Jack tried to get up in order to prove that
headers off a bank were mere trifles to him; but at the first
movement of the left leg he uttered a sharp cry of pain, and would
have fallen if Gus had not caught and gently laid him down.

"What is it, old chap?" asked Frank, kneeling beside him, really
alarmed now, the hurts seeming worse than mere bumps, which
were common affairs among baseball players, and not worth much
notice.

"I lit on my head, but I guess I’ve broken my leg. Don’t frighten
mother," and Jack held fast to Frank’s arm as he looked into the
anxious face bent over him; for, though the elder tyrannized over
the younger, the brothers loved one another dearly.

"Lift his head, Frank, while I tie my handkerchief round to stop the
bleeding," said a quiet voice, as Ed Devlin laid a handful of soft
snow on the wound; and Jack’s face brightened as he turned to
thank the one big boy who never was rough with the small ones.

"Better get him right home," advised Gus, who stood by looking
on, with his little sisters Laura and Lotty clinging to him.

"Take Jill, too, for it’s my opinion she has broken her back. She
can’t stir one bit," announced Molly Loo, with a droll air of
triumph, as if rather pleased than otherwise to have her patient hurt
the worse; for Jack’s wound was very effective, and Molly had a
taste for the tragic.

This cheerful statement was greeted with a wail from Susan and
howls from Boo, who had earned that name from the ease with
which, on all occasions, he could burst into a dismal roar without
shedding a tear, and stop as suddenly as he began.

"Oh, I am so sorry! It was my fault; I shouldn’t have let her do it,"
said Jack, distressfully.

"It was all my fault; I made him. If I’d broken every bone I’ve got,
it would serve me right. Don’t help me, anybody; I’m a wicked
thing, and I deserve to lie here and freeze and starve and die!"
cried Jill, piling up punishments in her remorseful anguish of mind
and body.

"But we want to help you, and we can settle about blame by and
by," whispered Merry with a kiss; for she adored dashing Jill, and
never would own that she did wrong.

"Here come the wood-sleds just in time. I’ll cut away and tell one
of them to hurry up." And, freeing himself from his sisters, Gus
went off at a great pace, proving that the long legs carried a
sensible head as well as a kind heart.

As the first sled approached, an air of relief pervaded the agitated
party, for it was driven by Mr. Grant, a big, benevolent-looking
farmer, who surveyed the scene with the sympathetic interest of a
man and a father.

"Had a little accident, have you? Well, that’s a pretty likely place
for a spill. Tried it once myself and broke the bridge of my nose,"
he said, tapping that massive feature with a laugh which showed
that fifty years of farming had not taken all the boy out of him.
"Now then, let’s see about this little chore, and lively, too, for it’s
late, and these parties ought to be housed," he added, throwing
down his whip, pushing back his cap, and nodding at the wounded
with a reassuring smile.

"Jill first, please, sir," said Ed, the gentle squire of dames,
spreading his overcoat on the sled as eagerly as ever Raleigh laid
down his velvet cloak for a queen to walk upon.

"All right. Just lay easy, my dear, and I won’t hurt you a mite if I
can help it."

Careful as Mr. Grant was, Jill could have screamed with pain as he
lifted her; but she set her lips and bore it with the courage of a
little Indian; for all the lads were looking on, and Jill was proud to
show that a girl could bear as much as a boy. She hid her face in
the coat as soon as she was settled, to hide the tears that would
come, and by the time Jack was placed beside her, she had quite a
little cistern of salt water stored up in Ed’s coat-pocket.

Then the mournful procession set forth, Mr. Grant driving the
oxen, the girls clustering about the interesting invalids on the sled,
while the boys came behind like a guard of honor, leaving the hill
deserted by all but Joe, who had returned to hover about the fatal
fence, and poor "Thunderbolt," split asunder, lying on the bank to
mark the spot where the great catastrophe occurred.

 

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