Read Preacher's Boy Online

Authors: Katherine Paterson

Preacher's Boy

Preacher's Boy
Katherine Paterson

Clarion Books
New York

Acknowledgments

This book owes a special debt to Robert Luther Duffus, whose memories of his Vermont boyhood are told in
Williamstown Branch: Impersonal Memories of a Vermont Boyhood
(W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1958) and
The Waterbury Record: More Vermont Memories
(W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1959). I have named Robbie Hewitt in his honor. Thanks again to the Aldrich Library in Barre, Vermont, and, as always, my gratitude to the two who see me through, John Paterson and Virginia Buckley.

Clarion Books
a Houghton Mifflin Company imprint
215 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003
Copyright © 1999 by Minna Murra, Inc.

The type for this book was set in 12-point Berthold Baskerville.

All rights reserved.

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book,
write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South,
New York, NY 10003.

Printed in the USA.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Paterson, Katherine.
Preacher's boy / by Katherine Paterson.
p. cm.
Summary: In 1899, ten-year-old Robbie, son of a preacher in a small Vermont town,
gets himself into all kinds of trouble when he decides to give up being Christian
in order to make the most of his life before the end of the world.
ISBN 0-395-83897-5
[1. Family life—Vermont—Fiction. 2. Fathers and sons—Fiction.
3. Christian life—Fiction. 4. Vermont—Fiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.P273Pr 1999
[Fic]—dc21 98-50083
CIP AC

QUM
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3

For
Carter Lord Paterson
and
Griffin Loomis Paterson,
who are not preacher's boys,
and
for their fathers, who were

Contents

1
How the Trouble Began
[>]

2
Preparing for the End of the Age
[>]

3
The Glorious Fourth
[>]

4
Missing Elliot
[>]

5
Disturbing Revelations
[>]

6
The Intruders
[>]

7
Thou Shalt Not Steal
[>]

8
Thou Shalt Not Kill
[>]

9
Willerton's Digestive Remedy
[>]

10
My Brilliant Scheme
[>]

11
Among the Stones
[>]

12
Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness
[>]

13
The Impossible Occurs
[>]

14
The Prodigal Son Returns to the Fold
[>]

15
The End and Beginning of Many Things
[>]

1. How the Trouble Began

O
N
D
ECORATION
D
AY, WHILE EVERYONE ELSE IN TOWN
was at the cemetery decorating the graves of our Glorious War Dead, Willie Beaner and me, Robert Burns Hewitt, took Mabel Cramm's bloomers and run them up the flagpole in front of the town hall. That was the beginning of all my troubles.

It wasn't that we got caught. In fact, I've often thought since
that
would have been the best thing in the world. If we'd been caught, Pa, who is a preacher and therefore has to be in favor of repentance, would have made us both apologize to Mabel, brought me home, and given me a good hiding—or as good a hiding as Pa can manage. He never can put his heart into corporal punishment—a weakness often lamented by Deacon Slaughter. In the rest of the town there would have been a few days' worth of people cutting their eyes sidewise at us, but in a couple of weeks—say, by
the middle of June—the whole affair would've been forgotten.

As it was, by the middle of June the boys—well, they act like boys even if they are the size of men—the boys that hang around the livery stable were still speculating as to who had had the nerve to do it "in broad daylight, mind you!" and then slapping their knees and snorting like horses.

I still think Mabel herself is due part of the blame. Everyone returned from the cemetery that morning to discover a foreign object streaming just below Old Glory. It was quickly evident that the object fluttering in the spring breeze was a pair of female unmentionables, so Deacon Slaughter and Mr. Weston (being the leading citizens) conferred and decided the said unmentionables should be lowered and handed over to the sheriff for decent disposal. But when those bloomers got to eye level, Mabel Cramm had no more sense than to shriek out like a banshee, "They're mine!" Whereupon she fainted dead away. From that moment, Chaos took charge and Rumor reigned.

And it wasn't just those loafers at the stable; the whole goldurn town was aflutter. Mothers were keeping their daughters indoors, except for Mabel's mother, who had bundled her off on the afternoon train that very day to visit her grandmother in Waterbury until she recovered her equilibrium or the culprit was found and punished, whichever came first.

With all the fuss, there was no way Willie and me could confess. If we'd been caught, which by all rights we should have been, we'd've been tanned and sent to bed without our supper, and the whole thing dismissed
as a schoolboy prank. Which it was. I swear. We were just trying to keep up with Tom and Ned Weston.

Two weeks before, the Weston boys had put a green snake into Teacher's lunch pail. It made a lovely to-do. All those girls screaming and putting their hands over their eyes and jumping up on their desks. Miss Bigelow didn't scream, but you could tell she wanted to and was barely keeping herself in line. You could see in her eyes the war between screaming and staying calm so she could quiet those hysterical girls.

Funny thing about that. It was only the older town girls. The farm girls and the little girls didn't scream at all. To tell the truth, they were just as interested in studying the varmint as the boys. It was only the girls practicing to be young ladies who went berserk and threatened to expire. I'll never understand women. No, it's not the whole kit 'n' kaboodle of the ladylike female race. Nobody beats my ma in the ladylike department, and she never once in my lifetime went silly over a snake or a mouse either. We have plenty of mice running through that rattletrap manse where we live. Ma just gets a broom and chases them back to their holes.

But I'm getting off the subject. Tom and Ned never got caught. Only Willie and me saw the whole thing, and we aren't squealers. Tom and Ned were well aware of this. It made them act even more superior to us than usual, which me and Willie could not tolerate. So we figured that the only thing we could do is think up something even more outrageous and get away with it. Only we'd be smarter than them. We'd not even let Tom and Ned see us. Then they wouldn't know for
sure
we'd done it. They'd just go crazy wondering over it.

See, if they knew for sure, then they'd have to think up something even worse and not let anybody but us know. And then Willie and me would be obliged to think up something still worse, and so on and so on until we were all four dead or too old to care, one or the other.

"Now, the hardest part," I explained to Willie, "is that we can't brag. Not by the flicker of the eyebrow, you understand?"

"No," he said. "How do you flicker an eyebrow?"

"It's a manner of speaking," I said, prim as a schoolmarm.

"Wal, why would I want to brag anyway?"

"You wouldn't, normally. But the thing is—human nature being what it is—we're going to be fair busting with the desire to hint to the Weston boys that we were the ones who pulled this off."

The actual crime was easy to commit. On Monday, the twenty-ninth of May, which was the day before Decoration Day, we watched, hidden in the tall grass, while the Cramms' hired girl hung out the wash behind their house. She was careful, as all women are, to hang the bloomers and other unmentionables in between the other things, but we were watching sharp, and when we saw the Mabel-sized pink bloomers pegged to the line, we took note.

"Write it down, Private Beaner," I said. "Right between the brown skirt and the pink shirtwaist."

"Private? Who's private?"

"Ah, Willie, somebody's got to be private or it ain't a scouting mission."

"Then what are you, Robbie?"

I rather fancied cap'n or major, but I could tell from the look on Willie's face that neither of those was likely to go down too well. "Sergeant," I said. "The sergeant has the private write stuff down."

"I ain't got nothing to write with," he said grumpily.

"
Pretend,
Willie. Write it down in your head."

He gave me that kind of patient look he gives when I want to pretend we're fighting in a war. Well, can you blame me? I wasn't born when they fought the Great War to End the Oppression of Slavery, and when they were sending troops to avenge the
Maine
and free the Cubans from Spanish tyranny, I was only nine years old. I don't think there's ever going to be a war I can really fight in.

"I can't write nothing down in my head. My whole forehead's turned to granite trying to keep my blamed eyebrows from flickering."

I gave up. We waited without whispering until we saw the hired girl go out the door with her basket, headed for the meat market and the general store. We'd already made sure the family had gone off somewhere. That's why we picked Cramms'. We didn't have any grudge against Mabel—no more grudge, that is, than we have against most girls. We crept down the hill, pinched just the one pair of bloomers, and tidied the line to cover the spot. The bloomers were still damp, but I carried them in my hand ail the way up the hill to our secret place deep in the woods—an act which I considered fairly brave, but which Willie gave me no credit for at all.

Willie's and my place used to be someone's cabin, but the last owner left fifty or more years ago, probably headed west. In those days lots of people left Vermont, just up and deserted their hill farms, looking for an easier life on the plains. Woods have grown up now where pasture and fields had once been. It's a bit spooky, that tumbledown cabin. But once Willie and me stumbled on it, we knew it was the perfect place for us. We can hide away there from the Weston boys and anyone else that aggravates us. Sometimes we read dime novels there that Ma never wants to see the likes of around the manse. Sometimes we talk. Sometimes we just go there to do nothing but get away from stuff at home.

We have a lot to get away from, Willie and me. Willie's folks died when he was a baby, so he lives with his aunt Millie. She isn't really mean, and she's too arthritic to chase him up a mountain, but she does like to make the boy work around the house and garden. Willie even washes dishes. She gets cranky as an old hen when she thinks he's slacking off.

I don't have to do women's work. I have Ma and Beth, who's fifteen and practicing hard at being grown up. Then there's Letty, who's only five but who always loves to think she's helping. And ... Elliot. It's hard to tell you about Elliot. If you could see him ... But you can't. He's almost two years older than me and about a foot taller, but, well, Elliot's simple in the head. That's the best I can explain it.

One of the worst fights I ever had with the Weston boys was because they were picking on Elliot. It was right after church one Sunday. The grownups were hanging around chatting like usual. A bunch of us boys had gone over to the horse sheds to see the horses. The
farmers' horses are pretty much old friends, since we see them Sunday after Sunday in the sheds, where they are waiting patiently for their owners to get out of church and get them home for dinner.

Willie and me were doing acrobatics on a shed door when over from the churchyard we heard Ned Weston say, "Hello, there, Elliot. How's tricks?" We knew he meant nothing but trouble, but Elliot loves everyone. He didn't know he was being picked on.

"Sing us a song, Elliot," says Tom.

"Yeah, big fellow," Ned chimes in. "Sing us a song!"

Me and Willie slid off the shed door and went to see what was happening. If your pa's the preacher, you know a lot of hymns, even if you're slow. Elliot started singing his favorite—"What a Friend We Have in Jesus"—only Elliot slides his words, so it comes out something like "Wha a fen we ha in Sheeshush." Elliot was singing along happily, and the Westons joined in, both of them shuffling their feet and walking around with their right shoulders lower than their left and copying Elliot's way of making his words, so the next line comes out "Aw our shins and grease to bear." They were holding their stomachs to keep from laughing.

Elliot was smiling away. Other boys don't usually play with him, and here was Tom and Ned Weston, the sons of the richest man in town, heaping all this attention on him, smiling and singing his favorite song along with him.

I walked up and whacked Ned Weston in the face. "Hey, you!" he yelled. Then his big brother, Tom, jumped in. They were both on me, knocking me to the ground. Willie would have jumped in, too, but I called
him off. It was my fight, not his. The Westons probably would have beat me senseless, two on one like that, but Elliot stopped singing and started yelling for Pa.

Pa came running off the church porch and saved my life. I was not grateful. It just made the Westons feel even more superior that I had to be saved by my "big old papa." Pa waded into the fracas and hoisted me up right off the ground by the back of my shirt. There I hung with my legs dangling in the air. I could see his eyes flashing, and I thought for a minute he was going to wallop me. Instead he lets me down gentle. "Oh, Robbie," he says, "when are you going to learn to settle things with your head instead of your fists?"

At that point I could see the Westons doubled over trying not to laugh out loud in front of the preacher. Pa couldn't have humiliated me more if he'd yanked down my britches and paddled my bare bottom right there in the churchyard. I couldn't understand why he didn't leave me alone to fight my own fights. A boy has got to learn to take up for himself in this world. I couldn't walk away from a fight. It would ruin my reputation.

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