It was a silly dream

I think I never felt so sorry for anybody in my life as I did for
Little red-haired Tom Till at the close of our camp fire that night.

It was fun having our big Indian guest, Eagle Eye, whom we all knew and
liked very much, take charge of our meeting. He showed us how to build
an Indian fire, which was like this: First he made a little wigwam of
some dry tinder and slender sticks, and also some larger sticks all
stacked up in the shape of an Indian tepee, with the top ends lapping
over each other a little. Then he had us boys drag five or six big long
poles from a little shelter nearby, where there was a place for keeping
wood dry.

It was interesting to watch him ’cause just for fun he was wearing real
Indian garb, with a headband filled with long pretty, different colored
feathers, and clothes that looked like the kind I’d seen in pictures of
Indians in our school library.

As soon as the little wigwam fire was laid, but not started yet, he
took his bow and arrow and a board which he called a fire board, and in
almost no time had a smallish fire started. It was a pretty sight to
watch that little wigwam of tinder and sticks leap into flame and the
long reddish-yellow tongues of fire go leaping up toward the sky. The
smoke rose slowly, and spread itself out over our camp and sort of hung
there like a big lazy bluish cloud.

Little Jim and I were sitting side by each, and Little red-haired Tom
Till was right across the fire from me. The ground was still wet, so
we were sitting on our camp chairs. It being a little chilly, I had a
blanket wrapped around me, and had it spread out to cover Little Jim
too, he being my favorite small guy of the whole gang. For some reason
whenever he was with me, I seemed to be a better boy–or anyway, I
wished I was. It was the easiest thing in the world to think about
the Bible and God and about everybody needing to be saved, and things
like that, when Little Jim was with us. And yet he was as much a
red-blooded, rough-and-tumble boy as any of the rest of us. I never
will forget the way he shot and killed a fierce old mad mother bear
once down along Sugar Creek–which story you maybe know about, if
you’ve read it in the book, “We Killed a Bear.”

“Here’s a good way to save labor,” Eagle Eye told us as soon as our
wigwam fire had burned down a little. He picked up one of the long
thick poles and dragged it to the fire and laid the end of it right
across the still burning wigwam. Then he dragged up another pole and
laid the end of it crosswise across the end of the first one. Pretty
soon he had the ends of all the poles criss-crossed on each other on
the fire with all the opposite ends stretching out in all directions
like the spokes of a wagon wheel. Say, almost right away the big hot
flames were leaping up like Circus’s pop’s hungry dogs leaping up
around a Sugar Creek tree where they’ve treed a coon. It was certainly
a pretty sight.

“Pretty soon, when the ends of the poles are burned up, we’ll push the
poles up a little further,” Eagle Eye said, “and you won’t have to chop
them in short pieces at all. When you want your fire to go out, at bed
time, you just pull the poles back from the fire and pour water on the
ends.”

I looked across at my Man Friday, and he grinned back at me and said,
“I’d rather have _him_ for my boss than–than Robinson Crusoe himself,”
which was maybe half funny, I thought.

“Tomorrow night, you use the same poles, and not have to chop,” Eagle
Eye explained.

Well, Eagle Eye wrapped his blanket around him and sat down on a log
and began his story, first taking out his Bible–he, as you know, being
a missionary to his own people.

Before he got started, though, Little Jim, who was cuddled up close
to me, under my blanket, whispered, “That pretty blue smoke hanging up
there, is like the pillar of cloud it tells about in the Bible. When it
hung above the camp of the people of Israel, it meant God wanted them
to stay there awhile, and when it lifted itself up higher, it meant
they were supposed to travel on.”

I’d heard that story many a time in Sunday school or church, and liked
it a lot. I didn’t understand it very well, though, not until that very
second when Little Jim, who had his eyes focused on Eagle Eye as he
opened his Bible and also at the blue cloud of smoke, said to me in my
ear, “I’ll bet the cloud was there to show the people that God loved
them and was right there to look after them and take care of them.”

Imagine that little guy thinking that, but it seemed like maybe he was
right.

Then Eagle Eye told his story, which was a different kind of story than
we had expected. It was all about how his father had been such a good
father until he learned to drink whiskey, and then one night he had
gotten drunk and had driven his car into a telephone pole away up at
the place where the highway and the sandy road meet–“You boys notice
next time you’re there. There’s a cross which the Highway Commission
put there, to remind people that somebody met his death there by a car
accident.”

Eagle Eye stopped talking a minute, and I saw him fumble under his
blanket for something, and it was a handkerchief, which he used to wipe
a couple of quick tears from his eyes. It was the first time I ever saw
an Indian with tears in his eyes, and it gave me the queerest feeling,
’cause I realized that Indians were real people after all, and could
feel sad inside, and love their parents, the same as anybody else God
had made.

Then my eyes swished across the circle to where Tom Till was sitting
beside Big Jim, and I saw him swallow hard like there was a big lump
in his throat. He was just staring into the fire like he wasn’t seeing
it at all, but was seeing something or somebody very far away. I knew
that if he was imagining anything about Old hook-nosed John Till, his
thoughts wouldn’t have to travel very far, but only to an abandoned old
cabin on a lake–only he didn’t know that.

Then Eagle Eye brought something else out from under his blanket, and
the minute I saw it I realized it was going to be hard for Tom to sit
still and listen, but there it was–a great big whiskey bottle with
pretty flowers on its very pretty label. Eagle Eye held the bottle up
in the light of the fire for us all to see, and said, “This is the
enemy that killed my father. I found it half empty in the car where
he died. This bottle is responsible for my father’s broken neck, his
crushed head, and the broken windshield that cut his face and neck
beyond recognition.”

Eagle Eye stopped then, and took the bottle in both of his hands, held
it out and looked at it, and shook his head sadly.

While everything was quiet for a jiffy, with only the sound of the
crackling fire, and Little Jim’s irregular breathing beside me, I
noticed that Little Tom Till over there had both of his smallish kinda
dirty fists doubled up tight like he was terribly mad at something or
somebody.

Then Eagle Eye talked again and said, “The Evil Spirit, the Devil,
paints all sin pretty, boys, but sin is bad. All sin is bad, and only
Jesus can save from sin. You boys pray for my people. Too many of them
are learning to drink the white man’s whiskey.”

Well, the story was finished, and Barry wasn’t back yet, to take charge
of the last part of our campfire meeting, so I knew Big Jim would
have to do it. It was what we called Prayer Time, and just before
somebody was supposed to lead us in an outloud prayer, the leader asked
questions around the circle, if any of us had anything or anybody we
wanted prayer for.

So Big Jim took charge and started by saying he wanted us to pray for
Big Jim himself, ’cause some day he might want to be a missionary;
Circus was next in the circle, so he spoke up and said, “Everybody
thank the Lord for saving my dad from being a drunkard.” The very
minute he said it, I was both sad and glad, and looked quick at Tom
Till who was still staring into the fire, with his fists doubled up.
Dragonfly was next, and he said, “Pray for my mother.”

Poetry frowned, trying to think, then said, “For new mission hospitals
to be built in foreign countries, like Africa and Cuba and other
places,” and when he said Cuba, his and my eyes met and I knew what
else he was thinking about.

It was Tom Till’s turn next, but he sat with his head down and was
looking at his doubled-up fists. I could see he was afraid to say a
word for fear his voice would break and he’d cry, so Big Jim skipped
him and it was Little Jim’s turn. He piped up from beside me and said
in his mouse-like voice, “Everybody pray for Shorty Long back home.” I
certainly was surprised, ’cause Shorty Long was the new tough guy who
had moved into Sugar Creek territory last winter and had started coming
to our school and had caused a terrible lot of trouble for the gang.
But that was like Little Jim, praying for something like that.

Next it was my turn. I’d been thinking all the time while the
different requests were being made, and hadn’t decided yet just what
to ask for, but all of a sudden I remembered something my red-haired
bushy-eyebrowed, reddish-brown-mustashed pop prays for, when he asks
the blessing at our table at the house, and so I said, “Pray for
all the broken-hearted people in the world,” only when Pop prays he
always adds, “For a broken and a contrite heart, O Lord, thou wilt not
despise.”

For a while after I said that, and thought that, I was lonesome for my
folks–for my grayish-brown-haired mother and my swell baby sister,
Charlotte Ann, and our black and white cat and our kind of oldish house
and our big gray barn, and Pop’s beehives and our potato patch, and
also I wished, for just a second, that I could stand and take just one
big happy look at Sugar Creek itself, with the weedy riffle just below
the old swimming hole and the old leaning linden tree above the spring,
and Bumblebee Hill, where we’d first met Little red-haired Tom Till and
his big brother, Bob, and had had a fight and I licked Tom, and at the
bottom of that hill we had run kersmack into the fierce old mad old
mother bear and her cub, and to save himself and all of us Little Jim
had shot her.

Well, that was all our prayer requests, except Little Tom’s, and Big
Jim was going to be courteous enough not to ask him again, so he
wouldn’t be embarrassed, but right away Little Tom spoke up and said,
“Pray for my daddy, that he’ll come home again, and will get a good
job.”

Then that little guy picked up a stick that was in front of him and
reached out and shoved the end of it into the fire, where it sent up a
lot of pretty yellow sparks toward the blue smoke cloud up there; and
for some reason there was a thought flashed into my mind like somebody
had turned on a light in my head, and it was that Little Tom’s request
was already on its way up to God, just like the sparks had shot up
toward the sky, and I felt that sometime God was going to answer and
give him a swell daddy just like Circus’s daddy was, after he was
saved, and his mother would be happy and the whole family could go to
church together. They would have enough to eat, and better clothes to
wear, and everything.

But it certainly didn’t look like the answer was going to come very
soon, though–what with John Till being described by a radio announcer
as maybe the one who had helped the kidnapper, and right now maybe John
Till knew where the ransom money was buried, if it was–and if he got
caught, I thought, he’d have to go to jail and this time maybe he’d
have to stay a terribly long time–years and years.

Well, Eagle Eye gathered up all our requests like a boy gathering up
an armload of wood, and took them to God in some very nice friendly
words, and handed them to Him to look over and to answer as soon as He
could and in the best way.

I felt good inside watching Eagle Eye pray–although I shut my eyes
almost right away. First he took off his big Indian hat and I noticed
he had a haircut like ordinary white men. He left his blanket wrapped
around him and shut his eyes, and just stood there with his brownish
face kinda lit up by the fire, and he talked to the heavenly Father
like they were good friends….

Then the meeting broke up, and pretty soon it was time for us to go
to bed. I had a chance to talk with Tom alone a minute, though, just
before we went to our separate tents. All of us were as noisy as usual
at bedtime, except Tom, and I noticed he still had a sad expression on
his face, so when I got a chance, I walked with him to the end of the
dock where we stood looking out over the pretty shimmering waves of the
lake under the half moon that was shining on it, and I said, “’Smatter,
Tom? Something the matter?”

He just stood there, not saying a word for a minute until I said,
“You’re one of my best friends, Tom.” Then he answered me very sadly,
saying, “The mail boat brought a letter from Mother, and she’s worried
about Dad. He’s gone again and nobody knows where he is.”

I didn’t know what to say for a jiffy, so I just stood beside him
thinking and feeling sorry for him, wishing his pop could be saved like
Circus’s pop and that the Till family would all be Christians and go
to church. I don’t know why I thought what else I thought just then,
but this is what I thought–something I’d heard Old Man Paddler, back
at Sugar Creek, say once, and it was, “A lot of husbands are murdering
their wives a little at a time. Some day a lot of mean husbands are
going to look down into the coffins at their wives’ funerals and
realize that by making them sorry and not being kind to them, their
wives died ten years sooner than they should have–and that’s the same
as murder.”

Old hook-nosed John Till was a murderer, too, I thought, as well
as a drunkard, and it made me feel more sorry for the grand little
red-haired freckle-faced guy who stood beside me.

Tom had put his back to me. Both of his hands were clasped around the
flag pole at the end of the dock, and he was just weaving his body
backward and forward and sidewise like he was nervous. “Don’t worry,
Tom,” I said, “you’ve got a lot of friends, and my mother thinks your
mother is swell.” Right then I got the surprise of my life, when he
said what he said. I hadn’t realized that this little guy liked his
wicked daddy a lot, too. This is what he said, “There are a lot of
crosses all over the country like the one Eagle Eye told us about–just
like the one they put up for his Indian daddy–” Then Little Tom
stopped talking and I heard him sniffle and I knew it wasn’t on account
of the breeze from the lake or because he was allergic to anything.
He liked his daddy and didn’t want him to get drunk and have a car
accident and get killed.

I felt terribly saddish, and at the same time a sort of wonderful,
feeling came bubbling up inside of me. Say, I liked that little guy so
much it actually hurt inside my heart. I reached out like my pop does
to me sometimes, and put my arm halfway around him, and before I knew
I was going to do it I’d given him the same kind of a half a hug Pop
gives me and said, “Listen, Tom. I think God’s going to answer Eagle
Eye’s prayer for you.”

Then I left bashful as anything, and just stood there beside him while
he kept weaving back and forth with his hands still on the flag pole,
neither one of us saying a word; and the waves of the lake made a
friendly sound, lapping against the dock posts and washing against the
sandy shore.

Well, the gang was yelling from the tents for us to hurry and come on
and go to bed, so Tom and I started to walk back to shore and toward
the Indian fire. The fire was still alive although the flames were
kinda lazy, and the big blue cloud of smoke that had been hanging
above our camp was mixed up with the night sky seemed to be gone. Tom
and I stopped beside the fire a minute and looked down into it. Then
just like he’d done before, he picked up a stick and shoved it into
the coals, and a whole lot of sparks came out and shot in different
directions of up, toward the sky.

“Hey you–Bill,” Big Jim called to me from his tent, “it’s your turn to
put out the fire–the water pail is here in Barry’s tent–” which is
what we had to do every night with our camp fires, pour water on them,
so there wouldn’t be any danger of them suddenly coming to life in a
wind and starting a forest fire.

It didn’t take me long to get the water pail, dip up some water from
the lake and pour it on that fire till there wasn’t even one tiny spark
visible.

Little Jim came out and went along with me as I made two or three trips
from the fire to the lake and back carrying water. As you know, Little
Jim had been sleeping in Big Jim’s tent, with Tom Till, and also Barry
Boyland. The rest of us–in fact, our whole Robinson Crusoe gang–slept
in the other tent–my two goats and my Man Friday and me.

“There’s something I want to ask you,” Little Jim said to me just as I
was about to leave him at his tent.

“What?” I said.

“Can I play Robinson Crusoe with you tomorrow?”

I was dumbfounded, “What?” I said. “Who told you about–our game?”

“I just guessed it,” he said, “when Dragonfly said you walked on his
neck and he was a Negro, and that they’d been trying to make soup out
of him.”

I wouldn’t promise him, ’cause I wasn’t sure what my Man Friday and my
two goats would think of the idea, but later when my goats and my Man
Friday and I were alone in our tent, we talked it over and Friday said,
“Let’s let him–and he can be _my_ slave.”

Poetry spoke up from his sleeping bag beside me and said, “Let’s let
’im ’cause he didn’t get to help us find the little Ostberg girl, and
he wasn’t even with us when we caught the kidnapper himself in the
Indian cemetery!”

So that was that. We wouldn’t take Tom Till along, though, on account
of we didn’t want him to know his daddy was up here, and might be mixed
up with the kidnapping mystery. Also for some reason it didn’t seem
right to me to have Big Jim come along and be our leader, when Robinson
Crusoe had to be the leader himself.

Boy oh boy! I could hardly wait till tomorrow!

For a long time I lay awake, in our dark tent, smelling the smell of
mosquito lotion and hearing the noise of Dragonfly’s snoring and the
regular breathing of Poetry and Circus, and thinking a lot of things.
I hadn’t said my prayers yet, and I was already in my sleeping bag,
with the zipper zipped up–although I’d prayed with the rest of the
gang around the fire when Eagle Eye prayed outloud for all of us. But
it kinda seemed like it had been a dangerous day, as well as a very
wonderful one, and God had taken good care of all of us boys and that
I ought to tell Him so. Of course, I could just talk to Him without
kneeling, like I sometimes do, but this seemed like it was extra
important, so very quietly I zipped open my sleeping bag, squirmed
myself into a kneeling position, and while a mosquito sang on my right
ear without stinging me, on account of the ear had mosquito lotion on
it, I said a few extra special words to God, and wound up by saying,
“And please don’t let John Till murder Little Tom’s mother. Please save
him as quick as You can, and if there is anything I can do to help You,
let me know, and I’ll try to do it.”

A little later, while I was lying warm and cozy in my bag, listening to
Dragonfly’s crooked nose snoring away like a handsaw cutting through
a board, it seemed like there was kind of a warm secret between God
and me, and that it might not be very long until Tom would have a new
daddy…. Then I dozed off into sleep, and right away, it seemed, I was
mixed up in the craziest dream I ever was mixed up in. My dream was
about hook-nosed John Till, Little Tom’s pop, and it seemed he was all
tangled up in the kidnapping mystery. In the last part of the dream,
John had a bottle of whiskey in one hand and was standing beside the
sink in the old cabin, pouring the whiskey over a stringer of fish. He
kept on pouring and pouring–in fact, the whiskey bottle sort of faded
out of the dream and John was pumping the old iron pitcher pump, which,
quick as an eye-wink, was standing at the end of the board walk in our
back yard at Sugar Creek, and whiskey instead of water was coming in
big belches out of the pitcher pump’s mouth, and was splashing down
over the fish which were in our water tank, where our cows and horses
drank….

All of a sudden I noticed that the stringer of fish had all changed and
that there wasn’t a walleye or a northern pike among them, but only big
dark brown ugly bullheads, and they weren’t on the stringer any more,
but were swimming around and playing and acting lively in our water
tank filled with whiskey. Poetry who has standing beside me in my dream
said to me in my ear, “Look, Bill–the whiskey’s changed all the fish
into bullheads.”

It was a silly dream, and right that second I felt something touching
me in the ribs. I forced my stubborn eyes open a little but couldn’t
see anything on account of it was very dark in our tent, but I did see
a shadow of someone leaning over me, and after such a crazy dream I was
scared of who it might be. Then I heard Poetry’s husky whisper right
close to my face saying, “Hey, Bill!”

“What?” I whispered up at him. My mind was all tangled up with mixed-up
ideas.

Poetry’s whisper back in my car was, “Let’s take a look at the
invisible-ink map. I just dreamed there was another line running off in
a different direction. Let’s hold a hot flashlight down real close to
it and see if there is.”

I didn’t want to wake up–or rather, I did want to go back to sleep
again, but Poetry kept on whispering excitedly about his dream, so I
reached over to my shirt which I had hung on my camp chair close by,
and ran my hand into the pocket where I had had the map. Say, I hadn’t
any sooner got my hand inside than a very scared feeling woke me up
quicker’n anything, on account of the map wasn’t in the pocket. “Hey!”
I whispered to Poetry, “it’s not in my pocket!”