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all got stones ready for us, and was all but letting drive, and we'd got two reverend gents aboard too. We pulled up at the beginning of the line, and pacified them, and we're never going to carry no more pea-shooters, unless they promises not to fire where there's a line of Irish chaps a stone breaking.” The guard stopped and pulled away at his cheroot, regarding Tom benignantly the while.
“ Oh, don't stop! tell us something more about the pea-shooting.”
“ Well, there'd like to have been a pretty piece of work over it at Bicester, a while back. We was six mile from the town, when we meets an old squareheaded gray-haired yeoman chap, a jogging along quite quiet. He looks up at the coach, and just then a pea hits him on the nose, and some catches his cob behind and makes him dance up on his hind legs. I see'd the old boy's face flush and look plaguy awkward, and I thought we was in for somethin' nasty. He turns his cob's head, and rides quietly after us just out of shot. How that ere cob did step! we never shook him off not a dozen yards in the six miles. At first the young gents was werry lively on him; but afore we got in, seeing how steady the old chap come on, they was quite quiet, and laid their heads together what they should do. Some was for fighting, some for axing his pardon. He rides into the town close after us, comes up when we stops, and says, the two as shot at him must come before a magistrate ; and a great crowd comes round, and we couldn't get the osses to. But the
young uns they all stands by one another, and says all or none must go, and as how they'd fight it out, and have to be carried. Just as 'twas gettin' serious, and the old boy and the mob was going to pull 'em off the coach, one little fellow jumps up and says, 'Here,—I'll stay-I'm only going three miles further. My father's name's Davis, he's known about here, and I'll go before the magistrate with this gentleman. "What! be thee Parson Davis' son ?' says the old boy. “Yes,' says the young un. • Well, I be mortal sorry to meet thee in such company, but for thy father's sake and thine, (for thee bi'st a brave young chap,) I'll say no more about it.' Didn't the boys cheer him, and the mob cheered the young chap—and then one of the biggest gets down, and begs his pardon werry gentlemanly for all the rest, saying as they all had been plaguy vexed from the first, but didn't like to ax his pardon till then, 'cause they felt they hadn't ought to shirk the consequences of their joke. And then they all got down, and shook hands with the old boy, and asked him to all parts of the country, to their homes, and we drives off twenty minutes behind time, with cheering and hollering as if we was county members. But, 'Lor bless you, sir," says the guard, smacking his hand down on his knee and looking full into Tom's face,“ ten minutes after they was all as bad as ever.”
Tom showed such undisguised and open-mouthed interest in his narrations, that the old guard rubbed up his memory, and launched out into a graphic
history of all the performances of the boys on the road for the last twenty years. Off the road he couldn't go, the exploit must have been connected with horses or vehicles to hang in the old fellow's head. Tom tried him off his own ground once or twice, but found he knew nothing beyond, and so let him have his head, and the rest of the road bowled easily away; for old Blow-hard (as the boys called him) was a dry old file, with much kindness and humour, and a capital spinner of a yarn when he had broken the neck of his day's work, and got plenty of ale under his belt.
What struck Tom's youthful imagination most, was the desperate and lawless character of most of v the stories. Was the guard hoaxing him? He couldn't help hoping that they were true. It's very odd how almost all English boys love danger; you can get ten to join a game, or climb a tree, or swim a stream, when there's a chance of breaking their limbs or getting drowned, for one who'll stay on level ground, or in his depth, or play quoits or bowls.
The guard had just finished an account of a desperate fight which had happened at one of the fairs between the drovers and the farmers with their whips, and the boys with cricket-bats and wickets, which arose out of a playful but objectionable practice of the boys of going round to the public-houses, and taking the lynch-pins out of the wheels of the gigs, and was moralizing upon the way in which the Doctor, “ a terrible stern man he'd heard tell,”
had come down upon several of the performers, “ sending three on 'em off next morning, each in a po-chay with a parish constable,” when they turned a corner and neared the mile-stone, the third from Rugby. By the stone two boys stood, their jackets buttoned tight, waiting for the coach.
“ Look here, sir,” says the guard, after giving a sharp toot-toot, “ there's two on 'em, out-and-out runners they be. They comes out about twice or three times a-week, and spirts a mile alongside of us."
And as they came up, sure enough, away went the two boys along the foot-path, keeping up with the horses; the first a light clean-made fellow going on springs, the other stout and round-shouldered, labouring in his pace but going as dogged as a bullterrier.
Old Blow-hard looked on admiringly. “ See how beautiful that there un holds hisself together, and goes from his hips, sir,” said he; “he's a’mazin’ fine runner. Now many coachmen as drives a firstrate team'd put it on, and try and pass 'em. But Bob, sir, bless you, he's tender-hearted; he'd sooner pull in a bit if he see'd 'em a gettin' beat. I do b’lieve too as that there un'd sooner break his heart than let us go by him afore next mile-stone."
At the second mile-stone the boys pulled up short, and waived their hats to the guard, who had his watch out and shouted, 4.56, thereby indicating that the mile had been done in four seconds under the five minutes. They passed several more parties
of boys, all of them objects of the deepest interest to Tom, and came in sight of the town at ten minutes before twelve. Tom fetched a long breath, and thought he had never spent a pleasanter day. Before he went to bed he had quite settled that it must be the greatest day he should ever spend, and didn't alter his opinion for many a long year, if he has yet.