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       The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg, p.1

           Rodman Philbrick
 
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The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg


  To everyone who ever lied and found their way back to the truth,

  KEEP READING.

  Contents

  Title Page

  Dedication

  1 The Meanest Man in Maine

  2 Muddy Blues

  3 The Wretched Lie

  4 The Dark of the World

  5 Bears as Big as Boulders

  6 The Worst Smell Ever

  7 The Man in the Sack

  8 Pancakes in Heaven

  9 Quaker Talk

  10 When the River Cries Like a Baby

  11 The Weasel Comes A-Calling

  12 The Door in the Dirt

  13 A Wagonload of Hope

  14 The Hungry Mouse

  15 Train to Glory

  16 Frank T. Nibbly, Entirely at Your Service

  17 Message for Homer Figg

  18 The Smell of Pigs

  19 The Amazing Pig Boy

  20 The Caravan of Miracles

  21 Boiled by Indians

  22 The Secret in the Wagons

  23 The Sound of Guns

  24 Three Oinks for Homer Pig

  25 See the Elephant and Die

  26 The Terrible Black Wagons

  27 The Mad Balloon Man

  28 Like a Squirrel Up a Tree

  29 Like a Bird with a Broken Wing

  30 When the Screaming Comes Inside

  31 On the Terrible First Day of July

  32 Things Best Forgot

  33 “M Is for Mutineer”

  34 One Small Hill

  35 Even When They’re Dead

  36 What Happened in the End

  Additional Information

  After Words

  About the Author

  Q&A with Rodman Philbrick

  Mrs. Bean’s Buttermilk Pancakes

  Union Hardtack

  Civil War Times: Did You Know?

  Civil War Spy Ink

  Sources

  Acknowledgment

  Also Available

  Copyright

  MY NAME IS HOMER P. FIGG, and these are my true adventures. I mean to write them down, every one, including all the heroes and cowards, and the saints and the scalawags, and them stained with the blood of innocents, and them touched by glory, and them that was lifted into Heaven, and them that went to the Other Place.

  I say my “true” adventures because I told a fib to a writer once, who went and put it in the newspapers about me and my big brother, Harold, winning the battle at Gettysburg, and how we shot each other dead but lived to tell the tale. That’s partly true, about winning the battle, but most ways it’s a lie.

  Telling the truth don’t come easy to me, but I will try, even if old Truth ain’t nearly as useful as a fib sometimes.

  The P stands for Pierce, which I got from our mother, Abigail Pierce Figg, that perished of fever and left me and Harold under the care of her late sister’s husband, Squinton Leach. Our father, Henry Figg, died of a felled tree before I came into this world, and when Mother passed away, our fortunes went from bad to worse, because Squinton Leach was the meanest man in the entire state of Maine. I tell a lie — there was a meaner man in Bangor once, that poisoned cats for fun, but old Squint was the hardest man in Somerset County. A man so mean he squeezed the good out of the Holy Bible and beat us with it, and swore that God Himself had inflicted me and Harold on him, like he was Job and we was Boils and Pestilence.

  Squinton Leach. Just writing down his name gives me the shivers. Our mother was a kindly schoolmarm and taught us to speak proper, so I can’t tell you exactly what I think of Squinton Leach, but it approximates what I think of a rabid skunk, or scabs on my backside, or a bad toothache.

  Me and Harold tried not to take it personal because Squint hated everything. We just happened to be included, as he’d got stuck with us.

  Once I made a list of the things Squint can’t abide.

  THINGS UNCLE HATES

  1. HATES THE LAND HE WORKS, BECAUSE

  IT’S FULL OF FLINTY ROCKS THAT DULL HIS PLOW.

  2. HATES BOB THE HORSE THAT PULLS THE PLOW,

  BECAUSE IT COSTS HIM HAY.

  3. HATES HIS TWO COWS, BESS AND FLOSS,

  BECAUSE THEY NEVER GIVE ENOUGH MILK.

  4. HATES HIS HOUSE, BECAUSE

  THE ROOF LEAKS.

  5. HATES HIS BARN, BECAUSE

  ME AND HAROLD LIVE THERE.

  6. HATES WOMEN, BECAUSE

  THEY DIED AND LEFT HIM TWO BOYS TO RAISE.

  7. HATES SOUTHERNERS, BECAUSE

  THEY OWN SLAVES.

  8. HATES NEGROES, BECAUSE

  THEY COMPLAIN OF BEING ENSLAVED.

  9. HATES SENATOR DOUGLAS,

  BECAUSE DOUGLAS IS SHORT.

  10. HATES PRESIDENT LINCOLN,

  BECAUSE LINCOLN IS TALL.

  11. HATES THE SKY, BECAUSE

  IT DIDN’T MATTER IF THE SKY IS SUNNY AND BLUE,

  IT’S BOUND TO RAIN SOMEDAY.

  Then I run out of paper. Parson Reed, of the Pine Swamp Congregational Church, he once said Squinton Leach was aggrieved of life, but I think he just flat out enjoyed being hateful. Enjoyed it the way some men take to whiskey or rum. Old Squint got so much pleasure from meanness that he kept on being mean, no matter what. And the worst of his cruelty got aimed at my brother, Harold, who was always sticking up for me and getting stuck himself.

  That’s how it all started, our true adventures, with Harold sticking up for me.

  One day I’m feeding the hogs and Squint catches me chawing on a scrap of stale bread he throwed in with the slops.

  “That’s intended for the hogs,” he says. “Not for the likes of you.”

  I keep on eating, wanting to get as much of it down as possible. Expecting to get pummeled and maybe kicked some, too, if he was in the mood. But when Squint raises his fist to strike me, Harold catches him by the wrist.

  “The boy is hungry, Uncle. Truth is, we’re both half starved. You feed them hogs better than you feed us.”

  Squint’s face swells up red and bloated. He curses and makes to hit both of us, but he can’t get free of Harold, who is scrawny but strong. Finally Squint trips over his own two feet and ends up facedown in the hog pen, covered with mud and worse.

  That’s when he really gets mad.

  Me and Harold don’t wait around to see what happens next. We hightail it into the barn and bolt the door from the inside. Through the cracks we watch as old Squint drags himself up from the mud and staggers into the house.

  Inside the house is where he keeps his guns.

  “He means to shoot us dead,” I decide.

  Harold shakes his head. “Uncle needs us to work the farm.”

  “Wound us, then.”

  “Whatever he aims to do, I’ll stop him,” Harold says, real firm and certain. Like he’s discovered something about Squint and will use it to keep us safe. Like he’s finally growed up enough to throw the old man down in the mud, if need be.

  We wait inside the barn, studying the house until we spy Squint slinking out the side door.

  Sure enough he’s got his old flintlock squirrel rifle, but much to my surprise he don’t come at us with it. Instead he marches over to the paddock. Next thing he’s scrambled up on Bob the horse and off they go in a cloud of dust, or as much dust as that old horse can raise.

  “Gone to fetch the sheriff,” I say. “He means to hang us.”

  Harold gives me a look. “You know he hates the sheriff worse than he hates us.”

  “Where’s he got to, then?”

  It don’t feel right, Squint leaving instead of kicking the door down and whomping on us like usual. Thing of it is, I’d rather take a beating th
an whatever he’s got in mind, riding off like that.

  Harold sees I’m worried sick. “Don’t fret, little brother. I got a notion what we should do.”

  “Let’s do it, then.”

  Anything is better than waiting for Squint.

  Harold says he’ll be eighteen his next birthday and the time has come for us to run away and make a life for ourselves. He says we can get hired in a logging camp and be logging men, with axes and saws and such. The way Harold tells it, I can see the campfires and smell the stew bubbling in the big iron pots and hear the rumble of green giants shaking the earth as they fall.

  We’ll ride great logs on big rivers, and get paid in gold dust and beef, and one day we’ll own the forest itself and everything in it, that’s how fine Harold makes it sound.

  I’m chopping down trees in my head, happy as ever I’ve been, when Squinton Leach comes back with a crew of men to lynch us.

  IT DON’T TAKE ’EM LONG to find us hiding in the loft. We’re under that moldy old hay, holding still as rabbits when they bust down the barn door.

  First thing we hear is Squint yelling and cussing and demanding they find us.

  One of the men tells him to shut his trap.

  “If he’s only a boy, Leach, how’d he whip your fat carcass, eh?

  Sure it wasn’t a hog throwed you to the mud?”

  Minute or so later the same man comes up into the loft, thumping the floorboards with the tines of a pitchfork. “Come on out and face the music, boys. It’s that or get stabbed. On a count of one … two …”

  At each count he thumps the pitchfork into the floorboards, making those sharp tines ring like a saber. SWANG! SWANG! Working closer to where we’re hiding, as deliberate as an army advancing.

  “Three!”

  Harold gives me a nudge and we both stand up, clotted with straws of hay.

  The man with the pitchfork is Cornelius Witham, that trades in jugs of whiskey and keeps a shack up in the hills. I recognized him from his voice, the way he said “throwed.” Corny comes around on Saturday nights, leading an old packhorse strung with clay jugs. Squint won’t take anything stronger than cider, but he and Corny share a fondness for plug tobacco. They’ll sit on the porch of an evening, spitting and bragging on what they did when they were young. Corny is what they call a prodigious liar, meaning he’s got talent in that direction, and me and Harold would hide under the porch just so we could hear him lay waste to the truth.

  Only time I ever heard Squint laugh was when Corny told this long, complicated tale about a worm he swallowed by accident, and how it came out both ends at the same time.

  “’lo, Mr. Witham,” says Harold, picking the hay out of his hair.

  “’lo, Harold. You boys sure stirred up old Squint this time.”

  “Yes, sir, we did,” says Harold.

  Unlike me, Harold never lied in his entire life. Which makes it all the more worse, what happened later, when they took us out to the yard. Squint’s there, of course, looking madder than a bolt of lightning, and Corny that marched us to our doom, and Mr. J. T. Marston, the county magistrate, and a skinny, hollow-eyed stranger in a blue uniform so crusted with mud he could have been rolling with the pigs like Squint.

  Man in the muddy blue uniform, he reeks of whiskey. His eyes are shifting everywhere but at me and Harold, like he’s embarrassed for us, or maybe for himself. Mostly he studies the clay jug Corny must have given him, and seems disappointed to keep finding it empty.

  “Harold Figg, you stand accused!” roars Squint, shaking his fists. “The boy tried to murder me! Put him in irons!”

  “Oh, shut up, you old fool,” says J. T. Marston, who has a way of speaking quiet but forceful.

  We know Mr. Marston from town because he owns most everything in Pine Swamp, including Marston’s Dry Goods Store, the Marston Boardinghouse, and Marston’s Livery. Folks say he owns the law, too, and that’s how he got himself named magistrate. Buy land or sell it, J. T. Marston takes his fee, or it won’t be made legal and put down on the county maps. Anything you want done in the law, or outside it, old J. T. will see to it so long as he gets his share of the proceeds.

  Marston has got a skinny white beard down to his waist and eyes as black as buttons. He grins at us with all of his yellow teeth, the way a dog will grin just before it bites you, and then he says, “Harold Joseph Figg, you must now present yourself to the conscription of able-bodied men, and take your oath, according to the Enrollment Act of March 3, 1863.”

  “Enrollment?” says Harold, straightening up. “But I’m not of age! I am but seventeen!”

  “That’s a lie!” roars Squint. “I’ll swear on a Bible the boy is twenty!”

  “So sworn,” says Marston with a wave of his hand, as if shooing away a troublesome fly. “Sergeant, you will now administer the oath.”

  The stranger in the blue uniform isn’t paying attention and Marston has to speak to him sharply before he staggers over to Harold.

  “Are you ready, son?” the stranger asks.

  “This isn’t right,” says Harold, looking from the stranger to the magistrate. “I’m not of legal age. How can you do this, Uncle? Who will take care of Homer?”

  “I’m his guardian,” snarls Squint. “I’ll take care of the little devil, you can be sure of that.”

  “The oath, sergeant,” Marston insists.

  When Harold shakes his head, the stranger unholsters his pistol and holds it loosely at his side. “Private, you must take the oath or be shot as a deserter. What shall it be?”

  “You’d shoot a boy?” Harold asks in disbelief. “I am not of age, and I think you know it.”

  For the first time the stranger looks my big brother right in the eye. “I have shot many boys,” he says. “One more will not signify. Now raise your right hand and swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America, and the laws of the state of Maine, and to obey your lawful superiors.”

  Harold looks at me real sorrowful and shakes his head. “I’m sorry, Homer. Squint has got me this time. I must do as they say.”

  My brother is made to swear on Squint’s Bible, and a moment later he’s conscripted into the Union Army, to serve for three years or until he’s dead, whichever comes first.

  “Go with the sergeant,” Marston tells Harold. “He’ll sort you out.”

  “What about me?” I pipe up. “Can’t I go, too? Swear me in, you villains!”

  Corny laughs. “Villains, is it? Mighty big word for such a small boy. You get that out of one of your momma’s books, did you?”

  “Don’t you dare speak of our mother!”

  Corny shakes his head and grins. “Get back in the barn, son. Go hide under the hay until the war is over.”

  “I want to go with Harold!”

  “Hush now, little brother,” says Harold, giving me a quick embrace. “What’s done is done. I am sworn and can’t go back on my oath, no matter what.”

  But I kick up a fuss and fly at Squinton with my fists, and when that doesn’t work I try to bite him like the rat he is.

  “Cornelius! Put this brat in the root cellar!”

  Corny takes hold and drags me squirming to the root cellar. The last I see of Harold, the stranger in the muddy blue uniform is marching him away barefoot, with a hickory stick on his shoulder. Apparently that’s how they do it when you’re sold to the army for a jug of whiskey and a lie.

  I hope they give Harold a real rifle and a pair of boots. He’ll need the boots to make it home.

  MOST FOLKS KEEP FOOD in a root cellar. Not Squinton Leach. There’s a stack of old beaver pelts that stinks to high Heaven, from when he failed to get his price and swore he’d let ’em rot, and did. Three wooden cases of empty Mason jars, now home to a world of bugs, and a five-gallon keg of cider that’s gone to vinegar. There’s some broken furniture that might have come from my mother’s place, but I can’t be sure because Squint never let us see it, and a pasteboard valise with a busted handle.

  That’
s it, unless you count rocks and dirt, which he has in abundance, just in case he ever gets hungry and wants to chaw on a chunk of shale or granite.

  Food preys upon my thoughts because the last thing I ate was that hunk of stale bread that was supposed to go to the hogs, and started off this whole mess.

  It’s all my fault. No question about it. If I hadn’t stolen from the hog slops, Harold wouldn’t have got took for the army, and it would still be the two of us against Squint, like always. I’d give anything to have him back, because the notion of being on my own scares me worse than spiders. All the bad things that have happened in this world, losing our parents and getting put up with Squint and such, Harold was always here, saying things would get right for us one day, and I always believed him.

  He’s not been gone an hour, but I miss him something awful. Plus I know what happens in the war. The newspaper prints a list each week of local men lost in battle, or from sickness. Never says how they passed, exactly, just a few words like “met his Maker at Malvern Hill” or “expired of his wounds,” and mostly they don’t come home, but are buried where they die.

  Harold is so true and brave and fearless that he’s bound to get himself killed.

  Worried sick about what will happen to Harold, I lie in the corner feeling sorry for myself and for my big brother and for everything that’s ever made me sad. Thinking on the dead and moaning ghosts and such, and wishing I had something to eat so I could forget about being hungry and concentrate on better reasons to be miserable.

  Then it dawns on me the ghosts aren’t ghosts at all, but voices coming from above. Squint and Cornelius Witham, bragging on what they’ve done.

  I can hear them through the floorboards clear as day.

  Corny’s going on and on, about how clever Squint is, and the money they both made selling Harold to the army.

  “Lovely piece of theater, Squint,” says Corny. “How much did the judge take for his part in your little play? Thirty dollars? Maybe you mean thirty pieces of silver, eh?”

  “Took his share like he always does,” says Squint. “Can’t be helped.”

  “Let’s see, a two-dollar jug for Sergeant Harris, and twenty for me, for standing witness.”

 
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