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HomeNovelsThe Split Cherry Tree by Jesse Stuart

The Split Cherry Tree by Jesse Stuart

“I don’t mind staying after school,” I says to Professor Herbert, “but I’d rather you’d whip me with a switch and let me go home early. Pa will whip me anyway for getting home two hours late.”

“You are too big to whip,” says Professor Herbert, “and I have to punish you for climbing up in that cherry tree. You boys knew better than that! The other five boys have paid their dollar each. You have been the only one who has not helped pay for the tree. Can’t you borrow a dollar?”

“I can’t,” I says. “I’ll have to take the punishment. I wish it would be quicker punishment. I wouldn’t mind.”

Professor Herbert stood and looked at me. He was a big man. He wore a grey suit of clothes. The suit matched his grey hair.

“You don’t know my father,” I says to Professor Herbert. “He might be called a little old-fashioned. He makes us mind him until we’re twenty-one years old. He believes: ‘If you spare the rod you spoil the child.’ I’ll never be able to make him understand about the cherry tree. I’m the first of my people to go to high school.”

“You must take the punishment,” says Professor Herbert. “You must stay two hours after school today and two hours after school tomorrow. I am allowing you twenty-five cents an hour. That is good money for a high-school student. You can sweep the schoolhouse floor, wash the blackboards, and clean windows. I’ll pay the dollar for you.”

I couldn’t ask Professor Herbert to loan me a dolIar. He never offered to loan it to me. I had to stay and help the janitor and work out my fine at a quarter an hour.

I thought as I swept the floor, “What will Pa do to me? What lie can I tell him when I go home? Why did we ever climb that cherry tree and break it down for anyway? Why did we run crazy over the hills away from the crowd? Why did we do all of this? Six of us climbed up in a little cherry tree after one little lizard! Why did the tree split and fall with us? It should have been a stronger tree! Why did Eif Crabtree just happen to be below us plowing and catch us in his cherry tree? Why wasn’t he a better man than to charge us six dollars for the tree?”

It was six o’clock when I left the schoolhouse. I had six miles to walk home. It would be after seven when I got home. I had all my work to do when I got home. It took Pa and I both to do the work. Seven cows to milk. Nineteen head of cattle to feed, four mules, twenty-five hogs, firewood and stovewood to cut, and water to draw from the well. He would be doing it when I got home. He would be mad and wondering what was keeping me!

I hurried home. I would run under the dark, leafless trees. I would walk fast uphill. I would run down the hill. The ground was freezing. I had to hurry. I had to run. I reached the long ridge that led to our cow pasture. I ran along this ridge. The wind dried the sweat on my face. I ran across the pasture to the house.

I threw down my books in the chipyard. I ran to the barn to spread fodder on the ground for the cattle. I didn’t take time to change my clean school clothes for my old work clothes. I ran out to the barn. I saw Pa spreading fodder on the ground to the cattle. That was my job. I ran up to the fence. I says, “Leave that for me, Pa. I’ll do it. I’m just a little late.”

“I see you are,” says Pa. He turned and looked at me. His eyes danced fire. “What in th’ world has kept you so? Why ain’t you been here to help me with this work? Make a gentleman out’n one boy in th’ family and this is what you get! Send you to high school and you get too onery fer th’ buzzards to smell!”

I never said anything. I didn’t want to tell why I was late from school. Pa stopped scattering the bundles of fodder. He looked at me. He says, “Why are you gettin’ in here this time o’ night? You tell me or I’ll take a hickory withe to you right here on th’ spot!”

I says, “I had to stay after school.” I couldn’t lie to Pa. He’d go to school and find out why I had to stay. If I lied to him it would be too bad for me.

“Why did you haf to stay atter school?” says Pa.

I says, “0ur biology class went on a field trip today. Six of us boys broke down a cherry tree. We had to give a dollar apiece to pay for the tree. I didn’t have the dolIar. Professor Herbert is making me work out my dollar. He gives me twenty-five cents an hour. I had to stay in this afternoon. I’ll have to stay in tomorrow afternoon!”

“Are you telling me th’ truth?” says Pa.

“I’m telling you the truth,” I says. “Go and see for yourself.”

“That’s just what I’ll do in th’ mornin’,” says Pa. “Jist whose cherry tree did you break down?”

“Eif Crabtree’s cherry tree!”

“What was you doin’ clear out in Eif Crabtree’s place?” says Pa. “He lives four miles from th’ county high school. Don’t they teach you no books at that high school? Do they jist let you get out and gad over th’ hillsides? If that’s all they do I’ll keep you at home, Dave. I’ve got work here fer you to do!”

“Pa,” I says, “spring is just getting here. We take a subject in school where we have to have bugs, snakes, flowers, lizards, frogs, and plants. It is biology. It was a pretly day today. We went out to find a few of these. Six of us boys saw a lizard at the same time sunning on a cherry tree. We all went up the tree to get it. We broke the tree down. It split at the forks. Eif Crabtree was plowing down below us. He ran up the hill and got our names. The other boys gave their dollar apiece. I didn’t have mine. Professor Herbert put mine in for me. I have to work it out at school.”

“Poor man’s son, huh,” says Pa. “I’ll attend to that myself in th’ mornin’. I’ll take keer o’ ‘im. He ain’t from this county nohow. I’ll go down there in th’ mornin’ and see ‘im. Lettin’ you leave your books and galavant all over th’ hills. What kind of a school is it nohow! Didn’t do that, my son, when I’s a little shaver in school. All fared alike too.”

“Pa, please don’t go down there,” I says, “just let me have fifty cents and pay the rest of my fine! I don’t want you to go down there! I don’t want you to start anything with Professor Herbert!

“Ashamed of your old Pap are you, Dave,” says Pa, “atter th’ way I’ve worked to raise you! Tryin’ to send you to school so you can make a better livin’ than I’ve made.

“I’ll straighten this thing out myself! I’ll take keer o’ Professor Herbert myself! He ain’t got no right to keep you in and let the other boys off jist because they’ve got th’ money! I’m a poor man. A bullet will go in a professor same as it will any man. It will go in a rich man same as it will a poor man. Now you get into this work before I take one o’ these withes and cut the shirt off’n your back!”

I thought once I’d run through the woods above the barn just as hard as I could go. I thought I’d leave high school and home forever! Pa could not catch me! I’d get away! I couldn’t go back to school with him. He’d have a gun and maybe he’d shoot Professor Herbert. It was hard to tell what he would do. I could tell Pa that school had changed in the hills from the way it was when he was a boy, but he wouldn’t understand. I could tell him we studied frogs, birds, snakes, lizards, flowers, insects. But Pa wouldn’t understand. If I did run away from home it wouldn’t matter to Pa. He would see Professor Herbert anyway. He would think that high school and Professor Herbert had run me away from home. There was no need to run away. I’d just have to stay, finish foddering the cattle, and go to school with Pa the next morning.

I would take a bundle of fodder, remove the hickory witheband from around it, and scatter it on rocks, clumps of green briers, and brush so the cattle wouldn’t tramp it under their feet. I would lean it up against the oak trees and the rocks in the pasture just above our pigpen on the hill. The fodder was cold and frosty where it had set out in the stacks. I would carry bundles of the fodder from the stack until I had spread out a bundle for each steer. Pa went to the barn to feed the mules and throw corn in the pen to the hogs.

The moon shone bright in the cold March sky. I finished my work by moonlight. Professor Herbert really didn’t know how much work I had to do at home. If he had known he would not have kept me after school. He would have loaned me a dolIar to have paid my part on the cherry tree. He had never lived in the hills. He didn’t know the way the hill boys had to work so that they could go to school. Now he was teaching in a county high school where all the boys who attended were from hill farms.

After I’d finished doing my work I went to the house and ate my supper. Pa and Mom had eaten. My supper was getting cold. I heard Pa and Mom talking in the front room. Pa was telling Mom about me staying in after school.

“I had to do all th’ milkin’ tonight, chop th’ wood myself. It’s too hard on me atter I’ve turned ground all day. I’m goin’ to take a day off tomorrow and see if I can’t remedy things a little. I’ll go down to that high school tomorrow. I won’t be a very good scholar fer Professor Herbert nohow. He won’t keep me in atter school. I’ll take a different kind of lesson down there and make ‘im acquainted with it.”

“Now, Luster,” says Mom, “you jist stay away from there. Don’t cause a lot o’ trouble. You can be jailed fer a trick like that. You’ll get th’ Law atter you. You’ll jist go down there and show off and plague your own boy Dave to death in front o’ all th’ scholars!”

“Plague or no plague,” says Pa, “he don’t take into consideration what all I haf to do here, does he? I’ll show ‘im it ain’t right to keep one boy in and let the rest go scot-free. My boy is good as th’ rest, ain’t he? A bullet will make a hole in a schoolteacher same as it will anybody else. He can’t do me that way and get by with it. I’ll plug ‘im first. I aim to go down there bright and early in the mornin’ and get all this straight! I aim to see about bug larnin’ and this runnin’ all over God’s creation huntin’ snakes, lizards, and frogs. Ransackin’ th’ country and goin’ through cherry orchards and breakin’ th’ trees down atter lizards! 0ld Eif Crabtree ought to a-poured th’ hot lead to ’em instead o’ chargin’ six dollars fer th’ tree! He ought to a-got old Herbert th’ first one!”

I ate my supper. I slipped upstairs and lit the lamp. I tried to forget the whole thing. I studied plane geometry. Then I studied my biology lesson. I could hardly study for thinking about Pa. “He’ll go to school with me in the morning. He’ll take a gun for Professor Herbert! What will Professor Herbert think of me! I’ll tell him when Pa leaves that I couldn’t help it. But Pa might shoot him. I hate to go with Pa. Maybe he’ll cool off about it tonight and not go in the morning.”

Pa got up at four o’clock. He built a fire in the stove. Then he built a fire in the fireplace. He got Mom up to get breakfast. Then he got me up to help feed and milk. By the time we had our work done at the barn, Mom had breakfast ready for us. We ate our breakfast. Daylight came and we could see the bare oak trees covered white with frost. The hills were white with frost. A cold wind was blowing. The sky was clear. The sun would soon come out and melt the frost. The afternoon would be warm with sunshine and the frozen ground with thaw. There would be mud on the hills again. Muddy water would then run down the little ditches on the hills.

“Now, Dave,” says Pa, “let’s get ready fer school. I aim to go with you this mornin’ and look into bug larnin’, frog larnin’, lizard and snake larnin’, and breakin’ down cherry trees! I don’t like no sicha foolish way o’ larnin’ myself!”

Pa hadn’t forgot. I’d have to take him to school with me. He would take me to school with him. We were going early. I was glad we were going early. If Pa pulled a gun on Professor Herbert there wouldn’t be so many of my classmates there to see him.

I knew that Pa wouldn’t be at home in the high school. He wore overalls, big boots, a blue shirt and a sheepskin coat and a slouched black hat gone to seed at the top. He put his gun in its holster. We started trudging toward the high schoo1 across the hill.

It was early when we got to the county high school. Professor Herbert had just got there. I just thought as we walked up the steps into the schoolhouse, “Maybe Pa will find out Professor Herbert is a good man. He just doesn’t know him. Just like I felt toward the Lambert boys across the hill. I didn’t like them until I’d seen them and talked to them. After I went to school with them and talked to them, I liked them and we were friends. It’s a lot in knowing the other fellow.”

“You’re th’ Professor here, ain’t you?” says Pa.

“Yes,” says Professor Herbert, “and you are Dave’s father.”

“Yes,” says Pa, pulling out his gun and laying it on the seat in Professor Herbert’s office. Professor Herbert’s eyes got big behind his black-rimmed glasses when he saw Pa’s gun. Color came into his pale cheeks.

“Jist a few things about this school I want to know,” says Pa. “I’m tryin’ to make a scholar out’n Dave. He’s the only one out’n eleven youngins I’ve sent to high school. Here he comes in late and leaves me all th’ work to do! He said you’s all out bug huntin’ yesterday and broke a cherry tree down. He had to stay two hours atter school yesterday and work out money to pay on that cherry tree! Is that right?”

“Wwwwy,” says Professor Herbert, “I guess it is.”

He looked at Pa’s gun.

“Well,” says Pa, “this ain’t no high school. It’s a bug school, a lizard school, a snake school! It ain’t no school nohow!”

“Why did you bring that gun?” says Professor Herbert to Pa.

“You see that little hole,” says Pa as he picked up the long blue forty-four and put his finger on the end of the barrel, “a bullet can come out’n that hole that will kill a schoolteacher same as it will any other man. It will kill a rich man same as a poor man. It will kill a man. But atter I come in and saw you, I know’d I wouldn’t need it. This maul o’ mine could do you up in a few minutes.”

Pa stood there, big, hard, brown-skinned, and mighty beside of Professor Herbert. I didn’t know Pa was so much bigger and harder. I’d never seen Pa in a schoolhouse before. I’d seen Professor Herbert. He’d always looked big before to me. He didn’t look big standing beside of Pa.

“I was only doing my duty,” says Professor Herbert, “Mr. Sexton, and following the course of study the state provided us with.”

“Course o’ study,” says Pa, “what study, bug study? Varmint study? Takin’ youngins to th’ woods and their poor old Ma’s and Pa’s at home a-slavin’ to keep ’em in school and give ’em a education! You know that’s dangerous, too, puttin’ a lot o’ boys and girIs out together like that!”

Students were coming into the schoolhouse now.

Professor Herbert says, “Close the door, Dave, so others won’t hear.”

I walked over and closed the door. I was shaking like a leaf in the wind. I thought Pa was going to hit Professor Herbert every minute. He was doing all the talking. His face was getting red. The red color was coming through the brown, weather-beaten skin on Pa’s face.

“I was right with these students,” says Professor Herbert. “I know what they got into and what they didn’t. I didn’t send one of the other teachers with them on this field trip. I went myself. Yes, I took the boys and girIs together. Why not?”

“It jist don’t look good to me,” says Pa, “a-takin’ all this swarm of youngins out to pillage th’ whole deestrict. Breakin’ down cherry trees. Keepin’ boys in atter school.”

“What else could I have done with Dave, Mr. Sexton?” says Professor Herbert. “The boys didn’t have any business all climbing that cherry tree after one lizard. One boy could have gone up in the tree and got it. The farmer charged us six dollars. It was a little steep, I think, but we had it to pay. Must I make five boys pay and let your boy off? He said he didn’t have the dollar and couldn’t get it. So I put it in for him. I’m letting him work it out. He’s not working for me. He’s working for the school!”

“I jist don’t know what you could a-done with ‘im,” says Pa, “only a-larruped im with a withe! That’s what he needed!”

“He’s too big to whip,” says Professor Herbert, pointing at me. “He’s a man in size.”

“He’s not too big fer me to whip,” says Pa. “They ain’t too big until they’re over twenty-one! It jist didn’t look fair to me! Work one and let th’ rest out because they got th’ money. I don’t see what bugs has got to do with a high school! It don’t look good to me nohow!”

Pa picked up his gun and put it back in its holster. The red color left Professor Herbert’s face. He talked more to Pa. Pa softened a littIe. It looked funny to see Pa in the high-school building. It was the first time he’d ever been there.

“We were not only hunting snakes, toads, flowers, butterflies, lizards,” says Professor Herbert, “but, Mr. Sexton, I was hunting dry timothy grass to put in an incubator and raise some protozoa.”

” I don’t know what that is,” says Pa. “Th’ incubator is th’ new-fangled way o’ cheatin’ th’ hens and raisin’ chickens. I ain’t so sure about th’ breed o’ chickens you mentioned.”

“You’ve heard of germs, Mr. Sexton, haven’t you?” says Professor Herbert.

“Jist call me Luster, if you don’t mind,” says Pa, very casual like.

“All right, Luster, you’ve heard of germs, haven’t you?”

“Yes,” says Pa, “but I don’t believe in germs. I’m sixty-five years old and I ain’t seen one yet!”

“You can’t see them with your naked eye,” says Professor Herbert. “Just keep that gun in the holster and stay with me in the high school today. I have a few things want to show you. That scum on your teeth has germs in it.”

“What,” says Pa, “you mean to tell me I’ve got germs on my teeth!

“Yes,” says Professor Herbert. “The same kind as we might be able to find in a living black snake if we dissect it!”

“I don’t mean to dispute your word,” says Pa, “but I don’t believe it. I don’t believe I have germs on my teeth!”

“Stay with me today and I’ll show you. I want to take you through the school anyway! School has changed a lot in the hills since you went to school. I don’t guess we had high schools in this county when you went to school!”

“No,” says Pa, “jist readin’, writin’, and cipherin’. We didn’t have all this bug larnin’, frog larnin’, and findin’ germs on your teeth and in the middle o’ black snakes! Th’ world’s changin’.”

“It is,” says Professor Herbert, “and we hope all for the better. Boys like your own there are going to help change it. He’s your boy. He knows all of what I’ve told you. You stay with me today.”

“I’ll shore stay with you,” says Pa. ” I want to see th’ germs off’n my teeth. I jist want to see a germ. I’ve never seen one in my life. ‘Seein’ is believin’,’ Pap allus told me.”

Pa walks out of the office with Professor Herbert. I just hoped Professor Herbert didn’t have Pa arrested for pulling his gun. Pa’s gun has always been a friend to him when he goes to settle disputes.

The bell rang. School took up. I saw the students when they marched in the schoolhouse look at Pa. They would grin and punch each other. Pa just stood and watched them pass in at the schoolhouse door. Two long lines marched in the house. The boys and girls were clean and well dressed. Pa stood over in the schoolyard under a leafless elm, in his sheepskin coat, his big boots laced in front with buckskin, and his heavy socks stuck above his boot tops. Pa’s overalIs legs were baggy and wrinkled between his coat and boot tops. His blue work shirt showed at the collar. His big black hat showed his gray-streaked black hair. His face was hard and weather-tanned to the color of a ripe fodder blade. His hands were big and gnarled like the roots of the elm tree he stood beside.

When I went to my first cIass I saw Pa and Professor Herbert going around over the schoolhouse. I was in my geometry class when Pa and Professor Herbert came in the room. We were explaining our propositions on the blackboard. Professor Herbert and Pa just quietly came in and sat down for awhile. I heard Fred Wutts whisper to Glenn Armstrong, “Who is that old man? Lord, he’s a rough-looking scamp.” Glenn whispered back, “I think he’s Dave’s Pap.” The students in geometry looked at Pa. They must have wondered what he was doing in school. Before the cIass was over, Pa and Professor Herbert got up and went out. I saw them together down on the playground. Professor Herbert was explaining to Pa. I could see the prints of Pa’s gun under his coat when he’d walk around.

At noon in the high-school cafeteria Pa and Professor Herbert sat together at the little table where Professor Herbert always ate by himself. They ate together. The students watched the way Pa ate. He ate with his knife instead of his fork. A lot of the students felt sorry for me after they found out he was my father. They didn’t have to feel sorry for me. I wasn’t ashamed of Pa after I found out he wasn’t going to shoot Professor Herbert. I was glad they had made friends. I wasn’t ashamed of Pa. I wouldn’t be as long as he behaved. He would find out about the high school as I had found out about the Lambert boys across the hill.

In the afternoon when we went to biology Pa was in the class. He was sitting on one of the high stools beside the microscope. We went ahead with our work just as if Pa wasn’t in the class. I saw- Pa take his knife and scrape tartar from one of his teeth. Professor Herbert put it on the lens and adjusted the microscope for Pa. He adjusted it and worked awhile. Then he says: “Now Luster, look! Put your eye right down to the light. Squint the other eye!”

Pa put his head down and did as Professor Herbert said. “I see ‘im,” says Pa. ‘Who’d a ever thought that? Right on a body’s teeth! Right in a body’s mouth. You’re right certain they ain’t no fake to this, Professor Herbert?”

“No, Luster,” says Professor Herbert. “It’s there. That’s the germ. Germs live in a worId we cannot see with the naked eye. We must use the microscope. There are millions of them in our bodies. Some are harmful. Others are helpful.”

Pa holds his face down and looks through the microscope. We stop and watch Pa. He sits upon the tall stool. His knees are against the table. His legs are long. His coat slips up behind when he bends over. The handle of his gun shows. Professor Herbert pulls his coat down quickly.

“Oh, yes,” says Pa. He gets up and pulls his coat down. Pa’s face gets a little red. He knows about his gun and he knows he doesn’t have any use for it in high school.

“We have a big black snake over here we caught yesterday,” says Professor Herbert. “We’ll chloroform him and dissect him and show you he has germs in his body, too.”

“Don’t do it,” says Pa. “I believe you. I jist don’t want to see you kill the black snake. I never kill one. They are good mousers and a lot o’ help to us on the farm. I like black snakes. I jist hate to see people kill ’em. I don’t allow ’em killed on my place.”

The students look at Pa. They seem to like him better after he said that. Pa with a gun in his pocket but a tender heart beneath his ribs for snakes, but not for man! Pa won’t whip a mule at home. He won’t whip his cattle.

“Man can defend hisself,” says Pa, “but cattle and mules can’t. We have the drop on ’em. Ain’t nothin’ to a man that’ll beat a good pullin’ mule. He ain’t got th’ right kind o’ a heart!”

Professor Herbert took Pa through the laboratory. He showed him the different kinds of work we were doing. He showed him our equipment. They stood and talked while we worked. Then they walked out together. They talked louder when they got out in the hall.

When our biology class was over I walked out of the room. It was our last class for the day. I would have to take my broom and sweep two hours to finish paying for the split cherry tree. I just wondered if Pa would want me to stay. He was standing in the hallway watching the students march out. He looked lost among us. He looked like a leaf turned brown on the tree among the treetop filled with growing leaves.

I got my broom and started to sweep. Professor Herbert walked up and says, “I’m going to let you do that some other time. You can go home with your father. He is waiting out there.”

I Iaid my broom down, got my books, and went down the steps.

Pa says, “Ain’t you got two hours o’ sweepin’ yet to do?”

I says, “Professor Herbert said I could do it some other time. He said for me to go home with you.”

“No,” says Pa. “You are goin’ to do as he says. He’s a good man. School has changed from my day and time. I’m a dead leaf, Dave. I’m behind. I don’t belong here. If he’ll let me I’ll get a broom and we’ll both sweep one hour. That pays your debt. I’ll hep you pay it. I’ll ast ‘im and see if he won’t let me hep you.”

“I’m going to cancel the debt,” says Professor Herbert. “I just wanted you to understand, Luster.”

“I understand,” says Pa, “and since I understand he must pay his debt fer th’ tree and I’m goin’ to hep ‘im.”

“Don’t do that,” says Professor Herbert. “It’s all on me.”

“We don’t do things like that,” says Pa, “we’re just and honest people. We don’t want somethin’ fer nothin’. Professor Herbert, you’re wrong now and I’m right. You’ll haf to listen to me. I’ve larned a lot from you. My boy must go on. Th’ worId has left me. It changed while I’ve raised my family and plowed th’ hills. I’m a just and honest man. I don’ skip debts. I ain’t larned ’em to do that. I ain’t got much larnin’ myself but I do know right from wrong atter I see through a thing.”

Professor Herbert went home. Pa and I stayed and swept one hour. It looked funny to see Pa use a broom. He never used one at home. Mom used the broom. Pa used the plow. Pa did hard work. Pa says, “I can’t sweep. Durned if I can. Look at th’ streaks o’ dirt I leave on th’ floor! Seems like no work a-tall fer me. Brooms is too light ‘r somethin’. I’ll jist do th’ best I can, Dave. I’ve been wrong about th’ school.”

I says, “Did you know Professor Herbert can get a warrant out for you for bringing your pistoI to school and showing it in his office! They can railroad you for that!”

“That’s all made right,” says Pa. “I’ve made that right. Professor Herbert ain’t goin’ to take it to court. He likes me. I like ‘im. We jist had to get together. He had the remedies. He showed me. You must go on to school. I am as strong a man as ever come out’n th’ hills fer my years and th’ hard work I’ve done. But I’m behind, Dave. I’m a little man. Your hands will be softer than mine. Your clothes will be better. You’ll allus look cleaner than your old Pap. Jist remember, Dave, to pay your debts and be honest. Jist be kind to animals and don’t bother th’ snakes. That’s all I got agin th’ school. Puttin’ black snakes to sleep and cuttin’ ’em open.”

It was late when we got home. Stars were in the sky. The moon was up. The ground was frozen. Pa took his time going home. I couldn’t run like I did the night before. It was ten o’clock before we got the work finished, our suppers eaten. Pa sat before the fire and told Mom he was going to take her and show her a germ sometime. Mom hadn’t seen one either. Pa told her about the high school and the fine man Professor Herbert was. He told Mom about the strange school across the hill and how different it was from the school in their day and time.

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