WHEN Stacey Harris threw that shoe, he aimed it straight at Hodge’s head, and every boy in the gym knew it. And when Hodge bore down on him with a smarting temple and the blood of battle in his eye, it was Stacey who kicked first; every boy knew that, too. Just the same, they shouted, ‘ Coward! Why don’t you pick on your own size? Coward! coward!’ And from a circumspectly populous corner, came that epithet most hated of all — ‘Fatty.’ It was then that Hodge struck out, and Stacey’s puny arm snapped under the blow backed by Hodge’s 190 pounds of tough young muscle.
To Hodge that sound of snapping bone was awful. He knew what it was: he had heard it once before. But that was different: it was his own arm that snapped then, and he had taken it as a matter of course. He was playing basket-ball, and it was a law of the game not to notice any injury. Besides, they were cheering him then and he could have stood anything. Now no one cheered. The sudden anguished surprise of the unintentional criminal smote him. He wanted to cry; but he knew that, if he did, they would call him cry-baby, and that one thing no boy can stand.
Why had he been fighting anyway, he asked himself, uncomfortable under the first assault that self-analysis had ever made on him. It was only last week that he had made up his mind never to fight again. He had been reading how Lincoln had made this promise to his mother and had kept his word; and that had helped, too. For no one ever said that Lincoln was afraid to fight. But if he had to fight; if the boys were right, and, as they said, he was the school bully, why did n’t he pick on his own size? And at that he came face to face with the old grim fact, the one that was always there, that always had been there ever since he got into his first pair of trousers and began to understand these things: there were no boys his size. All the boys his size were men. And he did n’t want to fight with men. They did n’t want to fight with him, either.
He skulked out across the schoolyard, a great form and the face of a very simple little boy. With the amazing rapidity of school-yard gossip, the news had gone before him. ‘Coward, coward!’ came from a group of boys. ‘Fatty, why don’t you pick on your own size?’
He turned upon them. ‘I did n’t pick on him; he hit me first. You show me my own size, and I’ll show you whether I’m afraid or not.’
‘Fatty!’ came promptly from another group.
‘Who said that?’ Hodge caught a small boy by the arm.
‘I did n’t; don’t you break my arm too,’ whimpered the boy. ‘I did n’t’; ‘I did n’t,’ went round the alibi-ing group, whose cry a minute before had been ‘Coward.’
Hodge let the youngster go and turned to face a girl. She had red cheeks and black eyes. Hodge knew just how her white teeth looked as they flashed out between red lips. Had he not watched all term for that smile? But she did not smile now. ‘Hodge Thompson, you’re the meanest boy I ever saw, to break that poor little boy’s arm, and I’ll never speak to you again, never.’
‘You go to—,’ said Hodge, with the swift decisiveness of the young male who can be goaded no further.
‘Oh, you bad boy! I’ll tell the principal on you.’
‘Go ahead and tell her, and see if I care.’
And, as a matter of fact, at that moment he did not care. His sorrows were of a kind that no principal can increase or assuage.
Now the need for action became imperative. He could not run away, for that was to acknowledge defeat. He could not even walk away, as if he had something to do; for his enemies, past masters in the art of subterfuge, knew the indirect as well as the direct methods of retreat. Suddenly he threw back his head and listened. Not a sound came to his ears except the splash, splash of melting snow as it fell from the eaves; but with quick aggressiveness he dashed across the campus, a splendid, vital young thing.
‘Hey, hearing things, aren’t you?’ came scornfully from the group he had left behind, valiant again at his departure. And as he turned the corner, afar off the hated words came again to his ears: ‘Coward! Fatty!’ He dropped from his trot to a slow walk. There was no use in hurrying home. He would get there soon enough anyway. There was nothing pleasant awaiting him there — he knew that. He knew that the story would reach home long before he did: they always did. And he knew that his stepfather would thrash him. And he knew, too, that, though he himself was half a head taller, he would stand and take it; he always did.
Next day, something quite unusual happened to Hodge. He found a friend. It was not Stacey, who, with his arm in a sling, and his hair parted almost too neatly, told how it all happened, even nobly vouchsafing that he hit first; at which Hodge, indifferent before, felt a strange desire to kill him.
It was when the trial was all over that the judge called Hodge to the bench. He was a tall, quiet, kindly old man, with fine eyes.
‘Hodge,’ he said, ‘I know all about it. I was big once myself. It’s pretty tough; I’m sorry for you.’
Hodge’s eyes filled suddenly with tears, which rimmed over and ran down his nose, but could n’t be wiped away, no matter how they tickled, because Stacey was looking at him.
‘But it won’t always be so, Hodge. They called me names, too, and I could n’t lick them, because they were only half my size. And one day I beat up a pretty little sissy boy for throwing my cat into the sewer. And I had to stand with my hands tied behind me and let his father thrash me for it. When that happened, I promised myself, when we were all twenty-one, I’d clean up every one of them, one after another. And I used to go out into the barn and chin myself thirty times, and punch a bag, to put myself into shape to do it.’
‘And did you?’ asked Hodge, his face aglow with anticipated revenge.
The judge smiled—kindly, impersonal again. ‘Wait till you’re twenty-one, Hodge, and you ’ll know.’