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Little Fred, The Canal Boy
by [?]

Fred hesitated a moment; but he was tired and desperate, and the steaming, well-sweetened beverage was too tempting. “Who cares for me?” thought he, “and why should I care?” and down went the first spirituous liquor the boy had ever tasted; and in a few moments, he felt a wonderful change. He was no longer a timid, cold, disheartened, heart-sick boy, but felt somehow so brave, so full of hope and courage, that he began to swagger, to laugh very loud, and to boast in such high terms of the money in his pocket, and of his future intentions and prospects, that the two boys winked significantly at each other. They proposed, after sitting a while, to walk out and see the shop windows. All three of the boys had taken enough to put them to extra merriment; but Fred, who was entirely unused to the stimulant, was quite beside himself. If they sung, he shouted; if they laughed, he screamed; and he thought within himself he never had heard and thought so many witty things as on that very evening. At last they fell in with quite a press of boys, who were crowding round a confectionery window, and, as usual in such cases, there began an elbowing and scuffling contest for places, in which Fred was quite conspicuous. At last a big boy presumed on his superior size to edge in front of our hero, and cut off his prospect; and Fred, without more ado, sent him smashing through the shop window. There was a general scrabble, every one ran for himself, and Fred, never having been used to the business, was not very skilful in escaping, and of course was caught, and committed to an officer, who, with small ceremony, carried him off and locked him up in the watch house, from which he was the next morning taken before the mayor, and after examination sent to jail.

This sobered Fred. He came to himself as out of a dream, and he was overwhelmed with an agony of shame and self-reproach. He had broken his promise to his dead mother–he had been drinking! and his heart failed him when he thought of the horrors that his mother had always associated with that word. And then he was in jail–that place that his mother had always represented as an almost impossible horror, the climax of shame and disgrace. The next night the poor boy stretched himself on his hard, lonely bed, and laid under his head his little bundle, containing his few clothes and his mother’s Bible, and then sobbed himself to sleep.

Cold and gray dawned the following morning on little Fred, as he slowly and heavily awoke, and with a bitter chill of despair recalled the events of the last two nights, and looked up at the iron-grated window, and round on the cheerless walls; and, as if in bitter contrast, arose before him an image of his lost home–the neat, quiet room, the white curtains and snowy floor, his mother’s bed, with his own little cot beside it, and his mother’s mild blue eyes, as they looked upon him only six months ago. Mechanically he untied the check handkerchief which contained his few clothes, and worldly possessions, and relics of home.

There was the small, clean-printed Bible his mother had given him with so many tears on their first parting; there was a lock of her soft brown hair; there, too, were a pair of little worn shoes and stockings, a baby’s rattle, and a curl of golden hair, which he had laid up in memory of his lost little pet. Fred laid his head down over all these, his forlorn treasures, and sobbed as if his heart would break.

After a while the jailer came in, and really seemed affected by the distress of the child, and said what he could to console him; and in the course of the day, as the boy “seemed to be so lonesome like,” he introduced another boy into the room as company for him. This was a cruel mercy; for while the child was alone with himself and the memories of the past, he was, if sad, at least safe, and in a few hours after this new introduction he was neither. His new companion was a tall boy of fourteen, with small, cunning, gray eyes, to which a slight cast gave an additional expression of shrewdness and drollery. He was a young gentleman of great natural talent,–in a certain line,–with very precocious attainments in all that kind of information which a boy gains by running at large for several years in a city’s streets without any thing particular to do, or any body in particular to obey–any conscience, any principle, any fear either of God or man. We should not say that he had never seen the inside of a church, for he had been, for various purposes, into every one of the city, and to every camp meeting for miles around; and so much had he profited by these exercises, that he could mimic to perfection every minister who had any perceptible peculiarity, could caricature every species of psalm-singing, and give ludicrous imitations of every form of worship. Then he was au fait in all coffee house lore, and knew the names and qualities of every kind of beverage therein compounded; and as to smoking and chewing, the first elements of which he mastered when he was about six years old, he was now a connoisseur in the higher branches. He had been in jail dozens of times–rather liked the fun; had served one term on the chain-gang–not so bad either–shouldn’t mind another–learned a good many prime things there.