Just then the door of the schoolhouse flew open. A gust of wind sent Littlejim’s drawing fluttering to the floor.
Every pupil in all the neat rows between the windows that lighted each side of the oneroom school looked at the doorway. Susie Dellinger threw herself into the room, pigtails flying and petticoats showing where her homespun dress and apron were turned up. Her breath came in gasps.
“Mr. Osk. Mr. Osk, they’s a . . .” she said.
A noise louder than thunder came through the door. Ker-chug. Ker-chug. Wheep, came the sound. Kerchug. Ker-chug. Wheep.
Books, slates, chalk, papers, and pencils flew as every student ran to the roadside windows. Two of the older boys ran out the door.
Mr. Osk was frantic. “Pupils! Pupils!” He clapped his hands. “Children, wait a minute! What on earth is it?”
“Hit’s a buggy!” wheezed Susie. “But it ain’t got no horses pulling it!”
“It’s the devil, it is,” yelled Andy Pittman, pushing his way through the door to the porch steps.
“Do tell. Do tell,” said Jo Rhyne, a quiet upper-grade girl. Her eyes were as big as moons.
“What is it?” asked Littlejim, jumping up and trying to see over the shoulders of the taller boys who stood in the doorway.
“Do tell. Do tell,” was all that Jo could say.
Littlejim ran to stand by Mr. Osk. The boy shivered from the cold, but he hardly noticed.
Nell and her friend, Emma Shoop, pulled themselves up on the windowsill beside the teacher. They knocked over the cans of plants growing on the shelf. Mr. Osk did not seem to notice.
“What is it making such a racket?” Littlejim asked Andy McGuire, his best friend at school, as they edged their way through the smaller children.
“Why, it’s an autymobile,” said Mr. Osk. “I’ve seen pictures of them in the Star, but I’ve never laid eyes on a real one. This must be the first one on the Creek.”
The automobile chugged on, rounded the turn, and headed into the schoolyard. Littlejim could see it looked like Papa’s box wagon, except that it had skinny black wheels and no horses were pulling it. It had a brass lantern hanging out on each side of the front of the box. Littlejim stared at the strange wagon.
“Why, Papa’s Percherons would be useless to pull such a wagon,” Littlejim told Andy, but Andy continued to stare, his mouth open wide.
Ker-chug. Ker-chug. Wheep. Bang!
Some pupils ran back to their desks. A few of the girls grabbed their coats from the hooks by the door. Nell and Emma jumped down from the window-sill. Littlejim followed Mr. Osk through the door.
“It’s the devil,” yelled Andy Pittman, who ran back through the door and dived under his desk, his long legs sticking out behind him.
“But it won’t go,” insisted Susie, not believing what her eyes could see. “It ain’t got no horses!”
Carl Hicks, the tallest boy in the school, wandered out and pushed his way through the smaller children.
“Why, it’s a mocolotive, just a wee mite smaller than the one at the railroad station at Cranberry,” said Carl. He was usually the boy who knew everything.
“But then again, it ain’t got notracks,” he said. “It can’t be a mocolotive.” He scratched his head in wonder and moved out to meet the vehicle. The automobile chugged up to the door of the school. Dust fogged the children’s eyes as the vehicle came to a stop.
The dust settled, and two figures covered by white canvas coats could be seen sitting in the front of the wagon. One of them wore a huge white hat with a veil. The other wore a little cap. Both of them wore goggles.
The students in Mr. Osk’s class stood as silent as if they had no voices and stared at the miracle before them. Mr. Osk came to his senses first. He hurried to help the figure in the white hat down from the strange vehicle.
She unwound the veil of her hat and lifted her goggles.
“Oh, Miz Vance, why, good morning. My! My! This is an occasion!” Mr. Osk was running around like a chicken with its head cut off. The students laughed at him. Nell and Emma jumped up and down, clapping their hands.
The driver took off his goggles and then removed his cap. He stood up in the automobile.
Ivor nudged Littlejim with his elbow. He looked mighty proud. “That’s my uncle’s new autymobile,” he said. “Told me he was going to get one. I guess I’ll get to ride in it, probably today or tomorrow.”
Littlejim wished his Uncle Bob would get an automobile so he could ride in it, too.
“I wish . . .” he began.
The driver interrupted. “Ug-um,” he cleared his throat.
“Mr. Osk, pupils, Mrs. Vance and I have come all the way up the Creek today to announce an essay competition.”
Mr. Vance took a little bow.
“We will give a prize to the pupil who writes the best essay on the topic, ‘What it means to be an American.’ We will give a fine prize, courtesy of my store, T. B. Vance’s General Merchandise, the finest store in Plumtree, North Carolina.”
Littlejim hardly heard a word the man said. He was busy looking at that wonderful wagon.
“And we will enter the essay in the competition at the Kansas City Star. Students in several states will be competing. The first prize there is ten dollars, and the Star will publish the best essay in their July Fourth edition. What do you think of that?”
Mr. Vance looked mighty proud of his announcement. Littlejim came to his senses with the words Kansas City Star.
Mrs. Vance stood on the ground at the bottom of the steps. She looked at the children gathered around her and smiled at them. “Is anybody interested in the competition?” she asked, pointing to one student, then another. “How about you, Addie Barrier? I know you’ll want to enter, Helen Hughes.”
Emma and Nell jumped up and down. “Me, too! Me, too!” they said, giggling.
“Of course, you will,” said Mrs. Vance, smiling at the smaller children. She turned to Littlejim and Ivor, who stood to one side. “And you, Ivor. I guess you should enter. You are in our family, but we won’t be the only judges. And you, Littlejim Houston. You will want to enter, Littlejim. You are so good at writing and recitation.”
Littlejim didn’t answer. In his mind he was already seeing a rare smile lighting his father’s face as he read the essay his only son had written right there in print in the Kansas City Star.
Ivor nudged Littlejim in the ribs.
“Well, are you, Littlejim?” Mrs. Vance asked again.
“Why, why, uh, yes, ma’am,” he said. He had no idea what Mrs. Vance’s question was, but he did remember his manners. Mama would be upset if he did not use his manners.
“How about the rest of you?” she asked. Twenty-four hands shot up. Littlejim raised his hand, too.
“Children. Children.” Mr. Osk fluttered across the bottom step of the stairs. “Of course, our pupils will be only too happy to be in the competition, won’t we?” he said.
“Yes. Yes.” The answers all came at once.
“My lovely wife, Elvira, and young Preacher Hall will judge the competition, along with Mr. Osk, of course,” said Mr. Vance, with a nod toward the teacher.
“The winning essay will be read next summer at the July Fourth celebration on the Grassy Ridge Bald by the writer,” finished Mr. Vance. Then he shook hands with Mr. Osk and helped Mrs. Vance into the seat of the automobile. She tied the veil around her hat, ready to go. Finally, her husband stepped around to set the crank.
When he was again seated behind the steering lever, he pulled his goggles down and called to Mr. Osk. “Give the starter a twist, will you, Osk?” he said. Mr. Osk stepped up to the metal rod sticking out in front of the automobile’s hood. He gave a mighty twist.
Nothing happened. Mr. Osk heaved his shoulders to turn the crank again. Still nothing happened. Every student leaned forward as if to help. Mrs. Vance frowned. Mr. Osk twisted the crank again. Bang! The automobile sounded like a shotgun. Littlejim covered his ears, and the younger children jumped back.
Finally, it began to sputter and chug. The engine started. Mr. Vance turned the steering lever and chugged off down Henson Creek Road. The class at Mr. Osk’s school watched intently.
“My uncle’s new autymobile. Guess I’ll ride in it today,” boasted Ivor.
“It won’t go,” insisted Susie Dellinger, still not believing her eyes and ears. “It ain’t got no horses.”
“It’s the work of the devil,” screeched Andy Pittman, from his hiding place safe under his desk in the back of the classroom.
“It’s a wonder,” said Littlejim. “It’s a wonder. I want one of them someday.”
Mr. Osk rubbed his shirt-sleeved arms as he herded the students back into the schoolroom. “Children. Children, in our excitement most of us forgot our coats. Put on your coats and gather around the stove to get warm. We must get back to work in a few minutes. My, my, after all this excitement, will we be able to do our lessons, do you think?” He was still fluttering.
“I know. Let’s write a story about this wonder that has come to visit us this day,” he said. “Or maybe some of you would rather draw a picture of that fine autymobile. And we have to think of the essay contest. My, my, we have so much to do. I think we should start with a story or a drawing.”
All the students gathered around the stove began to talk at once.
All except Littlejim. He went to his desk and picked up the drawing of Scott and Swain. He turned the paper over so he had a clean sheet.
“What are you doing, Littlejim?” asked Ivor, returning to his desk.
“I’m drawing,” Littlejim answered.
“I think I’ll draw my uncle’s fine new autymobile,” said Ivor.
“I’ll draw the fine autymobile I’ll have someday,” said Littlejim.
His hands set to work, using his pencil ever so carefully.
Over in the corner, Susie Dellinger stared out the window. “It’ll never go,” she insisted. “It ain’t got no horses!”
But Littlejim heard nothing. As he drew, his mind was repeating, “What does it mean—to be an American?”
He looked around the classroom. Everyone was hard at work. “I guess we are all Americans, all of us who live on the Creek.” But he wasn’t sure what that meant.