Tom was worried. He wished now that he had remembered what day it was when he first woke up. He could have pretended to be sick so he wouldn’t have to go to school, even though it would have meant staying in bed all day. But now he sat there at the table, staring at the darkening heap of brown sugar he had piled on his oatmeal. Suddenly his mother’s voice broke the silence. “You had better hurry, Tom, or you’ll miss the bus.” He sat up straight in his chair and began to gulp down the cereal that was now cold.
Upstairs he busied himself with dressing. Then he stepped out into the cold January morning. The weather did nothing to improve his spirits. The overcast sky was a dull gray, and a cold wind was blowing snow out of the northwest. It seemed that the only time it snowed big flakes was when it warmed up.
The bus was late that morning, and for a few happy moments Tom thought that school had been called off. Yet the roads were all plowed, and at last in the distance he recognized the yellow school bus. It was only half full when he got on, and most of the kids were in the front of the bus where it was warmer. He walked to the very back, then laid his books on the seat beside him to discourage anyone from sitting there. He didn’t feel much like talking.
When Jim Winters got on the bus, he spotted Tom right away, picked up Tom’s books, and sat down beside him. “Hi!” Tom nodded, wishing Jim would go away. “Do you think you can whip him?” Jim asked.
“Sure,” said Tom, although he didn’t like the idea of fighting. He wished that the gang had picked someone else as their leader, although he enjoyed the feeling of authority at times. Jim seemed to sense that Tom didn’t want to talk and kept quiet for the remainder of the ride. The bell rang as soon as the bus arrived, and the sound was like a last-minute reprieve. Tom even managed to smile at Miss Culler, their teacher, as he slid into his desk.
Tom went over again in his mind the plan the gang had decided upon to initiate the new boy Marty Simms. Jim Winters and Danny Ryan would tell the new boy at recess that it was his turn to haul wood for the school stove. Tom would be waiting when Marty went out back of the school to get the wood. Tom would tell Marty that if he wanted to get along in the school, he’d have to fight then and there.
The morning recess came all too soon. Pulling on his sweater, Tom slipped out the side door and around to the back of the building. The woodpile was still there, hidden from the school by the huge elm trees surrounding it. This was a pleasant spot in warm weather where the gang usually ate lunch. But today it was a desolate place, with the stiff tarpaulins, like ghostly shrouds, thrown over the piles of wood to keep them dry. Tom sat down on a chunk of wood that had worked loose from the pile and waited.
Marty came around the edge of the woodpile and stopped. Tom knew by the frightened look on the new boy’s face that he sensed he had been tricked. He mumbled something about fetching firewood, and Tom stepped in front of him. Tom could not help feeling sorry for this new boy. He hated himself for being there, but now the rest of the gang had arrived at the woodpile. He looked at Marty, whose face still had the look of a cornered animal, but his eyes shone with a certain pride and defiance that Tom found disconcerting. “You’re going to have to fight me if you want to stay in this school,” Tom declared. Marty said nothing, but moved back several steps and raised his hands.
The boys circled each other there in the shadow of the woodpile, oblivious to the shouting around them. The smaller boy’s arms struck out, but Tom managed to dodge each blow, so that the jabs hit only empty space. Tom waited for an opening and when it came, he smacked the new boy hard. Marty staggered a moment, then grabbed Tom, and they both fell to the ground. They rolled in the snow pounding each other. Tom’s weight soon began to tell. Finally the smaller boy blurted out, “I give! I give!” and Tom stood up, then watched the retreating figure. He did not hear the cheers of the other boys or feel them pounding him on the back. He didn’t feel the least bit like a hero; instead he felt ashamed of himself. Tom vowed that if he had anything to say about it, Marty would be the last new boy coming to the school that had to undergo such rough treatment.
The bell rang to signal the end of recess, and the gang began to drift toward the schoolhouse. Tom could tell that Miss Culler had already heard of the fight, for she gave him a strange look as he sat down at his desk. Finally she walked down the aisle, looked at Marty and asked, “What happened to you at recess?”
Marty looked away from her and mumbled, “I fell on the woodpile, Miss Culler.” She stood for a moment in front of him, then wheeled around and walked briskly to her desk. Tom knew that she was angry and her anger only made him feel worse.
The next several days seemed like an eternity. Marty kept to himself, and Tom did not have a chance to speak to him. On the third day the sun came out, and by noon the snow was soft and packy. It was ideal for making snowballs and the gang soon had a fort built of snow. Tom and Jim were chosen to choose up sides for a snowball fight. It was Tom’s turn first, and as he looked out at the eager faces, he caught a glimpse of Marty standing alone near the corner of the schoolhouse. His voice rang loud and clear across the schoolyard, “I’ll take Marty Simms!”
Marty stood still for a moment as though he couldn’t believe his ears, then proudly he walked forward to take his place with the gang behind the fort.