from American Girl
Jo Ann's Christmas Mystery
by Ellis Parker Butler
Jo Ann, home from Wilmot School for the Christmas holidays, was standing on the car platform as the train stopped and, ignoring the lower steps, she leaped down and cast herself into her mother's arms, giving her a hug that almost cracked her ribs.
"Oh, joy! Oh, rapture!" cried Jo Ann. "Whoop, hurrah! Home again!"
"Darling, not quite so rough!" exclaimed Jo Ann's mother. "Welcome home, dear. But can you never learn to be less tomboyish?"
Julia Wickham, who had come to spend the holidays with Jo Ann, was descending from the train more sedately, the porter following her with the luggage.
"And Rags-Sport!" Jo Ann cried, unhanding her mother and making a dash for the dog that strained at his chain in the rumble seat of the sports car. The dog, now quite a full-grown dog, went almost crazy as Jo Ann tried to hug him. He barked and jumped and almost choked himself with his collar.
Jo Ann's mother was welcoming Julia Wickham. She turned to Jo Ann.
"Let's get the luggage into the car, Jo Ann," she said. "I want to stop and buy wreaths and holly; I left that until you came home. It's going to snow, too, and with the top of the car lowered --"
"Snow!" Jo Ann shouted. "Wicky, is it suave?"
The air was warm for Christmas week, but the big flakes were now coming down as if they meant business -- huge moist flakes. Jo Ann and Wicky stored the luggage in the rumble seat, crowding the dog somewhat, and Jo Ann's mother took the wheel and swung the car about. She set the windshield wiper wagging to wipe the sticky snow away so that she could see. Rags-Sport, the dog in which Jo Ann and the redheaded neighbor boy, Tommy Bassick, each had a half ownership, tried to climb over the folded top into Jo Ann's lap, but his chain was too short.
"Blessed pup!" Jo Ann said. "He loves me. Mother, is Tommy Bassick home? Does Rags-Sport like him at all? And has he been with Tommy much since he arrived home? When did he get back, Mother?"
"Tommy got home yesterday," Jo Ann's mother said. "Spenceville Academy let out a day earlier. Tommy was over this morning. The dog seems to like him. But the dog seems to like everybody. He's that kind of dog, Jo Ann."
The car turned up the street from the station.
"Wicky," said Jo Ann, who was bubbling over with happiness, "this is going to be the best Christmas! Snow! And Mother wrote me that my presents are going to be just what I want most. And you here! If only," she added, "that pest of a Tommy Bassick leaves me alone and doesn't try any of his smarty tricks."
"If he does, Jo Ann," said Wicky, "you can get even with him. You always do, you know."
"I don't want to bother with him," said Jo Ann. "Not this Christmas. Everything is too lovely. Mother, there he is now! Stop the car, Mother. I might as well tell him now that I don't want any of his foolishness."
Tommy Bassick had just come out of one of the small stores and was hurrying along as fast as he could walk, unconscious that Jo Ann was anywhere near. He was carrying a parcel, holding it by the cord. The parcel was rather large, about two feet high and a foot or so square, and it was evidently a box wrapped in paper. It did not seem heavy, for Tommy was carrying it held in front of him, with his arm bent. By the careful way he carried it, the box might have contained a vase filled with water. Tommy was grinning as if much pleased with himself.
Jo Ann's mother stopped the car opposite him.
"Tommy!" Jo Ann called. "You Tommy Bassick!"
The effect on Tommy was instantaneous. As he stopped and saw Jo Ann his mouth opened. Then he turned beet red in the face and swung the package behind his back, trying to hide it. He seemed to be both startled and confused at seeing them. Jo Ann wondered what was the matter.
"Why -- why, hello, Jo Ann!" he stammered. "How do?"
"Pile in," Jo Ann said. "We'll take you home. There's room in the rumble seat
if you don't mind crowding in. I want to talk to you."
"Why, ur -- I gotta stop at a place. I gotta stop at a lot of places. Well, I gotta go now," Tommy said, keeping his package at his back and getting redder than ever. He turned away.
"Tommy Bassick, you wait or I'll get out and make you wait!" Jo Ann said. "What have you got in that box?"
"Ur -- nothing," said Tommy. "I don't have to tell you."
"I know what it is," said Jo Ann. "It's one of your smarty tricks, but you listen to me, Tommy Bassick! I'm sick of your smarty nonsense and I give you fair warning --"
"Jo Ann, please!" said her mother.
"Well, Mother," said Jo Ann, "I'm just not going to have him pestering me and mussing up my Christmas, and he may as well know it. I want to have some peace this Christmas. So you remember that, Tom Bassick! This is my last warning. Go ahead, Mother."
They left Tommy Bassick standing where he was and looking sheepish, his bundle still hidden behind him. Rags-Sport had not understood what all the fuss was about. He had tried to leap into Tommy Bassick's arms just as he had tried to leap into Jo Ann's.
"What do you suppose he had in that package?" Wicky asked. "It was something not very heavy. He held it as if it might break."
"I don't know," Jo Ann said. "I can't even guess, but I know it was for some sort of smarty trick on me. He had better not use it, that's all! He'll only regret it and be sorry if he does." How right Jo Ann was in saying that Tommy would be sorry not even Jo Ann could guess then, and what was in the package she could not have guessed if she had tried for a week, for Tommy Bassick had planned for two months to give her the most annoying Christmas present possible. He had spent most of his pocket money for it.
"I think it is something he is going to give you for Christmas," Wicky said. "Are you going to think up something to give him?"
"No, I'm not," said Jo Ann with spirit. "I'm not going to pay the slightest attention to him. I'm not even going to send him a crazy Christmas card. I'm going to have this one Christmas without having to worry about Tommy Bassick. If he does anything too mean there's plenty of time to get even with him before we have to go back to school after New Year's. I don't even want to hear his name, Wicky. I'm sick of him." Jo Ann's mother was glad to hear her say this, and she said as much. They stopped and loaded the remaining space of the rumble seat with wreaths and holly sprays, much to the annoyance of Rags-Sport who yelped when the sharp-pointed leaves happened to prick him, and so they reached home, the car and everyone and everything in it now covered with snow.
The rest of that day and all night the snow continued to fall, but it was soft snow and the weather was warm. By the next morning, which was the day before Christmas, the snow was a foot deep -- beautiful to look upon but damp and unpleasant to walk in -- and Jo Ann and Wicky did not go out. From Tommy Bassick there came no sign whatever.
But the girls had plenty to do. Jo Ann and Wicky had their presents to wrap in gay Christmas paper, and Jo Ann's mother gave them the pleasant task of putting up the wreaths and decorating the rooms with the holly sprays. Rags-Sport enjoyed this. He lay on the floor thumping with his tail as he watched them, sometimes with his head on his paws and sometimes with his head raised as if criticizing their decorative work and approving of it. He was a rather lazy dog and if they spent too much time over one part of a room he would recline on his side, doing nothing but thumping his tail now and then.
"Look at him, the dear dog!" Jo Ann said. "I believe he knows it is Christmas time. He must have a present, Wicky. Give me some of that red ribbon." She fastened a gorgeous bow on one side of his collar.
"Jo Ann," Wicky asked, "do you know what your father and mother are going to give you?"
"I think I do," Jo Ann said. "Mother said in a letter that I was going to be glad -- that I was going to have what I most wanted and I know what that was. When I was home for Thanksgiving I saw the dearest wrist watch in Benderby's window, and a dream of a little circle brooch set with little pearls. I told Mother about them and said I'd rather have them than anything else in the world.
"I thought you wanted a lady's size shotgun and a hunting outfit," said Wicky.
"Oh, that, of course!" Jo Ann agreed. "But I knew I wouldn't get those. Father thinks I'm too young and Mother wouldn't think of giving me anything so tomboyish, so I know I won't get them. It's sure to be the brooch and the watch, Wicky, and I'm just tickled to bits."
"Well, I do think you're too young to have a shotgun," Wicky said.
"Why?" Jo Ann demanded.
"Well, perhaps not too young," Wicky amended, "but too -- too enthusiastic. I'd hate to have you popping off a gun if I were anywhere near you. I'd be so full of shot most of the time that I'd look like a sieve. You are reckless, Jo Ann."
"But, of course," said Jo Ann, "I wouldn't go hunting except with Father. But you needn't worry. I'll not get a gun. Hand me up that big spray of holly will you, please? We'll have to hurry and get this room done, so we can finish wrapping up all our presents this afternoon."
The day, with all these things to do and talk about, went quickly enough. After dinner, in the evening, Jo Ann's father brought the Christmas tree from the garage and set it in the living room to be decorated. There had been a Christmas tree for Jo Ann ever since the year when she was born and the pleasant custom was continued. Now another tree was also set in the yard and covered with electric lights in green and white and red, and Jo Ann's father did that decorating himself, leaving the indoor tree to the girls.
The trees were all done by ten o'clock and the litter swept up. The rule was that everyone went to bed early on Christmas Eve because Jo Ann always wanted to see her presents at the earliest possible moment the next morning and her mother never allowed that until Jo Ann had eaten a proper breakfast.
When the tree was decorated the final act was to carry in the presents. Each member of the family -- and each guest, if any were staying at the house -- had a separate place for his or her presents. Jo Ann's mother always had the table by the front window of the living room. Jo Ann's father always had his on the table at the side of the room. Jo Ann's presents since she had been a little girl and too small to reach up onto a table, had been put on the big couch in front of the windows at the back of the living room, and they were still always put there. There was always something "big" that had to be stood on the floor -- one year a bicycle so wrapped in paper that Jo Ann could not guess what it was until she had ripped off part of the paper, and another year a huge bundle that turned out to be a writing desk -- but this big present was never brought in until Jo Ann had gone reluctantly up to bed.
Mary's, the cook's presents were always put on top of the piano, for she was included in the joy of the occasion and always received presents with which she was delighted.
This year Wicky's presents were put at the far end of the couch on which Jo Ann's were put. There were plenty for Wicky, for her parents had sent them on, and the girls at school had known she was to spend Christmas with Jo Ann.
As Jo Ann's father and mother brought down their wrapped presents and distributed them in the allotted places Jo Ann, distributing her packages, saw the pile on her end of the couch grow. There were what seemed to be dozens of packages that had come by mail, for all the girls at school sent presents to one another.
Wicky's pile was almost bigger than Jo Ann's, but Jo Ann was not jealous of this. She was quite sure her father and mother would not put the watch and the brooch -- if she was to receive them -- on the pile until after Jo Ann went to bed, because they would be too easy to guess. And the "big" present, if there was one this year, would be the last to be brought from the garage, or the cellar, or the attic, or wherever it was hidden.
When the last present was in place on each pile Jo Ann looked at her's with satisfaction.
"Well, I'm going to get something this year, anyway," she said with a laugh that was happy. "And look at Wicky's pile! And yours, Mother! Mother," she asked suddenly, "was there anything from Tommy Bassick in my pile?"
"Not a thing, Jo Ann," her mother said. "I looked at each package that came by mail or express and there was nothing from him. And he sent nothing over, I'm sure."
"Because if there is anything from him, Mother, I want you to take it out of my pile and throw it away and never let me see it," Jo Ann said. "And if anything does come from him, Mother, don't open it. I just know he's up to some sort of trick."
She did not say what she had thought Tommy Bassick's trick might be, but it had come into her mind that they taught some chemistry at Spenceville Academy and about the first thing the boys learned -- or taught themselves -- was to mix certain chemicals that thus combined gave off a perfectly fierce smell and a frightful lot of it. She did not put it beyond Tommy Bassick to rig up some sort of container that would open when the string was cut, letting out enough terrible odor to drive everybody out of the house. The redheaded nuisance might think that was funny. Nobody could ever tell what a boy thought.
"No," said Jo Ann's mother, "I'm quite sure there was nothing from Tommy. You can see there isn't anything the size of the package he was carrying."
"If anything comes from him, or if he brings anything, Mother," Jo Ann said earnestly, "don't take it. Send it back. Don't let it inside the house."
Jo Ann gave a last look around the room. The lights on the Christmas trees, inside the room and outside, were glowing in beauty, the holly and the wreaths gave the room a true Merry Christmas look that was increased by the piles of presents in their gay wrappings, and Jo Ann gave her father and mother their goodnight kisses and put her arm around Wicky's waist.
"Come on, Wicky, to bed we go. Pleasant dreams, everybody. Pleasant dreams, Rags-Sport!"
The dog, flat on a rug, opened one eye and thumped his tail twice, sighed and went to sleep again, and Jo Ann and Wicky went out of the room and up the stairs.
After they'd gone, Jo Ann's mother sighed: "Now we can get her other presents."
"I've got the watch and the brooch here in my pocket," Jo Ann's father said. "I'll bring up the chair." He put the two "best" presents on the pile on the couch. Jo Ann's mother went out and returned with a box that held a dress that Jo Ann would love, and Jo Ann's father brought up the spiffy bedroom chair from the cellar.
"All set," he said, with a final glance around, and he disconnected the lights of the indoor tree, and turned out the lights of the room, and when he had locked the front door he and Jo Ann's mother went up to bed.
The next morning when Jo Ann and Wicky came down at seven o'clock they found the curtains of the door into the living room closed, as they always were on Christmas morning, and they hurried in to breakfast.
"Where are Mother and Father?" Jo Ann asked Mary, who was getting the table ready. "How people can sleep on Christmas morning, I don't know. Aren't you excited, Mary?"
"Well, Miss, at my age folks mostly gets over being excited, it seems as if," Mary said, "Christmas is Christmas at my age."
Jo Ann's father and mother came down then and there was a chorus of "Merry Christmas" and everybody ate breakfast in a hurry. Then they went to the door of the living room and Jo Ann threw open the curtains with a sweep of her vigorous arm. She darted into the room and toward the couch, and then she stopped short. For an instant she stood silent and then a cry escaped her.
"Oh!" she cried. "Oh!"
Her father and mother turned then and saw what Jo Ann saw. The end of the couch where Jo Ann's presents had been was empty! Only the one big present, the paper-wrapped chair, was left!
"Is it a joke, Father?" Jo Ann asked, turning to him, but he was striding toward the couch and she saw by his face that it was no joke of which he knew anything.
"This is no joke," Jo Ann's father declared. He was examining the window at Jo Ann's end of the couch, a tall window that reached to the floor. "This catch has been broken. The window has been pried open," he said.
"The catch was loose," said Jo Ann's mother. "You remember you said you must tighten the screws in it."
"But why did they take only Jo Ann's presents?" asked Wicky.
Jo Ann's father, having examined the broken catch of the window, now turned to Jo Ann. A smile was on his face. He stepped over Rags-Sport who was spread out on the floor thumping it with his tail, unconscious that anything had happened.
"I think there's not much mystery about this burglary, Jo Ann," her father said. "Nothing gone but your presents, and a certain young gentleman at home next door."
"Tommy Bassick?" Jo Ann ejaculated. "Father, if that boy dared to do this, he'll be sorry he ever did! Of course, he did it."
Jo Ann started for the door. She did not mean to waste a minute in getting her presents back or in telling Tommy Bassick what she thought of anyone who would do such a thing on Christmas day.
"Wait a minute. Where are you going?" her father asked.
"I'm going over to Tommy Bassick's and I'm going to get my presents back," said Jo Ann, "and when I've finished what I'm going to say to him, he is going to feel smaller than the smallest worm."
"No," said her father. "No, not this time, Jo Ann. I can put up with any amount of harmless wrangling between you and Tom Bassick but when it comes to breaking into a house and taking things, even in sport, it is time I had something to say about it. I am going over to the Bassicks' myself."
Although he spoke without raising his voice Jo Ann could see that he was extremely provoked and angry. He had no doubt that Tommy Bassick would give back Jo Ann's presents instantly, but it angered him to have the usual happy confusion of opening presents after the parade into the room thus spoiled.
No one, of course, had opened a package. Mary, the cook, looked wistfully at her goodly pile but did not touch it.
"Father," said Jo Ann, "I'm going with you."
"No, please not," said her father. "I would rather handle this alone, Jo Ann."
"You won't say anything you'll regret?" asked Jo Ann's mother. "The Bassicks have always been such good neighbors and I'm sure they do not know what Tommy did."
"I'll keep my temper," said Jo Ann's father. "I'll say nothing rude, but I will have it understood that things like this must stop, once and for all."
With that he went into the hall and put on his overcoat and hat and went out.
"Open your packages, Wicky," said Jo Ann. "You don't have to wait just because I have none. I'll get mine back soon enough."
"No," said Wicky, "I'll wait. It wouldn't be any fun to open my presents until you had yours. Your father won't be long."
"If you don't mind, ma'am," said Mary, "I'll open mine. I ought to be getting at my work."
"Perhaps so," Jo Ann's mother admitted. "Yes, open yours, Mary," and the cook walked to the piano. She had reached up her hand in the air. She looked around. Rags-Sport was standing by the door.
"That thumping, ma'am," said Mary. "I thought it was the dog, but it's behind the piano."
Jo Ann's mother and Wicky and Jo Ann stood still and listened. Mary was right; from behind the piano which stood diagonally across the end of the room near the window at Jo Ann's end of the couch came a "thump, thump" and Jo Ann ran to look behind the piano.
"Mother!" she cried. "Come here! Come quick!"
For behind the piano, his arms and legs tied and his mouth stopped with a gag, lay Tommy Bassick, thumping on the floor with the back of his head.
Who is the Christmas thief? And who bound Tommy? The mystery is solved in January.