The Capture of Father Time
by L. Frank Baum
Jim was the son of a cowboy, and lived on the broad plains of Arizona. His father had trained him to lasso a bronco or a young bull with perfect accuracy, and had Jim possessed the strength to back up his skill he would have been as good a cowboy as any in all Arizona.
When he was twelve years old he made his first visit to the east, where Uncle Charles, his father’s brother, lived. Of course Jim took his lasso with him, for he was proud of his skill in casting it, and wanted to show his cousins what a cowboy could do.
At first the city boys and girls were much interested in watching Jim lasso posts and fence pickets, but they soon tired of it, and even Jim decided it was not the right sort of sport for cities.
But one day the butcher asked Jim to ride one of his horses into the country, to a pasture that had been engaged, and Jim eagerly consented. He had been longing for a horseback ride, and to make it seem like old times he took his lasso with him.
He rode through the streets demurely enough, but on reaching the open country roads his spirits broke forth into wild jubilation, and, urging the butcher’s horse to full gallop, he dashed away in true cowboy fashion.
Then he wanted still more liberty, and letting down the bars that led into a big field he began riding over the meadow and throwing his lasso at imaginary cattle, while he yelled and whooped to his heart’s content.
Suddenly, on making a long cast with his lasso, the loop caught upon something and rested about three feet from the ground, while the rope drew taut and nearly pulled Jim from his horse.
This was unexpected. More than that, it was wonderful; for the field seemed bare of even a stump. Jim’s eyes grew big with amazement, but he knew he had caught something when a voice cried out:
“Here, let go! Let go, I say! Can’t you see what you’ve done?”
No, Jim couldn’t see, nor did he intend to let go until he found out what was holding the loop of the lasso. So he resorted to an old trick his father had taught him and, putting the butcher’s horse to a run, began riding in a circle around the spot where his lasso had caught.
As he thus drew nearer and nearer his quarry he saw the rope coil up, yet it looked to be coiling over nothing but air. One end of the lasso was made fast to a ring in the saddle, and when the rope was almost wound up and the horse began to pull away and snort with fear, Jim dismounted. Holding the reins of the bridle in one hand, he followed the rope, and an instant later saw an old man caught fast in the coils of the lasso.
His head was bald and uncovered, but long white whiskers grew down to his waist. About his body was thrown a loose robe of fine white linen. In one hand he bore a great scythe, and beneath the other arm he carried an hourglass.
While Jim gazed wonderingly upon him, this venerable old man spoke in an angry voice:
“Now, then–get that rope off as fast as you can! You’ve brought everything on earth to a standstill by your foolishness! Well–what are you staring at? Don’t you know who I am?”
“No,” said Jim, stupidly.
“Well, I’m Time–Father Time! Now, make haste and set me free–if you want the world to run properly.”
“How did I happen to catch you?” asked Jim, without making a move to release his captive.
“I don’t know. I’ve never been caught before,” growled Father Time. “But I suppose it was because you were foolishly throwing your lasso at nothing.”
“I didn’t see you,” said Jim.
“Of course you didn’t. I’m invisible to the eyes of human beings unless they get within three feet of me, and I take care to keep more than that distance away from them. That’s why I was crossing this field, where I supposed no one would be. And I should have been perfectly safe had it not been for your beastly lasso. Now, then,” he added, crossly, “are you going to get that rope off?”
“Why should I?” asked Jim.
“Because everything in the world stopped moving the moment you caught me. I don’t suppose you want to make an end of all business and pleasure, and war and love, and misery and ambition and everything else, do you? Not a watch has ticked since you tied me up here like a mummy!”
Jim laughed. It really was funny to see the old man wound round and round with coils of rope from his knees up to his chin.
“It’ll do you good to rest,” said the boy. “From all I’ve heard you lead a rather busy life.”
“Indeed I do,” replied Father Time, with a sigh. “I’m due in Kamchatka this very minute. And to think one small boy is upsetting all my regular habits!”
“Too bad!” said Jim, with a grin. “But since the world has stopped anyhow, it won’t matter if it takes a little longer recess. As soon as I let you go Time will fly again. Where are your wings?”
“I haven’t any,” answered the old man. “That is a story cooked up by some one who never saw me. As a matter of fact, I move rather slowly.”
“I see, you take your time,” remarked the boy. “What do you use that scythe for?”
“To mow down the people,” said the ancient one. “Every time I swing my scythe some one dies.”
“Then I ought to win a life-saving medal by keeping you tied up,” said Jim. “Some folks will live this much longer.”
“But they won’t know it,” said Father Time, with a sad smile; “so it will do them no good. You may as well untie me at once.”
“No,” said Jim, with a determined air. “I may never capture you again; so I’ll hold you for awhile and see how the world wags without you.”
Then he swung the old man, bound as he was, upon the back of the butcher’s horse, and, getting into the saddle himself, started back toward town, one hand holding his prisoner and the other guiding the reins.
When he reached the road his eye fell on a strange tableau. A horse and buggy stood in the middle of the road, the horse in the act of trotting, with his head held high and two legs in the air, but perfectly motionless. In the buggy a man and a woman were seated; but had they been turned into stone they could not have been more still and stiff.
“There’s no Time for them!” sighed the old man. “Won’t you let me go now?”
“Not yet,” replied the boy.
He rode on until he reached the city, where all the people stood in exactly the same positions they were in when Jim lassoed Father Time. Stopping in front of a big dry goods store, the boy hitched his horse and went in. The clerks were measuring out goods and showing patterns to the rows of customers in front of them, but everyone seemed suddenly to have become a statue.
There was something very unpleasant in this scene, and a cold shiver began to run up and down Jim’s back; so he hurried out again.
On the edge of the sidewalk sat a poor, crippled beggar, holding out his hat, and beside him stood a prosperous-looking gentleman who was about to drop a penny into the beggar’s hat. Jim knew this gentleman to be very rich but rather stingy, so he ventured to run his hand into the man’s pocket and take out his purse, in which was a $20 gold piece. This glittering coin he put in the gentleman’s fingers instead of the penny and then restored the purse to the rich man’s pocket.
“That donation will surprise him when he comes to life,” thought the boy.
He mounted the horse again and rode up the street. As he passed the shop of his friend, the butcher, he noticed several pieces of meat hanging outside.
“I’m afraid that meat’ll spoil,” he remarked.
“It takes Time to spoil meat,” answered the old man.
This struck Jim as being queer, but true.
“It seems Time meddles with everything,” said he.
“Yes; you’ve made a prisoner of the most important personage in the world,” groaned the old man; “and you haven’t enough sense to let him go again.”
Jim did not reply, and soon they came to his uncle’s house, where he again dismounted. The street was filled with teams and people, but all were motionless. His two little cousins were just coming out the gate on their way to school, with their books and slates underneath their arms; so Jim had to jump over the fence to avoid knocking them down.
In the front room sat his aunt, reading her Bible. She was just turning a page when Time stopped. In the dining-room was his uncle, finishing his luncheon. His mouth was open and his fork poised just before it, while his eyes were fixed upon the newspaper folded beside him. Jim helped himself to his uncle’s pie, and while he ate it he walked out to his prisoner.
“There’s one thing I don’t understand,” said he.
“What’s that?” asked Father Time.
“Why is it that I’m able to move around while everyone else is–is–froze up?”
“That is because I’m your prisoner,” answered the other. “You can do anything you wish with Time now. But unless you are careful you’ll do something you will be sorry for.”
Jim threw the crust of his pie at a bird that was suspended in the air, where it had been flying when Time stopped.
“Anyway,” he laughed, “I’m living longer than anyone else. No one will ever be able to catch up with me again.”
“Each life has its allotted span,” said the old man. “When you have lived your proper time my scythe will mow you down.”
“I forgot your scythe,” said Jim, thoughtfully.
Then a spirit of mischief came into the boy’s head, for he happened to think that the present opportunity to have fun would never occur again. He tied Father Time to his uncle’s hitching post, that he might not escape, and then crossed the road to the corner grocery.
The grocer had scolded Jim that very morning for stepping into a basket of turnips by accident. So the boy went to the back end of the grocery and turned on the faucet of the molasses barrel.
“That’ll make a nice mess when Time starts the molasses running all over the floor,” said Jim, with a laugh.
A little further down the street was a barber shop, and sitting in the barber’s chair Jim saw the man that all the boys declared was the “meanest man in town.” He certainly did not like the boys and the boys knew it. The barber was in the act of shampooing this person when Time was captured. Jim ran to the drug store, and, getting a bottle of mucilage, he returned and poured it over the ruffled hair of the unpopular citizen.
“That’ll probably surprise him when he wakes up,” thought Jim.
Near by was the schoolhouse. Jim entered it and found that only a few of the pupils were assembled. But the teacher sat at his desk, stern and frowning as usual.
Taking a piece of chalk, Jim marked upon the blackboard in big letters the following words:
“Every scholar is requested to yell the minute he enters the room. He will also please throw his books at the teacher’s head. Signed, Prof. Sharpe.”
“That ought to raise a nice rumpus,” murmured the mischiefmaker, as he walked away.
On the corner stood Policeman Mulligan, talking with old Miss Scrapple, the worst gossip in town, who always delighted in saying something disagreeable about her neighbors. Jim thought this opportunity was too good to lose. So he took off the policeman’s cap and brass-buttoned coat and put them on Miss Scrapple, while the lady’s feathered and ribboned hat he placed jauntily upon the policeman’s head.
The effect was so comical that the boy laughed aloud, and as a good many people were standing near the corner Jim decided that Miss Scrapple and Officer Mulligan would create a sensation when Time started upon his travels.
Then the young cowboy remembered his prisoner, and, walking back to the hitching post, he came within three feet of it and saw Father Time still standing patiently within the toils of the lasso. He looked angry and annoyed, however, and growled out:
“Well, when do you intend to release me?”
“I’ve been thinking about that ugly scythe of yours,” said Jim.
“What about it?” asked Father Time.
“Perhaps if I let you go you’ll swing it at me the first thing, to be revenged,” replied the boy.
Father Time gave him a severe look, but said:
“I’ve known boys for thousands of years, and of course I know they’re mischievous and reckless. But I like boys, because they grow up to be men and people my world. Now, if a man had caught me by accident, as you did, I could have scared him into letting me go instantly; but boys are harder to scare. I don’t know as I blame you. I was a boy myself, long ago, when the world was new. But surely you’ve had enough fun with me by this time, and now I hope you’ll show the respect that is due to old age. Let me go, and in return I will promise to forget all about my capture. The incident won’t do much harm, anyway, for no one will ever know that Time has halted the last three hours or so.”
“All right,” said Jim, cheerfully, “since you’ve promised not to mow me down, I’ll let you go.” But he had a notion some people in the town would suspect Time had stopped when they returned to life.
He carefully unwound the rope from the old man, who, when he was free, at once shouldered his scythe, rearranged his white robe and nodded farewell.
The next moment he had disappeared, and with a rustle and rumble and roar of activity the world came to life again and jogged along as it always had before.
Jim wound up his lasso, mounted the butcher’s horse and rode slowly down the street.
Loud screams came from the corner, where a great crowd of people quickly assembled. From his seat on the horse Jim saw Miss Scrapple, attired in the policeman’s uniform, angrily shaking her fists in Mulligan’s face, while the officer was furiously stamping upon the lady’s hat, which he had torn from his own head amidst the jeers of the crowd.
As he rode past the schoolhouse he heard a tremendous chorus of yells, and knew Prof. Sharpe was having a hard time to quell the riot caused by the sign on the blackboard.
Through the window of the barber shop he saw the “mean man” frantically belaboring the barber with a hair brush, while his hair stood up stiff as bayonets in all directions. And the grocer ran out of his door and yelled “Fire!” while his shoes left a track of molasses wherever he stepped.
Jim’s heart was filled with joy. He was fairly reveling in the excitement he had caused when some one caught his leg and pulled him from the horse.
“What’re ye doin’ hear, ye rascal?” cried the butcher, angrily; “didn’t ye promise to put that beast inter Plympton’s pasture? An’ now I find ye ridin’ the poor nag around like a gentleman o’ leisure!”
“That’s a fact,” said Jim, with surprise; “I clean forgot about the horse!”
* * * * *
This story should teach us the supreme importance of Time and the folly of trying to stop it. For should you succeed, as Jim did, in bringing Time to a standstill, the world would soon become a dreary place and life decidedly unpleasant.