The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker's old broken-down toolhouse.
The toolhouse burned right down to the ground, and I think that surprised the Herdmans. They set fire to things all the time, but that was the first time they managed to burn down a whole building.
I guess it was an accident. I don't suppose they woke up that morning and said to one another, "Let's go burn down Fred Shoemaker's toolhouse" ... but maybe they did. After all, it was a Saturday, and not much going on.
It was a terrific fire-two engines and two police cars and all the volunteer firemen and five dozen doughnuts sent up from the Tasti-Lunch Diner. The doughnuts were supposed to be for the firemen, but by the time they got the fire out the doughnuts were all gone. The I Herdmans got them -- what they couldn't eat they stuffed in their pockets and down the front of their shirts. You could actually see the doughnuts all around Ollie Herdman's middle.
I couldn't understand why the Herdmans were hanging around the scene of their crime. Everybody knew the whole thing was their fault, and you'd think they'd have the brains to get out of sight.
One fireman even collared Claude I Herdman and said, "Did you kids start this fire, smoking cigars in that toolhouse?"
But Claude lust said, "We weren't smoking cigars.
And they weren't. They were playing with Leroy Herdman's "Young Einstein" chemistry set, which lie stole from the hardware store, and that was how they started the fire.
Leroy said so. "We mixed all the little powders together," he said, "and poured lighter fluid around on them and set fire to the lighter fluid. We wanted to see if the chemistry set was any good."
Any other kid -- even a mean kid-would have been a little bit worried if he stole $4.95 worth of something and then burned down a building with it. But Leroy was lust mad because the chemistry set got burned up along with everything else before he had a chance to make one or two bombs.
The fire chief got us all together -- there were fifteen or twenty kids standing around watching the fire -- and gave us a little talk about playing with matches and gasoline and dangerous things like that.
"I don't say that's what happened here," he told us. "I don't know what happened here, but tbat could have been it, and you see the result. So let this be a good lesson to you, boys and girls."
Of course it was a great lesson to tbe Herdmans -- they learned that wherever there's a fire there will be free doughnuts sooner or later.
I guess things would have been different if they'd burned down, say, the Second Presbyterian Church instead of the toolhouse, but the toolbouse was about to fall down anyway. All the neighbors had pestered Mr. Shoemaker to do something about it because it looked so awful and was sure to bring rats. So everybody said the fire was a blessing in disguise, and even Mr. Shoemaker said it was a relief. My father said it was the only good thing the Herdmans ever did, and if they'd known it was a good thing, they wouldn't have done it at all. They would have set fire to something else . . . or somebody.
They were just so all-around awful you could hardly believe they were real: Ralph, Imogene, Leroy, Claude, Ollie, and Gladys -- six skinny, stringy-haired kids all alike except for being different sizes and having different black-and-blue places where they bad clonked each other.
They lived over a garage at the bottom of Sproul Hill. Nobody used the garage anymore, but the Herdmans used to bang the door up and down just as fast as they could and try to squash one another-that was their idea of a game. Where other people had grass in their front yard, the Herdmans had rocks. And where other people bad hydrangea bushes, the Herdmans bad poison ivy.
There was also a sign in the yard that said "Beware Of The Cat."
New kids always laughed about that till they got a look at the cat. It was the meanest looking animal I ever saw. It had one short leg and a broken tall and one missing eye, and the mailman wouldn't deliver anything to the Herdmans because of it.
"I don't think it's a regular cat at all," the mailman told my father. I think those kids went up in the hills and caught themselves a bobcat."
"Oh, I don't think you can tame a wild bobcat," my father said.
"I'm sure you can't," said the mailman. "They'd never try to tame it; they'd just try to make it wilder than it was to begin with."
If that was their plan, it worked -- the cat would attack anything it could see out of its one eye.
One day Claude Herdman emptied the whole first grade in three minutes flat when lie took the cat to Show-and-Tell. He didn't feed it for two days so it was already mad, and then be carried it to school in a box, and when be opened the box the cat shot out-right straight up in the air, people said.
It came down on the top blackboard ledge and clawed four big long scratches all the way down the blackboard. Then it just tore around all over the place, scratching little kids and shedding fur and scattering books and papers everywhere.
Excerpted from The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson Copyright © 1979 by Barbara Robinson. Excerpted by permission.
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