BART STIRLING'S ROAD TO SUCCESS
The Young Express Agent
BY ALLEN CHAPMAN
AUTHOR OF "THE HEROES OF THE SCHOOL," "NED WILDING'S DISAPPEARANCE," "FRANK ROSCOE'S SECRET," "FENN MASTERSON'S DISCOVERY," "BART KEENE'S HUNTING DAYS," ETC., ETC.
NEW YORK CUPPLES & LEON COMPANY 1908
* * * * *
THE BOYS' POCKET LIBRARY
BY ALLEN CHAPMAN
Cloth. Illustrated. Price per volume, 35 cents, postpaid.
THE HEROES OF THE SCHOOL NED WILDING'S DISAPPEARANCE FRANK ROSCOE'S SECRET FENN MASTERSON'S DISCOVERY BART KEENE'S HUNTING DAYS BART STIRLING'S ROAD TO SUCCESS WORKING HARD TO WIN BOUND TO SUCCEED THE YOUNG STOREKEEPER NED BORDEN'S FIND
CUPPLES & LEON CO, Publishers, New York
* * * * *
I. THE THIRD OF JULY II. "WAKING THE NATIVES" III. COUNTING THE COST IV. BLIND FOR LIFE V. READY FOR BUSINESS VI. GETTING "SATISFACTION" VII. WAITING FOR TROUBLE VIII. THE YOUNG EXPRESS AGENT IX. COLONEL JEPTHA HARRINGTON X. QUEER COMRADES XI. "FORGET IT!" XII. THE MYSTERIOUS MR. BAKER XIII. "HIGHER STILL!" XIV. MRS. HARRINGTON'S TRUNK XV. AN EARLY "CALL" XVI. AT FAULT XVII. A FAINT CLEW XVIII. A DUMB FRIEND XIX. FOOLING THE ENEMY XX. BART ON THE ROAD XXI. A LIMB OF THE LAW XXII. BART STIRLING, AUCTIONEER XXIII. "GOING, GOING, GONE!" XXIV. MR. BAKER'S BID XXV. A NIGHT MESSAGE XXVI. ON THE MIDNIGHT EXPRESS XXVII. LATE VISITORS XXVIII. THIRTY SECONDS OF TWELVE XXIX. BROUGHT TO TIME XXX. "STILL HIGHER!"
* * * * *
BART STIRLING'S ROAD TO SUCCESS
THE THIRD OF JULY
"You can't go in that room."
"Why can't I?"
"Because that's the orders; and you can't smoke in this room."
Bart Stirling spoke in a definite, manly fashion.
Lemuel Wacker dropped his hand from the door knob on which it rested, and put his pipe in his pocket, but his shoulders hunched up and his unpleasant face began to scowl.
"Ho!" he snorted derisively, "official of the company, eh? Running things, eh?"
"I am—for the time being," retorted Bart, cheerfully.
"Well," said Wacker, with an ugly sidelong look, "I don't take insolence from anyone with the big head. I reckon ten year's service with the B. & M. entitles a man to know his rights."
"Very active service just now, Mr. Wacker?" insinuated Bart pleasantly.
Lem Wacker flushed and winced, for the pointed question struck home.
"I don't want no mistering!" he growled. "Lem's good enough for me. And I don't take no call-down from any stuck-up kid, I want you to understand that."
"You'd better get to the crossing if you're making any pretense of real work," suggested Bart just then.
As he spoke Bart pointed through the open window across the tracks to the switch shanty at the side of the street crossing.
A train was coming. Mr. Lemuel Wacker was "subbing" as extra for the superannuated old cripple whose sole duty was to wave a flag as trains went by. To this duty Wacker sprang with alacrity.
Bart dismissed the man from his mind, and, whistling a cheery tune, bent over the book in which he had been writing for the past twenty minutes.
This was the register of the local express office of the B. & M., and at present, as Bart had said, he was "running it."
The express shed was a one-story, substantial frame building having two rooms. It stood in the center of a network of tracks close to the freight depot and switch tower, and a platform ran its length front and rear.
Framed by the window an active railroad panorama spread out, and beyond that view the quaint town of Pleasantville.
Bart had spent all his young life here. He knew every nook and corner of the place, and nearly every man, woman and child in the village.
Pleasantville did not belie its name to Bart's way of thinking. He voted its people, its surroundings, and life in general there, as pleasant as could well be.
Here he was born, and he had found nothing to complain of, although he was what might be called a poor boy.
There were his mother, his two sisters and two small brothers at home, and sometimes it took a good deal to go around, but Bart's father had a steady job, and Bart himself was an agreeable, willing boy, just at the threshold of doing something to earn a living and wide-awake for the earliest opportunity.
Mr. Stirling had been express agent for the B. & M. for eight years, and was counted a reliable, efficient employee of the company.
For some months, however, his health had not been of the best, and Bart had been glad when he was impressed into service to relieve his father when laid up with his occasional foe, the rheumatism, or to watch the office at mealtimes.
Bart was on duty in this regard at the present time. It was about five in the afternoon, but it was also the third of July, and that date, like the twenty-fourth of December, was the busiest in the calendar for the little express office.
All the afternoon Bart had worked at the desk or helped in getting out packages and boxes for delivery.
A little handcart was among the office equipment, and very often Bart did light delivering. On this especial day, however, in addition to the regular freight, Fourth of July and general picnic and celebration goods more than trebled the usual volume, and they had hired a local teamster to assist them.
With the 4:20 train came a new consignment. The back room was now nearly full of cases of fruit, a grand boxed-up display of fireworks for Colonel Harrington, the village magnate, another for a local club, some minor boxes for private family use, and extra orders from the city for the village storekeepers.
It was an unusual and highly inflammable heap, and when tired Mr. Sterling went home to snatch a bite of something to eat, and lazy Lem Wacker came strolling into the place, pipe in full blast, Bart had not hesitated to exercise his brief authority. A spark among that tinder pile would mean sure and swift destruction. Besides, light-fingered Lem Wacker was not to be trusted where things lay around loose.
So Bart had squelched him promptly and properly. The man for whom "Lem" was good enough, was in his opinion pretty nearly good for nothing.
Bart made the last entry in the register with a satisfied smile and strolled to the door stretching himself.
"Everything in apple-pie order so far as the books go," he observed. "I expect it will be big hustle and bustle for an hour or two in the morning, though."
Lem Wacker came slouching along. It was six o'clock, the quitting hour. Lem was always on time on such occasions. The whistle from the shops had ceased echoing, and, his dinner pail on his arm and filling his inevitable pipe, he paused for a moment.
"Going to shut up shop?" he inquired with affected carelessness.
"I am going home, if that's what you mean," replied Bart—"as soon as my father comes."
"Not feeling very well lately, eh?" continued Lem, his eyes roving in a covetous way over the cozy office and the comfortable railroad armchair Mr. Stirling used. "No wonder, he takes it too hard."
"Does he?" retorted Bart.
"You bet he does. Wish I had his job. I'd make people wait to suit my ideas. How's the company to know or care if you break your neck to accommodate people? Too honest, too."
"A man can't be too honest," asserted Bart.
"Can't he? Say, I'm an old railroader, I am, and I know the ropes. Why, when I was running the express office at Corydon, we sampled everything that came in. Crate of bananas—we had many a lunch, apples, cigars, once in a while a live chicken, and always a couple of turkeys at holiday time."
"And who paid for them?" inquired Bart bluntly.
"We didn't, and no questions asked."
"I am afraid your ideas will not make much impression on my father, if that is what you are getting at," observed Bart, turning unceremoniously from Wacker.
"Humph! you fellows ought to run a backwoods post office," disgustedly grunted the latter, as he made off.
Bart had only to wait ten minutes when his father appeared. Except for a slight limp and some pallor in his face, Mr. Stirling seemed in his prime. He had kindly eyes and was always pleasant and smiling, even when in pain.
"Well! well!" he cried briskly, with a gratified glance at his son after looking over the register, "all the real hard work is done, the work that always worries me, with my poor eyesight. Come up to the paymaster, young man! There's an advance till salary day, and well you've earned it."
Mr. Stirling took some money from his pocket. There was a silver dollar and some loose change. Bart looked pleased, then quite grave, and he put his hand resolutely behind him.
"I can't take it, father," he said. "You have a hard enough time, and I ought to pay you for the experience I'm getting here instead of being paid."
"Young man," spoke Mr. Stirling with affected sternness, but a twinkling in his eye, "you take your half-pay, make tracks, enjoy yourself, and don't worry about a trifle of a dollar or two. If you happen to drop around this way about nine o'clock, I'll be glad of your company home."
He slipped the money into Bart's pocket and playfully pushed him through the doorway. Bart's heart was pretty full. He was alive with tenderness and love for this loyal, patient parent who had not been over kindly handled by the world in a money way.
Then a dozen loud explosions over on the hill, followed by boyish shouts of enthusiasm, made Bart remember that he was a boy, with all a boy's lively interest in the Fourth of July foremost in his thoughts, and he bounded down the tracks like a whirlwind.
"WAKING THE NATIVES!"
Turning the corner of the in-freight house Bart came to a quick halt.
He had nearly run down a man who sat between the rails tying his shoe.
The minute Bart set his eyes on the fellow he remembered having seen him twice before—both times in this vicinity, both times looking wretched, dejected and frightened.
The man started up, frightened now. He was about forty years old, very shabby and threadbare in his attire, his thin pale face nearly covered with a thick shock of hair and full black beard.
"Hello!" challenged Bart promptly.
"Oh, it's you, young Stirling," muttered the man, the haunted expression in his eyes giving way to one of relief.
"Found a job yet?" asked Bart.
"I—haven't exactly been looking for work," responded the man, in an embarrassed way.
"I should think you would," suggested Bart.
"See here," spoke the man, livening up suddenly. "I'll talk with you, because you're the only friend I've found hereabouts. I'm in trouble, and you can call it hiding if you like. I'm grateful to you for the help you gave me the other night, for I was pretty nigh starved. But I don't think you'd better notice me much, for I'm no good to anybody, and I hope you won't call attention to my hanging around here."
"Why should I?" inquired Bart, getting interested. "I want to help you, not harm you. I feel sorry for you, and I'd like to know a little more."
A tear coursed down the man's forlorn face and he shook his head dejectedly.
"You can't sleep forever in empty freight cars, picking up scraps to live on, you know," said Bart.
"I'll live there till I find what I came to Pleasantville to find!" cried the man in a sudden passion. Then his emotion died down suddenly and he fell to trembling all over, and cast hasty looks around as if frightened at his own words.
"Don't mind me," he choked up, starting suddenly away. "I'm crazy, I guess! I know I'm about as miserable an object as there is in the world."
Bart ran after him, drawing a quarter from his pocket. He detained the man by seizing his arm.
"See here," he said, "you take that, and any time you're hungry just go up to the house and tell my mother, will you?"
"Bless her—and you, too!" murmured the man, with a hoarse catch in his throat. "I'll take the money, for I need it desperately bad, but don't you fret—it will come back. Yes! it will come back, double, the day I catch the man who squeezed all the comfort out of my life!"
He dashed away with a strange cry. Bart, half decided that he was demented, watched him disappear in the direction of a cheap eating house just beyond the tracks, and started homewards more or less sobered and thoughtful over the peculiar incident.
It was nearly eight o'clock when Bart got through with his supper, did his house chores, mended a broken toy pistol for one junior brother, made up a list of purchases of torpedoes, baby-crackers and punk for the other, and helped his sisters in various ways.
Bart was soon in the midst of the fray. Every live boy in Pleasantville was in evidence about the village pleasure grounds, the common and the hill. Group after group greeted Bart with excited exclamations. He was a general favorite with the small boys, always ready to assist or advise them, and an acknowledged leader with those of his own age.
He soon found himself quite active in devising and assisting various minor displays of squibs, rockets and colored lights. Then he got mixed up in a general rush for the sheer top of the hill amid the excited announcement that something unusual was going on there.
The crowd was met by a current of juvenile humanity.
"Run!" shouted an excited voice, "she's going off."
"No, she ain't," pronounced another scoffingly—"ain't lighted yet—no one's got the nerve to do it."
Bart recognized the last speaker as Dale Wacker, a nephew of Lem. He had noticed a little earlier his big brother, Ira, a loutish, overgrown fellow who had gone around with his hands in his pockets sneering at the innocent fun the smaller boys were indulging in, and bragging about his own especial Fourth of July supply of fireworks which were to come from some mysterious source not clearly defined. The Wacker brothers belonged to a crowd Bart did not train with usually, but as Dale espied him and seized his arm energetically, Bart did not draw away, respecting the occasion and its courtesies.
"You're the very fellow!" declared Dale.
"You bet he is!" cried two others, crowding up and slapping Bart on the back. "He won't crawfish. Give him the punk, Dale."
The person addressed extended a lighted piece of punk.
"Yes, take it, Stirling," he said. "Show him, boys."
"Yes, you'll have to show me," suggested Bart significantly. "What's the mystery, anyhow?"
"No mystery at all," answered Dale, "only a surprise. See it—well, it's loaded."
"Clean to the muzzle!" bubbled over an excited urchin.
They were all pointing to the top of the hill. Bart understood, for clearly outlined against the light of the rising moon stood the grim old sentinel that had done duty as a patriotic reminder of the Civil War for many a year.
"Old Hurricane" the relic cannon had been dubbed when what was left of Company C, Second Infantry, came marching back home in the sixties.
There was not a boy in town who had not straddled the black ungainly relic, or tried to lift the heavy cannon balls that symmetrically surrounded its base support.
Two years before, Colonel Harrington had erected at his own expense a lofty flagpole at the side of the cannon and donated an elegant flag. Every Washington's Birthday and Fourth of July since, this site had been the center of all public patriotic festivities, and the headquarters for celebrating for juvenile Pleasantville.
Bart was a little startled as he comprehended what was in the wind. He thrilled a trifle; his eyes sparkled brightly.
"It's all right, Stirling," assured Dale Wacker. "We cleaned out the barrel and we've rammed home a good solid charge, with a long fuse ready to light. Guess it will stir up the sleepy old town for once, hey?"
Bart was in for any harmless sport, yet he fumbled the lighted piece of punk undecidedly.
"I don't know about this, fellows"—he began.
"Oh! don't spoil the fun, Stirling," pleaded little Ned Sawyer, a rare favorite with Bart. "We asked one-legged Dacy on the quiet. He was in the war, and he says the gun can't burst, or anything."
The crowd kept pushing Bart forward in eager excitement.
"Why don't you light it yourself?" inquired Bart of Dale.
"I've sprained my foot—limping now," explained young Wacker. "She may kick, you see, and soon as you light her you want to scoot."
"Go ahead, Bart! touch her off," implored little Sawyer, quivering with excitement.
"Whoop! hurrah!" yelled a frantic chorus as Bart took a voluntary step up the hill.
That decided him—patriotism was in the air and he was fully infected. One or two of the larger boys advanced with him, but halted at a safe distance, while the younger ones danced about and stuck their fingers in their ears, screaming.
Bart got to the side of the cannon. It was silhouetted in the landscape on a slight slant towards the stately mansion and grounds of Colonel Harrington, in full view at all times of the magnate who had improved its surroundings.
Bart made out a long fuse trailing three feet or more over the side of the old fieldpiece. He blew the punk to a bright glow.
"Ready!" he called back merrily over his shoulder.
The hillside vibrated with the flutter of expectant juvenile humanity and a vast babel of half-suppressed excited voices.
Bart applied the punk, there was a fizz, a sharp hiss, a writhing worm of quick flame, and then came a fearful report that split the air like the crack of doom.
COUNTING THE COST
Bart had quickly moved to one side of the cannon after lighting the fuse, and was about twenty feet away when the explosion came.
The alarming echoes, the shock, flare and smoke combined to give him a terrific sensation.
The crowd that had retreated down the hill in delightful trepidation now came trooping back filled with a bolder excitement.
They had indeed "waked the natives," for gazing downhill against the lights of the street and stores at its base they could see people rushing outdoors in palpable agitation.
Some were staring up the hill in wonder and terror, others were starting for its summit, among them two village officials, as demonstrated by the silver stars they wore.
"They heard it—it woke 'em up, right enough!" shrieked little Sawyer in a frenzy of happiness.
"Look yonder!" piped a second breathless voice. "Say, I thought I heard something strike."
Dale Wacker came upon the scene—not limping, but chuckling and winking to the cronies at his back.
"Pretty good aim, eh, fellows?" he gloated. "Stirling, you're a capital gunner."
All eyes were now turned in a new direction—in that whither the muzzle of the cannon was pointed.
The grounds of the Harrington mansion were the scene of a vivid commotion. The porch lights had been abruptly turned on, and they flooded the lawn in front with radiance.
Bart gasped, thrilled, and experienced a strange qualm of dismay. He discerned in a flash that something heretofore always prominently present on the Harrington landscape was not now in evidence.
The wealthy colonel was given to "grandstand plays," and one of them had been the placing of a bronze pedestal and statue at the side of the driveway.
It bore the inscription "1812," and according to the colonel, portrayed a military man life-size, epaulettes, sword, uniform and all—his maternal grandfather as he had appeared in the battle scene where he had lost a limb.
Now, in effigy, the valiant warrior was prostrate. The colonel's servants were rushing to the spot where the statue had tumbled over on the velvety sward.
"See here!"—cried Bart stormingly, turning on Dale Wacker.
"Loaded," significantly observed the latter with a diabolical grin.
A rush of keen realization made Bart shiver. He recognized what the foolhardy escapade might have cost had that whirling cannon ball met a human, instead of an inanimate, target.
As it was, he easily calculated the indignation and resentment of the haughty village magnate who was given to outbursts of wrath which carried all before him.
"You've spoiled my Fourth," began Bart in a tumult. "I'll spoil your—"
"Cut for it, fellows! they're coming for us!"
"They" were the village officers. Bart had made a jump towards Dale Wacker, but the latter had faded into the vortex of pell-mell fugitives rushing away downhill to hiding.
Bart put after them, trying to single out the author of the scurvy joke that he knew had serious trouble at the end of it.
"Hold on!" gasped a breathless voice.
"Don't stop me!" shouted Bart, trying to tear loose from a frantic grip. "Oh, it's you—what do you want?"
He halted to survey the person who detained him—the man who haunted the freight tracks—to whom he had given money earlier in the evening.
"Come, quick!" the man panted. "Express shed—where your father is—trouble. Don't wait—not a minute."
"See here," challenged Bart, instantly startled into a new tremor of anxiety, "what do you mean?"
But the forlorn roustabout could not be coherent. He continued to gasp and splutter out excited adjectives, fragmentary sentences.
"Plot—get you into trouble—father—I heard 'em."
Then as his glance fell upon the people coming up the hill, the officers in their lead, his eyes bulged with terror, he grasped Bart's arm, let out an unearthly yell of fear, and by sheer force carried Bart pell-mell down the other side of the hill with him.
"See here," panted Bart, as, still running, they were headed in the direction of the railroad, "my business is here. Don't you hurry me off in this fashion unless there's something to it."
"Told you—express shed—robbers!"
"Robbers? You mean some one is stealing something there?"
"Yes!" gulped Bart's companion.
"Who is it?"
"Why didn't you stop them?"
"I don't dare do anything," the man wailed. "I'm a poor, miserable object, but I'm your friend. I heard two fellows whispering on the tracks near the express shed. Said they were going to steal some fireworks. I ran to the shed to warn your father. He was asleep in his chair. They might see me—didn't dare do anything."
Bart now believed there might be some basis to the man's statements. He plunged forward alone, not conscious that he was outdistancing his late companion.
Reaching the tracks, Bart ran down a line of freights. The express shed was in view at last. It was lighted up as usual, the door stood open, and nothing suggested anything out of the ordinary.
"The fellow's cracked," reflected Bart. "Everything looks straight here—no, it doesn't!" He checked himself abruptly. "Here! what are you at?"
Sharp and clear Bart sang out. Approaching the express shed from the side, his glance shifted to the rear.
The little structure had one window there, lightly barred with metal strips. Two men stood on the platform beneath it. One of them had just pried a strip loose with some long implement he held in his hand. The other had just pushed up the sash by reaching through the convenient aperture thus made.
Bart bounded to the platform with a nimble spring. As his feet clamped down warningly on the boardway, the man who had pushed up the window turned sharply.
"It's young Stirling!" Bart heard him mutter. "Drop it, and run."
The speaker sprang to the ground and disappeared around the corner of the shed with the words.
His companion, who had been stooping on one knee in his prying operations, essayed to join him, slipped, tilted over, and before he could recover himself Bart was upon him.
"What are you about here?" demanded the latter.
The prisoner was of man-like build and proportions. He did not speak, and tried to keep his features hidden from the rays of the near switch light.
"Lemme go!" he mouthed, with purposely subdued intonation.
"Not till I know who you are—not till I find out what you're up to," declared Bart. "Turn around here. I'll stick closer than a brother till I see that face of yours!"
He swung his captive towards the light, but a broad-peaked cap and the partial disguise of a crudely blackened face defeated his purpose.
Bart was about to shout to his father in front, or to his roustabout friend, whom he expected must be somewhere near by this time, when his captive gave a jerk, tore one arm free, and whirled the other aloft.
His hand clenched the implement he had used to pry away the bars, and Bart now saw what it was.
The object the mysterious robber was utilizing for burglarious purposes, was the signal flag used at the switch shanty where Lem Wacker had been doing substitute duty that day.
It consisted of a three foot iron rod, sharpened at the end. At the blunt end the strip of red flag was wound, near the sharp end the conventional track torpedo was held in place by its tin strap.
"Lemme go"; again growled the man.
"Never!" declared Bart.
The man's left arm was free, and he swung the iron rod aloft. Bart saw it descending, aimed straight for his head. If he held on to the man he could scarcely evade it.
He let go his grip, ducked, made a pass to grasp the burglar's ankle, but missed it.
An explosion, a sharp flare, a keen shock filled the air, and before Bart could grip the man afresh he had sprung from the platform and vanished.
At the same instant the flag rod clattered to the boards, and a second later, rubbing his face free from sudden pricking grains of powder, Bart saw what had happened.
The blow intended for him had landed upon one of the iron bars of the window with a force that exploded the track torpedo.
It had flared out one broad spiteful breath, sending a shower of sparks among the big mass of fireworks in the storage room, and amid a thousand hissing, snapping explosions the express shed was in flames.
BLIND FOR LIFE
Bart's first thought was of his father. He instantly leaped from the platform.
As he did so there was a violent explosion in the storage room, the sashes were blown from place outright, and Bart dodged to escape a shower of glass.
He was fairly appalled at the suddenness with which the flames enveloped the interior, for they shot up in every direction, and the partition dividing the shed appeared blown from place.
Rockets were fizzing, giant crackers exploding by the pack, and colored chemicals sending out a varied glow.
Bart dashed for the front—a muffled cry caused him to hurry his speed. His father had uttered the cry.
Dazed by the light, his eyes filled with smarting particles of burned powder, Bart suddenly came in violent contact with a human form just as he turned the corner of the shed.
Both nearly upset in the collision. At first Bart fancied it might be one of the burglars, but peering closer he recognized the friendly roustabout.
"Told you so!" gasped the latter in a desperate fluster. "Fire—I'll help you."
"Yes, quick! run," breathed Bart, rushing ahead, "My father's in that burning building!"
Bart was thrilled. The main room of the express shed was one bright blur of brilliancy and colored smoke.
It rolled and whirled, obliterating all outlines within the room.
"Father! father!" shouted Bart, dashing recklessly in at the open doorway.
He could not make out a single object in that chaos, but he knew the location of every familiar article in the place, and made for the chair in which his father usually sat.
"Father!" he screamed, as his hands touched the arms of the chair and found it empty.
The sulphurous flames nearly choked him, the heat from the crackling wooden partition singed his hair, but he could only grope about blindly.
"Here he is," sounded a suffocating voice.
"Where, oh! where?" panted Bart.
He threw out his arms wildly, groping to locate the speaker, whom he knew to be the roustabout. "Where is he—where is he?"
He had come in contact with the roustabout now, who with all his timidity was proving himself a hero in the present instance.
"Lying on the floor—stumbled over him—I'm on fire, too!"
Bart's feet touched a prostrate form. It was moved along as Bart stooped and got hold of the shoulders.
The roustabout was helping him. They dragged together, stumbling to the doorway on the very verge of fatal danger, and reeled across the platform.
The roustabout jumped to the ground. Once there he gently but in a masterly way drew the inanimate form of Mr. Stirling from the platform, and carried him over to a pile of ties outside of the glow and scorch of the burning express shed.
Bart anxiously scanned his father's face. It was black and blistered but he was breathing naturally.
"Overcome with the smoke—or tumbled and was stunned," declared the roustabout.
Excited approaching shouts caused the speaker to glare down the tracks. Half a dozen people were hurrying to the scene of the fire. The roustabout with a nervous gasp vanished in the darkness.
Bart was hovering over his father in a solicitous way as a night watchman and a freight crew appeared on the scene. There was a volley of excited questions and quick responses.
No means of extinguishing the flames were at hand. The newcomers suggested getting the insensible Mr. Stirling over to the street beyond the tracks a few hundred yards distant, where there was a drug store.
Bart ran for the hand truck on the platform, saw two of the men start off with his father on it, and hurried back to the burning express shed.
He had hoped to save something, but one effort drove him back, realizing the foolhardiness of repeating the experiment. The building and its contents were doomed.
The crowd began to gather and grew with the moments. A road official appeared on the scene. Bart made a brief, hurried explanation and ran over to the drug store.
To his surprise his father was not there. Bart approached the druggist to ask an anxious question when the companion of the latter, a professional-looking man, spoke up.
"You are young Stirling, are you not?" he interrogated.
"Yes, sir," nodded Bart.
"Don't get frightened or worried, but I am Doctor Davis. We thought it best to send your father to the hospital."
"To the hospital!" echoed Bart turning pale. "Then he is badly injured—"
"Not at all," dissented the physician reassuringly. "He was probably overcome by the smoke or fell and was stunned, but that injury was trifling. It is his eyes we are troubled about."
"Tell me the worst!" pleaded Bart in a choked tone, but trying to prepare himself for the shock.
"Why, one eye is pretty bad," said the doctor, "and the other got the full force of some powder explosion. They have good people up at the hospital, though, and they will soon get him to rights."
"I must tell my mother at once," murmured Bart.
He left the place with a heart as heavy as lead. It seemed as if one furious Fourth of July powder blast had disrupted the very foundations of all the family hopes and happiness, leaving a blackened wreck where there had been unity, comfort and peace.
If his father was disabled seriously, their prospects became a very grave problem. Bart, too, was worried about the loss to the express company. The books were probably out on the desk when the fire commenced, the safe was open, and the loss in money and records meant considerable.
Bart felt that he was undertaking the hardest task of his life when he reached home and broke the news to his mother—it was like disturbing the peace of some earthly Eden.
Mrs. Stirling went at once to the hospital with her eldest daughter, Bertha. Bart, very anxious and miserable, got the younger boys to bed and tried to cheer up his little sister Alice, who was in a transport of grief and suspense.
The strain was relieved when Bertha Stirling came home about eleven o'clock.
She was in tears, but subdued any active exhibition of emotion until Alice, on the assurance that her father was resting comfortably at the hospital, was induced to retire.
Then she broke down utterly, and Bart had a hard time keeping her from being hysterical.
She said that her mother intended staying all night at the side of her suffering husband and had tried to send some reassuring word to her son.
"You must tell me the worst, you know, Bertha," said Bart. "What do they say at the hospital? Is father in serious danger? Will he die?"
"No," answered the sobbing girl, "he will not die, but oh! Bart—the doctor says he may be blind for life!"
READY FOR BUSINESS
Bart Stirling stood ruefully regarding the ruins of the burned express shed. It was the Fourth of July, and early as it was, the air was resonant with the usual echoes of Independance Day.
Bart, however, was little in harmony with the jollity and excitement of the occasion. He had spent a sleepless night, tossing and rolling in bed until daybreak, when his mother returned from the hospital.
Mr. Stirling was resting easily, she reported, in very little pain or discomfort, but his career of usefulness and work was over—the doctors expressed an opinion that he would never regain his eyesight.
Mrs. Stirling was pale and sorrowed. She had grown older in a single night, but the calm resignation in her gentle face assured Bart that they would be of one mind in taking up their new burdens of life in a practical, philosophical way.
"Poor father!" he murmured brokenly. Then he added: "Mother, I want you to go in and get some rest, and try not to take this too hard. I will attend to everything there is to do about the express office."
"I don't see what there can be to do," she responded in surprise. "Everything is burned up, your father will never be able to resume his position. We are through with all that, I fancy."
"There is considerable to do," asserted Bart in a definite tone that instantly attracted his mother's attention because of its seriousness. "Father is a bonded employee of the express service. Their business doesn't stop because of an accidental fire, and they have a system to look after here that must not be neglected. I know the ropes pretty well, thanks to father, and I think it a matter of duty to act just as he would were he able to be about, and further and protect the company's interests. Outside of that, mother," continued the boy, earnestly, "you don't suppose I am going to sit down idly and let things drift at haphazard, with the family to take care of and everything to be done to make it easy and comfortable for father."
A look of pride came into the mother's face. She completely recognized the fidelity and sense of her loyal son, allowed Bart to lead her into the house, and tried to be calm and cheerful when he bade her good-bye, and, evading celebrating groups of his boy friends, made his way down to the ruined express shed.
A heap of still smouldering cinders and ashes marked the site. Bart stood silently ruminating for some minutes. He tried to think things out clearly, to decide how far he was warranted in acting for his father.
"I don't exactly know what action the express people usually take in a case of this kind," he reflected, "nor how soon they get about it. I can only wait for some official information. In the meantime, though, somebody has got to keep the ball rolling here. I seem to be the only one about, and I am going to put the system in some temporary order at least. If I'm called down later for being too officious, they can't say I didn't try to do my duty."
Bart set briskly at work to put into motion a plan his quick, sensible mind had suggested.
About one hundred feet away was a rough unpainted shed-like structure. He remembered the time, several years back, when the express office had been located there.
It was, however, forty feet from any tracks, and for convenience sake, when the railroad gave up the burned building which they had occupied for unclaimed freight storage, it had been turned over to the express people.
Bart went down to the old quarters. The door had lost its padlock and stood half open. Inside was a heap of old boards, and empty boxes and barrels thrown there from time to time to keep them from littering the yards.
A truck and the little delivery cart, being outside of the burned shed, Bart found intact. He ran them down to the building he had determined to utilize, temporarily at least, as express headquarters for Pleasantville.
The yards were fairly deserted except for a sleepy night watchman here and there. It was not yet seven o'clock, but when Bart reached the in-freight house he found it open and one or two clerks hurrying through their work so as to get off for the day at ten.
There was a good deal of questioning, for they knew of the fire, and knew Bart as well, and liked him, and when he made his wants known willing hands ministered to his needs.
Bart carried back with him a hammer and some nails, a broom, a marking pot and brush, pens, ink and a couple of tabs of paper.
As he neared the switch shanty where Lem Wacker had been on duty the day previous, he noticed that it had been opened up since he had passed it last. Some one was grumbling noisily inside. Bart was curious for more reasons than one.
He placed his load on the bench outside and stuck his head in through the open doorway.
"Oh, it's you, Mr. Evans," he hailed, as he recognized the regular flagman on duty for whom Wacker had been substituting for three days past. "Glad to see you back. Are you all well?"
"Eh? oh, young Stirling. Say, you've had a fire. I hear your father was burned."
"He is quite seriously hurt," answered Bart gravely.
"Too bad. I have troubles of my own, though."
"What is the matter, Mr. Evans?"
"Next time I give that lazy, good-for-nothing Lem Wacker work he'll know it, I'm thinking! Look there—and there!"
The irate old railroader kicked over the wooden cuspidor in disgust. It was loaded to the top with tobacco and cigarette ends. Then he cast out half a dozen empty bottles through the open window, and went on with his grumbling.
"What he's been up to is more than I can guess," he vociferated. "Look at my table there, all burned with matches and covered with burnt cork. What's he been doing with burnt cork? Running a minstrel show?"
Bart gave a start. He thought instantly of the black streaked face he had tried to survey at the express shed window the night previous.
"My flag's gone, too," muttered old Evans, turning over things in a vain search for it. "I'll have a word or two for Lem Wacker when it comes to settling day, I'm thinking. He comes up to the house late last night and tells me he don't care to work for me any longer."
"Did he?" murmured Bart thoughtfully. "Why not, I wonder?"
"Oh, he flared up big and lofty, and said he had a better job in view."
Bart went on his way surmising a good deal and suspecting more.
He made it a point to pass by the ruins of the old express shed, and he found there what he expected to find—the missing flag from the switch shanty; only the rod was bare, the little piece of red bunting having been burned away.
Bart dismissed this matter from his mind and all other disturbing extraneous affairs, massing all his faculties for the time being on getting properly equipped for business.
He selected a clean, plain board, and with the marking outfit painted across it in six-inch letters that could be plainly read at a distance the words:
This Bart nailed to the door jamb in such a way that it was visible from three directions.
Next he started to carry outside and pile neatly at the blind end of the building all the boards, boxes and other debris littering up the room, swept it, and selected two packing cases and nailed them up into a convenient impromptu desk, manufactured a bench seat out of some loose boards, set his pen, ink and paper in order, and felt quite ready for business.
He had gained a pretty clear idea the day previous from his father as to the Fourth of July express service routine.
The fireworks deliveries had been the main thing, but as these had been destroyed that part of the programme was off the sheet.
At eight o'clock the morning express would bring in its usual quota, but this would be held over until the following day except what was marked special or perishable. There would be no out express matter owing to the fact that it was a holiday.
"I can manage nicely, I think," Bart told himself, as, an hour later, he ran the truck down to the site of the burned express shed and stood by the tracks waiting.
A freight engine soon came to the spot, backing down the express car. Its engineer halted with a jerk and a vivid:
He had not heard of the fire, and he stared with interest at the ruins as Bart explained that, until some new arrangement was made, express shipments would be accepted and loaded by truck.
There were four big freezers of ice cream, one for delivery at the town confectioner's, one at the drug store soda fountain, and two for the picnic grounds, where an afternoon celebration was on the programme. Besides these, there were three packages containing flags and fireworks, marked "Delayed—Rush."
He closed the office door, tacked to it a card announcing he would return inside of half an hour, and loaded into the wagon the entire morning's freight except the two freezers intended for the picnic grounds.
These could not be delivered until two o'clock that afternoon, and he stowed them in the new express shed, covering them carefully with their canvas wrappings.
Bart made a record run in his deliveries. He had formed a rough receipt book out of some loose sheets, and when he came back to the office filled out his entries in regular form.
Several persons visited the place up to nine o'clock—storekeepers and others who had lost their goods in the fire. Bart explained the situation, saying that they would probably hear from the express company in a day or two regarding their claims.
He found in work something to change his thoughts from a gloomy channel, and, while very anxious about his father, was thankful his parent had escaped with his life, while he indulged some hopeful and daring plans for his own ambitions in the near future.
"I'll stick to my post," he decided. "Some of the express people may happen down here any time."
He was making up a list from memory of those in the village whose packages had been destroyed by the fire, when two boys crossed the threshold of the open doorway, one carrying a thin flat package.
Bart greeted them pleasantly. The elder was Darry Haven, his companion a younger brother, Bob, both warm friends of the young express agent.
Darry inquired for Mr. Stirling solicitously, and said his mother was then on her way to see Mrs. Stirling, anxious to do anything she could to share the lady's troubles. Mr. Haven had been an editor, but his health had failed, and Mrs. Haven, having some artistic ability and experience, was the main present support of the family, doing considerable work for a publishing house in the city in the way of illustrations for fashion pages.
Darry had a "rush" package of illustrations under his arm now.
"I suppose we can't get anything through to-day, or until you get things in running order again?" he intimated.
"We were sending nothing through on account of the Fourth," explained Bart, "but you leave the package here and I will see that it goes on the eleven o'clock train."
Bart had just completed the fire-loss list when a heavy step caused him to turn around.
A portly, well-dressed man, important-appearing and evidently on business, stood in the doorway looking sharply about the place.
"Well!" he uttered, "What's this?"
"The express office," said Bart, arising.
"Oh, it is?" slowly commented the man, "You in charge?"
"Yes, sir," politely answered Bart.
"Set up shop; doing business, eh?"
"Fast as I can," announced Bart.
"Who told you to?" demanded the visitor bending a pair of stern eyes on Bart.
"Why do you ask that, may I inquire?" interrogated Bart, pleasantly, but standing his ground.
"Ha-hum!" retorted the stranger, "why do ask. Because I am the superintendent of the express company, young man, and somewhat interested in knowing, I fancy!"
Bart did not lose his presence of mind, but he fully realized that he faced a critical moment in his career.
Very courteously he drew forward the rude impromptu bench he had knocked together two hours before.
"Will you have a seat, sir?" he asked.
The express superintendent did not lose his dignity, but there was a slightly humorous twitching at the corners of his mouth.
"Thanks," he said, wearily seating himself on the rude structure. "Rather primitive furniture for a big express company, it seems to me."
"It was the best I could provide under the circumstances," explained Bart modestly.
"You made this bench, did you?"
Bart acknowledged the imputation with a nod.
"And that—desk, is it?"
"And the sign outside, and opened for business?"
"There was no one else on hand. I felt that I must represent my father, Mr. Stirling, who is the authorized agent here, until the seriousness of his condition was known. You see, there was business likely to come in, and I have been here to attend to it."
"Just so," vouchsafed his visitor. "No out shipments to-day, I believe?"
"No, it's a holiday, but there was some rush in stuff on the morning express."
"Where is it?"
"I have delivered most of it—the balance, two freezers of ice cream, I will attend to this afternoon. I am keeping a record and taking receipts, but giving none—I didn't feel warranted in that until I heard from the company."
"You have done very well, young man," said the stranger. "I am Robert Leslie, the superintendent, as I told you. Do you mean to say you rigged things up in this shape and got your deliveries out alone?"
"There was no one to help me," remarked Bart.
He felt pleased and encouraged, for the superintendent's cast-iron visage had softened considerably, and he manifested unmistakable interest as he reached out and took up and inspected the neatly formulated memoranda on the packing-box desk.
"What's this?" he inquired, running over the pages Bart had last been working on.
"That is a list of losers by the fire," explained Bart.
"This is from memory?"
"Yes, Mr. Leslie—but I have a good one, and I think the list is tolerably correct."
"I am very much pleased," admitted the superintendent—"those claims are our main anxiety in a case like this. I understand the contents of the safe were destroyed."
"I fear so," assented Bart gravely. "The explosion was so sudden, and my father was blinded, so there was no opportunity to close it. I tried to reach it after rescuing him, but the flames drove me back."
Mr. Leslie was silent for a few moments. He seemed to be thinking. His glance roamed speculatively about the place, taking in the layout critically, then finally Bart was conscious that his shrewd, burrowing eyes were scanning him closely.
"How old are you, Stirling?" asked the superintendent abruptly.
"I suppose you know something about the routine here?"
"I have helped my father a little for the past month or two—yes, sir."
"And have improved your opportunities, judging from the common-sense way you have got things into temporary running order," commented Leslie.
The speaker took out his watch. Then, glancing through the doorway, he arose suddenly, with the words:
"Ah! there he is, now. I suppose you couldn't be here about four o'clock this afternoon?"
"Why, certainly," answered Bart promptly. "People are likely to be around making inquiries, and I have a delivery to make this afternoon, as I told you, sir."
"I intend to see your father," said Mr. Leslie, "and I want to get back to the city to-night. I may have some orders for you, so we'll call it four, sharp."
"I will be here, sir."
The superintendent stepped outside. Evidently he had made an appointment, for he was met by the freight agent of the B. & M., who knew Bart and nodded to him.
As the two men strolled slowly over to the ruins of the express shed, Bart heard Mr. Leslie remark:
"That's a smart boy in there."
"And a good one," supplemented the freight agent.
Bart experienced a thrill of pleasure at the homely compliment. He tried to get back to business, but he found himself considerably flustered.
All the morning his hopes and plans had drifted in one definite direction—to get some assurance of permanent employment for the future.
The only work he had ever done was here at the express office for his father. It was a daring prospect to imagine that he, a mere boy, would be allowed to succeed to a grown man's position and salary—and yet Bart had placed himself in line for it with every prompting of diligence and duty.
Mr. Leslie and the freight agent spent half an hour at the ruins. Bart could see by their gestures that they were animatedly discussing the situation, and they seemed to be closely looking over the ground with a view to locating a site for a new express shed.
Finally they shook hands in parting. The express superintendent consulted his watch, and turned his face in the direction of Bart.
As he neared the "new" express shed, however, he passed around to its rear, and glancing out of a window there Bart saw that he had come to a halt, and was drawing a diagram of the tracks on a blank page in his memorandum book.
Just as Mr. Leslie had returned this to his pocket and was about to start from the spot, a man hailed him. It was Lem Wacker. He was dressed in his best, but the effort was spoiled by an uncertainty of gait, and his face was suspiciously flushed.
"Did you address me?" inquired the superintendent in a chilling tone.
Lem was not daunted by the imposing presence or the dignified demeanor of the speaker.
"Sure," he answered, unabashed. "You're Leslie, ain't you?"
"I am Mr. Leslie, yes," corrected the superintendent, his stern brow contracted in a frown.
"They told me I'd find you here. My name's Wacker. Knew your cousin down at Rochelle; we worked on the same desk in the freight house. Had many a drink with Ted Leslie."
"What do you want?" challenged the superintendent, turning on his heel.
"Why, it's this way," explained the dauntless Lem: "I'm an old railroader and a handy man of experience, I am, and I wanted to make a proposition to you. You see—"
Bart lost the remainder of Mr. Lem Wacker's proposition, for Mr. Leslie had started forward impatiently, with Lem persistently following in his wake. He was still keeping up the pursuit and importuning the affronted official as both were lost to view behind a track of freights.
Bart of course surmised that Lem Wacker was on the trail of the "better job" he had announced he was after to the old switchman, Evans.
"I don't think he has made a very promising impression," decided Bart, as he got back to his writing.
Bart looked up a trifle startled at the sharp hail, ten minutes later. He had been engrossed in his work and had not noticed an intruder.
Lem Wacker stood just in the doorway. He looked flushed, excited and vicious.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Wacker?" inquired Bart calmly, though scenting trouble in the air.
"You can undo!" flared out Wacker, "and you'll get quick action on it, or I'll clean you out, bag and baggage."
"There isn't much baggage here to clean out," suggested Bart humorously, "and as for the rest of it I'll try to take care of it myself."
"Oh! you will, will you?" sneered Lem, lurching to and fro. "You're a sneak. Bart Stirling—a low, contemptible sneak, that's what you are!"
"I would like to have you explain," remarked Bart.
"You've queered me!" roared Wacker, "and I'm going to have satisfaction—yes, sir. Sat-is-fac-tion!"
He pounded out the syllables under Bart's very nose with resounding thumps, bringing down his fist on the impromptu office desk so forcibly that the concussion disturbed the papers on it, and several sheets fell fluttering to the floor.
Bart's patience was tried. His eyes flashed, but he stooped and picked up the pages and replaced them on the dry goods box.
"Don't you do that again," he warned in a strained tone.
"Why!" yelled Wacker, rolling up his cuffs.
"I'll trim you next! 'Don't-do-it-again!' eh? Boo! bah!"
Lem raised his foot and kicked over the desk, papers and all.
"That's express company property," observed Bart quietly, but his blood was up, the limit reached. "Get out!"
One arm shot forward, and the clenched muscular fist rested directly under the chin of the astounded Lem Wacker.
"And stay out."
Lem Wacker felt a smart whack, went whirling back over the threshold, and the next instant measured his length, sprawling on the ground outside of the express shed.
WAITING FOR TROUBLE
Lem Wacker rolled over, then sat up, rubbed his head in a half-dazed manner, and muttered in a silly, sheepish way.
"Lem Wacker," said Bart, "I have got just a few words to say to you, and that ends matters between us. I am sorry I had to strike you, but I will have no man interfering with the express company's affairs. I want you to go away, and if you ever come in here again except on business strictly there will be trouble."
Lem did not put up much of a belligerent front, though he tried still to look ugly and dangerous.
He got his balance at last, and extended his finger at our hero.
"Bart Stirling," he maundered, "you've made an enemy for life. Look out for me! You're a marked man after this."
"What am I marked with," inquired Bart quickly—"burnt cork?"
"Hey! What?" blurted out Lem, and Bart saw that the shot had struck the target. Wacker looked sickly, and muttered something to himself. Then he took himself off.
Bart's worries were pleasantly broken in upon by the arrival of his sister Bertha. She brought him a generous lunch, the first food Bart had tasted that day, and his appetite welcomed it in a wholesome way.
He put in the time planning what he would do if he was lucky enough to be retained in his father's position, and what he might do in case someone else was appointed.
At half-past two Bart loaded the two ice cream freezers on the cart and started for the picnic grounds.
Juvenile Pleasantville had somewhat subsided for a time in the fervor of its patriotism. There was a lull in the popping and banging, nearly everybody in town being due at the time-honored celebration in the picnic grove.
When Bart reached the grove, someone was making an address, and he piloted his way circumspectly up to the side of the platform where the speaking was going on.
He deposited the freezers inside the bunting-decorated inclosure, where half a dozen young ladies were posted to dispense the refreshments after the literary programme was finished.
Bart started to return with his empty cart the way he had come, but about ten feet from the platform paused for a moment to take in the exceptionally flowery sentiment that was being enunciated by the speaker of the day.
Colonel Harrington, it seemed, was the self-appointed hero of the occasion. The great man of the village was in his element—the eyes and ears of all Pleasantville fixed upon him.
In rolling tones and with magnificent gestures he was paying a lofty tribute to the immortal Stars and Stripes waving just over his head, when, his eyes lowering, they focused straight in a fixed stare on Bart.
The colonel gave the young express agent an awful look, and in an instant Bart knew that the military man had been informed of the identity of the audacious cannoneer of the evening previous.
Like some orators, the colonel, once disturbed by an extraneous contemplation, lost his voice, cue and self-possession all in a second.
It seemed as if he could not take his eyes from the innocent and embarrassed author of his distraction.
He spluttered, the rounded sentence on his lips died down to measly insignificance, he stammered, stumbled, and sat down with a red face, his eyes darting rage at poor Bart.
Some of the boys in the crowd "caught on" to the situation, and giggled and made significant remarks, but the chairman on the platform covered the colonel's confusion by announcing the national anthem, and Bart effected his escape.
"He'll never forgive me, now," decided Bart. "The damage to the statue was bad enough, but breaking him up as my appearance did just now is the limit. I hope Mr. Leslie doesn't hear of my unfortunate escapade, and I hope the colonel doesn't undertake to hurt my chances. He's an irrational firebrand when he takes a dislike to anybody, and Mrs. Harrington is worse."
Bart had a foundation for this double criticism. The colonel was a pompous, self-important individual, intensely selfish and domineering, and his wife a thoughtless devotee of fashion and society.
Mrs. Stirling did some very fine fancy work, and a few months previous to the opening of this tale the magnate's wife had asked as a favor that she embroider some handkerchiefs as a wedding present for a relative.
She never visited the Stirling house but she left some sting or sneer of affected superiority behind her, and when the work was done took it home, and the next day sent a note complaining that the handkerchiefs were spoiled, inclosing about one-fifth the usual compensation for such labor. But she did not return the handkerchiefs.
Mrs. Stirling later learned that their recipient had expressed herself perfectly delighted with the delicate, beautiful gift, but, being a true lady, Bart's mother said nothing about the matter to those who would have been glad to spread a little gossip unfavorable to the dowdy society queen of Pleasantville.
The village hardware store was open for the sale of powder, and Bart stopped there on his way back to the express office and purchased a padlock, two keys fitting it, and some stout staples and a hasp. He carried these articles into the office when he reached it.
The thoughts of his father's plight, a haunting dread that Colonel Harrington might make him some trouble, and the uncertainty of continued work in the express service, all combined to depress his mind with anxiety and suspense, and he tried to dismiss the themes by whistling a quiet, soothing tune as he started to get the hammer to put the padlock in place.
The minute he opened the door, however, the whistle was instantly checked, and a quick glance at the impromptu desk told Bart that the place had welcomed a visitor since he had left it.
On a sheet of blank paper was scrawled the words: "Express safe was locked last night—contents all right."
And beside it was a heap of account books—the entire records of the office, which Bart had supposed were destroyed in the fire at the old express shed the evening previous.
THE YOUNG EXPRESS AGENT
Our hero regarded the little pile of account books as if they represented some long-lost, newly-found treasure.
He was very much astonished at their presence there. They were a tangible reality, however, and no delusion of the senses, and his ready mind took in the fact that someone had in an unaccountable manner rescued them from the burning express shed, and mysteriously restored them to the proper representative of the express company in the nature of a vast surprise.
The edges of one of the books was scorched, which was the only evidence that they had been in the flames.
They were all there, and Bart was very glad. He now had in his possession every record of the transactions of the Pleasantville express office since the last New Year's day.
"And the contents of the safe are all right, too, that writing says!" exclaimed Bart; "now what does all this mean?"
The handwriting of the announcement was crude and labored, and the boy felt sure he had never seen it before.
He glanced with some excitement at the ruins of the old express shed, then he went over there. The embers had died down entirely, and the mass of ashes and debris was sparkless and cold.
Bart went to a near railroad scrap heap and selected a long iron rod crowbar crooked at the end. He returned to the ruins and began poking the debris aside. He was thus engaged when some trackmen, lounging the day away over on a freight platform, sauntered up to the spot.
"Why don't you work holidays, Stirling?" asked one of them satirically.
"Somebody has got to work to get this mess in shipshape order," retorted Bart. "The writing said what was true!" he spoke to himself, as his pokings cleared a broad iron surface. "The safe door is shut."
The safe lay flat on its back where it had fallen when the floor had burned away. It was an old-fashioned affair with a simple combination attachment, and so far as Bart could make out had suffered no damage beyond having its coat of lacquer and gilt lettering burned off.
He leaned over and felt of its surface, which retained scarcely any heat now.
"We heard the old iron box was caught open by the fire and everything in it burned up," spoke one of the trackmen.
"I supposed so myself," said Bart, "but it seems otherwise. I wonder how heavy it is?"
"Wait till I get some tackle," said one of the workmen.
He went away and returned with two crowbars and a pulley and block tackle.
It was no work at all for those stout, experienced fellows to get the safe clear of the ruins, and, with the aid of a big truck they brought from the freight house, convey it to the new express quarters.
Just as the town bell rang out four o'clock, Mr. Leslie stepped over the threshold.
He glanced about the place briskly, gave a start as he noticed the heap of account books at Bart's elbow, and looked both pleased and puzzled as his eyes lighted on the safe.
"Why, Stirling!" he exclaimed, "are you a wizard?"
"Not quite," replied Bart with a smile, "but someone else seems to be."
"Are those the office books we thought burned up, and the safe?"
"How is this?"
Bart told of the mysterious return of the books and of the scrap of writing that had led him to dig up the safe.
"That's a pretty strange circumstance," observed Mr. Leslie thoughtfully. "How do you account for it?"
"I can't," admitted Bart, "except to theorize, of course, that someone had enough interest in myself or the company to rush into the burning shed and save the books and close the safe while I was getting my father to safety."
"That's rational, but who was it?" persisted Mr. Leslie.
"Whoever it was," said Bart, "he has certainly proved himself a good, true friend."
"Have you no idea who it is?" challenged Mr. Leslie sharply.
Bart hesitated for a moment.
"Why, yes," he admitted finally. "I am pretty sure who it is. I do not know his name, but I have seen him several times," and Bart thought it best to reveal to his superior all he knew about the roustabout who had warned him of the burglary, who had assisted him in rescuing his father from the burning express shed, and who had vanished suddenly as people began to crowd to the scene of the blaze.
"I would like to meet that man!" commented Mr. Leslie.
"I hardly think that possible," explained Bart. "He seems to be afraid to face the open daylight, and, as you see, has not even manifested himself to me, except in a covert way."
"He is some poor unfortunate in trouble," said the superintendent. "If you do see him, Stirling, give him that—from the express company."
Bart was sure that his mysterious friend could be no other than the roustabout. He took the crisp ten-dollar bill, which the superintendent extended with an impetuousness that showed he was a genuine, warm-hearted man under the surface.
"That quarter of a dollar you gave him was a grand investment, Stirling. And now to get down to business, for I haven't much time to spare."
The superintendent, seating himself on the bench, consulted his watch and fixed his glance on Bart in his former stern, practical way.
"I saw your father at the hospital," he announced.
"Yes, sir?" murmured Bart anxiously.
"They are going to let him go home to-morrow. I am very sorry for his misfortune. He is an old and reliable employee of the express company, and we will find it difficult to replace him. I have thought over a suggestion he made, and have decided to offer you his position."
"Oh, sir! I thank you," said Bart spontaneously, and the tears of gladness and pride sprang to his eyes uncontrollably.
"Technically your father will appear in our service. I do not think the company bonding him will refuse to continue to be his surety. You must make your own arrangement as to legally representing him, signing his name and the like, and of course you will have to do all the work, for he will be helpless for some time to come. Are you willing to undertake the responsibility?"
"Then that is settled. This arrangement will be in force for sixty days. If, at the end of that time your father is no better, I do not doubt that we will give you the regular appointment, if in the meantime you fill the bill acceptably."
"I shall do my best."
"And I believe you will succeed. I like you, Stirling," said Mr. Leslie frankly, "and I am greatly pleased at the way you have stood in the breach at a critical time, and protected the company's interests. You will continue to draw fifty-five dollars a month, and use your judgment in incurring any expense necessary to keep things running smoothly until we get a new express office built. What is in the safe?"
Bart was familiar with its contents. He itemized them, including some fifty unclaimed parcels of small bulk that had accumulated during the year.
"Get rid of all that stuff," ordered the superintendent briskly. "I shall advise all the small offices in this division to ship in all their uncalled-for matter. Advertise a sale, make your returns to the company, and start with a new sheet. I think that is all there is any need of discussing at present, but I will send instructions by wire or mail as the occasion comes up. Count me your friend as long as you show the true manhood you have displayed to-day in a situation that would have rattled and frightened most boys—and grown men, too. Good-by."
He was keen, practical business to the core, and no sentiment about him, for he arose promptly with the farewell words, shook hands with Bart in an off-hand way, and was gone like a flash to catch his train to the city.
Bart stood for a moment in a kind of daze. The congratulatory words of the superintendent, and the appointment to the position of agent, stirred the dearest desires of his heart.
His great good fortune momentarily overwhelmed him, and he stood staring silently after the superintendent in a grand dream of opulence and ambition.
"I want you!" spoke a harsh, sudden voice, and Bart Stirling came out of dreamland with a shock.
COLONEL JEPTHA HARRINGTON
The young express agent recognized the tones before he saw the speaker's face. Only one person in Pleasantville had that mixture of lofty command and tragic emphasis, and that was Colonel Jeptha Harrington.
As Bart turned, he saw the village magnate ten feet away, planted like a rock, and extending his big golden-headed cane as if it was a spear and he was poising to immediately impale a victim. The colonel's brow was a veritable thundercloud.
"Yes, sir," announced Bart promptly—"what can I do for you?"
Bart did not get excited in the least. He looked so cool and collected that the colonel ground his teeth, stamped his foot and advanced swinging his cane alarmingly.
"I've come to see you—" he began, and choked on the words.
"May I ask what for?" interrogated Bart.
Colonel Harrington shook, as he placed his cane under his arm and took out his big plethoric wallet.
He selected a strip of paper and held it between his forefinger and thumb.
"Young man," he observed, "do you know what that is?"
Bart shook his head.
"Well, I'll tell you, it's a bill, do you hear? a bill. It's for eighty-five dollars, damage done maliciously on my private grounds, yesterday evening. It represents the bare cost of a new copper pedestal to replace the one you shot to pieces last night, and it's a wonder you are not in jail for murder, for had that cannon ball struck a human being—Enough! before I take up this outrage with the district attorney in its criminal phase, are you going to settle the damage, or are you not?"
"Colonel Harrington, I haven't got eighty-five dollars."
"Then get it!" snapped the Colonel.
"Nor can I get it."
"Then," observed the colonel, restoring the bit of paper to his pocket—"go to jail!"
Bart regarded his enemy dumbly. Colonel Harrington was a power in Pleasantville, his will and his way were paramount there.
"I am sorry," said Bart finally, in a tone of genuine distress, "but eighty-five dollars is a sheer impossibility—in cash. If you would listen to me—"
"But I shan't!"
"I would like to offer payment or replace the pedestal on reasonable terms."
"It don't go!"
"And, further, I am not to blame in the matter."
"What!" roared the colonel "what's that?"
"It's the truth," asserted Bart. "I never knew the cannon was loaded with a ball."
"Do you know who loaded it?"
Bart was silent.
"You won't tell? We'll see if a jury can't make you, then!" fumed the colonel. "Aha! it's serious now, is it? Not so much fun breaking up my home and breaking up my speech at the grove to-day, hey?"
Bart saw very plainly that what rankled most with his volcanic visitor was the blow to his pride he had suffered that afternoon at the grove.
"You put me in a nice fix, didn't you?" cried the colonel—"laughing stock of the community! Young man, you're on the downward road, fast. You're all of a brood. Your mother—"
Bart started forward with a dangerous sparkle in his eye.
"Colonel Harrington," he said decisively, "my mother has nothing to do with this affair."
"She has!" vociferated the magnate, "or rather, her teachings. You're full of infernal pride and presumption, the whole kit of you!"
"We have our rights."
"I'm a stockholder in the B. & M., and I fancy my influence will reach the express service. You'll stay in your present job just long enough for me to advise your employers of your true character."
Bart was dismayed—that threat touched him to the quick. He had felt very glad that Mr. Leslie had not met the irate colonel. The mean-spirited magnate noted instantly the effect of his threat.
"You'll insult and defy me, will you?" he cried, with a gloating chuckle. "Very well—you take your medicine, that's all."
Bart could hardly control his voice, but he said simply:
"Colonel Harrington, my father has been blinded at his post of duty. I am the sole support of the family. I hope you will pause and consider before you plunge us into new trouble and distress that we do not deserve. I have never had the remotest thought of injuring you or your property in any way. I am willing to make all the amends I am able for the accidental damage to your property, but I can't and won't cringe to your injustice, nor grovel at your feet."
"Eighty-five dollars—one, the name of the person who loaded that cannon—two, C.O.D. before ten o'clock to-morrow morning, or I'll sweep you off the map!" shouted the colonel.
He marched off, puffing up as his vain senses were tickled with the fancy that he was a born orator, and had just given utterance to some profoundly apt and clever sentiments. Bart stared after him in sheer dismay.
"It's a bad outlook," he murmured, "but—I have tried to do my duty. I would like to have money and influence, but would rather be plain Bart Stirling than that man. He is coming back."
Bart thought this, for, just about to round the end of a dead freight and cross to the public street, his late visitor turned abruptly.
He did not, however, retrace his steps. Instead, he came to the strangest rigid pose Bart had ever seen a human being assume.
He stood staring, spellbound, at the partly open door of the nearest freight car. His cane had fallen from his hand, his head was thrown up as if he had been struck a stunning blow under the chin, and even at the distance he was, Bart could see that his usually red-puffed face was the color of chalk. Almost immediately, through the open doorway space of the freight car an arm was protruded.
Its index finger was pointed, inflexible as an iron rod, directly at the colonel. It fascinated and transfixed the military man, and Bart Stirling, staring also at the strange tableau, was overcome with perplexity and mystification.
So many sensational occurrences had marked the last twenty-four hours of Bart Stirling's career, that it seemed as though the accumulating series would never end.
It was a particularly ragged and miserable-looking arm, and why it could so summarily check, halt and hold the great magnate of Pleasantville, was the problem that now tried Bart's reasoning faculties.
Bart closed the door of the express office and stepped out to where he could get a clearer view of the colonel and his environment.
Suddenly the strain was removed. The colonel threw up his arms with a gasp. He started to turn around, clutched at his neck in a strangling kind of a way, tottered, reeled, and plunged forward on his face against a heap of cinders.
"This is serious," murmured Bart.
He rapidly covered the two hundred foot space between the express shed and the freight car.
"Colonel—Colonel Harrington!" he called in some alarm, kneeling by the prostrate body of his enemy.
Bart tried to pull him over on his back. As he partially succeeded, he noticed that the colonel's face was pitted, and in one or two places scratched and bleeding from contact with the cinder particles.
The bulky form was quivering and convulsed. The colonel had been dazed, it seemed, but not rendered entirely unconscious, for now with a groan he struggled to a sitting posture.
Bart drew out his handkerchief and tried to clean the dirt from the military man's face.
The colonel resisted, he swayed and mumbled. Then he groaned again as his eyes lit on the freight car.
"Get me away from here," he moaned—"get me away! What's happened to me?"
"That is what I was going to ask you," said Bart. "Don't you know?"
The colonel passed his hand over his face and mumbled, but made no coherent reply.
Bart glanced at the freight car. It afforded no evidence of present occupancy. He reflected for moment.
"Wait for just two minutes," he directed.
Running over to the drug store on the next street, he spoke a few words to the man in charge, and darted out again as the druggist hurried to his telephone to call up the livery stable.
When he got back to the colonel, Bart found the latter sitting propped up against the cinder heap, his eyes open, and breathing heavily, but still in a helpless kind of a daze.
He worked over the colonel, and finally got the man on his feet. His position was so unsteady, however, that he had to support him with one hand while he dusted off his clothes with the other.
As he stood trying to keep his charge on his feet, a cab rushed across the tracks. Its driver, bluff Bill Carey, nodded familiarly to Bart, and looked the colonel over critically. He got the latter into the cab in an experienced way.
"Same old complaint!" he intimated to Bart with a wink. "Drinks pretty heavily."
Bart leaned over into the cab.
"Colonel Harrington," he said, "do you wish to be driven home?"
The colonel gave him a fishy stare, groaned and put out a wavering hand.
"Come," he mumbled.
"Jump in," directed Carey. "You'll be useful explaining the 'fall' up at the house!"
As they went on their way, the young express agent experienced a striking sensation.
A topsy-turvy day of excitement was ending with the peculiar combination of his riding in the same carriage with his most bitter enemy, and acting the good Samaritan.
They proceeded slowly, or rather cautiously, for the popping and banging had recommenced all over town.
Carey had to keep the spirited horses in strong check as they passed groups of boys, reckless of the quantity of firecrackers they deliberately fired off as the team neared them.
Suddenly the horses were pulled to their haunches with a vociferous shout. The cab swerved and creaked, and the horses' hoofs beat an alarming tattoo on the cobblestones.
"Whoa! whoa!" yelled Bill Carey. "You young villains! get that infernal machine out of the way. Can't you see—"
Bart stuck his head out of the cab window to view an animated scene.
A fourteen-inch cannon cracker was hissing and spitting out smoke barely two feet ahead of the terrified horses in the middle of the street.
At that moment it exploded. The horses gave a wild snort, a frightened jerk at the reins.
Bart saw the staunch driver dragged from his seat. He lit on his feet, braced, but was pulled over, as, with a fierce tug, the horses snapped the line in two.
Then, unrestrained, the team shot down the street without guide or hindrance and with the speed of the wind.
The young express agent acted quickly. A single glance told him that the driver of the cab could do nothing.
The frightened horses were speeding ahead at a furious rate, could not be overtaken, and Bart doubted if anyone could stop them.
No one tried, but all got out of the way promptly as the team went tearing along. The horses came to a crossing, and, terrified anew at a spitting "Vesuvius" ahead, abruptly veered and turned down a side lane.
It was at this moment that Bart threw open the door of the cab, grasped a handle at the side of the vehicle, and drew himself up to the driver's seat.
The swing the horses made just then sent his feet flying out in a wild circle, but he held on, and the rebound landed him on the seat.
Our hero cast a quick look within the vehicle. The colonel had "rousted" up somewhat. Buffeted from side to side by the erratic and violent movements of the horses, he was trying to maintain his balance by frantically clinging with both hands to the cushion under him.
As a wheel struck a stone the jar drove him forward. His head smashed out the front glass, and he uttered a yell of fear.
"Don't stir—don't jump!" shouted Bart through the opening thus made.
"We'll be killed!" cried the man.
"No, we won't. Do as I say. I'm on deck, and I'll—"
Bart sized up the situation, counted its risks and possibilities, and described a sudden forward leap.
The lines were torn and trailing under the horses' feet. He cut the air in a reckless, but well planned dive.
Bart landed sprawling between the two horses, his knee striking the carriage pole.
Bracing himself there, he caught out at the head of either horse. With a firm grip his fingers closed on the bridle reins.
Ahead was a stony wagon track lining a deep gravel pit dangerously near its edge.
About a hundred feet further on ran the creek, sunk between banks some fifteen feet high.
Bart drew the bridles taut. He feared the tremendous strain would break them. The heads of the horses were now held as in a vice, but they snorted and continued to plunge forward with undiminished speed.
As a wheel landed in a rut full of thick mud, their pace was momentarily retarded. Bart jerked at the bridles. The horses paused fully, but pranced and backed.
"Jump—crawl out—quick, now!" shouted Bart breathlessly to the occupant of the cab.
The colonel had been bouncing around, groaning and yelling ever since he had awakened to a realization of his desperate plight.
"Wait a minute!" he puffed. "Gently! Wait till I get out. Then you can go on," was his remarkable concession.
Bart saw the bulky body of the magnate fall, rather than step from the vehicle. He landed clumsily at the side of the road, rolled up like a ball, but unhurt.
He was so near to the grinding wheels of the vehicle and kicking hoofs of the horses that Bart relaxed the bridles.
Instantly the horses sprang forward again, but, once clear of the colonel's prostrate body, Bart focused his strength on a final mastery of the maddened steeds.
He drew the bridles at a sharp, taut slant that must have cut their mouths fearfully at the tenderest part, for they fairly screamed with pain and terror.
He succeeded in facing them sideways, ran their heads into some brush, vaulted over them, and, landing safely on his feet in front of them, grabbed them near the bits and held them snorting and trembling at a standstill.
Then he unshipped one of the lines and tied it around a sapling, stroked the horse's heads, and succeeded in quieting them down.
Going back to the road, he discerned Colonel Harrington sitting up rubbing his head and staring about abstractedly.
Farther away was a flying excited figure. Bart recognized the disenthroned cabman. They met where the colonel sat.
"All gone to smash, I suppose!" hailed Carey.
"No, a window broken, wheels scraped a little—nothing worse," reported Bart.
"Where is the team?" panted Carey.
Bart pointed and explained, and the cabman forged ahead with a gratified snort.
"You stuck till you landed 'em," applauded Carey. "Stirling, you're nerve all through!"
Bart went up to Colonel Harrington and the latter got on his feet. Bart could see that either the druggist's potion or his succeeding violent experience had quite restored the magnate to his original self. He nursed a slight abrasion on his chin, looked at Bart sheepishly, and then stepped over to a big bowlder and rested against it.
"Are you feeling all right now, Colonel Harrington?" asked Bart courteously.
"Me? Now? Ah yes! Quite—er—er—thank you."
Bart was somewhat astonished at the words and manner of his whilom enemy.
Colonel Harrington looked positively embarrassed. He would glance at Bart, start to speak, lower his eyes, and, turning pale as he seemed to remember, and turning red as he seemed to realize, would fumble at his watch fob, run his fingers through his hair and act flustered generally.
"The cab will be back in a few minutes," remarked Bart. "It was a pretty bad shaking up, but I hope you are none the worse for it. Good day, Colonel Harrington."
Bart turned to leave. He heard the colonel spluttering.
"Hold on," ordered the magnate. "I want to give you—I want to give you—some money," he observed.
"I can't take it, Colonel Harrington," said Bart definitely. "If I have been of service to you I am glad, but you will remember I was in the same danger as yourself, and quite anxious to save my own skin."
"Bosh! I mean—maybe," retorted the colonel, getting bombastic, and then humble.
"Well, put up your money, Colonel," advised Bart. "As I say, if I have been of service to you I am glad."
"You hold on!" ordered Colonel Harrington, as Bart again moved to leave the spot.
The speaker poked in his wallet and brought out a strip of paper, which Bart recognized as the one he had so menacingly waved in his face an hour previous at the express shed.
Colonel Harrington again poked about in his pockets till he found a pencil. With somewhat unsteady fingers he inscribed his name at the bottom of the paper, and handed it to Bart.
"You take that," he directed.
"Why, this is a receipted bill for the damage done to your statue," said Bart.
"Eighty-five dollars—just so."
"But I haven't paid it!"
"You needn't. Serious mistake—I see that," said the colonel. "That is, I see it now. Satisified you didn't mean any harm. Sick of whole muddle. And about getting you discharged and all that rot—didn't mean it. Forget it! Was a little mad and excited; see!"
"I can't take your receipt for what I haven't paid, and what I am willing to pay as fast as I can," said Bart.
"Then tear it up—I won't take a cent!" declared Colonel Harrington obstinately.
"The cab is coming," remarked Bart. "Shall Mr. Carey drive you home?"
"Yes, I suppose so. Come here, quick!"
He grabbed Bart's arm and drew our hero close up to him, as though he had some pressing intelligence to impart before the cab interrupted.
"Forget it!" he whispered hoarsely.
"About the statue—I'll be glad to," said Bart frankly.
"Runaway? I shall not mention it, Colonel Harrington."
The colonel released Bart's arm, but with a desperate groan. It was evident he was not fully satisfied.
"Sure you'll forget It!" he persisted, very much perturbed. "I don't mean my abusing you, or the runaway, or—or—I mean I had an accident after I left you at the express office. Someone hailed me—but you know, you know!"
The colonel cast a penetrating look on Bart, who shook his head negatively.
"I don't know, Colonel," he declared.
"Oh, come, now!" croaked the colonel, making a ghastly attempt to give the statement the aspect of a joke. Honest, you didn't hear anyone call to me?"
"No," replied Bart.
The cab drove up and halted.
"Don't do any talking. Don't start any gossip about—about—of course you won't! I've got your word. You're a truthful, reliable boy, Stirling, and I—I respect you," stumbled on the colonel. "Mum's the word, and I'll—I'll make you no trouble, see?"
"Thank you, Colonel Harrington," said Bart in a queer tone.
The colonel again regarded him penetratingly, and then got into the cab. He took the trouble of leaning out and waving his hand as the vehicle started up. He smiled in a sickly way at Bart, and once made a movement as if inclined to get out and once more suggest to the young express agent that he "forget it."
"That man is scared half to death over something," reflected Bart, as he took a short cut to regain the express office.
THE MYSTERIOUS MR. BAKER
The little express office looked good to Bart as its precincts again sheltered him.
Things appeared better and clearer to him now than at any time during the past twenty-four hours, and his heart warmed up as he put his papers and books in order, saw that the safe was secured, and decided to close up business for the day.
Doctor Griscom from the hospital had dropped in for a few moments, and brought some news that lifted something of a cloud from the heart of the young express agent.
"I do not want to hold out any false hopes," he told Bart, "but there is a bare possibility that your father may not become totally blind."
"That is blessed news!" cried Bart fervently.
"It is all a question of time, and after that of skill," continued the surgeon. "Your father must have absolute rest and cheerful, comfortable surroundings; above all, peace of mind. I shall watch his case, and when I see the first indication of the services of some skilled specialist being of benefit to him I will tell you. It will cost you some money, but I will do all I can to make the expert reasonable in his charges."
"Don't think of that," said Bart impetuously. "With such a hope in view I am willing to work my finger ends off!"
Bart was, therefore, in high spirits as he left the express office, padlocking the door securely.
He was anxious to get home and then to the hospital, to impart to his mother and father in turn the assurance that they had a bread-winner able to work and glad to do so for their benefit.
Amid the buoyancy of the relief from the continuous strain and troubles of the day, Bart was bent on a quick dash for home when he remembered something that changed his plan.
"The roustabout, the poor fellow that I've got the ten dollars for, the good fellow, if I don't mistake, who saved the books and the contents of the safe!" exclaimed Bart. "Actually, I had forgotten all about him for the moment."
Bart stood still thinking, looking around speculatively, his fingers mechanically touching the bank note in his pocket which Mr. Leslie had given him in trust.
He did not reflect long. He went at once to the freight car whence he had seen the ragged arm extended two hours previous, and looked in.
Back at one end were some broken grapevine crates, and it was dim and shadowy there, so he called out.
"Any one here?"
"Yes," came from the corner, and there was a rustling of straw.
"I guess I know who," said Bart. "Come out of that, my good friend, and show yourself," he continued heartily.
"What for?" propounded a gloomy, wavering voice.
"What for? that's good!" cried Bart. "Oh, I know who you are, if I don't know your name."
"Baker will do."
"All right, Mr. Baker, friend Baker, you're true blue and the best friend I ever had, and I want to shake hands with you, and slap you on the back, and—help you."
A timid, muffled figure shifted into full outline, but not into clear view, against the side of the car.
Bart took a step nearer. He promptly caught at one hand of the slouching figure. Then he regarded it in perplexity.
The roustabout held with his other hand a canvas bag on his head so that it concealed nearly his entire face.
"Why!" said Bart, reaching suddenly up and momentarily pulling the impromptu hood aside. "What's the matter now? Where is your beard and long head of hair?"
"Then you were disguised?"
"I tried to be," was responded faintly.
Bart stood for a moment or two queerly regarding the roustabout.
"Mr. Baker," he said finally, "I am bound to respect any wish you may suggest, but I declare I can't understand you."
"Don't try to," advised the roustabout in a dreary way. "I'm not worth it."
"Oh, yes, you are."
"And it wouldn't do any good."
"It might. It must!" declared Bart staunchly, "See here, I want to ask you a few questions and then I want to give you some advice, or rather tender my very friendly services. Do you know what you have done for me to-day?"
"No. If I have done anything to help you I am glad of it. You have been a friend to me—the only friend I've found."
"I'll be a better one—that is, if you will let me," pledged Bart warmly. "You warned me about the burglars last night; you helped me save my father's life."
"Anybody would do what I have done."
"No one did but yourself, just the same. Don't be cynical—you're something of a hero, if you only knew it. It was you who went into the burning express shed and saved the account books and closed the safe door."
"Who says so?" muttered Baker.
"I say so, and you know it—don't you?"
Baker made no response.
"Do you know what all this means for me and my family?" went on Bart. "You have done for me something I can never pay you for, something I can never forget. You are true blue, Mr. Baker! That's the kind of a worthless good-for-nothing person you are, and I want to call you my friend! Hello, now what is the matter?"
The matter was that the roustabout was crying softly like a baby. Bart was infinitely touched.
"I don't know your secrets," continued Bart earnestly, "and I certainly shall not pry into them without your permission, but I want to repay your kindness in some way. I can't rest till I do. All I can do is to guess out that you are in some trouble, maybe hiding. Well, let me share your troubles, let me hide you in a more comfortable way than lounging around cold freight cars with half enough to eat. You've done something grand in the last twenty-four hours—don't lose sight of that in mourning over your sins, if you have any, or in running away from some shadow that scares you. I'm not the only one who thinks you're a hero, either. There's someone else."
"Is there?" murmured the roustabout weakly.
"There is. It is Mr. Leslie, the express superintendent. I told him about you. He left this ten dollars for you, and the way he did it ought to make you proud."
Bart forced the bank note into Baker's hand. The man was shaking like a leaf from emotion. He stood like one spellbound, unable to take in all at once the good that was said of him and done him.
"Come," rallied Bart, giving him a ringing slap on the shoulder, "brace up and be what you have proved yourself to be—a man!"
Baker started electrically. His tones showed some force as he said:
"All right—you've made me feel good. But you don't know a whole lot, and I can't tell you. You say you're my friend."
"You believe that I am, do you not?"
"Yes, I do, and that's why I don't want to drag you into any complications. This ten dollars is mine, isn't it?"
"Will you spend it for me?"
"What do you mean?"
"I want you to give me a pencil and some paper, and I will write out a list of some things I want. You take it and the ten dollars and bring me the things here to-morrow. I want you to promise in the meantime, though, that if you come upon me unawares, or when I'm asleep, or under any circumstances whatever, you will turn your head away and not look at my face."
Bart was very much puzzled.
"I think I see how it is," he said after a brief period of reflection, "you are afraid of being recognized?"
"Think that if you want to, maybe you're right," returned Baker. "Anyway, I don't want to do anything or have you do anything that will mix you up in my troubles. My way is the safe way. Will you do what I ask?"
"Yes," answered Bart promptly. "Can't I get the things you want to-night?"
"I am afraid not, for most of the stores are closed."
"That's right. Well, then, let me make a suggestion: I have two keys to the new express office. I'll give you one. After dark, if you don't want to do it in daylight, go over and unlock the door. Pick out two or three dry-goods boxes from the heap behind the shed, carry them in and rig up any kind of private quarters you like at the far corner of the shed. I'll see that nobody disturbs you. In a couple of hours I will bring you a blanket from the house and a nice warm lunch, and you can be comfortable and safe. I will relock the door on you, and if you want to leave at any time you can unfasten a window and get out."
Baker did not reply. Bart heard him mumbling to himself as though debating the proposition submitted to him.
"I don't want to make you a lot of trouble," he finally faltered out.
"Of course you don't, and won't," asserted Bart—"you want to give me pleasure, though, don't you? So you do as I suggest, and I'll sleep a good deal sounder than if you didn't. Here's the key. I will be over to the express office about eight o'clock. Is it a bargain?"
"Yes," answered the strange man.
About eight o'clock that evening Bart came down to the express office carrying a lunch basket and a blanket, as he had promised his erratic friend, Mr. Baker.
The young express agent had spent a busy day, and the evening promised to continue to furnish plenty for him to do.