FRANK OF FREEDOM HILL
BY SAMUEL A. DERIEUX
WITH A FRONTISPIECE IN COLOUR
GARDEN CITY NEW YORK DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY 1922
COPYRIGHT, 1922, BY DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
COPYRIGHT, 1917, 1918, 1919, 1920, 1921, BY THE CROWELL COMPANY
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES AT THE COUNTRY LIFE PRESS, GARDEN CITY, N. Y.
DR. BLANCHE COLTON WILLIAMS
WHO BELIEVED I COULD WRITE
I. THE DESTINY OF DAN VI 1
II. PARADISE REGAINED 28
III. THE BOLTER 51
IV. OLD FRANK SEES IT THROUGH 74
V. AN ACT OF GOD 100
VI. COMET 122
VII. THE CRISIS IN 25 147
VIII. THE TRIAL IN TOM BELCHER'S STORE 167
IX. THE PURSUIT 194
X. THE LITTLE BOY IN THE BLACKBERRY PATCH 219
XI. BLOOD MONEY 245
XII. THE CALL OF HOME 266
FRANK OF FREEDOM HILL
THE DESTINY OF DAN VI
The baggageman slid open the side door of the car. With a rattle of his chain Dan sprang to his feet. A big red Irish setter was Dan, of his breed sixth, and most superb, his colour wavy-bronze, his head erect and noble, his eyes eloquent with that upward-looking appeal of hunting dog to hunting man.
Cold, pine-laden air deluged the heated car and chilled his quivering nose and swelled his heaving chest. Beyond the baggageman he saw through the open door, as on a moving-picture screen, sunlit fields and sunlit woods whirling past. He began to bark at them eagerly, his eyes hungry, his tail beating against the taut chain an excited tattoo. The baggageman turned with a grin.
"Birds?" he said.
At the word the dog reared straight up like a maddened horse. Full-throated angry barks, interspersed with sharp, querulous yaps, filled his roaring, swaying prison. How long since he had got so much as a whiff of untainted air, or a glimpse of wild fields and woods! Out there oceans of such air filled all the space between the gliding earth and the sky. Out there miles on miles of freedom were rushing forever out of his life. He began to rage, to froth at the mouth. The baggageman closed the door.
"Hard, old scout!" The baggageman shook his head.
Resignedly the dog sank on his belly, his long body throbbing, his nose between his paws. A deep sigh puffed a little cloud of dust from the slatted floor.
Three years before he had opened his amazed puppy eyes on this man (and woman) ruled planet. An agreeable place of abode he had found it as long as he was owned by a man. The Jersey kennels of George Devant had bred him; Devant had himself overlooked his first season's training, had hunted him a few times. At Devant's untimely death, Mrs. Devant had sold the place, the kennels, the mounts. But when, followed by a group of purchasing sportsmen, the widow came to the kennel where he waited at the end of his chain, she had clasped her hands together and cried out:
"I won't sell this one!"
Lancaster, bachelor friend of the late Devant, spoke up:
"Why, I had my eyes on him."
"You won't get him," she laughed. "He'll live with me—won't you, beauty?"
"He's not a lap dog," Lancaster had reminded her.
"Don't you suppose I understand him?" she demanded.
Understand him? What did the woman know of a bird dog's soul? The most intolerable of burdens is kindness where no understanding is. To Mrs. Devant it never occurred, even remotely, that her Riverside Drive apartment was a prison. She never dreamed why it was that on their afternoon walks the dog, straining at his leash, kept his hungry eyes fastened always on the cliffs across the Hudson. When they returned, as she pulled off her wraps, she would look down at him.
"I know," she would say; "you are trying to tell me you love me!"
Courteously he would wag his tail. Futilely, out of upraised, gently brave eyes he would plead for freedom—from a woman who did not know, and could not understand.
Then Lancaster, a frequent caller at the apartment of Mrs. Devant, had borrowed him. That morning Lancaster himself had put him aboard this train. "The trip," Lancaster had said, "will be easier if we don't crate him." All day he had known he was being hurled away. Was another grimy wilderness of brick his destination? Had the baggageman closed the door forever on all he loved in the world?
The train slowed up, stopped. The baggageman opened the door and dropped to the ground. They were in the country and the sun had set. Through the door the dog looked across a dusky field to a black horizon of forest. Above this forest flamed a scarlet glow. Something far in its depths called him, and he plunged against the chain.
He was jerked back, choking, the glow out yonder reflected in his desperate eyes. He backed against the wall, took a running start, and plunged again. The breaking of his collar hurled him against a trunk on the other side of the car, dazed and confused.
A sharp approaching whistle, an ever-loudening roar in that brooding silence out there aroused him to a sense of his surroundings. A telegraph pole that had stood black athwart the glow began to move backward. The silhouette of the baggageman rose in the doorway. The dog gathered himself together and leaped. He landed on shining rails, in front of a blinding headlight; the pilot just missed him as he sprang out of the way. A northbound passenger train roared past. From the other train two sharp whistles, the screeching of brakes, and a shout. For a moment he stood on the slight embankment, his ears thrown defiantly back. Then he turned, and with great lung-filling leaps bounded toward the glow in the west.
It was dark in the woods when he stopped and lapped loud and long of icy running water. An alarmed owl went flopping heavily away under the low-growing branches. Underneath this embodied spirit of night galloped the dog, filling the woods with barks, leaping high into the air, his teeth snapping and clicking like castanets. In the edge of a straw field looked down upon by stars he rushed a covey on the roost. One struck against a tree and came chirping down. Dan leaped upon him. His hunger satisfied, he tramped a pile of leaves into a bed, and slept.
At sunrise he chased an early rabbit into an impenetrable, frost-incrusted brier patch. He rushed another covey, that flew away like the wind. He sat down on his haunches and with ears erect watched the distant, whirling specks scatter into the woods. He was helpless in the daylight without man and gun. He remembered a white-tiled butcher shop on upper Broadway, and licked his chops at the recollection.
At midday, a hungry tramp, he approached a farmhouse. A big shepherd dog met him. When the fierce mix-up was over, and the shepherd had retreated, Dan carried in his shoulder a long, deep cut. Impelled by the gnawing in his stomach, he limped toward a log cabin. A troop of black children ran screaming at sight of him, and a black man burst out of the cabin door with a gun. As he turned and bounded away, a shot stung his rump, and others hummed around him. He made for the woods, a pack of yelping curs on his trail.
From this time he avoided the habitations and highways of man, keeping to the woods and streams, turning reluctantly aside at the smell of a human being. Now and then he picked up a stray chicken; twice he fought inquisitive hounds; always his nose pointed like a compass toward the place where the sun set. He no longer resembled the dog that had graced the canine parade on Riverside Drive. He was gaunt, torn, caked with mud. His proud tail followed the curve of his haunches; he carried his head low to the ground; in his eyes gleamed hunger and outlawry. Freedom had exacted its price.
Near the close of the third day there was borne on the slight wind the smell of a man. Toward it he cautiously slunk, in his heart a desperate, gnawing loneliness. A masterless dog is like a godless man: there is no motivation sufficient for his struggles and achievements. If the dog had been full of meat, if a mate had trotted beside him, still he would have hungered for the countenance and voice of a master.
Suddenly he sank to the ground and looked keenly ahead. A young human three feet high, bare and frowsy of head, stood alone in the woods. His body was shaken by dry sobs, as if the tear supply had long since been exhausted. Now and then he looked fearfully around at the darkening shadows. Plainly, he was lost; plainly, he needed protection. Therefore the big dog advanced with ingratiating tail.
The man-child shrieked, turned, and ran, his terrified red face turned over his shoulder. He tripped, fell headlong, scrambled to his feet, picked up a stick, and faced about like a little cave man. The dog still advanced wagging his tail, throwing his ears far back, crawling contritely on his belly, begging in every way he could beg to be allowed to serve this offspring of a man.
The pantomime won. The boy dropped his stick. The dog went to him and gazed longingly into the tear-reddened eyes. Humbly he licked the chubby hands, then the tear-soaked face. The boy smiled with a dawn of trust, put his hand testingly on the shaggy head, then round his neck. The dog sank to his haunches, his tail stirring the leaves. The boy gave a convulsive hug. Dan VI knew that his wanderings were over.
Far the child must have wandered from home, and suffered much, for, terror removed, he curled up in the leaves and fell asleep, the dog's warm body curled up beside. Suddenly Dan sprang up. From the sunset came the ringing of a bell. Perhaps this bell called this lost boy. Dan sat on his haunches, elevated his nose like an aircraft gun, and began to bay.
For an hour he answered the bell. Then there came through the woods the crash of running footsteps, and a young man burst into view, his clean-shaven face drawn and anxious. He stooped, picked the boy up, felt his arms and legs, laughed out loud. He lifted the boy to a broad shoulder and started for the bell.
"Come along," he said to the dog.
The bell was still ringing when they came in sight of a big house set on a high hill, with oak trees in the yard and barns behind. The man shouted; the bell ceased; a slender young woman came running toward them, followed by a fat old black woman who waddled as she ran. The young woman snatched the boy from the man's shoulder, and Dan knew from the crooning noises she made that she was his mother. Not until they were within a spacious fire-ruddied room did she notice the dog. She set the boy wonderingly down.
"Where did he come from?" she gasped.
The man laughed. "From Mars, I guess. He guided me to Tommy."
"Oh—you beauty! You wonder!" She stooped suddenly and caught the big head between her hands. Her eyes were bright and soft. "You noble, noble dog!"
Dan drew back. Why all this feminine fuss? Self-consciously he dropped his tail, imploringly he looked up at the man. The man understood. He poked the dog with his foot, and Dan started back with a mock snarl. Embarrassment vanished, equilibrium was established, they were placed at once on that footing of good-fellowship so necessary in the highest relations of man and man and man and dog.
"Sob stuff," laughed the man, "rattles him."
"Do you think we can keep him, Steve?" the woman pleaded.
"But suppose his owners come after him!"
"I tell you, Marian, he dropped from Mars. I know every bird dog fifty miles around. There's no such breed in this country. One minute."
He crossed the floor to a closet. When he turned he held in his hand a gun.
At the sight the dog leaped up into the man's laughing face. He ran round and round the room, his eyes brilliant, his nose quivering. The man put the gun away.
"To-morrow," he said significantly.
They named him Frank. In a week his old life was a memory, a disturbed memory, though, such as sometimes lingers after a grotesque dream. He had awakened, as it were, into a new world, a new and glorious life. From the porch of the old homestead—it sat on a hill that commanded an extensive view—he saw in maplike demarcations fields and woods and bottoms, like those that had rushed past in the dream, lying still and silent beneath him in sunlit reality.
His bondage was over. He came and went at will. He had his place by the fire when the night was cold. The strained, restless look left his eyes, and there was peace in his heart. Earle saw and understood.
"You haven't always been this way, have you, old man?" he asked. "I guess this is Freedom Hill for you, all right."
Frank did not know—being only a dog—the story that lay back of the name: the story that Earle's great-grandfather on the morning the old columned house was completed had summoned the slaves to the porch and given each his freedom.
"There will be no bondage here," he had said.
Dog and master took long hunts through the fair country that stretched away in blue undulations to the mountains. They returned at dusk, Earle with bulging game pockets, gun stuck under his arm, the setter trotting at his heels. They learned to know each other intimately, to respect each other's ability.
"One in a million, that dog," was Earle's verdict.
A sense of power, of superabundant life, of fulfilment tingled in his nerves and bones during these hunts. What joy came with the knowledge that his nose was growing keener, his judgment more profound! What added joy that his master knew—his master, stern and unrelenting when he was careless, generous with praise when he did well.
He developed fine scorn for visiting huntsmen who missed frequent shots—old Squire Kirby and John Davis, neighbours; sportsmen from afar, drawn to Breton Junction by the field trials held every year. How his master towered above them! How well he knew the crack of his master's gun! How well he knew there was a bird to retrieve when it spoke. He welcomed competition with man and dog. His nose like his master's gun was peerless in the field.
But hunting did not fill his life—there were idle days when he sauntered about at will. There was his sunny spot near the big rock chimney on the southern side of the house. There was his box underneath the back porch, filled always with clean straw, into which he could crawl on bleak days and listen to the rain spouting from the gutters and to the wind mourning around the corners.
Every shrub in the yard, every ancient oak, the wide-halled barn, the cribs filled with corn, the woodshed boarded up on the west, the blacksmith shop where Earle repaired the tools, all took on the intimate kindliness of home. He grew to be a privileged character with the very animals on the place. He took his privileges as his due, even treating with amused condescension the fat black woman in the kitchen, who fussed and spluttered like her frying pans when he entered, but who never drove him out.
No living creature, however, not even a well-used bird dog, knows perfect peace. With the close of the hunting season, Tommy Earle, whom he had found in the woods, took him boisterously in hand. It was a season when a hard-worked bird dog stretches himself out to the lazy warmth of the sun, and pads with flesh his uncomfortably lean, hard muscles.
The persecution began a little timidly, for even Tommy could not be insensible to the latent power of those muscles and fangs. But when no punishment followed, it increased until there was no rest in the yard for the dog. He had never been accustomed to children. It galled him to be straddled as if he were a hobby horse; it reflected on his dignity to be yanked about by the ears and turned round by the tail. He realized that viciousness played no part in the annoyances, the demand was simply that he metamorphose himself into a boon companion. This he steadfastly refused to do.
Many times—his nose was on a level with Tommy's frowsy head—he looked sternly, even menacingly, into those irresponsibly bright blue eyes, but with no effect whatever. There were other times when the red Irish flared up, and he sprang back, strongly tempted to snap and snap hard. But always he reflected that master and mistress set a high valuation on the little biped. And Frank would have been a gentleman if he hadn't been a dog.
Self-control embitters a small spirit—it ennobles a large one. His forbearance was not without its reward. He found himself, partly through the virtue of necessity, growing indulgent. On that lonely plantation what outlet did the child have for his playmania? The dog remembered that in a former kennel life a puppy had incessantly chewed his ears. Perhaps he had been that way himself—all young animals are. And what was this creature, in spite of the fact that he ran upright instead of on all fours, and wore small overalls made for him by his mother, what was he but an active young animal?
Then instinct told him that on occasion Tommy would be loyal to the death. This was evidenced by the fact that Tommy once savagely fought a visiting boy who threw a stone into his box. Again, when enticed by the wanderlust of spring, he was gone three days, it was Tommy who, like the prodigal's father, spied him from afar and came running down the lane to welcome him eagerly home.
"No wonder he ran off," said Earle. "You worry him to death!"
Tommy looked up, past the belt, along the soft shirt, to the face bent down upon him like a disapproving providence. When he turned his eyes on the dog, there was wonderment in them as if perhaps the truth were dawning. Certainly for days he followed the dog around, plainly apprehensive that he would run off again. And Frank, far more ready to forget grievances than to remember them, began to watch him in his incessant play, even to take part on occasion.
Spring passed, summer came, and Earle was a busy man on the farm. The dog either followed him to the field, or sauntered about the yard with lolling tongue. He grew stouter, his coat glossier, his muscles more stanch. He grew sedate, too, like a gentleman of broad estates. More and more his face bore that stamp of magnanimity that comes only to noble breeds.
So things might have gone to the end, and Earle declared he dropped in from Mars, and Marian contended that he was sent to find her boy, and Tommy cared not where he came from so he was there. So things might have gone if Frank had not followed the buggy to Breton Junction.
For two weeks previous he had been growing restless. Long, cold nights, frosty mornings, gaudy colours here and there in the woods, a haze as of burning brush in the air—all these pointed to one conclusion: another hunting season was rolling majestically around. On the very night previous Earle had oiled the gun, Marian had patched the old hunting coat, Tommy had smeared the hunting boots with grease, and Frank had been let in to the fire to witness the performance.
He had never been allowed to follow the buggy to Breton. "It corrupts the morals of a dog to loaf around a railroad station," Earle had always said. But this morning he stole secretly after the buggy, and trotted under the rear axle unobserved by Earle and Tommy. A mile down the road he thought it safe to show himself. He ran eagerly around the buggy, as if he had suddenly conceived the idea of going with them, had just overtaken them, and had no doubt whatever of his welcome.
"Go back!" ordered Earle.
He stopped, ears thrown back, with that banal expression on his face of a dog pretending not to understand. The histrionic excellence of the performance was not lost on Tommy, who laughed out loud.
"Let him go, Popper."
"All right—you rascal!"
Frank ran ahead, barking up into the blazed face of the sorrel. Five miles farther from the crest of a hill they looked down on the village of Breton Junction, with the squat, sunlit roof of the station in the middle—box cars grouped about, semaphore above, and long lines of telegraph poles that came from out the south and disappeared into the north—one of those small centres in a vast nerve system that controls the activities of a continent.
At sight of station and box cars, at the sound of a freight engine hissing lazily, Frank came back to the buggy and looked up inquiringly into the faces of man and boy. When at a store awning Earle tied the horse, he followed close at their heels, confidence suddenly gone out of him. Association and instinct stirred vague recollections of a former life. Whence came that hissing engine? Where led those long flashing rails that disappeared into the blue of distant hills?
In a littered room, heated by a pot-bellied stove, with an instrument on a table that rattled monotonously like a mechanical species of cricket, a man handed Earle a crate of shotgun shells. Then twinkling, he looked down at the wide-eyed boy and the big red dog who stuck close to the boy.
"Steve, which do you think most of? Dog or boy?"
Earle laughed. "Hard to tell, Bill. On the whole, Tommy takes precedence."
"Ever find out where the dog came from?"
"No; and that's not all, Bill—I don't want to. All right, young man, let's get back home."
Frank sprang out of the door and ran for the buggy. His fears had vanished with the turning of his back on this reminder of things past. But when Earle and Tommy did not follow, he came dejectedly back. Tommy wanted to wait and see the train; he had never seen but one, he pleaded—that was a "fate" train. Far down the track a fateful whistle blew. Above them, the semaphore dropped with a clang.
"Come, F'ank!" shouted Tommy, dancing with excitement.
On the platform the boy took firm hold of providence as represented by Steve Earle's big forefinger with one hand and clutched the dog's mane with the other, lest the "suction" all children fear draw him under the grinding wheels. He felt the solid earth under his feet tremble as the great hissing engine rolled between him and the sun, the rod rising and falling on the terrible wheels, the engineer high above in a window. Then the long black baggage car—and in the door a man in a cap, who looked at them with open mouth as if he knew suddenly who they were. As the train stopped, the baggageman jumped to the ground and came running back to Earle, all out of breath.
"That your dog?" he demanded.
"Sure, he's my dog!"
"Where'd you get him?"
The wrinkles in the corner of Earle's eye came close together.
"Is that any of your affair?"
But the baggageman smiled ingratiatingly, like a man who wanted to be friends.
"Tell you why I ask," he explained. "I lost that dog on my old run with the Coast Line. Owners sued the road. Road came back on me—said I had no business accepting him without a crate. Had to hunt a new job——"
"Oh, come off!" interrupted Earle. "The Coast Line's a hundred miles east."
"Can't help it. That's the dog. Watch him. Commere—Commere, Dan. See? Knows me. Ever see the beat of that? I'm sorry, mister—but—if you don't mind—what's your name and address?"
Earle had turned, and was looking at the dog under the truck. Then without a word he gave his name. The baggageman wrote it hastily in a notebook. The bell began to ring. The baggageman started away running.
"That's what I call white, Mr. Earle!" he called as he swung aboard, waving his hand back at them like a man unaccountably happy and relieved.
Earle looked down. Tommy noticed that his mouth was grim.
"Come, son," he said.
Tommy looked at the dog with fear and with mute apology. In his heart was hatred of that baggageman, and vain, vain regret that he had ever come to Breton Junction to see the train. All the way home the dog trotted under the axle of the buggy. In the days that followed a far less sagacious dog than he would have sensed the anxiety that disturbed the homestead on the hill to which his destiny had led him.
There was nothing particularly extraordinary about a buggy turning in from the main road and coming up the long hill toward the house. Frank, basking in the morning sun, kept his eyes on it merely out of curiosity. But as it drew closer he rose slowly to his feet, his ears erect. Unreasoning antipathy to the couple in it raised his hair in a long tuft down his back. He withdrew toward the barn, his head over his shoulder, the sun glistening on his coat of silk.
"There he is!" cried Lancaster.
"Dan—Dan!" shrilled the woman.
The man jumped out of the buggy, lifted her to the ground, and both hurried toward him, smiling like old friends eager to be recognized. The woman extended her hand.
"Dan!" she coaxed.
He drew away toward the barn, his tail wagging sheepishly, mollified by their friendliness, wishing he could extend to them the welcome of the hill—but afraid of them and of what they represented. Steve Earle hurried out of the house, followed by Marian and Tommy, who held his mother's hand. They all shook hands—all but Tommy, who withdrew from the group with a frightened glance at the dog. Then Earle and Lancaster came toward him, Lancaster talking.
"We received notice from the railroad," he was saying, "and as Mrs. Lancaster and I were on our way to Florida, we thought we would stop over and make sure. The railroad has never met our claim." He laughed. "You know how a railroad is."
"Is that the dog?" demanded Earle.
Earle stopped. "Come, Frank," he ordered.
Frank hesitated, still wagging his tail. Smiling, Lancaster took a step toward him. A wolfish gleam came into the dog's eyes. He threw his head up like a wild horse. Lancaster took another step forward. He turned and bounded across the field, down the hill to the woods.
All day long he remained in the woods, gold with autumn, brilliant with many coloured leaves that sifted slowly to the ground and flashed for a moment transparent as they crossed the shafts of sunlight. The bell at the house tolled. The gun shot again and again. But not until late at night did he venture cautiously back, stopping in shadows like a big red fox come to rob the chicken roost.
He trailed the buggy off to the main road and toward Breton Junction. He returned to find his supper waiting on the back steps. Profoundly grateful, he crawled into his box. But at daybreak Earle came out, fastened a collar round his neck, led him by a chain to the corner of the front porch, and there fastened him. The cook brought him his breakfast.
It was his last meal there, she declared bluntly. That rich man and his wife were going to take him. They had spent the night at Breton Junction. They would be back directly. He had too much sense for a dog, anyhow. He made her feel spooky. She laughed. She was a big, bluff black woman. To her a dog was a dog.
Frank ran his nose over the food, but his stomach revolted. He shivered with cold and fear. Down the hill he watched the morning mists lift from the maplike demarcation of field and wood, revealing the rich pageantry of an autumn morning. He knew every spot that birds frequented in all that gorgeous country.
In the living room above him he could hear Earle poking the fire. He could hear the low mumble of his voice, the soft treble of Marian's. They avoided him now as if he were a plague. He did not try to make it out. His master was providence. He could not question the decrees of providence, but he would circumvent them if he could. Once he had broken a collar. He began to plunge, but was jerked back, coughing and choking. He lay down, and with his paws tried to pull the collar over his head. Worn out at last, he crawled underneath the house.
Then came a guarded tap-rap down the front steps. From under the porch he saw blue overalls and stubby shoes. They hugged the porch, they made their way toward him. Then Tommy squatted down and peered with solemn face into the shadow.
"F'ank," he whispered fearfully.
The dog went to him and licked the chubby hands and the soft cheek, as he had licked them that first day. With a secret look all about, Tommy began to work with the fastening of the chain, his tongue poking through his lips and wiggling. The spring was strong, the thumb that pressed feeble, numb with cold. Once it clicked, and Tommy bit down on his tongue, and the dog sprang forward. The fastening caught, the boy gasped—then frantically began to press.
"What're you doing there?"
He dropped the chain; both conspirators looked up with a jerk. Earle's face was poked over the banisters above them.
"Nuffin!" The lie was shiveringly spoken.
"Come in the house, sir."
The mother came out and caught the boy by the hand. Her face was distressed. She cast a pitying look at the dog; then she pulled his would-be rescuer away.
"Ain't he our dog?" pleaded Tommy.
"No, dearest, he belongs to Mrs. Lancaster."
"Well, I can take him a jink of water, can't I?"
"He doesn't want any water."
The dog heard the little shoes hit each step twice. Of all the depressing signs of that depressing morning, the last protesting wail as the front door smothered it was the most ominous. Defeated, humbled, the dog slunk back underneath the porch.
But at sight of the hated buggy, he plunged and charged, frothing like a mad dog, running backward, trying to jerk the collar over his head, rolling over and over in his frantic struggles. Not until people were grouped above him did he grow quiet. Then when his former mistress stooped down and petted him, he begged her with his eyes as he had begged her in that other life, and knew, as he had known then, that she did not understand.
"I wonder what's the matter with him?" she said.
"It's plain enough what's the matter," replied Lancaster.
"Would you sell him?" asked Earle eagerly.
She straightened up. "No, indeed; we would not think of that."
"Then," said Earle wearily, "suppose we go in to the fire. You have a couple of hours to wait."
But he and Lancaster lingered near the porch while the women went into the house.
"I've just learned," Lancaster was saying, "that this is the plantation where the field trials are run. Have you thought of entering Dan?"
"No," said Earle. "Frank's an old-fashioned shooting dog. The greatest one I ever saw. He doesn't seem to have had field trial training."
Lancaster laughed. "Between you and me, until he came out here, most of his training was designed to fit him for a lap dog."
They went into the house, still talking.
The dog heard chairs dragged across the living-room floor. He slunk again underneath the porch. Then he heard a scraping sound behind him, and turned quickly about with pricked ears. Under the house, from the direction of the kitchen, Tommy Earle was crawling toward him on hands and knees.
The boy lost no time. He sat up straddle-legged like a tailor, and pulled the dog's head on his knee. Frank's eyes were green with excitement, foam rose from his bruised throat, his tail beat a tattoo on the dried dust.
First the boy attempted to unfasten the collar, but the leather was stiff, the buckle rusty. Then he tried to press the spring in. Once, like a dumpy animal, he crawled away. But he came back with a brickbat and hammered like a blacksmith at the spring. Then he bent over, caught the fastening savagely in his teeth, and gritted down. A sobbing intake of breath announced failure.
Time, precious time, was passing. People somewhere in the house were growing restless. The dog felt his self-control slipping in a mad desire to plunge at the chain. He started to rise, but the boy caught him angrily by the ear and jerked his head back into place. Chairs were pushed back in the living room. Down the back steps came a rapid, clumsy, heavy tread. Then the loud, coarse voice of the cook.
"Tommee—Tommee! I wonder whar dat chile gone to!"
The front door opened with a burst of voices. Enemies of freedom were closing in from every side. Freedom and slavery hung in the crimson pressing thumb. The cook's voice burst raucously—she was peering with rolling eyes underneath the house.
"Lawsy, Mr. Steve! Dat chile turnin' dat dawg loose!"
The fastening clicked. The boy gasped, the dog sprang up. No chain jerked him back. He leaped past the cook, who held her wide skirts out as if to catch him in a net. He heard Earle call. He heard Lancaster laugh. The field flew under him, the woods drew near. Long after he had reached them he galloped on and on.
In the afternoon he returned to the edge of the woods. He saw Earle come down the back steps, peer into the box, and shake his head at Marian, who stood on the back porch. Then Earle walked round to the old south chimney in the sun and knocked out his pipe, straightened up, and called. A fine figure of a man—his call carried command in every tone! To resist the overwhelming impulse toward obedience, the dog sank to the ground, his tail shaking the leaves, his eyes bright with worship of yonder man—and with a glint of humour in them, too. Did they think he would twice walk into the same trap!
But as the shadows climbed the hill toward the house his gaunt stomach, no less than his heart, longed to cross that intervening field. The west windows flamed with the sunset, as if the whole interior were a mass of silent fire. Smoke rose from the kitchen chimney, and on the cold air came the whiff of frying bacon. The cook waddled down the back steps, a tin bucket flashing under her arm, and the chickens flocked round her like fringes to her skirt. But still the dog remained in the woods, with the hunger in his stomach and the longing in his heart.
Then, when the cook had gone back, chickens vanished, the glow grown dim in the windows, and life seemed to have ceased in the yard, a little figure darted across it, disappeared in the lot, reappeared in the back door of the barn, and with a backward glance made for the woods where he lay. He had run away, plainly, for he had on neither overcoat nor hat. He was frightened, for he stopped a hundred feet away from the woods and his voice quavered.
He listened painfully, his mouth open, his chest heaving. When next he called there were tears in his voice. Finally, he looked all up and down the border of the woods. A third time he called, shriller, more tremulously. Then slowly he turned his back and started toward the house. Something must have blinded him, for he stumbled and fell. He got to his feet and looked at the hands he must have cut on the sharp stones of the field. Again he faced about and looked up and down the woods, and again he turned away.
Something tragic in this last turning about, something final, as if he had left hope behind him buried in the woods, swelled the tender heart of the watching dog. He could stand it no longer. Lightly he leaped the fringe of bushes, silently he galloped after the disconsolate little figure. Not until his warm breath on the nape of the white neck caused Tommy to turn, did he realize the depth of woe through which Tommy had passed. The frightened gasp, the look of terrible reproach, the tear-soiled face, the tragic eyes, told the story. It was fully a minute before Tommy controlled his sobs and hugged him round the neck. Then, ashamed to have been seen in this hour of weakness, the boy began to pound the dog with his fists. Finally he cried out—and in the shrill exultation of his voice, Frank knew that his own troubles and Tommy's troubles had all passed away.
"They gone—they gone on the chain!" Then, with wistful wonderment, "Where you been, F'ank?"
There were lights in the living-room and kitchen windows when they started toward the house, the boy's hand tightly clutching the mane of the dog.
"Mr. Lancaster," Tommy was explaining in a breathless voice that caught, "he says—he says you b'long to us! He says he come down an' hunt wif me an' you an' Popper! He says he give—give me a dun!"
In his ecstasy he grabbed the dog round the neck.
"Ol' F'ank! Ol' F'ank! I love ol' F'ank!"
Then in a voice he was training for future fox hunts Tommy Earle yelled, and the woods and the house and the barn between them tossed back and forth the thin echoes.
Little Tommy Earle stood on tiptoe in the rear of the capacious hall of his father's barn, and glanced excitedly along the nickel-plated barrel of his air rifle, which he had poked through a knot hole. Out there on the ground between the barn and the corn field he had sprinkled some crumbs of bread. When sparrows came to pick up those crumbs—well, thought Tommy, it would be hard on the sparrows.
Behind him in the straw that carpeted the barn lay old Frank, Irish setter, taking his ease. Except during hunting season, wherever you found the boy you found old Frank. Now and then, at some slight movement of the boy, he pricked his ears in the direction of this miniature stalker of game. The rest of the time he either dozed off, or, suddenly aroused, snapped at a fly with that fierce look in his eyes with which dogs and fly-swatting women view these buzzing pests.
Cathedral-high above them towered the overflowing hay loft. Through the wide-open doors behind them the barn lot blazed in the afternoon sun. The somnolence of a farmyard mid-afternoon brooded over the scene. Only the boy, peering through the knothole, was tense and vibrant.
For him this was a serious occasion. He had owned the air gun two weeks now, and he hadn't killed a thing. True, he had hit an upstairs window pane, but he hadn't intended to do that. He had merely shot at a raucous jaybird in a tree, and the upstairs window pane, the innocent bystander, as it were, had fallen inward with a sharp tinkle of broken glass. The mishap had brought down on him the warning from his father that if it, or any similar exploit, were repeated, the air gun would be confiscated.
"But I didn't mean to, Papa!" he had cried.
"That doesn't make any difference, old man," Steve Earle had said; "the window is broken all the same."
The boy had walked away from the interview, sobered. Sprung from the loins of generations of hunters, the love of a gun was in his blood, and this air rifle was his first love. Since the warning he had used the horizon as a backstop for all his shots. Old Frank, who had followed him around at first, pricking his ears at every shot, ready to bring in the game, had concluded that there would be no game to bring in, and had lost interest at last.
Then, just an hour ago, the boy had hit upon this scheme of baiting sparrows to their doom. And now with the patience of the born hunter, tireless like the patience of the cat watching at the mouse hole, he waited for sparrows to come. His face was flushed, his eyes were shining, the smooth muscles of his bare, sturdy legs were knotted as he stood a-tiptoe, peering.
Now, Steve Earle, the father, was not only a mighty hunter, a bigger edition merely of the boy—he was also a modern, successful planter. His corn and tobacco and cotton crops were the talk of the county; his horses were pedigreed; his mules sleek; his chickens the finest. Among these latter was a prize-winning Indian Game super-rooster named Pete. He was big, boisterous, stubborn, and swollen with pride and vainglory.
It was Pete who now appeared through the aisles of the tall corn, within range of Tommy's periscopic vision, chortling and boasting to the sober harem that followed him. Suddenly he raised his head; his beady eyes glittered; he hurried greedily toward the crumbs, squawking hoarsely, clucking wildly, like a crude fellow who aspires to be a gallant and overdoes the part.
"Shoo!" cried Tommy through the porthole.
Pete raised his head high and cackled in amazed indignation that anybody should say such a thing to him. Then, dismissing this temporary annoyance of a small boy yelling at him through a knothole, he hurried into the very midst of the crumbs. He picked one up; he turned round to the hens; he dropped it to demonstrate what he had found. The hens cackled in admiration of the splendid performance.
At this Pete went crazy; his clucking increased prodigiously; he pawed crumbs into the ground, just to show how grandly careless he could be in the midst of such profusion. And here came all the hens to him, half flying like a covey of quail about to alight.
"Shoo!" yelled the boy a second time.
Again Pete cried out indignantly, as if he really didn't know what to make of such impertinence. Crimson of face, Tommy left his lookout. Frank following, he ran round the barn and burst into the midst of the feasters. A wild scattering ensued. Cackling and squawking, the valiant Pete led the retreat through the corn. Face still flushed, Tommy came back to his post and poked his gun through the knothole. And once more, after a very brief interval, here came Pete.
To analyze the motives that led to his return would require a knowledge of rooster psychology, if any such thing exists. Maybe Pete actually forgot what had just happened—his head was very small, his face very narrow, and he had a receding forehead. More likely, though, his enormous vanity lay at the bottom of it. He would show these wives of his, in whose admiration he basked all the day long, whether or not he was to be thwarted in his purpose of eating crumbs by a meddling boy with some kind of shiny instrument in his hand.
Yet once more, when Tommy burst upon him and into the midst of his admirers, he threw all semblance of dignity aside. He ran ingloriously away, jumping high into the air when clods of dirt like exploding bombs struck near him, and hitting the ground again on the run, with loud cackles of indignation and wild excitement.
"Sick him, F'ank!" screamed the boy. "Sick him!"
But old Frank sat down on his haunches panting, which is a dog's way of shaking his head. To injure his master's property, even at an order from his master's offspring, was something which he, as a dog of honour, could never think of doing. He did look with a touch of regretful longing at the fleeing rooster; he pricked his ears, his eyes grew fierce, he licked his chops. There had been a time, perhaps—but that was long ago, in the dim past of his irresponsible puppyhood.
"You ain't no 'count!" said the boy.
The long silken ears flattened; the brown eyes looked indulgently into the angry blue ones. He could stand such an accusation very well; his character was thoroughly established, his life an open book. Just now the boy was beside himself with anger, and a friend passes over things said in anger. Only a small spirit without magnanimity is touchy on such points.
Tail waving gently, therefore, he followed the outraged boy back to the barn. The crumbs were all gone. The nimble bills of the hens, the greedy, overbearing beak of the rooster, had gobbled them all up. Resentfully, Tommy picked up his shiny air rifle and went to the house after more.
In the spacious kitchen, hung with pots and pans, old Aunt Cindy, big, fat, black, her head tied up in a red bandanna handkerchief, sat churning butter and singing a hymn:
"Dere was ninety an' nine dat safely lay In de shelter ob de fol', But one had wandered fur away, Fur from de streets ob gol'."
At sight of the boy's flushed face, and in the presence of his eager request, hymn and churning ceased together.
"What you gwine do wid mo' bread, honey?" she asked.
"I'm going to kill some birds," declared the boy with a burst of optimism, forgetting for the moment that Pete might have decreed otherwise.
The old woman rose chuckling from her churn and waddled across the floor to the cupboard, no bigger and broader than she.
"Whar you baitin' 'em, honey?" she asked next.
"Behind the barn!"
She sat down, bread in hand, pulled him to her, and patted his back. That was the price he had always to pay for bread or butter or jam. Finally, she gave him the bread and let him go. Down the back steps he came, running eagerly and calling Frank. Once more in the kitchen began the flop of the churn, once more rose the wail of the song.
"Away on de mountings he heered its cry, Sick an' helpless an' ready to die——"
Twice more did Tommy drive the intolerable rooster away. The first time he chased him deep into the corn, almost to the pasture. The second time he tried to corral him and the hens and drive the whole bunch into the chicken yard, running here and there with eager face and outstretched hands.
He almost succeeded, for Frank helped him at this like a collie dog herding sheep. Right to the gate of the chicken yard Pete went, followed by the excited hens. Then he seemed to suspect some sort of trap or hidden mine in there, and, with loud ejaculations, broke away and ran streaming toward the corn, followed by the hens.
Grim of face, the boy took his stand once more at the knothole. Boastful as ever, after an interval, came Pete. Not only to-day, but to-morrow and the next day and through all the days to come, he would have to give up shooting sparrows because Pete liked bread crumbs.
"Shoo!" he said for the last time, rather quietly now.
"Caw, caw!" retorted Pete, throwing up his head.
The shiny sight of the air rifle glistened against the beady, vicious, triumphant eye, cocked a little sideways. "Ping!" spoke the air rifle. In a stall a frisky young mule wheeled around and kicked the bars continuously like a rapid-fire gun. Old Frank, who had lain soberly down, sprang to his feet with pricked ears and eager eyes. From without came a hoarse, faint squawk and heavy flopping of wings. Out of breath, Tommy turned round. "I hit him, F'ank!" he gasped.
Pete, big and heavy as a turkey gobbler, was flopping round and round when they reached him, beating the ground with lusty wings, sliding his limp head along the dirt, acting crazy generally, as if Aunt Cindy had wrung his neck.
"Aw, get up!" said Tommy.
But Pete did not get up, and, sobered, the boy glanced around. The hens had fled the violent scene; the hulk of the barn hid what was going on from the yard. Only Frank had seen, and Frank never told anything. Tommy leaned his rifle against the barn, straddled the heavy rooster and, face flushed, lifted him, limp and dangling, to his feet.
"Stand up, Pete," he coaxed. "You ain't dead!"
But when he released him Pete collapsed like an empty sack, kicked frantically a time or two, and was still. Then the boy saw the blood that trickled from his head. Straight into his eye and into his brain, if he had any, the BB shot had gone. Pete would never eat any more crumbs. Breathing fast, the boy looked at Frank. Ears drooped, eyes worried, Frank looked at the boy. And while they looked, down the back steps came the solid tread of Aunt Cindy's broganned feet, and her regular afternoon summons broke the silence:
"Chick! Chick! Chick!"
Through the corn the silly hens went running toward the yard, their appetites nowise affected by the calamity. Again the old woman called. Then she spoke, and Tommy's heart jumped up into his mouth. His father had evidently sauntered round the house, as fathers have a way of sauntering, just at the wrong time.
"Mr. Steve—whar dat rooster?" asked the old woman.
Earle laughed. "I haven't got him, Aunt Cindy."
"It sho a funny thing," she declared. "He allis de fust to come when dey's anything to eat. Somethin' done happen to him. You stay here. I lay I kin fin' him!"
Tommy hastily picked up his rifle. The old woman was coming; he could hear her skirts dragging across the weeds at the side of the barn. A short distance in the opposite direction was the corn crib. To the side of it away from the barn he retreated, followed closely by Frank.
He heard her exclamation when her eyes fell on the dead rooster.
"Honey!" she called gently, "whar you, honey?"
He didn't answer; he didn't have to answer. She could stand there calling till night if she wanted to. Then he heard her grunt and sigh as she stooped down. When he peeped cautiously around the corner, she had picked up the rooster and started for the yard. They would all know now.
His heart grew bitter at the thought. He ought to have hid the rooster. He ought to have got a spade and buried him. He was full of regrets, not for what he had done, but for what he had not done. He would stay here till dark. He would stay here all night. He never would go home any more. He would hide in the woods, and he and Frank would hunt. He would kill what they wanted to eat and cook it over a fire. His face was set. His mind was full of grim little desperate outcast thoughts.
Then his dark romance was shattered. From the yard his father had called him. The call seemed to search out this very spot, but he did not answer. Let them find him if they wanted him. He wasn't going to them, and he wasn't going to run, either. They would try to take his gun away now. There was a lump in his throat as he thought of the injustice of it, of the insults he had patiently borne, of the futility of explanations where grown people, who loved and treasured roosters above everything else, were concerned.
He heard them coming through the lot and flattened himself against the wall, his eyes full of fight. They would have to throw him down and beat him into insensibility. To the end he would cling to his gun, asking no quarter, making no explanations. And thus they found him—Aunt Cindy first, then his father and his mother. He glanced sullenly at them and said nothing.
"Hiding, old man?" asked his father.
At something kind and comradely in the tones he looked up with sudden hope beyond the belt and the shirt into the clean-cut face and gray, twinkling eyes bent down upon him.
"No, sir," he said. "I wasn't hidin'."
"Well, who killed Pete?"
His heart began to pound in his ears; the eyes of his father held him; he had almost owned up; then it came over him, as all such things come, by inspiration. There stood old Frank, gently wagging his tail. Frank had nothing to lose; nothing would be done to Frank. Frank's reputation was spotless; it could stand a stain or two. Eagerly he smiled up into his father's face.
"F'ank killed him!" he said.
For a moment the air was electric with uncertainty. Then his mother spoke, her eyes full of pain and reproach.
"Honey, honey!" remonstrated Aunt Cindy, "you know dat dawg——!"
But a quick glance from his father silenced this feminine outburst. "All right, old scout," said Earle gravely. "Just as you say. We'll go back to the house now; and we'll see to it that Frank doesn't kill any more chickens."
Tommy took a deep breath; he could hardly believe his ears. He had braced himself for fight, prepared himself to defend his assertion, and now there wasn't going to be any fight at all. At first he thought his father must have understood and become particeps in the secret with him and Frank and the gun. Then it dawned on his delighted mind—his father actually believed what he had said!
He went back to the yard with them, profoundly relieved, as if he were walking on air. He even had for a moment a virtuous feeling as if Frank had really killed the rooster, and he had only spoken the truth. Then he began to feel proud in a secret sort of way. It had been quite a stroke. He had never experimented sufficiently with this method of getting out of trouble. It was really quite simple. He would try it again some time.
He had a vague idea that something had hurt his mother, and he was sorry for that. But she would get over it; he would be unusually loving to her. Really, all one had to do was to make a statement, and grown people would swallow it. They were easy marks.
Yet, somehow, though he had won out by superior intelligence, he wasn't as happy as he should have been. He felt some of the loneliness of genius. And when in the back yard his father turned and called Frank sternly to him, he began to fear that the affair might not be so simple after all.
With growing uneasiness he watched old Frank go to Earle, tail depressed, eyes troubled. Earle led him to the kennel at the side of the house and chained him up. Frank sat down on his haunches and looked up into his master's face.
"Now," said Earle, "I'm going to give you time to think about it. Then I'm going to wear you out!"
"Pete ate my crumbs, Papa!" cried the boy, the blood rushing to his face.
His father turned and spoke to him confidentially, as man to man. They would have to cure Frank, right now, before killing chickens got to be a habit. They couldn't afford to have a chicken-killing dog on the place—it was too expensive.
And that was just the beginning of his troubles and complications. Every afternoon since he could remember, he and his father and Frank had gone to the pasture to see about the cattle. But now old Frank was chained up. And when his father asked him to come along, he shook his head. He didn't want to be alone with his father. He had an idea that it would be terribly and silently embarrassing down there with no one around but the two of them.
"I don't want to go," he declared.
"Very well," said Earle, and went off alone, through the lot and into the corn.
And he got no comfort whatever out of the talk he had with his mother a little later in the living room, though she smiled at him when he entered, and put her sewing aside.
Encouraged, he went to her and leaned against her knee; she brushed his hair back off his forehead, just as she always did.
"What is it, dear?" she asked.
"Papa ain't goin' to whip F'ank, is he, Mama?"
"Why, yes—he has to."
"I tol' F'ank to kill him!"
"But Frank's a grown dog—he knew better."
He grew suddenly angry—angry at her very simplicity.
"F'ank won't kill any more chickens!"
"How do you know?"
"I know!" he cried, and stamped his foot. "I know!"
He came away from this futile interview in a suppressed rage. From the hall he saw old Aunt Cindy waddling about in the dining room. No use to appeal to her. She knew too much, anyhow, that old woman. There was in her nature none of the simple credulity that characterized his parents. She was worldly wise, like himself.
He avoided her, therefore, his face turned over his shoulder, afraid she would see and call him. He went out on the front porch, down the steps, and, gun under his arm, sauntered round the house to the kennel. Old Frank came to meet him as far as the chain would allow. Frank thought he was going to be turned loose now—his eyes showed it. There was a log of wood beside the kennel, and the boy sat down on it. Frank nestled close to him, tail dragging across the ground.
Suddenly the boy was all attention, and Frank had pricked his ears. Steve Earle had come from the pasture, gone up the back steps, and into the room with the boy's mother. Through the open window just above the kennel he could hear them talking in a confidential sort of way, as grown folks talk when they think no one is listening.
"Where's the boy?" asked Earle.
"I don't know, Steve—he went out just now."
She was silent a while, then she spoke, with a little laugh that didn't sound like a laugh:
"Steve—it's pitiful, pitiful!"
"It's drastic, Mother—but it's the best way."
"But, Steve—suppose it doesn't work?"
It was his father who was silent now.
"Then that will be pretty tough, Mother," he said at last.
They talked some more—meaningless grown folks' talk that didn't get anywhere. It didn't seem to bear even remotely on the essential question in hand, which was whether or not Frank was to be whipped. They weren't even interested enough in the matter to speak of it. They just talked—that was all. They didn't care anything about him and Frank, or what became of them. They thought more of roosters than of anything else. They were all against him and Frank and the gun. All right—he and Frank and the gun would look out for themselves!
Once more his mind filled with visions of a wild life, in which escape and vengeance were mingled in proper and satisfying proportions. In the woods beyond the pasture was a cave, which he and Frank could reach before dark. Then they would ring the farm bell and raise a great hullabaloo, but he and Frank, safe within the dark cavern, would live their own lives.
The more he thought of it, the more enticing it became, and his eyes filled with a caveman's fire. The entrance to the cave was pretty dark and "snaky"; maybe he would compromise and not go in. But the woods round about were thick, and there were plenty of hiding places.
He left Frank, and, heart pounding, went round the side of the house, looking up at the familiar windows high overhead. There came over him a scorn of the civilized existence these people led, and he wondered that he had endured it so long. He went quietly up the back steps, peeped into the kitchen, then entered softly.
Old Aunt Cindy was in the dining room, which was separated from the kitchen by a passageway. He could hear the rattle of dishes in there as she set the table for supper. Well, there would be one seat empty this night, and maybe through a good many nights to come. He got up on a chair in front of the cupboard and filled his pockets with biscuits.
All excited, he came out of the house, hurried to the kennel, and turned Frank loose. Frank had caught the contagion. Frank knew there was something sub rosa about what was going on, and his eyes were glowing. Likely they would shine like a cat's eyes in the dark cave at night—and maybe there would be other wild eyes shining in the recesses that led off here and there and dripped with water!
He hesitated a moment, trying to think of some other spot where they might run, some spot less suggestive of shining eyes. And while he hesitated there came steps on the front porch, and around the house, pipe in mouth, his father sauntered, as fathers have a way of sauntering, just at the wrong time.
"What're you doing there, Tommy?" he demanded.
The cave and the wild life vanished like a bubble that has burst.
"Pete ate my crumbs, Papa!" he cried.
For a moment his father hesitated, looking down into his eyes as if he were perplexed and worried and did not know what to do. Then once more he chained Frank up.
"You mustn't turn him loose again," he said sternly.
"I tol' him to kill Pete! I tol' him to!"
"And he did it?"
The eyes which the boy raised to the man's face were full of fight. He had said it, and he was going to stick to it. It was no longer only a matter of saving the gun; it was a question of principle now.
But his father did not press the question. With just a queer look into the boy's defiant eyes, he turned away and walked across the yard toward the garage, head bowed. Tommy watched him. No doubt his father thought he would follow. He had always liked to hang about the garage, he and Frank, and watch his father tinker with the car. It had been one of the high lights of their daily life. But now old Frank was chained up—and as for him, he didn't care anything about automobiles.
Frank had sat down on his haunches, in his fine old eyes, as he watched his master's retiring form, that disconsolate look of a dog whose feelings are deeply wounded. A moment Tommy regarded his offended friend. No use to think of turning him loose again with his father within hearing. Tommy hardened his heart. All right—so be it—he had done his part. Things would just have to take their course. Gun under arm, face set and grim, he walked round the house, and left old Frank to his fate.
There was a side porch around here, where his mother sometimes sat in the mornings, but which was deserted the rest of the day. On the step he took his seat, a solitary little figure, his gun between his knees. Here he would stay until the beating was over, here where he could not see it, and could not hear it—very plainly.
He was full to the brim of rebellious thoughts. He wished Pete were alive so he could shoot him again. He thought of boys he knew whose parents let them alone, and he envied them their lot in life. Maybe he would go and live with some of them, go where he would be appreciated. He would take Frank with him, of course; that went without saying: life would be a void without Frank.
Yonder was the apple orchard, with the gold of the setting sun glancing through the tree trunks, and yonder in it was the brush pile where, on that memorable morning, he and Frank had "almost" caught a rabbit. Beyond were the woods where another afternoon never to be forgotten Frank had jumped a red fox bent on mischief, who, his father said, would have got some chickens that very night if Frank hadn't chased him far into the distant hills.
Then there was the time down in the creek bottoms when he had sat down on a log, and Frank had rushed toward him, leaped the log, and jerked the life out of a big copperhead moccasin coiled just behind him in the grass. And not very long ago, at the country store up the road, when a big boy had tried to bully him, Frank had come to his side and growled, and the boy had backed off, his face white. Frank had always stuck to him.
His face grew solemn, a lump rose in his throat. He could not sit here any longer with Frank chained up around yonder waiting a beating. He got up and started once more around the house. He was just in time to see his father cross the yard and stop in front of a bush.
He stood where he was, watching with alarmed eyes. When his father turned he had a switch in his hand. At sight of it the blood rushed to the boy's face, and every nerve tingled. He had doubted it a little bit up to this time; now there was no doubt left. His father was going to whip Frank.
Once at Tom Belcher's store he had seen a man whip a dog. The dog had writhed rather comically on the ground, and his cries had filled the air. He himself had stood on the store porch and watched the performance in a detached, judicial frame of mind. It had been a spectacle, and nothing more; but this was vastly different. That had been an old hound, and this was Frank.
That was a big switch his father had cut, and his father was very strong. It would hurt, hurt even through Frank's long hair, hurt terribly. Frank would writhe on the ground, Frank's cries would fill the air. He watched his father's face as Earle came toward him. It was serious and grim, so serious that it almost hurt. Maybe his father didn't want to whip Frank; maybe he was doing it because he thought, in his ignorance and simplicity, that he ought to; maybe his father hated to do it.
He thought of retreating once more to the side porch where he could not see, of hurrying beyond it to the orchard and there crying, perhaps. But he could not do that. Breathing fast, he followed his father, led by the fascination of horror. Anybody looking at him, unless it was his mother, would have thought he was going out of curiosity, to see the thing well done. But there was a humming sound in his ears; the lump was choking him cruelly; the whole yard was swimming round, and everything looked strange.
As they drew near the kennel, Frank rose quickly to his feet, his tail tapping the taut chain, his eyes eager and glowing as he looked from one friend to another. Frank thought they had come to turn him loose and give him his supper in his tin plate on the back steps. Then he saw, and his ears drooped—saw the look on their faces, saw the switch, and he sank down on his stomach and laid his big head humbly between his paws at his master's feet.
"Don't!" shrieked the boy. "Papa, Papa, don't!"
In the midst of the whirling yard and barns and things, his father had turned and looked down at him with strange burning eyes.
"I can't let him kill chickens, son."
It all happened in a flash. He hadn't intended doing any such thing. His last resolve, even as he came around the house, had been to stick to his spoken word. But now passionately he threw the air rifle away from him, and stood looking up at his father with dilated eyes and heaving, sturdy chest.
"Take the old gun!" he cried. "I don't want it! I killed Pete—F'ank never done it. I shot him through the head!"
His father had stooped down now, and he was in strong arms. His cheek was pressed against his father's cheek, and over a broad shoulder, through a haze of tears, he looked miserably into the red glow of the setting sun.
"I tol' F'ank to kill him," he sobbed brokenly, "an' he wouldn't. I drove—drove him off, an' he kept comin' back. I killed him—I shot him through the head!"
The arms tightened about him, the cheek pressed closer to his cheek.
"That's all right, old man," said his father. "I understand."
Gradually the sobs ceased, for he fought them down like a little man. And when at last Earle rose, Tommy looked up clear-eyed into his father's face, as he used to look before he ate of his forbidden fruit. Then his father went to the gun, picked it up, and came back to him.
"It's yours," he said gently.
For the second time that day Tommy could hardly believe his ears; his eyes were uncomprehending, for he had never expected to own the gun again.
"You've earned it," said Earle, with a smile.
Then, within the house, swung lustily by old Aunt Cindy's strong wrist, the supper bell rang. At the top of the kitchen steps the mother waited with happy face. And up these steps, the sinking sun shining upon them, went father and boy and dog together.
One January afternoon there got off the train at a straggling little Southern town a massive man past middle age, with a craggy face and deep-set eyes, and the looks and manner of one with power and wealth. His name was William Burton, manufacturer of the famous Burton ploughs, and he could have bought this town out, lock, stock, and barrel, and the county in which the town sat, and a very considerable portion of the state itself. What he had come to buy, though, was a dog.
During the trip down, in his stateroom, instead of examining financial reports or reading the latest magazines, old Burton had studied, with the aid of his spectacles and of Ferris, his professional dog handler, the pedigree of a young pointer that lived in this town. He had noted how at recurrent intervals in the family tree occurred the word Champion. Already, in the years since he entered, as a hobby, the field-trial game, he had bought, at the recommendation of handlers, some hundreds of bird dogs. All of them had been disappointments. Now he had taken the matter into his own hands. Usually when he took charge of a thing, that thing succeeded.
A lazy Negro at the dreary railroad station showed him and Ferris the way to Jim Arnold's place—a neat, modest cottage on the edge of the town from whose back yard, as they approached, came a challenging bark. A telegram had preceded them, and Jim Arnold himself, veteran bird-dog trainer, owner of the young pointer, came out to meet them, hobbling painfully on a stick.
Ferris could have explained the hobble and the stick. It's the kind of thing you see now and then among field-trial men. Earlier in the season, while running in a field trial the very dog who had brought the visitors here, his horse had fallen, crushing Arnold's knee. Jim Arnold could never ride a horse again. Consequently, Jim Arnold could never again run a dog in a National Championship race.
With the crippled man came his daughter Jessie, a slim, dark-eyed girl, pretty in a serious sort of way. Burton was hardly conscious of her, but Ferris respectfully raised his hat. Dog men knew Jessie Arnold because she sometimes rode with her father and helped him handle. She had been with him when his knee was crushed, and had held his head in her lap till the doctor came.
After the briefest of greetings the three men, followed by the girl, went around to the rear yard. Here, in a lot enclosed by a high wire fence, wagging his tail like any other dog, was the National Championship hope.
Great dogs, like great men, do not always look the part. This one did. He was a big white fellow, his ears and a portion of his head liver brown. His head was nobly carved, his back long and straight, his legs rangy, clean-cut, his tail thin, like a lance; he was all a pointer of the highest breeding ought to be. But to the man who knows dogs there was in his eyes something wild, headstrong, untamed, the kind of thing you see in the eyes of young aviators.
"Let him out, Jess," said Arnold.
The girl opened the gate and he sprang out. He ran eagerly around the yard, inspecting the familiar premises to see if there had been any other dog there recently. Every motion showed unbounded power, as if the yard, and even the town itself, were too small for him. Not until Arnold called him twice, and severely, did he come to them. But he had no attention to bestow upon his distinguished visitor. His eyes sought first his master's face, then the face of the girl. There they rested a moment in adoration. Then he reared gently up against her, ears thrown back, upraised eyes affectionately searching her face.
Old Burton had been looking on with impassive countenance. But from the moment his eyes rested on this dog he wanted him. His hunch told him that here was a champion, and he went by hunches. He looked at Ferris, quickly, significantly. Ferris nodded in a way which indicated that he would like to speak in private. Millionaire and handler withdrew a few steps from father and daughter and dog.
"I don't like that look in his eyes!" whispered Ferris vehemently.
"I do!" said old Burton.
In Arnold's little over-furnished parlour the business was transacted. But neither the young pointer out there, nor the girl who remained with him, were to know anything about it. So far as the dog was concerned, man, his master and god, moves in mysterious ways. As for the girl, it was her father who requested that the trade be kept a secret from her.
"She sets a lot of store by Drake," he explained. "She picked him out from the litter when he was a pup. She's fed him and raised him. People are always comin' to see him. She thinks that's the reason you come—just to look at him."
Burton glanced at the crippled trainer with slightly hardened eyes. He resented this intrusion of the human element into a deal, particularly when that human element was a girl. It has a way of breaking things up. However, for a while, things went smoothly, though the conversation was carried on in lowered tones. Three thousand was the price agreed upon. It was a good price for Arnold to get if the dog did not win the championship. It was a poor price if he did.
For to own a national champion means a steady income from his puppies. It brings fame to the owner and to the trainer. He has trained one champion—maybe he can train another. Men send him their dogs; his price goes up, like that of the teacher who had turned out a prima donna. To own and train a national champion may put a man like Arnold on the map.
And now he was gambling with the chance. His face showed the strain he was under. However, it was he who set the price. But when Burton, thinking the matter closed, got out his check book, again the crippled trainer introduced the element of mystery.
"One minute, sir," he said. "There's something I ought to tell you. I'm sellin' Drake because I can't afford to take chances on his winnin'. But I want him to win, sir, just the same as if he was goin' to be mine."
"Well?" said Burton.
"There's one thing goin' to stand in his way. After this year I think he'll settle down. But right now, I'll be honest with you, Drake's a bolter. You know what a bolter is, I guess. He's a dog that won't keep in the course, that will run away. Drake's one of 'em. When you turn him loose in the field he forgets there's such things as human bein's on this planet. Don't I know him? I won the Southern Championship with him. I managed to keep up and hold him in. But I come mighty nigh ridin' a horse to death. Here's the price I paid myself, sir," and he tenderly felt his warped and shattered knee, "paid it the last five minutes of the race."
Burton was silent. Arnold went on:
"There's two people in the world Drake will listen to: One's me an' the other's Jessie. I can't run him, I'm stove up. Jess is expectin' to run him. If she does, he may win. If she don't, he won't win. I tell you, I know. I know that dog inside and out. Nobody but me or the girl can stop him when he gets started. He'll hunt where he darn pleases, or he'll strike a bee line for the next state. You know what that means, Mr. Burton. If you don't, Ferris does. The judges will rule him out."
But old Burton wanted that big young pointer though there were a score of wild devils in him. He wanted him worse than ever now he had heard. He had been a bolter himself when young—had run away from home. He liked bolters. But, also, he wanted to win the championship.
"Let the girl run him, then," he said. "Suits me. I'll pay her, and pay her well. If the dog wins, she'll get the stake."
Arnold flushed. "She'll run the dog, sir; but not for you. I mean, she won't run him if she knows it's for you. She's a high-strung girl—and proud; she mustn't know a thing about this deal. She must think she's runnin' her dog an' mine."
"Then you mean to deceive her in the matter?" demanded Burton.
Again Arnold flushed. "Sometimes, Mr. Burton, a man has to do a thing he don't like to do. I'll have to deceive the girl until after the trial. It ain't easy. I lay awake all night last night, after I got your telegram. It's this way, sir. I have to tell you in order for you to understand: If I can tell the bank positively that I'll have three thousand dollars in a month, I can renew a note I've got to renew—or lose the place here. That's the reason I'm sellin' Drake. But if I tell Jess now that I have sold him, even if she consents to run, the life won't be in her to handle him. It'll take it all out of her, sir. She'll be ashamed in the midst of all them people. She's a high-strung girl.
"And that brings me to the matter of the check you started to write," he went on. "I don't want that check now. Ever since I was laid up Jess has tended to things for me. You know how women are when they take charge. If that check's in the house she's liable to find it. If I deposit it, in a little town like this, people will find it out, and somebody'll blab to her. You send it to me after the trial, when I'm ready to explain to the girl without ruinin' your prospect of winnin', an' Drake's. That's my condition."
As he went up the street toward the station, Burton heard from behind the cottage the challenging bark of the championship hope—his dog now.
"Ferris," he said, "I believe we've got the champion this time. I think I'll attend that trial myself."
For more than a generation, the National Championship, bird-dog classic of America, had been run near Breton Junction where, two weeks later, Burton got off the train and was met by Ferris.
"Your dog's here, sir," was Ferris's whispered greeting. "Wilder looking than ever. The girl's here, too. Jim Arnold couldn't come. Laid up with his knee."
Burton looked around. He had reached a spot where for a few weeks every winter the bird dog is undisputed king. Down the sunlit village streets pointers and setters were out with their handlers. They came from every section of the country, from Canada, from England. Each dog represented in himself the survival of the fittest. There was not one who had not gained a victory in some trial. Now they were to try for the greatest victory of all.
Many were already champions with majestic names—champions of the South, the prairies, the Pacific coast. Some, younger and more eager than others, strained at their leashes, and looked about alertly at the passing show. Others, reserved veterans, gazed into space with the dignified abstraction of those who have travelled far and seen the world and tasted the vanity of all things under the sun.
On the way to the boarding-house where Ferris had engaged a place for him, Burton came face to face with his dog. He was pulling hard at the leash, held by the girl. She nodded and smiled quickly, wistfully, at these men who had been to her father's house to see her father's dog. But she did not stop or speak; for so strong was the pull of the big pointer that she was hurried along as if a high wind were blowing her from behind.
Old Burton stopped and looked back at them. His dog was the finest fellow of the bunch. He would take that dog back with him, National Champion tacked to his name. He would keep him in his own kennels, show him to his friends, run him again next year, own him in name as well as in fact.
As for the girl, it would be a big disappointment to her when she learned the truth. But she was young. Young people get over things quickly. Besides, it was her father's arrangement, not his. He wasn't responsible.
But when at supper in the boarding-house he saw her at the other end of the table, he was a bit sorry. This was rather too forcible a reminder of the bargain. He noticed that the girl was browned with Southern suns, but that she was pretty and looked thoroughbred. Also, she was very quiet, and her manners were nice.
She was present again at the meeting of handlers and owners and club officials, who packed the parlours and hall after supper. She was to be the first woman who ever ran a dog in a National Championship race, he heard somebody say. It occurred to him that she must be pretty brave, for she didn't seem to be the pushing kind.
The order in which dogs are to run is decided by lot. He had hoped Drake would be drawn for the first week. But in the lottery Drake came on Friday. "Arnold's Drake," he heard the official read: "Owner, Jim Arnold; handler, Jessie Arnold—handling for her father."
"Will you stay over, sir?" whispered Ferris.
All day long, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, in morning and afternoon heats of three hours each, dogs were run in braces on the plantation of Steve Earle, who was, like his father before him, one of the judges. Gruelling heats they were that tested every nerve and fibre, run under the eyes of judges who saw every move.
As for Burton, he went out to the testing ground but once. He was not used to hard horseback riding, and he wanted to be fresh on Friday. But once every day, either in the morning or the afternoon, he saw the girl set out on her pony. She was learning the course, getting ready for her own race.
Most of the time when she wasn't riding the course, she spent with the dog, exercising him, all alone, on the streets of the town. Once when Burton went out to the barn lot to look at him, where he waited, chained to his kennel, the girl came, also. He watched her as she stooped before the eager dog, and stroked his head.
"Tired of waiting, old man?" she asked.
Again he reared up against her and looked into her face.
"Do you—er—think he will bolt?" asked Burton as they went back toward the house.
She stopped and looked him straight in the eyes; her own were brown, frank, high-spirited, like a boy's.
"No!" she said bravely. "I can handle him."
"She's over-confident, sir," declared Ferris when the two reached Burton's room. "She don't know what she's up against. She's nothing but a kid. That dog was born a bolter, and he will die a bolter."
On Thursday morning the girl spoke to Burton as they came out of the dining room. She was going to take Drake out to the edge of town for a practise run, she said. Would he care to go along? He had seemed to be so interested in Drake.
He had Ferris hire a car. One of the women of the house went with them. In the edge of the town Jessie took the dog out and, Burton and Ferris following, led him into a field. Here she snapped the leash.
"Go!" she cried.
He needed no such command. Like a white meteor he sped across the field and dashed into the woods. She called him, but he did not turn. Again and again the shrill command of her little nickel-plated whistle echoed in fields and woods. At last, in the direction he had taken, she started running swiftly. Behind her hurried the two men, Burton breathing hard.
"This will never do!" gasped Ferris.
"Leave it to her!" commanded Burton.
At last, on top of a ridge, half a mile away, he reappeared. Three times shriller and shriller she blew, and now he came galloping toward them.
"Come in!" she commanded.
He came to her, and she caught him quickly by the collar.
"I told you I could handle him!" she said proudly.
But her eyes were dilated. She was quiet on the ride home. She was silent at the table.
Ferris joined his boss when the latter went to his room. Ferris stopped with the postmaster down the street, as he had stopped for twenty years when he was handling other men's dogs.
Ferris was depressed. That showing, he said, was terrible. If he bolted to-day, what would he do to-morrow, with another dog to spur him on and the crowd to excite him. They ought to do something—warn her, advise her.
Burton smoked away. "Suppose we just leave it to the girl, Ferris," he said quietly.
She was gone when next morning he came down to breakfast. She had left with the wagon that hauled her dog to the place of trial, the other diners said. Not once during the night or the morning had she let him out of her sight.
The crowd, all mounted, had gathered at the beginning of the course when Burton and Ferris rode up that brilliant winter morning. And a little to one side, standing beside a wagon in which were two dog's crates, one containing Arnold's Drake, the other Count Redstone, his brace mate, stood the girl.
At her side a wiry Texas pony waited patiently. In a scabbard on the saddle was strapped a twenty-gauge shotgun.
The girl looked small, slight, and brown in her riding suit. Underneath a roughrider hat Burton glimpsed her face as she looked off across the fields that marked the beginning of the course. Though brave and composed, it showed the strain she was under. In that crate nearest her, as she thought, was the hope of her crippled father.
Burton noticed that she did not glance up at the people about her, or speak to them. Her eyes were fixed on those sunlit straw fields, so soon to be her battleground. He liked her silence. From the beginning she had played the game—had asked no odds because she was a woman. He thought of his own youngest daughter. Suppose she were standing there, as that girl stood!
When the three judges rode up, she herself lifted the big pointer out of the crate. Once more he reared up on her, once more her hand stroked his head. Then, at a command of the judges, she was leading him into the field, her pony following; at her side walked the handler of Count Redstone, and in front of him, the Count strained at his leash.
"Are you ready?" asked the senior judge.
Count Redstone's handler, a bronzed, gray-haired veteran, said "Ready!" as he had said it a hundred times. The girl merely looked up at the judge and nodded.
"Let go!" ordered the judge.
Burton saw the dogs dash away. The girl, like an athlete, sprang into her saddle. Both handlers galloped after their dogs. Behind followed the judges, then, after an interval, the field, among them old Burton, his heart beating fast. The fight was on—but it was more than a fight between dogs. It was a conflict between a girl's will and the wild heritage in a dog's nature.
The dogs have to be kept within a course some half-a-mile wide and many miles long. If a dog gets out of the course and is lost for a length of time—that varies according to the conception of the judges, but is usually confined to half an hour—that dog is ruled out. This much Burton knew. The question was whether the girl by her whistle and the wave of her handkerchief to right and left could keep the dog within the course. The test is, which dog will find the most birds in that course and handle them with the greatest speed and dash.
At first the girl succeeded in handling her dog, though she had to ride hard to do so. Far ahead of the judges she kept, a slim figure against the hills. Now and then came the shrill of her whistle and the wave of her handkerchief. Then it began to be rumoured among the field that she had lost him. But not for long. On top of a hill she appeared, her right arm thrown up high. Judges, then the field, galloped toward her. The upraised hand meant her dog had scored—had found birds.
Burton, spurring up his horse, kept up with the crowd. There, in the midst of a straw field, head up, tail straight out, stood the pointer. The girl had dismounted, taken the little gun out of the scabbard, and was advancing, slim, straight, flushed of cheek, toward him.
"Flush your birds!" ordered the senior judge.
The birds rose with a whirr; the little gun barked; the pointer dropped to his haunches; it was perfect work.
"Go on, old man!" she ordered.
Then she was running back to her pony, which Ferris was holding for her. Again Burton saw in her face the strain she was under. How precious was every moment with a wild dog like this! She rammed the little gun in the scabbard, sprang into the saddle, hardly seeming to touch the stirrups, and was off.
Again Drake scored, then Count Redstone. Nearly an hour had flitted away. Then Burton, loitering among the rearmost of the field, heard rumours that something was wrong, and, anxiously spurring up his mount, came upon a body of horsemen gathered in a patch of woods.
Out yonder in a cotton field, he could see the three judges gathered on their horses like consulting generals on a battlefield. They had called time, the men explained to Burton, until Jessie Arnold could find her dog. A short distance from the judges Count Redstone was sitting on his haunches, panting, and beside him stood his handler, dismounted. This was giving Count Redstone a chance to rest, and the handler was taking full advantage of it.
Some of the men, the group explained to Burton, were scouting for the girl, among them Ferris. They were riding about the fields and woods outside the course, looking for her dog. The rest of them had better stay here; the judges would not allow too many helpers. The girl had ridden up yonder creek bottom, the last they saw of her. She was going like mad, they said.
But she was using her brains, they added. There are two kinds of bolters—those who run away for the sheer love of running, and those who from hilltops pick out the country that looks like containing birds, and make for that country of their own sweet will. Arnold's Drake belonged to the latter class. The girl was looking for him in the "birdy" spots. But heaven only knew how far he had taken it into his head to go! Old Burton got out his handkerchief and mopped his face. Five minutes passed, then ten—and still Arnold's Drake was lost, and out yonder the judges waited.
Then across the field toward the group in the woods came the girl. Off to the side of these woods were extensive fields of broom straw that lay outside the course. But they looked "birdy," those fields, and the girl was making for them.
As she swept past, Burton glimpsed her face. It was tense with anxiety, but the little mouth was set in a straight line. Her pony was flecked with foam; his eyes were wild; and Burton heard his hoarse panting and the pounding of his hoofs.
Careless of tree limbs, the girl swept through the woods. It came over Burton that, in this way, and, in trying to keep up with this very dog, her father had broken his knee. He wheeled his own horse about and tried to follow. But she had disappeared in her mad search; even the sound of her pony's hoofs had died away. Burton drew up his horse, and looked at his watch. Fifteen minutes had passed, and still the judges waited. Again Burton mopped his face with his handkerchief.
He had been an object of admiration among the men, and now they gathered about him. The faces of them all showed with what sympathy they were watching Jess Arnold's gallant fight. Again Burton looked at his watch. Twenty minutes—and the judges still waited out yonder, and Count Redstone rested.
"Can't we do something?" demanded Burton.
Not a thing, they said. Leaving out the fact that the judges would not permit many scouters, it wasn't good for a crowd to ride over the fields. The dog would see them, from a distant hill, perhaps, think he was going right, and keep on. It was all over, anyway, one man ventured: Arnold's Drake was out of the race. It was a pity, too. But for the bolting he was a great dog. They began to talk of this race as of something that might have been.
Then a man cried out excitedly, "Yonder she comes now! She's got him, too! That girl don't give up—she don't know how!"
Burton saw her galloping toward them, and with her the wild dog.
"Is time up?" she panted, reining in her pony.
"Five minutes!" said Burton.
"He was on birds!" she gasped. "But he was off the course. Five minutes, you say?"
She threw herself from the saddle. A man caught the reins of her panting, foam-flecked pony, and she was down on the ground beside the dog, while the others gathered about her. She had made the dog lie down. She was stroking him.
"You devil!" Burton heard her gasp. "You darling! You beauty! You wonder! Oh, I love you, but you don't love me—me or Dad!"
She was oblivious now of the men about her. The slim hand was stroking the head, the long back, quietly, smoothly. "Steady!" she was pleading. "Steady, old man. Look at me!" She had caught his head and raised his eyes to hers. "Can't you see? Oh, you beauty—can't you see? See what it means! Now, now—be quiet—just a minute—quiet—quiet—steady—steady!"
The frantic panting was growing less; but still the wild fire blazed in the amber-brown eyes. Once he started to rise, but she pushed him gently back. Again she lifted his head, and looked at him long, pleadingly.
"Can't you see?" she said. "Can't you see?"
And now there came a change, visible to Burton, and to them all. The panting stopped altogether, the dog choked and swallowed. The pricked, eager ears fell back gently against the long thoroughbred head. The wildness faded out of the eyes that stared into the girl's face, and in them came the light of love, the dawn of understanding.
"You see now, don't you?" she said quietly.
She rose to her feet. He did not move, but lay there looking up at her humbly, wonderingly. She stood above him a moment and still he did not move.
"Time's up!" said one of the men tensely.
She nodded to show she had heard. It was as if she might break the spell if she spoke. The man led the pony to her. With no haste, now, she got into the saddle.
"Heel!" she commanded.
The pointer rose and looked up at her.
"Heel!" she repeated.
When she rode out of the woods, across the sunlit fields toward the judges, at her pony's heels trotted the pointer, obedient now, as if he had left behind him, in that patch of woods, his wild heritage.
No man or woman who saw the work of Arnold's Drake the rest of that morning can ever forget it. Fast as ever, yet he kept the course. Bold, independent, aggressive, yet at every shrill whistle he turned, and according to the wave of her handkerchief went to right or left.
Ten coveys of birds, in the hour and a half that remained to him, he found. From terrific speed men saw him flash ten times into the statuesque immobility of a point. They forgot even so steady and painstaking a fellow as Count Redstone. It was the pointer who captured their imaginations.
On Saturday night, while the crowd was at supper, the decision of the judges, who always stopped at Freedom Hill, was telephoned in. And the decision showed them to be dog men, not martinets—men who can overlook a grievous fault in the face of a magnificent accomplishment and a future full of promise.
A veteran reporter took the message, then stood in the dining-room door a moment, his eyes twinkling at the faces turned his way.
"Champion," he said, and paused a moment, "Champion, Arnold's Drake."
But when the girl declared she must telegraph her father, old Burton pushed through the crowd about her.
"I'll attend to that," he said.
He saw the quick friendliness in her upraised eyes. Had he not shown faith throughout in her dog?
Out in the hall he spoke to the men: "Telephone Ferris," he said. "He's stopping with the postmaster. Tell him to come at once."
In his own room he got out his stationery and pen and wrote, quickly, in a bold hand that dashed across the sheet. But the excitement of it must have told on him, for he dated the letter two days back, on Thursday.
When the door opened he looked up. There was Ferris, his face jubilant. Behind Ferris was the girl. At sight of her old Burton did a funny thing. He put his hand over the letter he had been writing.
"I just wanted to be sure," she said—"Dad, you know."
"I'll attend to that," he said impatiently.
After she was gone he hastily addressed the letter.
"Close the door, Ferris," he said. "You know the postmaster well, don't you? You've known him for years. Well, tell him he won't get into any trouble over this. Tell him it's often done. Tell him if he does get into trouble, I'll make it all right. Tell him he'll be glad he got into it. Tell him to stamp this letter two days back—January 27th—and mail it to-night. Send a telegram signed 'Jessie' to old Arnold, saying his dog—his dog, mind you—is National Champion. Hurry now!"
Late the next afternoon a crippled dog handler tore open a letter. It had come on the same train with his daughter and with the National Champion, who now lay before the fire. As his master opened the letter this champion looked up, and tapped the floor with his tail.
Beside her father stood Jessie, amazed at what she saw in the letter.
Thursday morning, January 27. DEAR SIR:
I have just seen your dog work out in a preliminary test. He's a far worse bolter than even you had led me to believe. According to your representation, your daughter could handle him. I find her absolutely incapable of doing so. Under the circumstances I feel justified in cancelling our agreement. Yours truly,
"The old quitter!" cried Arnold, his eyes blazing. "God knows I'm glad to get my dog. Three thousand couldn't get him now. But who would have thought——"
And eyes still blazing with anger and joy and excitement, he told the girl at his side the bargain they had made, right in this room.
For a moment she was silent, with staring eyes; then she cried out:
"Dad—Dad—he wrote the letter that night—after Drake was made champion. I know—I saw him doing it. He tried to hide it.... I know!"
On the train that very night, in the stateroom, Ferris spoke to his boss.
"I know a man, sir, who owns a dog I believe will win next year."
In the deep-set eyes came a twinkle that lit them up like tiny electrics.
"Has the man a broken leg and a daughter?"
"Then buy the dog, Ferris."
OLD FRANK SEES IT THROUGH
It was with grave misgiving that old Frank, Irish setter, followed little Tommy Earle out of the precincts of the big shaded yard and into the hot field of rustling corn, twice as tall as they. That this morning of all mornings the boy belonged back there in the yard he knew well enough, but all his efforts to keep him there had failed. He had tried to divert his mind. He had loitered behind. He had glanced back wistfully at the big white house, hoping in the absence of the boy's father and mother to attract the attention of old Aunt Cindy the cook to the fact that Tommy was running away.
But old Aunt Cindy was nowhere to be seen. There was no one to catch his signals of distress. There was no one to see Tommy enter the corn. And no one knew what he knew—that strangers were camped down there in his master's woods. As for him, he had smelled them the night before after everybody was asleep. He had barked a while in their general direction, then gone down there to investigate. They had not seen him, for he had kept out of sight. There had been two men and a woman sitting by a small fire, an old car in the background. He had not liked their looks.
And that wasn't all. Not long ago he had seen one of the men, half hidden in the cornfield, looking toward the house. The man had stood there while Steve Earle, the boy's father, drove off in the car. He had stood there while Marian Earle, the boy's mother, went off across the orchard in another direction with a basket of fruit for a neighbour. He had stood there until Frank, left alone with the boy, had started toward the cornfield, tail erect, eyes fierce. Then the man had turned hurriedly and entered the woods.
But the man was still down there. So were those other people. Frank's nose told him that. Therefore his eyes were deep with trouble and he followed close at the boy's heels. Tommy's objective he knew well enough. A few days before Steve Earle had brought them both through this very corn, into the woods, to the creek. The father had pointed out to the boy the silvery fish darting here and there in a deep-shaded pool. It had made a great impression. Tommy was going to see those fish now. That Frank knew.
And he sympathized with the impulse, so far as that was concerned. Under ordinary circumstances, he was not averse to looking at fish himself. But now, with every step the boy took his anxiety increased. For it was beside the pool that the strangers were camped. And it was straight in their direction that little Tommy in his ignorance was headed.