THE YOUNG BRIDGE-TENDER
Ralph Nelson's Upward Struggle
BY ARTHUR M. WINFIELD
AUTHOR OF "The Young Bank Clerk," "Mark Dale's Stage Venture," "Rover Boys Series," etc.
NEW YORK AND LONDON STREET & SMITH, PUBLISHERS
Copyright, 1902 By STREET & SMITH
The Young Bridge-Tender
I A Question of Property 9
II The Smash at the Bridge 14
III Ralph Makes a Friend 20
IV The Quarrel on the Bridge 26
V A Hunt for the Missing Bill 32
VI Mrs. Nelson's Story 37
VII Percy's Home 43
VIII Squire Paget Makes a Move 49
IX At the General Store 55
X Ralph is Given Notice 62
XI The Runaway 68
XII Ralph's Reward 74
XIII On Big Silver Lake 81
XIV A Stormy Time 88
XV Looking for Work 94
XVI Percy Hears Something 101
XVII A Midnight Crime 107
XVIII About a Pocket-knife 114
XIX About the Robbery 120
XX Out on Bail 126
XXI Squire Paget's Visit 133
XXII Ralph's New Situation 140
XXIII Strange Passengers 146
XXIV Ralph's Rough Experience 153
XXV Squire Paget's News 160
XXVI On the Island 166
XXVII The Meeting in the Woods 172
XXVIII Ralph in the City 179
XXIX Penniless 185
XXX The Sharper is Outwitted 191
XXXI On the Bowery 198
XXXII New Employment 205
XXXIII Squire Paget's Move 211
XXXIV The Squire in Hot Water 218
XXXV Ralph a Prisoner 225
XXXVI Mickety to the Rescue 231
XXXVII Martin is Trapped 237
XXXVIII Beginning of the End 242
XXXIX A Surprise at Chambersburgh 246
XL The Exposure—Conclusion 251
THE YOUNG BRIDGE TENDER.
A QUESTION OF PROPERTY.
"It's a shame, mother! The property belonged to father and the village has no right to its use without paying for it."
"I agree with you, Ralph," replied Mrs. Nelson. "But what are we to do in the matter?"
"Why don't you speak to Squire Paget? He is the president of the village board."
"I have spoken to him, but he will give me no satisfaction. He claims that the village has the right to nearly all the water front within its limits," replied Mrs. Nelson, with a sigh.
"It hasn't a right to the land father bought and paid for."
"That is what I said."
"And what did he answer to that?" questioned Ralph Nelson, with increasing interest.
"He said he doubted if your father had really bought the land. He asked me to show him the papers in the case."
"And those you haven't got."
"No, I cannot find them. Your father placed them away, and when he died so suddenly, he said nothing about where they had been placed. I have an idea he gave them to somebody for safe keeping."
"It's a pity we haven't the papers, mother. The property on which this end of the swinging bridge rests, and the land right around it, is going to be very valuable some day; I heard Mr. Hooker say so at the post office only yesterday."
"I have no doubt of it, Ralph, when Westville becomes a city instead of a village. But that is many years off, I imagine."
"I suppose it is—the village folks are so slow to make improvements. It's a wonder they ever put up the bridge across to Eastport."
"They wouldn't have done it had it not been for Eastport capitalists, who furnished nearly all of the money."
"And now, that the bridge has been up several years, and the tolls are coming in daily, I suppose they are glad they let the structure go up."
"To be sure. Folks like to see a paying improvement."
"Well, about this property business, mother; do you think we can find those missing papers?" went on Ralph, after a pause.
"I am sure I hope so, my son. But where to start to look for them, I haven't the least idea."
"We might advertise for them."
"Yes, we might, but I doubt if it would do any good. If any one around here had them they would give them to us without the advertising."
"They would unless they hoped to make something out of it," replied Ralph, suddenly, struck with a new idea.
"Make something, Ralph? What do you mean."
"Perhaps the one holding the papers intends to keep them and some day claim the land as his own."
"Oh, I do not believe any one would be so dishonest," cried Mrs. Nelson.
"I do, mother. There are just as mean folks in Westville as anywhere else."
"But they would not dare to defraud us openly."
"Some folks would dare do anything for money," replied Ralph Nelson, with a decided nod of his curly head.
Ralph was the only son of his widowed mother. His father, Randolph Nelson, had been in former years a boatman on Keniscot Lake. When the swinging bridge had been built between Westville and Eastport, Mr. Nelson had been appointed bridge tender.
The old boatman had occupied his position at the bridge, taking tolls and opening the structure for passing vessels for exactly two years. Then, one blustery and rainy day he had slipped into the water, and before he could manage to save himself, had been struck by the bow of a steamboat and seriously hurt.
Mr. Nelson had been taken from the water almost immediately after being wounded, and all that could be done was done for him, but without avail. He was unconscious, and only came to himself long enough to bid his weeping wife and only child a tender farewell. Thirty-six hours after the accident he was dead, and his funeral occurred three days later.
For a time Mrs. Nelson and Ralph were nearly prostrated by the calamity that had taken place. But stern necessity soon compelled them to put aside their grief. Although Mr. Nelson owned a small cottage close to the bridge, he had left but a small amount—less than a hundred dollars—in cash behind him. They must work to support themselves.
Ralph's father had been appointed bridge tender for a period of three years, and the son applied for the balance of his parent's term. His application was objected to by Squire Paget, who wished to put Dan Pickley, a village idler, in the place, but the bridge board overruled him, and Mrs. Nelson was appointed to fill her husband's situation—every one knowing that Ralph was to do the work.
The pay was not large—only six dollars per week—but, as the Nelsons had no rent to pay, they managed to get along quite comfortably. There was a vegetable garden attached to the cottage, and during his spare time Ralph worked in this. His mother also took in sewing, and they had now saved sixty dollars for a rainy day.
Westville and Eastport were situated on the two sides of a narrow channel which united Big Silver Lake, sometimes called Keniscot Lake, on the north with Silver Lake on the south. The upper lake was several miles long, while the lower sheet of water, which emptied into the Ramapo River at Chambersburgh, was less than half the size.
Westville had always been a backward town, due mostly to the short-sightedness of Squire Paget, Mr. Hooker, the postmaster, and other narrow-minded leading men, who never saw fit to offer any inducements to manufacturers and others to locate there. The village consisted of half-a-dozen stores, a blacksmith shop, a tavern, and less than seventy-five houses. There was one hat factory there, but this was closed more than half the time.
Eastport, on the other hand, was booming. It had two hat factories, three planing mills, a furniture works and a foundry. There were several blocks of stores, lit up at night by electric lights, and several hundred houses. Real estate, too, was advancing rapidly.
The Nelsons had owned their cottage and the land upon which it stood for many years, but a year previous to the building of the bridge Mr. Nelson had added nearly half an acre to his ground, purchasing it very cheaply from a fellow-boatman, who had left Westville and struck out for some place in the West. This was the ground which was now in dispute. The papers in reference to it were missing, and as the sale had never been recorded, it was likely that Mrs. Nelson and Ralph would have much trouble in obtaining their rights.
THE SMASH AT THE BRIDGE.
During the conversation recorded above, Ralph had been at work in the dooryard of the cottage, while his mother was busy tying up the honeysuckle vines which grew over the porch. It was a bright summer day, with a stiff breeze blowing from the southwest.
"There's a sloop coming up Silver Lake, Ralph!" cried his mother, presently, as she looked across the water from the cottage porch. "I guess you will have to open the bridge."
"I haven't heard any horn," returned Ralph, as he dropped his rake and ran up to look at the craft.
"Nor I. But the boat is heading for the draw."
"Perhaps it's one of those summer-boarder pleasure parties, that don't know anything about blowing for a bridge tender," said the son, after a few seconds of silence. "I'll go down and make sure."
Ralph was as good as his word. Leaving the door, he walked rapidly along a footpath which led directly to the bridge, arriving there in less than a minute and a half.
As he walked on the bridge a carriage from Eastport, containing several ladies, came over. They paid the toll to Bob Sanderson, an old man who helped Ralph in this way during the slack hours of the day. In return for the work Sanderson was allowed an attic room and board at the Nelson cottage.
"Sixteen cents since you went away, Ralph," said Sanderson, as he handed over the amount in pennies. "Ain't many folks out this morning."
"There will be more toward noon, Mr. Sanderson. Travel is always light between nine and eleven."
"That's so. My! but there's a stiff breeze a-blowin', ain't there?"
"Yes. If it keeps on we'll have a regular gale by night."
"What brought you back so soon? I thought you was goin' to whitewash your side fence?"
"I came down to see if that sloop wanted to go through. It's sailing right for the draw."
"They didn't blow no horn."
"Perhaps they don't know enough for that. I declare! What's he up to now?" went on Ralph, a second later.
He had espied a single man standing in the stern of the sloop. The man had commenced to work at the mainsail, the managing of which appeared to bother him not a little.
"He don't seem to know the ropes," returned Bob Sanderson. "I guess he's tryin' to lower sail and can't."
"He is carrying too much canvas for this breeze."
"I agree with you, Ralph. But most of them chaps with sloops are a daring set. They always want to sail at racing speed."
"He wants to go through that draw, that's certain," responded Ralph.
Going into the little house at the end of the bridge, he got out the key and the handle-bar. He unlocked the chain which held the end of the bridge in position, and then inserting the bar into the turnpost or capstan, began to walk around with it.
Slowly but surely the bridge began to swing loose from the side which connected with the permanent portion on the Eastport end and moved toward the solid foundation which was built directly in front of where the Nelson dooryard ran down to the water's edge.
It was hard work to move the bridge around, but Ralph was used to it, and he did not mind. As he walked around with the bar before him he kept his eyes on the sloop and the man sailing her.
The bridge was three-quarters open when the boy noted with some surprise that the man on the sloop had thrown over the mainsail half against the wind. Instantly the sloop began to swing around, heading full for the stone pier upon which the bridge swung.
"Why, what's the matter with him?" he cried, in dismay.
"Guess he don't know how to manage his boat," replied Bob Sanderson. "He's comin' chuck-a-block for this place!"
"Hi! hi! what are you up to?" cried Ralph, as he dropped the bar, and rushed over to the side of the bridge. "Do you want to run into the stonework?"
"I can't manage the sail!" replied the man on the sloop. "My arm is lame, and the ropes are all twisted."
"Well, throw your tiller over, and be quick, or——"
Ralph had not time to say more, nor was the man able to profit by his advice. An extra heavy puff of wind caught the mainsail of the boat, and with a loud crash she clashed into the stone pier, bow first.
The shock was so great that the bowsprit was smashed to pieces, as was also the woodwork around it. The man, who had been standing partly on the stern sheets, was thrown overboard by the accident, and he disappeared beneath the water.
Fearful that the fellow, who was evidently a city person, might not be able to swim, Ralph leaped down from the bridge into the sloop and went to his assistance.
"Save me! save me!" called out the man, frantically, and he threw his hands up over his head.
"Catch hold of the boathook," replied Ralph, and he reached out with the article as he spoke.
The man grasped the curved iron nervously, and Ralph at once drew him to the side of the sloop.
"Now give me your hand and I will help you up."
And without waiting he caught the man by the right arm.
"Don't! don't! Take the other arm, please! That was broken less than six weeks ago."
"Oh, then give me the left," replied Ralph; and by his aid the man was soon aboard the sloop once more.
He was a fellow not over twenty-five years of age, and his clothing and general appearance indicated that he was well-to-do.
"Phew! But that was a narrow escape!" he ejaculated, as he brushed the water from his face. "I was afraid I was a goner, sure!"
"Couldn't you keep away from the stonework?" questioned Ralph, curiously.
"No. The ropes got twisted into a knot and my right arm hurt so I could only use my left hand. Besides, I am not much of a sailor."
"I seen you wasn't," put in Bob Sanderson, who did not hesitate at times to speak out bluntly. "If it hadn't been for Ralph you would have been drowned."
"I don't doubt it, for I cannot swim."
"How came you to be out in such a blow and all alone?" asked Ralph, as he began to lower the ship's sails.
"It didn't blow so when I started from Chambersburgh, and I fancied I could manage the Magic without half trying. But I have found out my mistake now," and the man gave a sorry little laugh. "Are you the bridge tender?"
"And what is your name?"
"Mine is Horace Kelsey. You are rather young for this position, are you not?"
"It was my father's before he died. I am serving the rest of the time for which he was appointed."
"I see. Does it pay you?"
"I earn six dollars a week at it. That's considered pretty good here in Westville. There are many who would like to get the job."
"I came up here from New York to spend a few weeks boating and fishing," said Horace Kelsey, during a pause, in which he dried off his face and hands, and wrung the water from his coat. "This is my first day out, and it has ended rather disastrously."
"I guess your sloop can easily be repaired," replied Ralph.
"I suppose it can. Is there any one here in the village who does such work?"
"That's in my line," put in Bob Sanderson, promptly.
"Yes, Mr. Sanderson repairs boats," replied Ralph. "He will give you a good job at a reasonable price."
"Then you can go to work at once," said Horace Kelsey, turning to the old fisherman. "Do your best, and I will pay whatever it is worth."
"I will, sir."
"When can you have the work completed?"
"Not before to-morrow night. I'll have to paint the parts, you know."
"I am in no hurry. I wished to spend a day or two around Westville and Eastport before going up into Big Silver Lake."
"Then I'll take the sloop around to my boat-house right now," replied Bob Sanderson; and off he went with the craft, leaving Ralph and the newcomer on the bridge.
RALPH MAKES A FRIEND.
"You'll catch cold if you stand around in this wind," remarked Ralph to Horace Kelsey, "especially as you are not used to it."
"That is true," returned the young man. "I wish I had some place where I might dry myself."
"You can go over to our cottage, if you wish. Mother is at home, and she will willingly let you dry yourself at the kitchen fire. I would lend you one of my suits, but I imagine it wouldn't be large enough."
"Hardly," laughed the young man. "Do you live far from here?"
"No, sir; that is the cottage right there. See, my mother is in the garden, looking this way."
"Thanks, I'll take up with your kind offer. I am beginning to get chilled in spite of the sunshine."
Saying that he would be back later, Horace Kelsey left the bridge and took the path leading to the cottage. Ralph saw him speak to his mother, and a moment later both passed into the cottage.
It was now drawing toward noon, and the people began to cross the bridge in both directions, on their way to dinner. Each one either paid a cent or passed over a ticket, sixty-five of which could be had for fifty cents. At a quarter to one the same passengers began to go back to their work, and this was kept up for half an hour, at the end of which the young bridge tender had collected twenty-one cents and forty-three tickets.
Several horns now began to blow from both Big Silver and Silver Lakes, showing that the boats wished to pass through the draw. The bridge, which had been closed by Ralph immediately after the rescue of Horace Kelsey, was opened for their accommodation.
While the young bridge tender was waiting for the last vessel to clear the draw the young man from New York came back from the cottage, bringing with him the lunch Mrs. Nelson usually brought herself. There was no time for dinner during the middle of the day, and so the family had their principal meal at night, when the draw was closed for the day, and Bob Sanderson went on to collect the toll.
"Your mother gave me the lunch," said Horace Kelsey, as he handed the basket to Ralph. "I told her I was coming down to see you."
"Is your clothing dry?"
"Oh, yes. She was kind enough to lend me some which had belonged to your father, and built up an extra hot fire to dry my own. She also pressed out my suit, as you can see. Your mother is a very accommodating lady."
Horace Kelsey did not add that he had paid Mrs. Nelson liberally for her kindness, for he was not one to brag in that direction. Nevertheless, Ralph heard of it later on.
In the basket were several sandwiches of cold corned beef and half-a-dozen peaches. Ralph offered one of the peaches to the young man, which he took, and both sat down to eat.
"You will find a tavern up the main road, a two minutes' walk from here," began the youth, thinking that Horace Kelsey might wish for something more substantial in the way of food.
"Thank you, but your mother supplied me with a very good lunch while I was waiting, Ralph," returned the young man. "Don't mind me, but go ahead and enjoy your lunch."
Ralph at once set to, for he was hungry. His companion looked up the lake for a moment in silence, and then went on:
"I came down here to reward you, Ralph," he said, hesitatingly.
"Reward me? What for, Mr. Kelsey?"
"For saving my life."
"I don't think I did as much as that. Anybody could have pulled you from the water."
"They might not have been as quick as you were. I feel I owe you something for your prompt aid."
"I don't want anything, sir. I would have done as much for any one."
"I do not doubt it, and it is to your credit to say so. But I feel I ought to do something for you. Will you accept this—not as payment for what was done, for I could not pay for that in this way—but as a gift from a friend?"
And Horace Kelsey drew from his vest pocket a new and crisp twenty-dollar bill.
"I don't see as I ought to take it," hesitated Ralph.
"But you will. Here, don't let it blow overboard," and the young man from New York thrust it into Ralph's hand, directly between a sandwich he was holding.
"Indeed I won't let it blow away. I thank you ver—hallo! you have made a big mistake."
"This is a twenty-dollar bill."
"I see no mistake about that," and Horace Kelsey smiled quietly.
"You don't mean to say you meant to give me twenty dollars?"
"I did. It is little enough for such a service."
"It's too much. I thought it was a one-dollar bill, sir."
"I would not be mean enough to offer you only a dollar, Ralph. A man isn't pulled from a watery grave, as the poets call it, every day."
"I don't think I ought to take all this money," returned the young bridge tender slowly.
"I do, so put it into your pocket and say no more about it."
Ralph continued to argue the point, but was finally persuaded to place the bill in his private purse.
"Your mother has been telling me a little about your family affairs," went on Horace Kelsey. "It's a pity you haven't a clear title to this land about here."
"We have a clear enough title if only we can find the papers in this case," returned Ralph, promptly.
"I understand a syndicate from Chambersburgh are thinking of locating a big shoe factory here. If they do that, Westville will have a boom."
"It would have boomed long ago if it hadn't been for Squire Paget and some others. They hold their land so high and keep the taxes on the hat factory up so, the manufacturers are scared away."
"That is true, especially when other places donate them land free and exempt them from all taxation for from five to ten years."
"Do they do that?"
"Certainly, and in many cases it pays very well, for the factories employ hundreds of hands, who receive fair wages, and that is spent in the place where it is earned."
"It's a wonder that shoe factory would come here, if such inducements are offered elsewhere," said Ralph, thoughtfully.
"I understand several men, including Squire Paget and the postmaster of this place, have received stock in the concern. I do not know much about the deal. I only heard it talked over at the hotel."
"Where are they going to locate the factory?"
"Somewhere along the water front, I believe."
"Then it will be around here!" cried Ralph. "That is our land over there," he pointed with his hand. "I wish we could prove our title to it."
"So do I, Ralph, and I wish I could help you. You haven't any idea who had the papers last?"
"Too bad. I would advertise for them, and even offer a reward for them."
"I will," returned Ralph, quickly. "I'll use this twenty dollars you have given me for that very purpose."
Horace Kelsey remained with Ralph the best part of an hour longer, and then started for a walk through the village, stating that he would call on Bob Sanderson and see how the boat repairing was progressing.
When he was out of sight, Ralph pulled the twenty-dollar bill from his purse to make sure that he had not been dreaming. But there was the money true enough. There was a grease spot on one corner of the bill, left by the butter on the sandwich, but this did no harm.
"Hallo, there, Ralph Nelson, counting your fortune!" cried a rude voice from the shore, and looking up, Ralph saw a loudly-dressed youth approaching. He hastily slipped the twenty-dollar bill into his pocket.
THE QUARREL ON THE BRIDGE.
The boy on the shore was Percy Paget, the squire's only son. He was a year older than Ralph, and somewhat taller and heavier. His ways were arrogant to the last degree, and in the village he had but few friends, and these only because he generally had pocket money to spend.
On several occasions Ralph had had sharp words with Percy because the latter wished to do as he pleased on the bridge, against the printed rules that were posted up. Because his parent was squire, Percy imagined he could do almost anything and it would be all right.
"I say, are you counting your fortune?" repeated Percy, throwing as much of a sneer into his tones as possible.
"Unfortunately, I haven't any fortune to count, Percy," returned the young bridge tender, good-naturedly.
"Humph! I suppose you mean that for a pun, don't you?" growled the son of the squire. "If you do, let me tell you it's a mighty poor one."
"I hadn't intended to pun, Percy."
"I didn't think so, for you haven't the brains. Didn't I see you counting some money just now?"
"I was looking at a bank bill."
"That you got on the bridge, I suppose?"
"No; it was a bill of my own."
"Oh, I thought you had to use all the money you made here."
"I have to use the most of it. My pay isn't any too large, as you know."
"Yes, but I guess you make enough besides," returned Percy, suggestively.
"What do you mean?"
"You've got plenty of chance on the bridge, with so many odd pennies coming in."
"Do you mean to insinuate I steal the toll money?" demanded Ralph, angered at the insinuation.
"I didn't say so," sneered the other, more suggestively than ever.
"But you meant it."
"Well, what if I did?"
"It's mean of you, Percy Paget! I never stole a cent in my life!"
"It's easy enough for you to say so."
"And it's true. You must think that every one is a thief just because somebody was caught stealing tarts out of the bakery."
Ralph was angry, or he would not have spoken as he did. As Percy had been discovered taking tarts and cakes from the counters of a pastry shop in Eastport only a few weeks before, and as he had been threatened with arrest for so doing, the squire's son reddened at once.
"See here, Ralph Nelson, don't you dare to talk to me like that!" he stormed.
"I have more grounds to talk than you, Percy Paget!"
"No, you haven't, you low upstart!"
"Hold on, Percy, I am no upstart!"
"Yes, you are. What was your father? Only a poor boatman on the lakes."
"He was a hard-working man, and an honest one," returned Ralph, warmly.
"Oh, of course, and you were all next door to beggars until my father took pity on him, and gave him the job on the bridge."
"It was the committee, and not your father, who gave him the situation."
"Well, it was the same thing, for the committee have to do as my father says."
"I doubt it."
"I don't care for your opinion! I know one thing. They ought to have somebody else to mind the bridge, and perhaps they will have before long."
"Why, what do you mean?" asked Ralph, in quick alarm.
"Ha! ha! I thought that would wake you up."
"Is somebody trying to undermine me?"
"You'll hear of it soon enough, never fear."
And with this parting shot, which was not without its effect, Percy started to cross the bridge.
"Hold on!" cried Ralph.
"What do you want now?"
"The toll money."
"I'm only going to the Eastport end of the bridge. I'll be back in a couple of minutes."
"That makes no difference. Every one who crosses the bridge has to pay toll."
"But I'm coming right back."
"I don't care if you return as soon as you strike the last plank. You have got to pay, or you can't cross," returned Ralph, firmly.
"I won't pay a cent!" blustered Percy, angrily.
"Then you can't cross."
"And who will stop me, I'd like to know?"
"You can't do it."
"Perhaps I can. Anyway, if you don't pay I'll try. You know the rules just as well as I do."
"There ain't any fellow in Westville can stop me from going where I please!" howled the squire's son, and once more he started to walk on.
With a quick movement, Ralph stepped in front of the aristocratic bully.
"Not another step, until you pay the toll!" he exclaimed, his eyes flashing their determination.
"Out of my way, you upstart!" roared Percy.
And, raising his fist, he aimed a heavy blow at Ralph's face.
The young bridge tender caught the blow on the arm, and the next moment had Percy jammed up against the iron railing to one side.
"Now, you either pay your way or go back just as quick as you can!" he said, firmly. "I want no more trouble with you."
"Let go of me!"
"Not until you promise to do one thing or the other."
"I'm not going to pay!" fumed Percy.
"Then you can't cross; that's settled."
"We'll see! Take that! and that!"
Percy began to strike out wildly. Ralph warded off most of the blows, and then upset the aristocratic bully on his back and came down on top of him. They rolled over together, and at length Percy set up a howl of pain.
"Oh, my shoulder! You have twisted it out of place!"
"Have you had enough?" demanded Ralph.
"Will you pay the toll?"
"I don't want to go over now."
"All right, then, you can go back to shore."
Ralph arose to his feet, and the aristocratic bully slowly followed. Several persons were coming across the bridge now, and the young bridge tender ran to collect their tolls, leaving his late antagonist to brush off his sadly-soiled clothes.
"I'll fix you for this!" cried Percy, after the passengers had passed out of hearing. "We'll see if the village will allow a ruffian like you to tend bridge much longer."
And off he stalked, with his face full of dark and bitter hatred.
Ralph looked after him anxiously. Would Percy's threat amount to anything? It would be a real calamity to lose his situation on the bridge.
Then Ralph started to brush off his own clothes. While he was doing so he felt in his pocket to see if his twenty dollars was still safe. The bill was gone!
With great eagerness he began a search for the missing banknote. It was all to no purpose, the money could not be found.
A HUNT FOR THE MISSING BILL.
Ralph was deeply chagrined to think that the twenty-dollar bill could not be found. He had calculated that with it he might advertise for the missing papers, and even offer a small reward.
He was loath to give up the search, and after his first hasty hunt, went over every foot of the plank walk of the bridge, and even under it.
"It must have slipped from my pocket, and the wind must have blown it into the water," he thought, bitterly. "That was a pretty dear quarrel, especially as it was not in the least of my making."
Thinking he might possibly find the bill floating on the water, the young bridge tender sprang into his rowboat, the Martha, which was tied up to the ironwork under the bridge, and pulled around the stonework and some distance down into Silver Lake.
He found nothing, and inside of ten minutes had to go back to his post of duty and collect toll from several people who were coming over from Eastport.
"I'm out twenty dollars, and that's all there is to it," he muttered to himself. "It's too bad. Why can't Percy Paget stay away and mind his own business?"
The remainder of the afternoon passed quietly, saving for the mild excitement of the working folks going and coming after factory hours, and at dark Bob Sanderson came on duty.
"The sloop is gettin' on finely," said the old fellow, in response to Ralph's inquiry. "The woodwork is about done, and I'll paint her first thing in the morning."
"You want to make a first-class job of it, Mr. Sanderson. I know Mr. Kelsey will pay the price."
"I'm a-going to, Ralph. What did he give you for hauling him from the water?"
"Shoo! He must be rich."
"I imagine he is."
"What are you going to do with the money?"
"Nothing; I've lost it."
And Ralph related the particulars of his encounter with Percy Paget, and how the money had disappeared during the fracas.
"It's a tarnal shame, Ralph! Thet air dude ain't worth your twenty-dollar bill nohow!"
"I am sorry he came here. I hope he stays away hereafter."
"I wouldn't take none of his talk," grumbled Bob Sanderson, with a shake of his grizzled head. "I reckon what he said about gettin' you into trouble is all nonsense."
"I hope it is, for I couldn't afford to lose my place here."
"Squire Paget isn't so powerful as his son thinks. There are lots of folks in this village gettin' tired of his domineerin' ways."
"I know he is not as powerful now as he was, but still he is squire, and that counts."
"Why don't you go on another hunt for the bill? Maybe it has floated away down the lake."
"I will go out. It will do no harm," said Ralph.
And neither did it do any good, for a half-hour's search on the lake and along the shore brought nothing of interest to light. The young bridge tender tied his boat up at the foot of the garden, and walked up to the cottage.
Mrs. Nelson had the evening meal all prepared, and the two at once sat down.
"You sent a very profitable visitor to the cottage this morning, Ralph," began his mother, as she poured the tea while he cut up the meat.
"You mean Mr. Kelsey?"
"Yes. He came here to get dry, and told me how you had rescued him from the lake. He said you had acted very bravely."
"It was not much to do. But why do you say he was a profitable visitor, mother? Did he pay you anything for what you did?"
"Yes, he paid me two dollars. I didn't want a cent, but he insisted on it."
"Then he is certainly rich, mother, for he gave me twenty dollars in addition."
"But, hold on, mother, don't be too pleased. I have already lost the money, so his generosity will do me no good."
And Ralph told his mother the story, just as he had told it to old Bob Sanderson, their boarder.
"That Paget boy is a bad egg, I am afraid," said Mrs. Nelson, with a grave look on her face. "I am sorry you got into trouble with him."
"So am I, but it couldn't be helped. The bridge rules say that no person is to cross without paying toll. Percy knows the rules, too."
"I understand he has caused the squire a lot of trouble, but for all that, he is his father's pet."
"It's strange, if Percy gives him so much trouble."
"Well, the two are alone in the world, and that may make a difference. Have we not been drawn closer together since your father died?"
"That is true, mother, but I try to do right, and—"
"You do what is right, Ralph. As much as I love you, I would not stand by you were you to do a deliberate wrong."
"I don't believe Percy will do much," said Ralph, after a long pause. "I was sticking up for the rules, and that is what I am put there to do."
After the supper dishes were cleared away, Mrs. Nelson put on her bonnet and took a basket to do a little trading at one of the stores, leaving Ralph to take care of the cottage while she was gone.
"I'll go along and carry the things for you, if you wish," said her son.
"I am going to get a few things, Ralph, which will not be heavy, and I wish to see Mr. Dicks about the calico he sold me which is not as good as he represented. You may stay home and read."
"I'll study my school books, mother. I want to master commercial arithmetic if I can. Maybe one of these days I can become a bookkeeper in one of the Eastport factories."
"I trust so, my son, that or something even better. I would not wish you to remain a bridge tender all your life."
A moment later Mrs. Nelson was on her way to the village center. Ralph lit the sitting-room lamp and got out his books and his slate. Soon he had forgotten all about the exciting scenes of the day in an earnest endeavor to do a complicated example in profit and loss.
He worked out the problem, and then tackled something harder still. Not having anyone to guide him, he made numerous mistakes. But he kept on without becoming disheartened and at last the second example was solved as correctly as the first.
He was just about to begin a third, when his mother entered the cottage almost breathlessly. From the look on her face it was plain to see she had something to tell that was of great importance.
MRS. NELSON'S STORY.
"What is it, mother?" cried Ralph, as Mrs. Nelson placed her basket on the floor and dropped into a chair.
"Oh, Ralph! I can hardly believe it possible!" exclaimed the good woman, catching her breath.
"Believe what possible?"
"That Percy Paget would be so wicked!"
"Why, what has he done, now, mother?"
"Ralph, I believe he took your twenty-dollar bill!"
"What makes you think that?"
And in his excitement the boy shoved back his books and slate and sprang to his feet.
"From what I overheard down to Mr. Dicks' store, while I was doing my trading."
"What did you overhear?"
"His son William waited on me, and while he was doing it his father began to count the money in the drawer, and then asked who had paid in the twenty-dollar bill."
"And what did Will Dicks say?" questioned Ralph, eagerly.
"He said he had got the bill from Percy Paget."
"He did! It must be my bill."
"So I thought, and came home as quickly as I could to tell you."
"Percy has lots of spending money, but I doubt if he has twenty dollars at a time," went on Ralph, walking up and down the sitting-room in his thoughtfulness. "But to think he would turn pickpocket!"
"Maybe the money fell from your pocket during the quarrel, and he picked it up."
"It would be just as bad as stealing. He knew it was my money. He saw me put the money in my pocket when he came on the bridge."
"It would certainly seem that it was your bill."
"I'll go down and question Will Dicks about it. Or, perhaps, you did so?"
"No, I only listened to what he told his father, and then came home. If you go down, Ralph, be careful and avoid more trouble."
"If it is really my bill I am not going to stand being cheated."
"Remember, Squire Paget is an influential man——"
"I don't believe his influence will count in this case. But I will be careful," Ralph added, to overcome his mother's anxiety.
Without further words, he put on his coat and hurried down into the village. When he reached Uriah Dicks' general store he found father and son in the act of putting up the shutters for the night.
"I would like to see you a minute, Will," Ralph said to the son.
"All right," returned Will Dicks, and, leaving his father to place the last of the shutters up, he led the way inside the store.
"I believe Percy Paget paid you a twenty-dollar bill this afternoon," began Ralph, hardly knowing how to open the conversation.
"He paid it to me just before supper time."
"Did he say anything about where he got it?"
"Why, no. Why do you ask?"
"I have my reasons, Will. Will you let me see the bill?"
"What's the trouble?" asked Will Dicks, and his father stepped into the doorway to hear what the young bridge tender might have to say.
"I would like to see the bill, that is all."
"But, can't you tell me what the trouble is?" insisted Will Dicks.
"Maybe Ralph intends to accuse Percy of obtaining it feloniously," put in Uriah Dicks, cautiously. "Speak up, boy, and let us know what's in your mind."
"I would rather not say, Mr. Dicks. I wish to look at the bill, that is all."
"Well, if you can't tell me of the trouble, I don't know as I will let you see that bill," returned Uriah, sourly.
"And what is your objection?"
"I ain't a-going to be accommodating to a boy that puts me off in the dark."
"It may save you some trouble, Mr. Dicks."
"What, me? What do you mean?" and the general storekeeper turned slightly pale.
"Just what I say! If you won't let me see the bill, I'll have to go further for my information."
"Oh, of course I ain't scared to show you this bill, Ralph," returned Uriah, hurriedly. "Say!" he burst out, excitedly. "It's a good bill, ain't it?"
"It ought to be, if it's the one I think it is," replied the young bridge tender.
Going to his desk in the rear of the store, Uriah brought out a tin box and unlocked it. From a long, flat wallet, he drew several bills.
"There's the bill Percy Paget gave to Will," he said, as he handed over the banknote.
There was but a single oil-lamp left burning in the store, and to this Ralph walked and examined the bill. There was his banknote, true enough, with the grease spot from the sandwich in one corner.
"Well, what do you make out?" questioned Uriah, with breathless interest.
"I make out that this bill belongs to me," returned Ralph, boldly.
"To you!" exclaimed both father and son, in one voice.
"Yes, sir, to me."
"But Percy gave me this bill," said Will Dicks. "He didn't steal it from you, did he?"
"I haven't anything to say about that. But it's my bill, just the same."
"You can't have the bill!" snarled Uriah, snatching it from Ralph's hand. "Why, I never heard tell of such high-handed proceedings in my life before!" he went on.
"You can keep the bill for the present, Mr. Dicks——"
"Of course I will! Do you suppose I'm going to lose twenty dollars?"
"But you must promise me not to give it out until you hear from me again."
"I don't see what right you have to dictate to me what I should do an' what I shouldn't do——"
"I am not dictating. The bill is mine, and I intend to have it, sooner or later."
"But where do we come in?" asked Will Dicks, who was cooler than his parent.
"You will have to look to Percy Paget to make the loss good."
"If he has cheated me I'll have him locked up!" cried Uriah, drawing down his sharp face. "But you haven't proved the bill yours yet."
"I know that. All I am asking is that you keep the bill for the present, and not pay it out to any one."
"Well, I'll do that," responded Uriah, after some meditation.
"You'll hear from me again, soon," concluded Ralph, as he walked from the store.
"Well, he carries a high hand, I must say!" growled Uriah, as he put his money and the tin box away again. "I wonder what the trouble is?"
"I thought it was queer Percy had so big a bill," commented his son.
"Did you? Well, if you did, what did you want to change it for?"
"He bought half a dozen packages of cigarettes."
"Humph! Hardly any profit in 'em, and the bill likely to get us into trouble, William! You must be more careful!"
"Percy said I could hang up the account if I didn't want to change the bill, and you said you didn't want to trust any of the young fellows."
"No more I don't. But I ain't goin' to lose twenty dollars. I'll make that Nelson boy prove it's his, or he sha'n't tech it; no, sir!"
And with a thump of his hard and skinny fist on the counter, Uriah Dicks resumed the labor of closing up his establishment for the night.
"Nelson looked as if he had it in for Percy," soliloquized Will Dicks, as he brought in the few boxes and barrels that remained outside. "I would like to know what is in the wind."
His father also wished to know. It was not long before they were enlightened.
For a few minutes Ralph stood outside of the general store, undecided what was best to do next.
It was true that the bill in Uriah Dicks' possession was his own, yet how could he prove it, and thus get it once more into his possession?
"I'll call on Percy Paget, and see what he has to say," he thought. "Perhaps I can make him confess how he obtained the bill, and make the amount good to Mr. Dicks."
With this object in view the young bridge tender hurried through the village toward the hill, upon which the few handsome residences of the place were situated.
In the most prominent spot was located the mansion of Squire Paget, a Queen Anne structure, surrounded by a garden full of fancy shrubs and plants, which during her life had been Mrs. Paget's pride.
Passing through the gate, Ralph walked up the gravel path to the front piazza and rang the bell.
He had to wait a short time. Then a slow step was heard through the hallway, and the door was opened by Mrs. Hanson, the squire's housekeeper.
"Good-evening," said Ralph, politely. "Is Percy at home?"
"I don't really know," returned Mrs. Hanson. "Come in and I will find out."
She ushered Ralph into the hallway, and motioned him to a seat. Then she passed upstairs.
"I guess it will be all right, squire," Ralph heard a voice say in a nearby side room—the library. "And you are perfectly safe in making the deal."
"I trust so, Pickley," came the reply, in Squire Paget's well-known sharp tones. "It's worth the trouble, you know."
"Of course, I get pay for my trouble," went on Pickley, as he stepped to the doorway.
"I'll pay what I promised," returned the squire, and then both men stepped into the hallway.
They started back on seeing Ralph, as though they had imagined no one was around. The young bridge tender made up his mind they had not noted his ring.
"Why—ah—what brings you here, Nelson?" demanded the squire, as soon as he could recover.
"I called to see Percy, sir."
"I believe Percy is out."
Ralph's hope fell at this announcement.
"Can you tell me where I can find him, sir?" he asked.
"He is somewhere about the village, I presume. He said he would be back by nine o'clock or half-past."
Ralph glanced at the tall clock which stood at the end of the hall, and saw that it lacked but ten minutes of nine. Percy might be in in a few minutes.
"If you please, I will wait for him," he said, politely.
Squire Paget moved toward the door, and opened it for Dan Pickley, his visitor.
"Good-night, Pickley," he said.
"Good-night, squire," was the reply, and then Pickley moved down the steps.
The squire watched him go out of the gate, and then closed the front door once more.
"How long have you been waiting?" he asked, rather abruptly.
"Only a minute or two, sir."
"No longer than that?" and the squire bent his searching eyes full upon Ralph's honest features.
"No, sir, Mrs. Hanson just let me in."
Squire Paget seemed relieved to hear this. His conversation with Dan Pickley had been both important and private, and he was afraid Ralph might have overheard more than he wished to become public.
"So you wish to see Percy?" he went on, after a short pause. "Is there anything special?"
"What is it?"
"Excuse me, but I would like to speak to Percy first."
The squire drew up his lower lip and looked plainly annoyed.
"I do not allow my son to have any secrets from me, so you might as well speak out, Nelson," he observed, abruptly.
"I came to see Percy about a twenty-dollar bill which belonged to me, and which he obtained," returned Ralph, boldly.
"A twenty-dollar bill of yours Percy obtained? Why, Nelson, what do you mean? Come into the library."
"I mean what I say, Squire Paget," said the young bridge tender, following the great man of the village into the apartment mentioned. "Percy had a twenty-dollar bill belonging to me and he passed it off on Mr. Dicks, the storekeeper."
"But he could not have known it was your bill if he spent it."
"He ought to have known it was mine, sir."
"Give me the particulars of this matter," was Squire Paget's short response.
In as few words as possible the young bridge tender told of the row on the bridge, and of what had followed. While he was speaking the squire grew excited, and paced up and down nervously. He could hardly wait for Ralph to finish.
"See here, Nelson, this is preposterous, absurd! My son is above such a thing!" he cried.
"So I hoped, sir. But I have only stated the plain facts."
"It is a tissue of falsehoods, young man! Wait till I hear Percy's side of the story. The idea! my son has enough spending money without resorting to—to such unlawful means of obtaining more."
"Well, it is my twenty-dollar bill that he gave to Mr. Dicks," said Ralph, doggedly.
"Where did you obtain the bill?"
"A gentleman gave it to me for assisting him out of the water, after his sloop had been wrecked against the stonework of the bridge."
"That is a likely story! As if twenty-dollar bills were flying around so thickly!"
"I am telling the truth, sir."
"Who is the gentleman?"
"He is from New York, and is up here on a vacation."
"I can hardly believe he gave you so much money."
"He did, and I can prove it."
"Well, be that as it may, I am certain Percy did not take your bill."
"Did you give him a twenty-dollar bill?"
"I give him all the spending money he needs," returned Squire Paget, evasively. "He has probably saved the amount and had some one change his small money for one big bill."
"He didn't have it changed into my bill—the one Mr. Dicks holds. That he got at the bridge—how, I don't know—and I am going to have it back."
"Ha! do you threaten my son!" cried Squire Paget, wrathfully.
"I am going to make him do what is right, sir. I can't afford to lose twenty dollars and say nothing."
Instantly Squire Paget flared up, and shook his fist in Ralph's face.
"If you dare to make trouble for my son I'll have you discharged as bridge tender," he fumed. "Understand that, Nelson! I am not going to have Percy's fair name ruined."
At that moment, before Ralph could reply, a key was heard to turn in the front door, and a second later the squire's son strode into the house.
SQUIRE PAGET MAKES A MOVE.
Percy Paget had not expected to see Ralph, and he was very much disconcerted when brought thus unexpectedly face to face with the young bridge tender.
"Why—er—you here?" he stammered, as he flung aside his hat.
"He has been telling a fine string of falsehoods against you, my son!" put in the squire, ere Ralph could speak.
"And what has he been saying?" demanded the aristocratic bully, coolly. "Has he been telling you how I had to polish him off for insulting me?"
"No; he tells me that you stole a twenty-dollar bill from him!"
Percy was about to burst out into violent language, that would have astonished even his indulgent parent, but suddenly he changed his mind and allowed an injured look to cross his face.
"I hope, father, you don't believe any such outrageous story about me," he said, plaintively.
"Of course I don't," returned the squire, promptly. "I know my son will not steal."
"Ralph is mad because I gave him a good thrashing," went on the only son.
"I imagine the boot is on the other foot," put in Ralph. "It is Percy who got the worst of the encounter."
"He says you refused to pay the toll," went on Squire Paget.
"I only refused after he had called me all sorts of names," retorted the only son. "I was going over to Eastport, but after I had to teach him a lesson, I concluded to remain on this side."
"You are not telling the truth!" cried Ralph, indignantly. "It was you who insulted me, and I gave you a good deal less than you deserved in the shape of a whipping for doing it."
"Stop! stop!" stormed the squire. "I will have no quarrel in my house! Nelson, don't you know it is all wrong to fight on the bridge?"
"I didn't fight. I stopped your son when he refused to pay toll, that was all."
"I do not believe it."
"Believe it or not, it's true. But I came here for another purpose than to speak of the quarrel, as you know. I want Percy to make good the twenty dollars which belonged to me."
"I ain't got your twenty dollars—never had them!" blustered the aristocratic bully. "If you say I have, I'll pitch you out of the house!"
"I don't care, father. It makes me mad to have this upstart speak to me in this fashion!"
"I know it does, but control yourself, my son. We will find a way to punish him at another time."
"Can't you have him discharged? He ain't fit to be the tender of the bridge; he's so insulting!"
"Perhaps," returned the squire, a sudden idea flashing across his mind.
It would assist his schemes wonderfully to have Ralph Nelson discharged.
"You had my twenty-dollar bill, and you paid it over to Mr. Dicks," said Ralph. "You can't deny it."
At these words Percy staggered back, for the unexpected shot had struck home.
"Who—who says I paid the bill over to Mr. Dicks?"
"Will Dicks himself. You bought cigarettes, and gave him the bill to change."
"I gave him a twenty-dollar bill, but it wasn't yours."
"It was, and I can prove it."
"By a grease spot in one corner, made by the butter on a sandwich I had."
"Is that all?" sneered Percy.
"I think that's enough."
"Well, hardly. I guess there are a good many bills with grease spots on them floating around."
For the moment Ralph was nonplussed. The aristocratic bully saw it and went on:
"You are afraid you are going to lose your place, and you want to get me and my father in your power, so we can help you keep it. But it won't work, will it, father?"
"Hardly, my son. We are not to be browbeaten in this style," remarked Squire Paget, pompously.
"Then you do not intend to make good the amount?" asked Ralph, shortly, disgusted at the way in which the squire stood up for Percy.
"I shall not give you twenty dollars when I don't owe it to you," said Percy.
"Will you tell me where you got that twenty-dollar bill?"
"I got it in Chambersburgh last week. A man asked me to change it for him and I did so."
Percy had thought out this falsehood before, and now he uttered it with the greatest of ease.
"I believe my son speaks the truth," added Squire Paget. "You had better be going and hunt for your money elsewhere."
"I don't believe he ever had twenty dollars, excepting he saved it out of the toll money," sneered Percy, and he walked from the room.
Burning with indignation, but unable to help himself toward obtaining his rights, Ralph arose and without another word left the squire's mansion. It was too late to attempt to do more that night, and after some hesitation he went home.
Squire Paget watched him leave the garden, and then locked the front door and went back to the library.
"Ralph Nelson is getting too important, in his own estimation," he mused. "I thought he was a mere youngster who could be twisted around one's finger, but I was mistaken. I must get him out of his situation and compel him to leave Westville, if possible. I can't do much while he is around here."
Squire Paget sat for half an hour in his easy chair thinking over his plans. Then he went to bed.
After breakfast he started out to pay a visit to Benjamin Hooker, the village postmaster. Hooker, Dicks and the squire were close friends, and they constituted a majority of the village board, which controlled the bridge and other local matters.
"Well, squire, what brings you around this morning so early?" questioned the postmaster, for it was an hour before regular mail time.
"I come to see you about committee matters," returned Squire Paget. "I have got to report against Ralph Nelson, our bridge tender."
"What's he been a-doing, squire?"
"He insulted and assaulted my only son yesterday in a most outrageous fashion, without provocation."
"You don't say so!" exclaimed the postmaster. "I thought Nelson was quite a gentlemanly boy."
"I never did, Benjamin, never! He is nothing but a young tough."
"It's too bad."
"He isn't fit to have on the bridge any longer, and I move we give him a week's notice," went on the squire. "We don't want passengers on the bridge insulted on their way over."
"That's so, squire. But what caused the row?"
"Nothing at all, excepting that Nelson has taken a dislike to my son. And he is such a wicked boy, too, Benjamin. Why, when he heard that my son was going to proceed against him, what do you suppose he did?"
"What did he do?" questioned the postmaster, eagerly.
"Actually accused my son of stealing twenty dollars from him."
"Isn't that enough to provoke a saint, Benjamin? Do you wonder I wish to take him in hand?"
"Not at all, squire; not at all."
"And you will vote to remove him, won't you?"
"Certainly—if you wish it," replied Benjamin Hooker, who was under obligation to the squire, for money loaned. "But we can't remove him without another vote in the board."
"I know that. Come with me to Uriah Dicks', and I'll tell him about the matter. Uriah will stand by us, I know, in a case like this."
As there would be nothing to do in the office for at least half an hour, the postmaster readily consented to accompany the squire, leaving the place in charge of the clerk.
Five minutes later the two stepped into Uriah Dicks' general store. They found the old man talking earnestly to Ralph and a stranger, who was none other than Horace Kelsey.
AT THE GENERAL STORE.
Both Squire Paget and the postmaster were surprised to see Ralph in conversation with Uriah Dicks and the young gentleman who was a stranger to them.
The squire had expected to hold a quiet talk with the keeper of the general store, and he was much disappointed to learn that this was to be denied to him.
However, he put on a bold front, and approached Uriah without hesitation, just as the latter looked up.
"Why, here is Squire Paget now!" exclaimed Uriah Dicks. "Squire, you are just the man I want to see!"
"I can say the same for you," returned the squire, with a sharp glance at Ralph.
"I got a twenty-dollar bill from your son yesterday, and it looks like it was going to make trouble for me," went on the storekeeper.
"It has already made enough trouble for me," retorted the squire, pointedly.
"Squire Paget, this is Mr. Kelsey, the gentleman that gave me the twenty-dollar bill," put in Ralph.
"Humph! He might have given you a twenty-dollar bill, but this is not the one," growled the squire.
"I believe it is, sir," said Horace Kelsey.
"Yes, sir. It is, as you see, a new one, issued by the First National Bank of Chambersburgh. That is the bank at which I drew it."
"It's all rot!" roared the squire. "My son Percy received that bill, and in Chambersburgh, too!" he added, suddenly. "He said so last night."
Again Ralph's hopes fell. He had felt almost certain that his city friend would be able to prove the property, but now this supposed proof amounted to little or nothing.
"But that grease spot——" he began.
"A story invented by yourself," interrupted Squire Paget. "It is more than likely that the grease spot was on the bill when my son received it."
"Did your son receive the bill at the bank?" questioned Horace Kelsey.
"I don't know—I suppose he did," stammered the squire.
There was an awkward pause. Uriah Dicks drummed uneasily upon the counter, where lay the bill in dispute.
"One thing is certain," said Uriah. "I took the bill in good faith, and I ain't a-goin' to lose on it, mind that."
"You shan't lose on it, Uriah," replied the squire. "My son gave it to you, and it was his bill. You keep it, and I'll take young Nelson in hand. He has concocted this story for a purpose."
"A purpose, eh?" queried the storekeeper.
"Exactly. He knows that he is in danger of losing his situation, and it is his endeavor to get me and my son in his power, so we will influence others to help him keep him in his place."
"I don't see what I have done to lose the job on the bridge," said Ralph, his cheeks growing red.
"I thought he was doin' well enough," put in Uriah.
"He is a regular rough!" burst out the squire, with a fine appearance of wrath. "He insulted my son on the bridge and knocked him down. And he insults every one he dares!"
"That is a gross untruth, Squire Paget!" burst out Ralph. "I insult nobody——"
"He's a very impulsive youth," put in Postmaster Hooker, thinking it time to bolster up the squire's remarks. "He is, I am afraid, too hot-headed to have on the bridge, not to say anything about this attempt to—ahem!—cast an unworthy reflection on the fair name of our squire's son."
And the postmaster looked as important as possible as he spoke.
Uriah Dicks caught the drift of the talk and looked perplexed, not knowing exactly upon which side to cast his opinion.
But he soon made up his mind. Ralph was a poor boy, with little or no influence, while the squire was rich and powerful.
"I don't know but what you are right, gentlemen," he said. "He certainly talked putty sharp-like about Percy last night."
"I shall make him suffer for that, never fear," said the squire, pointedly. "He shall not insult my son with impunity!"
Ralph was about to speak, but Horace Kelsey checked him.
"It will do you no good to talk," he said, in a low tone. "They are against you, and we can prove nothing. Better drop the matter, at least until something more in your favor turns up."
"But I am certain the bill is mine——"
"So am I, but it is one thing to know it and quite another to prove it."
"Hadn't you ought to be on the bridge now?" asked Uriah, sourly.
"Bob Sanderson is tending for me."
"Who give him that right?" asked Squire Paget.
"Certainly not the town committee."
"Mr. Foley said I might have him help me during slack hours," returned the young bridge tender, mentioning the name of another of the committeemen.
"He ain't got no power," put in Uriah. "It wasn't never put to a vote."
"I must have some help."
"A young man that was really willing to work wouldn't need no help," grumbled the miserly storekeeper. "It is only on account of laziness you need help."
"That's so," added the postmaster, willing to "pile it on" when there was such a good chance. "Better get back to work at once!"
"I will," replied Ralph, and, not wishing to lose his job on the spot, he left the store, followed by Horace Kelsey.
"It's a shame the way they treat you!" burst out the young man, as the two walked toward the bridge. "I don't really see how they can do it."
"I suppose they will discharge me now," returned Ralph, bitterly. "And all because I claim a bill that I am positive is my own!"
"If they discharge you, I would make that Percy Paget prove where he got the bill. If he cannot prove it, that will be one point in your favor."
The two walked down to the bridge, and here the young man from the city left Ralph, and went off with Bob Sanderson to see how the repairs to the sloop were coming on.
Ralph was in no happy frame of mind when left alone. He had tried only to assert his rights, but the future looked black in consequence.
Presently his mother came down from the cottage to talk matters over with him. She knew her son had gone off with Horace Kelsey to Uriah Dicks' store.
"The squire is certainly very unreasonable," she said, after Ralph had told his story. "Every one around Westville knows that Percy is arrogant to the last degree."
"That is so, mother, but, to the squire, Percy is perfection. I do not see how he can be so blind."
"If you lose your position on the bridge, Ralph, what in the world will we do? Times are so hard in Westville."
"I'll have to look for work in Eastport or Chambersburgh, I suppose," returned the son. "But I haven't lost the job yet," he added, as cheerfully as he could.
"But if Uriah Dicks and the postmaster and the squire are against you, they can put you out. There are only five in the committee, and three are a majority."
Ralph was about to reply, but several passengers had to be waited on, and he went on to collect the tolls. Then a whistle sounded from up Big Silver Lake, notifying him that a steamboat wished to pass through the draw, and the opening and closing of the bridge took ten minutes or more.
"If I were only bookkeeper enough to strike a job in one of the factories, I wouldn't care whether I lost the place here or not," said Ralph, when he was again at leisure. "This is a lazy sort of a job, and I would much prefer office work."
"That is true, my son, but one must be thankful to get work of any kind now," returned Mrs. Nelson.
"Oh, I know that, and I am not grumbling, mother, but the—what's that?"
Ralph broke off suddenly. A crash of glass, coming from the neighborhood of the cottage, sounded in their ears. The first crash was followed by half-a-dozen others in rapid succession.
"What in the world can that mean?" cried Mrs. Nelson, and, without waiting, she ran from the bridge.
Ralph looked up and down to see if any one was coming across, and, sighting none, followed.
On a run it did not take long to reach the little home by the side path. As they neared it, Ralph pointed excitedly to the sitting-room windows.
"Look, mother," he cried, in deep indignation. "Some vandal has broken nearly every pane of glass in the house!"
"Perhaps there are thieves around!" returned Mrs. Nelson, quickly.
"No, they wouldn't break glass needlessly. This was done out of pure meanness."
They hurried around to the door and into the cottage. Alas! a single glance around was enough. Fully half the panes of glass in the cottage were smashed, and on the floors of the various rooms lay a dozen stones as big as a man's hand.
"I know who did this!" ejaculated Ralph, in high anger. "Percy Paget, and no one else!"
"Would he dare?" faltered Mrs. Nelson.
"Yes; and it is just in line with his sneak-like character. I am going to see if I can find him."
Ralph dashed out of the cottage as rapidly as he had entered it. He made a strict search about the grounds, up the road, and in the wood on the other side. But it was of no avail; the person who had committed the contemptible act had disappeared.
RALPH IS GIVEN NOTICE.
Had it not been for his duties on the bridge, Ralph would have continued his search still farther. But already several persons had passed over and dropped their pennies on the counter of the little office, and now a horn was blowing from the deck of the little schooner sailing up Silver Lake.
So telling his mother that he would be back as soon as possible, he hurried to the bridge. Half-a-dozen boats wished to go through the draw, including a string of canal boats, and it was nearly noon before he could leave the spot.
Then Bob Sanderson came around the cove in the sloop Magic. Beside him sat Horace Kelsey. The repairs to the Magic were now completed, and the little craft was practically as good as new.
"Hallo, Bob, come up here and tend for me, will you?" shouted Ralph, as soon as he caught sight of the old man.
"All right, Ralph! What's up?"
"I must go home," returned the young bridge tender, and when the sloop was tied up near by, he told the two occupants of what had occurred.
"I never heard the like!" burst out Bob Sanderson. "If it was really that Paget boy, he ought to have a whip across his back!"
Horace Kelsey accompanied Ralph to the cottage to see the extent of the damage done. The young man from New York was also of the opinion that the guilty party ought to be brought to swift justice.
"But no one saw Percy, and we cannot prove anything," said Mrs. Nelson.
"Perhaps we can," said Ralph. "I'm going to hunt him up, if that is possible."
Horace Kelsey did not feel able to remain longer at Westville, and so he left when Ralph did. Before he went, however, he insisted on presenting Ralph with another twenty-dollar bill, to replace the one lost.
"Here is my card," he said, on leaving. "If you ever come to New York, drop in and see me."
"Thank you; I shall be very much pleased to," replied Ralph.
He noted that Horace Kelsey was in the insurance business, with an office on Broadway, and then he placed the address carefully away in a drawer of the old-fashioned desk in the sitting-room.
"Who knows, but if I am discharged here I may some day go to New York," thought the young bridge tender.
After taking another look about the cottage and through the wood, Ralph started up the road leading to the center of the village. Presently he came across a young man named Edgar Steiner, who was one of Percy Paget's intimate friends.
"Steiner, do you know where Percy Paget is?" he asked.
"Percy has gone to Silver Cove," returned Steiner.
"When did he go?"
"Went early this morning. He drove down to see about a dog he is going to buy from a sport who lives there."
Silver Cove was several miles below Westville, and the road to the place would not have brought the aristocratic bully near the cottage by the bridge.
"You are sure he went?"
"Yes. I saw him drive off. He wanted me to go along, but I couldn't very well. Do you wish to see him?"
"I understand you and he had some trouble yesterday."
"We did have some trouble yesterday. But I want to see him about something else now."
Steiner stared at Ralph. Then, thinking he had spent enough time on such a poor lad as the bridge tender, he turned away and walked off, whistling a merry concert-hall air.
Ralph stood still, undecided what to do next. If Percy had really gone to Silver Cove, somebody else must be guilty of breaking the cottage windows. But who? Ralph could not remember of having any other enemy.
While the boy was deliberating he saw three men coming toward him. They were the squire, the postmaster, and Uriah Dicks.
"Why ain't you at the bridge?" asked Uriah, sourly.
"We have had trouble at the cottage, sir," replied Ralph. "Some vandal has broken nearly all of our windows."
"It's a wonder you do not blame it on my son Percy!" sneered the squire.
"I do blame it on him," retorted Ralph. "He is the only enemy who would do such a thing."
"More of the scheme to get my son into trouble. You see how it is, gentlemen; he is a thorough young rascal!" exclaimed the squire.
"It's awful!" murmured Postmaster Hooker. "It's a good thing we intend to act on this matter, squire."
"Yes, we can't let it rest another minute," returned Squire Paget.
And on the three men passed, leaving Ralph more bitter in heart than ever.
The young bridge tender returned to work, sending Bob Sanderson to the cottage with instructions to buy what glass was needed, and put it in, taking the money out of the twenty-dollar bill Horace Kelsey had given him that morning.
The afternoon slipped by quietly, and at sundown Sanderson came back to relieve Ralph as usual.
"The glass is all in, and here is the change," said he, and handed over sixteen dollars and a half. "Had to pay three dollars and a half for glass, tacks, and putty."
"But your pay, Mr. Sanderson——"
"That's all right, Ralph; I won't ask none on this job, exceptin' you catch the chap as did it, and make him pony up, as the sayin' goes."
"You are very kind. I doubt if I am able to do anything in the matter," returned Ralph, hopelessly.
He had hardly reached home, when a knock was heard on the cottage door. They opened it to admit Squire Paget's hired man.
"A letter for Ralph Nelson," the man said, and handed it over. "I don't think there is any answer," he added, and bowed his way out.
"It must be from the squire," cried Mrs. Nelson. "Perhaps he has relented of his harsh treatment——"
"Not he!" exclaimed Ralph. "It isn't in him."
The boy broke the seal of the letter, and drew out the document, which read as follows:
MRS. RANDOLPH NELSON:—Owing to circumstances of which you are as well aware as ourselves, we shall not require your services or those of your son as bridge tender for Westville after the week ending July 19.
THE WESTVILLE TOWNSHIP COMMITTEE, Per Hon. Thomas Paget, Chairman.
"What is it, Ralph?" asked his mother, anxiously.
"Just as I thought, mother. My services as bridge tender will not be required after this week," returned Ralph, bitterly.
"Let me see the letter." Mrs. Nelson took and read the epistle. "It is too bad!"
"It's an outrage, mother, that's what it is! And all on account of that aristocratic sneak, Percy Paget!"
"Do not call harsh names, Ralph!"
"I can't help it, mother; he is a sneak, and worse. He brought on the row, took that money, and I am certain he broke our windows into the bargain!"
Mrs. Nelson did not reply. She thought in silence for a moment, and the look of anxiety on her face deepened.
"What shall we do when you are out of work, Ralph?"
"I must try to obtain another job, mother."
"But if you are not successful?"
"Let us not anticipate, mother. I am sure to strike something. In the meantime we will have a little money to fall back on—the balance of that twenty-dollar bill, for instance."
"Yes, and we will have the other money we have saved," added Mrs. Nelson. "But I would not like to touch that if it could be helped."
"We won't touch it. I'll find work before my week's wages and the sixteen dollars and a half are gone. The one pity is we'll feel too poor just now to advertise for those missing papers, and offer any reward for their return."
"That is so," and Mrs. Nelson gave a long sigh.
Perhaps she saw the many disappointments in store for her son when he should seek employment elsewhere.
By the next morning Ralph felt better. He was able to take the matter of his discharge philosophically, and he was even hopeful that the next week would see him in a better situation than he now occupied.
He went at his duties with a willing spirit, resolved that there should be no cause for complaint during his last days on the bridge. Only one thing made him feel bad, and that was that he could not prove that Percy and not himself had been to blame for the row.
But Ralph soon learned that many of the village folks who used the bridge daily sided with him. Some of these were very outspoken in their opinion of the committee's actions.
"Under the squire's thumb, all of 'em!" said Bart Haycock, the village blacksmith. "We ought to have a new committee, and maybe we will have at the coming election."
But all this talk did not help Ralph. He had received notice, and in three days his duties on the bridge would come to an end. And the change would also hurt Bob Sanderson, who would now have either to pay for his board or go elsewhere.
"Who is to take your place?" asked Sanderson, when he came to relieve Ralph in the evening.
"I don't know, Mr. Sanderson," returned the young bridge tender. "But I hope, whoever it is, he keeps you as helper."
"Well, that depends," returned the old man. "I wouldn't care to work for everybody, say Dan Pickley, for instance."
"Do you think Dan Pickley is after the job?" questioned Ralph, quickly.
"He was after it before, and he ain't doing much now."
"I imagine Squire Paget will give him the position if he wishes it," mused Ralph. "He and the squire are quite thick."
"That's because Dan is willing to do any work the squire wishes done," responded Bob Sanderson. "That fellow will do anything for pay."
That evening Ralph and his mother had a talk, in which it was decided that old Bob Sanderson should be allowed to remain at the cottage at the nominal amount of a dollar per week for board, until he managed to obtain another situation, or until jobs in his line became more numerous.
When Sanderson was told of this he was very grateful. As he had no other boarding-place in view, he gladly accepted the offer, and promised that the widow and her son should lose nothing by their kindness.
On the following morning Ralph was collecting toll, when a man approached the bridge, and began to watch proceedings. The man was Dan Pickley.
"What brings you, Pickley?" asked Ralph, after the latter had been watching him for some time.
"Came down to get the run of things," returned Pickley.
"Then you are to have the job after I leave?"
"Reckon I am. The squire said as much."
"The squire and you are rather thick," remarked the young bridge tender, coolly.
"Oh, I don't know," returned the man, uneasily. "He knows a good hand to hire when he wants him."
"It was you who were at the squire's house when I called, a few nights ago."
"Yes; I had an errand for him."
As he uttered the last words, Dan Pickley looked at Ralph closely. He was wondering if the boy had overheard much of the conversation which had passed between Squire Paget and himself that night in the library.
Pickley sat down on the end of the bridge, and began to count the folks as they passed over. Ralph saw that he was keeping track of the toll, but said nothing.
"Let me help you turn the bridge," said Pickley when a horn sounded for the draw to be opened.
"No, thank you; I can do it alone," replied Ralph.
"Don't you want me to take hold?"
"It is not needed. You will get enough of the work after I leave."
"You don't want to be a bit sociable," growled Pickley, and he turned away, but still kept on counting the passengers as they crossed.
"I suppose he wants to make sure that I am not going to cheat the bridge board out of its cash," mused Ralph, somewhat bitterly. "No doubt Squire Paget fancies that, now I have my walking-papers, I will steal every penny I can!"
During his odd moments Ralph threw several fishing-lines over, and the catching of a mess of fish served to occupy his thoughts to a considerable extent.
Pickley watched him fish for a while, but did not offer to resume the conversation. But he kept a close tally of every cent taken in as toll.
At noon Bob Sanderson brought over Ralph's lunch.
"Well, I'm lucky anyway," he said. "I've got a job at building hot-bed frames for Mr. Ford that will give me steady work for nigh onto three weeks at good pay."
"I am glad to hear it," replied Ralph, with a smile. "Three weeks is a long time, and something is sure to turn up in the meantime."
"I'm glad you have a job, too," put in Pickley, "for I am going to have Andy Wilson help me."
"Then you've got the job?" said Sanderson.
"Yes, I go on as soon as Ralph quits."
While the young bridge tender was eating his lunch a steamboat whistle sounded, and he had to leave it to open the draw. The steamboat passed through, and then he noticed another boat coming down the lake, although some distance off.
As there were just then no passengers wishing passage over the bridge, Ralph decided to leave the draw open for a few minutes, until the boat had time to go through.
He sat down to finish his lunch. He had just raised a bit of home-made berry pie to his mouth, when a clatter on the Westville turnpike startled him.
"My gracious! a runaway!" cried old Bob Sanderson.
Ralph leaped to his feet, and saw that his old helper was right. There, tearing along the road that led from the village center was an elegant team of black horses, attached to a large open carriage.
"It's Mrs. Carrington's team!" cried Pickley. "And blame me if the old lady and her daughter ain't in the carriage!"
"The team is coming this way!" put in Bob Sanderson. "I wonder if we can't stop them?"
"Not much!" roared Pickley. "Get out of the way, or you'll be knocked down and killed!"
Sanderson was too old a man to attempt to subdue the fiery steeds, and he quickly followed Pickley out of harm's way.
In the meantime Ralph stood undecided as to what to do. Should he run forward, and try to bring the horses to a standstill before the bridge was reached?
"It won't do," he muttered, half-aloud. "I might miss them, and then——"
He thought no further, but with a bound, sprang to the capstan bar, and with might and main strove to swing the heavy bridge around into place, thus closing the draw.
It was hard work, and the sweat poured from his face and down his chin. But he kept at it, noting at each turn how close the steeds and the elegant turnout were drawing.
At last, with a shock and a quiver, the draw-bridge reached its resting piers. As it did so Ralph gave the bar and capstan a jerk from the hole in which it worked. He threw it aside, just as the front hoofs of the runaways struck the long planking at the end of the bridge.
"Help! help!" came in a female voice from the carriage, and the young bridge tender saw that both Mrs. Carrington and her daughter were preparing to leap out.
"Don't jump!" he screamed, and then made a dash for the horses' heads.
The fact that they had struck the bridge caused the team to slacken their pace a bit. Taking advantage of this, Ralph caught them by both bridles. They lifted him off his feet, but he clung fast, and by the time the Eastport side was reached the team was conquered.
"Hold them, hold them, please!" cried Mrs. Carrington, who, by the way, was one of the richest residents of Westville. "I will get out."
"They are all right now," returned Ralph. "But I will hold them, if you wish."
And he did so while the lady and her daughter alighted.
"Oh, how thankful I am to you," said the lady.
"And I, too," added her daughter, with a grateful glance that caused Ralph to blush. "Oh, mamma," she went on, "I wonder what became of Mr. Paget?"
"It's hard to tell," returned Mrs. Carrington, coldly.
"Mr. Paget!" cried Ralph. "Do you mean Percy Paget?"
"Yes," replied Julia Carrington.
"Was he with you?"
"He was," answered Mrs. Carrington. "But at the first signs of danger he sprang out of the carriage and left us to our fate!"
Ralph was much surprised to learn that Percy Paget had been in the carriage.
"Was he hurt when he sprang out?" he asked of Mrs. Carrington.
"I am sure I do not know," returned the lady.
"I don't think so," put in her daughter, a beautiful miss of sixteen. "He landed in the middle of a blackberry bush when he sprang from the front seat."
"Then he was driving?"
"Yes, and it was his fault that the team ran away," returned Mrs. Carrington. "I told him that they were very spirited, but in order to make them do their best, as he thought, he used the whip upon them."
"Such a team as that don't need the whip much," put in old Bob Sanderson, who had come up during the conversation, followed by Dan Pickley. "They're too high-minded."
"That is just it," said the lady.
"It was gritty of Ralph to shut the bridge and stop 'em for you," went on the old man.
"Indeed it was!" cried Julia Carrington. "I shall never forget your bravery," she went on to Ralph. "You have done what many a man would be afraid to undertake."
"So he has," put in her mother. "You are Ralph Nelson, the bridge tender, I believe."
"I used to know your father fairly well. You have taken his place since he died."
"Yes, ma'am—up to the end of this week. Then Mr. Pickley takes it," and Ralph pointed to the fellow he had mentioned.
"And what are you going to do?"
"I don't know yet. I am going to look for work somewhere."
"I trust you find something suitable."
"I'll take anything that pays fair wages."
"And how is it you are going to leave here?" went on the lady, curiously.
"I got into a row with Percy Paget, and his father is chairman of the village board, and he sided with his son."
"I see." Mrs. Carrington bit her lip. "Well, we must be going, Julia," she said to her daughter. "I shall not forget you for your bravery, Ralph Nelson."
"Thank you, ma'am; I only did what was my duty."
"It is more than that. I shall not forget you, remember."
The lady re-entered her carriage, and Ralph assisted the daughter to a seat beside her.
In a moment more they continued on their way, leaving Ralph, Sanderson and Pickley to gaze after them.
"My, but they're swell!" was Pickley's comment. "I wish I was in your shoes, Ralph."
"She won't forget you, that's certain," said Sanderson. "She'll reward you handsomelike, see if she don't, Ralph."
"They don't seem to care much about Percy Paget's condition," returned the boy, by way of changing the subject.
"Well, who would—under the circumstances!" exclaimed the old man, in deep disgust.
"Perhaps they don't give him the credit he deserves," said Pickley, thinking he must say something in favor of the squire's son.
Ralph and Sanderson had their own opinion of Percy, and they did not care to argue with Pickley on the subject. The young bridge tender went back to his work, and Sanderson shuffled off to go at an odd job of boat-mending. Pickley sat down to count the tolls as before.
Three minutes later Percy Paget came into sight. His hands and face were scratched and his clothing torn.
"See anything of a runaway?" he cried, as he came up to Pickley.
"Yes; the team was stopped right here," replied the man.
"Who stopped 'em?"
"You don't mean it?" gasped the young aristocrat.
"Yes, I do."
"Was he hurt?"
"Not a bit."
"I don't see how he could do it," grumbled Percy. "That team was going like mad."
"So it was. Ralph not only stopped the team, but before that he worked like lightning to close the draw so that they wouldn't go overboard."
"Humph!" mused Percy. "He must have done it in hopes of a reward. Most likely he knew who was in the carriage."
"What did Mrs. Carrington give him?"
"Nothing. But she said she would not forget him."
"She'll send him five dollars, or something like that, I guess. Did she—she say anything about me?" went on Percy, hesitatingly.
"She said you leaped from the carriage as soon as the team started."
"That isn't so," replied the aristocratic bully, glibly. "I didn't jump at all."
"No, I was pitched out. I stood up to get a better hold on the reins, and just then the carriage lurched, and out I went."
"Oh, well, then, that's different," replied Dan Pickley, who did not think it to his advantage to question the veracity of Percy's explanation. "Mrs. Carrington seemed to think you had jumped out because you were scared."
"And did her daughter seem to think so, too?" asked Percy, his anxiety increasing.
"I don't know but what she did. You had better hunt them up and explain matters."
"I will. I suppose the reason they didn't come back for me is because they were in a hurry to get to Eastport and see Mr. Carrington before he went off to Chambersburgh."
"They didn't say what they were in a hurry about," returned Dan Pickley.
Percy saw that Ralph was now approaching, and not wishing, for various reasons, to encounter the young bridge tender while in such a woe-begone condition, he turned on his heel and walked back toward Westville.
Ralph could not help but laugh at the discomfiture of the young bully. He had overheard a good part of the conversation, and he was satisfied that Percy was, for once at least, more than "taken down."
On the other hand, Percy was greatly chagrined to learn that Ralph had played the part of the hero. His face drew dark, and his eyes flashed their bitter hatred.
"It's too bad, that low upstart to stop the team!" he muttered to himself. "I wonder if Julia Carrington spoke to him? Most likely she did, and now he'll look at her as a special friend! It's a great shame! I'll have to teach him his place if he tries to get too intimate with her!"
All of which went to prove that Percy's hopes in the direction of Julia were more than of the ordinary kind.
Percy would have been more bitter than ever could he have witnessed the scene in the Nelson cottage that evening, shortly after eight o'clock.
Five minutes before that time Ralph was sitting in the kitchen, telling his mother of the stirring event of the day, to which the fond parent listened with keen interest.
The son had just finished when there came a timid knock at the front door.
"Somebody's knocking, Ralph," said Mrs. Nelson. "Go and light the sitting-room lamp and see who it is."
Ralph lit the lamp, and then opened the door. Before him stood Mrs. Carrington and her daughter.
"Good-evening, Ralph; you did not expect to see me quite so soon, I imagine," said Mrs. Carrington, with a smile, as she stepped in.
"Well, no," stammered the youth. "Won't you have a chair?" and he pushed a seat forward for the lady and another for her daughter.
"Thank you, yes," returned Mrs. Carrington. "Is this Mrs. Nelson?" she went on, as Ralph's mother appeared.
"Yes, madam," said the widow. "Pray, make yourself comfortable. Perhaps you would prefer a rocker?"
"No, we won't stay but a minute. Has Ralph told you of his bravery this noon?"
"He said he stopped your runaway team."
"He did nobly, and my daughter and I have come to offer him a slight reward for his gallant deed."
"I was not looking for a reward," put in Ralph.
"But you deserve one, Ralph, and I trust you will accept what we have brought. Julia!"
"Yes, mamma. Here it is," and from beneath her dress folds Julia Carrington produced a small morocco-covered box. "Allow me to present this, Ralph Nelson, with the compliments of my mother and myself," she said, turning to the young bridge tender.
She held out the box.
"Thank you, but I—I really didn't expect anything," stammered Ralph, as he took the offering.
"Open it, and let us see the kind gift Mrs. Carrington and her daughter have made," said his mother.
There was a catch on one side of the small box. Ralph pressed upon this, and up flew the lid, revealing to his astonished and pleased gaze a small but neatly engraved gold watch, with chain and charm attached.
"A gold watch!" cried Ralph.
"And chain and all!" added Mrs. Nelson.
"Really, I—I can't accept this!" and Ralph blushed furiously. "I—I——"
"Oh, yes, you can," laughed Julia Carrington. "It is not as much as we think you ought to have, but——"
"It is more, Miss Carrington."
"Do you like it, Ralph?" questioned the older lady.
"Very much indeed. I have always wanted a good watch. I have been using father's old one, but that is about worn out, and can't be made to run with much regularity."
ON BIG SILVER LAKE.
The Carringtons remained at the Nelson cottage much longer than they originally intended. It was ten o'clock when Ralph lit the way to where their carriage was standing, in charge of a colored coachman. During the visit the rich folks asked Mrs. Nelson and Ralph much about themselves. Julia Carrington proved herself a very nice young lady, and when she went away Ralph and his new acquaintances were warm friends.
"They are not stuck up a bit, mother," said the young bridge tender, as he returned to the cottage after seeing them off.
"No, they are very kind-hearted as well as rich," returned Mrs. Nelson. "Would Westville had more of such."
"What a difference between such folks and the Pagets and the Steiners. Why, Mrs. Steiner and her daughter Maud wouldn't look at us if they stumbled over us on the street, and neither would Mrs. Paget when she was alive."
"Well, we must remember that we do not belong to fashionable society, Ralph. We belong to the poorer classes."
"So we do, but that doesn't make it right for some folks to look at us as if we were the dust under their feet. I shall not forget the Carringtons' kind ways, nor the beautiful present they made me," and Ralph fell to examining the gold watch and chain anew.
It was truly a valuable gift, and the boy was more than delighted. He resolved to wear it only when he needed a time-piece or when he was "dressed up." It was too good to have about his old clothes constantly.
Ralph's remaining time as bridge tender went swiftly by, and on the day set by the committee he was paid off by Squire Paget, and Dan Pickley was duly installed in his place.
"What are you going to do now?" asked the squire, as he handed over Ralph's salary.
"I don't know yet," returned the boy.
"Guess you'll find it rather hard to find work around Westville."
"I don't know. I haven't had any chance of looking around."
"Well, I'm sorry for you," went on Squire Paget, hypocritically. "I don't like to see any one out of work."
"Really! It was yourself got me out of the job!" retorted Ralph.
"No, it wasn't, Nelson; it was your own hasty temper. If you hadn't attacked Percy—but let that pass——"
"Percy was in the wrong—I shall always say so——" interrupted Ralph.
"There you go!" snarled the squire. "I was going to offer you a situation on one of my canal boats, but I shan't do it now. You don't deserve it."
"I do not want any situation from you," replied the boy, with a sudden show of spirit. "I would rather find my own employment."
"Going to be pig-headed, eh?"
"You can call it what you please. You did not treat me fairly, and I guess I can get along without your aid."
And without another word Ralph pocketed his pay, and walked off.
"A regular young tartar!" mused the squire, as he gazed after him. "He won't be easy to manage; that's certain. Too bad I couldn't get him on the canal boat. I must find some way of getting him out of Westville—and his mother, too. I can't do much while they are around."
Ralph had been paid off at the squire's office in the village, and now he made his way to Uriah Dicks' store, to settle up the family account.
"How much do we owe you, Mr. Dicks?" he asked, as he walked up to Uriah, who was poring over a very dirty ledger.
"Oh, so it's you, Ralph!" exclaimed the storekeeper. "Been up to the squire's yet?"
"Did you get your pay?"
"And now you want to settle up?"
"Yes," replied Ralph, for a third time.
"I hope you ain't a-goin' to quit tradin' with me!" cried Uriah, in some alarm.
"We are, Mr. Dicks. What can you expect, after the way you have treated me?"
"I—I couldn't help votin' in the committee with the squire and Ben Hooker," returned the storekeeper, lamely. "They said it was a clear case against you."
"And therefore you wouldn't give me a chance to clear myself," said Ralph, bitterly. "How much is the bill?"
"Three dollars and nineteen cents. I'll call it three dollars if you'll keep on buying here," went on Uriah, desperately.
It made his heart fairly ache to see trade going to one of the rival stores.
"I prefer to settle in full," rejoined the boy, coolly. "Take the three dollars and nineteen cents out of this five-dollar bill."
With an inward groan, Uriah took out the amount, handed back the change, and crossed the account from the book.
"Got anything to do?" he asked, a sudden idea flashing through his head.
"I might take you on here—I need a boy."
"And what would you pay?" questioned Ralph, although he knew about what to expect from the miserly man he was addressing.
"Well, I'd be willin' to pay a big boy like you two dollars and a half a week. I wouldn't pay a small boy so much."
"Thank you, but I wouldn't work for that, even if I cared to work for you, Mr. Dicks. Two dollars and a half wouldn't run our house."
"I would let you have your groceries at cost," said Uriah, as an extra inducement.
The truth was, many of his customers had upbraided him for aiding in the discharge of Ralph as bridge tender, and he wished to set himself right with these folks.
"I do not care to work for you, sir. I think I can get work I will like better and which will pay more elsewhere."
The storekeeper's face fell, and he closed the dirty ledger with a slam.
"All right, Ralph, suit yourself. But if you starve to death, don't lay it at my door, mind that!"
"No fear of my starving," returned the boy, lightly, and he left the store.
Uriah watched him from behind the dirty windows of his place. He heaved a big sigh as he saw Ralph enter the opposition store just across the way, and groaned aloud when the youth came out with half-a-dozen packages under his arm, and started for home.
"I guess I put my foot into it when I sided with the squire," he meditated. "But it had to be done. Anyway, the squire's trade is bigger than the Nelsons', so I'm better off than I might be," and, thus consoling himself, he went back to his accounts.
To Uriah Dicks all such matters were questions of dollars and cents, not of justice.
When Ralph arrived home, he told his mother of the storekeeper's offer.
"Do you think I did wrong in refusing?" he asked.
"No, Ralph; I would have done the same."
"I fancy I can strike a job that will pay better—anyway, I am going to try."
Sunday of the week passed quietly enough, and on Monday morning Ralph brushed up his every-day clothes, took along the lunch his mother put up for him, and left the cottage to try his luck among the stores and factories in Eastport.
"Don't be alarmed if I am not home until night, mother," he said. "I may strike a situation in which they wish me at once."
"All right, Ralph," she returned. "Good luck to you."
But Ralph did not get to Eastport that day. As he was crossing the bridge a young man on a small sailboat hailed him. It was Roy Parkhurst, a fellow Ralph knew well.
"Hallo, Ralph!" he called out. "The job on the bridge and you have parted company, I am told."
"Doing anything to-day?"
"No, I was just bound for Eastport to look for work."
"Then you are just the fellow I am looking for," said Parkhurst.
"I want to sail down to Martinton and have this boat taken back here. If you'll undertake the job I'll give you a dollar."
"I'll go you," returned Ralph promptly. "I can put off looking for another situation until to-morrow."
"Then jump in."
Parkhurst ran his boat close to the bridge, and Ralph sprang down on one of the seats. Soon the two were moving down Silver Lake at all the speed the little craft commanded.