E-text prepared by Al Haines
THEN I'LL COME BACK TO YOU
Author of Once to Every Man
Illustrated by Will Stevens
[Frontispiece: "I Ain't Never Seen Nothin'," He Stated Patiently. "I Ain't Never Seen More'n Three Houses in a Clearin' Before. I Ain't Never Been Outen the Timber—Till To-Day. But I Aim to See More Now—Before I Get Done."]
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers Copyright, 1915, by The H. K. Fly Company. Copyright, 1915, by The Metropolitan Magazine Company.
To the Memory of
I. I DON'T MIND IF I DO! II. THE LOGICAL CUSTODIAN III. THREE QUARTERS AND SIX EIGHTHS IV. I'LL TELL HER YOU'RE A BAPTIST V. THEN I'LL COME BACK TO YOU VI. MY MAN O'MARA VII. HARRIGAN, THAT'S ME! VIII. GREETINGS, SIR GALLAHAD! IX. A MATTER OF ORNITHOLOGY X. NOT A CHANCE IN THE WORLD XI. I NEVER DID LIKE TO BE BEATEN XII. THAT WOODS-RAT XIII. THIS LITERARY THING XIV. A GIRL LIKE HER XV. LAW AND LUMBER XVI. ACCIDENTS WILL HAPPEN XVII. HONEY! XVIII. I'M TELLING YOU GOOD-BYE XIX. SOME LETTERS AND A REPLY XX. BLUE FLANNEL AND CORDUROY XXI. SETTING THE STAGE XXII. IT HAPPENS IN BOOKS XXIII. TO-MORROW— XXIV. —AND TO-MORROW, AND TO-MORROW XXV. IN REAL LIFE TOO
"I Ain't Never Seen Nothin'," He Stated Patiently. "I Ain't Never Seen More'n Three Houses in a Clearin' Before. I Ain't Never Been Outen the Timber—Till To-Day. But I Aim to See More Now—Before I Get Done." . . . . . . Frontispiece
"I've Always Had to Wait a Long Time for Everything I've Wanted," the Boy Answered, "But I Always Get It, Just the Same, if I Only Want it Hard Enough."
"Blessings, My Children," He Called to the Two in the Shadow. "My Felicitations! and E'en though I know Not Your Identity, Still I May Sense Your Fond Confusion."
"Oh, I Can't Tell You How Glad I Am to See You So—So Well!"
THEN I'LL COME BACK TO YOU
I DON'T MIND IF I DO!
That year no rain had fallen for a score of days in the hill country. The valley road that wound upward and still upward from the town of Morrison ran a ribbon of puffy yellow dust between sun-baked, brown-sodded dunes; ran north and north, a tortuous series of loops on loops, to lose itself at last in the cooler promise of the first bulwark of the mountains. They looked cooler, the distant wooded hills; for all the shimmering heat waves that danced and eddied in the gaps and glanced, shaft-like, from the brittle needles of the pines which sentineled the ridges, they hinted at depths to which the sun's rays could not penetrate; they hinted at chasms padded with moss, shadowed and dim beneath chapel arches of spruce and hemlock, even chilly with the spray of spring-fed brooks that brawled in miniature rocky canyons. And they made the gasping heat of the valley a little more unendurable by very contrast.
Since early afternoon Caleb Hunter had been sitting almost immobile in the shade of the trellis which flanked the deep verandas of his huge white, thick-pillared house on the hill above the river. It was reminiscent of another locality—the old Hunter place on the valley road. When Caleb Hunter's father had come north, back when his loyalty to a flag and his pity for a gaunt and lonely figure in the White House had been stronger than bonds of blood, he had left its counterpart down on the Tennessee. Afterward, with one empty sleeve pinned across his breast, he had directed with the other hand the placing of the columns. And finally, when he had had to leave this home in turn, along with its high, white painted walls and glossy green shutters, he had passed down to his son his inborn love of the warmth, his innocent delight in indolence—and an unsurpassed judgment of mint. The mint bed still lay where he had located it, to the west of the house, moist and fragrant in the shadow.
Caleb Hunter had been drowsing contentedly since early afternoon, his chin on his chest and the bowl of his pipe drooping down over his comfortably bulging, unbuttoned waistcoat. The lazy day was in his blood and even the whine of the sawmills on the river-bank, a mile or more to the south, tempered as it was by the distance to the drone of a surly bumble-bee, still vaguely annoyed him. Tiny dots of men in flannel shirts of brilliant hue, flashing from time to time out across the log-choked space between the booms, caught his eye whenever he lifted his head, during the passage of a green-sprayed glass from the veranda rail to his lips, and almost reminded him of the unnatural altitude of the mercury. He, without being analytical about it, would have preferred it without the industry and the noise, even softened as both were by the distance.
Morrison had changed since Caleb Hunter's father topped with the white-columned house that hill above the river. In those days it had been little more than a sleepy, if conservatively prosperous and self-sufficient, community, without industry of any sort, or, it might be added, ambition or seeming need of one. The Basin where the river widened and ran currentless a mile or two from bank to bank, in Caleb's father's time for weeks and weeks on end often had showed no more signs of activity than a dawdling fisherman or two who angled now and then and smoked incessantly. And now even the low-lying foothills in which the elder Hunter had tried to see from homesick eyes a resemblance to the outguard of his own Cumberlands were no longer given over to pasturage. They had taken on an entirely different aspect.
The northern streets of the town were still dotted with the homes of those families who had been content with just the shade and the silence and the sheen of the river, and an ample though inaugmented income. But the outside world, ignoring the lack of an invitation too long in the coming, had in the last year or so grown in to meet it more than half way. From the Hunter verandas a half-dozen red-roofed, brown-shingled bungalows, half camps and half castles, were visible across the land stretches where the cattle had grazed before. And just beyond Caleb Hunter's own high box hedge, Dexter Allison's enormous stucco and timber "summer lodge" sprawled amid a round dozen acres of green lawn and landscape gardening, its front to the river.
To Dexter Allison's blame or credit—the nature of the verdict depending entirely upon whether it was rendered by the older or the newer generation—was laid the transformation of Morrison, the town proper. Caleb Hunter had known Allison at college, where the latter had been prominent both because of the brilliance of his wardrobe and the reputed size of his father's steadily accumulating resources. Since that time seven-figure fortunes such as the younger Allison had inherited, had become too general to be any longer spectacular. But Dexter Allison's garments had always retained their insistent note. Hunter himself had sold Allison the ground upon which the stucco house stood; he had heartily agreed that it was an ideal spot for a loafing place—and the fishing was good, too! Now whenever Caleb thought of those first conferences which had preceded the sale, and recalled Allison's accentuation of the natural beauties of the spot, Caleb allowed himself to smile.
The fishing was still far above reproach, a little further back country—and Dexter Allison owned the sawmills that droned in the valley. His men drove his timber down from the hills in the north; his men piled the yellow planks upon his flat cars which ran in over his spur line that had crept up from the south. His hundreds and hundreds of rivermen already trod the sawdust-padded streets of the newer Morrison that had sprung into being beyond the bend; they swarmed in on the drives, a hard-faced, hard-shouldered horde, picturesque, proficient and profane. They brought with them color and care-free prodigality and a capacity for abandonment to pleasure that ran the whole gamut of emotions, from raucous-roared chanties to sudden, swift encounters which were as silent as they were deadly. And they spent their money without stopping to count it.
The younger generation of the older Morrison was quick to point out the virtues of this vice. And after a time, when the older generation found that the rivermen preferred their own section of the town, ignoring as though they had never existed the staid and sleepy residential streets above, they heaved a sigh of partial relief and tried to forget their proximity.
Little more than a year had been required for that transformation. The boards of some of the newer shacks down river were still damp with pitch. And twice during that period Dexter Allison had come into the hills to take up a transitory abode in the stucco house which had been quite six months in the building:—once, two years before, when he had disappeared into the mountains upon a prolonged fishing trip, to return fishless but with an astonishing mass of pencilled data and contour maps; and the second time for an even longer stay, a year ago when the mill was being erected.
Since then the stucco and timber place had been closed, with no one but a doddering old caretaker and a gardener or two about the premises, until early that last hot August week. On Monday Caleb Hunter had noticed that the blinds had been thrown open to the air; on Wednesday, from his point of vantage upon the porch, he had watched a rather astounding load of trunks careen in at the driveway, piloted by a mill teamster who had for two seasons held the record for a double-team load of logs and was making the most of that opportunity to prove his skill. And the next morning the tumult raised by a group of children racing over the shorn lawns had awakened him; he had descended to be hailed by Dexter Allison's own booming bass from behind the intervening high box hedge.
It was the hottest day of the hottest fortnight that the hill country had known in years. The very temperature gave color to Allison's statement that the heat had driven them north from the shore—him and his wife and Barbara, their daughter of ten, and the half-dozen or more guests whose trunks, coming on the next day, made an even more imposing sight than had Allison's own. And yet as he sat there in the shadow, methodically pulling upon his pipe, Caleb Hunter smiled from time to time, reminiscently. He last of all would have been the one to admit that the owner of the big stucco place and the mills, and—yes, of the newer Morrison itself—had not given a good account of the talents and tens of talents which had been passed down to him. But the use of so much evasion, where no evasion at all seemed necessary, rather puzzled as well as amused Caleb; and yet, after all, this merely branded him as old-fashioned, so far as the newer business methods were concerned which were crowding into Morrison. Allison's way of going about a thing made him think of the old valley road that wound north in its series of loops on loops; and yet, reflecting upon that parallel, he had to admit to himself, too, that the road achieved final heights which, in a straightaway route across country would have necessitated more than a few wearisome and heart-breaking grades.
The comparison pleased Caleb. He was nodding his head over it as he buried his nose in the mint-sprayed glass again, when a haze of dust to the north caught his vagrant attention. Quite apparently it was raised by a foot-traveler, and the latter were not frequent upon that road, especially foot-travelers who came from that direction. Trivial as it was, it piqued his interest, and he lay back and followed it from lazily half-closed eyes. It topped a rise and disappeared—the dust cloud—and reappeared in turn, but not until it had advanced to within a scant hundred yards of him could he make out the figure which raised it. And then, after one sharp glance, with a quick intake of breath, he rose and went a trifle hastily out across his own lawn toward the iron picket fence that bordered the roadside. He went almost hurriedly to intercept the boy who came marching over the brow of the last low hill.
Caleb Hunter, particularly in the last year or so, had seen many a strange and brilliant costume pass along that wilderness highway, but as he hung over the front gate he remembered that none of them had ever before drawn him from his deep chair in the shadow. For him none of them had ever approached in sensationalism the quite unbelievable garb of the boy who came steadily on and on—who came steadily nearer and nearer.
With a little closer view of him the watching man understood the reason for the dense cloud of dust above the lone pedestrian. For when the boy raised his feet with each stride, the man-sized, hob-nailed boots which encased them failed to lift in turn. Indeed, the toes did clear the ground, but the heels, slipping away from the lean ankles, dragged in the follow-through. And the boy's other garments, save for his flannel shirt and flapping felt hat, were of a size in keeping with the boots.
His trousers had once been white cotton drill, but the whiteness had long before given up the unequal struggle against grime and grease and subsided to a less conspicuous, less perishable grey. They had been cut off just below the knees and, unhemmed, hung flapping with every step he took above a stretch of white-socked, spindly shanks. But it was the coat he wore which held Caleb spellbound. It was of a style popularly known as a swallowtail, faced with satin as to lapels and once gracefully rounded to a long, bisected skirt in the rear. The satin facings were gone and the original color of the fabric, too, had faded to a shiny, bottle-green. But the long skirts—at least all that was left of them—still flapped bravely, as did the trousers. For they, like the nether garments, had been cut off, with more regard for haste than accuracy, so that the back of the coat cleared the ground by a good foot and a half. The sleeves, rolled back from two slender, browned wrists, were cuffed with a six-inch stretch of striped, soiled lining.
For a time Caleb had been at a loss to make out the object which the boy carried upon one shoulder, balanced above a blanket tight-rolled and tied with string. Not until the grotesque little figure was within a dozen paces of him did he recognize it, and then, at the same moment that he caught a glimpse of an old and rusted revolver strapped to the boy's narrow waist, he realized what it was. The boy was toting a double-springed steel trap, big enough it seemed to take all four feet of any bear that ever walked—and it was beautifully dull with oil!
Caleb stood and stared, mouth agape. A moment or two earlier he had had to fight off an almost uncontrollable desire to roar with laughter, but that mood had passed somehow as the boy came nearer. For the latter was not even aware of his presence there behind the iron fence; he was walking with his head up, thin face thrust forward like that of a young and overly eager setter with the bird in plain sight. The world of hunger in that strained and staring visage helped Caleb to master his mirth, and when, at a tentative cough from him, the small figure halted dead in his tracks and wheeled, even the vestige of a smile left the wide-waisted watcher's lips. Then Caleb had his first full view of the boy's features.
There were wide, deep shadows beneath the grey eyes, doubly noticeable because of the heavy fringe of the lashes that swept above them; there was a pallid, bluish circle around the thin and tight-set lips. And the lean cheeks were very, very pale, both with the heat of the sun and a fatigue now close to exhaustion. But the eyes themselves, as they met Caleb's, were alight with a fire which afterward, when he had had more time to ponder it, made him remember the pictured eyes of the children of the Crusades. They fairly burned into his own, and they checked the first half-jocular words of greeting which had been trembling upon his lips. His voice was only grave and kindly when he began to speak.
"You—you look a trifle tired, young man," he said then. "Are you—going far?"
The boy touched his lips delicately with the point of his tongue. His gravity more than matched that of his questioner.
"Air—air thet the—city?"
The words were soft of accent and a little drawling; there was an accompanying gesture of one thumb thrown backward over a thin shoulder. But Caleb had to smile a little at the breathless note in the query.
"The city?" he echoed, a little puzzled. "The city! Well, now—I——" and he chuckled a bit.
The boy caught him up swiftly, almost sharply.
"Thet's—ain't thet Morrison?" he demanded.
And then Caleb had a glimmer of comprehension. He nodded.
"Yes," he answered quietly. "That's the city. That's Morrison down there."
The shoulders of the ancient coat lifted and fell with a visible sigh as the strange little figure turned again, head keenly forward, to gaze hungrily down at the town in the valley. And Caleb translated that long-drawn breath correctly; without stopping to reason it out, he knew that it meant fulfillment of a dream most marvelous in anticipation, but even more wonderful in its coming true. Words would have failed where that single breath sufficed. The man remained quiet until the boy finally turned back to him, eased the heavy trap to his other shoulder and wet his lips once more.
"I thought it war," he murmured, and a thread of awe wove through the words. "I thought it est nachelly hed to be! Haow—haow many houses would you reckon they might be daown—daown in thet there holler?"
The owner of the white-columned house gave the question its meed of reflection.
"Well, I—I'd say quite a few hundred, at least."
The odd little figure bobbed his head.
"Thet's what Old Tom always sed," he muttered, more to himself than to his hearer. "An'—an' I guess I ain't never rightly believed him till naow." And then: "Is—is New Yor-rk any bigger?" he asked.
The man at the picket fence smiled again, but the smile was without offense.
"Well, yes," he answered. "Yes, considerably bigger, I should judge. Twice as large, at least, and maybe more than that."
The boy did not answer. He just faced about to stare once more. And then the miracle came to pass. Around a far bend in Dexter Allison's single spur track there came careening an ashmatic switch engine with a half-dozen empty flats in tow. With a brave puffing and blowing of leaky cylinder heads, it rattled across an open space between piles of timber in the mill-yard and disappeared with a shrill toot of warning for unseen workmen upon the tracks ahead. The boy froze to granite-like immobility as it flashed into view. Long after it had passed from sight he stood like a bit of a fantastic figure cut from stone. Then a tremor shook him from head to foot, and when it came slowly about Caleb saw that his small face was even whiter than it had been before beneath its coat of tan and powdery dust.
He swallowed hard, and tried to speak—and had to swallow again before the words would come.
"Gawd—I—may—die!" ho broke out falteringly then. "There goes a injine! A steam injine—wan't it?"
Long afterward, when he had realized that the boy's life was to bring again and again a repetition of that sublime moment of realization—a moment of fulfillment unspoiled by surfeit or sophistication or a blunted capacity to marvel, which Caleb had seen grow old and stale even in the children he knew, he wondered and wished that he might have known it himself, once at least. Years of waiting, starved years of anticipation, he felt after all must have been a very little price to pay for that great, blinding, gasping moment. But at the time, amazed at the boy's white face, amazed at the hushed fervor in the words he forgot,—he spoke before he thought.
"But haven't you ever seen an engine before?" he exclaimed.
As soon as the question had left his lips he would have given much to have had it back again; but at that it failed to have the effect which he feared too late to check. Instead of coloring with hurt and shame, instead of subterfuge or evasion, the boy simply lifted his eyes levelly to Caleb's face.
"I ain't never seed nuthin'," he stated patiently. "I ain't never seed more'n three houses together in a clearin' before. I—I ain't never been outen the timber—till today. But I aim to see more, naow—before I git done!"
The man experienced a peculiar sensation. The boy's low, passionlessly vehement statement somehow made him feel that it wasn't a boy to whom he was talking, but a little and grave old man. And suddenly the desire seized him to hear more of that low, direct voice; the impulse came to him and Caleb, whose whole life had been as free from erratic snap-judgments as his broad face was of craft, found joy in acting upon it forthwith, before it had time to cool.
"The view is excellent from my veranda," he waved a hand behind him. "And—you look a little warm and tired. If your business is not of too pressing a nature—have you——" he broke off, amazed at his helpless formality in the matter—"have you come far?"
And he wondered immediately how the boy would receive that suggestion that he hesitate, there with the "city" in front of him, a fairy-tale to be explored. And again he was allowed to catch a glimpse of age-old spirit—a glimpse of a man-sized self-discipline—beneath the childish exterior.
The boy hesitated a moment, but it was his uncertainty as to just what Caleb's invitation had offered, and not the lure of the town which made him pause. He took one step forward.
"I been comin' since last Friday," he explained. "I been comin' daown river for three days naow—and I been comin' fast!"
Again that measuring, level glance.
"An' I ain't got no business—yit," he went on. "Thet's what I aim to locate, after I've hed a chance to look around a trifle. But I am tired a little, an' so if you mean thet you're askin' me to stop for a minit—if you mean thet you're askin' me that—why, then . . . then, I guess I don't mind if I do!"
"That's what I mean," said Caleb.
And the little figure preceded him across his soft, cropped lawn.
THE LOGICAL CUSTODIAN
Caleb Hunter had never married, and even now, at the age of forty and odd, in particularly mellow moments he was liable to confess that, while matrimony no doubt offered a far wider field for both general excitement and variety, as far as he himself was concerned, he felt that his bachelor condition had points of excellence too obvious to be treated with contumely. Perhaps the fact that Sarah Hunter, four years his senior, had kept so well oiled the cogs of the domestic machinery of the white place on the hill that their churnings had never been evidenced may have been in part an answer to his contentment.
For Sarah Hunter, too, had never married. To the townspeople who had never dared to try to storm the wall of her apparent frigidity, or been able quite to understand her aloof austerity, she was little more than a weekly occurence as dependable as the rising and setting of the sun itself. Every Sunday morning a rare vision of stately dignity for all her tininess, assisted by Caleb, she descended from the Hunter equipage to enter the portals of the Morrison Baptist church. After the service she reappeared and, having complimented the minister upon the sagacity of his discourse, again assisted by Caleb, she mounted to the rear seat of the surrey and rolled back up the hill.
That was as much as the townspeople ever saw of "Cal Hunter's maiden sister" unless there happened to be a prolonged siege of sickness in the village or a worse accident than usual. Then she came and camped on the scene until the crisis was over, soft-voiced, soft-fingered and serenely sure of herself. Sarah had never married, and even though she had in the long interval which, year by year, had brought to Caleb a more placid rotundity grown slender and slenderer still, and flat-chested and sharp-angled in face and figure, Caleb knew that underneath it all there had been no shrinkage in her soul—knew that there were no bleak expanses in her heart, or edges to her pity.
They often joked each other about their state of single blessedness, did Caleb and his sister. Often, hard upon his easy boast of satisfaction with things as they were, she would quote the fable of the fox and the high-hanging grapes, only to be taunted a moment later with her own celibacy. But the taunt and the fable had long been stingless. For Sarah Hunter knew that one end of Caleb's heavy gold watch chain still carried a bit of a gold coin, worn smooth and thin from years of handling; she knew that the single word across its back, even though it had long ago been effaced so far as other eyes were concerned, was still there for him to see. And Caleb, rummaging one day for some lost article or other, in a pigeonhole in Sarah's desk in which he had no license to look, had come across a picture of a tall and black-haired lad, brave in white trousers and an amazing waistcoat. Caleb remembered having been told that he had died for another with that same smile which the picture had preserved—the tall and jaunty youngster. And so their comprehension was mutual. They understood, did Caleb and his sister.
But sure as he was of Sarah's fundamental kindness, Caleb experienced a twinge of guilty uncertainty that August afternoon as he closed the iron gate behind the grotesque little figure which had already started across his lawn. For the moment he had forgotten that the sun was low in the west; he had overlooked the fact that it was customary for the Hunter establishment to sup early during the warm summer months. But when he turned to find Sarah watching, stiff and uncompromising, from the doorway, he remembered with painful certainty her attitude toward his propensity to pick up any stray that might catch him in a moment of too pronounced mellowness—stray human or feline or lost yellow dog.
Sarah's gaze, however, was not for her brother at that moment. Her eyes were fixed unswervingly upon the figure in the once-white drill trousers and bobbed swallow-tail coat and shuffling boots. She was staring from wide and, Caleb noted, rather horror-stricken eyes at the huge steel trap above the blanket pack. But the boy who must have received her glance full in his face had not faltered a step in his advance. He went forward until he stood at the foot of the low steps which mounted to the veranda; and there he stopped, looking up at her, and removed his battered hat. Caleb ranged awkwardly up alongside him and looked up at her in turn. He, searching desperately for a neat and cleverly casual opening speech, could not know that beneath her forbidding manner a peal of soft laughter was struggling for utterance; could not know that, at that moment, she was telling herself that, of the two, Caleb was far the younger.
At last he cleared his throat, oratorically, and then she promptly interrupted him.
"Supper is served, Cal," she drawled in her gentle, almost lisping voice.
Caleb received the statement as if it were an astounding bit of hitherto undreamed-of news.
"Comin', Sarah!" he chirped briskly. "Comin' this blessed minute!"
And then, with an attempt at disingenuousness:
"I—I've a friend here, Sarah, whom I'd like to—er—present to you! This is my sister, Miss Hunter," he announced to the silent boy, "and this young man, Sarah, this young man is—er—ah—Mr.——"
"I'm Steve," said the boy, mildly. "I'm just Stephen O'Mara!"
"Certainly!" gasped Caleb. "Quite so—quite so! Sarah, this is just Steve."
The frail little woman with her quaint dignity of another decade failed to move; she did not unbend so much as the fraction of an inch. But hard upon the heels of Caleb's last words the boy went forward unhesitatingly. Hat in the hand that balanced his big steel trap, he stopped in front of her and offered one brown paw.
"Haow dye do, Miss Hunter," he saluted her, gravely. And with a slow smile that discovered for her a row of white and even teeth: "Haow dye do? I—I reckon you're the first—dressed-up lady I ever did git to know!"
The calm statement took what little breath there had been left in Caleb's lungs; it left Sarah breathless, too. But after an infinitesimal moment of waiting she held out her own delicate fingers and took the outstretched hand.
"Haow dye do, Steve?" she answered, and Caleb was at a loss to interpret the suppressed quality of her voice. "And I—some day I am sure it will be a great pleasure to remember that I was the—first!"
Then she faced her brother.
"Will you—will your friend, Mr.—Steve—remain for supper, Cal?" she asked.
And Caleb, quick to see an opening, made the most of this one.
"Stay for supper," he repeated her question, and he laughed. "Stay—for—supper! Well, I should hope he would. Why—why, he's going to stop for the night!"
From the vantage place there at the top of the steps Sarah stood and surveyed her brother's wide and guileless face for a second. Then her lips began to twitch.
"Very clever, Cal," she told him. "Quite clever—for you!"
And she nodded and withdrew to see that the table was laid for three.
Caleb, chuckling, watched her go; then with a nod to the boy, he started to follow her in. But Steve paused at the threshold, and when the man stopped and looked back to ascertain the cause of his delay he found that the boy was depositing the bear trap upon the porch floor—found him tugging to free the rusty old revolver from his belt.
"I'll leave Samanthy here," the one called Steve stated, and Caleb understood that he meant the trap. "An' I reckon I'd better not lug my weapon into the house, neither, hed I? She might——" He nodded in the direction of Sarah's disappearance—"Old Tom says womin folks that's gentle born air kind-a skittish about havin' shootin' irons araound the place. And I don't reckon it's the part of men folks to pester 'em."
Caleb didn't know just what to say, so he merely nodded approval. Again he had been made to feel that it was not a boy but some little old man who was explaining to him. Silently he led the way upstairs, and after he had seen the blanket pack deposited in one corner of Sarah's beloved guest-room, after he had seen the rusty coat peeled off as a preface to removing the dust accumulation of the long hot day from hands and face, an inspiration came to him. While the boy was washing, utterly lost to everything but that none-too-simple task, he went out of the room on a still-hunt of his own, and came back presently with the thing for which he had gone searching. He found the boy wrestling a little desperately with a mop of wavy chestnut hair which only grew the more hopeless with every stroke of the brush.
"Never mind that." Caleb met the misapprehension in the boy's eyes. "Never mind that! And I—I've taken the liberty of digging out this old canvas shooting coat. It's one I got for Sarah—for my sister—but, as you say, women folks are mighty skittish about anything that has to do with a gun. She never would go even so far as to try it on, but if you don't mind—— That coat of yours must be a trifle hot for this weather, I should say."
Steve reached out a hand that trembled a little and took the coat. He took it and stared at it with that same strained and hungry look which he had bestowed a half hour before upon the "City."
"Do you mean," he asked, and his lips remained parted breathlessly upon the question, "do you mean—this yere's for me?"
Caleb thought of the "injine"—the "steam injine."
"I mean just that, if you'll have it," he replied. The boy slipped his little body into the garment and wheeled to survey himself in a mirror. In comparison with the dismembered swallowtail it was the purple of a Solomon. There was a cartridge web across its front, with loops, and after he had looked long and long at his reflection, the boy thrust both his thumbs into the belt it made.
Then: "Them's fer ketridges," he announced solemnly.
He scowled judiciously and nodded.
And, "I'll hev to git me some, the first thing in the mornin'," he said.
That was his only remark then, and yet Caleb felt amply repaid. Later he had more to say, but for the time being he merely followed Caleb back downstairs, walking very stiff and straight except when, with every few steps, he leaned over the better to see the looped webbing across his middle.
And at table that evening the man came to know another trait in the odd little stranger's odd makeup which, coupled with those which he had already mentally tabulated for future private contemplation, set him to wondering more than a little.
With the appearance of the first dish upon the table that night the boy was very frankly nonplussed at the array of implements upon each side of his plate, placed there for him to manipulate. He scarcely knew one from the other, and the separate uses for each not at all. But the way in which he met the problem made Caleb lift his eyes and meet Sarah's inscrutable glance with something akin to triumph. For there was no awkwardness in the boy's procedure, no flushing embarrassment, no shame-facedness nor painfully self-conscious attempt to cover his ignorance. Instead, he sat and waited—sat and watched openly until Miss Sarah had herself selected knife or fork, as the case might be—and then, turning back to those beside his own place, frowning intently, he made painstaking selection therefrom. Nor did he once make a mistake. And Caleb, after he had begun to mark a growing softness in the color of his sister's thin cheeks, ventured to draw into conversation their small guest.
The boy talked freely and openly, always with his wide eyes upon the face of his questioner, always in the grave and slightly drawling idioms of the woods. Again he confided that he had never before been out of the timber; he explained that "Old Tom's" untimely taking-off a fortnight back had been alone responsible for this pilgrimage. And that opened the way for a question which Caleb had been eager to ask him.
"I suppose this—this 'Old Tom' was some kin of yours?" he observed.
The boy shook his head.
"No," he answered, "no, I ain't never hed no kin. I ain't never hed nobody—father ner mother, neither!"
Caleb saw Sarah start a little and bite her thin lips. But the bird-like movement of surprise was lost upon the speaker.
"I ain't never hed nobody," he re-averred, and Caleb, straining to catch a note of self-pity or plea for sympathy in the words, realized that the boy didn't even know what the one or the other was. "I ain't never hed nobody but Old Tom. And he was—he wasn't nuthin' but what he called my—my"—the sentence was broken while he paused to get the phrase correctly—"he was what he called my 'logical custodian.'"
Guiltily Caleb knew that his next question would savor of indelicacy, but he had to ask it just the same.
"Still, I suppose his—his taking-off must have been something in the nature of a blow to you?" he suggested.
The boy pursed his lips.
"Wall, no," he exclaimed at last, nonchalantly. "No-o-o! I can't say's it was. We'd both been expectin' it, I reckon. Old Tom, he often sed he knew that some day he'd go and git just blind, stavin' drunk enough to try an' swim the upper rapids—and two weeks ago he done so!"
And the rest of the words were quite casual.
"I kind-a reckon he'd hev made it, at that," he offered his opinion, "if they'd hev been a trifle more water. But the rocks was too close to the surface fer comfortable swimmin'. The Jenkinses found him down in the slack water, Sunday noon or thereabouts, and they sed he'd never be no deader, not even if he'd a-died in a reg'lar bed, with a doctor helpin' him along."
Caleb threw his sister one lugubriously helpless glance. Sarah had choked, apparently upon a crumb of bread, and was coughing, stranglingly. And Caleb made to change the drift of the conversation, but he was not quick enough.
"I ain't never been much of a hand for licker," Steve finished naively. "Old Tom sed he never could understand it in me, neither, but he reckoned it was lucky in a way fer both of us. He sed he'd whale the life outen me if he ever caught me even smellin' of a cork; and as fer him—well, it come in handy for him, havin' a sober hand round the shack when he wan't quite hisself!"
This time when Caleb lifted his eyes he met a startled gleam behind Sarah's half dropped lashes. She was peering steadily into the boy's lean, untroubled face. Caleb voiced the query which he knew must be behind her quiet intentness.
"You said your name was O'Mara, I believe. I suppose that was—ah—Old Tom's last name, too?"
Steve laughed; he laughed frankly for the first time since he had halted, hours before, outside in the dusty road.
"Why, Old Tom had a dozen different names in the last few years," he replied. "He had a new one every time he went outen the woods fer a trip. But he always sed he mostly favored Brown or Jones or Smith, they bein' quiet and common and not too hard to remember. He just changed names whenever he got tired of his old one, Old Tom did. But he always did say, too, that if he'd hed as good a one as O'Mara, he'd a kept it—and kept it proud."
At the conclusion of that statement it was Miss Sarah's gaze which went searching across the table for her brother's eyes. But the boy just ran on and on, totally oblivious to their glances.
He told them of his lonely days in the woods shack, when Old Tom went down river and was three or four weeks in returning; he dwelt upon blissful days in the spring when he had been allowed to play a man's part in the small drives which he and Old Tom and the "Jenkinses" began, and which Old Tom and the Jenkinses alone saw through to market in Morrison. He touched lightly and inconsequentially upon certain days when Old Tom would hang for hours over an old tin box filled with soiled and ink-smeared memoranda, periods which were always followed by days of moody silence and a week or more of "lessons" in a tattered and thumbed reader which the woodsman had brought up-river—lessons as painful and laborious to Old Tom as they were delightful to the starved mentality of the pupil. And Old Tom, the boy explained, was pretty likely to be "lickered up fer quite a spell" after such a session which invariably began with an exploration of the battered tin box.
The boy told Caleb of days and nights on the trail—boasted unconsciously of Old Tom's super-cunning with trap and deadfall, and even poison bait. And that brought him to the beautifully oiled bear trap which he had left outside the door.
"I brung Samanthy along with me," he stated. "I brung her just because somehow I kind-a thought mebby Old Tom'd be glad if I did. Next to me he always sed he set a heap o' store on thet ole critter. He sed Samanthy was as near to hevin' a woman around the house as anything he knew on—she hed a voice like a steel trap, and when she got her teeth sot in a argument she never did let up. I brung her along with me, and the gun he give me, but I didn't take nuthin' else."
Caleb waited there until he knew that the boy had finished.
"You never bothered about that old tin box?" he inquired casually.
The boy shook his head again.
"Old Tom, whenever he went away for a spell, always sed I wan't to meddle with it," he explained. "This time I reckoned his goin' was just about the same thing, only he won't be comin' back, so I—I just locked the box up in the cubberd and hitched the staple into the door and come down myself."
By the time that meal was finished the boy's eyes were so heavy-lidded that, fight as he would, they still persisted in drooping till the long lashes curled over his cheeks. And in spite of Caleb's remonstrance it was Sarah who saw him upstairs and into the huge guest-room with its four-poster and high-boy and spindle-backed chairs.
When she came back downstairs her eyes were shining more than a little and the flush upon her cheeks was undeniably rose. Her brother, from his seat before the unlighted fireplace, puffed methodically upon his pipe and barely lifted his head at her coming. He was deep in meditation. She stood looking at him for a time from the foot of the stairway.
"He's asleep," she began finally in a very little voice. "He fell asleep almost before his cheek touched the pillow."
Caleb made no answer. He nodded but his eyes were vacant with thoughts of his own.
"Cal," she went on, "did you give him that old coat of mine?"
Caleb nodded again—an affirmative.
"Well, the last thing he asked before he slept was that I deliver a message to you. 'Tell him thanks for me,' he said. 'Tell him I clean forgot it til now!' And as for me, Cal—why—why, 'he'd git me anuther, anytime I took the notion thet I wanted one!'"
And still Caleb nodded. The room was quiet for a long time.
"Sarah," he murmured at last.
"Yes, Cal," she answered.
"Has that boy's—yarn—set you to thinking a little?"
"It was very interesting and unusual," she admitted. Then she rose and crossed over to his chair and perched herself, with odd, elfish, girlish grace upon its arm.
"Do you mean Old Tom's tin box?" she asked gently.
And he nodded.
"Yes, in part—yes," he said. "But not just that alone, either. I mean everything, Sarah. The way he handles himself; the way he looks one in the face when he is talking. The—the—now what are you grinning over?"
She stroked his sparse hair.
"Cal, you old romancer, you. Who'd ever suspect it in a man of your age and—and avoirdupois!"
"Avoirdupois!" he snorted. "Can't a man continue to have ideas now and then, even if he does become a—a trifle plump. And that boy—why, Sarah I tell you——!"
And then his sister put one hand over his lips.
"I know, Cal," she interrupted placidly. "I know! You're going to tell me, once more, your pet theory that there's many a boy in that backwoods who might paint a great canvas, or model a deathless bronze—or—or lead a lost cause, if he could only be found and provided with the chance. It sounds—it sounds very big and grand and romantic, Cal, but has it ever occurred to you that anyone big enough for things like those would find the way himself?"
Immediately, jerkily, Caleb started to straighten up. Argumentatively—and then she checked him.
"Oh, I know you don't believe it and I—I don't think I do myself, Cal. A man has to know what opportunity is before he can go out and hunt up his own big chance. I just said it for the sake of argument, Cal. I—I'm like Samanthy—ole Samanthy, you know! I'm a woman, and when I git my teeth sot in a argumint I never do let up. Have your dreams, you—you boy! And in the meantime, if you have any plans, tell me, please, what are you going to do with him in the morning?"
Caleb Hunter bobbed his head, vehemently. Rapidly he related to her the episode of the switch engine in Dexter Allison's millyards.
"And I believe what I believe," he insisted, doggedly. "And to-morrow I aim to give that boy a ride in one of Allison's 'steam injine' cabs, if it's all I do!"
"I thought so," said Miss Sarah.
For a time she sat there upon his arm chair. Neither spoke, nor felt the need for words. Just before she rose to go upstairs, she broke that quiet.
"He has an odd, strange, half-wild beauty," she mused aloud. "A beauty that is quite unusual, I should say, in children of his—his station. His hair is silken and, oh so thick! And his eyes and square chin with that little cleft. And his nose—his nose, I should say, might be said to denote estheticism—and—a—a—ah——"
Caleb Hunter threw back his head at the telltale little quaver in the voice and found Sarah Hunter smiling down at him, whimsically.
"Get all the amusement out of it that you can," he invited her. "And—and trust a woman to take note of such points as you have mentioned!"
From the stairs she gave him one backward glance.
"Forgive me, Cal," she hogged. "I meant it all—truly! Even the estheticism, which I only included to tease you. And if you don't want to trust to a woman's judgment on such points as I have mentioned, I would suggest that you peep in on him when you retire, and—and confirm them for yourself."
Hours later Caleb acted upon her suggestion. Every characteristic which Sarah had mentioned he found and noted in that half-lighted moment or two while he stood at the bedside.
And he noted more than just that. Sarah's old canvas hunting coat was folded into a small bundle and lay, guarded by one outflung, loose-fingered brown hand, beside the sleeping boy's face on the pillow.
Caleb went to bed with a half dozen wild notions whirling in his head, and a strange something tugging at his heart.
THREE QUARTERS AND SIX EIGHTHS
Saturday morning dawned as hot and dry and windless as had been the other days of the week which had preceded it. Caleb Hunter, rising from an uneasy night, blamed his sleeplessness upon the weather. It was fully an hour before his usual, not-too-early hour of rising, when he slowly descended the wide stairway; and yet he was but little surprised to find the boy already there before him, seated upon the top step of the verandah, when he strolled outside.
The little stranger with the grave voice, who had introduced himself as Stephen O'Mara, had not heard Caleb's step and the latter stood for a time in the doorway, contemplating the small, square-set shoulders in the canvas coat which had been his sister Sarah's, and the small, shapely head above them.
Throughout the night while he lay awake pondering the fantastic possibilities which the boy's story had stirred him into half believing, Caleb had had gradually lengthening moments of doubt in which he admitted to himself that his sister was right in her chafing analysis of him, her brother. Before morning came he had told himself a dozen times that he was nothing more than a sentimental old romancer, who saw in every beggar a worthy spirit bewitched by Destiny, and a Circumstance-enchanted fairy-prince in every ragamuffin who chanced to have big eyes. Merely because they had so persistently denied him sleep—those thoughts of Old Tom and his cherished tin box and the boy's own unmistakable poise and surety of self which even the shuffling boots and ragged clothes had only made the more impressive—merely because they persisted in endless procession through his brain, while he rolled and tossed and re-arranged the pillow, he had grown more and more peevishly eager to discount and discredit them, during the darkness. But when morning came, and he rose and went into the big guest room to find it empty, he experienced a moment of panicky disappointment; suddenly anxious for another opportunity to verify all that which, in the hours of sleepless pro's and con's, had become figment-like and whimsical, he wondered if the boy really could have gone without even waiting to bid them good-bye. He could not make that abrupt sort of a leave-taking harmonize with the rest of the youngster's actions—and then he caught a glimpse of him, motionless there on the verandah steps.
The boy did not hear Caleb's coming that morning. His head was tilted forward in that keen attitude of straining intentness which to the man had already become eloquently characteristic of his hungry spirit. And for a time Caleb withheld his greeting; instead of speaking he stood and studied him, and while he studied it all came back again, until the illusion, if such it were, was far more vivid, far more compelling than it had been the night before. Caleb told himself that to look only meant the discovery of new and compelling "points" both in feature and body, new and surprising suggestions of inbred fineness totally at variance with the unhemmed white drill trousers and uncouth shoes. And then, while he was nodding to himself, he realized that the boy was not looking down into the town in the valley.
Chin in palm, elbow upon knee, Steve was gazing fixedly in the direction of Dexter Allison's stucco and timber "summer lodge," and although Caleb could not have known it, there had been no need for his silence, for the boy's rapt preoccupation was sound-proof. Caleb heard voices coming from behind the shrubbery and just as he, a little perplexed, turned to follow the direction of that fascinated gaze, Allison himself squeezed through a narrow aperture in the box hedge and hailed him jovially from the far edge of the lawn. And Caleb Hunter's brows drew together in a bit of a frown when a slender figure in kilted black velvet and bright-buckled low shoes, hatless and with thick, gleaming hair bobbed short in a style strange to Morrison in those days, flashed through behind him. For Caleb heard the short gasp which came from the boy's lips, even before the little girl had paused in her darting advance, on tip-toe like a hovering butterfly, to wave a slim hand at him.
Caleb heard the boy's breath suck in between tight teeth; heard it quiver unsteadily as she appeared on swift feet—and Caleb understood what had been holding so closely his attention. He understood absolutely and yet, strange as the mood was, at that moment he couldn't help but feel, too, somehow a little sorry for the boy—he couldn't help but think—— His eyes went from Steve's forward thrust head, from the hair shaggy and unkempt for all its fineness and thickness and wavy softness, across to that dainty vision which, poised in her absurdly short skirt like a point of flame, was already gazing back at the boy upon the steps in open and undisguised amaze.
All of that characteristic which had been most pronounced in Dexter Allison, the latter had passed down to this slender girl who was his daughter, Barbara. No matter how vivid Allison's raiment had been, Caleb remembered that even when Dexter was a stripling at school, it had always seemed more a part of the man himself, than just protection for his body. Caleb had never given it a serious thought up to that moment, but now it came back to him with added cumulative force. He recollected that he had often wondered at the child's unconscious adaptation of mood to the clothes she happened to be wearing; he recalled how he had seen her demure and distant in misty, pastel-tinted party frocks or quaintly, infantilely dignified in soberer Sunday morning garb. But that Saturday morning he realized what the woman was to be like, when the hem of the velvet skirt no longer hung high above spindly black legs and the bobbed hair had been allowed to grow and grow, far below the tiny ears which it now barely covered.
To Caleb who, without knowing it, from sheer sympathy was viewing her through the untaught eyes of the boy at his feet, she was no longer a mere slip of a girl-child, dark-eyed, bewildering of mood and pulsingly alive. Caleb caught his first illuminating glimpse of the woman she was to be—of the dainty grace and more than usual beauty which was there in the promise of the years. And he who was fond of insisting to his sister Sarah, that there was many a boy back in those hills who, with his chance, might some day achieve greatness, suddenly realized how long and weary the road would be for just such a one as the fascinated little figure on the steps, before he could begin to approach that level which, to a society that Caleb understood, was typified by this exquisite, elfin figure, Dexter Allison's daughter.
He was no snob—Caleb Hunter—and yet the little girl's bearing at that moment doubly accented for him the gulf which lay between her and the hills-boy, by name Steve. For though she did pause to stare at his white drill trousers and unbelievable man-sized boots with frankly childish astonishment, the next instant she had recovered herself and without another glance preceded her father across the grass. Quite as though Steve had not been there at all she passed him, to hesitate demurely at Caleb's side.
"Good morning, Uncle Cal," she greeted him.
And then, quite suddenly, Caleb didn't feel so very sorry after all for his little visitor. He stopped pitying him. Steve's eyes had not wavered once from the little girl's face, from the time she appeared in the hedge gap until she mounted the steps, utterly oblivious to his nearness; but when she brushed against his elbow, the boy rose and stood, hat in hand, gravely quiet, gravely possessed, and silently sure of himself.
Even after he had answered Barbara Allison's greeting and turned with his grown-up, ponderous courtesy to present the boy to her, only to be left with the words hanging upon tongue-tip by her instant disappearance inside in search of Sarah, Caleb caught no hint of the thoughts behind those impassive and steady eyes. And yet he knew that Steve had risen in order that he might bow as he had the night before, when Caleb introduced him to his sister.
Dexter Allison, coming up in less airy fashion across the lawn, surprised Caleb with his mouth still open.
"Well?" said Dexter Allison—and Caleb recovered himself.
"Well?" he countered; and then they both laughed softly and shook hands. It was their unvaried formula of greeting, whether they had not seen each other for twenty-four hours or twenty-four months.
And while they were shaking hands the boy turned quietly and re-seated himself upon the top step. But Allison gave him more notice than had his daughter Barbara. He stood with his pudgy hands in his pockets, gazing at the averted face, unconcealed and growing amusement in the scrutiny, until Caleb, not yet aware of the boy's woods-taught habit of seeing while seeming not to see, was simultaneously annoyed at Allison's fatuous grin, and glad of the fact that Steve apparently was looking the other way. After a time Allison raised quizzical eyes to Caleb's face.
"Wel-l-l?" he intoned, and with a little reluctance as reasonless as it was unnoticed, Caleb answered the inferred question.
"This—this is a little friend of mine, Dexter," he said, "down from the hills. He's in to have a look at the city which you have been so instrumental in arousing to its present state of teeming activity. This is Stephen O'Mara. Steve—this is Mr. Allison, Steve!"
Then the boy turned and again rose to his feet, and at that moment Caleb could have hugged him for his deliberation. The boy inclined his head; he bowed, without a word. And it was Dexter Allison who first offered a hand.
"Glad to make your acquaintance, Stephen," the latter exclaimed with quite violent good humor. "And how are you?"
Steve took the hand and closed his brown fingers hard upon the puffy white ones. For an instant he stood, his eyes, grave and inscrutable, full upon Allison's smaller ones. "I'm tol-lable," he drawled soberly. "And—haow be you—yourself?"
Allison gasped, stood with mouth agape, and then burst into one of his rather too-frequent, too-hearty laughs.
"Well, I'm——" he began his favorite phrase of ejaculation, and then stopped to look down again into the small face before him. "Well, I'm——" and he stopped to chuckle. Then he turned back to Caleb.
"I suppose, Cal, you know what this early morning call presages?" he suggested.
Caleb recalled himself with an effort from a contemplation of the sudden, prideful something which had warmed him while Steve was shaking hands. He smiled, mechanically.
"I suppose it's the usual raid upon the commissary," he answered.
Allison mounted heavily to the verandah.
"Right!" he exclaimed. "Right! You'll notice that Barbara has already gone on ahead. She's the skirmish line—scouts—videttes—whatever you please to call 'em. There's no-one up yet—none of the family—over to our place. We are hungry, Cal. I hope this is waffle morning?"
Caleb smiled at him, less impersonality in the mirth. It was a regular custom, this truancy of Barbara Allison and her father—one of the little human foibles which Caleb often told himself accounted, in part at least, for his real liking of the man.
"Waffles it is," he said, and he turned toward the boy.
"Would you mind finding Miss Sarah, Steve?" he asked. "Will you tell her, please, that we are to be subjected to another neighborly imposition?"
After the boy had disappeared Caleb followed the larger man to a chair. And this time it was Caleb who met Allison's silence with a challenging, "Well?"
"Where did you get him, Cal?" Allison demanded. "Where did you get him? Those shoes, and those trousers—pants, I guess is the word, eh? And say, how that little beggar did squeeze my hand! Look here!"
He held one soft hand up for inspection. There were faint red welts still visible across the finger joints.
"Friend of yours, did you say?"
Without stopping to think about it, Caleb was not so keen to enlarge upon the boy's obvious "points" as he had been with Sarah. He omitted to mention his thoughts of the night before, and he omitted any reference to Old Tom, except for the most hazy explanation that the boy had no immediate kin. But with an increasing eagerness he dilated upon the small foot traveler's first view of the "city," his breathless reception of Allison's own switch engine, and his avowed intention to "look around a trifle," before he located something to do.
"I thought I'd take him down this morning and get McLean to give him a ride in the cab of one of those sheet-iron steam relics of yours," he finished.
If Caleb had expected his unadorned recitation of the boy's appearance to make any impression upon his hearer he would have been disappointed. But, without any confessed reason for so doing, Caleb had aimed rather at the opposite effect. And Allison turned from it with a large, matter-of-fact indifference, to rise and bow to Sarah Hunter, who appeared that moment in the doorway.
"Surely—surely," he echoed Caleb's suggestion. "Take him down and give him a ride! McLean'll be glad of the chance to show someone his pet buzz-saws and things. I'll walk down with you, myself, after breakfast. I may be away for a day or two, and I want to leave directions for changes to be incorporated while I'm gone."
At the table that morning Caleb noted that there was no hesitation in Steve's selection from the silver beside his plate, no waiting to follow in the lead of Sarah Hunter's choice. He noticed, too, that the boy's eyes did not once lift to those of Barbara Allison, opposite him. And while the little girl from time to time joined in the conversation, he not once opened his mouth to speak, until they were almost ready to rise from their places.
Allison had been growling genially at the lack of water and the prolonged drouth which was burning the pasturage to a crisp and juiceless brown.
"If that everlasting sun would only stop shining for a while," he said, "if it'd only rain a bit, I'd like to take a trip back north, a-fishing, before it gets too late in the season."
"You mean you'd like a fishing trip as an excuse to go back north, don't you, Dexter?" Caleb badgered him.
Allison was smiling blandly, for Caleb's joke over his round-about methods was an old, old joke, when Stephen O'Mara spoke.
"It's goin' to rain," said the boy.
Allison turned toward him, his eyes again quizzical.
"I suppose so," he admitted. "In the general course of things it'll come, no doubt, but——"
The boy interrupted him, shaking his head.
"It's goin' to come before mornin'," he stated inflectionlessly, "and it's comin' to stay fer a spell, too!"
And Allison did not try to hide his broad grin of amusement.
"You think so, do you, sonny?" he dismissed the matter not unkindly. "Well, at that, your guess when it comes to the weather, is about as good as the next man's."
Once more the boy shook his head.
"I ain't guessin'," he finished unabashed. "Ner I ain't thinkin' it will. It'll jest be rainin', come sun-up, and it'll be good for 'til Wednesday, fer sure!"
Caleb, watching the boy's face, was on the point of offering to wager two bits with Allison that the prophecy held good, but Sarah's well-known attitude toward the vice of gambling checked him in the rash offer. Besides, he wondered how he could make sound anything but foolish an offer to back the certainty of a weather forecast which was based upon nothing but the unassuming and quiet finality of the prophet.
Barbara Allison insisted upon joining the excursion down to the mill that morning; she developed a sudden and unshakable resolve to be one of the party, and after his remonstrances had finally brought stormy tears to her eyes, Allison surrendered in perplexity to her whim.
"All right, then," he gave in. "If you want to come as much as all that, but—but you—now run along, then, with Stephen."
On the way down the hill he voiced his perplexity to Caleb.
"When it comes to dealing with men," he said, "I pride myself upon being able to go back, rather incisively, to first motives. But the other sex is beyond me! She's always turned up her dainty nose at the noise and dirt before, and—and now she's ready to cry because I suggest that she wait with Miss Sarah until we return!"
Caleb's eyes rested upon the oddly matched little couple ahead in the road. The boy was carrying his battered hat in his hand, but Barbara walked with small head up, without a single glance for her escort. Caleb, noting that Steve's head was forward-thrust, knew that his eyes must be fastened hungrily upon the town in the valley; and he understood the reason for the disdainful tilt of the little girl's chin. For even at the age of ten Barbara Allison was not accustomed to inattention. Caleb smiled, rather covertly for him.
"I never knew but one woman whose motives were absolutely transparent," he mused. "And she—she was the most uninteresting, unsuccessful female person I ever did know."
As Allison had promised they found McLean, the white-haired mill superintendent, only too eager at the prospect of an audience for one of his voluble tours of the premises. But when Caleb had explained the main errand upon which they had come, after a long, keen scrutiny of the boy's face, the burly river-man led the way, without a word, to a wheezing old two-wheeler in the piling yard.
"So you'll be wantin' to take a spin in one av me ingines, is it?" he asked then. And, after a moment: "An' do you think you'll be able to hang on, whin she gets to r-rollin'?"
Steve's eyes were like bits of polished steel, so bright they were. It was a struggle for him to take them, even for a moment, from the engine before him.
"I cal'late I kin," he quavered.
"Well, thin, we'll see." McLean looked up and winked at the engineer in the diminutive cab. "It's car-reful you'll be, Misther engineer," he cautioned, "an' watch your steerin' on the cur-rves!"
He leaned over to lift the boy to the running-board, but Steve, with one foot upraised, hung back. He faced toward Caleb and, without a glance in the girl's direction, said:
"Mebby she—mebby she'd like to go, too?"
Barbara Allison, chin lifted a little higher, half wheeled and slipped her hand within that of her father.
"Thank you, but I don't care to," she refused.
Steve caught the little toss of her head from the corner of his eye, and his face went pink. Without another word he clambered up beside the driver and the engine rolled out of the yard and went clanking down the uneven, crooked track, leaving a dissolving trail of steam behind. When it returned the little face at the cab window was tense and somewhat pale beneath its tan, but the hand upon the throttle beside the engineer's lay steady as a little pine knot.
"Well, an' what do you think av her?" McLean demanded with an assumption of anxiety as the boy dropped to the ground.
Steve turned and patted the footboard with a proprietary hand. As grave of mien as his questioner he bobbed his head.
"She—she certainly kin git up and step," he volunteered. And then, cocking his head judiciously: "I'll hev to be a-gittin' me one of them fer myself, some day!"
McLean chuckled—he chuckled in deep delight within his white whiskers—and led the way to the mills. But once there the amusement in his eyes rapidly deepened to amazement, for there were few steps in the processes upon which the boy could not talk as fluently and technically as did the mill boss himself. And he knew timber; knew it with the same infallibility which had, even in McLean, always seemed to border upon the uncanny.
It was Allison himself who first called attention to an unsawed log which was being discarded.
"That looks like too good a stick to be wasted, doesn't it, McLean?" he asked.
Before McLean could answer the boy spat gravely into a pile of sawdust, his piping voice rising above the shrill scream of the saws.
"She's holler," he stated succintly. "Dry rotten above the stub!"
And when Allison raised his brows, interrogatively, McLean dropped one hand upon the boy's shoulder, a bit of pride in the gesture.
"Holler she is," he agreed, and he added: "An' I'll be afther knowin' where to find a riverman av the old school, I'm thinkin', some day whin the need arises!"
A man came hunting for McLean at that moment with news that the tram which carried the logs up from the basin to the saws needed his attention. They followed him out, Steve hard at his heels, and Barbara Allison, lips pouted, tight to her father's side. After a brief examination of the trouble McLean gave a half dozen hurried orders; then turned to the boy beside him and jerked one thumb over his shoulder.
"Run down to the smithy shop, lad," he directed, "an' tell the smith that I'll be wantin' a strip av str-rap iron, two feet in lingth, av quarter inch stuff—and three-quarters av an inch wide."
The boy was off like a deer and back again in a twinkling, empty-handed, but with an astounding bit of news.
"The blacksmith says he ain't got no—no iron three-quarters of an inch wide," he said, and the words were broken by his panting breaths. "But he says he's got plenty that's six-eighths. Shall I—shall I git some o' that?"
He waited the word, poised to go.
McLean had been kneeling upon the saw-dust strewn ground. Now he rose and stood, feet apart, gazing down into that face, afire with eagerness, uplifted to his. Quiet endured for a long time, and then, at a chuckle from Allison, Steve wheeled—he wheeled just in time to see Barbara Allison's brows arch and her lips curl in a queer little smile. And suddenly Allison burst into a loud guffaw.
Caleb had never seen a change so swift as that which came over the boy's face. The eager light faded from the gray eyes, until they were purple where they had been gray before. And Caleb had never seen a face grow so white—so white and set and dangerous. Stephen O'Mara's head drooped, he turned and wavered away a step or two. Allison stopped laughing, abruptly. Then McLean spoke.
"'Twas funny, mebby," he muttered. "But it was not so damned funny, aither! An' I—I'll be goin' down now to teach that smith to kape his funny jokes till afther hours."
He started toward the shop, and stopped again.
"It's all right, buddy," he said. "'Tis nothing that you need feel badly about, for 'twas I who made the mistake. I should have sint you out to estimate whether our spruce would cut two million feet or less, an' you'd have come as close as mor-rtal man could, I'll wager. 'Twas a trivial thing, lad. What's a little matter av figures between min av the river, eh? We'll leave that to the capitalists who laugh at our dinseness, me bhoy!"
With that shot at his employer McLean strode off, fuming.
Steve hung back beside Caleb on the return trip up the hill. Not once did he speak, and Caleb, aware of his thinned lips and the bleak whiteness of his face, did not know what to say himself. He only knew that he, too, felt unreasonably bitter against Allison for his burst of mirth. Not until they had left Barbara and her father at their own gate and were crossing the Hunter lawn did Caleb attempt any remark whatsoever.
"I—you musn't feel badly just because you didn't know that three-quarters and six-eighths were the same, Steve," awkwardly he tried to comfort him. "I guess there was a time when Allison, in spite of all his tutors, didn't know it himself, if the truth's old."
Then Caleb learned that Steve had not even heard Allison's burst of laughter. He whirled—the boy—and his eyes blazed, hurt, shamed, bitter, into Caleb's kindly ones. He shook with the very vehemence of the words that came through twitching lips.
"She didn't hev no call to smile like that at me," he flung out. "If I'd ever hed a chance to learn that they wa'n't no difference between them figgers, and hedn't knowed, she could'a smiled. But I—I ain't hed my chance—yit!"
He swung around and stumbled blindly up the steps and groped his way upstairs.
Caleb stood there for a long time, motionless, and the one thought uppermost in his mind was that Steve, like Allison, was scarcely woman-wise. A low muttering behind him finally recalled him to himself, and when he turned he saw that here were thunder-heads piling up in the southwest. One long finger of black cloud was already poked up over the horizon. He remembered the boy's prophecy of the breakfast table; remembered what McLean had said in scorn of trivial things, and he went upstairs to urge Steve to remain and join them in their fishing trip on Monday—the trip north which Allison had proposed, if it rained.
He found the boy stretched, face down, upon the bed, a rigid figure of misery. Out of his deep desire to heal his hurt he even promised him the use of a most precious rod; he promised to teach him to cast a fly, come Monday!
And when the boy finally nodded his head in mute assent, he left him alone for a while—alone with his bruised spirit that was bigger than the spare little body which housed it.
I'LL TELL HER YOU'RE A BAPTIST
It rained that night. The storm which hung for hours, a threatening bank of black in the south, finally tore north at sundown, to break with vicious fury. And again Caleb spent a sleepless night, this time alone before the fireplace, but the thoughts which kept him awake failed to grow fantastic and romantically absurd with prolonged contemplation, as they had the night before.
Never until that day had he considered his oft-repeated theory that there was many a boy in those back-woods who, with a chance, might go far, as anything but an idealistic truth, in the abstract. The realization that a chance had come to test it, in the concrete, stunned him at first.
Dispassionately he summed up all the boy's characteristics that night and reviewed them, one by one: His poise and utter lack of self-consciousness, his fearless directness and faith in himself, in all that he said or did; and they came through the mental assay without fault or flaw.
He had already decided that he must go up-river and explore the old tin box which had been left there, locked in the "cubberd," but he was a little proud to make his decision before he learned all that it might, or might not, reveal; he was proud to believe that he knew a thorough-bred, without a pedigree for confirmation. And when Sunday morning dawned and the floodlike downpour had subsided to a gray and steady rainfall, even Caleb, none too weatherwise, knew that it had come to "stay fer a spell." He knew that the boy who had come marching down the valley road, two days before, was going to stay, too, if it lay within his power to persuade him.
Steve was most taciturn at the table the following morning; his moody silence puzzled even Sarah Hunter. But when the latter, whose Sunday schedule no storm could alter, came home from church and found Caleb and the boy immersed in a mass of flies and leaders, and lines which had been skeined to dry, her thorough disapproval loosed the boy's tongue. She stood in the doorway surveying with a frown their preoccupied industry.
"It seems to me, Cal," she commented, "that even if you haven't any regard for the Sabbath, you might do better than lead those younger than yourself into doing things which might better be left for days which were meant for such things."
She swished upstairs before Caleb had a chance to answer. But minutes after she had gone Steve looked up from a line he was spooling.
"She ain't particularly pleased, I take it," he remarked.
"Not particularly," Caleb chuckled. "It's funny, too, because I do most of this sort of work on Sunday. You'd think she'd become resigned to it, but she doesn't."
The boy thought deeply for a while.
"Didn't—didn't the 'Postles cast their nets on Sunday?" he asked presently.
Up shot Caleb's head.
"Huh-h-h?" he gasped.
"I sed—didn't the 'Postles cast their nets on Sunday?" Steve repeated. "Seems to me they did, but I can't just rec'lict now what chapter it was in."
Caleb pulled his face into a semblance of sobriety.
"Seems to me they did," he agreed, a little weakly, "now that you mention it. I don't just recollect where it occurred, either, at the moment, but we'll have to look it up, because, as a case of precedent, it'll be a clincher for Sarah."
He chuckled for a full hour over the thought before he forgot it. The boy, however, upon whom Sarah's disapproval had made a more lasting impression, recalled it to him later.
Allison joined them Monday morning at daybreak. All day they drove through the seeping rain—drove north in Caleb's buckboard, to turn off finally upon a woods trail that ran into the cast, along the lesser branch of the river. During the ride Steve's bearing toward the third member of the party was too plain to escape notice, for he never looked at nor directed a word to Allison unless it was in reply to a direct question, and then his answers were almost monosyllabic. But Allison, who, as usual, gave his undivided attention to the country through which they were passing, in attitude toward the boy was even more remarkable.
Once when they had halted at noon he pointed out a hillside of pine, black beneath the rain, close-clustered and of mastlike straightness.
"There's a wonderful stand of pine, Cal," he remarked. "I'd venture to say that it would cut at least two million feet."
Instantly, although the remark was addressed to him, Caleb knew that it was Stephen's comment for which Allison was angling. And hard upon his casual statement the boy's head came sharply around.
"She'll run nigh double that," he swallowed the bait. "She'll run double—and mebby a trifle more."
Nor did Allison even smile now.
"What makes you think so?" he asked.
Again there came the boy's pat answer.
"I ain't thinkin'," he said. "It's jest there! They're close set—them trees—and they're clear, clean to the tops. There ain't a stump there that won't run near ten standard."
Allison squinted and finally nodded his head.
"Maybe," he agreed, "maybe."
But later Caleb saw him enter some figures in his small, black-bound notebook.
That night the episode was repeated with a bit of variation. They had set up their tent and made camp, a little before nightfall. Far below them, hidden by the trees, the east branch cut a threadlike gash through the center of a valley broad enough and round enough to have been a veritable amphitheater of the gods. The whole great hollow was clothed with evergreen, a sea of dripping tops in the semi-gloom, and Allison, when he had set aside his plate and lighted his pipe, lifted a hand in a gesture which embraced it all.
"If you weren't so lazy-brained, Cal," he said, "that sight would stir in you something more than a mere appreciation of what you call the 'sublimity of sheer immensity.' For the man who can look ahead ten or a dozen years there is an undreamed of fortune right here in this alley."
"No doubt," he agreed. "But I didn't coin that phrase for immense fortunes. I guess I'm old-fashioned enough to like it a whole lot better just as it is."
Then he became suddenly aware of the tense earnestness with which Stephen O'Mara was listening. And when Allison, thinking aloud, mused that the cost of driving the timber down the shallow stream to the far-off mills would be, perhaps, prohibitive, words fairly leaped to the boy's lips.
"But they—they won't be drivin' that timber by floods, when they git to tacklin' these here valleys," he exclaimed. "Old Tom ses when they really git to lumberin' these mountains they'll skid it daown to the railroad tracks and yank it out by steam!"
That sober statement in the piping voice had a strange effect upon Allison. He leaned forward, a sort of guarded astonishment in his attitude, to peer at the childish face in the fire-glow. Then he seemed to remember that it was just a bit of a woods-waif who had spoken. But Caleb, who was lazy-brained in some matters, sensed that Steve had put into words Allison's own unspoken thought, just as Allison at that moment voiced the question which he was about to utter himself.
"I suppose it was this—this Old Tom who taught you all these things you know about timber?" he said, curious.
Steve pondered the question.
"Wal-l-l, yes," he answered at last. "Old Tom learned me some, but—but most of it I kind of feel as if I always knowed."
The boy was fast asleep, curled up beneath the blankets, when Caleb finally broached, that night, the matter which had kept him awake the entire night before. And when he had finished Allison sat quiet for a long time before he offered any reply.
"You mean——" he began, at length.
"I just mean that I'm going to give him his chance," Caleb cut in. His voice was hushed, but vehement. "Why, man, think what he has this minute, to start with! A brain as clear as a diamond, absolutely fresh, absolutely unspoiled or fagged with the nonsensical fol-de-rol which makes up the bulk of the usual boy's education of his age, and a working knowledge, for instance, of this north country which most men might envy. Why, the possibilities are limitless!"
Allison puffed his pipe in silence.
"No doubt you're right," he admitted. "In ten years, with a technical education to back up his practical knowledge, he might prove priceless to someone who had need of such a specialist. Always assuming, of course, that he developed according to promise. But the possibilities are limitless, too, in the other directions, aren't they?"
"Meaning?" invited Caleb.
"Well, you don't know any too much concerning his antecedents, do you?" Allison suggested. "And still——"
"I don't have to," Caleb interrupted, "not after one look at him!"
"—And still, if you catch a boy young enough," Allison finished serenely, "you can make a fairly presentable gentleman out of almost any material, with time enough and money enough to teach him what to do."
"You can," Caleb came back, "but no matter how much money you spend, you can't make the sort of a gentleman out of him, that knows without being taught, what not to do! They—they have to be born to that, Dexter."
And there they let it drop. But the next morning, when they were alone upon the brook, Caleb, after several false starts managed to re-open the subject with the boy himself.
"Has it ever occurred to you, Steve," he asked, "that all these things you know about the woods might be valuable, some day, to—to men who pay well for such knowledge?"
Steve paid no apparent heed to the question until he had landed a trout which he had hooked a moment before. It was a heavy fish—and Caleb had promised to teach him how to handle that fly-rod! Then he looked up.
"Once Old Tom sed they'd be payin' me more'n he ever earned in his lifetime, jest to go a-raound and tell 'em how much good lumber they was in standin' trees. Is that—is that what you mean?"
"Partly—partly, but not entirely, either," Caleb went on. "You said last night that when they got to lumbering these mountains, they'd be taking it out by steam. When they do they'll want men who know the woods—but they'll have to know how to bridge rivers and cross swamps, too, won't they?"
The boy promptly forgot his fishing. Knee-deep in the stream he faced squarely around toward Caleb, and from that glowing countenance the man knew that he had only repeated something which, long before, had already fired the boy's imagination.
"They's places where I kin git 'em to learn me them things, ain't they?" he demanded.
"Yes," said Caleb. "There are places. And you—you were thinking of going to school?"
"Thinkin' of it?" echoed Steve. "I always been thinkin' of it. Why, thet's all I come outen the timber fer!"
"But you said you meant to locate something to do," the man argued, nonplussed, "after you had looked around a trifle."
Steve's eyes dropped toward the white drill trousers and big boots, the latter half-hidden from sight by the swirling water.
"I got to earn money first," he explained patiently. "I—I jest couldn't git to go to school—in these here clothes!"
"Oh!" murmured Caleb. "Oh!" And then, recovering himself: "That'll take a long time," he ventured.
The boy smiled, strangely—the first smile of man's sophistication which Caleb had seen upon his face.
"I've always hed to wait a long time fer everything I've wanted," he answered, "but I always git it, just the same, if I only want it hard enough."
Caleb cleared his throat, self-consciously.
"Still," he argued again, "it would waste some very valuable years. Now—now what do you think of staying with me, and—and starting in this fall?"
The boy's lips fell apart while he stood and gaped up into Caleb's slightly red face.
"You mean," he breathed, "you mean—jest live—with you?"
"That was my idea," said Caleb.
And then, slowly, the boy's head dropped again, as it had when he bowed to gaze at his uncouth, begrimed clothes. The man thought that he caught the inference of that moment of silence.
"We can fix up the matter of clothes later," he made haste to forestall any objection in that direction. "That doesn't amount to anything, anyway."
The clear eyes lifted again, steady and wide and very, very grave.
"I always knowed it was comin'," said Stephen O'Mara. "I always knowed it was a-comin'—this chance—even when I didn't know haow it would come. Ner I wa'n't thinkin' about my clothes. I reckon I kin learn jest as fast in these as in any. I was jest thinkin' about Miss Sarah. She—she might not like it, hevin' two men folks a-raound the house, under foot."
It was Caleb's turn to stand, agape.
"Miss Sarah?" he faltered, astonished—and then he remembered. He laughed, unsteadily, with relief. For an instant he had been inexplicably afraid that the boy was going to refuse his offer.
"Why, you musn't mind what Sarah said yesterday," he rushed on. "She—she—well, she's a Baptist, Steve, and you know what that means."
He leaned forward a little, his voice quite stealthily confidential.
"But I can fix that all right," he promised. "I can surely fix that. For I'll tell her—I'll tell her you're a Baptist, too! Will you—will you stay?"
And after a time solemnly Steve nodded. Later, when alone, Caleb chuckled mountainously over his reply.
"Thet's—thet's what I cal'late I be," he said.
THEN I'LL COME BACK TO YOU
On the drive home Wednesday Caleb rehearsed a half score of speeches with which he might apprise his sister Sarah of the step he had taken; but when the time came for him to employ one of them, he forgot the entire lot and had to resort to a bald and stammered statement of the facts, which sounded more like a confession of guilt than anything else. It had grown colder with the storm and directly after a hastily swallowed supper, with many indignant glances for her brother, Sarah had bundled the boy off upstairs to bed, for he had come in out of the rain as sleekly wet as a water-rat, and blue-fingered and blue-lipped from cold. So it happened that they were alone before the fireplace when Caleb made known his decision.
"I've never done much of anything for anybody but myself, you know, Sarah," Caleb hesitatingly tried to account for his conduct. "And this seems to me to be as big an opportunity as I'll ever have. You—you like the boy, don't you, so far as you have become acquainted with him?"
While he was explaining Caleb wished that his sister would look him in the face, once at least. It was hard to know what she was thinking when she sat like that, staring into the fire. He waited, not without grave misgivings, for her reply.
"Yes, I like him," she assented, after a while.
"You do think that he might amount to something?" Caleb insisted.
"I feel almost sure of it," his sister admitted.
There didn't seem much ground to be gained along that tack, so Caleb gave up trying to apologize for what he had done.
"Of course it—it comes as a surprise to you," he murmured. "It is pretty sudden—but I don't think that either of us will ever regret it."
And then Sarah faced 'round toward her brother. Her eyes were unaccountably wet, but there was laughter on her lips.
"A surprise—a—a somewhat sudden!" she faltered. "Why, I knew you were going to do it that first day when you came sidling up to the veranda behind him. I was certain of it, even then. And if you hadn't decided to, why, I'd made up my mind that I'd do it myself, if you ever came back from that endless fishing-trip!"
And there, as Caleb put it later to Allison, were three days of perfectly good diplomatic preparation gone all to waste. For it was Sarah who monopolized the conversation that evening. She ran on and on, from one plan to another, eager, half-breathless, and more wildly prophetic than the man had dared to be, until the realization gradually dawned in her brother's brain that great as had been his desire to keep the boy there in the white place on the hill, it had been dwarflike beside her woman-hunger. It astonished him, when he mentioned the subject of clothes, to find how far she had outstripped him in actual deed.
"I've been rummaging through some of the old chests upstairs, too," she caught up his suggestion. "To-day I explored for hours and found some of the things you used to wear which look as though they hadn't been worn at all. I laid some of them out for him to put on when he gets up in the morning. And, Cal, who'd ever believe now that a plump behemoth like you ever could have worn such—such dainty and cunning things!"
The inferred description should have prepared Caleb, but at the moment he failed to remember that it was some forty years since the garb she mentioned had been in vogue. Instead he blushed uncomfortably at the gurgle in her throat. And so, the next morning, when a little figure in velvet jacket and pantaloons—velvet of the same jet hue in which Barbara Allison had first appeared to the boy a day or two before—stopped at the head of the long stairway, the moment was robbed of not one whit of its sensationalism.
Caleb remembered then; and it did seem inconceivable that he could ever have worn that costume, for the boy in the black velvet might have stepped bodily from the pages of sheerest romance. There were red-topped boots upon the slim feet which the day before had been encased in Old Tom's cast-off brogans; these were ruffed cuffs of sheerest white linen at brown and sinewy wrists, and burnished silver buttons down the front of the jacket for the silken corded clasps which fastened it across his small chest—silver buttons to match upon the quaintly short sleeves.
Stephen O'Mara hesitated just the fraction of a moment before he started methodically down the stairs. And immediately Caleb's amazement at the thought that those clothes had once been worn by him gave way to a newer wonder. For the boy, in spite of the fact that his small face above the pleated collar was burning hot with consciousness of self, wore them in a fashion unforgettable. Then Caleb realized how great an effort it must be costing the boy to make that slow descent in the face of his goggle-eyed stare, and with the most casual of good mornings he led the way to the table.
There was something in Sarah's fluttering delight over the boy's appearance that morning which awoke an almost hysterical impulse in her brother. For he knew, as completely as though he had heard it from the boy's own lips, that nothing in the world but the knowledge that "Miss Sarah" wished it would have carried Steve through the ordeal of his first appearance. They had a word together—Sarah and Caleb—after breakfast.
"Did you ever see anything like him, Cal?" she demanded of her brother. "Did you! Oh, I never dared hope he would look like that!"
Caleb pulled reflectively at his lower lip.
"I never did," he admitted. And then, offhandedly: "What—did he say anything, last night, when you told him to wear those things, this morning."
"Why, no," Miss Sarah laughed a little. "No. But he—Cal, he just sat and looked at me, oh, so soberly, for the longest time. He made me think somehow of a puppy that knows he's going to be scrubbed and—and dreads it exceedingly. It's because of those dreadful things he's been wearing, don't you suppose so?"
"No doubt of it," her brother said. "No doubt! And now I'm going over to invite Dexter Allison to come and take a look at him. I was telling him only yesterday that a gentleman had to be a gentleman born."
When Caleb came back, an hour later, with Allison at his heels, he searched the house through without finding the boy. In his perplexity he appealed to Sarah, who followed him to the front door.
"Where's Stephen?" he asked.
Sarah nodded to Allison.
"Why, I waited a half-hour, Cal," she said, "and then, when I thought you wouldn't be back for a while, I sent him downtown—I sent him to the village——"
Caleb seemed fairly to shrink.
"You sent him down to the village?" he echoed. "Did he—did he change his clothes?"
"For some eggs," Sarah rounded out the sentence.
"And of course he didn't!" Suddenly her brother's face alarmed her. "Cal," she exclaimed, "I haven't done anything I shouldn't have done, have I?"
Caleb turned a wry face toward Allison.
"In—that—outfit!" he groaned. "Down to the village, and it's a lumber town! He's gone, and if he doesn't have to fight his way back then I——"
Sarah's alarm changed to fear instantly. She stepped out upon the porch.
"I never thought of that," she whispered. "But you don't really think——"
In her agitation she turned to Allison for contradiction. But Allison, after placing a chair for her, drew one up for himself and, with an expansive smile of anticipation upon his face, propped his feet upon the rail.
"I think," he assured her, with no comfort in the assurance, "that this will be well worth watching through to the finish!"