Brave and Honest Series. No. 1
The Battle That Won
Edward S. Ellis
Author of "River And Wilderness" Series, "Log Cabin" Series, "Honest Ned," "Righting The Wrong," Etc.
On a certain summer day, a few years ago, the little village of Briggsville, in Pennsylvania, was thrown into a state of excitement, the like of which was never known since the fearful night, a hundred years before, when a band of red men descended like a cyclone upon the little hamlet with its block-house, and left barely a dozen settlers alive to tell the story of the visitation to their descendants.
Tom Gordon lived a mile from Briggsville with his widowed mother and his Aunt Cynthia, a sister to his father, who had died five years before.
The boy had no brother or sister; and as he was bright, truthful, good-tempered, quick of perception, and obedient, it can be well understood that he was the pride and hope of his mother and aunt, whose circumstances were of the humblest nature. He attended the village school, where he was the most popular and promising of the threescore pupils under the care of the crabbed Mr. Jenkins. He was as active of body as mind, and took the lead among boys of his own age in athletic sports and feats of dexterity.
One summer day the village of Briggsville blazed out in black and red and white, every available space being covered with immense posters, which in flaming scenes and gigantic type announced the coming of "Jones's & Co.'s Great Moral Menagerie and Transcontinental Circus, on its triumphal tour through the United States and Canada."
Naturally a tremendous excitement set in among the boys, who began hoarding their pennies and behaving with supernatural propriety, so that nothing should interfere with the treat, which in exquisite enjoyment can never be equaled by anything that could come to them in after-life.
Tom Gordon had never yet seen the inside of a circus and menagerie; and as his mother promised him that the enjoyment should be his, it is impossible to describe his state of mind for the days and nights preceding the visit of the grand aggregation, the like of which (according to the overwhelming posters) the world had never known before. He studied the enormous pictures, with their tigers, bears, leopards, and panthers, the size of a meeting-house; their elephants of mountainous proportions, and the daring acrobats, contortionists, and performers, whose feats made one hold one's breath while gazing in awe at their impossible performances. The lad dreamed of them at night, talked about them through the day, and discussed with his most intimate friends the project of forming a circus of their own when they became bigger and older. The latter project, it may be added, owing to unforeseen obstacles, never assumed definite form.
But alas! this is a world of disappointment. On the morning of the circus Tom was seized with a violent chill, which almost shook him out of his shoes. He tried with might and main to master it; for he well knew that if he did not, his visit to the wonderful show must be postponed indefinitely. He strove like a hero, and was actually sick several hours before the watchful eyes of his mother and aunt discovered his plight. The moment came when he could hold out no longer, with his teeth rattling like castanets, and his red face so hot that it was painful to the touch. Since the performance did not open until two o'clock in the afternoon, he did not as yet abandon all hope.
His mother and aunt sympathized with him; but although he rallied to a great extent from his illness, they could not give consent for him to leave the house. He partook of refreshment, and left his bed at noon. At two o'clock he was able to sit in the chair by the window, with his fever greatly abated, and an hour later he was as free from all traces of the ague as you or I.
But it was then too late to go to the circus. The disappointment was a sore one, but the lad stood it like the really brave fellow he was. He swallowed the lump in his throat, and smiled as he said to his aunt,—
"When the circus comes again, I don't think I'll have a chill."
"And you shall see it, if you are alive then,—of that be assured."
The day was one of the most pleasant and balmy of the season, and Tom walked out of the house, leaned on the gate, and looked up and down the highway.
Suddenly he observed a span of horses coming on a gallop, while the driver of the open wagon was lashing them with his whip and urging them to still greater speed.
"They aren't running away," mused the astonished boy; "for, if they were, the man wouldn't be trying to make them run faster. It's Mr. MacDowell! I never saw him drive faster than a walk before; something dreadful must have happened."
As Mr. MacDowell caught sight of the boy, and came opposite, he shouted something, and with an expression of terror glanced around and pointed with his whip behind him. The furious rattle of the wagon prevented Tom's catching the words, and the terrified farmer did not repeat them, but lashed his team harder than ever, vanishing in a cloud of dust raised by his own wheels.
"He must be crazy," said Tom, unable to think of any other explanation of the old man's frantic behavior.
The lad stood with his head turned toward the cloud of dust, wondering and speculating over the strange affair, when hurried footsteps caused him to turn quickly and look again in the direction of the village.
This time it was Jim Travers, who was panting from his running, and whose face was a picture of consternation, equal to that of Farmer MacDowell.
"What's the matter, Jim?" asked Tom as his schoolmate reached him.
"O Tom, ain't it awful?" gasped the new arrival, coming to a halt, still panting, and casting affrighted glances in the direction of Briggsville.
"Ain't what awful?"
"Gracious! hain't you heard the news? I thought everybody knowed it."
And the tired boy took off his hat and rubbed his sleeve across his steaming forehead, as though his expression of surprise at Tom's ignorance communicated of itself the news to him. Tom, as may be supposed, was on needles; for, as yet, he had not received the first hint of the occurrence, which certainly must have been of a stirring nature.
"Sam Harper, Jack Habersham, and Bill Dunham—all killed before any one could help 'em! Did you ever hear of anything like it?" continued Jim.
"I haven't heard of that yet. I don't know what you're talking about, Jim; if you can't tell me, why, shut up!"
"So you hain't heard the news? I forgot; it scared me almost to death. I thought everybody knowed it. I must hurry home."
And the bewildered youngster was on the point of dashing off again, after partially recovering his wind, when he seemed to awaken to the fact that he owed something in the way of enlightenment to his friend.
"I forgot, Tom; but I did think you knowed it: guess you're the only boy in a thousand miles that hain't heard of it. Well, you see the way of it was this: there was the biggest crowd I ever seed at the circus,—don't believe any other circus in the country ever had so many people there. Everything was going 'long all right, when what did Sam Harper do, but reach out with a stick and punch it in the eye of the tiger, Tippo Sahib? The minute he done it, the tiger let out a yell that you would have heerd a mile off, and, afore Sam could get out of the way, the tiger smashed right out of the cage and was among the people, chawing them up. He had his well eye on Sam, and crushed his head like an eggshell, with one bite! Then he made a sweep with his paw, and knocked Jack Habersham clean out the tent. He must have gone a hundred feet through the air, for he come down on top of the steeple, and is there yet with the spire sticking up through him. Then he hit Bill Dunham such a clip that he sailed out through the same hole in the tent that Jack passed through. When I left, Bill hadn't been seed by anybody. Guess he hasn't come down yet.
"Then the tiger come for me!
"I seen him make a spring, and ducked my head. He went clean over, and landed among the women and children, and begun chawing 'em up. Why, Tom, the sound of their bones cracking and snapping in his jaws was like the fire-crackers going off on the Fourth of July. Them as warn't swallered or killed scattered right and left, and begun climbing trees, jumping through winders, and fastening the doors. All this time the tiger kept on chawing. He never took more than one bite at a man!"
"Did you see him kill any one?" asked the scared Tom, somewhat confused by the tremendous narrative of his friend.
"Did I see him kill any one? I should say I did. I seed him kill more than forty!"
"Did he eat 'em all?"
"Of course he did! That is, all but their boots and shoes. He don't seem to like leather," added Jim thoughtfully; "for I noticed that when the men were going down his throat, he kind of shet his jaws, so as to slip off their boots."
"Jim, he must be a big tiger to hold so many folks inside of him."
"Course he is! The biggest that was ever catched in Greenland! He didn't not only swaller the men and boys and women that I'm telling you 'bout, but he took in horses, cows, dogs, and anything in his way. If I ain't mistook, he swallered Mr. MacDowell's two horses with him."
"No, he didn't; for they went by a few minutes ago. But, Jim, what makes you in such a hurry?"
"I'm trying to get away from Tippo Sahib," replied the frightened lad, glancing furtively again toward the village.
"Where's the tiger now?"
"He ain't fur off, and," added Jim, speaking the truth this time, "the tiger's coming this way, and will soon be here."
It was Tom Gordon's turn now to be frightened.
"What!" he exclaimed, almost leaping from his feet; "the tiger coming this way! How do you know that?"
"I seed him! Ain't that enough? He started right up the road on a gallop, with the blood dripping from his jaws!"
"But where is he now?"
"He went a little way, stopping now and then to swaller some one that warn't quick 'nough to git out of his path; he went over the hill this side of Briggsville, where you know we couldn't see him. By that time a whole lot of the folks had guns, and started after him. Being on my way home, I jined 'em. When we got to the top of the hill, old Tippo Sahib couldn't be seen anywhere."
"Aren't you afeard to go home?"
"No, of course not," replied Jimmy, rapidly regaining courage; "I know how to fix him if he comes after me."
"All I've got to do is to stop short and look him right in the eye. A chap mustn't tremble, but look hard and stern."
"Why didn't you do that, Jim, when he first broke out of his cage?"
"I hadn't time! I'll do it if I meet him agin. Remember, Tom, if you run against him, you must fix your eyes on him and not wink. That'll fetch him every time."
"But s'posin' it doesn't?"
"If you should have to wink, and he comes for you, why all you've got to do is to haul off with your foot and kick him awful hard under the jaw; that'll fix him! But you mustn't be barefooted, or you'll hurt your toes. And you must kick hard 'nough too," added the budding naturalist, "to knock his jaw off. Then of course he can't bite."
The scheme was a brilliant one, perhaps; but young as was Tom Gordon, he felt that the difficulty lay in its application.
"Gracious! Jim! the tiger is stirring up things, isn't he? We've got a gun in the house, and if he visits us I think I'll try that."
"Do you know where to hit him?" asked Jim, who, having fully recovered his wind, seemed at the same time to have regained a vast amount of curious knowledge of natural history.
"I s'pose in the head is as good as any place."
"Don't you think of such a thing! He don't mind being hit in the head more than you do getting hit by a spit-ball. You must aim for his tail!"
"How can that hurt him?" asked the amazed Tom.
"Why, I seed the balls that hit his head glance off and scoot up in the air, like skipping stones over the water. A tiger uses his tail to balance himself with. Shoot off his tail, and he loses his balance. Every time he tries to walk, he tips over. Don't forget, Tom, if you shoot, to aim at his tail, just where it is stuck onto his body. If you miss, look him in the eye; and if that doesn't stop him, let drive with your foot under the jaw, and don't forget to have your shoes on. Well, I must go home to tell the folks to git ready," added Jim, loping off like an Indian starting on a long journey.
Tom had caught the contagion of excitement, and the moment his friend left he made a dash for the door of his home, bursting in upon his mother and aunt with the astounding news just received from his playmate.
Strange women would they have been not to have been wrought up by the alarming tidings. Brushing aside the chaff, there remained the wheat in Jim's words to the effect that the tiger, one of the finest of his kind ever seen in captivity, had broken out of his cage, injured, if not killed, a number of people, and was in the immediate neighborhood, with the prospect of paying a visit to this home.
"The gun is loaded," said the mother, turning slightly pale; "but I don't think one of those animals will attempt to enter a house."
"I have read that in India," remarked her sister-in-law, "they follow the natives into their houses, and tear down the structures in their fury."
"But their dwellings are made of light bamboo, and are frail structures."
"We may as well be on the right side," remarked the other, stepping hastily to the door. But just before reaching it, the latch flew up, and Jim Travers plunged in, falling on his hands and knees, the picture of terror itself.
"Shut the door quick!" he gasped. "The tiger is coming; he's coming; he's right behind me."
In a twinkling, Aunt Cynthia sprang forward, caught the latch, and slid the heavy bar in place, while the mother hastened to the window.
"Look out!" called Jim, clambering to his feet; "he'll spring right through and chaw you up, quicker'n lightning."
But the brave parent not only threw up the window and bolted the shutters, but did it coolly and deftly with each window, front and back, thus shrouding the room in obscurity.
Tom climbed into a chair set in front of the fireplace, and took down the loaded rifle, which he knew how to use as well as any boy of his years.
"Come, Jim, let's go up-stairs to my bedroom; maybe we can get a shot at him."
At the top of the stairs the leader paused and turned about.
"Say, Jim, did you try to look in the tiger's eye?" he asked.
"Don't bother me with such foolish questions; I hadn't a chance."
"How was it?"
"Why, I hadn't got far from the house, when I heered a growl, and there was the tiger in the field, looking over the fence at me."
"Seems to me that was just the chance you wanted, if he was looking at you."
"I s'pose it was; but to own up, Tom, I didn't think of it. I was afeard he would go for your folks. So I thought I would walk down and tell you."
"Did you walk all the way?"
"I may have hurried a little,—that is, a part of the way. I would have turned round and let him have my foot under the jaw, but I was afeard my shoe would give out."
Meanwhile, the two boys walked softly to the front window of Tom's bedroom, and cautiously peered out.
"Sh! I b'lieve I see him," whispered the young host.
"Where?" asked his companion in the same guarded manner.
"Under the oak; he's standing still just now. There! he's creeping off toward the woodshed."
"Yes, that's him! that's him! I know it. Hadn't you better let me take a shot?"
"I can shoot as well as you."
Tom was right. He was looking upon the royal Bengal tiger and no mistake. He had halted under a large oak, standing on the other side of the road, and seemed to be debating with himself what he should do next.
The rattle of a coming wagon attracted his attention, and he crouched down, as if preparing to spring upon the driver and his animals.
"Just watch him chaw up the horses and the man!" whispered Jim.
"If he means to do that, I'd better shoot," said Tom, setting down his gun and silently raising the window.
"You can't do it now, for he's almost behind the tree."
"His head shows, and I guess that's better than his tail."
Tom rested the heavy barrel of the rifle on the window-sill, and knelt down to make his aim sure. Before, however, he could obtain a good sight, the old farmer came so nearly opposite that he was obliged to restrain his fire through fear of hitting him or his horses.
The boys held their breath, certain of the awful occurrence at hand. But the tiger just then seemed to be in a magnanimous mood. Possibly he was satiated with what he had already devoured in the way of horses, men, women, and children. Be that as it may, the farmer and his team never suspected their peril, if, in point of fact, any peril threatened them. The animals jogged along, with the man half asleep on the front seat, his idle whip sloping over his shoulder. The king of the jungle made not the least demonstration against them.
"That must be 'cause he isn't hungry," remarked Jim.
"Then I should think he would go away and leave us."
"Don't you understand? We're tender, and juicier than that old man."
"Jingo! if that's what he's after, I'm going to shoot."
Tom again sighted along the barrel; but at the moment his finger began pressing the trigger, the beast rose to his feet and looked directly at the house, as if trying to decide the best avenue of entering,—the door, the windows, or possibly the chimney.
He formed a striking picture, this fearful king of the jungle, whose terrific strength, as scientific tests have proven, is one-fifth greater than that of the African lion. His massive head was erect; his eyes shone, and his sinewy, graceful body, covered with its soft, velvety and spotted fur was like the beauty of some deadly serpent. His long tail slightly swayed from side to side, and, although the boys could not hear it, they were sure he was growling in his anger.
Once his blood-red tongue was projected for an instant from his mouth, and licked his jaws, as the cat species are fond of doing; and occasionally he moved his head from side to side.
"He means to chaw us all up," said Jim. "Why don't you fire?"
At that instant Tom Gordon pressed the trigger.
The shot, however, was a poor one.
The bullet struck the tiger, wounding him slightly, but not enough to disable him. Naturally it added to the fury of the beast, and really increased the peril of the people within the humble home, against whom the brute seemed to have formed a strong and curious antipathy.
He wheeled about, leaped the fence behind him, galloped a number of paces, and then paused abruptly, with his head up, and stared at the building, as if trying to learn the point whence the shot came, that he might punish the offenders.
"Gracious!" exclaimed Jim Travers, "he's going to jump up here and eat us up! Let's run."
"Where'll we run?" was the sensible question of Tom. "I'd load up again, but the powder and bullets are down-stairs, and before I could do it he'd be on us, if he means to jump into this window."
The halt of the tiger was only momentary. He trotted round to the rear of the house, vanishing from sight for the moment.
A brilliant idea struck Jim Travers.
"I can do better than that, Tom," he called out, clattering down-stairs. "Come with me, and I'll show you."
"Are you going to try to look him in the eye?" asked Tom, following after him, and scarcely less excited than he. "It won't work."
But the other lad paid no attention to the inquiry, so flurried was he over his new scheme for frightening off the dreaded beast.
The closing of the shutters on the lower floor, as we have explained, cast it in deep shadow. The mother had been so thorough in her work, that all the three rooms were thus obscured. Aunt Cynthia had lit a lamp, which sat on the table, and served to light up the interior.
"What do you mean to do?" she asked of the boys, as they rushed into her presence.
"I'm going to load the gun," replied Tom. "I don't know what Jim is driving at."
The women were naturally alarmed at the persistency of the wild animal in his demonstration against the dwelling. It did look as if he was bent on revenging himself for the hurt that had been inflicted. Many of the wild beasts of India, like the frightful cobra, often show great tenacity in attacking those from whom they have received injury.
"If the tiger will go away, you had better leave him alone," said Aunt Cynthia. "Your shot doesn't seem to have hurt him at all."
"Yes, it did," insisted Tom. "I hit him, for he jumped."
"But you only made him more angry; I am afraid we are not through with him yet."
The rifle was of the old-fashioned, muzzle-loading kind, and Aunt Cynthia gave what help she could to her nephew, as he began reloading it. From the powder flask she poured a charge down the barrel, upon which Tom pressed the conical bullet, wrapped about with a small bit of greased muslin. Then he had only to place a percussion-cap on the tube, and he was ready for business.
But before this stage of the proceedings was reached, something startling happened.
Jim Travers paid no heed to what his young friend was doing. Stooping over the burning wood in the fireplace, the flame of which was quite feeble, because the day was mild, he began fanning it with his hat. He was thus employed, and Tom was in the act of capping the rifle, when a crash against the nearest shutter made the building tremble.
The startled inmates stared trembling in each other's faces.
"It's the tiger!" whispered Mrs. Gordon, uttering a truth that was manifest to every one.
"He is determined to get at us," added Aunt Cynthia. "What shall we do?"
"I'll fetch him this time," was the confident response of Tom, "if I can only get a fair aim."
"You had better let me have the gun," said his mother, who was in a momentary panic.
"Let me try it once more."
"But there is no chance here; it will not do to open the shutter: he will spring right in among us."
"Up-stairs is the best place," said Tom, hurrying up the steps again.
Meanwhile, Jim Travers, who had been so terrified, displayed more coolness than any one in the house. Probably he felt so much confidence in his new scheme, that he was warranted in this self-possession.
Like the rest, he was startled by the crash against the shutter. He rose to his feet, stared at the window, and, seeing that the beast had not broken through, stooped and resumed fanning the blaze with more vigor than ever. At this juncture Tom called from above,—
"Where is he? I can't see him."
He had peered from the front and rear windows without catching sight of the tiger. The reason was evident: the animal was so near the house that he could not be observed without raising the sash and thrusting out the head. It was well the lad was too prudent to do that.
Afraid that their voices might rouse his anger, the mother stepped to the foot of the stairs and called to her boy,—
"Keep quiet, Tom! He is somewhere near, but we can't see him any more than you. If we remain still, perhaps he will go away."
Jim Travers, having fanned the pieces of wood on the hearth into a crackling blaze, stepped softly to the window against which the tiger had flung himself, and bent his head in close attention.
"Mercy!" exclaimed Aunt Cynthia in an undertone, "come away; if he jumps through, he will land on top of your head."
"Sh!" whispered the boy, holding up one hand as a warning for them to keep silent; "I hear him!"
So he did. The tiger was trotting back and forth and round the building, evidently seeking some mode of entrance. Clearly he was resolved to punish the inmates for firing at him.
All stood still and listened. In the profound stillness the women caught the faint sound made by the velvety feet of the brute in trotting to and fro. He was traced as he made a complete circuit of the house, and then paused at the window where he had attempted to leap through.
The low, threatening growl which escaped him sent a shiver through all. Neither of the women dared to stir or speak. They expected every moment that his effort would be repeated with success.
And now to the dismay of the two, Jim Travers did an extraordinary thing,—one that almost took away their breath.
Running to the fireplace, he caught up the largest brand, with which he hurried to the window, and raised the sash with one hand.
"What are you doing?" demanded Aunt Cynthia in consternation.
"Never mind me," replied the youth; "I'm all right."
And then they literally became speechless when they saw him slide back the bolt which held the shutter in place. It looked as if he meant to open the way for the tiger to enter the house.
While thus busy, Jim thought proper to add a word of explanation,—
"There's nothing that wild beasts is so afeard of as fire; that's what I'm going to play on this chap."
The women were too frightened to protest.
After sliding back the fastenings, Jim stood leaning slightly forward, the torch in one hand, while the other rested against the shutter, which was not yet pushed open.
He was listening, and awaiting the opportune moment.
He plainly heard the tip, tip, of those feet, amid which a cavernous growl now and then mingled; but he hesitated, for the tiger appeared to be too far off to spring his scheme upon him.
Jim's coolness was marvelous. None was more terrified than he when the beast broke out of the cage, and he was among the most panic-stricken that dashed from the tent and fled homeward.
But here he was, like a veteran sportsman of the jungle, awaiting the critical moment with what looked like nerves of steel. He listened with all the acuteness of which he was master, and his keen ears did not deceive him.
Suddenly he flung both shutters wide open, and let in the flood of sunshine, which rendered useless the lamp on the table.
There was the tiger, no more than a dozen feet distant. The slight noise caused him to stop abruptly and turn his head while walking away.
The sight of the lad seemed to whet his fury. He lashed his tail, growled, and, swinging himself lightly round, cautiously approached the daring youngster, as if not quite satisfied with the look of things.
Jim leaned farther through the window, and swung his torch round and round, extending it at the same time toward the beast, which paused a few steps off, as if to gather himself for the spring.
The lad felt the need of vigor. He whirled the torch harder, and reached farther, shouting,—
"Get out, or I'll burn your head off! Come any nearer if you dare!"—
At this moment Jim, in his enthusiasm, leaned a trifle too far. His feet slipped over the floor, and he sprawled headfirst out of the window.
Jim Travers felt that he was lost. The women uttered cries of anguish, clasped their hands, and almost fainted.
Sometimes, however, a person instinctively does the best thing possible, when, if he took time for thought, he would do the worst.
The antipathy of wild beasts to fire is well known, but it must be remembered that the full degree of this terror is felt only during the darkness of night. The sun was in the horizon when the stirring events we have set out to narrate were going on.
When Jim came tumbling through the window, he held fast to the blazing torch, even while trying to save himself from falling. His dexterity enabled him to keep fair command of his limbs, and he bounded to his feet in a twinkling, at the moment when he expected Tippo Sahib to come down upon him like a clawing avalanche.
Then, instead of turning about and clambering back through the window (the surest means of inviting the attack of the beast), he uttered a shout, and, holding the torch in front, ran straight at the tiger!
It may be doubted whether the fiercest of wild creatures would have withstood such an assault. Even though the sun was shining, the tiger knew something of the meaning of that glowing brand. Wheeling about like a cat, he trotted off, turning his head from side to side, and frequently glancing at his pursuer.
His flight brought him into the field of vision of Tom Gordon up-stairs, who had been mystified to understand what was going on below.
"I'll finish him this time," was his conclusion, as he flung up the window, thrust the barrel of the weapon through, and dropped on one knee.
But it seemed as if fate held that particular royal Bengal tiger in its special keeping that day. Before Tom could make his aim certain, Jim Travers popped in front, so in line with the beast that the young marksman could not fire at one without risk of hitting the other.
"I daresen't do it," he decided, leaning his gun against the wall beside him; "I'm afeard of hitting Jim."
Although the latter had displayed an extraordinary degree of coolness at a critical point in the events, it must not be supposed that he possessed any unusual share of courage. It was his implicit faith in the blazing torch that inspired him to a daring that few men would have shown; but on the outside he lost his head.
He was hardly conscious of what he was doing when he sat off after the fleeing animal, and there's no saying what the end would have been, or rather there's no doubt that he would have feared ill, had not Tom called to him,—
"Come back, Jim! Your torch will soon go out, and then he'll have you sure!"
"Golly! that's so!" muttered Jim, stopping like a flash, and dashing for the house again; "I didn't think of that!"
Good Mrs. Gordon and Aunt Cynthia had recovered in a degree their senses. Unspeakably shocked by the peril of the youth, whose courage they estimated too highly, they shrank from no risk that could aid his final escape. They had not closed the shutter after his mishap, and, when they saw him wheel and run back, they stood by the window ready to receive him.
Jim Travers was a good runner; and when it is stated that he was certain Tippo Sahib was skurrying at his heels, it need not be added that he "surpassed himself" in the way of fleetness. Finding, after running a short way, that the beast was not after him, Jim flung aside the torch and went through the window like a cannon shot, rolling over and striking the other side of the room before his flight was checked. A lad of his years, however, rarely suffers from hard knocks and bumps, and he was on his feet the next moment.
"Shet the window quick!" he called, "or he'll be in here."
No need of the appeal, for the mother with deft fingers quickly secured the shutter as before; and but for the lamp, all would have been in darkness again.
Jim darted up-stairs to learn how his playmate was making out.
"Why don't you shoot, Tom?" he called, hurrying to his side.
"'Cause I don't see anything to shoot at," was the answer.
"What's become of the tiger?"
"I guess you scared him off."
Jim peeped cautiously out of the window.
"That's so; he isn't anywhere round, but he was out there a few minutes ago."
"So was you; but you aren't there now."
"I thought he chased me clean up to the winder."
"He didn't foller you a single step; when you struck out for the window, he stopped short and laughed ready to die to see you run."
"The tiger laughed at me!" exclaimed Jim angrily; "who ever heard of such a thing?"
"Well, he looked as though he wanted to laugh, and then trotted down the road; I seen him jump over the fence and make for the woods."
"That's where he's gone! I guess I'll go home now, while I have the chance."
"Better wait, Jim, till you're sure he isn't round."
Jim followed this sensible advice, staying to supper, to which he was always welcome.
The women had received so great a shock, that they could not recover from it as quickly as the volatile youngsters. The shutters and doors were kept fastened, and every few minutes they peeped out in quest of the tiger that showed so much enmity toward them. When darkness closed in, however, not the first glimpse had been caught of him, and all began to hope he had taken his final departure. Mrs. Gordon gave her consent that Jimmy Travers should start homeward; and, promising to keep a sharp lookout for the creature, he departed. It may as well be added that he saw nothing more of Tippo Sahib, nor did the animal pay any visit to his home.
"Helloa! the house there!"
This was the startling summons that rang out in the stillness of the night, about two hours after the departure of Jimmy Travers. Mrs. Gordon stepped to the door, and with some misgiving drew it open. The full moon was shining brightly, and she saw two horsemen who had halted in the highway opposite the gate.
"Good-evening!" said the spokesman, lifting his hat in salutation when he observed the woman; "have you seen anything of a strange animal in this neighborhood, madam? We have traced him almost to this spot, but have lost track of him."
"Do you refer to the tiger that escaped from the menagerie this afternoon?"
"That's the animal we're looking for."
"Yes; he was here late in the afternoon, and tried to jump through the window."
"Did he hurt any one?" asked the man in alarm.
"No; we did not receive a scratch. My son shot him."
"What!" exclaimed the other; "did he kill the animal?"
"Oh, no," answered Mrs. Gordon (who was joined by Aunt Cynthia and Tom), smiling at the fear of the visitors; "my boy is quite young, and isn't much of a marksman; he thinks he hit the beast"—
"And I did too," interjected the lad, not pleased with this slur upon his skill with the gun.
"Possibly he did; but he was not injured much."
"I am glad to learn that. The tiger is one of the most valuable animals we have in the menagerie; I should be very sorry to lose him."
"But," interposed Aunt Cynthia, "it may become necessary to shoot him in self-defense."
"Not likely; he is not apt to injure any one if he is let alone."
Tom had not forgotten the appalling stories told by Jim Travers on his arrival from the exhibition.
"I heered he chawed up Sam Harper, Jack Habersham, Bill Dunham, and a whole lot of folks that was at the circus."
The laughter of the two horsemen was hearty.
"Those youngsters are alive and well. The boy who punched the tiger in the eye, and caused all this rumpus, was knocked down and scratched somewhat, but not half as much as he deserved. No one else, so far as we can learn, has been injured; though, as I remarked just now, Tippo Sahib will fight if he is driven into a corner."
"He tried to jump through our window," said Aunt Cynthia.
"Before or after you fired at him?"
"I suppose it was caused by the hullabaloo of the people, frightened out of their wits. It is the same as when a hue and cry is raised about a dog. If he isn't mad, he will soon become so. But, madam, we are very anxious to secure the animal before he is killed or seriously injured. We will pay a good reward for his recapture."
"How much?" asked Tom, to the surprise of his relatives.
"One hundred dollars to any one who will secure him without injury, or fixes it so we can recapture him. May I ask where the tiger seemed to be going when you last saw him?"
"The last we seen of him," replied Tom, "he was cutting 'cross the field toward the woods over yonder."
Thanking the boy and the ladies for their information, the horsemen rode off, soon disappearing up the highway.
The fact that these men, experienced in their knowledge of wild animals, were searching for the escaped tiger, naturally lifted much of the fear of the beast from the hearts of the Gordon family. They believed the keepers would recapture him before he could do much harm in the community. They were convinced, too, that they were not the only ones looking for him.
The shutters of all the windows were never more carefully barred than before the three inmates retired to their beds.
Tom Gordon, being a rugged, healthy boy, generally passed the night in refreshing slumber. Not a trace of the ague which kept him from the circus showed itself in his system when he went up-stairs to his room; but, somehow or other, after he lay down he could not sleep.
No doubt the excitement through which he had gone so wrought upon his nerves as to drive away all drowsiness; but the thought that was running through his brain found expression in the words:—
"A hundred dollars! What a fortune that is! It would make us comfortable for life. I wonder if there is any way of catching Tippo Sahib before the men find him.
"I don't believe there's anything in what Jim said about looking the creature in the eye. S'pose I should meet him in the woods, and fix him that way, what good would it do? I'd have to stand there till the keepers come along, and they might not do that for a week or two. By that time I'd be starved to death, and so would the tiger, and they want him alive.
"Jim must be mistaken, too, 'bout shooting off his tail. Jim and me haven't got any tails, and we don't have any trouble in walking. I can't see how it would make any difference with the tiger, either. I wonder where Jim got all them ideas,—I guess where he got the stories 'bout so many people being chawed up."
The lad lay for a while on one side, and then flung himself on the other. Several times he was on the point of dropping into an uneasy slumber, but some slight noise always came at the critical moment to make him wider awake than he was in the first instance.
What is more disturbing than the occasional rattle of a window sash when we are trying to woo sleep? By and by Tom discovered it was that which had played the mischief with his rest. He sprang impatiently out of bed, and hurried to the window, with the intention of righting matters.
The bright moon shining from an unclouded sky made it almost as light as day. He stood a minute, looking out upon the beautiful scene; for, young as he was, he could not fail to be impressed by the striking loveliness of everything out-doors.
"I wonder whether they've catched Tippo Sahib"—
The lad caught his breath, for just then he saw something moving in the shadow of the woodshed. A second look showed it to be some sort of quadruped, and the third—could he believe his eyes?—revealed the tiger himself!
Yes, it was the terrible brute and no mistake. The boy rubbed his eyes and looked again. Some unaccountable attraction seemed to have brought Tippo Sahib back to the dwelling where he had met with so interesting an experience that afternoon.
But all this being so, Tom Gordon might well ask himself what good the presence of the animal promised to be to him. Hitherto, he and his friends had counted themselves lucky in being able to keep out of his way when he showed a desire to explore the interior of the house. How, then, could he expect to get the hundred dollars offered for the capture of the brute?
Mingled with the eager wish of the lad to earn the munificent sum, was a slight misgiving as to the meaning of this return of the tiger. Having eluded the men sent after him, had he come back to revenge himself upon those who had treated him so ill?
This discomforting thought was dissipated by the action of Tippo Sahib. He did not move around as on his former visit, but seemed to be prowling about the woodshed, as if in quest of something. Surely he would not act thus if he meditated an attack upon the inmates of the home!
But Tom had learned from his aunt and mother that if the tiger chose, he could readily leap from the ground to the windows of the upper story, and, therefore, would have little difficulty in entering, if he was bent on doing so.
"I'll get my gun, so as to be ready to shoot him. But if I shoot him, I won't get the reward that was promised; but it's better to kill him than to have him chaw us to pieces."
Just then the animal worked his way round the corner of the structure, out of the shadow, into the bright moonlight. He showed no interest in the house itself, but confined his attention to the woodshed,—a fact which lessened the lad's fear, and held him at the window, closely watching the beast.
His change of location brought him to the front of the strong wooden building, and near the partially open door.
The heart of the lad gave a great bound.
"S'pose he goes inside, and I slip up and shut him in!"
All the indications pointed to the tiger entering the structure, though it was impossible to imagine his purpose, unless he scented the waste food kept there in a barrel for the pigs belonging to the Widow Gordon.
The attempt the lad had in mind involved a fearful risk; for there could be no doubt that if the beast detected him, he would make him serve for supper.
Probably if Tom had been given a few more minutes to think over the matter, he would have abandoned the design in his mind; but that one hundred dollars looked as big to him as a million does to most people. Hastily drawing on his trousers, he began stealthily descending the stairs. Fortunately for him, his aunt and mother were asleep, else they would have put an emphatic veto on his foolhardy scheme. The bolts of the door were softly slid back, the door itself silently drawn inward an inch or two, and the lad peeped out. His position gave a full view of the front of the woodshed, and the sight was an interesting one. The tiger had partially entered. Indeed, little was seen more than his tail, which, projecting from the darkness of the structure, swayed slowly from side to side, as if he had detected something not altogether pleasing.
"If he goes in, I'll slip out and hook the door; but, if he comes back, it won't do to let him see me."
This was the thought that stirred Tom Gordon, as he peered stealthily out of the crack made by the door. Could he have thought of any way by which to drive the tiger inside, he would have done so; but there was none. He could only wait and watch, and hope for a favorable issue of the undertaking.
It struck him as strange that the beast should stand so long with only his tail in the outer air. The lad fancied it had disappeared entirely; but at the moment he was about to slip forward, he detected the tuft agitating the chips and dirt about the entrance. He therefore held back and still watched and waited.
There! the brute must have taken another step farther, for no part of his appendage was visible. He was wholly within the shed.
It was now or never.
Tom left the door open a few inches, so that if he should find it necessary to retreat, he would meet with no trouble in re-entering his home. In that event, however, it wasn't likely Tippo Sahib would meet with any trouble in following him.
The heart of the youth throbbed violently when he stepped out in the moonlight and comprehended the perilous nature of the business.
"If he comes out tail first," was his thought, "I'll have a chance to dodge him; but if he comes head first, I'll be a goner."
He was not idle while these imaginings were passing through his mind. Step by step, and on tiptoe, he stole forward, until he stood within a couple of paces of the fastening. Then it was that his courage almost deserted him, and the desire to turn about and make a dash for the door behind him was well-nigh irresistible.
But the thought of that magnificent hundred dollars restrained and nerved him to push on. Another step and he had but to lean forward with outstretched arm, seize the door, and snap it toward him. He was in the act of doing so, when he heard a guttural growl from within. Had this reached his ears when he was a few feet farther off, Tom would have turned and fled for life. He would have done so now but for his belief that it was too late. He could only save himself by shutting that door before the beast came through it.
Holding his breath, the lad seized the handle, and with a quick flirt drew the door toward him. The strong iron hook was slipped into the staple, and he had done all he could. Yielding then to the panic which had been struggling so long within him, he bounded upon the front porch, shot through the door, and closed and fastened it in a twinkling. Not even then did Tom feel safe, but bounded up-stairs with so much haste and noise, that the wonder was he did not awaken his aunt and mother. They slept too soundly, however, to be disturbed.
He ran to the window of his bedroom, and looked out again, fearing that the royal prisoner had already freed himself and would proceed to punish the one that had taken such liberties with him. Strange to say, everything looked as if there was no tiger within a score of miles. The door of the woodshed was fastened as it had been many times; but no noise or disturbance, so far as the lad could judge, sounded from within the structure. The prisoner seemed to have accepted his misfortune philosophically, and, perhaps, had lain down to rest himself after his stirring experiences of the afternoon.
"I wonder if he can get out of there. It's pretty strong, and there isn't any back-door or window that he can use."
The youth was so deeply interested in the question that he brought his chair beside the window and sat down to await results. It was not strange, perhaps, considering the lateness of the hour, that the sleep which he had long sought in vain now came to him. By and by his head began nodding, and, despite the cramped position, he slumbered soundly until awakened by the call of his mother.
As soon as Tom could collect his senses, he looked at the woodshed. So far as he saw, no change had taken place. Then he hurried down-stairs and told the astounding tidings.
"Mercy!" gasped Aunt Cynthia, "I was just about going to the shed for some wood, you were so long coming down. Suppose I had!"
"It would have been all over with you," replied Tom, hardly less startled than they; "I meant to stay awake all night, but forgot myself."
"Perhaps he has got out," suggested the mother; "I don't understand why he has kept so quiet."
While they were talking, a call came from the roadway again. When they looked out, four horsemen were seen.
"We find it impossible to locate that beast," explained the one that had done the talking the night before; "I hardly suppose you have seen anything more of him."
Before Mrs. Gordon or Aunt Cynthia could reply, Tom asked,—
"Did you say you would give a hundred dollars to any one that gets that tiger without hurting him?"
"We'll be glad to do that, sonny, or if he will show us where he is so we can capture him."
"Will you give a hundred dollars to have him in the woodshed there?"
"Indeed we will."
"Very well; he's there!"
The men looked at Tom Gordon as if doubting his words.
"Are you in earnest?" asked one of them.
"Look for yourselves."
The horseman was out of the saddle in a twinkling, and walked quickly to the woodshed, whose cracks were so numerous that it was easy to see every part of the interior. Placing his eyes at one of these openings, he peered through.
"By George, boys!" he exclaimed, turning about, "the youngster's right; Tippo is in there."
The others hastily dismounted, tied their horses, and joined him. All took a look before they were satisfied no mistake had been made.
The tiger was stretched out in one corner, and had been asleep, when he was awakened by the noise. He raised his head, opened his eyes and growled, but showed no special anger at being disturbed.
While the men were debating as to the best means of securing him, Jack Durrick, who had done most of the talking, explained to the ladies and Tom what must have puzzled them concerning the action of the beast.
Durrick, it should be stated, figured on the stupendous posters as "Professor De La Cordova, Successor of the Renowned Van Amberg, and Fully his Equal in his Amazing Power and Control over the Wild Beasts of the Forest and Jungle." In this case, it must be added, the professor possessed fair claim to this distinction. He displayed great skill in the management of wild animals. No one could handle Tippo Sahib as did he. Had he been near the cage when Sam Harper angered him, he never would have permitted the beast to escape.
He said Tippo was frightened and nervous through his suddenly acquired freedom. He suffered pain from the jab in his eye, and was made more restless and fidgety by the excitement and his strange surroundings. The slight wound received by him renewed his anger; but, when he withdrew from the immediate vicinity, he undoubtedly made a raid on some farmer's live-stock, and had devoured a calf, pig, or sheep. He had eaten his fill, and thereupon became so docile as to be comparatively harmless, provided he was treated with consideration.
His return to the scene of his most stirring experience was one of those whims which his species sometimes show. Tired from his flight and filled to satiety, he had lain down to rest in the woodshed, so satisfied with his quarters that he offered no objection when Tom Gordon slipped up and fastened the door. So powerful and active an animal, had he chosen, could have broken out of the place in a twinkling; but he was content to stay where he was until fully rested.
"I assure you," added the professor, "you wouldn't have kept him much longer; when he awoke, hungry and thirsty, he would have placed himself on the outside before you could say Jack Robinson, and then there would have been trouble."
The actions of the professor proved his faith in his own words. He coolly unhooked the door, gently pushed it back, and stepped within the structure. Tippo Sahib uttered a growl, and Tom and his friends shrank farther away. The men, however, one of whom carried a coil of rope, held their places.
Professor De La Cordova displayed admirable coolness and tact. He was not rough in manner, but acted like one who felt himself master of the situation. His course, indeed, suggested to Tom that there was much truth in Jim Travers's declaration about the power of the human eye over the denizens of the jungle. Standing erect, the man remained motionless for a full minute, during which he kept his gaze fixed on the tiger, staring into those orbs as if he would "look him through."
Tippo Sahib was uneasy for a brief while, and then succumbed to that mysterious hypnotic influence which, in some cases, is equally potent with persons. He became humble, meek, and, if the term can be allowed, penitent.
Fully understanding his condition, the professor reached his hand behind him, without removing his gaze from the beast.
"The rope!" he said in a low voice.
The next moment, to the amazement of Tom and his relatives, he stepped gently forward, and fastened the rope around the unresisting neck of Tippo Sahib, who was led outside like a thoroughly subdued dog. Tom gave him plenty of room, and closely watched proceedings. While doing so, he observed a slight scratch on the hip of the beast, barely sufficient to break the skin; that was the path of the bullet fired by the lad the day previous.
Other ropes were fastened about the tiger, who took it all as a matter of course, and calmly followed when his guards moved in the direction of the horses. These resented the approach of the huge cat, so the professor and one of his men walked some distance behind the others, who took care of the animals.
Before their departure, Professor De La Cordova told Tom to call at the hotel between six and seven that evening, and he would be paid the hundred dollars with the thanks of Mr. Jones and all connected with the menagerie and circus.
"I wonder if they mean to cheat me out of it?" said the boy that afternoon, when he looked at the clock and saw it was nearly time to start.
"I hardly think so," replied his mother.
"Why didn't they give the money before they took the tiger away?"
"Probably they hadn't so much with them," suggested Aunt Cynthia, who plainly felt some misgiving over matters; "most likely the money has to be paid by some officer connected with the show."
"And he may say he never gave his men the right to make such an offer," remarked Tom.
"That may be," said the mother, thinking it wise to prepare her son for a probable disappointment; "the circus is to exhibit at Boorman's to-night. That is twenty miles off, and all may have gone thither. If those men choose to disregard their word, I see no help for it."
"It will be awful mean in them," declared the boy, who had become quite nervous; "I'll never catch any more tigers for them."
Tom loitered on his way to Briggsville, striving not to reach there before the time named; but despite the effort, he was in town fully a quarter of an hour too early.
A surprise awaited him. The news of the recapture of the runaway tiger had preceded him; and, as was natural, the story was exaggerated to an absurd degree. Jim Travers had told the wondering people that he saw Tom capture Sipo Tahib, as he called him, by jumping on his back and bending his forepaws over his neck. (Peter Parley's History, which Jim read at school, contained a picture of the naturalist Chatterton thus navigating an alligator, and Jim couldn't see why a tiger should not be handled the same way. He preferred, however, that some other boy should be the one to make the experiment.)
So it was that Tom found himself the hero of the hour. The boys and all his acquaintances gathered round him, and he had to tell the story over and over, until he became tired. When Jim Travers was reminded that Tom's modest account did not agree with his flamboyant yarn, he said he feared he had got things a little mixed, but that was the way he or Tom would have conducted the recapture had the chance been given them.
"Are you the young man that caught the runaway tiger?" asked a pleasant looking gentleman, somewhat loudly dressed, as he laid his hand on the shoulder of Tom Gordon, while he was standing among a group of his friends on the porch of the hotel.
"I didn't exactly capture him," replied the blushing lad; "but I shut the door of the woodhouse, and he stayed there till the owners came and took him away."
"It's all the same; you deserve as much credit as if you had brought him here without help. I believe they promised you a hundred dollars reward, didn't they?"
"Yes, sir; one of the men said if I would call here between six and seven he would give me the money; but I don't see anything of him," added Tom, looking around, in the hope of catching a glimpse of Professor De La Cordova. "Has he gone away"
"Yes; he is to appear in the show to-night at Boorman's, and could not wait. But I am Mr. Jones, the proprietor, and if you will step inside with me, it won't take us long to fix it. I was only waiting to make sure you were the right lad."
Tom delightedly followed the gentleman into an inner room, where the door was closed and the transaction quickly completed.
Mr. Jones made some sympathetic inquiries of the youth, and when he learned of his mother's moderate circumstances, expressed great pleasure that the reward had fallen to him. Then he handed him ten bright, crisp ten-dollar bills.
"That is quite a sum of money for a lad like you to have about him," added Mr. Jones. "You must be careful not to lose it."
"I am very thankful to you, and shall take good care of it," replied Tom.
"Where are you going to carry it?"
"In my inside coat pocket; then I will button my coat over it."
"That's right; and don't unbutton the coat till you reach your own home."
The money was put away as Tom indicated, and, thanking his kind friend again, Tom bade him good-by and withdrew.
Tom Gordon could not be blamed for failing to note several suggestive occurrences during this memorable visit to Briggsville.
Seated on the porch of the hotel, while he was talking to the group of young persons and acquaintances, were two strangers, whose dilapidated dress, frowzy heads, and surly faces, showed they belonged to that pestiferous class of vagrants known as tramps. They sat apart, after taking a drink in the bar-room, and with scowling but interested looks listened to the chatter going on around them. It did not take them long to catch the drift of matters. They talked together in low tones, with furtive glances at the young hero, and kept their places, with a few muttered remarks that no one else could catch, while Tom was inside.
When the smiling lad reappeared, his friends besieged him with inquiries.
"Did he give you the money, Tom? How much is it?"
Being a sturdy boy, Tom naturally did not wish to appear too much elated over his good fortune.
"Yes," he replied, with an assumption of indifference; "he paid me the hundred dollars like a gentleman, and I've got it in my pocket."
"What are you going to do with so much money?" asked a mischievous acquaintance; "buy a farm, or go in partnership with Vanderbilt?"
"I'm going to give every cent of it to my mother," replied Tom, with a compression of his fine lips and a flash of his eye.
"That's right!" commented an elderly gentleman; "you couldn't put it into safer hands, and I mean that for all of you youngsters."
It was at this juncture that the two tramps rose to their feet, and slouched down the road in the direction of Tom Gordon's home. In the flurry of the moment no one noticed their departure, which indeed might not have attracted attention at any time.
"You've got a loaded gun in your house?" was the inquiring remark of the same gentleman.
"Yes, sir; we always keep one. I fired at the tiger with it, but I didn't hurt him much," remarked Tom with a laugh.
"Well, tigers aren't the only creatures you've got to look out for in these times. There are plenty of people that would break into your house and murder you and your mother and aunt for the sake of that money."
Tom blanched a little at these words, and one of the bystanders said,—
"I don't think we have such people about here, Uncle Jed."
"I hope not, but you can't be too careful; I've been robbed myself when I hadn't any more thought of it than that boy there."
Had Tom Gordon been a few years older or younger he would have acted differently; that is to say he would have returned home without delay. But he did not wish to appear frightened by the words of the old gentleman; and, though he was eager to hurry home to his mother and aunt with the good news, he remained talking with his friends and trying to act as though he had forgotten about his great fortune, until the long summer day ended and twilight began closing in. Then when he started, he looked around to see whether any one was going in the same direction. He would have been glad of company, but it so happened that he set out alone in the gathering gloom to walk the mile that must be passed before he could reach his home.
"I wish Uncle Jed hadn't said what he did," he mused, when fairly beyond the town, "it makes me feel kind of pokerish; why didn't I think to bring my gun along? If the folks he talks about would rob our house they would stop me on the road and take the money from me."
He walked faster as the darkness increased, for the moon would not rise for some time to come, glanced often behind him, and essayed a timid whistle. He soon ceased this, however, for it only increased his uneasiness. Every minute or two he pressed one of his hands against his breast to make sure the precious package was there. Then he glanced back again in the gloom, and started when he fancied he saw a man following him. But it was only fancy, and he increased his pace, wondering why the mile seemed longer than he had ever known it before.
The rattle of a wagon caused him almost to leap from his feet.
"That's lucky!" he exclaimed; "I will get the man to let me ride, and then no one will dare disturb me."
But it proved that the wagon was coming from the direction of his home, so it could not be turned to account. He watched it as it came nearer. An old gentleman sat on the front seat of the open vehicle which was jolting along at an easy rate. It was too dark to see the driver's features plainly, but Tom believed he knew him and called out a greeting. The response showed he was right as to the identity of the individual.
Two-thirds of the way home came the most trying ordeal. The lad was obliged to follow quite a stretch of road where there was woods on both sides. This deepened the gloom, for the highway was so narrow that it was completely shadowed.
"If any robbers are waiting for me," he mused, "it will be in them woods."
He hesitated on the border of the shadows, meditating whether he could not reach home by some other course; but the forest, originally one that covered several hundred acres, was bisected by the highway, and the detour would be long. Still he decided to try it, for, somehow or other, the conviction was strong with him that danger lurked among the shadows. He turned about to retrace his steps for a short way, before leaving the road, when he stopped short, hardly repressing a gasp of affright.
He saw the unmistakable outlines of a man in the gloom, only a short distance behind him. Afraid to meet him face to face, Tom turned back and resumed his walk along the highway.
"When I get along a little farther," was his thought, "I'll slip over the fence among the trees and dodge him."
He began walking fast, continually glancing over his shoulder. His alarm increased upon discovering that the man had also quickened his footsteps, so that instead of holding his place, the pursuer, as he may be considered, was gaining.
The fact that not the slightest sound disturbed the stillness added to the oppression of the situation. The lad was on the point of breaking into a run, when the man, who was one of the tramps before referred to, called out,—
"Hold on there, sonny! don't be in such a hurry."
This salutation was not calculated to soothe Tom's agitation, and without any reply he started on a loping trot, still keeping his attention to the rear, and prepared to break into a dead run the moment it became necessary. He was fleet of foot, and believed he could make the fellow hustle.
"Didn't you hear me, sonny? If you don't want to get shot, stop!"
Tom had no wish to be shot, nor did he mean to have the company of the rascal who was bent on intruding upon him.
"Catch me if you can," he muttered, breaking into a swifter pace; "I'm glad it's night so I'll have a chance to hide from you"—
"Hold on there! what's your hurry, younker?"
The boy almost sank to the ground, for this startling hail came not from the rear, but from the front. Stopping short, he saw a burly fellow, standing within ten feet of him in the middle of the road, so nigh indeed, that, despite the darkness, Tom had no earthly chance of eluding him, as he might have done had he detected his presence a moment sooner.
Rallying with a supreme effort, he addressed the one nearest him.
"What do you want, that you stop me this way?"
"What do I want?" repeated the tramp with a chuckle, "that's good; why I want to make the acquaintance of a purty young man like you. What's your name?"
"Tom Gordon," promptly replied the boy, seeing nothing to be gained by hiding his identity.
"I'm Count De Buffer, travelling incog. just now, 'cause you see I don't want the Americans to make so much fuss over me; I have enough of that at home, where they're not such tuft hunters as here. Glad to know you, Tom," added the tramp, extending his hand.
The boy with some hesitation accepted the grimy palm which almost crushed his own.
"This is my friend Duke De Sassy," said the "count," as the other came up; "him and me have got tired of the frivolities of court life, and are making a tower through America studying its institutions, and doing the country."
"This ere young man didn't seem to care for my company," remarked the last arrival; "for I called to him two or three times, but then, he couldn't have knowed that it was a real live dook he was treating that way, so I forgive him."
"The truth is," added the count, "we're down on our luck just now, and would like you to accommodate us with a trifle of a loan."
The tramps placed themselves while talking so as to forestall any attempt on the part of the lad to break away.
"I haven't any money to lend you," sturdily answered Tom.
"Do you mean to say you have no funds in your exchequer?" continued the count; "'cause if you haven't, of course we don't want anything to do with you."
It flashed upon Tom that he had only to speak an untruth to free himself of the presence of these miscreants. Would it be a sin for him to say he had no money with him?
Only for an instant did the temptation linger. His mother had taught him that a lie was never justifiable under any circumstances.
"I did not say I had no money," he said, "but that I had none to lend you."
"Ah, that's a different matter. I'm afeard, Duke," he continued, addressing his companion, "that we shall be under the necessity of making a forced loan; how does the proposition strike you?"
"I'm convinced we shall be reduced to that painful necessity. If I'm not mistook, this young gentleman was paid a hundred dollars this afternoon for his bravery in throwing a royal Bengal tiger over his shoulder and bringing him back to the circus, from which erstwhile the animal strayed."
Poor Tom saw it was all up with him. These wretches must have known about the reward from the moment he received it. They had planned the robbery, and he had walked straight into the trap set for him.
"Yes, I have a hundred dollars given to me for helping to catch the tiger; I was taking it home to my mother."
"That's a good boy," commented the count; "always think of your mother, for the market isn't overstocked with first-class mothers. But bear in mind, sonny, that we're only borering this for sixty days, and we'll give you ten per cent interest—that's our style of doing bus'ness, eh, Duke?"
"Well, if I must, I must," said Tom hopelessly, making a move of his hand as if to draw the money from his trousers pocket.
"That's right, allers take things philosophically, and be ready to extend a helping hand to them as"—
The count had got thus far in his observations, when the boy darted to one side, and made a desperate attempt to pass them and reach the fence on his right.
He came very nigh succeeding too. In fact, he did get to the fence, and was in the act of clambering over, when he was seized in the iron grip of Count De Buffer, who was angered at the narrow escape of the youth making off with the funds.
"If you try anything like that agin, I'll kill you!" he said, choking and shaking the boy; "we mean bus'ness, young man, and don't you forget it!"
Tom still struggled furiously, and pulled so hard that all three moved several paces along the highway. Nor did he cease his resistance until he had been struck several cruel blows.
"Now fork over them funds!" commanded the count, when the panting lad was exhausted.
"I sha'n't do it!" was the sturdy reply.
"Very well; then we'll do it for you."
The lad made no resistance, and the tramps searched him thoroughly from head to foot. Not a penny was found on him.
"We ought to break your head for that trick," said the duke, "and if it had done you any good we'd do so; but we understand it. You flung the money away when you made a rush for the fence."
"If I did," was the defiant response of the boy, "all you've got to do is to find it again."
"We'll soon do that; hold him fast till I get it, and then we'll settle with him."
The tousled scamp shuffled off to the side of the highway to search for the package, which he was convinced had been thrown there at the time their prisoner made his dash for freedom.
"That'll prove bad bus'ness for you," growled the duke, who was the custodian of Tom.
"Not any worse than if you had got it," replied the youth, who was thoroughly roused by his brutal treatment. He had been struck several times, but could not believe the ruffians would dare put him to death in revenge for the loss of the money, that is, provided they did recover it.
"Haven't you found it, Dick?" called the duke, forgetting the title of his comrade.
"No, confound it! I don't know where to look for it."
"Where did you fling it?" demanded the duke of his captive.
"I shall not tell you; you may kill me first."
"Very well; take that!"
But Tom managed to dodge the blow, and, by a quick leap, freed himself of the grip of his captor. The next minute he was off like a deer.
Possibly the tramp might have overtaken him, had he made the effort; but he chose to let him go while he joined his friend in hunting for the money.
They kept up the search for hours, and were then, obliged to give it up. Afraid that the boy, who must have reached home long before, would bring friends back, the tramps took their departure while the opportunity was theirs, and were seen no more.
Tom Gordon did a brave thing. The moment he discovered he was not pursued, he hid himself at the side of the road, and waited till the scamps departed. Then, when the moon had risen, he stole back again, and, remembering quite well where he had thrown the package of money, found it with little difficulty, and reaching home without further incident, told his stirring experience to his mother and aunt.
It will be admitted that Tom Gordon and Jim Travers had met with a pretty stirring experience, as a result of the visit of the circus and menagerie to Briggsville. Tom had not been able to attend the performance; but it may be said he was favored with a little "circus" of his own, in which he played the part of star performer. But all's well that ends well, and he had the pleasure of walking into his humble home and turning over to his mother the handsome reward paid for the restoration of Tippo Sahib, comparatively unharmed, to the owner. He was so well liked by teacher and playmates that all congratulated him. There was no jealousy of his good fortune, for there was none more deserving, and, it may be added, no more in need of the material help given by that one hundred dollars.
But what has been told was but an incident in the life of the two boys, whose fortunes I have set out to tell. A remarkable train of circumstances in due course involved the lads in a series of incidents which had an important bearing on their future lives, and taught a lesson which young lads cannot learn too often in this world.
Tom and Jim devoted themselves more closely than ever to their school studies, and, as a result, became two of the best-informed pupils at that crude institution of learning. They grew to be strong, sturdy youths, as fond of athletic sports as they were of study, and with a promise of the right sort of success in life. Neither dreamed of what the immediate future had in store for them.
A year after the incident of the tiger, Tom's Aunt Cynthia peacefully died, and a few month later, to his almost inconsolable grief, his beloved mother passed away. Thus he was left an orphan, without brother or sister. The blow was a crushing one, and for weeks he wished to die and join the dear ones that had gone before. He grieved until his friends feared he was falling into a decline, and became seriously concerned for him.
It has been truly said, however, that no person in the enjoyment of health and vigor of body can long be crushed by affliction. He will rally sooner or later. Thus it proved in the case of Tom Gordon. His former strength and spirits gradually came back to him. There were moments and hours when he was weighed down by his great loss; but it was gradually softened by the passage of time, until the day came when his friends believed he had fully recovered from the sorrow that had nearly driven the life from his body and soul.
One sad feature of his affliction was that he was left almost penniless. With all the thrift, frugality, and self-denial of mother and aunt, they had been able to leave the youth hardly anything at all when they died. The humble home, with all its belongings, was sold for less than the mortgage, and Tom found himself with little besides the clothes he wore and a few precious mementoes of those that had passed away.
In a community where he was so favorably known, it was impossible that he should suffer actual want. More than one home was offered him, not only until he could find some situation or engage in some trade, but as long as he chose to avail himself of it.
Tom was forced to accept some one of these offers, and he went home with Jim Travers until he could decide what to do. He knew he was welcome there, and could stay as long as he wished, though he had no thought of becoming a burden upon the kind friends that had opened their doors to him.
Now, it was this change in the surroundings in the daily life of Tom Gordon that led to the singular incidents I have set out to tell.
Jim Travers lived alone with his father, who was in fair circumstances. His mother had died in his infancy; and his only sister, Maggie, was his playmate for a few years longer, when she departed to join the loved one that had preceded her. The husband and father became a lonely and bowed man, whose years were far less than they seemed. Although a farmer in a small way, he committed the sad error of engaging in stock speculations, more with a view of diverting his mind from his gnawing grief than with the hope of bettering his fortune. It is hardly necessary to relate what followed. He was successful for a time, and improved his financial standing. He gladly welcomed Tom Gordon beneath his roof, for he knew his own boy could not have a playmate whose company would be more improving to him. Then Mr. Travers dipped more deeply into speculation. With brighter prospects than ever, there came the fateful hour in Wall Street, when every penny was swept from him.
"I am a beggar!" he gasped, when the whole dreadful truth broke upon him; "and I am too old to begin life again. It is better that I should die."
And die he did in the great city of New York. The shock was fatal; and his body was brought back to Briggsville, and laid to rest beside the forms of his wife and little Maggie, that had died long before. Jim was dazed by the unexpected blow. It became the privilege of Tom Gordon to act as his comforter, but it was a long time before the little fellow came out from the valley of shadow into the life-giving sunlight again.
But here was the solemn situation: Tom Gordon and Jim Travers were orphans, with no near relatives, and with only their own hands to earn their daily bread. What was the best thing for them to do?
This was the grave question which the two boys sat down to answer in the gloom of a wintry evening, when they were about fourteen years of age. They had received plenty of counsel, and much of it was excellent. The teacher, the minister, and numerous good neighbors had been as kind as they could possibly be, and the youths knew no real hardship could come to them as long as they stayed in or near the place where they were born.
But they were not satisfied to do so. They felt they ought to strike out for themselves, and Briggsville was not the place to do it. The opportunities were too few.
They talked for a long time in an aimless way, discussing numerous schemes, but without agreeing upon any.
"Jim, let's go to New York."
Tom made the proposition as though it had come to him that moment, when in truth it had been in his mind from the first, as it was with Jim, who was on the point of uttering it, but was waiting for his friend, because he was a few months older and took the lead in all matters.
"I wonder if that wouldn't be the best thing to do," remarked Jim, like one to whom the idea was new.
"Neither of us has ever been in New York. It is a great place, full of dangers of all kinds, but there are chances for every one to get along, if he will do what's right and isn't afraid to work."
"If we should tell the people what we have in mind, they would advise us to stay here or to try Philadelphia."
"We must pass Philadelphia to get to New York, but I don't feel like staying there, do you, Jim?"
"No; I don't fancy the place. Father took me there once when I was a wee younker, and it struck me as being slow."
Tom laughed at the thought of a little fellow being impressed that way by one of the leading cities in the Union. He, too, had been in the large and handsome town, but for some reason, which he could not explain, had formed a prejudice against it. He shook his head at the proposition of trying their fortunes there.
"Philadelphia isn't big enough for us," he remarked quizzically; "New York is the only place where we can spread and grow."
"Then I propose we go to New York to seek our fortune. What do you say?"
"We'll stick together."
And the young friends reached their hands toward each other and clasped them in the dim light of Jim Travers's room.
It was an important decision they had reached, and they talked over the matter for a long time. Each had quite a little sum of money, which they had saved with scrupulous care. They had good serviceable clothing, with something extra in the way of change. The executors of Mr. Travers had completed their duty and made their report to court. As in the case of the Widow Gordon, not a penny was left for the boy, and the house and everything it contained was to pass into the hands of strangers.
Jim Travers and Tom Gordon were occupying their single room on sufferance. The new-comers were to take possession on the first of the following month, and a hint had been given the boys which it was impossible for them to misunderstand. Their room was preferable to their company.
"Next Tuesday is the first," remarked Jim; "I suppose we can stay here the few days until then."
"That's less than a week. What's the use of waiting when we have made up our minds to go?" was the pertinent question of Tom. "I prefer not to meet those folks that are coming here."
"That's the way I feel," assented the younger, striving to repress his ardor over the prospect. "They will put on airs, turn up their noses at us, and make themselves at home. I can't bear," he added, his voice slightly trembling, "to see them parading through the house which father owned, and walking into his room as if no one else had the right to go there."
"Well, I'm glad, Jim, that we think alike. Tomorrow we'll bid our friends good-by and take the afternoon train to New York."
"That suits me. It would hardly be right to slip off without saying anything to the fellows. We'll call on them all."
"Yes; that is right. I promised Sam Harper to let him know about it."
"I suppose you did, and you won't forget to tell Nellie."
Jim laughed at his own sly remark, and the handsome Tom blushed at this reference to the pretty sister of his playmate.
The hour grew late, but they sat a long time talking of what they would do when they made their home in the great metropolis. Bridget, the old servant, warned them once or twice that it was past bedtime; but seeing her words were unnoticed, she withdrew and left them together.
Ah, when are the dreams of life so radiant as in early youth? What pictures are so glowing, so beautiful, so vivid, so real, as those which come to the boy when he stands with his feet on the threshold, and looks far out over the limitless fields which spread before his view? The air "lets finer sunlight through," and the skies are more golden than they can ever be again. It is the hour when to him nothing in the whole wide world is impossible. It is a sweet, soul-stirring vision which, alas, too often is darkened or swept away by storm and mists and darkness and death.
The programme of the two boys was carried out, with some modification, the next day. They found, when they came to go around among their friends to bid them good-by, that it took longer than they had counted on. They separated; and when night arrived, Tom was urged so cordially to stay and take supper with Sam Harper that he did not refuse.
Then he had to remain a while in the evening, which proved to be a most pleasant one to the visitor. The parents of his playmate were sensible people, who, finding the caller had made up his mind to go, did not attempt to dissuade him. On the contrary, they reminded him that under heaven he had every reason to hope for success.
"The instruction received from your good mother," said Mr. Harper, "I am sure can never be forgotten by you. You have a fair education for your age; and I say to you as I did to Jimmy Travers, when he stopped here a while ago, be honest, truthful, obliging always, and your reward is certain. You will meet with disappointments and all sorts of trials, but keep up your courage. Never let go; hang fast; take whatever comes in your way and do it with all your might, and success is sure, sooner or later."
"I have made up my mind to that," replied Tom modestly. "Jimmy and I don't imagine that half the merchants in New York will be waiting at the ferry for us, and will scramble over each other to see who shall have our services."
The gentleman smiled at the picture, and his wife added,—
"There are so many dangers and pitfalls that I tremble at the thought of two boys like Tom and Jim going into such a great city, where they do not know a living person."
"It is a matter for serious thought, but hundreds have done the same before them, and have achieved success."
"Have not some failed?"
"Doubtless the majority have failed to attain what they expected. But the same is true right here in Briggsville, and is true everywhere. I hold the doctrine, that to the boy who is strong, rugged, honest, willing, not only to work, but to wait, that success is bound to come sooner or later."
Tom was much encouraged by these wise words, and felt a strengthening of the resolve he had formed the night before.
It was bright, pretty Nellie who now spoke.
"Won't it be splendid when Tom becomes a rich merchant, able to live in his fine house and have his horse and carriages and servants?"
"I am afraid it will be a long time before I get that far," replied the lad with a blush; "but I shall do it if there is any way possible."
"Riches are not the highest object in this life, though they are well enough in their way. Don't think so much about them as about doing your duty. Be content to begin at the bottom of the ladder. It is an old saying, but there never was a truer one, that you will always find plenty of room at the top."
After some more pleasant conversation, Tom shook hands with his friends and bade them good-by. He ventured to give the delicate palm of Nellie a little warmer squeeze than he had ever dared to do before, and looked meaningly in her eyes. But she was diffident and did not return the pressure, and he was not certain of the precise meaning of the look she gave him at parting.
He felt a trifle uncomfortable, while walking homeward in the crisp moonlight.
"I suppose Nellie would feel quite proud of me if I ever become a rich man; but suppose I don't. She always was a proud girl, and likely enough will turn up her nose if I fail, which I won't!" he added, compressing his lips and walking faster.
Tom found Jim at home and waiting for him. They sat up late again talking over their grand scheme of seeking their fortune, and even after they retired the hum of their conversation continued until far into the night.
The following morning they turned their backs upon Briggsville forever. The ride to Philadelphia was not far. They had decided to stop there for a time, as there was no call for haste. Neither held a thought of making their stay permanent. They strolled down Chestnut Street, looking at the pleasing sights that are always to be met in that fashionable thoroughfare, viewed some of the fine structures, and stared until they were tired.
But they were eager to go on. The metropolis of the country was their destination, and they would never be satisfied until they reached it. Accordingly, when the afternoon was well along, they boarded the train and sped away to the northward. Everything thus far, even if interesting, had been dull and commonplace, but sooner than they anticipated, they entered upon the most stirring and momentous experience of their lives.